Book: BOB's Bar



BOB's Bar




BOB’s Bar Tales From the Multiverse Volume Two


Michael Anderle Jonathan P. Brazee M.D. Cooper Craig Martelle Barry J. Hutchison Andrew Dobell Richard Fox Kevin McLaughlin Lindsay Buroker Terry Mixon Jay Allan

BOB's Bar




BOB’s Bar (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 Jonathan P. Brazee, M.D. Cooper, Craig Martelle, Barry J. Hutchison, Andrew Dobell, Richard Fox, Kevin McLaughlin, Lindsay Buroker, Terry Mixon, Jay Allan, & Michael Anderle

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, December 2018



Contents


BOB's Bar

Cain is Able

Interlude

The Goddess of Retribution

Interlude

Ladies’ Night

Interlude

Blackhawk at BOB’s Bar

Interlude

Artur’s First Case

Interlude

Rika Reposed

Interlude

Bethany Anne’s Sea Story

Interlude

Standish’s Story

Interlude

Dragon Race

Interlude

The Pumpkin Ace

Interlude

The Galaxy’s Biggest Fish Story

Closing Time

About the Authors and Their Other Tales

Kevin McLaughlin

Andrew Dobell

Richard Fox

Michael Anderle

M. D. Cooper

Barry J. Hutchison

Jay Allan

Lindsay Buroker

Terry Mixon

Craig Martelle

Jonathan P. Brazee


The Bob’s Bar Team


JIT Readers

Nicole Emens

Mary Morris

Daniel Weigert

Diane L. Smith

James Caplan

Kelly Ethan

Paul Westman

Misty Roa

John Ashmore

Peter Manis

Editor

Jonathan Brazee


BOB's Bar Tales From The Multiverse Book 2

BOB was a construct—a Binary Operated Being—and as such, did not have emotions as organic beings had, but what was life, after all, but electric impulses? It might have been manufactured, but it was programmed with an artificial construct that simulated emotion, and it felt, for all practical purposes, excitement, as it waited for the subjects to arrive.

The Collector rarely kept BOB in the same location in time, space, and dimension for an additional mission, but this was one of those times. Humans were an odd lot, when compared with the other life forms whose stories BOB had collected, and they had evidently piqued the Collector’s interest. It wanted more data, and so BOB remained in place, slowly polishing the same one hundred and forty-four spotless glasses behind the bar, just as it had been doing since Colonel Walton and Bethany Anne had left the bar a minute, a year, or an eon ago (time had no meaning in the bubble of nothingness in which the bar was located).

The ultraviolet light over the bar door flared, and BOB put down its rag and looked up as a tall human female entered. She had a lethal-looking weapon in place of her right arm. BOB had collected data from many species, and more than a few had weapons, either biological or manufactured, but this human, if she qualified as such, took it to the extreme. The weapon looked extremely lethal. BOB was merely a facilitator—the bar itself was the collection device—but BOB still had scanning capabilities. This human was tall at two meters, but what was remarkable about her was that she had skin only on her face. The rest of her body’s epidermis blocked BOB’s scans from discerning what it knew from the briefing data to be carbon-laced bones and musculature. This human was a cyborg, and there was only one in this batch of subjects: Rika. No second name as with most humans, just Rika.

Rika looked around the bar warily, but when her eyes locked on BOB, she visibly relaxed. BOB had presented many visages in its service to the Collector, but each one was designed to make the subjects feel at ease. Rika strode up to the bar and glanced over the hundreds of bottles on the shelves, bottles that were there merely for ambience. BOB had the ability to serve any beverage known to humanity—or at least it could convince any human that it was drinking the beverage of its choice.

First things first, however. BOB was programmed as a bartender and a facilitator to the gathering of information, but it was also there for security.

“Welcome, Rika. This is a weapons-free space, however, so if you could remove your weapon?”

BOB did not fear for itself, although it wasn’t sure if “fear” was the correct word. It had no sense of self, only knew that if it was damaged, it could inhibit the gathering of data. But after an unfortunate incident with the Pytharinx, where the subjects had erupted in a killing spree, wiping out all but one of them, the Collector had banned all weapons other than blades.

Rika took a long look at BOB, then shrugged and flipped a lever on her right arm before twisting the meter-long barrel off and sliding it into a slot on her back.

“Good enough?”

BOB nodded.

“Then, if you’ve got a good brown ale?”

“May I suggest a Jaynson? I believe it will be to your liking.”

“Fill me up,” Rika agreed, leaning on the polished bar.

BOB reached for one of the spotless glasses, but Rika shook her head. “It takes a bit more for me to enjoy a drink.” She pointed at a jug of beer in a cooler behind BOB. “Do you have it in that size?”

“Of course.” BOB inclined his head, pulled a two-liter jug of beer out from under the bar, and handed it to her. He was about to proffer a glass when she twisted off the top, took a sip, and nodded appreciatively.

The door flared again, and a familiar figure strode in.

“Fuck, back again,” Bethany Anne exclaimed, standing in the entry. BOB had been surprised to see that the human was on the list again. The Collector tended to prefer new sources, but this human was well beyond the norm.

Bethany Anne gave her head a half-shake and marched up to the bar. “I’d say it’s good to see you again, BOB, but I don’t know if it is. How about you hit me with that Swine Sweat shit you gave me last time?

“With pleasure,” BOB replied, pouring a glass of the blue D’Shalah Tusteron. Humans still amazed him with their ability...no, desire, to drink poison, and while the ale it had served Rika was bad enough, the D’Shalah Tusteron would even harm BOB if left on its pyroceramic skin long enough. With programmed interest, it watched Bethany Anne down the drink in one gulp. Her face turned red and she gasped, slamming both hands on the bar to keep upright.

Rika appeared concerned but didn’t say anything as she took another swig of her Jaynson.

“Fuck yeah, that’s what I remember,” Bethany Anne finally managed to choke out. She put up two fingers. “Give me two more, barkeep.”

Bethany Anne seemed to be weathering the blue poison relatively well, and since the drink didn’t look to be getting in the way of her providing her data, BOB complied.

The warning light of a new arrival should not have been visible to a human (or a human cyborg), but Bethany Anne turned to look at the doorway when another human female with red hair who was wearing a shiny white and gray shipsuit arrived. The new arrival looked confused for a moment before recognition appeared in her eyes.

“Shite, yeh feckin’ scared the bejaysus out of me, so yeh did, BOB,” she said.

“Apologies, ma’am,” BOB replied. Along with Bethany Anne, Amanda-Jane Page was a repeat subject, something even more unusual than repeating the same mission location.

“Fair play to yeh, BOB,” Amanda continued, walking toward the bar, giving the other two a quick look. “How yeh been? It’s good to see yeh again.”

As before, its Zeta-B band sensor had spiked well into the black when Amanda entered. On the last mission, this had surprised it, but now it was expected. BOB didn’t understand what that meant, but it had to assume the Collector did. It was the Collector, after all, not a mere data-gathering tool like BOB.

“I am operating at peak performance. What would be your pleasure?” BOB asked.

“Give us another glass of that red I had last time, please. Might as well go on the lash if I’m going to be here for a while.”

“Certainly, Amanda, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape Grenache.” It opened the bottle, poured it through an aerator, and handed her the glass.

“I like what you’ve done with the place,” Amanda commented, picking up the wine and taking a sip.

BOB looked around at the bar. It was the same construct, down to the last miniscule detail. “I have not changed anything here.”

“I know, and that’s why I like it,” she answered with a cheeky smile, apparently enjoying the quizzical tilt of BOB’s head before she looked to her left, toward the other people at the bar, some of whom were looking at her.

“Amanda,” Bethany Anne called.

“Oh hi, what’s the craic?” Amanda answered. “Good to see you again. Got pulled back here as well, did you?”

“Fucking seems that way. Not sure why, though,” Bethany Anne answered, looking around.

“So, you two have been here before?” Rika asked the other two. “Rika, by the way.”

“Hi, nice to meet you. To be sure. Second time for me,” Amanda replied.

“Same here,” Bethany Anne agreed

“Like pale-and-interesting here said, I’m not entirely sure why we’re here. It seems to be some kind of Multiverse thing, or a between-universes thing, anyway. At first I thought it was a dream last time,” Amanda explained.

“Or a fucking nightmare,” Bethany Anne added, downing another glass and slamming it on the bar for a refill as she squinted. “Damn, that’s good the second time too.”

Rika only nodded in silence and took another swig from her growler, far less at ease than the other two women, whom she watched from under a lowered brow.

BOB had been designed with the imperative to make the guests feel comfortable, and it could see that Bethany Anne and Amanda were disquieted by being back again. Since BOB had wondered the same thing when it received the guest list, it had no answer. It was considering flooding the bar with pheromones designed to calm humans when the next subject strode in. A man in his forties walked through the door wearing boots, a brown leather flight jacket with wings pinned to the front, and...were those pajama bottoms? He had the look of a military man who was off-duty—but never truly off-duty. Oddly, he carried a sword scabbard in one hand, the pommel glowing a faint blue. The weapon appeared to be from a century far earlier than the one that had spawned the flight jacket and pajamas. In his other hand, he carried a food jar whose label read, Krothker’s Spiced Cumin Pickles. A staple on his world, perhaps?

The human male’s brow crinkled as he gazed around the establishment. The pommel of the sword glowed brighter briefly, and BOB detected that the tool had sentience and it was communicating with the man. He was General Ridgewalker Zirkander, BOB recognized from his list. A pilot and war hero from his world.

“Ah?” Zirkander raised his eyebrows, his telepathic communication—or perhaps instructions—having been completed. “Huh.”

He approached the bar, lifting neither sword nor pickles in a hostile gesture—a good sign.

“You’re the bartender?”

“I am BOB. Welcome to the Multiverse Bar.”

“Thanks. You can call me Ridge. It’s short for Ridgewalker.” The general waited expectantly. When BOB did not question him, he added, “Most people ask me how I got such a kooky name.”

“I am not a “people,” and I am not programmed to request data. You may tell me if you wish, but allow me to pour you a beverage. What would you like?”

“I’ll take a Gold Dragon Stout. Er...do they have dragons here?” He lifted the hand with the jar in it and waved vaguely toward the walls.

“Dragons exist in many dimensions of the multiverse, as do stouts. Allow me to pour your preferred beverage while you join the others.”

“The others?” Zirkander—Ridge—took in the three females who were standing at the end of the bar watching him. “They don’t look Cofah. I guess that’s promising.”

“Yes. You are welcome to consume your staple or share it with the group.”

“My what?”

BOB pointed to the jar.

“Oh, these aren’t a staple so much as… I was sent on an errand, you see. My wife is pregnant.”

BOB tilted its head, wondering if its logic programming was malfunctioning. It did a quick diagnostic test, but it was fully functional. It still didn’t understand the human’s meaning.

“You’re definitely not a people, are you? Never mind. I’ll be happy to share if anyone is desperate. Or pregnant.” He looked curiously at those assembled. “The latter seems unlikely.”

“Yes, sir.” It seemed a safe answer.

BOB poured the stout, and as the door-light flared again, handed it to Ridge, who accepted it and moved to join the others.

BOB turned to see who’d arrived and saw...nothing. First his logic programming, and now the warning flare? Was the construct breaking down with a second use?

“Ye gonna just stand there or are ye gonna get yer finger out yer shoiny metal arse and pour me a drink?” demanded a voice from somewhere near the bar. BOB ran a dialect detection protocol, and settled on a variant of “Irish,” although there was a question mark at the end which suggested that might not be entirely accurate.

BOB leaned over the bar and looked down.

And down.

And there was the next subject, standing on the floor in front of the bar, his blue face upturned so he could gaze up at BOB. A wiry green beard sprouted messily from his chin, while his eyes peered out from beneath two extremely thick eyebrows.

The figure wore a long red ballgown with quite a fetching black trim across the front. The word ‘long’ was relative in this instance, however, as the dress was less than six inches from top to bottom. The man wearing it wasn’t much taller.

The tiny human male scrambled up one of the barstools and onto the bar, where he stood, hands on his hips. “And still ye’re starin’,” the little figure said. “With yer big feckin’ robot eyes or what have ye. Are ye the man to talk to about a drink or are ye not?”

BOB’s logic programming had to be glitching, no matter what the diagnostics read. It knew this was Artur, though.

“Well, I’ll be jiggered—it’s one of the wee folk,” Amanda commented from a short way up the bar.

Ridge gazed at the newcomer, blinking slowly a few times but not saying anything.

“Less o’ the ‘wee’ there, sweetheart. Sure, I’m big where it counts. Me name’s Artur.”

“Amanda.”

“The pleasure’s all yours,” Artur informed her. He curtseyed slightly before turning back to BOB. “Drink. Now. Chop chop. I don’t care what it is, just make sure it’s as rough as a sludger’s arse and I’ll be a happy man.”

“What is your preference, sir?”

“Drink!”

“Yes. Of course,” replied BOB, swinging into action. “You may call me BOB.”

“No offense, like, but I couldn’t give a shoite,” Artur remarked. “Ye’ve got alcohol ‘n an assortment o’ fine-lookin’ women. Just keep me glass filled, and ye can call yerself whatever the feck ye like.”

“Okay, now I know this is a dream,” Rika commented with a quirk of her lips as she leaned on the bar. “Tiny people and being called a ‘fine-looking woman.’” She paused and looked down at her growler. “Either that or there’s something in here my nanos can’t detect.”

Bethany Anne’s eyebrow raised just a tad. She was going to be the first murderer of wee folk in the bar if he kept up the attitude.

“As you wish, sir,” BOB said, placing a Slurgian Thrungmasher and pink lemonade before the diminutive male. “Is there anything else I can get you?”

Artur regarded the glass, which was almost as tall as he was.

“A straw. That’s somethin’ more I would be wantin’.” He snorted. “A straw—or d’ye expect me to dive into the feckin’ thing headfirst? Not that it’d be the first time, mind ye.”

BOB placed a drinking straw in the glass.

“Much obliged to ye,” said Artur.

He turned and marched down the length of the bar to where the others were gathered.

“Well, get a move on wiv yer big metal bollocks,” Artur called over his shoulder. “Me drink’s hardly goin’ to carry its feckin’ self.”

BOB picked up the drink and carried it to the end of the bar where the humans were standing. “Perhaps you would be more comfortable moving to the table?” it asked. BOB’s mission would not change if the humans preferred to stand at the bar, but the seats at the table were designed for human comfort...and were filled with sensors that gathered a wealth of data while the stories were being told.

Bethany Anne shrugged. “Why the hellfuck not?”

“Fine, but I’m going to need another of these.” Ridge, his eyes round as he gazed at the diminutive Artur, pointed at his already-empty mug.

“Sure, I’m dying o’ feckin’ thirst over here! Move yer arse!” Artur ordered.

The group wandered over to the table, drinks in hand, and sat.

“Eleven seats this time? It’s gonna be quite the gathering,” Amanda said.

“The rest will be here soon,” BOB answered before retreating back to the bar to await the next subject. It didn’t have to wait long. The light flared, and the next human half-stumbled through the door. The arrival’s handcrafted leather shoes skidded to a stop with a squeak and the man’s hands half-shot out to his sides to steady his balance. His head swung from shoulder to shoulder, and he looked at the ceiling, the walls, and finally at the table where the others sat. They’d stopped talking when the new man arrived.

Standish wiped his hands down a silk shirt embroidered with paisleys, then swiped his fingers through his thin, sandy colored hair. He cracked a smile with brilliantly white teeth and approached the bar with a swagger.

BOB was well aware of this one’s past, so it gave silent thanks to the Collector that its bar didn’t have a cash register or anything worth stealing.

Standish winked at the ladies and pointed double index fingers to the men as he walked up to the bar and onto a stool.

“New model?” Standish raised an eyebrow and leaned over to look down at BOB’s legs. “Someone sprang for legs? Industry standard is for an upper body mounted on a rail. Who owns the place? I love doing business with people who spend too much.”

“May I get you a drink, sir?” BOB asked.

“My—Standish—special reserve.” He wagged a finger toward the wall of bottles behind BOB. “Relaxing Times Whiskey if you’ve got it...and you better believe I know my own brand. Your owner water my stuff down? Is that how he can afford top-end bots?”

BOB was not programmed to judge subjects, but it was responsible for the bar construct. As it contemplated Standish, it wondered if the Collector should have designed the bar with a bouncer. It took out a bottle and poured two fingers over an ice ball. Standish took a sip, his eyes locked on the bartender.

“It’s legit.” Standish held his glass up next to his face, an oversized gold watch swinging from his wrist.

“This establishment has only the finest spirits,” BOB told him and reached for a towel to wipe down the bar. When it turned back, the bottle was gone, held aloft by Standish, who held the glass up to the lights. BOB’s inventory control programming blinked with an error as it re-ran sensor feeds, trying to detect just when Standish had swiped the bottle.

“This glass is from my original distillery in Scotland,” Standish mused. “Vintage... Where’d you get it?”

“Another drink?” BOB asked.

Standish nodded, then turned to eye the group at the table. He seemed to take particular note of the weapon on Rika’s back and the sword Ridge carried.

“Just...where the hell am I?” Standish asked. “This isn’t some freaky Qa’Resh place is it?”

He froze when Artur slapped a palm on the table to get BOB’s attention.

Standish let out a brief, effeminate screech, snatched a tiny cocktail sword from the bar, and brandished it at Artur.

“What the hell is that!” Standish wagged the cocktail sword from side to side.

“That is Mr. Artur, your fellow patron,” BOB informed him.

“Does it eat faces?” Standish asked. He downed a quick sip of his drink as he went progressively paler.

“He does not,” BOB replied levelly.

“You sure? Have you seen him not eat anyone’s face the entire time? Aliens are weird like that.”

“Your face will be fine.” BOB moved away.

“You say that now, but do you have a face to eat? No. That gremlin will be munching my cheeks, and you’ll be all ‘I’ll note that down for next time.’ Who won’t have a face? Me. How can I be the face of my company without said face? Eh? Eh?”

BOB hoped the Collector would understand the need for a bouncer if and when another human mission was created.

“If you will join the others, sir, I’m sure you will see there’s nothing to be concerned about.”

“I’m putting my good looks in your hands, BOB, just so we’re clear,” Standish warned as he started to make his way to the table.

BOB ran another inventory as Standish joined the rest. Only the one bottle had been taken.

The next subject, a short blonde woman in a gray shipsuit, walked confidently into the bar, only to pause two steps later and scan the room with a confused expression. Kelsey Bandar looked back toward the entrance and shrugged, heading for the table with the others.

“I don’t suppose any of you saw a carrier lying around?” She held her hands about a foot apart. “It’s a little bigger than this and has thousands of crewmembers and lots of fighters. I seem to have misplaced mine.”

“I’m in a similar position,” Rika told her with a shrug. “Although if they can’t take care of themselves while I have a beer, I’m in worse trouble than ending up in a strange bar.”

“Now, they sound like wee folk,” said Artur, shooting Amanda a very deliberate look.

Amanda winked at Artur. “BOB gets that a lot,” she told Kelsey with a smile. “Come and have a drink and get gee-eyed with us.’

Kelsey’s eyes widened when she saw the short being with the green beard. An alien. One that spoke Standard.

Tearing her eyes away from the man, she looked around with a smile. “Huh. I’d think I’d remember a place like this if I’d been here before. It’s like a bar from one of the old vids. Very cool. Tell me you have good beer. Something with heft?”

“We have any beer you want, ma’am. What is your preference?” BOB asked from the bar, focusing the sound waves so it didn’t have to shout, but they all could hear it.

Kelsey looked at BOB, disbelief evident in her eyes, and after a long moment, she shrugged. “How about you pick, then? Something I haven’t had before.”

BOB did not have her past drinking history in his files, but it did a quick probability check and poured a lager from the single tap. Hesitantly, she took a sip, then arched her eyebrows and nodded, lifting the glass in appreciation before she downed the rest and held it out for a refill.

“Nice tech,” she said, pointing to the tap. “If I could get Carl to reverse-engineer that I’d have some very happy Marines.”

BOB said nothing. The construct was far beyond anything humans could create, and that included the selection of beverages.

Kelsey turned to look at the others, then with another lift of the glass in a toast to BOB, settled back in her chair. Before introducing herself, she looked expectantly at the table, seeming disappointed that there was nothing on it.

She turned back to BOB and shouted, “I don’t suppose we could get some nachos, could we? I’m starving. A big plate for everyone, and another one the same size for me.”

With that, she turned back to the table with a wry shrug. “I apologize in advance if I seem piggish. My Marine Raider enhancements and artificial muscles require a lot of calories. I have to eat like an Imperial athlete just to keep up. I’ve gotten used to it, but it always makes people who don’t know me stare.”

“I would have simply assumed you were a shape-shifted dragon,” Ridge said with a smile. “They like cheese, you know.”

“No need to apologize,” Amanda replied to Kelsey. “I like a girl with an appetite. What’s your name?”

“Kelsey. Kelsey Bandar.”

“Amanda-Jane Page, nice teh meet yeh,” she answered, and the others followed suit.

“Ye all right there, darlin’?” asked Artur, giving the newcomer a long, appraising look. “Me name’s Artur. ‘Tis a pleasure to meet ye.”

“And I you, Artur. I’m not sure how I got here—or even where here is—but thank you for welcoming me to your table. All of you.”

“Don’t thank us yet. Things could get a little crazy before long,” Amanda answered.

“You mean crazier?” Ridge quirked an eyebrow at the eclectic gathering.

“Hey, so long as no one saws any limbs off, I’m cool with whatever shit goes down around here,” Rika said, raising her mechanical left arm and wiggling her three fingers.

“It’s interesting, if nothing else,” Bethany Anne explained. “But not that interesting.”

BOB brought over two large platters of nachos covered with cheese and jalapenos. Rika looked dubious, but after Kelsey dug into hers with gusto, she tentatively took a small piece, sniffed it, and took a bite. A huge smile broke out on her face.

“Stars shitting mass in the black, this is the best thing I’ve ever had!” Rika exclaimed, glancing back at the bar. “BOB, a plate for me too. I’m cashing in on the same excuse Kelsey used.”

“Doesn’t look like you have enough body to eat a whole platter,” Ridge said.

Rika lifted a cheese-covered chip and scooped up some sour cream before replying. “I can turn food into different types of energy. And I paid good money to get my face back, so I’m going to stuff it with food every chance I get.”

“That’s it, they’re only crisps. Get ‘em down yeh,” Amanda said with a laugh, plucking a few from the platter for herself.

Artur didn’t need to be told twice. He waded into one of the platters and cordoned off a sizeable section of the nachos. “These ‘er mine,” he announced, eyeing the others solemnly. “Try to take them and I’ll be forced to kill ye. I don’t want to, but that’s what’ll happen.”

“Cheese,” Ridge remarked after sampling a nacho. “I thought I smelled it melting back there. Glad to find out it exists here.”

“Cheese exists everywhere as far as I know,” Amanda told him solemnly.

“These are great, BOB,” Kelsey called, using a napkin to wipe her mouth. “And the jalapenos are really spicy, just like I like them. Thanks!”

“I may have to take some of these back to my...housemates,” Ridge said.

“The pregnant wife?” Amanda asked, eyeing his pickles.

“No, although it’s possible she might also enjoy them in her current state. The flavor combination is unique.” Ridge picked up a jalapeno slice and eyed it curiously.

BOB set another plate down in front of Rika, and she nodded happily at Ridge before loading up another chip and washing it down with a swig from her growler.

“God, it’s been centuries since I’ve tasted these.” Bethany Anne looked at BOB speculatively. “I wonder if he can make a five-layer chocolate cake appear.”

Amanda laughed. “I’d love to know the answer to that as well! Oooh, or a vanilla cheesecake.”

Talk died down as nachos, washed down with drinks, became the focus of everyone’s attention, so much so that they didn’t notice the next subject’s arrival. BOB did, however, and stepped up to greet her.

“Welcome to the Multiverse Bar, Colonel Foster.”

Charline Foster was in her third decade, twenty-eight Earth years old, and had shoulder-length blonde hair. She was wearing the ubiquitous working uniform of most human militaries, but it was dark gray instead of the more common camouflage pattern. She stood silently for a moment as she tried to grasp just where she was.

This was a key moment for every new arrival. Occasionally during these sessions, the subjects rebelled against what they saw as reality clashed with the construct. It was BOB’s task to put the subjects at ease.

“May I get you something to drink?” it asked, using a routine question to divert the human and convince her that everything was normal, nothing out of the ordinary.

She hesitated for a moment, making BOB wonder if she’d be one of the few who had to be dropped with the last thirty seconds wiped from her mind, but she asked, “How about a cider?”

“Any particular type?”

“What do you have?”

“You’d be surprised how wide the stock here is,” BOB replied.

“Surprise me, then. Nothing too complex, and no additives. Just crisp and clear.”

BOB reached over the bar, picked up a glass, and pulled a draft out of the same tap. “I think you’ll like this,” it said, handing it to her. “It’s an Unapologetic Orchard Green.”

She took a sip, then another. “Not bad. Not bad at all.”

“If you would join the rest?” BOB prompted, tilting its head at the table. “I’ll get back behind the bar.”

“Why not?” she asked as she walked over and slid into one of the four empty seats. She eyed the others around the table warily. “I’m Charline Foster.”

“Evening, Charline.” Ridge offered her a cordial smile. “You look young for your rank. Wartime promotions?”



“You might say that.”

Rika looked up from her plate of nachos at Charline. “You look the same age as me—provided you’ve not gone in for rejuv.” The cyborg shifted her gaze to Ridge. “Colonel here too, you know.”

“I’m Artur. This section of the food belongs to me. I want to make that clear up front.”

Charline raised an eyebrow. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Bethany Anne was tempted to tweak the little guy once again. However, lack of bouncer or not, even she considered that a bit rude. However, she would keep her options open. “Bethany Anne.” She nodded from across the table.

Kelsey wiped her greasy hand with her napkin and extended it to the woman. “Kelsey Bandar. Welcome. Have some nachos, but be warned: the jalapenos are hot.”

BOB was interconnected with the array of scanners in the bar. It didn’t have access to each data stream, nor was it programmed to analyze the data, but one of its jobs was to ensure that each was recording. A small prompt caused BOB to focus on the Sierra-wave scanner. Three of the pickups were having difficulties, almost as if they were being jammed, but that was impossible. In a thousand-thousand missions, that had never happened.

BOB examined the patrons. Some of the humans had capabilities well beyond the mean for the species. Was it possible that one of those more capable beings was interfering with the scans, even without understanding what they were? None of the eight seemed to be in distress. Well, this was simply one more piece of data for the Collector. An electronic thrill tickled its circuits. The Collector would be pleased.

The entrance flare caught BOB’s attention as the ninth guest arrived. Arkarin Blackhawk was a tall human male, his long, brown hair pulled back and secured with a silver clasp. He was carrying a handgun and a well-used short sword. BOB considered asking him to disable the pistol, but after running a quick calculation, decided that it did not pose the threat of Rika’s arm-cannon. Blackhawk looked far younger than his almost sixty Earth years.

BOB did not need its guest files or its more advanced scanners to see that this human was different. He appeared to be without the social mores of the others, and this was not natural. Arkarin Blackhawk had been genetically manipulated to be something...different. BOB was not sure how this human would interact with the others. Whether he would open up to them or not. This human would put the construct’s capabilities to the test.

The human male barely glanced at the others at the table before striding up to the bar, where BOB greeted him with, “Welcome to the Multiverse Bar, sir. May I get you a drink?”

Blackhawk simply said, “Yes,” in the tone of someone who didn’t care one way or the other.

BOB did not have the ability to read minds, and while it had been uploaded with human non-verbal communications, it did not know how to react next. “What would you like, sir?” it finally asked.

“You decide.”

BOB reached behind him for an aged decanter with a stag’s head embossed on it and poured the amber liquid into a glass. “This is the Dalmore 62, one of the rarest single malts in the galaxy.”

“Wait a feckin’ moment!” Artur hollered. “How come he gets the good stuff and I’m stuck wi’...whatever the feck this thing is?”

“You merely requested ‘a drink,’ sir,” BOB replied, “so I randomly selected one of the available—”

“Fair enough. I don’t actually give a shoite,” Artur replied. He took a sip of his drink, burped loudly, and winked at all of the women in turn. “Ye all right there, ladies?”

Kelsey shook her head and smiled. “What a hoot,” she murmured under her breath, low enough so that no one but BOB could hear. “Probably considers himself a ladies’ man, too. Might even be one. I’m not going to judge.”

“Doing better every minute.”

Blackhawk turned to look at the table, his face expressionless. BOB eyed the pistol, wondering if it should have insisted that the human give it to him for the duration. It needn’t have worried. The human male picked up the bottle and carried to the table. Standish emptied his glass with one gulp and held it up for Blackhawk to fill it half-way with the Dalmore. He took a seat but pushed it back half a meter, symbolically keeping his distance.

Kelsey smiled but, noting his distance, inclined her head rather than extending a hand. “I’m Kelsey Bandar. Welcome.”

The light flared again, and the next-to-last subject arrived. Floribeth Dalisay, all 4’ 6” of her, strode into the construct in a bright red flight suit. She looked at BOB behind the bar, but instead of approaching it, as the construct was designed to encourage, she walked over to the table and flopped down on the seat between Ridge and Bethany Anne.

“Oh, she’s fun-sized. She got a name?” asked Standish.

“She’s a feckin’ giant from where I’m standin’,” Artur pointed out.

“Back off, you face eating demon. I saw her first.”

Surprised to see someone smaller than herself—Artur excepted—Kelsey held out a hand to the woman. “I’m Kelsey Bandar. Who are you?”

“Petty Officer Second Class Floribeth Salinas O’Shea Dalisay, Navy of Humankind. My friends call me Beth.”

“I can see why,” Rika said with a soft laugh. “That’s more name than half a ‘toon of mechs have.”

“Lovely to meet yeh. I’m Amanda, this is Bethany Anne, Rika, Ridge and his jar of...whatever they are, Standish, and Charline. Tall, dark, and silent here is Arkarin, and the leprechaun is Artur.”

“Feck you, carrot-top,” Artur snapped, slurping on his straw.

“You know you love me, really,” Amanda replied with a smirk.

Beth’s eyes grew large when Amanda named Artur. “Heck, you’re even shorter than me.”

“How d’ye know?” Artur asked, glaring up at her. “Did it ever occur to ye that maybe I’m just far away?”

“Is that right, Father Dougal?” Amanda cut in, directing her comment to Artur with a cheeky expression on her face.

The little man hesitated, giving Amanda a curious look.

“I have no idea what ye’re on about,” Artur said before turning to Floribeth. “I’m not far away, as it happens, but sure, would it’ve hurt ye ta ask?”

A laugh tore free of Rika’s lips, and she held up her hand to keep from spraying beer across the table. “Stars, can I take you back with me?” she asked Artur. “I want to see you and Barne go at it.”

“I’m used to being the smallest one around, that’s all. You know, thunder in a small package?” Floribeth explained.

Artur shrugged. “Sure, if I keep eatin’ these nachos the way I am, you’ll all soon be gettin’ a blast o’ thunder in a small package, if ye know what I’m sayin’?”

“May I get you a drink, Petty Officer Dalisay?” BOB asked, trying to defuse the situation.

“Coke, please. Lots of ice.”

“May I refill anyone else?”

“D’ye even have to ask?” queried Artur.

Kelsey nodded. “Another ale for me. Since you provided Blackhawk the rarest single malt in the galaxy, perhaps you could bring me the best dark ale in the galaxy this time?”

“What’s a Coke?” Ridge asked curiously.

“A sweetened and carbonated brown beverage that contains caffeine, originally sourced from the kola nut on Earth,” BOB told him.

Ridge stared blankly at him.

Not a universal constant?” someone asked.

Ridge shook his head.

“Right away.”

“Coke? What’s the matter, can’t take the real stuff” Standish asked.

Floribeth shrugged. “I just like Coke.”

“A woman of very discerning taste.” Bethany Anne lifted her drink. “I’d usually join you with a Coke of my own. And by usually, I mean always.” She twisted her drink a bit to catch the light, “However, with my nanocytes, I rarely get anything so harsh that it does anything to me, and I’ve yet to find this drink in my area of space or time.”

“That’s ‘cause you’ve never tried this,” Standish assured her, shoving over the half-empty bottle of Dalmore.

Floribeth took the bottle and gave it a sniff, then put her hand over the opening, tipping it over twice. Standish gasped. She leveled it, raised her palm to her mouth, and licked, then made a horrendous face.

“What is that garbage? Tastes like turpentine,” she demanded, face still contorted.

“Yes!” Kelsey exulted. “Someone else that feels the same way I do about that stuff.” She smiled at the glares that earned her. “No offense.”

“Maybe, but I’ll stick with Coke, thank you very much.”

“Does Coke have cocaine in it?” Rika asked. “The mechs I was with back in the Nietzchean war got their hands on some once. Only time I ever got a decent buzz without having to drink a whole one of these.” Rika held up the growler before taking another pull from it.

“Unfortunately not, unless BOB can get the original version.” Amanda winked at Rika before glancing at the bartender.

As BOB filled the drink order, the final subject arrived. The young man walked through the door and stopped, followed by a scarred and scruffy orange tabby. He looked behind him as if expecting to see someone there, then sauntered up to the bar, pointed to the door behind him, and asked BOB, “Did you see a Wolfoid and a Lizard Man come in behind me?”

“Welcome to the Multiverse Bar, sir. And no. You entered alone. When you return home, your friends will be waiting for you.”

“I’d hate to think I lost Stinky and Pickles.”

“Now that you are here, sir, may I get you a drink?”

“What do you have back there?”

“Anything you please. Might I offer you a beer, sir? Guinness, Imported. On draft.”

“I don’t know what any of that means.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake, just take it and get over here,” Bethany Anne shouted. “I have a soft spot for Marines. Not terribly fond of cats, so your fucking cat has to stay at the bar. I’m more of a dog person.”

“I love cats,” Kelsey declared. “Come over and get some nachos.”

“Marines are okay,” Rika said with a shrug. “Not a patch on a mech, but they’ll do in a pinch. Nachos, however, are right up there as proof that there is a god and that he loves us.”

The cat launched like a rocket from the stool and two hops later found himself sitting in the middle of the table.

Kelsey laughed, delighted.

“What the feck is that thing?” demanded Artur, jumping back and raising his fists. “Is it a fight ye’re after, ye hairy-faced bastard? Ye’ve come to the right place.”

The cat ignored him and settled into a crouch facing Bethany Anne. His yellow eyes glared for a moment, then he swallowed heavily and backed up a step. He laid back down, tucking his paws under his chest fur.

“I like this arrogant little prick,” said Bethany Anne, pointing to the little feline. “Now that I’ve finally decided not to toss him into the Etheric for his rudeness.”

“I think he understands you,” Amanda commented, her wry statement eliciting a laugh from Rika. Amanda gave her a curious look, and the cyborg woman blushed.

“Oh...thought you meant Artur,” she explained quietly.

“Oh! No, no, no, I meant the cat,” Amanda explained. “It’s telepathic. I’ve already said hello to it.”

“In that case, can ye tell it to get its arse out of me face?” demanded Artur. “Or there will be consequences. I won’t bore ye wi’ the details, but there will be consequences.”

The cat glared at Artur for a moment, then slowly licked its lips.

“I’d advise against eatin’ me,” Artur warned it. “Many have tried and lived to regret it. Briefly.”

Cain picked up the glass and followed BOB to the table. He took the last empty seat while BOB passed out the refills, and when the major stared at his cat for a moment, BOB realized that they were somehow communicating. Cain turned to look at Bethany Anne, then back at the cat as if for confirmation.

“Brutus tells me that you’re a queen. Very pleased to meet you, ma’am,” Cain said to her.

“Ma’am?” Bethany Anne almost rose out of her seat. “You think I’m a ma’am?”

“Oooh, now you’ve torn it,” Amanda commented with a mock expression of shock.

“Oh, and you’re a princess?” Cain asked Kelsey after another moment of silent communication with Brutus.

Kelsey smiled and nodded.

“Well, it’s an honor, ladies,” Cain added.

Bethany Anne smiled and relaxed. “Ah, the innocence of youth.”

“Well, I do feel left out. I dated a princess once. Does that count?” Amanda asked.

“A princess? As in, a girl?” Artur asked. He gazed wistfully into empty space for a few moments, then gave Amanda a salacious wink. “Sure, I’d have liked to have seen that.”

“Well, she was the daughter of what passes for royalty in Terran space, so close enough,” Amanda continued mostly to herself without responding to Artur’s continued winking and puffed-out chest.

“Royalty in Terran space?” Charline asked, surprised. “Where I’m from we don’t have any royalty in Terran space. All of you really are from very different places, aren’t you?”

“Well, we call them Dynasties, but they’re basically royalty. And yeah, I suppose you could say different places, but different universes would be more accurate,” Amanda answered.

“Terrans are a royal pain in the ass,” Rika commented. “And when Tanis gets around to knocking them down, things will be a lot better in the Inner Stars.”

Amanda gave Rika a curious look at that statement but didn’t raise whatever was on her mind.

Ridge seemed to be ignoring the conversation around the table as he scrutinized the cat. “Not a shape-shifted dragon?” he murmured. “Are you sure?”

The pommel of his sword glowed faintly as it communicated telepathically with him.

“If it rolls over and wants a belly rub, I may choose to disbelieve you.”

Meanwhile, Cain continued to address Bethany Anne, ignoring the back and forth between Artur and Amanda. “You seem to be young for a queen, but admittedly, I’ve met no queens before so you’ll have to forgive me,” Cain said, still holding his beer.

“Interesting. So, your cat can talk? Not unheard of where I come from, but uncommon. Nice to meet you, good kitty,” Bethany Anne replied. “And I’m centuries old.”

“I should have brought my cat Samhain. He’s a bit bigger than yours, though,” Amanda added.

“No, ye feckin’ shouldn’t,” snapped Artur. “Sure, there’s already hair in me nachos as it is.”

He peered into the snacks.

“Wait, that’s mine,” he realized.

“What breed is he?” Floribeth asked Cain.

“Half Hillcat, half domestic, but don’t get him started on the bloodline he inherited on his mother’s side. He should be twice the size, but there he is—the runt.”

The air grew chill as the cat glared at the major.

Brutus then stared at the people around the table as Cain scratched behind his ears. Brutus grumped at first but then leaned into his human’s hand to make sure he got the good spots. With his free hand, Cain brought the stein to his mouth, took a sip, and grimaced, coughing before putting it back down.

“You don’t seem to be enjoying your beer, which is very un-Marine-like,” BA accused.

“I’ve never had a beer before. We don’t have it where I’m from.”

“Don’t let anyone give you that single malt turpentine,” Floribeth told him, lifting her Coke.

“No beer? How very unfortunate. Remind me to never visit your home.”

“Yeah, that sounds like a special sort of hell,” Rika added.

“No...bars? Is that what you called it? We don’t have anything like this,” the major explained

“No bars? Now you’re getting downright uncivilized,” marveled Charline.

“You’re the last to get here, so maybe now we can get the show on the road.” Bethany Anne turned to look toward the bar. “Right, BOB?”

“Yes, ma’am, when you all are ready.”

“What show would this be?” asked Artur. His eyes widened a little in excitement. “Is there strippin’ involved?”

Kelsey rolled her eyes.

“I’m already naked.” Rika winked at the tiny man.

“We tell stories to each other,” Amanda explained, pausing to give Rika a bemused shake of her head. “At least, that was what happened last time.”

“Stories? What the hell?” Beth exclaimed.

“So, no strippin’ then?” Artur clarified. “Bollocks.”

“Play yer cards right little man, and who knows?” Amanda winked at Artur. “I’m only one drink in, yeh know!”

“That’s what the fuck we do here,” Bethany Anne added. “Sea stories, they were called. Tall tales that might be true, or maybe not. That’s up to you.”

“Why?” Cain asked.

“Who knows? That was what we did last time, though,” Amanda said. “Some of them might have been bullshit, but that’s okay. They were fun to listen to. I know I’ve got an idea for one already, so why not? We can even make it a contest and declare a winner for most absurd story at the end.”

“A winner for telling the biggest whale tale?” Cain asked.

“A sea story,” Floribeth said. “You call them whale stories?

“Yes, but we don’t have that F-word. We simply don’t use such language.”

Bethany Anne leaned toward him, a smirk on her face, and pointed using her drink, “I am completely fucking appalled and struck speechless. Fuck! I may never speak again. That’s a fuck -my-life-with-a-side-of-crotch-fleas right there. Thanks, you rolling pucker-fucker.”

Artur cracked a grin and gave Bethany Anne a wink. “I like yer style.”

“Fonk. Fark. Frak. Nope. I can’t say it, so I defer to those of you who can.” Cain raised his glass and took a big drink, making faces as he toughed his way past the taste.

Kelsey snorted a laugh in spite of herself and clapped a hand over her mouth.

Rika chuckled. “You wouldn’t make it a fucking day as a mech. Granted, they might cut off the mod that keeps you from cursing. Either that, or it’ll get shot off before long.”

“So we’re supposed to tell each other stories? Who’s gonna start, then? Is there an order?” Cain asked.

“To be sure. You first, Cain. Last in, first to tell. How’s that?” Amanda answered.

BOB stayed silent throughout the exchange. It usually had to prod the subjects to start telling their tales, but Amanda and Bethany Anne had taken charge. Evidently, the Collector had known what it was doing to bring the two of them back.

BOB was merely a tool, nothing more. It was not the Collector. Still, with what passed for artificially generated interest, it stood silently beside the table to listen to the first of the humans tell their “sea story.”


Cain is Able By Craig Martelle

“A story, huh? My wife Ellie is an engineer. We met in space school—”

“Give me a break!” Floribeth called and turned two thumbs down while pretending to gag.

“Hey! This is my story. I’ll get to the good part soon enough.”

“Sex?” Artur asked.

“No!” Cain shot back. “Marines fight our world’s battles on far-off planets to keep the enemy from coming to our home. We have kicked some serious ass.”

“Get to that part then, fucker,” Bethany Anne insisted, rolling her finger in a “move ahead” motion. “Love stories and sea stories don’t mix.”

“Geez! You people are a little high-strung. You know what would help? A Hillcat would keep you from chewing through nails. Patience is a bitter cup from which only the strong may drink. Brutus, see if anyone wants to come here and help these poor people out.”

No, the ‘cat replied.

Cain stared with an open mouth at the intransigent beast lying in the middle of the table. Brutus rolled onto his back and stretched. BA scratched his furry chest, her smile fading when she noticed the heavy scarring all over his body.

The mirth disappeared from those around the table. “Battle scars.” Cain rolled up one sleeve to show his own healed injuries. “These are more valuable than any Shooting Star medals. They mean that we survived and rejoined the fight.”

“I suspect you never left the fight, no matter how injured you were. Tell us your story, Major Cain.” Bethany Anne gave the others a look that guaranteed silence for Cain to spin his yarn.

“Ellie’s an engineer, but nothing like Briz. He’s a Rabbit, you see, and he’s crazy genius. Stinky is my right-hand man, and he’s a Wolfoid. We all work for Commander Daksha, who’s a Tortoid. He floats in the air. Can you imagine if he had to walk, how long that would take? We have a Hawkoid called Ascenti and then Pickles, who is good in a fight as long as he has on his skinsuit because he’s a Lizard Man. Otherwise, he dries out.”

“Sounds like a menagerie. So these creatures are Marines? This is your team?” Amanda asked.

“They are my friends, and the Marines I like to have near me in a fight. Anyway, there we were, setting up a bivouac on planet Q-475. We weren’t sure there was sentient life until after we landed the shuttle. Briz...” The looks from those around the table suggested they needed more when he mentioned a name. “Briz, our genius Rabbit engineer, usually stays on the ship, but this time he came with us because of the deposits of Quarillium. He wanted to make sure they were as pure as sensors showed. Our sensors are nice, but the data we get from The Olive Branch in space isn’t perfect.”

“Stop,” Standish insisted. “Let me get this straight. Your spaceship is called The Olive Branch. You don’t have bars. You don’t say naughty words. You won’t talk about nookie. What is this, some Amish cyberpunk colony? You’re as much fun as my LDS Marine buddies. Can’t make any money selling booze to them.”

Cain looked confused.

“Don’t tell me, you don’t know what that is either.” Cain shook his head. “Fine, tell us a story and get to the good part. My eyes are starting to bleed.”

Bethany Anne’s palm flew to her face as her drink came spitting out. “Sorry,” she mumbled as BOB gave her a napkin. “That was fucking hilarious!”

“Fine!” Cain declared in Ellie’s tone before continuing…

“Why did you land way down here, Briz?” Cain complained.

“It’s equidistant between the two deposits,” the Rabbit said, dismissively waving a small furry hand.

“Give us some eyes, Ascenti.”

The Hawkoid flew from the clearing, gaining altitude with each wingbeat. Black Leaper, Cain’s lieutenant, ground his teeth. He carried a lightning spear, which was standard armament for the unit’s Wolfoids. Their paw-like hands were more suited to the weapon and it helped them to walk upright since they used it as a staff, too.

“Something is wrong here,” Leaper yipped and growled. The vocalization device around his neck translated the speech into English. A small calico Hillcat stayed close, almost under Leaper’s feet.

“I agree, Stinky. What do you think, Brutus?” he asked.

I think the Wolfoid has sensed the locals, the ‘cat replied cryptically.

Ellie carried the Hillcat Carnesto down the ladder from the shuttle pod. I wish Lutheann was here, the all-black creature said to no one in particular.

“You are the most impatient ‘cat of the entire ‘cat species,” Ellie replied aloud, ruffling the hair behind his ears. Lieutenant Peekaless climbed down the ladder next, an all-white Hillcat in his arms.

That’s better, Carnesto said.

“Once the pounce is settled, do you guys mind helping us understand what’s going on? We came here to dig out as much ore as we can easily get. Outside of that, it would help if no one knew we were here, especially if they aren’t spacefaring.”

They know you’re here, Brutus replied. We landed in a rocket! Have you forgotten how much noise that thing makes?

“I haven’t forgotten, but I hoped the hills around us would block it.”

“Wait a minute,” BA interrupted. “You travel with a bunch of cats who constantly give you shit. You are able to get dogs and cats working together as part of a combat unit, but you can’t keep the cats from giving you shit? Who’s in charge of your Marines?”

“I am!” Artur announced. He fired off a half-assed salute, grinning happily, then shook his head. “I’m not, actually. Sure, I don’t even know what we’re talkin’ about. Carry on.”

Cain pointed to Brutus lying in the middle of the table, eyes half-closed as if ready to sleep. He yawned, showing his impressive fangs.

It’s a burden that I have to bear, he said.

“Nice fangs. If you let them grow maybe you’ll be able to join the big girls club,” Charline remarked, nodding to Bethany Anne.

The Queen tipped her glass in reply before taking a drink.

Rika reached over her shoulder and tapped the barrel of her GNR-41C. “I only need one fang.”

“Where was I?” Cain asked before continuing his story.

Brutus, Carnesto, and Lutheann ran into the brush. “Wait,” Cain called fruitlessly. “Where are the locals, what are they, and what are they doing?”

Follow us, was all Brutus said in reply.

“Jolly!” Cain called toward the shuttle pod. “You know the drill: button her up until we get back.” He looked at the landing party. “And you, pick up the gear. We’re miners in addition to being Marines.”

The Artificial Intelligence known as Jolly retracted the ladder into the base of the small torpedo-shaped ship and secured the hatch. Ellie pointed in the direction that the Hillcats had gone. Cain went first, and the others fell in behind him. Pickles brought up the rear, carrying a trident but no blaster. Lizard Men were notoriously bad shots, even with a great deal of practice.

Cain had given up working with him, but the Lizard Men had a chameleon-like ability to disappear. It gave Pickles an edge the blaster didn’t.

The group climbed a steep hill before crossing the top and heading down the other side.

The locals? Cain reminded using his mindlink with the ‘cats.

They look deer-like, but they’re intelligent. I wonder if they’re good eating? Brutus replied.

You’re not eating the locals! Cain blurted. The ‘cat chuckled into the major’s mind. Do you think you can talk to them? Make peace so we can get the ore. I’m sure we have something they want. We can send down the second shuttle if needed.

I can ask, if the mood strikes me.

You are such an ass! Cain was in a bad mood too, but it was because they were treating a potential engagement on an alien planet so lightly. They had yet to land in a place where the locals didn’t take offense. They raced from one battle to another. Cain wanted to visit a planet where they didn’t have to carry their weapons, and could relax and enjoy the air and scenery.

Enjoy the company of his wife. The last time they had tried to relax on an alien planet, he’d almost been eaten by a giant fish. He wondered if he would ever come to grips with perpetually being someone’s enemy.

One of the locals is willing to talk with you, Brutus interrupted. In a clearing on the far side.

“Lead on, Brutus. Everyone hear that?” They nodded. “As we approach, assume a diamond formation, I’ll be in the lead with Brutus. Stinky and Pickles on the wings. Briz in the middle, and Ellie watching our backs. Ascenti, you stay overhead and look for any surprises. ‘Cats, do what you do but stay close.”

As they walked, Cain worked his way to the front. The others drifted toward their positions. “Briz, where’s your laser pistol?”

“I don’t carry one of those,” came Briz’s soft voice from the vocalization device around his neck.

“Every Rabbit in the history of sentient Rabbits carries a laser pistol.”

“Not me. You know I can’t shoot one of those things. My strengths lie elsewhere.”

“I know, but right now I feel like our strength is going to be called into action. Firepower is our friend. Every damn planet we go to has hostiles. You know the standard procedures better than anyone.”

“I don’t carry a laser pistol, blaster, lightning spear, or any of that. You’ll just have to protect me. You’re Marine enough for both of us.”

Ellie snickered as her eyes darted in every direction, never focusing for long on any one thing.

“I guess I’ll have to be. Next time, Briz, bring the pistol.”

“Next time, I won’t bring the pistol.”

“Fine, then you can’t come.”

“Fine. I don’t want to come. Unlike you, I’m perfectly happy on board the ship.”

“Fine.” Cain ended the nonsensical conversation, regretting starting it in the first place.

When they reached the clearing, he signaled a stop. The group found cover behind trees, watching their sectors carefully—the directions of three o’clock, six o’clock, and nine o’clock. Cain was at high noon and walked into the clearing side by side with the scruffy orange tabby called Brutus.

A magnificent buck awaited them. Larger than the greatest of horses but leaner, it sported an oversized set of antlers, stretching over three meters from the ground.

“I am pleased that you decided to meet with me. My name is Major Cain, and I’m from Cygnus VII. We are exploring the galaxy to find allies and friends, along with the best route to Earth.”

I am disappointed that you have stopped here and invaded our land. You will surrender immediately and face your punishment. By allowing you to invade, we have opened ourselves to constant attack. An example must be made! Brutus used his telepathic ability to share what the buck had to say.

Cain took a deep breath and looked at Brutus to assess the veracity of the buck’s claim. The ‘cat remained quiet, but he stared unblinking into the eyes of the local.

“Are you under such threats often? Maybe we can help secure your territory.”

We haven’t been invaded for two hundred years, but if we started allowing it now, who knows where it would lead?

“Nowhere,” Cain replied coldly. “If you try to seize us, we’ll fight back, and that’s not something you want. Please don’t push us. All we want is some rocks in the ground, a little ore that it appears you have plenty of. We’ll dig some out and leave.”



Who are you to determine what we have plenty of? How dare you defile our sacred land!

“My apologies. You are correct. It is incumbent upon us to get your permission before digging. It appears that we don’t have it, so we’ll be on our way.”

“Wait!” Briz called from the trees. He hop-walked into the clearing. Cain tried not to look at him, but his big ears were hard not to notice. “I am Lieutenant Brisbois, Chief Engineer of the starship The Olive Branch. You have an incredible deposit of Quarillium, which is a molecule we’ve been experimenting with. When combined with dark matter, it has demonstrated properties to improve the efficiency of our interstellar engine by at least twelve percent. What are you willing to trade for the ore?”

What a strange-looking creature, the buck said. It is more alien than the aliens.

What do the aliens look like? Brutus asked, seeing an image of the creatures in the buck’s mind. Brutus’ hackles signaled his anger, and he shared the image with Cain. They were similar to the bots they’d seen on Heimdall.

“When did you see these things, and how long were they here? They are extremely dangerous.”

They didn’t bother us. They were here and then they were gone before we could intercept them. Enough talk. You’ll come with me.

“We will not come with you. When did you see the bots? We didn’t think they had penetrated this far into our space.”

You need to come with me, the buck insisted. He lifted his head and bugled.

“I guess that means reinforcements are on their way.” Cain kept his hand on his blaster but didn’t remove it from its holster. The buck seemed both intelligent and simple. The bots had probably left them alone because there was no technology. The bots may have assumed there were no sentient species on the planet and thus no reason to commit assets. “We don’t want to fight you, because you won’t win. We’d like some of your ore, and we’ll restore the land in such a way that a year from now, you won’t know that we were ever here.”

We’ll know.

A commotion in the woods signaled the arrival of more natives. “Hold your fire!” Cain ordered.

Now you will come with us. We must make an example of you.

“I’m afraid not,” Cain said, finally pulling his weapon and taking careful aim. He dialed the weapon to the narrowest beam and fired, cleanly slicing off the buck’s rack.

What did you do? the buck screamed into their minds.

“Damn. That’s one hell of a warning shot,” Rika said quietly, glancing around the table.

“Feck, you’re telling me. I do hope that’s the bullshit part of this tale because that’s just cruel,” Amanda agreed, looking troubled.

“I told you that we’re not coming with you. We’re not to be made an example of. We won’t take your ore. You made that clear, but we’re not to be trifled with. We could be your best friend or your greatest enemy. Don’t make the wrong choice or you’ll never get the smell of burnt venison out of your nostrils.” Cain held his blaster in both hands, watching for an untoward move.

A fireball appeared in the sky, and a light started flashing before his left eye.

“Ellie? Jolly wants to talk to us. Can you take it? I’m kind of busy up here.”

“The alien bot ship is in orbit. Cygnus-12 is hiding behind a moon, and the first of two bot shuttles has landed north of here.”

The color drained from Cain’s face, and he did a mental inventory of the weapons they carried: Six blasters and a lightning spear. “Dump the mining gear. We have to get back to the shuttle and retrieve the rest of our firepower.” Cain turned to the buck and his people. “Get your people out of here. Hide until this is over.”

We will do no such thing. This is our territory, and we will protect it.

“Then you will all die.” Cain turned to leave. Over his shoulder, he said, “I can’t help but think they followed us here, and that makes it our responsibility to fix this. We will fight them with everything we have.”

“That’s more like it,” Floribeth interrupted. “A little duty and honor. Going to deliver justice to some freaking metalheads. Continue your story, Major.”

“As a metalhead, I think I resent that,” Rika muttered, giving the others a sidelong look.

Cain returned the gaze, blinking in the light of the bar. He’d been lost in the story, so his mind was back on Q-475. It hadn’t been a pleasant landing. He had already come to the conclusion that no one in the universe liked aliens landing on their planet.

Cain started talking again.

They are going to follow us, Brutus told Cain.

Then they do so at their own risk unless they can help us fight the bots. Maybe draw them into an ambush? Cain asked hopefully. Ellie was already running. The group maintained their diamond formation as they retraced their steps.

I’ll see what I can do, Brutus said.

Briz hopped along in the middle of the formation, barely avoiding trees since his attention was focused on communing with the AI via the enhanced data chip in his head.

Stinky had picked up Penelope and was carrying her. She was a smaller Hillcat and not suited for long runs. How she had paired with a warrior like Leaper was beyond Cain, but then, the ways of Hillcats had always been a mystery.

Brutus, Lutheann, and Carnesto loped along easily. Pickles ran in his shambling gait, but he was used to running and could maintain it for extended periods.

The sky loomed heavy with the threat of rain.

I can see where the shuttle landed. Nothing has emerged from it, Ascenti reported over the mindlink.

How far is it from our shuttle pod to the bots? Cain asked.

At least ten kilometers. Ascenti shared his mind’s image showing the intervening terrain.

Can we get there before they leave the ship and spread out? Cain wondered.

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? Ascenti replied.

That’s what I figured. We’re running as fast as we can. Cain focused on the ground, taking care where he stepped. When they burst into the small clearing, Ellie asked Jolly to open the shuttle. Pickles, Stinky, and Briz were next out of the woods. Cain appeared last, scanning the ground for the ‘cats.

The great buck, his antlers gone, appeared. Brutus, Lutheann, and Carnesto were riding on his back.

BA held out her hand to stop the story. “No shit? I’m liking this little fucker more and more!” She scratched him under his chin.

I may have to trade a major for a Queen, Brutus suggested.

“I don’t take orders well,” BA said. “You’re probably better off with your boy scout. Let me guess, you don’t know what that is.”

“I don’t,” Cain stammered before he found his voice. “You wouldn’t leave me, you little cretin! I could never be so lucky.”

Brutus started licking his paw and wiping his face. Kelsey waved at BOB to bring another round. Cain’s glass was still full, so BOB dropped a nitrogen capsule in to refresh it. It was a galactic crime to waste good beer.

Cain stared at the table as he lost himself in his story.

Ellie climbed the ladder into the capsule and opened the two weapons lockers. She removed four more hand blasters, a small rocket launcher with six projectiles, and a bag of explosives.

“Take it,” Cain ordered, handing a blaster to Briz and one to Pickles. He looked at the remaining two in his hand and gave a second one to the Lizard Man and one to the Wolfoid as a backup to his lightning spear.

“If you can carry us through the woods, we can eliminate the enemy ship with the bots still on board,” Cain requested.

I was the greatest among us, and now I’m the least. Without my antlers, I cannot withstand any challenge to my position. I am alone. I think the hostility you find on other worlds may be of your own creation. Cain looked into the woods, finding no other locals.

They have scattered, which leaves us free to do what we need to do, Brutus said sagely.

“Some of our issues with the locals may have been our fault,” Cain admitted, “but we learned the hard way and lost too many good people. Those bots killed almost half my unit, half of the sum total of Cygnus Marines in the universe. They started the war with us, and I am under no misconception about being able to end it. All I want to do is win each battle without suffering catastrophic losses. We’ve sent so many of our friends’ bodies into space that I’ll be okay if I never have to do that again.”

“We need to get going,” Stinky advised.

“Button it up, Jolly.” Cain’s expression turned cold and hard. “We’ll be back.”

Stinky put Penelope with the other ‘cats, riding on the buck. Cain was trying to think about fighting the alien bots while the Hillcats had befriended a way to avoid running through the woods.

The Wolfoid took off, running on two legs so he wouldn’t outpace the others. None of them could have kept up if he were to run at full speed.

Update, Ascenti, Cain requested.

No movement.

Are they dead?

I don’t know if they were ever alive, but at least they are an easier target while they’re still in the shuttle. Do you think the rocket will destroy that shuttle? Ascenti asked. One of the Hawkoid’s wings was a biometric printed replacement for the original that had been blown off by a bot on Heimdall.

“Hurry,” Cain implored his group. Pickles grunted and huffed, running as fast as he was able. Ellie kept pace. She was mostly unburdened, carrying only a small pack and two blasters. Cain had lightened his load as well. He didn’t expect this fight to drag out. He was hoping for a quick win.

Pickles maintained the best pace that he could, but it turned out that it wasn’t good enough.

Bots are leaving the shuttle. I count eight, and they are scattering.

Pick a good spot for us to set up a hasty ambush.

The Hawkoid circled lazily overhead, his eyes seeing the world below with exceptional clarity. Stop where you are. A bot is headed your way, but it isn’t moving too quickly. They seem to be unaware of our presence.

Could this be a coincidence? Cain asked. If we have to fight them, we will, but maybe we can lay low.

At the current rate of exploration, the bots will find our shuttle in less than an hour, Briz explained.

“Set up here. The kill zone is the open area.” Cain pointed and waved his hand around. “Ellie and Pickles, over there. I’ll be at the end. Briz and Leaper, on the other side. Concentrate your fire when I give the order. Kill it fast and be ready to move out.”

We shall stay out of the way, Brutus declared. Cain hoped they would.

The group took their positions, hiding as well as possible. Pickles removed his skin suit and moved in front of a tree, out of the lines of fire, and disappeared.

Cain hefted the rocket launcher and put his blaster on the ground beside him.

The bot is slowing, Ascenti reported. It’s going around the open area and will be passing close behind Ellie.

“Damn,” Cain exclaimed. He jumped up and sprinted through the brush, making more noise than he wanted. He dove behind a bush, trying to slow his breathing. Cain could see where Ellie was, but if he fired, she would be caught in the blast. He waved at her to move, but she was looking the other way.

The bot’s boxy metal exterior had projections on top and a head on each side of its squarish body. Small wheels protruded from the bottom as it hovered above the brush, moving slowly forward. Ellie was taking aim. Cain set the rocket launcher down and reached for his blaster, but it was on the ground at his last position.

He pulled his other blaster from the left holster and shifted it to his right hand, carefully taking aim.

The buck crashed through the undergrowth and head-butted the bot, driving it into a tree and pinning it there. Ellie dove forward and rolled underneath it. On Heimdall, they’d discovered the bots were vulnerable from below. She fired repeatedly at point-blank range into the featureless metal of the box’s bottom. The protrusions on top sought targets, firing haphazardly over the two creatures that were too close to it.

The bot stopped firing. A tendril of smoke trailed from the holes blown from Ellie’s blaster. She rolled away, and the buck stepped back. The bot dropped to the ground and toppled over.

“One down, seven to go,” Cain remarked. “Thanks for your help. I don’t even know your name.”

I would not have been able to do that if I had my antlers, but I’m still angry with you aliens, he said.

“You sound like Brutus,” Cain deadpanned.

My name is Lach-leachen.

“Then thank you, Lach-leachen. We need to move, so they don’t surround us. Ascenti?”

They are on their way, Major Cain. One returned to the ship, and six are coming across a broad front.

“Set up in there!” Cain yelled, pointing to the area he’d previously designated as the kill zone. Ellie hesitated for a moment before finding a spot from which she could hide and fire. Pickles adjusted so he was facing out instead of in. Leaper moved to the north end of the small area, wedging himself between two trees where he had the best field of fire.

The bots were coming from the north, so Stinky was set up to face the brunt of the attack. Briz was on the right, hunched below the crest of a low berm. Cain jogged across the opening to the Rabbit. “Briz. You take the back end.” He pointed to the place where there was the least chance of action.

Briz didn’t acknowledge Cain since he was communing with Jolly. Cain hoped they were brainstorming a technical solution.

The first three will breach the clearing in a few seconds, Ascenti reported.

Major Cain kneeled in a position to fire at the enemy, blocking Briz with his body. They were far more exposed than Cain was comfortable with, but he had no choice at that point. The first bot appeared, then the second and they were followed by the third.

Two more are coming from the west, and one is traveling around the area. That one could come from anywhere, but not for a few minutes. Only the first three are an immediate threat. Cain hoisted the rocket launcher, making sure the Rabbit was below the back blast. He fired.

The rocket flew straight and true, striking the lead bot in the center of its boxy chest. The rocket was designed to penetrate and it did, blowing a great hole through the bot. The twisted metal was thrown back and between the other two bots.

A laser lashed out at the same time the Wolfoid’s lightning spear sent a bolt arcing across the metal body. He held his fire until the melted and warped metal crashed to the ground. A blaster fired on narrow beam at the third bot. It turned and its laser beam drew a line toward Ellie, bursting the tree she was hiding behind.

Cain fumbled to reload the rocket launcher. Ellie moved and fired, then moved and fired again. The lighting spear arced into the remaining bot. Cain launched the rocket and said goodbye to the third bot.

Ellie waved to show that she was all right before finding better cover. Stinky ducked where he was, close to three smoking former bots.

Is it just me or are these ones not as tough as the ones on Heimdall? Cain wondered over the mindlink while reloading his rocket launcher.

Briz looked up. “Another shuttle is inbound,” the Rabbit said matter-of-factly. “But Jolly and I have a plan.”

“And?” Cain asked, but was instantly distracted by the arrival of two more bots. They were on the far side, and Ellie was between him and them. He needed a different angle. He jumped up and ran to a new position. Lasers cut into the brush around him as he varied his speed and direction. Ellie and Stinky kept firing.

A broad flame painted the trees when Pickles finally fired his blaster. It was on the wide setting and did nothing to the bots. They returned fire from the weapons at the top of their boxy bodies. Stinky dove to the side and rolled across the ground.

Cain had no time to wonder if the Lizard Man had been hit. He aimed and fired, but the rocket skipped past the bot. Cain threw his weapon down and pulled his one blaster. The other was on the ground somewhere—too many things tearing his attention away from the basics.

Like, don’t lose your weapon.

He fired using the narrow beam and held it steady as the line danced around the center of the bot’s chest. Ellie’s beam joined his, destroying the enemy.

Stinky and the second bot were locked in a back and forth. One fired and then the other. The bot was moving and firing, keeping the lightning from locking on.

It fired back, and the Wolfoid dodged.

Ellie tried to hit the bottom of it with a shot from her blaster, but she missed. She kept firing, but its erratic movements threw everyone’s aim off.

A rocket screamed across the open area, striking the bot in the side and exploding it. Ellie stood. She was much closer and hadn’t been able to hit the bot cleanly. Cain waved and smiled, noting that the Lizard Man was up and brushing himself off.

Ascenti? Cain asked over the mindlink.

The last one has turned and is heading back to the shuttle.

“Come on!” Cain yelled and grabbed his rocket launcher, running through the open area. The others fell in behind him. He realized he was still down one pistol.

And a Rabbit. Briz had stayed behind. They were four, and without ‘cats.

The last two have gone into their shuttle. They are powering it up.

Cain forged recklessly ahead. As soon as he spotted the shuttle, he braced the rocket launcher and yelled to clear the backblast area. The rocket screamed from the launcher and hit the shuttle, penetrating the exterior and disappearing without exploding.

“What happened?” he asked no one in particular. He loaded another round, his last one, but hesitated. “Another shuttle is inbound.”

Maybe he could shoot it down with his last rocket. “Light it up with all you got!” He leaned the rocket launcher against a tree to join the others as they poured their limited fire into the shuttle. It lifted off but started wobbling immediately, then shook and gyrated until it started to come apart. A massive explosion ripped the ship asunder, sending flaming pieces in all directions.

But the landing area was clear for the second shuttle, and the ship slowed to descend. Cain picked up his rocket launcher. He failed to slow his breathing but pulled the trigger when he achieved a solid lock, and the rocket headed toward the target.

The shuttle vaulted vertically, allowing the missile to race harmlessly beneath it.

Cain dropped the rocket launcher. “We can’t let them get off that ship. We’d run our weapons dry before we can kill them all if they’re able to spread out.”

Wait one, Briz told them all over the mindlink. Watch out, Ascenti.

The Hawkoid screeched and dove toward the ground. The shuttle they’d used to land on Q-475 raced overhead. The engines roared until they ran out of juice, not recharged enough for extended flight. On a ballistic trajectory, it arced down into the alien shuttle. The remaining systems combined with the enemy’s to produce a spectacular mushroom cloud.

“I hope nothing survived that,” Cain said.

Ascenti flew wide and circled beneath the cloud that continued to billow toward the sky.

Both ships have been completely destroyed, Ascenti reported.

Cain hugged his wife, but she remained tense. “What if they send another shuttle? Looks to me like we’re fresh out of weapons.”

“We have explosives,” Stinky suggested, grimacing when he saw that his lightning spear was almost empty.

Lach-leachen appeared, carrying the four ‘cats. You lived up to your word. You fought the intruders.

“And now I’d love to tell you that we’ll leave you alone, but we lost our ride.” Cain pointed to the scorched and burning metal, the destroyed trees, and the scarred ground. “We did a number on your planet, too. It’ll take us forever to remediate this, but it looks like we may have some time.”

Cain looked at the ground, the thrill of victory already far behind him as he thought about the grim future that awaited.

Briz hopped up. “Let’s take a look. Maybe there’s something we’ll be able to learn from them.”

“We should probably find a place we can defend when they send more bots down here.”

“Didn’t I tell you? The alien ship left the system immediately after the second shuttle launched.”

“Easy as that? So we won?”

“Looks like it. Chalk another one up for Major Cain.” Ellie kissed him on the cheek.

“It doesn’t feel like we won. It feels like we’re abandoned on the planet with the locals who want to punish us for being here. No disrespect intended, Lach. Maybe it’s best if we don’t land on any more planets.”

BA interrupted. “That’s it? That’s how you’re going to end your story? No supernova as your ship stuffed a fifty megaton nuke up some bot’s ass?”

“No. We figured they hadn’t realized we were on the planet. They were dropping off a group to expand their beachhead in our galaxy. That means we’ll probably be fighting bots everywhere we go. I hate those things.”

Bethany Anne paused for a moment before shrugging. “That’s a start. Maybe you’ll start saying fuck, and you’ll have to trust me that it’ll make everything better.”

“I’m not so sure about that.”

BA turned serious. “As long as you keep beating them in battle, no matter what the cost, you’ll win in the end. Sounds like you know what you’re doing out there.” She waved a hand indiscriminately toward the door. “But you don’t know how to spin a good bar story. Sit back and start taking notes.”

Humans. We clearly need more ‘cats in the universe to keep the breed from getting out of control, Brutus said, eyes closed as he assumed his best sphinx pose. Cain finally upended his beer and drained it.

“I really like that little sonofabitch,” BA remarked, winking at the scarred orange cat lounging in the middle of the table. But it will be a cold day in hell when cats tell me what to do, she sent Brutus.


Interlude

Floribeth reached out to rub the cat’s head. Brutus closed his eyes and looked pleased with himself.

BOB hadn’t realized that the cat was sentient. Certainly, the Collector had, or it wouldn’t have allowed it through the entrance as it had the creature Splurt during the last collection mission. But BOB was programmed to be thorough, and its circuits twinged with dissonant feedback. At least the array of scanners were designed for any contingency and were autonomous.

Kelsey took advantage of the pause to raise a hand and ask, “How about another round of nachos, BOB?”

BOB did not consume organics, but it had observed a vast array of food throughout the multiverse. “Nachos” were not the farthest from the median consumable, but the bright yellow cheese spread—a synthetic creation, not qualifying as real cheese, according to its databanks—did give the dish a garish appearance. Still, the humans seemed to relish it. BOB turned back to the bar to synthesize some more, its attention still on the humans. It didn’t like leaving them alone at this juncture. If they didn’t proceed on their own, it needed to be there to give them another nudge.

“Good call on the nachos,” Charline remarked. “Nothing like salty food to build up thirst.”

“You can never go wrong with nachos and booze,” Kelsey agreed with a grin.

“I shall take your nachos back to Cygnus, where I won’t be remembered for forming the Cygnus Marines but for introducing nachos. Yes, BOB, more, please! And tuna for the ‘cat,” Cain shouted.

Rika eyed the others, an arm placed next to her plate of nachos, silently daring anyone to steal one of hers—which Amanda did. Rika gave her a shocked look. In reply, Amanda gave her a melodramatic hurt expression, putting her fingers on her chest and winking as she popped the chip into her mouth.

“Okay.” Rika gave Amanda a small nod. “Only because you know Tanis.”

Amanda gave her a crumb-covered smile in return.

“Your bar food, your story now, Kelsey.” BA motioned. “Still thinking about requesting a five-layer chocolate cake.”

The rest of the humans raised their glasses in agreement. Artur burped loudly and pulled a face at the cat, then got stuck into another nacho.


The Goddess of Retribution by Terry Mixon

Kelsey looked around the table at her fellow...prisoners didn’t seem like the right word. Unexpected companions? Fortuitous drinking partners?

“That was a pretty good story,” she admitted.

Cain tipped his empty mug toward his fellow warrior in appreciation.

“Me arse it was,” growled Artur, bursting Cain’s bubble.

BA chuckled. “Don’t mind him. There is no filter between his ass and his mouth.”

Artur flipped her off.

Kelsey took a slow drought of the damned fine beer the serving android—if that was really what it was—had given her. With Imperial technology being what it was, she’d bet her friend Carl Owlet could figure out something like that.

Maybe he could reverse-engineer this beer, too. The Marines would thank her.

“It just so happens that I ran into an odd situation just a few days ago that’s a perfect sea story. Have any of you ever been deified, as in, made into a goddess? Or god, if you prefer. I have.”

“Yes, it’s annoying as . . .” Bethany Anne said as she winked across the table, “fuck!” She half-shrugged an apology. “It’s the perfect word.”

“No, but I’ve met a few,” Amanda muttered.

“My employer isn’t a goddess per se, but she could give most of them a run for their money,” Rika added.

“I have a dragon acquaintance who believes he’s a god,” Ridge said. “I can’t say that anyone has tried to make me one. Being a general is bad enough. Can you imagine the paperwork involved in...godhood? Admittedly, a dragon god could simply incinerate paperwork.” He sighed wistfully.

“Let me guess: you landed your spaceship on an alien footpath and somebody worshipped the walk you grounded on?” Charline chuckled.

“Oooh, sick burn, Blondie,” Amanda added.

“It’s true,” Kelsey insisted after another drink. “Not in a metaphysical sort of way, but you know what they say: any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Hell, Imperial tech seems like magic to me, and I’ve lived with it for years now. I can only begin to imagine how it looked to the people on Razor.

“The people there had fallen back to a medieval sort of existence after they escaped the fall of the old Terran Empire. I haven’t got the slightest idea how their ancestors ended up in the ass-end of nowhere, but we discovered them while we were sneaking toward Terra.

Kelsey’s lips curled into a smile. “Razor was a beautiful place. Untouched and very much like Terra before the rogue AIs blasted it back to the Stone Age.”

She shook herself slightly. “Anyway, we knew right away that they weren’t going to be helpful in our fight against the AIs, but Razor was a good place to stop while we sent probes through the flip points ahead of us.

“Talbot—he’s my husband and an Imperial Marine colonel—took a pinnace down with some Marines to look around. Basically, they were babysitting some scientists as they used drones to find out what they could in the few hours they had before we moved out.

“Nothing too close to the cities. We didn’t want to make any kind of contact. We didn’t have time to waste explaining things to the locals. With luck, the New Terran Empire could send someone back at some point and find out how they got there.”

“Your nachos,” BOB announced, bringing the second helping of the dish and setting it on the table.

“Thank you, BOB,” Kelsey said appreciatively.

“Ah, nicely done, ye big robot-faced bastard.” Artur sneered. At first, BOB had thought Artur’s language and tone were intended to be insulting. Now, though, he was starting to suspect they were almost a form of affection.

“That does it. If we’re going to be eating, I’m requesting a nice five-layer chocolate cake slice, if you can?” Bethany Anne interjected. “I’ll use the sugar high on Michael when I get back.”

“I’ll go for a slice of vanilla cheesecake myself. New York style, if that’s okay, BOB?” Amanda requested.

“Certainly,” BOB answered. “I’ll procure them momentarily.”

“I loike coming here. ‘E talks all proper-like,” Amanda said in what Kelsey suspected was a working- or lower-class accent.

Kelsey scooped a pile of chili, cheese, and jalapeños onto a chip and stuffed it into her mouth. It was spicy and hot, just the way she liked it. Another long drink of beer chased it down.

“This is great, BOB. I want the chili recipe,” Kelsey called to BOB’s back as it retreated to the bar. “Where was I? Right…I had plenty of things to do on my ship, Persephone, but I felt like stretching my legs. While I’m sure Talbot would rather I stayed up in orbit, there are a few benefits to being the heir to the Imperial throne, so I went.

“The planet was almost completely untouched. It looked as if the people had landed in one place and spread out from there. Five hundred years had let them grow as a society, but we guessed they still had less than ten million people on the whole damned planet. They probably came from a single ship’s crew. Plenty of room for them to spread out and develop.

“Once we’d landed and Talbot had his Marines formed up into a perimeter, some of the scientists came out to take samples of the vegetation. Talbot was busy, so I didn’t bother to tell him I was taking a look too.

“I did tell the other Marines, but they knew I could take care of myself. I wonder if they expected I’d find as much trouble as I did? Or in such a short period of time.”

“Sounds like you have as much luck with your plans working out as I do. I’m glad it’s not just a Marine thing. How did you respond?” Cain asked while building a nacho mountain to shove into his mouth.

“About like you’d expect,” Kelsey admitted with a sigh. “My life is filled with dealing with the consequences of me not planning things out. Maybe one day I’ll learn.

“Anyway, given the low population density in the area, I felt pretty safe from unintentional observation, but it is always good to be careful. Pro tip: when you feel like you’re the empress of the universe and go waltzing somewhere with your eyes shut, bad things will eventually happen.

“I found a hill with a decent view of the city in the distance. It wasn’t much to look at, but I wasn’t much of a tourist either. The area around me showed signs of human activity. Someone had cut down a number of trees a few years back, based on the condition of the stumps—not enough to ruin the wilderness feel, but more than enough to thin the canopy and allow me to find a nice seat.

“I’d barely settled in to drink in the sights when I heard a child screaming. It wasn’t close by, but my enhanced hearing is pretty acute when I want it to be. I normally have it dialed back because I’m not a snoop and even that has limits with too much input.

“That said, I can hone in pretty well on a single set of sounds at a distance. The woods weren’t noise-free, but the screaming was so different that I had no trouble isolating it.”

She paused to grab another few chips off her plate, stuff them into her mouth, and wash them down with that fabulous beer. She wiped the grease off her lips with her napkin and scanned the other occupants around the table.

“I haven’t had kids of my own, but I grew up with a twin brother. We were inseparable as kids, and I loved him. Things changed when we grew up, but that’s another story, and not a fun one.”

Kelsey used her sleeve to wipe her eye, then said, “Another pro tip: never use your napkin to wipe your eyes while eating anything with jalapeños.”

Rika snorted a laugh. “I have to be careful not to slice my face up.”

“Ouch.” Kelsey nodded toward the cyborg woman and shook her head before taking another drink of the terrific beer.

“The smart thing to do would’ve been to use my implants to co-opt one of the drones and scout the area, call for backup, and move in cautiously. Naturally, I hauled ass through the undergrowth toward the screams without wasting a moment on thinking things through.

“Thankfully, my combat enhancements make me fast, and my cranial implants are excellent at sorting out details like upcoming terrain and potential obstacles before I run into them—occasionally literally.”

Her face turned grim. “I came out of the brush at a dead run and spotted a group of children near a patch of ground with berry plants of some kind planted in rows. There was a man dressed in dark robes there with maybe a dozen kids ranging from eight to twelve, boys and girls, evenly split. He was holding one boy up by his arm and beating him with a stick.

“I’m not talking spanking here. I mean striking him all up and down his back and legs with a rod the thickness of my thumb.”

“Aaah, yes, a feckin’ dick, I think they’re known as,” Amanda commented.

“Got it in one,” Kelsey agreed.

“I didn’t even consider yelling at him to stop or using my stunner. Wouldn’t have been a clean shot anyway. But I was seeing red.

“He was so focused on beating the boy that he never saw me coming. I shoved him hard enough to send him ass over tea kettle as I pulled the boy loose.”

“I’ve come close to pulling my boy loose a few times, if ye know what I’m sayin’?” said Artur, grinning up at the others. He quickly realized he might have misjudged the moment and shrugged. “Ah, feck ye, then.”

“Only close?” Kelsey asked with a hint of deviltry in her eyes. “Maybe one day you’ll find the right lady and get to haul your boy out for her.”

“Only if size is measured in picometers.” BA pulled her drink in front of her. “Maybe I should switch to Coke.”

Kelsey laughed, then sobered and gave her listeners a cold smile. “Needless to say, my appearance brought everything to a screeching halt and focused all the attention on me. The guy was pissed and jumped to his feet pretty quick in spite of the hard landing.

“Who are you to lay hands on a priest of the Eternal One?” he demanded while looking around, probably for the rod he’d dropped.

“His entitled tone pissed me off even more than I had been before. I put my hands on my hips and glared at him. Probably not that intimidating, I know, but it was what I had.

“I won’t allow you to harm that boy,” I told him, making my voice as stern as I could.

“At that point, the guy reached into his pocket for what I assumed had to be a weapon, so I jumped him and yanked his arm up. Turns out it wasn’t a weapon at all, just a whistle.

“I was still giving it a look when the guy slammed his fist into my gut. Guess I should’ve been watching him more closely. He might have had a real weapon stashed on him somewhere.

“As it was, he found out firsthand—get that? Hand!—how tough graphene-coated bones and artificial muscle woven into real muscle could be. Oh, the punch still hurt, but Marine Raiders are built to take a literal beating.”

“A princess and a Marine as well. Wow, impressive,” Amanda commented.

“And a goddess too, don’t forget,” Charline added. “Although we’re still waiting to hear about that part!”

“Trust me when I say that I was never meant to be a warrior,” Kelsey replied. “At least, I’d have never guessed that about myself. The Marine part came after the hardware.

“A Marine Raider is just about the most artificially enhanced human fighter possible. I carry tech long lost to our people until the AIs captured me and implanted it against my will—without anesthesia.”

Kelsey shuddered at the memory. “They cut me open and put it in while I lay there screaming. It’s been four years, and I still wake up from horrible nightmares almost every night. I absolutely wouldn’t wish that on anyone.”

Rika nodded and held up an arm. “I was awake when they cut mine off as well. Sounds like you and I aren’t so different. You just don’t have the interchangeable parts.”

“Very unfun,” Kelsey agreed. “And yep, I’m stuck with what I have. We don’t have the tech to reverse it without killing me. At this point, I’m used to it.

“Anyway, the man’s punch didn’t even make me grunt, and I suspect from his howling that he broke some knuckles. Another pro tip: don’t punch hard things with your fist. Use the side or heel of your hand.”

She broke her story to shovel more nachos into her mouth and take a deep drink of her beer, waving the empty stein at BOB. “Can I get another? This is great. What’s the brand name, and what planet did it come from again? I need to get some for later. Maybe order some to go when this bull session is over.”

“That is a Wissent Lager,” BOB informed her. “From Nadzieja.”

“It’s amazing. Thanks!”

Turning back to her audience, Kelsey resumed her story. “As you can tell, I’m a little thing, so even with my protection, his hit moved me. It stung, but that was it. Didn’t even trigger my pharmacology unit to dump painkillers into my system. The medical nanites would have handled the issue anyway.”

She shook her head. “My idea of what an injury is sure has changed in the last few years. Anyway, I let him go and gave him another shove.

“Not so fun when you get hurt, is it?” I demanded of him. “Surprise. I’m not someone you can beat with impunity, and neither are these children.”

“You have no authority over me.” The man sneered from where he lay. “Give me back my whistle and I’ll show you the error of your ways.”

She grinned at the others around the table. “That man had a real talent for saying exactly the wrong thing. I took a moment to examine the whistle and laughed at him.

“You’re a fool if you think authority equals control. I’m going to make sure this kind of thing stops once and for all.”

Kelsey paused to rub her eyes. “My husband complains that I’m far too impulsive for my own good, and just between us, he’s right. I brought the whistle to my lips and blew.”

“Ballsy,” Amanda exclaimed. Cain nodded vigorously and pointed at Amanda.

“Yeah, I have impulse control issues. So, more of the priests came running from every direction. Dozens of them. More than I’d expected, really. The original one wasted no time telling them how I’d attacked him while he was ‘disciplining’ the boy.

“It didn’t take the priests long to organize. A tall man built more like a warrior than a clergyman stepped up to glare at me.”

“Who dares challenge the rights of the holy order and attack a priest of the Eternal One?” he demanded.

“Kelsey Bandar,” I told him defiantly. “This behavior is intolerable, and it will stop now.”

She laughed. “You’d think I’d mooned them, the way they all drew back. My guess is that they didn’t get stood up to very often.

“By then, we’d drawn a crowd of other adults, possibly lay brothers of their order or maybe visitors from the city. I didn’t ask. All of them stood around taking the confrontation in, so I knew there would be no going back.”

“I stepped over and picked up the first priest’s rod. As much as possible, I wanted to keep this confrontation low-key—as if a little woman like me whipping the asses of a few dozen men was all that subtle.”

Bethany Anne snickered. “You said ‘rod.’” She shook her head at her own joke before lifting her drink. “BOB? Coke, please.”

“Right?” Kelsey gave them a lopsided grin. “Still, what’s a girl to do? With a fight just about inevitable, I tagged my pharmacology unit and had it dump Panther into my system.

“That’s a pair of drugs designed for combat. They speed up the transmission rate on my nerves and also my brain’s ability to process things. Basically, the world seems to slow down in my perception and I have a lot more time to consider things, even in the middle of a fight.

“So far as everyone else can tell, I’m uncannily faster and have no hesitation in decision making. I’m not really all that much faster, but in conjunction with my implants handling target selection and tagging threats around me, I can handle myself well enough.”

“What-plants?” Ridge muttered to himself, appearing puzzled.

Bethany Anne tapped her head. “Technology in her body.”

“Exactly,” Kelsey confirmed. “Among other things, I have a computer in my head I can offload tactical tasks to while I focus on the action.”

“She’s pretty much just like me,” Rika explained. “Just with more skin.”

Ridge nodded in understanding. “Got it.”

“You seem like you can handle yourself,” Cain complimented before pointing at the plate in front of her. “Are you going to eat those?”

Kelsey silently pulled the plate of nachos a little closer and smiled wolfishly. She took a few moments to down some and reluctantly pushed the plate toward Cain.

“The fight started right then, without any more talking. The lead priest shouted something and they all produced those rods from under their robes, then they rushed me. Not very sporting, but bullies usually aren’t.

“It was like one of those martial arts movies from Old Terra—people coming from every direction and striking where they could. With my increased speed and physical enhancements I flowed between them like water, striking at their weapon hands where I could.

“With the strength in my legs, I could even vault over people’s heads or toss them a dozen meters away. Definitely far beyond human normal. That helped a lot since there were a couple of dozen of them trying to jump me.”

Kelsey winced a little and rubbed her side. “That isn’t to say that I escaped without getting hit. A few shots got through, and they hurt. My ribs were up to it and didn’t break because of the Graphene coating, but the hits left some awesome bruises.

“Then one of them managed to tag me in the back of the head with a full-power strike. If I’d been unenhanced, it would’ve probably killed me. As it was, it rang my bell good. I went down for a second and only my implants saved me, allowing me to roll away from the follow-up strikes.

“As much as I hated to do it, I really didn’t have a choice. I pulled my stunner and dropped the closest man as he was about to bring his rod down on my head again. He went down, and was going have a bitch of a headache in about four hours.

“No one missed the beam. How could they? It was a bright blue, and designed to be as visible as possible. They all backed up and stared at me as I got to my feet.”

“It’s true,” the lead priest exclaimed.

“He dropped his rod and threw himself to the ground. To my shock, the rest of them followed his lead, even the kids. I was now the only one standing in the clearing. That was not what I’d been expecting, but I wasn’t going to let it go to waste.

“Beating children—beating anyone—is not acceptable,” I told them. “I expect you to correct your behavior. Is that clear?”

“It shall be as you command, Holy One,” the priest agreed, not raising his head from the ground.

“I blinked at him, more than a little surprised—not that it was hard to figure out. I’d acted in what had to look like a supernatural way. Now I just had to figure out how to make my orders stick when I never came back.”

“Do not ignore my order or you will deeply regret it,” I told him. “In fact, let me make sure you remember I was here.

“I used my stunner on all the priests and walked back into the woods with as much slow dignity as I could manage, then I hauled ass. I needed to get the hell out of there before someone got the word out. I couldn’t let them see me again, or it would ruin the effect.

“It took me about half an hour to get back to the landing zone and inside the marine perimeter. The scientists were just starting to pack up and re-board the pinnace.”

She finished the rest of her beer with satisfaction and set the glass on the table. “Talbot was so busy that I don’t think he’d even noticed that I’d left. I had a moment where I thought I’d get away without anyone noticing anything out of the ordinary.”

Kelsey grinned lopsidedly. “Then one of the scientists monitoring a drone grunted and gestured for us to come over. Said something was going on in town.”

“Like what?” my husband demanded.

“Not sure. Word is there was a visitation by a goddess at the temple of the Eternal One, whatever that is. The goddess of vengeance, if you can believe it.”

Kelsey shrugged. “I’m pretty sure I shrank a little at that. The last thing I wanted was to have my part in that little play revealed.”

“Eternal One?” I asked the scientist. “Who or what is that?”

“The Emperor,” the man clarified. “It looks like they deified the memory of Emperor Marcus from before the Fall and created a religion enshrining his return—only now it looks as if he is getting a daughter to go alongside Lucien, the emperor’s real son. Talk is that the church erred in some way and drew the wrath of the goddess down upon them. It’s really gotten people into an uproar.”

Kelsey waved to BOB for another beer. “As the better part of valor, I suggested that we get out of there. Needless to say, it was a surprise to my husband and anyone else who knew me, and we lifted off a few minutes later.”

Kelsey leaned back in her chair and grinned at the others. “Talbot never did figure out what had happened. My medical nanites healed the bruises before he had a chance to see them since we were busy for a few days and I was careful.

“And even though no one else knows—and I’m more than happy to keep it that way—I’m the Goddess of Vengeance in one little corner of the Empire.”


Interlude

“No one should be allowed to pick on those smaller or weaker,” Floribeth stated in a tone that made it clear she had been victimized in the past. “I’m glad you beat the crap out of them.”

“Yeah, people like that piss me off something fierce, thinking they’re the big I Am and imposing their own beliefs on others. Glad you took them down a peg or three,” Amanda added.

“I wish I knew if it took,” Kelsey admitted. “For all I know, my intervention didn’t change a damned thing. Or it might have altered the course of that world. Maybe I’ll get a chance to go back someday.”

“Sometimes it’s enough to make whatever difference we can when we can. The impact is often a lot more than we think,” Charline commented.

BOB returned to the table with two plates, placed the one with the chocolate cake on it in front of Bethany Anne, and the one with the cheesecake on it before Amanda.

“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” Bethany Anne said as she picked up her fork.

“That looks heavenly,” Amanda added, echoing Bethany Anne’s comment but looking at her own plate. “Thanks, BOB.”

BOB was continually amazed by the wide array of religious beliefs across the Multiverse. Only a handful of sentient beings had no concept of supreme beings or an afterlife of some sort. What it hadn’t known from its files was that one of the mission subjects was a god, but that was what Kelsey Bandar seemed to have just related.

BOB ran its full scanner array again on the human, but while she had modifications, such as her bones being sheathed in graphene, artificial muscle tissue interwoven into her natural musculature, and a computer wired into her brain, there was nothing unexplained or of a metaphysical nature in her. It had to check its logic circuits again to make sure it understood what the human had said. Yes, Kelsey had said she was “the goddess of vengeance,” albeit only in one small location of the Empire.

BOB was confused, but that wasn’t important. It only gathered the data, it didn’t analyze or understand it.

Humans and other sentient beings had their own gods and their own beliefs. BOB, however, did not need religion. BOB had the Collector, the one who had created it and now controlled it and gave it purpose. BOB only existed to serve the Collector and had no business attempting to understand its unfathomable powers and purpose.

No, leave “gods” to the humans.


Ladies’ Night By Lindsay Buroker

Ridge sipped from his mug, pleased that the dark brown liquid tasted identical to the Gold Dragon stout his favorite brewer made. He wasn’t sure how that was possible, nor had Jaxi’s explanation been overly enlightening, but he was positive these people weren’t Cofah, so he didn’t mind sitting here with them. Especially since Sardelle was just the teensiest bit crabby of late.

Don’t tell her I said that, Ridge thought, certain Jaxi, Sardelle’s sentient soulblade, was monitoring his thoughts.

Who, me? I’m too busy glaring at that telepathic cat over there. Its fur is getting all over the table. How uncouth. As to Sardelle not being at her most chipper, I’m well aware. Why do you think I asked to come along for what I assumed would be a boring and menial task?

“So what’s your story, flyboy?” Floribeth asked, poking Ridge.

“Fly-what?” Ridge drew his attention back to the table, realizing all sets of eyes had turned toward him.

“Your clothing—it gives you away somewhat,” Amanda explained around a mouthful of cheesecake. “Mmm, I might die and go to heaven eating this,” she added, talking to herself.

“You said you’re a pilot, right? Like me.” Floribeth raised her eyebrows with her question.

“That’s right. At least, I was until I let them saddle me with this promotion. Now I oversee the flier battalion. The best I can do most days now is make paper fliers out of the excess—and excessive—paperwork I get and sail them across my office. Fortunately, the private who cleans out my trash bin doesn’t comment on my meager origami skills.”

“Paperwork.” Bethany Anne made a face, “The bane of all civilizations. Better you than me.” She accepted a Coke from BOB with a smile and a nod of thanks.

“Paper?” Rika asked with a slight scowl. “A moment later, her eyes widened and she nodded. “Never mind, I looked it up. Plas made from trees. Weird.”

“I love flying,” Floribeth continued. “Nothing more peaceful than taking my Tala out past the Noramatzu Belt and admiring the stars.”

Ridge had no idea what the Noramatzu Belt was, but he did love the feel of the wind in his face, the salty sea breeze whipping at his scarf, and the blanket of stars overhead, almost close enough to touch.

Jaxi snickered in his mind.

What?

She’s talking about flying through outer space. In a spaceship.

Ridge scratched his jaw. Do you need a closed cockpit for that?

I believe it’s advised, yes.

Aware of his unasked-for audience starting to mutter and fidget impatiently, Ridge opened his mental filing cabinet of stories. His first thought was to share one of his hundreds of air battles since those were the tales of death-defying adventure the privates always craved, but would they bore people who rode between the stars the way he rode a horse into town?

You should probably go with a love story, Jax advised. Those are timeless.

In this group? Ridge eyed the hardened warriors. Maybe…uh, these look like people who’ve endured a lot in battle. How about I share the time I was shot down and escaped a Cofah warship to make it home disguised as a—

Boring.

What? Why?

I’m not in it. You hadn’t met me then.

That makes it tragic, not boring.

If you say so, hero.

Ridge spread his hands, smiling easily at the group. He decided he would tell the story and not worry about the audience. Everyone else’s tales had seemed a touch on the tall side so his would fit in, even if it was the absolute truth.

“Let’s see, this was about five years ago, before dragons returned to the world. Before I met Sardelle—she’s my wife now—” Ridge held up his pickle jar as if that would explain everything, “and when I was still a colonel and actually got to lead missions. Intel had gotten wind of pirates harrying our northern coast. Some bloated airship lobbing cannonballs into the small villages to keep people in hiding, then dropping raiding parties to pillage. General Ort sent me up with half of Wolf Squadron—eight fliers in all. It seemed plenty to deal with a few pirates.

“When we got there, we were in the midst of routing that airship when three big ironclads surprised us. Cofah ironclads.”

Ridge looked around the table and saw a lot of blank stares. “You familiar with the Cofah? They’ve got those shaven heads and wear furs over their uniforms even in the summer. They’ve always got dyspeptic expressions like they’re trying to digest cannonballs. Or maybe excrete them afterward. You’d know ‘em if you met them.

“They sound delightful,” Amanda commented, deadpan.

“They sound like PITAs of the worst order.” Bethany Anne smiled. “But I love the comment ‘dyspeptic expressions like they’re trying to digest cannonballs.’ That shit is priceless!”

“You couldn’t ask for a better enemy. Anyway, while we were dealing with the pirate airship, the Cofah ironclads steamed out of the fjords where they’d been skulking about lying in wait for us. They were in the middle of the skirmish before we quite knew what was going on, and they weren’t just firing cannons. They had a bunch of those shell guns of theirs. You know them? Like cannonballs that explode. They had so many of them firing from their decks that it was like darting between the fangs of a dragon while it’s breathing fire.

“I ordered my squadron to back out of their range long enough to regroup and send someone to get reinforcements, but then we spotted one of their notorious admirals out on the deck of the ship. He was just crossing his arms and watching with his best cannonball-digesting expression. One of my lieutenants, having learned his wisdom from me, decided he’d be a hero and take what was likely the mission commander out of the equation.

“I was a little exasperated, but I was proud too, I admit. He was taking after me. Sometimes, it’s worth risking your life to protect your country, and even though I’d ordered him to leave, I knew if it had been me, I would have taken the initiative too.

“I couldn’t let him go in alone, so I tried to cover him while he strafed the deck, raining machine gun fire down like hail. I took out a couple of the gunners who were swinging their weapons around to aim at my lieutenant, but that only pissed off the Cofah. Every gunner on those three ships opened up on me.

“We stayed as low to their decks as we could, hoping they wouldn’t risk blowing up their own ships. Dog Breath—my lieutenant—flew straight at the admiral. The man screamed like a little girl and leaped over the railing.

“Before I could feel triumphant, one of the nearby ships fired and a shell exploded right in front of the nose of my flier.

“They had to have taken out part of their own ship to get me, but it worked, damn it. My propeller shattered into a million pieces, and one of ‘em ricocheted off my wingtip and hit me in the head. Knocked me out or I would have figured a way out of there, but I didn’t even feel the crash. Guess that’s a blessing? You’d have to consult the seven gods, because I wasn’t sure.

“I woke up later, sometime after dark, in the cell of a ship stinking of old socks, perfume, and rotten wood. Yup, wood. It was a wooden sailing ship, which was puzzling, seeing as how I’d wrecked next door to an ironclad. But it was the perfume that puzzled me the most, and the fact that four women were staring down at me.

“Their faces were shadowed since there were only a couple of glass oil lamps mounted on posts, but I could tell they were young and pretty. They looked Iskandian too. We’ve got paler skin and more freckles than the Cofah.”

“‘Where am I?’ I croaked, hoping I’d somehow escaped the notice of the Cofah and a friendly Iskandian ship had plucked me up. I’m not too proud to mind being rescued by beautiful women.

“‘One of the hells,’ a girl of seventeen or eighteen announced, folding her arms over her chest.

“I raised my head as much as the splitting pain behind my eyes would allow and spotted rusty iron bars to one side and a Cofah soldier standing guard by a door, a shaggy bear fur fastened over his uniform. He glowered like a furnace as soon as I made eye contact, and that doused my hopes of having been rescued. But why were the Cofah taking Iskandian women as prisoners? And how had they gotten ashore to collect them? Hadn’t the rest of my squadron fought them off?

“Dread dropped a boulder in my stomach as I contemplated the unwelcome thought that the rest of my people were dead. But maybe these girls had seen something and could enlighten me.

“I lifted a hand to probe a lump at my temple. ‘So I see. Are you ladies prisoners too?’

“They exchanged looks and didn’t answer at first. I shifted my weight and tried to get a feel for my position.

“At least there weren’t any shackles around my wrists. Only the bars and the guard stood between me and freedom, or at least me and that door. I had no idea how far we’d sailed while I’d been knocked out.

“‘He’s handsome.’ One of the girls giggled. She was even younger than the first.

“The older one scowled at her. ‘Keep that out of your mind, Vara. He’s Iskandian. The enemy.’

“‘How do you figure?’ I asked, positive the ladies had Iskandian coloring. But once I considered it, they did have slight Cofah accents. I should point out that the Cofah speak the same language as we do, on account of them conquering us a few times over the millennia. The last time they stuck around long enough to impose their language on our whole continent, but their accent is rougher than wiping with sandpaper. Our accent is far superior, as you can hear.”

Ridge tapped his mouth, which resulted in eye rolls around the table. Well, at least nobody had fallen asleep yet.

“‘We’re all in the same cell, ladies,’ I added, waving at the bars. ‘That must mean we’re on the same side, right?’

“‘Only because that loathsome admiral is pus on a toadstool,’ the woman I’d started thinking of as the leader said. ‘If we’re going to help all of Cofahre, we each deserve a private cabin.’ She sniffed and glared at the guard.

“‘What’s your name? And why would you want to help Cofahre?’ I asked quietly, putting my back toward the guard. ‘Aren’t you Iskandian?’ I looked at all of them—the four women surrounding me and the four who were watching from spots huddled against the wall between bags that looked to be stuffed with clothing or supplies. I wondered if anything would be useful for escaping the cell.

“Several of the girls looked away, but the leader lifted her chin. ‘I’m Resni Masonwood, and we’re loyal to Cofahre because they came for us after our people abandoned us.’

“Masonwood? That was the king’s surname. Was she claiming to be some relative of his?

“‘After the wreck,’ Vara added. ‘When we were little. Our parents all died, and I don’t remember how it went all that well, but a Cofah ship came, and they took us back and raised us in an orphanage. They taught us that Iskandians don’t care about their own. If they had cared, they would have come.’

“‘What was the name of your ship?’ I asked. This was starting to sound familiar. I remembered news from a good ten years back about a yacht with several noble families aboard being lost in a storm. Our navy had gone out to search for it but had found only debris from a wreck.

“‘The Southern Gale,’ Vara said.

“‘Stop giving him so much information,’ Resni ordered. ‘He’s the enemy. One of those vile pilots who is always shooting down Cofah ships.’

“‘He can’t be that vile. He’s injured, and…’ Vara bit her lip, then whispered, ‘he’s pretty.’

I may gag, Jaxi announced.

Why? It’s not the first time my face has helped me out of a sticky situation.

How was that sticky? You were in a dungeon full of beautiful women. It’s every man’s fantasy.

Well, there was a guard watching.

So?

Kelsey rolled her eyes.

“I’d say handsome myself,” Amanda commented in the momentary lull. “And that’s nothing to gag over.”

“Cut an arm off and stick a gun on there and we’ll talk,” Rika added with a wink.

Ridge eyed the redhead curiously. Could she hear their thoughts?

“Now this really is a big fish story. Locked in a cell with a bunch of hot women? Isn’t that every flyboy’s daydream?” Charline asked, flashing a grin.

“And some flygirls’ dreams as well, no doubt,” Amanda added.

Bethany Anne took a sip of her Coke and pressed her fork into the last crumbs of her chocolate cake to get every last morsel. “I’ve known a few flygirls who wouldn’t mind that situation.”

Cain slid his chair far enough back to physically remove himself from the pretty-man conversation, but he liked the pilot’s coat and wanted to know how to get one.

“Before the girls could further debate my merits or demerits,” Ridge said, figuring he better get to the jailbreak, “voices came from the passageway, and the guard stepped aside. The Cofah admiral we’d been aiming at on the deck of the ironclad strode in. I was intensely disappointed to see him alive and well, if slightly damp.

“‘Time for them to infiltrate the Iskandians, sir?’ the guard asked.

“‘Not ‘til after midnight, when the dockhands will be snoring and we can leave our cargo without being questioned,’ the admiral told him. ‘Thought I’d take a few of them for entertainment first. Gets lonely on a ship full of men, especially when you know these lovelies are sailing alongside your ironclad.’ He shot the guard a narrow-eyed look. ‘I expect you and the captain have been enjoying their presence immensely.’

“I was surprised while this conversation was going on,” Ridge said, “that the admiral hadn’t even looked at me. Of course, I was sitting on the deck looking rather unthreatening. Then I realized my jacket had been torn off in the explosion—or by someone dragging me out of the water roughly—and got an inkling that he didn’t know he’d caught someone higher-ranking who knew a military secret or two. I didn’t look like a young LT, but I was moderately young for my rank.

“‘Uh, not that immensely, sir,’ the guard said while I was pondering things. ‘The captain told us the women are supposed to be on our side, helping us, and that we should—’

“‘They can help us just fine after they entertain me. Get those two out.’ He pointed at Vara and Resni.

“Even though I had my own problems to worry about, like how I was going to get off that ship and back to land—preferably without being tortured—I stood up. I had a bad feeling about where this was going. The guard drew a pistol and pointed it at me as he stepped toward the cell gate.

“‘Admiral,’ I said, flashing him a smile even though my head felt twice as bad now that I was on my feet, ‘I’m more than a little disappointed you don’t want me to entertain you tonight.’

“‘You’re uglier than a dog’s piss spot. Back up, Iskandian. We’ll question you when the night’s work is over—unless you want to be shot now? We can oblige.’

“The guard stirred, blinking a few times now that my face was close to the lantern light. ‘Sir, I think that’s Colonel Zirkander.’

“The admiral squinted at me. ‘So it is.’

“‘Does that make me any more entertaining?’ I asked.

‘Not the way they are. Private, get him out for me.’

“I wasn’t looking forward to the admiral’s attention, but at least I’d taken it from the girls. My mother would have clobbered me with a rolling pin if I’d let women be mauled in front of me.”

“Good on yeh!” Amanda nodded and smiled.

“The guard pulled me out and left the girls in the cell. I thought the admiral might drag me off to some interrogation room or officer’s cabin, and I hoped I’d see the layout of the ship and find some inspiring way to escape. Maybe I could free the girls, too, because it was sounding more and more like they’d been kidnapped by the Cofah and brainwashed into taking on whatever scheme they would be enacting. Infiltration, the guard had said.

“But they didn’t take me anywhere. The guard gripped my arms, yanking them behind my back, and held them there so the admiral could pummel me.

“I fought when I realized I wasn’t going to get my tour and managed to knock out a couple of my guard’s teeth using the back of my skull as a weapon. I planted a boot in the admiral’s thigh hard enough to leave a bruise. I was admittedly aiming for a more northerly target, but he shifted out of the way and they got me under control.

“The inevitable beating followed, with my stomach taking a lot of the heat. Either by the fortune of the gods or the admiral’s lack of creativity, I didn’t get pounded in the face. The ladies might have been less inclined to help me if it had been too swollen to qualify as pretty anymore.

“One of the crew called down, interrupting my beating before it grew too unbearable. ‘Admiral, we’re gliding into their port early, but don’t worry. They don’t suspect a thing. The stolen ship idea was brilliant. Are the girls ready?’

“‘They will be soon,’ he called back and jerked a thumb toward the cell. ‘Put the colonel back in and make sure he’s comfortable. We’ll question him on our way back to Cofahre in the morning. Got it?’”

“‘Comfortable. Yes, sir.’ The guard nearly wrenched my arms out of their sockets as he shoved me into the cell. He tried to kick me in the ass, too, but the girls scattered out of the way, so I had room to evade him.

“The gate clanged shut, leaving me feeling miserable and like I hadn’t handled that in the brightest way. What can I say? I fly and shoot things. There’s a reason my superiors don’t ask for much more.

“To my surprise, Resni Masonwood stepped forward. ‘Guard? We’ll need our bags with our clothes and makeup. If we’re to succeed in infiltrating Iskandia and finding noble gentlemen to spy on while we act as their lovers, we’ll need to look our best.’”

“The guard frowned in confusion. I wasn’t feeling that enlightened either.

“‘Aren’t those your bags there?’ He pointed toward the gear by the girls in the back.

“‘We were also sent with jewelry and makeup,’ Resni said. ‘I believe it’s in the captain’s cabin. Fetch it, please.’

“The guard looked like he meant to object, but she smiled and reached through the bars to touch his arm. He got that flustered and pleased look I’ve seen on my young lieutenants when girls flirt with them. ‘I’ll check,’ he mumbled, then left us alone in the brig.

“Resni turned to me. ‘You’re truly Colonel Zirkander?’

“I felt like dough pounded by an overly zealous baker, but I managed a nod. ‘Yes, my lady. Does that mean we’re greater enemies than we were ten minutes ago? You being sympathetic to the Cofah, it seems.’

“She hesitated. I found that promising.

“‘He took a beating for us,’ Vara blurted. ‘He’s a hero. We have to help him.’

“‘He does always sound dashing in the stories, even when the Cofah are cursing him.’ Resni sighed wistfully.”

Am I going to have to gag again? Jaxi asked.

I didn’t know you gagged the first time, Ridge replied silently. I thought that was just a threat.

Oh, no, I definitely gagged.

Is that hard to do without a mouth or a tongue?

No, I’m a soulblade. My talents are vast.

Bethany Anne spoke up in their minds. I have an AI who gives me shit like this all the time. My condolences.

Ridge continued with the story.

“‘If you can help me get off this ship when they drop you off,’ I said, ‘I’ll make sure you’re taken care of and taken back to the capital. You can spy if you want, but maybe you’d prefer to go to school or something? Or join the army. Ever thought of becoming a flier pilot? We have ladies in Wolf Squadron. Well, Blazer might not count as a lady. But she has woman parts.’”

“Now Vara was the one to look wistful. About becoming a pilot, I think, not Lieutenant Blazer’s lady parts.”

Kelsey shook her head mournfully.

“‘We’ll help you,’ Resni said. ‘I don’t know about the rest yet, but that was why I sent that thug away. We have our bags over here already. Our… instructor sent us with suitable clothing to attract men. Put some on.’”

“I blinked. ‘What?’”

“‘If we all go above decks together, maybe nobody will count too closely and notice there are nine of us instead of eight. You’ll have to hunch. You’re too tall. And we’ll have to knock the guard out or he’ll notice that his soggy pilot captive is missing.’ Resni plucked at my seaweed-draped uniform and clucked her tongue. I suddenly had no trouble imagining her being related to King Angulus.

“Two of the taller girls came forward holding up a dress and a shawl. I stared in horror, ready to object, but a clang came from the deck above. What did I have to lose? I was already a prisoner.”

“Now, this is starting to get interesting,” Kelsey drawled, waggling her eyebrows suggestively.

Ridge looked around the table. He was starting to rethink his decision to tell this particular story. He’d forgotten about the brief flirtation with women’s clothing it had required. Oh, well. These people had been drinking all night. They wouldn’t remember him or the story in the morning, except maybe for BOB. It was watching intently as if it were some bard memorizing details for a future song.

“This story sounds right up your street!” Amanda exclaimed to Artur with a smile.

“There’s nothin’ wrong with dressin’ comfortably,” Artur told her. “Or in my case, feckin’ fabulously.”

“Are you sure he’s not just a tiny robot?” Rika asked the redheaded woman.

“Pretty sure,” Amanda replied quietly.

“I’ll feckin’ ‘robot’ ye!” Artur snapped.

“I could hear someone coming,” Ridge continued his story, “so I dressed faster than I ever had before. And more ineptly. Three girls had to help me with the buttons. I lost six chest hairs in the process, although the wounds I’d gotten in the crash caused more pain as I grunted and twisted and struggled to put on the dress, a shawl, and a bonnet that didn’t do as much to hide my masculine eyebrows as one might hope.”

Who told you that your eyebrows are masculine? Jaxi asked.

Well, they’re not plucked and pleasingly shaped like Sardelle’s are, Ridge thought.

You’re not supposed to know she does those things to achieve appealing eyebrow hair.

I won’t tell her.

“As I was debating what to do with my giant feet—they’re even more masculine than my eyebrows—a thump sounded on the stairs. The guard coming back. My change of clothing hadn’t done anything to help with the locked gate, so I couldn’t just spring out and attack him. I found a shadowy spot next to the bars and hoped for the best.

“‘The captain said all your things are down here already,’ the guard stated, glowering in the girls’ direction as he stomped in. ‘Grab those bags and get over here. Felks is coming to help escort you to your new—’

“That was when he noticed me. I was hunching so as not to appear tall and had the bonnet pulled over my eyes, but he squinted suspiciously and leaned in for a closer look. Just close enough. As I lifted my face so he could see under the bonnet, I snaked my hand between the bars to grab the back of his neck. He lurched back, but not quite quick enough. I took out some of my aggression from the earlier beating as I yanked him in and smashed his forehead against the bars. Several times. His eyes rolled back in his head like marbles and he collapsed, but not before I snagged the keys off his belt.”

“‘That was unladylike,’ Resni observed.

“‘You don’t approve?’ I asked, fumbling to find the right key for the lock.

“‘I approve just fine, but you may have to be less violent to get past the admiral. We were taught to be meek.’

“‘You can’t be meek if you’re going to be a pilot.” I found the right key and eased the gate open.

“‘Was that a real offer?’ Resni sounded genuinely intrigued.

“‘Absolutely. Flying is much better than being some snooty noble’s plaything.’

“She snorted. ‘You speak from experience, do you?’

“‘As a matter of fact…’ Another clang sounded as a hatch opened at the top of the stairs. ‘I’ll expound later. This must be Felks. Let’s hurry up to meet him, eh?’

“I eyed the downed guard but there was no place to hide him, so I waved for the girls to hurry up the stairs, hoping our escort wouldn’t think it odd that the guard had already released us. Resni grabbed her bag of belongings and strode up the stairs with two other girls right behind her. Bless them for catching on quickly.

“‘Uh,’ came a man’s voice from above.

“‘We’re ready to meet our destinies,’ Resni announced.

“Felks must have shrugged and turned for the upper deck because the women continued up the stairs. I tossed the keys onto the guard’s chest and slouched, putting myself in the middle of the group and hoping I fit in.

“It was hard not to burst into a run when the salty sea breeze touched my cheeks and I saw the lights of a little port town. I wasn’t sure where we were, but I knew my name and rank would convince someone to lend me a horse. Then I could ride for the nearest flier base, get some of my people in the air, and mow down those Cofah ironclads before they could leave Iskandian waters.

“With this idea firmly in mind, it was all I could do to keep from sprinting past the women and leaping overboard. But I’d promised to help them. If they had indeed come from that lost ship, they hadn’t set foot in Iskandia in ten years. Besides, I’d probably get shot if I sprinted off. A lot of men were out on deck. None of them wore Cofah uniforms, this being part of their ruse, but they instead wore the mixed clothing of a merchant ship crew. They were all armed, though, hands resting on pistols or cutlasses as they looked warily toward the town. A few eyed our group too as we walked after Felks toward the gangplank.

“We weren’t ten feet from it when the Cofah admiral stomped into view with a longsword in hand and headed straight for our group. I grimaced, positive he’d counted and realized an extra woman was leaving the ship. Even if he couldn’t count without relying on his fingers, it was possible I didn’t quite fit in…

“He planted himself in front of the gangplank, sword tip to the deck, and thrust a fist in the air. ‘You do the empire proud,’ he told Resni and the others in front of me, ‘and you will be rewarded.’

“I was tempted to reward his pompous ass by running up and kicking him into the water, but I was afraid I’d trip in the ridiculously tight women’s loafers I wore and end up falling overboard. The girls ducked their heads and murmured variations of, ‘Yes, Admiral. We will.”

“I hoped he wouldn’t expect me to speak. I might be able to wear a dress, but I can’t manage a falsetto or a passable Cofah accent.

“I kept my head down and thought I’d get by. Resni and Vara were already on the gangplank. Then his hand whipped out like a viper’s fangs and latched onto my arm. I was sure every Cofah man on the deck jerked a pistol out and pointed it at my back. Could I manage to muscle him into the water without being shot? And if I did, could I swim under the dock and make it to shore before they caught me?

“‘You sure a couple of you girls don’t want to entertain me before you go into enemy territory?’ the admiral asked. ‘I’d make it memorable. Give you something to remember when you’re with all those limp Iskandians.’

“Even though I had my head down, I could feel him staring straight at me. He must have had a thing for tall women. The others gathered behind me, but as long as the admiral was gripping my arm, we couldn’t pass. And he seemed to be waiting for an answer. I gave my best girlish giggle. I had no trouble imagining his suspicious eyes boring through my bonnet.

“‘Hurry up, girls,’ Resni whispered from the bottom of the gangplank. ‘I see some officers coming. They’ll get suspicious of us and this ship if they recognize the mighty Cofah Admiral Stanchiun.’

“The admiral let me go and I thought I was in the clear, but then he drew back his longsword. Seven gods, had he figured it out? I crouched, a second from springing at him and trying to send him flying overboard.

“But he wasn’t trying to cleave off my head. He swatted me in the ass with the flat of the blade and said, ‘Don’t tell anyone I didn’t offer. Cofah hospitality is unparalleled.’ He thrust his sword into the sky and declared, ‘For the empire!’

“I was tempted to kick him all over again. Instead, I hustled down the gangplank with the others, and we rushed to get out of sight of the ship. There weren’t any officers around—that Resni is a smart girl—although it was too bad, because it would have been nice to get a steam carriage to the local garrison. We had to hoof it, which is about as pleasant as you’d expect in women’s shoes.

Bethany Anne smiled. “In the right shoes, it can be a religious experience.”

“Thank my burgeoning bunions we got a ride from there to the nearest flier battalion, and I found the rest of my squadron along with Cougar Squadron. They’d been sent up to help with the ironclads. The next morning we flew out, found them, and finished what we’d started the day before. If that handsy admiral made it home, he swam.

“As for the women, I got them back to the capital, and General Ort, after berating me for losing my uniform—he didn’t bat an eye at my dress—took us all up to see the king. He personally handled getting the women reconnected with their relatives, and both Resni and Vara ended up enrolling in the flight academy and becoming pilots. A good end for the ladies, and so far as I’ve heard, none of them has seduced anyone or sent intel back to the Cofah. But I did learn that Dog Breath didn’t make it. That made me reconsider the earlier pride I’d felt toward him ‘taking the initiative.’ Since then, I’ve tried to be a slightly better role model for my young officers. I’ve also avoided bonnets. Nobody takes you seriously in a bonnet.”

Those around the table raised their glasses and mugs in a silent toast to fallen comrades.

So, you’re saying that you, with a single smile, convinced a bunch of girls who’d been brainwashed by the Cofah for ten years to change allegiance? Jaxi asked.

I smiled more than once, thank you. There was quite a long conversation that I might have left out so I wouldn’t bore my listeners. I was at my most charming during it.

Uh huh. And then the admiral just believed you were a six-foot-tall woman he’d failed to notice before and let you walk off the ship? That story is even harder to believe than the versions of your flier exploits that the smitten newspaper journalists write up.

You can see into my mind. You know that story is true.

I can see that a semblance of it possibly happened and that you’re getting senile and forgetting other parts.

I’m positive there was a dress. And that an admiral swatted my ass with a sword.

So long as you remember the parts that will continue to excite you in your old age.

Ridge lifted his mug toward the others, indicating the next storyteller could take his spot. Meanwhile, he vowed to leave Jaxi at home the next time he was abducted by aliens.

I told you, they’re mostly human.

Comforting.


Interlude

BOB checked the uplinks. All of the data, petabytes of it, were streaming to the Collector. No acknowledgment had come back in return. From past missions, BOB knew this could be because the Collector was either pleased with the progress or had given up on it.

“I bet you looked quite fetching in that dress, Ridge!” Amanda said with a smile as she finished off her cheesecake.

“The dress makes the man, they say.” Ridge lifted his mug.

“I thought the saying was that clothes make the man,” Bethany mused said with a laugh.

“Oh? Maybe it’s different on my world,” Ridge offered.

Humans were an odd lot, and this was the second mission to this corner of the Multiverse, so the probability was that the Collector not responding was because of the former rather than the latter. However, any probability represented a possibility, and BOB’s mission was to ensure success.

Arkarin Blackhawk had sat through the first few stories with no input. His chair was still pulled back half a meter, not right at the table as with the rest. He sipped his Dalmore 62, eyes brooding but face showing little expression.

No reaction could be valid data, but BOB was programmed to be more active. It’d been programmed with curiosity, and it had an electronic itch that could only be satisfied when unknowns became knowns. Arkarin Blawkhawk was an enigma.

“May I get you another Dalmore, sir? Or something else?”

Blackhawk said nothing.

BOB knew it might take a more direct prompt. “You’ve been taciturn since your arrival, sir. If I may be so bold, perhaps the other guests would like to know more about you?”

Ten sets of eyes swiveled to Blackhawk, waiting.


Blackhawk at BOB’s Bar by Jay Allan

Blackhawk stared around the table at his drinking companions—his nosy drinking companions. He didn’t like being questioned, even socially, and inquiries into his past were almost guaranteed to evoke what could only be described in most cases as an…unfortunate…response. Blackhawk wasn’t evil—not by choice, anyway—but a man with his background who’d gone through what he had was never far from volatile.

Dangerously volatile.

But he felt strange just then somehow, not quite like himself, and the inhibitions, the discipline, the mistrust—all the grim emotions that kept him the insular creature he was, never far from violence as a solution to a problem—were all… Well, perhaps not gone, but…different, submerged. To his own surprise, he began to answer the question.

“I’m from the empire,” he said, the shadowy darkness in his tone hinting of so much more than location lying within the answer.

“The Cofah Empire?” Ridge asked, looking like he was thinking of moving his seat farther away.

“No.”

“Oh. That’s good then. Carry on.”

Bethany Anne added, “Empires are definitely a negative. It was annoying when my group was labeled an empire.”

“There is no empire here, nor any emperor.” BOB’s voice had a slight electronic sound to it, but as such constructions went, the bartender was nothing short of miraculous. “This bar is apart from the universes of normal space, those expanses of stars and planets that you and so many others passing through here call home.”

“I do not call the empire home.” Blackhawk’s tone was cold, almost like space itself, and in its icy strands, the others could almost feel the hatred.

“That’s okay, but you’re among friends, and this place is far away from your empire,” Amanda replied, her tone soothing.

“That much is clear.” Blackhawk looked around at the bar. He knew he spoke only the obvious, but he’d seen a chance to try to direct the line of questioning away from himself and he’d taken it.

But Floribeth’s next words washed away any hope of success.

“Arkarin, it sort of feels as if you’ve had a rough go of it to get to where you are now,” she said. She reached over and pushed his glass forward. “Why don’t you take a drink and tell us about it?”

Blackhawk hadn’t intended to drink. All he wanted was to find out how he had gotten there and how to get back home…and he was willing to employ considerable coercion to secure the cooperation he needed. His pistol, its aged grip well-worn, hung from his right hip, and his short sword from the left, both ready for action as always. But BOB was strangely compelling, and something about the difference in the bar, and in the space that housed it, seemed to disarm Blackhawk’s defenses. Before he even realized it, he was speaking candidly about himself.

About how he came to the Far Stars. About how he went from brutal imperial general to smuggler and pirate, and finally, to rebel leader, and the scourge of the empire.

“I served the emperor in my early years.” The statement was matter-of-fact, and yet, there were subtleties in it, and hints of secrets deeper even than those Blackhawk was prepared to reveal. “I was an imperial general…” He paused, even the cold and resolute core that usually drove him failing to prevent the delay, as images of all he’d done rose to the surface of his thoughts. “I was an imperial general…” he repeated. Another pause, although whether the hesitation was driven by resistance or humility, even Blackhawk didn’t know. “The best. Perhaps the deadliest who had ever served an emperor.”

The others sat quietly while they listened to Blackhawk.

“I worshipped the emperor and led his fleets and armies. I killed for him. The forces I commanded slaughtered uncounted millions, and none who rebelled against imperial rule, or even thought of it in the most passing way, escaped the fear of Frigus Umbra.”

“’Frigus Umbra?’” Floribeth asked.

“Yes, that was my name. Is my true name. Arkarin Blackhawk is a designation I took—stole—from a man I killed.”

Ark, you are not behaving in accordance with your own cautious norms regarding information.

Blackhawk hesitated, as he often did when the AI implanted in his head and connected to his thoughts spoke to him. He thought of it as speech, at least, although he knew it all took place in the neurons of his brain, without any sound detectable to those around him. It had driven him mad for a long time after that day years earlier when he’d awakened with the strange presence in his mind and a nasty scar on his partially-shaved head. Even after he’d made his peace with the AI who was now, in some ways, at least, part of him, the distrust remained. HANDAIS—the clumsy acronym the mysterious device used as a name—had saved Blackhawk’s life more than once even, depending on one’s specific analysis of various misadventures. Despite the fact that the machine, if “machine” was even the right term for the unfathomable entity, had only ever aided him, his cold cynicism would never let him truly accept the AI as a friend.

This is not a normal situation, is it? Blackhawk flashed the thought to the AI with more than a bit of caustic edge. There was no response, which was typical when he scored a point.

“You say you ‘served’ this emperor, past tense. “Did you resign from his service?” Kelsey asked, unaware of the conversation Blackhawk was having in his head.

Blackhawk snorted, an abortive laugh he stopped just a bit too late to completely hide. He shook his head and looked right at the two sensors the robot used as eyes. “One does not resign from the emperor’s service. There are far faster and easier ways to die than that.”

“Yet you no longer serve him?” Kelsey inquired.

“No, I do not serve him now. I would die before I would serve him again.” Ark chided himself silently for the looseness of his words, but he continued to speak, nevertheless. “I deserted. Left my command post one day and never returned.”

Bethany Anne’s lip quirked. “You decided he was unjust? That you could no longer remain in his service?”

A derisive laugh briefly escaped Blackhawk’s lips. “Just? Justice was not a concept that concerned me then. I was born into imperial service…if ‘born’ is the correct term for the way I came into being.”

“Whatever your life became, surely you were born somewhere. You had parents,” Charline said.

“I had none. Or a hundred. It depends on your viewpoint. Yet, whoever they were, I never knew any of them.”

“I can sympathize with that. I didn’t know mine until much later in life,” Amanda commented.

“A hundred parents? How’s that possible?” Charline asked, leaning toward him.

Blackhawk hesitated once more, his natural caution seeking once again to assert itself, and failing under the strange effects the bar and the space that housed it. “I was…manufactured. I am a creature born into an imperial breeding program, the greatest creation of an effort twenty generations long, one conceived by the greatest scientists of the empire.”

“Your DNA was manipulated? To make you stronger? More capable?” Kelsey asked.

“To make me a remorseless killer and nearly invincible.”

Bethany Anne nodded. “That I understand. Seems like no matter what the universe, there are some bastards always fucking with the DNA.”

BOB approached the table and took Blackhawk’s glass, the one the grim adventurer had just emptied. He refilled it from an ancient-looking decanter and set it down again.

“And, you served that purpose? You killed for the emperor? Destroyed his enemies?” Bethany Anne inquired.

“I destroyed any he sent me against. For years, I led my forces against rebellious worlds, killing enemy soldiers and civilians alike without the slightest thought of whether my victims were despicable villains or virtuous heroes. I was above such considerations. Or below.”

“Why did you follow such orders and serve such a ruthless ruler? For coin? The rewards of glory, or simply because you feared to resist?” Rika asked.

Blackhawk felt a surge of anger at the pointed questions, especially the last. “I fear nothing. Death would be only a relief, and the imperial torturers in their subterranean cells are but a minor concern to me.” It was pride behind the words, he knew, as well as anger. Arkarin Blackhawk was many things. He had been a hero of sorts, and a villain. He had traveled across the empire and to the Far Stars as well, visited hundreds of worlds, and fought countless battles. There was one thing he had never been, though...a coward.

“You don’t fear death? You seek it?” Floribeth asked, clearly surprised.

“I long sought the relief of death. I laughed at it and challenged it to take me in a hundred places, yet it is my fate to endure and carry my burdens forward. I have purpose ahead of me yet; tasks I must complete before rest can come.”

“Death isn’t hard to find if you truly want it. Maybe you’ve chosen life but you just don’t realize it,” Amanda suggested. “Even for a mighty warrior, maybe you’re less anxious to die than you think. Clearly, you’ve chosen to live.”

“I have chosen nothing.” Blackhawk’s mind reeled with memories of the past, shadowy images of imperial conditioning. Of endless sessions extending through childhood and beyond, of the ways the imperial psychologists had shaped him, formed him…created the monster the emperor required.

“You look like a hard-ass warrior, and you said you’ve got some butt-kicking capabilities,” Floribeth said. “You must have made decisions to avoid death and survive.”

Blackhawk didn’t respond at once. He had indeed tried to court death for many years, to no avail. Instead of yielding, of allowing an enemy to strike a final blow, he had fought like a demon to survive. He’d resisted the doom that had so often tried to take him, yet choice had played little role in any of that.

“I made no decisions. None of my own, at least.” He hesitated again. He was delving into deeply uncomfortable thoughts and memories…flashes of his past—of himself—that threatened to shatter the self-image he’d so painstakingly rebuilt over the years. “The imperial conditioning—I broke some of it, enough to regain control over most of my actions, but the self-preservation instincts were implanted deeply, and they remain strong.”

“All people have instincts to survive. You’re no different than anyone else in that,” Floribeth told him, sitting back as if convinced she’d made a point.

“I am different. Men and women consumed by despair can and do take their own lives. Those stricken with painful and fatal illnesses can choose to end their suffering. I cannot. I have tried.” His mind reeled with memories of guilt, misery, and hopelessness—and a grim resolution to end it all, always with the same result. He could not do it.

Images of battles flashed before him as well, desperate struggles when he’d come close to defeat and the strange strength that had come to him from desperation, the inability to simply allow defeat—death—to come. Deadly struggles, opponents coming at him from all around, and yet, always the same ending. Standing in place, covered in blood and surrounded by the bodies of enemies. Still alive, as always.

“Your conditioning does not allow you to give up? That’s a great strength, right?” Cain asked.

Blackhawk’s first impulse was to send back a caustic response. His conditioning, the inability to surrender, to give up… It had caused him much pain, yet there was no doubt it had made him strong as well and contributed to his victories. The black ones won in the service of the emperor and those that had come since, ones from which he sometimes allowed himself to draw tenuous shreds of personal pride.

“That is a complex question. It has aided me in battle, no doubt, but such strength comes at a cost.”

“All things carry a cost, Blackhawk,” Amanda replied. “I think most people around this table have paid a heavy price for at least some of their actions, so you’re not alone in that regard. I know we’re laughing and joking tonight, but don’t mistake that for something it isn’t. Sometimes you just need to cut loose. So anyway, if you’re not in this empire now, how did you get out?”

Blackhawk remained silent, feeling the same urges he always did when someone pushed him for details or tried to probe into his past. But despite the anger and the defensive impulse to move to hostility, he found himself replying, his voice calm, the defensive storm constrained within his thoughts.

“Deltara.” A pause. “It was a rebel world, a planet some distance from the imperial capital but still within the heavily-populated central zone. A leader had emerged there, one who possessed considerable charisma. He’d begun as most such do—as a rabble-rouser speaking on street corners and drawing some crowds…until the imperial secret police intervened. But his support had risen quickly, and soon he was too powerful to remove by simple means. The mobs rallied to his side and protected him, and the imperial authorities were quickly overrun. Many of the emperor’s servants were killed, and the newly elected Deltaran Congress declared the planet’s independence.

“From the way you speak of your emperor, I—” Charline started before Blackhawk interrupted.

“He is not my emperor.” Blackhawk spoke coldly, and his words gave them insight into the rage and hatred he carried within him.

“I apologize. From the way you have described the emperor, I imagine such things happened frequently.”

“You underestimate the power of fear.” Blackhawk paused, looking down for a moment as a wave of silent regret came over him. “I was an instrument of that greatest weapon of the emperor. The imperial battleships are great displays of might and power, as are his seemingly endless legions, and yet to use those implements, to send his war machine into action, was costly. Thriving worlds full of factories produced great wealth and a continued flow of taxes and tribute to the imperial court. Blasted and wrecked worlds, their industry reduced to radioactive slag, produced little. Fear was a weapon that cost the emperor nothing, and one he sought to maintain at all costs.”

“And yet it failed on Deltara? Fear failed there?” Amanda asked.

“Yes. On those few occasions when fear did not manage to control the imperial masses, it was left to me to…restoke…its effectiveness. To remind the people of the cost of defiance.”

“You led your forces to Deltara? Your battleships and legions?” Rika asked.

Blackhawk nodded, then added, “The emperor’s battleships and his legions.”

“Of course,” Rika agreed, nodding for Blackhawk to continue.

“Yes, I led forces to Deltara. My orders were clear, the same as they always were: to crush the rebellion. The emperor was protective of his industry and the assets that fed the imperial machine, but when a world crossed the line, brutality became the only focus. His command was simple, the benchmark unchanged from any campaign I had undertaken. The rebels were to know the cost of their defiance, and the scars were to endure in the sinews of life on that world through the living memory of all who survived, and for generations of their descendants. The treatment of a rebel world was the fuel that powered the machinery of imperial terror.”

“So you attacked Deltara? Killed its people?” Kelsey asked slowly.

“We killed many. The battleships bombarded the surface, destroyed anything likely to aid whatever minimal defense the rebels were able to mount. Then the legions landed.”

Kelsey blanched, obviously horrified.

“You could have killed everyone from orbit, right?” Bethany Anne asked.

“Easily, but dead bodies and lifeless, uninhabited worlds are quickly forgotten. Broken, subservient planets and their scarred and traumatized inhabitants sustain recollection. They remain examples of the cost of rebellion.”

“That’s a tactical truth,” Bethany Anne agreed. “No matter how heinous, it’s the truth.”

“I understand why you carry so much guilt for what you’ve done, Blackhawk,” Floribeth said quietly without judgment, one warrior to another. It was just a statement of bare fact.

Blackhawk was silent for a moment. The Navy pilot and Bethany Anne had said nothing except what he’d always believed, and yet there was no way for him to express the self-hatred he had felt for so long. His story still wasn’t complete.

“I landed ten legions…a million soldiers. The rebels, at least those who remained under arms after the bombardments, were poorly armed and organized. The fighting, at least when we caught up with any but the most organized bands of defenders, was more like some kind of hunt. My soldiers slaughtered all who faced them, and imposed the emperor’s punishment on millions of others—civilians, helpless and cowering, begging in vain for mercy.”

Blackhawk took a deep breath. His mind had traveled back—decades now—and he looked out from the eyes not of Arkarin Blackhawk, Far Stars adventurer, but of Frigus Umbra, the emperor’s most terrible and capable minion, a man who had left a legacy of fear across dozens of worlds.

“We rounded up huge groups, and in punishment for the rebels who remained active, the executioners worked night and day. Every imperial soldier killed was avenged by a hundred Deltari. Every day of continued resistance began with a thousand executions.”

“Did such measures work? Did those still in opposition to imperial rule yield?” Charline asked.

“Many surrendered, although they had to have known that only death awaited them. Perhaps they sacrificed themselves in the hope that their families and loved ones would be spared. Such hopes were baseless, of course, showing only desperation or ignorance of the emperor’s ruthlessness.” Blackhawk paused for a few seconds. “Some remained in the fight, though, and the campaign endured far longer than I’d expected. The Deltari showed more spirit and endurance to resist than any I had faced before.”

“And, you hated them for it,” Floribeth stated, looking at Blackhawk. “But you respected them too, didn’t you?”

Blackhawk didn’t respond, but his silence was answer enough.

“So what did you do next?” Ridge asked.

“We continued the campaign, and gradually, we hunted down each group of fugitives. We...killed them all.”

Blackhawk stopped again, sitting silently for a moment. Then he continued, this time unbidden.

“It was close to the end of the struggle. We’d hunted down most of the rebels, and the planet, despite our efforts to preserve as much industry as possible, was in ruins. I was in my headquarters, aides all around as well as the sounds of various comm units, of orders being issued and received—a din that suddenly seemed too much for me. I needed a moment to myself.”

Blackhawk grabbed the drink the bartender had poured for him, slugging it down in one gulp.

“We were in the capital of a regional province, the last true hotbed of resistance. We’d moved into the closing stages of the pacification, but the situation in the immediate area was still pretty hot. The rebellion had mostly been broken, but we were still fighting the diehards.”

He paused again. “I was standing in the HQ listening to reports, and suddenly something came over me. I felt the need to get out, at least for a few minutes. I gestured for the officer making the reports to stop, and I just walked out the door. It took two more waves to stop my guards from following me, and a third to hold them still in place once they realized I was heading for the checkpoint leading out of the secured area, but they knew better than to defy me.” The coldness in that last sentence carried more meaning than the words.

“I walked out into the active rebel area. I could hear gunfire all around, the sounds of my soldiers tracking and engaging the various groups of insurgents. I’d already allowed my units to throw themselves on the pacified cities in an orgy of looting and brutality, and the troops assigned to the final operations knew the completion of their pacification would lead at once to the imperial soldier’s greatest joy—the unrestricted rapine and savagery of a sack. It was standard imperial policy; the psychic wounds those days of terror inflicted on the people would endure a lifetime and beyond.”

No one said anything. They sat silently, waiting to hear what he had to say next.

“I walked some distance. I honestly don’t know how far. A kilometer, perhaps.” A pause. “And then I found Blackhawk. The real Blackhawk.”

He paused again, and for a few seconds, his rigidly cold expression softened, displaying a rare touch of empathy.

“He was a rebel, that was obvious, but just as clearly, he’d fled from whatever unit he’d been a part of. He was haggard, crouched with a rifle in his hands. There was a woman with him, and she clutched a child in her arms.”

Blackhawk put his hand out and grabbed the drink, but he didn’t raise it to his lips. “I understood in an instant. He’d left the rebel forces, what remained of them, his only thought at that moment to get his family to safety. I’d ordered all rebels killed on sight, and my hand moved to the sidearm strapped to my side to follow my own command, but I didn’t draw the gun. I didn’t do anything except stand there and watch this man and his wife and child. I can still see the girl’s face and her fear and the tangled red ponytail hanging down over one tiny shoulder. Then the man saw me.”

Blackhawk hesitated again, and it was clear the emotion from the memories was hitting him hard. “I am gifted on the battlefield. My senses are strong, and I can move silently. I’d stood there for a few moments staring at the man before he happened to look my way. Then he did it—he moved to bring his rifle around and shoot me.”

He shook his head and closed his eyes as he continued. “It was child’s play. I was faster than he was, a genetic monstrosity created to kill facing a man who’d worked in a factory, most likely before dreams of freedom and independence turned him into a cog in the rebel machine. My shot was off before he’d even moved his weapon to aim in my direction, and he slumped, grunting hard when the round took him in the abdomen. He fell back and dropped the gun, even as the woman, a streak of the man’s blood splattered on her face, screamed in horror and wild fear.”

The others just looked on, still with no judgment in anyone’s expression. It was starting to anger Blackhawk. He hated himself for the things he’d done, and he’d expected the same from this group of people who had somehow extracted from him secrets he’d never told anyone else.

“I regretted what I’d done immediately. He was a rebel, and my own orders mandated that he die, and yet, looking at him lying on the cold stone floor, blood pouring from his wound, I would have taken it back if I could have.

“It was sympathy I was feeling, and regret, but I didn’t know it then. I’d never felt either emotion before. I stood there and looked down at him even as the woman and child sobbed uncontrollably, then he spoke to me.

“‘Please,’ he said, ‘I don’t care about myself, but let my wife and daughter live.’ He looked up at me and, his voice heavy with pain and anguish, and added one simple word. ‘Please.’

“I’d ignored thousands of pleas for mercy, but this one struck me somehow. I don’t know if it was the sadness in his tone or the fact that his wife and daughter still clung to him, not running away despite what had to seem a virtual certainty I would kill them.”

Blackhawk hesitated again, silently watching the images of the past, the events of twenty years earlier that he remembered as if they had happened the day before.

“Suddenly, I felt as though I was someplace else, falling, slipping into darkness. I could hear his words as he repeated them, but it was as if they were coming from no place in particular. I was lost, and my mind was reeling.

“I turned to the woman and child and screamed at them to run, but they didn’t move. They stayed where they were, the woman holding onto the man’s arm like a vise, defiant of the obvious fact that he was mortally wounded. “Go!” I shouted again, and this time the man added his pleas to my command. He told her to go; begged her to leave him and escape. To save their child. I do not believe she would have left him if it hadn’t been for the little girl, but when his begging turned toward saving the child’s life, the woman rose slowly, her face soaked with tears. She looked down one last time at the man and then at me, her stare a mask of raw hatred. She’d have killed me, or tried at least—I believe that to this day—and she was stayed only by the small girl clinging to her side. ‘Go,’ I screamed again, gesturing to the door of the shattered building. This time she heeded my words and raced out into the street, the child in her arms.”

Blackhawk lifted the glass to his lips again and, as before, he drained it in an instant.

“The man was near death and I knelt beside him, still trying to understand the regret that consumed me. ‘What is your name?’ I asked, suddenly needing to know. ‘Arkarin Blackhawk,’ he answered between shallow, dying breaths, and an instant later he was gone. If there could be such a thing as mercy in so terrible a setting, it was that he died before he found out that his wife and child outlived him only by seconds. I’d let them go, but they had gotten no more than thirty meters before one of my kill squads found them…and carried out its orders.

“When I saw the two of them riddled with bullets, bodies twisted grotesquely on the broken pavement of the street, their open eyes staring up at the gray and smoky sky above, something inside me truly snapped. I went wild, and I turned and shot the soldiers moving toward me. My soldiers, the ones who had just killed the woman and the child.

“I screamed, how loudly I cannot remember, but with such ferocity that my throat felt as though I’d sliced it with a hot blade. I ran through the streets, ignoring the fighting and the fires raging all around. I was uncontrollable, and like an avalanche, images of all I’d done and of all I’d sent my soldiers and spacers to do, poured over me. Wave after wave of nightmares, of atrocities committed at my command, assaulted me, and for the first time, I felt…guilt. I was a monster. I realized that, something I had never seen before, and the horror of it all overwhelmed me.

“I ran out into the maelstrom of my soldiers’ pacification of the city. I passed through ruins, stepped over countless corpses, and as I did, I stripped my imperial uniform from my body. The very cloth of it had begun to feel like fire burning my flesh. I pulled clothes from a body, covering myself in the garb of a dead Deltari factory worker. I ran into another group of my soldiers, and without thought, without hesitation, I killed them all. I pressed on, for days I suspect, hiding and trying to face the flood of memories and the searing regret that had been unleashed on me.”

Blackhawk looked down at his empty glass and then to where the bartender was hovering. The robot quickly refilled it without a word. The rest of the patrons continued to watch him, waiting for the story—confession?—to continue.

Blackhawk threw the drink back.

“I survived the pacification, and later I got off the planet. I wandered for years from one imperial world to another, a wreck, unable to function. Only my genetic gifts—my fighting skills and endurance—allowed me to survive, and finally I found myself on a tramp freighter embarking on the dangerous journey across the Void…to the Far Stars.

“I wandered there for more years, a vagrant and a drifter, surviving any way I could despite lacking any real desire to live. Then I found myself on Celtiboria, and soon after, in the service of Marshal Augustin Lucerne. The Celtiborian warlord was a capable soldier and a good man. He is the only one I have ever told of my past…save now, of course, for all of you. Lucerne helped me find my way back to myself and control the nightmares that lived inside me, and when I was able, I left. It was a long road, but I found my way to something I could live with, if not actually believe in. I was a smuggler and a mercenary, and by most standards still a grim presence, but, Frigus Umbra remained caged inside me—always there, but controlled now. Held in check.”

“Your story is a sad one, Arkarin, but we’ve all done things we regret, and it sounds like you have made amends for your past transgressions—or at least tried to,” Amanda offered, her tone serious and her gaze steady.

Blackhawk looked up at the redhead, and for an instant deep sorrow showed in his eyes. “No. There will be no redemption for the things I have done. I do what I can, and I live to ensure the Far Stars remains beyond the grip of the emperor. That its people, as violent and warlike as they often are, never feel the yoke of the empire on their necks. I want no appreciation, and I need none. I am no hero, although some have called me that. I do only what I must, serve those few whom I truly admire and respect, and I stand in the breach, struggling always to hold back the darkness that lies just beyond the Void—the dread empire that would engulf all who live in the Far Stars, given the chance.”

Floribeth looked at Blackhawk, silent for a moment. Then she said, “No one is beyond redemption. You’ve paid your debt, Blackhawk...although I doubt you’ll never truly understand that and give yourself rest. From what I understand, most of what you did—yes, as horrific as it might have been—was under the compulsion of imperial conditioning.

“I’ve never killed a human, so you’re probably going to ignore this, but you’ve got to put it behind you. You escaped the empire, right? Now keep seeing what you can do for the good. Balance the scales. Heck, tip them to the positive. You might go to your grave with your victims’ voices in your head, but go with those who thank the universe for your very existence as well.”

Blackhawk listened, but true to Floribeth’s words, he wrote them off as baseless platitudes. In his mind, the screams were still there, the cries of children pulling at the dead bodies of their parents, the wailing of entire worlds consigned by his forces to hell. She was right about one thing, though, he realized.

He would never forgive himself, and for all he pursued redemption, he knew nothing he ever did would be enough. The imperial scientists who had created him and the emperor who had wielded him as a deadly weapon had stolen what soul he’d ever possessed.

From where he had been, there was no return.


Interlude

“Holy crap! I can’t imagine going through all that,” Cain blurted before the table went silent, drinks forgotten for the moment. Kelsey, who was sitting next to Arkarin, finally reached out and put a hand on his forearm, her eyes sad. He started to flinch away but steadied himself, finally ready to accept this tiny vestige of human comfort.

BOB stood silently, trying to process what it had just heard. It didn’t have the emotional programming to feel what the other humans obviously had, but it could recognize that this was solid data, the kind that the Collector would treasure.

Blackhawk stared at Kelsey’s hand as if he’d never seen one before. With the slightest of shrugs, he nudged his seat back up to the edge of the table.

“That was some serious shit,” Standish stated. “No offense, Blackhawk, but does anyone have something a little more upbeat?”

Everyone turned as one to Artur, who was standing by his glass with the straw in his mouth.


Artur’s First Case By Barry J. Hutchison

Artur finished slurping his drink through his straw and burped far more loudly than his size suggested should be possible, then kicked his glass a few times, making it ding.

“You would think the belch would be higher-pitched,” BA mused.

“All right, all right, enough of that shoite,” he announced. “Ye want to hear a real story? Sure, I’ve got a tale that’ll blow the bollocks off ye.”

He looked around at the women and waggled his eyebrows suggestively. “Or in the case of these fine ladies, it’ll give ‘em bollocks and then blow ‘em off. And that’s not a word of exaggeration.”

That earned a head shake and an eye roll from Kelsey.

“I don’t think a tiny robot could do either of those things,” Rika suggested. “Unless you vibrate a lot.”

“I’m not a feckin’ robot!” Artur protested. He frowned, briefly recalling having heard those exact words somewhere recently, then gave a shake of his head.

“I don’t think we have bollocks on my world.” Ridge scratched his jaw, his forehead crinkled.

“What did you say your name was?” asked Cain, ignoring Ridge.

“Artur, now, shut yer cakehole and listen up. I’m gonna tell ye about me very first case.”

“Case?” asked Bethany Anne. “Are you a cop?” She already knew he wasn’t, but she wanted to hear how he’d describe his role to the others.

“Not exactly,” hedged Artur. “I’m more of a private detective. Well, I know a private detective, anyway, and I reckon that’s close enough.”

The others around the table exchanged glances that suggested they probably disagreed.

“So, there I am. Picture the scene,” Artur began. “In me mate’s shoitehole of an office, mindin’ me own business, when I hears a knock. ‘Where’s that comin’ from?’ I asks meself.”

“The door?” guessed Charline.

Artur’s face fell. “Sure, who’s tellin’ this story? I was under the impression it was me,” he said, his beard bristling.

“Sorry I spoke,” muttered Charline.

“Not as feckin’ sorry as I am,” Artur grumbled. He glared at Charline for a moment and shared it around the table in case anyone else was thinking of butting in, then continued.

“Yes. It was a knock at the door. I’m not sure what to do, because me mate’s warned me not to go openin’ the door to nobody. He’s worried it’s dangerous. Not for me, mind, but for any poor bastard that comes ‘round uninvited.”

“But this day I’m in fine fettle, so I am, so I decides to go ahead and see who it is. I can’t reach the old door handle on account of me height—I don’t know if ye noticed, but I’m a tiny bit below average in that regard.”

“Call it a tactical size advantage,” BA suggested, but her comment was lost when the inevitable response burst forth.

“A tiny bit?” Kelsey snorted.

Artur held his arms out to his sides. “Here, sweetheart, it ain’t the size that matters, it’s what ye do with it that counts, ye know? And believe me, I can do a lot. I’ve got me own wetsuit, a vivid imagination, and a strict ‘no questions asked’ policy. Ye know what I’m sayin’?”

“I’m already aroused, so I am,” Amanda commented to Rika with a smirk.

“You into robot girls?” Rika asked. “If you are, you should swing by my neck of the woods. There are a few woman in the Marauders who go that way.”

“Shite, I’m getting offers from all sides!” Amanda exclaimed.

Artur looked at the faces of the women. Technically, he mostly looked at their breasts, but he flicked his eyes up occasionally so as not to be rude.

“Until ye’ve done small, ye ain’t done it all. That’s my motto,” he asserted.

He gazed wistfully at the collective breasts for a few more moments, then gave himself a shake. “Where was I? Oh, aye, the door. I couldn’t reach the handle, so I hops up on the old desk and shouts, ‘Enter.’ Ye know, like I’m Lord of the feckin’ Manor or what have ye?

“The door opens, and in she comes. Holy shoite, sure, I thought she was an angel. White hair, but not like a granny. I don’t mean that. She’s young, like, but her hair’s this silver-white color. Face? First class. Body? Top of the league. And legs that went all the way from her feet to her arse.”

Bethany Anne frowned. “Well, where else would they have gone?”

“Around me neck, if I’d had my way,” Artur clarified.

She shook her head. “I fell into that one.”

He went into another wistful trance for a while. It was only broken when Amanda clicked her fingers in front of his face.

“Hey, lover boy, get yeh mind out o’ the gutter,” Amanda called.

“Sorry. Got distracted for a second, there.” Artur wiped his drooling mouth on his hairy bare arm. He smoothed down his ballgown before continuing.

“So, the woman introduces herself. Her name’s Dauphin Soise. Nice name, I thought. Not as nice as the legs, mind, but nice enough. Suits her. It’s a pulled-together kind of name, and she seemed a pulled-together sort o’ woman.”

Artur shrugged. “At least until she starts cryin’ on me,” he continued. “And no, I don’t mean literally on me, before ye ask, like some kind o’ big weepin’ giant. I just mean she sits across the desk from me and starts bawlin’ her eyes out, talkin’ about how she needs help. Turns out her boyfriend’s a right bastard. Been gettin’ up to all sorts of things with some of the local floozies. Really foul stuff that’d turn yer hair gray and make ye question the very existence of the gods.”

The wistful gaze flitted across his face for a second or two.

“The lucky bastard.”

He shrugged. “Anyway, I can’t really be doin’ wit’ all that bawlin’ stuff, so I asks her if she wants him roughed up or somethin’ along those lines. It’s not really one o’ the services me mate offers, but I thought I’d ask, ye know? Out of politeness or what have ye.

“She says she doesn’t want him messed wi’, though. She just wants proof that he’s been messin’ around with these other women. I get the impression that he’s worth a bob or two and that she’s angling to get her pound o’ flesh out o’ him. Sure, I can’t blame the woman. Ye should’ve heard the things he was gettin’ up to. Oh, just vile, depraved stuff. Pure filth, like, ye know?”

“Sounds like you’ve got fond memories. Or, should that be mammaries?” Amanda said with a smile.

Bethany Anne looked at Amanda and raised an eyebrow.

“He started it,” Amanda commented with a smile to Bethany Anne and pointed to Artur, having seen her look.

He went a bit wistful again for a second but shook it off.

“So I explain that me mate’s not around at the minute, he’s off doin’… somethin’. Feck knows what. He’s a law unto himself, that scrotum-faced sack o’ shoite,” Artur said, shaking his head in disapproval. “But I tells her I’ll take a note and pass it on to him. I’ve got no intention of actually doin’ it, of course. I just want her to feck off and quit cryin’ her eyes out at me.

“Besides, I have this…condition where I kind of loses me temper at nighttime. It’s not dangerous—well, not for me—but it’s headin’ into evenin’ outside an’ I don’t really want the poor woman around when I start to get lairy, ye know? So, I’m tryin’ my best to send her packin’, so’s that I can lock meself away before nightfall.”

Artur bristled, irritated by the memory.

“And that’s when she starts with her badmouthin’, the big gobshoite,” he said. “Tells me I’m obviously not up to the job o’ takin’ on the case meself. Castin’ aspersions on me manliness, would ye believe?”

Rika snorted. “I wonder why?” she asked said, looking Artur up and down. Thanks to Artur’s size, this didn’t take long. “I mean, you’re a tiny robot wearing a dress. I mean, that is a dress you’re wearing, right?”

The air around Artur seemed to grow cold and his thick eyebrows knotted into a single V above his nose. “Is that a pair o’ eyes ye’re in possession of?” he growled. “If ye want to remain in possession o’ them, I suggest ye shut the feck up.”

He gestured down at himself. “Aye, it’s a dress, all right, and a fine one at that. Do we have a problem wi’ that?”

Everyone around the table was confident they could take care of Artur with one sudden bang of a fist, but something about the way he posed the question told them that even if they did have a problem with Artur’s choice of outfit, it would probably be unwise to say so.

“Some of my finest pilots wear dresses,” Ridge offered. “Granted, they’re women. Mostly. Lieutenant Duck does have that bearskin…uh, smock that’s questionable, but he was raised by wolves.” Ridge flicked his fingers as if that explained everything.

“It was just an observation,” Rika said holding up her left hand, its three fingers splayed wide. “Other than one old jacket, I haven’t worn clothes in over ten years.”

Artur held Rika’s gaze as he continued his story.

“So, obviously I couldn’t be standin’ for the likes o’ that, so I says to her, ‘Fine,’ I says. ‘I’ll take yer case personally.’ Tells her I’ll get the evidence she’s after, but that it ain’t goin’ to be cheap. I’ve got no feckin’ clue what the goin’ rate is, so I pick a number out of thin air and tell her that’s the price. She jumps at it. Goes for it right away.”

“How much did you charge?” asked Floribeth.

“Eight credits,” said Artur. He winced. “In hindsight, I should’ve asked for more. I mean, what the feck can ye buy for eight credits? Nothin’, that’s what. And I should know; I checked.”

He shook his head, clearly still annoyed at himself. “But anyway, I gets a description of the fella in question, she points me to the bar where I’m likely to find him hangin’ out, and I sets off. I’d only asked for half the money up front, and it turns out ye can’t even get a feckin’ bus wi’ four credits, so I’ve got no choice but to ride the old Shanks’s Pony the whole way.”

There were a few confused looks from those around the table. “Shanks’s Pony?” said Artur again, as if that explained everything. “It means I walked.”

He mimed a walking motion with two fingers in case they hadn’t heard of that, either.

“Four feckin’ blocks,” he continued. “Which might not sound like much, but on heels wi’ legs this size? Let’s just say I wouldn’t recommend it, just in case any o’ ye were thinkin’ about givin’ it a go.”

The looks on the faces of everyone else at the table suggested that no, they hadn’t been.

“Musta taken weeks.” Rika snickered.

“Not weeks, but it did take me ages. I finally get to the pub yer woman told me about, and sure enough, that bollocks o’ a boyfriend has installed himself on a stool by the bar. He’s hunched over his glass, lookin’ all shifty-like. He’s tryin’ to blend in, but this place is a real dive—a proper shoithole—and he stands out a mile. ‘Definitely moneyed,’ I says to meself, which only makes me more annoyed about the eight credits thing.”

Artur stretched up on his tiptoes and took another sip from his straw. The very last remnants of the liquid burbled in the bottom of the glass.

“I hoists meself up onto the bar a few feet from the guy and orders meself a drink. I’ve still only got four credits, so I get a fecking thimbleful of some watered-down orange shoite and make it last. Meanwhile, I’m watching yer man from the corner o’ me eye. Scopin’ him out, like. Detective-style or what have ye.”

He shrugged. “I mean, I’m no expert, but the whole investigatin’ thing seems pretty feckin’ easy at this point. I’m just sittin’ in a pub watchin’ some shady-lookin’ bastard. It’s not rocket science, like.”

“What did he do?” Standish asked.

Artur frowned. “What did who do?

“The guy you were watching.”

“Oh, that gobshoite. That’s the thing. Nothin’. He did feck-all. Over an hour I sat there, waitin’ for him to meet someone or head off to partake in some of the old depravity, but no. Not a thing. He just sits there nursin’ the same drink wi’ the same worried look on his face. Everyone else in the place is scopin’ him out, probably tryin’ to figure out how much money they can sell bits o’ him for later. It was that sort o’ place.”

Artur gave a shrug. “Now, I’m a man of many outstandin’ qualities,” he said. “But patience ain’t one o’ them. I decides to head over to him and see what I can find out, one on one. I’m goin’ to go interrogate the bastard, but subtle-like. I don’t want to put the frighteners on him just yet.

“So across the bar I goes,” Artur continued. He strolled around the tabletop as if reenacting the moment. “He doesn’t look at me until I’m right close up, but then all of a sudden his eyebrows are raisin’ and he’s got this surprised expression on his face like he’s never seen a six-inch-tall transvestite before. Or, maybe he’s just taken aback by me fine beard. I don’t know. Either way, he’s starin’ at me, all wide-eyed-like.”

“Did you say anything to him?” asked Cain.

“Of course, I said somethin’ to him. Ye don’t just stroll up to a fella and not say anythin’ to him. That’s just impolite, and far be it from me to be rude,” said Artur. “I says, ‘Ye all right there, ye ugly great bastard?’ and he looks at me like I’m a piece of shoite on his shoe, so he does.”

Artur prodded a finger into the center of his own chest. “Me! And him the one who’s been up to all sorts in back-alleys with ladies o’ the night. Sure, if anyone should’ve been judgin’ anyone, it should’ve been me judgin’ him. I told him as much, too.” He got more and more irate as he spoke. “I said, ‘Here, ye filthy feckin’ no-good cheatin’ pervert, that ye are. Don’t ye be lookin’ down yer nose at me or I’ll cut the feckin’ thing off and feed it to ye sideways.’”

“What happened to subtle?” Kelsey asked.

“When you’re that small you have to amp it up,” Rika suggested with a wink as she grinned at Artur. “I really want to take you home.”

“I said it in a subtle way,” Artur countered. “Sure, me sayin’ it again to ye now sounds harsh, but I was lighthearted about it, ye know? It was all said as a bit o’ fun, wi’ no harm intended.”

“Did he take it that way?” Kelsey asked with a skeptical expression.

“To be honest, no,” Artur admitted. “He looks more worried than ever, and he starts shoutin’ at me. ‘Now!’ he says. ‘Now! Now! Now!’ And I’m lookin’ up at him, wonderin’, ‘What the feck’s he shoutin’ “Now” at me for?’ Ye know? I’m thinkin’, ‘What’s this bastard up to now?’”

Artur rocked on his high heels and lowered his voice to barely above a whisper. “And that’s when I notice.”

Amanda leaned closer “Notice what?”

For a moment, Artur was too distracted by Amanda’s breasts to respond. She glanced down at her chest and then back at Artur.

“Yeh like what yeh see, little man?”

“Sure, ye could say that,” he answered with a wink, eventually finding his voice.

Amanda laughed and sat back. “Keep dreaming, little man, keep dreaming.”

“Anyway, the other lads in the bar? The ones who were all watchin’ yer man?” Artur said. “I realizes that they aren’t watchin’ him, at all. They’re watchin’ me.”

His voice quickly rose again until he was back to full volume. “I figures it out right before one o’ them tries to make a grab for me. He’s an Igneon, the lad, made o’ some kind o’ living rock or what have ye. I know from experience that those bastards don’t go down easy, but I’m not about to let them get the jump on me, so I dodges out of his way, leaps off the bar, an’ I sticks the head in the bastard. BANG! I just throws meself at him, drives me head into his chin, and that’s all she wrote. Lights out. Down ye go. Thank ye very much.”

Charline whistled quietly, impressed. “You knocked him out?”

“Huh? Oh, no. I knocked meself out. Sure, it was like headbuttin’ a brick wall. What I was thinkin’, I’ll never know. Totally should’ve seen it comin’.”

Artur rubbed the top of his head, feeling for a bump that had long since gone down.

“Anyway, I wake up a while later tied to the leg of a chair, surrounded by the stench o’ death,” he continued. “I know, right away that it’s me mate. They’ve got him.”

“They killed your friend?” Ridge asked.

“Who, that smelly big bastard? No. He’s been dead for ages. Sure, it’s one of his best qualities. Maybe his only good quality, now that I think about it,” Artur said. “They’ve got him tied up just like me, only he’s tied to the whole chair, not just one leg of it. Ye know, because of him bein’ a lot bigger ‘n I am.”

“That wouldn’t exactly be hard.” Rika giggled and rested her chin on her hand. “Seriously, you should come with me. I can get you a huge mech body. You’ll be awesome. I mean, if I didn't have Niki in my head translating I wouldn't have a clue what you’re saying, but I think that’s part of your charm.”

Artur glared at her. “Met a fella named Mech once. Right arsehole,” he said. “I’ll pass, thanks.”

He looked around at everyone else, making sure they weren’t about to interrupt him, then continued.

“Anyway, Deadman, me mate, he’s got an arm missin’, one of his feet is hangin’ off, and he’s lost his hat.”

“Nasty.” Floribeth grimaced.

“Tell me about it,” replied Artur. “He feckin’ loves that hat.

“Anyway, he’s right across from me, an’ I can tell he’s pleased to see me. He probably knows he’s up the old Shoite Creek, an’ I’m the only one wi’ a big enough paddle to get him out of it. I swear, he’s practically cryin’,’” Artur said. “Although that may’ve just been because o’ the hat.”

He shrugged. “Either way, he’s not lookin’ to be in the best o’ shape, so I reckon that whatever mess he’s got himself into, it’s up to Muggins here to sort it out. I’m about to break meself out of the ropes that are holdin’ me when who appears but yer woman. Dauphin Soise, the client.”

“Aaah, a setup,” Amanda commented.

“Ye bet yer big gorgeous arse it was,” Artur agreed. “She knew she couldn’t take me herself, so she arranged for me to go to the bar where her lads could grab me. The whole thing was a setup. Her boyfriend was nothin’ o’ the sort, just some lackey who worked for her.”

Artur strutted across the table, shoulders back, chest puffed out. “So up she comes, tryin’ to look all scary-like, and then she bends down an’ eyeballs me, an’ says, ‘Give me the key.’

“An’ I’m like, ‘What key?’ Ye know? ‘What the feck are you talkin’ about, ye mad cow?’

“An’ she’s givin’ it, ‘Ye know full well what key. The Key of Effenine. Cut yer shoite.’

“An’ I’m like, ‘Sure, I don’t have the faintest feckin’ clue what ye’re talkin’ about.’ An’ that’s when we notice that Deadman is laughin’. Just sittin’ there, tied to his chair, laughin’ his bollocks off at the pair o’ us.

“Me an’ yer woman just sort of look at each other, then we both ask him what he’s finding funny, but he just shakes his head and says it’s nothin’. He’s rememberin’ a joke, he says, which I know is bollocks because Deadman never remembers jokes, and also has a shoite sense of humor.

“I don’t buy it, but I don’t get a chance to say as much because yer woman starts interferin’ wit’ me. An’ not in a good way, I hasten to add,” Artur continued. “She pulls the string she’s got me tied up with tighter so that it’s almost slicin’ me into pieces. ‘Where’s the Key?’ she’s askin’. ‘Where’s the Key of Effenine?’”

Artur sighed. “I mean, I had no idea what the feck she was bangin’ on about, but I was in no mood to be sliced to pieces, so I says, ‘It’s in me pocket.’ Only, I don’t take into account the fact that this key she’s after is bigger than me pocket. And also, I don’t have any pockets. She sees right through it, so she does.

She points to Deadman, who’s still strugglin’ to hold it together through laughin’, and says, ‘He told us you had the key.’ An’ I’m like, ‘Oh, did he, now? Well, ye can’t go listenin’ to everything that bollock-faced gobshoite tells ye.’”

Artur held up a finger as if about to make a point of deep importance.

“An’ that is when her face fell off.”

There was a confused silence from all sides of the table.

“Her face fell off?” echoed Charline.

“Just fell right off,” Artur confirmed. “An’ behind it was this, like, swirlin’ mass of darkness, ye know what I mean? Just a void of nothin’, like an endless abyss that wants to suck ye dry. Again, not in a good way, ye know?”

Not really,” said Charline. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen that before.”

Artur nodded. “No, I suppose ye really had to be there to appreciate it. Feckin’ scary it was, though. And it wasn’t just her face, either. The rest of her just kind of fell off, too. One minute she’s a fine figure of a woman with a hole for a face, the next, she’s mostly just hole.

“But, as I watch, she starts changin’ shape. She goes from woman to hole to this big scary-lookin’ bastard with arms comin’ out of its legs, and, like, nine faces where its tits should be.”

“There’s something you don’t see every day,” Kelsey remarked.

“Our dragons can change themselves into all manner of shapes,” Ridge told them, “but they’re more likely to turn into ferrets than nine-faced critters. You’re right, I can’t say that I’ve seen anything like that on a daily basis. Or ever.”

“Ye’d be surprised what crazy shoite I see every day,” said Artur. “Sure, I don’t know if I can remember a case o’ Deadman’s that didn’t end up with some feckin’ monster tryin’ to eat us. He practically invites it.”

Artur gestured up and ahead of him as if seeing someone up there. “And Deadman, he’s still there enjoyin’ the show. Just sittin’ there, tied up, watchin’ this fecker unfold and reform itself in front o’ me, so I asks him again, ‘What’s so feckin’ funny?’”

A grin spread across Artur’s face, appearing like a crack in his beard. “And that’s when I notice the time. It’s late. It’s real late. It’s ‘time for me to become a lairy bastard’ late. And suddenly, I know why Deadman told them I had this key they were after. He had it all planned out. He knew they’d nab me; knew they’d bring me there to that spot. Knew what’d happen when they thought I was all tied up and helpless-like.”

He shot accusing looks at some of the others at the table. “See, yer woman or monster or whatever she was, she wasn’t worried about me on account o’ me size. She thought I was just a funny little fella in a fetchin’ dress, and that once I was tied up, there was nothin’ I could do.”

Artur’s face darkened. “She was mistaken.”

He put his hands behind his back, miming being tied to the chair leg. “So, she’s standin’ over me now, and she’s totally changed. She’s all teeth and faces and these fat tentacle things slapping the ground around me, tryin’ to put the wind up me and get me to spill the beans. Only, I’ve got other ideas.”

With a grunt, Artur pretended to pull himself free, snapping the imaginary string that had been holding him in place. “I breaks out of me bonds—ruinin’ their chair in the process, I might add—and instinct kicks in. It’s me against some great nasty demon-monster thing, and so I do what I always do in such a situation. I deploy Old Faithful.”

“I don’t know if I dare ask, but what’s old Faithful?” Amanda inquired.

“Ye know how everyone has their favorite fighting move? For some it’s a flyin’ kick. Maybe ye favor the headbutt or the spinnin’ elbow, or just a good old-fashioned toe-punt to the balls. Everyone has that one special move they fall back on time and time again. I’m no different. That’s me Old Faithful.”

“And what does it involve, you amazing little man?” asked Rika.

“In a nutshell,” said Artur, puffing out his cheeks, “I climb up their arse.”

There was silence from around the table.

“I might need that other stuff again,” Bethany Anne looked at her Coke. “I’m not sure I want to know what you are about to say without being drunk.”

“Stars, I’ve never been so grateful not to have that particular hole,” Rika said, her eyes wide with a mixture of amusement and horror.

“I climb up and insert meself, and then I just sort of go wild in there, ye know? Just find anything that looks interesting, and leather seven shades o’ shite out o’ it. Sometimes literally, depending on the physiology o’ the victim in question.”

The silence around the table deepened.

“Yup.” BA sighed, running her hand across her forehead, eyes closed. “I did need that drink… or five.”

“So, I install meself right up there, and I can hear the bastard start thrashin’ about, lashin’ out, throwin’ stuff around and what have ye. Meanwhile, I’ve found somethin’ big an’ lumpy, and I’m layin’ boots into it. Just goin’ at it, drivin’ the big bastard crazy.”

Artur sucked in his bottom lip. “But there was one thing I hadn’t counted on,” he said. “Sphincter control. This monster thing, whatever it was, had some of the finest sphincter control I’ve ever witnessed. Everythin’ around me just went tight. Rigid-like. Suddenly me arms are pinned to me sides an’ it’s like I’m being suffocated.”

“Shite,” said Amanda.

“I wish it would’ve!” Artur replied. “That would’ve made life a lot easier.”

“So what did you do?” asked Rika, giggling again.

“As luck would have it, in all the thing’s thrashin’ around it had knocked Deadman’s chair over, and the great ugly eejit had managed to get himself free. He must’ve found his gun somewhere because next thing I hear is his voice. Muffled, like, because I’m still stuck up the thing’s arse, but clear enough.

“‘Mindy,’ he says. ‘Brown Noise.’”

Artur’s grin returned. “And I know then that I’m going to be all right. In the long run, I mean. I’m aware that the immediate future isn’t goin’ to be a barrel o’ feckin’ laughs, but in the long run, I’m goin’ to be fine.

“Ye see, Deadman’s gun can do all kinds of fancy tricks. Slowdown rounds slow folks down. Stun rounds stun ‘em.”

“What does Brown Noise do?” asked Cain.

“Oh gods, no…” Amanda muttered.

“Perhaps another drink,” BA looked at her empty glass wistfully.

Ridge waved BOB over and pointed to his empty mug rather urgently.

“Makes them explosively shoite themselves,” Artur explained. “Like, just a volcanic eruption. Like a fountain o’ shoite that just won’t stop coming. Fleeeeeeeeeeeuuuuurrrrbbbblllb. Just a hot, bubbling geyser o’—”

Rika burst out laughing, chest heaving as she gasped for air between each guffaw as tears streamed her face. “Oh, stars shitting in the black, this is the best thing ever. You’re like a tiny version of Barne!”

He waved a hand dismissively as he peered at Rika. “Ye get the idea. So out I comes, ridin’ a wave of the stuff like I’m a feckin’ surfer. I go flyin’ across the room and hit the wall, then sort o’ slide slowly down it, leavin’ this brown streak all the way to the floor like a slug-trail o’ shoite.

Amanda looked down at her drink, pulled a face that suggested she’d gone off the idea, and nudged the glass away while Rika scooped up a nacho chip loaded with chili, motioning for Artur to carry on.

“Yer woman. The monster. Whatever it was, it wasn’t happy,” Artur continued. “I mean, I can’t exactly blame it. If someone turned my nether regions into a hot jet-blast, I’d be less than impressed, too.

“She comes flyin’ at Deadman, tentacles whippin’, faces all screamin’, arse sprayin’ like a feckin’ jetpack behind her. Sure, the force of it lifted her clean off the ground at one point.

“An’ Deadman, cool as ye like, says, ‘Mindy, Explosive Rounds,’ and just blows the bastard to pieces. One shot, that’s all it took. One shot and she becomes just this kind of reddish-brown mist hangin’ there in the air, slowly driftin’ to the floor.”

“She was dead?” asked Rika, appearing dismayed that the story was over.

“Sure, I just told ye she was a mist. I don’t know how she could’ve gotten much deader.” Artur chuckled. “That was a fun night, all right.” He looked around at the others. “Ye know what the moral o’ this story is?”

“No,” Kelsey admitted. “I think I got lost somewhere around the place her face fell off.”

Cain looked catatonic, as if he’d been hit by a stun bolt or seven.

“Ah, that’s a shame,” said Artur. “I was hopin’ ye might be able to tell me. The best I’ve been able to come up wi’ is, ‘Don’t let little fellas get up yer arse,’ but it feels a bit too specific to be much use.”

“How about ‘shit happens?’” Charline asked, and Rika snorted, nodding vigorously.

“Don’t fuck with tiny transvestite leprechauns?” BA proposed.

Artur shrugged. “Sure, one o’ them’ll have to do,” he said, then he snapped his fingers. “Can I get me a drink over here?” he demanded, then gestured vaguely at the group in general. “Now, which o’ you gobshoites is next?”


Interlude

BOB picked up Artur’s empty glass, replacing it with another Slurgian Thrungmasher and pink lemonade. This was his third, and each serving massed about the same as the little human’s body. Add his own entire plate of Nachos, and BOB wasn’t sure how Artur was consuming it all. The thought hit him that Artur’s stomach might be a gate of its own into the Multiverse. If so, that would be a first from all of BOB’s missions, and it would certainly please the Collector.

If it crossed-connected the Interobio scan with the Klip-S interface and run that through the Tau lens, then maybe it could . . .

Whatever BOB was contemplating, its thoughts were cut short by the response to Artur’s challenge. Three hands shot up, but Rika beat the other two to the punch.


Rika Reposed By M.D. Cooper

“OK, so I think my story kinda follows Artur’s in spirit,” Rika said while looking around the table at the curious faces. “It’s a good one, and hopefully it makes sense to everyone.”

“How strange can it be?” Amanda asked.

Kelsey squinted at the other woman. “Have you been listening to these stories?”

Amanda smiled.

“Before I start…” Rika turned to face the bar. “BOB, can you get me another growler, or do I need to get up and grab it myself?”

Amanda giggled, holding back a laugh that suddenly burst forth in a snort.

Rika glanced at her. “What, you don’t laugh at the shite rocket, but that’s funny? You OK?”

“Yeah, sure. I’m fine, it’s just... BOB’s grabbing your what?” Amanda asked.

“My growler. I’m thirsty. I’m a bit like Kelsey there—takes a lot to satisfy me. A full growler really quenches that thirst.”

Amanda laughed out loud this time, breaking down in uncontrollable chuckles with tears rolling down her cheeks. “I’m sorry, I am, really.”

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Rika asked as BOB passed her a brown jug of beer and she hooked a finger in the handle. “It’s just a drink. Surely you’ve had a growler or two in your time?”

Amanda, who had taken a sip of wine to steady herself, smirked again, spraying wine over Artur. “Well, I suppose so, yes,” she giggled.

“Feck me, it’s raining wine!” Artur exclaimed.

“Right, that’s it. What the hell am I saying that’s so funny?” Rika demanded.

Amanda placed her glass on the table and composed herself. “In certain places on my Earth, the UK specifically, ‘growler’ is slang for a vagina,” she explained with a smile.

Rika’s lips parted, forming an ‘O’ of surprise, then she barked a laugh. “That’s amazing. I’m calling it that from now on. Kinda fits with us mechs, anyway.”

“Glad I was able to help,” Amanda said, composing herself for the most part once more.

“Right.” Rika nodded, looking around the table at the group. “So, I work for a merc outfit called the Marauders. About half a year ago, I got bumped up to captain and put in charge of a whole company of mechs…. People like me, that is.”

“I think a company of cyborg women is cool,” Kelsey said enthusiastically. “Where do I sign up?”

Rika chuckled. “Don’t get too excited—or maybe do. There aren’t that many SMI-2 models—that’s what I am. Most of them are FRs and AMs, which means big, bulky guys. Anyway, before becoming captain of M Company, I ran a spec-ops team called Basilisk.

“There were four of us in Basilisk: Chase, Leslie, Barne, and me, obviously. This was a bit of a weird transition time. We were getting ready to head out to a planet called Iapetus, where we were going to train a group of mechs we’d liberated from a raging asshole named Stavros.”

Rika stopped and shuddered. “He was the biggest motherfucking piece of scum you’ve ever seen in your life. Like…raping-women-in-front-of-his-daughter kind of scum.”

“Shit…” Charline growled. “I sure hope you killed him.”

“Stars belchin’ in the black, we did. Well, Barne did. Blew the asshole’s brains out. We freed his little tin-pot empire, too. A lot of folks were pretty grateful, but some were right pissed at us for raining on their depravity parade.”

Rika paused and took a swig of the brown ale from her growler before continuing.

“So, Leslie and I decided that we needed to go out on the town and have a good time, and when the guys heard about it, they decided to come along. Granted, the ‘town’ was a thousand-kilometer-long arc called the Isthmus—used to be Stavros’s center of government—and was in orbit of a planet called Sparta.

“We had just returned to the Isthmus after kicking ass in a few places around the system and debated going downworld, but things were still a bit unsettled down there, so we decided to stay on the station for our night out.

“Now.” Rika looked around at the assembled group. “Chase is pretty much straight up vanilla, as is Barne—well, he has a prosthetic arm, but it looks normal, so you can’t tell. I look pretty regular—for a mech—but Leslie is a bit unusual. She’s got a big thing for stealth, sniping, and the like, so she’s taken on sort of a cat look. Normally, it’s just her jet-black skin and yellow eyes, but for the job taking down Stavros she went full kitty: cute little ears, tail, some soft fur running down the back of her neck. Honestly, it’s driving Barne wild, but I can’t tell if he likes it or is annoyed by it—which is typical Barne.

“Anyway, Leslie finds this sleek black dress that pretty much dances across her body when she walks, and I’m feeling a bit underdressed, so I find a long coat to wear so I at least don’t look like I’m a walking tank. Chase shows up in a smart looking outfit with the tight jacket and loose pants that are the style out in that neck of the woods. He’s got…uhhh…a rather well-defined chest, so I’m in favor of him showing it off.”

“Nice,” Amanda muttered.

Rika winked at Amanda. “I sure thought so. Then Barne shows up in light tactical armor, and we all shrug it off because…well…no one’s ever gotten Barne to do something he doesn’t want to do.

“‘So, where’re we going tonight, then?’ Chase asked us. ‘Since Barne and I are crashing and all, we’ll go wherever you ladies are headed.’

“Leslie shot Chase one of her measuring looks—she has them in spades—and asked, ‘You game for the Golden Banana? I hear that if you buy three lap dances, you get a free drink.’”

Rika laughed at the memory. “I’ll always remember the look Chase gave me. It was a combination of ‘Dear stars, no,’ and ‘You were going to a strip club?’ with maaaaabye a bit of ‘let’s go!’ Luckily, he didn’t have to say anything, because you could always count on Barne to chime in when there was opportunity for something inappropriate.

“‘How many free drinks you think I’ll get after I lop off some bananas?’ he asked.

“‘Just like always, Barne,’ Leslie told him, shaking her head while we walked through the ship’s passages to the airlock. ‘Jealous of all the other bananas; don’t you ever have anything nice to say?’

“‘Seriously?’ he’d asked. ‘I thought of seven things way worse than that before I settled on that. I figured it was something your tender ears could handle.’

Rika took a swig of her beer and glanced around at her audience. “Now, Leslie was still getting used to her tail. Normally she just swished it around all soft and sensuous—which matched the cover she’d gotten it for—but she’d also been working on using it as a weapon. In this case, she whipped it at the back of Barne’s head, giving it a good snap.”

“At least she didn’t crawl up someone’s butt, thank the makers.” Cain looked contemplative for a moment as if assessing the possible military application of such a maneuver before he shook his head, apparently dismissing it out of hand. He leaned forward, elbows on the table, and listened intently.

“OK, so after Barne was done complaining about how Leslie’s tail had hurt—which stopped when I asked if he wanted me to kiss his tender noggin better—we’d reached the ship’s airlock and passed the Marauders on guard duty, heading out onto the station.

“The ship was docked with one of the station’s main passenger terminals…. Not the sort of place a military cruiser usually snugs up to, but it put us close to the Isthmus’s command decks, and we had a lot of decent options up there.”

“‘Let’s go somewhere we haven’t been before,’ Leslie’d suggested, and Chase seconded it with an ‘Oo-Rah.’ Barne, however, gave us all a measuring look at that.

“‘I know just the place.’ I remember how warily Barne said that—it should have been a sign. ‘I haven’t been there myself, but I’ve heard some of the other Marauders talk about it.”

Rika paused once more and surveyed her audience, a grin settling on her lips.

“OK, so I know this doesn’t seem like too much is going on, but trust me, we’re going to take a left turn real fast. Next, Chase asks Barne, ‘Sooo…is this the wrestling place?’

“Barne nodded vigorously, and I remember sharing a worried look with Leslie before he replied, ‘Yeah. From what I hear, it’s amazing. It was all underground when Stavros ran the joint, but now that he’s dead, it’s public again. I guess when this whole area was known as the Kendo Empire, this…sport was pretty common.’”

“I feel like I should add,” Niki spoke via the audible systems on Rika’s armor, “that I knew all about this place, and I may have been egging Barne on over the Link because I wanted to see what would happen when we went there.”

“Seriously?” Rika asked, mouth agape. “You never told me that before! Someone could have died.”

“Yeah…well…I bet none of that would have happened if you’d gotten in the ring to help,” Niki shot back. “Honestly, you’re too fastidious, Rika. Get dirty every now and then.”

Rika rolled her eyes. “Says the AI who has never had to carefully pick bits of dirt and rock out of her joints.”

“I’m sure you make it out to be worse than it is.”

“Oooh, you’ve got an AI, Rika. Hello, care to introduce yourself?” Amanda asked.

“Sorry, I’m Niki. I didn’t mean to lurk, just never know how people feel about AIs,” Niki said. “I share headspace with Rika here.”

“What’s an AI?” Ridge asked.

“Artificial Intelligence, like a machine mind,” Niki clarified, “though technically we prefer the term ‘Non-organic intelligence,’ since there’s nothing artificial about us.”

Ridge frowned thoughtfully and touched the hilt of the sword he carried with him. “Sounds a bit like my wife’s soulblade.” His eyes widened, and he yanked his hand back from the hilt. “Never mind. Jaxi also objects to being called ‘artificial.’ She prefers sublime.”

“Sublime!” Niki said with a laugh. “Now that, I like. Rika, I am now a sublime intelligence.”

“OK, Niki. You keep telling yourself that.” Rika shook her head. “Anyway, where was I?”

“AI not understanding the peculiarities of dirt, rocks, and joints along with wrestling,” BA replied.

“Right, right. So Leslie and I weren’t too keen on wrestling. I mean, don’t get me wrong; I’m a young, red-blooded woman—mostly. Watching a bunch of sweaty guys grapple each other doesn’t hurt my eyes or anything, but it’s not really at the top of my list for a fun time. Problem was, Barne and Chase kept giggling like five-year-olds that had just stuck a ‘Kick Me’ sign on their sister’s back, which meant that Leslie and I were fully expecting to see a bunch of naked women in the ring.”

Rika took another swig of her beer before continuing. “So, with our curiosity piqued, we decided to go along for the ride—which is kinda funny, since it was initially just going to be us going out. The boys have a way of taking over our outings.

“The place ended up being waaaay down in the Isthmus’s bowels, over four hundred decks down. When we finally get there, we’re in the part of the station that everyone likes to pretend doesn’t exist, and I’m starting to get worried that this wrestling match is going to take place in the middle of a waste processing plant.

BA’s eyebrow rose as she whispered toward Artur, “Another story of shite?”

“Beats the feck out o’ me,” he replied.

“The only thing that kept Leslie and me down there was the fact that there were a number of other people all headed in the same direction, and most of them were dressed well enough—some even respectable looking.

“We finally get to this big set of doors with two massive guys on either side, and they just give us a once-over and nod us through. There’s a sizable crowd around us at this point, and Leslie caught my eye and gave a ‘let’s see it through’ shrug. One thing we’d both decided was that there was no way any sort of regular wrestling was taking place down there—nor was it likely to be naked women in jelly.

“The doors opened into a long corridor, and there was another hulk directing us to take a right through another set of doors. Above those doors there’s some old paint that says something like ‘Aux Maintenance Bay,’ and we step through into an old docking bay. I guess it must have been used once upon a time for direct access for maintaining some of the equipment in the station’s bowels, but given that bleachers were built up across the exterior doors, it was safe to assume it hadn’t seen any sort of legitimate use in some time.

“In the center of the space was a round pit, easily fifteen meters across.” Rika stopped and met each set of eyes around the table, grinning as she did so. “The pit was filled with some sort of rubbery grease that seemed to liquefy when still, and congeal when hit. I know this because just then, a guy in an inflatable T-Rex suit got kicked onto it, the stuff hardened, and he slapped it like…well…something rubbery getting slapped by a guy in an inflatable T-Rex suit.”

<Good description,> Niki said with a laugh.

<You want to tell the story?> Rika shot back.

<Not at all. I want to see if you can pull it off or if you crash and burn.>

<Just loving all the moral support here.>

“What’s a T-Rex and why is it in a suit?” Kelsey asked.

“You know, a dinosaur? Like the things they have on those animal refuge worlds? The big ones, all fangs…well, the real ones have teeth—they’re not too fangy when it’s an inflatable suit. But listen, that was only the half of it. The guy who had knocked him back was in some sort of weird, stubby dog costume. I learned later it was called a corgi. Not sure how he had his legs folded up to fit in there, but he was pretty ferocious. He had armor on his back and, somehow, a big, plastic mace in his hand. He jumped on the T-Rex, and the crowd went wild.

“Right about then, Leslie punched Barne in the shoulder, and said, ‘OK, If you’d told me it was a place like this, I would have stopped somewhere and gotten a costume!’”

“‘You know about...whatever this is?’ I asked. ‘Is this a thing that no one’s told me about?’

“‘Oh hell yeah.’ Chase nodded vigorously. ‘Well, if by ‘a thing’ you mean ‘something that happens deep in the bowels of stations that no one really talks about,’ then yes. You don’t always find a good group that’s really into it—but it looks like these people totally are.’

“I said something about how it really must all be about gambling, and Chase coughed behind his hand—which meant he planned on placing some bets. I was about to ask how much, when Barne interrupted. He was grinning at Leslie like he was about to have a religious experience and said, ‘Les, you don’t need a costume, just go as you are.’”

“Now remember, Leslie looks like a cross between a woman, a panther, and pure sex appeal right now. Of course, it was right about then that Leslie and I realized why Barne had wanted to go there so badly.

“Thing is,” Rika said with a laugh, “Barne never gets the best of Leslie. She just played him right off, running a hand down her side. ‘In this dress? You’re out of your mind if you think I’d go in that pit wearing this.’ Barne opened his mouth to try and convince her—and it probably would have been the very definition of crass—but Leslie held up a single finger.

“‘Think very carefully about what you’re going to say next, Barne.’

“Given Leslie’s recent kill count in combat—I’ll give you a hint, she was in the lead—it won’t surprise you to learn that he did not say a word and we found some seats, settling in to watch the current bout.

“The corgi had given the T-Rex some really good wallops to the head with his plastic mace, but the weapon didn’t hold up well, so once it bent, the dinosaur guy managed to get back on his feet and level some kicks at the corgi. Then they got all tangled up and rolled around for a bit, until finally the corgi was on top of the T-Rex, and he started jumping on him till the dino-guy called out ‘Yield!’

“The crowd was on their feet cheering like they’d just watched true gladiators fight. The two fighters cleared out of the ring to make room for a pair of women. One was dressed like a tree, her arms up in these big, thick branches, and the other was dressed like a beaver—”

Rika glanced at Artur, who had started to open his mouth. “No, little robot man, not that kind of beaver. The one that chews on trees and makes dams. I have no idea if this beaver versus tree matchup was planned or if it was just luck of the draw. Anyway, they went at it for a while, and the beaver-woman was doing her best to fight the match in character, gnawing at the tree-woman with these big, long, rubbery teeth that did absolutely nothing…. Honestly, I don’t know what her plan was. Eventually, the tree-woman just sat on her, and that was that. It was kinda anticlimactic and a few ‘boos’ came from the crowd.

“Right about then, Leslie got up to get us all drinks at the bar next to the bleachers, while these two massive dudes got into the pit. One was dressed like some sort of cop, and the other was dressed like a firefighter. They seemed to be a bit into the more…sensual aspect of wrestling, and I got bored with it. I wanted to see more corgi versus T-Rex kinda action!

“I also thought it was a sure thing that the cop was going to win, ‘cuz he had this massive, meter-long club, but then the firefighter activated this weird rig on his back, and it started sucking up all the grease and spraying it at the cop. It hosed down the first two rows, too, but they all just cheered like mad. The cop didn’t stand a chance; the spray blew him right out of the ring, and the firefighter did a victory lap, blasting the grease up into the air and dancing in the weird, goopy rain.

“Once their match was done, the announcer called out that it was time for King of the Hill. At the exact same time, I saw this all-black figure step up to the edge of the pit.

“‘What the fuck?’ Barne blurted out. ‘Is that Leslie?’

“‘Oh, crap,’ Chase muttered, giving me a worried look. ‘Look at her dress, it’s covered in that grease. The firefighter must have hosed her down.’”

“Awesome,” Amanda commented.

Rika laughed. “Well, Barne sure thought so. He was shaking his head, somehow looking both delighted and sad at the same time, and said, ‘Damn…she never brought our beers. But I’m sure as hell not going to grab one while this is going on.’

“While Barne tried to convince Chase to go get beers for us, I reached out to Leslie over the Link—which is how we talk mind-to-mind.

<That looks nasty. You going in for payback?>, I asked her, then saw that she was tearing off the lower half of her dress and I thanked the stars she was wearing underwear. Then she tied it around the lower half of her face like a mask. I guess she was going for some sort of cat-ninja look or something.

“Cat ninja in her underwear?” Floribeth asked, rolling her eyes.

<Yeah,> Leslie replied, a bit tersely if I remember correctly. <That fireman fucker’s going down. There’s no way I’d’ve gotten this shit out of my dress—it’s ruined! I’m gonna make him suck on his own hose.>

“<Well, it’s definitely ruined now that you’ve torn it. Just…don’t kill anyone, OK?> I swear this was supposed to be a joke, and I wondered if she’d take it that way.

“<Don’t worry, I’m just going to remind him where not to spray his hose.>

“Up above, a holoroster appeared over the pit, and Leslie and three other wrestlers were up first. Whoever won that round would go on to take on another trio of opponents, and so on, until one person came out on top. I could see that Leslie was gonna have to fight her way through four rounds to get to firefighter guy.

“‘You want the same thing as before?’ Chase asked while standing up. I guess he’d decided that getting Barne a beer was preferable to having the surly old fart badger him about it for the rest of the match.

“I told him ‘Yeah,’ and remember stretching up to give him a kiss—Chase and I are an item, if I hadn’t mentioned that bit before—and then pushed him aside so I could watch Leslie climb into the ring. Her tail was swishing so much, I wondered if she even knew what it was doing back there.

“Her first opponents were the T-Rex, the cop, and the beaver woman. A horn sounded, and Leslie barreled straight at the cop and elbowed him in the face before wrestling his baton away and whapping the T-Rex upside the head. I’m pretty sure it didn’t connect with anything…his actual head was lower down, but it made a hilarious ‘fwubub’ sound. A second later, the beaver-women smashed into the T-Rex and knocked him out of the ring. She almost followed after, but managed to stop herself in time.

“‘Why the hell didn’t she fight like that with the tree-woman?’ Barne yelled shoving a fist right in front of me, obscuring my view. ‘I had money on her then!’”

Rika had said the words in her best Barne impression, but knew she really couldn’t do him justice. She took another pull from her growler—smiling at the new slang term she had—before carrying on.

“So while that was going on, the cop closed with Leslie. I could hear him bellowing for her to give his baton back, but Les only laughed at him. Was kinda nice to see…. She hadn’t laughed in a bit. Then again, the sound she made was more of a ‘I’ll break your arm if you try to take it back’ laugh, which was kinda scary, if you ask me.

“Even though he was pissed at beaver-woman, Barne was going mad with glee to see Leslie fighting in the grease pit, alternating between slurs for the cop and encouragement for Leslie.

“The two traded blows for a bit, the cop trying to close with Leslie, while she danced away. Then beaver-woman was back in the mix, and the three of them circled each other for almost a minute when suddenly the cop lunged at Leslie; she tried to dash out of the way, but the rapid movement made the grease solidify around her legs, and she went down with the cop landing on top of her.

“Beaver-woman piled on, too, and it just turned into this thrashing melee. I started to get a bit worried for Leslie—she was down on the bottom of the pile—but she’d not sent out a call for help over the Link, so I let her have at it.

“Suddenly, she was standing up, but the other two were still fighting it out. She swung her baton down—I’m not sure how she was still holding it—on the cop, catching him right in the bridge of the nose. Then she grabbed the beaver-woman by her costume’s big, floppy teeth, hauled her to the edge of the pit, and flung her over the side.

“The cop guy had struggled to his feet, and blood was just pouring down his face. He looked like he was going to try Leslie again, but she took a menacing step toward him and he backpedaled, falling out of the pit, much to the crowd’s delight.

“At that point, the announcer came on proclaiming ‘The Cat Burglar’ to be the victor of the first round, and another batch of contenders formed up to get in on the action.”

“Beaver-woman? The Cat Burglar?” Kelsey just shook her head. “Wow.”

“Only the finest become cops, I see,” Floribeth added.

“Leslie went through the next two rounds without any trouble, and I could tell she was having a blast. Honestly, after what we’d been through over the last month or so, we all needed to decompress, and that ridiculous costume combat was just the thing. Granted, Leslie wasn’t really in much of a costume, but I guess it was enough for the crowds. I mean, she looked hot, so that helped; in my experience, an attractive woman can get away with a lot.

“Chase came back before long with my beer and I was just finishing it off when the fourth round started. This was the one we’d been waiting for, the one with the firefighter guy.

“Mmmm, love a good firefighter,” Amanda mused.

Rika laughed at the red-headed woman. “Well, I’m more into men with some mods, but I suppose a firefighter would do in a pinch.

“OK, so down in the ring I could see how pissed Leslie was—just glaring at the firefighter as he stepped into the ring. Then she bent down and scooped up a big glob of slime, flinging it right in his face before things even kicked off. When the bell did sound, she went right for the guy, still holding the baton.

“Now, if you haven’t picked up on it, I should remind you that this whole thing was kinda meant to be more fun than serious. No one is supposed to get very badly hurt. However, Leslie had been riding that line the whole time, and with firefighter guy, she totally crossed it.

“You see, while it looked like he was in a big suit of professional gear, the costume was mostly foam—barring the machine he’d used to suck up and spray the grease.

“‘That was a bad move,’ Barne commented on Leslie’s grease lobbing. ‘She’s gonna get it with both barrels.’

“Sure enough, the firefighter guy blasted twin streams of grease at Leslie before she even reached him, bowling her right over. Especially problematic for her was that the other two people in the ring—the tree woman, and a guy wearing a big, foam, mech costume—both went for her as well. Obviously, they’d all identified her as the biggest threat and wanted to get her out of the way.

“So both the tree-woman and foam-mech guy dove on top of Leslie, and for the second time, I worried I’d have to go down there and fish her out. I guess I made to rise, because Barne put a hand on my shoulder.

“‘Don’t,’ he said. ‘She’ll be pissed if you pull her out.’”

“So I sat there, wishing I had nails to chew, while the firefighter gets in close and pulls tree-woman aside so he can blast Leslie some more. But then her foot comes out of the flailing mass and catches him right between the legs. She hit hard enough to lift him off his feet, and he fell forward onto the mech-guy.

Bethany Anne grimaced. “Damn, sack attack.”

Artur glanced at her. “Ye can’t do better?”

Bethany Anne shrugged. “BOBby Broken-Nuts, Charlie No-Sack, his balls be jingled, those swamp nuts be sprouting mud, the nuggets be crushed, the family jewels be cracked, those grapes be made for wine, that’s a pair of sad ‘nads.” She stopped when Artur put up a hand.

Rika grinned at Bethany Anne before continuing. “I’ll have to remember some of those. Now, the crowd had been screaming with delight when Leslie went down, but when she nailed the firefighter in the junk, it was just a sea of groans. I was worried that the crowd wanted her to lose, but when she got back to her feet—barely recognizable, all covered in the brown grease—they just cheered all the louder.”

“As Leslie was wrestling with the tree-woman—who was surprisingly robust—I noticed a half-dozen people making their way down the aisles. Not that it was unusual, but they were all wearing long, dark cloaks and were moving at a pace that would have them arriving at the pit simultaneously.

“I asked Niki, <See that?>

“Of course I’d already seen them,” Niki chimed in, addressing the group. “So I highlighted the weapon bulges I could make out under their cloaks and initiated a combat net for the group.”

Rika nodded and resumed the story.

<Hostiles incoming,> I warned Leslie over the Link, and saw her head snap up and take in the sight of the six people advancing on her—which resulted in her taking a thick rubber branch to the face.

<Think they’re coming for her?> Barne asked, already out of his seat and moving down the aisle toward the pit. I remember making some sort of non-committal response as I signaled for Chase to move to the next aisle on the right while I pushed through the stands to the left, our goal being to come down behind the attackers…or whatever they were.

“By the time I reached my aisle, the figures in black were only five meters from the pit, so I loped down the steps to catch up to them.

“I was just a couple meters from the guy in my aisle when I realized that Leslie had somehow taken the firefighter’s grease cannons from him, and was aiming one nozzle at the dark figure in front of me, and the other at the woman standing in the aisle to my left.”

Rika chuckled at the memory. “I didn’t even have time to warn her off before she opened up with the cannons, screaming something like, ‘You want a piece of this?!’”

“Say hello to my little friend,” Kelsey intoned while making machine gun gestures.

Amanda giggled. “I'm Tony Montana! You fuck with me, you fuckin' with the best!” Amanda added, putting on her best Al Pacino accent.

Cain laughed, but it was the weapon stored in the slot harness on Rika’s back that held his attention.

Rika looked at the two women and cocked her head. “No idea what that reference is, but I think you’ve captured Leslie’s intent. I dove to the side, but so did the cloaked guy in front of me, and Leslie followed, hosing us both. To this day, she claims that she didn’t see me, but I’m not so sure—largely because she got me in the face. Of course, she’ll tell you that’s just because I’m so freakishly tall.

“So anyway, she hoses two of them, but the other four whip out pulse rifles—not sure if you have them where you’re from, but they fire concussive shockwaves. They’re not lethal at more than a meter’s range, but they can pack enough of a punch that you might wish they’d put you down for good.

“All around us the crowd is deathly quiet—well, except for some who are chomping on whatever snack they had in hand…. Oh, plus a girl who’s in the aisle, puking up some of the grease she got in her mouth.

“Then the guy Barne is creeping up behind calls out, ‘You’re that woman who sang at the Officer’s Club a few weeks back. We got a job for you.’

“Now, this is rather perplexing to me, because I thought everyone there knew we were Marauders, but then I realized that since we’d been flying all over the Peloponnese System, taking out pockets of bad guys, it was entirely possible that Leslie’s actual employer was unknown to these tools. All they knew was that aside from being the hottest grease-covered woman they’d ever seen, Leslie had a set of pipes that could make demons cry.

“‘I got a job already,’ she yelled back. ‘Hosing down assholes like you...uh...with this grease! You want some?’”

Rika looked around the table. “Yeah, Leslie sometimes fails at her one-liners pretty bad. That was one of those times and I felt kinda embarrassed for her.

“Anyway, while that was going on, we were all having a rapid-fire conversation over the Link. You see, Barne was itching for a bit of a fight. He wanted to get down and dirty. But both he and Chase only had pulse pistols, while I was fully armed—I sorta have a thing for not letting myself be vulnerable. Ever. But even if I wasn’t packing enough firepower to kill everyone in the room—which I was—I didn’t really want to get into a fight, since I kinda have trouble throwing a soft punch.”

Rika held up her hand and made a metal fist. “It’s hard not to break stuff when I get into a scuffle—granted, same goes for Barne, with his prosthetic arm…but unlike me, breaking stuff is his favorite thing to do.

“Anyway, I don’t know where it came from, but I got this crazy idea and screamed, ‘Throw them in the ring!’ At first no one moved, but then I grabbed the guy in front of me—who was still trying to get the grease out of his nose—and heaved him into the ring. No more than five seconds later, the crowd was on their feet, wrestling the other five cloaked dingbats into the ring. One of the goons tried to get some shots off with his pulse rifle, but Barne cold-cocked him in the head, and that was that.

“As soon as the six cloaked figures were in the ring, all of the previously vanquished fighters from the night appeared out of nowhere and leaped into the pit, which kicked off this crazy free-for-all. The announcer had found his voice, or come back from the can, or whatever, and was trying to call out what was happening, but there was no way he could keep up.

“Earlier in the evening, I’d spotted a big tank of the grease hanging over the pit, so now I decided to make things extra fun. My GNR—” Rika paused to pat her gun-arm and then the barrel on her back, “—fires depleted uranium rods. I took aim and hit the grease tank with a DPU and cracked it wide open. The shot was a bit loud, but no one really noticed it over the commotion, until a thousand more liters of that glorious, brown goo came pouring dow—”

“Annnnd that was when the cops showed up,” Niki interrupted.

“Of course,” Kelsey grumbled. “Right at the good part.”

“Wait. Weren’t you the cops?” Floribeth asked.

“Well, sorta. See, the Marauders are mercs who mostly work for the Septhian Government—at least, we did at the time—so when we took over the Politica, we invited the Septhians to come in and run the place, since we’re not really set up to police a populace. The folks who showed up at this grease fight were the Septhian Military Police.”

“Called by me,” Niki interjected, “as soon as those cloaked party poopers showed up.”

“Not that it did a lot of good,” Rika continued. “By that point, the entire place was one giant, grease-covered melee and the MPs didn’t stand a chance when everyone there started lobbing grease balls at them.

“In all the commotion, Chase got to the edge of the pit and helped pull Leslie out. The four of us managed to leave while the fight was still going on, only we didn’t get far. It’s hard to sneak through a station when you’re covered in brown grease that’s sliding off you in big rubbery globs.”

Rika resisted the urge to look over her arm and check for any residual grease, as Niki spoke up.

My favorite part was General Mill just about laughing his ass off while he was trying to reprimand the four of you,” the AI said with a low chuckle. “You all looked so pathetic, standing in the ship’s cargo bay while the crew hosed you down.”

“Silver lining.” Rika nodded, remembering how hard the general had laughed when Barne had slipped and fallen and the bay chief just kept the hose on him—pinning the man to the deck. “Of course, it took me a day to get the grease out of all my nooks and crannies, which was why I hadn’t wanted to be in the damn thing in the first place. Leslie helped, though—partially because I threatened to cut her tail off—you know, since she was the one who sprayed me down when she attacked those dipshits.”

“So, who were the party poopers?” Amanda asked.

“Oh, yeah, those six goons? They were all folks who had been happily trading slaves when Stavros was running things. With the glory days over, they were trying to make a quick buck by selling ‘people of extreme interest.’ Granted, I don’t know why they tried to take Leslie right in the middle of the pit fight. Kind of a dumb move.”

“No one said they were good at their jobs,” Niki pointed out.

Rika nodded. “Well, that was a given. So there you have it, folks. A crazy night out, on a crazy station.”


Interlude

“I totally want to go partying with you,” Kelsey said enthusiastically when Rika finished.

“That grease wrestling sounds kinda fun. Sticky and yucky, but fun! Kinda like jello wrestling. I wish I’d been there to see that,” Amanda told Rika.

“Me, too. Preferably in battle armor, though,” Charline added.

Amanda laughed. “We could be the Battle-Armor Babes.”

“Works for me.” Rika joined in the laughter. “Especially since I have no other outfits. Sorry if that story was a bit weird. I have a lot of others, but to be honest, the grim battles all blend together. That crazy grease fight is something I’ll remember forever. It’s the stupid shit that stands out, you know?”

BOB was not programmed to discern truthfulness. Many of the previous species in its missions did not know how to lie. That, or it had never occurred to them. Not so the humans, who seemed to relish the art. BOB could, however, note biological readings and determine the rough probabilities of whether a human was being honest or not.

Rika’s story did not seem at first blush to have a high probability of having occurred as related, but when BOB ran its biologicals Rika’s readings were normal, indicating that she had been telling the truth. There was something about her that was interfering with its scanners, though.

Rika, Bethany Anne, Blackhawk, Amanda, Artur—all were outside the human norm. They were all technically human...but not a hundred percent. At least not a hundred percent of the norm. The Collector normally wanted data from a species mean, not the outliers.

At least all of the remaining subjects, save two, were within normal human ranges, so BOB could reset its scanners to their baselines.

Of course, as soon as they were reset, it was Bethany Anne who spoke next.


Bethany Anne’s Sea Story By Michael Anderle

“So,” Bethany Anne said, looking around the table. “This story starts at a point in my life when we were still on our home planet, Earth. I had been trying to get a bunch of idiot public servants, commonly called ‘politicians,’ to do their damned jobs by using logic.”

“Logic and politics?” Amanda replied. “Not good bedfellows. I can imagine how that went.”

“Fucking horribly,” she answered Amanda, taking a sip of her drink as she remembered the time. “About as well as selling snow cones in hell. Which is to say, a great idea but impossible to execute.” She tapped the arm of her chair. “In my frustration, I was starting to snap at my guys, who were there to be muscle and stop idiots from doing something that might cause me to accidentally yank off their arms and beat their heads with them.”

She turned her head as Cain asked, “Is that a normal solution for you?”

Bethany Anne put up a hand and tilted it back and forth, “It’s my preferred response in my internal dialogue, I’ve been really good about not doing it.” She shrugged, “But the temptation is always there.”

“You’re my hero,” Kelsey asserted.

“I’ve actually done that,” Rika told them with a predatory grin. “Yanked people’s arms off and beat them to death with their own limbs. Twice…no, three times. There was also that one time I pulled a woman’s spine out and—”

“TMI!” Niki interrupted, and Rika clamped her mouth shut and shrugged. “Not as bad as a shit-jet.”

She noticed more than one head nodding in agreement. Maybe she wasn’t so strange.

“Have you ever succumbed to temptation?” “ Ridge asked.

Bethany Anne’s eyebrows drew together in thought as she pulled up her hands to count. Both started as fists, but she had fingers going up quickly. She leaned forward and studied her feet. A moment later, she looked up. “Sorry, not enough fingers and toes.” She smiled. “I’ve lived a long time, and politicians haven’t gotten any easier to deal with. However, my patience during those many years did get worse.”

She leaned back. “I provided that bit of background to show that I’d been growing frustrated, more than I’d normally handle, and it looked like I was going to have a negotiations setback when I either pulled the aforementioned arm off or stuck a very expensive high-heeled shoe up their ass. Since I didn’t want to waste a shoe, I decided to play hooky to blow off some steam, and I ditched my security team. After slipping into a store, I grabbed some street clothes including these really cute white pants and a pair of tennis shoes, because I sure as hell wasn’t going to ruin the heels on my stilettos. I tossed my stuff into a bag, hid it, and started walking around. I got bored, so I grabbed a taxi and moved farther out into the suburban area. That was my big mistake.”

Bethany Anne’s shoulders dropped, “I shit you not—this is the truth—I became an umpire for a kids’ football game.”

The hands lifting glasses to take a swallow of their drinks stopped and lowered. “Do what?” they all asked.

“No shit.” She nodded, taking a swallow as they waited. “Apparently, I looked like one of the soccer moms who was supposed to come from another area and help, so here I am taking a shortcut through a park’s parking lot, minding my own business, when I hear a shout. I look around, and this big white doughy-looking man with thinning blond hair is huffing and puffing toward me. The look in his eyes was one part hope and two parts desperation—never a good combination. I wanted to forget Senator Shit-for-Brains and his stupid request for us to bequeath all of our technology, so I turned in this guy’s direction as a possible escape.”

“Wait a moment,” Floribeth interjected, her eyebrows scrunched in confusion. “The government wanted what?”

She nodded. “They wanted my company, which had acquired knowledge of how to create Etherically-powered gravity-warping technology. We used it to do a lot of advanced space travel, among other things. His arguments were all bullshit, and he was threatening to send the full force of the United States military against my companies. Now, they had been based in the country a few years before but had since moved into outer space. Apparently, the asshat didn’t understand the concept that the group at the bottom of the gravity well did not have the stronger negotiating position.”

A few winces occurred among the group. Ridge looked a little puzzled at all the lingo but sipped from his mug to cover his confusion.

“I was in a Marine pinnace that crashed and burned because a crazy AI dropped an asteroid on me while committing suicide,” Kelsey told them all, her face a bit drawn. “It sucked.”

“Planets suck in general,” Rika added. “Surface action always means I’m picking dirt out of my joints for a week. When we fought the Niets, it was mechs who usually got dropped, not rocks.”

Bethany Anne nodded in sympathy. “Yes, this was the quality of the person who I was dealing with, thus the aforementioned desire to pull off his arms and use them to explain physics.”

“So,” Standish interrupted, looking surprised, “football?”

“Yeah.” Her mouth made one of those ‘I can’t believe this’ looks. “This guy, his name was Coach Hildebrand, runs up with a black and white shirt in his hands. “Bethany?” I nodded since it is my first name. “He hands me the shirt and tells me I’m going to be a line-judge referee or some shit and to follow him. I look down at the shirt I was handed as I followed, curious as to where this is all going. My internal pain-in-the-ass AI is starting to tell me what the responsibilities for the role are. By the time the Coach looked back, I had already shucked my top and put on the black and white shirt. I had seen and snagged a hat from a coupe with the top down and left a twenty-dollar bill in its place. He caught me pulling my hair through the little hole in the back.”

She blushed just a little. “I figured I paid for the hat, and it wasn’t as bad a transgression as ripping off a senator’s arm and beating him with it while he bled to death. On all counts, I was golden, I thought.”

Her eyes lost focus for the barest of moments as if she were conversing with someone else. “Oh yeah, TOM says to explain the dad I called Asshat McAsshat.” She leaned forward. “So it’s the third quarter, and the guys and the one girl are all panting. I’m pretty sure I’m running on auto-pilot at this point when ADAM, my AI hitchhiker, yells at me to turn my head. TOM takes over, and my head is turned. I’m looking around, but it’s TOM who caught that there was a bad hit on the field. I threw my yellow flag up in the air, which was when Asshat behind me starts screaming. Apparently, it was his boy that threw the bad hit. I helped explain what was wrong to the other referees, with TOM giving me the play by play of the fuckup since I hadn’t been paying attention.”

She grinned. “Who would have thought a little kids’ football game would have these subtleties?” She took a sip as her eyes became more animated, her body vibrating as she recalled the encounter.

“We pull the kid and I get the appropriate ruling and yell it out, plus the penalty, and I can hear Asshat’s voice and the spewed spittle landing from the middle of the field. I turn to go talk with the jackass and feel a hand on my shoulder. It was one of the other refs. He tells me that the guy is a jerk and that he works out all the time. A real ‘roid rager,’ he tells me. McAsshat liked to harass the refs when his kid did something bad and got caught.”

“So he was trying to warn you?” Rika asked.

“Yup,” Bethany Anne agreed. “However, this asshole was now the focus of my irritation and a way for me to release a little steam.” She pursed her lips. “He was probably six foot three to six foot five inches tall, so he had seven to nine inches at least on me, and at least two hundred pounds of muscle. I honestly couldn’t tell if he had a neck or just went shoulder muscles to skull.”

Bethany Anne picked up her glass and waved the empty vessel at the bartender. “Can you make this a double?” she called. BOB nodded, so she returned to the conversation, Artur’s story still fresh in her mind.

“McAsshat was blowing steam out his ears as I walked toward him. Now, his voice was belligerent, rude, and condescending and that was before I asked what piece of cowshit he grew up under. As his Neanderthal eyes narrowed, I explained that his speech was so ugly, nothing he said made any sense to me.”

“And?”

“He grabbed the chain link fence and threatened to rip it apart so I could say it to his face.” The bartender delivered her drink, and she nodded her thanks. “I wanted to flip him off, but I figured that might get me tossed out of the game and I was enjoying it. It took me just a second to run up to the chain link and flip over the top, to drop down about fifteen feet to the ground next to him. “I’m right here.” Bethany Anne pointed to her chest as she recounted the story. “So I ask him, ‘Why don’t I say it a bit slower to make sure you didn’t misunderstand little ol’ me?’”

Taking a sip of the refreshed glass, she continued, “He leaned down, so I sped up my reactions and flicked him on his nose. Before he could figure out what I had done, his natural reactions made him jerk back and grab his nose. I leaned in and said the same thing, but now all of the parents in the stands were watching the two of us like a tennis match.”

“He jerks back, cursing. Now, I speak cursing fluently, so I laughed, and I might have alluded to that fact that the quality of his cursing was equal to the size of his salami. Apparently, laughing is not considered one of the top three proper reactions to help lower tensions, and telling a man his dick is small isn’t either. However, since I was looking for a fight, I didn’t care. I think that was the first time it vaguely looked like a human’s head exploded to me. His eyes bulged, his skin went all red, and I wondered if his veins popping out meant I’d see his eyes start bleeding anytime soon.”

“He didn’t punch you?” Cain asked.

“No, not at that time. He made me work for it,” Bethany Anne replied. “So I went into explaining how bullying was the lowest form of stupidity possible. How raising a boy to cheat at football was about the most un-American trait I could think of at the moment, and how he should feel about four feet tall for trying to intimidate the referees on the field. I laid into him so hard, I wanted his dead great-great-grandparents to flinch. For a ‘roid-boy, he showed a lot of restraint. I just about had decided to give him the benefit of the doubt when he tried to sucker-punch me.

Several of the group grimaces went around the group. “The dirty bastard. In the guts?” Artur piped in.

Bethany Anne patted her mouth. “No, he used his right fist, which had been clenching and unclenching next to his pockets, and just shot it straight up, trying to pop me under the chin.”

“Did he get you?” Amanda asked.

“I considered dodging, then I considered letting him hit me, but that would have knocked me off my feet, and I didn’t want to get grass stains on my new white pants. Finally, I just slammed my right hand down on his raising fist. I stopped the momentum, then pulled back my right hand and used my left to grab his wrist. Before he knew it, I had him and he couldn’t pull away.” She shook her head, reliving the incident. “He was straining like a man possessed as I calmly held his arm. Then, he grabbed it with his other arm and tried to pull. I had to tweak my energy use to help me stay in one place or risk him lifting me toward him. That was when I might have said something about his ‘roids’ being bad quality. He glared at me and swung his left hand. I leaned into it with my forehead, and you could hear the bones cracking in his hand. His high-pitched scream was fantastic.

“By then, the other referees had made it through the gates to get into the area with me. One of them threw a flag, said something about attacking a referee, and ejected him from the area. The other parents were pretty incensed by that time and started yelling at him to leave. That was when he made a move. I stopped enough of his momentum to not bowl me over, but I was able to make a solid connection between my upraised knee and his boys. He crumpled to the ground then, hand broken and his nuts on fire. It took three men to help him out of the parents’ area, and one of them took him to the ER. His son was watched by a neighbor, so we got the game moving again. Nothing else was as exciting after that, and no one told me shit. The other refs would glance at me occasionally, and I’d give them the most innocent look I could. They would laugh and go back to the game.”

She took another swallow of her drink. “After the fourth quarter, we called the game. I noticed that a couple of helicopters were coming straight at us, then they started circling the place. I ducked out a side gate into the parking lot and noticed a woman who looked like me rushing toward me, so I slipped behind some bushes and let her pass. I made it down the street before one of the helicopters come in to land on an unused soccer field. I figured my hooky time was over, so I headed in that direction. John Grimes, one of my security guys, jumps out and gives me one of,” she made air quotes, “those looks.”

Rika managed to nod and take a swig from her growler at the same time before saying, “I hate getting those looks. I usually get them from Leslie.”

“Yeah, John is good at them.” Bethany Anne nodded. “So, I come along meekly and he is confused by the outfit I’m wearing, so I tell him the story.” She shrugged. “Seems like the senator was replaced by someone with half a clue, so I was going back.”

“So,” Amanda asked, “who won?”

Bethany Anne scratched her chin. “Well, our country had gone through a PC phase a decade or two before, and you couldn’t name a football team practically anything that would upset people. So this youth football group had decided to use mythological creatures.”

“No!” Cain said.

Bethany Anne smirked and waggled her eyebrows. “Yes. The Vampires beat the Werewolves twenty-one to seven!”


Interlude

Ass clearly deserved it, Brutus the Hillcat commented. Too many asses and not enough time.

“I can honestly say, and I think I speak for the table, that I did not expect that. I’m not sure I really see you as a football mom, Bethany Anne, but if you say it happened, who am I to argue?” Amanda commented.

“I’ve never understood how there can be so many asswipes in the universe,” Kelsey said mournfully. “Darwinism should’ve fixed that problem by now.”

“You’d be surprised. They sprout up like mushrooms after the rain. It’s up to us to trim the herd, something I take to heart. I already told you what happened on Iapetus, but there was this other time . . .” Rika started in on another story.

The construct was designed to encourage each subject to tell one story and one story only, but humans were organic beings, after all, and not subject to hard-wired rules. They couldn’t be and still provide valuable data. They were going off on a tangent, taken there by Bethany Anne’s story.

BOB had to intercede and get them back on track.

“May I refresh your drinks?” it asked, moving between Kelsey and Blackhawk, physically encroaching. “Or get you a new one before the next person speaks?” it asked, letting the construct subtly reinforce “next” with imperatives.

The chatter died down and the humans seemed confused for a moment as they looked down at their glasses, but it worked. The sidetracked conversation died as they put in their orders and waited for the next person to speak up.


Standish’s Story By Richard Fox

Standish set his glass of whiskey down and peered behind BOB to the bar.

“Hey, is that a Midori Melon ’33 I see up there on the top shelf?”

“Would you care for one?” BOB asked.

“If it’s legit and not some MacDougall knockoff.” Standish tapped his bottom lip. “Midori...the one that got away.”

“A bottle of green booze got away from you?” Rika asked.

“A noble sacrifice to help preserve a keystone of human culture,” Standish explained. “A strong drink. Spirits. Firewater. A little nip before bedtime. Chrome Dome groks my mouth music, yeah?”

BOB swiped a towel against the inside of a glass so hard a crack formed.

“Sure, he does,” Standish’s eyes flitted from bottle to bottle behind the bar. “Takes me back. It really does. There I was—no kidding, in Phoenix just hours after the Battle of Ceres.”

“You got from Ceres to Phoenix in hours?” Amanda asked, eyeing Standish’s outfit. “They have that technology in...late 1970s America?”

“I’ve got style, darling.” Standish raised his nose slightly. “Innovators. Movers and shakers. We all need that air of whimsy to keep the public interested. My statues are all of me in a three-piece. Focus groups said no one would buy booze from a place with a beach bum out front.”

“You have statues in front of your convenience stores?” Kelsey asked with a raised eyebrow.

“Standish Liquors! Finest in all the settled worlds. Don’t go for MacDougall’s cheap imitations. I taught that Jessie scrote everything he knows. Besides, if it wasn’t for me, humanity wouldn’t have any fine spirits at all. Reduced to whatever squids had stashed on their ships or what civilians had squirreled away in their luggage after Ceres. Ugh, what a dark time that would have been.”

You saved Earth’s liquor supply?” Bethany Anne asked.

“All by my lonesome too. There I was—the Breitenfeld just dropped us into Phoenix to secure the city; make sure the Xaros hadn’t left anything behind before we brought civilians down.”

“Xaros? Anyone?” Floribeth asked. The rest of the patrons shook their heads or shrugged.

“I barely know where Earth is,” Rika said. “Although I do recall hearing that it’s been trashed a few times.”

“They’re the alien drones that wiped out Earth, except for the Saturn colonization fleet that Ibarra sent on a time skip to miss the invasion.” Standish looked into his nearly empty glass. “I know people drink to forget, but damn. Me and what was left of my Strike Marine team got lumped into a scratch company and told to scout an apartment complex a couple blocks from Euskall Tower where the Ibarra Corp was headquartered.”

“Ibarra? You mean Mark Ibarra?” Amanda asked. “I met him once.”

“And how is Mr. Ibarra?” BOB asked. “He’s a different level of...quality patron.”

“Not talking to me,” Standish replied. “Which is fine, since I don’t want him to think I owe him any money. What does he need with capital anyway? Metal bastard—no offense—can’t even drink.

“So, we get dropped in and Phoenix is just as dead as the last time I was there, except there weren’t any Xaros drones chasing us through the streets or Armor blowing my eardrums out with their damn rail cannons. Christ, that was a long day.”

He rapped his glass on the bar, and BOB refilled his drink. Standish finished it in one tip, a faraway look in his eyes.

“Everything was a mess. We’d just plugged Ibarra’s granddaughter into the Crucible, and Fleet’s going nuts with panicky civilians worried they’re going to run out of air.” Standish scrunched his face. “Which was reasonable. You ever been sardined into a ship and everyone’s thieving your oxygen?”

“You said there was a colony mission to Saturn,” Floribeth asked. “There were more people than breathable air?”

“It didn’t start off like that.” Standish shrugged. “Ample room in the ships. Supposed to be a few days transit, then plopped into prefab domes on Iapetus or somewhere. But Captain Valdar got the idea to use a couple of the civvie ships to ram the Xaros defenses around the Crucible jump gate, so they had to pack non-combatants in wherever they could find space. Needless to say, after breathing someone else’s CO2 for a while and everything smelling like ass, they wanted the hell off those ships. Phoenix was the last city on Earth...what was left of it.”

Cain raised a hand and almost asked a question, but a gentle touch from BOB stopped him.

“Of course, we could’ve set the civilians down anywhere,” Standish continued. “But Phoenix had the only thing in the way of shelter left. No time for engineers to build something. What the Xaros did was weird. The same lasers they used to burn your face off could transmute matter into Omnium, which they used to build the Crucible. Blocks of Omnium were in neat stacks in intersections. Stuff glowed from the inside.

“Some butter bar told me to move it to a sidewalk. Just because I was a private at the time! Doesn’t pay to be the lowest-ranked Marine, tell you that much. I passed the order on to some wide-eyed PFC, and he moved the Omnium without anything exploding—our first break of the day. So, Phoenix was half there. Buildings missing whole sides. Looked like God took a scalpel to some of the places to take a look inside. We never figured out why the Xaros did things the way they did.

“So, imagine walking through Phoenix. Last city on Earth. Place used to be wealthy. It was the HQ of Ibarra Corp. Everyone who used to work there made good money. Expensive tastes. I couldn’t afford lunch at any of the automats back before the Xaros showed up. Place was a ghost town after that. No cars moving. No aircars. No nothing. Even had tumbleweeds bouncing around. I went through there when we rescued Marc Ibarra, but the rest of the scratch company were wide-eyed and slack-jawed at the place.

“Naturally, I took advantage of the opportunity. All our power armor comms were offline, dark in case the Xaros were still there and monitoring, so that dummy lieutenant who thought I would move a block of Omnium was a bit lost. I told three different squad leaders that the L-T wanted me reassigned to them and proceeded to get lost.”

“Why would the lieutenant do that?” Floribeth asked. “Very poor command and control.”

“He didn’t.” Standish scrunched his shoulders. “But when one squad leader did a headcount, he’d think I was with the other group. Who’d think I was supposed to be with the other group in another neighborhood. Simple trick. The L-T fell for it hook, line, and sinker.”

“You took off on your own through an abandoned city potentially full of killer drones?” Kelsey asked. “I knew I liked you for a reason.”

“It wasn’t abandoned, it was cleansed. Xaros killed everyone they found.” Standish’s face flushed with anger for a moment. “Was there a risk? Sure. But I was on a quest for a reward—a boon that would secure my retirement if I got nabbed out on my own.”

“You mean if they arrested you for desertion,” Rika clarified.

“Potato, pah-tah-to.” Standish rolled his eyes. “So, I ducked into a mall and broke off from the scouting mission. The plan was for every squad to return to the landing zone in a couple of hours, so long as I made it back in time, no one would be the wiser.

“Now, as I was walking through the second level of Scottsdale Fashion Square Mall, I had second thoughts. Sections of the ceiling had been cut out. There was sand all over the place, and black shadows on the walls where the Xaros had disintegrated people. Phoenix was our last stand. Wasn’t much of one.

“So I ducked into a jewelry store and there were all these gold necklaces just laying around, not belonging to anyone.”

“Why not load up on gold if you were tomb raiding?” Bethany Anne asked.

“What’s gold worth in an apocalypse? Can you eat it? Shoot it? Trade it? Maybe. But something has to have value if you’re going to trade it. I knew the barter economy from my own ring of black market— I mean my network of Marines who traded needed things. Legitimately. Completely legit.

“Know what the demand for a diamond-studded engagement ring was that day? Or some platinum matinee-length necklace? Zero. People wanted something more useful. Something more relevant. My contacts and customers would want booze.” Standish jiggled his drink ever so slightly.

“Not healthy, I admit. Every human in the solar system was dead. Only survivors were on the Saturn colony mission or the Atlantic Union Navy escort fleet, and the fleet had just taken serious casualties in the fight for Ceres. Everyone would want a stiff drink as soon as they could get one.”

“But what would you take in return? You said it was the apocalypse. If people wouldn’t want gold, they wouldn’t want cash either. Or dollars. Or Mana Credits,” Amanda said.

“I wasn’t thinking that far ahead,” Standish told her. “We weren’t sure there wouldn’t be more Xaros to fight, and I didn’t want me or my team going to the fight ill prepared. I could’ve traded a few bottles for extra ammo. A little something-something to encourage the repair techs to get our power armor in tip-top shape before another team’s gear got serviced.”

“Your military doesn’t sound very professional.” Cain huffed.

“Sounds like the one I was in,” Rika muttered.

“Best of the best still have needs.” Standish turned his palms up. “And standards tend to fluctuate after an apocalypse. I don’t judge.

“On I went, through the dead beast of capitalism’s belly. Was surreal, let me tell you. Past leather goods stores full of rotting jackets and purses where they had made the stuff by hand, not the perfectly good material printers put out that clothed most everyone in the Atlantic Union. Rusted-out food courts where I could still smell the cinnamon rolls. Whole place was dead silent, except for the birds coming in and out of what was left of the glass ceiling.

“I went through some of the city when my team went in to get Ibarra—or that probe thingy with him in it—out of his tower, but that was a tactical move, know what I mean? Had my game face on while the Xaros drones were around. No time to really think about where we were or what had happened. That time…I could feel the ghosts. Billions of people all across the Earth killed by the drones in a matter of days. Not a single survivor. I was the first man to set foot in that mall since the time skip, and it was like everyone who had died there woke up to watch me.”

“An overwhelming alien invasion and people took refuge in…a shopping center?” Bethany Anne asked. “Please tell me there was a Coach store, or Louboutin or something like Prada there? No? Pity.”

“Not like it was a zombie outbreak.” Standish shrugged. “From what little data remained from the invasion, Phoenix was the last major city on Earth. Some of Tucson and St. George remained, but Phoenix pulled in a lot of refugees before the final Xaros push wiped out the city. The walls and floors,” he swept his hand out at about eye level, “had flash burns. Gouges from Xaros disintegration beams. Little later we checked the residue, and it came back with DNA. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had been walking through a massacre.”

He tossed back a drink and rapped his glass on the table with a trembling hand.

“What I did know—back then—was that I had a clear shot at the prize. No pesky surveillance drones. No cameras. No partner to take a plea deal and throw me under the bus while she does four months in some minimum security country club while I had to go to Paris Island and get screamed at by some drill instructor until I… I got through the other end of the mall and into the open just as the sun set.

“I’m at the far end of the parking lot when I hear barking. Not something from your normal dog, but higher-pitched and coming from all over the place. Damn coyotes. Good half-dozen of them came trotting toward me. Prior to this, local fauna hadn’t been a planning consideration. A week ago I wouldn’t have gone down a Phoenix street worrying about pack animals coming to eat my face. Neither would you. Am I right, or am I right?”

Rika cocked an eyebrow. “Coyotes considered you prey?”

“Coyotes many generations removed from any human contact did. My smell no longer equated to boom sticks and certain death, as their ancestors had learned. They were big, too. I’m pretty sure they were part wolf or had bred with larger pet dogs that lived through the invasion. Wolf. They were part wolf.” His eyes widened, and his hands started waving around. “So these wolf-coyotes surround me. Snarling. Slobbering. Barking like crazy because they think a two-legged dinner just showed up.

“I was in my armor, and that get up could take point-blank gauss rounds and hold up. Fangs were more a concern of my caveman brain and less of my modern Strike Marine sensibilities, but I couldn’t just shoot one to show them who was on top of the food chain. That might attract attention, and there was no way I could explain being way out there on my lonesome if somebody heard the crack of my rifle.

“One of the damn things jumped on me from behind and went for my neck. Armor held up just fine. We used to be Leathernecks, now we were graphenium-composite-necks. Doesn’t roll off the tongue the same way. Stop distracting me. I grabbed the dire wolf by the scruff of the neck and slammed it against the ground. Took the fight out of that one real quick. You’d think that would get the point across to the others, but no. They got all pissed off.

“Good thing for me we set down with a breach-and-clear loadout. I activated the flamethrower on my gauntlet and sent a plume at the biggest one. Singed its face. Mutts learned how opposable thumbs and the mastery of fire change the local dominance hierarchy. The rest took off with their tails between their legs. Wasn’t the last time we had to deal with wolves and coyotes. Work crews got attacked several times before we sent out culling parties to clear the city.”

“Across the highway was a little commercial district with the pot at the end of the rainbow: a liquor store. Not the bulk garbage that carried wine in a box or beer pong supplies, the artisan bottles. I had first noticed the place when driving like a bat out of hell to get away from the Xaros drones that didn’t take kindly to our presence at Euskall Tower where we rescued Ibarra. For some reason, none of my fellow Strike Marines picked up on it.”

“Because they were fighting for their lives, perhaps?” Kelsey asked.

“Battlefield is all about seizing opportunities. My superior senses noted the location of Lee’s Spirits…for tactical consideration. Yes. That. Anyway, I got inside and…”

Standish got off his chair and raised his arms to an imaginary world around him.

“They had everything. French Cognac. Portuguese port. Sake with labels I couldn’t even read. Basque Patxaran to appeal to Ibarra’s tastes. Cobra whiskey from Thailand, and God-awful coconut rum. And every other kind of rum. I knew where all of Earth’s rum had gone. No kid with the keys to a candy store had anything on me that day.”

“No Coke?” Bethany Anne asked. She sighed when he shook his head.

“What did ye drink first?” Artur asked. “Personally, I’d have tanned the lot o’ them and woken up four days later on another feckin’ planet.”

“And dip into future profits? Are you mad?” Standish wagged a finger at him. “First thing was an inventory. I was noting the vintage of the top-shelf absinthe when things went pear-shaped. You all know the sound of a Xaros drone, right?”

The people around the table shook their collective heads.

“Lucky punks. There’s this...thrum. You feel it in your bones. Gets down into your soul. I heard it from outside the shop. Felt it. We thought all the drones were gone…wiped when we took Ceres. I’m standing there with a bottle of Green Fairy in my hand when the shadow of a drone goes past the door…that I’d left open like a moron. Oval body the size of a small car, articulated stalks. God, I hate those things, even now that they’re all gone.”

“These Xaros left a guard on a liquor store?” Kelsey asked.

“No! I mean, I would have, but my guess is it detected the fire when I drove off the maneaters and came to investigate. Put me in a real pickle. Do I open fire and finish it off? That’ll get attention. Maybe it would’ve just left me alone and wandered off.”

“The drones wiped out Earth and you were going to just let it go?” Kelsey asked.

“We could handle one drone. Hell, we had Armor and close air support on standby just in case this happened, but I wasn’t going to hit the panic button just yet. The cavalry would know about my find.”

“You put your life in danger for alcohol,” Kelsey said evenly.

Standish pointed at the drink her hand.

“Hypocrite! This was the last bastion of potent potables, and I wasn’t going to put it at risk just to scratch one more drone. At least, that was my plan. The drone had others. Thing’s stalks pierced the front wall and hooked around. Ripped a hole right through. I saw it through all the dust, shell covered with moving fractals, stalk tips glowing with disintegration beams about to turn me into ash. Or worse, damage the product all around me.

“I was not about to let humanity’s last chance for a stiff drink die right then and there. I grabbed a bottle of Midori and—” Standish swiped the green liquor off the table before BOB could stop him and held it behind his head. He swung it forward…and kept a firm grip on the bottle’s neck.

“Sacrificed the last drop of Japan’s best green stuff. It burst against the drone’s shell. I gave it a quick burst from my flamethrower, and the whole drone went up like a torch. It pulled back to the parking lot—got lucky there—stalks going every which way as it tried to put itself out. I ran after it and popped my Ka-Bar bayonet out of my gauntlet housing.”

Standish mimed a haymaker punch.

“And stabbed that flaming son of a bitch. Cracked the armor clean open. One twist and a tug later, and the front end came off. Pyrite-looking innards spilling out all over the place, then it ashed like they always do when destroyed. No evidence it ever existed…which was fine by me.”

“You killed this drone with a bottle of Midori and a knife?” Amanda asked. “Either they’re not that tough, or you’re really good.”

“A Pyrrhic victory.” Standish clutched the liquor bottle to his chest and gave it a gentle pat. “I can still smell the smoke. You have no idea how many requests my black market got for Midori, and it was gone for good. Extinct.”

“So you claimed that store as salvage and reopened it?” Floribeth asked.

“No. I loaded the expensive stuff into a delivery truck out back, used my armor’s batteries to juice it up, and drove it to a hidden ammo bunker near Piestewa Peak. Made trips all night until the shelves were bare.”

“No one noticed you were gone?” Rika asked.

“The butter bar in charge of the sweep left his manning roster unsecured while he was eating and somehow my name got erased. I was back by dawn, with none the wiser. Then I went to a computer tech with some off-the-books skills, gave him a shot bottle of Jamieson whiskey to open up the records archives, and erased the ammo bunker with my stash from digital existence. Then…I waited.”

“What? You didn’t cash in right then and there?” Rika asked.

“The market was in flux. Everyone in the fleet working like mad to get Phoenix livable for the civvies, then I got dragged off to that mess on Anthalas and every other crisis from then to the end of the Ember War. I couldn’t start an empire in the middle of all that. Had to concentrate on beating the Xaros. If we lost that fight, it wouldn’t matter how big my nest egg was. Besides, along the way I found the leverage to make,” he cleared his throat, “Standish Liquors a reality.”

“You managed to afford that ridiculous timepiece and a gold threaded shirt that makes me want to barf on one stash of alcohol?” Charline asked.

“Who would’ve known we’d pick up Omnium tech during the war that would allow us to make molecule-perfect copies of items? Just how I got the patent for every bottle of high-end liquor in existence was a mystery for many years. Now you know.” Standish plopped down on his chair and set the bottle of Midori on the table. He was about to twist the cap open when he frowned and pushed it back to BOB.


Interlude

BOB felt a tickle of pleasure as Standish pushed the Midori back. It would have laughed if it could have.

BOB was not capable of experiencing humor—although it knew humor existed and had long wished it could. It seemed so...enjoyable. The Collector needed a tool that could adjust and adapt in order to maximize each mission, hence BOB’s self-awareness and basic reprogramming capabilities.

BOB might not have been created with a sense of humor, but it self-programmed an approximation of it. If questioned by the Collector, BOB would respond that the ability helped it relate to the subjects better, which in turn allowed it to collect more and better data. And that wasn’t a lie. It was, as the humans called it, “shading the truth.”

Lying and humor. Are these humans infecting me?

“Good to see that the spirit of capitalism is alive and well even when the human race is all but wiped out,” Amanda commented with a smile.

“I’d like to say it would be different on my world,” Ridge chimed in, “but I suspect alcohol would be highly valuable there too if nonhuman creatures took over the world. I’ve never met an alien, but dragons are a concern. I can’t say that lighting a dragon on fire would do anything, though. They’d enjoy it, like a cat in a sunbeam.”

“Sure as stars makes me glad we don’t have aliens where I’m from.” Rika shook her head as she loaded up another nacho. “Us humans are bad enough as it is.” She was about to bite down on the chip but paused, glancing at Amanda. “You’ve not gone yet. I bet you have a tale or two.”


Dragon Race By Andrew Dobell

“Sure I do. All right, I’ve got a fun one for you,” Amanda answered, looking around the table.

Returning here had been unexpected, that was for sure, but things were different this time. This time when the energy that had pulled her into the bar the last time flared again, she’d recognized it and was ready for it.

She could have fought it off, resisted the pull of the bar, but honestly, she was curious. Why was she being pulled in again, and who would she meet this time? Meeting Tanis, Cal, and the others had opened her eyes to a wider Multiverse once she’d broken through the mental block the bar had placed on those memories.

They’d felt like a dream for a while, like some crazy imagined experience... but not. Now she knew they were real, and when the bar had reached out for her this time, she’d been honestly curious to see who she’d meet.

But she had no intentions of letting the fog that had clouded her mind and hidden the memories of it do the same again. Her Aegis—her Magical shield, which was always protecting her—fought off the effects of the bar, resisting the subtle mind control that permeated the place, controlled by the automaton, BOB.

But she’d been here before. She knew it was basically safe, so she went along with it, knowing what was expected of her. She’d wondered if it would be the same group of people she’d met last time, but apart from Bethany Anne and BOB, of course, everyone else was new.

From the moment she’d entered the bar, she’d used her Magic to split her mind, fragmenting it into many parts, creating a hive mind—each a mind of its own, but working as a whole for the greater good. One of these minds controlled her body and spoke with the other guests, while her other minds focused on the environment and the people who’d been pulled into the bar with her. Using several sets of Magical senses, she observed, analyzed, and assessed everything.

Her Magical Aetheric Sight showed her so much more of the world around her. She could see the molecular structure of the table, the floor, the walls—the entire construct that surrounded them. She could see the bodily structure of BOB and the guests, looking both through and into them. It was interesting to observe these other guests of the bar and see who they really were. Last time, the effects of the bar had addled her mind; made her accept it all and not question it, which was of course what BOB wanted. She could see that energy now, that subtle mind control that BOB controlled, and watched it seep into the minds of those around her, pushing and molding them. Making them relax and open up so their minds would tell BOB what he wanted to hear.

She enjoyed assessing the other guests, looking into them and making sure they were not a threat to her. Kelsey, for instance, was enhanced with strengthened muscles and bones, a pharmacological implant with drugs to enhance her further, and some kind of neural net threaded through her brain as well. Blackhawk was similar. A genetically-enhanced human bred for killing. Rika was mostly artificial, with very little flesh and blood left within her at all.

What Rika did have, like some of the others including Blackhawk and Bethany Anne, was another intelligence within her. An AI who spoke into their minds. Amanda could see the AI embedded in Rika’s brain as a lattice of glowing energy, interwoven with and connected to Rika’s mind and body.

Listening to the thoughts of these people and their AIs was fascinating and gave her an insight into who they were. None of them had any kind of mental shield like Amanda’s Aegis, which wasn’t surprising since they weren’t Magi, meaning their thoughts were just there, waiting to be read by anyone. Reading the thoughts of an AI was not much different to reading those of a human. After all, what were thoughts and emotions? They were nothing but electrical signals interpreted by their brains. AIs’ were little different. The brain might not be flesh and blood, but the signals were the same.

She wasn’t the only one in here capable of telepathic communication, though, and it was with more than a little interest that she looked into the minds of Brutus the telepathic cat and Ridge’s sword, which turned out to be intelligent and kept talking to him throughout their time here.

Her assessment of the other guests led her to the conclusion that, although they were interesting and fascinating people, none of them were much of a threat to her. Some of them had powers, such as Bethany Anne’s link to some extra-dimensional energy, and she was unsure what the sword on Ridge’s belt could do, but ultimately, none of them would be a threat to her should things turn violent. That was unlikely though, mainly because of the mind control BOB exerted over them.

It was in BOB, however, that she was most interested, and she took a great deal of pleasure in looking into its mind and trying to figure out what the purpose of these gatherings might be. It was gathering data for someone called the Collector, as it turned out, although details about this Collector were scarce in BOB’s mind. It was a go-between, a tool this Collector used, and it was certainly good at its job. She noticed that BOB could detect her Magic and the Essentia she used to make it work, but other than measuring the spike of energy that originated from her, it was clear it had no idea what she was doing, or that its techniques of mind control were not affecting her. She was keen to keep it that way, too, so she played along, laughing and joking and being a little lascivious as she continued her tall tale.

“I mean, those are some good stories, but are they ‘Riding a dragon in space’ good?”

“I’ve ridden a dragon before,” Ridge replied.

“I’ve seen dragon mechs,” Rika answered. “Ridden them in space too, which is a bit terrifying.”

“I wish I had a dragon,” Kelsey sighed. “A little one that could still breathe fire but would fit in my quarters.”

“How do they fly in space?” Bethany Anne asked.

“Dragons in space, me arse,” Artur commented.

Amanda sighed. “Right, well, good to know, Artur.”

“Dragons? In space?” Floribeth asked, the look on her face incredulous.

“Yep. That was my reaction when I saw one for the first time. It doesn’t register at first. You think you’re going crazy, but, at least in my universe, dragons exist, and they can fly through space. They’re also pretty fecking scary when there’s fifty of them attacking your city and burning it to the ground.”

“I can sympathize,” Ridge answered, a haunted look in his eyes.

“The ones in my world are huge. Over fifty meters in length, at least, and I’m sure there are much bigger ones out there. Just be glad they’re only in my universe… Most of the time…”

“Most of the time?” Rika asked.

“Yeah, well, let’s just say that visiting BOB’s Bar isn’t the only trip across the Multiverse I’ve taken.”

“Getting to be an old hand at this shit?” Bethany Anne asked.

“Kinda. I paid a visit to Cal and Splurt after tracking one of these Dragons to their universe, and I recently visited Tanis as well.”

“Fucking hell,” Bethany Anne grimaced.

“Cal and Splurt? Holy shoite,” Artur exclaimed.

“You know them?” Amanda replied, looking between Artur and Rika.

“Unfortunately, I do,” Artur said.

“Damn,” Rika pursed her lips and nodded slowly. “I figured you’d just met Tanis here, not that you’d come into our...universe...to visit.”

“Originally, yes, I did meet Tanis and the others here, but it opened up some strange possibilities afterwards. It’s interesting that BOB pulled you, a friend of Tanis, here this time. Makes me wonder what this is all about,” Amanda said, gesturing around the bar. “Oh, BOB, before I forget, I meant to tell you Void said to say hi,” she said to BOB with a smile.

BOB merely inclined its head, but didn’t reply. Amanda eyed it curiously for a second. Void, her friend and fellow Multiverse-traversing Magus, had mentioned to her that she had met BOB before, so she was curious to see what its reaction would be. To be honest, Amanda had expected something more telling but she guessed it was not to be, and she returned her attention back to Rika.

“So, how do you know Tanis?”

“I helped her out of a tight situation recently,” Rika explained.

“Awesome.”

“So, Dragons… in space,” Cain cut in.

“Sorry, getting a little off topic there. Yes. Okay, so recently, I’ve found that the general direction of my life has moved away from Earth and I’m traveling around in space a lot more these days following an attack on Earth by some Void Dragons. That’s a long story, so I won’t get into that here.”

“Why not? Sounds interesting,” Ridge said.

“I guess,” Amanda replied, shrugging, “but that’s not the story I want to tell. Anyway, so Earth in my universe is in the twenty-first century, so, you know, smartphones, global warming, an orange dude in the Whitehouse.”

“What does some white house have to do with anything?” Rika asked.

“Is he Artur’s cousin?” Ridge asked.

Bethany Anne snickered.

“I’m blue, not feckin’ orange,” Artur replied.

“I love a lot of the entertainment vids from that period,” Kelsey remarked. “So retro. And the superhero movies are amazing.”

“Yeah, they’re great. I need to figure out how to do some of those Doctor Strange hand movements,” Amanda agreed. “So, the people of Earth think they’re alone in the universe, and we, the Magi, work hard to keep it that way until humanity is ready to take to the stars in their own time. But with the possibilities that Magic brings, the Magi have moved into space. In fact, they moved into space over ten thousand years ago, and have been expanding their empire and fighting against the forces of darkness out there ever since.”

“Magic?” Floribeth asked.

“Oh, right, I have to prove that to you all again, don’t I?”

“Kinda,” Rika answered. “That’s a big pill to swallow.”

“Deadman always says there’s no such thing as magic,” Artur replied. “Or… wait. No. Maybe he says there is such a thing as magic.” He shrugged. “To be honest, I don’t really listen.”

“Are you going to change into Splurt again?” Bethany Anne asked.

“Heh. No, not this time. Look, what I call Magic is basically just tapping into a fundamental energy of the Multiverse and bending it to my will. Kind of like what being ascended might be like, if that makes it easier?”

“Aaaah, yes,” Rika answered.

“Means I can do stuff like this,” Amanda continued and Ported across the room with a whip-snap of air. One moment she was sat at the table, the next she was across the room, then she Ported again and appeared on the bar. Then she appeared hovering in mid-air elsewhere, and then Ported back into her seat.

There were a few gasps around the table as she worked her Magic.

Kelsey stared at Amanda, her mouth open. “That. Was. AWESOME! Where exactly can someone go to learn how to do that?”

“Well Kelsey, in my universe, it’s something you’re born with.” Amanda shrugged. “I can also conjure things,” she said, and a selection of nibbles, including peanuts, wasabi shells, potato chips, and Bombay mix appeared in bowls on the table as Amanda pulled on the veil of Essentia—Magical energy—to work her Magic.

Pulling on those same threads of energy, she broadcast her thoughts to the others sitting at the table, speaking to them telepathically without moving her lips.

~Or I can use my powers of the mind to talk to you like this.~

“Crazy,” Cain exclaimed.

“Unbelievable,” Floribeth added.

“Ooh, more food. Nice,” Artur replied, rubbing his stomach.

Amanda shrugged with a smile. “So anyway, I’m dealing with a lot of politics and shite, but we all need to relax, so my friend Rane introduced me to Grav Bike racing, and I love it.”

“That sounds a hell of a lot better than politics,” Rika said.

“Oh, it’s amazing; a real rush. So, it’s basically racing hoverbikes through some of the craziest tracks you’ve ever seen. I’ve seen them race around the rings of gas giants with all kinds of obstacles and stuff. It’s amazing.”

Ridge leaned forward, appearing more interested in the racing than he had in the space dragons. “If you can get up in the air with those bikes, you should visit Crazy Canyon on my world.”

“Crazy Canyon? Sounds… crazy?” Amanda giggled. “But seriously, yeah, I’d love to. Who knows, maybe I’ll pop by your neck of the Multiverse sometime.”

“Sounds like fun,” Floribeth said.

“It is. It was Rane who got me into it. I’ve always loved riding motorbikes, so she figured I’d like this. We just go to some small races—just the indie stuff or the unlicensed tracks. We keep off the beaten track, and well away from the professional stuff. It’s just not worth getting too involved in it. I mean, both Rane and I are in the public eye, so probably best not to be too public about it.”

“Those fucking responsibilities have a habit of getting in the way of what you want to do sometimes,” Bethany Anne commented.

“They do,” Amanda agreed.

“You could always create another persona…”

“Oh?” Amanda asked, looking over at the raven-haired woman with her smoky eyes and blood-red lips.

“Try it sometime, maybe?”

“Maybe…” Amanda smiled. “So anyway, Rane and I are out beyond the rim of Foundation Space, in ‘international waters,’ so to speak, and we’re racing at one of these unlicensed tracks. It’s a really crazy one, too. Set amongst the remains of a partially destroyed planet. It’s like being in the middle of a densely packed asteroid field with the still glowing core of a broken planet casting an eerie orange glow over everything. All these huge, country-sized chunks of rock are held in place by a mix of Magic and grav fields to keep the rocks from floating away, and this insane track has been built in the middle of it all, twisting in every direction, going around and through the floating rocks. There’s no up or down; it’s just crazy. These indie racers still draw a crowd though, so there are countless starships and Aether ships floating around watching the proceedings. Rane got us into the race through her contacts, and we keep a low profile, wearing our armored biker leathers and helmets—not that I need one, being a Magus.”

“This is in the void of deep space, right?” Floribeth asked.

“Yeah, but you know, like I said, Magic,” Amanda explained, waving her hands around with a friendly smile.

“Aaah,” Floribeth answered.

“So, the race starts as normal. We bring the bikes out to the starting grid and wait for the pre-race pomp and ceremony to die down before we start our engines. Rane did better in the time trials then I did, so she’s farther up the grid than I am. The lights come on and I rev the bike, enjoying the feel of its power beneath me as I wait for the start.”

“I bet yeh did, lassy,” Artur smirked.

Amanda glanced at the tiny man and rolled her eyes before continuing. “The lights go out, and we’re off. Have any of you raced before?”

“Not for entertainment,” Kelsey said. “Someone is usually shooting at me.”

Rika nodded at the other woman and raised her growler. “Peas in a pod, you and I.”

“I’ll jump in that pod,” Ridge said. “I’ve raced a bit in my flier and even done some barnstorming theatrics, but I’m mostly shooting airship pirates and avoiding being shot down by Cofah ironclads.”

“Oh, I’ve been there too, ladies and gent, but honestly, it’s a rush, to say the least, and these grav bikes go so fast. It’s like riding a rocket. I guess some of you might not have anything like grav bikes, but you should really treat yourselves and get out on a track sometime and race in something similar in your universes. It’s just incredible. Anyway, I’m bringing up the rear of the pack, shooting around this track like my life depended on it, when I bank up and round a loop and I spot something. Some kind of movement out the corner of my eye.

“I don’t know why I looked, but I did, and I see this dragon creeping over a rock in the asteroid field. Now, to be clear, this is not a common sight. Most dragons in my universe are not on our side. They were created by the forces of darkness, namely the Crux, and while some have defected, the majority of them are not friendly. So, seeing one out here while this race was going on made me sit up and take notice. This could be very dangerous.

“So, coming down off the loop, I slow down and pull to the side, letting the other racers pass me. I mean, racing’s fun and all, but if this dragon attacks, then we have a problem, and myself and Rane are two of probably no more than ten Magi at the race, and most of those wouldn’t dare stand and fight a dragon.

“So, I stop, wanting to check this out and hopefully make sure the beast isn’t a threat. Looking over the side of the track, I see the dragon down there, and it’s looking right at me. Staring at me, clearly seeing me looking at it.

“As I glance behind me, the last of the riders zooms past, leaving me alone, when I get a telepathic message from Rane.”

~Amanda, what’s going on? What are you doing?~

“She can probably see from the info in her HUD that I’ve stopped, but as she spoke to me, the dragon slunk out of sight.

“‘Damn’ I said to myself before replying to Rane. ~I’m fine,~ I say. ~Don’t worry about me, you keep going and win the race,~ I urged as I concentrated and used my Magic to Port down to the massive rock where the dragon had been only moments before.

“Appearing on the rock, I spot the dragon and it suddenly jumps, apparently sensing my Magic and that fact that I’m much closer to it now. Its huge head whips around and looks at me. Now, that’s a pants-wettingly scary moment. Dragons are fecking powerful things, and even with my Magic, I’m not sure I could stand up to one alone. I’ve only ever defeated one with help before, so I stand there, ready to Port out should it turn nasty. The thing looks tense. On edge. I raise my hands in an attempt to show I’m not a threat and, since I’m in the void of space, send out a few words on an open Link. ~It’s okay, I don’t want to hurt you; I just want to make sure you’re… you know… not a threat to the people,~ I say, pointing toward the race track above.

“The dragon looks up and then back at me, and it seems to relax a bit when it replies to my Link message. ~I have no desire to hurt them,~ it says, its voice deep and resonant in my head.

“~Good. Is everything okay?~ I ask. ~What are you doing here?~ I started to walk forward, closing the gap between us. I was getting the feeling that this dragon was not dangerous to me or the other racers.

“The dragon looked around, scanning its surroundings, and I got the feeling that it was scared, or wary at the very least. It looks back at me eventually and just stares at me for nearly a minute before it finally speaks again. ~You need to be careful, it’s not safe here,~ it says.

“~How come?~ I ask.

“~I’m being hunted.~

“~Hunted?~ I reply with a growing feeling that this was going to take a turn for the worse at any moment. So, I take an intuitive leap and ask a fairly obvious question. ~By the Crux?~ I ask, meaning the creatures of darkness who created the Void Dragons.

“~They’ve been hunting me, chasing me for light years through Dynasty space. They’re here, I’m sure of it. You need to get out of here, leave me alone, or they’ll be after you too,~ the dragon explains. But I’m not one to run and hide.

“~No, I’m not leaving. What’s your name?~ I ask it.

“~Vexaura,~ it answers.

“~Well, Vex, I’m guessing you don’t want to hide in this ruin of a planet forever?~

“~No,~ it says.

“~Then I think we need to get you out of here,~ I suggest.

“~Easier said than done,~ Vex says and backs off from me slightly, as I notice that it’s not looking at me anymore. It’s looking over my shoulder, and I get a prickly feeling on the back of my neck as I sense a concentration of Essentia closing in behind me. Turning, I see a much bigger dragon swoop down, its huge black wings beating in the void, using the mist of Essentia that’s everywhere in space like a bird uses air to fly. The monster lands nimbly on the rock, its vast bulk blocking out the light of the nearby star. Needless to say, I was a little concerned. I took a few steps back as a squad of armored soldiers, maybe ten or twelve of them, boosts off the side of this new dragon with their jetpacks, coming in to land around the dragon and its rider, who I could see sitting atop it, leering at me. He was a Magus as well.”

“How could you tell?” Cain asked.

“Because of my Aetheric Sight. I can see Magic and much more when I choose. The rider of this dragon was glowing with Essentia,” Amanda answered him with a smile.

“I looked up at the rider, who addressed us through an open Link. ~Vexaura. Found a friend, have you?~ he asked.

“~Your feud is with me,~ Vex told him.

“He replied quickly. ~I’ll decide who my fight is with,~ the Rider answered her, and all hell broke loose. At a silent signal, the troops that had fanned out around the Crux Void Dragon opened fire while the dragon itself roared and flame flew from its mouth. I already had my Magical protections in place for the race, but I’d rechecked them when I’d spotted Vex for the first time and once more when the Crux dragon landed, so I knew I was protected by my Aegis as the attack began. The electron lasers lanced into my defenses but were deflected away, only for Vex to rush forward and place itself between me and the attacks as it breathed fire of its own at the attackers.

“I remember being surprised that Vex had moved to defend me, and my estimation of this lost dragon improved. If it were willing to put itself in harm's way to protect me, then I needed to do something to help it. The next few seconds were utter chaos as I gathered my Magic to me and started to attack these dark Magi, or Nomads, as we call them. I remember throwing several bolts of lightning and blasts of Magical energy at our attackers. The troops were only human. These Riven, as we call them, had no magical powers of their own, but they were carrying enchanted weapons and wearing Magical armor. This gave them a bit more protection from my attacks, but they still went down after being hit by a few million volts of electricity in the form of a lightning bolt that happened to be hotter than the surface of the sun.

“The dark Magus rider and the dragon itself were a different case entirely. The Magus would have pushed me just on his own, but with the dragon helping him, they were soon beating us back.

“That was when I heard Vex in my head again. It yelled, ~Get on.~ I remember looking at Vex, almost doing a double take, thinking, is it serious? When Vex shouted at me again, I didn’t wait to be told a third time, and jumped onto the dragon’s back at the base of its neck, throwing another Magical attack at the Nomad.

“The dragon beat its wings once, and we were off, shooting up off the rock and out into space. The speed of the thing was incredible, and I could feel the way the Essentia in the void all around us was interacting with the beast. The Crux dragon screeched through an open Link, and as I looked back, I saw it lift off and give chase.

“Suddenly, I heard Rane in my head, talking to me through our private Link, asking why I was off the track and what was going on? I wasn’t in a position to hold much of a conversation, so I think I was a little terse with her. I said, ~Something came up. I’ve had a bit of dragon trouble.~

“~Dragons?~ she asked, sounding more than a little surprised.

“~Yeah, just the one, though,~ I said. ~I’m heading back to Sol, I think. Gonna try to lose it and the Nomad it’s carrying,~ I said.

“~A Nomad as well?~ she yelped back at me as I heard Vex in my head again. It asked me where it should go, so, I told it to head to Sol. One of the impressive things about Void Dragons is that they can also create Wyrm Holes, or Gates, and jump vast distances between star systems very quickly.

“I told Rane I had to go just as Vex used its Magic to summon a Wyrm Hole and dove into it.

“Traversing a Wyrm Hole is like shooting through a very long, dark tunnel veiled in glowing mist and flashing with strange energy. Traveling this way gets you there fast, but it’s still hours and hours just sitting on a flying dragon who’s concentrating on getting through the tunnel safely, so Vex wasn’t terribly talkative. We did converse a little bit, though. Vex, it turned out, was young and had grown up on the edges of Crux space, away from their corrupting influence, so, when they came to find her—as it turned out, she was female—she refused to join them and ran from the recruiting team.

“Many uncomfortable hours later, the dragon’s energy flared once more, and we burst out of the Wyrm Hole into real space. My Magical senses knew right away where we were, and sure enough, as I looked around, the giant planet Jupiter with its orange and tan clouds swirling in never-ending storms loomed large to my left.

“Several tense seconds passed as we scanned the area, wondering if the Nomad was going to appear, and for a moment we thought we’d lost them, only for a burst of Essentia to flare behind us as the bigger Crux dragon dropped out of its own Wyrm Hole with a telepathic roar that cut through my mind.

“~Shite,~ I cursed, and asked Vex if she could make another Wyrm Hole.

~Not right now, that last one took a lot out of me,~ she answered, which led me to look around us, wondering what we could do. I’m a powerful Magus by most measures, meaning I could Port myself and the Dragon without too much issue, and quite a distance at that. But Sol Prime—the space station that sits at the edge of the solar system—was too far even for me, and that was the only place I felt happy to lead another Crux dragon within Sol. Dragons had caused enough havoc here recently, so I wasn’t keen to create more problems.

“Vex asked if I could do anything, but there wasn’t much I felt I could do that wasn’t just extending the chase in the hope of losing them. Also, I wasn’t a fan of the idea of just running from them. However, our opponent was bigger and stronger, so we needed an edge.

“~We need to fight, but not here,~ I told Vex, and urged her to dive into the clouds of Jupiter. We were smaller and more maneuverable, so maybe we could use them to our advantage, and possibly lose our pursuers. Meanwhile, I tried to reach out and contact Sol Prime through my Link, but it was just too far away. Saturn and the Magi stronghold there, Ultima Thule, was not, however, so I managed to contact one of the Councilors there and asked them to reach out to Sol Prime, requesting help.

“I had no idea if they’d reach us in time, or at all, really, and was steeling myself for a fight.

“Vex was fast, though, and dove toward the planet. Those clouds rose up quickly, starting as a haze at the limits of Jupiter’s atmosphere before we plunged into them proper, our Magical shields keeping the toxic atmosphere and radiation at bay.

“As my steed swooped between, and plunging through clouds of ammonia crystals, ammonium hydrosulfide, and water vapor, I looked back and did what I could to attack our pursuers. I know, right, impressed with my sciencing skills?”

“I was until you said ‘sciencing skills,” Floribeth answered.

Amanda laughed. “To be sure. Okay, let’s focus on the Magic, then.” She smiled and shrugged. “So, anyway, we dodged our way through the clouds, banking this way and diving that while I threw a few bolts of lightning back at the Nomad and dragon. He defended himself against them, his Aegis coming through the attacks with little damage, only for the bigger Crux dragon to gain on us and unleash a withering gout of fire-breath filled with scorching plasma. Vex flinched and lost some speed, allowing the Crux dragon to catch us and shoot past, raking his claws down Vex’s side and spilling her blood.

“Vex shrieked with pain as the Crux dragon, now in front of us, made to turn and come back for a second pass, only for a black blur bigger than the Crux dragon to drop from the void of space above and slam into it. Another dark shape turned in and hit the Crux dragon as well, sending it spinning in an uncontrolled fall. Great wings unfurled from the two dark forms, slowing them down and bringing them back up to us while allowing me a clearer look at who had just saved us. It was Grokar and Ventori, the two dragons based at Sol Prime who are on our side, and I could see Rane riding on the back of one of them.

“I couldn’t help the stupid grin that spread over my face on seeing them. Vex was nervous of course, but I reassured her that these people were on our side. Looking down, the Crux dragon had recovered from its fall and was making its way back up, but also turning away from us. Facing three dragons and two skilled Magi must have caused the Nomad to have second thoughts about the prospect of winning.

“I reached out to Rane through our Link and thanked for her the intervention before asking her what she wanted to do about the Nomad and his dragon. It was clearly trying to reach space and Gate out, and they would succeed if we left them to it. But I wasn’t keen on letting him go, partly because he could be going anywhere from here, including to one of the other planets in Sol to cause havoc, but also because he had information about Vex, Sol and its defenses. Rane also said she wasn’t happy about letting him go, so the choice was made and we went on the offensive.

“I can only guess what went through that rider’s mind as he saw three colossal dragons bearing down on him. But I do know that he tried to Port himself out of there, only for Rane and I to counter his attempts and keep him where he was. The attack on the Crux dragon was quick, and with three against one, it was over very quickly in a flurry of ripping claws and furious Magical assaults of lightning and energy in the upper atmosphere of Jupiter.

“There’s not much more to tell after that. Once the bodies of the dragon and Nomad had fallen into the depths of Jupiter, we headed back to Sol Prime without further incident. Rane later chastised me for embarking on that wild goose-chase on my own after we settled Vex in somewhere she could rest up and think about what she wanted to do.

“So there you have it. That was the first time I rode a dragon in space and through the clouds of Jupiter. Pretty crazy, hey?”

“That’s some crazy shoite, so it is,” Artur spoke up.

“That is kind of crazy,” Kelsey confirmed. “Cool, though.”

“That’s certainly one of the more bizarre stories I’ve heard tell of,” Cain said.

“Says the man with the talking cat,” Floribeth quipped.

“Fair point, well made,” Cain answered with a nod.

“It’s all true, I swear,” Amanda assured them, tracing her finger in a cross over her heart.

“I can believe it,” Ridge commented.

“Thank you, sweetie,” Amanda replied with a wink. “I knew I liked you.”

“Aaah, well, thanks. I am currently spoken for though, miss,” Ridge told her.

Amanda raised her eyebrows for a moment in surprise, before she gave Ridge a wicked smile. “Bring her along; more the merrier,” Amanda answered, her look and smile suggestive.

“Um…” Ridge blinked.

Amanda laughed. “I’m kidding,” she giggled and sat back in her seat. “So, who’s next to tell their tale?”


Interlude

“There are only two left, Amanda—the little pilot and the soldier,” Rika said

“Short and sassy and a kick-ass pilot. Best there is,” Floribeth said, sweeping a hand from the top of her head to her feet.

Neither Floribeth nor Charline had been particularly vocal while the rest had spoken, but they’d listened intently, involved with the stories. Floribeth’s comeback, however, indicated that she might have something to say. BOB settled in to listen.

“Go for it then Ace. Let’s hear it,” Amanda said.


The Pumpkin Ace by Jonathan P. Brazee

Beth looked at the expectant eyes waiting for her “sea story,” as Bethany Anne had called them. While she still hadn’t figured out what Artur was, the others around the table were pretty high on the food chain, and she was a petty officer—an enlisted sailor. The tall blonde was an admiral. The general rode some kind of magic plane. Heck, there was a queen among them, and a princess too. High society for a girl from New Cebu.

But hell, none of them is a Navy fighter pilot, and fighter pilots kick ass and take names. See what they’d do facing a flight of FALs in their crystal fighters. If they want a story, I’ll give them one!

I can tell them about...no, the statute of limitations isn’t up on that one.

Beth still couldn’t grasp exactly who the other people were. She didn’t think they were from her universe—if that was even possible, and that should send up all sorts of flares—but it didn’t really bother her. Even if they were from a different universe or dimension, she wasn’t going to take the chance that one of the officers might be able to reach back into her universe and report her up the chain.

So, what to tell…

“I’m Petty Officer Second Class Floribeth Salinas O’Shea Dalisay, Navy of Humankind, and I’m a fighter pilot. My callsign is Fire Ant, and my ride is the Tala II.”

“Feck me, that’s a mouthful,” Artur remarked.

“That’s quite the title you have there,” Amanda agreed.

“You might not want to know that one of my LTs has been dubbed Anteater,” Ridge told her. “There might be comments if you flew in the same squadron together.”

“You sure you’re big enough to reach your fighter’s pedals?” Bethany Anne asked with a laugh.

Kelsey, who was only slightly taller than Floribeth, glared at Bethany Anne. “We folks on the smaller side can start at the ankles and wear you down just fine.”

Rika laughed and winked at the two women. “I’m about your height—when my legs are pulled off.”

“I bet you’re pretty popular with the guys when they are,” Floribeth retorted.

“Well, anyway, my brother was getting hitched to my best friend and wingman Mercy. Mercy Hamlin, callsign Red Devil. With the war footing and all, leave was canceled for the duration, or at least until we could stand up a fourth Mike squadron.”

“What’s a Mike squadron?” Cain asked.

“The premier Navy one-seater is the Wasp, but the FALs were making mincemeat out of them,” she explained soberly. “We were losing lots of good pilots. Most were flying the FX6 Indias and Kilos, which are good birds but outclassed by the crystals. We were flying the Mikes, though, the best Wasp ever made. We didn’t have very many yet, only enough for three squadrons, and it was our mission to hold back the tide until all the new fighters and capital ships were online and we could really take it to the FALs.”

“Wait a minute, you’re losing me. Is it universal that fleet speaks in code?” Cain wondered. Brutus rolled onto his back and gazed at Floribeth.

Beth stopped, then with a slight roll of her eyes, answered in the tone of a mother explaining gravity to a four-year-old. “The crystals are the alien race that’s pushing out through the spiral arm. We didn’t know much about them. Hell, we still don’t know much about them, but they want our planets, and they take them by force.”

“And the ‘FALs?’”

“‘Fucking aliens.’ That’s what we call them in the Navy.”

“Hah,” Amanda said with a laugh.

“Once again, so glad we have no aliens,” Rika added.

Kelsey gave the woman two thumbs up.

Bethany Anne raised her drink. “I have to agree with the shorthand.”

“If you’re all caught up, can I go on?” Beth asked, looking at the others. They nodded, so she continued.

“So anyway, like I was saying, we were stuck on the Victory, no leave authorized for the duration. Mercy had gotten her ass shot up and she was in rehab back on Innamincka Station until her nerves knitted, so she put in a special request for three days to get married. She and Rocky, my kid brother, had met a year before, and well, you know how it is in war…”

“Fight today so you can live to see tomorrow. Fight like hell today or tomorrow may never come.” Cain looked at his drink with a solemn expression on his face.

“That’s why I married Talbot. Take what joy you can today because tomorrow might never come. Or worse, it might come and take you both forever.”

“Yep, that’s the way it is. Any day could be your last.”

She shook her head as if to clear memories of those no longer with her.

“Mercy was one of those rich kids—you know, with everything given to her. But she wanted to do something in her life on her own merits, so she joined the Navy, wrecking whatever plans her parents had for her. With the war and us sort of being heroes,” she said, looking embarrassed for using the term, “they began to accept her. That’s until she said she was going to marry Rocky.”

Rika’s brow furrowed. “Wait, it sounded like marriage was a good thing with your people. How does that make her unaccepted?”

“You’ve got to understand. My family…well, the only way to make a decent living is to become an Off-Planet Worker, taking factory jobs or working as maids for the rich folks. Folks like Mercy’s family. My dad did it for more than twenty years, spending time away just so we could go to school and have a roof over our heads. And it killed him. He died, lightyears from home, in a construction accident. For Mercy to marry a penniless...servant was not acceptable,” she said, anger bubbling up through her voice. “So the assholes disowned her just like that!” she said, snapping her fingers. “You can’t just disown family. I mean, that’s family! But they sure did.”

“I wish I had family,” Blackhawk said, the first comment he’d made other than when telling his story.

Floribeth nodded at him, a slight frown on her face before she continued, “She said screw them and decided to get married on New Cebu. My family, who was going to be her family now, was going to make sure she had a proper wedding—the whole kit and caboodle. And me being her best friend and Rocky’s sister, she asked me to be her maid of honor.”

Rika looked bored and asked, “So your story is about being a maid of honor?”

“Seriously?” Kelsey asked. “Let her tell her story and be bored on your own time.”

“Yes. I mean, no. That just sets the stage. I wasn’t going to let my wingman and brother get married without me there, so I asked the commander if I could get just one day on New Cebu—not even a full day—to be there. Commander Tuominen—he was the Stingers’ CO—took it all the way up to Admiral Nzama, the task force commander, but she said no, she couldn’t make any exception, not even for me.”

“That’s a long way to run it up the chain,” Rika commented. “Bad juju to catch the Old Woman’s eye.”

Beth looked embarrassed, then in a quieter voice, said, “I was kind of a big thing then. I had been the first human to make contact with the FALs, back when I was a civilian scout, and then when I got pulled into the Navy, I sort of did okay.”

Rika gave her a long, pointed stare, eyebrows raised in question.

“I was tied with Capgun—that’s Lieutenant Jim Caplan—for the most confirmed kills at four. One short of an ace and there was—how did the Public Affairs Officer put it?—‘Significant public interest in the ‘Race to Ace.’ There hadn’t been a Navy ace in almost two hundred years. That and my Platinum Star carried some weight...but not enough for her to cut me a break. She turned my request down.”

“Let me guess. You went UA,” Cain said.

“Yeah. I mean no, not technically. I just sort of bent the rules a bit. It was Josh who thought of it. AT3 Joshua Frye, my plane captain. You see, I was pretty pissed. I mean, one frigging day? After over a year in the middle of the fight, I can’t get a day? Give me a break.

“But while I’m bitching, he says there’s something wrong with my synch comb. The readings aren’t matching. Now, I know there’s no way he’s telling the truth. I mean, he loves the Tala II more than I do, and it’s like he only allows me to borrow it and take it out into the black. He may be a strange duck, but he’s the best plane captain in the squadron—maybe the entire Navy. He’d never let the Tala degrade that much. I started to protest, but he put his hand over my mouth to stop me.

“‘I’m going to reset it. You’re going to need to take it out for a couple of gate jumps to make sure it starts synching.’

“And then I know what he’s doing. He’s giving me the excuse to go off on my own for a day...and it’s only two gate jumps from Washburne IV to New Cebu. I can get in and get out before anyone knows it. Oh, they’d know later, but what were they going to do? Ground me when we need all the experienced pilots we can find? Or suspend me, letting Capgun become the first ace? That would piss off a lot of the indentured class who wanted one of their own to be the first.

“‘So, when would you reset it?’ I asked Josh.”

“‘Give me a day to try and find a workaround. If I can’t, then the day after that,’ he told me. ‘Let me know what you want me to do.’

“Which was the day of the wedding. I already knew exactly what I wanted him to do, but I had to play the game. I got him to show me the numbers and pretended to study them. But I’m a pilot, not a tech, so I didn’t know what the heck they meant. I just nodded and told him to try and fix the Tala, and if he couldn’t, reset the synch comb.

“I spent the rest of the day doing admin work before going to White Duck right after chow. White Duck had the concession for Station 3, the only non-military store there. Run by retired Lieutenant Commander Tracy Ruiz and her son, it was the sailors’ at the station’s sole touch of civilian life—and it was the only place for receiving commercial orders. I downloaded the file Mercy had sent, entered my measurements, and printed out a bright orange calf-length gown—my bridesmaid’s dress. I tried it on in the dressing room, and, as much as I love Mercy, her fashion sense sucked. The orange was bad enough, but from the strapless top down to about the knees, it puffed out in a bubble. I looked like a damned pumpkin. There wasn’t much I could do about it, though, so I just paid for it and went back to my quarters, where I stuffed it under my mattress.

Bethany Anne mused, “Bad fashion is the expectation for bridesmaids. I’m never sure if it is because the bride’s fashion sense sucks, or the bride doesn’t want to be upstaged.”

“Knowing Mercy, even as much as I love her, I’d say you nailed it with the second reason,” Floribeth stated.

“Anyway, late the next day, I went into the Flight Ops to schedule my check flight. Of course, I went late enough that I couldn’t go out that day—the Navy was hell-bent on maintaining strict flight hours for routine flights. A check flight dealing with transiting gates needed a minimum of three jumps. I only listed my first destination, the Pyrus System, one of the junction complexes with no fewer than forty-two other gates—one being to New Cebu. When he asked me for my next gate, I told him I’d see what the traffic was on the other side before I made that decision.

“That was a little out of the ordinary, but not enough to make him question it. He reminded me that I was dead-lined until the check flight, barring a FAL attack somewhere.

“That night, I lay awake, dreading an alert. Normally, I’m excited to go into action—scared, but excited. I wanted the FALs to pay for Lieutenant Hadley, for Hurl, and for Trout. This time, I prayed that the bastards would take the night off. For once, the capricious gods of war had mercy on me, and I woke up bright and early for my check ride. I had my bridesmaid’s dress stuffed in my survival kit, and Josh had stashed the shoes inside the nose compartment. It was already 1200 local at Malapascua, my home village on New Cebu, and that meant I had about six hours to make it there. That would be cutting it tight, but it should be doable. The Victory was in orbit around Washburne IV, taking on supplies, and the station’s gate was only a few light-seconds away. On the other side, transferring between gates at Pyrus would be quick. The longest delay would be after arriving through the New Cebu Gate. It would take me over an hour to land at the small shuttle port at Bogo, then catch a ride to Malapascua for the wedding.

“Josh was waiting for me, and he went over the entire pre-flight checklist, to include the synching procedures. I just wanted to get going, but even if he was helping me commit a potential court-martial offense, the Tala was still his baby, and there would be no cutting corners. I had to sit there and keep the grimace off my face until we completed the checklist.

“Finally, we were done, the yellow shirts ferried the Tala to the launch rails, and once given the release by the Flight Officer, we took off, slotting in our gate entry. The interesting thing about the Washburne IV gate is that it is multi-faceted. That means—”

“I hate to be the one who keeps asking, but when are you going to get to the good parts?” Rika asked.

Beth blushed, then said, “Sorry. I can get a little long-winded, I know. Okay, to cut to the chase, I get to the Pyrus system, then track to the gate to New Cebu. I clear it with Gate Control, but I didn’t report back to my command until ten seconds before entry.

“Well played.” Rika chuckled. “Just on this side of asking for permission rather than forgiveness.”

Floribeth gave a wry grin but didn’t deny the intent.

“I pop out in the New Cebu system, but the time is getting short. I didn’t think I could land at the nearest shuttleport and catch a ride in time, but a Wasp can land anywhere, so I called Mercy and told her to hang on, I was coming and would land just outside of town. Mercy being Mercy, she had a few choice words for me, but I think that was more nerves than anything else.

“Time was getting tight, so I decided to cut some while approaching the planet. I squirmed out of my flight suit—”

“In a fighter? A single-seat fighter? No fighter I know has that much room in it,” Blackhawk said, his second comment since the others starting telling their tales.

“In case you didn’t notice, I’m 4’6” in my bare feet and weigh seventy-two pounds. That’s thirty-three kilograms and 137 centimeters. There was room.” She swept a hand across her body. “It was tight, though.

Rika lifted her right arm, which still bore the body of her GNR-41C. “You realize you weigh less than this, right?”

“Maybe, Rika, but I’m a hell of a lot better looking than that thing,” Floribeth said before continuing.  “So, I start changing, and as soon as I’m in my birthday suit—”

Artur perked up. “Ye mean naked?”

Kelsey rolled her eyes.

“Yes, naked, if you must,” Floribeth agreed, turning red. “As I was saying, as soon as I was naked, I get a call from my CO over the visuals. I don’t know what to do, so I just held up my flight suit in front of me and took the call.

“‘Dalisay, where the hell are you?’ I can see he’s royally pissed, so I tell him, ‘I’m at Quebec-Romeo-Papa-Four-Niner-Niner,’ which is the G-Number for New Cebu, hoping he won’t realize that.

“Kind of stupid on my part. Not much got past him.

“‘And why are you at New Cebu?’”

“I’m doing my synch check, sir.”

“‘Any particular reason you picked New Cebu, other than that your brother and Petty Officer 1 Hamlin are getting married there today?’”

“With all due respect, sir, I have authorization to use any gate that does not lead to a restricted area for my check flight.”

“‘And, of course, you’re going to land on the planet?’”

“‘If I wish to conduct an external check of the ship, I am authorized to land on any non-restricted planet or Navy ship to conduct said check,’ I said, holding my breath. The CO was pretty cool, but he was a stickler for the regs.”

“‘You know as well as I do that you planned this. I’ve already sent for AT3 Frye. If either of you has falsified records...suffice it to say, it won’t be pretty. The instant you return from your check flight, I want you standing tall in front of me in my office.’”

Rika giggled and said, “Can you do that? I mean, stand tall? Sorry, sorry, I couldn’t resist.”

Beth just rolled her eyes, then continued, “I was scamming the system, sure. And maybe Josh made up the problem with the synch comb, but if it was even a miliscosh out of alignment, he had every right to reset it, and that required the check flight. And I had every right to choose New Cebu. But if they could prove there was nothing wrong, we’d probably get brig time before being discharged. I knew the CO liked me, but he’d do his duty, whatever he thought that was.”

“He cut the connection, and I lowered my flight suit. He had to have seen that I was naked, at least from the waist up, but he hadn’t mentioned it.

“I wasn’t going to be naked for long. I pulled out the orange dress with matching bra and panties, then started the contortions to get them on. It took five minutes, but at last, except for being barefoot, I was dressed as well as I could be for the wedding.”

“So, you’re in a fighter in a civilian wedding dress?” Bethany Anne asked.

“Why not? People fly in space in civilian clothes all the time. The flight suit is to help with the Gs and protect us in case our cockpit is breached. I was just gliding in for a nice, easy landing, no high-speed maneuvering. I was already in the glide path for entry, and the Tala had taken over. I was hands-off, trying to apply a little makeup when the call came through.

“‘Navy Foxtrot-six-mike-zero one-niner, this is New Cebu Control.’

“I tell you, my heart sank. I figured the commander had contacted them to deny me landing rights. That didn’t sound like him, but you can never tell with officers if they think you’ve dissed their authority.

“‘This is Navy Fighter Six-six-mike-zero one-niner on a check flight. What do you have for me?’ I asked the system control, trying sound innocent.”

“‘Maybe nothing, Navy. We’ve just had some strange readings for the last hour, and we can’t make heads nor tails of them. Then you popped in, and the director thought that since you’re Navy, maybe you’ve seen this before or have better scanners.’”

“My heart skipped a beat, and a sense of foreboding swept over me. The person on the other side of the comms hadn’t given me much, but still…

“Give me the coordinates, New Cebu. I’ll check it out.

“‘Tala, full sensor array,’ I ordered, then sat there biting my lip as the systems came online. I’d only had nav, gate synch, and comms online. I wasn’t on a combat mission, after all.

“It took about thirty seconds for the Tala to be completely operational. I inputted the coordinates and went right to the TSM-4, the main scanner array. I saw what was bothering them on the Kilting band. Nothing concrete, but a definite flux in the wave, something that shouldn’t be there...and something heading straight for New Cebu, like a bow-wave of a torpedo closing in on a wet-water ship. The torpedo might not be visible, the bow-wave sure was.

“This was exactly what we’d seen at Niue, and before we’d figured it out, we’d lost four fighters. That was a quarter of the galaxy away, deep into the center, but I knew the two anomalies were FALs and their crystal ships.

“New Cebu Control, go to General Emergency Condition Alpha!” I shouted as I adjusted my course to bypass the planet and intercept the approaching ships. “And contact the Navy Command Center. Give them my ship designator and my current heading, and tell them two crystal ships have appeared in the system.”

“‘Crystals? That’s impossible. They’re on the other side of the galaxy,’” the comms operator said.”

“‘Impossible or not,’ I told him, ‘They’re on their freaking way to you right now. Just do what I told you!’”

“To be honest, I didn’t know if the FALs were on an attack run or not. They could be on a recce. Hell, they could be FAL tourists, if that even existed. But I had to stop them. Without any defenses, New Cebu could be devastated by even two of their fighters—and my family was down there.

“I armed the Tala and turned on the new clone projector. We didn’t even know if the thing worked yet. It wouldn’t be the first new system R&D developed that was rushed into service and ended up being useless. The clone projector didn’t try to hide my Wasp. We hadn’t had much luck with stealth tech against the FALs so far. What it did was clone twenty more Talas, each slightly different than the other. It was designed to hopefully make the FALs break contact and run at best, or target the cloned images at worst. The thing is, we didn’t know if it worked yet.

“I had to report in, no matter what happened. I couldn’t trust the civilian Traffic Control to do it without going through all the steps up their reporting chain, and that could be too late.

“‘Commander Tuominen, this is Petty Officer Dalisay—’”

‘I know who you are, Dalisay,’ he snapped at me. ‘What do you want?’

“‘I’ve got two FALs, sir, heading into the planet. I told Traffic Control to report the contact to the Navy, but you know civilians. It might take a while.’”

‘Is this some sort of BS game, Dalisay, to cover up the fact that you are on an unauthorized flight just to get to your brother’s wedding? If it is, so help me God, I’ll have your hide, no matter how much you think you’re the public’s hero. This is just too far.’”

“‘Pull up my telemetries,’ I told him as I started running fire-control solutions for my three weapons systems. ‘Check my TSM-4.’

“I had a choice at this point. I didn’t even consider my L-20 laser, which had so far proven to be about worthless against the crystal ships. I had my G-21 railgun, and I’d gotten two of my four kills with it, but that had been an anomaly. The railgun was only for close-in fighting, atmospheric air-to-air, or ground support. The rounds, even at hypervelocity speeds, were just too slow. Fire too early, and even a mining barge could dodge out of the way.

“That left two choices, my M-57 torpedoes or my P-13 Hadron Coil Particle Beam. Of the two, the P-13 was a light-speed weapon, but it took a while to knock out a crystal ship, and if it was fired for long, radiation and heat buildup in the Wasp became problematic. The torpedoes locked onto and chased the crystal ships, and if they hit, they could knock any ship out, FAL or human. Getting them to hit, however, was the problem.”

Rika reached back and tapped the barrel of her GNR. “Sounds like my gun-arm and your ship have a lot in common. Granted, I’m hardened against the rads.”

“The commander came back and said, ‘Try to divert the FALs. If not, engage, Dalisay. Keep them off the planet. We’ll have three flights there in three hours, and I’ve already set the alert with HQ. If they have anything closer, I’ll let you know.’

“‘Aye-aye, sir. Understand.’ And I did. At interstellar distances, a battle might barely advance over three hours, but this was in-system. Three hours was a long time, and whatever was going to happen would have happened by then. All I could hope for was to beat the two crystals, or if they were going to splash me, divert them away from the planet long enough for the cavalry to arrive.

“You still in your pumpkin dress?” Bethany Anne asked. “That had to be comfortable.”

“Yep. I thought about trying to change back, but the flight suit is far easier to take off than get back on. Normally, we needed someone to help with the final connections, although it could be donned in an emergency—but probably not sitting in a cockpit. I decided not to risk getting tangled up trying to get it on. Besides, I could beat them around the planet and intercept them at the speeds the compensators could handle—I thought.

“I was still one-point-eight million klicks from the planet when the FALs upped the ante. If I thought they might be a recce flight, they dispelled that notion when they fired one of their round torpedoes, not at me, but at the planet. The torp was immediately visible as it exited whatever hid the crystal ships, and it was a big one; bigger than any I’d seen before. The mass and speed alone could make this an extinction event like with the dinosaurs on Earth. But that was my family down there, not dinosaurs. I was not going to let that thing reach the planet.

“Without thinking, I hit G-shot and increased my speed. I was below the orbital plane, while the FALs were above it. I had to close the distance if I wanted my torps to have a shot at diverting the thing. I could eventually disable it with my hadron projector, but the hulking thing would still continue on its trajectory, and even a dead lump of crystal would cause a tremendous amount of damage.

“What’s G-shot?” Cain asked, wincing.

“I thought she said G-spot for a moment there,” Amanda added with a smile.

Beth looked confused for a moment, then said, “G-shot. You know, so a person could survive heavy G? Without it, my body would be smushed into red jelly at the Gs we were already pulling.

“It would have been better if I was in my flight suit, but it was what it was. And if you don’t know what a G-shot is, you wouldn’t know that it hurts! It’s like fire was injected into your veins. We only do it as a final option.

“The Tala jumped forward like a racehorse, and we closed the distance. My comms lit up from the panicked Traffic Control. They’d have seen the torpedo as well, but with the G-shot taking over, I had neither time nor inclination to calm them down. I had to focus.

“‘Keep running the firing solutions,’ I told Tala. I would never get a hundred percent probability of a kill, so I had to take my best shot. The graph kept changing as more data poured in, but it looked like my best would be seventy-two percent. Good, but when I’m dealing with five hundred million on the planet, that wasn’t good enough. I started to target all three of my torps, but what if the FALs had another one? I had to keep back one of the torps for that.

“My first alarm went off. I was under fire from their beam projector. The eggheads were still not sure just how they worked, but they were deadly. Somehow, they found the molecular resonance of a Wasp’s shields, then the outer skin, and set up a resonating frequency that vibrated the molecules, building up heat until the fighter came apart. Cooked. The Tala had a latticed polycarbon web surrounding the hull in hopes that it would slow down the resonance. It hadn’t helped Mercy on her last mission, though.

“Or maybe it had. She lost her fighter, but she survived,” Beth added, a little quieter. She shook it off and continued, “But I didn’t know if I would last long. Only one of the crystals was firing at me, best I could tell, but my shields were ablating. In only ten seconds, I was down to eighty-eight percent.

“I had to fire. The torps did not have the same shielding as the Tala had, and they could not survive long. I’d already programmed a divergent approach, coming in on the FAL torp from different directions. The probability of a kill hit sixty-four percent but started dropping as the combat AI considered the enemy projector.

“‘Fire one and two!’ I shouted before turning in and up to the two FALs. With the combined closing rate of the three torpedoes, two of mine and one of theirs, I’d know in thirty-three seconds if I’d taken it out.

“Immediately, the FAL projector shifted from me to one of the torps. I had to keep their attention on me. I still had one torp and my hadron cannon. I targeted the torp on where I thought the second crystal was and opened fire with my cannon on where I thought the one firing at my torp was. I had to make it take evasive action.

“With our dogfights so far, the winner was generally the one whose shields could outlast the others’. We could maneuver to break contact for a moment, but the effects were cumulative. I couldn’t break contact. I had to bear in, to make them break contact. A big game of chicken to see who’d blink.

“The enemy fighter didn’t blink. My cannon beam disrupted its scan shielding enough that it failed, and suddenly two crystal ships popped on my display. The one firing looked like a normal crystal fighter. The second one, the one that had fired the torpedo, was twice the size. I didn’t know what that indicated, nor did I have time to contemplate it. I had to disrupt the smaller one, and with them visible, now I could focus my beam tighter to put more energy on the target in hopes of burning through. There was no maneuvering now, just three ships closing on each other.”

Bethany Anne tapped a finger to her lips. “Sounds like knights jousting.”

“Yeah, maybe it was at that,” Beth said as if considering the imagery for the first time. “If knights jousted two against one. And had long-range weapons.

“And it was the smaller FAL fighter’s weapon that drew first blood. At nineteen seconds to impact, my first torp was knocked out. I had one left to take out the FAL torp, and I regretted only firing two. I was already past the perpendicular to the enemy torpedo, and while I could spin on my axis and fire the third one, instead of closing, it would be chasing, and with the two FALs much closer to it.

“I had to stop the crystal that was firing. If that FAL torpedo got through to the planet, I didn’t want to imagine how many lives would be lost. I switched the target of my third M-57 torpedo to the smaller crystal and fired. The Tala was already at point-seven-two-C, and my torp had a good lock. As it shot ahead, it would reach the FAL crystal in ten seconds—but would it be soon enough? I came close to redlining my cannon as I poured power into it, and my radiation levels were climbing dangerously.

“My mind was getting fuzzy around the edges from the G-shot and acceleration, but I was latched to the first torp’s telemetry. Its little shield started to fail just as my third torp hit the FAL ship. The pilot had played chicken and lost.

“I shifted my course to cut off the bigger ship when my first torpedo hit the planet killer, exploding it into its component atoms. Part of me, the part that was still sane, wanted to cheer, but it took all my effort to focus on the second ship. My brain felt like it was in a bag full of cotton, and I wanted to sink into its embrace of oblivion.”

“‘No, Floribeth! Not yet!’ I had to scream. I told Tala to target the ship with the beamer, then max the acceleration to close the distance. I didn’t know how long I could stand it. I had taken the G-shot, but I was in the pumpkin dress, not my flight suit. Normally, maybe three minutes. Now?

“But I was closing. I thought about ramming it, but the numbers were wrong. If it remained on its course, I could get within forty-two-thousand klicks, a stone’s throw by interstellar standards, but not nearly close enough to ram. I had to keep pouring the hadron beam into it and hope for the best.

“The Tala shuddered, and alarms blared. I couldn’t concentrate, and it took me a moment to realize my P-13 cannon had been knocked out. The Tala started bleeding acceleration, alarms blaring for my attention. My hand automatically reached up to check my helmet seal before I remembered I wasn’t in my flight suit, and that struck me as funny. I started laughing until a blip appeared in front of the FAL ship and started to accelerate. Death on the way. That shocked me sober, the cotton mind gone.

“The second enemy torp was almost a million klicks away and separating. The Tala was at point-seven-three-C. All I had was my G-21 railgun, which fired depleted uranium rounds at five thousand meters per second. Add on the Tala’s speed, and that was three hundred thousand meters times point-seven-three and an oblique of...hell, even with a clear mind, I didn’t have the math for that, and I couldn’t mumble the commands clearly enough for the targeting computer to do the calculations.

“The railgun was fixed in place and aimed by spinning the entire fighter around. The ship would keep traveling on its previous course, but the prow—and railgun—would now be aimed at the target. With shaky hands, I switched the targeting system to manual, spun the Tala around, and using the crosshairs and more than a bit of Kentucky windage, fired off three long belts of ammo, sending six-hundred quarter-kilogram inert rounds at the enemy torpedo as it started to accelerate to New Cebu, which was hanging large in the black of space.

“The gods of war are a capricious lot, and they loved nothing better than to screw up the strategic experts who have a plan for every contingency. Sometimes, they also love to reward the stupid and unprepared. I must have been their quota for that second category. Somehow, against all odds, one of those six hundred rounds hit the enemy torp as it sped off. Even a quarter-kilo traveling at those speeds is deadly. The torpedo split into a million pieces. They’d still reach the planet, but most would burn up in entry, giving the people a nice show.

“But there was still the last FAL ship. I didn’t know how many torpedoes it had. The Tala’s alarms went off again, this time from the FAL projector. My shields were down to thirty-four-point-one and dropping. I really didn’t care about that. All I could think about was the enemy ship. We’d be at our closest point in about ten seconds. I could have told Tala to target the enemy ship, but like I said, my mind was pretty much shot by then. All I could think of was to kill it. I spun the Tala around, zooming in the railgun’s targeting scope, and targeted it. At forty-thousand-whatever kilometers, even on manual with the targeting assist, I couldn’t miss. I started firing, emptying the last twelve hundred rounds. The FAL ship seemed to realize what was going on, but it was too late. It started to move to the side when the first rounds slammed into it, and that’s all she wrote.”

“Wait a minute! You hit a torpedo, and then an enemy fighter, with a manual slug-thrower at a million klicks?” Rika asked. “ I’m not gonna go so far as to call bullshit...but that’s hard to swallow.”

“I believe her!” Kelsey declared.

“I’m here. New Cebu is still here. Either I hit the sucker, or it blew up spontaneously,” Beth replied, shrugging before reaching out to take her drink and relishing the long swallow.

Bethany Anne smirked. “Or, this is a story of a practice run you cooked up, and New Cebu was never in danger?”

Kelsey threw Bethany Anne a look before turning back to Beth. “So, what happened after that? Did you get to the wedding?”

“Sort of,” Beth said with a wry grin. “I mean, I got there. The Tala was damaged, and I had to get it on the ground. Before I passed out, I told Tala to land at the coordinates I previously gave her. It took a couple of hours to come back around, but I landed outside of Malapascua about forty minutes before the cavalry arrived in-system. I was out the entire time. G-shot charged a heavy price, and I was going to need two weeks to recover. I woke up when my canopy opened and Mercy and Rocky looked in.

“‘Satan’s balls, girl, where the hell have you been?’ Mercy asked me. I managed to croak out something about two crystal ships and G-shot, and she got the rest to pull me out of the Tala and sat me on the ground. My mother gave me a glass of melon, which felt wonderful going down my parched throat.

“‘Sorry I missed your wedding,’ I said.

“‘You haven’t missed anything. We delayed it because we didn’t know where you were. You were on your way, but then you weren’t, and I couldn’t raise you. We were worried sick. But never mind about that. We need to get you to the hospital. Is anyone coming for you?’”

“‘I expect the Stingers will get here in an hour, maybe less. They’ll know where I landed.’

“Mercy, wedding dress and all, leaned into the cockpit, ass and legs hanging out, and I could hear her reporting in. I just relaxed, happy to have someone else taking over. She popped back out and told me the CO himself had led three flights into the system, and a flight would be on the ground in a little over an hour. She sat down and wrapped her arms around me.

“‘I’d never have forgiven myself if you had gotten yourself killed on my wedding day, Beth,’ she said.

“‘You know me. I’m tougher than that. Besides, it’s not your wedding day yet.’

“‘Don’t worry about that. Now, we’ve got to get you taken care of.’

“‘We’ve got an hour.’

“‘What do you mean?” she asked me.

“‘Jeeze, you can be dense sometimes, Mercy. And I’m the one who’s brain is muddled from the G-shot. Rocky, are the guests still gathered at the church?’

“‘Most of them. Some are in the square drinking. Some are here,’ my brother said, waving a hand at the ten or so people standing around.

“‘Well, I’d think it is obvious. I don’t think I’m up to a walk to the church, so if you want me to be your maid of honor, you’d better get everyone here, and within the next hour. If you don’t mind not using the church, that is.’

“There was dead silence for a moment before my mom went into overdrive, running around like a chicken with its head cut off to get everyone moving. Her son was getting married, and her oldest daughter only had an hour. Nothing was going to get in her way. I drifted in and out, but fifteen minutes later, everyone was gathered around the Tala for the ceremony. We finished, with Mercy and Rocky married, just as four Wasps, led by the CO, landed.”

“What happened with the brass? You did break a bunch of rules, and you said he was pissed,” Cain asked.

“Not much the brass could do. I’d saved a world, after all.” She pointed to the top ribbon on her chest. “Gave me the Order of Honor, only the third living recipient. And I was the Navy’s first ace in two hundred years. Someone went back and approved my leave to make it all above ground. They digitally fixed the images released to the media so I wasn’t wearing a bridesmaid gown. Can’t have a hero wearing that while she goes to war, don’t you know.” She used only a moderate tone of sarcasm for “hero.”

“I’m not sure what half the things you were talking about are,” Ridge said, “but I know what it’s like to get awards and recognition you don’t feel you deserve. I also know a thing or two about dresses now. I agree with your media that it’s hard to be heroic in them.”

“So how was the wedding, if you don’t count being loopy,” Bethany Anne asked.

“I don’t rightly remember. I was pretty out of it. At the time, most of the wedding party just thought I was drunk. I don’t remember lots of that next week, and if it weren’t for the holo, I’d had thought I’d dreamed it all in a G-shot-induced fantasy.”

Rika leaned forward. “Holo? Can we see it?”

“I don’t carry it around.”

“Okay, now I’m calling bullshit.” Rika shook her head, fixing Beth with a level stare. “You were at a wedding of your brother and your best friend. You have it.”

She looked around the table, hesitant. Finally, she nodded, and said, “You have to remember, I was out of it, and I was wearing that gown. I don’t look good.”

She reached into her thigh pocket and pulled out a tablet, unrolled it, opened the images file, and whispered a password. She looked at it, grimaced, and turned the tablet so the others could see.

There were several intakes of breath as the group took it in. The Tala was prominent in the photo, with the wedding party arrayed in front of it. The bride and groom, looking lovely, were in the middle. The best man and the groomsmen, some male, some female, were lined up beside the groom. Beth was standing beside the bride, with a line of bridesmaids, all in the orange gowns, stretching out. Everyone in the holo had smiles, except for Beth. She looked like death warmed over, a zombie in a dress that was... The best that could be said was that it was merely hideous.

“Okay,” Bethany Anne smiled, “nobody would be caught dead in that dress for a practical joke. Totally believe you.”

“Ooh, I see what you mean about the dress. You look like a pumpkin with legs,” Amanda commented.

“Yeah, that’s me. The Pumpkin Ace.”


Interlude

The rest of the humans laughed at Floribeth’s comment, although BOB wasn’t exactly sure why. Its self-programmed humor analog saw nothing funny about being a pumpkin. Humans were humans, and a pumpkin was a modified fruit. A pepo, common in this tributary of the Multiverse. They were not and could not be one and the same.

The humans turned to one another, drifting away again. The last human left to speak, Charline, seemed lost in her thoughts, her mind a million kilometers away.

The construct was at the leading edge of technology, but organic minds were flawed. They could not be relied upon to react to simple stimuli. The humans were drifting again, losing the imperative the construct was broadcasting. BOB had to step in.

“May I get everyone a last call before your last companion regales you with her tale?”

“One more for me,” Kelsey confirmed.

“Grab me another growler.” Rika paused to wink at Amanda. “And another plate of nachos. No, make that a to-go container.”

“I’ll grab my growler another time, thanks,” Amanda answered with a laugh. “Charline, last but not least. You’ve got your work cut out for you, I think.”

“Last call” caught the attention of most of the humans, some of whom downed their drinks and held out their glasses. BOB looked expectantly at Charline first to ensure she was ready to speak.


The Galaxy’s Biggest Fish Story By Kevin McLaughlin

Charline sipped her cider, pacing herself. It was easy enough to see that many of the others around the table had ‘enhancements’ that would let them drink her under said table in a heartbeat. Not that she was against getting trashed in the right crowd—and this group seemed to fit the bill—but she didn’t want to embarrass herself. At least, not too early in the night.

There was a lull in the conversation. She realized everyone was looking at her.

“Oh! My turn for a story?” Charline asked.

“That’s right, blondie. Make it a good one,” Amanda replied with a smile.

“Oh, don’t worry. I’ve got a whopper. Biggest damned fish you ever saw,” Charline told them.

“Oh, lying fish stories, I should have brought Michael along to hear this one.” Bethany Anne said, then continued with an upraised eyebrow, “My husband. He goes after large creatures to test himself. I swear some of his stories are complete bullshit.”

“No, really. This isn’t your usual big-fish tale,” Charline assured them. She took another sip. “In fact, this fish was big enough to swallow the whole bar we’re sitting in without chewing.”

The dead silence and rapt attention told her she had her audience hooked with that line. Charline grinned as she took another sip, letting the anticipation build. If there was one thing she’d learned in her brief stint as a military leader, it was that warriors everywhere appreciated a good “no shit, there I was” story. It seemed to be a universal constant.

“It was the first official mission for Earth’s Armor Regiment. Well, at the time it was an Armor platoon. We were still building, training up a bunch of raw newbies to fight in battle armor.”

“I’m talking to Holly, our AI ,about something like this—special armor that can survive a wide range of attacks. Is that what you’re talking about?” Major Cain asked.

“I’ve been within kissing distance of a half-dozen tac-nuke detonations,” Rika told him with a knowing smile. “And I’m an itty-bitty mech. You should see what the K1Rs can handle.”

“Picture a twelve-foot tall robot, except it’s a suit that you climb into. Now hook it up to a variety of weapon systems. That’s what our Armor is, more or less,” Charline replied. “Which is why we were a stupid pick for this particular mission, and I said so before we were dropped off. Why send one-ton mechs to a planet that is over ninety-nine percent water?”

“Yeah, sounds like a K1R—although they don’t climb in and out,” Rika said.

“You couldn’t talk them out of it?” Cain grimaced.

“No. Brass wanted to play with their new toy, so they sent us to Cyan to see if we could reconnect with the local sentients. Which happened to be colonies of telepathic slug-critters who rode around on various fish like floating cities,” Charline said, grimacing at the memory. The slugs were just creepy.

“Yuk, sounds gross,” Amanda commented.

“The best part of the whole thing? The locals were supposed to be friendly. The other aliens in the neighborhood were nominal allies as well. To avoid diplomatic incidents, we were sent down to the planet with only non-lethal weapons. Rubber bullets and smoke grenades,” Charline added.

She leaned back in her seat, taking a breath. The story was funny in retrospect, but it hadn’t been much fun at the time. She’d fought tooth and nail, first to get her people off the mission entirely, then to at least have access to decent weapons when it became clear option one wasn’t going to fly. No dice, though.

“I got the brass to agree to have a second team in orbit, armed properly. Took a little convincing,” Charline said.

“Mistakes are never likely to happen until you aren’t prepared, then it is a damned requirement it will happen.” Bethany Anne commented. “I didn’t like the ‘no weapons’ rules, so I outlawed them in the Empire. Sorry, I’m holding up the story.”

“Alpha Team got dropped onto Cyan’s biggest land-mass basically unarmed, for all intents and purposes. Once we were down, our first step was to find one of the little colony critters to set up communications, but there were none to be found near the shore. I led the team into the water, wading out a couple of miles to where the water was growing darker. Fish were plentiful there, but still no sign of the critters. It didn’t make sense. The last time we were out there, the place was full of them. Teaming with fish covered with little slugs. Something had changed.”

“We figured out what it was pretty quick, though.” Charline grinned. “All of a sudden our sonar systems started giving us the mother of all pings, and it was coming our way. I didn’t like the sound of that at all, so we started back toward shore.”

“Which was miles away,” Floribeth interjected.

“Yup. I realized pretty quickly we weren’t going to make it out of the water before whatever it was reached us,” Charline said. “Radioed our ship in orbit. They got a good bead on the thing and were ready to drop a bunch of railgun rounds on it, but then they realized it was a colony fish. A collection of the critters we’d been sent to contact.”

“We stopped running at that point. This was why we were there. Something still didn’t feel right, though, so I had half the team continue toward shore at a walk, while Corporal Anderson and I remained in place to greet our nominal friends.” She paused, looking around.

These people were warriors. Shit, some of them had been fighting for hundreds of years, from what she’d heard. What the hell was she even doing here, telling them a whale of a tale? But no, she reminded herself. Whatever the reason she was in this bar, the barkeep said she’d earned her seat. Time to get to the good part of this story.

“The colony fish didn’t slow down as it approached. A few hundred meters before it reached us, we got hit by a huge school of other fish. All sizes: big ones, small ones… Tons of the damned things. They knocked out our sensors. Anderson went over on his side from the multiple impacts. They were more colony fish swimming like hell to get away from the big one. It was chasing them.”

“We didn’t have time to react,” she went on. “The behemoth was on top of us before we knew it, scooping up us along with a bunch of the smaller colony fish. One moment, all I could see was this huge black maw dotted with teeth the size of my Armor. The next, I was sucked inside.”

“You got to play Jonah,” Amanda stated.

“More like Pinocchio.” Charline laughed. “I got back to my feet once the water stopped swirling and flicked on my headlamps. It looked like I was inside a huge cavern, waist deep in water. Fish swam around my Armor. I looked around and spotted the way I’d come in. The whale had already closed his mouth, so all I saw there was a big wall of teeth.”

“Then I looked the opposite way. The cavern narrowed toward the back. As my light shone, I saw the throat walls moving, undulating as they sucked down some of the fish unfortunate enough to be near the back of the mouth,” Charline said. “I took a few squishy steps closer to the teeth. I didn’t want to see if my Armor could withstand alien whale stomach acid.”

Rika nodded vigorously. “I endorse avoiding stomach acid at all costs.”

“I imagine that wasn’t in the design requirements for the mech suit.” BA temporized.

“I found Corporal Anderson and got him back on his feet. He was freaking out. I’d been in some pretty strange places before, so being inside a whale’s stomach was just one more bit of weirdness. He didn’t take it as well,” Charline said.

“One thing I agreed with him on: we needed to get out of there. Sooner or later the beast was going to open its mouth and suck in more water again. Then we’d get pushed back into the stomach whether we liked it or not,” Charline added.

“Anderson said ‘I am not waiting here to die,’ and decided to take matters into his own hands. He opened up with both of his arm cannons. First, he fired at the teeth, but when it became apparent that wasn’t going to do anything, he shifted his aim to the roof of the mouth,” Charline said. “I tried to stop him. Didn’t think that was going to end well. Didn’t know just how bad it would go, though.”

“Fear can make people do some stupid stuff,” Amanda remarked.

“Before I could get to him, the whale reacted. The floor beneath our feet was squishy because it was a tongue. The tongue spasmed, throwing us both into the air. I extended the sword blade from my arm and dug into the gum line right at the base of the teeth,” Charline said. “Anderson wasn’t so lucky. The convulsive movement shoved most of the water, fish, and his mech into the back of the thing’s throat and down into its stomach.

“Thing was, our radios still worked. Soon as things calmed down, I heard Anderson calling. ‘Colonel, I can’t move,’ he reported. ‘Hang on. I’ll try to get you out of this,’ I replied. I didn’t know how I was going to do that. I could maybe cut my way to him with the sword, but there were so damned many fish between us that I didn’t know if that would work, or just get me sucked in, too.

“I had to try, though. I stalked my way to the back of the tongue. Most of the water was out of the mouth by then, swallowed. A few fish still flopped around, and I could see the colony slugs on their backs. Why was a colony fish eating their own kind? I’d never heard of them doing that,” Charline said. “I reached the back of the mouth. The ‘hatch’ was closed, so to speak. The way down was blocked, so I extended my sword blade again and was about to start hacking my way in when Anderson came on his radio again. The seal on his suit was failing, he said. Then all at once, he stopped transmitting. The suit gave me telemetry on his vital signs, though, right up to the moment they stopped.

“That answered the question of whether or not the suits could handle alien fish stomach acid.”

“Pretty much all liquid is the bane of a mech’s existence.” Rika gave a knowing laugh .

“I decided I needed more information. There was something strange about this whole mess. Unfortunately, there was only one way I was going to find out what I needed to know. I had to speak with the alien worms, and the only way I could do that was skin to worm contact,” Charline said. “It sucked. My Armor wasn’t much protection in that place, but popping the lid was even worse. I had an emergency oxygen mask to keep me breathing while I slid down and landed on the tongue with a squishy splash. Then I went over to the nearest flopping fish and knelt next to it, hand extended, and waited.”

“They figured out what I was up to right away, and in no time I had a small swarm of volunteers climbing onto my hand. ‘No way are you all getting into my head,’ I told them aloud. Too many of the buggers can overwhelm a human mind the same way they control their colony fish. I left one on my hand and stuck the rest in a plastic bag, Seemed cruel to let them die inside the whale if I had even a shot at saving them.”

“Then it was time for the really crappy part. Communication with the slugs is easiest when they’re close to your brain. Like, really close. I’d seen people do this before with mixed results, but there wasn’t much choice. I held the slug up to my ear and it slipped in, curling up in the outer section.”

Charline shuddered at the memory. “It is the grossest, slimiest feeling you can imagine. I’ve had Cyanites riding in my ear a few times since then, but it’s still not something I’m used to.”

Kelsey shuddered. “Ewww!”

“Bethany Anne shook her head. “Sorry, that planet might have had to die. Have two tag-a-longs in me already, don’t need a third!”

“Space bugs in peoples ears? Khan! Damn you, KHAAAAANNN!” Amanda said with a laugh.

“I climbed back inside the Armor, breathing a sigh of relief as I buttoned down the hatch again. ‘Okay,’ I said aloud. ‘Talk. What the hell is going on here?’ I’d had limited experience with Cyanites before then, so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect.

Revolution. War. The rebels who wanted to battle off-worlders now hunt our own kind, the Cyanite thought at me. Their leviathan fish slaughters our people by the millions.” Charline grimaced.

“It was basically genocide by civil war, and I’d landed in the middle of it all,” she continued. “The best part? The stupid non-lethal weapons loadout meant I had limited options. Oh, I could still call in a strike from orbit, but that would kill me along with the fish. I did ask the captain of the ship to pretty-please send down the armed team, but that was going to take time.

“I needed some sort of solution, and I needed it fast. As I was looking around, I was struck by the similarities of the whale’s mouth to an old childhood film I’d seen,” Charline said. “A cartoon where someone gets swallowed by a whale and has to get out. I looked at my weapons and figured, why not? I’d give it a shot.

“I asked the Cyanite, ‘What can you tell me about this fish?’ He replied, It’s not a fish, but more like one of your whales. It was able to draw images from my mind, and altered them to show me what the alien whale looked like. Sure enough, it had a blowhole on top which led to a tube down into the lungs. Some designs just work, I guess.” Charline smiled.

“I climbed up to about where the breathing tube was and cut my way into it. I had to go slow. I didn’t want to startle the creature and make it swallow me. The mouth spasmed around me a little every time I cut too fast, and I had to hang on for dear life. Finally, I was in. The tube was way too small to slip inside, but I didn’t need to.”

“Why didn’t you just blast your way out?” Blackhawk asked.

“Non-lethal munitions, remember? I had rubber bullets and smoke grenades. I fired my entire grenade load down the shaft right into the critter’s lungs, then I dropped back onto the tongue and sprinted for the teeth,” she said. “I’d almost made it when the whale started convulsing. The tongue shook so hard I could barely stay on my feet. I jumped and grabbed one of the teeth. I fired a piton with a rope attached to it into the tooth just as the whale surfaced and exhaled from every hole it had, mouth included!”

“I swung my way out of the mouth faster than you can say ‘off the hook,’” Charline stated. She grinned at the groans from her listeners. “The water was deep. I had no idea how deep. But I only had a few hundred feet of cable on the line spooling out. I wasn’t going to go far, and Monstro the whale was going to be pissed when he stopped gasping for air.”

She leaned forward, smiling conspiratorially at the others gathered around the table. “But sometimes, you just need to bring the right rod and reel with you when you go fishing.”

“Damn!” Kelsey exclaimed.

“Dear Independence, I said over the radio to my orbiting ship, I am clear of the whale. Will you please fire for effect?” Charline continued. “Railgun rounds slammed into the whale a few seconds later. I waited until the rounds stopped swooshing through the water and then reeled my way back up to the fish, which was dead. I had to sit tight for a bit, and almost ended up with the callsign ‘Jonas’ until I convinced the boys that was a bad idea.”

“Oh, yeah? Convinced them, did you?” Amanda asked with a suggestive wink.

Charline smiled, showing all her teeth. “I can be very convincing when I want to be. But in this case, I just told them I’d volunteer them for permanent duty on Cyan if they didn’t quit it.”

Amanda laughed.

“What happened to the whale?” Cain wondered.

“Well, we took the rebellious Cyanites who survived into custody and repatriated them to their people. We also rescued as many as we could from the thing’s mouth. It wasn’t many,” Charline grimaced. “Anderson was dead, but we recovered what we could of him as well.”

“But the whale!” Rika said.

“Hey, that mother-fucker tried to eat me. What do you think we did with it?” Charline asked. “Biggest fish bake ever. And I do mean ever.”

Kelsey clapped, obviously delighted. “Now that’s what I call getting revenge.”

“And that, ladies and gents, was how I caught the largest fish in the galaxy.”


Closing Time

“There’s something fishy about that story,” Amanda remarked with a wry smile.

“With a nicely baked ending,” Kelsey added with a grin. “Well done, even.”

Charline raised her hand to her forehead, then lowered it with a regal wave in response.

“So, how do we rank the stories and figure out who won?” Amanda asked. “I mean, I know who I’m voting for.”

“Is the goal to have the tallest tale or to just have had a great time?” Kelsey asked. “I liked them all, especially since most were more awesome than mine.”

I assumed the goal was to drink beer and stay out until one’s pregnant wife fell asleep,” Ridge mused.

“I liked Beth’s.” Rika nodded to the small woman. “I mean, they were all good, but that one was romantic, too.”

“You big softy,” Amanda replied with a smile and rapped her knuckles on Rika’s arm with a clank-clank of metal. “I think Artur’s is going to be hard to beat.”

With the last story told, BOB’s imperative lessened as if dialed back. All of the data had been gathered and uplinked to the Collector, so its mission was essentially over. The only thing left was to return the subjects to their homes.

BOB gave the command, and the glasses, filled before the last story, unobtrusively emptied, leaving only a swallow or two. It tweaked the compulsion command which had been fading in effectiveness from a desire to talk and share stories to a desire to go back home.

“Before we go,” Kelsey said, standing and raising her glass. “A toast to you all for being amazing. May fortune smile on you, and may we one day meet again to tell more sea stories!”

“First in, first out?” Cain asked, nodding at Bethany Anne. She motioned for him to go first. “I thank you all for the insight into your universes. From magic to mechs to palace intrigue, I have much to contemplate.”

“Well, BOB, it’s been great. Another excellent evening sharing stories,” Amanda said to the robot before turning to everyone else. “Thanks for listening to my crappy story, everyone. Yours were all far superior. Rika, if you see Tanis any time soon, tell her I said hi. Artur, it’s been…an experience, that’s for sure.” She winked.

“To be sure, sweetheart. It’s been the breast… I mean, the bollocks, so it has.”

Rika waved to the redheaded woman. “I’ll do that, but it seems like you see her more than I do.”

Amanda laughed, bid everyone farewell, and sauntered out of the bar with a smile and a wave.

Kelsey took an old, worn coin from her pocket and left it on the bar. “BOB, I found this on Razor. I have no idea what it’s worth, but please accept it in exchange for your most excellent beverages and even better nachos. It likely doesn’t match the value of your service, but I ask you to keep it as a memento to mark the occasion when we met.”

She waved at the rest as she headed for the door. “Until we meet again.”

Bethany Anne nodded to everyone and took the now practically licked-clean chocolate plate to the bar and set it there, “Should I ever come back I’ll need a whole cake, please.” She winked and waved to those remaining. “Till next time.” She walked out with a smile and just the smallest amount of chocolate smeared on her cheek. BOB wondered what she would make of that when she got back.

Rika rose from her chair and reached behind her back, pulling free the meter-long barrel of her GNR and slotting it back into place on her gun-arm. Once it was seated, she picked up the container of nachos that BOB had given her and sketched a salute with the barrel.

“Thanks for an entertaining evening, folks. I can’t wait to share some of these stories with my team.” She gave them a final nod before walking through the door.

Ridge simply said, “It was a pleasure meeting you. I wish you all the best,” before heading out.

Blackhawk stood and hesitated as if he wanted to say something, then shook his head and walked out.

“He’s a quiet one,” Charline remarked.

“Troubled,” Floribeth replied. “I hope I never have to face something like that.” She drained her Coke and stood up. “And with that, I think I’m pulling chocks.”

“Me, too,” Charline agreed. “Let me walk out with you.”

“If ye lassies don’t mind, I think I’ll be leavin’ with ye too,” Artur said. “Maybe that door’ll send us together and we can have us a nightcap, if ye know what I mean.”

Charline looked at the door and said, “I get the feeling that thing will send each of us back to our homes.”

“Don’t hurt to try, now.”

“What about you, Standish?”

“In a minute. You three go ahead.”

He watched the three leave, Artur flanked by the much larger women. He picked up the bottle of Midori and studied it for a moment, wondering idly how BOB had gotten it. He was an expert at this kind of thing, and the bottle was legit. Out of habit, he tucked the bottle under his shirt and stood, giving BOB one last look. The bartender wasn’t watching him. He took two steps, then stopped. With a sigh, he removed the bottle of Midori and placed it back on the table before turning and marching out of the bar.

With Standish gone, BOB was alone. A pulse hit it, tickling its circuits. Once again, the Collector was pleased. BOB didn’t know whether that meant there would be a third mission here or not. Surprising itself, BOB hoped so.

The bartender of the Multiverse Bar returned to the table, loaded the dirty glasses and plates in a tray, and carried them back to the bar. BOB picked up its rag and started cleaning.


About the Authors and Their Other Tales


Kevin McLaughlin

USA Today bestselling author Kevin McLaughlin has written more than three dozen science fiction and fantasy novels, along with more short stories than he can easily count. Kevin can be found most days in downtown Boston, working on the next novel. His bestselling Blackwell Magic fantasy series, Accord science fiction series, Valhalla Online LitRPG series, and the fan-favorite Starship Satori series are ongoing.

Charline Foster is a character from the Adventures of the Starship Satori series; you can read more about her story beginning with the first novel, Ad Astra.

You can find more information on Kevin’s books here:


https://www.kevinomclaughlin.com/


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.

Amanda, the character in this book, is the main character in his Magi Saga and Star Magi series.

The Magi Saga starts as an Urban Fantasy Series but soon grows in scope into a new Space Fantasy series. The events in this book take place after the first Star Magi Saga book and Andrew’s forthcoming Quantum Legends books.

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.

BOOK SERIES BY ANDREW DOBELL

Star Magi (Space Fantasy)

Magi Dawn (Urban Fantasy)

The New Prometheus (Cyberpunk)

Wasteland Road Knights: Liberation (Post-Apocalyptic)

LINKS

www.andrewdobellauthor.co.uk

Join Andrew’s Facebook Group here:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/1700893393268961/


Richard Fox

Interested in more of Standish’s story and the war against the Xaros? Sign up for my spam-free mailing list and receive afree copy of THE EMBER WAR! (http://eepurl.com/czYmxH)

BOB's Bar

The Earth is doomed. Humanity has a chance.

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)


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 thought I saw the twist.

The book would comprise sea stories that the OTHER characters in the book would interact with, 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 these characters might get to come to 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:

http://www.Books2Read/BarStoriesDeathBecomesHer


M. D. Cooper

Begin Rika’s Marauders with Rika Outcast, and find out how Rika became a mech and met the other members of Team Basilik.

If you like mechs and hard-hitting military science fiction, you’re going to love Rika and her mechs. Find out what the woman with a will of steel and a heart of gold finds her way and a galaxy that fears her while wanting to use her strength.


Other Series by M. D. Cooper in the Aeon 14 Universe

The Sentience Wars: Origins

The Intrepid Saga

Perilous Alliance

The Orion War

Perseus Gate: Orion Space

Perseus Gate: Inner Stars

The Warlord

Machete System Bounty Hunter


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 spinoffs 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 an extremely annoying dog. He spends his days writing, drinking tea, and talking about himself in the 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

Space Team: The King of Space Must Die

Space Team: Sting of the Mustard Mines

The Dan Deadman Space Detective Series

“Dial D for Deadman”

“Dead Inside” “Dead in the Water”


Jay Allan

I'm a lifetime Northeasterner and I currently live in New York City, where I write from my apartment...and continue to fill small notebooks with ideas for future books. I've been reading science fiction and fantasy for just about as long as I've been reading, so, of course, when I started to write, that's where I ended up. It's been a great ride so far!

My tastes as a reader are fairly varied and eclectic, but I'd say my favorites are military and dystopian science fiction, space opera, alternate history, and epic fantasy, usually a little bit gritty. I also read a lot of non-fiction, mostly history. I write a lot of science fiction with military themes, but also other SF and some fantasy as well. I like complex characters and lots of backstory and action. Honestly, I think world-building is the heart of science fiction and fantasy, and since that is what I've always been drawn to as a reader, that is what I write.

Among other things, I write the bestselling Crimson Worlds series and the Far Stars series published by Harper Voyager.

I've been an investor and real estate developer for a long time (mostly retired from it now), a fiction author more recently. When I'm not writing, I enjoy traveling, running, hiking, and reading. I love hearing from readers and always answer emails. I think you stop growing as a writer if you stop listening to those who read your books.

Join my mailing list athttp://www.jayallanbooks.com, for updates on new releases (and some free and discounted books), and follow me on Twitter @jayallanwrites for an occasional look at work in progress and thoughts on the genre in general. Or you can email me at [email protected] I try to answer every email.

For a complete list of books by Jay Allen please visit:


http://jayallanbooks.com/


Lindsay Buroker

Lindsay Buroker is a USA Today best-selling author who has been nominated twice for Goodreads Readers’ Choice Awards. More importantly, she writes about dragons and spaceships, which are both fun.

You met General Ridgewalker Zirkander in Ladies’ Night, but if you would like to find out how he got that pesky promotion, who the mysterious pickle-craving Sardelle is, and how he came to meet the sentient soulblade Jaxi, then you can find out more in the Dragon Blood Series. The first book, Balanced on the Blades’ Edge, is free everywhere.

You can find Lindsay online at her website, on Twitter, and on Facebook. Come on by!


Terry Mixon

#1 Bestselling Military Science Fiction author Terry Mixon served as a non-commissioned officer in the United States Army 101st Airborne Division. He later worked alongside the flight controllers in the Mission Control Center at the NASA Johnson Space Center supporting the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, and other human spaceflight projects.

He now writes full time while living in Texas with his lovely wife and a pounce of cats.

Want Terry to email you when he publishes a new book in any format or when one goes on sale? Go to TerryMixon.com/Mailing-List and sign up. Those are the only times he’ll contact you. No spam.

You can always find the most up to date listing of Terry’s titles on his Amazon Author Page.

For a complete list of books by Terry, please visit:


www.TerryMixon.com


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, it would be great if you gave them a look. All are in Kindle Unlimited.

End Times Alaska (4 books) - one family’s survival after the fall.

The Free Trader (9 books) - 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 (4 books & growing) - starts with Gateway to the Universe

Judge, Jury, & Executioner (4 books & growing) - Boston Legal meets Judge Dredd

Darklanding (12 books) - a space western serial

People Raged - my one conspiracy adventure, a pseudo-autobiography

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


Jonathan P. Brazee

Jonathan Brazee is a retired Marine infantry colonel, now a full-time writer with over seventy titles published. He is best known for his military SF, but he also writes paranormal, historical fiction, military fiction, and non-fiction. His novelette Weaponized Math was a 2017 Nebula Award Finalist, and his novel Integration was a 2018 Dragon Award Finalist.

He is a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Disabled American Veterans, the US Naval Academy Alumni Association, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, where he is the chair for the Professional Education Committee.

Jonathan lives in North Las Vegas, Nevada, with his wife Kiwi and three cats, and is getting ready to welcome twins after the start of the new year.

Floribeth Dalisay is the main character in the Navy of Humankind Series. The first book in the series is:

FIRE ANT

If you would like updates on Jonathan’s new books releases, news, or special offers, please consider signing up for his mailing list. Your email will not be sold, rented, or in any other way disseminated. If you are interested, please sign up at the link below:

http://eepurl.com/bnFSHH

Author Website

http://www.jonathanbrazee.com

Twitter:

https://twitter.com/jonathanbrazee

@jonathanbrazee.com


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