Book: Wings of Retribution



Wings of Retribution

Wings of Retribution

Sara King

Copyright © 2012,

All Rights Reserved,

Sara King



Wings of Retribution


Guardians of the First Realm: Alaskan Fire

Guardians of the First Realm: Alaskan Fury


Millennium Potion: Wings of Retribution


Wings of Retribution


Terms of Mercy: To the Princess Bound


Guardians of the First Realm: Alaskan Fang


Outer Bounds: Tides of Fortune




Wings of Retribution

(a.k.a. If You Don’t Realize This Is A Work Of Fiction, Please Go Find Something Else To Do)


So you’re about to read about spaceships and aliens and laser pistols and faster-than-light space travel.  In case you’re still confused, yes, this book is a complete work of fiction.  Nobody contained within these pages actually exists.  If there are any similarities between the people or places of Millennium Potion and the people and places of Good Ol’ Planet Earth, you’ve just gotta trust me.  It’s not real, people.  Really.




Wings of Retribution


This one is for Chancey, Logan, and Kyle.

You know who you are.  You are awesome.

‘Nuff said.


Also, props to Amy Breshears, Nitpicker Galore.

(In a good way!)


Oh, and thank you Tucker,

who conceived the perfect word:  Knucker.

(knuckle-dragger)




Wings of Retribution


Welcome to one of the many fictional worlds of Sara King!  You’re in for a wild ride—I’m one of those freaks of nature who not only write fast (6-8 books a year if I’m not distracted), but can produce quality material the first time, every time.  (Well, not every time, but those projects get trashed and I shoot anyone who talks about them…)  I blow a lot of people’s minds with how quickly I can whip out quality work.  My final drafts are basically my first drafts with a little word tweaking here and there.  Because of that, I had a huge backlog of novels that built up during the time I was agented by one of the biggest names in NYC, and the system just couldn’t keep up.  I’ve got 15 novels finished and 42 others in various stages of completion, at last count, and each one of those novels has hundreds of screaming fans vying for me to finish them first.  So, after great debate, I’m finally giving them what they’ve been asking for.  Over the next 6 years, each one of those books is going to be published here on Amazon at the pace of about one every six weeks.

On that same note, I stepped out of the traditional publishing ring over a year ago, when I decided that the glacially slow pace of the current publishing system (only a single book submitted in four years, anyone???) is obsolete, archaic, and on its way out of style, and that, due to the miracle of the internet, there is a Better Way.

You, dear reader, are even now playing a part in this Better Way.  Instead of having ten different middle-men between me and you, for better or worse, it’s a straight-shot from my brain to yours.  Sputch.  Unfortunately for you, this means that you’ve gotta dig through a lot of self-published crap to find the gems.  Fortunately for me, if you’re reading this, there’s a damn good chance that you’re realizing you’re holding one of the gems.

Wings of Retribution is the first of the Millennium Potion adventure series, so if you enjoy the antics of Dallas, Athenais, Ragnar, Rabbit, and Stuart, keep an eye open for their further exploits as my project list gets whittled back down to manageable proportions.  In the meantime, I have two Alaskan Paranormal novels, Alaskan Fire and Alaskan Fury, that might interest you, and will be continuously publishing projects until I get enough of these babies off my hard-drive that it stops overheating at night.  Look for Outer Bounds, Alaskan Fang, and To The Princess Bound to be hitting Kindle within the next few months.  So far, I write thrillers, adventure, paranormal, romance, science fiction, and epic fantasy, but my writing horizons are continually expanding as more projects are added to my list.  Basically, I really need some clones.

If you’re interested in staying up-to-date with my current novel endeavors, friend me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/kingfiction or shoot me an email at [email protected].com or check me out at http://www.kingfiction.com.  If you like Wings of Retribution, stay tuned—more great stories are continuously forthcoming!


-Sara King

April 16th, 2012




Wings of Retribution


Chapter 1:  A Cure for Immortality

Chapter 2:  Shifters

Chapter 3:  A Really Big Reward

Chapter 4:  Space Rats

Chapter 5:  Simple Stuart

Chapter 6:  A Fairy’s Busted Wings

Chapter 7:  Worms in the System

Chapter 8:  Dallas’s New Ride

Chapter 9:  Friends in Sticky Places

Chapter 10:  Fairy Spreads Her Wings

Chapter 11:  The Fate of the Shifters

Chapter 12:  The Flesh-Markets of Odan

Chapter 13:  Rescuing Tommy

Chapter 14:  Custody Battles

Chapter 15:  Aliens on the Loose

Chapter 16:  Saying Goodbye to Stuey

Chapter 17:  To Claim Retribution

Chapter 18:  Reenactments

Chapter 19:  A Glimpse into the Mind of a Pirate

Chapter 20:  Rites of Passage

Chapter 21:  Pressure

Chapter 22:  By the Warlit Sky…

Chapter 23:  Fairy’s Glory Days

Chapter 24:  Final Retribution




Wings of Retribution

A Cure for Immortality


If the bar on Terra-9 had a real name, it certainly wasn’t the name posted on the sign outside.  About once a month—or whenever the proprietor got twitchy—the whole establishment picked up and moved, taking all of its clandestine wares for the ‘discerning patron’ with it.  With each new move came a new name, a new logo, a new décor.  Because of this, Athenais and all the other shifty-eyed spacers who patronized the place simply called it ‘The Shop.’

Due to the nature of its business, The Shop couldn’t afford to own an A.I.—which could be hacked by government spies—so it had a live bartender serving drinks behind a barrier of dirty, energy-resistant glass.  Patrons lovingly called the stiff, perpetually-scowling man Giggles because he couldn’t crack a smile without breaking bones.

Athenais frequented The Shop whenever she could find it.  Her crew loved the cheap entertainment offered in the back rooms, but Athenais loved the squalor and the ancient, rough-hewn tables that stank of years of malt and whiskey.  She loved the dirty glasses, the weapons on every hip.  She loved the battered, crusty-eyed spacers that looked ready to cough up an un-immunized lung or draw steel for an accidental bump.

She also loved to fight.  Her appetite for violence was probably some form of ancient, misplaced rage, but frankly, Athenais didn’t care.  She’d told her last shrink to get stuffed and put a pretty little laser hole through his couch for his input.

…Or had it been his head?  She’d shot at him so many times it had become fuzzy.

Athenais rubbed her head, trying to remember the particulars of her last day with that annoying, no-chin, flat-foreheaded, nasal, bookwormy moron and his ‘clinical experience.’  All she could remember, for sure, was the hole in the couch.  She had wanted to put it through his face, but the bastard had ducked.

Sighing, Athenais wondered where the stuffy prick was buried.  While he had been a constant nagging pain in her ass for almost a quarter of a millennia—her self-proclaimed conscience, once he realized just what kind of deviant he had on his hands—the little twit had been more or less a friend, when he wasn’t shrinking her and getting shot at.  Their last ‘session’ had been almost four centuries ago, and as much as the prick had annoyed her, she missed him.  Things got lonely, over the years.

Athenais glanced again at the seat Rabbit had recently vacated, wishing she’d taken him up on his offer to tag along that night.  Thuggery wasn’t exactly Athenais’s style—she’d rather negotiate with military-grade cannons that could blow a space station apart than her handgun and a set of brass knuckles—but she would have made an exception, in Rabbit’s case.  He was always up to something interesting.

Wistful, Athenais swept a quick look at Rabbit’s establishment.  Giggles was over in his glass-enclosed corner, cleaning his pistol.  A few void-weary patrons were drinking off the boredom of space with long-unseen friends.  Most everyone with any serious business at The Shop, however, had gone once Rabbit had hopped out for the day.  She figured he’d probably slip back in that night, after he finished whatever clandestine dealings he had with tonight’s corrupt government official.  Tomorrow, he’d probably be bribing the local Port Patrol.  Or blackmailing the planetary judicial triumvirate.  Or watching the opera.

Athenais took another drink, wishing someone would start a fight.

The fights at The Shop were not the civilized tea-time spectacles found elsewhere in the universe.  They were ruthless, barbaric, sand-flinging, ball-crunching, knee-breaking, eye-gouging brawls with the very scum of the human race, and Athenais thrived on them.  It reminded her of simpler days, before her father’s ‘genius.’

Athenais made a disgusted sound.  Genius.  Right.  She twisted the stein in her hands, wishing it were Marceau Tempest’s neck.  He experimented on children…  Shaking her head, she looked away before she busted another one of Rabbit’s mugs.

Not for the first time, she longed for some company.  Rabbit was gone.  Ragnar was watching the ship.  Her drinking partners had slumped under the table long before, and she’d let Giggles drag them off with only cursory complaints.  Now she was wishing she’d put up more of a fight.  Rabbit would have found someone else to keep her entertained, or maybe even taken a moment out of his busy schedule to sit down and reminisce with her about the old days.  She needed a good reminiscing.  Too many fresh-eyed young ‘brewers’ filling up the spacelines nowadays, living their borrowed time out with yet another shot of her father’s Potion.  As far as she had heard, it was getting cheaper every year.  Pretty soon, everyone would be living as long as she did.

Athenais lowered her head, staring down at her beer.

She didn’t want to leave.  She’d just spent the last four months in space, and it was good to feel the bone-tugging pull of natural gravity again.  As much as Utopian engineering companies tried to claim differently, human beings just weren’t meant to hurtle through the void at speeds that would rip a photon apart.  They needed some slow time, just to think.

Athenais scanned The Shop tiredly.  Three spacers with laser pistols on their belts sat together at a table in the back, talking loudly over their drinks.  Near the center, a bored-looking patron flipped a ceramic credit coin in the air in front of him.  He didn’t look worried that somebody would take it from him, so the coin was probably fake.  Two tables over, a vacant-eyed spacer was smoking tanga-weed, filling the entire room with its hallucinogenic brown smoke.  Like the alcohol, Athenais was immune to the stuff, but it still made her eyes water.

Behind his glass shield, Giggles was yawning and checking his watch.  No one had asked for a drink in over an hour.

Athenais had hoped Rabbit would return before she got bored, but the way he’d run out with half a dozen goons in tow, it almost looked as if he was off to put out a fire…

…or start a war.

Either way, Athenais doubted he’d be slinking back anytime soon.  She sighed and started to stand, leaving her ineffectual beer on the table behind her.

As she moved, three large men threw open the door and stepped inside.

Athenais’s hand slid toward her gun.  Upon a second look, however, she relaxed back into her chair.  The three men had an aura of danger about them, but it was an unmistakable pang of ‘feral’ that filled the bar ahead of them that no Utopian officer could ever fake.  With their scruffy haircuts, their heavy workman’s boots that screamed of ‘rough money,’ and their pinched, unfriendly faces, Athenais wouldn’t have been surprised to see prison barcodes under the collars of their heavy black spacers’ jackets.  Behind the glass, Giggles had dropped his rag and his hand was hovering closer to his gun.

Despite the slow muscular atrophy that was common with so many of today’s spacers, all three of the men were big and powerfully built—to expensively-modded proportions.  Further, there was something familiar about the three that nagged at Athenais.  While she was trying to place it, she realized that the leader’s windburned face had startling, unnatural yellow eyes.  Another expensive mod.

The yellow-eyed thug led the other two over to the bar, where Athenais was able to get a better look at him.  Pockmarks riddled his sun-darkened skin.  His hair was black, cropped close to his skull in total disrespect of the current style.  He was wearing a black spacer outfit with deep pockets and EverWarm lining.  As he pulled out a stool and sat at the bar, she realized that he was missing the smallest finger of his left hand.

That surprised her.  Athenais had seen a few Utopis who, like herself, saw their scars as badges of honor.  A missing digit, however, wasn’t worth the inconvenience.  Athenais had lost the biggest three toes on her right foot when she got them stuck in the air-lock of her ship during a high-speed retreat, but she’d grown them back.  Enduring a disfigurement as awkward as a missing finger took a lot of dedication.

Or it was something else entirely.

Athenais squinted at the three men and the realization hit her like a fist to the gut.  They were colonists.

Giggles seemed to recognize that fact, too, because he refused to serve them the three beers that they ordered.  “Sorry, mates,” the young man said, “Brewers only.”  Selling illegal booze to hardened criminals was a fineable offense.  Selling it to non-brewers was asking to be sent to an Erriatian death-camp.

The leader scowled at the barkeep through the inch-thick glass.  “We can pay,” he said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a scratched and age-worn credit coin.  He slid the coin under the glass.

“Sorry,” Giggles repeated, sliding the coin back to the colonist.  “Citizens only.  Owner’s rules.”

“What the hell you care about the rules?”  the yellow-eye demanded.  Giggles shrugged and went back to wiping glasses.  After giving Giggles a long, dark look, the yellow-eye turned away from the bar and once again scanned the room with a scowl that suggested he was probably looking for someone to pummel for Giggles’ slight.

The other patrons of The Shop all tactfully ignored the three colonists, with the exception of Athenais and the tanga-weeder.  The latter was staring at them with wide, glazed eyes, smiling.  He was probably hallucinating.

The leader caught Athenais’s eye again and gave her a considering look.  Then, seemingly making a reluctant decision, he just shook his head and headed for the door.  Athenais felt a pang of regret.  She’d been looking forward to a fight.  Four months of cramped ship quarters and she wasn’t even going to get bloody.  She felt robbed.

Before the trio of colonists could reach the door, she bellowed, “Giggles, I want three more beers.”  Her voice was naturally loud from commanding a shipful of selectively deaf space pirates, and it cut through the silence like a knife.

The three colonists stopped and eyed her.  She got up and walked over to the bar.  With a flourish, she presented her credit coin.

Giggles frowned at her, then over her shoulder at the three colonists, who were still standing near the door.  He made no move to take her coin.  “Whatcha want ‘em for, Attie?”

“Why, that’s an odd question,” Athenais said.  “What do you do with beer, Giggles?”

Giggles grimaced.  “Attie, I ain’t gonna serve them no booze.”

Athenais gave Giggles a baffled look, then turned to glance at the three men.  The leader was watching her with his alien yellow eyes.  Like her, he had a scar across his cheek, though it was on his right side instead of his left.  She winked at him again.

Turning back to Giggles, Athenais said, “Them three?   Did I ask you to serve them, Giggles?   I said I want three beers.  Are you gonna tell me I can’t buy three beers?   Do I need to take this up with Rabbit?”

Giggles licked his lips.  The fact that Athenais was childhood friends with the owner of The Shop was part of the reason why Rabbit had to relocate his place of business so often.  On their own, either of them could—and did—skate under the radar of the law with ease, but together, their combined notoriety often made for unpleasant surprises.

But it was a price they were more than willing to pay.  They’d been lovers, business partners, and even children together, on Millennium, before her father had inflicted his lunacy upon them both.  Rabbit had stolen his first kiss from her.  Athenais had been the first one to call him Rabbit, and to her delight, it had stuck.  Their relationship had morphed and evolved over the years, cycling through all the possible variants until it had settled firmly on ‘good friends,’ and it was that stability that kept Athenais sane.

Too much had changed over the last seven thousand years.  Things crumbled, people died, stars imploded.  Only beer, sex, and Rabbit remained the same.

“Naw,” Giggles finally said, “But Rabbit ain’t gonna like it.”

“What are you talking about?”  Athenais said.  “Rabbit loves to see me drunk.  It’s the only way he can win at dice.”  She waited as Giggles reluctantly scanned her credit coin, then grabbed the three tankards of beer he slid under the glass.

“Sit down, fellahs,” Athenais suggested as she went back to her table.  She set the tankards down on the stained wooden table and returned to her seat.  “What brings you to T-9?”

She caught the quick flicker of their eyes, as well as the leader’s slight nod.  She pretended not to notice.

“We’re looking to join the Utopia,” the biggest one said as he sat beside her.  Half of his face was smothered in a thick brown beard and his spacer outfit creaked from the strain his huge muscles were putting on it.  Despite the roughness of his dress, however, he was clean and did not carry the overpowering stench of most males who worked in space.  Not even his breath was very offensive.  “I’m Morgan.  The guy missing a digit is Paul and the skinny one’s Stuart.”

‘Skinny,’ in this case, was relative.  As the three of them took seats at her table, Athenais gave them a quick perusal.  Whereas the yellow-eye looked like something belonging in an Erriatian Death Squad, the smallest of the three resembled some sort of fishing bird.  He had a hooked nose attached to a perfectly spherical head.  Combined with his long neck and lean frame, he looked a lot like a stork on steroids.  Though he was easily bigger than any other man in the room other than his two companions, he didn’t look like he belonged with the three colonists.  He seemed somewhat out of place.  Like an observer in someone else’s show.

Athenais shoved their beers at them.  “Even if you were dumb enough to steal a Utopian vessel and joyride off-planet, you’re not that stupid.  Colonists can’t join the Utopia.  You three can get executed just for being here.”

“Oh yes.”  The big, bearded man beside her gave a rumbling chuckle.

Of the three of them, Athenais was most intrigued by the man with the stark yellow eyes.  She couldn’t shake the feeling she knew him from somewhere, but she’d never forget eyes like that.  And, though was easy for Utopis to change their eye color, colonists usually did not have that luxury.

“Stealing a ship was necessary,” Paul said.  “It was the only way to get free.”

“So you are colonists.  Walking around the Utopia.  In broad daylight.”  Athenais was impressed.  “You three have some brass balls, I’ll give you that.  What colony you from?”

“Penoi,” the bearded man told her.

Athenais glanced from one to the other, trying to decide if he was serious.  She had been born on Millennium, Penoi’s tropical moon.  Though she’d never visited Penoi, she had seen its deep blue and green landscape every time she went out of doors in her childhood.  What surprised her was that her father was the Overseer of Penoi and he had not let a colonist escape in over seven thousand years at his post.

She glanced at the yellow-eye.  “And you?”

“Paul’s different,” the storkish one muttered into his beer.  Beside her, Morgan stiffened, then covered it up by running a hand through his beard.

Athenais lifted a brow at the leader.  “Different how?”

“What he means is—” Morgan began.

“What he means is this,” Paul said, holding up the hand that was missing his pinkie finger.  He set it down on the table between them, shielding it from the rest of the tavern with his beer.  Both Morgan and Stuart fell into a subdued silence, their eyes locked on the missing finger.

It took Athenais a moment to realize that the scarred stub was growing, stretching.  In less than a minute, the finger was whole again.

Athenais swore and jumped backwards, her seat crashing to the floor in her haste.  All eyes in the bar locked on her.  From behind his glass, Giggles touched the pistol strapped to his hip and gave her a questioning look.  Athenais ignored him and glanced back at Paul’s hand.  The finger was gone again.

Tearing her eyes up from the stub, Athenais whispered, “You’re a shifter.”

Paul took a long swig of beer.

A wash of excitement flooded Athenais’s good sense.  Almost all shifters had died in the last war.  Three million credits were up for grabs for anyone who could provide information that led to a shifter’s extermination, but the prize had not been claimed for more than four hundred years.  By showing her who he was, Paul had put his life into her hands…and potentially a lot of money.

Athenais picked up her chair and sat back down.  “Thought you were all dead.”

“There’s still a few of us around.”  Paul spoke Utopian without a hint of an accent, so perfectly that Athenais still couldn’t believe that the man sitting across from her was an alien.

“On the colonies?”  Why did she get the idea she knew him from somewhere?

“Yes.”

Athenais leaned back.  “I take it back, shifter.  Coming here, telling me that… You got balls of goddamn titanium.  But then again, you probably don’t have balls, do you?  Come to think of it, how do you guys…you know…?”  She gestured at his crotch.

“We’re off subject.”

Athenais frowned at him.  “Why?  You a male or female?  Or are you guys like seahorses and grow your own?  Come to think of it, how do seahorses do it?”

Paul narrowed his eyes at her.  “If you’re stalling because you sent a neurogram back to your ship, this conversation is over.”

Athenais bristled.  “It’s just small talk.  I want to know.”

The shifter looked stressed and irritated and ready to leave.  The bearded man put a steadying hand on his shoulder, visibly holding him in place.  Paul scoffed and looked disgustedly aside, then forcibly relaxed.  When he failed to enlighten her on either the breeding habits of shifters or seahorses, however, Athenais sighed and said, “So how’d you meet your friends, here?”

“Common interest.”

“Which is?”  She had trouble believing that a shifter wanted to get his hands on the Millennium Potion.  They already had a natural lifespan longer than anything Marceau could concoct with his pharmaceuticals.

“Downfall of the Utopia.”

She felt herself grin.  “What a surprise.”

“Indeed,” Paul said, looking at his mug.  He took a deep swig and set it down again, none too gently.  “But we have better things to do than discuss the past.”  He sounded strained, his words forced.

Athenais checked her watch.  “I’ve got another ten hours until I need to go find out which half of my crew is sober for cast-off.  As soon as we get underway, I’m looking at several weeks of playing cards and reading old newsbits.  I’d gladly buy you another drink to hear your tale.”

“That would take all ten hours, plus some,” Paul said.  “Besides, you probably know the story already.”

It struck Athenais that he sounded as if he were acting in a play.  His tight, jerky conversation suddenly made the tiny hairs on her neck stand on end and she glanced over her shoulder at Giggles, who was still watching her.

Steadying herself, Athenais took a long moment to study her drinking companions.  She couldn’t find a hint of Utopian on them anywhere.  They were too rough, too…poor.  Not for the first time, instead of following her gut and ending the conversation, curiosity got the better of her.  “I know the gist,” Athenais admitted, “But how’d you survive all this time?  They had extermination squads out for years.”

Paul smiled bitterly, but said nothing.  She got the sudden, strong feeling that this man—alien, rather—hated her.  Not just hated Utopis, but her.  The sheer animosity coming from behind his piercing yellow eyes—alien eyes, now that she thought of it—made her skin prickle uncomfortably.  She wondered again if she was walking into a trap.

She smiled at them, masking her unease.  “Two colonists and a shifter and you’re gonna bring down the Utopia.  Do you have any idea how many lunatics I’ve heard say the same thing?  What kind of stupid stunt are you planning to pull?  A planet-killer stored in the hull of some transport?  An engineered plague?  Exploding Millennium’s star?”  She’d heard them all before.

Paul’s alien eyes glittered with challenge.  “A few beers doesn’t buy a tale like that, Attie.”

Athenais flinched at the mention of her nickname, then realized that Giggles had used it when they had first arrived.  She relaxed, wondering what was setting her nerves on edge.  After all, most of her crew was within earshot in the back rooms and Giggles would gladly shoot all three of her drinking companions if she so much as gave him the nod.

“Fair enough,” Athenais said.  “What does it buy?”

A malicious smile stretched Paul’s lips.  “Spoken like a true pirate.”

Athenais grinned.  “That’s what’s wrong with the Utopia these days,” she said.  “A woman can’t keep an eye to her finances without being accused of piracy.”

“You know what you are just as well as we do.”

The outright anger, the deep-rooted malevolence in his gaze left Athenais feeling more and more unnerved.  She tried to laugh, but failed under the alien’s unwavering yellow gaze.  She found herself gripping the beer stein reflexively as she said, “Giggles must have pissed in your drink.  I’m no pirate.”  Immediately, she regretted the words.  They had come out defensive, not at all like the confident space captain that seven thousand years of Hell had shaped her into.  Since when had these fools gotten the upper hand in this conversation?

Paul’s yellow eyes bored right into her with alien intensity, nervously making Athenais wonder if shifters somehow read minds, too.  “Yes you are.  You’re human scum.  Wanted in all four quadrants and have death warrants on sixteen planets.  The price on your head is double that of the next three bounties combined.”

Athenais beamed, showing teeth.  “Still half what you’re worth, I’m sure.”

The shifter gave her a sly grin and raised his tankard.

Athenais felt herself liking the alien despite his hostility towards her.  “Tell me,” she said.  “Who are you, really?  Why tell me about…that?”  She indicated his missing pinkie finger.

He shrugged.  “You bought us a drink.”

“Your life for a drink?  I don’t buy that.”

Paul bristled.  “I didn’t come here to exchange pleasantries with Utopian filth.”  He started to stand.

“Damn it, Paul,” Morgan said, scowling.  “Just sit down.”  He forced his face into a smile for Athenais.  “Ignore him.  He’s had a bad time of the trip.  We’re grateful for the beer.  It was good.”

“It’s piss.  Barely worth drinking.”  Athenais had thought Paul was the one in charge, but the sulky manner in which he withstood Morgan’s rebuke led her to believe the bearded man was somehow the leader of the trio.

Morgan gave her a charming smile.  “In such good company, even piss seems glamorous.”  He eyed her a moment, making Athenais feel acutely like a monkey in the lush jungles of Millennium, being analyzed by an arbiter of science.  “It’s certainly not every day that you get to meet a Utopi with scars,” Morgan said after awhile.  “How…refreshing.”

Unconsciously, Athenais traced the scar over her eye.  They were fake, kept there artificially due to her condition, but they had been given to her in good faith.  “Got them from my First Mate,” she said automatically.  “He almost killed me.”

“No he didn’t,” Paul growled, almost an accusation.

Athenais glanced over at Morgan, who was smiling at her, to Stuart, who suddenly seemed intrigued with the foam at the top of his beer.  Neither of them had taken much more than a sip.  She gave Paul a long look, trying to determine just what the alien was after.  “He gouged out my eye and widened my mouth by about six inches when he tried to stab me in the neck.  He almost killed me.”

“We both know he didn’t.”

Athenais narrowed her eyes, the room suddenly seeming to sharpen around her.  Her voice lowered, she said, “What else do you know?”

Seemingly unaware of the sudden boil to the water he was stepping into, Paul blithely went on, “I know you’re the second oldest human after your insane father on Millennium, having beat out Rabbit, the third oldest, by just six days.”

At those words, Athenais felt every hair on her body shift in its pore.  Suddenly, the stained walls of the bar seemed to be a cage, with the shifter between her and the exit.  The old desperation came back, the kind that had been drilled into her from a thousand different escapes from a thousand different hellholes.  It was all she could do not to start blowing people away.



“You do realize I’m not going to let you leave here alive, right?”  Athenais managed.

Paul gave her a spiteful look.  “Your original name was Marcella Tempest, after your father Marceau.  You changed it to Athenais Owlborne, an obvious reference to the ancient human goddess Pallas-Athene and her rivalry with Mars, whose name your father bears.”

“Are you trying to blackmail me?”  She got to her feet, her fingers shaking with the urge to use her gun.  Normally, she would have already taken care of the problem and would be helping Giggles clean up the mess, but the information they were hurling at her was pitching her off-kilter, leaving her scrabbling for control of the situation.  “You’re goddamn fools.  All of you.”

“Not fools,” Paul said.  “Revolutionaries.  Like you.”

Revolutionaries.  The word left a bitter taste in her mouth.  Her face darkening in a scowl, Athenais said, “I haven’t flown for rebels since those bastards in the Water Rebellion gave me over to the Utopia to hoe cabbage for thirty years on Tercia.”

“And you’d do it again in a heartbeat, given the opportunity,” Paul challenged.

They had her there.  Athenais opened her mouth to tell him where he could shove it, then groaned.  The itch to wreak havoc on her father’s perfect little plan was already at war with the itch to shove the coppery point of her pistol into Paul’s face and pull the trigger.

She reluctantly lowered herself back into her chair, eying them with irritation.  “All right.  You’ve got my attention.  But you know if this conversation goes south, you’re dead men, right?”  Then she cocked her head at the shifter and said, “Well, at least dead.”

“Knew that before we came in here,” the bearded brute said.

Athenais ran a finger along the rim of her stein.  “So what do you want?  Despite the cuteness with Giggles, you can’t make me believe you didn’t do your homework.  You intended to have this talk.  That means you also knew that Rabbit and I both like our privacy, regardless of who we have to kill to keep it.  You’re not suicidal, so there’s something you haven’t told me yet.”

The three exchanged a glance.  Athenais took another drink, pretending not to see.

“What do you know of the Millennium Potion?”  Paul finally asked.

Athenais suddenly burst out laughing, spraying beer over half the table.  Morgan had to pound her on the back before she could stop choking.  She wiped her face and said, “You want to steal it?  Oh my God, that’s classic.”  She slapped the malt-stained tabletop and chortled.

“What do you know of it?”  Paul repeated, his voice dangerously low.  He looked like he wanted to crush her face with a single huge fist.

Athenais gave him a sweet smile, realizing that she might have her fight, after all.  “It’s not a potion, for one.”

“It’s an injection,” Morgan agreed.  “The secret remedy that keeps all Utopis young.”

“It’s a curse,” Athenais snapped, swiveling to face him.  “The only person I’d ever wish it on is my father, and he made the damn thing.”

“You and Rabbit were two of his first test subjects,” Morgan said.

“Guinea pigs,” Athenais muttered.  “And no, I’m not helping you get it.  You ask me, we should destroy the Potion.”

A slow smile spread across Morgan’s lips and he leaned back, giving the other two a satisfied glance.  Stuart was watching her with a calculating look, and even Paul had reluctant approval etched into his face.

It took her a moment to make the connection.  When she did, Athenais gaped at them.  “You’re kidding.”

“What better way to stop Marceau in his tracks?”  Morgan asked.

Athenais could only stare at him.  Stealing the Millennium Potion was impossible.  Destroying it would take an act of God.  As much as she’d like to see it—and her father—disappear into a well-placed pulsar, Beetle and her crew of six were impotent against Millennium’s fleet.  The little ball of tropical islands had a battalion of ships that could defend it against anything the rest of the universe could throw at it, and then some.  Athenais was a damned good pilot, but trying to slip past its defenses would a grueling, thankless project that would doubtless end up with Beetle getting confiscated and her finances seized.  Again.

“Look, I appreciate all the preparation that went into this meeting,” Athenais said, “But you’re just three colonists, even if one of you’s a shifter.  You’re out of your league.  There’s nothing I’d like more than to blow up that whole damn planet, but Marceau has a hundred people a month try that, and they all end up living out the rest of their Potion on pikes in his front lawn.  Go home and have babies, or whatever it is you colonists do.  I’ll try to forget I saw you three.”  She got up to leave.

“Please,” Paul said suddenly.  His cockiness had vanished and there was real anguish in his face.  “Please.  We need your help.”

Athenais snorted and turned toward the door.

Paul grabbed her wrist.  Behind his glass, Giggles stiffened.

“Please,” Paul repeated, getting up with her, “We spent years tracking you across the Quadrant.  We lost two friends trying to find you.  You have to help us.”

“I don’t have to help you do anything,” Athenais said, yanking her arm free.  “And if you’d really done your research, you’d know that I’ve already tried what you’re suggesting.  Several times.  As you can see, I failed.”  She brushed past him toward the door.

“We’ve got a cure for the Potion,” Paul called at her back.

Athenais froze.  A cure…  Hand on the latch, she stared at the door in silence, ice trailing cold fingers down her spine.  When the shifter didn’t retract his statement, she took an uneven breath.

“Come to Beetle tomorrow and we’ll talk,” she said, without turning.  “Have some sort of payment in mind.”



Wings of Retribution

Shifters


That night, on Beetle, the metal walls rang with a clamor of voices.

“So lemme get this straight, Capt’in.”

The man’s name was Dunebuggy, or Dune for short.  His face was always smeared with grease and he perpetually stank of engine solvents.  He was a legend among the racing community, his creations having won several desert planet megaraces.  Lucky for Athenais, he took the same care with Beetle.  Unfortunately for Athenais, now he was peering at her like a slack-jawed Utopi trying to figure out combustion engines.  “There ain’t no money involved?”  Several disgruntled voices joined him in protest.

“I can’t promise any more than what I’ll give you,” Athenais replied.  “Flat rate of sixty credits a day, half that for days in stasis.”

Another general rumble of discontent reverberated through the mess hall at her words.

“No offense Capt’in,” Goat replied, “But I hired on with ya’ll ‘cause I’s tired of workin salary.  I like me cut.”

Goat was called ‘Goat’ because no matter how often he bathed, his aroma was always enough to singe the nostrils.  He sat off to one side, giving his shipmates a wide berth.

Even with the smell, however, Athenais counted herself lucky to have him.  In her seven thousand years in space, she had never seen a cartographer his rival.  He could navigate his way to safe harbor with the positioning system down and only a porthole view of the surrounding stars to guide him.

Athenais knew.  She’d made him do it.

“If sixty isn’t enough, I can see what the colonists’ll be willing to give you in trade.”  She hadn’t mentioned the shifter yet.  There wasn’t a man in her crew who wouldn’t jump on the chance to rake in three million credits.

“Trade?”  Dune muttered.  “What they got but lumber and cows?”

“You might be surprised,” Athenais said.  “Where do you think all Utopian gold comes from, anyway?  Penoi’s got more mines than you’ve got fleas.”

Goat snorted, but he looked interested.

“They got gems, too,” Ragnar said.  “Biggest ruby I ever seen came outta Penoi.”  He was standing in the corner, his arms crossed as he surveyed the room.  This was the first thing he had said since the conversation started.  Athenais took that as a sign that he was interested, at least.

“And don’t tell me you boys ain’t never been tempted to sample the colonist wares,” Smallfoot said.  He grinned.  “I hear there’s somethin ta be said ‘bout them fertile gals.  ‘Tis said ya can feel yer seed takin hold.”

The two other women of the ship gave Smallfoot a disgusted look, but Athenais had heard similar remarks before.  She couldn’t say if they were true or not, but she wouldn’t pass up an opportunity to gain their cooperation.

“Think,” Athenais offered, “They haven’t seen a Utopi before in their lives.  They prolly think Utopis are gods in the sack, enough practice and all that.”

“We are!”  Smallfoot roared, grabbing his crotch.  “Ask any whore in The Shop.”

In his corner, Ragnar rolled his eyes.

“So what do you say?”  Athenais said.  “Should I talk to these colonists?”

“Talk to them,” Goat said, crossing his arms over his chest, “But tell ‘em we want a ton of gold apiece.”

“A ton of gold!”  Ragnar said, “For seven people?  Are you a blasted idiot, Goat?  Colonists couldn’t afford that much.  Millennium is fleecing them for all they’re worth as it is.”

“Just saying I ain’t doin no job for no sixty credits a day,” Goat said.  “Can’t even buy a good whore for that much.”

“Goat, you couldn’t buy a whore for all the credits in the Utopia,” Dune said.  “Gotta get those AI ‘bots that can turn off their noses.”

“Got a question.”  Smallfoot leaned back lazily in his chair, which threatened to break under his weight.  He was called Smallfoot because of his petite size-five shoes.  What he lacked in foot size, however, he made up in his upper body.  From his torso up, he looked like some sort of gorilla, complete with thick black abdominal hair.  His furry nature had often made Athenais wonder how he kept hairs from falling into his patients’ open wounds when he stitched them up.

“Seems ta me it’s strange you’d offer to pay our wages yerself, Capt’in.  What’s in it fer ya’ll?  Some side-deal we don’t know ‘bout?”

Leave it to Smallfoot to think up a way she could be cheating them.

“There’s no deal,” Athenais said.  “I just wanna see Marceau Tempest’s face when we destroy his precious Potion.”  She felt the corners of her lips twitch in a bitter grin, thinking of it.

“What you got against the Potion, Capt’in?”  It was Fairy, the newest member of the crew.  She was also the youngest, thirty-four years old, and only been brewing for the last ten of it.  Normally, Athenais would have balked at hiring such youth, but the girl was brilliant at spatial maneuvering.  She could pull six seven-twenty degree countermeasures at full power and still be up for calamari and fried zucchini afterwards.

Athenais knew.  She had seen it, back when the little brat had been working for the Utopia.

What did she have against the Potion?  Athenais couldn’t quite put it to words, but of the handful of Utopis as old as she, all of them felt the same way.  A vague sense of wrongness, that the Potion had taken away something important and left them with emptiness.  The more youthful generations—which was about everybody else—didn’t notice it, which was what worried her even more.

Fairy waited impatiently for a response.  Athenais had hired Fairy after the Utopia had discharged her for ‘reckless insubordination’ and ‘unabashed arrogance.’  Athenais had experienced none of those problems.

The first time Fairy took the Beetle on an unauthorized joyride, Athenais had sealed the little wench in the air-lock and took her on a ride of her own, just the two of them, the com system switched on, grav regulators switched to Low as a sort of ‘Getting To Know You’ retreat.  Between the alternating begging and careful delineation of what was and what was not acceptable from a crew member of a respectable space pirate, Athenais let slip that, should the little moron take her ship out without permission again, she would find a particularly heinous way to end her miserable existence.  When she finally returned to dock, Fairy fell out of the air-lock and puked all over the reception corridor while the startled security guard looked on.

All eyes were on her, now.  Even Ragnar looked curious.

“Marceau Tempest made it.”  Athenais said, tracing her hand across the smooth metal-carbide doorframe she was leaning against.  “That’s reason enough for me.”

“Your father.”  Fairy was still in awe of that fact.

Athenais ignored her, once again regretting telling the flighty little runt.

“Captain,” Squirrel interjected, “I don’t mind the pay.  Sixty credits is better than working on that rock—” Athenais had found Squirrel on a penal colony after she had been put there for crashing the combined communications systems of three planets, “—but I do want to know what you think we can do.”

“Yeah,” Dune inserted.  “What do these colonists want with Beetle, anyways?  We can’t sneak onto Millennium.  Marceau’d hand us our asses.”

“If a couple dirt-poor colonists can find a way past Millennium’s fleet, then so can we,” Athenais said.

Goat and Smallfoot groaned, but Fairy leaned forward in her chair, the interest of brazen stupidity bright in her baby blue eyes.

“Anyway, it’s not a done deal,” Athenais told them.  “I’ll find out the rest when they show up tomorrow.”

“Right, then,” Dune said, standing.  “I got stuff ta do.”

Smallfoot rolled his eyes.  “You need to get a girl, man!”

“Got one, thanks,” Dune replied.  He pulled out a grease-stained picture of a dunebuggy bearing a winner’s cup from a grimy chest-pocket of his faded blue overalls.  “Her name is Wild Betty and she just won the Moondust Marathon.”  Kissing the picture, he left the mess hall.

“He really needs a girl,” Smallfoot repeated.  “You, too, Goat.”

“Prolly right,” Goat said, shrugging.

“Maybe Fairy’d take you under her wing,” Smallfoot continued.  “After that last batch of slop she fed us, I doubt she has a sense of smell.”

“You knucker, Smallfoot,” Fairy said, wrinkling her petite nose.

Athenais wondered again what the hell she’d been thinking hiring the delicate little twit on a pirate ship.  Sure, she was a pilot that could probably face down the entire Utopian fleet, given the right opportunity, but she also had about as many brain cells as an ornamental potted plant.

“I’ll see you all tomorrow,” Squirrel said with a yawn.  “I don’t care what we do.  Just have someone come get me when you need me to take up com.”

“Me too, man.  I’m outta here,” Goat said.  “Got me some tanga-weed to burn.”

“Keep the door shut,” Athenais said.

If Goat heard her, he didn’t reply.

“Sometimes I wonder how he manages to see straight with all the weed he smokes,” Fairy said.

“Beats me,” Smallfoot said.  “What about you?  How much tanga-weed you smoke, girl?”

“None!”  Fairy cried, looking insulted.

“So you mean you’re naturally an airhead?”

“Shut up, Foot,” Ragnar said.  Ragnar, the gentlemanly turd, backed the twit up every chance he got.  Probably because, on a ship full of pirates, Fairy was completely out of her league, and not only did every member of Athenais’s crew know it, but several—like Smallfoot—would take advantage of it in an instant, given the right opportunity.  Not even two years with Beetle had squashed Fairy’s bright-eyed, naïve idealism.  The girl just didn’t understand the real world, much less the criminal world.  She’d lived a sheltered, charmed life, and somehow, through some random, irrational act of the gods, had ended up one of the only living stick-fairies in the Utopia.  The injustice of it still rankled Athenais whenever she looked at the twit’s bovine brow.

“Fine,” Smallfoot said, raising his hands at Ragnar’s scowl, “I’ll just head back to The Shop then, if you’re done with me.  I’ve got me some unfinished business with them gals in the back.”  He grinned wide enough to show his perfect teeth.  “Them girls just love ta play doctor.”

Thinking of Smallfoot naked, Athenais tried not to shudder.

When no one objected, Foot gathered up his coat and left the mess hall.

“You were pretty silent through all this,” Athenais said, eyes catching on her first mate.  “What do you think?”

“I think it’s a great idea!”  Fairy began.  “The Millennium fleet couldn’t hold a candle to—”

“I was talking to Ragnar, girl.”

Fairy deflated.  “Oh.”  After a long minute of pointed silence from Athenais and Ragnar, her copilot looked around.  “Uh.  Guess I’ll be in my room, then?”

“Make sure Goat’s door is closed when you go by,” Athenais said.  “I can’t stand the smell of that shit.”

Fairy’s nose twisted in a pert little pout, but she got up and left.

Ragnar watched Fairy depart, her curvaceous little hips swaying.  Once she was gone, he said, “I think we should hear ‘em out.”

“You don’t care about the money?”

“You know my feelings.  Marceau is playing God.”

Athenais had caught Ragnar stowed away on her ship almost four hundred years earlier.  They had just unloaded a shipment of tanga-weed on a buyer on Millennium and were on their way to a job on Terra-7 when Athenais caught him crawling around in the ventilation.  How he had gotten on the ship was still a mystery to Athenais, and she still hadn’t been able to wrench that little bit of information out of him.

Once she had forced Ragnar out into the open at the wrong end of an overcharged semiautomatic flesh-seeker, Ragnar had eaten like a starving man but refused to mention how he had gotten on Marceau’s bad side.  All he told her was that he had had to get off planet right then and didn’t have any money to pay her.

That had been an interesting development.  Athenais had made him cook for the rest of the trip, and when she tried to boot him off at the first inhabited planet she found, she found him in the ventilation again as soon as they left port.

At that point, Athenais could have thrown him into space with no regrets, but instead she surprised everyone and gave him the permanent position of ship’s cook.  He had gradually climbed the ranks as crewmembers grew old or Athenais retired them, landing the position of First Mate after only thirty years.

The crew liked Ragnar.  He was honest, hardworking, and, though he didn’t specialize in any one thing, he could fill in for any one of the crew if they got sick or needed a day off.  Sometimes, when she was bored, Athenais wondered who would wind up on a deserted planet if she and Ragnar ever had a falling out.  The odds never came out in her favor.

That fact alone should have made her put a concentrated blast of photons through his brain years ago, but things with Ragnar had gotten more…complicated…than she liked.  She was still sorting through that particular blunder, but in the meantime, Ragnar made a good bedwarmer, and space was a damned lonely place.

“I want to do it,” Ragnar said, his big arms crossing over thick pecs.  “This might be our chance.”

“It might,” Athenais agreed, “But they better have a damn good plan.  Otherwise it’s a no-go.”

“It’ll work.”

“You’re a fool,” Athenais laughed.  “You haven’t even heard them out yet.”

“Yes I have,” Ragnar said.

Athenais sobered.

Ragnar saw her piercing look and hesitated.  “The man with the missing finger.”

“What about him?”

“He’s my brother.”

Athenais’s jaw fell open.

“Our ship crashed on Penoi,” Ragnar went on quickly.  “Twenty-three of us in all.  Fourteen died in the crash.  Paul and the others escaped the wreckage before Marceau found it.  He took me an’ five others to labs on Millennium.”

“You’re a shifter?”

“Keep your voice down.”

“And here I thought there was a ventilation duct that I didn’t know about,” Athenais cried, disgusted.  “Hell, you probably walked right past me.”

Ragnar nodded.

“I’ll be damned.”  Athenais stared at him.  “No wonder you’re a shitty cook.”

“Yeah,” Ragnar said.  “No taste buds.”

“A cook without taste buds.”  Athenais would have laughed if the joke hadn’t been on her.  “So what’s your role in this?  You plan to take Beetle from me if I don’t help you?”

Beetle’s yours,” Ragnar assured her.  “Just listen to my brother when he comes.  He’ll tell you everything.”

Athenais considered that for some time.  Finally, leveling a sober look on Ragnar, she said, “He older or younger?”

Ragnar frowned.  “What?”

“Just answer the damned question,” she growled.  “Who’s older?”

“It doesn’t make any differen—” Ragnar started, then he saw her dark look and cut off.  “We are the same age.”

She raised a brow.  “Oh yeah?  Who came out first?”

“We hatched at the same time.”

“Hatched?  So you guys lay eggs?”

Ragnar peered at her.  “We’re off subject.”

Athenais laughed.  “That’s what your brother said.”  She eyed him.  “So go on, shift.  Show me something.”

“Shifting is a survival technique, not a freak show.”  Ragnar said.

Athenais fought a surge of fury.  “You’re asking for my help, so the least you could do is shift for me.”

Ragnar gave a wary glance at the entrance to the mess hall.  “Not here.”

“My room, then.”  She grabbed his elbow and tugged him down the hall.  Ragnar dragged his feet and balked at the entrance.

“Really, Athenais, this isn’t necessary.”

“Get in there,” Athenais told him.  She gave him a shove, then stepped in behind him and shut the door.  She locked it with a few keystrokes, then turned on him.  “There.  Your secret is safe.”

“Attie…” Ragnar began.

“Don’t ‘Attie’ me!”  she snarled, surprising herself at the viciousness that surged up from her stomach.  “Shift!”

“You’re angry.”

Oh?!”  she cried.  “My paramour—the only man I’ve gotten into bed in centuries—turns out to be an alien on the Utopia’s Most Wanted list!  Damn it!”  Athenais caught herself on the impact-safe bedroom wall and lowered her forehead to the padding with a laugh of disgust.  “Before I met you, I knew I had man trouble, but Jesus Christ!  You’re not even a man.  You’re a goddamn alien!”

“Yeah,” Ragnar said, “I wanted to tell you.”

“You wanted to tell me?!”  She couldn’t stop laughing.  “At what point?  After you learned enough to rat me out to your brother?”

“My brother didn’t even realize I was alive until a few months ago.”

“What about those other two thugs?”  Athenais demanded.  “Those shifters, too?”

“No,” Ragnar said.  “Colonists.”

“So how long you been planning this?” she asked, looking sideways from where her forehead was still pressed to the padded wall.  “Since before you got on my ship?”

Ragnar shook his head, his thick brown locks falling almost to shoulder-length.  Athenais found herself wondering if it was really hair, or something else.  Cilia, maybe?

“Back then I just needed a way off-planet,” Ragnar said.

“So what do you want from me now?”  she demanded, lifting her head to glare at him.  “You’ve already outed me to your friends.  Really outed me, not just ‘oh, that’s the pirate who runs Beetle,’ outed me.  They know about my dad.  That means I’ve either gotta kill ‘em, do what they want, or go back into hiding for another forty years.”

Ragnar sighed.  “I’m not gonna lie to you.  I got on Beetle just looking for a chance to escape Millennium.  When I realized who you were, I knew I couldn’t get off or we’d never find you again.”

Athenais felt her skin prickle in irritation.  “Who I ‘was?’”

“One of the first Utopis,” Ragnar said.  “The ones carrying the original technology.”

She scowled at him, wondering what his face would look like when introduced to the side of her nightstand.

Ragnar touched her hand with callused fingers.  In the back of her mind, Athenais wondered if they were really calluses, or something else.  It was all she could do not to yank her hand away in disgust.  She was so upset that she barely heard Ragnar when he said, “The Potion that Marceau gave you was different than the one he gave everyone else.  It was unrefined, strong.  Completely self-sustaining.”

Then Athenais did pull her arm away, glaring.

“Okay, let me put it a different way,” Ragnar said.  “You remember everything that has ever happened to you since getting that injection, right?  Crystal-clear?”

“More or less,” she muttered.  “Unfortunate, that.”  There were plenty of things she wished she could forget.

“Ever wondered why nobody else remembers more than a hundred years back?”

“Of course.”

“And haven’t you wondered why your body can rebuild itself from scratch, even when you are badly burned?”

“‘Ashes’ is a bit worse than ‘badly burned,’ Ragnar.”  The thought left a bitter taste in her mouth.  She paused to consider.  “So what am I?  A robot?”

“No,” Ragnar said.  “Your consciousness, your brain patterns, your DNA and body structure…  All were imprinted on the Potion as soon as Marceau gave it to you.  You’re still you.”

Athenais pulled away from the wall and started to pace, because if she didn’t, she was going to pull a gun.  “So what do you want?”

“We want to break into the labs on Millennium and destroy the technology,” Ragnar said.  “Morgan and Paul have gotten the codes to get us all the way to the vault.  All we need to do is blow it to pieces.  Then, after we’ve done that, we need ongoing samples of the old technology to rid the population of any remaining Potion.”

“Is that possible?”  Then she frowned.  “What do you mean by the ‘old technology?’”

Ragnar gestured at her with a big hand.  “The difference between the Potion your father gave to you and the one he now sells by the dose is that yours can survive outside the body whereas the new technology can not.  We need something that can survive without a host in order to create a cure.”

Athenais pressed her lips together, irritation rising once again.  Locking eyes with him, she growled, “Paul told me you already had the cure.”

Ragnar flinched.  “We don’t, but with your help, we will soon.”

So they had lied to her, Athenais decided, fighting the urge to stalk to the door and go find something to put holes in.  Stiffly, she said, “And then what?  What would you do with the cure?”

“Put it in the water supply,” Ragnar said.  “Our guy will make it transmissible, passable from person to person like a DNA-based contaminant.  It would eventually spread like the plague, and with no visible symptoms for a few decades, it should be fully dispersed before Marceau’s monster realizes what hit it.”

“Ideally, he’d be dead,” Athenais said, “But we both know how well that would work.”

“He’s made additional modifications to himself, I’m sure,” Ragnar agreed.  “Improved upon the original technology, instead of dulling it down for the masses.  That’s why we’re going to kill him.”

Athenais snorted.  “You sound like this is a done deal.  In and out.  Easy-peasy.  Hell, how do you even know those access codes still work?”

“Morgan and Paul have been working on this for years.”

“Good for them.”

“Attie…”  Ragnar began.

She flicked an irritated hand at him.  “You’re leaving plenty of room for error, here, and you’re doing it with my ship on the line.  What do you even have against the Potion, anyway?  You ask me, you should collect your shifter friends, go find a friendly planet in another galaxy, leave all us humans to our misery.”

Ragnar took a breath, then held it.  He plucked a ball of fluff from her blanket and flicked it to the floor.  Finally, he said, “You ever wondered why you’ve never had to go back to Millennium for repeat injections when everybody else has to go every hundred years?”

“Lucky, I guess,” Athenais said.  “I hate needles.”

“The old technology was a one-shot deal,” Ragnar told her.  “The new stuff requires periodic dosings to keep the body working.”

“So?”  Athenais asked.  “That’s obvious.”

“For every Potion Marceau gives out, he kills a colonist to incubate it.”

Athenais blinked.

“Marceau raids Penoi daily.  The ones he brings back are injected with a replicating form of the Potion.  The next few days are agony for them as the technology spreads and reproduces.  After their flesh becomes mush and their organs stop working, their entire bodies are centrifuged to retrieve the technology.”

“Colonists.”

“Yes.”

“He’s killing colonists.”

“Yes.  That’s why Penoi’s never grown advanced enough to join the Utopia, even though it’s right at its center.”

Athenais’s fingers curled into stiff fists.  “That son of a bitch.”  She slumped to the wall, her head resting against the slats of the closet, her eyes closed.  She knew her father was a twisted plague on society, but this was the last damned straw.  “Get your friends.  I’ll help you.”



Wings of Retribution


Dallas hurriedly moved away from the mess hall entry as the Captain and her First Mate headed for her chambers.  She hid in a supply closet while they passed, then stayed there for long minutes, considering what she had heard.



A shifter.  Ragnar was a shifter.

It was so exciting she could hardly breathe.  Her throat all but ached with the need to blurt it to the universe, but she wasn’t that stupid.  Despite what the moody old broad said, she had plenty of good sense.  Still, the knowledge was too exhilarating to keep to herself.  She needed to tell somebody, but who?

Squirrel only cared about her clothes and her books.  Goat was probably already too stoned to talk to her.  Dune was busy with his latest buggy.  That left Smallfoot.  She hated Smallfoot.  He was rude, and always trying to get in her pants.  But she had to tell somebody.  It was going to eat a hole in her brain if she didn’t.

Smallfoot would be easy enough to find, though she’d probably have to wait a while for him to finish with his whores.  That would give her a chance to hang out in The Shop, maybe catch sight of the other shifter.  Two shifters in one place!  This had to be some sort of record.  That she had actually served on a ship with one left her all sorts of giddy.  She loved aliens.  She’d read tomes on them, in between missions back in the fleet.  They were just.  So.  Cool.  Shifters, especially.  She’d spent hours poring over their breeding habits, absolutely intrigued by the intricate coupling customs, cocking her head at the fascinating—and somewhat grody—pictures.

Dallas extracted herself from the closet in a tumble and hurriedly picked up the mop when it fell.  The sound it made was loud enough to make the walls ring, but thankfully the Captain did not emerge from her room to investigate.  Heart pounding like one of Dune’s combustion engines, Dallas slammed the utility door shut before anything else could fall out and ran full-bore toward the air-lock.

Dallas slowed down as she emerged in Reception Hub N of the Terra-9 spaceport.  A guard looked up from behind his desk and gave her a polite nod as she passed.  She gave him a lazy wave, trying to maintain the old biddy’s patented look of casual calm even as her lungs tried to explode from the inside, and then broke into another run once she was past his kiosk.

The hub opened onto the main terminal, where merchants in little mobile stands sold everything from beermaking supplies to engine parts.  Dallas had been out in the confused gathering once already today, hunting for a new perfume with Squirrel.  Here and there, she saw a few scantily-clad women standing beside unmarked shuttle services, offering a ride planetside.

Officially, prostitution was illegal on Terra-9, but places like The Shop brought so much revenue to the tiny planet that the government would never actively seek them out and destroy them.  In return, The Shop stayed planetside, dragging credits off the spaceport and into the local economy.

Dallas found a shuttle that was servicing the Forgotten District and paid the silken-clad driver three credits.  “You lookin’ for a job?”  the woman asked, raising a brow at the scanner, then at Dallas.

Dallas flushed and tried not to notice all the guys who were watching the conversation with interest from the passenger seats.  “Uh, no.  Lookin’ for The Shop.”

The woman lifted her chin dangerously.  “Who’s lookin’?”

“Athenais Owlbourne,” Dallas said.  She’d found that name usually did wonders when applied to shifty-eyed merchants and back-corner deals.

The woman’s eyes widened with that usual startled look, like she totally couldn’t believe that the dreaded pirate was five-foot-flat and blonde, but then Dallas was given a seat near the back by herself.  There, Dallas waited until another forty passengers had boarded, then buckled her harness and held on as the shuttle jerked free of the space port and dropped into Terra-9’s atmosphere, all the while trying not to blurt to the nearest passenger that she knew a shifter.

After a shaky ride, the shuttle made a few landings, jettisoning dozens of people with each stop.  “It’s over there this week,” the pilot said, giving a surrepitous glance at a sleazy-looking block a few streets down from the landing pad.

Dallas gave a knowing nod and pressed a few low-grade diamonds into the woman’s hand.  It was all she could do to contain her excitement.

The shuttle pilot looked down at the rocks in her palm and hesitated, looking as if she wanted to say more.

“Yes?”  Dallas demanded.

The skimpily-clad woman seemed to make her decision, because she lowered her voice knowingly, “Honey, you ain’t no pirate, and you sure as hell ain’t gonna fit in there.  I don’t know what you’re looking for, but if I were you, I’d get back on a shuttle and go find a movie to watch or something.”

“I am too a pirate,” Dallas blurted, horrified.  At the woman’s flat stare, she desperately wracked her mind for what Athenais would have said in retort.  Raising her head with a sneer, she said, “And I got better things to with my time do than chat with whores.”

The woman’s face darkened, and instantly, Dallas wanted to take it back.  Biting her lip, she watched as the pilot shrugged and climbed back onto her ship.  A moment later, the shuttle was jetting back off into space.

Feeling a bit sheepish, Dallas began trudging off down the alleyway the woman had indicated, ignoring the interested stares of the scores of dirty spacers she passed along the way.  She drew in on herself under the pressure of their gazes, feeling their eyes like prickles against her skin.  The incident with the silk-clad pilot had sobered her a bit, even making her re-think the brilliance of telling Smallfoot about the shifter, but now she was wandering alone on the planet, in the middle of a nasty part of town, and her ride had just blown off for port.  She had to find Smallfoot, if only to figure out how to get the hell back home.

By the time Dallas reached The Shop, she was a huge bundle of nerves.  She walked inside and was immediately assailed by every stare in the place.  Even though she didn’t drink, she lifted her chin and strode up to the bar to ask the scowling man behind the glass sheeting for a scotch.  Trying to appear inconspicuous, she took it with her in search of Smallfoot.

It was the first time she’d been in The Shop before, and it was an even more unnerving experience than strolling through one of T-9’s biggest slums.  She got the idea that women didn’t often frequent the place, or that maybe it was a gentleman’s club of sorts, because she was the only female wearing utility boots and spacers’ thermals.

In fact, it soon became evident that the various conversations of the place had ceased, and the tables of spacers were staring at her like she had golden horns protruding from her temples, so Dallas eventually retreated to the relative darkness of the back rooms to get away from them.

The gaming tables were lit up with single shaded lights hanging from the ceiling.  The row of slot machines along the side walls blinked with multicolored lights.  Set into the back wall, a tall red curtain separated the gaming from the more illicit wares.

Dallas sat down at one of the empty tables to wait.

“You gonna play?” a rough voice demanded.  Dallas started and swiveled.  A dealer with an energy pistol strapped to his belt was standing behind the table, giving Dallas a hard glance.

“Drinkin’ tables’re out front,” he snarled.

“I’m waiting for someone,” Dallas replied.

“Not here, you ain’t.  This’s my table.  Go back out wi’ Giggles if you ain’t gonna play.”

“I know Rabbit,” Dallas warned.  It wasn’t quite true, but her Captain did.

“So do I,” the dealer said.  “Now git.”  He put his hand to his energy pistol.

Dallas got up and went over to the curtain.  Muffled giggles and grunts emanated from the darkness beyond.  She considered going inside, then hesitated and leaned against the wall instead.  The dealer glared at her from under his table’s harsh white light, but Dallas ignored him and sipped her scotch.

Dallas wasn’t sure how much time went by before Smallfoot emerged from the curtained rooms but she had refilled her scotch twice and was beginning to feel quite tipsy.  The dealer laughed at her and offered to let her play at his table with a starting credit of fifty chips, but Smallfoot came out before she could sit down.

“Fairy?”  he asked when he saw her.  “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I can leave the ship just as well as you,” Dallas said.  She squinted up at him, trying to remember why he was so tall.

Smallfoot laughed.  “Yeah, but here?  Only Cap’in’s stupid enough to come here… You’re drunk, ain’t ya?”  He bent down and grabbed her under an arm.

“Nothin’ I can’t handle,” Dallas said.  She staggered to her feet—she didn’t remember falling—and steadied herself on a slot machine.  The contents of her tumbler spilled out over the black leather swivel-chair, ice cubes clattering to the floor with little pattering sounds.  Dallas stared at them, wondering how they got out of her glass.

“Come on, now,” Smallfoot said, slinging her arm over his shoulder.  “Let’s get you home.”

“I ain’t got a home, knucker,” Dallas slurred.  “Captain hates me.”

“She don’t hate you,” Smallfoot assured her.  “Wouldn’t’ve hired you if she hated you.”

“I fly better than her,” Dallas said.  “She hates me.”

Smallfoot winced at that and glanced at the rest of the darkened gaming hall.  “Come on,” he said, squatting down beside her.  “Let’s get you back to Beetle.”  He wasn’t very tall, but he was strong.  He lifted Dallas to her feet and slung her arm over his shoulder.  In an instant, he started carrying her out of the gaming room.

Beetle’s crawlin with shifters,” Dallas said, trying to stop him.  “Can’t tell who’s who anymore.”

Smallfoot laughed as he easily led her into the bar.  “That true?  Goat’s a character, but I wouldn’t call him a shifter.  Just a little bit of a weeder’s all.”

“No,” Dallas said, emphatic, “Shifters.”  She pulled Smallfoot to a halt and grabbed him by the shoulder, looking him in the eye.  “Ragnar’s a shifter.”

Smallfoot gave her a strange look and laughed.  “Ragnar’s in bed with th’ Capt’in.  Sneaky way t’ make First Mate, but gotta make a livin’ somehow.  Besides, I wouldn’t trade his job for anythin’.  Attie’s a bitch.”

“No, no,” Dallas said.  “I heard them.  Ragnar’s a shifter.  So’s the colonist.  They’re brothers.  Crashed on Penoi.  Missing a finger.”  She gestured emphatically to her left hand with her empty tumbler.

Smallfoot looked around and pulled her to an empty corner of the bar.  Dallas followed, triumphant that the lecherous ass was finally taking her seriously.

“Fairy,” Smallfoot said as he leaned across the table to her, “What’re ya saying?”

“My name’s Dallas,” she said.  “I hate Fairy.  I’m not gay.  I like guys.  Well, not you.  You’re kinda ugly.  But I’ve always liked guys.  Wish Goat didn’t stink so bad.  He’s kinda cute.  Not like that shifter.”

“Shit, Dallas,” Smallfoot chuckled.  “I should get you wasted more often.”

“I’m not wasted,” Dallas said.

“Sure you ain’t,” Smallfoot said.  “What was all that about shifters, now?”

“Buy me some more scotch.”

Smallfoot frowned at her but got up and went over to the bar.  Dallas yawned and lowered her forehead to the table, glad for the cool firmness of the dirty countertop on her too-hot cheek.  She was dozing by the time Smallfoot returned and set a heavy glass of amber liquid down in front of her, startling her awake.

“All right, Fairy,” Smallfoot growled.  “You gonna tell me what all this is about, quietly, ‘fore we get the whole Forgotten District talking about shifters?”

“Lean closer,” Dallas whispered.

Smallfoot did as she asked.

“Closer,” Dallas insisted.

“Damn it, Fairy,” Smallfoot said, but he complied.

“I heard them talking,” Dallas said.  She glanced back and forth to make sure nobody had heard her.

“Heard who talking?”  Smallfoot said.  “And stop shouting.  Giggles is watching you.”

Dallas looked over at Giggles and stared at him until he went back to wiping down the counters behind the shield of glass.  When she turned back to Smallfoot, she said, “Ragnar and the Captain.  Ragnar’s a shifter.  Said it himself.”  She took a deep drink of scotch and found that it didn’t burn in her throat as it had before.  She downed it in a few swallows and steadied herself on the table.

Smallfoot put his huge hand over her forearm to steady her.  Strangely enough, she didn’t find the black mat of hair as revolting as she remembered.  “Listen, Fairy,” Smallfoot began.

“My name is Dallas,” she said.

“Dallas,” Smallfoot corrected, “You’re telling me Ragnar said he’s a shifter?  To the Capt’in?”

“His brother, too,” Dallas agreed.  “The one with no finger.  They’re aliens.”  Eyes wide with meaning, she poked her fingers up against her forehead in tiny antennae.

Smallfoot stared at her for a long time before suddenly throwing his head back in a peal of hearty guffaws.  “No wonder you’re such a prude.  You hold your liquor like one of Squirrel’s fancy hats.”  Then he was getting up, reaching for her.

Dallas prickled, but when she tried to veer away from him, she fell flat on her face.  Smallfoot bent down, threw her painfully over his shoulder, and headed for the door of The Shop.  She heard Giggles and some others laughing before she lost consciousness.



Wings of Retribution

A Really Big Reward


Athenais met Ragnar and the colonists the next morning in the helm.

She sat in her favorite chair at the control panel as they entered, an energy-pistol and a communications handheld in her lap.  The first thing she did once they stepped into the room was push the security-lock button for the outer door, slamming it shut behind them.  The next thing she did was swing around and say, “You lied to me.”

Ragnar looked like a space-rat before his execution.  It had been a long time since Athenais had seen anyone so pale.  She smiled at him, showing teeth.  When she’d first found him on Beetle, she had thought it odd that the color of his face had always remained the same, regardless of how nervous the rest of him looked.  He’d gotten better at it, over time, but now she knew why it had struck her as out of place.

She’d been dealing with an alien.

“I assume you all know what this is?”  Athenais asked, lifting the weapon from her lap.

Confusion turned to fear and disbelief.  No one spoke.

“This,” Athenais continued, “Is a J-29 Phoenix quick-charge pistol.  It is set to recognize living flesh.  In the right hands—my hands—it represents certain death.”  She grinned at them pleasantly.

“Attie…” Ragnar began.

“And this,” Athenais said, lifting the communications handheld, “Represents six million credits, plus whatever they’ll give me for a couple of escaped colonists.  It’s got the number of T-9 police headquarters dialed into it already.  All I have to do is push a button and you’re going back to Millennium in stasis shells.”

The four men glanced at each other.

“Don’t even think about it, boys,” Athenais said sweetly.  “I will use this.”  She hefted the Phoenix.

“So what do you want?”  Paul asked.  The shifter looked like a wary cat that was trying to decide what kind of mutant rat he had just pounced on.

“Well, quite frankly, I want what you want,” Athenais said.  “Six million credits is useless to me.  I have twice that stored up in every major bank in the universe.”

“Then why…” Ragnar began.  He paused, his eyes catching the Phoenix.  He swallowed.

“Why turn you in?”  Athenais asked.  “Because even after infiltrating my bed, you still didn’t do your homework.  There’s one huge, glaring error in your thinking.”

“What’s that?”  Morgan asked.  Of the three, he seemed the least perturbed, though his eyes were still fixed on her gun.

“You failed to notice that I don’t like being lied to.  It makes me uncomfortable.”  She smiled at them.   “And as you know, I can hold a grudge for a very, very long time, given a good enough reason.”  She stared long and hard at Ragnar until he looked away.

“So,” Athenais continued, “Let’s start from the beginning.  The room is sealed.  The only way you’re getting out of here free men is if you convince me to help you.  If you don’t, I am pressing SEND.”  She hefted the com unit, the little green button clearly visible under her thumb.

Ragnar glanced at his brother.  “Attie, we—”

“Stop,” Athenais interrupted.  “For the rest of this interview, you will either address me as Captain or you will be shot.”

Ragnar bristled and went silent.

Morgan smoothly took the lead.  “Captain Owlborne, this is the best chance you’re ever going to get to undo everything your father has done.”

“Do I look like a crusader to you?”  Athenais asked.  “I’m a pirate.  I break the law for money.  If I helped you, I’d have to pay my crew’s wages myself.  I’d end up losing money.”

“You just said money doesn’t matter to you,” Paul said from against the wall.

“I said that it was useless to me,” she said, flashing him a smile.  “I never said it didn’t matter.”

“You’re nothing more than a hoarder, then,” Ragnar said.

Athenais beamed at him.  “This hoarder can always find more places to tuck away six million credits.”

“Athenais,” Morgan said, “What do you want from us?  We already showed you our underbellies.  We trusted you.”

“And I trusted Ragnar,” Athenais said.  “When all along, he was really only using me.”

“I was not!”

Athenais looked at him.

“I wasn’t,” Ragnar insisted.

Morgan spoke again.  “It seems to me, Ragnar, that you owe her an apology.”  His voice held a note of command in it.  Hearing that, Athenais examined the big man more closely.  Aside from the thick brown beard swathing his face, he had the general look of a grizzly bear.  All shoulders and torso.

“So if they’re both shifters, who the hell are you?”  Athenais demanded.

“Their father,” Morgan said.

Athenais gave Ragnar a piercing glare, “Odd, since he said he and Paul were the only two.”

“He did that for my protection, of course,” Morgan said.  “But since I’d be found out just as soon as you turned us in, there’s no use pretending anymore.”

Athenais was interested despite herself.  “So you’re their father?  Do they have a mother?  Or did you impregnate yourself?”

“Att—” Ragnar choked off his words, his face turning red.  “Captain.  That’s hardly important right now.”

Athenais glanced down at the Phoenix.  “Well, seeing how I’m holding the gun, I get to decide what’s important, don’t I, sweetie?”

Like a frog suffocating on his own tongue, Ragnar managed, “We’re here to talk about destroying the Millennium Potion, Captain.  Not my father’s sex life.”

“We’re here to talk about whatever I damn well want to talk about,” Athenais snapped.  She glanced at Morgan.  “How old are you?”

“Two thousand.”

She lifted a brow.  “A little long-lived for a shifter, aren’t you?”

“I’m old for my kind,” Morgan replied placidly.

Athenais gave him a long look.  “So are you male or female?”

“Technically, I am neither.”

“A hermaphrodite, then?  You screw yourself?”  She grinned as both Paul and Ragnar gave her horrified, open-jawed stares.

“We’re off subject,” Morgan said calmly.

Athenais made an exasperated sound.  “What is it with you guys?  Can’t you just answer the question?”  She glanced at Paul and Ragnar, waiting.  “Oh, come on!”

They gave her flat looks.

When it was obvious none of them were going to humor her, Athenais growled, “The way I see things, you need me a lot more than I need you.  I also see that if I don’t agree to help you, you will probably find some nasty way to make me help you, considering how much your son, here, knows about me.”  She gestured at her First Mate.

Morgan’s face was unreadable, but Ragnar winced.

“So my choice is either turn you in or help you.”  Then Athenais cocked her head thoughtfully and said, “Or just blow the three of you away and dump your bodies in space, but that leaves me out nine million credits.”  Returning her attention to Ragnar, she said, “As much as I would just love to spit in my father’s eye for what he’s done, there’s still that huge, glaring mistake you made when you decided to lie to me.”  She paused and looked at Stuart, who had remained quiet throughout the exchange.  “So is he another shifter?”  she demanded.

“What do you think?”  Ragnar growled.

“So you’re all shifters.”  Athenais glanced from one to the next, finally ending up on Ragnar.  “That’s strange, considering you want to destroy the Millennium Potion because Marceau kills colonists to make it.  Or is that a lie, too?”  She cocked her head at Morgan.  “Maybe there’s another reason why you want to get into my father’s labs.”

No one said anything for a long time.  Finally, Ragnar admitted, “Our family might still be in there.”

“And the Millennium Potion?  Was that a cover?”

“No,” Ragnar and Paul said together.  Morgan continued, “When we landed, we made Penoi our home.  Marceau is killing the people we have come to know as friends.”

“So by getting into my father’s labs, you have the chance to kill two birds with one stone, is that it?”  She looked at each of them.  “I’m sensing there’s something you’re not telling me.”

The four shifters hesitated.

“What is three million times four?”  Athenais asked, tapping the com unit against her cheek.

“We want to kill Marceau and put Paul in his place.”

Athenais stared at Morgan, a little tingle of excitement threading its way up her spine.  Breathlessly, she said, “That sounds like the best idea I’ve heard all day.”

The shifters glanced at each other uneasily.

“We might as well tell her,” Paul said.  When everyone scowled at him, he shrugged and said, “We’ve got several villages scattered across Penoi.  Marceau’s men raided one of these a few weeks ago when he was looking for Potion incubators.  They took five of us back with them.  After finding five of our kind in one spot, Marceau will know that we’ve got colonies of our own down there.  He’ll sweep the whole planet looking for us.”

Athenais let this information digest a moment.  “Why don’t you evacuate?”

“No time,” Morgan said.  “Marceau’s still trying to figure out which village his men raided when they found us, so he locked down Penoi until he can do a search.  Sneaking all of our people past the blockade would be impossible.”

“So why did you land on Penoi, of all places?”  Athenais asked.  “Seems like that’s the last place I’d go, with the center of the Utopia looking down on you each night.”

“At first, we crashed,” Morgan told her.  “Then we were hiding in plain sight.”

“It was working, too,” Paul said, “Until we figured out what Marceau was doing.  By then, there were too many of us to escape.”

Athenais rubbed the scar across her brow.  “So you want to break into the labs to destroy the Millennium Potion, eliminating the need to raid Penoi.  On your way out, you’ll grab any of your friends who are still alive and at the same time, you want to install Paul as Overseer of Penoi and Father of the Utopia to make sure the raiding stops and your colonies can exist in peace.”  She glanced at Morgan.  “Is that all?”

“You forgot the antidote,” Morgan said.

“Oh, yes,” Athenais said.  “You’re going to use the technology I carry to cure everyone of being a Utopi.  You’re either desperate or delusional.”

“We’re desperate,” Ragnar said.

Athenais stopped rubbing her scar and gave him a cold look.  “Then you’re no different than any other colonist I’ve seen.  Desperation doesn’t win wars.  Desperation gets you killed.  I’m not risking Beetle for desperate men.”

“We’ve been planning this for years,” Ragnar told her.  “Before I met you.”

“Funny, it sounds to me like you’re putting most of the burden in my hands.”  She began counting off fingers.  “You want me to supply the antidote, me to find a way back onto Millennium and then me to get us into Marceau’s compound.  What will you contribute to all this?”

“Everything we can,” Morgan replied.

The shifters waited in silence.

A grin cracked Athenais’s face.  “Sounds like fun.”

They relaxed a bit.  “So you’ll help us?”  Ragnar said.

“No,” Athenais said.  “You still owe me an apology.”

“I apologize,” Ragnar said, gritting his teeth.  It sounded like he was pulling steel needles though his nuts.  “I should have told you, Captain.”

“You’re right,” Athenais said.  “You should have known you could trust me, you twit.”

“I was afraid you might pull a stunt like this,” Ragnar growled, motioning to the gun and the handheld.

“The only reason I did this was because you lied to me,” Athenais shot back.

“The only reason I lied to you was because I knew you would overreact.”

Overreact?! I’m not overreacting! If I had overreacted, you’d be a nice mushy pool of shifter goop and I’d be collecting twelve million credits.”

Ragnar’s jaw looked like it was about to crack under the strain.  “If I’d told you, you’d have put me to work robbing banks and fleecing gem-dealers, all the while risking my exposure.”

Athenais’s jaw dropped.  “You would make a good thief, wouldn’t you?”

“You see?”  Ragnar said, “You’re as single-minded as a child!”

“At least I’m not a shape-shifting blob of mucus!”  Athenais screamed.

“You’re right! You’re a greedy, conniving, spoiled brat!”

Athenais lunged out of her chair, tossing the pistol and the handheld to the side in exchange for Ragnar’s throat.  They went down together in a ball of ramming elbows, jabbing knees, and startled grunts.  The three remaining shifters converged on the fight that followed, though it took time for them to pull the two of them apart.

 “…of a bitch,” Athenais panted when they finally managed to pin her arms behind her, facedown on the floor.  Her nose was bleeding, dripping a fine stream of red onto the carpet beneath her face.  Ragnar was in a similar position several feet away, with his father seated on his back, pressing his face into the floor.

“Enough!”  Morgan shouted, “You’re acting like children!”

“I’m old enough to be your grandmother!”  Athenais shrieked back.  “I’ll decide who’s acting like children!”

“You see?!”  Ragnar shouted.  “You see what I have to put up with?!”

“Put up with?!”  Athenais felt a whole new form of rage flood her senses.  She tried to get up, but Stuart held both her hands painfully behind her back and Paul was sitting on her shoulders.

“Shut up, both of you!”  Morgan snapped.  “You will stop fighting immediately.”

“This is my ship!”  Athenais shrieked.  “I’ll fight wherever the hell I want!”

Above her, Stuart twisted her arm in warning.

“Now,” Morgan said, “Ragnar, can I let you up?”

“Let him up?”

Stuart twisted her arm until she howled.

Morgan released his son and stood up.  Ragnar got to his knees, glared at her, and began massaging his shoulder.

“So what do we do with her?”  Stuart asked.

Morgan gave her a hard look.  “Can they let you up?”

As much as it pained her to do so, Athenais said, “Yes.”

“Do it,” Morgan ordered.

Stuart and Paul released her and stood back as Athenais got to her feet.  For the first time, she realized that Morgan was holding the Phoenix.

“Now,” Morgan said, displaying the gun, “Can I trust you with this?”

Athenais realized with a start that he was talking to her and not one of his sons.  The other three realized it as well and immediately raised their voices in protest.

“It’s her gun,” Morgan told them.  “We’re not thieves.”

“We’re not stupid, either,” Ragnar said.  “You give that to her and we’ll be right back where we started.”

“Maybe,” Morgan said.  Then he flipped the gun around and presented it grip-first to Athenais.

Athenais muttered under her breath and stuffed the gun into the holster on her belt.

“There,” Morgan said, glancing at everyone, “We’re adults again.”

“Shouldn’t have given her the gun,” Ragnar muttered.

Morgan ignored him and turned to Athenais, who was feeling around her jaw trying to determine how many teeth had been loosened by Ragnar’s kick.  “What of our proposal?  Will you help us?”

Her teeth were intact, she decided, but her upper lip was split in two different places.  It was already swelling.  She glanced at Ragnar.  He was scowling, but his own swollen lip jutted out from his jaw and made him look even more like a disgruntled frog.

Unable to control herself, Athenais chuckled.  She reached into her pocket, making the shifters stiffen.  Ignoring them, she drew out a handkerchief and tossed it to Ragnar.  “Go get cleaned up.  Don’t want the crew spreading rumors about me beating you or nothing.”

Ragnar stared down at the rag in his hand.  “So this means…”

“I’ll help,” Athenais grunted.  “Now try not to bleed on my Biamachis?”  When Ragnar just stared at her, she gestured brusquely at the intricate patterns woven into the floor.  “The carpets.  I stole ‘em legitimately from a very wealthy Tripianti merchant overlord, and it would be a shame to have to pay him another visit.  He was so happy to see me leave last time.”

Glaring at her, Ragnar daubed the rag to his face.  To his friends, who were gingerly lifting their feet and staring at the carpet like it had grown gossamer wings, Ragnar grumbled, “This was your idea.”  He shook the bloody rag at them.  “Remember that, when things go to hell.”  Then he flipped the air-lock open and shoved past them, assumedly to go find the privy.




Wings of Retribution

Space Rats


The Beetle scuttled out of port after Squirrel bought supplies.  It was Dallas’s turn to drive, but she was feeling too sick to move.  Athenais came into her room, saw the bowl of vomit, cursed, and left her alone.  Soon afterwards, the ship slid out of the dock under the captain’s command.

About an hour into their journey, Dune came in carrying a slice of bread in one grease-stained hand and a cup of water in the other.

“Capt’in says ya need this,” he said.  He gave her a critical look.  “How much’d you drink, girl?”

“Three, four scotches,” Dallas replied with a groan.  “I can’t remember.”

“Smallfoot says he found ya drunker’n shit in the gamehall of The Shop.  What the hell were ya doing there, Fairy?  Tryin’ ta git kilt?”  He looked genuinely concerned for her.  Of all of them, Dune wasn’t a bad guy.  A little brusque and a general recluse, but if Dallas had to pick one of the pirates to not blow her away in her sleep, it would be Dune.

“Can’t remember,” Dallas said.  She waved off the bread with a trembling hand.  “I can’t eat that.”

“Water’ll help, if ya can keep it down,” Dune insisted.

“I can’t.”

“Well, I’ll just leave them here for when you’re ready,” Dune said.  He put the bread and water down on the nightstand beside her bed.  The water-glass was smeared with black engine grease.  When she looked closer, so was the bread.  Dallas’s stomach churned and she quickly looked away.

“I’ll be back ta check on ya in a bit,” Dune said.  “You should really try ta drink the water.”

“Not gonna happen.”

Dune shrugged and left.

Some time later—Dallas wasn’t sure how long because she kept her eyes firmly shut and slid in and out of sleep—Goat came in with a plate of food.  The scent of roast beef mingled with his overpowering body odor and she vomited again.

“We just finished dinner,” he told her, eyes on her bowl.  “Guess you’re not ready, huh?”

“No,” she managed.  “Please…go.”

Goat put the plate down and started to walk out.

“We’re bound for Penoi?”

Goat paused.  “Yeah.  Capt’in took ‘em up on it.  Everybody’s grumblin, though.  The colonists ain’t pledged a dime for our help.  Dune and Squirrel tried to mutiny when Capt’in told ‘em.”

Squirrel tried to mutiny?”  Squirrel was the last one Dallas would have pegged as a mutineer.

“Yeah,” Goat said.  He sat at the end of her bed.  “Squirrel found out Capt’in really means to destroy the Potion.  She’s only got a few years ‘till she’s due for another dose.”

Dallas blinked.  She hadn’t really thought the Captain could be serious about destroying the Millennium Potion.  “You’re sure?”

Goat gave her a frown.  “‘Course.  Why else would she say it?”

Dallas sat up and made her eyes focus through the dizziness.  “You mean you knew she really wanted to destroy the Potion?”

“‘Course,” Goat said.

Dallas squinted at him.  “You do realize that means you won’t be able to live for more than another hundred years, right?”

Goat shrugged.  “I had my fun.  ‘Sides, I don’t wanna take the Potion no more if they gotta kill colonists for it.”

“What do you mean?”  Dallas asked.  Her stomach was doing flips and she had to lie back down.  She squeezed her eyes shut and prayed that she could keep herself from vomiting again.

“Capt’in got us all together’n had the colonists tell us how they make the Potion.  Come find out, they gotta kill the colonists to get it.  Infect ‘em and strain it back out of their bodies like pullin’ ants from an anthill.  Paul said they’d been doin’ it all this time.”  Goat looked down.  “Even if we don’t get the Potion, I ain’t gonna take another dose.  Reckon enough of ‘em died for me already.”

Dallas was so stunned by this revelation that the memory hit her like a wrecking ball.  She jerked, remembering overhearing the captain’s conversation with Ragnar.

“Yeah,” Goat said, mistaking her reaction, “Was hard on me, too.  Hard on everybody.  Squirrel ‘n Dune don’t want it no more, neither, not after hearin that.”

“What about Smallfoot?”  Dallas asked.

“Same, I guess.  Kept to ‘imself all day.  He’s still cranky from when Capt’in woke ‘im to patch her up after ‘nother fight with Ragnar.”

“I’ll bet,” Dallas said.  “He was lookin forward to the day off.”  She grimaced.  “Thanks.  Tell the captain I’ll take over in a few hours.”

“Yeah,” Goat said, standing.  “Seeya then.”  At that, he left her chamber, his heavy, booted steps reverberating down the hall as he went.

Dallas got up a couple hours later and stumbled to the helm.  The command room was quiet, with only Ragnar and Athenais at their posts.  Ragnar gave Dallas a passing glance as she walked in, but Athenais swung around to face her.

“So,” the Captain said, “Finally up?”

Dallas swallowed and nodded.

“I’ve deducted two days’ worth of pay from your salary,” Athenais said.  “While you were puking and feeling sorry for yourself, I was having to do your job and mine.”

Dallas refrained from saying that Athenais’s job seemed to be nothing more than walking around and cursing at people and instead tried to put on her best ‘subdued and sorry’ look.  It wasn’t difficult.  She didn’t think she could handle eating again, ever, and she was seeing two Captains where there should have been one.

“So,” the two Athenaises continued, “You’re feeling up to this?  You won’t smash us into any debris-belts if my First Mate and I go off and take a nap?”

“I’m feeling fine,” Dallas lied.  The old broad certainly didn’t need to know about her body-double.  And besides, Dallas always felt good enough to drive.  Driving was easy.  It was standing that was killing her.

Athenais got up and gave Dallas her seat.  She hovered nearby as Dallas went through the routine of checking gauges and engine output.  When Dallas looked up, the Captain was giving her a hard look.  “Still hungover?  Still drunk?  You need more time?”  The look in Athenais’s eyes added, And another day’s worth of pay?

“I learned my lesson, Captain,” Dallas said, as meekly as she could manage.

Athenais snorted.  “You feel like vomiting, you come get me.  I don’t want you ruining my floor.  I worked hard to steal that floor.”

“Yes, Captain,” Dallas said, in that submissive whine she had learned from fifteen years of kowtowing to Utopian admirals.  “I won’t vomit on your Biamachis, Captain.”

“You do, you’ll be licking it up.”  Athenais gestured brusquely at Ragnar, then turned on heel and strode from the command room.

Pompous bitch, Dallas thought, as the First Mate got up and followed the Captain out.  She doesn’t deserve Biamachis.  For the thousandth time, Dallas considered the varied and tantalizing ways the rugs could disappear or spontaneously combust while the Captain was sleeping.  Not for the first time, Dallas decided she didn’t want to end up space debris.  Instead, once she was sure Athenais was gone, she ducked down, snagged a thread from underneath Ragnar’s chair with her pen, and pulled it free of the rug.  Glancing over her shoulder, she added it to the cluster of such snagged and torn threads that had slowly been building under the captain’s console over the last two years.  Dallas took a warm-and-fuzzy moment to gaze down at the palm-sized wad of magnificently shredded rug fibers that she had accumulated, then nudged the wad back under the captain’s console with her toe and began scanning the digital horizon for space-rock or other debris.  This was a well-used trade path, so the space in between was relatively clear.  Dallas fell into a familiar trance, shutting down her brain to everything except the controls.  She could pass whole days in a trance like this, with time passing just as quickly as the space outside.

She was jolted alert when the bright red PROXIMITY warning suddenly blared.  Seconds later, Beetle lurched and started to slow.  The roar that followed reminded her of ripping through atmosphere with a porthole open.  Even as she began evasive maneuvers, Dallas wondered who was shooting.

Behind her, the security doors flew open and someone came running inside.

“I don’t know who it is!”  Dallas cried, pulling Beetle out of the trade lane.  “They were following us!”

A hairy hand slipped past her and locked the helm doors.  Even as Dallas was trying to comprehend that, something cold and hard pushed against the back of her skull.

“Drop the stick, Fairy.”

Dallas’s hands tightened stubbornly around the controls.  She was gaining ground.  In minutes, she would have so confused her pursuers that they would have to spend the next three hours trying to figure out where they were.  She looped a few more times, backtracked, and did a ninety-degree turn that threatened her stomach despite the Beetle’s artificial gravity.

“Come on, now.  Don’t make me use this.”  The cold metal tapped her skull insistently.

Dallas released the controls and turned to look at Smallfoot, pointedly ignoring the weapon resting between her eyes.  “You’re an agent?”

He grinned, displaying perfect teeth.  “I’m a pirate, just like you.  Now stop the ship and let ‘em board.”

Someone started pounding on the other side of the security door.

Keeping his eyes on her, Smallfoot walked over to the emergency control panel and brought out the small key that Athenais kept with her at all times.  With it, he unlocked the glass panel and flipped the switch that would fill the outside living compartments with sleeping gas.

Outside, the pounding stopped, followed by a thud as something hit the ground.

“I said, let ‘em board.”

Dallas turned back to the controls and considered punching the security-door lock and letting the sleeping gas pour into the helm.

“Don’t even think about it,” Smallfoot said.

Frustrated, Dallas launched the sequence to initiate in-space boarding.

“Good girl.  Now go stand over there while I chat wi’ my friends.”  Smallfoot gestured towards the corner of the cockpit with the muzzle of his—or, rather, Athenais’s—gun.

Bristling, Dallas stood and walked over to the side wall, where she waited.  Her hangover was gone, replaced with adrenaline and fury.

Smallfoot sat down and opened a frequency between the Beetle and its attacker.  He put the earphone against his head and laughed.  “Why hello, fellahs.  Yeah, they’re here.  I recommen’ bio-suits for boardin, though.  Might be a lil’ gas left over.  What?  No, that wasn’t me.  A copilot.  Naw, I din’ kill her.”

Smallfoot frowned at the console, then glanced at Dallas.  “They wanna hire ya.”

“Tell ‘em they already fired me once.”  She crossed her arms and scowled at the emergency airlock.

Smallfoot relayed her message and laughed at the reply.  “We’re taking the energy charge from the main engine block,” he said, turning to her.  “Ya can either come with us or die on Beetle.”

The little hairs on Dallas’s neck lifted.  “You’re gonna scuttle her?  What about the others?”

Smallfoot scoffed.  “Goat’s a weeder, Squirrel is a uppity bitch, Dune would screw his machines if he could, and the Cap’in is dead.  Not much left here to save, way I see things.”

Dallas’s heart spasmed.  “You killed her?”

“Couldn’t very well leave that one alive, now could I?”  Smallfoot laughed.  “After all, I’m selling her precious shifter for three million credits.  She wouldn’t take that very well, and we know how our Cap’in liked to hold a grudge.”  He frowned at her.  “So?  Ya wanna come or stay?”

Dallas flinched at the way he said ‘liked.’  If Athenais was dead, there was no one to fly the ship other than Dallas.  Goat knew where to fly the ship, but not the how of it.  If they were stranded, Squirrel could radio the Devil and get a response, but she didn’t know the first thing about flying.  Dune could keep the engine running if the core itself failed, but he’d never touched any controls other than the steering-wheel of a dunebuggy.

That left Dallas.

But without the energy charge, Beetle wasn’t going anywhere.  Ever.  Squirrel had a better chance of radioing Hell to alert them that they were on their way.

Dallas bit her lip.  She didn’t want to die, but she didn’t want to leave her friends, either.

Well, as close to friends as she had, considering the lot of them had abducted her to work for Beetle when the Space Force had fired her.  She’d always gotten the idea they all hated her.

Outside, the Beetle jolted as the Utopian ship joined with it and closed the seal.

“Come on,” Smallfoot said.  “It’s not a tough decision.”

“I’m staying.”

Smallfoot stared at her.  “You’re as crazy as that bitch Cap’in.”  He opened an emergency cubby and took out two flashlights.  He tossed one at her.  “Come on, then.  Maybe yule change yer mind.”

“I won’t,” Dallas said.

“Maybe,” Smallfoot said, releasing the security-lock.  “Butcha helped me earn six million credits, so I owe ya somethin.

Dallas’s jaw fell open as she suddenly realized what she had done.  “You’re here for the shifters.”

“Yer a bright one,” Smallfoot snorted.  “Bring yer light.  We’re going ta engineering.”

“Go yourself,” Dallas retorted.

Smallfoot waved the gun in front of him.  “See this?  This says yer comin.  If ya don’t, I’m shootin off a foot.  Maybe a hand, too, ta keep ya busy.  I’m sure as hell not leavin’ you ‘lone at the controls.”

Dallas scowled and opened her mouth to tell him to take her foot.  Then, at his raised eyebrow, she closed her mouth, snatched the proffered flashlight with a glare, and followed him.

Dune was crumpled on the floor immediately outside the entry.  They had to step over him to enter the hall.  It didn’t appear to Dallas that he was breathing.

“He gonna be okay?” she asked, pausing over the mechanic.

“He’s fine,” Smallfoot told her, glancing down as he passed.  “For now.”

Dallas bit her lip, but a sound from the air-lock caught her attention.  Blue-uniformed Utopian agents were pouring onto the ship, tasers in hand.  They stopped and ordered Smallfoot to drop his weapon, but he laughed at them and pointed down the hall at the sleeping chambers with the muzzle of his pistol.  “They’re in there,” he said, and motioned for Dallas to follow him down the stairs toward the mechanic’s haven.

Despite its super-efficient drive system, the engine-room was warmer than the rest of the ship.  Most people thought it was cozy, but Dallas always had that nagging feeling that maybe the extra heat was actually radiation that was wreaking havoc on her body’s cells as she sat there enjoying the warmth.

Because of this, she hated going to visit Dune.  She only did so now because she was pretty sure Smallfoot wouldn’t hesitate to blow off that foot, to keep her occupied.

Dune had set up a new buggy in the center of the room, surrounded by tables filled with odds and ends that looked like junk to Dallas.  Dune’s chair sat empty in one corner, the cushion worn and mashed flat with repeated applications of a grease-stained butt.  An instruction manual of some sort was laying open on the seat, no doubt on some fancy new engine part.

“In here,” Smallfoot said, walking past Dune’s personal alcove and into the main engine area.  It was even warmer in here, with huge black pistons and rotors churning in the center of the room, powering everything from life-support to the kitchen oven.  A bone-deep hum made her ear-drums hurt.

“Turn on your light,” Smallfoot instructed as he pulled on a lead-reinforced glove.  He stepped up to the engine block and pried up a lever from the looming mass of metal.  He gripped the lever with his gloved fist and pulled.

The lights went out.

Dallas flipped on her flashlight in a panic.

Dangling from Smallfoot’s gloved fist was a glowing blue ceramic cylinder.  “Got it,” he said.  He hefted his prize cheerfully and headed back toward the stairs.

Dallas followed at a subdued distance, her mind reeling.  Without a power supply, Beetle was crippled.  There was no going back.  She had pulled off the main travel-route in her attempt to thwart their attackers.  They would drift for years, maybe even centuries, before someone came and discovered them all frozen like Halloween popsicles.

Back on the upper level, Smallfoot handed the ceramic cylinder to one of the Utopian agents who was waiting for it at the air-lock.  The man hefted it, grinned at Smallfoot, and disappeared into the other ship.

“Last chance,” Smallfoot said, pausing in the air-lock to look back at her.

Dallas swung her light into the Beetle’s deserted hallway.  Little specks of dust drifted in front of her flashlight’s beam.  The place reminded her of a tomb.

“I’m staying,” she said with more resolve than she felt.

Smallfoot shrugged.  “Your choice.”  He started to turn, then paused, handing her the second flashlight.  “You’ll need this,” he said, and stepped into the other ship.  In moments, the two doors had shut and the air-lock sealed itself once more.  The Beetle jolted as the Utopian vessel released it.  There was a momentary rumble as the other ship’s engine powered up, and then nothing.

Dallas sprinted back to where Dune was collapsed on the floor outside the command room.  He was still in the exact same position she had left him.

Dallas knelt beside him and touched his shoulder.  Dune was breathing, albeit shallowly.  She shook him, hard.

The mechanic grunted, sucked in a huge breath, and rolled onto his back, gasping.  The first thing out of his mouth was, “Differentials’ll need work.”

Dallas frowned at him and shone the flashlight into his eyes.  “What are differentials?”

Dune threw a grease-marked arm over his face and groaned.  “What the hell’s going on?  Who’s there?  Get that blasted thing out of my face.  Why’s it so dark?”

“Smallfoot took the energy-core,” Dallas said.  “Turned the colonists in to the Utopis.”

Dune grunted and sat up.  “Fairy?”

Dallas nodded.

“Where’s the Capt’in?”

Dallas hesitated.  “He said he killed her.”

Dune scoffed.  “That’d be the day.  Help me up.”

She pulled him to his feet and held him steady while he got his bearings.  “He had her gun.  I think he shot her.”

“Prolly did,” Dune said.  He took Dallas’s spare flashlight.  “You go find the others.  I’m gonna check the engine.”  At that, he jogged off toward the stairs, leaving Dallas alone in the hall.

Dallas turned toward the sleeping chambers with trepidation.  Though she had worked for Athenais for two years and the Utopia for fifteen years before that, she had never actually seen a dead person before.  She was not looking forward to the experience, since she was terrified of ghosts.

Her first command had been haunted.  It was the only reason that she had been able to get the post at such a young age with so little time in service.  They had actually given her the ship as a punishment because it had driven its previous two commanders batty.

Bloody Mary, as they had re-named it, had been absolutely and categorically haunted.  For two horrible years, Dallas had endured apparitions, poltergeists, and strange whispering voices, all so she could continue to fly.  Though she didn’t know exactly what had happened to the people who haunted the place, she was pretty sure that murder had been involved.

Now her boots felt heavy as she made her way to the Captain’s apartments.  It was the first room on the right.  The door was open.

Swallowing hard, Dallas peeked inside the entryway.

Immediately, her headache was back.  Gray and red mush was splattered over half the wall.  Though she couldn’t see a body, she knew what that meant.

Forcing down the urge to gag, Dallas ducked past Athenais’s room and knocked on Squirrel’s door.  “Squirrel?” she called, not liking the way her timid voice carried down the hall, echoing right into the room where the dead Captain lay in a pool of her own blood.

When she got no answer, Dallas fought down a pang of dread.  Though she’d been screamed at to stay out of the woman’s room on numerous occasions, she jiggled the latch anyway.  Squirrel, as usual, had it locked.  After a moment’s deliberation in the cold, dark hallway, Dallas glanced behind her to make sure no one was watching, then got out a paperclip and a sliver of metal sheeting and proceeded to pick the lock.

With the power off, it wasn’t difficult.  Picking locks came in handy when hardnosed Utopian colonels liked to keep sensitive war-plans secured behind locked doors, and only doled out tiny bits of information on a ‘Need to Know’ basis, when it was obvious that the pilot running the mission needed to know everything she could about her job before she started it.  On that note, it also came in handy when Military Security caught her scrounging through top-secret files in the middle of the night and was about to take her back to the station in cuffs, where they were sure to figure out her name and Service ID number.

 …Or when way-too-full-of-themselves space pirates decided to lock her in her room for a day for ‘spying on me.’  Dallas didn’t spy on people.  It wasn’t her fault if she accidently overheard something important while running normal, everyday errands around the ship.  So she liked to spend time in the broom closet.  Big deal.  Sometimes people just needed some alone time.  Besides, locking someone in their room was illegal.  Basic human rights.  She could take Athenais to court.

Once she had the door open, Dallas quickly checked to make sure she hadn’t been seen, then returned the paperclip and its mate to her shoe.  Then, hand on the latch, she tentatively pushed the door open.  “Squirrel?”

It was dark inside.  Cringing, Dallas swept the flashlight across the bed, expecting to see another blood-stain.  What she found made her stare.

Squirrel, to her relief, had not been shot.  She was, however, lying in bed, her face slack with sleep, cheek scrunched up against the pillow, drool pooling under her nose.  It was the first time Dallas had seen the woman without makeup, and she had to pause a moment, just to soak it in.  She looked a lot less like a stuck-up, elite snob and a lot more like a normal person.  Dallas almost wanted to take a picture, to preserve the moment.  Then, catching herself, she slipped inside and shook Squirrel awake.

“Dallas?”  Squirrel asked, blinking up at her in confusion.  “Comm down?”  Then her face darkened suddenly.  “How did you get in my room again?”

“Everything’s down,” Dallas hastily informed her.  “Smallfoot sold us out.  Took the power core, left us all to die.”

Squirrel sat up immediately.  “Where’s the Captain?”

“Dead,” Dallas said, wincing.

Squirrel snorted.  “I’d like to see that.”  Then she got up and started dressing.  Dallas watched, fascinated.  Pausing as she caught Dallas’s stare while donning a flowing silk robe, Squirrel frowned.  “And get the hell out!  Just ‘cause the power went out doesn’t mean you can lurk.  I hate lurkers.”

Narrowing her eyes, Dallas went to wait in the hall outside, shutting the door behind her.  “I’ll show you a lurker, you cranky old broad,” she muttered to the latch, kicking herself for not taking that picture.

“And stop muttering, you skinny little curmudgeon!” Squirrel shouted through the door.

Dallas squinted at the closed door.  What the hell was a curmudgeon?

A few minutes later, Squirrel came out with a flashlight of her own.  She paused a moment to slip a set of fancy shoes on at the door, then made a point to lock the door behind her, giving Dallas a pointed glance as she did.  As usual, she looked stunning.  Well-dressed, her sleek designer clothes lacking a single wrinkle or snag, her short blonde hair fluffed-up to perfection, her makeup solidly back in place.  She looked like she belonged in a sheik’s harem, and idly, Dallas wondered if she was somehow doubling as the old bat’s concubine.  Now that would be a good picture…

“I’m gonna check on Goat,” Dallas said.

“You do that,” Squirrel nodded.  “Somebody needs me, I’m working on comm.”  At that, she turned and strode away, not even pausing for a glance inside Athenais’s cabin.

“I told you, Smallfoot took the core,” Dallas called after her.

Squirrel waved a dismissive hand and disappeared around the corner.

Dallas passed Smallfoot’s empty quarters and was about to put down her flashlight to jimmy open Goat’s door when it shuddered and moved.  As Dallas was hastily tucking her paper-clip back into her boot, Goat stumbled into the hall, hair mussed and eyes puffy.  If he had been smoking tanga-weed recently, the smell was masked by his overpowering body odor.

“What’s with the lights?”  Goat muttered, holding the side of his head.

“Smallfoot sold us to the Utopis,” Dallas said, straightening.  “They took the power-core and all the colonists.  Ragnar, too.  And he killed the Captain.”

Goat snorted and scratched himself.  “He killed her, huh?  ‘magine that.”

“Why doesn’t anybody believe me?”  Dallas demanded.  “I saw her brains on the wall.”

“You prolly did,” Goat said.  “Gimme the flashlight.”

Dallas reluctantly handed it over.

Goat stepped back into his room and came out with a massive, industrial-size searchlight.  He switched it on and the hall blazed.  “I’m gonna go help Dune.  Come get me when Capt’in wakes up.”

At that, he left her standing alone in the hall.

Was the whole ship crazy?  As Confucius would have said, ‘One does not wake up from a head wound that leave one’s brain smeared across a wall like a new style of abstract art.’  Frowning, Dallas hurried back down the hall, quickly passing the Captain’s quarters without glancing inside.  She hurried to the helm, where Squirrel had a side-panel open and was rooting through the wires she found there.

“Need help?”  Dallas suggested.

Squirrel had four different-colored wires poking out from between her teeth.  “Nope,” she said around them, as she fiddled with something above her head.

“Got somethin I can do, then?”  Dallas asked.  “I don’t know engine stuff.  Maybe I could help with comm?”

“Nope,” Squirrel said.

Dallas sat in the pilot’s chair and glanced at the console.  The eerie darkness of the controls was more final than the loss of power.  In that moment, she knew they were going to die.  “I’ll just stay here and keep you company,” she said.

Squirrel let out an explosive sigh and turned toward her as far as the wires would allow.  “Go bug the Captain, will you?  I’m trying to concentrate, Fairy.”

“The captain is dead!”  Dallas snapped.  “Smallfoot was right.  You are an uppity bitch.”

Squirrel laughed.  “He said that, did he?  What a dweeb.”  Dallas sensed no hostility in her manner, despite the fact that Dallas had just called her an uppity bitch.

“Sorry,” Dallas muttered.  “Just wish I had somethin ta do, that’s all.”

Squirrel grunted and went back to work.  After a few minutes, she said around her mouthful of wires, “You know we’re not getting out of this mess, right?”

Dallas glanced at the flashlight in her lap.  “Yeah.”

“So why’d you stay?”

Dallas glanced up, surprised.  “How’d you know?”

Squirrel shrugged.  “Smallfoot liked you well enough.  Figure you had a flashlight when you woke me up, so you must have been awake before the lights went out.”  She glanced back at Dallas to gauge how well her remarks were hitting home.

Dallas nodded and Squirrel turned back to the wires.

“A pilot like you can get work anywhere,” Squirrel continued after awhile.  “Me, I’ve got a history.  Can’t get legitimate work.  But you… You could have your own ship in a few years.  Why’d you stay?”

“I didn’t wanna leave Beetle without a pilot,” Dallas said.  “Just in case Dune gets her running again.”

Squirrel scoffed.  “Dune’s not gonna get it running again without power.  The best chance is to divert some of the backup life-support into the com system.”

Dallas’s brows lifted.  “Is that wise?”

“Do I ever ask you if you’re flying straight?”

“No,” Dallas said.

Squirrel touched two wires together, producing a loud snapping sound, then twisted them tight.  She shut the panel with a triumphant snap and moved over to the console.  “You mind?”  she said, motioning at Dallas’s chair.

Dallas got up and watched as Squirrel sat down in the pilot’s seat.  She picked up the handheld and slid the earpiece over her head.  Then she started rattling off distress calls, switching the frequency every few minutes.  Only a resounding static answered her.

Squirrel lowered the earpiece in frustration.  “Damn it, Fairy, where the hell did you leave us?  There isn’t even a whisper out there.”

Dallas bit her lip.  “Sorry.”

Squirrel made a very unladylike grunt and went back to her distress calls.

Dallas sat down in Goat’s seat and watched, anxiously picking at a peeling bit of lettering on the dash.  After twenty minutes or so, Squirrel turned on her again.  “Do you mind?  You’re making me nervous.  Go check on the captain or something.”

“I already told you,” Dallas began, “The Captain’s—”

“Dead.  Yes, I know.  Go check on her anyway.”

Narrowing her eyes, Dallas got up and left the helm.

She intended to head down the stairs and see what Dune and Goat were doing, but she heard a crash from Athenais’s room.  She froze, her beam of light quivering over the open door.

The crash came again, followed by a curse.

Heart in her throat, Dallas tiptoed to the open door and peered inside.

Captain Athenais Owlborne blinked back at her like a deer caught in the headlights, completely whole, without so much as a scratch marring her head.  Even her scars were gone.  The wall behind her was clean.

I’m losing my mind, Dallas thought.

Get that goddamned light out of my face!”

Dallas lowered the light, still staring.

The Captain got up and staggered to the door.  When she reached Dallas, she took the flashlight out of her hand.

“Where’s Ragnar?” she barked down at her.

Cringing, Dallas babbled, “Smallfoot gave him to the Utopis.”

Lips set in a grim line, Athenais’s eyes came to rest on the dark electronics in the hall.  “And he took the power-core.”

Dallas nodded, mouth open.  And he killed you, she thought, staring.

“Hell.”  Athenais cursed and stormed off to the engine room, leaving Dallas the choice of either following a ghost or staying behind in the darkness with what could very possibly be a dead body in the next room.  She decided to follow the ghost, because the ghost had taken her flashlight.

Down in the warmth of the engine room, Goat and Dune were muttering over a small boxlike contraption that they were hooking up to the fuse-box with a tangle of multicolored wires.

“What’s the rat’s nest?”  Athenais asked.

Neither Goat nor Dune looked up.  “Buggy battery,” Goat said.

“And what’s that?”  Athenais demanded, pointing to the manual in Goat’s hands.

“Racing guide,” Goat said with a grin.  “Did you know you can make a hundred thousand credits if you win the big race on Helius?”

“Don’t get him started,” Athenais said with a sigh.  She inspected the black box that was dangling haphazardly from the wall by its tangle of wires.  “Squirrel got power?”

“She hasn’t come down to yell at us, so yeah,” Dune said.

Athenais grunted and trotted back up the stairs, leaving Dallas with Dune and Goat.  Dallas turned and realized both of them were grinning at her.

“She looks like she seen a ghost,” Dune said.  They both guffawed.

“I saw her brains on the wall,” Dallas babbled.

“The Capt’in’s different,” Goat said.  He shrugged at her confused look and went back to his magazine.

Realizing they weren’t going to elaborate, Dallas swiped a flashlight and headed back to the helm.  She found Athenais sitting at the pilot’s seat, radioing for help.  When Squirrel saw Dallas, Squirrel shook her head once.  That was all Dallas needed.  They were going to die there.




Wings of Retribution

Simple Stuart


Stuart was pulled from an uneasy sleep by the sound of Ragnar cursing.  “…self-serving bastard, Foot!” Ragnar was shouting.  “You’d sell your own mother if it made you a credit!”

Opening his eyes with a groan, Stuart tried to remember how he’d fallen asleep.  He had been in a conversation with Morgan about the plan to hit Millennium and then someone at the helm had started throwing the engine into overdrive, and then…  Nothing.

Then Stuart discovered that he couldn’t feel anything below the neck, and his senses came back online in an instant.

Stasis shell, he realized, which, while a Very Bad Thing, was also a bit of a relief.  Had he been drugged, he would have been completely trapped.  At least this way, he was still semi-mobile.

So, the pirates decided to go for the bounty after all, eh?  Typical.  Ragnar had been too close to the situation and Morgan was too much of a romantic to really take a logical look at the whole picture.  Stuart, for his part, had lost all his romantic tendencies centuries ago, and if he’d had his way, they wouldn’t have been in the same Quadrant as Marceau’s daughter, much less on her ship.  Like father, like daughter, and when he had confronted them about it, not one of his companions had denied the fact that the pirate they were trusting with their lives was utterly insane.

Then Stuart realized that they couldn’t be on Athenais’s small, cramped ship.  The rumbling growl of the engine reverberating through the sterile white walls belonged to a vessel much bigger than the spry little Beetle, and he was pretty sure the sanitized, blindingly-white linoleum didn’t belong to a group of hygienically-challenged space-pirates.

“Oh, give it up shifter,” someone shouted.  Stuart strained to remember, after brief introductions.  The doctor.  A Utopian agent?

“You lost,” the doctor continued, in a sneer.  “Stop wasting air for the rest of us.”

Though his stasis shell was pointed in the opposite direction, Stuart twisted to see.

The short, gorilla-like man that Ragnar had called Smallfoot stood near the door with three blue-uniformed Utopian soldiers, pointing out locations of interest on a hardcopy star-chart. All three of the soldiers wore officers’ lapels. One bore the red starburst of Species Operations.

Upon sight of that crimson, eight-pointed star, Stuart felt a lead weight hit the pit of his stomach.  Not good.  Not good at all.

To his horror, the S.O. officer noticed that Stuart was awake.  Stuart watched him cross the sanitized white room, hoping his terror wasn’t visible in his face.

What are they planning? he thought, all sorts of horrible scenarios suddenly playing through his mind, making him sick.

The six-foot, clean-cut S.O. officer came to stand in front of him, hands clasped behind his back around a roll of maps.  The man wore his uniform like a badge, with every crease ironed into attention and every bit of brass gleaming.  He had a crew-cut that had been clipped tight to his skull, and he bore a rack of medals on his chest that would have made Marceau himself jealous.

Stuart’s eyes caught upon the purple Xenological Special Warfare Commendation, which had a silver crescent denoting multiple awards, and he realized he was finally, categorically, never going to see the light of day again.

The Species Operations officer gave Stuart a long, hard stare, which Stuart returned in silence.

“I am Colonel Howlen, Species Operations specialist from Millennium.”

“I don’t care who you are.”

The colonel laughed, which made the medals on his chest jingle.  “Of course you do,” he replied.  “So humor me a moment.  Do you have any concept of the severity of your crimes?”

“Depends on who you ask,” Stuart replied.

The S.O. officer gave him a flat stare.  “Did you know you were traveling with three shifters, boy?  Do you know the penalties for consorting with banned life-forms?”

Stuart blinked.  That was the extent of his crimes?

Colonel Howlen took Stuart’s surprise to mean that he hadn’t.  He waved his roll of maps at his friends, all of whom were trapped in their own white egg-shaped stasis shells.  “All three of them.  They were living on Penoi, from what we gather.  You’re a colonist there, correct?”

Stuart flinched and glanced at the others.  Morgan and Paul were watching him in mute silence.  Ragnar was still scowling at Smallfoot.

A roll of cartographer’s hardcopy slapped Stuart’s stasis shell, wrenching his attention back to the colonel.  “I asked you a question.”

Stuart blinked at the S.O. officer.  “Yeah.”

“Where did you find these three?  What town?”

Stuart glanced back at his friends.

“Don’t look at them, look at me,” the S.O. officer snapped, slapping his shell again.  “Where did you meet them on Penoi?”

“Lerriton,” Stuart lied.

“Look it up,” Howlen said over his shoulder.

One of the two officers standing at the door ran it through the computer, then looked up and shook her head.

“Describe Lerriton,” Howlen said.  “Is there another name for it?  What’s the population like?  What part of the globe?”

“It’s a town on Penoi,” Stuart replied.  “It’s got people who live there.  In houses.”

Colonel Howlen gave him a long look.  “We can execute you.”

Stuart snorted.  “Go ahead.”

“We will, eventually,” Howlen assured him.  “Unless you cooperate.”  He paused, watching Stuart with a calm intelligence that gave Stuart chills.  After a moment, his face seemed to soften a bit.  “Look, boy.  I know you’ve formed emotional ties to those three, but they’re not people.  They’re things.  Animals that can take human form.”

From his own stasis shell, Paul scoffed.

“These creatures are infesting our society,” Howlen continued.  “Living normal lives.  Trying to pass as human.”

“So what’s the harm?” Stuart asked.  “They’re not hurting anything.”

“They’re trying to bring down the Utopia,” Howlen said.

Well, at least that’s true enough, Stuart thought.  He had been expecting one of a thousand different lies that the Utopia used to cover its operations, but for the first time, they had actually hit upon the truth.  “They wanna destroy the Utopia, I saw we let ‘em,” Stuart said.  “Marceau is taking colonists from Penoi for his Millennium Potion.  Lost my sister last year to one of their raids.”  He hadn’t, of course, but he’d heard of plenty who had.

The S.O. officer snorted.  “Don’t be ridiculous.  That’s just a rumor that those vermin have inspired in their quest to destabilize our government, and you are incriminating yourself further by perpetuating it.”  He looked irritated that Stuart would suggest such a thing.

“So what do they do with all those colonists they take from their homes in the middle of the night?” Paul demanded.

“Nobody’s taking colonists off of Penoi,” Howlen snapped, without looking at the shifter.  To Stuart, he said, “But since you’re already here, I’ve been told to give you the option of joining the Utopia so you can help us locate the rest of these cockroaches.”

Stuart grimaced.  “I, uh…  I’d have to think about it.”

Howlen gave him a long look.  “I see.”  Brown eyes cold, he turned to the others.  “Let’s go.”

Smallfoot, grinning at Stuart, did not follow the soldiers from the room.  Colonel Howlen stopped in the doorway and gave him a questioning glance.

“Just wanna say a few words,” Smallfoot told him.

“Your nine million credits will not be awarded until they are in custody on Terra-9,” Colonel Howlen warned.

Smallfoot laughed.  “I’m not lettin ‘em go.”

“See that you don’t.”  At that, Colonel Howlen left.

“You’re a piece of shit, Smallfoot,” Ragnar said, without prelude.

Smallfoot plucked a set of rubber gloves from the dispenser and shrugged.  “I got my reasons.  I’m not as old as the Cap’in.  Not as established.  Woulda taken me couple hundred years ta get my own ship, if I went her route.”  He held the gloves up for them to see.  “See, now this is the sort of thing I wanted to see in my surgery, but what did Attie give me?  Goddamned handsoap and bristle brushes.  No antibacterials.  Not even a proper scalpel.”  He flung the gloves aside in disgust.

“You sold us for a ship?” Ragnar growled.

The surgeon grinned.  “Actually, it’s more like a fleet o’ ships.”

“So who told you?” Ragnar said.  “Or did you have the place bugged?”

“Athenais told me,” Smallfoot said.  “Found out she’d been screwing an alien.  Wasn’t too happy ‘bout that particular situation, let me tell you.”

Ragnar eyed Smallfoot critically a moment before saying, “You’re lying.”

Smallfoot shrugged.  “I’d tell you to ask her, but she’s dead.”  He gave a wistful sigh.  “She was worth another million, but I figured the ol’ broad woulda found some way to muck things up.”  He grinned and tapped on his skull with a finger.  “I’m smart, see.  Nine million credits is better’n ten million and my head floating in space.”

“How’d you kill her?” Ragnar asked.

Smallfoot laughed.

“Answer me.”

The surgeon shrugged.  “Shot her.  Gave the walls a new coat of pretty red paint.”

Ragnar scowled at him.  “You’d better put that nine million to good use, because she’s gonna find you.”

“She’s deader’n dirt and I don’t put no stock in ghosts,” Smallfoot said.  “Fairy might, but the flighty wench’s a bundle of nerves anyway.”

“Who said anything about ghosts?”

Smallfoot chuckled.  “I’m a surgeon, shifter.  I know dead when I see it.”

“So you say.”  He cocked his head.  “Your accent’s different.”

“Maybe,” Smallfoot said, though his demeanor grew guarded.

Stuart frowned.  Now that he was paying attention, Ragnar was right.  He detected a hint of Erriatian undertones in the man’s speech, instead of the Moravi brogue he had heard before.

“You were an agent from the start?” the shifter demanded.

“Agent?” Smallfoot snorted.  “I’m no agent.  Opportunist, maybe.  Not an agent.”

Ragnar gave him a cold, deadly stare.  “Athenais is going to feed your guts through the air-lock when she finds you.”

Smallfoot peered at Ragnar a moment, then shrugged and said, “She’s dead, but it won’t make no difference either way.  I took the energy core offa Beetle.”

That made an impact.  Stuart watched Ragnar’s head droop against the stasis shell in defeat.

“So anyway,” Smallfoot said, “Somethin I’ve always wondered since I first met ya eight years back.”  He thumped his knuckles against the shell beside the shifter’s head and paused.  When Ragnar did not lift his head, he continued.  “Man ta man, or man ta alien, whichever ya please…  Let’s be honest.  Yer not much ta look at.  How did you get inta her sheets?  Whaddja use?”

Ragnar looked up.  “What are you talking about?”

Smallfoot lifted his hairy hand, palm-up.  “I tried everything.  Gave her every drug I could think of whenever she needed ta be patched up.  Nothin worked, not like it did on the others.  She never looked at me twice.”

Ragnar stared at him.  Finally, he said, “You piece of shit.  You’re a space-rat.”

Smallfoot shrugged.  “I’ve been called a lot of things.  Men in my trade, we get used to it.”

“And you tried this on Athenais?”

“Oh come on,” Smallfoot laughed.  “She’s a pirate.  You steal from a pirate and you’re not really stealing, you’re just redistributing the wealth.”

“And you were gonna kill her.  Take her ship.”

“I did kill her,” Smallfoot reminded him.  “But yeah, Beetle was the only ship I never managed to get the access codes to.  Kind of irritating.  Took the longest time and didn’t get my ship.”  Then he grinned.  “But I got you three, so I’m happy.”

“How many ships have you stolen?”

“Enough,” Smallfoot said with a shrug.  “Thirty, forty.  Never anythin as nice as Beetle, but I got by.”

“It must be killing you to leave Beetle behind, then.”

“Nah,” Smallfoot said, “I still have one on Helius I haven’t sold yet.  Nice pleasure yacht.”

“How nice?” Ragnar demanded.

“An eight-thousand-footer.  Named Bird O’ Paradise.  Real sleek ship.  Fully automated.  Equipped with AI bots, the whole works.”

“What did you do with the captain?”

“Led her on until we were out of port, then chucked her into space.”

Ragnar’s face drew into a snarl.  “And we’re the ones in stasis.”

“Hey,” Smallfoot said, spreading his hands, “Man’s gotta make a livin.  Happens most women are real suckers for some good lovin, so I figure why not make the most of it?  Get them moanin and they’ll give you all the access codes you wanna hear.”

Ragnar stared at Smallfoot for long minutes, then burst out laughing.

“What?” Smallfoot demanded.

“Look behind you,” Ragnar said.

Smallfoot did, and paled.  When Stuart twisted to see, Colonel Howlen was standing in the doorway.  The room was silent for long minutes.  Trapped inside his shell, Stuart snickered.

“You realize,” Howlen said finally, “That government bounties cannot be awarded to convicted felons.”

Smallfoot scowled at the colonel and straightened.  “I ain’t been convicted of nothin.”

“Yes you have.”  In one crisp motion, Colonel Howlen drew his pistol and fired, a single shot between the surgeon’s eyes.

Smallfoot’s body was still sliding to the floor when Howlen holstered his weapon and said, “I hate scum like that.”

The four of them were speechless.

The S.O. officer looked up from the body and frowned at them.  “He took the energy core off of that ship?”

“That’s what he said,” Ragnar replied, hope clear in his voice.

The room was silent as Colonel Howlen considered that.  “That’s unfortunate.  We’re too close to T-9 to turn around.”  Then the S.O. officer clipped the strap back over his gun and, his eyes locked on Smallfoot’s body, said, “If anybody asks, he was trying to free you.”

“You got it,” Ragnar agreed.

With one lingering glance at Stuart, Colonel Howlen grunted and walked off.  A few minutes later, two Utopian soldiers came to drag off the carcass.  The process left a long, glistening red smear on the non-slip metal surface.  Then the cell door shut, leaving the four of them alone.

“Well,” Ragnar said.  “That was cool.”

“Cool?!” Paul demanded.  “They caught Morgan,” he said, looking at Stuart.  “He was the only one who could get us out of here.”

“I can’t believe you guys didn’t tell me you were aliens,” Stuart said.  “They might have thought I was a shifter.”

“Oh shut up,” Paul growled.  “You were on a need-to-know basis.”

Stuart glared.  “You were using me just like you were using Athenais.”

“I wasn’t using Athenais,” Ragnar growled.  “I met her for the first time in The Shop by accident.  It’s run by a guy called Rabbit.  He introduced me to her.  They were really good friends from childhood, and he insisted I buy her a damn drink.  Who was I to know Athenais and I would fall for each other?”

Rabbit, huh?  That was good to know.  Stuart cocked his head at Ragnar.  “Too bad she’s dead.  She might’ve been able to get us out of here.”

“Yeah, Rabbit’s gonna take her death real hard.  He’ll go out looking for Beetle as soon as he finds out.  Athenais was really important to him.”

 Which meant help Athenais first.

“Will you shut up about Athenais already?” Paul snapped.  “It’s always ‘Athenais this’ and ‘Athenais that.’  Your stupid Athenais and your screwed up love-life got us into this mess in the first place!”  He was glaring at Ragnar, but his eyes weren’t angry.

“No, Smallfoot got us into this mess!” Ragnar shouted back.  “He was a space-rat.  You heard him.  No more honor than a jackal.”

“Haven’t you been paying attention?” Paul yelled.  “None of these humans have any honor.  Not even Stuart.”

Stuart cocked his head at Paul.  What was he trying to say?

“You’re such an asshole, Paul,” Ragnar snapped.  “Stuart is in as much trouble as we are.  He’s not gonna turn on us.”

So there was the meat of it.  They wanted him to use any and all means to get out of his stasis shell.

Paul and Ragnar continued arguing until Morgan shouted at them to shut up.

A soldier came in to scrub away the dried brown stain several hours later.

“Hey,” Stuart said, “Come here.”

His three friends looked up sharply as the soldier gave Stuart a nervous look.  “Yeah?” the pale, unassuming blonde corporal asked.

“Tell that Colonel Howlen I’ve got a deal for him.”

“I told you!” Paul shouted.  “That’s what you get for trusting a human!”  He spat at Stuart and it landed in his hair.

The corporal gave Paul a nervous look before turning back to Stuart.  “Colonel’s getting ready fer landin.  Prolly won’t be available ‘till we’re docked.  Whatcha wanna say?”

“Tell him I’ll tell him all about where I found these shifter bastards,” Stuart said.  “Just get me out of here.”

“Sure,” the soldier said.  He went back to mopping.

“Aren’t you gonna tell him?” Stuart demanded.

The soldier shrugged.  “I’ll tell him when I’m done.”  At that, he went back to cleaning the floor.  When he was finished, he left the cell without so much as glancing at Stuart.

Stuart could only bide his time and hope that his message got through.



Wings of Retribution


The silence on the other end of the comm system bored into Athenais’s eardrums like a pickaxe.

Everyone was going to die.  Except for her.

“Damn it, Fairy, where’d you put us?”  Athenais tossed the headset aside in disgust, turning to glare at her copilot.  “I haven’t heard a single crackle.  Nothing.”  She turned to Fairy, who was leaning over the darkened controls like a woman leaning over a dead lover’s casket.  Despair tugged at the her features.

“Fairy!”

The girl jerked and looked up.

“How far are we from the road?” Athenais repeated.

Fairy leaned back against her chair with an explosive sigh.  “I don’t know.  Two, three thousand.”

Athenais glanced back at the headset.  Her com array was good for five hundred Standard Intergalactic Distance Units, or SIDUs.   Squirrel could probably boost that up to seven-fifty, maybe eight hundred, tops.

As it was, some mining armada on its way to an unexcavated planet would probably find Beetle drifting a thousand years from now amidst a string of space debris.  Inside, they’d find four frozen skeletons and one very pissed off pirate.

Oh, she was going to make Smallfoot pay.  No one crossed Athenais Owlborne.  She would hunt him down and skin him and throw his carcass to Uresian tree bats, right after she—

“Captain.”  Fairy’s low voice interrupted Athenais’s thoughts.  She turned to look at her copilot.  Fairy was staring down at the lifeless controls.

Inwardly, Athenais thought ‘despair’ was a good look for the little twit.  It was certainly a welcome change from the bright-eyed, energetic, ratlike scurrying naïvete that the Utopi airhead usually beamed around in a blast of youthful exuberance.

“What,” Athenais barked.

Hunched over the controls, Fairy hung her head.  “I told Smallfoot about the shifters.”

Athenais froze, suddenly wondering what it would be like to scramble the young pilot’s brains on her own control panels.  As calmly as she could, she said, “You did?”

The girl nodded miserably.  She kept her eyes on the console in front of her.  “That night in The Shop, right before we left port.”

Athenais fought the sudden impulse to strangle the little snoop.  “You were spying on me again.”

Fairy flinched.  “I heard Ragnar say it after we left the meeting in the mess hall.”

Athenais slammed a fist down on the console, making her copilot jump.  “I told you to stop spying on me,” she growled, rage bubbling up from deep within.  Of course it had been the sneaky little twerp.  Of course.

Hunched over the controls, Fairy hung her head.  “I didn’t think it would hurt…”

She didn’t think…  It was all Athenais could do not to introduce her pretty face to the dash a few times in her fury.

Gripping the com unit to keep from reaching for the little blonde’s throat, she said, “So it was you.  I told Goat and Dune and Squirrel, but I couldn’t figure out which of them would be dumb enough to tell Smallfoot.”

Fairy looked up, surprise etched on her face.  “You told those three, but not me?”

Athenais snorted.  “Lookin’ at what happened, you see any reason I should’ve done differently?”

Shame began to redden Fairy’s face and the girl looked away.

“I keep my new recruits on a short leash,” Athenais growled.  “Smallfoot was the newest, after you.  He’d only been with us for eight years, since my last surgeon retired.  You’d only been with us two.  Truth be told, I thought you had been the one to turn us in, then they turned on you.”

Fairy looked up, horrified.  “I didn’t mean for any of this to happen.  I just overheard you and Ragnar and then I got drunk and Smallfoot…”  She glanced back down at the controls and lowered her voice.  “I ain’t no turncloak, Captain.”

Athenais gave the girl a level stare.  “So what are you, girl?”

Fairy’s face flushed.  “I may be stupid, but I’m no turncloak.”

“Maybe,” Athenais told her, “but I don’t suffer fools on my ship.  You’re lucky there’s no power, ‘cause if there was, I’d put you in the airlock and open the doors and be done with you.”

“But,” Fairy stammered, “you keep saying I’m the best pilot you’ve ever seen…”

I’m the best pilot I’ve ever seen,” Athenais snapped, irritated that the girl had latched onto that one misplaced sentence, two years ago, and run with it.  “And I don’t care if you shit diamonds and vomit osmium ingots.  You’re no use to me if you can’t keep my secrets.”

It took the girl a moment to digest that.  When she did, Fairy’s pert little lips parted in horror.  “Does this mean I’m off of Beetle?”

“If we get back to port, you’re getting off my ship.”

“But I stayed,” Fairy whined.  “Doesn’t that prove I’m loyal?”

“It proves you felt guilty for getting the rest of us killed,” Athenais snapped, her anger flaring again.  She stood, her fingers digging painfully into her palms.  The only reason she didn’t slug the little twerp was because it wouldn’t be a fair fight.  “I’m going to go get something to eat.  If I were you, I wouldn’t be here when I came back.”  At that, she picked up a flashlight and walked through the security doors, ignoring Fairy’s whimpered complaints.

Damn her.  Athenais should have known that the girl was too young to take aboard, regardless of how gifted she was.  Not only were her snoopy, borderline-klepto tendencies huge warning bells that should have gotten her ass dumped on a desert planet years ago, she was too cocky.

Her gut had warned her, but Athenais had seen too much of herself in the young pilot to pass her up.  Watching Fairy at the wheel was like taking a spin down memory lane, and Athenais missed being that young and exuberant about everything.  The very first week, Dune had suggested that she let Fairy ‘ripen’ a few more years, but Athenais had been too bullheaded to listen to him.  She insisted they give the little brat a chance.  Now everyone on Beetle was going to pay for her mistake.



Wings of Retribution


Colonel Howlen came stalking into the cell immediately after docking, looking ruffled.  “What is it, colonist?” he snapped, glaring at Stuart.  He ignored the other three entirely.

“I got a deal for ya,” Stuart said.  “I can tell you where ta find more of ‘em.”  He tilted his head toward his friends, amidst curses from the shifters.  “Lots more.”

“Where?”  Howlen sounded impatient.

“I got some conditions,” Stuart began.  “First—”

“No,” Howlen interrupted.

Stuart frowned.  “No what?”

“No conditions,” Howlen said.  “I don’t make deals.”

“I just want fair treatment,” Stuart insisted.  “How do I know you’ll give me what I deserve if I help you?”

“You’ll get what you deserve,” Howlen assured him.

Stuart did not like his tone.  He said so.

“Well, truth is,” Howlen said, giving him a long, cold glare with eyes as unyielding as packed dirt, “I don’t like deserters.”

He’s serious, Stuart thought, panic beginning to trim the edges of his awareness.  He fought to keep his tone level, knowing that he needed the colonel to let him out of his shell.  If he didn’t, and they put Stuart through a more thorough scanner—which they would—all four of them were dead.

“A few hours ago you were beggin’ me to help you,” Stuart objected.

Howlen narrowed his eyes.  “I never beg.”  At that, he turned and left the room.

Stuart couldn’t believe it.  His opportunity for escape had just walked right out the door like he’d offered shit-sandwiches and not the entire shifter mother-lode.  He stared at the door for minutes, wondering if it was some sort of ploy to scare him into blurting out something important.

When Howlen didn’t come back, however, Stuart began to get that sinking feeling that maybe the colonel really was just as much of a hardass as he appeared.  He had almost resigned himself to being discovered when hope flared anew with the arrival of a subordinate S.O. officer.  The young woman was directing a group of soldiers that had come to ready the stasis shells for transport.

“We can help each other,” Stuart said when she paused near his shell.

She gave him a look of mingled suspicion and interest.

“I can tell you where to find more of ‘em,” Stuart said.  “They’ve got a whole town on Penoi.  I can tell you where it is.”

“Then tell me.”  She glanced away to watch the crew wrestling with Paul’s shell.

Stuart scoffed, bringing her attention back to him.  “Penoi’s huge.  You think I could tell you right where it is without a map?  All I know is it’s between some mountains and there’s a little fork in the river—”

“You turncoat piece of shit!” Ragnar interrupted.  “You keep your damn mouth shut.  We helped you back on Penoi.  We gave you a place to live, food to eat, and this is how you repay us?!  You have the conscience of a tapeworm.”

Stuart gave Ragnar a narrow look.  Tapeworm, was he?

The woman glanced at Ragnar, scowling.  “Shut him up.”

A corporal that had been removing the bolts holding Morgan’s stasis shell to the floor got up and thrust a taser into Ragnar’s neck, making him scream.

Stuart felt a little better as Ragnar’s head collapsed against the front of the shell.  “So as I was saying,” he began, “They’re on this little river—”

“You’re just a parasite,” Paul spat.  “You use people and cast them off once they’ve served your purpose.  You’re just—”

“Him, too,” the woman said with an irritated gesture.

Stuart was still glaring at Paul long after the corporal had jolted him into unconsciousness.

“Well?” the officer demanded.  “Where are the rest of them?”

Stuart tore his eyes away from Paul with some effort.

“You’re worried about the wrong species, dear,” the woman said, following his gaze.  “Who cares what they think of you?  They’re aliens.”

Stuart gave her a grim smile.  “I’m going to need a map.”

The officer bit her lip.  “The only map I can show you is programmed into the table in the war room.  Just give me a description from here.”

“There were lots of trees, a river, and mountains,” Stuart offered.

The woman gave him a disgusted look.  “What are you?  A goddamn fortune-teller?  That describes just about every place on Penoi.”

“I can’t give you the right place without a map,” Stuart protested.

“Give me something solid and I’ll give you a map.  Otherwise, stop wasting my time.”  The woman turned to go.

“Standing in the village, if you look up to the east, you can see a mountain that is shaped like old-fashioned gun-sights.”

Morgan’s head jerked in his stasis shell and he gave Stuart a long look.

“Gun sights, eh?” the woman said, watching Morgan’s reaction.  “I suppose I could set the computer to look for that.”

“Give me five minutes at a map and I can put my finger on it,” Stuart replied.

The woman cocked her head at him.  “You realize that we will hold you until we prove your information is correct.  Lying to us is not going to help you get out of here any faster.”

“But if I’m proved right, I get a reward, don’t I?” Stuart insisted.  “I heard that there’s a bounty on shifters’ heads.  A big one.  That’s what that doctor was saying, anyway.”

“There’s bounties on colonists’ heads, too,” the woman replied.  The suspicion, however, melted from her face.  Humans, after all, were simple creatures.

…Simple creatures that thrived on the material and liked to annihilate everything that made them nervous.

To the blonde corporal that had relayed Stuart’s message earlier, the woman said, “Let this one out of stasis.  Keep an eye on him until I get back with the Colonel.”  At that, she turned and strode from the room.

The corporal gave Stuart a long look before unlocking the shell.  The other soldiers stopped what they were doing and stood, waiting, their hands on their weapons.

As soon as the shell folded open around him, Stuart’s nerve-endings suddenly came back to life in a blaze of tingly fire.  He cried out and fell to the floor, unable to move in the confusion.  So this was why the woman wasn’t worried about him getting away.  He should have remembered from the last time he was in one of these things.  Unfortunately, it meant he would have to do the transfer sooner than he had planned.

Stuart stretched out his hand to the soldier that had released him, ignoring the blinding pain.  “Give me a hand up?” he said, straining.

The soldier backed away, giving Stuart a suspicious look.  Stuart’s heart sank.  If Colonel Howlen came back before the transfer was complete, he was sure to know what was going on.  After over a decade of training on Millennium, S.O. developed a sixth sense about that sort of thing.

A squat, redheaded man stepped up, pushing the standoffish corporal out of the way.  Grinning, he caught Stuart’s hand in a firm grip that sent shockwaves of agony through his ultra-sensitive body.  Stuart forced himself to smile.

“Don’t mind ‘em,” the man said easily.  “They think colonists carry all sorts of viruses and parasites.”

In his stasis shell, Morgan laughed.

Stuart gave the shifter a cold glance before tightening his grip on the man’s hand.

“There you go,” the redhead encouraged, “now just push with your feet.  Good.  Now straighten up.”

Stuart carefully slid a node into place on his palm where it was clasped against the redhead’s.  Once it was ready, he gave a mental apology, then delivered a constant, mild shock that coursed through the redhead’s body, stunning him.  The redhead’s eyes went wide at the jolt, but he couldn’t yank his hand away.  With his other hand, Stuart swung his arm like he was trying to steady himself and smacked it palm-first into the other man’s head.

Gods, he hated this part.  They both tumbled to the floor, their hands still locked in a death-grip.  Before the other soldiers could pull him off of their comrade, Stuart shifted so that his ear was positioned over the redhead’s ear.  Then, gathering his strength, he slipped out of his old body and into a new one.

His surroundings changed with a sudden jolt.  Light, along with horrible dryness, assailed his body from all sides.  Since he had only the most basic sensory organs, Stuart could naturally only see fuzzy images, able to perceive nothing near as detailed and colorful as his previous host’s, and completely unable to hear.  Blind and deaf, perceiving the world through a disorienting haze of cold, dryness, and uncomfortable vibrations, that all-too-familiar fear of being without a host began to sink its talons into his soul.

Had they seen him?  Did they recognize the muscle spasms of his old host, now that Stuart had disconnected?  Could they see the blood dribbling out of his last host’s ear?  What if the redhead started to scream before he installed himself?

Spurred by panic, Stuart burrowed deeper into the ear canal, knowing that the initial shock he’d delivered to the redhead would only last a few more seconds before his new host began to scream.  He couldn’t let that happen, not with a dozen soldiers watching.  This was his only chance.  If he mucked it up, he would be taken to some Utopian laboratory and left in a jar of formaldehyde.  Or worse.

Of all the creatures that had run afoul of the human race, suzait were loved the least.

As quickly as he could, Stuart opened a passage and slid into the redhead’s brain, easing himself between the tissues to minimize damage.  From there, he stretched his tentacles to envelop the sensory organs first.

Have to take control, he thought, his terror ratcheting up with every moment that passed.  Have to hurry…  The first images were fuzzy, but as he fine-tuned his connections, they became crisp with the wondrous clarity of human vision.  He saw a ring of humans, staring down at him with concern.

Hurry, hurry…  That soul-deep panic was worming its way through his mind, and it was all Stuart could do not to dive through the tissues, instead of winding around them, careful to leave them intact.  He tried to go slowly, to spare them what he could.  Gods, he tried…

Then he felt his host take in a lungful of air to scream and instincts won out.  Shoving a tentacle the rest of the way through the brain, Stuart violently cut him off.  He winced, knowing he had caused damage, and knowing that his host might actually have trouble speaking, once Stuart left, but also knowing there was no avoiding it.  There could be no screaming.  Screaming would bring the men with lab coats and bone saws.

As he made contact with more areas of the redhead’s brain and it became evident that the transfer had been successful, Stuart slowly began to lose the horrible, innate fear of being rejected by his host.  Instead, the overwhelming guilt of taking yet another host against its will began to chip away at his soul in its place.

Again, Stuart’s conscience screamed.  You did it again.

And with that, Stuart hated himself just a little more.  He had sworn he wouldn’t do it again.  Not until the last one grew too old to use.  Yet here he was, at the first sign of danger, ruining yet another life so that his could remain.  He felt so morally disgusting he wanted to die.

…But not bad enough to slip back out of his new host’s ear and onto the floor.  That terror was even stronger than his own self-loathing, and he remained firmly ensconced in his host’s brain, knowing that, if everything from this point onward didn’t go exactly right, it wouldn’t matter that he’d yet again stained his morality for his own survival.  One wrong move, one stray suspicion, and the temporary security he’d found in the redhead’s brain would be wrested from him by a sterilized titanium scalpel.  Stuart twisted in fear even as he forced more of his host to respond to his commands.

As the soldiers gathered around him, looking worried, he took over motor function.  He continued to stretch and reach, making connections, wresting away the last of the host’s autonomy.  He felt the host’s last vestiges of fear and panic, now all tightly enclosed within the container that became the host’s brain.

Sorry, Stuart whispered, in anguish.

In reply, he got a spasm of terror from his host, a being now locked within his own mind, an observer in his own body.  The host’s heart, already a jackhammer against his ribs, began to rip at the sides of his chest.  Stuart felt the beginnings of muscular tearing, and knew he was going to have to take over autonomic functions, too.

So sorry, Stuart whimpered.  With a new wave of self-loathing, he wrapped a tentacle around the medulla oblongata to complete his hold over the host, blotting out the last of the host’s connection to the rest of the world.  Many centuries ago, Stuart had made the mistake of not taking this vital control center, and he had been stranded for days in a dead host once the host’s heart and lungs stopped from the shock he caused on entry.  Taking away that last bit of control, however, felt like a violation of the worst kind.

Stuart felt the host’s despair, and again wanted to die.

Again, he was too much of a coward.

Oh, stop wingeing, Stuart’s logical side interjected.  They would kill you on sight.  Stomp on you like a cockroach, spread your brains across the floor as they squished you in.  Besides, they killed the harra. They killed your family.  Hell, you might be the only one left, for all you know.  They deserve what they get.

Yet, deep down, he knew that the terrified redhead no more deserved him in his brain than Stuart deserved to be put in a jar of formaldehyde.

I’m sorry, he thought again.

In reply, his host mentally screamed himself hoarse.

Reluctantly, guilt hammering at his consciousness as he listened to the host’s mental screams, Stuart unhappily returned his attention to surviving the next ten minutes.  With a tendril on the brainstem, Stuart forcibly calmed the redhead’s heart.  The body responded to him sluggishly, like most human hosts.  Unfortunately, without the harra, Stuart had no choice.  Humans had, with great efficiency and with brutal force, made themselves the only alternative.

He made his host sit up, keeping his head tilted entry-side slightly up, to keep the blood that was welling inside the canal from running out and betraying his presence.

 “You okay, Pete?”  The soldiers squatting beside him were looking at him anxiously, one steadying his host’s shoulder.

Two other men were restraining Stuart’s old body, which was showing only the most rudimentary signs of struggle.  After being under Stuart’s control for almost forty years, his old host would probably take months to recover full use of his anatomy.

“Little blow to…head…” Stuart said, cringing at how slurred his words came out.  Usually when he switched hosts, he planned a few quiet weeks in a secluded hotel to re-learn to use the new size and shape of his host’s tongue.  Until he did, his words would sound as if he were perpetually drunk.

“He’s got a concussion.  Get him to medical.”

A new horror enveloped Stuart at the sergeant’s command.  If the medical technicians did a brain scan—which they would—the high metal concentrations of his natural body would stand out on their screens like a three-dimensional snowflake inside the man’s brain.  The mere thought of that left him sick with terror.

“No,” he managed.  “No, just need sleep.”

“Bullshit,” someone said.  “You’re talking like you forgot how to use your tongue.”

Oh gods… Stuart thought, horrified by how close they had come.  Scrabbling to regain control of the situation, he babbled, “I’m fine.  Just a bump.  Need a nap.”  It came out sounding like, “Lyme thyne.  Lusp a bump.  Leed a thlap.”

“Come on, you,” one of his host’s comrades said, hefting his arm over a shoulder.  Lifting Stuart’s host off the ground, he said, “Think of it this way…  You just got some free R&R.”

Stuart couldn’t let them take him to medical.  He knew this just as solidly as he knew he was rapidly running out of time.

“I said no,” Stuart growled, jerking his host out of the human’s grip.  As the man gave him a startled frown, Stuart punched him as hard as he could.

The blow wasn’t very hard, considering his lack of control, but it made his point.

Their hands up, the other soldiers backed away from him.  “Fine, man,” one of them said, shaking his head.  “But don’t say we didn’t warn you.”

“Warn him about what?”

Stuart stiffened at the sound of Colonel Howlen’s voice.

“Corporal Koff here fell and hit his head,” one of the soldiers said.  “We wanted ta get ‘im ta medical, but he gone and punched me.”

But Colonel Howlen wasn’t paying attention.  His eyes were fixed on Stuart’s old host, who was groaning and crawling ineffectually on the floor.  Stuart had the sudden spasm of panic, knowing that the S.O. operative was about to catch him.

“Why is that man out of his stasis shell?” Howlen barked.

“Capt’in Burdough told us to—”

“Put him back,” the Colonel commanded.  “She was mistaken.”

“Aye, sir.”  Two men jumped to grab Stuart’s discarded host and shoved his limp body back into the stasis shell.

Howlen turned crisply to face the solders, looking all-business.  “I want four men posted here at all times to make sure none of these prisoners get out again.  No one opens those shells other than me or the Admiral, understand?  Soon as we dock, I want the watch upped to eight men.  No one enters this room without a voice scan.”  At that, Howlen gave Stuart a passing glare and left the room, the fidgeting Captain trailing in his wake.

“Ain’t that the way of it,” one of the men muttered.  “Officer screws up, we gotta take the extra shifts.”

“So who’s got first watch?” someone else demanded.  “I ain’t gonna get but four hours of sleep as it is.”

“I don’t know,” another man said as he looked at Stuart, “But he ain’t gonna last no shift in here.  He’s swayin’ around like he’s gonna fall over.  Sure you don’t wanna go visit the Doc, Koff?”

Still a little stunned he’d survived the Colonel, Stuart numbly shook his head.

“Well, at least let us get ye back ter yer room,” Sergeant Griffin said.  He grabbed Stuart by the shoulder and pushed him out the door.  “I ain’t gonna be blamed for leavin’ ye injured.  Bogg, Eldrich, grab two others from the barracks and take shift.  Deeds, help me get this fool ter bed.”

A soldier steadied each of Stuart’s arms and ushered him into the hallway.  Having no idea of the layout of the ship, Stuart anxiously let them lead him onward, praying they weren’t taking him to medical.  As he waited with increasing trepidation, they led him down the hall, up a flight of stairs, and, finally, into a room with two bunks.

“Hearst’ll be in ter check on ye in a few hours,” the sergeant said as they put him to bed.  “You start feelin’ dizzy or sick, ye tell him, right?  And I’m puttin’ in a word with the Doc anyway.  He’ll prolly be here ter take a look at ye sometime termorraw.”

Stuart glanced over at the empty second bunk and asked when his roommate would return.

The sergeant gave him a tiny frown.  “He’s still workin’ nights,” he said.  “He’ll prolly be in ‘round the same time as the Doc.  You sure you’re okay?”

Stuart nodded, because nodding was easier than talking.

A wrinkle in his forehead, Sergeant Griffin looked like he wanted to say something more, then shrugged.  “Ye got a couple hours ter rest up before Hearst comes ter look ye over.”  At that, he and the two soldiers departed, leaving Stuart alone.

The first thing Stuart did was get up and hit the LOCK button on the keypad.  The tumblers in the door made a comforting sound as they thudded into place, but Stuart knew that a military ship would have an override option on the outside of any barracks room.

Panic once again working its way into his awareness, he hurried into the small bathroom and took a towel from the rack.  He held it to his ear and tilted his head to the side, allowing the blood to drain out of the wound.  When it stopped dripping, he wiped his ear down as good as he could and wadded the towel into a ball.  It was not a lot of blood, but if any of the soldiers had seen it, they would have sent him to the infirmary whether he socked them or not, and that would’ve been it.  Sayonara Stuart.  Can’t say anybody’s really gonna miss ya…

Stuart threw the wadded towel into the hamper and went to the mirror to begin motor control exercises.



Wings of Retribution


Dallas sat against the wall as Goat and Dune pored over the mass of wires and metal on the table between them.

“She really gonna get rid of me?”

Neither Goat nor Dune said anything.  Dune tightened down a bolt and traded his wrench for a screwdriver.

“I said I was sorry!” Dallas cried.  She gestured at the ship, knocking over the flashlight in her haste.

“You mind putting that back up?” Goat said without looking at her.

Trembling, Dallas set the flashlight back up on the table.  “I could have gotten out of here, but I chose the Beetle.  She shouldn’t just cast me off after that!”

“Calm down, Fairy,” Dune said.  “Shouting wastes oxygen.  ‘Sides, it ain’t doin’ you no good shoutin’ to us ‘bout it.  Once Capt’in makes her mind up, it’s made up.”

“I should have gone with Smallfoot,” Dallas muttered.

“Aye,” Dune said.  “You shoulda.”  And he almost sounded like he meant it, too.  Dallas felt tears starting to sting her eyes.

“Anyway,” Goat said, quickly glancing between her and Dune, “No reason getting upset about it.  I’d count yourself lucky if you lived that long.  Chances are, we’re all gonna die here.  I’m savin’ me tangaweed for the last.”

“Go down smokin, eh, Goat?”  Dune chuckled.  Then he looked up, his eyes caught on Dallas, and he frowned.  Grunting, he plucked his grease-covered handkerchief from his chest pocket and threw it to her.  “Looks like ya got some dust in yer eye, there, stick fairy.”

Blushing, Dallas used it to wipe her eyes.

“I got some tanga weed for everyone,” Goat said, watching the exchange.  “Even the Captain.”

“Good luck with that,” Dune snorted.  “I think she immunized herself against the shit.”

Goat shrugged.  “Her loss.”

The two were silent for long minutes before Dallas cleared her throat and, gingerly handing Dune back his handkerchief, said, “How long do we have?”

Dune returned the square of cloth to his pocket and checked his watch.  “Two days, fifteen hours.  System’s already started slowing down to conserve power.  If you get a little lightheaded, that’s why.”

Two days and fifteen hours to live.  Dallas slumped back against the wall and watched the other two as they continued tinkering with the buggy controls.  Even though the captain was ungrateful for her loyalty and the other crewmembers didn’t seem to care that she had stayed, Dallas couldn’t bring herself to wish that she had gotten on the Utopian ship with Smallfoot.  There was a sort of…camaraderie…between a group of people who had less than three days to live.  For the first time since entering the female-hostile Utopian Spacer’s Academy, she really felt like she belonged.

Too bad she only had two and a half days to enjoy it.



Wings of Retribution


Stuart felt the ship shudder as it began docking procedures.  The intercom buzzed and Admiral Boyle’s voice filled the sleeping chamber.

We have reached Terra-9.  All hands will remain on board until Colonel Howlen transfers our cargo to the Renee Beckett.  Liberty will be granted by your noncommissioned officers.  Departure will be at zero six-thirty Standard next Friday.  Well done, men. 

A resounding cheer reverberated through the walls of the ship.  Stuart thought he was going to be sick.  They were keeping him onboard until they moved the shifters.  That could be hours, days.  He didn’t have that much time to waste.

Stuart slipped into the hall.  He had to get off the ship.  Now.

He had studied a map of the ship on the infoscreen set into the wall of his room and was able to navigate the maze of hallways with relative ease.  He passed by the holding cell, pausing long enough to glance through the window and see that all three shifters were still inside.  Then he hurried toward the ship’s airlock.

“Corporal Koff!”

Stuart flinched at Sergeant Griffin’s bark.

“Why aren’t ye in bed, Koff?  Doctor said give ye a few days ter recover.”

“I feel fine,” Stuart said.  “Just needed to stretch my legs.”

“Ye need ter git back in bed,” Griffin retorted.  “Either that, or I’ll put ye on guard duty.”

Stuart hesitated.  Guard duty might not be so bad, but then he remembered that he would be sharing it with three other soldiers.  He could overpower one, but not three.  “Guess I’ll head back to bed, then.”

“I’ll walk ye there, just ter make sure.”

Stuart’s heart sank.  Nevertheless, he followed the sergeant back to his room.

Sergeant Griffin stopped at the door and began entering numbers into the keypad.

“What’re you doing?” Stuart asked, pausing in the doorjamb.

“Makin’ sure ye stay put,” Sergeant Griffin said.  “Ye’re like a lot of Denians I’ve met—ye got too much Frontier blood in ye fer yer own good.”

Stuart’s heart jumped into his throat.  He grabbed the sergeant’s hand where it was punching codes into the keypad and squeezed.

Sergeant Griffin’s eyes darkened and he scowled at Stuart.  “Ye ain’t in yer right mind, corporal.  Don’ make me kick yer ass.”

When Stuart did not relent, Sergeant Griffin tried wrenching his hand away.  When that did not work, he drew back his fist for a punch.

It had taken Stuart extra time because he was still new to this body, but he managed to extend a node into his palm before Griffin’s punch landed.  Before the blow could connect, he let loose on Griffin the rest of his stored energy, making the big man stiffen, his eyes go wide.

When Stuart released his hand, Griffin collapsed on the floor, quivering.  Stuart grabbed the sergeant by the legs and dragged him inside the room.  The doors swished shut behind him as Stuart went back into the hall and examined the keypad.  Griffin had not completed the codes, so he couldn’t lock him inside.

He had to be fast.

Stuart jogged back to the air-lock and was about to let himself out into the docking facility when someone shouted behind him.

“Dock’s closed until Howlen moves the shifters.”

Stuart turned to face the kid.  It was a young Utopi, probably no more than a hundred years old.  “I’ve got business planetside.”

The young man scoffed.  “We all got business planetside.  Just wait your turn.”

Stuart moved back to the controls.

“Do that, and I’m turning you in.”

Stuart pushed the button to open the airlock and stepped outside.  Behind him, the young Utopi shouted for a superior.

Stuart bolted past the startled guard stationed at the hub and caught the first shuttle he found.  Overwhelming everything else in his mind was the terrifying fact that he was risking exposure for the first time in centuries.  He should have known the shifters would get him caught.   He could have quietly disappeared, living out the rest of his live in peace, but no.  He had to let those stupid shifters convince him to get involved in all of this.

Well, it was too late to change his mind.

Stuart’s host’s heart pounded wildly all the way down to the planet, where the shuttle landed with a shaky crash.  He disembarked with the crowd and hurried to the first tram he saw, knowing that his Utopian uniform would mark him out in the Forgotten District like a bright red bulls-eye.  He paid the driver a couple credits since, unlike the shuttle, the Terra-9 landside services did not work for free at the sight of Utopian blue.  In fact, they’d probably charge more if they could get away with it.

Stuart got off the tram a couple blocks from The Shop and pulled off his jacket, yanked the colorful awards off his chest, untucked his blouse, and removed the shiny pieces of brass dotting his uniform.  Though he still looked Utopi if examined, a passing glance would overlook him as a businessman out for some good times.  It was his red hair that was the problem—it identified him as easily as if he were wearing a name-tag.  If he had a choice, Stuart always tried to acquire hosts with brown or black hair, brown eyes, and a slightly pudgy, five-foot-ten frame.  Corporal Koff was well out of the range of averages for his liking, and it left his nerves humming.

Stuart quickened his pace, flinching every time a shuttle roared overhead.  In any one of them, a hundred Utopis could be searching for a lone man with a shock of red hair.

Only when Stuart passed down the side alley and into The Shop did he relax.

“Stop right there.”

A man with an automatic laser rifle stood at the side of the door, the muzzle aimed at Stuart’s face.

“I’m looking for Rabbit,” Stuart said, swallowing hard.  “Athenais is in trouble.”

“No doubt she is,” the wiry little man said.  “But right now, you’re in even more trouble.  You’ve got an APB out on you, and they even bothered to send it to my establishment, so they must really want you bad.  Not just a runaway shipman, are you, boy?”

Stuart swallowed again.  “Please.  I must speak with Rabbit.”

The man’s mustache twitched.  “You’re speaking to him.”

“One of Athenais’s crewmembers gave her up to the Utopis,” Stuart began.

“Her and all three of the shifters with her,” Rabbit agreed.  He looked Stuart up and down.  “But how do you fit into the picture?”

Stuart glanced out of the corner of his eye at the tables of onlookers scattered around the bar.  “Can we talk about this somewhere safe?”

“I’m safe enough, so we can talk here.”  Rabbit sat back against a table and lit a smoke, though Stuart had no questions in his mind that the gun in his lap would send a bolt through his brain the moment he twitched.

Stuart lowered his voice, glancing at the other patrons.  “I’m the fourth person that they took from Beetle.”

Rabbit snorted.  “You don’t look anything like him.”  Then he paused, his eyes narrowing.  “Prove it.”

Stuart froze.  “What?”

“Prove it.  Shift.”

“I’m not a shifter.”

“Then you gotta be something like it, if you’re gonna claim you’re that twiggy gorilla of a man who came in here the other day.”  The intelligence in Rabbit’s brown eyes, however, told Stuart he knew exactly what he was.  Or at least had his suspicions.

“I’ll show you, but not here,” Stuart whispered.

Stuart’s anxiety must have been clear in his face, because Rabbit shrugged and leaped off the table.  “Follow me, then.”  Rabbit led him to the room behind Giggle’s glass box and waited for him to close the door, his gun still pointed at Stuart’s face.

Stuart took a deep breath.  He was going to have to expose himself to a human.  He had to lay his life utterly in the hands of a human, just because the shifters said he was a good friend to Athenais.  This was stupidity.  Logic said he should just leave and forget about the shifters and their problems.

“I’m going to lie down so I don’t fall down,” Stuart said, carefully getting to his knees.

Rabbit’s eyebrows went up.  “Wait.  You gotta lay down to show me this?”

“Yes.”

Stuart heard Rabbit curse under his breath, and the wiry little man stepped back a few feet.  “All right,” he growled.  “Show me.”

Gods…  That gut-deep terror rising again, Stuart put his head against the floor and began disentangling himself from his host’s brain.  The instinctive panic of not being in complete control once again thrumming at his core, Stuart prepared himself for a brief appearance.  He didn’t intend to fully remove himself.  He just wanted to extract himself enough so that Rabbit could see him.

Seeker, let me live through this, Stuart prayed.  Hopefully Rabbit, in all of his vast experience, was less trigger-happy than the rest of humanity.  Steeling himself, Stuart slid out through the channel he had created into his host’s brain and crawled into the ear canal.

The dull blur across the room moved suddenly, suggesting that Rabbit had seen him.  Stuart retreated.  Once he had all of his tentacles back in place, he opened his host’s eyes.

Rabbit looked pale and the hand holding the gun was shaking.  Stuart had seen this reaction many times before in humans, usually by those who had been chosen to act as hosts.  For a horrible moment, Stuart wondered if Rabbit would shoot him.

“Well, that explains a lot,” Rabbit said, lowering the gun.  He swallowed several times, looking away.  “And here I thought you were a droid or something.  Gods.”  He wiped a hand across his mouth, breathing deep.  When he glanced back, Stuart saw fear in Rabbit’s eyes.

Stuart got back to his feet slowly and backed up a few paces, giving Rabbit as much room as he could.

Rabbit relaxed a bit.  Seeing the man’s obvious gratitude, Stuart felt a pang of guilt.  If Rabbit had been used as a host before, he was doing Stuart a great service by not simply blowing him away.  Stuart found himself admiring the wiry little man’s courage, once again reminded of how little of that particular attribute he really had.

“What happened to Attie?” Rabbit asked, still not looking at him.

“They took Beetle’s energy core,” Stuart said.  “Smallfoot sold us out.”

Rabbit grimaced, but turned to look at him.  “They took the core?  How long ago?”

“A day, maybe two.”

“You know where?” Rabbit demanded.

Stuart shook his head.  “We were headed to Penoi.  That’s all I know.”

“Fat lot of good that does me,” Rabbit muttered.  He glanced up at the ceiling, but still watched Stuart out of the corner of his eye.  “Means I’m gonna have to get someone to access their ship’s log.”

“Won’t that take too much time?” Stuart demanded.  “They took the core.”

Rabbit grunted.  “Athenais has got all the time in the world.  She’s…a lot like me.”  He sighed, once again looking at Stuart directly.  “But she’s gonna be a might peeved if the rest of ‘em die, and I’d say they got maybe a day, two days at the most.  I doubt we’ll find ‘em that soon.”

Stuart considered this.  “What about the shifters?  Can you free them?”

Rabbit laughed.  “They’re gonna have those three guarded better than the Millennium Potion.  That’s Athenais’s problem, not mine.”  Rabbit went to the door and yanked it open.  Raising his voice to someone on the other side, he shouted, “Giggles, close down the bar and get me a set of clothes, five-seven, a little chubby.”  At that, he slammed the door shut and turned on Stuart.  “What do the Utopis know about you?”

“If they don’t know everything already, they’re gonna figure it out.  There were S.O. officers on that ship.”

Rabbit cursed.  “You can’t stay here.  I’ve got a place deeper in the Forgotten District I can send you, at least for a few days.”

Stuart hesitated.  Tentatively, he said, “If you could provide me with a new host, I can help you.”

Rabbit went pale again.  “No.”

The reflexive way Rabbit had said it once again made Stuart wonder what kind of experience the Utopi had had with his kind in the past.  “I prefer criminals, if that changes things,” Stuart said softly.

Rabbit’s eyes narrowed minutely.  For a moment, he just watched him, then, turning to look at the closed door back into the outer room, he frowned.  Standing, he growled, “Stay there.”  Pausing to make sure Stuart was staying put, Rabbit threw open the door, scanning the tables from the doorway.  When he shut it again, his lean face was grim.  “Man on the far left.  Wearing a blue bandanna and a spacer’s suit.  Killed a couple men in my friend’s bar last week, left my friend with a hand he can’t use.  Got a reputation ‘round the District as a rapist and a murderer.  He’d turn over The Shop to the Utopis in an instant.  You’d be doing us a favor.”

“You don’t look too happy about it.”

Rabbit’s lips pressed tighter.  He opened his mouth to say something, then paused.  “Were you planning on taking Athenais?”

Stuart flinched.  The thought had crossed his mind.  To have the same body for the rest of his life, to never have to worry about a botched transfer or a host rejecting him…

“No.”

Rabbit’s gaze narrowed.  “But you thought about it.”  Stuart watched his life cross behind the little man’s brown eyes.

“Yes,” he whispered.

Rabbit’s lip raised in disgust.  “Does she know what you are?”

“No.  She assumed I was a shifter, like the others.”

Rabbit snorted.  “Better not tell her, then.  She’s got a…history…with your kind.”  He gave Stuart a long look.  “Kind of like me.”

“Thanks,” Stuart said.  “For not shooting me.”

Rabbit was watching him carefully.  “Was it you?”

“No,” Stuart said immediately, horrified.

“Would you tell me if it was?”

Stuart winced.  “Uh.  Probably not, no.”

“Well, at least you’re honest.”  Rabbit hopped up, then, giving Stuart one last appraising look, turned toward the door.  “I’m going to go see what I can do about getting Athenais’s location.  Wait here until Giggles brings in your clothes before you…do your thing.”  At that, he wrenched the door open and left Stuart alone in the room.

Giggles came in with a wad of smelly rags, gave Stuart a suspicious glance, and went back to the bar.  Stuart dressed in the rags, wrinkling his nose at the smell of urine.  He wadded up the remnants of the Utopian uniform and tossed it in the recycler.  When he was done, he took a steadying breath, then pulled open the door to the back room and stepped into the bar.

The man Rabbit had pointed out was hunched by himself in a corner, glowering at the tabletop, nursing a beer.  He didn’t look like he was going anywhere anytime soon.

Stuart was wondering how he was going to get the bandana-wearing man alone when someone suddenly jumped up from the table in front of him and socked him, the heavy blow reaching Stuart even through his host’s skull.

Rabbit had set him up.  In despair, Stuart stumbled backwards across a chair, trying to catch himself on the tabletop, but failing.  As he hit the chair, Stuart heard a loud popping sound as something broke in his side, and a blast of pain surged up his tendrils before he could retract them.  He cried out, despite himself.

The man who had punched Stuart spat on him and laughed.  “Utopian scum, is what you are.  Well, Rabbit ain’t here to protect you no more.  Ain’t you gonna get up, Utopi?  Ain’t you gonna call in your troops, have us all arrested?”

Stuart groaned and rolled over onto his side.  He was pretty sure several of his host’s ribs were broken.  He could feel them piercing into Koff’s side as he breathed.

Someone grabbed him by the collar of his filthy coat.

“Hey, now!” Giggles shouted.  “Leave him alone, Darley.”  His voice was muffled by the wall of glass.

“You just mind your own business, Giggles,” Darley said.  Yanking Stuart back onto his feet by his collar, he twisted him around and slammed him down, face-first on the tabletop.  The motion raked Stuart’s innards against his broken ribs and he screamed.

“Fine, but you’re gonna hear it from Rabbit,” Giggles shouted.

“Rabbit ain’t gonna do nothin’ to us for gettin’ rid of Utopi trash.  You saw him.  He was gonna shoot the bastard.”

“You’re a damn hothead, Darley,” Giggles shouted.  “Rabbit had me get ‘im some clothes.  He wouldn’t do that for no Utopi.”

“Yeah, well, maybe this one’s got a silver tongue.”  Darley grinned at Stuart.  “That it, boy?  You got a silver tongue?”  Suddenly a dirty finger was prying his mouth open, to the very edges of its capacity.  Stuart gagged, and Darley released him, laughing.  “Guess not.”  He rammed Stuart’s face into the chair he had just vacated.  Stuart felt bones break in his host’s nose.

Stuart was finding it hard to breathe.  His phobia of having his host die while still implanted began to tear at his mind, ravaging his good sense.  Sheer animal panic was beginning to set in.  He had to stop himself from reaching out and shocking Darley right there in front of everyone.

“Don’t feel like talking, boy?”  Darley grabbed Stuart and shoved him over another table, spilling drinks with his face, making Stuart’s host’s shattered side scream in agony.  The entire room roared with laughter.

“I knew some Utopis once,” Darley continued, kicking Stuart toward the front door.  “Back when I lived on Roth.  Starved me wife of the Potion once they found out she had colonist blood.  Put me in jail when I tried to buy it for her on the black market.  Had me workin’ the mines on Erriat for two centuries ‘fore they let me go.  By then, she was dead.”  He kicked Stuart again, sending him stumbling out into the cold night.

Stuart stumbled to his knees on the sidewalk.

“Goddamn it, that’s enough, Darley.”  Rabbit’s voice was like an oasis in the desert.  He came walking up out of the darkness of the alley behind The Shop, looking irritated.  For such a small man, he had a commanding presence that rivaled even Athenais’s.

“But…”

“This man isn’t a Utopi,” Rabbit growled.  “Why the hell do you think he’d come to The Shop, you knuckle-dragging moron?”

“Because he—”

“Go get Earl to carry him back to my room.”

“Why Earl?” Darley blabbered.  He looked absolutely terrified of the lean little man.

“Because Earl’s bigger than you are, not a blind idiot, and he doesn’t give a shit about Utopis.”

“But I can—”

“No, you can’t.  Get Earl, unless you never wanna use my place again.”

Stuart rolled over and looked up at Darley.  His tormentor’s face was pale.  “Earl’s crazy.  He’s not gonna help you carry this piece of shit anywhere.”

“He will, or he can stop patronizing my establishment.  Same for you.”

Darley’s bloodshot eyes went round.  Like a terrified rat, he scuttled backwards into the bar and disappeared.  A few minutes later, the hulking man with the blue bandanna came to the door and glowered at Rabbit, then down at Stuart.

“What you want?” he grunted, looking more than a little tweaked at being interrupted.

“I want you to help me carry this man to my room,” Rabbit said, gesturing at Stuart.  “Darley just beat the crap outta him.  He’s injured, probably broken ribs.”

Earl frowned down at Stuart.  “So?”

“So, I thought of you first,” Rabbit said.  “Thought you might want a free beer or two.  Grab his feet.”

Earl scowled at Rabbit, then at Stuart, but bent down and did as he was asked.

“We’ll take him around back,” Rabbit said.  “Don’t want to make any more of a scene with Darley if I can help it.”

Earl grunted, lifting Stuart’s host’s legs off of the ground.  Rabbit grabbed Stuart’s hands and tugged, struggling with the weight.  Earl gave him and irritated look, but said nothing as the small man grunted and cursed, waddling with Stuart’s weight.  The process took much longer than it should have, and by the end of it, Earl looked like he was ready to throw down Stuart’s legs and stalk off in frustration.

They carried Stuart around to the back door and set him down while Rabbit fumbled with his keys.  Earl leaned against the wall of The Shop and waited impatiently, scowling alternately at Rabbit and Stuart.

As Rabbit continued to fumble, Earl pushed off the wall and growled, “Just give me the damn—”

Something sprang from the darkness of the alley so suddenly that the man didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence before two separate entities slammed into him, plowing him into the ground.  As he cursed and struggled, they wrenched his hands behind his back and tied them in place.  Then they bound his legs together, stopping only to kick their victim when he bit one of them.

Stuart’s mouth fell open when he realized it was Darley and Giggles.

Rabbit stopped fumbling and put his keys back into his pocket.  He twisted the handle and pushed the door open.  Holding it wide for them, he said, “Tape his mouth shut—I don’t want him disturbing my clients.  And get him inside before he pisses on my doorstep.  I just had that mat cleaned.”

“What the—” Earl began, but it was cut off as Darley applied the tape.  Then he and Giggles grabbed the struggling man and roughly dragged him through the open door.

“Put him over there, on the plastic.”

At the mention of plastic, Earl started screaming behind the tape, kicking and twisting like a wild thing.  Giggles hit him over the head with the butt of his gun to quiet him.

“Good,” Rabbit said.  “Now the Utopi.”

Much more gently, this time, Giggles and Darley helped Stuart to his feet.  “You okay, bud?” Darley said.  His eyes caught on his bloody nose.  “Sorry, man.  Wasn’t tryin’ to break shit.”

“You two get out of here,” Rabbit ordered.  “Darley, you’ll have to get your drinks somewhere else the rest of the night.”  Rabbit reached into his shirt and removed a credit coin from a hidden pocket inside.  “Use this.  It’s got a hundred-some credits on it.  Should be good for a night if you don’t go off gambling.”

Darley grinned.  “I should get booted out of The Shop more often.”  He tucked the credit coin away in a breast pocket and sauntered off.

“Go make sure he doesn’t try to get back in,” Rabbit muttered.

“You two got this?”  Giggles eyed the struggling shape on the floor.

“Yeah,” Rabbit said, eying Stuart.  “He’ll be a different man by the time we’re done with him.”

“I’m not so sure,” Giggles said dubiously.  “He’s liable to just be pissed off.  He’s a crazy bastard.”

Rabbit grinned, and his smile made Stuart go cold.  “Give us a few hours and he’ll be singing a different tune.”

Giggles shrugged and glanced at Stuart.  “How bad you hurt?  I saw Darley give you a couple good ‘uns, the prick.”

“He’s fine,” Rabbit said.  “See no one disturbs us, all right?”

“You got it.”  Giggles turned and went back out into the alley, closing the door behind him.

Rabbit let out an explosive sigh.  “Well, he’s all yours.”  He looked up at Stuart, grimaced, then nudged the struggling man in the back with the soft leather of a loafered toe.  “Can’t say I envy you the next few years, pisswad, but you earned every minute of it.”  He squatted to ruffle the man’s hair, which made Earl howl obscenities through the gag.  Then, grunting, the wiry little man stood and went to the back door.  Hand on the latch, he paused at the threshold to look back at Stuart.  Nodding at the man on the floor, Rabbit said, “I don’t think anyone will really miss him, if you know what I mean.  Pretty much been a self-serving terror around T-9 since he was outta diapers.”

“You’re not staying?” Stuart asked, nervous.

Rabbit gave Stuart a long, hard look.  “I got stuff to do.”  Then he jerked the door open and disappeared into the night, slamming the door behind him.

Stuart flinched at the reverberating thud.  Swallowing, he looked down at his new host.  Bound hand and foot, his mouth taped shut…  He’d be helpless until Rabbit came back.  Was that what the wily little man wanted?  After pulling the stunt with Darley, he wouldn’t put it past him.

Stuart tried to think of a way to avoid another transfer.  He didn’t want to take another life.  What he wanted to do was wake up and find that everything after running into the shifters was just a really bad dream.  Knowing that wasn’t going to happen, however, every millimeter of him yearned for the alluring alternative of crawling in a hole and hiding, and letting everything—the shifters, the Millennium Potion, the struggles on Penoi—go on without him.  He was good at that.  Part of how he stayed alive so long.

Coward, his conscience snapped.  While you were safely keeping your head down and living a happy human life, your people were being slaughtered.

Stuart didn’t want to do another transfer.  While the man definitely fit the type of host Stuart preferred—a hardened criminal that society would be better without—he was still a man.  Not a harra.  It wouldn’t be a bond, a symbiosis between two creatures, a blissful give and take.  It would be completely one-sided, Stuart forcibly seizing what he wanted, the human a helpless, unwilling participant.

A parasite and its host.

Stuart’s stomach churned.  He knew his survival depended on it.  He knew he had no other choice.  With his escape from the Utopian ship, where every hall was monitored, every room under video surveillance, the S.O. knew exactly what he looked like, and would throw everything they had at tracking him down.  If he didn’t change hosts, now, all that time he’d spent hiding in a hole would have been for naught.

Reluctantly, he made his decision.

His victim stiffened as Stuart approached.

“Just try to stay calm,” Stuart whispered, though the all-too-familiar shame was settling like a rancid pool in his gut.  “I’ll be quick.”  He tried to touch the man’s shoulder in an attempt to comfort him, but Earl jerked away, snarling something behind the tape.  Torn inside by the rebuff, wishing to the depths of his soul that it didn’t have to be this way, Stuart nonetheless lay down beside the man and propped his head to the side so that his ear was facing him.

Confusion flashed across Earl’s face, followed by cold disgust.  Stuart heard him bite out a rebuff behind the tape.  He thinks I’m going to sexually assault him, Stuart realized, anguish tugging at his soul.

Instead, Stuart was going to do something far worse.  He was going to take his entire body—not just his sexual organs—and use them for his own whims, for as long as he wanted.  This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, a dying part of Stuart whimpered.  It’s supposed to be a bond, a link between friends…  That instinctive urge of the suzait to seek out a sympathetic host and create a mutually beneficial symbiosis was the same one that was now making him detest his very existence.

“I’m sorry,” Stuart whispered, taking the man’s struggling head and holding it steady.  “I wish I didn’t…”  Didn’t what? his conscience demanded.  Didn’t have to do this?  Stuart knew better than anyone that he didn’t have to burrow into this man’s brain.  He didn’t have to ruin this man’s life, too.  All he had to do was have the courage to resign himself to a bone saw and a little glass jar.

Shame hot in his awareness, Stuart leaned down, until they were almost mouth-to-mouth.  Beneath him, the man began to curse and attempted to twist away.  Holding him steady, Stuart gave him a weak jolt, just enough to startle him, then gathered himself up and lunged out of his host.

Sudden, skin-cracking dryness assailed his senses.  That, and light.  It was everywhere and nowhere, and once again, Stuart was blind and deaf to everything except the horrible reverberations as his new host stiffened, then began to thrash.  He climbed deeper into what he hoped was the sinuses, seeking refuge in the man’s head.  As he did, he felt the man begin to scream through his taped lips.

Reaching his insertion point, Stuart flexed his teeth and began to burrow, making sure to avoid as much damage as possible.  He had the leisure, this time, since his host could neither call for help nor try to remove him, and he did everything he could to ease into a host that was never meant to accommodate a suzait’s thin form.  Earl continued to scream until Stuart finally reached his objective and shut off his vocal cords.

As Stuart installed himself, his host’s struggles slowed until they finally stopped with Stuart’s appropriation of his motor skills.  Like a caged animal, his new host began to thrash at the insides of his own mind, a feral rage completely devoid of panic.  Rabbit had made a good choice, then, Stuart realized, relieved.  The psychotic rage was typical of a good number of the truly evil men that Stuart had inhabited—not at all like the terrified panic of the innocent Utopian soldier.  Stuart sent a mental apology to his last host, wishing that transfer hadn’t been necessary.

At least it had been quick.

Successfully embedded, Stuart took a moment to forcibly calm himself.  Never before had he switched hosts in such rapid succession, and his anxiety levels were such that he was having trouble controlling the beast he now rode.

You’re fine, Stuart thought.  An easy transfer.  Won’t have to do that again for—

Stuart froze when he realized that his discarded host was getting to his feet.

With only a day under Stuart’s control, Corporal Koff was almost fully in command of his body once more.  He wavered a little as he stood there, but there was no mistaking the look of hate on his face.

“So you’re in his body now, is that it?”  Koff’s voice was a little slurry, probably from the damage Stuart had done on entry.

Panic began to claw at Stuart’s chest.  Ever since having his host die on him because of his own carelessness, Stuart had taken great pains to make sure his hosts sustained as little damage as possible.  Now, confronted with his angry former host, Stuart was beginning to realize his mistake.  He tried to force his host’s arms free, fighting the bonds that had kept Earl helpless not moments before.

Koff walked up to Stuart and pushed his new host’s head to the floor with a booted foot.  Blood ran out of his nose onto the plastic.

“That’s what I thought.”  He squatted in front of Stuart and peered into his eyes.  “What, did you think I’d die after what you did?  You thought I’d be some lifeless blob?  No-sir.  Not Pete Koff.  I was fightin’ you the whole time.  I was awake and fightin’ it.  Finally forced you out, didn’t I?”  He reached forward and ripped the duct tape off of Stuart’s mouth, taking beard hair with it.

“Please,” Stuart said.  “I never wanted to hurt you.”  It came out as a slurry of half-formed words, but somehow Pete Koff understood it.

“You burrowed into my brain.  You got me blacklisted with the Utopia.  And I was about to make sergeant.”  Koff groaned and sat back onto his haunches, wincing and holding his side.  “Oh God.  I think something’s broken.”

Never before had Stuart been forced to confront those he had taken to host, and as he looked into Koff’s disgusted eyes, self-loathing embedded itself deeper into his soul.  “They’ve got vid, back on the ship,” Stuart babbled.  “They know it wasn’t you.  You won’t be held responsible.”

Pete scrunched his face in pained disgust.  “Then you don’t know the Utopia.”

In his cowardice, Stuart bit his lip, praying Rabbit would return.

Koff seemed to read his mind.  “Your friend should be back here soon.”  He languidly leaned forward and tugged the combat knife from its sheath on Earl’s belt and held it in his hands, frowning at the blade.

Stuart swallowed hard.

“How many people’s lives have you wrecked in your existence?” Pete Koff asked thoughtfully.  He twisted the blade so that its honed silver edge caught the light.  When Stuart didn’t answer, Koff shoved the knife against his host’s throat and waited.

“Hundreds,” Stuart whispered.

Koff withdrew the knife and grunted.  “That was a neat trick, zapping me like that.  Couldn’t move a damn muscle.”

Stuart lowered his host’s forehead to the plastic.

“I guess I’ve got an obligation to kill you, but I don’t really feel like it.”  Pete Koff pointed the blade at his face.  “That another one of your tricks?  Mess with my brain so I feel all chummy with you?”

“I don’t have the ability to alter emotions or memories.”

“Mmm.”  Koff frowned at the knife.  “I heard your apologies, you know.  You’re one genuinely remorseful little bastard, aren’t you?”

Stuart continued to stare at the floor.  He hoped Koff would do what he didn’t have the courage to do himself.

“Answer me,” Koff growled.

“Just kill me,” Stuart whispered to the plastic.  “I deserve it.”

Koff grunted again.  “Why do you bastards take human hosts, anyway, if you hate it so much?”

Stuart jerked.  “Because you killed the harra!” he screamed, outraged.  Then, his sudden fury subsiding with a surge of shame, he said, “Humans are the only things left.”

“What about dogs?” Koff asked.  “There’s a lot of dogs on the colonies.”

“Would you want to be trapped in a dog?!” Stuart demanded.

Koff’s face darkened and he turned to look at Stuart, his face a thunderhead.  “No, I was trapped in my own damn head, watching something else use my body like a puppet.”

Stuart had nothing to say to that.  He dropped his head back to the floor, closing his eyes against the shame.

“At least you didn’t make me kill anyone,” Koff said.  “I was real worried about that.  Good ol’ Pete here went all the way through bootcamp utterly terrified of blood.  Why I chose the Space Force.”  He paused and gave Stuart a long look.  “Not that that’s gonna save you, just sayin’.”

With his host’s wrists bound behind his back, Stuart let out an unsteady breath and tried to fight down the fear of once again being trapped in a dead body.  In the background, Earl was laughing at him.  Two’s company, ain’t it, pal?  Maybe the corporal would be merciful and would drive the knife a few times through Earl’s brain, to put Stuart out of his misery.

For a long time, Pete Koff said nothing.  Stuart could feel him watching him, the small hairs on the back of his host’s neck tingling under the pressure.  Then Pete sighed.  “I’m a wanted man, now.  I go back, they’ll put me in a decontamination room for a few centuries for observation, make sure you didn’t lay any eggs while you were in there.”  He gave Stuart a sharp glance.  “You didn’t, did you?”

“No,” Stuart whispered.  “There is no point.”  As Stuart well knew, to live like this was akin to spending an entire lifetime dying.

Besides, he’d already failed the other suzait.  He couldn’t stand the Karmic burden of replicating himself, only to leave them behind; uneducated, unaware, innocent…

…to be promptly caught by S.O. and ruthlessly ripped from the host Stuart had given them, then dissected under a microscope while surrounded by cold, dispassionate alien faces.

Corporal Koff seemed to digest that a moment.  “So how long does it take you to die once you’re out of your host?”

Stuart stared at the floor.

“How long?” Koff snapped.  He slapped the flat of the knife against Stuart’s shoulder.

Miserable, Stuart said, “Ten minutes, sometimes less.”

“Sometimes?”

“Depends on temperature and humidity,” Stuart whispered.

Pete Koff grunted.  “Come out, then.  I wanna see you.  I wanna know what was in my head.”

Stuart cringed.  “You don’t want that.”

“Do it.”

He’s serious, Stuart realized, in dismay.  He looked up at Koff, panic worming into his soul once more.  “Will you at least move back a bit?  I won’t feel safe if you—”

“You’re one to talk,” Corporal Koff interrupted in a growl, “taking people’s bodies away from them.  Get out here, or I’ll cut you out.”

“Completely?”  Stuart whimpered.  “But my host will—”

“This brute isn’t going anywhere.  You’ve got ten seconds.  I’ll hold his head still.”  Pete took hold of Earl’s hair in a tight, unyielding grip.  “You make me come get you, that’s the end of it.  You ain’t goin’ back in my head, and he’ll be dead.”  Then he started counting down.  “Ten, nine, eight…”

Stuart listened in agony.

“Five, four—now, worm—three…”

At ‘two,’ Stuart reluctantly withdrew from his host’s brain.  More terrified than he had been in his entire life, he lingered in the nasal passage, fearful of the dark, blurry shape moving on the other side.  He had no sense of sound, no detailed sensory perception to tell him what Koff was doing or saying.  It was more terrifying than finding himself in a dead host.  All he wanted to do was burrow back into his host’s skull and embrace the warmth he found there, but he knew Koff would do as he threatened and dig him out, if he did.

Somehow, Stuart forced himself further out into the freezing air and searched blindly for a sign that Koff had seen enough.  Earl’s head was steady, so Koff was still holding it down.  What was the corporal doing?  Why did he want to see him so badly?

The air was sucking his moisture away, drying out his skin.  Above him, the huge blur moved and Stuart wondered if Koff was even then lowering the knife to slice him in half.  Stuart felt something touch him and he fought panic at the uncomfortable pressure.  Whatever it was, it was rough and salty, burning his skin where he was losing moisture to the unforgiving air.  He waited, the horrible sensation of drying out clawing at his mind, adding to his ever-increasing terror that something hard was scraping against his body.

The massive, salty object squeezed, and suddenly Stuart was being pulled the rest of the way out of his host’s nasal passage.  Panicking, he somehow forced himself not to squirm as the rest of his body was exposed to the brutal air, knowing that the sight of writhing tentacles would only alienate him further.  To the delicate minds of humans, it would create disgust, revulsion.  Right now, in his helpless state, those were two reactions he could not afford.

His skin continued to dry out, his body growing colder by the second.  Ten minutes had just been a guess.  It could be much less.

In fact, as Stuart grew numb from the loss of heat, he decided that he was badly mistaken.  He gave himself another minute before his skin started to crack open.

Gods, Stuart thought, what’s he doing to me?  Never before had he been so helpless and terrified.  Against his good sense, he began to writhe, his delicate tendrils seeking out that moisture he needed to survive.  Horrible vibrations suddenly rocked him and the large, blurry object moved, but Stuart continued to dangle.  He could feel his appendages drying up, the delicate skin tightening, threatening to crack.

Yet the fingers that held him were as utterly unyielding as if he’d been put in a steel vice.  Stuart’s fear ratcheted into an insane babble in his mind as he swung there, helplessly dehydrating between the corporal’s fingers.

Then the vibrations increased again and Stuart felt his body jolt.  Gods, gods, what’s he doing? his terrified mind babbled.

To Stuart’s surprise, Koff set him back down on ridged flesh that felt overwhelmingly like a nose.

Insane with terror, Stuart scrabbled back into the nasal passage and burrowed inside.  He couldn’t restrain himself this time—he was sure he caused damage on his way back to the brain’s center.

Once he was securely embedded, Stuart wasted no time in reconnecting with the sensory areas of the brain.  He regained control of motor centers and stopped his host from thrashing.  Then he slid a tentacle down to the medulla oblongata to make sure the damage he caused would not result in his host forgetting how to breathe.

When Stuart opened his eyes, Koff was sitting on the floor a yard away, watching him.

“Ugly little thing, aren’t you?”

Stuart let out a sob of relief and lowered his host’s head back to the floor.  Crying—and all other human reactions—had been a natural, learned response that a suzait instinctively absorbed from his host as a bonding measure, not merely an effort to blend in, as the S.O. liked to claim.  He cried now, knowing Koff was watching, analyzing, judging, but he didn’t care.  The capture, the transfers, the S.O. personnel, Koff’s disdain, the dry air, all of it had been too much.

“Scared you, eh?”

Stuart could only whimper, nodding.

Koff grunted.  “Could you hear me talking to you?”

“No.”

“And those little black bulbs…  Those were your eyes?”

Stuart nodded.

“I’ll bet you couldn’t see much more than light and dark, could you?  I had the knife an inch away the entire time and you never even flinched.”

Stuart stared at the bloody plastic under his host’s nose.

“Could you have zapped me again when I was holding you?”

Stuart nodded.

“Hard?” Koff asked sharply.

“Not hard,” Stuart said into the floor.  “I used up most of my energy on you and Sergeant Griffin.  It will take weeks to recharge.”

“You couldn’t see, couldn’t hear,” Koff mused.  “You’re a brave little parasite, I’ll give you that.”

Stuart looked up, put off guard by the compliment.  “I was pissing my pants.”

Koff laughed.  “I’m sure you were.”  He got to his feet and moved out of sight behind Stuart.

Stuart miserably lowered his head and stared at the rug on the other side of the clear plastic barrier, waiting for Koff to drive his knife through Earl’s skull.

He heard the plastic crinkle near his side and Stuart felt a warm pressure against his host’s wrists.

His…wrists?  Stuart lifted his head, craning his neck to see.

Koff was squatting beside him, knife in one hand, ropes binding his wrists in the other.  He gave Stuart a long look.

Then Koff slid the knife between his wrists, freeing his hands.  As Stuart tried to digest that, Koff did the same for his ankles.

Stuart let his limbs fall where they were dropped, then gingerly crawled to a sitting position a few yards away, facing Koff.  He wanted to say a thousand things, had a million questions in his mind, fought with a dozen different emotions.  First and foremost amongst them was hope.  Could Koff be convinced to host him again, willingly?  The thrill of that possibility was enough to lift him from the overwhelming despair that had been his last five millennia.

“Thanks,” Stuart managed.

“No problem.”  Koff sat back on the floor and winced, holding his side.  “Think you could find me a doctor?”

Stuart cringed with another wave of guilt.  “Rabbit might know of one.”

“One who won’t talk?”  Koff gave him a lopsided grin.  Probably a damaged motor nerve somewhere.

Stuart bit his lip and looked down.  “You could go back to the Utopia.”

“And have them put me in isolation?”  Pete scoffed.  “I don’t think so.”  He tapped his chest with a thumb.  “Pete, here’s, smarter than that.”

Stuart lifted his head, hopeful.  “So what will you do?”

“I don’t know.  I planned on retirement, put a few hundred credits away each paycheck, but I never planned on havin’ my brain taken over by an alien.”  Koff gave him a sideways look and a nervous chuckle.  “God, no offense to the poor bloke you’re riding now, but damn am I glad that’s over.  Never again, man.  I’d shoot myself first.”

The despair came back like the blow from a colonial freighter.  Stuart glanced at his feet.  If Koff had cursed him, cut him, or ridiculed him, Stuart wouldn’t have felt so bad.  The corporal, however, merely seemed to take the whole experience as matter-of-fact and without much venom.  It made Stuart feel as dirty as the criminal whose brain he occupied.

“You think he’s got something to eat around here?” Koff said.  He grinned and patted his stomach, green eyes amused.  “You forgot to feed me, boss.”

“We can ask Rabbit when he comes back,” Stuart said, feeling drained.

“Not the kind to take to people diggin’ around in his stuff, eh?”  Koff glanced at the other half of the apartment room, then sighed wistfully.  Getting up, he walked over and held out his hand.  “I’m Pete.”

Stuart stared down at the man’s hand in confusion.

“Generally, when a man holds out a hand for you to shake, you do it before he gets all butthurt and socks ya one,” Koff said, green eyes dancing.

Stuart swallowed.  “Stuart,” he said, taking the hairy hand.  “At least, that’s as close as I can get using a human tongue.”

“A Stu, eh?” Koff said, giving it a good shake.  “I swore you had the look of a Bill or a Travis.”  Pete laughed and then groaned, hugging his side.  “I really need a doctor.”

With awkward movements, Stuart lurched to the back door and pulled it open.  Rabbit was leaning against the wall outside.  He gave Stuart a startled look and then glanced behind him at Koff.

“He’s still alive?”

“Alive and kickin,” Pete agreed, grinning.  “But I need a doctor.”

Rabbit glanced from Stuart to Pete and back.  The little man seemed to realize the horrible position he had put Stuart in, for he winced.  “I thought you killed ‘em when you moved on.”

“Just get him a doctor,” Stuart said.

“Hell,” Rabbit muttered.  “Hell.”  He stepped inside and shut the door.  “No offense, but it’d save us a lot of heartache if we axed him and dropped him somewhere in the Snail District.”

“I saw his latest host,” Pete agreed.  “And my goddamn ribs are killin’ me.  Might be a blessing to put me outta my misery.”

“We’re not killing him.”  The words came before Stuart realized he had said them.

Rabbit gave him an irritated glance.  “I’ll get him a Doc.  But I don’t want him singing to the Utopis about how I helped you.  As soon as my man finds out where they ditched Athenais, we move.  If I don’t trust him by the time we hop aboard my shuttle, he’s dead.”

“Q-4, 2112.23X, 6.001Y, -331.89Z off Spacepath 24335, C-Block.”

Stuart and Rabbit stared at Pete.

“What was that?” Rabbit demanded.

“Coordinates, I think,” Pete said.  He twisted, lifted an arm, put his nose under his armpit, and sniffed.  Immediately, he yanked his head away, wincing.

Rabbit took a step closer, his brown eyes narrow.  “Whose coordinates, Utopi?”

“Ain’t a Utopi no more,” Pete said.  “Got colonist blood in me anyway.”  He glanced up and shrugged.  “It’s what the navigator’s screen showed down in the lower right of the 3-D thingie in front of him when we were preparing to board.”

“Those are Beetle’s coordinates?” Rabbit snapped.

Pete grinned wider.  “May have had a creepy-crawly in my head, but I still got a photographic memory.  Any chance I could get a piece of cheese or something?”

Rabbit glanced at Stuart, then hurried inside and rustled through his desk for a personal datascreen, which he thrust at Pete.  “Write them down.”

“I’m not gonna forget them.”

“Write them down.”

Pete sighed and took the datascreen.  He entered the coordinates and handed it back to Rabbit.  “Now’s the part where you shoot me and hide my corpse in the Snail District, right?”

Rabbit narrowed his eyes at the man.  “That can be arranged.”

“We’re not killing him.”

Rabbit glanced up at Stuart.  “It’d be the smart thing to do.”

Stuart thought back to the horrible terror of being held between Pete’s fingers and shook his head.  “We’re not killing him.”

Rabbit made a disgusted sound.  “Fine.  But he’s your responsibility.”  He tapped a slender finger in the middle of Stuart’s host’s chest.  “He turns on us and I’m singing to the world that there’s still a suzait alive and well living amongst us.”

 “In us,” Pete said with a chuckle.

“Shut up.”  Rabbit rounded on Stuart.  “Those are my terms, parasite.”

Stuart prickled.  “Fair enough.”

“I still need a doctor,” Pete reminded them.

Rabbit went to the front door and wrenched it open.  Immediately, a din of drunken conversation flowed in from the bar outside.  Rabbit called for Giggles and then shut the door again.  He went to the wall infoscreen and entered the coordinates Pete had given him.  Apparently satisfied, he flipped his handheld closed and stuffed it into his shirt.

“Whatcha want, boss?”  Giggles stuck his head inside and gave Pete a curious look.  He flinched when he saw Stuart alive and standing, with only minimal blood on the plastic.  “Uh…  You need some help wi’ the big guy?” he asked, eyes on Stuart.

“Get a doctor,” Rabbit ordered.  “One who can keep his mouth shut.  Send him to Aurora.  You were right.  Darley broke some ribs.”

Grunting, Giggles gave Stuart one last curious look, then backed out and shut the door.

On the floor, Pete looked disappointed.  “I’m not going to a regen chamber?”

Rabbit scoffed as he moved around the room, collecting items.  “Regen chambers are for legitimate medical practices and long-distance ships.  Maybe Athenais will let you use hers.”

“So what’s a doctor gonna do for me?” Pete demanded.

“Give you a few drugs.  Tell you to suck it up, most like.”

“Great,” Pete muttered.

“You can still take that trip to the Snail District,” Rabbit offered.  “My treat.”

“No thanks.  Never was a fan of escargot.”

Rabbit’s cold features cracked in a grin.  “Stuart, help him up.  We’ll meet the Doc at my ship.”

“We’re taking him?” Stuart asked, a little stunned.  “I thought that was the whole reason I was changing hosts…”

Rabbit gave him a hard look.  What little amusement he had gained a moment before was gone in an instant.  “We’re certainly not leaving him behind.”  He cocked his head.  “And, if you’re feeling squeamish, you can always kill him.”

Pete laughed.  “If you need me to come along to make sure I’m not giving you faulty coordinates, that’s fine with me.  I’m looking forward to that regen chamber.”

Rabbit scowled at Pete, then pushed the back door open.  “Come on.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Pete fell in behind Rabbit, still holding his side.  Stuart followed, shutting the door behind them.




Wings of Retribution

A Fairy’s Busted Wings


Athenais was in the middle of nodding off when a garbled crackle filled the control room.  At first, she thought Dune was ineptly trying to use Squirrel’s fancy new intercom system again and she moved to push the send button to guide him through it, only to realize that the intercom was down, the console dark.  Confused, she stared at the panel, wondering why the control lights were off.  She’d have to get Squirrel to check the wiring.  She started to get up when the garble came again, clearer this time.

Longship Beetle, this is Aurora.  You’ve drifted out of your last known coordinates.  Do you copy?

Aurora was Rabbit’s ship.  Athenais sat up and fumbled again for the intercom.  She took the remote and held it to her ear and said, “Rabbit, I’m thinking about painting Beetle blue so it blends in with Penoi.  What do you think?”

No answer.

Athenais pulled the dark intercom remote away from her ear and stared at it.  The LED flashlight would burn for another month before she needed to buy new batteries.  Still, she was having trouble seeing the block of metal in her hand.  Why was everything so dark?  She felt like rolling over and using her chair leg as a pillow.

The garbled call came again, but it was not from the intercom.  Athenais frowned at the control console for long minutes, staring at the square of blackness that had emitted the sound.  Why was Rabbit in the controls?  Shouldn’t he be back at The Shop, making sure his whores didn’t cheat him out of his money?

Longship Beetle, this is Aurora.  Last call.  You’ve drifted out of your LKC’s and we can’t pinpoint your location.  Your power-cell is not on the ship, so we have no way to trace you…  There was a brief pause before someone said, They’ve run out of air already.

Run out of air!

Athenais jerked and scuttled over to the controls, dropping the intercom remote.  She snatched up the communications handset and depressed the SEND button with numb fingers.  “Rabbit, I don’t know where the hell I am, but I can hear you, so you’re close.”  She released the button and waited.

Gasping for air, Athenais collapsed back onto the floor, exhausted.

The silence hung in the air like a death knell.  Athenais watched furry little space-rats crawl across the ceiling of her cockpit.

Athenais, we’re pinpointing your location.  Give us another send.

Athenais brought the handset to her face and pressed the button.  “I think I’m gonna need to invest in some rat poison.”

Seconds ticked by as her message radiated outward through space.  It took over a minute for Rabbit to relay his response.

Negative.  The Utopis killed Smallfoot after he turned over the shifters.

Athenais shook her head violently.  “No, the rats.  They’re everywhere.”

There was another long pause.

How many are still alive, Athenais?

“All of them,” she replied, glancing up at the hundreds of rats crawling across her ceiling.  “Damn it, I’m gonna need an exterminator.  Can’t find my damn gun.”

Just hold on.  We found you.  Gonna feel a bump as we connect, so hold tight.  Then, in the background, she heard, She’s hallucinating.

Athenais scoffed at that.  She didn’t do tanga-weed.  She hated that stuff.  Made her eyes water.  Like rubbing her nose in a damn onion.

Athenais’s world suddenly jolted and the rats overhead lost their grip on the ceiling and fell on her, hissing their displeasure.  She cried out and threw them off, gasping as she backed against the control panel, her eyes wide.  She grasped the flashlight in a white-knucked fist and held it up to ward off the rats, which were closing on her angrily, snarling.

Another bump jarred her head against the console and the rats fled.  Somewhere nearby, she heard running feet.  She closed her eyes as the warmth of sleep returned to her.

Suddenly, everything was too bright.  The air was filled with a soft whooshing sound and she felt a breeze against her cheek.  How nice.

“Attie.”  The soft, calming voice was followed by a hard slap to the face.

Athenais screeched and stood up, ready to crush the rat responsible.  Then her eyes focused and she realized it was a rabbit, not a rat.  She lost her footing, her head swimming.

“Easy, Attie, it’s me.  Rabbit.”

Athenais peered into his thin, mustached face.  “What the hell are you doing on my ship?  I told you you weren’t allowed onboard without warning me first.”

“Where are the others, Attie?  If you’re still conscious, they might be alive.”

“Others?”  And then she remembered.  “That son of a bitch!  I’ll kill him!”  She pushed Rabbit aside and reached for her gun.  Then she realized her gun was what Smallfoot had used to blow her head apart.

“Calm down,” Rabbit growled, grabbing her by the arm.  “Smallfoot’s already dead.”

Athenais’s heart caught in her throat.  “And Ragnar?”

“Utopis took him.  Under command of a Colonel Howlen.”

Athenais peered up at the stranger who had spoken.  “Who the hell are you?”

“Stuart,” the man replied.

Athenais narrowed her eyes at the shifter, then grunted and waved Rabbit away from her.  “Get off me.  I need to check the engine room.”

“I brought a spare.  Good for a few months, at least.  You can buy a new one when we get to Terra-9.  Where are the others, Attie?”

Athenais frowned at him, then said, “The mess hall.  The four of them were playing cards.”

The stranger trotted off, leaving Athenais with Rabbit.

“Excuse me.”

Athenais’s head snapped up.

The redhead who had spoken blushed.  “I know this isn’t exactly the right time, but I really need to use your regen chamber.”

Indeed, he looked as pale as a dead fish.  Athenais told him so.

“Probably some internal bleeding,” the guy agreed.  “Mind if I just saunter on in there, then?  I know how to use it.”

“Who the hell are you?” Athenais growled.  “A shifter wouldn’t have to use a regen room.”

The redhead gave her a pained smile.  He opened his mouth, but Rabbit gave him a sharp glance and said, “He’s a friend of mine.  Got a couple ribs broken helping Stuart out.  Isn’t exactly on the right side of the law, so I told him he could use your facilities.”

“Generous of you,” Athenais muttered, wondering what Rabbit had stopped the kid from saying.

The shifter came running back, panting.

“How are they?”

“Alive.  The whole room smelled like tanga-weed.  Even though they’re awake, they’re prolly gonna be hallucinating for a few more hours.”

“Goddamn Goat,” Athenais said.  She got to her feet.  “Were you the only one to get free?”

Stuart nodded.

“What do you know about the Potion, shifter?  Can you get us into Marceau’s compound?”

Stuart frowned.  “I thought you’d want to go after the other three…”

“I didn’t ask you what you thought,” Athenais barked.  “Utopis’ve got them.  When they interrogate them, it’s all gonna come out.  If we’re going to make this work, we need to get to Millennium ahead of the information.  So can you get us inside or not?”

“Ragnar’s the only one who’s been on the inside.  Paul and Morgan know all the codes.”

“Then what damn good are you?!” Athenais demanded.

Stuart shrugged.  “I’m just along for the ride.”

“Goddamn it.”  She glanced at the redhead.  “Can either of you navigate a ship?  Looks like we’ve got to get those shifters back.  Fast.”

“Attie, I’ve got the clamps in place,” Rabbit began awkwardly.  “Aurora can tow her—”

“We’re not towing her anywhere.”  She swiveled on the redhead.  “You.  You can read?  Well, good.  That qualifies you to be my navigator.  Sit down.  No, you’ll get the regen chamber later, after my goddamn nav guy wakes up.  Rabbit, get off my ship.  Go fill me in over secure com.  I want to get moving now.”

“I should probably go replace your core first, then, eh?”

“Well, obviously,” Athenais growled.

Rabbit sighed, then gathered up his flashlight and left.

Minutes later, Beetle was slinging through space, Athenais fuming at the controls.  “Species Operations.  Of all the meddling government agencies, why did we have the bad luck to get Species Operations?!”  She scowled down at the debris grid.  “Those bastards are thirty percent paranoid, eighty percent asshole, and a hundred percent scumbag.”

“Stuart’s a suzait, you know.”

Athenais’s head snapped up and she scowled at her navigator.  “What did you say?”

The redhead shrugged.  “I don’t know why they didn’t want to tell you, but seemed to me like you should know.  The reason I’m here and not back on Havoc was that I had the bad luck of trying to help him to his feet.”  He tapped the side of his skull.  “Little bastard brained me.”

Athenais’s brows furrowed.  “A suzait?  Are you sure?”

He looked at her like she’d asked if turds were brown.  “Uh, yeah.  Pretty sure.”

Athenais couldn’t believe it.  “He took you as a host?  And you’re still walking?”

“Seems he’s a humane little parasite.”  Pete laughed.  “Spent a good portion of the time apologizing for taking me.  Coulda squished him, but I didn’t.”

Athenais’s jaw clenched so hard it began to ache.  Through teeth that hurt from the pressure she was putting on her jaws, she gritted, “They told me.  He was.  A.  Shifter.”

Pete shrugged.  “Just thought you should know what you’re dealing with.”

“And Rabbit just foisted him off on me, knowing the little bastard would just loooove to get his hands on one of the originals.  Hell, that was probably their plan from the beginning—”

“Asteroid,” Pete said.

“Huh?”

“Asteroid,” he repeated, poking a finger at her debris grid.  Athenais screeched and pulled the nose of the ship up ninety degrees in a maneuver that threw Pete out of his chair.  With forward momentum, they still came only a kilometer from smacking into the gigantic space rock.

Once they were clear, Athenais resumed her course hunched over the debris grid.  Pete climbed back into his seat and chuckled nervously.  “I think you broke another rib.”

“That’s what the harness is for.”

He gave the confusing jumble of straps at the back of his chair a dubious look.  “Yeah.  I guess so.”

The room was silent for several minutes.

“So you been to the Academy?”

Pete looked up.  “Nah.  N.C.O.  Corporal.  Just watched the pilot on Havoc.  I’m not really even a navigator, but I’ve read enough books to know how to do it.”

Athenais raised a brow at him.  “Books?”

“Yeah, I like to read.  Sounds pretty easy.  Just look up the numbers, dial it in, and away you go.  Right?”

Athenais scoffed, unable to even begin to explain the soul involved in navigation—the gut instincts, the uncanny knowing when the numbers in the book were wrong, the power of a good prayer.

“Why,” he asked carefully, “you lookin’ to replace your navigator?”

Athenais scoffed.  “Goat’s a weeder and he’s got a permanent place in history under B.O., but he’s the best navigator I’ve ever seen.  No.  I’m not.”

“Oh.”  Pete looked disappointed.

“I’m looking for a new pilot.”

He frowned.  “Thought you had a pilot.  She almost outmaneuvered Admiral Boyle.  Had us all holdin’ onto our asses, that one.  Talked to a guy who was in the cockpit when it all went down.  I’ll be damned if the Admiral wanted to hire her, pirate and everything.”

Now there’s a kid who’s got soul, Athenais thought.  Too bad she’s got as much brainpower as a chimpanzee.  Sighing, “She got me into this mess by spilling my secrets.  I don’t take people on Beetle that can’t keep secrets.”

Pete flushed.  “Guess that marks me off the list, then.”

The thought that the no-name kid with the droopy face and hand tremor could replace Fairy was laughable, but Athenais owed him for telling her about the suzait.  For that, she resisted the urge to laugh in his face.  “No,” she said, “I’m talking about people keeping my secrets.  The little twit went and overheard my conversation with Ragnar, so she ran off to tell Smallfoot.  She’s lucky I don’t dump her in space.”

Pete glanced at Athenais.  “She stayed with you, didn’t she?”

“She was stupid.”

“She’s loyal.  You can’t buy something like that.”

“Yes you can,” Athenais snorted.

He raised an eyebrow.  “Until someone with a bigger wad comes along.”

I’ve got the biggest wad.”

“For now.”

“Listen, kid, I’m one of the five oldest critters in the known galaxy.  I’ve got my stashes, okay?”

“What about that Rabbit fellah?” the redhead asked.  “The way he just went onto the first ship at dock and bought the power core from its captain, no questions asked, kinda made me feel like the guy is made of money.”

Irritated, Athenais said, “So she had a brief episode of guilt.  She still almost got us all killed.”

“But you can bet she won’t make the same mistake twice.”  He grinned and tapped his ear.  “Learning’s a bitch.”

Athenais narrowed her eyes at him.  “Who the hell are you to take her side?  You don’t even know her, and you’re already acting like you’re part of my crew!”

Pete shrugged and went back to his screen.

“Rabbit hired you, didn’t he?”  She cursed and slammed her fist into the console.  “I knew that romantic little twit was up to something.  Never has had the heart to kill what needs killing.”

Pete snorted.  “They brought me along ‘cause Stuart wouldn’t let Rabbit kill me like he wanted.”

The room fell silent again.

“So you really had a suzait in your head?”

Pete shrugged.  “Only for a day.  Kind of like watching a vid.”

Athenais shuddered.  “It’s horrible.”

Pete gave her a surprised look.  “You, too?”

“Prolly why the meddling little twerp didn’t tell me about the worm.”

“Oh?”

“Long time ago,” Athenais winced, remembering.  “Before S.O. really got in gear and started wiping them out.  One of my buyers turned on me.  Sold me to a suzait colony.  Lived with that bastard for nineteen years before a head injury shocked him long enough for me to blow him away.”

Pete raised an eyebrow and she watched his gaze trail over her skull, obviously trying to locate the exit wound.  “Uh…  Sounds painful.”

“It was.”

Clearing his throat, Pete said, “Suzait colony?  Sounds a little…disturbing.”

Athenais snorted.  “Tell me about it.”  She sighed, making a slight course adjustment.  “There were a bunch, long time ago.  Right after Marceau signed the One Species charter and the S.O. killed off the harra.  Turns out, humans are just as good a host as a goddamn spidery lookin’ thing.”

Harra?” Pete said, his slurry tongue stumbling around the foreign word.

Athenais shrugged.  “Critters the suzait used before humans.  Almost exclusively, I might add.  Then when the S.O. started wiping ‘em all out, the worms decided humans looked tasty, after all, and then we had a war on our hands.  Almost lost it, too.  Hell, haven’t really won it yet, either.  There were colonies all over the four quadrants, and even more in the Black.  No way they coulda gotten them all.”  She glanced at Pete, then at the doorway where she had last seen the parasite.  “As evidenced.”

Pete gave her an odd look.  “Just how old are you?”

“A little over seven.”

He blinked.  “Hundred?”

“Thousand.”

Pete stared at her.  He opened his mouth, but no sound came out.

“Cap’in, you just about bashed my head in on that last run.  What’s chasin’ us?”

Goat was standing in the doorway, holding his matted scalp.  The smell was already filling the control room, making Pete flinch.  Athenais was used to it by now, so she ignored it.

“Just avoiding debris.  The rest of them awake yet?”

Goat groaned.  “The other three ain’t got any tolerance for the green.  Who’s that?”  He frowned at Pete and dragged a hand across his face.

“Came in with Rabbit,” Athenais said, grateful to see her navigator.  “Come take his spot.  He’s been needing to use the regen room.”

Goat stumbled over to the controls and Pete released them reluctantly, giving Goat an apprehensive glance as he sat down.

Pete hovered behind Goat’s seat for several minutes before the weeder turned on him and said, “Git.  Go do your business and leave me to mine.”

Pete gave them a confused look.  “You’ll just let me go?  By myself?  Who’s gonna make sure I don’t steal a gun and take over the ship?”

“Speaking of that,” Athenais said, twisting to gesture at the hall, “I got another pistol in my room, under my bed.  First door on the right.  If you could grab it for me on the way back, that’d be great.”

As the baffled-looking corporal turned to go, Goat added, “And if you see Squirrel, tell her to get in here and fix the wiring.  It’s as cold as a witch’s tit in here.”

“That’s the tanga-weed,” Athenais said.

Goat shrugged.

“Which one’s Squirrel?” Pete asked.

“The one wearing half a set of overalls,” Goat said.

“Okay,” Pete said.  Hesitating at the door, he stepped into the hall and disappeared.

Overalls?” Athenais demanded, glancing at her friend.

“You think that’s funny, she and Dune swapped some stuff, somewhere along the line.  He ended up wearing a boa.”

Athenais groaned.  “The pink one.”

Goat swiveled to look at her, surprise in his face.  “How’d you know?”

Athenais resisted the urge to imprint the front of her face into her console.  Before she could help herself, she said, “Just hope Fairy doesn’t have access to a camera, or those two’ll never hear the end of it.”  Then, realizing what she’d said, Athenais went silent.

After a moment, Goat offered, “Annoying twit kinda became part of the family, din’ she?  Shame ta cut ‘er loose.”

Athenais’s brow furrowed and she scowled at her debris grid.

“Gotta admit, Cap,” he continued gingerly.  “If she’d had it out for us, she’da just turned us in to the Utopis herself.”

Athenais grunted.  “Leave it alone.  I’ve decided.”

Goat shrugged and focused on the grid.

Squirrel came in to the command room several minutes later.  She looked more than a little stoned, her normally well-styled hair tussled and frizzy.  She was, indeed, wearing half a pair of overalls.  The top half.  Apparently, Dune’s outfit had been too short for Squirrel, so they’d made a few modifications.  With a knife, by the looks of it.  For bottoms, she was wearing a pair of men’s underwear and grease-stained boots that were much too big for her.

“Hey, there’s a guy on the ship who told me you needed some wiring done.”  She peered at Goat and Athenais.  “Am I dead already?”

“Nope.”

She glanced down at her garb and her delicate brow crinkled in a frown.  “Dreaming?”

“You wish,” Athenais laughed.

Squirrel pinched the overly-huge chest of the filthy overalls between thumb and forefinger and lifted it away from her breasts for inspection.  “Oh gods,” she muttered, dropping it.  Slapping a hand to the side of her head, she gapsed, “He’s got my watersilk gown!”

Squirrel had already half-turned back to the hallway when Athenais said, “Fix that rat’s-nest first.  Someone could electrocute themselves.”

“But Captain—” Squirrel began.

“Perils of tanga-weed,” Athenais said.

“Besides, it’s probably already covered in engine oil,” Goat added.  “Dune spent some time tinkering with his buggy after you passed out.”

“That was a ten-thousand-credit dress!” Squirrel groaned, clearly wanting to rush back to the engine room to save it.

“Fix the wiring first,” Athenais said.

Muttering, Squirrel turned to the wiring panel that she had ripped out to set up com.  She pulled up a chair and went to work unraveling the mess.

Halfway into it, she said between a mouthful of wires, “You know, Captain, Fairy meant well.”

“Enough about Fairy,” Athenais snarled.  “She’ll be getting off my ship just as soon as we get to Terra-9, and I’ll be finding someone to replace her.”

Squirrel finished her work in silence, then stood up and headed back to the common room.

Ten minutes later, Fairy stumbled into the control room, weaving.  “We’re dead, aren’t we?” she moaned.

“Take the stick,” Athenais ordered.  “Goat will fill you in.  I’m gonna go find out what the hell is taking Pete so long.”

“Pete?  Is he dead, too?”

Athenais peered at Dallas to make sure the little twit wasn’t still stoned, then stood up, leaving the controls unmanned.  Fairy yelped and hurried to the pilot’s seat, buckling herself in and taking up the stick with religious zeal.

No matter what quadrant they were in, Fairy seemed perpetually ready for a twelve-hour dogfight.  Athenais watched her, amused, then caught herself and stalked from the room, irritated.  Can’t keep her.  Too dangerous.

She found Pete down in the engine room, poring over Dune’s racing catalogues.  Both he and the mechanic looked up sheepishly when she came in.  A greasy blue dress hung neatly over a buggy frame.  Dune wore fresh overalls.

“Heya, Cap,” Dune said nervously, catching her glance at the gown.  “I, uh, was gonna give that back to Squirrel.  She, uh, left it down here…”

Athenais frowned.  “Wow, she must be gaining weight, wouldn’t you say??  That whole seam’s blown out, there.”  She reached down and touched the ragged threads.  Holding it up for Dune to see, Athenais gave him a shocked look and said, “Poor girl.  She’s so sensitive about her weight, too.  Keeps such a good figure.  Guess she’s starting to loosen up a bit in her older years, eh?”

Dune blushed crimson.  Rubbing the back of his neck with a grease-blackened hand, he said, “Uh, yeah.  Guess so.”

“Oh, and look, she left her boa, too!” Athenais cried, picking up the fluffy pink scarf from where it had been hidden behind a crate of engine parts.  “Oh man, she got grease all over it.  Almost like she was changing out a hydraulics system.”

“Uh,” Dune said, going purple, “Pretty sure she was stoned.”

“Funny, she must’ve been digging around in your quarters, too,” Athenais said.  “She came out front wearing a pair of your overalls.  Got those all greasy, too.  Busy little girl, our Squirrel, eh?”

“Uh…” Dune looked like his head was going to explode from the pressure.

Athenais dropped the boa.  “You do it again, I’ll get Fairy to take pictures.”  Turning on Pete, she said, “You get your ribs fixed?”

Beaming, Pete thumped his side.  “Yep.  Good as new.”

“Good.  I’ll need you to pick a schedule and get on it.  Half the crew’s on nights, half’s on days.  There’s a period on the wide end of things where everybody’s awake.  That’s when we sit down and have a meal together, minus whoever’s running the cockpit.  There’s a spare room—”

“Capt’in?”

Athenais turned.

Dune ran a grease-stained hand through his hair and sighed.  “You ain’t really gonna leave Fairy on T-9, are you?  She’s the best pilot I ever saw, ‘side from you.  One little mistake shouln’t—”

Oh gods, another one?  “That ‘one little mistake’ almost cost you all your lives,” Athenais snapped.  “Doesn’t that matter to any of you?”

Dune glanced at Wild Betty.  “S’pose it doesn’t.  Gotta learn somehow.”

Athenais narrowed her eyes.  “I get it.  You all had a little powwow over your dope last night and she convinced you fools to take up her side.”

“Naw, I just think you should give her another chance.”

“Well, I’m not giving her another chance.  She’s gonna learn on someone else’s neck.”  She turned on Pete.  “You got clothes?  Belongings?  Any diseases I should know about?”

Pete was still frowning at the ruined blue gown.  He glanced from Dune to the dress and back.  “Did he…?”  He hesitated, pointing at the waif-thin dress.  He frowned at Dune, whose muscle-strapped upper body forced him to go through doorways sideways, then back at the dress.  Athenais watched the cogs catch in his brain as he tried to comprehend that.

“Hard to picture, ain’t it?” Athenais said, loving the way her engineer was squirming.  “You been down here talking fashion with Dune all this time?”

“He’s a racer,” Dune said quickly.  “Told him about Wild Betty and come find out he’s entered a few races himself.”  The greasy old mechanic was obviously all-too-happy to change the subject.  “Won him some cash money.”

Pete blushed.  “Never nothin’ as sweet as the Moondust Marathon.  Just a few country races on liberty.”

Athenais rolled her eyes.  “You want me to rescue you?  Dune’ll talk your ear off for the next three days if you let him.”  She gave Dune a sideways look.  “…maybe try to get you into some heels.”

“Oh come on, Captain!” Dune cried, throwing a greasy rag into the trash receptacle.

Athenais chuckled.

“I’m fine here,” Pete replied quickly.  “I actually saw pictures of Wild Betty on a newsreel once.  Never thought I’d actually get to touch her.”  He slid his hand along the smooth metal of the dunebuggy with a reverential caress.

Athenais sighed.  “I guess I’ll leave you boys to it, then.  Dune, I’ll send someone to come get you if we need a third set of eyes.”

“Eyes, Captain?” Dune said, concerned.  “What’s going on?”

She paused, giving the hallway a solemn look.  She took a deep breath, then let it out slowly between her teeth.  She glanced back at him reluctantly.  “Well, see, Squirrel ‘n I’ve been just dying to go to the opera, but we can’t decide which color shoes would match the seating.”

Dune turned purple and choked on a line of old-time brogue that Athenais hadn’t heard in a few millennia.  Grinning, she bowed and started towards the hallway.  Behind her, she heard a bone-deep growl and the metallic scrape of a hefty tool.

Just as she was stepping through the door, Athenais paused at the exit, her face lined with grave seriousness.  “It’s red, you know,” she said.  “Nothing goes well with red.”

Get out of my shop!” Dune roared, hurling the wrench.

She cackled and jogged up the stairs, just as something heavy clanged against the wall behind her.



Wings of Retribution


Athenais was as good as her word.  As soon as they landed on T-9, she made Dallas pack her bags.  Dallas thought it was all a scare tactic right up until the point where Athenais gave her what little money she owed her—something the old pirate always balked at—and dumped her in port.  Standing in the hub, watching Beetle scuttle off through the viewport, Dallas’s gut finally got that cold lumpy knot of understanding that Athenais was utterly serious.

She was done.  Beetle didn’t want her anymore.

And, to slam it all home, not one of her former crewmates had stood up for her.  Athenais had marched her right past them on the way to the air-lock, all the while reciting exactly why Dallas wasn’t a suitable candidate for her crew.  None of them had said a word.  Hell, they’d pretended she wasn’t even there.  Only Pete, the new guy that Rabbit had brought with them, had followed her with his eyes as she passed.

That hurt more than anything else.  She’d stumbled around port the entire first day, the whole place blurry through tears.  Lost a good portion of her luggage to some dude who snatched a suitcase when she put it down to wipe her eyes.  After that, Dallas just sat in one place and watched the world go by without her.

It was there that Rabbit somehow found her and offered her a place to stay for a few nights, but Dallas turned him down, too ashamed to think straight.  Rabbit had tried to insist, but eventually forced a credit coin into her hand and melded back into the crowds.  A scruffy kid stole the coin a few minutes later, when Dallas was bending over a water fountain for a drink.

I must look like an easy mark, Dallas thought, miserable.  Runny-nosed, puffy-eyed, splotchy-faced Dallas.  Terror of the skies.  She curled up with the rest of her belongings in a corner between a liquor store and a pizzeria, and glared at anyone who came within a couple yards of her hidey-hole.  Must have been a good glare, too, because even the most shady-looking guys turned on heel and went the other direction.

She spent several hours beside the pizzeria, enduring the tantalizing smells wafting from inside, trying not to puke at the way her guts were all twisted in knots from losing Beetle.  When Dallas simply couldn’t stay awake any longer, she got up and found a hotel a few blocks down the hall, saving herself the expense of taking a shuttle planetside.  Never having done anything but fly, she decided she would offer her services to inbound ships until one of them took her on.

She soon found out, however, that getting a job in aviation was all but impossible if one of the Good Ol’ Boys—who happened in this case to be a girl—had it in for you.  Regardless of how many captains she approached, regardless of how many well-dressed pilot’s uniforms she ran down in the hall, no sooner did they learn her name than they quickly took their leave.

That Athenais had spread word of her misdeeds was bad enough, but that she had so much sway with people Dallas had never even heard of was utterly demoralizing.  As each day passed, Dallas felt herself slipping further and further into the role of ‘hub reject.’  Incoming captains, seeing her step forward to offer her services, quickly changed course, treating her with just as much brusque disdain as they did the disheveled hall urchins looking to make a quick pity-cred.

After a couple weeks and a few thousand pitches, Dallas began to feel the heavy weight of reality settling onto her shoulders.  Each time a captain brushed her aside, each time she received that condescending stare, her shame increased, magnifying in intensity until it reached the point she couldn’t even look her target in the eyes when she gave her pitch.

When Dallas realized she was staring at the floor as she mumbled flight statistics to those disinterested captains who would stand still long enough to hear them, she knew Athenais had won.  A few days later, she got a job bussing tables in one of the hotel’s massive restaurants.  The fact that she had graduated from the Spacer’s Academy and had commanded her own ship meant little to Rob, the manager.  He put her on the lowest flat-rate salary he could legally give her and took half of her tips for her meals.  She paid her room fee with whatever was left over.  The day before payday, she was lucky if she had a credit to her name.  Usually, she ended up owing the hotel for damages.  Rob made sure of that.  He fined her for every broken dish, every walk-out, every complaint.  Once, he had fined her for adding a few inches to the skimpy waitress’s shorts that passed as uniforms.

Taking the job with the restaurant was yet another mistake.  Dallas came to realize that the position of waitress wasn’t exactly what space captains considered to be good experience, especially not for a copilot that had graduated Spacers Academy at the top of her class.  Inevitably, they all dismissed her when they discovered her current occupation.  Wait, wait.  Back up a sec.  You’re a waitress now?  Why didn’t you get another flying job?

One time, after managing to hide her position from her prospective employer, she was offered a temporary spot in the control room for when the ship departed a week later.  Unfortunately, Dallas had the bad luck of working the night before departure, when the captain and all his crew dropped by for a celebratory dinner pre-launch dinner.  Her contract was terminated on the spot, and Rob fined her for ‘agitating the customers.’

As the weeks crawled by, Dallas bitterly wondered what had happened to Beetle after dumping her on T-9.  Half of her hoped the old broad found a lead-heavy asteroid and make a new crater.  The other half hoped she had her feet cemented in a bucket to be dropped in the middle of Penoi’s biggest ocean.

Not that she was bitter.

She was just busily gaining that ‘worldly experience’ that Athenais valued so highly, and the next time she saw the monster, she was pretty sure she’d shove a coffee-pot squarely up her ass.




Wings of Retribution

Worms in the System


“Play it again.”

Colonel Tommy Howlen frowned at the infoscreen.  “Stop.”  He drew closer and jammed his finger at the little gray blip on the screen.  “What is that?”

“Maybe a bug in the vid?” Corporal Bushin offered.  She leaned forward and peered intently at the image.  “Coulda been dust, maybe.”

“Bullshit.  Look at the way Koff collapses.  It looks like he wants to scream.”

The N.C.O. gave the fallen corporal a dubious look.  “He mighta hit his tailbone…”

Tommy glared at the corporal.  “Or he might have a mind-controlling parasite burrowing through his ear canal.”

“Sir?”

“Don’t look so shocked,” Howlen sneered.  “The suzait weren’t all exterminated.  They couldn’t have been.  We’d have to scan every human and animal within the four quadrants, right down to the chickens and weasels.”

“We had a…parasite…aboard our ship?”  The poor girl looked ill.

“And now he’s somewhere on Terra-9,” Tommy said, slapping the screen off.  “I want the place quarantined immediately.”

The naïve little fool winced.  “Even the docks, sir?”

“The governor wouldn’t allow me to halt trade, but he has to comply with a quarantine.  That’s S.O. business.”  Tommy went to collect his jacket off the captain’s chair.  “In the end, he’ll probably be kissing my boots, thanking God that we found the little worm before he sought out a position of power.”

“But Pete had several days to board a ship…”

Rounding on her, Tommy gave her an irritated look.  “That…thing…isn’t Pete any more, Corporal.”

She cringed, dropping her head down to peer at her imaging console.  “Yes, sir.  Of course, sir.  But why couldn’t he have sailed out already?”

“He’s a stranger in a strange land,” Tommy snorted.  “Sure, the first thing he’s gonna do is take another host, but it will take him several days to recharge enough stunning power, unless he gets help somehow.  And who’s gonna help him?”

“Terra-9’s got a lot of drunkards, sir.”

Tommy raised a brow.  “So?”

“If I were him, I’d just go to a bar and wait for someone to come out too drunk to stand up.  Maybe wad a rag into his mouth to keep him from screaming.”

Tommy gave the corporal a hard look.  “These things are more intelligent than most humans.  You really think they would insert themselves into a disabled host, allowing their cast-off host the leisure to kill them slowly while they flounder from the alcohol in their system?”

“Sorry, sir.”  She was blushing furiously, her ears redder than beets.  “Just the way I’d do things, sir,” she mumbled.

Leave it to a woman to think up something that stupid.  Of course, he couldn’t say as much or the Workman’s Rights people would jump up and down and scream for his commission.  Scowling at her, Tommy picked up the com handset.  He dialed the four-digit code for planetary government and waded through the bureaucratic hierarchy until he could speak with the governor personally.

A what, you say?

“It’s a cerebral parasite,” Tommy repeated for the third time.  “It takes over your brain.”  That someone could make planetary governor and not have at least heard of the suzait was beyond his comprehension.  Politics was going to hell—nowadays it had become all about pretty looks and bank accounts.  Tommy wondered if the governor even had a diploma.

There was a pause, followed by the static of personal conversation on the governor’s side.  That made Tommy’s fists clench.  If the governor was allowing his underlings to listen in on their conversation, soon the whole planet would know and panic would ensue.  Tommy was about to interrupt the governor’s whispers with the threat of martial law when the governor got back to him.

Something like this, Colonel, seems like it would have a reward attached.

Tommy stared at the handset.  The greedy son of a bitch.  He was ordering a planetwide quarantine and the man was completely ignoring him.  He slammed the handset back into the receiver and ended the conversation.

“Was the governor right?” Corporal Bushin asked from beside the vidscreen.

Tommy glowered.  “There’s a thirty-five million reward out for suzait.  But, since the buggers are so tricky to track down, it’s only been claimed three or four times in as many centuries.”

“Thirty five million…”  Bushin whistled.

“Over ten times what those three shifters are worth,” Tommy agreed.  “Speaking of which, how are they doing?”

The corporal ran a check of the holding-cell and brought an image of the three stasis shells up on the vidscreen.  The shifters appeared to be asleep.

“Bring up sound,” Tommy ordered.

There was a blip, and then some static.

“Magnify.  They’re whispering.”

The corporal did as she was told.  Immediately, Tommy heard, “…got away.  They haven’t brought him back yet, have they?”

They wouldn’t bring him back here if they caught him. Howlen’d prolly put him in a jar of formaldehyde and leave him on his dresser.”

Tommy felt his hackles rise.  So the three shifters knew that their companion was a parasite.  Aliens banding together to fight the human invaders, was it?  Well, the four quadrants had been exclusively human territory for the last three thousand years.  If they were still pining over lost planets, they were living in the past.

Tommy’s thoughts drifted back to the statements the three shifters had given under interrogation.  Each was alarmingly similar.  Two had said they had left Penoi because some of their friends had been captured during massive governmental roundups—which supposedly took place weekly for the reproduction of the Millennium Potion—and had searched out the famed pirate captain Athenais because they thought she could help them.  The third said he had boarded Athenais’s ship as a stowaway on Millennium and, once he had realized who she was, had sent for his friends on Penoi.  They thought something about Athenais could provide a ‘cure’ for the Millennium Potion.  They also believed that the fabled space captain would be able to get them onto Millennium, where they would proceed to find their friends and destroy the Potion.

Tommy rubbed his temples and slumped into his chair.  More because he needed the noise than anything else, he said, “Corporal, you were there during the interrogations.  What did you think?”

Corporal Bushin turned away from the vidscreen and frowned.  “I think the whole thing about Marceau Tempest harvesting colonists for the Millennium Potion was a load of crap.”

“Well, of course,” Tommy said.  “What about the rest?”

Corporal Bushin winced.  “I think they might have been telling the truth about that pirate captain.  At least some of the truth.”

Tommy lifted a tired brow.  “Oh?”

“Well, I couldn’t sleep one night so I looked up Athenais Owlborne in the Utopian database.  I had to bypass several security levels, but once I was inside, there was…hundreds…of entries.”

“So she’s a bad pirate and gets caught a lot.  What does that have to do with our prisoners?”

Bushin blushed.  “Uh…  Maybe you should see for yourself, sir.”

Tommy sat up and watched as she moved to her console and began typing.

“Might take awhile,” she apologized.  Her fingers never missed a beat.  Tommy realized after a moment that she was hacking into the upper tier security levels with the ease of a pro.

“No need for that,” Tommy muttered quickly, embarrassed.  He stood up and entered his twelve digit access code and password, making sure she wasn’t watching as he did it.  Legally, he should send her to the brig and have experts root through her infoscreen to find out what other areas of classified information she had compromised, but he was feeling generous.

“Here,” Bushin said, standing up.  “You might want to sit down.”

Tommy took her chair and began going over the list of records.  His eyes caught when he realized that the archives contained over six thousand entries.  Normal people never had more than fifty to their name by the time they died.  Career criminals usually had a couple hundred.

“She has a huge bounty on her head,” Bushin said from the side.  “One point seven mil.”

Tommy frowned at the screen.  “Why is this all classified?  Why isn’t her picture posted around the four quadrants for law enforcement?”

“Seems her dad’s the Overseer of Penoi,” Bushin whispered.

Tommy turned to stare at Bushin.  “What?  The Overseer’s daughter?  Impossible.”

Bushin pointed at the file.  “It’s all in there.  During several interrogations, she claimed that back when the Overseer was still perfecting the Potion, he made his daughter bring all her school friends to his house for a party.  During the party, he dosed them all with the most primitive form of the Potion.  Twelve of ‘em, in all.  Then he watched them for a few years as they grew.  When he was sure it had no harmful effects, he dosed himself.”

Tommy got a bad taste in his mouth.  “Marceau tested on children?”

“That’s what her affidavits say.  Like, hundreds of them.”

“So she’s insane,” Tommy growled.  “Nothing new about that.  Every once in awhile, the world gets a rotten apple.”

“Her entries go back all the way to the start of the Utopia.  Have had to be transcribed several different times, from when the systems got changed or upgraded.  That’s what that little timestamp down there means, see?  Someone had to transfer this from an older format, six thousand years ago.”

Tommy narrowed his eyes at the corporal.  “I know what a timestamp is.”

Bushin reddened again.  “Well, if you read the affadavits, when she was twenty-five, Athenais noticed her and her comrades weren’t aging.  When she confronted her father, she denounced him and took the name Athenais Owlborne.  That’s when she tried killing herself for the first time.  Blew her head right off and the medics who arrived watched as it pieced itself back together.  After that, Athenais left Millennium and started pirating.  She openly attacked supply ships to and from Millennium for centuries.  Marceau formed the Utopia, and from then on, Athenais joined every rebellion that sprang up against it.  She’s never been back for another dose, but as you can see, she’s almost as old as her father.”

Tommy stared at the screen, trying to make sense of the entries.  “If these entries aren’t just an elaborate hoax, who’s protecting her?”

“Her father, I’d guess.”

“You said she blew her head off?”

“Yeah, one of those old-fashioned projectile weapons.”

“And lived?”

Bushin nodded.  “Now here’s the really cool part—they didn’t even have regen rooms back then.”

Howlen thought back to the ship they had scuttled and the tiny hairs on his neck lifted.  If he had helped kill Marceau Tempest’s daughter…

“What I want to know is how the shifters knew about it,” Bushin said, obviously getting excited, now.  “They knew who she was and that she carried a stronger version of the Potion in her than the rest of the Utopia.”

“They probably have plants in the government,” Howlen said.  He was distracted.  If even part of what the shifters had said was true, why not the rest of it?

“But why didn’t Marceau give the rest of us the same Potion?” Bushin said.  “Why make us come back for periodic doses?”

“Power,” Tommy said automatically.  Then he grimaced.

“So you believe the shifters?” Bushin whispered.

Tommy stiffened and stood up.  He hit the OFF key on the infoscreen, wiping the data from the display.  “You are well outside your clearance, corporal, and it’s technically my job to report you.  Let it drop.  We’re digging into things we have no right knowing.”

“But…”

“Governor Black wants to let a suzait run free on his planet, he’s more than welcome,” Tommy said, picking up his coffee canteen off the planning desk.  “I hope the little bastard breeds himself a whole new colony.  Send me a message when we’ve received authorization to proceed to Millennium.  I’ll be in my room.”

Tommy left Corporal Bushin in the control room and moved through the passageways, trying not to think of the shifters.  They were playing mind games with him.  Hell, they’d probably hacked into the secured system and installed all those entries on the pirate.  It obviously wasn’t very difficult, if Bushin could do it.

Tommy went to his room and locked the door behind him.  It was the one room in the entire ship that no one else could access once it was locked.  Even the command room had a list of users that could override a lock, including his copilot and navigator.

Not this one, however.  Tommy often thought fondly of the fact that, if he were to die in his sleep, the crew would have to wait for a manual override from a dedicated Space Corps dock in order to get his corpse into his casket.  It was somehow comforting.  The one place he could truly relax.

Tommy entered his sanctuary and collapsed on his bed.  On the end table in one corner, a pleasant miniature waterfall cascaded into a bed of rocks, filling the room with the sound of bubbling water.  He had an aquarium set up in one corner, though his last fish had died of old age and he hadn’t gotten around to restocking it.  He had a wall library near the door, filled with mythological stories of Old Earth.  That had been an enchanting time.  No universal government—imagine!—the first fumbling forays into space, projectile weapons, death, poverty, illness, heroes, natural scenery…

So long ago that no one even knew where the original planet that had cultured humanity really was.  Or if it had even survived.  There were whispers it had been destroyed, and that was why the first colonists on Millennium had been completely without support.

Tommy sighed and glanced up at the ceiling.  To have lived in those exciting times…

Instead, he had to wade through miles of accumulated Utopian bureaucracy just to go to the bathroom.

Hands under his head, he thought again about retirement.  He’d earned it.  With thirty-six suzait and a hundred and sixteen shifter deaths or captures to his name, he’d certainly done his duty for the Utopia.

He studied the picture painted across the ceiling above him.  It was a beautiful rendition of the landscape of Penoi.  Blue water, blue sky, snowcapped peaks, verdant forests…  He found himself once again longing for a time when the whole of human civilization could be contained between two mountain slopes on a lush river valley, when man was pitted against nature in a struggle for survival, and only his own innate abilities kept him and his family from vanishing under the jungle.  Maybe he could take his savings and go found a colony somewhere, at the outermost edge of one of the quadrants…

Tommy must have fallen asleep, because he was jolted awake at the sound of Bushin’s voice on the intercom.

Colonel, we have a problem.  The governor is denying our right to embark.

Tommy sat up, frowning.  The lights were flickering.  He fumbled for the handset and sent, “What does the governor have to do with this?  We just need authorization from the Docking Administration.”

The governor wants to search our ship.  He says that we may be harboring dangerous alien species. 

Tommy scowled.  “Tell him our ship is our business.  We’re chartered by the Utopian Species Operations, for Christ’s sake!  It’s our job.”

He’s ordered docking clamps to remain in place until he’s had a chance to look at our cargo.  Said he has received information that must be verified.

“That greedy bastard!” Tommy shouted, lunging out of bed.  “Tell him the suzait is on his planet, not on my ship!”

He’s not looking for suzait.  He’s looking for shifters.

Tommy froze.  Who had told the governor about the shifters?

Colonel?

“Stay there.  I’ll be out in a minute.”  Tommy got up, straightened his uniform, and punched the UNLOCK command on his door.  He strode outside and headed for the command deck, furious with himself for involving a civilian.  If he hadn’t mentioned the suzait, the governor wouldn’t have had reason to look deeper.  Renee Becket would have been just another number on a list of Utopian ships seeking permission to embark.

When Tommy got to the control deck, the room was buzzing with activity.  His security chief was there, as was his copilot and engineer.

“Colonel, this isn’t good,” his engineer said, without prelude.  “They’ve reversed the flow on the recharge lines.  They’re sucking us dry.”

“So that’s why the lights are flickering,” Tommy growled.  He nodded to his security officer.  “Ming, go cut them off with the supplemental laser portside.”

His engineer balked.  “We do that and we can’t recharge at another dock until we’ve returned to harbor for repairs.”

“If you wait much longer, we won’t be going anywhere.”

His security officer sat down at the weapons console and brought up an image of the two recharge lines that ran into the dock.  She centered on one and squeezed the trigger.  The Renee Becket shuddered and the line snapped, sparking with uncontained energy.

Immediately, the com screen lit up.  Tommy took the call.

Renee Beckett, you have fired a weapon while docked at a government facility.  Terra-9 Docking Authority fines you eight hundred credits for—

Tommy shut the screen off.  “Get the other one.”

His security officer obliged.  The lights stopped flickering and the com screen lit up again.  Tommy ignored it.  “Can you reach the docking clamps?”

Everyone watched in mute silence as his security chief swiveled the supplemental laser to the left.

“Negative,” she finally said.  “I’d have to shoot a hole in the ship.”

“Try the main weapons array, then.”

His security officer gave him an uneasy look, but followed orders.  “Same here,” she said finally.  “The array wasn’t made to fire on something with such proximity to the ship.”

“Damn.  What about tearing ourselves loose?”

“We’d tear off our airlock first,” the engineer said.

Tommy scowled at the monitor.  “We’re not letting them on this ship.  Send for help from any Utopian ships within com range.”

“Already tried it.  Only ones within range are already docked.  Docking Authority’s got them pinned, too.”

“Message from Governor Black, sir.”  Corporal Bushin offered him the com handheld.

Tommy took it with a grunt.  He depressed the SEND button and bowled over the greeting the Governor extended.  “You goddamned rebel bastard.  The Utopia’s gonna install martial law on this little shithole planet.  They’re gonna sweep the whole damn place clean.  When they’re finished rooting out your bars and whorehouses, they’ll have the whole Internal Investigations section here examining your ass with a microscope.  If they find anything, and they will, you’re gonna spend the next hundred years bending over for a miner on Erriat.  If you’re not gonna release the clamps, then I suggest you invest in a few more crates of petroleum jelly to take with you.”

The com was silent for minutes.

“Think he heard you?” his copilot snickered.

When the governor spoke, his voice was chilly.  We received reports that you are carrying alien life-forms outlawed by the Utopia.  Until you prove that you are not, we are obligated to search your ship and turn over any banned organisms to Utopian authorities.

“This is a goddamn Species Operations ship!  We are the authorities, you incompetent moron.”

So you admit you are transporting outlawed alien species across system borders.

Tommy stared at the transmitter in his hand, fighting the urge to throw it across the room.  As calmly as he could, he said, “If you think you’ll somehow be able to claim the reward because you took them from government personnel, you are about as intelligent as the people who put you into office.”

I’m sorry, Colonel, but until you deliver the aliens to our care, we cannot allow you to leave.

“We’ve already logged their identifiers into the government net,” Tommy snarled.  “They’re worthless to you now.

The com went dead.

Tommy put the transmitter down carefully.  “Keep sending out that distress signal.  They’ll likely try to scramble it, so switch frequencies.  Make sure everybody who passes near this damn place knows what’s going on.  Maybe we’ll get lucky and catch a gunship.”



Wings of Retribution


Seems you were right.  Colonel Howell is hiding something.

Athenais leaned back, grinning.  “Refusing an inspection, is he?”

He was very disagreeable.  It’s been most unpleasant.

You didn’t expect it to be a walk in the park for twelve mil, did you?”

I asked you not to mention it over open com.

“Who cares?  This is T-9.  You do business with pirates all the time.”

Still, they might be recording this.

“Let them.  When they come to arrest you, you can take your twelve mil and find some nice, tropical planet to live out the rest of your life on.  Hell, I’ll even take you there.”

You are positive there are three shifters aboard that ship?

“Positive.”

I’m sorry if I’m confused, Captain, but aren’t they only worth three mil a head?

The extra three mil is a bonus to you, for all the extra unpleasantness Colonel Howlen gives you.”

And when will I be seeing the other five mil?

“As soon as the shifters are safely on my ship and we’re long gone.  I’ll have a friend wire you the rest.”

What’s the name of your friend?  How can I be sure I’ll be paid?

You have my word.”

I want some sort of insurance.

Athenais pursed her lips in irritation.  “We already discussed this.  You’ve got my holdings on T-9 as collateral.”

They’re barely worth three mil and I will need liquid assets if the Utopia comes looking for me.

“For Christ’s sake, I’m not gonna cheat you!”  Athenais hung up the receiver and ended the conversation.  “Can you believe that?!”

Goat was playing cards with Squirrel on the command console.  Without looking up, he said, “I hear Fairy’s lost twenty pounds.  Not getting enough to eat, from what I hear.”

Squirrel nodded.

Athenais’s eyes narrowed.  “I don’t want to talk about Fairy.”

“She’s bustin’ her ass and’s barely makin’ enough to survive.”

Athenais slammed her fist down onto the back of the captain’s chair with a crack that made everybody jump.  “Enough about Fairy!  All of you!  I hear her name one more time and I swear to God, you’re off my ship.”

“Your late copilot is begging in the hub every evening after her shift,” Squirrel said, laying down a card for Goat to inspect.  “No one will hire your late copilot because you put out the word that your late copilot almost got us all killed.”

“Squirrel,” Athenais said evenly, “We’ve been through a lot, but you’re really pissing me off.”

“Good,” Squirrel said.  She picked up her cards and walked out of the control room.  Goat got up and went with her.

“Anybody else?” Athenais growled.

Dune shrugged and Pete looked uncomfortable.

“Fairy’s gotta learn where her loyalties lie before I ever let her back on my ship.”

“And bussin’ tables is the best place for her to learn about loyalty, isn’t it, Capt’in?” Dune demanded.  “After all, it was you who screwed her outta a job for the rest of her life.  That’ll make her learn her lesson.”

“Get out.”

Dune got up.  “I’ll be workin’ on Wild Betty if you need me.”

Once he was gone, Athenais turned on Pete, who flinched.

“Do you have anything to add?”

Pete swallowed.  “I haven’t been on board that long, but I wouldn’t wanna be in your position, Captain.”

“Why’s that?”

Pete looked at the floor.  “Well, because, from what they told me, you’re gonna have to get on your knees and beg to get her back.”

Athenais narrowed her eyes.  “I am, am I?  Who said anything about getting her back?”

Pete shrugged.  “I’m a spacer.  I know my ships.  The way things are goin’, you and the shifters are gonna be flying to Millennium alone.”  At that, he turned and walked out after Dune.

Athenais stared after him with her mouth open.  Alone?  They didn’t dare.  What did the little tramp mean to the three of them, anyway?  She’d barely been on the ship two years.  Sure, she was good at the helm, but she was the over-exuberant, over-excitable type that rarely ever made friends.  As far as Athenais knew, she hadn’t made friends.  The only time she had ever joined the rest of the ship in a game of cards was that last time when they were running out of air.  So why were her three best crewmembers sticking up for her?

“Goddamn it,” Athenais growled.

At that, the com screen flashed with an incoming message.  She switched it to RECEIVE and lifted up the handset.

This is Colonel Howlen.  After making the unpleasant discovery that you were still alive, Captain, I’m extending an invitation for you to tour my ship.  You may bring your personal weapon, but please don’t try any tricks.

Athenais’s mouth dropped open, but before she could reply, the transmission was terminated.

Athenais stared at the com set for long minutes.  Was the Colonel crazy?  Why did he think she, a wanted space pirate, would willingly come aboard a Utopian vessel?  Maybe the stress had made him lose his mind.

Then again…

Athenais frowned at the com equipment.  This was a golden opportunity to check out enemy territory.  If Colonel Howlen had heard her transmission to Governor Black, he would also know that Governor Black would do everything in his power to make sure Athenais was not harmed so that he could secure the rest of his reward.

Or was that what Howlen was planning?  Did he want to kill her so Governor Black no longer had a reason to hold his ship?  That might be fun.  Give her an excuse for a little mayhem…

Athenais flipped on the shipwide intercom.  “I’m headed out for awhile.  If I don’t get back, call Governor Black and tell him I went to visit Colonel Howlen.”

She waited for a response, some signal that someone had heard, but the intercom remained silent.

Athenais cursed, but stood up anyway.  “Mutineers, all of them.”

The halls were empty on the way to the airlock.  For a panicked moment, she thought maybe her crew had already deserted her, but after a moment she heard a hammer pounding metal in the engineering room and she relaxed.  She opened the airlock and stepped into Hub C.

Aside from the guard seated at a desk in the center watching a sports game on his vidscreen, C-Hub was completely empty for ‘repairs.’  Probably Governor Black’s way of keeping a low profile.  Athenais groaned, inwardly.  Politicians.  She started across the abandoned common area to find a tram headed for F-Hub.

The guard at the desk nodded at her all-too-pointedly and went back to his game.  One of Black’s goons, then.  Athenais rolled her eyes.  She wondered what kind of idiocracy the locals had put into practice here, since the last time Rabbit had been in office.

Athenais took the twenty-minute tram-ride to the Hub and flashed a smile at the guard.  He asked for her identification anyway and Athenais sighed.  When he saw that she had no business in Hub F, he told her so.

“I’m not gonna steal a ship,” Athenais snorted.  “I’ve got my own ship docked at C-Hub.  The Abetél.  I’m here at the request of the captain of the Renee Beckett.

Renee Beckett’s quarantined, Ma’am.  You’d have to get authorization.”

Athenais snorted and strode past the guard desk.  The guard shouted at her and ran around his desk to stop her, but Athenais shoved her Phoenix in his face.

“I have authorization,” she said, down the barrel.  “See this?”  She tapped the gun and smiled.  “We’re the negotiation team.”

The guard stared at the cold blue barrel planted between his eyebrows and swallowed hard.  “Sure thing.  Just doin’ my job, Ma’am.”  He backed away with his palms up.

Athenais turned to the air-lock with RENEE BECKETT in glowing letters above it and stood in front of the doors.  “All right, Captain.  I’m all yours.”  She holstered her weapon and looked up at the camera.  Behind her, the guard began making a distress call.

After several moments, the doors slid open.  On the other side, two men and a woman stood holding flesh-seeking pistols.

“Come on in,” the shorter of the two men said.  “Welcome to my ship.”

“Colonel Howlen?” she asked, glancing down at the speaker.

He nodded.

“Huh.  Thought from your voice you’d be taller.”  Athenais caught the man’s brown eyes narrow as she stepped past him.  Behind her, the air-lock hissed shut with a boom of metal.  She grinned at the three of them.  “So.  I’m Captain Owlborne.  You can call me Athenais.”

“That courtesy will not be necessary, Captain,” Howlen said primly.  “You’re here on business.”

Athenais’s brow skyrocketed.  “I am, am I?”

“Yes.”  He straightened, every ounce the colonel with a few centuries’ old redwood crammed up his ass.  “You are to immediately retract your offer to Governor Black.”

She chuckled.  “And I suppose you will hand over the shifters if I do?”

“Not a chance, pirate.”  The way he said it, she might have well have asked him to hand over his child so that she could throw him through a meat-shredder.  Interesting.

Athenais yawned.  “Then I’m afraid I must decline.”  She glanced at the ship around her, trying to calculate the number of crew aboard.  Probably no more than thirty, at most.

“Stop trying to decide whether or not you can storm my ship,” Colonel Howlen snapped.  “I’ll simply kill the shifters and be done with it.”

Athenais ruffled.  Turning back to the stuffy little colonel, she said, “So is that all you wanted, Colonel?  I’m disappointed.  I thought you wanted to make a deal.”

The Colonel’s face grew sharp.  “I don’t deal with space scum.”

Athenais burst out laughing.  “Oh, if only you knew.”  She crossed her arms, peering down at him.  “So what did you want, Colonel?  Governor Black isn’t going to allow you to leave until you give me the shifters, and you can’t kill me.  You’re between a rock and a hard place.”

“No one said I couldn’t kill you,” Howlen growled.

Athenais snorted.  “Try it.”

He did.

Once Athenais’s vision came back from the blast that had liquified her right orbit, she squeegied her ear with a pinkie.  Smiling at him, she said, “So, uh, where were we?”

Howlen’s crew was backed against the airlock, as far as they could get from Athenais, faces an unhealthy shade of gray.  For his part, Howlen merely looked like he had just seen a particularly disgusting amoeba replicate itself.  “So the file is at least partially true,” he commented, his lips twisted in distaste.

She had to give it to him.  The man had one hell of a titanium nutsack.

The Colonel gestured down the hall.  “Come to my room.  We’ll discuss this there.”

Athenais smiled.  “Aww.  Are you hitting on me, Colonel?”

The man’s face reddened until it was almost purple.  “No, you—”  He stopped, mid-sputter, with a growl.

“Pity.”  Athenais sighed and plucked a singed lock of fire-engine red hair off of her shoulder and dropped it to the floor by her feet.  She cocked her head at him.  “When was the last time you had sex?”

The colonel stared at her.  Against the air-lock, one of his crew stifled a giggle.

“Oh, I see,” Athenais said, reaching out to pat his rigid shoulder.  “You poor man.  Take me to your room, by all means.”

For a moment, Athenais thought he was going to shoot her again.  Instead, he turned on heel and marched her through the maze of corridors until he reached an obscure doorway at the end of a hall.  From her estimates, Renee Beckett was at least four times the size of Beetle.  Not impossible to storm, but not easy, either.  Especially if it was an S.O.-commissioned vessel.  Those bastards always had nasty little surprises up their sleeves.

“Inside,” Colonel Howlen ordered, opening the door.  Gesturing at the two crewmates who had followed at a distance, he ordered, “You two stay out here.  Make sure no one interrupts us.”

“Sounds romantic,” Athenais said.  “But I’m no fool.  That room’s got a lock only you can open.  You first.”

“You think I would break a truce…?”

“You already shot me once,” Athenais reminded him pleasantly, tapping her eye.

Howlen stiffened.  “I should have expected a space pirate to be unable to understand an honorable exchange.”  He stepped into the room and Athenais followed, standing near the door as he pushed LOCK in case he decided to lunge outside as he was doing so.

“Well,” she said, once they were alone.  “Tell me what you’ve got on me, Colonel.”  She eyed him over her shoulder.  “You must have something, otherwise you’d not be wasting your time.”

“I’ve got everything,” Howlen said.  “I’ve thoroughly researched your record and have over eighteen thousand charges I can bring to bear against you.  If you don’t cancel your deal with Governor Black, I will turn you over for judicial processing.”

Athenais yawned.  “That fountain is making me sleepy.”

Howlen’s face went blank.  It took him a moment to realize she was looking at his miniature waterfall.  After a moment of looking at it, he went on, “Serious charges.  Murder, sedition, kidnapping, racketeering—”

“Why don’t you have fish in your aquarium?”

Colonel Howlen’s face twitched.  “The last one died a month ago.  I haven’t had a chance to replace them.”

“PH imbalance?”

“Old age.”

“Hmm.”  Athenais walked over to the aquarium and tapped on the glass.  “Freshwater?”

The colonel stared at her.

Athenais dipped a pinkie and tasted it.  “What kind of fish?”

“I don’t know.”

She laughed.  “You don’t know?”

“They were black, orange, and white and got quite big.  Can we get back to the matter at hand?”

“Koi, most like.”

“What?”

“Koi.  I kept a few of ‘em once.  They’re good eatin’ if you run outta rations on a long trip.”  She picked a few more pieces of dislodged hair from around the wound Howlen had made, wincing at the baby-smooth skin of her scalp.  She hadn’t actually thought the prick would do it.  Now she’d have to wear a hat for awhile.

Flicking the hair into his trash receptacle, she said, “Besides, I didn’t kidnap Goat.  I hired him.  Eventually.  And I only murder people if they deserve it.  Usually I just drop ‘em off somewhere unpleasant and make off with all their worldly belongings.”

Colonel Howlen straightened.  “I have the clearance required to send your picture to every spaceport in all four quadrants.  You’ll never be able to run your ship through Utopian space ever again.”

“My dear, I don’t give a damn.”

“What?” he sputtered.

Athenais grinned.  “You’ve never read Gone with the Wind?”  She pulled an old, plastic-wrapped tome off of his bookcase.  “You’ve got it here on your shelf.”

Howlen gave her a stunned look.  For a long moment, he stared at the book in her hand.  Then, almost tentatively, “You read old literature?”

“Of course.  There’s nothin’ like a good Old Earth novel to pass the time.”  She put the book back and grinned at him.  “I always imagine I was a pirate captain, in another life.”

For the first time, she saw a flash of amusement on the colonel’s face before he wiped it away.  “I can have your face on every Wanted board in all—”

“Oh, leave it alone, will you?” Athenais snapped.  “You don’t think people like you have tried that before?  Yes, I’ve been caught.  Yes, they gave me all sorts of horrible sentences.  And yes, my father wipes my slate clean and sets me loose on the Utopia again.  So really, your threats are meaningless.  By all means, you can try, but as much as you’d like to, there’s not a damn thing you people can do to me.”

“So you’re hiding under your father’s protection.”

Athenais snorted.  “I’m shackled by his protection, more like.  Why do you think I joined the rebellions?  I’ve been waiting for someone to find a way to kill me.”

Something flashed across the Colonel’s face that Athenais couldn’t read.  Disbelief?  Pity?

“So here’s my proposal,” Athenais continued, ignoring him.  “Let me take a look at your cargo, make sure they’re still breathing, and I’ll put in a good word for you with the Governor.  As it is, he’s liable to kill you for being such a pain in the ass.”

“Why don’t you throw yourself into a sun or something?”

Athenais paused and gave the Colonel a raised eyebrow.  “Because everything else I’ve tried hasn’t worked, and who wants to be rooted in the center of a sun until it burns itself out?  I don’t really feel like taking that chance.”

“Surely you don’t believe that the Potion could last—”

“Surely I’m not about to find out.”

Howlen was silent for long moments as he considered that.  Then, for the first time, Athenais saw the mask of captain come off.  Almost softly, he said, “What do you want with these shifters?  Why are you paying the governor more than they’re worth?”

Athenais scoffed.  “They’re worth whatever I feel like paying.  One of them’s my friend.  And, since I’ve got loads of credits and only a few friends, I don’t mind shelling out a few bucks to save them now and then.”

“Your friend…” Howlen mused.  “The one who worked on your ship?”

Athenais nodded.  “I’d like to get him back.”

Howlen looked flabbergasted.  “You really did fall in love with him, then?  And you’re still willing to help him, even after you found out he was an alien?”

Athenais frowned.  “Who told you that?”  Had he started interrogations already?  The uptight, ruthless bastard.

The colonel shook himself, the hardass suddenly back in place.  “I’ll be releasing your information over the network unless you can convince Governor Black to withdraw.”

“Go ahead,” Athenais said.  “They’ll probably just think it’s a prank.”

His brown eyes hardened to polished jasper.  “Don’t make me use the shifters as hostages.”

Athenais smiled at him.  “You harm them and I will kill you and everyone on board this ship.”

“With that little yacht of yours?”  Howlen snorted.  “I don’t think so.”

“How about right now?” Athenais said, lifting her gun.

“There are twenty-nine people aboard this ship, woman.”

Athenais raised a brow.  “You say that like it’s a bad thing.  I was thinking more like sixty.  Jeez, this is gonna be a cakewalk.”

“There is only one of you,” Howlen growled.

“And only one captain,” Athenais reminded him.  “Like they say, cut off the head and the body just flops around.”

“I expected as much, dealing with a pirate,” he said, his face filled with disdain.  “That’s why I locked my copilot in the command room and gave her orders to vent the cargo bay into space if you fire your weapon.”

Athenais held her gun in place.  “I don’t need to fire it to kill you.”

“I specified you firing your weapon, but my copilot does think for herself and I doubt she’d be confused as to what to do if you, say, break my neck, instead.”

Athenais heaved an enormous sigh and holstered her Phoenix.  She glanced up at the ceiling.  “How much money do you want?”

“Excuse me?”

“For the shifters.  I’ll pay.”

“They’re not for sale.”

“I’m giving Governor Black twelve mil,” Athenais said.  “I’ll give you fifteen.”

“Get off my ship.”

“Oh come on,” Athenais said.  “Twenty.”

Now.”  Fury lighted his eyes.  He went to the door and opened it with a violent slap, gesturing through the portal in apparent disdain.

The bastard can’t be bought, Athenais realized, startled.  Very rarely had she ever met a creature that could not be bought.  Of those she had, most of them were alien.

Realizing she wasn’t going to get anything else out of him, Athenais shrugged and walked through the door, startling the two guards Howlen had placed there.  She brushed past them and made her way unassisted back through the maze of corridors to the airlock.  She opened it and stepped outside, right into the waiting arms of the Planetary Guard.



Wings of Retribution


Colonel Tommy Howlen endured the search of his ship and the seizure of his cargo, but when they arrested him several days later and threw him in the same cell as Captain Owlborne, he had to laugh.

“The Governor realized you were trying to go behind his back, did he?”

Athenais ignored him.  Her head hung between her knees and she looked pale.

“You know, he’s sold those shifters by now.  There’s more people out there than the Utopia looking to get their hands on shifters.”

Still, Captain Owlborne said nothing.  She was staring at a crack in the floor a few inches away from the bolt securing her ankle chains.

“What’s the matter?  All those millions you keep throwing around can’t buy you a ticket outta here?”

“They blew up Beetle,” Athenais said.

“Good for them.  One less pirate ship to worry about.”

Athenais looked up.  Her eyes were red.  “My crew was still on board.”

Tommy was a bit surprised at that.  Normally that was bad PR.  “You sure?”

“I didn’t have time to warn them,” the pirate whispered.  “Black had planned on blowing me up with them, but I was out talking to you.”

“Maybe he arrested them before he scuttled her,” Tommy said.  “They could be in the next cell down and you’d never—”

“No.  He killed them.  They found bodies.  Showed them to me.”  Her voice broke and she went silent.

“It’s what you get for being a pirate, I guess.”

Immediately, Howlen wished he hadn’t said it.  Athenais’s face contorted and she sank further in on herself, looking more miserable than any living creature Howlen had ever known.

“Where they sending you?” Tommy said.  “I’m sure you can buy your way off any planet with all the—”

“Erriat.”

Howlen looked away, disgusted with Governor Black.  “Erriat’s no place for a woman.”

“Exactly.  It’ll be a planet-to-planet exchange, so Black can leave me there as long as he wants without the Utopia or my father ever finding out about it.”

“I’ll make sure they know.”

“Don’t bother,” the pirate said softly.

Tommy thought about saying something, consoling her, but in the end, he held his tongue.  She’d spent her every breath since the inception of the Utopia generally wreaking havoc wherever she could, acting like a spoiled two-year-old.  That she was actually being made to sit and think about her wrongdoings was a little refreshing.

They came for Athenais the next day and she didn’t return.  Tommy found out through prison gossip that she had been shipped off to Erriat the very same afternoon.

His own problems, however, were just beginning.  After an unpleasant stay in the T-9 Corrections Facility, he was transferred into the hands of Utopian I.I. officers.  They interrogated him for three days, demanding to know why he hadn’t sent alerts to Millennium concerning his apprehension of three shifters, why he had stayed an extra week on T-9 instead of returning directly home, why he had allowed a suzait to escape and why he let the Governor know about it, why he had invited the pirate captain onto his ship and why he let her go afterwards.

In the end, they stripped him of rank, expelled him from the service, denied him retirement, and left him on T-9 without a penny to his name.  He took a job loading and unloading cargo for the spaceport just to make enough credits to survive, and bitterly waited for the storm to pass so he could snatch up a civilian job as a copilot or even a navigator.  Like he had done in the military, Tommy put his head down and pushed on forward, refusing to let the hopelessness of the situation get him frustrated.




Wings of Retribution

Dallas’s New Ride


Dallas was mopping up spilt coffee from under a booth when a thin, mustached man sat down at the table.

“In case you didn’t notice, sir,” she muttered to the pressed surface of the tabletop, “I’m still cleaning this one.  There’s plenty of other tables out there.  Take your pick.”  Then she winced, realized that if the little man complained, it would be yet another fifty credits from her paycheck.  She needed to buy a new pair of shoes this paycheck.  Her old ones were wearing through and her feet hurt.

To her surprise, the man smiled.  “Aye, there are.  But I’m meanin’ to talk to you.  Sit down, will you?”

Dallas stared at him.  The man looked well off.  He had a well-trimmed beard and his hair was styled.  His clothes bespoke quiet wealth, not flamboyant, but well cut and of solid earthtones.  The suit was cut just right to hide the fact he was actually pretty lean, though not unhealthily so.  He wore a set of shoes that could probably each buy their own small farmsteads, and the sunglasses sticking lazily from his front pocket looked like they were tastefully trimmed in black diamonds.

“You sure you got the right person?”

Without looking at her, he said, “Are you Dallas York, worked for the late Captain Athenais on the Beetle?” He picked at a wad of gum someone had thoughtfully mashed to the tabletop that afternoon.

Dallas’s eyes narrowed.  “What do you mean, ‘late’ Captain Athenais?”

“Well,” he said, snagging a toothpick from the little jar on the table, “she isn’t a captain anymore, for one.  Governor Black blew up Beetle while it was docked.  Her whole crew got wiped out.”  He cocked his head at her.  “Except you.”

“I wasn’t part of her crew no more,” Dallas muttered, but she found the new information hard to digest.  Goat, Dune, and Squirrel were all dead?  That…hurt.  More than she’d thought it would.

“I need a pilot and I heard that you’re the best to be had.”

Dallas stared at him, wondering if she was hallucinating.  She glanced at the used plates, looking for some sign the last occupants had left behind a cloud of tanga-weed.  When she could find nothing incriminating, she looked back up at him in confusion.  “Funny, I haven’t heard that.”

He flashed a dashing smile.  “You’re not listening in the right places.”

Okay, so this had to be some sort of joke.  She scowled at him, wadding up her wash-rag and slapping it to the table.  “Didn’t you get the memo?  Don’t it bother you that I almost got the whole crew killed?”

“The whole crew is dead, girl, and you had nothing to do with it.”  He retrieved something from one of his molars, then pulled it out to examine it on the end of his toothpick.

Dallas peered at him.  She was pretty sure Rob would pull a prank like this, just to get her to quit, but Rob couldn’t afford to deck the guy out in a suit that looked like some little Derknian kid had spent three years of his life hunched over in a sweatshop to get the weave tight enough that the cloth shone.  “So what are you?” she asked reluctantly.  “A pirate?”

“Not really.  Never was my thing.”  He flicked the toothpick into her bussing tub and smiled up at her, clasping his fingers together on the tabletop.  “Most of the time, I dabble in real estate.”

“So what?” Dallas asked.  “You need a chauffeur for your own private shuttle or somethin?”

He snorted.  “No, I have those.”  He grinned, and for a moment, Dallas thought the little man seemed somehow familiar.  “No, Miss York, I’m putting together a crew for a spaceship.”

“What kind of spaceship?”

“The unlawful kind.”

“You mean a pirate ship.”

“Not quite.  Sit down, will you?  You’re making people stare.”

Dallas glanced over her shoulder.  Rob was eying her suspiciously.  She could see another hundred credits coming off her paycheck and she sighed.   So much for those shoes.  But she sat.

“What you want me to do?”

“Captain my ship, of course.”

She blinked at him.  “Ain’t you gonna captain it?”

He laughed.  “Heavens, no.  I’m a mere layman when it comes to flying.  I can do it, but not with the skill we’re going to require.”

“Skill?”  Dallas leaned forward, interested.  “What you plannin’ on doin?”

“I want to rescue a friend of mine off of Erriat.”

Dallas’s eyebrows raised and she snorted.  “Good luck.”

“Now, dear, don’t make it sound so grim,” he said, patting her hand.  “I’ll have the best pilot in the Quadrants flying my ship.”

Dallas looked him up and down.  Those who violated Erratian skies, and were caught, stayed on Erriat.  “Says who?”

“Says three thousand credits a week, as well as complete command of your own ship.”  The man gave another dashing smile and spread his hands.  “You can even tell me what to do, as long as it’s reasonable.”

Dallas had a hard time making her tongue work.  “Twelve thousand a month?  That’s more than I get in a yea—”  Then she frowned.  “You’re coming?”  Generally, the rich snobs dropped money, pointed a finger, told others to go do their dirty work for them.  That he was willing to go along was almost alarming.  “You’ve got an awful lot of confidence in someone you never met—”

“Dallas, we aren’t paying you to talk.”  Rob had snuck up behind her and was glaring at her with furious, piggish eyes.  “There’s still coffee on the floor there and there.”  He pointed.

“Wipe it up, then,” Dallas said, tossing him the mop.

“Don’t make me discipline you in front of a customer,” Rob said.

“Don’t worry,” the mustached man said.  “I’m not buying anything.”

  Rob turned purple.  “Then I’m afraid I must ask you to leave.”  He straightened, towering over the smaller man.

“Ask all you want,” the man said, turning back to Dallas, completely unconcerned.  “I’ll leave when I’m ready.”

“Like Hell,” Rob snarled, reaching in to grab him.

With one hand, and without getting out of his booth, the wiry man placidly had Rob kneeling on the floor, wrist twisted around and under him, babbling apologies.  The whole exchange had been too fast to see, and Dallas scooched backwards in her booth, wide-eyed.

“Now,” the man said, leaning forward to cock his head sideways at Rob, “Are you going to be a good host and spare us your genetically underprivileged presence while I chat with my friend, here?”  He smiled and plucked a soapy knife from the tub Dallas had been using to collect dishes.  “Or, say, am I going to have to remove a few of your fingers to get better service?  It’s not like an ape like you plays piano much, I would imagine, so you’ll hardly miss them.”

Rob screamed his apologies, and Dallas cringed under the gaze of every patron in the restaurant.

“There there,” the man said, patting Rob on the head with the hand holding the knife.  “Do go run along and disturb someone else, eh?  My time is actually worth quite a lot of money.”  A moment later, he released Rob’s hand, and Rob went careening backwards, then rolled and scrabbled on his hands and knees to get to the other side of the restaurant.  When he stopped against an opposite booth, staring at his attacker in horror, the man made a shooing gesture with the knife.

Rob gave Dallas a look that boded poorly for her future as a waitress and lurched to his feet.  Sneakers squeaking against the coffee-stained linoleum, he ran off.  Or, at least trundled.  With his copious rolls of fat, he was about as good at running as a walrus was at the high-jump.

Dallas winced, turning back to the man.  “That was a bad idea.”

“He’s a joke,” the man said.  He set the knife down and reached out for another toothpick.  “So, about the job…”  He pulled the pick from the dispenser and gestured at her with it.  “I’m sure you have questions.”

“I’ll take it.”

The wiry little man raised a brow.  “You don’t want to meet the crew or take a look at the ship first?”

“You picked me,” Dallas said, taking off her apron, “so you must have an eye for quality.”  She wadded it up and hurled it across the restaurant, where it landed in a patron’s bowl of pea soup.

The man grinned, watching the apron soak up the green slime.  “I like you.  I can see why Athenais gave you the boot.”

Dallas blinked.  “You can?”

“Yeah.  You two are a lot alike.”

“You knew her?”  Dallas’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“She frequented my establishment once in awhile.”

“Hmph,” Dallas said, eying him.  “As long as you weren’t friends or anything.  I don’t want anything to do with that frigid bitch the rest of my life.”

“I’d heard as much.”  The man sucked on the toothpick, his gray eyes calculating as he watched her.  “I guess now would be a bad time to tell you—”  His eyes caught on Rob and the three big goons he’d dragged in from the back kitchens and her new benefactor paused, sighing.  “Give me a moment.”

“That’s the one,” Rob growled.  “Assaulted me.  Acting like he owns the joint.  Get him out of here.  He’s disrupting my guests.”

Still seated placidly, her prospective employer raised a brow.  “I’m having a quiet conversation, and you interrupted.”  He grinned.  “And what I can do once, I can surely do again.”  He rhythmically tapped the knife with his fingers.

“She ain’t paid to talk,” Rob growled, grabbing Dallas by the arm and roughly pulling her from the booth with a grip that was sure to leave a bruise.  He nodded at the others.  “Out in the alley.  Give ‘im a little extra attention for his time.”

As the three kitchen goons started to reach for him, the wiry little man actually laughed.  “I’m sorry.  If the four of you don’t mind, could you read to me the little patch you’ve got embroidered on your shirt, just above the nametag?”

The three thugs hesitated, looking to Rob uncertainly.  Rob glanced at them, then at his shirt.  Stupidly, he said, “Says ‘Trevvitt.’”

“Oh, right,” the man said.  “Sorry, I didn’t bring my glasses with me.  Maybe you can tell me what this one says, too?”  He reached into his pocket.

“Don’t let the joker pull a gun!” Rob growled.

“Boys,” the man said calmly, “if I’d wanted you dead, I could do it from here, without even getting up.”  He calmly pulled out a slim metal box and flipped it open.  Pulling out a business card from where they were neatly stacked inside, he dropped it on the table in front of them and slid it to the edge of the table so they could see it.  “Refresh my memory a second.  What’s that last name, there?  The one that begins with ‘T’?”  He tapped the card with his index finger.

“Oh shit,” the head cook blurted.  He stumbled backwards, babbling.  The other two—dishwashers that liked to grab Dallas’s ass when she walked by to dump off her tub—backed up with him.

Rob snorted.  “Let me see tha—”  He reached for the card.

Lightning-fast, the man snatched up the knife and drove it through Rob’s hand, pinning her manager’s palm firmly to the table.  Leaning forward into the man’s startled face, he said, “And I heard about your sticky fingers, there, Robert.  I’ll have my guys pay you a visit later, if that’s all right with you.”  He slapped the man on his fleshy black and stood.

As Rob started screaming, Mr. Trevvitt yawned and gestured to Dallas.  “Shall we?  I’d like to show you your new home.”

Dallas swallowed, eyes on the knife.  “Sure thing, boss,” she said.

He led her out to Hub G and, with a brief nod at the attendant, entered the first-class docking section without ID.  That, in itself, should have given Dallas pause, but she was too busy staring through the windows at the beauties on the other side.  Multi-million credit megayachts lounged on the other side, waiting for their captain’s pleasure.

And one of them was hers.  Dallas knew her mouth was open because a drop of drool hit her wrist.  It was all she could do not to leave greasy finger-prints along the windows as she ran to each one, gaping.

“There she is,” the man said, stopping and nodding through the portholes at a marvel of engineering that, beside the yachts, looked like a horny little lizard crouched amongst birds of paradise.

Dallas’s breath caught.  “That’s a warplane,” she breathed.  “Custom warplane.”

Her patron nodded.  “Sleek, fast, comfortable accommodations for eight.  Enough guns to blow a hole through T-9.”

Dallas tore her eyes away from the porthole, her elation fading.  “This is a joke.”

The mustached man laughed and pressed a thumb into the scanner beside him.  The door opened.  Above it, Dallas read the Hub’s little LED display, Retribution.  She glanced back out the porthole, tracing the path down the tube from the open door to the ship’s airlock with her eyes, still in disbelief.

“You coming?”  The mustached man stood in the entrance.

Dallas followed him in a daze.

In the next two hours, she determined that, yes, it was a warship.  Yes, it had guns.  Yes, it was completely real.

Dallas felt like smacking her forehead against the solid titanium walls to see if she was somehow daydreaming.

The next few days passed and three more crewmembers appeared, one an ominous, black-bearded giant with a big scar down one cheek, another a scruffy, wide-shouldered man who smelled of alcohol.  The last came in a day later, and Dallas could tell he was a man of a different cut.  He looked almost stately as he took up position at the navigator’s console, though he did seem to be a bit perturbed that he wasn’t at the pilot’s seat.  They set off just as soon as the third man was aboard.

Dallas still did not know anything about her employer or his mission, but as soon as she was behind the controls of the sleek, beautiful ship, she frankly didn’t care.  Retribution was everything she could have hoped for.  When she pressed on the throttle, the ship leapt forward as easily as a lightwave.  When she tested out the guns on a stray bit of spacerock, the dust that resulted was finer than sand.  She would have given her soul to pilot a ship like Retribution, back when she was bussing tables and trying to pocket any stray credits before Rob could take his cut.  Now, not only was she flying a warplane, but she was getting paid to do it.  Dallas was in paradise.

And to sweeten the deal, Retribution wasn’t even haunted.



Wings of Retribution


The crew had gathered in the mess hall for dinner and Stuart had been watching their captain pick at her food for almost twenty minutes before Dallas finally said, “So, Mr. Trevvitt, when are ya gonna tell me who we’re rescuing?”

Every head came up.  Stuart glanced at Rabbit to gauge his reaction, but the little man looked as calm as ever.  He was leaning back in his chair, stockinged feet on the dining table, flipping through a nudie file on his handheld.  ‘Talent scouting,’ he called it.

“I mean,” Dallas continued, “You treat it like it’s some sort of secret or something.  What’d he do to land on Millennium, anyway?  You all act like you’re afraid I won’t help you if I find out who he is.”

Rabbit grunted.  “She’s pretty.”  He twisted the handheld so Stuart could see it.

“She has average lines,” Stuart agreed.

Directly across the table from them, as far from Rabbit as he could get, Tommy Howlen muttered something under his breath.  More than once, Tommy had bluntly asked Rabbit to do his ‘scouting’ somewhere else.

More than once, Rabbit had very politely declined.

Making a face at Stuart’s comment, Rabbit retrieved his handheld.  “How would you know a good woman, anyway?  Average.”  He scoffed, looking at the picture.

Stuart shrugged.  “Science says that averages are the key to beauty.”

“Science can screw itself on a lightpole,” Rabbit said.  He held up the girl to Darley and pointed.  “She look average to you?”

Darley whistled.

On the other side of the table, Tommy jammed his fork into his potatoes a little too hard.  Stuart nervously glanced at the former colonel, who had taken to ironing his shirts and bathing before every dinner.

Their captain watched their exchange with a pleading expression.  “Come on, guys.  You can tell me.  What, is he a baby-killer or something?  A rapist?  Believe me, there’s nothing he could have done to make me give up this ship.”

Rabbit shifted forward and brought the chair back level with a thud.  “She’s never killed babies, as far as I know.  Though she has an unreasonable intolerance for them.”  He held up another woman for Stuart to see.  “There’s a nice one,” he said.  “Gotta love freckles.”  He lowered the handheld again and continued flipping through the images.  To Dallas, he said, “Though I’m pretty sure she’s raped a few people.  Quite a few, actually.  She had a few…rough…years, there for awhile.”  He held up the handheld to Stuart again.  “Fake,” he said.

Dallas’s brow furrowed.  “They don’t send girls to Erriat.”

“They sent this one.”

The way Dallas’s face dropped was almost comical.  “It’s Athenais, isn’t it?”

“Oh, wow, those are real,” Rabbit said.  He reached for his tablet and the list of names he had begun accumulating since they’d sat down.  Picking up a pen, he added another to the list.

Tommy cleared his throat a little too loudly.

That’s where I know you from,” Dallas cried.  “You’re Rabbit.  You gave me that coin in the hub.  You grew a beard.”

“Technically, it’s a mustache, dear.”  He turned to Stuart.  “You know, with a different haircut, she could make a killing,” Rabbit said, holding up another girl.  “She could start at a couple thousand a night, if she went low.”

Stuart nodded absently, watching the captain.  For a moment, she looked like she might scream.  She even went so far as to suck in a huge breath and tilt her head toward the ceiling, but she only let it out slowly through her teeth.  When she lowered her head, she looked utterly defeated.  “So as soon as we rescue her, you’re handing her over command of the ship, is that it?  So she can dump me on the first planet we come to?”

“The ship’s yours,” Rabbit said distractedly.  He was writing down another name, this one with a star behind it.

Dallas narrowed her eyes.  “Mine?  Really?  So I can tell her to clean the privy if she pisses me off?”

“Whatever you feel is suitable.”  Rabbit had picked up his personal communicator—which contained a state-of-the-art, high-powered transmitter that made the lights flicker when he switched it on—and was placing a call.

Malicious glee danced in Dallas’s eyes in between the flicker of the overheads.  “I’ll let her cook, maybe wait tables for a few months.”

“Whatever you deem appropriate,” he said distractedly.  “Yeah, Huan?  Okay, found another one…”

As Rabbit held a brief conversation with whoever was on the other line, Dallas continued, “Think I’ll let her go a few rounds in the air-lock and have her clean up her own vomit when she’s done.  With her tongue.”

Rabbit flipped his phone shut and dropped it back into his front pocket.  “As you wish.”

“She can starve on baked beans and leftovers.”

“Absolutely.”

“She can wear skimpy shorts that show her buttcheeks and have all the guys grabbing her ass while she’s trying to work.”

Reaching for his handheld again, Rabbit said, “I don’t believe Athenais has very becoming buttcheeks, but you are certainly welcome to try.”  He switched his handheld off and tucked it back into its case.

Dallas laughed.  “This is going to be so much fun.”

Neatly setting his handheld atop his tablet, Rabbit cleared his throat.  “Since we’ve reached the discovery portion of tonight’s entertainment, let me introduce myself and the crew.  I am Rabbit.  I believe you’ve heard of me.”

“You own that place with Giggles, right?”

“The Shop, yes.  This here is Darley, my most loyal customer.”

“Don’t forget a damn good mechanic,” Darley muttered.

“He found out Athenais was headed to Erriat and I had to bring him along or he would have gone by himself.”

“Spent two centuries workin’ the mines there.  Ain’t no place for a woman.”

Dallas snorted.

Darley gave Dallas a hard look.  “You’re just a child.  You couldn’t imagine it.”

Poor Dallas took the bait.  “Is it worse than mopping floors for two months and having customers slap your ass when you walk by and getting fined when you punch ‘em for it?”

Stuart had to resist the urge to slap his forehead into his palm.

Hearing her response, Darley cackled and stood up.  They could still hear his peals of laughter well after he left the mess hall.

“An’ him?” Dallas said, nodding at Tommy.

“I’m Thomas,” he said stiffly.

“Well, you certainly got a stick up your butt about something, Tommy,” Dallas said.  “Think you know piloting better ‘n I do.”  She looked him up and down.  “Lemme guess.  Corps.  Officer.  Forcibly retired.  Maybe even had your own ship, for awhile.”

“I’d rather not talk about it,” Tommy said, jamming his fork back into his potatoes.

“Oh yeah?” Dallas blundered on.  “What rank didja get before you washed out?  Lieutenant?  Captain?”

“Colonel.”

Stuart wanted to bury his face in his hands.  The poor girl was clueless, and had as much tact as a perky blonde battlecruiser.

Dallas sniffed.

“How about you, girl?” Tommy said, grinding his teacup on the tabletop as he stared down at it, twisting.  “I recognize your preflight procedures.  Academy-trained.  Probably made, what, captain, before you washed out?”

Turning from Tommy, Dallas jabbed a thumb at Stuart.  “What about that useless teat?”

Stuart flinched, feeling the sudden desire to crawl under the table.

“You said you were getting the best, but he doesn’t know his ass from a com set.  Like he’s not even trained.”  She lowered her hand and gave Rabbit a disgusted look.  “You got all the money in the world but can’t even hire a decent com tech?  Why’d ya even bring him along?”

“What I want to know,” Tommy interrupted, jerking a thumb at Dallas, “is why this little twit got the captaincy, while I’m stuck with navigator.”

“She’s better than you,” Rabbit said absently, shutting down his tablet.  Then, to Dallas, he added, “Oh, and Stu’s a suzait.”

Both Dallas and Tommy jerked.  Stuart blushed, looking down at his host’s hands under their stares.

“Well, I’m off to bed,” Rabbit said cheerfully.  “Wake me when I need to take up shift.”  He got up and, tucking his belongings under an arm and taking his plate with the other, left the mess hall.

As he did, Dallas stared at Stuart, open-mouthed.  Across from her, Tommy’s face was a building thunderhead.

As soon as Rabbit was out of hearing, Colonel Howlen slammed a fist down on the table loud enough to make Stuart’s plate jump.  “So you’re the little worm that killed Corporal Koff?”

Shame hit Stuart like a filthy fist to the gut.  While he had not killed Pete directly, the corporal wouldn’t have died without Stuart’s intervention, and Stuart looked away.  Softly, he said, “He was alive when I released him.  Dallas can attest to that.  Athenais let him use her regen room.  Flew in her ship back to T-9.  Died with the rest of her crew.”

Pete?”  Dallas looked ill.  “Pete had a…had you…and he…”  She lowered her voice to a hard whisper and leaned forward.  “…he was so normal.”  Then she cocked her head.  “Well, aside from the droopy face.  Thought that was just a stroke or something.”

“That does it,” Howlen snapped.  He stood up, throwing his chair backwards in a screech of metal.  “Listening to a pompous little airhead dictate orders she barely has the qualifications to understand is bad enough, but I refuse to be on the same ship with this…”  He paused, utter distaste filling his dark eyes.  Twisting his face in a sneer, he finished, “…maggot.”

Stuart scowled up at him.  “For a former Species Operations officer, you aren’t very informed.”

Dallas whirled to stare at Tommy.  “You were S.O.?”  She laughed.  “Oh, that totally explains it.”

“This worm cost me my job,” Tommy snarled.

Stuart snorted.  “Really?  If I hadn’t escaped, I would have been sold to the highest bidder like my friends.”

“If your captain hadn’t intervened, I would have gotten them all safely to Millennium.”

Stuart actually lost control of his host’s jaw muscles.  “S…Safe?” he sputtered.  “They would’ve tore me open under a microscope and stuck me in a jar of brine.”

Hate filled Tommy’s features when he said, “Exactly where you belong, maggot.  You’re in the Quadrants illegally.  You gave up all your rights as soon as you left the Black.”

Stuart snorted.  “I was born in the Quadrants.  Never even been to the Black.  I bonded with my first harran host twenty years before humans ever landed on Mitaan.  Hell, my people were living here long before your kind even crashed on Millennium.  You ask me, we should throw you in a cage.  You’re the ones who don’t belong here.”

Tommy jabbed a thick finger at him.  “Don’t you dare get all self-righteous on me, parasite.  I’ve seen what your kind will do to the rest of us, given their ‘freedom.’”

Stuart clenched his fists under the table.  “You’re bigoted and ignorant.  If you knew even a fraction of my people’s history, you’d understand that—”

“Your people?  Don’t fool yourself.  You’re not a human.  You’re an insect.  A spineless, disgusting bug.  I could squish you with my thumb.”

Stuart was so angry he was shaking.  He stood up.  Before Howlen could react, he grabbed his arm and released his stored energy into him.  The Colonel froze, eyes wide, then collapsed into a twitching mass on the floor beside the table.  When Stuart released the man’s arm, he was shaking all over.  Never before had he wanted to take a host out of sheer anger.  He stared down at Howlen’s petrified face and considered it, knowing that it would be the greatest horror the S.O. officer could ever face, knowing he deserved every minute of it.

With an effort, he turned from the helpless man and slumped back into his chair.

Dallas was standing several paces away from the table and staring at Colonel with wide eyes.  “What did you do?”

“It’s just a little electricity,” Stuart said tiredly.  “He’ll be fine.”

She didn’t seem too convinced.  “So you’re an alien?”

“Well, I certainly don’t have tasers built into my palms.”  Stuart sighed and leaned his elbows against the table, putting his head in his hands.  He had known the rest of the crew would find out eventually, but he really wish Rabbit would’ve warned him.

Beside him, Howlen twitched the first three fingers on his left hand.

“Can I…see?”  Dallas had sidled closer to him.

Stuart lifted his head to look up at her suspiciously.  “See what?”

“Uh…”  His captain licked her lips.  “You?”

Stuart snorted and returned his gaze to the tabletop.

Seeing he wasn’t interested, she squatted beside him.  “Oh, come on,” she pleaded, sounding like a kid outside a sweets shop.  “This is prolly the only chance I’ll ever get to see a real live suzait.”

“Maybe later.”

“Please?  I think it’s cool.”

Without lifting his head, Stuart gave her a sideways look.  “You won’t think it’s cool when I crawl out of his ear,” he muttered.

“Yes I will,” she insisted.  “Show me.  That’s an order?”

Stuart gave her a long look, bemused.  Then he glanced at Howlen, who had drooped into unconsciousness on the floor.  He winced, realizing he might have overdid it on the juice.  Getting out of his chair again, he squatted beside the former colonel.

Checking the man’s pulse with one hand, Stuart gestured at Tommy’s face with the other, “He’s seen my kind before.  Look at his reaction.”

Dallas’s face twisted.  “He’s a prude.”

Satisfied his heart hadn’t stopped, Stuart dropped Howlen’s arm and stood up.  He let his confusion show.  “You mean the idea of having something burrowing into your brain doesn’t really frighten or repulse you?”

She made a face at him.  “Well, you’re not in my brain, now are you?”  Then she snorted.  “And why would you want to be?  I’m five-foot and can’t do more than half a dozen pushups.”  Gesturing at Earl, she said, “The hunk you’re in right now is a monster.”

Stuart grinned despite himself.  “Hunk, huh?”  He glanced at Howlen, decided he was out for the night, then sighed.  “Okay, but just a quick peek.”

“Awesome!” Dallas cried, for all the world sounding like Stuart had offered to let her fly in the next Void Rally above Millennium.

A little mystified by her reaction, Stuart reluctantly lowered himself to the floor.  Dallas immediately squatted by his head, staring intensely at his ear canal.

“Do you mind?” Stuart said, turning to look up at her.  “I get kinda paranoid.”

“Oh, sorry,” Dallas said, blushing.  She hurriedly got up and backed up ten feet.  “Better?”

“Yeah.”  Stuart stretched himself and, while maintaining a firm grip on his host’s brain, slid halfway out into the light.  The dim shape across the room moved a little and Stuart realized she had moved closer, regardless.  He got the idea she was peering down at him like some new and interesting insect.  He gave her a few seconds, then burrowed back into his den.  He reconnected with his host’s brain and opened his eyes.

Dallas was squatting above him grinning.  “You’re kinda cute.”

Stuart sat up and shook off the momentary vertigo from reengagement.  “Cute?”  He started flexing his joints to make sure he had re-established all the proper connections.

“Yeah.  Like an inside-out sucker-fish, but with puppydog eyes.”

Stuart stopped flexing.  “You can’t be serious.”

“You’re not very big.” She continued, eyes bright with interest.  “How do you think straight?  Your brain must be the size of a pea.”  She was leaning forward and peering into one eyeball, now, almost like she was trying to see him back there, at the controls.

Stuart cleared his throat and backed up until he could see her clearly with both of his host’s eyes.  “I don’t have a brain.”

“You don’t?”  Now she was peering at the hole in his host’s ear canal.  Speaking to the hole, she said, “What do you have?”

Twisting so she was looking at his host’s face again, Stuart said, “I have no ‘ears,’ naturally, and you saw my eyes—they can perceive light and dark and little else—so it’s best to hold a discussion with me through my host’s senses, not try to yell at me through the hole I made on entry.”

“Oh.”  Dallas pursed her lips, squinting at the top of Earl’s forehead.  He could almost see her trying to envision him sitting in a tiny metal chair perched in the cerebral cleft, running arms and legs and facial patterns on levers and buttons and joysticks in the same way she flew Retribution.  “So you’re borrowing that guy’s brain to think, too?”

Stuart winced at the idea.  “No.  I can think quite clearly without his help, thank you.”

She raised an eyebrow.  “So you do have a brain.”

Stuart sighed.  Humans.  If it wasn’t developed, discovered, or mutated as a natural part of their evolution, they simply couldn’t comprehend it.  “Let me see if I can say this plainly.  I’m made up of nerves and fluid, and each drop of fluid can store more information than your entire human brain.”

“Whoa.”  She didn’t flinch back, argue, or otherwise get insulted, either, which was both surprising and refreshing.  Instead, she just reached up and tapped his host’s skull.  “So you’re like what, fifty of us, all balled up into one gray little blob?”

“Something like that,” Stuart admitted.  “Unfortunately, the rest of my capacity is limited to that of my host.  Humans, for instance, have very acute visual organs, as well as a large verbal command, but you have very little in the way of telepathy or other senses.”

She stared at him for a long time, then blurted, “That is so cool!”

Stuart glanced at Howlen, who represented the whole of human civilization.  “You’re the first one I’ve met to think so.”  With a sigh, he reclaimed his seat at the table.

Immediately, Dallas dragged over a chair and sat down with her arms crossed over the back, facing him.  For a long moment, she just sat there, looking.  After a few minutes had passed, Stuart eyed her warily.  He was about to ask her what she wanted when she spoke.

“So how old are you?” Dallas finally asked.

Feeling a bit leery, he said, “Little under five thousand.”

“Whoa,” she whispered.  “That’s old.”  Again, no denial, disbelief, no outraged claims that he was lying.  Just…acceptance.

Stuart watched her carefully.  She was either very good at faking interest, or she was completely honest in her awe.  Considering her tactless remarks from earlier, he guessed it was probably the latter.  He was…humbled.

She squeaked her chair closer.  “So how long can you live?”

“Uh, well, indefinitely, as long as I’ve got a host.”

“Where were you born?”

“Mitaan.”

“Never heard of it.”

“Humans called it Arachni.  Apparently, they thought the harra looked like very large spiders, despite their similarities to mammals.”

“Huh,” Dallas said.  “Never heard of it.  So you had a mom and a dad or just a mom or what?”

Stuart peered at her, thoroughly perplexed that she seemed so thoroughly engrossed.  “My parent deposited me in a colony bed.  I grew up in a natural organic medium before a harra came to feed and we decided we’d make a good host-set.”

Harra?” she asked.  He doubted she understood half of what he was saying, but it didn’t make her interest waver in the slightest.  “Those spider-thingies?  They were smart, too?”

“They’re dead,” Stuart said.  “They were killed off millennia ago, with the One Species charter.”

“So you went human?” Dallas asked, scooting even closer to him.  “I bet that was tough.”

Stuart remembered that horrible terror all over again and groaned.  “It was.  I didn’t know what I was doing.  He’d just killed my harra.  Big-game hunter.  Was gutting her out, gonna hang the head on his wall.  I shocked him, but he didn’t fall close enough, so I had to crawl over the ground—”  He broke off, shuddering.  He glanced at Dallas, who was watching him, blue eyes wide.  “Do you really care about all this?”

She nodded quickly, mouth open.

“Shouldn’t you be flying the ship?”

Dallas jerked, then glanced at her watch.  Seeing the time, she sighed.  “Yeah.  Come with me to the command room?”

Stuart wasn’t quite sure to make of the captain’s enthusiasm.  So used to S.O. plots and bounty-based backstabbing, he had to wonder if she was trying to get him alone so she could gas him or something.  “I suppose…”

“Great!  Let’s go.”  She got out of her seat and stretched.  “I’ve gotta get back before the autopilot timer runs out.”

“What happens when the timer runs out?”

Dallas shrugged.  “The mainframe overloads, stops searching out debris and we slam into a space-rock.”

“How much time we got?”

She glanced again at her watch.  “Two minutes.”

The tiny hairs on the back of Stuart’s neck lifted.  “You should get going.”

“Only if you’re coming with me.  I still wanna know how you…you know.”  She gestured at his host’s crotch.

“I already told you.  The parent leaves a pupae in its last host and it develops there.”

“But how?  Do you have males and females?  Can you all do it?  Do you have to be a certain age to do it, or can you just decide to do it?  Does there have to be two of you to do it properly?  Or four?  Or what?”

Stuart realized his mouth was hanging open.  He grabbed her arm and started walking toward the command room.  “First of all, while I detest Tommy’s approach, we do share a lot of similar attributes to a human earthworm.  Namely, we can replicate ourselves at will, or, if we’re feeling really frisky, we can dual-host to exchange memories and genetic material with another of our kind.”

Memories?” she said, stopping abruptly.

In reply, Stuart thrust Dallas into the pilot’s seat and said, “How much time?”

Dallas glanced reluctantly at the controls, then yelped and yanked up on the stick so hard that the artificial gravity of the ship couldn’t compensate.  It knocked Stuart to the floor, where he lay for long minutes while the entire ship shook with seismic energy.  When Stuart got back to his feet, Dallas gave him a guilty look.

“Don’t even say it,” Stuart said, taking the navigator’s chair.

“Say what?”

“How close we came to dying.  I don’t wanna hear it.”

“Bah, it was only a couple of meters.”

Stuart paled.

“Anyway, you were telling me about getting frisky.”

“I told you already.  What more do you want?”

“I don’t know, just start talking?”  She gave him a pleading look.

“Watch the screen,” Stuart ordered.

“But…”

“I’ll keep talking, but only if it’s not gonna distract you.”

She pouted, but turned back to face the screen.  Immediately, she made another course adjustment that left the hull creaking.

“Okay,” she said breathlessly, “You can talk now.”

Against his better judgment, Stuart said, “If we want to reproduce, we leave little parts of ourselves behind.  I guess you humans would call it an egg, but it’s not really an egg.  It takes part of our memories and stored knowledge with it.  Kind of like if I cut a piece off of a human brain and hooked it up to a robot.”

“That is so cool,” she said, turning to him.

“Screen,” Stuart warned.

“Okay, okay,” she said, scanning the field once more.  “So where are the rest of you?  How many are left?”

Stuart’s eyes narrowed.  Now that was a question he’d heard quite a few times, and never from friends.  “Why do you want to know?” he asked evenly.

“And if it’s that easy for you to make more of yourself, you must’ve made all sorts of little Stueys all over the galaxy.”  She grinned up at him.  “Right?”

Again, Stuart got that creepy sensation that the girl was either a masterful spy…or completely genuine.  “Watch the screen,” he muttered.

“So when this is over and we’ve dumped Athenais somewhere, you wanna go meet up with some of your friends?” she asked.  “Maybe they’d let me buy ‘em a drink.”

“Aside from that being the last thing a suzait would let a stranger do,” Stuart said, “I don’t have any friends.”

She frowned up at him.  “Why not?”

Completely innocent.  Completely oblivious.

Stuart’s gut twisted in shame as he said, “I’m one of the last of my kind.”

To his surprise, she slapped her hand against the control panel.  “So that’s why nobody’s claimed the thirty-five million in awhile.  You’re almost wiped out.”

Stuart gave her a narrow look.  “What do you know about thirty-five million?”

“I was surfing the infoscreen awhile ago and saw it.  Thought that was an awful lot for a four-inch-long wormy-lookin thing.”

“I’m not a worm,” he prickled.

“Didn’t say you were.  Said you looked like one.”

“You said I looked like an inside-out sucker-fish with puppydog eyes.”

“That too.”

They lapsed into silence for long minutes before Stuart said, “We can’t get into Marceau’s complex without the shifters, so Rabbit wants to go after them as soon as we have Athenais.”

She heaved a huge sigh.  “Figured as much.”

“He thought you’d be angry.”

“I’m not angry.  Why should I be?  I have no beef with them.  It was Athenais that dumped me on T-9 like a spacerat.”

Stuart said nothing.

“So you were around the Quads before the humans came?”

“The harra didn’t have the dexterity to build anything more than basic huts.”  Even saying that hurt.  “If they had, the war would have had a much different outcome, I assure you.”

“Oh,” she said.  “What war?”

Stuart stared at her.  She’s too young to even know about the war.

And, jumping topics at an alarming pace, she added, “So you guys got to space by hopping a ride with us?”  She looked at him, grinning.  “That must’ve been cool.  What’d ya think, seeing a ship for the first time?”

“I thought it was an unnatural monstrosity that defied the very will of the gods, and watch the screen.”

“Okay.”  She looked at him again.  “So what was it like, before we showed up?”

“I lived in a hut.”

“Come on.”

“Why do I have to do all the talking?”

“Because there’s nothing interesting about me to talk about.  I’m only thirty-four.  Haven’t had enough time to do anything cool.”

“Before Marceau, most humans didn’t live past eighty.”

She peered at him.  “That’s baloney.”

He shrugged.  “Look it up, if you want.  If they even still have the documentation.”

She sniffed, obviously more irritated with his claim that humans had the life-cycles of bacteria, galactically speaking, than the fact that a suzait’s wormlike body held enough intellectual firepower to mow down a small town.

“Thirty-four years is a lot of time for interesting stuff to happen,” Stuart said, as a peace offering.

Dallas snorted, looking utterly depressed.  “I graduated Academy, flew for the Utopia in a ghost ship, and took up as Athenais’s copilot when I got dropped for disobedience.  Oh, and then Athenais dropped me for being a snitch and I was a waitress for a few months.  Yeah, real amazing stuff, right there.”

“A ghost ship?”  Stuart frowned at the term.  “Is that a warship?”

Dallas laughed.  “No.  It’s a ship.  Filled with ghosts.  The kind that sit up in bed and have their heads do a three-sixty on their shoulders while chanting, ‘get off my ship.’”

Stuart pursed his lips.  “How long did you fly it?”

“Two years.”

“That must have been an eternity.”

“It was.”  She gave him a shocked look.  “You believe in ghosts?”

“Absolutely.  It’s one of the few psychic fields in which humans seem to excel—messy, violent deaths.  What happened on that ship to leave it haunted?”

“Never did find that out.”  Dallas shuddered.  “Don’t really want to know, either.”

“I can check,” he said, reaching for the console.  “What was the name?”

Dallas scowled at him.  “I said I didn’t want to know.”

“I do.  Watch the screen.”

Bloody Mary,” Dallas muttered.

“Sounds promising,” he said, typing it in.  In moments, he had his answer.

“Captain George Yuma,” he recited.  “Was forcibly retired after a hundred and sixteen years as captain.  He refused to step down.  He defied orders, flew his ship out to empty space, and murdered his crew.  An exploration squad found it thirty years later, the corpses frozen inside.  Perfectly preserved.  They re-named it Bloody Mary because the captain left a note on the wall of the air-lock, written in blood.  Said he’d walk the place forever, and if anybody else tried to take his ship away from him, and would haunt the next captain all the way to his tomb.”

“Damn it, why’d you hafta tell me that?!”

“Oh, don’t worry,” Stuart said.  “The next captain died of a heart-attack a few weeks after taking command.  Oh, and the one after that keeled over in his pea soup, three months into his commission.  Stroke.”

Dallas went pale.  Her knuckles bone-white where they clung to the stick.  “I said I didn’t want to know,” she managed.

“Hmm,” he said, “Well, if it makes you feel any better, Bloody Mary was scrapped right after you took another commission.  And oh, look!  Retribution is using a refurbished version of the Bloody Mary’s intercom in the captain’s chambers.”

Dallas turned green.

“I’m kidding.  You were the first commission, after the murders.”

She swallowed and stared down at her debris screen.

“You need to lighten up.  Ghosts can’t hurt you.”

“They can’t?” Dallas demanded.  “What about hovering knives and rotating beds?  That’s all harmless?”

“That’s a poltergeist,” he said.  “Completely different energy patterns.”

Dallas narrowed her eyes and turned back to the controls.

“So how long until we reach Erriat?”

Her eyes flickered over the console.  “Oh hey, that’s neat.  Seven days, seven hours, and seventeen minutes.”

“Are you really gonna make Athenais ride in the airlock when we find her?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“She did it to me.”

“Why?”

“Because I took Beetle out without permission.”

He raised his host’s brows.

“I just wanted to get the feel of her,” Dallas said quickly.  “No harm in that.  Hell, I brought her back without a single ding and Athenais acted like I had scattered wreckage over half the quadrant.  She took me out and did so many maneuvers that the artificial gravity system crashed.  Flung me all around the inside of the air-lock and bashed me all to hell.  I was lucky to be alive by the end of it.”

“That’s a little extreme.”

“Yeah, I know, right?!” Dallas cried, nodding.  “And before she locked me in, she told me she was headed out to dump me in space.  So the whole time I was vomiting my guts out, I was also wonderin’ when she was gonna open the hatch.”

“Seems like you two got off on the wrong foot.”

Dallas pressed her lips together and scowled at the debris field, her small body obviously prickling.  “No.  She’s just a bitch.”




Wings of Retribution

Friends in Sticky Places


Twenty-four hours later, Rabbit called them all to dinner again.  He had made a pungent dish of baked eggs mixed with a potent herb that made Stuart’s host’s eyes water.  He choked it down, but shook his head when he was offered more.

Dallas barely touched her meal, and when Rabbit told her to finish it, she pushed the plate away from her and told him to go to hell.

Colonel Howlen had refused to eat with them entirely.  In response, Dallas had ordered him to join them in the mess hall, but he had simply dragged a seat as far away from their table as possible and spent the entire time scowling at Stuart’s back.  Stuart felt the man’s eyes like razor blades at the base of his neck, and it was everything he could do not to get up and go shock him again.

Darley was equally as gloomy.  He ate everything Rabbit put in front of him, but sat at the table staring at his empty plate afterwards, moving crumbs of egg around with his fork.

Finally, Rabbit heaved a huge sigh.  He hadn’t even opened up his handheld case to begin his usual scouting missions, and his wine glass was dry.  He eyed the four of them over his empty plate.  “Aren’t we a spirited bunch,” he commented.  “Was my cooking really that bad?”

“It’s the damned alien you brought aboard without telling me,” Howlen snapped.  “He electrocuted me the other night.”

“Yes, I heard about that.  You insulted his ancestors or something, right?”

“I don’t want to be on the same ship as that thing.”

Rabbit nodded.  “All right.  You’re welcome to get off at any time.”  He gestured at the front air-lock.

“Next stop, Erriat,” Dallas added with a smirk.

His face turning purple, Howlen got to his feet and stalked from the room, leaving his chair beside the door.

“What about you, Darley?” Rabbit went on.  “Why so grim?”

Darley sighed and let his fork fall back onto his plate.  “I’m just worried about Attie.”

Dallas snorted.  “Coldhearted bitch is getting what she deserves.”

In one swift motion, Darley was on his feet, Dallas’s collar in his fist.  He brought her face inches away from his and said, “Maybe we should drop you off on our way out, you stupid child.  Give you a few years to think about it.”

“Darley,” Rabbit warned.

“No!  She’s too stupid to overlook her grudge for one moment to realize that Athenais is in a hell worse than anything she could ever think up.  It’s no wonder Athenais kicked her off her ship.”

“That’s your captain you’re speaking to,” Rabbit said.

“She sure doesn’t act like one.”  Darley released Dallas’s collar in disgust and stormed off.

Dallas’s face was scarlet as she sat back down, hand at her throat.  Throwing a trembling finger in Darley’s direction, she said in a wavering voice, “Stuart, follow him back to his room and lock him inside.  I want him in confinement for the rest of the trip.”

Stuart sighed.  “No.”

“No?!”  Dallas looked betrayed.  “What is this?  A mutiny?”

“If this were a mutiny, child, you’d be dead already.”

Dallas glared at Rabbit.  “You’re gonna start callin’ me child, too?  On my own damn ship?”

“Your actions today have made it necessary,” Rabbit said.

“What actions?”

Rabbit stopped to give her a long look.  “When we get Athenais aboard the ship, I want you to take a good look in her eyes.  If you still think that she deserves punishment, you can throw her in the airlock and do all the barrel-rolls you want.  Until then, stop insulting her.  I’ve known her as my friend more than a hundred times longer than you’ve been alive, and, if we get to Erriat and something goes wrong and I have to choose between which of the two of you to leave on that planet, it would be her.  As much as I love her as a sister, I’m not about to put that burden on my soul, because I know you wouldn’t survive it.”

Oh gods, girl, shut up, Stuart thought, cringing, knowing what was next.  Don’t say it.  Don’t—

That’s just because the Potion keeps her alive,” Dallas retorted.

Stuart dropped his face into his hands.

 “The Potion keeps her alive,” Rabbit agreed.  “And that will only make it worse for her.”  He stood up, gathering up his electronics, then stopped to give her a long look.  “Unfortunately, I wasn’t referring to physical survival.  I’ve seen kids like you break, in the wars.  Hell, spent my fair share breaking them.  You’d let go in the first six hours.”

“Let go?” Dallas asked.  Stuart could have groaned.  He pulled his hands along his face, wishing he were anywhere but here.

“Lose it.  Belly up.  Break.”

“Why do you think that?” Dallas demanded, puffing up.  “I went through the Academy.”

“You’ve still got the mental resiliency of a toadstool.”  Without another word, Rabbit left the mess hall.

Stuart quickly got up to follow him.

“You, too?”

Stuart froze and sheepishly glanced back.  The hurt in Dallas’s face was unmistakable.

“I was finished eating,” he said, embarrassed.  “Thought I could catch some sleep before my shift comes up.”  Never mind that a suzait didn’t need to sleep, aside from brief catnaps to repair muscular damage or recharge glucose levels in the host bloodstream.

The whimper that followed chipped at his soul.  “Why does everybody hate me?”

Stuart sighed and sat back down.  “They don’t.”

“Yes they do.  In the Academy, on Mary, on Beetle…  Nobody even stood up for me when Athenais decided to dump me on T-9.”

“Yes they did.”

“What?”

“They did.  She came down to The Shop afterwards and complained to everybody who’d listen that her entire crew was trying to mutiny on her.  They all wanted you to stay.”

“They…did?”  Dallas sniffled and wiped the back of her hand across her nose, looking up at him, hope all-too-clear in her face.

“Yeah,” Stuart said.  “The way things were going, she was gonna have to come crawling back to you on her knees.”

Dallas wrinkled her face immediately.  “I woulda told her to go to hell.”

“She knew that.  That’s why she didn’t do it.”

Dallas was silent a long time.

“I guess I woulda died if I’d stayed on Beetle,” she said finally.  “She saved my life, in a weird sorta way.”

“That’s one way to look at it.”

Dallas glanced at her watch.  “I’ve gotta get back to the controls.  Wanna come?”

“I dunno.  You pretty much got everything interesting outta me yesterday.”

“No I didn’t.  I still haven’t asked you about the shifters.  How do they, you know?”

Stuart rolled his eyes.  “That will take all night, right there, and I wanted to get some shuteye.”

“Please?  I’ll give your shift to Darley as a punishment.”

Stuart winced.  “No, I’ll keep my shift.  I don’t need as much sleep as humans, anyway.”

“Then let’s get moving,” she said, getting up as she looked down at her watch.  “Autopilot timer’s about to go.”

A half-second later, the convenient little red lights above the hallways started to flash and a pleasant female voice said, “Mainframe overloaded.  Manual systems engaged.”

Dallas squeaked and bolted for the cockpit.  Instead of following, Stuart found a nice, soft spot of floor and sat down.  When the ship started to rumble with centrifugal force, he laid back and considered how well the plush red and black carpet matched the enameled ebony walls.

When it was finally over, he got up and found Dallas at the controls, looking pale.

Calmly, Stuart unbuckled the watch from her arm and wrapped it around his wrist.

“Huh?” Dallas said, blinking at it.

“From now on,” Stuart said, “I’ve got the watch.”

“But…”

“Think of it this way,” Stuart said, sitting down beside her.  “You get more storytime.”

She beamed, her blue eyes going wide with a grin.  “That sounds so coo—”

“Screen,” Stuart said.



Wings of Retribution


A week after getting electrocuted by the worm, and after three whole days passing without their ‘captain’ attempting to paste them across yet another space-rock, the airhead pulled the ship out of drive and shut off everything but com and life support.  Then, against all standard stealth procedures, she got on com and ordered everyone into the command room to take stock of the situation.

Tommy got the sinking feeling that they were all about to spend a very, very long time on a very, very nasty place.  He decided he was going to ask Rabbit to double his pay.

“See that black spot right there?” Dallas asked, once they were all standing behind her at the helm.  She pointed a manicured finger at to the computer’s 3-D render of the surrounding area.  “Erriat Planetary Guard,” she said.  “There’s another one over there, in that debris field.”

“How do you know?” Rabbit asked, scanning the field with his eyes.

“That’s where I’d be.”

Thomas laughed, but quickly disguised it with a cough at Rabbit’s sharp look.

Oblivious, their ‘captain’s’ fingers flew over the controls and she brought up another image.  It was a close-up of Erriat’s surface.  Dust clouds swept over half the planet like huge orange storm-systems.  “That’s where they drop off prisoners.  There’s a holding facility there, plus one of the biggest mines on the planet.  Hundreds of miles deep.  Entry points here and here.”

Tommy thought she sounded like an Academy student giving a report.  He peered at the magnified image of the orangish-brown planet, wincing at the huge megastorms swirling across the surface.  Landing in that was not going to be fun.  Flying in it would cause him issues, so he could only imagine what it was going to be like with the blue-eyed little space-rock sitting in the pilot’s seat.  Realizing this would be the perfect opportunity for him to prove his skills—when she inevitably panicked and he had to take over for her—Thomas had the smug feeling that she wasn’t going to be captain for very long.

Standing directly behind the girl, Rabbit’s ‘mechanic,’ who seemed to be no more than a drunken, dirty drifter to Tommy, was looking ill.  “Pray she didn’t get stuck at Orplex.”

“There’s only a forty percent chance she did.  They send three out of five to other mines around the planet.”

Darley gave their ‘captain’ a scathing look.  “Forty percent chance, eh?  Are you an expert now?”

“I read up on it,” Dallas said, shrugging.

Tommy rolled his eyes and resisted the urge to storm from the helm to go start drafting his will.

“All of this is irrelevant anyway,” Rabbit said.  “I have a contact on Erriat.  An old friend.  One of the ones who founded the planet.  He should know where they sent Athenais.”

Darley’s face twisted.  “His name Angus Greele?”

Rabbit nodded.

“I’ll be stayin’ on the ship,” the drifter growled, hatred in his stormy gray eyes.  “I ever lay eyes on that bastard, I’ll kill him.”

“He’s got too many bodyguards for that.”

“I don’t care.  I’d put a bullet between his eyes before they took me down.”

Rabbit sighed.  “Wouldn’t do you any good.  He’s like Athenais and me.”

Darley scowled.  “So what’s he need the bodyguards for?”

Rabbit smiled.  “Because if he didn’t have them, he’d have people like you putting bullets between his eyes twenty-four-seven.  That gets somewhat distracting.”

Unnerved to think that there were more of the unnaturally long-lived criminals lurking in the Quads, Tommy cleared his throat.  “So they’re friends.  Is there a possibility that he realized Athenais was put on his planet and he rescued her?  Maybe she already got word out and all this is unnecessary.”

“No.”

The way the monied little creep said it, Tommy couldn’t tell which part of the question he was answering.  Frowning at Rabbit, he said, “No possibility of her discovery or him rescuing her?”

Rabbit laughed.  “Oh, I’m sure there’s a possibility he knows she’s here.”

Thomas cocked his head at that.  “I thought all the ones who shared Athenais’s…problem…were friends.”

Rabbit looked amused.  “If Angus knew she was on the planet, he’d take to delivering her punishment himself.”

“So you’re just going to tell him she’s there?”

Rabbit grinned.  “What better way to find her?”

Thomas narrowed his eyes at his employer, not liking the man’s shifty, secretive, manipulative attitude.  Reminded him of a suzait.  He glanced at the worm across the room to make sure it was keeping its distance.

“All right!” Rabbit said, rubbing his hands together.  “Dallas, you ready to do this?”

“I’m still not coming,” the mechanic interjected.

“Fine,” Rabbit agreed.  “You can stay on the ship with Dallas.”

“But I want to go!” Dallas objected.  “I’ve breathed enough recycled air to make a horse puke.”

“Erriat’s air will make you sicker.  Besides, we need you to stay at the controls in case we need an emergency evacuation.  You’re the only one who could get us out fast enough.”

Like a petulant three-year-old, Dallas muttered something under her breath and sank back down in her chair.  Space-rocks were bad enough, but they were trusting their safety to this?  It was all Thomas could do not to rip the controls out of her grip and shove her off of his seat.  Obviously, she’d taken a step in the right direction when she’d selected her last career…

“Wait,” Thomas began, realizing what Rabbit had said.  He turned to his employer with a frown.  “‘Emergency Evacuation?’  I don’t like the sound of that.”

The criminal shrugged wiry shoulders very cleverly disguised by several layers of silk.  “Angus is my friend, but he finds out why we’re here, he’s gonna be furious.  He’s pretty much got the Planetary Guard at his fingertips, so hopefully we’ll be gone before he has a chance to think of a reason to keep us here.”

More and more, Tommy was wishing he’d never signed up for this trip.  “What about the alien?  Will he be coming with us?”

“Absolutely.  We may need him.”

Thomas stiffened at the surge of disgust that slammed through him at the thought.  “Then I’ll be staying here with Darley and Dallas.  I’m not going anywhere with that parasite.”

Rabbit gave a tired sigh.  “Is anyone not gonna give me trouble?”

The parasite said, “I don’t really have any objections to anything you’ve said.”

“Prolly because he wants to take Angus and rule Erriat,” Tommy snapped.

The parasite made a disgusted sound.

“That would definitely make things easier,” Rabbit agreed.  “If you get the opportunity, you should probably take it.”

The entire crew stared at him.  Thomas felt like he’d been punched.

“I thought he was your friend,” Tommy sputtered.

“Oh, he is,” Rabbit assured him.  “But Angus is gonna make things hard for us.  It’s just the way he is.  If Stuart took over for a few hours, this whole operation will go much smoother.”

Tommy felt the tiny hairs on his back shift.  He wasn’t sure who was more disgusting—the parasite, or the criminal.  “You’d willingly hand over another human to this…thing?”

“Did it once before,” Rabbit said.  “Before Stuart took him, the man was a constant menace in the Forgotten District.  Did us all a favor.  I wish I had more suzait friends.  Would solve a lot of problems.”

Friends?” Tommy sputtered.  “You can’t possibly share a bond with that thing.  It’s inhuman.”

“Hey, uh, guys,” Dallas interrupted.  “Planetary Guard’s moving.  I think they found us.  Want me to evade them?”

“No,” Rabbit said, moving to the com gear.  “Open up a channel with them.  I want to say hello.”

As Dallas had predicted, a second ship skimmed out of the debris field to join the other and they approached Retribution with guns ready.

Lucky guess, Tommy thought, disgruntled.

A moment later, the flashing red TARGET LOCK warning made everyone in the room flinch.

Identify yourself.  This is John Wayne of the Erriat Home Guard.  We have you locked into our weapons grid.  You have thirty seconds to comply.

Rabbit snatched up the com set.  “This is Retribution, out of Terra-9.  I’m Jake Ferris.  I’ve come to see Angus Greele.”

There was a long pause on the other end, then,

Rabbit?

“Affirmative.  I need to talk with you, Angus.”

What the hell were you doing skulking in the shadows like a damned pirate?  Come on in.  Lee, Wayne, show him the way.  And Rabbit, let your pilot know you’re in for a rough ride.  Big storms this time of year.

“Will do,” Rabbit said.  He turned to their ‘captain.’  “You landed planetside before?”

“On a simulator,” Dallas said, nodding.

“You did all right?” Rabbit asked, looking concerned.

“Well, there were a couple rough patches,” Dallas said, “But I think so.”

Immediately, Thomas stepped forward.  “I can handle this.  I’ve made numerous landings in a wide range of climate variances—”

“Then take it slow,” Rabbit said to Dallas, completely ignoring him.  “There’s megastorms down there that could tear a freight carrier apart.”

Tommy stared at them with his mouth open.  “What is this?” he demanded.  “Flight Training 101?  Why are we going with a boot, when I’ve got the skill—”

“They’re moving closer,” the parasite noted.

Indeed, the two gunships moved to take up positions on either side of Retribution and the TARGET LOCK warning went dead.  Tommy let out the breath he’d been holding.  Robert E. Lee began transmitting coordinates and Dallas flipped on all systems to normal and set a course for Angus’s landing pad.

“Your name is Jake?” Darley said into the silence that followed.  He looked stunned.

“It’s Rabbit,” Rabbit said.

“But Jake’s your real name?”

“It’s Rabbit.”

“So how’d he know who you were?” the mechanic insisted.

“Code.”

“That didn’t sound like code.  That sounded like your real name’s Jake Ferris.”

“Darley,” Rabbit warned.

“Just wonderin’ why the hell you call yourself Rabbit when you got a perfectly good name like Jake.”

“There’s millions of Jakes in the Quadrants.  As far as I know, there’s only one Rabbit.”

“That’s because Rabbit’s a damn sissy name.  What kind of man wears a name like Rabbit?”

The scruffy booze-ridden drifter had a point.

“God damn it, Darley, just let it be, okay?”

Darley lifted his hands.  “Fine.  But the guys at The Shop are gonna hear of this.”

Rabbit let out a huge sigh.  “You don’t want to do that.”

“Why not?”

“That would piss me off.”

Darley laughed.  “So?”

“I own almost all the bars on Terra-9.”

“Oh.”  Instantly sober, Darley lowered his head.

So this was the notorious crimelord that had T-9 authorities in knots.  Tommy looked him over, assessing the wiry little man.  Funny, Thomas had thought he’d be a lot fatter.

“We’re entering the atmosphere,” Dallas announced.

“Everyone find a chair,” Rabbit said.  “Turbulence in this place is a killer.”

Tommy strapped himself in to the navigator’s seat and watched with trepidation as the two gunships peeled away, leaving Retribution to finish the final descent herself.

“Dallas, make sure you give us a rough landing,” Rabbit ordered.  “Let the wind knock us around a bit, falter on the updrafts, then hit the dirt a bit too abruptly, got it?”

Dallas frowned at him.  “Why?  I can handle this no prob.”

“I know, but I don’t want Angus to know that.  The more incompetent he thinks we are, the less likely he’ll take us seriously.”

Dallas got a devious look on her face.  “I can do incompetent.”

Of course you can, you ignorant little twit, Thomas thought.  God, he itched to put his hands on the controls and wrench them from her petite little fingers.  Let a real pro show her how it’s—

His thoughts were interrupted as the ship caught a blast of wind and started listing to the side.  Dallas over-corrected and Retribution started to roll.




Wings of Retribution

Fairy Spreads Her Wings


When Stuart and the others emerged from the ship, both of his companions were green in the face.  Colonel Howlen had elected to go with them, after all, since the smell of vomit was still thick despite the antiseptic spray.

A roaring greeted them as soon as they stepped out of the airlock and a broad-shouldered man with a dark brown goatee and ring-covered knuckles moved forward to embrace Rabbit.

“It’s been so long!” the big man cried, wrapping Rabbit in a hug that made his wiry body disappear.  “I thought you’d forgotten about me.”  He released him, then thumped him on his scrawny back, grinning like a fool.  “Good to see you!”

Several of his teeth sparkled with the glint of gold, Stuart noticed.  Hell, most of the man sparkled, either with the glint of gold, the facets of gems, or the gleam of silk.

“Good to see you, Angus,” Rabbit managed weakly, sounding queasy.

The big man turned his attention to Stuart and the Colonel.  He saw the sickly look on Howlen’s face and laughed.  “What’s the matter?  That pilot of yours give you a run for your money?”  He roared with laughter and slapped Rabbit on the back.

Rabbit promptly retched all over the entryway.

“God, Rabbit!” Angus said, quickly retrieving a gold-trimmed boot from out of range.  “You look like you went through a centrifuge.  You need a new captain?”

“Needed one for awhile,” Howlen muttered.  Stuart resisted the urge to glare at the fool.

But Angus nodded.  “I’d agree.  Watched the poor bastard come outta the storm like a bow-heavy torpedo.  Didn’t land into the wind, so he had to try three times before he could land close enough for my dockers to get hold of your ship.  Thought you guys were gonna come sailing through the bay once or twice, on the way by.  Really, Rabbit, those storms aren’t something you should let a boot screw around in.”

“Amen to that,” Howlen growled.

“Where’d you get him?” Angus demanded.  “Academy washout?”

“He’s better in space,” Rabbit managed.  He had gotten back to his feet, but had needed to steady himself on Stuart’s arm.  He sounded miserable.

“Ah, never flown planetside?  Well, they’ll let anyone fly a ship now.  It’s deplorable.  Who gave him his certification?”

“Academy,” Rabbit muttered, wiping his mouth.

“Knew it,” the big man said, slapping a meaty thigh.  “Well, no wonder the Utopia dropped him.  You wanna leave him here with me?  I’ll give you someone with some hair on his balls.”  He glanced behind him at the five men waiting for them in the hall.  One of the men was wearing a butler’s uniform, carrying a tray of drinks on one hand.  “But enough chat.  Hate to do this to you, but you feel good enough to eat?  It’s dinnertime here on Erriat.  Kinda interrupted me in the middle of things.  Mel’s got places set for you, if you’re up for some good ol’ fashioned beef ‘n potatoes.”

Stuart felt his host’s stomach churn, on impulse.  Beside him, his two comrades had paled considerably.

“I take that as a no,” the big man said, glancing from one to the other.  “Fine, I suppose I can skip dinner for once.  My wives won’t like it, but what can you do?  Usually just a gossipy bitch-fest anyway.”  He sighed and made a dismissive gesture at his butler with a gold-heavy hand.  “Come on.  I’ll take you to the den.”  He grinned at them.  “Speaking of bitch-fests, did you hear there was a woman dropped off the other week?  A woman!  What kind of twisted freak is that Governor Black, anyway?”

“That’s why we’re here,” Rabbit admitted, taking up a spot at Angus’s right.  Stuart followed a short distance behind him, and Colonel Howlen reluctantly fell in beside him.

Angus Greele nodded as they walked, not looking surprised.  “Thought so.  I rarely ever get a special delivery from T-9, and it’s even rarer I see you.  So the two put together can’t really be a coincidence.  She a friend of yours?”

“One of my employees.”

Angus pursed his lips.  “Poor man.  I hear she’s a real harpy.  Escaped Orplex three times already.”  Then he cocked his head.  “But Hell, that’s prolly why you hired her, eh?  I still haven’t gotten a good look at her.  Was kind of waitin’ for the wardens to calm her down a bit before I checked her out.  Could use me a fourth wife.  It’s hard to convince women to move to a dusty hellhole like Erriat.”  He waved a gemmed hand at the fancy reception hall they were passing through.  “Not even a big bank account’s enough anymore.”

“We need to talk to her,” Rabbit said.  “She’s got some codes I need.”

Angus flipped a big, ringed hand to one side.  “I get it.  You want to talk to her.  Wink, wink.  She disappears and it’ll be one big mystery.  Am I right?”

Rabbit shrugged.  “Would like to take her back with me, but if not, it won’t be the end of the world.  Just need the codes.”

“Oh come on,” Angus laughed, “Just because I’m the Overseer doesn’t mean I won’t make a few allowances for my friends.  Technically, everybody here is a citizen of Erriat, and I can do whatever the hell I want with them.  So if you want her back, just say so.”

“We want her back.”

“There!” Angus boomed.  “Was that so hard?  Do you really trust me so little that you’d think I’d turn you in for coming to save a friend?  Really, Rabbit, I thought you knew me.”

Rabbit looked a bit abashed.  “We haven’t had a chance to talk in awhile.”

“So true!  I’ve had nothing to do here but play cards and count my prisoners!  You know, I grossed more than a billion last year?  I’m thinkin’ about buying a nice little tropical planet near the Black.  Get me out of this place once and for all.  Put a manager in charge, let his ears fill up with sand.  Did you know that if you don’t wear headgear around here, your ears fill up with sand?  It’s nasty stuff.  There are bugs in it that lay eggs in your head and then hatch inside your eardrum.  You ever had a migraine?  Well, that’s nothin’ compared to this.  It’s like your eyes are gonna pop out of your skull.  Sometimes they do, from all the pressure.”

Stuart cocked his head at Angus’s back, trying to determine if the casual comment could have been more than a random subject of conversation.  Already hyper-sensitive to S.O. operatives, he was not liking the parallels the man was drawing.

You’re too paranoid, part of him thought.  Rabbit’s not turning you in.

No, probably not, Stuart thought, glancing at Howlen out of the corner of his host’s eye.  But he might.

Catching his glance, Howlen gave him a suspicious look and put more distance between them as they walked.

They paused outside an elegantly-carved wooden door with a gigantic bull posing in its center.  Angus pushed it open.  “You see this?  Purpleheart.  The real stuff from a real timber planet.  A thousand credits a square foot.  More expensive than gold, this stuff.  But no biggie.  Erriat produces more gold than the rest of the Utopia combined.  Like dirt, around here.”

Angus led them inside and directed them to low, plush leather chairs surrounding a small golden coffee table.  A straight-backed man in a black suit placed a decanter of amber-colored liquid on the table along with four gleaming crystal-and-gold glasses, then left them alone.  The others in Angus’s party were nearby—Stuart had seen at least two of them take up positions at the door, and was pretty sure the rest of them were right around the corner.

“See here?” Angus said, lifting the crystal decanter.  He swished it around so that the amber substance inside sloshed freely.  “This stuff’s even more expensive than good wood.  This bottle alone cost nearly ten thousand.  You can tell by the aroma.  See what I mean?  You can almost smell the vineyards.  They say it’s got a hint of apples, but I can’t taste it.  I don’t got the tastebuds.  All I know is it gets me drunk faster’n rubbing alcohol.”

“I really hope you don’t plan on pouring me some of that,” Rabbit muttered.  He was staring at the decanter with tight white lips.  Stuart wondered if he was going to vomit again, and scooted an inch or two further down the couch.

“Thought you might appreciate it, since you like to run a bar,” Angus said.  Then he shrugged.  “Guess you don’t have to, seein’ how you had a rough ride, but let me tell you.  It works.  Got drunker than a dog offa two glasses the other night.  Had a whopper of a headache the next morning, but that’s my own fault, for drinking too fast.  My wives can hold their liquor better than I can.”

“Prolly because they were all whores before they got sent to Erriat.”

Angus paused, and Stuart watched the emotions in the man’s face change with alarming speed.  For a tense moment, Stuart thought he would call his guards and have them all arrested.  But he just laughed, slapping his palm on the table hard enough to knock over one of the crystal glasses.

“Ain’t that the truth!  And damn, do they know how to please a man.  Marya, now, she’s a hottie.  Only seventy-five and got an ass like a pumpkin.”  He shaped his wealth-encrusted hands in the air, to demonstrate.  If anyone else had noticed the sudden violence that had been lurking momentarily behind Angus’s muddy hazel eyes, Stuart wasn’t sure, but it seemed Rabbit had tensed slightly.

Angus frowned and pointed at Rabbit.  “I know.  Last time you was here.  She was the one in that little pink tanktop.  Nice, huh?  And she swears she never had any surgery!  All my bodyguards stare at her when she’s in the room, and if I was a jealous man, I’d think she was sleeping with all of them.  Can’t be, though, since I had all their balls chopped off as soon as they started working for me.”

Rabbit, who had reached out to retrieve the crystal glass from where it had tipped on its side, blanched.  “So you say the woman is in Orplex?”

“Yeah,” Angus said.  “What’s her name again?”

“Trish.”

“Funny, that’s not the name she’s using.  I think she calls herself Scorpio or something stupid like that.  Everyone says she looks like a man.  First thing she did was get a buzz-cut and a big ol’ tattoo of a scorpion across her back.”

“Sounds like Trish.  She was a scrapper.”

“Yeah, well, tattoo’s the first thing ta go, if I like her looks, and if I don’t, well…”  He shrugged his massive shoulders.  “She ain’t gonna last long on Erriat.  You’re definitely doing her a favor.  She’s gonna get herself killed.  What’s wrong with women nowadays?  You remember back when they knew their place and never had a mind to talk back?”

“Damn straight,” Colonel Howlen muttered.

Angus swiveled to grin at him, gesturing at the colonel’s chest.  “See?  He knows what I’m talking about.  Good ol’ days.  Miss those.”  Then he frowned.  “But I guess even then back there were pushy broads like Athenais running around.  How is our beloved space captain doing, by the way?  You really must tell her to come visit me.  I’d give her a time she’d never forget.”

The vicious way his eyes went dark left Stuart feeling cold.

“Haven’t seen Attie in years,” Rabbit said carefully.  “Last I heard, she was headed out to Millennium for some blackmarket goods.”

Angus snorted.  “They really oughta give me a go at her.  I could wipe all that pirating trash right outta her skull.  The Utopia’s too easy on her.  I don’t give a damn if she’s Marceau’s daughter or one of the originals.  It’s not like she ain’t replaceable.”  He grunted and took a moment to pour himself a hefty glass of the amber fluid, his rings tinkling against the crystal as he moved.  Then, drinking it down in a long swallow, he slammed the glass back to the table and growled, “Besides, she’s got no respect for anything but herself and her goddamned Beetle.”

“That’s true,” Rabbit agreed.  “But what can you expect, after all this time?  What does she have left to care about?”

Angus waved a ringed hand.  “Don’t get me started.  I didn’t ask for this, but I found myself a niche anyway.  I got a job I’m good at, and I do it.  Hell, she could damn well settle down and be a housewife for all I care.  She gives the rest of us a bad name.”  Angus cocked his head.  “You’re lookin’ a mite better.  Brandy?”  He held up the decanter.

“Maybe a little.”  Rabbit reached out and took the glass of brandy Angus proffered.

“Anyway, tell me about how T-9’s treatin’ you,” Angus said, sipping on another glass of alcohol.  “I hear that new Governor Black’s a real hardass.  Threatening to shut you down unless you give him a cut of your profits.”

“That’s nothing new,” Rabbit said, sounding wistful.  “Only thing that changes is who we send the money to.”

“Ain’t that the truth!  Well, I got my own place, here.  It may be a real shithole of a planet, but it’s mine and there’s not a goddamned person in the Utopia who can tell me how to run things on my rock.”  He winked.  “Not unless they wanna take on the Erriat fleet, and nobody’s dumb enough to do that, eh?”

“Not a chance.”  Rabbit glanced around at their surroundings and nodded.  “Sounds like things are going pretty well for you, then.”

“Sure are!  We just discovered a new rhodium vein out east.  Only four miles down!  I’m gonna open her up, but I think I’ll have to let it loose on the market slowly, to keep prices up.  Oh, well.  Rhodium’s better than gold, anyway.  Lighter, twice as valuable, easy to pack up if you need to make a quick getaway, right Rabbit?”  He chortled.

“Err, yes.  I suppose.”  Rabbit glanced at Stuart, looking nervous.

“Not that you’d know anything about that,” Angus snorted.  “After all, you built your empire on T-9 from the ground up, right?  Sweat and brains?  Hard work and dedication?  Couldn’t have anything to do with the seventy million that went missing on Millennium, could it?”

Rabbit reddened.  “That was centuries ago.”

Angus tapped his skull with a heavily ringed finger.  “Yeah, but ol’ Angus is sharp.  I remember everything from the last seven millennia, thanks to Athenais.”

The bitterness in his voice could have cracked glass.

“She got stuck with it same as you or I.”  Rabbit was definitely looking nervous, though, Stuart decided.  Was it time to start thinking about departure routes?  He glanced at the colonel, who was watching Angus a bit too closely.

Well, at least he wasn’t a total imbecile.

Angus leaned toward them over the golden table, his hazel eyes flashing.  “Don’t tell me she had nothin’ to do with it.  You don’t think her father dosed her and then she begged for him to dose all her little playmates, too, so they could live happily ever after?”

“Even if she did, she was a child and Marceau was the adult,” Rabbit reminded him.  “If you’re still stuck on the whole affair, you should blame him, not her.”

Angus brushed off Rabbit’s statement with a dismissive grunt.  Glancing at Stuart, he said, “And who are these two?  More trash you scraped up from the edges of T-9?”

“I’m Tommy Howlen,” the Colonel said, extending a hand.  “His navigator.”

“Did I ask you?” Angus asked.  His face remained pleasant, but there was hardness in his eyes that Stuart did not like.  “In fact, why are you even here?  Did I bring my bodyguards to the table with me?”

“They’re not bodyguards,” Rabbit said.

“Then what are they?” Angus demanded, gesturing rudely at Stuart and the colonel.  “Some two-bits you dragged in off the street?  You’re making me wonder whether you trust me anymore, Rabbit.”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Rabbit retorted.  “I could bring a hundred men in here and all you’d have to do is wiggle your pinkie and we’d have a thousand Home Guard destroyers blow Retribution a new airlock.”

Angus grunted.  His eyes swept past Tommy and stopped on Stuart.  His silty hazel eyes swept Stuart’s host’s body up and down, no doubt taking in the multitudes of scars.  “And what about this piece of work?  Don’t tell me he manages your portfolio.”

“I work on com,” Stuart said.  “Rabbit hired me to keep Retribution singing on the ride here.”

“Really?  What’s the difference between a longspan antenna and a short-drive transmitter?”

Stuart grinned.  “Hell if I know.”

Angus laughed and started counting off fingers.  “So you got a navigator that couldn’t find his asshole with a UPS, a com tech that looks like he came straight from a bar fight, and a pilot that never learned to fly planetside.  I’m surprised you made it here in one piece.”

Colonel Howlen straightened.  “My navigation skills are impeccable.”

Angus turned back to the colonel, smiling.  “Oh?  So why did Retribution land a few hundred kilometers off course?  Instrument failure?  Or were you intending to stake out Erriat before you made your presence known to us?”  Angus spoke the last to Rabbit, his eyes calm but deadly cold.

Stuart peered at Angus.  Even though he rambled and acted addle-headed, the man was sharp.  He found himself wondering if the whole greeting had been an act.

As if to answer his question, Angus said, “I know why you’re here, Rabbit.  Don’t insult my intelligence.  Of course I checked her out as soon as I found out they’d sent me a woman.  And I’m sure as hell not giving her up now that I’ve got her.  Take your incompetent crew and get off my planet.”

He paused and looked directly at Stuart.  “Oh, and I’ve given my men instructions to shoot me in the head if I start acting at all strange.  Capiche?”

Stuart swallowed hard.  How did he…?

Attie told me Rabbit had taken to runnin’ with a suzait,” Angus said, eyes fixed on Stuart.  “When I was tearing out her spleen.”

Beside him, Rabbit was already standing.  “We didn’t come here to cause trouble,” he started, sounding genuinely nervous.

“‘Course you did,” Angus said.  He shrugged his burly shoulders.  “But it’s not like I can hold it against you or anything.  I mean, friends are friends, even if they’re an arrogant bitch like Attie.  I’m gonna keep her for a few more years.  Work some things out.  Then we can talk.”

Rabbit winced.  “Years?”

“I heard you’ve got property on Laia.”  Angus snagged his glass of brandy as he leaned back.  He looked up at them over its rim.  “That’s a nice little island planet, right?  Tropical, from what I hear.”

“You want to trade?” Rabbit said.  “I’ll sign the paperwork right—”

Angus snorted.  “Just get out.  She’s mine.  She owes me a couple years, at least.  I’ll send someone to come get you when I’m ready.  Until then, you try anything, I will shoot you down, Rabbit, and then you’ll be joining her.”  He grinned, and his golden teeth glinted.  “Figure there’s at least a few things you’re owing me for, as well.  Maybe seventy mil worth?  They tried to pin it on me at first, you know.  Spent a few months in jail while you hightailed it across the galaxy.”

“Gods be merciful, Angus, that was millennia ago.”

The big man reached up and tapped a bejeweled finger against his skull, his eyes filled with malice.  “Long memory, thanks to our friend.”  He smiled, settling his cup on the table in front of him so he could stretch out his silk-covered arms along the top of the couch back.  “Tell ya what, brother.  You figure out a way to make me forget, I’ll call it even.  Will forget we even had this discussion, and Marceau can keep on looking for you in all the wrong places.”

Rabbit scowled at Angus, visibly ruffled for the first time Stuart had seen him.  “Come on,” he said, bitterly, to Stuart.  “Let’s get out of here.”

Marceau is looking for him? Stuart thought, stunned.  Since when could Marceau not find anyone he wanted, simply by snapping his fingers?  How long has he been running? Stuart wondered.  Rabbit had said millennia…  Realizing that, Stuart gained a whole new respect for the wiry little criminal.

Angus clapped his hands together.  “Well, now that that’s settled, get out.  I’ll still lend you a pilot if you want, but only for old-time’s sake.  This is one too many times you’ve stabbed me in the back, Rabbit.  Like I said, I don’t forget.  Next time you set foot on Erriat without invitation, you’re staying here until I get a shuttle from Millennium.”



Wings of Retribution


The three men came back with glum looks on their faces.

“So how’d it go?” Dallas asked cheerfully, tossing the rag aside and once more taking up the controls.  She hadn’t had so much fun in the air in ages.  She’d even managed to clean up most of the vomit in their absence, leaving the cockpit smelling like green apples.

“It went bad.”  Rabbit slumped into the chair beside her.  “Really bad.  He was waiting for us.”

“Knew about Stuart, too,” Tommy muttered.

Dallas glanced at the former colonel, a bit shocked.  It was the first time he had used Stuart’s name that she could remember.  Turning back to the others, she asked, “What about me?  He know I was fakin’ it?”

“Probably the only thing he didn’t know,” Rabbit muttered.

“Rabbit throwing up in the airlock prolly had something to do with that,” Stuart said.  “He offered to give us a better pilot for the ride back.”

Rabbit sighed and leaned back in his chair, staring at the ceiling.  “Now we’ve gotta wonder if all that stuff he said about Athenais being in Orplex was a lie.”

“Even if she is there, we’ve got no chance of getting her out without a free pass through the gates,” Darley said.  “The place is a fortress.”

“What bugs me is how he could have known about Stuart,” Rabbit said.  “He said Athenais told him, but only Stuart and I knew about Stuart until we launched.  Pete knew, but Governor Black killed him when he destroyed Beetle.”

“Maybe Pete told Athenais,” Dallas suggested.  “They spent a lot of time together at the commands.”

“I find that hard to believe,” Rabbit said.  “She treated Stuart same as always when she came to visit The Shop.  Shook his hand, even.”

“So?” Dallas asked.

Both Rabbit and the colonel frowned at her.  “They shock you through the hands,” Tommy reminded her.

“No,” Dallas said sweetly, “He only shocked you through the hands.  And you deserved it.”

Thomas narrowed his eyes.  He looked like he wanted to say more, but, muttering, turned to his controls.  “Doesn’t really matter,” Thomas said.  “That rich prick told us to leave, and he’ll have every ship within range watching us to make sure we leave.  We’re not rescuing anybody today.”  He started plotting out the course back home.

Rabbit’s cleared the colonel’s screen, stopping him.  “Dallas, I was hoping it wouldn’t come to this, but it’s gonna be your show from here on in.”  When he turned to Dallas, there was soberness in his eyes.  “The rest of us are going planetside, else we’ll be too sick to move.”

Dallas squinted at Rabbit.  “What exactly do you want me to do?”

“I paid top dollar for the finest gunship I could get my hands on,” Rabbit said.  “It’s faster than anything Angus’s got here, with more stopping power.  I want you to wipe out his fleet.”

The command room went silent.

“You’re…serious?”  Dallas peered at him, looking for the catch.  Her heart was beginning to pound like a piston against her ribcage.

“Plan A was to sneak in, rescue her, and sneak out.  This is Plan B.”

“Is there a plan C?” Howlen demanded.  “This runt clearly isn’t capable of—”

“This is the plan,” Rabbit said, his eyes on Dallas.  “Think you can handle that?”

“So if she doesn’t wipe out the whole Planetary Guard, Athenais, you, me, and everybody else is stuck on Erriat?” Howlen snapped.

“Correct.”

Colonel Howlen stared at Rabbit, looking completely at a loss for words.  Finally, he managed, “You’ve gone mad.”

“Probably,” Rabbit agreed.  “It was years ago, though.”  Rabbit pulled out his sunglasses and slipped them on with a smile.  “I’ve had time to adjust.”

“You are not paying me to die on Erriat!” Howlen snarled.

“Of course not,” Rabbit said.  “If I were, I would’ve paid you at least twice, and given you time to spend it before we left.”

Dallas thought it was almost comical the way the colonel looked like he was going to explode.  Very evenly, he said, “And what will the four of us be doing while our ‘captain’ is spinning cartwheels over our heads?”

“We’re going to infiltrate Orplex,” Rabbit said.  He went over to a depression in the wall and hit a button that Dallas hadn’t noticed.  Immediately, an alcove popped out, opening up into four racks of desert-colored weaponry.  Grabbing one seemingly at random, Rabbit hit the charger, filling the room with that unmistakable hum of energized death, and said, “Who here knows anything about guns?”

They stared at him.  Dallas found herself wondering why she hadn’t pushed that button yet, and what the rest of the buttons scattered all over the ship were hiding.  Then, considering the way Rabbit had pinned Rob’s hand to the table in the restaurant with the ease of someone spearing a steak, she decided she probably didn’t want to find out.

“Guns?” Howlen asked.  His outrage had faded a bit, replaced with what looked like interest.

“Or explosives.”  Rabbit shrugged.  “The cargo hold is filled with both.  I even packed some land-skimming ATVs because I didn’t feel like walking.  They’re each fitted with body armor and flesh-seeking machine guns, as well as cargo compartments with two laser rifles, two laser pistols, and an array of grenades and gas canisters.  Plus whatever you can take with you.”  He nodded at the shelves and grabbed another pistol to heft it.

Utter silence descended upon the cockpit as the crew stared at their benefactor.

At that moment, the com crackled.  Rabbit, why hasn’t your ship lifted off yet?  Your pilot can’t find the controls?  Broken from her stupor, Dallas hastily reached for the com.

“Ignore him,” Rabbit said.  To the others, he said, “Orplex is twenty miles from here as the crow flies.  I pre-calibrated the piloting systems on the ATVs.  All we need to do is sit back and shoot anyone who comes after us.  Dallas will be keeping the Home Guard busy overhead, so we won’t require our anti-aircraft missiles, but each ATV comes with two, just in case.  Your body-armor is straight from the Space Corps personal stock.  Don’t ask me how I got it.  Anyway, we will keep in radio contact at all times.  I had a private line installed on Retribution that the ATVs share.  Visibility’s gonna be shitty, but if one of us gets into trouble, the others will know about it.”

Rabbit looked at each of them in turn, stopping on Dallas.  “Any questions?”

Darley’s hand went up.

“Yes?”

“Do I get to keep the ATV when I’m done with it?”

“We’ll discuss that after you get it back to the ship in one piece,” Rabbit said.  “Any other questions?”

Darley’s hand went up again.  “Does this mean I get a bonus in addition to what you’re already paying me?”

“You get to shoot up Erriat.  That’s bonus enough.”

“I…guess.”

“No other questions?  Good.  Dallas, stall for time until we can get off the ship.”

At that, Rabbit turned and left the control room, the open rack of guns behind him.  The others cast each other nervous glances before each grabbing something dangerous-looking and following him, leaving Dallas alone.

Alone…and about to fly against the Erriat Home Guard.  How cool.  They’d never let her do anything like this in the Corps.  Even with her off-the-charts flight ratings from the Academy, she’d always been stuck with routine stuff like freight or patrols.  So boring.  There wasn’t an official rating of ‘stick-fairy’ in the Corps, so they’d given her jobs based solely on her rank, and none of her superiors had ever actually given her anything fun to do.  Well, until they had her fly against Athenais Owlbourne because she had an ASP, which had prematurely ended Dallas’s career.  She’d gone full-manual and had been winning and then they cheated.  Stupid Squirrel and her stupid hacking bullshit.  Totally unfair.  Dallas had made sure to get some good pictures for that one.

You listening, Rabbit?  I told you to get off my planet.

Dallas picked up the com set with fingers that were shaking from sheer adrenaline.  “Sorry, sir, but we’re having engine troubles.  The landing jarred loose an energy coil.  It’ll be awhile.”

Who the hell are you?

“I’m the pilot.”

The com set crackled with laughter.  I should have known. 

“Should have known what, sir?”

Such a shoddy landing job could only have been done by a woman.  Tell Rabbit to take his time.  He’s gonna need all the luck he can get to get back to T-9 alive.

Dallas narrowed her eyes, but did not respond.  She waited long minutes, trying not to think about what was going to happen if she mis-corrected or accidentally took a bit too much of a corner, gripping the controls to keep her nerves under control.  As the minutes ticked into hours, she began to wonder how long it was going to take Rabbit to open up the cargo bay.  She was considering going down to the cargo bay to check when the com crackled again.

It’s been two hours.  Tell that moron to open his airlock.  I’ve got a real mechanic on the other side.

“Negative,” Dallas replied.  “We’re almost done, sir.”

Get me Rabbit.  I’m tired of dealing with his underlings.

“Negative, sir.  Rabbit doesn’t want to talk to you.”

Remind Rabbit that he’s on my planet and all I have to do is wiggle my pinkie and he’ll never see T-9 again.  I’ll have so many warplanes down on you that Retribution will look like a wiffle ball.

Just then, Dallas felt the cargo bay doors clang shut.  She hadn’t realized they’d been opened.  She glanced at the outside vidscreen and grinned as she watched four tan hovercraft disappear into the billowing sand.

Dallas retrieved the com handset and said, “Go ahead and try it, sir.”  Then, throwing all the ship’s power into upward thrust, she shot into the atmosphere, shattering windows of the compound with the sonic boom that followed.

The first sound she heard after the rumble of atmosphere on her ship’s nose was, Retribution fired on the compound!  Get a lock on it now!

Just like flight school, Dallas told herself as blinking dots on her viewscreen started moving towards her like an army of red ants.  Forcing herself not to think about the numbers, Dallas switched off autopilot corrections, going full-manual.  It was something only done in absolute emergencies…

…or by stick-fairies.  Those who had the magic touch, when it came to flying machines.  Dallas just hoped she still had the touch.  Athenais hadn’t let her go full-manual after kidnapping her.  Ever.  The bitch.

Within the first ten seconds of being on manual, feeling the ship vibrate through the controls, the elegant machine responding to her whims like a lover, Dallas knew that she hadn’t lost her touch.  Retribution felt right.  Like it, and all the space within a full ten kilometers, was part of her.  Taking a deep breath, she settled the comset over her head and said, “Attention Erriat Fleet.  This is Dallas York of Retribution.  Stand down, or you’re all gonna be flying home to Erriat in life-pods.”  They deserved a warning, after all.  It was only fair.

She heard a crackle, then a laugh.  Someone said, “Is she freakin’ serious?”

Must be weedin’,” another answered.

Dallas shrugged.  Warning given.

She reached out and tenderly patted the ship’s controls.  “All right, kitten.  Let’s show ‘em your claws.”  She centered herself, located the nearest red blip on the screen, and, with a prayer to whoever was listening, threw Retribution forward, cannons blazing.

A moment later, the first Erriatian ship lost an engine and started spinning out of control, headed for deep space.  Dallas had been careful not to hit the cockpit.  That was just rude.

Holy shit, that thing’s a gunship!” someone screamed into the com.  “Take it out, take it out!”

“Wouldn’t you love that, buster?” Dallas muttered to herself, concentrating on tapping the controls just right to avoid slamming into the ship ahead of her.  A Dragonspawn, she thought, recognizing the sleeker structure.  Shoot for the tail, that automatic part of her thought.  Power’s in the tail.  She pummeled the core as she went by, sending flares of plasma and fluid jetting out into space to get swept up in her backwash.  Behind her, the enemy ship went dead in the water.

Get it!” someone was screaming.  “It was right there!”

Then another, “Jesus, I think she’s on manual.”

And a third, “That’s impossible.”

Dallas decided now was a good time to get back on com.  Triggering the receiver absently, she touched off another volley of shots as she simultaneously rolled out of the way of a guy whose crash-protection-system engaged at the last minute and swept him up and back, instead of in and around, which he would have needed to get a good shot. “Not really impossible,” she said, distractedly, “just kinda hard.”  She blasted another Dragonspawn in the tail, disabling its core before slamming past, coming only meters from pasting herself across his flank.  Mentally, she crossed off another one of the little red dots on her screen.

My system’s overriding me!” someone shouted.  “She’s too close to get a clear shot!”

“She’s a stick-fairy!” another guy shouted.  “Holy crap, we’re dealing with a fairy.”

“She ain’t a goddamned fairy,” someone else snapped back.  “That ship just got a better course-corrector.”

Wait a minute,” a man’s voice said, going quiet.  “What did she say her name was?”

“Does it matter?” an eighth voice demanded.

There was a fairy, a couple years back.  Got kicked out of the Corps for something.”

Oh shut up and bring her down.  She ain’t a damned fairy.  Next one I hear say that is grounded for a term.”

Dallas, meanwhile, kept picking them out of the sky.  She tried to be nice about it, too, knowing that they were probably all regular Joes that just needed a job that wasn’t bussing tables at a hotel restaurant, but after charging the eighth ship ahead of her until its internal course-corrector chickened out and banked left instead of right, she miscalculated and left it full of holes much closer to the live-space than she liked.

“Sorry,” Dallas said quickly, feeling a little guilty.  She tapped lightly on the interstellar throttle, leaving the others in the dust, then swept around to come in behind Erriat.  “You all okay in there?”

Wasn’t anyone on board but me,” the pilot said, sounding a bit deflated.  While his com still worked, his drive engines certainly did not.

You mean she’s not even aiming for the cockpits?!”

“I said escape-pods, not body-bags,” Dallas reminded them, feeling her face scrunching with concentration.  She pushed her throttle ever-so-slightly forward, darting towards the central ship.  “It took a few minutes, but I’m getting back into the hang of things.  Is easier than I remembered, actually.  I’ll let as many of you live as I can.”

To hell with this shit.  I’m out.”

“Get your ass back in the fight!  She’s bluffing, you moron.  You turn back around or I’ll have your—”  His transmission ended in a fluff of static as Dallas took out the commander’s com system.

“Think he can do without his ranting, whaddaya say, fellahs?” Dallas said, weaving between the rest of the fleet, whose crash-guards immediately sent them scattering like mice.

There was a long silence.  Then someone said, “You really a stick-fairy?”

“Yeah,” Dallas said absently.  “Why?”  She tapped her portside thrusters to execute a quick turn.  The command ship was still firing at her, so she had to sweep in to put a round through his engine room, sending a silent prayer that the captain had followed standard dogfight procedure and had the crew sealed in the cockpit, where they had easy access to lifepods.

Maaan,” someone groaned.  “The next few hours are really going to suck.”

“I call dibs on a date, if she lives.”

Dallas grinned at the controls.  “Gotta catch me, first, hotshot.”  She shoved the throttle forward and settled into the rhythm of marking off little red dots in her mind.



Wings of Retribution


Dallas disabled the last Home Guard battleship after seven excruciating hours of dodging the Guard’s and the Planetary Weapons System’s combined efforts to shoot her down.  It had been forty-one ships in all.  Not the massive fleet she had been fearing, but still enough for several close calls.

Dallas breathed a huge sigh of relief as she watched the last ship’s evacuation pod shoot out toward Erriat.  Then she picked up the com set.

“Erriat Weapons Control, this is Retribution.  Halt all land-to-air missiles and other hostile fire or I will start destroying your arrays.  Over.”

Her entire body was shaking.  It was the biggest adrenaline rush she had ever had, and now that it was over, exhaustion was overtaking her.  It was all she could do to sit up straight.

Affirmative, Retribution.  Weapons Control is backing down.

Dallas hovered on the edge of the atmospheric haze, waiting for news from the rest of her crew.  She was drifting asleep when it came.

Dallas, rendezvous at 652.91 South, 232.03 West.  Have the regen room ready.

Dallas snapped awake and checked her coordinates.  She tilted Retribution downward and began her descent.  She picked up the com gear, switched to the private frequency, and said, “Who’s hurt?”

Just get here fast.

She did.  When she landed, four people rushed aboard the ship and Rabbit slammed the airlock shut.  Then her mind twitched.  Four?

“Go!” Rabbit shouted.

Stunned, Dallas lifted off.  She did a few halfhearted aerial maneuvers to dupe ground-to-air missiles, but the weapons arrays remained quiet.

Just get the hell off my planet, a man muttered over the com.  And tell Rabbit he just made my shit list.  She heard a click, then the buzz of static as the voice added, Again.

Worried, Dallas switched on the shipwide intercom.  “Rabbit?  What’s going on?”

“Just fly, Dallas,” was all Rabbit said.

Hands shaking on the same controls she had just manipulated with more finite delicacy than a hypercomputer, Dallas did.  “Rabbit?” she asked again, after a few minutes jetting into the starlane.  “You guys okay back there?”

She got no answer.

As soon as they were out of range of Erriat, Dallas put the ship in autopilot and lurched out of her seat.  Heart in her throat, she jogged to the regen room.

Athenais and Tommy were standing outside.

One look at Athenais’s face and Dallas realized that Darley had been right.  The captain was haggard, her shaved head showing a prison barcode across her scalp.  There were new lines in her face and she didn’t even meet Dallas’s eyes for more than a moment.  She looked like a totally different woman.  Almost…pathetic.

For a moment, Dallas could not speak.  She just stared at the stranger before her and tried to remember why she had ever wanted to trap her in the airlock.  To bust her down a peg, surely.  But there would be no point, anymore.  She didn’t have any pegs left.

“Who’s hurt?” she managed, tearing her eyes away from Athenais.

“Rabbit’s in there with Stuart,” Tommy said.  “Darley didn’t make it.”

Dallas swallowed hard.  She turned toward the door and pushed it open.

Inside, Stuart lay in a bloody pool of regen fluid.  The wound must have been bad, since the water was almost opaque.  It took Dallas a moment to realize that Rabbit was holding a gun to Stuart’s head.

“Dallas, get out of here,” Rabbit snapped.  “He’s desperate for a new host.  He’s losing his mind already.”  Then, like in a slowed-down horror vid, Dallas saw Rabbit’s finger start to squeeze on the trigger.

He’s going to kill him, Dallas realized, horrified.

“Get away from him!” Dallas blurted, rushing inside.  She shoved Rabbit out of the way, putting her body between her and the convulsing suzait.  “You can’t!  He’s a friend!”

“If I don’t,” Rabbit growled, “he’s gonna try to take one of us for host.  Tommy, come get Dallas out of here!”  He shoved past her and put the gun back to Stuart’s skull.

Behind her, the door opened.

“I’ll be the host!”

It took Dallas a moment to realize that the words had come out of her own mouth.  When she did, her heart started to hammer, but she didn’t take them back.

Rabbit’s gun lowered a bit.  Sweat was beading on his forehead and upper lip.  In the pool, the man’s body was beginning to go still.  Rabbit looked to him, then back up at her.  “Are you serious?”

“Yes, yes!” she snapped, pushing the gun back towards the linoleum.  “Get out!  You shoot him, I swear to god, I’ll fly this ship into an asteroid belt.”

“We can’t let you host that thing,” Colonel Howlen said.  “We need you to fly the ship.”

“Athenais can fly it,” Dallas growled.  “Put the goddamned gun down, Rabbit.”

“Athenais…isn’t herself.  I’m not sure we can trust her to fly just yet.”

You fly it then,” Dallas cried.  “You’ve been angling for my job since the beginning.”  She gestured at the helm in frustration.  “Well, now you have it!”

Tommy actually lowered his eyes a bit.  “I think we’d be better off if you did it.”

The body in the pool let out a long, deep moan.

“Someone please just get her out of here while I take care of this!” Rabbit snapped, trying to step past her again.

“I’m warning you, Rabbit…” Dallas growled, pushing him back, “You shoot him and you’ll be sorry.”

Rabbit held the gun in place a few seconds more, then seemed to collapse under the strain.  He backed away from the regen pool and sheathed his weapon.

“Go ahead,” he said, waving at the corpse.  “He’s all yours.”

“Get out.”

Rabbit opened his mouth, eyes on the body, but then caught her eyes and simply shook his head.  He turned and followed Tommy out into the hall.

Dallas locked the door behind him.  When she went over to Stuart, she realized that he was still breathing.  Or, trying to, at least.  The gaping wound in his chest was oozing bubbles and blood faster than the regen fluid could repair it.

“Listen to me, Stuart,” Dallas said.  She grabbed the dying man’s hand.  “I’m gonna pull you out of there and hold your head over mine.  I saw what you did with Pete.  He was a bit banged up afterward, but he was still alive, so I’m not too scared.  You can use me until you can find a new host on Terra-9, okay?”

She thought she saw Stuart’s eyes flicker towards her and a nod.

Straining, Dallas hefted Stuart as far up the rim of the regen pool as she could, then levered him over the edge.  With both of her feet planted onto the polymer side of the pool, she grabbed him by the shoulders and heaved him the rest of the way to the floor, slopping red liquid all over the clean white tiles.  Immediately, her breath caught.  Stuart’s wound was worse than she first imagined.  He was missing a leg and his lower body was shredded.

And, now that she looked, she realized she must have imagined the nod, because this man was dead.  Blood was pushing a clear sheen of regen fluid out of its path in a crimson stain across the linoleum.  She looked down at the corpse and flinched back when the eyes blinked at her.

That’s not possible, Dallas thought.  The man was obviously dead.

Then she realized you could make a dead frog’s legs twitch, with a little electricity applied in the right spots.

Oh god…  Dallas suddenly had the time-stopping realization that she was planning on taking a mind-controlling parasite into her brain.

One that was making a dead man’s head turn, a hand clumsily reaching towards her leg…

What the hell was she thinking?  Dallas automatically took a step back, letting the hand fall to the linoleum.  The dead man peered up at her—like someone looking through a hundred feet of glass—but didn’t attempt to follow her.  She saw resignation, there.  And fear.  Then the corpse went limp, head flopped back to stare at the ceiling.

Time began to tick past.  Seconds turned into minutes, but Dallas couldn’t work up the courage to get down on her knees with the suzait.  She glanced up at the door, suddenly wishing Rabbit were back in here with her.

She again glanced down at the corpse.  Somehow, she felt like his time was running out.  Just how long could he last in there?  Was he already dead?  She cringed, realizing she might have already killed him.  Guilt started curdling her stomach.  Had she given him hope in his last minutes, only to stand over him and watch him die?

Well, dearie, she realized, there’s one way to find out.

Her mother had always said she was a ballsy little wench.  Heart pounding like a sledge against her ribs, Dallas gingerly reclined on the floor beside the corpse and wiggled until she was lying within reach of the head.  Reaching out, she lifted his head just enough to slip her own head under his.

Oh gods, she prayed, Please let this not be the biggest mistake of my li—

It happened fast.

No sooner were their ears lined up than the suzait pounced.  At first, it was just an uncomfortable warm, wet wiggling in her ear, like a schoolmate’s Wet Willy, but then something began ripping at the inside and Dallas, despite herself, clawed at her ear and began to scream.

She could feel it eating its way inside her skull.  Her head was pounding like someone was crushing it with the bow of a ship.  She couldn’t think, couldn’t move.  She thought she was going to die.

Oh god it hurts, she whimpered, her entire body trembling.  Her limbs felt like they were on fire, and her sinuses felt superheated and pressurized all at once.  And then there was the gnawing, grinding pain inside her ear, the overwhelming sound of her own flesh being ripped apart…  Oh god, oh god…  She screamed until her lungs couldn’t hold air.

And then, almost by magic, the pounding stopped.

I shut off the pain receptors in the right side of your head, something said to her.

Dallas jerked.  “Stuart?”

Sorry it hurt so much.  I didn’t have the energy left to stun you.  I used it all up after the host died.

“It’s okay,” Dallas said stupidly.  All she could think was, I have a parasite in my brain.

And he was talking to her.

She was so dead.

Dallas lay on her back on the linoleum, staring at the blood-spattered ceiling, waiting for him to take over.

She waited.

Several minutes passed.  Then, when they simply continued to lay there, lukewarm blood seeping into her clothes where they touched the floor, the dead man rapidly cooling beside them, Dallas frowned and said, “Aren’t you gonna do something?”

Like what? Stuart asked, sounding genuinely curious.

Dallas blushed furiously.  “Well, uh, I thought you had to, uh, you know…?”

Stuart waited.

Dallas frowned.  “You’re just gonna sit there?”

She heard a soft chuckle.  Well, I can certainly take control of motor functions, if that would make you feel more comfortable.  But considering how you’re not a mass murderer who’s likely to kill everyone the moment I release the controls, I had thought I’d let you lead. After all, you volunteered for the transfer. 

The way he said ‘volunteered’ felt alien, full of awe, edged with reverence.

“Hell, no,” Dallas stammered.  “I mean, not that I really have any…I mean…I just thought you had to, is all.”  Dallas was trying not to think about the warm liquid that was welling up inside her ear.  Please don’t let that be brain juices, she thought.   Sitting up, she tilted her head towards the floor.  A trickle of blood dribbled from her ear to mix with the red pool on the tiles.

As soon as she did, her gut spasmed and she added her breakfast to the slurry of blood and regen juices on the floor.

One of the side-effects, Stuart said, in gentle apology.  Humans weren’t built for this sort of thing.

Dallas groaned and wiped her mouth, hands shaking.  Her joints didn’t feel as strong as they used to, and she wondered if that was the vomiting or the brain damage.

The vomiting, Stuart assured her.  I was very, very careful.

There was something tender about his assurance, and it made her feel a lot better.  Dallas swallowed down another wash of bile.  God, she really hated to vomit.  Kind of like sawing off ring-fingers and snacking on rat poison…  It was just not on her list of priorities.  Dallas pushed herself back up into a seated position and eyed the room around them.  She could imagine what her mother would say, if she’d seen her now.  My daughter the hotshot flippin’ pilot.  Well, you may fly like a bat outta hell, but you ain’t smarter than a goddamn doornail, are ya, girl?  You never were a bright one.  All twists and turns and no straight and narrow.  Well, it’s too late, now.  No going back, babe.  You’re his meat-puppet now.

It’s not like that, Stuart said softly.

Dallas cleared her throat nervously, uncomfortable that he could read her thoughts.

…and completely unable to do anything about it.

To keep from falling into full-blown panic, she decided to change the subject.  “So…” Dallas whispered tentatively, “you can you see what I see?”

I set myself up as an observer.  I can hear, see, smell, and feel everything you can. 

Dallas wiped her nose—which was bleeding—and glanced down at Stuart’s last host, now a dead body.  She stared at it a moment, taking in the damage, realizing that could be her in a week or two.  Finally, she whispered, “What hit you?”

Shrapnel from a grenade I didn’t toss far enough.  My sleeve caught on the ATV’s windshield as I was throwing it.

Oh, great.  It was self-induced.  That was so much better.  “What happened to Darley?”

A mob tore off his body armor before they took his gun and shot him.  He drove himself halfway here, but he died on the way.  With only Rabbit and Howlen driving the other two ATVs, we had to leave him there.

“What about Athenais?  She couldn’t drive?”

I’m not sure.  That’s when my memory starts to get fuzzy.

I thought you had a memory equal to a thousand of us human brains.”

I do, but as soon as my host’s vision grew dim, I couldn’t really see what was going on around me too well.

“Oh.”

Something pounded on the other side of the door.

“Come on out, worm,” Tommy shouted.  He pounded again, hard, sneering, “What’s taking you so long?  Feeling guilty that you just put your only friend in this world into a coma?”

“Shut up, you old prude!” Dallas snapped.  “I’m not in a coma.  I’m sorting things out and I’ll come out whenever I’m damn good and ready.”  Then she paused as another thought occurred to her.  “Oh, and forget what I said about giving you the pilot’s seat!”

There was a pause on the other side of the door.

“Dallas?”

“Speaking of that, could one of you go check the autopilot?  I didn’t plot a course when I left, so I have no idea where we’re going.”

She heard someone curse on the other side of the door and hurried footsteps down the hall.

“Was he already dead, then?”  Rabbit this time, his voice almost gentle.

“He’s fine.  Stop shouting.  My head is starting to hurt.”

You’ll probably need to sleep for a few hours.  Transfer is a draining experience, and it doesn’t help that you were exhausted to start.  That was impressive flying up there.  Was all over the radio.  No one told me you were a stick fairy.

What,” Dallas muttered, pressing her hand to the side of her head, “You just thought Rabbit was signing all our death-slips?”

Pretty much. 

Dallas snorted, and had to wipe more blood from her lips when it came out her nose.  “So everybody just called me Fairy because…?”

That actually caught him a moment.  …they were cruel?

Dallas hadn’t actually thought about that before.  But it was true…they all knew she hated being called Fairy.  She just thought they’d all done it because Athenais made them.

Then again, she’d called Goat Goat and Dune Dune, even when she knew they had real names.  Hell, she couldn’t even remember their real names.  She hadn’t known Squirrel had been born Veronica until she found an old love-letter from some dude on Thorn stuffed in the bottom of her dresser.  And in her own defense, she’d only pulled it out because it was paper, not a chip, and had the most delicate calligraphy she’d ever seen, and if Squirrel had wanted to keep it secret, she should have copied it to a chip or locked it away somewhere, not left it out, all pretty and beautiful, where anybody could find it.

Dallas started crawling across the linoleum to reach the wall, which she intended to use to stabilize herself long enough to stand up.

You should lie down.  At least give yourself a few minutes to adjust.

“I don’t need to adjust, I need to get back to the controls,” Dallas protested, wobbling to her feet.  “They’ll smash us into something.”

Rabbit got around pretty well with Aurora. Howlen had Renee Beckett.  And Athenais, well…   Don’t worry.  They can just cut speed and let us drift if nothing else.

“Not gonna happ—”  Reaching for the door, Dallas lost her footing and slipped, falling to her knees in the blood.  She winced, biting out a groan.

Told you.

“Oh shut up,” she muttered, sitting down with her back to the wall.  “Why’s my balance off?  You break something in there?”

No, Stuart said quickly.  My passage threw off the fluids in your inner ear.  It’ll take a little while to adjust.  Unless you want me to take over and calculate it out manually, you’ll just have to survive on your own until it heals.

“Uh, not really?” Dallas said, knowing she really didn’t have a choice in the matter.

Okay, was all Stuart said.

“Dallas?” Rabbit demanded through the door.  “You still alive in there?”

“I said bugger off!” Dallas cried.

Oh, he’ll like that, Stuart commented.  Considering he honestly believes I’m some sort of insect.

True to form, Howlen said, “That’s funny, coming from you.  Just how lenient is the little bug being?  Is he letting you do the talking?  Or just pretending he is?”

Told you, Stuart said with a sigh.  Predictable as a pulsar.

The fact that Dallas had another seeing, speaking, thinking organism in her brain was starting to hit home, and it was all she could do not to hyperventilate.  To Stuart, she said, “Okay, so, could you, uh…  Take my mind offa…?”  She hesitated, unable to finish.

But Stuart smoothly took her cue.  Well, we already went over sexual reproduction of me, sexual reproduction of shifters, sexual reproduction of humans, sexual reproduction of dogs

“I didn’t know they had knobs,” Dallas said, in her own defense.  Then she flinched.  God, what if he made her have sex with somebody?  What if she got pregnant?  What if—

Never, Stuart interrupted, the vehemence like iron in his voice.  You have my word.  With what you just did, without any request of my own, you are more…special…to me than anything I could ever express.

“Okay,” Dallas said stupidly.  She sat there against the wall for a few minutes, trying to get the world to stop twirling as she stared at the far wall.  That she’d given herself a migraine flying circles around the Erriatian fleet couldn’t be helping.  “God, I think I might puke again.”

Outside, they were pounding on the door again.

You should probably open the door, Stuart urged gently.

“I dun wanna,” she muttered, the mere thought of crossing the room and the world-spinning that would entail leaving her close to vomiting again.

You want me to do it?

“No,” Dallas muttered.  “I want to sit here, nice and quiet, and wait for my head to stop spinning.”

Okay.

And they did.  Almost an hour, without him saying another word.  Eventually, her head stopped throbbing, and even the static fuzz left over from seven hours on manual started to diminish slightly.

Once Dallas was pretty sure she could cross the distance without puking all over herself, she levered herself off of the wall and crawled over to the door.  She walked her hands up the frame and unlatched the lock, then weakly pulled it open far enough to stick her head through.  Rabbit was standing outside.  Athenais and Tommy were gone.

“So who am I talking to?” Rabbit demanded upon seeing her.

“Get me a gurney,” Dallas said.  “I’m tired as hell and Stuart tells me I can leave Retribution in your hands for awhile without you guys turning it into a shiny new comet.”

“Dallas?  Is Stuart in there?”  Rabbit squatted down in front of her, then reached out and touched her ear.  When he pulled it back, his finger was bloody.

“Yep,” Dallas said, staring at the floor as she patted Rabbit on the shoulder.  “Don’t worry.  He doesn’t hold it against you that you almost shot him.”

Actually, I do…

“Well, it sounded good.”

“What?”  Rabbit gave her a perplexed look.  “Are you feeling all right?”

Wobbily, Dallas lifted her head and peered at him.  “Are you hard of hearing?”

“What?” Rabbit blinked.

“I just spent seven hours on manual, doin’ stuff that ain’t supposed to be possible by a human brain, coming inches from being pasted at least a dozen times, generally giving myself a migraine saving your fool asses, and now I’m gonna take a nap.”  She pointed down the hall.  “Gurney.  Now.”

Rabbit must have seen his little red dot about to get crossed off on her mental map, because he got up and darted off.

Deciding to get an early start on her beauty rest, Dallas fell face-forward into the hallway and passed out.




Wings of Retribution

The Fate of the Shifters


“Well, that’s six hours of my life I’ll never see again,” Rabbit said, heaving a huge sigh.  He engaged the autopilot—it took him a moment to figure out where it was, Athenais noted—then reached up and rubbed his eyes.  “Gods…  I don’t know why anyone would willingly spend their lives staring at a debris field.”

Disengaging the chair swivel-lock and turning from the console, Rabbit took the two minutes it took to completely unstrap himself from the complex safety harness.  Every line, right down to his impact-prevention ankle straps—which would supposedly keep a man’s knees from snapping off, if the ship’s grav system went down before an impact—had been cinched into place before he ever picked up the controls.

He always has been a stickler for the rules, Athenais thought, watching.  Part of what made him a crappy pilot.  Personally, she’d rather risk being thrown around a bit in order to have faster access to an escape pod.  She’d been in plenty of crashes where seconds meant lives.

Well, not her life.  Angus had made that pretty clear.  Athenais immediately squeezed her eyes shut against the images that followed, gut clenching.

Getting up from the console beside her, Rabbit stretched, yawning.  After a moment, he motioned to the pilot’s seat.  “Your turn, Attie.  You can try the intercom again, but I’m pretty sure Dallas is still out of it, and Tommy already had his go.”

Realizing he wanted her in the pilot’s seat, Athenais froze.  “No.”

“It’s your turn,” Rabbit said, irritation flashing across his lean face.

Athenais gave him a stiff smile, the thought of being back behind the controls leaving her stomach to curdle.  What’s the matter, Attie?  Angus’s voice was like blades in her mind.  Got another crew killed?  How long’d you have this one?  A few months?  “I really don’t feel up to it.”

“Feel like it or not, you need to take your shift.”

“Blow off, Rabbit,” Athenais snarled, lurching to her feet.  “Let the damn thing drift for all I care.”  She turned to leave.

Rabbit caught her arm with a bony grip.  “Look, Attie, Beetle wasn’t your fault.  It was Guv Black, pure and simple.  And he’ll get what’s comin’ to him just as soon as we get the shifters.”

Athenais wearily glanced at the controls.  “As soon as we get the shifters, they’re gonna want me to help them destroy the Potion.  There’s too many things on my mind right now to fly.”

“What potion?” Rabbit asked, frowning.  “The Potion?”

“Yeah.  The shifters think you and I’ve got the right stuff to make an antidote for the Potion, since we’re both originals.  They want to dish it out to everybody the same way my father put it in our fruit punch.”

Rabbit stared at her.  Finally, he whispered, “Are you serious?”

“Crazy, huh?” Athenais slumped into her chair and stared at the controls.  She got another little curl of self-loathing as she looked at the flickering lights, knowing that everything that Angus had said had been completely true.  She’d gotten them all killed.  Over and over again.  Every crew, every friend she ever had, except for Rabbit.  And the only reason he’d survived was that he couldn’t die.

Before she could resignedly hit the swivel-lock, Rabbit came up behind her and spun her around to face him, his hands digging into her shoulders.

“Attie, are you serious?” he demanded, in her face.

“You think I’d lie about something like that?” she snorted.

“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”  He looked hurt.  “I’da come with you.”

“And then we wouldn’t have had anyone to save our asses when Howlen left us there to die.”  She scowled at him.  “Why did you bring that Utopi hardass along, anyway?  This is the shittiest crew I’ve ever seen.  You hired a drunkard, a parasite, a Utopi diehard, and goddamn Fairy.  I never wanted to see her face again.”

“She could say the same for you.  And as for the drunkard, he’s dead.  The parasite seems to have taken up residence in Dallas’s head, which I’m not sure is a bad thing, and your Utopi diehard just got finished breaking you outta a government penitentiary.”

Athenais felt her face darken.  “And now I’m responsible for another death.”

“Oh, spare me your defeatist horseshit,” Rabbit sighed, straightening.  “If I wanted drama, I could go throw in a teary vid and scrounge up some chocolate ice-cream.”

Athenais made a miserable snort and just shook her head.

“Just can the five-year-old self-pity for a moment, okay?” Rabbit snapped, startling her.  In all the years they’d known each other, he’d always been unassuming and soft-spoken, and she couldn’t remember the last time he’d sworn.  “Doesn’t suit you,” Rabbit continued, “and sure as hell isn’t doing you any good.”  As Athenais narrowed her eyes at him, Rabbit gestured at the ship in general.  “Everybody dies.  It was just as well we gave Darley a good cause to die for.”

“I didn’t deserve getting rescued,” Athenais muttered.  “I earned that place, just as surely as if I’d died and gone to Hell.”

To Athenais’s surprise—partially because she didn’t expect it and partially because she didn’t see him move—Rabbit hit her.

“What the hell is your problem?!” Athenais snapped, lunging out of her chair to look down on the wiry little man, fists drawn.  “Don’t think I got enough of that on bloody Erriat?!”

Rabbit shrugged, a mountain of calm that was completely unconcerned with how close she was to smashing him into the carpet.  “You’ve clearly lost your mind.  I was trying to knock some sense into you.”

Oh, he almost got it.  Right there.  Fortunately, the logical portion of Athenais’s brain remembered exactly what had happened to her the last time she’d tried to take on Rabbit in a melee.  The little bastard had a penchant for judo.

…As well as every other martial art, combat style, and dirty trick that humanity had come up with in its last ten thousand years of existence.  When he was bored, Rabbit would take up a false identity, leave The Shop under the care of a lieutenant, and go found a monastery on a wilderness planet, where he would live for a few decades teaching students the ways of splitting other people’s skulls open.

Guess being small and weighing a hundred pounds and having the Father of the Utopia still ruthlessly hunting him for some millennia-old heist would do that to a guy.

Bearing her teeth, Athenais forced her fists to unclench.  “I’m not really seeing your point.”

Rabbit calmly clasped his hands in front of his stomach.  “My point is you’ve got an opportunity to bring down Marceau and the Utopia and instead you’re sitting around, whimpering like a wounded dog.  Sure, Erriat was uncomfortable.  And yes, I can imagine that Angus was his normal pain in the ass self.  But really, Attie, get over it.  You’re over seven thousand years old and you’re acting like a toddler that stubbed her toe.”

Athenais bristled.  “Getting sent to Erriat was a lot different than stubbing your toe.  Maybe you should try it, to put things in perspective.”

“I have plenty of perspective,” Rabbit told her, with that infuriating calm.  “And right now, what I see is that you’re off of Errait, you’re on a new ship, with a new crew, and you’ve got the chance you’ve been waiting for, yet you’re too busy blowing it because you’re too caught up in the past.  Shit happens.  Learn from it, ignore it, compartmentalize it and stuff it into some twisted corner of your mind, but goddamn it, Attie, don’t dwell on it.”

She leaned down at him and jabbed a finger into his scrawny chest.  “You’re lucky this is your ship and not mine,” Athenais growled.  “I’da chucked you into space by now if this was Beetle.”

“After my daring rescue?”  He grinned at her.  “I think not.”

“What do you mean, daring?  You stormed in waving flesh-seeking missiles at guards carrying batons and stun-guns.  It’s a wonder they didn’t shit themselves.”

Rabbit lifted his chin heroically.  “I will claim it was a daring raid by the forces of good and justice until I die.”

Athenais laughed.  “If it makes you feel better.”

“It does.  And it made you feel better, too, didn’t it?”  He winked.

Athenais prickled.  “Go to bed you old fart.  Last thing I need is a crimelord lecturing me on Zen.”

“I wouldn’t dream of lecturing you,” Rabbit said, innocently.  “I have better ways to spend my time than teaching pig-headed mules how not to be mules.”

Athenais narrowed her eyes at him again.  “Out.”

Chuckling, Rabbit bowed and departed.  Athenais glared after him a moment, then swung back to the controls and took the ship out of auto-pilot, muttering to herself.

…not pig-headed, she thought, bitterly.  Who’s he to talk, anyway?  ‘Zen master.’  She snorted, loudly.  Lecherous old hypocrite.

Hours later, Dallas came stumbling into the control room, bleary-eyed and with half her straw-blonde hair matted to her head in a bloody cake.  “Where we goin?”

“Hell if I know,” Athenais said.  “Howlen set the course.  I’m just drivin’ it.”

“Well, you can take a break,” the little twit said in a tone that sounded suspiciously like an order.  “It’s my turn.”

“I’m fine,” Athenais said, casually poring over the debris grid.  “Go get something to eat, Fairy.  Hell, take a shower.  You stink like blood and you look like shit.  I’ll have somebody come get you when I’m feeling tired.”

Fairy stared at her so long that Athenais had to turn around and see if she was still there.

She was.  The little twit bit out, “My name is Dallas York and I’m the captain of this ship.  You go take a shower, you bald leprechaun.”

Captain?! an amused part of her brain laughed.  Just who does the little twit think she is?  Athenais flipped on the autopilot and turned to face her directly.  “What did you call me?”

Fairy squared her shoulders and lifted her chin to look up at her.  “A bald, nasty, over-sized leprechaun.  You wanna fight about it?”

Athenais looked down Dallas’s petite frame, then laughed.  “Here, Fairy.  You can drive.  I wouldn’t wanna get pummeled.”

Fairy took the controls, glowering.  Almost reluctantly, the girl muttered, “You’re doin’ better.”

“So are you, it seems.  Finally got your own ship again.  Retribution’s a beauty.  You’re lucky Rabbit bought it for you.  He’s usually not so generous with my money.”

Fairy twitched.  “‘Your’ money?”

“Yeah,” Athenais said, loving the way the little twit’s face was paling.  She yawned and cocked her head at her.  “Why…  You didn’t think he was gonna rescue me with his own money, did you?”  Seeing that the girl obviously had, Athenais scoffed.  “I’ve lost too many ships for him to make a gamble like that.  Besides, he spends half his time meditating in the mountains.  I’ve got investments all over the Quads.  I’m probably one of the richest people in the Utopia, after Angus and Juno.”

Fairy stiffened, her hands gripping the stick with white knuckles.  “Retribution’s mine.  He said so.  That was the deal.”

“Technically, it’s mine.”  Athenais slumped down beside Fairy in the navigator’s seat.  “But I might sign the title over to you.  After all, you did help them rescue me.”

Fairy was staring straight ahead at the debris screen, stiff as an iron statue.

Maybe,” Athenais stressed.  “But before I do, you’ll have to work for me awhile.  Just like old times.”

Fairy opened her mouth to object, but Athenais raised a hand to silence her.  “Before you say something we’ll both regret, hear me out.  Retribution’s worth ten, twenty million easy.  For that kind of money, I’m gonna get some more outta you than a few hours of fancy flyin.”

Fairy’s brows furrowed, but she continued to stare straight ahead, saying nothing.  In the silence that followed, the dweeb started muttering under her breath, hands bone-white on the controls.

The little fool actually thought the ship was hers, Athenais thought, mystified and amused at the same time.  The poor darling.  She tisked.  “Let me guess.  Rabbit said you could have the ship, but then didn’t even bother to sign over the title to you, am I right?”

Fairy was absolutely still as she stared at the debris field.

“Listen, little girl,” Athenais said gently, “Rabbit an’ I, we been around the block a bit.  You don’t think we know how to get a little brat like you to do what we want, when we want it?”

“I hate you,” Fairy whispered.

“Of course you do,” Athenais laughed.  “So how’s this sound…  You’re gonna stay on board as my copilot until I’m done with this shifter foolishness.  You’re gonna help me get the shifters back, then get us all through the blockade at Penoi, then fly us all home.  After that, I’ll happily part ways and the ship’s yours.  Whaddaya say, Fairy?”

Fairy was silent for long minutes.  Finally, she unclenched her hands from the stick and turned to Athenais.

“Stop calling me Fairy.  My name’s Dallas.”  Her blue eyes were like cold, steely diamonds.

Athenais chortled.  “You can be Dallas when you own Retribution.  Until then, you’re still a Fairy.”

Fairy’s pert face scrunched into an angry mask.  “I’d rather work in a whorehouse than work for you.”

“I’m sure Rabbit can arrange that.”  Athenais stood, the exhaustion of the last weeks finally setting in.  “Until then, drive.  If I’m feeling in a generous mood when I wake up, I might forget to mention it to him.”

At her back, she heard Dallas mutter, “No wonder your crew abandoned you on Rinel.”

Athenais paused, the words striking like a dagger.  “Who told you that?”

Fairy, obviously sensing a weakness, flashed her teeth like a predator.  “Talked to Rabbit on the way here.  Lost your second Beetle to mutiny, along with several mil in cargo, from what he told me.”

“They were space-rats,” Athenais growled, furious that Rabbit would disclose her personal life to this snoopy little wretch, “But since you never piloted your own civilian ship, you wouldn’t have much experience with them.  Smallfoot, for instance, was a space-rat.”

Fairy’s face showed her surprise and Athenais laughed.

“Yeah.  The burly little oaf was after my ship, but he never could cajole me out of the codes.  Was constantly trying to get the others to mutiny on me, but they always blew him off.  You’re the only one who ever listened to him.  Probably wanted to get him in bed, didn’t you, you horny little toad?  He played you like a fiddle.”

Fairy reddened until her head looked purple.  “He wasn’t my type.”

“Sure he wasn’t,” Athenais snorted, enjoying the way the little twerp was getting her hackles up.  “That’s why you told him about the shifters.”

Stiffening, Fairy said, “If you knew Smallfoot was a space-rat, why didn’t you kill him?”

Athenais shrugged.  “He was the best surgeon I ever seen.  Had him under control as long as he didn’t stand to benefit from turning us in.  I just never counted on you blabbin’ to him about shifters like some know-nothing boot straight outta the Academy.”

“I may not have had my own command for very long,” Fairy growled, “But I know you don’t keep an enemy on board your ship.  That’s crazy.”

Athenais shrugged.  “For someone who’s walking around with a suzait in her skull, you’re one to talk.”

Fairy opened her mouth, then shut it again.

Athenais grinned at the girl’s naïveté, finding it almost cute.  “And s’pose he gets it in his head he doesn’t wanna sit in the navigator’s seat any longer?” Athenais continued, stroking a hand down the navigator’s console thoughtfully.  “What’ll you do when he decides to take up the controls for himself?”

“He won’t do that,” Fairy blurted, but Athenais detected the fear behind her words.

“So you say.”  Athenais shrugged.  “It’s your head, I s’pose.  But I’ve got a history with suzait.  Got nineteen years to get to know ‘em.  He makes one wrong move, and I’m shooting you in the head.  No questions asked.”

Fairy looked shocked.  “You can’t do that!  I told him he could take me on a spin if he wanted to.”

Athenais froze, staring at the girl in disgust, then shuddered.  “Well, I’m telling him he can’t.  I know he can hear me, and if I so much as suspect he’s taken over in there, he’s gonna have a very personal and very brief introduction to the contents of my pistol.”

Fairy’s expression instantly flickered to a smooth, mountainous calm that reminded her of Rabbit, and a soft, much less flippant voice replied, “You won’t have to worry about me, Captain.  Dallas and I have an understanding.”

Fairy’s face returned to normal and she scowled at nothing.  “You just proved her right, stupid.”  Then she cocked her head just a little, as if listening to a response.

Athenais watched Fairy argue with herself with mixed feelings.  If the suzait was willing to argue, it meant Fairy had a good chance of him holding up his side of the bargain and keeping his tentacles off the controls.

She watched Fairy continue the argument for a few moments, then left the cockpit, shaking her head.  Even a fool knew that the suzait wouldn’t be satisfied with backseat driving.  Sooner or later, the girl was toast.  Athenais just hoped she managed to eke a few more of those fancy flights out of her before the worm decided to take over.



Wings of Retribution


“If it would please you to stand up, master.”  The young man’s voice was accompanied by an uncomfortable prodding sensation in Ragnar’s side, and together they nagged him out of unconsciousness.  Ragnar groaned, remembering little of the last few days—or weeks??—aside from the fact that he’d been carted around, bartered, and sold like a prized exotic beast.  Most of it, he had been either drugged or in a sealed compartment, which had lent to lots of sleeping.

The prodding continued.  “The Emperor’s Will is to view you now.”

Ragnar opened his eyes and realized that one of the half-naked servants was standing nearby, eyes downcast, hands quietly folded in front of him.  The man’s face was tattooed in an angry red and black mask of what looked like a horned demon.

Ragnar glanced at Morgan and Paul, who each had a half-clothed, tattooed servant waking them.  The servants, he noticed, made absolutely sure not to touch any of them, using a two-pronged stick to prod Paul out of slumber when he refused to wake.

Glancing at his brethren, Ragnar noticed that each wore a flowing white robe—and a constricting metal collar around his neck.  Vaguely, he remembered that it was programmed to shock them into unconsciousness if it sensed the electrical impulses created when they tried to shift.

…Which was why they had all been sleeping when the servants came to wake them.  The L’kota did not wear collars.  It was against their nature.

And, now that Ragnar could once more feel the metal cinched around his neck, he felt the base instinct to shift, to flee, start surging upwards…

“Leave it alone, Ragnar,” Morgan growled, eying the three tattooed humans.  “We’ll hear them out.”

Even at his father’s command, it was difficult to control himself.

Unlike their multitudes of captors before this, the demon-faced humans made no attempts to prevent them from speaking with each other.  Instead, eyes still on the floor, the one closest to Ragnar said, “It is the Emperor’s Will that the Strangers treat you as Nobles of the Second House, but we do have permission to beat you if you do not comply with his wishes.”

Beat them?  Ragnar gingerly got to his feet and frowned at the demon-faced man, somewhat surprised to see that they were not in cages.  “Nobles of the Second House?”

Instead of replying, the man kept his face downcast.  “If it would please you to follow me, master, I will take you to the Emperor.”  His words sounded…ancient.  Almost like a vid left over from millennia past.

Then he prodded him again with the stick and the spell was broken.

Grunting, Ragnar stumbled to allow the man to direct him from the room, waiting just long enough to make sure Paul and Morgan would follow.

“What’s with the sticks?” Paul muttered in L’kota, as he and his handler caught up with Ragnar in the stone hallway.  “They’re going out of their way to avoid touching us.”  Ahead, there were three more men with forked poles standing at the end of the hall, waiting for them.

“Almost like they think we’re contagious,” Morgan said softly, also using the old tongue.

It was true, Ragnar noted, and the fact left a knot of foreboding in his gut.  Yet, on the whole of their experiences since their capture, their treatment from the demon-faced stickbearers was rather gentle in comparison.  Further, their latest set of handlers were easily the most interesting of their long list of captors.  Used to the cold utility of hardened criminals or the casual brutality of sleazy flesh-traders, Ragnar was rather impressed that, despite the sticks, they bore an attitude of humility and respect.

Their demon-faced guides stepped wide to usher them through a door with the pronged sticks.

Though they made no efforts to stop Ragnar and his kin’s conversation, their captors said nothing during the walk.  They led them from the iron-barred cell out into a glorious Old-Earth-styled palace whose tall open windows allowed light to stream onto the warm white marble, making the gauzy blue curtains flutter in the breeze.

Ragnar noticed that the deeper they went into the palace, the more guards stood in the corners, where they watched the three of them pass with bold, suspicious glances.  These were not dressed in loincloths like the other three, but wore glittering suits of armor bedecked with bright feathers and gold.  From the way the three servants avoided their glares, Ragnar guessed the warriors were much higher in the palatial pecking order than their guides.

They paused at the entrance to an outdoor rose garden.  A young man with billowing white robes and a long, embroidered silver cape stood with his back to them, inspecting a flower.  Four glittering warriors stood at attention, each stationed at a leg of a sun-tent spread above the caped man’s head, their golden armor so bright in the sun that Ragnar found it hard to look at them.

Kneeling beside the figure in white, two scarlet-robed women clashed with the calming ambiance of the place, burning Ragnar’s eyes with the intensity of their garments.  Each held a jet-black bowl, their eyes cast downward.  Standing a few paces behind the man under the pavilion, another woman in a brocaded white tunic and flowing white pants stood watching them with undisguised interest.

Ragnar’s guide slapped him in the chest with the stick, halting his forward progress.  “If it pleases you to wait here, master,” the man said to the floor, “I will see if it is the Emperor’s Will to see you now.”

Frowning at the paradox of the man’s behavior, Ragnar just nodded.  His guide immediately stepped away from the group and promptly got down on his belly and began to crawl towards the robed figure, his nose touching the cobblestones.  He wiggled right up to the edge of the sun-tent’s shadow and lay there staring at the ground in silence.

After long minutes, the Emperor turned.

Ragnar was stunned.  The tall, thin man turned out to be a boy of barely twelve years old, if that.  His eyes flickered over the man on the ground, but they alighted with interest on Ragnar and his family.

“It is Our will to see those men,” the boy said in an archaic version of Standard Utopian.  “Bring them to us.”

The man on the ground began crawling backwards and the other five servants jabbed Ragnar and his kin in the backs with their sticks, forcing them forward.  Thankfully, the rules of this place did not seem to require that the three shifters approach the young man on their bellies.  Their guards stopped them at the edge of the shade, which Ragnar guessed was reserved for the Emperor only.  When the Emperor nodded, the servants dropped to the ground and crawled away.

What is going on here? Ragnar wondered.  He couldn’t remember hearing of a society like this before.  And surely, with these massive stone buildings and obviously unique, yet well-established culture, he would have heard something.  It was…rare…that Marceau allowed an emperor to exist within his domain.  Hell, it was unheard of.

And yet, when Ragnar looked, he caught none of the unnaturally smooth faces of a Utopi anywhere.  Everyone seemed to be aging…naturally.

“Where are we?” Paul whispered, seemingly noticing the same things.

A bejeweled guard stepped away from the leg of the sun-tent and stopped in front of them.  The young Emperor seemed to be trying to show an impression of interest in a blooming yellow rosebush, but he was watching the exchange out of the corner of his eye with the flush-faced excitement of youth.

The guard snapped his fingers loudly in front of Ragnar’s nose, startling Ragnar into returning his attention to the man’s hard-lined face.  It was painted with flowing colored lines that looked like feathers and dusted with yellow sparkles.  Up close, his polished armor looked to be struck of solid gold.

“You will not look at the Emperor,” the man barked in his archaic Common.  “You will not speak to the Emperor unless it is his Will that you answer a question.  You will not spit, fart, or make any rude gestures in the Emperor’s presence.  You will keep your hands at your sides unless it is the Emperor’s Will to move them.  You will not make sudden movements in front of the Emperor.  You will not try to flee.  If you do any of these things, the Warriors will punish you.  Do you understand?”

Because he got the idea that punishment at the hands of this hard-faced gorilla—a man who wore solid gold like plates of tin—would be rather unpleasant Ragnar nodded.

The Warrior moved back to his spot at the tent’s leg and assumed a stone-still pose of attention.

Ragnar became aware of a white blur moving toward him, but he kept his eyes firmly on the ground.  The last thing he wanted to do was to insult the young boy’s tender pride, especially when he knew with gut-curdling certainty that the boy could offhandedly say a single word and he and his comrades would all be executed instantly.

“It is Our Will is that you lift your head,” the boy said.

Ragnar swallowed when he realized the youth was standing right in front of him.  Tentatively, he looked up.

The boy-emperor was only a yard away, gazing upon the three of them with hungry, eager brown eyes.

“Step forward.  Just you in the front.”

Trying not to let his nerves show, Ragnar closed the distance between them.

The boy-emperor circled him, eying him like a head of cattle.

“You are to remove your clothes.”

Ragnar did so, having no human aspirations at modesty.

“It is Our Will to know if you have trouble holding that image.  You may speak.”

“No,” Ragnar said.  “Once I shift, I stay in the new form.”

“You may put your clothes back on.”

Ragnar did.

“It is Our Will to know your name.”

“Ragnar Reeve.”

“Is this your true name or an alias?”

“My true name.”  Ragnar could not pronounce his birth-name using a human tongue, and he had been ‘Ragnar’ for so long that he even had trouble remembering all the syllables.  He also didn’t want to have to explain all that to this child-emperor.  Overall, he got the distinct impression that the less talking he did, the safer he was.

The boy-emperor stroked his beardless chin in an imitation of sagely thought.  “We have learned that you three are nobles among your kind.  It is Our Will that you be hosted as Nobles of the Second House here on Xenith.  Do you understand what this means?”

Ragnar shook his head.

Immediately, a Warrior leapt from the sun-tent and slammed a fist into Ragnar’s gut—the most tender spot upon a L’kota’s body.  Ragnar’s vision immediately burst into a thousand tiny points of light and he crumpled to his knees.

“It is Our Will that the shifters not be harmed,” the Emperor said.  He sounded impatient.

“This humble Warrior apologizes, Emperor,” the man in gold said, falling to the ground in a clatter of heavy metal.  “He will gladly slit his own throat if it is your Will.”

Holding his stomach, Ragnar groaned and stood.

The Emperor was looking at him, brown eyes curious.  “We’ll let Ragnar Reeve decide.  He is a Noble of the Second House until We say otherwise.”

The warrior did not get out of his prostrate position at the Emperor’s feet, but Ragnar could see that the man was trembling.

“What is your opinion, Ragnar Reeve?”

Ragnar glanced back at his father, who gave a slight shake of his head.

“Let him live,” Ragnar said.  “He was only trying to best serve you.”

That seemed like the correct answer, since the man got up from the ground and resumed his post at the tent pole as if nothing had happened.  He was, however, paler than his bronze-skinned comrades.

“They may be trying to serve Us,” the boy-emperor said, “But they can grow cumbersome.  It is Our Will that they take the priestesses and depart.  Our Guiding Light will protect us.”

The four men backed away without question and took the two scarlet-clad priestesses by the arms and led them off in such a way that they resembled captives.

The Emperor must have seen Ragnar’s curious look.  “The Priestesses of the Light are blind and deaf.  All priests and priestesses of Xenith must live as such, to grow closer to our divine purpose.”

“What is that?” Ragnar asked.  Then, catching himself with a wince, he added, “If I may be so bold.”

“It is that which our Emperor embodies,” the white-clad woman said as she approached.  She had a hard look to her that made Ragnar think of Athenais.

She also had perfectly smooth skin.

“Minds that convey messages without words,” she continued.  “Bodies that can heal others with only a touch.”  At that, she pulled an obsidian knife from her belt and drew the glittering black blade across her palm.  It cut deep, slicing into the flesh of her hand.  When she withdrew the blade, blood began to spurt from the wound.

The Emperor moved toward her and took her hand in his.  He moved a finger over the cut and it stopped bleeding.  Behind Ragnar, his father muttered something softly under his breath.

The woman sheathed her knife without glancing down at her hand.  Ragnar didn’t like her eyes.  A soft blue-green, they were also dead.  Utterly devoid of any emotion.  The kind that belonged to a mass-murderer…or a psychopath.

Proudly, the woman said, “Our society on Xenith constantly moves toward humanity’s ultimate goal.  Each Emperor is stronger than the last as the power builds within us and within our children.  In just a few millennia, Xenith will control its own destiny.  We will emerge to rule our own quadrant of space and all the ships in the Utopia will not be able to stop us.”

“You speak as though a few millennia is a small thing,” Morgan noted softly behind him.  “You’re another of the originals, aren’t you?”

The woman gave Morgan an odd look, the flatness of her eyes flickering for a moment.

“What does he speak of?” the Emperor said.

“He is confused,” the woman said, and it sounded as if she were speaking to Ragnar and his brethren, not the Emperor.  “I am the Guiding Light of Xenith.  I am a manifestation of the earth, the sky, the water.  Neither Death nor Life may reach Me, for the planet nourishes and protects Me.  A flutter of My hand can mean life or death to every inhabitant of Xenith.”

Her words left Ragnar with a coldness pooling in his gut, and he suddenly very much wanted to be anywhere else but standing in the rose garden with the woman and her child emperor, the pleasant twitter of birds in the trees all around them.

The Emperor nodded his agreement.  “Our Guiding Light chose the first priests, who chose the first Emperor.  She built our society from a forgotten colony many thousands of years ago and Xenith remains unknown to the Utopia through Her guidance.”

“So what do you want with us, if I may be so bold?” Ragnar asked.

The Emperor smiled.  “It was Our idea.  We bought you to keep you out of Utopian hands, and to give you sanctuary on Our planet.    We paid an enormous price to get you here.  We had to trade raw metals and gems for your lives, both of which are very rare on Xenith.  It was a great expense.  Yet you will be safe here.  The Utopia considers this part of the galaxy dead space.”

“Not to offend you,” Paul said gingerly, “But what if we don’t want to stay here?”

The Emperor’s face darkened.  “It is Our Will that you stay.”

“We have a friend who can pay you double any sum you spent on us,” Ragnar said.  “She has vast accounts throughout the Utopia.”

The woman scoffed, “Look behind you, children, and tell Me that Our Emperor is in need of your petty wares.”

Ragnar did, and his breath failed him.  The palace at his back was not just a single story as he had guessed, but forty.  Beyond that, spires rose from the glittering black roof and jutted into the sky.  In either direction, the palace went on forever.  He could see no end to the elegant stone architecture, which towered above hills in the distance.

“What could We possibly need?” the woman said, much too smugly.

Ragnar turned back with difficulty.  “She could get you ships.”

“The skies of Xenith would darken with ships if it were Our Will,” the Emperor interrupted.  “But it is Our Will that you stay, instead.  Propagate amongst yourselves as We are propagating with Our subjects and create a new colony of your kind hidden from the Utopia’s eyes.  I am giving you sanctuary.  Your children will rise with us when the citizens of Xenith move to establish Our dominance of this quadrant.  Your progeny will create a new caste amongst Our people.  You will be Our assassins, Our thieves, Our spies.  We will send you abroad to infiltrate the Utopia to prepare it for Our ascendance to divinity.”

Ragnar glanced at the other shifters.  “Propagate amongst ourselves?  He is my father and he is my brother.  We’re all of the same gender, more or less.”

“We have others,” the child-emperor said quickly.  “None with your extraordinary talents, however.  Our Guiding Light tells Us that you are of a special caste of shifters.  Royalty, more or less.  Ishala.”

“Your Guiding Light seems to know a good many things about the universe,” Morgan said.  He was scowling at the smooth-faced woman.

“You are royalty because you can perform the yeit,” the boy said.  “Is that not correct?”

“We can,” Ragnar said.

“Then it is Our Will that you begin breeding immediately amongst the others.  You will pass your abilities on to your children and eventually, all will be able to yeit.”

Ragnar felt his muscles stiffen.  “Ishala don’t breed with non-ishala.  It would dilute the blood.  Would you ever marry a commoner?”

The Emperor’s face clouded over, approaching the ominous darkness of a thunderhead.  “The priests chose Us from amongst the Strangers.  We were two days from having Our face tattooed.  The blood of Strangers is no different from the blood of Nobles.  Should We marry, We would gladly choose from the Stranger women.  But with Our Guiding Light beside us, We will never need marry.  We will propagate Our seed amongst many, to strengthen Our blood.”

“Perhaps your ‘Guiding Light’ didn’t explain this to you,” Ragnar said, “But we’re not animals.  You’re not going to breed us like horses.”

The boy-emperor turned his back to them.  “It is Our Will that these three return to their cell.  We will give them time to think about what We said.”

“Nice, Ragnar,” Paul muttered.

“Follow me,” the woman said.  She stepped between them and began walking back into the palace.  Reluctantly, Ragnar and his kin followed.

For long minutes, the woman led them through the polished stone hallways in silence.  Instead of passing them off to the three waiting servants, she took them back to their cell herself.  Each of the warriors stationed along the corridors came to attention as they passed, but other than for the clink of the warriors’ armor and the soft padding of their bare feet on smooth stone, the walk was conducted in silence.

When they reached the room—which was a cleverly-disguised cell, now that Ragnar was looking—the woman pushed aside the iron door and motioned them inside.  As far as Ragnar could see, the only guards were the armored men standing in the outside hallways.

“We really need to get back to—” Paul began.

The woman cut him off with a dismissive gesture.

Ragnar’s brother opened his mouth again, then shut it when Morgan gave a slight shake of his head.  Pressing his lips together, Paul followed their father into the cell.  Ragnar was last inside.  Behind him, the woman shut the door and locked it.  She stood outside the bars for long moments afterward, watching them.

She turned to go, then paused and looked back.  To Morgan, she said, “This friend of yours.  What’s her name?”

“Athenais Owlborne,” Morgan replied.

The woman’s face became an even tighter mask.  Without another word, she turned and departed.




Wings of Retribution

The Flesh-Markets of Odan


“I don’t understand,” Athenais muttered, staring at the course Rabbit had plotted with confusion.  “Why Odan?  It’s filled with fleshtrading scum.”

“Exactly,” Rabbit said.  “If you were Governor Black and you wanted to sell some shifters to the highest bidder, where would you send them?”

“I wouldn’t bother,” Athenais snorted.  “Who’d buy shifters?  That’s like raising a hawk in your chicken-coop.”

“You’d be surprised,” Colonel Howlen said.  “When I was a Lieutenant Colonel on Fire, we spent a lot of time on Odan when we were looking for suzait.  The markets were always filled with exotic flesh, be it alien, human, or animal.  Rich patrons often send their servants out to collect items for their menageries, and no freak show is complete without a shifter or two.  Of course, the expense is incredible, so only a very few people could afford shifters.”

“And two of them are sitting on this ship,” Rabbit muttered.

“Who else is there?” Fairy said.  The little twit had cleaned up after her fiasco in the regen chamber, and Athenais was reasonably sure that she was still at the helm, because she doubted the suzait had the capacity to be so annoying.

“Marceau, for one,” Rabbit said, counting off his slender fingers.  “Angus, of course, but he wouldn’t bother with shifters unless he thought it would bring Athenais, and I doubt he’ll want to have anything to do with her for awhile, thanks to you, Dallas.”

The airheaded little imbecile beamed.

“I must admit, that was some skillful flying,” Howlen added.  “Knew you had to be good to survive the Erriatian Fleet, but Rabbit and I watched the onboard vid of that dogfight last night and it totally blew us away.  Never seen anything like it in my four hundred and fifty years in the Corps.”

Oh brother, Athenais thought, rolling her eyes.

“Flying like that is very rare,” Rabbit agreed, sounding solemn.  “You have a great gift, Dallas.  Life has a purpose in mind for you, I’d wager my empire on it.  Watching that vid…  It was almost like I was seeing magic.”

Oh come on, Athenais thought, totally revolted.  Obviously, Rabbit wanted something more from the little wench, to vomit up such blatantly manipulative compliments, but it still disgusted her that she had to listen to it.

“Someday,” Rabbit went on in a serious tone that almost made Athenais burst out laughing, “the Universe is going to come calling you, Dallas, and when it does, you’re going to realize there’s a reason why you, out of all the trillions of people out there, were given that gift.  Nothing happens by accident.  You have a purpose, girl, and with that purpose comes a deep obligation to your fellow man.  I’d bet my humble life on it.”

That’s right, Athenais thought, amused.  Lay it on thick for the little twit.  Butter that baby up so we can slap her in the frying pan.

“So how do you do it?” Howlen asked, leaning forward in his chair with a rapt look.  “My head is still spinning.  That was just…spectacular.  Utterly spectacular.”

So Howlen was in on the con.  Interesting.

The oblivious fool scuffed her dainty boot against the floor and blushed.  “Thanks.  And, uh, I don’t really know how I do it, it’s just like I put my hands to the controls and—”

Athenais cleared her throat in irritation, unable to take the continuous stream of bullshit any longer.  “Juno could afford it, if she’s still alive,” she said, “but nobody’s seen her since right after the Utopia formed.”

Rabbit frowned at her a moment, looking irritated, before he seemed to shake himself.  “Juno?  Wasn’t she with Psy Ops during the Wythe Rebellion?”

“Yeah, but they shut it down,” Athenais replied.  “Haven’t heard from her after that.  I figure she was pretty pissed that they kanked her baby.  Prolly became a hermit somewhere.  Either that or her ship went off course and slammed into a star.  Anyway, she wouldn’t give a damn about shifters.”

“Psy Ops?” Fairy asked.

Athenais snorted.  “It’s a long defunct government program.  Like S.O., but nastier.”

Colonel Howlen gave her a sharp look, but said nothing.

“Humans had just discovered the oonti,” Rabbit agreed, “which were highly telepathic, so Marceau chartered a branch to investigate the possibility of breeding a psychic human.”

“Really?” Fairy asked.  “What happened?”

“Rebels,” Athenais said.  “They infiltrated the program during the First Utopian Wars and Marceau started getting really paranoid.  Cut all the top-secret programs and had most of them executed.  If she escaped, Juno probably scuttled off somewhere to lick her wounds.  That program was her brainchild from the start.”

“She’s probably not pleased with you, then, come to think of it,” Rabbit commented.

Athenais snorted dismissively.  “We picked sides and Juno picked the wrong one.  I tried to talk sense into her, but it was like talking to a brick wall.”

“Imagine that,” Fairy said.

Rabbit winced and quickly said, “So who else could’ve bought ‘em?”

Athenais gave Fairy a dark look before she replied.  “Well, if they’ve been bought yet, you can take your pick from the CEOs of big mining or salvaging companies.  Then there’s crooked planetary governors.  I’m sure a handful of them might be able to afford a few shifters.  Maybe a couple of shipping tycoons.”

“The shifters could have had some of their friends buy them,” Howlen offered.

“No,” Athenais said.  “Ragnar’s a royal.  Gotta be, considering the way he kept getting past me when we first met.  And he said Paul and Morgan were his brother and father.  So they are the shifters who would go and buy other shifters from the meat markets.”

Colonel Howlen gave Athenais a hard glance.  “They’re ishala?”

Athenais had forgotten that Howlen had been S.O. before signing on with Rabbit.  She touched her pistol.  “You realize that’s classified information, right, Colonel?”

Howlen’s face darkened further.  “Are they the ones that escaped off of Penoi when their ship crashed back in 6869?”

Athenais wondered how the man could know that.  It must’ve shown on her face, despite her efforts to cover up her surprise.

“Curse of the Father!” Howlen muttered.  “How’d they escape?”

“Ragnar stowed away on my ship,” Athenais said reluctantly.  “I don’t know about the rest of them.  Why?”

“They almost ruined my career,” the colonel growled.  “I was assigned to their colony on Wythe, but they fled before I could capture them.  When I came back empty-handed, my command sent me out after Rats at the edge of First Quad.  If I hadn’t done so well out there, I’d probably still be searching gas giants for them.”

“So what were you doing on T-9?” Rabbit said.  “We’re not exactly prime alien territory.”

Howlen’s face contorted in a snarl and he looked like he would not reply, but then said, “I was on Helius, investigating shifter colonies.  I spent forty-six years chasing after them, finding plenty of evidence, but never any shifters.  I suspect they had operatives in everything from the top government positions to the lowest snack-vendors.  I’m pretty sure I even had a couple on my staff, but I couldn’t prove it.  After awhile, my command got fed up.  Helius was a cushy duty station and there were plenty of other colonels that wanted my spot.  Most were probably whispering in admirals’ ears every chance they got.  I did everything I could to find the shifters, but the year after I renewed my commission, my command sent me to T-9 as head of the S.O. Recruitment team there and gave my job to somebody else.”

Athenais frowned.  “You mean you weren’t even on duty?”

“My duty is to uphold the One Species Charter,” Howlen snapped.

Was,” Fairy commented.

“Was,” Howlen corrected himself, a bit deflated.

“Your replacement ever find those shifters?” Athenais asked.

The corner of Howlen’s mouth twitched.  “Not that I know of.”

“Then they probably killed him and replaced him a long time ago,” Fairy said in that calm, unassuming voice of the suzait.  “I was on Helius awhile.  It was before you were there, but you’re right, the place was swarming with shifters.”

“That you or the worm speaking?” Howlen demanded.

Fairy smiled back.

“Any of those shifters know our three?” Athenais said, trying not to let the suzait’s voice unsettle her.  So far, he hadn’t made any suspicious moves, but the thought of having that thing on her ship was making it hard to sleep at night, even with her door locked.  After a long lifetime spanning over seven millennia, nineteen years was an eternity.  After all, what parasite wouldn’t sell its disgusting little soul to have an immortal host?

“Maybe a couple,” Stuart responded calmly, “but even if you could get them to show themselves, Helius is not a very hospitable place.  Not very mineral-rich, not much water, not much plant or animal life.  They’re struggling to survive.  I’m surprised they let you live for forty-six years, Colonel.”

Athenais saw Howlen’s hackles go up.  “Nobody ‘let’ me live.  It was my own wits that kept me out of trouble.”

“With several shifters on your staff?  I don’t think so.”

“Listen here, worm…”

“Enough,” Rabbit interrupted.  “There will be no fighting on my ship.”

“My ship,” Fairy corrected.

Rabbit glanced at Fairy and made a nod.  “Her ship.”

Howlen got to his feet.  “This is driving me crazy.  Who’s in control, girl?  Is it you or the worm?”

“Stop calling him a worm.  He’s not a worm.”

“Maybe you didn’t get a good look at him when he crawled into your brain the other day.”

“Tommy,” Rabbit warned.

Howlen grunted and turned away from Fairy.  “Anyway, I say I go planetside with the landing party.  I’ve dealt with Odan before.”

“It’s you and Athenais, then,” Rabbit agreed.  “Dallas and I will watch the ship.”

“I’m not going down there,” Athenais said.

Everyone turned to her.

“Why not?” Fairy asked.

“She doesn’t want to, she doesn’t have to,” Rabbit said quickly.  “It’s not important who goes, just that we get the information we need.”

“I say she goes,” Fairy said.  “You too, Rabbit.  I can watch the ship myself.”

“And give that worm a chance to take over and leave us stranded?” Howlen demanded.  “No, Rabbit stays.”

Fairy snorted.  “If I’d wanted to take the ship, I’da turned off the Gs and sent this thing into enough barrel-rolls to decorate the walls with your brains.  You’re all going.  That’s an order.”

“An order?” Athenais laughed.  “You better mind who you’re talking to, you little tart.”

“It’s her ship,” Rabbit said.

“Not with my money, it isn’t,” Athenais snapped.

“I used my money,” Rabbit replied calmly.  “And I’m giving Dallas Retribution, as payment for saving our lives.”

“Oh.”

“So get off,” Fairy snapped.  “All of you.”

Athenais stared at the girl, utterly dumbfounded that her friend could have been stupid enough to give the ship to someone with the mentality of a retarded hamster.  “Rabbit, you can’t be serious.”

Rabbit took Athenais by the arm and led her toward the air-lock.  “Tommy, let’s go.  The captain gave us an order.”

“You mean the worm gave us an order.”

Athenais yanked her arm out of Rabbit’s reach, scowling.  “I’m not going down there.”  She hated Odan.  It had been in its filthy, crowded streets that she’d been sold as a permanent meat-suit to a suzait, and she wasn’t particularly interested in going back.  Ever.

“What’s the matter?” Fairy mocked from the controls.  “You scared, navigator?”  Then she tapped her fingers to her open mouth.  “Oh, wait, that’s right.  I was gonna make you the cook.”

Athenais felt that rush of rage flowering in her gut, and her fists tightened into balls.

“Attie…” Rabbit warned.

“Let’s go,” Athenais growled, turning on heel.  “I’ll buy my own ship planetside.”

“You better,” Fairy jeered.  “That flat ass of yours’ll look like shit in a waitress’s uniform.”

Fingers itching for her Phoenix, Athenais instead led them all to the air-lock.  She waited for clearance from the Odan hub, then hit the Open button on the control panel.

“Get ready,” Howlen said, taking a deep breath as they waited for the lock to equalize pressure with the spaceport.

As the doors slid open, a crush of dark-skinned Odaners pressed in on them with exotic animals and jewelry for sale.  They shouted in a cacophony of uneven Standard that hurt the ears as they jockeyed to be heard.  Men and women holding cages and bundles shoved at each other trying to reach the front, and one fool even accompanied a juvenile three-hundred-pound redcat with nothing but a leash and an electric goad.

“…mistress, only twenty credits.  Finest feathers in…”

“…genuine Earthling rabbit, five credits apiece…”

“…live Derknian redcat, only three thousand credits…”

In her ear as he started pushing through the crowd, Howlen shouted, “…done this before.  You just gotta put up with them until they get tired.”

Athenais nodded, then drew her Phoenix.  In one swift motion, she blew the head off of the redcat, whose fangs were beginning to show in its irritation with the crowd.  The wound sealed almost immediately, but the body still floundered and slashed at air, clearing a wide berth around it.  Athenais went over and shoved the body over, nimbly avoiding the poison claws it whipped back and forth.

The hub went silent.  A space cleared around Athenais and her friends, the vendors’ sales pitches caught dead in their throats.

In the silence, Athenais grabbed the stunned man still holding the frayed leash by the front of his shirt.  Dragging him until they were eye-to-eye, Athenais said, “When your beast regenerates, take him to another hub.  I see him again and I’ll aim for his neural center and then pop a shot off at your head, you understand?”

The man, who was looking at her like she’d grown fangs and a bushy tail, nodded numbly.

Athenais threw him roughly aside.  “Listen up, the rest of you!” Athenais said.  “We’re not here to buy tourists’ shit.  We’ve come for the real deal.  Anyone who tries to sell me anything I don’t think is worth three million credits will be shot.  Do you understand?”

“What are you doing?!” Howlen hissed at her.

Athenais ignored him, panning her pistol across the silent crowd.  “No one?  Then get out of my way.”  She lowered her gun and started toward the shuttle and the Odaners quickly backed away.  Rabbit and Howlen followed, and Fairy shut the door behind them.

Once they were on the shuttle, Howlen snarled, “That wasn’t the least bit inconspicuous!  Those fools are gonna tell all their thieving, murdering kin that there’s three spacers onplanet with a few million credits.”

“Let them,” Athenais said.

Colonel Howlen opened his mouth to object and she raised an eyebrow, waiting.

“Oh,” he muttered.

“I do agree that you could have handled that more delicately, Attie,” Rabbit offered.

“Who asked you?” Athenais demanded, already in a bad mood from Fairy’s bullshit.  “That redcat was gonna turn on that crowd eventually.”

There was a long silence as Rabbit and Tommy exchanged meaningful glances.  Athenais frowned.  “What?  And don’t tell me you actually think he had that thing under control.”

“Derkne engineered a new breed of redcat four hundred years ago,” Rabbit said.  “Totally domesticated.”

“With poison claws?”  Athenais snorted.

“The compound they excrete is no longer toxic.”

Athenais felt her neck start to heat.  She scowled at the seat in front of her.  “Well, they should’ve made it a different color or something.  Looks too much like the ones they used during the Water Rebellion.”

Colonel Howlen’s eyes lit up.  “You fought in the Water Rebellion?”

She glanced at the prude.  “Yeah.  So?”

“Doing what?”  His voice was a bit too sharp for her tastes.

Athenais smiled.  “Why, shooting down Utopian ships, of course.”

Howlen’s face darkened.  “You’re a damned traitor.”

Pleasantly, she said, “I’m sorry, was one of ‘em yours?”

Howlen bristled.  “I spent four years in a Derknian prison camp because of you.”

Athenais shrugged.  “There were other rebel pilots.”

“No,” Howlen snarled.  “It was you.”

“Now you can’t know that,” Rabbit interrupted.  “Attie, how many ships did you shoot down during the Rebellion?”

“All of them.”

Rabbit sighed and leaned back to stare at the ceiling.

“Not only are you the reason I lost my job with the Utopia, but I went to that damned POW camp because of you, too!” Howlen said, his voice becoming entirely too loud.  Athenais thought it was funny that he was shaking.  She yawned and checked her watch.

“So how long’s the shuttle ride?” she asked Rabbit.

“You ruined my life,” Tommy managed, obviously barely able to contain his rage.  “Twice!”

Athenais looked at him again and sighed.  “So you paid four years,” Athenais said.  “Whoopty-do.  I spent twenty-nine years in a Tercian work camp after the Rebellion.”

“They should’ve fried your ass!” Howlen cried.  “You single-handedly kept the whole Rebellion on its feet.”  The poor fool looked like his head was about to explode.  “How could they not have executed you?”

Athenais showed him her teeth.  “They tried.  Then, when the first and second attempts failed publicly—and subsequently the third and fourth failed privately—they decided that frying me again would just make them look incompetent, so they sent me to Tercia and forgot about me.”

“They sent you to a colony?!” Howlen sputtered.  There were veins sticking out in his neck.  “They can’t kill you, so they sent you to a colony?”  He obviously assumed it had been a lot more fun than it was.

“Maybe you’ve got a romanticized version of the colonies,” Athenais offered, “judging by what I saw in your room.  So let me educate you a second.  The colonies are harsh, dirty, unforgiving places to live.  Every day, you’re wondering if you’re gonna be able to put enough food away for winter, or if you’re gonna end up starving come spring like the guy next door.  And of the food we did raise, most of it we weren’t allowed to keep.  Utopian tax and all that.  Made for a lot of hungry people.”

Howlen was staring at her like she’d said they’d flown her to paradise and had half-naked men with palm fronds feed her mango slices while protecting her from the sun.  “I would have given my commission to be sent to the colonies,” Howlen managed.

Athenais sighed.  “Maybe you didn’t hear me.  I raised meat for the Utopia under armed guard for fifty-two years.  Cows, chickens, feerat, pigs…  Just about anything that shits and stinks and tries to bite you for feeding it.  Then we got an order for twenty live feerat for a new colony closer to the Second Quad and I got one of the damned things to eat me.  Rubbed a dead one’s gonads all over myself so the stupid thing thought I was a competing male.  I spent the next sixteen days inside that damned feerat, until it died from internal bleeding.  You can imagine how surprised the ship’s cook was when he cut it open and I crawled out.”

Howlen’s eyes narrowed.  “You’re lying.  I used to raise feerat.  Their stomachs can dissolve a skimmer engine.  You would’ve died in there.”

“Never said I didn’t,” Athenais agreed.

Howlen narrowed his eyes at her and turned to look out the window of the ship.  They spent the rest of the trip in silence.  Rabbit tried several times to nervously strike up conversation, but the colonel simply ignored him.

About twenty minutes later, the shuttle landed in a tourist’s market and they were faced with the same pushy, cacophonic mass of vendors that had assaulted them in the hub.

Before Athenais could shoot something, however, Howlen started pushing his way through the crowd, leaving her and Rabbit to either follow or lose him entirely.  Athenais was fully willing to let him get himself lost, but Rabbit dutifully fell in behind him like a sheep.

Sighing, Athenais wading into the screaming masses after them.

“There,” Howlen said once they were free of the shouting crowd and walking along a relatively deserted street out of sight of the landing-plaza, “Was that so hard?”  He was out of breath, his normally combed-down hair in conspicuous disarray.

“You lost your wallet,” Athenais commented, smirking.  Rabbit nodded.

Howlen slapped his side pocket, his eyes widening.  Then his face reddened.  Sputtering, he said, “Those disrespectful, uneducated…  I had memchips in there!  Of my family!”

“You’re not a colonel anymore,” Athenais said.  “Without a uniform, this is the only thing they’re going to respect.”  She touched the Phoenix.  “Funny you don’t have one…  I’m pretty sure I told you to grab one as we went by the armory.”

He’s not carrying one!” Howlen snapped, jabbing a finger at Rabbit.  “Why didn’t his wallet get stolen?”

“Rabbit’s just that good.”

Rabbit shrugged.  “I used to pick pockets for a living.”

“Still do,” Athenais said.

“Oh please,” Rabbit said.  “There is a difference between espionage and common thievery.”

“Kind of like the difference between a crimelord and a Buddhist monk, eh, Rabbit?  Or a drug smuggler and a Zen master?”

Rabbit narrowed his eyes at her.

“Oh, wait.”  Athenais tapped her chin.  “I’ve got one.  A pickpocket and an enlightened Haui-Haui soul-titan?”

Rabbit spread his hands innocently.  “Is the water in a river different than the water in an ocean?”

“Yes,” Athenais said flatly.  “One contains salt.”

Rabbit sighed and picked a piece of fluff off of his silken wardrobe.

Howlen, still digging through his empty pocket as if his wallet would somehow magically appear if he looked long enough, appeared stricken.  “You think someone will turn it in?”

Athenais laughed.  “On this planet?!”  She gestured to the filthy, dusty houses and snorted.  “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Did you see who took it, at least?” Howlen asked, sounding desperate.

“Yeah, a toothy little rat,” Rabbit said, dusting the sleeves of his suit.  “The one that offered you the snake kebob.  Looked like he needed the money.”  He frowned down at a smudge on his sleeve, then made a disgusted sound when he realized it was a stain.

“That duck-vendor,” Athenais told him.  “Was flinging grease around trying to get our attention.”

“Damn,” Rabbit said.  “That was a nice suit.”  He sighed.

Howlen was staring at Rabbit, looking like he was going to asphyxiate.  “You let him steal my wallet?”

Rabbit glanced up from the stain, sighing.  “You got pampered by the Utopia, so we figured you needed a lesson in watching your assets.”  He gestured at the colonel’s pocket.  “How much you lose?  I’ll give you half.”

Howlen took two steps forward and gripped Rabbit’s shirt with two meaty fists.  “My life was in there!  My parents, siblings—”  He choked, red faced.

“Grow up,” Athenais said.  “So what if the kid took a few memchips.  You can still remember them.”

“No, he can’t, Attie,” Rabbit said, grimacing.  “Gods, I didn’t realize…  Why were you carrying them around with you?  Don’t you have a vault somewhere?”

Howlen released him, trembling.  “The Utopia confiscated it when they fired me.”

“So what if you don’t remember your parents?” Athenais growled, fed up with the colonel’s whiny bullshit.  “You ask me, it’s a blessing.”

“Easy, Attie,” Rabbit warned.

“Why?  He’s acting like the sniveling Utopian brat he is,” Athenais retorted.  “It’s not our fault he didn’t back up his chips.”

Howlen turned on her and in that instant, her world exploded in a burst of jittery white lights.  She hit the ground without even knowing she had fallen.  Athenais tried to sit up, but the Colonel was on top of her, repeatedly slamming the butt of her Phoenix into her face.  When Rabbit tried to pull him off, he pointed the gun at him.  Rabbit backed away, hands up.

“Why does she deserve it?!” Howlen demanded, shifting so that the tip of the Phoenix’s barrel was resting against Athenais’s bloody nose.  “Why’s she had the seven-thousand-year cakewalk?!”

“Careful, Tommy,” Rabbit said.  “She didn’t know what she was saying.”

“She goddamn did too!” Howlen shouted.  “She can’t forget a damn thing!  Her father was the Father of the Utopia, so she’s been the Daughter of Christ for the last seven millennia!”  The colonel pushed the Phoenix further against her shattered nose, and Athenais grimaced against the pain.  Lowering his voice dangerously, Tommy growled, “Let’s see if you can remember this, pirate.  Jonin.  Sixty-seven ninety.”

“Colonies were wiped out by suzait,” Rabbit replied.

“I’m asking her,” Tommy snapped.  “Maybe she was there.  Maybe she helped them kill my family.  Maybe she brought them in on her Beetle!”

“She wouldn’t do that,” Rabbit said softly.

“How the hell would you know?!” Tommy snarled.  “She’s fornicating with a goddamn alien!”

“Calm down, Tommy,” Rabbit said.  “She wasn’t there.  Were you, Attie?”

“You heard her,” Howlen said.  “She escaped twenty-nine years after we won the war on Derkne.  That gives her a whole year to collect some of her suzait friends and go to Jonin.”

“I was sold in a suzait meat-market, you stupid fool,” Athenais snapped up at him.  “Nineteen years with somebody else at the controls—did you know the damn thing bred me so they could use my kids as more hosts?   I don’t like those worms any more than you do.  Hell, that’s why I didn’t want to come to this goddamn planet in the first place!”

Lips pressed together in a grim line, Howlen stepped off of her and handed the gun to Rabbit.  “I’m gonna go find my wallet,” he snarled.  At that, he turned and stalked off.  Rabbit watched him go, then bent to help Athenais.

“Come on, Attie,” he said taking her hand.  “We’d better go after him.”

“To hell with that,” Athenais muttered, wiping her face.  Blood was draining down her lip and dripping onto her jacket.  She grabbed her Phoenix and started walking in the other direction.




Wings of Retribution

Rescuing Tommy


“You!  Boy!”  Tommy broke into a sprint as the toothy kid dropped his skewer of old snake meat and ran.  He chased the kid down an alley, through a gutter, up a flight of stairs, over a roof, and back down into an alley.  By the time the kid disappeared through a hole under a wall, Tommy was completely lost.

But more importantly, his memchips were on the other side of the wall.

Tommy got down on his hands and knees and peered through the hole in the wall.  He could see shadows moving around in the darkness beyond.  “Kid,” he said softly, “Please let me have my chips back.  It’s my family albums.  Only copies I’ve got.  Please.  Keep the money.  I don’t care about the rest.”

The kid threw rocks at him and jeered.

Fury building, Tommy used a rickety escape ladder to climb atop the nearest roof, thinking to jump over the wall, but hesitated at the brink, realizing the drop would probably break his legs.  Frustrated, Tommy scanned the maze of buildings, trying to determine where he was.  He had to be close to the little rat’s lair.  Perhaps he could alert the local authorities.  He’d spent long hours working with the sheriff and his ‘flesher’ crew.  Perhaps a favor, for old times’ sake…

Yet, if there was one course he had resoundingly failed in the Academy, it was Ground Navigation.  Three-dimensional positioning made sense to him, but travel on a gravitational plane with directions based on landmarks and elevations instead of coordinates was incomprehensible.  Tommy peered out over the jumble of buildings, beginning to feel the first tingles of fear replacing the anger from losing the chips.

“The hell you doin’ up here?” a man in the rooftop apartment behind him suddenly shouted, slamming a dust-door open to gesture rudely.  “Get off my porch!”

Relieved for the help, Tommy said, “Some little brat pilfered my wallet.  It had memchips in it.  Ones that were very important to me.  Maybe you could tell me how to—”

“I said git!”  The man lobbed something small and white at him.  An egg?  When Tommy looked, the man was brandishing a frying-pan, looking like he was about to step outside and use it.

“I just need to know how to get to a main thoroughfare!” Tommy cried, backing towards the ladder.

Now!” the man growled, hefting the pan.  His muscular, tattooed arm bulged with the effort.  “We don’t deal with flesher scum here.”

“But I’m not…” Tommy began.  Then, unhappily, he realized that he probably looked just like the sheriff’s plainclothes detectives.  What sort of civilian would actually chase down a pickpocket through the slums?

One who used to be a colonel in the Utopian S.O., Thomas thought miserably.  Hands up, he backed off of the roof and slid back down the ladder.

Back on the ground, Tommy reluctantly decided to go in the direction of a break in the houses.  He was working his way through the maze when three men caught him in the alley.  The toothy boy was behind them, grinning.  When Thomas’s eyes widened, the kid dangled the wallet between two fingers, taunting him.

“Oh thank God,” Thomas cried, taking a step towards the boy.  “Please.  Just give me back my chips, kid.  I don’t care about the credits.”

He quickly forgot about his wallet, however, as the men rushed him and threw him backwards into the brick wall.  One of them—the frying-pan man, Tommy realized with disgust—punched him in the solar plexus, driving the breath from his lungs in a radiating blast of agony.  The man punched him again and Tommy’s legs crumpled from under him, unable to catch his breath.  He fell on his side, with his cheek against the cold cobblestones.  They surrounded him, kicking him, even the little kid.  When they stopped, someone grabbed his hair and bashed his head into the stone and Tommy lost consciousness.



Wings of Retribution


“I can’t believe you gave her the ship, Rabbit,” Athenais muttered, casting a dark look at her friend.  “And then you let her keep it afterward.  What were you thinking?”

Rabbit sighed.  “It was the only way I could get her to help me.”

“That’s a lie and you know it,” Athenais snapped.  “She was washing dishes, for chrissakes!  She would’ve given her right ear to fly that bird.  You could’ve put her on contract.  You could’ve—”

“I figured the girl deserved a break,” Rabbit interrupted, “after what you put her through.”

“What I put her through?!”  Athenais stopped and stared at her friend, utterly flabbergasted.  Obviously, the wiry twerp had no idea how much trouble the snoopy little airhead had caused for her in two years of sneaking around, sifting through other people’s belongings, and generally being an insubordinate pain in the ass.  When she found herself able to speak again, Athenais shoved a finger at Rabbit’s chest and growled,  “If she hadn’t opened her mouth, I wouldn’t be wandering on Odan wondering when the flesh merchants are gonna jump out of the alley and snag us.  My crew would still be alive.  You ever think about that, Rabbit?”

“Kids make mistakes.  How old is she?  A couple hundred?”

“Not even.”

“Well there you go.  Still a child.”

“She’s thirty-four.  Plenty of time to figure out how to keep her mouth shut.”

“You know why you don’t like her?” Rabbit snapped suddenly.  He spun to face her, his gray eyes uncharacteristically scathing.

“Because she’s a nosy little twit?” Athenais suggested.

Rabbit’s eyes narrowed.  “Because she’s just like you, only younger and prettier.”

The idea was so ridiculous that Athenais didn’t even bother responding.  Laughing, she turned back to the alley and started moving again.  “Just help me find this market.”

“She’s better at flying and you just can’t stand that,” Rabbit insisted, falling in beside her.

“The guy said it was around here somewhere,” Athenais said, frowning at the neglected buildings.

“You know what her only problem is?” Rabbit demanded.

Athenais rolled her eyes.  “I’m sure you’re about to tell me.”

“Her only problem is, underneath all that genius, she’s insecure.  She’s starving for a few friends.  That’s why she digs through your stuff.  She wants a friend.”

Athenais chuckled.  “Oh, that’s the way to make friends, right there.  Just dig through their underwear drawer a bit, try a few things on for size…”

Rabbit wasn’t to be derailed in his idiotic train of thought.  “That’s why she took that suzait in, you know.  He was the only one on the ship who didn’t treat her like a cadet.”

Athenais groaned.  “Just help me find this market, okay?  I don’t care about Fairy.”

“Her name’s Dallas.”

“Whatever.  Just help me.”

“The next street,” Rabbit said.  “It’s got the statue of the goat, just like he described.”

Thank you.”  Athenais turned down the street, trying to stay ahead of Rabbit so he didn’t have an opportunity to spout more mushy nonsense at her.

The street wrapped around a sturdy brick building and came to a dead end at a huge set of double doors.  The green paint was peeling on them, showing a layer of gray underneath.  As soon as Athenais approached the door, two well-armed guards stepped in front of them.

“This is private property, sorry,” the woman on the left said, touching her flesh-seeker.

“I’m sure it is,” Athenais said, peering up at the building behind them.

“We’re looking for some rare items,” Rabbit said, casually stepping between them.  “We heard you might be the place.”

The man looked the two of them up and down.  He snorted, apparently not liking what he saw.  “No tourists,” he said.  “Serious buyers only.”

Athenais reached for her gun, but Rabbit stopped her with a hand on her arm.

“I assure you,” Rabbit said, smiling that sinister drug-dealer-cutpurse-crimeboss smile of his.  “We can pay.”

The woman motioned to Athenais’s bloody nose.  “Maybe you could’ve before you got robbed.  Now git.”

Athenais stepped past Rabbit and showed them her weapon, still in its holster.  “This is a J-29 Phoenix quick-charge pistol.  It’s worth about a million credits.  If we’d been robbed, they would’ve taken it.”  She let her coat slide back over her belt and waited.

“Then where’d you take the beating?” the woman sneered.  “The guy who used to own the gun?”

Athenais narrowed her eyes.  “That’s none of your business, bitch.”

Rabbit shoved her aside.  “Look, I know we don’t look like what you’re used to, but we have the means to pay, I assure you.”

The woman at the door sniffed.  “We’ll have to take her gun as collateral.  Make sure you don’t try anything inside.”

Bullshit!” Athenais roared.  “You thieving tramp, you can’t just—”

Rabbit casually jammed his elbow into her ribcage, then swiped the gun from under her belt as she doubled over for air.  “Not a problem, miss.  Here you go.”

Athenais watched in horror as he passed the weapon over to the guard.  The woman looked it over, tuning it in her hands, then sniffed again and stepped aside.  Her burly companion pulled one of the double-doors open and motioned them to enter.

“Come on, Attie,” Rabbit said, giving her an irritated tug.  Athenais followed, still scowling at the woman when the door slammed shut behind them.

“Just great,” she growled when she heard the tumblers lock into place.  “Now we’re sitting ducks for any flesh-trader who takes it upon himself to knock us over the head.  What were you thinking, Rabbit?  Why couldn’t I just shoot them?”

“I’ll protect you,” Rabbit said, patting her arm.  “Don’t worry, dear.”

Athenais prickled like a cat that had been approached with a running chainsaw.  “I don’t need protection.”

Rabbit glanced at her, looking surprised.  “You mean you actually decided to learn a decent fighting style since the last time I saw you?”

Athenais fisted her hands and kept them pressed against her sides to keep from flattening them on Rabbit’s face.  “I can fight fine.”

He snorted.  “Dear, clumsy barroom brawls do not count.”

“You ‘dear’ me again and I’ll cut off your head and feed it to a dungrunner,” Athenais bit out.  “We’re not married anymore.”

“Yes, dear.”

Athenais’s eyes narrowed.

“Come on,” Rabbit said.  “These guys will be able to help us.”  Then he stepped forward into the labyrinth of holding cells, leaving her the option of going with him or being left behind.

Grumbling, Athenais followed, making a mental note to bring the quick little sensei down a peg or three, once she had her flesh-seeker back.  Dodge that, oh martial master.  Oh, whoops.  What’s the matter, not fast enough?  Too clumsy?

Inside each of the cages lining the walls, a strange or exotic creature lay in the straw, a well-worn feeling of misery seeping from behind the stainless steel bars.  Outside, the seller stood with armed guards, eying every passerby with a keen eye.  Athenais felt sick at first sight of them, remembering a similar situation all-too-well, back when she had been on the other side of the bars.

“Come on, Attie,” Rabbit said, tugging gently on her arm.  She hadn’t realized she had stopped.  She was staring at a dirty, naked woman sitting in the straw, hunched over, staring off into nothingness.  Reluctantly, she allowed Rabbit to pull her onward.

As they passed, Athenais saw more men and women, some with grotesque genetic alterations, watching them through the bars with resentful gazes.  She saw aliens, both on and off the Endangered Races list, and plenty of exotic non-intelligents.  Tigers and slender, long-haired eshwers were a specialty here, it seemed.

Rabbit took them to the back of the maze to a small door set in the wall.  It was flanked by four guards, each toting a fully automatic flesh-seeker and dressed in energy-resistant body armor.

“What’s your business here, little man?” one of the four demanded.

“Is this where they keep the exotics?” Rabbit asked politely.

“The exotics are behind you, moron.”

“He’s talking about shifters, you stupid son of a bitch,” Athenais interrupted.  “We’re here to buy three of them.”

The guard eyed her.  “Careful, or I’ll blacken the other eye, wench.”

Athenais fisted her hand, but Rabbit caught her arm.  “That won’t be necessary, sir.  You see, we’re looking to buy a breeding population for a very important collector on Wyvin.  We heard Odan was the place to come, but we still haven’t found any shifters.”

“We don’t let nobody past these doors unless we got confirmation they’re not S.O.,” the man said.  “Sorry.”  He sighed and glanced the other way, looking bored.

Athenais grabbed the front of his shirt and shoved the barcode on her scalp under his nose.  “That look like S.O. to you?”

The man’s eyes widened.  “That say Orplex?”

“Wow.  You can read.  Amazing.”

Damn it, Attie!” Rabbit snapped.  “Let me take care of this, okay?”

Athenais shrugged.

Rabbit walked up and said something quietly to the nearest guard.  The guard’s eyes opened wide and he made a nodding motion to the rest of the men.  They stepped back, allowing Rabbit to step through.  When Athenais tried to follow, however, they blocked her progress.

“Just stay there a minute,” Rabbit said.  “I won’t take long.”  At that, he closed the door behind him.

Fuming, Athenais stalked back and forth, scowling at the four guards.

“Probably a fake, anyway,” one of the guards jeered.  “Either that or she got a sex change.”

“You kidding?!  She didn’t need a sex change.”  The guard who had spoken broke off into hearty guffaws.

Athenais stopped, glaring at the man who had spoken, wondering what his face would look like when introduced to an engine turbine.  He winked at her.  “You want some of this, sister?”  He grabbed his crotch and bounced it.

Athenais quietly swallowed down the little bit of vomit that had risen up into the back of her throat and turned to look at something else.  She was busily inspecting the stonework when Rabbit opened the door.

“Well?” she demanded.

Rabbit shook his head slightly, then led her away from the guards.  “I’ll tell you once we’re outside.”  He hurried to the front door, knocked, and waited—somewhat impatiently, for Rabbit—as they unlocked the door.

On the other side, Athenais held out her hand for her Phoenix, and the woman reluctantly untucked it from her belt and gave it back.  As she and Rabbit walked away, Athenais inspected it for damage.  “And?  What did you find out?” she asked, narrowing her eyes at a little scratch in the gleaming blue steel.  Had that been there before?

“They were here three weeks ago,” Rabbit told her.  “All bought by the same woman.  Ordered them to be delivered to a ship called New Divinity.”

Athenais cursed.

Rabbit glanced at her.  “You know it?”

“No, but with a name like ‘New Divinity,’ I’ve got a pretty good idea.”

“Who?”

“Juno.”

Rabbit’s face darkened and he turned back to their path.  “That would be bad.”

“Indeed,” Athenais said.  “Hey Rabbit.”

Rabbit turned.  “Wha—”

Athenais blasted him with the Phoenix.

…except the skinny little bastard dodged.  A flesh-seeking missile.  At point blank.  Athenais stared at the barrel of her gun, utterly betrayed.

Eying the liquefied stone where the shot had hit, Rabbit said, “New Divinity…  Wasn’t that the name of her project in Psy-Ops?”

Proposed name,” Athenais muttered, holstering her weapon.  “The admiral didn’t think The New Divine Path of Humankind was politically correct.  They ended up calling it the Ultra-Sensory Communications Task Force.  USCTF.”

“Oh lord,” Rabbit muttered, rolling his eyes.  “All right, let’s go see if we can talk some sense into her.”

“How did you dodge that?” Athenais growled.  “It was aimed right at your face.”

Rabbit smirked at her.  “I’m just that good, baby.”



Wings of Retribution


“Where’s Tommy?” Dallas demanded when Rabbit and Athenais returned.

Wow, Stuart said.  Athenais looks like she ran into a freighter at light-six.

Indeed, the space pirate’s face was a mass of healing bruises, with one of her eyes black and her bottom lip split and puffy.

“Never mind that prick,” Athenais said.  “Get Port Authority on the line.  We need the flightplan of a ship called New Divinity.  Was here three weeks ago, don’t know the exact dates.  Probably from out-system.  Doubt it’s registered.”

“Actually, you do that,” Dallas said.  “They see all those bruises, they’ll feel sorry for you.  Maybe think your pimp is after you.  Who beat you up, anyway?  Thought you were a big badass with that gun of yours.”

Can we please try not to provoke the lunatic with the gun? Stuart asked.

“I’ll do it,” Rabbit interrupted.  “Attie, go see if you can find anyone in the hub who knows where the Divinity was headed.  I’ll bet you Juno never logged a flightplan, and if she did, it was a fake.”

Athenais fisted her hands.  “Let Fairy screw around with the natives.  I’ll bet you anything that ship was bound for the Black.”

“Why?”

“Last I heard of her, she was gonna start a mission for Psy-Ops out on some newly-discovered planet.  Whenever they start something like that, Utopi bigwigs wipe experiment planets off the map, make it look like they were never there.  So wherever she is, it’s probably in the Black.”

“What did you say Psy-Ops was, again?” Dallas asked.

“It’s a secret military group dedicated to psychological warfare,” Rabbit said.  “Boosting Utopi morale, destroying their enemy’s.  That kind of stuff.”  Then he cocked his head.  “Well, it was.  Got shut down millennia ago.”

Athenais grunted.  “Bet that pissed Juno off.”

Leaning back in the plush leather navigator’s seat, Rabbit let out a long sigh between his teeth.  “So, if we’re right, she could be on any one of those planets Psy-Ops blacked out during the wars.  If that was even her ship.”

“It was.”

“Who the hell’s Juno?” Dallas demanded.  “I thought we were looking for shifters.”

“Juno’s our business,” Athenais said.  “Go comb your hair or something, twit.”

Dallas’s mouth dropped open as she searched for something to say.

You could always tell her that her pimp called, Stuart suggested, and told her to throw on some makeup, ‘cause he didn’t want her scaring off any customers.

Delighted, Dallas repeated it.

“Juno’s the last original,” Rabbit said hastily, glancing between them.  “Attie, me, Marceau, Angus and Juno.”

Another one?”  Dallas squinted.  “If she’s anything like her, count me out.”

“Great,” Athenais said.  “Stay here and fly shuttles.  You’d probably be good at it.”

“I took out Erriat’s entire fleet saving your life, you stupid bitch.”

In her head, she felt Stuart suck in his breath.

“Get off my ship.”  Athenais’s face was like wrought iron.

“It’s my ship.”

In the silence that followed, Dallas and Athenais locked gazes, the air between them becoming thick.  Then Athenais strode toward her and grabbed Dallas by the hair.

“You won’t get out,” the pirate snarled, “I’ll throw you out.”

“Attie, it’s her ship.”

“Shut up, Rabbit,” Athenais snarled, fist in Dallas’s scalp.  “I’ve had enough of this little tart.”

The woman was strong.  She pulled Dallas off balance, yanking her hair from the roots.  As Dallas struggled, the space pirate maneuvered her to the door and punched the button for the airlock.  She was about to shove her outside when Rabbit stepped forward and jammed his fist into Athenais’s solar plexus.  As the space-pirate stumbled, he rammed his knuckles under her jaw and into her throat.  The woman’s grip on Dallas went limp as she collapsed on the floor, wide-eyed, mouth open, wheezing.

“Go open the door to her room,” Rabbit said, his face grim.  He bent down, dragging Athenais up over his back.

Dallas complied.  Rabbit followed, the unconscious space-pirate slung over his wiry shoulder.  He threw her inside her room without care to what she hit.  Dallas winced as she heard the thud of metal.

Outside, Rabbit shut the door and entered a code.

“Override’s 8Q579K.”

Dallas nodded, stunned.  Not only had Rabbit given her the captain’s codes to the ship, but he had locked Athenais in her room.

Well, on the plus side, Stuart said, You just officially became captain.  …On the other hand, I’m pretty sure she’s gonna kill you, first chance she gets.

Rubbing her stinging scalp, still a bit cowed from the violence, Dallas just nodded.

She meekly followed Rabbit to the helm, where he sat down in the pilot’s chair and queried Port Authority.  It took all of two minutes to find out that New Divinity’s flightplan was missing—an embarrassing situation, since ships were not allowed to leave port without filing some sort of documentation.  The confused clerk came to the conclusion that New Divinity must never have docked at Odan.

Rabbit put the comset down in frustration.  “Bribed,” he said, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

“She sounded pretty sincere,” Dallas noted.

“Not her,” Rabbit said, making a dismissive wave of his hand.  “Someone else.  Got rid of the file.”

“Why not just file a fake flightplan?”

“I’m sure they did, but whoever was piloting that ship wanted to be extra sure they could not be traced.  Port Authority didn’t have the registration numbers, the ship’s origin or class, the cargo, the crew roster…  I’m surprised they even had the name.”

“That’s a big bribe,” Dallas said, frowning.  “They’re usually pretty strict about that stuff.”

“Probably had to pay off most of the Authority,” Rabbit agreed.

“So why are we looking for the New Divinity?” Dallas asked.  “They got the shifters onboard?”

“As far as I can tell, yes.”  He sounded tired.  “Gods.  I think it will be the Jimbai Mountains, after this.  A nice hillside.  Hire a masonry crew.  Maybe raise some goats.”

“Huh?” Dallas said.

Rabbit waved his hand.  “Ignore me.  Just thinking out loud.”

“Okaaaay,” Dallas said.  “So we don’t have a flightplan and Athenais thinks the ship’s headed somewhere in the Black.”

“Yes.”

“So that’s it, then?” Dallas demanded.  “We have nothing else?”

“No.”  Sighing, Rabbit leaned forward and reached into the pocket of his slacks.  He pulled out his wallet and extracted a memchip.  “Ever since I had to leave Millennium, I’ve had to keep detailed maps of each Quad, paying special attention to systems that might have colonizable planets.”

“You had to leave Millennium?  Why?”

“I stole some money.”

“How long ago?”

“Seven thousand years, approximately.”

Dallas stared.  “Nobody cares anymore.”

“The man I stole it from does.”

“Who?  Angus?”  Then Dallas’s eyes widened.  “Marceau?!”

Rabbit shrugged.  “It was a corrupt company, anyway, but he owned most of the shares.  Millennium Biomedical.  They made tissue and organ replacements for fractions of a credit and sold them for thousands.”

“You stole from Marceau?!”

“From the company,” Rabbit said irritably.  “I bankrupted the company.  Marceau just lost some of his net worth, that’s all.  Had to live in an apartment for a few years.  Postponed his governorship awhile.  No big deal.”

“No wonder you’re in hiding,” Dallas said.

“Like you said, it was a long time ago,” Rabbit muttered.

“Yeah, but rumor has it Marceau remembers everything.  Has he made any attempts to find you?”

“Yes.”

“Recently?”

“Yes.”

Dallas stared.  “You’re a dead man.”

Rabbit scowled at her.  “What I was saying before you interrupted me was that I have maps dating all the way back to the time I was planning my escape from Millennium, updated every ten years.  I’m going to plug them all into the computer and see which inconsistencies it can find.  It’s going to take a lot of concentration, so perhaps you should go find a good vidtext to read.”

Dallas winced at the thought of staring at two different maps, trying to find stars that didn’t exist.  “Tommy would probably be good at that.  He’s pretty anal.”

“He would, at that, wouldn’t he?”  Rabbit sighed as he plugged the chip into the console.  “Unfortunately, Colonel Howlen is most likely not coming back.”

“What?”

Rabbit switched the mapper to 3-D rendering and began entering commands into the computer.  Distractedly, he said, “He had an altercation with Athenais and separated from us.”

Dallas narrowed her eyes.  “You mean she pissed him off and he went looking for new work.”

“No, he went looking for his wallet,” Rabbit said, eyes on the screen.  “I’m sure he fully intended to return.”

“What do you mean, ‘intended to return?’”

“By pointing fingers at the locals, he most likely found his way into a meat market.”  Rabbit hit a button and a three-dimensional plot of the Quads appeared on the screen.  He tapped a few more keys and most of the stars faded, leaving only a few dozen, outlined in red.

“A meat market?” Dallas cried.  “And you’re okay with that?!”

Rabbit sighed, looking up at her from the map.  “He pulled a gun on Athenais.  He’s got problems with you.  He’s got an irrational fear of aliens from his days in the S.O.  He doesn’t like criminals.  We can do without him.  Hell, I’d say he’s better off on Odan, because if he stays with us, eventually Attie’s gonna kill him.”

“So that’s who beat the shit out of Athenais?” Dallas cried.  “Howlen?!  The old prude’s got balls.”

Rabbit shrugged.  “He won’t for much longer.  They usually remove them on aging Utopis.  Leaves them better suited for clerical and secretarial positions.”

“Go get him.”

Rabbit glanced up.  “I was just joking.  He’ll keep his balls.  They only do that to youngsters that don’t make the stud grade.”

“Go get him!” Dallas repeated.

A frown creased Rabbit’s brow.  “He was the riskiest member of the operation from the start.  Former Utopi.  Possible undercover.  Unpredictable.  Intolerant of aliens.  It crossed my mind several times that his dismissal was just a setup to get the shifters back once Governor Black kidnapped them.  If that’s the case, they’ll rescue him in the slave pens somewhere.  If it’s not, well, he shouldn’t have attacked Attie.”

“She’s a raging bitch!  I say good for him!”

Rabbit shrugged.  “If you want to go find him, you can, but Retribution leaves dock in three hours.  With or without you.”

Dallas was dumbfounded.  “You’d leave him behind?  After he helped you?”

“The man turned on us.  Frankly, I don’t think he’s suited for pirating.  If he had a chance to sing to the Utopia to get his job back, I’d give him a ninety percent chance of learning the opera.  On top of that, I’d give him a thirty percent chance of being undercover Utopi.  I run twenty-two casinos on T-9.  Probabilities are my forte.”

He’s right, you know, Stuart said.

But Dallas wasn’t listening.  “It takes twenty minutes to shuttle planetside,” she growled.  “How do you expect me to find him and get back here in three hours?”

“Frankly, I don’t.  I was planning on leaving him somewhere after we got Attie anyway.”  He returned his attention to the vidscreen and selected a red star, seemingly at random.

Careful, Dallas, Stuart warned.  Rabbit’s like Athenais.  He doesn’t say things like that lightly.

Dallas’s jaw stiffened.  They’re not doing the same thing to Howlen they did to me.  I won’t allow it.

Then you’d better hurry.

“I want my last six weeks’ pay.  Right now, in case I don’t come back.”

Rabbit glanced up.  “That’s eighteen thousand credits.  Why do you need them?”

“Just give them to me.”

Rabbit shrugged.  “Fine, but as soon as you leave the ship, I’m changing the override codes.  Too dangerous for me if Howlen’s undercover and they interrogate you.”

“Fine,” Dallas said, hands fisting.  “Do what you have to do.”

He gave her a long, solemn look, then nodded.  “As you wish.”



Wings of Retribution


Dallas stumbled into the hub in a daze.  Behind her, the ship’s airlock slammed shut.  She flinched.

Calm down, Dallas, Stuart said.  I’ve been here before.  I’ll help you.

“Yeah, but how are we going to find him?” Dallas whimpered.  “We’ve got a whole city.”

The first thing they would’ve done is move him to another city before offering him for sale.  If they’re professionals, it can take less than an hour to get him in another province and equipped with a fake tag.

“Oh, great!” Dallas snapped.  “So that leaves the whole planet!”  She looked up and realized that the group of vendors were staring at her, keeping their distance, undoubtedly noting that she had come out of the same door as the bitchy space pirate.

First off, get to the shuttle.  We don’t have much time.

“Yeah,” Dallas muttered.  She strode past the wary vendors and into the shuttle hub.

Take one for Jeriah province.  It’s close to the Blue District, but does not uphold extradition or fugitive laws from other provinces.

“Where the hell’s the Blue District?” Dallas demanded.

That’s where Athenais and Rabbit would have gone to look for the shifters, Stuart said at the same time a bored shuttle attendant said, “The Blue District’s for the fine slaves.  You don’t go there unless you’re somebody who’s got a few thousand credits to spend or somebody who wants to steal them.”  He pointed to a door.  “Shuttle Seven.”

“What about the Jeriah province?” Dallas asked.

The attendant squinted at her.  “Little thing like you, you don’t wanna go there, miss.  Believe me.  Outsiders don’t belong there.”

“I want to go,” Dallas insisted.

“Why are you even going planetside?” the attendant asked.  “One of the other provinces will have what you’re looking for.”

“Jeriah,” Dallas insisted.

The man shrugged.  “Don’t say I didn’t warn you, miss.”  He nodded at another door.  The floor around it looked barely worn.  “Twenty credits.  Bigger fee ‘cause nobody goes there.  Not outlanders, anyway.”

“Thanks,” Dallas said.  She strode to the door, offered up her credit coin for the fee, and then returned it to her pocket and climbed into the empty cab as the autopilot waited for more passengers.  Ten minutes later, with no more fares, she held on as the autopilot closed the airlock and dropped them into the atmosphere.

We’ve got two and a half hours to get back, Dallas.

“I know that,” she muttered.

Landfall in three minutes Standard, an automated male voice said.  Please exit with all of your belongings.  Unclaimed luggage will be destroyed upon discovery.

Dallas frowned.  “That bad, huh?”

Jeriah is home to criminals, ecoterrorists, and every neurological disorder humans can contract, Stuart replied.  Port Authority likes to stay on the safe side.

Dallas thought of the neurological disorder she was bringing to the province and she smirked.

When the shuttle landed, Dallas disembarked and went into the decontamination room.  She stripped, gave her clothes and credit coin to the guard on duty, and stepped into the man-sized black booth.  Behind her, the locks clicked shut, as they had in every decontamination booth she had ever entered.  This time, however, she felt a stab of panic and almost tried forcing her way back out.

Don’t worry, Stuart assured her, pulling her hand away from the door.  Stay calm.  Just stand normally or they’ll know something’s wrong.  The only planets that still scan for suzait are Millennium and Jonin.

“Jonin?  Never heard of it.  It military or something?”

Jonin was a colony planet that my kind populated in an attempt to escape the One Species charter.  Of course, humans didn’t know we had populated it, and they put their own colonies down.  After being stuck for many years in near-animal hosts, some of my kind got the taste of human versatility and they switched from the planet’s native fauna.  The fever spread and my kind raced to find good human hosts.  Problem was, there was about a thousand times more of us than them.  The fighting killed off most of the humans.  When word got back to the Utopia, they assumed we had destroyed the human colonies on purpose.

Dallas felt the antiseptic tingle and coughed at the mist.  An ultraviolet light engulfed the room, killing whatever the spray and sonics had not.  Then the door opened and she stepped into the light.  There were no S.O. troops, no armed forces, just the one bored guard who handed Dallas her pile of flash-sanitized clothing.

“So now Jonin’s on constant alert?” she said once they were back in the terminal.

Yes.  They killed off everything on the entire planet, all the way down to the microbes, then built it up from scratch with animals that resist our acquisition.  I think their motto is Never Again.

“Bummer,” Dallas said.  “So basically you guys had a feeding frenzy.”

Yes.

“That what started the war?”

No.  As soon as the Utopia discovered us—which took a long time, by the way—we were considered hostiles.  Obviously, they recognized the conflict between our species.

So why don’t they just engineer a host for you?  Something better than humans?  You know, good senses, stronger bodies, more stamina, dexterity…  Give you guys a reason to stop taking us as hosts.”

Would you give an enemy that kind of power?

Dallas hadn’t thought about that.  “Um.  So where am I supposed to be going?”  She had stopped at the exit to the terminal.  Outside, the single tram was sitting unused, rusting.

This is where you gotta be careful.  Exiting the terminal is the most dangerous step in this whole process.  Step to the sidewalk, but make sure you can see in all four directions and it’s clear.  Then wait.  Keep the guard in sight through the door.  Ignore anyone who walks up to you.  After a few minutes, a green skimmer should drive past.  These are the cabs used by locals.  Hail it, and tell him you just saw a friend to the shuttle and need a ride back home.

“Sounds complicated.  Do you want to do this?”

Just listen.  The driver’s gonna ask for an address.  Give him the headquarters of the shuttle company.  It should be on the wall under its certification from Port Authority.  A minute away from the terminal, change your mind and tell him you just realized you needed to run errands in the Straw District.  If he asks what type of errands, tell him the family you work for just lost a slave and you need to buy a new one.  That will put him on edge enough to stifle further conversation.  Jeriah families wealthy enough to afford hired help and slaves are always crime-affiliated.  It also reduces the risk of him trying to sell you to a collector.  Even a whiff of the wealthy families of Jeriah is enough to put even the most opportunistic slavers on edge.

“Um.  Would you like to do this?  You seem to know more about it than I do.”

Don’t worry, Captain.  You’ll do fine.

Dallas grinned.  “You’re the only one who still calls me Captain.”

If you don’t get this right, I’ll probably be the last.

“I thought you told me not to worry!”

I don’t want you to look nervous.  To live in Jeriah, you’ve gotta be hard.  Which reminds me.  Go to the restroom.

Why?  I don’t have to pee.”

Just do it.

Dallas sighed and obeyed.

As soon as she had entered the stall, Stuart said, Take your hair down and put it in a pony tail.  Wipe your finger along the crack against the wall and rub some of the dirt on your hands and face.  Now take a shit.

Dallas, who had complied up until this point, flinched.  “You’re kidding me.”

The Straw District stinks like hell.  It’ll be more convincing if you stink, as well.

“Screw that!” Dallas cried.  “I’m not rubbing shit on myself!”

Not you.  Your clothes.  Just a tiny bit will suffice.

“Ugh!” Dallas snapped, backing out of the stall.  “I’ll take my chances.”

Believe me, Captain, you want to do this.

“No, I don’t.”

Stuart took over.  As Dallas squirmed with disgust, he moved her bowels, collected the result, and brushed portions of it on the bottom of her shoes and against parts of her coat.

“You are disgusting!” Dallas screeched when he finally put her back in control.  “I’m going to get sick!”  She ran to the sink and started sanitizing her hands.

In her head, Stuart sighed.  Now you’ve gotta find some more dirt to rub on your hands.  You can’t get in the cab with clean hands.

Dallas refused.  Stuart took over again.

“You’re really starting to piss me off!” Dallas screamed when he gave her back the controls.

It’s for your own good, Captain, Stuart said.  I didn’t want to come down here in the first place, so unless you’re gonna return to the shuttle and go back to Retribution, I’m not letting you screw us both over.

“You sound just like Athenais.”

I’m just keeping things in perspective, Captain.  It’s not just yourself you’ve got to take care of anymore.  It’s me, too.

“I wonder if tapeworm medicine will work if I pour it in my ear.”

You’re the one who signed up for this, Stuart reminded her.  Rabbit was ready to shoot me.

“You’re an ungrateful bastard, you know that?”

Stop talking to yourself.  I think you’re frightening the guard.

“Shut up.”  Dallas wrenched the door of the bathroom open and walked across to inspect the Jeriah Space Transport’s shuttle license.  She memorized the address, then stalked out the door to stand on the sidewalk, in a foul mood.

Almost immediately, a well-groomed man jogged up and gave her a charming smile.  “I’m so glad I found someone.  This part of town is always so deserted and that worthless guard wasn’t any help.  You look like you know something about mechanics.  My skimmer stalled just around the corner—”

“Bugger off,” Dallas spat.  “I’m busy.”

The charming smile faded into a scowl.  “I see.”  At that, he turned and left.

Not a few seconds later, a frail old woman with a four-footed cane hobbled past her and dropped her bag of groceries.  Food and vegetables spilled all over the ground in front of Dallas and the old woman gave a cry of horror.

Dallas stood, immobile, ignoring the woman and her spilled groceries.  The woman struggled to replace the food in her bag, but her palsied fingers trembled too much to keep a reliable grip on anything.

“Excuse me, dear, would you mind helping me?” the woman asked.

Dallas kicked a yellow fruit across the road, where it was crushed against the hood of a passing skimmer.  Stuart was such a dick.

The grandmotherly eyes darkened.  “I see.”  Swiftly, she gathered up the fallen groceries and stuffed them back into her bag.  Then she tucked the cane under her arm and walked off.

So far so good, Stuart said.

“Shut up,” Dallas said.

Minutes passed and Dallas had to turn down several bright yellow skimmers that stopped and offered their services.  Finally, a green cab came into view and she waved it down.

“You free?” Dallas called.

Be assertive, Stuart said.  Don’t ask.  Tell.

Dallas’s face remained in a tight grimace.  “Go screw yourself, worm.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I said, take me to 333 East Renoyld Road.  I just got finished dropping my friend off at the shuttle and I need to get home before the boss realizes I’m gone.”  Dallas climbed into the back seat.

The woman at the driver’s console relaxed.  “Of course.  333 East Renoyld.  Isn’t that the commercial part of town?”

Careful, Stuart said quickly.  She smells something.

“Yeah.  It’s my shit-covered jacket,” Dallas snapped.

The woman looked startled as she stared at Dallas through the rear-view.  “Excuse me?”

“Mind your own business, woman,” Stuart said.

Dallas glared.  “Don’t do that again.”

The driver looked thoroughly confused.  “Of course.  333 East Renoyld.  You a native of Odan?”

“Just shut up and drive,” Dallas said.

Looking bewildered and a bit put off, the woman did.

As soon as they were out of sight of the shuttle station, Stuart said, Okay.  Now tell her you need to run some errands in the Straw District.

“Change of plans,” Dallas said.  “Take me to the Straw District.  Boss just lost another slave and needs a replacement.  Usually I snag one myself, but I don’t have the time I’m normally given, so today I guess I just gotta pay the Man.”  She smiled at the woman in the front seat, who immediately turned pale.

The cab dropped her off on a damp, stinking street littered with bits of straw.  Dallas immediately learned why.  Rows of cages, each with three solid cement sides, a roof, and a viewing area of solid steel bars, lined the streets in all directions.  The people inside the cages had a bucket, a pile of straw, and, if they were lucky, some clothes.  Most looked sick and underfed.

As she watched, one of the men outside the cages poured the contents of one of the buckets into the street.  Human waste spilled out over the ground, where feral pigs converged on the scraps and began to root through it.

Dallas held her nose and looked away.

Don’t, Stuart said.  Act like you see this every day.

“I can’t,” Dallas whispered.

Move closer to the cages, Stuart ordered.  Pretend you had to spit.  They’re watching you.

Dallas’s feet were rooted to the ground.  “I can’t,” she said again.  “I want to go back.”

You can’t go back.  They’d know you for what you are and put you in one of those cages.  Is that what you want?

“No,” Dallas whispered.  She was fighting down nausea.  “You do this, Stuart.  I don’t want to.”

No.  It’s not my people who put their own kind in cages.  You will do this.

I didn’t even know this place existed!” Dallas cried.

Collect your thoughts.  Now.  That man walking toward you is a slaver.  He’s wondering if you’re lost.  If you say one wrong thing, he’s going to order those men over there to grab you and we will be sold to the highest bidder.  Do you understand?

Why are you being so mean?!”  Dallas was shaking.  She could handle a fleet of ships, but this was too much.  She was too exposed.

You need to realize that not everything in life is sitting in a captain’s chair and doing loops in space.  You need to grow up, Dallas.

Dallas stared at the approaching man, stunned.  “What did you say?”

Stuart remained silent.

The slaver stopped and smiled at her.  “Ye lost, miss?  That cab drop ye off in the wrong district?”

Dallas’s face contorted.  You’re just like Athenais.  You don’t respect me—you’re just using me.

“I’ll be takin’ that as a yes, then,” the man said, glancing behind him.

Dallas shoved the man aside.  “Get the hell outta of my way.”

The slaver, who was six-five and at least three hundred pounds, looked surprised.  He caught her shoulder with a meaty hand and stopped her.  “Here now, sweetie.  Such a little thing like ye…my, wha’ a pretty face.  What ye doing here?  Ye sure yer not on the wrong side of town?”

  Dallas paused and turned, slowly.  “Get.  Your.  Hand.  Off.  Me.”

The slaver released her shoulder.  “Sure thing.  Just tryin ta help.  Maybe if ye told me what yer looking fer, I could help ye.”

Dallas scowled at him.  “The family I work for recently lost a good slave.  Shipman.  Utopian-trained.  They want me to buy them a replacement.”  She glanced at her watch.  10:46 Standard.  “Before noon.”

The slaver’s eyes widened, sensing easy money.  “Sure thing, miss.  Why, I’ve got three right in my pen.  All former Utopis.  One’s even got a scrap o’ uniform left.”

“Show me,” Dallas ordered.

The slaver did.  None of the miserable-looking men behind the bars were Colonel Howlen.

“They must meet certain specifications,” Dallas said, scowling.  “Yours all look sick.”

“Look at the women, then,” the slaver offered, moving in front of a second cage.  “They’re naturally more healthy than the males.”

Careful, Captain, Stuart warned.

“They want a man,” Dallas spat, without moving.  “Not a weakling.”

“You’re one to talk, bitch,” one of the slaves spat.  She was silenced with an electric goad from one of the guards.

The slaver moved back to the male pen.  “I assure you, our stock is healthy.  We are one of the only companies in the Straw District who have a guarantee.”

“How much?” Dallas asked.

“Thirty thousand credits,” the man said.

Dallas winced inwardly, but said, “We’ll see.  Money isn’t an issue, but my employers will not be happy if the stock dies en-route.  They would punish everyone involved, so it’s in both of our interest that I find a slave that’s healthy.”

The man rubbed the stubble on his chin.  “I see.  Very well.  We have a partner company up the street.  In-House Auctions.  Specializes in on-planet transactions.  For fresh stock that’s still sensitive.  Might be more spirited, but definitely more healthy.”  He pointed up the street.

“Thanks,” Dallas said.  She started walking, glancing inside every cage she walked past.  Slavers walked to meet her as she passed, but she waved them away.

Walk more slowly, Stuart warned.  You’re almost running.

“I want to get this over with,” Dallas said.  “This is horrible.”

You’ve still got two and a half streets to go.  People usually take an entire day to walk through the Straw District.

“I don’t have a whole day.  I have two hours before Rabbit finds whatever he’s looking for and leaves me here.”

Actually, less.  Maybe an hour and forty-five, tops.

Dallas walked faster.

She hurried down each side of each of the three streets of the Straw District and never saw Tommy.  She had even gone inside In-House Auctions and had looked around, but the cages contained no one she knew.

Dallas stopped at the end of the last street and turned around to stare back up the rows of cages, in a state of shock.  She had twenty minutes to get back to the ship or be left behind.

It’s possible I picked the wrong province, Stuart admitted.

Dallas glanced up at the setting sun.  It was one of the aspects of being planetbound that always disoriented her.  She quickly looked back at the street.  Did she try to find Howlen or go home?

Go home, Stuart said, apologetic.  You tried, Captain.

Dallas turned from the street and hailed a passing green cab.  She got inside and told the driver that she needed to pick someone up from the shuttle.  Once they were at the terminal, she stalked inside the terminal, where she cleaned up as best she could.

Her sense of smell was just beginning to return when she felt gravity disperse as the shuttle broke through the atmosphere.  A queue at the dock, however, left her several minutes late before she actually stepped into the hub.  Then, to her horror, she realized she was in the wrong hub.  She ran to the tram, got aboard, and fidgeted anxiously as it took her to the proper hub.  As soon as the tram stopped moving, Dallas jumped off and raced to Retribution’s bay.  In the split-second it took for the ship to recognize her and open the airlock, she thought maybe Rabbit had already departed.

Breathlessly, she sprinted inside Retribution and doubled over, holding her knees and gasping.

“Curse of the Father!” a familiar male voice roared.  “You stink, girl!”

Dallas glanced up, shocked.

Tommy stood inside, his black-and blue face twisted in disgust.  “Did the worm put you through some twisted mating ritual?  What’s that smell?”

“Where were you?” Dallas blurted.

“Obviously not in a bar, rolling around in feces.”

Dallas stared.  “What happened to your face?”

“Just some locals, girl.  Nothing I couldn’t handle.”

“That’s Captain, you ungrateful piece of shit.”

“The only piece of shit here is the one clinging to your coat.  Get to decon.  I’ll tell Rabbit you finally decided to show up.”  He turned to leave, then paused and looked back.  An almost patronizing look on his face, he said, “You know, when you get to be a real captain, you’ll learn you have to lead by example.  Until then, try to show up on time.”

Dallas watched the Colonel walk from the bay with an open mouth.

Remind me again why you wanted to help him? Stuart asked.

“I honestly can’t remember,” Dallas said.




Wings of Retribution

Custody Battles


The woman in the brocaded white clothes came to their cell again several days later.  Having been left with nothing aside from the thrice-a-day platters of food shoved under their doors to keep them entertained, Ragnar and his relatives all sat up eagerly when they heard the rattle of the lock.

“Come with me,” the woman in white said.  She had opened the door herself, with no other guards in attendance.  Ragnar stared at the key in her hands, debating whether to try and take it from her.

Paul even went so far as to take a step toward the woman, but Morgan shook his head.  Reluctantly, Ragnar and his brother fell in behind her.  The woman gave Morgan a slight smile, then led them out of the cell and back into the windowed hallways of the massive stone palace.

The woman guided them through the maze at a brisk walk, the whole time without encountering another person.  Ragnar paused casually at a window, thinking he might be able to escape through it.  When he looked outside, however, he forgot to breathe.  Aside from the sheer dropoff that was the massive wall of the palace, there was nothing within sight but deep blue ocean.

“The largest landmass on this planet is only two miles wide,” the woman said, watching his expression.  She had stopped at the next window down, and was looking out over the massive ocean beyond.  “The oceans harbor aggressive naturals, so we have been forced to build up what dry land we have.”

A hundred feet below, the surf crashed against enormous boulders in a white froth.  As far as he could see, the ocean continued in an endless expanse of blue.

Ragnar backed away quickly, sweating.

“Further,” the woman said, “The only vessels between the islands are owned by the Emperor, since the distances are too great and the voyages too dangerous for private ownership.  And, since this is the only landmass with a spaceport, it would be unproductive for you to flee.”

Ragnar glanced at her, prepared to run.  Paul and Morgan had also distanced themselves.  She might be able to catch one of them, but not all three.

Then her words hit him.  “The whole…planet…is water?”  He swallowed, hard.

She gave him a wry smile.  “Now you understand why I am unconcerned with any attempts at escape.  There is no escape.  Not off Xenith.  Something I learned long ago.”  Her smile turned bitter.

“This was a prison planet?” Morgan offered.

“A colony,” she said.  “A colony that officially did not exist.  Then, once our fuel and supplies had run out, we discovered that we had been abandoned, our program terminated without recalling us.  We were left to our own devices.  Two hundred and thirty-two of us.”

Ragnar whistled despite himself.  “You’ve been here a long time.”

“Yes.”  The woman turned and began to walk again.

The three shifters reluctantly followed.

“You must have had to re-invent the wheel,” Morgan said.

“Yes.  We had databases, but they were basic encyclopedias, very little technical non-mission information.”

“What was the mission?” Ragnar asked.

“To breed psychics.”

“Seems like you’ve been doing a pretty good job,” Ragnar offered.

The woman eyed him briefly.  “It is slight-of-hand.  I am no closer today than I was when the mission first began.”  She stared out the windows at the blue ocean.  “What infuriates me is the naturals have all of the capabilities I’ve been trying to produce.  I’ve studied them, dissected them, evaluated their diet, their habits…  Nothing makes sense.  They simply defy scientific explanation.  Only their essence seems to have any effect on human abilities, and only for brief periods of time.”

The shifters looked at each other.  “Their…essence?” Ragnar asked.

“It’s a fluid taken from the core of their cerebellum.  It’s odorless, tasteless, and feels just like water, but when ingested, it produces feelings of euphoria and, in a select few, the ability to pick up telepathic signals from others.”

“Are you one of those few?” Ragnar asked.

She gave him a bitter look.  “No.”

“The Emperor?”

“Of course.  The Emperor is determined by how well he can use the drug.”

Ragnar glanced out at the ocean.  “These naturals…  Do they often attack?”

The woman scoffed.  “Of course not.  They are aquatic.  The bastards are helpless on land.”  She began to walk again.

“But shipping is tough,” Paul offered.

“Half of all our water-borne vessels were lost, in the early years,” she said.

Ragnar pursed his lips.  No wonder she wasn’t worried about them escaping.

“In here,” the woman said, guiding them into a smaller hallway.  “We’ve been collecting your kind for awhile now, but we’ve been waiting for ishala.  We want our forces to be able to perform the yeit.  It will be more terrifying to the enemy.”

“What enemy?” Ragnar asked.

“The Utopia,” the woman said.  She stopped outside a door.  Sunlight spilled into the hall from windows on either side, but they were barred.  When Ragnar peered through the bars, he could make out a walled enclosure on the other side obscured with thick vegetation.  He could hear trickling water.  Suddenly, on the other side, the bushes rustled and something big hurtled through the brush away from them, snapping brush and snorting.

The woman unlocked the door and pushed it open.  “Enter.”

Ragnar and the others hesitated.

“What’s in there?” Ragnar asked.

“Your kind,” she said.  “As soon as you are inside, I will remove your collar so you may propagate freely.  Be warned, the door is programmed to lock at the sound of my voice.  My biofeedback responses are also linked.  Any increase in heartbeat or blood pressure will slam the doors shut.”

Morgan led them inside, pausing only briefly to gaze through the open door.  The woman followed them inside and, as promised, began removing their collars.  Ragnar was first.  She had just finished entering the code when Morgan and Paul jumped on her, throwing her to the ground.  The door began to swing shut.

“Ragnar, go!” Morgan shouted.  “Yeit!  Now!”

The woman on the ground threw the two off of her with the speed and strength of a master martial artist.  She hopped to her feet, spun, and caught Morgan in the jaw with her foot, whipping his head to the side.  He crumpled like a doll.  Paul tried to grab her, but she swiveled and slammed her foot into his gut, then lashed out, hitting his temple with a knifelike hand.  He, too, crumpled.  Then she turned on Ragnar, the whole process taking less than two seconds.  Behind him, the door was closing.

“Don’t do it,” she warned.  “There’s nowhere for you to go.”

Ragnar shifted to the first thing he could think of and burst through the door at near-skimmer speeds.  The door slammed on his tail, crushing part of it into the wall.  Ragnar barely felt it as he tore away.  He had left Paul and Morgan.  He hesitated in the hall, wondering if he could still help them.

The door began to open and Ragnar could smell the gun on the other side.  He spun, and took off in the opposite direction on six legs.  He reached the main corridor and turned again, racing into the unknown, his claws clicking on the marble as he fled.

He raced past three startled guards, slid to a stop against a marble pillar, and took a huge spiraling staircase to the upper floor.  Here, the décor was much less dramatic.  The small, boxy windows were covered with utilitarian brown drapes, the floors made of a hard white substance that smelled of the sea.  He paused to shift again to staunch the bleeding in his tail.  He didn’t have time to concentrate on a localized yeit.

Ragnar raced down the hall in his new, blockier form, took the first stair he found, and doubled back.  Ragnar found a niche and shifted again.  He walked out of the shadows on two feet, his face an ugly image of a demon.  He peeled off his torn clothes, leaving only his ragged undergarments, then stuffed the discarded items into an empty vase.

No one had come to stop him.  He heard shouts, but they were distant, coming from the lower levels.  Ragnar leaned out of the window on the landward side of the palace and looked down.

Morgan and Paul remained motionless on the grasses below, their collars intact, a group of humanoids gathering around them.  As he watched, Paul woke up and vomited.  One of the other shifters helped him to his feet and began asking him questions.  Behind him, Morgan stirred.

Groaning, Ragnar turned away from the window and slid down the sill until his bottom rested on the floor.  Three shifts in less than twenty minutes…  He moaned, closing his eyes.  Pounding agony lanced his body, starting at the center and radiating outward.  He could feel each cell, each individual nucleus.  They were all afire, exhausted from the misuse.  He envied Paul his headache.

Ragnar forced himself to his feet and stumbled away from the window.  Have to get away, find a way off planet.  Find a ship.  Get Attie.  Must get Attie.

His thoughts were flickering, fading, as his core shut down to regenerate.  He staggered, weaving as he walked.  His extremities were going numb, the connections dormant.  He stumbled a few more yards, then collapsed in a dark corner behind a decorative statue.  His eyes closed and let the exhaustion overtake him.



Wings of Retribution


“When I get out of here, you’re both dead.”  Athenais fumed, stalking back and forth in her room.  How dare Rabbit lock her in?  And to give Fairy the captain’s codes…  Rabbit was deliberately provoking her.

“Then I guess I just won’t let you out,” Fairy said over the speaker system.  “And stop pacing.  It’s pathetic.”

Athenais turned to scowl at the cameras.  Without the override codes, there was no way to turn them off from her side of the door.  Seething, she said, “Fairy, have some decency and turn those things off.  I deserve some privacy, at least.”

“You will refer to me as Captain or you will be ignored.”

Athenais’s hands fisted.  “I want to talk to Rabbit.”

Nothing.

“…Captain.”  Athenais choked on the word.

“Rabbit’s sleeping.”

“Goddamn it, Fairy, I’m gonna scalp you and feed your entrails through the exhaust system!”

Fairy ignored her.

Roaring, Athenais began kicking at the door.  The alloy did not even dent.  Screaming, she tried to rip the chair off the floor so she could throw it at the cameras.  It was bolted to the floor and didn’t even move.  In fact, everything in the room was either part of the design or glued in place.  She tried bashing her fist against the camera, but the transparent lens shield was shatterproof.

Furious, Athenais went into the bathroom and started digging through the drawers.

“What are you doing?” Fairy demanded.

Athenais came out with a tube of toothpaste.  With great satisfaction, she coated each of the lens shields with opaque white paste.  The room began to take on the pleasant smell of mint.  When she was finished, Athenais capped the tube and threw it back into the bathroom.

“Bitch,” Fairy muttered.

Athenais moved to the opposite side of the room and began methodically dismantling the standard picture-frame bolted to the dresser.  She came back with two slim sheets of metal, which she slipped under the door.  She slid them back and forth until they caught, then left them there and went back to the dresser.  She tore the alarm from the wall and began stripping the wires.

“What are you doing in there?” Fairy demanded.  “You’re paying for any damages, you know.  This is my ship.”

Athenais ignored her and yanked another cable free, this one connected to the lamp in the wall sconce above the door.  She pulled as much wire out as she could, then twisted the lamp free of its socket.

“You’ve gotta live in there, you know.  Maybe for a few months.  Depends on how generous I feel.  I’ll send you some food every once in awhile through the tube system.  But then again, you don’t need food, do you, Attie?”

Athenais carefully removed the socket from the wire, sustaining several electrical shocks as she did so.  The lights flickered, but she continued working.

“What are you doing to the power?  Getting nice and crispy?  Don’t think you can threaten me.  The power to that room will shut off completely if the disturbances endanger the rest of the ship.  You know what that means.  Frozen space pirate.  Sure, it’ll take a few weeks, but eventually it’s gonna get as cold as a freezer in there.  You’ll spend the rest of the trip in cryo.  How’d you like that, Attie?”

Athenais applied a wire to either metal sheet.  She heard a solid thud in the bottom of the door and she pulled the two metal pieces free.  Then she wedged them under in a different spot.

“You know, we might as well use this time to get to know each other.  I worked for you for two whole years and you still don’t know me, really.  Did you know I grew up on Derkne?  My mom was a mathematician and my dad was a schoolteacher.  They didn’t have the money for my education, so I had to work my way through college.  Worked as a wildlife control agent.  Flew skimmers out over the flats each weeknight, searching for redcats…

Athenais rolled her eyes and applied the wires a second time.  Another thump.  She got up.

“Those things were always crawling around the garbage dumps around the big cities.  We had to be real careful.  Don’t know if you’ve ever dealt with a redcat, but even after they’re dead, the poison can kill you.”  Then a pause.  “Well, not you, because you’re a freak, but they kill most people.”

Athenais grunted, pushing, shifting her weight and straining.

“And it’s almost impossible to kill ‘em.  Gotta get a direct shot to the lower chest.  There’s a nerve center there that controls the rest of it.  A lot of tourists think it’s in the head, because they look a lot like those big cats they’ve got on Earth.  Those types don’t last too long out on the flats, though.  The cats always get ‘em.  They’ve learned they can get a free lunch just by letting those morons blow their heads off.”

Metal scraped against metal, protesting.

“It’s the environmentalists who’re the worst, though.  They go out there with their vid equipment and journals and document their behavior, trying to prove they’re not a menace.  You know how many of those morons’ bones I had to go clean up?”

Metal screeched and caught.  Athenais grunted and heaved, sweating, her fingers sliding against metal as she struggled.

“Six.  Well, seven if you include that guy and his wife, but when the cats were done with them, we couldn’t tell them apart.  We just threw everything in a bag and sent it back to headquarters.  Let the guys behind the desk deal with sorting them out.  They’re the ones who—

Athenais let out a triumphant shout and squeezed through.

Behind her, she heard, “Just so you know, every time you interrupt me, I think I’m going to reduce your rations.”

Athenais stormed through the hall like a thunderhead.  Rabbit and the colonel’s doors were closed, the sounds of sleep emanating from each.

Good.  The tart was hers.

She stepped into the helm in time to hear, “…buy you an ass-hugging miniskirt and a tanktop that shows what little boobs you have.  That’ll be your uniform for the next four months, and I’ll hire some thug outta a bar to grope you every chance he gets and then cut your rations every time you sock him.”

Athenais grabbed the back of Fairy’s chair and swung her around.  Fairy’s jaw dropped and the comset fell from her stunned hand.

“How did you…”

“Let me get one thing straight, you incompetent twit,” Athenais growled.  “I’ve been around longer than the Utopia.  I know every trick on and off the books.  Rabbit may like you, but you screw with me and you’re gonna wind up space debris.  Capiche?”

Fairy nodded, mouth still open.

“Good.  Now get out of that chair.”

Fairy jumped out of the seat and stood, wide-eyed, as Athenais sat down and began working with the console.

“What are you doing?”

“Hacking into the system,” Athenais replied.

“Why?”

“I’m taking over the ship.”

“Oh.”

Athenais checked the logs, found the approximate time Rabbit had locked her in her room, and then went to the recovery data and entered the keystroke database.  It had every button ever activated on the ship, right down to the first day Retribution first left dock.  The database was an obscure tool that salvage teams reviewed in order to discover what had gone wrong before a crash.  Athenais found the codes she was looking for and glanced up.

“Got a pen?”

Staring, Fairy handed her one.

Athenais wrote the codes on the back of her hand and stood.

“What’s that mean?  D-2, C-1, D-1…?”

She went over to the captain’s panel and entered 8Q579K.

“Password accepted.  Greetings, Dallas.”

Athenais snorted and began entering new information.

“New password created, effective immediately.  New owner Captain Athenais Owlborne.  Personal preferences set.”

She peered at the map of the ship and highlighted Rabbit’s room.

“Localized quarantine now in effect in area 2B.  Manual overrides disconnected.”

Athenais slapped the case shut again and handed the pen back to Fairy.  Then she sat down in the pilot’s chair and deleted the recovery databases.  Satisfied her keystrokes couldn’t be traced, she brought up the autopilot and began examining their route.  As she had suspected, their destination lay in the Black.  She resumed autopilot and leaned back with a sigh.

“You…changed the codes?”

She peered at Fairy out of the corner of her eye.  The young pilot looked stricken, nauseous.

“If you’re gonna puke, go do it in the head.  I’d hate to have my ship stinking of vomit.”

Fairy was suddenly shaking all over, her face scarlet.  “You’re…you’re…”

“The new captain?  Yes, I know.”

You’re nothing but a selfish whore!”  Fairy threw the pen into Athenais’s face and left.  As soon as she was gone, Athenais locked the doors behind her, irritated.

Some people were just sore losers.



Wings of Retribution


Ragnar woke with his every fiber screaming, his head a pounding wash of agony.  It took several minutes for him to realize through the haze that something was poking him in the ribs.

“Someone’s gonna catch you,” a horrified young face whispered to him.  The boy lacked a tattoo, but something about his manner marked him as a Stranger.  Seeing Ragnar’s eyes open, the kid grabbed him by the aching fingers and started tugging.

Ragnar groaned and allowed the boy to pull him to his feet.  The mere effort of standing left him utterly exhausted.  Hungry, his fevered mind thought.  Need to eat…  He leaned against the vase, waiting for his head to steady.

“You sick?” the boy asked, giving him a squinting look.

“Food,” Ragnar managed.  “Need food.”

“Well, you know where the grand hall is,” the boy said, giving him an even more suspicious frown.  “They won’t let you in there if you’re sick, though.”

After three yeits in a row, Ragnar’s cells were screaming for sustenance.  He moaned and dropped his head, barely able to stand.  Remembering his family, he said, “I need a ship.”

“You a dockworker?” the boy asked, frowning.  “Wow.  Better get moving.  Mom says they’re pulling in a shipment of floaters today.”  The boy tugged on his hand and Ragnar stumbled.

“You sure you’re okay?” the boy asked.  “Your hand feels weird.  All cold and mushy.  Like seaweed.”

Ragnar pulled his hand out of the boy’s grip, willing it to retain human form.  It was a struggle, but he finally regained control.  His vision stabilized and he took a staggering step down the hall.

“Where are you going?” the boy cried, catching up with him.  “The docks are that way.”  The boy shoved him in the opposite direction.

“Thanks,” Ragnar muttered, suppressing the desperate, carnal urge to kill the boy.  He started walking and, after watching him a few minutes, the boy went in the other direction.  Ragnar continued down the endless hall, glancing out the seaward window.  He had to find a ship.  He moved to the other side of the hall, keeping his head down when several brightly-armored Warriors passed him.  When they were out of sight, he hesitated at a window, trying to get his bearings.

From his vantage on the third story, Ragnar could look across the tiny landmass and see the huge palace wall rising over the opposite horizon, completely circling the island.  In between, he saw no shuttle-pads, just crops, trees, and some ponds.

Apparently, all the people of Xenith lived in the huge walls together.  Ragnar glanced behind him, trying to judge the size of the corridor.  He supposed the roof could be big enough for a shuttle pad.  He glanced back out the window, staring up at the top of the huge structure on the opposite end of the island.  Forty stories or more.

Ragnar slumped to the window sill, utterly exhausted.  His body hadn’t seen that kind of abuse since escaping Millennium.  Even then, he had Athenais’s food to rejuvenate him.  Here, he had no idea where to find something to eat.  In less than ten hours, his body would start eating itself.  From that point onward, it would continue to eat itself until Ragnar provided it food.

It was one of the side-effects of the yeit, one of the reasons why he only used it as a last resort.  Ragnar glanced up at the roof again.  What if he reached the top and there was no ship?  How many hours would it waste to search the entire wall?  He had to get his priorities straight.

Food.  First he needed food.  Morgan and Paul could wait.

But, since the entire structure was basically a forty-story circle, he had no idea where to begin.  Would these people eat together or separately?  Did they live in communal quarters based on class?  Were there markets or was it a socialistic society?  Were certain levels off-limits to certain classes? Would he have more freedom of movement dressed as a Warrior or a Stranger?  Which was more likely to be killed for a mistake?  He’d seen the Emperor throw the Warrior’s life around.  Were all classes like that?  Or were some more powerful than others?  There were the Priestesses…

But the Priestesses had looked more like prisoners than objects of worship.

Edging on delirium, Ragnar decided that Strangers would have the best access to food.  He just had to figure out where they made it.



Wings of Retribution


“No, she didn’t let me out,” Athenais snorted, insulted by the thought.  “I let myself out.”

In the com camera, Rabbit went to the door, saw that the console was dead.  “Attie…”

“I want an apology, Rabbit,” Athenais said, lazily leaning back in her chair.  “I’ve changed the codes.  It’s my ship now.  I’ve assigned the little tramp cleaning duties.  In the kitchen.  Where she belongs.”

For the first time in at least a decade, she saw Rabbit’s Buddhist-schooled face draw tight with anger.  “Damn it, Attie!  This is her ship!  I paid for it, and I gave it to her.”

So much for Zen, Athenais thought, amused.  “I’m a pirate.”  Athenais grinned at him through the com.  “What can I say?”

Rabbit narrowed his eyes at her.  “We need her help, Attie.”

Athenais laughed outright.  “I don’t need her help.”

“Yes you do.  She’s a better pilot than you are.”

Athenais’s eyes narrowed.  “No.  She’s not.”

“She took out forty-one ships on Erriat.  The whole fleet.  With ground interference.  I gave her a two percent chance, even after seeing her fly.  Frankly, I thought I was just going to join you in Orplex, because nobody else alive could have done that.  Not even you.”

Her hands fisted on the arms of her chair.  Was he actually serious?  That whole show of awe had been real?  Was he delusional?  “I could have done it.”

“Face it, Attie.  She’s better than you.”

“Do you want me to turn off life support in there?” Athenais growled.  “You’re obviously not putting it to good use.”

“What’s Tommy doing?”

“The colonel is comparing maps of the Clover 4 system, looking for the best entry point.  We don’t want to give Juno any more warning than we have to, and if we can—”

“There’s a nice debris field nine minutes out,” Rabbit interrupted.  “Iron-based rocks approximately a hundred tons and above.  Three small planets orbiting between Xenith and the rock field will cover our approach.  From there, Xenith itself has three large moons, which should give us a decent place to hide on the final leg of our approach.”

Athenais sniffed.  “We’ll let Tommy decide.  He’s the expert here.  You just run a goddamn bar.”

Rabbit shrugged and moved to the wall under the camera.  All she could see was the top of his head.

“What are you doing, Rabbit?”

She heard a crash, followed by a thud and a ripping sound.  The camera went dead.  Athenais tried to switch views, but the other cameras in 2B were also malfunctioning.

“Damn it, Rabbit!  A good closed-circuit costs several thousand credits!  I’ll be taking that from your hide, you prick.”

Rabbit ignored her.

“The power’s off, Rabbit,” Athenais said with a sigh.  “There’s no way to override.”

She heard some shuffling from the speaker, then nothing.

Athenais got up and threw the comset away in frustration.  She strode from the helm and down the hall to the kitchen.  Fairy was inside, drawing a bloated figure of a woman in some spilt flour.  She was in the process of painstakingly adding buckteeth and warts.  Underneath, it had ATHENAIS in capital letters.

And they wonder why I don’t find her mature enough to captain a ship, Athenais thought, watching the girl’s face screw up, her tongue in the corner of her mouth.  Athenais continued to stand there as Fairy finished with the warts and started drawing horns.

“Rabbit’s pissing me off,” Athenais eventually interrupted.  “You don’t need to make him a meal tonight.”

Fairy squeaked and hastily wiped out the image in the flour.

“I’m gonna be checking the maps with Howlen,” Athenais said.  “Finish up in here and go monitor the helm.  We’re off the trade routes already, so autopilot’s struggling.  Probably gonna fall apart in two minutes or so.”

For once, Fairy did not complain.  Athenais knew that the little wench would do anything to get her hands back on the controls.  Hell, she might even believe she could somehow regain command of the ship, though Athenais had already made that impossible.  Squirrel, maybe, but not some airheaded twit like Fairy.  Too predictable.

Athenais left Fairy in the kitchen and went to the navroom to meet the Colonel.  Inside, the lamps were off, the only source of light the luminescent planets and rotating rocks surrounding him on the six huge screens.  Howlen was squinting at a grid on the console in front of him displaying the mass calculations of every object in the system.

Athenais flipped on the lights.  “You’re gonna strain your eyes and I don’t feel like buying you new ones.”  She stepped inside and glanced around at the images of Clover and its seventeen orbiting masses and their moons.  “So what’s the consensus?”

“It shouldn’t be a difficult entry,” Howlen said.  “There are plenty of weak points, places where surveillance wouldn’t pick us up unless they were right on top of us.  Considering the sheer amount of territory they’d have to cover, I’d say they don’t have the resources.  This isn’t Millennium—it’s a forgotten colony that somehow survived.”

“Then you don’t know Juno,” Athenais said.  “Assume she’s got every high-tech gadget out there, and they’re all aimed at her weak spots.  She’s as paranoid as a space-rat on crystal meth.”

Howlen gave her an odd look—probably too young to know what meth was, Athenais thought impatiently—and glanced back at his maps.  “If that’s the case, there’s probably only one route.”

“Spill it.”

“On the ZY side of the system there’s a debris band.  High-density, iron-rich rocks, one hundred tons plus, about nine minutes out.  Matches Retribution’s mass composition.  If we insert there, we can hop the three planets between it and Xenith and stay under her radar.  Xenith has three large moons, so we could jump behind one to get closer.”

“Let me see that.”  Athenais sat down and brought up the information on a separate console.  “There’s gotta be another way.”

The Colonel got up, scowling.  “Why’d you even send me in here if you weren’t going to listen to my advice?”

“You were an officer in the Utopian Space Corps.  You should be used to it by now.”

Fuming, the Colonel left.

Athenais bent over the information, concentrating.  Rabbit could get screwed.  There had to be another way.



Wings of Retribution


A little stunned that the pirate hadn’t docked her pay, Dallas dusted off her hands and hurried to the helm.  Her heart-rate cranked up a few beats when she saw the autopilot timer flashing.  She sat down and barely had enough time to strap herself in before the ship’s computer reset and she had to haul on the controls to avoid a red giant.  Once the ship’s grav system settled down, she heard Athenais cuss at her from the navroom.

Remind you of anyone? Stuart said.

“Give me a break,” Dallas said.  “I knew what I was doing.  She’s just being irresponsible.”

Of course.

“Please.”  Dallas settled into the chair and started fidgeting with the ship’s database.  “Did you see what she did back there?  I think she got into the recovery records, but I can’t figure out how.”

Don’t worry about it.  She removed the ability, I’m sure.

“But this is my ship,” Dallas muttered.

Stuart was silent.

“It’s mine,” she insisted.

Cluster.

“Huh?”

Cluster!

Seeing the rapidly-approaching group of dots, Dallas started and jerked the stick backwards, throwing the ship’s gravity off again.

Down the hall, Athenais shouted, “Goddamn it, Fairy, you keep us flying straight or I’ll wring your scrawny neck, you got me?!”

Dallas shut the doors to the helm.

“This is my ship, Stuart,” Dallas informed him.  “You don’t like that, you can find someone else’s brain to live in.”

Sorry.  You’re right.  It is your ship, absolutely.  It’s just had the misfortune of being commandeered by a pirate.

“That’s right.”  Dallas made a disgruntled noise and scowled at the grid.  She glanced to her right and saw the camera to Rabbit’s room was dark.  She tapped the screen, wondering what was going on.

Probably more toothpaste, Stuart said dryly.

Grunting, Dallas returned her attention to the debris grid.  She yawned and checked her watch.  She had another thirty minutes until the computer could reset itself and she could turn on autopilot.  She settled into the routine, making minor adjustments as objects appeared on the screen, light-years in front of her.

Behind her, the doors opened.

Dallas’s hands grasped the controls reflexively.  “I’ve got another five minutes!” she cried, taking hold of the stick in a death-grip.  “Go take a crap or something, you bitter old leprechaun.”

“You mind moving a moment, Dallas?”

Dallas’s jaw dropped and she turned.  “Rabbit?”

The wiry little man was cut and bleeding in multiple places, and generally looked like he’d squeezed through a meat-grinder.  Holding his head, he said, “Quicker would be better, in this case.”

Her mouth still open in shock, Dallas hopped up.  “She let you out?  She said she was gonna keep you in there for another couple weeks.”

“Attie just officially pissed me off,” Rabbit said.  “Now if you don’t mind, I’d like a few minutes to concentrate.”

“Uh, sure,” Dallas said, stepping back.

Rabbit made minor adjustments to the trajectory to avoid the tail end of a storm system and opened up the ship’s files.  His fingers darted across the keys, rattling through the directories, entering access codes, overriding controls, changing passwords.  In three minutes, he leaned back and looked up at her.  “Would you mind placing your thumb on the screen, Dallas?  First the left, then the right.”

“What’s this?” she asked.

“Part of the new master code.”

Dallas recoiled.  “She’ll cut off my hands.”

“No.  I’ve removed her from the equation.  The master codes cannot be accepted while she is in the room.”

Nice, Stuart commented.

“So claim your new ship, Dallas,” Rabbit said, motioning to the console.  “You earned it.”

A wave of euphoria enveloped her as she leaned forward and pressed her thumbs to the screen.  The computer read them, accepted them, and then Rabbit turned away as she entered her ten-digit password.  When she straightened, Dallas was in shock.

“It’s really mine?  You can’t go do whatever you did to take it back?”

“I’m wiping that option from the computer system.  You now have absolute control, Dallas.”  He stood up, gesturing for her to take the helm.

Dallas stared at the pilot’s seat, suddenly feeling like she was floating.

“Of course, if you die, we’re all screwed.”  Rabbit laughed as she sat back down.

“Thanks,” she mumbled, so overwhelmed she couldn’t really come up with anything else.

“No problem,” Rabbit said.  “Enjoy.”  He glanced at the door behind him.  “So where’s Attie?”

“Navroom.”

“Good.”  He patted her shoulder.  “Have fun.”  At that, he strode from the helm and left her alone.

“I like him,” Dallas whispered, blushing.  “He’s really nice.”

He was just one-upping Athenais, Stuart said.  It’s a game they’ve been playing since he rescued her.

“He gave me a ship!  A warship.”

To prove a point, Stuart insisted.

“You’re jealous!”

Stuart was silent.

“That’s it!  You’re jealous!  Of Rabbit!”

That’s ridiculous.  Your kind and mine are utterly incompatible.  I have nothing to be jealous of.  He’s just a wiry little human with freckles and a stupid grin.  Go fornicate with him if you want to.  Why should I care?

Dallas burst out laughing.  “We’ve gotta get you a body.”

What? Stuart said, sounding alarmed.  Why?

“So we can get it on, doofus.”

Oh.  Dallas felt herself blush, but it was not her own doing.  She laughed some more.




Wings of Retribution

Aliens on the Loose


“Hey.”  Ragnar stepped from the shadows, catching a lone Stranger by the arm.  The upper levels of the complex were not well-lit, so he had been able to stand there unseen for most of the night.

Upon seeing Ragnar, the man’s tattoed face twisted into a grimace.

“What?  Are you ill?”

“I need food.”

The man gave him an odd look.  “It’s not time.  Do you need to see a priestess?  You’re sweating.”

“No,” Ragnar gasped.  Streaks of agony were lancing his innards in arcs of white fire.  He could barely stand.  His entire body trembled, and it was all he could do just to remain in control of its form.  “Please.  Food.”

“You didn’t eat already?”  The man looked suspicious.  “If this is some trick to get more rations…”

“No, I’m new,” Ragnar managed.

The man’s frown deepened.  “New to what?”

“Here.  This.”  He motioned at his face.  “I don’t know where I need to be.”

“What class are you?”

“Stranger,” Ragnar said.

“I know that.  What class?”

“I’m not sure,” Ragnar said.

The man lifted his chin and stared down at him in a sneer.  “You must not have an ounce of the sacred blood.  You’re as stupid as a floater.”

Ragnar bent his head in acknowledgement, even though it hurt his skull to move it.  He was feverish and every part of him was trembling with the pressure of his body’s own cannibalism.  He could feel himself losing mass with every moment, feel his memories sliding…

“What were you trained to do before the ceremony?” the man demanded, looking him over like a sick head of cattle.

“Uh,” Ragnar managed, “cook?”

The man stared at him.  He motioned at Ragnar’s undergarments.  “You’re wearing working clothes.  I think you should come with me.  I’ll ask if one of the Traders is missing an idiot.”

“No,” Ragnar said quickly.  “That’s not necessary.  Please, I just need food.”

“You a runaway, then?” the man’s eyes narrowed.

“No.  I need food, then I’ll get back to work.”  Over the last few hours, Ragnar had lost control of his salivatory glands, which had spilled their contents into his bloodstream.  He had thought he could hold out longer, but apparently three jumps after a long dormancy was too much for him to take.  Starved for nutrients, his body was busy devouring itself.  Now all he could think about was the throbbing agony that was his flesh disintegrating from the inside.

“What work?  I’ve never seen that uniform before.  Who’s in charge of you?”

Ragnar glanced down at his underwear.  They were spacer-grade, with a collection canister imbedded in the fabric in case he had to go off-ship.  “Dock,” he said.

“Dock what?”

Ragnar lunged forward, unable to take the strain any longer.  He grasped the Stranger by the neck, making the man’s eyes bulge in his demon mask.  “Just tell me where I can get food.”  The roar that came out wasn’t quite human.  He’d lost too much control.

“You’re the shifter,” the man gasped.  “A Noble of the Second House.”

Yes, damn it,” Ragnar snarled.  “Now where?”

“Please, don’t ask me to disobey the Emperor’s Will.”

“I don’t give a damn about the Emperor’s Will, and right now, neither should you.  Tell me where I can find some goddamn food!”

“I can’t,” the man whimpered.  “I’ll die.”

Do it!”

The man rolled his eyes into the back of his head and passed out.

Ragnar dropped him, too weak to hold up the dead weight.  He cursed.  “Get up!”

The man was still.

Ragnar kicked him in the chest, but the man never moved.  Had he pressed too hard on the artery?  Shaking, he knelt to check the pulse.  Nothing.  Dead?

How could he be dead?  And why?  Ragnar was too starved to think.

Now he had a new problem.  He had to get rid of the corpse, or his pursuers would know which direction he’d gone..

Sweating, weak as he was, Ragnar dreaded the thought of dragging the corpse anywhere, much less all the way across the hall to one of the open seaward windows.  He nudged the corpse again with his foot.  It flopped lifelessly.

Oh gods, Ragnar thought, his desperation growing to a crescendo.  I can’t do this.  Hours of walking in this place and he still hadn’t caught the slightest whiff of food.  He had forty stories and miles of building to cover, and he just didn’t have the energy

Ragnar’s eye caught on the curved brass knife strapped to the man’s belt.  He eyed the corpse a long moment, then bent to retrieve the knife from its scabbard.

He’d found his food.



Wings of Retribution


“We have a problem, Captain.”

Both Dallas and Athenais looked up.

“Take a look at this.”  Tommy dropped a memchip into the console in front of Dallas.  “I can’t make heads or tails of it.  The whole planet’s water.”

Dallas cast Athenais a smug look before examining the file.  The sphere rotating on the screen in front of her was blue and white, with several megastorms roving across the surface.

“That doesn’t look like a very happy place,” Dallas observed.  “Are they living underwater?”

“They’re living on islands,” Tommy replied.  “Each one walled like a fortress.  Forty-two stories high.”  Island after island popped onto the screen, displaying the same huge towering walls, even on the tiniest specks of land.

“For the storms?” Dallas asked.

“That would be my guess, though I think they’re living in the walls.  See those windows?”

Dallas nodded.

“So where’s the capital?” Athenais interrupted.  “Juno will be at the capital.”

“That’s the problem, Captain,” Tommy said, still addressing Dallas.  “We can’t find any identifying markers.  They’re all the same.  To figure out which island is the central government, we’d have to go down and take a look.”

“What about the biggest island?” Athenais demanded.  “That’s the place to start.  Authority will drift towards power, and on that world, power is land.”

For the first time, Tommy looked up at the pirate.  “That’s the odd thing, Athenais.  The largest island’s settlement is completely destroyed.”

“Civil war?”

“I don’t think so.  The ruins are ancient and there are no other signs of war.  You can still see the foundations of several very large buildings if you look closely.  We’re talking a huge civilization, gone in a couple days.”

“There’s no wall,” Dallas noted.

“That’s true.  So I’m thinking whatever wiped out that island is the reason they now build walls.”

“Well, that’s obvious,” Athenais said.  “They got hit by a storm.”

“So they weren’t hit by a single storm for the centuries it took to build that huge civilization?  We’re talking thousands of years, here.”  He pointed.  “If you look closely, the walls are dome-shaped.  Wind resistant.  They were hit by storms in the past, Athenais.”

“Maybe a tsunami.  Something they weren’t used to.”

“The buildings have crumbled in a manner that indicates slow decay.  Nothing has been washed to sea.  I’m not even sure that Xenith is tectonically active.”

“Why do we even care about that island in the first place?” Athenais said.  “We want to find the shifters, not study Xenith’s ancient history.”

“I think it’s important to figure out what happened there,” Tommy said.  “It will give us an enormous window into the inhabitants’ psyche.”

Athenais scoffed.  “You sound just like Juno.  I think she would have worshipped PsyOps if she got the chance.”

“He’s right,” Dallas heard herself say.  “There’s something there that needs to be investigated before we make any attempt at landing.  It must have been significant, or they would have rebuilt there.”

Tommy gave her a sour look.  “Is that your professional opinion, worm?”

“Don’t call him a worm,” Dallas said automatically.  Then, she thought, I was beginning to think you were asleep in there.

I don’t like this, Dallas, Stuart responded.  Something’s not right with this planet.

“I say we hold off another day,” Dallas said.  “Do some more research.  Get our bearings first.”

“Well, Captain,” Athenais sneered, “if you’re worried about it, we can always land on that island and take a look around.  We can do our research from there.  It’s deserted, right?  What better place to make landfall?”

“Yes, but…”

“Good.  I can do with some fresh air.  Do you want to drive or shall I?”

Dallas bristled.  “I said we should wait a day.”

Athenais’s smile faded.  “Look, kid.  I know Juno.  Better than you, better than Rabbit, better than anyone.  She’s smart.  Very smart.  The longer we stay hidden like this, the sooner she’s gonna find us.  We need to get on that planet before her equipment picks us up.”

“We’re waiting.”

Athenais stood up abruptly.  “Say goodbye to your ship.”  At that, she grabbed her half-eaten sandwich off the console and left the helm, whistling.



Wings of Retribution


Ragnar dropped to the dock in silence.  The last dockworker had already left for the night, leaving the ship moored and silent behind them.

Silent except for a high-pitched keening.

The noise had been going on for hours, ever since the ship pulled into the dock.  Several times, he had heard the dockmen refer to the ship’s cargo as ‘floaters,’ but as of yet he had not seen anything come off the ship other than a few sailors.  Sailors and dockmen alike had cursed when they found out that the transportation canisters for the floaters were all in use and they’d have to wait until morning to unload.

Ragnar walked up the gangplank and stepped onto the worn, sunbleached deck.  The wood beneath his feet was vibrating with the intensity of the sound.  When he looked closer, he realized that the keening was coming from a huge metal box inset in the deck of the ship.  A metal lid prevented him from seeing what was inside, with only a small porthole welded into the top.  A crane sat poised over the box, equipped with a fishing net.

Ragnar stepped closer and touched the box.

Immediately, the keening stopped.

Ragnar yanked his hand away and stepped back.  The ship remained eerily silent.  He glanced around, wondering if any of the dockmen would notice the sound had stopped.

When no one appeared to stop him, Ragnar circled the box until he was standing in front of the porthole.  It was bolted in ten places.  Gingerly, he touched the bolts.  They and the box were both heavy iron, on a planet where iron was scarce.  Whatever was in there, the dockworkers didn’t want it getting out.

Ragnar glanced up, where the ring of buoys bobbed in the waves, glittering in the moonlight.  He had watched them painstakingly push the net under the prow so that the ship could pass through earlier in the day.  Did this cargo have something to do with the massive net that ringed the island?

Whatever is in that box can hurt you just as easily as it can hurt those humans, a part of Ragnar warned.  You should leave it alone.

And yet, after what the humans had done, Ragnar felt a flush of rebelliousness that clouded his good sense.  He was so helpless in all other matters—any sort of sabotage would make him feel better.

He put his hands on a bolt and tugged.  It slid back with a heavy metallic thud.  The rest went just as easily.  In the end, Ragnar was left staring at the unbolted lid, wondering if he was making a huge mistake out of petty revenge.

He touched the edge of the lid and took a deep breath.  Then he lifted.

Nothing.

Tense, he leaned over the lip of the canister and peered inside.



Wings of Retribution


“You made us wait a whole day for this?”  Athenais kicked a weather-worn stone, disgusted.  “There’s nothing here.”

Fairy was standing beside her ship, one hand pressed to the hull, looking out at the destruction in dismay.  She hadn’t taken two steps away from the ship the entire day.

Seeing the little twit’s nervous expression, Athenais laughed.  “Afraid it’ll fly away on you?”

“Stuart doesn’t like this,” Fairy said.  “He says we should leave.”

“Leave?”  Athenais snorted.  “Look at this rubble.  It’s at least three thousand years old.  If it was a sickness, it’s gone.  If it was a war, it’s over.  If it was a storm, it’s passed.  Whatever happened, it’s safe now.  I’d say it’s an unexpected bonus that we found a good place to land.  If this wasn’t here, we’d have to land right in the middle of one of their forts, and I’m not quite ready to deliver myself to Juno so easily.  Isn’t that right, Rabbit?”

Rabbit was staring off toward the ocean, his brow wrinkled in a frown.

Athenais turned to look.  “What is it?”

“I just…”  Rabbit shook his head.  “I thought I saw something.  But that’s impossible.  At this distance, it must have been larger than a ship.”

That got Athenais’s attention.  She peered out at the aquamarine waves, shielding her eyes from the sun.

The Colonel pointed.  “Look at the beach.  There’s something out there.”

Indeed, two bluish shapes were resting on the sand.

“They’re huge,” Fairy said.  Then, in the worm’s flat tones, “I think we should go.”

“They’re probably just dead whales,” Athenais said.  “Juno would’ve seeded this place with Earth marine life to make it livable.  Not enough land for agriculture.”

“Dead whales that are moving,” Rabbit commented.

“Someone go get me some binoculars,” Athenais ordered.

No one moved.

Reddening, she began to walk toward the beach.

“Where are you going?” Fairy demanded.

“I’m going to find out what’s out there,” Athenais said.  “You should probably stay.  I don’t want you wetting yourself, little girl.”  At that, she started navigating the rubble-strewn slope that Fairy had chosen for their landing site.  The highest point on the island.  Athenais was still fuming over that.  Sure, they had a better view, but they might as well paint a target on their hull.

Athenais was ruminating over this when she happened to glance up.

Her feet came to a dead halt.  Whatever it was on the beach, it was bigger than she had first thought.  And it was definitely alien.

She felt a wave of panic as an enormous, bulbous head lifted from the sand and let out a long, deep bellow out over the ocean.  Then the alien settled back to rest.

Athenais knew she should go back to the ship, but she had to get a better view.  How could something grow to be so huge?  She crept closer, shielding herself with the broken walls of abandoned buildings.  She got close enough to see the creatures were covered with bluish scales the size of breastplates before one of them suddenly lifted its head to stare directly at her.

The other looked up quickly, let out an ear-shattering scream, and splashed into the ocean.  Ten-foot waves crashed to shore behind it, swamping Athenais’s boots with warm saltwater.

The other creature, the larger of the two, remained where it was.  It stared at her with its skimmer-sized eyes, unblinking.

Suddenly, Athenais felt the overwhelming urge to take a bath.  The water was warm on her feet, reminding her that her last real bath had been in a cell on Terra-9.  She stank worse than Goat.  Her skin itched.  She needed a bath.

Leaving the shelter of the rocks, she started walking towards the ocean.

Just a short dip.  Dunk her head under, wash her hair, maybe swim a little.  It would be refreshing.



Wings of Retribution


“What the hell is she doing?” Tommy demanded.

Rabbit suddenly turned away from the ocean.  “Everybody get on the ship,” he said.  “We’re leaving.  Now.”

“But what about Athenais…?”

“We’ll come back for her.  Let’s go.”

“If you think that thing’s dangerous, I can get onboard and blow it to pieces,” Dallas said.

“I’m not afraid of the alien,” Rabbit said, pointing.  “I’m afraid of them.

A squadron of airborne warships were bearing down on them like a hive of bees.

“Everybody get on board!” Dallas squeaked.  They got inside and shut the doors just as the first bombs hit, shaking the ship.

Dallas ran with the others to the helm and began to execute the commands for takeoff.  She was just lifting off the ground when she saw the size of the ship in front of them.  She released the controls, her jaw dropping.

Interstellar warship Retribution, this is Everest, unclassified.  You are trespassing on the Emperor’s soil.   Proceed with liftoff and you will be terminated.

“Since when do atmo ships get that big?” Rabbit whispered.



Wings of Retribution


Athenais was brought to the helm of Retribution wet and near-drowned.  The two men escorting her wore stylized medieval plate and carried pikes, but Athenais’s bloody nose attested to the fact that they were more than just decoration.

  “Athenais.”

Juno sat in the captain’s chair and looked up at her approach.  The former Psy operative wore a brocaded white shirt and matching pants that reminded Athenais of a karate gi.  Her golden hair was wrapped into a tight bun behind her head and her angular face twisted at the sight of Athenais.

“Juno.”  Athenais nodded coolly.  “What did you do to the girl?”

“We’re educating her, along with that former Utopi you were dragging around.”

“You’re brainwashing them.”

Juno’s lips tightened.  “Why are you here?”

“I came to get my shifters.  Where are they?”

Your shifters.”  Juno snorted as if she found that particularly funny.  “They are currently involved in procreating a new shifter race on Xenith.”

“Well, get them.  I’m taking them home.”

“They aren’t going anywhere.  They’re my guests.”

“Your breeding stock, you mean.”

Juno shrugged.  “I am saving a species.”

“You mean you’re making more of them so you can cut a few open and see how they tick.”

Juno gave her a long, flat stare.  “Of all of us, the gift was most wasted on you.”

“Ha!” Athenais cried.  “I suppose you haven’t seen Angus in that hell-hole planet he’s made for himself.  You can’t go outside without getting the skin blasted from your bones.”

“He formed a government, crafted his own economy.”  Juno looked Athenais up and down, disgust written on her fine features.  “You’re just a thief.”

Athenais sighed.  “What about Rabbit?  Once a month or so, he’ll go out and spend a day robbing people in the streets, to ‘keep from getting rusty.’”

“Rabbit has expanded his influence unseen over several planetary stock exchanges.  He’s snatched up more real estate than a dozen mega-corporations combined.  He could overthrow governments just by picking up his comset, while you’re just a disgrace to humanity.”

A…disgrace?  “Who died and named you God?” Athenais cried.  Then she paused, thinking.  “Oh, wait.  That’s right.  You did.”

Juno’s angular face hardened to solid rock.  “Your friends should be done with their session.  As soon as they return, I will be taking them to the capital.  We can use two more freighter captains.”

“Good.  I’ve been wanting to see the capital.”

“You’re not coming with us.”

“Oh?”  Athenais raised a brow.  “And what are you going to do with me, oh mouthpiece of the divine?”  She cocked her head at Juno in question.  “That is what you set yourself up as, isn’t it?  Wait, wait.  Let me guess.  The Creator.  The Founder of this wretched little planet, Mother to All, Whose Firm Hand and Guidance Will Bring Truth.”

For the first time, Juno smiled.  It did nothing to soften her face.

The doors opened and four guards entered escorting Fairy and the Colonel.  Both had blank looks on their faces.  Athenais felt a rush of dread, then of fury.  “What did you do to them?”

Juno ignored her.  In a bored voice, without even taking her eyes from Athenais, Juno said, “Dallas, program me in as the new captain.  I’m flying from now on.”

Fairy never even twitched.  She sat down at the console and began entering codes.  When she was done, she got up and stood like a zombie, waiting more instructions.

Seeing Dallas’s slack expression, Athenais fought a surge of despair.  As blank as a dead man’s grimace, her blue eyes just…stared.

Damn Juno.  As much as Dallas pissed her off, Athenais had still liked the sneaky little twit.

Juno tested the new settings, found them to her liking, and smiled.  “Well, then.  Back to what I am going to do with you.”



Wings of Retribution


“You’re lucky I don’t have more time to be inventive.”  At that, Juno boarded the ship and it lifted off with a whirring hum.  The silence that followed was absolute.

Athenais stared up at the blue sky for long minutes as the lifeboat rocked against the waves.  She twisted her arms behind her back, but only managed to rub her wrists raw against the ropes.  Finally, she lay back and relaxed.  Even if she got loose, she had no oars, no sails.  Her clothes were all gone except for the spacer underwear, whose canister was already full.  Juno had even confiscated her boots.

Looking up, Athenais watched the clouds roll over the sky above her.  Juno had claimed to have dropped her in the path of a huge megastorm, but right now all she could see was a few strands of clouds pushed by a soft breeze.

It didn’t last.

Not two hours later, the winds began to blast against the little boat, the waves tossing it eighty feet into the air.  After thousands of years immunizing her stomach to the disorienting motion of space, Athenais discovered seasickness.  Retching, miserable, she curled in the bottom of the boat, praying that the waves tossed her into the ocean so she could drown.

Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.

Somehow, the stubborn little boat stayed upright throughout the entire two days of howling winds and ferocious waves.  On the third day, Athenais woke to the sound of the automatic pump expelling the last of the water from the pool in the bottom of the vessel.

Throughout the storm, her seasickness had been enough to make her forget she hadn’t eaten.  Now, sitting on the calm seas with nothing in sight to distract her from her hunger, Athenais’s stomach began to tear a hole in her gut.

Two more days passed.  Athenais spent them in a daze bordering on delirium.  The sun baked her exposed flesh, burning her pale spacer’s skin an angry red, which healed, only to be baked again a few hours later.

On the sixth day, she woke with the odd feeling of being watched.  As soon as she tried to sit up, however, something big splashed into the water beside the boat, jerking it.

After her encounter with the strange creature on the beach—and her subsequent need to traipse on down to the water and dive really, really deep into the pretty pretty ocean—Athenais began twisting, trying to get free.  The knots only dug in deeper, tightening until her extremities went numb.  Sighing, she lay back and watched the clouds.

Something brushed the bottom of the boat, tilting it, then was gone.  Athenais sat up and peered over the edge.  The water was a blue-green, infinitely deep.  Then she saw something massive—easily many times the size of Retribution—move deep underneath her in a slow pass under her raft.  She swallowed and lay back down.  So this was why Juno wasn’t worried about her finding a way out of the boat.  Hell, the sadistic bitch probably wanted her to crawl out of the boat.  All the better for the wildlife.

Athenais closed her eyes, trying not to think of the enormous alien and how much of Retribution it could have swallowed at once.  She’d been eaten by a large carnivore in the past and was not eager to repeat the experience.  A few feet off, she heard surface water ripple on an otherwise calm day.  Fighting down nausea, Athenais imagined tearing Juno’s head off and using it as a soccer ball.

The boat rocked again and the prow began to slide through the water.  Athenais looked over the edge, trying to identify what was under the boat, and whether the boat was sliding through the water, or about to be pulled under the water.

Whatever was propelling it stopped.

Scowling, Athenais moved back from the edge.  The boat started to move again.

“Shy, huh?” she said.  Trying not to allow her nerves to get the best of her, she turned to peer out at the horizon.  The ocean in front of the boat looked like the ocean behind it.  She had no idea where she was, and Juno had made sure to keep her under guard in the cargo bay while she chose the coordinates.

Exhausted and weak, not knowing whether the critter was stealing her off to safety or to a home-cooked meal, Athenais fell back to the bottom of the boat and tried to sleep.

When she woke that night, the smell of seafood was overpowering.  She sat up and stared.  A dead fish lay in the bottom of her boat.  Fat, silver, it stared up at her with a single dried-out eye.

Her stomach thought for her.  Athenais pushed it closer with a knee and struggled to find a place small enough for her puny human jaws to find purchase.  She closed on the tail and bit down hard.  She tore scales and flesh from the carcass and barely paused to swallow before she tore off another chunk.

Behind her, something big dropped into the ocean with a splash, rocking the boat.  Realizing that whatever it had been had been watching her, Athenais swiveled and lurched to the edge of the boat.  “What are you?!” she shouted at the rippling ocean.  Whatever it was did not return.  Athenais went back to the fish, propping the head between her knees so she could chew on the tail with her teeth.  The boat began moving again.

After stuffing herself with fish, Athenais collapsed back in the bottom of the boat and lay awake watching the stars.  What was helping her?  And why?

And was it really helping, or was it just fattening her up?

The next morning, she jerked awake when the boat hit something hard.  She looked up and her heart began thudding in her chest.

Land.

Laughing, Athenais levered herself out of the boat and into the shallows.  She flopped into the water and pushed herself to the beach with her toes.  Then she crawled a few feet through the sand and lay there, exhausted, the waves lapping at her bare feet.

She lay there an entire day.  The tide came up to her chest, then receded again.

Apparently, whatever had helped her so far had washed its hands of her once getting her to land.

Wet, tired, Athenais struggled to loosen the ropes at her back, but they would not budge.

…And probably wouldn’t, for at least another thirty years.

“Well isn’t this just peachy,” Athenais muttered.  She collapsed, staring at the sand under her nose.  Her one-time friend was probably living it up in some palace somewhere, having some naked man with a Herculean physique feed her plums while she swatted him on the ass with a riding crop and tugged on his leash.  The psychological nutjob was about as kinky as they came.  Athenais was actually surprised Juno hadn’t decided to use her in one of her various breeding programs.  That was her specialty.  Government-sponsored eugenics.  And, well, if Juno was the government, things had probably gotten pretty nasty.

Hell, just having Juno on the planet didn’t bode well for the sanity of the population.  That she was obviously in some sort of position of power pretty much meant Ragnar, Rabbit, and the twit could all kiss their asses goodbye.

Athenais spent hours thinking about that, and about what Juno had said about her being the most worthless one with the ‘gift.’  The woman was so full of crap it was coming out her ears.  The way Athenais saw it, she was the only one who had retained any semblance of sanity over the years.  The rest were either megalomaniacs, psychopaths, or paranoid schizophrenics.  Hell, most were all three.  Athenais was the only one who had a normal job, flying a spaceship.  Sure, a normal job where she stole other people’s stuff and sold it to the highest bidder, but how was that any different than a repo man or a foreclosure officer?

Yeah, that’s what she was.  A governmental foreclosure officer.  After all, she mostly only stole government goods.  Hell, she was basically doing everybody else a favor, ‘cause no one else had the balls to stick up to the Man.  Everyone else bellied up to the Utopia like it had every right to be there.  Not Athenais.  She gave em what-for.

Or, at least, had.  She was pretty sure she was going to be stuck on Juno’s rock for a very, very long time.

That night, something brushed her leg.  She started awake, thinking it was scavengers.  Whatever had touched her jumped back with a wet flop and stayed there.  Athenais squinted, trying to make out its shape in the darkness.  She could feel it sitting on the sand in the darkness, watching her.

Exhausted, Athenais lowered her head.  “Water,” she whispered.  The Potion had kept her alive despite the elements, but her thirst was excruciating.

Hearing her voice, her visitor cringed further away.

“No,” Athenais cried, twisting her head to look, “Wait.  Water.  Please.”

The thing turned, flinging sand, and she heard a splash as it flopped back into the surf.

Athenais groaned and slumped back to the beach.

It was well past midnight when something warm and salty pressed against her lips, startling her out of a restless sleep.  Something with sharp claws held her head so she couldn’t pull away.  Then, as Athenais was starting to struggle, warm water flowed against her lips.

Reflexively, Athenais swallowed, the water soothing her parched mouth and throat.  When the flow stopped, she groaned.  It wasn’t enough.  Not nearly enough.

“More.  Please, more.”

The thing flopped away from her and slid back into the ocean.

When it returned the second time, she was awake.  She heard it crawling up the beach toward her, a scuff-sliding sound in the darkness.  Athenais held absolutely still, willing to do anything for another sip of water.

Despite her resolve, however, her heart began to pound as it crawled over her.  The thing was big.  The long, streamlined silhouette it cast against the dawn sky was at least four times her own body mass.  Its huge eyes were bigger than her head, ringed with silver, and its wide, toothy mouth was easily big enough to swallow her upper torso.  She tried not to flinch as it reached out and held her head steady with one massive clawed limb.  Then it leaned down and pressed its stiff, salty lips to hers.

Athenais wasn’t sure if it was regurgitating or simply holding the water in its mouth, but as soon as the second flow started, she drank.  When creature had passed her everything it had, it pulled back.  Then, as if she were made of paper, it flipped her onto her stomach and she felt hard, clawed fingers fumble clumsily with the knots.

“You’ll have to cut them,” Athenais said, finally breaking the silence.

Her rescuer jerked and moved away, its mass making the beach shiver under her.  For an instant, Athenais thought it would flee.  She was surprised when, after a tentative moment, it crawled back, dragging its long, sharklike tail behind it.  They watched each other, alien-to-alien, as the thing reached out with a big, timid arm and one-handedly started fiddling with her bonds.  Athenais felt something grind against the ropes.  She twisted to look back, then gave a chuckle of despair.

“Her ropes are made of synthetic silk.  You’re not going to be able to cut it with a seashell.”

The thing said nothing and continued to saw at the ropes.

“My name’s Athenais,” she tried again.

It ignored her.

“Odd that you can understand me, but not speak.  How’d you learn?”

Her rescuer grabbed the rope it was sawing at and pulled.  To her surprise, it snapped.  Must have been a weak strand.  She tried to move her hands from behind her back and realized patronizingly that the creature had not chosen the best rope to free her.  Probably a lower-intellect.  Barely above primate.  Her amusement faded when the thing dropped its shell and flopped away and back into the ocean.

“Aw, damn it!” Athenais cried, flailing.  “Come back here and finish the job!  You damned chicken.  I’m not gonna do anything to you!  Jesus, Allah, and Buddha!”

It did not return.

Athenais struggled.  The ropes were looser, but she hadn’t eaten in over a day.  She flailed until she exhausted herself, then lay with her forehead in the damp sand.  Why did these things happen to her?  It was almost as if Karma was giving her one great big kick in the nuts after another, yet she was pretty sure her Karma was clean.  After all, she didn’t count stealing from the government or putting immature little twits back in their place bad Karma.  She’d have to ask Rabbit about that someday.  Maybe she needed to take up meditation or something.

When the alien came back the next night, Athenais didn’t wake until it started jerking on the rope it was trying to break.

“Please,” Athenais said, “I can’t even sit up.  I’m too weak to do anything to you.  Please, just finish the job.”

The creature was silent.  Finally, in a grating voice, it said, “You’ll survive, human.”

Athenais gave a hysterical laugh.  “Oh, I know.  Believe me, I know.”

Another rope snapped, despite all probabilities.  Athenais realized one of her hands was free.  As the creature started to slide away, she threw out her arm and grabbed what felt like a wrist.  A huge, slippery, scaly wrist.

The alien froze.

“Thanks,” Athenais said.  Then she released it and let her hand fall into the sand.

The alien grunted and flopped away, taking his clamshell with him.

Athenais sat up and tried to tug the rest of her bonds loose, but when the waterlogged silk refused to budge, she simply fell back to the ground with a laugh of despair and stared at the sky, too exhausted to try and drag herself across the beach, looking for another shell.

She must have fallen asleep, because when something slimy dropped into her hand, hours later, it startled her awake.  Athenais struggled to sit up, dizzy from hunger and exposure.  It was midday, the sun beating down upon her from a cerulean sky.  When she glanced down at her limp hand, she was surprised to see a salmon pressed into her palm, its body ripped in half, its orange flesh still twitching.  Numbly, she lifted her head and looked down the beach.

A few yards away, the creature watched her, tense.  Ten feet long, with huge, powerful arms and a thick, massive neck, the creature gleamed in the sunlight.  Bright silver, it had big, half-moon scales covering its entire body, with short arms that ended in six long, webbed fingers tipped in sharp silver claws.  The body looked vaguely seal-like, but the tail was as powerful and as distinctive as a shark’s, with minor flippers on either side of the underbelly, keeping it upright.  Its eyes were located on the front of its head, indicating it was a meat-eater.

The alien watched her, poised to flip back into the ocean at her slightest movement.

“Nice to meet you,” Athenais said.  Then she stuffed the bloody chunk of fish into her mouth and started chewing.

The creature continued to watch her.  While blocky and powerful in the upper body, it was sleek, perfectly hydrodynamic.  Its most distinguishing feature was the powerful tail.  Almost six feet long, it made up most of the alien’s body.  She guessed that it could probably kill much larger predators with a single blow from its tail.

When she finished, she said, “So what are you, exactly?”

The creature watched her a long moment, obviously in some sort of internal debate.  Finally, it said, “Taal.”

She was so stunned it spoke Utopian that she just blinked at it and said, “Taal?”

“Yes.  My name.”

“Uh.  Okay.  What are you, Taal?”

It bared long white fangs in an expression that was definitely not a smile.  “I am People.”

“You haven’t been categorized?  What species index are you?  Obviously oxygen-breather, since you aren’t dying as we speak.  Are you carbon or sulphur-based?”

The alien’s face contorted.  Even with the stiff, fishlike lips, it was very expressive, in a lupine way.  “Your words mean nothing to me, human.”

“You male or female, Taal?”

The creature scowled at her.  “What does it matter?”

Athenais shrugged.  “You’re hanging around.  I thought you wanted to make conversation.”

“We do not conform to your rules of sex.”  But it continued to watch her, almost with the morbid curiosity of a kid watching a worm roast on a sidewalk.

“Fair enough,” Athenais said.  “But for simplicity’s sake, I’ll think of you as a male.  I hate conversing with aliens without having a mental image of their gender.”

It bared its teeth in another smile-that-was-not-a-smile.  “I’m not ‘male.’”

“Are there many of you out there, Taal?” Athenais asked, firmly classifying the creature as a ‘he’ in her mind.  “I’ve never heard of an intelligent marine life-form, and I’ve been around awhile.  Intelligence seems to favor land-dwellers for some reason.”

Taal scowled at her with gigantic white fish-eyes and changed the subject.  “The Intruders set you afloat.  Usually they kill their enemies.”

“So I’ve heard,” Athenais said.  She flopped back to the sand and sighed.  Her mouth tasted slimy and fishy, and when she tried to swallow, her tongue just slid around in the slime, no saliva to wash it down.  “You gonna untie me now?” she said to the sky.

Taal didn’t respond.

“I’m unarmed, obviously,” Athenais said.  “You can check my underwear if you want, but you probably don’t want to go anywhere near that canister.  It’s due to explode any minute now.”

Taal pulled himself closer with his stubby forearms, dragging his ten-foot-length awkwardly.  Athenais shifted and he froze, looking like a panicked space-rat.

“Lay still, human,” he growled, and it sounded like a rumble from a redcat.

“You got it,” Athenais said.

The alien grunted and closed the distance.  Holding up his weight with one stubby forearm, he awkwardly began sawing at the ropes with a broken clamshell with the other.  Now that she had a better look at him, she could see a large, bulbous growth protruding from the back of his neck.  With the sun on the other side of the alien, she could almost see through it.  The tumor was one big pustule, filled to bursting with a clear liquid.

Athenais reached out to touch the growth.  “You sick?”

Taal jerked back, cutting her fingers on his scales.

“Ow!  Damn it!  What the hell?”  Athenais closed her bleeding hand into a fist.  “You’re one jumpy bastard.  Damn!”

Taal scowled at her, his huge pupils wide and dangerous.

Athenais reached down and took the clamshell he had been using.  She started sawing through the ropes on her own, then gave a triumphant laugh as they fell away.  Soggy silk seemed to lose its integrity.  She wondered if Juno had planned on that.  Probably.  Better for digestion.

Elated, Athenais stood up—and immediately toppled back to the ground as her vision dimmed to a dark tunnel.  Dehydration, she guessed.  She took several deep breaths, then sat up again and glanced at the island behind her.  There was no question it was an island, and a small one, at that.  She could see the shoreline on the other side through the thin patch of trees.

When she looked back, the Taal was again poised to flop back into the ocean.  Seeing the tenseness in his alien body, she had the sudden feeling she had to calm him down or she’d never see her mysterious benefactor ever again.

“Where’d you find that water, Taal?  Is there a spring on the island?”

“No.  It’s a long swim from here.”

“Think you could take me there?”

“No.”

“Then you want me to starve here?”

Taal moved closer to the water.

“Wait!” Athenais cried.  “Why save me just to strand me on an island?”

Taal slapped the ground with his tail twice and disappeared in the surf.  Athenais realized disgustedly that her boat was gone.

“Great!” she shouted, throwing the clamshell at the water.  “Just great!  Damn fickle alien bastards!  I hate the whole lot of you!”

Athenais got up and stumbled around the island, but found no food.  She waded out into the water during low tide and pried some bright red shellfish from the rocks, then broke them open and ate them.  They were surprisingly good.  She just hoped they weren’t laced with a neural toxin.  A narcotic might be nice, but poison was a pain in the ass.

When Athenais finished eating and moved to the edge of her boulder, she came to the unpleasant realization that the nice, dry rock she had chosen as her living-room table was now surrounded by water several feet deep.  While she had been busy with the shellfish, the tide had come in, and fast.

Grimacing, Athenais crawled from the rock and reluctantly began to wade back through the cold, awkward wetness.  She hated water.  Such an unnatural substance, especially when cold.  Humans were never meant to flounder around in cold, contaminant-ridden H20.  If they’d meant to be wet, they would’ve been born with fins.  At best, water should be sterilized, hot, and preferably laced with antibacterials.  In fact, whenever Athenais found herself in situations like this, wading through some unknown creek or seabed after a crash or a marooning, she always caught herself wondering what kind of weird parasites and viruses could be crawling into her various pores and orifices whenever she fully immersed herself in the bacterial soup that was a planet’s natural water bodies.

Stupid water.  She hated the stuff.  The worst possible way she could imagine to die was to drown, with nothing but cold, amoeba-ridden liquid seeping into her eyes and nose and mouth…  Athenais was grimacing at that thought, already having waded most of the way back to shore, the cool water already up to her breasts as she moved along on her tiptoes, when her feet slipped and went under.

Despite her long life, Athenais did not know how to swim.  In fact, being a spacer who detested the stuff, it had never even occurred to her that there was a trick to it.  Thrashing, panicking, she began gulping saltwater.  In moments, she was choking, gasping, completely forgetting about the beach, mindlessly trying to flail her way back to her rock.

Something grabbed her leg under the surface and at first Athenais thought it was Taal trying to help her.  Then the light nudge became razor-sharp teeth puncturing her flesh and pulling her under.  Her lungs burned and she tried to kick at whatever it was with her other leg, but the thing held fast and began to shake her.

Athenais breathed in water and lost consciousness.



Wings of Retribution


Ragnar sat at the window, watching the panic on the docks when the empty canister was discovered.  Older Strangers began to issue orders, barking commands for more nets and crew.  People scrambled over the ships and dropped nets into the water, trying to fish the floaters back out.

Then something very interesting began to happen.

One by one, the men manning the nets collapsed.  Panicked men retreated from the edges of the dock, staring at the water in horror.  Three Priestesses were lead to the center of the dock, their scarlet robes fluttering in the breeze.  They began chanting in the off-pitch tone of the deaf, then they, too, collapsed.

The three Warriors leading the Priestesses dragged their fallen charges back to the entrance to the wall and began shouting at the Merchant who had delivered the floaters.  He began shouting back and several more Warriors had to come out to restrain them.

This was turning out even better than he hoped.

Odd, that a few round blobs could cause so much havoc.

Ragnar walked to the opposite side of the wall and looked down.  He was about twenty stories up, staring down at the complex array of ponds and agriculture covering the inside of the walled landmass.  His father and brother were trapped in the walled enclosure on the other side of the island.  Ragnar had not returned to check on them since the day he escaped.  Too risky.

He glanced up.  At the top of the wall, almost precisely above the enclosure where his family was imprisoned, a spaceship sat squatting out over the ledge like a quiet sentry.  He guessed that the landing pad was there, near the same area as the Emperor’s gardens.  Around the ship, he could see twenty Warriors stationed on the ramparts, watching the ship.

It’s going to take a miracle to get out of here.

Sighing, Ragnar crossed back to the window overlooking the dock and looked back down upon the chaos he had created.  Tattooed men were pouring huge canisters of colorless fluid into the ocean, though few of them finished delivering their product before they collapsed.  Did the floaters produce some sort of poisonous fumes?  One that was toxic to humans, but not his own biology?  Highly unlikely.  After all, Ragnar had hefted them through the air like footballs.  He frowned, trying to puzzle it out.

Suddenly, a Warrior rushed down the dock with a burning spear and lobbed it into the water.  As he retreated, the ocean exploded in a wave of heat.  Ragnar pulled back as the plume of fire shot upward, billowing like rocket fuel.

As the ocean burned, the same high-pitched keening from earlier began again.  The sound intensified until it was all Ragnar could do just to stay upright, feeling as if the alien shriek was piercing his eardrums.  Ragnar backed away, pressing his hands to his ears.

Very slowly, the howl died away, leaving heart-pounding silence broken only by the crashing of the waves below.  More timidly, this time, Ragnar returned to the window and glanced down.

Blue-white floaters were bobbing on the surface, the flames eating at their bulbous, fluid-filled bodies.  The men on the docks were spearing them with long poles, dragging the basketball-sized organisms through the burning waters and up onto the sunbleached planks.

As Ragnar watched, the Strangers punctured the bulbs and drained the clear fluid into ornate containers.  Then they tossed the deflated bodies back into the burning ocean.

He frowned.

Below, the Strangers were kneeling before six Priestesses, who were accepting the ornate containers filled with floater liquid.  Was this some sort of victory rite?

He did not have a chance to find out.  A familiar voice blasted over the island-wide intercom, making him flinch.

Ragnar Reeve of the Second House, it is the Emperor’s Will that you return to your holding area immediately.  If you do not, we will kill one of your kind for every day you wait.  You have until dawn tomorrow to show yourself.

So.  The game had come to an end.

Frustrated, Ragnar started walking.  He had no doubt, if their mysterious benefactor was what they thought she was, that she would prove to be as brutally efficient as Athenais in forcing them to capitulate to her demands.  Which left him to do…what?  As far as he could tell, there was no way off the planet.  The government had no enemies to work with.  The entire planet was one global government, powered by brainwashed fanatics.  Which meant, as much as he hated it, he had to go back.

And soon.  He knew that she would kill to bring him back—the last thing she would tolerate would be a shifter running loose on her perfect little world.  Unfortunately, he’d been wandering for days, and he wasn’t sure he could find the place again if he tried.  Debating this, Ragnar finally stopped a Merchant in the hall, grabbing him by the jacket to slow him when the man tried to simply sidestep him and brush past.

The Merchant gave him a horrified look and tore his ornate blue-and-gold coat off as if Ragnar had contaminated it with his touch.

“I’ll report you, you disgusting creature,” the Merchant said, throwing the garment to the floor.  “You ruined a good coat!”

“I’m the shifter,” Ragnar said, once again thinking that humans were stupid, easily manipulated lunatics.  “I need to get back to the Emperor.”

The Merchant’s eyes widened and he glanced at his coat as if he were re-assessing its value.  “You are?  Prove it.”

“I’d rather not.  It takes too much energy.  Just get the Emperor.”

Yet the infuriating human simply peered at him.  “How do I know you’re not a Stranger trying to get out of execution?”

Ragnar realized he was going to have to shift sooner or later to prove himself, so he shifted back to his normal human form.  He went slow to save energy, but he was still exhausted when he was finished.

The Merchant stared at him.

“Now that you’ve seen, I need some food,” Ragnar said, feeling dizzy.  “It was too soon after my last yeit.”

“Of course,” the Merchant babbled, his outrage gone.  “Come.  My cook makes a very good floater tart.  You can rest in my room while I get the Warriors.”

“Thank you,” Ragnar said.  He followed the man down several flights of stairs until he could hear the surf crashing on the walls of rock outside the windows.

“Here,” the Merchant said, indicating a door.  Inside, a small, sparse bed with a utilitarian trunk at the end were the only furnishings.  It looked more like a prison than a domicile.   For a moment, Ragnar felt sorry for the man.

“Please stay here while I tell the others.  My cook will be here in a few minutes with your food.”

“Not floaters,” Ragnar said.  “Fish is fine, but not floaters.”

The Merchant gave him an odd look, then nodded.  “Of course.”  Then he departed.

Ragnar reclined on the bed, feeling frustrated and helpless.  He should have known they would use his family against him.  Their captor must have known it too, that’s why she wasn’t too worried about him escaping.

He had only been lying in bed a few minutes before a graying woman appeared with a platter of steaming pink fish.  The succulent aroma preceded her and Ragnar winced as spikes of pain laced through his body in response to the sight of food.

“That was fast,” Ragnar said appreciatively.  “Thank you.”

She smiled and nodded to him, set the steaming platter on the bed beside him, then departed.

Ragnar breathed in the savory smells and sighed.  Maybe it wasn’t so bad being a guest here, after all.  Hell, all the Emperor wanted was for him to breed.  That wasn’t so bad, right?

He was halfway through his meal when he blacked out.



Wings of Retribution


Athenais awoke on the beach to the stench of blood and a horrible burning in her chest.  She sat up with a start and her lungs convulsed.  Saltwater spewed forth, making a divot in the sand as she coughed it from her lungs.  Shaking, exhausted, she didn’t realize she was not alone until Taal spoke.

“You were dead, human.  I heard your heart stop.”

The alien had a red gash down his side, the source of the blood.  It was oozing down into the water, staining the surf red.

Athenais looked down at her leg.  The bitten limb was pink and inflamed, but the bite wound was gone.  She eyed the slash along his side.  Not a slash, she realized, upon closer inspection.  A bite.  Scales all along his underside were missing, and she could see holes in the flesh in a semicircle, where his belly had almost been ripped out.  “You all right?” she asked tentatively.

“Sharks,” he said, looking out at the surf with a snarl.  “The Intruders brought them to wipe us out.”

“You scare them that much?”  Athenais got up slowly so as to not alarm him.

“The elders do,” he said, watching her warily.  “We grow throughout our lives.  The old ones can sink their big ships.”

That would do it.  Slowly as not to scare him, Athenais straightened and padded to the surf.  Squatting, she cupped her hands in the saltwater.  Then she started walking back toward the alien.

“What are you doing?”  His words came out as a snarl.

“I’m gonna help you clean that up,” Athenais said, not slowing.  “You’ve got sand in it.”

Taal bristled.  “I only need to swim, human.”

“Well, right now, you can’t swim because that blood’s going to attract more sharks, isn’t it?”  She gestured at the crimson waves.

Taal glanced at the red surf and made a lupine scowl, showing sharp, needle-like teeth.  When he turned back to her, his alien face was filled with mistrust…and fear.

Athenais ignored the look he was giving her and dumped the water over his wound.  This she repeated until the sand around the alien was soaked with red and the gash was clean.  Taal watched her through the entire process, silver eyes sharp, clawed hand half-curled like he was about to bury his fingers in her chest and be done with it.

When she finished, Athenais went to sit down on a dry patch of sand and stared out at the waves.  That was just like Juno—bring in one hostile population to kill off another.  And, now that she thought about it, there was another thing that she’d never done…

In all of her years, she hadn’t 1) bred humans as science projects, 2) sold or otherwise dealt in sentient flesh, 3) satisfied her ego by making billions worship her as a god, 4) pretended spiritual enlightenment to wide-eyed students while simultaneously heading an entire planetary criminal organization, nor 5) introduced an invasive species with the intent to destroy native wildlife.  She might’ve planted chamomile in her garden that spread over a hillside or two, but that was an accident.  Besides, it was pretty.  And it didn’t have teeth.

“You were dead, human,” Taal said again.

“If only,” Athenais snorted.  She glanced over at him.  The wound appeared to be doing better.  “You gonna be okay?  You need me to get you something to eat?”

Taal snorted.  “So you can get stranded again?  No thanks, human.”

“The name is Athenais, not ‘human.’” Athenais growled.

He gave her a flat, fishy stare.  “You are a human to me until you prove otherwise.”

“Oh mercy.”  Athenais rolled her eyes and got to her feet.  She walked up to him, ignoring the way his entire muscular length stiffened.  She squatted beside the wound to get a better look.  “This might need to be bandaged.  You got anything suitable?”  Upon closer inspection, something white poking from the pink caught her attention and Athenais realized there was a shark tooth stuck in the gash.  She reached out to remove it.

She was rewarded with a six-foot length of scale and muscle slamming into her face, knocking her completely off of her feet in a starburst of lights and broken bone.  She rolled backwards, stunned, and stared at the sky as she felt the bones in her skull knitting back together.

He just tried to kill me, she realized, a little stunned.

When she had regained enough of her senses to sit up, she scooted backwards and gave him an irritated look.  “You don’t have to be afraid of me, you harebrained squid.  We’re in the same damned boat!”

Taal had been staring at her, obviously surprised she’d sat up.  He hid it well, however, with a casual, seal-like snort.  “I’m not afraid of you, human.  I just don’t like to be touched by a disgusting land animal.”

“Disgusting land…”  She narrowed her eyes.  For a creature that looked like some sort of diseased fish-seal hybrid, he was one to talk.  She snorted.  “You’ve got a tooth stuck in there.  Have fun getting it out.”

Irritated at Life, Athenais got up and started wandering the beach.  She circled the island once, scouting for any sign of land or other civilization.  Finding none, she circled three more times, hoping she’d missed something.  A boat would be nice.  Or an abandoned spaceship.  Perhaps a nice cooler of beer.  A decommissioned underground compound with long-forgotten missile silos would be even better.  A missile up the ass would do Juno good.  Hell, someone should make it a regular occurrence.

When Athenais finished her fourth circuit, the alien’s wide, seal-like snout was red with blood, but the tooth was still embedded in the wound.  Neither of them spoke.

Athenais watched his membranous tail as it dried in the sun.  He kept twitching it, giving the water looks of longing, but making no attempt to re-enter the crimson surf.

Probably a wise thing.  Athenais could see shark fins skimming the surface here and there, just beyond the foam of the waves.

After awhile of letting the sun bake the stubborn fool, Athenais finally took pity on him and retrieved some water, which she started splashing over his dehydrated body.  He must’ve sensed Athenais would have left him there to become a crispy little fish-stick if he’d hit her a second time, because he remained remarkably docile, even going so far as to turn his head to ignore her completely.

When Athenais was done, she sat down a couple feet away and examined him.  “So why’d you help me?”

Taal grunted, inspecting the opposite side of the beach.

“Come on.”

Taal refused to look at her.

“Did you think I could help you conquer the Invaders?  Did you want a pet?  Were you lonely?  What?”

Taal’s head snapped back to scowl at her.  “You talk too much, human.”

“I’m stranded on a deserted island.  Of course I’m gonna talk.”

He squinted at her, huge alien pupils contracting.  “So what are you?  You haven’t fooled me.  You’re not human.”  He pointed at her leg and her face with his snout.

Athenais winced.  How was she going to explain that one to a lower life-form?  It had bigger things to worry about.  Like sharks.  “Uh,” Athenais said, “It’s a new form of magic.”

Taal seemed to accept that, because he grunted and looked back out at the waves, his huge alien eyes following the shark-fins as they split the crimson-tainted sea.  It was clear enough he was judging whether or not he could make it past their barricade and into the deeper waters beyond.

Seeing he was distracted, Athenais glanced again at the liquid-filled bulb on his neck, trying to figure out if it was a wart or a natural growth.  It looked like a bubble of pus.  With an air-bubble.  She got all squirmy thinking about how much that had to hurt.  A lesion of some sort.  Had to be.  Athenais wondered if she would be doing him a favor by knocking him out and hacking it off.

She only had that thought for a moment, but like the damned creature had sensors on the back of his head, Taal whipped around to bare his white, needle-like teeth at her in a pretty obvious I Would Be Happy To Eat Your Face snarl.  “Keep your eyes to yourself, human,” he barked at her.

Like she’d just been eying his baby, considering what it would be like to roast it on a spit.  “Why are you so touchy about that stupid hump?” Athenais demanded.  “It an egg or something?”  Now that was an unpleasant thought.  She’d heard yeasts sprouted more yeast in little bulbs like that.  Immediately, she imagined having to endure a human face growing out of her back with every pregnancy and suddenly felt sorry for the poor bloke.  How…icky.

Taal hadn’t answered.  In fact, he was acting as if she hadn’t even spoken.

“So what’s with the hump?” she repeated.  “Why so sensitive about it?”

For a long moment, Athenais didn’t think he was going to answer her.  She sighed and got up to get more water, knowing the fool was probably already into his grave.  In her relatively small experience planetbound, sea creatures didn’t last very long in the sun.  Especially this kind of sun.

“The Invaders kill us for it,” Taal muttered, on her eighth or ninth trip.  “They capture youngsters and grow them in ponds to harvest their fluid.”

Athenais raised a brow, but kept carrying water.  Conversationally, she said, “They harvest their fluid.  Sounds sexual.”

“It’s not.”

“Is that how you know the language?  Did you escape?”

He scoffed.  “I’m talking with you in your head, human.  The language is always the same, there.”

Athenais stared at him.

“See?”  His muzzle never moved.

She scooted back a pace, stunned she had not realized it before.  “You can read my mind?”

“Unfortunately,” Taal said.

Athenais threw down the handful of water she’d collected in a disgusted cry and went off stalking around the island a couple more times.  She felt Taal’s eyes on her the entire time.  And, paranoidly, she thought maybe his mind, too.

Finally, exhausted and defeated, Athenais came back to her starting point and sat down a good twenty feet from him.  “You need more water?” she shouted.

Taal laughed at her.  “Humans are loud and stupid, like sirens.  I could hear you three miles off.”

Three miles…  No wonder Juno wanted this particular rock.  Athenais dropped her head into her hands.  “I don’t believe you,” she muttered.

“Yes you do.”

“Prove it,” she snarled.

He squinted at her with his big, stupid alien eyes.  “You’re afraid.”

Athenais snorted.  “You’re deluding yourself.”

“Not of me.  Of yourself.”

Athenais flinched and looked away.  That sounded way too much like the emo little tantrums her last shrink had thrown at her.

But the alien didn’t take the hint.  He squinted at her, his fishy eyes boring into her skull.  “You think you died,” he said, getting excited.  “That first time…  You wonder if you’re really dead and just don’t know it.  You wonder if your soul departed and whatever’s left only thinks you’re still—”

“Enough!”  Athenais got to her feet and stalked to the other side of the island to sit down, shaking.  Seated by herself in the sand, she stared out at the ocean until dusk.  Taal either couldn’t broadcast that far, or had decided not to push matters, because she didn’t hear another word.

When she returned, Taal was sleeping.  She splashed water on his parched scales and walked back to her side of the island.  She lay down to stare up at the stars.  She was hungry and thirsty.

Several times the next day, she splashed Taal and retreated.  He never attempted to make conversation, but she knew he was awake, watching her.

That evening, he was gone.

Athenais stood staring down at the depression he had left in the sand, then sighed and slumped to the ground.  Before she knew what she was doing, she put her head in her hands and cried.



Wings of Retribution


“They’ve got me flying cargo,” Dallas said indignantly.  “After I graduated the Academy!  Cargo!”

Shut up already, Stuart snapped.  You’re gonna get us caught.

“But it’s cargo,” Dallas whined.  “I hate cargo.”

Dallas, Stuart warned.

“Fine,” she sighed, returning to loading the bay with crates of pottery.  “But you better have an idea how you’re getting me my ship back.”

Finding the pirate would be a good start.

Dallas dropped the crate she was carrying.  Chips of clay scattered across the metal bay floor with musical tinkles.  “Athenais?  You’ve got to be kidding me!”

Damn it, Dallas, keep your mouth shut!  You’re supposed to be a zombie, remember?!

“How come I always end up saving that bitch’s ass?” Dallas muttered, picking up the crate.  “How come we don’t go find Rabbit, instead?  I like Rabbit.”

That’s it.  I warned you.  Stuart took control and began loading the crates in silence, just as he had taken control when they had led her into that little white room.  This time, however, he left her senses intact.

You’re just jealous, Dallas said.

I am not.

Really?  Prove it.

You’re acting like a child.

I want my ship back.  If I have to go rescue that bitter old hag to get it, I’ll do it.  I’d just rather rescue a cute, witty little bartender who happens to have enough money to keep my warship supplied with fuel cells. 

We’ll find him, too.

Good.  Squirrel told me he’s good in bed.

Stuart dropped the crate.

Ha!  See?!  You are jealous!

Stuart bent to hastily stuff the broken pieces under the cloth wrapping.  That’s ridiculous.  We’re not even the same base composition.  Totally different species.  Incompatible in every sense of the word.

What are you talking about?  I’m letting you use my brain.  We’re working out pretty well, I’d say.  We find you a body and I might even be able to have your kid.

Technically, you would be having my host’s kid.

Who cares?  I’d get to raise her with you.

Why are you so sure it’d be a girl?

Because the York women only have girl children.  We’re notorious for it.

No gene mutation?

Nope.

Then it’s completely random.  You have a fifty percent chance either way.

Nah.  I’m having a girl.  My grandma told me.

Your grandma a prophet?

Nope.

Then it’s completely random, Stuart repeated frustratedly.  You have just as much chance of having a boy.

So you want a boy, not a girl?  She let her disappointment show.

I never said I wanted a kid, Stuart stammered.  I only said—  He paused as Tommy passed them dressed in the skimpy Xenith style, staring straight ahead and moving without any stiffness to his normally rigid spine.  The colonel collided with a young Stranger carrying boxes through the spaceport.  He picked himself up and gave the apologetic Stranger a dazed look, then glanced blankly around the room.  His eyes passed over Dallas and Stuart, but there was no recognition in them whatsoever.  Finally, Tommy turned and started wandering in the opposite direction than the one he had been traveling.

You know, brainwashing isn’t a very productive process, is it?  They seem so scatterheaded.

Usually it works better.  He must have been stubborn.

Is it reversible?

Not usually.

Poor guy.  But you know, he does look happier.  He’s not frowning all the time.  And he doesn’t look like he’s walking around with something stuck up his ass.

Maybe it’s for the better.

I think so.  You think Athenais will want to leave him here when we go?

She wouldn’t want to waste the money on sending him to a shrink.

You ask me, she needs to spend a few days on the couch herself.  She’s crazy.  Why the heck did she wander out into the ocean like that?  Just walked right past that huge monster and started swimming around.  She’s got a few bolts loose, I tell you.

I’m not sure.  Maybe she saw the ships approaching.

She could have warned us.

Keep in mind she’s got a few thousand years on each of us.  Give the woman a break.

Why should I?  She basically kidnapped me, after the Corps fired me.  She’s only gotten me into trouble ever since, and to top it all off, she fired me for deciding to stay with her instead of getting my old job back.  She got her whole crew killed back on T-9 and we’ve had nothing but bad luck since then.  She actually tried to take my ship away from me after I spent eight hours fighting the urge to throw up because I was dodging missiles from Erriat’s war fleet at zero gravity to save her ass.  I just want to punch her buckteeth in.

Don’t forget who started this whole mess, Dallas.  We’d be well on our way to Millennium with Squirrel and Goat and Dune if you hadn’t ratted us out.

Dallas recoiled, shocked that Stuart could even think it.

When he did not apologize, she withdrew, hurt.  If Stuart thought she was responsible, what did the others think?

Even more important, what if it was true?



Wings of Retribution


Athenais was lying on the sand, watching the interesting string of penis-shaped clouds to the west, when Taal slipped out of the ocean and dragged himself up the bank.  He wound was red and raw, but no longer bleeding.  He flopped toward her and, before she knew what he was doing, he crawled on top of her and pressed his lips to hers.  Athenais accepted the water he offered, but broke into hysterical laughter after he was done.

“Reduced to mouth-to-mouth with a fish,” she laughed.

“Here,” Taal said, and tossed her what looked like an octopus.

Athenais looked at the sandy lump at her feet and laughed harder.

“It’s food,” he said.

“Why are you keeping me on this island?” she asked.

Taal looked away.

“That’s not fair.  If you can read my mind, I deserve to have a few answers.”

He glanced at her, fishy eyes inhumanly wide.  “You’re a space captain.  I could feel it.”

“So?”

He hesitated.  “Can you take me into space with you?”

Athenais stared at him.  Her gaze fell on his tail, then back on his face.  “You’re kidding.”

“It’s been done,” he said quickly.  “Sometimes they ship youngsters to another planet to breed them there.”

“In an aquarium,” Athenais said.  “I’ve shipped stuff like that myself.”

“So why can’t you take me?  I could help you.”

Athenais glanced over at the sandy octopus and started laughing again.  “You want to go into space?  With fins?  Are you nuts?”

Without another word, Taal rolled back into the ocean.  Too late, Athenais realized she had made a mistake.

Taal didn’t return for three days except to give her water and food.  Every time she tried to talk to him, he ignored her.  Finally, she could take it no longer.  As he was turning away, she grabbed his muzzle and twisted his head around until he was facing her.

“Look,” she said, “Maybe we can work something out.”

Taal could have jerked away and cut up her hand, but he didn’t.

“After all,” Athenais said, “You did save my life.”  She released him.  “But I gotta tell you, the tough part will be getting my ship back.  Juno confiscated it.”

Taal looked up at her with silver eyes that betrayed his excitement.  Suddenly, he looked like a five-year-old child that had been told he could go to the zoo, and Athenais realized with sudden certainty that, to the alien community, that’s exactly what he was.  A toddler.  A baby.  Probably of the same breed as the massive leviathan that had muddled her thoughts back on the deserted island.

“You promise?” Taal babbled.  “Swear on your father’s name.”

“I’ll swear on my own name,” Athenais said, mouth twisting in disgust.  “And my honor.  You get me back to my ship and I’ll take you off this planet with me.  At least until you get too big.  We’ll buy a nice tank for you to ride in and everything.  As Athenais Owlbourne, I swear it.”

“Then I’ll take you to land.”  Taal slid back into the ocean and waited for her amidst the waves.



Wings of Retribution


When Ragnar opened his eyes, he was once again fitted with a shock collar.  Groggily, he looked around.  He was in the same spartan bedroom, but the morning sunlight was easing its way through the seaward window in the wall.  Below, he could hear the pounding of waves against the rock foundation.

He went to the door and tried to open it.  It was locked from the outside.

Ragnar pounded on the seaweed matting.  “Hello?  Hey, why am I still here?”

From the other side, he heard muffled footsteps hurry away.

Ragnar stepped back and glanced at the window.  He climbed onto the bed and stuck his head out the opening.  From there, it was a fifty foot drop directly into the wave-thrashed rocks.  He pulled his head back inside and began to pace.

Why hadn’t he been moved?  Was the Emperor punishing him?  Was he to spend the next few days in solitary confinement?  What had happened to the Merchant he had displaced?  Had the man found a different bedroom?

He went back to the door and pushed on it.  The weave of fiber and leather still smelled of the sea.  When he pressed on it, however, it did not budge.

“Hey!” Ragnar shouted.  “Anybody out there?”

He was about ready to lay back down and go to sleep when the intercom crackled.

Ragnar Reeve of the Second House, you have five minutes to show yourself before we are forced to execute one of your kind. 

Ragnar froze.  Five minutes?  But he had already shown himself.

What if it had taken the Merchant too long to find the right authorities?  What if the chain of communication had broken down?

He glanced up at the tiny speaker in the corner of the room.  If these people had the technology to create an island-wide intercom system, they had the ability to make a two-way call network.  It should be as easy as picking up a comset.

Which meant the Merchant had never told them.

“Hey!” Ragnar shouted, pounding on the door.  “Tell someone I’m here!  Don’t let them kill anyone!”

The guard on the other side was silent.

Ragnar slammed his shoulder into the door, but the material merely bowed against his weight and threw him backwards.  Ragnar tried again.

From the other side, the guard began to fret.  It was a young man, one Ragnar had never heard before.

“Please, Ragnar Reeve, stay calm.  You are in no danger.”

“Tell them I turned myself in!  Tell them!”

“Of course, Ragnar Reeve.  It was a simple mistake.”

“Fix it!” Ragnar shouted.  “Before somebody dies!”

“Of course.”  The footsteps hurried away and Ragnar relaxed.

The intercom blared again, shattering his calm.  Dawn has come and passed, Ragnar Reeve.  The body of your fellow will be hung from the wall above the gardens so you may see the result of your disobedience.  If you fail to show yourself by tomorrow, another will die.

At that, the transmission ended.




Wings of Retribution

Saying Goodbye to Stuey


“I can’t take you beyond this point, human.”  Taal hovered in the water beneath Athenais, keeping her adrift.

“Why not?”  Athenais glanced at the last five hundred feet of waves beyond the buoy and swallowed.  It was getting dark.

“See those beacons?  Underneath each flashing light, they have detectors for my kind aimed toward land.  Anything that gets beyond the nets raises an alarm.  I shouldn’t have come this far.  It’s dangerous.”

“But I can’t swim.”

“You can’t die, either.”

“Yes, but…”  Athenais imagined what it would be like to wake up on the bottom of the ocean and felt her bowls loosen.  “Please.  I need you to take me to the other side.  I’ll never get there on my own.”

Taal hesitated.  “I can’t.  The Intruders will kill me.”

“I don’t take cowards on my ship.”

The serpentine body under her stiffened.  She felt him hesitate, felt his eyes scan the little blinking lights.  “If I get you to land…you promise to come back for me?”

“I already said yes,” Athenais said, getting frustrated.  “Now all you have to do is swim another hundred and fifty yards.”

“But…”  She was a bit startled to realize she could feel the indecision rolling off of him.  The fear.

“I can handle Juno,” Athenais interrupted, knowing she was about to lose him.  “My magic is stronger.”

Taal hesitated a moment longer, then, tentatively, he said, “You will take me up into the stars?”

“I already told you I would,” Athenais said.  “But only if you fulfill your end of the bargain.  I’m a land-dweller, not a swimmer.”

After a long moment to think about that, Taal shot forward.  He slipped over the net and rushed the last few hundred feet, plowing through the water like a missile.  He pushed Athenais up onto the nearest rock and turned, scanning the water behind him.

“I will stay nearby, for when you come for me.”

“Fine.”  Athenais crawled onto the rocky beach, utterly thankful for the cold, hard stone beneath her.  As many times as she’d looked down at them from above, she’d never really realized how much she hated oceans.  She guessed it was just one of those things a person had to experience to appreciate, from to the cold black nothingness dropping away beneath your feet to the sharks nibbling at your toes in the night.

Smart sharks, those.  Too smart.  Like weasels, but bigger and with more teeth.  She certainly wouldn’t put it past Juno to have genetically engineered a smarter shark.  Hell, that was probably the first thing she did.

When she looked back, Taal was gone.



Wings of Retribution


One of them was dead.

Ragnar had that sick knot of knowing in his stomach, the kind that left him caught between the gut-wrenching need to sob and the overpowering need to vomit.  One of his family was dead.  They were down to two.

He didn’t dare think about which one Juno had taken.  He didn’t dare think about it, because knew if he did, he might start to wonder, to hope…

And the moment he started to hope that one of his kin had survived over the other, Ragnar knew he would be unable to live with himself afterwards.  It was already all his fault.  He refused to disrespect his kindred’s memory with such a taint.

Maybe they’re just trying to scare me, Ragnar thought.  Maybe it was all a ruse.  Something to keep him from doing it again.

Yet, remembering that cold voice over the intercom, Ragnar’s gut told him the truth.  For some reason, word hadn’t reached the psychopath and her puppet.  For some reason, they still didn’t know where he was.

Anguished, Ragnar watched the sun go down from the window of his cell.  His captors hadn’t spoken to him since dawn, thus when four of them finally appeared at nightfall, he was hungry enough to eat what they offered him.

This time, however, the pink slab of fish was not drugged.  He ate until he was full, knowing he might need the sustenance in the near future, then set his plate aside as nonchalantly as he could.  No need to make sudden movements.  Put the fools at ease…

“So what do you want with me?” he asked the Merchant, who stood beside two burly men with the weathered look of sailors.  “You’re not handing me over to the Emperor.  What are you going to do?  Sell me?”

The Merchant’s eyes widened.  “Oh, no.  We would never go against the Emperor’s Will.”

“Then what are you doing?” Ragnar asked, holding his gaze.

The Merchant began to wring his hands and glanced at his cook.

The woman gave him a small smile that creased her lined face.  “We’re doing the Emperor a service by bringing more commerce to this blighted planet.”

That seemed to calm the Merchant a bit, and he nodded, smiling.

“So you’re selling me.”  Ragnar continued to hold the Merchant’s eyes.

“No, no, no…”  The Merchant bit his lip and looked away.

“You’re our ticket off this planet,” the woman said.  “We’ll be rid of this totalitarian brainwashing scheme once and for all.  We’ll have a new life on the outside, maybe on one of the colonies, turn all this cultist crap over to the Utopia.  Let Marceau and his Corps sort it out.”

Ragnar eyed her.  “You sound like you’ve been there.”

“I grew up a spacer,” the woman said, scowling.  “Ship’s cook.  We was on a mining expedition out into uncharted territory when we came a little too close to Xenith.  Their fleet surrounded us, forced us to land.  They brainwashed the pilots and sent the rest of us to a penal colony.  Martaj, here, found me selling floaters to criminals and brought me with him.”

Ragnar felt a sinking in his gut.  “This planet is uncharted?”

She nodded.

How was Athenais going to find him on an uncharted planet?

Desperate, Ragnar said, “Maybe we can help each other.  How are you selling me?  Do you have contacts with the outside?”

“As if we’d tell you any of that, shifter.”  The woman laughed.  “Now let’s go.  Your ship leaves in two hours.”

“You can’t take me off the planet,” Ragnar said.  “You heard the intercom.  They’re killing my people.”

The woman spat.  “I don’t give a damn about your people.  I was due for my Potion thirty years ago.”  She grabbed a lock of gray hair and held it out disgustedly.  “I’ve served these child emperors and their fake goddess for fifty years.  I’m going home to my family.”

“But innocent people are going to die…”

The woman bared her teeth.  “I’m getting off this planet.  Your friends can go to hell.”  Then she turned and left, the Merchant close on her heels.

The two sailors got behind Ragnar and escorted him from the room.  They passed through a tunnel that spiraled downward, the crashing of waves increasing as they descended.

Ragnar could hear the ocean before he could see it.  The booming crashes became less muffled and he could hear the spray of water.  Then he caught the scent of fish and seaweed as the rock gave way before them to expose the moon-soaked landscape.

The tunnel opened on a rocky cove, with a dock jutting out into the water like a finger.  A ship was moored at the end of the dock, sails furled and silent against the black waves.

They marched him down to the end of the dock and onto the gangplank.  “You should be grateful,” the woman said as the sailors led him across the deck.  “People would kill to be in your shoes.”

“Maybe you should let him be the judge of that.”

The new voice was music to his ears.  Even as the other four glanced around for its source, Ragnar reran it in his mind, wondering if it could be real.

One of the barrels lining the side of the ship moved.  The figure was dressed only in spacer’s underwear, but there was no mistaking the fiery red hair.

“What do you say, Ragnar?”  Athenais squared her stance, eyeing the other four.  “You feel like going with these spacerats?”

The graying woman narrowed her eyes at Athenais.  “You were a spacer, too?”

“Was?”  Athenais scoffed.  “Get out of here.  This shifter’s my property.”

Ragnar scowled.  Property?

“You’re mistaken,” the graying cook said.  “He’s ours.  We’re using him to get off-planet.”

“I’d like to see how you’re going to do that without a ship,” Athenais said.  “Or are you planning on stowing him away somewhere and hoping that the Utopia sends out a search party before you die of old age?”  Athenais laughed.  “Don’t delude yourself.”

The cook’s arthritic fingers clenched.  “Kill her.”

Ragnar lunged at the nearest sailor, bringing him to his knees.  They grappled on the weathered planks of the dock, each trying to get hold of the other’s neck.  Ragnar had an advantage there, since the collar made it difficult for the other man to get his fingers in place around his throat.

Beside him, the cook unholstered an antique, combustion-dependent projectile pistol, aiming it at Athenais, who was struggling with the other sailor.  Ragnar released the man he was grappling with and grabbed the cook’s arm before she could fire.  With his other hand, he took hold of the sailor’s wrist where it was reaching for his throat.

In the next instant, the graying woman saw what he planned to do, but before she could turn the weapon on him, he shifted.

Briefly, Ragnar felt the woman and the sailor stiffen before the collar shocked him into unconsciousness.



Wings of Retribution


“You hear that?”  Dallas straightened, staring at the little speaker in the corner of the room.  “She said something about Ragnar.”

Shhh.  Don’t look surprised.  They might be watching us.

“But they said his name.  Ragnar Reeve.  He’s loose on the island somewhere.”

Or he’s dead.  He wouldn’t let the others die so he could stay hidden.

“We’ve got to get a message to him,” Dallas said, getting excited.  “Something to let him know we’re on the island.”

As soon as you step out that door, they’re gonna know that you’re not as brainwashed as you act.

“Next time we go out, we could fly around with a sign attached to our ship.  Circle the island a few times.”

That’s gotta be the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard.  They’d know what you’re trying to do.

“It could be in the shifter language,” Dallas said defensively.

I don’t know the shifter language.  Do you?

“No,” she admitted.

Stuart was silent a moment.  Then, I could do it.

“How?”

Next time we’re in the bay.  I could take another body.

Dallas felt a rush of fear at the thought of being alone.  “No way.  What if you got caught?  What if you got lost?  What if—”

Dallas.  Do you really want to ship freight for the rest of your life?

“Well, no…” she began.

If we can contact Ragnar, we’ve got a chance.  He’s a chameleon, even better than me.  We could infiltrate their ranks, figure out how to get you back on your ship.  As soon as you’re in the air, you’ve got a fighting chance.  You can’t fight Everest, but you could probably outrun her.

I’m not leaving without you,” Dallas said immediately.  “You’re my best friend.”

Stuart, to her relief, didn’t laugh.  You think I’d let you leave without me?  Believe me, you get back on your ship and I’m gonna be right there with you.

Dallas fidgeted.  “Before I let you go anywhere, I want to hear a plan.”



Wings of Retribution


Athenais wrapped the unconscious bodies in as much rope as she could find and carried them all below decks.  Then she threw Ragnar’s limp form into a barrel and shut the lid.  The shifter was much lighter than the last time she had seen him, but she didn’t have time to worry about it.  She climbed back out into the fresh air and slammed the hatch down behind her.  Then she dragged the pile of anchor chain over the top of the hatch, pinning it.

Satisfied, Athenais jogged down the ramp and up into the dark tunnel in the rock.  She took the steps two at a time, then paused for air when she reached the top.  Head high, she walked up to the first man she saw and punched him in the face.



Wings of Retribution


Ragnar woke to total darkness, his body cramped and aching, his neck crammed up against the side of a too-small container.  He felt a horrible clenching in his gut, knowing that he was on his way to the black market.    He examined his prison with his fingers and determined it was some sort of barrel.  Tentatively, he pushed against the lid.

To his surprise, it lifted without resistance.  Ragnar blinked to the light of morning easing its way through the portholes.

He stood up slowly, his head pounding from the aborted yeit.

“Athenais?” he whispered.  “Where are you?”

Nothing.  He glanced around the dark, dank room.  In one corner, four bound prisoners stared back at him in gagged, brooding silence.  Ragnar looked around, confused.

“Athenais?” he whispered again.  “You there?”

When no one answered, he climbed out of the barrel and checked the tiny rooms in the bottom of the ship.  Early morning light warmed the weather-beaten wood, but the ship was otherwise deserted.

Ragnar went to the ladder and tried to open the hatch.  It was blocked from the other side, but still moved slightly.  He could have managed to get it open if he worked at it, but he backed down the ladder.  Athenais’s message was clear—stay on the ship.

Ragnar touched the collar around his neck, then looked back to the four prisoners that Athenais had left trussed up like turkeys on the floor behind him.  His eyes came to rest on the hard-faced woman that had served them the fish and he allowed a slow smile to cross his face.

One of them had a key.



Wings of Retribution


Tommy glanced at the satellite images and allowed a satisfied smile.  A storm was coming.  A big one.  With its current trajectory, it would hit the island of Paradise in a day, two days at the most.

“Is the weather satisfactory, captain?” a Trader asked apprehensively.  “This is the time of year Paradise gets hit with some mighty storms.”

“The weather is superb,” Tommy said, switching off the screen.  “Get your goods inside.  We’ll get you to your destination.”

“These ships sink, don’t they?” the Trader whined.  “I usually do my business with wooden sailing vessels.  At least parts of them float.  How can a ship that’s made of metal float?”

“Magic,” Tommy said.

“These are very important goods,” the Trader insisted.  “Ordered for the Emperor himself.  Floater wash.  Forty liters, distilled.  Do you know how much that’s worth?”

The goddamn ship’s not going down!” Tommy barked, pushed past his limit by the whiny civilian.  “Now get your goods on board or I’ll leave you on this blighted pile of flotsam.”  He threw his arms out to indicate the enormous floating raft and the crowd of sailors watching them.  “Is that what you want?”

The Trader peered at him.  “You don’t sound like an Emperor’s pilot.  How long have you been flying?  How do I know you’re not trying to rob me?”

Tommy twisted to point at the ship’s hull.  “You see those big things that look like toothpicks?”

The Trader nodded.

“This is a gunship.  Those are high-intensity lasers.  Computer-operated.  Very accurate.  If I had wanted to rob you, I would have told the ship to vaporize the fifty-seven humanoid life-forms the scanners picked up before I landed.”  Not true, of course, but this country bumpkin wouldn’t know the difference between antennae and laser arrays.

The Trader glanced up at the antennae and back at the sailors.  “What are lasers?”

Tommy dropped his face into his palm and dragged his hand down his face.  “All right.  You know what?  Fine.  I’ll just go back to the Emperor and tell him you didn’t feel like sending the goods right now.”  He turned on heel and started marching back up his gangplank.

“Wait!” the Trader babbled.  “I’m sorry.  Please, I was not questioning the Emperor’s Will.”  Turning quickly to his underlings, he shouted, “Load them up!  Now!  Stop standing around and move!”

Forty liters turned out to be a lot more than Tommy originally anticipated.  Each individual milliliter was packaged in a glass tube and boxed with about two pounds of packing material.  The result ended up filling Tommy’s entire cargo bay.

“What’s this stuff for?” Tommy asked once both he and the Trader were boarded and the doors locked.

The Trader gave him an odd look.  “You don’t know?”

“Never seen it before,” Tommy said as he plotted the course back to Paradise.  “The way you guys handle it, it would seem you found the Fountain of Life.”

“It is the drink of the gods,” the Trader replied.  “If you’re normal, one taste washes away all your troubles and leaves you with a clean mind and soul.  It is the secret of happiness.”

Sounds a lot like a damn weeder, Tommy thought.  It was refreshing to have the conversation, though.  Every other soul in this place seemed to be willfully stupid.  Adjusting the controls, he said, “If you’re normal.  What exactly does that mean?”

The man shrugged.  “In a very small number of people…infinitely small…the drink does something else entirely.  It opens up a corridor with the gods.”

“The Priestesses?”

The Trader nodded.

“Are there any Priests?”

“Of course,” the Trader replied.  “But they are killed.”

Tommy’s face twisted.  “Killed?  Why?”

“So they do not pass the taint on to others.”

“Taint?  But you just said they have a open corridor with the gods.”

“You don’t understand much, do you?”

“Nothing on this damned planet makes sense,” Tommy growled.  “That’s why I’m asking.”

The Trader answered him with silence.  Then, “What’s a planet?”

Frustrated, Tommy concentrated on flying.  They were already encountering turbulence ahead of the storm and the gunship was getting knocked around.  Tommy scanned the weather ahead and cursed.

“Buckle in.”

The wide-eyed Trader ripped his eyes away from the window.  “We’re going down?”

“No, but it’s about to get pretty rough.”

And rough it was.  Like flying a kite in a goddamned hurricane.  Yet, through it all, Tommy could not convince the moron to strap himself in.  He kept babbling something about sinking and being stuck to the ship, and he clung to the navigator’s chair with a death-grip on the armrests, staring out into the zero-visibility storm with wide eyes.

“How do you know we’re not going down?” the man babbled.  “It feels like we’re going down.”

Tommy glanced at his gauges.  “We’re not going down.  We’re level”

“But it feels like we’re going down,” the man began hyperventilating.  “You can’t see!  We’re headed straight into the ocean!”  He started screaming in panic.  “We’re going to sink, we’re going to sink!”

Tommy closed his eyes, his neck twitching.  Clouds did funny things to a person’s senses—especially clouds, turbulence, and a moving ship.  Total disorientation was actually very common in even the most seasoned pilots, and at least point-one percent of atmo-flying Academy graduates died each year when, in the grips of a cloud or some other zero-visibility blackout condition, they became convinced that their instrumentation was off and began to fly in the direction they thought they should be going, instead.

…which usually ended up being headlong into a mountain.  Or a skyscraper.  Or, in this idiot’s case, the ocean.

Tommy calmly adjusted his nose down a bit, keeping the craft on a level plane.  Beside him, the Trader was in the process of devolving to complete animal panic.  His eyes were like wide little saucers as he realized Tommy had lowered the nose.  Seeing that the adjustment hadn’t been enough, Tommy tipped the nose again.

“You can’t!” the man cried, reaching for Tommy’s controls.

Tommy twisted in his chair, catching the man squarely by the throat.  As the wide-eyed Trader hung there, gagging, Tommy calmly said, “We are not losing altitude.  We are not going to sink.  You will go to your chair, sit down, and strap yourself in, or I will throw you out the back door and give you a real taste what sinking feels like.”  He smiled as the man’s eyes bulged outward from the internal pressure.  “Do we understand each other?”

The man couldn’t respond, but Tommy released him anyway.  He spent the rest of the trip in relative peace, with the terrified Trader huddled against the far wall, babbling about drowning.

By the time they finally made landfall, the Trader was too sick to supervise the unloading of his goods.  He stumbled off the ship, fell, vomited up the stuff that had somehow stayed down throughout the trip, and crawled away.  Tommy himself had grown a little nauseous on the flight, but being at the wheel always eased the symptoms.

Tommy pressed open the bay doors and startled the army of Strangers that had gathered to unload it when half the contents of the bay spilled out onto the wet concrete.  They let out horrifed sounds of dismay and began pulling the boxes from the rubble, re-packing those that had fallen open or were crushed in flight.

Tommy was turning to leave when his eye caught on a blue tube lying to the side of the mass of panicking Strangers.  Glancing around to see if anyone had spotted it, seeing that none had, he picked it up.

The blue fluid seemed to glow in his hand, letting off its own luminescence.

Not being a fan of drugs, Tommy turned to give it back to the Strangers.

“Colonel Howlen.”

Tommy jammed his hand into his coat pocket and turned, his spine prickling.

Juno smiled at him.  “Enjoy your flight?  I heard that the Trader recommended you to the dockmaster, he was so grateful to be alive.”

“I’ve never heard of storms that reached up into the atmosphere,” Tommy replied.  “It was quite an experience.”

“I’m so glad we found you when we did.  We’re always in need of pilots on Xenith.  That useless girl who was with you can barely even captain a freighting vessel.  No wonder she gave up when we flew at her with Everest.  It makes it hard to imagine how she got to be captain of such a fine ship.”

“Rabbit gave it to her.”

“I see.”  Her face darkened.  “I’ve always thought Rabbit was a bit of a fool around women.”

“So have I,” Tommy said automatically.  It was one of the things they had tried to brainwash into him.  Automatic disdain for any of the rest of his crew.  Fortunately, he had used the same techniques in the S.O. and had known how to combat them.  Hell, what he’d been taught had made her crude attempts look like unsophisticated child’s play.  Then again, he figured that seven thousand years’ of advancement in the field would probably do that.

“I must say, the Emperor appreciates having you in the fleet.  It was good of you to join us.”

“I always wanted to fly for the Emperor,” Tommy responded.  “It’s a dream come true.”

“Is it.”  Juno smiled at him.  “Rabbit told me about your past, Colonel.  You’re working for the same department I was, it’s just under a different name.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Yes you do.”  Juno glanced at the cargo the Strangers were unloading.  “One of the first things Psy-Ops taught its officers was how to resist Psy-Ops techniques from the enemy.  You were never brainwashed, Colonel.”

Tommy stiffened.

“But that’s fine.”  Juno smiled, waving a dismissive hand.  “You’re a fine pilot.  We can use more like you on Xenith when the time comes.  Too bad you’ll be dead.”

Tommy’s eyes widened, but Juno held up a hand.

“I’m not killing you, Colonel.  I’m simply not ready to launch my attack yet.  It will be another hundred years, at least.  Even with the revenues from the floater wash, our fleet isn’t big enough.”

“Then what—”

“I just wanted to warn you.  Do anything to harm the Empire and I will personally blow a hole in that young captain’s head.  I’ve seen you go out of your way to check on her.  Do you have a thing for younger women, Colonel?”

Tommy stiffened.  “I was just seeing how she was doing.”

“And whether or not she resisted the brainwashing.  Let me put your doubts to rest.  She is completely and utterly under my spell.  She did not even resist the processes.  Deplorably impressionable, the idiot girl.  It never even occurred to her she was being brainwashed.”

“She always was a spacehead,” Tommy replied.

“Yes, I can see that.  And clumsy, too.  If she doesn’t stop dropping crates, I’m going to have to drop her to shuttle duty.”

“She won’t like that.”

Juno smiled.  “Yes she will.  You know as well as I do she’ll like whatever she’s told to like.”  She tapped her skull patronizingly.  “She’ll even like to take a bullet in the brain, if you misbehave.  “

Tommy looked away.  “Don’t hurt her.”

“As wretched a pilot she is, she’s still worth her weight in gold.  You, on the other hand…”   She reached out and touched the front of his spacer’s coat.  “You’re a fighter pilot.  You’re worth a hundred of her caliber.  So don’t think I won’t kill her in an instant if I see you continuing Athenais’s self-righteous little war.  Understood?”

Tommy nodded.  Inwardly, he was thinking that war always involved casualties.  So much the better if one of them happened to be a brain-dwelling parasite.



Wings of Retribution


“You sure you want to do this?” Dallas whispered, eying the young woman apprehensively.  “You sure you don’t want a bigger body?  She’s…petite.”

You’re petite, Stuart said.  And I get along in you just fine.

“But…”  Dallas swallowed.  “Don’t you want a guy?”

No acceptable males have shown themselves today.  Now, unless you have a better idea, I need to make the transfer.  Pretty soon, she’s gonna finish delivering those crates and be on her way.

“She looks kind of sickly,” Dallas muttered.  “Maybe you should wait.”

You’re due to ship out tomorrow.  It’ll take you three days to deliver that cargo.  More if this piece of junk breaks down on the way.  If we’re going to do this, we need to do it now.

“But…”  Dallas took a deep breath, suddenly dreading being alone.  She couldn’t finish her sentence.

Don’t worry.  I’ll be back.

He’d be back?  Dallas straightened, finding some comfort in that.  “Fine.  Let’s do it.”  She stalked over to the tattoed Stranger and punched her in the face.

The woman fell sideways, knocking some crates from the cart she was unloading.  She was holding her nose, staring up at Dallas in horror when Dallas climbed on top of her and grabbed her by the hair.

“Stuart is very important to me,” she said, her nose inches from the woman’s face.  “You take good care of him or I’ll end you, okay?”

Wide-eyed, the woman nodded.

Wow, that was subtle.

I am beyond caring about subtle.  Now get out.

She probably thinks you’re a raving psychotic.

That’s what I’m going to be if anything goes wrong.

You know, I could have handled this better.

I’d rather you saved your shock for in case you get in a pickle.  She slapped her hand over the woman’s mouth, still gripping her hair.  Now let’s get this over with before I change my mind.  She pressed her ear to the other woman’s ear and stiffened.

She felt Stuart retreat from her brain with a twinge of regret.  His warm, wet body slipped through her ear canal almost delicately and then he was gone.

Beneath her, the woman’s eyes widened and she began to convulse.

“Hold still!” Dallas snapped, pressing her hand harder over the woman’s mouth as she tried to scream.  The woman hit her in the chest and tried to pull her arm away, to claw at her ear, but Dallas managed to stay on top.  The girl started kicking out, convulsing, screaming at Dallas’s hand, and Dallas had to fight the urge to hit her in the head a few times to quiet her.

Then the Stranger went limp.

Dallas released the woman’s mouth and backed away.  “Stuart?”

The woman sat up and cocked her head to the side, allowing a thin trickle of blood to escape.  Then she smiled weakly at Dallas.

“Keep something over your ear until the wound heals.  My body secretes powerful antibiotic and healing agents, but the tissues are very delicate nonetheless.  You should keep all foreign bodies from entering your ear canal.”

“You sound like you’re drunk.  But I’ll try.”

Stuart stood up and brushed himself off.  “Then I’ll see you back here in three days.”

“Okay.”  Dallas turned.

“Dallas?”

She turned back quickly, hope blazing in her chest.

“Thanks, Dallas.”  It sounded…final.

She deflated, her hope draining into a sick feeling in her gut.  “You’re welcome,” she managed.  Was he saying goodbye?  Was she ever going to see him again?  A nagging part of her was telling her he had put too much emphasis in it, that he was saying his farewells.  After all, he could go anywhere.  Why should he have to hang around on this utterly insane planet?  He didn’t need her.

She watched him smile at her and turn toward the cart.

The aching loneliness was tearing at her core already, almost too much to bear.  She didn’t know how she withstood it before Stuart.  He’d been such a…friend.  She felt her eyes begin to tear up and she turned away.  Behind her, she heard Stuart’s footsteps return to the cart and the engine start.  She almost called to him right then, almost begged him not to leave her behind.  She gripped the crate in front of her to keep from following him, fingernails digging into the wood.  She heard the engine rumble, heard the tinny sound of the wheels backing down the ramp.  Moments later, he was gone.

Through tears, Dallas trudged back to the ship and began numbly packing more crates for transport.




Wings of Retribution

To Claim Retribution


Athenais found herself shoved into an enclosure filled with aliens, the door slammed shut behind her.

“Uh, hello,” she said, staring out at the strange faces.  “I hear you’re all shifters.”

“Athenais?”  A squid-looking alien shifted into a familiar, nine-fingered man.  “Is that you?”

“Hello, Paul,” she said, glancing at the others.  “Where’s Morgan?”

Paul glanced up at the wall above them and Athenais followed his gaze.  Sheltered from above by a lip of stone, a body swung.

“Oh,” she said.



Wings of Retribution


Ragnar glanced down at the enclosure, wishing he could get a closer look without raising suspicions.  He could see Paul below, standing apart from the rest.  Athenais was with him.  They were talking about something, looking at the stone wall below him.  Ragnar tried to see what they were gazing at, but the lip of masonry prevented it.

Frustrated, Ragnar considered what to do next.  Athenais had taken his place as a shifter.  That’s why she had left him on the ship.  Now he had to stay out of sight, do nothing that would endanger the others.  What he wanted to do was slip through the halls slitting throats until he had transformed the entire island a stinking mass of corpses.  If Paul was alive, that meant that his father was—

No.  He refused to think it.  Juno would not kill one of the oldest and most powerful L’kota ishala just to bring Ragnar back.  It was unthinkable.  She was just trying to scare him.

It irritated him that the best he could do was reconnaissance.  It was no use trying to free the others from their cell—the entire enclosure was an expensive setup, the kind that always thwarted Beetle when they were working on a banking planet heist.  The clear panels were airtight, blastproof, and completely EMP resistant.  The only way to open the enclosure without spending two hours outside with a high-intensity laser was with a special passcode and genetic material.

And, while Ragnar was well-skilled in espionage, he had a sinking feeling that the insane matron of this planet was just paranoid enough to see him coming.

Fighting a feeling of helplessness, Ragnar went to the other side and watched the massive black cloudbank on the horizon.  A storm system.  Bigger than anything he had witnessed on a land planet.  If he was going to do anything, he could probably use the cover of a storm.

But what could he do?

More than anything, he needed to find the island’s central com equipment.  If Athenais was here, then the rest of the crew should be close.  He had to get a message out to Squirrel.  She’d pick it up.  She slept with her headphones on.  He could broadcast his personal code and she’d recognize it for what it was even if she was half asleep and drugged.

But why was Athenais the only one here?  Had she somehow gotten separated from her ship?  She’d been naked.  Ragnar couldn’t think of many rescue strategies that required the infiltrator to get naked.

Well, he could think of a few.  But on the docks?  Without even a weapon?

Maybe Athenais had been her normal, overbearing, ballsy self and had decided that a quiet, single-man strike team was the best way to rescue him and had instead gotten herself caught.  After all, who did she have to take with her?  Smallfoot was dead and Goat and Dune were just as likely to shoot themselves in the foot as shoot someone else.  Squirrel was a pacifist, and Dallas was…well…Dallas.  Aside from sitting in the captain’s chair and destroying Athenais’s Biamachi rug when she thought nobody was looking, she was pretty useless.

Ragnar was usually the one Athenais took with her on these missions.  Maybe Athenais had been counting on him to help her.

Ragnar winced.  Looking back, maybe it hadn’t been the best idea to shock those two.  He had just automatically assumed Athenais would have help with her.

So on to Plan F.  Plans A through E had turned out to be utter failures, so right now, his best bet was finding the Beetle.  Fairy would love to show off with some fancy flying.  If he got onboard, maybe he could get her to blast open the enclosure with a photon beam.  He’d have to get a message to the shifters to get out of the way, but Squirrel should be able to handle that.  Ragnar was just about to begin climbing to the top story when a hand on his shoulder stopped him.  Turning, Ragnar stiffened when he saw that it was a Stranger.



Wings of Retribution


“So what does the Utopia know?  How much did you tell them?”

“Nothing,” Paul said.  “Species Ops never had the chance to fully interrogate us.”

“Good,” Athenais grunted.  “They can’t know we’re coming.  As soon as we get out of here, we need to—”  She stopped when Paul reached out and touched her arm.

“Athenais, I need to tell you what I know.  Now.  Before it’s too late.”  He glanced up through the glass ceiling, his eyes focused on the decaying body above.

It’s already too late, Athenais thought.  Her innards were already mourning, her hopes long since abandoned, but she did her best to give him a confident façade.  “They think I’m Ragnar.  They’re not going to kill you.”

“Listen to me,” Paul insisted, his grip on her arm beginning to hurt.  “They killed my father.  They knew who he was, what he was, and they killed him anyway.  I don’t care what they said about trying to breed more shifters, there’s something else going on here.  They would never have killed him if that’s what they wanted.  He was much, much too valuable.”

Smart cookie, that Paul.  Athenais glanced up.  “He did nothing to provoke them?”

“Nothing.”  Paul let go of her arm.  “They chose him deliberately.”

“And you think you’re next.”

“It’s possible.  Something isn’t right.”

Athenais sighed.  “You’re as paranoid as Ragnar.  Fine.  Tell me.”  For all the good it would do.

“Anyone who goes after the Potion is playing with fire.  There are some very bad people in control of Millennium, and the technology they’ve got protecting that place is the best the Utopia can afford.”

Athenais nodded curtly.  “I’ve been there.  Get to the point.”

“Here’s my point: Neither Morgan nor I were ever planning on going to Millennium with you.  If they caught us, they could make us tell them exactly where the rest of us are on Penoi.  We were planning on letting you and Ragnar go.  I was going to protect my father on some nice deserted planet, somewhere he’d be safe.”

They weren’t even planning on coming along? her mind sputtered.  She’d been used.  Again.  “And the access codes?” Athenais growled, her anger beginning to rise like a molten rush.  “Were there ever any?”

Paul hesitated.

Athenais was so furious she could hardly speak.  “So that was just another line of bullshit, just like the rest of it.”

“We’re shifters,” Paul said apologetically.  “If we ever knew the codes, why would we have come to you?”

Athenais cursed, cursing herself for a rube.  “You’ve been lying to me.  All this time.  All of you.”

Paul flinched.  “Not Ragnar.  He thought we were telling the truth.”

“You lied to your own brother?

“He would have told you the truth, and we needed your help.”

“He would have told me the truth because it’s a suicide mission!” Athenais screamed, waving her hands at the general shitstorm they were currently in.  “If we’d even made it to Millennium, there’s complexes on that planet that go all the way to the moon’s core!  A hundred miles deep!  Only a moron would go there without the right codes!  They’ve got enough firepower to implode a galactic core!  Damn it.  Damn!”

“We needed your help,” Paul repeated.  “The Governor turned us down.”

Athenais grabbed his collar and shoved him against the wall in an instant.  Around them, shifters closed in on her in warning, but she ignored them.  Her face an inch from the alien’s, she growled, “You never said anything about the Governor.”  She felt like crushing his eyeballs into his alien skull with her thumbs.  “What did you tell him?”  She knew she was too cold, too calm.  She hadn’t been this furious in years.

Paul must have seen her fury, because he recoiled into the wall.  “We thought he was Rabbit,” he babbled.

Suddenly, everything made so much more sense to her, like a goddamn jigsaw puzzle falling into place.  Athenais stared at him, mouth open in shock.

“He fit the description,” Paul went on quickly.  “Wealthy, powerful, his hands in every pie on T-9…”  Now it was his face that was going pale.  “You mean he’s not Rabbit?”

“You thought Governor Black was Rabbit?”

“We only had rumors and legends to go on.  We didn’t know…”

You got my crew killed,” Athenais snarled, slamming him against the wall.  “It wasn’t Fairy.  It was you!”

Paul looked stricken.  “Your crew was killed?  I thought Stuart found Rabbit.”

“He did!  And as soon as we got back to port, Governor Black blew Beetle to pieces.  Fairy’s the only one who wasn’t onboard.”

He opened and closed his mouth several times, staring at her in horror.  Finally, the alien started to babble, “You have to see where we were coming from…”

“No, I don’t.”  Athenais released him angrily.  “If I had a gun right now, I’d shoot you myself.”

Paul looked away.

“What about those colonists?  Are they really dying to make more Potion?”  She gave him a bitter look.  “Or another lie?”

“They’re dying,” Paul said hurriedly.  “They inject the unfinished Potion into a colonist, where it reproduces until there’s nothing left of the original subject except a mass of melted flesh and bones.  They wait for the reproduction trigger to deactivate, then they distill the Potion to inject into Utopis.  The ratio is usually two to one.  Two colonists for each finished dose.”

Athenais took a deep breath.  “Did you even have a plan to get us in there?  Or were you just going to let Ragnar and me figure it out for ourselves?”

“We figured out the best entry point,” Paul said.  “The bay where they deliver the colonists.  We thought Squirrel could hack the access codes and then—”

“Squirrel’s dead!”  Athenais made a disgusted gesture and stalked in a circle, just to keep from pounding his alien face into the wall.  Pettily, she kicked a stone across the yard and ripped a twig off a manicured tree.  Shaking the stick at him, she growled, “I can’t believe this.  You were risking our lives on the off chance we could put the pieces together before Millennium security shot us out of the sky?  How do you sleep at night?”

Paul’s eyes narrowed.  “Same way you can, human, after massacring my people.”

Athenais took a step toward him, so furious she could barely speak.  Beside her, one of the other shifters yanked the twig out of her grip and pointedly snapped it in half.  She ignored him completely, her full attention on Paul.  Softly, she said, “I never massacred your people, shifter.  I fought for you on Wythe.  I spent twelve years imprisoned on your planet because your people couldn’t believe I wanted to help them fight.  Then when they let me out, I never held a grudge.  I took out fifty-eight Utopian ships before I was captured.”

Paul’s eyes never left hers.  “You don’t know what it’s like.  You can join every rebellion you want.  You’ll never know.”

“Oh quit being a goddamned martyr,” Athenais snapped.  “And don’t put me on the same side as them.  I’m not human.  Haven’t been human since gradeschool.”  At that, she turned and stalked to the other edge of the enclosure and sat down, ignoring the shifters around her.

Juno, she decided, needed to die.  Really die.  And then her father.  And then the Potion, and then the rest of the Utopia that had been cheating the reaper for the last seven millennia.  Athenais was gonna find a way to do it, and screw ‘em if they couldn’t take a joke.



Wings of Retribution


Tommy returned to his room and closed his door, letting his breath out in an explosive sigh.  This Juno liked to use people as leverage against one another.  First Ragnar, now him.  Clever girl.

Unfortunately for Juno, Tommy was just as experienced in the art of prisoner manipulation, and she had picked the wrong person as her leverage.  If Tommy had a chance to get off planet, he was going to take it.  Out of all of them, he was the only one who still had the ability.  The mission was over.  They had lost.  It was time to retreat.

Tommy unzipped his coat and threw it over the peg beside the door.  As he did so, something fell from the pocket and rolled across the floor.  It was the odd tinkling sound that caught his attention.

Frowning, Tommy bent to pick it up.  When he did, his eyes narrowed.

The vial of blue floater liquid.  Supposedly the doorway to the gods.

Scoffing, Tommy stuffed it back into his coat pocket.  He disdained drugs and the people who used them.  Most of his time on T-9 had been spent finding and confiscating narcotics instead of seeking out the aliens he had been trained to apprehend.  It had been frustrating work—Tommy had to resist the urge to smash the vial on the stone floor in irritation.

He could give it back.  Hand it to some Stranger in the docking bay, tell him he found it in the cargo hold of his ship.

Why? his rational brain demanded.  So the Emperor can use it to shoot up?

Idly, Tommy wondered how many credits the little vial would be worth on the black market.  Probably a lot, if it was what he thought it was.  They’d called it floater wash.  Very, very little of the stuff ever made it into the markets, and the few ounces that did were immediately snapped up by the Utopian elite.  A whole vial…hell, it might be enough to pay for a new life on one of the colonies.

Now if only he could find a way to get past Xenith’s fleet.

The little cargo ship they gave him was not enough.  It might be able to avoid the big ships, but he doubted he could make it all the way out of the Black with it.  He had the feeling that Juno knew that, as well, and was teasing him, seeing if he would bolt.

Tommy would bolt, but it would be on a ship of his choosing, not some ancient junker that spent half its time down for repairs.

Sighing, he lay down and tried to sleep.  Outside his window, he could hear the heavy rain thrumming against the stone and dripping into the collection barrels below.  Lightning flashed almost constantly, illuminating his room like the center of a T-9 dance floor.  From the bottom of the wall, he could hear wave after wave crashing into the stone, pummeling it with twenty and thirty foot swells.  Despite its ferocity, however, Tommy calculated that the worst of the storm should hit in two days.  It was then that he’d make his move.



Wings of Retribution


Dallas was bringing her ship around the soggy walls of the main island—which the locals called ‘Paradise,’ but Dallas privately referred to as the Fort, now redubbed the Wet Fort—when she spotted Retribution.  It was docked right beside Dallas’s assigned bay, unguarded and abandoned in the rain.  As soon as she saw it, her fingers spasmed on the controls, but she brought the freighter into the loading area as she was supposed to.

She sat in the cockpit long after the docking clamps had taken hold, staring at her ship through the sheets of rain.

The comset crackled in front of her.  Unlike most comsets, she could not turn it off.

Pilot of planetary freighter B-89, please power down so we can begin diagnostics.

Dallas ignored the command, studying Retribution.  Longing tugged at her soul as she watched the water run off its sleek black hull.  She knew she could make it off the planet with Retribution.  She knew it.  All the way home, all the way to whatever planet she wanted to go to, in whatever system, in whatever galaxy, inside the Quads or out.  And the ship was right there.

How long would it be in dock?  Was it about to ship out?  Why was it planetside and not riding a hub?  Who was driving it, nowadays?  Would she ever see it again?  What if this was her chance?

All these questions rolled like agonizing little rock chips through her mind.

Retribution just sat there, abandoned in the rain.  It appeared unharmed, though the simpleton fools they had flying it would probably crash it into the ocean the next time they took it out.  Her heart ached as she watched it.

Pilot of planetary freighter B-89, you must power down the ship for us to begin maintenance procedures.

Furious, Dallas threw off the shoulder harness, shut off the engine, and stormed from the cockpit.  Outside, industrious Strangers were already unloading her freighter’s cargo—green slimy stuff that the locals used as food.

“I’m hungry,” Dallas snapped, not bothering to sound brainwashed.  “I’ll be in my room, getting some food.”  At that, she turned and marched down the hall, frustrated beyond all reason.  Retribution was there, so close she could touch it.  She glanced down at her hands and squeezed them into fists, regretting not fighting it out with Everest.  So what if the ship was bigger than any warship they’d ever seen?  So what if it was mounted with so many guns it looked like a porcupine?  She should have fought.

That was twice she’d put down the controls because she’d been afraid, twice she’d lost her ship to people who didn’t deserve it.

Slamming her domicile door, Dallas vowed it would never happen again.

“Not in a million years!” she screamed at the woven seaweed matting that made up the door.

Someone cleared his throat behind her and Dallas spun, heart leaping into her throat.  “I mean…” she babbled.  “Praise the Emperor’s Will?”

Two strange men stood in the corner of her bedroom, watching her.  Dallas’s heart suddenly leapt into her throat, panic tracing painful lines through her gut.  Had she taken too long to get out of the cockpit?  Had the boobalicious little dead-eyed ape in the karate gi been watching her?  Had it really been a trap?  Were they here to brainwash her a second time?  Oh God, without Stuart, she was so dead…

“I’m Stuart,” the bigger of the two said, looking amused.  “That’s Ragnar.”

Dallas let out the breath she’d been holding in a laugh of relief.  “You scared me!”  Grinning, she ran up and gave the bigger of the two men a hug.  “Stuey, I sooooo missed you.  I was all alone and nobody to talk to and I was scared and I kept doing things wrong and I think they might know I’m not brainwashed and—”

“I missed you too,” Stuart interrupted, pushing her back to look down at her, “You got something to eat?”

Dallas pouted.  “You just got here and you want to eat?”

“Ragnar’s about to eat the seaweed in the floor matting,” Stuart said.  “We were talking about it before you came in.  He’s bad off.  Anything you can find would really help.”

She took another look at the Warrior.  He was small-boned, the size of a child.  “Ragnar?  How’d you lose so much weight?”

“Shifting,” Ragnar said.  He was leaning against the wall, his voice sounding strained.  “Please.  Do you have any food?”

“They deliver it here,” Dallas said, going to the chute and pulling the drawer open.  Inside, a steaming plate of green slime and fish awaited her.  She wrinkled her nose and offered it to Ragnar.  “You want it?  I hate that stuff.”

Ragnar didn’t even talk.  He simply yanked the plate out of her hands and started devouring it.  The way he ate the food reminded her of a starving dog she had fed on Derkne.  She took a step backwards.  That same dog had attacked her when it had run out of food.

“The situation’s bad,” Stuart said as Ragnar ate.  “They’ve got all the shifters locked up in a vault that it would take weeks to get into.  Genetic ID.  Airtight, laser resistant walls.  Athenais is in there with them.  I can’t find Rabbit.”

Dallas’s brows furrowed.  “Athenais?  I thought they dumped her off a few hundred miles from here.”

“It’s her,” Ragnar said, setting the plate on her dresser.  “And they put her in with the other shifters, thinking she was me.”

“So there’s the three of us,” Dallas mused.  “Stuart, have you thought about taking over that Juno bitch?  She’d probably have the access to get them out of there.”

Stuart gave a wan smile.  “I’ve thought about it.  Problem is, I can’t find her.”

“You check out the Retribution?  Maybe she’s using it as her personal limo.”

Retribution’s abandoned.  Too expensive to fly it in the atmosphere, and too complicated for these fools to put into orbit.  And, thanks to Rabbit, it’s got long-range com.  I’ve been doing some research and they don’t have anything in space with long-range com.  They’re afraid of giving away their location.”

Dallas groaned.  “That’s why it’s docked?  They’re removing Retribution’s com equipment?”

“No, that equipment is too expensive to waste.  They’re just keeping it on Xenith for the planetary interference until they figure out a failproof damper.  I have heard talk they’re going to be adding her to Everest’s fleet here in a few days.  Looking for someone to pilot it.”

They’re taking my ship…  Dallas straightened, lifting her chin.  “I’m gonna be on that ship the next time it takes off.”

Ragnar and Stuart glanced at each other.  Ragnar cleared his throat.  “Listen, Dallas, I heard about Beetle and everything you went through to get that ship, but that’s a tall order.  It could lift off a week from now or it could lift off tonight.  We just don’t know.”

“I’m gonna be on it,” Dallas insisted.  “It’s my ship.”

“Then what?” Stuart asked.  “You’ll just play Ring Around the Rosie with Juno’s fleet until we’re ready for you to pick us up?”

Dallas bared her teeth.  “Retribution’s mine.  I’m not letting it get away from me again.”

“We know that.  We’re just saying that there are more important things right now than getting back on that ship.  We can’t do it until we’re absolutely ready.”

“We’re bringing about twenty passengers with us,” Ragnar added.  “They’ve got a roomful of shifters and I’m not leaving them behind.”

“Fine.  Great.  You get the shifters and I’ll get the ship.  We’ll meet in the middle.”

“Dallas…” Stuart began.

“Just shut up, Stuart!” Dallas snapped.  “You’re not in my head anymore.  You can’t tell me what to do.  I’m not gonna let them tease me like this.  I’m getting my ship back.”

“Maybe that’s exactly what Juno wants you to do,” Stuart said softly.  “Have you thought about that?  Maybe she wants to draw out anyone she didn’t manage to brainwash.”

Leave it to Stuart to be logical.

Well, screw logic.  Dallas lifted her lips from her teeth.  “Then she’s in for a surprise, ‘cause I’m gonna blow her pretty little island to pretty little bits if she tries to stop me.”




Wings of Retribution

Reenactments


Athenais was amused when the doors opened and Juno walked in with twenty Warriors carrying old-style automatic combustion rifles.  She was not amused when they began shooting.  The shifters ran, but the projectiles mowed through the decorative brush, leaving them no place to hide.

Athenais was one of the first to be hit.  She fell backwards with the force of the bullet, feeling as if she had gotten hit in the chest with a hammer.  All around her, the shifters were falling, hitting the ground, screaming in alien tongues.  One by one, their bodies changed, one final shift as their lifeforce left them.  Even Paul lost his human form, becoming a mottled orange and brown, taking on the amorphous shape of an amoeba.

In a daze, Athenais heard Juno walk up to her.

“This one’s not dead,” she said, her face perfectly calm.

Like she’s talking about the lawn, Athenais thought.

Boots thumped on the grassy ground as one of the Warriors stepped close and shot Athenais in the head.



Wings of Retribution


Pilot of freighter B-89, please report to the loading bay for your next assignment.

Grumbling, Dallas sat up and checked the clock by the wall.  Almost three in the morning.  Outside, the rain was blasting against the inch-thick window panes, which had risen from the sills early that night, as the storm was worsening.

Pilot of freighter B-89, please report to the loading bay for—

“I’m coming!” Dallas shouted into the comset, probably a bit too loud.  She slipped her feet into her boots and tugged on her spacer jacket.  The place had no mirror, so she ran her hand through her hair a few times and splashed some water on her face.  Outside, lightning brightened the sky in intricate forks of blue and purple.  On the nightstand, the electric lamp was flickering as even the internal power systems bowed to the storm.

Dallas took a brief glance outside and immediately felt ill.  Seventy foot waves crashed against the base of the Wall and wind-whipped sprays of ocean water shot up another eighty feet, blowing over the top of the Wall in sloshes the size of houses.

“They want me to fly in that?”  Dallas suddenly didn’t feel too good.  The little cargo vessels were barely airworthy as it was, but it looked like hurricane-force winds, with ocean swells that could swallow up unsuspecting ships like mountains rising out of thin air.  The engines were delicate, too.  An overload of water could bring them to a grinding halt, and her ship didn’t carry a lifeboat.

Biting her lip, Dallas left her room and hurried down the corridor and down the six flights of stairs to the ground level.  She tried not to look as the ocean pummeled the inch-thick glass there, straining to get inside the walls, making the stone under her feet shudder.

Anxious to get away from the windows, she hurried up to the loading bay and glanced around.  The dockmaster was directing a group of men hoisting huge boulders into the back of a freighter.  All around her, soaked men in nothing but Stranger loin wraps were loading piles of rocks and debris into every ship in the dock.  Ships were coming and going at unnerving speeds, dripping rain and buffeted by the winds as they launched themselves over the wall.

As soon as the dockmaster saw Dallas, he came toward her at a jog.

“We’ve got a breach in the wall on the eastern side,” he shouted, panting.  “Every pilot is reassigned to containment runs until the storm gives out.  Get your ship and start plugging the hole.”

“But the B-89’s barely even skyworthy.  I go out in that weather and it’s gonna go down.”

“Then make sure you land in the breach!” the dockmaster shouted at her.  “Now move!”  He turned and began haranguing a work crew, Dallas forgotten.

Dallas began jogging toward the B-89, but then hesitated.  With all the activity in the bay, Retribution still remained abandoned.  She glanced all around her, trying to find any sign that she wasn’t totally alone with her ship.  Eventually, her eyes settled on Retribution once more.  Above, the wind thrashed the sides of the wall, pummeling the dock with sheeting rain.  Somewhere nearby, one of the tarps they had thrown up to shield the workers from the rain had collected too much water and poured loose, dousing an entire work group with water.  They dropped their burden on another worker, who began to scream under the enormous rock.  The dockmaster started shouting for a stretcher and men ran to help them roll the boulder from atop the screaming dockman.

Dallas heard none of it.  She stood in the rain, her heart pounding, seeing nothing but her ship.  If she went to it instead of following the dockman’s orders, they would know.  Without Stuart, the second time they took her to that little white room, she would lose herself.  She would no longer be Dallas York, but some mindless drone working for the Empire shipping crates of pottery for the rest of her life.

Her feet started moving before she realized she had made up her mind.  She walked up to the airlock, hit the button, and stepped inside.  On the other side, she caught one last look at the chaos at the dock before the door shut, leaving her in silence.  She entered the code to lock the door, then turned and made her way to the bridge.  As she walked, the lights came on around her, a welcoming glow that sent tingles down her spine.

Home.  She was home.

Inside the bridge, she entered her codes into the security panel.  The words that followed were music to her ears.

“Welcome Captain Dallas York.  Personal preferences now in effect.”

The first thing Dallas did was delete Juno’s profile from the ship’s database.  The second thing she did was make it so that the ship would never again allow her onboard.

Satisfied, Dallas sat down in the captain’s chair and caressed the firm metal of the controls.  They weren’t the simple up-down, left-right controls of a planetary spacer.  Instead, it had two main foot pedals that controlled the slipstream pull and the main engine thrust, eight thruster controls on the stick that, when twisted, each added extra power to a different point on the ship, and an array of levers that corresponded to twenty different burners for delicate interspace maneuvering and trajectory adjustments.  And that did not even include the three hundred other buttons and switches spreading out before her, controlling everything from autopilot to sensors.

Gazing down at the complicated expanse of controls, Dallas felt a rush of happiness.  Finally.  She had her ship.

The click of boots on the metal floor behind her made Dallas stiffen and turn.

Tommy was advancing on her, a metal pipe in his hand.  He lowered it when he saw her face.  “Dallas?”

Tommy?”

“You have orders to fly this somewhere, Dallas?”  he looked confused.

She grinned up at him.  “Nope.”

For the first time in her memory, she saw the Colonel smile.  “Then what are you waiting for?”  He set the pipe aside and sat down in the navigator’s seat.

“Might want to strap in,” Dallas suggested.  “It’s gonna be a bumpy ride.”



Wings of Retribution


When Athenais sat up, the sound of twenty rifles being shouldered welcomed her.

“Hello Juno,” she said, peering up at the woman tiredly.  The small, petite woman was surrounded by a couple dozen large, muscular men with rifles and combat gear that Athenais recognized from the losing side of the Second Utopian Wars.  Ground forces, shifter battalion.  Seeing that, Athenais sighed.  “Got your yearly dose of slaughter in, eh?  I was wondering how long it would take.”

Juno actually hesitated.  “You knew I was going to kill them?”

Athenais shrugged.  “Rabbit and I were just so happy to hear you were alive, we paid everyone we could find for news.  We were all kinds of curious why you’d be paying such nice prices for shifters.  Turns out, your son was executed in the same way.  Group of POWs mowed down by shifters in UWII.  It wasn’t hard to guess what you were planning, especially since you’ve been buying shifters consistently for three thousand years and you only had a dozen in your ‘colony.’”  She cocked her head.  “Oh, and it helped that you’re a completely predictable, narrow-minded fool who styles herself as smarter than God.”

Juno’s face tightened.  She obviously didn’t believe she was predictable.  Athenais found that part particularly funny.  Juno, smart cookie that she was—she was, after all, the one who had pieced together what Athenas’s father had done to them—also had one huge, glaring fault.  She really did think she was smarter than God.  After all, she had the Doctorates to prove it.

“If you knew, why didn’t you tell them?”  Juno peered at her, tight-lipped with disbelief.

Athenais shrugged.  “If I was about to die, I wouldn’t want to know about it.”

“You had no idea.”  Juno’s mouth twisted in a smile.  “You’re bluffing.  Just like you always do.  One big show of courage, a hurrah wherever you go, when you’re really just full of shit.”

Athenais sighed and stood up.  “Tell me something, Dr. Berg,” she said, looking down at the curvaceous woman as she dusted herself off.  “Professional to layman or Guiding Light to infidel, or however you wanna put it….”  She waved her hand dismissively.  “Isn’t it a little psychotic to re-create your son’s death every year?”

As Juno’s face darkened, Athenais went on, “Hell, I’m just pulling terms out of my ass, here, but isn’t that kind of obsessive reenactment oh, I dunno, some sort of a mental disorder?”

She knew she was getting through to the woman, because her already-flat eyes went cold.

“You know,” Athenais insisted, “creating something that never happened over and over again so you can feel better in your head?”  She tapped her skull, enjoying the way Juno’s face started to contort around the edges.  “What’s that fancy degree of yours say about that kinda thing?  You felt guilty you weren’t there or something?  Gotta make it up to him somehow?  Ease the shame for not being there with him when he died?  For not stopping it?”

For a moment, it looked like the smaller woman might hit her.  Then Juno’s face went into a deadly calm, a sheet of ice frozen in a smile that chilled the bones.  It was the creepy kind of look that meant that Juno knew something Athenais didn’t.  The bitch was a master at it.

Lazily, Juno said, “You wouldn’t be smiling if you knew I left your lover floating in the path of a storm a few days back.  He was tied hand and foot in the bottom of a boat.  The fool tried to pretend he was you.”

Athenais nodded.  “And I’m sure he’ll be back here any day now.”

Juno laughed.  “Don’t be stupid.  He’s drowned or shark food.  Or both.”

“That was a nice touch,” Athenais noted.  “The sharks.  Considering your shark attack as a kid, woulda thought you’d want to avoid the things.”  She cocked her head.  “Or maybe that’s a reenactment, too?”  Athenais saw the ways Juno’s eye glittered and she laughed, shaking her head.  “Man, you’d make a clinical psychologist’s wet dream.”  She gestured at the beefy guys with guns.  “Some truly textbook shit you’ve got going on here, Juno.”  She snorted.  “And I don’t even read the textbooks.”

Juno peered at her like a cobra that had earned multiple PhDs in the fields of Psychology, Biology, and Chemistry, back when people cared about degrees.  “That was you in the boat.”

“Yep,” Athenais said.  She flicked a bit of shifter gore off of her arm.  “Seems you still got a bit of a problem on your hands, don’t you, babe?”

Juno lost control of her features a second time, and Athenais saw rage beginning to paint her face a pretty shade of purple.  “How?”

Athenais shrugged.  “I had help.”

“Who?!”

“Well, it was…”  Then Athenais paused examined her fingernails.  “Actually, on second thought, I think I’ll let you wonder what part of your precious regime is falling apart.”

Juno watched her in a prolonged silence, radiating her hatred like a lightbulb.  Athenais pried dirt from under a fingernail, then flicked it at the grass.

Finally, Juno said, “I don’t even own ships that can navigate to the bottom of the underwater ravines of this planet, Athenais.”

Athenais looked up, her brow creasing at the change in subject.  “What are you talking about?”

“I’d like to see this mysterious helper of yours rescue you under ten miles of water, tied to an anchor.”

Athenais stiffened.  Now that sort of thing was not funny.  “Juno, don’t.”

“Oh, now we’re being polite, are we?  Have you lost your nerve, Athenais?”

“You’re goddamn right I lost my nerve!” Athenais shouted.  “Ten miles?!  Don’t you dare.  Nobody deserves that.”

“I’ll spare you if you tell me where your alien lover is hiding.”

Athenais allowed her panic to show, now.  “You think I know that?”

Smiling, Juno said, “I think you’d hide it from me if you knew.”

“You’re right.”

Juno shrugged.  “I’ve heard the pressure is enough to crush every bone in your body.”

“Juno, please.”  Too late, Athenais realized it sounded like begging.

Juno’s eyes lit up.  “Is that fear, Athenais?  The great space captain is afraid of water?  How interesting.  I guess we’ll have to cure you of that.”  Juno turned toward the door.

Juno!” Athenais cried, reaching for her.  “I just came here to get my shifters and go.  I didn’t want to pick a fight.”

Juno half-turned to give her a crooked smile.  “Oh, but you did, Athenais.  And you, with your puny little monkey brain, thought you could outsmart me.”  She gave an amused, patronizing chuckle.  “Your ship will leave as soon as the storm clears.  We’ll see if the Potion is smart enough to grow you some gills.”  She left, followed by the twenty riflemen.

Once Athenais was alone, she realized she was shaking.  She fisted her hands and closed her eyes.  No one would do that to somebody.  Juno was just trying to scare her.



Wings of Retribution


Ragnar stared at the orange-brown bodies swinging from the wall in the rain, feeling oddly calm.  There was no mistaking the mottled patterns of the central nucleus.  They had killed Paul and Morgan.  They had killed everyone.

Ragnar slid back into the shadows, ignoring the tearing hunger in his stomach.

They would pay.

He squared his shoulders and stepped out into the light, dressed in the armor of a Warrior he had killed.  He was rapidly losing weight, but that didn’t matter now.   All that mattered was finding a way to get out a message.  Juno would pay for L’kota deaths in blood.

Spine rigid, he began climbing.  Staircase after staircase, he didn’t realize he had reached the upper floor until he turned a corner and there were no more stairs to ascend.  Ragnar turned, found the door to the com room, and kicked it open.  He performed a yeit, long fangs growing from his jaws as he metabolized his old teeth, his muscles growing taught and lean, claws sprouting from the tips of his fingers.

The ten men and women operating the com room began to scream.



Wings of Retribution


Stuart rushed up to the com station, panting.  Ragnar sat against the wall outside, wiping his bloody mouth on a rag.

“Ragnar,” he panted, coming to a wary halt outside the station, “what did you do?”

Ragnar said nothing.  Didn’t even look up at him.  Just kept wiping blood from his lips.

Apprehensive, Stuart slowly eased the door open behind the shifter and stepped into the com room.  The scene inside stunned him.

Crimson splashed the walls, the floor, the controls, the equipment.  Lightning lit up the windows in red-pink flashes.  Unrecognizable body parts lay sprawled across the floor in pools of red.  Blood spattered the ceiling in arcs and smears.  It was the device in the center of the room, however, that caught Stuart’s eye.  Stuart went over to it and stared.  Heart pounding, he shut it down.  Too late.  The device had sent its message.  Stunned, he walked back to the entry in a daze.

“You made a beacon.”

Ragnar continued to stare across the room, through the window beyond.  Outside, the rain pounded against the glass, the wind rattling down through the com equipment on the ceiling.

Stuart was silent a moment.  “It’s our heads, you know.”

“Doesn’t matter anymore.”

Stuart sighed inwardly.  He should have prepared himself for this.  Shifters were notoriously moody.  Even more so than humans, when given the right trigger.  Squatting beside the shifter, he said, “What about Athenais?  She’s somewhere on this planet, too.  Don’t you care about her?”

“Athenais will be fine.”

Stuart glanced out the window at the storm.  “I was hoping I could stop you from doing something stupid, but now that it’s too late to do that, I’m going to make sure it’s not the last stupid thing you ever do.  Get up.”  He stood, offering his hand.

Ragnar didn’t move.

“Get up, Ragnar.”  He nudged him with a foot.

Ragnar slashed out at him with claws that Stuart had not noticed earlier.  They left three deep gashes in his leg, just inches away from the hamstring.

…and the femoral artery.

“You son of a bitch.”  Stuart kicked Ragnar in the face.  The shifter tumbled over, dropping the rag.  When he looked up at Stuart, he bore long fangs, red with blood.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Stuart said, as the weakened L’kota snarled up at him.  “We’ll finish this later.”  He kicked the shifter again, laying him out on the floor.  He flipped him over and, with one knee keeping him pinned, he pushed a node into his palm and pressed his hand into the small of Ragnar’s back.  The direct current that he applied to the neural center sent the shifter into convulsions.  His teeth, claws, and hair fell out as his body instantly reverted back to its natural state.  Stuart winced as the stomach compartment became visible—he could see five distinct fingers, as well as what looked like a human jaw.

Stuart pulled the cargo sack from under his belt and flipped it open.  Then he proceeded to lever the shifter into the bag.  When he was finished, he knotted the sack and hefted it over his shoulder.

The gashes in his leg made for slow going, but at least Stuart could manipulate the capillaries to somewhat staunch the flow of blood.  Starting down the stairs, however, Stuart began to wonder if he would need a new body by the time he got them to safety.

He didn’t want to take a new body—with their current situation, every human he took would have to die.  He simply made an apology to the Seeker and severed their cerebral connections upon entering.  He couldn’t afford for any of Xenith’s inhabitants to know about him.

Stuart carried the sack down twelve flights of stairs, then turned into the hall and started walking south.  He needed to get back to Dallas’s room before she got sent back out on another mission.  If they were going to get off of Xenith, they needed to do it now, before that beacon got through.

By the time they reached Dallas’s room, Stuart was no longer able to ignore the abuse that Ragnar had given his host.  He stayed just long enough to discover Dallas was gone, then he dropped Ragnar in the corner of the room and hobbled outside.

He had used extra current on Ragnar, not about to take a chance with a shifter royal.  He just hoped he had enough shock left to take a new host.

A few yards down the hall, Stuart found a young man scrubbing the floors with a bucket and brush.  Guilt already forming a hard knot in his soul, Stuart approached the boy slowly, allowing him to see he was wounded.  As expected, the kid stood up and asked if he needed help.  Stuart stumbled, like he was about to fall, and the young man caught him.

“I’m so sorry,” Stuart told him, looking into the kid’s innocent brown eyes, hating what he was about to do.

“Don’t worry about it,” the boy said, helping him back to his feet.  “You’re wounded.  Here, I’ll help you get to—”  The teenager’s words ended as Stuart applied the remainder of his current to his body.  As the kid was falling, open-mouthed, brown eyes wide in confusion, Stuart began disengaging from his host’s brain.  Seeker forgive me, he prayed, as he pulled his tentacles free.  But it’s not just for myself this time.  My friends are depending on me.  Hopefully, that meant something.  He still felt dirty, cowardly—a disgusting little parasite.

To take an unwilling host…  To kill it intentionally…  These were the things done by monsters.

Yet Stuart positioned himself over the boy and leapt.

A brief moment of searing, dry cold, then he found his body cradled within his next host’s warm inner ear.  The boy was moving already, grabbing at his head.  Feeling the rough salty human skin brush his body, Stuart panicked and fled the searching fingers, doing more damage than usual.  The young man began to scream and flail.  Stuart felt himself struggling to hold on as the world thrashed violently around him.

Stuart felt himself losing his grip as that self-loathing started creeping back into his awareness at the vibrations of his new host’s screams.  Hosts were not supposed to scream.  They were not supposed to dig at their skulls and try to tear him free.  This was wrong.  He almost let go, almost gave in to the self-disgust right then.

Then a moment of clarity, like a crystal ring amidst a sea of silence, brought him out of his revulsion.

Dallas.

The one human who had willingly offered herself as host.  He thought about her, afraid and alone, stuck on this twisted planet for the rest of her life.  No, he thought immediately.  She’s depending on me.

Stuart renewed his efforts, boring into the host’s soft tissues, evading the boy’s fingers with sudden resolve.  By the time Stuart managed to get himself inside and merge himself to the boy’s senses, he was horrified to realize that he had gathered a crowd.  He began making connections rapidly, fear spurring him to hurry.  He was just gaining enough control to lift himself from the floor when a female voice demanded, “What is going on here?!”

Stuart sat up, but was not quick enough to hide the trickle of blood from his left ear.  He glanced up and his heart stopped when he realized that the woman who had spoken was the same woman who had captured Retribution and left Athenais naked in a boat.

The woman’s eyes fell on Stuart’s previous host, who was a twitching husk, the mind long-vanished.  Then, slowly, her eyes flicked over to the blood dripping from beneath Stuart’s hand, then to Stuart’s face.

Her angular features twisted with a disgust that Stuart knew all-too-well.  “I know what this is.”

Oh gods, Stuart thought.  Oh Seeker help me, she knows.  He tore his way through the host’s brain, frantically trying to reestablish enough connections to run away.

Above him, the woman said, “Warrior, give me your gun.”  He looked up in time to see her shoulder a rifle, aimed at his new host’s chest.  She pulled the trigger and it suddenly felt as if someone had kicked him in the heart.  He gasped and fell backwards.

His host was dying.  Stuart could feel the blood seeping out, sense the numbness spreading to his extremities.  He realized there was nothing he could do.  No one was going to help him.  Finally, after a lifetime of cowardice and deception, he was going to face the Seeker.

I don’t want to die.

Like the wild storm outside, the all-consuming panic rose in a haze of terror that clouded his thoughts.  Desperate, not thinking of anything except finding a live host, he tried direct his host’s weak limbs to crawl toward his last host.

The woman stepped forward and easily kicked him backwards.  “Remove the other body and incinerate it.  Our little parasite is trying to save himself.”

Stuart’s host’s vision was going dark.  Mindless with desperation, he reached toward the woman’s leg.

She blew off his hand with her rifle.

Unable to control himself, Stuart opened his mouth in a silent plea for help.  The faces staring down at him were impassive, uncaring.  Strings of his old language flowed from his lips, begging, but their faces never changed.

The last thing he heard before everything went dark was, “Stand back.  No one touch him.  I want a good shot when he comes crawling out of his hole.”



Wings of Retribution


Dallas doubled over the console, her headache increasing.

“This isn’t the time to be panicking, worm,” Tommy said.  “Let Dallas back at the controls before we get our asses blown outta the sky.”

Dallas jerked her head up.  “Stuart’s not in here, you bitter old man!”  At that, she kicked out with her left foot, jamming the stick forward and down.  They spun and dove under the warship pursuing them, narrowly missing having their nose sheared off by the warship’s front deflectors.

She hit the right pedal and twisted the top four throttles with her right hand.  Retribution snapped around again and fell into a spin.  They came up behind their pursuer and fell underneath its left main engine.  Dallas jerked up on the stick even as the other warship’s guns turned on them.

The scream of steel grinding against steel echoed throughout the length of the ship before Dallas loosened the throttle and let Retribution fall behind.

“Dallas, what the hell are you doing?!” Tommy shouted.  “I’ve never seen something so stupid.  We were right under their main guns!  We—”

He was interrupted by a resounding boom from ahead.  The final warship was falling toward the ocean in a spin, the left engine a tangle of twisted metal and flying shrapnel.  Dallas held her position, waiting.

The captain of the other ship managed to get the fall under control before it hit the ocean, utilizing the two left-hand minor thrusters and an array of the lower supplementals.

Limping, the enemy warship began the struggle back to the Fort.

As soon as the ship abandoned the fight, Dallas turned on Tommy.

“That was a Raptor-class warship with energy-resistant plating.  We had to take out a main engine and we couldn’t do that with our weapons.  If we held still long enough to fire, they would have enough time to fire back, and Retribution isn’t equipped to take a photon burst through the hull, all right?!  Plus, I wanted to get this whole thing over with.  My head is killing me.”

Tommy was watching her oddly.  “What did you mean, Stuart isn’t in there?  I assumed he was the one who helped you through the brainwashing.”

“He is.  And he left me to go find the shifters.”  Dallas set a course for the debris field and slumped over, holding her head.  “Damn, I’ve just got the worst headache.”  And she didn’t feel right.  She felt like crying.  Like just slumping over the controls and sobbing for twenty-four hours straight.

“You all right?  You’re looking kind of pale.”  Tommy was peering at her narrowly.

“I’m fine,” Dallas muttered, though for some reason her heartbeat was speeding up and she felt like vomiting.  Her hands were shaking on the controls, and she almost felt like peeing herself.  She looked around the room, panting.  Why did she still feel so creeped out?  She just took out their last pursuer…

Realizing Tommy was watching her too closely, she hid her nerves with a rough mutter of, “Just make sure there’s nobody following us.”  Then she closed her eyes and dropped her head into her hands and started rubbing her temples.

Tommy glanced at the monitors, then back at her.  “You sure?  Want to lie down?  I can take us from here.”

Dallas jerked her head up, heart suddenly hammering like a broken freighter engine.  “Take us where?” she snarled.

Tommy flinched away from her, looking taken aback.  “Back to the Utopia.”  He frowned at her.  “Why…where were you planning on going?”

“I wasn’t planning anything,” Dallas moaned.  “I just had to get my ship back.  Now that I’ve got it, I’m trying to figure out what to do next.”

God, something was wrong.  There must be a ship out there she’d missed.  Something that was triggering her subconscious alarm bells.  She’d never been so scared in her life.  Her heart wouldn’t stop pounding and she just had this insane urge to wad herself into a ball in the corner and sob.  She started searching through the debris fields, looking for anything remotely the same size as a ship.

“Don’t tell me you want to go back for that worm…”

Stop calling him a worm!”  Dallas found herself standing, her entire body shaking.  Carefully, she said, “You call him a worm again and I’ll dump you in space, you specist bastard.”

Tommy stared at her.  Finally, he said, “Dallas, you really look bad.”

“I’m fine,” she snapped, steadying herself on the console.  Her fear was so thick, now, she could barely breathe.  Where the hell was it coming from?  She couldn’t even hear the next thing Tommy said, her heart was pounding so hard.  “Oh God,” she gasped, her fingers tightening on the console as her whole body began to shake uncontrollably.  She got a strange, sudden flash of darkness, of despair, of a ring of disgusted alien faces waiting for her to die.  With it came that gentle mental tingle that she’d come to associate with the suzait.

Stuart.

“He’s in trouble,” she whimpered.  Then she did pee herself.  She had just enough time to see Tommy frown before her knees went out from under her.  She hit the cockpit floor in a burst of lights, then nothingness.



Wings of Retribution


More terrified than he’d ever been before in his life, Stuart eased his way out of his host’s head.  The body had been rapidly losing warmth over the last minutes, but the cool blast of air on his moist skin was still a shock.  He flinched, staring wildly at the moving blobs around him.  He had no idea when the bullet would come, not even from which direction.  Panic tearing through his system, he released the tiny amount of electricity his body had stored, shocking the dead body beneath him.

With that last indignity, he slid from the ear canal and onto the hard, frigid stone underneath.  The roughness of the rock grated on his skin, poking him in a thousand places, threatening to tear holes in his delicate body.

Somewhere beside him, he felt the stone rumble.  At first, he thought that the gun had been fired, but then he was inundated with the lukewarm, soapy water that his dead host had been using to wash the floor.

The soap burned his skin, the water washing away the blood that had been protecting him from the cold stone.  Now, totally unprotected, he wriggled helplessly, staring at the huge moving blobs, wondering why they were waiting.

Something poked him and he flinched away, terrified.  He knew he was going to die, but Stuart still felt fear.  He was paralyzed by fear.  It was like a leaden ball of rot poisoning his gut, spreading into his every fiber.  Why were they waiting?

The same thing poked him again and he tried to crawl away.  Something dry and salty caught him and squeezed, creating a new and horrible sensation for Stuart—the feeling he was about to explode like a ripe grape.  Despite his terror, he couldn’t even summon up the equivalent of a static shock.  Too weak.  Too many discharges.

Now it would end.  His last thought, as the pressure became an overpowering, excruciating tearing, was of Dallas.



Wings of Retribution


Athenais watched the suzait die with increasing fury.  Juno was taunting him, splashing water on him, squeezing him…  Like a spoiled child.

Yet, being the god of an entire planet for the last several thousand years, that’s exactly what she was.  A spoiled damn child.

Athenais had watched Stuart struggle to retain control of his dying host, had even saw the corpse jolt as he shocked it out of terror.  She wondered if Juno had noticed.  She hoped she hadn’t.  Juno seemed to be enjoying the entire experience, soaking it up with hungry eyes, monologuing to the gathering about parasites, goading the helpless little alien with sheer, petty vindictiveness.

Finally, Athenais could stand it no longer.  She twisted out of the grip of the Warrior holding her, who was staring in terror at the worm that had crawled out of the boy’s head.  She grabbed his rifle and, even as the other Warriors raised their weapons, she fired.

She missed Stuart.  Instead, she hit Juno, putting a hole through her neck.  Juno stiffened, and for a moment, Athenais thought she would squish the suzait.

Unfortunately, he seemed to be more resilient than he appeared.  His body stopped bulging and he slid from Juno’s limp fingers, landing in the pool of blood beneath the dead boy.

Juno landed on top of him.

For a hopeful moment, Athenais thought Stuart might slip into Juno’s ear canal, but the parasite could not see well enough to understand the prize he was presented.  He wriggled in the opposite direction, like a flat gray earthworm that had been run over by a tractor.  She glanced at the Warriors, wondering what was taking them so long to kill her.

They were staring at Juno’s body, wide-eyed.  Apparently, they hadn’t been aware that their goddess could bleed.  The Warriors, who had seen Athenais resurrect herself after slaughtering the shifters, were caught between staring at Athenais and Juno.

She knew it was going to cost all the observers their lives, but right now, she was in a bad mood.  “Don’t you morons understand a war of the gods when you see one?” Athenais snapped at them, brandishing her weapon.  “Get out of here!”

When they continued to stare, she added, “Before I smite you all like the sniveling wads of excrement you are.”  Like a dozen startled sheep, they bolted.

Grunting, Athenais shouldered her rifle, squatted, and grabbed the suzait.  He didn’t even flinch as she hefted him from the ground.  Dead, then?

Then she felt a static charge, like a tingle in her fingertips.

Alive.  Damn.  Fine.

“You listen to me, you little shit,” she shouted, flinging him back and forth to wake him up.  “You do anything…anything I don’t want you to, I’m gonna finish where they left off.  You understand me?!”

She got a weak twitch, like a worm trying to crawl back into its hole.

Of course he didn’t understand her.  He couldn’t even hear her.  The moment he got back inside a brain, he was gonna drive it like Fairy on full manual.

Frustrated, knowing her time was running out, Athenais dunked him in the remnants of the cleaning bucket to wash the grit off of him.  She glanced around, looking for another place—any other place—to put him.  Unfortunately, the sheep had fled, and Juno was dead.  If she had been alive, Athenais would have straddled her and shove the suzait into her head with all of her blessings.

But Juno was definitely dead, and Athenais knew from experience that it would take an hour or two for her heart to start beating again.

Standing in the hall, the parasite dangling limply between her fingers, Athenais knew she had to come up with some other alternative.  He had seconds to live, if he wasn’t already dead.

Making one of the more questionable decisions of her life, Athenais jammed the little worm face-first up her nose.




Wings of Retribution

A Glimpse into the Mind of a Pirate


Tommy rolled the young woman onto her back.  She had collapsed in a spasm, hitting her spine on the captain’s chair hard enough to make the floor shake.  He knelt beside her, feeling for a pulse.

It was there, but weakening.

Dallas was sweaty and shivering, her lips blue.  Her skin was hot to the touch, but without any of the color that usually accompanied a fever.  As she lay there, her muscles began to spasm and contract until she was fighting a full-fledged seizure.

He put his hand under her head to keep it from banging the floor, and at first he thought she had salivated on him.  Then he saw the blood.  Frowning, he pushed her head to the side and glanced at her ear.  Immediately, he sucked in a breath.

She’d left the little worm’s entry hole gaping open, without even bothering to place a bandage over it.  The skin around it was now red and inflamed, and if a single microbe had made its way into her skull…

“You happy little fool,” he muttered.  “Hold on.”  He wedged his arms under her body and stood, lifting her with him.  He took her to the regen chamber and flooded the pool.  Then he fit the breathing apparatus over her face and lowered her into the liquid.  He wedged her under with an adjustable bar and then went back to the helm.

Retribution had stopped amidst the debris field and was now floating in space, waiting for commands.  Tommy stared at the flightplan, which Dallas had left open.  He could enter anything he wanted.  He could go anywhere he wanted.

And yet, in the regen room, Dallas was dying.  Retribution wasn’t equipped to handle brain reconstruction.  He wasn’t sure the liquid could even get inside her ear, especially not all the way to the den the little maggot made in her head.  Who knew what sort of bacteria and microorganisms could be wreaking havoc in there, unchecked?

Grimly, he sat down in the captain’s chair and started entering commands.



Wings of Retribution


Stuart was so cold by the time the last person picked him up that he didn’t understand what was happening to him until something began cramming him inside a sinus passage.

And it was a sinus cavity.  Not a test tube or a beaker, but a flesh-and-blood sinus cavity.  And warm.  Blessedly warm.  It felt like heaven.  Feebly, Stuart crawled forward, barely able to summon enough energy to wriggle.  Somewhere in a corner of his mind, he knew that as soon as he began to bore his way into the brain, the host would change his mind and rip him back out.  Without a proper way to paralyze his host, Stuart didn’t have much hopes for success.

Thus, he was surprised when the painfully rough, salty fingers started aiding his progress by stuffing him upwards.  He was even more surprised when he made his first bumbling press through the sinuses and the host jerked, but never tried to remove him.

This left Stuart with a feeling of dread.  What if Juno was giving him a captive body?  A prison to hold him for more torture?  Stuart slowed, horrified at this idea.  He would rather die than risk living like that again.

What should he do?  Choose the brave death and slide back out into the open?  Or choose the coward’s death and live for a few more minutes?



Wings of Retribution


“Hurry up, you damned maggot!” Athenais said from between clenched teeth.  The feeling of the little worm just sitting there in her sinuses like a cold little lump of flesh was excruciating.  It was all she could do not to sneeze.  “Finish it or die.  Don’t just lie there.  Pick one!”

Apparently, the suzait chose to live.  She cried out and fell to the floor, her back arcing against her will as synapses were crossed and destroyed inside her head.  She had felt this once before, in a suzait colony on Odan.  It brought back a rush of the old helplessness and fear, almost blinding her with sudden panic.

What are you doing, you fool? her logical side screamed.  You are the perfect host.  He’ll ride you forever…

Somehow, she forced herself to remain still.  Not that she had much choice in the matter, anymore.  Unless she could get to a pair of needlenose pliers in the next two seconds, her body was about to become another being’s property.

Athenais’s limbs gave a jerk as the suzait cut her connection to her motor nerves, then she waited in bitter paralysis as it situated itself.

She should have known the suzait wouldn’t treat her as it had treated Fairy.  The little brat didn’t have an immortal body.  She did.  And Stuart knew it.  He’d been planning this all along.

She waited in silence for what seemed like hours before a single, startled word shook her consciousness.

Athenais?

Her thoughts must have been venomous, because she felt him recoil.

Why?

Because you’re part of my crew, you slimy bastard, Athenais tried to say.  Her lips never moved, but the suzait picked up her thoughts anyway.  She picked up disbelief, hope, even a flash of greed.

Ball’s in your court, Athenais thought bitterly.

A long moment passed.  Then another.  Then, like someone released the Athenais Owlbourne Remote Control, she regained use of her limbs.  Slowly, she stood, not trusting her legs.  She tried not to show her relief, but it must have gotten through because Stuart brushed her thoughts again.

Thank you, Athenais.

Athenais grunted.  “You did fight your way through Orplex to help me.”  At that, she grabbed Juno by the shirt and dragged her body inside the first door she saw.  Inside, she shot the corpse a few more times, concentrating her attentions on the head, chest, and spinal area.  Then she locked the door and began stumbling down the hall, looking for some poor sot to dump the parasite on.

We don’t have time.  Ragnar triggered a beacon.  Uploaded Juno’s central mainframe straight back to the Utopia.

Athenais stopped walking.  “He did what?”

They killed his family.  He was out of his mind.

That damned moron!” Athenais cried.  “The last thing we want is for the Utopia to get mixed in with this mess.  Where is Ragnar now?”

Dallas’s room, sleeping.  He’s back in his original form…I had to put him under when he attacked me.

Athenais felt a stab of curiosity and hesitated.  She’d never seen Ragnar in his natural state before.

It’s not pretty, Stuart said.  You don’t want to see him right now.  Just take my word for it.

Athenais grimaced.  “Fine, but I’ve got news for you, Stuart.  We need to find you a host, and we need to do it now.  Juno’s been threatening to dump me in the deep ocean with weights on my ankles.  The pressure would pop you like a stuffed maggot.”

Please don’t say things like that.

Athenais chuckled.  “Someone’s got to keep you humble.”

Believe me, after today, I don’t think I’ll ever have the capacity to be anything but humble, ever again.  All I have to do is think of a cleaning bucket and I might throw up.

“Speaking of cleaning buckets, that soap burns, doesn’t it?  I wonder what they use in it.”

Lye, most like.

“Ouch.  Sorry.  I dunked you thinking it would help clean you off.”

It’s not a problem.  I was too numb to feel it.  Besides, I’m more worried about it poisoning your brain.

Athenais scowled.  “Then let’s hurry.  I want to get on the roof and signal Fairy before Juno wakes up.”

Why?  Where’s Dallas?

“Fairy took Retribution right before we came across your little debacle with the cleaner-boy.  Really pissed Juno off.  I think she was angry at herself for not realizing her parlor tricks hadn’t worked on Fairy and was taking it out on you.  Ironically, I guess she had the right victim.”

You said Dallas is on Retribution?  How’d that happen?

“Don’t know.  Somehow Fairy got hold of the ship.  Probably because of the storm.  Makes me think Juno’s gotten complacent, all these years running this place.”

There was a long pause.  Then, You know, Dallas would like you a lot more if you stopped calling her Fairy.

Athenais snorted.  “And I’d like to have Beetle back, but that’s not going to happen either.”  She stopped, spotting an elderly Stranger tugging a handcart through the hall.  “There we go.  Hold tight a sec.”  Athenais jogged forward and, with a lightning-fast roundhouse to the chest, she flattened the Stranger.  As the stunned old woman was staring up at her, she dropped to her chest, grabbed the woman’s head by her tattooed chin and said, “Time to shine.”

The transfer went smoother than she would have thought.  The old woman had only begun to scream when Stuart cut her off with a choking gasp.

Athenais stood up, letting Stuart’s head fall to the floor.  “Now get out of here.  Go get Ragnar and get to the roof.  I’ll meet up with you later.”

Stuart reached out and caught her arm and she was walking away.

“Thanks, Athenais.”

“And don’t talk,” Athenais said.  “You sound drunk.  They kill drunkards, here.”  At that, she turned and trotted down the hall toward the spaceport.  Behind her, she heard the suzait stumble away in the opposite direction, dragging the cart out of sight of the main hall before he made his escape.

Athenais jogged down several flights of stairs, not even knowing which floor she was on until she reached the bottom.  Ahead of her, dark waves thrashed against the windows, thundering down the hall, making the floor shake.  Briefly, Athenais wondered if Taal was out there somewhere, waiting for her to come back for him.

Scoffing, Athenais shook her head.  Some people were so gullible.  Especially when they wanted something.



Wings of Retribution


Stuart opened the door to Dallas’s room and crept inside.  The bag was still in the corner, the shifter inside.  He breathed a sigh of relief—he wasn’t sure what he would have done if Ragnar had been awake.  He was incredibly weak—it was difficult just to walk straight.  Stuart went to the sack and hefted it over his shoulder.

The motion almost threw him backwards.  Stuart dropped the bag, uncomprehending.  It was so light.  Had Ragnar eaten that much of himself already?  He bent down and prodded the sack.

Bedding.

Stuart flipped the sack over and stared at the hole in the bottom.  Oh, no.  He got up quickly, wondering how he was going to find Ragnar fast enough.  Maybe the shifter had gone to look for Dallas.  Stuart went to the door at a trot, hoping he got there before Ragnar got himself killed.

He hadn’t taken three steps when something caught him in the throat, knocking him back against the wall hard enough to jar Stuart inside his host’s brain.

“We’ll finish it later, eh, Stuart?” Ragnar’s voice was an animal growl.  “How about we finish it now?”

Stuart tried to respond, but the grip on his throat was choking him.  He reached up and tried to pull the shifter away, but the muscles holding him in place were inhumanly strong.

Ragnar released him suddenly and stepped back while Stuart gasped for air.

“I can’t believe you threw me in a sack.”

Sucking in a lungful of air, Stuart managed, “You wouldn’t listen to reason.”

“Where’s Dallas?”  Like any good L’kota royal, he was a master at changing the subject.

“Athenais told me she stole Retribution.”  Regaining his breath, Stuart slumped against the wall, hanging his head in exhaustion.  His host was fine—it was Stuart himself who was tired.  One of the first times in his life that Stuart could barely keep his eyes open.  Just too much had happened, the psycho-emotional strain had been too great…

“She did?” Ragnar asked, oblivious.  “Good for her.  When did you talk to Athenais?  Where is she?”

“I’m not sure,” Stuart managed.  “She wants to meet us on the roof.  Thinks Dallas will meet us up there.”

“What about Rabbit?”

“I haven’t seen him,” Stuart admitted.  “If he’s been with Juno the whole time…  I think he might be in trouble.”

Ragnar glanced at the window.  “So what, we just climb to the top of the wall and wait for her to show up?”

“You have a better idea?”

“Better than standing in the sheeting rain trying not to get blown off the roof?”  Ragnar glanced at the lightning through the window as it was blurred by seventy feet of sea-green wave.  “Not really.”

“Then let’s go.  Do you think you can get a signal to Dallas?”

“I could, but every other ship in range would pick it up, too.”  Ragnar frowned at him.  “Are you feeling all right?”

“Not really,” Stuart whispered.  “Tired.  Am gonna need your help getting to the roof.”  Then he frowned, replaying what Ragnar had said in his mind.  “Wait.  You mean you guys don’t have your own special frequency?”

“What guys?”

“You know,” Stuart said, waving his hand weakly.  “Pirates.”

Ragnar snorted.  “Is my name ‘Squirrel?’  When you said ‘get a signal to her,’ I thought you meant light up a few firecrackers and wave our hands really high.  You saw the basic slapdash stuff I did upstairs.  I don’t know codes, man.”

“Me neither,” Stuart said, trying to stave off that hopeless feeling that was building with each new setback.  He would get out of here.  He would find Dallas again.  He would help them both get off this planet.  “I guess we’ll have to wave.  Come on.”

They left the room, turned down the first staircase they saw, and began to climb.  At the top story, a tiny escape hatch led to the roof, but as soon as they pushed the hatch open, it was ripped from their hands and slammed against the wall beside them.  Pellets of water as sharp as needles whipped through the opening, soaking them in moments.

“Ladies first,” Ragnar said.

His host’s arthritic hands trembling, Stuart climbed past the shifter and out onto the roof.  He had to bend down almost horizontally to keep his footing, the wind plastering his wet clothes to his host’s body.  Unfortunately, the body Athenais had chosen was less than ideal—well past middle age.  He stumbled backwards several paces, unable to hold up against the screeching wind.  Another blast of warm saltwater hit him full-on, throwing him backwards.  He immediately lost his balance and the screaming wind began shoving him across the roof like a runaway wind-sock.  He hit the waist-high safety wall at the edge of the precipice and was going over the edge when Ragnar grabbed him and pulled him back to the hatch.

Stuart fell through the opening and landed on the damp stone below, shivering and shocked.  Above him, Ragnar slammed the hatch shut and locked it.  Water dripped down the wet door, falling on them as they stood on the staircase, breathing hard.

“Any other bright ideas?” Ragnar said.

“That was it.”

“I’ve got one,” Ragnar said, clapping his hands together like a happy child.  “How about we go find you a better body!”  The L’kota’s face darkened and he dropped his hands.  “What’s the hell’s matter with you?!”

“No,” Stuart said, water dripping from his host’s graying hair.  “I don’t want to hurt anyone else.”

Ragnar grunted and glanced down the huge, empty hallway beneath them.  Most of the inhabitants of this place, it seemed, avoided the upper floors during a storm.  Either that or they were all off somewhere else.  They hadn’t seen a single soul since leaving Dallas’s room.

“You ask me, the Utopia should wipe all these bastards out,” Ragnar said, his eyes focused on the distant curve of the hallway.  “The whole place is sick.”

“They probably will,” Stuart said.

“Then let’s go get you something better,” Ragnar growled.  “If they’re all about to die, you might as well take your pick.”

Stuart shook his head.  “I can wait.”

“You’re not going to be much good in a fight, you know.”

“I don’t plan on getting into a fight.”

“Oh, I forgot.  That’s what your kind are good at.  Laying low.”

“War doesn’t interest us.”

“Everything’s fair game to you, right?”

“Everything except shifters.”

Ragnar snorted.  “You’d take us, too, if you could.”

“I wouldn’t take anybody if I could get away with it,” Stuart said, irritated.  Didn’t anybody understand?  Even the other aliens in the world thought he was doing this out of his own selfishness.

Then, that nagging little part of him said, Well, you are, aren’t you?  What other reason did he have to take a host, other than selfishness?  What was it going to hurt the universe, really, if a two-and-a-half inch parasite died on the bottom of somebody’s boot?

Stuart stood on the steps, caught between irritation and that old self-loathing.  Irritation, because he shouldn’t have to feel bad for surviving, after his entire people and their way of life was utterly and purposefully destroyed by a petty, vindictive, small-minded race that happened to have opposable thumbs.  Self-loathing, because he couldn’t count the number of lives he had destroyed, to save his own.

Ragnar began climbing down the staircase, forcing Stuart to get out of his way.

“You know the difference between your kind and mine, Stuart?”

Stuart reached the floor and moved aside as Ragnar pushed past him.  “You’re a thousand times bigger than us?”

“No.  We’re not afraid to fight for ourselves.  If humans start exterminating us, we exterminate them.  We don’t run and hide.”

Stuart felt that bitterness rising up in his chest again and he gave the shifter a sour look.  Ragnar had his own built-in camouflage, his own body.  He wasn’t helpless on his own.  He would never understand.  “I’m helping you, aren’t I?” Stuart muttered.

“And I’m still surprised about that,” Ragnar said.  “You’ve had plenty of chances to disappear.”  Ragnar turned to raise a curious brow at him.  “Why are you here?”

Stuart grimaced.  “I told your father I’d help him.”

“Why?” Ragnar demanded.  “Seems to go against the nature of every parasite I’ve ever met.  Tell me as we walk.”  He started at a brisk pace down the hall, giving Stuart the choice of either following or being left behind.

“Where are we going?” Stuart demanded, catching up.

“I’m hungry.  I’m finding the kitchen in this blasted place.”  He gave Stuart an impatient look.  “So?  Why’d you say you’d help?”

Stuart looked at the floor.  Why had he decided to help?  After an entire lifetime of skulking in the shadows, he hadn’t even really thought about it when he’d offered his services.  He just knew he had to.

But why?  Stuart was just as puzzled about why he had stepped from hiding to help the shifters.  He could have survived another five millennia unseen, unheard.  Yet something had pushed him to take that step, to go with them on their lunatic’s quest.

Maybe it was to make up for all the lives he’d destroyed, a way to try and right all the wrongs he had committed on innocent strangers, but if that was the case, the shifters’ mission was just as destructive, if not more so.  Instead of one person a decade or so, he would be killing billions, if not trillions.  He would be throwing an entire culture back into its dark ages.

Stuart had heard of others of his kind, ancients that had finally snapped under the pressure of having to use unwilling hosts.  It was their insanity that humanity’s nightmares were made of.  And, after a time, it seemed all the older ones got it.  It was a sickness that ate at the soul, devoured it in a slow inward putrefaction, and left a rotten husk in its place.  It was those suzait who started taking hosts as the humans had always feared they would, using them only as temporary housing before moving on, killing without need, taking at a whim.

…like Stuart was doing now.

“Well?” Ragnar demanded.  “I know you’ve got some sort of reason for all this.”

Finally, Stuart said, “I owed them.”  It was the best reason he could come up with, because logic was failing him, and he didn’t want to think about the alternative.

“Oh?” Ragnar asked, raising a brow.

Stuart nodded, remembering.  “Utopian S.O. officers found me on Roth last year.  They killed my host, forced me out, and put me in a holding container.  They were shipping me to Millennium when Morgan saw me in the terminal.  He and Paul overpowered the two guards and freed me.”

Ragnar smiled.  “Sounds like Dad.”  He glanced at him.  “Must be pretty interesting to be trapped in a glass jar.”

“Not very.”

Ragnar hesitated, raising his nose to take in a deep breath.  “Do you smell anything?  I was wandering in circles for days looking for the kitchens.  I can’t smell worth a damn.  Anatomy’s too difficult to replicate.”

Stuart took a deep breath.  Despite her nasal polyps, his host had a good sense of smell.  He shook his head.  “Not here.  But I’ll tell you if we get close.”

Ragnar grunted.  “So where are you from, Stuart?  Where were you born?”

“I hatched in a communal growing medium on Mitaan.”

Ragnar gave him a startled look.  “The suzait homeworld?  I thought…”  His eyes narrowed with recognition.  “Mitaan was towed into its star millennia ago.”

“It was,” Stuart agreed.

Ragnar gave him long, a calculating look, but in the end simply nodded.  “You knew life before humans, then?”  He sounded almost wistful, his voice filled with longing.  “Before they colonized the Quads?”  He watched Stuart, waiting.

“It was nice,” Stuart agreed.  Then, seeing the sudden yearning in Ragnar’s face, he added quickly, “But I try not to dwell on the past.  It only makes the present harder to live with.”

Ragnar’s face hardened and he turned back to their path.  “They don’t belong here.”

Stuart had nothing to say to that.

“How many of your kind are left?” Ragnar demanded.

Stuart began to feel uncomfortable.  He shrugged.

With a bitter laugh filled with contempt, Ragnar said, “You don’t know, do you?”

“There’s others,” Stuart said.  Then, with less confidence, “There has to be.”

Ragnar snorted.  “You could be the very last of your kind and you still don’t hold it against them, do you?!”

“Of course I do!” Stuart snapped, despite himself.  “I just…”  He hesitated.  “I think we can work together.”  His alternative was…unthinkable.

Ragnar laughed, at that.  “They’ll never see you as anything other than a worm, Stuart.  Trust me on that.”

Stuart stubbornly refused to believe that.  He would have agreed, before he met Dallas, but now…

Now that little spark of hope had been lit again.  A hope he hadn’t experienced since the death of the last harra, with Mitaan’s plunge into its own star.

Because Stuart’s host’s arthritic joints were beginning to hurt from the walking—and because he knew that he and the shifter were never going to see eye-to-eye—he used the distraction to stop and gesture at the never-ending hallway.  “I don’t think we’re gonna find any food up here.  If I were a cook, I’d want it down on the bottom floor near the docks.  Who’d wanna carry the raw materials all the way up to the top floor to get to the kitchen, anyway?”

“I don’t think Juno cares.”  Ragnar gave the massive walls a bitter look.  Huge and mostly empty, they were more a testament to the woman’s ego than anything else.

“I don’t think Juno runs everything in this place,” Stuart retorted, before the shifter could start giving a treatise on the insanity of the human race.  “Come on.  Let’s go down and take a look.”

“I’m tired of climbing stairs.”

“I’m the one with arthritis.”

Ragnar sighed deeply.  “Fine.  You lead, you old gimp.”

Stuart started down the stairs.  He hadn’t gone more than four floors when he stopped, frowning.  “What’s that noise?”

“Sounds like shouting.”

“Sounds like a mob.”

“If that’s the case, we should get moving.”

“Why?” Stuart cried.  “We should check it out.  Maybe somebody started a revolution.”

Ragnar winced.  “And go toward the screaming monkeys?”

“Scared, shifter?”  The sound was rising, making the halls thrum with human shouts.  Thousands of them.

Ragnar peered at him.  “You’re out of your mind.”

“Maybe it’s the dinner line.”  At that, Stuart began walking.

“You sure you’re a suzait?  You’re walking in the wrong direction.”  At that, Ragnar took the lead, walking toward the noise with open interest.  They came to a solid wall across the hallway, which gave them pause.  Before this, neither had seen anything blocking the hall.

From the other side of the wall, human voices roared, shaking the air in Stuart’s host’s lungs.

“They’re cheering,” Ragnar said, stepping to the seaweed and leather door set into the center of the wall.  Stuart followed, curious.

What they saw made Stuart forget to breathe.




Wings of Retribution

Rites of Passage


After she made sure she wasn’t being followed, Athenais spent some time hiding in an abandoned room near the basement.  She stayed a few hours longer than she thought she needed to, a nagging unease thrumming at the back of her mind.  The fact that the entire island palace wasn’t in some sort of uproar over her disappearance left her…troubled.  Juno obviously had the power to set the entire place on its ear looking for her, yet the stone hallways remained utterly quiet.

Almost like they’d been quarantined.

Shaking off that paranoid feeling, Athenais finally set out for the roof.  She had made it halfway to the upper floor before Juno stepped out of the shadows in front of her and floored her with an elbow to her throat.

“We tagged you before you woke up, bitch.”  She tapped a handheld unit strapped to her belt.  “Had a feeling our lonely little dog might wander off.”

Athenais struggled to her feet, coughing.

“So the parasite came along with you?” Juno snarled, sounding betrayed.  “One of your crew?”

“Never seen it before in my life,” Athenais managed.  A true statement.

“Oh?” Juno laughed, her black eyes bitter.  “Then why’d you save it?”

“I was aiming for the worm.”

“Of course you were.”  Juno gave her a smug look, the look of a woman so convinced of her own superior intellect that she simply could not see the forest for the trees.  “Now why would you go and do something like that?”

Athenais peered at the woman, realizing there wasn’t much left of her childhood friend.  Not that they had been friends for more than a couple years in gradeschool, before her parents got moved to another service station, but whatever had been there, ages ago, was well and truly gone.  What was left didn’t even seem human.  More a robot with a god complex than anything else.

Athenais fought down the goosebumps that that particular thought brought with it.  Facing Juno stubbornly, she said, “You were acting like a petty child with an ant.  I thought I’d ease its suffering.” She shrugged.  “Unfortunately, I missed.”

Juno scoffed.  “You think I believe that?  You’ve fought in every skirmish you could find for the last seven thousand years.  Why would you miss?”

“You moved.”

“Right.”

Athenais shrugged.

“So where is it, Athenais?  It wasn’t in the hall.”

“I flushed it down the toilet.”

“Oh?”  Juno gave her a smug, malicious smile.  “Then why’s there dried blood in your nose?”

Before Athenais could respond, Juno drew her gun and shot her in the head.

When Athenais woke up, a few hesitant rays of sunshine were slipping through the window above her.  Well, that went well, Athenais thought.

Suddenly, the island-wide intercom blasted through her room.  It seems I have unwelcome guests infiltrating my home.  Because of that, we’re going to go about things a little differently from now on.  I have Athenais.  You are all aware of her condition.  If you do not come forward and turn yourselves in, I am going to drop your captain in the deepest part of the ocean hugging an anchor.  The oceans on this particular planet can get over ten miles deep.  If you still refuse to come forward, I’ll follow up with Colonel Howlen and his girlfriend.  By now you know I do not make idle threats.  At that, Juno hung up.

Athenais stared at the ceiling, wondering why Juno wasn’t threatening to do the same to Rabbit.

She was still lying on the floor an hour later when Juno came in, toting an entourage of Warriors.  “You hear that, Athenais?  You’re one step closer to visiting the bottom of the sea.  I guess we’ll see who your friends really are, won’t we?”

Like a child with an ant, Athenais thought.  Reluctantly, Athenais sat up.  She was surprised to see a few of the same Warriors from her escort in the hall the night before.  Apparently Juno hadn’t killed them.

“Nothing to say?”  Juno gave her a self-satisfied smile.

“I thought Fairy and Howlen got away.”

“The good Colonel brought her back.”  The sneer, as well as the absolute smug pleasure in the woman’s blue-green eyes left no doubt that it was the truth.

Athenais’s mood darkened.  Leave it to Rabbit to choose a disgruntled Utopi bastard as crew.

Juno laughed.  “No, he didn’t turn on you.  He did it to save the useless girl’s life.  .  Seems she was the original carrier of that parasite.  But you knew that already, didn’t you?”

“What do you mean, he did it to save her life?”  Howlen was smart enough to know that Dallas was probably his only ticket off this rock, which meant he wasn’t going to give her up without a fight.

“She went into shock,” Juno said.  Body started shutting down.  Makes sense, now I look back.  The parasite must’ve jumped ship just as soon as he got planetside.  I’m surprised she could even fly a freighter.”

“Surprised me, too,” Athenais said.  It must’ve been killing her inside to fly cargo.  Then she smiled and shrugged.  “But I wasn’t going to complain.”

Juno gave her a hard look.  “Here are my terms, Athenais.  I want the shifter and the parasite.  Once I have them, you can take Rabbit and the two lovebirds and go home.  I’ll even give you your ship back.”

“I need the shifter and the parasite to break into Marceau’s labs.”

Juno scoffed.  “Rabbit told me about that.  It isn’t going to work.”

“I still want to try.”

“Go ahead,” Juno said, smiling.  “But the aliens stay with me.”

“Juno, if you helped us, we could wipe out the Potion.”  Athenais hated to play this card because she didn’t want to have anything to do with Juno or her help, but if it was the only way to get away from her insane little fiefdom, she would use it.

“They’d just re-invent it somewhere else,” Juno said, waving an imperious hand.  “Besides, how does that help me?”

Athenais had been waiting for this.  She spread her hands.  “It would create widespread panic, the perfect opportunity for you to launch your attack against the Utopia, carve out your own little section of space and replace Marceau as the regent.  You could give yourself a whole Quad of planets to shape in your own image, instead of a few islands of bottlenecked, primitive morons.”

Juno hadn’t told her about her plans, so Athenais delighted in watching the nasty little cogs in the woman’s brain work as she tried to figure out who had told Athenais that particular tidbit.  Apparently, being the only educated person on a planet whose populace had been intentionally inbred for the last two millennia had left her believing she was the only life-form capable of formulating an idea.

Apparently coming to some conclusion in her mind—judging by the cold twist of rage that crossed her face—Juno said, “Rabbit already tried to sell me on this and failed, and he’s a much better negotiator than you are.”

Seeing the hardness in Juno’s eyes, Athenais wondered which of the poor, innocent souls on Juno’s staff was about to be executed.  Though she knew it wasn’t going to do any good, she said, “And before you kill someone for telling me about your brilliant scheme, I figured it out on my own.  Took me all of about twenty seconds to piece together that work of genius.”

Juno’s eyes narrowed with raptor-like intensity.  “It is my will that keeps you off of the seafloor, Athenais.  Remember that.”

“Your ‘will,’ eh?” Athenais said.  “Is that capitalized?”  She smiled.  “You know, for future communications.”

“There will be no future communications,” Juno bit out, her eyes like glittering black diamonds.  “Not for you.”  Apparently, the petty tyrant didn’t like being mocked.  Pity.  She looked so amusing when her lower lip pushed out and her eyes started gleaming from the internal pressure of her fury.

“So where’s Rabbit?” Athenais said, yawning in the face of Juno’s rage.  “You already gave him swimming lessons or what?”

Juno’s eyes narrowed.  “I got tired of his whining.  Enough chat.”  She tossed Athenais a portable handheld.  “Get on the intercom.  Tell them to turn themselves in.”

Athenais laughed.  “They’re aliens.  You think they’d listen to me?”  She tossed the handheld back.

“I’m warning you, Athenais—”  Juno’s hand fisted on the handset and she scowled.  Like a child throwing a tantrum.

“Warn me all you want,” Athenais said, shrugging.  “I’m not calling them in to their deaths.”

Juno’s sharp face went dark and flat.  “Then you’d better hope they turn themselves in, or you’ll be exploring areas of this planet no one’s ever been to before.”

“You do that and I’ll introduce you to uncharted space,” Athenais said sweetly.  “You have my word.”

Juno laughed.  “When?  You actually think anything lives ten miles beneath the surface?  There’s nothing down there to pull your body off the anchor.”  Her smile was laced with cyanide.  “And I’m going to make sure to use good ropes, this time.”  At that, she turned and led the Warriors from the room, taking the handheld with her.



Wings of Retribution


…the seas shall dry and the Oracle shall come astride a wave of fire, spreading his prophecy throughout the stars.  It will signal the dawning of a new age, one mankind has not seen for thousands of years.

The stadium erupted in a wild frenzy of cheering and zealous affirmations of faith.  Strangers and Traders alike collapsed in the stands, convulsing in a fervor.  On the stage below, the Emperor nodded to the blind Priestesses with the pitchers, who walked across the platform and unerringly filled the cups of the thousand naked adolescents kneeling before them.

Stuart turned to Ragnar.  “What is that stuff?”

“A drug, I think,” Ragnar replied.  “Are you listening to what he’s saying?”

“The prophecy?”

“Yes.”

“What about it?” Stuart asked.

“It’s odd they picked a man as their ultimate savior,” the shifter said, frowning.  “Seems to me Juno would have set herself up for the task.”

Stuart scanned the gathered masses warily.  “I don’t think Juno knows about this.”

“She knows,” Ragnar said, his face forming into a bitter line.  “Kind of hard to hide fifty thousand people when they’re screaming loud enough to make the walls vibrate.”

“Then why isn’t she here?”

“Maybe she is and we just can’t see her.”

“You think Athenais—”  The stadium fell silent suddenly and Stuart cut off the rest of his sentence as he turned to watch the proceedings on the stage below.  The Priestesses had returned to the sidelines and now the thousand naked adolescents held the cups in trembling hands.  It was obvious some of them were crying.

Now drink, the Emperor’s voice boomed out.  And may the spirit of the ocean cleanse your souls.

As one, the adolescents drank.  One boy fumbled and spilled his cup and a Warrior refilled it immediately and forced him to drink.  As soon as it was down, he, like the others, slumped to the ground.

“Poison?” Ragnar asked.

“They’re still moving,” Stuart said.

“Those three are going into convulsions.  Look at them.”

Apparently, the Warriors ringing the platform saw them too, because six of them waded through the mass of prone bodies to pluck the three from the floor.  Two girls and a boy.  These they brought to kneel at the Emperor’s feet.

The gods have chosen.  I send you down your paths with my blessings.

At that, two Warriors stepped away and led the two girls to an altar to the side of the platform.  The rest went to restrain the boy, who seemed to be regaining his wits.  He thrashed in their grasp, his terrified screams echoing across the entire hushed arena.

“You see that?” Stuart whispered.

“Shhh.”

The girls were also beginning to come to their senses.  One tried to run, but the wall of Warriors surrounding the platform caught her and brought her back to the altar.  Then, as everyone watched, they made her lie down on the raised slab of stone.  She began to cry, pleading with the four Warriors holding her down.

The Emperor approached the altar, a red-hot wand of iron in his hand.  Gently, he reached out and grasped her hair.  The Empire welcomes you to be its eyes and ears in the face of the gods.  At that, the Emperor plunged the glowing poker into the girl’s left eye.  She screamed, thrashing against the four Warriors holding her on the altar.

The Emperor removed the glowing rod of iron and dispassionately thrust it into her other eye.

“I can’t watch this,” Stuart whispered.

“We can’t leave now,” Ragnar said.  “Close your eyes.”

Stuart did, but her screams dragged his gaze back to the scene on the platform.  The Emperor had exchanged pokers with one of the Priestesses and shoved the brighter one into her left ear.

Thankfully, the girl passed out.

The Emperor went through the same procedure with the other girl and Stuart hid his face behind the seat in front of him, unable to watch.  This one stayed conscious throughout.  Only when her cries finally subsided did he dare to look up.

The Warriors had carted the two girls off of the stage, leaving only the boy, who had renewed his struggles in desperation.

The Emperor exchanged the poker for a long, curved knife.  He walked up to the boy, who now stood still, weeping, and looked into his eyes.

You are not the one.  With that, he thrust the pointed end of the knife into the boy’s belly and jerked upward.  The boy’s scream was cut off when he yanked the blade loose and sliced it across the boy’s throat.

“These people are sick,” Ragnar muttered.

“Can we go now?”

“Just wait.  I think the worst part is over.”

It was.  They carted off the boy’s body and two Strangers wiped up the blood.  Then the Emperor returned to the pedestal, looking down upon the naked adolescents who were just beginning to stir.

To the survivors, he said, You were not chosen.  The ceremony is over.  You may go home.

The teenagers on the floor jumped to their feet, hugging each other and crying.  Anxious parents rushed out onto the platform and embraced their children, laughing.  The Emperor turned and left the arena.

At that, people in the stands began to get up and head toward the exits.

“That was an hour of my life I could’ve done without,” Stuart managed, on the very brink of vomiting.

Ragnar grabbed his host’s arm and pulled him out of his seat.  “It’s obvious you’ve never been to war, little man.  Come on.  I bet they’re all heading to dinner.”

“You can still think about food after watching that?!” Stuart cried, aghast.

Ragnar turned back to give him a hard look.  “Maybe you can’t understand this, parasite, but compared to what I feel after a yeit, that boy had it easy.”  He rounded and blended into the crowd, giving Stuart the choice of following the shifter or losing track of him forever.

Even the shifters call me a ‘parasite,’ Stuart thought, following Ragnar unhappily.  Like it’s a goddamn hair color. 

He wasn’t a parasite.  He was a symbiont.  There was a difference.  A big one.  Like the difference between a coelacanth and a dolphin.  Yet none of the peabrained species he’d run into seemed to be able to grasp that concept.  They saw his useless little body, saw what he had to do to survive, and decided that his presence was automatically unwelcome.

Well, dammit, it wasn’t his fault that he wasn’t being given a chance to goddamn shine!

It wasn’t his fault he was stuck in a body that didn’t want him.  If it had been his choice, he’d have made the bond with the first human he’d found and that would have been that.  But no.  The whole universe was suspicious, egotistical, and mad.  They saw his helpless little body and automatically assumed the worst.  Even shifters told him he had the right to fight to survive…and then told him he was just a useless sponge, surviving off of the good graces of another species.  Well, he was getting so damned fed up with their hypocritical horseshit!

Stuart had worked himself up into a near-froth of indignant rage by the time they found the kitchens, exactly where Stuart had thought they would be, on the lowest floor of the Wall.

Of course, Ragnar had made them search through another two dozen floors before he would finally concede to checking the bottom floor, as Stuart had first suggested.  At least, once they did find the kitchens, Ragnar had the decency to look abashed.  If he hadn’t, Stuart would have lost it right there, and left the hypocrite to find his own way back home.

Unlike a human’s temper, however, after it had made a brief appearance, Stuart’s was very quick to subside.  After all, it had shown itself—and had thus been duly noted for what it was.  An emotion, a raw gut reaction, a visceral response to a stimulating situation.  Evolutionarily, his anger didn’t need to have any more control than that.  To allow it to do so could have been disastrous for both suzait and harra alike.  Unlike his current host species, who only thought and acted for one, Stuart had been taught that a suzait should always make decisions for two, and that training had stayed with him throughout the ages to come.

As useless, Stuart thought bitterly, as that training had turned out to be.

Well, until he’d met Dallas.  Compared to what he had faced before, Dallas had been an escape into paradise.  He’d finally been able to relax, to ease up control, to rest without worrying that his host was going to pick up the first weapon he found and blow them both away.  It had been utter bliss.  His first taste of a true host since his harra had died to a hunter’s bolt, so many millennia ago.  He’d enjoyed the company, the banter, the silly threats.  He’d enjoyed the shared secrets, the inner fears, the little outrages.  He’d loved being the watcher, the advisor, the counsel.  He loved being a suzait, not a parasite.

But that had only lasted for a few short weeks, just as he had known it would.  The whole experience had been bittersweet, and it left him with an agonizing welling of longing in his gut.

Seeker, he missed Dallas.

He often found himself wondering if she would have let him stay, had he asked.  She had seemed so hesitant to see him leave…

Again, pangs of longing radiated from his core, agonizing his soul.  Why had he given her up?  What had possessed him to give up the one bit of peace he had earned in his long lifetime of fear and persecution?  Was it his own guilt?  His own sadism?  What?

Bitterly, Stuart wondered if he would ever find another human as compatible as Dallas.  He doubted it.  Five thousand years and he hadn’t had a human willingly give him a place to live until now.

And he had abandoned it.  Moved on.  Given it up like the coward he was.

Yet, deep down, Stuart knew that their mutual survival had required him to take another host.  He’d been forced to make that decision for two, to save them both.

At least, that’s what he told himself.  Sometimes, he wondered if he hadn’t just been afraid.  Afraid of her finally deciding to move on.  Afraid of her growing tired of him…

“Hey, wiggly, catch!” Ragnar snapped, shattering his train of thought with the efficiency of a high-speed brick catapulting into a crystal goblet.  Stuart grunted as a large fish smacked him in the face, then flopped to the floor.

“I said catch,” Ragnar growled, piling more fish into his arms.  “Not, ‘drop my dinner on the floor.’”

Stuart made a face and bent to pick it up.  “You’re about to eat raw fish.  Who cares if it fell on the floor?”

“I do.”  He tossed another large fish, and it, too, fell on the floor.

The bastard was just being hard to get along with, now.

“You know I don’t have the dexterity for fine motor movements after making a transfer!” Stuart cried, bending to retrieve the fish.  “Stop throwing things at me, you fool.  Let’s just take the whole damned cart.”

Ragnar hesitated, then glanced down at the base of the cart.  His face reddened when he saw the wheels.  “Uh.  Right.”  He dumped the armload of fish he’d been collecting back into the cart’s trays, clearing his throat with what must have been shifter embarrassment.  “Let’s go somewhere I can do this fast.  My nucleus feels like it’s on fire.”

Stuart tentatively dropped the fish back onto the cart and gave Ragnar an askance look.  “That sounds uncomfortable.”

“You have no idea,” Ragnar growled, jerking the cart into motion.

Then, as if the shifter had every right to do so, he simply pushed the cart out of the huge double-doors of the kitchens, through the busy thoroughfare of the cafeteria beyond, and brazenly out past the food lines to a forgotten stairway a few hundred yards out of sight.  Stuart watched, impressed.  He had always been amazed and a little envious at the balls the shifters had, sometimes.  If it had been him, he would have taken the back route, pushing the cart through the kitchens until he found an abandoned hallway, then inconspicuously made the fish disappear, possibly in several trips.

Instead, Ragnar picked up the entire cart—perhaps four hundred pounds in all—and carried it up the stairs to the next level, where he found an empty room and began to eat.

Stuart watched the shifter with mixed pity and revulsion.  Ragnar ate everything—even the fish bones and the scaly gray skin.  When he was finished, it was impossible for him to hide the enormous bulge of his stomach cavity.  The shifter pulled his shirt over his abdomen and leaned back against the wall, sighing.

“Oh praise the gods.  That’s the first time I’ve actually been able to get full on this cursed planet.  Human tastes disgusting uncooked.”

Oh please don’t tell me he actually just said that.  Swallowing hard, Stuart said, “You know, with a quick change of anatomy, you could make it look like you’re pregnant.”

“I’m not going anywhere for a couple hours,” Ragnar said.  It sounded final.

“Uh,” Stuart said, glancing at the door to the room, of which they had no idea to whom it belonged.  “Maybe it would be safer—”

“Oh, stop being a whiny little suzait for just one minute and relax while I digest,” Ragnar said.

“You just said it would take a couple hours…” Stuart pointed out.

Ragnar narrowed his eyes.  “It was a figure of speech.”  He waved a dismissive hand at the door.  “Besides.  If anything interrupts us, zap it.  Then drag it over here and I’ll add it to the collection.”  He patted his stomach pointedly and grinned up at him.  Stuart felt nauseous.

“Do you always eat that much?” he managed.  If he did, no wonder the humans wanted to get rid of them.  Ragnar just ate as much in one sitting as thirty men in an entire week.

“Only after a yeit,” Ragnar said.  “And I’d made several.  I had to make up half my original body-mass.”

Wincing, Stuart said, “Looks like you did it.”

“Yeah.”  Ragnar was leaning forward and twisting over his enormous stomach, looking around the room.  Stuart found himself wondering if the shifter could even move, if it came down to it.  “Hey,” Ragnar said, after a cursory look, “do you see a can around here?”

“A can?”

“A bucket.  A barrel.  Something I can take a dump in.”

“There’s a toilet down the hall.”

Ragnar scoffed.  “For a load this big?”  He patted his stomach.  “No, I don’t think so.”

Stuart grimaced.  Shifters were utterly disgusting.  “I’ll go look.”  He left Ragnar in the room and went looking for a good-sized container.  Taking up an entire sunward side of the Wall, Stuart came across a greenhouse.  Inside, acres of agriculture lay unattended, the room itself lit by the lightning and the dim light of dawn.  It almost looked like the rain was ebbing.

Stuart found a bucket of compost set against one wall of the room, dumped it out, and carried his prize back to Ragnar.  He shut the door and handed it to the shifter.  “Will this do?”

Ragnar peered into the bucket, wrinkling his nose.  “It smells like rotten fish.”

“They’ve got a horticulture room a ways down the hall.  Growing all sorts of stuff in there.  I guess they compost their fish scraps and use it on their plants.”

Ragnar grunted and took the bucket.  “I didn’t even think about saving anything for you.”  He nodded at the ravished handcart.

“That’s okay,” Stuart said, eyes catching on the bulge of the shifter’s stomach.  “After the little pre-dinner show down in the basement, I don’t know if I’ll eat for a week.”

Ragnar peered at him.  “For something that hijacks other species’ brains, you’re kind of squeamish.”

…that hijacks other species’ brains…  Stuart fought down another wave of irritation and said, “I’m not squeamish…”  He frowned, gesturing at the palace around them.  “I just don’t get it.”

“Get what?”

“Why species would kill their own like that.”

Ragnar laughed.  “Not everybody’s critically endangered, suzait.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“Take a good look at human reproductive habits.  They’re crowding themselves off of planets so bad they have to take over other species’ planets to survive.  There’s so many of them they have to cull themselves.  That’s why I don’t feel too bad about getting you a new host here and there.”

“Then why are you fighting the Utopia?” Stuart asked, confused.

Ragnar frowned.  “What?”

“Marceau is the only real damper on the human growth rate,” Stuart went on.  “He makes sure the Utopia restricts its members’ breeding habits to practically nothing.  Cuts human growth down to one or two percent a century.  Besides, when only top-rated citizens are given the opportunity to breed naturally—”

“It’s crap.”

“What?”

“Crap.  The traits authorities consider unwelcome—aggression, ambition, intelligence—are the same traits that define humanity’s greatest heroes.  They’re trying to turn the human race into a plague of drones.”

Stuart frowned.  “But maybe humans wouldn’t have so many problems if they weren’t as aggressive, ambitious, or intelligent,” he pointed out.  “Maybe they need a more centralized leadership.”

“…a more centralized…” Ragnar choked.  “You see?” he snarled.  “That’s typical suzait talk, right there.”

“It is?”

“Yes.  You’re avoiding conflict.”

“Of course I avoid conflict,” Stuart said, genuinely confused.  “Conflict gets people killed.”

“Things don’t change without conflict,” Ragnar growled.  “Now I was trying to give you a hint earlier, but you didn’t take it.  I’d like some privacy.  This is pretty personal.”  The shifter motioned at the bucket.

“Oh,” Stuart stammered, blushing.  “Sure.  Sorry.”  Stuart backed hurriedly out of the room and closed the door.  As soon as the odd squishing sounds started on the other side of the woven seaweed, however, he decided to go see if Athenais had gone to the roof as she had planned.  He spent the next few hours wandering the halls, looking for her.

He was on his way back when the intercom came on.

It seems I have unwelcome guests infiltrating my home.  Because of that, we’re going to go about things a little differently from now on.  I have Athenais.  You are all aware of her condition.  If you do not come forward and turn yourselves in, I am going to drop your captain in the deepest part of the ocean hugging an anchor.  The oceans on this particular planet can get over ten miles deep.  If you still refuse to come forward, I’ll follow up with Colonel Howlen and his girlfriend.  By now you know I do not make idle threats. 

Stuart picked up his pace, and almost ran into Ragnar as the shifter burst from the room, looking panicked.  The shifter was noticeably larger, now, towering over Stuart by over a foot.

“You hear that?” Ragnar demanded.

Stuart pushed the shifter back inside and shut the door.  “Yes.  Think she’s lying?”

“There’s no telling with that woman.  I know how to find out, though.”  He was already moving past him, into the hall.

“How?” Stuart asked, his host’s arthritic knees struggling to catch up.

“Ask her,” Ragnar said, without slowing.



Wings of Retribution


Athenais did not sleep that night.  As far as Juno would tell her, the shifters had not shown themselves.  Athenais gave it a fifty percent chance, however, that Ragnar and Stuart had turned themselves in and Juno hadn’t told her about it.  The bitch liked mind-games like that.

Thus, when the twelve Warriors came for her at dawn the next morning, Athenais was wide awake.  “Morning, fellahs,” she said, from where she had sat the night out against the wall.  “We going somewhere?”

“Our Guiding Light would like us to escort you to your ship.”

Athenais perked up.  “My ship?”

“The ship that will be carrying you to Blue Ravine.”

“Blue Ravine?  Where’s that?”

“It’s a deep rift under the ocean.”

“Oh.”  Athenais stayed in her seat.  She felt her hands start to shake.

“Shall you come freely or by force?”  The Warrior gave her no pity, no emotion.  Just a flat, inhuman stare that reminded her of his mistress.  A well-trained little puppy, that one.

Sighing, Athenais got to her feet, fisting her hands to keep Juno’s hounds from seeing them tremble.  Two Warriors smoothly stepped up to her and each took an arm, and it was all she could do to keep from trying to tug her arms free.  Juno was going to do it.  The psychotic termagant was actually going to do it.  It was everything Athenais could do to control herself at the thought of being under that much water, eternally.  They both knew the Potion wouldn’t create her gills.  It would simply keep her alive.  Alive, and alive, and alive…

But she refused to let Juno see her fear.  The damaged whore was probably watching the entire thing on camera, masturbating.  Juno loved terror like a kid loved ice-cream.

Trying to hold up an air of jaunty camaraderie, knowing that the only way out of this situation was to convince Juno the idea of eternally choking on seawater didn’t scare her, Athenais grinned as the men led her out of the room.  “I can barely remember the last time I had such a flashy escort,” she said, eying their golden armor as they turned right and led her deeper into the palace.  “Must’ve been when I assassinated the governor of Fjord.  They had laser rifles and stun batons, though.”  She frowned, remembering.  “And they were a little too liberal with the batons.”

The Warriors ignored her, staring straight ahead as they led her down the hall.

“You twelve must be pretty good, to serve Juno herself.  What, did you go through a special academy or something?”

They said nothing.

“She isn’t really planning on dropping me in the ocean, is she?”

No response.

They marched her down to the lower level and out onto a large concrete dock that had been partially annihilated by the storm despite being in a protected cove.  Even then, a work party of Strangers was ferrying gravel and rebar back and forth, reshaping the damaged areas.

At the end of the dock, Juno waited with dozens more red-and-gold-garbed minions, their colorful robes billowing in the breeze.  Behind her was a ship.

She’s just trying to scare me.  Athenais lifted her head and walked down the pier.  “Don’t you have better things to do with your time, June-bug?  Or are you really that bored?”

Juno’s face darkened at her old moniker.  “Nice morning to go for a swim, wouldn’t you say?”

“Shut up.”  Athenais was so sick of this damned woman.  As soon as she got back on Beetle, she was going to come back here and spend a week or two blowing things up.  She tried not to think about how long that might take.

Juno’s face twisted into a contemptuous smile.  She pursed her lips in mock commiseration.  “Oh, Attie.  Don’t be angry with me.  Be angry with those two aliens you thought were your friends.”

“They are my friends, but they’re not stupid.”

“That’s why I’m giving them one last chance.  We’ll stand out here for one hour.  If they don’t appear before then, you’re going for a boat ride.”

“Juno, please.”  Athenais hated the way her words came out like begging, but the lap of the waves against the dock was beginning to unnerve her.

Smiling at her, Juno put the handheld to her face and depressed the receiver.  Across the entire island, her voice boomed, “You hear that, my friends?  Athenais and I are standing on Dock 27.  The ship to take her to the bottom of the ocean is waiting behind her.  We’ll be here for one hour.  If you do not show yourselves before then, we’ll be leaving and you won’t see her again.

Juno lowered the handheld and grinned.  “Now we wait.”

A lump of dread formed in Athenais’s gut as she stared out at the endless blue expanse beyond the ship.  She was going to the bottom today.  She could feel it.




Wings of Retribution

Pressure


Dallas woke with a groan.  Before she even opened her eyes, she began vomiting.  The hoses attached to her face pumped it away, though the smell remained.  Moaning, Dallas sat up and pulled off the breathing gear.

“Tommy?” she managed, around a parched throat.  “Where are you?”

A white-cloaked technician hurried to the edge of the tank.  “Try to stay calm, miss.  You were infected with a cerebral parasite.  We had to replace some damaged brain matter and seal the hole.”

Dallas sat up immediately.  “You sealed the hole?!  You bastards!”  She started wading out of the regen pool, ripping off the monitoring apparatus.

“She’s delusional,” the woman called over her shoulder.  “Someone get the guards.”

“I’m not delusional.  Where’s Stuart?  Tommy!” Dallas shouted, shoving away the hands that tried to restrain her.

“Miss, Colonel Howlen has returned to his duties,” the cocoa-skinned woman who seemed to be in charge said.  “Who’s Stuart?”

Dallas squinted at the head technician.  “You don’t look Utopi.  Where are your uniforms?”

The technician gave her fellows a confused look.  “What is a Utopi?”

Dallas backed away, making the regen liquid swish around her.  “Wait a minute.”  Horror was beginning to trace little curdles through her stomach as she saw that the room around her was made of stone, not metal and polymers.  “Where am I?”

“This is the most specialized medical facility on Xenith,” the woman said, her brown eyes flickering over Dallas with obvious concern.  “You’re lucky, young lady.  You had very serious injuries.  It is a great honor that it was the Emperor’s Will to restore you.”

Oh that stupid bastard.  He brought me back…  Dallas looked the woman up and down.  “So I’m a prisoner, then?”

“Our Guiding Light is threatening to drown you, so that would be my guess.”

Dallas gulped.  “Drown me?”

“Yes.  She’s taking the divine Athenais to her eternal grave as we speak.  The ones she seeks did not come to save her.”

“Divine.”  Dallas snorted.  “Riiiiiight.  And my ass is made of solid gold.”

The woman blushed suddenly and looked away.  “I’m sorry.  I’m not supposed to speak with my patients.  You’re just so…innocent looking.  I…”  The woman cleared her throat and straightened.  “If you are feeling well enough to leave the tank, I’m afraid I must have those two men escort you to a cell.”  She hesitated only a moment, her eyes softening briefly before she added, “Of course, if you are still ill, we can always give you more sleeping medication and let you return to regen.”

Dallas glanced at the rough-looking Warriors standing by the door, then back at the regen pool.  “Uh.  I’m still dizzy.  And my head hurts.”  She wiggled her fingers.  “And I have achy joints.  And my stomach is gurgling.  And my—”

Looking relieved, the woman interrupted, “Definitely not healed yet.  Let me get you some more floater wash.  You seem to have taken well to it.”

 “Floater…wash?”

The technician ignored her, rooting through the cabinet behind her to remove a blue vial of liquid.  She poured a glass of water and added a single drop from the vial, then mixed it together and handed Dallas the ceramic cup.

“What’s this?” Dallas asked, wrinkling her nose at the glass.

“Something to help you sleep.”

“Smells like fish.”

“You’ll like it.  Trust me.”  The woman smiled at Dallas, then winked.

Dallas took a deep breath, pinched her nose, and downed the concoction.

Almost immediately, she began to feel more relaxed.  Grinning, Dallas sank back against the edge of the tank and allowed the technician to reapply the stinky breathing equipment.

She was still spread out like this, half in and half out of the water, when someone came and whispered in her ear, “Tonight.  Black boots.”

By the time Dallas crawled far enough out of her dreaminess to look, the speaker was gone.



Wings of Retribution


Athenais stood on the deck of the ship, staring straight ahead.  The sun was setting low on the horizon, a thin band of red and orange.  It was beautiful, one of the few aspects of surface life that she liked, and even that was linked to the stars.  Athenais ached to be back on her ship, as it had been before setting out on this fool’s quest.  She missed Squirrel and Dune and Goat and reminded herself that she still had to repay Governor Black for killing them.

She refused to think of the millions of gallons of water under her feet.

“Nine and a quarter miles,” Juno said, reading her handy little pocket-gauge.  She lowered it, looking up.  “I think this will do, don’t you, Athenais?”  She gave Athenais a slow, malicious smile, her eyes glittering like black jewels.  “Or would you rather go for the full ten miles?”

“Just get it over with.  Stop being petty.”

“Petty?  I’m being considerate.  If you prefer deeper, we can keep going.”

“Don’t you have something better to do?” Athenais snapped.  “Like, I dunno, a planet to run?”

“My planet is a well-oiled machine,” Juno said, her smooth features filled with conceit.  “It runs itself.”

Athenais continued to stare out over the horizon.

“Then let’s get this over with,” Juno said.  “You’re boring me.”

Like a toy that just lost its appeal, Athenais thought.

Juno motioned at the gold-armored Warriors, who moved in on Athenais like twelve gleaming statues, herding her toward the six hundred pound anchor sitting in the middle of the deck.  Above it, a crane waited to lift it up and over the edge.

Athenais sat down amidst the hooks, still staring out at the sunset beyond the ship.  She did not even flinch as a Warrior handcuffed her hand to the spine of the anchor.  Just her hand, Juno had patiently explained, so that she could fully experience the futility of trying to free herself.  After all, it was so much more depressing to be able to thrash against the anchor for the next seven millennia.  Being lashed to it without any wriggle-room, Juno had gone on, would get boring.

Another stepped in and gave her a long look, his brown eyes holding hers for a moment too long before he began winding rope around her body.  Regret, then?  At least somebody knew the kind of Karmic horseshit this was heaping on themselves.  What goes around comes around, Juno.  The woman was going to get hers.  In spades.

As she felt the rope tighten around her stomach, Athenais started thinking of her many different families, on many different planets.  Eventually, they all had died, and she’d returned again to the stars.  The stars were always constant.  Never changing, always right where she needed them to be—

Her attention snapped back to the moment when Juno slapped her.

“Don’t think I’m letting you zone out,” Juno said, squatting beside her, face on level with Athenais’s.  “After everything you’ve done, I’m not dropping you in until I see fear in your eyes.”

Like a sick child torturing a puppy, Athenais realized.  Are all of us this messed up?  She glanced at the sunset again.  She decided maybe, but in different ways.  Marceau killed colonists for power and experimented on children.  Angus had established himself as the most feared planetary dictator in the Quads, happily taking in the rest of the Utopia’s rejects.  Rabbit had lain relatively low, but he also had that weird duality going on between reclusive monk and ruthless criminal overlord.  And, for her own part, while Athenais certainly had no desires to rule a planet of misled morons in the guise of a patron deity, she had probably killed, all-told, several billion people, if her wartime pursuits with the rebels were taken into account.  After all, Utopian carriers held a lot of people, not just the hundreds of thousands of fighters that couldn’t be allowed to leave dock in a war-zone.  Between her seven thousand years of bombing-runs, piracy, and sabotage, Athenais wouldn’t be surprised if she had ended a planet or two worth of lives.  It had come to the point where killing no longer bothered her.  Did that make her like the rest of them?

“We can take all the time you need for this to ‘sink in,’ so to speak,” Juno said, grinning smugly at her own pun.  When Athenais didn’t react, Dr. Berg’s smile faded a bit and her eyes darkened.  “Or perhaps we should let you dangle in the water an hour or two before cutting you loose?  Perhaps you need a taste of what’s to come, to really get into the spirit of things?”

I hate her, Athenais realized.  Until now, only her father had earned that cherished place in her brain.  Not even Angus, when he’d been removing body-parts, had won her hatred.  Yet this woman, with her cruelty, her conceit, her vain self-importance…  It was triggering all the right buttons in her, sending that overwhelming surge of loathing up through her system, like a nasty oil eating at her heart.  The fact that Juno had had complete control over an entire planet for millennia left Athenais with at sick feeling in her stomach.

“If you’re waiting for something, you might as well take us back,” Athenais said.  “Otherwise, we’re gonna be here a long time.”

Juno was silent a moment, staring into her eyes.

The Warrior finished tying the knots—well out of reach of her one free hand—and gave a slight tug to make sure they were secure.  Athenais felt her gut twinge again before she hid it.

But Juno had caught it.  The woman smiled slowly, lips curving in malignant glee.  “No, it’s there.  You’re terrified.”

Thoughts of cold, crushing blackness flashed through Athenais’s mind and she looked away.

Juno stood up and ruffled her hair.  “There we go.  All right!  Get this thing moving!  I want it overboard in thirty seconds!”  She lowered her voice and glanced at Athenais.  “Before my friend, here, has a chance to find that little box she keeps stuffing herself into.  Right, Athenais?”  Her brow crinkled with a slight frown.  “Then again, I suppose you spacer-types might use a canister to compartmentalize, instead.”  Sneering with delight, Juno said, “You’ll probably get better use out of it, anyway.  Canisters are better under pressure.”  She patted Athenais’s head.  “Lots and lots of pressure.”

Athenais closed her eyes as the crane began to hoist, jerking the anchor under her.  The crane groaned as it took the anchor’s weight, then Athenais was swinging above the deck, at eye level with Juno.  Then she was being hoisted higher, lifted over the gunwales of the ship.

Athenais glanced down, watching the deck of the ship swing out from under her.  Her heart began to pound in her chest and she gripped the anchor to keep her hands from shaking.

“Enjoy your vacation to Hell,” Juno said, her eyes soaking it up like a malicious child.

Athenais looked straight at her.  “Deep space, Juno.  I’ll pack a few extra cores, just for you.”

Juno frowned.  “Cut it loose.”

Athenais reflexively sucked in a breath.  In the next instant, she was falling.  She hit the water with such force that she was torn from her seat and upended, being dragged downward by her wrist.

…torn from her seat?  The ropes had given way?

Ragnar! Athenais thought, stunned.

But water was whipping around her body, filling her ears with a liquid roar and thrashing her back and forth like a ribbon in the wind.  Frantically, she jerked on the handcuff, twisting at it despite the fact she knew the metal rings were solid.  She could feel the pressure increasing as the anchor pulled her under.  Already, her ears were screaming, threatening to burst.  The cuff remained securely in place.

Athenais closed her eyes and stopped struggling.  She was moving too fast to get her feet on the anchor and she was using up her air.  Ridiculous, she knew, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to suck in a lungful of water and end it quickly.  Already, the pressure was intense.  She felt her ears pop and strain, the water grow colder.

Something slammed into her in the darkness.  The force of it jerked her to the side, nearly tearing her arm from its socket.  Spikes of pain lanced through her leg, startling her into releasing the rest of her precious air in a scream.  Something was attached to her ankle, piercing her skin with sharp teeth.

Not being able to see made it worse.  Athenais kicked out, trying to get the thing off of her.  Whatever it was grabbed her other leg in an equally painful grip and began pulling itself toward her main body.  She felt the teeth release her calf and take hold again in her thigh.

Athenais’s lungs were beginning to pulverize her ribcage with the need for air.  Water was rushing into her ears, pushed inside from the enormous pressure around her.

Whatever it was didn’t have the decency to eat her.  Instead, it dragged itself down her body, successively biting and pulling, biting and pulling.  When it reached her shoulder, it latched onto the arm attached to the anchor.

Inwardly, in an oxygen-starved haze, Athenais laughed.  The stupid beast didn’t even have the brains to let go of her.  Like a fish brought to the surface because it wouldn’t let go of the bobber, this unfortunate little predator was going to share her fate.

And then the thing bit down hard enough to crush bones.

Athenais sucked cold water into her lungs in an attempt to scream.  As she struggled, the thing started shaking, tearing muscles and tendons loose.  Then she was free, the water coming to a rushing halt around her.  She felt warm blood flooding from her arm into the ocean around her, felt the blood-heated water hit her face, but forgot that when the beast used its grip on her missing arm to drag her toward the surface.

“I’m sorry about your arm, human.  I didn’t have time to save more of it.  We were getting too deep.”

Despite the fact they were under the water, Athenais heard the voice as clear as if she were on dry land.  A rush of giddy relief washed over her.  It was Taal!

As she was losing consciousness, Athenais thought, Maybe I’ll take him into space, after all.



Wings of Retribution


Juno was watching the last corner of the sun disappear beneath the waves when she saw the splash behind them.  Squinting, she shielded her eyes with her hand and peered at the orange, dusk-tinted sea.  Then she lowered her hand, cold fury building in her stomach.

“Stop the ship,” she said.  “Someone get me a rifle.”

As the sailors furled the sails, a Warrior obediently handed her his gun.  Juno brought it up, sighted, and fired.

The ocean exploded in a froth of red.

“Turn us around,” Juno said, handing the gun back to the Warrior.




Wings of Retribution

By the Warlit Sky...


Athenais woke on the deck of a ship.  Her shoulder had stopped bleeding and the beginning of a new arm was already beginning to form.

“How’d you do it?” Juno said.

“Do what?”  Athenais pushed herself up with one hand, her heart sinking.  Where was Taal?

“Floaters.  You made friends with floaters.  Who the hell makes friends with floaters?!  They hate humans!  They have never helped humans!”  Juno actually stomped her foot as she screamed the last, shoving her fists against her sides in impotent, infantile rage.  Athenais thought it was funny.

Smiling, she said, “I just promised to take him to the stars.”

Juno stared.  Then she burst out laughing.  “And he believed you?!  A pirate?”

Athenais prickled.  “I gave him my word.”

So?” Juno sneered.  “Surely a mind-reader would’ve known that you were never planning on taking him anywhere.”

“He saved my life, didn’t he?” Athenais growled.  What was Juno trying to say?  She would’ve kept her word.

“Since when did you care if somebody saved your life?” Juno laughed.  “You’re a user, Athenais.  Just like me.  Empathy isn’t in your blood.”  Juno paused.  “Do you ever wonder if we even exist anymore, Athenais?  Do you wonder if you only think you’re you, but your spirit left the first time you died?  You think maybe we’re just robots?  That maybe we don’t have souls anymore?  Sometimes I feel like that.  Soulless, you know?”

“Stop trying to mindscrew me,” Athenais said.

“Oh, I know you’ve thought the same thing,” Juno laughed.  “I’ve seen it in your eyes, Attie.  You know exactly what I’m talking about.”

Athenais did not answer.  She was looking at the deck beneath Juno’s feet, a slice of dread cutting through her being.

Crimson blood speckled the planks, a different color than her own.  Slowly, Athenais looked up.

Taal was bound to the mast.  Dead.  The bulb on his neck was deflated, large slabs of flesh cut from his tail.  The smell of cooking fish wafted up from the kitchens belowdecks.  Athenais’s stomach churned.

Juno followed her gaze, her thoughtful expression contorting into a disdainful sneer.  “We made sure to cut off the meat while he was still alive.  Best tasting, that way.  When they die, the wash hits their system.  Makes it taste fishy.”  It was then that Athenais noticed the blood spatters on Juno’s boots, saw the crimson stains on her sleeves, saw the curved blade sheathed on her belt.

Athenais’s remaining hand found its way to Juno’s throat and she slammed the other woman against the gunwales in the surge of fury that followed.  “You petty, selfish bitch!” she shouted into her face, slamming the back of her head against the boards.  “I’m going to drag you so far into the Black that you are never found!”

Juno managed to push Athenais’s arm away with both hands, but before she could twist away from the side of the ship, Athenais kneed the other woman in the crotch.  Several Warriors came running to help, but not before Athenais had kicked Juno to the deck and smashed her foot into her face.  She kept kicking even as they pulled her away.

You’re lucky I don’t have another anchor!” Juno screamed, getting to her feet.  She stepped forward and kicked Athenais in the stomach as her Warriors held her down.  Athenais felt the air leave her lungs in a painful whoosh.  She tried to double over, but Juno kicked her again.  And again.

When she was done, Athenais was dazed and incoherent.  Juno ordered her tied beneath Taal’s corpse, in the middle of his congealing pool of blood.  Then Juno squatted in front of her and waved a blue vial under Athenais’s nose.  Her head swaying drunkenly, Athenais barely heard Juno say, “This is going to be the best high I ever have.”  Then Juno went belowdecks, leaving Athenais alone with a squad of Warriors.

Athenais spent the next few hours slowly regaining her bearings.  Juno had broken her nose and split her scalp in several places, but it was the cold, congealed blood dripping on her from above that left her shattered.



Wings of Retribution


Dallas was sober by the time the technician came to the edge of the pool and shook her gently.  Dallas sat up—she had slid back under the regen liquid during her sleep—and pulled off the respirator.

The woman in the white lab coat looked apologetic.  “It is the Emperor’s Will that you go to the arena.”  She nodded at three Warriors standing in the door.  “I’m sorry, Dallas.”

“Sorry for what?” Dallas asked.

At that, the intercom came on.  It was Juno’s voice, spiteful and angry.  “Since you still have not shown yourselves, I invite you both to visit the arena.  You ever heard of the Roman blood spectacles?  Imagine a starving, hyper-intelligent, thousand-pound shark in a tank with a hundred pound airhead with a harpoon.  She survives that, we will find something more fitting.  Let the games begin.”  At that, the intercom switched off.

“Oh,” Dallas said.  She glanced at the men waiting for her.  “Any chance I could get some more of that drug, then?”

The technician shook her head solemnly.  “You’ll need a clear head.”

Dallas sighed and slopped out of the regen tank.  The technician handed her a towel and then directed her to stand on a scanning platform for one final examination.

“Your vitals, core temperature, brain activity are all normal.”  The woman said so with a sadness to her voice.  “Looks like the treatment was a success.”

“Yay,” Dallas said, stepping off the platform to her clothes.  “Now I can become fish food.”

The technician leaned close.  “Be sure you go for the eyes.  Sharks protect their eyes at all costs.  I saw a man once who survived by gouging the shark with his fingernails once he lost his harpoon.”

Dallas gave her a grateful look.  “You’re really nice.  Thanks.”

The woman gave her a timid smile and stepped back as the three Warriors stepped toward her.  One of them held out his arm, indicating that she should follow them.

Dallas made a disgusted noise.  “At least wait until I get dressed, okay?”  When they continued to stand in front of her, she said, “In privacy.”

The three men glanced at each other confusedly, then turned their backs.

“Not where you can see!” Dallas cried.  “Get out!”

The Warriors obliged and left the room, but stood with their backs in the doorway, lest she try to escape.

“Barbarians,” she muttered.  She quickly dropped her towel and tugged on her clothes.  To the technician, she said, “I don’t suppose you have any bite-resistant undergarments?”

The woman shook her head.  “They will take your clothes before putting you in the tank.”

Dallas frowned.  “You sound like they’ve done this before.”

“A couple times a week,” the woman replied.  “It is one of Our Guiding Light’s most favored diversions.”  Had Dallas seen a twist of disgust on the woman’s face, before it was hidden again?

“Does the guy with the harpoon ever win?” Dallas asked.

“Um…”  The woman gave her a pitying look.  “Well, sometimes, I’m sure.”

“Wait,” Dallas cried, “What about the guy who clawed at the shark’s eyes?”

“Oh, he died a few hours later.  He’d lost both legs and a good portion of his pelvis.”

“Oh,” Dallas said.

“But I’m sure you can win,” the woman insisted hurriedly.  “Our Guiding Light wouldn’t use it to judge the gods’ favor if the innocent couldn’t win.”

Riiiiiight.  If what Dallas had seen of the pig-eyed woman had been any indication, she probably blew off an arm or something before throwing her victims in the vat.  She acted like a spoiled toddler that had somehow scrambled to a professorship in an academic guild.  The dichotomy was unnerving.

Dallas swallowed and took a long look around the room, trying to come up with some excuse to stay in the cozy little regen room with the nice lady and her various creepy-looking medical apparatuses.  Then, reluctantly, she sighed.  “Guess I should go.  Thanks for patching me up.”  She gave the technician a brave smile and, when the woman didn’t come up with some last-minute urgent treatment to spare her from a shark attack, she marched after the Warriors.  The technician followed her to the door, then shut it sadly behind her.

The Warriors had been leading her for several minutes before she noticed that one of them was wearing a different color footwear than the others.

“Those are nice boots,” she commented.

The Warrior in the lead gave her a sour look.  “Keep your mouth shut unless you want a pike in the face.”

One of the Warriors walking at her elbow sighed and leaned close.  “Ki’lan is a bitter old floater.  Doesn’t have enough women in his life.  He’s sensitive about his boots.  Lost his good ones when his ship went down last year.”

“Shut up, Yutin.  We aren’t supposed to talk to the girl, remember?”

“Aw, come on.  What harm in it?  Look at her.  She couldn’t hurt a fly.”

“That’s not the bet you made for tonight’s match.  You think she’ll actually do some damage before the shark eats her.”  The big Warrior scoffed.  “She’s just a pampered little pussy.”

Dallas reddened.  “At least I’m not a big, stupid knucker.”

The man walking on her other elbow hooted.  “You hear that, Ki’lan?  I think she insulted you!”

“Let her,” the man growled, his voice dangerously low.  “If she does it again, I’ll break her nose before we throw her in the shark pool.”

Dallas flinched.  Blood was bad.  She’d heard that sharks were like redcats with snaggleteeth and a worse attitude.  Still, though, she couldn’t help but quip, “You mean you’re actually the one who throws me in?  That’s surprising.”

The Warrior in the lead glanced back at her, scowling.  “Why?”

“Because I’d think a coward like you would shit yourself, getting so close to that big, scary shark.”

Ki’lan turned on her in a flash and slammed a fist into her gut.  As she doubled over, gasping, he sneered in her face.  “Anything else to say, brat?”  When she could only huddle against herself, trying to catch her breath, he snorted.  “I didn’t think so.”

He had turned away when Dallas muttered, “I take it back.  You’re not afraid to go near that shark.  It’s afraid of you.”

“That’s right,” Ki’lan said, smiling.  “See?” he said to his companion, “with the proper application of corrective force—”

“…because you’d screw it in the ass if you ever got the chance.  That’s why you don’t have any women.  You like fish.”

The two Warriors on her elbows glanced at each other.  “Is that possible?” one of them asked.  They had to restrain Ki’lan when he lunged at her, red-faced.  It took both of the Warriors to subdue him, and Dallas stood there grinning while they held him against the wall, shouting at him to calm down.

Ki’lan finally shook them off and started walking again.  The other two Warriors gave his back an irritated look and shoved Dallas after him.

“You know, I hear cod are nice.  All smooth to the touch, not so scaly-like.”

“Best be quiet,” Yutin said.  “Next time he takes a swing, girl, I’m not stopping him.”

Looking at the malicious promise in Ki’lan’s face, Dallas relented.

They had been walking several more minutes before Yutin started and glanced at the narrowing hallway around them.  “Ki’lan, you moron, we missed the stairs.”

“Oh shit.  You’re right.”  With a lightning-fast motion, Ki’lan swiveled and punched Yutin in the throat.  Yutin collapsed to his knees, eyes wide, his hand clutching his neck.  The other Warrior beside Dallas shouted a curse, staring at Ki’lan in confusion.  He never saw Ragnar come up from behind until he was sprawled out on the floor, bleeding from the scalp.

Dallas glanced at Ragnar, who was already pulling the bodies from the hall, and then at Ki’lan.  She leaned closer, peering up at the guy who had punched her.  “Stuart?”

The Warrior grinned.

Dallas kicked him in the shin.  “You bastard!  You hit me!”

“Dallas, damn!  It was to keep up appearances!  Calm down!”  The big Warrior hobbled backwards, away from her.

“You didn’t have to be such a jerk,” Dallas cried, kicking him again.

“Feel free to shock the monkey,” Ragnar said from the floor.  He was kneeling with a wet rag, wiping up the blood.

“Dallas, I had to say it.  This guy I took over is an asshole.  They would’ve known something was wrong.”

“You called me a pussy,” she muttered.

“Dallas,” Stuart said, leaning close and touching her arms.  “I’m sorry I scared you.”

Mollified, Dallas snuggled a bit closer, leaning into his big, warm chest.  “Thanks for rescuing me.  I thought I was sharkbait.”  Then, when Stuart just stood there like a board in front of her, Dallas slapped his bicep and said, “Kiss me, stupid.  You just rescued your damsel in distress.”

From the floor, Ragnar groaned.  “Oh please.”

But almost tentatively, Stuart wrapped his arms around her and, as she leaned up eagerly to meet his lips, he gave her a tiny peck on the cheek.

For a long, stunned moment, Dallas could only stare up at him in dismay.  Stuart started fidgeting under the intensity of her scrutiny.  “You call that a kiss?” she finally blurted.

Stuart had the good sense to blush.  “I, uh…”  He cleared his throat, looking down at her.  “Dallas, there’s something I’ve been meaning to ask—”

“You know, you guys could help me with this,” Ragnar growled, holding up a bloody rag.

Something he wanted to ask her?  Dallas frowned up at Stuart, then glanced at the shifter, who was busily cleaning up the mess.  Figuring he was just a complainer who had things perfectly under control, she looked back up at Stuart.  “What do you want to ask?”

But the suzait cleared his throat again and pulled away.  “Never mind.  Sorry.  We’ve gotta get moving.”  Much too quickly, he went to help Ragnar mop up blood.

“Now we get Tommy,” Ragnar said, tossing the rag inside with the bodies and shutting the door.  “And get the hell off this rock.”



Wings of Retribution


Colonel Howlen sat in his chair, staring at the door to his room.  It was locked, two Warriors posted on the other side.  He could hear them talking, laughing.  Two of them were playing dice, the painted fishbones rattling against the stone floor to cheers and curses.

Tommy’s fingers clenched the blue vial in his hand, white-knuckled.

They were killing Dallas.  Probably right now, as he sat there, dinner still warm in his belly, free to go to sleep whenever he wanted.  They were killing her and there was nothing he could do about it.

Juno had won.  She’d finally gotten him.  By bringing Dallas back for medical attention, he’d signed his own psychological death warrant.  Now he was hers, and both of them knew it.  Dallas’s death would just be the start.  Then the good doctor would bring him the corpse, show him the video, pick that little chink in his armor open ever wider until it was a gaping, festering wound.

Guilt and hopelessness were crushing him on the inside.  He was finding it hurt to breathe.  They had revived Dallas just so they could kill her properly.  The whole world was a damned game to this woman.

A game that he had just lost.

Tommy should have fled.  Maybe he would have gotten to another system fast enough to save her.  Even if he hadn’t she would have died quietly, not as a spectacle.

Howlen popped the cap from the vial and immediately winced as the room was filled with a powerful fishy stink.  They must dilute the stuff somehow, he thought.  Otherwise only a madman could manage to swallow it.

Howlen put the lid back on and set the vial on the table in front of him, studying it.  After all his years monitoring the drug trade on T-9, he had only heard of this stuff a couple times in passing.  From what he had gathered on his shuttle runs, ‘floater wash’ was another word for what the criminal underworld called ‘Xenith.’  It was whispered that the high it created was unlike any other—some even called it a spiritual experience, a nectar of the gods that allowed the users could communicate with the dead—and that the rich would pay outrageous sums just for a few drops.  He had no doubts that Juno had used it to finance her massive fleet.  From the whispers he’d heard in the loading bays, probably a single drop would be enough to get utterly wasted.

Tommy watched it, considering.

Some of the easiest ways to die were by drug overdose.  Millions of Utopis each year expired in this manner, and Howlen had never seen a more peaceful expression than the drool-encrusted face of a tanga-weeder who had sucked in a bit of the leaf with his smoke.  Even sleep did not rival the peace of a drug-induced death.  The Trader said it put its users into a state of ecstasy, where the user was one with his world.  That’s what he wanted.  A happy, painless death.  Maybe a little euphoria before the stuff overpowered him.

Tommy looked away.  Unlike Athenais, he did not intend to allow this mentally-disturbed clown to have her satisfaction.  He was not going to die in a glorified fishbowl, food for a genetically enhanced shark.  And he was definitely not going to drown strapped to an anchor in cold black water ten miles under the sea.  He would rather crawl out his window and dive into the rocks below.

But why go through that mental agony when he had a much easier route, right here in front of him?

Howlen’s eyes once more slid back to the blue vial.  Was one vial enough to kill him?  What was the normal dose size?  Did he even need to down the whole thing?

Thinking about swallowing the vile stuff made Howlen’s stomach flutter.  Maybe the rocks would be easier.  After all, if he vomited it up, he would have to go that route anyway.  Might as well get it over with.

And yet, why not try it?  He’d rather not have his last moments be a few brief seconds of terror, followed by a brief instant of obliterating pain.  He wanted peace.  He wanted this whole, huge disaster to go away, before Juno grew bored with her blood-red shark pool and came looking for him with a video chip.

Howlen reached out for the vial again.  He lifted it up and popped off the cap.  The overpowering reek of fish penetrated the room, but he ignored it.

He thought of his family, slaughtered by the suzait on Jonin.  Would they meet him on the other side?  Was there another side?

There was one way to find out.

Howlen tipped the vial back and swallowed it all.  He forced it down, then held the tingling liquid in his stomach despite his reflexive desire to expel it.

Almost immediately, a warm sensation of peace overwhelmed him, just as he hoped it would.  His arms and legs began to feel heavy and numb, so he dropped the empty vial and curled up against his chair, closing his eyes, surrendering to the bliss.

Suddenly, though, an arc of blinding white light snapped through his brain, jolting him.  It happened again, and his legs and arms twitched in response.  The light came more rapidly, throwing him violently from the chair in a series of powerful convulsions.

No…this is all wrong, Tommy thought as his body slammed into furniture, breaking the table and tossing the chair against the wall, where it shattered.  He felt his eyes curl up into the top of his head, his fingers squeezed into tight fists as his arms and legs thrashed the floor.  Lighting was striking him everywhere, electrifying his brain, coursing through his core.

Outside, one of the dice players shouted at him to keep it down.

This isn’t the way it was supposed to be, Tommy thought as the agonizing streaks tore through his body, leaving him foaming at the mouth, his body uncontrollable.  I was supposed to go to sleep.



Wings of Retribution


Athenais shifted in the seat beside Juno, watching the platform before them with interest.  The water in the enormous tank rippled as the shark swam around and around, sometimes cutting through the surface with its dorsal fin.

“Well, that’s interesting,” Athenais said, after an hour passed with nothing but an empty tank.  “What kind of shark is that, anyway?  Looks kinda like a great white.  Maybe if it swims around a few more times, I’ll be able to get a better look.”  She leaned closer, thoughtful.  “Nope, not that time.  Nope.  Nope.  Still can’t quite get it.  Nope.”

Juno, whose mood had deteriorated throughout the entire episode, barked at her to shut up or be thrown into the tank as an appetizer.

Because Athenais already had an arm growing out of her shoulder socket, she decided to sit back and inspect the back of her eyelids for light-leaks.  “Let me know when something interesting happens,” she said.

Another twenty minutes later, Juno perked up when a Warrior came running across the platform, his hair matted with blood.  He stopped beside Juno’s private booth, pushing the guards aside to whisper into her ear.

Turned on you?!” Juno snarled, jumping to her feet.  “You imbecile!  It was one of them!”  Juno shoved him away from her in disgust, into the arms of her personal guards.  With an imperious finger pointed in condemnation at the bloodied guard, she shouted, “For his failure, it is My Will that you throw that one in the tank, instead.”

The Warrior’s eyes widened and he began to plead for his life, but Juno was already up and storming from the room.  Above, the entire arena was alive with curious whispers.

Juno halted at the exit to the booth and turned back, her face furious.  The bloody Warrior stopped sobbing a moment, hope etched upon his wretched face, but her attention was directed at Athenais’s guards, not him.  “Bring her!” she snapped, “I’m not letting that bitch out of my sight again.”  Then she kicked the door to the booth open and exited the arena.  In the hall outside, she heard the sound of a garbage-can go sailing into a wall.

Like a child throwing a tantrum, Athenais thought, amused.  She let her guards get her to her feet, inwardly enjoying the nervous looks they gave the fingers wriggling in her shoulder, then followed the sounds of destruction in the hall.

Once she was done with her tantrum, Juno led them back through the palace at a fast pace, cursing.  Athenais was unfamiliar with the path they were taking, and it wasn’t until Juno turned onto the bottom level that she realized they were walking through the pilot’s quarters outside the docking area.

Juno stopped at one room, threw it open, and stepped inside.  Apparently, she didn’t like what she found, because when she came back out, her face was a thunderhead.  She brushed past Athenais and stormed into the shipyard.  Immediately, she singled out a graying man in his thirties, who cringed before her like a frightened rabbit.

“Where is Howlen?!” she demanded.

“Sleeping in his quarters,” the man replied.  “I have his room’s readout right here.”  He handed her a small black unit with a palm-sized display.

Juno scowled at it, then threw it in his face.  “You moron!  It’s been rigged.  He’s not in his room!”  For all her ‘Guiding Light’ nonsense, Juno looked like she was about to drop onto her stomach and start pounding the floor with her toes and fists right there.

The dockmaster began to sputter, but Juno swept her arm out over the bays.  “Close the docks.  Nobody goes in or out.  I want a thousand Warriors in here.  Twenty on every ship.  Anybody who approaches a ship gets shot, you understand?!”

“But the breach…” the dockmaster began.

“The breach can wait,” Juno snapped.  “Lock down the docks.  Now.”

“Yes, of course.”  The dockmaster bowed deeply, then turned and started bellowing orders.

“Bring her!” Juno snapped, turning on Athenais’s five guards.  “Keep your eyes on her at all times.  She escapes and you’re all visiting the fish tank.”

Two Warriors grabbed Athenais roughly and shoved her after Juno, who was stalking out of the docks.  Athenais followed, chuckling.

Juno whirled and slapped her.

“Wow,” Athenais said, reaching up to touch her cheek, “You know, that kinda stung.”

Narrowing her eyes, Juno spun on heel.  “Bring her,” she commanded.  Juno made her way back to Athenais’s cell and shoved her bodily inside.  She left the five guards posted at the door and followed her in.  Then she tore the handset from her belt and threw it at Athenais.

“Talk,” Juno ordered.  “Tell them to give themselves up.”

Athenais caught the handset one-handed and looked down at it.

When she did not obey, Juno narrowed her eyes.  “I’m not going to tell you again, Attie.  You tell them to surrender or I’m going to stuff you in a cage and drop you to the bottom.  Special built.  I’ve been conferring with my engineers.  It’ll be floater-proof.  Half-inch mesh.  Corrosion-proof.  Imagine that, Athenais.  Not even the little fishies will be able to get you out.”

Athenais glanced up.  “You’re a spoiled bitch, you know that, Juno?”

Juno smiled cruelly.  “No more than you.”

“No,” Athenais said, “I’m not like you.”

Make the goddamn call!” Juno screamed.

Athenais sighed deeply.  At that, she lifted the handheld to her face and depressed the button.  “Attention, crew of Retribution.  This is your captain speaking.”  Her voice echoed against the stone walls around her in long, ominous waves.  She paused, meeting Juno’s eyes.  Glancing back to the receiver, she said, “Raise Hell.  I repeat.  Raise Hell.”  She released the button and tossed it back to Juno.

Juno narrowed her eyes.  “You’re going to the bottom, Athenais.  Tomorrow.”

“I’ll set my calendar.”  She wiggled the stump growing from her shoulder.  She already had four fingers and the makings for a thumb sprouting from the socket.  Smiling, she used them to flip Juno off.

“Maybe I won’t send you to the bottom right away,” Juno said calmly, pocketing the handheld.  “I’m sure I can drudge up enough from my PsyOps days to wipe that smirk off your face.”

“I doubt it,” Athenais said.

Juno stepped forward, utter fury making her eyes once more bright.  “Oh really?”  She was shaking in her rage.  “Is that a challenge?”

“As Rabbit would say,” Athenais said, grinning, “as things stand right now, you’ve got a very low probability of ever wiping this smirk off my face.”

Juno’s eyes narrowed.  “And why’s that?”

“Look behind you.”

Juno did.

Fairy grinned.  “Airhead, huh?”  And shot Juno in the face.



Wings of Retribution


“I didn’t know it would buck like that,” Fairy complained for the thousandth time.  She shook out her arm, one hand pressed to her shoulder.

“It’s a compression weapon.  What did you think it was going to do?”  Athenais demanded, irritated that the little wench wouldn’t shut up about it.

“But it hurt,” Fairy whined, holding her wrist.  “Why didn’t you tell me it was going to hurt?”  Fairy sulked at the bulky Warrior, apparently Stuart’s latest victim.

Stuart shrugged.  “You said you wanted to do it.”

“You know I’ve never shot a gun in my life!”

“Oh for the gods’ sakes…” Athenais growled, an inch away from plastering the little moron’s brains all over the wall.  “Shut up about the damn gun, Fairy,” she snapped.  “Ragnar, what’s wrong with the Colonel?”

Howlen was slouched against the wall, staring straight ahead, unmoving.

The shifter frowned at Tommy.  “I’m not sure.  He’s been like that ever since we found him.”

“Drugged?”

“I think so.  He hasn’t said a word.  Didn’t even register that we came to pick him up.”

Athenais cursed.  “Great.  That’s all we need.  A vegetable.”  She eyed Howlen, wondering what Juno had given him.  Perhaps the good doctor had half a brain, after all, and had decided to keep her toys nice and quiet until it was their turn in the merry-go-round.  Still, drugging her victims didn’t seem her style.  Too easy on the victim.  To the parasite, Athenais asked, “How long’s it been?”

“Since we found him?  Two hours.”

“And there’s been no change?”

“None.”

Athenais sighed.  Something strong, then.  “Well, it’s your call, Fairy.  If you want us to leave him here, we can.  Less trouble for us, that way.”

Fairy flinched.  “My call?  Why?”  Like Athenais had just told her she had to clean a particularly nasty toilet.  Gods, she hadn’t been around the little twit more than ten minutes and she already wanted to get her hand around her skinny little neck.

“Because he brought you back to Xenith after you were scott free,” Athenais said.

“He saved my life,” Fairy said.

“He gave you to a homicidal maniac,” Ragnar muttered.

The parasite sided with his former meat-jacket.  “We bring him.”

Athenais grunted and nudged Tommy with her foot.  “I thought you’d say as much.  It’s going to make things difficult, but for once I agree with you.  The bastard had half a dozen chances to jump ship and leave us all stranded here, but he stayed.  We owe it to him.”

“What about Rabbit?” Fairy asked.  “What happened to him?”

“That I don’t know,” Athenais said.  “Juno never mentioned him any more than to tell me he had failed to convince her to help us.”

Fairy’s eyes went wide.  “You think she dropped him to the bottom of the ocean.”

“The thought had crossed my mind.”  And it had not been a good thought.  Someday soon, she and Juno were going to take a very long jaunt into uncharted space.  Athenais was sure she could find a nova that would be suitable.  Maybe even a black hole, make things interesting for her.  After all, she seemed to have a hardon for pressure.

The four spacers looked at each other in silence.  “Is there any way we can find out for sure?” Ragnar asked.  “I don’t want to leave him behind.”

“I don’t either, but Rabbit can take care of himself.”

Everyone looked at Athenais like she’d rubbed shit on her face.  “You would ditch him?” Fairy demanded.  “After he saved you from Orplex?”

“I would’ve gotten out eventually,” Athenais said.

“You’re soulless,” Fairy said.  “Rabbit’s your best friend.”

Athenais whipped around on Fairy in fury.  She would have flattened the little weasel right then and there, one-handed and everything, but both Ragnar and Stuart got in her way.

“Calm down, Attie,” Ragnar said softly.  “She didn’t mean it.  She has no idea…”  He cleared his throat, volumes of understanding in his gentle eyes.  Then, more loudly, he said, “She just wants to make sure we do a good job of looking for Rabbit before we leave him here.  Right, Dallas?”

Behind their backs, Fairy stuck out her tongue.

Athenais narrowed her eyes and Ragnar turned back to look.  “Right, Dallas?”

“Right,” the little twit said.  Then she cocked her head, giving Athenais an amused smile.  “I mean, well, she doesn’t try to be a soulless bitch.”

Ragnar turned to face Fairy and took a fistful of her shirt and lifted her completely off of the ground, one-handed, like she were made of foam.  The petite woman shrunk back in his grip as he brought her face to his.  Softly, but with enough force that Athenais could hear it, Ragnar said, “You say something like that again and I’ll beat the life out of you myself.”  He shook her.  “Capiche?”

Fairy stared back at him, wide-eyed in terror.

Ragnar set her down and shoved her toward Athenais.  “Now apologize.”

Fairy started to object, but one look at Ragnar’s face was enough to make her swallow her complaints.  “Sorry, Athenais,” she muttered.

Athenais heard a breath let out beside her, and realized that Stuart had been tensely moving closer to the shifter.  Interesting.  So the little worm had picked sides.  Good to know, if things ever got nasty.

Athenais sniffed and glanced at the door.  “Juno locked down the docks, so we’re gonna need a distraction.  Something big enough to—”

Attention all hands.  We have a Class I Emergency.  I repeat.  A Class I Emergency.  Enemy ships attacking.  All available pilots report to their duty stations for immediate launch.”

Outside, something struck the wall and the building rumbled with an explosion.  Two more blasts followed, each one successively closer than the last.

“Enemy ships?” Fairy said, frowning.  “Who?”

“The Utopia,” Stuart said softly, glancing at Ragnar.  “We weren’t fast enough.”

“The Utopia?” Fairy squeaked.  “But I thought nobody knew about this place.”

“Ragnar set off a beacon,” Athenais said, sighing.  “When they killed his family.”

Fairy’s mouth fell open and she turned to Ragnar, looking crestfallen.  “They killed your family?”  The little twit was actually somewhat endearing, Athenais decided, when she wasn’t being a twit.

Ragnar nodded.  “Right after you took off with Retribution.”

Fairy looked stricken.  “Because of me?”

“No, because Juno’s a bucket of bolts short of a ship,” Athenais said.  “You had nothing to do with it.”

“But how do you know that?” Fairy whispered.  “What if it made her mad…?  What if…”  Her words broke off in a wretched sob.  “Oh, Ragnar, I’m so sorry!”

She actually means that, Athenais thought, bemused.  “Listen,” Athenais interrupted, before she could babble more apologies, “The woman probably lost her mind when PsyOps abandoned her on that planet a few thousand years back.  Anything she did, she did it of her own free will.  It’s not anything you did.”

“But how do you know that?” Fairy whimpered.  “Oh, God, what if I—”

“You didn’t,” Athenais snapped.  “Juno was going to kill the shifters from the very beginning.  It’s a tradition for her.  Something she’s been doing ever since she managed to get enough money.”

“She kills shifters?” Fairy blubbered, confusion written clearly upon her tear-splotchy face.

Fairy, Stuart, and Ragnar were all watching Athenais, now.  Ragnar looked increasingly angry.

Athenais took a deep breath.  “A few millennia ago, I guess she got tired of being a living god on Xenith and went to Derkne for a few years to start a family.  Had kids and everything.  Got real attached to them, from what Rabbit and I could figure out, and was really getting into living the normal life.  Anyway, her son was killed on Wythe, right after the One Species charter went into effect.  Wythe was a shifter planet, back then.  Her son was an emissary, a gifted negotiator.  His goal on Wythe was to convince the shifters to let the Utopia establish a colony on one of its moons, with the subtle threat of military force if the shifters did not comply.  The shifters took Juno’s son and the eleven other diplomats, locked them all in a room together, and executed them.  They sent the video back to the Utopia as their reply.”  Athenais shrugged.  “After that, I guess she kinda went off the deep end.”

“You knew about this?!” Ragnar said.  “Why didn’t you tell me?!”

“Tell you when?” Athenais retorted.  “Maybe if you hadn’t shocked yourself into unconsciousness when I was trying to help you, I could have.  As it was, I had to do something, so I saved your life.”

“Did you tell Paul?  Did you tell my father?”

Athenais looked directly into Ragnar’s furious eyes.  “Would you want to know it if you were about to die?”

“They might have been able to save themselves!” the shifter snarled at her.

It was the parasite that saved her.  Gently, Stuart said, “Ragnar, there was nothing they could do.”

Ragnar looked away.  They listened to the alarm blaring through the halls in silence for a few minutes, jumping each time the palace shuddered with another blow.  After a moment, he said, “We should give it a day or two.  Dallas removed Juno’s clearance.  Retribution isn’t going anywhere.  Let’s let them duke it out with the Corps and then make a run for it.”

“I’m not going to be up for much fancy flying,” Athenais warned, wiggling the digits sprouting from her shoulder socket.

“That’s okay,” Fairy said.  “I’ll fly.”

You?” Athenais scoffed.  “When have you ever been on the wrong side of a blockade?  That is what this is going to turn into if we wait much longer.  The Utopia will lock the planet down, control all traffic coming and going.”

“I fought Erriat’s entire fleet,” Fairy said stubbornly.

“Well, take that and multiply it by about a hundred.  Now add mass-seeking weapons and autopilot interference.”

Fairy’s eyes widened.  “Autopilot?  You mean—”

Everything’s manual,” Athenais said.  “Right down to spin compensation and weapons locks.”

“Oh.”

“So,” Athenais said, “Do we have any other bright ideas?”

“Dallas could still fly us,” Stuart said.  “I could help her concentrate.”

Athenais sighed.  “Look, Stuart, maybe you don’t understand what I mean by ‘manual.’  That many ships, they’re gonna have an ASP.  The Utopia’ll use it to zap us with a signal that shuts down the ship’s computers.  All the calculations, all the trajectories, all the plotting has to be done in the pilot’s head—in a split second.  While they’re doing their darndest to blow us into itty bits.”  She gestured at the girl.  “She might be a stick-fairy, but not even a fairy can work magic.”

“She could do it,” Stuart insisted.

“Oh come on!” Athenais snarled.  “She can’t do it.  I’m telling you.  Now let’s find something productive to talk about before our section of pretty pretty hallway gets blown out of existence by high-energy photon beams.”

“What makes you so sure?” Ragnar asked, ignoring her.

“I know her,” Stuart said, giving his beloved airhead a doting look.  “We get her back on Retribution and she can get us home.”

Athenais did not miss the flirtatious look Fairy gave Stuart in response.  Her gut twinged at the idea and she gave a derisive snort.  “I’m sorry, but I’m not about to spend the next twenty years floating in space because you think Fairy can break a Utopian blockade.  I’m telling you right now.  It’s impossible.  Not even I could do it.  We need to get out of here now.”

“She’s better than you,” Stuart said.

Athenais narrowed her eyes at the worm.  She was so getting tired of hearing that.

“Hey, now,” Ragnar said, stepping between them, “Let’s just wait to see what happens.  Maybe the Utopia will offer sanctuary for captured citizens.”

“Maybe,” Athenais muttered.  “And then maybe they’ll just blow this planet apart and call it good.  It’s what the place needs.”

“Amen to that,” Fairy agreed vehemently.

Athenais gave the twit a sideways look.  Well, maybe she wasn’t a complete airhead…



Wings of Retribution


Dallas watched the fight from the roof of the Wall while the others stayed in the storeroom, worried about being seen.  Stuart lurked in the corner near the staircase, not wanting to leave her alone, yet not wanting to expose himself, either.  Looking out in either direction, huge holes riddled the Wall, some areas collapsed altogether.  Standing in the shelter of the rampart, Stuart’s nervous gaze continued to flicker towards the devastation.

“Dallas, haven’t you seen enough?” he finally called as the sun was going down.

“Are you crazy?!” Dallas shouted back.  “This is when it gets good!”

Indeed, as night fell, they could see ship after ship explode in the atmosphere and hurtle into the sea.  Dallas sat down on the edge of the wall, back to the ocean, and stared up in awe.

“I wonder if they’re Xenith or Utopian,” Dallas said, watching the streaks of fire trace across the sky.  She longed to be up there, a part of the show.

“What does it matter?!” Stuart cried.  “Dallas, it’s not safe up here!”

“Who do you think is winning?”

“Dallas, any minute now one of those ships is gonna land on us!”

Dallas’s eyes were fixed to the sky.  “We’ll be dead whether we’re on the roof or a couple floors down.  Besides, it’s not the ships we need to be worried about.  It’s the Utopis who get through their lines.”  She turned to Stuart.  “They’re the ones that are gonna start blasting holes in the—

Even as she spoke, a fighter screamed past, blowing apart a section of the Wall a half-mile from where they stood.  Two Xenith gunships followed it, making the entire island rumble as they shot overhead.  A few moments later, she heard the telltale sound of a fighter engine exploding.

“Dallas, please come back inside…” Stuart whined

“Stop being an old fiddlestick,” Dallas ordered, jumping lightly off of the wall.  “Come here.”

Stuart glanced at the sky cautiously.  “Why?”  He stayed firmly hunkered behind the wall.

“Because sooner or later, we’re gonna be up there ourselves.  I want to show you something.”

“Dallas, I really think we should—”

“Come here, Stuart.”  She stomped a foot and pointed at the stone floor beside her.

“Okay.”  He ran to stand beside her, head low, as if the terrain between the wall and where she stood was somehow more likely to get hit with laser fire.

“Look up there.”  She pointed at what looked like a wispy cloud blotting the stars.

“What is it?” Stuart said.

“That’s our blockade.  Depending on how close it is, I’d say a few hundred thousand ships, at least.  Those big bright spots are carriers.  I’m counting five of them, but there’s probably more hanging back in the debris field.  The Utopia wasn’t taking its chances.”  She turned to him.  “Just what did Ragnar send to them, anyhow?”

Stuart winced.  “I’m not sure.  It would’ve been nice if he wasn’t so thorough, though.”

“What are you talking about?” Dallas demanded.  “This is great!”  She lay down on the stone, hands under her head.

“Dallas, people are dying up there.”

“Not that,” she said, disgusted.  “The number of ships.  We couldn’t have asked for better odds.”

Stuart stared at her as if she had lost her mind.

Dallas sighed and explained.  “To a point, the more ships a fleet has, the better its odds of winning.  But it’s a bell curve.  After a certain point, the bigger the fleet, the less coordinated, the less maneuverable, and the less efficient.  Especially against a very small number of fast enemy ships.  It creates confusion.  Pilots are afraid to fire because they aren’t sure they’re not friendlies.”

“So you’re saying a fleet of three could take out a fleet of a thousand?”

Dallas scoffed.  “No.  It just takes longer to kill them.”

“Oh.”  Stuart stared at the sky.  “Do you think you can get us out of here?”

Dallas closed her eyes, breathing in the ocean breeze.  She could taste that fight.  All the way down here, and she could taste it.

“Dallas?”

“Of course I can fly us through that.”

Stuart cleared his throat, sounding embarrassed.  “Uh, Dallas, I meant to tell you earlier, but I was kinda fibbing a little back there, about helping you.  I mean, if you let me back in, I’ll be able to help a little bit, but it would mostly be you.  I just said all that stuff to keep the others off your back.  If you don’t think you can handle it, we’ll just have to find another way off the planet.”

“Oh, like hell,” Dallas laughed.  “You couldn’t keep me away from that fight with a flesh-seeker.”

Stuart fidgeted with a piece of moss he’d picked from a stone crack, then licked his lips.  “I guess what I’m trying to say is you don’t need to take me again.  I couldn’t really help that much.  I was being selfish, giving you an excuse to…”  He cleared his throat again.  “I spent all day thinking about it.  I mean, I can help, but what I did was wrong.  That’s not something I should bribe you into.  I just got a taste of—”  He bit his lip.  “It was so wonderful to have you—”  He cleared his throat again.  “What I’m saying is I just really hoped—”

Dallas gasped in happiness as another ship tumbled out of the sky.  “Look at that one.  Wow, he must’ve had combustibles aboard.  Sweet.”

Stuart frowned at her, then up at the sky.  For a long moment, he just glanced between the two of them, then he blurted, “You do realize we’re trying to head home, not go down in a glorious ball of flames, right?”

“Oh sure,” Dallas said.  Even as she said it, she felt a nervous flutter in her stomach.  Was she about to get them all killed?  She shook that thought from her head and said, “Just keep looking for Rabbit.  I don’t want to leave him until we have to.”

“Ragnar’s working on that right now.”  Stuart came closer, his body close enough to touch.  Tentatively, he managed, “So what I was trying to say earlier—”  He hesitated and licked his lips.  “I mean.  Please don’t take this the wrong way, but I don’t want you to feel forced into anything…”

“I think that one’s using that new experimental particle dissimilation cannon,” she said, pointing.  “You can tell the dissim from the blackmatter by the way the ships glow green before they explode.”

For a long time, Stuart said nothing.  When Dallas looked back, he was staring at her.  “What?” she asked.

“Are you sure you want me back in your head, Dallas?  I, uh, don’t want to inconvenience you, and I was kind of stretching the truth earlier.  I really shouldn’t have done that.  You don’t need me.”

“Oh, phooey,” Dallas said, waving off his blubbering.  “Of course I want you back.”

Stuart stared at her, looking dumbfounded.  “You…do?”

“Sure!”  Dallas gave his current body an appraising glance in between explosions.  “Wouldn’t be too upset if you brought him along, though.  Looks like he might be good in bed.”

Immediately, Stuart said, “He’s not.  He’s mean and selfish and always finishes in a couple minutes.”

Dallas burst into delighted laughter.  “I meant for you, nincompoop.  So you could be good in bed.”

“Oh.”  Stuart blushed in the darkness.  “Athenais might not like that.”

“Athenais can go jump out an airlock.  I’m the captain of Retribution.  If I say we bring him along, we bring him.”

“But it feels…wrong,” Stuart said.  “To use a host for my own sexual gratification.”

“You said he was an asshole, right?”

“Yes, but…”

“If he’s an asshole, then he deserves to be taught a little—look at that!”  Dallas’s eyes widened as one of the cruisers in the blockade cloud exploded, sending a sphere of shrapnel and fire out in all directions.  Some of the indistinguishable fighters got hit by the debris, setting off a chain reaction of explosions that lit up the night.

“One point for the good guys,” Dallas said, grinning.

“I wouldn’t exactly call Juno’s forces the good guys,” Stuart said.

“Yeah, but you’ve gotta root for one of them, and the Utopia fired me, so screw them.”

“Juno tried to feed you to a five hundred pound shark,” Stuart reminded her.

“At least she would have given me a harpoon.  That’s a lot less humiliating than getting fired.  You ever been fired, Stu?”

Stuart shook his head.

She grunted, making a disgusted face.  “Well, when you get fired, there’s no ‘I don’t think so, punk, stab, stab, stab!’  It’s just boom, get out, we don’t care you just spent the last fifteen years of your life working for us, you’re not wanted here anymore.  They had a new captain in command of my ship before it was even official.”

“Well, your ‘good guys’ are losing, nonetheless,” Stuart said.  “Ragnar thinks Juno’s gonna surrender in the next few hours.  From what he’s been able to learn, they’ve had fifty percent losses in the first twenty-four hours.”

“Oh, bummer.”  Dallas was disappointed.  “I was hoping it would last a bit longer than that.”  She went back to gazing at the stars, watching the explosions.  After a few moments, she felt Stuart sit down beside her.

“Dallas?”

“Hmm?”

“Do you really think I’d be good in bed?”

Now there was an idea.  She turned back to him, grinning.  “You wanna find out?”

Stuart flinched away from her.  “What, here?”  Stuart gestured at the sky, sounding horrified.

“Why not?  It’d be romantic.”  She gestured up at the explosions.  “Think of it as candlelight.”

“For some reason, the threat of getting skewered by falling shrapnel doesn’t seem all that romantic.”

“You’re just a worrywart.”  She wiggled closer, throwing a leg over his thigh and touching his chest.  “Come on.  It’ll be fun.”

The suzait swallowed, hard, and Dallas noticed he was suddenly sweating.  “But,” Stuart stammered, “…I don’t…I can’t…I wouldn’t…”

“Shut up and kiss me,” she said.  “All those explosions are making me horny.”

“Dallas, this is hardly the place to have a reproductive breakdown.  What if somebody comes up the stairs and—”

She grabbed the back of his head and ended his objection with a kiss.  A real one, this time.




Wings of Retribution

Fairy’s Glory Days


The next morning, the island-wide intercom came on, startling them awake.

People of Xenith.  I am Colonel Harriet Burkes.  I represent the Unified Utopian Systems and will be in charge of converting this planet to civilization.  We have pacified the resistance here and have taken its leaders into custody for questioning.  You will see troops of Utopian forces patrolling the hallways and are ordered to go about your business when they pass.  Any violence or harassment toward them will be punishable by immediate use of force, namely execution, as we are all much too tired to continue to deal with your brainwashed, moronic horseshit. 

The woman on the intercom took a breath, then cleared her throat and continued.  As evening falls, if you look up, you will see a cloud covering a good part of the night sky.  That is our fleet.  Admiral Redstone has secured your sector.  Any traffic in or out will be shot down, and any survivors executed.  Any attempts at escape will result in immediate execution.  All military forces of Xenith will be deported or executed, depending on our mood.  Any civilian resistance will result in execution.  Like I said before, we are all too tired to deal with your crap.

We will be conducting an investigation of Xenith’s non-combative citizenry on an individual basis.  We will be taking roll and creating an identification database.  Retina, voice, fingerprint, and DNA samples will be taken from every citizen.  If you do not surrender yourself to the rolls, we will assume you are part of the resistance and we will execute you.  I will return with more specific instructions this evening.”

Dallas sat up, grabbing her shirt.  “Did she say anything about Utopian citizens?”

“I don’t think so,” Stuart said.  “But she did use ‘execute’ like four or five times.”

“Breathing will result in execution,” Dallas mimicked, giggling.

Athenais burst through the hatch, panting.  “You hear that?  Juno’s finally surrendered after wasting all that—”  Then she gave them a stunned look.  “Did you two just screw while we were getting attacked?”

Stuart cleared his throat and pulled on his pants.  “We were just watching the stars,” he babbled, much too defensively.

“So what if we were?” Dallas demanded, bodily pulling the suzait back down to the stone with her.  “Go find your own rooftop, you one-armed leprechaun.”

Athenais stared at Dallas, then at Stuart.  Finally, she seemed to shake herself and said, “Okay lovebirds, get dressed.  We’re gonna go have a chat with this Colonel Burkes, see if she’ll clear us for takeoff.”

“We are?”  Dallas couldn’t hide her disappointment.

“What, you’d rather see us try to bash our way through their blockade?”  Athenais scoffed.  “Ragnar and I will be waiting back in the storeroom.”  She hurried back down the ladder, slamming the hatch behind her.

“You know, she kind of stands out with those fingers sticking out of her shoulder like that,” Dallas said, squinting at the hatch.  “I wonder what she tells people, when they ask.”

“Maybe she says it’s a birth defect.”

“If it was me, I’d cover it up.”  Dallas wrinkled her nose.  “Why’s it taking so long for her arm to grow back?  I saw her head put itself back together in a couple minutes.”

“My guess is because her arm is currently nine miles under the ocean floor, whereas the remains of her head were readily available.  So basically her body’s got to start from scratch.”

As she pulled on her pants, Dallas looked up at him, grinning.  “So’d you like it?”

Stuart hesitated above her.  “The physical connection was satisfying, though I’m not sure I got the technique down quite right.  The motor patterns were foreign to me.  I think I should spend some time on research, maybe ask Ragnar or Howlen.  They could guide me through the process—”

“Eww,” Dallas said, waving off the idea.  “Ew ew.”  She shook her head, trying to get rid of the idea of Stuart asking Tommy about rhythm.  Well, you see, worm, there’s a certain percentage of times that the depth must be offset by cant, which in turn must be balanced with speed and resistance…  She shook her head again, trying to force that image into the netherworld.  “Just say yes or no.”

“Yes.”

“Good.  We’ll do it again sometime.”

“Uhhhh, okay,” the suzait stammered.

“Damn straight.  Now let’s go.”  She turned and led him to the hatch.  Back at the storeroom, Tommy was still comatose, his eyes staring straight ahead exactly as they had left him.  Dallas squatted in front of him, peering into his face.  “Tommy?  You in there?”  She waved a hand in front of his eyes, which didn’t even blink.

“We should probably leave him,” Ragnar said.  “There’s been no change at all.”

“Why isn’t he blinking?” Dallas asked, poking at his eyeball.  “Seems like they’re gonna dry out.”  She frowned at the little indentation her finger was making in the lens and got closer, peering into the wide-open pupil.  They were so dilated, in fact, that there was almost no color showing, just black…  She poked it again.  “Hey Tommy.  Wake up, man.”

Giving her a nervous look, Stuart said, “Uh, Dallas, maybe you shouldn’t be doing that…”

Dallas poked the colonel’s other eye, amazed at the way the whole thing moved in towards the nose.  She hadn’t realized that eyes could do that.  She wondered if hers did that, too…

“Fairy, damn it, we’ve got more important things to do,” Athenais snapped, grabbing her arm and jerking her away from the colonel.  “Look at him.  He’s just a vegetable.”

Dallas stood up, straightening for a fight.  “We’re not leaving him,” she pronounced.

“Yes, we already discussed this,” Athenais growled.  “I was just trying to get you to stop poking him in the eye like a retarded orangutan.”

Dallas flushed.  “So what are we going to do now?”

“Ragnar and I are going to go speak with Burkes.  You and Stuart are taking Tommy to Retribution.”

Dallas stared.  “What?  Won’t they have it under guard?”

“Yes.”

“So what do we do with the guards?”

“Kill them.”

Both Dallas and Stuart balked.  “Kill them?  Is that really a good idea?  They’re just soldiers…”

“Do you want to get off of this planet alive, Fairy?”

“Well…yes…”

“Then I suggest you stop acting like a chickenshit.  Both of you.”  The pirate’s last was aimed at Stuart.  Athenais shoved the compression pistol at her.  “Use this.  Next time you shoot it, hold it with both hands and put your weight into it.  Recoil isn’t so bad as long as you brace yourself first.”

Dallas stared at the gun, which felt like it weighed a hundred pounds in her hands.  “What about you and Ragnar?  Usually you guys do this kind of stuff.”

“We’re going to be practicing our diplomacy,” Athenais said.

Somehow, Dallas didn’t like the sound of that.  She and Stuart shared a worried look.  “Uh, Athenais,” Stuart began, “maybe Dallas and I should go inst—”

“No,” Athenais interrupted, cutting him off, “you will get the ship ready for when we come back.”

Dallas gave Athenais and Ragnar a surprised look.  “You think you can talk her into opening a path for us?”

“Something like that,” the pirate agreed.  “Now go.”

“But…if we kill the guards, won’t that ruin our chances of getting free passage?”

“Fairy, don’t worry about it.”  Athenais’s words had a ring of finality to it.

“And what if you don’t show up?” Stuart asked.  “How long should we wait?”

“You wait until we get back,” Athenais said.

“But what if you don’t—”

“We’re coming back,” Athenais snarled.  “Damn it, Fairy, are you trying to jinx us?!”

“Sorry.”  Dallas glanced at Stuart.  “You ready?”

“Don’t forget the Colonel,” Athenais said.  “If, that is, you’re still insisting on taking him.”

“What about Rabbit?” Dallas asked.  “Is he coming?”

“I think he’s hiding out on the west side of the island,” Ragnar said.  “I’ve tried to make contact, but he hasn’t come out of his hole.  I think he’s hedging his bets.”

“So we’re just gonna leave him?” Dallas cried.

“Look,” Athenais said, “Unless you want to get on the intercom and tell him we’re about to leave, there’s no way to get word out to him.  Now grab the Colonel and go.  We’re on a schedule, here.”

Stuart went over to Tommy and hefted him over his shoulder.  Then, together, he and Dallas made their way to the door.

“Keep to the upper floors until you reach the docks,” Ragnar said behind them.  “The Utopis are inspecting the island a few floors at a time.  Today they’re doing the first three.”

“Good to know,” Dallas said.  Then she pulled open the door and led Stuart out into the hall.

“Are we really going to shoot anyone?” she whispered once they were out of earshot.

“I’m not sure,” Stuart whispered back.  “If we do, I don’t wanna do it.”

“That’s not fair,” Dallas said.  “You’re bigger than me.  You should do it.”

“What does that matter?” Stuart demanded.  “Anybody can shoot a gun.”

“It won’t hurt you as much for you to shoot somebody,” Dallas reasoned.

“I’m still adjusting to this host.  My coordination is still fuzzy.  I might miss.”

“Bull,” Dallas said.  “You take it.”  She shoved the gun at Stuart.

“Fine,” Stuart said.  He shoved Tommy’s two-hundred-pound body at her.  “You take this.”

Dallas grimaced at Tommy, who was currently leaking drool down Stuart’s chest.  “I guess I can carry the gun.”

“Good.”  Stuart started moving again.

“Can I just shoot to injure instead of to kill?” Dallas asked.  “Like maybe in the leg?  What if I know one of them?  I worked in the Space Corps for fifteen years.  I captained eight different ships.  What if they know me?”

“All the more reason to shoot them in the head,” Stuart said.

Dallas grimaced down the barrel of the combustion pistol.  “I’m not cut out for this.  I went to the Space Academy.  I fly ships—I don’t stomp around dragging my arms in the dirt shooting people.”

“Well, I really don’t care if you shoot them or not,” Stuart said, “as long as we get on Retribution without dragging the whole Utopia down on us.”  They reached the third floor from the roof and started walking down the hall.  Looking out the window, they could see that the docks had been attacked, with huge laser burns in the concrete and chunks of debris fallen down onto the landing pads.

“Look at that,” Dallas whispered, pointing.  The entire inner core of the island was covered with ships.  Anywhere there was free space, a sleek Utopian warship squatted over it.  Beneath the ships, huge ranks of armed men marched from the hulls of several troopships, and snipers with laser rifles stood along the top of the wall, watching the ships below.

“I’m liking the idea of shooting someone less and less,” Stuart muttered.  “Those old guns are loud.  I wonder if Athenais knows about this.”

“She probably does.  That’s why they’re going to negotiate.”

“That’s what bothers me,” Stuart said.  “We don’t have anything to negotiate with.”

“We have Retribution,” Dallas said immediately.  “I could offer to come back to work for them as an independent.”

Stuart gave her a look that said he clearly thought she was crazy, but was going to be polite.  “I…thought you said they were the bad guys.”

“I didn’t say I would do it.  I’d just offer.”

“Maybe they lost Juno in the fight,” Stuart said.  “If Ragnar found her somehow, then maybe they’re going to try and trade.”

“You can’t make a trade with the Utopia,” Dallas said, worrying.  “It’s against policy to negotiate.  They’ll just say they’re hiding Juno and brand us all traitors.  They’ll execute us.”

They walked until they were standing over the docks, looking down.  Retribution stood there like a sleek black raptor amidst puffed-up swans.

“There she is,” Dallas breathed.  “Beautiful.”

“Only one guard,” Stuart noted.  “It’s like they’re not even worried about it.”

“Take a good look out there,” Dallas said, pointing at the grounds.  “Would you be worried?”

“Now that I think about it, Retribution looks kind of puny,” Stuart said, his eyes stopping on the masses of humans covering the ground in dark swaths.  “I’m starting to lose my nerve.”

“Don’t,” Dallas said, energized by the proximity of her ship.  “We’ll be fine.”

Stuart stepped close to the window and looked straight down.  “Okay.  Then I’ve got just one question.”

“What’s that?”

“How are we going to get past the three hundred soldiers barring the entrance to the docks?”

Frowning, Dallas leaned out the window.  Below, a platoon of ground troops blocked the entrance, lazing about with bored expressions on their faces.  Each had laser rifles and full Chameleon body armor, making them appear like 3-D lumps in the concrete with guns sticking out.  A couple looked to be playing ping-pong, others reading magazines.  Along the edges of the group, twenty bear-sized shredders stood amidst piles of equipment, waiting for their operators’ commands.  Dallas pulled back and glanced at her gun.  “I don’t think we’re gonna need this.”

“Stuff it under your shirt.  Maybe we can still use it.”

“Against them?” Dallas cried.  “They’ve got laser rifles, Stuart.  And body armor.  Chameleon body armor.  Oh, and did I mention the shredders?  They’ve got shredders.”

“So what are you going to do?”

Dallas’s mouth fell open.  “What am I going to do?!  You’re the alien.  You do something!”

“So what if I’m the alien?” Stuart demanded.  “You’re the hotshot pilot with a bug up her ass to get back to her ship.”

Dallas did have a bug up her ass to get back to her ship.  “And I’ll tell you why, too,” she growled.  “I get back to her—” she pointed at Retribution, “—and they—” she pointed to the ground troops, “—are sitting ducks.”

Stuart shrugged.  “Well, if you want to go by my alien instincts, they’re screaming at me to get as far away from the big men with guns as physically possible.  I think we should just sit back and wait for Athenais to get us some sort of clearance.  Besides, I don’t know anything about the Utopia.”  He jabbed a finger between her breasts.  “You do.”

“Ow,” Dallas growled.  “What is there to know?!  The whole Utopia’s filled with greedy, power-hungry bastards who like to mess in other people’s shit—”  Dallas paused.  “Wait a minute.”  She leaned back out the window, eying the ranks.  When she pulled back, she was grinning.  “You’re brilliant!”  She reached out, grabbed him by the head, and brought him down for a kiss.  Then, giggling, she released him and headed for the stairs.

“Wait a minute, Dallas!” Stuart called after her.  “Shouldn’t we discuss your plan’s merit before you run off and get us both killed?!”

Dallas waved a dismissive hand at him and hit the steps at a jog.



Wings of Retribution


“Now I just want to make sure we’re clear on this.  We present ourselves as captured Utopian citizens and ask for safe passage back to T-9.  We are obsequious, butt-kissing solar surveyors who were given the unfortunate task of determining whether or not Xenith’s star is a viable candidate for nuclear conversion.  We were captured as soon as we entered the system and were shocked to find that the place was inhabited, let alone that it had a habitable planet.”

“Sounds good to me,” Athenais said.

“Then let’s get this over with.”  Ragnar stepped out into the hallway and Athenais followed.

A minute later, only yards from their goal, two armed ground troops stopped them.  “Utopis only,” one of them said.

“But we are Utopis,” Ragnar complained.  Athenais turned to look at him, surprised at the genuine whine in his voice.  “We want to go home.  We’ve been prisoners on this planet for two years!”

“And you’re prisoners again.  Shouldn’t have betrayed the Utopia.  Now leave.”

“We didn’t betray the Utopia!” Ragnar cried.  “We were captured.  We’re solar surveyors.  This star’s twelve million SIDUs from the nearest Utopian planet.  We were told to determine whether or not it would be a viable fuel source for—”

“You heard the broadcast.  Everyone will be evaluated on an individual basis.  Come back tonight and you might be able to get to the front of the line.  Until then, leave.”  The man sounded like he had given a hundred such spiels in the last half hour.

“I don’t think you understand,” Athenais said, stepping forward.  “We need to speak with your Colonel.  Now.  We’re not just surveyors, if you know what I mean.”

Ragnar flashed her a panicked look before returning his attention to the Utopis.  “Please, we don’t want any bloodshed.  We just want to speak with…”

“End the act, Ragnar.  The game’s over.  Time to tell the truth.”

Ragnar straightened, but he gave her a frustrated look.

The two Utopis stiffened, grasping their weapons tightly in their hands.  “The…truth?”

“You really believe the Utopia never knew about this place?” Athenais said.  “Thousands of years to build up their own fleet and they never knew?”

The Utopis looked confused.  “It was dead space.”

“We’re agents, you moron.  We’ve been monitoring Xenith for twenty years.”

“That doesn’t make sense.  They would have come in sooner, as soon as they knew they had a fleet.”

Athenais scoffed.  “You think they were worried about Xenith’s fleet?  They were worried about its natives.  The whole planet is colonized by water-dwelling aliens.  Some grow to the size of a gunship.  I’m sure you picked them up on your scanners.”

The Utopis looked at each other.  “We heard rumors, but we didn’t—”

“And they’re all telepathic,” Athenais stated.  “They’ve got their own armies of sharks under the water.  Mind control, man!  Do you realize how valuable that is to the Utopia?!”

The soldiers began to fidget.

“Just let us speak with your Colonel!” Ragnar barked, his attitude completely changed.

The two men jumped, then stepped aside.  Ragnar brushed past, almost knocking one of the soldiers over.  Athenais followed without pause, and fell in behind him as he yanked the Colonel’s door open.

The Colonel had the pale, sickly face of a lifelong spacer.  She had all the windows of the room shuttered against the sun and was reading a report on her handheld when they barged in.

Immediately, she stood.  “Who in the hell are you?!”

“Shut up and listen,” Athenais snapped.  “This whole planet is about to explode.”

The Colonel stared at her.  “It is?”

“Yes,” Athenais said.  “As soon as the DNA data starts getting back to the Admiral.”

“What are you talking about!?  We haven’t even begun testing yet!”

“Don’t,” Athenais ordered.  “Not unless you want to get yourself and every Utopi on this planet killed.”

“But…why?”  The Colonel was baffled.  “Who are you?”

“Agents,” Athenais said.  “That’s all you need to know.”

“What kind of agents?  Why shouldn’t I conduct DNA testing?  It was an order from Admiral Redstone himself.”

“You can’t do DNA testing because as soon as you do, you’re going to realize that every land-dwelling native on this planet is a shifter.”

The Colonel’s eyes widened.  “What?”

“Don’t you wonder how they stayed off radar for so long, with only a little trickle here and there?”  Athenais made a disgusted sound.  “Headquarters had its suspicions, and they pinpointed the leakage to this planet.  They sent us here to investigate.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Ragnar, show her.”

In an instant, Ragnar shifted into a bulky, muscular woman in her thirties.

Double agents,” Athenais said, grinning at the Colonel’s horror.  She wiggled her newly-grown fingers for effect.

The Colonel’s mouth was open as she stared at them.  “Shifters?  The whole planet?”

“Yes.  Even now, they’re probably infiltrating your ships, getting ready to launch an offensive.  How many ships do you have up there?  What percentage of the Utopian fleet is in orbit?  How vulnerable is the Utopia without it?  Because we’re about to lose it all.”

The Colonel stared.  “I have to warn the Admiral.”

“As soon as you tell him, the Admiral is going to message headquarters and they’re going to tell him to blow the planet.  If there’s anyone you want to get out alive, we need to do it now.  I have a ship ready.”

“How can you be sure they’re not shifters?  How can you be sure I’m not a shifter?”

“You’re not a shifter because they haven’t had a chance to regroup.  You captured their leaders.  Shifters are useless without a leader.  Most are just mindless drones.”  Athenais glanced at Ragnar, who was giving her an irritated look.  “As for my ship, we have a codeword—nobody’s getting past the airlock without using it.  My question to you is who do you want us to save?  Is there anyone with important knowledge, anyone who isn’t expendable?”

The Colonel glanced at the door.  “My secretary routinely handles some classified documents…”

“We’re not rescuing a secretary,” Ragnar snapped.

The Colonel straightened.  “Aside from myself, I can think of no one.”

“Then let’s go.  Grab your things.  We need to hurry.”



Wings of Retribution


“Are you sure this will work?” Stuart muttered.

“No, but I’m going to find out.”  Dallas flipped the collars of the lab coat out and grabbed the medical handheld.  “Thanks, by the way.”

The mousy technician smiled shyly and nodded.

“So what do you want me to do again?” Stuart asked, looking down at the white coat he wore.  He had stripped off his Warrior guise and was now clean and shaven, the pile of his facial hair still lying on the floor of the regen lab.

“Grab a handheld,” Dallas said.  “Look professional.  The key to this is not to take any shit from anybody.  They might have rank, but you are the law.”  She slapped his chest with the clipboard.  “This right here is your power.  Anybody so much as looks at you funny, you write their names down on your little sheet of paper.”

Stuart stared at her for a long time.  “Oh…kaaay,” he said, glancing down at his clipboard.  “And that’s to do what, exactly?”

“Scare the holy living crap out of them, that’s what,” Dallas said, gleeful.  “You have no idea how many times I’ve wanted to be on this side of the Clipboard.  And that’s with a capital C.”

“The Clipboard,” Stuart repeated, looking at her as if she’d lost her mind.  “What are we supposed to be, exactly?”

“Utopian auditors,” she said cheerfully.  “They accompany every Corps ship and are constantly putting their noses where they don’t belong.  They always travel in threes, but we’ll just have to make do.”

“Don’t they have uniforms?” Stuart said, leerily plucking at his lab coat.

“They do, but they don’t always wear them.  Easier to catch people goofing that way.”  Dallas looked up at the technician.  “Thanks again.”

“You’re welcome,” the woman said, giving her a genuine smile.  “I hope you get home safe, star-traveller.”

Meeting the woman’s sad brown eyes, Dallas felt like she should say more, but Stuart had already grabbed her arm and started dragging her out of the lab.

They left the regen room and were several minutes down the hall before Dallas stopped and said, “You know, I don’t even remember her name.”

Stuart impatiently stopped and glanced back.  “I don’t think we asked.”

“She was really nice,” Dallas said, biting her lip.  “I should at least know her name.”

Stuart glanced outside.  “Dallas, if we’re going to get this done, we’ve gotta hurry.  Athenais and Ragnar should be done by now.”

“But she told me how to fight the shark.”  She glanced down at her lab coat.  “And we’re just using her.  If anybody finds out she helped us, she’s dead.  We don’t even know her name, Stuart.”  That was too close to what Athenais did to people for her comfort.

“It’s not like you’re going to write a memoir, Dallas.”

Dallas narrowed her eyes.  “How do you know?”

Stuart reddened.  “I mean right now,” he babbled.  “It’s not like you’re gonna write a memoir right now, when we’re trying to get onboard the only ship that has a chance of getting us back home alive.”

Dallas turned on heel.

“Dallas!” Stuart cried.  “Where are you going?”

“To find out her name!” Dallas shouted back.

Behind her, she heard Stuart curse, but he jogged to catch up.  They threw open the door to the regen chamber and the woman glanced up.  Her hair was loose around her face, her eyes red.  In her hand, she held the vial of blue liquid.  As soon as Dallas entered, she hid the vial behind her back, blushing.

“Hi,” Dallas said, striding up to her.  “My name is Dallas York.  I’m the captain of Retribution.  Who are you?”  She held out her hand.

The startled woman transferred the vial to her left hand and brought her right arm forward to grip Dallas’s palm.  “Ma’ri.”

“Mari?” Dallas asked.  “That’s your name?”

The woman nodded.  “Ma’ri.”

Over the intercom, a curt female voice said, Sweep of Decks One through Fifteen complete.  All units proceed to Deck Sixteen.  Inhabitants of Decks One through Fifteen, proceed to the cafeteria for processing.

“They’re starting the processing!” Stuart cried.  “Oh gods, Dallas, we don’t have time for this…”

“What are you doing with that, Mari?” Dallas asked, nodding at the way the woman’s hand was still tucked behind her back.

Mari reddened.  “You heard the broadcast this morning.  They’re imprisoning all military.”  She motioned at the bloody floor.  “I was treating wounded when they found me.  The doctor took my DNA and other vitals this morning.  Told me to be here tomorrow for deportation.  They’re sending me to a work-camp.”

“What’s that got to do with—”  Dallas’s eyes widened.  “You were gonna kill yourself?”

Miserable, wet-eyed, Mari nodded.

Dallas glanced at Stuart, then back at Mari.  “You wanna come with us, Mari?  Auditors work in threes.  And we could always use another surgeon.”

“Dallas, I really don’t think it’s a good idea to…”  Stuart trailed off under Dallas’s glare, then shrugged.  “Whatever we do, let’s do it fast.”

“I don’t want to burden you,” Mari said, shaking her head.  “I want you to escape.”

“We will escape,” Dallas said, “And we’re bringing you with us.”  She reached behind the technician and yanked the blue vial out of her hand and threw it in the regen tank, to Mari’s horror.

Dallas grabbed another medical handheld from the shelf and thrust it into Mari’s hands.  “Auditors walk around in threes.  If you come with us, it actually increases our chances of getting out of here by a lot.”

Mari swallowed, staring down at the handheld.  “What do I do?”

“Be nosy, like you’ve got a right to look into anybody’s business.  Be authoritative—auditors don’t answer to anyone.  And bitchy.  You’ve got to be bitchy.”

“You want me to be like Our Guiding Light,” Mari said.

Dallas grinned.  “Exactly.”

Swallowing, Mari tucked the handheld under her arm.  “Your friend said we have to hurry.”

“He’s Stuart,” Dallas said.  “The parasite that put the hole in my head.”

Mari blinked and took an instinctive step away from Stuart.

“She wanted me to put the hole in her head,” Stuart said defensively.

“Yeah.  Don’t be afraid of him.  If he’s changing hosts, it’s gonna be with me, not you.  Trust me, okay?  He’s a friend.”

Mari bit her lip and held Dallas’s gaze.  She nodded.

“Okay,” Stuart said, ushering them both out the door, “Let’s go.”

Mari stayed close to Dallas, letting Stuart lead.  She was wide-eyed, on the verge of tears.  Her hands were clasped in front of her, white-knuckled.  Even her walk was stiff.

“You can’t look like you’re about to start crying when we go out there,” Dallas warned.  “You’ve got a doctorate in How To Wreck Somebody’s World—look snooty.  Sneer.  Be rude.”

“I will,” Mari said.  “It’s just…hard.”

“Think of Juno,” Dallas said as they started down the stairs.  “You’ve got to loosen up.  Look more commanding.  Neat-freakish.  You look too soft and fluffy.”  She paused, frowning.  “Stuart, hold on a second.”  She reached forward and tugged Mari’s sleeves down, then buttoned them tight.  She buttoned the coat up to the top button and straightened the pockets on the front.  Then she pulled her hair away from Mari’s face and twisted it behind her head in a tight bun.  “Anyone got a pen?”

“Here,” Mari said, handing her a fishbone hairclip.  “Use this.”

Dallas did, then stood back and grinned.  “Wow.  You look positively anal.”

“Damn it, Dallas!” Stuart shouted.

“Fine!  We’re ready!”  She snatched up her handheld and trotted down the stairs ahead of him.  When they reached the bottom floor, Stuart stopped them.

“Are we prepared for this?” he asked.  “We all know what we’re doing?”

“Just follow my lead,” Dallas said.  “Walk fast, with a purpose.  Ignore them if they talk to you.  Show no fear, okay?”  She slapped the clipboard against Stuart’s chest.  “No.  Fear.”

Beside her, Mari was standing straighter, her chin lifted.

“Let’s go.”  Dallas stepped out into the hall.

Behind her, Stuart and Mari fell in step.  They strode fast through the hall, their shoes thudding on the stone.

A group of soldiers saw them in the hall and waved them down.  “You there!  Citizens of Xenith!  Stop.”

Dallas did not even look.  She turned left, into the docks.  Behind her, Stuart and Mari followed.  The soldiers rushed after them, shouting.

“Clipboards,” Dallas whispered, without losing the rigid scowl on her face.  She strode forward, completely ignoring the fact that two hundred rifles suddenly moved from where they were stuck in blobs of concrete.

She went to one of the men playing ping-pong, squinted closely at him despite the fact he was aiming his rifle at her, and said, “You’ve got a crack in the shoulder joint of your armor, soldier.”  Shaking her head, she jotted down a note on her handheld.  Then she went to the man behind him.  To her relief, Stuart and Mari were doing the same.

All around them, the ground troops were rustling, looking for some sort of signal.  When they received none, they reluctantly put their guns back against their shoulders and watched the proceedings, still lazing about the room.  Dallas grinned inwardly.  She knew from experience that they would have liked nothing more than to shoot all three of them.  The Space Corps hated auditors.

Dallas was working on her third inspection when a fuming corporal stormed up behind Stuart.

“Where are your uniforms?!  Where is your clearance?!  How did you get down here?!”

Dallas turned on him before Stuart could begin stuttering.  “Are you questioning how we conduct our business, corporal?”

“We’re at war, you addlebrained pissheads!”

Dallas peered at his nametag.  “Corporal Jin.  I see.”  She wrote his name on her handheld and beside it put ‘Good Man.’

He was not intimidated.  “I want clearance badges from each one of you.  Right now.”

“You are in no position to make demands, corporal,” Dallas said.

“I can put you damn fools under arrest!” Jin snapped.  “You are mucking up our routine in a war zone.  That’s a capital offence.  You could be tried as traitors to the Utopia.”

Dallas scoffed.  “The war is over, corporal.  This planet has been pacified.  We are mucking up nothing.  Now go about your business before I include you in my report.”

The corporal scowled at her.  “It’s also Utopian law that you display your clearance badges at all times.”

Dallas smiled viciously.  “We like to be accurate.  How can we be sure you’re not fudging things if we don’t mingle?  Take a look at this, for instance.”  She turned and tapped a startled soldier on the helmet, making the concrete image flicker.  “Chameleon one point-oh-two.  Obsolete for thirty years now.  The Utopia has put out billions of credits to ensure that its ground forces have the most up-to-date equipment available, and yet I see a soldier wearing this piece of crap.  Thank god he wasn’t in any serious combat.  His helmet could have malfunctioned long enough for one of the natives to get a clean shot.”  She tapped his helmet again, making the image flicker to the tense face of a young soldier and then back to concrete.

“You’re the reason we don’t have the supplies we need,” the corporal snapped.  “You and your cronies over there get paid millions of credits to create datawork that requires millions more credits to analyze and file.  Then you make up orders for new headgear to replace perfectly functionable armor when we’re stuck eating seaweed and fish because we ran out of rations.”

“You’ll have to speak with supply about that,” Dallas said.  “We are not responsible for the mistakes of incompetent clerks.”  She turned her back on him and went back to her evaluations.  She grinned under her façade, knowing what he would say.

I made those orders,” the corporal said in a strangled voice.  “They were not filled.  Headquarters did not give us enough funds to buy what we needed at our last point of harbor.”

“Listen, corporal.”  Dallas turned on him.  “We have jobs to do.  If you want to waste someone’s time, go complain to your sergeant.”

Instead of retorting, the corporal hesitated, peering at her intently.  “Where have I seen you before?”

Dallas flinched, and she was sure the corporal saw it.  “Back on the ship,” she said, trying to hide her flood of nerves.

“No,” the corporal said, “Somewhere else.  On a different mission.”

Suddenly, from the row of bags and instruments lining the wall, Mari shouted, “You call this a field medical bag?!  There’s nothing in here but a few bandages!  No medications, no instruments…not even proper sterilization equipment!  This is garbage!  You would lead these troops into combat action without real medical supplies?!”  She lobbed the bag across the docks and stormed up to the startled corporal.  “Who’s in command, here?  You?!  Because I’m going to report you to my superiors, you stupid bastard.”

Both Dallas and the corporal stared at her, stunned.

Look at this,” Mari snapped, shoving a handful of plastic contraptions under his nose.  “Do you know what this is?!”

“No…” the corporal began.

“Of course not!” Mari spat.  “Because they’re missing their tops.  Someone twisted them off.  Round plastic spheres, commonly used as ping-pong balls when troops get bored!”  She jabbed her finger at the two men who were quickly hiding their ping-pong paddles.

“But I—”

Mari threw the plastic devices at him.  “They’re useless now.  Each could save a man’s life in the field, if they were intact.  Now they’re just meaningless pieces of plastic.  Who dismantled those devices, corporal?  You?!”

“No, I—”

“Ignorant destruction of government property, brazen neglect of soldiers’ safety, and casual and insidious negligence.  People could have died for this, corporal!  Who’s your medical officer?!  Do they know about this?”

The corporal stared at her.

“Answer her!” Dallas barked.

“The medical officers are back on the ship,” the corporal sputtered.

Stuart joined them, his voice ominous.  “You left the medical officers of an entire platoon back on the ship?  What if you had met with enemy fire?”

“Who authorized this?” Dallas demanded.

“I want names and identification numbers,” Stuart said.

“Someone is getting flogged for this incompetence,” Mari added.

The corporal straightened.  “I’ll get the list of names for you.  If you’ll please follow me back to the ship.”

“Retrieve the data yourself,” Dallas snapped, moving over to the supplies that the troops had piled against the wall.  “And get these troops to their domiciles.  We’re filing a Section Eight on the whole unit.”

The corporal reddened.  “We don’t have domiciles for them yet,” he gritted.  “We just got here.”  There was a missing, ‘moron,’ at the end of his sentence.

“Then get them back on the ship,” Stuart said.

“Without their gear?” the corporal demanded, growing heated.

“They can take their personal equipment,” Dallas said.  “Leave everything else.  I intend to catalogue every single item that is missing from your unit’s database, right down to the cotton swabs.”

The corporal gave her a long, cold look, then turned to the men lazing about the bay.  “You heard her!  Get up.  We’re going back to the ship.  Grab your gear and move!”

In five minutes, the docks were eerily silent.  Even the shredders and their operators had returned to the ship.

Mari collapsed against the wall, shaking.  “That was horrible!  I probably got that young man fired!”

“It’d be better for him if he was,” Dallas muttered, watching Stuart run off toward the door to retrieve Howlen.  “The Space Corps is a shitty place to work.  Now let’s go.”  She hurried to Retribution and walked around it once, quickly, to make sure it was undamaged.

Dallas was opening the airlock when Stuart jogged up to them with Tommy slung over his shoulder.

“Anyone see you?” Dallas asked.

“Don’t think so,” Stuart said.  “But Tommy’s not any better.”

“What’s wrong with him?” Mari asked, peering into Tommy’s slack face.

“We’re not sure.  He was like this when we came to get him.  We think Juno did something to him.  Maybe poison.”

Mari’s eyes widened suddenly.  “I know what this is.  It’s wash.”

“That a disease?” Dallas asked.  She fumbled the code to the airlock and cursed, starting over.

“It’s a drug.  The same drug I gave you when…  Oh, Spirits, this is…  This is…”  She held her hand to her mouth, wide-eyed, shaking her head.

“Bad?” Stuart suggested.

“Horrible,” Mari whispered.  “We can’t take him with us.”

“Well we’re not leaving him here,” Dallas said firmly.

Suddenly, the corporal came walking around the leg of the ship, saying, “Now I remember where I saw you from.  You’re captain Dallas York, right?  The one they fired for reckless endangerment and insubordination?  A fairy, right?  It was all over the news—”

He stopped short when he saw Stuart.  His eyes caught on Tommy, slung limply from Stuart’s shoulder.  “Wait a minute.”

Dallas pulled her gun and aimed it at the corporal’s face.  “Listen to me, Corporal Jin.  I don’t want to shoot you, but I will if I have to.”

Corporal Jin’s hand strayed toward his own weapon.  In an instant, he had it up and aimed at her.  Dallas found herself staring down the point of a laser pistol, knowing that one tug with his finger could put another hole in her brain.

“Put the gun down, Captain.”

The gun began to shake in Dallas’s hands, but she refused to lower it.  “Listen, Corporal, go back to your ship.  Retribution is my property.  We’re not hurting anyone.  We just want to go home.”

“That ship was here when we took the island,” Jin said.

“Yes,” Dallas said, “We’ve been stranded here awhile now.  We wandered into the wrong section of space and they caught us.”

“I heard you signed on with a pirate,” Jin said, narrowing his eyes on her.

Dallas took a deep breath.  “I was kidnapped by a pirate.  Please.  I don’t want to shoot you.”

“I don’t want to shoot you, either.  I served on your ship.  Bloody Mary.  Had a blast even though it was haunted.”

“Then please,” Dallas said.

Jin glanced at Stuart, then back at her.  “You had me fooled, right up until I realized where I’d seen you.  After that, I let you play your game.  Figured you wanted the bay cleared for some reason, so I let you do that, too.”  He grinned and lowered his gun.  “Just wanted to shake your hand, Captain.  I’ve never seen better flying.  Before or since.  You saved our lives more than once.”  Jin walked up, held out his arm.

Dallas lowered her gun with a gasp of relief and shook his hand.  “Thank you.”

“Heard about Erriat,” Jin said.  “They did all sorts of calculations on that fight, got reaaaaal nervous.  You know you’re the only stick-fairy alive today, right?  Like, the last one died a decade ago in a weed overdose.”

“I hadn’t known that,” Dallas said, still a little stunned that he wasn’t shooting her.

Corporal Jin grinned at her.  “Those Utopian pisswads didn’t know what they were losing.”

Dallas glanced up at the ship, then back at him, an evil smile forming on her lips.  “Well, if they haven’t figured it out already, they’re about to.”

Jin’s eyes widened.  “You’re taking her up?  Without authorization?”

“Oh no,” Dallas said, grinning evilly.  “I’ll get my authorization.”  She patted the rear cannon near her head and smiled.

Jin looked over the ship, then back to her.  “After Bloody Mary, I’m not going to say anything’s impossible, but—”

“Then don’t,” Dallas said.

Jin looked like he wanted to say more, but then nodded.  “Pleasure meeting you.  If you ever stop by Roth and you’re in need of a drink, look me up.  I could scrounge up a few other veterans of Mary and we could tell ghost stories.”  He pulled an ID tag from his pocket and handed it to her.

“Thanks,” Dallas said, tucking the tag in her pocket, her grin widening.  “I’ll do that.”

“‘Night, Captain.”  Jin nodded to Stuart and Mari and turned and walked away.

“I’ll be damned,” Stuart said, staring at her.

“What?” Dallas asked, opening the airlock.

“You mean there really was a Bloody Mary?”

“Of course there was.  Why?”

“You really piloted a ghost ship?  All this time, I thought you were joking.”

You didn’t believe me?!”

“All that stuff about spinning heads and floating tables…  That was real?”

“Get aboard,” Dallas muttered.  “We’ll talk about this later.”

“Dallas?”

“Just get on the ship!”

Stuart stumbled inside and she followed, locking the door behind her.

“Put Tommy in his room,” she said.  “And find me something to use to tie your hands behind your back.”

Stuart blinked.  “Dallas, I didn’t mean to be—”

“So we can do the transfer, Stuart.  I want you with me when I fly.  Like hell I’m doing this solo.”

“Oh.”  He stood there, staring at her.

She went to the helm and began checking the systems.

He was still standing at the air-lock three minutes later, when Dallas was finished running diagnostics and went looking for him.  Seeing him still standing where she’d left him, Dallas walked up and peered at the suzait.  “Are you taking a dump in there or something?”  She waved her hand in front of his face concernedly.  “Why are you just standing around?”

Flushing crimson, Stuart turned towards Howlen’s room with the comatose colonel still slung over his shoulder.  A few minutes later, he returned with a shredded sheet.

“That’s all you could find?!” Dallas cried.  “You think it will hold him?”

“It just has to be long enough to lock him in one of the rooms,” Stuart replied.

“No,” Dallas said immediately.  “We’re leaving him here.  I don’t intend to have you out of my head again.  Come on.  Let’s get this over with.”  She took the sheet and started tying his hands behind his back.

When she finished, Stuart was staring at her again.  Mouth open, this time.

“Stuart,” Dallas said dangerously, “Do not tell me that you’re sick or something.  Did that last transfer mess you up?  You get hurt when Athenais flung you around?  Internal bleeding?  Infection?  What?”

Stuart shook himself and managed, “No, not sick.  You’re sure, Dallas?  You mean you want me in there…forever?”

She frowned at him.  “Duh.”

His mouth fell open again.  “You would willingly be my host—”

“Stuart, we don’t have time for this,” Dallas growled, grabbing him by the ear and yanking him towards the floor.  “We have a schedule, remember?”

Mari watched Dallas position Stuart over her with increasing horror.

“Don’t worry, Mari,” Dallas said.  “I’ll be fine.  If you don’t want to watch, you can go check out the regen room.  See if it’s got everything you need.”

“No,” Mari said, “I can stay.”

“Uh, that’s not really what I meant,” Dallas said, wincing.  “I meant this is kind of personal, Mari.  I’d feel more comfortable if it was just Stuart and I.”

“Oh.  Of course.”  Mari nodded and hurried from the room, her relief clear on her face.

“You ready for this?” Dallas leaned back on the carpet, nostrils-up.

“Ready.”  Stuart laid his nose over hers.

“Go.”

Dallas closed her eyes as Stuart sprang from the host’s nose and slid into her own.  The nose, Stuart had informed her, was the most painless way to do things.  Dallas still thought it was gross, but, remembering the agonizing headache from last time, she was willing to try.

At first, it was an uncomfortable warm, squishy wetness that made her want to sneeze.  Quickly, though, it turned into that boring, nerve-wracking agony.  She squeezed her fists together, grinding her teeth against the pain, but started screaming anyway.  Her body shook and she pounded the floor with her fists, stubbornly fighting the instinct to reach up and try to tear him out.

Then it was over.  Like last time, he shut off the pain receptors of his entry point, leaving her with only a minor tingle from the adrenaline.

Welcome back, Dallas thought.

Good to be home, Stuart replied.  Now say something to Mari.  She looks about ready to reach for your gun.

“Mari, it’s me,” Dallas said.  “Stuart stays in the background unless it’s something important.”

Or if you’re being stupid.

“Shut up.”

Mari nodded, wide-eyed, but her hand went to her mouth as the trickle of blood leaked from Dallas’s nose.

“It’s okay,” Dallas said, wiping he face with a sleeve.  “He didn’t hit an artery or anything.  It’s just leftover from when he—”

Mari lifted up her hand and pointed.

Dallas turned.  Behind them, the Warrior was groggily getting to his feet, the strips of sheet hanging broken from his wrists.  Dallas kicked him in the back of the knee and ran past him, opening the airlock.

Hurry, Dallas!  While he’s still uncoordinated.

“Help me, Mari!” she shouted, grabbing the Warrior by his wrists and pulling.  Mari ran to her and grabbed the Warrior’s shirt, and together, they tugged and pulled him out the door.

“What is the meaning of this?!” a commanding female voice demanded.  “Who is this man?”

Dallas looked up.  Behind her, Mari backed into the ship, biting her lip.

“He’s a shifter, apparently,” Athenais said, shoving the Warrior out of her path.  “Dallas, meet Colonel Burke.  Colonel Burke, this is our pilot.  Now everyone get on the ship.  We’ve got to hurry.”

Dallas glanced from Athenais to Ragnar, but they offered her no insights.  Confused, she turned to go back onto the ship.

“Wait a minute, young woman!” the Colonel snapped.  “Aren’t you gonna ask for some sort of passcode?  Don’t you want to make sure we’re not shifters?”

Dallas turned back, frowning.  “Why would I want to do that?”

Ragnar groaned and Athenais whipped out her pistol, pointing it at the Colonel.  “Get on the ship, Burke, or your brain is about to decorate the walls of my ship.”

“My ship,” Dallas interjected.

Burke’s eyes narrowed on the three of them.  “You’re just common thieves.  Criminals.  You’re probably the ones exporting the drugs off of this planet.”

“Damn.  You caught us,” Athenais said.  “Now get on the ship.”

Burke turned around and spat directly in Athenais’s face.  “You’re going to die here, pirate.”

Athenais’s eyes opened wide and her lips pressed together in a puckered line.  Her finger clenched around the trigger, but Ragnar grabbed the gun and lifted before she could fire.  “She’s not going to help us,” he said.  “Our cover’s blown.  She’s just doing her job.  There’s no use killing her.”

“But I want to kill her,” Athenais said, wiping spittle from her face.

“Just get on the ship, Athenais.  It’s up to Dallas, now.”

The Colonel’s expression changed and she took another look at Dallas.  “Wait.  Dallas York?”

“Do I know you?” Dallas asked.

The woman glanced back at Athenais and Ragnar with a calculating expression.  “There’s a two million credit bounty out on your head, girl.”

Dallas’s heart began to pound.  There…was?  That was twice as much as Athenais.  Oh shit.  “For what?” she managed.

“Erriat.”

Dallas winced.  “Oh.”

Two million?” Athenais demanded, sounding disgusted.  “How’d the little twit rate two whole million?”

And it’s about to get a hell of a lot bigger, Stuart said, If we’ve got any luck at all.

Dallas realized, more than a little horrified, that he was right.  Flying down forty ships was bad.  But hundreds of thousands?  She was going to be painting a nova-sized target on her back if she managed to get them out alive.

“Should be fun,” Dallas said.

Someday, you and I are going to have to have a discussion on our definition of ‘fun,’ Stuart replied.

Chicken.

Still standing at the edge of the loading ramp, the Colonel, who had been staring at Dallas, turned to Athenais.  “I was wrong.  You might have half a chance, after all.”  At that, stiff-legged, she turned and began stalking back across the docking bay.

Athenais gave Burke’s back a long look, and Dallas saw the pirate consider blasting her in the back anyway.  Then the woman grunted, returned her weapon to its holster, and pushed past Dallas into the ship.  Ragnar followed, and Dallas shut the airlock, leaving Stuart’s Warrior stumbling to his feet outside.

“What was that all about?” Dallas muttered.

“We’re dead,” Ragnar said, sighing.  He threw the gun haphazardly into a corner, making Dallas yelp.

“Who’s the blonde?” Athenais demanded, scowling at Mari.

“She’s our new surgeon.”

“She any good?”

“She patched up my brain after Stuart left.”

“Hmm.  I take it you left Howlen behind?”

“He’s inside, strapped to his bed,” Stuart said through Dallas.  “We figured it might be a bumpy ride.”

“I see.”  Athenais glanced around the ship with a sigh.  “Well, I’m sorry to say this, but I plan on being the only one to survive this.”  She settled back against the wall and yawned.

Dallas frowned.  “What is your problem?!  I told you I could get us out of this!”

“Sorry,” Athenais said, closing her eyes, “But you can’t.  Burke was our last card, and she just fell out of our hand.”

She doesn’t think I can do it.  Never did.  Not even after I rescued her on Erriat.  A deep fury was building in Dallas’s chest, and it was all she could do not to scream at the woman.  Very calmly, she said, “I want you to promise me something, Athenais.”

The pirate looked up at her, lifting a tired brow.  “Promise what?”

“I’m getting us out of here,” Dallas said.  “And when I do, Retribution’s mine.  No more quibbling.  You want to stay, you call me Captain and salute me whenever I come on deck.”

Athenais’s brow lifted.  “Salute you?”  She snorted.  “Hell, I’d kiss your big rosy ass a hundred times a day, for all the good it’d do.”

“Then it’s a deal,” Dallas said, settling into the pilot’s seat.  “Ya’ll might wanna strap yourselves in.”




Wings of Retribution

Final Retribution


“Retribution, this is battlecarrier Glory.  You are not cleared for departure.  I repeat, you are not cleared for departure.  Turn off your engines and surrender your crew to Colonel Burke or you will be fired upon.”

Dallas closed her eyes.  “Let’s go.”  She thrust the stick forward, backed off on the vertical thrusters, and shot forward, clipping the tip of the Wall.  Behind her, the beam of a battlecarrier cut the ocean in a line of bubbling water and melting sand.

I’m taking over all your automatic body functions and rerouting that capability to your visual and motor processing centers.  It should help you react faster than you’re used to.

Thanks, Dallas thought, But I’m gonna need more than that—

I’m also secreting a mental stimulant similar to caffeine.  You should be feeling the effects in moments.

Mental stimulant?

Yes.  Remember what I said about one drop of the fluid in my body being equivalent to an entire human brain?  Well, I’m giving you a couple drops.  Any more would be a waste, since the effects will only be temporary.  The physiology of the human body is such that foreign substances are filtered out and excreted. 

Thanks, Stuart.

You’re welcome.  Now get us out of here.

As he predicted, Dallas began feeling the effects of the drug.  Even as she was dodging laser fire, trying to gain altitude, her eyesight sharpened, she started moving faster, and her response time was instantaneous.  She floored the planetary throttle, and when that didn’t satisfy her, she began using a bit of the interstellar engines to evade the Utopia’s weapons-locks.  A mistaken twitch of her finger would send them plowing a hundred miles into the ocean and out the other side.

“Have we broken atmosphere yet?” Athenais asked, staring at the controls.

“No,” Ragnar breathed.  “She’s using interstellar planetside.”

The helm fell into utter silence, all eyes glued to the controls.

Above, the Utopia was doing its best to keep her from breaking the atmosphere, detonating massive expanses of ocean in an attempt to shoot her down.  None of the rounds even came close.

She shot out of the atmosphere and out into orbit, immediately correcting her flightpath to keep from colliding into one of the waiting warships.

“Well, that was fun,” Athenais said.  “Here’s where they cut off automatics.  Without the computer, you’re just wasting your ti—”

I’ve disabled your audial nerves.  Ignore them.  You need to concentrate.

As soon as Retribution was free from the pull of gravity, the battlecruiser fired its ASP, scrambling its computer, overloading its automatic controls.  It shut off, leaving everything on manual.

Without a pause, Dallas took over.  She flipped the display to a 3-D view of the surrounding space—an act usually reserved for one-time checks of proximity problems because it was too complicated for the human brain to analyze continuously—and left it there.  She began compensating for the loss of automatics with deft flicks of her hand to the console in front of her, without ever taking her eyes from the three-dimensional view.

Even though she couldn’t hear it, she knew the bridge was once again draped in utter silence.

You’re doing good, Stuart said.  Aim for the outgoing Z axis.  That’s the likeliest point for a clean exit.

No, Dallas said.  They’d follow us.  We’ve got to stay and fight.

In her head, she could feel Stuart balk.  Tentatively, he said, Stay and…fight?

Yes.  Now shush.  You’re breaking my concentration.

She launched Retribution at the nearest battlecruiser, a few hundred warships in hot pursuit.  She veered down at the last moment, twisted, and shot around the underbelly, blasting through the startled warships on the other side using slipstream and a fraction of interstellar thrust.  Several ships moved to block her path and she doubled back, scattering her pursuers in a startled burst of automatics.

Dallas grinned.  Rabbit was right.  This was what she was born to do.



Wings of Retribution


“Abort!  Abort!  We’re dealing with a fairy!”

All around the helm, blaring PROXIMITY WARNING lights were going off, and had been for the last thirty minutes.  Athenais reached forward and shut them off, eyes fixed to the comset.

“This is Admiral Redstone.  That’s a negative.  Keep on him.  Glory, what are our casualties?”

Another captain came on the air, bewilderment in her voice.  “None, sir.  He hasn’t even fired on us.”

“Had plenty of opportunities, too,” another captain added.

“Guns malfunctioning?” Redstone asked.

“Fully functioning, Admiral.  He’s made no attempts.  The array is not even hot.”

Athenais glanced up from the comset, then glanced at Ragnar.  Together, they turned to stare at Fairy.

“Looks like I might end up kissing her ass,” Athenais whispered.

“I’d pucker up,” Ragnar agreed, also whispering.  “Do you see that?  She’s using the 3-D view as her map.”

“And she’s using the damn interstellar thrusters,” Athenais said between her teeth.  “God, I wish she’d stop doing that.  One muscle spasm and we all become a metal patty.”

“She’s not shooting them,” Ragnar noted.  “We could’ve taken out at least thirty ships by now, but she’s not even trying.”

“Maybe she needs a gunner,” Athenais said, moving to the weapons panel.

“No,” Ragnar said, grabbing her wrist.  “Leave it alone.  You might break her concentration.”

Athenais flinched at Dallas and very slowly pulled her hand away from the gun controls.

As she watched, they took a nosedive between two battlecruisers, so close that the sides of the cruisers loomed up around them, blocking the view through the cockpit windows.

“What is she doing?!” Athenais hissed.  “We could’ve been through twenty minutes ago!”

Dallas shot her hand over to the weapons panel without looking up from the 3-D display.  Then she dove back through the opening between the two cruisers, adding extra thrust from the interstellar engines.

“She does that again and my stomach’s coming out my mouth,” Athenais said between gritted teeth.

“I think I just pissed myself,” Ragnar said.  He looked down.  Grimaced.  “Yep.  Pissed myself.”

Admiral!  Retribution’s weapons are hot!  She’s targeted on Glory!  Aiming for the Section B—he knows the ship’s anatomy!  Admiral, he’s aiming at the central engine’s exhaust vent!”

Athenais’s brow lifted.  “How does she know how to find that?”

“Space Academy,” Ragnar whispered.  “She’s about to take out a cruiser.”

They waited, breathless, for the killing blow.

Dallas’s hand darted back to the weapons panel and then she twisted back and away, leaving the two carriers behind and allowing the cloud of fighters to swarm her.  Then, as she backed off, she picked up the com and said, “Admiral Redstone, this is Dallas York, and that was your only warning.”

“She didn’t kill it?!” Athenais cried.  A hundred thousand ships—a quarter of the firepower arrayed against them—would have been out of commission, in an instant, and she’d left it?  She would have jumped from her seat, but the harness held her in place.  “You had a clear shot and she didn’t take it?!  Fairy, you moron!”

“She didn’t need to,” Ragnar whispered, his voice awed.

“What do you mean, she didn’t—”

Stand down.”

Athenais’s eyes jerked back to the comset.

Utopian forces, stand down.  This is Admiral Redstone.  Return to formation.  Retribution, you are free to go.”

Athenais’s jaw fell open.  “Is he serious?”

Ragnar said nothing.

“He’s serious?!  He’s just letting us go?!”

Dallas picked up the comset and turned to grin at Athenais.  “Admiral Redstone, this is Dallas York.  I appreciate it, sir.”  At that, she hung up the comset and turned back to grin at Athenais.

Oh, this was too much.  “Wipe that smirk off your face,” Athenais snapped.  Then, belatedly, she added, “Captain.”



Wings of Retribution


Dallas spent the next four days sleeping off the side-effects of Stuart’s drug.  When she woke up, they were only a week from T-9.  The rest of the trip went smoothly, except for the day Tommy recovered from his coma.

Dallas was flying while Ragnar and Athenais slept, watching the debris field and bantering with Stuart, when Mari came running into the helm, face flushed with excitement.  “Dallas!  Tommy is awake.  He woke up!”

“That’s great,” Dallas said, setting the ship on autopilot and getting up.

Mari shook her head vehemently.  “No.  That’s bad.  Very bad.  It’s forbidden.”

Dallas frowned at Mari and hurried down the corridor to Tommy’s room.  The Colonel was sitting on the bunk, staring wide-eyed into space.  When Dallas came to the door, he turned to her and swallowed, hard.

“Tommy?” Dallas said tentatively.

“Hello Dallas,” Tommy said, his voice gruff.  “And Stuart.”  He nodded respectfully and looked away.

Is he feeling all right? Stuart asked.

“You need anything?” Dallas asked tentatively.  “You hungry?  I can get you some water, if you don’t want to get up.  You were out of it for quite awhile.  We had to convince Mari to install an IV line on you.”

“I know,” Tommy whispered.

He sounds like he’s about to cry, Stuart said, sounding troubled.

“Look, Tommy, Mari says there’s no brain damage.  You’re fine.  We’re only three days out from T-9 and scott free.  Juno got her ass kicked by the Utopia…what’s wrong?”

Tommy looked up at her, his eyes wet.  “Nothing.  You’re a real sweet girl, Dallas.  Stuart’s got good taste.”

Okay, now I’m sure there’s something wrong, Stuart said.

“Tommy, what happened back on Xenith?  What put you under?  Was it Juno?”

Tommy stood up.  “You can stop worrying, Captain.  I’m just happy to be alive.”  He stumbled around his bed toward the bathroom door.  “Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve gotta take a major dump.  My bowels just kicked in and I feel like I’m gonna explode.”

“Sure,” Dallas said, backing out of the room.

“You see?” Mari whispered, peeking over Dallas’s shoulder.  “It was the wash.  Oh, this is very bad.  Very, very bad.”

“It’s good,” Dallas snapped.  “I don’t know what’s wrong with you, but one of my crew just woke up from a coma.  You ask me, this deserves a celebration.”

Mari wrung her hands in front of her, shaking her head, so Dallas shut Tommy’s door and turned on her.  “What’s wrong?” she demanded.  “Spit it out.”

“Those who survive the wash…” Mari began, sweating, “…they are changed.”

“Then, believe me, it was for the better,” Dallas said.  “He’s not such a cranky old bastard.  Hell, it wouldn’t bother me at all if he got a few synapses re-wired…  As long as he doesn’t attack me or my crew, I figure Juno did us a favor by brainwashing him.  Besides, he survived the first time she tried.  Some special training or something.  He’s fine.”

Mari shook her head and turned away, muttering.

Despite Mari’s insistence that there was something wrong with Tommy, he quickly adapted to the ship’s routine, sitting with Dallas with her shift.  After some initial nausea, he began eating again, developing a ravenous appetite in the first four hours after waking up.  After making sure his brain patterns were stable, Dallas even let him take over for her for a few hours at a time.  She judged him to be perfectly healthy and dismissed Mari’s warnings as superstition.

When they reached T-9, however, he refused to leave the ship.

Dallas, overly possessive of Retribution now that she had lost it twice, found it too difficult to leave anyone alone onboard, but Tommy stoutly refused to enter the Hub.  She tried everything, even threatening to fire him, but he would not get within twenty feet of the air-lock.  She ended up settling for locking him in his room and closing down the bridge with a passcode.  Mari she left in the regen room studying a memchip on Utopi customs.  Only then was she able to join Athenais and Ragnar for a planetside jaunt to celebrate.

They started in the Silk district.  Ragnar and Athenais went to dinner at one of the many fine restaurants while Dallas window-shopped along the busy avenues.  It wasn’t quite the fashion district on Millennium, but it was exhilarating nonetheless.  Athenais had given her four months of pay for the entire Xenith fiasco and it took her all of two hours to spend it.

“You think you got enough stuff, there?” Athenais said when she and Ragnar came to find her.  “You’d think you were buying for an orphanage or something.”

“An orphanage wouldn’t wear Wei Tei,” Ragnar pointed out.  “Isn’t that a little pricey, Dallas?”

“How’s it look?” she asked.  She pulled the real-wool hat over her head, beaming.  “I got it in blue, too.”

Athenais rolled her eyes.  “It’s your money, Fairy.”

“That’s ‘Captain,’” Dallas corrected.

The old bat stiffened like she was going to retort and Dallas raised a single brow.  Then Athenais’s face twisted in a grimace.  “Fine, Captain.  It’s your money,” the old broad said.  “Now hurry up and pack that stuff on the shuttle.  I wanna check out The Shop ‘fore they move it again.”

They rode the shuttle to the Forgotten District and Athenais paid the shuttle driver extra to wait outside.  Dallas found it hard to tear her eyes off of her purchases, perched precariously in the back seat of the shuttle.

“What about my stuff?” she asked as they were entering The Shop.  “What if he drives off with it?”

“That fat old bastard couldn’t even fit his fist into one of those blouses, Dallas,” Ragnar said.  “Don’t worry about it.”

“But what if somebody steals them?  Knocks him out and runs off?  That’s four months worth of—”

You son of a whore!”  The shout silenced the entire Shop, bringing all conversation to an abrupt halt.

Dallas blinked, staring at Athenais.  The pirate’s gaze was fixed on someone in the back of the room.  She stepped out of the way as Athenais brushed past her, stopping at a table in the far corner.

“How’d you get out of there, you little weasel?”

Dallas took another look at the utterly placid little man in the corner.  Her heart fluttered.  “Rabbit!” she cried, gleeful.

Rabbit scanned the silent room and cleared his throat.  “Stowed away in one of their drug shipments as soon as I realized Juno wasn’t going to listen to reason.”

“You just left us there?” Athenais demanded.

“I knew you could handle yourselves.”

The space pirate slammed her hand down on the table in front of Rabbit.  Rabbit looked up and held Athenais’s gaze, unwavering.  A tense moment of silence followed before Athenais bellowed, “Giggles!  Beer for everyone.  On me.”  The Shop roared with cheers and spacers shoved each other aside getting to the bar.

“But I wanted Scotch,” Dallas muttered, watching the line form.



Wings of Retribution


“You ready for this?” Athenais asked, glancing from Dallas to Ragnar to Rabbit.

“More than ready,” Ragnar said, his eyes cold.

“Then let’s do it.”  Athenais raised her weapon and shot the lock off the door.  Then she kicked it in, eliciting a feminine scream from the other side.

Governor Black stood in his sleeping robes, a toothbrush still in his hand.  Ragnar rushed him and shoved him to the ground, pressing the barrel of his pistol to the Governor’s skull.

“Watch the door, Captain York.  You won’t want to see this.”  Athenais walked up to Black and squatted in front of him.  Leaning in close, gun to his temple, she smiled and said, “Remember me, Governor?”

“I don’t know who you are!” the Governor whimpered.  “Please, take anything you want.  Just don’t hurt—”

Athenais, furious that he didn’t even remember her, hit him with the butt of her rifle.  “It’s Athenais, you stupid bastard.  You killed my crew and sent me to Orplex.”  She narrowed her eyes.  “Or maybe I need to jog your memory.”

“Athen…”  The Governor’s voice dropped away as Ragnar pushed his face further into the carpet.  “Oh, God.”

“That’s right,” Athenais said.  “Make your peace now.  You’re not going to survive the night.”  She stood and walked over to an exquisite carving of a duck in blue stone.  “This is good.  Did you buy it with my money?”

“Please, just listen,” the Governor whimpered.  “I can explain—”

“Shut up!” Athenais snapped.  Ragnar mashed the Governor’s face deeper into the floor, stifling further comments.  She moved to the window and glanced out the curtain.  “Did you know, Governor Black, I worked as an assassin once?  Was good at it, too.”  She moved away from the window and walked to the bookshelf, taking an ancient text from the shelf and examining it.  “Gone with the Wind.  You’ve got good taste, for a backstabbing viper.”  Then she recognized the little crack in the spine and her eyes narrowed.  “I should’ve known.”  She held up the book.  “You took this from Howlen, didn’t you?”

“I’m sorry,” Governor Black cried.  “Please, I’m so sorry.  I didn’t know—”

“Didn’t know I’d come after you?” Athenais interrupted, waving the book at him.  “Didn’t know I’d get off of Erriat?”

“It’s not as bad as you think!” the Governor said, his voice muffled by the carpet.

Athenais’s face contorted and she charged over to him and ripped his head from the floor by his hair.  “Not as bad as I think?!  So you didn’t backstab me, destroy my ship, kill my crew, and send me to the biggest Hell in the Quad?!”

“No!” Black whimpered.

Athenais yanked harder.  “No what?!  Am I missing something?”

“They’re alive!” Governor Black sobbed.

Who’s alive?!” Athenais shouted into his ear, threatening to tear his head from his spine.

“Your crew!  Oh God your crew!”

Athenais dropped his head and stood.  “He’s lying.  Shoot him.”

No!” the governor screamed.  “They’re all alive, I swear!”

“You lying bastard.”  Athenais lifted her rifle, aiming at Black’s terrified face.

Please!” Black screamed.  “I can take you to them!  Right now!”

“I saw you blow up Beetle, Governor,” Athenais said across the length of her rifle.  “How stupid do you think I am?”

“I thought you might try to betray me,” Black cried.  “I had Beetle boarded and took your crew as collateral.  Then I realized I could make even more off of the shifters.  I needed the money.  I’ve got gambling debts, a mortgage, a family…

“Good thing they’re on vacation or they’d have to watch their daddy’s brains get splattered across his designer nightgown,” Athenais said.

“Oh God,” Governor Black whimpered.  “Please.  They’re alive.  I can pay you back for your ship.  Just let me show you!”

“You’re a damned moron if you think that’s gonna work on me twice, you two-bit sleazebag!  There’s one place for people like you!  Underground!”  She pressed the barrel of her rifle against the Governor’s temple, furious.

“Attie.”

Athenais took several long breaths, sighted down her gun on Governor Black’s skull, then lowered her weapon, scowling at Rabbit.

“What if he’s telling the truth?”  Rabbit was frowning at the Governor, who was now sitting on the floor, hugging his knees and crying.

“Oh, come on,” Athenais scoffed.  “You don’t actually believe…”

“What if it’s true?”

Athenais scowled down on the huddled form, then bent and grabbed his hair in a gloved fist.  “You listen to me, Governor.  You’re about twenty seconds from an energy blast between the eyes.  If you don’t answer every question to my satisfaction, I will kill you, you understand?”

“Yes!  Oh God yes!”

Athenais released his head roughly and the Governor collapsed into pitiful sobs.

“Now,” Athenais said, “Where are they?”

“The city jail,” the Governor whimpered.  “They’ve been there ever since I blew up Beetle.”

“I saw the bodies you showed me, Governor.  Explain that.”

“Reproductions,” the Governor whined.  “I boarded Beetle illegally and kidnapped people.  Elections were coming up!  I couldn’t get involved in a scandal!  Five missing spacers…  My publicist told me I had to cover it up, make it look like an accident.  We hid them, got rid of you, and fudged the Docking Authority report, made it look like that stubborn S.O. officer did it.  That gave us an excuse to board his ship and confiscate the shifters.  It was great publicity.  The people of this planet love to see the Utopis brought down a peg.”

Athenais glanced up at Ragnar, desperately fighting the surge of hope that was rising in her breast.  “Take us to them.”

“Yes!” the Governor cried, jumping up.  “Thank you!”

“Keep in mind,” Athenais warned, “If you try to run, try to get help, alert the guards, anything, I will kill you first.  Understand?”

“Yes, I do, thank you!”  The Governor hurried to the door.

Athenais and Ragnar followed him, guns at ready.

“Why’s he not dead?” Dallas demanded in the hallway outside.

“He’s taking us to my crew,” Athenais said.

The Governor nodded vigorously.

“What, Beetle’s crew?”  Dallas gave her a look of disbelief.  “And you believe him?”

“He’s dead if he’s lying,” Athenais pointed out.

“He was dead as soon as you two walked into the room,” Dallas said.  “What’s he got to lose?”

“Nothing,” Ragnar said.  “Let’s go, Governor.”

The Governor had them all pile into his shuttle and drove them into the heart of the city.  He stopped outside the city jail, babbling his gratitude.  Athenais left her gun with Dallas in the shuttle and Ragnar followed the Governor, his pistol pressed into his back.  He led them up the stairs and into the front of the building, where the weapons-detector went off at Ragnar’s gun.  There was a tense moment where the guard drew his pistol and demanded that they surrender their weapons, but it passed when the Governor claimed that she, Rabbit, and Ragnar were his bodyguards.

“They’re down here,” the Governor said, leading them down several flights of stairs and through dark mazes of cells.

“I don’t like this,” Ragnar muttered to Athenais.

Athenais was also feeling uncomfortable.  The rows of bars were making her hair stand on end.  She hated prisons.  She’d had too much experience on the wrong side of the bars.

“Here we are,” the Governor said.

Athenais stiffened as he flipped on the light, expecting a trap.

There were no guards lurking in the shadows, no firing squad training their guns on them.  Athenais sucked in a breath at the four pale-faced prisoners that looked up at them, shielding their eyes from the sudden light.

“Took long enough, Captain,” Goat muttered.  “We was beginnin’ to think you forgot ‘bout us.”

“And I was just starting to get comfortable,” Dune complained, getting off a cot.

“Speak for yourself,” Squirrel said.  “No offense, Goat, but I think I lost my sense of smell.”

Athenais let out the breath she was holding.

“What happened to your arm, Captain?” Pete asked, staring at the fingers jutting from her shoulder.  “That’s downright creepy.”

“Long story,” Athenais said, slumping against the bars.  “Really long story.”  She gestured at the cell door.  “Let ‘em out, Governor.  I just got word they all just received government pardons.”

Governor Black frowned, looking around them in bafflement, obviously trying to find the source of her information.  “They…did?”  Then, at Athenais’s raised eyebrow, he blinked and babbled, “Oh, of course they did!  Such upstanding citizens…  What a huge misunderstanding!”  He gave a nervous laugh and reached for his personal passcard, which he swiped at the door entrance.

As the Governor hurried to enter the cell release codes, Rabbit sidled closer, watching His Excellency with a befuddled frown.  “Did he just say, ‘upstanding citizens?’”

“I think he did,” Athenais said.

“Okay,” Rabbit said, shaking his head.  “That cinches it.  I’m taking a vacation.”  He pulled out his personal comm and started talking to someone about goats and masonry crews.

“Come on,” Athenais said, as her bedraggled crew filed out of the cell in front of Governor Black, “Let’s go get us a drink.”  She turned and led them from the building, following Rabbit.

“I know you just saved my ass,” Goat said, as they walked out, “but you think you could throw something over that thing in your shoulder?”  He licked his lips, grimacing at the inflamed and puffy fingers jutting from her shoulder socket.  “Yeah.  Uh.  It’s really grossing me out, Cap’in.”

Athenais licked her lips, remembering her promise to the airheaded little ditz.  In the silence that followed, she caught Rabbit pausing in the hall in front of her, giving her a raised eyebrow.  Clearing her throat uncomfortably, she muttered, “It’s Carrot until we get off T-9.”

Everyone in the hall stopped and looked at her.

Athenais ducked her head, her throat burning as she cleared it again.  “Captain York said so.  Until I get a new Beetle retrofitted and get us the hell outta here, I owe her for saving my life.”

“Carrot,” Dune said, at the same time Squirrel blurted, “Did you just call her Captain York?”

“Yeah,” Goat said, “you feelin’ all right, Cap’in?”

Rabbit, who had stalwartly insisted that Athenais hold up her end of the bargain, once he’d learned of it, cleared his throat pointedly.

“I mean Carrot,” Goat corrected, his crooked teeth showing in a huge grin.  “You know,” he said, sounding almost thoughtful, “that’s got a real ring to it.”

Face burning, Athenais shoved through them and went to wring the little twit’s neck.


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