Book: Do No Harm

Do No Harm

Do No Harm

Book Nine of The Omega War


Robert E. Hampson & Chris Kennedy

with Sandra L. Medlock

PUBLISHED BY: Seventh Seal Press

Copyright © 2019 Robert E. Hampson, Chris Kennedy,

and Sandra L. Medlock

All Rights Reserved

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License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only and may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

This book is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are products of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.

* * * * *


For Ruann, the love of my life; for Mom, my first fan; for Dad, my hero and role model.


* * * * *


Chris Kennedy likes to say that Four Horsemen stories start out in a bar. In this case, it had to be a virtual one, but I think Tales from the Lyon’s Den counts.

I first entered the universe of the Four Horsemen for Earth—4HU—with a short story…late…twice. Blame the day job. Mark and Chris were kind and generous, so they accepted that story and I even received a second invitation. This time I paid attention and used a bit of my science knowledge to write about the “pinplants”—brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs. Then I ambushed the two of them with an idea for a third short story and eventually wore them down.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was inadvertently building a piece of the 4HU and had way more ideas about those quirky Wrogul that were the highly specialized surgeon-scientists of the Galactic Union. So, once again, I blindsided them with a proposed story that would be told from multiple points of view, with different authors supplying some of that unique POV. I wore them down until they acquiesced, and you are holding the result.

I want to thank my co-authors Chris Kennedy for “Verne” and Sandra Medlock for “Marinara.” Many, many thanks to Mark Wandrey for creating this fun universe and providing hours of reading enjoyment, and, of course, Chris for co-creating, co-writing, and publishing it. 4HU fans are wonderful and supportive; they’ve encouraged Mark, Chris, me, and the many other writers in creating a rich and varied universe. I’ve written a lot of non-fiction and short fiction but writing full-length is a different story; I am grateful to everyone who has given me an opportunity to improve my craft.

Many thanks to Brent a/k/a Evil Penguin for suggesting the name and profession of Marinara. You have survived this novel and even get center stage for a while. Good work. Sleep well. I’ll most likely kill you in the next one.

Mostly, I thank my family for supporting me. I thank Chris S., KC, Doc, Cathe, Eeps, Jeremy, Mike, Brian, and Bridget for writing challenges and cracking the whip of encouragement. Again, I thank my co-authors who shared the vision for how to tell the story.

Rob Hampson

Kernersville, NC

February 2019

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Cover Design by Brenda Mihalko

Original Art by Ricky Ryan

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Prologue: Azure

Part 1: Todd

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen


Part 2: Verne

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen


Part 3: Marinara

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen


Part 4: Molina

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen


Part 5: Harryhausen

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Epilogue: Nautilus

Join the Merc Guild

About Robert E. Hampson

About Chris Kennedy

About Sandra L. Medlock

Excerpt from Book Ten of The Omega War

Excerpt from Book One of the Salvage Title Trilogy

Excerpt from Book One of the Earth Song Cycle

* * * * *

Prologue: Azure

The Tri-V screens in the hall showed various scenes from First Contact. The first screen showed a loop of the Buma representative from the Trade Guild, Shin-al-ra, stepping off the shuttle onto the reception barge in the Hudson River. Beside it was the frozen image of Ambassador Stephenson giving a thumbs-up to the cameras in the UN General Assembly. Alert viewers could see the slightly blurred image of the ISIL suicide bomber approaching the platform. The third screen showed an ashen-faced Ambassador Thales being escorted off the MinSha dropship after having witnessed the Union’s “retribution” against Iran for the surprise attack.

“Sun Tzu wrote ‘He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot, will be victorious’ in The Art of War more than twenty-five hundred years before the Galactic Union came to Earth. Who can tell me how his quote could be applied to Human First Contact with the Union?” The lecturer looked expectantly at his class. The students sat in orderly rows along the center and right side of the auditorium. He could see several students consulting slates. “No looking up Ambassador Thales’ memoirs. That’s cheating.”

“If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t winning,” came an anonymous voice from the back of the room.

“Use your annunciators, please,” the lecturer admonished. “And to answer your comment, Mister Dillon—since I would recognize your voice anywhere, John Edward—the expression is ‘If you ain’t cheating, you ain’t trying.’ It was a favorite of Earth’s Air Combat operatives. However, in this course, if you cheat, you fail. If you fail, you won’t be working for a merc company, and if you’re not working for the mercs, you’re stuck with either BLA or working the farming rafts.” Unlike the vast majority of Earthers, the Azure Colony prided itself on not being dependent on the Basic Living Allowance, so he could see frowns on several faces.

After several moments of silence, a red light switched on in front of one of the students. At a nod, she stood and addressed the class. “If ISIL had known the MinSha would turn Iran into radioactive waste, they wouldn’t have assassinated the Trade Guild representative. Then they would have had many more mercenaries to kill aliens and get paid.”

Another student announced his intention with the annunciator signal light. Again the instructor nodded, and he stood to counter his classmate: “If they hadn’t fought in the first place, the MinSha wouldn’t have known Humans could fight, and there wouldn’t be any merc companies.”

The instructor shook his head and motioned both students to retake their seats. “Liesl, I think Colonel Shirazi may object to your analogy using his slogan. I also think he would say Asbaran Solutions has done quite well using pure spite as a substitute for numbers. Hakeem, you’ve gotten a bit off topic, but don’t you think Liesl’s logic also implies that mankind should never have taken the Alpha Contracts?” The student mumbled something inaudible to the rest of the class, but it was picked up by the translation program on the lecturer’s slate. After a quick glance he smiled. “No, I thought not.”

Another red light came on high on the wall along the left side of the lecture hall. One-third of the room was filled with what looked like a large aquarium tank. It was relatively shallow, with a sandy bottom, and the water was only about half-a-meter deep. Several 1.25-meter-long cephalopods—similar to an Earth octopi—were visible near the glass wall; their eyes with the strange W-shaped pupils periodically shifted from the Tri-V to the rest of the class. The top of the tank was open to the room so the inhabitants could interact with the students, and once the instructor had acknowledged the request to speak, one of the cephalopods rose to the surface and hung several of its arms over the edge of the tank. It didn’t need to be physically in the air to address the class, but it was considered common courtesy.

“Ambassador Thales’ witnessing of the MinSha attack was how he learned when to fight and when to stand.” The voice was clearly synthesized and issued from several speakers around the room tuned to make it sound as if the voice came from the creature holding onto the side of the tank. “Until the Alpha Contracts, no one on Earth knew their own capabilities with respect to the Galactics. Any knowledge anyone thought they had was inaccurate. Thus, the learning is much more important than the knowing. The victory lies in making sure you always learn.

“Excellent point—” the instructor consulted his slate, “—Anson. A very good point.” He turned back to the class as an amber light began to blink on his podium. “That’s all for today. Midterm essays are due next Twoday, and if you are choosing to write an Honor’s Thesis this term, I need your outlines on Fiveday. Dismissed.”

* * * * *

Part 1: Todd

Chapter One

The Scientist was startled out of his dormant period by the alarms. “Alert, all hands to emergency stations.” The Scientist received the message through his pinplants—cybernetic implants that provided bidirectional brain-to-computer interfacing. Instead of a verbal report, he received a data message containing information about the emergency, his duty station, assigned tasks, and the duration of the anticipated crisis. There were systems throughout the ship to repeat the message in light pulses and sound, but most of the crew was equipped with pinplants, so response to the situation was almost immediate.

In the Scientist’s case, his emergency station was his own quarters, but that did not mean he was being kept out of the way or out of direct responsibility for the ship. It was simply that his mission was highly specialized, and, to aid in his concentration, all of his instruments had been installed adjacent to his feeding and rest facility. He activated his linkage to the monitoring system and was granted a view projected directly onto his visual cortex. It showed multiple scenes: the bridge of the ship, several crew areas, engineering spaces, and a view from outside the ship.

The space outside was totally black, not the blackness of space with distant points of lights from stars and nebulae, but an unrelenting, unrelieved blackness. It was nothingness, and it was not supposed to be there. He concentrated on the view of the bridge and “listened” to the light flashes between the crew:

“We’re not in position yet.”

“I don’t care; we’ve got to drop out now!”

“Three ships off the port bow.”

“They’re firing!”

“Drop now.”

“The reactor is not ready. We need another four segments.”

“Evasive maneuvers.”

Brace for impact!

The impacts were conveyed throughout the entire ship by the water filling the crewed spaces. Aquatic species had an advantage in space, as they could withstand much higher acceleration—just so long as they could be completely immersed in water. Unfortunately, water is not compressible, and the same fluid that cushioned them during acceleration transmitted even the slightest shock to all connected spaces. When the ship sensed the first impact, the security instruments in the Scientist’s room sealed it off from the rest of the ship, evacuating the water from the region between the walls. His quarters were now a fluid-filled ball inside a vacuum inside a fluid-filled ship. He was safe from any additional impacts, but he was also trapped and isolated.

Through his pinplants, he saw a compression wave start, first in the aft engineering spaces, and then the forward sensor bay. Each momentary overpressure had minimal effect on the ship and crew, but when the two waves met in the vicinity of the bridge, the forces combined with destructive results.

If they had been anywhere else, the ship would have had protective shields—the best in the Union—but outside the ship was a place where shields simply did not work. The captain was giving the order to drop out when the bridge erupted in bubbles. The hull had been breached, and the life-giving water was boiling away as the pressure dropped. It had to have been a massive breech to drop the pressure that rapidly.

There would be injuries and deaths among the crew. Would they still have the power to drop out? As if in answer to his question, his view of the bridge cleared long enough to see the captain push the dead helmsman off of his perch and activate the drive.

The world briefly went white and then black again.

This time the blackness was in his mind as well, and the Scientist was no longer aware of anything.

* * * * *

Chapter Two

The instrumentation monitoring the Scientist’s chamber was not particularly intelligent, yet it still managed to detect that its occupant’s life was in danger. It did so through the simple expedient of incorporating biological tissue into its own circuitry. When the first missile hit the ship, the shock wave was transmitted through the fluid-filled spaces of the ship and caused shearing across the synthetic nervous tissue wired in-line with the sensors monitoring the ship. The damaged tissue interrupted a circuit holding a vacuum valve closed. The open valve evacuated the space between the inner and outer walls and caused a different circuit to engage the bolts, securing the chamber’s access points. Retracting those bolts could only be accomplished when a new set of biological chemoreceptors detected the presence of life-giving fluid outside the chamber. In the meantime, anesthetic chemicals were released into the interior, and power was shut off to keep both the occupant and his equipment dormant until rescue.

This state kept him entirely unaware of the activity outside his protective shell.

* * *

“Damn! That fucker’s been shot to shit!”

“Language, Mickey! You’re on open comms.”

“Sorry, Captain.” The co-pilot went back to plotting his approach to the derelict, but the other occupant of the cockpit had to admit, vulgarity or not, her subordinate had a point. The workboat hardly needed two pilots, which was one reason she was letting LaFanto do the flying. She was only here so the group of roughnecks and mechanics in the back had an authority figure to command them.

There was a lot of glittery reflection in the debris field. A voice came over the open channel connecting the cockpit with the members of the salvage crew currently occupying the cramped cargo hold. “Is that…ice?”

“Hey, if it’s blue ice then it might literally have been shot in the shitter!” The joke had been old and obsolete on Earth, but somehow, the Azure colony prided itself on remembering obscure Earth trivia, such as the fact air conveyances used a blue chemical in the wastewater, and the sanitary holding tanks would quite often leak “blue juice” which would freeze at high altitudes.

“Quiet back there! We’re matching tumble and spin. Hold on to your lunch.” Captain Elick grinned to herself at the knowledge that Cavanaugh—the one making the blue ice joke—had a sensitive stomach. The next fifteen minutes involved rapid acceleration and deceleration, accompanied by sudden changes in direction, all to a soundtrack of retching over the comm. At the conclusion, LaFanto sat back and clasped his hands behind his head.

“Done, Captain.” Their position with respect to the…yes, frankly, shot-to-shit ship—alliteration intended—was stable, although the distant starfield was in motion.

Captain Elick commed Kazimatsu, the head of the SAR—salvage and rescue—crew. “We’re stable. You can try the docking collar, but, frankly, you may just want to EVA and enter through one of the holes.” LaFanto had maneuvered the workboat so well that Extravehicular Activity would consist of little more than a short jump from the workboat’s open cargo bay to any of the massive holes in the derelict ship.

The response came back in Kazimatsu’s soft voice. “Acknowledged, Captain. Be advised, we had to inflate one of the rescue balls so Cavanaugh could clean out his helmet.”

Elick laughed, but very carefully ensured she wasn’t transmitting when she did so. “Understood, SAR. Move out at your discretion.”

For the next two hours, Elick and LaFanto stayed on-station, keeping the workboat in matching orbit and orientation with the derelict. The SAR crew had that long to find survivors, salvage any workable tech, and decide whether the ship was salvage or scrap. Once the time was up, they had just enough reaction mass to nudge the hulk away from the shipping lanes. They were fortunate it had not appeared in the stargate emergence area, although why it had appeared almost in front of the stargate was a mystery. The gate master had been queried, but the most they could get in answer was that it was not possible and the instruments at Azure Colony were faulty. Snotty bastard.

“Yo, Boss? It is ice. There’s ice all over everything. There are no obvious controls, just a bunch of smooth panels. So far I’ve only seen one or two lights behind the ice.” Cavanaugh seemed a bit more subdued after losing his lunch earlier. “Just about everything in here is bent, too, just like you’d see from a depth charge. I think this was a completely water-filled ship.”

“An aquatic race?” Elick hated to intrude on the SAR crew’s communication, but she needed to ask Kazimatsu. “Do we know of any water-world Galactics that would have their own ships?”

“Selroth and Bakulu,” he answered. Thirty years ago, he’d been an enlisted spacer on the Mirai Maru, the first Human-owned starship, which had been purchased at the cost of Japan’s entire strategic reserve of uranium and niobium. He was Azure’s resident “Old Man” and expert on the Galactic races. “Selroth are mercenaries; they might have an all-Selroth crew, but this doesn’t look like a merc ship. It has—or had, anyway—weapons, but it doesn’t seem to have the capabilities you’d expect for assault or blockade. The Bakulu have their own ships, but their shells are like miniature ships in their own right. Some should have survived. There’s no sign of either.”

“Boss, I don’t recognize this ship type,” another voice said over the comm. “I think I’m at what should be the bridge, though, if the ship design is consistent. It’s smashed all to hell. What Cav said earlier about depth charges? Yeah, this place looks crushed.”

“Any sign of crew?” Kazimatsu asked.

“None. I even thought to look inside some of the larger ice masses. There’s nothing here.”

“Boss? Captain? Cavanaugh here. We may have something.”

“Something” turned out to be a large interior chamber somehow isolated from the overall destruction. There was a gap between the spherical chamber and the sections surrounding it. The inside edges of the surrounding bulkheads were damaged, but the sphere within seemed untouched.

“This was isolated from the rest of the ship. Probably an air gap or vacuum bottle to absorb the hydrostatic forces that wrecked the rest of the ship.” Kazimatsu panned his suit cam over the object. “Mass sensors say it’s hollow but filled with fluid. If there’s anybody left from the crew, this is our best bet.”

* * * * *

Chapter Three

The chemoreceptors were based on the Scientist’s own taste receptors. Granted, they were located on the undersides of his arms and not the oral spaces, but they still essentially “tasted” the salt and sulfur content of the surrounding water. If the system was intelligent, it might have been frustrated by constantly varying concentrations, but all it needed was one hundred time units of consistent mineral concentration in order to release the locking mechanism. The designers had even included visual indicators on the outside of the chamber to aid rescuers in determining the optimum mineral content: charged molecules of sodium, chloride, sulfur, and hydrogen in the exterior fluid caused electrical currents to flow through different circuits, generating multiple colored lights, depending on concentration.

The life-boat—for that was its function now—was neither aware nor cared that the intelligent beings on the outside were mixing seawater and river water based on ice samples recovered from the wrecked spaceship. Any intelligent response could be handled by the occupant once the emergency protective system disengaged. The exterior fluid was not ideal, it had too high a concentration of volcanic by-products, and not quite enough salinity, but it was close enough, and the hatch that occupied the location of the former door to the Scientist’s quarters unlocked and the exterior water mixed with interior to dilute the anesthetic and wake-up the occupant.

* * *

There was light, and warmth, and gravity. The water tasted odd, a bit tangy, as if from a…he felt there should be a name for the taste, but the knowledge would not come. He floated for a moment and realized he was not completely immersed in water but was floating at the surface. Actually, not quite floating, but supported by something underneath. He moved his arms and detected a brief multi-frequency vibration in the air. He rotated one eye toward the source and saw a strange creature with surprisingly short, fat arms that were too few in number for one of his own kind.

His own kind. What kind was that?

He rotated his other eye and saw more of the creatures. Each seemed to have two arms down in the water and two arms supporting the platform beneath him. They had two eyes and several other openings on their head behind a single clear membrane, and what seemed to be a disgustingly long thorax between the pairs of arms. His chromophores were attempting to match the outer integument of the creatures but the biological imperative to attempt camouflage was not succeeding. The color caused extreme chromatic aberration in his vision receptors, a condition he seemed to think was called “yellow.”

He realized that many concepts were bubbling to the surface of his thoughts, but none of them had any context or meaning. “Yellow” seemed to be associated with something in his vision, but it was only an abstract. He didn’t have any further context to which it referred. For that matter, he knew he was “he,” that he was himself, but wasn’t sure what that self was.

Who was he?

What was he?

Who were these creatures and why was he among them?

The creature nearest his head moved an opening behind the clear membrane and more air vibrations were detected.

Sound, that was sound. The vibration could be interpreted and possibly understood, but he didn’t know how he knew that.

With the same strange understanding, he realized the clear membrane and “yellow” integument was a protective suit. The being’s true integument was a different hue and could be seen through the clear protective membrane surrounding the eyes and…mouth. He knew some beings had mouths with interior ridges for consumption of food. He also understood he had exterior ridges—a “beak” it was called—but it certainly was not near the eyes! That would put one at risk of being blinded in the process of eating!

The creatures lifted the platform and passed him through an opening into open air. The drying effect of the overhead heat and light source was immediate, but the creatures quickly set him back down in the water under cover from the…sun. Yes, he was on a planet and had just been removed from something that had once been in…space.

The creatures around him reacted to something, and he saw them all look back at the structure from which he had just been removed. Another creature stood in the…hatch and was waving its limbs and making vigorous air vibrations. Now that one had all of its arms completely out of the water, he could see that indeed, the creatures only had four arms instead of eight. Each was about four to five times as thick as his own, and they seemed strangely rigid except at the ends. The protective covering had been removed from the end of one arm and he could see five smaller appendages. He supposed that could mean they bundled several arms into a stronger mass when in the protective covering. He couldn’t tell if the arms—single or multiple—had taste receptors and grasping surfaces like his own, nor could he see any tentacles unless they, too, were bunched inside the covering.

No, that was not true. The being high on the structure took off the covering over its eyes and mouth. There were a great many tiny tendrils on its head. Maybe they had tentacles, but they were extremely short and far too many. The strange part was that every other part of the being seemed appropriately sized except for the long thorax. The creature’s arms were about the same length as his own, the head was about the same size, but with smaller eyes that were recessed and seemed awkwardly placed too close together. There were more energetic vibrations, and he could see the creature jump from the structure into the water. A bright light issued from the opening on the structure.

He felt a sharp pain in his head, and he descended into blackness.

* * * * *

Chapter Four

The blackness began to lift again, and he found himself laying on sand in shallow water. The taste of the water was strange, but it seemed to be over-oxygenated. That was good, because in the shallows, he had to absorb oxygen through his skin. When fully immersed, he drew water over his gills and could extract about three times as much. Of course, the lower oxygen meant he had to keep activity to a minimum, so this was a good way to keep him confined, if that’s what the strange beings had in mind.

Two of the beings were standing over the tank. From this perspective, they towered over him. Apparently, those over-large ventral arms enabled them to stay in their strange, upright posture. He couldn’t see any supporting frame to keep them that way. They had removed the outer integument, and he could see their eyes and head filaments as well as the distal ends of their dorsal arms. The latter ended in smaller appendages—much too short to be true arms or tentacles, but he could see one of them manipulating a device worn on one arm.

The surface of the water rippled faintly with vibrations synchronized with the movements of their strangely flattened beaks.

* * *

“Exactly why did you spend the delta-vee to bring that thing down to the surface?”

Administrator Frances Miller stood in front of Dr. Derek Bailey, the scientist in charge of the aquaculture rafts anchored a few kilometers offshore. She fiddled constantly with the chrono on her wrist, clearly impatient to get back to whatever the scientist had interrupted when he called her. “I mean, come on; look at it! It must mass several thousand tons? How much reaction mass did it take to soft-land it?”

“Just under five kilotons, actually. One of the station engineers estimates at least four k-tons of water alone. It’s a ten-meter sphere, roughly speaking. Do the math, then add the mass of hull metal.” Bailey sighed. He looked at Miller’s long hair and loose clothing and already knew the answer to the question he was about to ask. “As for not opening it in space, have you ever tried to open a drinking bulb in zero-gee?”

Miller started to speak, but Bailey held up a hand. He knew the administrator’s only experience with microgravity had been a brief exposure on the colony ship years ago.

“No, I’m not talking about squirting it out of the drinking spout; I mean opening up the whole bulb. The water comes out in one glob, sure, but if you try to capture it, some of it escapes. You scoop up the floating bits, and they break up even more. No way were we going to fight with four thousand cubic meters of water.”

“So, you put a spin on it and stick it in a gravity deck.” Miller’s simply didn’t have the experience to comprehend the problem.

“Five kilotons of weight on the end of a swinging arm!” Bailey shouted. “We didn’t have any way to counterbalance it.”

“Oh, so you just opened it here, in the middle of my colony?” asked Miller sarcastically.

Bailey pointed to the quikplas structure around them. “I would hardly call this the ‘middle of the colony,’ given that we’re four klicks from the ’port and twenty-two from Landing City. Besides, it was easier to set up here at the Styx delta than to haul sea- and river water to LC.”

“Why the mix? For that matter, how did you know there was even water in it?”

“We analyzed the ice we sampled from the wreck. It was one percent saline, about the concentration of salt in a Human body. Compared to seawater, that’s a bit dilute. Earth’s seas are between three and four percent salt, while Azure’s seas are less than two percent. There’s more than a trace amount of sulfur in the ice we found as well. We got that from the Styx River.”

Miller actually smiled. The farmers hated the volcanic runoff, but it made good fertilizer, and mineral extraction from the silt deposits promised to be key to the colony’s eventual economy. “Well, so much for that. Now give me the rest of the news. Was there anything on that ship we could salvage?”

“I’ll have to get Kazimatsu to go over that with you.” Bailey pulled out his own slate to contact the head of the SAR team. “There’s nothing from the sphere. Apparently, as soon as Cavanaugh removed his glove, something detected his presence and slagged the interior. As far as what was salvaged in orbit, we found no electronics to speak of. Where there should have been computers, everything appears biological—at least there’s a mass of goo where circuitry would be. On the other hand, we were able to scavenge a lot of F11. The ship had four reactors, and they have an interesting design for buffers! Not much is usable, but we’re certainly learning a lot from the design of some components, especially the thruster nozzles…”

* * *

He was beginning to wonder if the creatures’ language was physical instead of light-based, like his own. It was clear they were communicating, the air vibrations were fairly typical of air-breathers, but the beings certainly waved their arms a lot.

* * * * *

Chapter Five

He couldn’t remember anything, not voluntarily. When he tried to remember what he had been doing or how he got here, his memory was blank. He did not remember his name, the name of his people, or where he was from. On the other hand, he had plenty of knowledge of things not related to himself—he knew he was in water, on a planet, and that the beings he could see were totally new to his experience, even if he couldn’t remember prior events. There was a word or a phrase for this, but he couldn’t remember that either.

He recognized the medallion one of the creatures was wearing was likely a translation pendant, despite the obvious ornamentation added to it. That being had long head-tendrils while the other had none. Interesting. Were they the same species or some sort of symbiotes? The non-tendrilled being moved to the side of the tank and started making mouth movements. He could detect subtle movements on the surface of the water from vibrations in the air, so it was probably trying to communicate. His kind—his kind?—communicated with light pulses and not air vibrations, but he was still able to detect and interpret vibratory communication, and even reciprocate if necessary, by raising his head out of the water and making sounds with his beak and siphon. He didn’t know how he knew that. More mysterious memories, just nothing…autobiographical…that was the word.

The being with the translator tried a number of languages. His mind could interpret some of them as words, but too many of them were impossible for him to replicate. The translation switched to a series of hisses and clicks.

He recognized that one!

“I…am…” There was something untranslatable, and then it continued. “…who…are…you?”

Who was he? He knew he was not of the race that used this language. He didn’t even know the name of that race. He thrashed around slightly to raise his beak out of the water, but he was unsure of how to answer.

“I…am…” he clicked but didn’t know how to continue. He didn’t know his name. But one word came to mind. “Self. I…am…me.”

“Clicks and hisses. The translator can’t quite translate that last part. He said ‘I am…’ then a click, some sort of air movement and a stop.”

He repeated the phrase, “I am me.” The sounds came out as “tah-click-ah-duh.”

“T-odd? Todd? Your name is Todd?” The being with the translator looked confused.

The translation was problematic. His beak and mouthparts were not designed to duplicate whatever language the device was using. There might be another way, though. He raised one of his tentacles. The tip contained chromophores and phosphorescent organelles that could be used to create flashes of light. He knew—again, with no understanding of how he knew—this was how he usually communicated. If the makers of the device knew of his people, perhaps the device could translate communication by light.

He flashed the same response: “I am me.” The translator did not react, so either it had been developed by these beings, or it had omitted his language. If the latter, there might be something he could do. He concentrated on the pendant.


In his mind he could see the inner workings. It had transducers for vibration, a small processor, and a set of sonic emitters. There was also a transceiver that was probably used for programming. He could use that even if he didn’t know how he was doing it.

“I do not know my name; I cannot remember.” The translator spoke in the air-vibration language of these creatures, but, somehow, he was “speaking” to it directly from his mind. “What is this place, and how did I come to be here?”

The two creatures were clearly surprised—both by the fact the pendant was translating full sentences, and the fact that he had made no language sounds of his own. If they were superstitious, they might think it was…a word for more superstition, but he could not remember it.

“How…what?” The tendrilled one was confused, but the other, the…bald one…had a look of surprise. No, not surprise, curiosity.

The latter being looked at an instrument he was holding in the small protrusions at the end of one of the large arms, then back at the being with the ornate translator pendant. “He’s communicating with the translator directly, Ms. Miller. This sensor says the device is active although it’s not registering any electronic signals.” He turned back. “My name is Bailey, this is Administrator Miller. This planet is Azure, and we found you in a ship that was badly damaged. You were the only one we found.”

“A…ship? I do not know. I do not remember.”

“A water-filled ship. It was badly damaged, but you were in a compartment that was isolated from the rest. “

“I have no memory from before. I…remember being carried; I remember a bright flash, pain, and seeing one of your kind fall from a height.”

“Yes, Cavanaugh. He’s a bit singed. Apparently, your pod decided to self-destruct once you were out. He claims nothing happened until he took off his gloves. Did you have some sort of DNA-sensing security?”

“DNA. Security.” He felt he should know these words or the concepts behind them. “I do not even know how I came to be here. Something is missing.”

“You seem to have hacked into my translator just fine for someone with amnesia.” The one called Administratormiller spoke again. His…her…expression had changed to one of…doubt.

“Hacked? I do not understand. I know only that the <click-hiss-click> interface is simple to connect to. I do not know how or why. I can do. That is all.”

“Well, Doctor Bailey, it seems like you have a like mind here.” Miller snorted. “Typical scientist won’t tell you how or why, just ask you to trust while they do things behind your back. You are welcome to this…thing.” She turned to leave but came back and raised a finger at Bailey. “But you will stop spending colony credits on this—whatever. Do you understand?”

“I understand you’re a closed-minded fool.” He heard the message clearly through the translator, but, strangely, the one called Bailey never made the mouth movements that normally accompanied the translation. Or, well, maybe slight movements. Administratormiller did not seem to react. Bailey made a movement that raised the ends of its mouth. “I understand, Ms. Miller. However, I do need one thing.”

“What do you need now?” The translator rendered the speech with indicators of strong negative emotion.

“Well, I sort of need your translator.” Bailey replied. His emotional indicators were considerably different. There was a hint of…humor? He was teasing the other? No. he was taunting the other being! This was interesting.

Administratormiller took off the pendant and threw it at Bailey, then pivoted on one of her supporting arms and ambulated away. Remarkable. There must be some sort of endoskeleton to support the weight. In addition to being too thick, these must not be true arms like his own. He had so much to learn.

Bailey spoke again, holding the translator in hand. “Todd. May I call you Todd? You’ve only been here a day, and you’ve gotten under Miller’s skin. Congratulations.” He made that strange mouth movement again. The corners turned up and the flesh around the eyes tightened and small wrinkles appeared. “I think we’re going to be great friends!”

* * * * *

Chapter Six

Over the next time segments—Todd learned that the…Humans…called them “days”—he learned many things about the colony and his rescuers. As he came to know the words and concepts familiar to Bailey and the other Humans, he had rare flashes of knowledge, but still nothing about himself, his kind, or any events before his rescue.

Derek Bailey was an oceanographer and was supposed to be working with the aquaculture rafts that farmed seaweed and harvested fish, plankton, and small crustaceans. Azure was a small planet, about eighty percent of the size (and gravity) of the Human home world, and about ninety percent shallow seas. There were a few deep ocean trenches, since the planet was tectonically active, but for the most part the water was less than a kilometer deep. Bailey said it was proof the planet actually had too much water, and that most of the landmasses should have been continents, not simply islands, but their coastlines were flooded.

Todd did not understand most of what his new friend told him, but he understood the seas were of higher salinity than he preferred. However, in the marshes and estuaries where fresh river water and salty seawater mixed, the water was comfortable, if a bit bland.

Bailey had been brought in when the salvage and rescue team realized the ice samples and water from the rescue pod were similar to diluted seawater. There was also more than a trace of sulfur, and the oceanographer theorized Todd’s race evolved around deep sea vents such as those called smokers on Earth. Azure was not well enough developed for anyone to know how prevalent such vents might be, but it was Bailey’s suggestion to use water from the river that drained the volcanic runoff from Mount Sparky, about a hundred klicks from the colony site. The aptly named Styx River contained sulfur, phosphorus, selenium, iodine, and trace amounts of other elements that made it toxic to the Humans after prolonged exposure but made good fertilizer when diluted or when the water was evaporated, leaving the minerals to be mixed with soil prepared for dry farming.

Until the colony prepared more land for farming, the colony’s food production was dependent on the aquaculture rafts, and Administrator Miller—two separate words, he’d learned—felt Bailey spent too much time with Todd and not enough time ensuring the rafts remained healthy and productive. As a result, other colonists were occasionally assigned “baby-sitting” duty. Todd did not understand the concept of a “baby,” nor why it was necessary for Humans to ensure one was “sitting,” but he welcomed the company. If he could not remember his own past, at least he could learn that of his new friends.

Neill Cavanaugh didn’t entirely trust Todd, since he was convinced the rescue pod had tried to kill him. He was, however, certain that babysitting was punishment for whatever Kazimatsu thought he’d done to cause the destruction of all the instruments in the pod. After all, it was clearly not his fault the thing detected his DNA and decided to melt down. He had tried to ignore Todd, and, frankly, Todd would have been happy to ignore Cavanaugh if it hadn’t been for the cards.

Todd watched as Cavanaugh laid small rectangles of thin plastic out on the surface of the small table next to his tank. All the cards had mostly the same pattern on one side, but different patterns on the other. The Human seemed to be trying to match some sort of pattern by flipping certain cards over into stacks. As Todd observed the behavior, he thought about what the object might be. Suddenly his vision was filled with numbers, probabilities, odds, and predictions. It appeared to be a mathematical game, but Todd could not understand why the Human did not always succeed—after all, the pattern on the backs of the cards gave away what was on the front.

“This is a game of chance?” Todd’s translator-supplied voice asked his babysitter. A translation pendant now hung on the side of Todd’s tank. Miller had taken her expensive, decorated pendant back, and confiscated a spare from the trade office. They could have simply purchased another from the gate master’s staff at the stargate, but the five-year-old colony did not have the credits to spare.

“Solitaire,” Cavanaugh said with a grunt. “Just playing against myself since there’s no one else here.”

“Then I do not understand why you do not win when no one contests with you.”

“Look here, squid, you’ve been here, what, four weeks? How do you know anything about playing cards?”

“I assure you, Mister Cavanaugh, that whatever I am, I am not a ‘squid.’ Doctor Bailey and I have had many discussions, and he has sent an inquiry to Earth for more information. I am most assuredly not like any of your Earth creatures, appearance or not.” Todd generated a cascade of light with his chromophores, and the translator rendered it as a sigh. “I do not need to know my own species to see the mathematical progression of your game. It is simple probability.”

“Oh yeah? Simple probability? Okay, try this.” Cavanaugh took all of the cards and formed them into a single deck. With a manipulation of the appendages that Todd had learned were called “fingers”—such marvelous little arms!—he altered the order of the cards and then placed five cards in front of him, and another five in front of the tank. In each set, three cards showed the unique markings, and two showed the mostly-uniform backs. “This is called five card stud, and you try…”

“To make patterns. Yes, I know. I watched you playing with the others several day-cycles ago,” Todd interrupted. “You have three of the single-symbol cards, and I have two with two-symbols and three with nine symbols. Analysis of probability suggests that my set outranks your set.”

“Wait—how—I haven’t turned any face up!” Only two of the aces were showing.

“What I do not understand is why you turn the pieces over; it does not conceal the pattern.”

“You can see through the cards?” Cavanaugh asked.

“No, it is merely that the markings on the back reveal what is on the front,” Todd replied.

“Where? Show me!” Cavanaugh held up one of the cards.

Todd lifted one of his tentacles out of the water, vibrated it slightly to remove droplets, and then retracted tissue from the tip to narrow the appendage. He used it to point to an area of the card.

“Damn. A marked deck. I got these from Ythan. He was trying to cheat me.”

“Evidence suggests that Mister Ythan was not successful at changing the odds. He seemed to be quite disappointed during your last contest. However, Mister LaFanto seemed to be quite satisfied with his results. The flush of his skin and the movements of his eyes suggest he was withholding information, though.”

“Damned hot-shot pilots.” The Human moved his finger appendages through the thin black tendrils on his head. “You could read that in Mickey LaFanto’s expression? Hmm.” He paused and hummed for a few more time segments, then turned back to Todd and raised the ends of his mouth in what he had learned to recognize as a “smile.” Cavanaugh’s smile was particularly broad. “I have an idea. How about we play next Sevenday’s game over here by the tank? I could even deal you in and perhaps the both of us can teach LaFanto a lesson.”

Todd thought for a moment. The result seemed quite pleasurable, and he flashed a signal of acceptance. “Yes, Mister Cavanaugh. I think I would like that very much.”

“Call me Neill.”

* * * * *

Chapter Seven

“I believe I have learned enough about Humans to say you look tired, Derek.” Todd basked in the sunlight on the interaction shelf Cavanaugh had built in his newly expanded tank. It was more appropriate to call it a pool now, occupying most of the basin that had originally been formed before opening the rescue pod. The pod had been lifted out of the basin, the bottom filled with sand, and it was gradually being stocked with plants and water creatures that lived in the brackish water of the Styx River delta.

Cavanaugh took the original klearplas-sided tank and embedded it into one wall of the basin, creating a submerged shelf about thirty centimeters below the water surface. The other side of tank wall now had a walkway and seating area dug down so the Humans could sit at eye level to the klearplas. The translator was permanently mounted in the wall making the area the primary site for interaction between Todd and his new friends.

Bailey had just brought in a supply of plankton, brine shrimp, and prawns from one of the aquaculture rafts. A portion was set aside for Todd’s nutrition, and the rest were used to build up a stable ecosystem in the tank. The Human sat down heavily on a chair and looked blearily back at him.

“We’ve got red tide threatening rafts Zeta, Iota, and Lambda. I’ve been fighting continuously to keep the contamination out for the last four days. I’m afraid we’re going to have to relocate the rafts, but I can’t be completely certain they’re not contaminated themselves. We may have to write them off, along with thirty percent of our production.” Bailey’s head hung low, but Todd could clearly see the signs of fatigue in his face. It surprised him when he realized he was quite adept in identifying the health status of the Humans.

“Red tide? The ocean turns colors?” The Humans had such an interesting language. At first, the translator was incapable of rendering many words, but Todd spent time examining the programming of the device, and it gradually improved in the months since he had first arrived.

“No, a red tide is a plankton bloom, and not the good kind.” Bailey got up and moved to the seat next to the small refrigerator Cavanaugh had snuck in one night. He opened it and pulled out a brown bottle, uncapped it, and began drinking the cold, amber beverage. “The ocean near the Styx delta always has some red algae because of the sulfur and phosphorus. It usually stays right there because the levels dilute too much in the open water. However, over the last two weeks we’ve seen a bloom of red algae—what we call red tide—off of the aquaculture rafts nearest the Styx delta. The river concentrations aren’t changing, or we would have seen that here. So, we’re not sure what’s causing it, but we know it’s driving the fish away, even though the brine shrimp love it.”

Todd sat quietly as the oceanographer drank his beer. There was something very familiar—a feeling. “Can you bring me a sample?”

“I’m not sure that’s a smart thing to do. If it contaminates the pool, it could harm you.”

“You said the brine shrimp tolerate the algae, so I should be able to survive. You can always flush the pool from the river if needed.” He knew it would be uncomfortable, but he could survive the low salinity river water because of its high mineral content. “I do not know why, but I have a feeling I know what to do about the algae.”

“If you say so. I wish these feelings of yours included some actual memories.” Bailey held up the bottle and looked at it. There were about two centimeters of beer left. As had become his custom, he poured the final amount into the pool, then dipped the bottle under the surface to fill and rinse it, finally pouring the rinse water back into the pool and placing the empty bottle into a cloth sack hanging from the side of the refrigerator.

Todd swam to the spreading puddle of organic byproducts. The diluted alcohol felt invigorating, and the ritual had become Todd’s way of sharing a beer with Derek and Neill. In fact, he could reach the refrigerator himself and retrieve a bottle if he felt like it. The beer came from a small batch Cavanaugh brewed using a mixture of fermented grains and seaweed. Neill called it piss-beer, but Derek reminded him that any beer was good beer when it was all you had. Administrator Miller called it an abomination, but then she did not approve of many things that Derek, Neill, and Todd did. Mostly she called it a waste of credits and was constantly complaining that Todd was consuming resources.

“So do I, Derek. So do I.”

Bailey turned to leave when his comm squawked. “Emergency. The shuttle is making a hot landing. We need all emergency crews to the starport. Emergency.” Just as the Human reached for his belt unit, a nearby concussion shook the ground and splashed water from the pool. The radio crackled again. “Correction: Cancel emergency at starport. All crews report to twenty-one point two-eight-five north, one-five-seven point eight-three-five west. Shuttle is on the ground, condition unknown. All emergency personnel report.”

“That’s about a klick from here. Must be in bad shape if they missed the starport by thirteen klicks.” Bailey acknowledged the call and grabbed his work belt off of the dolly he used to bring the brine-shrimp in from the ocean platform. “Gotta go, Todd. See you whenever.”

“Take me.”

“What!? What did you say?” Bailey was clearly shocked, after all, this was the first time Todd had expressed an interest in leaving the enclosure since his rescue.

“I said, take me with you.”

“But why?” Bailey narrowed his eyes and stared at Todd. “For that matter, how? It’s not like I can just put you in my backpack!”

“Actually, you probably could. I can tolerate the dry for a short period of time.” Todd quickly ducked into the rock shelter he used when he wanted to get out of the sun and returned with several arms curled around odd objects. “It would be easier to simply put me in the tank for the brine shrimp. You already have it loaded on the transporter. Give me half a decimeter of water, and I’ll be fine.”

“Sure. Fine. I can do that.” Bailey’s tone belied the words. “You still haven’t told me why.”

“There will be people hurt. Pilot LaFanto, Captain Elick. Maybe others. I can help.”

“How do you know that?”

“I just do. I do not know why, but I know I can help.”

“Wait…you said people, not Humans.”

“Yes, I did, did I not?” He climbed up on the edge of the pool, three of his eight four-foot long arms reaching for the dolly, a fourth reaching for the translator. His narrow sensory tentacles were held high over his head. “Now, are we going to get moving? Or are we going to talk about it some more?”

* * * * *

Chapter Eight

Bailey had access to a quad-fan flitter since he had to commute to the off-shore platforms. It took longer to load the tank into the flitter than it did to travel to the crash site. The crash site was easy to locate due to the column of smoke visible for miles around. Todd’s connection to the translator seemed to work for comm gear as well. He could hear the frantic calls and responses.

Even before they took off, Bailey cut through the chaos with a question Todd knew was important. “Azure Approach Control. This is Styx Actual. Did the shuttle land short or long?” His question was met with angry shouts.

“What the hell? What the fuck difference does that make? Bailey, get off this channel!”

“Shut it. Answer the question.” That was from Neill Cavanaugh. He must have been at one of the platforms today instead of on the shuttle.

“Styx, this is ATC. She landed short. Why? What’s the big deal?”

“Bad news, ATC. Warn everyone off.” Todd could see sweat on Derek’s forehead as he reached over and switched the comm to a private channel. “Neill, bring two people to assist but keep everyone else away. If the ’plant goes we’ll lose everything within five klicks.” He turned back to address Todd. “Sorry you came along, buddy. Then again, you’re no safer back in the pond.”

With a sudden start, Todd realized he perfectly understood the implications of Bailey’s question. If the shuttle landed long—that is, if it missed its landing at the starport and overshot—the thrusters would have been throttled back and the power plant would have been at minimal power. If the shuttle landed short, however, it would still have been in a deceleration burn with the power plant at full output. Automatic safeties should kick in, but the chances of a runaway reaction in the craft’s small fusion reactor were increased at higher power levels.

“Derek, you must let me handle the reactor.”

“What? No! Impossible.” They had arrived at the crash site. There were a couple of ground vehicles approaching from the direction of the starport, but they stopped just beyond the wreckage. The rear half of the shuttle was crushed. It had decelerated using rear thrusters and smashed into the delta floodplain tail-first. “Stay here while I check the rad readings.” With that, he was gone, leaving Todd behind.

The rear section of the shuttle was completely crumpled, but there seemed to be minimal damage to the cargo/passenger hold and cockpit—at least from the outside. The impact would surely have damaged the occupants. The biggest problem would be getting to the engine compartment to check the reactor.

Another flitter approached and landed adjacent to their own. Cavanaugh and two other men got out. Derek and Neill conversed briefly, with lots of hand motions, similar to what Todd had observed the first time he had seen Bailey talking to Administrator Miller outside his tank many months ago. Neill directed the two men toward the personnel hatch while he returned to the flitter to retrieve a large box of tools.

With their attention on the crashed shuttle, Todd started to work. He had paid attention when Bailey loaded the self-driving dolly into the flitter. It was a simple matter to reach out of the tank and manipulate the cargo door release. He raised his head out of the water and draped six of his eight arms over the edge of the tank. Using two arms to drive the dolly, he maneuvered across the rough ground. The dolly almost overturned several times, but it was a simple matter for an eight armed—or legged—creature to prevent himself from falling. He was undetected by Neill and Derek as he made his way to the crumpled section of the ship.

The first thing he noticed was heat. Fire suppression systems had prevented any fire inside the ship, but the high external temperatures associated with re-entry and the crash had ignited fires in the surrounding vegetation. Todd’s skin immediately reacted to the heat and dryness, but there was another sensation as well. Overlaid on his vision was a series of numbers and diagrams. He had never seen these before, but several times over the last weeks he noticed the computer-like information appearing when he examined something. In this case he recognized temperature, chemical, and radiation readings, as well as schematics for a standard ground-to-orbit spacecraft.

The access routes to the engine compartment and reactor were badly damaged. The displayed rad counts were climbing. It would take a major effort for a Human to penetrate through the mangled metal hull and duraplas walls, but there was just enough room…

“What the hell? Todd! Todd!” He heard Bailey shouting despite leaving the translator hanging on the side of the tank. The sounds receded in the distance, but his mysterious link to the electronic device was still active as he wriggled his body into a small opening in the hull. Using several arms, he found points to grasp and hold while pulling himself forward. His sensory tentacles were extended to their full length in front of him, down the passage. While he could not see with them, the sensory information, combined with the strange vision of ship schematics, gave him almost as good a “picture” as vision would have—perhaps better.

The radiation source was just ahead. While the schematics were for an intact—not crash-damaged—shuttle, they suggested he was near the core access port. Behind a panel was an emergency control unit for the reactor. Fusion power was the cleanest, safest power source in the galaxy, provided there was sufficient F11 in the reactor containment. It gave off virtually no radioactive particles, only gamma radiation and heat. Moreover, once the flow of reactants was stopped, well-balanced fusion simply stopped reacting. Of course, a fusion torch could be considered a poorly balanced reaction, turning unfused reactants into high-velocity plasma. Shuttles used the heat of fusion to vaporize reaction mass—typically water—rather than venting the fusion plasma directly. Still, a damaged reactor risked the release of extremely hot, extremely reactive gases into the surrounding space.

And this one was damaged, running at full power, and its containment was about to fail.

There were two release levers to either side of the access panels. Ordinarily, reactor maintenance required two Humans, therefore the levers were placed so it was only barely possible for a single Human to operate both. Todd was not a single Human. With arms each over a meter in length, he could easily activate both levers at the same time. Unfortunately, even released, the panel did not open more than a centimeter. Todd inserted one tentacle in the gap, but it was still not sufficient; he needed to see inside the compartment.

Grasping all four edges of the panel with four arms, he reached behind him with the other four arms to anchor his body against the surrounding frame of the ship. With a supreme effort, he managed to move the panel another couple of centimeters which made it so he was able to insert the arms into one side, then coil and bunch them to lever the opening even wider. Once he had enough room for his head, he stretched and wriggled his whole body through the hatch.

The access point was just large enough for a single Human. A small one. Todd fit, but it required considerable positioning to get all eight arms and his tentacles oriented in the right places. He looked at a control panel and could see several differences from the overlay in his vision. He was here; now what was he going to do?

As he brushed a tentacle over the surface of the panel, new information appeared in his mind. It was almost as if a switch had been flipped, and now the computer controlling the reactor was communicating directly to his brain. It reported an emergency state with only a few time-segments left to prevent a breach of containment. Without stopping to wonder how he knew what to do, Todd commanded the computer to turn off the reactants. The readout, both on the screen and in his mind, told him one of the valves was damaged. He was unable to stop the flow of He3. But he could vent the tank. That would save him from having to flush the F11 or lose containment. If he could save the valuable element while preventing a plasma explosion, it might be possible to salvage more of the shuttle. Not to mention saving lives. His Human friends put great store in taking risks to prevent bad things from happening.

With a slight mental push he directed the circuits to release the pressure in the He3 tank. His tentacles detected a high frequency vibration both in the air and through the metal of the ship. The temperature began to drop, and where the air had been uncomfortably warm, it was now becoming uncomfortably cold as the cryogenic fuel was released.

* * * * *

Chapter Nine

Todd wriggled his way back out of the wreckage to find Bailey covering his hearing flaps with his hands. The link with the translator indicated there was considerable audio interference, and the Human was attempting to increase his volume to communicate. It was not necessary, since the translator technology was able to render the speech into digital communication for Todd, but without the direct link, it was unlikely his response could be heard.

“What the hell did you do?” Bailey looked agitated. Clearly the noise made him uncomfortable, and the decreasing temperature probably didn’t help.

Todd spotted a protrusion from the wreckage that would allow him to swing back to the transport tank. Once he was in the soothing water, he contemplated an answer.

What had he done? More importantly, how had he known what to do?

The audio interference was decreasing, which probably meant the He3 tank was nearly empty. Bailey was still talking—mostly cursing the fact Todd had not yet answered. There was a strange expression on his face and there seemed to be something odd about his vocalizations.

Todd stuck a tentacle out of the water. The heat, radiation, and then cold had left his skin quite dry and irritated. He really did not want to be out in the air, but something new was happening. The air vibrations from the Human vocalizations had risen in frequency. He decided he had better start paying attention to the translator again. Besides, now that the tank wasn’t venting, the Humans should be able to hear him.

“Bailey. Bailey, this is Miller. What the hell are you doing out there? ATC reports a cloud of vapor over your site and we heard that screech all the way over here.”

“Um, I think Todd vented the He3 tank.” Again, Bailey had a strange expression on his face.

“Who is this? Bailey, is that you? Why does your voice sound funny?”

Another voice came over the comm. “Azure Actual, this is Cavanaugh.” The translator indicated, like the oceanographer, the rigger’s voice was also increased in frequency. “I think it’s an effect of the helium. I’m in the shuttle cockpit. We’re trying to extract Captain Elick. I was watching the control board. The fusion reactor was in runaway, but the He3 tank was vented, and that stopped it cold. Literally cold. That stuff comes out so cold we have ice on the ports. Now that the reactor is contained, we need more muscle. LaFanto’s got a broken leg, and Elick’s chair supports failed and we need to cut her out. There’s wounded in the passenger bay. Send Doc Rao.”

“Umm, Mister Cavanaugh, there’s a problem back here.” The new voice was Ozols’, one of the men Cavanaugh had brought in from the sea-farming platform. His voice also had the indications of higher frequency vibration, but to a lesser degree than Bailey or Cavanaugh, which meant it was likely he was fully inside the passenger compartment.

“Report, Artur. How many wounded?”

“Five wounded, two seriously, one dead.”


“Doc Rao.” Todd could see Bailey’s face as he heard the transmission. He’d never seen such an expression on a Human. He would have to remember it for future reference, since there was something about it that he didn’t like. Perhaps it was the paleness, perhaps the lack of focus in the eyes, but he could see his friend was badly affected by the news, and it touched something inside of him.

“Um. What the fuck, Actual? Why was our doc on the shuttle?” Cavanaugh’s voice translation carried overtones of anger.

There was no response on the comm, but the voice of the controller came on. “Sorry, folks, but the administrator is indisposed.”

“The hell you say.” Bailey had finally found his voice.

“She’s losing her lunch, Derek.” This was a new voice, female, as far as Todd could tell from the audio diagnostics overlaid on the comm signal.

Now Bailey looked confused. “Cynnie? What are you doing there?”

“Just asking myself that same question, hon. I came over to find out why our administrator was so interested in a routine crew-change flight from Wandrey Station. It seems she sent Doctor Nik up to do some digging in Todd’s old ship.”

Ah, that explained it. The new voice was the deputy administrator: Cynthia Bailey, Derek’s mate.

“What? Why? What is there for the doc to do on that derelict?”

“Sampling organics and looking for toxins. It seems our dear administrator doesn’t trust your friend. Figured something or someone trashed that ship and was looking for a contingency plan.” The translator was now reporting indications of disgust. “We’ll have to have a reckoning, but you get those people taken care of first.”

“Yeah, uh, sure, but the rescue is for nothing without our doctor.” Bailey’s eyes focused on Todd’s transfer tank, but Todd wasn’t there. “Okay, asshole, where are you going this time?”

While Todd was wetting his skin, he’d thought about what he’d heard from the rescue teams. Cavanaugh’s card-playing friend had a broken standing-arm, and the pilot was somehow trapped in her station. Thinking of how he’d levered the access panel, he reached two arms up to the same protrusion he’d just used and lifted himself back out of the tank and started moving toward the cockpit.

“Hey! Come back here! You’ve got some explaining…Oh, the hell with it.”

“Eight arms are better than two, my friend. Ten are better than eight, so you should keep up, Derek.”

“What? Hey!” Despite the shock, Bailey was already moving to follow. “So…now you speak to me? What the hell do you think you are doing?”

“I’m helping, Derek. If the captain is trapped, you need leverage.” Todd waved six of his arms, plus his tentacles, all while swinging along the various protrusions and fragments of the broken craft on two arms like one of the arboreals from the Human home planet. “I can supply leverage.”

* * * * *

Chapter Ten

They arrived at the cockpit hatch to find Cavanaugh prying at the pilot’s chair, which was jammed up against the control column, preventing him from extracting the pilot. Another Human attempted to move LaFanto to an improvised stretcher made from a flattened passenger hammock. The co-pilot winced and cried out whenever his left standing-arm was moved.

Todd looked at the pilot’s couch, his vision overlaid with stress points and anchorages. “Allow me,” he flashed, then realized the translator pendant was back at the flitter. He touched Cavanaugh’s hand with one arm and the man started.

Bailey seemed to understand his intent, though. “He says he can help, Neill. Something about eight hands, or arms, or legs…something like that.” Bailey had left his comm on open-transmit, so it picked up the conversation.

Todd flashed acknowledgement even if neither man could understand, then gestured again at the seat frame. The other man moved, allowing him to grasp the seat frame. He grabbed the points indicated in his mind-view—there were seven of them—and another three where he would have to apply pressure to release tension. He released one arm from the seat, then took hold of one of Bailey’s arms just above the five grasping appendages and gently moved it to one of the anchor points. Once Bailey took hold, he did the same with Cavanaugh. With two arms thus freed up, he then grasped the three tension-relief points and flashed a repeating pattern…three times…then two times…then once.

“Three, two, one. I think that means pull!” Bailey supplied. With all three pulling, plus the additional release of the tension points, the combined leverage was enough to release the seat from its clamps, and it slid back away from the control column.

“She’s in bad shape,” Cavanaugh said. “Looks like a bad head wound, broken arm, probably internal injuries.” He looked and saw that Martinus Bakker, the other rescue worker, had managed to secure LaFanto to the litter. There was an open medkit next to the litter and the injured co-pilot was being given a sedative. “What have you got in there for the captain, Martinus?”

“Not much, I’m afraid,” the burly sea-farmer and part-time medic answered. “I know how to set a fracture and stitch ’em up, but head injuries are beyond me.” He cocked his head toward the passenger compartment. “Is it true what Ozols said about the doc? He’s dead?”

“Don’t know for certain; I haven’t been back there,” Bailey said. “Let’s get Captain Elick out of here before we worry about that. She probably shouldn’t be moved, but there’s no other way to get her out. You have another stretcher?”

“Actually, we saved the real stretcher for her.” Bakker gestured to the hard duraplas frame affixed to the back wall of the cockpit.

“Okay, get it over here.” Bailey directed each person to lift at a particular point, and they managed to move the injured pilot without eliciting a reaction.

“That’s not good. If she’s still out with all of that…” Bakker began.

“Shhhh. What’s he doing?” Cavanaugh interrupted, pointing at Todd.

Todd never understood where the knowledge came from. He only knew that as he looked at the injured Human, his vision was overlaid with diagnostics and vital signs. He reached one tentacle up next to her head and laid another over her chest.

What the hell!


“Did he just…?”

Todd paid no attention. He moved fluids and tissue out of his tentacles to thin them out and started to vibrate them. Despite oscillating at a near impossible rate, the sensory information from those organs was quite clear. There was bleeding here…and here. If he could stop it, the Human would have a chance to survive.

“He stuck his tentacle into her head!”

Bailey looked on in wonder. “Yeah, in her chest as well. But did you notice that big deep breath she just took? Also, her eyes seem to be moving. I think…” He broke off as Elick moaned, and her eyelids fluttered.

Todd withdrew his tentacles. He had stopped the bleeding and relieved the pressure. There was still damage, but now he knew what to do. He’d need some supplies, though.

With the new knowledge came more. He probed his memory a bit. No, there was still nothing about who he was or his life before waking up on Azure, but he knew so much more! With this newfound knowledge he reached out to the comm circuit, traced it, and entered a command. Oh, no, that old translator voice wouldn’t do. He selected timbre, tone, and volume. Something quiet but self-assured.

“It is called the fiilaash, gentlemen, and it is how we heal. We should remove our patient to the infirmary. She is stable…for now.”

All three were shocked at the new voice coming from their comms.

Cavanaugh blinked several times. “T-Todd?”

“Yes, Neill. I am me. Myself. Todd.”

“Um, yeah, that’s Todd,” said Bailey. “Those were the first words he said to me.” He cocked his head and looked at the cephalopod. “What did you do, and how did you know how to do it? Has your memory come back?”

“No, Derek. I still cannot remember anything about myself. It is called autobiographical memory, by the way. I have had several flashes of knowledge over time, but much more has just unlocked. I think…” Todd paused. He lifted his tentacles. “You Humans have a legend about an ancient doctor who said, ‘First, do no harm.’ Your literature does not record what he said next, but I feel it must have been: ‘…and help all that you can.’”

* * * * *

Chapter Eleven

“Todd, we need to talk.”

It was the first time Bailey had come to see him since the incident at the crashed shuttle. That had been a length of time almost equal to half of one of the Human home world lunar cycles.

“Yes, Derek, I should like that very much. It has been almost two weeks, I believe you call it.”

“Don’t smartass me. I’ve been busy with the red tide, Cynthia’s upcoming election, and answering questions for the crash investigation committee.”

“Smart…ass? I am afraid I don’t understand. Yes, I understand smart, but I do not have an ass, as you call it.” He was not trying to be deliberately vague, he simply did not understand why his friend seemed to be angry with him.

“Yes, that’s exactly why you’re a smartass.” Bailey stood in front of the klearplas window in what Neill was calling the social area. Todd had come to recognize some of the Human body language. For one thing, they only called their upper appendages arms, and the smaller grasping parts hands. They called their standing-arms legs, and unlike his own body structure, they consisted of muscle laid over an articulated endoskeleton. The Human in front of him was standing with legs apart and hands on his hips, arms bent at the middle articulation. It was an expression of anger that he normally associated with the—former—colony administrator.

“My apologies, Doctor Bailey. I did not mean to offend you.”

“It’s not that, Todd, but you were holding out on us!” Bailey relaxed a bit, then looked around, found a chair and sat down facing the ’plas. “You dumped the fusion core like an experienced engineer and then performed some type of psychic surgery on Elick.” The Human paused and ran a hand over his bald head. “Who are you? What are you?”

Todd thought for several moments, then began to flash a response, realizing only as he saw Bailey’s confused look that he had forgotten to interface with the translator. “I still do not know these things. I knew I could help. I could see what to do at the reactor, and I saw the captain’s injuries. There was information in my vision. I do not know where it came from, but when I needed the information, it was there.”

“Wait, information appeared in your vision? You mean, like a computer in your head?”

“I have not actually seen one of your computers, so I do not know if I have a computer ‘in my head.’ However, I assure you I am a biological creature, as are you.”

“So, you still don’t remember any of your life before…well, before this?”

“I still have no autobiographical memory. I remember some things, or more appropriately, I see information that serves in place of memory. About myself, I see nothing.”

“Hmm. That begins to sound almost like those brain-computer interfaces the neuro guys on Earth were talking about before First Contact.” The last of Bailey’s tension appeared to drain away. His body language was no longer tense and angry. “Maybe you just have an interface, not a computer.”

“That is possible, although I do not know for certain.” Todd swam over and reached a couple of arms over the ’plas to open the refrigerator and extract a bottle of beer. He uncorked it and handed to Bailey, who accepted it absentmindedly.

“Doctor Nik would have been able to figure it out. We’re pretty shorthanded now. We’ve got Bakker and Philip Charles doing medic duties, and Linda Charron runs the clinic now. She’s a nurse practitioner, but Bakker and Charles only have merc medic training. We need a doc. The last ship from Earth was supposed to be bringing us another General Practice M.D.—a guy named something like Sommerkorn, I think—but I heard he missed the transport.”

“There was someone new at the clinic when we took the shuttle crew in.” Todd had returned to his position opposite Bailey. While Todd did not hear the other’s vocalizations, and his own voice came from any of the comm speakers around the facility, it was still his custom to make eye contact when conversing with his Human friends.

“Yeah, the new guy. Roeder. He did come in on the ship, but he’s a scientist, a phud like me. Not an M.D.”

“You scientists cannot act on this science?” The thought disturbed him. “I think…no, I feel, that my kind would not hesitate to act if they had knowledge.”

“As you did at the shuttle,” Bailey said. The translation routine Todd had inserted into the communications circuits noted the remark likely indicated sarcasm.

Todd decided that the best action was to ignore the emotional undertones. “Yes, as I did.”

* * * * *

Chapter Twelve

Several weeks passed, and Bailey returned to a regular routine of visiting with Todd when he was not touring the sea platforms. Todd was working on the problem of the red tide, and he’d asked for several biochemical reagents and supplies to manage the job.

He and Bailey were discussing their progress when they heard the sound of an arriving flitter outside the recently added enclosure surrounding and sheltering the social area. A time interval equal to what the Humans called a minute after the lifter fans wound down, Cavanaugh entered, pulling a large, wheeled platform behind him.

“Neill, what have you got there?” asked Bailey.

“Well, Kazimatsu still has us working to salvage pieces of Todd’s rescue pod. There’s no usable instrumentation, but the metal itself is the real treasure. Kazi thinks he can work enough of it to repair the shuttle so we don’t have to buy a new one from the stargate staff. A replacement would cost our entire output in deep-sea minerals.” Cavanaugh grabbed another chair and his own beer from the refrigerator.

“I didn’t think you could work hull metal.” Bailey’s tone was doubtful.

“Not normally, but we happen to have a spare power plant since Todd saved it. Kazi’s setting up a forge just downstream. Miller would never let him do it—and she’s still raising a fuss—but Landing City folks don’t pay too much attention to what we do over here at Styx. Of course, that may change now that your wife is in charge.”

Cavanaugh raised his beer bottle in a form of salute. Todd had seen other Humans do the same gesture, touching bottles in something called a toast.

“She’s not in charge yet. The Azure Colony compact says once the Charter Administrator steps down, her replacement has to be elected, not appointed. The election’s in two more weeks. Until then, she’s acting administrator and can’t do much.” Bailey acknowledged the salute with a nod. “On the other hand, she did suggest that Todd would be welcome in Landing City, even as far as helping out in the clinic from time to time.” He looked at Todd. “If you want to.”

Todd flashed equal parts surprise and satisfaction. “I think…I think I would like that very much.”

“Does that mean you’re going to move over to Landing? Because if you are, I’ll have to lug that heap back.” Cavanaugh gestured toward the wheeled platform and the two-meter-cube metallic shape on it.

“Yeah, what is that?” queried Bailey.

“No, I think I like what you have built here. I will stay.”

“Good. I know Kazi’s talking to some folks about setting up their shops out this way, along with his forge.”

“But what is on the platform?” Todd was now curious as well.

“We were hoping you could tell us. Deep scans don’t show us anything. But it’s not solid; it’s not heavy enough. There’s some sort of panel on the front.”

“Let me see, then.” Todd reached two arms up to the nearest of several bars that had been mounted horizontally over the pool and the enclosed area. Cavanaugh had added them after witnessing what he called Todd’s Trapeze Act at the shuttle. Todd didn’t know what a trapeze was, but the bars were certainly useful for getting around. A couple of transfers allowed him to reach the strange cube.

“There’s a panel, but we can’t see much on it.”

“That is because you cannot see as I do. This is a cipher—a lock if you will. It does not seem to require manipulation. Perhaps if I…” Todd placed the tips of four arms at opposite corners of the panel. Nothing happened at first, but he continued to place more of each arm in contact with the metal. When he had formed an X-shape of about five centimeters in each direction, a yellow light illuminated on the panel and a seam appeared along one edge of the cube.

“A safe?” asked Cavanaugh. “You had a personal safe in the pod?”

“You ask as if you think I remember,” Todd chided. “I know this is a cipher and a container, but I do not know if it is mine.”

“So, open it and find out.” All of Bailey’s earlier anger was gone, replaced by curiosity.

Todd used the same four arms to grasp the edges of the seam and attempted to lever it open. While the box was not solid, the walls were thick and heavy, and it eventually took the assistance of both Humans to open the device.

Inside the chamber was a slate, one of the ubiquitous computing devices of the Galactic Union. They were still relatively rare on Human colonies. This was not because of the technology or the price in Union credits, but because the exchange rate between credits and Human currency made the cost equivalent to one person’s entire earnings for a year.

Underneath the slate was a layer of clear rectangular boxes that filled the chamber from edge to edge. The chamber itself was about one cubic meter and the boxes filled nearly half the volume. There were eight boxes in all, and each appeared to contain a different substance. One was a fine gray powder, another a viscous yellow, iridescent liquid, a third contained a solid block of dull gray metal—and was surprisingly heavy.

Another box was filled with small red crystals, none over a millimeter in size. Cavanaugh’s eyes went wide, and he reached for a compact scanner he carried on his belt. He activated the scanner and grunted at the result. He started to say something but was stopped by Bailey’s shout.


“That” was a stack of Union credits, each a thin block of klearplas with a red gemstone embedded in the center. The chits did not have an identifiable denomination, but one region of the rectangle was marked with a seemingly random splash of color.

The final item in the cache was a device of some type. Todd lifted it out and examined it while Bailey and Cavanaugh scanned the credits and began counting. It was just under half a meter on each side with several indentations on the top, and openings on opposite ends. One of the openings was fitted with a small hopper, as if to collect or contain something coming out of the device.

But he was mistaken, there was one more item in the cache. When he lifted the device out, he did not realize it was actually in two pieces. A second, identical mechanism was in the chamber, and the two had filled the bottom half.

Cavanaugh was now holding his scanner to the first mechanism. “I haven’t seen anything like that before.”

“I have,” said a new voice.

* * * * *

Chapter Thirteen

“Doctor Kazimatsu. I do not believe we have been formally introduced, but I certainly know you by reputation,” Todd said.

Kazimatsu chuckled. “Probably by Cavanaugh’s complaints. Please, call me Kazi. And I understand they call you Todd.”

“Yes, Kazi. At least Neill and Derek do. Pilot LaFanto has been known to call me ‘Abomination,’ but only when he’s losing at poker. I believe Ms. Miller calls me ‘that damned fish.’” The comm unit produced a scratching, hissing sound: hsk-hsk-hsk. Todd flashed surprise. “Oh, how strange. So that is laughter!”

“Welcome, Kazi. Sit. Have a beer.” Bailey motioned toward a chair and then the refrigerator. As the newcomer helped himself, the oceanographer continued, “You said you’ve seen one of these?”

“Yes, when I was a young spacer on the Mirai Maru.” He opened the bottle, took a sip, then made a face. “It’s not bad. It’s not good, either, Neill. They’re starting to grow rice up-river; volcanic soil is excellent for it. We should talk about starting up some rice wine and rice beer.”

Cavanaugh looked interested. “And rice whiskey. My grandfather had a bottle from Japan—pre-Contact. It requires wood barrels for aging, though.”

“Driftwood,” said Bailey, having sat back down and gotten another beer of his own, the treasure of the cube momentarily forgotten. “Shave it, press it, sand it, and char the inside. It won’t impart too much of its own flavor, but it would certainly produce a smooth whiskey.”

“Friends, you can talk about your alcoholic endeavors at another time,” Todd interrupted. “I want to hear what Kazi has to say about this…instrument. I also want to know how he learned about it.”

Kazi sat back and took another sip. He had a sly smile on his face that Todd had come to recognize in Humans telling stories that may not always be completely truthful. They called them bar stories.

“When I was a young man in Japan, I signed on with the Mirai Maru. My home country spent almost their entire capital buying that ship. It was old and not worth much more than scrap, but it was Earth’s first stargate-capable ship…and it was ours.

“We were the first to go out there, and we learned the Galactics frankly didn’t care about Humans. Oh, there are some who disliked us, and some who saw us as gullible marks to be taken for all we were worth. Most Galactics just didn’t care. We were poor and didn’t have much to trade. That made us beneath their notice…and perfect for gathering information.

“We were in a station with a name I’ve forgotten. I worked in the engine room and was detailed to go to a marketplace and retrieve some parts the ChEng had bought.” He emptied the bottle of beer, and Cavanaugh showed him the bottle rinsing ritual. The engineer raised an eyebrow as Todd swam over to sample the leftovers. Kazi appeared to contemplate getting another bottle of beer—even going so far as to open the refrigerator door, but instead reached into a pocket and removed a shiny flask. He opened it, took a sip and passed it along to the other two Humans.

“Kikori. The last of a bottle of twelve-year-old, single malt, rice whiskey.”

Apparently, his friends had become so used to Todd they were now starting to recognize the light flashes he’d come to realize were his kind’s form of communication.

“Whoooo. Smooth,” said Cavanaugh. “Don’t worry, I’ll explain it to you, Todd. Besides, we’re going to try to make some of this. Good stuff, Kazi. Go on.”

“If you would pour a very tiny amount in the pool?” asked Todd. Upon sampling the diluted whiskey, he responded, “Yes, a very interesting mixture of esters. I detect the carbohydrates and believe we can work with this.”

Kazi raised the flask in a toast. “Gentle Beings, I believe this is going to be the start of a wonderful friendship.” He capped the flask and put it away. “Anyway, I saw one of those devices at the shop making nanites. Those are the tiny bioelectromechanical machines used for many jobs in the union. They sold the nanites, and they could use them to fabricate parts.”

“Wow, so this…these…are fabricators?” Bailey asked.

“That would be my guess.” Kazi responded. “That was also where I saw one of your kind, Todd.”

The statement was so matter of fact that the other Humans did not react right away. Their cries of “What!” “Who?” “You did!” were accompanied by Todd flashing, so surprised that it took a few moments for him to restore connection with the comm unit.

“You know who—or what—I am?” Todd finally asked.

“Unfortunately, no. The other sophont was the customer buying the nanites. He was never identified, and I checked AetherNet and GalNet and never found a reference.” After a pause, he continued, “That was the other thing we learned on that cruise. The Galactics withheld a lot of information from us.”

“We always knew there was more of my kind out there.”

“Yes, and there was apparently a ship full of your race that came out of hyperspace in a very odd location, not the emergence point. There was one piece of information we managed to find from the remains of your ship. One of the other riggers found it while Neill was extracting the cube. It’s a name: Wrogul.”

* * * * *

Chapter Fourteen

In the three years after his rescue, Todd became fully integrated into the community growing around his pond in the Styx River delta. He now had a channel to the brackish water of the estuary. The combination of river water diluting the saltwater of the seas, and the tidal flow diluting the sulfur and minerals of the river meant Todd could move freely through the nearby waters. It was not completely comfortable at first, but it became much more tolerable as time went on, and he discovered more information about his own body.

Knowing the name of his race did not help much at first. There was still no information in the AetherNet—the Human successor to Earth’s pre-First Contact Internet—or the portions of the GalNet—the considerably more sophisticated Union database—the colony could access. A merc ship in-system to replenish He3 at the system’s sole gas giant had provided a bit more information. Then Todd used some of his credits to purchase a GalNet update from the Cartography Guild gate master at the stargate.

He learned his was a long-lived race, with individual lifespans of over one thousand years. They made extensive use of bioengineering to modify their own bodies, including the use of nanites to create brain-to-computer interfaces—or BCIs as the Humans called them. The Galactics called them pinplants and it was these that had allowed Todd to access vital information at the shuttle crash and gave him access to translators and comms.

Over the years, Todd was also busy working with Bailey to bioengineer solutions for the ocean farming rafts, and with Cavanaugh at various biochemical ventures around the growing Styx Town. Those ventures mostly had to do with brewing and distilling, but not all of them were alcoholic. They were also at the heart of new developments for the colony. After repaying the colony a salvage fee for his rescue and upkeep, Todd had started to provide credits to assist some of the other colony efforts in manufacturing and industry. Governor Cynthia Bailey called it investing, and told Todd he was becoming the major benefactor of the colony.

Credits invested turned into credits earned, and merc ships began to stop in-system for resupply and provisioning as well as refueling at Ruby, the system’s lone gas giant. Todd understood he was contributing to his adopted world, and he had no particular desire to go out in the galaxy to find more of his own kind.

In fact, he found he experienced unease whenever he studied the meager information about the Wrogul. He knew they were cephalopods, though quite distinct from the Earth species of octopus and squid. For one thing, he had both arms with suckers for grip and “taste” like octopi, but also sensory tentacles like squid, but without the hooked barbs squid possessed on both arms and tentacles.

No Earth creature could duplicate the technique that allowed him to reach through skin and bone with his tentacles. Despite the fact a new doctor had arrived from Earth the previous year, Todd was still the surgeon of first resort when the colonists at Styx or the farming rafts were injured.

That also meant Todd vacated his tank beside the Styx River much more frequently. As he and Bailey worked on the problem of the red tide, it was necessary for them to travel to the farming rafts so they could take samples and check on problems.

It also meant they had to solve the problem of mobility for a nearly two-meter-long cephalopod and the five-hundred liters of water it needed for all but short trips over land. They soon discovered Todd could tolerate about an hour in the air, double that if there was a way to keep his skin wet. He could also pull himself along the ground by exerting leverage with his arms. He couldn’t manage anything like walking, but with eight arms to reach and pull, he could keep up with a Human walking slowly…very slowly. On the other hand, give him overhead rungs and poles, and he could locomotivate almost as fast as a Human could run.

The mobile water tank problem was solved using an autonomous pallet lifter from the starport. The small, tracked platform had a low, flat top just the right dimensions to hold a five hundred- to one thousand-liter klearplas aquarium. It also had a weight capacity of five metric tons, so a mere five hundred kilograms of water was not a problem for the device. Cavanaugh equipped one such platform with remote drive controls affixed to the outside of the platform that could be accessed by Todd’s pinplants. Once equipped with a retractable sunshade—Todd’s skin was just as sensitive to sunburn as a Human—he had a vehicle allowing him to travel almost anywhere a Human could.

The enclosure above the interaction shelf of Todd’s pool now sported a set of rungs and ladders making it look like Human exercise equipment. It made talking, Tri-V viewing, and even poker much more comfortable for Todd and his Human friends.

Todd now experienced more of the culture and socialization of the Humans. There were poker games, the drinking of beer—and Kazi was right, once the rice crop came in, it was possible to improve the quality of Neill’s home-brew—and viewing Earth Tri-V and older entertainments. At first, Todd discussed the Galactic origins of himself and his species, but he gradually began to avoid the subject until Bailey, point-blank, asked him about it.

“You don’t talk about it anymore. You wondered who you were and where you came from for the past two years, and now you won’t say—or flash—anything about it!” Bailey waited a moment and continued, “Does it scare you?”

Todd was silent for a long time, not even flashing the patterns that equated to muttering to himself. “It is not that I am scared, Derek. But I have been thinking about the implications of my being here.”

“How so?”

“My autobiographical memory was wiped. If it had been purely biological, it should have returned once my pinplants rebooted. If it was electromagnetic, I should not have regained any memory or BCI functions. So, my ship was in a battle that it barely survived. In fact, I only survived in a sealed isolation pod. My mind was wiped, and my equipment self-destructed when Human DNA was detected.” Todd flashed a pattern Bailey was used to seeing when the cephalopod was frustrated. “So, there must have been something…I believe the term you use is ‘unsavory.’ Whatever I was doing was considered too secret to allow me to be captured, and there appears to be an unknown enemy or hostile force that was trying to stop me.”

“The meltdown could have been triggered by any species. You don’t know it was because it was Human,” Bailey countered. “In fact, maybe it was any DNA but your own.”

“Actually, I know that it was not specific to your DNA. I have learned that my kind reproduces by budding, and several physiological signs suggest it is going to happen to me in the next few years. That means all Wrogul DNA is identical, except for mutations. Most mutations are nonviable, so there is very little that could possibly be unique about my DNA.” He flashed the frustrated pattern again. “However, your point about anyone other than my own kind triggering the failsafe is valid. It does not make me feel any better.”

“So, you don’t like what you might find out?”

“I do not trust what I might find out, Derek.” Todd pulled himself out of the tank so he could look directly at his friend—brown, Human eyes with round pupils to green cephalopod eyes with rectangular pupils. “Humans are naïve; Galactics are not to be trusted. If I am afraid of anything, it is that my kind—these Wrogul—are no better!”

* * * * *

Chapter Fifteen

The Styx River community site continued to grow. In a few short years they added laboratories, manufactories, and an increasing number of family dwellings. The new Styx Town was growing. It was closer to the starport than Landing City—the nominal capital of the colony—making it the logical place for trade with the quarterly Earth-colony circuit ship and the increasing number of Union trade ships…and trade they did.

The unique hydrosphere of the Styx, with its high concentration of minerals from volcanic runoff, made for fertile soils associated with some of the most rare and desired agricultural products on Earth—coffee, macadamia nuts, pineapples, sugar cane. The added benefit of the sulfur-loving microbes, mosses, and orchids provided raw materials for biotechnology and pharmaceutical development. The new community at the center of the Styx delta quickly became the economic engine of Azure, with the income from food and beverage exports surpassing even the harvest from the warm shallow seas.

“You realize this makes you a Captain of Industry now,” Bailey said as the Human from the First Bank of Azure left the structure which fully enclosed the last fifteen meters of the new canal stretching from the Styx delta to the Wrogul pool. The canal allowed a continuous supply of the brackish water to the habitat, and the new building served as a combined social center and meeting place for both Humans and Wrogul yet to come…for Todd had discovered he was about to bud.

“I realize I am the common factor should any of this fail.” Todd waved a tentacle, seemingly indicating the building, but Bailey understood he meant the majority of Styx Town. In truth, while the precious cache of nanite materials, fabricators, and Union credits constituted essential capital, the true wealth of the town lay in the Human talent attracted by those initial investments. The biotech industry founded by Todd and Bailey was no longer the majority employer in the area.

“You’re just cranky from budding.” Bailey said. “Prenatal hormones.”

Todd flashed a pattern that Bailey knew conveyed derision, sarcasm, and exasperation. It was the Wrogul equivalent of a raspberry, and it evoked a laugh from the Human.

“I do not have hormones as you know them, Bailey, and you of all people should know that!”

Bailey offered a placating gesture. “Just kidding, buddy, just kidding. Have you decided on a name?”

“No, the young one will decide his own names once he integrates his own personalities,” Todd flashed.

The oceanographer looked confused. “He? And yet you’re budding asexually.” Bailey did in fact know more about the cephalopod species that were so similar in morphology to his friend, and they did not have a male and female sex as Humans knew it.

“‘He’ is the standard convention for single-sex species. I have looked at your Earth languages, and despite all of the protest, the use of the male pronoun is not due to patriarchy, but rather is the original pronoun from before language distinguished the sexes.” Todd’s BCI pinplants meant he had direct access to anything on the Human AetherNet, and even the GalNet updates that came in on visiting ships.

“Yeah, okay. I didn’t know that, professor.” Bailey said without sarcasm. Todd flashed satisfaction.

“Yo, Todd! You sick?” someone entering the enclosure said. Brent Roeder was a relative newcomer to Styx Town, a biochemist who had moved out from Landing City two months earlier rather than commute daily to the newly-built laboratory complex. “What’s that growth-thingy on your side?”

“The ‘growth-thingy,’ as you call it, is a bud, Doctor Roeder. It’s how I reproduce, and I thought you knew that?” The biochemist had spent considerable time with Todd studying his adaptation to the levels of salt and sulfur in the estuary. One would have thought he had paid more attention to his subject.

“Oh, yeah. So you’re going to have a kid?”

Todd flashed annoyance but answered patiently. “I am going to have one offspring, it is true, but I fail to see what immature Capra have to do with it.”

“Okay, okay. An offspring then. When’s it going to be born?”

“The bud will grow for two more months, then it will separate.”

“How long to grow up, then?”

“A Wrogul bud has all the memories of the donor-parent and does not need to grow up.” Todd made the light flash that translated as a sigh. “Such memories as they are. I have no idea if the offspring will have any of the autobiographical memories I lack.”

“Bummer, man. But, hey, groovy!” Roeder leaned in and looked closer at the bud. “Right on, I can see features. Looks like blue eyes, though, instead of green like yours.” He straightened back up. “Well, good luck, Mazel Tov, and all that. I hope the little sucker grows up to be just like you!” With a laugh, Roeder placed the biochemical samples he was delivering on an adjacent table and promptly left.

Something about the man just…irritated Todd. He couldn’t put it into words, and he had to settle for light flashes. Kazi said it was because the man was a hippie, whatever that meant. He did not know what the biochemist’s pelvic arches had to do with behavior, but Todd had to admit the man was rather broad, not to mention dense…in more than one sense, as he’d learned from his Human friends.

Hmm, blue eyes instead of green. What he’d read about the Wrogul suggested they had yellow eyes fading to a sort of dingy white. He did not know why his eyes were green—what made him different—but apparently at least this offspring would continue the distinction.

* * *

The day came when it was time for the bud to separate. It had grown to approximately one-tenth the size of Todd’s own body, and he knew it would continue to grow rapidly for the next year, reaching maturity soon after.

“So, what are you going to name him?” Cavanaugh asked the question again. He’d brought the latest output from his distillery to toast the event with Todd, Bailey, and Kazi. It had been distilled a year ago and stored in wooden barrels since that time, but Kazi said it was still raw. He certainly had to admit it was potent.

“As I have said many times, Wrogul choose their own name after budding,” he assured his friends. “He will be able to talk to me, but until I can give him nanites and a pinplant of his own in a few months, he will not be able to interface with the comms.”

“Too bad. I don’t know if Wrogul play with toys, but I made him this.” This turned out to be a piece of driftwood carved in the shape of a submersible.

“It that the Nautilus?” asked Kazi.

“Yeah!” Cavanaugh exclaimed. “I copied it from that old Earth movie we watched several Sevendays ago.”

“I miss poker night,” grumped Bailey.

“Me, too,” replied Cavanaugh, “but once we finally taught LaFanto a lesson and Ol’ Eight-Arms started playing multiple hands at once, no one will play. Even the mercs have been warned off.”

“I, for one, thoroughly enjoy movie night, Neill,” said Kazi. “I think we should start in on the Godzilla movies next. I have the full set.”

“Gentlemen, it is time.” Todd began to flash randomly, then in a repeating pattern. The bud did the same, and then the last piece of tissue connecting parent to bud thinned and separated. The two Wrogul flashed in unison for a moment, but gradually the patterns began to diverge. The bud swam a short distance away and grasped the toy submarine Cavanaugh had made. “To answer your question, Neill, Wrogul young do not usually play with toys, but he seems to like the carving.”

“Yeah, look at the way he’s holding the sub. Captain Nemo would be proud.”

Nemo. That was a good name.

* * * * *


The service was short, because Bailey would have wanted it that way.

More than fifty years had passed since Doctor Derek Bailey had come to Azure as a young oceanographer, charged with farming the seas for essential foodstuffs until land-based agriculture could take hold. He’d married the woman who would eventually be governor of the colony for ten years, and he’d never left his adopted home in all that time.

Cynthia Bailey had been gone for five years, and Derek had not been the same since her death. Now Derek’s two closest friends stood on a pier holding an urn containing ashes from both Derek and Cynthia. One man stood—stooped slightly with age—and one Wrogul hung from a bar attached to a motorized chair, two arms supporting his weight, two holding the urn, the others dipping down into the blue-green waters.

“He would have liked this, Neill.”

“Yeah, I know. I thought Vincent would shit a brick at the cost, but then, he’s not paying for it.”

Together, the three friends had been the originators or backers of most of the industry that had sprung up at Styx Town. The beverage industry alone was a major economic driver, but the biochemical and bioengineering companies had paid for the trip.

“The sea is saltier. It itches,” Todd said.

“Yeah, about double the salt content as Azure.” At a glance from his friend, Cavanaugh continued with mock indignation: “Hey, I looked it up! Without Derek or Kazi here to instantly know all of this stuff I figured I’d better know the composition of Earth’s seas so you didn’t get sick.”

“I appreciate that, Neill.” Todd waited in silence for a while. “I will miss him.”

“Me, too, buddy. Me, too.”

Todd pulled one arm up from the water and removed the top of the urn. He handed the vessel to Cavanaugh, who held his hands up in denial, insisting Todd do the honors. “Hey, the EPA only gave us this waiver because I told them you requested it. A Human would have been taxed heavily, but since you’re a Galactic, they tripped all over themselves to approve the paperwork.”

“Very well, Neill. I shall do the deed, but you’ve got the other job.”

“Sure thing.”

Using six tentacles to maneuver the urn out away from the dock, Todd poured the ashes of one of his best friends into the water of that friend’s home world. Meanwhile, his companion recited the words that had been tradition for hundreds of years:

“No man has ever served at sea without knowing that each day could be his last and no one would even know where at sea he lay. No man served a day at sea without the knowledge that the ship he sailed might not survive to sail another day. But no man at sea let these fears overcome him. He knew his shipmates were beside him to help stand the watch, to plot the course, and to be the family and support we all need to meet and survive another day. They were his shipmates. As each day ended, men at sea counted their blessings of a day well done, and to mark the end of their watch, they would toll the bell, the eternal mark of the passing of time at sea.”

Todd reached back to strike a small ship’s bell affixed to his powered chair.

“Well done, Derek Bailey, well done. It was a great voyage. You served your watch and we are proud to have served with you. You have completed your final watch, now rest in peace.”

The two stood in silence for a long time. Finally, Neill spoke, “Now what? Do you want to go back?”

“Neill, there are almost thirty Wrogul back on Azure tending our businesses. Show me this home planet of yours!”

* * * * *

Part 2: Verne

Chapter One

“You’re kidding, right?” Staff Sergeant Graves asked. “I mean, there’s no way you’re serious…”

Verne looked down at the slate in his arm, confused. “I do not see the joke you are referring to. This is my application to take my Voluntary Off-World assessment tomorrow, along with the rest of my age group.”

It wasn’t really “his” age group, as he was only fifteen of the Humans’ standard years’ old, and the rest of his graduating class was 18, but it was the age group he’d been made part of, thus making it his.

“I understand that is your application,” the staff sergeant replied, “and while I understand you’d like to take the VOWs—and that you consider yourself Human—you don’t actually have the physical characteristics necessary to perform in a Human mercenary company.”

“I do, too,” Verne said, unsure why Humans always had to start out with the “no” approach, rather than one that looked at the possibilities of a situation. He had spent most of his history classes sure the best inventors were the ones who were aberrant and looked for what could be done, rather than what could not.

“Well, half of the VOWs are physical. How do you intend to do the pushups, sit-ups, and run?”

“I can run,” Verne noted. “Maybe not as fast as you, but I can move myself across the ground on my eight arms. If you put up a set of bars over the trial grounds, I’ll bet I can go even faster than you.”

“But there aren’t bars,” the staff sergeant insisted. “And I’m not even sure how you’d do sit-ups.”

“Obviously, I do not function physically the same way as you,” Verne said. “Therefore, doing those things is contraindicated. I should follow the assessments used by one of the water races, perhaps the Bakulu.” Verne had done his research and knew their race times were based on using their internal jets. Verne could travel at least as fast as a Bakulu, and he was pretty sure he was faster. Their assessment also did not include stupid things like pushups and sit-ups.

“That’s great,” Graves said, “but our assessments are to show your aptitude for operating a CASPer—a combat assault system, personal—in combat, or to function in a unit supporting a CASPer company.”

“I know what a CASPer is,” Verne said. He realized, based on the Human’s stance, that Graves had made up his mind and no amount of logic was going to change it.

“Fine,” Verne said, turning his motorized tank away from the Human. He knew it was a sign of disrespect to turn your back on someone you were talking to, but the sergeant’s treatment was not fair—Verne deserved at least a chance to compete. “I will then go to Plan B, as you bipedals say, because I will become a merc.”

Verne smiled to himself at the look that came over the former military man’s face. Graves now looked scared. As he should.

* * * * *

Chapter Two

It took two hours to drive his tank to Ye Old Blacksmith Forge in Styx Town. It was approaching the time the Humans normally ate their third meal of the day, so there was only one person in the shop when he arrived—the person in charge of “babysitting” the forge. The concept of having someone sit at the shop just in case a customer came by still seemed inefficient to Verne, but it was the same kind of inefficiency the Humans seemed to use in many of their processes. Rather than allow neophytes to experiment on their own—with potentially unfavorable results—the risk-averse Humans kept an experienced watcher at the shop any time it was open.

The facility was much more up to date than the “blacksmith forge” name implied. It incorporated the latest and greatest…in 15 to 20-year old technology. While it didn’t have all the Galactic Union’s latest equipment, it did have a limited capability for nanite fabrication as well as MIG and TIG welding, and it was much better than banging a hammer on a heated piece of steel, which he had seen pictures of Humans doing in their not-too-distant past.

“Greetings, Mr. Overstreet,” Verne said as he drove his tank into the shop.

“Hi, Verne,” the man behind the counter said. “Sorry, there isn’t much to watch here today.” Ever since Verne had discovered machinery, he had spent the majority of his free time at the shop. He could not get enough information to satisfy his quest for knowledge on the development and production of machinery. To this point, though, his knowledge was purely theoretical; the babysitters wouldn’t let him use the majority of the equipment in the shop.

“That’s okay,” the Wrogul said. “I’m done watching others make things. I’m ready to start working on projects of my own.”

“Umm…we’ve talked about this, Verne,” Overstreet said. “Someone in a giant tank of water shouldn’t be doing things using high-voltage electricity. It’s just…it’s not good.”

“I understand that,” Verne replied, “but it must be done.”

“And why is that?”

“Because they turned down my application to take my VOWs.”

“Oh, I see.” The man nodded, and Verne could see him emanate sadness. Although it was nice to have someone on his side, it didn’t help him in his quest to reach the stars. Overstreet pursed his lips. “I have to admit, though, they may have a point. CASPers really aren’t made for your race.”

“They haven’t been made that way until now, but that is only because no one has ever chosen to adapt them for us. I intend to do so. And then I will go to space and join the Winged Hussars. Or maybe Asbaran Solutions. I like getting paid.”

“Last I heard, Asbaran Solutions wasn’t hiring other races.”

“I am not an ‘other race,’” Verne replied. “I grew up on Azure Colony. Although not Human by birth, perhaps, I am an ‘octapedal Human’ by naturalization and citizenship. I have attended Human schools. I have done everything just like a bipedal Human child, yet they will not allow me to take the VOWs. Therefore, I will design my own CASPer and spacesuit, and I will go to the stars and get hired as a merc on my own.”

“Well, that’s a pretty optimistic outlook on life,” Overstreet said. “Still…how do you intend to do all of that without shocking yourself into oblivion?”

“Obviously, the first thing I need to do is to invent something that prevents the conduction of electricity through my tank or through my body. I can leave the tank for periods of time to do my work, however, I will still be wet and will need personal protective gear. That isn’t any different than what you Humans do, though.” He visualized the last person he’d watched welding two pieces of metal. “You wear visors and rubber gloves…that’s it! I just need to do the same as you.”

“You do, huh?” Overstreet asked. “And how do you intend to pull that off? Don’t you need to stay wet?”

“Yes, I do,” Verne said. “But I can do that inside a rubberized suit that will allow me to safely handle heat and electricity. I can do the other things, like nanite fabrication, without it. Yes.” He rubbed his two specialized tentacles together in anticipation. “I think this will work very well.”

* * * * *

Chapter Three

Nemo entered the Ye Old Blacksmith Forge and looked around. As he’d been told, a Wrogul-shaped figure in black operated something that made a light brighter than the star in the sky—and far too bright to look at. Two of the Wrogul’s arms held pieces of metal together, and a third held the star-bright machine.

He approached the Wrogul, but stopped well short of the welding operation when the man behind the counter waved a hand at him. Although the machinery and the welding the Wrogul was undertaking was not very interesting to him, he was aware the process involved high voltage electricity, which—as a water-dwelling individual—deserved respect and caution. Nemo waited patiently for the Wrogul to finish, which gave him time to study the other being.

He was covered in what seemed to be some sort of rubber suit, which, based on its size, was fairly thick. Two lines led into it from another piece of machinery, but he couldn’t determine their purpose. The Wrogul in the suit turned slightly, and Nemo could see the suit incorporated a facemask to allow its wearer to see what he was working on. The suit was of some interest, as Nemo could see the benefits of having those capabilities, but the actual creation and development held no interest for him. Not like the life sciences, which were very interesting.

“Is that you, Verne?” he asked over the comm circuit when the Wrogul took a break. The rubber suit blocked the individual’s photoreceptors, making it impossible to communicate normally.

“Yes,” Verne replied, setting down the piece of equipment he was using and the metal pieces he was joining. He turned to face Nemo, careful not to crimp the lines going into the suit. “I’m kind of busy at the moment. What do you need?”

Nemo waved an arm at the machinery. “I’d like to talk with you about all of this. I have a project I hope you’ll take on for me.”

Verne sighed. “Can you—”

“It is a project that involves developing and fabricating never-seen-before machinery,” Nemo added, interrupting him.

“Oh, well in that case, give me a second, and I will be right with you.” Verne turned to the machinery running into his suit and flipped some switches. The suit shrank in size until it was form fitting. After a moment, Verne operated a seam and slid out.

“Yes? What is the nature of the project?” Verne asked.

Typical Verne, Nemo thought. Unlike the rest of the Wrogul, who were generally focused on life and the life sciences, for some reason Verne liked machines. Weird.

“I am going off-world soon,” Nemo said, “and I heard about the suit you invented.” He flicked an arm to where the suit lay on the floor behind Verne. “I also know you have a proclivity toward building things…” Nemo paused as Verne started playing with the operating mechanism of his chair. “What? Is something wrong?” Nemo asked when Verne didn’t notice he’d stopped talking.

Verne didn’t reply. Instead, he appeared fascinated with what he was tinkering with.


“Oh, yes?” Verne stepped back from his chair. “Sorry, I saw the mechanism needed adjusting. Do you have a problem when it shifts gears?”

“Well, yes, it hesitates before going into the next gear. Why?”

“The linkage was a little off. I have adjusted it, so it should work better now.” He paused a moment, looked at the chair, and then added, “There are several inefficiencies in your chair. I could build you a new one that works better and is more comfortable if you would like.”

“Well, that would be nice,” Nemo said, “but that isn’t why I came to talk to you.”

“It wasn’t?” Verne asked. “Oh. I just saw how badly assembled that chair was and thought you needed a new one. I just redesigned my own, you know. Now it can go almost as fast as any of the Humans’ vehicles. Going forward, I think I can put some ducted fans on it and really increase its operating speed significantly.”


“Of course, that will make it difficult to bring indoors, as it will increase its size significantly. Perhaps, if I make a detachable chair that goes inside a hover frame…”



“Focus, please. I am going off-world soon, and I need a spacesuit in order to function on the ship.”

“Oh! That poses some interesting problems,” Verne said. He turned toward where his suit lay on the floor. “That one won’t work, of course, you’ll need something self-contained. Plus, in space, there will be a lack of gravity, so it will need an integral locomotive force…”

His eyes lost focus as he pictured the system he was building in his mind.

“Can it be done?” Nemo asked after a few moments of waiting, when Verne didn’t come back to reality.

“Why, yes, of course. It poses some unique challenges, but I can absolutely build it. If I can build a CASPer, I can absolutely build a spacesuit. In fact, there are a number of similar issues between them, and I can use some of the design features of the CASPer to overcome the issues in the spacesuit. It’s all technology I’ve already developed, so nothing could be simpler. When do you need it?”

“Three weeks…Wait, you built a CASPer?”

“Well, yes, of course. Look, I’m no good at fiilaash, but I’m good at this. It’s the only way I’m going to be able to go off-world to join the Winged Hussars and fulfill my life’s work as a Human mercenary.”

“The Winged Hussars? What is that?”

“It is one of the Humans’ Four Horsemen mercenary organizations. Surely you have at least heard of them?” When Nemo indicated assent, Verne continued, “I’ve had some issues with the Humans. They don’t consider me to be Human and will not allow me into any of their mercenary units. Cartwright’s Cavaliers sent me a nice note when I applied but turned me down. The Asbaran Solutions note was less pleasurable to read. I haven’t heard anything back from the Golden Horde yet.

“The Winged Hussars, though, they take ‘alien races’—although I still submit I’m as Human as any of the people here—and they said they are interested in meeting me. I have to go to Karma to talk with one of their representatives and fill out the forms.”

“So you built a CASPer to go meet with them?”

“Of course, I did. It works superbly, too. Well, I’m sure it will, once I get the operating system finished. I’m still learning programming. Once I have that mastered, I’m sure I’ll be able to have it working in no time.”

* * * * *

Chapter Four

Verne lifted the arm of the VASPer—Verne’s Assault System, Personal—then lowered it again and released a burst of lights in satisfaction. He’d removed the metal-on-metal rubbing of the joint, and now it moved smoothly and freely.

“I take it the light display means it’s working now?” Overstreet asked from behind the counter.

“Yes,” Verne replied from the far corner of the shop that everyone had come to accept as “his.” Originally just a small piece of real estate in the corner of the building, it had grown to encompass over a quarter of the shop’s floor space. Verne didn’t see an issue with it as he was in the shop all the time, while the others—even Overstreet—were only part-timers. Besides, he shared his tools with them, even the ones he’d special-ordered from off-world.

Though the colonists didn’t have a lot of credits, Verne had earned some of them by improving their machinery and fixing it when it was broken on a number of occasions. He would have done it for free—and he had tried not to accept payment for his efforts—but the colonists had forced him to take some credits. He began accepting them more freely once he found out how expensive some of the equipment he needed was, especially to have it shipped to Azure Colony. Todd had also shared a bit of his stash with Verne in an effort to upgrade the colony’s engineering capabilities, though he wouldn’t say where the credits had come from.

The VASPer was as close to a Human CASPer as Verne could get without access to a set of Binnig’s blueprints. From the exterior, it was an exact match with all the Tri-V images Verne had of the war machines. The interior wasn’t perfect—he knew that—but it closely matched what the former-mercs who had retired on Azure had described, modified as necessary to accommodate his physiology. Those modifications were not noticeable from the outside, though. As far as any merc commander who might see it would be able to tell, he would just be one more trooper inside a suit. Well, once he got the interface to the various CASPer networks figured out.

Not having an actual CASPer he could take apart—and more importantly, the software to make it run—was extremely frustrating, like a patch of dry skin he could not sufficiently re-moisten. His VASPer worked well, but until he got a look at the software from an operational CASPer, he would not be able to ensure his VASPer would integrate into the commander’s battle network.

He also needed weapons to mount on the suit, but they would arrive soon. Another bit of Todd’s legacy well spent. He flashed satisfaction again. He could not wait for the parts to arrive; then he would be a real CASPer trooper, suitable for joining the cadre of any merc organization.

“I think I am going to take the suit for a drive to check out its operational functionality,” Verne said. “Don’t wait up.”

“Okay,” Overstreet said with a chuckle. “Just lock up when you go, okay?”

“Sure thing,” Verne replied absently, his mind already on piloting the suit.

The Humans decided to give in to reality. Since Verne used the shop for many more hours than they could babysit, and, when it came down to it, Verne knew more about the operation and maintenance of the shop’s equipment than they did, the Humans had given Verne babysitter status—they called it a shop supervisor qualification—and now he could come and go as he pleased. That was very satisfying, especially since he didn’t have to do any of the actual babysitting—it meant he could just use the shop when he wanted.

Vern put on his rubberized suit—a modified one, based on the original design that had allowed him to first work with electricity—crawled into the VASPer, and connected it to the suit, just like a Human getting into a CASPer would connect his or her haptic suit. Well…not exactly, he knew—Humans didn’t connect up hoses to allow water to circulate through their suits, but his version of the haptic suit also had plugs allowing him to connect his pinplants to the systems like many members of the Human mercenary companies used. With four pinplants, he could even control one of the Golden Horde’s suits…if they ever hired him and let him look at it.

Once the water was flowing and his pinplants were connected, he opened the exterior door to the shop and started the VASPer. Unlike CASPers, his suit could be started without any exterior assistance. Within a couple of minutes, he had the suit running, and he walked out of the building, careful to push the button on the door remote that would close and lock the shop door behind him. The Humans always got angry when he forgot it, so he had included it as the last item on his startup checklist.

Almost without thought, he turned toward the spaceport and began walking. He wanted to use the jumpjets, but decided not to, for a couple of reasons. First, he knew they often made some of the Humans…overly excited. They saw the flash of flames and assumed something was on fire and freaked out, as they liked to say. While the Humans undergoing this transformation never seemed to change their appearance—and Verne wasn’t sure what a freak looked like in any event—he knew they got excited in a negative manner, which was not conducive to good relations with his neighbors.

Walking was also indicated because—truth be told—he still was not very good at it. The first time he’d taken a step in the VASPer, he had fallen flat onto his face, damaging several of the suit’s components and bruising himself quite ferociously as he bounced around inside it.

He had added restraints, so the second crash—and those following it—were not as damaging to himself, and he’d learned to catch himself—mostly—with his arms so the crashes weren’t as hard on the machinery, but he still did not have the software for walking completely resolved to his satisfaction. While he could now make the suit move forward and backward without falling, it was not as smooth as a Human’s normal walk, and that irritated him more than when particulate matter got into his moistening tubes.

One of the reasons he liked to pilot it at night was he didn’t have to answer questions on whether he was drunk or if the VASPer was being piloted by Frankenstein. As if any of the Humans or Wrogul—who also made fun of him—could build anything better. And he didn’t see where any of the Wrogul had a right to criticize—none of them could walk at all.

Flying using the jumpjets was easy—it was more like swimming—and had been easy to program. But having a sea creature who had never walked program an eight-foot-tall metal suit to do it was proving…challenging. Someday, he would look back and pulse in laughter at these struggles, but that was a long time in the future.

He stumbled his way to the starport just in time to see a shuttle land. He had never seen this version of shuttle, and he wanted to check it out; there might be new machinery inside. Also, it might have the weapons he had purchased for his VASPer, which would be very exciting. Finally, the people onboard may have news from the galaxy—and his latest rounds of merc organization job applications—so he followed the crew to Base Operations as they exited the shuttle.

He had learned that looking at other beings’ equipment without their permission led to less than satisfactory results. While sometimes it was “better to beg forgiveness afterward,” as the Humans said, he found getting permission prior to touching someone else’s machinery often alleviated much hate and discontent and allowed him to get back to doing what he wanted sooner, without having to be lectured. Again.

Realizing it would take longer than he could stand to get there, he toggled his jumpjets and roared into the sky. The best thing about flying was he could use his pinplants to guide the VASPer, and he brought it to a hover in front of the building, then dropped lightly to the ground. Verne flashed irritation as he shut the suit down and exited, wishing he could pilot the giant mech that easily on the ground.

He kept his rubber suit on in case he needed to get back into the mech quickly and opened the door to operations. Both shuttle pilots were tall and dark haired, and they stood at the counter talking to Jim Sanders, the on-duty representative. Based on the age differences and the similarities in looks and how they held themselves, they appeared to be father and son.

“Holy hell!” the younger one exclaimed as he turned to see who had followed them through the door. His hand went for the laser pistol at his hip. “What the hell is that thing?”

“Oh, that’s just Verne,” said Sanders. “Don’t worry, he’s harmless.”

“Are you sure?” the man said, his hand still on his pistol. “Is that…a diver’s suit?”

“Yeah,” Sanders said. “He’s a Wrogul; they’re aquatic. He wears the suit to stay hydrated while he’s out and about.”

“If you say so,” the younger pilot said. “It looks like a damn octopus or something—there’s too many damn arms.”

“I am not an octopus,” Verne said, using his pinplants to connect to the building’s comm system. The man jumped, obviously not expecting Verne to be able to communicate. “Like Mr. Sanders said, I am a Wrogul, not some semi-intelligent cephalopod.”

“Can I help you, Verne?” Sanders asked.

“I saw the shuttle land,” Verne replied, “and I came to see if they had the weapons for my suit onboard.”

“I’m afraid not,” Sanders replied. “The ship in orbit was only here to take on some reaction mass. The crew wasn’t planning to stop and don’t have anything for us.”

“Oh.” Verne radiated disappointment, though none of the Humans could see his lights, or would understand them, if they could see them. He’d really hoped to at least get the laser. “Do they have any messages for us?”

“If they do, you’ll receive them automatically through the comm system like normal. They didn’t bring any hard copies.”

“Oh.” More disappointment. “Can I look at your shuttle then?” Verne asked the pair.

“No, stay away from it,” the older man said. “It’s the only damn thing on the ship that runs the way it’s supposed to, and I can’t afford to have that get broken, too.”

“You have broken things on your ship?” Verne asked. “Can I look at them?”

“Yeah, too many broken things,” the younger man said, clearly more comfortable with Verne now that he knew Verne wasn’t dangerous. “That’s why we’re still here. I’m hoping one of your maintenance folks here at the starport can come help us with our environmental system.”

“I know a bit about environmental systems,” Verne said. “I would be happy to take a look.”

The older man chuckled as he looked down at Verne. “I’m sure you would.” He turned back to Sanders. “So, do you have any qualified personnel that can look at it?”

Sanders smiled. “I hate to tell you this, but Verne is probably your best bet to fix it. He’s a genius with most mechanical things, almost like he was born to it.”

“Some kind of mechanical savant, are you?” the man asked, turning back to Verne. “What do you know about the environmental systems on a Maki Vine-class cargo freighter?”

“If you have the digital manuals, I will know everything,” Verne replied. “Environmental systems are one of my areas of study; I needed them to design my VASPer.”

“What the hell’s a VASPer?”

“It’s my version of a CASPer,” Verne said, his lights pulsing proudly. “It’s just outside if you’d like to see it.”

The older man walked to the door and looked outside. “You built that?” he asked, incredulously. “That’s a freaking CASPer!”

“Well, not entirely,” Verne replied, a little sadly, “but it’s very close to one.”

“Did you have the blueprints for it?”

“No. Unfortunately, Binnig wouldn’t let me have them. I asked. Something about proprietary information, they said. So, I did the best I could with the drawings and Tri-V videos I had from the GalNet.”

“Well…shit. That’s impressive.” He turned back to Sanders. “He isn’t pulling my leg, is he? He really built that?”

“From scratch,” Sanders said. “I saw it in the fabrication plant when it was just the frame.”

The man shook his head. “I’ve transported a number of them, and it looks like the real thing to me.” He paused, considering. “Okay, I’ll give you a shot at my ship,” the man said. “My name’s David Steele, and I’m the owner of Leaf. This is my son, James, who is also my operations officer.” He nodded to the younger man then turned back to Verne. “Are you space-qualified?”

“No, but I built a spacesuit for extended space operations once, so I understand what is required. Unfortunately, Nemo took the suit and is using it, and the other one I built—the prototype—is in three pieces. Still, the VASPer works, and I can go up to your ship in it. The VASPer will give me two days’-worth of life support. Three if I don’t mind the water being a little…stale.”

“Well, if you puke in it, I guess it’s on you to figure out how to breathe it,” David Steele said. “I can’t be flying the shuttle back and forth all the damn time; it’s expensive.”

“I understand,” Verne said, “but I do not believe it will be a problem. Typically, sea creatures do well in zero-G environments, and I am confident I will do the same.”

“All right then,” the man said, holding the door open for Verne. “Time’s a-wasting, and time is money. Let’s get going.”

* * * * *

Chapter Five

Verne crawled outside, pulled himself into the VASPer, and started it up. “Ready when you are,” he said through the external speakers to the two men waiting for him.

“Follow me,” David said.

Verne stumbled after him, his normal motion even more jerky in his haste to keep up and his excitement at going to space! He was so excited he fell forward and had to go down to one knee to catch himself.

“Umm…Dad?” James jerked a thumb toward where Verne was trying to stand up and walk forward at the same time. “Are you sure about this? I don’t know if taking this…thing…into space is such a good idea. He doesn’t seem like much of an engineer—that thing can barely walk!”

“We don’t have any better ideas,” David said. He moved to stand in front of Verne, who stumbled awkwardly to a stop, happy not to have run over the spacer. “Are you okay?”

“I am just excited to be going to space,” Verne said. “Also, while I am an excellent mechanic, I am still learning how to walk on two legs instead of eight. It isn’t something my race has ever done before.”

The older man laughed. “I guess that might be a bit of a challenge if you’ve never done it before.” He sobered and added, “Just take your time and try not to break anything, okay?”

Verne said he’d try, and David led the group to the back of the shuttle and put down the ramp. Verne walked slowly into the shuttle’s cargo bay then stopped and looked around. There were so many new things to play with! Well, not new, but new to him…and they would be just like new when he was finished!

“Stay in your suit and don’t touch anything,” David said. He had Verne maneuver the mecha to one of the bulkheads, where he strapped it in. “The trip to the ship isn’t long, and I don’t want you getting into anything back here. I need James to help pilot the shuttle and can’t spare him to babysit you.”

Verne didn’t say anything; he just pulsed his annoyance at the Humans’ propensity for inefficiency—again!—while he stayed strapped in. He saw at least three systems he could fix or optimize before they reached orbit, and that was without using any of the suit’s optical magnification features. The cargo ramp had also been slow to deploy, which was something he could easily have upgraded, too. And then, when the port engine came on, the harmonics! Obviously, the motor was out of tune and in need of an overhaul. Or at least tweaking. So many systems for him to work on, all within just a short crawl of each other, and he couldn’t touch any of them!

It was so frustrating, he almost got out of his suit…and then the G forces hit. He was pinned in his straps, unable to move, while the unseen forces tried to use the straps to force him into an unplanned budding. He had read about G forces, but he never realized it would be so painful!

After several minutes that seemed to last an eternity, he was free of the invisible crushing force, and he went from being bound in the straps to floating lightly within them. This was better! No, this was awesome! It was almost like swimming, but without the water. He thought it might be fun to try it without the VASPer suit, and he was removing the straps when a red light started flashing, and David’s voice said, “Stand by for maneuvering as we dock.”

Maneuvering meant random forces as the pilots jockeyed the craft into position and—with the experience of G forces recently in mind—Verne quickly strapped back in again. He had no desire to be a squishy ping pong ball bouncing around the cargo bay. The G forces, when they came, were not as strong this time, nor as painful, and ended with a thump. A few moments later, David drifted into the cargo compartment.

“I’m not sure if you want to bring that suit onboard or whether you want to just come out. Up to you, I guess.”

“I will bring the suit,” Verne said, “as it has my life support; however, I will probably need to exit it to see what is wrong with your ship.”

“That’s fine.” David quickly unstrapped the suit. “Okay, follow me.” He turned and pushed off toward the cockpit and the docking collar.

Verne went to take a step, and the suit floated away from the floor. He quickly moved the legs several times, but that only served to make him float further from the floor as a feeling of anxiety came over him—he had no control! He took a deep breath, sucking in a large amount of water, then exhaled as the suit bumped into the ceiling. What was he going to do? He couldn’t move!

Magnetic boots.

It came to him in a blinding flash of the obvious, and he would have slapped himself in the forehead if he had one like the Humans did. Some of the diagrams he had seen had shown the CASPer suit as having mag boots, so he had designed them into the VASPer, but he had never thought about why they would be needed.

“Are you coming?” David asked, coming back into the cargo bay.

“Yes,” Verne said, not wanting to sound like an idiot. “I was just experimenting with the suit’s capabilities in zero G.” He activated the magnetic boots and gave himself a gentle push off the ceiling. The mag boots clamped onto the floor as they came close, and Verne was back in control, even though he now had to learn a new way to walk.

But that was just a simple matter of programming, and he did it on the fly through his pinplants. When the arm pretending to be a Human leg lifted, turn off the magnetic effect; when he set the arm back down again, reinitialize the magnetic effect. It was simple, and after a few steps, he was walking like a Human did in the suit—and it was far easier than walking planetside.

He was having so much fun actually walking that he was not watching where he was going. He strode past the docking collar and forward to the cockpit, where it looked like the younger Steele was going through a checklist on his slate.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

“No, uh…” Verne said, realizing his mistake. “I…uh…just wanted to thank you for the smooth ride to orbit, but I must be leaving now.”

He turned to find the elder Steele behind him. If he could have tapped his foot in the zero G, the look on his face said he would have been. “Are you finally ready to leave?” he asked.

“Yes. Sorry about that,” Verne mumbled as he followed Steele from the craft.

The tunnel to the ship required some extra maneuvering, forcing him to go headfirst and pull himself along, but the VASPer was up to the task. It was a simple matter of putting the suit’s hand on an object and giving the mental command to close on it, then pulling back the arm. Easy peasy, as the Humans said. In fact, maneuvering in zero G was far easier than doing it in a gravitational field, and Verne pulled himself through the tunnel nearly as fast as Steele had and re-attached his boots to the floor of the freighter.

“Do I need to ask for permission to come aboard?” Verne asked. “Like they do in the movies?”

“No,” Steele replied. “You’re my guest, and this isn’t a warship.” He nodded to where Verne’s boots were clamped to the floor. “Besides,” he said with a chuckle, “you’re already aboard.”

“Yes, I guess I am, at that.”

“I’ll take you to the environmental system,” Steele said. “And this time, please try to stay with me. This ship isn’t that big, but I don’t want you getting lost, okay?”

“Okay,” Verne agreed, and he tried, hard, to keep his eyes on Steele’s back as he pushed down the passageway, but things kept sparkling in his eyes. A pipe that was not at the optimal angle. A door seal that was obviously not pressure-tight. So many things that needed to be fixed! How could they let the ship fall into such disrepair?!

He finally saw something he could not live with—two cables that were poorly joined and likely to come apart during maneuvers—and was going to stop and fix them—they were a safety hazard, after all—when Steele stopped at a doorway.

“The environmental system is inside this hatch,” he said.

Right. Doors on ships were called “hatches.” Verne made a mental note of it, wondering what other ship terms he did not know.

Steele opened the hatch, and it was like the Human had opened the door to paradise. The entire room was full of machinery, humming along. No, Verne thought. Some of it was straining, emitting a slightly lower-pitched noise than it should be.

He had to fix it. Without conscious thought, he evacuated his rubber suit, shut down the VASPer, and exited it. He pushed off toward the machinery making the weird sounds.

“Can I have access to the manuals for the equipment?” he asked as he held onto the machine, listening to its gears strain, like a doctor would listen to a patient’s heart.

Steele didn’t say anything, but he obviously transmitted something to the ship, for diagrams began filling in as overlays on Verne’s vision.

“The pressures aren’t right,” Verne said. He could see the dials and gauges, and he knew that to be true, but worse, he could hear the machinery, pushing against pressures it wasn’t designed to withstand. Something was going to break, and soon.

“We know that,” Steele said as his son came to hold onto the hatch. “We’ve checked the filters, but they are fine. It is almost like there is a blockage somewhere, but we can’t figure out where. We need it fixed soon—the air quality is getting bad, and I’m not sure we could go another week through hyperspace. It has to be fixed here.”

“Yeah,” James added, “and what’s worse, the whole ship smells like shit. We’ve got crewmembers threatening to leave.”

Once it was pointed out to him, Verne realized the air quality was bad, even for Humans. The oxygen level was lower than normal, and the sulfur levels were higher than what the system schematics said were the nominal values.

Steele was probably right—there had to be a blockage somewhere. The input pressure was correct, but it didn’t match the expected output pressure. Verne put an arm on the input ducting. It felt right so he began tracing the conduit back along the ducting run. Within a couple of minutes, he had it. The ducting narrowed after several branches joined, and he could feel a whistling from the interior.

He slid a tentacle out of his rubber suit, closed his eyes, and allowed the specialized appendage to vibrate just so as he reached through the ducting and grabbed the obstruction. He wrapped his tentacle around it, and while still vibrating, he withdrew it.

“Here you go,” he said, opening his eyes and holding out the mass of yellow fibers. “This was blocking the ducting.”

Both Humans stared at him, their mouths open and eyes large in what Verne took to be disbelief.

“Really,” Verne said. “This was blocking the ducting. I have removed it.”

“Did you see…” James asked.

“Yeah,” the elder Steele replied. “He reached through the ducting.”

“Holy shit…”

Verne pulled himself toward David with an arm and held out the material he was holding. Although it was almost like Human hair, it was much thicker and somewhat rubbery. For Steele’s part, he shied away from Verne’s arm…or maybe it was Verne himself.

“What?” Verne asked. “You asked me to find the blockage; I have done so.”

David Steel shook himself and looked at the mass of fibers. “Damn it,” he said. “One of those Fiblets got loose.” He took the fibers from Verne’s arm and pushed toward the hatch. “I’ll be right back,” he said as he went out.

Verne’s moved back to the ducting to hold onto it, and he could immediately feel the system was still not right. “On second thought,” he said to James, “I do not believe I have entirely solved your issue.” He took a glance at one of the gauges. “No, the pressures are still not right.”

“Shit,” James said, shaking his head.

“I do not believe shit to be the source of the problem,” Verne said, “although that would account for the sulfurous smell. It was some sort of fibrous mass. There is probably another blockage.”

“Yes, there probably is,” James said, “and that’s why I said ‘shit.’ I was afraid of this.”

“Afraid of what?” Verne asked. “What is this ‘Fiblet?’”

“It’s a little creature we transported. They’re really cute, like cats, and give off a vibe that makes people content. We weren’t supposed to take them out of containment, but I couldn’t resist. I fell asleep holding it, and it got away. I’ve laid out traps but haven’t recaptured it yet. I figured that was probably what was in the ventilation system, but I was hoping we’d find the animal, not just its fur.” He looked at the floor. “And my father is going to kill me when he finds out I did this.”

“Well, perhaps we can catch it before your father comes back. There is still a blockage, and perhaps the Fiblet is caught somewhere. If so, I ought to be able to remove it.”

James looked up with a look of hope on his face. “You think so? That would be great! I knew it had to be a Fiblet—they emit sulfur when they’re scared. I thought it might be trapped somewhere.”

“I will attempt it,” Verne said, putting two of his arms on the ducting.

Although clearing the blockage had allowed some air to flow, one of the ducting runs didn’t feel like air was flowing through it. Verne followed it to where it passed through the wall, then through the passageway and into another room.

“It is here,” he said finally, arriving at a juncture where a smaller run led into the larger one he’d been following.

“Can you do that weird thing again, where you reach into the piping?” James asked.

“Yes, if you are quiet.” Verne plunged a tentacle into the ducting. “Hmm…ouch!” he said after moment. He withdrew his tentacle and unrolled it to show a mass of fibers not much bigger than the previous blockage, but this one was moving. “Here you go,” Verne said, handing the Fiblet to James.

“Shit,” James said again. “That’s not the one that got away. It’s too small.”

“I expected as much,” Verne said.

“You did?”

“Yes. There is a bigger one in the pipe.” He turned over his arm to show a red ring. “It bit me, although it appeared to not like my taste.”

“Can you capture the mother?”

“Perhaps,” Verne said after a moment’s consideration. “There is a problem, though,” Verne added when he saw the look of hope return to James’ face.

“What’s that?”

“She is too big for me to extract.”

* * * * *

Chapter Six

“So, what is it, exactly, you intend to do?” David Steele asked.

“Uh, what?” Verne asked. James had told his father about the Fiblet problem, but Verne had become distracted after a couple of minutes of the gratuitous verbal abuse David had been giving his son about allowing the Fiblet to escape and get into the ducting. It had been fairly thorough, having covered issues of safety, crew morale—the Fiblets did release sulfurous emanations when they were scared, thus the aroma onboard the ship after the smaller one got trapped—and following orders, among other topics. It was an impressive monologue, worthy of Staff Sergeant Graves, but when he’d begun to repeat himself, Verne had gotten bored.

“I asked what you planned to do to get the mother Fiblet out of the ducting before it reproduces again and causes the same issue you just fixed.”

“I intend to go into the ducts and catch the mother. James told me he knows what they like to eat. I will try to bait it and capture it. Alternately, I guess I could find it and reach through the duct and grab it, but then we’d have to cut open the duct to remove it and then fix the ducting again afterward. Going into the duct seemed like the easiest and most efficient method.”

“If you think you can do it, fine, go ahead and do it. Let me know when you’re finished.” David left with one last glare at James, who looked at the deck. Verne had heard the elder Steele use that word to indicate the floor several times, as well as bulkhead for walls and overhead for the ceiling. Although the speech had grown wearisome, at least the first time through there had been some information included amongst the cursing.

“Follow me,” James said. “I’ll take you to an access.”

James led him through a couple of corridors, stopping by the eating area to pick up some food along the way. Although James said the area was a mess, it looked clean and shiny to Verne, and included several small food preparation machines Verne had never seen before. He wanted to stop and see how they worked, but James wouldn’t let him—they needed to catch the Fiblet—and besides, the food processors also hadn’t worked in several months.

They made it to the ducts, and Verne slid out of his rubber suit and into the duct, holding a morsel of chocolate in his leading arm. Although the duct was small, Verne was able to squeeze himself into it and had stored enough moisture to slide along the metal surface.

The chase and capture of the Fiblet turned out to be almost too easy, as the Fiblet didn’t recognize Verne as a threat. If anything, she seemed almost as interested in the fishy smell emanating from Verne as she was in the chocolate, which she happily accepted once Verne had lured her in and snagged her with two of his arms.

He followed the still-damp trail back out of the duct and presented the Fiblet to James. “There you go!” he said as he slid the rubber suit back on. “I will need to go back to my VASPer for a little while to rehydrate, though.”

“That’s fine,” James said. “I will take this to my father and meet you back at your suit.”

* * *

Verne hadn’t made it any further than the mess, though, when James found him again. He’d been unable to walk past the two broken machines without stopping to look at them. Both were fairly easy to fix—wires had come loose in their interiors—and it was nothing more difficult than wiggling one of his tentacles inside and vibrating the wires together at the right frequency to meld them together. The joining was at least as secure as a weld.

He was just withdrawing his tentacle from the second when James found him. “What are you doing?” James asked. “I told you, those are broken. I just haven’t gotten around to removing them and sending them to the replicator yet.”

“There’s no need to,” Verne said. “I fixed them both. They are operational again.”


“Absolutely. Bagels are much better when they’re toasted, and now you can do that again.”

“He fixed the toaster?” asked a female voice.

Verne turned around and found three of the ship’s crewmembers standing behind him. “I did.”

The woman laughed. “James, you need to have your father hire this…this…what are you?” she asked.

“I am a Wrogul,” Verne said, “but I was raised with Humans and understand you.”

The woman smiled. “James, you need to have your father hire this Wrogul. That damn toaster’s been broken longer than I’ve been on board this ship.”

“I’d love nothing more,” James said. “He also fixed the ventilation system.”

“He did?” a man asked. “I wondered what that smell was. I almost forgot what fresh, non-shitty air smelled like. Jane’s right, you need to hire him.”

“I think you’re all right,” David Steele said walking into the mess. “I would like nothing more than that. Verne? Are you available for hire?”

“What?” Verne asked.

He’d been looking at Steele’s mag boots, which allowed him to move around the ship like Verne did in his VASPer. Watching him walk gave Verne an idea for modifying the VASPer to walk more normally. It might still be awkward, but now he knew what he was doing wrong.

“I asked if you would be available to hire on as part of the crew. We could use a junior technician in the engine room, and you seem to pick things up quickly. We can’t pay you much—”

“Can you take me to Karma?” Verne asked, seizing on the one thing that was most important to him. “I want to go and sign up with the Winged Hussars, and they have an office there!”

“Okay, we’ll take you to Karma…or put you on a ship headed in that direction at the earliest moment possible,” David said. “Until that time, you can work onboard and fix anything mechanical that is broken.”

“Really?” Verne asked. He’d get to fix things and get to go to Karma? What could be better than that? “That would be the best thing I’ve seen since the sawdust cannon episode on Mythbusters!”

“The what on what?” David asked.

“It was an old show I used to watch. Along with How Things Work, they are my favorite Tri-V shows. Of course, they weren’t Tri-V when they were made; they were adapted to it. But that’s awesome! When can I start fixing things?”

“Right now,” David replied. “James will take you down to engineering and you can get started!”


* * * * *

Chapter Seven

Verne tried to fix everything he could. Days passed as he went from room to room—or space to space—on the ship, fixing what he could. The Leaf didn’t have an extensive collection of tools, but, happily, Verne had a set of some of his best in one of the storage compartments on the right leg of his VASPer.

He worked around the clock, and only stopped when the chief engineer made him take a break after he almost fell asleep with a tentacle in the main reduction gearbox of Engine #2. Verne was not sure what would have happened to the machinery—or to his tentacle—had he stopped vibrating, but even Verne decided it would not have been good. So, he went and took a nap in the quarters the Humans had made available to him. It was tiny—no bigger than the broom closet at the Forge—but that was all he really needed.

He plugged his suit into the environmental system of his VASPer and fell soundly asleep, happier than he had ever been in his life.

* * *

He went back to work as soon as he woke up and had just finished fixing the shuttle’s port engine when a note at the bottom of Verne’s vision alerted him to an incoming transmission from Mr. Sanders. He authorized it, and Sanders’ face appeared in a small box.

“Is everything all right?” the Human asked.

“Better than all right!” Verne replied. “I’m going to space!”

“Umm…you’re already in space,” Sanders replied. “We show the ship you’re on is headed for the stargate. Is everything okay?”

“Yes. It is better than okay, actually. The captain of the ship has offered me a job as a technician aboard the ship, and I have accepted.”

“So, you’re not being kidnapped?”

“No, I am going of my own free will. The captain says he will either put me ashore at Karma so I can get a job with a merc company, or he will put me on a ship going toward Karma at the first opportunity. I am following my life’s dream.”

“Uh, okay,” Sanders replied. “I just wanted to check. Both Overstreet from the Blacksmith Forge and Todd have come by here in the last few hours looking for you, and they both seemed worried about your disappearance.”

“Oh! In all the excitement, I forgot to tell them I was leaving.”

“Well, it’s none of my business, but I kind of think you should. If nothing else, you ought to at least give Todd a call. Probably Overstreet, too. Apparently, you have some weapons that just showed up at the shop.”

“I do? Oh, no—I have no idea how I’m going to get them. Sorry, I have to go.” He terminated the conversation while Sanders was in mid-sentence and pushed off toward the bridge.

“I need to go back to the planet!” Verne said when he finally found David Steele, who wasn’t on the bridge, but in the mess.

“Why’s that?” Steele asked around a mouthful of toasted bagel.

“My weapons—for my VASPer—are here. I can’t be a merc without weapons! We have to go back and get them! I also need my motorized tank!”

“Sorry—it costs too much to send a shuttle down, and we’d be really close to missing our stargate time. Even if we could, I don’t know if our shuttle would hold a tank.”

“But…but…I need them! I didn’t know I wouldn’t return to the planet when I came up here. You have to let me get my things! And the tank isn’t that big—it is a fish tank on mechanical treads, not like a Zuul main battle tank.”

“Hey, Skipper, let him go back,” Terry Collier, the chief engineer said. “It’s the least you can do—he did save you a ton of cash by fixing the ventilation system for free…and catching that stupid Fiblet.”

“And the port engine of Shuttle One,” Sharon Buck, one of the pilots, added.

“And even the toaster that made the bagel you’re eating,” James said. “He’s saved us a ton of cash. Giving him a quick trip to gather his things is the least we can do.”

“I also have some special tools and a small fabricator in the Forge,” Verne added. “Those will be helpful in upgrading some of the older equipment in this ship.”

David held up his hands in surrender. “All right! All right! You got it. One quick trip.” He looked at the pilot. “Sharon, get him down and back ASAP. If we miss the stargate window, I’m taking it out of your pay.”

The pilot turned to Verne. “You heard the boss; let’s go.”

* * * * *

Chapter Eight

Verne called ahead and Overstreet and Todd were waiting at the starport with stacks of his gear.

“Just get out of the way, and we’ll get this loaded,” Overstreet said as Verne stumbled down the ramp in his VASPer.

“But I can carry more with the suit!” Verne exclaimed.

“And then throw it all over the place and break half of it,” Overstreet replied. “No, it’s better if you just stay out of the way and let the pilot and me load it.”

“I could have fixed anything I broke later,” Verne grumbled as he lurched to where Todd sat in his motorized chair, supervising the loading of Verne’s meager possessions. All the things Verne wanted—really wanted—were his tools from the Forge, his tank, his weapons, and the mini-replicator he had purchased with Todd’s credits.

“Get out of that thing,” Todd said when Verne reached him. “I want to talk to you, and I don’t want you falling over and crushing me.”

Verne crawled out of the suit and toward Todd. “I’m getting much better with the suit,” Verne said. “I probably wouldn’t have fallen over. Also, I have some good ideas for programming the suit to walk more naturally—more like how Humans do it.”

“Probably isn’t certainty,” Todd said. “And being squashed by a half-ton suit of armor isn’t how I want to end my time on this planet.” He stopped a minute and looked at Verne. “I wanted to come and wish you good luck as you chase your dreams, but I also wanted to warn you. Whatever brought me here, and whatever it is that took my memory of who I am, is still out there. I don’t know if it’s something sinister, but I also don’t know that it isn’t. Be careful. In a galaxy this big, there are bound to be bad people and races out there, and you are somewhat…gullible.”

“What do you mean by that?” Verne asked. “I am no longer a child.”

“No, but you are easily distracted by new equipment and machinery, and you often lose your focus. For example, you are likely to work for free if a new employer let you work on equipment you had never seen before.”

Since that was pretty much the arrangement Verne had made with Steele, he decided to watch the Humans loading his gear onto the shuttle rather than say anything.

“Please tell me you aren’t working for free for the Humans,” Todd said when Verne didn’t reply. “You need to make sure they pay you, so when you get to Karma, or wherever you end up, you will have some credits to get the things you need.”

“I don’t need much…”

“You need to eat,” Todd warned, “and there are many things you like to have, like new tools and new accessories for your VASPer. None of these are free out in the galaxy; they all cost credits, and you need to make sure you have credits for when you need them. I can’t follow you and pay for them; you’re going to have to do that for yourself now.”

“I will try, Grandpa.”

“Good. Make sure you do. And try to write sometimes. Nemo barely ever sends us any messages, and it is hard to keep up with where he is and what he’s doing.”

“I will,” Verne said as Overstreet carried the last load into the shuttle.

“Good,” Todd repeated. “Then it is time for your adventure to begin. Do well, but keep your eyes open, no matter where your arms take you.”

Verne nodded, then mounted his VASPer and closed the canopy. “Goodbye, Grandpa,” Verne said as he trundled off.

“Goodbye, Verne.”

Verne made his way up the ramp, careful not to crush any of the pallets of gear, then backed into position against the shuttle’s bulkhead. As the ramp came up, Verne could see Todd waving an arm and flashing his, “Goodbye.”

As the ramp closed, Verne wondered if he would ever see his grandfather again.

* * * * *

Chapter Nine

“All hands, this is the bridge,” the public address system announced some weeks later. “Acceleration stations. Stand by for maneuvering.” Red lights began flashing throughout the engineering space.

Verne looked up at the speaker on the bulkhead as if it had just spoken in MinSha. “What did they just say?”

“The bridge just said to get to acceleration stations,” Terry Collier replied as he grabbed up the tools, threw them into a bin, and dashed to his chair. “I swear, sometimes you get to working and lose track of the entire galaxy.”

Verne crawled over to his own chair holding the spanner he’d been using, dropped it into the receptacle he’d attached to his acceleration chair for just that purpose, and strapped himself in. Not only was it painful to get slammed around when the ship started accelerating, it was also dangerous to both his health and the continued well-being of the engineering room’s equipment. He’d lost the tip of an arm to some rotating machinery when he’d missed one acceleration stations call. Another meter to the right, and his main body would have gone into the gearing, likely shredding his body and destroying the machine. Worse, he would not have been around to fix it again.

Since then, he’d learned to take the warnings seriously…and to try to notice them when they were given. Still…it was sometimes hard when the work was so fascinating.

“What’s going on?” Verne asked. “We aren’t to the planet already, are we?”

“No, we’re not even close,” Collier replied. “I guess you missed the first announcement saying there was a ship in distress, and that we’re going to help them?”

“Yes, I missed that.” So much for paying attention to intercom announcements. “What’s wrong with the ship?”

“I don’t know. I think they said they have an F11 leak or something like that in their engineering room.”

“Really? How did they do that? You’d have to want to break it to make something go wrong with the system. When I came aboard, that was the only system that seemed to be working at one hundred percent efficiency.

“I don’t know. All I know is Steele said to be ready to go over and help them with it. I suspect that means you’ll go over to help, as well, once we’re alongside.”

“Okay. Once we’re docked, I’ll go get my VASPer. It can carry the widest variety of tools. That way, I will have everything I might need, from electronic to hydraulic.”

“Secure from acceleration stations,” a voice said over the intercom. “Engineering away team assemble at the amidships docking collar.”

“That’s us,” Collier said. “Go get your VASPer and meet me there.”

“Wilco.” Verne flashed happiness. He was going to go fix a broken ship, and he got to use military terminology. It didn’t get much better than that. The fact that his VASPer was needed, too, was just pure awesome. It was almost like being a merc.

He pushed his way back to his closet—he had found out his room really was a closet, but it hadn’t mattered because he was in space—mounted the VASPer, and started it up. Before he could shut the canopy, though, he felt the ship jar, and a brief overpressure wave came through the open door.

It was an explosion. The other ship’s engine must have detonated somehow.

He had to go help!

The Leaf’s red and white strobe lights were illuminated. “Action Stations!” blared over the intercom. Vern wasn’t surprised; they would need to be as prepared as possible if they were connected to a ship that was on fire or had suffered a casualty. He didn’t catch the second half of the announcement until it was repeated.

“Action Stations, Action Stations! All hands, man your action stations! Prepare to repel boarders! We have boarders at the amidships docking collar. All hands, defend the ship!

The announcement repeated a third time as Verne stood at his doorway, unsure what to do. Boarders? They had been boarded? By who? Why? None of his training covered being boarded—the crew of the Leaf had only given him instructions for a few emergencies, most of which entailed going to his closet and strapping in. The only one that didn’t—abandon ship—required him to go to the ship’s one lifeboat.

But strapping in now didn’t seem to be what the situation required.

What was required now was action! The announcement had said to defend the ship, and there was nothing better to defend the ship than his VASPer. He looked at the two boxes pushed into the corner of his closet labeled LASER and MAC—his laser and magnetic assault cannon primary armaments, but they were still in their original packing. He had never unpacked them as there wasn’t a need for them onboard ship. He did not even know if they worked.

And now was not the time to find out.

He turned back to the door and walked out, colliding with a crewmember flying past from the direction he wanted to go.

“Sorry,” Verne said. “I didn’t see you.”

Then he saw the crewmember was not a crewmember—it looked vaguely like one of the Humans’ domesticated dogs, only larger—at the same time the being raised its laser pistol and fired it at his suit.

The beam was a glancing blow, and his armor turned it. He had worked hard on developing an anti-laser paint scheme—that was what the CASPer veterans said they feared most—and the silver paint on his VASPer covered several thousand small, reflective surfaces. The initial part of the beam burned off the paint, then the mirrors reflected the beam harmlessly to the side.

The dog-man flinched back in surprise from the giant mech, clearly surprised his shot had nearly come back to hit him. He raised his pistol to fire again. Without consciously thinking about it, Verne backhanded the creature with the full force of the suit. He had intended to knock the pistol out of the creature’s hand, but the invader moved and took the brunt of the blow in his face. His head snapped back with a loud crack! and the creature bounced off the bulkhead like a giant pinball on the physics show, How Things Work.

Unfortunately, the pistol was too small and awkwardly shaped for Verne to use it with his VASPer—he hadn’t designed the hands to be sensitive enough, obviously, and he crushed the weapon in his hand. The pieces floated away from the VASPer as Verne flashed his dissatisfaction to the cosmos.

He saw the enemy—he did a pinplant search and found it to be a Zuul—was no longer a threat, as its head was rotated in a different direction than the rest of its body, so he started toward the docking collar.

The air sampler started picking up traces of smoke as he approached it, which was probably residual from the explosion he had felt earlier. He rounded the final corner and saw three more Zuul guarding the access to their ship.

One saw him and started to raise his weapon. Realizing he was too far in the open to retreat, Verne did something he had read mercs did when they surprised an enemy; he charged them before they had time to recover. He dove forward, flying through a red mist, and toggled his jumpjets to full. He had never used them in space, and he immediately recognized his mistake. He turned off the jumpjets with a thought, but by then he was rocketing down the passage toward the Zuul, all of which were now staring at him in shock. The first one fired, but the shot passed over him.

Another Zuul ducked as he slammed into two of them, grabbing one in each hand. However, they were wearing mag boots and the force required to rip their feet out of them unbalanced his flight. He spun awkwardly through the docking passage and into the enemy ship, bouncing off the passageway’s walls and, sometimes, the two Zuul he was holding.

He activated his own mag boots and came to a jarring stop that threw him into his restraints so hard he thought they would break from the stress or cut him in half. But the restraints held and he wasn’t cut in half. He found himself standing on the port bulkhead of the enemy ship, with a Zuul in each hand. The left-hand one struggled to get away, but the other’s head was crushed, and he didn’t move.

A third Zuul was just turning toward Verne, and he dove back toward the creature, this time with just a tap of his jumpjet. The Zuul lifted his pistol to fire, and Verne threw the dead Zuul. The enemy-turned-missile pin-wheeled into the third Zuul, who ducked under it, but came up just in time for Verne to grab him around the throat in his now-empty hand.

Unable to stop himself, again, Verne flew through the docking passage into Leaf and slammed into one of the bulkheads. Since he was holding the two Zuul in front of him, the enemy cushioned the VASPer’s collision with the bulkhead, and the VASPer broke their bodies and caved in their chests.

Verne dropped them and considered what to do next. As he looked around, he saw what he had missed as he rocketed past the first time—there had been a fight at the entrance to the Leaf, and a number of the Leaf’s crew—including the chief engineer—were now dead. The red mist he had flown through appeared to be primarily made up of Terry Collier’s blood. The way his chest was torn up, he must have been close to whatever had exploded.

Verne’s photoreceptors lit up with grief and anguish. While he knew he didn’t experience loss exactly like a Human, he knew what they said it felt like, and he felt it, too. He would never see Collier again. He had been one of the first to speak up for Verne, and now he was gone because of a group that would rather steal from others than earn a living.

They had to be stopped, and he had the equipment—he had the suit—to stop them. But how many of them were there, and where were they?

* * * * *

Chapter Ten

There were obviously a number of Zuul onboard his ship, and Verne could think of only two places where they would go: the bridge and engineering. While they could disrupt the ship from the bridge, like remotely turning off the motors, it was not anything he could not counter with local control in the engine room. To him, engineering was more important than the bridge. There, the invaders could control things like the environmental system, which would kill his crewmates.

Verne started to turn back toward engineering, but he realized the two ships were still connected. If there were more Zuul on the pirate ship, they could keep coming aboard the Leaf. He jetted—slowly and under control—to the hatch on the other ship, closed it, then bent the handle to where it wouldn’t open again without applying as much force as the VASPer had…which was significant.

He pulsed happiness at a job well done, then turned and jetted as quickly as he could toward engineering. This process led to a number of collisions with the bulkheads as he pinballed back and forth between them, but it was quicker than trying to run in the suit, and he figured time was of the essence. He could buff out most of the dings later.

As he reached the hatchway into engineering, he saw a Zuul skitter back inside and shut the hatch. The ship was not a warship, though, so the hatch didn’t lock, and the Zuul didn’t have near enough strength to keep Verne’s mecha from opening it. Unfortunately for the Zuul, it tried to hold down the bar latching the hatch shut. When Verne grabbed it on the other side and yanked it upward, the bar was ripped from the Zuul’s hands and smashed into his face, caving it in and catapulting him into the overhead.

Verne pushed the door open, and two laser beams lanced out, hitting his suit. One bounced off ineffectually, but the other hit his right arm and drilled through. It didn’t hit his own arm or anything critical in the suit, but it showed him the VASPer was not impervious to laser fire. He dodged to the side then drifted down the passageway as his mag boots lost contact with the floor. He gave his jumpjets the barest touch of power, bounced off the overhead, and locked them to the deck. Then he had an idea. He pushed off the deck and reoriented himself to stand on the ceiling. The Zuul were land creatures and expected threats to come at them from their orientation; as a sea person, Verne was used to looking down or attacking prey from above. He was also very patient when it came to hunting.

He walked back to the hatchway, careful to remain hidden. After about thirty seconds, the defenders couldn’t wait any longer, and one came out, leading with his laser rifle. He turned in the direction Verne had dodged, and Verne reached down, grabbed him by the neck, and slammed his head into the overhead. He did it a second time for Terry Collier’s sake…then a third.

He threw the body through the open hatchway, immediately drawing a number of laser blasts, and dove in after it. He skipped once off the deck, then crashed into a piece of auxiliary machinery he knew was in front of the hatch. Grabbing hold of it, he used it for cover as he got his legs underneath him.

As his mag boots connected to the deck, he ran a thermal sweep of the space. In addition to the thermal sources he recognized—he knew all of the machinery well by then—there were two others. He immediately recognized his mistake: the additional sources were on opposite sides of the room, and both of them were moving to take him under fire. He wouldn’t be able to attack either of them without exposing himself to the other. Nor could he flee out the hatch without exposing himself to both of them.

He moved his optical sensors around, trying to see how the Zuul were armed, and realized that he needed offboard sensors, like a drone or three, to augment his suit’s defenses. He finally managed to get a look at both of them, although he took a laser strike that penetrated his suit’s left shoulder in the process. The Zuul to the left was only armed with a laser pistol, while the one on the right had a laser rifle that was the greater threat.

Happily, he didn’t have shoulders, so the laser passed through the suit without hitting him. It did, however, compromise some of the left arm’s functions. But he was as ambidextrous as an eight-armed creature could be, and while two of his arms functioned as his primary appendages, he could operate the suit’s functions with any of his eight arms or even his two tentacles, if need be, with a very small drop-off in efficiency.

Knowing he needed to move before either Zuul could shoot at him, he grabbed the body of the Zuul floating nearby—now even worse for wear after being shot—and threw it to his right. The Zuul ducked, and Verne tapped his jumpjets and soared over the box he was using as cover to the other.

The Zuul must not have fought Humans before—or at least not ones with CASPers—because the sight of the giant suit of armor flying toward him stopped him in his tracks, and his mouth dropped open. The VASPer smashed him into the bulkhead, putting a sizable dent into it, and the Zuul stopped thinking anything at all.

Though the attack had worked, Verne realized he really needed to work on a way to stop so that he didn’t keep damaging the ship. While he was getting better at killing the pirates, he was also causing himself a lot of menial work that would keep him from projects he wanted to work on.

A laser strike on the bulkhead next to him made him duck behind a turbine, and as he turned toward the remaining Zuul, he saw the laser rifle floating by. He snatched it up in his right hand. Although a rifle for a normal Zuul trooper, in the suit’s hands it wasn’t much more than an oversized pistol, and he was able to hold it with only one hand.

But he had a weapon, and he initialized the suit’s targeting system. Unfortunately, it was the first time he’d ever used it, and not only was he slow to target the Zuul from lack of practice, the system also hadn’t been calibrated, so his first two shots hit the hyperspace generator the Zuul was hiding behind. Oops. More work.

While Verne was recalibrating the system’s targeting menu, the Zuul shot him twice, but both bolts were deflected by the suit. Realizing he wasn’t damaging the suit, the Zuul dove for the hatch. Verne saw the movement and fired at the pirate. His first two shots were well behind the fleeing alien as the rifle came up but then the third bolt speared the Zuul in the center of his back with a long burst, and the pirate slammed into the edge of the hatch and bounced back. He was still moving, so Verne aimed at the creature’s head and fired again.

Verne realized he needed to work on his firing discipline. He hadn’t led the creature—leading was another new skill he would have to learn and incorporate into the suit’s targeting system—so the beam had hit the Zuul in the throat. The body of the alien started spinning slowly as its remaining heartbeats pumped its blue blood out of its body. As it coated the engine room, Verne gave the Wrogul version of a sigh—that was even more mess he’d have to clean up.

He walked over to the intercom box and carefully pushed the button. “Bridge, Engineering. How is everything up there?”

“Not good,” said David. “There are three of the pirates”—there was the sound of someone being struck, then he continued—“uh, three bosses here. They have just informed me we are under new management. I am to shut down our drives prior to being incorporated into their organization. If we don’t do what we’re told, they are going to put all of us out the airlock. So please do what they say and turn off our drives.”

“I will do so,” Verne said. He knew he needed to get up to the bridge, but that would take time. “I am not really sure how, though. The engineer was killed by the…by the new bosses, and I am so new I do not know what I am doing. Perhaps you could explain what needs to be done? Slowly, so I understand?”

“You don’t—” Steele started, but then he figured out what Verne wanted. “I understand you don’t know anything about engineering, yet, being new like you are, so I will explain how to do it. First…”

David started reciting the procedure for how to turn off everything in engineering, but Verne was already in motion, jetting as quickly as he could toward the bridge. He went faster now, knowing there was a limited amount of time remaining before the pirates started making good on their threats. He also thought he had a little better control of his jets and that he could use the maneuvering thrusters a little better. Still, neither were perfect, and the times he hit the bulkheads were especially jarring to him and damaging to the ship. The armor fared a little better, but he still had a number of caution lights illuminated by the time he reached the bridge.

He stepped through the hatchway onto the bridge and found things as David had said. There were three Zuul; two were armed with laser rifles, which they aimed at Verne when he entered, and a third who had a laser pistol, pointed at David’s head.

* * * * *

Chapter Eleven

“What the hell is that?” asked the Zuul holding the pistol to Steele’s head.

“It’s a modified CASPer,” David replied. “You should give up now before he shoots all of you.”

All the Zuul put the hostages between them and Verne. “I don’t know what a CASPer is,” the Zuul leader said, “but I’m guessing there is someone inside that metal monstrosity. If there is, you need to come out right now or your captain is going to have a breeze running through his head.”

“I do not think so,” Verne said. “In the Tri-V movies, when the hero comes out from behind his protection, he always gets shot. I think I will stay right where I am.”

“If you don’t come out before I count to five, I will kill him,” the Zuul said. “No matter what else happens, your captain will be dead.”

Verne raised his laser rifle, hoping his impromptu sighting programming was good enough.

“One,” the Zuul said.

Verne turned on the targeting system and put the reticle on the Zuul’s head, as far away from David’s head as he could, while still having a reasonable chance of killing the alien.


Verne analyzed Steele’s stance. He seemed resigned to his fate. If he could accept it, so could Verne.


Verne fired, and the beam speared through the Zuul leader’s head. Steele knocked away the pistol and dove away from the Zuul, but Verne only caught the motion peripherally, as he was already turning toward the Zuul on the left. It was still looking at the leader, and Verne had time to put the reticle on the Zuul’s forehead as the navigator dove away from him. Verne fired and the second Zuul died.

He only made it halfway around to the last Zuul before a pain like having a magnifying glass focus Azure’s starlight on his skin burned through his #5 arm. He completed the turn to find the third Zuul had thrown away his hostage to give him a better view of the VASPer—and the burning was because Verne had been shot! A second hole appeared in the VASPer just over Verne’s head. If he’d been Human, the beam would have gone through his upper chest, and he would be dead.

Verne’s reticle raced up the Zuul’s body, but the surprise of the near miss “freaked him out,” and he triggered the rifle while it was still in motion. The Zuul was hit in the leg, stomach, and head as it fired one last shot, which ignited the padding next to Verne’s head in his VASPer. He slapped it several times with multiple arms, putting it out, then looked at his damaged arm.

The laser bolt had nearly severed the last third of the arm, and his fluids were pouring from it. Verne grabbed the two sides with his primary arms and held them together while another arm grabbed the box he had purchased because Todd made him, even though he had never expected to use it. He flipped open the medkit and grabbed the dispenser. It was already set for Wrogul—because who else would be using it?—and he sprayed the nanites all around the wound, using the majority of the canister in a single application.

He had only thought the wound burned before, and he screamed as the nanites went to work repairing his tissues. If given a choice, he would have gladly been thrown into Azure’s star instead. After a few moments, the pain abated, and the wound closed. He could still feel the nanites working under his skin, but most of his pain receptors were on his outer skin, so it was more of an itching than true pain.

As the fire on his arm eased, he realized the knocking he’d thought was his heart was actually David pounding on the VASPer. “Are you all right?” he asked, over and over. His face was white, and he looked like he had seen a ghost.

“I am fine…now,” Verne said as he opened the canopy. “I was hit with a laser and had to reattach one of my arms, but I think I am all right now.”

“That was the scream we heard?” the navigator, Susan Steele, asked. If anything, she looked even more concerned than David did.

“I suppose,” Verne replied. Mercenaries were not supposed to scream, he knew, and his photoreceptors flashed red with his blush. Happily, the Humans could not see them under his suit, so he tried to ignore it and move on. “It burns a lot when you use a medkit,” he added.

“Thanks for using the laser and not your sword blade,” David said, nodding to the meter-long blade attached to Verne’s arm. “That will make the bridge easier to clean up.”

“You are welcome,” Verne replied, now flashing every one of his lights crimson. In all the excitement, he’d forgotten he had the blade. He wasn’t sure how knowing it existed would have changed what he’d done, but the fact that he had a weapon at the start of the fight and hadn’t known it made him…not the best mercenary ever. Perhaps it was just a matter of inexperience—real mercs went through training programs and cadre and things like that, but he felt embarrassed by his first showing.

“Well, if you’re okay,” Steele said, “we need to get our ship detached from the pirates’ and get the hell out of here. Can you go do that?”

“I can,” said Verne, closing his canopy. He started to go, but then turned back to David. “Before I do, though, I have an idea I think we ought to try.”

* * *

Verne sealed the docking collar and detached the Leaf from the pirate vessel. “We’re clear,” he said as he maneuvered back to the bridge.

He felt the ship come under power—the G forces brought back his stumbling, bumbling gait—but he still made it to the bridge quickly. “Did I miss it?” he asked upon entering the bridge.

“No,” David replied. “We waited for you.” He pointed to the main Tri-V screen and said to the Susan, “Do it.”

The navigator pushed the transmit button, which sent a signal to the charges Verne had placed. The Leaf was carrying a shipment of mining supplies to a colony and included in the manifest were two pallets of explosives. Only one pallet would reach the colony; the other had been spread around the exterior of the pirate vessel. At the signal, twenty charges detonated simultaneously—including four placed over the engineering section—and the atmosphere from the ship decompressed explosively.

Verne knew he had just killed all the Zuul onboard the vessel, but he didn’t feel any remorse. They had come aboard and killed members of his crew, including Terry Collier, and they had gotten back what they deserved. That one is for you, Terry.

Verne knew paying your debts was important to a merc, and he had done so. Maybe, just maybe, he would make a good merc after all.

* * * * *

Chapter Twelve

Verne finished his application for Cartwright’s Cavaliers and sent it off, including an un-asked for picture of himself beside his VASPer in the aftermath of the pirate attack on the Leaf. The blue Zuul blood, which was different from a Human’s, was sprayed across the armored suit in patterns any abstract expressionist painter would have loved. His lights showed the Wrogul expression of susulol—a combination of happiness, confidence, and satisfaction.

As he looked around the “room” he rented on Karma station, his lights flashed anything but those Human emotions. His grandfather was right—beings expected to be paid, and on stations like Karma, they expected to be paid a lot! His room was tiny, with barely enough space for his VASPer and his motorized tank, which was currently empty. It did, however, have a terminal that allowed him to access the latest job boards, for a fee, and to transmit merc applications, for a slightly larger fee.

If he did not get picked up by one of the mercenary companies soon, he would be out of credits, and he was not sure what would happen then. He had heard things were cheaper on the planet, but there was a fee to transport him there, and if he got called for an interview, he would have to pay to come back to the station, and he was not sure he had the credits to cover a two-way trip.

He had tried going to the mercenary pits, but since he was not a registered mercenary, he wasn’t allowed entry, despite his combat experience with the pirates. After two very large Besquith troopers had ejected him from Peepo’s Pit—with promises to find him later and eat him—he had decided there had to be better approaches.

He now had applications on file with all of the Human merc organizations on Karma Station, and it was a matter of waiting…and waiting…

* * *

When he woke up, two of the Humans’ weeks later, he found two messages waiting for him. The first was from Drake’s Rangers, a company that specialized in infiltration operations. In order to accomplish their missions, they used a lot of highly specialized equipment. The personnel officer of the Ranger’s had noted that since Verne had built his own CASPer, complete with modifying it to fit his racial characteristics, they might be willing to hire him for a technician position. While they were not able to pay him a huge salary or give him a combat position, they would pick up the fee for his mercenary registration.

At least it was a start, and it could help him get hired as a combat soldier down the road. He would have to give that offer some consideration…but not too much, as he only had a two-day window in which to reply.

The other message was from David Steele. “Hi, Buddy,” the Human said on the Tri-V message. “We weren’t able to find a new engineer, and I’m hoping I can pick you back up for another run. I know this isn’t what you want, but it will be quick, and I can pay you a chief engineer’s wages for your time. It’s just a quick hop, one transition each way, to drop off a merc company where they’re going to be doing some garrison work. You’d be doing me a big favor—not that saving my ship wasn’t big enough—and I’d really appreciate it.”

Steele looked at the camera a few seconds then added, “I really need you. There isn’t anyone who is as good a mechanic as you on Karma. I didn’t expect there to be. Unfortunately, there also isn’t anyone who is at all qualified. I can hire a newbie, but I need someone to work with him for a couple of weeks. Please, Verne? I really need you. This contract is going to expire today, and I won’t be able to take it without a qualified engineer. Please let me know if you can help me as soon as possible. Thanks!”

The message ended with Steele looking hopefully at the camera.

Verne replayed both messages, then wished he had the ability to sigh. The opportunity with the Rangers, while not what he ultimately wanted, was at least an entrée into the merc world. He would get his merc credentials. From there, anything was possible.

The opportunity with Steele only served to delay any chances he had of ever becoming a merc. If any of his applications bore fruit, he would be off the station when the company called, and he would be unable to take the job.

But he knew, having grown up with Humans, that only one of these was the right thing to do. You helped a friend in need, even if that person hadn’t always treated you as well as he could have. Judging by Steele’s message, at least he would be paid this time, and that would allow him to rent the room for a little longer while he continued to look for a merc job.

Before he could change his mind, he drafted and sent a “Thanks but no thanks” message to the Rangers, consoling himself with the knowledge the position was not a combat one, merely one where he would be a REMF. He didn’t want to be rear echelon; he wanted to be a real merc.

With another simulated sigh, he drafted a very different message for David Steele.

* * * * *

Chapter Thirteen

“I’ve only been gone for three weeks,” Verne noted. “How did so many things go wrong so quickly?”

David Steele sighed. “After you left, we picked up a new engineering officer—a Zuparti—and what he said was his wife. As it turns out, they were a brother and sister team that was running a big con.”

“They ran a convention? Was it a science fiction convention? I have read some excellent sci-fi by—”

“No, not a convention, a con where they hustle you out of your money. It’s when they promise you something, but rather than deliver it, they disappear, taking your money. Well, they used the Leaf as their getaway vehicle. The male barely knew anything about engineering, and his sister knew even less. When we made it to our drop-off point, they disembarked to get some needed parts—with my credits—and disappeared. We never saw them again, or the money they were supposed to use to get the parts we needed. I need this run just to make up for all the damage they did…and I don’t have money for repairs or other supplies so…”

“You’re hoping I will use my “magic” and fix everything that is broken, without you having to pay for new equipment.”

“That would be nice,” Steele said.

“I will do what I can,” Verne replied. I really need to learn how to sigh.

“That’s great,” Steele said. “Thanks.”

* * *

It was bad enough many of the systems were broken. What was even worse was that the Leaf’s cargo was a company of mercs from the Copperheads Mercenary Company going to a garrison contract. While the ship had enough space for the 45 CASPers in its cargo bay, the company’s personnel filled the available living space to overflowing, to the point where the mercs had to “hot rack”—where two or three personnel would share the same bunk. When one person got up, the next person would get in. It seemed to violate everything Verne knew about Humans needing personal space, but no one was sharing his closet, so he didn’t care.

The extra personnel, however, put a strain on all the equipment, and by the time the Leaf emerged from hyperspace, Verne was exhausted. Between trying to keep the engines running, the ventilation system filtering—the mercs created some of the most unpleasant odors—and all of the waste removal systems operating, he barely had time to get any rest of his own.

He had delayed a number of projects he thought were priority jobs in order to keep the mercs happy. Steele had noted that, as the saying went, “The customer is always right,” but in this case, they took it one step further. When mercs got angry, they tended to break things, resulting in extra work, and Verne ended up spending an inordinate amount of his time fixing things for the mercs. While that was generally unpleasant—they really did smell badly, even to Verne—they did, on a couple of occasions, allow him to do some work on their CASPers, which was decidedly not unpleasant.

He had heard a couple of their maintenance personnel talking about a stuck motivator they could not get unstuck, and he volunteered to take a look at it. When he was able to unstick it, he was invited back for a couple other procedures the maintenance personnel either could not do, or ones which were so dirty that they did not want to do them.

Verne was happy either way. He didn’t mind getting dirty—usually it would slough right off—and it got him into their CASPers. Sitting in their armored suits—their real, honest-to-their-God CASPers—was just…awesome! He took a number of pinplant and Tri-V images so he could adapt his, when he had the time. He also got to run through a simulator sequence on one for about ten minutes, as a thank you for a particularly dirty job, and he got to see what the operational screens looked like. He even got the techs to give him a copy of the CASPer software. He didn’t tell them it was to upgrade his VASPer; he didn’t even tell them he had the VASPer. He just asked to see it to find out if there were improvements he could make. Adapting the software to his VASPer had taken an entire one of his sleep periods, but it had been worth it.

The last couple of days flew past once he found out about the CASPers, and he spent as much time in the cargo bay with the maintenance personnel as he could. When they arrived in-system, an exhausted Verne said goodbye to the mercs as they began loading into the shuttle, and he went to get some much-needed rest.

* * *

He’d only been asleep an hour when James banged on his door.

He didn’t get up; instead, he snaked one of his sensory tentacles over from the VASPer where he was sleeping to open the door. “Mph? Yes?”

“The shuttle is having some electrical issues,” James reported. “Dad wants you on it so you can fix whatever the issue is and get the mercs down to the planet.”

“Okay,” Verne replied, and James left.

Verne was too tired to push his way to the docking collar and decided to take the VASPer. Until then, he hadn’t mentioned it to the mercs. It had seemed too juvenile and too much like hero-worship. He wanted to be accepted as one of them, not seen as some sort of childish pretender.

When the mercs saw the VASPer, though, they were very complimentary of both the suit and Verne’s skills for making it. A couple of them asked to see inside when they reached the planet, making him literally glow with pleasure. He was immediately interrupted by Sharon Buck, who was piloting the shuttle with James. The electrical issue was back, and he set off to track it down.

Verne noticed peripherally when the shuttle undocked, his VASPer experienced a number of back and forth accelerations, before dropping back to zero G. He continued to trace the issue and kept the VASPer’s boots locked to the deck, generally ignoring what the pilots did. What finally broke into his consciousness was when the red lights began flashing.

“Take your seats and lock in!” Sharon exclaimed. “We’re taking fire.”

Verne went to the cargo bay to strap in, but all of the seats and CASPer lockdown points were filled with the Copperheads’ CASPers. With nowhere else to go, Verne locked his boots to the deck and tightened his straps. The shuttle began maneuvering, hard, and Verne was thrown from side to side inside the VASPer.

“What’s up with this?” one of the troopers asked. “I didn’t think it was going to be an opposed landing.”

“I don’t know,” the CASPer marked Colonel Triplett replied. “It’s not supposed to be.”

With an enormous BANG! a missile detonated on the cargo ramp, ripping it off and opening the back of the shuttle like a can of sardines. The force of the explosion broke the magnetic lock Verne’s boots had on the deck, and he was catapulted toward the yawning opening in the back of the craft. Several of the mercs reached out, trying to grab his suit, but they missed, and he was through the hole and flying through the air.

He had a glimpse of the shuttle as he pinwheeled through the air—it was on fire, trailing thick, black smoke, but the horizon kept rotating, and he lost his orientation. If there was one part of mech operation Verne was familiar with, though, it was uncontrolled flight. When he’d been first learning to operate the VASPer’s jumpjets, he crashed it a couple of really painful times, and he had developed a failsafe button for it, which he pushed as the G forces tried to squash him to the side of the mecha.

The failsafe program activated, locking out Verne’s control inputs, and, using a series of gyros and sensors, the suit determined where the ground was. The computer fired the thrusters to orient and stabilize the suit, then triggered the jumpjets on full thrust until the suit was no longer falling. Two flashes of yellow light indicated the return of suit controls to Verne, and he took over, gently landing the suit.

The first thought Verne had on landing was that he was as lost as a being could be. He didn’t know where he was on the planet. Hell, he didn’t even know what planet he was on or what system he was in. It hadn’t really mattered. They were just supposed to drop off the Copperheads and then return to Karma, and it had not seemed important to know anything else about the mission. During the trip, he had been too busy to care where they were headed.

He turned on all of his sensors and surveyed his surroundings. He was in a rocky, barren land. Some short scrub brush dotted the land, but there was no sign of habitation. In the sky, he could see a line of black smoke, which had to be from the shuttle. Since it was heading to the settlement the Copperheads were supposed to defend, Verne decided habitation had to lay in that direction. The habitation was probably controlled by some group that was working to actively counter the Copperheads, but habitation none the less. He scanned his VASPer’s memory banks, and the response was unsurprising: the suit’s computer had no idea where he was either, as Verne hadn’t downloaded any of the operation’s information to it. There had been no reason; Verne was not supposed to be here.

Based on gravity, terrain, and curvature of the planet as determined by the suit’s sensors, he was on any one of 287 planets which fit the parameters. Of course, those were just the planets in the database, there were probably others. That was no help.

The smoke was rapidly dissipating, so Verne marked the direction it pointed and began following it. Using the suit’s failsafe program had depleted about half of the suit’s jump juice, which was a problem. While he wanted to jet from peak to peak, he realized he would rapidly exhaust his supplies. As the land was broken, and he could see a number of areas which would be hard to cross, he decided to save as much of his jump juice as possible. Which meant walking in the suit, something he still was not very good at.

He walked until dark, then took a break. He had not intended to fall asleep, but he had not gotten enough sleep over the last week, and he was used to sleeping in the VASPer anyway…and it just sort of happened.

He woke up feeling better and more clear-headed. He took stock of his situation. His jump juice was down to 34%, he had no food beyond a couple of emergency rations he had stored in the suit, and he had no idea where he was or where he was going. The situation was bleak, as the Humans would say.

But he did have one ally, he realized. He couldn’t figure out why he had not thought of them the night before. He decided exhaustion must have played a part.

Leaf, this is Verne. Are you there?” he called over his radio on the frequency he used to talk to the bridge when he was on the exterior of the ship.

“Verne? Is that really you?” asked Susan Steele.

“Sadly, that is so,” Verne said. “I fell out of the shuttle and am…I do not have any idea where I am.”

“Give me a long count,” Susan said.

Verne turned his transmitter on and counted to ten.

“Got you,” Susan said. “I triangulated your position to a spot about twenty kilometers west of the mining camp.”

“What mining camp is that?”

“The mining camp the Copperheads were supposed to defend. You remember the Copperheads, right? Did you hit your head on the way down?”

“No,” Verne replied. “I am fine, I think. Aside from not having any stores, that is, and being almost out of jump juice.”

“Well, I hate to say that you’re alone, but you’re alone. The shuttle landed at the settlement, but all of the Copperheads were captured. The enemy forces down there are trying to negotiate a hostage settlement with my dad so we can get back James and Sharon, but they haven’t worked it out yet.”

“Why is that?”

“The shuttle is trashed—it got hit with a missile—and can’t make it to orbit, and they want us to bring the Leaf down to the planet, but Dad’s saying no way. The enemy is a group of Besquith. They say they’re going to eat our pilots and the Copperheads if Dad doesn’t do what they say.”

“That is stupid,” Verne said. “Where is the profit in doing that?”

“I don’t know,” Susan said. “All I know is that’s what they said, and the way they said it, I believe they’d do it.”

“Well, see if you can stall them, and I will see if I can find out what is going on down here.”

“Copy,” Susan said. “I’ll let Dad know.”

“Okay. So, I need to go west?”

“No,” Susan said. “You are twenty kilometers west of the settlement. You need to go east.”

“Oh. Okay. Verne, out.”

He could make it twenty kilometers. That would be easy.

* * * * *

Chapter Fourteen

It was decidedly not easy.

Susan had neglected to mention the twenty kilometers in between Verne and the mining settlement—whose name Verne still did not know—was even more barren and mountainous than the terrain he had already covered. Still, he made it to the correct valley, stumbling and bumbling, and looked down at the settlement from a hill to the west as the sun went down behind him.

The settlement was not much to look at. It was laid out in a four-street by four-street grid, with some of the buildings obviously facilities for the miners. He could see what was probably the mess hall, with a large number of individuals coming out of it. The beings looked somewhat like bi-pedal anteaters from books on Earth’s flora and fauna, with big claws. Verne did a search on races via his pinplants and came up with their name—Caroons. They were listed as being good miners. No surprise.

The mine facility was equally obvious behind the small town. A large facility nestled at the base of one of the mountains, with an enormous hole leading to its interior. Trucks continued to come and go from the entrance, which made sense to Verne. There was no need to stop work at nightfall; it would be dark inside the mine no matter whether it was day or night outside.

To the south of the town lay the mini-starport, nothing more than a couple of pads where shuttles could land. Verne did not see how the Besquith expected the transport to land there. Even if the shuttle had not already been there, it would have been impossible to fit it on the pad. Perhaps they just wanted the transport to get close so they could shoot it down, as well.

Along the periphery of the starport, Verne could see the Besquith camp: a bunch of pre-fabricated buildings clustered in between the settlement and the landing pads. Verne wished he knew a little more about mercenary operations, so he could get a better idea of how many Besquith were on the planet. There also appeared to be three other small clusters away from the main Besquith camp. He dialed up his magnification in the fading light and was able to make them out—missile emplacements. Anyone coming from space was going to have a rude awakening…like the Copperheads and the Leaf’s shuttle had.

Near one of the missile emplacements was a large pen, which had a large number of shapes in it. It looked to be the Human mercs, although there only appeared to be fifteen or so of them, rather than the platoon that had been aboard the shuttle. Either some had been killed, or…Verne couldn’t come up with another alternative. The Besquith must have killed them. And if they had killed the mercs, and they were trying to get the transport down to a pad it would not leave from again…it meant the Besquith intended to kill all of them, including Verne, if they got their claws on him.

He had to do something, but what? There was at least a company of Besquith in the valley, and that was more than even the best CASPer driver would take on by himself. Worse, he was not the best CASPer driver, nor did he have any misconceptions that his suit was as good as the Mk 8 suits the Copperheads had. His suit was armed with one laser and—this time he knew—an arm blade. He could easily kill a Besquith if he surprised it, but if they massed on him, he was dead…along with everyone else, shortly thereafter.

He needed more assistance. He looked up the information on the Caroons and found they were not fighters. Not only were they not a merc race, they also would not fight to defend their territory. They would not be helpful in a fight. It would have to be the Humans…but how?

He looked at the layout of the valley as it faded into darkness and then moved to where he could not be seen from the valley before getting out of his VASPer.

He had a long way to go, and not long to get there.

* * * * *

Chapter Fifteen

It took Verne over half the night to get to the shuttle. He kept the rubber suit on as long as he could to protect himself from the rocky ground, but eventually it became so cut up it was more of a hindrance than a help. The fluid it had contained was long gone and he was beginning to overheat. At least with the suit off, he wasn’t in as much danger of that. It helped that the sun was down, at least.

The valley floor, while not “plush,” was not as rocky as the hillside had been, and he was able to make fairly good time without hurting himself too badly. Crossing the ground hurt—his kind was not made for overland excursions—but it was survivable. For a bit.

The shuttle was pretty much the way he remembered it. It was generally in decent shape, other than the missile strike aft and the missing the cargo ramp. A single Besquith was guarding it, but it was easy for a small, low shape to sneak up behind him and into the shuttle.

Verne quickly found what he wanted, and was soon back out on the ground working his way toward the pen. Verne timed his approach so the patrol—two Besquith armed with lasers—was on the far side of the pen as he approached. He waited behind a ground vehicle until they passed again, then crawled up to the pen. As he approached, he recognized one of the men near the fence.

“I’m here,” he whispered through a voice box connected to his pinplants as he reached through to tap one of the Copperheads’ technicians. He was careful not to let his chromophores illuminate.

“Uh, what?” the merc said. Evidently he had been sleeping, and it took him a few seconds to orient himself. By that time, Verne had cut several links of the fence with the wire cutters he’d brought, though it wasn’t easy for him; he didn’t have the leverage and arm strength.

“Here, give me those,” the merc said when the hole was large enough to slide them through. Verne gratefully passed them over, then had to crawl back to the vehicle as the sentries went by. Once they were past, Verne made his way back to the fence and found a couple of Humans there.

“Do you have a plan?” one of them asked as the technician again went to work on the fence. Verne recognized the voice of Colonel Triplett, the Copperheads’ commanding officer.

“I have knives,” Verne said. “And, yes, I have a plan.”

* * *

The next time the sentries came around, Verne was sitting on the ground vehicle, and he flashed some of his chromophores at them.

“What’s that?” one of the Besquith asked, with a growl.

“It’s just me, Verne,” he said softly.

The two Besquith took a step toward Verne, but were overcome as Humans jumped on them from behind and slit their throats.

“Now what?” Triplett asked.

“Follow me,” Verne said, leading them toward the landing pad.

“Would you like me to carry you?” Triplett asked. “It might be faster.”

“Yes, time is of the essence,” Verne said. “Also, I am somewhat wounded from my ground travel, and not having to do it any more would be…pleasant.”

Triplett picked him up without the display of distaste Humans usually had the first time they lifted a Wrogul, although Verne knew that most of his skin was now dry. His underside had started to itch halfway down the mountain, but it no longer itched. Instead it now burned like all the fires of the Humans’ proverbial hell.

The Humans sneaked to the edge of the starport, avoiding the closest missile site by a wide margin.

“There’s a sentry by the shuttle,” Triplett noted.

“I know,” Verne replied. “I will have to take care of this one. When you see me make my move, please hurry.”

Verne hopped down and began the laborious process of crawling across the starport to the shuttle. He stuck to the shadows, and since he did not have a Human’s shape, the Besquith did not see him. Verne crawled into the cargo bay and then up onto the shuttle’s roof. He tapped the side of the shuttle on the far side from the sentry. The Besquith turned to see what had made the noise, and Verne tapped it again.

The sentry came over to investigate, and Verne launched himself off the shuttle. The sentry saw the motion and put up an arm, trying to fend off whatever was hurtling toward him, but Verne wrapped an arm around it for leverage and used it to swing onto the Besquith’s face. The sentry drew a breath to yell, but Verne wrapped arms around its mouth, nose, and eyes, and the alien jerked around, trying to fling Verne off him.

The sentry dropped his rifle to free his hand, but Verne caught it in another arm before it clattered to the ground. The struggling Besquith, unable to break Verne’s hold or get his arms to release, then did the only other thing it could: Verne struggled not to scream as the Besquith bit a chunk out of his arm.

The Besquith grabbed the arm over its mouth and tried to bite more off. Verne struggled, trying to fend off the Besquith while simultaneously holding up the rifle, and the pair went through what probably looked like some sort of macabre dance. Eventually, Verne closed his eyes and tried to hold on through the pain.

Just when Verne was sure he would either have to scream or remove his arm from the Besquith’s mouth, there were several impacts. Verne opened his eyes to find two Humans stabbing the Besquith, while a third grabbed the rifle.

After a couple of seconds, the Besquith collapsed, and Verne happily let go of it.

“Are you okay?” Triplett asked, running up.

“It…it bit off part of my arm,” Verne said, holding up the wounded appendage, which leaked fluid onto the starport’s ferrocrete.

“Will you be all right?” Triplett asked. “We have to go.”

Verne could see the rest of the Copperheads racing for the shuttle. Time was indeed of the essence.

“Yes, I will be fine,” Verne said. “Especially if you have a medkit.”

Triplett scooped Verne up. “I’ve got one in my CASPer.” He ran up the boarding ladder in the forward part of the shuttle and back to the cargo bay, where his mercs were already mounting their suits. He opened his suit’s leg compartment and pulled out the kit. “Here you go,” he said, setting Verne down and handing him the kit. “I hope you know how to use it, ’cause I have to go.”

“Hey, Colonel?” one of the techs asked as Verne dialed the medkit to Wrogul. Verne saw the tech was manning up a suit.

“Yeah?” Triplett asked as he dropped into his CASPer.

“Verne here can run one of our suits,” the tech said. “And, being as how we’re already short-handed…”

Triplett looked down at Verne. “That true?” he asked. “You can run a CASPer?”

“I will be slow, probably, but yes, I can,” Verne said. He hosed off his arm with the medkit sprayer and twisted his two tentacles in pain as the nanites went to work.

“Shit,” Triplett said, smiling. “Anyone that can spray that much onto a wound and not scream? That man…or whatever it is you are…deserves to be a Copperhead.” He pointed to an empty suit two over from him. “Take that one,” he said. “It’s a heavy assault model, so it can take more abuse than some of the others. Try to bring it back in one piece.”

“Yes, sir!” Verne said, crawling to the CASPer.

“Welcome to the Copperheads!” Triplett said. “Strike hard; strike fast!”

“Strike fast!” the rest of the mercs in earshot echoed their company’s motto quietly.

Verne plopped into the interior of the CASPer and realized he had a problem. He was so used to running his VASPer—which had been designed for him—he hadn’t thought about running a non-modified Human CASPer. He still had the modified operating system he’d been working on in one of his pinplants, though, and he clicked the mecha’s leads into his pinplants and began downloading it as he did what he could to strap in.

By the time he was done interlacing the restraints into a web-like nest, the software had downloaded and begun rebooting. He looked around the cargo bay and saw he was alone; he needed to hurry. He unclipped the CASPer from the shuttle bulkhead, climbed into the CASPer and shut the canopy. As the system went operational, he could hear the platoon’s comms. He stepped forward, turned left and took two steps before he fell out of the hole where the ramp should have been.

The sudden stop as he hit the ground did not hurt—compared with using a medkit anyway—but it made a crashing sound some of the Besquith apparently heard, because lights began illuminating.

“Shit!” someone said on the platoon net. “They’ve heard us.”

“This is Copperhead Actual. Weapons free! Tear them up, boys and girls!”

“And whatever the hell that was that let us out of the pen!” someone added.

“I am a Wrogul!” Verne said.

“Shut up, newbie!” a number of voices roared. The Copperheads seemed to be in good spirits, Verne thought, as he stood up and looked at the tactical map. Someone had marked out the missile sites, and he could see teams of two going after each of them. The other nine CASPers were advancing on the Besquith buildings labeled as their HQ—and they were almost there! He was going to miss it!

Without thinking about it, he toggled his jumpjets and roared through the sky toward the building. He realized quickly, though, that the CASPer’s jumpjets were a lot more powerful than the ones in his VASPer. Built to carry a fully grown Human and a load of weapons, the lightly-loaded heavy assault suit arced higher than Verne had intended, and he saw he was going to overshoot the merc assault. He decided to set down on the building’s roof. From there he could survey the assault and see where he needed to go.

Unfortunately, the Besquith HQ was a light pre-fab building, and it was not meant to withstand a CASPer landing. With another crash, Verne’s CASPer fell through the roof and into the middle of a staff meeting.

Maybe it wasn’t a staff meeting, maybe it was a gathering to determine how to repel the Human assault. Verne had no idea; all he knew was he was suddenly the focus of attention for ten very large, very angry Besquith. Well, nine, since the thousand-pound suit had come down on top of one of their heads. He wasn’t getting back up again.

Verne flipped on his targeting system—too late, he noted—and saw he had rockets on his shoulder. The laser on his left arm was powering up, and the MAC on his right was showing empty—it hadn’t been loaded yet!

But this time, he knew he had an arm blade—no, wait! He had two!—and they snapped out with a thought. He’d never actually used arm blades before, and he swung them back and forth, trying to catch some of the Besquith with them. He managed to slash two before the rest of them backed away and drew their laser pistols.

I wish I had a laser shield! he thought. He’d read about them but had never installed one into his VASPer. But he was in a CASPer, and it was installed, and it deployed when the computer detected his thought. Several rounds reflected off it, then the door slammed open and several CASPers poured in, led by Colonel Triplett. Unlike Verne, the mercs knew how to use their suits and blades, and they advanced and struck down the remaining Besquith in seconds.

“Couldn’t wait for us, huh?” Triplett asked. Verne couldn’t tell if the colonel was mad or not. “Just had to crash their party and get the glory, eh?”

“Crash is right,” one of the other men said. “He crashed right through the roof. He was probably the person that crashed out on the tarmac, too, alerting them we were coming.”

“Probably,” Triplett said. He scanned the room. “Well, way to go, Crash. Looks like you landed on their colonel. You’re in for the combat bonus we’re going to get, and you may even get an additional one for bagging their leader. I’d rather have had him alive to question, but Besquith are hard to capture, so it probably wouldn’t have worked anyway.” He chuckled. “We better get you some training in that suit before you crash into one of us!”

He turned back to his troops. “What the hell is everyone looking at? There are more Besquith to kill and anteaters to save! And we need to find our pilots, too! Let’s go!”

The mercs turned and raced from the building. Verne followed, tripping over the dead Besquith, and made it out the door, but by then the majority of the fighting was over.

“Hey,” one of the platoon asked as the fighting wound down. “How the hell are we getting out of here? Who’s going to fix the shuttle so we can leave?”

Verne flashed susulol, not sure he could be any happier, more confident, or satisfied. He was now a merc. And fix the shuttle? He could do that, too.

* * * * *


“He seems to be doing well. He survived Ak’La’Ka. I’ve heard that place was a meat grinder,” the Human said, sitting next to the klearplas barrier and pulling a beer from the refrigerator.

“Verne? Yes, he will do well as long as he does not get too distracted doing the next exciting thing,” Todd replied, then flashed the pattern for sahila, the Wrogul equivalent of a sigh.

“But now he’s a merc despite all of your efforts.”

“Despite? You think it was despite my efforts? He was always going to become a merc. It will be good for him. Dangerous, but good.”

“I don’t understand, you sent all of those messages, told me not to let him take his VOWs!” Graves’ face showed confusion. “It was all you could do to keep him from heading off world with Nemo!”

“Patience, my friend, it was all about patience.” This time the translator emitted a sound like a hiss and crackle—the Wrogul equivalent of laughter.

Graves frowned. “Now I really don’t understand.”

Todd sighed again. “Verne was always what you Humans called ADHD—Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder. Although in truth there was no deficit in his attention. He paid too much attention to the most trivial of things. It was bound to get him into trouble as a merc. There was also no way he would be accepted by a purely Human unit. And the Galactics? I do not trust them.” He pulled his body up over the ’plas wall of the tank and reached down to pull a beer out of the refrigerator, poured it into the water, then swam into the spreading cloud. “Ah, that’s good. It is nice to know the Roeder clan are keeping up Cavanaugh’s and Kazi’s good work.” He flashed susulol. “You cannot do that in a transit tank, or on Earth. The organics stick around too long, and the starship crews did not like it when I used their precious water to flush my tank even for routine reasons. On Earth they have rules about dumping organics into the ocean ecosystem. Indeed, what do they think that ecosystem is?”

“I think I know where he gets it,” the Staff Sergeant smiled. “You realize you got off-topic, right?”

“I suppose that is true. He does remind me of how I felt discovering this Human world.” The comm emitted another one of the laugh-equivalents. “It always amused me how he addressed me as Grandfather, just like a Human.”

“I didn’t think Wrogul organized as families.”

“We do not. But Verne is right about one thing, my descendants are growing up in a Human colony, exposed to Human values and culture. They have no memory of what it means to be Wrogul as the Galactics know them. Verne may simply have been the first to acknowledge it.”

“Acknowledge what, that you are not true Wrogul?” asked Graves.

“Yes, that,” answered Todd. He flashed a complex pattern of lights the Human had never seen before. “The truth is, despite our biology, we are Human. That is what Verne had to prove to really become a merc. He had to be accepted as who he really was.” Todd paused for a long time before continuing softly. “We all have to…and it will determine exactly what that means for our place in the Galactic Union.”

* * * * *

Part 3: Marinara

Chapter One

For Marinara, the holiday feasts on Azure were his favorite times. His passion was cooking, and he was taking culinary classes with his best friend, Meryll. Meryll was a few years older than him, but he believed that despite her handicap of only having two arms, the two of them made a great pair of chefs. She might not be as sharp in the kitchen as he was, but she was highly intelligent and complemented him in the culinary arts.

For this Landing Day feast, the Wrogul had invited friends to help him celebrate. Six arms, plus his two smaller sensory tentacles were busy at various tasks, while the other two kept him balanced in his mobile tank.

Meryll watched in amusement. Her short, brunette bob and flashing blue eyes gave her an elfin look. Marinara wheeled around the kitchen, hanging from his tank, twirling utensils and knives and spatulas. Cook pots sizzled and steamed. The fragrance of roasting fowl wafted through the air, and the heady aroma of bacon was coming from somewhere.

“You know, Wrogul are known to be scientists and surgeons, not chefs,” she said as she caught the condiment jar about to topple over just as Marinara’s arm stretched past it.

“Hah!” the bark of humor came from Marinara’s translator affixed to the side of his tank. He turned toward Meryll, and his turquoise eyes—rare compared to the rest of his Wrogul family’s usual green eyes—flashed. When he was in a cooking frenzy, his translator took on an accent unlike the regular speech of Azure. “Was Julia Child meant to be a surgeon? Was Édouard de Pomiane meant to be a scientist? Wait—he was… I, like Gordon Ramsey, am meant to be the greatest chef in the Galactic Union!” The Wrogul leaned toward one of the sauce pans and passed his arm over it. “Hand me that bottle of port, Meryll.”

Meryll snickered. “For you or the sauce?”

The cephalopod slowed his wheeled tank and turned to face her. His translator crackled. “For the sauce, of course. You know that. We Wrogul must stay attentive to our duties and not disturb our abilities with alcohol poisoning. Oh, wait…” He paused and took on a portentous tone. “We must pay attention to the creation of our masterpieces. We can imbibe only after others are laying in food comas on the floor.” The Wrogul startled. “The door. I think they are here…”

* * *

The first of Marinara’s guests greeted Meryll effusively and handed her bottles of drinks and plates of extra food. She staged everything on the counters near the long table they set up using planks and sawhorses.

Several stared at the wall-length tank that was Marinara’s “refuge.” The long tank was a mixture of diluted salt water and sand replete with aquatic plants and darting tiny fish. Around the exterior of the tank was a Human sitting room with plush chairs and couches. A Tri-V screen was mounted to one broad wall.

“Yum, smells great in here!” bellowed Marinara’s friend Corum Windalb. Windalb was the technician who had wired Marinara’s place for Tri-V, Aethernet, and translators. Like many of the younger Humans on Azure, Corum was what Marinara called bushy; bushy red beard and long red hair and a lanky body. Like Marinara he had blue-green eyes, which he claimed came from his ancient Earth German, Irish, and Viking ancestors. Marinara admired his friend for his technical skills and abilities to troubleshoot and solve almost any software problem handed to him. His wife JJ worked for the biochemical lab in town.

One of the guests was unknown to Marinara. She had accompanied another lab worker, who had said she was family visiting from Earth. The newcomer looked around the cottage with a slight frown and pinched look. Marinara slowed wrangling pots and pans and caught Meryll’s eye. She hurried over.

“Who is our unknown guest?” he asked quietly.

“Umm, Yv’te, I think. Cousin of Wilfred. She’s visiting from Earth, and Wilfred thought she’d enjoy a good meal and the Landing Day celebration.”

“Okay,” Marinara said slowly. “I hope she doesn’t have a problem with Wrogul. She doesn’t seem comfortable.”

The guests mingled as Marinara completed his final preparations. Appetizers and canapés were quickly disappearing and alcohol was flowing freely. Marinara and Meryll moved trays and dishes to the overburdened table. A loud crackle sounded from Marinara’s translator.

Regarder-vu,” he shouted. “Que la fête commence!

* * *

There was the usual murmur of dinner conversation along with the clatter of utensils against plates and requests for “pass that over here.” Marinara eyed his guests and most seemed content. There were a few loud belches followed by embarrassed glances. Corum turned to Marinara and gave him an enthusiastic thumbs up.

A scream rang out and guests turned, startled, looking for the disruption. Wilfred’s cousin Yv’te threw her napkin on her plate and screamed once again, standing up abruptly. Meryll rushed to her side.

“What is it, what’s wrong?” she asked solicitously.

“There’s a tentacle in my salad,” the woman said through tears. She looked at Marinara in horror. “Check him,” she cried out again. “Is he…is he maimed?” she finished in a whisper.

“Oh that. That’s just local squid,” Meryll said reassuringly. Corum started to guffaw and quickly raised his hand to cover his mouth. His wife JJ ducked her head and quietly snickered. Other guests started to chuckle and whisper. Wilfred simply stared at his cousin in embarrassment, a red flush creeping up his face.

“But he’s a squid! Is he a cannibal?”

Meryll spun quickly toward Marinara and patted an arm in the air, as if to say, “Let me handle this.”

“No, no, dear. He’s not a squid. He’s a sentient cephalopod. Yes, he looks like an Earth octopus but he’s the not the same—”

“I have eight arms and two sensory tentacles—” Marinara interjected, and Meryll shook her head at him.

“Perhaps we should step away from the table, until you feel more comfortable…”

But the woman kept shaking her head and moaning “tentacles…tentacles…”

Corum looked up and swallowed a mouthful of food. “I personally like the bits of suckers on the tentacles in my salad. I guess you get used to it here in Styx Town…”

Meryll glared at him as she escorted the whimpering woman to the outside porch.

JJ gave an incredulous laugh. “Why would anyone get so upset over octopus and squid? You live on Azure, you eat sea creatures.”

Marinara peered over the top of his mobile tank. “I believe it was a misunderstanding. She thought I had sliced my arms and left a piece in the green salad…”

A wave of laughter swept over the table and Wilfred looked distinctly uncomfortable. He looked up as Meryll came to his side.

“Wilfred, your cousin would like to go now. She says she is feeling quite ill.”

Wilfred harrumphed and looked at the spread of food across the long table, then reluctantly folded his napkin. “I apologize for her behavior. I didn’t know she’d be such a ditz.” There were murmurs of condolences from his fellow guests. Wilfred stood up and looked longingly at the table of pastries.

Marinara hung over the edge of his tank. “If you would like, Meryll and I can make you a plate to take with you. That way you can still feast at home.”

Wilfred’s face lit up. “I’d like that,” he replied and looked longingly at the pastry table again.

“But leave out the tentacles!” JJ quipped.

* * * * *

Chapter Two

Another meal, another feast, and Meryll, Marinara, Corum, and JJ were relaxing with one last drink.

“What a feast, Marinara. You really outdid yourself today,” Corum complimented the chef.

“It was yummy,” JJ agreed. “You’re almost finished with your cooking classes at school, aren’t you? What are you going to do now?”

Marinara was silent as the three Humans looked at him. He hesitated, then stated, “I want to go to Earth.”

“Really!” Corum said, straightening up. “Why all the way to Earth?”

“I’ve watched all the cooking shows I can. I want to study where the great chefs have studied. Wrogul live long lives. I believe I can visit every culinary academy on Earth and still have time to apprentice with some of the best Master Chefs. I want to study molecular gastronomy with the great professors and scientists of Earth. I even want to have my own cooking show with Food Network.”

“That’s quite ambitious, Marinara,” added JJ. “Is Meryll going with you?”

Marinara looked over at his friend, who shook her head sadly.

“I can’t,” she said quietly. “I have to finish my own studies, and mine is more of the business path. Management of the food industry, the business of cooking. I want to finish my master’s degree before I tackle anything on Earth. Marinara is quick in his studies. My path is a little slower.”

“That’s hard to imagine. The two of you separated—” JJ began.

“Not for long!” Marinara interjected. “Meryll will join me as soon as she can. I will count the days until she is with me again.”

“More like months,” Meryll muttered under her breath. “More like months,” she said a little louder. “Wrogul don’t have the same sense of time as Humans do.”

Marinara flashed sadness.

“It will pass quickly,” Corum said kindly.

* * *

The going away party was winding down and Marinara’s closest friends were about to take their leave.

“I can’t believe you’re traveling to Earth,” Meryll said with a sniff. “You have pinplants and access to the Galnet. Why do you have to leave? Can’t you stay here and teach classes here, since you’ve learned so much?”

Marinara rolled one of his eyes toward his best friend. His chromophores flashed impatience.

“I need arms-on learning,” he said. “It is one thing to read recipes and watch videos, but I want to learn every Earth method of cooking and baking that I can. Learning Italian cuisine here on Azure is not the same as learning it with access to all of Earth’s native vegetables and proteins. Sure, Azure grows rice, and our seas produce fish and shrimp, but I want to make sushi with Earth aquatic animals, real Terran seaweed, and authentic Japanese sauces. I have so many tastes and seasonings to explore.”

“Please be careful,” Corum commented. “There are strange rumors and things going on. I see things on the darker nets. Financial problems…illnesses. And you will be an alien presence on Earth. Humans don’t see a lot of aliens on their own planet.”

Marinara blinked. “But I am Human.”

Meryll shot a glance at Corum and shook her head slightly.

JJ cut in, “We know, Marinara, but remember the Humans on Earth don’t see Wrogul quite like we do, here on Azure. Earth Humans are likely to think you’re like the Earth cephalopods and the octopus in their seas.”

A snrk-snrk came from Marinara’s translator. “I don’t even look like an Earth octopus. And other Azure Wrogul have visited Earth. The Humans will know who we are.”

“Where will you start your classes?” JJ asked.

Marinara flashed a sigh. “It is difficult. France. The United States. Japan. I want to try all three. But I think I am going to start in New York. In America, there are many cities and even more schools. I have settled on New York. Meryll helped me find an apartment, and we advertised for an aide who will help me with transportation and negotiating the New York streets. New York is the home of many top chefs. Wylie Dufresne had a restaurant there, as did the inimitable Bobby Flay.”

Meryll sighed. “Just be safe, okay? Keep in touch. Message us regularly about your classes and what you’re learning.”

Marinara flashed fondness with his chromophores. “I hope your mother will let you come to Earth when you graduate. I will cook for you, and you will be my food taster.” His friends moved toward the door of his cottage as he rolled his tank across the floor. “I will be safe, my friends. I will become famous as the ‘Wrogul chef from Azure.’ I will be the Bobby Flay of grilling, the Seiji Yamamoto of molecular gastronomy. I will own my own restaurant and host my own Iron Chef show!”

* * *

Marinara’s friends laughed and said their good-byes with promises to keep in touch. He locked his cottage door behind them and eyed the resting tank. Should he check his trunks now or wait until the morning for a last-minute review? He had just decided to check everything in the morning when he heard a furtive knock on the door. Puzzled, he decided one of friends must have left something behind and inched his way across the floor to the door.

“Yes?” he asked quietly.

“Mari, let me in. I need to speak with you.”

“Grandfather?” Marinara flashed surprise, and he quickly opened the door.

“You leave for Earth tomorrow, correct?” Harryhausen ignored his translator and flashed his question to his offspring.

“Y-e-e-es.” Marinara flashed slowly. “How nice to see you, too.”

“No time for niceties,” Harryhausen flashed. “I shouldn’t be here. But I want you to be careful during your stay on Earth. Send me regular messages so I know you’re safe. Keep your eyes open. Be aware of your surroundings. Listen to conversations.”

“I do not understand.” Marinara resorted to the translator. “I am only going to study the culinary arts. There should be no danger in that. I am good in the kitchen. I will not slip with the chopping knife or boil my arm.”

The equivalent of a snort sounded through Harryhausen’s translator. “Not that! There are strange rumors about. Many Galactics speak badly about the Earth Humans. Just be careful. Listen to conversations. Watch for anything unusual. I must go now. Do not speak of me to anyone.”

Marinara flashed puzzlement. “I will do as you say. But I have never been to Earth. How will I know what is unusual?”

But Harryhausen was gone. His motorized tank had slipped away, making no sound.

“Wow,” thought Marinara to himself. “I would like to have one of those.”

* * * * *

Chapter Three

“I would like to have one of those, and one of those, and one of those…” Marinara waved with one arm toward the solar grill while two other arms pointed toward sets of cutting boards. “I will also need a tank to keep my aquatic food fresh.” He had packed as many of his cooking instruments as possible but had known he would have to buy the bigger items when he reached Earth.

“Th-th-the lobster tank?” The sales youth stammered as he stared at the strange alien in front of him.

“Lobster, octopus, squid…whatever I need for sushi. I need fresh seafood.”

“Bu-but you’re an octopus, aren’t you?” The sales youth dropped his voice. “Are you a cannibal?”

Marinara’s turquoise eyes rolled and flashed. “I am not an Earth cephalopod! I am of the race called Wrogul! From the planet Azure! Do I look like an octopus?” His translator broadcast so loudly the other sales clerks stopped what they were doing and turned to stare.

An older man stepped out of an interior door and walked over to the counter. “Is there a problem? I’m the floor manager. Can I help you?”

Marinara hung over the side of his motorized tank and rolled toward the older Human.

“I simply wish to purchase some items for my cooking classes. I recently enrolled at the nearby culinary arts school and your supply shop was closest. I will gladly pay for delivery to my domicile, whatever you choose to charge.”

The older Human began to stammer, too, at the size of the order, then hesitantly asked, “But do you have the credits?”

Marinara reached with one arm to the pouch sealed to his tank. “My yack is in here. It should be sufficient.”

An hour later, Marinara headed out the shop’s door, paperwork stuffed in the messenger bag attached to his tank, hundreds of credits poorer. He had paid to have the grill assembled before delivery, not to mention express delivery for the following day.

Outside the restaurant supply store, his aide, Michael, waited and smiled when he saw the flashing excitement from the Wrogul’s chromophores.

“Master Marinara, I take it you were successful?”

“Yes, Michael Caparelli. Thank you for bringing me to this New York retail shop. I must admit it still surprises me when Earthlings, particularly Americans, are faced with my looks. You have never reacted as they have.”

“I’m fortunate to be your aide, Master Marinara. You pay me a significant salary to be your assistant. And I enjoy the travel and the challenges. France was quite an educational vacation. Italy was a bit scary. But I think New York will be the real challenge with its multi-culturalism.”

* * *

When Marinara had arrived on Earth, it had been evident he would need an assistant to help him negotiate the transports of the cities and academies. He had encountered quite a few repugnant looks, not to mention a rash of xenophobic behavior in the Human cities and villages that saw few aliens. Michael had been hired to function as a go-between, and he was enjoying the position. Before settling in for school, Marinara and Michael had traveled to France and Italy to sample the cuisine and visit the schools and restaurants. Marinara had hoped master chefs would make themselves available to meet with the Wrogul and answer his questions. Unfortunately, very few did.

Michael’s brother had gone to space with a merc company and had taught Michael about the behavior of the different alien races. While some aliens expressed outright disdain for Humans, his brother told him the Wrogul who lived on the Human colony of Azure embraced all things Human. His merc company had stopped at Azure on their way to a contract for provisioning. When they returned, they stopped to take advantage of the famous hospital to treat their badly injured members. He assured Michael the Wrogul were smart and honest, and that the proffered job opportunity would allow him to learn a lot about how aliens think and act, which would be useful to his political science and eventual law degree when he resumed classes. Michael just had to get accustomed to the Wrogul’s alien looks and stop thinking of him as an octopus.

“He asks a lot of questions,” Michael told his brother. “He’s always asking about Earth politics, and who’s who. He always wants to discuss Earth history and why we act and think the way we do.”

“The Wrogul are super intelligent,” his brother responded. “I heard they’re fascinated with anything to do with Earth, since that’s where the Azure colonists came from. It’s probably just curiosity about Earth being the parent planet. Besides, you’re a poli-sci major. He probably figures that stuff interests you and is just being nice.”

Michael returned with Marinara to their brownstone apartment near the culinary school. The maintenance supervisor had helped Michael rig a ramp to the steps so Marinara was able to zip up to his ground floor apartment. Michael was able to get a studio apartment across the hall so he was always available to assist the Wrogul around the city. Marinara preferred to motor his mobile tank down the streets to the culinary academy, but Michael insisted on shuttling the alien to his classes. Marinara may not have thought he was susceptible to xenophobic attacks, but Michael was concerned xenophobes would decide to teach the alien “a lesson” for living on Earth. He also tried to explain that while rainstorms weren’t an issue to the Wrogul, snowstorms could cripple the city and make the sidewalks all but impassable.

During the trip home, he discussed the schedules for the upcoming classes. “And what is all the equipment for?”

Marinara flashed pleasure. “Cooking for my friends,” the translator blurted. “I want to share learned dishes with friends. I love fresh sushi, and the salt water tank will keep my sea creatures alive. And the grill! I look forward to what you call barbecue. I want to try grilled brisket dishes for my friends, and grilled fowl, and grilled ribs, and—”

Michael smiled in return. “I look forward to the dinner invitations. I’ve never had brisket.”

* * * * *

Chapter Four

A few days later Marinara rolled across the hallway to Michael’s apartment. Using two arms to pound on the door, Marinara exclaimed, “Michael! Michael!”

A bleary-eyed Michael answered the door. “Wassup, Dude? It’s four in the morning. Is something wrong?”

“It’s my sister!” Marinara’s excitement bled through the translator. “My friend Meryll is coming to see me. She’s arriving on the shuttle from Azure in three days!”

“Dude, your sister? Another you? Who is this Meryll?

“Silly bipedal.” Marinara laughed. “My best friend from Azure. We grew up together, although she is older than me. We attended classes together. She watched the old Earth Tri-V cooking shows with me. She is the daughter of Emma Lee and my best friend in the whole Galactic Union!”

“I’m happy for you, dude.” Michael yawned. “But can we talk about this later? I still have a couple hours sleep before we get you to the academy.”

“Of course.” Marinara slid back into his tank, while muttering through the translator. “I have many plans to make. I must make lists. I need…”

* * *

The day arrived, and Marinara could barely contain his excitement. Michael had shuttled him to the fresh food markets, and he had stocked his seafood tank with lobster, squid, and an octopus for sushi and salad. Today they would visit the market again for tuna, salmon, and fresh shrimp. Buffalo steaks were marinating in the cooler, and fresh vegetables and eggs were chilling.

He was torn between veal saltimbocca or grilled buffalo steaks, although Michael had tried to talk him into waiting until Meryll had become accustomed to Earth gravity and atmosphere, particularly the pollutants in the air and humidity, before plying her with lots of food. He decided to play it safe and went with the steaks, just in case she wanted more. Eel sauce was chilling, and he would begin rice later in the morning for the sushi. He had prepared yeast breads, which were in the proving drawers for later baking. Desserts—now there was a dilemma. He wasn’t sure what Meryll would wish to eat. In his time on Earth, he had noticed many Human women eschewed sweet desserts, even the simple cake and fruit sauce ones. But then it was rare Humans that ate the type of food he prepared. Most of their meals consisted of vat-derived or liquid proteins and synthesized vegetable look-alikes.

Michael had warned him there was too much food for one—or two—Humans, but Marinara had laughed. Meryll was his best friend and would eat everything he made. Michael commented all the fresh food he was purchasing was extremely expensive, but again Marinara laughed and pulled his yack out of the mobile tank’s pouch.

“I have credits, Michael.”

“Yeah, you have credits, but on Earth you need to be careful. Don’t flash your yack around so much. And learn to manage your money better. Make it last longer.”

Marinara flashed puzzlement. “I have Meryll for that.”

* * *

Meryll arrived, and they waited for her to pass through customs. Marinara could barely contain himself. He heaved himself up over the edge of his tank repeatedly, then slid back in. Finally, they saw Meryll walking down the customs hallway, pulling her wheeled carry-all. She saw Marinara in his tank and sped up.

“Meryll!” The squeal of joy sounded through his translator. Marinara heaved himself over the top of the tank and raised two arms to high-five his friend.

“Marinara!” Meryll’s face flushed with pleasure. She reached forward, and Marinara’s arms wrapped around hers and pulled her closer.

“I am so happy to see you, my friend.” His two eyes rolled wildly, and chromophores flashed pleasure and fondness. “I must tell you all about my travels and classes, and you must tell me all about Azure. Has anyone missed me? Have you finished your degree? Have the rest of my family remained on Azure or have they traveled off world. Have you heard from Nemo? Has anyone found Molina? Where is Harryhausen?”

“Whoa, whoa, hold up!” Meryll laughed. “We’ve got a lot of time to catch up,” she said kindly. “I’ll tell you everything you want to know. But first, knowing you, Marinara, you probably have a feast prepared. And did you know you are a celebrity back in Styx Town? Everyone is talking about how our very own Marinara is going to make culinary history on Earth.”

Marinara stopped rolling and looked closer at his friend. Her hair was pulled back in what they called a pony tail. “Your hair,” he prompted. “It’s longer and different.”

“Yes, Marinara, it’s been a while.”

* * *

Marinara began picking up various plates and utensils, sliding them into the dish bin that would clean and sterilize the items. Surprisingly, Meryll had only opted for lobster tail and sushi for her Welcome to Earth meal. Marinara had acceded to her wishes and wrapped the steaks and froze them for later grilling. Michael reached for the half-empty bottle of red wine and topped off their glasses.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Harryhausen on Azure. He maintains a low profile with his Peacemaker position. Ridley is busy all the time.” Meryll sipped her wine. “And it shocked all of Azure when Nemo ended up with the Winged Hussars. Have you heard of them, Michael?”

Michael nodded slowly. “My brother is with the Nightbirds. The Winged Hussars are one of the most successful merc companies on Earth. They’re one of the Four Horsemen. Cartwright’s Cavaliers, Asbaran Solutions, and the Golden Horde are the other three.”

“Michael has taught me about the Earth mercenary companies. They are the bravest of the Union’s mercenaries. Evil aliens fear what the Humans can accomplish, and when a race needs the best protection possible, they call on the Humans!”

Meryll’s eyes widened, and Michael flushed and looked down at the glass in his hands. Meryll hesitated, then spoke.

“We’ve heard rumors on Azure, Marinara. Not everyone speaks so highly of the Four Horsemen, or the other Human mercenaries. But some of the spacers say if a battle was brewing with MinSha or Besquith, they’d want the Humans on their side. I was told to be careful here on Earth and stay away from anyone associated with the mercenaries. That I needed to go quietly about my job research and interviews then return to Azure until an employment decision is made.”

“Oh.” Marinara got the quiet, far-away look Meryll called his pinplant research. She assumed he was looking up entries on MinSha and Besquith, or merc group news.

* * * * *

Chapter Five

“What are your plans, Meryll?” Michael asked while Marinara pursued his research into aliens and mercenary groups.

“I’m hoping for an intern position here on Earth to finish out my Master’s in food management. I learned a lot in my Azure classes, but I’d like to get experience here on Earth for about a year. My mother doesn’t want me to stay on Earth, but right now she’s busy with her own life, so I thought it was a good time to look around. Are you taking any college classes, Michael?”

Michael grimaced. “Ran out of credits. This job with Marinara came along, so I took it to build my account back up, so I can get back to school. I want to finish my degree in political science. I might consider law school or running for legislative office, or even working with government agencies—here in America, preferably.”

Meryll looked at Michael and assessed him. “Did you enjoy your travels across Europe?” She turned to Marinara and laughed. “Did you guys eat your way across Italy and France?”

Marinara flashed amusement and then stopped. He remained silent, hanging off the edge of the tank.

Meryll eyed him. “What?” She turned to Michael. “What is it?”

Michael looked silently at Marinara. The two stared at each other. Michael finally broke the silence. “Do you want to tell her about Naples or should I?”

“Why, what happened?” A muscle jumped in Meryll’s cheek as she clenched her jaw.

“It’s a funny story, really. More like a misunderstanding of cultures, not a problem with alien relations.”

Meryll sighed. “Tell me.”

“Well, Marinara wanted to try every pizza place in Naples, but I wanted a chance to see some museums…”

* * *

“Are you sure you’ll be okay while I take this tour?”

“Michael, it is nothing. Go enjoy your museums and castles. I will hang out in the square and watch people. I’ll be in my tank the whole time. Maybe I’ll motor around the corner and get some pastries. I’ll be okay, I promise you.”

Michael looked at the Wrogul flashing earnestness at him. Repeatedly. There was something…

“Why do you have a second translator with you?”

“It is a backup, Michael, in case the tank translator fails.”

“Fails, huh. Does that happen much?”

“It is a reasonable precaution, Michael. I’m in a strange country where they are not used to seeing Wrogul. I should have a backup for emergencies….”

“I dunno, I think I should take you with me.”

“Michael, you know that’s not practical. I can’t take my tank up all those steps or into those narrow corridors. I shall sit here and people-watch, as they say.”

“You be careful. Don’t flash your yack. Don’t let anyone near the tank. They could try to steal something.”

“The tour bus is here, Michael. Go. Go, before it leaves.”

After Michael left, Marinara sat contentedly in his tank and watched the people around him. Kids ran and played with balls. Scooters tooled around the square. Young couples walked hand-in-hand whispering to each other. Families with little ones in tow would stop every few feet and pull out their slates to read something or check a list. Old men argued with each other, throwing their arms into the air.

Okay, it had been long enough.

Marinara hopped out of his tank, slung his extra translator around his neck, and humped his way over to a scooter rental booth.

“I wish to rent a scooter.”

“Huh? What?”

The young man looked over the counter.

“Wha—? A talking octopus? Is dis a joke?”

“I am not an Earth cephalopod. I am a sentient being, a Wrogul from the colony planet Azure.”

The rental clerk stared at Marinara. “Dis ain’t no joke? You’re real?”

“Yes, I am real. And I would like to rent a scooter.”

“For real, huh? Ain’t you like a sea critter or som’t’ing? Our octopi gotta stay wet. How you gonna do dat?”

Marinara hesitated…he hadn’t considered that. “What is the shortest timeframe for renting a scooter? I wish to try new experiences.”

“I can let you rent for fifteen minutes if you use your yack to pay for it. You gotta fill out some waivers on dis slate. …And you gotta wear a helmet, which I’m not sure how you gonna do dat.”

Marinara reached into his pouch for his UACC, then remembered Michael’s warning. He stilled for a moment as he thought through his actions. He threw two arms into the air and handed over the yack with a third. “Let us do this! I am ready to give this a try.”

The man grinned, showing some missing teeth. “Dat’s da spirit!”

Ten minutes later the Wrogul handed back the slate with all the signed waivers and insurance and safety precautions checked off. He squeezed into the largest helmet the clerk could find and left the chin straps dangling. The man offered to keep an eye on Marinara’s mobile tank, since the rental time was so brief. Marinara accessed his pinplant files on driving and scooters as the clerk ushered him to a small red scooter with a white seat and showed him the features.

“Stay offa da square and stick to da back streets. Still, you gonna scare sum people. Be back in fifteen or I call da cops.”

Marinara quickly scanned a file. “No problemo! I’ll be back!” He hopped onto the scooter, gunned the engine, and took off.

This is incredible, he thought. The feel of the air across my arms. The rumble of the engine beneath me. The stink of fuel, the garbage piled along the walls. The people staring at me as I fly by. The kids playing soccer in the street. The kids—the kids playing—!

* * * * *

Chapter Six

The blackness began to lift as Marinara became aware of the commotion around him. A woman was screaming, and a young boy was crying. He heard the slap of a hand against a face and a man’s gruff voice chastising someone. Cooking odors. The funk of overheated bodies, the smell of a young boy’s salty tears, spilled fuel, creaking leather—wait—was that the odor of gun oil? Marinara tried to move his arms and felt pain, dryness, and itchiness in every sucker of his body.

“Hey, boss, dat t’ing’s movin’.”

“T’row it in da sink. Dis is someone’s idee of a sick joke. Tell Freddy I expect some good octopus soup in a coupla hours. L’il T gonna be okay?

“Yeah, boss, just scairt. I t’ink he’s more scairt o’ wat come flyin’ off da scooter. We tol’ him not ta play inna street, but kids!”

A rough hand picked Marinara up by some of his arms and tossed him into a large metal sink. He whimpered.

“Damn! Dat t’ing’s heavy! I dint know octopus were so heavy. I doan know how good it’ll be now. It’s been in da air awhile.”

Marinara wheezed. His translator was gone. He whimpered again and whispered, “Help.”

Across the floor, his translator squawked. “Help!”

There was silence in the room.

“What kinda joke is dis?” someone growled.

“Help me, please. I am a sentient being.” Marinara didn’t know how much longer he could stay conscious. “I am from the colony planet Azure. I need to be in water.”

More silence. Then several hands picked him up and he suddenly felt the cool, refreshing water splash over him. It was—it was—ugh! It was a saltwater aquarium! But it was moisture.

Marinara felt himself recovering and opened his eyes. Several Humans stared at him through the glass of the aquarium. His backup translator was in the hands of a short, barrel chested man with several scars along his face and arms. The man held his translator up to the glass and mouthed some words.

“What are you?” squawked his translator. “Who sent you?”

“My name is Marinara. I am a Wrogul from the colony planet Azure. I grew up there. I’m visiting Earth.”

His commentary was greeted with silence.

“I realize I look like an Earth cephalopod, but I’m not an octopus. Please, do not eat me.”

Two of the men standing in the back of the crowd looked each other and began snickering. An elderly woman near the front of the aquarium crossed herself and tears began to flow down her face. The young boy with the tear-streaked face stood in front of the aquarium, his mouth pressed against the glass. The man holding his translator scowled and mouthed some more words.

“What did you say your name was?”

Moments later, Marinara was immersed in a barrel of salted water, not quite as distasteful as the aquarium water, but not as comfortable as his own tank. He busily explained to the scowling man he was on Earth to attend school, that he loved Italian cuisine, his plan to find every pizza place in Naples, how he was attending culinary school in New York in the fall, about his aide Michael who was taking a museum tour and would soon be worried sick he wasn’t in the square, and about the scooter rental man who was probably even now calling the cops to say Marinara had stolen the scooter. Marinara paused and took in his surroundings. He noticed the commercial kitchen and the odors of pasta, dough, garlic, and sauces. He heard the clink of dishes and cutlery from the other rooms.

The man scowled some more and turned to one of the biggest men Marinara had ever seen. This one seemed to have even more scars than the scowling man. A toothpick rolled in his mouth as he received orders.

“Vinnie, go to da square. Find Luigi and tell him Tony Gamboa takes full responsibility for da scooter. Tell him no cops. See if you can find dis mobile tank Marinara’s talkin’ about and bring it here. If Luigi pawned it, hold him upside down and shake him until he tells you where it is. Bang his head on da sidewalk a coupla times if he won’t talk. Send a kid over to da tour bus office. Tell da kid to wait for each bus until he finds Michael Capparelli, then bring him here. Freddy, get some dough goin’. Dis kid wants pizza? We’re gonna give him pizza!”

The urchin with the tear-stained face crept up to the barrel and pulled himself up to look inside. He offered a tentative smile, then stuck his thumb in his mouth. Marinara looked at the child curiously.

The scowling man turned back to Marinara. “Li’l Wrogul, you say you wanna be the best chef in the galaxy, I’m gonna give you da chance to show me wha’ you got. Freddy over dere is gonna give you run of his kitchen and we’ll see wha’ you can do as soon as you feel up t’ it.” At the last comment the man named Freddy looked up in alarm and moved some of his kitchen knives to a higher shelf.

“I gotta hankerin’ for calamari, li’l Wrogul. Can you do som’d’ing wi’ dat?”

* * *

Meryll held her stomach, screaming with laughter. Michael shook his head.

“Turns out Tony Gamboa was back in the old country laying low for a few years. He was running things locally until he could return to the States. He said nobody could make calamari the way he liked it better than his boy Marinara. One of his thugs, Vinnie, asked if he could send apprentices to the States to study Marinara’s knife skills. We stayed in his country villa for a week while he escorted Marinara to every pizza place they could find. He also brought in his mama and had her cook some of their old family recipes for us. I had the keys to the kingdom and got some great behind-the-scenes tours of the museums and the Pompeii exhibits. Turns out it was his grand-nephew, Little Tony, who ran into the street in front of Marinara’s scooter. Mari jumped the sidewalk and ran into the side of a building rather than hit the kid. When we left, the kid told Marinara he was going to grow up to be a spacer and visit Azure.”

Marinara hung over the edge of his tank. He loved nothing better than to hear Meryll laugh. He loved having her around again, even if it was only for a short visit.

Michael stood up and placed his empty glass into the dish bin. “Are you all set with your bedding? I can help if you need to set something up. Otherwise, I’ll mosey across the hall and see you folks in the morning. Mari’s got classes, and I’m sure you’ll want to start your contact calls.”

Meryll smiled. “Thanks, Michael, but I’m set with Marinara. Have a good night’s rest, and we’ll see you in the morning.”

Marinara’s awareness returned, and he sighed. He had been reviewing files with his pinplants while Michael told of their visit to Naples. “There are many awful things going on in the Galactic Union,” he finally said. “I must take some time and read more about the current events. I was so satisfied with my time in culinary schools that I never kept track of other communities in the Union. I must spend some time catching up.”

* * * * *

Chapter Seven

Marinara was more subdued over the next few days after his initial excitement over Meryll’s visit had passed. He was still immersed in catching up on Galactic news, though his cooking classes were his first priority. He had access to more sauces, more proteins, and different vegetables than on Azure. This week was oysters and conch dishes. It was strawberry week and puff pastries in another class. Molecular Gastronomy had them resolving chemistry problems. The instructors were assigning additional reading and homework, and project taste-tests were looming.

Meryll was immersed in setting up interviews, and Michael had shown an interest in resuming his college classes online. With the busy week ending, the three had made plans for a relaxing grilled dinner on the weekend. Michael was tasked with picking out the American wines to accompany the dinner.

Marinara was busy slicing and dicing in his kitchen when Meryll and Michael entered the apartment. “Ah, you are here,” he said. “The solar grill is set up on the outside landing.” He reached out with one arm to open the glass door while propelling the plate of beef steaks to the grill with another. “I have a surprise for you. I have made friends at the academy, and they are coming to dinner.”

Meryll and Michael looked at each other in confusion.

“Tell us more. Who is coming to dinner?” Meryll asked.

Marinara laughed. “I have heard of that old video. I have met two friends who traveled to Earth. Brull is attending a legal workshop. Ch’c’lt is studying Human cuisine for her new restaurant on Karma.”

They’re…” Meryll hesitated. “They’re aliens?”

“Yes,” Marinara replied. “But I have told them that even though I am Human, I respect their differences. Ch’c’lt is curious about my recipes. She has heard of my success at school and wishes my advice regarding her family’s restaurant. We have been experimenting with names to draw Human mercenaries in. I met Brull in the hotel café next door to the academy. He is fascinated with Earth law enforcement. He is expanding his knowledge in his workshop. He was quite surprised to see me and find out I was taking classes on Earth. I explained I budded and matured on the planet Azure. He said he would like to meet all of us, that is why I invited him to dinner.”

Michael shrugged. “The more the merrier, I guess,” he said.

Meryll laughed. “Travel the Galaxy. Meet Wrogul. Eat new food. Friend new races.”

* * *

Meryll and Michael set up the dining area while Marinara was busy at his grill. Beef steaks and root vegetables were on the menu for the evening, He was experimenting with grilled vegetables as well, which he hoped would impress Ch’c’lt, and had a salad of greens chilling in the cooler. Michael advised Marinara the menu would be a good representation of American—particularly American mercenary—cuisine.

“Is this really a good idea?” Meryll asked softly. “I’ve only met a few alien races that have traded with Azure, but I’ve heard those guys talk about how many Union citizens don’t like Humans.”

“We can stay alert.” Michael shrugged. “I don’t think Mari is in trouble. He’s probably an oddity to them. We’ll play it cool and listen closely to the conversations, see if we can feel them out on what their people are thinking. My brother says there are a lot of aliens who work for the Winged Hussars…aliens who normally hate Humans. Maybe these two are outliers, as well. He just recommended that we keep a close eye on our visitors.”

* * *

The buzzer sounded, startling them all, and Marinara reached out to the receiving unit. “Yes?” he queried.

“Marinara, we are here!” his two visitors said.

“I will buzz you in,” he responded. “I am in 103A.”

At the knock on the door, Marinara leaped from his mobile tank and rushed across the floor to the door, reaching it at the same time as Michael. His aide smiled fondly. “You are quite excited, Marinara.”

“Friends! These are my friends coming for dinner!”

“Yes, well, we’re excited to meet them, too. It will be a good dinner. You always do well.”

Michael opened the door and hesitated only slightly as he stared at the two visitors.

“Ch’c’lt!” Marinara exclaimed as what looked like a millipede slid into the room and stopped to look around. “Brull!” Marinara held out four of his arms to embrace the stocky humanoid figure before him.

“These are my Human friends, Michael and Meryll. They help me with my classes and are helping me create my signature dishes. Tonight, we try something different!”

Michael held out his hand to Brull and saw a flicker of amusement pass over his—her?—face.

“Thank you for having us. Allow me to introduce myself. I am Brull, a Torvasi. Our home planet is Te’Warri. I am quite honored to be invited to a Human habitat for dinner. Even though we tell Marinara he is Wrogul, he insists he is Human.”

Meryll stepped up beside him and smiled faintly, then nodded to both the Torvasi and the millipede creature. “And we are glad you are here. Marinara is quite excited to prepare the meal for you. He loves his cooking and loves to share with friends.”

The millipede’s translator crackled. “My name is “Ch’c’lt. You may call me Choc, for it is certainly easier to pronounce than my full name.” Pink ribbons on several arms fluttered. She—it?—reached an arm up to shake hands with both Humans. “Thank you for having us join you for this meal.”

“Well, we must hear all about how you met Marinara. Please, come and sit down,” Meryll said, gesturing toward the living room.

“Meryll,” Marinara blurted, “please help my friends settle and grab beers while I finish the grilling.” Marinara hopped back into his mobile tank and grabbed his own beer as he scooted outside.

Michael turned to the Torvasi. “How did you meet Marinara?”

“Law enforcement,” the Torvasi said slowly.

Michael blinked. “Law enforcement?”

“Yes, I wanted to learn more about Earth law enforcement and had the privilege to come for a ten-day workshop on some software protocols. I met Marinara at the hotel café next to his school. He was traveling along the café breakfast bar taking a sample of everything the hotel had put out. I had heard of Wrogul but had never seen one. I stopped him and asked him why he was stealing all that food.”

“Oh dear,” Michael said. “You got a lecture, didn’t you?”

“Yes, indeed. He explained that he was not stealing but studying the science of breaking fast with proteins and carbohydrates on the Human gastric system and how it applied to their energy levels and good or bad humor for the day. He then explained that Earth was committing a crime against its citizens by foisting vat-grown protein upon them. He told me it was not stealing because the hotel put the food out for its guests. I explained I didn’t believe he was a hotel guest, and he countered that anything left over would be thrown out at the end of the hour, and he was simply putting it to better use.”

Michael chuckled, knowing Marinara’s ability to talk circles around any argument.

“So, we began sharing lunch when we could, exploring the different types of Human lunch foods and watching the people around us. Marinara is very interested in people. He is always watching. Sometimes he is quiet and just listens to the conversations around us. I like that, as someone interested in law enforcement. Sometimes I think he has the heart of an investigator; he has simply directed it toward food. After a couple of days, Ch’c’lt began to join us. It is too bad my workshop is ending so soon. I will be returning home in a few Sol turns. That is why Marinara planned this dinner.”

* * * * *

Chapter Eight

“So, Choc, if I remember correctly, you are Jeha?” Meryll asked tentatively. “We had some traders at Azure who had Jeha on their ships.”

“Yes, I am. And I have relatives who have met and worked with some of the Human mercenaries. I became interested in Human cuisine and wanted to learn more about Earth food. When I saw Marinara in the kitchen in one of my cooking classes, arms waving here and there, knives flashing, vegetables flying, I wanted so much to meet him. I admire him”—the translator stuttered—“excessively.”

“You do?” Michael asked, looking puzzled.

“Oh, yes,” Choc continued. “Like me, he is defying his race’s expectations. He is not surgeon or scientist but is instead pursuing his passion for cooking. My family expects us all to be engineers, but I want to pursue cooking. I can use my arms for cooking and dicing and slicing like Marinara. I want to start a restaurant on Karma to serve Human cuisine. Marinara wants his own restaurant, too. Between classes, we talk about how we’ll start our restaurants. He wants Tri-V shows, too.”

Brull’s deep voice chortled as he added, “Choc wants her own cooking show, too.”

The Jeha’s demeanor turned dreamy. “Cooking with Ch’c’lt. The hottest show on Karma.”

“Grub!” shouted Marinara as he wheeled through the door.

The foursome jumped.

“Food! Food’s done. Let’s eat!” He wheeled past the table and set down the grilled steaks, grabbing bowls and bottles from the kitchen with free arms.

“Get’cher beers, get’cher steaks—beef or salmon—the real stuff!” he added. The words came out of his translator with a twang. The next phrase was…softer, more cultured. “And ladies, we do have an excellent red wine this evening. The green salad is exquisitely made with you in mind. And please remember to save room for dessert.”

Brull’s face crinkled in delight at the spread on the table. “I hope you’re not including me in that ladies’ thing,” he chortled. “I’m sticking with this mighty fine ale.”

For a few minutes, silence reigned at the table as the group filled their plates and sampled their food.

“This is very different for you, Marinara.” Michael chewed slowly, savoring the tender grilled steak.

“There is a time for sushi,” Marinara explained, “but I can’t always be on the seafood diet.”

“This is wonderful,” Brull exclaimed. “I love this food. I love this charred yet tender protein. Marinara, you are indeed very talented.”

“There are grilled salmon steaks, too, Brull. The cedar plank imparts the sweet smokiness to the fish. It is one of Meryll’s favorites.”

“Yes, I plan to try all of it. I’m glad you made extra for me.”

Choc looked up from her salad. “Thank you, Marinara, for the vegetables and greens. What is this one again?”

Marinara pointed to each plate in turn. “Grilled asparagus. Grilled corn. Grilled peppers. Grilled onions. Grilled tomatoes.”

“My, it must keep you busy with all these dishes in one meal,” Choc said softly.

Meryll laughed. “Mari’s just putting this on for his guests. We usually eat quite simply with just a few pieces of sushi or sashimi and a salad.”

“Now that.” Brull burped. “I would like to try of yours, too. Raw seafood sounds delicious to me.”

Michael thought of the octopus tentacles and calamari that frequented their meals and ducked his head. Shrimp he could deal with, but squid! Especially when Marinara cut off its top and spinal column and set it to dance on the countertop with maniacal, mechanical laughter coming from his translator.

“Human food has many differences,” Choc said softly. “How can you keep it all straight?”

“Specialties,” Marinara said. His translator tone was kind, not quite like his customary lecture tone. “Figure out who you want to serve and plan your menus around them. If you want Human merc customers, find out what they want to eat on Karma. Maybe they only want burgers and pizza and steaks. And make sure you stock beer and ales. And Coke for Jim Cartwright. If you want business clients—traders and company owners—maybe you want a variety of higher-end dining, nice tables and tablecloths, quality dishes and wines. Market yourself to the kind of men or women who are closing business deals or courting new deals, or politicians looking to make their mark on the galaxy.”

“It is a lot to think about,” murmured Choc.

I have thought very deeply about what I want. I want my own restaurant, or maybe several. I want my own Tri-V show, or maybe several. Then I will write a cookbook or three. The name Marinara will be known throughout the Galaxy as the best in fine Earth dining!”

The group broke into laughter, and Meryll clapped her hands together in glee. “And I will be your manager,” she exclaimed. She lifted her beer bottle and shouted, “To Marinara!” The others joined her and clinked bottles, shouting his name and “Hear! Hear!”

Marinara flashed embarrassment. Several arms patted the air. “Later, please, later. We will celebrate later. I have plenty of time for all my accomplishments. Now, of course, it is time for dessert.” An arm reached onto the counter and retrieved a covered tray.

“Voilà! The pièce de résistance! Cookies!”

* * *

The cookies were good, and came in six different varieties of chocolate, vanilla, and peanut butter. Some were thin and crispy, some thick and chewy, some covered in nuts or gooey caramel. The group finished the tray of cookies, with Brull tucking some into a napkin for later as the conversation flowed. Eventually, Brull began yawning and excused himself, saying he had some last-minute case studies to read. Meryll stood up and began to collect plates and utensils. Choc gathered the bottles and glasses and took them to the kitchen for cleanup.

Marinara stared at the table, seemingly contented. “A good meal is one with no leftovers,” he said.

“Well, yeah.” Michael said. “Brull took care of that.”

“You know,” Meryll said from the kitchen. “Good chefs should know how to clean up their messes.”

“I have done so,” Marinara retorted. “I have set the solar grill to self-clean. There is just enough daylight left to finish that chore.”

Meryll sighed and finished loading the dish bin. Choc tapped on her slate twice and then called out, “My ride is here. I must go. Thank you so much for such a wonderful evening. I will see you tomorrow in class, Marinara. Michael, Meryll, I hope we can do this again. Maybe explore different foods.”

“Oh, yes,” Meryll agreed.

“I’ll walk you outside,” Michael replied. “Hand you off to your driver.” He closed the door behind them.

Meryll poured herself another glass of wine and sat at the table next to Marinara’s tank. “You’re quiet, Mari. Oh, what are you writing?”

“Just some notes.” Mari’s arms flew across the slate face.

“Recipes and stuff? What works? What doesn’t?” Meryll asked.

“Sure, that, too.” Marinara turned off his slate. “I like to keep notes on the people I meet. What their tastes are. What foods work for them. What foods aren’t good for them. It makes me better at my job.”

“At cooking? You’re such a wonderful chef already.”

“At cooking,” Marinara agreed. “Meryll, I must crack some books. I have some molecular gastronomy studies to review and have another long day tomorrow. I’m going to rest in my tank.”

“I understand,” she replied. “I have some business studies to go over. I should get to work, too. See you tomorrow, Marinara.”

* * * * *

Chapter Nine

It was Saturday morning, and Choc and Marinara were busy in the kitchen exploring baked goods. Marinara had learned about pastry cooking in his two years of classes on Azure and he had been sharing the experience with his friends over the last few weekends. Choc really seemed to enjoy this side of food preparation. Today they were practicing with layer cakes and different types of fillings.

Meryll laid her slate on the table and walked over to join them.

“Don’t be afraid to try seasonings and pairings that aren’t common, Choc, particularly in your layer cakes and sponges.”

“But how do I know if they work or not to create a great dessert? Green tea and fennel? Lavender blossoms and lemon zest?” Ch’c’lt had gained confidence under Marinara’s tutelage. She was more inclined to question things he told her than she had been in their first lessons.

“You won’t know until you try it and see their reaction,” Meryll said as she pinched off a bit of sponge cake and popped it in her mouth. Meryll’s face turned red and her eyes bugged as sweat popped out on her forehead. “Grggh…gah…water!” she gasped.

“There,” Marinara said. “Ghost pepper and cardamom may not be the best combination, but you may discover clients who favor a spicy or hot sponge or find one that goes well with a cool or sweet filling. Let’s set these cream fillings aside and check our fruit jams.”

Meryll grabbed a bottle of water and looked around the kitchen. Marinara and Choc had thin sponge cake layers laying around on every available surface. She and Michael were in for an afternoon of taste testing.

She made special note of the ghost pepper cake layer so she could avoid it, and looked over the other layers. Green, blue, and pink. One purple and one hideously saffron yellow layer that was probably not butter or lemon flavored. Oh, yes, there was a chocolate layer and one that looked like spice or pumpkin. Several layers had been pre-rolled for Swiss rolls. If she was lucky, she would get an apple-cinnamon filling on spice cake jelly roll to sample.

“Choc,” she called out. “Have you decided if you are staying longer or leaving at the end of the semester?”

The Jeha raised several of her arms in the air and flexed them nervously. Her speech was tentative. “My mother is saying I must come home when classes are finished. She says they have the funding for the restaurant and want me to get started. I asked to stay another year and learn more from Marinara, but she emphatically said no!

Choc moved over to where Meryll was sitting and peered up at her. “I am so distraught, but I can’t disobey my family. My father says he wants me off Earth, and he’s not so sure this will be a Human restaurant now, but perhaps something more multi-Galactic. He thinks I need to think about other cuisines and not just Earth’s.”

“Choc,” Marinara said. “We need to put these cakes together now. I need your attention. Delay too long and our jams will turn to fruit leather and our delicate crèmes will begin to separate.”

Meryll arched an eyebrow at Marinara and looked puzzled. He in turn, rolled a turquoise eye at her and turned back to his several tasks. “I’ll tell Michael we need his expertise for the taste tests.” Meryll walked out the apartment door.

* * *

The baked goods were duly presented, and Marinara seemed calmer than he was an hour earlier. The cakes were lined up on the counters so that they could sample and note what they liked and didn’t like about the selections.

Her least favorite was the cake with alternating layers of ghost pepper and Kahlua-laced sponges with passion fruit and tiramisu layers topped with mascarpone icing. Her favorite, of course, was the chocolate layer cake stuffed with peanut butter, chocolate buttercream, and marshmallow layers, gilded with chocolate ganache.

Michael was simple in his tastes, preferring the lemon curd sponge with raspberry filling. He was more diplomatic with his notes on the ghost pepper cake. “Do cakes have Scoville ratings?” he asked. “I once heard of a habanero carrot cake, so there is definitely a consumer audience for something like this.”

Marinara went still, and Meryll could tell he was checking files with his pinplants. “Ah, there it is. I must definitely save this recipe. As a perfectionist I would need to make the hot pepper extract a month in advance rather than cheat with the chili sauce.”

As they helped themselves to seconds of their favorite cakes and lingered at the table, Marinara mentioned he hoped to get in a sushi session with Choc before she had to return home. “Of course, it takes years to become a certified master sushi chef,” he admitted, “but I have some tricks I want to teach you with eel and squid.”

“You are lucky you have no father or mother telling you what to do with your life,” Choc said sadly.

Marinara was silent and contemplative. “No, we don’t have fathers or mothers, but many of us grew up with Human school mates wishing we had families like they did. It is how I met Meryll. She had no father and a mother who was very busy. I had no father or mother, only the Wrogul from which I budded. Meryll and I chose to be brother and sister.”

Choc looked up curiously at the Wrogul hanging halfway out of his tank. “How do Wrogul procreate?” she asked.

“We don’t have genders, or sexes, but bud from another Wrogul, about once every ten years. When we bud, mature, and drop off, we have all the memories of past generations. For the first year, we stay with our bud group.

“A year after budding, the young are independent and fully matured. We receive our pinplants in our first year. We can decide which interests or studies to pursue. I decided to stay and study locally, but not all did so. That’s how I met Meryll, in school classes. She was a little older than me.

“Our progenitor was Todd, whose wrecked ship entered the Azure system. He was recovered and returned to health, but he lost the memories of his past. We eventually learned that we are Wrogul.

“We are supposed to be identical to all other Wrogul, but that didn’t happen. Todd has green eyes, and I have turquoise eyes. Several of his buds have blue eyes. We also choose our own names in place of budding generation numbers. I am a fifth generation Azure Wrogul and chose to call myself Marinara.”

“Ask him why he named himself that,” prompted Meryll.

Michael turned and looked at the Wrogul, eyebrows raised.

“I knew early on that I loved cooking. I knew I wanted to be a master chef. When I was young, pasta with marinara was my favorite food.”

“I thought it was a family name.” Michael said. “Do you have family relationships?”

“Not really,” Marinara replied. “We know our progenitors and budlings. Some have disappeared—they just went out into the ocean to live. No one is forced to do anything, and each Wrogul is his own person. Some of us have joined mercenary units; one even joined the Peacemakers.”

Michael’s eyebrows rose higher.

“My grandfather, Harryhausen, joined the Peacemakers.”

“Harryhausen,” Michael repeated.

“Yes. As I said, we choose our own names. Most of us are enamored of the old Earth pop culture we watch on Azure. There is Nemo, who went into space as a scientist, and Wells who budded from Nemo. Verne who joined a mercenary unit. And my grandfather, Harryhausen. My own father was Ridley.”

“Such strange names,” said Choc.

“I know,” answered Marinara, “but it is tradition. And what chef can resist tradition?”

“I wish I could stay on Earth longer,” Choc said with a sigh. “I really love this little group. But exams are in six weeks, and—like I said earlier—my mother says come home immediately after. My father wants to move forward with the restaurant, and she is to be the manager. She wants me home to be the chef.”

“Wow,” Michael remarked. “They moved fast. Have they got a building?”

“Yes,” Ch’c’lt responded, “and they’ve ordered a sign, which was designed months ago. My father’s not sure it is the right choice, now, but we are going with it. He says it is too expensive to change it.”

“But a sign and restaurant building are good progress,” Meryll said. “What will it be called?”

“My mother says a business associate of my father suggested it. He said since the restaurant would be located on Karma where a lot of the Earth merc companies congregate, it would be a good name.”

“What is it?” Michael asked.

“To Serve Man.”

“Um,” said Michael.

“Oh!” exclaimed Meryll.

“Ah, I’m not so sure that’s the best choice.” Marinara was clearly amused but restrained his mirth. He flashed in a brief staccato sequence, and a single snrk of laughter came from the translator. The other two were clearly trying to muffle their laughter.

“I don’t understand,” Choc said.

With the bipedals too occupied containing their laugher to speak, Marinara heaved himself up on the edge of his tank and came eye-to-eye with Choc. “Well, it is the same name as a legendary cookbook.” When it was obvious that Choc was still confused, he tried a different approach. “Let me put it this way—how do Besquith view all other species?”

“As food. Why?” she asked, then her eyes went wide. “Oh. Oh!

Marinara finally gave in and laughed. After a moment, Choc joined him.

* * * * *

Chapter Ten

Exams were looming and Marinara’s classmates were discussing their future plans. Ch’c’lt was becoming distraught about returning to Karma. Meryll and Marinara tried daily to reassure her that returning to her parents would work out.

Some classmates were traveling home for the semester break, others were preparing for internships or further exams. A few had discussed getting the credits together and cramming for the Master Chef certification exam.

Marinara felt he had all the time in the world to study for his Master Chef certification; after all, Wrogul lived nearly 1,000 years He had received two offers of internships at prestigious Michelin-starred restaurants that were intriguing to him. One was a Chicago restaurant whose Master Chef was also a Master in molecular gastronomy. That was very enticing! And the private kitchen table dining experience at that particular restaurant cost 1,000 credits per couple. Of course, he wouldn’t be getting that income, but still!

The other offer came from a Tokyo restaurant founded by Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. Marinara admitted the number of years it took to become a certified Master Sushi Chef didn’t appeal to him—he had plans to get his own restaurants and Tri-V shows started—but he would be working with and learning from professionals in the field. What really appealed to him was the possibility of showing off his talents preparing dishes in front of the customers. He was sure that the restaurant management would soon see the appeal of putting him on public display, even as an intern. And then Tri-V would discover him and instant success was his. It seemed Atelier would be his choice.

But there were a few drawbacks. He wanted to pursue more studies in Italian cuisine, and neither restaurant would facilitate that. And Meryll wouldn’t be traveling with him. She said she would stay at the New York apartment and continue her Master’s thesis; that way, they wouldn’t have to sublet the apartment or pay rent for empty rooms. He had offered to use his credits to buy the building instead, so rent wasn’t an issue, but she insisted he save his credits to pay for his Master Chef certification.

Master Chef. He should make a decision soon. He had more than enough knowledge and kitchen poise to pass the exams. But his original goal had been to study at every cooking school on Earth. Now he could feel the tug to do more and become more. He guessed it came with life experience. Or, as Meryll put it, climbing the ladder of success, rung by rung. Well, he could do that—easily. After all he had eight arms! He could jump rungs of success!

Marinara looked out of his mobile tank and noticed Ch’c’lt walking by, unaware of those around her.

“Choc! Wait up,” he called out. “Let us get a beverage.”

The two settled at a nearby table and ordered their drinks. Marinara stared intently at the Jeha.

“What is wrong? You seem very disturbed.”

“It’s my parents,” she replied. “They have become increasingly anxious about me remaining here in New York. They’ve asked me to move to the Houston Starport as soon as my last exam is done. That means I would have to leave tomorrow afternoon.”

“But why?” Mari asked in puzzlement. His eyes swirled in independent confusion.

“They tell me they have heard rumors of aliens in Human Earth cities being threatened for being Terra-lovers. There is some race-baiting happening in some of the Union ports, and on Capital Planet.” Choc stared at her arms folded together on the table surface.

“My mother says she heard a couple of Besquith talking about how they want to get rid of mankind and punish those who like the Humans. She fears I may get caught in some political events and wants me home immediately. She wants me to skip my last exam and get to the starport tomorrow for the first ship home.”

Marinara was silent, then he heaved himself to the edge of his tank. “I had hoped we had a little longer before you had to leave. But maybe your mother is correct. Perhaps you should skip your last exam and transport home safely. You don’t need the academy credentials. Or you could plead emergency and ask them to let you take the exam in absentia.”

Ch’c’lt nodded slowly but said nothing, continuing to look at the table.

“If you wish, I will ask Meryll to help you with any papers or passes you need for the trip. Do you need to pack anything?”

“No, I am ready for transport. I feel I am running away by not completing my steps to achievement.”

“But you must stay safe, Ch’c’lt, to be an example to others and show how other races can get along with Humans. That is most important.”

Ch’c’lt nodded again without looking up.

“If I don’t see you at the class exam tomorrow, I will know you have taken precautions and left for the starport. Contact me when you are home safe, Ch’c’lt.”

The Jeha’s only reply was a single nod and a sigh.

* * *

The next morning, Marinara felt a sense of relief as he completed the final test question on the school slate and handed it to the test proctor. Done.

He also felt a strange sense of sadness that Ch’c’lt had not made it to the test. She must have made the decision to leave for the starport. Perhaps she would be able to message him before the shuttle left for Karma or after she returned home. He realized he already missed her quiet and diffident disposition. He hoped she could put her training to good use in the family business.

As he wheeled down the school hallway, he noticed a commotion as the hallway merged into the student lounge. Local law enforcement was stopping students and asking questions. A dog—no a wolf—stood off to the side watching the activity with a grin that showed too many sharp teeth.

Marinara slowed his progress as a law officer wearing the city uniform looked up and saw his mobile tank. He headed toward Marinara, and, as other officers noticed the movement, they headed toward the Wrogul as well.

“Excuse me,” the Human stopped in front of Marinara. “Are you the Wrogul student known as Marinara?”

“Yes, I am.” Marinara felt a chill, as if a bucket of ice had been dumped in his tank. “May I help you?”

“You’re close friends with a Jeha? Goes by the name of Ch’c’lt.”

Marinara felt the emotional chill deaden his arms. “Yes.”

“You need to come with me. We need to talk.”

“But she is all right, correct?”

“Just come with me, sir—um, Mist—you—umm, just come with me, please. We need to talk.”

By now, the other officers had converged on them. Campus and city law enforcement made up the mix. The wolf, decked out with Union ID, sashes and belts, looked at Marinara slyly, and he felt a flash of fear. It was sentient! Was this one of the Besquith Ch’c’lt had mentioned? The alien stared at the Wrogul and seemed to sense his thoughts. It lifted its head, showing its sharp, pointed teeth. It turned and paced down the hallway beside the Wrogul’s tank.

The first officer reached the campus security door and pushed it open. All entered, lining up against the wall while the alien moved to a corner and sat on its haunches. The original officer—Goldherne, his name tag read—sat at the desk and gestured the Wrogul to move his tank around to the other side of the desk.

“How do I refer to you?” the officer asked.

“Sir, my name is Marinara,” the Wrogul said politely. “I’m a student here from Azure. I live in the brownstone apartment at—”

“Enough!” the officer exclaimed. “The name is Goldherne. Officer John Goldherne. I have some questions about your relationship with the Jeha. Where were you at 6 am this morning?”

Marinara struggled to keep his behavior neutral and kept his arms in the tank, but he was becoming increasingly irritated by the officer’s tone and delivery. “I was here in the student lounge. I came early for a last-minute study session with some classmates. Our exam was this morning. Is my friend all—”

“I’ll ask the questions. Did anyone see you in the lounge?”

“Well, yes,” Marinara hesitated, tamping down his growing apprehension. “I was here with two other classmates. We were reviewing the notes for our exam and quizzing each other on the concepts.”

“Hmm. I suppose they are witnesses, then.” The officer looked over at the alien sitting in the corner. It lifted its head and eyed the Human officer. He turned to one of the officers standing against the wall. “Lankford, get your phone out, we’re going to record this interview. Gomez and Gloriouso, go outside and keep anyone else from entering.

Lankford stuttered. “My phone, sir? You don’t want the Tri-V camera?”

“No, just your phone. If you can’t do that simple thing, I’ll use a slate.”

Lankford struggled to get his phone off his belt.

Goldherne looked at the alien in the corner. “Lujkhas, you’ll be a witness to the interrogation?”

The alien nodded once and settled onto the floor. Goldherne turned back to Marinara.

“You are a Wrogul, correct? You look like an octopus. How many arms do you have?” Goldherne began counting, straining to see into the tank.

“What, sir? My friend, is sh—”

“It’s dead, Wrogul. Dead. Sliced and diced and torn to pieces. Lots and lots of pieces. Millions of millipede pieces.”

* * * * *

Chapter Eleven

Michael came as soon as he got Marinara’s message. Meryll was already with him. She had obviously been crying.

She rushed over to Marinara’s tank and held her hands out. He reached out and wrapped his arms around her wrists gently and pulled her closer to the tank. The officers in the security office watched the display with interest,

“Marinara, I’m so sorry, dear. Are you okay?”

“I will be okay, Meryll, but I wish to go home. I have much to think about.”

Michael interjected, “Home, to the apartment, not—”

“Yes, Michael, home to the apartment. Please. As soon as we can leave.” Marinara blinked his large, turquoise eyes slowly and flashed sadness. “I have much to think about.”

Meryll glanced at the nearest law officer. “We’re going now,” she said firmly.

The officer gave a curt nod. “I’ve recorded and time-stamped a file of the interview. A link has been sent to its—” the officer nodded toward Mari’s mobile tank “—pinplant account.”

Michael laid a hand on Meryll’s shoulder and nudged her toward the door. She disentangled her hands from Marinara’s arms and laid a hand on the edge of his tank. Together they turned toward the office door and left.

“Our transport is in the student parking,” Michael said. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“I can’t talk right now, Michael,” the Wrogul responded glumly. “I have much to think about. I want to be in a secure place where I can meditate on the events. I want to go home.”

Michael and Meryll looked at each other sadly.

* * *

Marinara had spent most of the afternoon sitting quietly in a corner of his tank. He occasionally splashed to the surface and grabbed a slate and stabbed at it, before setting it down and sinking back below the surface of the water.

Meryll knew he could do most of his research and messaging through his pinplants, so she was curious what the slate activity meant. She hovered nearby in case he needed assistance, but he remained quiescent. Eventually, Michael left to get himself a cheeseburger while she sliced some fish and ate some sushi rolls. She placed a few prawns in Marinara’s tank. Marinara reached out an arm to snag them but stayed submerged in the corner.

After several hours, Marinara heaved himself to edge of his tank and hung four arms over the side. “Michael, Meryll, I am ready to talk now.”

Michael snagged two kitchen chairs and pulled them closer to the tank.

“What happened, Mari?” Meryll asked softly.

“Choc, she was—she was murdered this morning. She was packed and ready to leave for the starport when someone—something—broke in and killed her. She had been crushed and knifed—cut into pieces. They painted the walls with some of her blood. Slogans. Symbols. ‘Go home alien.’ ‘A dead alien is a +.’ Things like that.”

Meryll gasped, and her eyes filled with tears.

Michael looked concerned. “Why did they keep you so long?”

“At first they just wanted to know about Ch’c’lt and me. How we met, what her politics were. Then they began to ask why I came to Earth. What did I hope to accomplish here? Why did I choose school here and not on other planets? Did I know there was an anti-Galactic movement afoot here in New York? What were my politics. Did I hate aliens like MinSha and Veetanho?”

Michael looked puzzled. “But you’re alien, why—”

Meryll swung toward Michael, eyes flashing in anger, and gestured a cutting motion across her throat.

Marinara simultaneously heaved himself further out of the tank, turquoise eyes swirling in anger. “I am Human!” he said hotly. He seemed to wilt then and slid back into the tank, leaving just two arms to grasp the edge.

“The officer asked me about my knife skills. I was renowned in class, he said, for my abilities. My professors told him. He conferred briefly with the alien in the corner, then changed his questioning. He asked if I staged the crime myself to make it look like a conspiracy by Earth Humans. I was about to ask if I needed legal representation when one of the other officers whispered in his ear. They do not know I can read lips, and I watched them. The younger officer told the other they had no evidence of water or tracked conveyances at the site. The other officer seemed disappointed, then changed the subject to friends and classmates of Choc.”

Michael and Meryll sat silent for several minutes. Marinara watched them, equally silent.

Finally, Meryll spoke. “This sounds ugly. Where do we go from here?”

“We move cautiously,” Michael said. “But I’m going to reach out to my brother and tell him what happened. See what he thinks.”

“I, too, have reached out,” Marinara added. “I have sent messages to Brull and my grandfather. I also got updated class results as soon as I finished my last exam. I have passed all my courses and am good to go with my internship.”

Michael looked incredulous. “You still want to go to Tokyo, with all this happening?”

“It may be for the best,” cautioned Meryll. “Marinara needs to get out of the city. New location, new outlook. Maybe he can escape this incident and keep attention focused on his cooking.”

“Yes,” agreed Marinara. “I have a new purpose. To show Earth that aliens can love them and their culture. To share Ch’c’lt’s story and vision for peace through food. I want to be at the top of my game, as you Earth citizens say, and become even bigger. Instead of one restaurant, I want a dozen. Instead of one Tri-V show, I want three.”

“Admirable,” Michael said dubiously. “I guess we should get started with our lists. Figure out what’s going with us to Japan.”

* * *

Later that evening, Marinara rested in a corner of his tank, reviewing the day’s activities. Brull had sent a brief message: “Got it. Research. Will be in touch.”

He remembered Harryhausen’s brief conversation as he was preparing to leave Azure. He had kept aware of what was happening around him, what the Americans called “spidey sense.” He thought he had done well, but now he was doubting himself. He recorded observations. He kept notes of conversations. He looked for patterns. Now he was just tired and depressed. What was the purpose of his existence? Did the Humans really hate aliens that much? Was he fooling himself that they accepted him?

Officer Goldherne had introduced the idea that perhaps he was the instigator of the attack, to cast suspicions on other races. Then he had switched tactics and suggested perhaps the attack was meant for, or would include him, as well. It was this thought that prompted him to accept his internship offer and head to Tokyo. It was time for a new environment.

He settled deeper into the corner to ruminate.

* * * * *

Chapter Twelve

Master Chef Masimotta stared fiercely at the Wrogul cutting daikon and carrots for the side dishes. The Wrogul was out of his mobile water tank, balancing himself on two arms while he chopped with six. Master Masimotta squinted closely at the Wrogul who appeared to be dancing as it chopped vegetables.

“Master Marinara, you are out of your tank!” the managing chef exclaimed.

Marinara spun around and looked at his boss and flashed consternation. “Yes, I am.”

“And may I ask why?”

“I am practicing my balance. And increasing my endurance for being out of water.”

“And may I ask why?”

“I want to be able to grill in front of the customers. I want them to see me as I present their meals to them.”

“And again, may I ask why?”

The Wrogul was silent for a moment. “I need to accomplish more. I have plans for my own restaurants. I have learned so much during my internship, but I have plans to move on—” Marinara looked closely at his boss and hesitated “—respectfully, sir.” He gave a little bow.

Masimotta stared at Marinara with what Michael called the gimlet eye.

“You have plans.”

“Yes, Master.” Marinara gave another small bow and could feel skin drying in places on his arms. He hesitated and then offered, “Perhaps I should return to my mobile tank and finish my duties from there, Master.”

“Perhaps you should.” Master Masimotta stared at the chopped vegetables to one side of Marinara’s work station. Precision. Exactly the same with each cut. It was a value the Wrogul brought to the restaurant, not that many customers would exclaim over the precision cuts of the squash or wasabi root.

Marinara returned to his tank and wheeled it back to his work station. He finished his duties, cleaned the station, and sadly wheeled out the employees’ exit. Another night in which he wouldn’t be preparing the sushi or the meal in front of the customer. He knew many of the celebrities who visited the restaurant were curious about the Wrogul but drew the line at having it hang from the tank while their meals were prepared. He had noticed more celebrities, but also noticed more alien races visiting as well. Michael told him word was spreading about the Wrogul chef working at Atelier, and many were visiting, hoping to catch a glimpse of him behind the sushi bar.

Just last week, he had prepared excellent sushi and sashimi for a Japanese actor. The celebrity was in several action movies and visited the restaurant on a regular basis. It surprised Marinara when Master Masimotta walked up to his mobile tank. The manager stood there a few seconds and then cleared his throat, causing Marinara to look up from his duties.

“Master Marinara, actor Danny Lee wishes to speak with you. Please show him proper respect.”

Marinara stared at the slim man standing behind his boss.

The actor held out his hand. “Dude! I just wanted to say thanks for the outstanding sushi.”

Marinara slipped an arm gently onto the man’s outstretched hand and touched it briefly. He had to give the actor credit, he didn’t cringe. “Thank you,” he said.

“No, thank you. You’re one brave little dude, around all these knives, in such an alien environment. My hat’s off to you.”

“And I thank you,” Marinara began, searching through his pinplant files furiously, “for your roles in…” he hesitated, scanning files quickly, “The Blue Dragon and Blue Dragon Returns.”

The actor looked surprised. “A fan?”

“Absolutely.” Marinara subtly crossed two arms in his tank. He had seen Meryll do the same movement with the fingers of one hand behind her back. “I am a big fan of action movies, particularly the superhero kind.”

“Yeah,” the actor chuckled. “I guess we all want to be superheroes.”

“It is true,” Marinara agreed. “We do.”

“Well, hang in there, little dude. I’ll be back for more of those excellent dishes. I’ll be telling all of my friends about the great sushi chef here.”

His boss cleared his throat once again. “Master Marinara is not our Master Sushi Chef,” he corrected.

“Well, he should be. He’s outstanding.”

Master Masimotta cast an eye on the Wrogul in his tank, then turned to follow the actor.

* * *

He and Michael talked about the incident later. They brought Meryll in on a video call and told her what happened. Although Marinara didn’t follow the Japanese glitterati scene, he was aware more celebrities were frequenting the restaurant. He heard the gossip from other workers around the kitchens, and sometimes saw the hostesses whispering excitedly in the kitchen corner with other chefs.

Meryll was contemplative. “You should turn this to your advantage.”

“How? And why?”

“Well, you keep telling me you have goals. You paid your credits and received your Master Chef certification but you haven’t done anything with it. You’re still interning in the kitchen there. You don’t need to return to New York for classes. You can go to any school you want if you simply want to study cuisine. Maybe it’s time to step things up a notch and angle for the big time.”

Michael chimed in. “Go big or go home, as they say.”

Marinara whirled to face Michael. “Explain.”

“It’s an old saying,” Michael responded. “It means be bold. Put your best into it. If you’re not prepared to do your best possible, then just go home.”

“Think about it, Marinara,” Meryll said, about to sign off. “What do you want to be? Gotta go, now; it’s late. I’ll talk to you guys in few days.”

Michael arched an eyebrow at Marinara. “What do you want to be, Mari?”

Marinara thought for a few seconds. “I don’t want to be a superhero, but I wish I could have saved my friend.”

* * *

Marinara made Michael’s saying part of his mantra. He became more aggressive with his portion of the dishes and pressed Master Masimotta for more time in front of customers. His boss begrudgingly admitted more customers were visiting the restaurant asking about the Wrogul. Finally, Marinara confronted his boss.

“It’s time for me to show the world what a great chef I am, Master Masimotta.”

His boss said nothing and stared at the Wrogul.

“I wish to prepare a meal for a special guest.”

Master Masimotta looked thoughtful. Finally, he said, “Two days from now. 8:00 p.m. Which two sous chefs will assist you?”

Marinara flashed surprise and joy. “Why no one, Master Masimotta. I have eight arms. Why should I need assistants? They only add four arms to the process. I can do it all myself.”

Master Masimotta simply stared at his eager intern. “Hmph,” he said and turned away. “Start planning.”

* * *

It was time. Marinara spent his day preparing, and he was ready. His station was neat and orderly. Charcoal grills were lit and proteins resting in chilled water. Master Masimotta stepped up to his station.

He frowned at Marinara. “You are ready?”

“Yes, Master Masimotta.”

“Then let us begin.” He nodded to the hovering hostess who turned and ushered an elegantly dressed couple to the table.

Marinara left his tank and gave a slight bow to his customers.

“I, Master Chef Marinara, am quite pleased to prepare this meal for you this evening. I hope it meets your satisfaction.”

The woman tittered, and Marinara glanced at her. Oh yes, he had seen her around the restaurant. She was the hostess of a famous Japanese talk show and frequently espoused her views on women’s and planetary rights. The man beside her played a television detective who raised pet squirrels that helped him solve his television crimes. The actor never missed a chance for public appearances. Excellent.

Marinara began with his sushi selections. He made two of each item and slid the plates across the table while his other arms sliced and diced and folded his selections. He cast a glance at the actor and was pleased with the satisfaction that filled the man’s face. His companion was nodding appreciatively and making “mmm-mmm” sounds as she sampled the sushi. This was going well.

He passed them bowls of broth. They both sipped delicately. Not quite as enthusiastically as they did with the sushi, but there were still several courses to go. He passed along bowls of ramen and awaited the appreciative slurp of the noodles. It didn’t happen. He turned to see the actor address his companion.

“Is everything alright, my dear?”

“Oh, I expected something more than ramen. It’s so passé.”

Marinara felt a twinge of panic. “There are a variety of courses to come,” he assured them.

The actor turned to the Wrogul and grinned broadly. “And I eagerly await them,” he stated loudly. Marinara noticed the flushed face of the actor. He subtly waved an arm and picked up an odor of alcohol. Oh, they had been drinking.

He served the pickled vegetables and checked the grill. Soon. He passed the plates of vegetables and the actress selected a bite and began chewing. Her painted red lips made a moue of distaste.

“What’s wrong, my dear?” her companion asked solicitously.

The woman laid her chopsticks down. “It’s not pickled well. It’s really too sweet for me.”

Marinara whirled in panic to stare at the vegetables. Not pickled well? He had personally overseen that particular batch weeks ago. He had to save this dinner, now!

He plated the fish and respectfully presented it to both guests. The actor took a bite and chewed. And chewed. And chewed. He wiped his sweaty face and searched for a glass. He grabbed the teapot before Marinara could reach it and poured his own cup. He downed it quickly and poured another cup.

“It’s…quite…salty…isn’t it?”

Marinara felt like he was drowning in air. Too salty? He had carefully salted that fish himself. He had salted that fish with one arm while he was busy preparing his sushi leaves. He had…salted that fish…

Marinara was in full panic mode but he needed to stay calm enough to finish the dinner. He prepared the rest of his dishes, but he knew the evening was ruined. He could see it in their faces. He could see the whispering beginning among co-workers. He could see Master Masimotta standing in the distance frowning and shaking his head as someone whispered in his ear.

Had someone sabotaged his meal? Were they that jealous of his success?

No, let’s be honest, he told himself. I prepared everything. I left nothing to chance, so no one else could ruin the dinner. The failure is mine and mine alone.

The ordeal was finally over. The couple declined dessert and fruit. They stood to leave. The actor looked closely at Marinara.

“I’m rather disappointed,” he said. “I had expected more.” Master Masimotta stepped up to say something but the actor simply shook his head and walked away.

Marinara looked at the ruin of his station—at the ruin of his dreams.

* * * * *

Chapter Thirteen

It was weeks before his co-workers stopped whispering when he wheeled past them. Master Masimotta rarely interacted with him other than to inspect his vegetables or sample his broths. Marinara, filled with the sense of failure, kept to himself and simply went about doing the job he was hired to do.

Then one evening Master Masimotta stepped up to Marinara’s work station and nodded to the Wrogul. “Marinara, come with me.”

Marinara flashed surprise. His co-workers looked up in surprise, too.

He followed his boss to a quiet corner of the kitchen. “Master Marinara, a guest has requested you prepare a special meal for him. He has asked only that you prepare it and has no special requests. I’m assigning Suki and Tom to assist you. You will decide the ingredients you need and put those two to work. You will decide the courses you want to offer and make your preparations. You will make this meal in front of the guest. You must be ready to cook at seven. Get to work.”

Marinara put an arm out to stop his boss as he turned away. “Is this for Danny Lee?”

“No, it is not.”

“Who is it?”

“You don’t need to know. It won’t make a difference in your planning.”

Marinara disagreed, but kept silent.

“May I leave my tank to present this meal?”

Master Masimotta stared at the Wrogul. “It is your choice.” He turned and walked away.

Marinara slid into his tank for a moment. His two co-workers stood in front of him, staring at him with round eyes. He thought for a moment before speaking. “I am preparing a menu,” he told the two. “I will have a supply list in ten minutes. We begin preparation in fifteen.”

Two hours later, the Wrogul and his two helpers surveyed their surroundings in satisfaction. There had been some close calls and some last-minute menu changes, but he was ready—batter, vegetables, noodles, protein, the unagi—was ready. His sushi was ready. He was ready.

The hostess ushered a young man to his station. Young, in relative Earth terms. He could be thirty or he could be fifty. Though there was no gray showing, so probably not fifty. He was not someone Marinara had seen before.

Marinara had left his tank only moments earlier. He figured he was good for an hour, maybe more if he could sneak a quick dip back in the tank. He balanced on two arms. He and the gentleman stared at each other, then bowed slightly to each other. The hostess pulled out the chair and he sat.

Show time!

His two assistants stood to the side in case he needed them. Suki had brewed some tea, in case his guest wanted it. He surprised Marinara by waving her away and saying quietly, “Just water, please.”

Marinara presented the dish of sushi and his guest eyed the variety of pieces, chose two and moved them to a different plate. He bit delicately into the roll and began to chew, a slow grin spreading across his face as he swallowed the bite. He popped the other roll in his mouth and downed it quickly.

“More of that, please.” Marinara bowed slightly and presented the tray again.

They began the dance of food courses. Marinara checked his grill and oil, and with different arms began to share plates and dishes with his guest. Ramen, soup, tempura. The eel was grilling and he offered more noodles to his guest. There were some minor flubs with the tempura, and the guest waved away more noodles. Marinara was apprehensive.

“I’ll take that tea, now.” Suki stepped forward and poured for the guest while Marinara presented him with the plate of eel and rice.

“Ah. A nice offering.” The guest speared the slices of eel and savored the dish. Marinara turned away to prepare the fruit.

When all was served, Marinara waited patiently for the guest to finish. He was sipping a glass of wine and Marinara was beginning to feel some itchy dry patches on his arms. He had arranged earlier with Suki to have her discretely spritz water on some spots, but he was longing to return his tank.

Finally, his guest was finished. He stood. “A most enjoyable presentation, my friend,” the gentleman intoned. “Allow me to present my card.”

Marinara lifted two arms up to receive the card. He eyed it, and suddenly realized the restaurant had grown silent as his guest stood up. He looked at the card again. Takeshi Kaga. His eyes grew wide as he looked at his guest.

“Yes,” Kaga said with a laugh. “It’s for real. We’ve heard the gossip about the Wrogul at Atelier. You know, we resurrected the show about four years ago as The New Iron Chef. I wanted to see if you had the chops to compete on the show.”

Marinara held the card and simply stared in wonder, all concern with his itchiness gone.

“I’ve spoken to Master Masimotta. He’s willing to present you, if you wish to compete. Give us a call if you think you’ve got what it takes.”

Marinara looked up to see many of the kitchen staff peeking around doors, and other coworkers clustered around his station. Master Masimotta was standing behind the actor, grinning, of all things! Other restaurant guests were standing and clapping or tapping their water glasses with utensils.

It was real. And it was going to happen!

* * * * *

Chapter Fourteen

Marinara stood behind the curtain, hanging four arms out of his mobile tank. Meryll and Michael stood next to him. Meryll nervously rubbed her palms together. Michael slouched, his hands in his pockets. Master Masimotta walked up to the tank and scowled fiercely.

“You are ready, Master Chef Marinara?” he asked sternly. On stage, they heard the sound of flourishing music and an actor intoning, “If memory serves…”

Marinara hesitated. “Yes,” he finally stated.

“Then let us proceed.”

On stage, the host continued. “Let’s introduce today’s challenger, a trump card I have been saving…the dishes he creates…”

The audience began clapping, and Marinara wheeled his mobile tank into the stadium and down the carpet. The announcer gave the play by play, explaining the history of the Wrogul, how he grew up in Azure and traveled to Earth to study its cuisine. Master Masimotta walked beside Marinara’s tank. The actor playing Takeshi Kaga greeted them and turned to the audience. Dramatic music rose, and the lights dimmed.

“I summon…the Iron Chef…” the announcer continued to describe the Iron Chefs to the audience.

Marinara chose the French specialty Iron Chef, as had been agreed upon when he signed the appearance contracts.

Kaga spoke briefly, and the dramatic music rose again in a flourish. He announced he had thought very carefully about today’s challenge and ripped away a cloth to reveal…

A tank of octopi!

Back stage, Meryll squealed and Michael sagged against a wall in laughter. A clamor arose in the stage audience. The Iron Chef on stage broke into a big grin. The cameramen moved in closely to tape the tank of roiling octopi tentacles. One cameraman was focusing intently on Marinara, taping his reaction as he hung on the edge of his tank.

The announcer began an enthusiastic patter, “This theme sets us up with a doozy. Talk about being pulled in different directions. How will Iron Chef Takai and challenger Marinara handle this? Challenger Marinara has got to have a leg up, if not several. We are set! Iron Chef Takai is first up to the tank. Oh, look, he’s not used to doing that. Oh! There’s one that got away! Challenger Marinara has wheeled into place and arms are pulling out octopi…Wow! That’s a huge one. He’s pulling into his own tank! His own tank! Oh, what a coup! Definitely something Iron Chef Takai can’t do. Is the challenger going to cook these octopi or does he have something else in mind? Maybe a little side action? Hey baby, a little threesome later?” The guest judges began to titter.

“It’s getting away. Man alive, look at that go. Iron Chef’s not gonna bother getting that one back.” The small octopus began to hump its way across the floor. The female guest judge shrieked in laughter.

“What are they gonna do now?” the announcer asked the floor reporter. “I don’t imagine they use much octopus in French cuisine, let alone live ones.”

The floor reporter directed their attention to Marinara’s work station. “You can see the challenger has left his own tank and dumped the octopi into the sink. He’s already at work, chopping and slicing. He estimates he’ll be out of his tank for an hour, the limit he can be out of water. I don’t know if the heat of the kitchen will make that time shorter.” A cameraman closed in on Marinara, showing him slicing off tentacles.

The voice of a female judge, an actress, was heard over the microphones. “How does he do that? How does he know he won’t cut off his own tentacles? Has he no shame? Is he a cannibal?”

The announcer took that moment to explain Marinara had arms and not tentacles. He gave a brief history of the Wrogul race as they knew it and then launched into a lengthy discussion of the differences between Wrogul and Earth cephalopods. He had just started to explain how Earth octopus ate fish, shrimp, and squid when the floor reporter interrupted and said it was time to meet the guest judges. He introduced them and then asked who among them liked octopus and waited for their reactions.

On the stadium floor, Marinara was dazzling the cameramen with his knife skills as he sliced the octopi and diced the suckers. Several pots were beginning to simmer on the burners.

The actress was explaining how she enjoyed fresh octopus when the floor reporter interrupted, and the cameramen moved in on the Iron Chef as he cut off the head of one of the smaller octopi and began dismembering it and throwing it into a stew pot.

The announcer and judges began speculating on the dishes the chefs were making, and the types of vegetables they were preparing.

The ink pot Marinara was heating drew their attention. They watched as he threw pieces of octopus into the ink, and began hollowing out potatoes for stuffing.

As the minutes counted down to the end of the challenge, Marinara began to set his dishes up for the judges. Seconds were ticking away as the announcer’s voice rose above the clamor.

“That’s it. The octopus battle is over.” Some audience members chuckled as the announcer continued. “This really is the octopus battle, folks. Not just the theme, but the challenge of a little alien octopus against the Iron Chefs of Japan. Challenger Marinara, how do you think you did? Do you think you can win?”

Marinara swayed wearily on two legs. “I think I did okay. We shall soon see.”

The taste judging began and Marinara, as the challenger, presented his dishes. There were a few comments about the texture of his first light dish and one wit complained he couldn’t taste the sweetness of the octopus. He felt the other fish was overpowering the octopus. Stew with octopus slices was up next. The judge who complained about his first dish raved over the taste of miso and the light flavor of the octopus. Other dishes were presented and another judge felt Marinara had lost his way with the bisque. He felt it should more realistically be called a lobster bisque than an octopus bisque. The actress simply put her spoon down and said it wasn’t for her.

When it came to the octopus in ink, the actress was ecstatic. She raved about the dish and others agreed that it had a unique flavor and taste. The texture was pleasant and pleasurable, said one. Another spoke highly of the aroma of the charred octopus.

The next dish was met with raves. All exclaimed how tender and sweet the suction cups were, were enthusiastic about the flavor, and complimented Marinara on the originality of his dishes.

The Iron Chef presented his dishes to the judges and they raved over the flavors and joked with him about catching and cutting up the octopi.

Finally, the moment of truth was upon them. All the dishes had been tasted, judged, and scored. The character of Takeshi Kaga rose to face the competing chefs.

“The winner of this battle,” the actor announced. “Doesn’t just rely on tradition, but rises aggressively to the challenges he faces. His spirit was impressive. The winner of this competition is…

“Challenger Marinara!”

* * * * *

Chapter Fifteen

Iron Chef Marinara. Well, maybe not yet, but he had beat the Iron Chef in the Kitchen Stadium and who knew where the future would lead. The thought was giddying, but it was time to get back to business.

Meryll dealt with all the media requests. Studios were clamoring for interviews with the Wrogul, and Food Network called every day with new show ideas. Kelly of Kelly and Ryan, the Holograms, had misinterpreted Marinara’s name and was referring to him as Mary Narra. Ryan had corrected her and assured the audience the name was Maury Narra. So now half the media sources were referring to him as Mary and half as Maury. It didn’t matter. They all knew he was the Wrogul chef who had won the Kitchen Stadium battle, no matter what his name was.

One talk show host had assured his fans that Wrogul were sexless and therefore Chef Mary could indeed claim the pronoun “she.” Most producers assumed he was “she” and kept leaving messages: “Have her call, please. We want her on our show.” Alton Brown III called and asked if he could plan a sushi special with the future Iron Chef for his network.

Master Masimotta had briefly expressed pleasure at Marinara’s success and the positive attention it brought the restaurant, then gruffly informed him to return to work.

Marinara eyed Meryll as she entered the room. He floated to the top of his tank.

She smiled as she greeted him, and her eyes twinkled mischievously. “How are you feeling, Chef?”

“Somewhat stunned. A little sore.” Marinara eyed a few of the cuts on his arms from the hectic kitchen activity. Nanites had healed the serious cuts and what remained was mostly itchy patches of healing skin.

“Tony Gamboa has left several messages. He’s invited his ‘Li’l Wrogul’ back to Naples to visit when you’re ready. He wants to host a dinner party and have you cook the meal. Brull has sent intergalactic congratulations, and says he’s proud to know you.

“But we have some big decisions to make. First, with all the credits you’ve earned, we can afford that building in Houston. From your own earnings,” she hastened to add, “not your family yack. I think we should proceed with the purchase and make Chez Marinara our top project.”

Marinara waved an arm in agreement. “But Tri-V? What about Tri-V?

“The Food Network wants to meet with you in person, not with me. Their show runners have some ideas they want to fling at you. Of course, first is an Iron Chef spinoff. They still have an American Kitchen Stadium set they can upgrade and transport to Houston, and they are quite excited about the possibilities. BBC and USBC have both offered you Cooking with Mary shows. UDAD wants you to host a televised sushi competition where home cooks compete weekly on sushi and sashimi challenges until only one cook is the winner. And you have—” Meryll consulted her slate “—twenty-two requests for appearances on broadcast shows, including one in New Delhi and one in Tel Aviv, and eighty-eight requests for interviews with digital media. And Michael is on the ground in Houston and wants to know when you will be back on the continent.”

Marinara floated just under the surface of the water, savoring its taste. “I want to mention Ch’c’lt when I do the interviews.”

“Of course, Marinara.”

“I want to explain about her friendship and her death, how I thought of her as I faced each of my challenges.”

“Of course!”

“I’m lucky to have you, Meryll.”

She looked at the Wrogul curiously. “You know I love you, too, Mari. What’s up?”

“I think about my goals, and where I was and where I am now. You have stayed with me.”

“Yes…” she replied slowly.

“I have more I want to do. I’m not happy with my skills in Italian cuisine. I want to expand and sample more ethnic cuisines. I have new dishes I want to create with the Marinara trademark. I have more academies I want to attend. And I realize how much you do for me without regard to your own life needs. Will you leave me now that I’ve achieved so many of my goals?”

“Oh, Mari!” Meryll laughed and reached into the tank and dangled her fingers in the water. “Of course, I won’t leave. I’m here for you, always. Sister and brother. Our work is just beginning. Who will manage Chez Marinara? And you know you are lousy with food and wine pairings. I’ll have to manage that until we hire competent sommeliers. And menus! We have menus to plan and costs to evaluate and sources to investigate. You’ll have local assistants when I’m off-planet managing our businesses while you are in Houston.”

“And businesses to build?”

“And businesses to build. While you finish up your internship at Atelier, I will coordinate with Michael on the building purchase. We’ll need housing while we renovate. I have to hire architects and honest contractors. I’m here for you, Mari, always.”

Marinara floated to the top and reached two arms out of the tank. “I love you, Meryll.”

Meryll leaned over the tank and a single salt water tear dropped into the tank. “I love you, too, Mari.”

* * * * *


A few members of the viewing party had seen the Tri-V program before, but at least one watched with rapt attention for most of the program. “My great-great grandson would seem to be just as young and impetuous as when he left,” Todd observed in a dry tone. “Sharp blades, boiling water, open flame. One could almost wish he had chosen a safer profession.”

“You mean like Verne? A mercenary?” asked the woman with the dark pony-tail. “Or like your grandson in the Peacemaker Guild?”

“Marinara’s not, though,” the woman’s partner corrected. “He’s kind and considerate. He’s a good teacher and has matured greatly. Ever since he lost that classmate, there is a sad, serious place inside him.”

“About that. Have you been in contact with the family?”

“We will go to Karma next,” Meryll explained. “Marinara still feels guilt and grief. If only he hadn’t tried to convince her to stay. He wants to invest in their family restaurant, but they have ignored our messages. Apparently, Choc’s family also blames Mari. Michael and I will try one more time, but if they aren’t interested, we’re still intent on looking into a Chez Marinara franchise on Karma.”

“Ah, yes, I believe the proper expression is congratulations!” said Todd.

“Thank you,” blushed Meryll. “It was sort of a surprise. You get caught up in Mari’s whirlwind and don’t even think of yourself.”

“No, but he does,” supplied Michael. “We were going over business plans one day, and Mari just came out and asked me when I was going to propose to Meryll. He said he’d been waiting for years to refer to me as his brother-in-law. It was such a shock because I realized he was right.” He reached over and hugged his fiancé.

“So, you brought Michael home to meet your family?” asked Todd.

“Well, Mom, at least. But you know how it is in Mari’s circle, you guys are as much family as anyone.”

“I had hoped he would come himself.” Todd’s tone was somewhat wistful.

“He wanted to, but now the network wants him to host a Celebrity Cooking Cruise on one of those new hydro-lev cruise ships. Someone thought a sea creature cooking seafood on the sea would be a good draw.” Meryll laughed. “He did ask me to buy genuine Azure pineapples. Apparently, they have stopped growing them on Hawaii because of some eco movement to restore volcanic slopes to their pristine environment. He won’t use any other variety, so now he wants me to import Styx Valley Gold for the restaurant.” She paused for a moment, then continued: “…and he asked me to give you this.” She handed over a data chip.

“Recipes?” Todd asked as he dried one arm, then took the chip.

“He said they were his notes,” clarified Meryll. “You know, he takes notes about everything he sees and everyone he meets? He thought you or his grandfather might want a copy.”

“Ah, yes.” Todd flashed understanding. “Yes, we definitely want that.”

* * * * *

Part 4: Molina

Chapter One

“Yo! Doc Ock, we’ve got incoming!”

The voice on the comm did not wake Molina, exactly, for he had already been notified of the approaching ship through his pinplants. It was true, however, that he had been in a semi-dormant state, resting after a particularly long session in the clinic.

The Human colony world of Azure did not have a lot of natural resources to offer in trade to the Galactic Union. In the fifty-plus years since the colony’s founding, it had become self-sufficient. There was a small He3 refueling station around the gas-giant AZ1142-Gamma, and an orbital station where ships could take on foodstuffs and reaction mass from the water-rich AZ1142-Beta. Beta—known as Azure—had a small trade in the biochemical and bioengineering industry. It also had a growing reputation for brewed and distilled beverages. What the colony had that was truly worth the visit through the stargate, though, was a colony of Wrogul, some of the best surgeons and doctors in the Galactic Union.

Few Humans had ever seen a Wrogul when a crippled starship with a single amnesic survivor appeared in the Azure system forty-seven years prior. There were currently thirty-two Wrogul on Azure—well, except for Nemo who’d joined a merc company, and Todd who had just left for Earth to scatter his friend’s ashes on the oceans of the Human home world. Wrogul had long lives and carried the memories of the “parent” from which they had budded. Yet despite knowing they had cousins in the Galactic Union, none of the Wrogul on Azure had any memory prior to their progenitor’s arrival at the Human colony.

It made Azure unique to have multiple members of a race known to be excellent scientists and surgeons. Moreover, since these Wrogul had been living among Humans for almost fifty years, some of their more eccentric characteristics had rubbed off…

“Dammit, Ortiz,” Molina replied, “I just started a multiplayer session of Naruto. I can play three fighters at once!” Human multiplayer video games were particularly appealing to sophonts that could handle four controllers at once and multi-thread their thought process to play each position via a different portion of their pinplant biocomputers.

“Sorry, Doc, but this ship looks pretty beat up, and they’re squawking a Mayday on all channels.” The voice on the other end of the comm was extremely apologetic. This was actually the second merc ship in-system in a week, when it was more typical to see one only every month or two. The incoming comms suggested this one had come explicitly to utilize the Cerulean Clinic.

“Okay, alert the clinic staff and tell them I’m on my way. Meanwhile, when the ship gets close enough, hack their computer and download the entertainment database. Look for anything anime or manga. If it’s good, we’ll charge them standard fees for the clinic instead of the emergency surcharge. If they’ve got hentai, I might even give them a discount!”

“Aye, aye, Jiraiya!” said Ortiz as he signed off.

Molina flashed exasperation, and the translator rendered it just before the connection closed: “I take offense at that! I am a cephalopod, not a bufonid!”

With a mental command via his pinplants, Molina activated the pumps that sucked his sleeping bubble back into storage. Unlike the Human inhabitants who preferred the rotating gravity decks, he was quite at home in micro- or zero-gravity. In many cases, he was comfortable out of water as long as he was in a high-humidity atmosphere. Occasionally, though, he needed immersion. Free water was problematic in zero-gee, and air-breathers caught inside a bubble could drown, unable to swim out. Therefore, he had to ensure his quarters were emptied of the hyper-oxygenated fluid before unsealing the water-tight door. A thin layer of fluid remained on his skin, but that was to be preferred.

Both his personal quarters and the passageways had a series of rungs and crossbars at half-meter intervals. Molina’s eight powerful arms stretched almost one-and-a-half meters at full extension, so he could skip past multiple grasping points when he was in a hurry. The urgency of the comm traffic suggested this was such a time.

He reached the medical facility and slid into his water tank before the protective layer of moisture could drip from his body in the increased gravity of the variable-G medical deck. When receiving new patients, it was policy to start at one-half Earth normal gravity. Medical procedures often required fractional gravity to ensure fluids behaved appropriately, though others required that gee-forces were minimized. Therefore, the space allocated for Cerulean Clinic was located on a moveable pod that could ascend or descend one of the spokes anchoring the residential gravity decks to the zero-gee hub. A counterweight consisting of fresh- and waste-water on the opposite spoke kept the rotating structure in balance.

There were very few permanent staff assigned to the clinic, since accommodations on the station were still somewhat austere. In fact, with the exception of adding the variable gravity pod for the clinic, there had been few additions to the station in its fifty years of existence. The hub contained a hard-dock to allow direct offloading of critical cargo, a small hangar bay for the two shuttles—one ground-to-orbit craft and a space-only workboat—a few zero-G labs, a couple of storage rooms, and the visiting physicians’ quarters. The fixed gravity deck was a long spoke extending both directions from the hub and capped with small spherical habitats. There were quarters for ten Humans, but those were seldom full. The spokes supporting the variable deck for the clinic stuck out at right angles to the fixed deck and made the whole thing look like a Human child’s toy. In all, the station would be cramped and crowded if it were full…but it was seldom full. There simply was no need.

Except for Cerulean Clinic.

* * * * *

Chapter Two

“Wake up, Roeder, we have incoming. I need a fresh batch of nanites warmed up!” Molina’s voice came from every speaker in the lab. He had no idea where the biochemist was, but he was certain the Human laboratory technician was hiding out somewhere trying to avoid work.

“You don’t have to shout, I got the message, too.” A seventy-five-year-old Human male with extremely thick glasses peered through the door from the tiny clinical diagnostic lab. The man was bald, extensively wrinkled—no, shriveled—in a manner that suggested he had once been considerably larger. He sat in a powered chair despite the reduced gravity. “You do realize I’m not your lab tech, right? I’m only here because your last five techs quit!”

In truth, Professor Roeder was indeed not the lab tech, but rather the station’s only permanent resident. After establishing three pharmaceutical companies, two manufactories, and a rather large family—with three successive wives, all named Emily—on Azure, he had moved to the orbital station so he could keep working after an accident greatly reduced his mobility planet-side.

“I do not understand why you do not let me rebuild your spine, Roeder. We have the finest neuro-grade nanites. You certainly experimented on yourself enough in your youth! I could implant some actuators and motivators with pinplants for control and you’d be running and jumping with your children and grandchildren. Perhaps even making more. Sngh, sngh, sngh.” The scratchy sound from the speakers was Molina’s version of a laugh.

“Not a chance, squid, I know where—and how—you got those designs. I won’t be a party to it.” Roeder used an extension arm—called a waldo after an obscure Earth story—to reach a high shelf and retrieve a vial of what looked like gray dust. “Besides, I need the peace and quiet for my experiments. Emily’s been bugging me to check in on Emily, and they both are feuding with Emily over the allocations for the great-grandkids’ trust funds.”

Molina was about to make an observation that the last lab tech’s name was Emma Leigh, but was interrupted by Ortiz entering the clinic accompanied by a Human merc carrying a second over his shoulders. Before he could ask the whereabouts of the other clinic staff, two more Human males came rushing in. One was short and lean, wearing workout gear, with a slight sheen of sweat on his skin. The other had arrived on the station in the last couple of days; a tall, hulking man, with heavy brows and thick beard stubble.

“Hoyt, help them get the patient on the table,” Molina said. The larger of the two staff members merely nodded and turned to assist without speaking. The big man and the merc wrestled the injured man onto the table, and Hoyt started removing the bloody scraps of armor and clothing. Meanwhile, the second staffer began pulling diagnostic instruments over to the bedside.

“Lu, start an IV. Hoyt, scrub in,” Molina ordered. No matter how effective the nanite treatments, or how fast they were delivered, trauma patients lost blood. Intravenous fluids and a blood substitute developed by the late Doctor Bailey would help.

“Isn’t that supposed to be the Sasquatch’s job?” Lu protested, pointing back over his shoulder at Hoyt who was opening a sterilizer pack.

“What?” Molina’s voice thundered from all of the speakers. “Did you graduate from medical school?” Ortiz took the opportunity to grab the second merc by the arm and lead him out of the treatment room.

Lu shook his head but didn’t say anything. There was a look of confusion on his face.

“No, of course not. You barely made it through nursing school.” Molina flashed annoyance but suppressed the translation. “Doctor Hoyt may not be a skilled surgeon yet, but he will be someday if he continues to pay attention, which you obviously have not.”

“I just thought the Yeti here was the orderly…” started Lu as he started rummaging through the storage unit for intravenous needles and tubing.

They could hear Roeder’s laughter from the next room. “Doctor Yeti. That’s a new one.”

“You just thought. Don’t. Think, that is. Just do as I say.” Molina used a couple of arms to reach the diagnostic instruments, and he started to scan the patient. The chromophores on his skin continued to flash complex lights and patterns, the Wrogul version of muttering to himself.

Lu looked indignant and held up his hands. There was a visible tremor. “I was lifting when the call came in,” he muttered. “I’ve still got the twitch. I’ll need glucose and protein before my hands are steady enough for a needle.”

Molina reached another pair of arms across the room to a small refrigerator mounted to the countertop. With one arm he opened the door, and with the other retrieved a bottle of chilled electrolyte solution. A quick snap of the flexible meter-and-a-half arm, and the flexiplas bottle went sailing across the room, almost hitting Lu on the back of the head. It was intercepted by yet another of the cephalopod’s long arms and resulted only in a gentle tap on the nurse’s shoulder.

“Oh. Thanks,” he said.

“Hoyt, report.”

The doctor-in-training leaned over the patient and used a sterilized surgical probe to point at the Human’s injuries. “Left arm broken in several places. Compound fracture of the left radius. Greenstick break of the left ulna. Comminuted fracture of the left humerus. Crush injury to left hand; multiple metatarsals have fragmented. Simple fracture of left clavicle and ribs nine through eleven…”

The list of injuries continued for several minutes. Molina’s pinplants accessed the information Ortiz had obtained from the merc ship on arrival. The unfortunate soldier had been caught between a bulkhead and a piece of flying debris caused by the accidental firing of a missile’s rocket engine while it was still in the magazine. External blow-out panels had minimized the damage to the rest of the crew spaces, but Lieutenant Young had the misfortune of being too close to the compartment when the engine ignited.

“…compound fracture of the skull, subdural hematoma over Brodmann’s area thirty-nine and forty, pial rupture over Brodmann’s areas forty-six, nine, eight, forty-four, and forty-five.” The Sasquatch-like doctor paused, then continued in a less formal, but no less serious tone. “That’s the language and speech centers, Doc Ock. Even once we fix the other injuries, this guy’s pretty fucked up.”

“I know, Hoyt, but we can do what others can’t. Well…mostly.” Molina went into full action, all eight arms and both tentacles were out of his tank and wielding instruments, adjusting equipment and palpating various injury sites on the patient. “Lu, get five units of nanites. Forget the Type B’s, get me Cephalon Cee-Fourteens, continuous infusion, zero point two five units per minute. Doctor Hoyt, reduce the arm fractures and start making sure collarbone, shoulder, ribs—everything—are aligned, those nanites are going to burn through the fractures pretty quickly. I need to take a look at the head.”

The Wrogul surgeon placed his two tentacles—the fine-tipped sensory appendages not covered with suckers—on the left side of the patient’s head. They started to blur in the technique his kind called fiilaash, and soon sank through skin and skull to directly probe the injured brain tissue.

“It always turns my stomach when I see him do that,” Lu said quietly. Hoyt just grunted.

* * * * *

Chapter Three

“When can the lieutenant come back to duty?” Major Azarola asked from the screen.

“He’s recovering, but we need to discuss his rehabilitation,” Roeder replied. The Human biochemist handled most of the interactions with the merc commanders who brought their troops to be patched up at Cerulean. While it was known the clinic employed Wrogul surgeons, and that those sophonts were the best in the Union, experience had shown the mercs still weren’t comfortable with the idea the Azure Colony Wrogul worked side-by-side with Humans to the point of having an alien Chief Medical Officer or company owner. Technically, Todd owned the clinic, but Todd was off on Earth; Molina was second, but still an alien. That left Roeder as the official representative, with Molina monitoring the conversation via his pinplants.

“Rehabilitation? What rehabilitation? You fixed him up and cured him, right? Isn’t that what you people do?” The major was starting to sound somewhat belligerent.

“Cerulean Clinic does not cure patients who come in on the brink of death.” Roeder sighed. “Your Lieutenant Young suffered severe head trauma. We set his broken bones and applied nanites to seal the breaks. We replaced his lost blood and closed all of the leaking vessels. We also fixed his fractured spleen, perforated pancreas, and cirrhotic liver. You’re very welcome on that last part. Have you mercenaries never heard of drinking in moderation?”

The major was getting rather red in the face and starting to splutter. Molina was glad neither he nor Roeder was in the same room with him. Not allowing the merc to get a word in, Roeder continued:

“Again, with all of that, he also suffered severe head trauma. His skull was dented and there was damage to the speech and language centers of the brain. We fixed the overt tissue damage, but he’s got a long rehabilitation program ahead of him.

“I can’t afford to have him out of action. We’re headed to a contract on Orkutt, and I need him leading his CASPer platoon.” The major seemed to deflate and shook his head, but after a moment he stared back through the comm with an expression of challenge. “Wait a minute. I know you’ve got the squid-people there. They have stuff they can do with their brains—post pins or something like that.”

“Major Azarola, I assure you, we’ve done everything we can,” Roeder protested.

“No, you haven’t,” the major retorted. “I want to speak to your head squid.”

Roeder started to protest again, but Molina reached down from his perch and laid an arm on the man’s shoulder. “No need, Brent. I’ll take this.” He suspended himself on three arms and lowered his body until his bulbous head and blue eyes were in range of the comm.

Azarola recoiled visibly. From what the colony had been able to determine, Earth-stock Humans had never seen Wrogul out in the Union. They knew of the existence of their species-mates, but the origin and history of Todd’s people prior to his arrival at Azure still remained a mystery.

“Mister Azarola.” The insult was deliberate, and Molina’s subtle way of responding to the squid-people slur. “There are no pinplants for Humans. We simply do not have the experience or the knowledge of your brains that would make that possible.”

“In other words, you want more money,” Azarola countered.

“Yes. Nanites are expensive.” Molina waved a tentacle in a dismissive manner. The truth was they were going to soak this guy for every credit he could spare. Ortiz had been unable to find any useful video—anime or manga—but had learned plenty about the shady way Azarola conducted his operations. “But that’s not the issue. I do have a very experimental procedure, however, it has not been tried on a Human. I can implant a neural mesh to restore communication between language and speech centers. It requires specialized nanites and is a very risky procedure.”

He reflected on the fact most of what he had just said was true. The nanites existed, the schematics existed, and he had just enough knowledge of the Human brain to perform the technique. What wasn’t true was Molina’s involvement. It was Nemo’s technique, damn him for not sharing, and he’d had to “borrow” the notes before his progenitor left Azure to join that Human scientist in the merc company.

It would also require Cephalon N-one nanites, the rarest and most expensive in terms of raw materials. Fortunately, he knew where to find them.

When Todd was rescued from his crippled starship, the only thing to survive was the sealed rescue pod in which Todd had been found, amnesic, but otherwise uninjured. The moment non-Wrogul DNA had been detected, all the instrumentation in the pod had melted down, leaving only bare metal and trace organics…except for a single cube of hull metal two meters on a side.

Inside the cube was a treasure trove that became the foundation of Azure’s biotech industry. Inside the cache they found several million Union Credits, some extremely rare and valuable elements, and two fabricators capable of manufacturing nanites. These particular fabricators produced even the most specialized nanomachines and nanoassemblers—ones used to assemble the pinplant brain-computer interfaces every Wrogul had almost from the moment of their budding. Only Todd had the knowledge of how to duplicate his own pinplants, although his budded offspring, and Molina’s own predecessor, Nemo, had been studying how to adapt the BCIs to Human brains.

Manufacturing nanites had proven to be easy, and the growing industrial base on Azure relied on the technology that jump-started their economy. Medical nanites had proven more difficult, but the ten-year-old Wrogul-Human owned Cephalon Industries had developed their own fabricators and varieties of nanites, including the Cephalon C-14 Trauma line used to repair the merc lieutenant. Neural mesh nanites, such as the N-1, could only be produced by one of the two original fabricators, and used some of the extremely rare and expensive raw materials. Found within the cache had been osmium, niobium, ultra-pure carbon, silicon-gallium-arsenide matrix, ground sapphire, heat-stabilized solid He3, ground red diamonds, and the rarest of them all, F11—the element essential to power generation and spaceflight across the galaxy.

The nanite fabricators used only vanishingly small quantities of these raw materials, and less than ten percent of the cache had been expended since its discovery. Still, even one hundredth percent of a Galactic fortune added up to serious money.

Molina returned to the conversation and flashed a pattern of lights from his chromophores that were meaningless to anyone who did not know the Wrogul. Roeder saw it, and just put his head in his hands.

“How badly do you need your lieutenant?” Molina asked with a hungry look in his blue eyes.

* * * * *

Chapter Four

It was necessary to send someone down to the surface to collect the nanites. Molina decided he didn’t trust anyone else to do the job. Besides, he had a five percent interest in Cephalon, and only Todd’s DNA could open the cache. It was fortunate, then, each Wrogul was a budded clone of their progenitor.

The major hadn’t been happy about the extra three days to retrieve the nanites, perform the surgery, and out-process his officer, but at least he was getting the man back at about ninety-five percent capability. The procedure had been a success—mostly. The neural mesh preserved Lieutenant Young’s brain function for speech language but could not immediately restore the control of the muscles and tissues associated with speaking. That would take time and therapy. Now they were waiting on a custom-programmed translator pendant to allow him to communicate with his troops.

Molina was back in his quarters, contemplating the payment for this latest case. He hadn’t completely refilled the cabin with water, instead he had released just enough to form a bubble around his sleeping frame. The water was hyperoxygenated and continually circulated between the inlet and outlet spouts to allow him to remain stationary for extended periods of time. This way he could watch the Tri-V without a lot of distortion or distraction. The anime collection was being neglected though, and the display showed text and numbers. He’d tried to get the major to pay the clinic fees in hard currency so he could recoup the costs of his personal capital involved in the experimental procedure.

Clinic fees were regulated by the colony’s financial administration and used as a cost-center to offset transport expenses for personnel and materials shipped from Earth. As such, the extra income that might have resulted from the neural reconstruction had simply been applied to the transport costs. Instead of paying Cerulean Clinic, Major Azarola would instruct the Basque Blades home office on Earth to deposit funds with Matson Lines. The next outbound Matson freighter would debit that account to pay shipping costs for cargo bound for Azure. Roeder had once told him that it was called triangle trade; a nice arrangement for the colony, but it did nothing for Molina’s bottom line.

The truth was the clinic and the colony were short-sighted. Sure, Roeder and his contemporaries were filthy rich, but it was all because of Todd. The cache and the fabricators represented riches beyond imagining, but those men—not to mention his progenitor—had been shortsighted. They couldn’t imagine the riches Molina could. Without the triangle trade agreements, he could have demanded—and gotten—a percentage of the Blades’ contract payout. Within a few years, they could own a piece of just about every merc outfit on Earth…or at least the ones who utilized their clinics. There were a few, the vaunted “Four Horsemen,” for example, who would be hard to crack. Still, he’d heard rumors that one of the famous merc companies was not averse to a little profit on the side.

No, with the right resources and billing, the clinic could have made it big. They just needed the right…attitude.

For example, the components needed for the nanites were among the most expensive substances in the Galactic Union. That alone would demand a premium price. The ground red diamond that went into the nanite fabricator represented a few thousand credits. The F11 consumed by the compact power source was probably ten thousand credits.

Then there was the programming. No one had both the source of nanites and the knowledge of how to use them. The Wrogul ability to directly penetrate skin and bone and manipulate tissues directly allowed the nanites to be placed in exactly the right locations to support assembly of the neural mesh. Add to that the unique programming Molina had…borrowed…from Nemo meant eventually they would be able to offer pinplants for Humans. The merc units would pay for those. Oh, would they pay!

Molina set the Tri-V to display the information Ortiz had siphoned from the merc ship. Oh, oh, this was good stuff. Major Azarola’s bosses on Earth would not be pleased, not to mention the Merc Guild. I wonder if I might be able to turn a profit yet?

The thought gave him pause. He wasn’t due to return the nanite fabricator until tomorrow. Young’s translator pendant would be finished tomorrow. The Basque Blades would be leaving tomorrow, headed for Karma and their contract.

Tomorrow. Why yes, the sun will come out tomorrow! he though, laughing.

Using his pinplants, Molina activated a circuit giving him administrator access to the station comms. It was an emergency circuit based on the fact each Wrogul utilized the comm system to provide their voice for the benefit of Human co-workers. It was a simple matter to contact the major while bypassing Ortiz and any monitoring the station or colony might have in place.

“Major, I encountered a problem when processing your payment. It seems there’s an issue with your accounting. I’m sure it’s just an oversight, but perhaps we can come to a mutually satisfactory arrangement!”

* * * * *

Chapter Five

Molina had seriously underestimated the venality of Major Azarola. He’d thought to use the irregularities in the Basque Blades’ accounting as leverage on the mercenary commander. After all, most mercenary companies were commanded by colonels, and even the rare general or admiral. His mistake was in assuming the merc had a superior officer on Earth who would be upset to learn of the major’s pecuniary irregularities.

The Blades were in the minority of merc outfits, translating rank directly from the number of soldiers under command. Given that the entire unit was essentially an oversized company—three platoons of three squads of ten infantrymen, plus a fourth oversized platoon of forty CASPers—command of the unit, if they’d been part of a larger army would have fallen to a senior captain or a major. Major Azarola was thus the senior officer, owner, and founder of the Basque Blades. He also enjoyed the occasional opportunity provided by the assumption he held less seniority in the organization.

As a result, Molina arrived aboard the Omaha Beach expecting his blackmail threats would afford him a free ride to Karma or wherever the Beach was headed after dropping the Blades at Orkutt. He also learned he’d misinterpreted the order of the unit’s destinations. The next stop was the Blades’ hot drop. The transport was continuing to Karma, but since his arrangement was with the merc unit and not the ship’s crew, he was stuck with the merc unit until they went to Karma after fulfilling the contract.

Approximately an hour after the Beach entered hyperspace, Azarola was at Molina’s compartment door, with the first officer of the Beach and two CASPer-suited security guards, declaring him a stowaway. He could have bought his way out of trouble using the fabricator and/or the raw materials he had “forgotten” were still in his possession, but the major had a counteroffer: take employment with the Blades as their medical officer. He would be paid a modest salary—but not bonuses—for the first mission, then would earn standard shares of all proceeds from subsequent missions.

The current residents of the planet called it Ak’La’Ka—the Humans called it Orkutt—and it was a bloody planet with a bloody reputation. The Blades were hired to protect an ore processing plant on behalf of the Caroon miners who had established multiple mines on the planet and had been fighting literally hostile takeovers for years. This time, it was the Wathayat Consortium who claimed they owned the processing plant due to default on the—frankly usurious—loans used for the original construction. The Wathayat had hired MinSha mercenaries to take the plant, while the Blades were hired to hold off the insectoids until the Caroon could deliver the next shipment and pay off the loans.

The MinSha were fearsome fighters with height, reach, strength, and armor advantages over Humans. Their naturally-armored exoskeletons and bladed forearms meant that an unarmored or lightly armored infantryman was no match for the praying mantis-like mercenaries. The Human advantage came from the forty armored mecha in Lieutenant Young’s CASPer platoon. From the hot-drop to hand-to-claw fighting on the roof of the processing plant, the Blades were outnumbered, and—mostly—outclassed. It cost them nearly all of their conventional infantry, every Mark 5 and half of their state-of-the-art Mark 6 CASPers. In the end, they held. They killed the aliens—and most importantly, they got paid.

Molina was kept busy throughout the fighting. The chief engineer of the Omaha Beach installed a watertight compartment and modified one of the Blades’ dropship containers to serve as a combat surgical hospital. Once the troops were on the ground, the container was delivered to the surface and the CASH—the Combat Army Surgical Hospital—was in business. It wasn’t his notion of a lucrative job, but the major relented, and Molina got to share in the combat bonus—particularly after he reached through the exoskeleton of a MinSha that breached the CASH walls and forcibly removed two of its single-chambered hearts, all while simultaneously treating three injured soldiers.

The job had risk, it had danger, it was exciting, and, dare he say…fun. Azarola extended an offer for him to stay on with the Blades and continue to serve as combat medic and surgeon—only now as a subcontractor with guaranteed payments, benefits, and bonuses based on the company’s own merc contracts. After thinking about it for a while and realizing that setting up his own clinic on Karma was not viable, Molina took him up on the offer and stayed with the Blades for four years.

The Wathayat were not ones to take no for an answer. Nearly four years after the Blades prevented the Consortium from taking the Caroon mines and ore processing facility in Orkutt, they hired Lieutenant Colonel Azarola and the Basque Blades for another try.

Having been the defenders almost four Earth years ago, Azarola knew the strengths and weaknesses of the terrain. The Blades were newly expanded to battalion strength with an infantry company, an armor company with three platoons of Mark 6 CASPers, and a headquarters company with an attached artillery platoon. Not one to lead from the front, Azarola had his headquarters set up ten klicks from the processing plant, with the ground troops holding a semicircular front about a klick from the target with the CASPers backing the line. Molina’s CASH now filled a whole dropship for faster deployment, and he, too, was set up well behind the lines.

In the end, it wouldn’t matter. The miners had also learned from the past and the facility had been quite profitable. They hired the Croogith Regiment to deploy three companies of Besquith in defense of the ore processing facility. Despite the seventy-five CASPers, one hundred infantry and light artillery, the Humans simply could not stand in the face of three hundred mercs that looked like Human legends of werewolves. HQ was overrun even before the first casualties could be transported to the CASH, and Molina’s dropship pilot was killed trying to get the hatches closed before they, too were overwhelmed.

Molina essentially had to pay his own ransom to the Besquith and an outrageous price to the Wathayat Consortium for transport off Orkutt. Installing his quarters into a dropship outfitted as a combat surgical hospital had seemed like a bad idea at the time, considering he would always be in harm’s way. He conceded the idea didn’t seem so bad now, given that his personal quarters and all of his property had been installed with his clinic. He always insisted his contract be paid in Union credits or red diamonds; the fact he ran his CASH on a cash-basis had been a source of great amusement to Azarola. Still, it meant all his assets—nanites, fabricator, and considerable wealth—were in his possession, and he was able to pay to get off of the planet, even if it meant that life would once again be uncomfortable until he could set up a steady revenue stream once again.

* * * * *

Chapter Six

Orkutt was located in the Centaur region of the Jesc arm. That made Karma in the Crapti region the logical next port-of-call. Karma Station, Karma System, Karma the planet, Bartertown—all were synonymous with the mercenary guild. And Peepo’s Pit was the most famous, most popular, most infamous market where mercenary companies and clients met to place and bid on contracts. This would be the place to set up a lucrative practice. There was only one problem with that plan…well, two, actually.

The first problem was that Karma was just a bit too cosmopolitan. Sure, they had seen Wrogul before. They even had a strong appreciation for the skills of Wrogul surgeons. Unfortunately, Molina was not like any Wrogul they might have met. From his blue eyes to his preference for Human-style entertainment, he stood out and apart from the Galactics that frequented the crossroads of the Jesc Arm. Humans weren’t all that well thought of on Karma despite eighty years as mercenaries. To practice medicine on Karma would require much more knowledge of anatomy for species other than Humans, or he’d have to get employed directly by one of the mercenary companies. Considering the conditions behind his departure from Azure and the risk of running into his progenitor, Nemo, that was a less desirable option.

Molina had been to Bartertown once before, after the first mission with the Blades. He knew he’d been naïve in those days. Despite four generations of Wrogul memory, he was still essentially the same as a Human juvenile on his first trip off-planet. He’d quickly learned his idea of setting up a clinic for mercs was impossible when he discovered he wasn’t even allowed into Peepo’s, or any other merc pit, to try to make contact.

Now, however, he was a registered merc subcontractor and could enter the mercenary marketplace as long as he was looking for a contract or to join another merc unit.

But he was thrown out of Peepo’s when the bartender overheard his conversation with the commander of Riedel’s Rächer—a small heavy weapons unit out of Germany on Earth. He was just winding up in his pitch to provide basic pinplants to the Humans when two Lumar security goons picked him, his powered chair, and the mobile water tank up and pitched them out the door.

“You do realize there are more comfortable ways of exiting a building, right?” A gravelly voice came from behind him. Molina used his arms to drag himself to the upside-down chair and reached four arms over the frame to try to right it.

“I could help you, you know.” He ignored the voice. Anyone offering help outside a merc pit was not to be trusted. He reached behind him with two more arms and grabbed the edge of the doorway. With the resulting leverage, he managed to drag the chair upright. The klearplas of the tank was cracked, but there was just enough water to allow him to splash a little to keep his skin wet on the way back to the starport.

“As stubborn as ever, eh, Ol’ Squid?”

Molina finally looked at the source of the voice as he dragged himself back into the tank and saw a very old man in a powered chair not too different from his own…except for the multiple mechanical arms attached to it. “Roeder?” he asked.

“In the flesh,” the biochemist replied. “What’s left of it, anyway.” He coughed, and the sound wasn’t good. The man would be around eighty years old now. His body appeared even more shrunken and shriveled than the last time Molina had seen him. “So, where are we going next?”

“Back to my ship,” Molina said. He’d long been able to program emotional overtones into his translator, and the synthesized voice sounded distinctly grumpy.

“You have a ship? Outstanding! You must be doing very well for yourself.” Roeder’s enthusiasm seemed genuine, if a little…desperate. “Lead the way.”

Molina flashed annoyance but said nothing and turned his powered chair in the direction of the port.

“You can’t hide that from me, young man. I’ve been reading Wrogul light-language all my life. What are you so annoyed at? Me? Or the mercs who threw you out of their pit?” Roeder had indeed recognized the flash, and the whole time they had been together had never been one to let him sulk in silence. “What about that, anyway? Last we heard you were a merc?”

“Apparently, I am as much a merc as I am a Human, Doctor Roeder. Or a doctor, for that matter. They took exception to me offering medical services.”

“You mean pinplants,” Roeder corrected.

“Whatever,” grumped the Wrogul surgeon.

It took almost an hour to return to the starport, clear the security checkpoint, and board Molina’s ship. It would have been faster by flyer, but Molina was still annoyed, and he hadn’t decided how much of that was due to his old coworker seeing his current situation. The interior of the dropship had been stripped of nearly everything except the Wrogul’s water tank. Where once there had been a fully-equipped field hospital, there was now only a few broken stumps and fittings that had once been medical equipment…

…and that was the second problem with setting up a clinic on Karma. Molina was broke.

“What the fuck, Squid? I was told you had a complete hospital! What happened?” In addition to the surprise, there was a note of fear in his old friend’s voice.

“The Merc Guild happened, Brent. As the sole surviving member of a unit—even as a subcontractor—they ruled I had to pay the penalties for a terminated contract. They froze my yack and confiscated anything they could find.”

“The nanite processor?” Roeder’s eyes were wide. Yes, the fear was clear, now.

“No, I embedded that here.” Molina slapped an arm against the base of the powered chair with a wet sound. “But they got most of the feedstock—whatever wasn’t already loaded into the machine.”

“Oh,” was all that Roeder said in return.

“Out with it, Old Man. You can read my flashes, I can read your face. You came looking for me. You want something, and you’re disappointed I don’t have a hospital or clinic.”

The Human looked chagrinned at the accusation. He hung his head, and his whole body was limp.

Come to think of it, he hasn’t moved his left side, and little more than his fingers on the right side the whole time he’s been here!

“You had a stroke,” Molina said matter-of-factly. There was no accusation, no pity, but there was a note of understanding.

“Doctor Hoyt said it wasn’t a stroke, but the peripheral nerves are breaking down. I need a pinplant or I’ll be locked inside my own body, unable to move, talk, make love…” He looked somewhat wistful at the last item.

“They took my feedstock; I can’t make the nanites. Besides, I never finished the full programming package. That’s why I’ve been trying to get a contract to a merc company. It would give me the capital to finish the job.” Molina lifted his body out of his tank and shifted to hang from one of the waldo arms his old friend had mounted to the chair. “Besides, you swore you’d never let me put ‘those infernal machines’ in your head or even perform fiilaash on you,” he said quietly.

“I know I did,” Roeder answered. His fingers moved over a slate that had been attached to the right arm of his chair. One of the waldoes moved to the storage area below the seat and extracted a small package. “But you’ve seen my businesses. I always hedge my bets.” The mechanical arm held the package out for Molina. “By the way, you didn’t abscond with half the feedstock as Governor Greeson said after you left. Todd and I had already put half of it in a separate secured storage place in case of emergency. Granted, we thought the emergency would be a greedy government, not an impulsive Wrogul.”

The aforementioned impulsive Wrogul took the package and flashed without saying anything.

“Yes, that’s for you. It’s about half of what we put back. Your lost quarter, less this, still leaves Azure with a substantial supply. Consider it the purchase price for my pinplants.”

“I…don’t actually know what to say,” Molina finally responded. “But I still don’t have a clinic or any of the instruments I’d need. We need brain scans and diagnostics of your nervous system. Not to mention, I haven’t finished the programming for the neural mesh.”

“Squiddy the Surgeon at a loss for words. Who’d’a thunk it?” Another waldo reached out holding a slate-compatible memory chip. “Fresh off the MRI. Sasquatch put all of my scan data on there, and there’s a compressed file from Nemo. He and that genius merc buddy of his sent you their nanite programming. By the way, he and Todd send their best.”

“But why? They hate me back on Azure!”

“Look, kid, we always knew you would leave. Todd and I were trying to get you prepared, but then he went off to Earth and you jumped the gun by a few years. When Todd got back last month, he forced the governor to rescind the warrants out for your arrest. You have a full pardon and can even come home if you want to.” Roeder raised his head and looked him directly in the eyes. “But we know you won’t, and frankly, it’s better that way. Humans need what you can offer, but it can’t be done on Azure. You’ve got the flexible morals to survive.” He looked around the wrecked clinic. “But you’ve got to get out of here.”

“Did you forget the part where the Guild confiscated all of my capital?”

“Did you forget the part where I’m something like the third richest Human off-Earth?” Roeder grinned. “C’mon, Squiddy. You don’t need a clinic with those mystic tentacles of yours. Get started fixing me up, and then we’ll start looking for a sufficiently shady station with honest officials. You know, ones that will stay bought!”

* * * * *

Chapter Seven

Once Molina implanted the first phase of Roeder’s restorative neural mesh, they booked passage through Cresht to Coro. The dropship was still space worthy, barely, but Roeder’s investment included sufficient credits to renovate the essential drive, navigation, and life-support systems enough to allow them to transit hyperspace attached to a freighter. Since hyperspace generation was more efficient for larger masses, it was fairly common for non-hyperspace-capable ships to hitch onto a larger ship for transition through a stargate. A few more credits registered the former dropship as a yacht owned by an elderly Earth businessman accompanied by his personal physician.

Before setting out to find Molina, Roeder had done some preparatory work with the help of some of the mercs who visited Cerulean Clinic. He had liquidated his assets in two of his joint-venture biotech businesses with Todd, prepared a cover identity as a wealthy, retired merc-turned-businessman, and located a station with the desired qualities of Human access, graft, and a laissez-faire attitude toward the legalities of biological and genetic self-modification.

The trip required three hyperspace jumps, the last while attached to a freighter not much larger than Roeder and Molina’s “yacht” eager to have the extra mass to reduce their own costs. The three weeks plus transit time in each system had allowed them to rebuild most of the clinic equipment from the supplies purchased on Karma. It also allowed time for the implanted nanites to mature on Roeder’s motor cortex.

The brain-to-computer interface, commonly called a pinplant throughout the Union, consisted at its most basic stage of a neural mesh connecting the motor cortex with output control circuits and sensory cortical areas with computerized inputs, along with some co-processing and memory storage. Earth technology had experimented with rudimentary BCIs prior to First Contact, but those devices had been limited to either scalp receptors with limited bandwidth and no sensory feedback, or large invasive electrodes used only in the most restrictive cases. Galactic tech had the potential to revolutionize these BCIs with nanite-assembled connections directly to the relevant brain areas…as long as the Human brain was sufficiently mapped and there were surgeons willing and able to implant the nanites. Nemo and his Human colleague, Sato, had solved the first part; Molina intended to be the solution to the second part.

So far, Roeder’s progress was demonstrating the Human brain could interface with a rudimentary pinplant. He didn’t have the characteristic pin, a one-centimeter connector behind each ear, but it could be added later. However, given that the goal was restoring function to the elderly Human’s arms and legs, there was additional work to be done at the level of his spinal cord.

After the first week, Roeder started using the gravity deck of the carrier ship to begin building up his arm and leg muscles while Molina programmed a fresh injection of nanites to rebuild the damaged peripheral nerves. The Bakulu freighter to which they were attached for the final leg of the trip was too small to have a gravity deck, and the slugs generally didn’t care if they had gravity or not. So, for the third transition, Molina used his own flexible arms as resistance bands, along with yet another nanite injection to build muscle mass.

“You know that burns like hell every time you inject those, right?” Roeder said after the twenty-first consecutive day of nanite therapy.

“You are planning on playing with that great-grandchild Elly’s expecting, right?” Molina said while giving the Human a break from the six hours-a-day rehabilitation therapy. Muscle growth required biomass, so they’d included supplies of vat-grown steak, chicken, and pork-flavored protein culture. Roeder was a terrible cook, but Molina had picked up a few techniques from his “cousin” who was enamored with Earth cuisine.

By the time they arrived at their destination, Roeder was able to walk with assistance on the planet’s near-Earth-normal gravity. By the time they concluded their business, Molina had established his clinic and the biochemist had returned to Azure, where he’d be able to function well in that world’s zero-point-eight Gs.

Molina had his hook, his gimmick, his essential product. Pinplants would still require study and adaptation to each subject, and a universal product would need a lot of development. In the meantime, he could repair and rebuild injured mercs with nerve damage that couldn’t be treated anywhere else.

All he needed was a clinic.

* * *

The Coro region was the armpit of the Tolo Arm, though some would argue the central region, Cresht, deserved that label for the simple fact it was where Earth was located. Still, Coro, outward from Cresht, was a place the Galactics tried to forget. It wasn’t that there were no worlds, or no resources, or even no mercenary jobs; it was just…blah.

There was one exception to the monotony of the Coro region, and that was the astronomical curiosity of Eta Carinae. The Galactics called it Minkulos, which was surprisingly similar to the Earth name for the Homunculus Nebula. The star was initially thought by Human astronomers to simply be a remnant of the supernova explosion which created the Homunculus Nebula, yet even before First Contact, it was discovered to be an odd multi-sun system with a luminous blue variable and a rare Wolf-Rayet star. Eta Carinae Alpha was worthy of study by itself due to its ultraviolet laser emissions and a supernova-like explosion which somehow left the star intact. EC Beta was even more curious since it appeared to have a bare, metallic helium core that fused elements heavier than hydrogen. At most two stargate jumps from any of the Cresht worlds, it was quiet but accessible, and a prime Science Guild posting.

To’Os, on the other hand, was a Mars-like world orbiting just at the edge of the life zone around a small orange-red sun labeled OGLE-TR-113 in the Human star catalogs. In fact, the star, planet, and capital city were all called To’Os by the less than imaginative Cartography Guild member who had first charted the system. On the other hand, at 5,000 light years from Earth, it was a logical way-station for the science teams headed to Eta Carinae. It might even have been a strong economic driver for the Coro region, if it hadn’t been for the Tossers themselves.

No one called them Tossers to their face, since they were most accustomed to being called Master. The Sphen-Eudy had conquered most of their neighboring sophonts before being discovered by the Galactic Union. Even after being admitted to membership, they had attempted to defy Union law, such as it was, and extend their dominion over other systems, Union members or not. Repeated sanction by the Peacemakers had finally broken the back of the Sphen-Eudy Cooperative, and they’d turned their talents to smuggling, gambling, and the black market. To’Os Prime was the primary cross-roads of the Coro region, and in the words of one of Roeder’s favorite Old Earth entertainments, it was a “wretched hive of scum and villainy.”

Which made it perfect for a clinic offering a service that was still mistrusted by the government of Earth but would be embraced wholeheartedly by mercs. At Roeder’s urging, Molina registered at the immigration control desk using falsified credentials. Given the prevalence of organized—and unorganized—crime in the station, fake names and identities were more respectable than honest ones. A new business license was issued to Squiddy, a Wrogul physician out of Ak’La’Ka—or Orkutt as Squiddy had known it.

Getting that license would prove to be an education in and of itself.

* * * * *

Chapter Eight

Roeder chose to stay on the shuttle while Molina set up the first meeting with the local licensing office. The Tossers liked bureaucracy—no, they loved bureaucracy. Every layer of permitting and licensing gave them an opportunity to engage in their real favorite pastime: graft.

Molina drove his self-propelled water tank to the customs office at the starport, paid his entry fee, then crossed to the local transport station where he bought a seven-day travel pass, paid the non-resident alien fee, the fuel surcharge, the economic development tariff, the tourism fee, and the air tax. The latter was particularly confusing since To’Os Prime was a planetary station with an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, not an orbital habitat. It was explained that the tax was to offset the digestive emissions of the various races visiting their planet. He could hear Roeder laughing over his comm link at the “fart tax” as he called it.

All the fees gave the Wrogul a card he could use whenever hiring local transport but did not actually pay for the cost of that transport. Or the gratuity. Or the bribe the driver wanted in order to take him directly to his destination instead of running up the fare with detours and delays. To his credit, Molina figured out the last part before the fare hit triple digits.

After a circuitous trip that would have only taken him twenty minutes in his powered tank (plus pedestrian tax, self-motivated vehicle tariff, environmental impact fee—for transporting a liquid cargo—and driver licensing fee), Molina and his elSha driver arrived at the city administrative center, and he got his first look at the inner city maze referred to by spacers as The To’Os. Again, not too imaginative on the part of those who named it, but that was just fine by the Sphen-Eudy.

The To’Os natives loved bureaucracy, but they didn’t like to get their actual hands…er, flippers dirty. They employed Lumar at the port, seven-foot-tall, four-armed humanoids. They were the mercs of choice for port and customs security because very few smugglers would risk crossing a sophont that could hold you off the ground with one hand while beating you with three more. During the drive, Molina could see patrols of Oogar in uniforms that suggested a police force. The eight-foot-tall purple bears made perfect sense to police a world owned by organized crime. The Oogar were so loud, even the slowest of criminals could hear them coming and get the evidence cleaned up and out of sight before the Law showed up. Rumor had it there was a special enforcer branch as well, but they were not immediately in evidence.

The front desk was staffed by a Veech, another 4-armed race with a bird-like head. The eyes moved independently and tracked only the hands on that particular side of the body. The receptionist had two stacks of photo-electric polymer “paper” and two slates, and appeared to be working two tasks simultaneously.

“Business?” the Veech asked. The translator managed to make it sound bored.

“I’m here to see about a business license. My name is Squiddy. I should have an appointment.”

“Credentials.” The receptionist stated, holding out a hand.

Molina lifted one arm out of his tank, vibrated it to remove the water droplets, then reached into a dry pouch mounted on the side of the powered undercarriage. He pulled out the business card he and Roeder had designed and placed it in the Veech’s open hand.

The aforementioned hand remained in place. The only sign the Veech even noticed the card was a slight twitch of the eye on that side.

Molina reached back into the pouch and removed his ship berth license, his non-resident visa, and his transit card and placed them all into the open hand as well.

Still no reaction.

It dawned on Molina that he was missing something. He reached again into the pouch and removed a one-hundred-credit note. The eye twitched again, but the hand remained. He pulled out a second hundred-credit note. Still no reaction other than two eye twitches. He reached into the pouch one more time and pulled out a thousand-credit note, placed it in the receptionist’s hand and made to take back the two hundred-credit notes.

The Veech closed its hand so quickly, Molina’s arm got pulled along until it snapped out of the humanoid avian’s hand with a squelch. A quick flurry of the other three hands, and the notes disappeared, leaving the business card and permits in separate hands. The receptionist held each up to the nearest eye and inspected them, then handed them back to the Wrogul.

“The Administrator is busy.”

“But I have an appointment!” Molina protested.

“He’s busy,” the Veech repeated.

Molina’s pinplants were a highly advanced design, derived from Todd’s ’plants. One useful feature was totally internal processing that allowed him to use any comm device as a translator, as well as a transmitter for any of his own sensory inputs.

“What now?” he silently asked Roeder, who was monitoring the interaction back on the ship.

“Damn, son, you really have lost your mojo, haven’t you? Time for Plan B,” Roeder replied over his implant. “See that office in the back? The door is just open enough to see the occupant. Just as we thought, it’s a Sphen-Eudy. Plan B should work.”

The occupant of the back office was a one-half-meter-tall avian, with slick, black feathers on the back, limbs, and head, and white feathers on the belly. He had a small beak and bright yellow tufts over his eyes. An Earth biologist would have called it a rockhopper penguin, except for the finger-like nubs on the ends of its flippers.

Yes, more avians. Plan B should work just fine.

* * * * *

Chapter Nine

Molina dug an arm into the layer of sand on the bottom of his water tank and pulled out a small vial of bluish liquid. He lifted it out of the water and waved it in front of the Veech receptionist.

“If you are threatening me with a toxin, you should know there are seven lasers, two slug throwers, and a magnetic accelerator cannon aimed at you,” the Veech said. “We will vaporize your little poison and kill you before you can even use it.”

“Oh, no. Sngh,” Molina replied. He laughed, managing to make it sound creepy. “You misunderstand. This is not the poison, it is the antidote.”

A bloodcurdling screech came from the office. The Sphen-Eudy manager came bolting out of his office, shedding feathers as he raced for an exit door in the back of the room. The Veech and other workers in the outer office turned in alarm, but not before the receptionist had several of his own feathers fall out.

“That is the result of a molt virus, and I have the antidote.” Molina laughed again. “It is fast acting, but I have been told that molting avians are a pathetic sight.” He flashed a complex pattern of light with his chromophores. “Now may I see the Administrator?”

“I-I-I’m afraid that was the Administrator,” the Veech stammered and clicked its beak. Several more feathers fell out.

“His boss, then, and hurry, you are starting to look a little…plucked.”

It took a few minutes for the Veech to contact someone with more authority. Molina was shown to an office where he faced a comm screen with the visage of an older, unmolted Sphen-Eudy. The camera was zoomed in to show it at four-to-five times actual size. It was meant to be intimidating…and it worked. The receptionist had said his name was Don somebody, and mumbled the rest. As the avian left the room, the Wrogul poured a few drops on the end of one of his specialized tentacles and flicked them in his direction.

“There, that should arrest the molting for an hour or so. The rest is up to your boss.” Molina turned back to the screen.

“Mister…Squiddy…I suspect you understand why we are not meeting in person,” the senior Tosser said. “After what you did to Lalande, I don’t think he’ll be showing his face in the office for a long time.” Don What’s-his-name didn’t seem all that disappointed.

“I merely wished to have the appointment that I scheduled and paid for.”

“Paid for?” The boss raised his yellow-feathered ‘eyebrows.’

“Well, yes. I paid the reservation fee when I made the appointment,” replied Molina.

“Ah, I see. Well, I’m sorry, but that was simply a database access fee to confirm there were no other appointments on the calendar. That didn’t mean you actually had an appointment.” The Sphen-Eudy paused to shake its head rapidly from side to side, then continued. “No matter, you have our attention. I must ask, how did you cause your…effect so rapidly? No virus works that fast.”

“It is simple when delivered as a nanite load,” Molina replied nonchalantly. He had tried to mimic the Human habit of brushing fingertips, but it did not work well with arms and tentacles, so he opted for simply blinking his large blue eyes.

What? You released an unlicensed nanite load into my office?” the penguin-like bureaucrat screeched. “I should have you arrested! Locked away!”

The Wrogul did not react to the emotional outburst. “And if you do, every single Tosser on this planet will be molting by breakfast. The same nanite load contains virus and antivirus. Which one is activated depends on the outcome of this meeting.”

The Sphen-Eudy stared for a moment, then snapped its beak several times and shook its head rapidly. Molina had read it was their equivalent of a laugh. “I like you. You have stones. Very well, license granted. The receptionist will collect the licensing fee and the antidote.”

He was somewhat shocked by the rapid turnaround. “But you did not even ask about my business?”

The Sphen-Eudy laughed again. “Oh, I know all about your business application. It can’t hurt anything, and the business will be good…as long as you don’t threaten my House again.” There was ill-concealed menace in the statement. “You realize you made an enemy in Lalande? You will need insurance, which I can provide, and security, which you will have to contract yourself. I was never that fond of my son-in-law.”

“Yes, certainly.” Molina said quickly, then added more slowly: “Would you, by any chance, have a security company to recommend?”

“Smart sophont!” the boss bureaucrat said. “Call Jack at B’nb’n Security. Tell him Don Torol sent you. Your molting virus won’t work on him, so you’ll actually have pay for his services.”

“Lizard scales molt, too,” Molina whispered, but more loudly said, “Yes, sir. I will do that.”

“As I said, smart!” Don Torol said and laughed as his image disappeared from the screen.

The Veech receptionist came back into the room and led Molina back to the front desk. Despite a few missing feathers, it appeared to have stopped molting. He paid the licensing and insurance protection fees and received both a certificate and a bronze-like medallion to affix to his office door. Once those items were received, the Wrogul handed the Veech the vial of antidote and left the office.

The comm had been silent all through his interview with Don Torol. Once Molina was back in a flyer headed to the starport, Roeder responded, “You miscalculated, but you got off easy.”

“What do you mean?” Molina ‘sent back.

“His name wasn’t Don Torol,” the Human replied. “His title was Don Torol. As in, the local Godfather.”

“Godfather? The designated emergency guardian for a Human infant?”

“No, the local head of organized crime. He could have decided to nuke you from orbit—the only way to be sure you couldn’t infect him.”

“He would be infected anyway. The virus is loose, my counteragent is the only thing keeping it controlled.”

“Yeah. I think he figured that out.” Roeder sighed. “He’s right, though. You made an enemy today. I hope the security goons are good.”

Molina flashed concurrence, but of course Roeder couldn’t see it back in the dropship. “On a planet like this, they will probably be Blevin. Hired muscle, cheap, but they go to the highest bidder. I will endeavor to always be the highest bidder.

“Yes. I think you should do exactly that.”

* * * * *

Chapter Ten

Finding a location for the clinic proved to be the easiest part of the whole process. Molina started by following the Don’s recommendation and contacting Jack at B’nb’n Security. While it was true the majority of B’nb’n’s muscle were Blevin, Jack himself turned out to be XenSha—roughly a meter tall and appearing very much like an Earth rabbit…except for the tentacles coming out of his heads. The XenSha were the perfect race to run security, protection, extortion, or enforcement for organized crime; the homicidal tentacle-bunnies were ruthless, but they didn’t like getting their own hands—or tentacles—dirty. Likewise, the Blevins who were to be the muscle were commonly found anywhere organized crime was prevalent. They were two-meter-tall humanoid lizards with six-fingered hands—the extra fingers were usually found in someone else’s pie, or business. The Blevin weren’t particularly smart—the XenSha were—and as Roeder put it, they were honest. Once bought, they stayed bought and would not sell him out to a higher bidder.

Once security was arranged, Molina told Jack what he needed for his clinic. Jack introduced Molina to a Zuparti agent. The weasel-like Zuparti were known to be paranoid, and they knew a lot of mercs, since they tended to be the single largest employer of mercs in the Union. With a paranoid agent, finding a clinic location that was sufficiently seedy, secure, and with multiple escape routes was simply a matter of paying the finder’s fee. Within two days of getting his permits, Molina was placing his license medallion into the recess beside the door of Squiddy’s Squad Support Clinic.

Then there was the matter of the Besquith Lalande had sent to make life…interesting for him. Fortunately, Molina had experience with the wolf-like mercs from his second visit to Orkutt.

Yes, he definitely had a history with the Besquith.

The first piece of equipment moved into the clinic rooms was the aerosol dispersal unit from his transport tank used to spread the nanite carrier for the molting and antidote. It was now equipped with a cassette canister allowing selection of different agents depending on need. In the case of the adversarial mercs, it was a combination flea-analogue and mange. Besquith approaching too close to the clinic started itching uncontrollably and were an easy target for his Blevin security. Since Molina had the only cure, the merc leader was able to successfully argue to the Guild for termination rather than failure of the contract. In return, Molina hired the same mercs to obtain some DNA samples when they reported the end of contract to their employer. Lalande’s molting problem was about to become permanent and limited only to him.

He was in business, and it was business on his own terms. Now it was time for customers.

It was also time for Roeder to head back to the Azure colony. “You have missed the birth of your great-granddaughter. It has been almost a year, given the time you had to spend hunting me down on Karma.”

“Oh, but very, very worth it,” said Roeder as he completed a set of deep knee bends. The Human had filled out, gaining almost twenty kilograms of muscle, and no longer looked wasted away. Many of the wrinkles had disappeared as his metabolism improved, and his hair had even started growing back. “Elly will barely recognize me, but now I can bounce baby Sarah on my knee and carry her on my shoulders.”

“And find yourself another Emily, perhaps?” Molina asked.

“Well, there is a new technician at Azure Biotech name Amelie…”

Molina flashed a pattern Roeder recognized as mixing humor with resignation. It was fairly common when discussing the Human’s love life. “I will never understand your obsession with females by that name.”

“Hey, I was cursed by a gypsy helicopter pilot; it’s not my fault!” Roeder protested. “Anyway, the registry on this dropship has been changed. Technically, it belongs to me, now, so the locals shouldn’t be able to use it to get to you this time. It can be part of your go-to-hell plan to get off-planet if there is trouble. I have passage booked on the Science Guild supply ship for Minkulos back toward Earth. As a major ‘philanthropist’ from Azure, I should be able to hitch a ride on the colony supply circuit and get back there after the crying and sleepless nights are over.”

“There is still the matter of patients and customers. There is much work to be done here,” the Wrogul said, flashing a complex pattern of regret and anticipation.

“Ah, about that,” said Roeder. “I took the liberty of contacting that German merc leader you were talking to in Peepo’s back when I rescued your ass. Oberst Riedel will be sending a squad your way to get fitted for pinplants. Be nice to the colonel; he’s a distant cousin. He’s also pretty flush with money from a very successful contract, and he’s not all that smart about looking for bargains. He’s from a branch of the family where no one will mind if you fleece him a bit.”

Molina flashed regret again. He’d done so quite frequently with Roeder, and he realized it represented so much of the relationship with his friend. “I owe you so much, my friend.”

“No!” Roeder’s outburst was surprising in its vehemence. “You do not owe me. I paid for services rendered, and you restored my quality of life. Do not let me hear of you losing your mojo again! You get back out there and soak, fleece, and get the upper hand on these Tossers and the mercs that come to your clinic.”

“I will still…miss you. You are my oldest and best friend.”

“And well you should, but thanks to you, I will be around for many more years.” He paused and quirked a smile. “Besides, you always miss a target that’s not there. I’ll miss you, too, Old Squid.”

The emotional moment lasted for a few more moments, before an incoming comm signal alerted Molina that two sergeants from Riedel’s Rächer had arrived in-system and would be coming to the clinic for neurophysiological scans in preparation for receiving their first pinplants. After acknowledging the signal, he turned back to Roeder, but the Human had left to catch his shuttle.

Molina…no, Squiddy, briefly signed regret one last time, then turned to arrange for transport of his newly purchased clinical equipment to the business address.

It was time to get to work.

He wondered if the Germans liked anime.

* * * * *

Chapter Eleven

That first merc pinplant job would take some time to pay off, since Squiddy needed to get some fresh scans of Human nervous systems. In the meantime, Squiddy had plenty of injured mercs to treat. Don Torol also sent a trickle of business his way, mostly patching up enforcers who had fallen to “aggressive competition.” He also maintained a general clinical practice, again with the aid of permits and licenses obtained through the Don.

It meant that he was beholden to a patron, and Squiddy did not like to owe anyone. Not even his best friend. Thus, as soon as he started to see a positive balance of Union credits, he started buying rare provisions to be sent to Azure and converted to the colony’s own currency. As he paid back Roeder’s investment, he would continue to do “favors” for the Don, but it was important that he build up enough capital—both credits and…other types…that he could use to be independent of To’Os’s organized crime network.

In a sense, that meant Squiddy needed to be seen as just as big and powerful a crook as any of the Tossers. To achieve that appearance, if not the reality, he would need information. He knew exactly who to see for that.

The Zuparti agent, Jogosh, was really more information broker than real estate agent. Utilizing Jogosh’s computer systems through his own Wrogul-designed pinplants, Squiddy began obtaining more information about the various figures in the local crime families.

For example, Don Torol was the boss of the local government. There was actually a mayor for To’Os the city, and Ta’Yua, the local state. The planet of To’Os Prime had seven such administrative regions but given that To’Os the city was largest and most economically profitable, Don Torol held higher status than the other Dons, let alone the governor and mayor. Still, minor Tosser bosses continually vied for status in the middle levels of the government. The late, unlamented Lalande was one of them, although his replacement, Lalorra, had not yet made much of a move to distinguish himself within Don Torol’s organization. However, there was a senior administrator at the starport, Toweena, who had designs on replacing the Don at the earliest opportunity.

The Don’s risk was Squiddy’s opportunity, and he offered a tailored nanite load to inconvenience Toweena but was politely rebuffed. The conversation was polite, but the Don’s MinSha associates were less so. The message “Stay out of my business” came across loud and clear.

That left gleaning information about non-natives—the mercs, traders, and transports that called upon To’Os. For that, he would need a specialist, much as Ortiz had done back at the Cerulean Clinic. Fortunately, Jack had a niece, and the little murder bunny was really good with information systems. With that requirement out of the way, and useful information and patients starting to come in, Squiddy’s fortunes started to rise.

* * *

The day finally arrived when Squiddy performed his first official pinplant surgery on Human mercs. It wasn’t his first, by a long shot, and certainly the extensive rehabilitation of his friend Roeder had refined most of the protocols, but it was the first time he was contracted specifically to provide pinplants for a merc unit.

The Rächer sent two sergeants—feldwebel they called them in German, although the term also seemed to refer to the senior NCO of the unit. He’d met them, Ginzberg and Jackson, as part of his study of Human nervous systems. This time, however, they’d brought four more mercs, a corporal and three privates. Squiddy enjoyed conversing with Ginzberg and Jackson; they knew how to take a joke, and Jackson had at least a passing familiarity with anime, or at least manga. Oberstabsgefreiter Beitel was female and colored nicely when Squiddy made a hentai reference. Gefreiter Giorgios, though, had an attack of xenophobia and fainted dead away at the concept of cephalopod tentacles performing closed-skull brain surgery.

They were fun.

He was able to turn that first clinical job into many more—for the Rächer and many other merc units. He felt a slight resentment that he was never able to provide pinplants for the rich and famous Four Horsemen, not because of the lost income, but rather because he figured it meant his progenitor Nemo had that business locked up. Still, Roeder continued to forward data packets with updated nanite programming, and he figured he had enough return business upgrading his initial customer’s/patient’s pinplants to full Union functionality.

For the next many years, life was good, and business was lucrative.

* * * * *

Chapter Twelve

He’d been on To’Os for more than three years when he awoke to the strange feeling. Wrogul did not sleep in quite the same way as a Human. For one, they only absorbed half of their necessary oxygen through their skin. The other half was absorbed through gills, much like Earth cephalopods. While skin absorption was sufficient for dormancy and low activity—such as sleeping—it also required an extended period to build up the necessary oxygenation of their blue blood prior to more energetic activity. The solution was to hyperoxygenate the water and to maintain a current so it would flow over the gills even while sleeping. Even at that, Squiddy—as he now thought of himself—slept no more than three hours a night.

It was still three hours until dawn on To’Os. The red-orange sun did little to illuminate the dingy station, even at its brightest, so artificial lighting was the norm, day and night. As the starport and city survived off both licit and illicit activity, To’Os was quite literally a city that never slept, so Squiddy could open his clinic at any time, post the opening on the local merc board, and have customers within the time it took them to travel from the customs station.

Today, however, Squiddy was feeling…off. Mirrors were not common among the Wrogul habitats on Azure. After all, sophonts that could tap into any camera system via their pinplants did not need purely passive means of viewing. Besides, a good camera system allowed viewing from several angles on multiple spectra.

So Squiddy looked at himself.

What he saw filled him with delight and dismay at the same time. The odd feeling was because he was budding. For any Wrogul, that was cause for delight. However, the dismay was because he was nearly two years late according to the cycle that prevailed on Azure. When he had failed to bud at the predicted time, he’d studied his own physiology to find the biochemical—and neurochemical—trigger that influenced his reproduction. There were several biological indicators that suggested a hiatus in the process, and after some self-experimentation, he thought he’d managed to put it off until he’d finished his current goal to make a fortune and get away from To’Os and out from under the Tossers.

The new bud meant he’d misunderstood. That didn’t even cover the fact that To’Os was no place to raise a new bud. The juvenile needed to be on Azure, and Squiddy couldn’t go there himself—at least not yet. The bud would take a couple of weeks to mature, so he had that time to figure out how to get his “child” back to Azure safely. Perhaps he should contact Roeder or Nemo…

That particular problem would keep, though, because he had incoming patients, and they appeared to be in a hurry.

“Squiddy the surgeon?” the lead merc asked, standing in front of the camera covering the doorway into the alley. He had a Human slung across one shoulder, and two other, obviously wounded, mercs supporting a third across their shoulders.

“State your business.” Squiddy had adopted the bored vocal patterns of the Veech he had met on that first visit to City Hall.

“If you’re Squiddy, we’ve got patients. Can’t you see that?”

“Password,” said the same bored voice.

“Nemo sent us.”

Well, that wasn’t quite the password he’d been expecting. If Nemo had sent them, it meant either he was not available, or these mercs needed one of his neuro specialties. He opened the door but had one of the Blevin guards stationed just inside the clinic check them before they entered. He hadn’t always kept his protection quite so close, but ever since the late, unlamented Lalande attempted to kill him for the last time, he had decided the extra expense was worth it.

The mercs entered, and the Human who had spoken before addressed the B’nb’n employee. “We need to see Squiddy about a spinal reconstruction. Nemo told us he’s the only one who can do it right.”

“That is true,” said Squiddy over the clinic speakers. He still was not going to show himself until he knew more of why his progenitor had sent these men. “How do you know Nemo?”

“Our boss knows his boss.” A treatment bench extruded itself from the floor, and the Human took that as a sign to place his burden on it. From first contact, diagnostic information flowed into Squiddy’s pinplant. He caused a second bench to appear, and the two supporting mercs put their buddy on that one as well.

“…and your boss is?”

“Thaddeus Cartwright.”


“I…see.” Squiddy drove his powered chair out from the back office of the clinic. “I assume you are all Cavaliers?”

The three conscious men caught their first glimpse of the Wrogul in his cup-shaped seat that retained just enough water to keep his skin wet, while allowing free motion of all arms and tentacles. The ranking merc made no expression, but the two obvious juniors gasped. “It’s an octopus!” said one.

“He’s a Wrogul,” said the senior, before Squiddy could do so. “There’s a whole colony of them, and they’re the best surgeons in the Union. Unfortunately, we’re not at Azure and you don’t call the Hussars, they call you.” He turned and faced Squiddy’s chair, one of the rare Humans—or other sophonts—who looked him in the eye when speaking. “To answer your question, the master sergeant, lieutenant, and I”—he gestured to the first, then the second man on the table—“are Cavaliers. The other two are newbies and don’t get to call themselves that until after they’ve survived a combat mission.”

Data on the second patient had started to flow into Squiddy’s clinical systems. Much to his surprise, both men had pinplants. “These two are pinned. Who did the work? Why come to me instead of their original surgeon?”

“As I said, you don’t call the Hussars. Cromwell’s off on a mission and unreachable. Our own doc said these two might be unrecoverable if we wait.”

Ah, so this was Nemo’s work. Yes. I should have recognized it, since my own designs derive from his.

“What happened to them? For that matter, your newbies are injured as well.” Squiddy moved a scanner over and began to check the recruits.

“Training accident. Trying to interface and drive a CASPer with just ’plants. Lieutenant Lorenzo was in the CASPer and Master Sergeant Valentine was jacked in at the simulator console. Feedback hit them both through their pins. Some of the CASPer ammo cooked off. That’s what happened to Larry and Curly, there.”

“…and Moe?” Squiddy was back on much more familiar territory, now. Puns and jokes. Time to get down to business.

“Moe?” said the officer, confused. Squiddy swiveled a camera…No, noncom. Staff sergeant. “Actually, I’m Moe. Moe Liberty, how did you know?”

“Your parents didn’t like you much, did they?”

“Um, they were libs. Libertarians, that is—from San Pietro. Didn’t fit in too well there or on Earth. I couldn’t stand the snickers, so I left and became a merc.” Staff Sergeant Liberty began to sway on his feet. The recruits were leaning heavily on the treatment benches.

He extruded three more benches and waved his arms to indicate that the less injured men needed to occupy them. “Gentlemen, you all need treatment. Even you, Staff Sergeant. We still need to discuss payment, not to mention how you knew about my neural regeneration work.”

“Old Thaddeus said he met a guy four years ago. Pharmacist or something like that. Was headed back to your colony.”

“Ah. Roeder.” Still looking out for me, old friend.

“Yeah, something like that. Anyway, the colonel said you have very special payment rules. We have credits.” He handed over his yack, the balance of which was considerable, and Squiddy had to resist the urge to overcharge. Anyone but a referral from Roeder, no matter how indirect, and he would have. He passed over a slate. “The complete Sword Art Online, one-hundred episodes of Bleach, and there’s a mint copy of Naruto: Volume One on the ship.”

Oh. Oh my. There was certainly no need to pad the charges. He might even give them a discount…But no, that was foolishness. On the other hand, it would take at least two weeks before he could release Lorenzo and Valentine to travel, even though they did not appear to need the same level of reconstruction Roeder had. They might even be able to help him with the little matter of getting his offspring back to Azure.

Horsemen. Imagine that.

* * * * *

Chapter Thirteen

Over the years, Squiddy would do the occasional job for the Horsemen, mainly the Cavaliers. He never saw anyone from Asbaran Solutions, but there were a couple of visits from Winged Hussars ships passing through en route to a contract, and there were rumors the Golden Horde had visited Don Torol, but he never met anyone from that company. Mostly, he provided pinplants to the other merc companies and patched up the Humans so they could get back to work.

He did occasional jobs for the various Galactics, including the Tossers. The Don was getting on in years and wanted the nanotech to keep him young and alert. The To’Os syndicates were cutthroat, and if Torol showed any weakness, he would quickly be replaced. So Squiddy worked up a nanite treatment to clear the usual toxins of aging and restore his colorful eyebrow feathers. It wasn’t a true anti-aging treatment, but the psychological impact of restored vigor did wonders for the Boss.

The Hussars ships usually brought him data packets from Nemo and Roeder. Even though he had left Azure under shady circumstances, no one seemed to be holding it against him anymore. The new nanite programming from Nemo was incredibly generous and contributed to Squiddy’s own research to stay on the leading edge of the field.

Before Roeder had gone back to Azure, Squiddy had asked his Human friend why Nemo was so willing to share the designs for Human pinplants. “It’s simple survival, Old Squid. Humans need every advantage they can get. Galactics have pinplants, we don’t, and those same Galactics aren’t falling over themselves to provide the Humans with biotech, either. Nemo is devoted to the Hussars, and you’re the first of us to set up specifically to provide Human pinplants. Frankly, we want you to succeed.”

And succeed he did…but after fourteen years on To’Os he was starting to hear rumors of problems for the Human merc units. They were suffering unbelievable casualties, and his own practice had shifted to even more reconstructive therapy and fewer pinplants. Even the Four Horsemen were having problems: Thaddeus Cartwright had died on a mission and Colonel Shirazi of Asbaran was missing. After nearly one hundred years of Human mercenary service to the Guild, the sheer tenacity and ingenuity of the Humans was failing.

His progenitor, Todd, the first Wrogul to befriend and live with Humans, had always said he did not trust the Galactics. He had never regained the memories of his life before his incredibly battle-damaged ship appeared at Azure, so all he had was feelings and his own analysis of Galactic events. Still, Todd was an astute observer and scientist. It had made him the single richest being on Azure, and the wealth—and memories—had trickled down to all his many offspring.

Every Wrogul was effectively a clone—budded from the body of an older Wrogul. They were born with the memories of the elder, though in Todd’s case, the lack of memory, but quickly diverged to become unique individuals. That uniqueness had manifested in Nemo’s interest in Human physiology and his own skills in surgery, but it had also resulted in some…unusual diversions, like the “cousin” who was enamored of engineering and all things mechanical, or the other who became a gourmet chef. It meant they had both the same and differing viewpoints, but as a whole, the Azure Wrogul colony accepted they were quite Human, and if there was some entity in the Union who had turned against Earth, it would come for the Wrogul as well as their Human neighbors.

It all meant that, perhaps, Squiddy needed to evaluate whether he had managed to make his fortune and needed to move on from To’Os. Moving his assets was easy, he had converted much of his wealth to red diamonds and precious metals. It was logical and even fairly transparent to outside scrutiny; after all, certain metals, as well as ground red diamond, were critical components of the high-end medical nanites he used. It was simply that he hid the quantity he purchased by spreading the acquisitions over many brokers. He also placed emergency caches in his clinic, home quarters, escape routes, and his old modified dropship. As far as the latter was concerned, he’d kept it in working order, upgrading it as needed so he could operate it himself, and then he’d downloaded piloting skills to his pinplants.

He also maintained a sufficient balance on his yack to handle local transactions, such as his contract with B’nb’n Security and his “insurance” payoffs to the Don. Jack had long since retired from running B’nb’n, but his niece, Jessica, had taken over and added information research and security to their portfolio. Squiddy maintained a cordial relationship with Jess and had even done some cosmetic work on her. She was very good at what she did, and Squiddy was a major customer. The information coming from Jess was just as disturbing as what was coming through his other contacts. However, Jess was also gleaning information from the local government. And someone had started looking into Squiddy’s business contracts.

There was also at least one ping on the records supporting the alias he had registered with on arrival. If they were looking for Molina, it might mean the Merc Guild, or maybe someone from Earth or Azure. Every local account had him as Squiddy, but he supposed it was possible Lalande’s family was looking to drive a wedge between him and Don Torol.

Still, someone was asking too many questions, leaving Squiddy with one important one. Was it time to leave To’Os?

* * * * *

Chapter Fourteen

The dropship was provisioned and the caches updated. He had multiple escape routes from quarters and clinic, and he had converted as much of his account as possible to metals and gems. As the Zuparti would say, “Sure he was paranoid, but was he paranoid enough?” Squiddy could leave at a moment’s notice if he had to, but on the other tentacle, he was expecting a customer, a familiar one, no less; so he would see this last procedure through and then decide.

“First Sergeant Ginzberg. Welcome!”

“Easy, Squiddy, my hearing’s not going bad…yet. Besides, it’s Hauptfeldwebel, now—sergeant major.”

“Of course, of course. You mercs are always changing ranks.” Squiddy came out from behind several pieces of equipment in his usual four-foot-tall rolling chair with the cup-shaped seat half filled with water. “What? Alone? Why have you not brought me fresh victims? Do you not trust me with your privates? Sngh.” Ginzberg was one of the few Humans unfazed by Squiddy’s risqué sense of humor.

“Nope, just me. The Kommandant says I need a second set of pins.”

“This second set of pinplants will more extensively target the temporal lobe memory areas, parietal and frontal links to speech and language centers, and quadruple the co-processor capabilities.” Squiddy’s tentacles took on purposeful movement as he began to adjust the equipment behind the surgical couch. He laughed again. “If you’re sure that’s all you want. After all, I’m offering a two-for-one sale today for bilaterally symmetric sophonts! Two arms, two legs, nice tentacles like mine for the ladies? Sngh.” The Wrogul held up the specialized appendages he utilized for surgery.

The Human just laughed. Yes, Ginzberg appreciated his humor. Most of the grunts did. The officers tended to be stuffier. He injected the merc with a somnolence agent and started the nanite programmer. Once the Human was asleep, he laid his specialized sensory tentacles on the sides of the skull and they began to vibrate until nearly invisible. No one had been able to precisely determine how Wrogul tentacles could penetrate skin, muscle, and bone without leaving a mark. Sure, the vibration was part of it, but there had to be something else—nothing physiological could account for it.

Whatever the mechanism, Squiddy made short work of implanting the nanite matrix and starting the program to grow the neural mesh. It would take a couple of hours to develop to its full extent, then a couple more weeks to fully integrate its capabilities with the host. While the mesh matured, Squiddy began to implant the processing elements. The mesh made the connections, but the processors added the input-output controls, co-processing, and augmented memory. The final step was to connect the BCI with a new pair of pins placed behind the ears, about two centimeters behind the original pins Squiddy had placed in this particular patient more than ten years ago. Most Humans still required an external wireless interface with the pins, unlike Wrogul, who had completely internal pinplants with wireless connectivity to comms and electronic equipment.

There. The mesh was matured and the processor connected. The nanites would remain functional for the next two weeks to complete the sensory-motor integration then become inert and flushed from the body. They did not exactly replicate but utilized their own structure to assemble the pinplant, along with a matrix of bioelectronics built from the organics of the host body. Ginzberg would be terribly hungry for the next few days to replenish the mass and energy consumed in the pinplant procedure. The only thing left to do was to start the boot-up procedure, wake him, and send him on his way.

Squiddy was surprised by the explosion that opened a hole in the wall of the clinic. He had defenses against invasion from the alley, but this came from the wall shared with the neighboring building. He was supposed to be protected from this! He activated his “panic button”—although no physical buttons were involved—and the clinic furniture sank into the floor. The still-unconscious Ginzberg went with it. The emergency evacuation system was designed with this in mind and would convey him to a panic room below the clinic, inaccessible from either the clinic or the sub-floor spaces. One last download to the new implants would guide the Human to safety while Squiddy went for one of his other bolt-holes.

He tried to access his security system and summon more Blevin guards from B’nb’n but found his signal blocked. Either someone had compromised B’nb’n, or they were using a portable jammer. Given the sophistication of Wrogul pinplants, it had to either be very powerful, or tuned specifically to his capabilities…or both. The idea that it could be both was not one worth contemplating at present.

The Blevin guard was down, killed in the initial explosion. His emergency beacon should summon more help, but they’d likely be too late. The dust was still clearing, and the agents responsible hadn’t emerged from the hole. This was where the meter-and-a-half reach of his arms would come in handy.

Like every Wrogul habitat, the clinic was equipped with overhead bars that allowed him to lift his body out of his transfer tank or work-chair and transfer to any other location by suspending his weight with one or more arms. He lifted himself to the bars closest to the ceiling, and his chromophores copied the colors of the mottled gray tiles—Wrogul camouflage to the rescue.

This vantage point allowed Squiddy see his attackers while avoiding notice. He could also see over the dust through the hole in the wall. The neighboring building showed an irregular patch of red-orange sunlight, suggesting a second large hole in the alleyway.

Ah, they blew a hole in the next building over, then through the shared wall. No wonder no one had come in yet. They likely retreated to the alley before setting off the charges. That still didn’t explain why they hadn’t entered yet, unless…

Squiddy checked his internal chronometer. Barely ten seconds had elapsed since the explosion. I guess that’s why the surgical table seems to be retracting so slowly. Interesting phenomenon. Is it a product of my pinplants or a natural Wrogul trait?

“Be alert, he will be moving very fast!” a synthesized voice came from the twin holes in the walls. Hmm, I guess we go with natural trait for now. The voice raised another concern: Someone out there knows Wrogul! Is this the mysterious entity searching my records? Such concerns were secondary to survival, though, because the first shadows were obscuring the sunlight illuminating the dust cloud.


The insectoids quickly entered and searched the clinic, just barely missing Ginzberg as the floor closed about him. One of the MinSha mercs signaled to another, and it brought out a powerful laser and started to cut into the floor. It would be close, but the evac system should be able to get him to the panic room before the mercs broke into the sub-floor.

Speaking of escape, he needed to be making his own way out, but the praying mantis-like hired troops had not bothered to look up—at least not yet. That all changed when a water tank on treads came into view. The creature in the tank looked like a Wrogul, but extremely aged and with poorly-healed injuries. It had dim yellow eyes with irregular pupils—more of a W shape than rectangular, like Squiddy and all of his kin.

The first thing the strange Wrogul did was to look up!

“There!” came the synthesized voice, “On the ceiling.”

The MinSha started to swing the cutting laser in his direction.

“Alive I said!” the translator shouted at maximum volume.

That gave Squiddy an opening, which was all he needed, like the air vent he had been covering with his body. Humans had long been surprised by the small spaces Earth cephalopods could squeeze through. As often as he had told a Human that he was not an octopus, in this one instance, the comparison was apt.

The air vent was, in fact, no such thing, but rather another one of his emergency escape routes. It led to a small chamber between the clinic level below and his personal quarters above. There was a waterproof hatch to seal the vent behind him, while a valve in front led directly to the drain for his sleeping tank. He was still blocked from accessing the electronic controls, but there was a manual release. Beyond the valve was a connection to the To’Os sewer system. A quick tug on a lever and he was…flushed into his least favorite escape route.

At least it had the advantage of being the least favorite place for his unnamed pursuer, as well.

* * * * *

Chapter Fifteen

The dropship was registered to yet another alias. Roeder had originally left it in his own name to provide a few advantages when transiting Earth and Human-controlled systems, but a year ago, Squiddy had bought several new identities from Don Torol. It was provisioned and ready to fly, and the Wrogul was capable of flying it, but there was still the problem of whether the other Wrogul had compromised those records as well.

There was also the matter of how—and why—Squiddy had not seen them coming. Sure, he had evidence that someone was looking, but bringing a squad of MinSha into the To’Os was not something one did without the Don’s permission.

Once outside his building, the effects of the jamming faded, and he was able to access one of the relay nodes stationed along his escape route. Squiddy looked at the feed from the monitors throughout his clinic, private rooms, and the alleyway outside. There were over a dozen MinSha in the clinic spaces, plus the strange Wrogul. Outside was a squad of Oogar representing the police force. That meant one or more government officials were in on it.


He zoomed the feed from the camera on his building that watched the building across the alley. Directly opposite his door stood two half-meter-tall figures, all shades of black-and-white except for a flash of yellow eyebrows.

Tossers. But which ones? Had the Don turned on him after all this time? Did he feel betrayed by the exit strategy Squiddy had been building the past several months?

He switched to a drone that was normally parked on the rooftop of his building. It would betray his surveillance to the beings watching his clinic, but that was not important anymore. He sent the drone down to get a close-up of the two locals.

There were those who said it was impossible to tell the Tossers apart, but that was just prejudice speaking. It was possible to study beak shape, shade and length of the colorful eyebrows, set of the eyes, and habitual movements. Not to mention, Wrogul vision was particularly well adapted to “see” into multiple spectra due to their irregular pupils.

Hmmm. Looks like Toweena. Oh! And Lalorra. That was interesting. So, this was a move against the Don. In that case, it was definitely time to leave To’Os.

Wrogul did not “smell” as Humans knew it, but they did taste. Moreover, they wore their taste receptors all over their arms. Each sucker on the eight grasping limbs contained receptors that provided taste and chemical analysis. Thus, escape through the To’Os sewers was not a particularly pleasant experience. It quite literally, “left a bad taste in his mouth,” as his Human friends would say.

Still, it was effective, and he reached the starport without notice. His remaining security tell-tales also told him Ginzberg had left the panic room and made it to the exit into the To’Os red-light district. He would have to survive on his own from there, and maybe take a bit of a break. He was privately amused at the idea of having sent the Human through a district catering to carnal drives. It was…so hentai.

With Toweena in the city, getting into the ’port should be easy. Lumar were big—and dumb. He had set up a covert exit from the sewers that led into the cargo terminal, and he had leased a berth next to a drainage ditch. One last contingency plan set off a small charge under a reaction mass tank on the far side of the ’port, drawing the Lumar guards away to investigate. It also had the side-effect of filling the drainage ditch with water. Better yet, it was fresh water, washing off the taste of the sewer and facilitating travel to his ship.

The hatch was keyed to his DNA, and it had begun to worry him after seeing the strange Wrogul in the clinic. All Wrogul DNA was alike—at least on Azure—and if the adversary had found his ship, it was likely no longer secure. Fortunately, there was no sign it had been identified, let alone entered. Most of his surveillance at the clinic had been discovered and deactivated, but he checked the few remaining cameras as well as the local news feeds. Only a rudimentary guard remained at his building. The rest had moved deeper into the To’Os.

After Ginzberg. He regretted that. Ginz was a friend…of sorts. But the piece of information he found at his shuttle made survival paramount.

A message had been received by the ship computer. The message had all of the proper encryptions and passcodes to not only reach the ship but be acquired and decoded by his ship’s systems.

It was from Nemo: Run. Hide. Do not get caught. It is important to Azure and Earth!

* * *

“Name and ship registry?” The voice of the stargate controller could be heard over the comm not only on the bridge of the jump carrier, but also on each of the attached ships. Individual ship captains were expected to identify themselves in turn. Soon it was Squiddy’s turn.

“Otto Octavius, Eta Carinae,” he supplied. The controller acknowledged the list and informed them their stargate departure window was in thirty minutes.

It looked like a clean getaway. Whoever was chasing him was busy with Ginzberg, and he was sorry about that, but the message from Nemo had warned him not to be caught, no matter what it required. He would also be free of To’Os and the Tossers. It would be good to be away from those evil penguins.

It was time to disappear.

* * * * *


“He is in the wind, as the Tri-V calls it?”

Todd pulled himself out of his transport tank to sit alongside the man as he played with several young children. The Human still looked vital at nearly one hundred years of age, but the Wrogul was starting to show signs he was entering decline. Perhaps it was merely age, although with no autobiographical memory older than sixty-five years, the best he’d been able to estimate was he was at eight hundred years old. Wrogul easily lived to one thousand years, but Todd was starting to show mottling of the skin and clouding in one eye.

“He’s on the run. Not entirely lost, though. He sent me an encrypted message hidden in a supply order for one of the companies, so we know he got as far as Earth. He felt bad about that patient of his that got caught; he wanted me to make sure he was taken care of.” Roeder lay on the floor, bouncing the two-year old twins; they were his own, but there were also grandchildren and great-grandchildren in the playroom as well.

Fourteen years ago, Brent Roeder had been an old man in a powered chair, limited to low-gravity environments, due to spinal damage and degeneration. He owed his current health and happiness to extensive nanite therapy that rebuilt his neural circuits allowing him to control his own muscles again. With restored mobility came restored vigor, and Roeder was famous—or infamous, in his words—for trying to populate the entirety of Azure colony on his own.

“This is disturbing news, though,” Todd flashed. “This rogue Wrogul, that is.”

“Was that meant as a pun, Todd? Have you finally succumbed to my example?” teased Roeder. Then, more seriously, he said, “I know. I’ve checked the ship manifests for the past twelve years. We can’t be certain no one from Sorrows Bay has gone to space that we didn’t know about—but it seems unlikely.”

“Indeed, Jacques has never forgiven me for letting Verne go. It is why he took his ‘protectorate’ out into Sorrows.” Todd flashed creasola, the pattern for regretful contemplation.

“Well, if it’s not one of them, we can account for every one of your Wrogul descendants…” Roeder paused. “That is, unless Squiddy budded again after Otto.”

“He should be due, but you told me Molina and the other three have desynchronized.” Todd flashed creasola again. “That is normal from what I know of our biology.”

“Yes, Squiddy was over a year late with Otto. He could have budded again by now, but I think that’s unlikely. He was unhappy enough that his surroundings endangered his offspring, which is why he arranged to have Cartwright transport Otto back here. He is smart and resourceful and probably figured out a way to hold off the budding, not unlike yourself.”

“I think you, of all Humans, know this is not voluntary.” Todd had done nothing to dispel the rumor that not budding for the two cycles since he returned from Earth was a personal choice. Bailey and Cavanaugh would have known—and now Roeder—that it was not choice, but biology. Todd was aging and might not have many years left. Of course, with Wrogul, no one knew how long the senescence might take.

“So, it’s not one of us,” Roeder said. Todd noted the inclusive term and flashed concurrence. Us.

“Yes, that makes it one of them.” Todd managed to get the comm to convey foreboding and anxiety. “One of my people.”

“No. Not your people. You are not one of them and haven’t been for almost seventy years. As your grandson would say, you are Human.”

“One of my forebears, then.” Todd sighed. “That doesn’t make them any more or less dangerous. They are an unknown, and we don’t know whose side they are on in this war.”

* * * * *

Part 5: Harryhausen

Chapter One

“I am not going to work with this damned blubbery fish.”

“I am not a fish, you empty-headed dog.”

“You live in a fish tank; you’re a fish.”

“…and you lick your balls, so you are a dog!”

“I do not…” he said with a growl that quickly grew in volume.

“Gentle Beings…” came a third voice, attempting to be heard over the growls and splashing sounds.

“Damned fish, splashing water all over everything, getting my fur wet.”

“Look, you moron, I’m a Wrogul; an intelligent cephalopod. Note the intelligent part—that is more than I can say for you!”

“Damned uppity technician with way too many tentacles.”

“Those are arms you idiot.” There was a brief slosh as the Wrogul lifted itself up out of its transfer tank. “I have eight arms and two tentacles! How many times do I have to remind you? Oh, I forgot, you have no brains! Scientists have long proven dogs with too many teeth in their mouth devote an inordinate space to jaw bone and tooth roots. They do not have any room left in their skull for brains!

The Besquith started to growl even louder. The third sophont tried to interject again. “Gentle Beings, please!

“I’ll squash your brains and eat them for breakfast, fish!”

“Look, stupid, call me an octopus, call me a squid…Hell, call me Human, I do not care, but I am not a fish!

“Stupid, squishy bundle of rubber bands is what you are. And why in the hell do you wear that stupid hat? You live in the water!

“The hat protects me from sunburn, teeth-for-brains, for when I’m out of the water. Besides, it is traditional.”

“Traditional? What do you know of tradition? You aren’t even a member of that race!”

“That is a base insult. I am…”

The Oogar Barracks Commander didn’t need to change the volume control on his translator, but she did it anyway. “Shut up!” she roared, and the words echoed in the sudden silence. “You two are working together because the order from Guild Headquarters said you are working together! That’s the end of it! I won’t hear any more protests, or you are both going to be up on charges!”

* * *

My name is Harryhausen. You can call me Ray. I am a PI—that is a Peacemaker Investigator.

The big mouth Besquith over there is Lujkhas, my partner. She is not a bad being, just a bit prejudiced and not as smart as she thinks she is. Of course, that’s why she has me. We argue like this because we know it gets on Lieutenant Crom’s nerves.

It is a delicate balance, can we get the L-T to blow up without getting ourselves in trouble? Most of the time. It actually gets her to tell us our assignment without obsessing over minor details like how important the assignment is to Galactic Union stability and all of that mush.

Look, just tell us the job, send us off, and we will do it. Lujkhas is the Enforcer, I am the CSI—that is, the cognitive science investigator—just like those old Earth crime dramas I watched back on Azure.

I like to think that one day I can solve enough cases that someone will make a Tri-V show about me. Maybe I can even go and clean up that little town in Maine with the abnormally high murder rate.

Until then, Lujkhas and I have a job to do.

* * *

I just want you to listen to me!” The barracks commander knew she was getting worked up—yelling, shaking, tearing at her fur in frustration—there was purple fuzz everywhere.

“Yes?” Lujkhas and Ray both said quietly. The Besquith’s mouth was actually closed over her teeth, which was a tell-tale sign she was amused, and Ray flashed sooltory—ironic amusement.

Lieutenant Crom took in their too-innocent expressions and let out one more shriek, “Aaaaaugh! Hr’ent save me!” She rolled her eyes.

It looked like a purple snowstorm had hit the office. Oogar typically had two volumes, loud and louder. The lieutenant tried—she really tried—to rein in her natural instinct to increase her volume in both boisterous good humor and anger, but these two brought out the worst in her, and she knew they did it deliberately. They simply couldn’t have this much antipathy toward each other considering how well they worked together.

“You have an assignment,” Crom continued, trying to be reduce her volume, but she only partially succeeded. “HQ on Kleve should have sent you the assignment already! I’m supposed to find out what you need for support.”

“Sure, I’ve got it on my comm,” Lujkhas said. “Some creature looking like Blubberface here tortured a merc. It also broke several conventions and local laws: personal action by a member of a non-merc race, hiring of mercs outside of Guild sanction, interference with the lawful planetary government…” Lujkhas had closed her eyes and was reading the communication off her pinplants.

Ray continued the litany. “…possible use of an Artificial Intelligence, use of unsanctioned pinplant techniques, cognitive experimentation on a provisional sophont, crimes against fashion…”

“You made that last part up,” corrected Lujkhas.

“That was for calling me Blubberface, Snaggleteeth.”

The enforcer and forensic specialist looked like they were going to resume their shouting, so Crom cut it short “Stop It! Just…stop!” She heaved a sigh and another cloud of purple fur filled the office. “Just…what do you need?”

“Nothing,” Lujkhas stated with finality.

“I will need some specialty equipment from Azure to enable me to work out of water for extended periods of time,” Ray said.

“Fine, just…fine. Done. Now please, get out of my office!

As the duo left the barracks commander’s office, she commed to her Jeha assistant. “K’ntk’t’k, please bring in the negative pressure cleaning unit.”

* * * * *

Chapter Two

I know what you are thinking. How does a good son of Azure end up in the Peacemaker Guild as an investigator and not an enforcer? Well, it was not for lack of trying. I mean, we Humans can do anything we set our minds to, right? Well, when I set out from my home colony, I followed in the paths of several great Humans—the aquatic, octapedal kind—the mechanic, the chef, the surgeon. I was going to be the cop, and I had watched all the documentaries, like Lethal Weapon, The French Connection, Rush Hour, and Super Troopers, and read all of the instruction manuals by Clancy, Griffin, Grisham, and Conan Doyle. The Conan part caused me a bit of confusion, so I read the Robert E. Howard books, too.

I. Was. Prepared.

I applied to the Peacemaker Guild, and they wouldn’t take me seriously. They said I wasn’t from a merc race, so I couldn’t be an enforcer. I told them I was too from a merc race…I am Human. They said I was a Wrogul. As if that means anything where I come from.

On the other arm, they told me, Human or Wrogul, I could still work for the Guild. I could be in the laboratory.

On the third arm, it was boooooooooring!

Look, the first time they sent me to the laboratory, the other techs thought I was the subject! Well, except for that one guy who thought I was lunch. He certainly was not expecting it when I knocked him out with one punch! “Why does a Wrogul carry brass knuckles?” they asked. “You don’t have knuckles!” they said.

Sure I do. Big brass ones!

The barracks commander said that was not the only big brass whatsits I have. He was a Jivool, and he slung that Cartar over his shoulder and took him off to the infirmary. I never saw him again—the Cartar that is. Then again, I really do not spend much time in the lab since I get sent to the field a lot.

Usually I am paired with another low-level investigator, but I think someone at Guild HQ finally noticed I do good work. I was asked to gather evidence on illegal pin-tapping, where a mining consortium was hijacking pinlink signals from some of their competitor’s employees and stealing that company’s technical secrets. I not only found the pin-tapping equipment they were using, I reverse-engineered the pinlink connection and spied on the spies!

Then there was the illegal chop shop. Oh, it is not illegal to cut another sophont up for organs if they foolishly signed the release forms, but the Trade Guild frowns on implanting that same sophont’s cognitive ganglion into your own body to access their memories! Now that was a messy case!

I was paired with Lujkhas for both cases. She—or he, I’ve never been able to keep it straight Lucky is a hermaphroditic gamma, after all, not really a he or a she as a Human would know it. She doesn’t really care, though, so I usually call him…her…or him. It depends on my mood. Anyway, I have worked with Lucky for several years now. We fight. We fight all the time. It is our way of working the problem. We argue, we fight, I knock her out with my knucks, she bites my arms and draws blood, then swipes my translator and hides it. I leave a bucket of water where I know she will walk and make sure she gets wet. All the while we talk…well, shout…about what we are thinking.

It works. It works pretty well, and HQ keeps sending us out.

* * *

“What do you know of this world, Ray?”

As an Enforcer, Lucky could occasionally rate a courier ship or arrange for passage on a merc ship or passenger vessel. Unfortunately, the Guild did not rate this as a high priority mission. There was something going on that required movement of a lot of personnel and equipment. Besides, the Coro Region was pretty quiet at the moment with little merc activity and few destinations attractive to passenger and tourist trade. The Science Guild was due to rotate the research team at Minkulos next month, and HQ had arranged passage on the resupply ship. It required payment of a diversion fee to get the ship to stop at To’Os and would require other arrangements for return or further travel, but if the Peacemakers were to get any information before the trail turned cold, they needed immediate transportation.

“I know little of To’Os Prime itself, but I met a native at the Academy. She said she was the black…bird of the family. Apparently, it is a syndicate government controlled by organized crime.”

Lucky was on the gravity deck of the Science Guild carrier while Ray remained in his zero-G quarters. It was an arrangement that worked for them. They could perform their duties independently. More importantly, they could be separate, yet stay in touch by comm. As long as they did not have to be together for the entire one-hundred seventy hours of hyperspace, they could keep the fighting to a minimum.

“And this classmate…”


“Tosser. Your friend Tosser.”

“No, her name was Tooelle. Her people are the Sphen-Eudy, but commonly called Tossers—just not to their face.”

“Well why didn’t you say it was a generic label and not a name!”

“It is a name. It is just not her name.”

“You know what I meant, you damned rub—” There was an audible sigh from Lucky’s end of the comm. “Anyway, this Tosser you met was the black-sheep because she wasn’t a criminal?”

“Mmm, not exactly,” replied Ray. “She was teaching countermeasures. Demonstrating the technique and then showing how to counter it. Safecracking, second story work, alarm spoofing, sleight-of-hand; she was pretty good at it. She just decided to go legit before her past caught up with her.”

“Ah. So, criminal…what? Families?”

“Syndicates. Some of them are families; the big one was supposed to be. Her father had been one of the Don’s lieutenants, and the Don himself was a distant cousin.”

“What do we know about the one running…what’s the name of the station?” The sound of bone crunching could be heard over the comm.

“To’Os. The sun is named To’Os, the planet is named To’Os, the city is called To’Os, and the lawless part of the capital city is called The To’Os.” Ray paused as the crunching got louder. “Are you…eating?”

“Mmmph. Yeth.” Lucky mumbled and belched loudly. “Science Guild often haf to hire mercth, tho there’f a Befquitch bar an’ mmmm-grill.”

“Shit. So glad I am not there. Well, enjoy yourself and leave the entrails over there. I do not want them messing up my ship.”

Your ship!” Lucky growled. “Who do you think you are?”

“Your mama, apparently, since you cannot seem to clean up after yourself.”

“You leave my alpha out of this!”

“It is way too easy to wind you up,” Ray said and made a click and hiss sound indicating laughter. “Anyway, you were about to ask about the syndicate running To’Os City. Well, there has been a recent shake-up at the top, and the old Don, a Tosser by the name of Torol, has gone missing. A little sweetheart by the name of Toweena is handling business in his absence.”

“Missing, you say? How would your documentaries put it? Concrete overshoes?

“Most likely. Toweena probably made getting rid of her competition…” Ray paused while a piece of additional information scrolled through his pinplant-augmented vision. “Don Torol would have been her great-uncle, apparently. Anyway, she probably made his demise her price for cooperation. It says here the planetary charter specifies only the Dons can hire and deploy top-tier mercs on the planet. Lumar, Oogar, and Blevin-only for the riff-raff and general security. The fact the target used MinSha meant the Don had already been compromised.”

“Mmmm,” came over the comm. Either Lucky was thinking, or contemplating dessert. It could go either way. Or both. In either case, Ray knew he would need to keep digging. If left up to Lucky, they would be…lucky…to figure this case out before his next budding, eight years from now.

* * * * *

Chapter Three

“You look ridiculous.”

“I need protection.”

“It’s a dim red star, there’s hardly any sunlight.”

“It is not just sunburn. There’s the dryness of the air and…other matters. No one goes into the To’Os without protection.”

“You make it sound like a hot date.”

“Maybe your kind of date. Wrogul do not reproduce that way.”

“It still looks ridiculous.”

“It is tradition.”

Lucky snorted. They had this argument every time Ray put on his “business suit” as he called it. Wrogul could spend an hour or two out of the water as long as they did not dry out. That was a conservative estimate, because a thin layer of slime on their skin maintained moisture and facilitated absorption of oxygen. In an emergency, they could survive longer, but it would be a painful recovery.

One of the other Wrogul on Azure had created a protective rubber and Kevlar suit to allow him to work in hot, dry, even electrically active environments, but it just did not suit the look Ray was after. Verne had also created his own custom CASPer combat mecha, so designing a walking frame for Ray had been quite simple.

In order to “walk” on the ground, Wrogul could pull themselves along with one or more arms, or bunch them underneath their body and push. It was much easier to stay upright with a frame that looked like two legs ending in shoes, and a hinged cross-piece forming a saddle. Ray placed his body in the saddle and wrapped two arms around each leg. To firmly anchor himself, about thirty centimeters of each arm wove through the supports in the “shoes.” A moisture-conserving outer garment covered his body and legs, and a sunshade covered his head. To fit the private detective image, Ray had insisted that the shoes appear to be Human, in a design called wing-tips. The over-garment also looked like a trench coat, and the sunshade looked like a fedora. He was the perfect image of a PI…except for the fact he stood just over one meter tall.

“Aren’t you a little short for a gumshoe?” Lucky asked.

“You have no idea,” Ray replied. “Just wait until you meet a Tosser.”

Starports, and the startowns that grow up immediately around them, were considered Galactic Union territory, and not subject to local laws and regulations. That didn’t mean the locals didn’t try to impose their will, or ensure their bars, lodging, and brothels got the business instead of those located within the startown. To’Os was an exception, and the capitol city ran right up to the perimeter of the ’port in order to capture as many credits as possible from the mercs and spacers. That meant the Port Authority office served multiple duty as ground traffic control, berthing, customs, immigration, and tax collection. It also came entirely under the jurisdiction of the Sphen-Eudy Port Manager. With the information regarding the recent…rearrangement at the top of the local syndicate, Ray figured it was as good a place to start as any.

“Harryhausen and Lujkhas. Peacemaker Guild.” Ray flashed a custom leather wallet with a holographic blue tree on the outside and duraplas ident card inside. It also had a small metallic shield on the inside of the cover.

“Name…Ship…Reason for visiting To’Os…” The bored looking Veech desk clerk didn’t seem to be paying attention. Known throughout the Union for their ability to perform two simultaneous, boring clerical tasks at once, this one appeared to be watching a Tri-V and playing solitaire at the same time.

Ray reached out one arm and slapped it on the counter. His “business suit” kept his skin moist, so the wet slap echoed in the small office. “Listen, birdbrain, I said Peacemaker Guild. We ask the questions. You provide the answers!” Both of the Veech’s eyes swiveled to look straight ahead—then down—at Ray. It wasn’t possible for its avian eyes to open any wider, but they would have if they could. “Tell the Port Manager the Peacemakers are here to talk to her.”

The Veech swiveled its eyes back to each side in an unfocused look that indicated it was communicating over a pinplant. After a moment, it looked back at Ray, waved in the direction of a door on the side wall, and said simply. “Go there. Wait. The Manager will talk to you shortly.” It went back to its vid and card game, but Ray noticed the hand holding the cards was shaking.

The indicated door said Holding. Ray knew the bureaucrat would try to save face and avoid direct confrontation by conducting video surveillance while Ray and Lucky were stuck in a room normally secured from the outside. He slapped the counter again, turned his translator to maximum volume and said in a voice the entire building could hear. “No. Not on vid, in person. Now. We are seeing the Manager in person, right now, right here, with no delay!” The Veech dropped its cards and looked nervous but got on the pinplant circuit again and commed the administrator. After a moment, it refocused and turned its Tri-V in their direction so they could see the screen.

There was the image of an avian with slick black-and-white feathers and prominent yellow eyebrows. The image was a close-up, head-only, but the scale of several desk and office-supply items in the background made the Sphen-Eudy look taller than Lucky’s two meters. Fortunately, Ray knew a thing or two about Tossers, and recognized the background items as undersized props to create the illusion of height on vid. Before the administrator could speak, Ray interrupted with another outburst: “In person, administrator, or my associate will level this building.”

There was a growl from Lucky, and the Besquith pulled out a laser rifle in one hand and a MAC—magnetic accelerator cannon—in the other. Being a gamma, Lucky was a bit small for Besquith, but she was strong. She wielded both heavy weapons one-handed, and there was no doubt she was capable of using them that way as well.

There was a squawk from the vid, and the pickup was knocked aside as the Tosser jumped down off a stool, revealing it to be quite small in comparison to the desk. The new angle also allowed them to see the administrator heading for an armored door. Fortunately, Ray’s own pinplants had been busy with the local comm system.

“Fifty degrees up, seventy degrees right.” Ray told Lucky, and the MAC zinged as it accelerated a heavy metal penetrator round toward the ceiling. From their perspective, they could see a large hole in the ceiling, and on the vid the armored door disappeared as the round transferred momentum and propelled it through the second story roof.

A half-meter tall black-and-white shape fell through the hole in the office ceiling and lay stunned on the floor just outside the room marked Holding.

* * *

Right about here, you are probably thinking “Wait, Harryhausen is an investigator, Lucky is the Enforcer,” and you would be right. See, this is a little game I taught Lucky called “bad cop, worse cop,” and she likes to play along just fine. Perpetrators do not know how to wrap their tiny minds around the idea of a Wrogul Peacemaker, so we play it for maximum disruption. It is all good: I get to flash the badge, Lucky gets to shoot things up. She is a real sweetheart about it, but do not tell her I said that.

Meanwhile, we had a perp to interrogate.

* * * * *

Chapter Four

There was very little in the Port Manager’s story that was different from what the Peacemakers already knew about the situation. A Human named Ginzberg, NCO for a small German merc unit called the Rächer—or Revengers in English—was a repeat customer to a mostly-legal pinplant clinic a couple of klicks from the port. Off-planet Arrivals had him logged in as a private citizen, not a merc on active duty, a little over four Earth months ago. They never recorded his exit. Almost three months later he popped back up in the middle of a brothel deep in the To’Os, delirious and having received a very strange-looking brain implant. He was mostly incoherent, but repeatedly muttered something about torture and someone named “Mengele.” He also spent a lot of time humming the same song over and over.

The same night Ginzberg disappeared, the clinic he was supposed to visit was destroyed by MinSha mercs, the local syndicate head disappeared, and there was an explosion at the port damaging some minor infrastructure. The investigators needed to see the clinic site, talk to the new head of the Syndicate, and question the locals who had found the injured Human. It would have been of greater value to interview the Human, but after a month under the care of local doctors who had no idea what had happened, let alone how to treat his species, the injured merc had been shipped back to Earth for care and treatment.

The clinic site was pretty much a bust. The whole block had been leveled and rebuilt. The only evidence left to examine would have been video records if any existed…and of course there was no video record.

Ray just could not accept that there were no surreptitious video from that night, so he started canvassing local private security companies. It didn’t take long to find the clinic had hired B’nb’n Security for standard protection services. This would take a slightly different approach than the port—or City Hall, so he sent Lucky off to intimidate the head Tosser at the city offices while he made an appointment to meet with Jessica, the head of B’nb’n.

“Peacemaker Investigator Harryhausen to see Madam Jessica,” Ray announced to the Blevin at the front desk. “I have an appointment.” He was actually surprised the appointment cost only a deposit at what a standard time-and-expenses consult would have cost on any other planet. To’Os was notorious for graft and practiced “markup” at every step. To get an appointment without greasing at least four palms—or the same palm four times—was curious.

“Da boss lady’s in’er orfice.” The lizard-headed, leathery skinned receptionist pronounced. He gestured to a door behind him. “She’s ’spectin’ ya, so gwon back.”

Ray was expecting another Blevin, but as he waddled through the slightly open office door, he was surprised to see a XenSha sitting at a desk covered with slates and video screens.

“Madame Jessica?” Ray began.

“Miss.” The three-foot-tall rabbit-like creature corrected him without looking up from her screens.

“Miss Jessica, then. I’m…”

“Harryhausen. Peacemaker. You like to play on people’s misconceptions that you’re an Enforcer.” She finally looked up at him, and a couple of her multi-spectrum-sensitive tentacles focused in his direction as well. “I know all about you—Wrogul.”

Ray was a little taken aback that this—person—knew so much about him, but continued, nonetheless. “Well, then you probably know why I’m here.”

“Actually, no,” she said. She waved a hand in the direction of the tentacles emerging from her head. “These detect infrared, ultraviolet, and many other wavelengths. So, I can see your tentacles under the coat. Plus, you were scanned as you came in, including that little wallet with the Peacemaker Guild symbol.” She waved dismissively. “The rest was research after you made the appointment. You’re not a merc race, so you can’t be an enforcer, but the PM Guild does have you as an employee. You gave your name at the port, and that little show with the Manager was quite amusing.”

“Actually, as you say, they are called arms, not tentacles, but you are pretty close.” Ray’s impression of the private contractor went up. If she had seen video from the Port, she might have what he needed.

“So, what can I do for you…Peacemaker? The clock is running.”

“Very well, Miss Jessica, I am looking for information regarding the Human who was subjected to illegal medical experiments.”

“Squiddy didn’t do it,” she said.

“Wait, what? Squiddy?” That name was familiar. He had heard it often enough as a derogatory nickname.

“Yeah. Squiddy. Friend of yours? Relative, maybe?” She quirked an eyebrow at him, then pulled out a printed sheet of flexiplas with text and numbers on it. “Okay, here’s the plan. These are my rates for information services. I won’t reveal confidential information, but he was a good customer and those idiots tried to take him down that night. The Human was collateral damage. Meet my price, and I’ll tell you what happened. I won’t reveal how he got away or where he went, but Uncle Jack never got on the bad side of the Peacemakers, and I won’t either.” She smiled, and it was almost as frightening as Lucky’s. “It will cost, though.”

Ray pulled his UAAC out of a pocket in his overcoat. It was the same pocket that held his brass knuckles and laser pistol and was the more…congenial tool for this situation. He looked at the list and then held out the yack. “Let’s go with one day of expenses with an option for one week, plus information gathering on retainer and database access services.”

She smiled again as she held out her slate and completed the transaction. “Very reasonable, Mister Harryhausen, your cousin was as well.”

“Call me Ray…” he began, before her words fully registered. “Huh? My cousin?”

“I assumed you knew? Oh dear, that should be a slight surcharge, but I’ll let it go for now. I liked Squiddy and as I said, he was a good customer.” She turned a screen so Ray could see the display. It showed a Wrogul in a travel tank, accompanied by a Human male. “That’s Squiddy the Surgeon. Not his real name, of course. The Human is named Robar and while his travel papers were fakes—good fakes, not up to my standards, of course—they were fakes, nonetheless. His money on the other hand traced back to a Human named Roeder from the colony world name of Azure. Unless I am mistaken, you Mister Ray, are from Azure, is that correct?”

Roeder? That made Squiddy…Molina? Oh hell. Things just got even more complicated.

“Umm. Yes, but there are many Wrogul from Azure as well.” Ray hoped the lie-of-omission was not as blatant as it felt. “Still, very interesting. Yes, actually, worth a surcharge, so I will pay anyway.” He tapped the yack again. “However, what I was really hoping for was video of the attack on the clinic.”

“Yes, that makes sense. The Tossers don’t like video evidence of anything but Squiddy had his clinic wired for sight and sound, inside and out. I won’t show you the inside, but here is an exterior view. You will want to pay close attention once the MinSha go through the hole in the wall.”

Indeed, he paid very close attention.

* * * * *

Chapter Five

Relationships among Wrogul are strange. We do not have male and female sexes, and we reproduce by budding. I am essentially identical to every other Wrogul that has ever existed…except I am not. For example, I have green eyes, like our progenitor Todd, yet several of Todd’s buds have blue eyes. We inherit the complete set of memories, but very quickly develop our own experiences and personalities. So, after a few months, we are completely unique individuals. We also do not form family groups.

Except when we do. The entire Wrogul colony on my home world of Azure originated from a single individual with amnesia. None of us remembers anything prior to Todd’s rescue by the colonists seventy years ago. With budding across most of the Wrogul population approximately every ten years, the colony is probably over one hundred individuals by now. We “grew up” surrounded by Humans, and frankly, most of us think of ourselves as eight-limbed, wet Humans, as compared to the four-limbed dry ones.

Todd never forced us to think of ourselves as a family, but when your schoolmates and playmates are Human…it happens. So Squiddy was the equivalent of an uncle. He budded directly from Nemo—Todd’s first budding at Azure—and was distinguished by his blue eyes. Strangely, the blue eyes did not bud true. My own direct progenitor was Wells, and he budded from Nemo. Wells reverted to Todd’s green eyes. I am third generation, and tracing all of the lineages and divergences over seven generations gives me a headache. Most of the time, cousin is as good a term as any.

You are probably wondering why I am telling you this, but it is because Molina is something of a legend and cautionary tale in our colony. He could be considered family, and that could be a problem for the Peacemaker Guild. Not to mention, if he is involved, this is a bigger mess than Lucky and I first thought.

* * *

“I have information…” Lucky and Ray said simultaneously on returning to their rented quarters in one of the more “reputable” spaceport dives.

“You first…” they both said. Lucky growled, but Ray pulled a small flexible ball out of his overcoat pocket and threw it at his partner. Lucky leapt up and grabbed it in her mouth. It squeaked when she closed her jaw on the toy. The interruption gave Ray a chance to talk first.

“It was a Wrogul, and not one of ours. Well, actually, one of ours, too. But the clinic was bombed by MinSha working for a strange Wrogul. There is video of them, no audio, but I could read his flashes.” Todd spoke quickly to get it all out before Lucky stopped being distracted. “Hell of an accent, too. But he was clearly looking for ‘Squiddy’ or Nemo.”

Lucky chomped on the ball a few more times, causing it to squeak again, then there was a hissing and a squawk. Lucky spat it out, and the punctured and flattened toy came to rest in the corner of the room. Good thing there is plenty more where that came from. “Grr. The Administrator said the same once I finally got to see her. I had to bite a Veech to get in there. Trust me, they do not taste like chicken!”

“The surgeon, though, is something of a rogue from my world. Never anything serious, but he constantly skirted the rules and regulations. He left Azure about fourteen years ago at the same time an advanced nanite fabricator went missing. He was wanted for theft for a year, but then charges were dropped, and the owner of the fabricator said he had planned to give it to the surgeon and send him off-world anyway.” Ray flashed frustration. Molina was…problematic. He was self-centered and greedy. He may have brought this upon himself.

“According to this ‘Toweena,’ the old Don was ready to retire, but wanted to save face, so he had her stage a “hostile takeover.” I don’t believe it for a moment, but it also gave her an excuse to re-negotiate the ‘protection’ plans for off-world businesses. She said the clinic claimed to have its own security and didn’t want to pay. So, when a merc squad came calling, she didn’t stand in their way.” Lucky shrugged. “Personally, I think she sold the surgeon out and used the event as an excuse to take out the Don.”

“That does not give us a link between this strange Wrogul and the Human civilian, though.”

“Merc, not civilian.”

“Civilian. He was visiting a clinic, not on a contract.”

“Grr. Merc—once a merc, always a merc!”

Civilian, you tooth-brained hound!”

“He was a merc getting a second pinplant so he could do a better job as a merc! Besides, the Wrogul took him, and if I didn’t hate the taste of rubber bands so much, I’d bite you, you…calamari!” Lucky was getting wound up.

Time to cool this down. “Wow, you got a lot of information. Well done!”

“Yeah, well, I hate feathers in my meals. So, I started plucking a few off of the Administrator. She was quite talkative.” Lucky smiled at the memory. That was one of the reasons Ray loved partnering with her.

“I have an indication the Wrogul surgeon got away alone. You say a Wrogul took the Human. Which one of these is true?”

“Two Wrogul. The Administrator said they lost track of the surgeon, but the MinSha caught the Human down in the red-light district. They were taking orders from a squid in a water tank and boarded a shuttle headed up to a destroyer. It didn’t break orbit until the Human showed up in the district two months later. System Control lost track of it and thinks they had their own hyperspace shunt.”

Ray flashed contemplation. He had also gotten skilled at duplicating Human vocalizations with his translator. “Hmm. We do not have tracking on the two Wrogul, but I have a lead on the surgeon. Twelve years ago, he showed up here in the company of a rather famous scientist from my world. Very old, though, for a Human. I can send a message and see if he is still around. Meanwhile, I need to examine the Human merc.”

“According to the Administrator, they sent him to Earth. Someone had set up a credit account in his name, so they hired a courier to take him there. I’m surprised they didn’t stick him in cargo and pocket the rest considering how much was in the account, though.” Lucky licked her teeth.

“Hmm. Earth. Yes, well, we should probably check in at the Luna Barracks,” Ray suggested. He knew Lucky was thinking about the lost opportunity to eat the Sphen-Eudy, but Peacemakers were cautioned against doing such things. Time to distract her. “Hey, there is a Human restaurant near here that claims to be a Brazilian Steak House. I have heard that translates to all the meat you can eat. They also serve calamari—for me. You in?”

Lucky just drooled in place of an answer.

* * * * *

Chapter Six

To’Os was a single stargate jump from Earth, so Ray got regular updates from the Peacemaker Guild Consulate on Luna. There were indications something strange was going on with the Human merc companies, but that wasn’t a priority for the Guild, as they seemed to have an increase in assignments and transfers. There were a number of enforcers on active duty elsewhere, and support staff was being shuffled to locations closer to those high priority efforts. It was odd HQ would allow the staffing to drop so low, but that was above Ray’s pay grade.

The Peacemakers had been on To’Os for just over two Earth weeks, and the information return on their efforts was running out. Jessica had provided Ray with access to the Port servers—for a modest fee, of course—and he had been going through the files to find any mention of the mysterious Wrogul in the company of the MinSha. Lucky was unable to get any new information from the city Administrator and had exhausted planetary and system administration sources as well. She was now going door-to-door in the To’Os red-light district to see if anyone had seen how or where the Human merc had appeared. There was little of substance, but their transport was still a couple of days away. They needed to make sure all the leads were chased, and no one chased better than a Besquith.

The only new piece of information came from Ray and Jess’ hacking of the former Port Manager’s office recordings. While To’Os official policy was “if no one recorded it, it didn’t happen” leading to an absence of official documents and recordings, the Tossers were paranoid enough to keep personal records for their own defense. Administrator Toweena had foolishly neglected to scrub all the files from her time as Port Manager, and there was one recording of her talking with an unidentified person named Pasteur right before the raid on Squiddy’s clinic. Lucky was able to confirm that several civilians had overheard the MinSha mercs talking about Pasteur as well. It seemed likely they had found a name for the strange Wrogul at the heart of the attack, but there were no certainties and no further information on that being’s whereabouts.

The trail was not entirely cold. They knew the Human Ginzberg’s location, but reports said he was not talking. Whether by choice or by force was something Ray would need to investigate.

The Guild had contracted their transport to Luna with a company specializing in protecting VIPs. It had made a name for itself protecting a religious leader on a mixed Human/alien colony when the alien’s home world declared jihad on the heretics for accepting commonality—if not outright converting to—an old Earth religion. Normally Custode Sviss Executive Protection transported protectees on couriers and yachts with upgraded armor and mostly defensive weaponry. However, the SEMS Frank W.A. Jefferson was really an over-sized frigate with luxury accommodation for the VIP clients, room for a large bodyguard, and the weapons complement of a typical merc frigate. The ship itself was almost the size of a destroyer but was not a true warship and couldn’t compete in a head-to-head battle with one. Nevertheless, it was top-of-the-line for rapid VIP transport, and the CSEP were renowned for the use of cunning and guile in place of firepower.

That did not mean CSEP would run from a fight. Just the opposite, and they were calling at To’Os to deliver a Sphen-Eudy corporate executive who had just fought off a literal hostile takeover attempt. The Peacemaker Guild wanted the ship and full security attachment at Luna to move some critical resources to Kleve. The security had been augmented with a small merc company, the Copperheads, who were also headed back to Earth. The Guild was willing to pay the deadhead fees to get the Jefferson back to Luna. Providing transport for Ray and Lucky was simply a fringe benefit.

On the day of departure, Lucky had gone ahead to the starport to arrange retrieval of their cargo modules from the customs lock-up. Given the likelihood that items had gone missing, and the near certainty the locals would try to charge exorbitant fees to “find” them again, Ray had decided Lucky would be the best negotiator for the job. That left him to finish packing his planet-side gear and prepare his mobile water tank for transport.

Part of their sealed cargo was the specialized Wrogul mix of one-percent saltwater fortified with sulfur and several volcanic minerals. Jess had directed him to the supplier that Molina—well, Squiddy as he was known locally—had used. Rather than use their own precious supply, Ray had his tank and holding cells filled with the local product, then packed away his “business suit” and dry-land gear.

As he was leaving for the port, he was surprised to find two CASPers waiting for him to leave his accommodation. His pinplants pinged as a notification came in from Lucky. Apparently, the travel arrangements included full-service protection. The party arrived at the ’port, Ray paid his fees—surprisingly modest, apparently Lucky had been effective—and reported to the shuttle. An unusual alien, looking remarkably like a starfish in water-filled coveralls, greeted him and checked his manifest. Two more CASPers stood guard at the ramp. As he started to maneuver his tank up the ramp, one of the treads locked up and the vehicle lurched to a stop, spilling water out of the tank.

A notification popped up that he had received a message on a private pinlink channel even Lucky did not know about. As the purser signaled the CASPers to simply lift the tank into the hold, he ran a quick check for malware and opened the message.

I can fix that for you.—V.

“What? Who?” Ray flashed confusion as well as vocalizing through his translator, the message had caught him that much by surprise. He lifted himself up out of the tank to look around the hold and noticed that one of the escort CASPers was flashing its external telltales in a pattern that seemed familiar…Wrogul laughter?

“Corporal Verne Azure at your service, Peacemaker,” a synthesized voice said from the mecha.

* * * * *

Chapter Seven

It seemed improbable at the time, but I had no evidence it was anything except happenstance. See, Wrogul from Azure colony are not exactly common. There are around one hundred of us, although one-half have adapted themselves to live in the open ocean, instead of the low-saline, high sulfur waters of the Styx River delta, and remain strictly to themselves. So far, I had only heard of five who left Azure to make their way in the Union.

Still, you would be excused for thinking eight-armed aquatics that think of themselves as Human would keep in touch, or that an old Galactic species such as the Wrogul would be more common in the Union. The truth is, while I knew where my fellows had gone, we really did not keep in touch…mostly. Not only that, but while the Galactics acknowledged there definitely were other Wrogul out there, they just didn’t seem to be around.

I had just encountered my third Wrogul, and second from my home colony of Azure, in as many weeks.

First Molina resurfaced under the name of Squiddy fourteen years after he left Azure. Then he disappears after an encounter with the first other Wrogul Humans had reported in almost seventy years. Now my cousin Verne showed up as a hired mercenary security guard on the same ship Lucky and I were taking to Earth. It was too much coincidence.

Like any good detective, I did not trust coincidence.

* * *

Their reunion was brief and conducted mainly over pinlink. After all, Verne was on duty. It seemed he had indeed become a mercenary soldier, which had been his dream for as long as Ray could remember. In fact, his reminiscence had pulled up an image of a young Verne turning a child’s toy CASPer into a working replica in all but the weapons.

Ray needed to get his water tank secured and ready for lift. He was once again surprised—he would not have to ride to orbit in the tank; instead, there was a liquid-filled compartment explicitly for his use. It seemed the CSEP really did cater to the security and well-being of all clients!

Once on Jefferson, he was therefore not surprised to learn the ship had a complete set of water-filled tubes and compartments, and even dual command centers. The starfish-like Arritim were not exactly mercenaries, although they filled most of the ship’s non-combat functions. They hailed from San Pietro, the same planet as the Custode Sviss mercenaries, and this was their only ship with a mixed crew. It was the Star’s way of paying tribute to the mercs that gave their lives in defense of both species’ freedom.

Ray got settled in a compartment in the water-filled section. He knew Lucky was already aboard and enjoying a luxurious suite in the VIP quarters. Verne, of course, was back “in the dry” with the other mercs in what was traditionally called Marine Country, no matter which branch of troops were aboard.

Ray had never been close, nor was he particularly distant from his…uncle, cousin, or whatever Human relationship his fellows adopted. He and Verne were actually the same age, having budded in the same season. It was just that when Ray had left Azure to find his calling with the Peacemakers, only Nemo and Molina had yet left their home world. Verne was still trying to become a merc and building contraptions to try to improve his chances. Verne was friendly, but often preoccupied with fire and electricity, and seemed intent to master all manner of energy that threatened an aquatic species. The last Ray had heard, Verne had gone off to be a starship engineer. Now he was driving a CASPer. They had much to catch up on.

It was twelve hours to the stargate. They would be under thrust most of the way, so Ray would not be able to take advantage of the fluid tubes for some micro-gee exploration. Verne would not be off-duty for another six hours—after turnover. Lucky was currently “suffering” through having her fur shampooed and groomed by a personal valet.

There was nothing for him to do, so he set his pinplant to wake him in six hours and slept.

Ray awakened to alarms and sudden lateral acceleration. The smooth pseudo-gravity of constant thrust gave way to what felt like evasive maneuvers. Ray pinged Verne with a request for information and opened a comm line to Lucky. The image in his ’plant-augmented vision showed Lucky with glistening coat and curls tied with little pink and purple bows….and were those yellow eyebrow feathers tied in them? “What is happening, Ol’ Curly Wolf?”

“The captain commed that an unidentified destroyer and two frigates are closing on our vector and just launched missiles. He says this ship is big and can defend itself but is likely no match for them. So far, they have not used their full launch capability, and these appear to be warning shots. He thinks they mean to close and board.” She stopped and turned back and forth in front of the pickup, and Ray could swear she was…preening. “You like the curls? I’m going for Alpha in a few more years and figured I would try out the look since I had the chance.”

“We are under attack and you are concerned with your appearance?” Ray flashed sooltory—after all, he was amused—and irritated at the same time.

Lucky actually pouted. “I spent all day at this!” A whining wannabe female Besquith was not a comforting sight. “Besides—” She perked up. “—we have a full company of mercs plus the Guard’s own Marines. If they do board, we’ll have the advantage.”

She had a point, but only as long as the enemy did not blow up the ship first. The real question, though, was who their assailants were, and why they were attacking. Pirates were unlikely to be operating this close to a planetary system. Besides, the Sphen-Eudy did not tolerate competition. Any pirates in the To’Os system would have either been co-opted and put to work as “customs inspectors” or some other cover, or they would have been destroyed. Early in their species’ history, the Tossers had trashed quite a few worlds before they organized their crime syndicates and resorted to more peaceful conquests, such as extortion, blackmail, and hired assassins.

If not pirates, then they had to be mercs—either in the hire of the Sphen-Eudy or someone else. As a member of the Peacemaker Guild, Ray had access to the Merc Guild database of open contracts. It should have been updated from GalNet no more than one hyperspace transition ago. If the mercs came in from out-system, the contract should be recorded. Even better, if they were a local hire, the local node would have the details within a few hours.

Ray used his Guild credentials and downloaded the entire contract database to his pinplant storage and set a search ’bot to look for contracts by time, location, company, and ship descriptions. When nothing matched, he revised the search and ran it again. After four iterations, taking only about five minutes in real-time, he accepted that the attackers were not on an authorized Guild contract.

As a good detective, Ray did not accept a negative response. Something about the destroyer was familiar and he checked back on the stored memories from his conversation with Lucky several weeks ago after she interviewed the city Administrator.

The strange Wrogul shuttled up to a destroyer that System Control subsequently “lost.”

This was not a coincidence. This was an attack…and an opportunity.

* * * * *

Chapter Eight

I know what you are thinking. A Peacemaker should be in the command center during a battle. You are correct. There was no way I was going to stay in my compartment.

* * *

Ray had been assigned to the fluid-filled spaces of the ship used by the Arritim crew. Like Wrogul, they did not need constant immersion, but they liked to stay wet. In gravity they filled the corridors with water, a bit salty for his taste, but tolerable for a few hours. Now that they were in microgravity, however, the water was drained and replaced with a high humidity air mixture with just a film of water coating the surfaces. It also had rungs like the Human spaces, and his eight arms made for a very fast transit to the bridge.

Surprisingly, the bridge was actually two decks divided by a klearplas floor/ceiling. The lower deck was for the Arritim, designed for a water environment, and consisted of all of the stations for controlling the ship. The upper, Human, deck was the CIC—the Combat Information Center for fighting the ship. An airlock at the rear of the compartments provided passage between the two, and Ray quickly joined the Human officers—and Lucky—in the drier of the two spaces.

“Prepare for boarders,” the Human captain said. His name tape read, “Perna, Michael,” and he ignored Ray’s arrival. Of course, he was busy with both his own console and pinlinks to critical ship systems.

“We’re not fighting the ships?” Ray asked Lucky.

“No, they outgun us,” supplied another Human. “We’ve already taken a hit to the Number Two fusion torch, and it caused a reactor surge. They have a particle beam cannon and can run us down. We’re better off defending against boarding parties until we can bring our own specialties on-line.”

“Colonel DiNote, this is Investigator Harryhausen. He’ll probably tell you to call him Ray. Ray, this is Colonel DiNote, commander of the Custode Sviss.” Lucky performed the introductions.

“I have information,” Ray began, but Lucky held up a paw.

“This is the ship that brought the rogue Wrogul to the system,” she said.

“Why, yes…how did you know?”

“Simple, it’s a MinSha destroyer and the frigates are registered to a Zuul. The Tossers forbid the use of any merc forces other than Lumar and Blevin by any but official agencies. They don’t trust mercs that are cleverer than they are.” Lucky was looking rather smug. “Thus, your rogue Wrogul came here on a MinSha vessel that System Control subsequently lost, and here we are being attacked by MinSha.” She turned to Ray and grinned, baring sparkling white rows of very sharp teeth.

Ray’s preferred retort—that she was smarter than she looked—seemed like a bad choice for the moment. Gamma Besquith were smaller than either their alpha or beta counterparts, the only way for a gamma to compete was to be clever. It was why Lucky had become a Peacemaker. She was very clever!

“So, you are going to let them board,” Ray continued.

“We’re going to let them try,” replied the commander.

Ray thought for a moment. “Wait, what specialties?”

The CIC was surrounded with Duo-V and Tri-V screens showing the view outside the ship. A large Tri-V tank in the middle of the compartment showed a schematic of the immediately surrounding space. The Jefferson was in the center, and one large and two smaller red icons showed the locations of the enemy ships. The destroyer was off their port side, with the frigates fore and aft, effectively boxing them in. Small orange dots separated from the larger ship and approached Jefferson.

Ray could hear Captain Perna giving commands, and the Tri-V showed a yellow fog begin to form around the ship. “What is that?”

“Something we learned from our Arritim brothers. Ice crystals, frozen water. We carry enough to be able to spare some for an ablative shield. It will make things uncomfortable for anyone approaching in a suit instead of a ship. Of course, we lace it with quartz crystal and tungsten spurs to make things tough on the ships as well,” answered DiNote. “It’s a delaying tactic at best, though.”

The “fog” indicating the microscopic hazards expanded out from the ship and started to thin. Several of the orange icons blinked as they encountered the thickest regions of the countermeasures. At least two blinked out, and several more turned back. At least five managed to clear the field and enter the less dense region closest to the ship.

“Engage point defense,” said Perna.

“Rolling the ship,” came a translated voice from one of the Arritim on the lower bridge.

Two more icons blinked out, but three managed to attach to the Jefferson. “Boarders at Deck Three, Frame Nine, Compartment Seven, and Deck Sixty, Frame Four, Compartment Eight. There is penetration by a breaching pod at Deck Twenty-eight, Frame Five, all port compartments; the pod was penetrated to midline.” The Damage Control tech activated their internal defenses and re-routed critical systems around the cut and damaged bulkheads.

“Marines to forward point-defense control, Deck Three starboard and main engineering, Deck Sixty port. Colonel Triplett, if you would, please deploy your men around that breaching pod. Form a perimeter and keep them contained,” Colonel DiNote said into his comm. Turning to the Peacemakers he said, “It’s a good thing we had the Copperheads aboard. We actually outnumber three boarding ships, although I hate those damned burrowing pods. Three ships worth of MinSha we can handle, as long as they don’t have Goka.”

Lucky and DiNote visibly shivered. No one liked fighting Goka. The damned cockroaches were virtually indestructible in boarding actions. Which was why they were used for that purpose so often.

“Goka! We have Goka!” came the voice over the comm a few moments later.

Ray was tempted to resort to language he seldom used as Lucky, DiNote, and Perna simultaneously uttered a single word: “Fuck.”

The good news was the Goka were in the breaching pod and not part of the two boarding parties. The Copperheads were in CASPers configured for ground defense, which meant they still had MACs and explosives. They would need them for the Goka. And the Goka were only seven decks away from the bridge.

Ray looked over at Lucky; she still had the pink and purple bows, but was also wearing a combat harness with a heavy cannon as big as the Human crew-served version and a bandolier of reload cartridges slung over her freshly groomed and styled fur. Besquith were the beasts of myth and legend as far as Humans were concerned, and their rows of sharp teeth and bad dispositions did not help. They were also—literally—inhumanly strong.

Except for gammas.

Lucky was a gamma, a head shorter and less bulky than the typical Besquith merc, but she was clever and she knew some tricks that might come in handy. Ray looked at her and said quietly, “You look pretty, Peacemaker Lujkhas.”

Lucky spun to glare at him and growled, but then she stopped, nodded, and took off down the companionway toward Deck Twenty-Eight. Colonel DiNote stared in confusion.

Lucky and I fight all the time. All. The. Time. But there are times when we do not fight. We settle down and work together and get the job done. Well, the fecal matter had truly met the rotary impeller, and we both knew it.

Some unknown agency just targeted Peacemakers, and that is just not done in this galaxy. There may be very few Union-wide laws, but you do not go around attacking Peacemakers. Oh, it happens, but it gets punished.

So, I told her she looked pretty—and she did. I know she wants to go for alpha, and her appearance is starting to become important to her. I meant it, and she knew I did. She also knew what I meant.

It is spinning excrement time. Time to get to work.

* * * * *

Chapter Nine

There is not much for an octopoid Peacemaker to do during a battle, but the fact that there was an enemy breaching pod embedded in the hull meant there was a possibility for hacking into the enemy communications net. The time and credits spent with Jess at B’nb’n were worth it, considering the new suite of cracking tools Ray had downloaded to his pinplants. Unfortunately, his first several attempts at a remote link were unsuccessful. He needed to get closer and an opportunity presented itself.

“Goka in the Star tubes,” announced one of the CIC crew.

“Flush them,” replied Captain Perna.

Jess had eventually relented and let Ray examine Molina’s security and escape plans. He had quickly understood the implications of the hydraulic connections to To’Os’ sewers. The captain’s latest order would do essentially the same thing, fill the Arritim—nicknamed “stars” after their five-limbed radial symmetry—transit tubes with water again, then send a pressure pulse toward Deck Twenty-Eight to literally flush the cockroaches back out of the tubes.

That same pressure wave could deliver Ray to Deck Twenty-Eight as well. He just needed to get into the tubes. His new software held the solution, as it had gained access to the unsecured portions of the ships’ computers immediately after boarding. The secured portions took only a little longer, but it meant he had a complete ships’ schematic in his ’plants. The nearest access heading in the proper direction was not back through the airlock to the lower bridge, but rather through a service access hatch barely a meter from where he was standing.

Ray announced to the CIC, “Excuse, but I need to be going…” The only response was a vague wave from the colonel, so Ray dragged himself over to the hatch and entered the tube. He could hear the gurgling sound of inrushing water, and quickly secured the hatch from his side. There was no point in subjecting the bridge to a sudden jet of water. Humans were as bad as cats in that respect.

He considered bracing himself with a couple of arms wrapped around various rungs but decided that was a good way to injure himself. Instead, he wrapped into a tight ball and waited for the flood. He didn’t have long to wait. First there were a few centimeters of water, then the tube started to fill with a swift current. After another minute of steadily rising flow, a wall of water literally flushed him down the passage.

He had only covered two decks before he first saw sign of the Goka. His connection to the ship’s computer indicated the tube he was in had been cut open on Deck Twenty-Seven, and the first Goka had made it nearly five decks. Ray reached out and grabbed the nearly impervious carapace of the insectoid merc. He could not penetrate the shell, but he could dislodge it from the wall and carry it back toward Deck Twenty-Seven with the flow.

Ray grabbed two more Goka crossing the next two decks, although one resisted and was likely still attached further up the tube. That one would be for security. By now, the Wrogul and Goka formed a mass that just about filled the tube and swept the remainder of the invaders in front of them. Water was starting to back up, and the pressure was rising. By the time they hit Deck Twenty-Seven, the mass quite forcibly squirted from the cut in the tube, hurling a dozen cockroaches and one bruised cephalopod against the opposite bulkhead.

Ray was stunned, as were the Goka, but they recovered much quicker. Fortunately, so did the surprised mercs in CASPers who had been trying to enlarge the cut and get inside the tube. During the headlong rush, Ray had instructed the crewman at the damage control station to close the Deck Twenty-Six iris valve as soon as he exited the tube. The confirmation that he had arrived was sent automatically and did not depend on the sluggish response of the stunned sender. With only one Goka left in that tube, the odds were much more in the favor of the Humans.

Now to deal with this lot.

Most of the CASPers had given up on the ineffective handheld lasers and closed to melee distance, relying on integral blades and K-bombs to break the laser-resistant shells. Ray’s hacking of ship and merc communications revealed a team on Twenty-Eight was setting up a crew-served particle beam cannon energized from the ship’s power systems. While these more…energetic approaches tended to be effective against the heavily armored Goka, they also tended to make additional holes in the ships they were trying to protect.

Ray noticed one of the CASPers was having somewhat better success. His right arm-mounted laser was more powerful, and he was able to cut into the Goka carapace in one swing with his left arm-mounted blade. The suit was slightly smaller than the others, with a heavier laser that seemed to shift frequencies while firing. The sword blade also had an unusual appearance—Ray could not actually see the edge of the blade. Wrogul vision was monochromatic; they only had receptors for light and dark, somewhat like black-and-white sensitive rods of the Human eye. However, their irregularly shaped pupils scattered different colors of light in a manner known as chromatic aberration. Ray had inherited memories from his progenitor, Todd, who had discussed the mysteries of Wrogul color vision with his Human rescuers seventy years ago. Different colors refracted to separate regions of the Wrogul retina, and their brains reassembled the image into color spectra that far surpassed the capabilities of Human eye. For his vision to blur the edge of the blade meant it was refracting in an odd way…

A vibrating edge! No wonder it was more effective at cutting into the Goka armor. The smaller size of the CASPer and upgraded…no, tinkered!…weapons meant this had to be Verne! It also gave Ray an idea.

“Verne! Cover me!” The mecha swiveled only slightly. To his credit, the operator continued exactly as before, slashing and stabbing Goka, while also moving into a position to give Ray a clear route of advance under his powerful laser.

Ray moved to the nearest Goka and put his delicate sensory tentacles along the carapace. He concentrated and the tentacles started to vibrate, then blur. It was difficult, like trying to swim in mud, but he was able to slide one tentacle through the shell to where he could feel the pulsing primary cognitive ganglion. Without thinking, he wrapped the end of the tentacle around it and pulled.

The tentacle came back through the shell holding a piece of Goka brain and the insectoid soldier abruptly stopped moving, released its attachment to the bulkhead, and drifted in the reduced gravity. The rest of the battle was a blur of Verne’s laser and blade over his head clearing the way while Ray repeated the technique.

Finally, they ran out of Goka, and the comms indicated the other boarding teams had been stopped as well. A damage control crew was already fixing the damage around Deck Twenty-Eight where the pod had breached bulkheads and broken cabling runs.

Verne was there with his cockpit open, staring at him strangely. There were calls for the Wrogul merc to report to Engineering to help with some crisis, but he seemed to be ignoring them for the moment.

Verne flashed sulameia—concern. Ray looked down at his tentacles, dripping with blue-green Goka cerebral fluids.

What had he done?”

* * * * *

Chapter Ten

What had I done? The fiilaash was for healing. That was drummed into us from the day we budded. Damn the bipedals for infecting us with their ethics, but they were not wrong!

I broke the fundamental code of my family.

My cracking routines had penetrated the comms on the breaching pod while I fought the Goka. Like cockroaches everywhere, they were nearly indestructible, but not smart. Their pod had an unsecured link back to the MinSha destroyer, and I cracked their system and drained it dry. I left what Jess called an Easter Egg for them. All three ships were busy trying to restart their fusion torches while Jefferson made best speed to the stargate. Apparently, Verne had worked a miracle there, too. The mercs call him their good luck charm.

The data from the MinSha was good—very good. The rogue Wrogul was gone—he left the system two months ago, but had the mercs remain on station to stop anyone who followed him. I now had a name—or rather two. When he hired them, he was using the name Pasteur, but before he left he had decided he wanted to be called Mengele.

An appropriate name, since I now knew what he was after—any of the Wrogul from Azure who truly understood Human nervous systems. That meant Nemo, Molina, Todd, and maybe Verne. He was after something about Human brains and was abusing pinplant technology to study the Human merc Ginzberg.

The data was more than just good, it told me that I had a legitimate case against this…Mengele. I also knew one more thing. Mengele was from the world on which all Wrogul had originated. No one in the Union knew where that was, and all of Todd’s memories were wiped before he arrived at Azure. There was now reason to think it was deliberate.

There was only one problem. Like Human surgeons, we knew the first code of using our unique gift was to Do No Harm.

I violated that code in mindless violence.

Lucky and I were pursuing a monster—a Wrogul who apparently used the same techniques to torture and interrogate.

But what kind of monster was I?

* * *

Once through the stargate, the ship secured from Condition One and concentrated on repairs. They had expended a lot of water, so the companionways were left unfilled and personal compartments were limited to partial fill. Ray decided to do his part by not filling his quarters, but neither did he utilize the high-humidity heliox mix used by the Stars. It was dry in his quarters and getting drier.

Ray did not care.

“Uncle, you need to eat,” Verne said. “You need to drink, and you need to hydrate yourself.” The merc-engineer had visited him many times during the one-hundred seventy hours of hyperspace transit. This last time he resorted to wearing one of his customized wet suits and brought along a spray tank of water to wet down his fellow Wrogul.

“I will eat later.”

“Stop punishing yourself!”

“I am not punishing myself! I am thinking.” Ray flashed creasola—regretful contemplation. To another Wrogul, it was flavored more with crea, regret, than with sola, contemplation.

“You are obsessing, Uncle. You cannot do that. You were in battle and you used the weapons you had available. Every merc knows that.”

“I am not a mercenary!” Ray’s translator roared. “I am a Peacemaker. A peacemaker and I have become just as bad as…as that…abomination we are after!”

After the outburst, Ray refused to communicate anymore. No flashes, no verbalizations. Just silence. Verne eventually left, despondent for the friend he’d always looked up to as a role model.

* * *

Ray stared at the captured video from the night Mengele raided Molina’s—Squiddy’s—clinic. Jess had enhanced the video and restored full Tri-V resolution so he could zoom in and view from any angle. He had a close-up of the Wrogul on-screen when Lucky over-rode the lock and barged into the compartment.

“You stink.” She wrinkled her nose, then turned and motioned to the two of the three CASPers outside the door to leave the tracked water tank in the hallway and return to their stations. She picked up the limp Wrogul, unceremoniously dumped him in the tank, and then closed the transit cover and locked it with a Peacemaker seal.

She looked at the Tri-V image, then back at her partner. “You’ve started to look like it, you know.” She gestured at the image.

Ray’s normally sleek gray skin was now mottled and brown. Patches of skin were flaking and had turned an unhealthy white. There was a black crust on his sensory tentacles, and several arms showed the dark blue of dried blood. Moreover, Ray’s normally bright green eyes were now a sickly shade of yellow.

Ray did not respond, and Lucky shrugged, closed the compartment door, and instructed Verne in his CASPer to maneuver the tank to the debarking lock.

“Lujkhas, Harryhausen, you need to get on the transport immediately.” Lieutenant Crom ordered. Lucky was surprised to see her at the Peacemaker Consulate on Luna, given that only four weeks ago she had been barracks commander at T’Viendre Two. If Ray was surprised, he did not show it; he remained as silent as he had since Jefferson arrived at Sol.

“Where are we going?” Lucky asked.

“Weqq,” she said simply. Crom looked at Lucky, then at Ray, and cocked her head sideways. A ruffle of movement passed through her fur like a wave of purple highlights. Lucky had never seen the effect since the L-T was usually tearing her fur out at the antics of the pair. “What happened?”

“We were jumped before we hit the stargate. Mercs attacked a flagged PM ship and boarded. They knew it was us and did it anyway.” Lucky sighed and motioned toward Ray, who had turned away at the question, and huddled in a corner of the tank. “This sad, pathetic sea-spider is a hero. He and his cousin slaughtered two dozen Goka and turned the attack. Saved us and the ship.”

Crom looked impressed. “Finest tradition of the Guild. We may have to re-think Enforcer status for him.”

“I wouldn’t do that. It’s how he killed them. Says it violated a moral code.” Lucky shook her head. “I don’t understand it. War is war, battle is glorious, and survival is the only thing that counts, but Blubberface is convinced it’s somehow all wrong.”

Crom now looked worried. Lucky had dropped several of her characteristic insults at Ray with no reaction. She took a deep breath and bellowed in typical Oogar fashion: “Investigator Harryhausen! Attention!” The customary puff of purple fur filled the air about her.

Ray spun around and instinctively snapped to attention—Wrogul style, with all eight arms extended downward and a half-meter splayed out uniformly in eight cardinal directions. Once his vision focused, and he saw that he was not being dressed down by his old lessons master, he slumped and flashed a short pattern. The translator was slow to respond, but eventually yielded two words: “I resign.

* * * * *

Chapter Eleven

“…Sign here, acknowledging that by the terms of your separation from the Service, you relinquish all fiscal claims on unreimbursed expenses. You hereby attest that the listed amount is your accumulated pay and agree not to pursue any further claim or reimbursement…Check this box to terminate your housing allowance at your permanent barracks…Sign here and provide the address where we may send any belongings from those quarters…”

The out-processing clerk had to be pulled off the last transport to process Ray’s termination. It was clear he was nervous about the delay and had actually rushed and shortcut several steps to get it over with as soon as possible.

“You don’t have to do this!” Lucky said. Concern was an unusual expression for a Besquith, but somehow it looked good on her. She was going to be a powerful leader for her people one day. “Where are you going to stay? How are you going to live? Where are you going to get the credits?”

“I have a relative in-system. I will visit him for a while and then head back to Azure.”

“You don’t have enough credits to book passage back!”

Ray waved his yack. “Actually, all of us—the Wrogul that left Azure, that is—have a trust fund. We all own equal shares of the biotech industry in the colony. Four of the richest Humans off-Earth made their fortunes from that industry. The surviving member is rumored to be richer than the Horsemen. I will manage.”

“You’re going to see the Human merc, and then you’re going after Mengele, aren’t you?”

The clerk cleared his throat and interrupted their conversation. “Sign here to acknowledge that you will have no contact with any material witness in an ongoing Peacemaker Investigation. That you have deleted all proprietary and confidential Guild files from your slate and pinplants. You may not represent yourself as an employee, contractor, or designated representative of the Peacemaker Guild. You have no legal standing in Mercenary, Trade, or Guild matters, and you are expressly forbidden from any inquiry or investigation that intersects with an open case.

“Furthermore,” the clerk continued, “Barracks Commander Crom has explicitly stated you are not to book passage to Earth. You are not to contact the Human named Ginzberg in any manner. You are to confine your in-system activities to those that cannot be construed as official Peacemaker activities. If you should be apprehended or detained, the Guild will deny any responsibility for your actions. The Guild cannot permit you to be used as leverage by any to-be-named parties in any hypothetical upcoming dispute. Now sign!

Ray reached out an arm, vibrated the water droplets away, then took the offered stylus and signed, checked, initialed, clicked, and tentacle-tip-printed the checklist.

Lucky looked at him, pleading, “Ray, don’t go!

Ray pulled himself up out of his travel tank. Whether from the subtle medication and nutrients Verne had added to the water, or from the new resolve, Ray was starting to look better. His eyes were bright green again and his skin was returning to normal. He reached out two arms and took Lucky’s forepaws gently. “I will be okay!” he said and looked her in the eyes. “Now go. Get this poor clerk back on the transport and get out of this system. Something strange is going on, and it doesn’t feel right. I promise I am just going to visit Mari and then head home. Maybe I can convince him to go with me.”

Lucky nodded and then looked away. After all, it wouldn’t do for anyone to see tears in a Besquith’s eyes.

* * *

I know what you are thinking…


No, I do not.

I do not know what I am thinking.

I only know that there is something I must do.

* * *

Ray was forbidden to book passage to Earth. That did not mean he could not go to Earth, just that he could not book passage.

One of the advantages of having a family member who was a chef was that delivery services would be used to him receiving unusual packages. A crate large enough to contain a tank of water, oxygen, nutrients, and what looked like a large octopus would likely be mistaken for the next day’s chef’s special.

To cover his tracks, Ray booked a ticket on the Grand Tour liner offering views of the air fountains of the Mars terraforming effort, Jupiter’s moons, Saturn’s rings, and flybys of the outer planets. The entire trip would take a month, and since his primary travel tank would be loaded onto the liner, there would be no reason for any Guild observers in the system to think he was anywhere but in his private stateroom onboard the cruise.

Meanwhile, Ray contacted a shipping company to pick up a shipment of “fresh gourmet seafood” for same-day delivery to Chez Marinara in Houston, Texas. Actually, packing the container would be a problem, so he combed through a local directory to find an agency specializing in miscellaneous labor. He found just what he was looking for—a company named General Services that advertised “We also walk dogs.” It was nice to see the classics were not forgotten.

The young man and woman who arrived to complete the packing never actually saw their employer. If they were concerned about all communications being by anonymous text, they never showed it. What interested Ray was listening to their conversation.

“The instructions say to label it ‘Chez Marinara, Houston. Perishable, Open immediately.’” The male read the instructions from his slate.

“Chez Marinara?” the female asked. “This is going to Chef Maury? Wow. I’ve been an admirer for a long time. Did you see him on Iron Chef last week? With eight arms, no one can chop the way he can. I especially love the twirls and flourishes with the knives.”

The male snorted and continued his work.

Ray almost reconsidered his decision to see his fellow Wrogul. If Mari was off on a Tri-V appearance or a culinary tour, it could put a serious crimp in his plans, since contacting him directly to arrange the visit was out. The PM Guild was sure to have someone monitoring their former investigator’s communications. As a good detective, he had tools to encrypt and hide his comms, not to mention he still had the cracking tools from Jess, but he had decided not to take that risk yet.

Perhaps he should.

* * * * *

Chapter Twelve

If he hacked into the slate the General Services worker used, he could bounce the signal around to make tracing and monitoring that much harder. It would not be perfect, but it might cause enough of a delay to cover his tracks.

The signal was bounced through the Earth Federation immigration control comms, then, for good measure, he routed it back into the Peacemaker Guild comms and then through the Secretary of the General Assembly’s office before tunneling through FedMart distribution and into PrimeEx Shipping. That should be enough to disguise it, and the Guild should see it as an external hacker and not internal.

“Chez Marinara. Would you like to make a reservation?” asked the voice on the other end of the comm.

“Howdy! Shay-eff Mow-ray, please,” said Ray, using a voice simulacrum with an accent described as ‘Texan.’

“I’m sorry, but the Chef does not take personal calls. You may contact his representative at the Kev Sharp agency.”

“Way-ell, Ah admit that Ah’m a beeg fan, but this is Prahm-Ex Shippin’ an’ we-all have a shipment comin’ his way that’ll require a signature on deliverah.”

“Ah, very well. We can have someone sign for it,” the receptionist replied.

“Ah’m afrayd it needs ta be the Shay-eff hisse’f thet signs,” Ray pushed back. It should not be unusual for Mari to receive specialty goods marked to his attention only. It was something Ray had discussed with him before Mari left Azure.

“I see. When will this package be delivered?”

“Tomorrah befo’ lunch.” Ray was actually getting a bit tired of the accent. He was not using an automated translation routine, since that could be detected by smart surveillance. Rather, he was generating each twang and drawl individually through his comm.

“Understood. Chef Marinara will be here in the morning. I will alert him to the delivery. Shall I pass on the sender information?”

“Mah records say only thet hit’s addressed ‘Grampa.’” That should be enough of a clue for Mari, even though it would be meaningless to anyone except another Wrogul from Azure.

“Thank you, sir. I have it on his calendar.”

“An’ Ah thank y’all for shippin’ with Prahm-Ex!” As Ray closed the call, he could hear the shipping transport arriving to move his crate to the cargo port.

Ray put himself into a dormant state. It would take approximately sixteen hours to transit to the Rome starport on the grounds of the former Fiumicino airport and then on to the restaurant in Houston. Eventually movement stopped, and Ray could tell his crate had been delivered to a warehouse or storeroom. There was the sound of a power tool cutting the seams of the packaging.

“Okay, whoever you are. You were told that Chef Maury does not take calls—even personal ones.” The voice had an accent Ray had only heard on Tri-V. He checked his ’plants and identified it as Australian. The side of the crate opened to reveal a man of modest height, just past middle-age, as the Humans called it, with rather striking features. “What the—?”

Once the side of the crate was clear, Ray started the treads on his tank and drove out of the packaging. “So, who are you and where’s my Grandson?”

“Your Grand—? Uh, I’m Kev, Kev Sharp. You know the Kev Sharp agency? Talent representatives?”

“This package was supposed to be signed for by Mari and only Mari. Why are you here?”

“Well, he did sign, but then he told me to deal with it. Everyone knows he sources his seafood personally, so this was probably an overzealous fan wanting to sneak inside his kitchen. But you’re—” the man looked confused “—you look just like him, except for the big water tank. Who are you?”

Ray snaked several arms out of the tank and pulled his body up on the edge so that he could look directly at the Human. “I am Harryhausen. Peace—uh, Private Investigator. I am his Grandfather, and I must see him.”

“Well, okay. I guess it’s not hard to see you aren’t a random fan.” He pulled a comm from his belt and gestured toward Ray with it. “I’ll call him, but I warn you, if you’re not who you say you are, the Chef is friends with some powerful people in this town. Powerful people.”

Ray said nothing. He used to be friends with powerful people, too, but he had resigned from that group, so it likely would not do him any good to say anything.

The annoying Human spoke into his comm, and after a few minutes two very large, very obviously armed Humans came through a door, followed by something that looked like an oversized quad-fan drone, but held a Wrogul in place of cameras and weapons.

Ray flashed a greeting, bypassing the translator and ignoring the Humans in the room.

Mari vocalized back, “Grandfather? What are you doing here?”

Not now. Not here. Ray flashed. I must talk with you in private.

Of course. I must start meal prep in an hour, but we can talk in my office. Mari flashed back. Through his translator he addressed the Humans. “Thank you, Kev. This is indeed my Grandfather. I appreciate you handling this. Guido? Nunzio? Back to the restaurant if you please.

The two heavies helped maneuver Ray’s tank into a black panel van after guiding Mari’s floater into its own latch-points where passenger seats would have been located. The Humans got in up front and drove while Mari filled the time with pleasantries.

“I know, Grandfather. Black is such a hot color for the summer heat, but we just can’t take too many precautions.” The warehouse was in Houston’s Startown, the extra-jurisdictional district that surrounded the starport. Galactic Union law—or lack thereof—prevailed in the Startown, but the region surrounding it was even worse. Outside Startown was an area of rundown housing, closed businesses, and burned-out buildings. There had been a time when North Harris County had been the trendy and fashionable place to live, but that had changed when the Houston Starport replaced the George H.W. Bush International Airport. The smaller ’port down south at the former William P. Hobby airport was no better, but at least it was primarily controlled by the Cavaliers and other merc units that preferred to manage their own facilities. Hobby would have been closer, but Houston Starport was only about five miles further out from downtown Houston.

“Why did the crate not get delivered to your restaurant?” Ray asked.

“The Earth government thinks anyone with off-world connections is avoiding taxes. All shipments have to be cleared and inspected first. I had to come out in person to sign and wait for Customs to decide if you were taxable. I had Kev do the actual opening just in case you weren’t as labeled.” Mari turned and looked directly at his progenitor and flashed. After all, you are the one who told me to be careful and keep my receptors open. I have much to tell you.

Agreed. Ray flashed. But not here. Not just yet. We have much to discuss.

* * *

I am here. On Earth.

And I lied to get here.

I had, in fact, updated my personal slate from Peacemaker files as soon as we had cleared the emergence point. The case file said Ginzberg was in Houston, working at a merc bar. Hopefully Mari’s contacts could get me to see him without having to use Peacemaker credentials. I had to speak with him, to see for myself what Mengele had done.

Only that way could I reassure myself that what I had done was justified to stop the monster.

* * * * *

Chapter Thirteen

Chez Marinara was in downtown Houston in a building that had once housed the ancient local center for distribution of hardcopy messaging and physical packages before they were replaced by slate messages and courier drones. The coming of the Galactics had been the final death stroke for the Post Office, but the building had been repurposed as a combination restaurant/Tri-V filming studio. Mari’s restaurant was constantly expanding, given that it was a favorite among the Houston glitterati. The studio contained show kitchens and prep space for his various Tri-V shows: the ever popular Cooking with Marinara, the Iron Chef spinoff Eight Arms versus Two, the children’s show Kitchen Science with Chef Maury, and the upcoming Celebrity Cooking Cruise Featuring Chef Maury! The building was not completely given over to Mari’s business endeavors, however, and contained a fairly large apartment, complete with large water tank and basking shelf. It was also thoroughly shielded and contained almost as many defense and escape systems as the blueprints he had seen of Squiddy’s clinic.

Ray’s water was beginning to taste a bit stale, so he was more than willing when Mari invited him to relax in the apartment’s facility. The water tasted odd, though.

Oh! Oh my. Surely this is not a local blend, Mari must import his water directly from Azure!

“Actually, I can guess what you are thinking, Grandfather, but no, that’s not imported from Azure. It’s my own mixture. One of the advantages to molecular gastronomy is duplicating tastes and textures. Do you like it?”

Ray could only flash a sign of susulol as he sank down into the tank.

Unfortunately, the transfer from the starport used up most of the time before Mari had to go to work to prepare for the evening meal rush. Chez Marinara was in the middle of the theater district; the Hobby Center, Jones Hall, Wortham, and Revention were all within a three-block radius, and this was a Sunday, with matinees and performances at most of the larger venues. The restaurant would be closed tomorrow, and there was no Tri-V this week, so the conversation would have to wait…for now.

He was not entirely on his own, though. Before heading into the restaurant, Mari had shown him to the private study. It was sealed with a gen-lock, unlocked by Mari’s DNA only, but Ray’s DNA was a close enough match to operate the lock.

The study was a secured communications and surveillance center. Mari had taken his grandfather’s warning to heart many years ago. He kept his eyes and receptors open and watched for unusual occurrences. He did not actually spy, and certainly not on Humans. He watched the Galactics. For purely Human intel, Mari engaged a local service and had given the comm code to Ray before going to work.

“Haskins and Bolger, Investigations. How may I direct your call?” The female voice on the other end of the comm was cheerful and professional…and very Human, not synthetic.

“I would like to speak with Mister Haskins or Mister Bolger, please.” Mari had not given him specifics, only the company name, so Ray figured he would start at the top.

“I’m sorry,” the cheerful tone turned cold, “but Miz Haskins and Miz Bolger are not available.”

“Uh, I’m sorry, I just…”

“You just assumed. Yes, we get that all the time. Since you are using a translator, I assume you are either one of those Galactics that feels that the only worthwhile Humans are mercs, and male ones, at that, or you are one of those sexless races that simply don’t care or don’t know better.”

Actually, she had him on the second count. Many of the asexual races adopted a single set of pronouns and ignored other distinctions. “My apologies, I would…”

“Let me just stop you right there. Haskins and Bolger is a Human company. We serve Human clients only.”

Okay, this was going too far. “I am Human!” Ray said quickly. “I grew up in a Human colony. Just because I have eight arms does not make me any less Human! You bipedals are so limb-ist!”

“Oh, excuse me, sir. It is my turn to apologize,” the receptionist responded in a conciliatory tone. “May I assume you are from Azure, then? Are you, by any chance related to Chef Mary?”

“Wait, you know Mari is from Azure?”

“Oh, of course. The Food History Channel did a feature on her last month.” There was a pause. “Let me put you through to Miz DiNote.”

After a few moments, a new voice came over the comm. “This is Jaime. I assume that this is Mister Harryhausen?”

“Wait, how did you know that? I have not given a name yet.”

“This is Haskins and Bolger, Investigations, right? We investigate. You are calling on a line registered to Chez Marinara, you confirmed you are from Mary’s home world, and there was a Peacemaker Investigator named Harryhausen who just quit the Guild five days ago. Is there another Azure Wrogul in the system we should be aware of?”

“Ah. No. That is…that is impressive. You are quite good. I met a merc colonel by the name of DiNote—” Ray began, but was abruptly interrupted.

“No relation, Mister Harryhausen. Haskins and Bolger is owned, operated, and staffed by merc widows. We used the death payouts to find out what happened to our husbands, and the business just grew from there.” There was a sigh from the other end of the comm, and Miz DiNote continued in a more professional tone. “Mary is a good client. Her manager, Meryll, told me you might call. I can save you a lot of time and just send you the information she had us gather. The man you want to see, Ginzberg, is working at the Lyon’s Den. It’s a merc bar, and you’ll need a merc to get you in there. We suggest contacting Gerhard Jackson—contact info is downloading to your comm. We are working on a new lead for you, but that information is not ready yet.”

“Oh. Thank you. I did not mean to—” Ray stopped, at a loss for how to continue. Finally, he settled for a simple, “Thank you.”

“You are welcome, Mister Harryhausen. You will need to tell Jackson and the merc bar you are still a Peacemaker, or they’ll never let you in. Contact me in a few days, and I should have that additional information for you. Just ask for Jaime when you call.” A light appeared on the comm unit acknowledging the incoming information as the call terminated.

Well, she was…abrupt. But the information on how to find Ginzberg was exactly what he needed.

On the other hand, he really needed to talk to Mari/Maury/Mary about what exactly was going on here.

* * * * *

Chapter Fourteen

Ordinarily on a Sunday night, Chez Marinara would close early—at least early as compared to a Friday or Saturday. However, this was also a triple theater night, with performances at the Wortham and Alley theaters, and the Houston Ballet at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts. Mari decided to keep the doors open until midnight to handle diners without reservations who might otherwise wait in the stand-by line for several hours. It was one of the practices that had earned Mari a place in the Best of Houston list for the past six years. It also meant a delay in having the private discussion Ray so desperately needed.

One thing was odd; Ray kept expecting to see Mari’s lifelong friend and “sister” Meryll. The two had met on Azure, and Meryll eventually joined Mari on Earth as manager and administrator of his restaurant, and what was obviously becoming a cooking empire. For her not to be around at this time was unusual. Had he told her to stay away while his Grandfather was sulking, or was she just busy elsewhere?

It was well after two in the morning when Mari came gliding into the apartment. Within the restaurant and studio, he rode on a basket-like seat magnetically levitated along an elevated track that put him at eye level with patrons and kitchen crew. Ray had looked carefully at the mechanism and recognized the telltale signs of something designed by Verne. That thought had led to another, and Ray was still wallowing in shame and self-pity when his grandson slid out of his transport and into the tank.

Have you eaten? Mari flashed.

“Yes, thank you,” Ray said. “I appreciated the meal you sent over. The Fruiti de Mare was quite good. I’ve never really appreciated what cooking does for our usual foodstuffs.”

“Ah yes, my favorite. Calamari is really my specialty. Now, the clams, mussels, and shrimp are traditional, but the addition of calamari and lobster was what helped me defeat the Japanese champion.” Mari’s translator had a little bit of inflection, but it was the Wrogul light flash language that truly conveyed Mari’s sense of pride in the statement. “But I can see that food is not really on your mind, Grandfather.”

Ray flashed creasola, then programmed the translator to emit the sound of a sigh. “I fear I have done the unpardonable, Grandson. I have killed using the fiilaash.”

Contrary to his expectations, Mari did not recoil or flash one of the signs of condemnation or censure. Instead, Mari lifted himself up on one of the many parallel bars in the apartment, crossed over to a refrigerator and extracted two brown bottles. He returned to the pool, and Ray could see the labels: Cavanaugh Brewery Styx River Stocke. It was rare off Azure, and most exports were snapped up by the merc companies that resupplied at the Ruby gas mines or were treated at Cerulean Clinic. It probably cost a fortune, but then again, Mari had probably “improved” the recipe and brewed it himself.

Ray organized his thoughts as his grandson opened the bottles and carefully placed them on the fine sand at the bottom of the tank. The alcohol content caused a small opaque trickle to rise from each bottle. “It’s less waste this way. You just position yourself above the beer. You can try to drink it, but I find it more relaxing to simply absorb it.” He demonstrated the technique by wrapping several arms around a submerged bar and placing his body above the slowly rising stream.

Ray tried to follow his grandson’s example but found he most enjoyed spreading his arms like an umbrella and letting the beer flow over his chemosensory “taste” receptors in the suckers lining each arm. He also lowered his tentacles into the stream, but that brought back the reason for his shame, and he quickly wrapped the appendages around his midsection. “You have not commented.”

“I was not sure if I should, Grandfather,” Mari replied. “You are ashamed because you feel you violated a moral code. It is evident in your body language.” He was silent for several minutes before continuing in the Wrogul flash language: I do not agree.

Why? flashed Ray.

Again, Mari delayed before flashing. We are Wrogul…he started but continued verbally: “…but we are also Human.”

“You are. Verne certainly is. I used to think I was.”

“Oh, you certainly are, Grandfather, and your guilt and shame are the perfect example.”

“Why do you say that?” The alcoholic beverage was having the same effect on Ray that it would on most Humans. As he relaxed, it was getting easier to voice his thoughts—hell, just to even have those thoughts!

“You are doing what the bipedals call beating yourself up over what you did on Jefferson.”

“Wait, I didn’t say anything about Jefferson!”

Mari flashed sooltory and laughed the hiss-click of the Wrogul. “To think you pride yourself on being a private investigator!”

“You young whelp! How did you know?”

“Verne messaged me as soon as your ship cleared the emergence point. We knew you would eventually make your way here. Also, Jaime from Haskins and Bolger sent me an info squirt this afternoon. She is very…shrewd for a bipedal.”

“It does not change the fact that I killed using the healing touch.”

“Bullshit, Grandfather!” Both the language and the tone shocked Ray. This was not the playful, eager young Wrogul he remembered. “You survived. You fought an enemy that specifically targeted you and your Enforcer. I saw the records Verne sent. Those Goka were sent to stop you—stop you—from getting to Luna and Earth. The fact that you never found a contract logged should have told you that. It was an illegal attack on a Peacemaker, and you survived using the tools you had at your disposal.”

“I still pulled their cognitive ganglia out of their heads. It was personal, and it was pure rage.” Ray was starting to see a little light, but he still felt shame at his mental state during the battle.

“No. This is where I have to correct you.” His beer finished, Mari swung up on a bar so he could look down at his grandfather. “You removed a cancer.”

Ray tried to interrupt, but Mari flashed him to silence.

“An illegal, contract-less merc hit squad, operating on behalf of a criminal, attacked Peacemakers. Remember, you had so…impressed the Sphen-Eudy that everyone in that system knew you and Enforcer Lujkhas were on board. They. Attacked. Peacemakers, and by your own code, their lives were forfeit. You simply performed surgery and cut out the rot on behalf of the Guild, the Enforcer, and yourself. It was simply a little more personal than usually happens.” Mari flashed a sign of satisfaction and waited for his words to sink in.

Ray sat motionless and silent for several minutes, not even a flicker of chemoluminescence. Finally, he shook himself and slowly spoke. “O-kay.”

With that word, Ray acknowledged what Mari had said was valid.

“You met Guido and Nunzio? My bodyguards?” When Ray flashed assent, Mari continued, “Did you wonder why they stick so close? I have been fortunate to have bipedal friends most of the time I have been on Earth. I hired a young student, Michael, early on to assist with my mobility, and Meryll has managed my businesses, but I was attacked one night in Rome. Three local youths, out of work because of the Galactic technology, and frustrated with declining BLA because of the downturn in merc income. I broke the arm of one, delivered a shock to another, and when the third saw me use fiilaash to deliver the shock, he ran away. Guido and Nunzio were sent to me by a friend.” Mari flashed a pattern of self-deprecating humor. “They are actually culinary students and agreed to work for me in exchange for training. Guido specializes in Italian of course, but Nunzio shows great talent at sushi. They are also sons of a powerful family in Naples. With them at my side, I usually do not have to worry about Human dangers. They will soon be moving on, and I’ll probably take on a couple of their younger cousins when they do.”

Ray thought about the story for a moment, then replied, “So you have used the fiilaash in self-defense as well.”

“Every one of us who has traveled off of Azure has had to do so. Granted, Verne just reached into machinery, but the principle is the same. Fiilaash is a tool, not an endowment, and certainly not a moral obligation. It’s all good to say “Do No Harm,” until harm comes looking for you.”

“Hmmm. I still feel as if I have some penance to do, but I see your point. Just one question, though.”

“Penance is fine, self-punishment is uncalled for.” Mari lowered himself back to sit eye-to-eye with his grandfather. “What is your question?”

“When did you grow up and become so wise, Grandson?”

There was a sound like a snort from the translator, a series of bubbles rose from Mari’s gills, and he flashed sooltory. “You did that. You told me to be alert, to listen and watch. I’ve been gathering information for you for many years, and you never asked how I obtained it. I watch, I listen. Life on Earth has not been easy. I accomplished much, but I have experienced much as well, and I always kept your words in mind. I also spent some time as a bartender.” Again, he flashed amusement. “Culinary school teaches many things, but not the finer points of alcohol—drinks, cocktails, the food category known as “pub food.” When I was first setting up my restaurant, I tended bar in the evenings while working on the restaurant logistics by day. When you listen, you learn things, and being wise comes with the job description!”

Ray flashed in laughter. “In that case, how about another beer, Mister Bartender Grandson?”

* * * * *

Chapter Fifteen

I have come a long way to do this job, and longer still to finish it. I will turn myself in to the Peacemaker Guild when I am done, but I just cannot let this case go.

Mari’s right. Pasteur, Mengele—whatever his name is—knowingly sent an attack against Peacemakers. That cannot be allowed to stand.

First, though, I need to see his victim.

* * *

The next day, Ray sent a message to Gerhard Jackson. The merc had been one of Squiddy’s first pinplant patients and had received several upgrades. He was also a longtime friend of Ginzberg and a fellow member of Riedel’s (now Polonius’) Rächer.

Mari had also provided a backup plan if Jackson was unwilling to vouch for him at the Lyon’s Den. It seems the former merc known as the Lyon had been a guest judge for the kids’ cooking competition Mari sponsored last year. While not exactly a fan, Lyon was a colleague, and willing to help out a restauranteur. When informed that Ray was a former Peacemaker intending to seek justice on behalf of Ginzberg, the bar owner agreed to allow Ray to observe Ginzberg discretely from a private booth near the bar, although he would not permit the Wrogul to approach Ginzberg unless Jackson was present.

To his surprise, Jackson agreed, and they arranged to meet the next day at a nondescript strip mall in South Houston at 2100 hours. Mari had loaned him Guido for the occasion, since the merc town around Hobby was not an appropriate place for a civilian, Galactic or otherwise. Nunzio had to stay behind since Chez Marinara served a sushi-centered menu on Tuesday nights.

At the appropriate time, Guido pulled the black van up in front of the abandoned strip mall about a klick from the former Hobby airport. The old airport belonged to Cartwright’s Cavaliers, one of the vaunted Four Horsemen merc companies, but it was unknown whether the Horsemen were actually on Earth at present. Ray’s various intel sources—both his own and the info relayed by Haskins and Bolger—indicated some very unusual ship activity in the system. Something had the merc units stirred up. Probably the unusually high number of failed contracts, missing or devastated units, and the recent financial issues that had beset the industry.

The mall was in a district that had definitely seen better days. They passed several obviously gang-related groups of youth on the way. One group was actively involved in beating a victim while the others were mostly standing around looking tough. Unfortunately, Ray wasn’t here for them, although it looked like he might not be able to avoid their intentions.

Guido parked the van and got out to inspect the surroundings. Ray floated out of the back on the hoverfan chair, on loan from Mari. A gang of five young men and a single woman came around a corner and caught sight of what they must have considered one of the hated Galactics. They sped up and were quickly closing as Guido came back to the van.

“Get back inside, Peacemaker,” he said.

“Not enough time. I can’t even get the doors back open before they get here.” Ray reached into the seat of the chair. “Better get ready to fight.”

“Gladly,” replied Guido, and he cocked his head from side to side, popping the neck bones with an audible crack! He produced a long carving knife and meat cleaver from inside his heavy black coat.

Ray had wondered why the bodyguard wore such a heavy coat in the Houston heat. Now he knew. “Got anything more powerful in there?”

“Firearms are illegal on Earth, Peacemaker.” There was a note of sarcasm in Guido’s voice, which suggested to Ray the answer to his question was yes, but that he was not ready to escalate…yet. “I am but a humble chef and these are the tools of my trade.”

Now he knew that Guido had additional secrets—literally—up his sleeves.

Well, Ray did not have sleeves, but he had plenty of arms…and a few secrets of his own. He pulled out a couple of brass knuckles and wove the ends of his arms through the finger holes. Next up was a sap—a thin leather bag filled with steel shot. Finally, he pulled out a long baton made of hard rubber.

Guido whistled in appreciation. “Nice. I approve, as long as you know how to use them.” He looked back up at the approaching gang and saw they were armed with clubs and knives. “Better get ready. Follow my lead and stay out of their reach. They will cut you.”

“Hey, hey, what we have here? You ain’t from around here, are ya?” one of the youths taunted. The group spread out to surround Guido and Ray.

“What is this? Lunch on a platter?” asked another.

“Naw, that’s one of them there ‘Galactics,’” a third said and spit on the ground to emphasize his disgust.

“I suggest you young people just move along,” said Guido, placatingly.

“Naw, I don’t think so. I never tasted no octopus. ’Specially the intelligent kind,” said the first youth. Ray mentally tagged this one as Thug 1. “Any y’all got some tartar sauce?”

Guido visibly shuddered at the thought. Ray could see his lips moving. That’s marinara sauce, you moron! But he said nothing aloud.

The other gang members laughed, and Thug 2—the lunch-on-a-platter youth—stepped toward Ray with a knife held in his right fist. A fourth youth, one who had not yet spoken—hence Thug 4—circled around behind Ray, likely assuming he would have an advantage by attacking from behind. The girl—Thug 5—had a net in her hands. She would probably try to throw it and tangle Ray or Guido—or both—in the net and disable them.

Ray flashed a sign of resignation, but quickly followed it up with one of anticipation. This might be just what he needed.

“Hey look! It sparkles!” said Thug 2 as he stepped forward with his knife.

Ray brought up the first arm with brass knuckles and caught Thug 1 on the jaw. The youth was knocked back, but Ray could also see movement in his peripheral—albeit wide-angled—vision. Thugs 1 and 3 moved on Guido, and Ray could see the latter begin to spin his knives in a complicated pattern.

Thug 4 advanced on Ray and made a left-handed slash with his own knife. Ray blocked it with the baton, then brought the sap down on the wrist holding the knife. There was an audible crack and the kid dropped the knife.

Meanwhile, Thug 2 had straightened out and was coming in for another try. This time Ray delivered a one-two combination with brass knuckle-assisted hits to left side of the jaw, and then on the right side just forward of the ear.

Thug 2 went down, and Ray was able to turn his body to pay attention to the pair behind him. Thug 4’s left hand hung limply, and a grimace showed on the kid’s face, but he held a length of metal pipe in his right hand and was getting ready to swing. Unfortunately, Thug 5 chose that exact moment to try to entangle Ray in her net—trapping Thug 4 in the web at the same time.

Before the net fell, Ray parried the crude club with his own baton, then the strands of the web settled on him. He brought up both sensory tentacles and started the rapid vibration associated with fiilaash—only instead of penetrating anything, he simply used the phase-shifting effect to part the strands of the net. Thug 5 looked on in shock as Ray brought up his four unoccupied arms, grabbed the remnants of the net and pulled. As soon as she was within his meter-and-a-half reach, he hit her in rapid succession with baton and sap on the side of her head. As she went down, Ray wrapped the remaining strands of the net around Thug 4 and gave him one last tap on the temple with the baton.

With his three accounted for, Ray turned to assist Guido, only to see him reverse the knife in his left hand and hit the second of his attackers, Thug 3, on the temple with the pommel. Thug 1 was already on the ground, bleeding from quite a few shallow cuts in several places, including a shallow cut across the forehead that bled into his eyes. Apparently, once disoriented, Guido had kicked his feet out from under him. With Thug 4 going down, Guido kicked Thug 2 in the side to keep him down.

There was a sound of someone—Human—clapping. Ray looked toward the entrance to the abandoned warehouse and saw two Humans standing, watching. The smaller of the two was clapping. He was average height and had the characteristic thick thighs and biceps of a CASPer driver. The large man stood watching with arms folded.

The files Ray had downloaded to his pinplants identified the shorter man as Jackson, the merc from Ginzberg’s unit. The larger was likely the Lyon, owner of the Lyon’s Den merc bar.

“We were coming out to give you a hand,” said Jackson. “You seem to have managed on your own.”

“I have a crew coming to take out the trash.” Lyon nodded his head in the direction of the downed attackers. “You know, I wouldn’t let just anyone into the Den. Not even a Peacemaker, and maybe not even just for Mari, but that was a nice piece of work. Let’s get you two inside before any of their friends decide to drop by.”

* * * * *

Chapter Sixteen

The entrance to the Lyon’s Den was hidden at the side of an abandoned strip mall. Anyone who did not know what they were looking for would certainly miss it, as Ray and Guido had. Once inside, Lyon shielded Ray from view of anyone else in the bar and got them set up in a shadowed booth that had a view from slightly behind and to one side of the bar. Ginzberg could be seen polishing glassware at the far end. The sound of humming was audible even at that distance.

“He doesn’t speak; just hums. He reacts fine and follows instructions, but he acts like an automaton most of the time,” Jackson said, quietly filling in Ray as he discretely watched Ginzberg.

“See that?” Lyon had pulled up a chair to the booth, partly to block the view from the rest of the bar’s patrons—he gestured toward Ginzberg as the latter turned, revealing the twinkling blue rectangle embedded in the left side of his scalp. “We’re told that’s some kind of advanced pinlink interface.”

“Wait, who told you that?” Ray was curious as to who else had examined Ginzberg.

“The Peacemaker. Besquith, bad tempered. Lukas?” Lyon looked toward Jackson for confirmation.

“Lukash,” Jackson supplied.

“Actually, it’s Lujkhas,” Ray corrected, “…and that bastard was supposed to be on her way out of the system. She lied to me!” He could see Guido was trying to hold in laughter. “Well, she did!”

“Uh, she?” asked Jackson. “I didn’t think the female wolfies came out to play much.”

Ray sent the pattern and vocalization he used to express a sigh of resignation. “Long story. Short version is that my former partner is a gamma, neither male nor female, or both, depending on your viewpoint. Lucky wants to attempt puberty and conversion to an alpha—female—so she prefers female pronouns.” He paused as one of the other serving staff brought their beer, and a bowl for Ray. He poured his beer in the bowl and tucked it underneath the main part of his body so that he could absorb it. “She was ordered off-world—as was I, before I resigned. When was she here?”

“Um, a week ago?” Jackson supplied, and Lyon nodded.

“Here at the bar?” asked Ray.

“Oh, hell no,” said Lyon. “I wouldn’t bring one of those werewolves into a Human bar, merc or not. She had us take Ginzberg to a clinic for follow-up.”

“O-kay, and then what?”

“Well, they ran some diagnostics, asked some questions—”

“And Ginzberg was okay with this?” Ray interrupted.

“Well, no, actually. He gets really uncomfortable around strangers. Kind of like kids with that sensory processing disorder were before we bought the cure from the Union.” Jackson looked over at Lyon, who nodded. “We had to sedate him, especially so that other octo—the doctor type—could do the exam. Ginzberg caught one glimpse of the guy and started screaming.”

What? What other octo?” Ray’s translator volume increased although the white noise dampeners kept it from traveling too far. A couple of patrons turned to look, but seeing the Lyon was involved, they decided it was none of their concern.

Keep your voice down!” Lyon stage whispered. Turning to Jackson, he said, “I told you it was a problem. Better tell him.”

Now it was Jackson’s turn to sigh. “The Besquith, Lukash, or however you say it, said he knew the doc was monitoring G. They both wanted to make sure Ginz was okay, so he set up the exam as part of his investigation.”

“Frankly, we thought the other guy was you until yesterday,” added Lyon.

“This just gets worse and worse,” said Ray. “This other—Wrogul is the name, by the way—did he give a name?”

“Yeah, Octa…something. That’s what I thought was funny.” Jackson thought for a moment. “He sure looked a lot like old Squiddy, the surgeon who did G’s and my pinplants, but he said his name was Octavius, Otto Octavius.”


Ray fidgeted restlessly, coiling and uncoiling his arms. “That’s because they were the same Wrogul.” At the confused looks from Lyon and Jackson, he explained, “He took the name Molina. Most of us from Azure choose a name from Earth culture. One of the usual in-jokes is to pick a name associated with Earth depictions of cephalopods. Nemo chose the name of a fictional submarine captain because of a description of giant squid in a book. He had a toy sub when he budded, and he looked just like the creature threatening the ship. Likewise, Verne named himself for the author of that book. My grandson Mari—Marinara. He specializes in calamari in red sauce. I am Harryhausen and chose my name for a director of stop-action creature movies.”

He paused, looked meaningfully over at Ginzberg, then continued. “Molina chose the name from an actor who played a character called Doctor Octopus. Doc Ock was a familiar nickname, but you mercs called him Squiddy for some reason.” After a pause, Ray continued. “The name of the character in the comic book from which it was adapted was Doctor Otto Octavius.”

As he let that sink in, Ray quietly observed Ginzberg. Any time he turned toward the shelves and counter behind the bar, the complex implant was visible. Somehow it looked familiar, but the memory eluded him.

“So, you’re telling me we let the same butcher who did that to him get his hands on him again?” Lyon asked angrily.

“Now wait, Lyon, Squiddy’s no butcher….” Jackson protested.

“No, gentlemen,” Ray interrupted. “Squiddy did not do that to him. I ran a thorough investigation on To’Os. The ‘butcher’ as you put it, went by the name of either Pasteur or Mengele. I have come across both names. It might be one, or two different, Wrogul. I am not certain, but I think it was one.”

“But one of your kind,” spat Lyon. “I should throw you out and hand you back over to the gang bangers.” He got up to leave.

* * * * *

Chapter Seventeen

No!” hissed Ray. “Not one of ‘my kind!’” In his peripheral vision, he saw Guido bristle. When Lyon turned back, he elaborated. “Nemo, Squiddy, me—we all come from the Human colony world of Azure. We were raised as Human as we could be, budded from a Wrogul with no memory prior to appearing in Azure space seventy years ago! This—yes, butcher is an appropriate label—is from the original race of Wrogul out there in the Galactic Union somewhere. We were raised not to trust them, and if this is what one of them did to a Human, we have to hunt him down and put a stop to it.” He reached out and laid the tip of an arm on the forearms of both Jackson and Lyon. Jackson flinched slightly but did not pull back. Lyon showed no reaction. “Please! This is not a Wrogul matter, or even a Peacemaker matter. It is a Human matter!”

Harrumph.” Lyon turned and looked at Jackson, then Guido, who looked ready to break some more bones, then sat back down. “Well, I can’t say as I’ve ever heard a Galactic make that argument before.”

“Thank you.” Ray pulled his arms back in and hunched forward. Guido visibly relaxed. “We will deal with my wayward cousin and ex-partner later, but please…tell me what you learned from the examination.”

Jackson and Lyon appeared to confer silently, somehow, an unspoken decision was made, and the latter nodded. “The Peacemaker and Doc said it is an advanced kind of pinplant with built-in wireless interfacing.”

“Apparently it was broadcasting. The doc said he programmed a dampener, but I installed jamming in the bar anyway,” said Lyon. “His rooms upstairs, as well. He doesn’t go out, so that pretty much covers it.”

“Broadcasting?” Ray asked.

“Yeah, super heavy duty pinplant connected to everything he sees, hears, touches, everything. It was sending signals somewhere.”

Something registered in Ray’s memory. It was not actually his own memory, or even the memories inherited from his progenitors. This was more like a database entry pulled from the co-processor memory of his pinplants. Is this how Todd felt all those years ago?

As more memory, images and schematics surfaced, Ray quickly analyzed the information and shared it with the others. “It is a full-spectrum surrogate control link. I have never seen one, but my pinplant just now unlocked that information. More of the differences between ‘my kind’ and whoever did this. Much of our memory—digital and biological—seemed to have been deliberately erased seventy years ago.”

“Surrogate link? You mean like mind control?” asked Jackson.

“More like whole body control,” corrected Ray. “It should only be used in cases of total limb amputation. If that is what Mengele implanted, it is more likely that he was trying to see if he could remotely control a Human merc. This just escalated to one of those forbidden areas that gets an entire species sanctioned. It is expressly forbidden to enslave a Union member race.”

“Except for the fact that Earth is not a full member of the Union.” It was the first time Guido had spoken since they entered the bar. All three beings turned to look at him.

“True,” said Ray. “But the way he did it is on the forbidden list no matter what, like artificial intelligence.” He thought for a moment more, reviewing both his own notes and records from the Peacemaker files. “There was evidence of torture, too?”

“Actually, the doc said more like interrogation,” said Jackson. “There was a lot of burnt and damaged tissue around the auditory and speech center. A bit less in the sensory cortical areas of the parietal cortex. He told us if it was explicitly torture, he would have activated the movement control areas, too, to make the muscles damage themselves.”

“That does not necessary mean anything, though. He could have been trying to preserve the ability to remotely control him later.” Ray looked back at Ginzberg, silently filling drinks for a couple of mercs. “Okay, this is enough for now, although I will need to figure out what Lucky and Molina are up to. I want to try one more thing.”

With Humans, it was always possible to tell when one was accessing their pinplants. They would get a distant look in their eyes, and there would be minor muscle twitches in the jaw and fingers as they used the same brain areas as speech and movement to command and retrieve information. With Wrogul, the telltale sign was a narrowing of the rectangular pupils.

All three Humans could see Ray concentrate. After a moment, he refocused on the men around the table and shook his whole body. “That song, what in the hell is that song?”

Lyon laughed for the first time all evening. “You tried to tap the broadcast? Yeah, good luck with that. As for the song? It’s just the most insidious earworm invented.”

“Earworm? Like those parasites from Pr!lax IV?” Ray asked, not understanding the amusement in Jackson and Lyon’s faces.

“You were raised in Earth culture and don’t know ‘Small World?’” Jackson looked incredulous.

“Oh? Oh!” exclaimed Ray. “Oh, that is insidious. Did Mengele do that to him?”

“Actually, we think it’s how he fought off Mengele.”

“Ah. Even better, then. If he could do that, it is a good sign.” Ray looked over at Guido. “I suspect we should get back to the restaurant. I suspect your boss—my grandson—might know a wee bit more than he told me!”

Jackson got up from the booth to distract Ginzberg while Lyon and Guido shielded Ray from view. The trio exited the bar and took a different route back to the black van sitting on the street.

When they arrived, Ray spotted a young boy leaning against the van and started to think the worst, but Lyon addressed him instead. “Thanks, Braeden. Good job. Run on inside and get some grub.” He smiled at the boy, then turned and winked at Ray. “We really did plan to take out the punks for you, but you two did pretty well.”

“Thank you, Mister Lyon,” Ray said. “Thank you for everything. It has been…eye opening, I believe is the phrase.”

“Just Lyon. Any time, and I mean that. Sorry I blew up at you, but I had to know. You guys really do think of yourselves as Human, don’t you?”

“We have a saying on Azure—what is the difference between a Human and a Human? One has eight arms, the other has two. As far as we are concerned, the only difference is the number of arms.”

Lyon laughed and held out his hand. “I don’t suppose you—”

He never finished before Ray extended an arm, wrapped the end twice around the man’s hand, and gave it a firm shake.

Lyon just laughed again. “‘Only difference is the number of arms.’ I like that.”

* * * * *

Chapter Eighteen

Guido and Ray arrived back at the old Post Office building without further incident. The evening dinner service was finished, and Mari was back in the apartment. Guido left to assist Nunzio in clean-up, but not before admonishing Ray, “Don’t be too mad at the Boss…I’d hate to have to rip off a tentacle.”

Ray’s translator emitted the hiss-click of a laugh. “You and what army, Big Guy?”

Guido grinned. “Well, I might have to go get Nunzio…”

“Go. He is my grandson, I cannot be too mad at him; this is probably all Lucky’s fault. It is always Lucky’s fault!”

“She swore me to secrecy, you know.” Mari flashed, having overheard the stage-whispers.

“…and she contacted you before or after she let Molina see the victim?” Ray asked. He settled back into the tank. It had been stocked with fresh brine shrimp, and he was hungry.

“After. She said there was no sense in both of you getting in trouble with the Guild. You had resigned, so there was actually nothing they could do if you decided to check things out on your own. She was disobeying a direct order, and if the Guild found out the two of you were in contact, then they would reactivate you and punish you both,” Mari said staying still in the farthest corner of the tank.

There is something bothering him, Ray thought, then verbalized it. “What is bothering you, Grandson?”

“I am,” came another voice. A wheeled water tank not unlike the one Ray had used to get from Luna sat in a shadowed corner of the apartment. A third Wrogul hung from a horizontal bar above the tank and dangled its arm tip into the water.

The Wrogul had blue eyes.

“Molina…or should I call you Octavius? Or maybe Squiddy?” Ray turned back to Mari. “How long has he been here?”

“Do not blame him, Nephew,” Molina interrupted. “He is not, and has not been, involved. The Peacemaker contacted him only to ensure you had not yet arrived. I am only here to provide information, and a caution about your quarry.”

“I should arrest you.”

“But your investigation so far would exonerate me.”

“It does not matter. You fled.”

“My life was in danger.”

Ray reached above the water, grasped a bar and pulled himself out to look at Molina from the same level. “Well, then, educate me.”

“Mengele is an ancient Wrogul from the Galactic home world, wherever that is,” Molina began. “He apparently never watched old Earth adventure movies, because he monologued as badly as a spy-movie villain while interrogating Ginzberg. We’ve heard that Wrogul can potentially live a thousand years, but he is much older than that. One thousand five hundred at best estimate. He claimed to know our progenitor Todd before he arrived on Azure. He also said he knew things about what Todd was doing before the accident that wiped his memory and made some claim about going places in hyperspace he was not supposed to.”

“I do not suppose he explained what that meant?”

“Of course not. Like a villain, right? Always cryptic. Anyway, he seemed to agree with quite a few Galactics that Humans are a danger—too chaotic—too uncontrolled. He is especially unhappy about us!”

“Us?” Ray had a suspicion he knew what came next.

“Wrogul. The ones from Azure. He said we were an abomination.” Molina’s answer was exactly what Ray thought it would be.

“So what exactly is he planning to do about us?”

“Capture us, interrogate us, try to use us against the Humans. He especially wanted Nemo or me. From studying what he did to Ginzberg, I think he has a way to extract information from us via our pinplants. Biologically Human brains are not set up that way, but our brains and pinplants are different. Nemo and I have done the most extensive study of Human brains, so it has something to do with that.”

“So, what, he tortured Ginzberg to get information, or to draw us out?” Ray asked. “By the way, how did you get all of this information? What is your source?”

Molina became somewhat agitated. “I examined Ginzberg. It was…uncomfortable. He was terrified of me and had to be sedated. I examined the broadband pinlink and the full-surrogacy neural mesh. Mengele burned out several of the brain centers associated with volition and probed the regions associated with aggression and emotion. However, I discovered the second pins I had implanted recorded everything—all sensory information. I had a complete record.”

“Where is that record?”

“Your former partner has it now. He would not let me keep it.” Molina made an odd flash pattern that Ray did not recognize.

“I cannot believe you do not have a backup.”

Molina laughed that odd, snickering laugh of his. “Of course, I do! I downloaded a copy to dear Mari’s little spy console and also sent a copy to Nemo.”

Ray laughed as well. “Very well, then. It is as I suspected. Mengele wants to turn Humans into slaves. He probably hates us for helping them. We need to find him and stop him.”

“I have found him, but there are several things you must know, first…” Molina began.

“Where?” Ray interrupted.

“…be patient, Nephew. He is in Innsbrück, Austria, but he is very well hidden and protected. He has backing and a very powerful patron. Someone he referred to as ‘The Boss’ or ‘The General.’”

“Send me the information. I will go there and root him out,” Ray said.

“I am sure you will, Harryhausen, and you may very well succeed. He is afraid of you. He is contemptuous of Verne and Marinara, he seeks Nemo and me for what we know—which, of course, is why I dare not go—but you, he actually seemed to be frightened by you and your Peacemaker Guild. Still, you must—” The apartment door opened, and Molina withdrew to the shadows.

“Boss! Boss!” Nunzio rushed into the room excited. “Boss, ya gotta see this.” He crossed to the Tri-V and activated it. On the screen a Veetanho was speaking “…As of now, the mercenary industry of Earth is under new management. All mercenary organizations will be subsumed as direct forces of the Mercenary Guild…” The screen was split, showing the Veetanho—identified as General Peepo—pictures of the sky, in which huge starships were visible even in daylight; and a scene showing a nuclear explosion that was identified as Tashkent. The news scrawl at the bottom read “Mercenary Guild leader says ‘Union made a mistake…Earth not ready for membership…’”

“Shit,” said Ray.

Merde,” said Mari.

“Concordato,” agreed Nunzio. “Merda.”

* * * * *

Chapter Nineteen

I know, I know. It’s been too long since I talked with you. I blame it on the fact that I was not even talking to myself for a while there.

This was a bad situation. I needed to get to Austria, and Peepo shut down all commercial flights. Only air freight and ground transportation were still running. Crossing an ocean by air or suborbital was a terrible risk and ocean-surface conveyances were few and far between given Galactic transportation tech. I considered using Peacemaker credentials, but then the word got out about Peepo’s raid on the consulate on Luna.

I had wondered why Crom was sending everyone off-world—and why Weqq? It seems she and the guild knew something that had not filtered down to a lowly ex-investigator. The other problem with using guild credentials was that Lucky was probably still on Earth, too, and possibly going after Mengele herself. Using my ident might cause her trouble.

This whole planetary situation was screwed up. Look, one hundred years ago Earth woke up to the existence of the Galactic Union. “Yay, the aliens are here, and they are friendly…Oh boy, they have tech and are willing to share…Oops, no we have to buy it…” Which is when we found out nothing was free, and Earth did not have much worth trading…except ourselves. Humans make good mercenaries, and the Union needed mercenaries.

Some Humans were thrilled to find the Galactic Union was an anarchist/libertarian dream—few rules and fewer laws—but those people didn’t think it through to the logical conclusion which meant this was a society in which Might makes Right. A society where production and even possession wasn’t enough, you had to be able to defend and hold.

However, most of the people on Earth were content to let others do the work, to live off the BLA—Basic Living Allowance—payments supported by taxation of the considerable income of the new mercenary companies. They never wondered how those mercs were viewed by the other Galactics. They did not see the mistrust of Humans and their relatively low status in the Guilds, nor the difficulty of getting Humans accepted into the Peacemaker Guild, the Science Guild, or the impossibility of breaking into the Cartography Guild.

They did not see the resentment by other species at this upstart not-even-a-full-member-of-the-Union world—particularly by the Veetanho who ran the Merc Guild, arguably the most powerful of the Union guilds. If a Human even knew of General Peepo, it was only because the rodent-like merc ran a Merc Pit—a location for finding and making connections and taking contracts for mercenary services.

The problem was that even a member of the Peacemaker Guild was not immune to Peepo’s interdiction of Earth. Our guild might have held the moral high ground, but Peepo controlled the literal high ground. I needed to come up with my own resources.

Fortunately, it seemed like I had just the solution at hand, but it would need a bit more work—and time. We did not have time, but we needed to proceed carefully. No plan was perfect, and this one was really risky, especially to Mari. We needed time to set it in motion, and we also needed to get him some additional support. I knew just where to start.

* * *

“Lyon,” said the voice on the other end of the comm.

“Mistah Lyon,” Ray used the Texan accent he had used—was it already a month ago? “Ah’m callin’ on b’half of Azure Arms…Would y’all be int’rested in sendin’ a representative an’ bein’ a sponsah fo’ Mastuh Chef Maury’s Celebritah Cookin’ Cruise?” He hoped the retired merc would get the underlying message and get back with him on the secured comm number he had shared during the visit to the bar.

After a few minutes of random pleasantries, Ray signed off the call and waited. Less than five minutes later the secured comm signaled an incoming call.

“Harryhausen,” Ray answered.

“Lyon. What cruise?”

“I need to get to Austria. I know where to find the rogue. Mari’s Tri-V show planned this cruise, we’re just shifting the date. I need to find some nondescript security.” Ray filled in the ex-merc.

“I didn’t know they still ran transatlantic cruises.”

“Only for special events. On the other hand, instead of fifteen days from Miami to Naples, it is now four-and-a-half by hydrofoil.”

“You want the Rächer, then. Jackson needs to get back to Wiesbaden to see to the security of their dependents. This will do for both of you.”

“You can put him in contact? He can use this number.” Ray had given them both his contact information, and hoped Jackson still had it.

“I will. Get that bastard,” Lyon said. “Oh, and when you get him, can you help our man?”

Ray thought for a moment. “To be honest, I do not know. I have consulted with…a brain specialist. Once we see the lab the rogue has set up, we may be able to effect some repairs. On the other hand, his mind has gone to a memory that makes him happy. He’s better off there than in the real world right now.”

“Understood. Do what you can, and if what you do will splash that rat bastard in orbit, all the better!” The call disconnected, and Ray sat back in contemplation.

Was there a connection between Mengele and Peepo? By now, he had reviewed the recordings from Ginzberg’s pinplant. The Wrogul did indeed mention a boss and “The General” many times. Could that be Peepo? She certainly had it in for Humans, and the claim the Guild was going to regulate and control Earth’s mercenaries sounded like what Mengele was doing.

The only way to find out was to dig him out of his hole.

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty

The ocean crossing was uneventful. Mari had a blast playing the Master Chef, judging a competition, creating new dishes, teaching classes, and posing with celebrities for the cameras. Ray felt really badly about the dangers of public exposure, but Mari assured him that in his role of “spy,” he was used to keeping secrets. The fact the whole event was just a cover to get a former Peacemaker and a platoon of mercs to Europe did nothing to dampen Mari’s enjoyment of the spotlight.

Ray wondered if he was even taking the danger seriously, but Guido and Nunzio set him straight on that. Apparently, things were pretty tough for aliens on Earth even one hundred years after First Contact. They were doubly tough for a non-Italian chef specializing in Italian cuisine. There had been an incident with one of the Families when Mari and his assistant Michael were touring Naples. Mari claimed it was all just an accident, but according to Nunzio, after the display of knife-work they witnessed, the Boss became one of Mari’s biggest fans, and offered to put quite a few resources at the Wrogul’s disposal. Nunzio and Guido volunteered, and the Boss sent them to work with the Master Chef both as students and bodyguards. Mari gained a powerful ally and expanded his network of information gathering, while the Capo gained a friend who prepared calamari just the way he liked it.

Eager as he was to be involved, Ray put his foot—or rather, several arms—down at the notion of Mari joining them for the trip to Innsbrück. The chef might be a decent spy, and he certainly could defend himself, but all-in-all, their cover was better served if Mari made a show of staying in Naples and visiting with his old friend Tony Gamboa. Ray certainly had no problems with the retired mobster; after all, under Galactic Union laws, he had done no wrong. As a matter of fact, the sheer number of people employed and supported by his network made him the equivalent of a regional government, and Ray’s operation had a much lower chance of success without the Capo’s support.

In fact, they would meet with members of that support network when the ship docked in Naples. Although the use of CASPers was illegal on Earth, outside the private merc training grounds, Jackson’s platoon of Rächer had a couple of shipping containers-worth of equipment, and the members of the Gamboa-backed Sicurezza Italia agency—SI—would be there to make up any gaps in both personnel or equipment.

Ray expected to have an argument trying to keep Mari out of the action, but Tony’s involvement again proved useful. As it turned out, his granddaughter was getting married in a few days, which was more than enough time for Mari to pull together a fantastic banquet—after all, the competition shows only allowed a few hours! Having the founder of Chez Marinara cater the wedding of the apple of his eye was something Tony had hoped for, even though he originally hadn’t expected his friend to be available.

Ray stood beside Hauptfeldwebel—Sergeant Major—Jackson as his men checked their gear. On the opposite side of the square, the Italians did the same. Between the two groups were the shipping containers that had been loaded onto flatbed trucks for transfer to and from the cruise ship.

It had been remarkably easy to covertly offload the containers. The cruise ship terminal was right on the edge of the Naples Harbor, and right under the walls of Castel Nuovo, a medieval fort that once guarded the bayside approach to the city-state which had once ruled the entire region, and even earlier had served as the principal relay point between the Roman empire and Emperor Tiberius’ retreat on the nearby island of Capri. Naples was used to being a seat of power, and the Gamboa family had returned it to economic prosperity after First Contact.

The VIP welcome delegation had arrived for Mari several hours earlier; therefore, no one was paying much attention when several TG Shipping trucks showed up dockside just after dark. The containers were moved to the open square of the castle, while the men walked the short distance to the fort-now-art museum and festival venue.

Jackson told Ray at first he was nervous about assembling all of their gear in the middle of the central keep, until he observed the overhead mesh which not only offered a measure of shade from the midday sun, but also filtered visual, infrared, and electronic surveillance. Ray decided the Italians knew what they were doing, using a part-time tourist destination for their purposes provided cover from the prying eyes of Peepo’s orbital fleet. As long as there were no Human traitors reporting to the Merc Guild, they should escape notice. Ray saw Nunzio enter the square, and he commed the Italian squad leader so they could meet with Jackson to go over the latest intel.

“Octavius’ information seems to be correct,” began Nunzio. “Mister Gamboa’s people have been getting reports of disappearances and some strange accidents up in the Tyrol province of Austria.”

“Define strange,” said Lieutenant Ferrari, the SI leader.

“Road rage, fights, brawls, but all of the victims showed signs of a head injury and scarring.” Nunzio looked meaningfully at Ray. “The latest is a former merc by the name of Posthumus who went berserk in the Innsbrück Altstadt.”

“Posthumous? Was the person already dead?” Ray asked.

“No, P-O-S-T-H-U-M-U-S, it’s a Dutch name. I knew a guy in the Rächer in the early days, ‘Deadman’ Posthumus, who said the name was sometimes given to a child born after the father had died.”

“Anyway,” Nunzio continued, “this donna tore into a crowd in front of the Goldenes Dachl—Emperor Maximillian’s golden-roofed balcony—in the old city district of Innsbrück. She killed two and injured a dozen more, all with her bare hands, before the Bundespolizei took her down. They didn’t kill her, but she died within minutes. The medical examiner said it looked like a massive epileptic seizure involving her limbic system.”

“I can see how a limbic seizure could cause rage,” Ray said. At Jackson and Ferrari’s blank looks, he continued, “The limbic system is involved in fight-or-flight reactions. The amygdala and hippocampus are involved in experiencing and remembering emotion. Abnormal activity often manifests as rage.” He turned back to Nunzio. “That doesn’t necessarily make it evidence of Mengele’s presence.”

“No, but she was a former merc and she had a pinplant. Doc said it looked like the pinplant had exploded, searing her amy—amo—what you said.”

“Amygdala. Yes, that sounds like Mengele,” agreed Ray. “Okay, we start in Innsbrück, then.

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty-One

“Transportation?” Ray asked the merc leaders once Nunzio had left with the promise to keep Ray’s grandson out of trouble.

“The maglev runs from Naples to Rome, and select trains even go as far as Zurich. From there, the Vienna line runs down the Tyrolean valleys and will take us directly to Innsbrück. It is the shortest Alpine crossing, but we will have to transfer in Schweiz. The Swiss are sensitive about transferring merc equipment ever since their own national unit defected,” Ferrari said. “It’s a more difficult alpine crossing, but I recommend transferring in Florence to the Munich maglev. It will take us close enough to Innsbrück and the transfer is still within Italia. We have some specialty maglev cars for the men and gear that can be added onto the trains.”

“And those?” Jackson pointed over his shoulder at the container where two of his squad were performing maintenance on a pair of Mk 7 CASPers.

Ferrari smiled, and nodded in the direction of a sleek cargo pod with one of his men standing guard. “We have a couple of our own. We will also cross-check each other’s readiness, no?”

“Okay, that is taken care of. Now, how quickly can we move out?”

“The trucks can transport the containers, and we will use a bus disguised as Napoli Transit for the men.” Ferrari checked his watch. “We can have our specialty cars loaded and attached to the midnight maglev. It’s two hours to Florence, which allows us to make the transfer under darkness as well. We can be outside Innsbrück just before dawn.”

Jackson nodded. “Shirley and Katie might take exception to being called men.” “Canny” Kunz was one of his CASPer drivers, and “Mama” Andalusia was an old friend and drop-ship pilot whose opportunity to get her second set of pinplants and rejoin her unit—the famed Winged Hussars—had been interrupted by Peepo’s arrival. Jackson had brought her along for intel analysis and in case they had an opportunity—and need—for air support.

“No more so than Lee and Alexandra,” Ferrari chuckled. “We have two hours to get loaded. Gentlemen.” He nodded at Jackson, then paused when he looked at Ray.

“Gentlemen will do,” said Ray. “Let’s get moving.”

“Deeno, Canny, Ringer! Check the hold-downs and get those buttoned up. Kaiju”—Jackson motioned toward the oberstabsgefreiter, corporal—“get ready to move out.” The Italian leader turned to leave and get his own squad ready, but Jackson motioned for him to stay. “One last thing—” he turned to Ray “—operational command?”

“Lieutenant Ferrari is the officer…” Ray began but was stopped by the SI leader.

“We are but an informal, private militia. We have authority in Mister Gamboa’s region and the Italian government accords us merc status, but we do not have the Rächer’s experience.”

“Very well. Oh, hell, the Peacemakers are going to have my tentacles for this, but—record this: I, Harryhausen Azure, known as Ray, do hereby revoke my resignation from the Peacemaker Guild and reactivate my commission as of this date. I recognize that I am participating in unsanctioned activity but believe it to be of the utmost importance and within the aim and scope of Peacemaker service. I hereby deputize Gerhardt Jackson to the Peacemaker Guild and brevet him to mercenary captain in service to the Guild. Okay, you can stop the recording. With the understanding the Guild may disavow all of this, Captain, the troops are yours.”

Jackson stood for a moment, then shook his head. “Scheiss. I did not need that but as you say, we need to be moving. Is it legal? As I understand it, you’re not an Enforcer, just an investigator.”

“It does not matter to you. You have been given orders by an individual with Peacemaker credentials,” Ray replied. “The legality is on me. It is my mantle that will be in trouble. You are covered.”

Jackson shook his head again. “Lawyers. Going to battle and somehow we still need lawyers.” Turning to his Italian counterpart, he said, “Okay, Lieutenant, let’s get moving.” He gave Ray a glare as he turned to prepare for the movement, but the Wrogul was already thinking about what they might encounter in Innsbrück.

* * *

Sunrise found the mixed, platoon-sized group of mercenaries on a siding outside of Hall in Tirol, the maglev nexus just east of Innsbrück. One of Gamboa’s contacts had smoothed the way with the Tyrolean regional government, but it had caused a bit of an issue for one of the SI soldiers. Patrick “Gameboy” Gamber had changed his name as a young man, to avoid connection with his infamous family, but now he found himself directly representing his grand-uncle Tony Gamboa for this operation. Fortunately, he only needed to meet with the chief of the Bundespolizei and assure him they did not plan to shoot up the province. He only hoped it was true.

The one factor they had not counted upon was the other party that met them at the station.



“What the fuck are you doing here, Lucky? Crom ordered you onto that transport to Weqq. You gave up spa treatments of your mangy coat, for what?”

“…and you signed a document saying you would not pursue an ongoing Peacemaker investigation.”

“This is no longer Peacemaker business, Snaggletooth. It is family.”

“Oh, I see ‘it’s family,’ Blubberface. You had to bring Mafioso onboard to help you break the Peacemaker strictures?”

Ray could see both Ferrari and Gamber/Gamboa bristle.

“My grandson Marinara is his granddaughter’s godfather!”

Lucky snickered. It was never a good thing to see a Besquith snicker. “‘Godfather. Really. Someone’s a sucker, and I ain’t talking about the things on your arms.”

“At least I have a platoon of mercs to take down Mengele!” Ray’s chromophores flashed in agitation. “What have you got?”

Lucky’s grin grew even broader. The mercs began to back away.


* * * * *

Chapter Twenty-Two

“It really is good to see you, Lucky, but I need to do this myself.” Ray told his former partner once the mercs had returned to unloading their equipment.

“No, you don’t, Ray. This Wrogul is still a Peacemaker matter, and I left Crom a message to that effect—set to deliver once she had left the system and discovered I wasn’t on Jefferson.” Lucky was combing out her fur and putting on protective gear with a muted pink camouflage pattern.

“It has been almost two months. Surely she has responded and told you to drop it and get out of here.”

“She did, but when I explained you would never let it go, she put me on Administrative Leave as punishment for disobeying her orders.” Lucky smiled, and it was genuine—not quite as terrifying as her earlier expression. “Can you just imagine the cloud of purple fur?”

Ray laughed, but turned serious again. “But if you are on Admin, you cannot be involved in a Guild investigation, either!”

“She downgraded. Marked it as a cold-case and routed it to the Earth desk to be handled as a Human internal matter. Meanwhile, I have been assigned to the Earth desk administratively while on leave to simply ‘keep an eye on the system,’ while the Guild leadership settles on Weqq.” Lucky looked rather smug. “By the way, as the only Peacemaker in the Earth system, I am pleased to inform you that your resignation paperwork got ‘lost.’ It was a shame what happened to that slate with all your signatures.” She gestured over her shoulder at Jackson. “So, your deputization of Jackson is legit. You never resigned but are on compassionate leave.”

“Wait, how did you know about that?” Ray flashed frustration. “Have you been spying on me?”

“Well, I am the Earth desk for the time being…” Lucky grinned, and it was all that Ray could do to keep from flashing susulol—contentment.

* * *

Someday, when I write my book on being the best PI—Peacemaker Investigator—in the galaxy, I will title this chapter “Getting the Band Back Together.” The thing is, Lucky and I really work well together. I will miss her when she leaves to undergo puberty and become an alpha, but we plan to remain friends.

Sure, we pick on each other, and argue and fight, but I’ve watched the bipedal variety of Human adolescents do that. Some do it all of their lives. That is Lucky and me. Like brother and sister.

Unfortunately, that reminded me of something. There was a bipedal that Mari always called his sister.


Yes, that was it. He told me she and her fiancé were off-planet and would be returning soon. I needed to get a message to her to stay away. Earth was not safe and might not be for a while. Once this business was over, we all needed to get away from Earth until the Merc Guild business was settled.

The only problem was that the Tri-V showed images of Peepo’s fleet destroying Human ships leaving the system. We would need to think of another way to get clear. I need to talk it over with Lucky. After news of the raid on the Luna Consulate, even Peacemaker credentials were not sufficient to guarantee us safe passage.

Of course, that supposed we survived confronting Mengele.

* * *

“Peacemakers, we have a report from Innsbrück. An unknown number of individuals broke into Schloss Ambras and stole armor and weapons from the museum.” Gamber was breathless as he conveyed the latest information from our contact in the Bundespolizei.

“Medieval suits of armor and swords, right? How dangerous could they be when we have four CASPers and lasers?” Ray asked.

“Actually, polished plate armor was used right after the Alpha Contracts. Those first Human mercs found themselves woefully unprepared for battling other races and weapons. Polished plate was pretty good against lasers,” corrected Jackson.

“I know, but swords and pikes?”

“Hey, a sharp edge in a seam or joint still works. It’s why CASPers have arm blades. The metallurgy might not be as good as carbon nanotube, but some of the swords and polearms were plenty strong.” Ray considered putting Jackson in contact with his nephew Verne—they both had a love of hand-forging and weapons manufacturing.

“It could also be locals trying to arm and protect themselves,” supplied Ferrari.

“If you say so. Now, where does the latest intel say Mengele’s lab is located?” Ray had turned back to the map table where he, Lucky, Jackson, and Ferrari were looking at a plot showing where reports of disappearances and berserkers occurred.

“Everything centers around this town, Wattens.” Chief Warrant Officer Katie “Mama” Andalusia tapped the map on a point 15 kilometers east of Innsbrück. As the only non-combatant with pinplants, she had assumed the S-2, Intelligence, role for the unit. “The whole valley is riddled with abandoned salt mines, but this area is known to have several cave entrances—including one that is man-made. It’s also our best candidate.”

“Military?” asked Ray.

“Civilian commercial, actually,” said the pilot. “A rather famous gem company hollowed out part of the mountainside for a store, museum, and showcase. There were always rumors it was much bigger on the inside, an old bunker or hidden lab from the major regional conflict two hundred years ago. Galactic tech ruined the company and the facility has been abandoned for years. There are reports of lights and activity there in the past month.”

“Thanks, Mama. That sounds good.” Now that they had a target, it was up to Jackson to run the operation. “Okay, Coonradt will take Duff, Bellmore, and Kalideen in Ranger suits. They are the initial entry team, backed up by the SI team led by Gamber with Basci, Thompson, and the Viagra twin…”

“That’s Venafra,” laughed Ferrari. “However, I think Nicholas now has a new team name. I know his twin sister Alexandra will certainly enjoy teasing him with it.”

“Okay, those are the entry teams. Your Mk 8s could possibly fit inside, given nothing has been modified from the old Kristallweltin—crystal museum—but my Mk 7s certainly won’t, so I propose we keep them outside for containment. Kuhn and Kaiju in their CASPers between the forest and the cave entrance to the east, Alex Venafra and Tony Alongi in their CASPers west of the entrance. “

“And my heavy weapons?” asked Ferrari.

“Well, I certainly hope we don’t need a heavy MAC, but Uzzolino and Adkins will be set up to the west with your Mk 8s and the Peacemakers until we know what’s inside.”

Ray and Lucky listened to the plan. As unarmored, unaugmented individuals, they were supposed to wait for the deputized mercs to clear the route into Mengele’s lab, provided he was even there.

The first problem was that it chafed at his conscience to send them in to do his job. He knew it bothered Lucky as well, but she was a gamma, and while more than a match for an unarmored Human, the reports they had heard suggested the berserkers could easily defeat the undersized Besquith.

The second problem, however…

“This sounds like a solid plan, Captain. But I know what you Humans, say…” began Lucky.

“…No plan survives contact with the enemy,” finished Andalusia.

Yeah, that problem.

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty-Three

“Alpha Team, begin entry. Bravo, stand by. Coondog, you are go.” Before the Alpha Contracts, when one hundred Human units took contracts to fill various mercenary roles throughout the Union, few non-English-speaking units had adopted the American special operations practice of using team names and call-signs during operations. When only four came back in some semblance of “whole units” from those contracts, subsequent units tried to emulate the successful Four Horsemen. Since one of those was the distinctly American Cartwright’s Cavaliers, the custom and tradition of team names became much more widely adopted.

There were two advantages—the first was communications security; if even the officers were addressed by call sign, there was no overt clue to the location of the leadership, reducing the odds of a decapitation strike to leave a unit leaderless. Second, while it was possible, and even common, to use team and trooper designation, there was much less confusion to whom one was referring when orders came for “Coondog” Coonradt instead of Alpha One. Likewise, while Jackson might be entitled to the label Rächer Six, Gerhardt “Hardman” Jackson did not feel entitled to the leader ident.

The only caveat to team names was that one did not choose their own call sign, but rather the names were assigned by their fellow mercs. Jackson had to lobby very strongly for the mostly benign “Hardman” rather than “Hard-on” which had been suggested by his buddy Ginzberg, or “Pole” Adkins who had repeatedly run his CASPer into light poles, walls, doorways, and had been reassigned to crew-served weapons. Thus, the names were convenient, often embarrassing, and did not necessarily have to make sense.

As such, the response to the call to begin the operation was met with Coonradt’s follow-on, “Golfer, Ringer, and Deeno. Time to move. Ringer and Deeno, left and right. Golfer and I will cover, then leapfrog.”

“NODs or lights, Coondog?” “Deeno” Kalideen looked at the dark interior and wanted clarification whether he should turn on his helmet light or utilize their light-amplifying Night Observation Devices.

“Let’s stick to NODs for now,” Coonradt replied.

The entrance to the former crystal and gem museum had once been landscaped to appear as if customers were walking beneath the face of a giant looking out from the mountainside. The gardens and forest had been neglected, but the general features were still there, except for the waterfall that had come from the mouth. It was creepy, and it set the mercs on edge.

“Ringer is in. Deeno is in. No lights, no movement. We have taken covering positions.”

“Roger Deeno. Golfer, take left and move past Ringer. I’ll take right. Ringer and Deeno, mark your position with a red flash.” Coonradt waited until they saw the half second flash from the comm unit nestled against the neck of each trooper before moving. “Advancing.”

“Bravo Team, move up. Schematics show a lobby ten meters across, then a single entrance to a larger gallery twenty-five meters across. Once Alpha takes position, they will hold, and Bravo will enter up the middle and advance to the gallery,” Jackson told the teams.

Ray could see the positions on the map displayed in his vision by his pinplants. This was the part when so many operations met with the fatal surprise. No matter how many times they drilled on merc tactics to allow Peacemakers to interact with contracted troops, it still made him nervous. Beside him, he could feel the tension coming off Lucky, more so because she was not permitted to be in the advance stage.

“In position,” announced Coonradt. “Gameboy, you are clear.”

An Italian voice came over the comm. “Gameboy acknowledges, Coondog,” Gamber said. “Basket, Needles, Viagra, just like Alpha. Basket left, Needles right. Viagra and I will cover, then follow on your mark.”

“Roger. Basket moving,” said Basci, followed immediately by Lee “Needles” Thompson’s acknowledgement. After a few minutes he continued. “In position. Dark, no movement. There are some fixtures and objects hanging from the overhead in here, but nothing appears to be obstructing.”

“Got it, Basket. Viagra, move up past Needles. Coming past you Basket.”

While waiting for the entry team to get into position, Jackson addressed the CASPers. “Canny, Kaiju, we’re going to do a ‘John Woo.’ Twin and Footlong, that means back to back, weapons facing out along the threat axis. I want one of each team facing the entrance, the other one hundred eighty degrees away.” Once he received acknowledgement from Kuhn and Kaishwo in their Mk 7s and Alex Venafre and Tony Alongi in the Mk 8s, he turned back to the entry team.

“Alpha, Bravo. What do you have?”

“Alpha reports all negative. No contact, no movement.”

“Bravo has no movement, but there are some obstructions in here. NODs are unrevealing. Requesting permission to go to weapons lights.”

“Granted, Bravo.”

“Roger. Bravo team activate weapons lights.”


“Alto! Stop, turn them off!”

“Get that fucking light out of my eyes.”

“Hardman, the gallery has not, repeat not been stripped. There’s crystal everywhere, floor, ceiling, walls. It’s all reflecting back and we can’t see a damned thing!”

“Contact! I have movement!”

“Get him off! Get him off me!”

Ray could see the display light up with red dots, surrounding and outnumbering the entry team, more importantly, there were now red symbols outside the cave!

“Movement! CASPer team Delta has movement from the forest.”

“CASPer Echo has movement from the garden. They seem to be wearing some sort of metallic armor.”

“That’s the plate mail from the armor museum,” supplied Katie over the comm link. “Now we know it was them instead of townspeople.”

“I think these are townspeople!” said “Twin” Venafre.

“No way! This guy’s drooling blood. They are acting like the berserkers we’ve heard about; some of them are even fighting each other.” Kaiju observed.

“Weapons free! All teams, weapons free.” Jackson overrode the overlapping comms.




“Meno male!”

There was the telltale sizzle of laser rifle fire from the lightly armored entry team, while the CASPers emitted the characteristic zing of MACs firing. Pole and Uzi looked back and forth between the two CASPer teams, wondering if they should engage either group of attackers. Lucky looked over and advised, “Hold for now. If either of them gets overrun, we’ll need you then.”

There were a lot of red dots on the screen and more attackers coming from the garden and forest. Ray pulled up a feed from the drones covering the local area. The Italians had brought a half-dozen of the quad-rotor surveillance ’bots, and WO Andalusia controlled them from the command vehicle about half a klick away in the old parking lot. He knew Jackson was monitoring the feeds and was experienced enough with pinplants to multitask, but it would not hurt to have another set of pins monitoring the feeds.

“There! There are cave entrances in the forest and garden. Can we close those?” Ray asked.

“We can,” announced Pole. “Footlong, pull coordinates from Mama and let’s swing this baby around.” A three second burst in each direction, resulted in clouds of dust at each of the two cave entrances. The drones had automatically retreated from the MAC firing, and now closed in, showing that the tunnels were now collapsed.

“Okay, that should keep them off of our flank,” Jackson said. “Delta and Echo, finish off the stragglers and reorient. We may need Echo to go inside.”

The interior battle had momentarily slipped Ray’s attention, and when he checked the display again, he saw more than thirty red icons, but only four blue ones. There were two yellow, and two alternating red and black. As he watched, another blue had turned yellow, and one of the yellows was now red.

“Oh my God! Tank! We have a tank!” yelled Mama over the comm. “One, two, three…four tanks!”

“Tanks? What kind of tanks?” Jackson asked.

“Old ones. Wheeled tracks, gray, heavy metal, great, big honking gun tube on a turret. The gun is longer than the vehicle. They have a black cross outlined in white on the side.”

“The gun tube—smooth? Or does it look like several different diameters telescoping?”


“Tigers, then,” said Jackson. “World War Two German Tigers. Bad news if they are still functional.”

“Functional? Fuck, one of them is firing!”


The concussion hit almost as soon as the sound and then Canny and Kaiju’s CASPers disappeared in a cloud of dirt and smoke.

“Inside! Get inside, we can’t stay out here!” yelled Jackson. “Mama! Can you dead-man the drones?

“I can try. There’s no guarantee it will do any good. You’ve got incoming.”

The second shot missed the Italian CASPers, but they were staggered and a flying rock hit Ray’s tank. They needed to move now to get inside the museum entrance. Ray would have to exit his leaking water tank anyway, its small treads were simply not fast enough.

Meanwhile Mama dropped the drones over each tank and detonated the small C8 charges each carried for just such an emergency. Four simultaneous concussions heaved the ground, but Ray could not take the time to check if the dead-man bombs had been effective as he pulled himself across the ground.

He felt an arm reach down and scoop him up to carry him. He looked down at the furred arm, then up at Lucky, who grinned. “Too slow, Blubberface.”

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty-Four

Inside was not much better than outside. Now that they had light in the museum, they could see that many of the colored crystal displays were still present, although not necessarily intact. Some of that was due to the current battle, but some was clearly prior vandalism, such as the pyramid of crystals that appeared to be cemented together using a dark brown substance. Ray did not want to think about the origin of that substance given the additional evidence someone had been living here. There was bedding, food wrappers, and the stench of waste and decay.

The entrance lobby was damaged, but not involved in the current conflict. Screams and laser pulses were coming from the inner gallery just beyond. A laser beam came through the opening to the gallery, visible because of the increased dust from the exterior explosions and disturbed litter inside. Lucky grunted and loosened her grip on Ray. The cephalopod reached up two arms and hoisted himself onto the Besquith’s back like a pack. With two arms over Lucky’s shoulders, crossed in the front, it freed her hands to grasp her laser rifle in one hand and a throwing knife in the other.

While some Besquith would have gone into battle with Humans equipped mainly with their own sharpened and metal-clad claws, what the Enforcer had learned about these berserkers suggested slashing and stabbing would not be enough to stop them. It was best not to let them close, hence the distance weapons. Ray reached for the nanite injector and probed the spot in his mount’s pink camouflage armor where the laser had burned through it. The chemoreceptors lining his arm tasted blood, so he sprayed the nanites on the wound and turned his attention back to the melee.

He looked up to see a biped covered in plates of shiny metal approaching, menacing them with a two-meter long pole, half of it metallic, with a barbed tip. Upon learning of the theft from the armor museum, Ray had downloaded information on ancient weapons into his pinplants, and quickly identified the weapon as a pilum, a two-thousand-year-old spear. There was blood on the barbed tip, so it was clearly functional. A laser struck the polished plate armor and reflected in their direction. It glanced just past their heads. He could hear Lucky hiss and felt searing pain along his mantle, but the advancing berserker suddenly sprouted a knife handle through one vision slit of its helmet.

That’s my girl.

“No lasers! There’s too much reflection!”

Their quarry seemed to be running out of berserkers, but there were still enemy outside. Mama’s suicidal drones had only managed to disable three of the tanks. The fourth had killed the MAC gunners, Pole and Uzi, and severely damaged Twin’s CASPer before she finally took it out with her own, smaller MAC. The blue force tracker was showing the CASPer as having severe mechanical and organic damage.

The final CASPer was stationed just outside the entrance to the gallery. Footlong faced the lobby to interdict any remaining forces coming from outside. A dark shadow detached itself from the ceiling and dropped down on the back of the mecha. A sizzling sound came from that direction, and Ray’s skin tingled with the feel of extremely high frequency vibration.


Ray tugged on Lucky’s shoulder to get her to turn and fire on the Wrogul clinging to Footlong’s CASPer, but it was too late. The rear armor split open, and the Wrogul continued down the back toward the jump jets and power unit. It ruptured one of the jump juice tanks, and the resultant spray was ignited by sparks from the damaged electronics. A spray of flame lashed out in their direction, and Ray wrapped his mantle over Lucky’s unprotected face and reached up with four arms to find the overhead beams that Mengele had used to hide and drop onto Footlong. He managed to lift Lucky out of the fire, but not entirely, and his chemoreceptors detected singed fur from her unprotected legs.

He was hanging from the ceiling, supporting Lucky’s weight, when the capacitors in the CASPer discharged, sending shrapnel all through the room. One piece nearly bisected one of his supporting arms near the mantle, while another neatly sliced the tip off another arm. The thin strip of tissue connecting the almost amputated limb stretched and tore, causing excruciating pain. That in turn caused Ray to lose his grip on the beam.

He and Lucky fell to the floor, and he lost consciousness.

* * *

He awoke to a sensation of water. He was not immersed, as if in his travel or sleeping tank, but more like a bucket of water had been thrown on him. He was on a flat metal surface and there was water puddled on it. He shifted the best he could despite the pain. His skin itched, and he knew that he had been out of water for a long time before the recent drenching. As he shifted, he could see Lucky on a neighboring table, with a very old, very ugly Wrogul hovering over it.

“Did you know the Besquith consider themselves traders more so than mercenaries?” The strange Wrogul spoke through a translator held in one scarred and bent arm. “Such a shame. They are such excellent fighters, but they think too much. Much like your Humans.” It turned to look at him, and Ray was struck by the malignant yellow tint to its eyes, and irregularly shaped pupil. Unlike his own rectangular pupil, the other being had an almost W shape to his iris.

“You are Mengele, I presume.”

“Why, yes, I have become rather fond of that name. Another Human gave it to me, and I had to seek out its meaning. As you can see, I have even sought out one of the refuges his people left behind.” Mengele waved an arm and indicated the room.

It was old. From pictures Ray had downloaded with the info on the armor museum, he could tell that room and furnishings dated from early twentieth century, as the bipedals measured it.

Bipedals. How interesting that my thoughts should go in that direction. Here I am facing one of my own kind, an actual Wrogul as the Galactics know them, and my mind resorts to thinking of myself as Human.

“You are an abomination, you know. Your progenitor was never meant to survive. When I sent him on his mission, he was to collect his data and then die like a good little drone.”

“And exactly what was that mission?” Ray could not believe the Wrogul was monologuing. It was the perfect cliché of every bad police, spy, or space opera stereotype!

“Why, to find a way to enslave or destroy the Humans. They, too, are an abomination. Like your Besquith, here, they think too much. They ask too many questions. Fortunately, I found a way to fix the first, and it sort of naturally takes care of the second.”

Ray said nothing. If he appeared too curious, Mengele might stop talking. On the other hand, he was beginning to feel a strange sensation in his head. It was as if something was trying to divert his attention.

“What? You are not curious about these berserkers of mine? It is quite simple. If they have pinplants, I just overstimulate the limbic system. For those without pinplants, a tailored nanovirus does the same thing. The general will be pleased. It makes Humans so much more…agreeable.”


Mengele’s translator gave a hiss-crackle of laughter, and for the first time, Ray recognized one of the chromophore light patterns as being one of amusement. “Oh, no. These pitiful Veetanho are amateurs. My class gives them orders. We do not take orders from under-evolved races.”

“Mengele, you are under arrest. By the authority of the Peacemaker Guild you are guilty of slavery and willful genocide against a Union member race.”

Silence! You have no authority over me, child! Have you not heard? Humans are not members of the Union. Peepo saw to that.” To emphasize its words, it plunged one of its tentacles into Lucky’s abdomen and withdrew it, covered in blood. Her body spasmed on the table and Ray felt his heart sink.

“No, not the…not the Humans.” Ray was having difficulty thinking clearly. Mengele’s treatment of Lucky began to fill him with rage.

“Oh no?” Mengele asked, and there was an overtone of sarcasm to his words.

Me!” shouted Ray, and he gasped at the effort. “I am Wrogul! I am a full member of the Union.” He had to pause before continuing, to muster the effort to speak against the pressure—the voices in his head. “You. Try. To. Enslave. Me! But I know your weakness!”

“Fool! I will destroy you all! I have no weakness, and I will destroy the Humans—after I turn them into the perfect weapon. They will be animals, and your colony? You will be a curiosity. Perhaps I shall keep one of you as a pet!” Mengele reached up and grasped a bar placed across the room. It quickly crossed over to Ray’s table and dropped down on top of him.

Ray could barely move. The pressure in his head, the pain, the lethargy from being out of water for so long. The pressure! It had to be an attack on his pinplants!

Mengele reached up and placed its sensory tentacles alongside Ray’s body. He could feel the fiilaash begin, the tentacles probing into one eye, the other deep into his brain.

For just a moment, Ray thought back to the corridor of Jefferson, the dead Goka surrounding him and Verne. “Noooooooo!” Ray screamed, and it seemed to release him from the mental pressure and paralysis. He reached his own tentacles up and plunged them deep into Mengele’s mantle, but rather than reaching for neural tissue, he reached for the Wrogul’s own pinplants. He identified the transmitter locus it was using to force the mental attack, disabled it, and sent a counter signal from his own stored memories.

“Let me re-introduce you to my brother Human, Ginzberg.” Ray said as Mengele screamed. “It is a small world, after all.”

* * * * *

Chapter Twenty-Five

“Holy hell!” Mama said at her first glimpse of the cavern. “What the fuck is all of this stuff?”

“Ancient war machines,” said Harryhausen from where he was being bandaged by Lucky. One arm was completely gone, all the way up to the mantle, while another was missing the last five centimeters. Nanite-induced tissue regeneration could probably restore the shortened arm, but the amputated one was gone for good. Blue blood still seeped from where it had been cauterized, as well as several other locations. One eye was swollen completely shut, and he was uncertain whether it would return to normal vision.

For all that, he got off better than Lucky. She was definitely going to lose an eye, and a couple of the burns were likely to make her coat patchy and discolored. The fiilaash damage to her abdomen was certain to increase the risks of the rather traumatic puberty she would endure if she still wanted to be an alpha. From what he knew of his friend and partner, she would risk it anyway.

The battle had cost them severely. The Italian squad was simply…gone. Kaiju would never get the chance to be first sergeant, and Jackson himself might be headed for medical retirement. On the other hand, the news from Wiesbaden suggested he, Coonradt, and Ginzberg were all that was left of Polonius’ Rächer. Surprisingly, Sergeant Derrick Coonradt had come through completely unscathed. When his handheld laser was deflected by the berserkers’ polished armor, the beam bounced everywhere except at him. Unfortunately, for his peace of mind, one of those bounces had hit Lucky. Jackson was keeping his NCO as far away from the Enforcer as possible.

WO Andalusia had watched the battle from the command truck. She was essential to management of the field, operating the drones and providing overwatch. However, once all of the drones had been detonated, she had approached the museum entrance and had helped take down the last of the berserkers. She had a few laser hits of her own, but nothing major. She was still outside when Footlong’s CASPer detonated, so she missed seeing Mengele remove Ray and Lucky from the gallery. It had only been when Ray dragged himself through a hidden door that she even knew he was still alive.

While Lucky and Jackson were being treated, Ray accessed the memories he had downloaded directly from Mengele before the Wrogul had died. The museum had been built with absolutely no indication of what lay hidden deeper in the mountain. Ray had summoned the others inside once they found the cavern.

Ray gestured weakly with an arm that showed evidence of severe burns. “Tanks over there, artillery, vehicles. That long tube is the biggest damn gun ever made, Schwerer Gustav. The shell diameter was eighty centimeters. Using the measurements of the time, it was over thirty inches, nearly twice the diameter of the big naval guns the Americans used on their aquatic battleships.

“You see those tracks?” Ray gestured again to the thin lines underneath the enormous carriage of the long gun. “They go deeper into the cavern and out the other side of the mountain. The Gustav could only be moved by pre-maglev trains. Wheels on rails. It looks like this whole complex was hollowed out two hundred years ago and stored until such time as the forces that fought over this ground needed them again. Mengele was planning on turning his berserkers loose with it. Sure, it is old, but a little carbon nanotube hardening, fusion power, and updated propellants—not to mention operators filled with rage and insensitive to pain—they would have devastated central Europe, civilian and merc alike.”

“Not that there’s many mercs left in Europe. Damn Peepo and spineless politicians.” Jackson spat to emphasize his words. They’d received word that a MinSha force led by a Veetanho, and accompanied by a single Human, had raided the known locations of several merc headquarters, including the Rächers’ HQ in Wiesbaden. The only thing left of most were smoking holes in the ground.

“So, what did you want me to see?” the pilot asked.

“It’s in another cavern.” Ray gestured toward the clearly artificial tunnel that led away from their current viewpoint over the natural cavern.

Mama brought up Ray’s mobile tank, and he gratefully slipped into the soothing water. Lucky and Jackson limped along as Sergeant Coonradt led the way down the smooth, well-lit passage into a cavern even larger than the previous.

This one, however, held only one object: a long ovoid that would have dwarfed everything in the previous cavern—combined.

“What do you think, Mama? Can you fly that?”

That, was a frigate sized spaceship.

“What the hell? How did they get that in here?”

“Look up.”

Up, was another massive tunnel. At its far end, she could see blue sky.

“Now, I know there’s no damned humongous launch tubes sticking out of these mountains!”

“Well, in the first place, these are the Alps, and there are tunnels everywhere…” began Jackson, but he was cut off by a crackle from the translator.

“It’s a Wrogul ship,” said Ray. “One of the things I was able to download from Mengele before the end was his escape plan.” There was a pause as the cephalopod shifted in his tank. His chromophores flashed weakly, and even the synthesized translator voice sounded pained. “He planned to unleash his berserkers and then leave Peepo holding the bag, as we Humans say, while he escaped.”

“Wow, I mean, well…shit, I can fly anything, but a frigate is a damned big boat!” Mama said, still staring up at the exit.

“I can provide a pinplant download with the essentials. Galactic tech is pretty standard, and while there appear to be some unusual bioelectric and organic systems involved, it still has Gal-standard control systems.” Ray paused. “To be honest, both my nephew Verne and my own grandfather Todd would probably find it fascinating.”

“We still need a crew. I can’t fly something that size on my own. Even if it’s just helm, nav, and engineering!”

“I have contacted the Lyon, and he is putting out the word. He thinks the Horsemen left quite a few observers behind, not to mention scattered mercs like me.” Jackson said the last with a grimace.

“And your cruise ship crew.” It was the first Lucky had spoken since Andalusia had joined the survivors. “What?” she said to their shocked faces. “You didn’t think civilians would have risked transporting known criminals across open ocean within full view of Peepo’s ships, did you?”

“It will take some time for them to arrive. We have a few of our own to pick up while we’re at it. I want to get my grandson off this world. It may be home for some of us, but as long as the Merc Guild has its way, it is too dangerous.” There were nods all around.

“Okay then, ship, crew, and people we need to get off Earth.” Andalusia looked at the others. “Destination?”

“Not Karma,” said Jackson.

“Weqq?” asked Lucky.

“Azure,” said Ray. More nods.

“Good, that’s settled.” She turned to Ray. “We need a name for this Wrogul ship of yours.”


* * * * *

Epilogue: Nautilus

“No. Not staying. Look, you want to go haring off into the galaxy to track down our home world? I’m going, too.”

“Mari, you can’t go. You are a chef, not a fighter.” Ray flashed frustration.

“That’s what I have Guido and Nunzio for…and Little Tony, and Armida, and Stefan and Andrew, and Mickey and…”

“Okay, okay. You still have not told me why you brought half of the Gamboa Family with you.”

“Well, Big Tony said we’re family, and family fights for family. He also said you were all right and needed help. He sent help.” Mari flashed sooltory—amusement. “Besides, someone needs to cook for all of you!”

Ray sighed.

“You know you can’t argue with him.” Meryll stood with her fiancé—no, husband. They had gotten married on Azure once they’d learned returning to Earth was out of the question.

“So why are you going?” asked Captain Andalusia.

“Because he’s my brother. Besides, he’s right, you’ve got a boat full of mercs and no one thinking about berthing, mess management, provisioning, cargo…”

“…not to mention the legal issues,” interjected Michael Caparelli. “No offense to you Peacemakers, but you still need someone to consider the legal ramifications if you do find Mengele’s home world.”

Ray knew this was a battle he would not win. It had been hard enough getting away from Earth. Fortunately, Nautilus was obviously not an Earth ship, and an angry Besquith was sufficient to distract the Maki highguard. Mostly. He shuddered at the memory. Yet another battle. Now this.

Fortunately for their medical needs, Ray’s “son” Ridley was as skilled as Molina, if not quite so…infamous. Ray had seen an older man in the sickbay as well. He looked rather like Roeder, the old biochemist from Styx Town, but the last he had heard the man had moved to the orbital Cerulean Clinic permanently because he could not handle gravity anymore. This could not be the same man—Roeder had to be well over ninety. On the other hand, there was a strange blue crate in the cargo hold marked Avander Pharmaceuticals, Earth. He had seen a Guild report about the man who had survived prison and slavery and turned up on Earth nearly one hundred years after having been reported dead in the Alpha Contracts. There were reports he was behind the recent uptick in lifespan among certain sectors on Earth.

Roeder—if it was indeed him—was accompanied by a young woman he introduced as his granddaughter. She was also a biochemist and pharmacist, and would likewise be accompanying them on the ship, so medically, they were well-staffed.

The thing was, Amy looked remarkably like Meryll. The resemblance was uncanny. His grandson’s adoptive sister had never known her father, but it was well known that Roeder had many wives, mistresses, and girlfriends. Could it be—? No. Not his business.

“If my grandson won’t listen to me, I expected you at least would do so, Grandfather,” Ray said to Todd as his old-model, tracked transfer tank came into view.

“I am the person who most needs to go,” Todd said. “I am the progenitor of the entire Wrogul colony on Azure. There are more of our kind out there, and if they are as evil as Mengele, we owe it to our adoptive family—our bipedal brothers and sisters—to find out.”

“And when we find them, Grandfather?”

“We stop them.”

# # # # #

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About Robert E. Hampson

Robert E. Hampson, Ph.D., turns Science Fiction into Science in his day job, and puts the Science into Science Fiction in his spare time. He has consulted for more than a dozen SF writers; writes informative articles ranging from the fictional depiction of real science to living in space; and has written short fiction published by the US Army Small Wars Journal, Springer, Baen Books, and Seventh Seal Press (Chris Kennedy Publishing).

Dr. Hampson is a Professor of Physiology / Pharmacology and Neurology with over 35 years’ experience in animal neuroscience and human neurology. His professional work includes more than 100 peer-reviewed research articles ranging from the pharmacology of memory to the effects of radiation on the brain—and most recently, the first report of a “neural prosthetic” to restore human memory using the brain’s own neural codes.

He is a member of the SIGMA Forum and the Science and Entertainment Exchange—a service of the National Academy of Sciences. Find out more at his website:

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About Chris Kennedy

A bestselling Science Fiction/Fantasy author, speaker, and publisher, Chris Kennedy is a former naval aviator and elementary school principal. Chris’ stories include the Theogony and Codex Regius science fiction trilogies, and stories in the Four Horsemen military sci-fi series. Get his free book, Shattered Crucible, at his website,

Chris is the author of the award-winning #1 bestseller, Self-Publishing for Profit: How to Get Your Book Out of Your Head and Into the Stores. Called “fantastic” and “a great speaker,” he has coached hundreds of beginning authors and budding novelists on how to self-publish their stories at a variety of conferences, conventions, and writing guild presentations, and he is publishing fifteen authors under various imprints of his Chris Kennedy Publishing small press.

Chris lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia, and is the holder of a doctorate in educational leadership. Follow Chris on Facebook at

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About Sandra L. Medlock

Sandra Medlock moved to Texas at 15 and has never left. Her first mission was to quickly learn to say “y’all” instead of “youz.”

Since those early days she has had a career that has included writing procedural manuals, corporate and non-profit newsletters, and software and computer training manuals. As a freelance journalist, she wrote weekly and monthly columns for three regional papers and articles for regional magazines.

Sandra founded and directed two computer training companies and then transitioned to managing a computer training department for a global manufacturer. She left the training business to raise her daughter, now a young adult, but the desire to help educate adults and young people has never left her. She teaches and tutors creative and essay writing, English, higher-level math classes, and music instruction.

Sandra is developing novels for publication, and offers editorial services in creative fiction and nonfiction. She and her husband reside in South Central Texas, where their lives are now ruled by two dogs and a cat.

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The following is an

Excerpt from Book Ten of The Omega War:

Alabaster Noon


Chris Kennedy & Mark Wandrey

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Excerpt from Alabaster Noon:


São Paulo, Brazil, Earth

The sounds of misery were nonstop as the Besquith specialist team reached their objective, the roof of a five-story building which once housed several hundred Humans. Once in position they verified none of the occupants remained, alive or otherwise, and began setting up monitoring equipment.

“Filthy Humans,” one of the sensor operators said, tossing a severed arm over the side of the building “Team leader Kreth, why didn’t they just nuke the entire area; that would have destroyed the Raknar.”

“General Peepo wanted the machines intact, and their operators alive,” his squad leader reminded him for the dozenth time. Grawts wasn’t the quickest on the uptake, but he did have a mastery with the finicky elSha-manufactured gear. Several others in the team growled their support of Grawts. “Just shut up and finish deploying the sensor drones. We have nine more to place before dark.” The five-Besquith team, including himself, all went about their tasks, but Grawts wasn’t satisfied.

“Okay, I understand preserving the war machines and operators. Peepo has them prisoner now. Why are we looking for these little creatures that accompanied them?”

“Do I look like a general?” Kreth snarled and snapped at the back of Grawts’ neck. The hapless sensor tech rolled over and whined, so Kreth didn’t rip his rotten throat out. Satisfied, Kreth turned back to look out over the remains of São Paulo.

The Human city, formerly one of the biggest if what he’d been told was true, was largely in ruins. Seven assaulting Raknar, along with hundreds of Humans in their entropy-cursed powered armor, tended to do that to a city. Massive defenses had been positioned to protect the seat of occupation, but the Raknar had plowed into, and ultimately, through them. The damage was horrendous. Kreth approved.

He shielded his eyes from the setting sun to the west and could see the six surviving Raknar. Dozens of flyers were alight on them, or flying around as heavy equipment went about preparing to move them. Peepo’s prizes. He wondered what she intended for them. It didn’t matter.

The faked cease fire worked perfectly, allowing forces to move in close to Human mercs all over the planet before springing their trap. One of the Raknar was vaporized by orbital fire. Kreth’s unit was just over a kilometer away, monitoring the mecha’s progress when it happened. They’d been flash-blinded by the orbital particle beam.

The last six went berserk, destroying indiscriminately and totally. They’d even destroyed the orbiting station. From the ground! Kreth looked at a building a block away; half its height had been severed cleanly by a Raknar particle beam. Then, when heavy Zuul tanks attacked, the Raknar unleashed what appeared to be nuclear cannon, but they were much more compact and discrete in their damage.

“Antimatter weapons,” an elSha tech in a weapons company said after the fight. Even Kreth sucked his breath in at the idea. Such unbelievable firepower, and now it was theirs! He desperately wanted to finish this mission so they could be assigned to the next stage.

“Come on, come on,” he growled. “I want to go to the Human’s secret base. Oh, to see their end will be a glorious battle.” The others grunted in agreement as they affixed their sensors. It was no secret the fleet was preparing to go to the final assault. Sure, lots of Humans were still fighting in places, but they wouldn’t be fighting for long. What chance did they have? “Aren’t you done yet?” he snapped.

“Yes, you’re done,” a tiny voice said in such perfect Besquith he thought it was a juvenile. Kreth turned, and his jaw fell open in surprise. A tiny furred creature just like he’d been told to look for was framed in the doorway pointing at him.

“Hey—” he started to say, then something slammed into his throat, and he fell backward, unable to control his body.

“Ambush!” one of his men cried.

Good, Kreth thought, struggling to breath. My men will deal with them. Lying on his back on the rubble strewn roof, he heard his men moving, grabbing weapons, and yelling, then the sounds of falling bodies. It was all over in two, maybe three seconds. He exerted all his will and managed to turn his head. Five of the creatures were standing in the center of where his men had been working. None of the Besquith were alive, save himself. He tried to say something, and it came out as a gurgle.

One of the creatures dropped into a partial crouch, its head spinning to face him. Kreth could see one of its eyes was covered in a patch, and it had a cybernetic arm on the same side. The creature grunted and marched over to Kreth.

* * *

“Be more thorough, Peanut,” Dante snapped as he stabbed the Besquith through the eye, driving hard with his cybernetic arm to be sure the blade penetrated into the alien’s brain.

“Sorry, sir,” Peanut said.

“Did any of them get a transmission off?” Ryft asked, cleaning her knife.

“No.” They all glanced up at their leader. Splunk clung to the half-melted antenna above the roof where she’d been watching the clumsy Besquith setting up their instruments. She looked at her frequency scanner one more time to be sure. Nothing within a hundred meters. “They weren’t even staying in contact with their command staff.”

“Stupid animals,” Shadow said, putting away his long blade. “Even the Kahraman would have not wasted time with their lot.”

“They might be pathetic at tactics, but they are strong and numerous,” Ryft pointed out.

“Peanut, take their comms gear,” Splunk ordered. “Break into their network and let’s get some intel.”

Peanut waved, and they all started piling the dead Besquith’s equipment at his feet. Like every Dusman who’d come on the mission, they were all gifted in technology, although Peanut and Splunk were the most gifted. Since Splunk was in command, she’d delegated the job. As soon as the bodies were stripped, the other four moved toward the edges of the roof to assume overwatch.

<The fleet is away,> Dante sent to her.

<I felt it,> Splunk sent back. For 170 hours they would have no contact with their agents within the retreating fleet. She tried to appear confident, despite her inner feelings of failure. Jim was there, only a few kilometers away. She could point to him, if she’d wanted to. They all knew where their operators were, a side effect of the joining. It wasn’t like the texts said it would be. She’d tried to explain it to Sly, but he didn’t believe her. Well, now he did.

“Command. Echo-5, report,” said a voice from one of the Besquith radios.

Splunk pointed, and Peanut snapped it up. He had a device already set, and he clipped it to the radio. A second later, another Besquith spoke. “Echo-5 to command, system is almost up.”

“What is taking so long, Kreth?”

Peanut cocked his head and tapped on a tiny screen with his claws. The machine answered, “My team are idiots.”

Laughter came in reply. “That they are. Hurry up, command out.”

From across the ruined rooftop, Splunk could see Dante nodding without looking over. He approved of efficiency almost as much as he approved of slaughter.

Peanut sat the voice duplication device aside. It was the reason Splunk had been hanging from the antenna while the Besquith worked and gave away intel—she’d been recording their voices. “Here we go,” Peanut said, and Splunk jumped down next to him. She moved close—closer than she had to—and surreptitiously put a hand on his shoulder. He glanced at her, giving a tiny smile so nobody else would notice.

You are such a fool, she scolded herself.

Peanut reconfigured the monitor’s Tri-V and a map of the vicinity came up. In a second, a sea of tiny blue pinpoints decorated it. “These are all the units they had deployed searching for us.”

“Hmf,” she said as she examined the pattern. Efficient, but predictable. All the search teams were using the same type of equipment too. All the better. “Modify their gear to give a false positive in five minutes,” she said and pointed. “Have us going that way, toward where our operators are being held.”

“We’re not going there?” Peanut asked. He looked surprised and disappointed. “I have listened to Darrel thinking about it. There are almost no guards. We can be in and out—”

“That’s what Peepo wants us to think,” Dante said from a few meters away. “Use your head for a change, child. Splunk might be a fool for believing in these Humans, but she’s a solid commander.”

“So, you agree with Sly putting her in command?” Sandy asked, her voice obviously surprised.

“I didn’t say that,” he replied, but didn’t add anything to it.

Splunk knew he had it out for her. She’d known it ever since he turned up on Karma and tried to make her come back to Kash-Ka. When she’d told him about the Canavar, he’d been as stunned as anyone else. She’d known something was happening when the Human boy showed up suddenly that night. Known it in the depths of her being. It was time for them to come out of hiding.

“We’re still alive, aren’t we?” Peanut snapped at Dante.

“Yeah, we are,” Dante replied. “It’s the fact she thinks some sort of damned destiny is guiding her that scares the piss out of me.”

“Seldia sees it too,” Splunk reminded him.

“Seldia is insane, just like all K’apo.”

Splunk couldn’t argue. They were a necessary part of Dusman society, though. More so after The Disaster than ever before.

“Speaking of Seldia, when are we going to do it?”

“Better be now,” Splunk said, looking at the Tri-V. “We’re going to be moving too fast the next couple days to take that kind of chance. “Everyone double check for unwanted visitors.” Nobody saw anything, then they joined her.

Splunk stood in the center and the other five Dusman reached out, touching each other and making a circle. Then each put a hand on her head. Splunk sighed, reached within herself, and stretched.

<Seldia…Seldia, hear me.>

<I hear,> came the reply from light years away. <What news?>

<Defeat,> she thought, reluctantly. <Aura is dead and all the surviving Raknar and operators captured. We are still free.> There was a long pause. Splunk knew she was probably contacting Sly, and she feared what he might say. She hoped it didn’t take long, the strain was incredible. Then another presence entered on the Far Talker’s side.

<What happened?> Sly asked.

<Deception,> Splunk said. <We don’t know the full details. Alexis Cromwell is dead. The Humans either fled, were defeated, or have gone underground. Their fleet is enroute to New Warsaw now, ETA 169 hours.>

<Can you escape off world?>

<Not without our operators.> Silence for a moment. <We can avoid capture indefinitely.>

<Do so. I will contact the Humans in command here. We will coordinate their defenses. Contact again in 60 hours.>

The connection cut, and Splunk gasped from the suddenness of it. She’d been expecting something. What, anger? Accusations? But there was none of it.

“He seemed calm,” Peanut said.

“A Koof always seems calm,” Dante said and snorted. “They seldom understand what’s really going on.”

“Sly will handle his end of it,” Splunk said, changing the subject. “Our job is to not get caught, and to see if we can get our operators out.”

“We should cause as much carnage as possible in the meantime,” Dante suggested.

“I like the sound of that,” Shadow said.

Splunk found herself agreeing. Aura would have approved of some payback as well. Suddenly she felt Jim was highly agitated. Something had happened; either they were interrogating him, or he’d found some piece of information which had him highly upset. She tried to send a calming thought to him. <We’ll get you out soon, Jim.>

Splunk knew it was unlikely he would get the thought. Humans were remarkably weak when it came to receiving thoughts. Maybe it was part of what made them so different from the Lumar? The others had cleaned up any evidence of their presence, except the five dead Besquith, of course. It was time to go.

* * * * *

The following is an

Excerpt from Book One of the Salvage Title Trilogy:

Salvage Title


Kevin Steverson

Now Available from Theogony Books

eBook, Paperback, and Audio

Excerpt from “Salvage Title:”

A steady beeping brought Harmon back to the present. Clip’s program had succeeded in unlocking the container. “Right on!” Clip exclaimed. He was always using expressions hundreds or more years out of style. “Let’s see what we have; I hope this one isn’t empty, too.” Last month they’d come across a smaller vault, but it had been empty.

Harmon stepped up and wedged his hands into the small opening the door had made when it disengaged the locks. There wasn’t enough power in the small cells Clip used to open it any further. He put his weight into it, and the door opened enough for them to get inside. Before they went in, Harmon placed a piece of pipe in the doorway so it couldn’t close and lock on them, baking them alive before anyone realized they were missing.

Daylight shone in through the doorway, and they both froze in place; the weapons vault was full. In it were two racks of rifles, stacked on top of each other. One held twenty magnetic kinetic rifles, and the other held some type of laser rifle. There was a rack of pistols of various types. There were three cases of flechette grenades and one of thermite. There were cases of ammunition and power clips for the rifles and pistols, and all the weapons looked to be in good shape, even if they were of a strange design and clearly not made in this system. Harmon couldn’t tell what system they had been made in, but he could tell what they were.

There were three upright containers on one side and three more against the back wall that looked like lockers. Five of the containers were not locked, so Clip opened them. The first three each held two sets of light battle armor that looked like it was designed for a humanoid race with four arms. The helmets looked like the ones Harmon had worn at the academy, but they were a little long in the face. The next container held a heavy battle suit—one that could be sealed against vacuum. It was also designed for a being with four arms. All the armor showed signs of wear, with scuffed helmets. The fifth container held shelves with three sizes of power cells on them. The largest power cells—four of them—were big enough to run a mech.

Harmon tried to force the handle open on the last container, thinking it may have gotten stuck over time, but it was locked and all he did was hurt his hand. The vault seemed like it had been closed for years.

Clip laughed and said, “That won’t work. It’s not age or metal fatigue keeping the door closed. Look at this stuff. It may be old, but it has been sealed in for years. It’s all in great shape.”

“Well, work some of your tech magic then, ‘Puter Boy,” Harmon said, shaking out his hand.

Clip pulled out a small laser pen and went to work on the container. It took another ten minutes, but finally he was through to the locking mechanism. It didn’t take long after that to get it open.

Inside, there were two items—an eight-inch cube on a shelf that looked like a hard drive or a computer and the large power cell it was connected to. Harmon reached for it, but Clip grabbed his arm.

“Don’t! Let me check it before you move it. It’s hooked up to that power cell for a reason. I want to know why.”

Harmon shrugged. “Okay, but I don’t see any lights; it has probably been dead for years.”

Clip took a sensor reader out of his kit, one of the many tools he had improved. He checked the cell and the device. There was a faint amount of power running to it that barely registered on his screen. There were several ports on the back along with the slot where the power cell was hooked in. He checked to make sure the connections were tight, he then carried the two devices to the hovercraft.

Clip then called Rinto’s personal comm from the communicator in the hovercraft. When Rinto answered, Clip looked at Harmon and winked. “Hey boss, we found some stuff worth a hovercraft full of credit…probably two. Can we have it?” he asked.

* * * * *

Get “Salvage Title” now at:

Find out more about Kevin Steverson and “Salvage Title” at:

* * * * *

The following is an

Excerpt from Book One of the Earth Song Cycle:



Mark Wandrey

Available Now from Theogony Books

eBook, Paperback, and Audio

Excerpt from Overture:


May 21st

Dawn was still an hour away as Mindy Channely opened the roof access and stared in surprise at the crowd already assembled there. “Authorized Personnel Only” was printed in bold red letters on the door through which she and her husband, Jake, slipped onto the wide roof.

A few people standing nearby took notice of their arrival. Most had no reaction, a few nodded, and a couple waved tentatively. Mindy looked over the skyline of Portland and instinctively oriented herself before glancing to the east. The sky had an unnatural glow that had been growing steadily for hours, and as they watched, scintillating streamers of blue, white, and green radiated over the mountains like a strange, concentrated aurora borealis.

“You almost missed it,” one man said. She let the door close, but saw someone had left a brick to keep it from closing completely. Mindy turned and saw the man who had spoken wore a security guard uniform. The easy access to the building made more sense.

“Ain’t no one missin’ this!” a drunk man slurred.

“We figured most people fled to the hills over the past week,” Jake replied.

“I guess we were wrong,” Mindy said.

“Might as well enjoy the show,” the guard said and offered them a huge, hand-rolled cigarette that didn’t smell like tobacco. She waved it off, and the two men shrugged before taking a puff.

“Here it comes!” someone yelled. Mindy looked to the east. There was a bright light coming over the Cascade Mountains, so intense it was like looking at a welder’s torch. Asteroid LM-245 hit the atmosphere at over 300 miles per second. It seemed to move faster and faster, from east to west, and the people lifted their hands to shield their eyes from the blinding light. It looked like a blazing comet or a science fiction laser blast.

“Maybe it will just pass over,” someone said in a voice full of hope.

Mindy shook her head. She’d studied the asteroid’s track many times.

In a matter of a few seconds, it shot by and fell toward the western horizon, disappearing below the mountains between Portland and the ocean. Out of view of the city, it slammed into the ocean.

The impact was unimaginable. The air around the hypersonic projectile turned to superheated plasma, creating a shockwave that generated 10 times the energy of the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated as it hit the ocean’s surface.

The kinetic energy was more than 1,000 megatons; however, the object didn’t slow as it flashed through a half mile of ocean and into the sea bed, then into the mantel, and beyond.

On the surface, the blast effect appeared as a thermal flash brighter than the sun. Everyone on the rooftop watched with wide-eyed terror as the Tualatin Mountains between Portland and the Pacific Ocean were outlined in blinding light. As the light began to dissipate, the outline of the mountains blurred as a dense bank of smoke climbed from the western range.

The flash had incinerated everything on the other side.

The physical blast, travelling much faster than any normal atmospheric shockwave, hit the mountains and tore them from the bedrock, adding them to the rolling wave of destruction traveling east at several thousand miles per hour. The people on the rooftops of Portland only had two seconds before the entire city was wiped away.

Ten seconds later, the asteroid reached the core of the planet, and another dozen seconds after that, the Earth’s fate was sealed.

* * * * *

Get “Overture” now at:

Find out more about Mark Wandrey and Earth Song: Overture at:

# # # # #

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