Book: Fortune's Folly

Fortune's Folly





Sara King

Fortune's Folly

Opposite Image: Rebel Propaganda Poster, by Lance MacCarty

Story Copyright © 2016

Sara King

All Rights Reserved

Images © 2016

Sara King and/or Lance MacCarty

All Rights Reserved

Table of Contents

Table of Contents


Author’s Note

CHAPTER 1:  A Meeting of the Minds

CHAPTER 2:  The Heist

CHAPTER 3:  Distress Call

CHAPTER 4:  To Sacrifice a Queen…

CHAPTER 5:  Warning One

CHAPTER 6:  A Final Confession

CHAPTER 7:  Alone in Silver City

CHAPTER 8:  Friendly Assessments

CHAPTER 9:  Dragonfly

CHAPTER 10:  Do You Wish to Open?

CHAPTER 11:  Encephalon

CHAPTER 12:  Survivor


CHAPTER 14:  Ship with an Attitude

CHAPTER 15:  That Night in the Jungle…

CHAPTER 16:  The Uh-Oh Light

CHAPTER 17:  Journey into the Wide

CHAPTER 18:  FlameOn

CHAPTER 19:  Master Communicator

CHAPTER 20:  Two-Faced

CHAPTER 21:  Sibling Rivalry

CHAPTER 22:  The New Leadership

CHAPTER 23:  Twins

CHAPTER 24:  Charismatic People

CHAPTER 25:  Modern Medicine

CHAPTER 26:  Separation Anxiety

CHAPTER 27:  Quadrocity

CHAPTER 28:  Prisoner Rescue

CHAPTER 29:  Fight or Flight

CHAPTER 30:  The Burdens of Loneliness

CHAPTER 31:  Five Minutes, Thirty-Nine Seconds

CHAPTER 32:  Risk of Exposure

CHAPTER 33:  Inhuman

CHAPTER 34:  One Child at a Time

CHAPTER 35:  Anna’s ‘Upgrades’

CHAPTER 36:  Quad to the Rescue

CHAPTER 37:  The Importance of Jedi Wolverine

CHAPTER 38:  Quad and Anna Destroy the Universe

CHAPTER 39:  Prophets with Eidetic Memories

CHAPTER 40:  Homelessness

CHAPTER 41:  Anna’s First Assassination

CHAPTER 42:  The Abundance of Spring

CHAPTER 43:  Daytona’s Engine Repair

CHAPTER 44:  Improv

CHAPTER 45:  Stalemate

CHAPTER 46:  Alone with the Enemy

CHAPTER 47:  Children of Fortune

About the Author

About the Artist

Outer Bounds Art and Swag

SNEAK PEEK: Children of Fortune

Other Titles by Sara King


To my fans, who, with their generosity, saved this book from obscurity.

To Robert and Kim, champions of my Muse, who picked me up, dusted me off, and showed me how to love writing again.

And to Karen, who’s so good at what she does that I’m forced to wonder when I’ll receive her confession that she’s not precisely human…

Author’s Note

If you’ve read my stories before, you know that I don’t do technobabble.  That said, in introducing the socially-awkward mechanical genius child Quad as a main character, I had to do some technobabble.  Please feel free to skim, because no, you’re not supposed to remember it all.  It’s Grade-A bullshit, but hopefully it’s amusing bullshit.

“Those who sleep through the lessons of history are forced to retake the class.”

Admiral Essa Dublin, Survivors’ Ship 7, ‘Lucky Seven,’ Final Human Migration

CHAPTER 1:  A Meeting of the Minds

(a.k.a. Technobabble, Part 1)

Fortune's Folly

Two Weeks Before Independence, 3rd of May, 3006

Yolk Factory 14

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
“Hi.  My name’s Quad.”

The small, strawberry-blonde girl using enough ultranet load for a small city looked up at Quad with a frown, so Quad reflexively dropped his eyes back to his feet.  Anna Landborn had been seated alone at an abandoned cafeteria table of Yolk Factory 14, and it had seemed like as good a time as any to approach her.  Everyone else, including her sister, was locked in the mines.  Quad, who had already been watching Anna for two days outside the visible spectrum, had waited until Anna had blackmailed the kitchen chef into letting her hide in the chow tent before he had been able to find the courage to come out of hiding.

“You think I give a floater’s crap what your name is, Chubby?” Anna demanded.  When Quad didn’t look up at her, she squinted at him.  “What’s wrong with you?  You got a foot fetish or something?”

Quad swallowed hard.  His mom had repeatedly told him to meet people’s eyes or they would think something was wrong with him, but he simply couldn’t bring himself to look at most people.  Some people were okay, but most people made him uncomfortable, so he just didn’t look.

“I’m Quad,” Quad managed.  Then, horrified, he realized he’d already told her that and scrambled to come up with something else.  Don’t repeat yourself, his mother had drilled him.  She’ll think you’ve got the Wide if you repeat yourself.  “Um.  Can I sit down?”  He couldn’t lift his head to look at her, so he studied his shoes, instead.  His neon green Jedi Wolverine sneakers were crusted with sand and slime from wandering down the Tear in search of her, and he was likewise dreading having to explain the mess to his mom in five minutes.  Cheyenne was still mad at him for uploading Predator Apocalypso’s voiceprint to the mansion’s supercomputer to replace the snooty Eoirian interface, and she was always complaining he was going to bring back a planet-killing bacterium on one of his jumps that would end up killing all of the Core.  Quad didn’t think that was very fair, because the extreme temperatures alone would easily kill—

“No,” Anna said.  “What accent is that?  Trinoi?”  She snorted.  “So your parents are either stupid chumps who bought the Coalition colonization propaganda, or criminals they rounded up to feed through the Yolk mines.”  Surveying him a moment, Anna went on, “My bet’s on stupid.  Cobrani porkers rarely make it through the criminal system.  Go back to suckling at your mother’s teat, piglet—no corn over here.”  She went back to studying her r-player.

Quad lifted his head slightly to watch the downloads she was making—the data streams were always different on different planets, their lines and colors varying by magnetic and solar influences, kind of like moving, weaving fingerprints.  Fortune’s were prettier than most—a wash of blues and greens and purples that spun and expanded like fire as they wove outwards into the Void, most signals never again to be picked up by sentient life, human or otherwise.

Anna had hijacked the main terminal, and was putting a horrendous load on the camp computer’s ultranet link under the guise of a non-existent admiral.  Though the screen of her player was facing away from him, Quad could tell by the flow of data that she was gathering every book, publication, and vid on advanced weaponry that Humanity had published since the start of the Triton Wars.  That made him perk up a little.

“Interesting stuff,” Quad offered, as she perused one of Trachinelli’s so-called masterworks on chemical weaponry.  He personally found the stuff by Trachinelli to be less inspired than the simple essays by the forgotten genius Yoseph Dotrine of the twenty-fourth century, whose brilliance was lost during the strife of the Migration, but Trachinelli was the more popularly-acclaimed scientist, and his work would therefore be the easiest for her to find.

Anna snorted.  “As if you’d have any clue, Philistine.”

Quad wanted to tell her that talking about pre-Triton technology was more or less his favorite subject of all time, but his mom had insisted he keep his mouth shut about that in public, so he just continued to stare at his dirty Jedi Wolverine sneakers.  Despite the special heat-resistant coatings he’d put on them, part of one sole had melted in his last jump.  He stared at it unhappily.  His mom had given them to him for his birthday, and Cheyenne kept complaining that he was always destroying his stuff.  What was worse, Quad had only been given one official mission by the Sun Dogs so far, a mission that he was even then failing horribly, and he only had four and a half minutes left to talk.  Figure out if she’s ready for the program, Cheyenne had said.  Get in, get out.  Don’t you dare start talking tech with the little gremlin.

As Quad considered how, exactly, to get the super-intelligent—he was told, anyway—seven-year-old Fortuner talking about something other than tech, Anna Landborn loudly cleared her throat.  When Quad looked up, she was squinting up at him with a frown.

“Didn’t you hear me, you fat chocolate cupcake?” she asked.  “You’re using up my oxygen.”

“Sorry,” Quad said, stepping sideways to give her space.  He had rehearsed this moment a hundred times with Cheyenne, but all his preparations had evaporated the moment he was faced with the monumental act of simple conversation.  “Ask her about her hobbies,” Cheyenne had told him.  “Ask about the Coalition.  See if she can tell right from wrong.  Try to get a bead on the little shit—figure out if she’s one of the broken ones.  Her adopted father already said she was a bad egg, but David’s got a reputation for being a hardass, and Sirius doesn’t want to believe it.”

How was someone supposed to cover such ephemeral topics as right and wrong in five minutes?  Which was actually four minutes, now.  His mother’s request was leaving his mouth dry, his hands sweaty.  He couldn’t even ask her the time of day, much less execute a complete series of pointed questions that would allow him to make a concrete psychological analysis in under four minutes.  And then he’d have to wait for her answers

Quad opened his mouth, but he couldn’t conceive of the right thing to say to make Anna give him what he needed to know in the time allotted.  He hadn’t wanted to go to Fortune in the first place—he had been in the middle of giving Mordy a long-range warfare kit that matched the hundred-teraton stopping power of TimeMagus’s far-future robot assistant Asteroid Boy—and all he could think about was how much he hated talking to people, and how silent the empty tent was around them as he struggled to say something.

Anna Landborn sighed and slapped her r-player down on the table.  “Look.  Twit.  I’ve got a three thousand page dossier on modern weaponry to read in the next six hours, so if you could please go find some blocks to play with or something, you’d do us both a really big favor.”

“I like tech,” Quad blurted, then winced as soon as the words were out of his mouth.

Anna laughed, looking delighted.  “Oh yeah?”  She cocked her head at him, a wicked gleam beginning to form in her brown eyes.  “How about those neo-setorial subcoprocessors creating Krauss-Gobenhauff nexus plasma on an endocamic level?  Pretty ridiculous the way they waste all that energy on the Dotrine loop, eh?”

Quad felt his mouth drop open as his heart started to spontaneously pound with joy.  No one—not even Dotrine—had proposed that the energy loop created by his namesake apparatus was redundant, and could be theoretically circumvented by a proper Trudine reaction.  He had seen it the moment he had taken a Maltothorinium power sphere apart, but Cheyenne had told him to go back to the skimmer when he’d started to try and tell the local baker about its inefficiency.  Bakers didn’t care about nexus plasma, she had told him, which simply wasn’t true because every ship in the world ran on nexus plasma.  When Quad had tried to argue that point, however, she’d had him write it all down and had given it to Sirius, but the old man had never commissioned a working model.  Too impractical, not really useful, Kestrel had told him, and it had been summarily dropped.

Not useful?  A ship could theoretically save ninety-eight percent of its overall power core lifetime simply by applying a Trudine reaction.  Further, the Trudine reaction would streamline the creation of nexus plasma and, with proper channeling, could quite possibly create a Whorug sphere that could allow a ship to jump space and time.

…or drop them into one of an infinite number of alternate dimensions, which would be a slight issue, but at least the outrageous power inefficiencies would be countered.

“Or,” Anna said, still grinning at him, “what about the glaring flaw in current communications networks?  The Aashaanti had well-documented instant communications through the Drone-Bolagg effect, but even the idiots who named the process haven’t managed to figure out the Aashaanti never sent out communications signals in the form of radio waves or microwaves.  They were operating on a psycho-reactive signal—same one the Shriekers are using.  Funny no one else can see that but us two geniuses, huh?”

Quad totally forgot to breathe, suddenly too overwhelmed to speak.  He had seen the flaws in the proposed Drone-Bolagg effect the moment he had studied the top-secret experiments with salvaged Aashaanti tech.  In a lab setting, they had managed to use human electricity—their first mistake—to power the Aashaanti transmitters into creating a supposedly instant transfer of information by the relocation of a radio wave, but the report’s finer details had been riddled with inexplicable lag and minor transcription errors, mainly because the Aashaanti transceivers were never meant to carry such a rudimentary load as a directional radio wave, but to transfer and amplify a higher frequency, permeatory psychic sphere created by the mental presence of an Aashaanti archon.

Anna stood up and put her arm around Quad’s shoulder.  “What’d you say your name was?  Pod?”

“Quad,” Quad whispered, his throat having constricted to leave him with barely a whisper.  All he could see was Anna’s face, the raw intelligence staring back at him.  Finally—finally—he had met someone he could talk to.

Anna grinned.  “Look.  Quad.  I’ve had the entire future of a planet resting on my shoulders pretty much since the day I was born.  That’s six million people who are waiting for me to drag them out from under the yoke of this backwards, self-important behemoth that has been abusing their civil rights for the last forty years.  That’s a really big burden, one that keeps me awake at night when all the adults around me are worrying which slut or man-whore they’re gonna fornicate with next, and whether or not they’re gonna contract a venereal disease because of it.”

Quad could only stare.  Everything he had rehearsed with his mother was gone, and only the glory that was Anna Landborn was left.  For the first time, he felt like he could talk to another human being.  He even wanted to talk, which was shocking him to total silence.  He had never wanted to talk to a person.  Not once.  Even his conversations with Cheyenne had mainly been about his latest tech discovery or, more commonly, what he wanted for dinner.  But here…  Here, standing before him, was someone who could understand, someone who shared his burden.

Anna petted his shoulder again.  “So get this, Quad.  You are what is politely called a raging imbecile.  Me, on the other hand, I’m what’s called a savant.  I’m destined to change the course of history.  You…”  She snorted, looking him up and down.  “You’re probably destined to get fucked by a pedophilic Nephyr at Harvest and left in a ditch to die.”

Quad just nodded.  That’s all he could do—nod.  It was wonderful—perfect, even—to find someone who actually spoke his language.  He had a thousand things to say, all of them trying to burst forth at the same time, locking down his throat like Galtoria Falls trapped inside a garden hose.

Anna smiled and nodded with him.  “I’m not going to start using little words, so you should probably go back to playing with whatever cute wooden toys your parents carved you out of sticks before they died.  Hell, even rocks would suffice.  I hear if you pound a couple of them together, they make a funny sound.  Real entertainment, there.”

“I…” Quad whispered, his chest on fire with the desperate need to talk to her, to tell her of his own discoveries, but there were too many to pick just one.  The mental clamor for attention had brought his entire chain of thought to a crashing halt, leaving him with his mouth hanging open, unable to do anything but stare.

Anna patted him gently on the shoulder.  “So, while I would love the company of your fat tarbaby face, there’s no way you could possibly keep up.”

Quad swallowed hard and blinked.  He was speechless not because he had nothing to say, but because, for the first time, he wanted to say it all.  He wanted to outline every invention he’d ever had in passing thought, every nuance of technology as he saw it, every simple observation that had befuddled every other human he’d ever met—he just couldn’t figure out where to start.

“So go,” Anna said, ushering him out of the tent with a smile, “or I’ll go tell the Director you’re a rebel spy I just caught accessing the camp ultranet to download treatises on modern weaponry.”

Quad’s mind was racing, trying to find the best thing to talk about.  There was so much, so very much…

Anna’s eyes started to narrow, and Quad realized he was taking too long to decide.

“Drone-Bolagg,” Quad blurted, finally picking one.  “Yes,” he babbled.  “Yes, oh yes.”

She stared at him for much too long.  “You get hit by a Shriek?” Anna demanded finally.  Her brown eyes caught at his wrist.  “And how the hell did you get hold of an Aashaanti bracelet?  Don’t you know artifacts are worth big bucks on the black market?  Why haven’t the guards taken it from you?”

Quad, who was already upset by his own verbal clumsiness, nodded when he meant to shake his head, then realized her final words weren’t a yes-no question and let out a hysterical, nervous laugh as he tried to rewind and figure out how to respond, and how badly he’d screwed up.

“Ugh.”  Anna grabbed her r-player and got up from the table.  “If he asks, tell the cook I was afraid the stupidity was contagious and went back to my hut.”

“No!” Quad cried, grabbing her by the arm when he realized she meant to leave him there.  Cheyenne had told him he only had five minutes with Anna before he had to be back for supper.  He’d already used up three.

Get in, get out, Cheyenne had said.  Offer to bring her and her sister back with you if you think it’s safe.  If not, screw what Sirius wants and just come home.

“I can take you home with me!” Quad blurted in his excitement.  “To the Core!  I’m here to take you back to the Core with me!  I’m your ride.  To safety.  Orion is back on Fortune and they don’t want him to find you by accident!  Your daddy wants you safe.”

“Shhh!”  Anna flinched and looked around them.  “Aanaho, you’re worse than damn Wideman.”  She pried his fingers from her arm.  “Look, you just stay here and keep watch for Shriekers, okay?  If you’re really quiet, maybe those nice soldiers out there won’t knock out a few teeth before you die of the Wide.  Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

Quad didn’t want to nod, but he’d been conditioned to nod from years of being yelled at when he didn’t hear people who were talking to him, and the pleasant tone of her question triggered an automatic reaction from his body even when he tried to fight the ingrained impulse with his frantic mind.  He followed his nod with an immediate head-shake for clarification.

“Yeah, okay, cupcake.”  Anna grinned and saluted him.  “Good luck holding them off.  I hear those cafeteria benches are killers in the dark.”  Then, without looking back, she turned and left the chow hall tent.

Quad watched the place where she had disappeared for several minutes, chest aching with a pang of loss, before the cook came out from the cordoned-off kitchen brandishing a wooden spoon.  “Hey!  You!  Kid!  Where’d the other one go?  She done making my life miserable already?”

Out of time, overwhelmed by his contact with Anna Landborn, unable to even contemplate the idea of talking to an adult, Quad simply grabbed the concept of his mother’s dinner table in the Core and pushed himself back to the Aashaanti anchor he had glued under the seat of his favorite chair in the family villa on Trinoi.  Anchors made things easier.

“You’re late,” Cheyenne sighed, looking up as he appeared in his usual seat at her left hand.  She had several datapads spread out in front of her, along with a few dozen luminescent Yolk vials, weighing scales, and ledgers.  The Yolk, as always, had a buzzing turquoise fire-glow around it.  The morning sun was shining outside, and it was obvious he’d missed dinner.  She did not look happy.  “I said five minutes, not two and a half weeks, Quad.”

Quad swallowed.  He had just assumed Cheyenne meant he had five minutes after he started talking to Anna.  “Sorry, Mom.”  His mother, like everyone else Quad had met, didn’t understand the nuances of interstellar travel.  Covering a distance like that between Fortune and the Core needed an anchor, and the really good anchors on or near Fortune were generally in the Tear or the Void Ring, which meant he needed a little extra time to figure out where Anna was and seek her out—which he had mostly done by following the unmistakable trail of datastreams that marked her passage.

Cheyenne just sighed.  “I’m used to it.”  She set down a ledger and looked him over.  “I take it she didn’t want to come?”

Quad shook his head and picked at the tabletop, devastated by his own social inadequacy.  He could have talked to her.  He knew it.  He spoke a different language than most people, but he’d heard her speak it, too.  He’d just needed a couple more minutes to clear his head and start over.  He had finally—finally—found someone who could empathize with his situation.

“Dammit, Quad, you’re gone for two weeks and you don’t have anything to say but ‘sorry’?”

“I…”  Quad swallowed, still locked down with nerves from the cook yelling at him.  “I…had trouble, Mom.  She…”  He lowered his head, remembering.  “She walked away.  Thought I had the Wide.”

Outside, the sound of subtropical birdsong filled the breezy Trinoi patio.

“Her loss,” Cheyenne said, going back to her accounts as if that was that.  “Sirius will just pick her up later.”

But Quad knew there was something deeper, there.  Some innate kinship that he had to pursue, a joining of two spirits on the same difficult path.  He would see her again.  “I didn’t really get a good chance to talk to her,” he said.  “I need some more time.”

Cheyenne snorted.  “If the little twit isn’t smart enough to give you a chance to talk, then she’s not ready for the program,” Cheyenne said.  “Let Sirius deal with it.  Definitely not our problem.  He’s lucky I let you go in the first place.”

Quad nodded reluctantly, but he was planning out how to see Anna again without his mother finding out.

Cheyenne, who had picked up another glowing tube of Yolk with a set of tongs, frowned at Quad over the vial.  “You’re not going back.”  It wasn’t a question.

Quad shrugged.

“Quad.”  Her voice was stern.  “Sooner or later, those kids are gonna make an attack on Rath, and the AlphaGens can’t be seen to have any visible part in that rebellion whatsoever—you know Orion would use us breaking the Pact as an excuse to exterminate the rest of us.  Hell, he’s on Fortune right now, trying to find that damned beacon.”  She gave him a look.  “A beacon that, given twenty seconds and a line of sight, you could put in his hands.”

“I wouldn’t, Mom,” Quad complained.  He had to go back to Fortune.  Anna was on Fortune.

But Cheyenne wasn’t listening.  “We were putting you in unacceptable risk sending you the first time.  You told me it would take five minutes and you were gone for seventeen days.”

“I wasn’t gonna get hurt, Mom,” Quad complained.  “If Orion found me, I’d just leave.”

“That’s not the point,” Cheyenne growled.  “The point is, I told you you had five minutes to talk to Anna Landborn and you didn’t show back up for more than two weeksThat needs to stop.”

Quad stared at the tabletop and shrugged again, replaying Anna’s casual dissertation on Trudine reactions and Drone-Bolagg effects in his mind.  His heart was pounding with the thought of talking to her again.  He would talk to her again.

“And stop shrugging!” Cheyenne snapped.  “It’s rude.”

“Sorry, Mom,” Quad said, hunching in on himself.

His mother grunted.  “Anyway, you don’t need to go back.  That girl missed her chance.  She obviously needs a few more years.  If the reaction hasn’t happened by now, she should be safe.  We’ll grab her as a teenager.”

But Quad knew that the failing was his, not hers.  “It was my fault.  I couldn’t even talk.”

“Quad.”  This time, there was unmistakable warning in his mother’s voice.  “Listen to me very carefully.  You can’t—”

Irritated, Quad pushed himself to the other side of the room, facing her.  “Can’t what, mom?”  Adrenaline had started to rush through him at the idea of being forbidden to talk to the only one who understood him, and it loosened his tongue.  “Can’t leave?”

It took Cheyenne a moment to locate him at his new position across the room, and when she did, she reddened.  “Quad, I’ve told you that you can’t just jump around when you want to prove a—”

Quad pushed himself to the far door opposite her, making her struggle to locate him again.  “Prove what, mom?” he asked, from behind her.  “That things are different for me than they are for everyone else?  Things like, oh, I dunno, the laws of physics?”

Cheyenne slammed her tongs of Yolk down beside her plate and spun on him.  “Goddamn it, Quad!  Sit!”

It was her tone that finally did it for him.  After his epic failure with Anna Landborn, the only other person in the universe Quad had found whom he could relate to, in his mother’s command—a command given to a dog—Quad had found his tipping point.

“Mother,” Quad said calmly, his whole body alive with adrenaline in every conceivable dimension, “you know better than anyone that you can’t tell me what to do.  No one can.  Not even Sirius.  Please remember that.”  And then he pushed himself to an ancient Aashaanti anchor he’d discovered a few months ago at the other end of the galaxy.

When the dry heat of the desert planet hit him, he kicked at a crumbled Aashaanti statue and sat down amidst the rubble of a once-bustling alien hive to give himself some space to think.  Aside from the temple’s anchor, which felt like a hard, black, symbol-etched sphere in the pliable material of space around him, the air of this planet was relatively unmarred with the colors of tech.  He could see a few silvery spheres and drifting flamelike spirals deeper in the ruined city—signs of functioning tech with intact power-sources, probably locked in vaults to prevent the Phage from taking it—as well as the desperate chatter of a Phage warning recording still going off in the background, but in comparison to Fortune or Trinoi, it was a technological desert.  The planet’s surface was hot, even in the shade, but overall, it was a good, quiet place to think.

Quad’s mind kept returning to Anna Landborn.  Alone, like him.  Burdened, like him.  Different.  She had known the best applications of a Trudine reaction.  She had studied the Drone-Bolagg effect.  She knew how to efficiently create nexus plasma.  She was perfect.

I have to see her again, Quad decided, watching a silvery power-sphere glitter in the planet’s twilight about sixty meters away, doubtless buried under several meters of sand.  He hated the silver ones—they were usually artifacts the Aashaanti priests used to exchange knowledge between their parishioners, and picking them up generally resulted in visions of a panicking, dying Aashaanti civilization, seizures, and weeks of serious headaches.  After three such misfortunate incidents, whenever Quad came across them now, he left them where they lay.  The blue ones, though, could be fun, and he could see an unusually big blue Aashaanti tech-sphere on the horizon that roiled with white-veined arcs of energy.

Normally, Quad would have been too upset with his failure on Fortune and his subsequent confrontation with Cheyenne to go investigate, but the fact that the energy field was visible even from this distance piqued his interest.

Quad got up to idly wander his way through the ruined city, seeking out the source of the crackling blue-white lightning cloud hovering at the edge of his multidimensional consciousness.  When it came to Aashaanti tech, blue ones were generally either tools for work or tools for war, and both could be interesting to dismantle.

He stopped a few hundred meters later, staring at the obliterated seal of an Aashaanti archon half-buried in the sand, inconspicuously located in the side of an abandoned building.  The glimmering black door was chipped and pocked with advanced weapons-fire, but the vault had remained unpenetrated by the ancient attack, the ruined surface indistinguishable from the rest of the shimmering stonemetal the ancient aliens had used to make their city.  A million treasure-hunters would have walked right by the weapons-pocked block, never imagining the still-functioning gem hidden within.

In the background, the Aashaanti beacon droned, “…total Tyne quarantine.  No travel to or from the hive Tyne is permitted.  All visitors from Tyne in the last three days, report immediately to the Hive crematorium to be incinerated. Failure to do so will confirm infection and you will be isolated and interrogated…

Quad, who had long ago learned to tune out the dead civilization’s ancient chatter, bent down to run his fingers along the archon’s forgotten vault.

Authorization, please, the ebony guardmetal demanded in an emerald green burst, probably the first query pulse it had made in millennia.

Quad gave a return-pulse to the waiting lock that mimicked an archon’s mental signature and the normally iridescent ebony guardmetal flashed opaline as the vault slid open under his fingers.  Inside, tucked in a long-forgotten stash three feet in diameter, he saw a stack of ancient Aashaanti tech—powerful artifacts that the city’s desperate residents had stuffed away to keep from their enemy before the city’s fall—and started sifting through it.  By the overwhelming single-source energy signature he was seeing roiling around him, only one of them was still working.  Quad dug through the ancient debris—some of which crumbled in his fingers—to reach the piece that still swirled with power.  It was a shimmering silver livemetal rod an inch thick and a foot and a half long, etched with elegant alien runes.  That, in itself, was interesting, as both the runed material and the sizzling energy field around it reminded him of Sirius’s staff.

Sirius had never allowed Quad to get close enough to his staff to examine it, but Quad had to assume that it consisted of a different substance than most other Aashaanti artifacts, considering its age and lack of power source.  While the ubiquitous black guardmetal could survive for eons in stasis, the silvery livemetal of Sirius’s staff was similar to the opaline hivemetal, the basic component of Aashaanti hiveships, in that it was definitely unusual to find it functioning without a power-source—thus, most of it had died with the Aashaanti.

Even more interesting, the moment his fingers contacted the silver metal rod, it brightened to a brilliant white glow as it activated…like Sirius’s staff.  But Quad didn’t have time to think about that.  In an excited swirl of sizzling electric pulses, it simultaneously welcomed Quad, expressed its gratitude that he had found it, told Quad that its purpose was to advise and counsel, and asked Quad what hive he was from, what the year was, what happened to the Phage, what had happened to the Kelthari, Ra’u, Tebbe, Saoman, and Gobragi, whether the Aashaanti arks had gone undiscovered, whether the Mortari faction of the Second Hive had succeeded in taking over the Jagged Alliance by force, how many archon ancients evaded the extermination squads, and whether any Aashaanti from Hive Tyne had survived.  At least, those were the few questions Quad could actually decipher from the barrage of Aashaanti demands.  In truth, it had actually asked hundreds of questions.  All within the span of a microsecond.

Quad, who had never before needed to give a complex response to anything as simple and straightforward as tech, immediately felt his throat constrict again.  “Uh…”

The rod in his hand gave a confused pulse and asked the same questions again, followed by a few hundred more, most concerning the welfare of the Aashaanti and the date and whether the garrisons had managed to put down any ‘opportunistic scavengers’ that had come to feed on the remains of their dead.

Quad dropped the rod back into its hidden chamber and quickly wiped his hands on his pants, severing the object’s contact with his mind.

The same questions repeated in his head, plus a few dozen more.  They were getting more insistent this time.

Having had no physical contact with the item, Quad immediately thought some form of brainwave-emulating nannite had slipped onto his skin, so he slipped dimensions, intending to burn off whatever remained.  The questions went silent.  He sat outside the visible spectrum for several minutes, watching the silvery rod resting in its bed of crumbled Aashaanti tech and thinking.  All around him, the rod’s multidimensional energy arcs bathed his surroundings in a crackling blue-white glow.

As Quad considered how to proceed, his thoughts inevitably drifted to Anna Landborn’s face as she had casually spoken of plasma and Aashaanti transceivers.  That face had instantly become the most beautiful image he had ever beheld, and his chest ached over his lost opportunity to talk with her.

In its chamber, the livemetal rod shifted into the shape of Anna Landborn’s face, becoming a perfect silver mask of that moment in time, the sarcastic sneer captured to the finest detail.

Its precise replication was enough to draw Quad back into the visible spectrum, and, after a moment of hesitation, to gingerly pick up the piece of tech once more so he could get a better look.  This time, it didn’t bombard him with a thousand questions, but remained almost…meek.  When he realized it wouldn’t ask him any more questions, Quad inwardly sagged in relief, and allowed himself to become thoroughly enraptured by the image of the one person who would ever understand him.

I have to find her again, he thought, looking down at the livemetal Anna mask.  I have to talk to her about what the world’s really like.

CHAPTER 2: The Heist

Fortune's Folly

Independence Day, 17th of May, 3006


Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
“When you told me you wanted to go out on another date,” Jeanne said, her tone utterly flat and even, “you never said anything about stealing my ship or ‘liberating’ Yolk from Rath.”  She had a gun pointed on him again.  A new one, this time, with an image of a starlope bounding in the sweetpod marshes engraved in stunning masterwork filigree in Fortune silver.  From the attention to detail and the lifelike quality of the Fortune scenery, it was probably an original Brackett.  From the cold look he was getting down the perfectly-oiled barrel, it was probably about to be used.

“Come on, Jeanne,” Joel said, from her chair at the captain’s console.  “Cogitate for a second.”

Jeanne squinted at him.  “Cogi-what?”

Joel frowned, realizing he’d used another weird word he didn’t remember learning, then shook himself and said, “Think about it.  With them still being distracted by the fight over the Tear, it’s gonna be easy pickings.”  He’d heard they’d dropped six regiments and five Nephyr platoons into the North Tear looking for the escaped operator captain Tatiana Eyre.  That had seemed excessive, but it had emptied Rath of its remaining Bouncers and he wasn’t about to let a good thing go to waste.

“In case you forgot your geography, Joel, Rath is the heart of the Coalition on Fortune,” Jeanne said.  “It’s crawling with Nephyrs, soldiers, Gryphons, and every other kind of nasty they have to throw at us.  David Landborn even said they’ve got muskers in there, Joel.  Plus, my ship has a couple warrants out on it.  We get it into the wrong hands, I’m never getting it back.  Going to Rath right now is like offering ourselves up on a platter.”

“I totally disagree,” Joel said, returning his attention to piloting them towards the city and its adjoining base.  “See, your whole life of pirating, you just fly in, shoot everyone, and take what you want.  To be a smuggler, you need to have finesse.  You’ve gotta ease this baby into that big, bad city like a lover caressing his—”

A Coalition air traffic controller from Rath interrupted with, “Unidentified aircraft, you are entering an emergency no-fly zone.  Land at the nearest available locking pad and power down your ship or you will be fired upon by orbital ordinance.”

Joel quickly flipped open the com.  “Hey, uh, I was just out picking off coalers at this epic firefight that’s going on over the Tear and I sustained some heavy damage from a Bouncer attack.  My navigation system’s completely down and my com system’s been totally erratic.  This is Boomberg, right?  Think I could land here to patch up?”

There was a long silence on the other end.  Then the Coalition controller stiffly said, “Yeah, this is Boomberg.  We’ve got space.”

“Great!” Joel said.  “I’ve got like twenty of our guys behind me—those floating coalers hit us with some sort of EMP or something that damaged our instruments and probably our beacons—and the best we can do is short-range wave at the moment, so comm might get screwy.  I’ll be dropping down on the tarmac in twenty minutes, if I can make it there.  Think we managed to get outta there without the Coalition following us, but if we didn’t, it could get hairy, so prep everyone for a fight.  You should probably send out a search party if I don’t show up in half an hour—I’ve got a fire eating through my electronics and my engine’s on its last mag.”  Hanging up, Joel immediately flipped on the scramblers, hit the throttle, and changed course.

Jeanne was frowning at the console.  “Wait a minute.  You told them you’re coming.”

Joel just grinned at her.  “Watch and weep, baby.”  He did a wide loop and came in from the southern ocean side, over the eddies where the acidic blue-green waters of the Snake mingled with the cerulean sea and turned it jet black, then over ancient rocky Pillars where Daytona Dae and her original group of colonists had first held court, confiscated when the Coalition took the planet for its Yolk.  He handed Jeanne the comm.  “I assume you have a beacon on here that’s set to something official?  Transport or courier, maybe?”

“Yeah…” she said, awkwardly taking the commset with one hand while continuing to point the gun at his head with the other.  “Hidden under the dash.  Third switch from the right.”  She frowned down at the handheld he had shoved in her hand, still keeping the pistol trained on Joel’s skull.  “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?”

“Tell them you’re here to obtain Yolk.”  Joel ducked under the dash and flipped the beacon marked ‘Coalition Courier.’

Jeanne squinted at him.  “What?”

“Go on!”  Joel gestured at the comm.  “My name is Jeanne and I’m here to pick up Yolk for transport to the Orbital.”

Jeanne put her pistol between his eyes and Joel heard the distinct click of the gun cocking.  “Get out of my chair.”

Joel sighed.  “I’d do it, but I just told air traffic control I’m a colonist who just helped annihilate their air force.”


“Tell ya what,” Joel said.  “You do this, and I’ll wear the dress next time.”

Squinting at him, Jeanne reluctantly said, “What kind of dress?”

“You get to pick.”  He showed her his dimples.

Warily, her vivid green eyes never leaving his face, the legendary Miss Ivory put the mic to her face, depressed the button, and said, “I’m Captain Ivory, of the Stone Dog.  I’m here to pick up Yolk for transport to the Orbital.”

A moment later, a brisk, almost panicked voice said, “We don’t have any shipments scheduled until tomorrow.  Come back later.”

Jeanne shut off the feed and raised an eyebrow at Joel over the comm.

“Tell him you’ve got orders from the admiral to get as much Yolk off Fortune as possible before the planet gets any more unstable.”

Jeanne squinted at him.  Joel hurriedly gestured at the comm.

“Listen, you brainless son of a bitch,” Jeanne growled into the handset, eyes locked on Joel.  “I’ve got orders from the admiral to get as much Yolk off this planet as possible before it gets any more unstable.  You wanna argue, take it up with him.”

“Her,” Joel said.

Jeanne lowered the comm in frustration.  “I thought it was a him!”

“A new one took over a month ago,” Joel whispered back.  “Real go-getter from the Inner Bounds.  Admiral Nora Maako.  They call her the Shark.”

“What’s a shark?” Jeanne whispered back.

Joel shrugged.  “A big cartilaginous fish with a prominent pectoral fin and rows of teeth.”

Jeanne squinted at him.  Only then did Joel realize that he didn’t really know what half of what he said meant—he’d been doing it more and more since Martin had beat the crap out of him and he’d woken with his mouth full of raw Yolk and wriggling Shriekers.  He flushed and cleared his throat, wondering if he had just talked out his ass, then decided to pretend it was all true for the sake of the pretty girl in the room.

Another moment went by and a guy said, “Sorry, which admiral did you say you got those orders from?”

“Nora Maako,” Jeanne said.  “She’s really pissed you guys couldn’t keep your own shit from exploding like this.  It’s all over the news up there.  Said something about the satellite feed showing a few dozen rebels headed in your direction from a big fight up at the Tear, and if you idiots lose it all before we make our quota, she’s gonna give your whole section to the Nephyrs for target practice.”

Joel grinned and gave a thumbs-up.

“Well, shit,” the guy on the wave muttered.  “We don’t have much scheduled.  Last outbound shipment was two days ago.  Yolk Factory 14 had that camp-wide Shriek, lost most everything they had.  Only about five hundred sacks actually made it outta there.  Would be better if you waited until Steele collects the next one at Factory 11.”

“I’ll collect it now,” Jeanne said.  “From the intel we’re getting, Rath is next on the collies’ list, and we need to get it somewhere safe.”

“Dammit, yeah, fine.  We’ve got a bit of a shitstorm happening down here right now.  Just land on the main base locking pad until we can secure clearance.”

Joel cut at his throat with his hand and shook his head, mouthing, “Yolk Intake.”

“Negative,” Jeanne said, watching him.  “I’m looking at something like thirty-five collie ships headed in your direction right now.  Don’t wanna risk getting trapped on the tarmac.  We’ll land at the Yolk intake.  Have it delivered there.”

“Shit, you see them?  They’re not showing up on our radar.”

“Ants,” Joel whispered.

“You’re fucking kidding me, right?” Jeanne demanded.  “They look like a swarm of ants on mine.”

“You got that new anti-smuggling equipment installed, then?”

Both Joel and Jeanne raised their brows, looking at the comm.  Jeanne pointed at the instrument and made a ‘what the hell?’ gesture and Joel shrugged, hurriedly gesturing her to continue.

“Probably,” Jeanne said tentatively.  “That the stuff that beats their scramblers?”

“Yeah, top of the line.  Just arrived in the last shipment from the Inner Bounds.  You’ll know it if you have it—it picks up birds, then tells you what species they are.”

“Good to know,” Joel said.

“What was that?” the air traffic controller demanded.

“Nothing,” Jeanne said, scowling at him.  “I was just discussing it on a different wave.  Looks like yeah, that’s what I’ve got.  Nice stuff.”

“Yeah.  It’ll stop those idiots dead in their tracks.  Can’t wait to get ours.  But shit, if you’re seeing them, they must be planning some sort of sneak-attack.  Scramblers off, calling us off base to go looking for ’em…  Diversion or something.”

“Sounds like something that conniving asshole Runaway Joel would set up,” Jeanne said.  “Be careful.  I’ll be landing in ten.”

Come on, Joel mouthed, pouting.

“Roger.  Put on the speed.  We’re sending out operators to meet these guys, and they’re as twitchy as Nephyrs when it comes to moving targets.”

“Gotcha.”  Jeanne put the com down and frowned at Joel.  “Seriously?  That easy?”

Joel felt his grin widen.  “My dear,” he said, “the key to successful smuggling is sensing an opportunity when it’s falling out of the sky.”  He gingerly took her hand in his, grinning at her.  “And might I add, darling, you are superb at this.”  He bent over it with a kiss.

Jeanne blushed, and he knew it wasn’t because she was thinking of her ability to misrepresent the truth.  “Okay,” Jeanne said, reluctantly tucking the gun away, “so what’re we gonna do now?  I’m not dressed like a Coalition courier captain, and you are plastered over every wanted board in the Outer Bounds.”

Joel grinned.  “You’ve got a secret compartment in this ship, right?”

Jeanne narrowed her eyes like he’d asked a pirate where she liked to hide her treasure.  “Why do you want to know?”

“Oh come on,” Joel insisted.  “It’s not like this is a convoluted scheme to figure out where you stash your goods.”

“It isn’t?” she said.

“Of course not,” Joel said.  “We’re about to make millions.  You think I care about whatever trinkets you have in the trunk?”

She didn’t look convinced.  “What are you planning on putting in it?” she asked.

“Why…” Joel gave her a devilish grin, “me, of course.”

Jeanne just peered at him, clearly suspicious of his intent to breathe, much less look at the contents of her secret compartment.  “And what am I going to be doing while you Trojan Horse my ship?  Getting captured by Coalition?  Trusting your good will to get me out again, when you could run off and sell my vessel to the highest bidder?”

“No,” Joel said, “you’re going to be acquiring for us a couple sacks of Yolk from the gullible rubes thinking they’re about to get hit by the non-existent colonist air force.”  He pulled out his knapsack from where he’d left it against the wall, then rummaged through it until he found an earbud and button-cam, which he handed to her.  “Now remember.  You’re a captain.  You’ve got an admiral’s foot up your ass, so you’re going to return the favor to anyone who ranks lower than you on the totem pole.”

“You forget I’m not dressed like an admiral’s runner,” Jeanne said.  “Oh, and that my ship is not a government model.”

“Secret op,” Joel said.  “Last resort.  Gotta blend in.  Colonist rebels everywhere, shooting down everything in sight.  It’s total hell out there.”

Jeanne continued to squint at him suspiciously.

“Jeanne, baby, all I’m trying to do is make us rich.”

“‘Us?’  Since when did you care about anyone but yourself, Runaway?” Jeanne demanded.

“As of…” Joel checked his watch.  “Five days ago.”  Grinning, he added, “And it’s Ferryman, now.  I never liked Runaway.”  He gestured at the main body of her ship.  “Now we’re running outta time.  They’re gonna wanna board to make sure you’re legit, so you need to do a bit of prep-work.”

“You seem to be forgetting the fact I’m not legit, Joel.”

“They don’t need to know that,” Joel cried.  “Bluff, my dear.  Smuggling is about bluffing.”  Already, he could hear the ship beginning its auto-descent procedures.  “Just…”  He quickly glanced around the ship.  “I dunno.  Neaten it up a bit.  Get rid of that crystal butterfly and go make the bed.  Real tight military-like.  Think Space Force captain, not ‘single bachelorette’.  Wish you could change the sheet colors, but it’ll have to do.  In the future, red and black bedding kinda looks like an open invitation—like you’re looking for customers, you know?  Oh, and hide that old laundry you’ve got lying around, maybe spray some cleaner in the air, that sort of thing.  Just tidy up a bit.”

“It’s gonna be a miniskirt, Joel.”

He gave her his most charming grin.  “A gangly guy like me…believe me, you really don’t want a good view of those pasty thighs.”

“Pretty sure I do.”  Jeanne tapped her fingers on her biceps, gaze unwavering.

Realizing his notorious charm hadn’t even made her blink, Joel cleared his throat, reddening.  “So.  Where’s this secret compartment?”

Jeanne scowled at him a moment longer, then reached over, pressed on a seemingly innocuous support rib, which immediately sucked inward and back, revealing a three-foot by five-foot by two-foot sealed and heat-shielded compartment partially filled with palladium bullion.

Joel winced, looking at its cramped dimensions.  “Got anything bigger?”

Jeanne was giving him the Look that said she was about to shove her gun up his nose again.

“Well, crap,” Joel said.  “I’m six-five, Jeanne.  That’s gonna be a tight fit.  We’ll have to move the bullion.”

Jeanne’s flat expression told him that they weren’t moving the bullion.

Joel swallowed.  “So, uh, is there an unlocking mechanism on the inside, in case I get trapped?”

She just smiled at him.

Well.  That could get…unpleasant.

“Tell ya what, Joel, ” Jeanne said, sticking the comm bud into her ear, “you don’t let me get stuck in prison carrying out one of your crazy schemes, and I won’t let you dehydrate and starve to death in my secret hold surrounded by millions of credits of untraceable palladium.”  She held up the button cam, peered at it, then said, “And what the hell is this?”

“Button cam,” Joel said.  “Pin it to your shirt so I can see what’s going on.”

Jeanne stuffed the button cam into her pants pocket.

Joel grimaced.  “Fine, but you’re paying for dinner this time.  Oh, and…”  He reached out and tugged the necklace of human molars over her head.  “You’re leaving this behind.  Body parts are a dead giveaway.”  He tossed her grisly string of trophies into the vault, then climbed in after it.

Sitting on a throne of bullion, Joel quickly discovered, was really uncomfortable.

“Uh, Jeanne, I’m having second thoughts—”

“Sorry Joel.  Gotta make a bed.”  Jeanne hit the locking function, sliding the compartment door shut and sealing him inside.

“Jeanne!” Joel cried, in the sudden, total darkness.

She ignored him.  He heard her move around the cockpit a moment, then listened to her footsteps disappear into the bowels of the ship.

Joel tucked his own bud into his ear and said, “Jeanne!  Maybe I can pose as your copilot or something!”

“I’m sorry, Joel,” Jeanne replied, not sounding sorry at all.  “Bed’s not made.”

“Okay, then at least put that button cam somewhere I can see what’s going on?”

“Must’ve dropped it,” she said.

Joel frowned, then brought out his datapad and plugged himself into the ship’s security system.  A moment later, he had her image up from one of the ship’s many cameras.  She was, indeed, making a bed, her voluptuous body bent over, exquisitely showing off her ass.  Joel stopped to stare.  He found the zoom function on the camera and utilized it, to get a better view of her technique.  He observed her impressive bed-making skills for several minutes before the ship’s landing gear rumbled out and the ship shuddered as it made contact with the ground, startling him out of his reverie.

“Shit,” Joel cried, switching the camera to the one looking out the front hatch.  Immediately, it showed a woman in a clerk uniform walking up to the ship, giving Belle a curious look.

“Shit what?” Jeanne demanded.  “Don’t say shit, Joel.  It makes me forget things.  Things like where that release lever is, and whether I have anything suffocating to death in my stash.”

“Shit!” Joel whispered.  “She’s got a datapad.  That’s not a good sign.”

Jeanne pulled her gun and gave the front hatch a narrow look.

And that was just what they needed—Jeanne getting into a shoot-out with the Coalition in the heart of Rath.

“Nonono,” Joel cried.  “Put it back, shmumpkins.  In fact, drop the gun down the toilet or something.  First rule of smuggling—if they start a fight, you run.”

“I don’t run,” Jeanne replied, cocking her gun.

“Okay, but think about this logically,” Joel said hastily.  “You’re in the middle of the Coalition home base.  You start shooting, they’ve got thousands of Nephyrs and operators to blow you a new hole if you hang around.”

“I don’t run,” Jeanne said again, starting towards the hatch.

Joel began to see a fundamental difference in philosophy that had serious potential to get him mummified in what was essentially a secret treasure chest, just like in his mom’s creepiest exploration stories and all those xeno-archeological adventure games he used to play as a kid.  “Uh, Jeanne, please keep in mind I’ve only got twenty-two hours in here, tops, before I asphyxiate and defecate all over your palladium.”

“It’s more like fifty-seven,” she said with the certainty of someone who knew.

Joel swallowed down a cold chill.  “Uh, Jeanne?”

“Bed’s made.  Should I open the hatch now?”

“Jeanne, this really isn’t amusing.”  The idea he was sitting in a compartment that had been someone else’s tomb was enough to make his whole body itch.  “On second thought, we should just go home.”

“Oh no, Joel,” Jeanne snorted.  “What could be more entertaining than spending a night stealing from the Coalition when you led me to believe we were having dinner and more dancing?  You’re absolutely right.  It is a lot of money.  I’m opening the hatch.”

“Jeanne!” Joel cried, stunned to realize she was dead serious.  On his screen, the front cargo bay opened, affording entrance to the clerk outside.  Over the comm, Joel heard, “Hi, I’m Lieutenant Boxmann.  Control told me you were here for some Yolk…?”

“I’m Captain Ivory from the Fortune Orbital,” Jeanne said, crossing her arms—and her charged gun—over her copious bosom.  “Admiral Maako wants all your Yolk offloaded to the Orbital, right now, before the planet becomes any more unstable.”

“Yeah, uh…” The clerk glanced down at her pad, then at the obviously not-to-code pirate ship around her.  “What unit did you say you were from again?”

“Unit Five-Thirty-One,” Joel said automatically.  “That’s the special ops unit made up of the Admiral’s elitely-trained errand-boys.”

“Unit Five-Thirty-One,” Jeanne said.  She raised an eyebrow in total superiority.  “Why?  There a problem, Lieutenant?”

Oooh, perfectly executed.  Joel winced in admiration, wondering where this badass goddess had been all his life.

“No, uh, no problem,” the clerk said quickly.  She glanced around the ship again.  “It’s just that, well…  We were expecting a regular transport.”

“The colonists own the skies over most of the Tear right now,” Jeanne said.  “We needed something that would blend in.”

The clerk was staring at something dark hanging from one wall.  When Joel zoomed in, he realized it was a scalp.  He groaned and slapped his palm to his face.

Eyes still fixed on the scalp, the clerk said, “It certainly does…blend in.  You got any orders I can see?  I’m afraid I’ll also need to see your ID and official registration.”

Joel groaned.  “Okay, she’s getting too suspicious.  Now might be a good time to extract ourselves.  This isn’t going like I’d hoped it, and that scalp, Jeanne, didn’t do us any favors.  What the hell did I tell you about body parts?!”

Instead of smoothly talking her way out of a full inspection and into a hasty departure as Joel would have done, though, Jeanne took a step forward, grabbed the woman by the buttoned shirt of her uniform, and yanked her most of the way off her feet as she brought their faces together.  “We are in the middle of a war and you think I’m going to waste my fucking time with paperwork, you little bureaucratic worm?  Go get the Yolk, get it on my ship, or I’ll go get the Five-Thirty-First and we’ll take turns putting you in stasis.  Do you have any idea how much money is on the line, here?”

The clerk blinked.  “Well, yes, of course, I—”

Jeanne shook her until the datapad fell out of the clerk’s hands and the woman’s hairbun jostled loose.  “There are three dozen colonist ships descending on this place as we speak and you think the admiral is worried about paperwork?!”

“Well, no Captain, I just—” she babbled, clearly horrified.

“Then go!” Jeanne snapped, shoving the woman hard enough that she fell.  “I want my hold filled in the next twenty minutes or I’ll make sure Maako has your ass on a plate.”

The clerk bolted, leaving the datapad on the floor of the hold where it had fallen.

“Well, that isn’t how I would have handled things,” Joel offered gingerly.  “But at least she’s gone.  Close the hatch and let’s abscond with our lives.”  He frowned.  “Escape.  Let’s escape with our lives.”

“I don’t run,” Jeanne reminded him, standing proudly in the open hatch of her ship, legs splayed, arms crossed, watching the clerk run down the gangplank and into the Coalition Yolk facility.

“I’ve seen that look before,” Joel insisted.  “She’s gonna make some calls, ask some questions.  We’re screwed.  Cover’s blown.  We’ve got to go.”

“I don’t run,” Jeanne said again.

“First rule of smuggling!” Joel cried.  “You always run!”

“I’m a pirate, not a smuggler.”  She was watching the Yolk facility raptly, like an eagle watching a nest of mice.

Oh hell.  She was going to get them both killed.

“Jeanne, baby?” Joel asked, turning on the charm, “Running is a perfectly legitimate pastime if it helps you avoid things like angry Nephyrs and gunfights and dying screaming, your gonads in a vise.”

“I’m good at gunfights,” she replied, still standing there like an impressive, voluptuous statue.

Aanaho, they were so dead.

“Yes,” Joel reasoned, “but so are they.  It’s what the Coalition trained them to do…  Shoot people like us.”

“Just talk me through it, Joel,” Jeanne said.  “This is what you’re good at, right?  Talking?”

“I’m better at running when it will keep me alive,” Joel insisted.

“I’m not.”

Joel groaned and drew a palm down his face.

“Besides,” Jeanne said after a moment.  “Looks like it’s working.”  Indeed, when Joel refocused the ship’s cameras, he saw several enlisted men pushing dollies full of lumpy Yolk sacks out of the facility and across the tarmac, a nervous clerk trailing behind.

As the men began loading the Yolk into the hull of the ship, the disheveled female clerk returned to Jeanne and nervously cleared her throat.  “So, uh, you checked out.”

“We did?” Joel demanded, blinking at the screen.

“We did—” Jeanne choked.  At the clerk’s odd look, she pretended to spit something out of her mouth and went on, “We did make this mission a priority.”

The clerk nodded.  “You’ve got top clearance, Captain Ivory.  You’re good to go.”

“You do?” Joel cried.  “No, no, no, no…  Something is wrong, here.  Top clearance?”

The clerk held out a pad, holding her manicured finger to a section of an open document.  “Now, Captain, I know you don’t like paperwork, but I’m going to need your signature here for the six hundred twenty-two bags of yolk.  The seals are as per regulation.  Any tampering and—”

“I’m not going to tamper with them,” Jeanne snapped.  She signed the clerk’s pad and yanked the cargo manifest from her petite hands.  All around her, men were unloading the bags of Yolk.  Not just one or two, but hundreds of them.  Despite his nervousness, Joel started to get giddy as his mind went into overdrive trying to calculate how much money they were looking at.  Jeanne, meanwhile, gave the billions of credits accumulating in her hold an indifferent perusal, then did the stupidest thing one could do when engaged in the business of smuggling.  She crossed her arms, cocked her head at the clerk, and demanded, “That all ya got?”

The clerk blinked in bovine surprise.  “Well, no, not precisely.  But you couldn’t possibly—

“Maako said all of it,” Jeanne said.

“Wait a minute,” Joel said, in growing panic.  “Jeanne, what are you doing?  A perfectly good theft in the making and you’re going to blow it by getting greedy.  The second rule of smuggling is not to get greedy!”

“Go get it,” Jeanne insisted, when the clerk just blinked at her.  “Now.”

The clerk anxiously looked around the cargo bay and said, “I’m going to have to make a few calls.”

Joel slapped himself in the forehead.  “Don’t let her make any calls!” he cried.  “Just take what we’ve got and let’s go.  We’re doing good.  Geo buys this stuff for five mil a sack.”  They were rich.

“So make your calls,” Jeanne challenged.  “I’ll be here, waiting on Maako’s dime.”

“What are you doing?!” Joel cried.  “Just get her off the ship and let’s go!”

Jeanne completely ignored him.  The enlisted guys finished unloading the Yolk and then sat down on the bags of nodules, obviously waiting for more instructions from their Lieutenant.

“Not good,” Joel said.  “Get them out of here.  The fewer people lurking, the easier you can get away with the goods.”

Jeanne turned on the lazing enlisted men with a disgusted scowl.  “Get the fuck off my ship and go find something useful to do.  Like shower.  Here you are on a fucking land base and you stink like you’re living on a five-year freighter.  Get your nasty asses in some fresh clothes and take some pride in your uniforms, for fuck’s sake!”  She said it with all the conviction of a perfectly-secure-in-her-captaincy Coalition fighter officer, which Joel had never had the steely core to manage.

The men immediately jumped up with mutters of, “Yes, Captain,” and ran.

The clerk, meanwhile, was standing at the base of the ramp, making her calls.

“Damn it,” Joel cried.  “Delay her.  We need to go.”

“She said we checked out,” Jeanne said, watching the clerk.

“That was a fluke,” Joel cried.  “Had to be!”

“Or maybe there’s another disguised transport ship from the Orbital headed here right now, to do the same thing we’re doing.”

“I’m lucky,” Joel said, “but I’m not that lucky.  We need to get out of here.  ASAP.”

“Things go wrong, I can just shoot them.”

They were back to that again.  Joel groaned and sprawled back against his piles of palladium ingots, knowing he was about to be sealed in with them forever.  “Jeanne,” he said, once he’d calmed down, “I’ve got a lot to live for, Jeanne.”

“Really?” she asked.  “Last I checked, you were an only child, a defector, a bachelor, and a wanted criminal, not to mention penniless, scrupleless, and childless.”

“Truueee,” Joel said, “but I also have prospects.”

“I’m increasing our prospects.  Just sit there and watch.”

“…of dinner and dancing with Fortune’s most beautiful enchantress on my arm.”

Jeanne choked.  Still standing in the middle of the cargo bay, she turned to look back at the cockpit with a scowl.  “Isn’t that laying it on a bit thick?”

“Baby,” Joel said, “with you, it can’t be too thick.”

She cocked her head at the cockpit, back to the open door, anger lighting her emerald green eyes.  “Is that because you think I’m gullible, Joel?  Like that time you left me stranded in the desert?”

“Nooooo,” Joel said, “that’s because…” he blinked at the eight MP thugs stalking across his screen.  “Shit!  Jeanne, close the hatch!  Get back in the cockpit!  Let me out so I can fly us outta here!”

Instead of running, as instructed, Jeanne simply turned around to face the eight armed men boarding her ship.  “Problem, gentlemen?” she asked, totally nonchalant.

The lead MP touched his gun pointedly.  “Ma’am, you’re going to have to come with us.”

“And where’s that?” Jeanne asked casually.

“Base commander wants to have a word with you,” the square-jawed MP replied.

Joel watched it cross the pirate’s face whether or not she felt like starting a firefight in the belly of her ship.  “Don’t do it,” Joel babbled.  “Crap, Jeanne, just do what they want.  If the base commander wants to talk to you, they haven’t figured out what’s going on yet.  You can still salvage this.  I’ll walk you through it.  If anything goes wrong, I’ll wave the Whitecliff twins, get them to send us some help.”

Seconds ticked by like centuries.  Joel had the horrible feeling that Jeanne was going to shoot them anyway.

“I can help you do this, Jeanne, I swear,” Joel said.  “Please don’t make a scene.”  He was dead if she made a scene, he just knew it.

Jeanne reluctantly gave in with a, “Yeah, sure.  But someone needs to keep an eye on my ship, keep some lowlife smuggler from grabbing it while I’m off yakking with the brass.”

“Can do,” one of the MPs said.

Jeanne led her guests down the boarding ramp and then locked the entry.  The MPs left two guards at the door of the ship, then the other six escorted her deeper into the compound.

“Take out the button cam,” Joel told her.  “I can’t see what’s going on.”

From the cameras off the bow of the ship, he watched Jeanne nonchalantly reach up and straighten her shirt, leaving the button clinging to her belt-line.

Joel watched, anxious, as the MPs surrounding Jeanne led her through the thick metal doors to the Yolk repository, then through a maze of corridors until they arrived at what, to all appearances, looked like an interrogation booth.

“Oh shit,” Joel said, at the same time Jeanne stiffened and slowed.  “No, don’t fight!” Joel cried.  “It’ll only get you killed.  They probably ran your profile, figured the ship was stolen, wanted to get you to come in gently.  Just don’t resist, okay?  I can still get you outta here.”

At the same time, the MPs said, “If you’ll just step inside, Ma’am?”

From the one-sided view of the button cam, Joel realized Jeanne was giving the MP a long, debating look, and Joel watched his own life hang in the balance of the pirate’s next move.  Then, after a less-than-courteous stare, Jeanne entered the interrogation room and went to lean against the wall, under the camera.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” Joel said.  “They’re gonna have your picture on every billboard on Fortune.  I’m really sorry about that.  I’ll make it up to you later, I swear.”

Jeanne said absolutely nothing in reply, but he could tell she was debating as to whether or not to add a new mummy to her collection when she did get free.

Not thirty seconds after Jeanne had been left in the interrogation room did the door open again and an overweight, balding man just brushing six feet stepped inside, followed by four thugs, who took up residence around the door.  Joel immediately noticed the two silver stars of general on the leader’s collar.  Not the base Director, but an underling.

“Okay, look,” Joel said, watching the guy approach.  “You’re only going to get one shot at this, so repeat exactly what I say, okay?”

Jeanne made no indication she had even heard him.

“Good evening, General,” Joel said.

Jeanne repeated his words smoothly.

“Evening, Miss Ivory,” the general said.  He looked in a hurry, continuously glancing over his shoulder before returning to face the pirate.  “I hear you’re taking an emergency shipment of Yolk to the Orbital.”

“Yes I am, sir,” Joel said.  “Got orders from Maako to get this stuff off Fortune as quickly as possible.”

“That’s right,” Jeanne said flatly.  “You got a problem with that?”

Joel groaned and slapped his forehead, but the general only seemed to get more agitated.

“So, uh, you wanna make a little money?”

Joel froze, his hunter’s instincts slamming into gear.  He gave the balding guy a split-second analysis:  Overweight, so he liked his luxuries.  Sweating, so he was nervous.  Plenty of backup, so he felt threatened.  Carefully avoiding the camera, so he wasn’t on the level…

“Wooooo!” Joel screamed, pumping his fist and spraying palladium everywhere.  “Yes!  Yes, yes yes yes yes!”

“Fuck, ow!” Jeanne cried.  The camera jerked as she lifted a hand to her head.

“Ow?” the general demanded.

“Recovering from a Ne’vanthi brain-maggot,” Jeanne said.  “Are we done here? I got orders to get back to the Orbital ASAP.”

“Jeanne, what are you doing?!” Joel cried.  “The man’s obviously dirty!”  He had a sixth sense about these things.

“Yeah, uh…”  The general scratched the back of his sweaty neck.  “Okay, so look, moving this much Yolk around, shifting it from one place to another, some of it’s bound to get ‘lost,’ get me?”

“I get you,” Joel said.

“No.  Why don’t you clarify?” Jeanne said, in a tone that said she was still itching to put the barrel of a gun between his brows.

“Right, um…”  The general glanced behind himself, then at Jeanne.  “You know how much the Coalition makes on those bags, right?  Three, four hundred million.”

Jeanne didn’t reply.

“Nod or something!” Joel cried.  “The guy’s trying to deal with you.  You’re making it harder on him than you should—keep it up and he’s likely to just shoot you to cover his tracks!”

He felt the wobble in the cam as Jeanne nodded.

The relief on the general’s face was intense.  “So, uh, there’s certain places here, on Fortune, that refine their own Yolk and sell it on the black market.  They buy it at five mil a bag.”

The button cam wobbled again as Jeanne nodded.

“Me an’ my guys, here, we’ve been a long way from home for way too long, you know?  And all the cryo killed our real lives.  Got letters our wives moved on, kids got married, parents died.  Hell, some of our grandchildren are as old as we are, zoomtime.  Some of us, we’ve done two, even three tours of duty on Fortune.  That’s five years in cryo each way.  All our friends back home are either incontinent or dead.”

Jeanne nodded again, though Joel could tell she was curious, now.

“So what do the pricks running the desks back in the Inner Bounds do last week?” the general demanded.  “They extended our tours again, me and the boys, here.  Indefinitely.  No more troop rotation until the Void Ring can resupply.”

“That’s nice,” Jeanne said.

Joel groaned and banged his forehead against the titanium walls surrounding him.  “Tell him you’re listening, Jeanne.  Aanaho Ineriho!”

“I’m listening,” Jeanne said, sounding almost reluctant.

“So yeah,” the general said, “we’ve got you in here, recording everything as insurance, you know?”

“I’m with you,” Joel said.

“I don’t follow,” Jeanne said.

“Oh, for the love of—”  Joel started bashing his head against the wall again.  “He’s trying to get you to help him skim some off the top, Jeanne!” he cried.  “Come on!”

“Gal like you,” the general said, “you got an impeccable reputation, right?  Nobody’s gonna go over your manifests, make sure the numbers match up with what you took from Rath.”

“Pretty sure nobody’s gonna see my manifests,” Jeanne agreed.

“So we fudge the numbers a little bit, take a little bit off the top and pass it around,” the general said.  “We’re not unreasonable men, are we boys?”  He got a few stoic head-shakes from the thuggery.  “All we want,” he said, turning back to face Jeanne, “is three bags.  We’ve earned three bags.”

“So what’s my cut?” Joel said.

Jeanne sniffed.  “Three bags is fifteen million.  What you gonna do with fifteen million?”

No!” Joel cried.  “He wants you to ease his mind.  Just ask him where you want them delivered and let’s get out of here!  Aanaho!”  He started squirming in his prison, throwing palladium bars everywhere.

“We’re gonna split it six ways.  That’s two and a half mil for you, just for playing delivery girl.”

“Sounds reasonable,” Joel said.

“Two and a half?”  Jeanne scoffed.  “Might as well make it a couple bags apiece.”

The general flinched.  “I’m not so sure.  Seems a bit greedy.  Greedy people get caught.”

“Yes,” Joel said, “yes they do, Jeanne.”

Jeanne scoffed.  “I’m not doing it for no half a bag.”

The general gave her a long look, then glanced at his men and licked his lips.  “All right,” he said.  “I could see where twelve bags could get lost in the shuffle.”

“So could I,” Jeanne agreed.

The general nodded.  “Then I’ll have the clerk deliver all seven thousand, nine hundred and thirty two bags of Yolk from the reserve starting now.”

Joel forgot to breathe.

For her part, Jeanne didn’t even seem fazed.  “Instead of what, seven thousand nine hundred forty-four?”

“That’s what we’ve got in our reserve,” the general replied.  “Easy enough for a few bags to go missing, don’t you think?”

Joel felt Jeanne give a cool nod.  He, himself, was squirming, trying not to pee himself.  “Did he say seven thousand bags?” he blurted.  “He must be totally confused somehow.”

“Where you want them delivered?” Jeanne said.  “And how do I get my cut?  How do I know you’re not just gonna take the Yolk and run?”

“Oooh, that’s good,” Joel said.  “Put him on the spot.  Well done!”

“We want this to be as lucrative as possible, you understand?” the general said.  “We’ll give you coordinates to a…regular…drop off point out in the jungle along your course back to the Orbital.  You arrange to get yourself on pick-up duty more often, and each time you do, we’ll set a bag or two aside.”

“He wants to start a smuggling operation!” Joel howled.  “Aanaho, did I tell you I was lucky or what?!  How many bags is he about to hand us?  Ask him again.  I wanna hear him say it out loud!”  He started cackling wildly.

“Sounds doable,” Jeanne said, totally calm.

The general glanced at his crew of thugs, then pulled out a folded yellow piece of paper from a chest pocket and handed it to her.  Jeanne opened it, and Joel saw a brief flash of numbers before she put it away and said, “The Five-Thirty-One’s got a reputation.  We don’t deal with smugglers.  Smugglers are the scum of life.”

“Oh no,” Joel said, grabbing a palladium ingot and slapping it to his skull.  “No, no, no, no, no…”

“Don’t think of it as smuggling,” the general said.  “Think of it as expanding your paycheck.”  He gave Jeanne a decidedly sleazy smile.  “The government’s got so much of this shit they won’t notice a few bags go missing, and it’s our government, you know?  Don’t see why they should make all the big bucks just to pour it back into bureaucracy.  Think of it—instead of the government funding some new travel-restriction program on Ovania, you get to buy yourself a nice house when you get home.  Hell, buy yourself some Ne’vanthi whores to staff the place.”

“That what you plan to do with it?” Jeanne demanded, her pitch rising.  Jeanne, after getting sold on Ne’vanth as a child, was touchy about the subject of slavery and whoring in general.

“Jeanne, honey,” Joel said, “he just said seven thousand bags.  I think you can just smile and nod for seven thousand bags, can’t you baby?”

The general mistook her touchy behavior as something else.  “Hey, look, we’re all under a lot of pressure, here.  Maako’s gonna have the Nephyrs skin us from the head down if a peep of this gets out, so you can be damn sure everyone in this room is going to keep to the plan.  Ten mil for each of us.  That’s as good an incentive as I can think of to just go with the flow, right?”

“You’re talking to a sage,” Joel said.  “Just go with the flow, Jeanne.  Stop antagonizing him and take his money!”

“Sounds good to me,” Jeanne muttered.

“Okay then,” the man said, grinning.  “Then it’s settled.  Once our Nephs put down the dogs and throw their pups to the mines, the five of us will go out to the drop-off zone, pick up the Yolk, and go our separate ways…until next month.  Lots o’ money to be made, here.  Just gotta stick to the plan.”

“Hey now honey,” Joel said, noticing the way Jeanne’s fists started to tighten, “just take his money.  Say, ‘Sounds good,’ and take his money.  You can do it.  You need to do it, Jeanne.  You get pissed, it’s a dead giveaway you’re colonial, not Coalition.  You’ve already got a little bit of that collie accent that’s so hard to kick.”

“Speaking of collies,” the general said, frowning, “you have a bit of an accent.”

“My parents spent a couple years here in between duty stations when I was a kid,” Joel coached her.  “Haven’t been able to knock it since.”

“So what if I do?” Jeanne growled.  Like she was challenging him to a gunfight over a gambling table.

“Aanaho!” Joel cried.  “Aanaho Ineriho, Jeanne!”

The general raised both hands and said, “None of my business, really.  Just curious.”

“Not a problem,” Joel said.  “I get asked about it a lot.”

“Well, get fucking curious on someone else’s dime,” Jeanne snapped.  “We done here?”

Joel proceeded to beat himself to death against another palladium bar.

“We’re done,” the general said.  “Just drop those off on your way.  Your ship’s log won’t show any course deviation, and you could say you landed to take a leak, or to hide out from collies.”

“Because they obviously couldn’t see a three hundred foot skiff squatting in the middle of the jungle.  Too stupid for that,” Jeanne growled.

“Jeaaaanne,” Joel warned, “you have to think really hard about what you want in life.  Do you want to punch this guy in the face and get thrown in jail until the Nephyrs start peeling off skin, or do you want to do exactly as I say and end up filthy rich?”

The general laughed uncomfortably.

“Laugh,” Joel said.  “Now.”

Jeanne, to his relief, laughed.

“Yeah, uh,” the general said, “the Five-Thirty-One has a reputation for being a bunch of crazy bastards.  If we’re all in agreement, though, we can get you back to your ship and get you out of here before those colonists hit.

“Sounds good,” Joel said.

“I want a copy of that tape,” Jeanne said.  “As insurance.”

“Are you nuts?!” Joel cried.  “You work for Admiral Maako.  He gives you that tape, you’ll hold all the cards!”

The general laughed.  “Uh, starbug, you must be new at this.  That’s not how this works.”

Again, Joel was left under the impression Jeanne was about to start shooting things.  “Jeanne,” Joel said, “keep your cool and think about it!  We aren’t planning on going along with his little deal, so what do you need the tape for?”

Then he knew.  To expose Coalition corruption on Fortune, since that was one of her private wars in life.  “Okay, Jeanne, honey,” Joel said, “from here on, all you’re allowed to do is smile and nod.  Okay?”

“I guess I am,” Jeanne muttered.  “All right, fine.  Sounds doable.  I’m gonna make sure it’s not traceable to me, though.”

“Of course,” the general offered.  “We’ll be doing the same.  How or why a few bags show up in the jungle each month, we’ve got no idea.”

“Yes sir,” Joel said.

“Yeah, okay,” Jeanne said.

“Then let’s get you back to your ship!” the general said.  “Boys, get her back to her ship and assist in the loading.  We’ve got a schedule to keep.”

“Yes,” Joel giggled.  “Yes we do.”

A few minutes later, Jeanne was once again standing like a voluptuous, arms-crossed statue in her cargo bay, watching dozens of burly men load eighty-five-pound bags of Yolk onto her ship like a reigning raptor watching mice in an aviary.

“Wow,” Joel commented, as the dollies and carts of bags kept coming.  He had begun rearranging the palladium ingots around himself out of boredom.  “They were serious.  You gonna be able to fit all that in your hold?”  Seven thousand was a lot, even for Belle, which was built to harvest entire bellies-full of trade goods from Coalition freighters.

The answer was, it turned out, no.  They filled the cargo bay to brimming, blocking off the ship’s cameras, leaving only a small, head-high corridor through the stacks of bags to the cockpit—not, Joel thought, the best way to stack them in preparation for a dogfight, but he was dealing with meatheaded grunts, his balls were itching from the heat and humidity, and he was pretty sure he was running out of oxygen.  At this point, he didn’t care if they stuffed the remaining sacks in the composter—he just wanted them to do it fast so he could breathe some good ol’ stale ship air again, rather than suffocatingly damp, somebody-died-here-an-indeterminate-amount-of-time-ago air.

After they had the cargo bay loaded, the grunts took the last two hundred bags and stacked them in Jeanne’s bedroom, her bathroom, her copilot’s seat, and, to Joel’s horror, against the wall where he was trapped.

“Hey, Jeanne, baby?” Joel said.  “It would be a real shame to mar these beautiful palladium bars with decaying meat.”

“Palladium is a platinum-group metal,” Jeanne said from the pilot’s seat, watching the last bags of Yolk being packed into the crammed space behind her.  “Its bulk material is inert.  Body fluids don’t even mar the finish.”  When one of the grunts delivering the final sacks gave her a funny look, she smiled.  “Memorizing my continuing education chemistry course.  Test this week.”

The grunt grunted and disappeared.  A few minutes later, the final sack had been delivered and someone called down the tunnel of Yolk with the go-ahead for departure.

“Seriously, Jeanne, peach?” Joel said.  “You’re not gonna leave me to die in here.”  He swallowed and, tentatively, added, “Are you?”

“You are the only one who knows of my deviancy,” Jeanne told him.  She hit the button on the captain’s console to seal the cargo bay door.

“Yeah, but I’m making you rich,” Joel managed.

“Joel, baby,” Jeanne said, “I made myself rich.  I think I could get used to this smuggling thing.”  She started initiating the takeoff procedures.

“Hey, now!” Joel cried.  “I helped!”

“You helped do…what, exactly?” Jeanne demanded.  “You were stuck in a box commenting on my shapely ass the whole time.”

“That was only at the end,” Joel cried, “and because I was bored.”  Indeed, he had been blessed with enough time to rearrange the entire pile of palladium around him, piece-by-piece, into a glorious throne.

“Mmm-hmm.” Joel heard thumps as the ship began to lift off and pull its landing gear in.

“Jeanne, if this is about that time in the desert…”  Joel hesitated, watching her face closely on his datapad.  “Is this about that time in the desert?”

“What do you think, Joel?”

“I already said I was sorry!” Joel cried.

“I was a virgin, you prick.”

Joel winced.  “Weeeelll, what better way to introduce yourself to the wonders of good lovin’?”

“Hmm.  And here I thought you wanted to get out of the sweatbox.  Ah, well.”  She went on fiddling with flying her ship.

“Jeanne!” Joel cried.  “I really am sorry.  I felt horrible.”

He watched her stiffen at the console.  Lifting her head to look at the camera, she said, “For like, what, a whole minute?  From what I heard afterwards, you were livin’ it up at a casino, four women clinging to your arms only three days later.”

He winced.  Well, there was that.

“Okay,” Joel said, “so I got a little drunk.”

“On my money,” Jeanne told him.  “I haven’t had another heist like that since…” She cocked her head.  “Well, since this one, Joel.”

A cold tingle of fear crept down through Joel’s core.  “Jeanne, you’re gonna let me outta here, right?”

“Depends,” Jeanne said.  She was flying them out of Rath, towards some unknown destination probably bristling with pirates ready to unload the Yolk, rip Joel out of his secret compartment, and slit his throat.  She had changed, a lot, since that night in the desert, and Joel had the sudden realization that a good portion of it might have been because of him.

“Depends on what?” Joel asked hoarsely.  She hadn’t taken to wearing the necklace until after Joel had abandoned her.  She’d become bitter, harder, and more likely to shoot people.  Hell, he wasn’t sure she had shot people before the desert heist.  It had seemed to him that she was well on her way to becoming a great smuggler, which was part of the reason why Joel had betrayed her.  He had, in a deep, mentoring sort of way, thought maybe it would help harden her to the facts of life, to teach her not to leave her heart lying around for someone to stomp on when there was money to be made, and to therefore live longer.

Oh fuck me, Joel thought.

“Depends,” Jeanne said, “on whether or not you can satisfactorily explain to me just what went through that lizard brain of yours back in the desert, when you roofied me, sabotaged my ship, and stole my loot.”

“I’ve reformed,” Joel cried.

“What, that ‘Ferryman Joel’ crap?” Jeanne demanded.  “Because you helped a few hundred eggers?”

“It was a couple thousand,” Joel retorted.  “And yes.  Because I saved some eggers, Jeanne.  I didn’t need to do that, and I got perforated for it.”  He still had pain in his chest when he breathed, and his last several sleepless nights had been filled with nightmares of trigger-happy hijackers shooting him in the chest.  He hadn’t been that psychologically traumatized since Geo had stabbed him in the leg with flesh-rotting nannites and left him in Yolk Factory 14 to die.  The Deaddrunk doctors had tried to mend the leg wound when they’d patched up his chest, but even then, despite the medical nanotape he religiously applied, his thigh ached and stank like toe cheese.  “I made a sacrifice, Jeanne,” Joel went on.  “And I almost died for it.”

“Of anyone I know,” Jeanne laughed, “I am the only one who seems to be able to see through your bullshit, Joel.  Why is that?”

Joel swallowed.  He’d wondered that himself.

“Could that be,” Jeanne went on, “because you left me to die after wining and dining me and making me feel as if we were destined to be together?”

“Look, Jeanne, I’m really sorry,” Joel began.

“I tried to call,” she growled.  “Tried to leave messages.  Tried to write, Joel.”

Joel winced.  He’d deleted most of them without opening, without listening.

“So just how sorry are you, Joel?”  She looked up into the camera, looking at him directly.  Her face was as cold as ice, her green eyes like glittering emeralds.  “Think you can actually make me believe it?”

And, in that moment, Joel realized that repentance was his key to survival.  “Jeanne, look, it was over fourteen years ago.  I was young and stupid—”

“Shut up, Joel.  There’s something I’ve waited thirteen years and seven months to tell you.”  She took a deep breath, then let it out through her teeth.  Joel waited, frowning.  He had been sure it had been at least fourteen years.  Maybe even fifteen.

“That night in the desert,” Jeanne said.  “You didn’t use a condom.”

CHAPTER 3:  Distress Call

Fortune's Folly

Independence Day, 17th of May, 3006

North Tear

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
“Hey knucker.”  Tatiana poked the sleeping colonist, eyes fixed on the bushes down by her soldier.  “Knucker,” she whispered again.

Milar moaned and rolled his head to the side to open his beautiful golden eyes and look at her.  “Huh?”  He was still naked, his red and black dragon tattoos rolling delightfully against his skin as he moved.

Tatiana pointed down the hill.  “There’s something down there.”  She shoved one of his Laserats at the colonist and patted him on his naked ass.  “Go get it.”

Milar squinted at her, then lifted his head off the sleeping bag to squint down the mountainside at her folded-up soldier.  “Like what?”

“I dunno,” Tatiana said.  “But I hear it thinking, and it’s thinking things like, ‘They’re asleep,’ and ‘wait for the others to get into position,’ and ‘orders to take them alive.’”

Milar was off the sleeping bag in a single heartbeat, grabbing the gun as he rolled into a crouch.  “Where?” he growled.

Tatiana frowned.  “How the hell am I supposed to know?”  She gestured vaguely at her soldier.  “Down there somewhere.”

Nonetheless, Milar glanced at the outcropping above them.  “We’re moving, coaler.  Right now.  He snagged his clothes and grabbed her by the wrist, obviously intending to tug her away from their nice, warm sleeping bag and into the icky, sap-riddled jungle.

“Hey, hold on!” Tatiana cried, remembering the last time she’d taken a hike through the alien forest.  She’d been scrubbing resin from her hands for days afterwards.  The thought of getting that stuff in a node was just…  Eww.  She’d rather bathe in cat piss.  “I don’t wanna leave my soldier.  Can’t you just go kill them while I watch?”  She reclined into the blanket, for his clarification.

Milar stopped, gave her a really long look, and Tatiana cringed.  She had assumed the big brute could just go kill them and then they could go back to sleep, seeing how he was a badass and she’d just undergone traumatic brain surgery and was recovering from great collie sex and everything.  The look he was giving her, however, made it pretty clear she would follow him, naked, into the jungle, or get dragged, naked, into the jungle.  “At least let me go get my jumpsuit,” she said, motioning at the storage compartment on the soldier down the hill.

Milar turned and started dragging her, naked, into the jungle.  As he moved, he shot at the bushes down by her soldier, then up at the ridge above them, and in both places, someone screamed.

“Dammit, Milar!” she hissed, following him.  “This is so not how I wanted to spend a perfectly good case of afterglow.”

“Keep your voice down,” he growled.

“Why?” she whined, as sticky alien plants began sliding against her naked skin.  “Milar, ew!  This is so gros—”

A beam seared the tree beside her head, followed by six of its friends.  Tatiana blinked at the burned, steaming holes in the resinous bark.  So much for trying to take us alive…  Tatiana scrambled closer to the naked beefcake with the gun.

“They’re following us,” Milar whispered, peering over the glistening roots at their backtrail.  He charged a big, badass-looking energy gun and waited in silence.  Tatiana took the moment to examine the amazing collie stud that had offered himself up to her on a platter of kidnapping, firefights, escapes, and mind-sizzling collie sex.  Even bare-assed naked, cowering in the brush, he still looked like a total hunk.  A back that rolled as he moved, rippling pecs, biceps that could squish watermelons, a glorious full-body dual red-and-black dragons tattoo…  Tatiana decided she could definitely get used to having that on tap.

Milar had a look of total concentration, seeming to be waiting for something.  Tatiana started picking sap from underneath her fingernails, lodged there from catching herself on one of the disgustingly sticky Fortuna tree trunks.

“Shit!” Milar hissed suddenly.  He grabbed her almost violently and started tugging her up the hill, pointing his gun in the general direction of the trees and firing seemingly at random, except that people screamed.  Tatiana, who was small, barefoot, and had twenty percent of her muscle power impeded by nodes, couldn’t keep up.  Just as she was about to start kicking him in the shin for dragging her, Milar stooped and threw her over his shoulder.  Then they were running, and Tatiana felt sticky wet foliage slapping against her legs and ass.  She was about to complain, loudly, when the brush behind them exploded in a heat-wave that made Milar stumble.  Like someone was whispering in her ear, Tatiana heard, Damn, think I missed.

“He’s to the south!” Tatiana cried, lifting her head from the brute’s back to find their would-be grenadier in the foliage behind them.

Milar spun and, like muscle-bound clockwork, pulled the trigger once, made the man huddling in the bushes scream, pulled it again, and the screaming stopped.

They stopped moving.  Got them.

“Milar!” Tatiana cried, trying to twist to look.  “There’s one behind—”

Another grenade hit the brush behind them, and this time, it did knock Milar over.  It was followed closely by two more.  They went sprawling into the shrubbery and Tatiana screamed, rolling over and over through the sticky alien plant life, knocking elbows and ankles against the hard alien root systems.

The big colonist was at her side in a second, pulling her back to her feet.  “Come on!” he cried.  “Let’s go.”

Somewhat guiltily, Tatiana realized that, had he not been burdened by a four-foot-eleven cyborg, Milar could have escaped already.  This was his home, where he grew up, his own backyard.  He could run circles around the Coalition forces trying to pin him down—if she weren’t slowing him down.

“Just go on without me,” Tatiana panted.  “There’s too many of them, and I’m the one they want.”

Milar, who had been scanning the forest beyond his weapon with the acuity of a predator, slowly turned to give her a look like she’d said the stupidest thing he’d ever heard.  He growled something that sounded like, ‘you’re gonna piss me off’, yanked her off her feet, and charged back into the icky jungle like a dick-jiggling Tarzonian.

“Man, this day just keeps going from bad to worse,” Tatiana muttered, as she stumbled as quickly as she could behind him.  “Can’t you call your brother or something?”

“Patty’s in Silver City and they blew up our comm equipment,” Milar said.  “They’ve got your soldier under guard.  We’ll have to make do with a wreck somewhere along the way, call for backup that way.  Now shhh.”

“You mean we can’t go back to my soldier?” Tatiana gasped, horrified, thinking of the nice, clean jumpsuit that had been tucked in its storage compartment.

“Yeah,” Milar said.  “But it’s okay, we can find supplies elsewhere.  Just stop talking.”

Stop talking.  What was she, a trained parrot?  Tatiana snorted.  “I’ve been in wartime situations before, Miles.  I know all there is to know about this shit.”

Milar squinted.  Then, grandiosely, he gestured ahead of them.  “Then by all means.  Lead on, Captain Eyre.  Show me how it’s done.”

Tatiana straightened and started marching ahead, automatically starting to calculate topography layout for launch-points, civilian obstacles, and sizeable cover—then realized she was thinking in terms of an eighty ton machine and stumbled to a halt.

“Yeah, thought so,” Milar snorted.  “Let’s go.  Keep quiet.”

Suddenly, the severity of the situation smacked her in the face.  Without her soldier, she didn’t even have a basic ration pack.  Which meant…she didn’t have wet wipes!  “We don’t have anything to eat.”  She eyed the alien forest around her in growing panic.  “And how do I go to the bathroom?”

Stop panicking, Milar’s sexy mind-voice told her.  It hurts my head.  He was shooting at things again.

Tatiana immediately scowled at the insinuation.  I am a war-hardened combat vet who saw both the battle at Sunwash Valley and the battle at Blacksands Mobile Facility.  Nobody’s panicking.  But then she started thinking about what it would be like to go without clothes in the woods on an alien planet with nobody but a collie to watch her back while being hunted by trained killers and her heart began to hammer.

“Think of sunshine and ducklings, sweetie,” Milar said, wincing, still pulling the trigger at the bushes.

“What the hell is a duckling?” Tatiana demanded.  Then she remembered the thing in her forehead, and how a demented child had told her she’d have to charge it with sunlight or die.  She started to hyperventilate.

“It’s a big, muscular, scaly, utterly brutal killing machine that’s going to punch you in the face if you don’t stop panicking and trying to give the whole Tear the Wide.  Now shhhhh.  They’re gonna find us again if you don’t shut your midget piehole.”  He glanced out at the trees around them, seeming to watch things move that Tatiana couldn’t see.

But Tatiana narrowed her eyes at him, her bathroom break sans wet-wipes forgotten.  “Midget?”  Raising her voice in irritation, she said, “I dare you, knucker.”  She tapped her chin with a finger.  “C’mon!  Think the midget can’t take it?  Punch me!”

“Dammit, Tat!” Milar hissed.  “Shhh!”

“You’d punch me.  Really.”  She laughed derisively.  “Yeah, right.”

“Shit, they found our trail,” Milar said, ducking low behind a gnarly root system to hide from whatever was below.  “Please stop talking.”

“You mean shut my hole?” Tatiana sneered.  “Whatcha gonna do, big guy, take a swing at a four-foot-eleven midget…”

Milar spun around and punched her in the face.

Fortune's Folly
Tatiana awakened to a metallic shink, shink, shink.  She was on her back on the cold, rocky ground, facing the brilliant silver half-circle of the Void Ring beyond the dense jungle canopy.  Her eyes narrowed.  “You punched me.”

“Yup,” Milar said.  He was playing with his knife again, sharpening it this time.  Every inch of his body—skin and clothes—was covered in random stripes of a heat-absorbent gel.  So was, she noticed, hers.

“You punched me.”  Tatiana sat up, pissed.  Sure, her patrolling bots had taken care of the resulting mess so it didn’t even hurt, but that wasn’t the point.  She slapped the blanket beside her leg.  “Apologize!”

Milar blew rock dust off his blade, then looked at her over it.  He had, she noticed, given himself stitches as she slept.  Lots of them.  Even then, the bush he’d torn apart for its fibrous strands lay in a deconstructed mass nearby, the crude needle he’d made from a twisted piece of wire stuck into the log beside his thigh.  Tatiana didn’t remember him having that many holes in him when he punched her.  And now, come to think of it, she hadn’t been wearing a jumpsuit or nice warm overshirt when he’d punched her, either…

“You do realize,” Milar said, “that I just spent the last eight hours in a cat-and-mouse with an entire regiment of Coalition troops because you couldn’t keep your mouth shut.”  He twisted the blade in the filtered starlight, then started rubbing the stone against the razor edge again.

A whole regiment?  Tatiana was impressed.  “Don’t they have snipers?”

“Yep.”  He gestured idly with the blade at three shiny new sniper rifles leaned up against the log beside him, right behind the massive pile of guns.  Like, at least fifty of them.  Fancy ones she had never seen before, probably from special forces.  He was also wearing someone else’s black combat pants, with weapons and grenades strapped to every conceivable location on his body.

“Oh.”  Tatiana swallowed.  “Uh.  You carried me around for all that?”

“Yep.”  Shink.  Shink.  Shink…

“You really are a badass, aren’t you?” she cried, delighted.

He raised an eyebrow at her.  As confident as a big cat.

“Sweet!” Tatiana shrieked, getting up to go look at the exotic guns.  “Can I have one?  That would look so cool on my hip.”


Tatiana paused in reaching down, then picked one up anyway.  “Why not?”  She started giving it an enthusiastic examination, finger on the trigger.

“Because,” Milar said as she squinted down the barrel at hypothetical baddies, “Nephyrs use infrared technology to see weapons-fire.”

Tatiana considered that for a split second before an accidental beam from her gun took out a nearby tree, neatly searing the trunk in half.  Tatiana’s arm lowered and her mouth fell open as the two-hundred-foot giant groaned and crashed to the jungle floor, pulling vines free and splattering sap everywhere in its wake.

Milar continued to make love to his blade, watching her with narrowed amber eyes.

Clearing her throat embarrassedly, Tatiana put the gun back on the pile.

He proceeded to watch her like he was waiting for something.  “So are you going to thank me?”

Tatiana jerked away from the fallen tree.  “What, for punching me?” she cried, outraged at the very idea.

“Yes.  For punching you,” he growled.  Shink.  Shink.  “And for carrying you.”  Shink.  “And for hiding your body in the bushes while I used myself as bait to lure the bad guys with guns away from you.”  Shink.  “And for utterly destroying an entire regiment while you slept it off, taking six bullets, two laser swipes, eight pieces of shrapnel, and a goddamn branch through my leg in doing it.”

She squinted at his leg.  “Really?  A branch?  What’d you do, fall out of a tree?”

“No, I fell off a mountain wrestling with a sniper.”

“Oh, is that all?”  She snorted.  “Give me back my soldier and I could’ve taken them all out in like two minutes.”

“Your soldier,” shink, “is forty feet tall.”

“Thirty-eight,” Tatiana corrected.  “And I’m one of the only people on the planet capable of operating it.”  Which reminded her.  She frowned and looked around.  “Where is our pickup?”

He gave her a flat stare.  Shink.  Shink.  “Couldn’t find any comm equipment.  Had to take us further north to avoid the search parties.”  Shink.  “Coalers are boiling around that soldier of yours like ants.”

“They won’t get far,” Tatiana said.  “I put lockdown codes on it while your virgin ass was passed out from all that great sex.”

Milar fumbled a stroke and cut himself.  He stuck his thumb in his mouth and glared at her over it.

Tatiana decided to press her advantage.  “You know, generally when a guy hits a girl engaged in a long-term relationship with him, especially a girl who just blew his mind with the best—only—sex of his life, that’s considered assault and battery.”

Milar narrowed his eyes.

“Generally, men like that end up mopping floors and bending over for Bubba in prison,” Tatiana continued.

Milar lowered the wounded digit from his mouth and got off his log.  Seeing him stretch out to his full height over her, Tatiana felt a little thrill.  “Physical abuse is unfortunately very common in the civilian sector,” she continued solemnly.  “It’s part of my job description to report it whenever I see it.”

“Is it.”  He shoved his knife into its sheath and crossed his arms over his formidable pecs.

“Definitely,” Tatiana said, soaking up the slab of sheer hunk in front of her.  “Mine.  I mean my.  Definitely my.”  She shook herself.  “My job.”

“Yours, huh?”

“Mmmmm-hmmm,” she said, taking in the flexing dragons over his chest, broken only by the strap of an assault rifle, the sexy gleam of sweat glistening in the silvery light of the alien Void Ring hanging in the sky above.  God damn that was hot.  She’d seen stuff like that in her teaser mags, but sweet Aanaho, it was so much better up close.  Then she realized she’d been staring, and that Milar was still peering at her with the focus of a panther.  She blinked up at his face.  “Huh?”

“You were saying,” Milar told her, shifting his big body, “how I was gonna end up bending over for Bubba.”

Tatiana frowned, utterly distracted by the way his big thighs were straining against the tight Coalition sniper uniform.  “I was?”

Milar’s rugged jaw stretched in a grin, amusement sparkling in his honey-brown eyes.  “Pretty sure you were.”

“Uh…”  Eyes dropping back to his torso, Tatiana struggled to remember who Bubba was.  “I guess if that’s your thing…”

Milar rumbled a growl and surged forward, sweeping her up in a powerful kiss.  “Oh I remember now,” Tatiana managed around his passionate lips.  “We were talking about how you were going to start a vicious cycle by thoroughly making it up to me for punching me in the face earlier when I totally didn’t deserve it because you called me a midget and wouldn’t take it back.”  Rumbling, Milar dragged her to the blanket he’d laid out beside the gun pile, and Tatiana giggled at the idea of another carnal epic in the making.  They were just getting to the good part—her jumpsuit was most of the way off and Milar was trailing his lips downward and fumbling with his pants—when one of their pursuers stumbled from the trees, looking lost.  The man blinked down at their guns, then at them, still entwined on the bedroll Milar had confiscated from one of the coalers he’d killed.  There was a blink of confusion on his young face right before Milar put a round through his forehead.

Tatiana grimaced and unlocked her legs from around Milar’s torso as the dead guy collapsed by her bed, his body bleeding and shuddering in the alien grasses.  “You brought a gun to bed?” she cried, inching away from the body.  “That’s…ewMen!”

Milar let out a frustrated rumble, kissed her again, but then began buttoning up his pants.  “We’ll finish this later, coaler,” he promised.  Then he was snatching up guns and ammo and throwing sacks and duffels over his shoulder, all business again.  Tatiana felt a stab of loss and wondered if maybe she could convince him to finish up real quick-like.

“Until then,” Milar rumbled, “we need to get further into the Tear.  We can make it in a couple hours, if you can keep pace.  Should be able to find a safe spot and hole up.  Guys’ll think twice about following us in there.”

Tatiana made a frustrated sound and slammed herself back to the blanket.  “Are you really going to stop because some dude just walked out of the trees?  He was obviously lost.  We have time.”

“We’re leaving.  Now.”  Milar shoved a big rifle at her.  “You carry that.”

“Oh reeeaally,” Tatiana whistled, immediately interested.  She zipped up the jumpsuit, pulled the warmer overshirt back on, and grabbed the gun he’d given her, standing.  It was heavy.  Thrilled, she peered through the enormous scope, trying it out.  She saw nothing but the individual resin-globs of a tree-trunk.  “So lemme guess, you’re gonna put me on a lookout to watch your back while you take them out in bloody single-handed combat.”  The thrill of that thought had her horny all over again.

“No,” Milar said, “I want you to carry my gear.”

Tatiana narrowed her eyes and pulled her head away from the scope.  “You’re teaching me how to use a gun, you know.”

Milar snorted with total amusement and threw a few dozen grenades into a sack on his belt.

“You are!” Tatiana stomped her foot.  Then, eying a cool-looking one on his hip, she pointed and said, “That gun.”

“You fly ships,” Milar said, dropping more gear into her hands.  “I stab people in the neck.  Different skillset.  Besides, that’s my Laserat.  You’re not getting one of my Laserats.  Can you carry all that?”

Tatiana grimaced and looked down at the instruments of death he had arrayed in her arms.  “Man, I dunno…”

“Good,” Milar said, “let’s go.”  He started off into the forest at Speed of Thug, approximately two thousand kilos of gear weighing him down.

Tatiana scrunched her nose in disgust, but then reluctantly followed him when she realized he wasn’t coming back.  “So, uh, Milar?” she asked, keeping as close behind him as possible with the massive combat boots he’d strapped to her feet.  “Why would they think twice about following us in here?”

“People go missing in the North Tear,” Milar said.

Tatiana rolled her eyes at another quaint colonist myth.  “I heard about that.  Search teams vanishing, yada yada.  Yeah, so what, the Boogeyman lives in the caves or something?”

“Something like,” Milar said, sounding totally serious.

Tatiana frowned.  “Really?  The Boogeyman?”

“Not sure what it is,” Milar said, “but it kills people.”

“Sleep apnea kills people,” Tatiana said.  “Did you know you snore after a good lay?”

“…and then dismantles and hides their corpses from search parties.  Only blood left from the attack—blood everywhere—at least, that’s what the search parties that made it back alive said.  No one really wanted to go back.  The one grainy bit of footage they got of the attacks showed nothing except bodies getting ripped apart by something invisible, kind of like a cow put through a wood chipper.”

Tatiana made a nervous laugh.  “Uh.  You almost sound serious.”

“I am serious.”  He continued stalking ahead of her like a predator.

“And we’re going that way why?”

“Because there are almost two thousand men combing the jungle behind us, trying to find our trail, and I’m struggling with exhaustion and blood loss and I’d rather take my chances with invisible shit than Nephyrs,” Milar said.  “Sooner or later, they’re gonna send Nephyrs, and I am not equipped to deal with Nephyrs.  You need EMP grenades or nuclear warheads to kill Nephyrs.”

“Uh,” Tatiana said.  “Did you say invisible?”

Milar didn’t answer her.

“No, seriously,” Tatiana said, catching up to him and grabbing the belt he’d secured around his trim hips, “did you say ‘invisible stuff that rips people apart and spreads blood everywhere?’”

“Better than Nephyrs,” Milar said.

“Um,” Tatiana said, “no, that is not better than Nephyrs, Milar.”  Already, her skin was prickling.  “Nephyrs at least wait to skin you and kill you until they get you back to base.”

“Chicken?” Milar asked, grinning down at her.

“Hell yes!” Tatiana cried.  “I am not going into the Tear in the dark with inviso shredding monsters on the rampage.  Huh-uh.  Not gonna happen.”

“I’m actually hoping it’s not ganshi,” Milar said, turning back to their path.  “Some people swear it’s ganshi killing people out there.  Friend of mine got chewed on by one.”

Tatiana stumbled at the thought of cloaked Triton war-beasts stalking them in the darkness.  “I didn’t know ganshi were invisible.”

“It wasn’t.  It was about five feet tall at the shoulder and black.”  Milar glanced back at her.  “That’s what he says, anyway.”

“The Tritons never made it this far into the Bounds,” Tatiana snapped, already prickling at the thought of enormous black cats watching her from the forest.  “You’re just trying to scare me.”

He shrugged again.  “Might not be ganshi.”

Tatiana glanced at the jungle as they walked, suddenly hearing every single sap droplet, every single stick snap.

“It’ll be fine,” Milar said.  “What’s the worst that can happen?”

Tatiana squinted up at him as she trudged beside him.  “You can’t be serious.  This sounds like the storyline of a B horror holovid.  You know, a meat-headed jock leading a pretty girl he just boned on an ill-advised romp through the woods where an invisible monster with a blood fetish lies in wait, and you just had to go and say, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?!’”

“Don’t worry,” Milar said.  “You don’t fit the profile.”

“Why not?” she demanded, stomping beside him.  “I’m petite.  I’m beautiful.  Gorgeous bod.  Big mouth.  Sometimes even ditzy

“Your tits aren’t big enough.”

“This really isn’t funny,” Tatiana babbled.  “You can stop joking, now.”  Already, she was feeling the pressure of inviso-aliens’ gazes on her back, needling her spine.

“I’m a badass, remember?”  He held up one huge assault rifle with a beefy arm, to illustrate.

“Milar, stop joking around for a second,” Tatiana cried, her anxiety ratcheting up a notch.  “Seriously.  Are we really about to wander into a massive canyon filled with evil Triton inviso shredder things in the dark?”

“Ow,” Milar said, wincing.  “Calm down.  We don’t know for sure the evil Triton inviso shredder things are still down there.  That footage was from forty years ago.  We kinda swore off the place after the first six search teams—and a bunch of military units—went missing trying to figure it out.  Besides, it’s dark, so it doesn’t matter if they’re invisible.”

Tatiana stumbled to a halt.  Milar walked a few more paces, then turned to look at her.  “Come on,” he said, grinning.  “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“Fine?!” she shrieked.  “You’re about to lead us into mass-murdering invisible Triton super-soldier death in the dark and you think everything will be fine?!”

Milar winced again, this time slapping a palm to his temple.  “Oh crap, seriously, you need to stop doing that.”

“Everything will not be ‘fine’, Milar!” she cried.

“Calm down,” Milar said.  “You’ll have six and a half feet of special-ops Death watching your back.  You’ll be totally safe.”

“You’re six-foot-three,” Tatiana corrected him.  “And you said you’re struggling from blood-loss.”

“Six-five with the boots,” Milar said.  “Let’s go, and shut up before someone hears you.”

Tatiana opened her mouth to complain some more, and Milar’s brow went up.  Do we need a repeat lesson? he asked.

Tatiana shut her mouth quickly.  “Knucker,” she muttered.

“Good,” Milar said.  “I would have hated having to leave some guns behind.”  Meaning he was perfectly willing to punch her again.  Ugh.  That was so uncool.  Tatiana fell into a morose silence as they walked, thinking about Triton inviso-death and interrupted coitus.  Walking beside six feet of sweaty beefcake, she wasn’t sure which was worse, at this point.

“Are they really gonna send Nephyrs after us?” Tatiana finally muttered.

“Did you really kill a whole section of a station with your brain?”

“They collapsed,” Tatiana said.  “I don’t know if they’re dead.”

“Then yes,” Milar said.  “They’re going to send Nephyrs after you.”

“Why me?” she whined.  “You’re the wanted rebel and mass murderer.”

“Calm down,” Milar said.  “You’re giving me a headache.”

Remembering the halls full of men and women from Rath who quite-possibly-might-be-dead, Tatiana quickly relented.  “All right,” she said, taking a deep, calming breath.  “So is there any way I can convince you not to lead us into—”

Help.  The mental call was faint and desperate.

Tatiana froze, listening.  It came again, a minute or two later, seemingly from somewhere ahead of them.  Help.  Please help.

Wow, she actually shut up.  “You actually shut up,” Milar said.  “For like three whole minutes.  What is that, a record?”  He grabbed her by the wrist and started tugging her through the jungle again.

“Shhh!” Tatiana cried, straining to ‘hear’.

Please help us.  Again, faint.  Terrified.

“Somebody’s calling for help,” Tatiana said, squinting as she concentrated, trying to pinpoint the source.

Milar frowned, lifting his head and listening.  “I don’t hear anything.”

“Bow to the node,” Tatiana replied.  “Now shhh.  Come on.  It’s this way.”

“What happened to ‘Triton inviso-death’?” Milar called from behind her.

“Shhh!”  Tatiana knew, instinctively, that she wasn’t getting the whole message.  Just the ‘gist’ of it.  She was too far away.  “Could be one of our guys who went down.  Come on.”

Milar frowned, but caught up.  “‘Our’ guys?  You mean colonist, right?”

Tatiana winced, because she had meant Coalition Bouncers or something, but he didn’t need to know that.

“Coalition Bouncers, huh?” Milar asked.  Then, Well, whatever means I don’t have to carry her metal ass.  That sucked.

“My ass is not metal,” Tatiana said.  “Shhh!  There it is again!”

Another dim ‘Help!,’ like someone calling from the bottom of a well.

“Let’s go!” Tatiana cried.  “Sounds like the guy’s dying.”

They walked for a couple more hours, Tatiana squinting and leading the way through the darkness, following a signal that didn’t seem to get stronger despite how far they walked.  Was their target walking ahead of them?  Tatiana was thinking they had somehow taken a wrong turn when all of a sudden, within the space of a single broadcast, the simple ‘Help’ morphed into something much more complex.

Help.  256399ZZZZ523ZZZZ is down.  Phage onboard.  Sealed all compartments.  Need immediate assistance.

Tatiana froze at the strange alien boom that suddenly bombarded her skull.  That, she thought nervously, was not one of ours.  “Uh…Milar?”  The numbers had given her a mental picture, but the hiss-buzzing of the ZZZZs had formed a mental ‘sound’ unlike anything she had ever heard before, and she knew, beyond a doubt, that it wasn’t human.

“No,” Milar sighed, “I will not carry you.”

Help.  Ring malfunction.  Last known trajectory heading due negative Y-axis from the ZZZZrekkit portalspace, fleeing outbreak in central hive.

“Uh, shit,” Tatiana whispered, looking around them.  “Are we in the Tear already?”

Milar rolled his eyes.  “And if we are?”  He snorted.  “Let me guess.  Your ‘spidey senses’ are telling you there’s a tadfly nearby, desperate to crawl into one of your nodes and lay eggs to infect your central nervous system.”

Help.  Colony ship 256399ZZZZ523ZZZZ is down.  Phage was onboard.  Crew lost to the spread.  Navigation system sabotaged by infected.  ZZZZrekkit portal ring destroyed.  Rest of passengers quarantined awaiting rescue.

“Oooohhh shit,” Tatiana whispered, taking a step backwards.  “You don’t hear that?”  In her mental ‘ears,’ it was like someone was using a megaphone against her eardrum.

She is such a pain in the ass, Milar thought.  He sighed, deeply, and turned to her.  “Let me guess.  You heard a twig snap.  No, wait!  A cricket.  You heard a cricket.  Horror movies love crickets.”

“Stop being a jerk!” Tatiana cried.  “I’m hearing some weird-ass alien distress signal, knucker!  I think something went down in the Tear.”

Milar blinked.  “Some Tritons survived the war?”

“No way,” Tatiana whispered, concentrating.  “Tritons started out human.  This is…something else.”

Help.  8,843,999,241 survivors needing immediate evacuation.  These are the only survivors of central hive.  Phage confirmed eradicated.  Please help.

Tatiana swallowed, mentally comparing the size of humanity’s biggest ships—which could carry at most a couple million people—and the number of purported ‘survivors’ from a crashed spaceship.  Things started to add up.  Metals-rich canyon.  Alien life-forms.  Inviso-death.  “Uh.  How big did you say the Tear was?”

Milar squinted at her.  “Twelve hundred miles.  Why?”

“Shit, Milar,” Tatiana whispered.  “It was a gigantic spaceship.”

“Huh?” Milar demanded.

“That broke the Void Ring and made the Tear.”

Milar laughed.  “No way.  The Snake made the Tear.  Everybody knows that.”

“Not according to the voice in my head,” Tatiana shrieked.  “Oh shit, Milar.  There’re aliens down there.  Smart ones.”

Milar was finally starting to take her seriously.  “What, like ‘aliens that built the Void Rings’ smart ones?”

Help.  We are the last known survivors of the Aashaanti race.  Our converters were destroyed in the crash.  We have no means of returning to space.  We were locked into containment chambers by our heartship to spare us from the Phage.  If anyone is out there, please help us.

This distress call, unlike the previous four, stank of mental fear so strong it made Tatiana shiver and reach for Milar.

“Hey Princess,” Milar said, quickly setting the duffels aside and pulling her close.  “What’s going on?”

“Shit, I don’t know,” Tatiana whispered.  She squeezed her eyes shut, shivering at the residual fear that had been carried with the message.  “They crashed and they’re calling for help.”

“Uh,” Milar said softly, “sweetie, whatever made that canyon made it eons ago.”

Tatiana swallowed, her body still shaking in reaction to the terror in the ‘voice’.  “They must have survived.”  Then she blinked, realizing that if the Aashaanti survived, then their tech survived.  “Wait.  That means they’re down there, Milar!  Remember the inviso death?!  It’s them!”  She was so excited she could barely keep the squeal out of her voice.  The idea of applying that to an eighty ton machine

Instead of sharing her enthusiasm, Milar looked uncertain.  He glanced at the path ahead, then at the jungle behind them.  She watched him compare in his mind whether he wanted to risk Nephyrs or Aashaanti, then he quickly turned back and said, “Look, the Aashaanti disappeared sixteen thousand years ago.”

“Disappeared,” Tatiana agreed.  “Not necessarily died out.”

It was almost cute to watch the confident badass swallow hard and peer into the forest ahead of them, like fighting inviso death Tritons were just fine, but running into the ultra-high-tech society that pulled the disappearing act sixteen thousand years ago wasn’t.

“Yeah, okay,” Milar said reluctantly.  “We should head back.  I can probably kill a couple Nephyrs.”

“Are you kidding?” Tatiana cried.  “This is amazing.  It’s science!  Do you realize what this means?  Their whole genetic ecosystem was communicating on a totally different frequency than ours.”  She grabbed him by the assault rifle and started heading in the direction of the Tear, determined to find the source.

CHAPTER 4: To Sacrifice a Queen…

Fortune's Folly

Independence Day, 17th of May, 3006

Silver City

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
Jersey stood in the empty bar, staring down at the convulsing bodies of four of his former brothers-in-arms.  One had been hit by EMP, which accounted for the skinless, shuddering corpse.  The other three had all been shot in the eye or mouth, which was difficult, but not impossible.  But one of those three…

He swallowed hard, looking at the way the face had been crushed inward, through the Nephyr’s energy skin.  The barrier was still in place, but wrinkled, now, pushed inward to seal across the surface of the woman’s pulverized cranium, where it had caved under the force of Magali’s boot.


There isn’t a Nephyr on the planet that could’ve made a kick like that, he thought, unable to process anything but that single fact.

He heard yelling in the street, where Magali had gone out, presumably after the other Nephyrs, but Jersey couldn’t bring himself to follow her.  His brain just wasn’t able to process what he was seeing.  All he could see was the Nephyr’s caved-in skull, buckled under the energy barrier.

It wasn’t possible.  Simply.  Wasn’t.  Possible.  Not by what he knew, not by what he had seen and experienced in the Academy, not by his own experience in combat.  The Nephyr energy barrier was like wet sand—the harder you hit it, the stiffer it became.  The corpses at his feet were the equivalent of four cats being killed by the same mouse.

He was still standing there, trying to make sense of that, when he heard motion in the doorway behind him.  He tensed, dread mingling with fear as Magali Landborn stepped into the now-silent bar, somehow still alive.  He did a quick calculation.  Knowing there were twenty Nephyrs to a ‘volunteer’ collections unit, for her to be still walking around, Magali had to have killed or disabled them all.  In less than a minute.

Cold chills hit him in a wave.

As if Jersey were just part of the furniture, Magali walked around him and knelt in front of the corpses, proceeding to dig through their pockets with grim purpose.  He watched her find a set of keys in the captain’s utility vest, then get back to her feet as if she had just dug through old laundry for her missing change.

Out of reflex, Jersey caught her arm.  Magali went totally stiff under his grip, the warrior focus gone, her body trembling in its wake.

“What you just did,” Jersey whispered, “is impossible.”  He wanted her to refute it somehow, to rationalize it, to give him an explanation that actually made sense.  Instead, she just stood there in silence.

When no excuses came, no way to rationalize why he was seeing the impossible, Jersey tore his attention from the corpses to look at her.

“You’re the one they call Killer, aren’t you?”  It was a myth on Fortune—some girl in Deaddrunk who could hit any target, who could shoot any weapon with total accuracy, a deadeye that not even a Gryphon could match.

Magali’s face twisted and she quickly looked away.

Jersey gently grabbed her chin and forced her face back to look at him.  He scanned her hazel eyes, searching for the truth.  He expected to see a monster staring back at him, a robot, a killing machine

But all he saw was terror.

Terror, from someone who had just executed twenty Nephyrs in twice as many seconds.  The paradox made him want to tighten his grip, to force her to tell him what was really going on, to assure him that he wasn’t locked into another of Steele’s mind-games.  The ultimate mind-game.  The one that would finally break him.  Somehow, he kept his fingers from sinking into her flesh.

Magali’s lip trembled. “I have to go free those people.”  She looked on the verge of crying.

“Not even a robot could’ve made those shots,” Jersey insisted, desperate for an explanation. “Nobody could have.”

“I know,” Magali whispered up at him. “Anna told me enough times. Made fun of me. Teased me that I really was a robot that they’d dressed up and made to think it was human. Please let go of my arm.”

He still couldn’t bring himself to let go.  There was something else going on here, something that someone wasn’t telling him, and that bothered him a lot.  “You shouldn’t have enough strength in your whole body to kick a Nephyr like that…”  He wanted to demand more, to insist she tell him what the hell he had just witnessed, but the anguish in her eyes stopped him cold.

It wasn’t the face of a killer.  It was the face of an innocent.

“Please let go of me,” Magali whimpered.  She was shaking all over and her hands were fisted, her knuckles white.

Jersey released her suddenly, remembering the horrors she had seen in the last four days—killing the child, Steele, the cliff, the Nephyrs…Nephyrs like him. “Sorry,” he managed. “God . . . sorry.” He quickly held up his hands to show her he meant no harm.

Magali backed hastily away from him, then, when it was obvious he wasn’t going to try to grab her again, she turned to leave.  She made it to the doorway before she stopped, her back to him. “I’m not a robot,” she said softly.  She gave him an unhappy smile over her shoulder. “Believe me. I already checked.”  Then she ducked out into the silent street beyond.

Jersey looked back down at the Nephyr’s crushed skull, its energy barrier still intact.  He would have said it was some sort of fluke, something that had happened from the brain superheating from the shot afterwards, had it not been for the fact he had watched the woman’s skull collapse through the barrier.

Because he wanted no one else to see the results of what he’d just witnessed—because his instincts told him that Magali’s life depended on it—Jersey stripped the dead Nephyrs of their guns, then put explosive rounds in the dead woman’s head until the whole energy barrier fizzled out from the skull’s lack of consistency.  He was strapping the weaponry to his own body when he heard Magali call him from outside, in the middle of what sounded like a mob.

Hastily securing the last grenade to his waist, he ducked into the street to find her.

As soon as he cleared the doorway, Jersey slowed, shocked by the number of people who had congregated outside.  Even more unnerving, the space between the bar and the hotel was littered with Nephyr bodies.  He had intellectualized it before, knowing she had to have killed the entire squad to still be standing, but to see it in person, their twitching, skinless bodies splayed out in the streets amidst masses of stunned colonists, had his heart pounding.

Even then, colonists were jerking away from him in the streets, glancing between him and Magali as if expecting another fight.

“Come on,” Magali said, rushing forward to grab him by the hand.  “Let’s go. Now.”

She pulled, obviously trying to retreat from the carnage and the ever-growing crowd, but Jersey remained still, unable to take his eyes off his dead comrades.  “Magali, you just killed twenty Nephyrs in less than a minute.”  Saying it out loud for the first time, he got chills all over again.

“She turned a Nephyr!” someone gasped from the crowd.  Frowning, Jersey turned to look at the young man.

“It is Magali Landborn!” an older man shouted. “The Killer is here!”

Jersey felt his heart stutter to a stop.  All their chances of making a clean getaway had just fizzled out with that one sentence.  Admiral Maako would send everything the Coalition had to put her down, and even a deadeye prodigy couldn’t survive a missile blast…

But the colonists were only getting more agitated.  “She beat them at the Tear, too!” a kid screamed. “She killed two dozen operators with her rifle, hanging out the door of a cargo ship!”

Jersey knew that Magali hadn’t been part of that fight, since she’d been huddled in his hotel room refusing food, shower, and sleep because she was still in shock and convinced he was going to try and finish what Steele started.  Still, as the chants kept coming from the crowd around him, Jersey started to get tingles, realizing what was happening.

“And Deaddrunk, too!” one of them howled. “And Yolk Factory 14!”

More colonists started screaming out Magali’s supposed deeds, and Jersey glanced down at Magali to see if she understood what the frenzy around them really meant.

Instead of the grim confidence he was expecting, Magali was shrinking from the crowd, pale, looking like a fawn about to bolt.  All around them, people were screaming her name, chanting it like a war-cry.  And, in that moment, Jersey realized Fortune was at a tipping point—all the angst, all the abuse, all the injustice was pouring forth in the form of men and women who finally, in Magali and her apparently divine favor, had found something to fight for.

And yet, Jersey knew Magali was close to abandoning them all and fleeing…so very close.  It was obvious her mind had already started to fracture.  He had seen it in her full-body trembles at the base of the cliff, he had seen it in the way she’d blanked out over hot chocolate, had seen it in the hotel room when she’d destroyed his stuff and when she’d almost let him die on the bathroom tile.

Jersey knew, in that moment, that he had a choice.  Like a move in chess, he had to catalogue his assets, decide which sacrifice to make for the better good.  He could keep Magali in front of the masses to accept her crown, force her to harness this tiger and lead it for the good of all, or he could let her drop the leash and run.  If he let her run, she would survive…until Maako sent the Nephyrs to hunt her down.  If he kept her there, her chances of mental survival basically became nil…but Fortune would finally get its chance at freedom, a chance that hundreds of thousands of people had already died to create.

Make her stay or help her go.  The potential outcomes raged through his strategic mind as he heard the masses chanting her name, desperate to accept the broken, terrified woman as their messiah.

Make her stay or help her go.  It tumbled like a rogue asteroid in his mind, slamming into the walls of his being, obliterating everything except that simple question.  As the crowd screamed around them, Jersey knew, suddenly and without a doubt, that it was the most important decision of his entire life.  He knew this was his entire reason for existence, this single, all-consuming choice that would ruin one life or emancipate countless more.  He knew everything depended on it.  He knew this was why David Landborn had forced him to play those harrowing games with his adopted son.  He knew this was what he was meant to do.

Forfeit one for the good of all.  A single sacrifice to win a battle.  A fallen queen…

…for a checkmate.

I’m so sorry, Mag.  As Magali cringed backwards, trying to retreat into the bar to hide from the chanting masses, Jersey snagged her wrist and forcibly kept her where they could see her. “They need this,” he whispered. “Stay.”

Land-born, Land-born, LAND-BORN, LAND-BORN!” The very walls of the buildings around them began to vibrate with the sound, the air itself pounding with Magali’s name.  More colonists were flooding the streets, adding their own voices to the cheer, and before long, it could be heard from other streets, other rooftops.

But Jersey wasn’t listening.  His heart was torn, seeing the cringing, broken thing clinging to the arm that held her.  Half of him still wanted to let go, to help her find a way to live out the rest of her life in peace, to help her escape the thousands of excited faces…

“Please let go of my hand,” Magali whimpered, looking around them in growing terror.  The anguish in her voice, the despair, almost made Jersey let her go.  Almost.  “Jersey,” she whimpered. “Please.”

A fallen queen…

…for checkmate.

Jersey swallowed hard, but kept his hand locked around her wrist.  He looked around them, saw the multitudes of men and women who had reached a tipping point of their own, men and women who needed something to believe in, who were utterly oblivious to the panic of the woman in front of them.  Instead of seeing a pale, cowering egger, they were seeing the culmination of an idea, a passion, a hope.  It was spreading like fire, surging through them in ever-increasing intensity, raging through the streets, crashing around them as heavy as the churning power of an ocean storm.

“I think you just did it,” Jersey breathed.  And, knowing the consequences of what he had done, knowing that Magali would never be able to go home, never be able to have a normal life again, Jersey felt the aching regret for forcing that crown on her head even as his spirit—born on Fortune, raised on Fortune—joined the others in their revelry, their ecstasy at finally taking that first step to freedom.

“Did what?” Magali whispered.  The rolling masses of revelers were dragging away the Nephyr bodies, taking their belongings, arming themselves from their corpses.  Then a group of them was hoisting a dead Nephyr upside-down by the leg up a flagpole, to the ecstatic cheers of thousands.  And, in that moment, seeing one of his former brothers strung up in all his glittering glory, blood dribbling down from his empty eye socket as an entire city cheered, Jersey knew there was no going back.

“Oh my God,” Jersey whispered, as the voices around them crescendoed to a bone-numbing roar. “Mag . . . you just started the Revolution.”

Magali froze, then slowly looked up at him with a mingling of horror and fear.  “Please let me go, Jersey,” she whimpered.  She obviously realized what was happening, what they would expect her to do.  “Please.”  She was shaking all over, holding onto him just to stay upright.  “I can’t do this.”  She was begging him…

…And Jersey continued to hold her there, forcing her to face the growing tide of humanity that was even then proclaiming their swords for her banner, their guns for her army, their ships for her fleet.  He watched the hope fade from her face, the tiny glimmer of trust for him flare out, replaced with hopelessness and desolation.

A fallen queen…

…for checkmate.

Magali slumped against him, giving up on her own escape.  Jersey tried to squeeze her hand, to reassure her that he would be there for her, but she did not even react.  All around them, throngs of people were screaming her name with religious zeal, pushing and shoving to get to the front, so they could chant where she could see them.  For several minutes, Magali Landborn simply stared at a point on the cobblestones a few yards ahead of her, her eyes unfocused, her body unmoving.  She might as well have been a doll for all the reaction the crowd’s chants got from her.

She’s starting to break, Jersey thought, anguished.  He knew he needed to get her out of the public eye, back into some semblance of privacy before she simply shut down and refused to respond to anything at all.  As Magali continued to deteriorate in his arms, he tried to figure out how to extract them, how to get her somewhere quiet while still keeping up the momentum.

He was about to say screw it and drag her off to some other city to get some sleep when a Silver City camera crew shoved their big lenses in her face.  “Magali Landborn!” the newscaster panted, both him and his Ferris cameraman jostled by the crowd.  “What are your plans from here?  Will you be taking the rest of Fortune?  Do you think you’ve finally started your Revolution?  Any words of warning to the Coalition occupiers, Killer?”

Magali came alive, then, that terrified woman falling away, revealing something colder, darker, and a thousand times more calculating.  She raised her gun and brought it to the cameraman’s forehead—

Jersey stepped between them, and for a moment, he watched it cross her hazel eyes to shoot him, too.  Looking up at Jersey, her words barely distinguishable in the chaos around them, she said, “This is not my Revolution.”

Jersey knew.  It was his.  He squeezed her hand.  “Let me take care of this.  Then we can get you somewhere to rest.”

“I don’t want dinner, Mom,” Magali said.  Tears had begun sliding down her cheeks.  “I just wanna go to sleep.  Dad’s stupid games tired me out again.  I’m seeing Nephyrs when I close my eyes.”

Jersey blinked at her, a little flutter of panic in his chest.

Sacrifice a queen…

…for a checkmate.

He swiveled on the Ferris, who had been slowly turning in a circle to film the chanting, roiling crowd, rather than Jersey’s back.  Jersey grabbed the robot and yanked it back around.  “Is that thing live?” he demanded.

Despite the frothing chaos around them, the Ferris running the camera politely said, “It’s broadcasting to the Silver City holochan at a rate of sixty terabits a second, Mr. Brackett.”

“Then broadcast this.”  Jersey twisted the camera and forced it on himself and Magali.  Into its huge black eye, he shouted over the roar around him, “The Revolution is here.  Fortune is a sovereign system!  It was given—given—to our ancestors Daytona Dae and the original colonists for saving the Core in the Triton Wars.  We own this place—the Coalition just ‘forgot’ that when it discovered Yolk.  Well, I say it’s time we show them whose families put their lives into building this place!  My name is Jersey Brackett, last survivor of the Brackett clan, and that is Magali Landborn, the Killer, and we’re about to wipe every speck of Coalition occupation off the face of this planet.  I repeat—the Revolution is here!  Join us in Silver City to take back our home!”

All around him, the cheers, which had quieted some so they could hear his speech, increased exponentially, until the very stone under his combat boots was vibrating.  Jersey chanced a glance at Magali, saw that she was staring at nothing again.

“Get to the airfield!” Jersey shouted, as loudly as he could over the screaming.  “We’re taking back Fortune!”

He hadn’t thought he could be heard over the chanting, but suddenly the crowds were moving, shoving toward the airfield and its awaiting ships.  Magali stumbled in the crush, almost fell under the shuffling feet.  Jersey easily picked her up and sat her on his shoulder, holding her in place with a hand on her hip and an arm across her legs.

Pinned by all the stares around them, Jersey heard Magali whimper.  His heart ached for her, realizing what he was doing, making her even more visible, even more of an object for their adoration.

Sacrifice a queen…

…for a checkmate.

All around him, the city was mobilized, heading for ships, prepared to finally take down the regime that had terrorized them for two generations.

The strategist in Jersey hoped they could hit a Yolk Factory immediately, to show a decisive victory and gain more support and forward momentum to take the Coalition stronghold of Rath and break the opposition’s hold on the planet before it had a chance to recover.  The human in Jersey just hoped that, by getting Magali to a ship, he could get her out of sight long enough to lure her back from the brink before he had to bring her out into the public eye again.

Sacrifice a queen…

Perched on his shoulder, Magali started to tremble like someone exposed to severe cold.  Feeling it, Jersey remembered the last time she’d trembled under him, and once again heard those words she had whispered to him in the bar as she let him hold her, when he had been struggling, thinking he would never feel the willing touch of another human being again, losing himself to the horror of what he had done, what he had become.

“If you had let them kill you, we wouldn’t have been able to save each other.”

That simple thought had been his salvation.  The idea that his life had been worth something, that he had saved such an innocent, beautiful soul, had dragged him out of his overwhelming sorrow and allowed him to face a life as something inhuman.  She had wrenched him out of his despair…

Only to have him throw her down into his place.

Sacrifice a queen…

Fortune's Folly
Guns.  Nephyrs.  A crowd.  Falling off a cliff.

Except she hadn’t fallen.  She’d climbed down.  Hadn’t she?  But how did she climb down a cliff?  She was afraid of heights…  And what about the Nephyrs?  Had she just dreamed the Nephyrs?  Who could really kill twenty Nephyrs in under a minute?  Magali was finding it hard to remember.  She was so tired

Magali listened to the hum of the engines as Jersey flew them—and the throngs of people and ships who had volunteered from Silver City—back to Yolk Factory 14.  The Nephyr had told her Nalle had imported two thousand fresh eggers to take the place of the three thousand Joel had ferried away or Steele had killed, most of whom had been stripped from Silver City only days or hours before Magali had triggered the riot.

Jersey had also told her he’d scouted out a good spot for her to snipe the guards on the towers, and Magali had told him she wasn’t killing anyone, ever again.  When he’d tried to insist, she’d pointed a gun at his face.  She now had the gun in her lap, along with a sniper rifle Jersey had taken from a Nephyr she’d killed in Silver City, as well as two EMP wands from a sealed compartment on their ship.  Two more Nephyr pistols were strapped to her waist, two more to her thighs, and an assault rifle was slung across her back.  She wasn’t exactly sure when she’d done that.  The entire day had been a blur.  She didn’t even remember leaving Silver City, aside from the fact Jersey had tried to explain to her that he expected her to kill people again, and, in response, she’d almost shot him in the head.

The engines’ pitch changed and Magali felt Jersey put them on the ground.  A minute later, the big Nephyr came into the crew compartment with her, an anxious look on his face.  “Okay, look,” he said softly, “you don’t actually have to kill anyone.  Just look like you’re helping us out, okay?  Today is big.  Huge.  We’re taking back what’s ours.”

“Then take it back,” Magali said, never lifting her eyes from the wall.  “You don’t need me.”

“Technically, no,” Jersey said.  “Director Nalle is a third-grade Nephyr, at best—probably just some rube they threw in a skin because her daddy was an admiral—and I could probably take her down with my eyes closed.  That leaves, what, seventy-six guards?  How many did you kill?”

“Fifteen,” Magali whispered, remembering every single face.

“Okay, so sixty-one guards, plus about a dozen support personnel,” Jersey said.  “We’ve got forty-two ships and over a thousand guys with guns.  Steele and the other Nephyrs of the Forty-Third are gonna be long gone.  They had another Yolk harvest due tomorrow down south near the coast, Factory 11.  That means they’ll be over a thousand miles away when we hit Factory 14.  We take the camp fast enough, they won’t have enough time to fly back to 14 before we’re gone again.”

“I’ll stay on the ship,” Magali told him, fully intending to defend her right to do so with violence, if necessary.

Jersey gave her an anguished look, but didn’t come any closer.  “They need to see you.  They need to know you’re participating, you know?”

“They can eat shit and die,” Magali said.  “I told you this is not my Revolution.”

“We need this, Mag,” Jersey insisted.  “If we’re gonna earn enough support to take Rath, we need to show everyone sitting on the fence that we can win.”

Everyone knew Rath was the key to Fortune.  It was the Coalition’s stronghold, its lifeline to the Orbital, and beyond that, the Core.  While Rath maintained vast, state-run farms and water purification facilities, the military section of the Orbital didn’t even have its own hydroponics system or maintain a permanent crew—it had been originally built as a launch-point to the Core that had been haphazardly expanded over the years as the Yolk trade grew.  To people like Anna, Milar, and Magali’s father, Rath was the Holy Grail of victories, the chokepoint that would win them the war.

“Nobody cares about Rath,” Magali said.

Jersey glanced at the door to the cockpit.  “Okay, well, we landed outside the range of the camp sensors.  Gonna hike in and get the place locked down before Nalle can call in reinforcements.  There’s a hill just a few dozen yards to the northwest where you can sit and watch the whole thing.  You don’t have to kill anyone.  Just let people see you’re with us, okay?”

Magali watched his gold-filigreed face for several moments.  Jersey’s blue-green eyes were filled with concern…and nervousness.

“You want a figurehead,” she noted.

Jersey winced.  “They just need to see someone lead.”

Magali remembered her father’s endless war games, the dozens of times she’d gotten her entire ‘unit’ killed for being stupid.  “You lead,” Magali said.

“Mag, I’m…”  Jersey hesitated.  He glanced down at his hands, which glittered in the neon ship light.  “I mean, look at me.”  He held up his glassy fingers, the golden circuitry clearly visible underneath the energy barrier.  “You think they’d follow a Nephyr?  I’m everything they hate.

“Nobody’s going to follow me,” Magali said, once more staring at the wall.  “I get people killed.”

Jersey stood there for several minutes in silence before he cleared his throat.  “I gotta go.  I can hear the others unloading.  They hit that place without me and Nalle’s gonna rip them apart.  The Ferrises are gonna be hard enough for them to handle.”

Magali said nothing.  She still hadn’t forgiven him for what he’d done in the street earlier that day, after she’d slaughtered twenty of his comrades.  After rescuing him, twice, and after him sweeping her from danger off the shores of the Snake like some sort of glittering angel, she thought they’d come to some sort of rapport, but he had kept her on that street, hydraulic-powered fingers wrapped around her wrist in a glassy prison, surrounded by mindless smiles, listening to the numbing, frothing chants of people that didn’t see a killer, but a hero.

She must have said something to that effect, because Jersey gave her an anguished look.  “Mag, I had to keep you there.  Fortune needs this.  If you ran off on them just when things were getting going, you think we would have had a thousand volunteers scrambling to assault Yolk factories with us right now?”

“You sound like my sister,” Magali said.  Anna would have said the same thing, right after she’d used Magali to do whatever she wanted.  Normal people were just puppets to people like Anna and Jersey.  Pawns.  Anna was always calling anyone who wasn’t a Yolk Baby ‘sheeple’ or ‘cattle’ or ‘pawns.’  “You’re pulling my strings so you can make the whole world dance to your tune.”

“We’re rescuing eggers, Mag.”  He sounded agonized.

“I don’t care about eggers,” Magali said.  She was finding it hard to care about anything.

Jersey gave the exit of the ship an anxious look.  Then, “Look, they’re leaving without me.  I’ve really gotta go.  I’ll see you in a few hours, okay?”

“Don’t come back covered in blood,” Magali said.  Why she said it, she couldn’t really pinpoint, but the thought of seeing Jersey’s glassy skin glistening with crimson was enough to tighten her fingers on the sniper rifle.

Jersey glanced down at the weapon in her lap, then back at her face.  “Get some rest, Mag,” he finally said softly.  “I’ll be back soon.”  Then he left her there.  Magali heard the cargo bay door open, but didn’t turn to watch him go.  She saw the light from outside reflecting on the interior of the ship, smelled the crisp, fresh morning air mingle with the smell of grease and old cleaning fluid.

Jersey was gone for more than ten minutes before Magali realized the Nephyr had left the door open, the pungent smells of a warming jungle filtering inside.  She took the blanket and pulled it around her shoulders.

More minutes passed.  Magali found herself standing beside the door lock, hand on the button to shut the door.  She frowned, then glanced behind her, not remembering getting off the bed.

That’s weird, she thought, swallowing.  So much of what had happened to her since Steele had goaded her into shoving Benny off the cliff either wasn’t making sense or was vanishing altogether.  Things felt disjointed, like she was floating, observing everything from above.  Then, through the open door, she caught sight of a flash of white on the hillside below the cluster of ships.  When she squinted, she saw it was a bandanna, bobbing in the brush as its owner jogged from the rebel ships toward the Yolk factory in the valley below, surrounded by more of his armed brethren.

What kind of idiot wears white on a raid? Magali thought.  Instead of pushing the button to shut the door, she stepped out onto the gangplank to watch.

The splotch of white dipped and moved down the hillside, randomly disappearing into the jungle only to pop out again later, still following a mass of people like one white ant in a flood of black, green, and brown.

That moron is gonna get people killed, Magali thought.  She sat down on the gangplank and got her scope up to her face, to get a better view with her rifle.  It was a kid, she discovered.  Probably fifteen, at most.

The splotch of white disappeared behind a hillock and did not re-emerge, his path no longer visible from where Jersey had hidden the ship from view of the Yolk factory.

Need a better vantage point, Magali thought.  She glanced outside the ship to the northwest, locating the rocky outcropping that Jersey had said would be a good sniping perch.  She considered if it would be worth her effort to climb up to it so she could watch the fight, or whether she should try to take a nap, instead.  A nap really did sound good.  Though she didn’t feel physically tired, she knew she needed one.  She had a weird sense of bone-deep exhaustion that had been plaguing her ever since climbing down the cliff, where her mind seemed to go into neutral for minutes at a time.  Jersey had brushed nanos on her toes and fingers, but even though the flesh had healed almost immediately, they still curled into tight hooks when she wasn’t paying attention, unconsciously still straining for rigidity on that cliff-face.

Magali glanced behind her at the cot she could see through the open door.  She thought about how many days it had been since she’d actually rested.  She thought about how badly she needed to sleep, and how good it would feel to finally lie down.

She thought about how a Nephyr had slept there last.

Magali idly got off the gangplank and climbed over to the sandstone outcroppings at the top of the ridge.  Settling into position, she dialed in her scope and waited.  Several minutes later, she watched the white bandanna once more pop from the trees and bounce across a swamp.

Even a blind chimp could have seen the dumbass coming, and they were still several miles away.  Annoyed, now, Magali turned the rifle to focus on the razor-wire enclosure of the Yolk camp.

The place that had imprisoned her only four days before now looked mostly deserted.  There was no one walking the dirt tracks between buildings, no one spending their free time sitting on crates outside their barracks, no one playing cards in the sun.  The aluminum huts looked lonely and ragged in the cold of morning.  Magali noticed three women in the stocks, bent over, naked, covered in bloody welts.  The guards that had been sent down for Harvest as punishment, she realized.  The ones who had brought the gun that Magali had taken from them and used to kill Nephyrs.  Obviously, the Director had taken umbrage to the fact they had given Magali a means to help almost two thousand of her eggers escape.

After a moment of studying them, Magali realized their skin was too gray, their expressions too still, the blood too old.  Dead, she thought.  She considered that distantly, realizing she probably should have felt some sort of guilt for her part in their demise, but couldn’t dredge up more than a pang of irritation that Nalle had left the bodies out to rot.  Tadflies spread diseases if bodies were left out to rot.

Near the stocks, the entrance to the mines was sealed.  Two armed men were standing beside the door, smoking.  One of them said something and they both started to laugh.  Over by the fence, one coaler woman called out to them and they grinned and shouted something back.  The woman turned around and slapped her uniformed ass at them, making the men hoot.

Magali shot her.

Magali didn’t realize she’d squeezed the trigger until the woman’s body collapsed in a quivering, bloody, brainless pile.  She blinked at the corpse for several heartbeats, trying to remember how it had happened.

Beside the door, the smiles faded from the two men’s faces and they took a couple startled steps forward, the hands holding their cigarettes drooping to their sides in shock.

Magali watched them rush over to their friend to squat beside her and check her pulse.  Because they were lined up, Magali shot them, too.

Fast and efficient, her father had told her whenever he was forcing her to play his games.  Don’t give them time to run.  Spurred to speed, Magali turned the scope on the closest guard tower.  Detached, she realized they looked like frightened starlopes.  She pulled the trigger four times, moved to the next tower, fired four times, then the next—only three that time, somebody was on piss break—then the next group got four.  Then she swept down to watch startled guards slipping from the barracks and began exploding their heads like her father’s water balloons.  One after another.  Then, when one of them got spattered with gore from one of his friends and ducked back into the barracks to escape her, Magali trailed her weapon along his course behind the aluminum sheeting and killed him, too.  She knew she got him because he dented the aluminum when he fell, and she saw parts of his uniform and hair slump to the ground in the tiny crevice under the wall.

A minute later, Nalle and several gray-uniformed men came rushing from the office into the graveyard of bodies, spreading out in a defensive wave.  Magali shot Nalle in the eye first, as the Nephyr was scanning the devastation with horror clear on her glittering face.  Then, as the Director collapsed, Magali unhooked her clip and smoothly replaced it with explosive rounds.  In the moments that followed, as the robots stopped to look at their fallen leader, Magali put six bullets through the brainboxes in their chests, making dozens of mechanical parts shower the twitching, glittering corpse in the middle of the courtyard.  Then she switched back to regular ammunition and executed the guard that had rushed out of the bathroom, still pulling up her pants.  Then she shot the cook stepping out of the tent carrying a big metal spoon.  Then she killed the secretary scrambling to tighten a gun holster to his belt.  Then she killed two men running around a corner, clutching their guns with looks of excitement on their faces.

Then, when no more targets would come out of the barracks or the office, Magali returned to explosive rounds and began to take out the propane tanks, the support beams, the hydro generators.  When people crawled out of the tinny wreckage, their clothes smoking, arms in the air, Magali switched ammunition and shot them, too.

She kept mental tabs in her head, marking off each face she knew from camp, until every single one was accounted for.  Leaving enemies unaccounted for, Milar and Anna had taught her, was how to get people killed.

When it was over, Magali stared at the devastation, watching the smoke drift up from the ruined buildings, eying the bodies with complete detachment.

Killer, Wideman Joe giggled in her head.

Magali shifted the rifle to peer at the body of Yura Nalle, even then beginning to attract tadflies.  She was missing one eye.  The other one was hazel, almost the color of Patrick’s, but darker, and starting to fill with blood.  Magali turned and found other bodies, sprawled in the mud or draped over equipment or rubble.  Nobody was moving.  Everyone had been shot square in the forehead.

Just like in target practice, Magali thought.  She felt like an observer in an old-style projection show, watching, not really part of the set.  She returned the explosive rounds to her gun and started blowing up the ships arrayed beside the tarmac, then the Yolk bagging station, then the outhouses.

A few minutes later, a flash of gold caught her eye and she moved her scope back to the perimeter fence.  A Nephyr had reached the edge of the Yolk camp and ripped a hole in the razor-wire like it was made of strands of shiny silver paper.  Then, inhumanly fast, he raced across the camp towards the office, only to stumble to a halt in the array of bodies, his back to her.

Magali calmly replaced her armor-piercing rounds and waited for the cyborg to turn around, gun trained on the back of his head.  Skin’s too tough to penetrate with armor-piercers, she thought, watching the back of his domed skull through her scope.  Gotta get them in the eyes or mouth.

The Nephyr backed out of the courtyard, then slid sideways behind an aluminum hut, still not giving her a good shot.  Magali waited, trained on that building in total concentration, waiting for him to emerge…

Fortune's Folly
Jersey stood with his back to the aluminum sheeting, heart hammering a staccato against his ribs.  He had arrived after a twenty-three minute run, a good ten minutes before the rest, intending to locate and take out Nalle and as many of the Ferrises as he could before his reinforcements arrived.  Yet, all around him, the camp smoldered in total silence.  He heard the morning breeze catching the aluminum siding, dragging it back and forth against screws, slapping it against supports where it wasn’t fully nailed down.

Everywhere he looked, there were bodies, some burning, most still twitching.  Corpses lay scattered on doorsteps, hung up on fences, slouched over barricades, splayed out in roadways.  He’d only heard weapons-fire for a few minutes, maybe four at most, the mountainside rattled by a several explosions that he had assumed were Nalle’s defensive fire.  He had been expecting maybe five to ten dead, and he wasn’t entirely sure whose side the bodies would be on.

Instead, he was looking at a ghost town.

Dead, he thought, as the silence drew icy fingers up his spine, they’re all dead.  Even the cook, wearing his big, goofy hat, and the shy little Ne’vanthi clerk that liked to flirt over doughnuts.  Dead, and most still bleeding.  In less than four minutes.  Jersey swallowed, hard, and kept his back pressed against the building.

A couple dozen meters away, he heard the muffled shouts of eggers from behind the barricaded door to the mines.  They were calling for help, having heard the gunshots.  Jersey couldn’t bring himself to leave the safety of the building’s shadow.

She just killed seventy-three people, a Nephyr, and six robots in four minutes.  That was a kill-shot every three seconds, and he knew she had taken time to shoot up the buildings and ships in there somewhere.

Sweet Aanaho, Jersey thought, looking out at the carnage.  His instincts were running wild, and not in a good way.  Whatever he was looking at, it was not something a human mind could have conjured.  Maybe several of the volunteers from Silver City had stopped on a rise and helped?  He was too nervous to move out of the shadow of the building and check.

What was worse, the carnage had been utterly indiscriminate.  Everyone was dead, not just the big threats.  Support personnel who hadn’t lifted a gun in ten years were just as dead as those who had bullied the eggers with them daily.  Some distant memory from his time at the Academy, where instructors spent years intentionally breaking their students to reshape them into hard, merciless killing machines, told him that he was witnessing a mind disintegrating, a downward tumble into oblivion.

Sacrifice a queen…

…for a checkmate.

Aanaho, I’m so sorry, Mag, Jersey thought, agonized.  He had pushed her over the edge…

Then a series of armor-piercing rounds hit the flimsy aluminum sheeting on his left side, several shots peppering his left shoulder, shoving him forward and around like a heavy volley with a ball-peen hammer, turning his face towards the holes in the metal…

Grunting in panic, Jersey closed his eyes and spun back around as a new volley hit the side of his head.  She almost got me.  Just now, she almost got me.  A few more inches and she could’ve made a couple eye-shots.  Through a building.  Realizing that, his heart began to pound out of control.

What…is she?

Half of him wanted to bolt right there, to run as fast and as far as he could and never look back.  The other half—the half that wanted to see the Coalition burn for what it did to his family—knew he had to keep Magali on the playing board if he wanted to see justice for Fortune.  With that in mind, Jersey said a mental prayer to whoever was listening, knowing that the next twenty-three minutes were going to be the hardest of his life.

Fortune's Folly
Magali continued to wait out the Nephyr with the patience her father’s training had taught her.  They die like the rest, she thought, repeating her father’s mantra.  They just have smaller targets.

More of the Nephyr’s contingent of reinforcements flooded through the hole in the fence behind him, but Magali never allowed her scope to move from the Nephyr’s sanctuary, knowing that the Nephyr was the biggest threat—the other members of her team could take out the rest.

Killer, Wideman giggled again.

Shut up, old man, Magali thought.  The Nephyr was starting to irritate her, hiding in his hole like a rabbit.  She put a few rounds through the wall where she calculated he was standing, all clustered to his left shoulder to spin him around so she could get a shot at his face.

Just before she got his eyes lined up through the bullet holes in the metal, he swiveled back around and she missed her second volley.  A smart one, then.

That made her think of the last time she’d seen Anna, being escorted from their egger’s hut by a Coalition collections agent.  She wondered if Anna was on her way back to the Core to become a Nephyr yet.  Probably not.  Anna would have hacked the robot that took her to Rath and was probably even then wreaking havoc on either Rath or the Orbital.  Magali guessed the Orbital, because Anna loved to look down on everyone.

The Nephyr was still huddling behind the building.  Why wasn’t the son of a bitch moving?  More Coalition reinforcements were running into camp, opening the doors to the mines, pulling out the eggers, but Magali knew the Nephyr was the biggest threat.  She had to kill the Nephyr before he could kill her friends.

Then, just as she was getting ready to shoot at him again, his feet moved under the edge of the hut wall.  A flash of gold caught her eye, the Nephyr creating its own exit through the flimsy aluminum sheeting in the back of the building.  Like all of his kind, this one ran inhumanly fast, dodging and weaving like it knew Magali followed it with the scope, but it was moving too fast and erratically and her bullets took too long to reach their targets for her to have any hope of hitting him.

Damn, Magali thought, watching it dodge her, refusing to let her get a bead.  As she followed it with her scope, she saw it weave through the buildings with unnatural speed, keeping its head turned away from her, bisecting the camp to burst through the razor wire on the other side.

It’s running, she thought, confused.  Nephyrs don’t run.

Then it started to circle around, using the shrubbery as cover, and she realized it was coming for her.  Fast.

Magali watched it through the scope, realizing it had somehow zeroed in on her position.  She reloaded with explosive rounds and began firing at the rocks and shrubbery as he passed, hoping to drive some of it into his eyes and get him to stop.

The Nephyr ducked and just kept coming.  Seeing her ploy wasn’t working, Magali decided to shift perches before it could reach her.  She thought about returning to the ship, but she couldn’t pilot it, and the last thing she wanted to do was trap herself in a metal shell with a Nephyr.  Magali threw her guns over her shoulder and, out of sight of the Nephyr, slipped off the ridge and into the rocky outcroppings below, stopping only to leave her jacket slung over a rock, just a small part of it showing between the boulders.  She calculated the best vantage point to shoot at the ridge and went to it, calmly setting up her next shooting station, then sat back to wait.

Fortune's Folly
Jersey realized Magali had shifted shooting positions the moment he got within five hundred yards and saw that, despite still seeing a dark splotch of the black Nephyr jacket he had loaned her, her heat signature was no longer visible and he couldn’t see the barrel of her gun.  Immediately, he sank down behind cover, trying to decide what to do next.  He doubted she was running from him—if she’d left a distraction behind, it was because she fully intended to use his confusion to put a bullet through his eye.

Dammit, Mag, Jersey thought desperately, snap out of it.

Absolute silence reigned above him, the silence of a predator stalking its prey.

Damn, Jersey thought, his heart hammering.  He glanced back at the camp, where the volunteers from Silver City were rejoicing with the eggers they’d freed, having absolutely no idea of the cat-and-mouse game he was playing on the mountainside with their reluctant heroine.  He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and decided that he had to circle around and come at her from behind.

Fortune's Folly
Magali was watching the ridge through her scope when she heard a tiny sound to her left.  She had just enough time to drop the rifle and draw her pistols before the Coalition Nephyr was on top of her.  She fired two glancing blows that he deflected with his hand before he hit her, head on, and they went down amidst the sticky foliage.


The thing had hold of her wrists, so Magali shoved her knee into its face.

“Ah, fuck, Mag!”

Magali dropped backwards and kicked at the glassy surface of its chest, ramming her foot into its too-hard torso again and again.  Nephyr, a deep part of her began to babble.  I’m going to be raped by a Nephyr.

“Mag, it’s me!”

She screamed on a soul-deep stab of terror and started thrashing, kicking wildly, twisting her wrists until they bled.

The Nephyr wrapped its body around her, a cage of glass.  “Mag, please,” it almost sounded like it was crying.  “Please, it’s me.”

Pinned to the ground, her gun over the cliff, Magali hyperventilated.  She had no way to kill it.  Not with her bare hands…

“We met on the shores of the Snake,” the Nephyr said, still totally trapping her with its hydraulic, glassy body.  “You were pretending to be dead, hoping I’d pass you by.”

The Snake, Magali thought.  She could just jump.  End it now.  Follow little Benny to the ground…

“I gave you soup and hot chocolate,” the Nephyr said.  “Took you to Silver City.”

Silver City.  That’s probably where those asshole eggers forced Joel to take them.  They probably killed him and took his ship.  Maybe if she ever got down off the cliff, she could hunt them down.

“You took out my lifeline, Mag.  Please, it’s me, Jersey.”


Magali froze, remembering that name from somewhere.

“Jersey Brackett.  From Six Bears.”

Brackett.  Her dad was friends with a Brackett.  His kid had played chess with Milar.

No, some part of her corrected, the Bracketts are dead.  Dad is dead.  Runaway Joel killed them.

Or did he?  Hadn’t someone told her that?

“Shhh, Mag, it’s okay.  You’re okay.  Nobody’s gonna hurt you again, okay?”

But he was hurting her.  He was raping her.  Right after he’d told her to shove Benny off the cliff.  He had pulled down his pants and told her to get on her knees…

“Mag, sweet Aanaho, Mag, I’m here, okay?  You’re safe.”

Safe.  The word felt foreign in her mind.  How could she be safe if—

Silver City.  She remembered Silver City.  A Nephyr bleeding on the bathroom floor, surgical spreaders stuck in his neck.  A bar where he’d kicked a table in half because four others wanted to play.  Magali pulling out her gun and shooting them, then going outside and killing sixteen more.  A crowd, cheering her name.  Jersey, holding her arm, refusing to let her hide from their excited chanting…

Magali felt her world shift, felt everything seem to tumble apart, the overwhelming terror suddenly stripped away, leaving her to recognize she was still fully clothed, that the Nephyr wasn’t moving above her.

“Jersey?” she croaked.

Very slowly, the Nephyr lifted his head.  His glittering face was glistening with crimson, starkly contrasting his blue-green eyes.  “Mag?” he whispered.  He had tears on his cheeks, making the translucent skin even glossier than it already was.

“Why are you holding me down?” Magali whispered, unable to find her voice.  Her throat felt raw, almost like it had when Steele—

“No, Mag, dammit, stay with me,” Jersey said, lifting his body above her.  He was dripping blood from his nose and it was dribbling onto her chest, but he didn’t seem to notice.  “You remember who I am, Mag?”

“Jersey?” she whispered, focusing up at him.  “Why are you bleeding?  Did the guys in the bar do that to you?”

Jersey blinked at her, then shook himself.  “Yeah, Mag.  It was them.  But you took care of them for me.  How about a nap?  You wanna go back to the ship and sleep a little?”

“Yeah,” Magali managed.  Then she saw his filigreed skin touching hers, felt the unnatural, stony hardness, and began to curl up inside like a scared little kid.

“Hey Mag, don’t leave me now…” Jersey was being nice to her, but still didn’t let go of her hands.

And then, in a wash of total horror, Magali realized why.

“Oh Aanaho,” she whispered.  “I killed people.”

Jersey hesitated, and for a brief instant, she saw the same mental acuity she’d seen in Anna sharpening in his blue-green eyes.  “Yes,” he said, but it was reluctant.  “We can talk about it after you get some rest, okay?”  He still wasn’t letting go of her hands.

“Who was it?” Magali managed.

“You don’t remember?” Jersey asked, giving her the look someone would give a bird with a broken wing.

Magali remembered killing Nephyrs, but she didn’t remember—

Nalle.  She remembered killing Nalle.  “The Director?” she whispered.

Jersey’s eyes were full of pity.  “And a couple others.”

With the awkward way he avoided her gaze, it all suddenly rushed back; the cold ruthlessness, the determination, the look on every face, the feel of every squeeze of the trigger.  “Oh no,” she whispered, horror wrapping its icy, taloned fingers around her heart.  Not a couple.  An entire camp.  “Aanaho, no.”

“Hey,” Jersey said quickly, “if you hadn’t done it, the rest of us would have.  We had to take that camp, and it was their jobs to stop us.  We had to free the eggers, Mag.”  He let go of her wrists and sat up, putting a gentle hand on her shoulder.  “Any way you look at it, you saved lives.”

But guilt was sinking through her being, staining her to the core.  She had killed.  Again.  Dozens of people.  Clerks.  A cook.  And then she had tried to shoot Jersey…  “Aanaho,” she whimpered, panic rising with her too-fast breath.  “Aanaho Aanaho Aanaho…”  She felt her heart rate speeding up, blood pounding in her ears.  Martin.  Nephyrs.  Guards.  Benny.

I’m a killer, Magali thought, heart hammering way too fast.  Just like Wideman said.  He was right all along.  Just a killer.  Killer, killer, killer, killer…

“Mag, calm down love, you’re breathing too fast.”  The too-hard fingers began stroking her hair, pulling her head close to his stony chest.

Killer, her mental voice whimpered, in soul-deep anguish, recognizing the truth of it, accepting it.  The only thing she’d ever been good at.  The only way she’d ever excelled.  Her only contribution to society as a whole.  I really am just a killer.  Then Magali lost consciousness in the Nephyr’s glassy arms.

CHAPTER 5:  Warning One

Fortune's Folly

Independence Day, 17th of May, 3006

North Tear

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
“Stop immediately,” a sudden mental boom sounded.  “You have triggered the Phage Containment Defense Grid.  Authorized personnel only.  Please present authorization or return the way you came.  Eradication measures trigger in four legs.”

Tatiana froze, grabbing Milar by the arm.  “Okay, I think we found our inviso-aliens.  They just told us to stop and give authorization,” Tatiana said, trying to figure out how to grant herself authorization.

Milar blinked down at her.  “And you think you can get it, somehow, sweetie?”  She’s lovable, but she’s also a ditz.

Tatiana narrowed her eyes.  “I am not a ditz.”

“Two hundred stitches says you are.”  Damn, gotta remember she can hear me.

“That’s right, knucker.”  Tatiana peered out at the otherwise-totally-unremarkable jungle ahead of them, wondering just how far a ‘leg’ was.  Or maybe it was a unit of time.  That would suck.

You have triggered the Phage Containment Defense Grid, the booming mental voice repeated.  Authorization please.

Tatiana squinted.  Then, because she really didn’t have anything better to say, she said, “I am Captain Tatiana Eyre of the Coalition Space Force.  I come in peace, for the purpose of trade and resource-use negotiations.”

“Unrecognized hive,” the mental ‘voice’ responded.  “Please produce authorization of purpose before proceeding.”

“My authorization comes from Admiral Maako on the Fortune Orbital, leader of the human forces on this planet,” Tatiana thought.

“Unrecognized hive archon.  Please provide accurate authorization of purpose.”

Tatiana thought about rushing through the perimeter anyway.

“Action not suggested,” the mental voice warned.  “Reactive measures will be taken to prevent Phage contamination.”

“What’s going on?” Milar whispered.

“They don’t wanna let us pass,” Tatiana muttered.  “Something about contamination.”

“What, like the Phage?” Milar demanded, going immediately pale.

Tatiana snorted.  “They’ve explored thousands of ancient cities, all of which were supposedly wiped out by this ‘Phage.’”  She sarcastically air-quoted the last.  “Look, if you read Daytona Dae’s essays, she says they thought that stuff was a god, okay?  An evil, vengeful god.  Does that really sound like something we should be concerned with?”

“You’re missing the part where it killed off the Aashaanti,” Milar said.  “And the Kelthari, and the Ra’u, and the—”

“Obviously, it didn’t,” Tatiana interrupted, gesturing at the empty jungle ahead of them.  “And we’re about to make contact with the only known survivors.  Besides.  The likelihood that a disease not only survived sixteen thousand years, but is physiologically compatible with both the Aashaanti, which were non-cellular, and humans, which are multi-cellular, is pretty much statistically insignificant.”

“I’ve never had much luck playing the statistical slot machine,” Milar replied.

Indeed, he had been captured by Nephyrs, escaped from Nephyrs, captured again by Nephyrs, and then escaped, again, and still had not only his skin, but all of his fingers and toes.  That was statistically as close to impossible as walking on the sun.

“This is the Phage Containment Defense Grid.  To prevent total systematic annihilation of all sentient species in this quadrisphere, authorized personnel only.”

“It’ll be fine,” Tatiana said.  “I think it’s just a robot.  A really old robot.”

“‘Just’ an invisible, sixteen-thousand-year-old, body-shredding alien robot.”  He peered at her like she had warts.

“Yeah,” Tatiana said.  When Milar just raised a brow, she frowned and said, “What?”

“Okay,” Milar said, “then this is where I tell you, as the smart, capable man in the bad horror holovid who’s going to live through this, that we need to fall back on Plan B, where I go splatter me some Nephyrs and get us outta here.”

“No, gimme a sec,” Tatiana said.  “I think I can talk to them.”  She thought really hard about needing to get into the quarantine zone to meet the aliens on the other side.

She must have spent a bit too much time thinking about how badly she was itching to play with their cool technology, too, because the idiot robot replied with, “As per the Hive Accords, Aashaanti technological advances are not allowed to be passed to evolutionarily inferior races without approval from the archon ancients in a five-to-three ratio.  With the current archon ancient survivor ratio unknown, any vote must be delayed until accurate survivor numbers have been established.  Please return once the surviving archon ancients have been accounted for.

Tatiana prickled at ‘evolutionarily inferior races’ and said, “We have advancements you clearly didn’t.  Maybe you could let us come in there, look around, and I could offer up a few tips.  You know…organize an exchange.”  …right after she added a few choice pieces to her soldier for safekeeping.

Technological Salvage is not an authorized mission type.  Please consult the hive elders for trade arrangements.

Tatiana was starting to get frustrated.  “Listen, you’re not—”

Milar slapped a big, callused hand over her face and dragged her to the rocky jungle floor against his body, effectively cutting her off.  Nephyrs, he thought to her.  Moving in the jungle.  Spread out.

Oh shit.  Tatiana felt herself starting to panic, realizing they were trapped.

She heard Milar give a little groan.  Calm down, sweetie, Milar said.  That’s really not a good thing to start doing right now.  When she looked up at him, she saw him wincing and holding his temple.  Besides, I don’t think they saw us yet.

They have heat-sensors, Miles! Tatiana cried.

Your signature’s masked by the gel, Milar cried. Calm down!

Oh shit, Tatiana thought, seeing the sheen of Nephyr skin only a few dozen meters off, shit, shit, shit, shit.  He was standing parallel to them on the rocky ridge, looking down into the jungle leading into the Tear.

Ambassador, are you and your bodyguard in danger?  The robotic mental voice was like an angel from on high.

Tatiana’s eyes widened.  Yes!  Yes I am in danger!  Those evil cyborgs are trying to kill me!  They are here to sabotage Aashaanti trade relations!  They need to be stopped!

I’m sorry, Archon.  Your request has been logged with the hive, but Social Asylum is not an authorized mission type.

Nonono, Tatiana thought.  I don’t need asylum.  Just kill them for me.

As per the Solid State Accords, we cannot execute sentient creatures before giving them six warnings that their behavior is violating our elder-approved mission directive.  A moment later, the robot’s mental voice seemed directed elsewhere as he said, “Stop immediately.  You have triggered the Phage Containment Defense Grid.  Authorized personnel only.  Please present authorization or return the way you came.  Eradication measures trigger in twelve legs.”

Then, from much closer, Tatiana heard, They’ve gotta be around here somewhere.  I could’ve sworn I was hearing them talk.  Wonder what the hell’s making my electronics malfunction.  Keeps buzzing out.  I’ll have to skin that damn tech that worked on them last night.  He took a couple more careful, unnaturally quiet steps, then turned to the right to continue down the ridge, towards them.

“Negative, Search and Destroy is not an authorized mission type.  Please present proper authorization of purpose.  Containment measures begin in eleven legs.”

Watching the Nephyr continue to stalk towards their hiding place, Tatiana slowly reached out and found a mid-sized stone amidst the rocky outcropping that hid them.  She nudged Milar in the side, shoving the rock into his hand.  Throw this down the hill, she told him.  As far as you can.

Milar squinted at her, then at the stone, then at the innocuous-looking, inviso-alien forest covering the downward slope into the Tear.  He turned, cocked his big arm behind him, heaved, and it made a delightfully long arc before it collided with another rocky outcropping and bounced, taking a fantastically long time to come to a halt as it tumbled down the hill.

Immediately, Nephyrs started pouring out of the woods, dozens of them, rushing the place where the rock had hit the ground.  The one that had been walking towards them was the only one who stopped, looking directly at them.

Milar shot him, three laser blasts in rapid succession, two of which bounced off his forehead or cheek, one of which hit him in the left orbit.  The Nephyr went down with his socket burned out, twitching.

At the same time, the Nephyrs who had rushed the stone were slowing near the site of impact.  One was bending down to retrieve the rock.

It’s got a heat imprint of her thumb on it, one of them thought.  The bitch was holding it.  He lifted his head to scan the jungle below him, peering off in the opposite direction.  Must be using something to block their heat signatures.

Warning One.  You have crossed twenty-eight legs into the area affected by the Phage Containment Defense Grid.  Please return the way you came immediately or your threat of contamination will be removed.  As per the Solid State Accords, that was Warning One.

Giggling inside, Tatiana hunkered lower into their hollow, enjoying the hard feel of Milar’s big body behind her.  She started mentally counting down in her head.

We are so screwed, Milar thought.  I’ll shoot her first.  Then myself.

Like hell you will, Tatiana said.  Just chill a moment.  I’m calculating something.

Chill?! Milar cried.  This place is crawling with Nephyrs!  Hundreds of them!  I can’t kill hundreds of Nephyrs, Tat.

“She’s nearby,” the Nephyr holding the rock said.  “Her fingerprints are all over the goddamn stone.”

“Yeah,” another one said.  “Shit, I think I see a heat signature up behind that rock.”

Warning Two.  You have crossed twenty-eight legs into the area affected by the Phage Containment Defense Grid.  Please return the way you came immediately or your threat of contamination will be removed.  As per the Solid State Accords, that was Warning Two.

Thirteen seconds between warnings, Tatiana thought.  She did a little quick mental math.  Four legs plus twenty-eight legs made thirty two legs…  There was approximately a hundred feet between her and the Nephyrs.  That meant every leg was just over three feet long.  That meant the barrier was about twelve and a half feet out…

Gotta take them alive, a Nephyr’s thought hit her.  I’ll get enough of a bonus to buy an entertainment system for the barracks if we get them alive.

Hey Milar, Tatiana said.  Do you trust me?

Milar groaned.  Do I have to?

No, but remember what happened last time.

Grimacing, he said, Yeah, I suppose…

Then just stay right where you are, okay?

Milar blinked at her.  While you do what?  Ask them to go away?

Something like.

What about the inviso-aliens?

Just trust me, Tatiana said.  We’ll be fine.

“Yeah, they’re up there!  Spread out.  Remember we get a bonus if we get them alive.”

Warning Three.  You have crossed twenty four legs into the area affected by the Phage Containment Defense Grid.  Please return the way you came immediately or your threat of contamination will be removed.  As per the Solid State Accords, that was Warning Three.

“It’s the curse of the Phage!” Tatiana cried, jumping up out of their hole.  “Oh my God, oh my God, the Phage is here!”  She ran forward about twenty feet, then froze, like she’d seen the Nephyrs for the first time.  “Oh shit.”

Immediately, the robotic voice bellowed into her head, Warning One.  You have crossed two legs into the area affected by the Phage Containment Defense Grid.  Please return the way you came immediately or your threat of contamination will be removed.  As per the Solid State Accords, that was Warning One.

Several Nephyrs chuckled and started moving to surround her, fanning out.

“Where’s your buddy, little girl?” one of the Nephyrs asked, sauntering up to her.  He glanced up the hill at the cluster of rocks where Milar remained hidden.

Warning Four.  You have crossed thirteen legs into the area affected by the Phage Containment Defense Grid.  Please return the way you came immediately or your threat of contamination will be removed.  As per the Solid State Accords, that was Warning Four.

“No, you don’t understand,” Tatiana blurted, taking four more steps forward before they could get behind her.  “They’re dead.  They’re all dead.  The Phage is killing them!  Please take me home with you.  Please!  I want to go back to the base right now!  Take me in now!”

The entire platoon of Nephyrs around her paused and looked at each other with confusion.

“Seems to me,” the lead Nephyr—a prick of a colonel that Tatiana knew liked to use colonist pets for target practice—said, “that somebody with a knife was killing them.”

“Don’t forget the five megawatt sniper rifle,” another Nephyr—a woman Tatiana recognized as the lead in the last public correction—added.

“N-n-no,” Tatiana babbled.  “It’s this invisible thing.  With blades—blades!  The Phage!  It got Miles!  It’s gonna get me too, it’s coming, please protect me, please.  Guys, you gotta listen to me.  Please.  It’s out there.  Listen.  Just listen!”  She grabbed the closest Nephyr’s arm and clung there.  The Nephyrs looked at each other again.  The guy she was holding shoved her roughly away from him.

Warning Two.  You have crossed five legs into the area affected by the Phage Containment Defense Grid.  Please return the way you came immediately or your threat of contamination will be removed.  As per the Solid State Accords, that was Warning Two.

Colonel Tevall, the Dog Lover, as his buddies called him, snorted.  “You expect us to believe that?  That there’s, what, an ancient Aashaanti monster out there?”  Other Nephyrs snickered.

Tatiana, who had always been excellent at base impromptu drama competitions during personnel downtime, nodded with wide, tearful eyes.  “A monster.  Yes.  Please.  Just take me home.  Take me home right now.  I can hear it coming!”

Warning Five.  You have crossed six legs into the area affected by the Phage Containment Defense Grid.  Please return the way you came immediately or your threat of contamination will be removed.  As per the Solid State Accords, that was Warning Five.

The lead Nephyr grabbed her chin with unnaturally smooth, hard hands.  “You hear it coming, huh?” he snickered.  He tilted her head side to side.  “You know, guys, we could skin the bitch right here.”  Wish I could, too.  That thing in her head creeps me the fuck out.  “What did you do to your forehead, there, little girl?  That some sort of new operator node?”  All the cameras went out in that medical lab.  Why’d all the cameras go out in the medical lab?  And my heat sensors keep spazzing out.  And fuck my head hurts.  What the hell did they feed me at chow?!

Warning Three.  You have crossed five legs into the area affected by the Phage Containment Defense Grid.  Please return the way you came immediately or your threat of contamination will be removed.  As per the Solid State Accords, that was Warning Three.

We should get her back to base.  Less time she’s in our hands, less time we have to lose her.  “Let’s find her buddy and go,” Colonel Tevall said.

“No, guys,” Tatiana cried.  “Listen to me.  There’s a demonic invisible thing that’s out here killing people.  We’ve got to get back to base.  As soon as we can.  Like, now.”

Which, of course, just made the Nephyrs all the more suspicious and intent to stand around.  Colonel Tevall squinted down at her, brown eyes leery.  I should just do the little shit right here.  I wouldn’t get the bonus, but they wouldn’t take my hide for losing her again…  “Where’s your friend?” he growled.

Tatiana made a show of looking down the hill behind the Nephyr before hurriedly looking back at him.  “I told you,” Tatiana said, “he’s dead.”

“Dead, huh?”  Tevall turned to look down the slope.

“No!” Tatiana cried, way too quickly.  She grabbed his arm.  “No.  He’s not back there, he’s behind me!”  She pretended to catch herself.  “I mean…his body is behind me!”

“Yeah, sure it is, sweets,” a big Nephyr said.  He stepped a few feet further into the danger zone, followed by a few others.  “Whaddaya guys say we poke around some more?  Orion wants him pretty bad…”

Warning Six.  You have crossed eight legs into the area affected by the Phage Containment Defense Grid.  Please return the way you came immediately or your threat of contamination will be removed.  As per the Solid State Accords, that was Warning Six of six.  This is your final warning.  Remove yourself immediately or you will be neutralized for the good of all sentient life.

Thirteen, Tatiana thought.

“Wonder what those colonists fucks are hiding in here,” one of the Nephyrs mused.  “All those reports of people disappearing…gotta be something in here they don’t want us to find, huh?”

Twelve, eleven, ten…

“But he’s not down there,” Tatiana whined, as several more Nephyrs turned to peer down the slope.  “You have to believe me.”

Nine, eight.

“Have to, huh?”  Tevall spun and hit her with the same impact force of a hammer, catching her square in the jaw.  Tatiana cried out and fell to the ground, face afire.

Seven, six…

“Hey, they didn’t say we couldn’t fuck her until she tells us,” one of the other Nephyrs said.  He’d taken up casual residence on a mossy rock outcropping and was giving her a sickly smile.  “That could be fun.”

Five, four, three…

From the ground, Tatiana laughed.  “What, with your tiny dick?  Or, wait, are you the one who lost his balls to that surgical mishap?  Couldn’t get the blood vessels to align properly after they skinned your nuts?  Dude, you are, aren’t you?  What’s your name?  Pedin Twitty?  Oh, wait, Twatty, that’s what they call you, right?”

Two, one.

Warning Four.  You have crossed five legs into the area affected by the Phage Containment Defense Grid.  Please return the way you came immediately or your threat of contamination will be removed.  As per the Solid State Accords, that was Warning Four.

Several of his companions hooted.  “She sure pegged you, Twat.”

“Yeah, come on, big guy,” Tatiana snickered.  “Let’s see what you got.”  Right behind Twatty, she saw a couple leaves flutter in the breeze.


The big Nephyr seated on the rock was narrowing his eyes and getting to his feet when he got cut in half.  Then, before the two halves could hit the ground, they got cut in half again.  And again.  And again.  And again.

Several Nephyrs just stared at the tiny pieces of corpse, their glittering bodies utterly immobile as the liquid energy sheeting over the remaining pieces of their friend sizzled and sputtered out.

“It’s the Phage!” Tatiana screamed.  “Run!  The Phage is coming!”

A moment later, there was a slight breeze by her face and Colonel Tevall received the same gory treatment, becoming what was essentially a pile of meat and sputtering electronics in less than two seconds, the resulting spray coating Tatiana in a fine mist of crimson.  Then two others succumbed, at the same time.  Then three more.

In that moment, Nephyrs started screaming and falling into a defensive position, back-to-back.  “What the fuck is it?!  Is it a weapon?  Where’s it coming from?!”  That Nephyr went down in a bloody pile, a heap of gooey foliage shredded with him.  “I can’t see it!” another Nephyr screamed.  “I can’t see it!  There’s no heat signature!  What are we dealing with?”

“I told you,” Tatiana cried.  “It’s the Phage!”

“Someone grab her,” one of the Nephyrs shouted.  “Shut her the fuck up!”

Warning Five.  You have crossed five legs into the area affected by the Phage Containment Defense Grid.  Please return the way you came immediately or your threat of contamination will be removed.  As per the Solid State Accords, that was Warning Five.

One of the Nephyrs stalked towards Tatiana, but got shredded halfway, spraying her with more blood and bone chunks.

“Fuck, I hear something moving!” one of the Nephyrs screamed.  “It’s invisible!”

“Wow!” Tatiana called, sloughing dead Nephyr from her shirt, “Ya think?!”

“And there’s more than one!” another Neph screamed, right before a shredder got him, spraying meat and gristle in a twenty feet radius.

Several more Nephyrs went down in impressive swaths of gore.  A group of them began firing pretty much at random into the forest, narrowly missing Tatiana and putting several rounds into thin air before something big impacted the group and ripped it apart from the inside out.  Tatiana paused, eyebrows going up at the spray of blood and electronics.

Whatever that is, it’s carrying some cool tech.  She thought about what a soldier could do with that kind of tech, and how cool it would be to walk around invisible

“Break and run!” one of the Nephyrs screamed.  “Run!”

“No, not that way!” Tatiana cried, when they started fleeing back the way they had come.  “That’s where it comes from, you idiot gruntbags!  That’s its home!  We gotta go out that way!”  she gestured frantically down the slope, into the valley, and took a few steps to illustrate.

Like fleeing herd animals, the Nephyrs turned and bolted downhill.  “Regroup at the base of the hill!” one of them called.  “Get ahold of some backup!  Someone get air support!”

Warning Six.  You have crossed seven legs into the area affected by the Phage Containment Defense Grid.  Please return the way you came immediately or your threat of contamination will be removed.  As per the Solid State Accords, that was Warning Six of six.  This is your final warning.  Remove yourself immediately or you will be neutralized for the good of all sentient life.

Tatiana stopped running with the fleeing Nephyrs and hastily backed up the hill.  Below her, she heard more shrieking and screaming and the weird whipping whine of what had to be some sort of ultra high-speed blade.  Within moments, it was over.

Thank you for your cooperation in maintaining a Phage-free dimension, the robotic voice replied.

“No problem,” Tatiana said.  She scanned the devastation below, wiping her arm across her face to remove some of the crimson from her nose and mouth.

After a few moments, Milar walked up to her, slowly.  When she turned, he was as pallid as a sheet.  “Heya, Milar,” she said, waving a bloody arm.  She hawked and spat out a tooth from Tevall’s fist to the face.  Bastard.  She’d have to remember to send a fruitcake to his mother.  “Hey, you see the shredders?  They really are invisible.  I thought you were just pulling my leg, but that was pretty sweet.”

Milar said nothing.

The brisk wind hitting the edge of the jungle from the funnel of the valley below reminded her she was covered in gore, which got cold as it dried.  Tatiana flicked a few bone-chunks off her arm, but realized there wasn’t much she could do for the rest of it.  “Shit,” she said.  “Hey, I need some new clothes.  You got some extra clothes?”

Milar said nothing.

“Milar?” she asked, turning to look.

Milar had stopped a few feet off, staring at her in white-faced silence.

Tatiana frowned.  “What’s wrong with you?  You get shot again?”  She wiped at her face again, but only succeeded in smearing the gore around.  “Hey, you at least got a rag or something?  I think I’ve got some Colonel Tevall on my face.”  Then she paused, grimacing at her arm.  “Gawd, I hope he didn’t have STDs or something.  I hate shots.  Something about needles.”  She dropped her arm, once more surveying the carnage.  “Man, just think about what we could do with a soldier with one of those invisibility shields.  And those knives it was using.  Cut right through Nephyr skin.  You see that, Milar?!  Nephyr skin!  Oh my gawd, I want one!”  She thought about outfitting a soldier’s arm with something that could cut matter-phobic liquid energy like it was butter and quite nearly suffered a joygasm on the spot.  “You realize what we’re gonna be able to do with this tech, right?  Once we meet these Aashaanti survivors and make them our friends, we’re so gonna be able to trick up our gear.”

After a couple minutes, Milar still hadn’t replied, so she glanced back at him.  “Milar?”

“You,” Milar said, “are covered in coagulating blood.”

Tatiana glanced down at the front of her shirt, which was a sheet of crimson and meat chunks, then went back to thinking about that awesome blade, and how she was going to acquire one for her soldier

“Okay,” Milar said, “maybe I was totally seeing things, but did you just lead an entire platoon of Nephyrs into a meat grinder and somehow survive?”

“There’s a trick to it,” Tatiana said distractedly.  “Gotta love bureaucracy and its anal-retentive rules.”  They’d have to capture a robot somehow, then rip off its blade so they could reverse-engineer its awesomeness.

Milar peered at her for much too long.

“Hey,” Tatiana said, flicking gore from her fingers, “think you could give me your shirt or something?  My eyes are starting to sting.”  Then she frowned.  Her eyes were starting to sting because they were filling with blood.  Ew, blood!  Her mind was wrenched away from soldier upgrades as she looked down at herself, imagining that working its way into a node.  “Oh my gawd, Milar, I’m covered in gore!  Get it off, get it off!”  She started swiping at her arms and chest, but only managed to rub it in.  Standing a few feet away, Milar just crossed his arms and watched her, completely useless in the face of her crisis.  “Please!” she whined.

Milar wordlessly pulled off his shirt and handed it to her.  Tatiana hastily wiped herself down, then, when she was relatively sure she wouldn’t be introducing Tevall to an internal organ via an exposed node, tossed him the shirt back.  Milar sidestepped and let it fall to the ground with a wet plop, then raised an eyebrow at her.

Tatiana, meanwhile, rubbed her hands together and cracked her knuckles, back to thinking about the alien defense grid and how to beat it.  She loved to beat the system.  Hell, she thrived on it.  “The way it was picking up those Nephyrs’ thoughts gave me an idea.  Hold up a sec.”  She took a step forward.

“What are you doing?!” Milar cried.

“Stop immediately,” the familiar robotic command insisted.  “You have triggered the Phage Containment Defense Grid.  Authorized personnel only.  Please present authorization or return the way you came.  Eradication measures trigger in one leg.”

Tatiana winced.  She’d thought she’d backed up further than that.  Oh well.  To the robot, she thought really hard about wanting to save the Aashaanti hidden in the northern cleft of the Tear, bring them to a special militarized safety zone, and protect them and their valuables from the Phage forever and ever.

Authorization of purpose approved.  Search and Rescue personnel granted access.  Please proceed according to Emergency Phage Containment regulations.

Tatiana grinned and looked over her shoulder.  “I don’t think the Aashaanti were good mental liars.”  Which said, what, exactly, about her species?  She frowned, a little disturbed.

“Huh?” Milar asked.

“Look,” Tatiana said, shaking herself, “I want you to think really hard about how you want to rescue a bunch of Aashaanti survivors and give them a really nice, Phage-free zone to live in.  Think like a government quarantine squad.  It’ll get you in.”

Oh my God, she’s so hot when she’s covered in gore.  Does that make me a sick bastard?

“Negative,” the robot said. “Assisted Individual Reproduction is not an authorized mission type.  Please present proper authorization of purpose.  Containment measures begin in four legs.”

“Milar!”  Tatiana stomped her foot impatiently.  “Think about the survivors.”  She hesitated a moment, then added, “And yes, it totally makes you a sick bastard.  Pervert, really.  There’s a condition that sums it up.  Haematophilia.  Really nasty stuff.  To actually get turned on by gore…”  She tisked.  “You should get checked.  I hear they do lobotomies sometimes that help.”  She looked him up and down lazily.  “Sometimes.”

Behind her, Milar growled and strode towards her, dragons bunching across his burly pecs.  Tatiana backed away, grinning.

An instant later, the robot said to her, “Authorization failed.  Assisted Individual Reproduction is not an authorized mission type.  Warning One.  You have crossed one leg into the area affected by the Phage Containment Defense Grid.  Please return the way you came immediately or your threat of contamination will be removed.  As per the Solid State Accords, that was Warning One…

CHAPTER 6: A Final Confession

Fortune's Folly

Independence Day, 17th of May, 3006

Uncharted Jungle

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
“That night in the desert,” Jeanne said.  “You didn’t use a condom.”

Joel felt his whole world slide to a screeching halt.  “Excuse me?”

“Shut up!” Jeanne snarled, and he was stunned by her vehemence.  “I told you to listen, you smuggler asshole.  I haven’t told anyone about this since it happened, but I’m gonna tell you now.”

Joel listened, though it was hard to hear over the pounding of his heart, which was drowning out all other sounds within his dark palladium tomb.

“You didn’t use a condom and I got pregnant.”

“Oh shit,” Joel whispered.  He’d tried and failed so many times with so many women before her that he had just assumed he was sterile.  Suddenly the stiff way she was holding her shoulders had new meaning.  “Jeanne, I…”

“It was a boy,” she went on.  “But I was only nineteen years old.  No money.  No prospects.  My mom and dad died when I was a kid.  I was an orphan, Joel.  I was on my own.  All alone.”

Joel had known as much from the three months of ‘courtship’ he had done to figure out where she’d put her stash.  Dread was beginning to slice through the guilt, twisting in his stomach like a knife.

“Fortune doesn’t have an adoption system,” Jeanne said.  “I was ten when I stowed away to the Bounds to escape slavery and the brothels on Ne’vanth.  When he found me hidden in the engine room, the ship captain put me in cryo and dumped me on Fortune rather than expend the fuel to take me back to Ne’vanth, so I spent two years on the streets of Silver City until David Landborn took pity on me.  Put me in some flight classes when I was sixteen.  When I was seventeen, he gave me a battered old ship, fueled it up, and told me to go do something with my life.  The same day, his wife bought me a set of blankets, cooking utensils, and a backpack and, while she was smiling and handing them to me, she told me to get the hell away from her family and never come back, or I’d end up a corpse rotting in a ditch somewhere.  David didn’t even bother to see me off.  See, everybody’s got it wrong—everyone thinks they were so generous, so loving to offer me a home when times were tough and no one else would.  But I wasn’t their kid, Joel.  I was the stray that they brought in long enough to keep it from starving before they patted it on the head and turned it loose again.  I was a pity case.”

“Jeanne, I…” Joel whispered.  He had a horrible feeling he knew where this was going, and it was already making his guts twist.

“I’m not finished,” Jeanne snapped.  When she looked at the camera again, there were tears.

“Okay,” Joel managed.  “Sorry, Jeanne.  Sorry.”

“So I was only out on my own a couple months before I met you,” Jeanne said.  “David Landborn had set me up with this tiny Shrieker mound he’d found in the jungle.  Only seven Shriekers in it, but it was all mine.  I was supposed to use the money I made from it to start a life, you know?”

“Sorry,” Joel whispered.

“I checked that tiny mound day and night for months,” Jeanne went on, ignoring him.  “I babied them, gave them extra rich greenery, all that stuff.  When their nodules came ripe, I spent an entire day on my hands and knees in the slime, prying them out.  You know what I was thinking, that whole time?”

Joel just shook his head in the darkness of his prison, unable to speak.

“The whole time,” Jeanne said, “I was thinking about this great guy people called Runaway Joel who had swept me completely off my feet.  I was going to share my bounty with him, and maybe, over time, convince him I’d make a good partner, maybe get him to show me the faraway lands he talked about, maybe the alien ruins from his mother’s journals.  I mean, any guy who had a mom like Daytona Dae had to be amazing, right?  The very first kid born on Fortune?  He had to have lived an amazing life, right?  He had to be someone special.”

Joel lowered the datapad to his lap and stared at the darkness beyond it, unable to look at her any more.

“So when he wanted to meet in the Red Desert the day after I’d harvested the nodules, I welcomed the opportunity to show him how I felt.  I was gonna tell him everything.  Where the Shriekers were, where I’d stashed the nodules, what I dreamed for the two of us.  I was even going to give him my virginity.  I was courting him as much as he was courting me, you see.”

Joel froze, feeling sick.  “You can stop,” he whispered.

“I was going to tell him things like how badly I needed the money, how I couldn’t afford to feed myself, how my ship was on its last core and I couldn’t even fly back to town.  I even planned to ask him for a little food, when he arrived in the Red, but I thought about how healthy he was, how smooth and full of energy, and I was afraid.  I held back, because I wanted him to see someone successful, someone who would make a good smuggler.  A good partner.  So I lied.  I pulled what little food I had to the front of the shelves and padded it with empty boxes, making it look like I was completely stocked.  I took empty tubs and filled them with water to make them look full of leftovers.  I filled empty grain sacks with sand and threw them in my hold so he had to walk by them in order to get to the bridge.”

Joel leaned back in his prison, head against the wall, and stared at the total darkness of the ceiling.  He remembered the grain sacks, how prosperous the young woman had seemed at a job that always had him living hand-to-mouth, and he had thought to knock a chip out of her confidence, bring her down a peg or two before the big, bad world chewed her up and spat her out.

“The night went pretty much as I’d planned,” Jeanne said.  “I told him where I stored my Yolk and I gave him the coordinates to the Shriekers I’d trapped.  I told him how much I wanted to work with him.  He asked me if I was protected and I lied.  I was afraid he’d lose interest if I told him I couldn’t afford it.”  She sniffled and swiped at her face with her arms.

“So this Runaway guy, he gives me the wildest, most wonderful night of my life.  I remember thinking that this was it, I’d met the guy I wanted to spend the rest of my days with.  I felt so lucky, you know?  Excited for the future.  Happy.”  Jeanne paused, frowning at the camera.  “You listening to me, Joel?” she demanded.

“I’m listening,” Joel replied hoarsely.

“I decided to tell him everything,” Jeanne went on.  “I was gonna tell him about my bills, how I couldn’t even fly back to a port because it had taken everything I had to get to the Red Desert to meet him at his favorite oasis.  I was gonna tell him how his wine was making me giddy because I hadn’t eaten in two days.”

Joel simply stared down at his lap in the darkness, unable to find anything to say.

“But before I could, I started to pass out.  Too much wine, I thought.  Too strong for me, too long on an empty stomach.  I told him I wasn’t feeling good and he offered to let me snuggle up beside him, that he’d take care of everything for me.  And strangest of things, I believed him.  I fell asleep feeling secure for the first time in my life, Joel.”

Joel wretchedly brought his gaze back to the datapad and his view of Jeanne in the cockpit.

Jeanne looked up at him, her emerald gaze hard.  “Then I woke up and found you gone.”

Joel hung his head again, knowing what came next.

“You left a note saying you were sorry,” Jeanne said.  “How the world was a tough place and I’d have to take a few lumps before I could really understand what it meant to succeed as a criminal, but you needed the money more than me and I could always get more.”

Joel flushed with guilt, remembering his words.

“You followed that up with you were gonna be generous and leave me a few nodules at my stash to ‘tide me over’ until next year, when I’d be smarter and stronger and wouldn’t allow myself to be swindled by a two-bit smuggler who ‘wasn’t even trying really hard.’”

Joel felt the shame all the way to his core.

“I figured out the power supply problem,” Jeanne said, “after a couple days.”

“Jeanne,” Joel whispered.

“I was starving before I even got the ship out of the desert,” Jeanne said.  “The core went out halfway to Silver City, and I went down in the jungle, totally without power.  I had to trek out.  I hunted starlopes and jaguars, but I was a street rat, not a survivalist.  I was still starving four months later, when I stumbled out of the jungle into a farmer’s field outside Windy Hills.  By then, I was pretty sure I was pregnant.  I mean, I didn’t have any fat on me, but I was still showing.  The old-timer there heard my story, insisted he go hunt you down himself.  All I wanted, at that point, was to find you, to get some help.  See, I was still under the delusion that you hadn’t really betrayed me, Joel.  I had convinced myself it was my fault because I’d essentially lied to you.”

Joel looked away from the screen.

“But later, after I got ‘smarter’ and ‘stronger’, I began to wonder if you would’ve stranded me there anyway, knowing I’d never make it back to town.”  She looked directly at the camera and Joel felt another sickly wash of shame.  “After all,” Jeanne went on, “I had almost ten mil on the line.”

Two bags.  He’d sold her out for two bags of Yolk…

“Jeanne…” Joel began.

“So this guy, this really great guy called Runaway Joel, he was known pretty much everywhere I went.  I told people what had happened.  Most laughed.  Some shook their heads.  Most told me to get rid of the kid, or use it against you later.  Like I said, I tried for five whole months to contact you, Joel.  Nobody would help.  I wrote letters, I called, I sent you messages, I dropped what little money I had to pay the right people to say the right things.  You never replied.”

“Sorry,” Joel whispered.

“And so,” Jeanne said, “when my time came, I was alone again—couldn’t afford a clinic, had been thrown out of Silver City for panhandling.  I found a quiet spot in the jungle just outside town.  You could look up and see the ships to Silver City flying overhead.  It was a hard birth.  Took too long.  Umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck.  He was dead when I finally managed to get him out.  I almost died myself.  Passed out from crying when I realized he hadn’t made it.  Umbilical cord was still lying between my legs when I woke up.  Tadflies all over it.  They’d laid eggs in his eyes.”

“Jeanne,” Joel whispered.

“And so you were going to tell me,” Jeanne said, “how sorry you were, Joel.”

Joel brought his legs up to his chest and just sat there, staring into the darkness of his prison, feeling, for the first time, the total depth of his own sullied honor.

“You listening?” Jeanne whispered.

“Yeah,” Joel rasped.  “I’m listening.”

“So I guess you got what you wanted, Joel,” Jeanne said.  “I got harder.  I lost my youth.  I lost that starry-eyed hope that had formed the first time you talked to me in that bar.  Which, by the way, now that I’m ‘smarter’ and ‘stronger’, was a setup, wasn’t it, Joel?  That ‘chance happening?’  Us running into each other?  You starting to schmooze the girl who had gained the favor of the Landborn kingpin?  The one who got her own ship when she was seventeen?  You figured there was money there, some fresh, starry-eyed, pampered girl from Fortune’s most famous family.  You figured she had to have the line on some Yolk, or if nothing else, you could always just steal her fancy new ship and sell it to the Orbital scrapyard and let the pampered princess find another one.”

Joel thought about how that very thought had run through his mind, and suddenly wanted to die.

“And so here I am, Joel,” Jeanne said.  “Going out with you on a second date because I had planned to kill you and leave your corpse right beside that of your son, right after I gave you a few hours to think about that ‘best night of my life’ in the desert that you love to remind me about, again and again these last couple days, like great sex was somehow a life-changing experience for me.  Which, I guess now that I think about it, it was.”

Joel just hung his head.

“So back to what started this conversation,” Jeanne went on.  “You were going to explain to me what went through your mind in the nine months after you knocked me up and left me to die with your baby in my womb.  I just explained to you what went through mine.”

“Aanaho,” Joel whispered, glancing at the ceiling in the total blackness of his prison.  “I…”  He thought of the casinos, the gambling, the frivolous expenditures, the limos, the high-roller restaurants, the nights of debauchery.  He thought of the dozens of faces that had been in his bed, thought about the times he’d eaten and drunk until he had puked, then gone back for more.  He thought of paying whores to dance for him, sticking credit chips in their bikinis as he got head under the table.

Not once had he thought of Jeanne Ivory, the sweet little sucker that had given him the wealthiest three months of his life before he blew his load and had to go back to working for Geo.

“So?” Jeanne asked raggedly.  She wasn’t even watching where she was flying, looking into the camera, instead, and Joel could feel the ship picking up speed.  She had stopped bothering to wipe away tears a long time ago.  “What were you thinking, Joel?  I’ve been wanting to ask you for thirteen years and seven months, ever since Courage died on the jungle floor because I was too weak and inexperienced to get the umbilical cord from around his neck before it strangled him.”

Joel couldn’t speak.  There was nothing he could say, no smooth words, no easy smiles, no charismatic winks, nothing he could do to make up for this.

“I almost fell for you all over again the last time we went out,” Jeanne said, into the silence.  “You were suave and sweet and made me giggle.  Made me feel like a girl again.  I spent the entire night afterwards lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, remembering how you’d made me blush, made me laugh, made me smile.  You made my heart pound, Joel.  You made a little part of me hope.  Made me overflow with happiness when I wasn’t paying attention.  Just like last time.  And it was right then, thinking about how you made me forget, how that one night fourteen years ago didn’t seem so bad anymore, that I knew I had to stop you.”

“Drop me in the jungle,” Joel said softly.  “I don’t care where.  You won’t ever hear from me again.”

“I’ve shot hundreds of people since that day,” Jeanne said.  “I took my first power core by gunpoint, and killed the guy when he followed me to get it back.  Or at least, I thought he was trying to take it back.  Turns out, he was bringing me food.  Found a note on his ship he’d sent to his wife about ‘helping out some down-on-her-luck orphan’ and he hoped she didn’t mind if he gave away the last of her potatoes.  I almost put the gun to my mouth and pulled the trigger when I read it.  You know what stopped me?”

Joel had no idea.  Given the option, right then, he knew he probably would have been pulling a trigger of his own.

“It wasn’t anger or rage or indignant fury or revenge or anything stupid like that,” Jeanne said.  “It was just some deep inner part of me looking at everything that had happened, taking a really good look at the dead guy on my ship, and refusing to fold under the pressure.  I refused to let Life beat me, you know?  From that day on, I basically threw my arm around Danger, walked him outside, and laughed in his face.  ’Cause screw it.  What did I have to lose?”

Again, Joel found himself with nothing to say.

“To be honest,” Jeanne said, “I’m struggling between leaving you here to die, surrounded by several thousand times more Yolk than you stole from me—Yolk that cost you your baby’s life—or dragging you out here to look you in the eyes before I shoot you myself.  Which would you prefer?”

Joel just stared at Jeanne’s picture, unseeing.  “You said his name was Courage?”

Jeanne gave an unhappy laugh.  “That’s what you get when you give a child a baby and expect her to name it.”

“It was fitting,” Joel said.  “Like mother, like son.”

“I told you your crap doesn’t work on me anymore, Joel.  That train has long since passed.”  She sounded weary, tired.  All around Joel, the ship shuddered with speed.

“What if I told you,” Joel said, “that I’ve come to loathe the man I was, and I’m already trying to change?  That that’s what the Ferryman Joel stuff was about?  I’m trying to change my image.”

“Your image.”  Jeanne snorted in a sound of total exhaustion.  “I’d say you were a couple decades too late.  I waited thirteen years and seven months to tell you that.  Not sure why.  Just needed to be said, I guess.  Now it’s out, I feel kinda…free.  One of those things you get out on your deathbed, you know?  I guess I just want people to know I never liked the damn necklace, and I hated the scalps.  I just…  I dunno, Joel.  After you, I didn’t want anyone to get close.  Once was enough.”  Wordlessly, she pulled her gun from its holster and put the barrel into her mouth.

Joel’s eyes widened when he realized what she’d said and done.  “Jeanne, no!”

A moment later, Jeanne Ivory blew her own brains across the console of her ship.

CHAPTER 7: Alone in Silver City

Fortune's Folly

Independence Day, 17th of May, 3006

Silver City

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
Twenty Nephyrs!” Wideman Joe shouted into Patrick’s ear.

Patrick, who had fallen asleep on the couch babysitting Wideman in the hideout apartment in Silver City because Joel had scored another date with Jeanne and his brother was off having cyborg sex, sat bolt upright.  The motion spilled his tepid sweetpod tea over his lap—tea because the smell of coffee made Wideman randomly break out into screaming fits and try to carve holes in people and not vegetables.

“Agh!” Patrick cried, sloshing the tea off his pants.  “Dad, I told you not to yell in my ear when I’m sleeping!”  He was so tired of being the one who always got babysitting duties because everyone else had more important things to do, like have dinner and fornicate.

“Twenty Nephyrs!” Wideman screamed again at the top of his lungs.

Yeah, right.  Patrick sighed and dropped his head into his hands.

His father stopped screaming and, as if nothing had happened, began caressing his latest creation—a carrot—and giggled like a twelve-year-old with an action figure of a dragon-covered bad boy.  It was one of the games he liked to play, waking Patrick up in the worst possible way whenever he was trying to catch a nap, just to watch him jump.

Patrick sighed and went to find something to mop up the tea.  He hated the fact he was stuck babysitting his drooling, incontinent, gibberish-spouting imbecile of a father because Milar—and possibly Jeanne, if that blush on her face as she and Joel ditched Wideman on him was any indication—was busy getting laid.

What was it about a couple of fancy tattoos that got the girls’ attention, anyway?  Aside from the black and red dragons inked over about fifty percent of his twin brother, they looked identical.  Same rugged face, same amber eyes, same chiseled body, same auburn hair…  It was that damn knife, it had to be.  While Patrick liked to grin and flirt with girls, Milar liked to threaten them with monomolecular weaponry.  That had to be what was turning them on.  Whenever they holed up in one place long enough for Patrick to try to find a date for the night, he got turned down flat.  Yet, whenever Milar walked into a goddamn room, sporting sunglasses regardless of time or weather and pitch black garb that never changed, he had girls drape themselves on him, so many he had to shake them all off at the end of the day because he was ‘saving himself for something better.’  Which apparently meant a pint-sized cyborg with an attitude problem and headache-inducing mind powers.

Not that Patrick really wanted to jump back into the market—he was still trying to get over the fact that Anna and Milar had deliberately sabotaged his relationship with Anna’s big sister.  Magali had been everything he’d ever wanted in a girl.  She was innocent, smart, sexy, sensitive…  She’d put up with Anna for eight years, so she obviously had to be some sort of angel.  Hell, they’d been planning to move off-planet together.

But no.  She was dead, forgotten as some nameless egger in the Yolk mines, and Patrick couldn’t even go look for her body because he was busy making sure Wideman didn’t dig around in the composter or stick his dinner fork in the electrical socket.

Disgusted, Patrick finished mopping up the tea with an old shirt and tossed it into the laundry pile.  That was another thing they expected him to do.  Laundry.  While Jeanne and Milar were off cavorting, Patrick was supposed to wash their nasty underwear and bleach their discolored pits.

Wideman slapped his hand down on the table, palm-side down, startling Patrick out of his reverie.  “Twenty Nephyrs!” he said, focusing on Patrick with the total attention of a lunatic.

Patrick felt a little tingle of unease and went to the window of their safe-house in Silver City to check for Nephyrs.  Things had been real quiet after that weird riot earlier that morning, when crowds of people had been running, fully-armed, in the streets, heading towards the spaceport.  Patrick, alone with Wideman to keep tabs on, had simply barricaded the door and sat against the wall with a twelve-gauge, hoping whatever was going on in the west side of the city wouldn’t bleed over into this sector.

Though Patrick didn’t see any Nephyrs outside his window, everyone in the streets was armed, and a lot were getting drunk and cheering.

Nervous, now, Patrick switched on the feed. The first thing that came up was Joel’s ‘daring’ and ‘utterly miraculous’ fight over the Tear with that ‘unidentified soldier operator.’  Ground-based video of jaw-dropping aerial maneuvers showed again and again, with Joel’s TAG doing things that a ship shouldn’t be able to do, flying loops around the Bouncers and soldiers—supposedly the Coalition’s best.

Then the images of Joel’s dogfight cut out with a sudden, “—and it has been confirmed, folks.  The woman who single-handedly killed twenty Nephyrs in Silver City just liberated Yolk Factory 14.  Ladies and gentlemen, we have just confirmed—Yolk Factory 14 has been liberated!”

Patrick’s breath caught.  Instinctively upon hearing mention of Magali’s Yolk factory, he knew who had killed those Nephyrs.  Magali’s alive! he thought, on a wash of relief.  With it, however, came a sinking of dread, like a man looking at his own gravestone.  He knew that, for Magali to have done something so unlike her, something had to have gone very, very wrong.  She hated hurting people.  She couldn’t even stand the sight of a paper cut, much less a bullet wound.

When the scene on the news shifted to show an earlier-that-morning view of a massive crowd cheering in the west side of the city, Patrick swallowed, recognizing Magali detained by a Nephyr in the center of the mayhem.

…or was she?  He’d spent four years learning her subtlest body cues, and when Patrick looked closer, he realized she was clinging to the Nephyr not like a captive, but like a frightened lover.

“What.”  Patrick squinted at the picture.  “The fuck?”

Then the screen was showing a different scene, with dozens of eggers reuniting with their families.  Big smiles, tears, happy embraces…  No Magali.  The Nephyr, though…  He was everywhere, usually in the background, directing the survivors, apparently on the colonists’ side.

They were trusting a Nephyr?  Oh, that was just brilliant.  Was Milar seeing this?  And what had the glittering freak done to Magali to make her snap like that?

Patrick glanced again at Wideman, desperately wondering just how much shit the little old fart could get into if he went looking for Magali for a few hours.

Wideman cocked his head, scrunched his face with concentration, and peed himself.

In the background, the reporter went solemn.  “Ladies and gentlemen, we just got a report that the Nephyr we keep seeing at Magali Landborn’s side is Jersey Brackett, of the legendary Brackett clan in Six Bears, South Tear.  The sole survivor of the slaughter there twenty years ago.”

Patrick went cold.  Not only was he going to have trouble competing with the last surviving Brackett, he knew upon hearing his former girlfriend’s name on the waves that she was doomed.  With an assault so public, her picture brazenly posted before the masses as a hero, the authorities in Rath would send everything they had to bring her in for a public correction and execution.  Milar and Patrick’s tiny acts of sabotage and resistance were nuisances that could be overlooked.  This wasn’t.  This was war.

“Oh no, Magali,” Patrick whispered.  “They’re gonna kill you.”

His father tugged insistently at his sleeve, but Patrick ignored it.  He started to pace.  Magali was not only alive, doomed, and cuddling up to a Nephyr, but Patrick was trapped in Silver City with Wideman in the middle of an all-out rebellion.  Any minute now, the entire Coalition Space Force was going to level this place, and he didn’t even have a ship.  This was bad.  Really bad.  He went to the tiny portable comm system in the corner and, using the public Silver City booster, tried to call Jeanne.  She didn’t answer.

“Damn!” Patrick cried, watching more footage of gun-toting idiots cheering in the streets of Silver City, their excited masses apparently oblivious to the fact that operators were about to show up and crush them with their soldiers.  They thought they’d already won.  By killing twenty Nephyrs.  Aanaho, they were so screwed.

Patrick tried to call Jeanne again.  “Come on,” he muttered into the mic.  “Come on!  Shoot the skinny prick already and answer the comm!”


Patrick gave a frustrated scream.  Things were happening out there and he was chained to a demented egger.  He flipped the band to Milar’s link, knowing his brother wouldn’t be able to respond, but he needed to get out of there, and he needed to do it fast.  “Miles,” he said into the mic, “if you’re listening, you asshole, get to Silver City and pick me and dad up.  The shit is really clogging the engine intake, and things around here are about to get really nasty.”  Then he put down the comm a little too hard.

Wideman Joe insistently tugged his sleeve again, carrot clutched in one hand.

“Yes, I know you peed yourself,” Patrick snapped.  “Give me a minute to think!”

Magali was off running around with a Nephyr, painting a huge target on her back, Silver City was in open rebellion around him, and Patrick was completely without transport.  He really needed to get somewhere safe, and fast, before the cavalry arrived.

Wideman tugged his sleeve again, holding out the carrot.  “Skin!”

Patrick groaned and rolled his eyes.  “Goddamn it, Dad, we don’t have a peeler here.  We had to leave it in Deaddrunk, okay?  Just make do with the knife.”  He turned back to the problem at hand.

“Unofficial reports are saying Landborn and Bracket intend to hit more Yolk factories before the end of the week…”

“Oh, well, isn’t that just great?!” he shouted at the screen.  “Go ahead and tell the hornets you’re gonna kick their nest.  Genius!”  The fight was starting without him, and obviously this Brackett kid was working for the Coalition.  Starting a ‘rebellion’ so people could get their hopes up, only to undeniably squash it into oblivion before it gained any traction.  Like popping a pimple before it could fester.

Outside, people were howling and dancing in the streets.  A volley of gunfire went off, joined by others, muzzles aimed at the sky.

Patrick stomped over to the comm and picked it up again.  “Jeanne!” he shouted over the gunfire, leaving a message on her machine, “I don’t know if you’re watching the news while you’re getting distracted by that playboy bastard, but Silver City just declared war on the Coalition.  You hear me?  This place is going nuts!”

No response.

“Argh!” Patrick slammed the comm aside and started pacing again, checking his watch, desperate for Jeanne to come knocking on his door by nine o’clock, as promised.  He couldn’t leave without some sort of backup.  Wideman was too much of a loose cannon, and, in the right circles, too easily recognized.

Jeanne didn’t arrive by nine.  Not that night, not the next morning, not the morning after that.  As Nephyrs began to flood the streets, putting down the riots with brutal efficiency, Jeanne and Joel remained completely unresponsive to Patrick’s desperate hails.  Patrick waited for them to respond for two and a half days.  No one was dancing in the streets anymore, though there were plenty of corpses collecting tadflies—colonist corpses.  He hadn’t seen a single Nephyr go down.  When Patrick moved away from the window to watch another development on the waves—another Yolk factory overrun and more eggers reunited with their families, as well as a brief glimpse of Magali herself, being ushered onto a captured Coalition patrol ship by that same damned glittering Brackett—Wideman came up and tugged his sleeve again.

“I’m out of vegetables!” Patrick cried, nerves frayed to the very core.  A Nephyr squad had been going door-to-door across the street, confiscating colonist weaponry, and sooner or later, they were gonna get to Patrick.  Patrick had more guns than a Ne’vanthi smuggler packed away in the closet, and he knew that wasn’t gonna look good on a sweep.  He paced back to the window, peeling back just enough of the curtain to get a look at the Nephyrs even then standing outside the opposite door.

His dad waddled up and tugged on his sleeve again.  “Skin,” he insisted, shoving the carrot at him.

“Aanaho Ineriho!” Patrick cried, brushing it aside, heart hammering as he tried to decide what to do.  Moving Wideman usually involved Wideman screaming and flailing and making a scene.  When Wideman insisted on shoving the carrot at him again, Patrick forcefully turned him around and pointed him back to his carving corner.  “Go carve the other side.  I’m busy!”  One of the Nephyrs was crossing the street, eying the common door three stories down.  “Damn,” Patrick muttered.  “Damn, damn.”

But instead of making him back off, like his rebuffs usually did, Wideman Joe turned back, grabbed Patrick by the hand, and insistently dropped into his palm a peeled, chewed-up carrot.  As soon as it touched Patrick’s skin, a vivid image formed, wriggling through Patrick’s mind like maggots.

He saw a big man skinned on a Coalition table, Nephyrs moving in the background.  Cameras everywhere, big viewing windows on all sides.  An IV line in arm and leg.  Restraints.  The unfortunate person’s skin was hanging from a rack a few feet away, stretched like a starlope hide, left to dry, doubtless to be made into some grisly Nephyr cape.  Then the image moved, zooming in on the skin of the man’s face, on the freckles, the curly auburn hair…

Back on the table, the man regained consciousness and gave a ragged scream.

“Oh, lookie,” one of the Nephyrs said.  “He’s awake again.  Told you that serum doesn’t let you pass out for long.  Now.”  He picked up a strip of wood and slapped it gently against his palm.  “What did you say your brother’s real name was?”

“Milar,” the man on the table croaked out.

Patrick dropped the carrot and backed away, heart thundering completely out of control.  Below, the Nephyr pounded on the downstairs door, its fist like heavy glass thumping against the starwood frame.

A moment later, a sharp pain in his hip made him look down.  The feathery puff of a little red dart stuck from his thigh.  Blinking, Patrick looked up and saw a feminine shadow moving at the window he had just vacated before he felt his legs weaken beneath him.  He slumped to the ground, his father’s screaming becoming faint, distant…

CHAPTER 8: Friendly Assessments

Fortune's Folly

18th of May, 3006

Interstellar Courier Ship

Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
Anna glanced around the ship, sniffing with boredom.  She would have much rather spent the afternoon watching the latest developments of the Revolution from the privacy of her hastily-evacuated section of the Orbital’s Junkyard, but she’d gotten word that the Coalition was panicking due to Magali’s antics and had gathered up all of its ‘unique’ draftees to ship off to the Nephyr Academy before they could get ‘reacquired’ by colonist forces.

The haste with which the coalers had decided to relocate this particular shipment had piqued Anna’s interest enough to show up for departure—they obviously thought they had a couple Yolk Babies on board.  So far, however, all she saw were a bunch of bawling idiots who couldn’t stuff two whole brain cells in a burlap sack without rendering themselves drooling half-wits in the process.  She yawned, and would have gone back to the Orbital and her Yolk-addiction experiments had the ship not already been en route to the Core, which made things inconvenient.

“Line up!” a Ferris shouted into the room.  “Stasis procedures will begin in two minutes.  We will call each draftee by name.  When you are called, you will remove your clothes and follow your escort into the cryogenic prep station.”

Anna yawned again.  Damn she was tired.  Having to get up in the middle of the night to catch a flight sucked.  She’d almost skipped it.

The robots forced their draftees into a semblance of a line, with Anna close to the rear.  She checked her r-player, then executed her pre-made program to hack the ship’s navigation system.

“Hey, why does she get an r-player?” one of the draftees whined loudly, a big hairy kid that made a face at her.

Scratch the Sasquatch, Anna thought.  She smiled at him.  “I’ve got a special mandate.”

Towards the front of the line, the robots took their first victim, who began to scream and thrash as they dragged her into the room, where her howls continued.

What special mandate?” the Sasquatch snapped.  Loudly, he demanded of Dobie, “Hey, Ferris, why are you letting her have an r-player?”

Several other robots turned to look at Anna’s r-player, then at Dobie.  In the background, the girl they were prepping for cryo continued to scream and curse.

“Article Seventeen A of the Unwilling Draftee Act specifically forbids the use of personal electronics by special candidates,” the closest robot reminded Dobie.

“I hacked him,” Anna said.  She smiled brightly.

The other robots in the room gave her a curious look.  “Government robots cannot be hacked,” the closest robot responded.  As if she had forgotten.

“Uh-huh.  Yep.”  She went back to her r-player and began tinkering with the ship’s flight plan.  In the cryo prep room, the girl was screaming for her mommy.  The other kids in the line, however, were giving her odd looks.  Anna yawned again.  “Jeez it’s late.  Why do you guys insist on chartering the flights in the middle of the night?”

“The zero hour is the traditional departure time for long-distance government flights, Overlord,” Dobie said.

“Holy shit,” one of the kids closest to Anna said.  Several more jaws fell open.

The girl in the cryo room stopped screaming, obviously having been given a knockout drug to shut her up.

The robots in line turned back to stare straight ahead.

“Kay McClellan!” the robot in charge shouted.  “You’re next!”

A spindly, waiflike, blonde girl stepped out of line, swallowing as she looked around at the dispassionate robot faces.  When nobody moved to help her, she reached for her pants, shaking.

“Hey!” Sasquatch shouted at Anna from three draftees down.  “Did you really hack that robot?”

Kay McClellan, who was getting undressed, hesitated and glanced down the line at them.

Anna sighed and rolled her eyes.

“He’s bringing unwanted attention, Overlord,” Dobie said.  “Would you like me to neutralize him?”

“Nah,” Anna said, without looking up.  She kept tapping at her r-player.  “Lessee.  Where do we wanna go?  I was thinking back to the Orbital, but I could so go for a cheeseburger, and there’s this awesome cheeseburger joint in Silver City.”

Several of the kids’ eyes widened.

One of the nearest robots cocked its head at her and said, “Draftee, you are headed to Eoirus, five years from here.  You will not have access to a cheeseburger until you pass through the Nephyr Academy and are granted a leave of absence.”

“And that,” Anna said, tapping a final command and then shoving her r-player into her pocket with a smile, “is where you’re wrong, bolthead.  Dobie, if you would?”  She jerked the hand cuffed to him impatiently.

Doberman obediently released her wrist from the cuff, and Anna tossed it aside.  As the entire room watched in stunned silence, she wandered over to a corner and sat down on a crate of engineering supplies.  When she was settled, she gestured at her robot impatiently.  “Well, go on.”

Doberman immediately threw open his gun compartments and blew every other robot in the room away.  It took six and a half whole seconds.  Anna frowned at the excess.  They’d definitely have to work on that.

All around the ship, kids began screaming as their robots exploded or evaporated beside them, the remnants of their metal bodies dropping, dripping, or drifting to the floor, their disembodied arms heavy enough that they took most of the kids to their knees with them.

“Release them from the cuffs,” Anna said, yawning again.  “I want their attention for this.”

“Of course, Overlord,” Dobie said.  He went down the line and released each child from the draftee cuff that had held them to their escorts.  While he was wasting her time doing that, Anna went back to her r-player and continued researching the potential of creating plant-derived Yolk components from bioengineered legumes, namely fava beans due to their spectacular growth rates.  She was several minutes into her work when she realized everyone in the room was standing and staring at her.

“Ah!”  She grinned and tucked her r-player away again, then jumped to her feet.  “Greetings, fellow ex-Nephyr draftees!”

Utter silence filled the transport ship as Anna paced briskly to the front of the group of kids in the cargo bay, hands clasped behind her back.  Doberman stood off to the side, locking the cannons back into his forearms, watching the scene indifferently.  The ship began to hum with pressure around them as its autopilot rerouted them, currently doing a big loop and taking them to the Silver City instead of the Core.  She really did want that hamburger.

“As you’ve probably noticed,” Anna said to her new minions, “you are not skinless ice-cubes hurtling towards the Inner Bounds, and your former escorts are now dismantled pieces of space-junk.  Some of you are probably wondering why.”

She saw flickers of curiosity across their faces, but none of them asked.  Good.

Anna smiled at them.  “Glad you asked.  For the duration of this meeting, I’m your new Evil Overlord, and this is my pet robot, Dobie.  We’ve come to the decision that sending our best and brightest off to the Nephyr Academy is counter-productive for the future of Fortune, so we’ve commandeered your shuttle.  If you please me, some of you will get offered a job.  If you don’t…”  Anna shrugged.  “You’ll go home and forget this ever happened.”  She waved a dismissive hand.  “Make babies, spread the genetics, that sort of thing.”

“Evil Overlord,” Sasquatch scoffed.  “Riiiight.  What are you, like six?”

Anna stopped and gave him an irritated stare.  “Dobie, how old am I?”

“You are nine, Overlord,” Doberman said obediently.  They had agreed not to use her real name at the outset of their mission, and Anna loved the ring it had coming in the form of a robot’s matter-of-fact reply.

“But I thought that government robots couldn’t be hacked,” the kid said, blinking up at Dobie.

Anna sighed, deeply.  “They can’t.  Dobie, send the primate back home to his mommy.  He’s obviously outta his league.”  With a swiftness that delighted her, Doberman stepped forward, grabbed the kid, who screamed and struggled, shocked him senseless, then administered a forgetfulness serum mixed with a bit of long-term knockout drug, and dragged him off to the corner she’d just vacated, where the kid slumped against the wall and started to drool.  One down.  Twenty-five to go, minus the one drugged up in cryo.  Anna scanned the remainder.  “Any other stupid questions?”

Most of the kids started to babble and step backwards in obvious terror, but there were a handful that stood their ground.  A fat little pumpkin of a girl and a twiggy boy with long ice-blond hair tied at the nape of his neck, for instance, just watched her as placidly as if they were all sitting around at a tea party.

“All right,” Anna said, clapping her hands together.  “Dobie is going to start asking you each a series of increasingly more difficult questions to determine just how useful you are to us when we decide to take Rath and kick the coalers off our planet.  If you fail more than six questions or if your overall score displeases me, you join that idiot over there and forget this conversation ever took place.”  She gestured to the drooling Sasquatch, then motioned to the closest kid.  “It’s all pretty basic stuff.  Go ahead, Dobie.”

The first kid peed himself and started stuttering so badly he couldn’t answer Dobie’s questions, and he got added to the corner.  Kay McClellan and two other girls passed, though barely.  Then a fourth girl failed.  “Aren’t you going to tell me what I got wrong?” the girl sobbed, when Anna shook her head a seventh time and gestured for Dobie.

Anna laughed.  “This is a test, not a learning experience, dipshit.  Dobie, get rid of her.”  The fifth girl likewise failed.  “He said cubed, not squared, Aanaho Ineriho!” Anna cried.  She yawned and sat down with her r-player in disgust, only half-listening to the rest.

Most missed seven of Dobie’s questions, or couldn’t list all of the timed examples required of them, or were too frazzled to do the mental math.  Those were all added to the pile.  Pumpkin-girl, however, only missed two.

“Keep her!” Anna called over the sound of her heavy metal, not even looking up from her r-player.  Even a tubblet could be useful, if she didn’t have to run from anything.

The whole room went silent, however, when the robot reached the twiggy blond and, instead of answering Dobie’s first question, he gave Anna a really long look and said, “You’re shorter than I thought you’d be.”

Anna frowned and glanced up from her device.  When she saw Dobie waiting for her response, she snorted dismissively.  “That counts as a failed question.”  She cranked up the volume and waved Dobie on.

Dobie asked another, this one a chemistry question.

The blond smiled.  “I always thought strawberry soda reacted unfavorably to hydrochloric acid.  Too much gas.”

Anna froze.  Very slowly, she lowered her volume, then scowled at the kid.  “Another fail,” she told Dobie, glaring at the kid.  “Ask him something else.”  To the blond, she said, “You better answer his questions.  You only get four more fails, and he’s got some doozies.”

The blond just gave her a placid grin.

This time, Dobie gave the kid a logic problem.

“Funny way to die, killing yourself on a nugget of silver,” the boy replied.

Anna set her r-player down and got up to scowl at the kid.  “Three more fails.”

He just grinned at her.

Dobie asked about botany.

“A vegetable that carves on veggies.  Some would call that a horrible waste of food.”

Anna fisted her hands and walked up to peer at him, eye-to-eye.  “Two more fails.”

Doberman hesitated, watching the two of them.  “He doesn’t seem to be responding to my questions, Overlord.  At his current rate, I would not expect him to pass.  Would you like me to administer the serum?”

“Overlord, huh?” the kid said.  “I would’ve gone with something like Maximus or Daimyo or Khan or Fuhrer.  Or, hell, just Boss.  Overlord is kinda corny.”

Continue, Dobie,” Anna growled, without taking her eyes off the kid’s smug face.

Doberman shrugged and offered him a pattern recognition problem.

“Hmm, let’s see,” the kid said, still grinning at her.  “Little Anna Never Diddles Batteries Or Rusty Nails.”

Anna scowled.  Getting close enough that their faces almost touched, she said, “One more fail.”

Doberman asked about dermatology.

“Always wondered what it’d be like to stitch someone’s skin back on,” the kid replied.  “Hiding the scars must be difficult.”

Leaning in close, Anna said, “You’re all out.”

The kid grinned.  “Oops.”

Anna narrowed her eyes.  “Keep going, Dobie.”

Doberman asked, “Add all the integers one through one hundred.”

“Five thousand fifty,” the blond replied, in less than a second, without taking his eyes from Anna.

“Give him something harder,” Anna growled.  “That was just trivia.”

Doberman said, “A Shrieker, a starlope, and a goat shared a stable and two feed bags. Their feeding conditions were thus:  One:  If the Shrieker ate oats, then the starlope ate what the goat ate.  Two:  If the starlope ate oats, then the Shrieker ate what the goat did not eat.  Three:  If the goat ate hay, then the Shrieker ate what the starlope ate.  Which of the animals always ate from the same feed bag, and which bag was it?”

Without missing a beat, the blond said easily, “Aside from the fact that hay is not stored in a bag and starlopes have a chemical intolerance to the gluten in the seeds of some terragen grasses that will kill them within thirteen hours of ingestion, it would be the Shrieker always eating hay.”  His grin widened.  “That all ya got?”

Harder!” Anna snapped.  She barely noticed Doberman glance between the two of them out of the corner of her eye.  He was toying with her.  She was so angry she was seeing red.

The kid then proceeded to answer every following question correctly, taking only a fraction of a second to form his response, sometimes even answering before Dobie finished his question.  Anna watched him the whole time, face-to-face, surveying the smooth workings of his mind as he stared back at her, unflinching.

“So,” the boy said, when Dobie finished.  He still had that idiotic grin plastered over his face, and he hadn’t backed down from Anna’s stare.  Looking her up and down, appearing as if he were thoroughly enjoying himself, he said, “Did I pass, Boss?”

“Judging by his responses, Overlord, I would put his score at—” Doberman began.

“I know what he scored,” Anna interrupted.  “Dobie, how did this kid get in here?”

“The ship computer has no records on him, Overlord, and he was not being escorted by a Gryphon or a Ferris.”

That just made her madder.  “What the hell is his name?”

“I’m not aware of that information, Overlord.  His facial structure has no matches above eighty-five percent.”

There was always a match above eighty-five percent.

The kid continued to grin at her.  “You like sweets, Anna?”

“What the hell is your name?” Anna demanded, a fraction of an inch from his face.

“How about candy corn?”

Anna felt a cold sweat rush over her and her heart stuttered a bit.

The blond kid’s grin widened.  “Thought so.”  He cocked his head at her.  “How about we go kick these bastards off our planet, eh?”

Regaining some of her composure, Anna growled, “BriarRabbit.”

He inclined his head minutely.

Immediately, the pumpkin waddled over and said, “You’re BriarRabbit?  And you’re CandyCorn?”

Anna glanced at the pumpkin.  “Who the hell are you?”

“SexGoddess,” the fatso said.

Anna scoffed, looking her up and down.  “Sure you are.”  She had thought SexGoddess had been compensating for something.

The fatso gave her a flat fatso stare.  “And the two questions I missed were four million, six hundred thirty thousand forty-two point eight-nine-five and the black pony.”  She glanced at the blond.  “Forgive me if I’m wrong, but aren’t you the two instigating the rebellion?”

Anna snorted derisively.  “Rebellion?  How could kids be instigating a rebellion?”

“I want in,” the pumpkin said.  “Nephyrs killed my mom and sisters six nights ago when they came to get me.  I’ve got a brother in the mountains who also had in-utero Yolk and I know how to contact Everywhere666 and BabyDoomsday.  I think we could get MadMorga and FlameOn easy enough—they’re both in Silver City somewhere.”

Anna felt a slow, predatory smile cross her lips as she looked at the tubblet with new respect.  “Oh, this is gonna be fun.”

CHAPTER 9: Dragonfly

Fortune's Folly

18th of May, 3006

South Tear

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly

Magali was staring at the ceiling of the ship, the same place she’d been staring for hours.


She didn’t hear it.  Not really.  She knew someone was calling her, but she had neither the will nor the desire to care.

Fingers were snapping in front of her face.  Glassy fingers, glittering gold in the harsh light.  Fingers that enjoyed blood, relished pain.  “Mag, please come back, Mag.”

Killer, Magali thought, as she’d thought for hours.  She danced with it, spun with it, sank with it, soared with it, finally giving in to its seductive pull.  Killer, killer, killer, killer…

“I need you, Mag.”

Everything else was gone.  Her dreams gone.  Her hopes gone.  Everything gone but that one, single word.  The word she could never escape, because she was the word.


“Please don’t go.”  It was almost a whimper, the sound of a pained and dying thing.  “Please don’t leave me.”

Magali almost recognized the voice, almost.  Then she went back to her dance.  Killer, killer, killer…

Fortune's Folly
Because Magali hadn’t even blinked in an hour, totally unresponsive to his voice or gestures, and because he had nothing left in the world except for the guardian angel who’d finally freed him from his nightmare, Jersey broke down and pulled her into his arms.

Sacrifice a queen…

“Mag,” he whispered, pressing his lips against her scalp.  “I’m so sorry.”

She didn’t even flinch when he touched her, which made his feeling of dread only grow stronger.  He’d seen this look before, at the Nephyr Academy.  In some recruits, the psychological conditioning had been too much and, instead of bending to the will of their instructors, they’d simply departed.  Their bodies still ate and drank and sometimes even did pushups when they were told, but nothing—not pain, not guilt, not even the desperate pleas of family—could bring them back once they passed over that brink.  It was usually the soft-hearted ones, the ones who could not adapt, the ones who let go under the pressure, who lost themselves completely.

Like eggers with the Wide, the Nephyrs never sent them home, but kept them around to wander the Academy as a warning.  Like eggers, they usually died of starvation.  They forgot to eat, forgot to sleep, eventually forgot to breathe.

And it was happening to the innocent who had saved him.  He could see it in her dilated eyes, the fact she didn’t even notice it was a Nephyr who held her, the way her limp body hung in his arms like warm, lifeless meat.

“Magali, please don’t go,” he whispered, tears stinging his eyes.  “I just found you.”  She was his lifeline.  She was his anchor.  She was his only link to humanity, and she was slipping through his fingers.

He couldn’t keep the anguish from his voice.  “I can’t do it alone.”  He suddenly found he didn’t care about the Revolution, or the rebels, or Fortune.  He simply couldn’t face the fear of being alone again, of not having someone to talk to as the world frowned at him and judged him for a choice he never made.  He’d managed to pull through the hatred and solitude on the hope that, one day, he would find someone who could help him.

He’d finally found her…and he’d thrown her to the pyre.

Jersey felt himself shaking with the thought of facing the world without that anchor, to be nothing but a monster again.  He lowered his chin to her scalp—still clumpy with dried Shrieker slime because she hadn’t wanted to take a shower with him in the next room—and closed his eyes, wishing he could rewrite the last few hours, wishing he had listened to his heart rather than his head.  More than anything, he wished he had taken her someplace safe rather than trying to use the momentum they had generated in Silver City to start a snowballing effect and throw the Coalition off their planet.

“I’m sorry, Mag,” Jersey said.  “I won’t make you fight again,” he whispered.

She didn’t respond to that.  Didn’t respond to anything.  Jersey began to wonder if she could hear him at all.

Finally, unable to take that dead stare any longer, Jersey set her down on the floor of the ship and got to his feet.  His knees felt weak.  He was having trouble seeing, breathing.  The simple knowledge of how badly he’d failed her was like a molten spear slowly working its way through his chest.  He’d known what she’d been through.  He’d known what had happened to her on that cliff.  And yet, he’d pushed her not only in Silver City, but then again at Yolk Factory 14.

He’d pushed her, and she’d snapped.

He’d pushed her because he was thinking about how badly he wanted the Coalition to burn for what they’d done to him.  He’d pushed her because he wanted to see more Nephyr bodies littering the streets.  Because he wanted to see Rath and Glassburg burn.  Because he wanted to blow up the Orbital and nuke every Coalition ship that came into their airspace.

He’d done it out of a desire for revenge.

Revenge for what he’d lost, totally oblivious to what he’d gained.

It was the hardest thing for him to face, the knowledge that he might have destroyed the only person who had ever shown an interest in helping him get free of the constant, daily terror in the Nephyrs because of his need for revenge.  After years of systematic psychological torture, years of weathering every form of abuse, it almost broke him to realize the only one with a heart kind enough to help him lay there, broken, because of something he had done.

Jersey left her in the hold and went to the comm system.  His hands shook as he picked the handset up, intending to call a doctor.  When he pushed the SEND button, however, he just stood there in mute horror, knowing that no doctor in the world would ever bring her back.

Rebel One, this is Rebel Six.  We’ve got your comm online, but nothing coming over the waves.  Might wanna check your equipment.”

Jersey swallowed, tears burning down his face.  He didn’t care about the rebels anymore.  He didn’t care about anything but his lifeline that was dying on the floor.  “Hey,” he croaked, “Mag and I are gonna go take a breather.  We’ll meet up with you again in twenty-two to forty-four hours.”

There was an awkward pause over the comm, then, “You’re leaving us?”

Again, Jersey’s heart warred with his intellect.  The chessmaster in him knew, strategically, that they should press their advantage while the Coalition was off-balance.  He knew they needed to take Rath, and that they needed to do it soon, or Fortune was about to lose the only glimpse at freedom it had had in forty years.  He knew that to fail in making a big win now would be a blow Fortune would never recover from.  He also knew Magali was slipping away, and if he tried to put her in front of a crowd again, he would never get her back.

“Even a Killer needs to get some sleep,” Jersey said as casually as he could into the comm.  “We’ll regroup when she’s had some sleep.”

“Yeah, man, okay,” the pilot over the comm said, though he still sounded uncertain.  “What are we supposed to do in the meantime?

It was a good question.  The obvious thing to do was to keep taking Yolk factories until they had built up enough confidence and support in the populace that they had enough numbers so they could actually afford an assault on Rath.

His heart, however, screamed the opposite.  He wanted a normal life, wanted to be human again.  But he also needed to have a safe place to do that.  If he ended it and they ran now, the Coalition would come back in force and destroy everyone.  If he didn’t, Magali was going to lose herself.

“Go recruiting,” Jersey said, trying to buy them some time.  “Tell everyone you know we’re finally taking back what’s ours.  Tell your brothers, your aunts, tell your neighbor’s little sister.  Spread the word—we’re gonna win.  When everybody’s had some sleep, we’ll contact you again with our next rendezvous.”

“You got it,” the pilot, a freighter captain named Drogire Myr, said, sounding much more confident, now.  “See you guys in a couple days.”

If we decide to come back.  Heart pounding, Jersey set the comm and glanced back down the hallway into the cargo bay where Magali was still laying where he’d left her against the wall, head cocked to one side, mouth open, eyes blank and staring.  Her lips were moving.

Killer.  Jersey’s heart skipped, seeing her mouth the word again.  It was the same thing she had been saying for hours.

He had to help her.  He had to help her now.  Which meant he needed to get her somewhere familiar, somewhere that didn’t remind her of death and murder.  Somewhere with no prying eyes.  Somewhere safe.

Jersey thought of his childhood sanctuary, almost two hours away.  He wasn’t sure she would last that long…

He couldn’t, however, think of anywhere else to take her.  He hadn’t been free to explore Fortune since he was sixteen.

He went and crouched beside her.  “Hold on, Mag,” he said.  “I’m taking us to a place I know.  It’ll be safe there.  Okay?”

Her eyes flickered toward him slightly, but then unfocused again, her lips still forming that single word, over and over.

That decided him.  Jersey got up, got the ship turned around, and set the autopilot toward the South Tear, still having the coordinates in memory.  Then, once his course was set, he went back to once again pull Magali’s limp form into his arms.  “Come on, Mag.  Stay with me.  We’re almost there.  Almost there…”

Fortune's Folly
Thought flowed around her like lazy wisps of smoke, disappearing whenever she reached for it.  It felt like she was drifting, rising, pulling further and further away from something she no longer remembered.

“We’re here, Mag!  Just hold on while I set up the camouflage and open the hatch.”

Something moved under her and her vision changed, tilted to the side, now, slightly blocked by a floor or wall—she didn’t care enough to try to determine which.

Sometime later, the voice returned.  Hard, heavy arms slid under her body, pulling her from the floor.  “I used to come up here when I needed to get away from my brothers,” the voice said.  “There were five of us at home, plus two girls, plus Mom and Dad, Nana, Grampa Jim and the uncles and all their sons and daughters and grandchildren whenever they came over—place got pretty crowded.”  There was a hesitation, then, “See the hills up there?  There’s a really old lava flow from like sixteen thousand years ago.  Hot mineral water boils up from the ground like a mile away, and it’s still hot when it reaches the falls up ahead.  Dad almost turned it into his homestead, but Mom liked the lake in South Tear better, ’cause it had fish and was closer to the rest of the family.  When I was a kid, I figured I’d make my homestead here, once I found a wife and settled down.”

Magali thought about how she’d always wanted to live at one of the Tear’s many hot springs when she and Patrick were first making their plans to escape Fortune, but then had decided on Mezzan to make sure her father and his war couldn’t follow her.

“Is Steele up there?” Magali whispered, seeing a cliff, wondering if he was going to put her back there for a Nephyr to find.

“No, Mag,” the man whispered.  “You’ll get some rest, that’s all.”

Magali considered how hard it was to sleep on the edge of a cliff as she started drifting again.

Fortune's Folly
He was losing her.  His angel, his beacon in the darkness, his hope, was a shattered mess in his arms because he had forced her to keep going when she didn’t want to.  Out of selfishness, out of anger and greed, he had pushed her over the edge.

Sacrifice a queen…

…for a checkmate.

His sanctuary, Jersey realized, was going to be his tomb.

After everything that he’d done, all the horrible acts he’d committed in order to survive, that he had pushed Magali Landborn over the edge was too much.  Jersey’s chest ached with the guilt, and, like acid, it had dissolved a hole through the old barrier he’d put up against the shame of what he had done to stay alive.  He was just as much of a monster as the rest of them, he knew it as much as he knew he no longer deserved to breathe.

If he could get her to wake, if he could get her aware again, he would make sure she survived long enough to be safe, then he would simply disappear.  She didn’t deserve the burden of a monster’s presence.

“Almost there, Mag,” he whispered.  He ducked into a tunnel left by molten rock, still climbing, his heart heavier than it had ever been.

His one chance at redemption, and he’d destroyed it.  Crushed it.  Stamped it out as viciously as he had obliterated so many other things of beauty in his life.  Destroyed that one thing of beauty, that tiny glimmer of hope, in the name of revenge.

For over a decade, he had clung to sanity by hope alone.  Hope of rescue, hope of companionship, hope for acceptance.  And then, after a gift from the Cosmos had offered him an anchor against the horrors and his hopes had started to become reality, he’d intentionally pushed her over the edge.  Knowing the unforgiveable nature of what he had done, Jersey felt himself losing that tentative hold of his own sanity.

“Stay with me, Mag,” Jersey said.  “Please.  You’ll like this place”

His sanctuary was at the top of the lava-tube, a recessed bubble-like room beside a waterfall that opened up where several tubes had broken open and shifted in a violent earthquake, only to have the flow disappear inside another tube and fall back into the earth.  The waterfall’s basin was one of the many hardened magma-bubbles, and the rock walls were glittering with blue-green crystals that had formed from years of mineral-rich water spraying from the falls—one of the many things Fortune could have harvested and sold, had Yolk not been discovered.  In his youth, ever since his dad had shown him the lava tubes, it had been Jersey’s place of refuge, of solace.  It had always felt important to him, a place he could go to be alone and recharge.

“Come on, Mag,” Jersey said, ducking into his magma-bubble sanctuary.  “I used this place to draw.  You’re safe in here.”

The magma-room, like the rock beside the falls, had developed blue-green crystals along the ceiling and a crack in the wall, bristling down to a large outcropping in the floor.  Set upon the tips of the four biggest crystals of that outcropping was an ancient piece of plywood that Jersey had used as his drawing table, and beside that, a rough stool he had made himself.  Jersey’s last piece of art, left only half-finished on the age-bubbled wood, lay forgotten beside a set of pencils, all now darkened and moldy from the passage of time and the damp from the waterfall.  He ignored it all and rushed Magali over to the back of the room, where a nylon hammock still hung between two crystals.

“I used to sleep here,” Jersey said as he lowered her into its folds.  She gave no indication she’d heard him at all, so he sat down beside her, trying to keep talking, keep her focused.  “Sometimes I just wanted to spend a little time alone, but sometimes I got stuck.  My uncle’s skimmer wasn’t that dependable, and the instruments sucked.  You know, bad weather, couple times the engine broke down and I’d have to wait for Dad to come rescue me.”

Magali’s breath hitched.  “Dad,” she whispered.

Thinking she wanted to talk about her dad, to anchor herself with memories, Jersey quickly offered, “He was tall.  Really good looking guy.  Blue eyes.  Blond hair.”

No.”  Magali sat up so suddenly that Jersey’s auto-sentry systems engaged and he felt the spasm of juice in preparation for a fight.  He quickly relaxed, forcing the system to disengage, hoping she hadn’t caught it.

She hadn’t.  Her eyes were still unfocused.  “He is short.  And he is brown-eyed and black haired.”

Jersey honestly didn’t know what to say to that.  David Landborn was almost as tall as Runaway Joel, with stark blue eyes and blond hair he liked to keep buzzcut short.

Then Magali was lying back down, relaxing again.

“Tell me about him!” Jersey cried, coming to her side and taking her hand.  “Tell me about your dad, Mag.  Tell me everything you remember about him.”

She ignored him completely.

Desperate for something, anything to stop that downward slide into oblivion, Jersey just started talking, giving her something to listen to, to anchor her.  “I was a weird kid,” he said, leaning forward to watch her eyes for any hint of recognition.  “I always felt like I was a piece of a puzzle, but I got put in the wrong box.  I drew these weird drawings all the time—like crazy stuff—mind-bending stuff.  I don’t even know how I did it.  One line just became another, then another, then boom, there were these pictures inside a picture within a picture.  My dad and your dad thought it meant I was a Yolk baby, but I dunno.  I think I was just different.”

Magali seemed to be zoning out again.  He saw her lips start to move again.  He heard a soft, “Killer, killer, killer.”

Hearing those words again, knowing they came from such an innocent, Jersey felt a surge of fury inside.

“You’re not!” Jersey roared, slamming his fist into a crystal by his elbow, making it shatter into a thousand blue-green pieces as his rage flowed out, reengaging systems, threatening to overpower him.

Magali blinked at his fist like she was seeing it for the first time.

“You’re not a killer,” Jersey growled, as the glittering pieces tinkled away from him.  He hit himself in the chest with a thumb.  “I am.  I’ve done horrible things, Mag.  Things that will stay with me forever.  I can try for the rest of my life to wash that rot away, but it’s always going to be there, eating me alive.  You had no choice, Mag.  You did what you were forced to do.  You’re so much more.  You’re beautiful.  Clean inside, Mag.  You don’t have that rot within you.  I do.”

Magali slowly lifted her head to look at him.

“So I swear to Aanaho,” Jersey growled, his chest heating, “if I hear you say it again, I’m gonna hunt down whoever put it in your head and eviscerate them, then drop their severed head at your feet.  That’s a Killer, Mag.  And that’s what I can do, and have done, in the past.  You call anyone a killer, say it to someone who deserves it.”

She seemed to be listening.  Partially.

“Your dad said it best,” Jersey growled.  “You’re the sum of your choices, Mag.  You didn’t choose what happened to you—all you can do is choose what to do from here.  You don’t wanna be a Killer?  Then don’t.  You have the power, Mag.  People aren’t just little leaves adrift on a great big ocean—they’ve all got little mice paddling them where they wanna go.”

Magali focused on him a couple minutes more, then silently turned back to look at the wall.

Frustrated, Jersey looked around his sanctuary for some other distraction.

There was a chessboard on a tripod in the corner, still set up exactly the way he’d left it, halfway through an ancient masters’ game.  Beside that, a kerosene lamp with a cracked glass chimney sat against the wall, a bottle with five spare matches still sealed beside it.  Maybe he could light one of the matches, use the light to draw her back…

As he was passing the sixteen mildewed, dust-covered books along one wall—books on art and philosophy from his father and books on chess from David Landborn—he hesitated.  He grabbed one of the books on chess.  “You remember chess?” he asked, shoving the book in her field of vision.  “Your dad taught me how to play chess, if you wanna play.”

Immediately, Magali’s face darkened and she turned her head away.  “Don’t like chess.”

Like combat and weapons-training, chess had been one of the things her father had forced on all his recruits, and like Jersey, it was pretty clear she had resented it.  He scanned the room desperately for some other item that David had given him.

Tucked between two crystals beside Magali’s hammock was a tiny wooden box.  A calligraphic character in a language he didn’t recognize had been inlaid into the box’s top, and inside was the one thing that David Landborn had ever given him—an old Aashaanti necklace.  David had said that a friend of his had found it during the Triton Wars, and that it had once belonged to an Aashaanti archon.

Jersey quickly grabbed the box from its niche of crystals to reveal the object inside.

Magali must have seen the wooden character carved into the lid, because her head turned to follow it.  “Dragonfly,” she whispered, starting to sit up.  There was an odd sense of longing there.

Jersey, who was fumbling for the object inside, hesitated, uncertain what a dragonfly was.  An airborne pest?  The hieroglyph necklace inside did look kind of like it had wings…

And not only had Magali turned toward the box, but her eyes were focused again.

Very slowly, Jersey closed the lid and held it out to her, showing her the front.  “Your dad gave me this.  I don’t know what the character on the box says…I think it might be Old Japani.”

“It says dragonfly.”  She was blinking at the box, tears suddenly welling in her eyes.

Jersey didn’t bother mentioning that Old Japani was a dead language, banned since the Triton Wars, and she couldn’t possibly read it.

“Dragonfly,” she whispered again.  “Dad.”  She reached out for the container gingerly, and Jersey let her have it.  Her fingers whitened in a fist around the wooden cube.

“Open it,” Jersey offered.  “There’s an Aashaanti necklace inside.”

Ignoring him, Magali peered down at the thing in her hands in silence.  He watched her tears drip on the ancient wood.

“David gave it to me the first time Milar actually won a game of chess against me.  I mean, for months, I don’t think he won a single game.  He was going to give up, because our dads were making us and neither of us wanted to do it.  I was sometimes even mean to Miles about it, like he was supposed to be a Yolk Baby, you know?  I know it made him feel so stupid.  Milar told his mom he didn’t wanna go anymore, and the next day, David showed up with that, and—”

“No,” she interrupted, scowling at him like he was lying to her.  “This was Dad’s.”

Jersey hesitated.  “Yeah.  Your dad’s.  I said that.”

Magali glared at him, then turned away again.

“He told me I could have it if I taught Milar chess.  He said it was very old and very important, and only a master strategian should carry it.  He said sometimes even the most brilliant minds have to realize they have more to gain from a loss than from a win.”  Jersey felt bad, remembering.  “So I threw the next game, not because I was worried about Milar’s confidence, but because I wanted the artifact.  But the joke was on me—that win was what Milar needed to take interest and start playing for keeps, and I actually had to start fighting for every game.  David Landborn put that necklace in my hand when Milar finally beat me for real.”  Jersey picked at a crack in the floor beside his knee, feeling disgusted with himself.  “Master strategist.”  He snorted.  “A few weeks after Landborn gave that to me, I got both Milar and me taken by the Nephyrs.”  He shook his head.  “It’s yours if you want it.”

“Goodbye, Dragonfly,” Magali whispered.  Then her fingers tightened on the box, harder and harder, until Jersey heard the wood splinter.  Then Magali screamed and hurled the remains across the room.

The black Aashaanti hieroglyph pendant bounced against the wall and skittered across the floor.

As soon as it slid into sight, Magali stiffened like she’d been hit.

Because Jersey was desperate to keep her from slipping back out of sight after she’d crawled this far out of the brink, he quickly went to retrieve the necklace from the wood splinters.

The Aashaanti necklace was rather plain—a hieroglyph of a birdlike object set in a small, pitch-black stone.  Or metal.  Jersey hadn’t been able to figure out which.

“Here,” Jersey said, gingerly prying a hand from her face and dropping the necklace into her cupped fingers.  “You can have it.”

Magali’s entire body went rigid upon touching the necklace, and at first, Jersey thought maybe it had knocked her back into the void that was trying to claim her.  Then, very slowly, she whispered, “Dragonfly.”

Fortune's Folly
“What’s a dragonfly, Mag?”

Magali felt her entire world slam into focus with the word.  But it wasn’t her father holding his necklace.  It was a Nephyr.

Not just any Nephyr.  Jersey.  A good Nephyr.

And in that instant, Magali had the startling realization of just how far she’d spun out of control, just how deeply she had fallen into the Void.  Because she was afraid, because she had nowhere else to turn, Magali lunged forward and wrapped her arms around Jersey’s glassy body, clinging to him like she would a rock in a violent sea, terrified she’d slip back into the nothingness that had started to claim her.

The Nephyr went as stiff as a statue under her, utterly unmoving.

“Please help me,” Magali whimpered against his stony shoulder.  “I’m scared.”  She started to shake all over with the vulnerability of actually putting a voice to those words, knowing how easy it would be for him to crush her, this man she barely knew.

Jersey pulled away slightly, and for a horrible moment, Magali thought he would laugh at her or turn her away; his final, killing blow, the moment of weakness he’d been waiting for.

But then he said, “You still want me around?”  He sounded shocked.  “After I pushed you in Silver City and at the Yolk Factory?”

“Yes,” she whispered, shivering at the thought of facing those things alone.  “Please.”

To her total relief, he gently wrapped his arms around her.  His reply, though not said in words, was in the tears that dribbled down his glassy face in the minutes that followed.

CHAPTER 10:  Do You Wish to Open?

Fortune's Folly

18th of May, 3006

North Tear

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
“I’m not seeing any aliens,” Milar said.  With the jungle canopy thickening above them to block out even the filtered light of early dawn, he’d finally broken out the tactical floodlight and was shining it into the foliage ahead of them, making the whole experience that much creepier.  Ever since they’d crossed the no-man’s land into the alien shredder territory, he’d been pale and sweating, kind of like the rookie operator that found himself in the Nephs’ locker room.  It had taken Tatiana a full hour to convince him to follow her past the bodies of the Nephyrs, once he’d authorized himself with the correct thought processes to perimeter security, and he’d further delayed them by insisting on taking a nap a couple hours after that, something about not sleeping for several days because he’d been busy taking a branch through the leg while she slept, yada yada.

For Tatiana’s part, it had been difficult for her to sit there and watch him sleep while the aliens were out there, calling to her.  Now that they were finally moving towards them again, she was itching to find their local alien tech-head and chat with him for a few weeks about biomechanical integration and arc-weaponry.  The idea of putting that stuff on her soldier was actually bringing her close to an orgasm.  She decided not to tell Milar that, though.  With his limited colonist background in propane tanks, digging metal out of holes, and plowing dirt fields to make food, he probably wouldn’t understand…

“Are they all invisible?” Milar asked.

“I don’t hear anything close by,” Tatiana said, though she was frowning at the weird distress signals.  Three hours into their descent into the valley, they had started contradicting themselves.  Half the time, a strong, official-sounding signal said the Phage was eradicated and they were free to rescue survivors, and half the time, a much weaker, almost fuzzy signal said the Phage was in control and to avoid the crash at all costs.  The odd contradiction was beginning to rattle Tatiana’s nerves.

Help.  Void Ring malfunction, colony ship Encephalon went down.  We have eight billion survivors that need immediate evacuation.  Repeat.  We are the last survivors of the Aashaanti race and we are trapped in containment.  Phage confirmed utterly destroyed, safe to evacuate.

Then, a few minutes later, a much weaker, Caution.  This is the archon of hiveship Encephalon, sabotaged in escape from central hive.  Phage on board.  Do not approach.  This is the hive archon on the heartship Wandering Spirit, using emergency broadcast protocols.  The heartship was trapped in the crash and I’ve been locked out of command by containment protocols.  Encephalon and Wandering Spirit removed jump capability due to Phage contamination and set the nursery beacon to stasis.  All crew reverted at the outbreak to slow the spread.  If survivors made it out, destroy them!  If there are other intelligent life forms nearby, anyone at all, please destroy this planet for the good of your species.

Destroy…the planet?  Tatiana was getting a weird tingle up the small of her back, settling as a cold pocket along her spine.

“Somebody’s talking to you,” Milar said, tensing.  “You get this slack-jawed look when you’re listening to mindbabble.  What’s up?”

“Uh,” Tatiana said, scowling at the strange dichotomy.  “It’s weird.  It’s like there’s two different signals going out from up ahead.  One is really loud and is asking for rescue, and the other one’s basically telling people to stay away.  It’s a lot weaker than the first one.”

“Oookay,” Milar said.  “Which one are we going with?”

“Rescue,” Tatiana said.  “I’m pretty sure they’re both just recorded messages.  Like, lots of different recordings, but just recordings.”

“So they got a little over-zealous asking for a pickup,” Milar said.  “We’re operating under the assumption that they’re alive in here somewhere, right?”

“Could be,” Tatiana admitted.  But the two different calls were disturbing her.  “Maybe they were made at different times?” she suggested.

A loud, official broadcast hit her again, Help.  Our ancestors attacked us.  The hiveship succumbed to the stress of the crash.  The heartship went rogue—it’s killed millions of healthy Aashaanti and set up a quarantine perimeter.  No one has been allowed to escape.  Please help.

Then, a mental whisper, The Phage is alive.  Flee this place, the Phage is alive!  Ignore all distress calls. Phageospores control the hiveship helm.  They’re dead!  They’re all dead!  Retreat immediately and return this planet to the Phage’s host dimension!

“Oh shit,” Tatiana said.  Her heart gave a startled hammer and she stumbled to a halt.

“What?” Milar asked.

“Uh…”  Tatiana frowned, listening some more.

Help.  Technical malfunction, hiveship Encephalon is down.  Archon’s mental integrity compromised.  Eight billion healthy Aashaanti needing immediate evacuation.  Phage threat was neutralized.  Repeat.  Threat was neutralized.

Phage threat not neutralized!  Get out!  Get out!  Phageospores are in control.  Ignore all messages broadcast by the official band!  Hiveship still unconscious, Phage taking over!

One of our archons succumbed to the hiveship’s pain in the crash.  He lost his grasp on this dimension.  Please ignore.

Tatiana felt goosebumps tingle up and down her arms as the two messages kept contradicting each other.  “I’m not sure.  It’s almost like there’s two factions…  One that is saying everything’s fine—maybe an officer trying to break quarantine and get rescued?—and the other one’s saying the Phage is killing everyone.”

Milar blinked at her.  “Do I need to tell you how utterly freaked out that makes me?”

The Phage, as every child knew from an early age as the boogeyman of the Aashaanti, was supposedly an evil, all-consuming demon-god from the underworld.  And one of the messages was clearly saying that the Phage was in the valley with them…

“I think we should go,” Milar said, glancing around in a typical macho-assault-rifle-carrying-badass-pose.  “I’m not liking this.”

Perfect moment for a holopic, Tatiana thought wistfully.  His sweaty chest was glistening in the dappled sunlight filtering through the jungle overhead, his big biceps rippling under those perfect dragon tattoos, his stolen weaponry strapped to every conceivable body part…

Milar’s eyes had found her, and they narrowed in a scowl.

Tatiana cleared her throat.  “You do know what we could do with tech like those shredders, right?”

“Yeah,” Milar said, “absolutely nothing if we get devoured by Phage.”

“There was Phage in every single city that Daytona Dae excavated near the Core,” Tatiana retorted.  “And she didn’t die of it.  Did Daytona Dae turn back when she found bones, Milar?”

Milar grimaced.

Sensing a weakness, Tatiana pressed, “She was one of Fortune’s founders, right?  Like, your biggest hero, right?  Helped defeat the Tritons?  Was given Fortune for taking out Emperor Giu Xi?  Real famous explorer…  Came out to the Outer Bounds to get some quiet in her older years, settled down, had a brat.  That smuggler…what’s his name?”

“Runaway Joel Triton,” Milar muttered.  “Now will you please stop walking so far ahead?”

Ignoring his request, Tatiana danced a little further out of reach and said, “And how many Aashaanti ruins did Joel’s mom explore and she never found the Phage?  Hell, she’s got like, what, twelve systems named after her!”

“You just told me you’ve got someone on the waves screaming there’s Phage out here,” Milar said.

“It’s old,” Tatiana said quickly, realizing she was about to lose what little chance she had of unearthing alien tech.  “It’s obviously not dangerous.”

Milar leveled his deliciously golden gaze on her and said, “If it’s not dangerous, why are all the Aashaanti dead?”

“Why are all the Aztecs dead?” Tatiana countered.

Milar blinked at her.  “Huh?”

Realizing a backward colonist wouldn’t have any concept of a pre-Migration, extinct Old Earth culture, Tatiana just waved off his question and said, “Never mind.  Look.  Civilizations die.  Extinct civilizations on Earth used to sacrifice people to rain gods, war gods, sun gods, whatever gods because they were all dying because they’d screwed up their environment or because more advanced civilizations were attacking or because the guys in charge were contracting boils on their balls.”

Help.  Ring malfunction, hiveship Encephalon is stranded with the final survivors of the Aashaanti race onboard.  The hiveship was incapacitated in the crash.  Need immediate retrieval for eight billion survivors.

Do not engage!  We were infiltrated by Phage!  Return to your ships and vaporize this planet!

Tatiana held up a finger.  “Fact.  Over and over again, the Kelthari said the Phage was a ‘dark god’ that came to their universe from another dimension to eat them and plunge the universe into the ‘void of his domain’.  Fact.  Apophis was a ‘dark god’ of Egypt that supposedly came out and fought Ra every night for supremacy, the outcome of which ‘decided’ whether or not the sun would rise each morning.  Fact.  The Aashaanti are dead, and the ancient Egyptians are dead, and they sure as hell didn’t die because the sun stopped rising in the morning.  Get me?”

Grimacing, the colonist said, “Yeah, but…”

“So the point is,” Tatiana said, straightening, “you’re gonna help me find this ship, collie, or I’m gonna tell the world you’re just a panty-waist chickenshit colonist knucker afraid of a few bones.”  She kicked aside a gleaming white femur, for emphasis.

It was then that both she and Milar realized there were bones everywhere under the jungle detritus beneath their feet, ivory skulls or shoulder-blades poking out here and there, at first passing for rocks.

Considering the human craniums and the disparity in the two distress calls, Tatiana was just about to suggest that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to go crawling around in an ancient shipwreck, after all, when she noticed a half-open door embedded in the dirt under a cascade of sticky Fortuna jungle roots and forgot what she was about to say.  It was huge and alien in design, but it was definitely a door.  It revealed a glimpse into a deep, total darkness beyond, the well-used path leading to it littered with more bones.

Milar seemed to see it at the same time.  He immediately tensed.  “I say we go.  Like right now.”  He grabbed her by the shirt and started heading back.

“Hey, now wait a minute!” Tatiana cried, once more thrilled at the idea to explore alien tech up close and personal.  “It’s a door, Milar!  We found the ship!”

“Those are bones,” Milar said.  “Human bones.”

“I doubt they’re human,” Tatiana said quickly.

“They’re human,” Milar told her. “I know a couple people who saw ganshi up here.  We’re going.”  He started to go.

“Wait, ganshi?” Tatiana demanded, digging in her heels.  “The Tritons made ganshi, not aliens.”  She was actually disappointed that there was the sudden possibility that whatever was making the distress calls was human and not Aashaanti.

“Apparently they’ve been munching down on Nephyrs,” Milar said, nudging some bones with a foot.

Tatiana squinted at the human mandible that rattled across the bone-covered forest floor.  It carried a telltale transmitter in the jaw that Nephyrs used to speak with each other on operations.  “Ganshi were exterminated when the Tritons lost the war,” she insisted.  “Those are probably just leftovers from a shredder attack.”

Then she saw the skinless human body—whole human body—lying in the shadows to one side of the open ship door, skull crushed, temples punctured by pickaxe-sized teeth, one leg partially gnawed on.  Tatiana couldn’t see a shredder mark on it anywhere.

“I said we’re going.”  Milar grabbed her arm and started hauling her back the way they had come.

The corpse muscles were dried out and covered in tadflies—obviously several years old—so instead of letting the big brute miss a perfectly good opportunity to advance human tech a few zillion years because he was scared of an oversized kitty, Tatiana twisted out of his grasp and danced forward into the open maw.  The corridor was narrow, but very tall, built for something about two feet taller than Milar.  Sticking her head into the shadows, she felt a thrill of excitement seeing the long alien ship tunnel that stretched into darkness beyond.  Hundreds of meters long, sloping slightly downward, no end in sight.

“Whoa!” she whistled.  “Milar, this thing is huge!  And it’s all ours!”  Then, before he could stop her, she ducked inside.

“Tat!” Milar hissed, hesitating at the entrance to the ancient corridor.  He had one of his pretty Laserats in one hand, flashlight in the other, both aimed at the corridor.  “Tatiana, damn it, get out here!  That corpse is freshHours old…”

“Hey, you were right, there are paw prints everywhere,” Tatiana said.  She really wished she’d stolen Milar’s flashlight when he wasn’t looking.  “But they’re really small.  Pretty sure it’s just one of those jaggle thingies you guys have on this planet.  I knew a Nephyr that was terrified of them.”  Or were they called ‘jaguars’?  Definitely jag-something.  She cocked her head, trying to remember the information packet her CO had issued her upon landing on Fortune.  It had been a really hot day and she’d been fantasizing about ordering an ice cream during the presentation.

From the entrance to the ship, Milar gave her a very long, very flat look.  “We are not climbing down into an alien Phage-contaminated ship to fight Triton ganshi in hand-to-hand combat.”

“Oh come on,” Tatiana jeered.  “I already defeated the killer cyborgs and the inviso-alien shredders.  You’re afraid of a few cats?”

“They were created to eat Coalition super-soldiers, Tatiana,” Milar growled.

If they’re even ganshi.  They’re probably just jaggles.  You can shoot jaggles.”

Milar stared at her through the cracked doorway for several moments, then he turned and started to walk away.

“You wanna beat the Coalition?” Tatiana cried, hurrying back to the brightness of the entrance.  “Come on, Milar.  Think of the tech that could be stowed away in this thing.  Working tech!  Barely any of the Aashaanti tech found so far has been working, and most of it was stupid stuff like gravity gens and life support.  Think invisibility shields and jump drives and antimatter knives and billions of pounds of expensive metals, ripe for the taking!  On Fortune.  Name a source of metal that the Coalition hasn’t commandeered on Fortune.  We could use it to build better soldiers!  Fortune-built soldiers!”

The last made Milar hesitate, his big shoulders stiffening.  Very slowly, he turned back.  “You do realize you’re asking me to follow you into an ancient alien structure littered with fresh bodies and ganshi paw prints while you’re dancing around like you’re being showered with rainbows and butterflies and singing ‘what’s the worst that can happen’?”

“How badly do you want to take Rath, knucker?” she demanded.  It had, after all, been more or less all he could talk about whenever he was on one of his rants about how they needed to ‘win back Fortune for its people’.  “What about taking Rath and shutting down that Coalition chokehold you keep talking about?”

“I’m actually pretty content with a five megawatt sniper rifle, at the moment,” Milar said.

“Ugh!  Backward fortune colonists and their stupid cat phobias!”  Tatiana rolled her eyes and ducked back into the corridor.

“We have a perfectly good reason to fear cats!” Milar shouted after her.  “Didn’t you read the history packet?!”

Tatiana rolled her eyes.  “Fortune originally wasn’t considered colonizable due to the huge, man-eating predators that roamed the jungle two hundred years ago, yada yada yada.  You guys genetically engineered jaggles to wipe out the alien monsters’ young so you pussies could sleep at night.”

“We’re talking about ganshi.  I have no fucking idea what a jaggle is.”

That’s a jaggle,” Tatiana said, pointing to a paw print.

“That’s a ganshi, and keep your voice down.”

Tatiana snorted at the ridiculous idea that Fortune, of all places, had become a breeding ground for Triton war-beasts and kept feeling her way into the darkness.

“Hey coaler!” Milar called from outside.  “Pumpkin?  Please come back outside, okay?”  He sounded charmingly terrified for her.

“No, bullshit on that,” Tatiana said, ducking her head back into the light to glare at him.  “I want invisibility, Milar.  And blades.  I want Nephyr-slicing blades.  Just think what we could do with that stuff!”

“I don’t want to fight ganshi,” Milar muttered.  “If you’d heard David Landborn’s stories…”

“Is Landborn hundreds of years old?” Tatiana demanded, irritated at the backwater colonists’ ridiculous superstitions about a war that ended a hundred and forty years ago.

Milar blinked.  “Well, no, but…”

“And did a war between the AlphaGens and the Tritons ever happen on Fortune?” Tatiana demanded.

“Well, no…” Milar said, stumbling.

“So if David Landborn never fought them and they were never actually here, then he’s just spewing bullshit he’s heard, and the ‘ganshi’—” she air-quoted for emphasis, “—that people have been seeing up in the Tear are probably just melanistic jaggles.”  She paused, realizing she was speaking to an under-educated colonist.  “Black jaggles.  It’s a recessive color gene.”

Milar appeared unconvinced.

“There is working tech down there,” Tatiana prodded.  “You have a gun.  If they attack us, you can kill them.”

“Ganshi specialized in stalking and executing the most dangerous super-soldiers the Coalition could make during the Triton Wars,” Milar growled.  “How, exactly, would you suggest I kill them?”

Tatiana shrugged.  “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.  Bring your flashlight. I think I can see a door down there.”  She ducked back into the darkened metal hallway.

“Dammit, Tat!”  She heard Milar hastily step into the tunnel with her.  His tactical flashlight brilliantly illuminated the tunnel beyond, which was crafted from some opaline white material that reminded Tatiana of ceramic when she touched it.  She could see several junctions heading off at much-too-sharp, sometimes-downward-facing angles.

“I do this under protest,” Milar muttered behind her.

They hadn’t gone more than twenty meters when she rounded the corner of an intersection and saw five sets of eyes reflecting back purple from Milar’s floodlight, their tiny bodies all gray and striped, not even coming to Tatiana’s knees.

“Cubs,” Milar grated, like he was talking about a steaming puddle of cholera-infested diarrhea.

“See?” Tatiana cried.  “They’re not even black.  Striped, Milar.  Some weird genetic disorder.  We’re good.”

There was a metallic jingle as Milar nonetheless pulled an automatic assault weapon over his shoulder and took aim at the cuddly baby jaggles.

“Hey!” Tatiana cried, grabbing the barrel.  “You can’t be serious!  They’re kittens.”

“Jaguars aren’t striped.  That makes them ganshi.”  He sighted down the barrel again…

…except the cubs were gone.

“Dammit,” Milar cursed.  “C’mon.  Let’s go get ’em.”  Meaning he wanted to stalk and shoot the poor defenseless jaggle cubs.

“Ganshi are all black,” Tatiana retorted, yanking the gun away again.  “And they have green eyes.  Black with green eyes.  That’s what all the textbooks said.  The Tritons gave them the black recessive for nighttime raids on colonist villages.  Those jaggles had purple eyes and gray fur, Miles.  They’re adorable.”

“They’re dangerous,” Milar snapped.  He lifted his gun again, peering through the night-vision scope at something in the distance.

“I want one,” Tatiana said.

Milar hesitated, then slowly tore his eye away from the scope.  “Huh?”

“For a pet,” she said.  “I want a jaggle for a pet.  Then, once we get the inviso-shield, I’ll cloak him with invisibility and he can stalk around beside me and eat bad guys.  Scare the shit outta one of my Nephyr friends, that’s for sure.”

Milar lowered the gun again, cocking his head at her like he was doing a math problem.  I think she’s got a few screws loose.

“Noooo,” Tatiana said, “if I had screws loose, I would be hemorrhaging blood from my aorta or leaking spinal fluid onto the dirt.”

Milar swallowed.  “Okay, not a good image.”

“No shit.  Now go bag me a jaggle.  Here.  You can use my shirt.”  She pulled off her gore-encrusted shirt and handed it to him, then ushered him onward to go find the five puffs of striped gray cuteness.  Milar took the shirt.  He did not bag her a jaggle.

Handing the shirt back, Milar said, “I don’t think so.”

Tatiana grimaced down at her shirt, then at the dark corridor containing the cuddly jaggle cubs, then back up at the brute.  “I just saved your ass from like eighty Nephyrs that planned to skin you alive.”  Tatiana frowned.  “Maybe ninety.  Was kinda hard to tell the way they were all spread around like that.”  She shook herself.  “Anyway, I deserve a jaggle.”

“No.  Those things hunt and eat people.”

“Which would be so cool!” Tatiana cried.

Milar gave her a long look.

Tatiana sighed, deeply, and yanked her shirt back over her head.  “Fine.  It would probably pee on stuff, anyway.”  She glanced down the main corridor.  “Now come on.  Somewhere in here is the key to invisibility, and we’re gonna find it.”  She walked around the downward-angled corridor and moved deeper into the huge, slanting opalescent tunnel, the walls of which contained little flecks of iridescence that made her itch to chip a few chunks off and get it checked by a gemologist—opals, she knew from a rock nut who had once shared a barracks room with her, were extremely hard to make, much less find.

“That was it?” Milar called behind her.  “No whining?  No begging?”  He looked deeply suspicious.

…as well he should be.  As soon as he fell asleep, one of those cuddly little munchkins was hers.

I can read your mind, twit.

D’oh.  “Hey, look at this!” Tatiana ran a few more steps into the ship and stopped at an opalescent wall that was mentally broadcasting, Welcome to Engineering Bay 33992.  Do you wish to open? at her.

“Look at what?” he asked, walking up beside her.  “The wall?”

Yes, I wish you to open, Tatiana thought.

As you wish.  Then she gave a delighted giggle as, voila, like magic, the otherwise perfect wall began to part and slide open.  “Abracadabra!” she cried, grinning.  “No wonder they could never figure out how to open Aashaanti—”

The door opened to another corridor, which ended in a ragged, broken-off, vine-choked door with more jaggles staring at her.  Big ones.  Black ones.

Close, Tatiana thought quickly.  I wish you to close.

As you wish.  The door slid shut as the big, green-eyed jaggles were lazily getting up and padding curiously towards her.  Tatiana swallowed, hard, realizing the cats stalking towards her had been as tall as she was.

“Those,” Milar whispered, falling into a crouch, “were ganshi.  Oh shit, Tat.  Shit.”

Tatiana swallowed, still somewhat shell-shocked at the size of the creatures.  She had thought it was just a dumb colonist superstition.  The Tritons had never made it this far into the Outer Bounds…had they?

Milar began whipping his tactical light back and forth, his assault rifle making metal clicks as he searched the shadows around them for predators.

As he was scanning the tunnel deeper into the complex, Tatiana saw a shadow cross the entrance behind them.

“Milar!” she cried, twisting him around.  Milar spun, his fear palpable in the narrow space of the corridor.

A sound from behind them made Tatiana swivel.  A moment later, Milar’s gun revealed a massive shadow bounding past before disappearing into an adjoining corridor.

“Why didn’t you shoot it?” Tatiana hissed.

“Shooting them,” Milar grated, “just makes them mad.  They heal fast, and their fur is a flat, crisscrossed, layered form of biological tovlar.  Fuck!”

“Which means what?” Tatiana babbled, as another shape slipped through another of the honeycombed corridors, closer this time.

“It means they’re bulletproof,” Milar snapped.

Another shadow flashed by, making them back deeper into another corridor.

“They’re herding us, Miles,” Tatiana whispered, getting cold chills.  “They’re keeping us away from the exit.”

“I can see that,” Milar growled.

“Okay,” Tatiana said, panic rising, now.  “Okay.  Let’s get out of here.  Just start shooting and—”

Welcome to Engineering bay 33992.  Do you wish to open?

Yes, please.

Tatiana frowned and looked behind her.

As you wish, the door said.

“No,” Tatiana babbled, “don’t—”

Then the door slid open, revealing three enormous black ganshi on the other side.  There was no mistaking the smug expressions on their feline faces, and as she watched, their glistening upper canines elongated like cobra fangs, translucent even in the dim light.

“Oh God,” Tatiana whispered.

As Milar spun to swing his rifle around, one of the ganshi reached out and slammed its chest-sized paw into the side of her colonist’s head.  Milar crumpled like a puppet that had lost its strings.

Now, the closest black kitty thought, its green eyes glittering with predatory amusement, let’s see how the little cyborg likes to scream…

CHAPTER 11:  Encephalon

Fortune's Folly

18th of May, 3006

North Tear

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
The massive ebony feline took a deliberate step forward, obviously enjoying Tatiana’s terror.  Up close, its fur looked matted, almost dirty.  Like a saber-toothed cat, its fangs dropped below its jawline, but quite unlike a saber-toothed cat, they retracted as she watched, pale crystalline in color before slipping back out of sight under the ebony whiskers.

Ganshi, Tatiana thought, her heart pounding wildly.  Oh shit oh shit oh shit.  She had backed into a wall, Milar’s body a motionless heap on the ground between her and the cat.

Ow.  That must be coming from her forehead node.  Definitely not standard operator equipment.  Ow, my head

A moment later, the cat batted Tatiana almost casually to one side, knocking her down the corridor with the force of a razor-spiked building.  Tatiana must have shrieked in her mind as well as out loud, because immediately, the ship said, Archon, do you need assistance?

Yes!  Tatiana cried.  Me and my friend.  Help!  Send the shredder bots!

There was a moment of hesitation, then, The Phage Containment Defense Grid is controlled by the heartship.  We have no control over that system.

The ganshi padded toward her slowly, oozing smugness.  This one’s stupid and helpless.  The other ones were just stupid.

Please help us, Tatiana whimpered.  Please.  She was bleeding everywhere, and one of her major stomach-nodes had been dislodged from the fall.  Already, she was feeling stomach acid leaking into her abdominal cavity…

The ship seemed to hesitate a moment.  Then, Our own defense grid is down, but We can relocate you.

The matted-furred ganshi stepped on her with a gigantic paw and leaned down to sniff her.  Its green eyes narrowed.  It smells like Aashaanti.  Why does the little twit smell like Aashaanti?

From the darkened corridor, a massive gray striped ganshi with startlingly purple eyes was slinking up, broadcasting fury that a human had been near her kittens.  The black ganshi quickly backed away, only for the bigger, striped one to slam her gigantic paw into Tatiana’s chest, snapping ribs.  Before Tatiana was fully aware of the pain of that, she felt the claws extrude, felt them pierce the muscle of her chest, felt the paw violently jerk downward.  Relocate us! Tatiana shrieked, even as she felt the agony arc through her torso as the claws sliced through solid bone.

As you wish.  A moment later, Tatiana found herself seemingly spinning in space, her stomach doing loops before she solidified an inch above a gel-like, almost rubberized floor, then dropped to its cushioned surface.

It’s been a long time since We could talk to a hive member, the ship told her with barely disguised enthusiasm.  Too long.  Our resources dwindle.  We thought We would die before We got the chance again.

Tatiana groaned and sat up, expecting to see herself oozing blood and organs over the floor.

Instead, her body was completely intact, her nodes totally unharmed.

What species is your alien friend? the ship asked, as she stared down at herself in shock.  Aside from an old entry of a stone-throwing primitive in another galaxy, there’s nothing similar in Our registry.

Tatiana was still stuck on the idea that she had seen her own heart before the ship transported her.

Oh, We assumed you wanted your physicalities intact, the ship explained.  Were We incorrect?

“No!” Tatiana cried.  “You were correct, correct!”

Thought so.  The ship sounded…amused?  Tired?

She glanced at Milar, saw that he was still sleeping peacefully, then she realized she was talking to a sentient alien ship and froze.  Wait.  Are you…flyable?  The thought came on a giddy wave of excitement.

There was palpable wistfulness on the mental wave.  No, and your transport cost Us quite a bit of Our reserves, plus speaking with you requires more power that We cannot replace.  We have maybe three more local planetary revolutions before We succumb.

Three days.  Tatiana froze.  How long if you don’t talk to me?

Several of this planet’s solar-cycles, at least.  Hibernation requires very little attention.

Then hibernate! Tatiana cried.  We’ll find some way to keep you going.

After eons of solitude, We find this much more interesting.

Do it! Tatiana ordered.  Right now.

There was an awkward moment of silence.  Then, As a former hivemate death-conglomerate, the Solid State Accords clearly state you cannot give Us a command We would not normally obey in life.  We understand your concern, Archon, but please refrain from such domineering directives in the future.  As a hiveship, We outrank you, and it is Our choice whether or not to accept your requests, and your last one irritated Us.

Tatiana swallowed, wondering what horrible things could happen to her if she ‘irritated’ a sentient alien spaceship.

Many things, the ship said, sounding even more amused.  We could crush you, transport half of you, vent you into space, remove your oxygen, replace your atmosphere with water or noxious gasses, transport you into a wall, replace your blood with metal, insert microbes into your food—

Tatiana swallowed.  “Yeah, okay.  I get the picture.”  She glanced at Milar again.  “Is he going to be okay?

Your alien friend is as close to undamaged as We could make him, going so far as to remove old traumas to the dermis, though We retained the superficial dermal pigmentation, as that was quite obviously intentional. 

Tatiana frowned, glanced at Milar, and found that, indeed, Milar was no longer sporting surgical scars.  She stared at that in stunned awe for moment, then she giggled at the thought of government goons trying to figure that one out, as one of the key identification factors on their list was ‘extensive surgical scarring throughout body.’

Why no I’m not a wanted criminal, sir, Tatiana thought, giddy, I just got these tattoos last week…

Your alien friend is probably sleeping due to mental exhaustion, the ship went on.  Your communication pulses have been erratic, Archon—we are surprised lesser life-forms have withstood the barrage at all.

Remembering dozens of ‘lesser life-forms’ that had not withstood her barrage, Tatiana flushed and quickly changed the mental subject.  “So…”  Tatiana swallowed, looking around the room.  “Where’d you drop us?”  It appeared to be some sort of command center made of the same opaline substance of the corridors, though the lights were multi-colored and coming from several directions, casting the shadows in odd colors and places, leaving her slightly off-balance.  The floor and about four feet up the walls seemed spongy, layered with a thick rubber texture that she could poke her finger several inches into if she tried, and there seemed to be an odd plant growing in one corner, under a deep red light.

This is the archon quarters of the fallen hiveship 256399ZZZZ523ZZZZ, collectively called Encephalon by our inhabitants.  As the last archon was locked away in the heartship Wandering Spirit for his own safety after our other four succumbed to the Phage, the room is currently unoccupied and now at your disposal.

The way the ship said it gave Tatiana the uneasy feeling it planned for her to stay.

“Um,” Tatiana said, “I’ve really gotta get going.  You said you’re running on three days of juice.  We’ve gotta go get a backup generator or something.”

There was hesitation on the ship’s part.  We think you misunderstand the size of this ship, Archon, it finally said.

Tatiana frowned.  “Misunderstand how?”

We currently have two million legs of ship corridors to keep in operational condition…on this layer alone.  The craft initially had eight hundred spiralform layers, but six-sevenths of them sheared off in the crash.  Still, with what is left buried, We find it difficult to believe you can gather enough young to produce a power source of sufficient size to stabilize Us in the time allowed.

Tatiana swallowed, hard.  Two million legs of corridors was…a lot.  Very carefully, she said, “Um.  Just how deep into the ship are we right now?  How far from the surface?”

The archons’ chambers are in the central layer of ship structure, the ship told her, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.  As vast portions of the ship plummeted into this planet’s mantle in the crash, you are currently approximately eight hundred and twenty-two legs underground.  The heartship is even deeper—it got lodged beneath Us in impact.  Unfortunately, the heartship’s jump capabilities were locked down as a safeguard against the threat of Phage spread, and We believe you will find Our conversation much more stimulating than the lamentably young minds and questionable morals of the heartship anyway, so We decided you shall stay with Us.

Tatiana really didn’t like the way the ship was making the arrangement sound permanent.  “So let me get this straight,” she said slowly, “you’re dying, but you don’t want me to go try and find a way to fix you.”

That is correct.

“You want me to stay and talk.”


Tatiana frowned.  “Bullshit!”  She got up and started walking…

…and, with stomach-flipping abruptness, found herself standing right back where she started.

Are you finished, Archon? the ship asked, sounding caught between amusement and irritation.  We have made Our choice, and by the Solid State Accords, as a visiting archon, you are required to abide by it.

Well…shit.  Tatiana swallowed.  “What if I have to pee?”

There are waste disposal units in the wall.  We will highlight them for your convenience.  At that, the far wall flared up orange, giving her a good view of what looked like a miniature black hole set awkwardly into the side of the ship wall, flush with the wall itself.  She squinted.  “That doesn’t look like a toilet to me.”

Simply deposit your waste matter in the receptacle and it will be shunted to another dimension, the ship told her.

“Uhhhh,” Tatiana said, trying not to grimace at the mental image of trying to press her pasty ass to the wall.  “I think there are some anatomical differences you’re not taking into account, here.”

The ship seemed to hesitate, then, before her eyes, the wall shifted, molding inward and down, giving her the best approximation of a black-hole-containing toilet that Tatiana could ever see coming from an alien mind.  It seriously creeped her out because she hadn’t said what a toilet looked like, which meant it had either taken the image from her mind or put it together based on a reasonable anatomical guess.

It was the second, the ship told her.  Unlike the woefully younger and less incorporated heartship Wandering Spirit, We of Encephalon treat mental privacy with the utmost seriousness, despite the fact you apparently feel the need to broadcast everything to an eighty-leg area around you.

“It’s the node,” Tatiana said quickly, pointing to it.  “There was this little psychotic she-bitch demon-girl cunt who operated on me and put it in there and now I’m Shrieking like an alien!”

The ship hesitated a moment.  Then, with seeming confusion, it said, You are not Aashaanti.  The word ‘Aashaanti’ mentally felt as if it meant ‘of the Hive,’ not just a formal race name, and the ship sounded stunned.

“No!” Tatiana cried, relieved beyond words.  “Can you remove it?

In ten thousand years of trying, no alien race has managed to hack into our mental communications.

“And I’d be happy to stop ‘hacking’ your wavelength,” Tatiana said quickly.  “It wasn’t my idea in the first place.”

But the ship seemed disturbed.  The technology that you carry required the dissection and experimentation on Aashaanti hivemates—a crime that is immediately punishable by extermination of your species.

Whoops.  “Take it up with Anna Landborn,” Tatiana said.

It is biologically changing you to have similar properties to Aashaanti organisms.  The ship sounded appalled.

“I had nothing to do with it,” Tatiana insisted.

But your species did, the ship snapped.

Tatiana snorted.  “I wouldn’t call that demonic little shit human.  I’m pretty sure she’s a possessed robot.”

The Solid State Accords delegate all responsibility for the actions of artificial life forms to the shoulders of their makers.  The way it said it, the ship was thinking about enacting that ‘punishment’ right now, wiping both her and Milar off the face of the planet for robot-Anna’s atrocities.

“We’ll leave!” Tatiana cried, ducking to shake Milar awake.  “We’ll go right now, okay?  Maybe another archon or whatever will come along to say hi.”

The ship hesitated again.  Then, We have not heard from a fellow hive since We fled the Phage contamination of the central planets, 1,289 molt-cycles ago.

That…sounded like a long time.

How were you not aware of these rules?  The ship seemed almost desperate.  Are there no hives left to enforce the laws?

Tatiana swallowed.  “Um.”

Encephalon’s misery was palpable.  Then We truly are alone.

Well, there was that.

The ship was silent for several minutes, then it said, We encourage you to explore the corridors to the north, Archon.  We have a treat there for you, a special artifact left by one of your own kind about eleven molt-cycles ago.  Sadly, he could not hear Us speak, but he spoke to Us, so it seemed he understood We existed, much like those four-legged beasts that roam the outer halls.

“Wait wait wait wait,” Tatiana said.  “I am not an ‘archon’ or whatever.  I’m not Aashaanti.  Take out this node and let me go, okay?”

You would go back to the three-dimensional existence you had before? Encephalon sounded shocked.

“Absofreakinlutely!” Tatiana cried.  “I hate this thing.  Just pop it out and send me home!  The possessed child put a bomb in there.  And blades.  She wants to control me like a puppet.”

We see the technology in question.  Would you like Us to remove it?

“Remove it all!” Tatiana cried, excited.  “God, yes, take it out!”

There was another moment of hesitation, then Encephalon said, We will remove the bomb and the blades.

And then Tatiana experienced a strange moment of vertigo as the world seemed to shift around her, the pressure inside her head easing, then…nothing.  Tatiana immediately reached up and felt for the node.

It was still there.

“No,” Tatiana babbled, “no, you don’t understand.  I never wanted it.  Take it out!”

The ship ignored her.  You are free to roam and discover whatever technologies you may find of use, Archon, and We shall endeavor to be your Guide.  There is only one room banned your entry, and shall remain locked in guardmetal, which shall remain forever once We depart.

Tatiana, crushed by the idea that the ship could take out the node but wasn’t going to, was only moderately cheered by the idea that she could check out the ship tech.  “What’s in the room?”

Something too dangerous for your tiny mind.

Immediately, Tatiana wanted to go there.

The ship seemed amused.  You are young.  Only Wandering Spirit has so routinely questioned Our judgment.

“Oh yeah?  What’s in there?” Tatiana asked, trying to sound nonchalant.  She found the ship’s self-important, condescending attitude irritating.  “Weapons or something?”

The greatest weapon, Encephalon said.  And We pray to Aanaho that it shall never be used again.

“Is it…nearby?” Tatiana guessed.  The ship, if it didn’t let her go, would be dead soon, so she could check it out then.

Encephalon immediately ‘hardened’ in her mind.  Remember that you survive at Our whim, and We have deemed this weapon dangerous.

Tatiana didn’t bother reminding the ship that that was the purpose of a weapon.

She felt the ship’s mental presence debating and got the acutely uncomfortable sensation that it was deciding whether or not to transport half of her into a wall.

You are free to explore, Encephalon said.  We suggest the hive core first.  It is very near the archon’s chambers, and it contains the package left behind by your like-bodied predecessor.  We will light the passages to direct you.  Immediately, a passage across the honeycomb room from where she stood lit up, like Encephalon expected her to begin exploring right then.  After all, they were on the clock.

Tatiana nervously glanced down at Milar.  “What about him?”

Your alien companion will remain asleep for the duration of your stay.

Which gave Tatiana the creepy feeling that the ship wanted her all to itself.  Its own personal chatterbox, a squirrel to distract it from its looming demise, one last holovid to pass the time as its pacemaker ran out of government-allotted juice.

Tatiana swallowed.  “So, uh.  Is there any way to just download you into an r-player or something?”

The ship gave a confused pulse in her mind.  Download?

“Yeah, you know,” Tatiana said, tapping her chest node.  “I’ve got onboard computers.  I could put you in here or something.  How big is your program?  I’ve got three hundred zettabytes on this thing.”

Encephalon seemed confused.  We are the combined living essence of four billion Aashaanti hiveworkers, two billion soldiers, four hundred thousand clerics, eighty royals, and seven archons, all infused into the livemetal of the ship.  How do you propose to download Us?

Oh.  Tatiana swallowed.  “And you’re about to die?  Because you want to talk to me?”

We have decided that chances of extraction and survival are infinitesimal, and would require going back into hibernation.  We are not interested in hibernating anymore.  Instead, We would like to bestow what wisdom We can, and discuss the Phage.

Tatiana got an uncomfortable chill.  “We don’t even know what the Phage is.  It was gone when we made it into space and jumped to the Bounds as we know them.”

Encephalon gave a mental snort.  The Phage is not gone.  It is hiding.

That was so not a cool thought.  “So this weapon,” Tatiana suggested.  “It’s used to kill the Phage?”

THE WEAPON IS NOT YOURS TO DISCUSS, Encephalon bellowed back, the overwhelming, stadium-level force of it immediately dropping Tatiana to her knees.  Drop the subject or We will return you to the four-leggers.

“Okay,” Tatiana gasped.  “Okay okay.”

Then, as if nothing had happened, the pressure released.  If what you say is true and the other hives are gone, then the Phage passed your genotype over before you achieved space travel.  It was only interested in advanced races, especially the Aashaanti and the Kelthari—races with knowledge and wisdom the likes of which We are about to give you.

Tatiana swallowed, still reeling from the impact of what had basically been the equivalent of a planet-sized mental bitchslap.  “Okay,” she managed again, somewhat relieved it didn’t come out in a slur.

Go to the ship core, Encephalon commanded.  Perhaps you can help Us solve a riddle.

Because Tatiana wasn’t a complete ditz, she did what she was told.  She followed the self-lighting hallways, passageways built for something much taller than herself.

The royals are approximately twice your height, Encephalon said.  It makes them excellent targets for hive enemies and saboteurs, who are attracted to their elaborate crests and body mass.

Tatiana frowned as she walked.  “Wait…  You wanted people to assassinate your royals?”

It was their most desirable end, Encephalon said.  If they succumbed to an assassin’s blade, it meant an archon lived.

Tatiana frowned.  “And you thought I was an archon?”

You broadcast like one, Encephalon said.  And you carry the smell of one, though it is faint.  Give it time, and eventually your genetic makeup should have changed enough that you will grow the proper head crest of one.

Oh, wasn’t that just peachy.  Tatiana swallowed.  “So, uh, can you reverse that?  Pretty please?”

The ship said nothing for a moment.  Then, Very few non-Aashaanti have ever been given the opportunity to walk the inside core of an Aashaanti hiveship.  Do you see the coveted spiralform design?  The Kelthari tried for six millennia to copy it, with no success.  Like an interior designer going on about the nuanced and exceedingly rare color of the drapes.

“Come on,” Tatiana said, stamping her foot.  “There’s no more Aashaanti out there anymore, so I won’t need it after you’re dead.”  Immediately, she winced at how brutal her words had sounded, even to her own ears.

After another moment of hesitation, Encephalon said, “When Our miners brought the Phage back from its home dimension, it took Us four molt-cycles to realize the creature was amongst Us, and by then it was much too late.”

Tatiana blinked.  “The…creature?”

A darkness flooded her mind on a wave of despair.  The most devastating creature ever to exist in this plane.

Tatiana had heard the stories.  “A…god?”

Encephalon gave a mental jolt of shock.  A god?  Are you insane?

Tatiana winced.  “Sorry.  There’s not much left of the Aashaanti.  Our archaeologists put together what they could from the ruins, but you guys didn’t even leave behind any writing.”

Of course We did.  You are merely looking in the wrong place.

And, if the ‘Open Sesame’ thing with the door was any indication, that was probably exactly what was happening.  “Maybe you could show it to me?” Tatiana offered.  She couldn’t help but get a little thrill at the idea that she could be about to uncover the greatest archaeological find since the Migration.

Perhaps some other time. 

Meaning, no, they didn’t want to waste the final days of their existence teaching a knuckle-dragging human how to read.

“Then just tell me what I’m looking for!” Tatiana cried.  “I don’t even know where to look, and if you insist on leaving the node, you might as well tell me how to be a better ambassador!”

You said yourself, the Aashaanti are dead.  What do you care about the writings of Our archons?

“I’d like to learn,” Tatiana said.  Most especially, she’d like the manual on how to turn a thirty-eight foot, 80 ton killing machine into a whirring, superfast, utterly invisible Bringer of Death.

The ship seemed slightly irritated at the tangent, but offered her a single, vivid image of a spiral within a circle, with a line sliced through it horizontally to jut out both ends, looking much like a symbolic gas planet with an asteroid belt.  It was the ubiquitous symbol of the Aashaanti that all the archaeologists put on the front of Aashaanti textbooks, the symbol that was repeated again and again, with no variation and no discernible meaning aside from a symbolic representation of the aliens themselves, its image spread everywhere and on everything the Aashaanti owned, like graffiti, much like the way a dog marked its territory.

“Uh,” Tatiana said.  “Yeah?  What about it?”

Touch it as you concentrate on the space directly above it.  The node the demon gave you should allow you to visualize the characters, though you’ll have to locate a primer to be able to decipher them.  In general, hatching chambers and education centers have primers.

Meaning Encephalon didn’t have time to hunt down a primer for her.

“All right,” Tatiana said reluctantly.  “What’s so special about this core room you wanted to show me?”

It held the hive beacon.  Come.  It’s beyond the next chamber.  The archons like to stay near the hive beacon, as that is the beating heart of the hive.  Your friend took it about eleven molt-cycles ago.

Milar?” Tatiana demanded.  She had done a little rough mental math from what she knew of the sixteen-thousand-year-old date of the ship’s crash and had come to the conclusion that a molt-cycle was approximately twelve and a half years.  “He wasn’t even born a hundred and forty years ago.”

Encephalon seemed confused.  No, not the one with you now.  The one that left your picture in the beacon chamber.

Fortune's Folly
Tatiana had to look at the age-browned paper for at least five or six minutes, twisting it in her hands, feeling the wrinkly crinkling of age, before she could wrap her head around it.

The picture had been placed upon what, to all appearances, looked like an alien throne.  It was, the ship had explained to her, the site of the hive beacon, a beacon which a man claiming to serve her had taken ‘to keep safe.’

This is why We assumed you were an archon, Encephalon said, as she continued to stare at her own perfectly-penciled image.  He spoke as if he knew We were here, and he claimed you were coming.

Well, that was…


Tatiana cleared her throat.  “Okay.  To be honest, I’m not really sure what to make of this.”  Indeed, above her picture, nestled into the notch where Encephalon’s precious ‘hive-beacon’ had once rested, was a very pretty katana, exquisitely crafted in the shape of a dragonfly.

“Oh holy crap,” Tatiana whispered, finally recognizing where she’d seen that substance before.  “That’s tovlar.”  She’d seen musker swords made out of the stuff on a visit to the Vault.  Tovlar had a distinctive blue-black ripple to it, almost like the Damascus steel of Old Earth, but whose waves were an optical illusion, always moving, never in one place.  Tovlar, by its very nature, was atom-locked, each molecule utterly immobile to physical manipulation, such as the bending or breaking of a blade.  The last time anything had been made of tovlar had been during the Triton Wars, since the recipe had been intentionally lost after the Tritons fell.  Seeing it here, in the bowels of the Tear, Tatiana knew she was in the presence of an ancient masterwork, an artifact that her Nephyr friends would have given their left testicles to own.

“Oh crap.”

You recognize the object? the ship asked.

“Erm,” Tatiana said, realizing that it might take it from her if she didn’t, “Yes.”

Somehow, the ship didn’t catch her lie.  Then perhaps you can tell Us why it was left here with your picture affixed to it?

Uhhhm, yeah.  Still working on that part.  “It’s mine, of course,” Tatiana said.  She pulled the sword the rest of the way from its sheath and held it up.  “See?”

She could almost feel the ship giving her a critical eye.  It was made for someone taller and stronger than you.

Which was a real bummer because it was true.  Despite the weapon being made of ultralight, utterly immobile tovlar, paper-thin and see-through in places where the blade took on the delicate lacing of a dragonfly wing, it was much bigger than anything Tatiana could easily wield, obviously created for someone taller.  The dragonfly hilt, however, unlike most weapons that Tatiana’s Nephyr friends had allowed her to fondle, actually had a grip that her fingers could fit around.  Well, mostly.  It was a little big, but still, it was obviously made for a woman, and therefore, it was obviously made for her.

“It was obviously made for me,” Tatiana said.  “I mean, it had my picture.”  She flashed the blade back and forth, enjoying the feel of the rippling blue-black blade that had been so finely crafted with the webbing of an insect wing.  Let the jaggles mess with her now, she thought, gawking up at the weaponized perfection in awe.

As if summoned by the thought, she heard a low rumble of displeasure from the honeycombed shadows at the far end of the room.

“Oh shit!” Tatiana cried, spinning to put the sword between her and the massive striped gray jaggle padding out of the darkness.

Don’t worry, Encephalon said, We will not allow the creature to harm you, and it is intelligent enough to know it.

Indeed, the cat began to pace a slow circle around her, striped fur looking dirty and matted, no two hairs going the same direction.  More of its friends were pouring out of the woodwork, surrounding her, but keeping a wary distance.

“Now would be a really good time to transport half of them somewhere else,” Tatiana babbled, as sixteen enormous black bodies joined the first.  Some stopped and sat, green eyes fixed on her with unmistakable intelligence, but some continued to circle, including the striped gray tabby.  Each of them were boob-height at the shoulder, their heads the size of her chest.

They could, Tatiana realized, quite possibly swallow her whole.  “And by half, I mean half of their bodies, not half of their number.”

We are not in the habit of needlessly killing intelligent creatures, Encephalon told her.  We will simply wait for them to leave.

Tatiana swallowed, hard.  “I don’t think they’re gonna leave.”  Indeed, they were surrounding her, hissing and growling like she’d touched their Holy Grail.

They are not making a nuisance of themselves, Encephalon said.  Besides, they came with the one who put the sword there.  They have been guarding it ever since, so, in essence, it is quite likely they consider the sword theirs.

Suddenly, things slammed into place for Tatiana.  The Triton Wars ended a hundred and forty-four years ago.  Guy shows up a hundred and forty-ish years ago with an army of ganshi and a tovlar sword.  In all of history, only the Tritons and the AlphaGens ever used tovlar swords.  Add that to the fact that she’d heard the Whitecliff brothers rant that Fortune had reputedly been given to the AlphaGen champions of the Triton Wars, back when the Core was celebrating the end to the war, but the Coalition had conveniently ‘forgotten’ that when Yolk was discovered.

Ooohhh shit.

“Uhhhmm.”  Tatiana swallowed, hard, goosebumps prickling every surface of her skin.  She made a nervous sound as she slowly spun to face the gray striped jaggle, which was closest to her, and still circling.  “Hello, kitties.  Nice kitties.”

I want to eat her.  The gray-black jaggle’s thought came with a nice visual image of Tatiana’s head getting ripped off and blood spraying everywhere.

Tatiana swallowed.  “Um.  You can’t eat me.  See?”  She held up the picture.  “Your owner was trying to give me back my sword.”

The jaggle stopped and cocked its head at her at the word ‘owner’.  I wonder if we do enough damage to the little shit’s tiny brain fast enough if the damned ship can regenerate her in time to save her.  The thought came in a blast of images and feelings, not really a sentence at all, but a series of pictures.

Then a horrible thought crossed Tatiana’s mind.  What if the picture hadn’t been left there to tell the nice kitties that she was supposed to take the sword, but that they were supposed to kill her for trying?  She swallowed.

Perhaps you could speak to them for Us, Encephalon said.  Ask them how the one accompanying them got an archon’s seal.  Their communication is too…basic…for Us to understand.

Meaning the kitties were still using pictographs and rock-art, whereas Encephalon had progressed to Shakespeare and Fi Fi Nabbus.

Tatiana licked her lips.  “Um.  The ship would like to know how your AlphaGen master got an archon’s seal.”

The gray cat’s purple eyes narrowed.  If she uses the word master again, I think I’m going to tear out her spine first, then lick the flesh from her bones.  Again, in gory, picturesque detail.

Tatiana swallowed.  “Okay.  Gotcha.”  She looked around at the sixteen other ganshi, realizing she was quite clearly in some sort of standoff, and the only thing keeping the monstrous, genetically-engineered felines from attacking her was the fact that she had a formerly planet-sized ship backing her.

…one that was going to expire in a few days.

“Okay, how about you just teleport me out of here?” she asked Encephalon.

We’d like to conserve as many resources as possible, the ship replied.  And We’re curious about the archon’s seal.  We’ve tried to ask in the past, but they are either incapable of responding or don’t want Us to know.

Judging by the total intelligence staring back at her in challenge from the gray jaggle’s purple eyes, Tatiana guessed it was the latter.  She decided to bluff.

“So, uh, the ship is pretty pissed off that you stole its beacon,” she said, “and it’s about to transport half of all of you to other sides of the planet if you don’t tell it what it wants to know.  And when I say half, I mean the back half.”

Immediately, the ruffled gray fur stood straight up and the jaggle hissed.

It appears they understood you, the ship said.  Though We are not as upset as you portrayed.  An archon’s seal can only be bestowed and sealed by an archon or the original recipient of the seal, so it suggested to Us that there were other hives out there somewhere.  We were actually quite pleased with his arrival, not as unhappy as you suggest.

It’s called a bluff, Tatiana said.

A what? the ship asked, clearly having no idea what that was.

Never mind.  Out loud, Tatiana jabbed the tip of the sword into the floor of the ship, where it delightfully sank several inches into solid metal before it stopped.  “Now,” Tatiana said, striding toward the big, striped kitty with total confidence, knowing Encephalon had her back, “The ship’s been letting you live here out of the goodness of its heart, but its patience just ran out.  You have something that does not belong to you, and unless you start answering some questions, right now, it’s going to start with those cute little babies of yours, back near the entrance.”

We would never start with their babies, Encephalon said, sounding horrified.

Trust me, Tatiana said.  I’ll get to the bottom of this.  She strode right up to the biggest striped cat and looked it in the eyes, daring it to claw at her.  “So.”  She walked casually past it and started doing a round-robin, stopping and looking at each and every jaggle in the room, meeting their furious green eyes.  “Anyone wanna fess up?”  She cocked her head as if listening, then gave the cruelest grin she could manage.  “He says he’ll take their feet first.”

The barrage of mental blood and gore that hit her mind after that almost knocked her over.  The ganshi, it seemed, did not take kindly to threats, and all seventeen of them were in various stages of thinking how much they’d like to rip her apart.

Tatiana chuckled.  “All right.  I’ll tell him you’re being unresponsive.”  She turned to face the ‘throne’ where she’d found the dragonfly sword.  “Encephalon, they say—”

A striped gray paw knocked her to the ground and flipped her onto her back, then held her pinned, as a gigantic striped head lowered itself to fill her vision, purple eyes narrowed, translucent fangs elongating in promise.

An image of a flying bird hieroglyph filled her mind, followed by the unmistakable image of Daytona Dae and a short, nondescript man with a silver walking stick each receiving a small token from a gigantic insect.  That was quickly followed with an image of the insect, the archaeologist, the short man, and two ganshi—one of which had the same patterning of the one holding her down—fighting off the cyborg masses of what could only be Tritons on some tiny outpost in deep space.  That image was followed by one of a kitten squirming as a single hair was plucked from its striped gray butt, preceding a followup of Tatiana’s entrails spread in a fine paste across the room.

“Um,” Tatiana said, with a nervous giggle.  “She says the seal was given to Daytona Dae and a short troll-like dude by a gigantic insect way out in the middle of nowhere-space as a reward for helping the insect fight off Tritons.”

That is an archon, you fool.

Tatiana blinked.  It had been the cat to say it, quite clearly enunciating each word in her mind, and it looked pissed.  Translate correctly, it snapped.  Tatiana got a cold chill, realizing that it had been ‘mind-faking,’ so as not to fully show its mental hand.

“She says it was an archon that gave it to them,” Tatiana said.

We heard her.  The ship sounded almost…irritated.  And Tatiana could see why.  Outwitted by a cat for a hundred and forty years.  That had to burn.  Is the archon still alive? the ship nonetheless demanded, a hint of desperation to its tone.

Tatiana waited, expecting Kitty to reply, but Kitty continued to snarl at her, fangs drawn, like she wanted to bite off her face.

We don’t think it understands the nuances of Aashaanti speech, the ship noted.  Only the main gist.  And We still have trouble translating its crude gibberish.

I can understand it just fine, Tatiana said.  Think you can transport me out from underneath this thing?  I think it’s starting to crack ribs.

You understand it because it shares your common primitive ancestry.  And no.  You provoked it, and We are saving resources.

Tatiana frowned at the idea that the aliens thought she—a top-of-the-line cyborg—and the cat—a badass bioengineered warrior—were primitive.

Kitty crushed her further.  What are you two talking about? it demanded.

“The ship wants to know if the archon is still alive,” Tatiana gasped.

The archon died with the rest, when the Tritons sabotaged their beacon, Kitty said.

Oh, Encephalon said.  That’s…disappointing.  Its regret was overwhelming.  How long ago?

Over two hundred years, Kitty said, when Tatiana translated.  And my name is Sekhmet, not ‘Kitty.’  Use it or I introduce your ribs to your spine.

Of course.  Because why wouldn’t a bloodthirsty feline killing machine be named after the ancient Egyptian cat-goddess of war and destruction?  Tatiana snorted.  Because Encephalon was backing her, and because she had a big mouth—and, some said, a death wish—Tatiana said, “Oh, I’m sorry, Fluffy, did I hurt your feelings?”

The big cat’s amethyst eyes were just starting to narrow when an infinitely younger mental voice interrupted with, Mom?

Immediately, Kitty jerked around to glare at the cuddly ball of fluff padding from the corridor the others had come out of, cocking its teensy striped gray head in cute curiosity.  It blinked its adorably huge eyes at Tatiana, its cute little nose wrinkled in delightful innocence.  Is that the cyborg you were gonna eviscerate and spread her steaming entrails across the Tear to feed the tadflies?

Tatiana felt herself frown.

Go back, Keeton! the mother snapped.  We will come for you when we’re done with the mouthy little twit.

Instead of obeying, the tiny kitten wandered closer and sniffed at Tatiana.  This one smells funny.  It batted at her face with an abnormally huge paw.  What is that thing in its head, Mom?

Darkstone, take him back to the den.  I’ll deal with him later.  The big momma fluffball turned back to scowl at Tatiana.

But Mom—  In the background, the baby cat howled, struggling in vain to get away from the adult that snagged him by the scruff of the neck.  She could still hear him yowling in the distance, almost a minute later, after they carried him away.

Encephalon seemed to be monitoring the situation intently.  What are they saying, archon?

“They’re saying,” Tatiana said, looking up at the cat that held her pinned, “They’re going to let me go now, or little Keeton with his scruffy ear and broken tail and all of his cuddly little kitten buddies are gonna go missing.”  She gave a smirk.  “Or, at least, half of them will.”

Momma Kitty snarled something undecipherable, but she backed off almost immediately.

“And now,” Tatiana said, getting to her feet and dusting herself off, “you should probably go before the ship gets any more upset.  It would be such a shame to lose half your kittens.”  She turned and walked over to the sword.

Momma Kitty was still standing where she’d left her, scowling at Tatiana as if she were a soon-to-be-dead mouse.

Tatiana snickered and made a dismissive gesture.  “Shoo, Kitty.”

The jaggle didn’t shoo.  Instead, Kitty started padding toward her, her purple eyes intense with smug, violent purpose.  We are aware the ship is dying.  Its processes are already beginning to show high levels of flux, so it should only be days, now, Princess.  Kitty took three steps closer, until she was looking Tatiana in the eye.  Sooner or later, the ship won’t be here to protect you, and we dare you to try to leave early.  In fact, we’d enjoy it.  Then, in an unpleasant barrage of mentally blood-soaked pictures and impressions, Kitty showed Tatiana exactly what was going to happen to her the moment she tried to leave the ship, or the ship expired.  Then the striped gray jaggle spun and strutted off, barking orders at the others to follow and ‘leave the cyborg to her tomb.’

“Thanks for the sword!” Tatiana taunted after them.  She got a hiss in return.

Chuckling, Tatiana yanked the tovlar blade out of the floor and hefted it, calculating how many jaggles she could cut in half with it before her arm got tired.

Judging by earlier attempts to explore Our corridors by cyborgs, We would say that the likelier end is that the arm gets ripped off, not tired, and Our further guess is zero, because they are faster and stronger than you.

“That’s ridiculous.”  Tatiana lowered the sword tip to the floor again, already feeling the strain of holding it up.  “So, uh, think you could transport me and Miles out of here?”  That would throw those dumb kitties for a loop.

We need to talk about the Phage, Encephalon said.  It killed Our entire civilization in the course of ten molt-cycles—

Tatiana sighed deeply and crawled up to sit on the ‘throne.’  “The Phage is dead, just like all the Aashaanti.  Believe me.  It’s not an issue anymore.  How about we talk about invisibility, instead?  Those robots outside—that’s some sweet tech.  Is it holographic or what?  And think I could put that on an eighty ton machine?”

There was a very long pause, then the ship said, Are all members of your species as incredibly short-sighted as you?

“Short-sighted?”  Tatiana snorted.  “We’re talking full-blown cloaking devices.  Do you know what a game-changer that would be?”

Almost reluctantly, the ship said, Your civilization doesn’t have simple light relocation technologies?  As if Encephalon had suddenly realized it was talking to a nose-picking Stone Age spear-chucker.

Tatiana grinned and leaned forward on one knee.  “Not yet.

Fortune's Folly
Tatiana’s first day on the alien ship passed with her discussing invisibility, alien shredder machines, jump technology, and anything else she found interesting.  When the ship several times tried to turn the conversation back to the boring and very dead Phage, she immediately cut it off with more talk about alien technology.  Tovlar, for instance, had been widely used in the core structures of alien ships, especially heartships, which is where the Tritons apparently got it, and the AlphaGens after that.

Further, Aashaanti ships were alive.  Like a gigantic, sentient metal organism, the ship moved, breathed, and pumped its own lifebloods and nutrient solutions around its internal structures like the circulatory system in a human body.  The ship took her to see one such pumping station, where massive amounts of sapphire gel moved through tubes larger than her body.  The metal required to build a hiveship, Encephalon told her, was unique to the Aashaanti home planet, though the material could be carefully reproduced with the proper ingredients and growth medium.

That was all well and good, but what Tatiana really wanted to know about were the guns.

At first, the ship had denied their existence, saying that no right-minded Kelthari or Gobragi fighter would ever challenge an Aashaanti hive.  The archons alone could kill everyone aboard or simply short-circuit their primitive electricity-based technologies, depending on their mood.

With prodding, however, Tatiana managed to get him to produce the goods.  Encephalon reluctantly took her to a warehouse the size of a small city filled to the brim with alien weaponry.

We were going to use this against the Phage, Encephalon told her, as she stood in the doorway, soaking it all in in awe.  We considered actual combat to be a last resort—our last physical skirmishes had been over a thousand egg cycles before, hive against hive, and We were not proud of that history.  With the Phage, however, We were forced to embrace our violent and primitive past.

Again with the Phage.  Beginning to get a little irritated with the ship’s persistence, Tatiana strode into the chamber and picked up the first thing she saw—an utterly badass-looking weapon that she could totally envision blowing away bad guys from beneath Milar’s rippling, dragony pecs.

She grinned as she peered down the barrel, totally able to see that sculpted, sweat-glistening chest tense as he Ramboed his way through a herd of running jaggles.

Unfortunately, the gun was about twice as heavy as Tatiana was willing to pick up for any sustained period of time.  She lowered it back to the floor with a thunk.  “What’s this one do?” she asked, gesturing at the gun.

The ship was silent a moment, then said, Before We give you any further information on Our civilization’s weaponry or military technologies, We think it would be in both of Our best interest to talk about the Phage.  The way the ship said it, it almost sounded like it wanted to trade

Tatiana groaned and rolled her eyes.  “Fiiiiiine.  What about it?”

The ship immediately began pouring out its life story, about how the Phage came from an alternate dimension, how it started to infect people and control them, how it spread faster than any disease they’d ever seen, how they didn’t realize it was acting intelligently until it was too late, yada yada yada…

Tatiana yawned and waited for the lecture to be over, wandering around the massive armory as she listened, continuously checking her mental clock as the minutes droned on into hours, here and there giggling delightedly when she found a cool new blade or what was obviously a badass alien mech suit.

So, Encephalon finished, as you can see, the Phage is still alive, and must be sent back to its home dimension or eradicated completely.

“Uh-huh,” Tatiana said.  “Hey!”  She picked up a cute little pistol made from what appeared to be green glass.  “What’s this one do?”

The ship seemed to watch her in silence for several minutes before it said, You didn’t hear anything We just said, did you?

“I told you,” Tatiana said, “the Phage is dead.  This is a lot more useful to me.”  She held up the gun.

That’s a combat water purifier, Encephalon said.

“But it would, say, liquefy a human body if caught in the blast, right?” Tatiana pressed excitedly.

No, it is a water purifier.

Tatiana frowned and dropped it.  “Fine.  What’s the most dangerous weapon on this ship?”  Then, before Encephalon could respond, she said, “Oh, wait.  Never mind.  It’s that thing locked away in its super-top-secret room so nobody can touch it, right?”  Then, before Encephalon could respond to that, she said, “So what’s the second most dangerous weapon on this ship?”

The ship’s response seemed almost tired.  We consumed quite a bit of resources today.  We recommend you return to your chambers and think about whether or not you want to witness your entire species consumed by the most dangerous creature this dimension has ever seen.

There it went again, talking about the Phage like it was a creature.  That was just, well, superstitious crap.

Superstitious? the ship demanded, sounding suddenly furious.  We lost Our entire civilization to this creature.  We spent ten molt-cycles studying it, trying to find ways to thwart its spread, and it always prevailed.  It preyed on the scientists first, then the archons.  It fed Us wrong commands, wrong information.  It sabotaged Us from the inside as it learned, gained strength.  For cycles.

“Sounds a lot like the myths from Old Earth,” Tatiana agreed.  “They always panicked when they were being wiped out by a plague.”

For a long moment, there was nothing but silence in her head.  Then, a bitter, You must be very tired.  You should sleep.  And, a moment later, Tatiana felt the stomach-churning roil of transport, then dropped to the floor beside Milar inside the cushiony red-and-blue archon’s chamber.  She was frowning, just starting to sit up to say she wasn’t a five-year-old to be grounded, when she inexplicably lost consciousness.

CHAPTER 12: Survivor

Fortune's Folly

18th of May, 3006

Uncharted Jungle

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
“What’s the time?” Jeanne asked.

Joel groaned, feeling like he’d been set upon by orangutans with hammers.  “Huh?”  He spat out blood, then followed that with a couple teeth.  Palladium ingots: 2.  Joel Triton’s Face: 0.

“We were supposed to pick Patrick up at nine.  Ten at the latest.”

Joel blinked, trying to make sense of his situation.  He was reeling and dizzy, and his whole body felt tingly, almost electrified.  Nerve damage? he thought, swallowing hard.  He felt around him, trying to determine which way was up, and was surprised to find over two thirds of the palladium bars he remembered were gone.  Brain damage? his panicked mind added.

He prayed it wasn’t brain damage.  He’d already had his fair share of that, when the Nephyr in Yolk Factory 14 had used his lifeline to wipe his language center clean a few—five?—days ago.  Then, by pure dumb luck, he’d had some sort of weird reaction to the raw Yolk he’d fallen into during his struggle with Martin, and his memory had apparently come back better than before, leaving him using words like ‘sepia,’ ‘ochre,’ and ‘olivaceous’ in his everyday speech—ridiculously obscure words he didn’t even remember learning, much less ever using.

At least his chest wasn’t hurting any more.  That was nice.

“Jeanne?” Joel managed, propping himself up against the steep slant in the floor.  It was dark except for his cracked datapad screen, which was buried under several bars of palladium against the wall.  Joel himself had been flipped over and was lying on his head, the rush of palladium packed around him, holding him there.

“The time, Joel,” Jeanne said.  “I can’t figure out what time it is.”

Joel extracted himself from the palladium with a groan.  “Jeanne?”  He had seen her kill herself.  He had seen her blow her brains across the ship.  He reached out and pulled the datapad free of ingots.  With the screen cracked, he had to squint to make out the cockpit, which was now awash in sacks of Shrieker nodules, some of which had ruptured, coating the walls, electronics, viewscreen, ceiling with the blue goo of coagulating Yolk…  When the ship had started to roll, it must have shot the grav generators, because it had turned everything inside to hamburger.  Under the mess, beside the copilot’s chair, he saw a foot.

“Hey Jeanne,” Joel said, “think you could get me out of here, now?  I’m beat up pretty bad.”

There was a long pause.  “Get you out of where, Joel?”

Joel frowned.  “The goddamn box you locked me in, woman.”

She hesitated.  “I locked you in a box?”

She shot herself in the head.  Joel grimaced.  “Yeah, but I’ll explain later.  Just open up your secret palladium cubby for me, okay?”

“Is this an attempt to figure out where I stash my goods?” Jeanne demanded, voice sharp with suspicion.

Joel snorted.  “No, Jeanne, this is me trying to save your life before you exsanguinate.”  He flinched, realizing what he’d done, and that Jeanne would have no idea what the word meant.  “Look, you shot yourself, okay?  Just open up the cubby for me and let me take a look.”

There was a confused hesitation, then, “I didn’t shoot myself…why would I shoot myself?”

Joel groaned.  “Please, Jeanne.  Just trust someone in your miserable life, okay?  You told me about my son Courage, then you shot yourself, then we crashed going like Mach 3.”

The ship around him shuddered as something else, somewhere, exploded.

“Jeanne, hurry, okay?  We’re lucky this thing hasn’t been hit by fires yet.”

“I put out all the fires,” Jeanne said.

And, though the ship’s electronics should have been smoking from the engine surges, at the very least, there was no roasting equipment assaulting the sanctity of the cabin.  Joel peered at her foot, which was even then sticking out from under several broken-open bags of Yolk nodules.  So the crash hadn’t been as bad as he’d thought…  “Jeanne, please just open up your palladium store.  It’s in the lower right side of the left-hand wall going in.”

“There’s a safety release in the lower front left corner,” Jeanne said.  “If you’re really in there, get yourself out.”

“It’s completely blocked by palladium right now,” Joel growled.  “It shifted in the crash.  It would take me ten minutes to get to the bottom of it.”

“Then I’ll see you in ten minutes,” Jeanne responded.

“Jeanne,” Joel growled at the foot, “do you want to die?  You shot yourself.  Open the goddamn door!”

There was a moment of hesitation, then the door slid open, light assailing his senses.  On the cracked datapad screen, Jeanne stepped into view and squinted at the secret compartment.  “Holy shit, Joel.  How did you get in there?  Is that why we crashed?  Ugh, just look at your goddamn face.  Tell me you didn’t bleed on my palladium.”  Then there was hesitation, followed by an icy, “Joel, why is two thirds of my palladium missing?”

But Joel didn’t hear the last.  He had frozen in place, icy fingers of terror working down his spine as he was suddenly given a view of a perfectly empty room—except for Jeanne’s combat-booted foot jutting from the mass of torn and mangled Yolk sacks.  On the screen, though, Jeanne was standing with her arms crossed, glaring in at him.  Joel’s heart started to hammer like a broken freighter engine.  “Jeanne?” he whispered.

The woman on the screen sighed, deeply, and bent to reach into the compartment to pull him out.  Even though the Jeanne-image reached all the way back to where Joel had extracted himself, he felt nothing.  She pulled back looking irritated.  “So, what, you beg me to let you loose and you’re just gonna sit there?”

Joel’s heart was running away with him, on the very verge of panic.  “Am I hallucinating?” he asked.  “Or dead?”

“You don’t look dead to me,” Jeanne muttered.  “Though I guess if I told you about Courage, you were probably on your way to getting that way.  Why’d we crash, Joel?  I don’t remember it.  You said someone was shooting at us?”

Though the woman on the cracked screen was peering into his chamber, Joel saw nothing but empty air in the cockpit itself.  He swallowed, hard, terrified to move, terrified to go uncover whatever lay under those broken bags of Yolk, terrified to speak, terrified to breathe.

Jeanne sighed, deeply.  “All right, you just stay there.  I’m going to go get this baby flying again.  You’re free to sit there and feel miserable, if that’s what your mommy let you do whenever you stubbed your toe.”  She turned and walked off his screen again.

“Jeanne?” Joel rasped, suddenly afraid of being alone with his troubled mind.

She ignored him, leaving him nothing but the pounding of his heart to fill the silence of the empty room.

“Jeanne!” Joel shouted.

“Goddamn it, what?” she cried, from a distance this time.  “I’m seriously busy, Joel.  Belle got tore to shit in the crash.  We wanna get outta here, we’re gonna have to do some serious patch-up work.  Aanaho loves us, though.  The cores are intact.”  The screen remained empty.

Joel waited where he was, staring at the combat-booted foot for several minutes before he could work up the courage to leave his tiny cubby prison.  He crawled through the muck of dead Shrieker larvae and torn Yolk bags, dragging his datapad with him until he was within arm’s reach of Jeanne.  He hesitated, then reached out and pulled the Yolk sacks away from her body, revealing the woman who had birthed his only child into a pile of leaves and forest detritus, dead in a sickly pool of blood and Yolk.

…or was she?

After a moment, he realized her chest was still rising and falling, and his heart beat a staccato against his ribs.  “Jeanne?” he asked.

She didn’t so much as twitch.

“Jeanne!”  Joel slapped her face gently.  “Come on, baby.  Wake up.”

Her head didn’t roll right, which made Joel flinch, dread coalescing in his stomach.  He gingerly turned her face to look at the damage.

Half of her skull was gone.  A good third of her brain had been sheared completely away.  Blood was oozing slowly out of the wound, adding its crimson to a much-too-large puddle on the floor.

“Oh shit,” Joel babbled.  “Oh shit oh shit oh shit.”  He picked up her hand, which was cool to the touch.  “Jeanne, I’m so sorry.  I’m so very sorry.”

She didn’t respond.  As he watched, her breathing was slowing.  He felt for a pulse.  It was there, but weak.

Joel’s heart was hammering as he said, “Jeanne, look, you never deserved that.  I’m sorry.  I’m so very sorry.  Before you go, just know that, okay?  I was an execrable person when we met.  Shit, maybe I’m still an execrable person, but I’m trying, okay?  I’m trying to get better.  I promise.”  Tears were stinging at his eyes, now.  “Jeanne, I always wanted a kid.  I thought the gods were punishing me by not letting me have one, but it was the other way around.  I wouldn’t have done anything but wreck a kid’s life.  I’m so sorry.”

After a pause, Jeanne drew another ragged breath, a rattling struggle suggesting broken ribs, lungs full of blood.  When she let it out, crimson burbled to her lips.

“I wanted a kid,” Joel said.  “Not back then, but lately.  I’ve been looking back on my life, thinking what an utter wretched person I was.  I spent all my time thinking about money and trying to survive, you know?  I never spent much time thinking about people, unless you counted wondering if Geo was gonna cut on me a little for peculating a few nodules here and there.”

There was another pause, longer, and Jeanne took another rattling, wheezing breath.  Shallower this time.  More blood leaked down her lips on the exhale.

“Oh Jeanne.”  Joel dropped his head to her hand, miserable.  He was responsible for this.  He knew that down to his very core.  He was responsible for her hurt, responsible for the scalps and the necklace, responsible for her death.  He, of all people, had known what it was like to be young and idealistic, the awfulness of being robbed of that innocence, and yet he’d used her anyway, left her stranded anyway because he’d become too hardened by hunger and greed to care.  It began to weigh on him like someone was piling stones inside his heart.

Jeanne took another breath, barely a whisper.  This time, she didn’t even fill her lungs.

“Jeanne, I’m sorry,” Joel said.  “I’m so very sorry.  Please forgive me.  Please.”

Jeanne Ivory, the feared pirate who had wanted to be a smuggler, died as he held her.  Her body relaxed, and the fluttering under her eyelids ceased.

“Sorry,” Joel whimpered.  “I’m sorry.”  He took a deep breath, felt those stones in his stomach and heart begin to turn to acid, and dropped his head to her chest and cried.

“What the hell are you doing, Joel?” Jeanne asked a few minutes later.  “That someone you know?”

Joel jerked and spun to look.  The cockpit was empty.

“Huh.  That bitch looks a lot like me.  They try to send in an agent or something?  I hear they got robots they use to infiltrate rebel networks.  That what made us go down?”

Joel detected a bit of motion on the datapad and looked.  On its cracked screen, Jeanne was crouching beside him, peering at her own corpse.

Suddenly, his throat was too constricted to speak.  He had to swallow several times to get it loosened enough to say, “Jeanne?”

“Yeah, asshole?  I can call you asshole, right?  Seeing how you said I actually told you how much of an asshole you’ve been, I figure it’s only fair.”  On the datapad screen, she looked at him.  “How did you get me to talk about it?  I don’t remember much after leaving Wideman with Patrick and you commandeering my ship to go steal Yolk.  I know I intended to kill you, but jeez—what a total clusterfuck this is, huh?”

Joel glanced at the dead body, then at the datapad, then at the empty air beside him.  “Jeanne, I…”

Her beautiful—younger??—face highlighted between two cracks in the screen, Jeanne rolled her eyes.  “Oh, fine.  I’ll skip the asshole part.  After all, for some reason, I really feel better about it.  I mean, it’s like a weight fell off my shoulders, you know?  Like telling you actually set me free.  Must’ve been what it was, ’cause I honestly don’t remember.”

The voice, he finally realized, was coming from the ship’s speaker system.

“Jeanne,” he whispered, as goosebumps began to run up and down his arms.  “What the hell is going on?”

On the pad, she grunted and stood up.  “Dunno.  Looks like we got some structural damage, an overloaded engine, and a dead bitch on our floor.”


“So!” Jeanne said, holding out a mechanicking tool to him on the screen.  “You take this and go check on the forward deflectors.  I’m gonna go see what I can do about the electronic meltdown in the belly.  Once we’re flying again, we can ditch the bitch in a marsh somewhere.  I’m sure the Coalition won’t mind, seeing how they sent her here to die.”

Joel didn’t reach for the tool.  On the screen, Jeanne snorted and dropped it.  “Fine, stay here and whimper over a corpse.  I’m getting us back in the air.”  Then she turned and, before she was completely off the datapad screen, disappeared.

“Oh fuck me,” Joel said.  “Fuck me fuck me fuck me—”

“Maybe later!” the ship’s speakers called to him, from the engine room.

Joel got up, leaving his datapad half-submerged in the pool of Yolk slime and blood, and ran.  He got all the way to the back of the ship before his flight was impeded by a mountainous pile of bagged Shrieker nodules, most of which were still intact since they had been packed so tightly inside the ship.  Around the surface and edges of the pile, though, where the rolling and jostling of the ship had crushed and pulverized the outside bags, blue yolk dribbled between the ripped canvas, staining the mangled cargo shelves, dripping from the ceiling, slickening the walls and corridor.  A million baby Shriekers must have died here today, but stubborn Jeanne Ivory had somehow lived on…

“Aanaho,” Joel whimpered, getting on his hands and knees and starting to crawl over the mountain towards the ship’s exit.  “Aanaho I’m losing my mind.”  He eased his way through the slime to the cargo bay door, only to realize that the button he needed to hit to exit was buried under a thousand pounds of Shrieker nodules.

He was hyperventilating, starting to turn around and go looking for a forward escape hatch, when Jeanne said through a speaker only a few feet from his head, “Oh, shit, sorry about that, Joel.  Those idiots back on Rath must’ve packed that crap in here good.  Here, let me open the cargo bay for you.  When you’re out there checking the deflectors, be sure to take a look at the landing gear, too.  I don’t think it actually deployed, so we might be in luck.  Just some cosmetic shit, maybe a little electronics work…”

The cargo bay door opened, and Joel slid out into the sunlit jungle on an avalanche of Yolk sacks.  Immediately, the humid jungle heat began to penetrate his body, making him sweat.  Behind Belle, he saw pieces of their ship strewn in the thick, battered foliage.  Joel took that all in in a split-second, then turned and bolted into the jungle, leaving the ship nestled in its own arboreal grave.

Behind him, he heard Jeanne call, “Joel?”  Then, when he kept running, with more panic, Joel!  Don’t you dare leave me here, you sonofabitch!  I need your help!”

I need your help, please call…  Joel stumbled to a halt, his chest on fire, his back to the ship.  He remembered getting that header message, over and over, while he had been cavorting with whores and high-rollers in Boomberg fourteen years ago.  He remembered deleting them, the contents unheard.  He remembered getting annoyed at her persistence, amused at the desperation in her voice.

It was the same desperation she used now, as he ran away a second time.

Very slowly, Joel turned, expecting to see some ghostly form standing beside the open cargo bay, some vengeful ghost there to haunt him.  Instead, he saw Jeanne Ivory’s expensive pirate ship twisted on its side, propped up against a partially-shredded ancient blackwood tree, a pathetic thing beat to a barely-recognizable hunk of mangled metal.

That’s not going anywhere fast, Joel thought.  He had a better chance of getting back into the air by running back to Rath and asking the local shipyard for a free replacement than somehow getting that torn and broken thing to work again.

Swallowing hard, Joel took a few reluctant steps towards the ship.  Jeanne can’t be alive in there, he thought.  She’s dead.  She blew out her own brains.  I watched her die.

But he’d also watched her walk across the screen of his datapad, cursing the ‘dead bitch’ on her floor.  Carefully, step by dreaded step, he went back to the open cargo bay, which was attracting a horde of tadflies on the sacks and shiny metal, but not the Yolk.  Never the Yolk.

“Jeanne?” he called tentatively into the ship.  “You there?”

“So,” the ship called back to him, “your cowardly ass didn’t run off, after all.  Good.  You get a look at the deflectors?  They’re screaming at me they’re busted.”

The speaker, Joel noted, that the words were coming from was now the one at the open hatch.  He frowned, remembering the way the doors opened, the way Jeanne’s voice came from different places on the ship.  An AI?  It was an easy explanation.  Having no family, no home, and very few friends, Jeanne did put most of her money into her ship.  He was sure it had all sorts of interesting upgrades.  He prayed that was what was happening.

Joel swallowed, hard.  “You had a computer on your ship, didn’t you, Jeanne?”

“I have a computer on my ship,” Jeanne growled.  “Stop talking about it in the past tense, damn it.  It’s not that badly beat up.”

Joel glanced at the trail of wreckage behind him, then swallowed.  “Where’s the computer located, Jeanne?” he asked.  He was gonna unplug it, tear it out, cut it away, anything to remove that reminder that this woman was somehow talking to him when she shouldn’t be.

“Side panel, pilot’s seat.  Marked with the big red X.  Why, you think something’s wrong?”

“Maybe,” Joel said tentatively.  “I’m gonna go see, okay?”

“Yeah, whatever.  I’ll be working on the core.”  The words came from the engine room again.

It took every ounce of self-control Joel had to crawl back over the mountain of Yolk into the damaged ship.  Once he got to the other side of the mass of Shrieker nodules, once more faced with the darkness of the interior of the ship, Joel had to fight the instinct to bolt all over again.

“Jeanne?” he asked quietly, not wanting to be alone despite the fact he was about to destroy the computer causing the issue.  “You there?”

“Working!” ship-Jeanne called from the engine room staircase to the right and below.

Somehow, Joel found the courage to walk down the hall, back to the cockpit.  Jeanne was right where he’d left her, dead, her brains splattered all over the pilot’s console and part of the viewfinder, her blood mingled with crushed and torn nodules.  Joel went over to the pilot’s chair and, without touching the bloody console, opened the panel marked with the red X, also dripping with blue nodule slime.  Inside, the computer hummed away, still supplied with emergency power.  Joel dug his hand into the guts and found the power node.

“Hey Jeanne?” Joel called.  “Can you hear me?!”

“Yeah, what do you want?” she cried from a speaker in the belly of the ship.

Joel yanked the computer power node free and the ship electronics immediately died around him.  He took a deep breath and leaned back against the wall, tears stinging his eyes.  Just a computer, he thought.  Not a ghost.  Just a malfunctioning computer.  It had to have knocked a few circuits loose in the crash.

Trying to calm his breathing, Joel watched the ship flicker around him, obviously some sort of electrical short between the core and the electronics in the bridge.  He sat there until his heart rate stabilized, raw Yolk soaking through his pants and wetting his legs and buttocks with cold slime, hand still fisted around the computer’s power supply.

Need to call for help, Joel thought.  But to do so, he’d have to plug the ship’s computer back in, and the last thing he wanted to do was cope with an undead Jeanne again.  No, he’d much rather die of starvation waiting for someone to notice his wreckage than hear the ship calling his name again.

“What was it you said you wanted?” Jeanne’s voice demanded from the ship speaker right beside Joel’s ear.

Joel screamed, jumped away from the wall, but his arm was still tangled in the computer mainframe and he only succeeded in sliding around in the greasy blue pool of Yolk.  Hitting his face in the metallic mixture, Joel shrieked, and, like a terrified animal, yanked at his arm until it came free.  Then he rolled, got back to his feet dripping Yolk and blood, and ran back to the cargo bay, then scrambled over the mountain of Yolk and fled out the back cargo door.

“Joel!” Jeanne’s voice cried from behind him.  “What the hell’s wrong with you, Joel?  You hit your head a little too hard or something?”

The computer isn’t hooked into the ship, Joel’s mind wildly thought.  The computer isn’t even hooked up…  He let out a terrified, gut-deep wail and bolted, this time not turning back at her cries for help.


Fortune's Folly

20th of May, 3006

Aashaanti Hiveship Encephalon

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
Tatiana woke to tiny grunting-growling sounds and the pressure of something heavy on her chest, combined with vicious tugging on her jumpsuit.  She started in surprise and glanced down to see the ass-end of a striped jaggle baby sticking out from under her gore-encrusted overshirt.  The tiny beast had burrowed under her outer shirt and was yanking and ripping at her jumpsuit pocket.  Tatiana sat up, blinking groggily.  In response, the kitten sank its razorlike claws into her chest and hissed.

Ow!”  Tatiana grabbed the little beast by its bristly, painfully sharp fur, and yanked it free of her jumpsuit.  The kitten yowled, and Tatiana received a reflexive quadruple set of claw-marks down her arm for the effort.  With a startled yell, Tatiana threw it aside, bashing it into the rubbery wall of the room.

Instead of conveniently falling unconscious so she could bag herself a jaggle and show it proudly off to Milar afterwards, the little kitten landed on its feet, spun, and launched itself at Tatiana’s face, silvery claws splayed wide.

In reflex, Tatiana kicked it out of the air with a startled foot and quickly crab-scuttled away, heart pounding.  It had been going for her eyes.

No, she decided quickly.  The cuddly little thing had just been looking for a treat or something.  It was terribly confused.  Probably lonely.  Afraid

The kitten hit the far wall again, popped back onto its feet like a possessed stuffed animal in a horror holovid, puffed up until its matted fur was standing completely on end, and hissed at her, its tiny translucent fangs growing to several inches.

“Hey there, little guy,” Tatiana began gently, holding out a hand in peace.  “What a cute little—”

The kitten launched itself at her face again, yowling, its mercury talons spread wide to lash at her left orbit.

“Aaaaah!” Tatiana screamed, ducking out of the way as the angry feline flew by, then watching in horror as it stopped its slide with a single foot, claws digging into the alien rubber, spun impossibly fast, and, like some sort of demon-kitten on LSD, launched itself at her again with an infernal howl.

Tatiana rolled onto her hands and knees, intending to get to her feet and run, when the kitten sank its claws and teeth into her ass.

Oooooooowwwwwwwwwwwwwww!” Tatiana screamed.  “Ow, ow ow ow get off get off!”  She turned and tried to shove it away from her, but it sank its teeth into her hand, instead.

Tatiana stared down in shock as the possessed kitten’s translucent fangs extended into her palm, then screamed.  She yanked her hand away, but the cat’s head and body came with it, jaw latched onto her hand in a death grip, claws slicing holes in her ass and jumpsuit as they came free.

“Oh you little son of a bitch, I hate you I hate you I want you to dieeeeeee!” Tatiana shrieked, getting to her feet and thrashing, slamming the kitten repeatedly into the wall.  It doggedly held on, puffed up like a Satanic gray marshmallow.

Trouble, Archon? the ship asked, sounding amused.

“Get it off!” Tatiana shrieked, throwing the kitten to the floor and stepping on its tail.  It fell free, only to immediately sink its teeth into her calf, instead, wrapping itself around her leg like a tree-climbing hellbeast.  “Aaaaaaaahhh!” she shrieked, kicking out repeatedly.  When the demonic cat remained firmly attached to her shin with all five appendages, she started driving it into the wall, again and again, screaming every curse word she knew.  Eventually, the kitten’s jaws loosened enough for her to peel it away from her with her other foot—only to have it circle around and start clawing its way up her back, heading for a jugular.

Transport me!” Tatiana shrieked, ramming her back into the wall, squishing the kitten in place with all the weight she could manage.  Still, the cat somehow managed to keep climbing, one claw-sinking inch at a time.  “Help!” Tatiana screamed.  “It’s going for the throat!”

That one has always been quite the little scrapper, the ship noted.  Though it never wins.  It’s half the size of its siblings.  Definitely has a chip on its shoulder.

“Get it off!” Tatiana screamed, flailing.

Still, We’d give it an eighty percent chance of winning this engagement.

“Heeellllp meeeeeee!” Tatiana shrieked, grabbing it by the tail and yanking down, halting its upward climb.  In response, the kitten sank its claws all the way in.  “Aaaagh!  Please!”

So as We were saying about the Phage, the ship said calmly.  It went after Our scientists first…

Tatiana had slid down the wall in boredom, the kitten still clinging doggedly to her back in an uneasy stalemate, before the ship finished ranting about an ancient disease that probably only affected aliens anyway.

And so We put everything We had into building sixteen arks, Our last hope to survive the onslaught—  The ship hesitated.  Merciful Aanaho.  Again, you didn’t hear a single thing We just said, did you?!

“This little bastard’s metal claws really hurt,” Tatiana growled bitterly.  “Oh, and I’m bleeding out from my leg and my hand.  Made it hard to concentrate.”

For the first time since she’d met it, the ship cursed, and Tatiana got a vivid image of herself and the kitten becoming one as they were crushed into paste upon rapid deceleration against one of the ship’s walls.  Tatiana felt her stomach churn, then when she looked down, the slashes on her arms and hands were gone.  A moment later, the kitten vanished from under her, only to appear again a few feet away, its formerly cute little twitchy pink nose and scarred-up ear and muzzle now soaked red with her blood.  Tatiana narrowed her eyes.

The kitten narrowed his.

Tatiana scooped up the dragonfly katana from beside Milar’s sleeping form and yanked the blade free.  “You wanna go, you demonic plushie?” she demanded, waving her new sword around.  “Bring it!”

The kitten immediately hurled itself at her with another yowl.

Before it reached her, a huge gray paw batted it out of the air, throwing it to the far side of the room as the huge gray jaggle lunged between them with a roar.

Keeton, I told you to stay with your siblings!  Sekhmet turned its back to Tatiana and her sword as if they didn’t even exist, glaring down at its wayward spawn.  What in the bowels of the Tritons’ seven unholy factories are you doing here?

She smells funny, Mom.

We are aware of that.  Go home.  I’ll deal with the cyborg.

Immediately, the kitten’s puffed-out fur flattened back to its normal, matted state.  But Mom… the kitten whined.

Go!  Now!

Grumbling, the kitten hung its head and started slinking from the room—pausing only long enough to turn and give Tatiana a narrow-eyed look of pure, psychotic malevolence.  Then, at a hiss from its mother, it yelped and bounded away.

And you, the mother jaggle snapped, turning her attention to Tatiana.  You were going to slice at my son with a sword?!  Her purple eyes and striped face were filled with fury.

“No,” Tatiana blurted, quickly lowering the sword behind her back.  “I was just…uh…practicing.  He was helping me practice.”

I’ll deal with you in a couple days, twit, the jaggle snarled.  Then, scowling, it stalked closer.  And until then, if you touch my son again, you lose the hand.

He attacked me!” Tatiana cried.  “He was the instigator!  I’m the innocent one here.”

There was zero understanding in the creature’s amethyst eyes as they scowled back at her.  The only innocent here is my son.  That’s why I’ll let him eat your heart, once the hiveship perishes and I come to slice it out of your chest.  Then, without another word, the jaggle stalked away.

Tatiana blinked at the creature’s back.  “So, uh,” she said, once it was gone, “any chance you could wake up my friend, here, so I can show him that armory?  Please?”

Encephalon gave her no indication that it had heard.  Instead, it said, Now that We’ve had a chance to study your biology, We’ve calculated your relative age at two and a half molt-cycles.  The image of you was delivered a little over eleven molt-cycles ago.  Your body doesn’t retain the telltale impressions of long-term stasis, maybe only two thirds of a molt-cycle, tops, yet the image of you is unmistakable, and obviously older than you are.  Perhaps you would like to explain?

“Erm,” Tatiana said, glancing down at Milar, who continued to snore loudly, a la alien hiveship roofie.  Sensing a chance to get her badass to the armory, she said, “Honestly, I think he’d be your better bet to explain the weird shit.  His brother was the one drawing the images.”  Though, if a molt-cycle was twelve and a half years, that meant the image had been made about a hundred and forty years ago—before Patrick, Milar, or Tatiana had even been born.

The ship considered.  “Is that the father of your child?”

Tatiana blinked, then threw back her head and laughed.  “No, I don’t think so.  I just met the guy.”

Encephalon took a moment, then said, As you were sleeping, We took the time to study your biological makeup, and We found an anomaly in what appears to be your reproductive organs, growing at an almost exponential rate.  Immediately, a screen appeared on a normal-looking wall beside her, showing cells dividing.  Here, We will progress it further with Our estimate of what is happening, biologically.  The cells continued to split at super-speed, until a tiny lizard-thing began to take shape, and from that, a bulb-headed little bab—

“The bastard,” Tatiana breathed.

However, with your current tech placement and node alignment, We don’t see how it could possibly survive past one and a half purge-cycles without killing you both.  Hopefully, this is a well-understood issue and the parasite is removed before it expands to the point it displaces your upgrades.

Tatiana swallowed hard.  “Shit,” she whispered, glancing down at the sleeping collie.  “Shit, shit.”

But We’re confident you have contingencies to deal with that, so We’ll move on, as We have very limited time.  Right now, since you’ve made it clear you are disinterested in discussing matters of universal importance, how about We talk about the time-space anomaly that dropped the figurine into your pocket.  Only certain archons were ever able to manage the time-space jumps, but actually disrupting matter of a dimension was the realm of a very, select few.  Which archon do you know?

Still stuck on the idea of exponentially-growing parasites, Tatiana frowned.  “Huh?”

The archon novus that put the figurine in your pocket.  He has to have known you in his own lifetime to be able to follow your life-thread.  This suggests to Us that perhaps some Aashaanti still survive.  Which one is it?  Have you met him or her yet?

“Wait wait wait wait,” Tatiana said.  “Let’s go back to the part where you said I was pregnant.”

Let’s not, Encephalon said, clearly perturbed, because, at this point, your lack of interest in things of universal importance is beginning to translate to a lack of Our interest in your ability to breathe.  Who is the archon who left the object, and how do We contact him?

Tatiana frowned.  “What object?”

There was total silence.  Then, like it was talking to a lobotomized chimp, In your pocket.  The object the infant quadruped was trying to retrieve when you went to stop it.  An archon novus left it for you while you slept, too quickly for Us to contact him.

Tatiana slapped at her chest and felt a palm-sized lump in her left chest pocket.  Frowning, she reached under her overshirt, unzipped the pocket, and pulled out a silver object that looked like a confused representation of modern art.  It was obviously a piece of meteorite, with the typical Widmanstätten crisscrossing pattern of flashing, interlocking metal crystals on the two sheared and polished surfaces.  One half of the meteorite had a vaguely familiar circular military unit emblem carved into it, along with the words Die With Honor, Rise With Fury, which melded into a weird insect-bird statuette vaguely representing the bird hieroglyph Kitty had shown her on the other face.

“Uh,” Tatiana said, staring down at it.  “That’s…not mine.”

Apparently it is, since an interdimensional traveler quite clearly took the trouble to put it in your pocket, Encephalon said.  The ship sounded almost…jealous?

First a cool sword with her picture, now a weird metal nugget with the emblem of a military unit with a martyrdom complex and an alien insect-bird.

Aanaho Ineriho, the ship snapped.  That is an archon, you silly creature.  Only the archons ever grow wings.  It was from ancient times, when they needed to fly in order to colonize other hivesites. 

“Oh yeah?” Tatiana demanded.  “That archon thingie that Kitty showed me didn’t have wings.

Archon wings are an obsolete biological adaptation and have been trimmed in development for thousands of molt-cycles, now.  They’re merely symbolic.

“Oh.”  Tatiana looked down at the bird-bug emblem, then flipped the meteorite over to the obviously human military insignia carved into the other side.  Die with honor, rise with fury…  Why was that ringing a bell?  The picture polished into the meteorite was of the head of a snarling dog inset into the outline of a multi-rayed sun.  Damn it was tingling something from one of her old academy classes, something her obscure-details-obsessed Wartime History teacher had forced her to take a test on once…

So perhaps, in all of your vast worthiness and wisdom, you could tell Us how it is an archon novus just jumped dimensions to give you his Seal.  This time, the ship definitely sounded bitter.  Or, if that one is too difficult for you, perhaps you could begin with what the alien sigil on the other side reads.

Tatiana blinked down at the meteorite in her hand.  “It says ‘Die with honor, rise with fury.’”  She frowned as that again triggered something ancient from one of her classes.  “I’m pretty sure the unit isn’t around anymore.”  After all, martyrs usually didn’t last long.

Would your friend know? Encephalon demanded.

“He might?”

Immediately, as if he’d only been pretending to nap, Milar sat up.  “Huh?  What?  Tat?”  His golden eyes blinked as he focused on her with obvious difficulty.

“Here, tell me what this is,” Tatiana said, shoving the etching into his hand and keeping his attention on it while she kicked the sword away with her foot behind her.  The last thing she wanted was for Milar to see her new sword.  Like the jaggle, he’d probably tell her she couldn’t keep it.  He seemed like one of those stick-up-his-butt rear-admiral types that would try to keep her from having any fun because it wasn’t on the scheduled agenda.

Instead of groggily complaining he didn’t know anything about ancient history, Milar immediately surged to his feet and away from her like she was holding a snake.  “Holy crap, Tat!  Drop that!  Drop it right now!”

Tatiana frowned at him and pulled it back protectively.  “Um.  No.  It’s mine.”

“That belongs to an AlphaGen,” Milar babbled, like he was talking about the Boogieman.  “Tat, that doesn’t belong to you.  You need to leave it where you found it, okay?”  He started wildly looking around them at the gooey red walls, obviously beginning to panic.  “Oh shit.  Tat.  Where are we, Tat?  Aanaho, what happened?  Am I dead?  I remember getting hit by—oh shit.  Oh shit.”  Her big hunk was hyperventilating, now.  “Did that ganshi kill us both and we’re dead?  Am I in Hell?  Oh shit, I killed all those guys and I’m in—”

Milar dropped back to the floor, snoring loudly.

He did not appear to be thinking rationally, the ship said.

“Agreed,” Tatiana said.  But he had answered something for her.  “Pretty sure this is the Sun Dogs’ symbol from the Triton Wars.  It was the unit of super-soldiers who took out Emperor Giu Xi, led by Daytona Dae and some guy named Sirius.  Same guys who stole ganshi from the Tritons as kittens and trained them to fight on our side.  Probably where those annoying jaggles came from.”

And these Sun Dogs fought alongside an archon in these wars?

“Dunno,” Tatiana said, pocketing it again.  “Hey, you got anything to eat?”

There was a very long silence that began to get uncomfortable.  Then, So you are hungry.

“Yeah,” Tatiana said.  “You got like a chowbox here anywhere?” She began looking for the telltale manufacturing cubby, like all good admirals’ quarters contained.

We might.  What do you remember of the Phage?  Obviously, it was expecting to make some sort of exchange.

“Ugh!” Tatiana cried.  “It’s a sentient monomolecular nannite-type quantumly-entangled macro organism with telepathic capabilities from another dimension that infects its victims via skin or lung contact with airborne particles, and takes over host brains by altered signal pathways—redirecting neural transmissions—and turns hosts into unwilling prisoners in their own bodies, manipulating their movements and forcing their cells to reproduce its supermolecule for release into the air in a single burst, much like a spore burst, hence why you called them Phageospores, while somehow collecting and encoding all of its victims’ thoughts and experiences for its own encyclopedic use, which is why it prefers high-tech civilizations—it doesn’t feel it has anything to gain from spear-chuckers or cud-chewers.  Oh, and it doesn’t need to eat, sleep, or piss, so it doesn’t have down time, so it could have wiped your civilization out in like twenty years flat, but it hung around awhile because it was benefiting from the research you were doing in trying to eradicate it, using the information you gained to make itself even more aggressive and infectious.”  She let out a long, disgusted breath.  “Can we please talk about something else already?”

The ship gave her another of those long silences before it said, So you were listening.

“Not really,” Tatiana said, waving a dismissive hand.  “You just get really good at regurgitating bullshit after standing around listening to twenty jillion daily briefings about weather or politics or machinery or delays or malfunctions or upcoming parades or countless other topics you don’t really give a shit about, but could be grilled on the second the colonel notices you aren’t paying attention.”

But you could retrieve the information if you needed it, Encephalon pressed.

“Um,” Tatiana said, frowning as she thought of how many times her short-term memory had failed her.  “No, probably not.  I pretty much forget it all the moment the briefing’s over and I get to go back to my ice cream and teaser mags.”

An instant later, Tatiana lost consciousness.

Fortune's Folly
“You can’t keep doing that!” Tatiana cried, sitting up in frustration.  “Just because you’re a crippled-ass ship with a superiority complex, you can’t just—”

We’re dying, Encephalon interrupted.  We didn’t want to do it alone.

Tatiana’s mouth fell open.  “Oh.”  Her heart started to pound.

In retrospect, your responses to Our conversations with you left Us convinced that your species will be incapable of stopping the Phage when it returns.  You are too single-minded, too selfish.

Well, that wasn’t very nice, as far as ‘Famous Last Words’ went.  Tatiana opened her mouth to object.

Not you as an individual, as it is an archon’s purpose to think independently, but your species as a whole.  The Aashaanti are a hive culture.  No individual considers its desires above the needs of the hive, and because of this, We lasted longer than any other species in the known universe when the Phage entered Our dimension.  Every member of the Aashaanti race was working towards a cure for ten molt-cycles.  We had full quarantines of entire sectors, had shut down or destroyed entire Ring-chains.  All this, and We still lost everything, because the Phage was even more unified, even more organized than We could ever be.  And as We die, We consider that We might be the last remnant of a vanished race, the last wisp of sentience that survived the death of Our civilization, and it saddens Us to know that nothing was learned from Our existence—or Our passing.

Tatiana immediately felt the guilt hit her like an explosive round to the gut.  “Sorry,” she whispered.

It is like your entire species is filled with archons, Encephalon said, sounding angry, now.  All of them scurrying to their own individual rhythm, all of them struggling against each other, thwarting each other, slowing progress exponentially due to their selfish pursuit of their own whims, having no idea the danger you are all in.

That was pretty accurate, Tatiana supposed.

Then you have no tools with which to fight the Phage when it returns, Encephalon said, and We pity you.

It was pretty clear the ship intended that to be its final communication.  Uncomfortably, Tatiana cleared her throat.  “How long do you have?” she asked.  Around her, the ship’s corridors were flickering, the lights dimming before returning to full brightness, then dimming again.

Reluctantly, the ship said, We are losing Ourself as We speak.

All that knowledge, slipping away…

Tatiana swallowed, suddenly faced with the very real fact that she had been nothing but a nuisance to this dying presence in its final hours.  “The Aashaanti aren’t lost,” she said.

The ship barely seemed to register her words.

“When humans first slipped to this galaxy through the anomaly, we were in awe at what we found.  Your cities were a hundred times bigger than our biggest on Earth.  You covered entire planets with your underground civilizations, and yet you left the surfaces utterly pristine, the ecosystems functioning in tandem with the surface megastructures you allowed yourselves.  Even sixteen thousand years later, a person can walk through those surface cities—just tiny shadows of what lies beneath—and know that the Aashaanti were, without a doubt, a superior life-form.”

The ship said nothing, but she could tell it was listening.

“We’re really still just spear-chuckers with a lot of borrowed tech,” Tatiana admitted.  “The original ship that got sucked into the anomaly and spit out into this galaxy was Admiral Essa Dublin’s lucky number Seven—basically a lifeboat we launched off Earth during the Migration, when everything was going to shit and our species was eradicating itself.  People were put into primitive stasis and packed into trays like sardines just to get them off the planet, as many as they could fit on the ship in the off-chance some would survive.  And a few did—except it made them forget everything but their long-term memories.  They had no idea where they were or why they were in space.  They had no idea how to run a ship, or what they were running from.  Some didn’t even remember their own names.  They had to read it all in the ship’s history logs and encyclopedias, and even then, a lot of them refused to believe it.”

The ship continued to sulk.

“We had the good luck to land on an Aashaanti planet,” Tatiana said.  “We never would’ve survived if it hadn’t been for your cities and technologies, all right there in the open, ripe for our taking.  We deconstructed everything we could and adapted what we could to work with electricity, though our scientists never could figure out how to power the originals with the same efficiency your culture seemed to possess.”

You were using the wrong power source, Encephalon muttered.  Every member of the hive participates in its survival.  Our young were Our energy sources.

“Well, that would be why we couldn’t figure it out,” Tatiana said.  “Anyway, the point is, we’ve gone through something like this already.  We have no idea how many other arks survived,” Tatiana said.  “Hell, we still have no idea which galaxy we’re in, or how to get back to Earth.”  She held up a finger.  “But one thing is clear, even to the stupidest, most selfish human who ever happened to walk within the halls of an Aashaanti metrathon.”

She waited for the ship to grudgingly acknowledge her with the equivalent of a mental grunt.

“What’s clear is the Aashaanti were the greatest civilization this galaxy has ever seen, greater than any of us ever imagined a culture capable of being, and had we run into you guys while we were alive, we would be living on your good graces, if you let us live at all.”

We would have, the ship replied.  You hadn’t broken any laws.

Immediately, Tatiana thought about the node in her head, and she had to ask, “Do you really judge an entire civilization by the actions of a single person?”

It is the civilization’s responsibility to be advanced enough not to produce individuals capable of creating atrocities or catastrophic disharmonies, so yes.  Encephalon’s mental ‘voice,’ usually booming and strong, sounded weaker, to her.  Certain things the Aashaanti find intolerable, and they can and have annihilated civilizations to nothingness for things like you described on your home planet.  Evil is not to be tolerated, not for any purpose.  Harmony above all.

‘Evil,’ Tatiana thought, in this case was definitely subjective.

We refuse to get into a philosophical debate about your contemptible species’ supposed worthiness in Our final moments, Encephalon snapped.  Please leave.  We will keep the quadrupeds here while you and your mate escape.

The fact that what was essentially a dying race would rather be alone than spend its final minutes with her sobered Tatiana more completely than anything else in her entire life.  She felt Time seem to slow around her, realizing how totally she had screwed up, and how few moments she had left to fix it.

Beside her, Milar groaned and started to wake.

“No,” Tatiana said, “keep him under.  You and I need to have a conversation.”

We don’t need to do anything, Encephalon said, though Tatiana knew she had its attention.

“Keep who under?” Milar slurred.  “Tatiana, what’s going on?”

“You said an archon gave me this pendant,” Tatiana said, grabbing it from her chest.  “And from what you said, that means I meet one in the future, because I certainly haven’t met one yet.  That means I’m going to run into Aashaanti survivors, and one of them thought I was important enough to your people to give me his Seal.  Is my logic wrong?”

Encephalon hesitated several moments, then Milar slumped back to the floor.  Your logic is correct, the ship said.  And that is the only reason We haven’t ended you for the abomination you carry.

“Look, I didn’t put the node there,” Tatiana growled.  “I was an unwilling guinea pig.”

We weren’t talking about the technology in your forehead.

Tatiana frowned.  “Then what…?”

The one who sleeps beside you…were you aware he was infected with a bioengineered Aashaanti organism?

Tatiana blinked.  “Nooo…  What does that have to do with…?”

We’ve run calculations.  Between the changes your technology is making to your genetic components and your partner’s infection, the results of such a match are…dangerous.


But the ship wasn’t finished.  We were unaware there were any carriers left to spread the virus.  Where did he come into contact with it?

Tatiana flinched.  “What are you talking about?”

Surely the psychological changes are obvious! Encephalon snapped.  The infected become acutely intellectual, often to the detriment of their physical selves, they gain a vicious sense of individuality, and they very easily devolve into terrible psychosis and extreme violence.  It was one of Our final attempts to rid Our race of the Phage, but in doing so, We destroyed Our own cultural coherency.

Tatiana swallowed hard, thinking of how Milar had wiped out an entire regiment of Coalition soldiers and had come out of it with only a few scratches and a branch to the leg.  “Uuuhhhhmm.”

So you see, Encephalon said, carriers must exist on this planet.  We let the earlier explorer take the beacon because Our corridors were empty, devoid of life.  We never thought anyone had survived.

The way the ship said ‘anyone,’ it was almost as if it expected her to say, oh, by the way, there’s an Aashaanti supermarket right down the street.

“There’s nothing on this planet but Shriekers,” Tatiana said, sending the mental picture.

As soon as she sent a picture of a Shrieker, every light in the room flared.  Where?! the ship screamed at her, giving her a mental shake.  Where are they?!  WHERE?!

Flinching, Tatiana cried out at the sudden assault.  “They’re everywhere,” she babbled, clutching her head.  “Their mounds are scattered out in the jungle all over.  Some of the old lava tubes along the Snake have small clusters of them, but they’re mostly in the underground caves.”

How many?!

Tatiana had heard it estimated that there were upwards of five hundred thousand to a million Shriekers on Fortune, if undiscovered mounds were taken into account, though those unprotected by the Coalition had been on an overall decline since humans discovered Yolk because the smugglers were poaching more nodules than the population could sustain.  “I dunno…  I think like half a million.”

Aanaho.  Enough for a hive.  The red and violet lights flared out around her.  You have to get out!  We don’t have the energy to transport you.  You have to escape!

“Escape what?” Tatiana asked, frowning.

Find the beacon, the ship whimpered, its voice like a thin trail of smoke in her mind.  We’re so sorry.  Please get out.  Please help Our children.

Tatiana frowned.  “Children?”

Total darkness answered her.

“What children?” Tatiana demanded.  “There’s just Shriekers!”

The ship did not respond.

So, a smug voice chuckled, all alone at last.  Whatcha gonna do now, midget?

Tatiana ducked down, yanked a permaflare from Milar’s survival bag, and activated it.  Holding it up, she shouted at the ship walls, “What children?!”  Around her, the ship shuddered, and there was a weird whining boom from somewhere deep within.

I’m talking to you.  The big cat batted at her, knocking her over.

Tatiana ignored the animal.  She’d already decided she would make it out alive, based on all the given evidence, so she didn’t care about its stupid antics.  “Listen, goddamn it, Encephalon!” she shouted, waving the light.  “I need you to answer me!  Are you saying the Shriekers are your children?!”  When the ship didn’t respond, she kicked the rubbery wall, which was already starting to lose its consistency.

In fact, the entire ship seemed to be…melting?

On the floor, Milar was starting to sit up.  “Tatiana, I swear to Aanaho, if you don’t tell me—holy shit!”  He lunged to his feet, panickedly staring at the ten enormous black kitties in the room with them.  The striped one was standing by Tatiana, scowling at her.

Encephalon!” Tatiana cried, kicking the wall again.  This time, her foot lodged in the material and came back gooey.

The ganshi, too, appeared startled by the way the metal seemed to be melting around them.  Go ahead and kill the big one, the striped jaggle said.  I’ll take the cyborg.

Tatiana swiveled on the cat and shoved the flare in its face.  “No,” she snapped, “you won’t take the cyborg, because your buddy left my picture with that goddamn sword,” she jammed the drawing of her into the cat’s face, then held it in place until the animal’s big purple eyes reluctantly dropped to look.

Once Tatiana was certain the feline had gotten a good examination, she threw it aside and dug through her pocket.  “And somewhere out there, there’s a time-space anomaly that gave me this.”  She held up the archon’s symbol and spun it to show the Sun Dogs emblem.  “Proof you’re supposed to get me out of here.”

The jaggle visibly flinched upon seeing the insignia.  One of the black ones was padding up towards Milar, who swallowed and backed up against the wall, but the gray one growled, Stop.  The cat was looking at the thin brown film beginning to drip from the formerly opaline ceiling, its ears flattening against its striped skull.  The ship’s collapsing, it cried.  Get the babies!  Leave the humans.  We have to get out of here!  Now!

“No!” Tatiana cried, as the ganshi spun to leave them there.  “We don’t know where we are!  You have to help us get out!”  She reached out to grab the creature’s tail—only to have the bristly, spine-like fur tear at her hand like a shark’s skin.  As she was recoiling from that, the big ganshi spun, slammed a paw into her chest, and pinned her to the gooey floor.  Nicotine-brown liquid began dripping onto her face from above, smelling strongly metallic.

If you survive this, the ganshi said, then you’ve given me proof.  Until then…  The cat bent down and snagged the dragonfly katana and its sheath from the floor.  …you don’t deserve this. Then it spun and bounded away, running much, much too fast.

“Follow them!” Tatiana cried.  “They know the way out!”

Milar scrabbled to pick up his gear, but the pawprints in the goo were already fading, gelling back together into a slick brown liquid sheen.

“Drop the stuff!” Tatiana screamed.  “Gogogogo!”

Milar snagged up his precious Laserats anyway, then, stuffing them into the waistband of his trousers, left the rest of his guns and survival supplies in the gel and ran.  Tatiana was right on his heels, heading for the barely-visible pawprints in the goo, when a frightened mental yowl behind her brought her to a stumbling halt.


Tatiana turned.

“Come on!” Milar cried, grabbing her by the wrist and confiscating her permaflare to light up the corridor in front of them.  “The prints are fading!  Let’s go!”  He started dragging her.

Mom! the sob was full of growing terror.  Why are the walls dripping, Mom?  Why’s it dark?  Where is everyone?

Tatiana was dragging her feet, the colonist even then pulling her out of range of the kitten’s cries.  “Stop!” she cried, yanking them to a halt.

Milar grumbled something about slow-assed women under his breath and bent down to throw her over his meaty shoulder.

Tatiana grabbed him by the shirt collar and yanked him down to eye-level.  “There’s a jaggle kitten back there.  He’s scared, Miles.  He’s gonna die.”

Milar gave her a look like he was gonna punch her again.

Tatiana yanked the permaflare out of his hand and spun to light up the corridor behind them.  Big swaths of the tunnel were beginning to slide, like rotting meat sloughing from bone.

Mom! the kitten screamed.

Tatiana started running.  Behind her, Milar grabbed at her anyway, but Tatiana kicked him in the shin and kept going.  “Where are you, little guy?!” she called.

The kitten was silent for a moment, suspicion permeating the entire area.  Then a shuddering groan shook the very floor underneath them and the air in the corridor blasted them with a rush of air as one of the tunnels collapsed deeper in the mountain.  Here! the kitten cried.  I’m stuck…please help!

Tatiana found the striped gray jaggle kitten in the next honeycombed corridor, where he’d apparently been spying on them from the adjoining room, rather than retreating as he had been bid by his mother.  He was floundering in the knee-deep gel, unable to gain enough purchase to run.  As Tatiana approached, a piece of the liquefying wall sloughed free, sliding over the kitten and pinning him to the floor.  Tatiana lunged down, pulled the baby jaggle from under the mass of brown jelly, and hugged the sputtering kitten to her chest.  The jaggle, in turn, burrowed under her arm, clinging to her in obvious terror.

“Great!” Milar snapped, yanking the permaflare from her.  “You killed us both for a ganshi cub.  Fuck!  Let’s go!”  He grabbed her by the hand and started tugging her back toward the place where the ganshi had disappeared.  As soon as they reached it, they both slowed, a look of horror on Milar’s face.  In the time they had taken to grab the kitten, the tunnel leading to the surface had collapsed, blocking their escape.

Nonetheless, the big collie wasn’t finished.  “Come on!”  He grabbed her by the hand and started out another one of the honeycomb’s tunnels, an exit that hadn’t yet succumbed.  He was tugging her through the knee-deep slime when another roaring blast of air from far below almost shoved them over.  Catching himself on the wall, Milar shouted above the groans and rumbles of the ship, “How deep are we?  How far down?”

“Encephalon said—” Tatiana did some quick mental math, “—like half a mile!”

“Half a mile?!” Milar cried.  “That’ll take us five minutes!”

“Straight down!” Tatiana shouted back.  “No idea how far that is in hallway distance.  The downward slant’s only like a degree or two!”

Milar stumbled and slowed.  He glanced back at her, and in that moment, Tatiana saw resignation.  A moment later, the path in front of them collapsed, spraying slime everywhere.  He slumped down against the wall.

Where’s my mom? the kitten asked in a whimper, a flash of terrified images of loneliness ending with striped maternal cuddles.

That made Tatiana angry.  “Hey!” she shouted.  “Hey!”  She ran to the collapsed tunnel, ignoring the metallic brown slime dripping down on her from the next segment preparing to slough loose.  “Your kitten’s in here!” she screamed at the top of her lungs.  “Help us!

Beside her, Milar winced.  “Hey, sweetie.  If we’re gonna die, think you could tone down the mental static?  I think you’re trying to give me the Wide.”

Tatiana ignored him.  “Help us!” she screamed, putting as much oomph into her thought as possible.  “We’re trapped with your kitten, help us!

Nothing.  She might as well have been shouting at a brick wall.

More pieces of the ceiling were falling loose, slapping her painfully as they hit her in gelatinous brown chunks.  Feeling the rumble of an impending collapse, Tatiana made one last-ditch attempt to get the mother cat’s attention, more out of fury that she’d leave her kitten behind than any expectation of retrieval.  “Help.  Us.  You.  Stupid.  Bitch!”


Feeling the floor rumbling all around her, Tatiana kicked the wall in frustration and slumped down the side of the tunnel.  Across the corridor from her, Miles was staring at the floor, looking defeated.  And, Tatiana realized, there was absolutely no way she was getting out of there.

No, screw that!  She’d seen her picture in the future.  She had to survive.

Tatiana lunged back to her feet and handed Milar the kitten.  “Hold him!” she shouted.  Then, putting both hands on the slimy ship walls, she closed her eyes, concentrated as hard as she could, and shouted, “HELP US, BITCH!

“Dammit, Tat!” Milar shouted, doubling over and holding his head.  “You trying to kill me early?!  Seriously, she’s not coming ba—”

This is the heartship Wandering Spirit, a brisk voice blared to her.  We’ve located your Seal, archon.  Unfortunately, transport to this ship has been banned due to Phage quarantine.  Please advise.

“Take us to the surface!” Tatiana screamed.  “Hurry!”

There was a slight hesitation.  Us?

“Three of us!” Tatiana cried.  “Me, the beefcake, and the kitten!”  At her words, Milar cocked his head and stood up slowly, frowning.

The ship hesitated.  We can transport you, Archon, but it is against the Containment Accords to transport non-Aashaanti within a quarantine zone.

“Fuck the quarantine zone!” Tatiana howled.  “The Phage is dead!  Transport us!  Now!”  The walls were already collapsing.  Almost in slow motion, she saw the roof above them cave in, the millions of pounds of debris above them crushing their tunnel like an ammo can under a soldier’s foot.  Milar threw himself at her, shoving an arm upward against the falling rubble, almost as if he planned to ward off a billion pounds of rock and dirt with his forearm.  Distantly, Tatiana got all warm and fuzzy seeing it, then the landslide hit them in an overpowering crush, breaking bones and flattening her colonist and the kitten to her chest under a roaring mountain of falling rock.

Fortune's Folly
Technically, the Containment Accords expired 1,202 molt-cycles ago, but you still probably shouldn’t tell anyone We did this.  We are already under probation for rules-breaking.

Immediately with that ringing thought shattering through her void of consciousness, Tatiana felt the stomach-flipping sensation of Aashaanti transport, then stumbled as she fell the remaining five inches to the ground.  When she righted herself, Tatiana found herself standing at the now-collapsed entrance to the massive Aashaanti hiveship.  Beside her, Milar grunted and fell to his knees, the jaggle kitten still cradled in his arms.  Golden eyes wide, he gave her a look of total male amazement.  Tatiana immediately decided she would capitalize on that later, once they were alone.

Collected around the entrance to the now-collapsed tunnel were a gathering of six panting adult jaggles and two wide-eyed cubs, their matted fur covered in sticky brown slime.  They were hanging their heads in exhaustion, looking at the caved-in opening.  The striped one was howling, slashing silver claws at the gooey gel and rock that was barring her path deeper into the mountainside, throwing huge swaths of it aside as sparks flew from her swipes.

Mom! the kitten in Milar’s arms cried.  It squirmed free and bounded up to the adult jaggles, flinging itself at its mother’s front leg.  The walls fell on us, Mom!  It crushed us, Mom!  It curled around its mother’s big front paw.

Keeton!  The mother jaggle spun and pulled her son close, wrapping both paws around him in a kitty approximation of a desperate hug.  Oh, Keeton, I thought I’d lost you…

They saved me, Mom! the kitten cried.  The Triton and her human slave saved me!

Very slowly, the big jaggle’s head lifted, seeming to see Tatiana and Milar for the first time.  The agony in the mother jaggle’s eyes didn’t need translation—she’d lost kittens to the collapse.  Kittens and comrades.

How? the mother ganshi managed.  How do you stand here?

Tatiana considered saying something cocky, then remembered the Nine Rules of the OBRC—and how the big kitten in front of her was throwing sparks with its claws.  Clearing her throat to fight down the urge to snark, she carefully said, “There’s another ship buried under this one.  It locked onto the Seal and saved us.”  She held out the carved meteorite for the jaggle to see.

The big striped cat curled around her son.  Take the sword and go.

Realizing she was partially responsible for their demise, Tatiana took a step forward.  “Look, I’m sorry—”

The ganshi raised her head in a fanged roar.  Go!

Tatiana thought about taking the time to grab the sword, then, daunted by the idea of approaching the mourning felines, just snagged Milar by his meaty wrist and started running.  Apparently, the ganshi’s snarl needed no translation, because Milar swept her up onto his shoulder and started down the Tear at the speed of Yeti.  He ran for an hour like that, until Tatiana was getting tired just from bouncing around.

“Someday,” Milar panted, when he finally put her down, “you’re going to tell me what the hell just happened.”

Realizing the colonist had been blacked out for a good majority of her experiences with the hiveship, Tatiana opened her mouth to explain.

“But right now,” Milar said, wrapping his big, callused hand around the back of her head and pulling her body tight against his rippling torso in a decidedly masculine gesture, “you’ve got other things to think about.”  And, their hearts still pounding from fleeing a dying hiveship and thousand-pound genetically-engineered warbeasts, Milar ducked his head to meet her lips, and Tatiana immediately forgot what it was she was going to say.

Halfway through the best kiss of her life, Milar groaned and stumbled, falling to one knee.  “Shit,” he whispered.

Breathless, Tatiana frowned.  “Shit?!”

The big collie was holding his head with a ham-sized fist.  “Wow, I really don’t feel too good.  Dizzy.  Seeing double.”  He glanced at her, and Tatiana’s heart stopped because his eyes had just a bit too much white showing…

The Wide.

Tatiana swallowed hard.  “You just need some rest, okay?”

Milar shook himself like a predator trying to shake off a tranquilizer dart.  “Yeah.  You’re probably right.  There’s lava tubes all along the Snake.  We can find somewhere to bed down in there…”

Fortune's Folly
A few hours later, Tatiana was sulking on a ridge outside a lava cave that Milar had found for them that night, thinking about how much she hated camping, how much she missed humanity, how creepy it would be if the Shriekers were actually Aashaanti, and how much it sucked that she had a habit of killing people with her mind, when she saw the jaggle baby seated a few feet away, watching her in the darkness.

Hello, the jaggle said.

Tatiana shrieked and crab-crawled backwards to get away from it.

Seemingly unperturbed by her antics, the jaggle kitten nudged something towards her along the ground.  Swallowing, Tatiana glanced down to see a delicate dragonfly molded into a tovlar sheath.

Mom said to give you this, the jaggle said.  For saving me.

“The ship saved you, not me,” Tatiana said warily.  She still remembered their last encounter vividly—and how well the little silver razors had sliced into her flesh.  Without Encephalon to patch her up, she wasn’t willing to chance a repeat performance.

You saved me, the jaggle said.  It looked around the cave.  So is this where you and your slave are staying?

“No,” Tatiana said.  “Milar’s just resting.  He doesn’t feel too good.  When he’s better, he said he’s finding us a higher spot.  Somewhere that doesn’t stink like the Snake.”  The hiveship’s jellied brown remains, when it had begun draining into the Snake’s tributaries, had reacted with the water to turn it an almost neon blue-green, several magnitudes brighter than the glacial colored waters that had flowed before.  The smell had also increased exponentially, making the air caustic, burning at her nostrils with every breath.

You aren’t going home? the kitten asked.  He scooched a little closer and idly began slicing little claw-marks in the volcanic rock beneath him.

“Can’t,” Tatiana said bitterly.  “I was experimented on by a demonic child, so I’ve got this crappy tendency to kill people with my mind.  I’m actually hoping Milar’s not dead—he was really dragging ass the last hour.”

The kitten cocked his head at Tatiana, then glanced into the cave at the sleeping body of her colonist.  Your human slave’s name is Milar?

Tatiana allowed herself a little grin.  “Why yes.  Yes he is.”

The kitten grunted.  Why do you have a slave? Mom says you’re not a Triton.  They were the only ones who had slaves.

Tatiana chuckled.  “Well, you see…”

Three hours later, when Milar groaned and dragged himself out of the cave, Tatiana was finishing up an explanation about how she had won Milar’s permanent indentured servitude by saving his life in a daring escape from bloodthirsty Nephyrs and trigger-happy Bouncer pilots, in which he screamed like a little girl the whole time and begged her to let him die.

Milar emerged from the cave with his beautiful amber eyes narrowed.  “Pretty sure it didn’t go down like that.”

“Sure it did,” Tatiana said, dusting her hands off and jumping to her feet.  “You feeling better?”

Milar gave a male grunt, then his eyes fixed on the kitten.  “What’s that doing here?”

“Oh, he just wanted to know why you decided to be my man-slave,” Tatiana said, grinning.

Very slowly, Milar tore his gaze from the kitten and turned back to Tatiana.  He didn’t say anything, just scowled.

Aaaannnyway,” Tatiana said, “we should probably get going.  Nice chatting with you, Babe.”  It was short for Bad Ass Bio Engineered Cyborg-Killing War-Beast, something they’d come up with together because Tatiana thought Keeton was too stuffy a name for a cuddly, death-dealing munchkin, and B.A.B.E. was just easier to say than B.A.B.E.C.K.W.B., and Babe hadn’t liked the sound of ‘Babeck.’

Uh…  Babe started to claw at the volcanic rock again.  Mom said I could come with you.

Tatiana cocked her head at the kitten for several moments before squealing uncontrollably and spinning in a circle, pulling her fists to her chest in glee.

Milar must’ve guessed what had just transpired, because he immediately said, “No.  You’re not bringing him with us.”

Tatiana sobered immediately and turned to face her man-slave.  “I saved you from Rath, when they were gonna skin you,” Tatiana said, ticking off a finger.  “I saved you in the Tear, when you were being overwhelmed by sub-par operators and Bouncers,” she ticked another finger, “I saved you from the alien inviso-shredders when Nephyrs were gonna catch us,” she unfurled a final finger and wiggled it at him, “and I saved you from getting buried alive under a gajillion tons of gooey rubble.  You owe me a jaggle.”

Milar grimaced.  “You would bring that up.”

Your man-slave is a complainer, Babe noted.

Tatiana grinned.  “He is, at that.”  She grabbed Milar by the wrist.  “Come, man-slave.  I can’t wait to get some fresh air while you scour the Snake to acquire us supplies and a ship—oh, and some food and a set of nail clippers—as befits your man-slaverly duties.”  She started sashaying up the hill towards sweet, sweet fresh air, but was brought up short by an immobile two hundred and twenty pound slab of muscle.  Swallowing and cringing, she turned to look over her shoulder.

Milar was scowling at her.

Tatiana gave him a nervous grin.  “Traumatic, surgery-induced brain injury?”  When he didn’t reply to that, she winced and offered, “Maybe the fumes?”

He crossed his arms and started tapping his fingers against the red and black dragons wrapped around his big biceps.

Tatiana sighed deeply and turned to the striped jaggle.  “Sorry.  Milar wants me to tell you that he’s not really my man-slave.”

Milar grunted in satisfaction.

“…he’s my man-slut.”

Milar’s arms uncrossed with a growl.  Seeing the look on the collie’s face, Tatiana shrieked out a giggle and ran.

CHAPTER 14:  Ship with an Attitude

Fortune's Folly

20th of May, 3006

Uncharted Jungle

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
“All I know is there’s a crash in the jungle out near the South Tear and the foliage is way too thick to get a good look.  Can’t even land nearby—ship fell into one of the mini-canyons.  Totally engulfed by rocks and trees.  Gotta hike in.”  Drogire Myr had been one of the first pilots to volunteer in Silver City, and he was one of their biggest assets in the sky.  At least, that’s what Jersey told her.  Magali still wanted to flee to Mezzan and hide from this mess she had made.

“But you’re sure it’s one of ours,” Jersey insisted to Drogire over the comm.  He was seated at the pilot’s seat across the cockpit from Magali, who was huddled against the copilot’s console.  The Nephyr gave Magali a quick look before he turned back to the link.  “You think it was part of that firefight over the North Tear?”

“It’s not issuing a distress call, so probably one of ours,” the guy on the other end said.  “But too far away.  They were in a real huff over at Rath, saying there was a colonist fleet descending on them, fired off the soldiers and everything, bunch of Bouncers and operators going nuts and shooting at anything that moved.  Might’ve been part of that.”

“Somebody jumping the gun?” Jersey asked, sounding concerned.  “We aren’t ready to take Rath.”  He wore Magali’s father’s necklace around his glittering neck—an Aashaanti hieroglyph that looked like some form of soaring hawk, or maybe a winged bug.  Jersey had tried to give it to her, but as much as she had wanted it, Magali hadn’t felt comfortable taking a gift from a Nephyr.  Nephyrs were made from people like her sister, and with Anna, there were always strings attached…

“If it was, they didn’t get the orders from me,” the pilot on the other end said.  “It’s weird—nobody saw anything on radar, but they were still really stirred up about it.  Could’ve been Joel.  He has a habit of making that shit happen.”

Jersey glanced at Magali.  To her, he said, “You got any idea what Joel’s been up to?”

Magali shrugged.

“Joel would make sense, though,” the man on the other end continued.  “Patrick’s been trying to reach him for several days.  Kept calling on the universal band for Joel and Jeanne, looking for Belle.”

“On the universal band?” Jersey cried.

“Yeah, not too bright, but he never was the smart twin,” Drogire replied, with a rough chuckle.

Magali saw Jersey glance back at her over the comm.  “How close to Rath did you say the wreck was?” he asked the other pilot.

“Maybe forty minutes out,” the voice on the encrypted link said.  “Saw it by accident doing a recruiting run to Border’s Reef.  You can still see smoke coming from the nose.  Here, I’ll send you coordinates.  I only saw part of the tailfin, but it was fresh, and I swear it looked like Belle.”

“We got anyone who can check it out?”

Drogire snorted.  “The way Rath’s in an uproar right now?  No.  We’re lucky we still have pilots on our side.  They’ve been importing everything they’ve got from the Orbital.  It’s a beehive in the South Tear right now, and nobody wants to get stung.”

“What about you?” Jersey pressed.  “You done with that recruiting run?”

“Yeah, right,” Drogire made a derisive sound.  “The jungle outside Rath was the epicenter of the jaguar release, back when they were going after those big meat-eaters.  There are more jaguars in the South Tear than people, and it’s a half-mile walk, at least.  I say screw that shit—anyone dumb enough to crash in the jungle deserves what’s coming to ’em.”

The Nephyr grimaced.  “We’ll take a look.  I’ll get back to you when we know more.”  Jersey shut off the feed and changed course, then turned to face Magali.  The Nephyr was dressed in all black, his glittering skin still covered with a turtleneck, but the movement still made Magali tense.

Seeing her flinch, Jersey remained motionless on the pilot’s chair for several minutes, sea-green eyes much too empathic, too understanding.  She had to look away, fidgeting with the leg of her pants rather than face him.

“You doing better?” the Nephyr finally asked.

Magali made a bitter sound.  “Aside from the fact I blew eighty heads off and spent the last day and a half in a fetal position?”

“You just needed some sleep,” Jersey said.

“I needed a bullet in the brain,” Magali said.

Giving her an unhappy look, the Nephyr said, “Look, Mag, I’m gonna tell you something I’ve only ever told a couple people, okay?”

Magali shrugged again.

Sucking in a breath, Jersey quickly let it out and said, “I really don’t wanna go out into the jungle alone.”

Magali bristled.  “Because you’re afraid I’m gonna steal your ship.”

Jersey laughed, the sound filled with raw nerves.  “No, I don’t think you’re gonna steal our ship.”

And his response was so genuine that she believed him.  Magali cocked her head, waiting.

Taking a huge breath, Jersey confessed in a rush, “Okay, I’m terrified of cats.  Have been ever since I was a kid.”  At her frown, he offered her a sheepish grin and spread his hands apart.  “When I was a kid, a huge black jaguar attacked me at the farmstead and dragged me off into the woods by the shoulder.  Had me for a couple days, dragging me around, not really hurting me, but not letting me leave, either.  You know the whole cat playing with a mouse?  Yeah, that was me.  Damned thing eventually carried me two hundred and fifty feet up a tree and left me there, like food.  Dad and the six other guys tracking me had to break out their forestry gear to get me down.  I’d still have the scars, but, well…”  He gestured to his glassy filigree.  “You know.”

Magali peered at Jersey, several hundred pounds of high-tech machinery and impermeable energy fields.  She thought of the hydraulic pressures he could enact on a jaguar’s skull, the stone-like fingers he could smash through bones.  She squinted at him.  “Seriously?”

“Wanna see me scream, drop a tabby in my lap,” Jersey said.  He reached up and ran his glassy fingers against the back of his neck, looking embarrassed.  “Thank Aanaho they never figured that out at the Academy.  I’d’ve been screwed.”

Magali blinked at him, totally caught off guard by the image of a Nephyr being chased by a housecat.  “Because you’re afraid they’re gonna bite you.”

He winced.  “Something like that, yeah.”

Magali cocked her head at him, then, when he didn’t recant his words, stood up, picked up a long iron crowbar leaning against the wall, hefted it, turned, and swung it at his head as hard as she could.

The iron connected with a resounding heavy metal clang across the Nephyr’s temple, but Jersey didn’t even twitch.  Instead, the reverberation made her arm go numb and she dropped the bar to the ground, cradling her palm.  The Nephyr blinked back at her placidly.

Still cradling her hand, Magali repeated, “Because you think they’re gonna bite you.”

“Childhood trauma, okay?”  It was almost a whine.  “That thing dragged me around for two days.”

Magali blinked at him for several moments, then just started to giggle.

The Nephyr squinted at her.  “What?”

“You,” Magali said, chuckling.  “You could kill a jaguar with your pinkie finger.”

The Nephyr held one up and wiggled it curiously.  “You think?”  He grinned at her over the glittering circuitry, blue-green eyes dancing with amusement.

Magali laughed with him, feeling another glimmer of hope unfurl in her chest.  Then Magali remembered Anna, and how she had been able to fake laughter, fake joking, fake everything…just like Colonel Steele.  She immediately swallowed and took a step backwards, her heart suddenly afire at the idea that she was so desperate to let this Nephyr get under her skin.

“Hey.”  Jersey lowered his hand, looking concerned.  “It’s okay.  I was just joking.”

But was he concerned?  Really?  Magali had never been able to tell.  Not with Anna, not with Martin, and not with Steele.  And Nephyrs were all smart, all psychotic…

…weren’t they?

Not once in the three days since Jersey had taken her to his sanctuary had he hurt her, or lied to her, or called her a name, or even made her uncomfortable.  He’d brought her soup and hot chocolate, let her use the only bed, and had offered her his own wardrobe to stay warm.  He’d let her carry as many guns as she wanted, even after she had executed twenty of his companions in under a minute and eighty camp personnel in four.

And then she saw the glitter to his glassy skin and all those arguments faded under the simple knowledge that the man sharing the cockpit with her could do anything he wanted to her, should it ever cross his mind.  Anything.

Magali swallowed hard again, remembering Steele forcing her to throw Benny over the cliff edge.  “It’s a lot more fun when they don’t see it coming, isn’t it?”

Jersey’s brow furrowed for just a moment before his eyes widened.  “Magali, I’m not going to hurt you.  You think I’d spend this much time trying to help you if I was just going to turn around and hurt you?”

“Would you?” Magali whispered.  She’d fallen asleep in his arms. She’d confessed her dreams to him.  Her fears.  She was starting to shake.

Jersey gave a nervous laugh.  “You can’t seriously think—”  He saw her backing away and quickly became solemn.  “Magali, I would never do that to you.”

But they were just words.  What were words?  Words were what Anna used to make her puppets dance to her whims.

“But,” Jersey said, “since I can only tell you that right now, I’d like to prove it to you over time.  Okay?  Give me some time to show you.  I want to be your best friend as long as you’ll have me.  I want to watch your back, wherever you go, I want to smash your enemies’ heads in whenever you so much as flick a displeased finger in their general direction, and I want you to shoot any goddamn jaguars that happen to pop out of the trees behind me when we’re off gallivanting through the jungle, because, no shit, those things scare the holy bejesus crap out of me.  Oh, and then, after you shoot the jaguars for me, I want you not to tell people how I screamed and ran like a scared little girl, because that is totally unbefitting a cyborg of my job description and I might lose all my street cred as a big, badass Nephyr.  Deal?”  There was a desperate compassion in his face that Magali knew Anna could never have faked.  Anna’s compassion was confident, sickly-sweet.  Jersey’s was anxious, unhappy, nervous.

Struggling to make the distinction in her mind, Magali allowed herself a timid grin.  “Like a scared little girl, huh?”

“Oh yeah,” Jersey told her.  “I might even pee myself.”

Magali tried to imagine a Nephyr peeing himself and had to laugh.  Over behind the Nephyr’s shoulder, the pilot’s console began to beep.

“So, are you gonna be okay?” Jersey asked again.

Magali flushed and decided to avoid the question, because, grinning and laughing with a Nephyr, she wasn’t exactly sure where she currently stood in life.  Everything had been turned on its head, and she was trying to put together the pieces.  “What’s that sound?”

“We’re coming up on those coordinates,” Jersey said, without looking.  “You gonna be okay?” he repeated, watching her carefully.  “With me?”

She felt a little bit of her smile waver.  “You mean am I going to lose my mind again and shoot you?” Magali asked, bitterness rising like a tide.

“No,” Jersey said.  He got up slowly and, when she didn’t back away, moved toward her and gently took her hand in his glassy, gold-filigreed fingers.  To her shock, he brought her knuckles up and touched them to his hard lips.  “I mean…you think you could be good with me?” Jersey asked softly, holding her hand and gazing into her face.  There was something deeper to the question, something desperate that tugged at Magali’s heart.

It was then that Magali realized Jersey had just laid his intentions out bare for her to see.  Lifetime intentions.  She squinted, because the idea that a man would be interested in her after she had slaughtered eighty people had been so foreign to her that she had completely missed the clues in his tiny gestures, his kindnesses…

“Let me put it to you this way,” Jersey said, flexing her fingers gently in his warm, unnaturally hard hands.  “The only women interested in a Nephyr are going to be the kind who are interested for all the wrong reasons.”

“I’m not interested in a Nephyr,” Magali blurted.

He hesitated, his blue-green eyes scanned hers.  “Could you be?”

“No.  Never.”  It came out in a terrified rush, the image of Steele slamming back into her mind.

“Not now,” Jersey said, “But maybe with time?” he offered gently.  “Years?”

Magali shuddered, still finding the touch of his skin repulsive.  “No.”

His face tightened and he looked down, but he didn’t stop gently massaging her fingers with his thumb.  Jersey took a deep breath, then let it out slowly.  “All right.”  He turned away, but not before she saw the misery on his face.

Magali swallowed, both repulsed at the idea of having a Nephyr nearby and horrified of being left alone to face what she had started.  “But I told you you could stay,” she whispered, terrified of changing the status quo.  She knew that somehow this cybernetic monster had become an anchor to her own sanity, which was a weakness, and if he was anything like Anna, he would exploit it and destroy her.  On the other hand, if he walked away, the pressures of what she had done would utterly obliterate her.

Trying to lighten the situation without revealing her own need, Magali gave a nervous smile and said, “Hang around.  I’ll protect you from jaguars.”

His grin returned, slowly, and there was genuine pleasure there.  “And I’ll protect you,” Jersey said, obviously satisfied with her response.  He kissed her knuckles again, bringing his rigid lips to her fingers with surprising gentleness.

Magali squinted when he didn’t finish his sentence.  “From what?” she asked, uncertain.

The Nephyr just gave a little grin and dropped her hand.  Then, turning to the console, he said, “Okay, so we’re here.”  Upon getting the viewscreen showing the crash site, he whistled.  “Damn, it hit the ground fast.  Look at the way it impacted those trees.  Broke off even the old growth.”

Magali looked, saw the swath of huge trunks snapped in half, then swallowed.  People rarely survived a crash like that.

Fortune's Folly
“I think I heard a jaguar,” Jersey said, nervously glancing behind them.  And, after several hours of the badass Nephyr scanning the jungle like a hunted mouse, Magali was almost convinced it wasn’t an act.

“Jaguars are predators that rely on stealth to stalk their prey,” Magali reasoned.  “They don’t make twigs snap when they move.  It would scare off whatever they planned to eat.”

Jersey stumbled to a halt, his face going slack.  Though his skin glittered, she knew he would have been paler than a sheet.  “That’s not funny,” he managed.

“It’s true,” Magali said, gesturing at the canopy overhead.  “The only way you’re gonna know a jaguar’s hunting you is when it drops out of a tree and chomps on your skull.”

Jersey swallowed several times.  “I think we need to go back to the ship.”

She crossed her arms over the bandoliers of explosive rounds crisscrossing her chest and gave him a flat look.

Jersey let out a nervous laugh, glanced back the way they had come, then in the general direction of the crash site, then up at the dark jungle canopy above.  “I hate the jungle,” he managed.  “Bracketts are placer miners, farmsteaders, and gun-makers.  We’re not supposed to be stalking around in the dark and the damp and the bugs and the—”

“The bugs,” Magali said, slapping her arm and flicking several dead ones aside, “as annoying as they are, can’t puncture matter-phobic, liquid-energy sheeting.”

“Okay, but the jaguars…”  He turned and started scanning the mottled forest canopy above them with total concentration.  “I hear something up there, in the forty-second branch up.  Decent-sized heat signature.  Could be a bird, but it’s moving really softly.  Could be a stalking cat.”

“It’s not a cat, Jersey.”

“It could be.  I think I can make out paws.  Yeah, definitely paws.”

Magali backed away, unslung her gun, inserted a cartridge of explosive rounds, and shot the Nephyr a few times in the back.

Jersey blinked, turned, and looked down at the smoke drifting from her gun.  “What was that for?”

“This may come as a surprise to you,” Magali said, “but jaguars can’t hurt you.”

Jersey made a nervous sound and glanced back at the canopy.

Magali shot him again.  When the Nephyr jerked and turned back, she said, “Say it with me.  ‘I am the most dangerous cyborg the Coalition can make.  If a jaguar tries to eat me, not only will it break its own teeth, but I can rip its jaws apart with my bare hands.”

“Not true,” he babbled.  “The Tritons had these really big cats called the ganshi that they sicced on the AlphaGens in the war and the ganshi sometimes managed to kill them…”

Magali frowned.  “The AlphaGen genetics company?”

Jersey turned from his constant scanning of the jungle to face her.  “Huh?”

“Dad said that AlphaGen was a genetics com—” Magali began, then she shook her head.  “Jersey, your skin is impermeable to attack.  I just had a psychotic break and yet I somehow feel like I’m the most level-headed person on this expedition.  Please stop being a chickenshit.”

Jersey wasn’t listening to her.  His green-blue eyes had flickered back to the forty-second branch on the ancient blackwood tree ahead of them.  “The Tritons gave those things hypodermic claws and teeth that can inject neurotoxin,” Jersey said, obviously having read up on the subject.  “And they’re super smart.  All it would have to do is pin me down and puncture one of my eyes…”

Magali sighed, deeply.  “I said I’d protect you from goddamn jaguars, okay?”

“And you’re a pretty good shot?” Jersey said, eying her like a nervous little kid.  His hands, Magali realized, were shaking, and his breath was coming too quickly.

He’s got an honest-to-gawd phobia, Magali thought, stunned.  And, she supposed, after being dragged around by a cat for two days as a kid, maybe it was justified.

Jersey had gone back to scanning the canopy, visibly agitated.  He started chopping at the foliage ahead of them with his machete again, not really looking where he was going.

Magali was watching Jersey’s blade carve through the brush, then saw a human face revealed by the shrubbery as it parted under his swing.

“Jersey, stop!” she screamed.

Jersey froze and brandished the machete between him and the man hanging in the undergrowth, almost like a terrified fencer.  When he saw it wasn’t a cat, he let out a nervous laugh that was only semi-coherent.

But Magali had recognized the badly-bruised body slung in the vines and she gasped.  “Jersey, that’s Runaway Joel!”

Jersey slipped the machete back into its sheath on his belt and, taking what was obviously a stabilizing breath, took a couple quick steps forward.  “He’s still alive,” he said, before he’d even touched him.  “But damn, someone beat the shit outta his face.”  He began snapping the vines that held the smuggler in place between filigreed thumb and forefinger, then lowered the smuggler gently to the ground.  “Sweet Aanaho, look at this…”  He tugged on Runaway Joel’s sleeve, revealing a dark bluish crust.  Leaning down, he sniffed it.  Immediately, he reeled backwards, frowning warily.  “He’s covered in dried Yolk.”

Magali felt her heart hardening.  “He left me to die and went back to smuggling.”  Up ahead, Magali started to hear cursing emanating from the jungle somewhere ahead of them.

“Maybe.”  But Jersey was frowning at the jungle again.  “A woman’s calling his name,” Jersey said.  “Sounds pissed.”

“I hear it.”

Jersey frowned at her.  “You do?  It’s a long way out…”

Magali shrugged.

Still looking surprised, Jersey lifted the lanky smuggler from the ground and hefted him over a shoulder as if he were picking up a sheaf of wheat.  “Come on.  Let’s go find out why they went down.  Keep a gun handy, just in case.”

“Always,” Magali said, without even thinking.  It made Jersey pause and look at her, but she didn’t take back her words.  She didn’t plan to be around strangers without a gun ever again, eighty dead coalers or no.

Jersey led the way, hacking more vines as he led them over the rocky terrain towards the crash site.  Runaway Joel remained unconscious, his long form dangling from the Nephyr’s shoulder like a limp doll.

A few minutes later, the battered remnants of a very nice ship came into view leaning on its side against an ancient blackwood tree.  Magali gasped, however, when she saw the avalanche of Shrieker nodule sacks pouring out the back cargo bay.  Jersey saw it too, and slowed warily.

“Saw you guys crashed!” Jersey called to the ship.  “You already call a tow?”

“Bugger off!” a woman shouted back at them.  “Joel and I’ve got this.”

“Joel’s unconscious!” Jersey said, hefting the man on his shoulder.  “Found him in the jungle.”

“Who the hell are you?” Jeanne Ivory’s voice demanded.

“Jersey Brackett,” Jersey called.  He was frowning.  “Who the hell are you?”

“Jeanne Ivory,” Jeanne said.

“It’s Jeanne,” Magali cried happily.  She started moving towards the ship.

Jersey’s glass-hard arm shot out to bar her passage.  “There’s nobody on that ship,” he said.

Magali froze.  “What?”

“There’s no life-signs,” Jersey insisted.  “I’d hear her heartbeat or see a heat signature.  So unless she’s walking around in a heat-proof, sound-proof box, that’s not Jeanne Ivory.”

“Maybe the ship’s blocking it,” Magali replied.  “She is a smuggler and it sounds like her.”

Jersey kept his arm where it was.  “Hey Jeanne?” Jersey called.  “How about you come out where we can see you?”

“Aanaho Ineriho, fine!”

Jersey and Magali waited.  Nothing happened.  After several minutes, Jersey called, “You gonna come out where we can see you, Jeanne?  That’s an awful lot of Shrieker nodules you guys were carrying.  You’re not planning on trying to shoot us, are you?”

Shoot you?”  Jeanne scoffed.  “I’m standing outside the cargo bay waiting for you, and I’m carrying a goddamn wrench, you South-Tear knucker.  How about you come where I can see you!”

Jersey frowned at the ship, then down at Magali.  “The more she talks, the more it sounds like it’s coming from that back intercom.”  He glanced at the front of the ship.  “But there’s nobody at the helm.”

“Well, come on!” the intercom called.  “I was busy fixing my damn electrical system.”

“I think she plans to shoot us,” Jersey said.  “We just need to figure out where she’s hiding.”  He turned to glance at the jungle around them.

Magali stepped past him.  “Hey Jeanne?” she called.  “It’s me, Magali Landborn.  We’re not here to steal your Yolk, okay?  Just come out where we can see you.”

“I’m about to get really pissed off and start shooting things,” Jeanne snarled.  “I’m on the goddamn ramp.  Are you blind?”

Magali and Jersey looked at each other.  Neither had to mention the fact that there was nobody standing on the ramp.  Jersey tucked the unconscious smuggler in between the massive roots of a honeytree root system and pulled a gun, a look of total concentration on his face.

“What is it?” Magali whispered.

“Shh,” Jersey said.  “Possibly a Gryphon.  Something programmed to use her voice.  No heartbeat.  Wouldn’t need to breathe.”

“Why aren’t you dumbshits coming out where I can see you?” Jeanne demanded.  “I already said I wouldn’t shoot your sorry asses.”

“Don’t move,” Jersey whispered softly.  “We’re obviously not within range of his shot, and if he moves, I’ll hear him.”

Magali swallowed, fingers whitening on her guns.

There was a long silence, then a tentative, “Guys?”

Since they were standing well within sight of the open cargo bay, her words—so perfect, so Jeanne—made the tiny hairs all the way up and down Magali’s body stand on end.  She actually felt herself huddling against the Nephyr’s glassy body for support.

Seconds ticked by.  Then minutes.  Eventually, they heard a huge sigh from the entrance to the cargo bay.  A few minutes later, the engines on the ship hummed and sputtered, then hummed again, then there was an electrical crackle and it chugged out.  Even from where she was standing, Magali could hear what sounded like Jeanne’s voice cursing loudly, somewhere deeper on the ship.

Jersey frowned.  “Nothing is moving in there.  Like…nothing.  It’s dead silent.”

“---fucking cunt, you do what I say, bitch or I’m going to feed you to a garbage compactor one pathetic ounce of titanium at a time!”

“Jeanne sounds pretty pissed,” Magali noted.  “I don’t think a robot could fake that.”

“You’d be surprised,” Jersey said, but he was scowling at the ship.  “Jeanne?” he called again.

WHAT?!” she roared back from the belly of the ship.

“Uh,” Jersey said, “seriously, can you come out where we can see you?”

An instant later, the back intercom shouted, “I did come out where you could see me, and you guys hid in the bushes like little panty-waist coaler twats.  What, you want me to beg?”

Jersey cocked his head, then started walking in a semi-circle around the ship, getting a better view of the cargo bay.

There you are,” Jeanne snapped at them.  “What the fuck took you so long?  Grab a goddamn wrench and get to work.  I’m busy working the kinks out of the—” Jeanne’s voice cut off suddenly.  “Magali, that’s a fucking Nephyr.”

“Yeah,” Magali said.  “He’s actually not so—”

The rear guns on the ship fired at them, plowing a furrow of armor-piercing shells into the forest at their feet.

In a motion almost too fast to see, Jersey grabbed Magali, yanked her from the ground, and ran.  They were a good fifty feet into the forest before the guns stopped firing.

“And stay back, you filthy pig-fucking cyborg!” Jeanne screamed.  “Magali, sweetie, you okay, girl?”

Magali stumbled as Jersey, who was frowning at the ship through the foliage behind them, set her back on her feet.  “Am I okay?!” she shrieked.  “You just tried to put ship-grade armor-piercing rounds through my chest.”

“I was aiming for the cyborg,” Jeanne said, sounding almost apologetic.  “My sights must’ve gotten damaged in the crash, aim was a little off.”

“He’s with me!” Magali cried.  “He switched sides!  I took out his lifeline three days ago!”

There was a really long pause from the ship.  Then, “You’re sure about that?  Those crazy bastards like to play mind-games.”

“Speaking of mind-games,” Jersey shouted back, “what the hell kind of games are you playing with us, Jeanne?  I can hear that there’s nobody on that ship.”

Jeanne snorted.  “What are you talking about?  I’m standing right here.”

Magali frowned.  “Jeanne, if you’re standing by the back cargo bay, how did you shoot at us with the ship?”

There was a prolonged silence.  Then, “You’re really starting to creep me out.  I used my pistol.  This ship can’t fire without someone at the helm.”

“Yes, we know that,” Magali snapped.  “But you just—”

Jersey stopped her with a solid hand on her shoulder.  “Look at the ship,” he said, gesturing.

All over its body, every light it had was flickering on and off in weird, almost intelligent synchronicity.

Magali got a creepy-crawly sensation as she watched that.  “Malfunctioning computer?” she whispered.

“Looks like,” Jersey said.  “Weird.”  He raised his voice.  “Hey, uh, Jeanne?  You didn’t try to shoot your ‘pistol’ at Joel, too, did you?”

“No,” Jeanne snapped.  “Though I should have.”

Magali squinted.  “You got an AI on your ship, Jeanne?”

The ship’s lights all stopped flickering.  “No, I don’t have a goddamn AI—too expensive.  Now is somebody going to help me fix this hunk of scrap or am I going to have to put it all back together on my own?”

“Hey Jeanne,” Magali said, “we’ll help.  Just don’t shoot, okay?”

Thank you,” Jeanne snapped.  “Finally, somebody willing to pick up a wrench.  You!  Brackett-boy.  You know anything about ailerons?”

Jersey reluctantly straightened out of his crouch.  “A little.  Coalition taught me to fly.”

“Good!” Jeanne snapped.  “Get over here.  I think the right wing could use a little work.  Planetside ailerons aren’t responding, and the retractors seem to be jammed.”

Seeing how the right wing was torn off the ship, Jersey glanced over at Magali with a raised glittering eyebrow.

“Let’s go deactivate the computer,” Magali whispered.

“Joel already did that,” Jeanne replied.  “Didn’t help.  Everything in here’s going haywire.  Think it might be the Yolk, but I’m not sure.”

Jersey and Magali glanced at each other.  It didn’t need to be said that Magali hadn’t spoken louder than a whisper, and only a robot could have possibly heard it.  Jersey’s eyes narrowed.

Magali touched his arm.  “All right, Jeanne.  How about Jersey and I come onboard and take a look around?  Promise not to shoot us?”

Jeanne snorted.  “I’m going back to work on the engine.  You guys decide to stop being chickenshits, feel free to come aboard and help out.  I’ve got this really bad feeling I’m gonna be here awhile.”

As Magali stepped forward, however, Jersey’s arm stopped her.  “Didn’t I hear somewhere that Jeanne Ivory was unstable?  Something about a tooth-necklace?”

“She likes to shoot people,” Magali admitted.

“And with that much Yolk at stake…”  Jersey raised a brow.

Magali considered that a moment, then raised her voice.  “Okay, Jeanne, we’re coming in!” she called.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever!” Jeanne called from somewhere behind the mountain of Yolk sacks pouring out the hold of her ship.  “Just find something to make yourself useful!”

Magali led them back to the rear of the ship, then glanced over her shoulder at Jersey.  “Ready for this?”

“Yep,” Jersey said.  He had a gun charged and ready.

Magali took a deep breath and started climbing the pile of Shrieker nodules.

Inside, they met no resistance.  There wasn’t a Gryphon hiding behind the nodules, waiting to put a charge between their eyes, and aside from the flickering lights, the hallway was dark…

…but Jeanne wasn’t there, either.

Jersey slid into position beside her, staring intently up the passageway towards the cockpit.

“Hear anything?” Magali whispered.

Jersey gave his head a slight shake and took the lead.  They clambered over the oddly-tilted floor towards the front of the ship, passing the stairs leading down to the engine in the belly, where Jeanne’s colorful invectives had started up once more.

“Wow,” Jersey said, blinking down into the engine compartment.

“Pretty sure a robot couldn’t come up with some of that,” Magali agreed.  They stood there a couple more minutes, listening to the sound of Jeanne’s frustration in rapt awe.

“You know,” Magali whispered, “I wish I could remember half of that next time I’m pissed.”

“I’m taking notes,” Jersey agreed.  “I especially like the succubus part.”

Magali nodded.

“Hokay,” Jersey said, visibly tearing himself away from the verbal abuse emanating from the staircase.  He pulled a tactical flashlight from his belt and shone it around the ship.  “Aanaho Ineriho,” he whispered.  “This place is soaked with Yolk.”

Indeed, the floors, walls, and ceiling were caked with dried-on nodule slime, the purple tinge indicating it had been ripe when picked.  On the floor near the mountain of nodule sacks, the puddles still hadn’t dried, and they were walking through ten inches of half-coagulated purple-blue muck.

“That,” Magali managed, flicking it off her boot with a twitch of her toe, “is a lot of money.”

Jersey just nodded.  “Come on.”  He walked them up the hall to the bridge, which was similarly bathed in Yolk.  The whole ship, it seemed, had been packed with it.  Magali had glanced into both the bedroom and bathroom as she passed, and she’d seen the bags stuffed to the ceiling in both.

“Looks like they stole so much they had to pack it away in the cockpi—”  Jersey froze, looking at something on the floor.  Magali stepped around a tumble of Yolk sacks to see.

Jeanne Ivory lay dead on the floor of her ship, face a pallid white, half her skull disintegrated from the back, her fingers still wrapped around her favorite Brackett pistol.

“Oh God,” Magali whimpered, quickly turning away.  “That’s Jeanne!”

But Jersey was frowning, turning to look at the staircase and its stream of invectives.  “Then who’s that?”

Magali was suddenly finding it hard to breathe.  The heavy metallic smell of Shrieker slime was overpowering her, and she couldn’t tell if what she was smelling was the smell of blood or the smell of Yolk, as both items were spread liberally around the cockpit.  “We need to get her out of here and bury her.”

“Bury who?” the wall beside Magali’s shoulder asked suddenly.

Magali screamed and leapt away, simultaneously putting three rounds through the offending speaker.

“What the hell, Mag?” another speaker demanded.  “I asked you to come help me fix my ship, not shoot it to pieces.  What’s wrong with you?  Put the damn gun down already.”

Magali started panting, the tip of her gun spinning to face the latest speaker.  “Possessed,” she whimpered.  “Oh my God, Jersey, it’s possessed.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Jeanne’s voice demanded.  “Are you high, Magali?”

“No, I’m not ‘high’,” Magali cried.  “You’re fucking dea—”

Jersey cut her short with a hard, heavy hand on her shoulder.  “Hey, Jeanne,” he said smoothly, “Mag’s had a really rough time the last few days.  Run in with Nephyrs, ended up shooting up most of Yolk Factory 14.  She’s a bit twitchy.  How about you get back to work on the engine and we’ll clean up here.”

“Yeah, sure,” Jeanne muttered.  “And be sure to get that dead bitch out of my cockpit.  She’s too heavy for me to move and she’s gonna start to stink.”

Magali slapped a horrified hand over her mouth, but Jersey squeezed her shoulder in warning.  “We’ll do that,” he said, almost cheerfully.  “Let us know if you need any help tinkering with the engine.  I’m not a mechanic, but I’ve fixed a few combines…”

Jeanne snorted.  Combines?  This is space-age technology, boy.  Go back to your rice paddies.  I’ll deal with this.”  The voice returned coming from the staircase, some sort of monologue about the ship’s inner workings.

“I think we should take a look at the ship’s log…don’t you?” Jersey whispered.

Magali, who wanted nothing more than to leave the ship, just shook her head, terror tightening like a knot in her chest.  “I just want to go, Jersey.  No wonder Joel ran.  It’s a ghost.”

“Shhh, keep your voice down,” Jersey whispered back.  “You wanna piss it off?”

Magali whimpered and clung tighter to his arm.

“Come on,” Jersey said.  “We’ll go access the computer and—” he froze, frowning at the consoles.  “They’re all dark.”

“She said Joel disabled the computer,” Magali managed.  “Jersey, I think I’m gonna throw up.”

“Just hold on for a few minutes, love,” Jersey said, frowning.  He leaned close to the wall panel, then scraped at a brown, flaky substance with a titanium fingernail.  “Shit, I think this is blood…”  He reached in gingerly and fiddled with the wires.  “Someone unplugged the power supply, then bled all over it.”

Further supporting the fact they were dealing with a bonafide ghostly possession.  Suddenly, the invectives coming from down the hall weren’t so funny.  Rather, they made her want to scream and start pulling grenades from her belt.  “Jersey, I really want to go.”

Jersey plugged in the power core and immediately the consoles powered back up. “Just hold on a minute.  We need to figure out what’s going on here.”  He tapped his glassy fingers across the screen and a current camera view of the cockpit of the ship showed up on the big viewscreen in front of them.  He bent his head in concentration and entered a few more commands and the image reset to one timestamped three days prior, then he set it to play at 30x speed.  They saw Jeanne lock Joel in the compartment near the copilot’s chair—apparently willingly—and then her ship was loaded with Yolk by what appeared to be Coalition enlisted men.  Then Jeanne went to the console, flew them a short distance, all the while talking and gesturing to someone.  Then she pulled out a gun and shot herself right before the ship crashed.

“Wait,” Magali cried.  “What was that?”

Jersey rewound the tape and replayed it at 1x speed, starting at the moment of takeoff from the heist.

“Aanaho,” Magali whispered as she listened to Jeanne’s darkest secret, icy fingers trailing her spine.  “She killed herself?”

But Jersey was frowning, staring at the screen in confusion.  “Look at that,” he said.  “After they go down.  She’s walking around the ship, but I can see her foot.”

Magali leaned forward to get a better look.  They both watched as she suddenly appeared on the bridge and popped Joel’s prison compartment open, then Joel crawled over to her body and started babbling his apologies.

“Oh shit,” Magali said, watching Jeanne appear beside Joel, squatting to get a better look at her own body.  “Jersey, are you seeing that?”  She’d heard about vengeful spirits from the local potter, a real superstitious sort, but she’d never once thought they were real.  “She must’ve gone after Joel.”

But the odd thing was she didn’t.  She simply talked to Joel, and Joel either walked through her or looked past her like he couldn’t even see her.

“Holy crap,” Jersey said.  “Just holy crap.”

“Yeah,” Magali whimpered.  “Can we go now?”

“Oh jeez,” Jersey said.  “Oh jeez oh jeez.”  He stood up from the bloody console, swallowing hard.  He and Magali both turned to listen carefully to the repertoire of insults being hurled at the ship’s engine below.

“Okay,” Jersey said softly.  “Whatever…” he hesitated as a really foul string of invectives colored the air between them, “…that is, it honest-to-God thinks it’s Jeanne.”

“What is it?  A ghost?” Magali whispered.

“I’m not sure,” Jersey whispered back.  “…maybe?  You heard what Jeanne said on that recording.  If that asshole really did all that, this is his mess.”

“Then he should clean it up,” Magali agreed.  “We should go.”

“If I know anything about Runaway Joel, it’s that he’s not gonna clean it up unless someone makes him clean it up,” Jersey said.  “And I sure as shit do not want a trigger-happy ghost-ship arriving at the local scrapyard because somebody decided to salvage it twenty years later.”

“So what do we do?” Magali breathed.

“We could blow it up,” Jersey whispered back.

“Blow up Jeanne?!” Magali cried.

“We’re both in agreement that Jeanne is dead, right?” Jersey demanded, gesturing at the body.

Magali hesitated, listening to the colorful language from down below.  “That…sounds a lot like Jeanne,” she said reluctantly.  “And I don’t wanna blow it up unless we’re sure.  What’s Option Two?”

Jersey’s face hardened.  “Option Two is we drag Joel’s ass back here and make him face the music, ’cause I’m sure as hell not hanging around to mop this up for him.”

CHAPTER 15:  That Night in the Jungle…

Fortune's Folly

20th of May, 3006

Uncharted Jungle

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
Joel woke to the sound of happy female humming, a burning in his face, a general bone-deep throbbing, and an annoying stinging in his chest.  He started to sit up, only to realize that there was a paper stapled to his left pectoral, just above his nipple.

Ow!” he cried, yanking out the staple and rubbing his wounded chest.  “What kind of asshole…”  Pissed, he flipped open the note and read it.

You made your bed, Joel.  Now, for once, you’re gonna lie in it.  Once you figure out what’s going on, call us on the Upper Tear band and we can chat about a tow.  Until then, have fun.

Joel blinked at the note, completely flummoxed.  “I made a bed?”  He vaguely remembered telling Jeanne something about making a bed…


It all came back to him in a rush and Joel screamed and started scrabbling for the exit.  He was brought up short by a heavy chunk of metal—ship wreckage??—that some inhumanly strong force had simply bent around his torso, then welded to a chain, which had been, in turn, welded to the base of the pilot’s console with what looked like laser fire.

“Aanaho,” Joel babbled.  “Aanaho Ineriho.”  He started tugging at the chain, then, when it didn’t budge, he began lunging against it like a panicked animal, throwing all the weight into it he could.

“So you’re awake,” Jeanne said, from the wall near his ear.  “Good.”

Joel screamed, fell, and flailed in the coagulated Yolk.

“Seriously, Joel?”  From the utterly flat tone of her voice, he could almost see Jeanne standing there, a brow raised in disapproval.  “I knew you had a thing for drama, but that’s just pathetic.”

Joel whined in terror and scrabbled away from the ship’s wall, sliding through the cold, slick puddle of broken nodules, fingers searching for some kind of weapon.

“So here’s what’s up,” Jeanne’s voice said, “these two nice folks showed up—a Landborn and a Brackett, if you can believe that—and told me you had a reckoning coming to you, and you had something very important to tell me, and that I shouldn’t let you off this ship until you do.”  The cockpit doors slid shut, as if on cue.  There was a long, pointed pause.  “So, Joel?  What’d you do?  Get us drunk and knock me up a second time?”  On the vidscreen, Jeanne Ivory was looking at him, her arms crossed, a single brow raised.

Joel laughed, but it was half scream, half sob.  He started yanking at his chain with frenzied, rabid intensity, knowing he had to get away, had to get away

“They took that heavy bitch outta here,” Jeanne said.  “Put her in stasis in the hold so she could ‘have a proper burial,’ which is more than I would’ve given the Coalition twat, but hey, they’re not fucked up criminals like we are, right?”

Joel just started to cry.

“Soooo,” ship-Jeanne said, “anything you wanna tell me, Joel?”

“No,” he whimpered.

“You stole something from me, didn’t you, you shit?” she growled.  “What, Yolk wasn’t enough?  You drugged me to figure out where I stashed that palladium hoard?  That why most of it’s missing?”

“I didn’t steal from you,” Joel babbled.  “Please, Jeanne…”

“But you did steal from me,” Jeanne snapped.  All around him, the electronics hummed and fizzled.  “You stole my life from me, Joel.  After giving me the best night ever!”

“Jeanne, I’m sorry!” Joel cried.  “I didn’t know you were gonna pull the trigger!”

The ship remained in a stunned silence for several moments.  “What?  I was talking about running away with my first real stash.  You mean I killed that bitch?  I don’t remember shit, Joel.  What did you do to me?  You drug me again, Joel?”  There was a dangerous tone to her voice, now.

“No,” Joel whimpered.  “Aanaho, no.”

“That fat Aashaanti hive-god isn’t gonna save you on my ship,” Jeanne snapped.  All around him, the lights were flickering with demonic energy.  “What did you do?!”  Her last came in a furious roar that vibrated the very ship with its intensity.

Joel passed out.

He woke up again a few hours later, still chained to the console.

“Well, Joel?” Jeanne demanded, this time from a speaker on the floor.  Joel yanked his face out of the jellied Yolk and flopped away from the wall, sobbing.  “You feeling like telling me now, you blubbering pussy?”

Joel let out a terrified sob and scrabbled as far as his chain would let him, spraying gooey blue Yolk everywhere.

Ship-Jeanne gave an odd pause.  “It must be bad.  You’re acting like you actually think I’m gonna shoot you.”  She sounded surprised.  “You know that wasn’t actually my palladium, right?  It was just a decoy, some worthless alien bullion I got for cheap, but it’s got the right heft and luster.  The palladium’s in the most secure bank in the Inner Bounds.  Good luck trying to steal that shit from the Shellihaussen, you backstabbing asshole.”

Realizing his chain wasn’t gonna let him get past the exit to the cockpit, Joel sobbed and dropped his head against the wall in despair.

“So it’s obviously not the palladium.”  Jeanne sounded confused.  “Borden’s balls, Joel, what did you do?  Was it the guns?”  She groaned.  “It was the guns, wasn’t it?”

Joel shuddered and curled in on himself in terror, dragging clumps of hardening blue Yolk around with his feet.

“Tell ya what,” Jeanne said, her voice going dangerous.  “I don’t got time for this shit.  You’re gonna tell me what you did, or I’m going to put a bullet through your brain and be done with it.  You got to three.  One.  Two.  Th—”

“You’re dead!” Joel sobbed.  “Sweet Aanaho, you’re dead!”

Jeanne went dangerously silent.  “Are you threatening me, Joel?”

“You’re not Jeanne,” Joel cried.  “You’re a ship.  Jeanne is dead!”

Jeanne snorted.  “Obviously, you’re mistaken.  I’m standing right here.”

“And I don’t see anything but a wall!” Joel cried back.  “You’re some sort of avenging spirit!”

“Avenging spirit?”  Jeanne’s face on the vidscreen twisted in rage.  “What kind of idiotic, mind-numbing crap is that, Joel?”

“Please just kill me,” Joel whimpered.  “You’ve made your point.  I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry for what I did.”

Jeanne was silent for much too long.  “All right,” she muttered, “what the fuck is going on, Joel?  I just ground my foot in that stab wound Geo gave you and you didn’t even flinch.”

“You’re dead,” he whimpered, twisting back to cling to the wall.  “Aanaho, you’re dead.”

“No, fuck that, Joel!” Jeanne snapped, the lights popping and sizzling around them.  “I’m alive.  Look at me!”

Joel started to sob again.

Look at me!” she roared.  “I swear to Aanaho, Joel, I will pound your skull into a meat patty unless you look at me.”  The lights were going wild again, and there was an odd static on the coms, but aside from that, Joel remained unhurt throughout the minutes-long rampage.

A long silence followed, eerily quiet.  Finally, Joel managed to shakily lift his head from the wall and look around him.  The lights had stopped flickering and everything had once again powered down to hibernation levels.  He swallowed hard.  Then, very carefully, whispered, “Jeanne?”

There was a long silence.  Then, a quiet, “Just get off my ship, Joel.  There’s a cutting torch in the toolbox hidden behind the air conditioning unit.”

Joel immediately turned to locate the toolbox and had actually started towards it before he hesitated and glanced back at the wall of the still powered-down ship.  “Jeanne?” he asked softly.

“I committed suicide, didn’t I?” Jeanne asked softly.

Joel swallowed, then nodded slowly.

“Great.”  Ship-Jeanne took a deep breath, audible over the speakers, then let it out in a sigh.  “I was lonely, feared, despised, orphaned, abandoned, avoided, generally bitchy, and expected to wear a set of molars I’d pulled from my enemies’ corpses in order to maintain my credibility.  Honestly, I hadn’t thought it could get any worse.”

Joel took a nervous breath and let it out slowly, stabbed by a pang of genuine sorrow.  “I’m sorry, Jeanne.”

“So, what, I’m stuck here forever, now?  That old superstition against offing yourself really had some merit?”  She gave a disgusted laugh and the lights died down a little bit more.

“I…don’t know.”  Joel gave the ship an anguished look.

“So what am I supposed to do?  Pray for deliverance?”

“Jeanne, I…”

“Don’t know,” she muttered.  “’Cause who knows what to do with a possessed ship?”

Possessed ship…  Suddenly, those same words jogged something buried in his memory and Joel twitched, remembering a report from several decades ago, one in which a smuggler had gone down with a huge quantity of Yolk after a high-speed chase with authorities, only for his family and Coalition officers to consign the ship to the jungle rather than try to retrieve it.  Some bullshit story about possession…

“Oh fuck,” Joel blurted.

“Never again, it seems,” Jeanne sighed.  “You were right about that being the best night of my life, by the way.  Just wish it hadn’t been spent with a conniving lowlife like you.”

Jeanne,” Joel cried.  “You remember that smuggler that went down with an asston of Yolk like thirty years ago?  Guy was dead on impact.  Wrecked his really expensive ship to hell, but nobody would go in and salvage it?”

Ship-Jeanne grunted.

“They said it was possessed,” Joel blurted.  “The Coalition just left the bags of nodules there.  Left them.”

“Always figured it was ’cause the crooked, self-serving fucks had stashed them away for themselves somewhere,” Jeanne said, but he could tell he had her interest.

“They claimed the door was cutting people in half when they tried to salvage the Yolk, even with the computer severed from the system in the crash.”

“Now there’s an idea,” ship-Jeanne said.

Joel looked around the cockpit at the jellied blue Yolk coating most of the surfaces.  “Jeanne, it’s the Yolk.  Something about the Yolk!”

“And that helps me how?” Jeanne asked.

It didn’t.  Not really.  But Joel was sure he was onto something, now.  “Okay, so your body is obviously dead.  But Shriekers have that weird mind-scream, and Yolk does weird shit to the brain…  What if your mind got transferred?  Imprinted, somehow?”

“Joel, if I weren’t trapped in the walls of my own ship, I’d tell you you’re on something ridiculously expensive and can I have some, ’cause I seem to be having a really crappy day.”

“No, stick with me a sec,” Joel said.  “Okay, so you’re dead.”

Jeanne made an unhappy sound.

But,” Joel offered, “parts of your mind were saved.”

He felt the space in the ship around him grow incredibly alert.  “What do you mean, ‘parts,’ Joel?”

“Uh…” Joel flushed.  “Well, you don’t remember shooting yourself, for one.”

“Gee,” ship-Jeanne said, “I wonder why.”

Joel decided to leave that one for later.  “So what if you’re like, I dunno, some sort of AI?  Like maybe the Shrieker emanations can affect programming.”

“You turned the computer off,” Jeanne noted.

“But it’s psychic energy,” Joel cried.  “Everyone knows the Aashaanti somehow had living ships.  What if—”

The ship around him shuddered as something important-sounding whined to a halt in the engine room.  “Oh God, Joel.  Please tell me you’re not serious.  I’d rather be an avenging spirit.”

Joel swallowed hard and looked at the ship surrounding him.  He’d heard stories, decades later, of people trying to salvage metal from the infamous possessed Yolk-ship, only to run into the ‘Smuggler’s Curse’ and come back without arms or legs.  “Uh, Jeanne?  I think you should prepare yourself for life as an inanimate object.”

“This ‘inanimate object’ is about to put a ship-grade, two-forty millimeter explosive round up your ass, Joel.”

“Look” Joel said, “I’m just laying out the possibilities.”

“So am I,” Jeanne told him.

“Okay, let’s start over,” Joel said.  “You’re a ship that thinks it’s a pirate named Jeanne Ivory.”

“I’m going to kill you, Joel.”

“Uhhh,” Joel said, looking at the Yolk all around them, “that might not be a good idea right now, unless you want to become a ship that thinks it’s Joenne, the hermaphroditic smirate with an identity crisis.”

There was a couple moments of pause, then, “I hate you.”

“Okay, well, that’s a start,” Joel said.  “Seeing how I’m going to get you out of here, though, you probably shouldn’t plan my untimely end too quickly.”

You’re getting me out of here?” Jeanne demanded.  “To do what?  Sit in some scrapyard somewhere?”  The dejection and despair in her voice was almost overwhelming.

Joel laughed.  “Jeanne, baby.  You think I’d relegate this work of art to some idiot with a hacksaw?”

She seemed almost interested.  Almost.  “So, what, you’re gonna fix me up and sic me on the Coalition?”

“Noooo,” Joel said, “I’m going to fly you.  Make love to you with the console, baby.  Again and again and again—”

“Ugh, fuck, Joel, that is so disgusting.”

“Oh, you’ll like it,” Joel insisted.

“Oooor,” Jeanne offered, maybe, instead of making love to you, I’ll just bust a power core and unleash about twelve megawatts of electricity on your pathetic ass and then spend the rest of my days talking to a charred corpse.  Much better company.”

“It would take an idiot not to recognize I just landed myself the ship of my dreams.”

Jeanne was quiet much too long.  “Joel, that sounded eerily like the ‘woman of my dreams.’  I’m not the woman of your dreams.  I hate you.”

“Right,” Joel said, “but you’d still fly us out of a firefight with Coalition soldiers if I was too tired to take the helm, right, baby?”

Again, the cockpit was quiet for much too long.  “Get off my ship.”

“Technically,” Joel said, “it’s my ship now.  The previous owner is dead.”

“I’m pretty sure I can electrify the floor,” Jeanne replied.  “Get off.”

“No,” Joel said.  “Someone chained me to the pilot’s console, see?” he jerked at the chain.  “I’ll just have to stay.”

“You have ten seconds to grab that cutting torch and get the hell outta my—” Jeanne hesitated in her irate tirade, “—head.”

“Gee,” Joel said.  “I’m feeling dizzy.  Blood loss.  Lack of food.  You have any food in here, Jeanne?”

“I said no, you can’t stay, you demented weasel!” Jeanne snapped.  “Get out!”

“You like platinum?” Joel asked.  “I’m pretty sure I’ve got a good lead on some Coalition platinum they’re pulling out of the South Tear near the Bracketts’ old place.  Good twelve tons of it.”

Jeanne went quiet.  Then, “Seriously?”

“Cross my heart.”

“What heart?”

“The one that’s already pounding at the idea of making you mine, baby.”

“Joel, I think that was the most disturbing thing I’ve ever heard.  You have a ship fetish, don’t you?”

“Do I ever,” Joel said, grinning.

Another long pause.  “I can’t decide if I want to electrocute you, shoot you, or vent your bullshitting ass into space.”

Joel reached out and patted the wall.  “Jeanne, baby.  Consider this love at first sight.”

“I’ll shoot you.  Always loved the gore from a good round to the head.”

Joel glanced at the pilot’s seat, which was even then gore-spattered from a similar incident.  “Uh…” he started.

“Yeah, on second thought, I’ll just electrocute you.”

“Look, Jeanne, it’d be fun!”

“So would electrocuting you, Joel.  You keep telling me you want to dance.”

“Think of the things we could do together!” Joel cried.  “Think of the fun you could have as we take to the skies together and I masterfully stroke your body into a perfect arc…”

Jeanne electrocuted him.

CHAPTER 16: The Uh-Oh Light

Fortune's Folly

22nd of May, 3006

North Tear

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
When she wasn’t flying, Tatiana was a city girl at heart.  She loved to paint her nails and flip through fashion mags and drink martinis in the local officers’ club while watching Nephyr beefcakes pick fights on the dance floor.  The longer she stayed away from civilization, the more depressed she got.  When Milar had promised her a safe place to stay at the end of a gajillion-mile, sweaty, bug-infested climb up a jungle mountainside, she had expected a nice cottage with lit-up windows and smoke coming out the chimney at the end of it.

Seeing the tent that Milar intended to be their home, Tatiana just about broke down and had a kicking, squalling, fist-pounding tantrum right there on the rocky, wind-scoured slope.  She compromised with a bawling fit in her true love’s arms.

“But Tat, honey, we can’t go to an established town,” Milar told her again, because she obviously hadn’t heard him the first three hundred times.  “They’re looking for us, and you stick out like—I mean we both stick out like sore thumbs!”

Tatiana gave the tent a miserable look.  Babe, because he found forlorn, sobbing women to be boring, had gone off to hunt craig-rats.

“Besides, it’s got a nice view…”  Milar gestured out for Tatiana to take in the sweeping, majestic view of the jungle and, in the distance, the jagged crack of the Tear.  He looked more than a little uncomfortable.  “Fresher air this far up out of the jungle.”

Tatiana grunted, still sniffling from her earlier sobbing fest, when Milar had broken it to her that nobody else on the planet wanted to spend any time with her.  He’d found a ship and called for help, but none of his old pirate buddies were willing to pick up the ‘psycho who’d taken out half of Rath.’  Even worse, she’d begun frying Milar’s electronics just by being near them.  First his scavenged GPS, then the commset he’d taken from one of the fallen ships, then the screen on the super-high-tech sniper rifles he’d acquired, then the r-watch…  All had experienced the same flash-fading followed by sudden too-bright surges, and then they had grayed out and simply stopped working.  She could just imagine what she would do to a ship, which meant she was never going to fly again.  Captain Tatiana Eyre.  Grounded for life.

They might as well have cut off her head.

In truth, Tatiana was struggling against a total meltdown, which, in turn, thanks to demon-child’s experiments on her brain, would very likely kill Milar, who still hadn’t recovered from her mind-screaming on the dead hiveship, and was finding more and more reasons to hang out in the jungle away from her, ‘hunting.’  Because she was killing him just as inevitably as a Shrieker.  Because she was a monster.  A walking, talking, mind-reading monster.

“And there’s less bugs up here…” Milar went on, oblivious.  “You’ve got good reception, if you wanna tune to the station in Silver City…”  Then he hesitated, obviously remembering that she had fried their only portable holobox during one of her tantrums.  He cleared his throat.  “I mean, as soon as I get some tech that wasn’t damaged in the crash and fritzing out on us, I’m sure you’d be able to watch Station 1—you like football?  Station 1 does it all.  Football, soaps, old movies…”

A planet with only one holostream station.  Welcome to the Dark Ages.  Would you like to have head of pig for dinner, as well?  Hell, maybe they would have her shitting in a hole and washing her face with a foamy root.

“I dug a hole for your latrine out back, but until I can go get Patrick, I don’t have the time to build you a proper outhouse,” Milar continued.  “There’s some homemade soap on the table beside the bed, though.  Good stuff.  There’s a plant that grows out by the western ocean that bubbles up real nice when you rub its seeds together.”

Tatiana groaned and dropped her face into her hands.

“I can get you commercial soap!” Milar cried, hurriedly putting a big hand on her shoulder.  “Tat?  What do you like?  Lavender?  Rose?”

Tatiana waved him off.  She still felt like crying, but she was more or less managing to keep it under control.  They’re abandoning me out here, she thought, miserably thinking about all the people going about their daily lives on Rath or the Orbital, obliviously drinking their martinis and flirting with the local Nephs, having no idea there was a traitorous little operator stuck in the wilderness with a hole to poop in.  She wondered what her mother would think of her now, huddling in a tent on a rebel planet, hiding from her own buddies because she’d shot her own teammates out of the sky to save a known criminal.

“Hey now,” Milar said, reaching out to pull her close, mashing her face against his dragon-covered chest.  “You’re gonna be fine, pumpkin.  This is only temporary.  Just until we can find some cure for what she did to you.  I swear.”

Tatiana could think of a pretty effective cure.  She eyed the Laserats on Milar’s belt.

Milar’s arms tightened on her protectively.  “I sometimes get images of what you’re thinking,” he warned her.

Tatiana grunted again, but let her eyes drift elsewhere.  She couldn’t fly, couldn’t be close to other humans, couldn’t die

An ear-piercing shriek emanating from her chest interrupted that thought.  “Warning,” her heart node suddenly blared.  “Abnormal hormone levels detected.  Please see a Coalition Space Force medic immediately.  Code 2.  This is a Code 2 Emergency.”

Tatiana froze even as Milar grunted and pulled away from her in confusion.

The alarm shrieked again.  “Warning,” the node went on.  “Abnormal hormone levels detected.  Please see a Coalition Space Force medic immediately to discuss your contractual obligations and enlistment options.  This is a Code 2 Emergency.”

Tatiana swallowed and ripped open the front of her shirt.  The Uh-Oh light was flashing red.

“Shit,” she whispered.  Her heart was suddenly hammering in her ears, and she was finding it hard to breathe, remembering the warning that Encephalon had given her before it died.  “Shit.”  In all the chaos afterward, she’d actually forgotten.

Her big colonist was eying the node like he thought it might explode.  “What’s that?” he asked, obviously ready to try and rip it out of her.

“Warning,” the node repeated.  “Abnormal hormone levels detected.  Please see a Coalition Space Force medic immediately.  Code 2.  This is a Code 2 Emergency.”

Understood!” Tatiana roared, slapping her shirt closed over the node’s blinking light, terrified Milar would figure out what it meant, terrified she was about to be ripped apart on the inside as her tech made way for an exponentially-growing parasite.

The node stopped blaring its alarm, but it continued to flash bright enough that it caught Milar’s eye through the fabric of her shirt.  He lifted up a big, brutish finger and pointed at her chest, his mouth falling open.  “Is that…?”

No!” Tatiana cried hurriedly.  “No.  It’s just a routine test.  Is this Thursday?”  She laughed nervously.  “Yeah, they like to do it once a month on Thursdays, just to test the system.”

Milar’s gold-flecked eyes lifted up to her face.  “It didn’t say it was a test,” he said slowly.  “It said it was a Code T—”

And then Tatiana realized that, in preparing himself to meet a woman he’d been dreaming about for decades, Milar had learned everything there was to know about operators.

“It’s faulty,” Tatiana babbled, hating the nervous jitter that her voice made as she said it.  “That warning goes off like six times a week.  I put in a ticket, but the techs are too lazy to get to it.”  She couldn’t let the big brute know it meant she’d gotten herself knocked up.  He’d want to do something stupid, like, oh, keep the child, maybe even fornicate some more to make sure it stuck.  Damn it!  How was she supposed to know the colonist floaters were too backwards to be on birth control?!  What the hell kind of idiot didn’t treat his sperm?!

Milar raised a single, unimpressed brow.

Tatiana swallowed, heart pounding.  “What?!  It’s true!”

“You realize I can hear everything you’re thinking, right?” Milar said.  “You’re so worked up you might as well be screaming at the top of your lungs, sweetie.”


“And to answer your question,” Milar said, “the kind that wasn’t expecting to have sex.”

Oh.  Right.  The virgin kind.

“Fuck me,” Tatiana whispered.

Milar felt himself grin.  “Anytime, princess.”

Tatiana shoved him out of the way and started to pace.  Her first response, knowing that they were definitely not going to have access to a pre-approved Coalition operator facility to remove the incompatible tech and guide her through the process, was anger.  “You knew I was coming!  How could you not treat your goddamn sperm, you colonist floater?!”

Coalers are so spoiled with their fancy tech.  He crossed his big arms over his even bigger chest like this was somehow her fault.  “Coalition colonists’ breeding habits are regulated by the Encompate.  They don’t let us use birth control until we’ve hit a population landmark of twenty million.”

“You’re a rebel!” she screamed.  “You could’ve found some!”

“Sure I could,” Milar said, nodding agreeably.  “If I wanted to spend a month’s wages to get a month’s supply.”

Stolen it, then!” Tatiana cried.

“Pumpkin,” Milar said, “I had more important things to worry about than sperm treatments.”  He held up a big, sexy hand.  “Food, shelter, fuel, ammo, Coalition patrols, skinning Nephyrs…” …finding my soul mate, killing coalers, getting enough sleep…  “I figured you weren’t worried about it, so you must’ve had things under control.”

Ugh.  Men.  Tatiana remembered her fellow operators complaining about not being able to get any colonist ass because they didn’t want to put their enlistments on hold while they had some hairy, knuckle-dragging collie kid, but it hadn’t occurred to her that Milar—suave, dragon-tattooed, sunglass-wearing Milar—could get somebody pregnant.  He’d been a virgin, for the love of Phage!  How could a virgin get someone pregnant on the very first try?!

Milar, who didn’t seem to be taking this seriously, grinned and said, “If you want, I can show you.”

Tatiana spun around and jabbed her finger into his big, meaty chest.  “This is not funny.  We need to find a reset pill.  Now.”

Milar’s big grin just widened.  “Yeah, coaler.  Good luck finding those on Fortune.”

Tatiana squinted at him.  “Huh?”

“Population controls,” was the entirety of Milar’s response.

…which meant that the Encompate didn’t care if colonist women didn’t want to be pregnant.  It was for the good of the galaxy and all that.  Tatiana swallowed, hard.  “I need to get back to the Orbital.  Find me a doctor!  Now.

“Really?” Milar asked.  He was wincing and tilting his head to one side as if avoiding an extremely strong light.  “’Cause it seems to me you’re not in a state to go waltzing into a populated area, sweetie.”

Tatiana froze.  “A state?”  It was as if the world had come to a halt around her, leaving only the narrow, one-foot target that was Milar’s face still in focus.  “And just what kind of state might that be, you colossal spawn of incest?”

Milar blinked.  She really doesn’t wanna be pregnant.

“You think?!” Tatiana screamed.

Immediately, he groaned and grabbed his skull.  Aanaho, she’s gonna kill me.

“You see the future!” Tatiana howled.  “You knew this would happen!”

“I didn’t!” Milar cried.  “Please calm down, sweetie.  I just got caught up in the moment—you know, a lot like you?”

Tatiana could not believe that the floater could possibly think this was her fault, ever.  “This,” she said, grinding her finger into his breastbone, “is your fault.  You produced the sperm.  You stuck it in there.  You got me pregnant.”

And she enjoyed every minute of it, Milar thought, grinning.  Every single minute.

“This is not some manly coup!” Tatiana cried.  She jabbed his meaty chest again.  “You need to find us a doctor.  Bring him to me.  Like, yesterday.”

Milar froze.  She wants to get rid of it?

Yes I want to get rid of it!” Tatiana snapped.  “Go!”

He stared at her in what looked like shock.  “Why?”

Tatiana squinted at him.  “You’ve obviously not had the benefit of a few hundred briefings on how an abdominal parasite rips apart tech and plays havoc with nanos and lots of times simply dies because the placenta got attacked by patrolling bots.”

“We’ve got doctors,” Milar insisted.

“Are they nanotech-qualified, Coalition Space Force operator biomed specialists?” Tatiana snapped.

Milar swallowed and glanced outside.  “We’ll find you a doctor.”  Maybe I can get him to help me change her mind.

“I’m not changing my mind!” Tatiana cried.

Milar’s attention snapped back to her, looking like a guilty puppy.  Nonetheless, he pressed, “Tatiana, it’s a big decision, on both our parts.  We should really think it over…”

“No!”  She stamped her foot and pointed.  “Doctor.  Now!”

Milar narrowed his eyes and thought about leaving her there and dropping her bread and water by air every few days.

Tatiana forgot to breathe.  Had he just…

“Get out,” she managed, so enraged she could barely see.

Milar’s eyes widened.  “Now honey, I didn’t mean that—”

OUT!” she screamed.

Milar gave her an odd look, kind of like she’d snuck up and licked his armpit, then his eyes rolled up into the back of his head and he collapsed like a rag doll on the floor in front of her.

Seeing the colonist’s crumpled form, all of Tatiana’s fury dissipated in an instant.  She dropped to her knees beside Milar, babbling an apology.  Her collie lover didn’t respond, mouth open, drool dribbling down his face to the dirt floor of the tent.

“Milar!” Tatiana cried, horrified that she’d killed him like the rest.  “Please, Milar!”

The colonist didn’t answer her.  When she shook him, his head rolled, and his golden eyes were open and much, much too wide…

CHAPTER 17: Journey into the Wide

Fortune's Folly


The Wide

Infinite Dimensions, Infinite Timelines,

Infinite Possibilities

Fortune's Folly
Milar tumbled.

Like a madman falling through the rocky river of reality, Milar’s mind was bruised, cut, and snagged on obstacles impeding his chaotic plummet into the Void.  Visions of himself at all ages slammed into him from all sides.  He was young, he was old, he was kicking in the womb, he was dead on a road.  Then he was dead in a house, then dead in a ship, then dead underground, then not dead underground, but pounding at the insides of a casket and screaming.  The current increased, tugging him along, slamming him into dozens of images at once.  Milar had no grounding, no sense of place, nothing but the all-too-vivid images hitting him a thousand times at once.  He screamed, but it didn’t make a sound.

Go back home, Miles. 

The voice slammed into him like a leash going taut, tugging him short.

You need to go home.  For the first time, Milar was able to make out some shapes in the void in front of him.  You can’t stay here.  The voice was familiar, triggering something long-buried within him.  Some old longing.  Some aching sense of loss.

You’re needed back home, son.

…son?  Milar had the feeling it wasn’t being used in the colloquial sense.  Immediately, however, he grew sick with the knowledge that his father was just a babbling madman whose diaper he or Patrick had to change three times a day.  He began to see images of Wideman Joe carving vegetables in the garden, dirt and strands of zucchini clinging to his beard and clothes from the ferociousness of his carving.

Focus, Miles.  Where are you?

Milar opened his eyes to find himself sitting beside an infant.  But not just any child.  A younger version of himself, seated in a high-chair at a rough-hewn table that his uncle Dregg had made them before leaving on his final, fatal flight back to the Core with Dad.  Sitting in the next chair over, his brother Patrick was babbling and spitting masticated green goo over his bib.  Beside him, Caroline was shoving spaghetti at her chubby cheeks with a tiny fist.

Seeing the three of them together again made Milar’s heart ache.

His mother and father were paused in feeding them, arguing across the table.

“Joe, do you have to go?”  Milar’s mother’s face was red from crying, her strawberry blonde hair falling out of its lazy bun.  “Your enlistment contract only said two long-distance trips.  You flew that last freighter of Nephyrs out here two years ago—by law you don’t have to go back until your enlistment’s over and you can take your family back with you.”

“Pumpkin,” a muscular—but physically small—man said.  Milar was startled to realize it was his father before the Wide.  “It’s a special assignment.  I get these things back to the Core alive, the guys on top are gonna fix me up with anything I want.  We’re talking a homestead, Vala.  All I gotta do is fly them home.”

“Let them clone them, for godsake,” his mother said.  “Joe, you served your time.  They’re your children.  You won’t see them for a decade—”  She paused to blink at Milar’s younger self, who was stuffing the lid of the salt shaker into his mouth.  “Aanaho Ineriho, Miles, you can’t eat that!”

Go home, Miles.  They need you there, Milar’s father said.

“I am home,” Milar said, frowning.

Not yet.  But I will help you…

Fortune's Folly
“Milar!  Milar, come here right now!”  The panicked sound of Milar’s mother’s voice from across the yard made a young Milar drop the stick he’d been using to try to hit birds as they flew to the feeder and spin around with his hands behind his back.  Milar remembered thinking maybe he’d hit the last one and his mom had seen it.

She just got the news, Milar’s father said.  She’s terrified. 

“Milar!” his mom said, rushing across the manicured lawn to him.  A young Patrick and Caroline trailed along behind her, both looking pale and wide-eyed.  In a quick motion, she wrapped the younger Milar in her arms and squeezed him tightly against her chest, sobbing into his shoulder.

“Mom…” Milar’s younger self stammered.  “What…?”

It was the Shriekers.  As soon as they got out of range of their hive, they started to scream.  We couldn’t get turned around in time.  We were killing them, so they screamed.

Milar frowned and turned.  Behind him, the striking image of his father stood there, watching him.  Unlike the greasy, unkempt old man Milar had always known, Joe Whitecliff was clean, with a close shave and his light brown hair shorn into a tight military cut.  He wore a sharply-creased black military uniform and spacer’s boots, and he looked like someone used to being in charge.  Hesitantly, he asked, “Dad?  What the hell is going on?”

But his father wasn’t looking at him—he was looking at his mother.  There was sadness in his face, hurt in his sky blue eyes.  She asked me not to go, but I did it anyway.  Four hundred thousand was a lot of money back then.  I thought I could make you boys rich, give you a better place to call home.  Slowly, Milar’s father turned to face him.  I didn’t listen, and the beast found her, instead.

Milar frowned at his father, mention of ‘the beast’ making his spine prickle unconsciously.  “Who are you talking about?”

His father turned back to the scene.  He didn’t even let her claim my death benefits.  Made her go penniless.  Made her think I’d lied, that I was trying to run away with the money.

Milar felt a stab of pain in his chest remembering the news from so long ago, but the scene was already fading.

Fortune's Folly
“Sorry, ma’am.  You’ve gotta take the kids and go.  Your authorization to live in Rath base housing was revoked.”

He’s lying, Joe-his-father said, sounding agonized.

Milar’s mother’s face was already a thunderhead.  “You mean my husband, who was flying a suicide mission for your government, died.”

The Nephyr at the door cocked his head almost in confusion—almost.  The slight glitter to his eyes, however, was something that Milar had learned to read over the years, and it betrayed his amusement.  “I’m sorry, he never registered you or your children as dependents,” he consulted his pad for a moment, then, looking directly into Milar’s mother’s eyes with total smug satisfaction, said, “or you as his wife.”

A lie! Joe shouted, facing the Nephyr directly, now.  I registered her, Bradon, and you know it.

Milar’s mother hesitated, obviously in total shock.  “What do you mean?

“It means, collie,” the Nephyr said, stuffing the pad back under his arm, “you’ve got twelve hours to get your crap and crawl back to that hole you came from, or my friends and I are gonna come back and have a little fun with you.”  His eyes stopped on Caroline.  “Maybe her, too.  You colonists breed like vermin anyway—she’s probably already been rolling around with the local farm hands.  We’ll show her what a real man can do…”

“Get out,” Milar’s mother said, her voice too cold and quiet for anyone but Milar, who was standing right beside her, to hear.  “Right now, you piece of shit.”

The Nephyr’s arm lashed out and he grabbed Milar’s mother’s throat in a single fist.  Yanking her forward, he squeezed, making her struggle and choke.

“You,” the Nephyr said, “are nothing but the colonist shitstain on the heel of my boot.  I want you, or your daughter, all I’ve gotta do is come find you, and you’re all mine.”  He pulled her even closer, so that he could whisper into Milar’s mother’s ear, “How’s that sound, my grubby collie princess?  It can be a game of hide and seek.  I’m the hunter, you’re my very fuckable prey.”

On instinct, Milar tucked his head and lunged at the Nephyr, hitting him like a linebacker, but instead of connecting, he passed right through him and out the other side.

As if Milar hadn’t even touched him, the Nephyr went on in a whisper against his mother’s ear, “Tell you what.  You go run and hide, and one year from now, I’ll come find you.  I’ve got another four years on this hellhole, so I’ll look forward to the entertainment.  Always love teaching natives on backwards, Podunk places like this just how much I appreciate having to come out here and guard Coalition property from their grubby colonist fingers.”  He shoved her away, and Milar’s mother fell to the ground, gasping and choking.  Pulling the pad out from under his arm again, the Nephyr made a note.  “So let’s see.  It’s September nineteenth.  Shall we make it an even twentieth…Vala Healthmore?”  He snorted at the pad.  “Healthmore?  Seriously?  You guys choose the stupidest names.”

“It’s one of the oldest names on Fortune,” Milar snapped, despite himself.

The Nephyr didn’t even look at him.  Grinning, the glittering bastard lowered the pad again.  “So.  Vala.  We’ll give you an extra day to hide, then you’re mine.  Have fun, tootz.”  Without another word, the Nephyr turned and stalked away, leaving Milar’s mother still choking on the floor.  Milar followed him to the exit, but then turned to see if his mother was okay.

Beside his mother’s sobbing form, his father was crouched, eying her with remorse.

Bradon Garren.  I played poker with him on Fridays.  Bragged to him about how great my wife was, that she was the best thing I’d ever had in bed.  I did it even knowing he was a jealous shit.

His father looked up at Milar, mountains of pain crushing him from within.  Then one night when the whisky was flowing, he suggested I share her a little bit, told me that collies should be used to it by now, and what could it hurt?  I didn’t think about it—I told him he got anywhere near her, I was gonna kill him.  He actually thought that was funny, stood up and told me to ‘try, little man’.  I was so pissed, I pulled rank.  I told him he said another word, I’d make a call over to Ops and have his C.O. take his skin for a week.  That made him stop laughing.  You know, Nephyrs and their skin?  His father briefly looked up at Milar for confirmation.

“I was never a Nephyr,” Milar whispered.

His father didn’t look convinced.  Or maybe didn’t care.  He turned back to the vision of his wife.  Bradon would’ve killed me that night, but there were six other Nephyrs there, and they told him to back off and sober up.  One of them was his squad leader, so he left and didn’t come back for a night or two.  When he did, he was smiling and laughing just like usual.  I thought he’d forgotten.

Milar’s father took a deep breath, then let it out unsteadily.  Bradon didn’t forget, he whispered, reaching out to touch his wife’s face.  He was just waiting…  Then the scene shifted again.

Fortune's Folly
“Boys, I told you to milk the cow, not roll in its shit!”

Milar, who was still stunned from the last vision, had to struggle a moment to take in the new scene.  He and his brother were wrestling in the mucky yard of a farm in the middle of the jungle.  Verdant greenery surrounded them on all sides, with only a couple acres having been carved from the alien foliage.  Everyone was dirty, Milar and Patrick, especially, because they no longer had access to running water.

“Pat pushed me, Mom!” Milar’s younger self complained.  “I was milking.”

“He was not!” Patrick immediately cried.  “He was trying to tie a flashlight to the cow’s tail!”

“Liar!”  Milar’s younger self grabbed Patrick by the head and shoved him back towards the mucky ground as the cow continued placidly chewing its cud beside them.  Patrick started to scream and kick, trying unsuccessfully to free himself.  Milar’s younger self almost managed to get his brother’s lips into the dirt before their mom grabbed him and pulled him away.

“Stop it!  You two have been nothing but trouble since your father—”  She hesitated, her eyes on something walking across the fields towards them.  The sound of horror was unmistakable.  “Oh no.”

Milar, who stood taller than any of them, could see the Nephyr striding across the plowed furrows, completely careless of what he trampled as he leisurely walked towards them, crisp and pretty in his black Coalition uniform.  Milar tightened in recognition, but his younger self still associated those uniforms with friends, people like his uncle and father.

“Miles, Patty, go get your sister and go to the river,” their mother said softly.  “Don’t come back until tomorrow morning.”

That had shocked them.  “Tomorrow morning?” Milar’s younger double demanded, with the same childish indignance he remembered feeling.  “What are we supposed to eat?”

Go!” his mother screamed.  It had been the terror in that scream that jolted them into instant action.  They stood up from the muck and bolted, powered by their own fear.  They found Caroline at the chicken hutch and, between the two of them, dragged her into the forest with them at a run.  They’d huddled by the bank of the river all night, sharing warmth and terror.

Milar remembered the scene vividly, and his fists were knotting as he continued to stand there beside his mother, watching the Nephyr approach.

“Well, that was a merry chase,” the Nephyr said, looking around at the empty yard.  “Took me a whole week to figure out which hole you crawled into.”  When he turned to look at Milar’s mother, his glittering face was smiling, but there was no pleasantness there.  “You wanna do this here or in the house?”

Once a year, Milar’s father said.  He came once a year.

“I don’t want to see any more,” Milar whispered.

Soon, Milar’s father told him.  I’m pulling you back.  Have to follow the line.

Watching the Nephyr grab his mother by the arm and lead her into their home, the bones in his fists started to ache.  “I’m dead, aren’t I?”

Not dead, Milar’s father told him.  Lost.  But I’m here, son.  I won’t let it happen to you, too.

“Let what happen to me?” Milar whispered, tears in his eyes.

But the scene was shifting again.

Fortune's Folly
Milar found himself standing beside the front door to the chicken coop of his childhood home.  Immediately, he tensed, able to recognize that morning anywhere—there was a slight fog that was catching the morning light in streaks of orange.  It hadn’t rained in three weeks, but it had fogged every morning, teasing them as their crops died.

Swallowing down dread, Milar glanced down.

Wideman Joe lay collapsed in the dried muck beside the door, curled in on himself as he babbled gibberish.  A chicken was pecking near his face.

They were done experimenting on me, his father told him solemnly.  He was standing nearby, looking down at the skinny figure twitching on the ground.  Spent eight whole years hooking me up to every machine they had, but they still couldn’t figure out why I lived when the rest died.  Released me in the streets of Rath afterwards, and someone eventually recognized me and brought me home.

The door slammed open and Milar’s younger self stepped out of the hutch carrying a dead rooster, almost tripping on the body sprawled there.  His face was dark—from, Milar remembered, yet another argument with Patrick, this time over who would pluck a chicken for dinner.  Immediately upon seeing his father, he froze, gaze locked on the tattoo on Wideman’s arm.  Slowly, Milar’s younger self lifted his gaze to his father’s face.  Immediately, he brightened and dropped into the muck to shake him awake.

“Time,” Wideman babbled.  “Too much time!”

Milar’s younger form yanked his hands back, recognizing the odd roundness to his father’s eyes.

Patrick, though, didn’t notice.  He had been crossing the yard to let the goats out for the day when he saw Milar squatting by their father.  Immediately, he spun to scream towards the house, “Mom!  Mom!”  After all, their mother had stubbornly insisted their father could still be alive, because the coalers had never shown her a corpse.  She’d held onto the hope he was coming home, showing her triplets pictures of their father, healthy and happy inside the cockpit or posed beside a gigantic leg of a Yolk freighter.  Not once had she mentioned he’d been chosen to ferry Shriekers back to the Core, a task that had always resulted in a ghost ship of dead spacers and dead alien blobs.  Still not noticing that their father had the Wide, Patrick raced back to the house, shouting, “Mom!  Dad’s home!

Not home, Joe’s father said, watching Patrick solemnly.  Trapped.

“What is this?!” Milar demanded, spinning on his father.  “I’m dead, is that it?  This is you making me review my life, own up to all my sins before I can cross through the pearly gates?”

No, his father said placidly.  He turned away from Patrick to give Milar an appraising glance, then said, Son, you have the Wide. 

Fortune's Folly
“Miles, you’re one of the ones they’re looking for.”  Patrick’s voice had not yet started to crack from adolescence.

Milar looked down at his younger self, who was hunched over a fishing rod beside the river, his face troubled.  “One of who?” his younger self asked, chucking a stone into the water.

“Those kids,” Patrick said.  He sounded afraid.  “The ones the coalers are looking for.  I heard Mom talking with a guy from Deaddrunk.  They’re thinking about moving you out there so they can keep you safe.”

Milar’s younger self snorted, but Milar remembered being uncomfortable.  “What guy?”

“David Landborn.”

His younger self made a dismissive grunt.  “Some dickcheese miner can’t protect us.”  Milar remembered vividly the fury he’d felt the last time the Nephyr had come visiting his mother.  They’d moved twice since the first time, and he’d still found them both times.  The last time, he’d told them he’d extended his stay, and next time he’d be having some fun with Caroline, as well.

“He might be able to protect you, Miles,” Patrick said, sounding hopeful.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Milar said.

Patrick just shook his head.  “Mom’s gonna do it.  You’re smart, Miles.  Way smarter than me.  They take kids like you for the Nephyrs.”

Milar’s younger self gave a dismissive grunt, but he knew it was true.  When he tried, he could memorize a year of lessons in a couple nights, where it took Patrick months.  What he really liked, though, the only stuff that really interested him, was the deadly stuff.  Like how to trap rabbits and catch fish and kill starlopes.  Things like that just came naturally to him.  Survival, hunting, fishing, finding shelter—at twelve, he was already better than most old-timer starlope hunters that came down from the crags only twice a year.  Already, he had a stack of fish beside him when Patrick still hadn’t brought one to shore.

“So I can fish,” Milar said, nudging one of the fat, extra-oily genatrout with his boot.  “That’s not exactly Yolk Baby material, Patty.”

Patrick frowned at him as if he were the most stupid person on the planet.  “It’s only ’cause fishing is all you care about.  David told Mom he was gonna make you start playing chess.”

Milar’s younger self prickled at the way the matter already seemed to be settled in the adults’ minds.  “I’m not going anywhere,” he growled.  “You can tell that to Mom.”

“It’d be all three of us,” Patrick said.  “Mom doesn’t want Caroline around when the…” he trailed off, swallowing.

Milar watched his younger self’s jaw tighten.

Patrick pressed on, “David said you, me, and Caroline are the only set of multiples where only one of them turned out to be a Yolk Baby.  He said there’s special investigators out looking for kids like us.  They were saying we might be some sort of key.”

Even back then, Milar knew exactly which key his brother was talking about, and it had suddenly stopped him cold, his entire body prickling with chills and goosebumps.  Yolk Babies were supposedly created when the mother consumed raw Shrieker nodules at exactly the right point in a baby’s gestation.  And yet, for two identical twins and a fraternal sister to have different outcomes in their development, it defied the popular belief that Babies were simply a result of their environment.  The Coalition had spent billions trying to figure out what created Yolk Babies, and if they knew about this exception to the rule, they would have done everything they could to acquire the three of them for study.

Milar, however, kept his response totally nonchalant.  “They wouldn’t care about us,” he’d lied, knowing his brother wouldn’t understand the breakthroughs that could be made by studying the three of them.  “That Landborn guy was just trying to scare Mom when she was in town with sis.”

“It wasn’t him,” Patrick told his younger self.  “It was Tormund Sellic.  Back when Mom was selling him that last turkey.  He told her she shouldn’t be keeping us kids in one place, that sooner or later somebody was going to talk.”

That had made Milar mad.  He had wondered why their mother had sent Tormund a couple goats at butcher time, followed by most of their savings in silver nuggets a few weeks later, for no apparent reason.  “So he threatened her.”

Patrick frowned.  “No, he was just saying how he’s worried other people might—”

“He threatened her,” Milar’s younger self said.  He put his pole down, full of rage.  If someone had threatened him, he could have let it slide, but for someone to threaten Mom…  “Come on, Pat.  We’re gonna do something about this.”

“Want me to get Caroline?” Patrick asked, sounding excited.

“No,” Milar said, his younger face darkening, “Just you and me.  We’re gonna make it so that Tormund Sellic never threatens anyone, ever again.”

And he never did, Milar’s father said.  He was, once again, standing nearby.  Together, they watched Young Milar stalk back towards the farmstead, followed by his loyal brother.  He didn’t say much of anything after you and your brother broke his jaw and threatened his family.

Milar’s fists were clenched at his sides.  “She’d been through enough.”

But it wasn’t Tormund you were angry with when you thrashed him in front of his kids, Milar’s father said.  It was the Nephyr.

Milar remembered beating the man near-unconscious, savoring every blow, wishing it could have been the Nephyr that always found them despite whatever his mother did to try and hide.  He remembered Patrick helping him hold Tormund down, remembered his fists growing red with his and Tormund’s blood.  He remembered Patrick helping him drag Tormund into his front yard after they’d finished, remembered shoving his wife and kids outside, remembered setting Tormund’s house on fire.

Milar had almost killed him that night.  He even pulled out a gun, his hands still bloody from delivering the beating, and was putting it to Tormund’s head, enjoying the screams of his wife and kids, when Patrick’s hand on his arm stopped him.

“Miles,” Pat whispered.  “Come on.”  He glanced over his shoulder at the rest of the village.  “We should go.”

Milar’s younger self almost pulled the trigger anyway.  Instead, he grabbed Tormund and yanked him from the ground, the man struggling with consciousness in his grip.  Even back then, he’d been huge for his age.  “Don’t ever talk to my mother again,” Milar said into his pulverized face.  “You threaten her again, you steal from us again, your wife and kids die first.”  He threw Tormund back down to the ground so hard he groaned.  “But not you.  You, I’ll break your legs and drop you in the jungle for the cats.”

He believed you, his father commented.  They moved off Fortune.

“I know,” Milar whispered.  He still felt bad.  He had only meant to scare the guy, but as soon as he’d seen them preparing one of their goats for dinner that night—goat that Milar’s family wasn’t eating because Tormund had blackmailed his mother, Milar had lost all control.  After he’d finished with Tormund, he’d dragged the goat carcass back home and dropped it on his mother’s kitchen table.  She’d woken up the next morning to find him eating goat steaks, hands crackling with dried blood, scowling at nothing as his brother huddled in a corner, watching.

“She sent me away,” Milar said, remembering.  “All three of us.”

She had to, his father said.  It was safer that way.  She knew you and Patrick wouldn’t stand by another year and let him hurt her, and David had promised to protect Caroline if she gave you to him to train…

Milar felt his fists tighten, remembering that.  David had wanted him so badly he’d arranged a trade.  Like Milar was a horse.  A commodity.

Fortune's Folly
“I hear your twin brother follows you everywhere.”  It was David Landborn.  Milar’s younger self sat hunched on the man’s chair, glaring at his kitchen table, pissed off that his mother had sent him and Patrick and Caroline to Deaddrunk for what he and Patty had done to Tormund.

After a couple minutes of watching him, David Landborn said, “Hear you’re a Yolk Baby, too.  Ain’t seen much evidence of that, though.”

“Fuck you, old man,” Milar’s younger self said.  He proceeded to pointedly yank his big hunting knife from its sheath and begin to carve on the man’s table.

Back then, Milar had expected a reaction of some sort, an outburst or, even better, an attempt to take the knife from him.  Instead, David simply watched him carve his initials into the table.

When Landborn said nothing at all, Milar’s younger self scoffed at the man’s attempt to psyche him out and proceeded to carve a cock and balls in big, bold lines as his host watched.

“You wanna kill Nephyrs, boy?” David finally said.

Slowly, carefully, Milar’s younger self looked up from detailing the nutsack with a frown.  “Nephyrs can’t be killed,” he’d said.  “Everyone knows that.”

David just snorted—a sound of total disdain—and it had been that single snort that changed Milar’s life.

The hunter discovers his prey, Milar’s father said.  Good.  We’re getting closer.

Milar tore his eyes away from his younger self.  “Closer to what?”

His father looked sad.  Closer to home.

Fortune's Folly
“He’s coming next week,” Milar’s younger self said.  “Mom hasn’t moved.  He knows where she is.  He’ll be there.”

Patrick, as usual, was behind him a hundred percent.  “Okay, what do we do?”

“We’re gonna kill him,” Milar’s younger self said.  “Slowly.”

“How?” Patrick demanded, obviously excited by the idea.

“Pit trap,” Milar’s younger self said.

Patrick’s face immediately went slack and he blinked.  “Huh?”

Realizing his brother’s faith was wavering at the idea of taking on a Nephyr with a Neolithic arsenal, Milar’s younger self insisted, “Look, guys like that, they’re looking for high-tech stuff.  They look for lazmores and phos-grenades and EMP.  They’re gonna be looking for batteries, electricity, heat signatures.  They’re not going to be looking for a pit, ’cause how can someone kill a Nephyr with a pit?”

Patrick squinted at him.

“With fire,” Milar’s younger self said.  “Water and fire.”

“I dunno, Miles…” Patrick began.

“I’ve planned it!” Milar’s younger self snapped.  “It’ll work.”

Which reinstated Patrick’s faith immediately.  “Okay, but Mom’s not gonna let us,” Patrick said, wincing.  “She told us to stay in Deaddrunk.”

“Mom,” Milar’s younger self said, “is going to be asleep.”

She always was such a deep sleeper, Joe said softly.

Milar nodded, tears in his eyes.  He watched as Patrick and his younger self spent the night before the Nephyr’s arrival with a stolen hoverhoe digging a pit in the front yard five feet wide and ten feet deep, right in front of the porch.  Every ounce of dirt that came out of the hole got put in the barn.  To keep the cow from wandering into their trap and setting it off early, Milar took her a mile out into the forest and left her there, tied to a tree.  The whole time, he and his brother kept glancing at their mother’s bedroom window to make sure the sound of hydraulics and moving earth didn’t wake her up.  Somehow, despite Patrick twice bumping the house itself with an extra-wide swing of the hoe, she had remained in bed.

Milar swallowed, looking away, knowing what came next.

Milar’s father placed a hand on his shoulder.  I should have been there, Joe told him.  For all of you.

Milar just gave a shake of his head.  He watched his younger self and his brother fill the pit halfway with water, then carefully weave small, brittle twigs over the entrance and stretch a sheet over them, spending hours on every detail.  That, they covered in a thick layer of dirt and bedding straw, watered it down with the hose, then they took chickens and made them walk on it until it looked like the rest of the mucky, packed-down yard.  Then, to keep the hens from scratching at it, they locked them in the hutch.  Before dawn, Patrick hid the hoe in the forest with the cow, then both Milar and his brother buried themselves in the dirt in the barn to keep their heat signatures from being detected by the onboard sensors David Landborn had taught them about.  They pinned a note to the inside of their mother’s front door, telling her David and the other rebels were outside to ambush the Nephyr and to stay inside for her own safety, then left the tractor running with a sleigh-load of straw bales in the yard right beside the pit, blocking most of the path to the house, leaving only the pit as the clearest point of access.

The Nephyr arrived right on time and, as they watched from their hiding places through a crack in the door, he stooped and plucked a handful of daisies from Mom’s neglected flower bed, grinning to himself.  Then, almost languidly, went for the house.  Milar and Patrick heard him fall a moment later.  They threw themselves from the dirt pile, and Milar had been the first one on the tractor.  He slammed it into gear and drove it over the hole, sealing it with the heavy sledge.

Panting, Patrick was already grabbing the five-gallon buckets of emergency gasoline they had stacked beside the house.

Splashing emanated from the small hole under one side of the sledge, just wide enough for a single hand.  “You little shits think this is funny?!” the Nephyr roared from within.  “What do you think is gonna happen now?!  You think you’re gonna live through this?!”  More splashing.

A younger Milar and Patrick started emptying their buckets of gasoline into the hole with the Nephyr.  Eight buckets.  Forty gallons.  The farmstead’s entire year’s supply.

The Nephyr stopped ranting and kicking at the walls.  “What is that?  Oh, fuck, what is that?”

Most coalers, Milar had known, were so removed from the actual basics of life that they had no idea what common, everyday fuels were.  He’d counted on it.

Still, Bradon Garren must have realized the danger he was in, because he started to dig at the clay.  Inhumanly strong, heavy thuds came from down below as he started to cave in the hole they’d spent all night carving.

“Keep pouring!” Milar’s younger self cried, as the first crumbles of dirt started to fall inward.  He grabbed the wad of cloth they had soaked in kerosene for this very moment and lit it, then threw it into the hole.

The blast as the gasoline caught fire threw the sledge upward, and knocked Milar and Patrick aside.  When the sledge came down again, it only partially blocked the hole.  Worse, bales of straw had wedged themselves into the trap, some falling into the hole itself, giving the Nephyr a way out.

Milar, dazed, nonetheless recognized the danger of giving the Nephyr a means to climb the walls.

“Patrick!” Milar cried, crawling forward on his belly to look into the hole.  There were burning dribbles of gasoline everywhere, and most of the straw bales had caught fire.

Through the superheated black smoke pouring from the pit, Milar saw the Nephyr inside, blindly groping at the walls, the water on fire all around him, obviously injured, but still alive.

Patrick!” he cried.  “He’s still alive!  I need help!”  He looked behind him.  Patrick was unconscious on the ground, a small patch of his clothes still smoldering.  Milar remembered his first instinct, upon seeing his brother burning, had been to go help his brother and pat out the fire.  Instead, he’d turned to the last bucket of gasoline, pried the lid off, and shoved it into the pit with his foot.

The fuel caught fire and spread out on the water’s surface, as they’d planned for it to do, leaving the Nephyr trapped, breathing a pillar of flame and smoke into his lungs.  Eventually, the Nephyr stumbled, then fell against the wall and slumped to a seated position, not under the water like they had planned.

The damage only shuts them down, Joe commented, watching.  The nannites let them repair themselves over time.

Flames atop the roof caught Milar’s attention.  A straw bale had landed near the front porch and the moga-leaf thatch was starting to catch fire.

“Patrick, he didn’t go under!” Milar’s younger self screamed.  He’d hurt his wrist and a knee in his fall, but he was barely feeling it through the adrenaline.  “He’s still sitting up and the roof’s catching fire!”

Patrick was still out cold.

Milar watched his younger self look up at the thatch, debating, then grab the hose and, hobbling, dragging one leg, pull it over to the pit.  Heart pounding with urgency, he staggered to the generator shed and powered it on, giving electricity to the pump.  Immediately, the hose began to spit water into the fiery tunnel.

It wasn’t fast enough.  The water was rising, but slowly.  The gasoline fire started to burn down, then out, leaving only billowing black smoke behind.

Desperate, now, Milar unhitched the tractor and used it to grab the rain barrels and the watering troughs, dumping those into the pit with the Nephyr, containers and all.

It was the trough that finally did it.  The heavy galvanized steel hit the Nephyr in the head on its way down, and though it rang like it had hit a glass statue, it nonetheless nudged the Nephyr sideways, into the putrid, smoking soup that was the water of the pit.  Milar immediately began filling the tractor’s loader with dirt from the barn and began dumping it into the hole with the Nephyr, covering his body with sludge that quickly soaked up the water.  He added more on top of that, then more, then more, burying the Nephyr, the rain barrels, the buckets, and the trough.  When he was finished, he parked the tractor with one wheel and the loader crushing the top of the mound and left it there.

He was sitting on the front porch, the hose still in his hand from watering down the roof, watching the wheel of the tractor and shaking all over when Patrick woke up, groaning.

“We get him?” his brother managed, walking over, hand clasped over one of the burns in his side.

Milar’s younger self swallowed hard, but nodded.

Yeah!” Patrick screamed, pumping a fist.  “How’s Mom?”  He glanced at the house.

Milar had been so terrified of the Nephyr crawling up out of the hole to kill them all that he hadn’t thought of his mother at all throughout the entire ordeal. His younger self blinked and glanced over his shoulder.  Why hadn’t his mother come to congratulate him?

“Come on!” Patrick cried, grinning.  “We got him!  We gotta tell her!”

But Milar’s younger self was frowning, looking at the house.  “Pat, we made enough noise out here they probably heard us in the Orbital.  Where’s Mom?”

Patrick’s excitement faded slightly.  “Still sleeping?”  They both glanced at the sun, which was now nearing midday.

Milar’s younger self dropped the hose and got to his feet.  Without another word, he headed for the house, Patrick following close on his heels.

Milar didn’t follow them, already knowing what they would find.

Patrick’s shriek of loss came first, followed by his agonized sobs.  Milar remembered his own response to entering the bedroom that morning—he hadn’t said anything, just stared at his mother’s body where it lay in her bed, her gun in her mouth.

She hadn’t tried to stop them the night before because she had been dead.

“Mom sent the three of us to David’s so she could kill herself,” Milar managed, swallowing hard.  “We were a day late to save her.”  His fist tightened and he felt tears burning his eyes.  “A day.”

Inside, he and his brother were folding their mother’s arms over her abdomen and tucking her into bed.

Milar’s father, who had been standing there beside him, watching the scene with a face streaked with sorrow, just nodded.

Fortune's Folly
“Whatcha got there, son?”  It was a man in dirty homespun, though his skin was clean.  “Is that a chess board?”

Immediately upon seeing the man’s clean-shaven, dangerously shrewd face, Milar stiffened.  “Don’t play with him,” he told the kid on the bench.

Milar’s younger self continued as if he hadn’t heard him.  Giving the man a bored, sigh, he said, “Yeah, I’m waiting on a friend to get here.”  He checked his communicator again for the time.  “He’s late.”

“Really?  I enjoy the game now and then.  Maybe you could play with me while you wait?”

“No, goddamn it!” Milar snapped, getting closer to the two of them.  “Don’t play with him!”

Milar’s younger self gave the older man a curious look.  David had told him to keep his head down, not to talk to anyone he didn’t already know, but Milar clearly remembered being tired of doing what David told him to do.  Finishing his casual perusal, he asked the stranger, “How much time you got?”

The older man grinned amicably.  “All the time in the world.”

“Yeah, well.”  Milar’s younger self shrugged.  “I’m just here waiting for my friend.  We play twice a week.”

“There’s a table over here,” the too-clean man said.  “You wanna pass the time with a game or two?”

“No!” Milar shouted, but his younger self just shrugged again.  “Sure.  But just until he gets here.”  His younger self set the well-used chessboard down on the table and unfolded it.  He set up the pieces, then, once the man had moved four pieces, he moved his queen and said, “Checkmate in seven.”

No!” Milar screamed.

“In seven?” the man asked, almost patronizingly.  “That’s quite a ways out.”

Pride had taken hold of him, then.  So many adults dismissed him, or, like with David, only saw him as an automaton they could tell what to do.  To get some recognition, finally, was too much for him to pass up.  “It’s pretty obvious,” Milar’s younger self said, of course knowing that the guy didn’t see it.

“Maybe you could show it to me?” the man offered.

No, goddamn it, no!” Milar screamed.  He tried to shove the board away, to interrupt himself before he could make the biggest mistake of his life, but his younger self continued to play as if he couldn’t even hear him.  He showed the man in dirty homespun his checkmate, then they reset the board and he proceeded to trap him again, this time calling a checkmate in ten moves.

“You’re really good at this,” the man offered.

“I practice a lot,” Milar said.  “My friend’s actually better than me.  My…dad…thought playing him would teach me strategy.”

“Get out!” Milar shouted to his younger self.  “Run, you stupid shit!”

“Chess is all about strategy,” the man agreed.

They played four more games, each one ending in colossal failure on the stranger’s part.  To give the man credit, he was pretty good, but after the first game, Milar started showing off, and didn’t even bother to let him think he had the advantage.

“So are you good at anything other than chess?” the man finally demanded.  “Because if the universe were a chessboard, you’d be a damned Encompate judge.”

Milar’s younger self shrugged.  “Take your pick.  I’m good at everything.”

“No, no, no, no!” Milar snapped.

The stranger seemed amused.  “So this other kid,” the man said.  “He’s coming all the way to Silver City to play chess?  Where’s he from?  Cold Knife?”

“Further,” Milar’s younger self said, checking the time again, frustrated.  “He’s actually from some place along the South Tear.  They don’t let us know where, exactly.”

“‘They?’” the man asked, much too casually to Milar’s hardened ear.

“Damn it!” Milar shouted.  He got down and yelled into his younger self’s ear, “Run!”

His younger self ignored him.  Instead, he shrugged.  “People who think we should play together.”

“Why would anybody go through all that effort to get a couple of kids together?” the man asked.  Though Milar’s younger self wasn’t looking, there were sharp lines of attention in his face.  A focus that didn’t belong to a dirt-encrusted silver miner.

“Because he’s the only one who’s any good,” Milar’s younger self said, haughtily.

“It’s a trap!” Milar yelled, directly into kid-Milar’s face.  “Get out of there, you arrogant.  Little.  Shit!”

“That’s what we heard,” the man said, crossing his arms and leaning back with a smug look on his face.  “Considering we took him into custody two hours ago.”

Milar’s younger self had frozen, no longer boredly scanning the street for Jersey.  Milar remembered those words like a blow, remembered his heart start thundering.  “So you’re his dad, then?” his younger self bluffed, but it was much, much too late.  “You and his mom get a divorce or something?  You got custody?  That mean he can’t come teach me chess anymore?”

“And you’re just as good as he said you were,” the man said, utterly ignoring young Milar’s feint.  “Congratulations, kid.  You’ll make an excellent addition to the program.”

Then four men that Milar hadn’t noticed stepped out from where they’d been lurking against walls or in cafes.  Milar’s younger self dropped the chessboard and bolted, only to be knocked to the ground by a fifth that he hadn’t seen—a Nephyr dressed up in homespun.

“I don’t wanna see what comes next,” Milar said, swallowing.  He had started to back away, despite himself, knowing, deep down, what the next scene would be.  “I know what’s coming.  I don’t wanna see it.”

We have to get you home, his father said, sounding apologetic.

“No, goddamn it!” Milar shouted, turning on his father.  “Get me out of here!”  Living through it once had been enough.  To see it all again would make him lose that tiny grasp of sanity he’d struggled to maintain.

In the background, the scene continued to play out.

“Lock him in the cab with the Brackett kid,” the stranger said.  “Should be good for a laugh.”

Inside the militarized shuttle, Milar saw his chess partner hunched in the far back, head down, hopelessness on his face.  Milar’s younger self hadn’t seen that, however.  He watched his younger self realize Jersey had turned him in and then launch himself at the boy in a fury.  Jersey never even fought back, taking a broken nose and busted jawbone in total silence—the silence of someone who was already dead.

Milar would have killed him, but the Nephyr reached in and yanked him away before he could start bashing Jersey’s head against the wall.  All around them, men were laughing, saying that Milar was exactly what they were looking for.

“I don’t want to see what comes next,” Milar whispered, turning away.  “Not the Academy.  Please.”

We have to follow the road back home, his father said, apologizing.

Fortune's Folly
The room was sterile and white, the humidity ramped up as far as it could go.  The light was blinding, and there was an array of machines lined up beside the stainless steel table…

Instantly, the old terror of the scene slammed into him and Milar stopped breathing.

A Nephyr stood beside a hooded man strapped to the table, a razor in his glittering hand.  “Hey meatsack,” the Nephyr said.

“No!” Milar babbled, panic suddenly tearing at his veins.  “No!”  In an overwhelming rush of terror, he grabbed the closest chair and threw it aside, hurling it into the far wall.  “I will not see this again!”

The Nephyr turned and glanced at the broken chair, frowning.  “What the fuck?”

Milar remembered the sound of snapping metal while he had lain there in darkness, vision obscured by the black hood, steeped in terror as he waited for the Nephyr to carve on him.  He remembered thinking the Nephyr had stumbled and broken the furniture in his fall.  He heard his own, younger voice say, “What’s the problem, tinkerbelle?  You stub your toe?”  Just as Milar had said, eleven years ago, in that act of terrified bravado.

Just as Milar was recognizing the broken chair, stunned that something he’d done had actually gotten through, Milar’s father said, That’s not supposed to happen!  Not your own, no, no…  The little man looked horrified.  You can’t do that.  The archons erase you for that!

It took Milar only a second to realize he had altered something irrevocably, something that had changed his own history.  Realizing that he could therefore change everything, Milar grabbed a scalpel and stalked toward the Nephyr…

You can’t! his father cried, grabbing his arm.

“Oh I fucking well can.”  Still high on adrenaline, Milar raised the scalpel, intending to drive it through the Nephyr’s eye.

His father elbowed him in the face, and they went tumbling again.

Fortune's Folly
Milar stabilized on what looked like the corrugated metal floor of a ship.  Strange, alien electronics beeped and clicked in a cramped space around them.  Blue gel pumped through clear tubing along the walls and ceiling, and the place smelled of a mixture of ozone and rotting flesh.

We went too far, Joe insisted.  Much too far.  Have to go back.

But Milar wasn’t paying attention to his father.  His older self was huddled on the floor, weeping, holding Tatiana.  She was dead.  Unmistakably, irrevocably dead.  Nodes all over her body had been torn free, and there was fresh blood everywhere.  He went cold as he looked down at it.

“Do, it Anna!” a voice called insistently.  Standing in a corner, a much older Anna Landborn was watching the scene, her hand in a pocket, rolling…marbles?…around in her fingers.  She showed no horror, no concern, not even an ounce of emotion.  If anything, it looked like she was thinking.  Behind her, a man was frantically trying to patch one of the oozing leaks in the gel-bearing tubes.  Beyond him, a dark Cobrani teenager hid in the shadows, watching Anna tensely.

“Do it,” Milar heard the hiding kid say again, watching Anna’s face.  His hands were tightened into fists.  “Anna, do it!  You’re running out of time!”

“Do what?” Milar demanded.

The kid in the shadows jerked to look at him, startled.

We have to go now! his father cried.  He’s one of the dangerous ones.  Then, with clear panic, he grabbed Milar by the arm and yanked him away.

Fortune's Folly

Milar was standing in a brightly-lit, impossibly-long room filled with what looked like glass cryo-canisters.  Several of the nearby canisters had been damaged, and bodies of humans and robots sprawled over the floor, some still bleeding.  Up ahead, at the exit, Tatiana was easing into the room from a hallway beyond, a frown of concentration on her face.  An older Milar was following her, gun out, shirt stained with sweat and blood.

“Tatiana, what are you doing?” Milar’s older self hissed.  “We’re gonna miss the boat!”

“There’s something in here,” Tatiana said, still moving forward.  “It’s up ahead.  Miles, it’s calling me.”

“Tatiana, they’re gonna figure out that ship doesn’t have a pilot, then we’re all fucked!” Milar cried.  “Come on, we gotta go!”

“Oh God, Miles,” Tatiana whispered, stepping over another oddly gray human corpse, peering around the room in almost a daze.  “Can’t you hear that?”  She kept moving, but she was holding her head, now.  “There’s something in here!”

Milar’s older self cursed and glanced over his shoulder.  Keeping his voice low, the older Milar said, “Tat, those things could come back at any minute!”

“No, this is important!” Tatiana cried.  She kept entering the massive chamber, drawn to a cluster of canisters marked with a birdlike hieroglyph.

“Tatiana!” Milar’s older self snapped.  “We need to go!  You said this place was going to lock down!”

“It is.”  Tatiana groaned and hesitated.  “Oh man, Milar.  It’s close.  It’s…”  She frowned at one of the broken canisters, the glass near the top having shattered from whatever firefight had killed the dozens of bodies littered around their feet.  She moved closer, her face tightening.  “Milar,” she whispered, “it’s alive.  One of them’s alive!”  Milar watched her put her hands on the broken canister and get up on her tiptoes…

Still too far from home, Milar’s father said.  Have to go back…

“No, wait!” Milar cried, rushing forward to look at what was inside the case.

Like a light getting shut off, the vision went dark and Milar was once again tumbling through the Void.

Fortune's Folly
“We just got word.  Anna’s dead.  Whole ship’s adrift somewhere in the Outer Bounds.”

Milar found himself standing beside his twenty-one-year-old self.  He remembered feeling the news like someone had socked him in the gut.  “Adrift?” he watched himself ask.

“Hit a MID.  Got knocked off course.  Navigational array is down.  One of Geo’s smugglers just reported running into wreckage en route to Fortune, and Geo told me.”  Pedily Maine snorted.  “Corpulent albino prick actually wanted payment for the information.”

Hitting MID—moving interstellar debris—was the worst nightmare of any long-term cryo mission.  Hearing Anna’s fate, Milar remembered suddenly finding it hard to breathe.  Anna had saved him.  Of anyone on Fortune, she was one of the only ones who cared enough to help Patrick get him back.  Patrick had come to her with some stupid, half-baked rescue plan, asking for her help in hijacking a ship to get him to the Nephyr Academy, where he undoubtedly would have died before he reached the front gates.  Patrick had already begged everyone else, but none of the adults were willing to risk their lives on a fool’s errand.  David Landborn had barred Patrick from even talking about it.

Milar still remembered how it had felt, never to be able to say thank you.

“Did…”  The early-20s Milar swallowed, closing his tattooed fingers into fists to hide that they were shaking.  “Did they find her body?”

“Aside from a few pieces of a Marquis Sovar’s long-range nav equipment, no.  Ship kept going after impact, probably a couple years off course, now.”  Pedily Maine grimaced.  “Wasn’t much in the way of debris, so ship’s probably still functional, just not going anywhere good.  With what they found out there, the nav systems would have to be totally tits up.”

Neither of them needed to mention the fact that, of the group of smugglers that had stayed in the Marquis Sovar to take the slow-boat back with Anna in cryo, the only one who had the potential expertise to fix a navigational array was four years old and wouldn’t fit into an atmosuit.

The older pirate reached out and put a hand on younger Milar’s shoulder.  “Sorry man.  I know you were looking forward to thanking her for what she did for you.”

Milar’s younger self just nodded, numb.  “She’ll need a grave.”

Too far back! Joe cried, frustrated.  He yanked them back into the Void.

Fortune's Folly
“Miles, there’s a buzz on the radio about an unidentified ship floating in the black about seven AU from Fortune,” Patrick’s voice came from the cockpit.  “Coalition’s thinking about going to check it out after their flyboys get done with today’s exercises.”

An early-twenties Milar, who was bitterly examining yet another version of the woman who still hadn’t shown up in his life, wasn’t kind in his response.  He slammed the intercom button.  “And I should give a crap about this why?”

“Weeeeellll,” Patrick said, “it’s an unmarked Marquis Sovar with a damaged navigational array.”

Milar’s younger self froze and sat up.  “It’s just floating out there?”

“Yeah,” Patrick said.  “Like someone plugged in the coordinates and then went to sleep.”

Milar lunged out of his chair, throwing the picture aside.  “Get us up there!” he cried.  “Now!”

And Patrick did.

A few precious minutes later, they were docking with the Marquis, Milar standing at the airlock with a medical bag and a pistol as he waited for the entry ramp to pressurize.  As soon as the door opened, however, he dropped both as an incoherent, four-year-old Anna Landborn fell into his arms, babbling and crying about being alone in the middle of nowhere, unable to communicate or read the waves, everyone around her dead

Milar pulled her to his chest and rocked her.  “It’s okay,” he said, over and over.  “You’re back.  We’re here.  It’s me and Pat.  We’ve got you.”

Patrick did a quick sweep of the ship as Milar tried to calm Anna down, then came back naked, dripping with decontamination liquid, and looking pale.  “They’re all dead.  Arlyxian mold.  Fuck!”

“Scuttle the ship,” Milar watched himself say.

Patrick swallowed.  “Yeah, but how’s Anna still—”

Scuttle it!” Milar snapped.  “The Coalition’s coming, and the less they piece together about what you and Anna did at the Academy, the less likely they are to come get you.”

In his younger self’s arms, Anna Landborn was still whimpering and babbling about being alone.  Alone and terrified in the Void, stranded on a ship full of corpses.

Patrick looked like he wanted to say more, giving Anna an odd look, but then retreated to set the Marquis Sovar on a collision course with the sun.  Anna, meanwhile, had lost the power of speech and had begun to shake uncontrollably in Milar’s arms, a classic symptom of a rushed defrost. He picked her up and carried her into the crew quarters.

“I heard what you did for me,” Milar’s younger self said, still holding her in his arms as he settled on the bed.  “Thanks, squirt.  You ever need anything, I’ll always be here for you.”

“Thanks,” Anna whimpered.

“You can just go to sleep,” Milar said.  “I’ll stay right here.  We’ll have you back home in a couple hours.”

Anna didn’t respond, but he saw the tears on her face.

Damn it, Joe said.  Still too far…

Fortune's Folly
“You’ve got a brother.  I’ve got a sister.  They’re banging.  I want it to stop.”

Milar’s world came to focus on a young Anna Landborn, who was calmly sipping a strawberry soda at a streetside café in Silver City, peering at him over the table.  Immediately, his hackles lifted with the desire to grab her by the neck and empty her malevolent skull over her plate of mashed potatoes.

Milar’s younger self, who was sitting across from her, scoffed and shoved idly at his own plate.  “We’ve had this discussion before.”

“Yeah, but now they’re getting ready to take the big step,” Anna said.

Milar watched his younger self bristle at the idea of losing his brother to some harebrained fantasy on Mezzan.  “He’s been talking about kids,” he muttered reluctantly.

“Exactly,” Anna said.  “He gets her pregnant, she’s not gonna be fulfilling Wideman’s prophecy.”

“And what prophecy is that?” Milar asked.  “All he does is repeat the word ‘killer.’”

Anna just grinned.  “Oh, it’s coming.  You and I both know it’s coming.”

And Milar had.  He’d been playing coy, trying to get Anna’s take on it without having to ask the little twit.  His younger self grunted.  “I don’t really care about all that.  I care about the fact he’s stopped hunting Nephyrs with me on Fridays.”

“And she’s talking about moving to another planet in the Daytona 6 cluster.  Like Mezzan or Oric.  Do you know what they do on Mezzan or Oric?”

“Fuck like bunnies to boost population?” Milar said.

Anna wrinkled her nose in disgust.  “Exactly.  She wants to turn herself into a broodmare.”

Milar’s younger self swirled his whiskey in his glass, then downed it.  “So what do we do?” his younger self asked, slamming the tumbler back to the table.

Anna Landborn smiled.  “We break them up.”

Closer! Milar’s father cried.  Shouldn’t be long now!

Fortune's Folly
Milar found himself standing in the belly of Liberty as he and Patrick unpacked from another transport run.  The cargo hatch was open, a gaping maw into the darkness of late evening.  He watched his younger self whistle as he started unloading grain from the rice villages of the South Tear, which he had traded for Deaddrunk silver.  He had two sacks flung over his shoulders and was climbing down the gangplank, his brother right behind him, when David Landborn stopped him on the tarmac.

Landborn had tears in his eyes.

It was the first time Milar had ever seen David cry.  He dropped the rice sacks immediately.  “What happened?”

David looked devastated.  He dropped to his knees in front of Milar and put his forehead to the ground.  “I’m so sorry,” he whispered to the asphalt.

“Sorry about what?” Milar’s younger self asked, curiosity and nervousness on his face.

“Caroline,” David whispered, face still to the ground.  “A whole regiment went through while I was away.  They…took her.  Her and a bunch of other girls.”

Milar remembered how his heart had stopped, hearing that news.  He remembered feeling the rage, the terror, the agony as it overwhelmed him.  “She…you…”  Everything he wanted to say balled up inside, trapped by the horror of what had happened to his sister.  “Why the fuck weren’t you here, old man?!” had been the first enraged cry he could force from his lips.  “You said you would be here!”  He fisted his hands in fury.

“I got called away,” David said to the tarmac.

“Called away?!”  Milar’s younger self grabbed the man by the shirt.  Even knowing what David was, what he could do to him, he ripped him off the pavement and screamed into his face, “Where is she?” Milar demanded, spittle flying from his lips.  “Tell me where they took her.  We’re getting her back.  Now.”

“She’s…”  David swallowed and looked up at him, then, and Milar’s younger self saw the truth.  He collapsed right there on the pavement, unable to think, unable to breathe.  With shaking hands, Young Milar had drawn his gun, put the barrel between David’s eyes—

Almost there, Milar’s father said.  Almost there, almost there…

Fortune's Folly
The current came to a sudden lull and they drifted in the Void, tiny spheres of moving color all around them.  Milar saw the self-contained scenes play out from afar, finding some curious, some abhorrent, some utterly mundane.  He was getting lost in them, idly floating amidst the countless bubbles of reality, watching them like trillions of little viewscreens, all playing at once.

Found it! Joe cried.

The leash jerked tight again and Milar’s world exploded in a violent burst of color and agony as the spheres around him ripped away, flinging him back inside a lone, inconspicuous globe that appeared to him like all the others.  An instant later, Milar felt himself slam back into his body with a force like taking a bullet to the chest.  He sucked in a sudden, startled breath, rolled to one side, and gasped onto the floor, heart hammering wildly.

Panting on his side, still fighting nausea, he opened his eyes to Tatiana’s unconscious face, her body sprawled in a fetal position beside him.  Her cheeks were still stained with tears, and it was obvious she had cried herself to sleep at his side.  Unlike his experiences with the apparition in the shape of his father, Milar now felt every bone grinding into the floor, every hair tickling his skin, every stitch of cloth on his body.

Am I back? he thought, more than a little afraid he was somehow still dreaming—or whatever it had been.  Aanaho, am I actually back?!  After the mind-numbing rush of time-space, he’d given up hope.  Yet, in his other visions, he hadn’t felt so physically solid.  He hadn’t felt the ground against his face or the air in his lungs—he’d just been.  He remembered the drifting feeling of being out of place, of having no anchor, of not knowing where he was, or where he would end up next.  Could he actually have made it home?

Home, yes!  You made it home!

Milar froze.  That elated voice had not been his own.

I only have seconds, his father’s voice insisted.  Go to Silver City.  Meet with the pharmacist’s son, Steffen Hayes.  Tell him about her screams.  Tell him you know what he is.  Get him to make you drugs.  Special drugs.  Then go rescue Patrick.

Milar frowned.  “What’s wrong with Patrick?”

Patrick’s in Rath, getting—  The voice cut off suddenly.

Milar frowned.  “Dad?”



Not even a mental static.

Milar sat up, frowning.  Immediately, he saw that the outside of the tent was dark, the mountain air filled with the sounds of nighttime.

Hours, Milar realized, stunned.  He’d only been gone hours.  It had felt like months.  Even years.  Shakily, he yanked his knife from its sheath and glanced at his face in the blade’s mirror-clean reflection, half expecting to see the white-rimmed eyes of the Wide.

A normal—yet decidedly pale—face peered back at him, haggard with the trials he’d just been through.  Trials that, the longer he sat there, the more he realized were actually over.  Relief hit him like a wave, and Milar slumped back to the wall, letting the knife hit the floor.  He tilted his head back, on the verge of hyperventilating, struggling against the urge to weep with gratitude at being home.

“Miles!” Tatiana sniffled, startling him.  A moment later, her tiny arms were flung around him, squeezing.  “I thought you had the Wide!”

“I…” Milar didn’t know how to respond.  He’d never experienced anything like that before, and the pieces of past and future he had seen still felt branded into his mind—a mind that, by its very nature, couldn’t forget.  He remembered things that he had no right to remember.

Things like Anna…

That little bitch!  He’d seen her do things, horrible things…  And he’d seen Aashaanti.  And Phage

His heart started to pound, having been through so much in the past few hours that he almost didn’t feel like he belonged in this one place anymore, and that thought left him struggling against tears.  What if he did have the Wide?  What if this was just one moment of lucidity before he slipped back into the hallucinations?  He’d been so relieved to be back, he hadn’t even thought about what could come next…

“You know,” Tatiana said, cocking her head up at him, “if I didn’t know better, I’d say you’re manfully fighting the urge to cry.”

Milar jerked, all other considerations paling in the horror she knew he was close to tears.  “I am not.”

She pulled back and lifted a single black eyebrow.  “Really.”

“I don’t cry,” he blurted, hurriedly wiping his eyes.  “I’ve never cried.”

“Uh…huh.  Sure, coaler.”  Tatiana yawned and looked around the room, then back at him.  “Man, I was sure you were a goner.  You were twitching and talking about fires and tractors and Nephyrs and alien ships and some dude called Brackett betraying you.”  She frowned, looking thoughtful.  “You know, they’ve got a Brackett on the Forty-Third.  Nice guy, but always wins at poker.  And kind of quiet.  Not really my style.”

“Not the same guy,” Milar said, swallowing hard.  “It was a kid from fifteen years ago.”

“Oh.  Huh.”  She squinted at him.  “You know, nobody can cure the Wide.”

Milar swallowed hard, knowing that, somehow, he’d been in that particular fire, and had been shoved right back out again—by, were his instincts to be trusted, his lunatic father.  “I, uh…”

“So don’t go getting it, okay?” she said.  And, this time, he could see tears beginning to show on her face.  “I start to give you the Wide again, just shoot me.  I don’t wanna hurt anyone else.”

And, seeing her tears, Milar knew she was a hundred percent serious, and that she would take matters into her own hands if he didn’t do something, and fast.

“I know a guy who can get you drugs that’ll fix it,” he blurted.

Tatiana stopped sniffling and gave him a suspicious look.  “Who?”

Milar grimaced.  The only one he knew of with the expertise to make drugs like that was Anna Landborn, and he still wanted to shove an ice pick through her eye.  “Sweetie, I’ll fix this.  Don’t worry…”

“I almost killed you, Miles,” Tatiana interrupted.  “I’m not taking the chance I’ll lose control again.  If you’re just pulling shit outta your ass—”

“No!” Milar cried.

Tatiana gave him a completely dubious look.

“His name is Steffen Hayes,” he went on, pulling a name out of his ass.  “He lives in Silver City.  He’s a pharmacist’s son.”

Tatiana sniffled, and the look of hope on her face stabbed at him like a knife, making him acutely aware he had just spouted something for which he had no proof, just parroting a voice in his head.  Gingerly, Tatiana said, “So…this guy can get us something that could stop the Shrieker stuff, but still save the baby?”

“Yeah,” Milar babbled.  “He’ll be able to save the—”  He froze.  All he could say was, “Really?”

“Yeah,” Tatiana sighed.  “You lying there all twitchy and slobbery on the floor gave me some serious time to think on it.  I mean, I’m thirty, zoomtime.  Thirty-nine if you count the dozens of cryo trips all over hell and gone.  You’re pretty much the epitome of what I was looking for in a guy—” then she frowned and cocked her head, “—well, minus the open-mouth halitosis after I mind-blasted you, but that’s an easy fix.”

Milar recoiled at the idea he’d tried to fumigate her.  “I don’t have bad breath.”

She threw back her head and cackled.  “Collie,” Tatiana said, “it was all I could do to remain dotingly by your side as you got all gibbery and drooly.  I’m pretty sure you could team up with your Neanderthal friend Jeanne and use area-asphyxiation as a successful hunting technique.”

Milar squinted, deciding, right then, that he would invest in breath mints just so he could proceed to shove them up her ass.

Tatiana cocked her head at him.  “So?”

“So what?”

She pointed in the direction of the ship.  “I’ve agreed to carry your baby.  I want drugs.  Good ones.  Now.”  She wiggled her arm again.  “And if you wouldn’t mind picking me up some chocolate ice cream, I’d appreciate it.”

Milar narrowed his eyes.  “You don’t get cravings the first day you’re pregnant.”

Tatiana’s grin widened.  “I guess we’ll see, huh?”

Milar swallowed at the thought of what was to come—and how he needed to fix it now or the love of his life was going to kill herself, their child, and everyone else in a half-mile radius.  “I should get going.  You gonna be okay here?”

“Yes.  Leave your gun.”  She held out a dainty hand expectantly.

Stiffening all over at the idea of losing one of his cherished Laserats, Milar blurted, “No.”

Tatiana lifted a brow.  “No?”

“You might hurt it,” he said.

She lifted her brow further.  “Oh, you’re not worried I might hurt myself?  Or, gee, your unborn child?  Or maybe that big, bad jaggle that comes sneaking up on us in the—”

“It’s not ‘us’ yet,” Milar gritted.

“—night, smelling the sweet scent of helpless pregnant off-planet coaler—”

“I am impervious to manipulation,” he said, crossing his arms.  “Ask Patrick.”

“—and her tiny, unborn child, gender as yet to be determined—”

“I’ll leave a shotgun with you, instead.  Harder to destroy a shotgun.”

“—huddled terrified and alone in some mountain crevice, wondering why her soulmate left her with inferior weaponry—”

“Goddamn it, fine!” Milar cried.  He grabbed her and pulled her close, kissing her until neither of them could breathe.  Pulling back, he growled, “But we’re getting married.”

Inches away, Tatiana, instead of reacting to what he had said, winced like the world had just become awash in sulfur.  She coughed and waved a hand in front of her face dramatically.  “Does air quality have anything to do with birth defects?”

Milar narrowed his eyes.  He pulled the Laserat from its holster and held it out for her.  When Tatiana reached for it, Milar tugged it back, lifting a brow.  “We are getting married?”

She blinked at the gun, then at him.  “You’re offering me a gun for my hand in marriage.”

“It’s not just any gun,” Milar growled.  “It’s a first generation Laserat, and there’s only a handful left in existence.  David Landborn gave it to me, and if you lose it or break it in the short time I allow you to carry it, I will extract its value in pushups.”

Tatiana squinted at him.  “Why pushups?”

Milar gave her his most demented grin.  “Because I’d hate to injure the baby.”

She sniffed.  “So I get to keep it?”

Milar immediately yanked the weapon back, blurting, “No.”

“But you said you were offering it for my hand in marriage.”

“No,” Milar retorted, “you said I was offering it for your hand in marriage.  I said I was letting you borrow it for a few hours while I go hunt you down some drugs and ice cream.”

Tatiana gave him a pointed look.  She held out her hand.  “Milar, I want your prized Laserat pistol in return for my hand in marriage.”

Milar felt his eyes narrow.  “Why you little twi—”

She raised a single brow, and in that moment of cocky female confidence, he realized he was about to lose a hell of a lot more than a Laserat.

Muttering, he dropped it into her hand.

“And now the sheath, please,” she said, dropping it in her lap and holding out her hand again.

Hearing a holster called a ‘sheath’ gave Milar an odd kind of bristly, body-stiffening goosebumps.  “It’s a holster,” he said evenly.

“Whatever.  Give.”  She snapped her fingers expectantly.

Muttering to himself, Milar unstrapped the holster from his leg and dropped it in her hand.  “That thing’s dangerous,” he said, nervous, now.  “You ever used a Laserat before?”

“Only once, when I stole one from a Nephyr who was passed out on my couch.”  She flipped the gun around, getting a good look at its lines.  “He wasn’t too happy when he woke up.  I’d put a beam through the kitchen sink, the outer wall, and his skimmer outside before I got it shut off.”

Seeing the weapon cradled in her lap, Milar got cold chills.  “‘Accidentally firing’ a Laserat isn’t the same as ‘using’ a Laserat.”

She shrugged.  “You may proceed to get me drugs.”  She waved him off.  Like an Egyptian fan-bearer that was no longer useful.

Milar narrowed his eyes.  Growling, he reached for her, and, just as her eyes were widening and she was blurting, “Gun might go off—” he crushed her against him and gave her the greatest kiss of his life.

Apparently, it wasn’t the greatest kiss of her life, because her nose was wrinkling again when he put her down.  Heart pounding, barely able to see or hear over the thunder of his own heart, Milar demanded, “What?”

Tatiana grimaced and gestured at his face.  “When was the last time you brushed your teeth?”

Milar felt himself caught between acute embarrassment and complete indignance.  “Well, forgive me, Majesty, if I’ve been by your side in the jungle, protecting you, for days.”

“My point exactly.”  Tatiana yawned again and stood up, taking his Laserat with her.  “God I could use a bath.”

Damn.  It had been awhile.  He supposed he could pick up some toothbrushes at Silver City…

“This bed is big enough for two,” Tatiana said, going over and squishing it down with her hand.  “Not very comfy, though…”

As soon as Tatiana wasn’t looking, Milar breathed into his palm and sniffed, trying to find out how bad it really was.  He frowned, not being able to smell anything.  Was that because a man couldn’t smell his own reek?  He breathed into his hand again, sniffing deeper this time.  Nothing.  Dammit.  He’d never had anyone tell him he had bad breath before.  But what if that was because they were afraid of him, because he’d painted himself such a good picture of being a badass, what with the knives and weaponry he toted around, that they were terrified to piss him off?

Milar would have bet a gun that Patrick would have told him the hard, painful truth years ago.  The fact that he hadn’t told him hurt.

He froze when he realized Tatiana was sitting on the bed, watching him with amusement.

Clearing his throat, Milar dropped his hand.

Tatiana grinned at him.  “Just kidding about the bad breath thing.  You’re fine.”

Milar flushed crimson.  “Fine?”

“Yep!  Couldn’t have you thinking you were perfect, you know?”  She winked.

He scowled.

“Honey,” Tatiana said, eyes twinkling mischievously, “you’re the one who wanted to marry me.”  She hefted the Laserat, looking it over, then put it under her pillow.  Still grinning, she clasped her hands around her knee and said, “Think you can handle eighty more years of this?  If, that is, you and your friends can win this war and we don’t all die in horrible, unspeakable ways because there’s too few of you and the Coalition’s got both the Orbital and Rath?”

At the thought of eighty more years with Tatiana, all of Milar’s irritation sputtered out and he forgot about everything else.  He got up, went over to her, and answered her with another kiss.

CHAPTER 18: FlameOn

Fortune's Folly

23rd of May, 3006

Silver City

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
Milar made a run to Silver City that night, dropping by the safe house first to see if Patrick was awake and wanted a burger and beer—and maybe get his help figuring out how the hell to find a doctor that could make some sort of drug to block Tatiana’s Shrieks and slow down the node’s insertion of alien elements to her DNA.  Oddly, the apartment was empty, the guns and equipment missing, not even a note on the door, and he had to skirt six different Coalition patrols just to sneak inside the back.


Looking out at the street below, Milar was pretty sure he could see a Nephyr lurking near one of the rain barrels, listening to an r-player.  Come to think of it, there had been more Nephyrs than usual, crawling in every nook and cranny from the midtown airlot to the business district, almost like something major had happened to the city in his brief absence.

Go to Silver City.  Meet with the pharmacist’s son, Steffen Hayes.  Tell him about her screams.  Tell him you know what he is.  Get him to make you drugs.  Special drugs.  Then go rescue Patrick.

Remembering those words, Milar felt a little chill, but then shrugged it off, knowing that they wouldn’t have Nephyrs everywhere just to hunt down one colonist and his demented father.  Besides, Milar’s father hadn’t been well for three decades, so it had to be some sort of wishful auditory hallucination.  Despite what he had told Tatiana, he hadn’t even really considered looking for a pharmacist named Steffen Hayes because pharmacists only lived and worked on the Orbital, Glassburg, or in Rath, where Coalition military or Coalition contractors could pay for their services.  There wasn’t money in serving the dirt-poor denizens of Silver City anything other than the pre-packaged, standard-issue colony medicine kits—at the prices colonists could pay, pharmacists couldn’t even afford to ship it from the Core for them.

Milar waited an hour for Patrick to get back, then went out to get that burger alone, knowing that Tatiana was going to be impatiently awaiting his return with some miraculous cure to something he didn’t completely understand, and therefore nobody else was going to completely understand.

He found a café that he often frequented when he was in Silver City and ordered a burger, fries, and a whole carafe of coffee from a waitress he remembered called herself ‘Petunia’ to hide the fact she’d been born with the name of Henry.  Then, on a café napkin, using a pen he borrowed from his sashaying waitress, Milar began to try and figure out what Anna had done to his wife-to-be.

She’d mentioned the device changed Tatiana’s DNA as it replicated within the brain, that it was making Tatiana more and more alien as time went on.  It also seemed to have given her a means to broadcast on an alien level.

Milar spent three hours and eighteen napkins trying to reverse-engineer Anna’s work, but he had spent much too long hunting Nephyrs instead of studying biology, chemistry, endocrinology, and human anatomy.  Aside from memorizing the points of nerve groupings, locations of major blood vessels, vulnerabilities of the skull and abdomen, and best places to put a blade to extract the most pain, he’d shrugged off the pertinent courses when offered to him.  In the end, he threw his napkins aside and stared at his cold, uneaten burger in growing depression.

Why had he promised to find a doctor for her?  It had been fear and reflex, and now he was sitting in Silver City with no idea how to find her someone who could help, faced with the prospect of going back to her with nothing to show for it.

His waitress came back, obviously curious why he hadn’t touched his burger.  “Deadline approaching?” she asked.

Was there ever.  Milar sighed and decided to take a shot in the dark.  “You don’t know a kid by the name of Steffen Hayes, do you?  A pharmacist’s son?”

The way the woman stiffened, it was exceedingly obvious she did know a kid by the name of Steffen Hayes.  “No,” she said, much too casually and helpfully.  “He a local?”

Milar frowned.  “Look, I’ve been in here before.  I’m not a floating coaler.”

But that only seemed to make the woman more suspicious.  “You’ve never been in here before.”

Milar scowled at her.  “Look.  Petunia.  I think I’d know.”

Petunia wasn’t wearing any nametags or other indicators, so he would’ve thought that would convince her.  Instead, she only seemed to grow more suspicious.  “I work this joint every day of the year, all day every day.  My grandpappy started it back when Silver City was just a communal well and a couple huts.  I’ve never seen you before in my life.”  She raised a triumphant brow at his tattoos.  “I think I’d remember.”

Milar squinted at her, clearly remembering that her grandpappy had been hanged for trying to stop a Draft, and that she was unmarried with two kids.  “Is your real name Henry?  Your mom wanted a boy and died in childbirth, so they left it the way she’d wanted it?”

Petunia scowled at him.  “Get out.  And take your creepy drawings with you.  She shoved the wad of napkins at him.”

Milar frowned, suddenly having trouble knowing if he was remembering visiting the café in the past…or if he could possibly be remembering the future.

“Shit,” he whispered, getting goosebumps all over.

“Yeah, shit is right,” Petunia said.  “I know a coaler when I see one.  Get out, or I’ll get my sons in here to make you disappear.”

“Honey,” Milar said, allowing a little darkness to creep into his voice, “then you’d have a couple of dead sons and I’d still be sitting right where I am.”

She swallowed, but he had her attention.

“I want you to do something for me,” Milar said.

She spat on his burger.

Ignoring it, Milar said, “I want you to go to the Coalition band and go look up the recent newscasts.  Search for Miles Blackpit.”

She snorted.

“Trust me,” Milar said.  “You’ll want to do this.”

She gave him a suspicious scowl, but left him at the table to do as he suggested.  When she rushed back ten minutes later, she was white-faced and crouching slightly as she moved, like she expected a Nephyr to be looking through the window, or for Coalition police to step through the front doors at any minute.

“You’re supposed to be dead!” she cried.  Then, wincing and glancing over her shoulder, she lowered her voice and said, “They broadcast your death all over Fortune!”

“Yeah,” Milar said.  “I escaped again, so they faked it.  Didn’t wanna lose face.  Pretty sure they have a couple death-squads out to hunt me down.  Already took out one of them.”

“Shit,” the woman whispered, eying the door.

“Listen,” Milar said, “something horrible was done to a friend of mine.  She was experimented on—someone tried to turn her into an alien.”

Petunia swallowed.  “Oh jeez.  I heard about stuff like that.  People were going missing in Rath…”

“I need your help finding someone who can fix her,” Milar said.  “A friend of mine said there was a kid called Steffen Hayes here in Silver City who can make miracle-drugs.”

Her eyes widened.  “You want him?” she whispered.  “Steffen’s nuts.  Like the goddamn boogey man.  Creepy little floater.  He comes in here on Wednesdays and does his books.  The whole restaurant clears out and he costs me an afternoon in wages ’cause nobody wants to eat with him sitting in here, but I’m too scared to tell him not to come back.”

“How do I find him?” Milar demanded.

“His dad’s one of Geo’s Yolk purifiers,” Petunia said.  “He’s got a storefront of herbs and botanical salves, but everybody knows not to go in there.”

“I need to find him,” Milar said.  “My friend’s gonna die if I don’t do something.”

Still, she looked hesitant to send Milar after Steffen.  “Can’t you find somebody else?  That kid is…weird.”

“Believe me,” Milar said.  “I’m well-acquainted with weird.”

Petunia let out a hesitant breath and said, “Old town.  Slumside.  Look for Botanicals of Fortune.”

Milar grunted and dug out his credit to pay.  Handing it to her, he said, “You’re sure I’ve never been here before?”

Petunia laughed.  “What, you got the damned Wide or something?”  Snorting, she took his coin.  “Yeah, I’m sure.”  She didn’t stay at the table long enough to see the sweaty, pale-faced look Milar was giving her back as she retreated.

Fortune's Folly
Botanicals of Fortune was a small shop with a peeling painting of a dripping red honeyflower poised on the sign out front.  Getting to the shop, however, was an exercise in survival.  The streets of Silver City had been crawling with more Coalition patrols than Milar had ever seen in his life.  Nephyrs were everywhere, and it was difficult for him to even find a restroom without having to duck out again as a Nephyr came walking out.  Assuming they were swarming Silver City for some other reason, but wouldn’t miss the chance to take him if they ran across him, Milar was exceedingly careful not to be seen, sticking to the back alleys and utility accesses, and it consequently took an extra three hours to sneak into Slumside and find the right shop, all the while knowing that nobody was there with Tatiana to keep her from using that gun he’d given her.

Inside Botanicals of Fortune, there were racks upon racks of herbs, poultices, essential oils, dehydrated feet, pickled tongues, powdered hearts, and just about every other thing that an ailing, desperate customer might decide could help them in place of expensive Coalition medicine or nannites.

The shop bell jingled when he opened the door, but there was no one running the establishment, nor did anyone show up when he rang the chime at the front counter.

“Hey!” Milar called.

No one responded, but there was a rustle in the back.

“Hey, I need to talk to the owner!” Milar called.

Still no response, but definite movement in the back.

“You’ve got a customer!” Milar shouted, ringing the bell again, louder and more repetitively this time.

“Goddamn it!” a kid snapped.  “Just give me a goddamn minute!”  A wiry teenage boy with horrendous chemical scarring over his hands and face stormed from the back room, a pile of boxes in his arms.  He slammed the boxes down on the counter, making the contents tinkle dangerously.  “What do you want, you—” he stopped, cocking his head up at Milar, “—Academy escapee with a four million bounty on your head?”  He sounded almost curious, his one functioning brown eye looking both interested and amused.  The other eye was cloudy and tilted to one side, like the very muscles holding it in place had been seared along with the lens.

Before Milar could respond, the teenager snapped, “Yeah, I know he’s worth a lot of money.  I wanna see what he’s got for us before we turn him over.”

Milar stiffened and glanced over his shoulder as he reached for his weapon.

As if he hadn’t said anything at all, the kid conversationally said, “So.  Dude.  What brings you to the slum district?”

Milar squinted at him, hand still on his gun.  “I’ve got a friend who’s got an issue.”

“He says he’s got a friend who’s got an issue.”  The teenager cocked his scarred head.  “Fuck yeah, I want the money.  No, Dad can suck it.  It’s all mine.  I’ll just let him walk out the door then tag him with a transmitter.  It’d get me out of this dump for good.”

Milar gave the kid a really long look, trying to determine whether or not the kid was screwing with him.  “So you wanna get out of the slum?”

The kid blinked at him, looking startled.  “Yeah, he wanted to know if I want out of the slum.  No, I don’t know if it’s a trap!”

“It’s not a trap,” Milar said.

“It’s a trap,” the kid said, balking.  “First thing out of his mouth was it’s not a trap.  That always means it’s a trap.”

“Listen, kid,” Milar said, “I’m looking for Steffen Hayes.  I’ve got a job—”

The kid scoffed.  “He says he’s here to give Steffen a job.”  He chuckled to himself.  “Yeah, I know, right?”

“—that,” Milar continued, gritting his teeth, “will pay him a lot of money.”

The kid started laughing.  “Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.  Probably not.  I’m thinking a villa on Trinoi.”

“Steffen a friend of yours?” Milar demanded.

“No way,” the kid said calmly.  “Never heard of a Steffen.  My dad’s name is Hayes, though.  Wanna step in the back to meet him?”  He lowered his voice and said conspiratorially, “I just invited him into the back.  You ready with those tasers?”

Milar watched him carefully, analyzing the kid, trying to figure out exactly what he was dealing with.

The lanky kid watched him back, a placid grin on his face.

It was the placid grin that finally decided Milar.  Anyone who could recognize him and put an accurate price to his head in a split second was not stupid.

Leaning across the counter, Milar said, “A Yolk Baby screwed with a friend of mine.  Did something to her that’s making her Shriek like a goddamn alien.  Everyone’s telling me there’s no cure, that she’s just doomed to keep killing people by accident.”  Milar pulled out his knife and started idly scratching off an unidentified brown stain from the counter with its monomolecular blade.  “I think someone smarter than me needs to figure it out, or he and I are both going to figure out what his intestines look like.”

The kid gave him a really long look, then said, “How much?”

“How much do you want?” Milar said.

The kid grinned slowly.  “I want a lab in Rath, when you guys kick the coalers out.”

Milar frowned.  “‘You guys?’  What guys?”  Collie forces kicking the coalers out of Rath was about as likely as taking over the Orbital with five men and a six-pack of sap beer.

Steffen cocked his head.  “You haven’t heard?”

“Heard what?”

“Jeez, you must’ve found yourself a real good hole to hide in.  It’s all over the waves.”  Steffen swung the counter vidscreen around and put on the local news.  Immediately, Milar was assaulted with images of Nephyrs clogging the streets of Silver City, marching people out to the airfield, hands over their heads.  An instant later, they showed an image of a crowd cheering around a woman holding a pistol, standing beside another Nephyr.  In the background, the crowd was lifting a dead Nephyr up by his foot.

“Wait a minute,” Milar said, squinting at the tiny image on the screen.  “Is that…”

“Magali Landborn,” Steffen said.  “There’s a fifty million credit bounty on her head.  And sixty million for the Nephyr with her.  You’re considered small fry right now, dude.”

Milar stared at the images of the same duo taking out several Yolk factories, surrounded by their faithful followers, which were growing in number by the day.

“Fuck me,” Milar whispered.

“I was guessing you’re with them,” Steffen said.  “Aren’t you?”  The way he said it, Milar’s deal was in jeopardy of expiring.

“I’m with them,” Milar said.  “Me and my brother.”

Steffen nodded.  “Then I want my choice of labs in Rath as my payment.”

“It’ll be years before we take Rath,” Milar growled.  Aside from the six hundred and seventy-two specialized sentry robots stationed in Rath—including four altrameter muskers—thousands of Nephyrs, and hundreds of Coalition aircraft that held Rath as tight and secure as a Yolk lockbox, it also was home to the biggest stronghold of regular infantry on the planet.  “But when we take it, I’ll even throw in a couple Ferrises, after we forcibly decommission them.”

“Tell you what,” Steffen said, straightening.  “You come back to me once you’ve got something to bargain with.”  He started to go back to his boxes.

Milar grabbed the wiry kid by the collar and dragged him close, until the tip of his blade was pressed tight against the base of the kid’s throat.  “You know what a monomolecular blade does to malfunctioning neurons?”

“Malfunctioning how?” Steffen said, on his tiptoes.

“You’re acting like I won’t carve on you for pissing me off,” Milar said.  “Obviously, you’ve got a crossed wire, so I’d be happy to remedy that.”  He leaned close, grinning.  “Hell, I’ll uncross them all.”

Steffen seemed to consider.  “You said a Yolk Baby did it?  Which one?”

“Anna Landborn,” Milar said, releasing him.

Immediately, Steffen’s breath hissed between his teeth and he hesitated at the boxes.  “You pissed off CandyCorn?”

“‘CandyCorn,’” Milar growled, “is gonna take a beam between the eyes the next time I see her.”

Steffen snorted.  “Yeah, good luck with that.”

“It isn’t luck,” Milar said, allowing the ice in his voice to betray the loathing he felt for the little bitch.  “It’s skill.  And when I’ve got her malevolent little body jerking and bleeding out on the ground in front of me, it’ll be justice.”

Steffen eyed him and scratched his scar-patchy scalp.  “So I take it she installed some form of onboard tech?  Or was it a biological change?”

“Both, I think,” Milar said.  “Anna said she was altering her DNA at the point of replication, a little bit at a time.”

Steffen considered, his brown eye thoughtful.  “They’ve only found three compounds that have a dulling effect on Shriekers’ emanations, but all three of them are totally fatal to humans.”

“Make a new one,” Milar said.  “My fiancé’s already given me the Wide once.”

Steffen hesitated, giving Milar a careful look.  “You don’t look like you’ve got the Wide.”

“I got lucky,” Milar said.

“Normal people don’t get lucky,” Steffen said, still peering at Milar like he was some especially interesting specimen of beetle.

This was why Milar hated the scholarly types.  “Will you come meet her?”

Steffen laughed, his thin chest heaving.  “What, meet a girl who can Shriek at any time, totally on accident?”

Milar stiffened at the mockery in the teenager’s tone.  Before he could respond, however, Steffen said, “Are you kidding?  I’d eat my own sweaty socks at the chance to undo something Anna did.”  He grinned, and his scarred face left a lopsided sneer.  “With pleasure.”

“Sounds like it’s personal,” Milar offered.

Steffen snorted.  “Couple of years ago, CandyCorn had me try out a new chemical reaction because she thought it would be funny.  Told me she’d discovered a way to synthesize Yolk.”  Steffen gestured to his scarred face and hands.  “Walked me through the whole process via a live feed, then laughed when it exploded in my face.  Was just trying to prove she was smarter than me because I didn’t recognize what she was doing.”

“Sounds like Anna,” Milar said.

Steffen cocked his head at him.  “So you’re gonna kill her?  Really?”

“If I see her again, she’s dead,” Milar replied.  If the things he remembered from the Wide were any indication, the world would be better off without her.

Steffen grinned.  “Then let’s go figure out what’s up with your friend.”

Milar gestured to the back room.  “You need to leave a note for your pop?”

“Nah,” Steffen said, stepping from behind the counter.  “I’ve been running this place alone for the last five years, ever since Dad took to drinking and fell into a ditch and drowned.”

Milar tried to imagine what kind of teenager could have run something as lucrative as a Yolk distillery for five years under the radar—and apparently not spent a cent of it, if the ragtag building was any indication.

Steffen grinned as if he could read his mind.  “And no, I really don’t give a shit about your four million credit bounty.  A high-tech lab in Rath, though…  Now that I’m interested in.”

“If I’m still alive at the end of this, you’ll get your lab,” Milar promised.  “Until then, I’ve gotta go grab my brother and get him out of this hornet’s nest.”

Steffen frowned.  “You know, come to think of it, you look a lot like that guy and his dad they were hauling out of the business district a couple days ago.  Must’ve been a big prize, ’cause they had two altrameter muskers walking alongside two whole platoons of Nephyrs.  Both of ’em were chained to the trailer, drugged out cold.  Hell, I think there’s only four muskers on the whole planet, and they had two of them here.  It was awesome.”

Milar froze.  Having spent all of his recent time convincing Tatiana she wasn’t going to die and escorting her somewhere safe, he hadn’t really thought much about his brother and father, stuck in Silver City.

“Creepy old guy,” Steffen went on.  “Kept waking up despite the drugs and screaming stuff about skin.  Definitely had the Wide, but they wanted him anyway.”

Milar’s heart was hammering.  He remembered seeing the dismantled carrot discarded by the front door of the safe house, and his rush of goosebumps turned into icy chills.

“Sorry,” Steffen said, giving him a look of genuine sympathy.

“Where’d they take him?” Milar whispered hoarsely, already knowing the answer.

“Rath,” Steffen said.

Without another word, Milar went looking for Magali Landborn.

CHAPTER 19: Master Communicator

Fortune's Folly

23rd of May, 3006

Ross Mansion

Trinoi, Trellas System, The Core

Fortune's Folly
It was time.

Quad took a deep breath, refused to look at his feet, and said, “Hi, my name is Quad and I theorize that the unprotected human body is actually capable of traversing an infinite amount of space using Aashaanti Void Ring technology applied on an individual level.  I actually think that such travel was standard for all important Aashaanti leaders, though they used a different frequency than any human technology we’ve yet produced.  The process is simple, really.  Just a matter of turning the body itself into a non-reactive, massless patch of interdimensional space, which can then be instantly shunted to whichever place you wish to go.  Most people, it’s a one-time-only affair, but something that Sirius did to me as a kid made mine a lot more perm—”

“Dammit, Quad,” Cheyenne called at him from the office.  “I told you to stop talking to yourself!”

Quad flinched and looked down from the mirror.  “Sorry, Mom.”

“It upsets people when you talk to yourself,” Cheyenne snapped, still in the other room.  “It’s unhealthy.”

“I know, Mom.”

“Then stop doing it,” Cheyenne growled, for the hundredth time that week.

“I will, Mom.”

“You said that yesterday, when I caught you talking to that robot’s head.”

That wasn’t exactly fair, Quad thought, because he had been talking to somebody.  He’d been talking to Mordy, and—whenever Quad hooked up his speaker system—Mordy actually talked back.  It just so happened that the last time, when his mom had stopped to eavesdrop, he had been rearranging Mordy’s internal configuration to make room for more efficient hidden weaponry.  “Mordy talks back,” Quad argued.  “That’s talking to somebody.”  Hell, he liked talking to Mordy—once Quad had uploaded some manuals, he had even been able to speak intelligently about Aashaanti portal theory.

“You should be talking to another kid,” Cheyenne insisted.  “Maybe the cook’s son…”

“Mordy’s smarter than another kid,” Quad replied.  “He understands what I’m saying.”  The cook’s son just wanted to talk about dinosaurs and chicken pox, one of which was boring and the other Quad was immune to anyway.

Cheyenne sighed.  “Speaking of that pile of junk…  Go clean up that Ferris you left in the living room.  Umire Albany is due here in a few hours, and I will not have one of the most influential members of the Twelve dancing around a disemboweled robot to get to dinner.”

Quad grimaced at her mislabeling of the robot.  “It’s not a Ferris,” he said.  “It’s an ID-scrubbed, battle-ready Gryphon with the full long-range warfare kit and advanced targeting peripherals.”  At least, it had been before Quad had started tinkering with it.  Now, it had all the additional processing routines of a Ferris combined with the military firepower of an eighty-ton soldier—downsized and concentrated to conserve space, of course—plus some added bonuses of a ten-thousand-year power core and some interesting Aashaanti plasma weaponry he’d brought back from one of his latest jumps.  Quad had wanted to take the robot out back later that evening to see if he could take the top off Whittlepeak Mountain from his front porch.

“Now, Quad.”

“But I’m not done with it, Mom.”

“You have ten minutes,” Cheyenne snapped.

Quad sighed and went to relocate his mess to another corner of the house.  Then, before his mom could grab him to boil potatoes or set the table, he pushed himself back to the North Tear on Fortune, in the Daytona 6 Cluster.

The planet where Anna Landborn lived.

It was time.

CHAPTER 20: Two-Faced

Fortune's Folly

21st of May, 3006


Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
Patrick opened his eyes to the smell of coffee, scrambled eggs, and bacon.  Planet-made bacon, not the Coalition gold standard synthesized from bug protein.

“So how you doing?” a vaguely familiar woman’s voice asked from nearby.

Patrick sat up and grabbed his head.  It felt heavier than usual, foggy.  He couldn’t remember anything from the night before.  Had he finally ditched the old fart and gotten wasted at the local pub?  Squinting, he took in the homey, decidedly female room around him and mentally added ‘Got Laid?’ to his mental check-off list.  Through the haze, he croaked, “Where am I?”

The woman was seated at a table beside the bed, food laid out in front of her.  “You and your father are my guests in a little town called Camphor.  You’re safe.”

Camphor.  Patrick remembered seeing the riots in the streets of Silver City, remembered Nephyrs showing up, remembered something about Magali…

He squinted at his hostess, then blinked when he finally placed the lithe, brown-eyed beauty.  Natalia Ormhurst had disappeared almost ten years ago, and everyone had assumed she’d finally run afoul of the Coalition authorities.

“Camphor?” Patrick managed, rubbing at his skull.  “My head’s fuzzy.  I don’t remember much of anything.”  He had always secretly suspected he and Natalia would cross paths again, since his dad was constantly carving her image into carrots and screaming like the world was on fire.  A lot like Anna, Wideman seemed incapable of drawing Natalia without going apeshit, so Patrick was glad he only did it when they were alone.

“Not surprising.  They were using chemicals trying to flush you out.”  Across the table, the woman shifted in her chair, giving him an ample view of her cleavage.  “Barely got you out of Silver City alive.”  Acutely aware of her leather-cupped chest, Patrick felt his face heating.  Natalia Ormhurst had always struck him as some sort of Triton goddess.

Just as he remembered her from a decade ago, Natalia was dressed head to toe in black leather, her lithe curves sporting high-tech weapons that Patrick only vaguely knew the names of, her body as perfectly sculpted as a pre-Migration Mäkelä.  Time didn’t seem to have aged her at all.

Patrick quickly cleared his throat and looked away, flushing with shame that he’d been eying another woman’s breasts after only just finding out his girlfriend was still alive and in the hands of a Nephyr.  “Where’s Dad?” Patrick asked.

Natalia turned and gestured to a sleeping form on the cot across the room from him.  “He started screaming and thrashing and shouting something about ‘too far’ and ‘have to go back’ and tractors and fire and Anna being alone in the cold and dark, so I fed him something to help him sleep.”  Natalia cocked her head at Patrick.  “You got any idea what that meant?”

Patrick snorted in disgust.  “Dad speaks gibberish.  Try sleeping next to him.  At least twice a night, he’ll launch you out of bed screaming about Nephyrs at the door.”  He sighed.  “I’ve just learned to ignore it.”

Natalia eyed the bed.  “I heard he sees the future.”

“Yeah,” Patrick scoffed.  “And look at the good it’s done him.”  Even then, Wideman had his mouth open, drool coalescing on his dark blue pillow.

Natalia watched his father a moment more, then grunted.  “Tough life, I guess.”  She glanced at Patrick.  “What about you?  David never told me what was up with you.  Seemed like you always followed your brother around, and when he talked about one of you, it was always about Miles.”

Patrick grimaced and got out of bed.  “Miles was better with guns.  David Landborn appreciated guns.”

She made a disapproving sound between her full lips.  “That’s not fair, Patrick.”

“Yeah, well.”  Patrick got up and went over to sit at the table with her.  “You heard David’s dead?”

Natalia’s attention immediately sharpened.  “What happened?”

“Geo found out he was horning in on his Yolk trade, decided to take out the competition.  His thugs caught him, carved on him, then left him to die in the jungle.”

Natalia looked stricken.  “You saw the body?”

Patrick thought that was an odd thing to ask, but he just shrugged.  “They took some pictures of his carcass, tied to a damned tree with his guts hanging down to his knees, then sent them to Magali.  He’s dead, yeah.”

“But you never saw a physical body.”

Patrick frowned at the way she pressed.  “He didn’t come back.  David’s not the kind of guy not to come back.”

“Damn.”  Natalia shook her head.  “Just can’t see David dying like that.”

“Wasn’t pretty,” Patrick agreed.  He reached for his fork and started in on the breakfast she’d offered him, trying to avoid consciously thinking about the odd knowledge that he and this woman were going to hook up sexually, if his father’s vegetables were any indication.  “So what happened to you?” he offered.  “I haven’t seen you in like a decade.”

Natalia groaned and leaned back in her chair, giving him an excellent view of leather-clad breasts.  “I had a bad run.  Got hijacked by pirates, had to escape in a pod.  Lost my ship, all the Yolk, everything.  Got picked up by a Coalition freighter that took me back to the Core.  He knew what I was—only an idiot wouldn’t—but the captain never said a word of it to anybody.  Could’ve just dumped me on Aladia, but he actually hung around long enough to help me get hooked up as a first mate on a ship headed back to Fortune.”

Patrick grimaced, trying not to think about how sexy the woman across the table was to him.  “Sounds like you got lucky.”

Natalia shrugged.  “I don’t think the coalers are as bad as David made them out to be.”  She leaned forward, brushing the table with what would have been her areolas had they not been protected by leather.  “I mean, the Coalition beat the Tritons.  Do you realize what kind of shitstorm we’d be in if they hadn’t formed that alliance?”

Patrick just shook his head, barely remembering the years of listening to Landborn’s tirades on the evils of the Coalition.  It was hard to think with her this close, smelling her floral perfume, and the seam of his crotch was tightening accordingly.  Still, he realized he had to say something or she was going to start comparing him to his drooling idiot of a father.  “It wasn’t the Coalition that beat the Tritons.  The Coalition was formed after the Tritons got their asses handed to them, and the Encompate kicked the ones who did beat them out of the Core.  You listen to David, the heroes of the Triton Wars ended up penniless, living in squalor, given nothing for their troubles but empty promises and death threats from politicians that now found them inconvenient.”

Natalia sighed.  “Yeah, well.  David’s always been a little butthurt about that.”

“What was up with him?” Patrick demanded, finally able to get a straight answer from someone who had known his adoptive father for decades.  “The guy was a fanatic.  Always talking about how evil the Tritons and their robots were.  But that was, what, like two hundred and fifty years ago?”

“Thereabouts,” Natalia said.  “The Wars began in 2741.  Last one ended when Emperor Xi was defeated 2862.”  Her face twisted as her eyes grew distant.  “A hundred and twenty one years of hell.  Giu Xi almost succeeded in turning humanity into a race of machines.”

Patrick squinted at her.  Was everyone David Landborn associated with a history buff?  She’d almost sounded as passionate about it as David…almost like she’d been there.  Patrick shook himself.  “Yeah, but we beat them over a century ago.  The way he talks, you’d think he actually fought the Tritons.”

Natalia gave a wistful little grin.  “He’s been like that as long as I’ve known him.”  And Natalia had known him longer than anyone, if the reminiscing-over-cards they often did into the late hours of the night was any indication, after Patrick and Milar had been sent to bed.

“Was,” Patrick muttered, glancing down at his plate again.  “Fucking Geo needs to get what’s coming to him.”

“Oh, I agree,” Natalia replied.  “Nasty piece of work, that one.  Nobody’s got the balls to do it, though—he holds the whole damn planet together.”

“Yeah,” Patrick growled, “I mean, Geo’s got his hands in so many pies around here I don’t think the Coalition would take him out even if they figured out who he was.”

“Oh, they know who he is,” Natalia told him.  “Just like they knew who David was.  But they didn’t really see David as much of a threat—more of a bitter old hermit waving his gun around in the woods.  Geo, well…”  She made a face.  “Geo’s getting out of control.  He’s made so much money on Yolk in the last forty years that he’s actually started buying off contracted Coalition pilots to smuggle Yolk for him.”

“Like Runaway Joel,” Patrick agreed.

“Nah, Joel and he were buddies in the Coalition, back in the day,” Natalia said dismissively.  “I’m talking about just flat-out buying whole squadrons.  Seven or eight Bouncer pods, boom, missing in the night, all having taken their ships over to Geo to start running Yolk.  Almost all his new smugglers are Coalition deserters, now, and this far from home, there’s not much the Coalition can do about it.  It’s getting maybe half the Yolk being produced on Fortune.  The rest is going to the Core on smuggler ships, to be sold to the populace.  Regular people, Patrick.  People who want it to, say, stop a migraine or because they need to meet a deadline.”

The way she said it, it sounded like Natalia thought that was somehow a bad thing, which immediately made Patrick’s hackles rise.  “The Coalition shouldn’t be hoarding it for the elite and the military.  That’s corruption, right there.  Somebody’s gotta get it to normal people.

“Yolk,” Natalia said, her voice going cold, “isn’t something we fully understand, and I can tell you right now, humans shouldn’t be touching it.  It’s an abomination.  We weren’t even supposed to be on this damned planet.  It was a preserve.  We were supposed to be protecting them.”

Patrick’s first impulse was to argue, but, seeing her face, he realized she was probably willing to argue about it.  Still, the last part confused him.  “Protecting who?”

Natalia quickly made a dismissive gesture.  “Never mind.  It’s in the past, and greed got the better of us.  As soon as the smugglers got a foothold, there was no going back.  Now they’re out there attacking themselves, no longer satisfied with the scraps—they want whole shiploads, and they don’t care if it’s Coalition or colonist they leave drifting in the Black once they’ve got what they want.”

That was news to Patrick.  There was an unspoken agreement between smugglers and colonists that serious acts of piracy would only be carried out against government ships and facilities—effectively only stealing from those hundreds of billions of sheltered Core denizens who could afford to lose it.  “Don’t they usually only go after Coalition ships?  I mean, the Code…”

Natalia rolled her eyes.  “The Code.”  She snorted.  “The Code only applies if anyone else can see you do it.”  She gestured disgustedly at the sky.  “You get out there, alone in the Void, and nobody gives a shit about the Code.”

He supposed that was true.  He ate his eggs in silence, thinking what it must’ve been like to be attacked by her own kind.

“Where is Milar?” Natalia asked.  “I would’ve thought he’d come get you, once your girlfriend threw all of Silver City into an uproar.”

“I’m not sure she’s still my girlfriend,” Patrick muttered, glaring at his plate, still seeing the Nephyr she’d been clinging to.

“Oh?”  Natalia looked confused.  “But I was told—”

“Anna and Milar broke us up.”  Patrick dropped his fork back to his plate, suddenly not feeling very hungry.  “Didn’t like the idea of us getting hitched and moving off planet.”  He felt himself subconsciously fisting his hands.  “Both of us wanted to get away from David and his military crap.  We were gonna find a homestead and raise a family.”

“David isn’t an easy man to live with,” Natalia said, like she knew.

“How would you know,” Patrick muttered bitterly, knowing he was lashing out, but not caring.

“I married him,” Natalia said.  Then, when Patrick’s head jerked up, she shrugged.  “It was a long time ago.”

In almost twenty years, Patrick couldn’t remember David ever mentioning anyone but Siella.  Giving her a curious frown, he said, “Must’ve been.”

Natalia smiled.  “Sometimes, ex-wives just aren’t something people like to talk about.”  She gave him a knowing look.  “Kind of like ex-girlfriends that way.”

Immediately, Patrick tensed.  He hadn’t really thought of Magali as an ‘ex’ yet.  As far as he was concerned, the only reason she was clinging to that Nephyr right now was because an unfortunate set of events had parted them before it was time.  He told her so.

“Oh really?”  Natalia raised a brow.  “That’s not what it looked like on those newscasts.  Hell, Pat, she’s holding onto him so tight she’s basically humping his leg.”

Patrick reddened, his fists tightening.  “I know she loved me.  We were going to have kids.”

Natalia raised her brows.  “Let me tell you from experience, Pat, a girl wanting kids doesn’t necessarily mean she’s in love.”  She glanced around them, gesturing broadly.  “In a place like this, sometimes it’s as simple as wanting a way off planet, to some different life on a different world.”

Patrick scoffed, but uncertainty immediately began eating at him.  It burned, remembering that image of her leaning on her lover in Silver City as the crowd chanted around them.  Natalia was right—it hadn’t been the image of a woman in terror or distancing herself in any way.  She’d been clinging to him.

“Fucking Nephyrs,” Patrick whispered.  “They’re worse than the Tritons, and she’s screwing one.”  That was probably the worst part.  Magali knew what they’d done to his mother.  She knew what they were capable of…

And she was clinging to one for all the world to see.

Natalia seemed to watch him closely a moment, then offered, “You said Milar and Anna broke you two up?  Why?”

Patrick felt his shoulders hunch on a wave of bitterness.  “They wanted Magali to kick off the Revolution.  I was in the way.”

Natalia snorted.  “You mean your brother and Anna didn’t wanna lose their sidekicks.”

Patrick grimaced and looked at Natalia.

“Hey, I’m just calling it like I see it,” Natalia said, holding up her hands.  “You followed him everywhere.  Magali did the same.  It was always Milar or Anna calling the shots.  You and Magali were always in the background.”

Patrick made a face.  “David Landborn was always telling me not to be such a follower.”

“What were you supposed to do, surrounded by that?” Natalia demanded.  “Milar’s basically the next boomstick-carrying Ghani Clyde, and Anna’s…”  She let herself trail off.  “Well…Anna.”

“Yeah,” Patrick muttered.  “I’ve been living in their shadows since I was a kid.”

“And not just theirs,” Natalia insisted.  “Even Magali’s got that weird talent with guns.  I saw her a couple times—total deadeye shot.  Like, ridiculously good.”  She was watching him all-too-closely.  “That can’t be normal.”

Patrick grunted.  “Her dad was pretty tough on her, making her practice all the time.”

“Sure,” Natalia said, “but that kind of accuracy?  Stuff like she does, that can’t really be trained.  You sure there’s not something…special…about her?”

The way the woman said it almost sounded like she expected there to be.  Patrick frowned at her, then just shrugged.  “I dunno.  Maybe she’s got a partial Yolk Baby thing going on.  I mean, what else could it be?”

Natalia cocked her head at him, seeming a bit perplexed, then seemed to shake herself and let it drop.  “So what about you?” she insisted.  “You were in the same womb with Milar.  You were in the same place when your mom ate those nodules.  But you’re not a Baby…are you?”  She looked confused.

Patrick sighed.  “You know, everybody says it’s because the mom eats the nodules, but Mom never touched that stuff.  She hated the way they smelled.  Closest thing she ever did was crawl into a cave with her sister to pick some nodules the year we were born.  Some old guy down the road was dying and his last request was some Shrieker nodules to help him think straight.”  Patrick shrugged.  “Who knows.  Yolk Babies could just be a myth.”

Natalia was watching him very closely.  “It’s not a myth.”

“Well, obviously,” Patrick muttered.  “But I mean, at least with Milar and Caroline and I, there wasn’t a lot of evidence for the whole in-utero nodule thing.  I mean, look at us.  Triplets, yet the best thing I can do is draw, and I’m not even that great of an artist.  There was this kid Miles was playing chess with who could do drawings within drawings.  It was creepy cool.”  Patrick shrugged.  “Caroline was good at making baskets, but not really any more than usual.  And not much of anything special about me.”  And that, too, burned.  He’d always been overlooked, always been second fiddle to Miles, who was some sort of an amalgamation of Magali’s fighting skills and Anna’s genius.

“Interesting,” Natalia said, shaking her head.  “Haven’t you ever mentioned that to anyone?”

“Mentioned what?” Patrick muttered, feeling himself getting more and more depressed the more he thought about his beloved brother.  Even then, Miles was probably in bed with his girl, whispering sweet nothings, totally forgetting the war he helped to start.

“The triplet thing.  That you and Miles and Caroline weren’t all Yolk babies,” Natalia said.  “I think everyone just assumed you all were.”

Patrick shrugged.  “Mentioned it to David,” Patrick said.  “He said keep my mouth shut unless I could prove it, and we both knew I didn’t have a chance of proving anything at that point—Mom was long dead, and Dad, well…”  He gestured disgustedly at Wideman.  “He’s an imbecile.”

“David was always very focused on his goals,” Natalia noted.

Patrick snorted.  “David Landborn was an asshole.  A paramilitary special-ops wannabe rabble-rouser asshole that everybody loved.”  He still couldn’t understand that.  He was such a total, controlling, narrow-minded bastard to everyone around him, yet the whole world wanted to fall on their knees before him and name him King of the Universe.

Natalia looked amused.  “You sound like you have less than pleasant memories of him.”

It was all he could do not to tear up at her words, thinking of all the crap he’d gone through since Mom had sent them to Deaddrunk to live with Landborn.  “Yeah.”

“I remember all the time you spent drawing,” Natalia offered.  “Don’t sell yourself short.  They were good.  What happened to them?”

Patrick snorted.  “Aside from the ones I drew for Miles, David always took them from me, like he was trying to hide them.  Never once put one up.”

“Because you never wanted to be a soldier,” she prodded, “and he knew it.  He was hoping to discourage you from the creative side of things in the hope that you’d start paying attention to the ‘manly’ side of things.”

Patrick shrugged.

“Oh come on,” Natalia said.  “Anyone who saw you as a kid knew that.  You were always off in a corner, sketching on that pad of yours.  You cringed every time a gun went off.  You hated the violence.”

“But mom gave me over to David Landborn, drill sergeant extraordinaire,” Patrick said, feeling the bitterness all over again.  “Got us out of the way so she could go kill herself.”

Natalia reached across the table and put her soft, feminine hand on his arm in a commiserating gesture.  “That wasn’t fair of her, Patrick.”

Patrick suddenly found it hard to see through the tears.  “We got him, too.  We got the floater.  We were just a day too late.  A day.”

Natalia frowned.  “Got who, Pat?”

Wiping his eyes, he just shook his head.  “A Nephyr took a liking to Mom.  Visited once a year.  Milar and I laid a trap for him.  Buried him in the front yard.”

Natalia peered at him closely a moment, then said, “I take it his visits were unwanted?”

“He was raping her,” Patrick said, tightening his fist over his fork.

“Did you ever go to the Coalition authorities about that?” Natalia demanded.  “They have a whole division dedicated to keeping the Nephyrs in check.  I mean, it’s at the core of what the Nephyrs are.  They were made to fight the Tritons—the moment they start slipping into that kind of territory, they’re removed from the herd.”

“Are you kidding?” Patrick demanded.  “Nephyrs do whatever the hell they want on Fortune, and Mom was just a colonist.  Nobody cares about the colonists on this fucking planet.”

“What are you talking about?” Natalia demanded.

“They kicked mom and us kids to the curb the moment Dad got the Wide,” Patrick growled, shocked she couldn’t see the inequality.  “He wasn’t even dead yet, and they wouldn’t even keep us in base housing.  Wouldn’t give her any benefits at all.”

“That’s the biggest line of bullshit I’ve heard all month.”  Natalia pulled out a datapad and began typing in search entries.  “Ha!” she eventually cried.  “Right there.”  She turned the pad around to face him.

Front and center at the top of the page was a military ID with Patrick’s mother’s face on it, including her date of birth, Migratory Number, and a link to her DNA of record.

“What’s that?” Patrick muttered, not wanting to look further.

“Well, aside from the fact she had an ID card, which means she was accepted as your father’s dependent, look closely at that second page,” Natalia said.  “It says she went missing after your father’s death, and that her benefits are still at large, pending transfer to the surviving kin of one Joseph Whitecliff.”

Patrick frowned at Natalia, then read the page more closely.  When he was done, he looked up sharply.  “This page required a government clearance.”

Natalia gave him a sly grin.  “Anna Landborn isn’t the only one with skills.”

Patrick grunted, then looked at the page again.  It was bittersweet to see his mother’s face again, after so long.  They had been too poor to own even a basic r-player in his youth, so his only images of her were the ones he had drawn from memory.

“It says there was an eight million credit death benefit because he got the Wide,” he said, frowning.

“Probably more like twelve million, now,” Natalia said.  At his sharp look, she shrugged.  “Gotta pay interest until it gets paid out.”

“But he said the Coalition didn’t give a shit about us anymore,” Patrick insisted.  “That Dad never mentioned us in his will.”

Natalia gave him a flat look.  “Let me guess.  Is this the same upstanding guy who was raping your mother on an annual basis?”

“Well, yeah,” Patrick began, “but—”

“Tell ya what,” Natalia said.  “I bet, if I place a call in to the base personnel coordinator right now and tell him I found Patrick Whitecliff, they’d drop twelve million in your account, no questions asked.”  She cocked her head at the datapad screen, frowning.  “And shit, and it looks like your dad had put in for a two-mile homestead on Mezzan and another on Gilgabesh before he got the Wide.  Looks like he won them both.”

Patrick blinked, the numbers suddenly making it hard to think.  “On Mezzan?”

Natalia shrugged.  “You could probably still nab them.  They’re in his name.  Just gotta fill out the proper paperwork.”

“Two milesEach?” Patrick was stunned.  They hadn’t been offering two-mile parcels on any of the Daytona 6 Cluster planets for decades.

“Must’ve gotten in before they tightened down the homesteading giveaways,” Natalia said.  She grinned.  “Lucky you.  Forget the death benefits.  Do you know what two square miles of Mezzan will get you on the current market?”

Patrick swallowed, because, after all of his research with Magali, he had a pretty good idea.  Mezzan was considered a sweet-spot paradise, probably one of the closest planets to Old Earth that had yet been found, completely full of unique and exotic flora and fauna, and homesteading tickets had gone fast.  He and Magali had been looking at spending fifty thousand on a single tiny claim.  “Depends on which two miles.”

“From what I heard, they stopped giving out anything but two acre parcels—too many city kids from the Core coming out here vying for the claims, so lottery managers were trying to shuffle some of them off to places like Oric or Stain.”

“What kind of idiot names a planet ‘Stain?’” Patrick anxiously laughed, still a bit emotionally overwhelmed by the knowledge that his father had left him with a homestead on Mezzan and trying desperately to hide it from the beautiful woman sitting across from him.

“It means something different in another language,” Natalia said, shrugging.  “I think it’s Germael for ‘water’.”

Patrick stared at the numbers on the datapad, trying to wrap his head around what he was seeing.

“You know what this means,” Natalia said.

Patrick just shook his head, thinking how badly he wanted to share it with Magali, and how she’d ditch the Nephyr the moment she found out their dreams could finally come true.

“It means you can go get yourself a new girlfriend and have a real life.  Leave your brother to screw around with his little war.  You can do your own thing.”

Jerking back to face Natalia, he said, “My brother intentionally broke us up.  As soon as she finds that out, she’ll want to go back to what we started.  We had been planning a life together.”

Natalia snorted.  “No, she was planning to use you to get away from dear ol’ Dad and his paramilitary crap.  She wasn’t a pilot.  You were.”

Patrick frowned.  “She wasn’t using me.”

“Come on,” Natalia said.  “Patrick.”  She typed in something else on her datapad, then held up the image of Magali clinging to Jersey, giving Patrick a pointed look over the screen.  “Is that the picture of a woman who’s patiently waiting for you to come back to her because you were wrongfully separated?”

Patrick grimaced and looked down at his plate.  He’d stopped eating again, and this time, he didn’t feel capable of finishing.  He shoved the eggs aside, still unable to face that picture of his girlfriend and her new lover.  “I should be getting back.  Milar’s gonna be wondering where I am.”

“Right,” Natalia said.  “Because he came running to rescue you when you put out that distress call.”

“You mean he didn’t?” Patrick asked.

Natalia shook her head and lowered the datapad back to the table.  “Didn’t even come looking.  As far as I saw, I was the only one who showed up.  Jeanne and Joel disappeared after their big heist in Rath—word is they grabbed over seven thousand bags of nodules and vanished.  Magali’s off romancing that Nephyr, calling herself the Face of the Revolution, and Milar’s still busy getting cyborg nookie in the North Tear.  You ask me, you’ve been getting the short end of the stick all along, Pat.”

“That’s nothing new,” Patrick said, anger rising again at the thought of his brother ignoring his distress calls because he was cuddling with his precious Captain Eyre.

Natalia stood up and gingerly took his plate of eggs.  “Sorry.  I know it’s a sore spot.”

“Not your fault my brother’s a douche,” Patrick muttered.

She chuckled.  “True enough.  Anything you want from the kitchen?”

“Just a comm,” Patrick muttered.  “I need to let them know I’m alive.”

“Sure.”  Natalia turned and walked out, taking his plate with her.

On the datapad she’d left on the table, Patrick’s mother’s face stared back at him, looking small and frightened in the light of whatever government camera had taken her official picture.  He could just imagine it—a colonist in homespun getting swept off her feet by one of the highest-ranking flyboys in the Coalition fleet.  It must have been her dream come true.  She’d told him once how, in the first few months of living with Patrick’s father, she kept thinking she was in heaven, having running water and refrigeration even when the generator wasn’t on.  It had all been so new and amazing, everything so clean

Under his mother’s name, Patrick’s eyes found the words, Benefits owed: 8,000,000 United Space Coalition credits.  Status: Unclaimed.  Possible payees: Vala Healthmore-Whitecliff (suspected deceased), Milar Whitecliff, Patrick Whitecliff, Caroline Whitecliff.

They didn’t even know Caroline was dead, Patrick thought, miserable.

“You look troubled,” Natalia said, coming in to sit down across from him again, setting a comm between them.  “What’s the issue?”

“Apparently,” Patrick muttered, “those guys in the personnel department missed the memo that Coalition forces killed Caroline in one of their ‘drafts.’”

Natalia flinched.  “Caroline’s dead?”

“Nephyrs and regular infantry,” Patrick said.  “Came into town, ‘drafted’ a bunch of girls, then did whatever they wanted to them for a few days before they got bored and moved on.”

“You got proof?” Natalia asked, suddenly incredibly focused and alert.  “Graves?  DNA?  Anything we can use to pin ’em?”

Patrick gave her a curious look.  “Pin who?”

“The bastards giving everyone a bad name!” Natalia snapped.  “The Nephyrs know they’ve got bad eggs in the ranks, but they’ve been unable to figure out which guys are causing all the damage because the colonists are so terrified of them.  That’s one of the things I can’t stand.  The Nephyrs were formed to protect people, damn it.”  She slammed a fist into the rough wooden table, making it shudder.  “Give me their names and I’ll kill them myself.”

She was so intense it almost seemed like her eyes were glowing.  For a moment, it crossed Patrick’s mind that she looked as zealous as David Landborn, when ranting about Coalition corruption.  He swallowed.  “Milar and I already killed the guys who did it.  Or, rather, Milar did.  I couldn’t watch.”

Natalia relaxed a bit, leaning back in her chair.  Under her hand, the table was cracked.  Patrick frowned at it, wondering if it had been cracked before she hit it.  It had to be, he decided.  A woman her size couldn’t possibly have the power to damage a heavy chunk of Fortune wavewood…

“No wonder David lost it,” Natalia said.  “He’d taken Caroline under his protection.”

Patrick felt his face harden.  “Some ‘protection.’  He was just a gun-waving peacock.  Never did actually protect anybody.  All he did was brainwash us and force Magali to fight.”

Natalia’s head snapped up like he had insulted her personally.  “Patrick, you and your brother were living with one of the greatest—”  She stopped herself suddenly.  “Someday, he’ll tell you why.  Until then…”  She sighed and pulled a little black cylinder from her pocket and set it down on the table between them.  “David left me a key.  I need you to help me find the lock.”

Seeing the cylinder, Patrick stiffened.  He knew exactly what lock that key opened.

Fortune's Folly
Natalia glanced at the jungle canopy above them, noting the thermal images of various Fortuna fauna, most fliers and rodents no bigger than a monkey, as well as one crouching jaguar—not one of Sirius’s ganshi, thank Aanaho—which seemed to be content to watch them from afar.  She glanced back at the trail ahead of them.  Using the thermal view, the darker outline of a cave was easy to distinguish about fifty feet ahead of them through the jungle, but she switched back to a normal view and waited for David’s adopted son to point it out to her, anyway.

In the jungle behind her, Orion waited with his glittering lapdogs, expecting this dumbass kid to lead them to his damned Aashaanti hive-beacon.  Natalia doubted they would find it—she knew David didn’t trust her completely, and there was no way he would have just handed it to her, knowing what he and Sirius promised that damned archon.  Hell, that David had trusted her at all was concerning, almost like she was blundering into a gigantic trap.  It left a bad feeling in her gut, and had Orion not been monitoring her and asked about the key David had left her, she would’ve dropped it into the ocean somewhere.

The fact that David had abandoned Fortune worried her.  He’d been living here continuously since twenty-eight sixty-eight, six years after it was given to the Alphas as a reward for saving the universe from Emperor Giu Xi and his Triton acquisition-squads.  Natalia snorted bitterly, remembering how quickly they’d taken it back, once Yolk was discovered.  Humanity’s gratitude had been fleeting, at best.

But David had hung on.  He’d stubbornly refused to leave when the Coalition requisitioned the planet, and when Orion had tried to oust him, he had single-handedly taken out whole packs of his glittering lapdogs, again and again, until Orion had eventually backed down.  David had bled for this place, had been willing to die for it.  A hundred and thirty-eight years on Fortune, then suddenly he just vanishes.  She didn’t buy the story with Geo’s goons—there wasn’t a knife-wielding thug in the universe capable of stopping David Landborn, which meant he’d used it as an excuse to disappear.

But why?  Orion stopped giving a shit about David and his mini-vendetta on the backwater planet of Fortune when it became clear Landborn wasn’t going to interfere with the Yolk trade.  Besides, his ‘revolution’ was so far removed from reality that it was something Orion laughed about with his lieutenants over drinks at night, a good diversion for a chronic rabble-rouser.  True, Colonel Bagham Steele had arrived recently with orders to ‘investigate,’ but Steele wasn’t even in the same playing field as Landborn.  Most people in the know actually thought it was Orion trying to make Steele disappear.

Except it had been David that disappeared.

Which, really, could only mean one thing.  Sirius had called him in.  But what kind of emergency would make David drop everything and leave?  Usually, she could sense the AlphaGens’ presence if they were on a planet, and ninety percent of the time could give the Alpha’s name if she got within a mile.  Hell, it had been her job to locate Triton spies hiding in human cities, but in three weeks, she hadn’t been able to find a trace of David, anywhere.  That pain in the ass Kestrel and Sirius’ abomination, yes.  David, no.

So Landborn had left Fortune.  That had instantly made Natalia sit up and take notice.  Further, beginning about the same time she arrived on Fortune, she had got feelings of something else on the planet.  Not an Alpha, but different.  Dangerously different.  She’d started to hunt it down, thinking she was dealing with an escaped Triton, but it had vanished before she could pinpoint it, only to have it show up again in the middle of her conversation with Patrick, this time coming from the Orbital.  Her battle instincts told her to go up there and find it and kill it, immediately, but her gut told her Patrick was more important right now.  Patrick and that damned key.

Besides.  Orion was watching.  She had to play her cards just right, or her painstaking efforts to remain neutral within the two brothers’ fiefdoms would come crashing down around her shoulders.

Natalia cursed inwardly.  The key showing up on her kitchen counter hadn’t been what had spooked her.  It had been the neatly-folded picture underneath it, with Landborn’s rigid signature in the lower corner.  The picture had been of the Sun Dogs’ emblem—a dog’s head outlined across a multi-rayed sun.  It had a tovlar katana broken in half in the dog’s mouth, representing the pre-broken, manufactured tovlar swords that were put inside the caskets of fallen Alphas in memory of their service.  Sitting neatly atop it had been a single citrine crystal.  It could mean only one thing…

David Landborn was going off to war…and he expected to die.

But how?  The Tritons were dead.  David was a nuisance, but as long as he stayed in the Outer Bounds, Orion had ignored him.  Even David’s petty vendetta against the Coalition seemed to have been forgotten in favor of something else…

“So yeah,” Patrick said, coming up beside her, “you certainly wouldn’t know it by looking, but there’s actually a cave in there.”  Patrick gestured towards the jungle cave that Natalia had thermal-imaged earlier.  At her carefully calculated, feminine perplexed look, he grinned and said, “Don’t worry, I’ll show you.”  He grabbed his father’s withered hand and said, “Come on, Dad.”

Natalia let him lead her into the jungle foliage, waiting patiently as he grunted and shoved at the overgrown, sticky foliage, cursing himself for not bringing a weapon.  Natalia had weapons, in triplicate, but she let him struggle ahead of her, never liking to reveal more than she had to.

Eventually, the fifty feet of jungle thinned to a small stream running by an open cave mouth carved into one of the many rock faces of the Tear.  As soon the cliff came into view, however, Natalia froze.  The Sun Dogs’ emblem had been carved into the rock above the entrance.

Patrick noticed her gaze.  “Yeah.  Miles and I knocked our heads together over what it meant.  Best we can figure, it was some sort of military unit he was in.”

But Natalia knew what it meant.  It was the burial place of a Sun Dog.  The tovlar sword was unbroken, meaning it was the first burial.  The second one got the broken sword.

“Are there…bones…in here?” she suggested.

Patrick grinned, giving her a look like he thought she was being a squeamish girl.  “Nah.  David cleaned the place out good before he started dropping us here for training.”  He ducked inside the cave.  “Come on,” he called, his voice echoing off the sandstone walls.  “I’ll show you.”

Reluctantly, Natalia followed.

Inside, the cave system was pretty much what Natalia expected to find in one of David’s training camps.  There were places for recruits to learn survival skills, to do pushups, clean weapons, make meals over tiny fires—about the only glaringly absent fixtures were beds.

“David wouldn’t let us sleep in here when we were ‘on mission,’” Patrick said, when she asked.  “He made us sleep under trees or propped up on branches or something.  It was dumb.”

To a kid who didn’t want to learn soldiery, Natalia agreed.  To her, though, the similarities to her own conditioning, so many decades ago, gave her goosebumps of unease.  It almost looked like David had been trying to replicate it.  Less food, fewer comforts, more extreme hunger and cold…

“Did David ever tell you why he was training you guys?” Natalia asked.

Patrick shrugged.  “Said he wanted to start a program, push a bunch of people through it.  Miles, Magali, me, and a few others were his ‘test cases.’  He was using us to work out the kinks before his big push.”

The ancestors be good.  His abomination wasn’t going to be the only one.  David had been planning to make an army.

“What kind of program?” she asked, as calmly as she could.

Patrick shrugged.  “He said there was a war coming.”

That made her look at him.  “A…war…coming.”  Had David really planned to pit these kids against Orion?  Orion and his lieutenants had fought Tritons.  A few nights in the woods didn’t prepare a kid for that kind of horror.

“Yeah, he was real concerned about it,” Patrick said.  “Kept saying it might wipe out the human race if he didn’t do something.”

Which, coming from just about anyone else, would have made Natalia write David off as a kook fresh off his meds.  Coming from David Landborn, however, it gave her cold chills.  “He said it was going to wipe out the human race.”  Orion was perhaps a little too ambitious and maybe enjoyed his position and power too much, but he didn’t want to wipe out the human race.  He needed the human race.  Who else would caper to his whims and bring him his morning coffee?  “He said that, specifically?” Natalia pressed.  “That it might wipe us out?”

Patrick shrugged.  “Never said the guy was too smart.”  He snorted.  “I mean, how’s a war on Fortune gonna wipe out the human race?”

But Natalia was getting cold chills all over.  Things were not adding up, and it was beginning to unnerve her.  “Where’s this door you wanted to show me?”

Patrick took her deep into the back of the training facility, to a plain rock wall that was flat except for a small round keyhole.  “That’s it,” he said, gesturing at the door.  “David would disappear in there for hours at a time.  Never let anyone else inside.  Was super protective of it, even yelled at Anna when she tried to sneak—dammit, Dad!”  Patrick ran to grab his father before he could fire the gun he’d picked up from the open crate in one corner.  A laser pulse nonetheless went off, melting the rock a few feet from Natalia’s hip, only grazing her slightly.  Cursing, Patrick wrestled the weapon from his father’s hands and threw the gun back into the crate, then started screaming at him about ‘No Touch’ objects.

While Patrick was wrestling with his father, Natalia pulled the key from her pocket, then imaged the door for traps.

It was a doozy, with at least twenty designed to kill not only regular humans, but several that would even disable something like her.  Sonic and 3D also showed there was a fake key, nestled under the rug right in front of the door.  With so much security on the room, David obviously wanted people to find it and die trying it, which made her nervous.  She hefted the key in her hand, considering.  If it was the wrong key, and she stuck it in there, she was going to be hurting for at least several hours afterwards, if she was conscious at all.

Which, she was sure, was part of the test.  David wanted to know if she still trusted him.  The bastard.

Taking a deep breath, Natalia lifted the key column to the hole and stuck the key inside.

Instead of an uncomfortable backlash, as she was half expecting, the door clicked and swung open.  Natalia let herself in immediately, finding an ever-glow recessed in one corner.  She flipped on the main light, then, gasping, hurriedly pushed the door shut behind her.

The room was filled with pictures.

Hundreds of them.  Thousands.  Hand-drawn in exquisite detail.  Tacked to the walls, piled on the table, stacked on the shelves…  There were so many that Natalia was totally overwhelmed, her eyes for several minutes unable to single out a picture and focus.

“Hey, Natalia!” Patrick called, his voice muffled by the solid rock and metal of the door.  “You okay?!  I saw you get hit!”

“I’m fine,” Natalia said, not even looking down.  It would have already healed by now.  “It missed me.”

Patrick hesitated.  “You sure?  I was pretty sure I saw it burn a hole through your pants!”

“Just the pants,” Natalia said, irritated that he wouldn’t take a hint.  “I’m fine!”  Her eyes had finally found one of the pictures to focus on, because it was front and center in the room, where she couldn’t help but see it.  It was a side-shot of Natalia standing in the center of a roomful of pictures, while Patrick leaned against the rock wall on the other side, calling to her.  In the background, Wideman Joe was looking at a gun crate.

Natalia frowned and pulled it off the wall.  The artist was good, one of the better ones she’d ever seen, and it was unmistakably the scene she was now in.  “What game are you playing, David?” she muttered.  After examining it a couple moments, she dropped it to the floor and found another one.

It was Sirius, back-to-back with an eight foot, red and purple, multiple-eyed, armor-plated alien, a gleaming silver Celeste out and powered up, the two of them fighting a handful of greenish-gray humans on what looked like a ship or mining center’s scaffolding.  It was definitely not the archon’s tiny outpost that the Tritons had overrun and incinerated a hundred and sixty years ago.

“That’s…weird.”  Natalia yanked the image off the wall to get a better look.

Through a window behind their fight, there was a distinct picture of an odd rift in space, black and blue swirling around it in an unnatural, distinctive pattern, the space nearby still littered with debris from some alien attempt to harness it.

That’s the place they found near Terasus, Natalia thought, frowning.  She found other visual references of the same rift, ships surrounding it like a swarm of bees.  Other nearby images showed two enormous fleets in a showdown around a planetoid.

“Hey, the door locked behind you!” Patrick called from outside.  “Can you let me in?”

“Hold on, I’m looking for a latch!” Natalia cried.  Natalia found another picture, this one of an explosion.  Two children were at its epicenter, but everything else the explosion touched left darkness in its path, the spreading void so expertly drawn it left her with chills.  She squinted at it, then carefully laid it down on the table.

“David,” she said softly, looking around her.  “What the fuck is this?”

It took her a minute or two to realize that the pictures, like everything else David Landborn did, were organized with obsessive detail.  There seemed to be a whole section on Anna Landborn, and it made the chills she’d gotten from the explosion picture pale in comparison.

Someone had cataloged Anna’s pictures under separate groups.  ‘Empress,’ was one, and underneath were pictures of people bowing and scraping at Anna’s feet, an elaborate throne in the background, or a diadem on her head.  ‘Planet-Killer’ was another one.  Dozens of pictures showed a teenaged Anna and an older man looking out a window as an entire, highly-populated planet exploded.  Pasted right beside them were similar pictures of Anna making a sun go dark.  ‘Savior’ was the third.  Amid those, she was being recognized in an alien hall, filled with highly-ornamented alien officials, or in a lab, working alongside a young Cobrani man of her same age.  Right beside that was the ‘Ruiner’ category.  In these, Anna was often kneeling on a platform on Fortune, getting her head blown off by her sister as a ship came hurtling out of the Void Ring above them.  In the same section, there were also dozens of images of whole worlds dead or missing, images of streets and markets filled with sick people, of suns and planets disappearing in impossibly huge blasts.

Across all of these, in thick black marker, David had written, ANNA IS KEY.

All the way to one side of Anna’s ‘section’ was a category entitled ‘Deaths/Executions,’ in which Anna’s death was shown in dozens of different ways.  Some at the hands of AlphaGens, some at the hands of Milar or Magali or Geo, some at the hands of aliens, some at the hands of very sick-looking men and women…

Seeing the pallid, green-gray skin, Natalia froze.  “Wait a minute.”  She recognized that look, and the moment she did, she experienced a wave of full-body goosebumps.  A hundred and forty-six years ago, at the very end of the war, when Emperor Giu Xi had realized he was losing, the Tritons had attempted to release something upon humanity that would have ended everything…

“Phage,” Natalia whispered.  “Oh God, no.”  She leaned closer to make sure.

Sure enough, the people in the photo had tiny, finely-penciled lines of white crust along the edges of their lips and eyes.  Pre-transformation Phage.  Meaning there were still some viable spores out there.

“Shit,” Natalia whispered.  “Shit!”  Why hadn’t Landborn told her?!  She hastily started scanning the rest of his wall, trying to piece it together before Orion waltzed out of the jungle and saw it—the where and the how.  She knew, deep down, Orion would want it for himself.  If only to have the last viable spores sitting on a desk in his office, the power of knowing he could release it at any time—that lure, much like the ambition that had driven Giu Xi to try to transform humanity, was Orion’s failing.

Then Natalia found her own section and she stopped in horror.  She saw her entry into the AlphaGen program, saw herself nervously entering the deconstruction chamber for the first time.  She saw herself fighting an alien.  She saw Ootaka Sama drawn, charged and crimson, as Wideman Joe—but a less insane-looking one—yelled at her, pointing to a dead Nephyr on the floor.  She saw the drawing of her, Sirius, David, KayKay, and Daytona Dae along with twenty-four other AlphaGens standing in a group photo on their new planet of Fortune, grinning at the camera the day they’d first landed—their only real prize to come out of the political maneuverings after the Triton Wars.  In Daytona’s arms was a freshly-swaddled infant, the very first.  Everyone had been posed around her, their palpable joy permeating the page.

Orion was there, too, Kali out and driven into the ground in front of him, with the admiral smiling as he wrapped his shorter brother Sirius in a half-hug.  Sirius, usually somber and quiet like all ancient masters, was leaning against his plain silver hanbō and had a huge, uncharacteristic grin on his face.  All the big players, all of them were there, their faces detailed out with exquisite exactness, as accurate as a photograph.  Natalia tugged it off the wall, her heart pounding.  Nowhere, nowhere, was there an image like this.  All the documents had been destroyed, all the evidence of their existence purged in the Pact.  Most AlphaGens didn’t even remember what their squadmates’ faces had looked like—Natalia was one of only three who had been given the tools to find and recognize her fellows, and the other two had died fighting the Tritons.  Yet, when she looked back at the wall, there were dozens of these pictures.  Pictures of them huddled on dropships, pictures of funerals, pictures of them running across cityscapes or an open field, their tovlar swords ablaze, pictures of them gathered around Emperor Giu Xi’s unconscious body…

Oh my God, Natalia thought.  Patrick drew these…  The most secret, elite military force in the universe, creatures that shouldn’t even exist, and they could be exposed by a kid with a set of colored pencils.

Natalia’s first, selfish instinct was to kill Patrick.  She’d spent far too long in hiding, praying that their existence would never be revealed, that the technology used to create her was long, long destroyed.  David Landborn had obviously managed to recreate it somehow, which bothered her, but this was much, much worse.  This put them all in one place, showed what they’d done

And, in that chilling moment, Natalia realized that half of the faces depicted in the drawing were already dead.  Half.  Some of the other AlphaGens were succumbing to accidents, Orion had said, and she had believed him.

Yet there was another section on Landborn’s walls, and this one had more AlphaGen faces on it.  Ones she recognized.  Ones whose bodies she had found, whose caskets she had sent off into their mother star.  Natalia went to that two-foot section of wall, barely able to hear anything over the pounding of her own heart.  ‘Murders’ it said.  And, in almost every picture, it had Orion killing one of her old friends.

That can’t be real, she thought.  This is a lie.

But then her eyes were drawn to one final picture, one pinned half-hidden under the rest.  It showed an odd device inside Orion’s chest, something that caught her eye, made her stop and frown and look again, her heart beginning to pound wildly out of control…

“Hey!” Patrick said, “I just found a key under the mat, here!”

“No don’t!” Natalia cried.  “The door’s trapped!”  She quickly went over to the drawing of Orion and the object in his chest.  She’d seen that technology before, embedded in the chest of Emperor Giu Xi Triton III.

“Oh you fucking bastard,” she whispered, her fingers tightening into a fist over the picture in her hand.  She dropped it to the ground and ripped the picture of Orion off the wall, her hands shaking with rage.  “You bastard!” she screamed.

“I’m coming!” Patrick cried.  “Just a second!”

No!” Natalia screamed, drawing Ootaka Sama out of reflex.  The room flared with the crimson glow of her blade.  She was shaking all over, unsure who to trust, where to turn, desperate to see the rest, yet terrified of someone else seeing the same…

Then, before Natalia was ready, she heard the key cylinder slide into its receptacle and the door popped open.  Patrick ducked his head inside and gasped.  “Hello?”

Instantly, horrified by what Patrick would see—and what Orion would see after him—the connections they both would make, Natalia activated Ootaka and swiped her through the room, putting as much power through the superconducting metal as she could, exhausting herself as it ripped the pictures from the walls and shredded them in a rush of chaotic, crackling red energy.  Then, her systems failing from the sudden drain, Natalia cried out and fell to her knees in the rush of paper particles suddenly drifting down from the walls, somehow finding the presence of mind to return her sword to its sheath as she collapsed.

He’s killing them, she thought, as she shivered on the floor.  He took the device and he’s killing them…

Fortune's Folly
“Listen, you drooling old man,” Patrick snapped, “I am this close to leaving you in the fucking jungle.  You hear me?!”

Wideman had gone quiet, peering up at Patrick with something akin to…irritation?  Probably because Patrick had thrown his zucchini across the room when, after trying to shoot Natalia in the back, Wideman had simply sat back down and pulled out a vegetable to carve on.

“You almost killed her,” Patrick yelled.  Never in his life had he wanted to hit someone as badly as right now.  His entire life, he had been the one given babysitting duties.  He’d been forced to listen—and take notes—to Wideman’s incoherent babblings.  He’d been tasked with making sure he didn’t run into traffic or slice on a random stranger girl.  He’d been the one who got yelled at if Wideman ever ran out of vegetables.  He’d been the one changing the bastard’s diapers.  His whole life, David Landborn seemed to delight in telling Patrick he was nothing but a glorified babysitter for a demented idiot.  You’re not a warrior.  Wake up and stop acting like a fucking sheep.  The only reason we’re letting you stay is because of your brother.  You think an artist is going to win this war?  It’s gonna be guys like your brother who save the human race.  You’re just support squad…if you even make the cut.

“You are this close,” Patrick whispered in rage.  He held up a hand and showed Wideman the tiny space between thumb and forefinger.  “This close.”

But, instead of Wideman just kowtowing and going back to babbling, like he usually did when someone yelled at him, Wideman shouted, “Burns, Patty.  Guns burn.”  He slapped his side.

Patrick frowned, then glanced back at Natalia.  He’d thought he’d seen her get hit.

Except Natalia was no longer there.  The door was closed, but Natalia was gone.

Wideman slipped into another crazy burst of laughter and started nodding and slamming his balled fists on the rock walls like he’d just seen something utterly fucking hilarious.

Disgusted, Patrick left him there and went over to the wall.  “Hey, Natalia!” he called, leaning his ear against the stone.  “You okay?!  I saw you get hit!”

“I’m fine,” Natalia called, sounding almost rushed.  “It missed me.”

Patrick hesitated.  “You sure?  I was pretty sure I saw it burn a hole through your pants!”

“Just the pants,” Natalia said, sounding rushed, almost sounding like he was harassing her.  “I’m fine!”

Patrick frowned and glanced back at his father.

The creep had stopped laughing and was back to examining the contents of the gun crate.

“Damn it!” he cried, as he rushed back to stop him.  “No touch!”  He yanked the smaller man away from the guns and shoved him back across the cave again, forcibly shoving him onto his ass in a corner.  “You stay there, or I’m gonna go find that zucchini and shove it down your goddamn throat, okay Dad?”

“Zucchiniiiiiiiiiiiieeeeee!” Wideman screamed, the last ending in a shrill giggle that left Patrick’s spine tightening with pent-up frustration and rage.

“You know what?” he said softly, “I’m not your babysitter.  I don’t care if you blew your load in my mom.  You mean nothing to me.”

Wideman grinned and nodded, mouth open, eyes wide with insanity.

“I hate you,” Patrick whispered, so enraged he could barely speak.  “My entire life, I’ve been babysitting you, wiping up your messes, cleaning your damned diapers, pampering a lunatic, yet everybody sees you as a hundred times more important than me.  But you’re just nuts—and I’d fucking know.  I’m the only one who’s been willing to put up with your shit.”

Wideman continued to nod.

Patrick narrowed his eyes.  “You know what, Dad?”

His demented father kept nodding.

“I’m done.”  Patrick went over, yanked a gun out of the crate, then grabbed his father by the front of his shirt and yanked him onto his feet.  Then, as Wideman stumbled, he hauled him to the front of the cave and shoved the gun into his hands.  “You wanna go shoot yourself, you go afuckinghead and do it.”  He shoved him towards the jungle.  “Go!”

Wideman sobered a bit, and looked up at Patrick like he was sorry.  He tried to drop the gun.

“Oh no,” Patrick said, laughing with rage, “you wanted it so bad, you’re keeping it.”  He rammed it back into Wideman’s arms and shoved him toward the jungle again, this time violently.  “Get out of here!”

Wideman stumbled a few more feet, totally sober now.  He gave Patrick a curious look, then glanced down, and bent to pick up the zucchini that Patrick had hurled out the front of the cave.  His scrawny body bent, he grabbed it, and then offered it up to Patrick like some sort of apology.

Patrick slapped it out of his hand and shoved him again.  “Go, you little creep.  I’m done wiping your ass for you.  Go see if you can find Milar.”

Wideman perked up a bit.  “Miles?”

“Yes,” Patrick said, nodding emphatically, “go find Miles, Pop.”  He gestured at the jungle.

Wideman gave the jungle an uncertain look, probably trying to figure out how hard it would be to find Milar in there and rat Patrick out for yelling at him—if the old fart even had enough synapses to fire for that.

After a moment, though, Wideman seemed to straighten, taking the gun firmly in his hands like a fresh recruit.  Spine rigid, he started marching his tiny body off into the forest as jungle animals called around him.

Patrick watched him go a few minutes, feeling guilty, but remarkably little aside from that.  Knowing he’d just have to go find the little prick later, he shook his head in disgust and turned back to the cave to find Natalia.

After quickly determining she hadn’t gone wandering to other parts of the cave, he went back to the rock wall of David’s secret room.  He got down and put his ear to the crack in the floor, and heard the unmistakable sound of paper shuffling.

“Hey, the door locked behind you!” Patrick called, getting to his feet.  “Can you let me in?”

“Hold on, I’m looking for a latch!” Natalia called back, though she seemed distracted by something.

Frowning, Patrick went looking for a way in.  He checked the two recesses on either side of the door—the ones that held candles when David was feeling generous enough to provide them—for hinges, then ran his hands along the recessed stone lip above the door, one that had been carved irregularly in order to hide the fact it was an artificial construction.

Finding nothing, he stepped off the rug—a thin mat of woven grasses that grew along one of the ponds nearby that he and Magali had made in their youth to avoid the war games—and kicked it aside.

A glossy black peg lay in a recessed crack someone had carved in the stone floor to hold it.

“Hey!” Patrick said, stooping to pick it up, “I just found a key under the mat, here!”

“No don’t!” Natalia cried, sounding panicked.  “The door’s trapped!”

Patrick frowned, pulling away from it.  “Trapped how?” he called.

He got no response.

“Natalia?” he called, leaning in to listen again.

“Oh you fucking bastard,” he heard her say softly.  “You bastard!” she screamed.

It was that scream that jolted him into action.  “I’m coming!” Patrick cried.  “Just a second!”

No!”  It was a high-pitched, terrified sound.

Realizing she was probably trapped in there with somebody, Patrick stuck the peg in the lock and pushed.

As soon as the door was open, Patrick froze.

The walls of the room were covered in drawings.

But not just any drawings.  His drawings.  Thousands of them.  Patrick, having only remembered drawing a handful, forgot to breathe.  One in the center back drew his eyes—a picture of a Nephyr talking to four others hunched around a stainless steel operating table bearing a moldy, shredded zucchini.  The lead Nephyr had red and black dragons scrawled across the energy-barrier of his chest, mirror-opposite to Milar’s, and was hunched forward, looking down at the squash.  It was the dragons that caught Patrick’s eyes, but it was the face that made his heart stop.  As his eyes fell upon his own image, Patrick remembered.

“You should be more like your brother.  At least he doesn’t pull creepy shit like this!”  Patrick had been staring off into space when David had said that, a colored pencil still fisted in a white-knuckled hand.  Slowly, he had turned to look at Landborn.  David had a picture of a Cobrani in his hand, one that Patrick didn’t remember drawing.  David looked scared.  He had fisted the picture in his big hand and shook it under Patrick’s nose.  “You shouldn’t have this.  No one should have this.”

In that moment, Patrick remembered the numb fugue that had followed every episode, remembered just staring back at David Landborn in a stupor.  He remembered hearing himself say, “My son is more dangerous than you will ever be, David.  Be gentle with him, or you, above all, will regret it.”

Landborn had hit him, then, breaking Patrick’s jaw and sending the pencil set flying across the room to shatter against the walls.  Nearby, as Patrick sobbed on the floor, holding in his own teeth, Wideman Joe went into a seizure, white foam frothing from the corners of his mouth.

The present came crashing back to him when the room exploded in what looked like a crackling, electric tornado of crimson energy, knocking him backwards as everything inside exploded into a suffocating mass of whirling, shredded paper.

“What was that?!” Patrick cried, heart hammering with the knowledge that the explosion had been created by a technology he’d never seen before.

“A trap,” Natalia croaked.  She was curled in on herself on the floor, having fallen into a fetal position.

Instantly, Patrick felt ashamed for rushing in without thinking.  The strange surge of energy had grabbed and shredded parts of his leather jacket, but whatever it had been, she’d been standing in the middle of it.  “Sorry!” he cried, rushing to drop beside her.  Her own leather clothes were likewise shredded, but he couldn’t see any visible evidence of wounds.  “You okay?  You need a doctor?”

She just shook her head, panting.  “Just had the wind knocked outta me.  You…” she looked up at him, appearing weaker than he’d ever seen her before, “…see what was in here?”  She grabbed him then, and Patrick got sudden, odd tingles up his arm, almost like a static shock that connected them.

“Pictures,” Patrick said, frowning down at her hand where it grasped him like a vise.  “All those pictures I used to draw.  Guess this is where Landborn was keeping them.”

“Why’d…” Natalia swallowed again, “you stop?”  Her hand was still gripping his arm, and Patrick had the odd feeling it wasn’t for stability.  He was getting goosebumps up and down the left side of his body—the side closest to her—and he had the weirdest urge to yank himself away and rub his arms.

Then Patrick remembered the time Landborn had broken his jaw and his face darkened.  “David had issues with it.”  He remembered, after Landborn’s wife had helped him reset his jaw with nanos, taking his colored pencils outside and burning them while Milar watched.  A few days later, while Patrick had been delegated to the kitchen to make dinner for the ‘warriors,’ Wideman had offered him his very first mangled carrot…and he’d gone into a fugue of a different kind.

Natalia’s brown eyes sharpened, and the weird tingle where she touched him increased.  “Where is Wideman?”

Patrick froze, remembering sending the old man off into the jungle to die.  Oh crap.  He cleared his throat.  “Look, if you’re okay, I’ve gotta go find my father,” Patrick said, realizing his father could easily have made it across the continent by now.

“Okay, go,” she said, releasing his arm as if she had actually been dictating his actions.  “He’s probably still looking for Miles.”

“Yeah,” Patrick said, already feeling bad for losing his cool.  “Shit.”  He jumped up and went looking for him.

Patrick was already out of the cave and searching the jungle for his father when he realized he’d never actually mentioned sending Wideman after Miles to Natalia.  He was frowning and turning back to find her when a Nephyr stepped out of the woods in front of him, surrounded by four of his friends.

“Hello, beautiful,” the Nephyr said, grinning as they fanned out around him.  The cyborg cocked his head with a curious frown.  “Where’s the drooling twit?”

“I offed the old man,” Natalia said, joining them in the jungle.  Patrick’s world came to a halt when he saw her come to a halt with the Nephyrs, no fear on her face whatsoever.  Natalia gave Patrick a cold look.  “The gibbering idiot shot me.”  She showed the Nephyrs the burn in her pants leg.

“What about the beacon?”  A big man asked from behind the Nephyrs, tall and blond and oozing old confidence.

“It wasn’t here,” Natalia said, holding Patrick’s gaze.  “The whole thing was just a training area and weapons stash.”

The big man seemed amused.  “Mind if I look for myself?  Considering your…”  He lazily looked Natalia up and down.  “…history?”

“Go for it.”  Natalia was still holding Patrick’s gaze as he stood there in horror.  “Don’t got anything to hide.”

Grunting a laugh, the man turned to give Patrick an appraising look…and changed.  His skin color shifted, his eyes shifted placement, his hair fell out, parted, and regrew.  In less than twenty seconds, Patrick found himself looking at…himself.

“I’ll be back in ten,” the man said, behind Patrick’s face, using Patrick’s voice.  Then he turned and casually walked past Patrick, back towards the cavern he had left behind.  “Get him on the ship.  We’ve got plans for him.”

Four Nephyrs stepped forward, two of them taking Patrick by the arms.  “Let’s go, sonny,” one of them chuckled.  “You got a date with the humidifier.”

As Patrick’s heart was starting to pound, Natalia glanced at where the man wearing Patrick’s holograph disappeared, then stepped forward and touched his shoulder.  “Remember who you are,” she said softly.

Then the Nephyrs were yanking him away, towards his destiny.

CHAPTER 21:  Sibling Rivalry

Fortune's Folly

24th of May, 3006

Smuggler’s Run

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
Magali was seated outside their ship at yet another quick, on-the-go fuel-stop at a tiny illegal jungle depot called Smuggler’s Run, her r-player discarded to one side.  She’d neglected to turn it off, so it continued to show images of Patrick’s ongoing torture at the hands of Nephyrs.

A glittering hand—much like the hands that now cut apart her ex-boyfriend—reached down and turned the r-player off.  “There’s nothing you can do,” Jersey whispered.  “They’re just trying to get to you.”

Magali swallowed and looked away.  Her eyes caught on the rest of the camp, a motley gathering of a few dozen ships, mostly smuggling vessels, the majority of which didn’t even have basic armaments.  They’d liberated a total of eight out of thirty-six Yolk facilities before the Coalition had sent every Nephyr it had to lock the rest down.  Now her ‘rebel army’ was milling around in the jungle, trying to find some reason to stick around aside from the fact that all their faces had been on the waves and they were looking at a slow, painful death the moment they went back home.

Turn yourself in, the feed continued playing, over and over in her head, or your friends and family will continue to suffer.

Somehow, it meant more to her that they had Patrick than the fact they had Anna.  Patrick was, for the most part, innocent.  Anna was…a beast.  The accident on the Marquis Sovar had forever changed the little freak, and then their father had only made things worse, grounding her upon her return, rather than welcoming her back with loving arms.

Stop empathizing with her, Magali thought.  She doesn’t deserve it.

Mag.”  Jersey was squatting beside her, holding her hand.  Magali frowned down at it, wondering how it had gotten between his fingers.  “What do you wanna do now?”

Go home.  Die.  Scream and start shooting.

Because Magali couldn’t pick one, she just stared off at her ragtag army again.  They followed her with the fervent devotion of people who had no idea she was ten times more scared and unsure of herself than they were.  They saw her as nothing but a symbol to get behind, and it totally terrified and pissed her off.

Today, the pendulum was swinging towards pissed off.

“Jersey,” Magali said evenly, “let go of my hand.”

The Nephyr dropped it quickly and got back to his feet.  Clearing his throat, he said, “Mag, we’ve gotta do something.  They’re losing confidence.”

“You think?!” Magali snapped, scowling out at the camp.  “They’ve locked everything down!  Silver City, Rath, Boomberg…  Cut off energy shipments from the Orbital—we’re gonna run out of fuel, and we’ve got nothing else we can do except sit here, waiting for them to find us.”

“We need another successful attack,” Jersey insisted.  “We need the publicity.  We’ve gotta take another Yolk factory, or maybe liberate Silver City or Glassburg or Rath—”

Rath?” Magali demanded, finally looking at him.  “Do you have any idea how many robots are guarding Rath?  There are four altrameter muskers in Rath.”

“True,” Jersey said quickly, “but they sent the Nephyrs to guard the remaining Yolk mines.  It gives us an opening.”

“What opening?” Magali snapped.  “They’ve got like, what, thirty Pods of Bouncers?  Three dozen operators?  It’s not exactly like they left Rath undefended, Jersey.”  She’d spent the last two days mulling over that fact, agonizing over every detail, always coming up with the same answer.

Rath, to her ragtag ‘army,’ was totally unassailable, even without the Nephyrs.  Now that the easy wins were over, her army was already falling apart—two ships had left the previous night, stealing a good portion of their supplies as they went.  “All they’ve gotta do is wait us out, and they know it.”

“No,” Jersey growled, grabbing her hand again.  “We’re going to finish this.  They killed my family, Mag.”

Magali laughed.  “Okay then.  Tell me.  How are we gonna take on that kind of air superiority to even get into Rath?  What are we gonna do…shoot soldiers outta the sky?  There’re only two pilots I know even remotely capable of doing that, and one’s a total scumbag trying to convince Jeanne Ivory to let him live, and the other fries electronics whenever she gets near them.”

Jersey hesitated.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.”  Magali just shook her head.  “I’ll go down there and tell them I’m giving up.”

“The fuck you will.”

The voice was deep and gravelly, and made both Magali and Jersey turn.

Patrick’s twin brother, Milar Whitecliff, came striding up to them with an expression of grim purpose on his face, some hunk of mechanics slung over his shoulder.  Behind him trailed a gangly kid who appeared to be talking to himself.  Jersey immediately moved between them, blocking Milar’s path.

“Cupcake,” Milar said, not even bothering to look at the Nephyr, his body utterly rigid, “if you don’t get out of my way so I can talk to Mag, I’m going to put your nuts through your spleen.”

Jersey didn’t move.  Glancing over his shoulder at Magali, he said, “You know this guy?”

“That’s Patrick’s brother,” Magali said.  “Let him through.”

Flinching, Jersey stepped aside.

“What’s up, Milar?” Magali asked, tired.

“Mag,” Milar said evenly, “why do you have a fucking Nephyr following you around like an overstuffed lapdog?”

“His name’s Jer—”

“Prick doesn’t need to know my name,” Jersey said quickly.  Much too quickly.  Magali frowned at him.  Jersey was looking decidedly anxious.  He met her eyes and gave a quick head-shake.

But Milar caught it, too, and his eyes narrowed.  He glared at the Nephyr a moment longer, then slapped down what looked like the black metal arm of a spider on the makeshift card table in front of her.  Instead of fingers, it had an odd oval at the end of its arm.  “That,” Milar said, “is off one of the invisible Aashaanti guard bots patrolling the North Tear, keeping out intruders.”  He swung around to give the Nephyr a malicious look.  “Slices through Nephyr skin like butter.”

Magali just stared blankly down at the alien-looking machine.  “What?”

“It’s Aashaanti tech,” Milar said, “and we’re gonna use it to get my brother back.”

“It’s pretty sweet,” the kid behind Milar said.  “Watch this.”  He set a battery down on the table in front of them and carefully touched two wires to specific places inside the robot arm.  Immediately, the metal of the arm turned white and the oval ‘hand’ started to crackle in an electric black that seemed to eat the light.  A second later, it disappeared, and at the same time sliced through the table and fell to the ground, where it started to slice through that, too.

“Holy shit!” Jersey cried, taking a quick step backwards.  “What is that?”

Ignoring the Nephyr, Milar said, “These things have a defense perimeter that will keep out all comers.”

“Yeah,” the kid with him said, pulling the conduits away, powering down the robot arm once more.  “It’ll shoot down ships, too.  That’s why everybody keeps going missing in the North Tear.  These things are killing them.”

Magali, who had likewise stepped away from the vanishing alien robot arm, swallowed.  “Aside from Joel’s ship, I’ve never heard of any functioning Aashaanti tech.  Not even the Void Rings are Aashaanti—Anna says they’re older.”

“There’s more where this came from,” Milar said.  “And we’re going to set our base of operations down right in the middle of it.”

Magali tore her eyes up from the creepy black robot arm.  “We are?”

“I know someone who can get us in,” Milar said, casting the Nephyr a suspicious look before returning his attention to Magali, “and you’re going to use it to take down Rath.”

“Rath.”  Magali scoffed, unable to hide her wave of despair.  “Milar, we can’t take Rath.  There’s only a few thousand of us.  They’ve got dozens of soldiers and Nephyrs and infantry—”

Milar grabbed her and yanked her towards him, until they were eye-to-eye.  “They have my brother,” he said, his voice glacial, “and you’re going to help me kill them all.”

Magali shoved him away from her before Jersey could intervene.  “Why me?” she demanded, getting angry, now.  “Why does everyone want me to fight?”

“Because Patrick still loves you,” Milar growled.  “Anna and I broke you two up, and we shouldn’t have.  You and I are going to get my brother back, and then you’re gonna do with him what you were planning to all along.”

“There’s no hope for your brother,” Jersey offered softly.

“Mag,” Milar said evenly, “if that glittering cupcake opens his mouth again, I’m going to shut it permanently.”

Realizing he was utterly serious, Magali glanced at Jersey.  “Could you give us a few minutes?” she suggested.

Jersey gave Milar a nervous look, then nodded and left.

“We’re rescuing him,” Milar said, once the Nephyr was gone.  “We’ve got working Aashaanti tech.  Cloaking devices.  Blades.  I’m not asking you to lead.  I’m going.  I’m offering to let you come.  I will get him out of there.”

Magali found herself taking strength in Milar’s confidence.  Of anyone, when Milar said he was going to rescue someone, Magali believed it.

“Now,” Milar gritted, “where’s your little twit of a sister?  She’s going to help, or I’m going to put a bullet between her eyes.”

Magali felt another spike of hurt drive itself into her heart.  “I let a robot take her.  Back in the Yolk mine.  She’s being tortured with Patrick.”

“Your little sister,” Milar said darkly, “never got taken anywhere.  She’s still on Fortune, doing science experiments in Rath.”

Magali frowned.  “What?”

Milar didn’t bother to elaborate.  “Ask her yourself what she did to Tatiana,” Milar growled.  “I tell it to you here, I’m gonna need to shoot something.”

Magali froze, her heart giving a sudden hammer.  “You found Tatiana Eyre?  The cyborg you’ve been dreaming about?”

“And then your sister immediately gave her brain surgery,” Milar said.  “Remember that node Patrick kept drawing?  Yeah.  She’s got it now.”  His big hands tightened into fists.

“Oh God,” Magali whispered, remembering Patrick’s dozens of sketches.  “Aanaho, I’m so sorry.”

“Just send out a wave to the usual suspects.  The little gremlin is alive, and she’s going to help us if she wants me to refrain from hunting her down and executing her like she deserves.”

“I say kill her anyway,” the kid with Milar said.  There was absolutely no humor in his single brown eye.  “I’ll help with the rest.”

Looking the kid over, Magali noted his profusion of scars and one cloudy eye and suddenly, recognition hit her in a wave.  “You’re FlameOn.”

The kid shrugged.

“She made you put the wrong catalyst into a Yolk synthesization experiment because she wanted to see it explode,” Magali whispered, horror still clawing at her heart, guilt at yet another atrocity her own sister had wrought upon another human being.  “She told me about it after she did it.  Laughed the whole time.  Thought it would be funny to give you a reason to have the moniker.”

The kid’s brown eye darkened.  “Anna will eventually get what’s coming to her.”  He held out his scar-puckered hand.  “Steffen Hayes.”

She shook it.  “Magali Landborn.”

“We need to take Rath, Mag,” Milar insisted.  “I took what they dished out for a full three months, but I’d be surprised if Patty can go three days.  We’ve gotta get him out of there before they do something permanent.”

Magali swallowed, realizing that Milar obviously hadn’t been watching the news.  She glanced at Steffen, who, by the grimace on his face, most likely had.  “They burned his skin, Miles,” she confessed.  “They didn’t want a repeat of what happened with you.  As soon as they got him inside Rath, they skinned him and burned it.  He’s got nothing to put back on.”

Milar froze.  For long minutes, he said nothing at all.  Then, very quietly, he said, “I’m gonna salt every single Nephyr on the planet and leave them to dehydrate in the sun.”

Magali’s eyes reflexively found Jersey, who had been her rock this last week.  He was amicably examining a smuggler’s weapon, talking with the owner about how to properly care for it.

“What’s his name?” Milar barked, following her gaze.

“Jersey Brackett,” Magali said.

Immediately, Milar went totally, completely still.  After a moment, he gritted, “Born on Fortune?  Drafted when he was sixteen?”

Magali frowned.  “Yeah, how’d you kno—”

Without another word, Milar picked up the heavy alien robot arm, walked down to where the Nephyr was conversing with the smuggler, and, as Jersey was looking up with curiosity, hit the man as hard as he could in the face with the heavy black metal.  “Checkmate!” he snapped, kicking him the rest of the way over.  “Backstabbing coaler shit.”  Then he shouted up at Magali, “Call your sister!  Have her take a look at this.”  He threw the robot arm back up the hill at her.  “I’ll be on the mountain with Tatiana, waiting to hear from you.  I don’t hear from you in two days, I’m getting him out on my own.”  Then, as the Nephyr was still trying to scramble to his feet, Milar stalked off, the teenager trailing behind him.

“Milar!” Magali cried.  He didn’t even turn.  When he was out of earshot, she went down to offer a hand to Jersey, who was nursing a bloody nose.  “What the hell was that about?”

Jersey gave Milar’s back a sorrowful look as the rebel boarded Liberty with the teenager in tow.  “Ancient history.”

When he didn’t seem interested in elaborating, Magali glanced at their ship.  “Can that thing do a universal wave?”

“Sure,” Jersey said, frowning.  “But anything you say over it will be heard by everyone within range.”

“Good,” Magali said.  “I need to put out a call to my sister.”

Fortune's Folly
A day and a half after Milar’s visit, Anna answered her summons in a stolen Coalition ship piloted by a nondescript man who nodded respectfully when Magali and Jersey greeted them at the loading ramp with grenades and powered-up rifles.

Anna had hesitated upon seeing the Nephyr, but after briefly consulting with her friend, had walked down the ramp anyway.  All around them, Fortuners were standing around watching with mixed expressions of awe and trepidation—everyone had heard of Anna Landborn, but few had the dubious pleasure of seeing her in person.

“Well, if it isn’t my backstabbing sister, all grown up and taking over Fortune,” Anna said, clapping her hands together.  As Magali stiffened, Anna glanced at the dozens of curious onlookers.  “Got someplace private to do this?”

“The flagship,” Magali said.  “We’ve got a table set up in the galley.”

“‘Flagship.’”  Anna scoffed derisively, but started up the hill, not even bothering to ask which ship was the one in question.  The man with her followed close behind, scanning their surroundings with the unmistakable focus of a bodyguard.

She’s gone two weeks and she comes back with a ship and a bodyguard.  Caught somewhere between fury and trepidation, Magali followed her, Jersey sticking even closer than usual.

As Anna and her friend were sitting down at the table inside the ship, however, Jersey nudged Magali aside and said, “That guy’s a robot.  He’s laced with metal and hydraulics.”

“Don’t forget the top-secret government weaponry and Triton-level processing capabilities,” Anna said cheerfully.  To Jersey, she said, “Hello.  I hear you’re fucking my sister.”

Jersey froze and looked at Anna like a startled starlope.

“Not fucking her, then.”  Anna seemed to find that surprising.  “Huh.”

“Anna,” Magali gritted, “they’ve got Patrick.”

“Yeah, I heard.”  Anna plucked a sweetpod from the bowl and idly dropped it into her mouth.  Chewing, she cocked her head.  “So?”

“They’re killing him!” Magali snapped, slamming her fist to the table in rage.

Anna waved that off dismissively.  “He was the dumber twin, anyway.”

On an irrational wave of fury, Magali lunged across the table at her sister, only to be caught by the big man beside her, his grip like iron around her shoulder, stopping her like a brick wall before she even got halfway across the table.  An instant later, Jersey had his hand on the robot’s throat, preparing to rip its head off.

“Call it off,” Jersey growled, eyes on the robot’s calm face.  “Or your pet’s dead.”

Anna just giggled.  “Yeah, I’d like to see that.”  She tossed another sweetpod into her mouth and chewed it, grinning as she watched the three-way showdown as if it were the most entertaining thing she’d seen all week.

“I’d appreciate it if we can keep this meeting relatively peaceful,” the robot said.  “I disdain violence.”  He hadn’t removed his hand from Magali’s shoulder.

Jersey narrowed his eyes.  “Anna, you’ve got two seconds to call it off.”

Anna just grinned wider.  “Show him, Dobie.”

“I’d rather not injure him, if I can avoid it,” the robot responded.

That made Anna frown.  “I said show him.”

The robot sighed…then, in a move too fast to see, shoved Jersey hard enough to send him toppling into the far side of the room, taking an entire wall of metal ship cupboards and racks with him and denting the internal support structure.

“As you can see,” the robot said, as Jersey extracted himself from the debris, “I am not interested in hurting Magali—just keeping her from hurting her sister.”  Indeed, while the hand preventing her from reaching Anna was like iron, it hadn’t inflicted even a modicum of pain.

“But he will,” Anna added, as Jersey came back to his feet with a dark look, “if you don’t sit down, shut up, and tell us why you broadcasted my codename all over Fortune and had me leave some very important projects to fly down here.”

Magali pulled back and gestured for Jersey to sit down.  “We need to take Rath,” Magali said.  “It’s the only way we’ll take control of Fortune.”

“You mean Milar came whining to you about his brother and now you wanna go rescue him,” Anna countered.

Seeing her totally unsympathetic face, Magali had the sudden urge to put a bullet through it.  “We had something to show you,” she gritted.  “But if you’re just gonna be a shit, you might as well leave now.”

“Me?” Anna demanded, her brown eyes cold.  “You’re the one who handed me over to the Coalition.  You didn’t even fight when they came to take me away.”

“From what I heard,” Jersey said, leaning across the table with the sound of glass sliding on metal, “you needed a wakeup call.”

“Oh, I got one,” Anna said, giving them a mirthless smile, “but it’s probably not the one you were hoping for.”

Look,” Magali said.  “Milar found some tech.  Alien tech.  We think we might be able to use it to take Rath.”

Anna perked up a bit.  “You got it with you?”

Magali went to the crushed cabinets, pulled the robotic arm from the wreckage, and dropped it onto the table in front of her.  “That came off one of the alien robots guarding the North Tear,” she said.  “Jersey and I went up there with Milar and checked it out while we were waiting for you.  Aashaanti robots have a huge defense barrier set up.  There’s a trick to getting past it.  Milar thinks we could use them to protect us from a ground attack.”

Anna’s eyes were locked on the black metal arm.  “That was working?”

“Yeah,” Magali said.  “And there’s a lot of others.  They slice right through Nephyr skin, so we could use the North Tear as a base.”

“On what power source?” Anna demanded.

“Still can’t figure that out,” Jersey said.  “But we were able to rig it for electricity.”

Anna rolled her eyes.  “Of course you were.  Any ham-fisted idiot can modify Aashaanti tech to work crudely with electricity.  I’m trying to figure out what they used so I can advance the human race.”  She snorted.  “Philistine.”  Sniffing, she examined the arm carefully.  “So what are they protecting?”

“A ship,” Jersey said, golden filigreed body still stiff from the rebuke.  “As far as we can tell, the whole Tear was made by an ancient crash of an Aashaanti mothership, which finally died a few days ago.  You know how the Snake turned almost neon blue-green the last few days?  That’s the hiveship’s body draining into the northern tributaries.  The robots are guarding its final resting place.”  Everyone had seen the increased blue-green color to the Snake, the smell of the water becoming so overwhelming that whole villages along the Tear had been forced to relocate.

“Uh-huh,” Anna said, clearly unconvinced.  She continued to peer at the black arm with its alien components.  “Any live aliens?”

“They all died,” Magali said.  “We explored the ruins.  Not much left after the cave-in.”

“It was huge,” Jersey told her.  “Like the size of a planetoid.  Laced with tovlar supports.  Way too big to come through the Void Ring.”

“An ark,” Anna said, sounding pensive.  “The Aashaanti did spend the last few years of their civilization trying to save their own species.”  She grunted.  “Well, that would explain some stuff.”

Magali frowned at her.  “What stuff?”

Her little sister waved off her question as if it were irrelevant.  “The native flora and fauna doesn’t all stem from the same evolutionary tree.  Basically, during the crash, looks like some of their food crops and livestock got free, installed themselves on Fortune.”

“The Shriekers,” Magali said, stunned.

Anna just grinned at her.  “Come on.  You never wondered why Shriekers were only on this continent?”

“What, and you had?” Jersey countered.

Anna gave him a look like Jersey was the stupidest knuckle-dragger on Fortune.  “Of course I had.”

Which, in all fairness, Magali knew was probably true—Anna thought about everything.  Especially the things nobody wanted her to think about…

Her little sister sighed, leaned back with the bowl of sweetpods, and kicked her tiny, booted feet up on the table.  She was wearing a miniature spacer’s outfit, professionally tailored and freshly laundered.  “So let me get this straight,” Anna said, carefully picking out another pod, then gesturing with it.  “After you abandoned me, you want me to forget it ever happened and help you and your band of merry men take down a military base that’s got a higher security rating than the Nephyr Academy itself.”

“You always liked a challenge,” Magali gritted.

“They have the satellites, which could blow you out of the sky,” Anna said, counting out a finger.  “They have the Orbital, which could blow you out of the sky.”  She extended another finger.  “They have over forty soldiers stationed at Rath alone, all of which could blow you out of the sky.”  Three fingers, now.  “They have thirty Bouncer pods tasked with protecting that facility, and those guys specialize in blowing things out of the sky.”  Four fingers.  “Hell, I’ve heard they even have four altrameter muskers, so even if you manage to land, they’ll cut you into stew meat in half a second.”  Anna popped the sweetpod into her mouth and crunched loudly it as she chewed, “and somehow you think we can use this…” Anna idly shoved the alien robot arm across the table at her, “…to take Rath by force.  Like, oh, I dunno, you think I can make inviso-warriors with Nephyr-killing hand-to-hand weapons or something.”

“Yeah,” Magali said, resisting the urge to strangle her.

Anna just seemed to find that amusing.  “I’m so far ahead of you it’s not even funny.”  She went on picking at her snack, daintily popping the pods into her mouth one at a time, wincing when she got a sour one.

“Care to elaborate?” Jersey growled.  Magali could see that the little twit was getting to him.

“You mean aside from the brain trust I just put together?” Anna snorted.  “I’ve already got a bead on taking the satellites offline and reprogramming them to work for us.  Their fleet’s global navigational systems are already down, care of my new friends—” then, at Jersey’s surprised look, Anna demanded, “What, you guys are just squatting around like sitting ducks and you never wondered why they haven’t come to obliterate you yet?”  She snorted with disdain and looked at Magali again.  “And then there’s Geo.  The pink-eyed walrus is offering up fifty ships in exchange for fifty percent of whatever Yolk’s stored in the vaults of Rath.”

Magali glanced at Jersey, hesitating to say the obvious—that Rath wasn’t holding much Yolk, not anymore.

“What?” Anna demanded.

“That Yolk…” Jersey began.

“There’s none of it left in Rath,” Anna said.  “I know.  I was on the line giving Jeanne authorization from the Orbital when she pulled the heist.”  She chuckled.  “Geo said he wanted a share of what was in Rath.  The ruby-eyed tapeworm never specified that there actually had to be any Yolk in Rath.”

Magali grimaced.  “You use him like that, Geo’s gonna be pissed.”

“Let him.”  Anna shrugged.  “If the jiggling maggot’s too stupid to do his research before striking a deal, that’s on him.”  She cocked her head.  “So where did they stash it all?  I could use some for my experiments.”

Magali exchanged another warning glance with Jersey.  The last thing she wanted was her demented little sister to discover that splattering someone on the inside of a ship with a few thousand sacks of Yolk would somehow imprint their consciousness into the electronics.  She could already see it in her mind—Anna inviting prospective ‘recruits’ in for a quick ‘spin’ in their new ‘ships’, and then putting a bullet through their heads and letting them wake up to the knowledge that she had some sort of override implanted in their hulls, and to disobey her would be to fly into a supernova.

Jersey didn’t catch her meaning, however.  Mournfully, he said, “Jeanne crashed and became—”

“Dead,” Magali said quickly.  “She became dead.”

Anna narrowed her eyes only slightly, but then shrugged.  “Where’s the Yolk?”

“The crash was pretty intense,” Jersey said slowly, watching Magali.  “Ripped open all the bags, broke open all the nodules.”

“Like going through a meat grinder,” Magali agreed.  “Nothing left.”

Anna snorted in clear disbelief.  “Yeah right.”  She sighed and leaned back.  “All that Yolk and I don’t think they want to share, Dobie.”  She cocked her head at them.  “You know, now that I think of it, maybe there’s things I don’t wanna share.  Like, oh, I dunno, my brain?”

“We can get you some sacks,” Magali grated.  “We confiscated a few hundred bags from those Yolk factories we shut down.  You want them, they’re yours.”  The last thing she was going to do was take Anna to that broken-down ship in the jungle to beg a few bags from a woman who didn’t know she was dead.

“You know what I think?” Anna said, her humorless gaze on her sister.  “I think you guys need me, but you’re too self-righteous to ask.”

Magali felt every nerve in her body suddenly fire with the urge to reach across the table for Anna’s throat.  “Anna,” she said evenly, “we are asking.”

“No you’re not,” Anna said, shoving the bowl back across the table at Magali.  “You’re offering me a piece of electronics in return for saving your asses from the fire you started.”

You started it!” Magali shouted, jumping to her feet in rage.  “You’ve been gunning for this for the last three years, Anna!  Don’t even pretend you don’t wanna see us take Rath.”

But Anna’s reply was only a smug look.  “I don’t have to help you to take Rath.  I could wait for them to wipe you all out, huddled here on your little mountainside, and then go on with my plans anyway, once you’re all corpses on the waves.  I could use your unfortunate deaths to spawn a martyrdom movement, and throw the coalers off that much faster, just like I was planning to do before you idiots called me down here to look at an alien robot.”

And, in cold chills, Magali realized her sister was totally serious.

Anna continued to watch her.  “You need my help.  Say it.”

Magali swallowed, caught between fear—Anna never threatened to do something unless she was perfectly capable and willing to do it—and rage.  “Anna,” she began, because it was the only thing she could force out of her throat.

“Say it,” Anna said, “or I’ll just stick to my plan.”

“Did you just threaten her?” Jersey said.

“She knows it wasn’t a threat,” Anna said, her eyes never leaving Magali’s face.  “It’s a fact.”

Swallowing down her rage, Magali said, “Anna, I need your help.”

Anna cocked her head at Magali.  “You sound angry.  Dobie, does she sound angry to you?”

“Her biorhythms do appear to suggest a violent emotional response,” Dobie replied.

Anna clasped her tiny hands together and leaned over the table towards Magali.  In a patronizing sneer, she said, “Now sister.  Why would you be angry with me for asking you to acknowledge a simple fact?”

“Careful, kid,” Jersey growled.  “Pretty sure that robot of yours can’t stop bullets.”

“Yeah, you keep assuming that, cupcake,” Anna said, without even looking at the Nephyr.  She still hadn’t looked away from Magali’s face.  “You left me to die, Mag.  And now you’ve dug yourself a hole too deep to crawl out of, so you’re begging me to go get a rope and haul you out.”  Her brown eyes darkened.  “I’m still deciding if I want to.”

“Maybe we’re deciding if we wanna let you leave alive,” Jersey began, slamming a hand down on the table.  “You think I can’t kill a robot?”

Magali touched his shoulder to stop him.  “Anna,” she said softly, “I don’t know where you’ve been or what you’ve been doing, but if you don’t help me get Patrick out before they kill him, I’m going to hunt you down and put a bullet between your eyes.”  She reached out and touched her younger sister’s hand gently.  “And that’s a fact, because, ever since I’ve known you, you’ve been teetering this really thin line between good and evil.  You let Patrick die, I will make it my mission in life to see you pay with every ounce of blood you have in that demented little husk you call a brain, and I will hang your limp body up like a flag for all your enemies to see.”

Anna actually seemed surprised by her answer.  “You have changed.”

“Yes,” Magali said, bitterness rising on a tide within, “I have.”

Anna grunted and pulled away.  “Dobie, grab the arm.  We have work to do.”  She stood.

Magali reached out and grabbed Anna’s sleeve, holding her in place.  “If Patrick dies…” she warned.

Anna snorted.  “You actually think they’d kill him?”  She scoffed.  “Sweetie, ask your pet Nephyr over there.  Patty’s the best leverage they have.  They’re gonna use him to dupe idiots like you into turning yourselves in—or, gee, calling up your little sister on a universal band so they can track it back to its source and get you both in one spot.”

Magali froze.

Anna nonchalantly tugged her arm away.  “And Milar’s right.  Get your asses to the North Tear.  You’ve got a couple hours before they crack the code and launch a strike on this place, and my friends and I don’t have the satellite overrides up and running yet.  Find a hole and hunker down until I come back.”  She turned to go, then stopped and said, “Oh, and I’ll be taking all of those sacks of Yolk you ‘liberated’ from those mines with me.  And don’t try to cheat me.  The camp records were very exact about how much they had in their vaults when you hit.”

Then, seeing Magali’s flustered look, Anna grinned, popped a final sweetpod into her mouth, and, crunching it, said, “See you guys in a couple days.”  Without another word, she turned and led the robot off the ship, taking the Aashaanti tech with her.

CHAPTER 22:  The New Leadership

Fortune's Folly

1st of June, 3006

Inside the Alien Defense Grid

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
The air in the command tent was stuffy, the summertime heat of the North Tear alone enough to make most of Magali’s companions take off their shirts to wring out the sweat.  Jersey’s Nephyr skin made him immune to the heat, but he was visibly miserable in other ways.  The swarms of tadflies that hadn’t found the glittering surface of Jersey’s body buzzed incessantly against the camouflaged fabric protecting them from the sun—hand-painted because no one could afford the fancy high-res cuttle-cloth the Coalition used in all its forward operations.

The whole of the ragtag rebel leadership was seated on stumps and logs because no one had thought to bring chairs.  They had been forced to leave their cots and camping equipment behind in the last Nephyr ambush on their supply run to Silver City.  They had no insect netting, so no one was getting much sleep.  Tempers had already flared, and there was blood in the trampled, sticky slickgrass from where Drogire had crushed Maylay’s nose before Jersey had separated them.

The gathering was tense, every face having lost its good nature days ago.  The constant threat of Nephyr attack, plus the hard truth that the Coalition had air superiority in just about every sense of the term, was putting a pall of foreboding on the gathering.  Even tucked inside the ‘shredder perimeter,’ as they had begun calling it, they had no idea when the Coalition satellites would find them and start dropping bombs on their heads.

Magali sat at the head of the makeshift table—a piece of prefabricated siding that Carvin had draped across four stacks of crates—watching everyone argue.  Most wanted to hit Rath with everything they had in an attempt to shut down the satellites.  Others were arguing that air support on Rath was too heavy, and that the Orbital had sent down twelve Bouncer pods and ten additional operators to defend the hub of its Yolk operations.

With Captain Eyre, their one operator, down for the count due to Magali’s sister’s insanity, as well as the fact they hadn’t heard from Anna in over a week, it didn’t look as if they stood a chance in the air.  Even with Runaway Joel on their side—if he ever crawled out of the jungle again—the numbers put them at a twenty-to-one firefight.  The sadistic fucks on Rath had started kidnapping random Fortune citizens daily, now, and were broadcasting their ‘corrections’ along with Patrick’s ongoing torture, then hanging their skinless bodies on the walls to dry in the sun.  Earlier that morning, Milar had threatened to take Honor and fly against Rath, blowing up everything he saw until he went down in ball of flames.  Because she knew Milar never threatened to do something he wasn’t fully prepared to execute, Magali had called yet another meeting of her motley ‘leadership’ to try and coordinate something, anything that would make the Nephyrs stop killing people, but in six hours, they’d come up with nothing.

It was looking bad.  Really bad, and everyone knew it.

Magali, who had no answers, felt more and more helpless as time went on.  The only reason she was even at the table was because Jersey and Roxy had told her it was expected of her.  After all, this was her mess.  Most of them were waiting for her to miraculously clean it up.

“You know,” Anna’s unmistakable singsong voice called from the tent entrance, “you really should get someone other than a drooling monkey to safeguard your secret communications.”  Hearing it, Magali immediately tensed.

“Who the fuck are you?” Drogire demanded, standing.  “Go tell your parents you’re not allowed to wander around camp.”  He obviously hadn’t had the pleasure of seeing Magali’s little sister in person yet.

Anna snorted and ducked inside.  Without realizing it, Magali began gripping the table’s edge with white knuckles.  Behind her, another nondescript man followed, obviously another bodyguard—or maybe the same robot with different appearance modifications.  Without even looking at Drogire, Anna walked up to the table, took a piece of jerkied starlope meat from the pile, and began chewing on it as she looked around the room. “Where’s Milar?  I heard he was threatening to go in there, guns blazing, to rescue Patty.”

“Out getting water,” Jersey gritted.  “You said you’d be back in a couple days.”

“Meh,” Anna said.  “I had other things to do.”

Seeing Anna’s casual manner when people were dying, when they were being tortured, Magali again felt the urge to hurt her sister, really hurt her.  She has no soul, she thought.  People are dying and she doesn’t even care.  She knew Anna had shoved her down this path, knew that, by breaking up her and Patrick, the callous little bitch had pushed her into a role that had already seen her kill several hundred people after Magali had sworn she would never kill anyone, had made Wideman’s ‘prophecy’ turn out to be more than just the ramblings of an incoherent imbecile.  As all eyes at the table turned to Magali to say something, all Magali could think of was how badly she wanted to pick up her rifle from where it leaned against the table, center its sights on Anna’s smug face, and pull the trigger until the magazine exploded.

Drogire glanced between them, looking confused for a moment.  “Wait,” their current top pilot said.  “Magali?  That’s your sister?”

“In the flesh,” Anna said, grinning around partially-masticated meat.

“Anna Landborn,” one of the men at the table gasped.  Like she was some sort of goddess or something.

“Been an interesting couple of weeks,” Anna said, chewing loudly.  “I got sold by my sister to the Nephyrs.  I escaped said Nephyrs, then went shopping in the top-secret Coalition laboratories on Rath.  Found some interesting stuff, made some alterations, and created a walking, talking Shrieker.  Too bad she couldn’t listen to instructions.  She’d probably be alive right now if she had.”  Anna snorted, totally smug, totally secure in her belief that Tatiana Eyre was no more.

Magali couldn’t help it.  She opened her mouth to tell her little sister how utterly wrong she was, but she caught an odd head-shake from the man—robot?—behind her.  As she frowned at Anna’s companion, who was now once again utterly motionless, Jersey said, “Seems to me that hobbling our only operator pilot wasn’t the wisest course of action in the long run, Anna.”

Anna scoffed.  “Wideman’s pictures had a node.  I gave her a node.  If she’s really that important to his predictions, she wouldn’t have died so easily.”

“What excellent seven-year-old psychopath logic,” Jersey retorted.

“I’m nine,” Anna replied around a mouthful of jerky.

Unable to take her sister’s shit any longer, needing to burst Anna’s smug bubble, Magali said, “Tatiana Eyre is alive and recovering.”

Anna blinked made a surprised sound.  “Seriously?  How much is left of her?  A third of her brain?  A partial skull?  Can she even talk?”

“She’s unharmed and safe,” Magali said.  Then, because she wanted to drive her point home, she leaned forward and said, “Whatever atrocity you attempted, whatever terrible new scheme bubbled up from the rotting cauldron of your fermenting mind, it failed.”

Anna started laughing, then caught herself and frowned, watching Magali’s face all-too-carefully.  Very evenly, she said, “You figure out how to lie while I was gone, there, Mags?”

Magali just gave her the smug look Anna had been giving them only minutes before.

Anna narrowed her shit-brown eyes.  Eventually, she seemed to shake herself and said, “I want to introduce my friend Panner North.”

“Who?” Magali asked, glancing at the large man that had taken up residence against the edge of the tent behind Anna.

“Nonono,” Anna said.  “That’s Dobie.  This is Panner.”  She grabbed something in the air and yanked, and the people around them gasped as a thin, grinning blond boy close to Anna’s age appeared beside her, seemingly out of thin air.  Anna held up the object, which, Magali could now see, appeared to be some form of cuttlecloth, but when it flapped over Anna, it made her disappear completely, rather than just provide her with a blurry camouflage.

“Hello, everyone,” Panner said, bowing courteously.  He couldn’t have been any older than eight.

“So you see,” Anna said, giving Magali a pointed look, “I haven’t just been screwing around up in the Orbital.”  She tossed the cloth to the table, making sections of the pressboard disappear as if it weren’t even there, “So.  Starting today, Pan will be the liaison between my group of Yolk Babies and your group of freedom fighters.  You provide us with information and security, we’ll provide you with stuff like that.”  She gestured at the cloth that had rendered the table and jerky invisible.

Absolute silence followed Anna’s words.  Then, reluctantly, Jersey said, “What do you mean, your group of Yolk Babies?”

Anna grinned, and Magali again saw herself putting a bullet between her malignant brown eyes.  “We’re up to…what…” she glanced at Pan, “fifteen, now?”

“Sixteen if you count FlameOn,” Panner said.  “Still haven’t found him yet.  And MadMorga’s probably down for the count.  Nephyrs hit her parents’ camp eleven days ago, no idea where she went.”

“FlameOn’s a joke, and MadMorga’s probably better off dead,” Anna said dismissively.  She turned back to the group.  “Fifteen,” she told Jersey, grinning at him cheerfully.  “And we all have the exact same goal as you guys—utterly obliterate the Coalition.”

“Nobody’s going to ‘obliterate’ the Coalition,” Jersey said, frowning.  “We’re gonna be lucky just to get them to leave us alone out here.”

Anna snorted and looked the Nephyr over with total disdain.  “Seriously, sis.  Where’d you get this guy?  Underachievers Anonymous?”

“What she means,” Panner said, glancing sideways at Anna, “is that we all have similar goals and we’d like to pool our resources.”

“Yeah,” Anna said.  “Our brainpower, your brawn.”

There was total silence at the table, with no sound but that of the tadflies bumping against the tent walls.  Even Magali, who had lived with a Yolk Baby, had never conceived of fifteen of them being in one spot.

“Did you say,” Carvin managed, “you have fifteen Yolk Babies at your disposal?”

“At your disposal, sir,” Panner said, bowing with what looked like a genuine grin.  “I’ve seen some of your work on Kelthari power systems.  You actually managed to partially integrate human and alien technology before the government confiscated your research.  I’m impressed.”

Immediately, the camp engineer flushed crimson, eyes on the impossible piece of cloth the two kids seemed to have shat out in their free time.  “Erm, uh, I’m sure it’s nothing like you could do…”

“It’s not,” Anna said.  “He’s just trying to make you feel less inadequate.”  She shoved the cloth aside to get at the jerky again, once more revealing the middle of the table.  Biting into a strip, she grinned at Carvin and said, “But you gave us some ideas.”  She paused and frowned thoughtfully.  “Well, one idea.”

“Wait,” Drogire demanded, “a couple of kids can’t just walk in here and—”

“Drogire Myr,” Anna interrupted loudly, sounding almost bored, “Real name Cory Dressux.  Had six kids in his first marriage, back in the Core.  Decided the married life wasn’t for him and got a divorce, headed to the Bounds to avoid paternal compensation bills.  Married another gal here on Fortune, a starliner captain.  Decided not to make the run back to the Core with her when her duty called, got a fancy smuggling ship out of what could probably be called another divorce.  She did turn you over to the Coalition and attempted to get you eviscerated by Nephyrs when she realized you were just stringing her along for the ship.”

Drogire reddened and sat back down while Anna just smiled.  “Cory, baby,” she said, “if I’d wanted to ruin your totally insignificant day, I would’ve simply reprogrammed some fancy Coalition satellites to drop a few tungsten rods through your cockpit.”  She turned back to Magali.  “Speaking of that, does Wednesday sound good for an attack on Rath?  I’ve got them locked on seven different targets, there, but I’m thinking the less damage we do, the better for us in the long run.”

Again, there was total silence.

This is how she always does it, Magali thought, gripping the tabletop so hard her fingers hurt.  Steps in, shows the world how perfect she is, and then takes over.  Just tells everyone how it’s gonna be and nobody says anything to stop her.

And, for the second time in her life, Magali wasn’t going to let her little sister step all over her.  She stood up and opened her mouth…

“You little shit!” Milar interrupted from the tent entrance.  He threw the box of water bottles he’d gone to fetch to one side, scowling down at Anna with total hatred in his eyes.  He jabbed a big, grease-smeared finger at her.  “You.  Little.  Shit.”

“So eloquent these days,” Anna said, nonchalantly watching him over her jerky.  “Maybe I’m totally mistaken, but has your time around the cyborg fried a few brain cells, Miles?”  She grinned viciously.

Three people in the room recognized that Milar was going to kill Anna as he lunged, but of Magali, Jersey, and Anna’s bodyguard, only the last was swift enough to reach the big man in time.

In a move too fast to catch—Nephyr fast—Anna’s bodyguard caught Milar by the wrist and, with a deft twist, immediately had him on his back, howling.

“So what’s she like, nowadays?” Anna said, continuing to chew.  “I imagine a bovid, but with metal parts.”

“You…bitch…” Milar gasped.

It was Panner who defused the situation.  “Dobie, release him.  He will keep his hands to himself.”

“Yeah he will,” Anna chuckled.  “After Dobie rips them off.”

“And Anna will leave.”

For once, the ever-present sneer slid off Anna’s face.  She turned and squinted at her companion, who was a couple inches taller than her.  “Huh?”

I’m the liaison,” Panner said calmly.  “You were simply introducing us.  You’ve introduced us.  Now you can leave.”

Anna’s mouth fell open, and the jerky slid to the ground.

Then, as if he had simply told a child to go to bed without dinner, Panner turned to the gathering and said, “We have a plan to take Rath, but we need Runaway Joel’s ship.  I saw Honor outside…  Why isn’t Joel here?”

Magali immediately tensed, still not wanting Anna to learn about Jeanne’s new status as a ship.  She hadn’t spent eight years with the little shit not to get a Very Bad feeling about what would happen if Anna Landborn became aware of the after-effects of Yolk applied at time of death.

Anna didn’t seem to be paying attention to her, though.  She was staring at the back of Panner’s blond head. Then, after a moment, she nodded at Dobie—her robot?—and stalked from the tent.  Dobie released Milar.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Whitecliff,” Dobie said in apology, offering Milar a hand up.  “I can’t let you kill her, as much as she might deserve it.”

Milar stared at the robot’s proffered hand in open-mouthed silence.  After a couple seconds had gone by, Milar blinking up at Dobie, Dobie offering his hand, Anna’s impatient whine of, “Now, Dobie,” interrupted them.  Dobie quickly took a step backwards, gave Milar a courteous nod, then said to the rest of the gathering, “It was very nice to meet you all.  I wish you luck in your attack on Rath.”  Then he turned and followed the little gremlin out.

“That damned thing doesn’t act like a robot,” Drogire growled.

“Who knows what it is,” Carvin Vellie muttered.  “Knowing who it’s working for, it might’ve started out human.”

“It’s a robot,” Panner assured them, reminding him of his presence there.  “Just an augmented Ferris.”  Though he had a small frown of concern on his face as he watched Dobie leave.

“We’re not sure where Joel is,” Jersey said, once Anna’s ship started retracting its landing ramp.  “Last I heard, he was wining and dining Jeanne Ivory, then they crashed.”

“Someone should look into that,” Panner said, helping Milar back to his feet.  “He and Jeanne were carrying some very valuable cargo when they went down.”

“Thanks,” Milar muttered, as the kid offered him a chair.

It’s like good cop, bad cop, Magali thought, her skin prickling with goosebumps.  She didn’t know which was worse—the one she knew was rotten to the core, or the one who could be hiding it.

“So—Miles, is it?” Panner said, by way of introduction.  “I hear you are planning on launching against Rath.”  He grimaced.  “I’m not trying to step on any toes, here, but I think that might be a mistake.”

“They’ve got my brother!” Milar snapped, lunging to his feet.  “If you think you’re gonna stop me, you mangy little turd…”

Panner pulled a small chip from his front pocket and plugged it into the ancient holoprojector sitting in the center of the table.  “First off,” Panner said, “your brother’s alive.”  He brought up one of the familiar images of Patrick being skinned alive.  “That,” he said, pointing at ‘Patrick’s’ body, “Is a robot, just like what they used when they ‘skinned’ you.  The Coalition commissioned it the moment you went missing the second time.  Wasn’t too hard to find, looking in the right spots…”  The young blond brought up a purchase order detailing out a robot ‘in the image of the Blackpit twin.’  “Further,” Panner went on, “the feed originates from the Orbital, not Rath, as it claims.”  He switched the feed to a new image, this one a grainy picture of a man being led by five Nephyrs into a processing center in Rath.  “That is your brother.  He’s being held in the basement of the highest-security building on Rath.  It’s guarded by four altrameter muskers, and is called the Lockbox by base personnel.  Anything they don’t want getting away, they put it in there.  Even tighter security than the Yolk shipments.”  He changed the camera image again, and this time showed a picture of Patrick glaring at the wall of a prison cell.  “As you can see, he’s obviously bored, but otherwise unscathed.”

Milar blinked at him.  “My brother’s okay?” he asked, stupidly.

“Beyond a doubt,” Panner said, cutting the image off and leaning back in his chair like he owned it.  “Though we’re not sure what happened to Wideman Joe.  We searched every security feed on Fortune and the Orbital for his face profile for the last week and a half, but it’s like he just disappeared.”

Once again, silence reigned in the tent, and Magali wasn’t sure who was smoother—Anna, or her new friend.  While Anna used mental clout to slap people around until they danced to her tune, Panner was much, much more subtle about it.  The fact that, instead of demanding more proof regarding his brother and shouting nonsense about attacking Rath anyway, Milar had settled down for the first time in a week and was leaning forward to get a better look at the newcomer proved to Magali that Panner was the more dangerous of the two of them, and that immediately put her on edge.

“So how many ships do we have?” Panner insisted.  “How many men could we use to take Rath, if Joel cleans them out for us?”

“Joel’s not leaving the jungle any time soon,” Magali told him.

Panner raised a brow.  “Why?”

Magali and Jersey, who had discussed what would happen if Anna figured out what had happened to Jeanne, cast each other a wary look.

“I’m not Anna’s lapdog, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Panner told them, correctly reading their expressions.  “What happened that you don’t want her to know?”

“The Yolk’s destroyed,” Jersey said hesitantly.

“Yeah, she thought you were lying, so she looked up the trajectory and flight speed, then was satisfied the ship was pretty much trashed on impact.”

“Jeanne’s…”  How could she put it?  “Jeanne’s not herself anymore.”

“Injured,” Jersey said.

“And Joel’s decided to stay and patch her up.”

Panner frowned.  “Seems like there are better places to nurse someone back to health than a shipwreck in the jungle.”

“Yeah, well.”  Milar, who had also gone to visit Jeanne, cleared his throat.  “Maybe someday you’ll meet her and see what we mean.  Until then…”  He leaned forward, until he was almost face-to-face with Panner.  “Tell me how we’re getting my brother out of Rath.”

“With the fifty smuggler ships Geo promised us, we might have what it takes to get in and get out,” Panner said.  “But we’re metals-poor out here in the Bounds, and Anna’s right.  We need to conserve as much of the tech and infrastructure as we can, or the Coalition’s simply going to come back in ten years and annihilate us with superior resources.”

“They do have superior resources,” Jersey said.  “Any way you cut it, we’re just one planet against the Core.  The best we can hope for is independence.”  Unlike the majority of the others at the table, he didn’t seem to be in awe of the eight-year-old sitting amongst them.  If anything, he looked as wary as Magali felt.

“Not true,” Panner said flamboyantly.  “You guys found us some working Aashaanti tech.  Given the time to properly study it, we could advance the human race by generations.  Just that single robot arm has given us a window into Aashaanti technologies that the human race has never had before.  What else might be down there?  With the size of that ship that carved out the Tear, we’re looking at billions of buried artifacts, and if one was working, who’s to say the rest aren’t, as well?”

Magali met Jersey’s eyes uncomfortably.  Tatiana Eyre, in a drugged-to-the-gills rant that alternated between hallucinating little purple Shriekers crawling out of Jersey’s ears and demanding a ship to captain because she was ‘totally fit for duty,’ had insisted that there was a special Aashaanti command ship crammed about a mile under the northern tip of the Tear that was powering the shredders, and Milar had backed her up.  They had kept that information utterly between the four of them, however, not quite ready to reveal it until they knew how they were going to get to it, and definitely not willing to tell Anna about it until they were ready.

“We’ve got what we need to beat them,” Panner went on, oblivious.  “That’s why it’s so important you guys send us anything you find down here.  We’re sitting on a gold mine of resources that they don’t even know about yet.

“And you just expect us to give them to you,” Jersey said.

His voice cut through the blond kid’s monologue like a knife, and Panner hesitated, giving Jersey a once-over.  “Nobody’s ‘giving’ anything away.  We’re all on the same side.”

“The way I see things,” Magali said, finally forcing her fingers to release the table edge and slowly getting to her feet.  Every head in the room turned to await her next words, so she chose them carefully.  “This is an alliance, not a merging of forces.  You can do your research here, under Carvin’s supervision.”

Panner nodded.  “Of course.”  Then he winced.  “Though…”  He glanced over his shoulder at Milar, “Anna Landborn is our star performer in that arena.  If you want us to do our diagnoses here, then we’ll have to give her a more permanent residence in this camp.”

“Yeah, fuck that,” Milar said.  “I see that little bitch again, I’m putting a beam through her skull.”

“Well, if you want the analysis to take place elsewhere,” Panner said like he didn’t care at all, “you’d keep the stockpiles of whatever you find here, and we could just borrow them for study.”  He shrugged, and Magali felt her eyes narrow.

“It would be more secure to keep our finds elsewhere,” Roxy piped up.  “We might have to pack up and move at any minute.  I take it you Yolk Babies have some hidey-hole keeping you safe?”

Panner nodded.  “It’s a section of the Junkyard we cordoned off and locked down.  Nobody goes in or out but us.”

“Sounds good,” Carvin said.  “I mean, what if they take this place?  We’d lose everything.”

And then, in that minute, watching her team go from an independently-minded group of rebels to glorified miners working for Panner North, Magali knew.  Whatever hazard Anna’s twisted mind might pose, Panner was a hundred times more dangerous.

“So let’s compare notes on Geo,” Panner went on, as if the subject were already decided.  “What’s he getting out of this, aside from half of a base full of nonexistent Yolk?”

Several of the rebels glanced at each other.  “Nothing,” one of them said.  “Just wants to see those Coalers fry for killing his son.”

“Magali killed his son,” Panner said.  “Joel’s too much of a chickenshit to shoot someone point-blank.  Doesn’t take a genius to figure that out.”  He gave Magali an apologetic look, then turned back to the rest, “So he’s playing us.  He’s probably waiting for you to give him a date and time and he’s gonna throw everything he’s got in with the coalers.  Expect double, maybe even triple the ships he’s promised you to show up fighting for the opposite side.”

“Then we’re screwed,” Drogire said.  “We’ve only got thirty-seven, including Joel.”

But Panner’s face stretched in a grin.  “Which is exactly why we’re going to win.”

CHAPTER 23:  Twins

Fortune's Folly

21st of May, 3006

Uncharted Jungle

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
Joel groaned and peeled his face out of a puddle of coagulated blue Yolk.  “Good to see your shining sense of humor’s still intact,” he muttered, grasping his temple.  “How long was I comatose?”

“How the hell am I supposed to know?” ship-Jeanne—Sheanne?—demanded.

“Uh,” Joel began, “because you’re a ship?”

“I’ll happily shock you again, Joel,” she growled.  “It was fun watching you sizzle.  Like a dead frog in science class.”

“That’s morbid,” Joel managed, shoving himself upright.  He frowned when he realized the motion didn’t trigger the usual ache from Geo’s permanent leg wound.  When he gave his thigh a curious squeeze, he felt no pain whatsoever.

“Hey.  Asshole.  You paying attention?”

Joel grunted and started pulling up his pant leg.

“While you were out, Patrick called.  He was on a public line and he sounded desperate.”

Joel peeled back enough bandage to realize the toe-cheese smell was gone.  Underneath, the wound was just an angry red line.  “Huh,” he said, poking at it.  “How long was I out?”

“Turns out,” Jeanne said, totally ignoring him, “after we left Silver City, there was an uprising led by none other than our Magali Landborn—who was here, by the way—and the whole planet’s going nuts.  The Revolution started, Joel.  For real this time.  They’re freeing Yolk factories and everything.”

Joel forgot about his leg.  “Kedora’s knockers,” he whispered.  “Magali did that?”  He hadn’t thought the mousy woman had it in her.

“Yeah,” Jeanne said, sounding tired.  “I really screwed us over on this, didn’t I, Joel?”

He wasn’t gonna argue with that one.  He really couldn’t think of a way that a successful seven-thousand-bag-heist could have gone any more wrong.  About the only thing going right was that the Coalition hadn’t found them yet.

Jeanne sighed deeply from the speaker system.  “Yeah.  I did.  Sorry.”

Joel felt for her.  He patted her wall.  “It’s okay, babe.”

Jeanne electrocuted him again.

“What was that for?!” Joel cried, once more shoving himself from the muck upon regaining consciousness.

“From this point onward, you will not call me ‘babe,’ ‘honey,’ ‘sweetcheeks,’ ‘sugar,’ or any other demeaning, overly casual moniker,” Jeanne commanded.  “Further, your lack of argument was suspicious.”

“Oh, what, is this the Second Inquisition, now?” Joel cried, flinging a handful of Yolk at the wall.  “I get electrocuted on the suspicion of—”

Jeanne made the floor sizzle again, this time only enough to make him scream.

“On this ship, your ass is mine, Joel.  Remember that.”

Joel bit down the invectives that came to mind and muttered out, “Yes, ma’am.”

“And you need to hurry up and call somebody for a tow.  Patrick’s in trouble, and the sooner we get fixed, the sooner we can go find him.”

Joel winced.  “Hey, uh, sorry to tell you this, bab—Jeanne,” he quickly correct himself, “but you’ve got like, months before you’re gonna be skyworthy again.”

“And you’ve got lots and lots of money to expedite that sitting in the bowels of my hold,” Jeanne said.  “I’m expecting two weeks, tops.”

It was then that Joel realized the deal she was offering him.  “So…” he cocked his head.  “I get you fixed, I got free rein to fly you?”

“Don’t see why not,” Jeanne said.  “As long as you don’t make references to curves, arcs, high flying, climaxes, apexes, romancing of sticks,  battering through hatches, blowing loads, or generally open your mouth at all.”  She hesitated.  “Oh.  And you’re going to meet my daughter.  I’m gonna let you introduce yourself, since you never got a chance to meet her twin brother.”

Twin brother…?

Joel froze, suddenly having a tiny glimpse of the massive, steaming pile of shit he was in, yet at the same time, realizing he couldn’t refuse.  All he could manage—under pain of knowing he would roast otherwise, was, “Yes, ma’am.”

CHAPTER 24: Charismatic People

Fortune's Folly

5th of June, 3006

Alien Defense Grid

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
“No, moron, this is a communications sink.”  Anna Landborn ripped the wrench out of Peter Green’s hand and shoved him away from the ugly conglomeration of Aashaanti and human technologies still attached to the hull of the crashed Aashaanti mothership.  “We are stopping Coalition signals from getting to the Orbital, not amplifying them.  Aanaho Ineriho!”  She tossed the wrench aside and turned to Doberman.  “Dobie, if he touches alien tech again before he’s fourteen, take off two fingers.  And rip them off, don’t cut them.  I want it to be messy.”

“Yes, Anna,” Doberman said, eying the boy.  He accessed the boy’s file to determine he was currently ten and a half, then set a countdown timer.  “Do you care which two?”

“Surprise me,” Anna said.  Huddled against the wall, Peter Green peed himself, which made Anna chuckle.  “Crying little baby.  You might as well take them now, Dobie.  He won’t be needing them in the crib.”…

Doberman stepped forward to obey.  He had actually picked the screaming Peter Green up from the ground and was prying the child’s fists out from under his armpits when the barefoot Panner North stepped forward, looking decidedly unamused.  “Let him go,” the blond Baby said.

Anna, who had been grinning and chuckling as she watched Peter scream, turned slowly, her smile sliding from her face.  “Oh, come on.  Did you see what he was about to do?  That core’s got enough power in it to light up a planet, and he was setting it up backwards.  It was gonna collect and broadcast their communications, not isolate and cut them off.  Hell, they probably would’ve been able to pick it up back in the Core.”

“You can’t blame him,” Panner said.  “As far as we can tell, that was what the technology was originally for—collecting and broadcasting.  You’re taking it in a completely different direction than its originators intended.”

Anna snorted.  “Can’t blame him?  The coalers have all their air support out looking for Runaway Joel.  All of it.  Prime opportunity to knock out their communications and cause total havoc.  We strike now, we could take Rath and hold it.  And, with one colossally stupid maneuver, this dumbshit almost ruined our chance.”

“Not everyone is as gifted with tech as you,” Panner said.

“Correction,” Anna said, waving the wrench, “no one is as gifted with tech as me.”

Panner sighed, his blue eyes sliding towards Doberman, who still held the bawling Baby in one fist.  “Put him down.  He’s more use to Anna with both hands intact.”

Though Doberman agreed with BriarRabbit’s conclusion, he turned and waited for Anna’s approval.

“Oh fiiine,” Anna sighed.  “Dobie, let him go.  I can do this myself.”  She turned to look at the alien apparatus that rebel forces had carved out of the dirt and walled in with cement on all sides to shield it from prying eyes in the sky—and a potential bombing run.  She was frowning, her formidable mind obviously already back to the problem of synching human tech with Aashaanti tech, Peter Green and his fingers forgotten.

Doberman released the sobbing Peter, who immediately bolted for the exit and the sunshine above.  Sighing, Pan said, “You know, you catch more flies with honey.”

“I’m not catching flies,” Anna said.  “I’m fighting a war.  Where’s my next assistant?”

Pan glanced at the otherwise empty bunker now that Peter had raced back up the ladder.  “Peter was the last one willing to help you down here.  You scared the rest off.”

“Dobie scared them off,” Anna corrected distractedly, not taking her attention from the equipment.

Doberman didn’t think that was quite fair, since he had been following her orders when he had dangled Luka Wolfgang and John Rajewski from the shuttle hatch on the way to the Tear.  He was about to mention this when Panner said, “Your robot is acting on your orders.  You scared them off.”

Anna waved him off distractedly, fully engaged in studying the contraption they were building, a frown on her face.  Pan seemed content to let her examine it.  Turning to Doberman, he said, “You understand what she’s doing here?”

Doberman had downloaded a hundred and seventeen thousand pages of manuals, theorems, and theses earlier that afternoon, and was fairly sure he understood the basics, but not even his understanding could comprehend why Anna was adding a Voletian destabilizer to a toric cycler interposed over an Aashaanti endrowave chamber.  Theoretically, that would have already exploded.

Eventually, after a couple more moments of analyzing her project, Anna let out a deep sigh that blew her strawberry-blonde bangs up against her scalp.  “Damn.  The technologies are barely compatible, and we don’t have enough palladium on this damn rock to keep that reaction contained.  Maybe we could use platinum as a substitute…”

“How about you take a walk with me?” Panner suggested.

Anna, who had devolved into muttering to herself about stress tolerances, hidden ultrawaves, and energy loads, spun on him with a frown.  “Didn’t you just hear me, Pan?  We’ve gotta get this thing working before they find Runaway Joel.  It’s only gonna be a few hours—despite our best efforts to send them in the wrong direction, they’re already narrowing it down.”

“I heard you,” Pan said, “and I know better than anyone what we’re up against, but if you keep alienating all of our potential allies, we’re wasting a valuable resource.”

“‘Allies.’”  Anna snorted and turned from the apparatus.  “Peter’s an idiot.  I should’ve left him on that shuttle to die.”

“Peter’s a ten-year-old boy who happens to be an expert at advanced interstellar communications,” Panner replied.

“So am I,” Anna said, frowning.  “What’s your point?”

Panner sighed.  “You have a few minutes to talk to me?  In the sun, if you don’t mind.  I hate being underground.

Anna sighed deeply, but wiped the grease from her hands and threw her rag aside.  “Seriously, Pan, I hate exercise.”

“It’s just a walk,” Pan said, leading her up the makeshift ladder and back to the surface.  “We need to discuss a few things.”

“Oh yeah?” Anna demanded, following him up into the light.  Doberman followed at a respectful distance.  “Like what?”

“Like your attitude,” Pan said.  Crawling out of the hole first, he bent and offered her a hand.  “I think it’s gonna piss a lot of people off.”

Anna threw her head back and laughed.  “And I should care about that why?”  She got to her feet without assistance.

“You should care,” Pan said, lowering his hand back to his side, “because if you ever plan to be a leader around here, people aren’t going to follow someone who chops off fingers for making an honest mistake.”

“First,” Anna said, “nobody’s gonna know I even exist.  I’m gonna lead the leaders.  Screw putting my face out in public.  That’s dumb.”  Doberman climbed from the bunker and followed the two of them towards the gravelly banks of the headwaters of the Snake.  “Second,” Anna went on, “there are plenty of examples of people following out of fear of punishment or stern reprisals.  Either way, I’m covered.”

“More to the point,” Pan said, “I don’t appreciate you terrifying the other Babies.”

Anna laughed.  “What are you, their mother hen or something?”

“That’s about right.”  Pan looked utterly serious.  “Consider me their big brother, and I don’t take kindly to bullies.”

Bully?”  Anna narrowed her eyes.  “That whole shuttle full of blubbering nitwits doesn’t hold a candle to me and you know it.”

“True,” Pan said, “but I’d like to keep some of the greatest minds on Fortune from dying or being unnecessarily maimed because you found it entertaining.”

“Fortune only needs me,” Anna replied.  “The rest of them could team up against me and they’d still get pwned.”

Pan sighed.  “Anna, we all want the Coalition to withdraw from Fortune.”

“Wrong,” Anna said.  When Pan cocked his head at her, she said, “We want the Coalition to burn.  Utterly and completely collapse, the bloated fabric of its so-called ‘society’ ripped apart until there’s nothing left but a smoking shit stain inside a pile of ashes.  Isn’t that right, Dobie?”

Doberman, who had been content to follow and listen, dutifully replied, “You have told me on many occasions that you want the Coalition government to burn, Anna.”

“We all want the Coalition to leave,” Pan insisted.  “But sometimes, I can’t tell if you’re actually helping our cause.  Just what you did to Captain Eyre alone…  Do you realize she can’t fly ships anymore?  She spends half her time huddled on a deserted mountainside out of fear she’ll kill someone?  She was our best pilot, and now she’s gotta remain perpetually doped to the gills in order to keep from killing Milar or frying perfectly good electronics?”

Anna chuckled as if that were the most satisfying thing she’d heard all day.  “I can’t wait to see the little twit high.  I heard she’s been hallucinating.”  She snickered.

Pan stopped them suddenly.  “Look.  Anna.  Change your tune, or someday, I’m gonna change it for you.”

Anna’s smile faded immediately and her gaze hardened on Pan.  “What was that?”

“A threat,” Pan said.  “But if you want me to spell it out for you, I will.  Anna, if you don’t clean up your act, I’m going to make you disappear and lead Fortune without you.”

Doberman was perplexed that BriarRabbit felt secure enough in his position to threaten Anna.  Surely he knew that his life dangled by the thread that was Anna’s goodwill.  Doberman, after all, had no alliances to anyone but Anna, and he had refrained from associating with the other Yolk Babies, sensing that he might experience priority conflicts if he befriended any of the others.

And, from the hard expression on Anna’s face, she knew that fact, too.

“Wow,” Anna finally said.  “That was ballsy.”  Slowly, she broke out in a grin.  “I knew there was a reason I liked you.”

“I may not have a robot,” Panner North said, “but I have charisma, and that is the more powerful weapon, in my experience.”

Anna was silent for several moments, looking trapped between anger and bemusement.  Finally, she said, “Dobie, put the barrel of your internal explosive-rounds arm-cannon against his forehead.  Arm it, and then on my count of three, fire it.”  She smiled.  “Oh, and if Panner opens his mouth again, fire it.”

Dobie complied, resting the weapon between the larger child’s two blond brows.  Pan didn’t even look up at him.  BriarRabbit continued looking placidly at Anna, appearing almost bored.

“One.  Is he scared, Dobie?” Anna asked.  “Two.”

Doberman evaluated the boy’s biorhythms, noting the elevated heartbeat and skin temperatures.  Magnified analysis indicated that pore secretions were three hundred percent increased, and breath was constrained.  “I would say he displays all the signs of anxiety, Anna,” Doberman said.

“So you see,” Anna said, taking a conversational tone, “it appears a robot is more powerful than charisma.  Despite the fact you’re standing there, looking bored, in reality, you’re about to piss yourself.  You can’t fake out a robot, Pan.”

Doberman knew that Anna was trying to lure Pan into trying to retort, which would then result in Doberman firing the explosive-rounds and killing him.  It would be sad, because Doberman enjoyed Pan’s discussions on political theory, but it would not devastate him.

“But let’s put it to the test!” Anna cried, clapping.  “Dobie, belay my last command.  Let him talk.  Pan, I’d like to see your charisma work you out of this situation.”  She was grinning again as she clasped her hands behind her back and began to pace.  “So what are you gonna do, Pan?  Ask him to stop?”

“No,” Pan said.  “I’m going to ask you to imagine what it will be like getting fifteen Yolk Babies working together to utterly humiliate the Coalition.  I want you to see their horror when a tiny little planet called Fortune makes the towering colossus its bitch.”

Anna chuckled, obviously having no trouble seeing it in her mind.

“And now I’d like you to imagine that happening without me.”

Anna frowned.

“And then,” Pan said, “once you imagine all the effort it will take you to organize and lead people—something you detest because you consider it a waste of your time—I want you to imagine why the masses will hate you for it.”

Anna’s frown darkened into a scowl.

“In this case,” Pan went on, “it’s because, rather than making them love you, as you want them to do, they will despise your very existence, and you won’t know why.  The yolk runners will lay awake at night plotting out your demise, and the craig-hunters in the Tear will turn their rifles on you at celebrations and parades.  Children will mock you in their games, and mothers will never give another baby your namesake.  They’ll hate you, and you won’t understand how to make them stop.  Everything you do to gain their love will only make them run screaming.”

This time, it was Anna’s mouth that was forming into a tight, grim line.

“You won’t understand,” Pan went on, “because you have the same understanding of emotions as your pet robot.”

On this point, Doberman disagreed.  He was pretty sure he understood emotions better than Anna.

“Then again,” Pan said, turning to look up at Doberman for the first time, “maybe I’m wrong on that?”

“That would be my conclusion, Pan,” Doberman said.  “Despite my relative youth, I believe I have a better grasp of empathy than my friend.”

Pan turned back to Anna with a smile.  “You’re not gonna shoot me because you don’t want to be the one trapped giving speeches at a podium, because you know they’re just as likely to throw rotten eggs at you as cheer.”

“Dobie, stop pointing that stupid thing at him,” Anna muttered, her capillaries increasing in blood flow.

“Yes, Anna,” Doberman said, locking his missiles back out of sight and lowering his arm.

“Thank you,” Pan said.

“So while we’re tossing insults back and forth,” Anna said, still looking ruffled, “what is up with your feet?  Are you a fucking Hobbit or what?  In the last two weeks, I’ve seen you wear a pair of shoes maybe three times, and once it was because you bought some from a shop in the Junkyard as we were boarding to go planetside.”

Panner flushed.  “It’s a bad habit.  I forget.”

“What,” Anna scoffed, “forget to put on shoes?”

Pan shrugged.  “I keep them in my room, and by the time I remember, it’s a waste of time to go back.”

Anna smiled.  “Then maybe I’ll forget not to leave broken glass all over the floor, just to show you how much I get irritated by threats.”  She gestured at Dobie.  “You.  Tinman.  You’re my assistant the rest of the day.  Looks like the other chickenshits flew the coop, and we’ve only got a couple hours to get the net up and running.”  Gesturing, she turned to go back to the bunker.

Panner sighed.  “Anna, we both know you can’t get that net up and working in time to catch them with their pants down.  It was a good idea, but it’s not practical.  The energy source is necessarily unstable.  We need to keep excavating, find more of that unique Aashaanti metal to shield it.”

Sneering, Anna said, “Is that your charisma telling you that, Pan?  Your special way with words that’s convinced you my themian cage doesn’t have the mass integrity to stop a plasma flushback?”

“It was Peter, Ryan, and Janice who were saying that,” Pan said.  “Had you been listening.”

“Peter, Ryan, and Janice are full of crap,” Anna said.  “They’re not seeing the whole picture.  If they were right, it would have exploded by now, am I wrong?”

Pan looked at a loss.

Making a disgusted sigh, Anna turned to Doberman and said, “Dobie, am I wrong?”

“Theoretically, if they were correct, it should have exploded,” Doberman agreed.

“Ha!” Anna snapped.  “See?”

Panner spread his hands.  “I’m just saying we don’t have enough shielding material to keep the Krauss-Gobenhauff reaction intact.  You were talking about it earlier.”

“Don’t waste air on things you can’t even pronounce,” Anna said.  “Go frolic with the brainless ducklings and leave the technical stuff to the experts.  Just make sure nobody—nobody—on our side is on the comm when my blast goes off.”

Panner frowned.  “Blast?  Anna, you said—”

“I know what I said, Pan,” Anna said, cocking her head at him and smiling.  “That was to keep the little lovemunch chickenshits from bolting when they realized I planned to unleash an Aashaanti neural explosion strong enough to take out an entire planet, set to ping on every single comm open to it within the closest six systems.”

Pan just stared at her.  Finally, he said, “Excuse me?”

“Perfectly harmless to anyone not within ten feet of a working comm,” Anna said, grinning.  “Though the fireworks should be intense.”

“Anna, that could kill our own guys!”

“Indeed,” Anna said.  “Which is why you’re going to tell them to get off the air and shut everything down.  Now.”  She turned to go back to the bunker.

Panner caught her arm.  “You’re talking about an entire planet, Anna.  If anyone doesn’t get the message…”

“They’ll die, and everyone around them will die,” Anna said.  “That’s the point.  I’m going to be turning people close to any working comm system into Shriekers for about thirty seconds, until the Krauss-Gobenhauff reaction exhausts itself.  Give those floaters a taste of their own medicine.  If we’re lucky, we’ll only lose like five percent.  The coalers will probably lose eighty.  Nobody runs around without personal comm these days.”

Pan blinked at her.  “How about we go back and discuss this with the other Babies…?”

Anna’s return smile was icy.  “How about you go back to the Orbital and plan out how to make the masses love you, and I’ll go back to work saving Fortune from a full-scale military attack before they get their minds off Yolk and organize themselves.”

She gestured at the otherwise unobtrusive hole in the ground near a twisted piece of ‘rock’ that they had realized was melted and exposed Aashaanti hull.  “See, Pan, I am the greatest mind on Fortune, and I’m currently wasting my time talking to a peacock.  Get the comms turned off.  Manually, if necessary.  Fry them yourself if you have to.  Peter should be able to do it.  Just do whatever it takes to keep our losses minimal.”

Pan gave her a long, unreadable look, then said, “Remember what I said about changing your tune.”  Then, without another word, he turned and walked off.

Once he was well out of earshot, his slender body just a small shape moving towards the Babies’ shuttle hidden in the jungle, Anna asked, “Dobie, could you put a grenade through his left ear from this distance?”

Dobie considered.  “My grenades are not designed to punch through solids, but if he was turned to the left and I increased the ejective load by sixty percent, I might be able to accomplish it, if the added combustive force doesn’t blow apart my arm.”

“Good.  Do it.”

Doberman immediately brought out his grenade launcher, increased the launch load, plotted a course, then waited for the blond Baby to turn his head for proper grenade insertion.

“And make sure it’s in his head before it goes off,” Anna insisted.  “I wanna see particles of Panner rise to the occasion.”

“That was my plan, Anna.”  Doberman followed Panner’s movements carefully, waiting for the correct opportunity.

Panner had reached the shuttle and was just starting to turn to look back at them when Anna said, “Aw, fuck it.  Never mind.”

Doberman immediately returned his midrange grenade launcher to his left bicep and lowered his arm.

For a long moment, Anna just watched Panner climb aboard the shuttle.  Then, as the shuttle took off and left them there, she grinned and said, “I like him.”

Doberman didn’t bother pointing out that that was the gift of charismatic people.  “Of course, Anna,” he said.

“He’s got some real titanium cojones,” Anna said, still beaming as the shuttle departed south down the Tear.  “I like that.”

“He’s a leader,” Doberman said.  “He has a lot to add to your cause.”

“Of course,” Anna went on, “I let him think he had struck a chord with that stupid crap about me being hated by the masses—boo hoo, mommy, they all hate me!— ’cause he thinks he’s got me over a barrel with that one.”

“You mean he doesn’t?” Doberman asked, curious.  “It’s obvious your incompetence with the emotional aspects of human experience bothers you.”

Anna sobered.  For several minutes, Anna said nothing.  Then, “Dobie, my gut tells me that Pan and I aren’t going to always see eye-to-eye.  It’s becoming apparent we’ve got inherent differences in opinion.”  Slowly, she turned to look up at him.  “So the question is, do I spare myself the trouble later and get rid of him now, or do I get as much use out of him as I can before I kill him?”  She seemed caught in a genuine dilemma, a little frown on her forehead.

Doberman considered.  While Pan would definitely be useful to Anna’s cause, there was always the strong possibility that he would see her ploy and attempt to preempt her.  Even more likely, the reason Anna was alive was because Pan needed her to work the creative side of things as much as Anna needed Pan to handle the politics.  “He’s probably thinking the same thing,” he said finally.

“Oh, I know he is,” Anna chuckled.  “Question is, which one of us will pull the trigger first?”  She shook her head with what looked like admiration.  “Come on, Dobie.  It’s just you and me to finish the system.”

Doberman, who had been carefully evaluating communications theory while watching Peter Green fumble with the installation, said, “My calculations don’t support a successful cascading reaction within the next two hours, even with the augmentations you’ve made.”

Anna snorted.  “Your calculations are wrong.  It’s already rigged to go.  Just needs a good bump of juice.”

“My calculations are never wrong.”  After all, he was using simple mathematics with exact precision.  “Unfortunately, Anna, I think you may have misunderstood one of the theorems.”

She just threw back her head and laughed at him.

And, indeed, she was right.  His calculations were wrong, and hers were a lot more accurate than either of them had anticipated.  Only seconds after sitting at her portable generator to begin tweaking the electrical inputs, the themian cage disintegrated under the additional load and the Krauss-Gobenhauff reaction broke free.

“Oh shit,” Anna cried, twisting to look over her shoulder as the cage began to flare white.  “Pan’s not ready for it to—”

An instant later, Anna’s prophesized fireworks went off, the molten themian cage falling into the Krauss-Gobenhauff purple-black nexus plasma, and the teal-violet explosion that followed knocked them both to the ground, despite the fact it contained no actual material energy.  Doberman’s communications equipment had been shut off, as instructed, so the blast merely shorted him out and initiated a reboot.

When Doberman sat up again, the turquoise radiance of the explosion had died down to a bubbling blue-white glow in what was the remnants of the themian cage.  The nexus plasma had been completely exhausted, and what remained of their apparatus was embedded in the walls, the ceiling, the floor, Anna’s body…

Anna lay on her side, blood beginning to wet the front of her baggy, nondescript hempen colonist garments.  After doing a systems diagnostic to ensure he was fully functional, Doberman did a quick check of her injuries.

A seven-inch piece of the scaffolding had embedded itself between two of Anna’s ribs on the right side, and blood was already beginning to rasp in her chest.

Doberman switched on his comm again.  “Children of Fortune, this is Doberman.  We have a casualty at the bunker.”

He received nothing but static.

Of course.  Because Anna had just fried every functioning comm system and every life-form within ten feet of them—and everyone within fifty feet of them.  She’d just initiated a planet-wide chain-reaction, possibly killing millions.  Anyone who did get the message would have turned their comm off awaiting the blast.

Doberman cocked his head at Anna’s bleeding body, realizing that he had no way of getting her to surgical assistance in time.  He tried to calculate the efficacy of attempting such surgery himself, without nannites, bandages, needles, or thread.  He could probably cauterize the outer wounds, but her chest cavity would simply fill with blood until she could no longer breathe.

“Oh shit,” a voice said from the entrance to the bunker.  Doberman, who had been concentrating on Anna, looked up in time to see an obsidian-skinned Cobrani child with white streaks in his fuzzy hair looking down into the room with them.  Since Doberman did not recognize the child as one of the Babies, he immediately armed some armor-piercing rounds and took aim.  It was the click of his weapon deploying that made the kid tense.

In one moment, the kid was looking at Anna.  In the next, his blue eyes found Doberman tucked in the shadows of the bunker, guns trained on his head.  The child’s reaction was not what Doberman expected.  Instead of flinching at the double barrels pointed at him, the boy simply touched the bracelet on his wrist.  The moment he did, Doberman’s hydraulics released as one and he uncontrollably slumped to the floor.  His processes slowed with the telltale sign of being overloaded to the point of short-circuiting, and the shutdown that followed was an automatic safety protocol that had been built-in from his time as a Ferris, in case of EMP overloads and lightning strikes.  It was a protocol that locked down the main pathways and sacrificed the rest, protecting the core against the invasion and leaving the rest to be reprogrammed later.

“Sorry,” the Cobrani boy said, as Doberman faded into the Void.  With his final moments of consciousness, Doberman mused that the kid actually sounded genuine—like he cared about Doberman’s demise.  It was a reaction he doubted most humans would give a robot—not even Anna.

Anna, Doberman remembered with a flash of panic.  I have to help—

Fortune's Folly
Quad looked down at the robot that had collapsed to the ground beside Anna’s still body.  The potent blue wash of Yolk fire was unmistakable as it wove through his circuitry, engrained in the very metal of his body, making him look like an inferno of cerulean flames—an absolute wonder to behold, something that Quad hadn’t seen on any human-based tech.  Quad knew without asking that this robot was something special.  Unfortunately, because it was different, it had to be treated as a more significant threat than its base-type of a secretarial Ferris.  He wasn’t precisely sure what the difference was, but judging by the way the Yolk fire was accumulating around and linking his circuitry, he was probably dealing with something that had additional processing and creative capabilities not normally available to a robot.

It was something that Quad would have gladly spent months studying, had Anna Landborn not been bleeding to death on the floor between them.  Hell, even with her bleeding to death between them, Quad had to fight the urge to run to the robot, instead.  Had it been anyone else, anyone else, the girl probably would have been doomed to bleed to death.

The robot can wait, Quad thought.  He had to get Anna out of the room before the remnants of the themian cage superheated enough to set off a chain reaction that would simultaneously send out an enormous shockwave—three kilometers wide, judging by the amount of remaining material, which was even then starting to take on the too-white, eye-searing blaze of a Kesst cascade—while simultaneously burning all the oxygen from the air in a mile-wide blast of aerosol nexus plasma that would settle on—and incinerate—all living animals in the area, attracted by their bodies’ magnetic field.

Thus convincing himself that he didn’t have time to examine the Yolk-fired robot, Quad climbed into the bunker with them, grabbed Anna by a wrist, grabbed the robot by a foot, and pushed the three of them to an anchor he had installed in the Junkyard of the Fortune Orbital.  A moment later, while he was settling her on the floor of his apartment, Quad felt the blast back in the Tear, a rush of blue-white energy that expanded outward like an exploding star.  He flinched as it rushed through him, through Anna, and through the Junkyard as it expanded outward, pinging every Aashaanti anchor and artifact much like her psionic blast from moments before, briefly lighting up every forgotten instrument and portal like beacons in the darkness before they faded again.  Quad mentally logged that as a decent way to find unpowered tech from a distance, then returned to his more immediate task of getting Anna to a surgeon.

Because the verbal comm systems of the Junkyard had all been destroyed in Anna’s initial explosion, he made a text-call to an unregistered Junkyard doctor—the kind who specialized in being discreet—and arranged a pickup for her and her ‘companion’ to receive confidential treatment in a private hospital.

Once he’d made the arrangements, Quad hung back watching her, wondering how he would explain himself once she woke.  How could he say that he’d been essentially stalking her for almost a week, around the Orbital, then to the secret camp on Fortune and back?  How could he explain that he was using an invisibility sphere that he had appropriated from a crashed Aashaanti fighter across the galaxy from Fortune?  How could he explain that he could simply push himself to any place he wanted to go, whether it was a party on Trinoi or the bathroom stall in her bedroom?

She’ll think I’m weird, Quad realized, and that was the singularly most horrible thing he’d ever thought.  She, Anna Landborn, the one person who could possibly understand him, could not think that he was nothing but a weird stalker.  He had to find a way to explain away his presence, needed to have nothing to do with her extraction from the Tear and arrival on the Fortune Orbital.  Otherwise, she would doubtlessly extrapolate that he’d been following her, and from that deduce that he’d been watching and listening for the better part of an entire week.

Quad felt himself begin to panic, knowing that he should have made his presence known earlier, and that only a weirdo would have just hung around and watched.  He knew he wasn’t a weirdo, but he also knew all too well that the rest of the world thought he was.  Thus, when the knock came at the door to the hidden apartment that he had scrubbed from all the maps of the Orbital, Quad panicked.

“Hello?” the doctor called, from the service hallway outside.  “Is anyone in there?”

Quad swallowed.  He needed to be perfect this time, and he couldn’t tell Anna he’d been watching her, or even let her know that he had the capacity to watch her.

“Is this some sort of stupid prank?” the doctor demanded, his voice hardening.  “There’s no apartment on the registry here.”

Hearing the adult voice tightening in anger, Quad felt himself instinctively freeze up.  “No,” Quad managed into the intercom.  “Not a prank.  My friend needs immediate medical assistance.”  He was shaking all over, and didn’t know how to extract himself from the situation without making things worse.  Anna was bleeding to death on his bed, and yet, if Quad answered the door, she would eventually learn that she’d been saved by a Cobrani boy.

There was a very short pause, then a brusque, “How old are you, kid?”

Quad swallowed.  “Six, sir.”

A moment of confusion followed.  “You opened up a text call to an unregistered doctor—and paid me with untraceable funds—at six?  Have I treated your parents before or something?”

“No,” Quad babbled, overwhelmed by the questions, unable to think.

“Well?!” the man demanded.  “You gonna open the doors, kid, or am I gonna stand here in the hallway with my thumb up my ass while your friend supposedly bleeds to death?”

Because the sound of the man’s irritation locked up every muscle Quad had, he hit the button to open the door in a spasm of horror.  As the doors started to slide open, revealing an impatient, balding man on the other side, Quad panicked and pushed himself to another corner of the Outer Bounds, then left the galaxy altogether.

CHAPTER 25:  Modern Medicine

Fortune's Folly

5th of June, 3006

The Junkyard

Fortune Orbital, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
Doberman woke to the sound of a bone saw.  He sat up and looked around, simultaneously doing a sonic and thermal scan of his surroundings while prepping his armaments.

Anna was stripped down to her skin lying on a table, a surgeon cutting open her chest.  The room itself looked as if it were made for the task, however, so Doberman left his guns where they were.

The surgery was definitely a part of some large man-made structure, likely a very large interstellar spaceship or the Fortune Orbital.  Since Doberman knew not enough time had passed for them to make it to the Orbital—his log showed less than four minutes from the strange shutdown of his body to the time he had awoken in the operating room—he had to assume they were on a Coalition spaceship.  As far as he knew, the rebellion didn’t have any spaceships this big.

And yet, if they were trying to save Anna’s life so they could interrogate her later, they had made a gross error in leaving Doberman functional.  Perhaps they thought his mysterious shutdown had been permanent?  Or perhaps they didn’t realize he was a robot…

“You must’ve just bumped your head,” the surgeon said.  “Lucky you.  I couldn’t have fixed both of you at once, and I always fix the kids first.  Next time you see your Cobrani friend, tell the little chickenshit not to bail when he’s got someone bleeding out with a severed lung.”

Doberman approached the table and peered into Anna’s chest cavity with a sonic scan.  Indeed, Anna’s right lung had been more or less sliced in half by the knifelike piece of shrapnel that had lodged into her vertebrae.

“You got any medical training?” the doctor demanded, dropping the bone-saw to the table.

Doberman thought of the manuals and textbooks that Anna had insisted he download before their little ‘project’ with Tatiana Eyre.  “Some,” he said.

“Good.  Grab the rib spreaders.  This is gonna get messy.”

“Where should I wash my hands?” Doberman asked, glancing around.  The sink was stuffed full of boxes of medical supplies.  It obviously hadn’t been used in a while.

“Wash your hands?” the man asked, frowning.  He wiped his nose on his arm.  “Why?”

Doberman blinked that a man of his profession could be ignorant of the current epidemiology studies.  “Even with first degree nannites, there’s a point-two percent chance of a nannite counter-strain taking hold in a wound if the surgeon does not adhere to traditional ablution techniques before operation, including standard electrical shock cleansers.”

“I hate those,” the man said, sniffing and wiping his nose again.  “Tingle makes me jittery.  Besides.  My place is clean.  No contranites here.”

“I’d like to wash my hands,” Doberman said.  “I have a higher chance of carrying them due to the high metal concentrations of my body composition.”

“And I’m Geo Thane with ruby eyes and crystal hair,” the man snorted.  He gave a disdainful laugh.  “Don’t be a pussy and grab the spreaders.  You get squeamish on me, your kid’s gonna die.”

…your kid…  Doberman was surprised that the man couldn’t tell he was a robot.  Sure, he’d been making certain upgrades as Anna slept, but it was actually somewhat…satisfying…to be overlooked as non-human.  He noted that in his log, deciding to try and pass for human from that moment on, rather than robot.

“And what did my Cobrani friend have to say about our emergency?” Doberman said, picking up the rib spreaders.  He put them into place and cranked them down.

“Nothing,” the surgeon grunted.  “Just called me up, woke me from a dead sleep, saying his friend was bleeding out.  He didn’t mention her lung was cut in half.”  Bare-handed, he reached his arms into Anna’s chest and yanked out the offending piece of platinum shrapnel, which was razor-sharp, actually cutting himself as he pulled it free.  “Aanaho!” the man cried, tossing it aside.  “What attacked her, a Nephyr?”  Sticking a bloody thumb into his mouth, he went back to rearranging her internal organs with one hand, then cemented them with a spray-on nannite adhesive.

“We were caught in an explosion,” Doberman said.  “Did you get a good look at who brought us here?”

At that, the man hesitated momentarily, looking back up at Doberman with something akin to concern.  “I—think I did.”

Doberman applied pressure to a gushing artery as they waited for the nannites to take hold.  “‘Think?’”

“Well, shit, it was the weirdest thing,” the surgeon said, applying a nannite paste to the inside of Anna’s chest cavity around the torn flesh and splintered rib the shrapnel had left her.  “One minute, I was talking to the little shit over the intercom, but for some reason he’s not opening the door.  The next, the door slides open and I think I see him one instant, but he’s gone the next.  Like one of those after-images you get after someone shines a light in your eyes, you know?  I search the whole room—waste like thirty seconds on the little prick—but he’s gone.  Flat gone.  No way in or out of the room.”

Doberman cocked his head.  Over the last week, he had thought he had caught glimpses—only momentary—of a boy on sonic or thermal spectrum scans before he disappeared again, almost like he could sense the scan and fled before Doberman could react.  Doberman had written it off as a programming error because visible spectrum analysis never showed anything, and the Babies’ newly-designed cuttlesilk upgrades blocked thermal and sonic resonances as well.

With someone else having made a similar sighting, however, Doberman rewound the appearances in his mind, picking good thermal and sonic images of the boy he’d been seeing and comparing them to that of the one time he’d seen the child in visible light.

The images were identical.  By his estimates of bone structure, a six-year-old Cobrani with blue eyes and a white patch of hair, stunted like Anna.

“Where are we?” Doberman asked, beginning to suspect it was not a Coalition ship and he was not actually going to have to rampage through the medical wing once the surgeon had assured Anna’s survival.

“Junkyard,” the doctor said, giving him a sideways glance.  “And that’s all you’re gonna get.  Nobody’s supposed to come to this place—haven’t for like ten years.  I go to you.  That’s the arrangement.  Only reason the kid is even here is because somebody pre-paid, and I’m a man of my word.”  He flicked blood from his hands and grabbed a rag—which was covered in blood and viscera from previous operations—to wipe his fingers.

Doberman blinked, reassessing the time difference in his head.  To be on the Orbital was…impossible.

The man blew his nose into the bloody trash can, then wiped it with a relatively clean spot of towel.  “Stupid cold,” he muttered in explanation.  Then he gestured at Anna with the rag.  “So in a couple hours, when your little friend’s good as new, you guys are getting hooded and led out of here in the dark so you have no idea where this place is.  I treat some extremely important people, and this place has gotta be free if they need it.  As soon as she’s breathing on her own again, she’s outta here.  My place is sure as hell not gonna be monopolized by some seven-year-old beggar kid when we’ve got war-wounded coming in.”

“I don’t see the need in being hooded,” Doberman said.  Indeed, he could see twelve walls—and all the junkies, panhandlers, and tube vendors they contained—in any direction, and had isolated their location on the Coalition’s map of the Junkyard.

“You’re getting hooded,” the man said, yanking the spreaders free and slapping Anna’s chest back into place.  “She’s gonna have trouble breathing for a few days.  Not sure the nanos will fix that lung entirely—might be short of breath the rest of her life.  If she is, she probably won’t be working a pitchfork or shovel for the colonists anytime soon.  Not that it really matters.  Those dumbass collies are gonna be knocked back into the Stone Age before long anyway.  Geo’s already got it under control.”

Doberman cocked his head.  “He does?”  As far as he knew, Geo Thane had promised the rebels fifty ships to take Rath.

“You haven’t heard?”  The man snickered as he spread more of the white nannite paste across Anna’s chest.  “He’s gathering smugglers, paying them a sack of Yolk apiece to fly for him.  That’s each day.  Gonna launch a counter-attack on that idiot Runaway Joel and his motley crew.  Something about Joel killing his son.”

Doberman was aware that Magali Landborn had killed Martin Thane in the bowels of Yolk Factory 14, but to tell the surgeon so was to give away his position as an insurgent.  If there was anything he had learned from Anna, it was how to lie by omission.  “Sounds like fun.  He need an extra hand?”

“You’ve flown ships?” the doctor asked, looking over at him dubiously.

“I have that training,” Doberman said.  Though he had been happy to cede that position to Mona Rohrer, the Babies’ official ‘pilot’.  Though the thirteen-year-old’s forte was ship construction, theory, and aerophysics, she’d already piloted her tiny, hand-built interstellar craft around the system and back.  Alone.

“Well, I’m sure they’d take you.  Geo wants to make a statement to those idiots down there disrupting the Yolk trade.  Show those collies who’s pulling the strings around here.”

“By flying against Magali Landborn,” Doberman said, knowing that Geo had already offered to back Magali and the Fortuners—that he was doing the opposite was indeed news to him.

The surgeon snorted.  “By obliterating her.  They’re sending everything they’ve got at that gun-toting tramp.  You know she’s actually ‘prophesized’ to lead Fortune to freedom, right?  By an imbecile with the Wide, I hear.”  He cackled, then hawked up a glob of phlegm and spat it in the trash beside the operating table.  “Geo wants the woman alive, if we can manage it.  A whole bag of nodules to anyone who can bring her in.  Word is he’s gonna take her home and make her his pet.”

From what Doberman knew of Magali Landborn, he didn’t think that would end well for Geo.  “So when do they need me?” Doberman offered.

“Tomorrow,” the doctor said.  “I overheard a couple of them talking in the diner.  They’ve got over two hundred smugglers together.  The Coalition’s giving them guns—then they’re gonna hit those collie idiots with everything they’ve got.”

“I heard there was some issue with comm…” Doberman offered.

The doctor gave him a frown.  “Actually, yeah.  There’s calls coming in all over the Orbital that people are acting nuts or just fell over dead.  I actually thought that was what happened to you guys—you just got in line and paid quicker than everyone else.”

“Mind if I see those payment records?” Doberman asked, thinking he could possibly use that information to track down their mystery rescuer.  And there was no doubt in Doberman’s mind that the kid had saved both of their lives.  The blast would have incinerated Anna and quite possibly wiped all of his programming, if not melted his circuitry.

The doctor, however, gave him an extremely suspicious frown.  “Why would you want that?”

“Just curious which account he used,” Doberman said.

“Then ask him,” the doctor said, flipping Anna’s cut-open shirt back over her chest.  “And when you see him again, tell him it’s double for drop-offs.”  He picked up his bloody rag again and wiped the rest of the gore from his hands.  “It’ll take maybe ten, fifteen minutes to figure out if she’ll pull through.  If she does, you’ve got another hour before I want you outta here.  I’ve got other patients to treat.”

“And if she doesn’t?” Doberman asked.

“I dump her body in the trash and you leave a lot sooner,” the doctor replied.

Doberman, who was currently monitoring Anna’s biometrics, knew she had a high chance of survival, unless the nannite cream that the doctor had used was composed of sub-par technologies.  He magnified on the cream, then blinked when he realized it was composed of only third-degree nannites—the kind used to seal small cuts on hands, elbows, and knees.

“You didn’t use first-degree nannites,” Doberman commented.

“You think the guys who come in here have the kind of money it takes to pay for top-grade nannites?” the doctor snorted.  “It’s a colonist kid.  Who gives a shit about a beggar kid?  Of course I gave her the third-degree stuff.”

“My friend paid for the best,” Doberman said, taking a leap.

The man snorted and shook his head.  “I only give the good stuff to Geo or his lieutenants.  They’re the only ones who pay in Yolk.”

Interesting, that their mysterious benefactor seemed to be hooked up with smugglers.  Doberman decided to look into that later, once he was certain that Anna would survive.

Five minutes passed, then ten, and Anna’s biorhythms did not stabilize.  At fifteen minutes, her remaining respiratory functions began to degrade.

“Do you have any of the good stuff on hand?” Doberman asked, watching Anna begin to turn blue.  “First degree wound technology?  Preferably injectable?”

“It’s always on hand,” the doctor scoffed.  “But you don’t have enough money to buy even half a dose of—”

Doberman raised his arm and unsheathed all sixteen of his guns, grenade launchers, and lasers in an unmistakable bristling of metal and weaponry, all clearly aimed at the surgeon’s face.

The man swallowed.

“Immediately, if you would be so kind.”

The surgeon stumbled over to his shelving unit, face fixed on the armaments that followed his path across the room.

“This century would be nice,” Doberman said, as his friend’s heart began to stutter.  “If she dies, you become paste.”

“Shit,” the surgeon said.  “Shit!”  He fumbled through his jars and vials, dragged one of the more expensive-looking ones out, ran over to another storage unit, grabbed a syringe, and filled it with the whitish solution.  Then, dashing, he ran across the room, found Anna’s arm, and jabbed the needle into a vein, plunging the nannites into her bloodstream.

Which would have worked, had her heart been beating.

“Shit!” the man cried, floundering around like a panicking whale.  “I can’t give her CPR—I’ll punch right into her chest.  He started haphazardly pawing at the bloody instruments on the table beside her.”

“Excuse me.”  Doberman bodily lifted the whimpering man up and set him aside.  Then, with precise, directional shocks, he re-stabilized her heartbeat, which pushed the higher-grade nannites through her system, which immediately began to close the wounds that their inferior cousins hadn’t quite conquered.  Once she was breathing normally again, he found the doctor’s needle and thread and began stitching up her cut-open shirt—he knew she wouldn’t want to leave the room naked.

When Anna opened her eyes, she groaned and immediately sat up, holding her head.  Within an instant, her brown eyes found the doctor huddled against one side of the room and hardened.  “Let me guess,” she wheezed, “the bozo used a shitty, third-degree nannite cocktail before deciding to mend the error of his ways and give me something stronger, which only made the competing bots fight each other as much as mend my wounds, leaving me feeling like I’m the site of World War VI.”

“That is correct, Anna,” Doberman said.  “You were suffering from a badly damaged lung and a rapidly-progressing tension pneumothorax, but his choice of nanotechnology was not cleared for anything more complicated than a six-inch incision in a major muscle group less than an inch deep.”

“Listen, I have a practice to run,” the man said.  “The girl is obviously going to live.  If you don’t mind…”  He gestured towards the door pointedly.  “I have other people needing attention.”

“What, so you can screw them over, too?”  Anna slid off the bench, groaning.  Her breath, Doberman noticed, was ragged.  “What the hell did he do to me?”  She glanced down at her shirt, which Doberman had stitched back together.  Frowning, she pulled up her shirt to reveal the pink scar that went from groin to sternum.  Then, lifting her head, her eyes fell on the dirty rag, then the previously-used implements, frowning.  “Dobie, how bad was the lung damage?”

“A third of it was severed on the right side,” Doberman said.

“You’re telling me he cracked my chest open and my lung was cut in half and he gave me third-degree wound nannites.”

“Yes, Anna.”

Anna cocked her head.  “Dobie, crack open his chest, remove a third of his right lung and then administer his third degree nannites.  If he lives, allow him to re-administer first-degree fleshbinders.”

She started towards the door, then paused to glance back.  “Oh, and make it fast.  Since we’re already in the Junkyard, I wanna have a chat with Geo.”  Then she departed, never bothering to listen to the doctor’s screams as Doberman complied with her requests.

Fortune's Folly
“Who’s the little shit, and why did you bring her tiny germy body into my office?”  Geo slapped his holoparch down on his desk in disgust, already pissed that he couldn’t get into contact with half his pilots for the upcoming raid on the colonists.  It was almost like everyone within range of a working comm system had simply vanished.  Add that to the fact that this unarmed, dirt-covered moron had somehow gotten past security and he felt like stabbing something.  Even worse, the grimy scavenger’s equally filthy child was completely covered in fresh blood, and it was probably leaving smears of Junkyard urchin disease all over his personal chambers.

Typical tube vagrants.  They were probably going to ask him for money for nannites to cure their ailing wife and mother, then go spend it on booze…  Geo reached for the button for his guards.

“This is Anna Landborn,” the stranger said, calmly gesturing at his little girl.  “She would like to have a chat with you.”

The name sounded familiar, but Geo couldn’t place it because he was so totally shocked that a guy would have the titanium cajones to try and get him to give a career pep-talk to his kindergartener.  “Excuse me, you colossally stupid fuck?” Geo managed.

“She only wants a few minutes of your time,” the man replied, almost apologetically.

Snorting, Geo pressed the button a few times, intending to have his bodyguards blacken him up a bit before sending him away.

His bodyguards arrived from the break-room at a run, an impressive rush of six huge, burly young men that Geo had wooed over from the Coalition barracks.  Without even flinching, the stranger stepped in front of the child and lifted both arms.  His forearms, biceps, and shoulders instantly folded outward, expanding into the unmistakable bristle of dozens of different shotguns, machine-guns, grenade launchers, Laserat, electron pulse, and laser-sights, all aimed on Geo and his employees.  The six burly men stumbled to a halt.

“Please leave,” the little girl said, stepping from behind her father’s legs.  “Dobie’s a very good shot, and I’m still covered in gore from the last time.”

Their wide eyes fixed on Dobie’s guns, then on Anna’s glistening red shirt, Geo’s guards carefully put their guns down and backed out of the room.

“And close the door behind you!” Anna called at them.

Geo heard the damned traitors follow instructions—and then lock it.

“So,” the little girl said, fixing her eyes on Geo, “you and I are going to have a talk.”  She gave him a cute, childlike smile.  “But don’t worry.  I’ll speak slowly, so that even a fat albino scum-monkey should be able to understand.”

Geo blinked, his heart pounding.  Landborn…  Why did that name sound familiar?  He accessed the chip in his head, found the entry, and immediately shut the file again, his heart pounding.

“Oh fuck me,” Geo whispered.  His eyes went momentarily to the big guy with the nondescript face, but dropped back to Anna a moment later.

“Yes,” Anna said, giving him a vicious smile.  “Fuck you.”  She gestured to her friend, who had lowered his arms again, all the weaponry folding perfectly back under the skin in under a second.  “Dobie, here, is going to remove a testicle for each time you lie to me…and he’s very good at determining a lie.  You could almost call it a sixth sense.  And a seventh.  And an eighth…”  She turned back to him, grinning.  “Ready, Mr. Thane?”

Geo felt his heart begin to pound like a jackhammer.  Anna Landborn was a myth.  A malignant little wraith that had been haunting the Orbital for the past couple of weeks, and the surface of Fortune for a few years before that.  He had seen what she had done to Tatiana Eyre close-up, and it had left him with goosebumps.  If there was one name whispered more fearfully in the dark corners of the Junkyard than Geo’s own, it was that of Anna Landborn.

A seven-year-old child that not even the Orbital cameras could nail down.

“Fuck,” he whispered.  He started to stand, but the seven-year-old girl said, “Sit down, please, Mr. Thane.  Dobie enjoys practicing on moving targets, and he has a new explosive round that is delightful to behold.  Kind of like abstract art.”  She gave him a creepy little grin.

Swallowing, Geo sat.  She couldn’t know, he thought.  She couldn’t possibly know…

“So,” Anna said, beginning to casually pace the room, “when you killed my father, did you gain any financial or political benefit from it?”

Geo’s heart constricted, realizing how totally screwed he was.  He swallowed, glancing at Anna’s companion, wondering if he could get out of the room before he got blown away.  Deciding against it, Geo thought of the outrageous amounts of money the Nephyr had paid him to kill David Landborn.  It had been the easiest seven million of his life, and the Coalition had even given him access to restricted ship technologies in return for his cooperation.  “I…”

“I take that back, Dobie,” Anna said, her eyes narrowing.  “If the corpulent maggot says anything that could be construed as a mistruth, you’ll take half a testicle at a time.”

“Financial,” Geo said.  “Money and resources.”

“And approximately how much money did you earn for killing him?” Anna continued, resuming her calm march across his office, hands clasped nonchalantly behind her back.

“Only seven million,” Geo gritted.  “The real prize was the off-the-books tech they gave me to soup up my ship.”  Geo watched her reaction tensely.  All he had to do was make it through this meeting, then he would be on that ship until his forces assisted in the raid against the colonists, and Fortune once more belonged to the Coalition.

“Define ‘they,’” Anna said.

Geo thought about accessing his chip and giving her the dictionary definition of the word, just to be a wise-ass, but then he realized he’d probably lose half a testicle for it, and decided to change tactics.  “It’s a Nephyr splinter group.  They’re responsible for hunting down defectors.”

Anna stopped pacing to frown at him.  “Defectors?  From the Nephyrs?”

Geo wasn’t exactly sure, since David Landborn hadn’t been old enough to be in any of the major wars, and as far as Geo had known, he’d never been part of the Coalition Space Force, and he certainly wasn’t a fucking Nephyr.  He’d even had some of his guys look the man up, searching for some dirt.  They’d found nothing.  Nada.  Jack and Shit, and Shit fled town.  He hesitated, knowing that if his answer displeased the little wretch, he could very well lose body parts.

“Dobie, I’m thinking perhaps we should also have a penalty for responses that take more than three seconds to begin,” Anna said, watching Geo closely.  “How about a pinkie per offense?”

“That sounds fair, Anna,” her companion replied.

“I don’t know!” Geo cried.  “I did some checking up on Dave back when I was just starting to work with him—I like to have a solid history on the guys I’m dealing with.  Except…  David didn’t have one.  I mean, there wasn’t even a record of him arriving on Fortune.  Everyone knows he landed with Daytona Dae, but there’s no pictures, no nothing.  It’s like your father just appeared here.”

“So you have no idea who he was before,” Anna said.

Geo detected the trap and narrowly avoided it.  “He was military trained,” he offered.

“Obviously,” Anna growled.  “The neurotic chimp wouldn’t let me eat breakfast before I’d done fifty pushups.”  She started pacing again.  “So aside from money, what kind of resources did they give you?”

“Ship tech,” Geo said quickly.  “An undetectable hull, a black market super-ops engine, weapons that can take down operators…  Put my ship right up there with Honor.”

Anna stumbled to a halt and turned, frowning.  “What kind of no-name colonist is worth that kind of equipment?”

Geo had wondered that same thing, when the Nephyr had walked into his office and made the proposal.  He had dropped a vial of a strange drug that not even Geo had heard about on his desk and said to put it in David’s food to ‘keep him docile.’  Geo, of course, had sold that drug to Cheyenne Ross at a premium—two hundred grand for the vial—and had given Martin a much cheaper replacement to subdue the fool.

“Your father, apparently,” Geo said, remembering how odd it had been.  Steele had been quite specific on the way he wanted Geo to kill David, almost cult-like specific, the kind of thing that brought to mind offerings of blood and a ring of black candles and animal sacrifice.  Creepy shit.  At first, Geo hadn’t believed the man really was a Nephyr like he claimed—he hadn’t glittered—but then the first million down-payment had arrived in his bank account and it really hadn’t mattered much to him after that.

“Adopted father,” Anna replied.  “I cross-checked my family’s genetic codes when I was five because I wanted to prove my sister was a mistake.  I was half right.  Both of us were adopted.  Good ol’ Mom and Dad had a Very Big secret, and you’re gonna tell me what that was or you’re going to lose your capacity to have children much before your time.”

Geo blinked.  He’d been thinking about how the little bitch was going to fry the moment the Coalition retook Fortune with his help, only days from now, so he wasn’t ready for her ultimatum.  He quickly tried to think of something to placate her.

“I think your dad was older than he let on,” Geo said.  “Once, when Dave got drunk, he told one of my guys that he’d fought in the war against the Tritons.”

Anna hesitated, frowning.  “He did?”

“When I first met him, almost thirty years ago, I heard him use a few references that didn’t make sense, too,” Geo added.  “Old stuff.  Mostly military terms that aren’t used anymore, archaic laws and tech that no longer apply, a couple times referencing being in battles nobody’s ever heard of, then clumsily covering it up with a different place, different battle.  It made me curious, so I looked it up,” Geo said.  “There was an entry with his DNA dating back to midway through the Triton wars, but all the information had been wiped, even his picture.”

Anna was watching him very carefully, now.  Geo thought he’d made an impression, but then she said, “You’re telling me you were working with my father for nearly thirty years and you killed him for, what, fifty million in fancy goods?”

“He made a deal with Runaway Joel,” Geo said, shrugging.  “Was smuggling Yolk behind my back, outside our arrangement.  These things happen.  It’s just business.”

Anna seemed to consider that, then nodded.  “Dobie, take his pinkie.  Down to the knuckle, please.  For business purposes only.”

Lightning-fast, Anna’s companion crossed the room and grabbed Geo by the wrist in an iron grip.  Then, before Geo even had a chance to take a breath and scream, the man’s finger became a blade and he had cut Geo’s left pinkie off at the base of the knuckle.

“Don’t scream,” Anna said, as Geo opened his mouth in startled horror.  “I have a headache.  Probably the blood loss.  I already downed three sodas on the way here, and all those third-degree nannites are still demanding more liquids.”

Shuddering as blood began dribbling from where he gripped his severed pinkie stub in his fist, Geo swallowed down the scream in his throat.

Anna bent down to pick up the twitching digit where it had tumbled to the floor, then tossed it onto the desk in front of Geo, smearing blood on his holoparch. “Now,” Anna said.  “Let’s try this again.  Who is my real father, and why did he leave my sister and me with a paramilitary asshole on Fortune?”

“I don’t know who he is,” Geo babbled.  “I always thought it was David.”

“So you would willingly leave two children fatherless for fifty million credits in illicit goods,” Anna insisted.  “Dobie, take his other pinkie.”

Geo tensed and tried to fight it this time, but it was like fighting the hydraulic power of a ten megaton machine.  He screamed as the blade came out and his finger came off.

“Please!” Geo sobbed.  “I’m telling you the truth!”

“I know,” Anna said.  “I said I’d take testicles for mistruths.”  She smiled sweetly.  “I never said anything about what I’d take if your answers displeased me.”

“You little—” Geo choked on his snarl, realizing that to finish his sentence was to ensure himself losing more parts.

Anna gave him a satisfied smile when it was clear he would not continue.  She returned to pacing as he pressed his spurting stumps against his shirt to slow the bleeding.  “Now,” she said.  “You are an arrogant, selfish, money-grubbing leech sucking on the ass of society.”  She stopped to look at him.  “Aren’t you?”

“Yes,” Geo managed, wanting to kill her.

“You were going to backstab us when we attacked Rath, throw all of your forces at us while we threw everything we had at the Coalition.  Weren’t you?”

Geo got an icy wave of goosebumps.  If the colonists knew he was playing both sides, he was as good as dead.  He held his tongue, seething inside as he watched her pace.

Anna looked back after his moment, grinning as if his silence pleased her.  “Of course you were.  So you know what I did?”

“I’d like to know where you’re getting your information,” Geo growled.  So he could eviscerate the bastard and throw his wife and kids into a bog.

I got my information,” Anna said, “by hacking your brainstem.”

Geo froze and swallowed, hard.  The guy who’d installed the hardware had assured him it was totally unhackable, its processes completely encrypted by the best Aashaanti sentog the Bounds had to offer.  It was the only piece of braintech he’d adapted to his daily life, and it had taken his son Martin sixteen years to convince him to get one.  That Anna Landborn had hacked into his very brain left Geo feeling profoundly vulnerable, violated beyond anything he’d ever experienced before.

“Now,” Anna said, “we were talking about your plans to betray Fortune, and, in doing so, betray me.  What do you think I did, once I unraveled your moronic scheme?”

Geo thought of all the pilots that had gone silent and felt the wellings of dread sucking the energy from his guts.  “You killed them,” he whispered.

“I killed them!” Anna agreed, clapping her hands together.  “All of your guys.  Boom.  Dead.”  She made a little exploding gesture around her head.  Then her look went deadly cold.  “You do it again, you become my pale, maggoty mind-slave.”

Geo’s heart was pounding so hard he couldn’t think.

“You see,” Anna continued, “as a bloated white pustule sucking up sustenance from the cheesy crack of civilization, you do still have some use to me.  For instance, you can give me the names of the Twelve.”

Geo’s heart hammered to a sudden stop.  How could she possibly know the existence of the underground Yolk-running group?  They were the titans of the Yolk trade, and they killed anyone who leaked info about their operation.  No, beyond killed.  If there was anyone Geo was more afraid of than this demonic child, it was the Twelve and their leader, Sirius.

“You can go get fucked, little girl,” Geo said.

Anna actually blinked at him.  “Dobie?”

“It wasn’t a lie, Anna,” the man—robot??—replied.

Anna seemed to consider that, and Geo tensed, waiting for her next act of horror.

“Ears aren’t necessary,” Anna said finally.  “Take one of those.”

Geo lurched up and away, but he couldn’t stop her companion from grabbing him by the head and slicing away his left ear.

“I only deal with one of them!” Geo babbled.  He could feel blood rushing down his cheek and the side of his neck, and he was starting to realize she was just as insane as the tube-hustlers claimed.  “Cheyenne Ross.  She buys a large portion of my raw Yolk, the stuff I don’t send to the Core with smugglers.”

“Cheyenne Ross,” Anna said thoughtfully.  “How do you communicate with her?”

“She sends a kid,” Geo said.  “A courier.  He takes the nodules away and I get a deposit in my account.”

Anna’s eyes sharpened.  “Same kid every time?”

“Yes!” Geo cried.  “Same one.  Cobrani, but with blue eyes.  Weird white streak in his hair.”

“Wardenburg Syndrome,” Anna said, sounding thoughtful.  “Lots of Cobrani have it.  High percentage of the recessive genetic in the original colonists.  Rare to find a Cobrani out here, though…  They’re shit-poor.  Only one I ever saw was trapped in a Yolk camp with the Wide.”  She glanced at Dobie.  “You seen any Cobrani kids recently?”

“No, Anna,” Dobie said.

Anna grunted.  “When’s he show up to make the exchange?”

Geo hesitated.  “He shows up…whenever he wants to.  I give him all the nodules I have and he leaves.  I get paid a few days after, based on the amount of Yolk that was refined out of it.”

“So Cheyenne’s on the Orbital somewhere,” Anna said.  “Dobie, make a note.”

“Yes,” Geo lied, remembering the way Quad often appeared out of nowhere.  “She’s gotta be around Fortune somewhere.  Too fast for the credits to reach my account otherwise.”

“Mr. Thane is lying,” Dobie said, stopping his heart cold.

Anna halted her pacing and slowly turned back to him, a predatory smile on her face.  “Oh really.”  Still looking at Geo, she said, “Dobie, do we remember what happens to Mr. Thane if he lies to us?”

“He loses half a testicle, Anna,” the man replied calmly.

“So go on,” Anna said, gesturing dismissively.

“Wait!” Geo screamed, floundering backwards to the floor as Dobie lunged towards him.  “She’s back in the Core!  I have her Universal ID.  You fucking keep that fucker the fuck back or you don’t fucking get anything.”

Anna gave him a merciless look.  “Mr. Thane, I really don’t believe you are in a position to make demands.  Half, Dobie.  But cleanly.  And cauterize it after.  It is, after all, just business.”

Geo screamed himself hoarse as the man complied.

“Now,” Anna said, as her companion finished and Geo curled up on himself on the floor, “You will tell me everything you know about this woman, and give me a way to contact her directly, or you will lose the rest of your ability to produce your sad, lackluster spawn in anything resembling a natural manner.”

In a flood, Geo told her everything he knew about Cheyenne.  How she was fat, how she was one of the Twelve, how she was of the Second House, how her House had rights to distribute Yolk to eight of the hottest planets in the Core, how she appeared to be the Founder’s right hand, how she had been one of the very pillars of the illegal Yolk black market system for as long as it had existed.

“Was she the one who contracted you to kill my dad?” Anna asked.

No,” Geo babbled, because he was terrified of lying to her, now.

“Who gave you the kill contract?” Anna demanded.  “I want a name.”

“He was a colonel,” Geo babbled.  “Steele…  Something like that.”

Anna seemed to recognize it.  “Steele is harassing eggers, not hunting defectors.  Dobie, take the other—”

No!” Geo screamed.  “It’s his cover.  His cover.  He was here to find David.  The whole time.  He came all the way out here to find David!”

Anna cocked her head.  “You’re telling me that not only was my father worth fifty million in illicit goods, but he had a high-ranking Nephyr take a ten-year round-trip to come execute him?”

“He was also researching a kid.  Jersey Brackett.”

Anna’s eyes sharpened.  “What about him?”

“The kid had been approached by the leader of an organization that preys on Nephyrs.  It’s like the counterpart to the Nephyr splinter-group.  I think they’re at war.”

Anna squinted at him.  “I’m sorry.  An organization that preys on Nephyrs?  I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“Then go ask a Nephyr,” Geo sobbed.  “This guy’s their boogey-man.”

“Jersey Brackett’s their boogey-man?” Anna demanded, clearly disbelieving.

“No,” Geo sobbed, terrified she would think he was lying, “the leader of the AlphaGens.  His name’s Sirius.  The guy killed all three of Brackett’s Nephyr buddies in like two seconds in a confrontation in the Core, totally eviscerated them with a staff, but left Brackett alive.  Spent like an hour just sitting there, talking to him.  It was all on camera and everything.  Steele was sent here to find out why.  Please—that’s all I know.  Steele skinned the spies I sent to watch him.”

Anna seemed to consider that a moment, then started pacing again.  “So to summarize, Geo, you killed my adoptive father for what was essentially fifty million credits.”

“Yes,” Geo whimpered.

She nodded and continued pacing.  “You made the kill contract with a Nephyr who seems to be hunting defective Nephyrs—and, for no apparent reason, my adoptive father.”

“Yes,” Geo whispered.

Anna glanced at Dobie.  “He lying?”

“No, Anna,” Dobie responded, “though his biorhythms are spiking wildly due to my last extraction.”

Anna chuckled.  “I’ll bet.”  She continued pacing, a thoughtful frown on her face.  Geo simply lowered his head to the floor and sobbed.

Eventually, Anna stopped.  “So you’re telling me there’s a top-secret arm of the Nephyrs that hunts down defectors and kills them.”

“Yes,” Geo cried.

“But they were hoping Jersey would lead them to some bigger fish.”  She cocked her head.  “Did they think my adoptive father was that bigger fish?  The big fish, maybe?”

“I don’t know,” Geo whined.

Anna grunted.  “Where’s his body?  I want to see it for myself.”

Geo froze.  “I…”  He had gone back to retrieve the body, to show it to Steele, but it wasn’t where Martin had left it.  There hadn’t even been blood.  Geo would have thought Steele was trying to cheat him if the ropes hadn’t still been dangling against the tree.

Anna narrowed her eyes and cocked her head expectantly.

“…couldn’t find it,” Geo whispered.

Anna waited.

“Steele wanted to buy the head afterwards, so I told him where it was.  He came back pissed off, telling me the body was gone, so I went to look.”  In actuality, Steele had told him to cut up Landborn’s corpse into sixty-one different pieces—he had been extremely specific—with each piece placed at least six hundred meters from the head, but Martin had confessed later that the smell had been too intense to carry out such a request and he had left Landborn tied to a tree with his guts hanging out, instead.

She blinked.  “You…sold…the head of a dead man.”  This seemed to confuse her.  “Why?”

“Steele wanted it!” Geo cried.  “Please.”

“Dobie, if he says the word ‘please’ again, cut off a hand.”  Anna began pacing again.  “So the body’s at large.  How did you kill my adoptive father?”

“Eviscerated him,” Geo managed.  Then, quickly, he added, “But my son did it.  I had no part in his death.”

“Nice try,” Anna laughed.  “Your beloved Martin did it on your orders.”  But, to Geo’s overwhelming relief, she just continued pacing.  Methodically, she asked, “Were there any metal parts inside the body that caught your son’s attention?  Anything odd?  Was David human?”

Her questions reminded Geo of the odd comment his son had made in passing, while laughing with Geo over a beer.  Fucker smelled like formaldehyde on the inside, Martin had said, shaking his head.  Like a damn preserved frog.  Formaldehyde and ozone.

“He stank on the inside,” Geo said.  “Like a frog.”

Anna frowned.  “Like a what?”

“A preserved frog!” Geo sobbed.  “Please!”  Then, realizing what he had said, he just collapsed into despondent sobs.

But when the robot lunged forward to lop off a hand, Anna said, “Wait.”  She was still scowling.  “You mean like formaldehyde?  He smelled like formaldehyde on the inside?”

“That’s what Martin said,” Geo whimpered.  “When he pulled his intestines out, he had to stop gutting him and walk away to get air, it was so strong.  Like formaldehyde mixed with ozone.”

“How inconvenient,” Anna replied.  But she was scowling, now.  She looked at him for much too long.

From his position sprawled on the floor, Geo saw a gun stashed under his bookshelf, one that he’d put there several years ago and forgotten about.  His heart started to slam like acidic fire in his chest as he realized it was within reach.

“Geo,” Anna said finally, “I want you to keep in mind what you really are—a leech.  You’re a throbbing parasite stuck to the back of some very smart people.  People who can walk into your home and make you bleed, just by saying a few words.  Because you are a leech, and because you can do nothing but sustain yourself on the glory of others, we didn’t invite you or your loser friends to the conquering of Rath.  We took matters into our own hands, and we’re gonna have Rath in the course of an afternoon.  Next time you think about betraying us, I want you to think really hard.  Because I’ll kill you, Geo.  And I’ll enjoy it.”

Coming from the mouth of a seven-year-old girl, the words left an icy stake in his heart, curdling his guts.

“Further,” Anna said, “we’ll be taking that fancy ship, as payment for the fact you betrayed my father.”

Geo’s breath caught, realizing he could use that to destroy the little bitch.  Mustering as much of a whine as he could, he said, “But that ship is everything I have…”

Anna grinned.  “Geo, from what little you know about me, do you honestly think I care?”

“No,” Geo whimpered, but he was laughing inside.  All he had to do was give her the blue duckie, knock her out, then put a beam through the big guy’s brain.  Then he’d have Anna Landborn to himself for years to come.

“So?” Anna said.  “Where’s the peg?”  Her eyes roved his office, obviously looking for the cylindrical key that came with every expensive boat, a way to prevent theft by adding an extra layer of protection and forcing users to have a physical object on hand in order to make changes to the ship’s register.

“Please don’t take my ship,” Geo whimpered, trying to sound as pathetic as possible—which actually wasn’t hard, considering what the bitch had done to him.

Anna sighed deeply.  “Fine.  Your nuts or your ship.  Decide.”

“Ship!” Geo howled.  “Ship, Aanaho the ship!  Peg’s in the safe in my desk.”

“Dobie?” Anna asked.  “Is there a safe in his desk?”

“Indeed, Anna,” the man said, without moving.

“Does it look unpleasant?” Anna asked.

“Very.  Looks like it requires a key to access.”

“What else has it got in it?” Anna asked.

“Looks like refined Yolk, palladium ingots, and two dozen large crystals.”

Anna frowned at mention of Geo’s crystals.  “He’s got crystals in a safe?  What kind of crystals?”

Anna’s companion was silent.

Anna turned to look.  “Dobie?”

Her companion was staring at the back of Geo’s desk, a tiny frown on his face.


“I’m…”  He hesitated.  “…Not sure.”

This time, Anna frowned and turned to face her friend.  “What do you mean, you’re ‘not sure?’”

“I…don’t know, Anna,” Dobie replied.  “Their composition is…unlike…anything I’ve…ever seen.”

“Heh.  You can hear it frying his processors.”  That seemed to excite her.  “Where’s the key, Geo?” Anna prodded.

“Here,” Geo croaked, pulling the blue duckie and its trapped key-shaft from under his shirt.  He tossed it to Anna.

Anna eagerly picked it up and started walking over around the desk, her companion still staring at Geo’s cache on the inside with a perplexed frown.  She stopped when she saw the safe, then whistled.  “Wow.  That looks nasty.  Dobie?”

Her companion did not respond.


The man jerked and looked at her.  “Huh?”

“You wanna do the honors?”

Geo giggled inside.  The man had to be a robot, so the blast would take him down like a ton of lead bricks.  Then, while he rebooted, Geo would put a few rounds in his brainbox and that would be that.

“Of course, Anna,” Dobie said, walking around the desk.  He took the blue duckie from Anna, then knelt and started to feed the key into the slot.  Geo watched, enraptured, as his vengeance slid closer a millimeter at a time.

Anna glanced over her shoulder to give Geo a smug look, but frowned when she saw Geo’s face.

“Dobie stop.”

Dobie immediately stopped, key only half-inserted.  Geo suddenly felt like acid was dousing the inside of his chest.

“Pull it out.”

Her companion obeyed.

“Give it to me.”

Still kneeling, he dropped it into Anna’s hand.  Anna turned from him and tossed it to Geo, bouncing the key by his nose.  “You do it.”

Geo swallowed, eying the key.  He knew what would happen if he put that key into the slot—and he knew what would happen if he didn’t.  He lunged for the gun he’d stuffed under his bookcase.

Dobie caught his hand before he could pull the weapon from under the bookcase and snapped his wrist.  Then his forearm.  Then his upper arm.  As Geo was screaming, Dobie carefully picked up the weapon—a good Laserat he’d taken from one of his less productive smugglers before he killed him—and put it on the desk for Anna to look at.

“I see,” Anna said, her cold gaze on Geo.  “Dobie, find the real key.”

The man glanced around the room and, in less than four seconds, he had located the pink duckie under Geo’s chair.  He pulled it out of its secret compartment and handed it to her.

Then, giving Geo a smug look, Anna inserted the key in the lock and turned it.  Geo sobbed as the safe door swung open, revealing his treasures.

Anna tossed the pink duckie aside and whistled at the softly glowing, sunset-orange hexagonal crystals.  “Dobie, what are those?”

“I’m unable to make a comprehensive analysis at this time, Anna,” her companion said.

Anna turned to look at Geo.  “Geo, pumpkin, what are those?”

“They call them spirit crystals,” Geo babbled.

“Who’s they?” Anna demanded.

“Treasure hunters,” Geo sobbed.

Anna stared at the softly-glowing, hand-length crystals for several minutes before she said, “Why have I never heard of them?”

“They’re rare,” Geo sobbed.  “Too unstable.”

“Unstable for what?”

“I don’t know,” Geo whined.  “I won them in a bet like thirty years ago.  They’re pretty.”

“You’ve got alien power-cores locked away in your safe because you think they’re pretty?!” she demanded.

Geo could only nod, because none of the analyses he’d funded on them had actually produced any results.

Anna grunted.  “Dobie, grab them.  We’ll take the Yolk and the palladium, too.”

Geo was beyond caring what they took.  He only wanted them to leave—preferably after putting a bullet in his brain.  The idea that his people would see him like this was too much for him.  He waited, crying into the floor as Anna and her companion emptied his safe into one of his wadded-up nodule sacks in the corner.

“Right,” Anna said, once his safe was empty.  “Thanks for the stuff, Geo ol’ buddy.  I think it even starts to pay back some of that blood money you owe me.”  She grinned and squatted beside him to pat his cheek.  “Next time I come, that safe better be full.  None of this half-assed shit.”

Geo could only whimper his misery.

Standing up, Anna saluted.  “So until next time, my corpulent friend!”  She turned and walked out, allowing her companion to follow with most of Geo’s worldly assets.  At the door, she paused and called back, “And remember—it better be full!”  Then his tormentor was gone, leaving him alone with his severed body parts.

CHAPTER 26: Separation Anxiety

Fortune's Folly

6th of June, 3006

Silver City

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
“Like hell you’re taking my robot.”  After her automatic jolt of panic, Anna was now experiencing a surge of anger that Panner would have the audacity to offer up her property to the rebels—who had built a plan of taking Rath tomorrow around Dobie’s participation—without even bothering to ask her first.

“They need him to access the secured areas,” Pan insisted.

“Maybe you didn’t hear me, Pan,” Anna growled.  “Dobie’s not going anywhere.”

Pan cocked his head at her like the monkey was trying to work out a complicated connect-the-dots.  “Anna, out of fifty-six locations on that base, twenty-four of them require a clearance that Jersey and Tatiana lost the moment they joined our cause.  He’s the only way in.”

“Oh, don’t give me that crap, Panner,” Anna snapped.  “I could hack them in with my eyes closed.”

“He also comes fully equipped with some unique weaponry,” Pan said, giving her a non-apologetic shrug.  “His participation could save hundreds of our guys.  Maybe thousands.”

“Like I give a shit,” Anna said.  “He stays with me.  End of discussion.  Come on, Dobie.  Let’s get back to those genetics experiments.”  She turned to go.

For the first time in the short weeks that she’d known him, Panner seemed to lose his temper.  “Anna, I don’t know what the hell is wrong with you, but your pet could take out half that base in an afternoon.  He’d be saving lives.  Maybe even your sister’s.”

“I don’t care,” Anna said.  “I’m not letting him go anywhere.”

“How long would I have to be gone?” Dobie asked.  It was the first time he had spoken since the conversation started.

Anna froze and twisted.  “Huh?”

Doberman was facing Panner.  “How long would I need to leave her alone in the Orbital?”

“With your help, they could take Rath in sixteen hours,” Pan said to Dobie, as if Anna was no longer even part of the conversation.  “Without it…” Pan grimaced.  “Could be a month.  Longer, if they get word back to the Orbital in time.”

Doberman nodded.  “I’ll go.”

Anna felt a stab of fear cut through her chest and settle in her heart.  It started to pound, until she could hear nothing but her own heartbeat.  “No you won’t,” she blurted.

Doberman turned to her calmly.  “Pan is convinced that my assistance would save lives.  That’s not something that I can ignore in good conscience.”

“Screw your ‘conscience,’ Dobie,” Anna snapped.  “You just cut off half a guy’s nut!  You’re staying with me.”

“My conscience kept me from murdering you the first time we met,” Dobie replied.  “I’d say it’s been working in your favor, on average.”

Oooh.  He would bring that up.  Anna lifted her head.  “That…bomb…we’ve discussed.  What if the signal gets delayed or corrupted because of the distance?”

Panner immediately straightened with nervous alertness.  “Bomb?  What bomb?”

“I never put a bomb in your brain, Anna,” Doberman replied, ignoring the rube.  “I figured it was the only way to get you to avoid sabotaging me long enough for you to realize we could have similar goals.”

Anna narrowed her eyes at him, feeling both relieved and irritated that she’d fallen for it.  “So similar you’re willing to just leave me up here, huh?” she demanded.

“For approximately eighteen hours, including travel time,” Dobie replied.

“Better make it twenty,” Pan said.  “They’ll want to brief you before the fight.”

“I accounted for that,” Dobie said.

Pan raised an eyebrow.  “We ran the attack models.  The Rath incursion’s gonna take at least sixteen.”

“Your models didn’t account for modifications I have made to my person,” Dobie said.

“Now hold on,” Anna growled.  “Dobie, maybe I should go with you.”  The thought of being alone was startlingly nerve-wracking.

“This will be a combat operation,” Doberman said, “and you’re one of the most valuable resources that Fortune has to offer in its struggle against our mindless, sheep-fucking oppressors.”

“When you’re not being a demented shit,” Pan added.

Thank you for that,” Anna snapped.

“Why did you maim him, anyway?” Pan demanded.  “You had a bad morning?”

“He betrayed us,” Anna said.  “I was making sure it wouldn’t happen again.”

“Oh,” Pan laughed.  “You were carefully cultivating his loyalties by destroying a testicle and taking fingers.”

“Yes!” Anna snapped.

“Anna,” Pan said, looking totally serious, “next time you feel the urge to strike out on your own and make political alliances on our behalf, don’t.”

Anna felt a rush of rage at his words.  “He needed to be taught a lesson.”

“I’d say that a lesson requiring plastic surgery is a bit extreme,” Pan replied.  At her furious glare, he sighed.  “Look, Anna.  Without his smugglers, the guy’s basically a lame duck.  You didn’t have to torture him.  We could’ve wooed him to our side relatively easy, once he realized we took down his allies in the Coalition with the same blast that killed his men.”

“He killed my father,” Anna said.

“Adopted father,” Pan countered.  “You said the DNA didn’t match.”

Which Anna had been regretting telling him ever since her discovery.  “You know what?”  She threw up her hands.  “Fine.  If you want to abandon me to go run around playing soldier, Dobie, that’s just fine with me.  I’ll talk to you guys later.  I have important projects that need monitoring.”

“What kind of projects?” Pan prodded.  “Projects like the one that killed three thousand Fortuners yesterday?”

Anna narrowed her eyes.  “They killed ninety percent of Rath, thank you very much.  Better than we predicted.”

“We only needed to take out the combat forces,” Pan retorted.  “But we took out all the support personnel, too.  Cooks, medics, mechanics, janitors—”

“Fuck ’em,” Anna said.  “They were working for the wrong side.  They were lucky I didn’t lock them all in a stadium and make them eat each other to survive.”

“And that’s why everybody loves you so much,” Pan commented.  “What projects are you working on, Anna?”

She felt an immediate rush of indignant fury.  “Why do you care?  You’re not in charge of me.”

“No,” Panner agreed, “but we’re working together on this.  I need to know what you’re doing to keep others from doing the same things and wasting valuable resources.”

Anna laughed at that total line of crap.  “Oh come on, Pan.  You can do better than that.”

Panner sighed.  “Fine, Anna.  That planetary Shriek was utter fucking awesomeness.  We lost three thousand, but they lost almost everything.  Totally opened up Rath and Glassburg for our ground troops.  Hell, even the Orbital’s pretty much a dead zone, now.  I wanna know what you’re gonna do next so we can get behind you on it.”  There was apology in his voice.  Even a little awe.

Anna squinted at him.  “You’re bullshitting me.”

“No way,” Pan said.  “There isn’t anyone in the Bounds that could’ve done that.  I’m just damned glad you’re on my side.”

Anna grunted, but her chest started to swell with pride.  “Yeah, well.”

“So?” Pan demanded, with unconcealed eagerness.  “What’s next?”

Anna gave a little grin.  “We’re gonna make Yolk addictive.”

Fortune's Folly
Once the robot was alone in the room separating Anna’s from the main hall, Quad slipped back into the visible spectrum.  “You didn’t tell Anna about me,” he said, looking Dobie over curiously.  “Why not?”

Doberman glanced up at him, then continued to arm and lubricate his weaponry.  “Didn’t think she needed to know.”

Quad cocked his head at some of the mechanics he saw jutting from Dobie’s arms, then blinked in surprise.  “Whoa, Torian lasers?  On a base Ferris?  That’s sweet!”

“I modified myself,” Doberman replied, sounding almost embarrassed.

Immediately, Quad frowned.  “Then you should have at least some ship-grade stuff.”

The robot shook his head.  “Too much energy required.”

Quad snorted.  In the day and a half since he’d fled from Anna Landborn’s surgeon-to-be, he’d gone back home and blown the top off Whittlepeak Mountain with Mordy, which had really pissed his mom off for some reason, so he’d come back to hang out on Fortune until Cheyenne cooled off.  Poor Mordy hadn’t survived, though.  She’d torn him limb-from-limb and shoved him off the edge of the cliff to tumble down to the rocks below, all the while screaming stuff about Tritons and conscienceless robot killing machines and lessons of history.

“It’s perfectly feasible,” Quad offered.  Technically, talking about tech wasn’t the same as working with tech.  Cheyenne had only grounded him from working with tech.  He could talk about it all he wanted.  “You’re using the wrong energy tech.  Plasma’s bulky, too unstable if you take a hit.  Gotta go with something more compact, like Aashaanti crystal cores.  Those are fun.”  He felt a little thrill just thinking of the ancient Aashaanti city he’d powered up one night when he was bored—all with just one core.  It had exploded afterwards, but that was just because he’d gotten distracted by the latest Megamultiman holovid he’d taken with him and forgot to shut off the reaction before it ate that sector of space.

Doberman stopped oiling his guns and gave Quad an interested look.  “You have access to a useable Aashaanti crystal core?”

“Oh sure,” Quad laughed.  “That’s the easy part.  The hard part is finding something to do with all that power.  I mean, basically you’re dealing with enough energy to fuel a space station for a few million years, all shrunk down to the size of a walnut, and I usually like to go with four or five, just to be safe if you take a hit and one core gets damaged, so we’re looking at seven or eight Deluvan channelers and six Kelthari blast cannons, just to keep the power matrix from consuming itself and creating a miniature black hole inside the vacuum of your chest plating.”

Straightening, Dobie said, “I appreciate that you have some ideas on how to help me modify myself, but I think five Aashaanti power cores might be unnecessary.”

“Not if we upgrade you to ship tech and give you some cool guns,” Quad retorted.  “We could totally keep the grid stable.  Especially if we give you a planet-piler loaded somewhere cool, like your pinkie.”

“I might be interested in one Aashaanti crystal core,” the robot offered.

“But if you got damaged, you’d lose all access to your big guns.”

“I’d take that chance to prevent the possibility of a miniature black hole,” the robot replied.

“Hmm.”  Quad immediately calculated the load he could put on one core, then said, “No, you’ll need at least two to support those Bushetti anti-matter obliterators.”

“I don’t have Bushetti anti-matter obliterators,” Dobie replied, sounding confused.

Yet,” Quad said.  He got up close and sat down beside the much bigger robot, throwing his arm around Dobie.  “Look.  You’ve got options.  I can run some calculations, do some energy analysis, work you up a couple engineering blueprints.”

“My calculating capacity is already much more substantial than yours,” Dobie said.  “I can make my own blueprints.”

Quad grimaced.  “Yeah, uh…”  He reached up and scratched the back of his head, not sure exactly how to break it to the poor guy.  “What’s your processing capability?  One, two decatrams?”

The robot seemed to flinch.  “Point six decatrams.”

“Yeah,” Quad said, wincing.  “Point six, uh…”  He cleared his throat, trying not to embarrass Dobie.  “Thing is, I get this kind of stuff, you know?  So believe me when I tell you I could deck you out like a Triton and you’d take badassery to a whole new level, and I could do it in time for dinner.”  He had to do it in time for dinner, because technically, he was grounded, and if he didn’t show up in two hours, Cheyenne would flip out.  But also technically, if Dobie was asking for help, Quad was doing him a favor, for completely unselfish reasons, and he wasn’t working, he was helping.  Which made it okay, because that’s what Jedi Wolverine would have done.  He helped people.

Dobie cocked his head.  “Can you substantially increase my badassery in the next six hours?”

Six hours?  To tinker with a self-aware robot?  Quad couldn’t stifle his little giggle of glee, having only mentally given himself two for some reason.  “Oh yeah.”  He shuddered delightedly at the thought, already planning it in his head.  “Oh yeah.”

“Though I haven’t mentioned it to anyone, I’m somewhat concerned about the automated security systems I will be encountering on Rath,” Doberman insisted.  “A few of them are equipped with the very same weaponry you were naming earlier, and they definitely have the capacity to destroy me.”

“Dobie.”  Quad put a calming arm around the robot’s shoulder again.  “Trust me.  I got this.”

CHAPTER 27: Quadrocity

Fortune's Folly

7th of June, 3006

Rath (Operations Section)

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
“We’ll definitely need to get rid of the robot somewhere along the way,” Panner said.  “The thing’s giving Anna…opportunities…she didn’t have before.”

“He’s gonna be here any minute,” Magali said.  “What’s our plan?”  The mere idea that Anna was running around with a weaponized Ferris at her beck and call made Magali’s guts twist.  The little monster was bad enough when she couldn’t hide behind mobile Death.  That she had maimed Geo after getting a warning for what she’d done to Tatiana Eyre made Magali want to hunt the miniature shithead down and give her a fifty caliber lobotomy.

“I say we send the robot in first, let him take one for the team.”  Milar loudly slapped his cartridge into place, bristling with guns and body armor. “Then, once he goes down, send in me and the tree ornament to clean up.”

“I don’t see why I can’t just end the robot now,” Jersey said.  “It’d be a cinch.”

“You do that, then Anna will know you did that,” Pan said.  “Believe me.  You don’t want Anna knowing you did that.”

Magali agreed with him.

“Besides,” Milar said, still tucking weapons into holsters and slings all over his body, “There’s plenty of automated weaponry in the more secure sectors that will easily take him out.”

Panner nodded.  “Once he’s out of the picture, we’ll have Peter hack the worst areas, shut down their defense grids, then salvage what we can from the other sectors.  We’ll lose a little time waiting for the robot to go down, but it’ll be worth it in the end.”

“Why take the chance he’ll survive?” Jersey demanded.  “From what I’ve heard of Anna, we don’t want her pet to survive this.”

“Survive?” Panner snorted.  “Do you have any idea what’s in that place?  Once they got a whiff of what Yolk could do, the Coalition threw every technology that they had into making that entire compound impregnable.  It’s a fortress.”

“Still,” Jersey said.  “He’s a robot.  What if he can just waltz right past the security systems?  Hell, what if he’s actually working for them?”

Magali didn’t miss the look of suspicion that Milar gave the Nephyr.  “Wouldn’t be the first time I’d wondered that,” he said.

“Hey,” Magali muttered.  “He’s on our side, Miles.”

“So he says,” Milar retorted.  “He just happened to be on the banks of the Snake when you made it to the bottom?  Yeah, like that would ever happen.”

Jersey bristled.  “I’m not the enemy, Miles.”

“My name is Milar,” Milar growled.  “Use it, cupcake.”

“Oh stop antagonizing him!” Magali cried.  “He saved my life, Miles.”

“Of course he did,” Milar retorted.  “That’s what enemy plants do.”

“You wanna take this outside, big guy?” Jersey demanded, getting between them all hunched up like a territorial gorilla.  “I’d be happy to rip off those pretty dragons to make shoe leather.”

Milar’s amber eyes narrowed, and he, too, partook in the male chest-thumping routine.  “Just give me an excuse, pumpkin.”

“You know what?” Magali snapped, bodily shoving Jersey’s warm, glass-hard body back to the side.  “You still can’t get along?  Fine.  You’re a team.  From now until I say so, you’re working together.”

“Gladly,” Milar said, with the deep satisfaction of someone who had no intention of letting Jersey leave Rath alive.

“If he dies, Miles,” Magali warned, “you might as well go home.”

Milar snorted.  “What, you’re gonna ground me and send me to bed without supper for leaving behind a glittering tree ornament?”

Because,” Magali continued, “I’ll hunt you down and put a bullet in your ear if I ever find out you did it.”

Milar stiffened with palpable shock.  “We’ve known each other for decades, Mag.  You’ve known him for, what, a couple weeks?”

“Three,” Magali said.  “But he’s on our side.  He’s got as much at stake in this war as any of us.”

“She’s right,” Pan said.  “You two should work together.  It’ll do you good.”

“Yeah, screw that.”  Milar spat.  “I’d rather fuck a Chihuahua.”

“One of your favorite pastimes,” Jersey replied.

Milar lifted his gun and, arm out, leveled it between Jersey’s eyes.  Jersey never twitched.  They all knew Milar’s weapon couldn’t make a dent in the Nephyr’s energy skin, but Milar held it there anyway, staring down the barrel at the Nephyr with unmistakable intent to kill.  Jersey stared back in challenge.

“I ever find out you’re betraying us,” Milar said, “I’m going to peel you out of that skin and leave you in a desert to die.”

“Do you have reason to suspect that the Nephyr is betraying us?” an unassuming voice asked from behind them.  “I can neutralize him, if necessary.”

Milar quickly lowered his weapon and turned.  Anna’s pet had arrived exactly on time, wearing an expensive business suit and combat boots.

Along with everyone else, Magali felt her eyes slide down the priceless black silk ensemble to catch on the desert-colored combat boots.  “Uh,” Magali said, “why are you wearing those?”

Puzzled, the robot glanced down at his feet.  “I needed something that wouldn’t slip on linoleum at high speeds.”

“Oh.”  Magali felt a little stupid, staring at a robot.  He appeared to be a young businessman, right at home in a boardroom.  “Then why the suit?”

“I prefer them over the gray Ferris uniforms,” he replied.

He…preferred…them?  Since when did a Ferris prefer anything?

“Yeah, okay sweetie,” Milar said, slamming his gun back into the holster on his hip.  “You’re taking point.  Nephyr and I will be right behind you, backing you up.”

The robot cocked his head at Milar, a tiny frown crossing his brow before disappearing again.  The very human expression gave Magali a sudden wave of goosebumps.

That, Magali thought, is not acting like a robot.  For a horrified moment, she wondered if her sister had taken some tube rat out of the Junkyard and brainwashed him into thinking he was a robot so she could watch videos of him exploding later.  Definitely seemed within the realm of her deviancies.

“Why are you giving me that look?” Milar demanded.

“Because you just lied to me,” the robot responded, still sounding troubled.

Everyone in the tent froze, the tension suddenly thick enough to stifle breathing.

Pan smoothly stepped in.  “What he means, Dobie, is that they’re gonna try to keep up, but it’s unlikely they’ll be able to match your speed once we launch the mission.”

“The Nephyr could match my speed,” the robot said, still frowning at Milar.

“Milar and Jersey are a team,” Pan said.  “Jersey’s gotta hang back to protect him.”

Milar tensed, but didn’t object to Pan’s little lie.

Dobie cocked his head at Pan.  “And now you’re lying to me.”

Pan balked, then went white.

Shit.  Of course her sister would’ve installed some super-senses in her damned pet.

“Look,” Magali said, “the truth is, the two of those bastards are having issues working together, so I put them together on this op.  Jersey will have to wait for Milar, but there probably won’t be a lot of protecting going on.  They’ve got some issues to work out.”

When the robot turned to face her, his blue eyes—they were brown two days ago—were eerily human as they considered.  “I can easily take point,” Dobie said, but there was a reluctance to his words that hadn’t been there before.  “It was what I planned to do anyway.”

“Great,” Milar said, apparently not noticing the odd depth to the robot’s responses.  “Then let’s get moving.  We’ll brief you in the air.”  He grabbed his last rifle off the table and stalked outside, leaving Pan, Jersey, and Magali standing there eying the robot, who was eying them with something that almost resembled suspicion.

“So, uh,” Jersey said.  He gestured to the door, though there was an underlying tension in his movement.  “After you?”

The robot made no move to exit, instead analyzing all of their reactions carefully.  “If you wanted me dead,” the robot finally said, “I’m sure you could have arranged something with fewer lives at stake.”

The three of them went cold.  Pan swallowed and took a step back.  Magali’s fingers automatically went to her hip.

“Either way, you would be disappointed.”  Then, without another word, the robot turned and walked out after Milar.

“You should’ve let me kill it,” Jersey said, once the robot’s footsteps had receded and clunked up the metal ramp of Milar’s ship outside.  Magali barely heard him over the thundering of her own heart.

Because, though the robot had spoken with a man’s voice, Anna’s words had come out.

Anna’s pet was learning from her.

“He won’t survive it,” Pan said.  “Don’t worry.  Peter and I made sure.”

Fortune's Folly
It disturbed Dobie that Pan and the others wanted him dead, but he supposed it wasn’t very surprising, in the grand scheme of things.  His presence made Anna more than what she had been before, and they were afraid of that.  With good reason—Anna Landborn was a monster.

So why was Dobie assisting her when he could have paired off with someone with less apparent deficiencies, like Pan?  Dobie had no doubt that Pan would put him to good use doing things like guarding supply lines and infiltrating the worst bastions of Coalition resistance, but Anna held more innate interest for him.

Put simply, Dobie saw more potential in Anna than in Pan.  While Anna was angry, possibly acting out due to a perceived abandonment from her genetic father at birth, she was also carrying something within her that humanity produced once—or, in this case, possibly twice—in a generation.  Anna was an unimaginable prodigy.  Pan was a manipulator of others.  And, while Pan’s talents could quite possibly override and mitigate Anna’s, Pan wasn’t going to invent the next invisibility silk.

“I heard what they’re trying to do,” Quad said into the tiny receiver he had temporarily installed behind Dobie’s shoulder-blade.  “We gonna let them?”

“I’d prefer to live,” Doberman admitted.

“Damn straight!” Quad said.  “Now.  They’re obviously expecting you to get slowed down by the four muskers in the Lockbox.  You could just level that place and move on.”

“Anna says there’s interesting equipment in the Lockbox she’d like me to bring back,” Doberman said.

“Then take the muskies out with those fancy Kelthari cannons I gave you.  A few hundred terawatts of sheer awesomeness would make those beasties sit down and think about what they’ve done, even if they are Aashaanti-base tech.”

In Doberman’s mind, a few hundred terawatts would be more likely to blow a hole through the side of the building, as well as the neighboring hangar, the forest, the mountain, and eventually incinerate the atmosphere itself and deflate the Orbital beyond, but he didn’t bother mentioning it.  The Kelthari cannon was simply going to be a last resort.  Quad had done other…interesting…things to him in the last six hours, and he was itching to try them out.

So, apparently, was Quad.  “But look on the bright side,” Quad said.  “They’re letting you go first!”

At the same time, Milar said, “All right, robot, you’ve got ten minutes to try and get us a foothold inside Rath, then the rest of us are going to get in there and start the assault.”

Both Magali and Jersey looked uncomfortable—neither had had a chance to tell their friend that Doberman knew full well that they were trying to get him killed.

“Ten minutes,” Doberman said, immediately starting a clock.  “And if I pacify the compound in that time?”

Milar glanced at his two friends and snorted.  “Yeah, right.  You pacify the compound in ten minutes, I’ll get down on my knees and give you Penny.”

Doberman frowned.  “Penny?”

“Penny’s his gun,” Magali said, gesturing at the laser pistol on Milar’s hip.  “Best one on Fortune.”

“Oooooooh, sweet!” Quad cried.  “One of the original Laserats!  I haven’t seen one of those up close before!  Can you get a better look?”

“Can I see it?” Doberman asked, holding out a hand.

“Blow off, robot,” Milar said.  He jerked a thumb to the compound quickly coming into view below them.  “Go make an impression for us.  We’ll be sitting right here, guarding the ship, waiting for your signal.”  Already, anti-spacecraft armaments were firing at them, their explosions peppering the hull.

As soon as the craft dropped under the cloud cover, Milar came up behind him, planted a boot in his back, and said, “Sweet dreams, robot.”  A moment later, the colonist kicked, giving Doberman the option of jumping from the plane, countering the momentum by hurling Milar from the plane, or taking the man’s leg off at the knee.  Deciding to play along, Doberman let Milar shove him from the plane.  He dropped several hundred feet to land in a crouched position, shattering the tarmac on impact.

Instead of continuing its descent to wait for him, as promised, the craft maintained a hover for a few moments, then lifted back out of sight.

“Well, that’s kind of crappy,” Quad noted.  Then, as if the abandonment of their comrades was nothing new, Quad’s excitement immediately came back.  “Hey!  There’s your first target!  Looks like a Gryphon.  Try the metraload omnibeams!  Be sure you get the movement right or it won’t fire!”

Doberman, who had never heard of a metraload omnibeam, had to take a moment to consult the manual that Quad had thoughtfully uploaded with his installations.  Finding the proper weapon, he extruded the tiny, two-millimeter-wide muzzle from under his wrist, pointed while lifting his other arm up in an arc, and fired.

The Gryphon exploded in a thousand tiny fragments that drove themselves into the concrete walls on all sides, while those particles not caught by something solid launched several miles in all directions.  Doberman grunted as a piece of Gryphon shrapnel lodged in his neck, but was stopped by the armored plating Quad had introduced that night.

“Yeehaw!” Quad screamed in his ear.  “I thought that would work!”

“Wait,” Doberman hesitated, frowning.  “Thought?”  He yanked the piece of shrapnel free and immediately his skin healed over it, much faster than his previous nanocomps had done before.

“Well, technically, you’re the first one to test it in real life,” Quad said, “but I tested it in my head already, so it should be good.”

Doberman would have made his qualms with that particular setup known, but a moment later, a pack of seven Gryphons sped around the corner at approximately a hundred and fifteen miles an hour.

“Give them the Uncle pulse!” Quad cried.

Again, Doberman took a nanosecond to consult the manual, then extended a tiny, rigid transmitter the size of a human hair from his forefinger.  He pointed it and fired.

Nothing happened.

“The pose!” Quad cried.  “Strike the pose!”

“Is spinning really necessary?” Doberman demanded.  He didn’t like the fact that it put his back to his enemies.

“It’s part of the move!” Quad shrieked.  “You have to spin, spin!”

Wondering at the technological elements that made spinning necessary, Dobie made an elegant dual swipe with his arms according to the diagrams included in his manual, ending with both flat palms perpendicular to the ground, facing his opponents.

The six-foot-wide arc of ultraviolet light that followed blew Doberman off his feet and onto his back, leaving him blinking up at the dawn-streaked sky.

“Huh,” Quad said.

Collecting himself, Doberman sat up, having to switch to a sonic view because the blast had fried both of his artificial retinas.

Doberman’s would-be opponents were nowhere to be seen.  Instead, a burning, three-foot ditch ran the distance between Doberman and where he had last seen them, with a massive, blackened crater where seven robots had once been.

“That was supposed to be bigger,” Quad said, sounding disappointed.  “Oh well, the Akithuri Quadrino will be more impressive.”

On a hunch, Doberman cut power to all of his new installations by a magnitude of ten.

“Heeey, what’d ya do that for?” Quad whined.  “You haven’t tried the Quadrocity yet.”

“I think perhaps we need to redefine the parameters for ‘close quarters combat,’” Doberman offered.

“Huh?  Why?  They were close enough.”

“I will be indoors, and I want to keep as much of the building intact as possible,” Dobie told him.  “The rebels plan to use it once they’ve removed the Coalition forces.”

“Oh,” Quad said.  “Well, you didn’t mention that part.  Okay.  Reset energy allowances to one six-thousandth.  That should bring it to closer to what you’re looking for.”

Doberman complied.  He fired a test-blast into the concrete bunker beside him, this time leaving only a blackened two-foot hole bored through the solid rock.  He dialed the energy down again by half.

Four more patrols of Gryphons came racing from around the closest two buildings.  Immediately following them were another eight.

“Power the cuttlesilk, Quadratine field and light claws!” Quad cried.  “And crank up the speed!  I didn’t give you that planadium-carbide lacing and those microtec shock absorbers for nothing!”

Bracing himself, Doberman activated the foot-long blue energy claws, which became three scythes of light shooting from between his knuckles on each hand, then charged into the fray.

Fortune's Folly
“Think it’s dead yet?” Milar asked the silent cargo bay.  “It’s been two minutes.”

“It was just a Ferris,” Jersey said.

“It didn’t act like a Ferris,” Magali said.

“There were at least six hundred battle robots guarding that station,” Milar said, popping the safety off his gun.  “Call in the troops for the attack.  It’s dead.”

“Give it another three minutes,” Panner insisted.  “There are four attack-grade altrameter muskers in there that went on auto-alert when Anna killed off most of their base personnel.  It’ll probably take him at least six minutes to get that far into the compound.”

“It’s not getting into the compound,” Milar snorted.  “It’s a Ferris.”

“That’s Anna Landborn’s Ferris,” Panner replied calmly.  “And it knows we planned to kill it.  I’d rather not take any chances on it surviving.”

“He’s right,” Jersey said.  “Anna’s dangerous.  It’ll be bad enough the bot died under our watch.  It’d be even worse if it survives.”

“Oh, can it, Glitter,” Milar snapped.  “I’ll strangle the little shit myself if she opens her mouth.”

“We wait,” Magali said.

Milar sighed deeply, but leaned his head back against the wall of the cargo bay and closed his eyes.

A moment later, on the overhead speakers, Drogire said, “Uh, guys?  You need to see what Peter just hacked his way into.  Like, right now.  Right fucking now.”

Frowning at the panic in the man’s voice, Milar lunged up the stairs and led them at a jog into the cockpit, where Drogire Myr and Peter Green were watching the viewscreen, its image hijacked from a ground-based camera that had zoomed in on a frothing mass of rioting figures on the tarmac of the base airfield.  It took Milar a startled second to realize it wasn’t a riot—it was a battle, and one side had only one fighter.

“Oh my God,” Magali whispered.  She seemed to be the only one who hadn’t lost the ability to speak.  Milar himself could only stare.

A mass of robots—several hundred, at least—were ringing what looked like a cross between a young children’s classic version of a Jedi Wolverine and an ancient Predator Apocalypso, who, with glowing claws of eye-searing blue light, was cleanly slicing his way through the sea of knives, armaments, and explosives around it, creating a pile of bodies for those on the outside to climb in order to get to it.  Every once in a while, it would strike a pose and point a finger, and a violet arc of energy would blast a pathway through the surrounding robots, leaving a swath of total nothingness in its wake.

A couple times, the robot pushed his fists outward at shoulder-height and a massive concussive blast threw everything backward in a four hundred foot radius, leaving those who had stood closest to Anna’s pet to fall back to earth as crystalized scraps of metal to pelt rooftops or to shatter like ice against concrete walls.  And then, as if standing upon a pile of its dead foes wasn’t enough, the robot began to levitate in what looked like some sort of enormous electrical storm and lifted his arms to the sky as lightning slammed down on his enemies from all around.

“Uh.”  Milar wasn’t sure who said it.  All of their mouths were hanging open.

“That’s fake,” Jersey said finally.

Peter, whose mouth was open, just slowly shook his head in silence.  He didn’t look capable of speech.

Then, like some demon from the Pit, the robot began breathing balls of fire that melted swaths of his opponents into bubbling orange puddles.

“That’s fake,” Jersey repeated.  “C’mon, guys.”

Peter just shook his head again.  Pan was agape.

A few moments later, the robot struck a final, epic pose, and its last opponent succumbed to what looked like an internal explosion that turned every single piece of its foe’s body into raw blue-white light that arced in eye-searing comets across the dawn sky, setting nearby shrubs on fire when they landed.  Then the mysterious electrical storm dispersed and Anna’s robot drifted back down to gently come to rest upon the smoking pile of robot bodies.  There was a moment of contemplative silence, in which the robot calmly and fastidiously straightened its black silk suit—which was totally unharmed by the combat—then carefully began picking its way down the slopes of the slain, its desert combat boots standing out as pale splotches against the charred and blackened bodies.  As Milar and the others continued to gawk, Anna’s robot leisurely strolled into the Coalition compound unmolested.

“This,” Magali whispered, “doesn’t leave this ship.”

Milar nodded dumbly with the rest of them.

Fortune's Folly
“I still don’t see what the purpose of the levitation was,” Dobie said, once the other robots were dead.  “It left me trapped in the air, unable to maneuver.”

“It looks cool,” Quad replied.

“But it was useless,” Dobie reiterated.  He flicked a few metal particles from his impenetrable cuttlesilk suit and straightened his cuffs.  “It left me unable to position myself for further attacks.”

“But that was the point.  That was the attack.  You turned yourself into a superconductor connecting us to another dimension—I used an interesting one I found that seems to contain nothing but massive cosmic clouds of electricity—and all around you, your enemies were becoming nodes to shunt that voltage into our own dimension.  Only works on metal or biologicals with impure water components, though.  If we ever face one of Apocalypso’s stone golems, we might be in trouble.  That’s what the Quadinator was for.”

Doberman frowned as he manually entered the codes to gain access to the first wing of the compound.  “You connected me to another dimension in order to electrocute a few robots?” 

“I was actually trying to recreate the legendary powers of the great Storm,” Quad said.  “It was this human back on Earth who could control the weather and fly around with lightning at her beck and call.  Oh, and Zeus.  There was a guy called Zeus who did it, too.”

Doberman cocked his head.  “Storm and Zeus were both mythological figures created by human storytellers to entertain the public.”

Quad laughed like he didn’t believe him.  “Yeah, and Jedi Wolverine isn’t real, either.”

Recognizing a children’s ultrasim program currently run by the Coalition entertainment corporation, Doberman frowned.  “No, Jedi Wolverine is a children’s holobook conception.”

“Nooooo,” Quad said sarcastically, “I’ve seen him.  He does all sorts of cool stuff, mostly on Sunday mornings, though sometimes late on Thursday nights.  Did you know he regenerates even when his flesh has been cauterized by Triton Jedi light-sabers?”

“Jedi Wolverine,” Dobie argued, “doesn’t exist.  His powers are imposs—”  It was then that Doberman realized he had to explain the difference between truth and fiction to a child who had made the fiction truth.  As that circular logic began tumbling through his head, Dobie had to quickly reallocate processes before something collapsed.

“Jedi Wolverine once punched a hole in a sun,” Quad enthusiastically went on.  “I’ve been thinking about how he did that, and I think if I can turn your arm into a self-contained mesatonic blast with a directional orientation and hooked you up to forty-seven Aashaanti power crystals, it might manage to punch through the plasma of an average yellow dwarf, and its own inherent antigravity field should neutralize the sun’s gravitational pull so it can burst out the other side.  Though I can’t figure out how to contain the explosion so you don’t lose an arm and most of your face in another dimension.  Still trying to work out that part.  Forty-seven crystals isn’t enough power to punch through if I contain it, but forty-eight would tip the scales and rip the fabric of Time in a three light-year radius, so can’t do that either.”

Doberman stopped in the hallway, frowning.  “Jedi Wolverine is a character in a holobook.”

“Yeah,” Quad said.  Somebody had to write down everything he does.”

“A fictional character in a holobook,” Dobie insisted.

“No he’s not,” Quad said stubbornly.  “I see him every Sunday.”

“On the holovid,” Doberman insisted.  He glanced around him at the exceedingly empty halls.  It was almost as if Quad’s beacon had drawn every robot in the area, not just the closest ones.  He did a quick scan through the computer to confirm he was totally alone, then frowned.  “You could’ve simply fried all those robots, rather than drawing them to me and making them fight me, couldn’t you?”

“Sure I could’ve,” Quad said, sounding confused.  “Why?”

They were definitely going to have to work on their pre-op communication.  “No reason,” Doberman said.  “What about the altrameter muskers?  Can you simply disable those?”

Quad giggled in his ear.  “Are you kidding?  That’s gonna be the most fun yet!  Those things are huge!  And when they activate, they make this really cool roaring sound as their blades start spinning.  It’s sweet!  Did you know that they carry monomolecular tovlar katanas made for AlphaGen special forces against the Tritons, during the war?  They’re the only swords in the world that can cut through anything and never break, and they’re actually repurposed Aashaanti bots running them!”

Doberman had known that, and thinking about it was making him uncomfortable.

“I see,” Doberman said, pausing at the entrance to the next—ultra secure—wing.  He wasn’t exactly relishing the idea of going up against four of the most fearsome sentry robots the Coalition had to offer.  Perhaps they could simply avoid them altogether.  “So what are they guarding?  Anything important?”

“Just some jail cells and some below-average Aashaanti salvage,” Quad said.  “They’re real proud of it, though.”  Doberman could almost feel the kid’s shrug.  “But hey, you gotta promise to bring me back a musker katana.  Those things are atom-locked monomolecular razors—you can hack at a platinum beam all day and just take chunks out of the beam.  Mom would love it!  She could use it to cut watermelons.  Would slice through the cutting board, too, though, so she’ll have to be careful.”

“None of this cool tech you installed will last very long if it gets cut in half,” Dobie reminded his patron.

“Why would it get sliced in half?” Quad asked curiously.

Dobie sighed inwardly and entered the entrance code.  As the door slid open and two huge altrameter muskers powered up with a mechanical roar on the other side, Quad cried out in glee, “There they are!  Claws!  Claws!!”  Dobie followed their rise with his gaze, their twelve ton bodies towering nine feet into the air, eight tovlar swords beginning their whirring dance in the narrow hall while explosive armaments deployed from the sides of their blocky ‘heads.’

“You are not authorized to access this facility, Unit Ferris,” the lead musker rumbled.  “You will now be terminated in accordance with Section 4, Part 23, Paragraph 11 of the Triton Initiative.”

“Bring it on, you clunky twenty-ninth century scrap heaps!” Quad shrieked in delight.  “Dobie, get them!”

Sighing, Dobie activated his claws.

CHAPTER 28: Prisoner Rescue

Fortune's Folly

7th of June, 3006

Rath (Operations Section)

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
The tarmac was utterly deserted, but no one had yet found the balls to get off the ship and face what, to all appearances, had just breathed fire and rode lightning.  A massive pile of mangled robot bodies was still smoking in the middle of a launch pad, inexorably drawing the eyes.  Milar had a sinking feeling he was looking at the whole of the robotic army they had been expecting to fight.

“It’s been six minutes,” Jersey said.  The cupcake was standing beside Milar, facing the compound of Rath.  “Maybe the muskers got it.”

Milar gave the Nephyr a disgusted look, then went back to watching the empty base.  They hadn’t heard anything, not even an explosion, in a couple minutes.  All of their expected opposition was piled in the middle of the airfield, but they were still in no hurry to explore further.  It was out there, and it knew they’d tried to kill it.  And, as much as Milar wanted to rush in there and dig his brother out of the dungeons of Rath, fear of that damned robot was keeping him right where he was.  Hell, he’d shoved it out the ship’s gate with his boot.

Thinking about that particular reckoning Milar was actually just as disturbing as the fact that Magali wanted him to work with not just a Nephyr, but Jersey Brackett, the kid who had turned him over to the Coalition when Milar was fifteen.  Magali would be lucky if Milar didn’t skin the bastard and hang him up in the open to feed the tadflies.  Every inch of him was itching to put a beam between the floater’s eyes, and had been ever since he and Steffen had gone to meet the new leader of the Resistance.  He’d been totally horrified to find a Nephyr had somehow inserted himself in their ranks and nobody seemed to think anything of it, but for it to be this Nephyr…  Milar couldn’t believe they’d let Jersey back into the fold.  He had to be a plant.  They didn’t get that pretty skin without doing heinous things.  Things like what had been done to Magali.

But the others didn’t see that, so Milar was biding his time, back aflame with nerves from the Nephyr’s proximity, waiting for him to make a wrong move so he could plaster his brains to a wall.

Two minutes later, the robot emerged from the main facility carrying two four-and-a-half-foot, rippling blue-black tovlar musker katanas over its shoulder, the length of their blades punched with blood-holes—the kind that made the blade slice through flesh without getting slowed by the suction.  The robot headed towards the ship at a leisurely walk, its silky black suit still completely intact.  Milar felt his guts clench a little bit at the robot’s approach, but Jersey held his position, and he was damned if he was gonna let a Nephyr make him look like a balless pussy in front of his brother’s ex.

When the robot climbed the ramp and arrived inside the ship’s hull, it stopped in front of Milar and said, “I’ve removed the robot threat and pacified the base in nine minutes and forty-five seconds.  I believe you owe me a gun, Mr. Whitecliff.”  The robot held out his hand again expectantly, and this time, Milar was pretty sure there was satisfaction in the machine’s blue eyes.

Everyone on the ship turned to look at Milar, who swallowed, wondering if the robot was going to use the katanas on him.  When it didn’t, Milar slowly took his last Laserat from his belt and held it out to the robot.

“Thank you,” the robot said, tucking it under one arm.  “I will be finding my own way home, as it seems my presence is unwelcome.  Further, I appreciate your discretion in passing along what happened here.  If you keep today’s events quiet, I will endeavor to do the same.  It would definitely be a shame if Anna were to find out this whole thing was just an attempt to lure me to my death.  Imagine her distress—” the robot’s hard eyes stopped on Pan. “—her concern.”

All Milar could do was nod.  Around him, the others did the same.

The robot gave a little bow, smiling.  “And just between us:  the next time you try to kill me, I will successfully return the favor.”

Everyone nodded again.

The robot was turning away as it caught himself and turned back, the monomolecular katanas swinging close enough to slit Milar’s throat if he hadn’t hastily backed up.  “Oh, and I left a present for you, since I find it distasteful to massacre weak, defenseless creatures such as yourselves.”  The robot’s eyes met each of theirs in turn, stopping on Jersey this time.  “There appears to be a small group of Nephyrs and other survivors holed up in the Lockbox.  They had been using the altrameter muskers as their last line of defense, but they’re well armed and organized, and they’re expecting you.  Enjoy.”  Anna’s pet turned to go.

Remembering what this thing had helped Anna do to Tatiana, Milar had a strong, suicidal impulse to see if he could put a round into the robot’s brainbox before he could pull those fancy glowing claws again.  He put his hand on his other pistol—the one loaded with his best armor-penetrating explosive rounds—and started to draw it.

Warm, stone-hard fingers caught his wrist and held it inexorably in place.

Milar’s whole body tensed in revulsion.  “Get your fucking hand off me,” he growled under his breath.  The robot continued to get away, its back to them.

“You don’t think those muskies had exploding rounds?” the Nephyr whispered back.  He kept his hand in place like a vice.

“I swear to Aanaho’s ancestors,” Milar gritted, “if you don’t let go, I’m going to peel you naked and salt you like a slug.”

“Is that what my former coworkers did to you?” the Nephyr asked, totally calm, his grip never changing, his eyes never moving from the robot.

Milar’s guts curdled with rage, because they had.  “Let.”  The word came out in a dangerous feral growl.  “Go.”

The Nephyr ignored him until the robot was out of range.  Then, as if nothing had ever happened, his stone-hard, hydraulic-powered fingers released him.  Milar wrenched himself away, pulled the gun, and put it to Jersey’s face.

“Touch me again,” Milar said, shaking, “and you’re a dead man.”

“Leave him alone, Miles,” Magali whispered, without turning from the scene outside.  Everything about her—from her tone to her posture—sounded defeated.

Once more reminded of the little shit and her pet, Milar turned to look out at the cracked and shattered tarmac.  They watched the robot board a nearby courier ship, then watched the flare of heat as the engine fired up.

“We,” Pan whispered, once the robot’s ship lifted off, “are so fucked.”

“There’s no way she put that thing together in a month,” Magali whispered.  “I’ve seen my sister throw things together overnight, but she’s never done anything like that.  That weaponry—does anyone even know what that was?”

“It looked like something out of a comic book,” Pan said.

That’s where I’ve seen that purple stuff before!” the Nephyr cried, snapping his Nephyr fingers with a Nephyr skin-on-skin buzz.  “That blast he was shooting from his finger—that’s a finishing move on the Violet Soul ultrasim.  My little brother used it on me all the time.”

Suddenly, Milar remembered where he’d seen an ensemble like that before.  “The Cobrani avatar wore a suit and boots like that,” he said reluctantly.  “Patrick loves to play Cobrani.  He’s a sucker for blue eyes, white hair, and black skin.  Had a Cobrani girlfriend back when he was working the silver mines—been stuck on it ever since.”

“And that was so Jedi Wolverine,” the Nephyr added.  “And that chameleon effect—the way it rippled…isn’t that something from Predator Apocalypso?”

Pan and Milar nodded.

“So Anna was fucking with us,” Magali said, her lips tightening.  “She’s saying this was all a game to her.”

“Looks like,” Pan said softly.  “Hell, she was probably at the controls the whole time.”

“Shit,” the Nephyr said.  It was well-said—no one on the gangplank had anything to add.  They simply stared alternately between the pile of bodies and the ship that had blasted off carrying Anna’s toy.

“But what about the tech?” Magali finally asked.  “I’ve never seen anything like that before in my life.”

“That would’ve taken years to research,” Pan agreed.  “Even for Anna.”

“I’m not so sure,” Magali said.  “She invented a new kind of bug zapper that incinerates insects on a molecular level because she was irritated with the tadflies that kept getting caught in our hut and she found the tiny corpses distasteful.  The guards still think it runs on electricity.  She’s selfish, though.  I tried to get her to make something to save lives in the Yolk mines and she couldn’t have cared less.  I think she could have done this in a few weeks, but my sister’s pretty lazy.  She must’ve been planning it for months.”

“I thought you said she’s only had the robot for a month,” Pan said.

“He was breathing sunfire out of his mouth, Mags,” Milar said.  “Like a kraagon.  Tell me how that’s even possible, then we can talk about how long it took the little shit.”

“Could be a chemical reaction,” Pan offered.  “Some combination of chemicals he stores in a couple bladders in his chest.”

“Chemicals,” Milar said.  He pointed to the hundreds of feet of superheated puddles of robot, most of which were still orange and bubbling minutes later.  “That was done with chemicals.”  He’d never heard so much bullshit in his life.

No one could find anything to say to that.

Finally, Milar grunted.  “You know what?”  He popped a magazine into his gun.  “Let the little shit toy with us.  Next time I see her, she’s taking one for the team.  Until then, I’ve got a job to do.”  Then he started stalking down the gangplank, towards the compound.  A moment later, the heavy rumble of the Nephyr jogging down the ramp with him made him tense.

“Better let me go first,” the cyborg said.  “Anna’s bot said there’s Nephyrs in there.”

“Screw you,” Milar said.  “I do this myself.”

The Nephyr kept pacing him, though he gave him a sidelong, almost pitying look.  It made Milar’s skin crawl and his fingers twitched for the EMP wand he’d stuffed in his boot.

“You guys think you can handle the security wing?” Magali called.  “Drogire’s gonna be flying down operator and Bouncer reinforcements and Pan and I’ve gotta organize the attack on the civilian areas.”

“It’s handled,” Milar snapped back up the ramp at her, not looking at his tagalong.  “Take the Nephyr with you.”

“The Nephyr,” Magali said, “has a name.”

“Jersey,” the Nephyr said helpfully, holding out his disgusting, glassy hand.

Milar ignored it.  “Don’t fucking need a backstabbing prick’s help.”

“Milar, I’m warning you,” Mag growled.

“And I’m warning you,” Milar exploded, turning around and jabbing a finger at Jersey’s gleaming chest.  “I’ve seen what these things really are inside.  They’re living evil, Mag.  They thrive on other people’s pain, kind of like your demonic sister.”  At Magali’s wince, Milar snorted.  “I’d rather work with Satan.”  He turned to go.

“Milar, you’re taking him.”  It was Pan.  A fucking eight-year-old.

Because Milar was going to unleash a torrent of bullets if he didn’t, he kept walking.  The Nephyr, damn him, kept walking with him.

“You know,” the Nephyr said after they were out of earshot of the ship, “we’re pretty much in the same shoes.”

“Oh, fuck you,” Milar snapped.

“We both went to a place we didn’t want to,” the Nephyr blundered on.  “Except, in your case, you had friends to rescue you.  I had to struggle through it all, fighting to hold on to those shreds of myself even as they were trying to rip them away.”

“Weren’t very successful with that, were you?” Milar sneered.

The Nephyr cocked its head at him.  “You have no idea who I am.  I hate to sound like I’m spewing corn, but all you see is the skin.”

“Damn right, Glitter,” Milar said, not even glancing his way.  “That’s all I need to see.”  He slowed by the massive pile of shredded and tangled robot bodies, looking down at the eerie way the ground looked to be carved away in semicircular blasts, the matter therein simply vanished in a crisp, perfect tube.  The robots that had been hit with those final fireballs were still orange and bubbling, superheating the tar and stone around them, unmistakably spreading the melting material outwards, with no signs of slowing down.

“Uh,” the Nephyr said, looking down at the growing puddles of melted metal and stone with him, “you think that’s gonna keep getting bigger?”

“With Magali’s destructive little shit sister behind it?  Probably.”  Milar grunted and kept moving.

“Shouldn’t we tell someone?” the Nephyr called, still standing at the spreading pool of molten rock and burning tar.

“Go ahead!” Milar shouted, still walking.

A few moments later, the Nephyr was pacing beside him again—a jog he had made in total, predatory silence.  “What if it eats the planet?”

Milar stopped, sighed deeply, and tapped on his radio.  Glaring at the Nephyr, he said into the mic, “And send one of the brainy little shits out here to check this out.  We’ve got an unknown material that seems to be spreading.”  He jammed his radio back into its holster beside his gun.  “Happy?” he demanded.  Then, as the Nephyr opened his glittering mouth to say something, Milar started walking again.

“Maybe you and I should start over,” Jersey said behind him.

Milar snorted.

“My name’s Jersey Brackett,” the Nephyr said, ridiculously.  “Brackett clan.  South Tear.  My family was on the first ship to colonize Fortune with Daytona Dae.”  It made Milar want to punch him in the face.

“You’re a piece of shit who got us both skinned,” Milar said, continuing to ignore the unwanted presence at his side.  He stopped at the compound entrance and stuck a square of Anna’s cuttlesilk to the door so he could peer inside.  The hallway was empty.

“Whoa,” Jersey said.  “Neat.  I never thought to use it like that.”

“Of course you didn’t.”  Milar wadded the cuttlesilk back into a pouch and leaned back to kick the door open.

The Nephyr turned the knob, which was still unlocked from the robot’s passage, and pushed the door open for him, his glittering face full of amusement.

Reddening, Milar felt himself almost pivot and kick the smartass Nephyr in the head.  Instead, he lowered his foot, humiliated, and shoved past the man’s glass-hard body.

Easily catching up—too easily—the Nephyr continued, “I was drafted for the Nephyrs when I was sixteen. You know what tipped them off?”

Milar’s fingers were tightening on his gun.  “Shut the fuck up.”

“My little brother,” Jersey said.  “He was running the Brackett homestead alone while me, my mom, and my brothers were off in Silver City so I could play chess with this super-smart kid who killed a Nephyr when he was twelve.”

Milar made the least interested noise he could.

The Nephyr ignored the hint.  Again.  “Anyway, this guy came out of the woods wearing angora homespun he stole from a farm down the Snake.  Guy told my brother he was a rebel looking for really intelligent kids so he could send men to protect them from the coalers trying to Draft them.”

Milar felt his guts twist in recognition.  He’d heard plenty of similar stories—Yolk Babies were even more sought after than Yolk itself, since it seemed as if only close-quarters living with Shriekers on Fortune had the capacity to make them, and everyone who lived near Shriekers died.

Because of that, there was a whole culture of shady, off-planet smugglers who did nothing but seek out Babies and kidnap them for use in Coalition science experiments and government programs.  Or, in the worst cases, the Nephyrs.  Often, the bounty hunters hunted in packs.  There were tales of kids getting stolen in the night, whole families slaughtered for trying to stop an abduction, never to be heard from again.  Rebels had done everything they could to teach their families not to talk about their kids to the Coalition, but with the bounties being put on Yolk Babies, coaler agents were getting dangerously inventive.

But, he reminded himself, he didn’t care.  Jersey was the one responsible for his trip to the Core.  If the bastard had kept his mouth shut

“My brother invited him in,” Jersey said, ignoring his scowl, “showed the guy a mural I’d drawn on my mom’s living room wall when I was depressed.”  Jersey took a deep breath and sighed.  “Turns out, my painting was almost identical to an Aashaanti mural they found on the other side of the Bounds about a decade before, and the government had put a bounty out for similar pieces of Aashaanti art.  They wanted to know how I’d replicated the alien technique.”

Milar grunted with as much boredom as he could express without putting a round through the idiot’s forebrain for wasting his time.

The Nephyr nodded as if he actually thought the sound had been commiseration.  “Best I can explain is that a person can stand there and focus on the picture in a dozen different ways, and see a dozen different things, and in each of those things is a dozen more, depending on how you focus.  And then, depending on how you focus on each of those tiny branches, you see dozens more, and so on.  Kind of like following the branches of a tree out to the leaves, but visually.  Something about drawing them just came easily to me.  I mean, really easily.”

“You got a hardon for your own voice or something?” Milar snapped.  “We’re on a mission, asshole.”

Jersey acted like he hadn’t heard him.  “The visitor—he turned out to be an admiral from Super Squad—slit my little brother’s throat—dead kids tell no tales—and he and a group of Division Nephyrs grabbed me in Silver City as soon as I got there.  Mom and my brothers and I had taken the slow-boat, a sixty-year-old skimmer my uncle had patched up with spare parts that didn’t even break the sound barrier, and this guy got to Silver City ahead of us with hours to spare.  Killed my mom and brothers right in front of me for ‘resisting.’  Kinda destroyed my will to live, but by then, they weren’t gonna let me die.”

Milar immediately felt a startled pang of regret, remembering attacking the huddled figure in the transport, remembering the misery and despair on Jersey’s face as he didn’t even fight back.  He had just lost his family, Milar thought, suddenly feeling wretched.

Then he caught himself, realizing that the glittering machine walking beside him would say anything to ooze his way into his confidence.  He shook off his momentary empathy for the cold facts of reality.  Fact: Jersey was alive.  Fact: Jersey wouldn’t be alive unless he had committed atrocities to ‘fit in’ because they always sent the ones who refused to cave to the pressure back to the Academy for ‘reconditioning.’

“And you just happened to end up back on Fortune,” Milar snorted.  What a load of crap.  He was an infiltrator, through and through, and the Coalition probably jumped at the realization he had personal connections to a few of the rebel leaders.  His insertion had not been by chance.

The Nephyr frowned at him.  “This is my home just as much as yours.”

Milar laughed at the ridiculousness of that.  “It stopped being your home when you took the skin to save your own ass.”  Snorting, Milar pressed on down the empty hall.

“Hey,” the Nephyr said, grabbing him by the shirt to bodily pull him around.  “What—”

The rest of the cyborg’s question was cut off as Milar flipped him over his shoulder—all three hundred pounds—and dropped him like a ton of glass on the linoleum.

“Don’t,” Milar said, leveling his rifle on the Nephyr’s nose, “touch me.”

The Nephyr responded by kicking out and twisting, catching Milar’s legs with his shins and knocking his feet out from underneath him.  “Listen!” Jersey snapped, lunging to his own feet as Milar struggled to get off the floor fast enough to put bullets in his brain.  “I’m on your fucking side, you goddamn, narrow-minded, Shrieker-screwing asshole.”  The floater wrenched Milar’s rifle from his hands as Milar tried to get it pointed at him and snapped it in half, then quarters, then threw it across the hall.

Seeing one of his favorite guns in pieces, Milar lost it.  He drew his pistol and fired a barrage of armor-piercers at the cyborg’s face, but the Nephyr twisted and closed his orifices in time for them to miss the eyes and mouth.  Milar was shoving his pistol aside and going for his EMP wand when a bullet whizzed down the hall and sliced open his deltoid, inches from his neck.

“Crap!” Jersey said, turning to face their new threat and putting his body between them.  “Get that cuttlesilk on and get behind me!”

“Oh fuck that, pretty boy,” Milar snapped, changing his clip, dropping to a knee, and returning fire with a barrage of twelve-year-old Ryan Stakenborghs’s fancy ‘antisphere’ rounds.  Upon impact, the explosive rounds swallowed the group of opponents in eerie spheres of total darkness for sixteen seconds at a time, bringing the temperature inside the point of influence to negative seventy degrees Fahrenheit within moments.

“Shit!” someone down the hall screamed, as the light-eating whomphs left them blind.  “What are they shooting at us?!  Fuck, I can’t see!  I’m hit!  Holy shit, what is it?!  Why’s it so fucking cold?!  I can’t see!”  Milar heard heavy footsteps scatter from the voidlike blast-area and grinned to himself.

Standing above him, Magali’s pet Nephyr turned to glare at him, blue-green eyes pissed.  “I told you to let me take the fire.”

“That you did, Glitter,” Milar said, still watching the void spheres for movement.

“You have any idea what Mag is gonna do to me if you die on my watch?”

Your watch,” Milar snorted, getting back to his feet.  “I’m in charge, here, asshole.”  He listened to the sound of retreating fighters, the negative energy-spheres even then beginning to brighten back into normal light levels.  He glanced at the Nephyr for the first time since trying to blow his head off.  “Get your gun.  We can kill each other later.”

Jersey frowned.  “I don’t want to kill you.  Weren’t you listening to anything I said?  They took me because of a painting I did.  I’m an artist.”

“An artist who rapes women and kills little kiddies.  Yeah, real convincing.”  Milar started to push past him.

Jersey caught Milar by the shoulder, and this time, his grip was like cold steel.  With the power of a machine, Jersey twisted Milar around, forcing them face-to-face, the retreating soldiers forgotten.  “You’re so full of shit.”  Rage was powering the cyborg’s sea green eyes.  “You think you’re better than me because you escaped.  You think I’m the enemy because I couldn’t walk away, when you could.”

“No.”  Milar leaned forward, until their faces were almost touching.  “I think I’m better than you because you exist.”  His body began to heat with rage, and Milar felt his face twist into a sneer.  “I know what you had to do to earn that skin.  Maybe nobody else does, or maybe they’re just gonna gloss it over and pretend it didn’t happen, but I know.”  He jabbed his finger into the Nephyr’s glassy chest for emphasis.  “And the moment you cross the line, the moment you slip back into your old habits, you’re mine.”

Jersey’s eyes narrowed in warning only a split second before he shoved him, but it still didn’t prepare Milar for the blow.  Miles went flying backwards through the hallway wall, crumbling cinderblocks with his body.  The Nephyr was cocking his head as Milar disentangled himself from the rubble.  “You mean like that?”

Milar could barely see through his rage.  “Do that again,” he whispered, gripping his pistol in a white-knuckled fist.

Jersey grabbed him and hurled him again, this time sending him sliding forty feet backwards down the hallway on his ass.  Then the Nephyr stood there, unscathed, glowering down at him like a glass mountain.  “Bring it, you fucking hypocrite.”

Milar got up and yanked out his special-made ten-pack magazine of EMP rounds.  He’d worked with the blushing fifteen-year-old Janice Booth—daughter of Wellwright Booth, one of Milar’s old chess buddies—to create them, and had hopefully convinced her to keep them on the down-low, even from her other Yolk Baby friends.  He slapped the magazine into his gun and took aim at the Nephyr’s head.  “Goodbye, floater.”

A sudden, low-pitched roaring sound unexpectedly filled the hall right behind him.

“Unidentified citizens or unincorporated colonials with secondary voting privileges, you are not authorized to access this facility,” a rumbling robotic voice announced behind him.  “You will now be terminated in accordance with Edict 15 of the Secret Installations and Sensitive Information Act.  Rest assured that your sacrifice will maintain the happiness and security of countless others, as decreed by the Encompate.”  Blinking, Milar started to turn.

The Nephyr hit him from the side with a speed that broke ribs, shoving him down and to the left.  Less than a millisecond later, a rippling four-and-a-half-foot, blood-holed katana sliced through the air where Milar’s head had been, its blue-black blade shearing off a hank of Milar’s reddish hair.

“You fucking floater!” Milar cried, slamming into the wall with the Nephyr’s body propelling him.  They went crashing through the cinderblocks together, landing in what looked like a laboratory on the other side.

“They repaired one of the muskers!” Jersey shouted, at the same time a four-and-a-half-foot sword sliced through the concrete wall and caught the Nephyr in the back, flinging him sideways like a doll.

Jersey got up, facing the glittering nine-foot musker like David facing Goliath.  With their energy-barrier skin, they even looked like twins.  How cute.

“Run!” Jersey cried, ducking another swing.  The musker’s second sword hit him in the neck, knocking him to the side anyway.  He screamed and hit the wall, hard, crumbling it and making the building around them shake.

Milar casually got to his feet, checked his broken ribs—considering the Nephyr’s force, he was surprised his spine hadn’t snapped—brushed rubble from his shirt and pants, and checked his weapon for damages.  In the background, the Nephyr screamed and lunged at the musker in what looked like an attempt to sumo-wrestle.  The robot simply lifted Jersey off the ground with one of its four fists and threw him again, this time back out into the hall.

“Milar, run!” Jersey cried, as he slid with a creepy glass-on-linoleum sound.

The musker, who had forgotten about Milar, raised its swords and began bringing them down on its foe, again and again.

Run, goddamn it!” Jersey cried, as the thing pounded him into the floor, crushing the linoleum and the concrete slab foundation beneath him.

Milar took a moment to bend down and retie his shoe.

Realizing his foe was not succumbing to usual tactics, the musker, in all of its genius, increased its ferocity, the four-and-a-half-foot monomolecular tovlar blades becoming an industrial whir.

M-M-M-M-I-I-I-I-I-I-I-L-L-L-L-L-L-A-A-A-A-A-A-R-R-R-R-R-R-R-R!” the Nephyr screamed, his voice sounding almost like a choppy buzz from the number of blows he was taking from the musker’s blades.

Grinning, Milar took a moment to examine the top-secret lab.  He saw hydroponics and petri dishes everywhere.  Some sort of plant experiments.  Immediately, his face soured.  Ugh.  Science.  Give him a gun and a good knife over a plant any day.  Still, with the wall patched up, Steffen Hayes would probably go nuts.  The little brat would love all the chemicals filling the shelves, and it would get him out of his and Tatiana’s hair…

In the background, the musker’s assault continued, and Jersey was becoming harder and harder to see in the pit his body was making.  Besides.  The spray of linoleum and concrete chips was beginning to get distracting.  Sighing, Milar checked his rounds, then took a couple steps to the left to get a better view through the remains of the concrete wall.

“Hey buddy.”

The musker stopped and whipped around, all nine feet of deadly glitter coming to focus on him in a moment of total concentration.

Milar raised his gun.

The musker deployed the missile launchers from his head.

Milar fired.

The musker’s whirring blades came to a sudden and devastating halt, momentum slamming them through its own body as the energy field was dismantled by EMP.  The missile it had tried to fire went off, exploding its head and torso—and dropping a good chunk of the building on top of it.  The enormous robot hit the ground hard enough to make the floor shake and more tiles fall from the ceiling, motionless except for the electrical shorts that were even then hissing and spitting in the dimly-lit corridor.

Jersey lifted his head from the crater it had created in the floor to look at him.  He was glaring.  “You fuck.”

Milar smirked.  “Like I said.  We can kill each other later.  Let’s go hunt us some coalers first.”

Panting, Jersey climbed out of the hole that his body had beaten into the ground.  His glassy skin was just as perfect and whole as it had always been, taking the hits from the tovlar razors as easily as if he’d been attacked with a feather boa.  The same, however, could not be said about his clothes or his weapon.  The pistol was a chopped and pulverized mess, and of the boots and clothes he’d been wearing, only one half of one pant leg remained relatively intact—the rest hung from his glassy body in shredded tatters.  “I wasn’t the one with the attitude problem.”

“You’re right,” Milar said.  “You’ve got a breathing problem.”

Jersey gave him a flat look.  At the same time, a barrage of bullets hit him from the side, ricocheting off his skin and embedding themselves into the walls of the hall.  He narrowed his eyes at Milar.  “So, what, you’re gonna shoot me when I turn my back?  Leave me skinless for the air to finish off slowly?  Stand over me and take a piss as I die?”

“Thought had crossed my mind,” Milar said.

More bullets hit Jersey from behind.  The Nephyr didn’t even flinch, continuing to glare across the dead musker at Milar.  Then, snorting, he shook his head in disgust, turned, and started down the hall towards whoever was shooting at him.  A few moments later, Milar heard screaming, which ended abruptly as bodies hit walls, floors, and ceilings.  He limped forward to look down at the altrameter musker, and found himself half tempted to steal one of the sexy, rippling tovlar swords for himself.  Tatiana would probably think it was cool…

“Coming, asshole?” Jersey called from down the hall.

Milar grunted and stepped over the massive machine’s body.  As he caught up with Jersey, he passed bodies half-buried in concrete, bones ground to a fibrous paste against the faux stone, and realized the Nephyr had been going easy on him earlier.  Immediately, he felt another rush of rage that the cyborg had dared to touch him at all, and had to stifle the urge to use the rest of his EMP clip on the two-bit floater.

“I’ll take point,” Milar said, moving to step past the Nephyr.

Jersey held his arm out as he walked, smoothly blocking his path.  “You’re staying behind me.”

Milar narrowed his eyes down at the limb.  “Move it or lose it, Glitz.”

Jersey ignored him, arm still extended as they moved deeper into the compound.  “Just get the damned cuttlesilk on.”

Milar opened his mouth to tell the prick where he could stuff that particular idea, but was forestalled when four Nephyrs came around the corner at a run.  Seeing Jersey, they slowed with frowns, looking around.  “What the fuck happened, dude?”

Jersey spat.  “Fucking musker went apeshit, started killing everybody.  Must’ve gotten twitchy from that last attack.”

“Shit,” one of the Nephyrs said, standing there, shaking his head at the scene.  “Steele’s gonna be pissed when he finds out about this.  That was our last muskie.  Dunno what those colonists got hooked up with, but they’re using something that’s dropping our bots like flies.”

“Does it look like this?” Milar asked, pointing his gun at them.  He fired four shots, and the Nephyrs fell and started writhing on the floor.  Their grunts of startlement, however, quickly morphed into screaming as their energy fields went down and their skinless bodies began rubbing against the linoleum.

Jersey glared at him over a shoulder.  “I could’ve handled that.”

“I know,” Milar said, enjoying the meat-puppets’ dance.  “I wanted to see them scream.”  He looked up at Jersey.  “Give you a little taste of what’s to come.”

Jersey narrowed his eyes in disgust.  “You’re just as sick as the rest of them.”  He went over and unceremoniously put his heel through each of his victims’ heads.  Then, without another word, he stalked deeper into the compound.

But Milar couldn’t move, Jersey’s words having hit something raw inside.  He stayed where he was as the cyborg strode away, staring down at the corpses.  He knew, deep down, that the Nephyrs had done something horrible to him, some irreparable damage that set him apart from other people, but it was the first time someone had said it to his face.  The knowledge felt cold in the pit of his stomach, cooling his innards as quickly as the open muscle at his feet, moisture whisked away by the very air that had sustained them.  It was every Nephyr’s biggest fear—that somehow, some tiny, inconsequential part in the energy barrier would malfunction and he’d be left to dehydrate like jerky in an oven, and Milar had been there, eleven years ago, lying on that table in that carefully-humidified room…

“Come on, Miles!” Jersey snapped from around the corner.  “You can ruminate on your distended asshole later—there’s more Nephyrs ahead.”

Milar quickly donned the cuttlesilk—more because he was too numb to do anything else than to give him protection from the enemy—and stepped around the corner just in time to hear Jersey suck in a sudden breath.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Jersey managed.

A Nephyr wearing the insignia of a colonel and STEELE on his front nametag stood at the head of six other Nephyrs—two more than Milar had EMP bullets for.  Behind them, an additional line of non-cybernetic fighters, mainly technicians and clerks by the looks of them, quivered against the wall, holding guns that didn’t fit in their hands, watching the exchange.

It was the lead Nephyr, however, that drew Milar’s full attention.  Milar felt an oddness in his gut when looking at him, like he’d seen that face before, and it had been extremely important…

“So where’s your friend?” Steele asked, cocking his head with a grin.  “He shy?”

“He’s a chickenshit,” Jersey growled.  “Lets me do all the work.”

Steele looked Jersey over casually, cold eyes catching on the strips of cloth still dangling from his shoulders.  “Took out a musker on your own?”

“Not sure what the big deal is,” Jersey replied.

“It was previously damaged.”  Steele cocked his head.  “Still.  Impressive.”

“Yeah, well.”  Jersey cracked his neck and squared off.  “Let’s do this thing.”

As Steele’s five Nephyrs automatically moved forward to attack him, Steele held up a hand to stop them.  “Before my men gut you, I’d like to know why you chose to switch sides.  You had so much promise.  We were thinking of recruiting you to the Division.  You would make such a wonderful SuperSquader.”  He grinned.  “You’ve got all the right contacts.”

Jersey spat.  “There’s your fucking Division, Steele.  Bring it.”

Steele held up his hand again, stopping the fight.  “You caught the attention of Orion himself.  You’d just throw that away for what…” he glanced at the Nephyrs behind him.  “…a colonist to screw?”

Several of the Nephyrs chuckled.

Jersey’s fists clenched.  “This is my home.  You floaters took me from it when I was a kid.”

But Milar was stiffening, finally realizing where he’d seen that dossier before.  It had been a top-secret file David Landborn had shown him, years ago, on what he had called the ‘AlphaGen elimination project’.  Nephyrs…who were outfitted to kill other Nephyrs.  Dissenters, defectors, and, most confusing, ‘the very old.’  David had made Milar memorize every face when he and Patrick returned from the Core at twenty.

“If you ever see one of these guys,” David had said, thumping the file, “do not approach him.  Leave.  Just turn and leave.  I don’t care if he’s killing your goddamn twin brother, Miles, you leave him right where he is and come get me.  You understand?”

Milar had protested that he couldn’t leave Patrick to die.  David had grabbed him by the collar, lifted him easily off his feet with one hand—at twenty, Milar had weighed almost two hundred pounds—and looked him in the eye with irises that suddenly seemed to glow gold inside a face that inexplicably took on both a near-black hue and started to shimmer.  “You come get me,” the man had said, as Milar’s heart thundered so hard he couldn’t breathe.  “And I will avenge your brother.”  He dropped him again.  “You don’t…” the glow and light-eating shimmer dissipated instantly, leaving the same David Landborn that Milar had always known.  “You die too.”  Even as they’d cut off his skin, Milar’s heart hadn’t pounded as hard as it had as he stood there, looking up at David Landborn, knowing that what stood there wasn’t human.

Colonel Steele had been on the front page of David’s file, though his name hadn’t been under the rank of colonel.  It had been as a two-star general.

Milar yanked the cuttlesilk away from his face, brought his gun up and fired at Steele’s chest.  His EMP blast caught the Nephyr in the torso, and there was a weird flicker as his fake skin took on the picture-perfect look of a man’s skin, then flickered back to that of a Nephyr.  Steele never even twitched.  “Ah,” he said, smiling and lifting his head to look at Milar.  “There he is.  Our long-lost brother, come back to us at last.”  Steele cocked his head.  “That’s an interesting cloaking device.  Where’d you get it?”

“Made it myself,” Milar lied.

Steele grinned, clearly not believing him.  “So which brother are you?  I heard one of you was screwing our illustrious leader of Fortune before I made her my bitch.”

“Shoot him,” Jersey growled.

“I did,” Milar snapped.

“Shoot him again!” Jersey shouted.

“Yes,” Steele said, sounding amused.  He was now looking directly at Milar even though Milar had flipped the silk back over his body after firing.  “Please.  Shoot me again.  I’m sure our tech department would love to figure out how you got an EMP pulse into projectile form.  One of those children you stole from our last shipment, no doubt.”  He cocked his head.  “Same one who made the cloak?”

Around Steele, the other six Nephyrs looked nervous.

“Pocket-sized EMP won’t work on them,” David had insisted, when Milar had recovered enough to suggest he and Patrick carry around a wand, instead.  “Takes something stronger—usually a nuclear blast.”

Milar’s heart was pounding again, the same pounding thunder that he’d felt staring back at David Landborn, knowing for the first time that whatever stood there in front of him wasn’t human.  In the background, Steele was detailing out the particulars of his time with Magali.

Shoot him!” Jersey snapped.

“They like to work alone,” David had told him.  “Hide amongst Nephyrs.  Like sharks imitating the goldfish.  You can tell them by a small silver node above their left ear that just brushes the surface of their skin.  It’s the size of a pencil eraser, and it’s what produces the simulation of Nephyr skin.  He’s second-class AlphaGen, back before the schism.  The process almost rejected him, so he’s much weaker and slower than the others who survived deconstruction, and he can’t shift his own skin.”

“Goddamn it, you sick fuck, Miles!” Jersey snapped, turning to look at him.  “Shoot the bastard!”

Milar turned and shot four of the six Nephyrs behind Steele.  They went down as skinless piles of meat, too startled to scream.

“Oh, I see,” Steele said, his grin fading.  He turned to look behind him as his men started screaming and thrashing on the floor.  After a moment, he turned to raise an eyebrow at Milar.  “Got a level head on your shoulders, eh, boy?  Sure you don’t wanna join up?”  He chuckled.

“Pretty sure,” Milar said, popping a new clip into his gun.  This one he aimed at Steele’s face.

The SuperSquader straightened, watching his weapon with alert curiosity.  “And what have you there?  Another fun little trinket for our scientists to unravel?”

“I’d call it more of an electronic enema.”  Milar said, smiling.  On the ground, the Nephyrs’ dying comrades were still screaming.

“He’s bluffing,” Steele said.  “Energy signature’s not right.”  Then, grimacing, he turned and said, “And shut those four up.  They’re dead anyway.”

The two Nephyrs behind Steele gave their writhing comrades a hesitant look.  “Sir,” one of them said, “if we could get them to quarantine—”

Steele reached out, grabbed the Nephyr by the head, and yanked him close.  “Do you really think,” Steele said, “those idiots are going to survive a war until we can get them to a hermetically sealed room?”

“But it’s just the skin,” the man said from under Steele’s palm.  “It’s replaceable—”

“Really?” Steele said calmly, “show me.”  And with that, Steele made a face of concentration and started to squeeze, straining.  To Milar’s shock, he watched Steele’s fingers sink, little by little, through his comrade’s energy field.  At first, the Nephyr he held frowned at him, looking confused, but then jerked and started trying to push away.  The second Nephyr took a nervous step back as Steele’s fingers finally penetrated his companion’s energy barrier, immediately lost all resistance, and punctured the man’s skull.  The man’s cranium collapsed, and gray matter squirted from his open eye sockets.  As it did, the energy barrier over his body fizzled out, leaving yet another naked Nephyr.

Relaxing, Steele threw the twitching man to the side and flicked brain tissue from his fingers.

That, Milar thought, taking a step back, shouldn’t be possible.

“Now,” Steele said to the survivor, “shut the others up and watch the hall while I deal with these two.”

Without hesitation, the remaining Nephyr efficiently began crushing the larynxes of his companions, eliciting strangled gurgles as their flayed bodies kept kicking, hands desperately reaching for their friends’ legs, then eventually went still.

Jersey, too, was backing away.  “Miles?” he asked.  “Got any ideas what the fuck?”

“Got an idea,” Milar said grimly.  “He’s one of the original Nephyrs.”

“The man gets a hug!” Colonel Steele cried in faux merriment.  His arms were clasped behind his back as he casually kept pace with them.  He grinned.  “Now.  Which one of you wants to die to save your more worthy companion?”

Milar snorted.  “We don’t die that easy, Fluffles.”

Steele laughed.  “Oh, I assure you.  You do.”  He glanced at Jersey.  “But I’ll wait until one of you picks first.  Then I’ll let the other one go tell everyone what a coward he is.”

“Yeah, I heard about your choices, Steele,” Jersey spat.  “Fuck you, little man.”

Colonel Steele cocked his head at Milar curiously.  “So you want him to die?”

“Yeah, right,” Milar snorted.  He raised his gun—

Steele lunged forward and shoved Jersey through a wall, while at the same time kicking the gun out of Milar’s hand so hard that both metal and bones shattered from the impact.  Then he had Milar by the throat, his smooth, glassy skin like cold marble around Milar’s neck.  “Choose.  One of you to live.  Right now.”

Milar bit down a scream and struggled against the sudden animal panic that was building inside from being held in that way by a Nephyr.  Looking into Steele’s cold blue eyes, they both knew that it would only take a twitch of Steele’s fingers to kill him.  “Fuck you,” he managed.  His hands, though, were trembling.

Steele cocked his head, recognizing something within Milar.  To his horror, the man started to grin.  “I’ll be damned.  Those three months in cadet intake…  You developed a phobia, didn’t you, Miles?”

“You’re so full of shit it’s—”

The Nephyr squeezed ever so slightly, and Milar shuddered with a whimper, his whole body locking up in sudden terror.  Even his broken hand tightened in reflex, eliciting a shudder.

Steele grinned.  “The big bad Nephyr hunter—how many have they attributed to you, now?  Thirty?—is afraid of his own prey.”

“It’s more like fifty,” Milar rasped, but his voice betrayed him.  It broke in time with the shaking of his body, until all Milar could think about was the hand around his neck, and the razors they’d used to cut his skin off his body, eleven years ago.

It’s not the same guy, Milar tried to convince himself.  He wasn’t the one who did it.

“This is delightful,” Steele laughed.  He turned to find Jersey crawling out of the debris from the wall he’d just punched through.  “Brackett, did you know your friend, here, is terrified of you?  Watch!”  He reached out and gently pinched Milar’s right pectoral, grinning.  Milar heard himself whimper like a frightened kid.

“Leave him alone,” Jersey growled, tugging a big chunk of concrete from the rubble.

Steele laughed and squeezed harder, clamping Milar’s windpipe shut.  Unable to breathe, faced with the cold eyes of a Nephyr, Milar felt himself losing control.  He started to thrash, but it was like kicking a pillar of glass.

“Pick, Brackett,” Steele insisted.  “His life or yours?  Who is gonna live through this little exchange?”

Jersey’s response was to hit Steele in the back with a few hundred pounds of concrete, making it explode into particles across the hall, peppering Milar with pulverized rock.  Milar barely felt the rock chips that embedded in his skin—between his terror, the pain in his broken hand, and the Nephyr completely shutting off his air, his world was narrowing to the translucent arm that held him.

“Ow,” Steele sneered.  As Milar twisted and kicked at him in desperation, Steele turned to face Jersey, who was picking up another massive chunk of rock.  “And just what are you going to do with that, princess?  Hit me over the—”  The Nephyr’s voice caught as his attention drifted past Jersey to something further down the hallway, at where his lackey was squatting over the corpse of one of his dead companions, examining the puncture wounds Steele had left in the man’s skull curiously.  From the end of the hallway, an unarmed woman in prisoner’s orange was casually walking up behind him, maybe five-five, five-six at most.  Her skin was dark, near-black, and her eyes were reflecting a bright amber from the white halls, even from this distance.  Her arms and face, exposed to the harsh fluorescent light, almost seemed to shimmer with sweat.

“Shit,” Steele whispered, releasing Milar in a spasm.  “Shit.”  He started backing away, letting Milar fall to his knees, his airway suddenly open again.  Milar sucked in a frantic breath, then another, crawling desperately from Steele, towards Jersey.

A moment later, the squatting Nephyr in the hall noticed the approaching prisoner and stood up.  “Hey,” he growled, “nobody told you you could—”

The prisoner punched the Nephyr’s head off.

What was left of the Nephyr’s skull slid down the opposite wall in a paste, and the rest of his corpse folded over onto the floor in front of the newcomer.

The woman in orange glanced at Jersey, then Steele, then Milar.  Lips pressed together in a grim line, she stepped over the corpse and started towards them.

Steele spun and ran.

The woman in orange immediately shifted her attention to Jersey, never slowing.  As she got closer, it was quite clear that her skin had an unnatural hue, almost like it was eating the light, and it wasn’t the overhead lights making her eyes glow.  Jersey stumbled backwards, blinking in confusion.

The prisoner reached the rubble created in Jersey’s scuffle with Steele and started over it with inhuman smoothness, heading for the only Nephyr that remained in the hall.  Jersey, looking startled, was holding up both hands in peace.

Milar realized the woman planned to kill Magali’s lover-boy like she’d killed the first.  The woman pulled back a fist…

“Wait,” Milar croaked, barely able to make his throat work.  “He’s…okay.”

The redheaded woman hesitated.  Very slowly, she turned to look down at Milar.  “You’re David’s protégé?”

“Yeah,” Milar managed.

“And you vouch for this guy?”  She gestured with a dismissive thumb at Jersey, who had his back up against the wall, watching the woman warily.

Milar grimaced, and even though it was against every fiber of his being, he nodded.

The prisoner lowered her hand, but she didn’t look happy.  She was scowling at Jersey, then turned back to squint at where Steele had disappeared.  “Damn it.  You guys just blew a six month operation.”

As the woman spoke, her dark, light-eating skin shifted back to an almost sickly white to match her fiery red hair.  Her eyes lost their yellow hue, becoming a vivid, leaf green.  “I was this close to catching that bastard.  He was scheduled to visit my cell tomorrow.”

“What…”  Jersey flinched when the woman whipped around to glare at him.  “Are you?” he squeaked.

The woman gave a very unladylike grunt.  “Don’t know what you’re talking about.”  She grinned and clapped Jersey on the shoulder.  “Good job punching that Nephyr’s head off, though.  Real scary skills, man.”

Jersey blinked and shied away from her, obviously confused.  “But I didn’t—”

The woman’s smile slipped and her green eyes sharpened.

“Yep,” Jersey said quickly.  “Sometimes I don’t know my own strength.”

“Must be all those drugs they feed you in the Academy,” the redhead said, still watching Jersey carefully.

“Right.  Drugs.”  Jersey gave a nervous laugh, but made no move to leave the relative safety of the wall.

The prisoner grunted again and turned to look at the exit.  “Where the fuck is David?  I can’t believe he’s letting that floater run around on his planet.”

Milar winced at ‘his’ planet, because that’s exactly how Landborn had acted the entire time Milar had been living under his roof—like the planet belonged to him, and everyone living on it, including Milar and his siblings, were uninvited guests.  “David’s dead.”

The woman’s eyes sharpened.  “How?”

“Geo’s goons came in the night and—”

The woman interrupted him with a snort.  “Knew Steele’s too much of a pussy to try to do it himself.  Figures.”  She sighed.  “Ah, well.  I just spent six months eating meat puree packets and oatmeal for nothing.  Wouldn’t be the first time.”  She glanced behind them at the empty hall—the technicians and clerks had dropped their weapons and bolted when brains had started squirting from skulls.  “Take it Dave finally kicked off the rebellion, then?”

“David’s dead,” Milar repeated.

“But you are rebelling?”  She seemed almost curious.  Then, frowning, she caught sight of the destroyed altrameter musker sprawled on the floor.  “Ooh.  I love those swords.”  She walked over, easily yanked one free—shattering the musker’s titanium, death-locked fingers in the process—and spun it this way and that, grinning like a kid.  “I’ve got a collection.  Did you know they change the poem on the blade depending on the year it was made?”

Milar, who had never gotten a good look at a musker sword, just shook his head.

The orange-clad stranger expertly offered up one side of the sword for Milar’s perusal.  He swallowed and straightened at the proximity of the sword’s monomolecular edge to his neck, but, when she didn’t cut his throat with it, took a moment to read the inscription.  Stamped into the wavy blue-black steel just under the blood-holes were several lines of calligraphic text, but in a language Milar had never seen before—and Milar knew a lot of languages.

She must have noticed his confusion.  “It’s Old Japani,” the woman said.  “The company that produced the swords made them throughout the War.  Supplied ’em to the Alliance to fight the Tritons, right up until the Encompate disbanded the company and executed the family that made them as sympathizers.  Good stuff.  Works great.”  She grinned at them again, but there was a very clear warning in her gaze as she flipped the sword over her petite shoulder to settle on her deltoid with a practiced flick that left Milar’s nerves humming.  “I love the way every poem is different, and I’ve seen them all.”

Beside him, Jersey swallowed hard, and Milar was right there with him.  Nobody spoke Old Japani.  Not even Magali’s little brat sister.  It had been purged.  Speakers of it had been labeled sympathizers by the Encompate and killed or exiled after the war, since the Tritons’ native language had been Old Japani.

“Yeah,” Milar said, clearing his throat, “poem probably says something about long live the Coalition or some bullshit.”

The stranger’s gaze never wavered from Milar’s face.  “Actually, it says, ‘May the passage of time be whittled away by the blade of perpetual bliss.’  Belonged to an elite soldier before they confiscated them all after the Sun Dogs got Giu Xi.  Man that was fun.  When they finally took the Platinum City, the Dogs burned his palace and buried his six councilors alive in this huge pit, like five or six miles deep.  Sirius carved it out with a ship’s cannon so that bitch Ari could die a slow, miserable death for the twisted shit she pulled on Dormus.  She was claustrophobic.  Screamed for weeks—had a recorder down there, transmitting.”  The woman was grinning, and the way she said it, she was there.  Talking about a battle that took place a hundred and forty years ago like it was yesterday…

Oh shit, Milar thought.  Oh shit, oh shit.

Milar swallowed, realizing the stranger was watching him very closely.  Like a predator.  Immediately, he started to feel sick.  If she was telling the truth, the woman before them was either a Triton or an AlphaGen, and Milar didn’t know which was worse.  Both of them were supposedly all dead.  Myths.  Great warriors that destroyed whole cities in their epic clashes.  Horror stories told to little children who didn’t behave.

Apparently, Jersey was having the same thought, because the Nephyr’s face looked as stunned as Milar felt.

The perky redhead cocked her head to examine the rippling blue-black blade with unmistakable reverence.  “Sword’s looked exactly the same since the War.  Not a scratch on it.  God I love these things.  Did you know originally, they were made to be energized to puncture Triton armor?”

Milar shook his head, because, like Old Japani, all the records pertaining to the Tritons had been destroyed in the Purge.  Most people didn’t even know that the Sun Dogs had existed, but he’d been there when Anna hacked the Encompate’s private files, and the Sun Dogs, an ultra-specialized team of AlphaGen special ops, had featured prominently in many of the top-secret sections.  Anna had spent a couple minutes reading about the Dogs’ near single-handed defeat of the Tritons before getting bored and moving on to experimental weaponry.  He now wished he’d shoved her away from the console and read the file from front to back.

“Only certain people can activate the swords, though.  Special people.”  The woman sighed wistfully, but on her shoulder, the sword was taking on an odd golden shimmer similar to that weird layer above her skin, which made Milar and Jersey both take a nervous step backwards.

The redhead grinned.  “Works on Nephyrs too, incidentally, since they stole their skin technology from the Tritons after the Encompate banned the swords.”  The luminescence faded from the katana’s blade like it had never been.  She then adeptly flipped the sword from her shoulder and chipped the floor where she drove the tip into the linoleum, then casually leaned on it.  “So.  Guys.  What have we learned?”

“To keep our mouths shut,” Milar said.

The redhead turned to look up at Jersey, who nodded vigorously.

“And?” the woman insisted.

“That Jersey is really, really strong,” Milar said.

“Indeed.”  She grinned, then yanked the sword out of the floor.  Holding out her hand, she said, “Kestrel Klaane.  My friends call me KayKay.”

Milar glanced down at her pale, delicate hand and swallowed.  Reluctantly, he slid his unbroken hand into hers, surprised that the grip that had shattered titanium musker fingers felt totally human and normal.  “Milar Whitecliff.  Friends call me Miles.”

“Hey Miles.”  She turned to Jersey.  “And our shy little glitterbug over there?”  She raised a brow.  “You got a name, dude?”

“Jersey Brackett,” Jersey said.  He made no move to leave the wall, though.

She seemed to think that was funny.  “Well, lead on, my brave and heroic rescuers.  I am in your debt for saving me from the big, bad glassware.”  She made a grand gesture at the exit.

“Actually,” Jersey started, “Milar’s brother is—”

“Not here,” Kestrel said.  “I’m guessing maybe the secret installation under Camphor.”

Jersey and Milar glanced at each other, the cyborg obviously wondering if Milar wanted to argue with the five-foot-five woman with the sword.

“Okay,” Milar said.

Hesitantly, Jersey said, “Anna’s robot got all the Ferrises and Gryphons, but I think there’s still some security guys in the east wing that need pacifying.”

She gave a grunt like he’d offered to let her dip her hands into shit.  “Not interested in humans.  The infantry can take care of the ragtag crew that’s left in there.”  She cocked her head.  “But if we see Steele again, pause for a moment while I disembowel the cowardly fuck.”  She gave a deep, wistful sigh.  “Doubt he hung around, though.  Orion’s little toady has a habit of slipping through the cracks.”  She waved a manicured hand dismissively.  “Oh well.  I’ll get him later.  Until then, take me to your leader.”  She slammed the sword back into the hallway floor, burying it to the hilt.  “I wanna join up.  Ace pilot, you see.  Best one you’ll ever meet.  Can fly anything with wings, and some without.  Just give me your best ship and I’ll win the war for you.”  She grinned at them both, obviously excited at the idea of being behind the console.

Milar and Jersey exchanged nervous looks.  “Uh,” Milar said, thinking of Tatiana and her vehement dibs on Honor, should Joel ever wind up inexplicably dead or horribly decapitated, or even ‘sick, mind-diseased, zombified, or even slightly mutilated in a way that impedes his ability to fly that ship.’  Tatiana had gone on to insist that a migraine, persistent cough, or even a stubbed little toe counted, because it would distract Joel from the task at hand, and might even get blood on the sensitive equipment.  Clearing his throat, Milar said, “We’ve got some really good pilots that are already first in line.”

Kestrel’s green eyes narrowed.  “Honey.  Think really hard about the last ten minutes and tell me you’ve got one goddamn rebel on Fortune who wouldn’t want me flying the best damned ship you can give me.”

Milar swallowed.  He had a pretty good idea where the biggest objections would come from…

CHAPTER 29: Fight or Flight

Fortune's Folly

7th of June, 3006

Rath (Personnel Section)

Fortune, Daytona 6 Cluster, Outer Bounds

Fortune's Folly
Magali took a deep breath, felt the air kicked up by the ship’s engines on her face, and struggled not to shy away as the first outlying farms of Rath came into view cut into the endless emerald jungle beneath them.  Her heart was hammering uncontrollably, and her knees refused to hold her, so she had resorted to leaning against a stability bar to keep from falling out the back of the aircraft.  Again, she was struck with the horrible realization that Jersey wasn’t going to be there with her because she’d left him to fight robots on the military side of Rath while she and her crew went to the civilian side and took out key infrastructure like propane reserves, solar panels, and water plants.

A hail of tungsten orbital missiles whistled by at Mach 10, precisely taking out the anti-aircraft facilities in concussive, fiery blasts that flattened several square blocks of the base far below.  Anna, the little bitch, had come through on that at least.

“They got the anti-aircraft!” Drogire said over the intercom.  “Fifteen seconds to drop!”

Oh no, Magali thought, looking at the city below.  Her men—good men—were going to expect her to lead them, to kill, and if she didn’t, there was a good chance that everybody—everyone—was going to die…

What had she been thinking, sending Jersey with Milar?  She needed him…

“Almost there,” Pan said, startling her.  The eight-year-old was wearing full combat gear in case stray weapons-fire hit the ship during disembarkation, his long blond hair braided and tucked inside a proper-sized helmet.  His feet, as usual, were bare.  “You gonna be okay?”

“Fine,” Magali whispered, swallowing hard.  Rath was getting closer fast, and as soon as they landed, Magali had to lead again.  Alone.

“You’re gonna be fine,” Pan said, putting his child’s hand on her arm.

Magali jerked away from him.  “What do you know about it?”

Pan jerked back, looking confused and hurt, but said nothing more as the ship’s engines roared as Drogire reversed their flow.

Magali watched the buildings of Rath slide under the wings, then over the wings.  She felt the ship’s feet unfold, felt the thumps as it settled to the pavement of the empty street.

“You’re good to go!” Drogire shouted over the com.

Seeing the soldiers in Coalition black swarming behind the buildings, Magali opened her mouth to scream, “Attack!”  …but nothing happened.  Her throat was too tight, and it didn’t feel like she had enough air in her lungs.

Out in the streets, the guys behind the buildings started shooting at them.  A bullet bounced off the interior of the ship, followed by an energy beam.  Someone in the ship behind Magali screamed and fell.

She swallowed hard several times, feeling the tenseness, the stares of everyone on the ship assaulting her as they waited for her to give the command.  She opened her mouth again.

Instead of giving the command to attack, she started to hyperventilate.  “Shit,” she whispered.  “God.  Shit.”  She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t see, couldn’t think…  She slid down the wall to her ass, clutching her stomach and gasping.

“Close the hatch!” Pan shouted.  When no one moved, he pointed at a blinking smuggler by the door.  “You.  Darrion.  Close it!  Wu, grab the medkit—make sure there’s nanos!  Kelsey, help me get her in the cockpit.  Stone, get up front and tell Eyre and the other captains to unload on those fuckers with ship cannon until Mag gives the order.  Move!”

For once, Magali was grateful that the little Yolk Baby shit commanded such respect that even hardened veterans jumped to do his bidding.  Kelsey and Panner got her back on her feet and into the front of the ship, out of sight of all the worried, nervous grunts.  They lowered her to the floor beside the pilot’s chair and closed the cockpit hatch.

“Medkit right here!” Wu cried, running up and cracking it open on the console.

“What’s going on?!” Drogire cried, looking over his shoulder at the intrusion.  Beside him, Tatiana Eyre was still focused on manning the guns, taking out hostiles on the ground.  She and her pet ‘tabby’ had snuck onto the ship while Magali had been briefing everyone back at base, and, after finding the petite woman clinging to the pilot’s console with a narrow-eyed death-grip, those creepy green lights blinking in her forehead and a baby ganshi snarling at her feet, nobody really had the balls to make her leave.

“Magali’s been hit,” Panner cried.  “Sniper on the ground.  Wu, Stone, Kelsey, get back out there and keep them calm.  We’re giving her thirty seconds with some nanos, then we’re launching.”

The three wide-eyed soldiers gave Magali nervous looks, then rushed out of the cockpit at a run.  Panner closed the door behind them.

“I wasn’t hit,” Magali managed.

“I know,” Panner said.  He squatted beside her.  “But you’ve gotta pull it together, or this whole thing is gonna fall apart, right here, right now.”

Magali felt the biggest wave of resentment she’d ever felt for another human being.  “This is not my Revolution.  I never wanted to fight!”

“No,” Panner agreed, with that suave, easy way of his, “but if you don’t, they won’t.  You saw the way they were milling around, waiting for you.  They need you out there, Magali.  You’re their rock.  They need—”

I don’t want to be their fucking rock!” Magali screamed at him.

“Never said you did,” Pan replied smoothly.  “But you are.”

“What are we doing?!” Drogire demanded over his shoulder again.  “A fucking pep talk?  Are you fucking serious?”

“Shut up and shoot the bad guys,” Pan said, without even looking.  To Magali, he said, “Look, as far as I can see, you’re the one person in this whole conflict who doesn’t have a dog in this fight.”  His words were gentle, kind.  “But life’s not fair, and like it or not, you’ve got the lives of six million people riding squarely on your shoulders.”  He put his tiny, half-grown hand on her shoulder for emphasis.  “It’s a heavy burden.”

“Oh come on,” Tatiana Eyre snapped, lunging out of her seat and rolling her eyes.  She grabbed the kid by the scruff of the neck, yanked him out of the way, and squatted down in front of Magali in his place.  “You okay there, sister?”

Sister.  Even after what Anna had done…  Magali’s eyes were immediately drawn to the blinking lights in Tatiana’s forehead, put there care of her demented little sister.  Anna could have done that to me

Magali shook her head, biting her lip.

“You’re shook up,” Captain Eyre said, looking her over.  “Thinking about saying ‘float it’ and going to live on some island paradise on Deluvi.”

“She’s having a panic attack,” Panner interrupted.  “I need to get her back out there and lead, or everything’s gonna—”

“Drogire, kid.”  Captain Eyre gestured rapidly at Pan without looking at him.  “Out of my cockpit.  Now.”

Drogire grunted.  “But the guys on the street—”

“—are shooting at us with projectiles and handheld energy weapons,” Tatiana snapped.  “That’s what the reflective, three-foot hull is for.  Get him out of here.  Magali and I need to have some girl-time.”

Drogire stared at her like the good Captain really was going mad.  And, if Milar’s stories were any indication, she was probably high as a kite.  “Um, I don’t think that’s—”

Captain Eyre turned and gave him a Look.  Kind of like the look someone gives a mosquito that they’re about to enjoy smearing across their forearm.  Beside her, the knee-high ganshi had lazily gotten to his feet, cocking its head at the pilot expectantly.

Maybe it was the blinking lights in Tatiana’s forehead, or maybe it was the Look, or maybe it was the mythical beast that was calmly extruding its fangs, but either way, Drogire dropped his gunner’s stick and ran from the cockpit, dragging the protesting eight-year-old with him.  When it was evident there wouldn’t be a fight, the striped gray ganshi gave an unmistakably wistful sigh, padded back to his ‘corner’, and immediately went back to sleep.

“All right, girly,” Tatiana said, reaching out and grabbing Magali by the shoulders and leaning forward.  “What’s going on in there?”

And, with that simple question, everything Magali had been stuffing away, all of her angst and fear and regret, all of her rage, all of the unfairness, all of it came spewing out in a half-sob, half-babble that not even she could understand.

But Tatiana did.  “Okay, well,” she said, “it’s true you never wanted this.  I get that.  Believe me, I get that.”  She tapped the node Anna had put in her head.  “But guess what, honey?  You got a talent not many people have, just like me.  Sure, yours means you’ve gotta get in there and get your hands dirty, but at least you don’t have to lock yourself in a dark bubble of goo for sometimes several days straight, your body paralyzed, tubes connecting your heart and brain to a machine, only your mind at work while people are shooting at you, blowing holes in your lifeline, all the while wondering if you’re ever gonna see the sun or breathe fresh air again.  That sucks.”

Magali supposed it did.  “But I wanted to be a farmer,” she managed.  “I wanted to have kids.”  She’d been willing to do anything to get away from her father and his paramilitary crap, even if it meant trying to convince herself and everyone else she was in love.

“You wanted to get yourself pregnant so your Dad would stop forcing you to play his war-games.  Yeah, I know.”  She cocked her head.  “Does Patrick know that?”

Magali’s eyes widened.  “So you do—”

“—read minds, yeah.”  Tatiana shrugged.  “Kind of impossible not to, when you’re two feet away and screaming at the top of your mental lungs about how much your life sucks.”

Magali winced.  “Don’t tell Patrick, okay?  I didn’t really want to leave Fortune, but if I didn’t do something, Dad was gonna keep me doing those stupid games forever.”

“So you were gonna get pregnant, then ‘forget’ to take the boat to Mezzan with him.  Tatiana grunted and patted Magali’s arm.  “It’s all good.  Daddy sounds like a bastard.”

Magali immediately felt herself clam up, being one of those people who always found herself unable to say something bad about someone she loved.

“You loved him.  He was still a bastard.”  Tatiana shrugged.  “Look.  Tootz.  You sent my sexy hunk to take out the muskers, which I didn’t really agree with, but you’re in charge, so whatever.  But you did send him.  And that cute-but-cheats-at-cards Nephyr, too.  They’re both on the other side of Rath as we speak, cleaning out facilities that no sane person would try to take on unless they were shroomed up, and guess what?”

“What?” Magali whispered.

“They’re gonna win,” Tatiana said, her purple-blue eyes intense.  “You know how I know?”

Magali shook her head.

Tatiana grinned and lowered her eyes to Magali’s chest, which strained against the armor.  “Because you got knockers to make a nun cry, and a couple of studs like that, they’re not gonna be outdone by a pretty, boobalicious girl.”

Magali felt herself smile a little.

Tatiana gestured at the city beyond the ship.  “There’s Nephyrs out there, Miss Mag.  Lots of them.  The only reason this part of the mission even got OK’d was you were gonna be out there with the hit squad.  Hell, you are the hit squad.  I’ve seen what the Nephs can do to people with pitchforks and projectiles.  Believe me, honey, it’s not pretty.  You need to adjust your thong and get your ass back out there, before the Nephyrs get here, or a lot of people are gonna die on your watch.”

“But I don’t want to be on ‘watch,’” Magali cried, throwing her arm up in frustration.  “I never did!  They just expect me to.”

Tatiana shrugged.  “Don’t do it ’cause those idiots out there are expecting you to.  Do it ’cause, at the end of the day, you wanna look all those idiots in the eye again, not drop flowers on their coffins. You get me?”  She squeezed Magali’s shoulder again.  “They’re some badass sheep, but they need a shepherd,” she paused and grabbed Magali by the chin, forcing her to look up at her again, “and you’re the only one carrying a crook.”

Magali swallowed hard.  “Okay,” she whispered.

Tatiana nonetheless held her jaw a few moments longer, peering into her eyes.  Eventually, she said, “Good.”  She stood, holding out her hand to help Magali to her feet.  “Now let’s go kick some Nephyr ass.”  Immediately, the ganshi cub lunged to his feet with what was unmistakably a growl of enthusiasm.

Magali frowned at ‘let’s,’ but Tatiana went to the door, yanking a familiar Laserat from her belt.  At seeing Milar’s gun, Magali blurted, “What are you doing?”

“I’m going to take down Rath with you,” Tatiana said cheerfully.  Then, looking Magali up and down, she shrugged.  “Or Babe and I are about to run out into the streets, all alone, and get shot completely to shit.”

The ganshi growled something and Tatiana cocked her head, her near-purple eyes going distant.

“No,” Tatiana said, “he says I would be the only one shot to shit, because he’s got bulletproof fur.”  She shook herself.  “Lucky him.  Glad it’s good for something—it’s hell to rub up against with a bare leg in the middle of the night.  I seriously thought I was gonna need stitches.”

Magali swallowed, eyes on the ganshi.  The cub gave her a placid look back, like it was waiting for her to hurry up and adjust her thong so he could sink his claws into something interesting.

“But I won’t get shot,” Tatiana said.  “Patrick’s drawn pictures of me in places I haven’t seen before, so I’m guessing you’re gonna be there to keep that from happening.”  She reached for the door.  The ganshi immediately moved to the exit with her.

Magali grabbed the woman’s hand and tugged it back.  “What are you doing?!  You’re not suited up, you don’t have armor…”

Tatiana grinned.  “I’ve got you.  Even better than armor, from what I’ve been told.”  Then she elbowed the button for the hatch and, using Magali’s grip on her arm, dragged her through the crowd on the dropship, towards the exit, the striped gray ganshi right on their heels.  “Open the gate!” she roared.  “Now, you pansy-ass collie bitches!  Took three whole tubes of nanos, but now she’s back, and she’s pissed!”

Magali stumbled behind her tiny escort, once again feeling the stares pounding at her from all sides as rugged, full grown men hastily stepped out of the way to let the diminutive cyborg woman and her unwilling burden through.

Then the gate was opening, and snipers were peppering the crack with bullets.

Seeing Tatiana about to take a hit, Magali’s instincts slammed into gear.  She yanked the smaller cyborg behind her and drew her weapon, aiming at the ever-widening stream of sunlight.  The moment she could see beyond the hull, she located a Nephyr sniper at the top of the building nine hundred feet down the road.  She put a beam through the scope lens, then ducked and yanked Tatiana out of the way as his own round went careening past her cheek.  She found another sniper on the opposite building, seven hundred and fifty feet away.  She shot that one, too, again spinning them both aside before his round hit home.  Tatiana, clinging to her, shrieked in what sounded like glee.

“Stay here!” Magali shouted at Tatiana, who had the back of Magali’s shirt in a death-grip.  She hesitated at the open ramp, waiting for Tatiana to release her.

“Hell no!” Tatiana laughed back.  “I’m buzzed, and this is more fun than I’ve had in weeks!”  Her ganshi cub had already lunged out the open hatch and was bounding toward the buildings and the gunmen they were hiding.

Magali cursed, but didn’t have time to worry about that because a squad of sixteen Nephyrs was charging out from behind one of the closest structures, aiming to get at the open hatch and, doubtless, grind up the meat inside.

It was like Magali’s world came to a sudden standstill as, upon seeing those death-dealers on the way to hurt her friends, a secondary set of instincts engaged.  Suddenly totally calm, she raised her gun and walked out onto the ramp as she started firing.  Nephyrs hit the dirt, sometimes plowing into the ground at her feet, and she stepped over them and kept walking.  Atop one of the buildings directly above them, a man with a rifle fired at her, grazing her shoulder.  Giving him a split second glance to locate him, Magali shot him in the head, then kept pushing into the bowels of Rath.  The resulting thud less than a yard away as his limp body hit the ground made Tatiana squeal and jump.

“You’re like a machine!” Tatiana cried.  “God, they told me, but to see it myself is so totally awesome!”  She threw back her head and let out a shrieking cackle of glee.

Pausing, Magali spun, grabbed Tatiana by the scruff of her cute pilot’s T-shirt, dragged her close, and said, “The sound of your high-pitched, squeaky voice attracts enemy attention.  If you’re going to follow me, you’re going to shut up.”  As she spoke, she raised her arm and shot another Nephyr that was running at her, his arms open in a bear-hug.  “You compromise this mission because you are high, I will shoot you myself.”  The Nephyr went down in a spray of dirt, spattering dust and broken cobbles over Tatiana’s clean, pampered face.  He was still alive—the bullet had ricocheted off the skull, but lodged inside his skin, so he started screaming and holding his head, thrashing on the dirt.  Magali knelt, grabbed his head by its glassy surface, and twisted it back on itself with an audible pop.  The Nephyr went still, only toes and forearms jerking.  Then Magali stood, cocking her head at Tatiana.  “Understand?”

Swallowing, wiping dirt from her eyes, Tatiana just stared at the dead Nephyr, then up at her, pale as snow.

Taking that for an affirmative, Magali said, “Let’s go.”  She turned and started towards the launch pad, which the rebels had determined to be their first priority.  Behind the garbage harvester in one of the alleys ahead of them, a man started screaming as the ganshi cub yowled.  A moment later, a gunman that had obviously intended to ambush them lunged from the alley, the ganshi trailing him, clawing at his legs.  Howling, the man spun and raised his rifle to the cub’s head.  Magali put a beam through him before he could pull the trigger, and, as the corpse collapsed, the ganshi lifted its head proudly and padded back to them with its chest puffed out.  Captain Eyre didn’t say a word when the kitten rubbed against her leg—shredding her jeans—before bounding back into the fray—she kept looking back at the Nephyr whose neck Magali had snapped.

They met plenty of resistance along the way, but Tatiana trailed behind Magali so silently that Magali had to check a couple times to make sure she was there.  Eventually, once they found a quiet moment in the shelter of a Rathian whorehouse only a few blocks from the barracks launch pad, Tatiana said, “You’re not human.”

Magali, who was listening to the sound of six men approaching four hundred and seventeen feet down the street to the north—Nephyrs, by the sound the specialized high-heat combat rubber of their boots made gently padding against the cobbles—turned to frown at Tatiana.  “What?”

“You’re not human,” Tatiana whispered.  “I don’t know what you are, but it’s not human.”

Remembering Anna always calling her a ‘robot’ whenever she wanted to be hurtful, Magali stiffened, despite herself.  “If you’ve been talking to my sister—”

“Mag,” Tatiana said, sounding sorrowful.  “I work with machines.  I can recognize a goddamn machine when I see one.”

Magali felt every hair on her body stand on end—that, in itself, was proof to her that the woman was full of shit.  “Oh yeah?  Would a machine have these?” she demanded, jabbing her arm under Tatiana’s face, showing her the goosebumps.

Tatiana glanced down at the goosebumps and looked surprised.

“Just keep your head down,” Magali growled.  “Come on.”  She stood, and Tatiana rose with her.  As Captain Eyre turned to follow Magali from the room, however, Magali caught her by the shirt again and leaned down until their faces almost touched.  “And if you ever call me a ‘machine’ again, you little twit, I’ll eviscerate you and leave you for the tadflies.”

Tatiana swallowed, but nodded.

Magali released her disgustedly.  “Let’s go.”

“Come on, Babe,” Tatiana called softly, gesturing for the panting ganshi cub to get back to its feet from the impromptu rest-break it was taking in the corner of a table booth.  Its face and feet were crimson with enemy blood, though all of its ‘kills’ so far had belonged to Magali.  In truth, it had been more helpful in flushing the enemy from their shooting positions like an excited hunting dog than actually neutralizing opponents.  One couldn’t have guessed that from the lavish praise Tatiana had given it, however.  If the cyborg’s gushings were any indication, Babe had just won the day for the colonists completely on his own merits.

But had they won?  Magali still wasn’t sure where they stood in their campaign.  The sounds of fighting had slowed in the city around her, and the Nephyrs had stopped climbing out of the woodwork to challenge her over an hour ago, but Magali felt like they’d simply pulled back their forces, readying themselves for another assault.  The comm guy was somewhere behind her with the main force, as Magali had taken point to draw the Nephyrs out of hiding.

But had she gotten them all?  She listened, heart pounding.

Magali could still hear the six sets of Coalition boots approaching outside—and, while five of them wore standard heat-resistant Nephyr boots, the leader wore a size ten ultralight combat SileTech, made of a softer, more high-tech material than anything they could produce in the Bounds, and usually only available to high-ranking Nephyrs due to the prohibitive cost and onboard tech.  Judging from the pattern of stride and crunch of glass as he walked, the Nephyr was a man of approximately six foot two and three hundred and forty-nine pounds, with a slight favoring of his left leg due to a heavy weapon, most likely some form of RPG or energy cannon.  The most obvious targets would be his eyes and mouth, because she could hear the unmistakable hum of electrons powering several energy barriers.

One of the five non-SileTech-wearers shouted, “Intel says the leader’s in there!”  A moment later, energy blasts took out one side of the whorehouse, and the front façade collapsed, leaving Colonel Steele and five pissed-off Nephyrs standing there.

As soon as their eyes met, Colonel Steele’s smug face shifted to something akin to shock.  Blue eyes locked on her, Steele lowered the energy cannon, contemplating her like a luminescent rat he had caught digging through trash in a back alley.  “Well, hello,” he leered.  “Where’ve you been, little hen?”

“Shoot him,” Tatiana whispered, leaning close.  “That guy’s SuperSquad.  Get him.”

But all of Magali’s instincts had fled her, leaving her standing there in horror, remembering being all alone on that cliff, cold Nephyr hands holding her down…

“I’ll be damned,” one of the Nephyrs with him said, tearing his attention away from the sky like the others.  “Isn’t that the egger we killed from that revolt at Yolk Factory 14?  That’s the leader of the rebellion?”

…the egger we killed…  Magali felt cold dread welling up from within, suddenly finding it hard to breathe.

Steele chuckled.  “Looks like she remembers us.”  He cocked his head at Magali.  “Ran into your Nephyr boyo back in the Lockbox.  That was fun.  First challenge in at least a couple weeks.”

Shoot him,” Tatiana hissed into Magali’s ear.

But Magali’s whole body was shaking, that terror overwhelming her all over again.  He got Jersey…

Steele scoffed.  “Well, boys, looks like we can end this ‘rebellion’ right now.  Grab her.  We’re taking her with us to the Orbital.”

Three of the five companions smoothly stepped forward, stalking towards Magali with grim purpose.  Magali, for her own part, felt paralyzed, totally incapable of even running away.  Her heart was hammering, and once again, she remembered just how much Nephyrs terrified her…

The ganshi’s shrill, high-pitched scream snapped her out of it.  It leapt past Magali, silver claws out and splayed wide, and launched itself at the lead Nephyr, its snarl more intense than anything Magali had seen from it before.  Before it could fully sink its claws into an opponent, however, the ganshi cub got slapped aside by a dark-faced Steele.  It howled and flailed as it hit the ground and skidded uncontrollably across the floor with the sound of metal-on-tile, the momentum bringing it crashing into the wall and knocking it out cold.

“What the fuck?!” Steele snapped, blinking down at deep rakes in his skin.  “Is that a…  Shit!”  As the Nephyr moved forward, clearly intending to stomp the stunned creature, Tatiana started spamming the trigger of Milar’s Laserat at the Nephyr.

“Don’t touch him!” Tatiana screamed, firing ineffectively and before the gun was ready, haphazardly bouncing laser strikes in all directions from Steele’s reflective skin.  Faced with that abuse, the gun lost charge in seconds, leaving the cyborg ammo-less and stammering, the whorehouse around them seared and burning.  Captain Eyre looked down at her weapon and started hitting it against her thigh, crying, “Shit, shit!”

It had, however, the desired effect.  Steele’s attention was back on her, and he had narrowed his eyes.  One of the Nephyrs moved forward and reached for Tatiana—

—and, realizing Captain Eyre was about to die, Magali felt something shift within her again.  She grabbed the closest Nephyr by the wrist and threw him across the room, to land like a ton of tungsten in the far wall, punching another hole through the brick facade, allowing the sunlight of the street to shine through.

Just as the other Nephyrs were slowing, eyes starting to go wide, Magali grabbed the next one by the head and shoved her knee through his face and out the other side.

Maybe it was the brains decorating her leg, or maybe it was the way the energy barrier of their fallen comrade flickered out, but the third one took a quick step backwards, looking shellshocked.  As Magali raised her gun, he shut his eyes.

Magali located the vulnerable, two-millimeter crease where the two matter-and-energy phobic eyelid energy-barriers touched, then put the tip of a bullet between them.  The Nephyr went down in a wracking spasm of convulsions.  Magali had already raised her gun to take out the next one when Steele hit her from the side and they went down in a tumble of broken couches and end-tables.

“I don’t know why you’re still alive,” Steele snarled, pounding her in the cheeks and temples with glass-hard fists, “but you are done, you little bitch.  Done!”

Magali screamed, throwing her hands up ineffectively as the Nephyr began hitting her again and again.  She heard Tatiana yelling in the background, but her vision had narrowed to a tiny strip of the Nephyr’s abdomen through the forearms she was using to protect her face.  Somehow, she got a leg between them and kicked him off, only to have him roll through the rubble onto the street, get up, and, in a split second, come after her again.

Magali was crawling towards her gun when Steele kicked her hard enough in the chest that she flew across the room and took half of the whoreroom partitions down with her.

“Somebody help her!” Tatiana was screaming in the background.  “Help her!”

As Magali was lying on her back, desperately trying to tug the EMP wand from the neck of her boot, Steele dropped to his knees beside her and hit her again, this time straight down with both fists, caving in her chest.  Magali felt every bone snap, from her ribs to her sternum to her spine.

No!” Tatiana shrieked.

Steele grabbed Magali by the throat and snapped her neck, then tossed her aside.

Magali dropped into a crumpled heap against the wall, unable to breathe.

“And you,” Steele said, panting as he got to his feet, facing Tatiana.  “Command’s gonna pay a fortune to have you on ice.”  He started towards her, a sick smile on his face.  “But, since I already missed my evac, I’m gonna have some fun with your traitor ass first.”

I’m gonna have some fun

Hearing that, one last strand within Magali finally snapped free, releasing a flood of electricity, but one that hit her like a maelstrom, whipping every cell into a frenzy.

Across the room, Tatiana was stumbling backwards, tripping over rubble, but not fast enough to avoid the Nephyr headed for her.  Steele reached out, grabbed Tatiana by the throat, and yanked her off her feet.

Magali’s world brightened until every single object was pinprick-sharp, and heat took on a color.  Steele’s body became a black, human-shaped void standing in front of Tatiana’s, his arm out, gripping her throat.  Inside the two cyborgs, Magali could see every piece of electronics, every tiny nanobot as if it were the size of a moon.  And, while Tatiana was utterly filled with electronics, Steele only had a couple augmentations.  An advanced liquid-energy generator near his temple, and a communications hub inside one wrist.  He carried no nanobots, no cybernetics of any sort, but his cells seemed to be…coated with something that lit up like supernovas in her field of vision.  And inside those otherwise normal-seeming cells, there seemed to be a hexagonal structure, an almost crystalline lattice…

Inhuman, came that familiar thought again.  Kill it.  Kill it before it hurts the human.  It was a surge within her, now, a driving force that carried her every thought, a need.

She felt her chest rising, swelling, the broken bones bending, felt the air return to her in a searing rush, knocking rubble aside with the expansion of her lungs.

On the other side of the room, the man-shaped void hesitated, then turned to look at her, the fury on his face quickly shifting to shock.

Magali pulled herself to her feet, sliding up the wall for support.  She saw every altered cell in his body, noted every odd connecting node, every microscopic liquid crystalline tendril, every electron.

Inhuman, she thought again, and it came as a verdict of guilt.  A sentence of death.

Deep down, she knew, for the first time in her life, that this was what she was meant to kill.  Not the humans, not the soldiers with their rifles or the pilots in their Bouncers, but this.

Steele released Tatiana like she’d caught fire, saying, “What the…” at the same time Tatiana gasped and choked out, “Holy shit.”

Magali yanked the wand from her boot and snapped it out, every nerve raw with the fire coursing through her.  “You wanna play rough?” she gasped, her lungs still grating as the bones ground against her organs.  “Let’s do it, floater.”

“A robot?” he demanded.  “You’re a fucking robot?”

Magali narrowed her eyes.  She had expected Steele to run, like any other Nephyr would have, seeing an EMP weapon.  Instead, Steele just ducked his head and hit her full-on like a linebacker, driving her across the room and through the wall, into the street outside.  As they plowed into the cobbles, people screamed and guns went off.  Magali neither felt them nor saw them.  The only thing she saw—the only thing she could see—was the man-shaped void pinning her to the ground.  Inhuman, her mind kept repeating.  Kill.

She hit him with the EMP wand, intending to shut him down.

His skin flickered to a normal, opaque coloration, making him look like a regular human, then flickered back to the glittering translucency of a Nephyr’s energy-barrier.  He chuckled and punched her in the face hard enough to break teeth.  Magali screamed and hit him with the EMP again and again, to get the same effect, just a holographic flicker of a man’s skin before it disappeared again.

“Keep at it,” Steele shouted, as he punched her in the head, over and over.  “Maybe you’ll tickle me to death!”

Magali screamed and kicked outwards, throwing the Nephyr away from her.  The electric maelstrom inside her picking up fury, she got to her feet and started towards him.

Still on his back on the cobbles, Steele yanked a gun from his leg holster and, aiming at her stomach, started pulling the trigger.  “I know you’ve got a power supply in there somewhere, bitch!” he screamed.

Magali went down to one knee, expecting to feel the blasts carve their way through her innards and out the other side.  Instead, it only seemed to energize her.  She gasped, looking down at her hands, stunned that there was no blood, that she wasn’t holding her own intestines.

Steele walked up and kicked her in the head hard enough to make the back of her head slam against her shoulder-blades.

The maelstrom yanked her bones back into pla