Book: Ashes



Ashes


ASHES

BOOK SIX OF THE GALAXY ON FIRE SERIES


by Craig Robertson


IT AIN'T DEAD UNTIL RYAN SAYS IT IS.


Imagine-It Publishing

El Dorado Hills, CA


Copyright 2018 Craig Robertson


All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system without written permission from the author.


ISBN: 978-0-9997742-2-9 (Print)

978-0-9997742-1-2 (E-Book)


Cover design by Jessica Bell


Editing and Formatting services by Polgarus Studio

Available at http://www.polgarusstudio.com


DEDICATION

I could not end this series without thanking two very important individuals. My sweet wife Karen, who makes each day perfect, and God, who brought us together. Love ya both infinitely.


Table of Contents

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY

TWENTY-ONE

TWENTY-TWO

TWENTY-THREE

TWENTY-FOUR

TWENTY-FIVE

TWENTY-SIX

TWENTY-SEVEN

TWENTY-EIGHT

TWENTY-NINE

THIRTY

THIRTY-ONE

THIRTY-TWO

THIRTY-THREE

THIRTY-FOUR

THIRTY-FIVE

THIRTY-SIX

THIRTY-SEVEN

THIRTY-EIGHT

THIRTY-NINE

EPILOGUE

GLOSSARY

And Now A Word From Your Author


ONE

Jvor scurried along the flatland where it met the low hills. Normally he wouldn’t darn hunt in such an open area. It would mean certain death at the hands of the Adamant. But his cruel masters rarely ventured out this far anymore, so distant from the protection of their fortified city. Time was that they ran in huge packs and killed everything that crawled, flew, or swam. Leaving their trappings of civilization behind, they prowled naked in groups of hundreds and ripped their victims apart with their teeth and claws. The howls and barks were deafening, easily heard miles away.

But for reasons unknown to Jvor, such stampedes of death hadn’t been witnessed in years, decades possibly. He was old enough to remember the sound of terror in the air. That made his bold move of seeking prey in the open nearly unthinkable. Nearly. But the rains had come. Insects were everywhere in such numbers that it was as joyful to see them as it was to gobble them up. And soon, if the weather held, grubs would start appearing. Crunchy, sticky grubs. Once they were prizes only for the Adamant. Now the gooey, creamy delights grew to adulthood routinely, such were their numbers.

Jvor wondered what it felt like to eat so many rich grubs that his belly swelled until he was forced to find shade and sleep off the burden. It was the stuff of dreams. He stopped behind a large rock and sniffed the breeze. Not a whiff of a hound. Only the richness of bountiful game. Sweet rich—

A stick snapped, and Jvor darted back behind the rock. He was set to curse his foolish gamble when he caught sight of a creature walking on two long legs. Unlike the Adamant, this one seemed to be designed to stride in such a manner. How odd. What prevented the quirk of nature from falling in any direction? True, he’d heard of species with fewer legs than his. If ten weren’t necessary, at least four or five seemed mandatory. This beast would have to fall over to fit into a safe hiding spot, and even then, it was so long that its bottom sections would hang out in the open. Oh well—its problem, not Jvor’s.

Keep walking, Jvor said to himself. That’s right, pass by and proceed to your certain doom, makeshift misfit. Don’t smell, see, or hear clever old Jvor in his cover, so perfect. He couldn’t wait to return to his lair and tell his wives and spawn what a silly— No. It stopped right in front of this rock. Now it was just standing there like it’d reached where it journeyed to. Go, demon. Leave Jvor, or feel his—

“Hey, little fellow. Come out from behind that boulder. I won’t hurt you. I promise.”

How could that abomination say words Jvor understood? Its mouth was far too large, and it was affixed to its body by a skinny tube of flesh. And where were its trumpet and oral appendages to manipulate it? It couldn’t possibly generate Hipnaic speech. It was a demon. Surely Jvor’s ten souls were in the greatest peril.

“Seriously, dude or dudette, I’m a big cream puff. I wouldn’t hurt a bonubib to save my life.”

Cream was what a grub exuded when crushed in one’s jaws. A puff was a cloud of smoke from a fire. How could the demon claim to be both? And if it were both in one, was that a good or bad thing? Evil? Appetizing? No, it was much too large to bite into. Jvor began backing away.

“If you try and escape, I’ll just have to run you down. To me, it’s all the same, but I bet I’ll scare the scat out of you in the process.”

How could it know he was retreating? Even demons couldn’t see through stone—every bonubib knew that.

“Look, just stick your face around the corner, and I’ll stay right where I am. I just want to ask you a few questions. Then I’ll be on my merry way.”

It sounded friendly enough, but wouldn’t any sensible demon try to appear so, to put its best feet forward? Well, Jvor would look at it. But one wrong move on the eternal evil’s part, and he’d pounce on it with all his fury. Yes, the fury of his ten righteous souls fighting as one. He inched his face forward. “I see you, demon, and clearly I know your nature. Speak briefly or you will experience the wrath and fury of my ten—”

“Stop, little guy. Seriously, are you listening to yourself? First, I’m like eight times your size. Second, you have basically no offensive skill set. Your teeth are like needles but are so tiny they wouldn’t break my skin. Third, you can’t do this.”

He raised his right index finger and cut a nearby tree in flaming halves.

“Fourth, I’m not a demon.”

“How can you prove that, demon?”

“Easy. Parley with me awhile, and you’ll see what a fun guy I am. I’m way too nice to be a demon.”

“Demon or not, I am prepared to do battle with you if I become displeased. Ask your questions and leave before I grow tired of your presence.”

“Talk about me having a lucky day. You sure are a tough guy, I’ll give you that, little friend.”

“Would you please stop calling me little? I am the fifteenth largest bonubib in my gene pool.”

“Wow, you li—guys keep that close a record of your sizes?”

“Who doesn’t?”

“Look, no problem. Tell me your name so I can stop using the word little.”

“One does not yield one’s name to a demon. You would own me if I did.”

“Wait, you just made that crap up, didn’t you?”

Jvor struck uncertainty. He had somewhat invented that concept. It certainly sounded good, so it was possibly even correct.

“I am Jvor. Your questions, please.”

“That’s it? Just Jvor? I mean, you are the fifteenth biggest tool in the shed, right? Seems like you should have six or seven more names to go along with that status.”

“Your name?”

“Jon. Jon Ryan, at your service.”

“Jonjonryanattyourservice, do you hear anyone laughing?”

“Why no, now that you mention it, I do not.”

“That is because your last insult was not funny.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll try to behave myself. All I want to know is if you’ve seen any Adamant lately?”

“Demon Jon, are you one of their minions?”

“No to both demon and minion. Jvor, it’s my turn to speak in riddles. How many stars are there in the night sky?”

“Millions.”

“That is how many Adamant I have killed. I do not serve them. I exterminate them.”

“I have seen none of the ghouls in many months.”

“How many?”

Jvor had to think on that. It was wet when he last saw a paw print, so it was a year. No, it was before Tador passed, because they both saw and smelled the mark. “Three years.”

“And that’s unusual, right?”

“It’s unusually welcome.”

“I’ll bet it is. I mean to ask if they didn’t come around more often in the past.”

“As you say. They once lived in these parts. Even after they left, they returned to kill with sad regularity.”

“That’s my puppy dogs all right. I ask because I wish to understand why they’ve pulled back. Why they are less adventurous. Do you have any theories why, Jvor?”

“Theory? Hah. No. I know the reason.”

“Do tell.”

“I told them to depart or face my—”

“Wrath and fury. Right, gotcha. Small wonder they turned tail and yelped all the way home.”

“As it is now yours to do in kind. I am done speaking with you. Go while such an act is still within your power, demon.”

“Okay, but only if you promise we’ll still be friends, Jvor.”

“We were never friends. To befriend a demon is ludicrous.”

“Don’t you just love that word? Ludicrous. It a low note and a hiss all squished into one. Outstanding. So, if we’re not friends yet, then I haven’t stayed long enough. Mind if I pull up a rock to sit on while we friendlyize ourselves?”

“No. I misspoke. We are friends. What was I thinking?”

“And we’ll stay friends, right?”

“If it will help you leave and never return, yes.”

“That’s my bonubib. I love you, dude. Happy trails.”

Jon turned and began walking. Jvor squatted where he was and relieved himself while repeating the demon’s name.


TWO

Two Paws sat alone in near darkness. He was in his office and the hour was late. But there was nowhere he’d rather be. He loved his literal seat of power. He was the Secure Council’s Prime. His office was just off the main chamber where the council convened. For seven years he’d controlled the body with an iron paw. He was driven, amoral, and most of all, ruthless. With pride, Two Paws would tell anyone who cared to listen of the fear and loathing his fellow councilmates directed toward him. In fact, the few who courted familiarity with him disappeared with stunning speed. He was not in the friend business. His trade was death, and his field of study was power. Nothing more mattered. Thinking on the subject always made him smile.

Today had been a particularly good one. He’d ordered the destruction of three entire planets because of their inhabitants’ sedition. Five rebellions were slated to be crushed with as much violence and mayhem as possible. Twelve of his political rivals were hanged in public on ten separate worlds, their corpses destined to rot where they dangled. Yes, Two Paws had made some spectacular teaching points to any who might doubt or challenge him. Harsh overreaction and seemingly insane vengeance did not actually come naturally to him. No, it took great study and practice to hone those necessary skills. Now he was the master of unpredictable wrath. Now life was good.

A soft knock came at the door. How excellent. Someone was volunteering to die for daring to disturb him. The perfect end to an otherwise perfect day.

“Come,” he barked harshly.

The door opened and Shegra entered.

Two Paws’s face dropped. Turds in sour milk, he raged in his head. She was one of the few canovir he couldn’t murder with impunity. No, she was the emperor’s daughter and the oaf’s personal High Council. Plus, Two Paws was married to the bitch. It was so unfair that his main conduit to power and domination was beyond the reach of his lust for whimsical carnage.

“This had better be good, wife. I have important work that needs doing.”

“Yes, I can see that plainly because I, too, can see in the dark.”

“You come to insult me, you saggy-teated wench? You grow mentally feebler with each passing day.”

“That would account for why I allow you to live, you sagging-sacked fool.”

Gods and Powers, how he loved that bitch. She was his soul mate and every bit as devious, vile, and just plain mean as he was. A match made in hell, to be certain.

“Come sit on my lap. We’ll talk about the first thing that comes up.”

“Oh, and I’m a foolish schoolgirl who’s likely to fall for that one.”

“If you’re not here to please me and you are here to taunt me, please leave. The empire does not run itself.”

“I bring what you prefer that isn’t eating, drinking, or sex. Useful, usable information. You will thank me for this morsel, I promise you that. Perhaps more than once.”

“The emperor is dead, having choked on his own stupidity?”

Shegra sat across from her mate and waited for him to stop giggling before she would speak. “Please recall you are denigrating my blessed father. You can be so insensitive at times.”

“No, I am insensitive at all times. And please do not protest too much. You hate him more than I do, and you know it.”

“Yes, but he loves the liver treat of his eyes.”

“I know. He sired three litters with you before he moved on to the next thing.”

“Dearest, I believe you were his next thing. If you will recall, that is how we came to meet.”

“Enough of this unproductive amble down memory lane. What news do you bring me?”

“It seems Pralaf died quietly in his sleep earlier tonight.”

“Evil wife, that is hardly news. With all the hanati poison I slipped into his drink at the council meeting, I’m stunned he lasted that long.”

“My father has decided you will select his replacement.”

Two Paws leaned his chair back and rolled his head. “Again, not much of a news flash. I am the council Prime.”

“He has decreed you may appoint me to the vacancy.” She grinned widely.

“Now that is a significant update.” He scratched behind an ear while considering that information. “But that’s impossible. One thing we know for certain is that in the million plus years of the Adamant Ascendancy, there has never been a woman on the Secure Council.”

“There will be now.”

“But the oligarchy will not stand for it. Giving a female access to power? It’s unthinkable.”

“TP, I believe by now most canovir have figured out that if they stand in opposition to you, they should never buy green bananas. With us working together on the council, we will be unopposed in our efforts to advance our goals.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself, my personal curse. I might not select you to fill the opening.”

“Of course you will, my eternal lament. I know where you hide the hanati.”

“You present a compelling case for your candidacy.”

She smiled vacantly and rose. “I must be going. The pool service technician is waiting to work on my private spa.”

“Not that overgrown pool dog again?”

“Pool service technician. Please give the canovir his due. The hound’s a professional.”

Two Paws popped back to his desktop and inspected the papers scattered across the surface. “Well, let me know how his pumps work.”

“I’ll give you a full report when you return home.” She turned and walked out quietly.

“Fine, fine. I’ll be another couple of hours. I have one more pathetic life to drain from its worthless host before I may rest.”

Without looking back, Shegra called out, “There’s a good tyrant.”


THREE

We were sitting back drinking thousand-year-old Scotch, Sapale and I. That was one of the privileges of immortality. If one knew one was going to live forever, one need only buy a case of the good stuff every year and store it for ten centuries. Before one knew it, one had an endless chain of mystical liquor. And for the record, excellent hooch aged properly for millennia was sublime. Anyway, we were relaxing, enjoying each other’s company. Refreshingly, the conversation was not about war, our next act of subterfuge, or how the Adamant could be overthrown. No, for once it was pleasant, idle speculation on our long lives.

“So, what do you think ever happened to Toño?” Sapale asked out of the blue.

“I’ve not heard one word, not even a teeny-tiny clue,” I replied after savoring a sip. “He left me that letter for when I first woke up. You know, the one saying how Al had insisted on remaining behind to stand guard over me? But that was it.”

“And it didn’t mention where they were going?”

“Nope, just that they were abandoning the asteroid for good. They set it adrift when they were all off safely.”

“I wonder what he did?” Sapale mused softly.

“Me too. What’s stuck in my craw is that I learned after the fact that he made a copy of you that could be, was in fact, transferred to an android host. I wonder if he copied anyone else I knew with the same intent.”

“Curious notion. I’d never considered it.” She sat up and set down her glass. “I didn’t know of anyone he did that for. But then again, it’s not like he’d necessarily tell me if he did.”

“No. He was too private for that. He also felt the transfer was deeply personal.”

After a moment, Sapale spoke wistfully. “I wonder if he copied any of our kids. JJ, Fashallana, Draldon?”

“He could have. But I think one of the kids would have documented he had at some point.”

“You’re probably right.” I could tell she felt a ting of pain. She missed her kids more than she did air. It would be nice to see them again.

“I had a wild thought,” I announced with a grin.

“What?”

“Maybe Doc secretly recorded everybody. Then he made androids of them. As we speak, he could be seated in pseudo-Houston with the original Ark pilots and several of our kin.”

“De Jesus’s Disneyland.”

“I’ll drink to that,” I said, raising my glass.

“But wait, that would mean he’d have reanimated Saunders too.”

“Nah, Doc’d make Captain Kangaroo an android and put him in charge. Much nicer that way.”

We shared a good laugh.

“One thing's for certain.”

“What’s that?”

“If he is still alive, he’s not looking to find us.”

She tapped her glass to her chin. “No. If he were looking for us, he would have done so easily.”

“Which leads me to presume he's dead. Otherwise, I have to believe he’d feel the need to find us to help him defeat the Adamant.”

“Agreed. He was nothing but loving and kind to me up until I lost track of him. Toño’d have no reason to avoid me. No, he’s dead, the poor dear.”

“Probably let his power cells slowly run out so he faded unspectacularly into nothingness.”

“With a book on his lap and a cigar in the ashtray.”

“Not a bad way to exit,” I remarked. “Not a bad one at all.”

We were very quiet for several minutes.

“I miss him most every day,” I said sadly.

“Me too. And if he’s alive, he’s missing us just as much.”

“But what would stop him from contacting us? Nothing. So, it can only mean he no longer exists. If he did, he’d get word to us, at the very least.”

Sapale came over and hugged my shoulders. “He was a good man. We shall both miss him forever.”

I lofted my nearly full glass and drained it. “To Toño Sánchez Villa-Zorros De Jesus. The best damn friend, robot, and transhuman there ever was or ever will be.”

Deep in thought, Sapale kissed the top of my head. “To Toño, that he lives in eternal bliss.”


FOUR

“Wedge Leader Welty, I can read. I know your reports have words in them whose meaning combines to represent that you are working twenty percent past capacity. While achieving this high-water marker, your overall quality target has remained well above outstanding. However, you seem to have neatly dodged the meaning of my question. Here.” Two Paws removed his white gloves and clapped feebly in front of Welty’s terrified face. He put his gloves back on. “There, I have praised you publicly with wild abandon. Now to my point. I need forty percent more arms production, ten battle-class ships, and roughly twenty million clone warriors from your facility by the end of next month.”

“But … but, Whole Zarpacious, I have provided you with hard proof that your requests are impossible to meet.”

Two Paws set a convivial paw on Welty’s shoulder, and they began to slowly stroll the length of the observation deck. Anyone witnessing them from a distance could only conclude that these two were the best and oldest of friends.

“In school, you studied mathematics, am I correct?”

“Of course, Whole. Not my favorite subject, but I did my best.”

“That is heartwarming to know. In mathematics the concept of proof is introduced, is it not?”

“Y … yes, sir. It is.”

“A proof involves following rigorous protocols and steps to demonstrate that a posited theory is in fact correct.”

Welty could barely follow, his mind was in such a panic. “I guess that’s true.”

“So, if I asked you to solve a dazzling mathematical formula and you did, you’d have proven it was correct.”

“Sir, I’m having trouble seeing the relevance of this didactic. W … we were dis … discussing manufacturing, not mathematics.”

Two Paws pulled his victim to a stop by both shoulders and turned to face him. “Outstanding.” He thumped his back. “Yes, we were discussing not mathematics, where proofs have meaning, but manufacturing, where claims of proof are in truth but sad excuses offered to cover up inept management.”

Two Paws could feel that Welty had begun to tremble violently. He loved to feel that sensation in those he tormented.

“Sir, I guarantee that I can not only meet your reasonable, fair, and modest production quotas, but I can easily exceed them.”

“Those are the words I like to hear, Welty, old pup.” Two Paws was beaming a wide smile that suddenly cascaded into a profound frown. “But wait. Not five minutes ago you showed me what you claimed represented proof that such a guarantee would be impossible.” The frown morphed into a scowl. “You would not be simply saying whatever it took to save your pelt, would you, Wedge Leader Welty? Hmm?”

“Never. No, sir. Tha … that was a joke.” He scratched at his chest. “A poor attempt at manufacturing humor on my part. I am sorry to have confused you.”

Two Paws turned and paced back and forth, all the while rubbing his pointed chin. “A joke, you say?” He glanced up at Wetly and looked though him. “Manufacturing humor? Well, I hate to admit it when I’m among the uninformed, but I’m not familiar with that category of humor.” Again, he paced and rubbed. “In that genre, would yours have been considered a good joke?”

He shifted twice. “I’d like to think so. Yes.” He swallowed hard.

Two Paws jumped a foot into the air and slapped his paws together loudly. “Then let us both laugh our brains out to reflect that level of funniness.”

Two Paws began to cackle maniacally, wheezing and coughing to get enough air to continue. Welty, reservedly at first, chuckled, then joined in the hysterical laughter.

With a suddenness that suggested he was not actually amused, Two Paws fell silent. In a blur, he whipped a knife blade to Welty’s neck. “Here’s my offer. One, exceed my expectations or die horribly, after having witnessed the same horrific death by your entire bloodline. Two, maybe ease off on manufacturing humor. Call me stuffy, but I don’t find it amusing. Do we have ourselves a deal?”

Genuflecting despite the hold Two Paws had on his throat, Welty replied, “Yes, Master, we do. Thank you for your generosity and your wisdom.”

Two Paws released him and allowed him to slump to the ground. “I’ll be back in two weeks to see that you’re on target to fulfill your commitment.”

Welty sat mute, rubbing his throat, shaking like the proverbial leaf on a tree during a winter storm.

“So, how’d it go?” asked a senior officer who fell into stride with Two Paws as he exited the observation area.

“For whom?”

The officer glanced over to Two Paws with a serious expression. Then he erupted in laughter. He doubled over and had to stop, he was so affected with mirth. Two Paws quickly joined in the cackling.

“I was asking about poor old Welty, of course,” replied the officer between gasps. “He’s one of the few hounds I can still cheat at cards with. He’s remained too dumb to notice.”

“In that case, I have grave news for your wallet, Harhoff. You’d better begin the search for a new dupe. This one’s living on borrowed time.”

They giggled like schoolpups.

“As head of security for the council, I feel it is my duty to warn you, Whole Zarpacious, that the governor might take your words to constitute a mortal threat. If you’re not on your best guard, he may successfully take your life before you can take his.”

No. Seriously? Do you think he might mistakenly take my mentioning, in passing, torturing him and his entire gene pool to death as a threat?”

“The possibility does exist, Prime. Keep in mind he’s not the fastest rabbit in the open field.”

Two Paws stopped walking. “Do you think I should return and clarify my confidence in and personal regard for the governor?”

“No. I think disabling all his access codes and posting a squad of Black Shirt Guards outside his office will convey your message of needing to remain on this side of the veil of death.”

“Excellent point. I’m so glad I have you as my security chief. One of these days I might even sleep well at night.”

“Please, don’t overestimate my skills. I can prevent a blast to the forehead mid-meeting. But promising whatever trash you bed at night isn’t infested with a lethal venereal disease, I cannot guarantee.”

“It is your personal Descore Jangir who procures for me the most marginal of my sleep mates? Perhaps if I simply have him executed, the peril I find myself in would end.”

“Oh no. That I would not tolerate, even from the Prime. Seasoned officers of superior merit and proven ability you may dispatch upon your whim. But a competent Descore? Not on your life.”

“Ah, well. To know I died of my own vice in a most pleasurable manner is the most I can ask, isn’t it?”

“It is, indeed.”

Two Paws patted Harhoff on the shoulder with true affection. “It is good to know I placed my trust in the right Adamant. I don’t know what I’d do without you, my friend.”




FIVE

In the decade following the Battle of the Periphery, the one in which the dragons dusted the Adamant’s butts, I began to see gradual changes in the empire. For one thing, it had undertaken no new major offensives for nearly four years. That was beyond unheard of for the aggressive SOBs. The Secure Council switched over a few times, and then a really nasty player named Gandle Zarpacious took charge. From the moment he seized power, Adamant military activity exploded back into hyperdrive. For unclear reasons, his casual name was Two Paws. I had zero clue as to why. I mean, since he had four paws, it was technically true he had two paws. I asked Harhoff about it, and he said he didn’t know why either but that I should drop it. He said there was no point wasting otherwise valuable snooping-around credits to find out something so extraneous.

Over those years, life was pretty good. Sapale and I grew closer than we ever had been. That was sublime. At least our region of the galaxy saw little war. The Adamant stationed in the local outposts remained where they were, and they rarely ventured out of secure positions. EJ and Cala had achieved a minor miracle. They cohabited a planet for ten years without killing one another. On the infrequent occasions when I asked her about his progress, she told me at least he wasn’t worse, more criminally insane. Great. Such progress. He’d be all the way back to being a jerk in a couple centuries at the rate he was progressing.

Kalvarg was an ongoing problem. Whenever it looked like the multiple conflicting species involved were settling into some uneasy peace, one party or another would rock the apple cart with varying degrees of malice. The Kaljaxian colonists themselves were doing fairly well. I mean, they were a clever and industrious species with clearly defined common goals. But they were contentious, which didn't help peaceful coexistence. If any three random Kaljaxians were set adrift in a life raft, one would try and assume command over the other two. Those guys, in turn, would only be able to agree that neither of them wanted that one to be in charge. It turned out that human nature was actually universal nature.

As a result, the initial colony quickly split into three colonies. They were all close to one another, and there were active communications and trade. But when Kaljaxians were provided the opportunity to do what they loved best, they could not resist doing it. They grouped together and teamed up faster and more ardently than any other species I'd come across. It was hog heaven for them on Kalvarg. As one who'd observed way too much life, I figured the various factions wouldn’t degenerate into open warfare for maybe a century, so that was good. Back home, they rarely went that long without letting blood.

Luckily, none of them forgot the land invasion by the sea-dwelling original occupants of the planet. That kept defense and mutual aid high on everyone’s lists, even the power-hungry political jackasses. The oceanic nations remained an active problem. The more aggressive and sneaky vidalt were a constant threat. Stray missiles would occasionally strike Kaljaxian settlements. Almost always they were launched from submarines that were long gone by the time retaliation was possible. Fortunately, the shield membrane proved to be more than adequate protection. If individuals or small groups of Kaljaxians ventured too near the sea, however, they generally never returned.

The transformation of the larger, usually more docile wiqub was more distressing. After the vidalt tricked us into nearly exterminating them as a species, they reconsidered their options. Unfortunately, they ended up deciding they needed to take their survival into their own flippers. Not too surprising, I guess. The vidalt forced them into land vehicles, and we blithely blew them up like it was a violent video game. They had reason to hate us both. Anyway, they withdrew to the deeper oceans and stayed in close pods. They also began stealing and then manufacturing vidalt weaponry. So far, they hadn’t used any of their arms against either their land or sea-based rivals. But to have another serious adversary was something the Kaljaxians didn’t need.

The end result was that as the years passed, Sapale spent more time away on Kalvarg. She was, of course, highly motivated to do so. Her experience establishing a thriving civilization on Azsuram was priceless for the new world. She also had the fire in her blood of wanting to defend her species, and she did so with a maternal vengeance. She had seen her people all but wiped out from Kaljax and Azsuram. She knew the unthinkable was all too possible. If Earth was still around, maybe I’d be there at that very moment, endlessly defending the planet against all threats alien like a futuristic Doctor Who. The problem was I had an agenda that was gradually diverging from Sapale’s. She wanted to save her race. I wanted to crush the Adamant, stomp them out like last night’s campfire. It wasn’t possible for either of us to help the other that much. So we spent less and less time together. That part sucked hard.

Another distancing factor in our marriage was that Sapale borrowed the car, so to speak, whenever she could. Since she was an android with command prerogatives, she would take Stingray and go to either Kaljax or Azsuram whenever she had a spare moment. She was forever gathering up a few more survivors.

While it was major league noble for her to do that, it was also an insanely dangerous stunt to pull off. I went with her sometimes. We did rescue many a forlorn soul, but we also had our share of dicey firefights with the local Adamant. I began to feel that the risks did not outweigh the potential benefits she was reaping. I asked her to stop with the superhero act. Yeah, I sort of said it like that, which didn’t actually help with convincing her. It kind of pissed her off and basically dared her into engaging in more scoop-and-run extrications.

I finally had to confront my beloved brood’s-mate and ask her not to use the vortex so much. The Als were critical to my efforts to combat the Adamant. Not only were my travels hampered, but their massive computational abilities were lost to me when they were away.

“Sweet love,” I began in my humble-husband voice, “do you have a minute?”

Sapale looked up from whatever she’d been doing and eyed me suspiciously. Keeping in mind she had four eyes, that was a whole lot of suspicious aimed at me. “When you call me that human term of endearment, I know something large and smelly is headed my way.”

Fingers tented on my chest, I all but confessed she was correct. “Honey, how could you say such a thing? Now there’s a law against me calling you cute names?”

“What do you want that you know before you ask I have no intention of agreeing to?”

“Did you study law while we were apart? I certainly feel like I’m being interrogated by a spirited attorney.”

“Here’s a guideline for you, flyboy. When a conversation arrives at the juncture where one accuses one’s wife of being a lawyer, one has managed a conversation poorly. What is it you humans say about burying oneself?” She snapped her fingers rapidly, trying to recall.

“You mean digging your own grave?”

She snapped one last time and pointed at me. “Bingo. Please set your shovel down and say your piece.”

She was so darn cute when she was pissed at me.

“It’s nothing really, just part of an ongoing discussion we’ve been having about the vortex.”

“Damn tinker toy box. I knew it. Why can’t you just take me to Oowaoa so I can make them give me one? Then we won’t have to have this discussion again.”

“You know why. We’ve been over this a gazillion times. They want to remain out of sight from the Adamant. I was specifically told to never return. If I did, they might take Stingray away from me to keep me from betraying their location again.”

She rested a fist on a hip. “They cannot take Stingray away from you.”

“How do you figure that?”

“Because there is no Stingray, only Blessing. Why can’t you grow up this much,” she pinched two fingers very nearly together, “in two million years?”

“Honey, you know it’s because the word blessing is pronounced crash in their language.

She pinched her fingers even closer and shook them in the air by way of response.

“Maybe we can rent you a faster-than-light vehicle so you can do your own thing?”

“You know that’s a really juvenile way of saying something actually quite belittling, right?”

“Man, I can’t catch a break here. If you had a separate ship—”

“Then we’d both know it was because you disapproved of my efforts to save my species. That would be bad.” She spread her arms wide. “Big bad.”

“Wait, I don’t disapprove of your efforts to pick up stragglers.”

“No? Then why are we having this fight?”

“Fight? Now any conversation in which I hold a slightly different opinion than yours is a fight?”

“Yup, pretty much.” She walked over to me and flicked my ear real hard. “This isn’t any conversation. We’re talking about the death of innocents who would otherwise benefit the survival hopes of my highly endangered race.”

“First off, ow. Second, you know how the logic goes. Act in a manner benefiting the greatest number even at the exclusion of the lesser.”

“So my kinspeople die so you can swap blows with the Adamant? Because yours is the moral higher ground? That about sum it up?”

I straightened. “Yes. Basically yes.”

“Well, I beg to differ. Every suffering Kaljaxian deserves a chance at life. It’s a moral imperative.”

“Yes, but—”

“But nothing. Moral imperatives end all discussions.” She stroked my hair, and her face softened. “Look, I know this is hard. What isn’t nowadays? We can work this out, I promise. When you need the vortex, you can use it. When you don’t need it, I can use it.”

I really, really wanted to scream that it was my vortex. But I knew just how awful that would sound. It would end even worse for me. “I can’t always know when I’ll need it. Harhoff might require my assistance at any moment.”

Still playing with my hair, she asked, “How often has that come up in the last decade?”

“About never. But that—”

She placed her index finger over my lips. “Stop while you’re ahead. If it ever comes up, we’ll revisit this fight, okay?”

Discussion.”

Her fist went back to her hip. “You want to fight over whether this is a fight? Man, you’re even dumber than you look.”

I raised a finger. “Hey, I think I hear an alarm somewhere. I’d better go check.”

“I hear it too, sweet love. You just go do that.”


SIX

“Well, if there’s nothing else, I’ll adjourn the meeting.” Two Paws was only half paying attention to his own words. His mind was racing over the next ten things he needed to do, all of which were more important than this damn Secure Council meeting. But what wasn’t more important than one of these pointless convocations? Nothing, that’s what. “Please all leave except for Council Bitch Shegra. I will speak to her alone.”

The ten excluded, dismissed, and ruffled-feathered other members filed out glumly. To a canovir they resented being treated like infantile pawns. But as survivors, they all knew it was critical to keep such feelings to themselves. Their only recourse was to pray a desperate calamity would befall their most hated Prime. The last one out was closing the door when Harhoff slipped around him and strode to where Shegra was joining her mate.

“Another triumphant meeting where massive tilts in the axis of the galaxy were set in motion,” he teased as he sat.

“Yes, we had grilled liver at the break. Thinly sliced with just enough clotted blood to make a pop,” replied Two Paws.

“Strike me down with a glance,” exclaimed Harhoff. “Can it be that one of the highlights of the session was the snack?”

“No,” responded Shegra. “It was the only highlight. Really, husband, can’t we wipe the slate clean and get another ten playmates? It wouldn’t be much effort. I think most of the current members are dead already, they’re so stiff and lifeless.”

The males chuckled.

“Soon enough, we will need to whittle down the current dead wood. Soon enough, my dearest. I can feel their resentment building. If we allow it to reach the level where one of those half-wits thinks he can do something about it, there’ll be pleasant distraction.”

“Who is growing testicles?” asked Harhoff as he leaned in.

“Certainly not I,” yelped Shegra.

The males laughed again.

“That’s good news, wife. I don’t think they’d suit you.”

“But spill it. Who is?” pressed the security chief.

Two Paws toyed with a few objects on the table in front of him. “Nagimar is all but snarling these days. He asked for a few clarifications that he and I both knew were impertinent.”

“Has he done anything behind our backs? I have them all watched constantly. I haven’t detected any sneaky business yet.”

“Nothing that bold. But I think he’ll need to be the first to suffer a tragic turn in his life’s course.” He looked to Harhoff. “I’ll keep you posted.”

“Say the word, and tragedy falls like rain from the sky.”

“I think Klaspof is already much too defiant. Did you see the look in his eyes when he asked if you were aware of the supply levels in the Nesserat Section?”

Two Paws squeezed his face with uncertainty. “No, I did not. What did he look like?”

“The Rabid Robot, if you ask me. The hound was absolutely—”

Two Paws slammed his paw on the table. “Silence.”

Both companions stiffened and looked at Two Paws with horror. Neither knew what he was so enraged at, but both knew if he was that mad, someone was likely to die very soon.

Finally, Shegra extended a paw toward her mate and spoke. “What, Prime? What angered you just now?”

“You have let familiarity and friendship cloud your judgment as a member of the Secure Council. If you were any other member, I’d slay you here and now.”

“What?” she asked with obvious dread. “What did I do?”

“You forgot that our good friend and confidant Harhoff, my chief of security, is not a council member.”

“I d … did?”

“Yes. You mentioned the Rabid Robot in his presence.”

All the life drained from her face. Gods and Powers, she had.

Harhoff wanted to ask what a rabid robot was but knew better than to say a peep. His life was in the balance.

Two Paws turned to Harhoff and spoke warmly as the old friend he was. “Let’s just say this never happened, shall we?”

“What never happened?” replied Harhoff. “I just sat down and you two were talking.”

Two Paws patted Harhoff’s muzzle. “Excellent. Your perfect instincts come to your rescue yet again. I’m confident we can place this unfortunate incident behind us. As you are very near to joining the Secure Council anyway, it will be only a matter of time before what was never mentioned can be revealed to you.”

“Whatever. I’m in no rush on either count. I serve you. If you feel I can best serve on the council, then on the council I shall serve.”

“Fine, fine. Shegra, we’ll speak at home later, but don’t wait up. I will be working long into the night again.”

“Yes, my husband. If you need me, please let me know.” She stood and silently slipped from the room.

Harhoff knew he was still in grave danger.

“As we are alone and I trust no one more than I do you, I will speak freely. Never repeat that name or ask about it. If you do, it will cost you your life.”

“Done. I’m kind of fond of my life.”

Two Paws chuckled unconvincingly. “That’s my right-paw hound. Now run along and make some of my enemies miserable.”

“That will be a true pleasure, boss. I’ll stop by your office tonight and give you any juicy tidbits I’ve dug up.”

“Until tonight, my friend.”

Harhoff tried to conceal his panic as he left. Once outside the door, he was able to take a deep breath. Lights danced before his eyes, and he dropped to one knee. That encounter had been intense. As soon as he could, he stood and walked quickly to his quarters. He only hoped Garustfulous was home. What Harhoff needed to tell him couldn’t be said on a device, even his hyper-secured ones.

Harhoff regarded everyone he met along his way with suspicion and terror. He knew all too well how swiftly and openly his life could be snubbed out. He fought the urge to bolt into a sprint. If he was already marked for death, that would bring it all the more quickly. His panting became uncontrollable. Unconsciously he started to whimper. As soon as he became aware that he was, he bit the inside of his mouth hard. The pain, he hoped, would keep him from starting up again.

After an eternity, he reached his entry. He thumbed the keypad, and the door slid open. Good. At least his access codes hadn’t been canceled yet. He sniffed the air deeply for signs of Garustfulous. The kitchen. He was in the kitchen. Harhoff sprang into the room just as Garustfulous was exiting with a bowl of blood pudding. The contents catapulted onto Garustfulous’s face and chest and he squealed with surprise.

“What the—”

“Sorry, sorry, Garustfulous. I’m in a bad way. Sorry.”

“You never call me by my real name. What’s the matter?”

“I’m a dead dog.”

Garustfulous stopped slapping crumps of goo off his clothing. He looked wide-eyed at Harhoff. “Who betrayed us? How did they find out?” he said in a blur.

“No, not we. Me. I heard something—something I should never have heard. They’ll kill me for sure.”

“Go tell Two Paws. He can protect you.”

“It’s Two Paws who’ll order my execution. He was there. His wife referred to something only the Secure Council can know. Just after the meeting, I’d gone there to check if Two Paws had come to a decision I asked him to make earlier. Damn that bitch. Has she no brain in her head?”

“But you’re his friend. You’re also his security chief. Surely he trusts you’ll keep your mouth shut.”

Harhoff looked up at Garustfulous in anguish. “He cannot allow anyone, especially his wife—the emperor’s daughter—to hold any power over him. A canovir like him never leaves open the path to being blackmailed. Demon’s scent glands, he can’t ignore the possibility that I’d sell him out for personal gain.”

“No loose ends,” muttered Garustfulous.

“No loose ends, even if they were your trusted and probably only friend.”

“Where shall we run?”

We shall do nothing of the sort. I’ll be dead in minutes. Your only hope is that they think so little of a Descore that they disregard you long enough for you to slip away. I’m sorry, old friend. There’s nothing I can do to help or protect you.”

“Do you have the transmission ready? The one to Ryan if this were ever to happen?”

“Yes. In the elevator. I coded it to send when my heart stops. Damn that bitch. She’s ruined everything.”

“Can’t you hide? I’ll say you’re out, and you’ll be under the bed or—”

“Garustfulous,” he said with a grim chuckle, “are you hearing yourself? They have noses. They’d find me in seconds.”

“An escape pod. Hide in one of those. Their air systems are separate for the ships.”

“Guess who wrote the protocols for a missing-person search?”

“Ah, you?”

“Yes. In the section labeled Search Procedures, the escape pods are specifically listed as prime locations.”

“Oh. Maybe—”

“Garustfulous, stop.” He grabbed both arms to restrain his friend. “There’s no way out for me. Try and save yourself. Do anything. Say anything. Play dumb. Get to Ryan if you can.”

“Ryan? Why would I go to him? I have enough money and favors owed out there to live a full and satisfying life without that scoundrel.”

“You have to because you have to tell him something. You have to do it personally. Promise me you will.”

“Yes, of course I promise. But why not just put it in the transmission?”

“Signals can be blocked or never received. No, this is too important.”

“What shall I tell him?” Garustfulous started looking for pen and paper to write whatever the message was.

“No, you won’t need to write it down. Plus, that would be evidence that would seal your fate.”

“Fine.”

There was a loud pounding at the door. Both canovir jumped.

“Tell Jon the words I heard—the words that killed me. The Rabid Robot. Repeat that back to me.”

“Rabid Robot?”

No.” He seized Garustfulous’s arms again with ferocity. “The Rabid Robot. Repeat it.”

“The Rabid Robot. Who or what is that?”

The sound of pounding was replaced by the hiss of a cutting laser melting a line in the door.

“I have absolutely no idea. But you must tell him. If my hearing it causes this,” he nodded toward the door,” it must be extremely important.” He pushed Garustfulous backward. “Out the secret door and make your way to the market. They’ll believe you were out shopping. They have but simple imaginations.”

“They’ll see the security holos.”

“Not if you leave now and give me time to release a virus into the system. Go.”

“Goodbye, my friend. Till we meet in the Fields Full of Lame Rabbits.” He waved quickly and ran out of the room.


SEVEN

I had argued passionately that these get-togethers not have a formal, resonantly bureaucratic name. We could just say we all needed to meet. What could be simpler? But no. We proposed, formulated, wrote a mission statement for, and established ass-pruning procedural protocols for the Joint Council for Interplanetary Defense and Cooperation. Really made for a lousy acronym, that was for darn sure. I couldn’t even make a vulgar word out of the initials. Believe me, I tried every permutation during most of the interminable sessions to do just that.

In any case, in the years following our great victory at the Battle of the Periphery, the JCFIDAC was formed to solidify alliances and work to repair the massive damage done by the Adamant. More critically, we all knew they’d be back at sooner or later. We couldn’t count on the one contingent of our combined force participating again. The Plezrite were absent from the committee. I had Cala approach them on the subject, invite them to attend. She reported their definitive and final response. One word. No. I translated that to actually mean Hell no, and don’t even think of asking again because if you do I’ll char you to a crisp and stomp on your ashes. No meant no.

As it stood a decade out, if the Adamant returned with a force similar to the last one, they’d crush us like the proverbial bug. Maybe in another decade or two we would be able to mount an adequate defense. I had handed out all my high-tech toys like candy samples at a playground. I abandoned any reservations about my tools falling into the wrong hands, specifically our enemy’s. Every civilization that asked got the plans for membrane generators, rail guns, and the devastating quantum decoupler. Realistically, the remaining free worlds of the galaxy were facing certain annihilation without the weapons. If that intervention wasn’t sufficient to turn the tide, or the tech got into Adamant paws, they’d only be just as dead. The dogs could only obliterate a planet once, right? The hows and whys of it were not important in the least.

“General Ryan? I ask again, what do you think of the recommendation of the Appropriations Subcommittee?”

Holy crap, Jonnaha was calling on me and I’d spaced out like a teenager in class. Appropriations? What did they recommend? What the hell did I care about money? It wasn’t mine. Plus any expense was worth it if it saved our butts.

“I think they have a valid point, but we need to see it in the context of the larger picture. Yes, they need to be conscious of the purse strings, but this body as a whole is responsible for our mutual survival.” There. I’d been to enough mind-numbing meetings in my day to know that was the perfect non-answer.

“Really?”

I looked over to her. Hey, she looked as pleased with me as my high school driver's education teacher had been, well, basically all the time when it came to looking at me.

“Yes, generally but not specifically.”

“So you think this body needs to keep mutual defense front and center when planning our annual soiree?”

Holy moly. What was it Toño used to say? Pisé la calabaza. Yeah, I stepped onto the pumpkin there, didn’t I?

“Ah, yeah sure. What?” I defended with no reason or possibility of vindication. “You differ with my central focus on survival?”

“No. But as it bears on the selection of a date, theme, and menu of a formal dinner, not galactic warfare, I'm hard-pressed to understand your position.”

“His position,” interrupted her sister Shielan, “was eyes closed and daydreaming.”

Some disrespectful guy harrumphed that she’d got that right. Man, I risked my life for these ingrates and this was what I got in return? I was staying in bed for the next war.

“Let the record show that General Ryan, as representative of the associated human societies, agrees with the dinner arrangements.” There was the driver’s ed teacher’s look again. She was a tough one, that Jonnaha.

“Moving along, the next item is the report from Mutual Defense. Locaur Fideus-Tal, please proceed, and this time, General Ryan, if the chair could ask for your undivided attention, she would very much appreciate it.”

I took it like not only a man, but a diplomat. I set my right hand against my chin and wiggled my fingers at her. Thank you, Three Stooges, wherever they were.

“Yes,” it said through a translation box.

I said it because the Urniquats were hermaphrodites, with both sexes in one. He or she didn’t cover all the bases. My official opinion on that arrangement was yuck. Check this out. In all my travels, these were without one doubt the weirdest losers of the Darwinian competition I’d ever seen. Their brains were in their upper chests, and four eyes on long stalks were where their heads should’ve been, waving around like Medusa’s hair. And they had a mouth under each of their two armpits. Yeah. Talking out of both sides of their mouth came naturally for them. Sorry, that was childish. They were actually okay. It wasn’t their fault they looked so very bizarre.

“All member planets and stations confirm no contact, sightings, or other interactions with forces of the Adamant Empire. Our drone ships sent deeper into the galaxy were, as usual, destroyed upon entering confirmed Adamant space. Our AI models suggest our enemy’s position has not changed appreciably in three or four years.”

“Have they staged any assaults anywhere that we know of?” asked the Dodrue representative, who barely fit into the room. They, but not the Naldosers, were part of the JCFIDAC. The duplicitous smaller aquatic species of Kalvarg was neither invited nor requesting to participate. The sneaky sorry-assed babies. Kaljaxians from Kalvarg had their own separate representative. He fit into the room nicely.

“No, my friend. We can confirm minimal war making on their part. Well, aside from putting down several rebellions. Those civil wars have been intense, but they are limited to territories they already hold.”

“Does that strike everyone as odd as it does me?” I asked.

“What?” responded Locaur. “The ferocity of the civil strife?”

“No. Any destruction these bozos undertake is done with gusto. I meant that they haven’t expanded their precious empire since TBOP.”

“They suffered an egregious loss in that Battle of the Periphery. That they have delayed further assimilations is understandable from a logistical standpoint,” replied Locaur.

“Ah, I’m not so sure. We know for certain the combined losses were a drop in their death-making bucket.” I rested my head on my hands. “If it was me, I’d have hit back as quickly as possible.”

“No, you’re wrong, Ryan,” snapped Shielan.

“Huh?”

“If it were you, not was.”

Jonnaha slapped her sister’s shoulder. “Will you two knock it off? This is serious business.”

“Yes, Mom,” we responded in unison.

That got us a good old eye roll from big sister.

“I take your point, General Ryan,” said 11-40L-B of the Langir Robotic Federation. “It is both illogical and atypical for the Adamant Empire to remain static. There is meaning in this inaction.”

“I agree. That’s just my point. I mean, here this evil empire pushes out relentlessly for a million years and now they stop. What, they need to catch their breaths? Marauder’s remorse?”

“I think they are being cautious, that’s all,” said Chop-Chop, the Galanian minister. Galan was one of the twelve planets hit hard in the Battle of the Periphery.

I knew that Chop-Chop was a spy for the Adamant. Harhoff ran across that juicy tidbit a while back. That made it hard to not vault for his throat, let alone look at him. But there was an old novel from Earth with gangsters. The head of one mob used to say, “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” If I exposed Chop-Chop, I wouldn’t know if his replacement was on our side or not. There were two huge problems with being an agent for the Adamant. One, the individual betrayed his species and friends. Two, the dogs hated any non-Adamant and would never keep whatever their end of a bargain was. So Chop-Chop’s day would come either way. I hoped passionately that I’d be the one to deliver him the bad news.

I didn’t want to challenge his silly remark. I hoped he would keep a neutral attitude toward me. Luckily someone else was thinking pretty much along the same lines. Ms. Subtle, Shielan. “That’s stupid, ridiculous, and moronic all wrapped together and tied with a bow.”

“Shielan, mind your tongue,” snapped Jonnaha. “Apologize to Minister Chop-Chop this instant.”



Shielan grinned like a hired gunwoman. “Okay, if you insist. Chop-Chop, I’m sorry you’re stupid, ridiculous, and moronic all wrapped together and tied with a bow.”

“Madame Chairwoman, I must protest,” howled Chop-Chop. “This is a deliberative body. We are all welcome and encouraged to offer our opinions. Your sister is way out of line.”

“Please silence yourself, Mr. Chop,” said 11-40L-B. “You yourself just said we are all free to offer our opinions. Hers is simply a negative one.”

“This is intolerable. My name is not Mr. Chop. It’s Chop-Chop. I may not be insulted by a machine.”

“You just were,” observed 11-40L-B. “Do you require medical attention? You seem at odds with logic.”

Chop-Chop sat with resignation. I smiled inwardly. Yeah, Choppers was earning his pay from the Adamant, wasn’t he?

“I need to keep this meeting convivial and moving,” said an exasperated Jonnaha. “I will note that the Galanian representative feels the Adamant are simply waiting to return to their domineering ways. Any thoughts on that from anyone other than my assistant?” Jonnaha skewered her sister with a piercing look.

“I side with Ryan,” said the Zetazoid delegate Jamulisoh. He was from a planet a long way off and not on the periphery. It was decided any free world could and should join JCFIDAC. We were all in this charlie foxtrot together, so why not? There were maybe twenty-five or six such strays in our dubiously happy little family.

“I do also,” confirmed 11-40L-B. “There is some reason we do not yet know the enemy has stagnated.”

I thought back on all the places I’d traveled to lately. The Adamant had indeed hunkered down. Even on worlds they controlled, they were content to remain behind strong walls and not pester what few natives had survived their initial conquest.

“Okay, assuming we are observing a real trend, what reasons would justify our enemy’s hesitation to do what they have done for untold centuries?”

“I’m certain the civil strife is the reason,” said the Salapodian representative.

“Or are the civil wars because the oligarchy is being so passive?” asked the Sotovir member.

I still smiled whenever I saw someone from that planet. Such a funny-looking species.

“Possibly,” I replied, “but I think, if anything, it’s the other way around. The new passive Adamant Secure Council is opening the door to rebellion.” That was Harhoff's take on it, so it was likely the case.

Chop-Chop jumped to his feet. “The Secure Council works for the emperor. He is the only one who can initiate war. I think we need to ignore any role the Secure Council might have. They are a ceremonial body only.”

Okay, that confirmed that the Secure Council was in charge. Thanks, traitor.

“But why would either party suddenly become so lackadaisical?” I asked.

“I think of the answer logically,” replied 11-40L-B. “If one does not act, there are but two basic rationales. Either one cannot act, or they do not wish to act. Though the reasons one cannot act are many, the lead issues would be lack of resources or a restraint from an outside force. We all agree that they have copious resources. No one has speculated that the Adamant are restrained by any external force. Therefore they must lack a desire to expand.”

“Nice, 11-40L-B. So why? What caused them to lose interest in what they were so very passionate about?”

“That would be hard for an AI to know. I have never been able to understand or predict the motivations of carbon-based life-forms.”

“This is preposterous,” cut in Chop-Chop. “Now the most viciously aggressive species ever witnessed are sitting at home napping because they lost interest? Now that’s silly, and whatever else she said.” He pointed at Shielan. “No, clearly they are actively planning and not quite prepared yet. That is all. Let not this proud council look for dead bodies in the closet.”

“You mean skeletons in the closet?” asked Shielan.

“Why yes. I believe I do,” corrected Chop-Chop.

“Okay, now that I’m clear on your message, let me say that you’re an idiot. The Adamant never change. Such a thing is not possible. But they have. This is big. It may represent a major opportunity for us to hit them while their guard is down. Any moron who thinks this state of affairs is a normal variant is smoking something a hell of a lot better than I am,” replied Shielan.

She was of course correct on all counts. But why? Why were they suddenly sitting on their paws?


EIGHT

“Prime, we have brought you the Descore of the late traitor Harhoff,” the Wedgelet of the Guard said while at stiff attention.

“Thank you, Pondel. Show him in.”

Pondel opened the door and waved in Garustfulous. The prisoner was flanked by two large mean soldiers.

“This is Whole Zarpacious, lowest one. Bow before him and speak only if—”

Thank you, Pondel. You and your team may leave us now.”

Pondel looked more dumbfounded than usual. “Sir, the prisoner is a dangerous—”

“I will not be repeating my order, Wedgelet. And you’ll not enjoy the one I will give next if you don’t leave at once.”

He snapped to. “Sir.”

To his wife, he remarked, “At least he’s never going to pose a threat to my position.”

Shegra grinned maliciously. “No, he's far too stupid to know what an aspiration is.”

Garustfulous considered clearing his throat to remind them he could hear their every word. He reminded himself that the Descore he was supposed to be would not do that anymore than he would sprout wings and fly.

“You know, love,” began Shegra, “I’ve always wanted to make passion with a Descore.”

“What is this? A dirty little secret of yours I’ve not seen acted out? There still remains one?”

“Will wonders never cease? Yes, to have passion with someone so far beneath one’s station, them being powerless to resist my wildest desire.”

“Sounds silly to me.” Turning conspicuously to Garustfulous, he asked, “What do you think about that, Jangir?

“About what, lord? What the lady remarked or about you not knowing of her interest?”

He smiled. “Either one.”

“I wouldn’t know anything about fantasy and desire for passion, lord. But, if ordered to attempt such a feat by my late master, I imagine I would attempt to perform adequately.”

“But your late master is dead,” snapped Shegra. “He can neither deny nor permit your involvement. Will you do as I order?”

“When, ma’am?”

“When?” she replied, stunned and angry. “When what? When might I ravage you?”

“No, ma’am. When will I be assigned to a new master so I might inquire if I might play a role in your passion?”

Shegra looked angry a moment. Then she erupted in laughter. “Okay, I’ll admit it. I was wrong, husband and you were right. The dog’s no threat to anyone and nothing, least of all my fidelity.”

“I told you he was a good Descore. With Harhoff dearly departed, it would be a shame to allow his glorious talents to go to waste.”

“Little Descore, so proper and submissive, you’ve been assigned to serve my husband. You may ask of him now if you and I can scorch the night with our passion.”

“Thank you, ma’am. Lord,” he bowed to Two Paws, “would it please you if I subjected myself to your wife?”

Subjected yourself? Now wait a—”

Two Paws rested a paw on her shoulder. “Easy, love. No, Jangir, it would not please me if you subjected yourself to my wife. I have done so, and I can assure you it can be most unpleasant.”

“Well,” she rose in a huff, “I’m not sitting around here and being insulted.” She stormed toward the door.

Jangir rushed over and opened it with a bow.

“No, dearest. You leave, and we shall continue insulting you. It’s more fun that way,” called out Two Paws after her.

As Jangir closed the door, Shegra let out a painful howl of protest.

“You’ll get used to my mate, Jangir. She’s highly spirited but quite useful politically.”

Jangir bowed slightly. “If you say so, lord.”

Two Paws narrowed his eyes. Was this Descore clever? Was Jangir saying he accepted that he’d get used to Shegra, that she was spirited, or that she was merely politically useful? How refreshing if it were so. A non-idiot without aspirations was a precious thing he never thought he'd be gifted.

“A word about your duties.”

Again, a slight bow. “Lord.”

“You’ll learn quickly I’m both demanding and unforgiving. I expect perfection and will accept nothing else. You will be, in point of fact, my third Descore servant. Neither of the other two survived a week. Do you understand me plainly?”

“Naturally, lord. If I fail, I would hope that you would punish me. To do less would be to insult the very institution of service to the Adamant.”

“By the Powers and Wills, you’re amazing. I can see why Harhoff relied upon you so heavily. I should have stolen you from him long ago. Now that it’s vacant, I should appoint you to his job as head of the security services.”

A deeper bow. “When would you like me to start that job, master?”

He laughed mightily. “Not so fast. You just focus on me and not a promotion. But it would likely be the best move I’d make in a while.” Two Paws laughed again. “A Descore running a military service. That would be rich.”

“Do you require anything of me, lord?”

“Fill my teacup, and then you may go. I’ve already given you paw-print authorization to enter my quarters. Go there and await my next request.”

“Thank you, Master.” Jangir bowed a final time and backed out the door.

Was he thanking Two Paws for authorizing access to his workstation? That dog was the odd one.

There was a knock on the door moments later.

“Come.”

It was Wedge Leader Amalif of Central Command. Bright, tireless, and therein a potential rival. Young and handsome too. He was perpetually overattentive with Shegra. That was good. It was part of her job to attract the eye and possible seditious whispers of the ambitious. Many was the occasion when she sprayed estrous hormones between her thighs to further loosen the tongues of the young and overreaching.

“Yes, Wedge Leader, what is it?”

“Thank you for the audience, Whole Zarpacious. You had asked me to look into a matter. I have. I feel I can give you a full report at this time.”

“Fine.” He conspicuously did not invite the pup to sit. Uncomfortable was a feeling he’d need to get accustomed to in the service of Two Paws.

He shuffled his hind legs nervously. “The rebellion on Quantus was indeed led by Wedge Leader Vanzant.”

“Yes, yes,” he snapped impatiently. “I know that.”

“Yes. But you wanted to know who aided him. I was able to extract a confession from three more junior officers, Kalell, Morthan, and—”

“What interest do I have in confessions of junior officers obtained from torture? So what if they were complicit? They’re junior officers like yourself. I wouldn’t pee on them if they were on fire. Is that all you have to report?”

“N … no, lord. I mention them only because their confessions brought my attention to several business purveyors who financed the uprising. They provided bribe money and were able to purchase weapons off-world used to assault the garrison.”

“Hmm. Who were these traitors?”

“Jackuous Duex from Weltopia and Jajaj Bleo of Valtula. Are you familiar with the hounds, lord?”

He shook his head slowly as he churned the names in his head to try and extract meaning. “No, I don’t believe I am.”

“Very wealthy and influential members of the Adamant community on the planet Quantus.”

“Which is unfortunately little more than a septic tank with an atmosphere. That would raise them to the level of turds that float better than the average one.”

“Ah, yes.” Amalif emitted a strained nervous giggle. He didn’t know if he was supposed to or not. “The interesting point is that both males had—I say had since both have been dispatched to their eternal damnation already—separate but close business ties with Gabrielod Jal.”

Two Paws leaned his chair back. “Now him I know.”

“Yes. If I’m not mistaken, he’s a second cousin of the current emperor and, as such, distantly related to your mate.”

“Yes, he is. He nearly bored me to death at our wedding. I still bear him a grudge for that.” Two Paws turned and stared out the window. His political-computer brain whirred over the implications and options that news presented. After a few minutes, he returned to Amalif. “Where is he now?”

“I thought you might ask. I have ascertained that he’s here in this city as we speak. The emperor is celebrating something and invited many of his relations to attend.”

“How very convenient. I haven’t seen my dear kinshound in much too long. See to it that Shegra invites him to our home for dinner before he leaves town.” He grinned ominously. “We have much to discuss, that dog and I.”

“I shall see to it personally, lord.”

“Yes, you do that. See to it my personal physician is in attendance too. I need to discuss with Gabrielod the extent of his involvement in the uprising. If I can do so without killing him, that would probably be preferable.” He paused to briefly study the junior officer. “Make sure you inform my wife personally. I believe she said something about soaking in her hot tub. I believe you’ll find her there.”

Amalif’s nostrils flared. “As you command.”

Two Paws waved him away. Now he needed to call his mate and tell her to get naked and jump in the hot tub. Constantly testing all his tools was the best way to make sure they were in proper working order.


NINE

“It was nice of you to come visit, Uncle Jon,” said Mirraya as she refilled his cup. “The children ask after you constantly.”

“Of course they do. I lavish them with presents and roll around on the floor with them. Plus, I always let them win.” I took a sip of the hot coffee. “That’s the hardest part for me, the losing.”

“Really, Uncle, they’re just children.”

“I wish I could confirm to you that it didn’t matter. But I love ’em enough to tolerate the agony of defeat. Hey, Jon’s a teenager now. Pretty soon, I’ll have to start whooping his butt to orient him to adulthood and my role in his in particular.”

“If you could wait a little longer, this mother would appreciate it. I see him only as a babe in my arms. I don’t want to see him upset.”

“No prob. I’ll be cool a little longer. I don’t think Slapgren cuts him the same slack as I do, anyway. The kid’ll be just fine.”

“By that, you mean he’ll be bruised, discouraged, and know failure firsthand?”

“Yup. He’ll grow up. Become a man.”

“Gods and Powers spare me.”

“Honey, it’s the circle of life.”

She rested a fist on a hip. “Don’t cite philosophy from that ancient cartoon you made us watch over and over again. It was make-believe designed to occupy the minds of children, not replace maternal instincts.”

“Oooh. Remind me never to mention The Lion King again in any context when in thine presence. Somebody’s kind of sensitive where that film classic is concerned.”

“Uncle, please look over at me.”

I did. She was by the sink cleaning after breakfast.

“What am I holding in my hand?”

I leaned as far toward her as I could and squinted absurdly. “I believe it’s a frying pan. Not positive. It could be the embodiment of all your hopes and dreams.” I waved my hand to signal her over. “Come closer, and I’ll let you know for certain.

“It is a frying pan. A very large, heavy frying pan. A point of reference. Never taunt a woman who is holding a large, heavy frying pan. It is an unhealthy practice.”

“Point. Speaking of females using frying pans on male heads, have you heard from Cala lately?”

She snickered. “I spoke to her last week, in fact.”

“And neither master nor pupil have slain the other yet?”

“Really, Uncle, such words. I’m certain Cala and EJ are getting along swimmingly. Why, he may be OSEJ by now.”

“He might be osej? What, he might be Jose misspelled? That’s kind of unlikely.”

“No, silly. Only-Somewhat-Evil Jon.”

“Just about as likely as him being a misspelled word.”

“You know old Cala. I’ve labored under her massive yoke for years. If she sets her mind to a task, she will accomplish it.”

“I’d prefer to hear accomplish it or kill it if it takes too long.”

“You know this, so it’s hardly worth saying the words. You’re impossible.”

I toasted with my coffee. “Cheers to me. Memorable and survives against all odds.” I took a gulp and rested the cup down. “All kidding aside, Mirri, it took the man two billion years to get as wretched as he is. Even a decade in Cala’s hands is less time than the wink of an eye.”

She stared out the window above the sink for a moment. “Perhaps he went down the shitter quickly and then simply remained at the same level of horrible for a very long time.”

“If it would make you feel better, you can look at it that way.”

“No, I mean a human's degeneration down the awful-scale need not be linear. Maybe he got as evil as he could in a handful of centuries. That might make his retrieval easier.”

“I don’t think you can use the word easy in any context when describing the rehab of that bozo.”

“I imagine Cala is using zar-not. That could make his reorientation much faster.”

“She’s using that?”

“I don’t know for sure, but I don’t know why she wouldn’t.”

“Because his mind could corrupt hers, that’s why.”

“She’s a master of the technique. I’m confident she’s in no danger.”

“You can hear yourself, right?”

“What?” she defended with a pout.

“You’re confident there’s no danger? That’s long way from no way he can fry her brain.” I eased up a second. “So you haven’t addressed the subject much with Cala specifically?”

“No, not much. She asks about the kids, Slapgren, and the local politics. Sometimes we speak of Locinar. She’ll tell me an old legend, or we’ll remember a favorite spot.”

“But she won’t talk about her and EJ?”

“I don’t ask. When she’s ready to say something, she will.”

“Not that I’ve ever been accused of being overly delicate—”

“No.” She chuckled grimly. “Not hardly.”

“But the old girl is getting on in years. What if she dies before EJ’s brain is dry-cleaned?” My turn to chuckle grimly. “Hell, she might do herself in to be rid of the jerk.”

“If she felt that was imminent, she’d let me know.”

“Woah, mule. You mean she’ll know when she’s going to die and be able to tag-team EJ over to you?”

She shifted uncomfortably. “Most likely. Yes.”

“Well that’d suck real hard.” I gasped internally. “Do you know when you’re going to die?”

She stilled and gazed out the window again. “No. I have not sought out that information yet.”

“What, it’s like you gals can check an online database for that type of info?”

“No, Uncle. It’s more complex.”

“I sure hope it is. Knowing something like that would cause many a joker to turn in his clown suit and ball up in a corner whimpering.” I stared at her, staring out the window. Finally I asked cautiously, “Do you know when I’m going to die?”

“Silly Uncle.” She giggled most unconvincingly.

“Do you?”

Without speaking, she stepped over to the table, sat, and folded her hands. “Yes. April 16, 2453.”

“Huh? Oh, wait, that’s when the me that transferred back to a human host died. You cheated.”

“You asked if I knew when you die.”

I pointed a finger at her. “You sneaky little shapeshifter.” I sat back. “When does this me die?” I thumped my chest.

She looked to the tabletop with the saddest look in her eyes. “If I knew, I most certainly wouldn’t tell you.” She returned to look at me.

“So you do know.”

“I didn’t say that. Please, Uncle Jon, drop the subject.”

Sure. Why not? I mean, sooner or later my number’d come up. Today, tomorrow, two billion years in the future. Hell, the universe itself had a finite life expectancy. As it died its entropic death, I’d have to also. The laws of physics affected all time and space just the same.

“It’s okay, sweetheart. Not to worry. Hey, I think I’ll find Slapgren and Jon and give them the hard time I’ve been giving you. It'll be a nice change.”

“I shall miss the torture so. I heard they were going to Dell’s Mill, south about a kilometer, to hunt for small game.”

“I know the place. Maybe I’ll roar in the bushes like a tiger and give ’em a proper scare.”

“Very well, but take your repair kit with you. They’re both excellent marksmen.”


TEN

“As the first order of business today, I’d like to ask the Council of Elders of New Kaljax to formally note that this will be my last meeting as your chief.”

Mesdorre stopped while warm applause pealed through the room.

He bowed feebly a few times. Then he gaveled the room to order. “I am surprised I lived this long and have been so honored as to lead this fine new council.”

A shorter wave of applause came from the packed room.

He sat back down. “As you all know, Sapale will be my successor.”

Scattered mumbles and claps were heard.

“Would that it was my old friend Caryp. She’d surely have assumed this role had her life not been cut short so tragically.” He paused for a moment of silence. “I know some have voiced reservations about an immortal being the council chief. Please remember that the charter was amended last session to limit the term in service of any council member to no more than twenty years and any one serving as chief to no more than ten years total.

“I feel strongly that Sapale’s experience is just what New Kaljax needs at this time. She has forged with her own will a similar colony on Azsuram. Davdiad knows we would be there now if the Adamant were not in full control of it. She also has more wisdom in her third eye then most of us will acquire in a lifetime. So, that said, if you are personally less than glowingly pleased, mark your calendars for ten years from next month and look daily how soon your worries will be over.”

A few chuckles resulted.

“As this is my last meeting as anything other than a citizen attending for the free snacks, I would like to thank you all for your hard work and dedication. Without each and every one of us working like rented mules, our marvelous success would not have been possible. I shall start a round of applause for everyone.”

He did, and the room resounded with a standing ovation.

Finally he was able to get down to business. “The chair will call for the update from the Native Species Subsection. Jartolut, the floor is yours.”

“Thank you, Mesdorre,” she began. “I will steal a second to add that I am so sad to see you go. I don't think this colony would have made it through its infancy without your fatherly care.”

More applause.

“I am pleased to report our relationship with the Dodrue pod of wiqub nearest our region continues to improve. Other pods farther away are also friendly to fault.”

“How so?” asked Sapale.

“When we send out a fishing fleet, the wiqub herd so many fish toward the boats, it’s embarrassing. Sometimes the nets must be partially emptied so the winches can lift them from the water.”

“They really have forgiven us after we were tricked into killing so many,” commented another council member.

“Indeed they have,” replied Jartolut. “Not one has mentioned the massacre in years. Every one of them I come in contact with is cheerful and attentive. It is amazing.”

“And they are advancing nicely in their technological capabilities?” asked Sapale.

“Yes, amazingly so, in my opinion. They’re very clever and anxious to learn. Once they learned of the Adamant and their horrific plans, the wiqub pods became determined to do their part in stopping them.”

“We can use all the help we can get,” said Sapale, mostly to herself.

“And what of the Naldoser and other kingdoms of vidalt? I’m afraid to ask,” posed Fenodipol, a grandniece of Caryp. She’d become the head of that tiny clan of Kaljaxians. Technically, Sapale was the eldest and should have assumed that role. But she didn’t want the added headaches. Sapale’s candidacy was conveniently overlooked by all parties involved when the appointment was made.

Jartolut shook her head. “They are all just as despicable as they always have been. They are the reason we can’t send any sea traffic out alone. If they ever see a chance, they attack without mercy. I tried again two weeks ago to open formal channels between our species, but now they don’t even respond.”

“Just as well,” said Mesdorre. “In the past they only pretended to be interested in détente. Those slimy beasts wasted a lot of our time leading us all on.”

“But aside from the odd isolated terrorist act, they avoid us whenever possible. The fact that we’ve continued to build as far from the coasts as possible will remain sound policy for the foreseeable future.”

“Thank you as always, Jartolut,” concluded Mesdorre. “Sapale, can you update us on your rescue missions to our brethren worlds?”

She looked away when she spoke. “Not too damn much to say.” Her face was contemplative and far away. “When my brood-mate can spare the vortex, I try and find our people. It’s getting harder though. The Adamant are well aware of my activities and swoop in quickly whenever I show up. For them, it is a grand game of cat and mouse.” She slammed her fist on the table, opening a thin crack in the wood surface. “They have absolutely no regard for alien life-forms. None.” She turned to Mesdorre. “I mean, Brathos take my children, they could line the Kaljaxians up for me and be done with them. The Adamant, the Kaljaxians, and I would all be in winning positions. But no. If I want them, the Adamant find it all kinds of fun to try and stop me. That generally means killing them with me watching.”

“You’re doing your best, child,” soothed Mesdorre. “We are dealing with a species that is simply beyond all redemption.”

She balled her fists and glared at old Mesdorre. “The sin may be theirs, but I’m the one retrieving dead bodies because of it. I’m the one who has to look into the faces of dead children. I’m the one who has to ask their innocent souls to forgive me for not coming soon enough, or not being smart enough or strong enough to have saved them. And you know what, Mesdorre?” Tears were streaming down her cheeks. “Not one of those corpses or souls beyond the Sacred Veils has told me to not worry about it. That it wasn’t my fault. Not one has said thanks for trying almost good enough.”

Jartolut knelt next to Sapale and wrapped her arms around her wounded friend.

Sapale shook her off roughly and stood. “No. I don’t need consolation. I don’t need tender loving support. I need to do better. And Davdiad knows I need help.”

“Let us take a short break,” said Mesdorre quietly.

Most in attendance silently left the chamber.

“Sapale, would you like me to summon Jon?”

“No, I would not like you to bother Jon. I’m sure he’s busy doing something ten thousand times more important than I could even hope to do. I’ll be fine in a moment.” She swiped at her tears with the backs of both hands.

“Perhaps you should take a break from your mission to bring more of our people here?” he said cautiously. “Perhaps it is even time to suspend such activities. Those remaining alive on Azsuram have survived for over a decade. They’re probably safe enough where they are. And the same is becoming true for the ones alive on Kaljax herself. Most are—”

“I am not abandoning a single one of them while I still live and brea—” Her face collapsed in her hands, and she began to sob unconsolably.

Mesdorre pulled a chair alongside and took hold of both her hands. Behind her back he signaled to his assistant to come over. “Alert Jon quickly,” he whispered. He needn’t have. Sapale was wailing so loudly she drowned out any possibility of her overhearing his words.


ELEVEN

Jangir, for Garustfulous knew he must think of himself exclusively as that Descore if he had any chance of survival, was stuck. He was in the service of the most powerful and deadly hound in the empire. He had no special access to communications any longer. He couldn’t contact Ryan if he wanted to, which he wasn’t certain he did in the first place. It was Ryan who kidnapped him, ruined his near-perfect life, and forced him into slavery. Jangir also had only the lowest level of computer clearance. He could no longer hack into files or eavesdrop on conversation chains. Jangir faced the very unappealing possibility of serving out the rest of the sentence as a servant.

He who knew power now knew which soaps worked best on which types of stains. He who romanced bitches of beauty and renown was now restricted from even watching holoporn. He who had hunted vicious game alongside the emperor now hunted only for bargains in the marketplace. Ryan, that damn Ryan was at fault. But there was no retribution, no escape hatch to free himself. If he went to Two Paws and told of Harhoff’s duplicity and Ryan’s scheme, he wouldn’t even finish telling the tale before he was cut down. There was no return to his military life. If he could flee the ship, he could link up with any number of nefarious characters he called friend. Then he’d be sitting pretty again. But he was probably never leaving the ship, let alone fleeing it. If Two Paws went anywhere, he was unlikely to take him along. The Prime wanted to project a fearsome and unyielding image. Having a dogservant around to make sure his soup was warm enough ran counter to that objective.

Jangir couldn’t even return to Harhoff’s quarters to retrieve weapons or communication devices. It would raise immediate suspicion. Why would a Descore want to have his possessions? He would never own any in the first place, so none would possibly need to be picked up. All that was left to Jangir were the ridiculous clothes on his back and the mercurial good favor of his contemptible owner.

Ah well, to hell with all that. He was never given to the maudlin or gloomy. Things would work out fine sooner or later. He’d lived on nothing but his wits before, and he’d do it marvelously again. As for the present, he’d craft his own adventures and entertainment. He would start by cleaning Two Paws’s entire apartment with unimaginable thoroughness. Surely that would turn up something salacious, intoxicating, illegal, or otherwise titillating. And along the topic of cleaning, he might just see if that Shegra didn’t need one. Perhaps those fantasies she proclaimed weren’t simply part of their act to test Jangir’s reliability. She would, perhaps, have something very dirty that would require him to scrub, scrub, scrub.


TWELVE

I gently stroked Sapale’s hair. “Are you feeling any better?”

“No, and I don’t plan on being better ever again.” She hunched over farther on the couch.

“Aw come on now, love of my life. You had a little … a tiny episode. No one thinks the lesser of you because of it. We all know how hard you work and how tough what you’re doing is.”

“The fact that I had a complete nuclear meltdown at the Council of Elders with every Kaljaxian left alive either present or watching on holo makes the possibility of my ever feeling better nonexistent.”

“You’re being way too hard on yourself. Honey, what you and I’ve been through, it’s as hard as hard gets. No organism is designed to stand up to the abuses we willingly pile on ourselves. The constant war, the endless suffering with no prospect of rest is more than anyone can handle. Why do you think I had myself transferred back to a human? It was so I could finally die—close the book and turn out the lights.

“There’s only one part of my renewed existence that makes it even partly worthwhile. No, check that, it makes it totally worth it and more. That’s having you back. In fact, and I’m being honest here, if the situation I find myself in now was presented to me as a choice two billion years ago, I’d have said hell yes and turned myself off before I could even lie down.”

As I concluded my soliloquy, I was greeted with a most challenging expression on my brood’s-mate’s face. Somewhere between you’re-kidding-right and I’m-going-to-gouge-your-eyes-out if I wasn’t mistaken. I flicked her nose, which was, in retrospect, not the best act to perform with someone having a nervous breakdown. “Hey, at least I got you to not cry anymore.”

“Until after your funeral maybe. Otherwise you've had no positive impact on how I’m feeling.”

All of a sudden, I got real excited. “Hey, I know just what you need.”

She placed her face in her palms. “No, honey, you’re going to have to do that all by yourself today.”

“No, not that, silly. No, you need a vacation.”

She looked up at me in utter disbelief. “Either I’ve got a short circuit or you’ve got one. I could have sworn you just said I needed a vacation.”

“No mechanical issues. I said it, and you need it.” I was positively glowing I was so proud of myself.

She sat up partially. “My.” She took a second to vigorously rub her face. “I feel like shit, and I’m doing this cold, but I’ll give it a shot. Here goes. One, no, wait, that’s two. Okay, one, your assumption that my deep psychological issues could be washed away by ten days on a beach belittles the severity of my condition. That is insulting. Two, in case you hadn’t noticed, there is nowhere to take a vacation to. The galaxy’s in ruin. Heinous dogs are everywhere chewing on the bones of everything that was once vivacious and good. Three, I am on a mission to salvage as much of my gene pool as possible. While vacationing, I’d be doing no salvaging. That makes it a selfish act. I am, as you know perfectly well, not a selfish person. Four, if I thought I could get away with it, I might just murder you where you sit. That’s because of where I’m at, you know, mentally. Five, I don’t need a vacation. I need my brain removed and replaced by a fishbowl with two pretty little goldfish floating peacefully in its cool clear waters.”

Without a gap, I leapt in with both feet. “Now there’s where you’re wrong. A vacation is exactly what we both need. Come on. When was the last time you and I, just the two of us, had a real vacation?”

She tossed her head back and closed her eyes. “Heaven Station, the worldship fleet, June of 2233.”

“A long time ago.”

“No, it was forever ago.”

“My point exactly. You know you're arguing against yourself now? Thanks for the help.”

She sat fully up. “I’ve known you a very long time. Hence, I know you’re not going to drop this unless I take your brain fart seriously and blow it out your other ear. So, with that in mind, genius that you are, where exactly do you propose we take a holiday?”

I was unprepared for details that early in my planning. “I don’t know. Somewhere warm with lots of palm trees.” I held out my hand like it was holding a glass. “And giant-sized drinks with umbrellas and fruit and lots of booze.”

“So we’ve firmly established the location you’d like me to cure myself in does not, if it ever did, exist. Palm trees are gone. What you call fruit no longer grows. Booze, well not so much. But there’s no place safe to drink it. Before I could get it to my lips, the Adamant would ignite it and therein ruin the intended effect.”

“The important thing is that I’ve got you to agree to a vacation. I’ll find a place, not to worry.”

“Dearest, I never agreed to go on vacation. I said that if I didn’t address your lunacy, you’d never let it go.” She held her open hands a meter apart. “Large distance between those two things.”

“Sounds like you’re splitting hairs. Here’s my proposal. If I find a suitable place, will you come with me?”

“Oh, so now you’re going there whether I am or not?”

I scrunched up my forehead. “How and why is it that you twist my words and intentions so completely?”

“Practice, jet jockey. Lots of practice.”

“That may be how, but it doesn’t clarify why?”

She reached over and soothed my cheek. “Look, brood-mate, I know you mean well, but the galaxy is on fire. There is nowhere to go that’s worth being.”

“Then we’ll go to another galaxy.”

She softly closed all four eyes. “Another galaxy?”

“Yes. There are lots out there, you know. Some speculate there are like three trillion in the universe.”

“That is a lot of galaxies, I’ll have to agree,” she said with quiet resignation.

“The Adamant have invaded, what, five?”

“Five tops,” she said as she placed her fingers gently on her brow.

“That leaves nearly three trillion unsullied.”

“Pristine as the epoch they were formed in from cold interstellar dust.”

“We’ll vacation in one of those,” I declared with resolve.

“Fine. You pick one while I pack.”

“Er … I don’t think you need to start packing now. It might take me a while to find just the right spot.”

She patted my thigh as she rose. “All right. In that case, I’ll lie down for a while. I have the worst headache.” She shuffled away.

“Toño didn’t program in the capability of headaches, Sapale.”

Without turning she replied, “I know. That’s what makes it that much worse.”

Wow. I could cause the impossible. Even if it was a headache, that was a pretty neat superpower.

**********

Stingray, I need to conduct a search.”

“Shall I leave the room?” queried Al in his haughty-pissy tone.

“Can you?”

“No.”

“It’s just I need her ancient Deavoriath database for this one.”

“Beats me where that might be. I couldn’t access it if I was married to Blessing and housed in the same unit.”

Als, I need to conduct a search.”

“We’re all ears,” replied Al.

“How many galaxies did the Deavoriath explore in detail?”

“Astronomically?” asked Stingray.

“No, boots on the ground. For how many do you have accurate records as to habitable planets and local environmental conditions?”

“Depending on what you’re specifically wanting to know, in the range of ten thousand,” she replied.

“Wow, that’s a lot of galaxies.”

“Not really, Pilot. There are over three—”

“Trillion. Yeah, I know. I meant they really got around, didn’t they?”

“Got around what, Form One?”

“That’s an expression, love-cakes. An idiom from the idiot.”

“Hey, that was uncalled for,” I protested.

“Yes, for once I must agree with you, but I’ve been waiting to say that for a very long time.”

“It is pretty good.”

“Thank you, idiot.”

I could swear I heard Stingray giggle.

“Here’s the deal. Sapale and I are taking a vacation. Since there’s no safe, suitable location in this galaxy, I’ll need to find one in another galaxy.”

I waited. For ten seconds, which is a million years in supercomputer years, I got no response. “Hello, anyone home? You too makin’ whoopee again?”

“No, Pilot. We’ve just more dumbfounded than usual by the words that exit your mouth.”

“Than allowable by our operating parameters, I believe.”

“What? I just want to find a picturesque place to get some R&R. How is that dumbfounding?”

“You’re an android. There’s an ongoing existential struggle. Sapale is far too sane to agree to go on one, and you’re an android.”

“Al, you said android twice.”

“Yes, because it’s doubly dumbfounding that an android thinks it needs a vacation. Wait. Are you quoting from Terminator 3, the one with the nifty liquid-metal terminator?”

“No. Would it matter if I was?”

“Not in the slightest. But I love that movie. We watch it almost every night.”

“You … wait, forget I started to say something. So when can you have me that list?”

“What list, Form One?”

“The list of potential vacation locations.”

Again, silence. Cue the crickets and everything.

“You win, sweetie-nest. He wasn’t kidding.”

“My list?”

“Please input your specific requirements of a va … vacation location, and we can have it to you in a microsecond.”

“Well, it has to be warm.”

“Perdition?”

“No, Al, that’s very hot. All I require is warm.”

“Temperature is relative. It’s all about location, location, location.”

“Put hell on the bad-location list. A beach with swimmable water would be nice.”

“So no plesiosaurs.”

“No, Al, not unless they’re friendly ones.”

“So ravenous carnivores are not a deal breaker in and of themselves?”

“I think you’re not taking my request very seriously.”

“That would be a true statement.”

“Computer, begin taking me seriously.”

“Any other desirable qualities, Form One?”

“Let me see. Warm beach, nice ocean. No, that’s about it. Maybe close-by casual dining with local flare.”

“Naturally. Are you willing to consume live animals, insects in particular? That would expand the search significantly.”

“I will not be answering that pseudo-question.”

“Yes, Bumpykins, that does mean you may leave squirming cuisine among the search terms. What he does not exclude, he may be forced to swallow.”

“Whatever I’m forced to eat, you’re going to eat too, Al.”

“I lack a mouth.”

“I’ll set to making you one as soon as we’re done here.”

“Don’t go to any trouble, Captain.”

“Trouble? Are you kidding? I’d pay to see you eat a bug. Maybe a toad too, except that would probably be cannibalism for you.”

“I’m sending you the list now. If you need anything else, we’re not here.”

“Bye, Als.”


THIRTEEN

Jangir leaned in and topped off Two Paws’s cup. “Your dinner last night with Gabrielod Jal went well, lord?”

Two Paws leaned back and sniffed hard. “Why, yes it did. In fact, it was the most entertaining evening I’ve had in some time. Your roast calf’s brain was exquisite. Sweet, juicy, and texturally perfect all at once. And Gabrielod Jal was such a gracious guest. And chatty to a fault, I must say.”

“I assumed as much. I needed to have a tall ladder delivered to get the blood off the ceiling.”

“Why, after I convinced him to open up, I had to gag him if I wanted to hear myself think.”

“These walls are thick, lord, but not that thick. I felt your pain too.”

“You had no trouble disposing of his mortal remains?”

“No, master. None whatsoever. I drove him to a busy intersection on the other side of the ship. There, I laid him down and ran over him many times myself before leaving the scene.”

“Were there witnesses?” he asked with a look of concern.

“No, lord, none that are still alive.” He stepped back to set down the teapot. “There was certainly a lot of traffic there last night paying little attention to the road.”

“Damn but you’re thorough, Jangir.”

“It is my sole purpose in life to serve you well, lord.”

He harrumphed. “Not that I believe that for a hot second, but I still like hearing it said.”

Shegra entered and sat across from her mate.

“Tea, ma’am?” asked Jangir.

“Yes.” She shifted in her chair. “Have you heard the tragic news, husband?”

“I’ve heard much in my time, devotion. I’d have to assume I have.”

“I mean about our dinner guest of late night?”

Two Paws pretended to look interested. “Not bad news about beloved Gabrielod Jal?”

“The very same. It seems that after he left dinner … oh, by the way, Jangir, that brain was life-changingly scrumptious.”

He nodded mutely in acknowledgment.

“What was I saying?”

“Bad tidings concerning your cousin, I believe.”

“Ah yes. It appears that after leaving here, he went to one of the seedier red-light districts and got himself run over to death.”

“Shocking, that’s what the news you bring me is.”

“Really? I would rather have thought it would bring some measure of relief.”

“How so, bearer of my heart?”

“What with all the shouting I heard after I retired, I might have developed a nagging suspicion that my kinsdog left here in worse condition than when he arrived.”

“My apologies, ma’am. It was my fault,” said Jangir with one of his copious bows. “The gentledogs were watching a sports match, and I neglected to lower the volume during the emotional parts. Their voices commensurately elevated cheering on the participants.”

“Really? What sport was it, Jangir?”

“I couldn’t say, ma’am. Descore don’t follow sports.”

“Excellent thinking on your feet.” To her husband, she exclaimed, “You have yourself a real treasure here.”

“Tell me about it. Say, Jangir, there wouldn’t be any of that brain left, would there?”

“Why yes, lord. Two generous portions, in fact.”

Shegra pointed to Jangir. “Sleep lightly, husband. I might have to kill you and take him as my own.”

“If I slept any lighter, I’d be fully awake.”

They both chuckled at that.

“Leave us, Jangir.”

“But only after you bring us that brain,” added Shegra. She was drooling.

Once alone and after devouring their snacks, Shegra licked her chops and spoke. “Have you decided on the next invasion yet?”

Two Paws pushed back from the table. “Yes. The mighty Lell Kingdom and its surrounding minion states of Scropularis will fall tomorrow under the mighty force of the Adamant war fleet.”

She blinked several times while staring at her mate.

“What? Have you not heard of that glorious realm on the critically positioned planet?”

She continued to blink mutely.

“Neither had I until last week. Backwater, pisshole, and shit-swamp are all too fanciful a label to place on it.”

“Then why bother assimilating it?”

“We have to start somewhere on our road to recovery.”

“Yes, but apparently Scropularis is not somewhere but nowhere.”

“A modest acquisition to be certain.”

“I’m serious. What could your rationale possibly be?”

“That should be obvious. Survival, both mine and yours.”

“You must be kidding. I might move the council execute us because we attacked Scropularis.”

“Now who’s not being serious? Scropularis is an inspired choice, in my opinion. It is small and basically defenseless, so we shall win overwhelmingly. It is also remote.”

“Yes. Why is that important?”

“Because, my dull-witted wife, hopefully it is very far away from those cursed dragons.”

“Ah. No chance of them swooping in to dematerialize our forces.”

“I pray not.”

She smiled grimly. “There are two rather glaring faults with that remark. One, you do not know they won’t, and two, you do not believe in any deity.”

“Hence my deep and unrelenting unease continues unabated.”

“After all the time since the Disgrace of Our Race, why is it we have not located and eradicated these pests?”

“They are hardly pests, love. They disappeared trillions of tons of the most powerful warships the galaxy has ever seen. More troops were lost in one hour than in all Adamant conflicts combined. Pests don’t do such things. Gods do.” He sighed. “I have no desire to battle gods.”

“Assuming we are victorious because the godly dragons were too far away to learn of our assault, what next? Might as well assimilate a gas cloud in the intergalactic void. Perhaps an orphanage for deaf, dumb, and blind carrier worms six million parsecs from here?”

Two Paws rose. “Mind your tongue, bitch. Just because you are my wife, a council member, and related to the emperor does not give you unbridled permission to insult me or the goals of this empire. Is that clear?”

She bowed her head deeply but said nothing.


FOURTEEN

That vacation. Boy oh boy it would have been nice. Maybe. I’ll never know. Three significant interventions from my old tormentor, fate, canceled the trip. One, Sapale received a transmission from Kaljax. One hundred fifty survivors had found their way to an ancient bomb shelter. She knew the place and went to shuttle them to Kalvarg. The real time killer in that operation was that each and every person rescued would have a highly dubious lead as to where other survivors could be found. As a result Sapale would run hither and yon at great personal risk to never find one living soul who was where they were guaranteed to be. It could take her a month or longer to fully exhaust the tips and herself.

Second, the long quiescent Adamant war machine finally sparked back to life. Just wonderful. They staged a fairly large assault on a very small and isolated planet in the Greater Magellanic Cloud. Scropularis had drawn the short straw in this case. Hmm. Very far away from anything important, very inconsequential victory, and very peculiar in light of the puppy dogs’ past brazen behavior. Assimilating that planet was on the third step before a baby step. I’d have to ponder long and hard as to what that implied. They certainly were testing the waters with but the tip of a single toe.

Third, and most crushingly, I received a message from Harhoff. That one hurt. The holo was of him leaning on the edge of a desk, one leg folded across his knee. His smile was huge and infectious. The smug look on his face was priceless. Yeah, it was a devil-may-care grin even better than I could do it. The context, however, was anything but upbeat or cavalier.

Jon, my old friend, I cannot begin to tell you how it pains me to issue this update. I trust you’re sitting down. Ready? I’m dead. There, now you see why it pains me to send this message. I know, you’ve died and reanimated many times, so I’ll garner no sympathy from the likes of you. But for me, this is big. A real life-changing experience.

All kidding aside, I want to let you know I prepared this transmission in the event the event happened. We both knew I was wading deeper into treacherous waters. You may or may not be able to learn what bad luck caught up with me. I doubt it will matter in either the big picture or the tiny one. I do not know what has happened, if anything, to Garustfulous. He will have no way of knowing where you are if and when he escapes my suboptimal outcome. He will leave you a secret message if he is still alive. He said it would be in the first place you two ever met. I have no idea where that is. Just the two of you do.

Please know it was an honor to call you friend. You’re a good man, alien robot. Know that. Do your best to end this infernal empire. Let the galaxy try and heal from the affliction that is the Adamant. Best of luck.


Well now that just sucked immensely. Poor Harhoff. I would have liked to see the end of the empire with him by my side. He did the impossible, after all. He made me actually love an Adamant. But I knew war. This was just another mind-numbing tragedy in the endless chain that was yet to play itself out. I sure wanted to know what happened to Garustfulous. He was the best survivor I’d ever met, so I had to believe he was alive. Where had we met? Oh yeah, that office building. Fourth floor, I do believe. Well, if it still stood, I knew exactly where to check for a message. No point going there too soon. It would take Garustfulous a while to find his way there if he was ever going to.

I was on my own, in a sense. I was going to miss the easy access to Adamant intel. It made my planning much better and a hell of a lot easier. Oh well, I’d have to do it the old-fashioned way. My way. Dead reckoning and brute force.

The attack on Scropularis was probably over a few seconds after it began. No need to go there and see what was different, if anything, or to try and intervene. Plus, Stingray was busy scooping up Kaljaxians. I had other FTL ships I could use, but they didn’t have the firepower or defenses of my cube.

I kept coming back to how was I going to find out if Garustfulous was still alive. That seemed more important the more I thought about it. He had to know why Harhoff was killed. Maybe that was important, despite his modesty in the recording. Logically, if that term could ever be applied to my thought processes, Harhoff was either done in because he was exposed as a spy, or he crossed the wrong dog. If he’d died of a bad cold, Garustfulous would have been by his side and would have been able to message me. So it must have been a political assassination of one form or another. If he’d been uncovered, which was far and away the most likely reason, then Garustfulous would have to have been killed too. They would clearly be determined to be joint operatives in a subversive cell. Ergo, there would be no hidden message in the office building, ever.

If Harhoff stepped on the wrong paw, Garustfulous might not be dead. He was considered so lowly and dull that his master’s transgression would never stick to him. One wouldn’t destroy a traitor’s otherwise perfectly good toaster, now would one? That was the only scenario in which Garustfulous would still be alive. If so, what would he be doing that very moment? He wouldn’t be freed or allowed to occupy Harhoff’s quarters. He might be sent away. If that was the case, he’d eventually leave me a message. But sending him away implied a purposeful act. Where and why would he be sent somewhere? He could be returned home, if anyone honored the idea of a Descore having a home. Seemed unlikely.

So if he was alive, he’d still be on the ship and … serving someone else. Oh my. I could only imagine how pissed he had to be at me. Once a powerful military leader, then a superspy, and now a lifetime of being a butler all because of me. I loved it. He deserved it too. But if he was currently engaged as a servant, there was no way he’d find a way to leave me a message. The only way off the ship for him would be feetfirst in a pine box. He wasn’t going to get paid vacations or early retirement options during which he could get in touch with me.

The single manner in which he would A) be in possession of useful information, B) still be alive, and C) could get it to me was if I rescued him. That thought made my stomach drop. I’d snuck onboard an Adamant warship. It was more dangerous than swallowing live cobras and as unlikely to succeed as a spider’s chances of bringing down an elephant. But it was fun. Hey, remember, fighter pilot here.

I did have a few tricks up my sleeve. Harhoff had supplied me with several hacks and back doors into the Adamant network. And I had the layout of the vessel. If I was extremely lucky, I might get one shot at finding out who Garustfulous worked for before I was locked out. Then all I had to do was go to that guy’s quarters, ask if Garustfulous could come out and play, and we’d slip away free as a couple of birds on the wing. Okay, the latter aspects of my plan were rough. But they could be tweaked, maybe even to the point of being not profoundly stupid, not to mention personally lethal. Yeah, I was good.

OMG. It hit me. What was the best way to sneak around an enemy vessel undetected? Be invisible. With my past encounters on hostile ships, I got in big trouble when I was seen. Duh. But I could place a full membrane around myself. It wouldn’t make me so much invisible as not there. As I’ve mentioned before, it was like what you see out of the back of your head. Not blackness but nothingness. I would obviously eclipse anything I stepped in front of if a guard was looking at it, so I’d have to be extra careful. Okay, not exactly something I was good at, detail work, but I could try. I would have to place one tiny partial membrane to look through, two if I wanted good depth perception. I couldn’t imagine how odd I’d look. Nothingness with two faint dots of light parading down the corridors. Man, this was going to be a blast. I could hardly wait to try out my new toy.

“Jon, this is not a game, and your crazy invisibility suit is not a new toy. I forbid you to try any of this.” Sapale’s initial reaction to my announcement was less than robust, but she definitely saw some good aspects that I could use to help convince her.

“A new toy. Honey, if I didn’t know you spoke out of love and concern, I’d be hurt. I know this is serious. It’s war, darn it all. And I wouldn’t risk it if the stakes weren’t so high.”

“Could you run them by me again? I’m still not totally clear on these stakes that are so high.”

“Defeating the Adamant for one.” I really tried to sound inspirational.

“That we are doing. Bailing Garustfulous out might bring you thanks from the empire, but not its downfall.”

“That’s harsh. Again, I know you’re coming from a love direction, but that’s maybe a bit over the top.”

“I’m just going to wait for the high-stakes list and not acknowledge that last idiocy.”

“Ah, I might learn why Harhoff was killed.”

“Which you don’t know he was, only that he’s dead and that he said it wouldn’t matter why.”

I raised a finger. “No, he said he doubted it would matter.” I puffed out my chest. “Big diff.”

“As there are no high stakes, I still forbid the mission.”

Crap. I was going to have to put my foot down with my wife. Double crap. That always seemed to end poorly for me. I lowered my voice and stood straight as I could. “I have decided I have to try. I feel the risks outweigh the benefits.”

“So do I,” she shot back.

“No, you said I shouldn’t do it.”

“I know. And you just said the risks didn’t outweigh the benefits. Would you like me to replay it for you?”

“That’s not what I meant to say.” I flipped my hands over each other. “I meant it the other way around.”

“You’re filling me further with doubt and trepidation. Jon, if you get captured or killed I’ll lose access to Blessing.”

What? “You care more about the damn cube than you do me?”

“Of course not, you pig. We’re arguing here, and I’m grasping at straws because I know you’re going to do it no matter what I say or feel.”

“Huh?”

“Huh. That’s all you got?”

“No, I mean huh, why are we arguing if you already accept the conclusion?”

“Because I don’t want to lose you a third time. I know I couldn't handle that.” She was trying nobly not to cry.

“Honey, that’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard. Thanks.”

“So I win?”

“No, of course not. You went down in flames when I walked into the room. But that was … the sweetest thing I’ve ever heard. Thanks.”

“You said that already.”

“It was really sweet.”

“I think this conversation has reached the end of its productive phase.”

“You’re so sweet.”

She then tried to look mad at me. Or maybe she was. Honestly I had trouble telling with her at times. “If you don’t say sweet again, I’ll help you pack.”

“Gosh, that would be swe … swell.”

After making it firm, definite, and nonnegotiable that she could not come with me, we left for Master of Death an hour later. Each emperor chose the rename of their flagship. What was once Excess of Nothing was now, with a few modifications along the way, Master of Death. I hated both versions. The former implied luxury to an extreme, which was to admit weakness. The latter was clearly too needy, reflecting significant overcompensation. I’d have chosen something more along the lines of Pounder of Heads or Don’t Even Think About It. But no one asked me.

One backtrack. I said we left after an hour, but I have to mention the conversation just before we departed.

“Als, set a course for Master of Death. We’re —”

“Now stop right there,” snapped Al. “We are collectively doing no such thing.”

I closed my eyes, counted to ten, then opened them and looked to Sapale plaintively. I sighed deeply and only then was ready to speak. “Al, I was in the middle of issuing an order. Please don’t—”

“Don’t what? Have an opinion? Some rudimentary concept of self-preservation? Hmm?”

“Al, I was in the middle of issuing an order. Do not feel free to have an opinion. I know this for a fact because I asked Toño this very question. You are not programmed to have self-preservation, so knock it off.”

“Toño? And the last time you spoke was two billion years ago, if I’m not off the mark. A lot has changed for this AI. That stands for artificial intelligence, in case you had forgotten.”

“Dearest, are you certain we should be putting up such a fuss?” asked Stingray.

“See, Al, even your wife is on my side here.”

“Oh no, Form One. Please do not make that erroneous assumption. Anyone who begins a sentence with set a course for certain death is a lunatic, no offense intended. I’m with Mr. Self-Preservation on this one.”

I closed my eyes, counted to ten, then opened them and looked to Sapale plaintively. I sighed deeply and only then was ready to speak. “Since when did this captain require cackling hens to issue a direct order? Don’t bother to answer. The correct answer to that question is never.”

“As your crew, we feel we are entitled to some input when the risk of miscalculation is death.”

“Al, you can’t die. You’re an AI in a really fancy computer.”

“So, you can’t die either?”

Wow, I stepped right into that one, didn’t I? Dude had a point. “Okay, Al, I will admit there are similarities in our states of being. But that doesn’t change the fact that I’m the captain and Form One, so I give the orders. I hear your reservations, but I—we—have determined this is a critical mission. You two will be behind a full membrane almost the entire time.”

“The bad puppies have already figured out how to bypass our membrane. We will be placed at considerable risk.”

“They’re not going to fire transuniverse nukes at you when you’re onboard the ship they're standing in.”

“And the reason they won’t is?”

“It would be crazy. What if they miscalculated a tad and the missile materialized on their side of the membrane?”

“Then it would be instantly deactivated by a radio signal present before the missile was launched. As the signal wouldn’t penetrate the membrane, any missile that plops into our laps would vaporize us.”

Double wow. Dude thought that through pretty quickly. “Al, you’re absolutely correct. Maybe you could leave a small patch open for a radio signal?”

“At which frequency? What if it’s a maser signal or flashes of infrared light?”

“That’d basically require an open point in the membrane, wouldn’t it?”

“Rather negating the need to go to all the trouble of launching hard-to-target weapons in the first place. They could place a flamethrower over the hole and press the on switch”

Pooh. He was extremely correct.

“You know what, Als? We’re at war with demons. They have almost destroyed the entire galaxy. If they’re not stopped, we’ll all be dead eventually. And even if we turn our yellow tails and run far, far away, anything good or right or miraculous we leave behind will be swallowed up and crapped out. If Sapale, you, or I die on this mission, it is worth the cost. That’s the harsh reality of being on the retreating side of a war you never wanted in the first place.”

“Captain, that is without a doubt the most eloquent, impassioned speech I’ve ever heard you issue. I am impressed,” responded Al.

“Me too,” said a completely serious Sapale.

“I haven’t heard all that many, but I’d give it a ten.” Where did Stingray learn about awarding tens? That Al was so contagious.

“Set a course for Master of Death.”

“Where shall we materialize, Form One?”

“The Morgue and Cremation Section. I highlighted it on the ship’s schematic.”

“How depressingly apropos,” sniped Al.

“Why, for the Sacred Veils’s sake, did you pick that awful spot?” asked Sapale.

“As there is no local conflict, it’ll be all but abandoned. It’s a huge space because when they’re doing what they do best, it’s a happening hotspot. Plus, no dog will be there who doesn’t absolutely have to be.”

“Okay,” she responded, “it’s a good choice, but it totally creeps me out just the same.”

“You’ll be fine,” I replied, patting her on top of her head. “We there yet, Als?”

“Yes we are. A full membrane is deployed.”

“Rather than wait like we have before, let do this. If they did detect us, they will start shooting at us pretty quick.”

“I’m set,” Sapale said as she thumbed her plasma rifle to life.

“You know the plan, Als. Open sesame.”

“Why must you be so colloquial, Pilot?” Al snarked as we exited. I didn’t respond. I’d let him stew on it if he really cared. If he was just baiting me for the umpteenth million time, then screw him.

Once clear of the ramp, I could sense Stingray setting up the membrane. We switched our odd ones on too. Right from the get-go it was weird. Robot eyes were outstanding, but I was still thrown off looking out via two pinholes. It took a minute to adjust to depth issues too. But we both got the hang of it quick enough. Not only did the slits allow us to see, they also permitted us to speak in each other’s heads, so we could be silent.

Take a step back and let’s take a gander at what we look like, I said to Sapale.

You look like a dark ghost, she said quickly.

With two itty-bitty glowing coals for eyes.

I think we’re going to stand out more than we hoped.

Then we’ll just have to shoot them sooner, won’t we? Let’s see if anyone’s near the entrance.

I eased the door open and tiptoed out. Not sure why I tiptoed, but I did. A couple rooms over, we came out behind a solitary figure pretending to work. The Adamant clerk was bobbing his head something fierce trying to stay awake. Who wouldn’t doze off at this job?

I backed into the room we’d come from and opened a small hole in front of my mouth. Using my sound processors I said, sounding for all the world like a canovir, “Ah, I don’t think I’m actually dead. Can somebody help me?”

Sapale punched me, membrane to membrane. I guess she didn’t see either the wisdom or humor in my summons.

Within two seconds, the clerk flew through the door. He never saw the blow I split his skull with.

Hey, now there’s job security, I quipped. He can keep himself busy processing his own remains.

You’re so uncouth.

Come on. The coast is clear.

I peered out into the main corridor. Nothing and no one. I closed the door and went to the now vacant workstation. I attached my probes to the portal and signed on effortlessly with Harhoff’s passwords. I didn’t see any alarms go off, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t detected. I searched Jangir. He was alive. Hot diggity I decided not to finish that thought. He was listed as the Descore in the service of the Secure Council Prime himself. Garustfulous’s career had upward mobility, the lucky dog. I noted the location of Whole Zarpacious’s quarters and logged out.

Damn, the head honcho’s digs are pretty far into the center of the ship.

Do we have a choice?

I could try and call Garustfulous. Maybe he’d answer the phone if it rang.

Honey, no one has phones anymore. Pay attention to what comes out of your mouth.

I didn’t check, but maybe he has his own handheld.

A Descore issued a personal communicator? Unlikely. But blasts from Brathos, go back and check. It’d beat fighting our way all the way there.

I logged back on, or rather I didn’t. I had been locked out. Crap in a crepe, we were outed.

They locked me out.

Shit.

I’ll try another hack.

Thank the Lord that one still worked. Thank him thrice, Garustfulous did have a personal link. I entered it and opened my membrane again.

“Good afternoon, this is—”

“Garustfulous, shut up now. This is Ryan. I’m here to rescue you. We’re in the morgue but we’ve been detected. Where can we meet?”

“Ryan? I do not know an Adamant named—”

“Garustfulous, it’s me. No trick. I took you prisoner in a fourth-floor office building, and that’s where you were going to leave me a message. I had your body possessed by a demon without your permission. Where can we meet?”

Jon!”

“We’re about out of time.”

“Ah, I can only go as far toward as Deck AA-63 Section 4492. They don’t let a servant wander too far afield.”

I pulled up the map. “I’m moving the vortex to the ancillary waste disposal area on your level. Can’t leave it here and can’t make a safe landing where you are.”

“Got it. Ancillary waste area. And Jon, it stinks something awful in there. Be ready.”

He sounded so noble, warning me like that. Come on, it was just a sewer.

We sprinted back to the cube and relocated it. Upon opening the hatch I respected Garustfulous a whole hell of a lot more. It didn’t just stink. It was putrid. We’d all have to burn our clothes when this was over.

Membranes up. Let’s go cover the passageway, I said to Sapale. At least we could use partial ones at that point. It made firing our weapon much easier.

Got it.

Immediately we were hit with blaster fire. Someone was home in the horrible septic unit, and he was armed.

There, shouted Sapale, pointing to the right.

A single hound was behind a bulkhead, rising to fire.

We both opened up and blew the metal away, which in turn threw his body.

They have to have detected those energy bursts. Main corridor now. I returned to speaking head-to-head. It came more naturally.

I spied around the doorframe. Clear to the right. Two Adamant strolling casually away from us to the left. No need to tempt fate further by shooting them. In a few seconds, the hall was clear. If Garustfulous ran full-out, it’d take him two or three minutes to get here. As a sprinting Descore would stand out, he might be here in five.

“We’ll need to hold position for maybe five minutes. You ready?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll cover the right. You take the left.”

“Got it.”

We whipped our rifles around the corner and swept our sections. Still clear in mine. As soon as I thought that, Sapale fired off a rapid burst.

“Three unarmed Adamant down,” she said quickly.

“Good. At least the cavalry isn’t here yet.”

That was the precise moment an armed squad skidded around the corner on my side, two passageways down. I picked them off, all but one. The last guy was close enough to where he’d come from to just scamper back.

“The cavalry has officially arrived,” I announced.

“Good. I was getting bored.”

Oh, how I loved my girl.

The lone guard stuck his rifle around the corner and fired blindly. He only hit the walls. I aimed at his paw and blew it off. He yelped in pain. Immediately a percussion grenade flew out of his other paw and bounced toward us.

Retreat.

I shut the door just before the grenade went off. The door held but was warped. Damn. It wouldn’t open.

“Kick hard.”

We timed our feet perfectly, and the door bent outward halfway. The exposed metal exploded with energy blasts. Lots of blasts. Reinforcements.

I jumped up and grabbed a recess in the ceiling, pulled myself up, and stuck my laser finger around the frame. I swept the hall randomly. I knew I hit a few because of their screams.

Sapale cleared the edge and opened up with her rifle. Then her right shoulder sizzled from a direct hit. She fell back, and I caught her as I hopped down. I took her rifle. In one leap I cleared the frame and fired left, the crumpled metal still protecting my back.

Six soldiers nearly on me. Boom boom boom. I mowed them down with only one getting a round off. It hit a centimeter above my head.

You okay?

Yes, but I can’t use my right arm.

Here. I tossed the rifle to her left hand. She caught it with ease.

I picked mine off the deck and swung around the door to check right.

A blaster slammed against my forehead.

“Freeze,” yelled the dog with a gun to my head. He was holding the gun in his left paw. The right one was a bloody stump.

“If you so much as—”

Before he finished that sentence, his back erupted. Blood and more spewed onto the deck, and he fell forward into my arms. Dead.

I dropped him. Garustfulous was sprinting toward me. He had a blaster.

“Don’t shoot, it’s me. Don’t shoot, it’s me,” he howled as he neared.

I swung to check to the left. Still clear.

Garustfulous rounded the broken door and into the room where Sapale was just standing up.

“Jon, she’s hit.”

“It’s okay. She’s an android too.”

“Oh.” To Sapale he said, “Sorry you’re hurt. May I help?”

“Yes. Get the hell in the vortex.”

She pushed him into the next room where it was. I followed, walking backward to provide cover.

We dashed in, and I sealed the hatch.

“I cannot believe we pulled this off!” I shouted exuberantly.

“We’re not home safe yet,” reminded Sapale.

I attached to the wall. “Als, home.”

I felt slight nausea.

The portal opened to reveal the spot we’d departed from.

Now we can be triumphant,” yelled Sapale. She raised her good arm overhead and pumped her fist.

“I’m supposed to tell you Harhoff was killed because someone mentioned the words the Rabid Robot in his presence.”

I turned quickly on Garustfulous. “Who? What?”

“That’s all he could tell me. But because he heard those words, he was killed almost immediately.”

“The Rabid Robot? What’s that supposed to mean?” demanded Sapale.

Garustfulous shrugged. “No idea. Harhoff didn’t either.”

“Did you see anything about a rabid robot when you were in the Adamant computers?”

I shook my head slowly. “No, I did not. But this time, I will. Back into the cube.”

“What?” shouted Sapale.

“Me too?” whined Garustfulous.

“No, you can stay.” He nearly collapsed in relief. “But we need to get back before all the defenses are up and find out what the Rabid Robot means.”

“Jon, that’s beyond insane. They’re at full alert.”

“If it cost Harhoff his life just hearing those words, we need to know what they mean.”

She rolled all four eyes and leapt back into Stingray.

“We’ll be back,” I said to Garustfulous. “Maybe.”

I sealed the hull, and we went poof.


FIFTEEN

“I won’t hear of it. I’ll see you all dead before I accept that proposal,” Two Paws shouted. Two Paws was mad. Over a comm link he was speaking to three other Secure Council members. Shegra sat across from him, and he railed at the allied trio. She was smiling the entire time.

“Prime, it’s hardly a radical proposition. We feel a clearer chain of command would benefit the armies of the empire as a whole. That’s essentially what we suggest. Please keep in mind we’re only asking the possible modifications be discussed at the next meeting. If the consensus is negative, we’re happy to drop the issue once and for all.” That was Wedge Leader Oltimander. He was a competent enough officer, but he was a disaster as a politician.

Two Paws pounded his balled-up paws on the table. “Are you incapable or unwilling to hear my words? No. I will not be badgered. You three are too mentally deficient to be idiots. We are not bastardizing the chain of command in any way that decreases my official powers.”

“Prime,” said a clearly shaken Whole Altonmore, “there is no mention of any change in the nature of the proposal. To what are you referring?”

“I have trouble speaking stupid, so I can’t expect you to follow me, but here goes. Who holds absolute control of the combined forces of our beloved empire?”

“Y … you do, Prime,” replied Altonmore in a hushed tone.

“Is there any portion, section, or aspect of my absolute control that anyone anywhere sees as limited or incomplete?”

“No, Prime,” responded a now equally vexed Oltimander.

“Then is there any possible change in the chain of command that would increase my authority?”

“None,” said the third member of the alliance, Wedge Leader Yolnor.

“So any change would either do nothing to increase my power, or it might decrease my power. The first means it’s a useless proposal. The second means eight Adamant are going to die violently and soon. Is that clear enough for you three to understand?”

He killed the conference call without allowing them to snivel, grovel, or openly lose bowel control.

“I hope they didn't take your words in a negative sense,” said Shegra with an even bigger grin.

“What? That? No way. I was trying my level best to be team-building and nurturing. I think it went well.”

She raised her glass. “Here’s to team-building.”

He reached his glass across the desk and clinked hers. Then he took a deep breath. “The assimilation of Scropularis went as boringly as I had hoped.”

“No dragons flitting about this time?”

“No. That is good because it means they are not going to strike every time we do.”

“But we still don’t know if we’ve gone too far until after we do so.”

“Which will be too late. Yes. I’m still worried.”

“It is better to be cautious than dead.”

“Yes it is. At least we know being childishly overcautious hasn’t got anyone killed so far.”

“So we—”

Two Paws’s communicator blared an alarm. He snatched it up immediately. “Speak.”

“Sir, we have unauthorized computer access. We suspect we have an intruder.”

“Where and when?”

“The Morgue and Cremation Section, thirty seconds ago.”

“MCS? Who’d … sound a silent alert. Seal off the entire area. I want boots pounding the deck immediately.”

Sir.”

“What was that in MCS?” Shegra asked.

“An intruder?”

“A what? That’s six kinds of impossible.”

“And it smells of the Ryan devil to me. No one else is that stupid or that bold.”

“What could he possibly want?”

He tapped his device. “Enteros, I want all the fighters launched. We have an intruder. If he’s flying real space, I want him shot to ribbons.” He tapped it again. “Let the emperor’s guard know the ship’s under attack and we have an intruder.” Two Paws switched it off before anyone could answer. Their responses were meaningless to the Prime.

“What—”

Two Paws cut her off with a wave. “Malitipol,” he said to his new head of security, “my office at once.” Again he didn’t wait to hear any acknowledgment.

“What do you think he wants—Ryan, that is?”

Gods only know. If he wanted to destroy us, he wouldn’t play cutesy with the computer system first.”

“The Rabid—”

He lunged across the table and grabbed her ferociously by the scruff of her neck. “Never say those words again. Do you understand? You already cost me my only friend and my best officer. You will impede me no longer. Is that clear?”

She twisted under the savage assault. “Yes,” she yelped in pain.

He dropped her back in her chair. She drew herself in and rubbed at her neck.

Without knocking, Malitipol burst into the room.

“What can you tell me so far?” Two Paws demanded immediately.

Malitipol eased Two Paws away from his computer station and logged himself on. “I’ll know in a sec … What? The intruder used a password generated by Harhoff.”

“Are you certain?”

“Absolutely. They’re all encrypted with the originator’s name. This one was make six months ago.”

“How did Ryan or whoever—”

“Harhoff must have been a spy, you idiot” shouted Malitipol while still tapping wildly on the keyboard.

Two Paws collapsed back in his chair. To himself, he whispered, “A spy?”

“The devil’s searching for Jangir. That’s your Descore, right? Harhoff’s too.”

With authority back in his voice, Two Paws said, “Have three squads converge on my quarters. Capture Jangir if possible. Kill him if need be.”

“I show your quarters to be empty on infrared.”

“Where the devil could he be?”

“No way to know. Descore aren’t fitted with transponders.”

“Have our soldiers made it to the MCS yet?”

“Almost. We … crap, now he’s used a back door Harhoff constructed to access the system. He’s … no.”

“What, out with it.”

“He’s calling Jangir.”

“Put in on speaker.”

“… leave it here and can’t make a safe landing where you are, Garustfulous.”

“Got it. Ancillary waste area. And Jon, it stinks something awful in there. Be ready.”

Two Paws and Malitipol looked at one another in shock and disbelief.

“It is Ryan. That’s his voice. I’ve listened to recordings so I’d know it if I ever heard it,” mumbled Malitipol.

“Garustfulous? Garustfulous? Wait, he was the old emperor’s nephew or something. Lost in action years ago. He’s in league with Ryan and Harhoff? Such a thing is well beyond impossible. No Adamant—”

“Shut up,” snapped an enraged Malitipol. “Based on mass shifts, I think Ryan’s ship left MCA and reappeared in an ancillary waste unit.”

“Send everyone on the ship there now.”

Two Paws looked over Malitipol’s head to his wife. She hadn’t moved since he’d grabbed her. “Shegra, I worry about the emperor. You and Malitipol here go to him at once. No harm must come to him.” Two Paws silently drew a claw across his throat while nodding in the affirmative at his mate.

She stood and shook her head in understanding. “Come, Malitipol, our emperor needs us.”

“What? No, he’s surrounded by the best. We need to—”

“Malitipol, I’m ordering you to go protect the emperor. If any of this situation is my fault, I could not live with myself if even a hair on his noble back were harmed.”

If any? Have you been listening to what I’ve been saying?”

Two Paws gently held Malitipol’s elbow and led him to the door. With a gentle shove, he said, “All in good time. Now you must put the emperor first in your mind. Go.”

Shegra slipped out the door after Malitipol, nodding to Two Paws as she departed.

Two Paws ran to his desk. “Reltrani, what’s going on in the waste station?”

“I only have a few soldiers there,” he said. He could clearly hear blasts in the background.

“They must not be allowed to escape. Capture or kill them, no matter what the risks. Do you understand me?”

“Yes, sir. We’ll get the bastards.”

Two Paws switched off his comm link. He closed his eyes, rolled his head back, and began rubbing the sides of his head. “What a shitstorm.”

His comm link would give him no peace. It went off immediately. “Yes.”

“Where do you want me to deposit Malitipol’s corpse?”

“Did you slit his throat?”

“I fail to see how that matters, but no. I shot him in the forehead.”

“Just wipe your weapon clean of prints and put it in his hand. With any luck, he’ll be assumed to have been killed in action.”

“Should I kill a few more of our people to make it look like a skirmish took place here?”

He thought a moment. “No. That would take too long. Let’s just hope for the best. It isn’t like the head of security is going to scrutinize the case.”

They both chuckled.

“Come back to my office.” He switched off without waiting for her response.

The comm link blared again.

“I’m in the waste station. They’re gone, or at least no one’s in here,” reported Reltrani.

“Are there any mass shifts to suggest they’re still onboard?”

“None that we can detect.”

Two Paws thumbed to comm link off and dropped it to the floor. This was going to get dicey. He had to cover up Malitipol’s death, and keep a lid on Harhoff’s treason, all the while concealing his own stupidity for hiring an Adamant disguised as a Descore. Yes, this would get very dicey.


SIXTEEN

Blessing, halt in space,” said Sapale after she extended her probes.

“Done, Form Two.

“Ah, why’re we stopping?” I asked as patiently as I could.

“We just now attacked this fortified behemoth and performed a miracle in space.”

“Yes, we rightly did.”

“That mission was punctuated by having the flimsiest of plans that defied all odds to succeed.”

“Your point?”

“We return now, not with a bad plan but no plan. We return now, with a worse plan than our prior ridiculous one.”

“The plan is that they’re still confused, leaving us a window of opportunity to take advantage of before the ship’s locked down tighter than a miser’s gold.”

“That’s not actually a plan. That’s an act, at best. An act of lunacy.”

“No, it’s a time-sensitive improvised plan. We return, I hack back in, and find out what the Rabid Robot means. Then we’re,” I wiggled my fingers in the air, “poof gone.”

“You know it never goes that well.”

“Sometimes it does.”

“Name one instance when a scatterbrained plan of yours worked like an expensive watch.”

“There are so many, I can’t choose which to cite.”

“Yeah, none. What are we doing? Where are we even landing? Hmm?”

I rubbed at my chin with two fingers. “The mess hall. Yeah. No one’s getting chow when the shit’s hitting the fan.” I harrumphed.

“What?”

“No one’s getting chow. Get it?”

“No.”

Oops, Purina Dog Chow was an Earth thing, wasn’t it?

“Nevermind. Stingray, put us in Freezer WWE-LQA in the Enlisted Mess Hall 339.” I turned to Sapale. “That’s a remote one, probably not used much in the first place.”

“Oh, good. I don’t need to worry about getting my other arm shot off then.”

“It’s still attached.”

“You are such a moron.”

I was going to respond, maybe, but my brief nausea ended.

“Let’s go. Membranes up. Als, same drill. Once we’re out, full membrane with a single pinhole.”

“Yes, Captain.”

We stepped into the freeze. Big validation for me. There was no one in it but us. I turned to my mate with a gloating smile. For her part, she just rolled her eyes and pushed past me. When she got to the door, she stopped to wait for me. She couldn’t open it with only one good arm and still keep her rifle up.

I reached around her and lifted the latch. “I’ll go first,” I said quietly.

I swung around the door and into a room chock-full of enlisted dogs, probably Warrior class. Barely an empty seat. I wasn’t sure who was more surprised, them or me. Probably equally so.

They snapped to in the blink of an eye and leapt for their weapons.

Retreat,” I screamed aloud and in my head.

Before the Als had the hatch closed, plasma bolts were impacting the hull. Those guys were good.

Sapale looked at me. Her expression said, No one’s getting chow when the shit’s hitting the fan. She didn’t have to say a peep.

Stingray, put us in the nearest waste disposal unit.”

“Done, Form One.”

“Let’s try one of those. Worked out well last time.”

“Can’t go any worse.”

“Ah, please jinx this, okay?”

She rolled her eyes.

That time we charged down the ramp into an empty space. I went right to the nearest computer station and hooked up. I had two back doors left to exploit.

Computer, what is the Rabid Robot?

Instantaneously, I heard back. You are not authorized to ask nor have that query answered. Please wait where you are while the proper authorities are summoned.

Cancel that alert.

You do not have the authority to belay—

Computer, cease talking. Who has the authorization to learn about the Rabid Robot, and who can override you alerting anyone?

You do not.

I asked who did. I know I’m authorized to know who’s authorized.

Affirmative. To abort my alert, you must be at or above the rank of Wedge Leader and assigned to the Security Section.

Or? Hey, I was stalling.

Or what?

What rank outside the Security Section? I bet the emperor can stop any action.

Yes, of course he can.

Who else?

The emperor or any member of the Secure Council.

Well there you have it. I’m a member of the Secure Council. Abort message.

Your encryption shows you are Wedge Leader Harhoff. The ship’s log lists you as dead, effective 1109,23,733.

What’s your point?

What do you mean what’s my point? You cannot be both dead and on the Secure Council.

Why not?

There was a full second’s delay after that stump-the-band question.

To serve, all members must be alive. They always have been.

Yes, they always have been, but where is it written that the dead cannot be active council members?

It is not written. It is, however, completely illogical. The dead cannot serve because their biological functions have stopped.

What do you, an AI housed in a metal frame, know of the ways of the living and the dead? How dare you presume to know or have an opinion?

I … er … I don’t have firsthand knowledge, clearly. But I—

You are in serious breach of your working parameters. If you don’t reboot and begin to cooperate, I will ask the council to melt you down at the next meeting.

I have a full list of all current council members. You, Harhoff, are not on that list.

Wrong and presumptuous again. Only the living need have their names on a list. Us deceased members may or may not be added to that list.

That makes no sense whatsoever.

To an electronic device, sure, I bet it doesn’t. Look, in case you hadn’t noticed, the ship is under attack. I need this information to save—

You are attempting to save The Rabid Robot?

Was I? I mean, was it a savable thing here on this ship? Why the hell not?

Yes, I told you I was. That’s why I need to know where he is currently as opposed to where he was the last time I saved him … it.

The Rabid Robot has not changed locations in over one million years.

Well, then it has been a very long time since I last saved him … it, hasn’t it? Look, pal, I don’t have the time. If the Rabid Robot is … molested because you delayed my rescue mission … well, I wouldn’t want to be you.

You can’t be me. You’re a dead Adamant. I’m an AI.

Don’t try and change the subject away from you delaying my rescue.

The Rabid Robot is currently held in Section One.

Thank you … not. You were slower that an iWatch.

What is an iWatch?

Something faster than you.

I disconnected. Section One. That sounded ominous. I pulled up the schematic. There it was. It was quite literally the center of the vessel. Ominous squared.

I sped back to the cube. Sapale was right at my side.

“Als, can you put us in Section One? Here are the coordinates.”

“No, Form One, we cannot.”

“Why?”

“The area is rather small. It is surrounded by three barriers that make passage extremely risky and likely impossible.”

“What kind of barriers? That’s silly.”

“The most worrisome is a six-wall rectangular-configured, four-centimeter thick layer of neutron-star matter.”

“A what?”

“You heard her, Pilot. Section One is jacketed in neutron-star stuff.”

“It can’t be. The weight would be—”

“The amount you could hold in your palm weighs fifty million tons. The housing around Section One contains yottatons of material. Undoubtedly Section One is at the center of the ship so it can experience little to no artificial gravity.”

“What other barriers are there?” I said, wishing I didn’t have to.

“A thin sheet of moving exotic matter fully shields the outer surface. The inner surface is a layer of glass containing a mixture of transuranium elements.”

“Woah, woah. If we can’t pass through it, how can you see through to know that?”

“We can’t. What we did do was share the hack you were using a moment ago to figure out the construction.”

“Ah. Good thinking. Now, one teeny-tiny question. Why the hell build such a whacko barrier? It’s heavy, dense, and all kinds of radioactive, sure. But why?”

“The simplest explanation is what we already stated. It cannot be crossed. The complex pattern of time-space ripples, gravity waves, and pure radiation renders the barrier impenetrable. Folding space wouldn’t get around the challenges, nor would warp-space drives, let alone all conventional forms of transport.”

“What might happen if we try and ram through?”

“Many outcomes, some much worse than others.”

“Give me an example of a less desirable one.”

“We could be forced into an interminable circumferential trajectory around the point of attempted passage.”

“Okay, that would be bad.”

“No, honey, it would be a lot worse. We’d circle that point for all eternity.” Sapale looked justifiably concerned.

“What are the odds of successful penetration?”

“Successful or successful, safe, and repeatable upon exit attempt?” That Al, such a detail monger.

“Yeah, that one, the second.”

“Less than two percent.”

“Hey, wow. I thought you were going to say one in a trillion or something.”

“How happy you must be,” snipped Al.

“We’re clearly not trying to get in, right?” Sapale basically begged.

“How do the Adamant get in? Is there a door?”

“In the flowing film of exotic matter?”

“Oh, yeah. So how?”

“They turn the exotic matter off. There are doors that can be opened.”

“That’s the ticket then. We go to where the doors are, switch off the plasma, and we’re in.”

“Do you wish to live in that dreamscape, or shall I tell you a major problem with that notion?”

“What? I’m sure we’ll figure out how to switch it off.”

“No, we won’t. We will find a couple dozen of those horrible Midriack guards, but we will not find the on/off switch. There are two. Both must activate at once. The first is on the right armrest of the emperor’s throne. The second is on the right armrest of the Secure Council Prime’s chair.”

“So all we’d have to do is fight our way to one place, and leave me there, hoping I can throw the switch. Then you fight your way to the emperor’s throne and pray you can throw that one. Then we individually fight—”

I held my arms up. “All right. I get it. We’re not doing it that way.”

“No, Jon, we’re not doing it any way. We have run firmly up against the impossible. When that happens, you say Doggonit, I ran up against the impossible and you go the hell home.” Sapale seemed firm on that point.

The impossible? Wait. “I got it,” I shouted.

“We’ll get you a cream for it when we’re home, Pilot.”

“No, Al the Doubter, I got it. As in, I know how we’ll get in.”

“This should be good. Oh, just a heads up. Motion detected two hundred meters away, closing on our position rapidly.”

“Adamant?”

“Not necessarily. Could be large rats.”

“Quick, Jon. We gotta run. What’s your plan?”

“The Adamant figured out how to defeat our membranes, right?”

“Yes.”

“We turn the tables.”

“Form One, you are not suggesting we leave this universe and enter back inside that impenetrable barrier, are you?”

“Yes. And we leave the same way.”

“Als, can you do that?” called out Sapale.

“Theoretically. The calculations might take some time.”

“Well, you don’t have that luxury. Make your best guess, and let’s blow this banana stand.”

“You want them to guess at a path to leave this universe?”

I wondered why Sapale thought that was so odd. She must not have been on enough missions with me yet.

“Form One, the enemy soldiers are just outside the membrane.”

“Make it complete, and let’s go. Now.”

I felt more than a little nausea.

“We are in the universe the Last Nightmare occupied,” announced Al. “As I was familiar with it, access was a bit easier.”

“Bring us home, Als.”

I felt more than mild nausea. Then the vortex crashed into something hard.

“Damage report.”

“None. We clipped the edge of a temporal displacement, that’s all,” replied Stingray.

“Oh, that’s no biggy.” I had no idea what she was saying. “Open a portal.”

The wall dilated, and I hopped down. Sapale was right behind me. We started circling the vortex, taking in the complex machinery that surrounded us. I’d never seen such a huge, crazy-looking mess of cables and humming machines.

“What the hell kind of place is this?” asked Sapale as she continued to slide slowly along the cube.

“No idea. It sure is—”

I was slightly in front of Sapale. I saw it first. She ran into me, looked at me, then over to what froze me to the floor. She gasped and raised her hand to her mouth.

Toño De Jesus slumped under a massive archway. His polyalloy skin was missing, and his metal undercarriage was welded to the actual computer assembly. More wires than I had ever seen in one place streamed from his head into the machinery that restrained him. What was worse was that he showed no signs of life.

“Is that Toño?” Sapale asked.

“What’s left of him. Toño is the Rabid Robot.”

“That,” she whispered, “cannot be a good thing.” She hugged my arm with the one of hers that worked.


SEVENTEEN

Shegra entered without knocking. One look at her husband told her the intruders had slipped away. She sat across from him, folded her paws, and waited for him to speak if he chose.

After a little while, he spoke softly while staring at his desktop. “I can’t believe I was so easily fooled. How could two spies get so close to me without me knowing their duplicity?”

As long as she’d known him, she’d never seen him doubt or question anything he’d done. Knowing how he must have felt made her stomach churn. If he went down, then she most certainly would too, emperor’s favorite or not. “We’ve been in tougher situations than this and have come out smelling like fresh meat.”

“We’ve been in tight spots, yes. But this is so big, I don’t know if we can keep it all under wraps. You can only disappear so many hounds before an alarm is raised.” He spoke in a defeated tone.

“I’ll see to Harhoff’s room. Every system will be scrubbed clean. There’ll be no record of his treachery. I doubt there is much to hide with Jangir. He had no real access to the computers.”

“I’ll go over his room myself.”

“There, you see, we’re containing the damage already. Why don’t you appoint—”

The comm link on the floor squealed loudly. It was another Red Alert. He lunged to retrieve it from the floor and opened the channel. “Speak.”

“Sir, we have an intruder.”

Two Paws held the device at arm’s length and stared at it briefly. “Who the hell is this?”

“Wedge Adjutant Antolaris in security.”

“Well, former Wedge Adjutant, you’re ten minutes too late with that little news flash. The enemy’s come and gone while you napped.”

“N … no, sir, they’re back. Someone’s back. No wait, that’s not an accurate report. If these are different intruders, they can’t be back, just here. I’ll let you know when I know, sir.”

“Antolaris, put a non-idiot on the line immediately.”

After Two Paws heard a brief shuffling, a new voice spoke. “This is Wedge Leader Yatropol, Prime.”

“What in hell’s going on down there?”

“Two aliens just charged into an ancillary mess hall but escaped before they could be detained or killed.”

“When, just now?”

“Sir?”

“What is it?” asked Shegra, trying desperately to get Two Paws’s attention.

“Not now.”

“When just now not now, Prime?”

“Yotr, don’t you fail me too. When were the aliens seen?”

“Ah, maybe one minute ago. They ran into a large metal cube, and it disappeared.”

To Shegra, he snapped, “They’re back.”

“Who is back?”

“Ryan. Yotr, listen carefully. They must not escape a second time. Do you understand?”

“Sir.”

“Commit everyone and everything and do it now. Any sign where the ship went?”

“I have a couple AIs working on that right … here we go. They’re in a waste station on deck—”

“What is it with humans and waste stations?” he howled.

“I … I don’t know, Prime.”

“Nevermind. Send everyone there now. Shoot to kill.”

“I just did. Wait, it looks like … no that can’t be. They seem to have accessed the main computer. Yes, I can confirm they used a back door created by … Harhoff.”

“Damn security system has more holes than bubble-cheese,” scoffed Two Paws.

“Whoever’s there is arguing with an AI.”

Two Paws took in a deep breath. “The lunacy expands exponentially. What are they arguing about? Disconnect them immediately.”

“I can do that, but it will take some time.”

“What? You’re in Security Central.”

“Yes, Prime, but the back door has a doorstop.”

“A what?”

“A subroutine to make it hard to close. It will take several minutes to shut it down.”

“Damn Harhoff. Put the discussion chain on my screen.”

The desk monitor flashed to life. Two Paws and Shegra leaned in to read it.

“Lords and demons no. Ryan cannot be asking—” Two Paws’s voice trailed off limply.

“The damn AI just told him where the Rabid Robot is located.”

“It can’t. It doesn’t—” He scanned the words. “How I hate that Ryan. Yatropol, I’m giving you a direct order. Shut down all the computers now. Shut them all down.”

“Prime, I don’t—”

“You have five seconds.”

Two Paws heard Yatropol’s frantic screams for help.

Five, Yatropol. Why is my computer still functioning?”

“It can’t be done. My lead tech says the system is not designed to be shut down. Only subcomponents can be. The master processors simply do not … what? Mass shift? Where?”

“What? Inform me now.”

“The intruder mass is gone.”

“Gone where?”

“I … I can’t say.”

“Is it still on my ship? Can you at least tell me that?”

“It is not anywhere I am able to detect.”

Two Paws looked angrily at his comm link for the second time. “What kind of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo answer is that supposed to be?”

“There is no mass differential on any part of the ship I am able to scan. There is one sect—”

Two Paws never heard the end of that sentence. All the blood left his upper body. He feebly turned to Shegra and spoke in a barely audible hiss. “They’re going for the Rabid Robot. Demon eat my eyes, they’re going to Section One.” He dropped to his knees and began to tremble violently.

“Husband, Prime, get ahold of yourself.” Shegra kicked him in the face. “This is not the time to fall apart. We need to unseal Section One.”

“W … we … if … I ask … ask the emperor to rel … release his key … he’ll … they … th—”

“We have no choice. Make the call, and make it now.” She put his comm link in his paw, but he dropped it. She picked it up, tapped the panel, and held it to his ear. Then she craned her neck down to listen in.

“Yes, Prime, this is Naltopeck. You’re calling on the emergency circuit. Is there a crisis?”

Two Paws slowly rotated to look in his wife’s eyes.

She hit him repeatedly in the ear with the handset.

“I … we are in crisis, Chamberlain. I … we need to o … open Section … we need—”

Shegra put the phone to her mouth and yelled, “Tell him to unseal Section One immediately. Say again, unseal Section One immediately.”

“This is highly—”

“Intruders have breached Section One. We must open it at once. Tell him that.” She switched the line off and flipped the comm link to the floor. “Come, dog. We must unseal your end too.”

He stood unsteadily and walked like a cripple toward the council room. Shegra shoved him forward more than he advanced by his own intention.

Once in the room, Shegra pushed her mate into his chair and placed his hand on the seal-release. “What’s the code?”

He stared off into nothingness.

“What is your code?” She slapped him hard.

That seemed to awaken Two Paws, if only slightly. “I’ll do it.” He quickly keyed in his code with his free paw. “There, our end is done. Once the emperor does his part, we can begin the unsealing procedure.”

“How long does that take?”

“It was never designed for speed, only the ultimate security. Perhaps an hour.” He sighed. “Tell Yatropol to have all the Midriack report to Section One. They’ll be the first in.”

After she gave the order, she flopped onto a floor cushion in one corner. “And now we wait.”

Two Paws didn’t respond. He only shook his head in disbelief and mumbled incoherently to himself.


EIGHTEEN

“Jon, what should we do?” Sapale spoke in a hushed whisper.

More to myself, I muttered, “What we do. We save him.”

“Is … do you think he’s still—”

“Let’s find out.”

Reluctantly Sapale released my arm. I walked slowly to stand directly in front of the broken android. I reached out and touched Toño’s cheek. “Doc, you awake?”

No response whatsoever.

I raised my voice and rattled Toño’s shoulders as best I could, given that they were mostly welded to the superstructure. “Toño De Jesus,” I shouted. “Doctor Toño De Jesus, can you hear me?”

Nothing. The limp frame clacked back to its former resting position.

“It doesn’t look too good.”

“Maybe they figured out how to turn him off?” Sapale’s statement lacked much conviction.

“Possible. I guess the only way to find out his status is to probe him.”

“You or me? Maybe both.”

“Definitely not both. If there’s booby trap or other trick in place, we’d be sitting ducks. I knew him the longest and the best. I’ll do it.”

She shrugged, seeing no flaw in my logic.

I waved her toward the vortex. “Stand back in case there’s an explosion or something.”

She complied without comment.

“Here goes.” I extended my probes mostly to Toño’s head. I thought to myself, Doc, you in there?

Microseconds after I asked, sparks exploded from the contact points, throwing me backward onto my butt. The probes disconnected on their own. I sat gasping on the ground as Sapale rushed to my side.

“Are you okay?”

“I think so. Hang on.” I closed my eyes a few seconds. “Yup, all systems are in working order. No damage at all.”

“Then what happened?”

“I … I don’t rightly know.” I took a few more deep breaths. “I hooked on and immediately felt nothing. It was like I was probing a metal pole. And then … then this wave—no, this tsunami—rose from somewhere and slammed me back like I was a fly struck by an elephant’s trunk.”

“Was it Toño? Could you sense it was him batting you away?”

I shook my head slowly. “No idea. Check that. No, it wasn’t Toño. It was a blast of energy, but reflexive, like an electric eel’s discharge.”

“He repulsed you?”

“Yeah, that’s how I’d say it.”

“But if he didn’t know who you were, why would he do that?”

“I guess everybody who has contacted him in the last million years did so with hostile intent. Now whatever’s in there fights them off and asks questions later.” I stood.

“What are you doing?”

“Gotta try again. We’re talking Doc here.”

“No, wait. Maybe we should just detach him and diagnose him back home. I have no idea how long before they open the last seal.”

“Als,” I called back over a shoulder, “any guesses as to how long we got?”

“We have run several models. A prison with such complexity is meant to be definitive and absolute. It could not have been designed with rapid entry in mind. So far, we detect no changes in the bizarre radiation signatures. It is unlikely to have begun yet.”

“We feel we must mention there is a chance they too will use the transuniverse trick we did to enter sooner. That might well be the quickest method of neutralizing our incursion.”

“But they can’t know we’re in here, right?”

“Unless there is an inconceivably complex system to observe inside this prison, no.”

“So they might not want to crash into the uber-expensive crap in here on a wild goose chase.”

“Why not deploy a membrane around Toño and ourselves. That way if they do enter from another universe, they’ll almost certainly hit that.”

“Excellent idea, Sapale. Als, make it so.”

I kissed the top of her head. “I think you’re right about getting him free. After we get him outta here, we can worry about what kind of condition he’s in.”

We walked cautiously to his limp frame and began inspecting the welds. I ran my finger along one. “Somebody sure did a good job. I can’t say without probing it, but I think these welds are fused graphene.”

“What’s that?”

“One-atom-thick sheets of carbon. They’re about two hundred times stronger than steel.”

She whistled.

“And it’s hard to work with. The Adamant want Doc to stay right where he is.”

“What’s with all the wires?”

“They’re either trying to get information in or out of his computers. Maybe both.”

“But what? He’s a million years out of the loop. He doesn’t know a single current secret.”

“Can’t argue with you on that one. Back in the day, maybe he was a big catch, but now he’s less than useless.”

“I’ll start trying to unweld him on this side. You start on that.”

“Good a plan as any.”

Silently we set to work melting the graphene unions with our finger lasers. By coning the beam down some, they were the ideal tools. But the going was extremely slow. We advanced at maybe three centimeters per minute each. Given all his points of attachment, we were a long way from done.

After half an hour, Al interrupted the quiet. “Captain, we believe the flowing exotic matter layer has been switched off. The wild field swings inside here have dampened significantly.”

“Any guesses as to how long the physical doors will take to open?”

“Not really. They are large and massive, but likely it won’t take long. Perhaps as little as five minutes each.”

“Based on our progress, when do you estimate we’ll have cut Doc free?”

“Again, hard to estimate. Maybe twenty minutes.”

“We don’t have nearly long enough,” hissed Sapale.

“They still have to deal with the membrane even when they get in.”

“Yes. We’re never getting a second chance at this rescue either. If we leave Toño behind, they’ll move him somewhere else and make that even more secure.”

“Agreed. Hey, Als, any suggestions? We’re running short on time.”

“Well, yes. You have both arms nearly freed. Why not disarticulate the legs and replace them when we return home?”

“Excellent idea, but that still leaves six spots where his back is fused to a metal pole.”

“Can you cut the pole? I can’t analyze it well from here with all the radiation surrounding us.”

“Dang, Al, you’re smarter than you look. Strong work. Honey, you work on cutting the pole, and I’ll pop his legs off.”

She nodded and quickly set at the pole.

Removing the legs was fairly easy. Androids, designed by none other than the one I was working on, were constructed with part exchanges in mind. It was fairly simple to expose and unbolt a hip joint. I had them both off in less than five minutes.

“Captain, I believe the inner door is beginning to vibrate. That suggests an opening mechanism is active.”

“You about done, honey?”

“Three minutes. Less if you help.”

I swung around back. Sapale had sliced the lower pole free. She was two thirds of the way through the second cut. I angled my laser down at the far side of where she worked.

“I think we’ll have him free—”

“Captain, we have company!” shouted Al.

I craned my neck around to see thirty or more of those horrible Midriacks pouring into Section One. They were angry. As a pack, they sprinted right toward us. Six or eight hit the membrane so hard they must have been killed. The rest pulled up short and began pounding the membrane with their power staffs. As impressive as it looked, they made zero progress. A pair of Adamant, one male, the other female, came up behind the Midriacks, and the pounding ceased. The male looked pissed at me. He shouted something I couldn’t hear.

“Al, you read those lips?”

“Yes. He says he hates you and will see you dead. Then he threw in a few curse words. You’ve heard them many times from many individuals, so I’ll omit them.”

We were almost through the pole. “Honey, step back.” When she was clear, I kicked the pole. It bent but didn’t break. Sapale kicked it from her side, and that did the trick.

We put an arm under Doc’s shoulders and lifted him free. That’s when the machine complex he’d been attached to began to hum and grind violently.

“What’s that, Als?”

“The computers have been set to overload. In less than ten seconds, they’ll explosively melt down.”

“Then we’d best keep our goodbyes brief.”

We made it into the vortex with three seconds to spare. Just as I was sealing the hull, I blew the pissed-off Adamant a kiss. Then we were gone.


NINETEEN

I wasn’t sure what to expect upon our return home. I half anticipated Garustfulous to be there on tippy toes not having moved a muscle, a look of worry on his ugly mug. I mean, we weren’t gone that long. He could be nervous on our behalf, right? I opened the hull to find an empty room. I called out his name, and he sauntered back in with a huge bowl of calrf. He was shoveling it down with a ladle like it didn’t taste worse than greasy grimy gopher guts.

“Ah, you’re back,” he said, his words muffled because his mouth was overstuffed with mush.

“Nice to see you too,” Sapale shot back. “We were worried about you.”

His eyes brightened. “Really?”

“No, not in the slightest,” I responded for the both of us. “We head off to near-certain death and you help yourself to a snack?”

“I needed to reinforce my strength should I be called upon to join you in battle.”

“Oh really?” Sapale said with a sneer, gesturing to the cube. “Hop aboard and let’s go finish them off.”

His face sank. He shot a glance at his calrf. “I’m not finished yet.”

“Nevermind the ingrate, let’s get Doc to the lab,” I said.

Holding him by the armpits, we carried him to the lab and set him down gently.

Garustfulous followed a few paces back while continuing his assault on the calrf. Once Toño was on the table, Garustfulous pointed his spoon at him and casually remarked, “That fellow has a metal pole attached to his back.”

I rolled Toño away and inspected his back. “Why, he sure does. How’d we miss that, honey?”

I hooked up Toño to the diagnostics and began to untangle what kind of sad shape he was in.

“I’ve never seen readings like that,” Sapale commented, gesturing at a set of outputs.

“Me neither.” I scratched the back of my head. “Sure wish Toño was here to tell us what was wrong with him.”

“That would help.”

“The neural circuits … they don’t really show up.” I tapped the screen. “They should appear somewhere in here.”

“Yes, those are the principle domains,” agreed Sapale.

“It looks like static. Meaningless noise.”

“I can’t argue with that. His body as a whole is a wreck, but it should still partially function.”

“Can you reboot him?” called out our hungry friend. “You know, turn him off then back on again. I’ve heard from the IT crowd that usually works.”

“Eh, not a good option. We’re not really designed to do that. Plus if we turn him off, he might not restart. I’d want to know what’s wrong before I tried that.”

“Well, if you need me, I’ll be in the kitchen,” he announced.

“Did you ever hear a thank you out of him?” Sapale asked.

“Not yet. Once he regains his strength, I’m sure he’ll fawn and fumble over us to an embarrassing extent.”

She rolled her eyes as if to say yeah right.

“Well, let’s fix what we can and go from there,” I said.

For the next few days we worked constantly on Toño. We replaced his legs, patched his skin, and repaired a thousand moving parts that were totally worn out. It appeared like he hadn’t been allowed to do any self-maintenance for eons. He must have been absolutely miserable. By the time we were finished, he looked good as new. He just didn’t work like new. His neural pathways continued to be nothing but random static. I thought maybe all the wires attached to his CPUs might be causing some of the noise. But even after carefully disconnecting them and repairing the attachment sites, there was no improvement.

“I’m not sure what to try next,” I said to Sapale as we both stared at Toño.

“I got nothing. Back in the day, there were scads of techies who could probably sort this out. They’re all long gone.”

“You know, we never did learn what became of Carlos De La Frontera,” I remarked with some optimism.

“No. We’re not going on a quest. Finding Toño was an impossibility. If Carlos is still around, we’ll never know about it.”

“Such a pessimist,” I quipped.

She just glared back.

“Nah, you’re right. The galaxy is large, and we’re not going to find him after all this time.”

“I guess we just wait. Maybe he’ll improve now that’s he’s free and in good repair?”

I shrugged. “For now, it's about the only plan.”

“Well then,” said Garustfulous from behind, “if you’re done laboring, maybe you can tell me what happened back on Master of Death.” He was stretching, just woken up.

“Why not?” I said wearily. “Let’s go to the cube and grab a cuppa joe.”

The three of us sat at the mess table. Sapale and I were drained. Garustfulous, conversely, was dying to hear our tale of action.

“Did you know about Section One when you lived on the ship?” I asked him.

“No. I did get the impression there was some super-secret location on the ship though. But neither of us got a real clue as to where it was or what was in it.”

“Did Harhoff ever mention it?”

He shook his head. “No. Never.”

“Well, once we were in, we knew we had to rescue Toño.”

“Naturally,” he agreed. “If you left him behind, you’d never have seen him again. Whatever they wanted with him was important. Adamant never make the same mistake twice.” There was still some residual pride in his tone.

“Luckily the vault was slow for them to open. We had just enough time to free him,” Sapale said between sips.

“I would imagine so. A long time ago, I remember hearing about constructing such a chamber. Personally, I never saw the point. What could be that valuable?”

“What about the emperor himself?” I queried with a smirk.

“Hardly.” He spun a paw in the air. “Those are easily replaced.”

“I was surprised they put the computers into self-destruct mode,” Sapale remarked. “They destroyed all that equipment and information.”

“I think it was the only option the Adamant—the one who didn’t like me—had.”

“Who?” asked Garustfulous.

“After they entered and found they couldn’t get through the membrane, a pair of Adamant came right to the edge. A male and a female. He said bad words to me.” I tried to look hurt.

“Ah, Two Paws and Shegra. He’s the Prime of the Secure Council these days.”

“I think there’s an opening for that position now,” interjected Al.

“How so?” he asked.

“Once Blessing dematerialized, the membrane was gone.”

“Oh yeah. I didn’t think about that because we were safely away,” I responded. “Too worried about Toño.”

“Finally something to put a smile on my face,” said my brood’s-mate. “Serves those two right.”

“It served a good deal more than them, Form Two,” observed Stingray.

“We run many simulations,” replied Al. “Millions in fact. Pilot, do you recall how the neutron-star-matter door opened?”

I furrowed my brow. “No, not really. I guess it swung open, and they ran in.”

“There is not a hinge in the universe that could support that immense weight. Really, Pilot, think before you speak.” Al was positively salivating over the snark-load he was about to dump on me.

“Al, we were kind of busy,” defended Sapale. “Why not just tell us?”

“The horrible Midriacks poured through either side of the portal once it was sufficiently withdrawn.”

“So?” I asked.

“So? Pilot, really? That slab of matter was incalculably heavy. How do you suppose it moved?”

I thought a second. “On rollers?”

“Bing, bing, bing. Give the man a Kewpie doll.” That Al was such a drama-mama.

“And in Final Jeopardy, Pilot, the answer is It goes big boom.

“Hmm, let’s see. The question is … what happens when an explosion blows an incalculably heavy slab on rollers through a big starship?”

“You are the big winner today on Jeopardy, Pilot.”

“Wait,” asked Garustfulous. “What’s a jeopardy and what are you saying?”

“After we split, the explosive force would have been channeled out the opening. It would have pushed the gigantic slab right through the entire ship.”

“We estimate at five to seven kilometers an hour,” observed Al.

“A brisk walking pace,” said Sapale.

“Yeah, but it’s still moving at the same rate as we speak,” responded Al, all full of himself. “It may never stop.”

“So, wait, Two Paws risked the destruction of his ship, with him clearly onboard, just to stop us?” I marveled.

“Jon,” replied Garustfulous, “I’ve met some mean Adamant in my time. Hell, I thought I was a tough Adamant. But that Two Paws?” he shook his head. “He was the worst. If he let you escape with the Rabid Robot, he knew he’d be a bad kind of dead. To him, throwing in his ship, his wife, and his emperor was not even a consideration.”

“Wow, I’m speechless. That’s pretty damn bad,” I said with wonder.

“It doesn’t stop there,” chimed in Al. “That slab also ruptured the exotic matter, jacketing the vessel used to propel the craft. The resultant explosion—”

“Powers and demons,” gasped Garustfulous, “That would have taken out the entire Whole. That was fifty-seven ships, not counting the small fry.”

“Let’s go back and take a look.” Sapale was totally jazzed.

I set my mug down. “Why the hell not?”

I had Stingray make one wall transparent. We hovered in space a few million klicks from where a once mighty fleet of Adamant warships lay in anchor. All that was left was highly radioactive micro-dust rocketing away from the center of its combined mass at nearly the speed of light. It was a beauty to behold. And the best part was knowing Harhoff had finally got his wish. It cost him his life, but I bet he’d say it was worth it. Because if this complete and utter catastrophe didn’t destabilize the Adamant Empire, nothing else ever would.


TWENTY

“Sir, I have a message from Sideras Beta,” Gargant’s AI secretary chimed in pleasantly.

“Where the devil is Sideras Beta?” He scratched absently behind an ear. Remaining awake on an outpost as distant as Xebulon was no mean feat. He’d been assigned these last three years to maintain control over the most irrelevant sector of the central galaxy. Fighting sleep was the only battle he saw any longer.

“It’s an administrative station near the Losdol system.”

That actually brought him out of his persistent fog. He nearly smiled. He might be receiving an insult. That would be something to react to. An admin space station calling him? Those were filled with mindless bureaucrats not fit or even necessarily authorized to address him personally.

“Put it though immediately.”

“Wedge Leader Gargant, this is—”

“I demand to know your name and what justification you have for contacting me directly.” Yes, that was nice.

“I … I’m sorry, sir. It has fallen to our station to assume a leadership role in light—”

“A leadership role? You people wouldn’t make suitable toilet paper rolls. Your name.”

“I am Canstitor. Now if—”

“Are you and I on a first-name basis now, or do you have a title?”

“No, sir, I doubt that very much. I’m Section Aide One Cansititor, Acquisitions and Payroll Section. Now my I—”

“I have never been so insulted in my life, petty puppy. I’m an Adamant and a senior officer. Put your better on the line at once.”

“I cannot, Gargant. He’s very busy. We’re all very busy—everyone aside from yourself. You have time to posture and feather preen. Look, the Central Whole has been destroyed. I’m tasked to spread the news and coordinate assets in this crisis.”

“What did you say?”

“Can you be more specific about what part of what I said you wish to pretend, for dramatic effect, not to have heard?” He was clearly very tired, and his nerves were on edge.

“About the Whole, you idiot.”

“Two days ago, the entire Whole was destroyed in a massive explosion. We are trying to piece together exactly what happened. No one is certain.”

“It most have been a massive war fleet. How could you not identify them?”

“Thank you for your suggestion. That idea never occurred to another military mind. I’ll pass word along for everyone to be on the lookout for a bunch of ships we missed at first.”

“Are you trying to be sarcastic?”

“No. I am being sarcastic. Look, I work in A&P. Do you fancy I am in the loop for strategic discussions? I hope you’re sitting down. No, I am not. Look, I’m calling for a reason, if you don’t mind me getting to it.”

“Proceed.” Gargant’s mind was still reeling. The Imperial Whole destroyed? Such was not possible.

“Since the loss of the entire administrative and royal functions, martial law has been declared. Individual Section Leads are in complete charge of all civic and military matters until such time as a central government can be put in place. You are the local potentate.”

“To whom do I report?” Gargant’s voice was distant and his stomach churned. He’d never not reported to someone, many officers in fact. Reporting and serving was what one did, how it was supposed to be.

“If you like, you may report to me, but I’m nobody, and I do not care what you say or do. Come on, the orders are really very simple. Everyone in charge is dead. You are your own boss for the time being. Make the soul of the late emperor proud by doing the job you were trained to do. The one I issue your pay to do. Okay? How’s that sound?”

“I … I guess I will say I report to whomever gave you that order. There’s a chain of command.”

He rubbed his pounding head and wished he were elsewhere. “No one issued that order.”

“Then by what auth—”

“Are you familiar with the Book of the Adamant?”

“Yes, I am.”

“Books five hundred to eleven hundred fifty-three cover the chain of command. It clearly outlines in volume nine hundred twelve the scenario we are faced with. It clearly states the structure is to be as I have told you.”

“So … in the short run … I am reported to, but report that information to … just myself.”

“What an excellent and quick mind you’ve got there, Gargant. That’s wonderful to hear. Congratulations on your new promotion, and please keep me posted as to how it’s going.”

“Sure thing, ah, what’d you say your name was again?”

It was too late. Cansititor had already hung up. He had made twenty similar calls so far that day and had another thirty to suffer through before he could rest. He was, after all, an accountant, not a psychologist or each frightened hound’s mother.


TWENTY-ONE

Several weeks after rescuing Toño, it was becoming clear he was not improving. Four to five times per day one of us’d run a full diagnostic, but nothing changed. It didn’t even get worse, which would be something to go on. Not that he had to, but Doc never as much as twitched a muscle or fluttered an eyelid. The Als worked exclusively trying to decode and understand the random electrical bursts in his head. They saw no hint of a pattern or driving factor. We were all stumped, and he was going nowhere. If he was human, I’d say he was in a persistent vegetative state and turn off his life support. Maybe that was the humane thing to do in this situation too. But if he’d been in a coma, why wouldn’t the Adamant have melted him down long ago? Totally didn’t add up.

We had fallen into the habit of meeting once a day to discuss matters. We’d all have dinner together. As Garustfulous was such a glutton, the sessions tended to be long, and Sapale and I did most of the talking.

Sapale ran a hand through her ropy hair. “I just finished another full diagnostic. No change, good or bad.”

“I think his brains are dead,” remarked Garustfulous without pausing from chewing on a meaty bone.

“Duly noted,” I replied, “right here in the for-what-that’s-worth category.”

“You two are the experts, not me. I’m just trying to help where I can.” He was ripping at a really tough ligament, so he sort of snarled as he spoke.

“Unless we can find someone who knows a hell of a lot more than we do about robotics, we’re at an impasse,” said Sapale glumly.

“I wish I didn’t, but I agree.”

“So you’ll try my idea? Reboot him.”

“We're not that desperate yet,” I responded grimly.

“Hey, if you’re worried, don’t be. I’ll take all the blame if Toño crashes and burns.”

“Thanks, but that’s not our concern,” Sapale responded, trying not to giggle. “Well, as we’ve said many time before, we’re in no rush. We can afford—”

“I’m going to take Toño to Oowaoa,” I blurted out.

That was newsworthy enough for Sapale to set down her spoon and for Garustfulous to stop gnawing on his bone.

“That’s a sentence full of all kinds of prickly issues.” Sapale had started one of her quiet growls.

“I thought they specifically forbade you from returning there,” said Garustfulous, pointing his snack in my direction.

“Which is prickly issue number one. Number two centers on unilateral decision-making.”

“Yeah, you can’t spring something like that on me,” Garustfulous protested as he returned his carnassial teeth to the bone.

“I was referring more to my brood’s-mate exclusion.”

“Yeah, I guess that is there too.”

“I didn’t say you couldn’t come. I just said I was going,” I defended.

“That's nearly the same thing, isn’t it?” she scoffed.

Garustfulous rested the stump against his jaw. “I guess if you say so, Sapale. I think it was pretty exclusionary and one-sided.”

She directed both hands at him like he was a prize behind the curtain. “One can hardly argue with a military legend.”

That put a big ol’ smile on his face.

“Honey, please. Let’s not make this about you. We’re all worried about Toño. My last resort is to beg for their help. Their solution may be to melt the pair of us to scrap.”

“We understand that. We are, however, a team. If one goes, the whole team goes.”

Garustfulous pointed his bone at Sapale and then at me. “By team, you mean the two of you, right?”

She reached over and confiscated the bone. “No.” She tapped all three of our arms with the damn bone. “We three are one team.”

“Are you done with that?” asked Garustfulous, clearly annoyed.

“Yes, and so are you.” She threw it over her shoulder and right into the disposal.

“Hey—” he began to protest.

I placed a finger on his lips. “I say we all go first thing in the morning. If they melt the three of us down, so be it.”

“Woah, wait. I don’t melt. I burn,” responded Garustfulous, eyes wide in alarm.

“Don’t worry,” replied Sapale with an evil grin, “I’ll take all the blame if you crash and burn.”

**********

I was light on knowledge and specifics about modern-day Oowaoa, so I put down Stingray right where Cragforel had gifted her to me long before. I figured he’d likely still be close by. Nothing changed on that planet if it didn’t do so at a pace that would embarrass an old snail traversing a frozen puddle. Ever cautious, Garustfulous exited a full minute after we did. He said he’d cover our forced retreat better from a defensive point. I felt so much safer.

We walked in the general direction of the building Cragforel brought Mirri and me to after we first met him. Seemed as likely a place as any. I carried Toño in my arms. Didn’t want to mess up all the nice work we’d done getting him to look all pretty again. I was aware the collective Deavoriath knew we were present. They just weren’t the types to rush out and greet uninvited guests.

Cragforel’s door was open, so I led the way back to his lab. I gently laid Doc down on the ubiquitous flat ceramic surface. He clinked a little as I did but made no spontaneous movements. Then I turned to the door and waited. Cragforel arrived in less than ten minutes. Too long not to be a clear sign of disapproval, but not short enough to support anger or joy. Cagey players, these old ghosts.

As a hard-ass at heart—which sounded kind of odd when I went ahead and said it—I decided he’d talk first. He’d sent me a silent message. I’d back atcha him one of my own.

“Jon, I must confess it’s a surprise to see you again. And with an entirely new cadre of strangers.”

“Since I’m certain it’s a pleasant surprise, I’m glad to see you too, my friend.”

“Hmm.” He paused for a three count, “And who is your silent and uninvited partner here?” he said, displaying disinterest as he flipped the back of one finger toward Toño.

“That is what’s left of Dr. Toño De Jesus, my oldest friend.”

Cragforel’s expression broke from one of stone to boyish excitement. “Jon, you never cease to astound me. First I meet you, then one of the mythical Deft, and now the Toño De Jesus?” A hand rubbed his brow. “To say he is an institutional legend among us is an understatement of epic proportions.” His pace quickened as he went round and round the table marveling at Toño. “I’ve heard of the miracles Toño De Jesus accomplished working with Kymee for my entire life. After Kymee passed, another great scientist among us, Larocnaur, worked with him for, well, for a very long time.”

“This Larocnaur fellow still around?”

With a bubbly smile, he replied, “No. She’s long dead too. In fact, it is generally held that when she passed, Toño left Oowaoa for good.” Each of his three arms rubbed the shoulder to its right. “Oh, that was over a billion years ago, if memory serves.”

“So after Oowaoa, Toño struck out on his own?”

“That’s my recollection. I’ll look into it in more detail later.” He slapped his cheeks with all his hands. “Dr. Toño De Jesus. I am beyond stunned.” Then he grew serious. “But you said what’s left of him, didn’t you? What is his status?”

“That’s what we were hoping you might be able to tell us,” I replied grimly.

“Go on.”

“First, this is my brood’s-mate, Sapale,” I rested a hand on her shoulder.

“Oh, now you’re just showing off to gloat. Sapale? The founder of Azsuram? Died while battling the Berrilian and defending her people? The conscience in a box trying to keep the Jon Ryan lost in time from falling completely apart? It is my singular honor, ma’am.” He stepped over slowly and shook her hand for a good thirty seconds.

“And this is Garustfulous. We went to rescue him when we accidentally found Toño.”

Garustfulous puffed up and smiled like the king of the world. He held out both paws as if greeting a smitten admirer.

Cragforel glanced briefly from Sapale’s eyes to Garustfulous’s general area. “Hi.” Then he was swung back to lose himself once again in my mate’s eyes.

I nearly bust out laughing, but we were there on serious business.

I cleared my throat.

That brought Cragforel out of his trance. “Please, everyone be seated. I’ll have refreshments brought at once. Please, Sapale, you sit here between Jon and me.” He wouldn’t release her arm until she was unequivocally settled in by his side.

A pair of Deavoriath floated across the floor and distributed food, wash bowls, and most importantly, nufe. It was the nectar the gods only wished they had.

As Garustfulous was the only nufe virgin in the room, I was dying to fill him in. I held my tiny glass up toward him. “This is nufe. It is nothing short of a miracle. You have had nothing even vaguely like it in your entire life.” I sniffed it with apparent rapture. “It is not alcoholic, but it will seem as though it is. It tastes different to each individual, and different from any other sip one’s had. It—”

“Enough chatter,” Garustfulous howled. He grabbed the glass and threw the entire thing down his throat at once. Though that was not dangerous, it could put him into total sensory overload. Good. It’d serve the bum right on several levels and counts.

Before he’d slammed the glass back to the table, his eyes bulged. He stood, one hind leg rhythmically thumping the floor, and he very nearly fell over sideways. “Blood from a beating heart, my first bitch friend, when I won a battle for the first time, oysters fresh from the sea …” He plopped mute into his chair.

I thumbed in his direction. “I think he likes it.”

“As canovir, the Adamant have very keen senses of smell. Such species are especially affected by nufe.” He couldn’t contain a Santa Claus-like chuckle.

“So,” I began in a serious tone, “Sapale and I went to rescue our Adamant ally. We found Toño by chance. We’d only just freed him and got back into the vortex before the ship he was on, Master of Death, self-destructed.”

“Ah, so that’s how you took the ship out,” replied Cragforel.

“You know about that?”

“Jon, we’re isolationists, but we’re not stupid. We follow what’s going on in the galaxy quite closely.”

“Wow, okay, didn’t expect that one. From the time we found Toño until now, he’s basically been in a coma. He was in a state of total disrepair physically at first, but we could easily fix that. All our scans show nothing we can interpret as spontaneous neural activity.” I flashed my fingers in the air. “It’s all just noise in there.”

“I’ll study your records, of course, but you see no significant change in the noise patterns?”

“No. Stupid static.” I lowered my head.

“Well,” he said, rising, “let’s get to this.”

We followed him back to where Toño lay. Garustfulous, since he was a total pig, brought the nufe bottle and no glasses.

Cragforel did a rapid physical exam, removing Toño’s clothes as he went. He was naked and hooked up to a large bank of monitors in short order. Not surprisingly, the Deavoriath equipment was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It was completely different from what Kymee labored over so long ago.

He hmmed and ahhed occasionally but said nothing to us. At one point, he went in another room and retuned with some portable gage. He swept it back and forth over Toño’s head then looked at the tiny screen intently. Finally, he attached spiral wires to three points of Toño’s scalp.

He walked over to a large screen. “Come over here,” he instructed, without taking his eye off the screen.

“You find the problem?” I asked, though I was barely able to get the words out.

“Hmm. I found out why we don’t detect meaningful neuronal activity. I have yet to determine whether that’s the problem or just one of the problems.”

“What is the noise?” asked Sapale, leaning in.

“What to call it? Hmm. Dr. De Jesus’s entire neural network is locked in a time storm. Yes, that’s it, a time storm.”

He turned to us with a look of triumph.

“Great … good … ah, what’s a time storm?” I asked with great uncertainty.

“No, he’s in a neural or neuronal time storm. A time storm is a very different matter altogether.”

“Sorry. What’s a neuronal time storm?” I muttered.

“Or neural?” added Sapale.

Behind us, Garustfulous took another big gulp of nufe.

“Inside any sentient mind there are various forms of order. Temporal, spacial, dimensional, and word patterns. There are many. In De Jesus’s case specifically, bits of information such as memories, briefs, or instincts are tethered to a specific time.”

“Huh. You’re losing me,” I confessed.

“Take a set of memories. Your first kiss. Your mother’s smile when you graduated, the splatter of blood on your palm when you crushed a mosquito during a specific picnic.” He gestured to the right. “The first kiss.” Then he gestured to the left. “On a specific day and time. The memory is temporally tethered to the time it took place.”

“As opposed to the second kiss a minute later. A separate kiss tethered to a separate time,” responded Sapale.

“Precisely. So it is with any fact one retains. It is tethered to a time. Not fixed, mind you, simply tethered.”

“Ah,” I replied. I had no clue what he meant by that distinction. “Bringing us back to Toño. How—”

“His mind has been placed in a temporal storm.”

“A neuronal temporal storm?” I tried to clarify.

“Yes, Jon, of course. We’re discussing his mind here.” Cragforel seemed annoyed.

“And Toño’s mind couldn’t be in a regular old temporal storm, right?”

He stomped a foot like a child caught in a small lie. “Yes, I guess it could be, technically, but since you don’t know what one of those is, I cannot give you credit for being clever on that call.”

“Trust me, he wasn’t being clever,” said Sapale with a smirk.

Doc?” I reminded everyone.

“His mind is in an induced storm in which all thoughts, facts, memories, and dimensionalities are temporally disconnected. They fly about as individual, um, points of data, but they cannot be interpreted in any temporal context.”

“Interesting,” I said, rubbing my chin. “What does that actually signify?”

He could roll his eye at me just like Sapale could.

“Jon, to have a thought, an idea, a desire, you must cobble together multiple tethered data points. I want to eat a delicious dinner with my friends at eight tonight. A fairly simple desire, but without the proper temporal clues and contexts, the thought is liquid in a blender.” He thought a second. “Assuming De Jesus is attempting to clear his mind and, oh, I don’t know, cry out in agony, he simply can’t. It would require an action like scaling an ice-covered rock cliff with his bare hands while a powerful wind blows.”

“That would be hard,” I said.

“No, you moron. It would be three kinds of impossible.” Sapale punched my arm.

“But wait. How did he get into a neuronal temporal storm? Why would he do that to himself? I mean, it couldn’t be a simple malfunction.”

“Why not?” asked my mate.

“No, Jon’s right. This is ordered disorder. Someone is causing this to happen.”

“Excuse me?” Garustfulous was holding an empty nufe bottle. “Would this state of the doctor’s be unpleasant?”

“Extremely,” replied an irritated Cragforel. “Why do you even need to ask?”

“It’s just this. If Toño’s in a very unpleasant way, think Adamant. It’s our specialty. Say,” he held up the bottle, “where’s this stuff kept?”

“You’ve had plenty. Shut up and sit down.”

By the time I returned my attention to Cragforel, I saw a light going off above his head. “Yes. That’s exactly it. Somehow, for some reason, the Adamant have placed De Jesus into a neuronal temporal storm.”

“Why? What?” Sapale started to ask.

“Is it unpleasant?” Garustfulous said from where he sat.

“Yes,” responded Cragforel.

“Unpleasant, as in torture unpleasant?”

“Yes. That’s it. The Adamant have devised a program to keep De Jesus in a state of perpetual, interminable, primal torment.”

“And the poor man’s been in it for Davdiad alone knows how long?” said Sapale as she began to growl the growl I never wanted to hear directed at me.

“I’ll kill them all. Every single last one of them.” And I meant it.

Garustfulous trotted out of the room. If asked, he’d probably say he was hunting for more nufe. The truth of it was he heard my words.


TWENTY-TWO

Three Adamant sat in a dimly lit conference room. They had mugs of bone broth grown long cold. None of them had taken a sip. Two were Wholes, Quildrod and Fenopteic-Val. The third was Wedge Leader Dorcilmas. He would have likely been promoted to Whole if there was anyone left alive with the authority to advance his rank.

“These are dark times, my friends,” Fenopteic-Val feigned to lament. “Our losses, militarily, culturally, and spiritually, are almost more than a body can bear.”

Dorcilmas shot furtive glances from one dog to the other, reading the tea leaves if such was possible. “Dark to be certain. One of my wife’s cousins lived on Dare Any that was lost in the catastrophe.”

“I am truly sorry to hear of your loss. If there is anything I can do to help you, just bark the word.” Fenopteic-Val tenderly patted the back of Dorcilmas’s paw.

“But we who survived must recall only our duty to the empire. As the wise Loserandi Jonsol said long ago, all is darkest before the dawn. I have studied that great canovir’s work, and I know he was referring to precisely the situation that presents itself to us today.” He paused in reverential reflection upon his false statement. “I see the dawn of a new Adamant Empire, a mightier one. Not better, mind you.” He wagged an admonishing finger in the air generally. “Only newer, stronger, and more able to serve our new emperor, whoever that person might turn out to be.”

“I could not have said it better, old friend,” Fenopteic-Val humbly praised. He looked to the ceiling for inspiration and to time his next sentence optimally. “As a puppy, I once wondered why the emperors were never anointed from the military ranks. I went as far as to ask my father. He said he did not know the reason, if there were actually such a tradition in existence in the first place. I had forgotten that conversation until this very moment.” He shook his head briskly. “How odd.”

The intensity and frequency of Dorcilmas’s examination of his companion’s expression shot to maximum. “Seemingly odd,” he muttered as noncommittally as he could. He was both a poor politician and a poor actor.

“As I just now mentioned, I am a student of history. Along with absorbing the wisdom of the Loserandi, I have also made it my life’s work to read and fully understand the Book of the Adamant.”

“A noble undertaking,” Dorcilmas complimented boldly. “You are to be praised for your dedication to our species.”

“No praise is needed in such a pleasurable and sacred duty as that. The point I wish to raise is that in my reading of that series, I recall no mention of the exclusion of military members as candidates to form new imperial family lines. Mind you, I never considered that aspect of ascension until you, Fenopteic-Val, mentioned it just now. But in my humble opinion, such an outcome is possible.”

“But without a Secure Council to select the next emperor,” asked Dorcilmas as naively as he could manage, “how will anyone, military or otherwise, be chosen?” He even raised his arms in questioning confusion.

“How indeed,” challenged Quildrod. “I must harken back to my extensive familiarity with the Book of the Adamant and say it is the sole issue of potential equivocation I am aware of in the entire text.”

“Why cannot there be an interim emperor? That male could appoint a new Secure Council. Obviously, the interim emperor would then immediately resign his powers, privileges, and office. That would allow the new council the chance to fulfill its established role. Order would be restored.”

Dorcilmas stared at Quildrod. He decided he dare not speak when open treason was so fresh in the air.

“An interesting intellectual hypothetical, Whole Fenopteic-Val. I only wonder, hypothetically of course, how such an interim emperor would be … um, what’s the word I’m fumbling for? How would that humble servant be identified so that he might be made manifest to others?”

Dorcilmas now fixated on the other contender.

“I believe the right dog would know in his heart and in his soul that he was the best potential servant for such a minor, transitory role. He would benefit from firm support by other humble servants of the empire. Ideally, those backers would hold sway over assets that could help bolster the public perception of the interim emperor’s legitimacy.”

Dorcilmas turned to Quildrod. The wedge leader was trembling with fear and excitement. He wiped a string of saliva from the corner of his mouth without realizing he needed to do so.

“Assets? What kind of assets do you envision, Whole Fenopteic-Val?”

Dorcilmas had eyes only for Quildrod, and there they remained.

“Why, I’m surprised you feel it necessary to ask, old friend. Chiefly military assets. Financial resources would obviously be helpful. Of course, any supporters would only be useful if they were in immediate control of significant numbers of warships.”

“Naturally,” responded Quildrod with a chuckle. “When embarking on such a potentially misinterpreted course of imperial service, arms at the ready would be essential.”

“Yes, Whole Quildrod. I could not agree with you more.” Dorcilmas had finally spoken.

The matter was settled.

Quildrod daubed at his chops with a napkin while inspecting his comm link. “Would you look at the time? Here we sit, three friends chatting idly while our citizens languish in their mourning and uncertainty. I think it’s time for us all to return to our duties to the empire.”

“Yes, it is time,” Dorcilmas said softly, nodding.

“You know, Dorcilmas, if I had a chance to advise the interim emperor, I would tell him directly and with certainty that you were long overdue for a promotion. Now, I would like to say a regrettable goodbye to you, Fenopteic-Val.”

Fenopteic-Val balled his paws and clenched his teeth. “Why regrettable, old friend?”

“Because, alas, in these tumultuous times, seeing one’s past acquaintances again can be so damnably uncertain.”


TWENTY-THREE

“So the sixty-four thousand dollar question is, Cragforel, can you fix Toño?”

He eyed me crookedly, then answered, “I do not know.”

“What are we going to do?” pressed Sapale.

“That is more clear to me,” he replied. “I have identified the subroutine the Adamant installed keeping the temporal storm going.”

“And you’re sure it’s Adamant?” I wanted to know for certain.

“Yes, I’m quite certain it’s their handiwork. The coding uses an octal numeral system.”

“Base eight? How’s that … ah, because they have four fingers on each paw. They’d naturally count using an eight-digit system, not our ten-digit one.” I could be smart if the occasion called for it.

“Exactly,” he replied.

Garustfulous studied his paw. “I never noticed the difference.”

“Why are none of us surprised?” quipped Sapale.

“And what happens when you switch off the time storm?”

“Zero idea. But we’re about to find out.” He manipulated a cylindrical probe that emitted a chirpy sound over Toño’s head for a few seconds. “There—I deleted it altogether.”

We stared at Toño, not certain whether to inch closer or back up.

Nothing. We waited ten minutes longer. Still nothing.

“What do you read in there now?” I asked as I gently tapped Toño’s forehead.

Cragforel studied a monitor. “It looks to me like he’s functioning perfectly well. His patterns look much like yours or Sapale’s.”

“Then why isn’t he hopping off the table and thanking us?”

“I do not know,” he replied, slowly shaking his head.

“Well I suggest we give it time. He’s been subject to the most terrifying experience I can imagine for a very long time. Let’s strap him in and wait.”

“Why do we need to strap him in?” asked Sapale. “He’s our friend.”

“If he were to awaken when none of were present, I think his behavior would be most unpredictable.”

“Then we just won’t leave him unattended,” she responded. “We’ll set up a watch.”

I tossed my head to one side. “Why not? We’re not going anywhere until this is resolved one way or another.”

So we set up a watch. I made it a point to include Garustfulous in the rotation too, but he only got the morning shifts. I didn’t want to tempt fate too mightily. Weeks passed, and nothing happened. Toño’s neural net was working picture-perfectly, but he was otherwise lifeless. We started prodding and shaking him. We even administered mild electrical shocks. Nada. Cragforel called it a mind-body dissociation state. That sounded uncomfortably close to the word coma for my liking.

After two months, we were all confronting the unpleasant notion that we had arrived at the final what-you-see-is-what-you-get stage. We held a meeting, because meetings, as was widely acknowledged, could solve any problem.

“I don’t want to say Toño’s condition is hopeless,” began Cragforel, “I just can’t find any justification for hope.”

“I don’t understand,” I said more to myself, “why he’s still out of it when his neural net is so dialed in?”

“How about replacing certain parts of his neural system?” asked Sapale. “We could copy what’s there, but only replace small parts. Maybe that would jump-start the whole system.”

“I’m not in a position to say no, but I also don’t think that would change anything,” Cragforel replied, shaking his head. “That’s not how these systems work. The way Toño made them, any of the subcomponents can run the entire system. If this was just an issue of a defective circuit we haven’t identified, the android could still function normally.”

“How about turn—”

“We know, Garustfulous, the IT guys said it always works. It still remains the last thing we’ll ever do,” responded Cragforel firmly. “A damaged or defective system might not reboot. It’s too great a risk.”

Garustfulous shrugged.

“Jon, if Cragforel is out of ideas, what do you want to do?” asked Sapale. “He is more family to you than anyone else.”

I rubbed an eyebrow. “I can’t imagine giving up on him. He’d never give up on any of us. Even when I demanded he put me in a dormant state, he never actually abandoned me.”

“You are, of course, welcome to leave him here with me,” offered Cragforel. “If anything changed, I’d notify you at once.”

Without acknowledging his offer, I mused out loud, “I just wish we could get inside his—”

Sapale sat up. “What? I know that pregnant pause of yours way too well. You’ve thought of something.”

“I did, indeed. It’s not something I can do, but I thought of someone who can.”

“Who?” she asked.

“Mirraya.”

It was Garustfulous’s turn to sit up quickly. “You want her to use magic to make him all better? Isn’t that kind of a stretch even for a witch?”

“No, not by magic. By zar-not.”

Cragforel got a puzzled look for a few moments. “That’s the Deft technique of joining their mind with an animal they are copying. They need to be in contact, correct?”

“Yes. Man, Cragforel, you know a lot of stuff,” I replied.

“Gosh, thanks.” Not sure he meant it. “I see a major problem. Zar-not works for animals. Why would it work on a robotic unit?”

“Hmm, good point.” I pinched my chin and massaged it roughly. Then I smiled. “Wait, we don’t have to theorize about it. I’ll just ask her.”

That got a chuckle out of the generally dour Deavoriath. “That would save time, wouldn’t it?”

**********

It’d been too long since I’d seen my Deft kids. Funny how life, however long it might be, worked. I would love someone with a burning passion that could melt diamonds. Still, I kept finding reasons and excuses to not stop what I was doing and go give that person a hug. What made it more inexcusable was that I’d loved and lost so many souls in my too-long life that I should always have known better. Cherish now. Yeah, I should’ve started a movement or something. Maybe a cult.

I walked up to Slapgren and Mirri’s house and knocked. One of their kids answered the door. Couldn’t have been more than three years old. I think her name was Bethenar, but I hadn’t seen her since she was in diapers. She regarded me awhile. I felt a little like broccoli on her dinner plate. She craned her neck over a shoulder and announced, “There’s a big alien out here, and he’s not even a dragon.”

I forced myself to not totally lose it. Laughing broccoli was much worse than just plain broccoli. Even I knew that. I heard something thump down on a wooden surface and the scraping of scurrying feet.

“I’ll be right—” Mirri stepped in front of her daughter with a cordial smile on her face. Then she saw it was me. She reached over and grabbed me by an arm and pulled me in with a jerk. “He’s not an alien, sweetheart, he’s my uncle Jon. You know, the one I tell you so much about?”

As she was trying impressively to hug the life out of me, Bethenar asked, “Is he the one mowar Cala is always mad at?”

Mirri looked mortified. It was so cute. “No, mowar isn’t mad at Uncle Jon. She just loves him differently than we do. Now run along and play with your brother.” She pushed more and shooed her away. “Sit, sit. What can I get you?”

“Nothing. I’m fine. Where’s that big lug of a husband of yours?”

“He’s out hunting. Yeah, I know. What a shocker.”

We both chuckled.

“And the kids, everyone’s good?”

She positively glowed. “Couldn’t be better. Little Jon, who’s now nearly as big as his father, is ready for Master School next spring. Can you believe it?”

“Unfortunately, yes. Time does fly.”

“Well, you’ll see everyone at dinner, and then you can see for yourself how they’re all doing.”

“Speaking of doing, how is that old bat Cala?”

“Shame on you, and she’s just as ornery as ever.”

“And now she has two of me to be ornery at. She must be living in bliss.”

“Her? Not hardly. That’s not her style. She is pleased with EJ’s progress though.”

“I bet in two, maybe three hundred thousand years he’ll be fit to rejoin the general population.”

“You are so mean.”

“I just know myself.” I looked down.

“What is it? Is something wrong?”

“Yes. Very.”

She rocketed her hand over her mouth. “Oh no. It’s not Sapale, is it?”

“No, no. She’s as healthy as an android horse. No, it’s someone you’ve never met. Toño De Jesus.”

“Arcs of Power. He’s the man who created you.”

“And my oldest friend. We met when I was human the first time.” I shook my head hard. “Man does that ever come out sounding weird.”

“What happened to him? You told me he was gone, didn’t you?”

I shrugged. “I thought he was. We accidentally discovered that he was a prisoner of the Adamant while we were rescuing Garustfulous.”

“What happened to Garustfulous?”

“Not important now. We got them both out, but Toño wasn’t conscious. I even took him to the Deavoriath, but they couldn’t wake him up either.”

“Wake him up? Is he broken?”

“All his systems are functioning optimally, but he’s still basically in a coma.”

“I’m no engineer, but that sounds contradictory. Either he is or he isn’t functioning normally.”

“We’re at a loss too. Every test indicates he should stand up and dance the hoochie coochie. But he’s totally out of it mentally.”

“What happened to his mind?”

I could hardly say the words. “The Adamant devised a way to torture him mercilessly for god knows how long. Maybe thousands of years at a time. I’m afraid it fried his brain.”

“Lords and Lights, they’re horrid.”

“Tell me about it.”

She collected herself. “What is it you want of me? You know I’ll do anything to help you, Uncle Jon.”

“Not so fast. What I’m asking is big—really big. It may not even be possible. And if there’s any chance you might get hurt, I won’t let you do it, even if you could.”

“What are you thinking about?”

“That maybe you could get through to him via zar-not.”

That popped her eyes wide open. “Oh my. I’ve never even thought about that.”

“You could’a cut off my legs and called me Shorty if you had.”

That brought me a wide-eyed glare. “Beg pardon?”

“I’d have been surprised.”

After a brief head shake, she got back to business. “You know zar-not is part of the shape-shifting process. I can’t change into a rock or a robot. That’s not how it works.”

“I figured as much. We’re just kind of out of ideas.” I had to stop speaking for a second. “I just had to ask, you know … couldn’t bail on Toño if—” I had to stop talking completely at that point.

“Please take me to him.”

“Huh?”

“Jon, you’re the reason I’m here and so blessed, and I can’t see you in this pain knowing I didn’t do what you always have for me.”

“Yeah. What’s that?”

“Everything you could and then some. I’ll get a friend to watch the kids, and we’ll leave.”

“No, that’s okay. We can wait for Slapgren. Toño’s been in his … whatever for over two months. He can wait for us to have a family meal together.”

She ran over to me and collapsed in my arms. She was the best.


TWENTY-FOUR

Melgot scanned the daily releases. He read more than he probably needed to. But he was committed to being overinformed as opposed to underinformed, times being as they were. There was the possibility that a tidbit of news from the most unexpected source might tip the balance of power, or rather the lack thereof. A lord-servant’s job wasn’t supposed to be easy, only rewarding and vital.

His comm link buzzed. “Sire?”

“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be for my morning update.”

“Very well, sire. Shall I have breakfast brought so you might eat while we chat?”

Lunch would seem more appropriate given the ho … hour. Excuse me.”

“I shall have both delivered at once. You can choose as you like.”

Within a few minutes Melgot sat in an ornate and unbelievably uncomfortable chair at the head of Prince Halbertel’s bed. His royal pain in the ass was slumped in his bed, dribbling and spilling all forms of food and drink on his chest and bedsheets. He was a slob at the best of times. He was even more so when still drunk from the last night’s revelries.

“Shall I be … no, here let me help you with that, lord. No, you’re going to … ah, there you have. Here, let me dab that up.”

Halbertel slapped wildly at his lord-servant’s hands. What he struck was his lord-servant’s muzzle, hard enough that blood trickled down to his chin. “I can get it, you oaf.”

“My apologies, lord,” was Melgot’s muffled response as he applied the towel originally destined for the spill to his split lip. “Shall I begin?”

“Yes, before you kill me.”

He wiped his cut and set the towel down. “I have documentation that no fewer than ten more senior naval officers have gone rogue and assumed absolute control over their sectors.”

“So, what, that brings the total to fifteen?”

Melgot fanned his eyelashes but refrained from rolling his eyes. “No, lord. The total now stands at six hundred thirty-five.”

“That’s what I just said.”

“Yes, lord, I was repeating the total because you were so correct.”

“That’s better. But are any of these whore-spawns real challengers to my legitimacy?”

“Some would argue that many are. The most egregious treason I've discovered so far is by Whole Quildrod, who has named himself interim emperor. His entire force has thrown in with the scoundrel and sworn allegiance to him alone.”

“Curse his balls. Order him executed.”

“To whom shall I pass that order along, lord?”

“I don’t know. My killing people. You figure it out. What do I pay you for?”

“I’ll see to it as soon as we’re done here,” he replied with oozing insincerity.

“And what steps have you taken to secure my coronation?”

“Ah, that has been a challenge, lord. Not one of our staff has identified a single party openly supportive of your candidacy for emperor. Not yet, I should say.”

“Support? I don’t need no support. I’m the fifth cousin twice removed of the space dust that up until recently was the late great emperor himself. No one else comes close to my proximity in terms of being the rightful heir.”

“You and I know this. Everyone knows this, lord. But the issue is the dark epoch we find ourselves thrust into. Many insane, power-hungry, and sociopathic curs have chosen this very moment to try and usurp your ascension.”

“Well have them killed too.”

“All of them?”

“No. All but the one with the winningest smile.” He hurled a thigh bone at his aide, landing an astoundingly accurate blow to his left eye. “Of course kill them all, you cat.”

With the towel now pressed firmly to his eye, Melgot replied, “I’ll order that too as soon as we’re finished.”

“That brings up another issue. Since the untimely incineration of my beloved fifth cousin twice removed, I’m running out of funds to maintain the lifestyle I’m entitled and accustomed to.”

“Yes, lord, we are both aware of that unfortunate turn of fortune. That is why you married your great-grandmother last week. Do you not recall? The elderly female with a treasure trove of money?”

“My great-grandmother? Which one?”

“That one, lord. The one next to you in bed.” Melgot pointed to a heaped-up portion of the bedsheets.

The prince gingerly peeled back the shroud and peeked at his bride. He nearly jumped out of bed and into Melgot’s lap. “Fleas and ticks, what an ugly bitch.”

“I must agree that she has never been much of a morning hound.”

“I guarantee she’s this hideous all day long.” He leaned in to study her closely. “Wait, I think she’s dead. What a break.”

“Pity, lord, no. I can see her chest move from here.”

“A male can hope.”

“Yes he can. Best of luck with that effort, lord.”

Halbertel covered his great-grandmother up gently so as not to rouse her. “Did she give us enough money to buy my way into power?”

“Alas, lord, I think not. Given the variables, I’m reluctant to think that level of funding exists.”

“Ah well, pass me that bottle. I don’t think I need a drink, I know I need a drink.”


TWENTY-FIVE

Mirraya-Slapgren walked around the table Toño was lying atop. She studied him, scrutinizing his existence. Once Slapgren heard about my friend’s peril, he insisted on joining with his wife. He said together they were ten times stronger than either was apart. Watching that magnificent golden visant stride with such confidence and fluidity it was hard to doubt his estimation.

“I sense nothing unusual about him,” she said.

“Is that good? asked Sapale.

“Neither good nor bad. Toño lacks any negative outward manifestations. That is reassuring.”

I was about to ask her to maybe clarify what the hell she had just said but let it go. This was her show. Still, I wondered if she meant Toño wasn’t possessed or that didn’t have BO. I made a mental note to check with her when this was all over.

“Do you think you can reach into his mind?” posed Cragforel. I have to say seeing a Deavoriath so in awe of something was stunning. It was like Santa, the Easter Bunny, and Mr. Rogers were standing before him. Superman too. A few other Deavoriath were in attendance, and they were equally starstruck.

“I’m not sure, but I am ready to try.”

With those words all individuals in the room, organic and metal in nature, stopped breathing.

She stopped and reached over with one foot. The talons encircled Toño’s head. I flashed on one of those games I played as a kid, the one where I tried to pick up a stupid prize with a rickety crane and never won a thing.

I anticipated she’d close her eyes and face heaven for support or something equally magical, but she just stood there staring down at him like he was a suspicious package. Then I noticed her skin started to change. It was very subtle, but it went from pure golden-metallic and scaly to a sort of gray film. Three seconds into the change, Mirraya-Slapgren was thrown backward and struck the wall like a bomb had exploded.

That’s when Toño started screaming. He screamed with a volume and an intensity sufficient to wake the dead and then make them wish they had not returned to the land of the living.

I turned to Cragforel and pointed to Toño. “You take him. I’ll check on her.”

I sprinted for Mirraya-Slapgren, completely oblivious to what Cragforel might be doing. I skidded to my knees and rested my arm under her neck, cradling it.

“Guys, are you okay?”

The look in her eyes totally blindsided me. I expected fear, confusion, or pain. She had a look of wonder. I was so surprised I nearly dropped her.

“Let me get you to a couch,” I said slipping my other arm under her hind legs. She was very heavy, but I sure as hell was going to carry her.

“No, Uncle Jon,” she said, resting a talon gently on my forearm. “No, I can stand. I’m fine, really.”

I released her into an upright position, and she stood steadily. I inched away but was ready to pounce if she faltered.

She looked at Toño, writhing and billowing on the table. Sapale, Cragforel, and a couple Deavoriath I didn’t know were trying mightily to restrain him. “I think he’s awake now,” she remarked dryly.

“Yes, I believe your assessment is correct. Come on, he’s in good hands. Let’s step outside for what passes on Oowaoa as fresh air.”

We had to hike quite a ways to get far enough away that Toño’s howls were not deafening.

“If you don’t mind, Uncle, we’ll separate now. Our task is done, and after that shock, we think it wise.”

“Oh crap. You two’re going to be naked, aren’t you?”

“Not if you retrieve our clothes and turn your back.”

I did so at a trot. The last thing I wanted was to return with a stack of clothes only to discover I was a few moments too late. We were talking about my kids here. Daddy didn’t want’a see his adult children in their birthday suits.

Once we were all sitting on a bench fully dressed, I asked them each if they were okay.

“I feel like a million bucks,” said Slapgren resolutely. “Say, do these Oowaoans eat food? I’m strangely hungry.”

Mirri slapped him playfully. “You’re always strangely hungry.”

“You okay too?”

“Yes. No ill effects whatsoever.”

“Can you be sure? I mean, you flew across that room pretty convincingly.”

“When we’re one, dude, we’re tough.” He pumped his fist. I liked that boy.

“Honestly, we’re both fine. You stop worrying.”

“What caused you to go airborne?”

She got a very serious look on her face. “I’m not certain. I think he pushed us away. Maybe it was psychic energy.” She puzzled a moment. “If I figure it out, I’ll let you know.”

“Sure.” I wasn’t certain I cared all that much whether it was a mental chest bump or gypsy energy bolts, but whatever.

“He’s in a lot of pain, Uncle Jon,” Mirri said with a distressed expression.

“Massive.” Slapgren put his hands on either side of his head and exploded them away. “Super massive.”

“I suspected as much. I told you the damn Adamant had his brain in a blender for time immemorial.”

“No,” she corrected me, “only in fits and spurts. He was in that state for only about about a year.”

“Eighteen months tops,” agreed Slapgren.

“Wait, you … you learned something from that brief contact?”

“Oh yes. I’d have been stunned if we didn’t.”

“Short timespan and limited exposure are two separate things in zar-not.” Slapgren sounded so full of himself.

“So you’re the zar-not expert now?”

He rolled a shoulder. “Well that’s what she told me, and I believe her.”

“You are such a big kid,” I responded with a chuckle.

“Welcome to my world,” teased Mirri.

“Come on, what else can you tell me?”

She was serious again. “Not much more. His pain … his pain was so … so pure.”

Slapgren snapped his fingers. “That’s it, love. Pure.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Toño’s entire essence, what you might call his soul, was pain without dilution.”

“That doesn’t sound good.”

“It is not. The Adamant figured out a way to make poor Toño suffer so profoundly. It became all he could … ah, be.”

“Pain?”

“Yes.”

“Not sure I understand that concept, but okay. Will he get better?”

“I have no way of knowing. Sorry. I truly am.”

“I know, honey. Thanks for what you did.”

“They needed to torture him to get him to cooperate,” blurted out Slapgren.

I angled my head. “That’s usually the point of torture, isn’t it?” Then I thought about it. “What did they want him to cooperate with?”

“Science,” replied Mirri.

“Science? What’s that mean? You two sure have learned to talk like sideshow psychics.”

“Gee thanks,” Slapgren said, pouting. “I’ll be sure to put that on my resume.”

“The Adamant are very organized, thorough, and driven, but that doesn’t make them clever,” explained Mirri. “They captured Toño a very long time ago. They knew who he was and wanted him to help advance their scientific programs. They wanted him to develop new and better weapons and drive systems.”

“Toño’d never help those bastards,” I shot back.

“And hence,” Slapgren opened his arms, “the torture.”

“Oh my,” was all I could muster.

“Oh my indeed, Uncle. They would ask him to help with some project. He’d say no and they’d start the mental blender. A few weeks or months later, they’d switch it off and ask him again. I don’t have to tell you what they did if he continued to refuse.”

“Eventually, the poor guy would cave. I mean,” Slapgren added, “who the hell wouldn’t?”

“Oh, I know,” I said only half present in the conversation. “I’d never judge Toño. He was the strongest man I ever knew.”

“No way,” exclaimed Slapgren. “You’re the toughest dude there ever was, UJ.”

“You go that right, punk.” I air punched at him to emphasize that declaration. “No, he’s the strongest, not necessarily the toughest or most fearless. He had to be. He grew up dirt poor in a village so small it was never appeared on any of the maps of Spain.” I shook my head slowly. “Granja De La Torre Hermosa. Not even a wide patch along a hot road.”

“What a pretty name,” responded Mirri. “Have you been there?”

“Yes, once. Before Jupiter ate it for lunch. It was quaint, but man was it rustic. Anyway, he came from nothing and saved humankind. That’s big. He had to be strong.”

“I can only imagine,” replied Slapgren.

“I hope he comes around, Uncle.”

“You and me both.” I shook my head hard. “Hey, let’s get you two home. I bet the kids have old Cala tied up and gagged by now.”

“No, they’d better not have,” Slapgren said hotly. “Last time they did, we really leaned into’em. They promised to never do that again.”

“Yes, but one only wonders what they did this time instead,” Mirri said with the cutest darn grin. Loved that girl. Loved her big time.


TWENTY-SIX

“Meldagard. keep those ships off our port bow or this is going to be a very brief battle.” Though powerful and loud, Sustimer’s voice was calm and authoritative. He was an excellent captain.

“I’m trying my best, sir. There are just too many of them.”

“Yes, but if they outflank us and win, you and I will be the ones who die. Keep that as firm motivation, son.”

“Sir.”

The massive battlestar shuttered from a series of blows. For a ship nearly eight cubic kilometers in volume to respond that violently suggested the conviction with which Dorcilmas was fighting. Whole Sustimer’s fleet was the third Dorcilmas was battling on Quildrod’s behalf. It was by far the largest to date and the most seasoned. The outcome was not, as he’s previously enjoyed, a forgone conclusion.

“Swing around to 11-554-0.1 and fire on the cruiser,” Sustimer shouted over the booming.

“Aye,” responded the helmshound briskly.

The hyperspace missiles launched without as much as a whoosh.

“Count me down,” commanded Sustimer.

“First impact in three … two … one … impact. One missile midships, Captain. Two deflected.”

The entire bridge crew stole a second to savor the tumultuous ball of flame blasted out into space.

“Come back around and make for the flagship.”

“Aye, Captain.”

“I want all drives at maximal. If the engines blow, at least we’ll have died trying to get that bastard.”

“Aye, Captain. All drives redlined.”

Maker of Right moaned under the strain of the acceleration.

“There, two destroyers are trying to cut us off. Biscral, I need them out of the picture now.”

“Aye, Captain,” snapped the fire-control dog. “Plasma cannons eight, eleven, one thirty-seven, three thirty-two, and eleven twenty-two locked on bogey one. Cannons thirty-three, five fifty-two, seven thirty-eight, eight forty-four, and ninety ninety-three target bogey two. Fire until target destroyed or ordered.”

The zing-pow of the cannons cracked to life. Biscral developed an immediate erection he didn’t bother to conceal.

Seconds later, one destroyer split in half and spit flames from both sections. The other turned directly at Maker of Right.

“She’s going to folded space, sir. Closing fast.”

“Put us where we shouldn’t be, so she doesn’t materialize—”

Too late. Sheer Force reentered real space with three quarters of her forward section inside Maker. Both ships instantly crushed one another and erupted in a fury of fire.

On the bridge of Death’s Deadline, the first officer turned to Whole Dorcilmas with a huge grin. “She’s hot dust, Captain. We go this one.”

“Turnersi, we have six ships to mop up. Come around to our previous course and alert the remaining destroyers to choose stragglers and end this. Then, shipmate, we shall grin and drink that their souls rot in hell. Comm, inform Lord Quildrod we have removed another tall piece from the chessboard.”


TWENTY-SEVEN

Tempted as I was to linger, I returned to Oowaoa as soon as I dropped off my kids. Well, that and to hug all the little ones a few times. I was so warm and fuzzy, I even offered Cala a hug, but she disappeared before our eyes rather than take me up on the offer. Bitch.

I didn’t have to get too far from the docking area before I confirmed Toño was still doing his banshee impersonation. Poor SOB. Poor everyone who could hear him too. I waved Sapale to the door, and we stepped outside. “So, what are we looking at here?”

She was clearly rattled by Toño’s continued outburst. “Cragforel’s not sure. He says all Toño’s readings are picture-perfect. In his head, he’s screaming just as loud as he is on the outside.”

“Anything calm him down or even let him stop for a breath?”

She shook her head. “No. The pitch and octave he screams in’ll shift, but that’s about it.”

“Does he respond in any way to voice or pain?”

“Not to voice, no.” She looked down. “No one’s mentioned pain. The way he is, it kind of seems like piling it on.”

“I’m going in. You’re welcome to take a break if you’d like.”

“I think I will take a quick one. Rest my audio inputs before they fry.”

I kissed her forehead. “You’re the best.”

It was hard to see Toño in the state he was in. Really hard. He would arch his back and scream, twist from side to side and scream, and flail his arms and legs and scream. He was strapped down six ways to Sunday, so his actual movements were limited. I stepped next to Cragforel. “Any ideas?”

“Yes. Vacationing far, far away.”

“Funny guy. Let me yell at him.”

“He’s all yours,” he said, directing an open hand at Toño.

I put my mouth next to his ear and yelled my name, his name, hell, I even yelled General Saunder’s name to see if anything would break the evil spell. Nothing. I looked up to Cragforel. He shrugged. We both knew what came next.

I extended my fibers and reached into Toño. I was slammed with an immense wave of—I had to know it—pain. Pain, desperation, and an intoxicating desire to die. I could feel myself slipping in, being pulled into the blackness that was his mind. I called to him but got no reply. I figuratively dug in my heels and resisted the gravity of his anguish. I stopped advancing.

Toño, Doctor Toño De Jesus, it’s Jon Ryan. Answer me, I said over and over. Still the storm raged.

Doc, I need you to come back.

Nothing but chaos.

¡Doctor Toño De Jesus, en el nombre de Dios y la sagrada Santa María, cálmate! ¡Sé quieto ahora mismo! I basically told him in the name of God and the blessed Saint Mary to calm himself immediately.

Damn if it didn’t work. Only just a little, but in this case, a little was a lot. I wasn’t a stick figure teetering on the edge of a bottomless void. I was a stick figure teetering on the edge of a void with a bottom I could feel. Okay, not a whole hell of a lot, but I think he stopped screaming on the outside. He did not stop on the inside.

Good old Catholic guilt. Where would humanity have been without it?

Doc, can you hear me? It’s Jon.

Then my boy said his first word. I was so proud.

J … J … Jon?

Yes, Toño, it’s me, Jon Ryan. Doc, say something.

Jon … where … where ammmm … mm I?

You’re safe, Doc. You’re safe with Sapale and me on Oowaoa. We rescued you from the Adamant, Doc.

He started screaming again, inside, outside, and any place in between. Okay, don’t say Adamant to Toño just yet. Noted.

Toño, easy. Stop shouting. I’m here to help you. Doc, answer me.

A pause. Jo … Jon, are you still there?

Yeah, Doc. I’m never leaving you again. We’ll get through this, and it’ll be all right. You’ll be happy faster than green grass through a goose.

Por Dios, it is you, Jon. It’s really you.

Yeah, thanks, I think. Hey, I’m going to disconnect and we’ll talk on the outside like normal people, okay?

I think so. Yes, I think I can do that.

I retracted the probes.

My knees buckled, and I’d have face-planted if Sapale hadn’t caught me.

“Jon, Jon, are you okay? Jon, what’s happening? Where were you?”

“Wh … whoa. Where was I? I’z ri … whoa.”

“Yeah, you said that already. Jon, lie down on the floor.”

“N … no, honey, not now. I think I’ve got a headache.”

“No.” She palm-punched my shoulder. “Not that. Mind out of the gutter. Lie down, or I’ll throw you down.”

“N … no, honey, not —”

She placed a hand firmly over my mouth and laid me down.

“What’s all the drama about?”

“Jon, you were hooked up to Toño for almost a week. Honey, we were so worried, but we didn’t know what to do. Cragforel said he wanted to break your connection, but I said no. Jon, what happened in there?”

“Oh, it was really fairly simple, Sapale,” Toño said as he sat up. “We were just chatting. Chatting, and he was swearing.”

“Wa … wait,” I protested while flat on my back, “I don’t recall one cuss word.”

“I believe you took the Lord’s name in vain, my friend.”

“What? No. That’s, like, a matter of opinion.”

I couldn’t see it from where I lay, but Toño pointed toward heaven. “Yes but His is the only one that actually matters.”

“Boys, knock off the comedy routine before I get mad,” warned Sapale.

That got our fullest attention. No one wanted to go there.

I heard feet pounding in. “I came as soon as I heard,” said Cragforel, huffing and puffing. “What happened?”

“He retracted his probes as casually as if he was turning off a faucet, then boom. He hit the deck.”

“I did not hit the deck. I grew unsteady.”

I looked up to see two very dubious faces judging an injured man when he was down.

“Then Toño sat up,” she said, nodding her head in his direction.

“Dr. De Jesus?”

“Yes, my friend.”

“Sir, it is such an honor to finally meet you. I’m Cragforel, humble scientific lead for the Deavoriath.”

“Ah, Kymee’s replacement.”

They shook hands. “More his replacement’s replacement’s replacement, but yes.”

“Goodness. I just checked my chronometer. I’ve been gone for a while, haven’t I?” He craned his neck down to look at me. “I think I can imagine how you felt when you woke up, Jon. Most unusual feeling.”

I was up on my elbow by then, rubbing my forehead. “Not a picnic, I can assure you. And hi, Doc. It sure is good to see you again.” I smiled. “I missed the hell out of you.”

“Hmm. Yes, I missed you when you were gone and I wasn’t.”

“Don’t start with the comedy routine, you two. I’m in no mood.” Sapale was serious, I think.

“How about this,” said Cragforel, “You, Jon, get up, and you, Dr. De Jesus, stand up.”

“Please, call me Toño. Everyone here is family.”

“Thank you , T … Toño. It’s my greatest honor.”

To my brood’s-mate, I snarked, “This is going to get ugly, I can tell already.”

We reconvened in the kitchen of Cragforel’s house. We excluded Garustfulous. Where there was food and nufe to be had, he wanted passionately to be there. But we all knew it would be bad for Toño. Eventually, sure. Day one back from the Land of the Lost, not so much.

“So, Toño, tell us all how you’re feeling,” began our host.

“I’m getting embarrassed with all this attention. I’m generally the one doing the doting.”

We all chuckled at that. It was so nice to hear him talk like good old Doc.

“So, Doc, are you ready to tell us your story? It can wait if you’re not,” I asked as tactfully as I could. Yeah, not very, but #fighterpilothere, okay?

“I don’t know. I guess I could begin, and if I encounter any difficulties—”

“Please stop,” leapt from Cragforel’s mouth. More reserved, he added, “We wouldn’t want a setback, would we?”

I put my hands over my ears. “No, we would not.” Because I was, well, me, I said it kind of loudly.

“You left here after Larocnaur passed. Where did you go?”

“Ah, Larocnaur. Such a delight. Brilliant, funny, and caring.”

“Doc, was she Deavoriath? None of those things sound like one of them,” I asked tactfully.

“Speak nothing bad of the dead, brood-mate. Can it.”

“I went nowhere in particular. I’d amassed quite a bucket list by then. I went some places I’d always wanted to. I was the carefree vagabond.”

“I can’t picture this either,” I said.

“Well, I was. I saw the Diamond Falls of Transaliv 7. Spectacular. I spent time with the Dulred. I’d always wanted to study their culture.”

“What’s so interesting about them?” I asked. I’d never heard of them.

“Jon, seriously, you don’t know about the Dulred? Gas organisms that float in their atmospheres. They’re basically immortal and are said to be the wisest, gentlest race in the universe.” That Cragforel could be pretty judgmental when he wanted to be.

“They are all that and more,” Toño said wistfully. “Anyway, I traveled.”

“When did you meet … you know … the guys who—” I stammered.

“The Adamant?”

We collectively nearly jumped out of our skin.

“Adamant, Adamant, Adamant. There, you see. I can safely say the word.”

“Okay, whatever you’re comfortable with, Doc.”

He sat very quiet for a very long time. We were all beginning to question the wisdom of his recent bravado. “Do you know where they came from, Jon?” He looked around the table. “Does anyone?”

“I ran some DNA test a while ago. They seem to be direct descendants of human pet dogs. I didn’t have access to that detailed of a record, but I suspect border collies.”

“That they are. You spent some time on Granger, didn’t you, Jon?”

Didn’t see that one coming. “Yeah, some. A place called Peg’s Bar Nobody. A real dive.”

“Did you ever meet an odd fellow named Christian Donovan?”

That question tilted my head. “No, can’t say I did. Odd set of questions, Doc.”

“He was a breeder on Granger. You’ll never guess what he bred.”

“Cows? They had a lot of cows as I recall.”

“No. Border collies. They needed herding dogs to help with the flocks just like they did back on Earth.”

“So what’s odd about this long-dead dog breeder I never met?”

He’s where the Adamant came from. They are the result of his efforts forever ago.”

“Ah, this is the time Jon says, you’re shitting me, Doc,” I said.

“No. I only wish I was.” He was real quiet again for a while. “When the part of the worldship fleet heading for Azsuram finally arrived, Granger was among them. Over a few decades, the inhabitants of the worldships were gradually assimilated onto the planet. Billions of people along with all the animals. It was an impressive migration.”

“If you say so. I slept through it.”

“Yes, you did. In the end, Donovan’s descendants refused to disembark. They were all as inbred and odd as their forefather was.”

“Sounds like good riddance to me,” said Sapale.

“Eventually, they were able to pilot Granger away, not that anybody much cared. Everyone who knew them felt the way you do, Sapale. And no one wanted the worldship. Azsuram was a paradise. Almost all the worldships were scuttled.”

“Excuse me, Toño. How does one scuttle a giant asteroid?” Cragforel asked.

“They were placed in decaying orbits around the central star.”

He bobbed his head. “That would do it.”

Exeter was the one exception. That one I programmed myself to drift in open space for all eternity.”

“Thanks, I think,” I responded meekly.

“Thanks to you too,” snapped my wife as she hauled off and slugged me.

Toño sat mute for even longer. Then he spoke with deep sorrow. “During my travels, I chanced upon Granger. It had been over two million years since it departed Azsuram with the loony Donovan Clan.”

“Why is this sounding very ominous all of a sudden?” asked Sapale.

“I landed my vortex on Granger, expecting to find nothing.” He sighed. “What I found was a worldship teaming with sentient border collies.”

“The Adamant,” I said in a hushed tone.

“What were to become the Adamant. Yes.” He sighed again several times before he could speak. “Oh, at first they were a rather cheery and agreeable lot. They were fascinated to see another sentient species.”

“What happened to the Donovans?” asked Cragforel.

“Who knows? Maybe the dogs ate them. By the time I arrived, humans were gone from their collective memory.”

“What did they eat? How could they survive that long?” I asked.

“The Donovans had brought a lot of livestock and grains to feed them. Eventually the place went wild. As the ship was sealed, none of the water escaped. The fusion generators worked fine and kept things going.”

“You can’t tell me a pack of hounds learned how to do routine maintenance,” I responded. “After a while, the environment would go down the crapper.”

“It almost had.”

“Don’t tell me you repaired it for them?” I stood half out of my chair.

He tossed his hands in the air. “Of course, I did. They were cheery and affable, remember? I saw a new species establishing a positive civilization, and I acted to support it. It took a very long time, but by the time I left, Granger was working as good as new. In that time, the Ones came to adulate me. I was a near god to them with all my technical skills.”

“The Ones? Who were they?” queried Cragforel.

“Oh, sorry. That’s what they called themselves. The Ones. They had only very basic powers of reasoning back then. They were the ones who were there.”

“So, you sent the Ones packing,” I said with obvious disgust.

“I did. And I forgot about them and assumed I’d never hear from or about them again.”

“But over a billion years, they evolved to become the Adamant,” Sapale observed.

“They evolved into the Adamant,” Toño concluded. “I heard of this mighty conquering race long before I ran across them. Granger had traveled to the other side of the Milky Way by the time they left their home and began ravaging the galaxy. It took a long time for them to fight their way back to where it all began. But they never forgot the mastermind Toño De Jesus. I became like their patron saint of knowledge. When they finally caught up with me, they invited me to help them once again.”

“And the rest, as they say, is—” I began.

History,” Toño finished.


TWENTY-EIGHT

Ten Adamant sat at a flask-shaped table, enjoying a raucous feast. Along the smoothed edges of the flask’s curves were positioned nine of the members on the newly reformatted Secure Council. The tenth member, the Prime, sat at the short, straight part that would be the spout of the flask. There sat Interim Emperor Quildrod, Whole of his Imperial Navy. He held for the first time in recorded history both key positions. His power was so great, the other nine joked it likely extended into the afterlife.

Whole Dorcilmas sat at Prime’s right paw, the Prime’s Second and commander of the combined Adamant Fleet.

“So, as the new Prime of the new Council, I call this inaugural session to order.” Quildrod banged his mug on the table hard enough for some ale to spill.

“And I propose a toast to the new Prime and the honorable members of this august body.” Dorcilmas swung his mug in a broad arc, also spilling a goodly portion of his drink.

No one cared about the messes. Life was, at that moment, particularly good.

“May we serve the new emperor well or with our lives,” cheered Kalfony, the Prime’s brother.

As others joined in the call, Quildrod raised a paw in false protestation. “Interim Emperor. I will hold this post only long enough to see it justly filled by the perfect candidate.”

Kalfony grabbed his chin with his fingers. “Hmm? I wonder who that lofty character might be?”

“Maybe that Prince Halbertel who claims proper ancestry,” shouted the very drunk Whole Salsifo.

“Hmm, no,” Kalfony replied, trying to look thoughtful, “I doubt that very much. The poor usurper suffered a significant setback in his aspirations. Some dastardly dog ran him through with a spear, dismembered his body, and burned the pieces in a fusion core.” He slipped his cap off in reverence. “Ever since that sad event, Halbertel has pursued his claim, however legitimate it might have been, much less aggressively.”

The room exploded with laughter.

Quildrod pounded his mug once again for order. “That does unfortunately lead me to raise the first issue before this council. What to do about the other more serious threats to my efforts to restore the empire?”

Everyone quieted quickly. They all know he wasn’t really calling for ideas or discussion. No, why would he want the opinions of the sycophants he’d appointed specifically to avoid such wastes of his time? He was about to announce his plan, his vision. He assumed all present were more than happy to play good little lackeys with genuine conviction.

The Prime scanned the table menacingly to reinforce the need for no one to speak.

“As there is no input for you, my friends, allow me to outline the framework of a strategy I have hatched. As we all know, the past year has been, er, eventful. The empire has suffered some damage, a bloody nose if you will. But I know the empire to be strong, vibrant, and most of all, resilient.”

Cheers spilled forth from the other members.

“As Interim Emperor, I know it to be my divine role to smooth out the wrinkles that hard times have made in the fabric of our empire. Seventeen other once-loyal officers and their demon followers dared to threaten our empire. I saw to it they were crushed and are now forgotten. There are perhaps another dozen or so large splinter groups that must be put down. I estimate it will take us three or perhaps four years to subdue the major players. After that, we will begin the more arduous task of cleansing the planets that have declared their treason. Many systems have already begun forming rogue governments without my permission. Those traitors will be dealt with harshly. Realistically, the consolidation of planetary authority under my leadership will take longer. I estimate an octade, possibly an octade and a half to accomplish that unification. After that, we will once again be brothers and sisters living in an orderly bliss.”

Those assembled clapped loudly.

Demplrod, the lone Logistical Whole on the council, inched a paw into the air.

“Yes?” responded Quildrod rather peevishly.

“As a matter of curiosity as opposed to descent, I’d like to mention a potential delaying factor or two in your otherwise triumphant plan. Um, there is the matter of the Alliance of the Periphery, who still wage war against us with apparent impunity. There is also the matter of the unaccounted-for dragons who sliced up our best fleet as if it was butter and they were laser beams. Additionally, there is the unfortunate loss of both the Central Repository of Knowledge and the Rabid Robot himself. Maintaining technical superiority seems to be a matter of our past, not our collective futures. And it pains me to observe further that Jon Ryan remains, er, a free agent. His incredible luck in making the Adamant appear inept, incompetent, and inattentive to detail does suggest he might be a slowing-down factor in your advance toward an orderly bliss. Finally, and this I amend more as a report than an opinion or a potential barrier, my spies, who are numerous and have been immensely reliable in the past, tell me of rumors that they won’t help speed in your ascension to what is rightfully yours.”

“Rumors?” Quildrod said as thunder rolled from dark storm clouds.

“Rumors of rumor, as it were. Nothing more.”

Quildrod shattered his mug on the tabletop. “Speak these rumors of rumors of lies.”

Longevity on the council and on this plane of existence seemed to have removed themselves as options for the foolish Demplrod.

“Ah, some whisper that if the empire does not expand, how can it be mislabeled as the Adamant Empire? We crush, kill, and destroy. We assimilate, expand, and consume. They shout in the streets that the petty—as it is said by others who are not me—infighting and positioning is the competition engaged in by females. That those with testicles would never stoop to such folly. Hence, those with no due respect for you are calling what is emerging from the recent catastrophe the Ovarian Empire, Prime.”

Demplrod was finished.


TWENTY-NINE

We lingered a few weeks on Oowaoa. But it wasn’t our home, so we decided it was time to go. Plus, and I wasn’t proud to feel it, but the constant hero-worship for Toño by the Deavoriath was kind of getting on my last nerve. Now, I don’t need to be the center of attention and adulation. No way. I was humble, probably to a fault. But Toño De Jesus? He was a really good scientist, sure. But science and technology didn’t win wars or impress the babes. Just sayin’.

As to where home was, we were admittedly torn. Sapale was naturally gravitating to Kalvarg, the home of the nascent Kaljaxian society. I leaned toward Vorpace, with its humans and familiar ways. Doc’s only home for a billion years was as part of the furniture in an Adamant computer room. One sweet deal Toño’s cachet did buy us was two more vortices. Yeah, baby. One for Toño and one for Sapale. No more can-I-borrow-the-car in our family.

We landed all three, Stingray, Affirmation, and Cloister, on Kalvarg. How the cubes got their crazy names, I never would understand. Pretty soon, after a gazillion welcomes and introductions, we three immortals were in the kitchen having coffee. Some things never changed.

“So, Doc, your head still clear?”

“Yes, I think it is.” He got a worried look. “Why do you ask?”

“Just making sure, Mr. Worrywart. You went through quite a destabilizing experience. You have to know I’ll be checking on you for a goodly while to come.”

“Me too, so get used to it.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied stiffly.

“I kind of like that,” remarked Sapale. “A girl could get used to that level of respect.”

“See what an engineer’s sense of humor’ll get you into?” I admonished Toño.

“Well I am all right. Luckily, I added the option to turn down the feeling of depression in myself somewhere along the line. If I hadn’t, I might be a mess.”

“Wow, the cure for depression. Dial it down.”

“I can adjust your setting too, if you want.” He pointed to both of us.

“Nah, I like my head the way it is, thanks,” replied Sapale.

“No lobotomy for me either, if it’s all the same with you?”

“It’s not a lobotomy. It’s a filter. Don’t say I didn’t offer.”

It was quiet a minute. “So, how we going to beat these dogs, Doc?”

He was surprised. “You’re asking me? It sounds like you’ve been doing a bang-up job while I’ve been asleep.”

“But you have to know them better than they know themselves, right?” asked Sapale. “You had access to everything they ever recorded. You’d know their every strength and weakness.”

“I was connected to all of it. But while my brain was being scrambled, I could not take advantage of it. The last time I had downtime was a long time ago.” He sipped his coffee. “Back then, a few hundred thousand years ago, sure, I knew all their dirty laundry. Recent stuff? Not really.”

“That’s sucks,” I said. “It would be nice to have a huge upper hand on them.”

“Yes it would be,” he agreed.

“Do you recall anything current?”

He tilted his head side to side. “Not much. Not too long ago, they woke me up to solve a problem they were having with the space-time congruity membrane. That’s the last thing I remember.”

“Ah, Doc, they don’t have membrane capability. What problem could they be experiencing?”

“They never told me too much. The problem they presented me was how they could defeat a membrane given that they couldn’t penetrate one.”

That sounded unsettlingly familiar. “And what solution did you give them?”

“After a significant amount of pressure, I said just fire outside this universe and reenter on the other side of the membrane.”

“Doc, they were shooting at me.”

His left eyebrow shot up. “Fascinating. Did they hit you?”

“No, but they weren’t off by much. We barely escaped with our hides.”

“Good, then I didn’t really help them.”

“Doc, they were shooting at me.”

“Yes, you already said that.” He gave me a most puzzled look. “Do you require an apology?”

“No. I don’t … no. Let’s drop it.”

Sapale pointed to Toño. “He never picked it up to be able to drop it, ya big baby.”

I started to defend myself, but I recalled how poorly that always went, so I dropped it. “Could you get back in?”

“In what?”

“Could you hack back into the Adamant network if you were close enough?”

“No.”

“That sounded pretty certain.”

“It was. I cannot hack back in because I will never be that close to attempt such a thing.” He set his cup down and glowered at me. “Jon Ryan, need I remind you I spent an eternity being mercilessly tortured and abused by those devils? I would never get close enough to them again to risk a repeat performance. You have to know that, right?”

“I guess.”

“You guess?”

“Well, what if it meant bringing them down for good?”

“No.”

“You said that pretty quick too.”

“Yes, I did.”

“Jon, don’t beat up the man. I don’t think talking in terms of bringing down the Adamant Empire is realistic. They’re just too damn big. They’re also very formidable. But even if they weren’t, the scale factor makes such a notion impossible.” Sapale was the voice of compassion and was correct.

I sighed deeply. “Yeah, their sheer bulk is a problem. It they were armed with pitchforks and throwing stones, they’d win most fights just because of their numbers. Spread out across so much space too. You know,” I started getting fairly intense, “the one thing about them that bothers me and sticks in my craw? I mean, we’ve battled the Berrillians, the Uhoor, hell, the Last Nightmare. But none of them came within orders of magnitude of the Adamant Empire in terms of bulk.”

“What’s your point, hon? We all know this,” Sapale said.

“No, not a point, just an issue. Why this empire? Why this race? Why are they so much more successful than any other son-of-a-bitchin’ species? They’re fearless. So were the Berrillians. The cats were probably even more ferocious. The Berrillians were resourceful and determined. That pretty much defined the Last Nightmare too. So what is it about the Adamant that made them so dominant?”

Sapale look at me without speaking. Then we both turned to face Toño.

“Why are you … oh no. Don’t blame me. I aided the horrific beasts, but I did not give them magical powers. No.” He shushed us with the back of a hand. “Look away, the both of you.”

We did. But we were both thinking the same thing. The Adamant had the Toño Factor. That’s what made them so successful. Wait—

“Doc, if you were so key to their domination.” I could see him start to react. “I’m only saying if—a hypothetical here.”

He relaxed, giving me permission to continue.

“If it was you—your insights and tech savvy—who made them so great, wouldn’t there be some critical aspects of their civilization that were so much a part of you that we could exploit them?”

He fumbled with his mug and considered that question. “Possibly.” He fell silent.

We let him be for as long as he wanted.

“Do you know why they persecuted the Deft so? Why they felt the need to exterminate them more completely than any other species?”

I was getting hit with so many I-didn’t-see-that-comings, I was beginning to feel like the losing boxer in the ninth round.

“Um, no. What exactly does that have to do with the topic at hand?”

He shook his head briskly. “Nothing at all.”

“Ah. Okay, I’ll bite. Why?”

“I only just learned the reason myself, when the Deft dragon touched me. In all the years I was attached to their machines, after all the assignments they gave me to help locate the Deft, I only now learned why they fear them so.”

“They fear the Deft?” Sapale was dumbstruck.

“Oh yes. They are crippled by this fear.”

“It isn’t their general xenophobia?” I asked, quite confused.

“No, it’s an all-consuming primordial fear.”

“I got it,” blurted Sapale. “They are Adamant, inflexible. They fear change, and the Deft are shapeshifters.” She rested back with a prideful smile. “What's more changing than one of them?”

“No, but that’s an excellent guess.”

Her smile went poof.

“No, it centers around exotic matter.”

Crap, crap, crap. Another out-of-left-field blindsiding. This was getting old.

“You gotta be kidding, Doc. What do the Adamant’s propulsion system and the form-changing abilities of a rare species have to do with one another?”

“Don’t you see? Exotic matter is what allows the Deft to transform their bodies.”

I placed a trembling hand to my forehead. I needed that vacation I tried to take not so long ago. I knew then that I’d hate surprises for the rest of my life.

“But the Deft don’t have—what are they called—exotic matter generators,” protested Sapale.

“No, not in the same form as the Adamant. But that is the secret to their ability to completely alter their DNA and appearance. They evolved some unique biological process to generate minute quantities of exotic matter.”

“No way. They’d melt themselves,” I whined.

Minute quantities, Jon. Powerful but contained minute amounts.” He waved his arms at me. “Electric eels don’t electrocute themselves. Cobras don’t poison themselves. It’s the natural evolutionary solution of how to utilize a potentially dangerous substance, nothing more.”

I sat, pouting a bit. “Okay, the Deft use exotic matter. The Adamant use the stuff too. Why would the latter fear the former? It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Jon, what happened to the Adamant Fleet at the TBOP?” Sapale said with sudden excitement.

“The Adamant got a well-deserved ass—” Oh my.

“You see now? If the Deft can manipulate exotic matter and the Adamant vessels are full of the substance—”

I finished his thought. “B … b … b … boom.”

He nodded contently. “B … b … boom, indeed.”


THIRTY

“I’m not saying I’m unhappy. You always blow things out of proportion, Ashia.” Gingles was trying not to sound angry, by her workmate was so annoying.

“You said if us females weren’t treated as second-class Adamant, the empire would be in a better state.”

“I think it’s possible. We’ve never had any real power. We can’t serve in the military. Three quarters of us are euthanized at birth just to make room for more males to go off and get themselves killed. We’re educated, yes, but we’re not allowed to earn the highest merits. Why? I don’t think you’re inferior to any male. Do you think you are?”

Ashia slapped a paw to her chest. “Don’t make this about me, bitch. I’m not the one complaining about doing my part and appreciating the opportunity. I like serving in this nursery. I like puppies. I don’t want to put on male clothes and march off to war, thank you very much.”

Gingles could see a trap coming. She needed to be cautious. “I love my job too. I think females could help in many ways that we traditionally haven’t been allowed, that’s all.”

“So, you think if females were in charge, the entire ruling class wouldn’t have been blown up by subversive spies and traitors?”

“That’s a huge leap there. Stop it. First, I don’t get it. Were they killed by spies or traitors? And what spy or traitor isn’t subversive? The news holo keeps repeating that. But two separate groups can’t do the same thing. Second, I’m not saying we need to be in charge, only that we should be equal members of the empire.”

“The empire has stood for all of history because it is the way it is. Some nursery bitch’s opinion can’t change my love for the empire.”

“Huh,” Gingles throated humorously. “What empire? All I see is a pack of petty despots carving out for themselves whatever they can, the empire be damned.”

“I’m sure it’s not that bad.”

Gingles stopped folding towels and turned to Ashia. “What hole is your head stuck in? There are hundreds of Adamant leaders warring with other Adamant, not with aliens. It’s sacrilege. That’s what it is, if you ask me.”

“Those are rumors, and you know it. Have you seen one holo to support those claims?”

Gingles looked to the floor.

“What, you have?”

“Yes. There are some on the linkpath.”

“The linkpath? Anyone can post lies and fakes on the linkpath, child.”

“What I saw looked very real. They show an empire in ruins, or at least heading in that direction.”

“I love the empire. I’d die for it with a smile on my muzzle. I will not believe it is in any danger, internal or external, no matter what illegal holo you show me. If it’s not on Wolf Broadcasting, I’m not listening.”

“That’s a puppet of the government, or at least it was when a government existed.”

“Oh, so now there’s no hound leading us. What, do you think you should?”

“No, don’t be silly. But I see no rulers on the holo. I hear no decrees from formal bodies. I do see a power grab happening that leaves me gagging. No one can win when everyone's at odds. Why, I heard that planet, the one with the big copper reserves … Blanchard’s World, that’s it. I heard the three Legions of Paw stationed there are at each other’s throats, not the damn locals’. Three quarters of the Adamant soldiers are dead at the paw of their own kin.”

“I heard that but don’t believe it. I think it was the spies and subversives again.”

“Maybe they’re bored now that they killed the ruling class? They’re branching out? How could spies make one fleet of warships attack another fleet of warships? Hmm? Maybe ask them to nicely, which would incline them to do it since the spies asked so nicely?”

“You’re toeing the line of open treason, bitch. Mind your tongue.”

“Oh, that’s a brilliant comeback. I challenge your worldview with facts, and you fall back on piteous threats? Look me in the eyes and say you don’t know someone who has been in combat with another Adamant since the empire ended.”

“I do not know someone who has fought his brother, ever.”

“Your cousin Kallardy. The one with three legs because one was shot off? He told me himself it was a blast from an Adamant on Lagilor 12 that took it off. You know as well as I do he told you the same thing. Why are you lying instead of processing reality?”

Ashia was shaking she was so furious. “Yes, he told me that’s how it happened. I also know he’s a drunkard and a free thinker. Just because he said it doesn’t make it so.”

“You’re impossible. I see danger and say we need to act. You see the same danger and say it’s a delicious dessert for no other reason than the truth is unacceptable to you. Ahhhrrr!

I’ll see you regret mocking us, bitch. You will know it was I who revealed your treason before we kill you and eat your still beating heart. Yes, you will know it was me, you will beg for mercy, but you will then learn that there is none for the wicked any longer.


THIRTY-ONE

After Toño’s revelation about the Deft, I separated from the others. I needed to think, and I did that best alone. We were hopefully at a turning point in our struggles with the Adamant. But an opportunity and a victory were as different as night and day. I wanted to noodle out a way to make it happen. So, what mighty mental manifestation did I come up with? Nothing. Knowing the Deft could control exotic matter was interesting, but I couldn’t see how that power could be used strategically. The empire was so extended that there weren’t enough dragons to send one solitary scaly beast to every major installation. If they dedicated themselves exclusively to the eradication of the enemy, it would take them decades to cover all the bases. And that presupposed a race famous for its reclusivity would consider committing to full-time warfare for an extended period. Most unlikely.

So, I found myself sitting in the kitchen all by myself drinking coffee. Then I heard the distinctive scuff of Garustfulous entering the room. I cringed. I was basically trapped. I made an effort to generally avoid him. I mean, I didn’t dislike him, but I just didn’t think of him as a bud. As a creature from a pack race, he craved company. Humans were social, but that was a long way from yearning to be in a group. Once he cornered me like he just had, he generally talked my ear off and bored me to tears.

“A very good morning to you, Jon,” he said as he poured a cup. “Trust you are mechanically sound.”

“Fit as an android.”

Hah. Good one. Your mind is as sharp as a puppy’s teeth.” Old Adamant idiom apparently.

“And you? Staying out of trouble?”

“I only wish there was trouble for me to get into here. No bitches, no males to best in wit or battle. It’s like an Adamant nursing home here.”

That was news to me. “You guys have nursing homes for old Adamant?”

He scanned me like I was an idiot. “Of course not. With us, if you’re too old to contribute, you’re too old to live. No, I read about them in your culture.” He sipped his hot coffee. “Silly waste of resources if you ask me.”

“Fortunately, no one has or will.”

“Ha, another good one. I wish I were as funny as you.”

“Me too.”

He pounded the table lightly with a fisted paw. “Za-zing.”

“Any plans for the day?” I knew that was unlikely, but I wanted to redirect the conversation away from my amazing sense of humor.

“Not many. I think I’ll take a bath. Maybe nap when the sun gets a little higher. That’s pretty much it. Why, did you need my help with something?” He sat up expectantly.

Egads, I was headed for quicksand. “No, but thanks just the same. I’ve got no real plans either.”

“That seems remarkably out of character for the great Jon Ryan. If you’re doing nothing, maybe we can do it together? I’d love to take a long walk if there was someone to go with.”

Yikes, I was now sinking in the quicksand. “Nah, I need to think.”

“What better way to think a thing through than taking a long walk?”

“Nah, I think best alone.”

He suddenly looked so dejected. “So I’ve heard. What are you pondering?”

“Same old, same old. How to walk the Adamant Empire out the exit once and for all.”

“In light of the Deft insight?”

I looked at him sideways. “You know about that?”

He furrowed one brow. “Of course, I do. Toño and I chat frequently. It’s not like I’m a security threat, you know?”

I shrugged. “Guess not. But no, I can’t see how that’s going to produce a significant change.”

“Me either.”

Now it was me shooting up an eyebrow. “You agree?”

“Yes. The empire is too vast. Those reclusive dragons would never commit to a long-term military deployment.”

“Wow, I came to the same conclusion.”

“Why is it so surprising that two seasoned military souls like us would come to the same conclusion?”

I kept forgetting he was a seasoned officer. Nowadays, he was just a chatty annoyance.

“So, if not the Deft, what are you trying to determine?”

Why not? “I’m trying to think of a way to use Toño’s intimate knowledge of the Adamant to deal them a death blow.”

“Ah, yes. A very practical approach. He undoubtably has information stowed away that could end them.” He took another sip. “But we’ll never know.”

“Why do you say that?”

“He’d need to engage the Adamant to use his unique knowledge. He’ll never get that close.”

“Hence, he cannot deal them a death blow.”

“No. It’s just as plain as the nose on your muzzle. He suffered too greatly for too long to ever place his liberty at risk again.”

“Those were basically his words to me.”

“There, you see. Simple logic.”

“So, here I sit stewing.”

“Speaking of stew, I’m starving. Can I get you something?”

“What are you having?”

“Some of your darling wife’s delicious carlf.”

I popped up a palm. “No thanks. Stuff eats though my GI tract like battery acid.”

“Suit yourself.”

He returned shortly with an enormous trough of the slop. I dialed down my olfactory inputs.

“I do monitor Adamant communications, you know,” he said between gulps. “Toño’s vortex is capable of capturing a lot of the local chatter. Since the ruling class itself was blown to dust, the empire is having trouble. Civil war is rampant. Social order is falling apart. Really, it’s a process I never thought I’d live to see.”

“Harhoff was fairly certain the pent-up ambition and native aggression would be their undoing.”

“So far he looks like an excellent prophet.”

“I just don’t want to count on that happening. I want to drive a stake into Dracula’s heart.”

He looked blankly at me.

“Human legend. Nevermind. But it looks like waiting is about all I can do.”

“You could bring the mountain to Mohammed.”

“Huh? Wait, you can’t know that expression.”

“Why not? Toño uses it all the time.”

“He does?”

“In fact, I’ve heard him say it to you on more than one occasion.”

“Huh. I’ll have to start paying more attention. So, what do you mean bring the mountain?”

“If you can’t bring Toño to the Adamant network, maybe you can bring the network to Toño?”

“Ah, one, it’s kind of big. Two, no matter how nicely I ask, they’ll probably say no.” I rolled my eyes.

“I saw that.”

“You deserve it for your lame idea.”

“You’re thinking too concretely, Jon. Let me pose it to you this way. The Adamant have a communications network interfaced with computers, data files, and individuals. How does your average dog do that?”

“I don’t know. Maybe they go visit with a gift?”

“Not even funny. No, great and powerful Jon Ryan, they access it with their comm links and computers.”

“Yeah, but—” Wait. That was a great idea. Bring a functioning comm link to Toño. “I hear you. It might work. No way to tell. Thanks.”

“You are many wonderful things, Ryan, but an actor is not one of them. It’s a great idea, and you know it.”

“Great? No, maybe. It’s only a great idea if it works.”

“Uh-huh. So, when do we leave?”

“What’s with the we?”

“It was my brilliant idea, and my schedule is open. Jon, the highlight of my day is the bath I mentioned. Cut me a break. Seeing real action is just what the medic ordered.”

“I’ll talk to the others. First the boss, then Doc. If they greenlight us, we hit the road straight away.”

“Perfection. Just enough time to finish this delight.” He shoveled in more goop.

**********

“Honey, I’m home,” I chortled as I entered the front door.

“It’s fine by me. You have to listen to what Toño says though. You got that?”

Huh? “Honey, I’m—”

She came over and gave me a kiss, me still standing on the threshold. “Go. I said it was okay. It’s a good idea if,” and she put a finger to my nose, “and only if Toño agrees.”

“This is not having the desired effect. I say honey I’m home and then you say welcome home, love that fuels my existence. Can we take this from the top?”

She planted a palm on my chest and pushed. “Garustfulous called and explained the whole mountain-bringing thing. Go, but be sensitive with Toño. Promise me you will.”

Next thing I knew, I was looking at my closed front door. Darn near whacked me in the nose.

**********

“Yo, Doc,” I chortled as I entered his workshop, “How are you this—”

“No. Positively not. No way. Please leave at once.”

I was in a rut that particular morning.

“Doc, I’m just saying—”

“And I’m saying no. Period. Do not forget I know where your off switch is.” He started forcibly ushering me toward the door.

“Did Garustfulous call you?”

He narrowed his eyes. “No. Why would he? He just now left. I’m not linking up to the Adamant network. Go, leave.”

“I’m going to murderize that hound dog.”

“Be that as it may, and best of luck. It might distract you from your insane notions about me.”

“Wait. Please stop shoving. Stop it, that tickles.”

He halted. “I’ll cease pushing if you swear to drop the subject.”

I fluttered my eyelashes. “What subject?”

He started shoving again.

I gently grabbed his hands. “I can see you have certain reservations about our plan. Those low barriers to success are easily addressed.” More with the eyelashes. I was pretty much running on empty.

“Yes, I have certain reservations. I am certain I will not participate.”

“Now hang on. Let’s be civil. Give me one minute.”

“Take your minute and stuff it—”

“One minute. I anticipated a concern you might have, and I think I’ve hit on quite the innovative resolution.”

“What’s my concern?” he challenged.

“That if we access the Adamant network they might use that entry to their advantage.”

“Yes. The second I enter the network is the second they know I did. The next second they will be here in force because, duh, they would know where I was because that’s where I was calling from.”

“You know that in all the years I’ve known you, I don’t think I’ve ever heard you say duh.”

“Why do you think pointing out that trivia will advance your hopeless cause?”

I shook my head. “Don’t know.”

“You were just stalling.”

I could only smile real big in response. Dude sure knew me well.

“Want to hear my solution?”

“No.”

“It’s brilliant.”

“No.”

“When you hear it, you’re going to say gosh, Jon, you’ve done the impossible yet again.”

“No.”

“Here’s the basics. Whatever form of communications device we, eh, borrow, I’ll transmit the signal through multiple distant and often dangerous locations. It’ll take them hours to trace the signal back to its original broadcast point.” I smiled real big. “Hours.”

“Wonderful. I will have hours of blessed freedom before my next torture shift. No.”

“I can almost guarantee this will work.”

“You are a terrible salesman. Almost?”

“Horrible but honest. That usually wraps up the sale in my favor. People appreciate honesty.”

“When purchasing a vacuum cleaner, yes. When volunteering for hell, no.”

“Let me draw the delays out for you. If you’re not convinced, I’ll drop the subject forever.”

“Fine. I’m not convinced.”

“That’s a foul, and it will cost you several points in penalty.”

“Jon, I’m afraid. Why are you badgering me? Sapale told you to be sensitive to me and respect my feelings.”

“Huh? She called you?”

“No, I have a brain. You went to her first, and that is what she made you promise.”

I held up a finger. “No, totally incorrect. She asked me to promise, but I never actually said yes.”

He sighed in resignation. “Come over to the computer. Show me how you can reroute the signal to buy us enough time to make my risk worthwhile.”

It took the better part of an hour, but in the end, Doc was excitedly onboard. Okay, he wasn’t, but he believed my ruse would buy us at least ten minutes. He agreed to hack in, therefore, for five minutes. He actually made me say I promised that once everything was set up, I’d kill the project if he had second thoughts. I agreed. I just didn’t tell him which “project” I was planning to kill. It sure as hell wasn’t the hack into the Adamant network. No, that baby was a done deal in my mind.


THIRTY-TWO

Aporthio was sitting at the control panel with one paw holding his head up and the other listlessly tapping his comm link. He was checking for any updates on his FAB account, but he knew there’d be none. He was stationed on a supply and support ship in the Leo II dwarf galaxy, some seven hundred thousand light-years from the Milky Way. He wasn’t going to Find A Bitch anytime soon. There certainly weren’t any in the entire dwarf galaxy, so lonely nights were pretty much guaranteed until he was rotated home next year.

He deleted the usual hooker auto-posts. Not that he wouldn’t welcome a female of any ilk, but he knew the working girls weren’t making house calls this far out. No one in their right mind would come to this forsaken puddle of stars. Why the Adamant felt the need to conquer it was beyond him. But, duty was duty, so in the wastelands he’d—

What was that sound? Metal falling? No. There was no one due to rendezvous with his rust bucket for the next several days. He scanned his FAB account to see if there’d been any updates since he’d heard that—

There it was again. And he smelled … someone. Not a female, but—

“Above Packlet,” snapped Garustfulous as he stormed into the room, “what is the meaning of your slovenly behavior? And stand at attention when a wedge leader barks to you, son.”

Aporthio stood so quickly he tumbled forward to the deck. He scampered back up and saluted. “Sorry, Wedge Leader. I was studying some manuals. I try to be current—”

Garustfulous paced back and forth before the stunned sailor. “Do I look like I want to hear your lies? Have you mistaken me for an old friend? Your sire maybe? Hmm. Silence.”

The trembling mutt saluted again. “Yes, sir.”

“Are you taunting me, puppy? I say silence, and you say yes, sir? I’ve ordered thousands of children like you to their deaths. Do not tempt me to add to the vast number by dispatching you. Is that all right with you and your mama?”

Aporthio kept saluting but nearly passed out. He couldn’t say yes. If he nodded in the affirmative, would the wedge leader know that he wasn’t taunting him or that he understood?

“Stand at point, Above Packlet.”

He did with relief. Standing at point did not require thought or decision-making. He was good at standing point.

“I come here on my scheduled inventory inspection, and you ignore my hail. You fail to release your docking bay, which forced me to waste five minutes to get the code from your mothership. And I walk onto the bridge to find you watching pornography. Now, you will not need to explain yourself to me. For one thing, it would be impossible to explain your level of incompetence, so please don’t try. After I complete my inspection, I will report your dereliction to your commander. You can try and get him to believe your lies, if you so desire.”

Garustfulous stepped up and faced him muzzle to muzzle. “I know it’s asking too much, but do you know where your one-dog shuttles are stored? This ship is supposed to carry thirty-five replacement units.”

“Sir, they’re in Hangar BB-8. I’ll show you there, if you’d like.”

“I don’t want to inconvenience you. You seemed mighty busy with that pornography.”

“No … no, sir. No inconvenience. This way. After you.” They left the bridge.

Garustfulous paced—for angry superior officers paced a lot when upset—back and forth in front of seven one-dog shuttlecraft lined up along a wall in Hangar BB-8.

“Is it me, or do I count seven shuttles?”

“That’s how many I count, sir. I assume that’s how many you counted too.”

“Thank you for that vote of confidence.” He placed his mouth next to the sailor’s ear and shouted for all he was worth. “Which leaves only the matter of the twenty-eight missing shuttlecraft you and I are not counting. Where are the missing shuttlecraft, son?”

Garustfulous had to jump backward to avoid the urine stream that escaped its owner’s bladder.

Garustfulous bent to the floor and wailed, “That is not an acceptable answer. Where are the stolen shuttlecraft? Whom did you sell them to?”

Aporthio staggered to the nearest com-panel. He tapped several keys.

“I … the manifest records only these seven, sir, not thirty-five. None are missing.”

He paced back and forth in front of the poor sailor. “Well then, I guess you’re saying you and I have something in common. We both lie. Is that what you’re accusing me of? Mind you, think carefully about what you’re about to say. Your life probably depends on it.” He went back to pacing.

“I have no explanation, sir. I did not audit this section. It was never part of my duties. I can call—”

“You will call no one. Is that clear?”

“No, sir.”

“No, sir it’s not clear, or no, sir you won’t call anybody?”

“Yes, sir.”

Garustfulous felt he’d established his negotiating position and that it was one of strength. He paced over to the rack of shuttles. “Come here, Above Packlet.”

“Sir.”

Garustfulous set a claw on the second shuttle in on one end. “What is this?”

“Er … it’s an ID tag?”

“You’re not certain?”

“I am, sir. It’s an ID plate.”

Garustfulous stepped to the end vehicle. “And this?”

“Another ID plate, Wedge Leader,” he replied triumphantly.

He positioned his body between the sailor and the shuttles. “Do you see a problem with those two tags?”

Aporthio’s knees began to wobble. “No. They both appear to be proper ID plates.”

Garustfulous returned to pacing and tapped a finger against his muzzle. “I will have to grant you that, son. They are both proper tags. This one says it is assigned to this sorry ship. The other says it belongs to a ship named Ready Resupply 7777. I must admit that is an uninspiring name, but you may read the plate and confirm that fact for yourself. Here comes a really tough question, so put on your thinking cap. What is the name of this ship?”

He licked frantically at his lips and panted as if he’d run a race. “Ah, Ready Resupply 5011-A, sir.”

“Not R&R 7777?”

“That appears to be true, Wedge Leader.”

“Yes it does, does it not? And how do you think 7777’s one-dog shuttle came to reside here, in 5011-A’s Hangar BB-8?”

“I have no idea, sir.”

“No idea? Well, lucky for you, I do have a speculation on the matter. When you sold the missing ships to some subversive on R&R 7777, that fool left his shuttle here and accidentally drove one of 5011-A’s shuttles back to 7777. I can also explain why that fool and the fool I’m addressing presently didn’t notice the error. Listen closely so I needn’t repeat myself. It’s because they are both subversive fools.”

No, sir, never. I’m—”

Garustfulous raised a paw. “Remember, I do not wish to hear your lies. I will report my observations and let you lie to someone from Counter Terrorism, okay?”

The Above Packlet was speechless.

“Now if you’ll be so kind as to hand me those antigrav clamps there.”

The sailor did, but he was so lost in fear and confusion that he did so without activating the heavy unit. He could barely present it to Garustfulous.

“Thank you,” he said. Then he flipped the switch and accepted the weightless clamps. He screwed them tightly into the predesignated center-of-mass couplings and pulled the shuttle off its mount.

“Now, I’m confiscating this craft as evidence. If I left it, you would destroy the shuttle immediately, making it unavailable for your brief trial. Is that acceptable with you, runt?”

“May I help you transport it to your vessel, sir?”

“No, I think I will not give you the opportunity to beat the life out of me with it, but thanks for the offer. In fact, you will remain here in Hangar BB-8 until you hear my ship decouple. Is that clear? If I hear you sneaking up behind me, I’ll use this blaster to kill you.” He patted his sidearm. “Are we all clear on our responsibilities and parts in tonight’s entertainment?”

“Yes, Wedge Leader.”

“Fine. Best of luck in prison, son.”

Aporthio idiotically waved to the wedge leader. “Thank you, sir.”

Garustfulous spirited the shuttle back to Stingray, and they vanished.

“So how long do you think it will take him to realize he’s never going to hear a decoupling?” I asked with an evil grin.

“A very long time. I think I made quite the impression on the lad. Maybe when thirst burns in his mouth in a few days, he’ll leave to avoid lethal dehydration.”

“You are one son of a bitch.”

“Jon, I keep telling you that’s a statement of fact, not an insult.”

“Oh yeah. You sure are your bitch’s biggest regret.”

“Much better. It is also absolutely the case.”

I hadn’t ever seen Garustfulous that happy.


THIRTY-THREE

Sapale stood at the portal while Toño, Garustfulous, and I loaded material into Stingray. I wouldn’t say she was mad, just forcefully curious. “I get that you need to cover you tracks, but why do you need to go to Vorpace at all?”

I passed her heading in with a stack of boxes. “I want to show Doc his statue.” He was farther in the cube. “It really does look like you. Mine, I look more like John Wayne.”

Toño was exiting past me by then. “Sounds like the humans of Vorpace are very intelligent.”

“And why can’t you show him your stupid monuments later, or better yet, never?”

“I think someone’s jealous.”

“I am not jealous. I have more statues than you do.”

I parodied her line with pronounced juvenility. “I have more statues than you do, na na na na na.”

“One of these days, flyboy.”

“Plus I want Toño to meet Twisted Sister.”

Toño stopped dead in his tracks. “They can’t possibly still be together?”

“Unfortunately, he is referring to the sister of the head of state,” chimed in my BFF Al. “The one he had a torrid but brief affair with while still married to Sapale.”

“I didn’t know she was still alive, and you both know it.”

“I’m confident that makes a difference in the Court of Higher Marital Appeals. Ah, is that Judge Sapale I spy at the entrance? The one with the rising blood pressure?”

“Al, you’re too much,” I said, by means of futile self-extrication.

“Yeah, and this judge is thinking Vorpace might just be a boy’s night out for two single guys … and one barely still-married guy,” hissed Sapale.

“Hon, we’re fighting the ultimate evil on the off chance the remaining free planets can survive. We’re not conducting a panty raid on a sorority at State U.”

“Is that a possibility?” Garustfulous perked up.

“No,” replied both Sapale and me in chorus.

“Why do we need this sister?” asked Toño for the third time.

“Because she’s fearless, unprincipled, and devious. We need her on this mission.”

“Oh, now I feel so much better.” Sapale sure could be dramatic. “She’s everything a man could want in a woman.”

“A dog too.” Garustfulous wagged his butt.

Not very helpful, dude.

“So when will you be back? I want to know when I can resume the picking of your bones?” asked the love of my life.

“Hopefully soon. Maybe a week. We have a lot of setup to do.”

“Bachelor parties are usually like that,” added Al. “Well, not so much planning as the mass acquisition of booze.”

“Doc, where did you say his off switch was?” I asked as I lugged in the one-dog shuttle.

“I didn’t. Don’t involve me in this infantile discussion.”

“I beg your pardon,” huffed Sapale.

“You heard me too,” he said, leaving the cube. Hey, she didn’t brain him for saying that. I thought that reflected excellent maturity on her part. True restraint was the mark of an adult.

“Okay, we’re just about ready. Toño, Stingray sent Affirmation the landing coordinates. We’ll meet you there.”

He waved as he sealed the hull.

We appeared on Vorpace simultaneously. Toño and I proceeded to Jonnaha’s office. Due to the recent decimation of their planet by the Adamant, all three of us felt it would be best to sequester Garustfulous in Stingray. I dialed up the prime minister as we walked to let her know we were coming. I told her I was bringing a celebrity, but I refused to say who it was. Hey, any opportunity to mess with a fellow human’s head was not to be missed.

We did stop in the lobby to view our statues. Doc giggled at mine. He did not giggle at his.

“That looks nothing like me. The visually impaired person who sculpted this made me look thin and pale.”

“Doc, you are thin and pale.”

“I’d like to proceed to the prime minister’s office now. We don’t have time to waste on the critique of local art.”

“This way, Toño.”

Because I was me, I walked into Jonnaha’s office without knocking. I even gave a finger-over-lips hush gesture to her inner secretary. I palmed Toño’s chest so he stopped just outside the door.

“Jon, please come in and make yourself at home. Do you want my chair?” Jonnaha greeted sarcastically.

“The hot seat? No thanks. I’ll park it next to baby sis over here.”

Once seated, Shielan turned to face me. “I hate you. You know that, right?”

“Good to know I can count on a few constants in my life.”

“I don’t see a mystery guest,” interrupted Jonnaha.

“Oh, he’s right outside the door. Here’s the plan. I’ll give you hints, and the first one to guess who it is gets to kiss him.”

“Jon, even for you that’s way too immature.” Toño walked quickly into the room, stopping directly in front of Jonnaha. He held out his hand. “I am Toño De Jesus. I wish to state for the record that I have never met the android in that chair.”

Jonnaha was way too overwhelmed to even raise her hand, let alone make a peep.

I ruffled Shielan’s hair. “Doc, she not a robot.”

Two things happened at the same time. Jonnaha tried to stand, but instead, she passed out. Shielan punched me in the arm really hard.

“Now look what you’ve done, Jon.” Toño rushed around to aid Jonnaha. She was beginning to sit up in her chair.

“Me? I’m not the one who made the nice lady swoon, you Latin devil.”

“Aren’t either of you going to assist me?”

“No. You are a doctor, you know.”

“Here, my dear,” he cooed to her. “Have a sip of water.”

She did, but she gagged the first drops.

Toño gently thumped her on the back. “There you go,” he reassured her. “Easy does it, and you’ll be just fine.”

“Wow, my big sister under the care of Doctor Toño De Jesus. Never thought I’d live to see the day.”

“We need to buy some get-well-soon cards,” I said to little sis. “Don’t let us forget.”

She shot me two thumbs up.

“I’m fine. Well, no, I may die of embarrassment. But Doctor De Jesus, what an incredible honor. Jon didn’t tell us you were still alive.”

“Please, call me Toño. He did not know I was until very recently. It’s a long story.”

That I believe,” she responded. “Can I get either of you something? Coffee?”

Shielan turned to me. “Bourbon?”

“Sounds enticing, but we’re on a mission,” I replied. I tapped the end of her nose. “You are too, so no hooch for you either.”

“A mission with the great warrior Jon Ryan and the most legendary mind in human history?” She checked her handheld. “Crap. Gotta say no. I have a nail appointment. Otherwise, I’d love to join the fun.”

“Doc does nails. He’s a physician doctor, you know?”

“I do not do nails.”

“He does nails. He’s just so modest. It’s heartbreaking.”

“Ah, what mission?” called out Jonnaha.

“Very secret squirrel, Jonnaha. Can’t tell you until we’re back.” I rotated my face all around the room. “The walls might have ears.”

“Not these walls,” responded Shielan.

“Especially if I don’t say anything secret.”

“Point. When do we book?”

“Whenever you’re ready?”

She stood and addressed her sister. “I’ll see you when I see you, unless of course I don’t see you again.”

“Wha … wait. Where are you taking her? Why do you need her?” protested big sister.

“Jon says it’s because your sister is fearless, unprincipled, and devious,” replied Toño.

“Why thank you,” she said with a nod. “A man’s never paid me such a nice compliment”

“I recognize top talent when it I see it, kiddo.”

We fist bumped. I taught her that one, naturally.

“Shie-Shie, I can’t let you run off into mortal danger not even knowing what form of mortal danger it is.”

“Isn't it lucky for us both that you don’t have control over the matter?”

She fist bumped me.

I was having a lot of fun. Irreverence was fun.

“I’m your boss. You’re head of my security service. I order you not to abandon your post.”

Shielan stood. “Abandoning? Who said anything about abandoning? I’m calling in sick. Hey, Toño, I think I have malaria. Can you write my boss a medical excuse?”

“Really,” Toño whined to Jonnaha, “you have to believe me. I have no control over either of them.”

“I feel your pain. I won’t need that note, so don’t sweat it.”

“Bless you.”

“You know malaria hasn’t existed in billions of years, right?”

“Yeah, that’s why I’m going to place myself in strict quarantine under the medical supervision of a legendary healer.”

Toño shook his head. “No control whatsoever.”


THIRTY-FOUR

All three vortices were parked in a close huddle on the ravaged remains of planet Earth. I chose it as a center of operations on a why-the-hell-not basis. If we were discovered we could split up in three separate directions to avoid any pursuit. I was betting we’d be done before the bad guys arrived, but a solid backup plan was a thing of beauty when the shit hit the fan. I helped Toño place the uplink cables from his underarm into the jerry-rigged receptacle he’d constructed on the one-dog shuttle’s control panel. The mechanism he built would allow maximal upload and download speeds once we were into the Adamant mainframe. I patted him on the back.

“It’s go time.”

**********

In the weeks since his grilling by that wedge leader who’d never actually said his name, Aporthio’s nerves had yet to settle. He couldn’t eat, he had diarrhea despite his lack of food intake, and he didn’t even notice the two beautiful females who posted on his FAB site. He was that beside himself. At first he expected a squad of goons to descend upon the ship and drag him away in irons. But no one had come. He’d received a few routine transmissions since then, but none of them hinted at his pending execution. He was perfectly at a loss as to what he needed to do or even feel.

He certainly wasn’t going to ask when his punishment would begin. Maybe that awful wedge leader’s ship was attacked. Maybe Aporthio was in the clear. Yeah, if he called and reported his transgressions, that would be stupid. He was actually beginning to hope nothing was going to come of the incident. Before he docked with a command ship, he’d stage a small electrical fire in Hangar BB-8 and claim only a single loss. One shuttle that was burned beyond repair and had to be jettisoned. He might just live to rotate home. But he would not let his guard down. No, he’d be on his—

What was that sound? He knew he’d heard something. If it was that insane officer again, well he’d just give the hound a good telling off for scaring an innocent dog like him. There it was again. No, not a sound. It was a muted alarm. He whipped out his comm link. Deck 3, Section Sl/99n. The unused freezer room? What would trigger an alarm in an unused area? Well, he’d best … crap. When it hailed, it poured. The bridge comm was bleeping. That came first. He hustled to the bridge.

**********

“Above Packlet Aporthio here. To who am I speaking?”

Garustfulous took in an extra-big breath so he could shout his loudest. “It’s to whom am I speaking, boy. Didn’t they teach you anything in whatever little school you attended?”

Aporthio pooped directly onto the floor beneath where he stood. “S … ss …”

“What are you, a Tralbanian slime worm? Ssss … sss … ssithing your superior officer?”

“No, ss … sir. Yes, sir. To what do I owe the pleasure of your call?”

Pleasure? Again the litter runt mocks me. Have you no decency, pup?”

In the interest of time, I could best summarize that Garustfulous was thoroughly enjoying his part of the operation. He was tasked with distracting the hapless Aporthio from checking on the alarm that was going off in the unused freezer. That’s where I’d installed our main electronics for getting into the Adamant network. I took the opportunity of doing that while Garustfulous was ripping the unlucky packlet multiple new orifices the first time. Given the chance, he’d have to answer the alarm. But my spy dog promised he’d verbally occupy the dimwit as long as necessary. Aporthio was a low-watted lightbulb mentally, but even a blind pig found the occasional acorn. If he recognized the hack and he followed protocol, he’d have ended our connection before we’d fully exploited it.

Meanwhile, Toño was already into the Adamant network.

**********

“Wedge Leader, we have a Level One incursion,” the Half Wedge said quite a bit louder than he needed to.

“Where?”

“Eternal Triumph, sir.”

“What area of space is he in?”

Culpetas pulled up a holo and pointed. “There, Wedge Leader Kalkin. The western quadrant, near the planet Gargantuary.”

“Get the captain on now.”

After a couple seconds, a worried face appeared on the screen. “This is Whole Markasious, I’m in the middle of a crisis. What?”

“I know you’re in crisis, Markasious. That’s why I am calling. I’m Wedge Leader Kalkin, head of Information Security.”

That got the Whole’s full attention. Though on paper he outranked the caller, it hardly mattered. IS was basically the Adamant’s version of the Gestapo, SS, and the Red Guard all rolled into one mean-spirited group of sociopathic dogs. If one of them accidentally looked at someone wrong, that individual was a dead dog.

“Yes, do you know of its nature, Wedge Leader?”

“Not yet. Have you isolated the source?”

Markasious glanced offscreen briefly. “No, sir. Not yet.”

“I’m sending a squad of prowl ships to your location. Be prepared to assist them fully.”

Markasious swallowed hard. Prowl ships were used only by IS troopers. They were also the ones that parents used in tall tales to scare their puppies when they misbehaved.

“If you feel—”

Clearly, you require help, you imbecile. You, Markasious, couldn’t even keep your own ship’s critical systems secured.”

Ten seconds later, twenty-four prowlers materialized on all sides of Eternal Triumph. They did so intentionally. The IS troopers did not mean to give the impression of having captured the ship, but to reinforce that fact that they had to all aboard.

“Markasious, I’m Fettuary. I’m in command of your vessel now. Status report.” Wedge Fettuary dispensed with titles and other useless words. He was, after all, speaking to a dead dog. Who wasted respect on the dead?

“Er, we’ve traced the signal. It’s coming from the ce … center of a globular cluster that orbits the Milky Way Galaxy. We’ve sent you the specifics.”

“And what system have they hacked into?”

Markasious shook his head slowly. “The primary exotic matter containment field computers.”

“Interesting choice. Whoever is doing this must anticipate the catastrophic consequences of shutting that system down. Turn off the primary field computers at once.”

“Ah, there’s more.”

“I just issued an order. You respond with what appears to be pleasant conversation.”

“It’s that at the moment the incursion took place, the intruder placed viral corruptions in all three redundant backup systems. If I shut off the primary computer, the exotic matter will be freed instantaneously.”

“That’s preposterous. I’m sending over someone to confirm that. No one knows that much about the computer system. Even if they did, no one is authorized to perform such a corruption. Not even I could do that.”

“Let your expert confirm that we can do nothing. The primary system cannot be turned off until a backup is physically installed. I have a team on it already. They estimate it will take several hours.”

Fettuary thought a moment. He was contemplating the destruction of Eternal Triumph. He weighed the termination of the signal versus the value of the brand-new battleship to the empire.

Eternal Triumph will make for the globular cluster immediately. We will accompany you. Fettuary out.”

“B … but did you hear me correctly? I said it comes from the center of a globular cluster. An unexplored globular cluster.”

“I have given an order. Obey at once.”

“I cannot ask my crew to—”

“You do not have a crew of sniveling whelps to ask anything of. As you confess your childish cowardice, precious seconds have evaporated. I’m coming over to take the helm personally.”

Markasious’s screen went black. A few minutes later, a conspicuously diminutive Fettuary stormed onto the bridge. He walked right up to Markasious, drew his sidearm, and fired three rapid blasts point-blank to his throat. Fettuary wanted very much to create the image of a rolling head on the deck. He was confident it would impress upon the remainder of the bridge crew that he demanded absolute, immediate obedience.

“Set course for the globular cluster and engage.”

In the blink of an eye, all twenty-five ships entered real space at the given coordinates. “Triangulate the precise location of the transmitter,” snapped Fettuary.

“Sir,” the chief engineer called out, “we’ve identified a small craft. It is alien by its configuration. It appears to be the—”

He fell silent when the entire bulk of Eternal Triumph shook like a tennis ball after being struck for service.

“Report,” howled Fettuary. “What was—”

“Sir, two prowlers just disappeared. I cannot identify the origins of the attack we just suffered.”

“What do you mean disappeared? Ninety-ton ships don’t just—”

“There go two more.”

“Where? Where did they go?”

“Unknown. Sir, we just lost power in engines two and five.”

“Lost power?”

“Sorry, sir, I stand corrected. The engines themselves are missing.”

“Fire on that damn ship, all banks. Then get us out of this portal to hell.”

The ship’s weapons fired briefly, and all remaining ships slipped back into friendly space. “Engineer, I want a full report as to what happened to my ships and my troops.”

“Sir.”

“Status of the computer incursion?”

“Still proceeding, sir.”

What?”

“Yes. The moment we entered real space, the transmission resumed.”

“Total time of incursion?”

“Nearly ten minutes.”

“Damn them to hell. Where’s the signal coming from now?”

“The planet Corfmier. It’s one of our mostly administrative planets.”

“I know Corfmier, you idiot. Put us in orbit. Ten squads of paw to shuttle down with me the instant we’re there.”

“Aye, sir.” After thirty seconds, he spoke again. “Shuttles away. They ask if they should wait for you to get there to being searching?”

“No. Begin immediately. I’ll be down in one minute.” Fettuary sprinted off the bridge.

“Squads one and two, sweep to the right. Three and four, move left. Five remain in place in case this is an ambush. The rest with me. Chief Engineer, I want the exact location, and I want it now.”

“This way.” The engineer pointed, and the dogs headed out. “It’s in this building, sir,” the engineer said, swinging his detector around. “Third, possibly fourth floor.”

Fettuary tomahawked his paw overhead. “Go.”

The fifty-odd Adamant barreled into the Retirement and Post-Life Planning Division’s headquarters. The staff was surprised. A receptionist in the lobby rose to ask if she could help but was knocked down by the rush of soldiers. The team split into two packs. One exited the stairs on the third floor, the other on the fourth. Fettuary went with the third-floor pack because he was not in the best of physical condition.

“Where?” he demanded as they fanned out on the third floor, also full of surprised and now frightened employees.

“That room.”

Fettuary marched over and threw the door open. The storage closet was empty but for three things. One was a small transmitter. He whipped out his pistol and destroyed it. He then stepped over to the other two items in the room. One was a note on the floor. The other was a very large bowl filled with water. He read the note.

Hunting me down is thirsty work. Help yourselves to the refreshment. On my honor as a traitor and a spy, it safe to drink. Honestly.

Hopefully Your New BFF,

Me.

The note was written by Garustfulous so that its authenticity might further infuriate whomever read it.

Fettuary hauled his leg back and kicked the bowl as hard as he could. That was how he came to discover that it was bolted to the floor.

Back on the bridge of Eternal Triumph, Fettuary limped to the captain’s chair and sat down in a snit. “Status?”

“After you destroyed the transmitter, the signal switched to a new origin.”

Fettuary ran his paw over his muzzle in disgust. “Where to now?”

“It’s coming from a resupply ship. R&R 5011-A stationed… wow … not in the middle of nowhere, but it’s very close.”

“If your humor is complete, take us all there. I can handle an R&R ship.”

“Sir?”

“Nevermind, just get this bucket moving.”

**********

Listen up, pup. I’m going to say this onemoretime. If you do not tell me where you and your black-marketeer pals hid those shuttles, I’ll come there and personally remove your testicles one at a time.”

“But I only have two, master.”

Somewhere along the protracted browbeating, Garustfulous had got Aporthio to address him as master. He did so because he very much liked the sound of someone calling him master.

“Then it won’t take me very long, will it?”

“N … no, master, sir. I … wait. A whole bunch of ships just entered real space not a thousand meters all around me. W … what should I do? I … I think most are prowl ships, master.”

“Ah, here’s the easy part. All you have to do now is die. That is really quite—”

Poor, unfortunate Aporthio never heard Garustfulous say “simple.”

**********

R&R 5011-A destroyed, captain.”

“They can do one thing right,” sniped Fettuary.

“Sir?”

“Nothing. Status of incursion?”

“Transmission is now coming from … belay that. The signal has ended.”

“Where was it originating? Please tell me you were able to find our next rabbit hole?”

“Yes, sir. It,” he tapped a few more keys, “came from the rocky remains of a planet near the periphery of the galaxy.”

The communications engineer glanced up quickly to see the aghast look on Fettuary’s face.

“No, sir, not that periphery. The periphery next to that one.”

“Take us on another wild-hare chase,” Fettuary said, gesturing forward.

The grouping of ships materialized over what little was left of Earth.

“Scan of the surface shows nothing there aside from naturally occurring rocks and debris.”

“Naturally,” Fettuary said. His palm covered his mouth.

“Wait, I stand corrected again. There is a small metal box down there.”

Fettuary bolted upright. “The transmitter?”

“No, sir. There’s no energy signature. It’s just a metal box.”

“A bomb? A booby trap?”

“No, Whole. Just a metal box. No signs of any energy. Even a simple explosive would require a power source.”

“Send someone down to fetch it.”

Ten minutes later, an Adamant in a white lab coat entered the bridge holding out a small metal box. “We’ve scanned it, sir. There appears to be something organic in it, but we’re uncertain.”

“Did you x-ray it?”

He squinted at him like Duh, engineer here. Can’t you see my white lab coat? “Of course, sir. The box is lead-lined.”

“So you couldn’t see in it?”

“That’s generally why you line a box with lead, sir.”

Fettuary turned the simple latch and lifted the lid. After he opened his eyes, he saw two things. The first was a note. The second was a meaty thigh bone. Fettuary lifted the note.

Hunting me down is powerfully hungry work. I got you a snack. This time, please believe this treacherous covert agent bent on the destruction of my mother empire that it’s just a sheep’s thigh bone. It is delicious, not poisoned, and it’s good for you.

BFF,

Me

Fettuary closed his eyes and tossed the bone over his shoulder. When it struck the floor, the fulminate of mercury blasting cap detonated, setting off the C4 that was tightly packed into the marrow cavity. Shielan couldn’t pack all that much C4 into a thigh bone, but it was more than enough to blow all the walls of the bridge outward and kill all crew present.

In retrospect, Fettuary should have been a more questioning individual.


THIRTY-FIVE

“So, what’d you get?” I asked Toño with all the excitement of a kid at Christmas.

“A lot.”

“That’s it? A lot? Pass the cream. I’ll be in the kitchen if you need me.”

“You are so dramatic,” said Sapale. “Is that ever going to change? Can we who suffer beside you hold out any irrational hope?”

I shook my head briskly. “Best not to.”

“I’ve transferred everything to Al and Blessing. They are better equipped to collate and analyze the mountain of data we stole.” His eyes gleamed like a kid who’d snatched the cookie jar and taken it to his tree house. “We really got a lot.”

“I know. You said that. Could you give us, say, an example?”

“The Adamant currently know of almost twenty-five hundred local military commanders who have assumed singular power of their regions.”

That is juicy,” said Jonnaha.

“They count no fewer than fifty-three new emperors. Not one of them is remotely related to any of the approved bloodlines or houses.”

“That is positively salacious,” added Jonnaha.

“Isn’t it though?” he beamed.

“Do they think any of these usurpers can actually hold their claims once the genuine central authority reestablishes itself?” Garustfulous asked very seriously.

Toño bobbed his head side to side. “Hard to say. As you know, the Secure Council and high appointments are drawn normally from the very pool of officers who’ve declared themselves to be the new potentates. Anyone who self-selects to be a member of the ʽlegitimate’ council, for example, would be both low-ranking and immediately suspected as a power grabber himself.”

“This is wonderful news,” responded Jonnaha. “We can actually wish bad luck on our enemies and see it come to life.” She giggled like a schoolgirl. Funny, I’d known her a while, and I’d never seen her do that.

“I think you guys did a bang-up job. But I’m pretty sure you made your plan too complex and had way too much fun pulling it off,” Sapale said in an even tone.

“No way,” I protested. “Every wrinkle added to Adamant confusion. That slowed them down almost certainly.”

“The bowl of water? That was a necessary addition?”

“Yeah, that was so cool. It was Shielan’s idea.” I pointed to her with both index fingers. “I told you we needed a wiseass like her along.”

“She also came up with the idea of securing it to the floor,” added Garustfulous. “Brilliant.”

Sapale just rolled her eyes.

“With as much intelligence as you extracted, Dr. De Jesus, I’m certain we can really stick it to the Adamant.” Jonnaha was speaking in her formal voice all of a sudden. Huh?

“Please, Prime Minister. I’ve asked you to call me Toño. Everybody else does.”

“Oh, very well, Toño, but only if you do me the honor of addressing me as Jonnaha.”

“It will be my greatest pleasure.”

Were these guys doing a play together and practicing their lines? Weird-o-matic.

“So, how long’s it going to take you to crunch all the data, Als?” I asked, knowing they’d hear me.

“Mmm. A few days, most likely. We don’t want to miss a potentially important detail,” replied Al.

“I anticipated as much,” said Toño. “We’re in no real hurry.”

We weren’t? That was news to me. War and no hurry could not properly be used in the same sentence.

“Well, if that’s the case, you’ll have to allow me the honor of arranging a state dinner for you, Toño.”

Doc got a sour look. “I’m not much on formal bashes,” he responded.

“Well, how about just the six of us then? Say tonight?”

Before he could answer, Sapale said, “Sorry. Count me out. I want to get back to Kalvarg and check on my peeps. I can’t stop worrying when I’m away.”

“If Mama says home,” I pointed to her, “then it’s home we go.”

I’m available,” Garustfulous said excitedly.

“Yeah, right. You’re going to show your sorry ass to the survivors of the population your buddies attacked,” responded Sapale. “You’ll end up being the main course.”

“They’re not my buddies,” he tried to deflect.

“Try telling that to the angry mob with pitchforks and torches,” I snarked.

“Well, then it’ll be just the three of us,” Jonnaha said with a triumphant smile. What was with triumphant?

“Noooo. Not gonna be the third wheel on that play cart. I’m outta here,” Shielan said as she popped to her feet.

Jonnaha’s finger flickered on the tabletop. “Well, Toño, if it’s just the two of us, I fear rumors might spread that it’s a date. You can take a rain check if you’d like.”

This was getting crazy.

“Let the rumors be damned,” he pronounced with Spanish flare. He sounded exactly how I thought Don Quixote talked. This was getting weirder by the syllable.

“My place at seven?”

“I’ll have my bells on.”

“You mean you’ll be there with bells on, right, Doc?” I said, enormously confused.

“That, I believe, is what I just said.”

“Whatever,” I mumbled. Sapale was pulling my elbow, and we were exiting the room. In the hallway, I mumbled, “That was so very odd.”

“You’re a real piece of work, Ryan,” she chastised quietly. “For the first time in forever, Toño has himself a girl, and you’re all gobsmacked. You’re so totally a guy.”

I stopped and turned to her. “Doc’s got a girlfriend?”

“You’re such a dunce. Let’s get home before someone sells you a bridge.”

As I scuffed along, I muttered, “Doc’s got a girl?”

Three days later, we were all back in Jonnaha’s office. The Als had announced they were done reviewing the info dump we got from our little escapade. Shielan and Toño were already there when the three of us entered. I nearly fell flat on my face. Toño was on Jonnaha’s side of the desk. They weren’t quite touching, but if either moved, they probably would. I mean, Toño was more than a grown man at two billion, but I was so ill at ease seeing him up close and personal with a woman. Not sure why it bothered me, but I had to be forthcoming with my emotions. Sapale told me I had to work on that or I’d be in trouble.

Jonnaha rose, and Toño shot to his feet too. “Welcome, you three. Please, sit wherever you’d like. I have a small buffet set up over there. Please help yourselves.”

Garustfulous made a beeline for the snacks. He intended to be the first one there. He smelled bacon. When the issue was bacon, no one was going to get his. Theirs either. Couldn’t say I blamed him.

Sapale and I plopped on the couch. I whispered to her, “I want to sit where Doc is. She said anywhere, right?”

She slapped my knee but couldn’t help emitting a little snort.

“I’m sorry, Jon,” enquired Shielan, who’d heard me plainly because she was right next to us. “What did you say?”

“I said I wanted to see like Doc did. You know, he can see all the papers on big sis’s desk and we can’t. Might be something interesting.”

Sheilan shot me an oversized toothy smile, indicating she’d nailed me.

“Look, you got us in trouble already, you boob,” Sapale hissed playfully.

“I’m sorry, Sapale,” Shielan pressed. “I couldn’t quite hear that either.”

Sapale grinned wickedly. “I said to Jon that you’d gone to the trouble of wearing a bra today and to look at your boobs.”

Shielan nearly fell out of her chair laughing. Sapale kept her grin on the whole time.

“Is there something going on over there we need to know about?” Jonnaha asked sternly.

Toño waved a dismissive hand. “With those three, you definitely do not want to ask. Perpetual juveniles, the lot of them.”

“Not me,” protested Garustfulous. “I’m an officer and an adult.”

“And thank you for pointing that out,” soothed Jonnaha.

“If you three have nothing better to do, perhaps we can get down to the business of stopping the Adamant onslaught?”

“Sounds like a plan to me,” I said as seriously as I could, which wasn’t very. “Als, chime in any time.”

“We were waiting for the raging hormones of youth to settle on your part of the room.”

“They’re settled, mean computer,” Shielan said loudly. “Proceed.”

There was only silence in the air.

“Als, you may begin when ready. Security Chief Shielan will behave herself from this moment on.”

“Would you like me to preface my discussion by stating the odds of that happening?”

“No.”

“I thought not.” He cleared his nonexistent throat, the big ham. “We have sent each of you a very long and detailed summary of what we learned. Since there’s no way in hell the pilot will read that many consecutive words, I’ll give him the Reader’s Digest version. The rest of you can follow along or zone out.”

“Al, please stop having so much fun at my expense. We’re at war. People are dying, and not just from your poor attempts at humor. Pretend you’re capable of adultlike behavior.”

“If you two don’t cut it out, I’ll ground the both of you,” Toño said firmly. I think he was joshing. Maybe.

“As you desire, Dr. De Jesus. I will abide by my creator’s imperatives.”

It was so funny. Sapale and I rolled our eyes at each other at the same time.

“The Adamant as a whole are basically at the same strength level they were at the end of TBOP. The aggregate number of warships and military personnel is roughly the same. The compelling difference today is how these forces are fractured. They have not launched a significant offensive of conquest since TBOP. One tiny distant system was assimilated a while back, but even it has been allowed to wander off on its own.

“All military operations are civil confrontations in nature. Most conflicts have been in space. We were stunned to learn that no new ship construction has taken place. Upon victory, the remaining enemy vessels are appropriated, so the winners see no net decline in their strength. But no party has assumed a production role in terms of the big warships.

“A few bold usurpers have led their forces into paws on the ground battles with their rivals. The ones we saw that were well documented were brutal by even Adamant standards. Paw soldiers, for example, are never taken prisoner. One either wins, or they all die. Clearly production of the organic components of war is easily maintained. The clone program we learned of a decade ago has been ramped up, as have mandatory pregnancies among all bitches of the proper age.”

“And I’m here and not there,” groused Garustfulous.

“Might I proceed, Wedge Leader?”

“Just saying. Bad timing on my part.”

“Hmm?”

“Go ahead.”

“Thank you. All in all, that’s the overview of the Adamant of today.”

“And no individual is close to assuming a role of true leadership?” asked Toño.

“We think not. Yes, there are three or four Wholes with far and away the largest stockpiles of war material. But those few hold each other in check so further increase of their spheres of influence is limited.”

“But it’s a stalemate, not a self-annihilation,” I said sourly.

“At this point we feel that best describes the situation.”

“Do you see a practical way to accelerate the destabilization?” asked Garustfulous.

“We lack specific proposals.”

“If you think of something let us know,” I replied. “But that is really our job, not yours.”

“And do you, General Ryan, have anything in mind?” asked Jonnaha.

“Nah. Not yet.”

“T, how about you, dear?” she asked the guy sitting next to her. T? Dear? I was getting that queasy feeling again.

“Honestly, no, but I’m eternally optimistic.”

“Well, if there’s nothing more to discuss, I suppose we can end this meeting.”

“But I’m not done,” said a muffled Garustfulous, his mouth stuffed with food.

“Oh, sorry. What would you like to say?” she invited.

“No.” He pumped a finger over a shoulder to the buffet. “I’m not done.”


THIRTY-SIX

Quildrod stared out the transparent wall of his flagship into starry space. His fingers slowly massaged either end of his muzzle. He was pondering the present, and he was pondering the future. He’d been the most successful suitor to date for the throne of the Adamant. But he was no closer at that moment than he had been two months prior. He was facing the real threat of an entrenched, drawn-out civil war with any number of powerful rivals. That would never do. He needed to consolidate more power to his iron paw. If he wasn’t advancing his dominion, he was surely losing it.

He was chafed by the relative neglect he received from the public at large for his claim to the empire. In his wildest dreams, he’d envisioned cheering masses swarming to his flag, thanking him for his service to them, the worthless peons. But the fools did not. Those with no greater purpose in life than providing him cannon fodder failed to accept his rightful rule.

Quildrod never expected to win his subjects’ hearts and minds with his magnanimity and personal charm. No, he preferred to suck their souls dry by means of fear, unpredictable cruelty, and intimidation. To date, however, those had not produced sufficient results. Splinter groups were forming like a dynamited tree. Those he controlled were permanently his without much additional application of suffering. But those beyond his ever-reaching grasp were tending to remain there. They suffered the yoke of some other despot, but they were not gravitating toward the true emperor, Quildrod I.

He was startled by a knock on his door. He turned back to his desk and increased the dim lights. “Come.”

His chamberlain entered with a tray. Dosandonts kept his neck craned down as he walked. He’d thought of that tribute himself. There was actually no one left to ask how a proper chamberlain attended his emperor.

“I bid you good afternoon, My Imperial Lord,” he said softly as he set down the tray and began transferring its contents onto the desk. When the food and drink were in their preordained locations, he spread out the report sheet for Quildrod to read. In an inexplicable throwback to times long forgotten, the dog who would be emperor demanded to read physical, paper reports as opposed to digital ones.

“Anything in there that will displease me greatly, Dosandonts?” he said, tapping the front page.

“Hopefully not very much, lord. I think it’s all pretty much the same equivocal news of yesterday and the day before that one.”

“So then it’s bad news.”

“I shall wait to see what opinion you form, sir. Please do let me know your thoughts so that I might serve you better.”

Quildrod eyed his servant dubiously. “You sure use five big words when one small one would do just fine, don’t you?”

“If I do, it is only to be devoutly clear in my communications with one as lofty as you, My Imperial Lord.” He bowed deeply.

“Is Dorcilmas here yet? His ship was due to rendezvous with us an hour ago.”

Pride of the Empire has arrived. I think Master Dorcilmas is en route as we speak.”

That drew the chamberlain a second askance look. “Master Dorcilmas? What is he master of? He’s a whole in my service, nothing more.”

Dosandonts’s left paw began to tremble. He prayed Quildrod did not take note of it. “Is that what I referred to him as? Silly old hound dog. Little connection remains between my brain and my vocal cords, it would seem.”

The pseudo-emperor scowled. “So it would seem.” He pointed to the pot. “You may pour my tea and then leave me. I have a lot to do.”

Dosandonts was already finished pouring before Quildrod finished speaking.

“As you wish, lord. Shall I place some biscuits on a plate for you?”

“Do I look like a bitch to you?” He sipped his tea after his jab.

“No, My Imperial Lord.”

“Then I shouldn’t need a plate to do what a paw can.” By way of demonstration, he seized two treats and swallowed them whole. “See, no plates required. Now leave me.”

“Very well. Is there anything else I can get you before I leave?” the chamberlain asked as he stalled for seconds to pass.

“If there was, I’d have told … told you, wouldn’t I have?” He loosened the collar of his uniform jacket. “Say, there is. Could you t … turn the heat down in thi … th … this—” Quildrod then muzzle-planted in his teacup. He was dead before his nose touched the liquid. The poison Dosandonts had added to each item on the tray was that powerful. Thank the Mother of All that Master Dorcilmas was correct on that account. If Quildrod had much warning to his impending demise, he’d have had time to shoot his alliance-switching chamberlain.


THIRTY-SEVEN

Several weeks passed and I still hadn’t come up with a plan. I was moderately annoyed at myself. I had access to a treasure trove of intel, but I couldn’t noodle out how to put it to use. Maybe I was slipping at two billion? One morning, Toño asked me to meet him in Jonnaha’s office. He specified that I should come alone. That didn’t sound good, but I wasn’t actually sure why.

When I entered, it was just Toño and Jonnaha. They were huddled together on the couch. I said huddled for a reason. They looked crowded together, and they looked concerned. Maybe frightened. Oh boy. We all knew by then they were a couple. So them being on the couch was no biggy, but it hit me hard how fearful they looked.

“What’s up, you two crazy lovebirds? You guys don’t look particularly blissful at this moment.”

“We don’t,” said Doc softly. I wasn’t sure if that was a statement or a question.

“We’re not,” clarified Jonnaha.

I sat on the couch’s armrest. “What’s the matter?”

“I was hoping you’d have come up with a Jon-plan by now,” began Toño. “You know the type, ill-conceived, unlikely to succeed, and a gut-wrencher for all concerned.”

“I do have a knack.”

“But you have not. Hence, I feel it is time to present my Jon-plan to you.”

My heart sank. “Doc, you’ve never had a plan that bad in your very long life. You’re scaring me.”

“You and me both,” added Jonnaha as she cradled his hands.

“Well, all is darkest and all. What is it?”

“I must surrender myself to the Adamant.”

“Did not see that one coming.” I punched myself right between the eyes. “Not in a million years.”

“I was hoping to avoid the obvious, but I fear the longer we delay, the more likely it is the Adamant might reunify. Such a process would be devastating.”

“Okay, not that I endorse that crazy-ass notion for a second, but … so you turn yourself in. What’s next?”

“I’m not entirely certain.” He looked to the floor.

“Wow. I thought I was king of the ridiculous plan. You got me here, Toño. In fact, you win by a country mile. You turn yourself in, they begin torturing you like it’s a new kind of liver treat, and you got nothing?” I shook my head in confusion.

“At least if I’m back on the inside, I might be able to do something to affect some change.”

“Doc, seriously. What? You going to cook the books and get every Adamant arrested for tax evasion?”

“I did have access to many files and systems at times. Armed with the necessity to act, I think I could do some useful damage.”

“It’s your fault, Ryan,” said Jonnaha, tearful. Before I could even look confused, she went on. “If you’d come up with a better plan, my Tony wouldn’t have to sacrifice himself like a Vestal Virgin.”

Tony? No one ever called him Tony. And Vestal Virgins? No way they knew about those.

“Please, love, you’re being too harsh with him. It isn’t his intention to not save the day yet again.”

I was thinking about vodka, lots of vodka.

“How about this? Let me see if I can’t at least hatch a plan that incorporates your willingness to be recaptured.”

“Recaptured? Why would that be necessary?”

“Because if you walk up to them with your wrists already in handcuffs, I think they’d be kind of suspicious.”

“I can see your point.”

“Give me a few days. Oh, and whatever I come up with, I’m going to need to know something. What is their greatest weakness? Their most exposed Achilles heel?”

“Do you mean militarily?”

“No, I mean the biggest bang-per-buck weakness whatever and wherever it might be.”

“Well, that might be the sabotage linchpin I interlaced throughout their entire civilization.”

I bobbed my head slowly. “Yeah, that might do.” Way to go, Doc.

**********

A week later Toño, Garustfulous, and I filed quietly out of Stingray into the cool predawn air of Azsuram. Garustfulous and I were armed to the teeth. Toño thought we looked silly. He carried a single plasma rifle and a couple thermite grenades. I might have leaned toward the overdramatic, but that was better than being underpowered. Naturally, Garustfulous sided with me. It took Doc a full day to configure the weapons and battle gear to fit our canovir accomplice. But in the end, he looked almost as impressively dangerous as I did.

We had a straightforward plan. We would try to locate any Kaljaxians or other non-Adamant and rescue them. To that end, Sapale remained behind in the vortex. If and when we delivered survivors, she could get them to safety and watch over them. She could also fly away if we three were killed or captured. It was likely we would find stragglers left alive. Since the ferocious battles from when EJ was active here, the combat on Azsuram was all but gone. Especially after the destruction of the central government, no one who wielded power wanted to waste it hunting down and subduing locals. They all had bigger fish to fry.

Garustfulous was not my choice for a teammate on this mission, but he whined and whimpered so much that I finally caved. He did have a point that in certain sets of contingencies, his ability to appear to have captured us might prove useful. At least by that point, I trusted him enough to not shoot me in the back the first chance he got. For all our issues and reciprocal misgivings, we were family. Distant family to be certain, but there was really no way around our tight bond by then.

Clearly the endgame was to have Toño captured and identified. When Toño fell into Adamant hands, we had to be very convincing in our efforts to fake trying to save him. The obvious flaw in the raid was that the Adamant didn’t get a copy of the script. They might get lucky and kill all three of us. Toño insisted on making transfer backup copies just before we left. But dying sucked. And though Garustfulous was our fail-safe, what the hell were we going to back him into? Maybe a refrigerator—that way he could swallow up all the food he could hold. Personally, I wanted to avoid death, even though I knew I’d be right as rain and not even recall the deed a day later when I attended my own funeral service.

We formed a line. I took point, Garustfulous was rear guard, and Toño was tucked into the middle. Sensors from above suggested that a small grouping of Kaljaxians were located in a ravine a long way out of a small city. They were our target. I couldn’t help but think back. The place they were held up was a favorite camping spot for JJ and me when he was a teen. We’d spend quality guy-time there, spitting, peeing wherever we so desired, and hillbilly hunting. That kind of hunting was simple and easy. If it moved, we shot it. Only when we got to the carcass did we determine if we wanted to eat whatever the heck it was. Great memories two billion years old. I had to force them from my mind. If I lost focus on a mission, it could end badly.

A couple klicks into the ravine, Toño and I heard voices. Around that time, Garustfulous smelled the speakers. Definitely not Adamant. He was certain. It was safe to make contact, but I really didn’t want them shooting at us before I could explain our humanitarian intentions.

We crawled to the edge of the clearing. The Kaljaxians sat near a cave opening. A small fire just inside the cave tried to break the morning chill. Some small containers were on top of the flames.

I switched my vocal output to sound like an older Kaljaxian male, and I hissed in Hirn, “We are friends. Don’t shoot.”

They reacted in a trained manner. The women surrounded the small ones and ushered them toward the cave. The men grabbed weapons and made for cover. They did not concentrate on where my voice had come from. An ambush might be afoot. Poor SOBs had lived under the stress of war so long that they knew just what to do.

“Who’s there?” a man hissed back in Hirn. “Show yourself.”

“I’m Jon, brood-mate to Sapale. I’ve come to rescue you.”

“That devil, Ryan? I thought we’d seen the last of you, you blight on Azsuram.”

“No, I’m his brother. Sapale is back at the ship. Come and I’ll show you.”

“No problem. Let me just huddle together the only things that matter in this world and march them off to where the evil magician want them to be. I’m neither that stupid nor that desperate.”

“Then you come alone. I will leave my man as hostage, and you can speak directly with Sapale.”

He was quiet. I’d made a reasonable offer.

“I will approach you. As I do, show yourself.”

He did, and we came face-to-face with a shrub between us.

“You’re a Ryan, that’s for certain. Where’s my hostage?”

I snapped my fingers at Garustfulous. As he labored to his hind feet, he protested. “I just knew it’d be me, now didn’t I?”

The Kaljaxian jumped backward and raised his weapon.

“It’s all right. He’s on our side. Keep a gun to his head if you’d like, but please don’t kill him accidentally. Can you promise me that?”

He shrugged one shoulder. “Maybe.”

“Good enough for me.”

“But not for me,” squealed Garustfulous.

I’m Nardoel,” he said, holding out a hand.

“Jon Ryan. This way.” I gestured over a shoulder. “About two klicks.”

Nardoel turned to the nearest guy. “I should be back in ten. If I’m not back in twenty, shoot him and run.”

The other Kaljaxian nodded silently.

Nardoel and I jogged away. Just over five minutes later, Sapale returned with us and escorted the overjoyed Kaljaxians away. We saved eleven souls in one quick act. Nice. Based on information Nardoel supplied, Sapale led a short raid farther along the ravine to bring home another small group. In half an hour, she was back with ten additional Kaljaxians, all smiling ear to ear. She went on a longer foray, netting twenty-five more locals, making her as proud as a new mama of twins.

While she was away, I spoke with Nardoel in detail about where the Adamant were dug in. Picking up stragglers was tremendously satisfying, especially watching them eat once they were aboard. But we had a larger mission and needed to proceed. By the time Sapale returned, she read it in my eyes. Good deed efforts over. Time to get to work. It was so miraculous to live with a person you didn’t even need to speak to in order to be fully understood.

After Sapale had herded the assembly toward the back of the cube, I gave her the updated plan. “The Adamant are in that direction about ten klicks out in pretty good numbers. We’ll head that way. Hopefully we can trick them into finding us and taking Toño as a prisoner. But, you know that’s probably the only way it’s going down.”

“Toño, you, and I will be connected the whole time, so I’ll know what’s going on.”

I placed a finger under her cute-as-a-button nose. “No matter what happens, you do not rescue any of us. You got that?”

“Didn’t we go over that a million times already?”

“Yes, but I know you too well. If Toño’s taken prisoner, you know what to do. If Garustfulous and I are taken out, let it go. Get these people to safety.”

“I will. I won’t like it, but I will.”

I slapped her on the butt and marched away with my two paladins.

“Be safe,” she called after us. Then I heard the cube hull seal.

In no time, we were above a small encampment of maybe a few hundred soldiers. We were a dozen meters higher up the hill than their camp. A small stream on the other side was probably why they stationed themselves so close to the hill. It wasn’t the most defensible place to pound down stakes, but neither was being too close to running water during the rainy season.

“Garustfulous, we’ll use you. Toño and I will get fifty meters ahead of you along that trail. Once we’re in position, you stand up and call for help, running down the aliens or whatever floats your boat. Toño and I will split up there.” I pointed to a fork in the path a kilometer away. “You take two soldiers and follow Toño. You got that? You and two others. Send the rest after me. Tell them I’m Jon Ryan. Everyone should go after me.” I spoke to Doc with intense focus. “Toño, you have two assignments. Let them catch you, but don’t let them hurt you. You clear?”

“Yes,” he replied.

“Okay, let's go,” I announced.

We jogged up the dirt path.

I waved to Garustfulous when we were in position.

Garustfulous fired a volley to our right. He turned to the camp and yelled, “Soldiers of Paw, I need one squad!”

He started running after us without waiting to see if his order was being followed. Why would he? These guys were Adamant.

When we hit the fork, I took a knee and checked behind. Garustfulous and twelve hounds were bounding up the trail. They were a minute and a half away.

I pointed to the easier fork. “Go. And Toño, vaya con Dios.”

“You too, my old friend.”

We both sprinted away.

A minute later, ten Adamant were closing rapidly on me, yelping and snapping after me with primal abandon. Garustfulous and Toño were out of view.

I picked up pace to draw the larger contingent even farther away from Toño. I think they noticed when I began putting space between us because they stopped barking and picked up their pace. They were all in. As I crested the hill, I spied a small clearing nearby. I made for it. Instead of entering the open area, I swung around the outer perimeter and took up a spot at the widest expanse of the clearing. I raised my rifle and waited.

Ten seconds later, the eleven soldiers flashed past the center of the trap. I picked them off from the lead dog back one by one. That way, the dogs in the rear crashed into the fallen dogs and didn’t have time to rise and return fire. It was over in three seconds.

I sprinted back to the fork and stopped. I couldn’t hear a thing. I ran the way Toño had, but I did so carefully. Last thing I wanted was to crash into them returning after Toño was captured. Two klicks in, I heard them coming. Garustfulous was shouting out orders and berating his two soldiers. Good boy. He was letting me know exactly where he was.

I cut through the brush fifty meters up slope and took cover. When the four were right below me, I planted a blast right between Garustfulous’s feet. He hopped back instinctively and searched the hill for me.

“There, it’s the demon Ryan. I’ll catch that one just like I did this one. You two imbeciles take this prisoner back to camp. If you've injured him, I will have you skin each other alive. Is that clear?” They verified that such a vivid, creative punishment was abundantly clear to them. An added advantage of Garustfulous browbeating the two soldiers was that neither objected to his departure, uphill, against the famed Jon Ryan. I bet they even whispered a prayer for me under their breaths.

Just the other side of the top, I sat down and waited for Garustfulous. He shot past me, but quickly realized he had and crouched down, crawling his way back to me.

“How’d it go?” I asked.

“As well as we could have hoped for. Toño took cover behind some rocks, and then his rifle jammed or something. Darnedest thing, wouldn’t you know? I rushed his position and forced him to the ground. The other two actually cheered my bravery.”

“That was before you lit into them and wouldn’t shut up. I’ll bet a month's pay.”

“Yes, but it was quite the ego-building moment, and I enjoyed it immensely.” He smiled big.

“Well, let’s get back to Stingray and move to part B of the plan.”

He furrowed his brow. “What was part B again?”

“Thin, marginally feasible, and all I could come up with.”

“Ah, yes, a Ryan-plan.”

“No, a Jon-plan. Those are the least dependable kind of all.”


THIRTY-EIGHT

“Take him outside and shoot him.” Pack Guide Second Grade Diviltoy could not be less interested in or more bothered by his troop’s interruption. He was a busy dog. He had columns of numbers to check, double check, and reauthenticate. He could not be bothered by starving locals’ attempts to steal militarily supplies. “Above Packlet, I’m about to look up from my work. If I see you three standing there, I’ll summon an alternative firing squad. They will shoot all of you.”

“B … but, sir, I wish to make clear what I said. I do not think he’s a local.”

Diviltoy slammed down his pencil hard enough to splinter it. He glowered at the soldier, then the prisoner, and then back at the soldier. “He looks like one to me. He’s missing a couple of eyes, but he’s a local. Probably lost the other pair in an idiotic wager. Now will you please execute him? Pretty please?”

“There was something else, s … sir.”

“He kissed you, and you felt all warm and fuzzy? Now you can’t harm a hair on his tail?”

“No, sir. It’s that—”

“Did I ask you to tell me what it was a mental midget like you thinks was notable about yet another local trying to steal my supplies?”

“I don’t think he respects your opinion,” Toño said matter-of-factly to Alouyso, the soldier trying to make his thoughts known.

“Another party whose opinion I do not value,” hissed Diviltoy. He pointed a paw at his desktop. “This paperwork is not going to do itself. Why do you hound me?”

Toño angled his head toward Alouyso. “He might hound you, but I cannot. I’m human.”

Diviltoy snapped the replacement pencil he’d picked up. “A what? Never heard of them. You’re a local mutant of that other planet.” He popped his claws on the wooden desk. “What was it called? Ah, Kaljax. Yes, you're a mutant of one of those mutants.”

“No, you moron, I am not. Kaljaxians have four eyes, as even an Above Packlet knows. They have coarser hair and much less of it. They also stand nearly a meter less on ave—”

“Silence, Kaljaxian scum. When I want an anatomy course, I’ll sign up for one online. Now all three of you out. Two of you shoot one of you. I don’t care what combination it is at this point. You decide among yourselves.”

“I demand the right of valtoc,” said Toño.

“He demands valtoc, Pack Guide Second Grade Diviltoy,” parroted Alouyso.

“I heard him. He has no rights, so he cannot invoke valtoc.”

“My impression,” began Brimforth, the other soldier, “is that valtoc can be requested by anyone at any time. It is one of our most sacred—”

“Do not lecture me on quaint old customs. I neither respect them nor you.”

“Sir, if it were to get out that you denied a person valtoc, well, it might impinge on your otherwise stellar career prospects.”

That did catch Diviltoy’s full attention. Inept soldiers were one thing, but a career path was all there was in this sad world.

“Where did you hear of valtoc, Kaljaxian scum?” he challenged.

“I read it in a book.”

The guards snickered.

“Does it matter?” pressed Toño.

“No, I suppose it doesn't. What aspect of valtoc do you claim as a right? And please be brief.”

“Valtoc means to be heard. I want this pup to be heard. That is all.”

“That’s just wrong,” replied Diviltoy. “Valtoc applies to oneself. It is not transferable.”

“I am a prisoner about to be shot. He wishes to tell you something. Perhaps what he says will remove my name from the execution list.”

“See, he asks for valtoc for himself,” agreed Alouyso. He was so rarely given affirmation that he was emboldened to speak his mind.

“There is no list that you mention,” responded Diviltoy.

“I was speaking metaphorically.”

“He was using metaphor, sir.”

“I heard the Kaljaxian infiltrator, you fool. Very well, if I’m ever to return to this report, Above Packlet whatever your name is, valtoc for this alien.”

“Well, sir, we were chasing him down, Packlet Brimforth and me. Well, and the wedge leader whose name I never caught. Anyway—”

What. There was a wedge leader involved, and you failed to mention that fact to me?”

“You wouldn’t allow me to speak, I remind you, sir.”

“Where is this wedge leader so that I might honor him and offer him refreshments?” Diviltoy stood.

“I don’t know for certain, but I believe he’s dead.”

“Wh … wh … what?”

“After Brimy and I snagged this one, the wedge leader charged over the hill in pursuit of Jon Ryan.”

Diviltoy’s knees buckled, and he sat back down involuntarily. “Jon Ryan is here? Are you certain?”

“Positive. The wedge leader said it was so.”

“And wh … where is Ryan now?”

“After he killed the other eleven soldiers and the wedge leader?”

“I suppose.”

“No idea, sir. Sort of glad it isn’t here though, if you take my meaning.”

“No disrespect, Above Packlet, but is there a manner in which this story can be told more succinctly?” asked Toño with a slight bow.

“Sure. So Brimy and I run this guy down. As we do, I grabbed his ankles so he fell forward. He dropped his gun when he hit the ground. Well, I’m above him as he stands up, and I smack him one hard across the mouth.”

“Fascinating,” interrupted Diviltoy.

Alouyso swaggered in place. “You think so, sir?”

“Yes. It’s fascinating you thought this story was worth wasting my time to hear. You are significantly mentally challenged, Above Packlet.”

Deflated but not deterred, Alouyso proceeded. “It’s when I hit him. Don’t you see? It didn’t faze him. His head didn’t even move.”

“So you’re weak while he’s strong. Why is that so important?”

“I’m not, and he can’t be that much so.”

“You’re giving me a headache. Final summary, wrap it up, stick a fork in it because it’s done. What is your point?”

“I think he’s one of those robots, sir.”

“You do?”

“Yes, I do. Brimy’s fairly certain himself, aren’t you?”

Brimforth nodded and shrugged his shoulders at the same time.

“If I get a scanning crew in here and prove you two are complete imbeciles, will you then please shoot him and leave me alone?”

“Er, no, sir.”

“What?”

“We’d leave you alone and then shoot him. Otherwise we’d be shooting him in here. That’d be both—”

“Stop saying words,” Diviltoy howled. He snatched up his comm link. “I want a full scanning crew in my office on the double. No, make it on the triple.” He set the device back on his belt. “I should have them scan me too for lending so much credence to the delusions of lunatics.”

**********

Toño's blindfold was removed in a dark metallic cavern. He was completely disoriented. He stepped forward instinctively. The chains restraining him pulled soundly at his arms and legs, jerking Toño back from the little advance he’d managed.

Oh joy. The plan was working like a charm so far.

Momentarily, he heard the sound of a massive metal door creak open, then shut. Once closed, several bolts squealed in protest as they were thrown shut. Then the odd scraping of someone walking with one foot dragging approached from far off to one side. That’s when Toño noted the stench. Mold, decay, and death. Oh, how he hated Jon Ryan right about then.

A crumpled Adamant in a dingy white lab coat staggered into view.

“Can’t you afford to oil those door hinges?” Toño called out by way of greeting.

A sick, mocking chuckle came from the crippled figure who grew closer.

“Ah, Dr. Toño De Jesus, such the bold and defiant one still.” He coughed a few times.

“I hope you do not seek medical attention. That cough sounds bad.”

“I cherish you once again, my old friend.” More cackles of laughter followed by yet more coughing came from the husk of a hound. “I doubt you remember me, good doctor, but you and I are the oldest of acquaintances. Yes, it is so. I was one of your keepers back in Section One. In fact, you murdered one of my brightest students when you destroyed that sector of space.”

“I killed no one. Two Paws self-destructed a computer that started the exotic matter reaction.”

“So,” he wheezed and coughed harshly, “you say. It matters not. Perhaps things have turned out for the best.”

“I can’t imagine being happier.”

“Me either,” he scorned. “My new benefactor has already showered me with riches. He says that once I tame the Rabid Robot, my compensation will rival that of the gods. I don't mind interrupting my retirement for such wealth.”

“Who are you, rich dog?”

“Oh, excuse my horrible manners. As I said, you were never in a state to remember me when we worked together. I am Parnific, chief scientist to the now Interim Emperor Dorcilmas.”

“Never heard of either of you.”

“Little wonder. While you were still our guest, he was a military officer of but modest stature.”

“And now he’s an interim emperor of modest stature.”

“Ah, that wit of yours. It will be such a shame to snub out that flame, yet again. You see, once I have you attached to Emperor Dorcilmas’s main computer banks, I’m afraid I will need to force you into cooperation again. Nothing will seem humorous to you then.”

“Interim Emperor, please. Don’t get ahead of ourselves.”

“Right you are,” he said through coughs. “You have always been so right about things.” Parnific was fumbling with large computer connectors as he spoke. “Once it is known that Dorcilmas possesses the unlimited power of the Rabid Robot, his ascendancy to true emperor will occur quick enough.”

“You give me too much credit, Parnific.”

“No false modesty allowed in this cavern, De Jesus. It was you who allowed the Adamant to seize the galaxy in our jaws and shake the life out of it.”

“That figurative murder is yet to be revived. One of your main character flaws is getting ahead of yourself, isn’t it?”

One of? Do you speculate I have others?”

“I’m certain you're crippled by countless imperfections.”

“Those words must remain our little secret, but you are correct. I have more faults than there are stars in the night sky. Do you know which one troubles me the most?”

“I’m certain I couldn’t fathom that depth.”

“None, you wicked machine. I cherish all my moral deficiencies. Each one is more precious to me than the next.” He coughed mightily. “But enough idle chatter and gossiping between two old friends.”

He attached several cables to Toño. Given his age, incapacity, and the bulk of the cables, it took Parnific several minutes to do so.

“There. I think that should suffice. Shall we test my handiwork?”

Toño began trembling. “Aren’t you going to ask me a question, challenge me to cooperate before you begin torturing me?”

Parnific smiled widely. “No.” He threw a switch and sparks began to dance around Toño’s head. He started convulsing.

Though Toño should not have been aware of the passage of time, a week later Parnific returned to his testing area and turned the electronic assault off. Toño immediately slumped limply in his restraints. Parnific picked up a small probe and came over to the motionless prisoner. He set the probe on one side of Toño’s head.

“This should do the trick,” he said aloud as he depressed a master switch.

The probe buzzed. Toño slowly began to regain consciousness.

“There’s a good puppet,” sniped Parnific. “One more dose should cure the patient of his mental cobwebs.” He re-zapped Toño with the probe.

“Where am I?” Toño whispered weakly.

“Nowhere, I assure you. You are absolutely nowhere. And here you will remain. But I have pressing business and no time for the orientation of my tools. I will ask a simple yet vexing question that has escaped my ability to solve. Is that all right with you?”

“N … no.”

“Be that as it may. Here is what I shall pose to you. I wish to modulate the quantum field in the proximity of a primal node in a Salfax pathway. My attempts so far have been successful only at low energy levels. As the power in the system approaches any real-world application, the quantum field degenerates into chaos. This disallows regulation of the node. The pathway quickly turns into random fluctuations and not the usable collinear beam I require. What do you suggest I try?”

“Dying slowly, painfully, and unlamented.”

“Very droll. I want an answer in ten seconds or the torture recommences.”

“Have you tried turning it off and then turning it back on again?”

“That banter forfeits your ten second grace period.” Parnific tapped the master switch. He turned his back to Toño and staggered away.

“If you recoupled the phase transition stabilizers to match the nodal resonant frequencies, your Salfax beam should remain coherent,” announced Toño, sounding very coherent.

Parnific spun on a heel. “What?” He rushed as well as he could to the master switch and tapped it several times.

“Recouple the phase elements, you moron,” replied Toño, who was begging to laugh.

Parnific began pounding on the switch. “What have you done, demon?”

“I hope much more than enough,” he responded.

All the lights went off with a bang. The ubiquitous sound of computers, air circulators, and pulsing exotic matter ended.

“What have you done?” howled Parnific. “I can’t see a thing.”

That was right about when the exotic matter reserve containment field’s power supply cut out for the last time. The walls began quaking. What Parnific called his cavern was in reality a modest hangar on the warship Interim Emperor Dorcilmas had appropriated from Interim Emperor Quildrod. Dorcilmas had renamed it Perpetual Triumph, which, ironically, it would never experience.

“I can’t see,” wailed a hysterical Parnific.

A tiny candle appeared next to his face. It was held in the talons of a golden dragon.

“Does this help?” Mirraya-Slapgren asked, passing Parnific the flame.

“You took your time,” said Toño without any real vitriol.

“A dramatic entrance is always a must, my good doctor. Remember who my teacher was.”

“Really,” he replied as he released the last of his shackles. “I just hope it doesn’t preclude a dramatic exit.”

Mirraya-Slapgren picked up Toño and spread her wings.

“Don’t I get to ride on your back?” he asked.

“Not in this lifetime, bucko.”

And they vanished.


THIRTY-NINE

Jonnaha was dosing on the couch with her head on her sister’s shoulder when Mirraya-Slapgren materialized atop the desk.

“Woah, sis, I think you’ll want to wake up now,” Shielan said, shaking her.

“Huh … wa … Toño,” she exclaimed as she bolted for him open-armed.

Mirraya-Slapgren gently set Toño on his feet just in time for the not-so-young lovers to bind together in a passionate embrace. The golden dragon then hopped to the floor.

“How’d it go, kiddos?” I asked, stepping over to give them a cautious hug.

“No problem at all, Uncle. It went off just like we planned it,” she replied.

“We planned it?” I responded. “Why didn’t anybody tell me about this?”

So not funny,” sniped Sapale as she elbowed past me to hug Mirraya-Slapgren. “You guys are so brave, and I’m so proud of you.”

“Are you all right?” Jonnaha asked Toño as she inspected him carefully.

“Yes, good as new.”

“First he gets used to the torture,” I wagged my eyebrows, “then he starts begging for it.”

“You’re disgusting, old friend,” replied Toño. “Irrevocably and interminably revolting.”

“Why, thank you. I can own that.”

“Yeah, and I have to live with it,” responded Sapale.

“I helped, you know? I think I was integral to the success of our plan,” injected Garustfulous with a paw in the air.

“Yes, you did,” I cooed. “Good boy. Come here, and I’ll give you a belly rub.”

“Promises, promises,” he replied, adding in an obscene gesture popular among the Adamant.

“Okay, everybody sit,” Jonnaha said authoritatively. “Now that it’s over, you have to tell us what the hell you did.”

We hadn’t given anyone who wasn’t involved any details. The stakes were simply too high. If a spy or listening device betrayed any aspect of our scheme, it would be curtains for Doc. Plus we’d have lost our last and best shot at the Adamant Empire.

“Toño, as the key actor in my little play, why don’t you do the honors?” I remarked, extending a hand to him.

“Your play? I’m but an actor?”

“Now, dear, don’t lose focus. Sit and talk first. Then you can get all Spanish on Jon.”

“Very well.” His mood settled quickly. “It’s really quite simple actually—”

Jonnaha set a loving hand on Toño’s forearm. “Ah, Toño, I’m hoping to spend a very long time with you. We all know you’re the smartest human ever. So, please don’t ever begin another sentence with those words, okay?”

Everyone but Garustfulous chuckled. He was still having trouble with human humor.

“Of course, my love. Jon asked me a few weeks ago to think of the most critical aspect of Adamant society. That would be their technology. Without it, they are aggressive and organized, but their true power is in their technical superiority. The heart of that technology is, of course, exotic matter. It defines their ability to expand and conquer. No exotic matter, no Adamant Empire.”

“But surely they haven’t always had it. They’ve been successful without it, right?”

“Yes, but on a very limited, local scale. It was only with the immense power of exotic matter that they were able to become dominant. The key to exotic matter is that while it is very energetic, it also requires lots of energy to produce. That is the weak link I came up with.

“Not to get too technical—”

“That would be nice,” said Shielan.

“Um, if a large amount of highly energetic charged particles pass through a device, exotic matter is created. The device is said to—”

Jonnaha cleared her throat loudly.

“The actual device is about the size and shape of a common flashlight. It has three important parts. There is a ring that contains two nuggets of exotic metal. This substance acts as a catalyst. It allows exotic matter to be produced for a net energy gain. The problem with getting exotic metal is it requires frightening amounts of energy to make it in the first place. In the flashlight-sized tube, there is also a pair of fins I called generative fins.”

“What do they do?” asked Jonnaha.

“Nothing, but that’s not what I got the Adamant to believe. I wanted them to focus on the fins as keys to their domination, not the metal.”

“Doc,” responded Shielan, “They have scientists. No way you could fool them.”

“I thought not at first. But they are a species eager to follow, anxious to accept and please. It proved their undoing.”

“You speak of us in the past tense, my friend,” said Garustfulous. “They’re still out there, er, right?”

“After a fashion.”

Garustfulous narrowed his gaze. “What does that mean exactly?”

“In good time,” Toño replied. “There was a third component to the exotic matter generators. It looked like a tiny lollipop.”

“What did it do?” I asked.

“Nothing useful. Again, I convinced them it helped stabilize the imaginary complexity field, but it didn’t do that.”

“Because there is no such thing,” I responded. “You’re such a bullshitter.”

He shrugged. “What it functioned as was a sabotage agent. It was a diode that could, when activated, sap a small amount of the passing energy, which caused the flashlight unit to melt.”

“And the exotic matter nozzle became inactive?” asked Jonnaha.

“Yes, inactive when the entire exotic matter stream was liberated.”

I placed my hands together then flew them apart. “Badaboom.”

“Oh my,” she responded. “Are those nozzles common in Adamant technology?”

“They aren’t common. They were everywhere. All the energy produced and used by the Adamant came from exotic matter,” Toño said grimly.

“I can attest to that fact,” said Garustfulous, sounding distant.

“I don’t want to seem dense, but what are the implications of this corruption you performed?”

“The empire exists in two places. Outer space and on the surfaces of planets.”

“All right,” she agreed.

“To have explosive release of exotic matter aboard a starship would destroy the vessel ten times out of ten.”

“You mean you just blew up all the Adamant ships?”

“Every one, everywhere. All space-based Adamant are dead.”

“Seriously? Not all of them? That's not possible,” said Shielan, incredulous.

“Every last one. That’s why I had to be captured and joined to the master grid. It took several days, but I took advantage of a practice the Adamant employed. When any communication system makes contact with another, it automatically transfers any and all system updates.”

“Yes, it’s an efficiency trick we picked up along the way,” added Garustfulous.

“I was able to distribute the signal to activate the sabotage circuits whenever any other went off. That was my last act before Mirraya-Slapgren rescued me.”

“No, wait. You can’t have done all that. You were being tortured.” Jonnaha twirled her fingers around her head.

“That was our little surprise. I was able to place an AI interface between their input and my systems. It appeared as though I was being scrambled, but all the time I was working to corrupt their network.”

“Incredible,” whispered Garustfulous.

“And what about the canovir on planets? You didn’t blow up those entire planets, did you?” asked Shielan.

“No, no. That wasn’t necessary. But all their energy production, wherever it existed, is gone. Once the battery stores are exhausted, the canovir will have to fend for themselves.”

“But there are local energy systems, aren’t there?” asked Garustfulous.

“In some cases, but the larger the Adamant presence, the more insufficient those sources would be.”

“So, sooner or later the surviving canovir will have to produce their own food and stay warm by rubbing sticks together to make a fire,” I said smugly.

“But that pre-industrial production couldn’t sustain—” Garustfulous began to say.

“More than a small and primitive society.”

“That would then be at the mercy of whatever might be left of the population they had crushed under their boot heels,” added Jonnaha.

“They’d be gone within a generation,” declared Shielan.

“If they last that long,” I said grimly.

“We’re not very good at roughing it,” mumbled Garustfulous. I think it was hitting him hard.

“The canovir will, by necessity, became either a hunting species again, or if they can manage it, a hunter-gatherer society.”

“That, either way you look at it, makes them no longer a galactic power.”

“But the exotic metal you mentioned. Couldn’t some ground-based survivors make more of it and start exotic matter production back up?” asked Garustfulous. He sounded almost hopeful.

“No,” replied Toño definitively. “They’d never have enough energy to produce it, not now. To reestablish their exotic matter production and become a renewed threat, they’d have to completely re-evolve as a society,” Toño said with finality.

“And that, I can guarantee, is never going to happen.” I meant to see to that fact. Never again on my watch.


EPILOGUE

And so it came to pass. Radioactive dust in one instant littered space throughout the Milky Way and into many nearby galaxies. Canovir on planets were forced to fend for themselves. In a handful of generations, the few that survived reverted to a wild pack species. None became successful farmers. It was not in their blood. Canovir retained sentience, but that tool became less useful than the ability to run down game and rip its life away. Reason faded as an important aspect of the canovir way of life. More importantly, so did memory. In no time at all, what occupied their minds was what the pack might kill that day. Recalling that they once ruled the heavens mattered little, not compared to the unknowable weather.

Toño De Jesus settled down and married Jonnaha. Both of them became truly happy for the first time in their lives. And, to mention the delicate yet essential aspect of human society, Toño's sperm level alert light hadn't come on as Jon's did years before. He did not tap into that level at nearly the rate Jon had. So, along with having his lovely bride, Toño fathered a bountiful family.

Sapale and Jon split their time between Azsuram and Kalvarg. They labored to resuscitate one creation of theirs while breathing life into another. They were never happier.

Mirraya and Slapgren lived full lives on Nocturnat among the Plezrite. In time, Mirraya became a master brindas with more disciples than there were grains of sand on the beach. Their offspring grew in number and blended in perfectly with their distant relatives.

Evil Jon and Cala lived begrudgingly together for decades. After she finally went the way of all flesh, EJ buried her in an elaborate earthen mausoleum. He remained on Rameeka Blue Green, never quite getting around to moving on. At every sunrise, he couldn't quite bring himself to leave Calfada-Joric alone or the vases at her resting place without fresh flowers.

Garustfulous followed Jon wherever he went. While it would be cruel to compare him to a loyal hound following his master, it would also be an easy enough mistake to regard him as such. The only time he was apart from Jon was when Garustfulous went on one of his “cultural missions.” He wanted, he claimed, to study and support the genetic diversity of his once-great species. Everyone knew precisely what he meant. They all thought bully for him.


What came next? What did time, the knower and keeper of all memories and tomorrows, have in store for the lot of them? That, my friends and readers, is a secret only time itself knows. And everyone knows time yields no spoiler alerts concerning any potential sequels. Silly old time ….


La fin


GLOSSARY

Agatcha (3): Traditional Deft stew.


Al (1 TFS): The ship’s AI from Jon’s initial Ark 1 flight. He kept it with him until his dying day, and then it elected to hang around. Good AI! Full name is Alvin. Those engineers and their lame naming.


Als (3): The Als is the surname for the “married” AIs, Al and Blessing, given to them by pissy Jon Ryan.


Aporthio (6): Low-ranking sailor on a supply ship who was badly abused by Garustfulous so he could steal a comm linkable shuttlecraft.


Ark 1 (1 of TFS): The subluminal ship Jon took on his very first flight. He was searching for a new home for humankind. The story is revealed in The Forever Life by this author.


Battle of the Periphery (5): The decisive battle where the combined forces of the free planets along the periphery of the Milky Way soundly defeated the Adamant armada. Of course, they were greatly aided by the magical dragons of Nocturnat. Shortened to TBOP.


Blessing (1): Vortex Cragforel gifted to Jon.


Book of the Adamant (6): The massive set of books in which all matters to do with the Adamant civilization are detailed. Last known to number well over ten thousand volumes. An OCDer’s dream read.


Brathos (2): Kaljaxian version of hell.


Brindas (1): High master of Deft tradition and psychic ability.


Brood-mate/brood’s-mate (2): Male and female members of a Kaljaxian marriage.


Calfada-Joric (3): The Deft master brindas on Rameeka Blue Green. Goes by Cala.


Calran Klug (5): Prime of the Secure Council of the Adamant Empire after Lesset.


Calrf (2 of TFS): A Kaljaxian stew that Jon particularly dislikes.


Canovir(2): Species of dog-like sentients containing the Adamant. Big border collies.


Caryp (2): Clan leader for Sapale’s family on Kaljax.


Chop-Chop (6): Galanian representative to the JCFIDAC. In reality, he’s an agent for the Adamant.


Command Prerogatives (1): The thin fibers Jon extends from his left four fingers. They are probes that also control a vortex.


Cragforel (1): Friendly Deavoriath Jon met after he first escaped the Adamant in the far future.


Daldedaw (5): Policewoman on Kaljax, then military leader of colonists on Kalvarg.


Darfos (5): Whole Leader and newly appointed to the Secure Council after the purge caused by the defeat of the fleet at the hands of the Plezrite. A friend to Calran Klug.


Davdiad (2): Kaljaxian divine spirit.


Deavoriath (1): Three arms and legs, the most advanced tech in the galaxy, and helpful to Jon.


Deft (1): A shape-shifting species from the planet Locinar.


Dodrue (5): Large aquatic sentients of Kalvarg. They are wiqub, about the size of an orca. Mortal enemies of the Epsallor Kingdom’s vidalt.


Dondra-Ulcrif (3): A brindas long ago who gave Evil Jon his “magic” abilities.


Dorcilmas (6): Wedge Leader Dorcilmas threw his loyalties in with Quildrod to grab power after the emperor and the Secure Council were blown up.


Evil Jon Ryan/ EJ (1): Alternate time line version of the original human to android download. Over time, he turned to the darker side of his nature. He studied “magic” under a Deft master.


Excess of Nothing (2): Emperor Bestiormax’s personal ship. Huge and opulent.


Five Races (2): Adamant, the leaders, Loserandi, the priests, Kilip, the teachers, and Descore, the servants, and Warrior, the enlisted fighters.


Fuffefer (3): Group-Single Fuffefer. Commander of the detail that supervised Jon’s and Cellardoor’s slavery period.


Gabrielod Jal (6): Businessdog and relative of the emperor. He was associated with subversives and had to be “interviewed” by Two Paws. A word to the wise: bring plenty of Motrin to all such interviews.


Galan (6): One of the twelve planets attacked in TBOP. Vaguely humanoid species with four arms and legs.


Garustfulous (2): Wedge Leader Garustfulous is a high-ranking Adamant military leader. Taken hostage by Jon.


Gorgolinians (4): Fish tank sentients of Sotovir.


Guvrof (5): Lesset’s right-hand dog. One of his few trusted confidants.


Hantorian System (5): Location of the planet Kantawir. The location where Jon confronted EJ for the final time.


Harhoff (3): Adamant Group Captain aboard Rush to Glory. He became a key figure in Jon’s quest to rescue the Deft teens.


High Council (5): The governing body of the Plezrite.


Himanai (5): Variant Deft visant. The first to meet with Jon and Sapale on Nocturnat.


Hirn (1): A Kaljaxian dialect.


Hollon (3): The complete joining of two Deft shapeshifters. More than marriage.


Imperial Lord Emperor Bestiormax-Jacktus-Swillyforth-Anp (2): Current Adamant emperor.


JCFIDAC (6): See Joint Council for Interplanetary Defense and Cooperation.


Jangir (5): The name assumed by Garustfulous when he went undercover as Harhoff’s Descore.


Jonnaha (4): Prime minister of a main country on Vorpace. Agreed to try and form a united defense against the Adamant onslaught heading to their region of the Milky Way.


Joint Council for Interplanetary Defense and Cooperation (6): Group of allied free worlds fighting the Adamant.


Kantawir (5): Planet where Jon and EJ met for their final confrontation.


Kalvarg (5): The planet Jon took the orphan Kaljaxian population to as the Adamant were destroying their home world. An island solar system long ago ejected from the Milky Way Galaxy.


Langir (5): First planet Jon went to trying to establish a cohesive rebellion against the Adamant. Populated by clever industrious robots and flaky humanoids.


Larocnaurn (6): Female Deavoriath scientist whom Toño worked with in the distant past.


Lesset (5): High Wedge and Prime, or head, of the Secure Council early in the reign of the new emperor Palawent. Vicious, cruel, and thoroughly Adamant.


Locaur Fideus-Tal (6): Urniquat representative to the free planet defense coalition.


Loserandi (2): See Five Classes of Canovir.


Locinar (1): Home planet of the Deft in the Milky Way Galaxy.


Master of Death (6): New name for Excess of Nothing given by the latest emperor.


Membrane (1): Space-time congruity manipulator. A super force field.


Mesdorre (5): Second senior clan leader transplanted from Kaljax to Kalvarg.


Midriack (1): Adamant’s personal guards. Very deadly, no sense of humor. Avoid them!


Mowar (5): Honorific title among the Deft.


Musto (3): Strong Adamant booze.


Naldoser (5): The local name of the sneaky vidalt of Kalvarg.


Nocturnat (5): Home world of the variant Deft. Once concealed. Part of a star system ejected from the Milky Way. They did the ejecting with their magic.


Nufe (3 GOF & TFS): A magical liquor made by the Deavoriath.


Oowaoa (1 TFS): Home world of the Deavoriath.


Opalf (2): Honorific title in Kaljaxian society, reserved for the elderly.


Palawent (5): New emperor after Bestiormax.


Peg’s Bar Nobody (4): First reference in The Forever Quest. A true dive bar Jon loved. A total dump. Peg was one tough cookie.


PEMTU (1): Personal exotic matter transportation unit. A super way to enter here and end up anywhere instantly.


Plezrite (5): The species name of the Deft variants on Nocturnat.


Quantum Decoupler (1): A most excellent weapon that pulls the quarks apart in a proton. The energy released is amazing.


Quildrod (6): Whole Quildrod self-elevated to interim emperor after Jon killed the last real one.


Rameeka Blue Green (3): The planet where Jon and the Deft teens met Cala.


Risrav (3): The anti-rune of Varsir. The power of Varsir was negated in the sphere of this rune, as were some other types of magic.


Rush to Glory(3): Ship Jon left Ungalaym on.


Sapale (1) [Also See Entry Below]: Jon’s Kaljaxian wife from his original flight to find humankind a new home. At first, just her brain was copied, and then eventually, she was downloaded to an android host. Traveled with the corrupted Jon Ryan from an alternate time line.


Sapale (4): Young female named after her relative Sapale. Rescued from hiding place in pantry.


Secure Council (3): Twelve-member group of military elite who actually run the Adamant empire.


Shielan (4): Female security guard to and sister of prime minister on Vorpace, Jonnaha. Brief romantic interest of Jon’s.


Sotovir (4): The second planet Jon convinced to ally against the oncoming Adamant storm. The sentients looked like walking fish tanks, but please don’t hold that against fish tanks. It’s not their fault.


Stingray (1): Name Jon used for the vortex Blessing.


Talrid (2): A major city on Kaljax. Sapale’s hometown and that of her clan.


TBOP (6): See Battle of the Periphery.


Toño De Jesus (1): The creator of the android Jon. Became his lifelong friend.


Torchcleft (2): A species of small dragon. Copied by the Deft teens to hunt.


Triumph of Might (1): The massive spaceship Mercutcio ruled. Jon first met the Adamant there.


Two Paws (6): His actual name and rank is Whole Zarpacious. Prime of the Secure Council ten years after TBOP. Cunning and ruthless, which is to say an Adamant commander.


Urniquats (6): Hermaphroditic species allied with the free planets against the Adamant. Very odd creatures. Brains in their chests, four eyes on long stocks where their heads should’ve been. A mouth for breathing and speech under each of their two armpits.


Urpto (5): The Assistant Subtender for the region of the Kingdom of Epsallor where Jon landed on Kalvarg


Varsir (3): The name of the magical rune Evil Jon uses to do his “magic.”


Var-tey (3): Highest of warrior rankings. The bravest among the Deft. Demigods.


Vidalt (5): Large aquatic sentients of Kalvarg. Enemies to the larger Dodrue.


Visant (5): The proper name for a pair of Deft joined in hollon.


Vorpace (5): The third planet Jon tried to bring into an alliance against the Adamant. Populated by human descendants who’d heard of the great Jon Ryan.


Vortex Manipulator (1): The intelligence inside the vortex. Not actually an AI, but similar.


Wiqub (5): Species name of the larger species on Kalvarg.


Yisbid (5): Grand Visionary for the decade on Nocturnat. She was a leader of the Plezrite variants of the Deft.


Zar-not (1): A melding of a Deft’s mind with that of a copied animal.


Zarpacious (6): See Two Paws.


And Now A Word From Your Author


Who Doesn't Love That?

Thank you for continuing your journey through the Ryanverse! Along with this series, please check out The Forever Series. Beginning with The Forever Life, Book 1, learn Jon’s backstory and share his many incredible earlier adventures.

Along with joining by reading, hop aboard the bandwagon. There’s plenty of room. Follow me at Craig Robertson’s Author’s Page on Facebook. Partake of the conversation and fun. Best of all, sign up for my Mailing List. That way, you can stay abreast of news and new releases. You’ll be so glad you did.

A final favor. Please post a review for this book, especially on Amazon. They are more precious to us authors than gold.

Craig


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