Book: The Scientist, the Rat, and the Assassin



The Scientist, the Rat, and the Assassin

The Legend of ZERO:

The Scientist,

the Rat,

and the Assassin

By Sara King




Copyright © 2016

All Rights Reserved

Sara King

No part of this work may be photocopied, scanned, or otherwise reproduced without express written consent (begging) of the author.  For permissions and other requests, email Sara King at [email protected]

(Don’t worry, she’s really cool.)


Disclaimer

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

So you’re about to read about badasses with plasma pistols, a devastating alien apocalypse, and people who move stuff with their minds.  In case you’re still confused, yes, this book is a complete work of fiction.  Nobody contained within these pages actually exists.  If there are any similarities between the people or places of The Legend of ZERO and the people or places of Good Ol’ Planet Earth, you’ve just gotta trust me.  It’s not real, people.  Really.  Yet.

Also!  Unlike in ZERO1 and ZERO2, this book contains profanity, namely because it deals with the people of Earth, and people on Earth use profanity, especially people on Earth involved in the criminal element, or, coincidentally, brilliant-yet-reclusive Alaskan writers.  If you can’t stand profanity, or likewise, if you want to bitch about it, this probably isn’t the book for you.

You have been warned.



Books in The Legend of ZERO Series:

Listed in the Order They Should Be Read

Forging Zero

The Moldy Dead

Zero Recall

Zero’s Return

Flea, Agent of Chaos

The Scientist, the Rat, and the Assassin

Zero’s Redemption

Zero’s Legacy

Forgotten

*World Glimpses (ZERO Short Story Anthology)

* = whenever


Author’s Note

This is not book 4 of the ZERO series.  It USED to be, but for the sake of actually finishing the series, I’ve pulled it out to make sure Joe gets the proper limelight in Book 4.  This is a novella detailing the relationship between Rat and Sam and what they discover along the way, one of several ZERO novellas taken from Book 4 that I’m going to be publishing soon.

Fans of the series will be happy to know that I finally figured out why my editing fiasco with Book 3 of the ZERO series went so downhill, and why my Muse was refusing to help me finish what became Book 4.  It is because, after I introduced so many new elements in the first 3 books, I was trying to force about 450,000 words (and that’s a conservative estimate…it’s probably more like 600k) of novellas into the beginning of Book 4, making Joe’s first scene come in at least halfway through the main storyline.  Deep down, I felt that was unacceptable.

On the other hand, these 8(ish) stories needed to be told.  I couldn’t bring myself to abandon them, because they were good and necessary, which is why I was at an impasse.  This is my compromise…

And now, to give those of you who need it a refresher, here’s what is (images by Lance MacCarty)…

WHAT IS A DHASHA?

The Scientist, the Rat, and the Assassin

These guys are intelligent predators that rely upon slave labor to feed themselves, stay clean, and manipulate anything more complicated than a corpse.  They’re ultra-violent, are covered with nigh indestructible scales, have monomolecular razor talons, and eat people for fun.  They are the apex predators of Congress, clawing their way to the top (literally) of the Congressional hierarchy.  Representative Mekkval is a Dhasha prince.

WHAT IS A KREENIT?

The Scientist, the Rat, and the Assassin

They’re big.  Ancestrally, they ate Dhasha.  And now they’re on Earth.  Eating people.

WHAT IS A HUOUYT?

The Scientist, the Rat, and the Assassin

Huouyt are nasty.  Sociopathic—they stick together as a species only for the common goals of wealth and power over other species—and they can use the genetic material of other creatures to transform into that creature.  They are a boneless, semi-aquatic species with three legs and three fingers on each arm, entirely covered in a downy white cilia that wriggles.  The best assassins are Huouyt, and they can produce poisons and drugs within their own bodies from many years of training.  Jer’ait Ze’laa and the former Representative Rri’jan are Huouyt.

WHAT IS A JREET?

The Scientist, the Rat, and the Assassin

Big earthworms.  Very, very big earthworms.  With arms, scales, and predator teeth.  The hardcore warriors of Congress (think Spartans), shunning both battlefield and medical technology because anyone who needs that crap is a weakling.  They also have the ability to energize their scales and disappear from the visible (and heat) spectrums.  Oh, and they carry a gross fang in their chests that they both mate with and kill people with.  Unfortunately, due to the habits mentioned above, they’re also considered an endangered species in Congress.  Daviin ga Vora is a Jreet.

WHO IS RAT?

The Scientist, the Rat, and the Assassin

Rat is Representative Mekkval’s assassin, sent to Earth on one final mission to destroy the genetics experiments that escaped Judgement.  She’s a badass.  Unfortunately, her super-high tech AI sniper rifle, a Huouyt-made Rodemax, went rogue and is now out to kill her.


WHO IS SAM?

The Scientist, the Rat, and the Assassin

Sam (or Slade, depending on who’s talking), is a mad scientist.  Half Einstein, half utterly insane, he styles himself as the Tesla of the Congressional Era.  He experimented on himself thirty-two years ago, essentially hybridizing himself with the genetics of a Huouyt.  He’s also the famous Joe Dobbs’ brother and, because of that, developed an inferiority complex.

WHAT IS KA-PAR?

Ka-par is a Dhasha social ritual used to establish dominance without death.  It’s essentially a staring contest between two predators, with the loser accepting complete submission as the winner’s slave.  Sam in declaring (and losing) ka-par with Rat, bargained his way into only a partial  loss, in that he gets Tuesdays as if Rat had lost, whereas Rat gets the rest of the week.

WHAT IS CONGRESS, KOLIINAAT, THE REGENCY, AND THE TRIBUNAL?

Congress is the conglomerate alien super-state pieced together over the last two and a half million years.  Earth is just another newly-acquired planet in its never-ending march to expand its borders throughout the galaxy.  It contains 3244 sentient species.  Koliinaat is the artificial planet it created to house its hub of government, which is called the Regency.  Each species in Congress has one Representative that is sent to the Regency to look after its interests.  The Tribunal is an elected three-Representative panel that wields the most power of the Regency (think three presidents who have to vote before something can get done).

Hopefully that was enough to get you back into the ZERO universe groove.  Good luck!


Dedication

To Kim and Robert, because I’d stumbled, and you guys helped me get back up.

Table of Contents

Disclaimer

Books in The Legend of ZERO Series:

Author’s Note

WHAT IS A DHASHA?

WHAT IS A KREENIT?

WHAT IS A HUOUYT?

WHAT IS A JREET?

WHO IS RAT?

WHO IS SAM?

WHAT IS KA-PAR?

WHAT IS CONGRESS, KOLIINAAT, THE REGENCY, AND THE TRIBUNAL?

Dedication

Table of Contents

The Scientist

The Rat

Max

The Secret to Good Chicken

The Runt

The Paper Man

Guerilla Warfare

The Problem with Scalpels

Braving The Dark

A Dead Frog Doesn’t Count

With a Rock…

The Assassin

About the Author

Afterword

Other Titles by Sara King

Sara Recommends


The Scientist

Monday Night, 48 Days after Judgement

Slade threw another rock aside, making the purple thong jiggle against his groin.  Tuesday had come and gone in a blur of massages, sex, and, because they had run out of food, tough and stringy native plants that tasted like crap but that he had confirmed as edible in his survival books.  Then Wednesday had followed, and the Congie had passed out an order to march south, destroyed his palanquin, and massacred his chickens. Then, to add insult to injury, Rat had then passed the lifeless carcasses out to his flock, saying they were starving and needed the energy.  Then she had complained when Slade had insisted on saving the feet.  She’d tried to get him to throw them into the fire, but Slade, resourceful man that he was, had quickly distracted her with sex and stuffed them into his pillowcase.

Thugs.

Their short-sightedness was mind-blowing.  Already, the Congie had undermined his power structure, pissed off about eighty-five percent of the convicts in the group, and made him run around in a thong as if that were somehow appropriate attire in the middle of an apocalypse.

Of course, he had set fire to her clothes at the last minute last Tuesday, thinking he could force her to wear something other than military combat gear and Congie black, maybe even a skirt, but Rat had proceeded to acquire a second set—as far as Slade knew, by pulling it directly out of her ass—and had then, at the stroke of midnight on Wednesday morning, proceeded to burn his clothes and parade him around in a purple spandex thong that Tyson had spent way too much time appreciating.

But that wasn’t the worst part.  The worst part was that his flock thought he was the one making all the weird proclamations and ultimatums.  No slaving.  No eating people.  Marching ten hours a day.  Chicken on Wednesday.  Pfft.

Sure, the proclamations were coming out of his mouth, but they were nudged forth by the primed barrel of an automatic plasma weapon.  Or a monomolecular blade.  Or a beat-stick.  Or a laser knife.  Or her boots.  Especially her boots.

Damn, he needed to think, and he couldn’t think around this woman.  This was not what he’d had in mind when he challenged her to ka-par.  He had assumed she would realize he was a genius, that he had a delicate constitution much better suited to intellectual and interpersonal pursuits that needed to be shielded from manual chores like, oh, gathering firewood or walking—anywhere—and not that she would spend six hours a day making him exercise in every heinous way possible as if his Body Mass Index had just become her sole interest in life.

Everyone else Slade had ever met had quickly realized how brilliant he was and had decided to defer to him on all things afterwards, alternately making his dinner or washing his garments when he was too preoccupied to do it himself.  But Rat, this Congie that was supposed to be his soul-mate according to some patch-wearing vagrant fortune-teller who had predicted her arrival from before the Draft, hadn’t seemed to have gotten the memo.  In fact, because he thought maybe she had missed the fact that he could save—or destroy, depending on his preference—the world with his brain, Slade had attempted to illustrate it over the last week of hell, creating devices and projects to awe and amaze her.

If anything, the hours she’d made him spend exercising had increased.

Slade scratched at a mosquito that landed on his arm, smearing the glow-in-the-dark body paint into little half-moons under his fingernails.

While that had been fun to apply, it was beginning to itch.  And the thong chafed.  And it was getting cold and the high heels were doing nothing to keep his feet warm.  Slade liked to keep his feet warm.  Poor circulation and all that.  And now they hurt because she’d made him walk for hours in heavy combat boots rather than the sandals he would have preferred.  He threw another rock.

“I warned you when you were striking the match last Tuesday,” Rat said, “That’s what you would get for burning my clothes.  Thongs for a month.  Stop sulking.”  The tall, lithe brunette was dressed in Congie black tonight, as usual, from her black vest to her black hat to her black cargo-pants, with a black gun propped against her knee.  Even her boots looked dangerous.

“I’m sulking because you murdered my chickens,” Slade said, hating the way his voice had morphed into a whine.

She blinked at him like massacring Humanity’s food supply wasn’t even on her mental radar.  “I told you—your chicken experiment was stupid.  Kreenit are going to smell it and come running like you’re ringing a dinner bell.  We have to survive, not run around tending poultry.”

Which wasn’t fair, because Slade had made other people tend his poultry.  He’d tried to explain that to Rat, but instead he had been forced to watch their group’s sole prospect of survival become masticated meat as she and Tyson cooked up all the birds that Slade had carefully collected and protected over the last month, even grabbing the eggs he was brooding in solar powered incubators because there wasn’t enough meat to go around.  Slade had been preparing to launch a new civilization on the backbone of readily-available poultry, and all of his efforts had been reduced to various states of Human shit, all because his flock was hungry and Rat didn’t want them to eat people, instead.  Weeks of work, gone.

The woman had no vision.

She was just like every other Congie out there, especially his infamous lizard-killing brother.  Dumb as rocks, unable to see past their own stomachs to anything more than six rotations down the line, because that was their average lifespan out of bootcamp.

Tossing a leg-bone into the fire, Tyson conversationally said to Rat, “So which do you think came first?  The chicken or the egg?”  The big, blue-eyed Viking wiped chicken grease from his blond beard and eyed the pile of butchered, defeathered, and roasted Hope.

“It was the egg,” Slade snapped, “because the mutation began with the misreplication of DNA during fertilization of the embryo and its development.  It wasn’t like an adult bird just magically became a mutant chicken that started popping out more chickens.  I have always thought it was an incredibly stupid question, and whoever came up with it obviously had no background in or understanding of science.”

“Personally,” Tyson said across the fire to Rat, as if Slade hadn’t spoken, “I think it was the chicken.  It had to have the genes inside it, right?”

“Aaaagh!”  Slade clawed at his hair, which hurt, so he stopped.  “They were the basis of a civilization,” he whined.  “You can’t have an organized society if you don’t have domesticated livestock.”

“You can’t have an organized society if you starve everyone to death first,” Rat retorted, her sea-green eyes totally unsympathetic.  “You’ll find more chickens.”

Very unlikely, considering the current state of Human devolution,” Slade replied.  “Because of course hungry Humans are going to forget to eat the chickens running around the neighbor’s yard when their children are starving to death.”

“You were going to let people die for some birds,” Rat said.  “That is unacceptable on Wednesday through Monday.  Tuesday, you don’t want to eat your chickens, that’s fine.”

“Speaking of that,” Tyson said, still eying the leftover chicken that had been portioned for Slade earlier that night, but which he hadn’t eaten out of protest, “you gonna eat that?”

“You know what?” Slade demanded.  “Let them starve.  Even one Human corpse would have been enough to feed my flock of chickens for at least—”

“Shut up, or I’m going to make you go get those disgusting feet you stuffed in your pillow and throw them into the fire.”

Slade’s mouth fell open.  He had been reasonably sure she hadn’t been thinking about anything at all as he squirreled the feet away.

Tyson frowned.  “Wait.  I thought you guys were in there having…  Wait.  He was playing with chicken feet while you guys were having—”

Yes,” Slade interrupted, “when we were having sex, Tyson, which I know obsesses you because you’re not getting any, but try to focus.  Livestock—i.e. meat—is important for Human survival as a species, because the protein facilitates brain development and muscle mass.  Without it, we aren’t working at prime capacity, and if we’re not working at prime capacity, the kreenit are going to kill us all.  I’m saving the feet because I want to have the genetic material on hand to reproduce my flock if we ever find ourselves in that laboratory Rat keeps talking about.”

“More food for us,” Rat said, shrugging.

“It would be, if you didn’t eat them,” Slade cried.  Exasperated, he shrieked, “Do you even know what patience is?”

“I do when I’m looking down the scope of a rifle,” Rat said calmly.  She had her Congie knife out again and was sharpening it needlessly.

“It takes a year or more to build a sustainable flock.  If you could just wait a—”

“I thought you’re supposed to eat chickens,” the ignorant Congie interrupted, looking honestly perplexed.  “I still don’t see why you’re upset we ate your chickens.”

Slade stared at Rat.  Because he’d explained it.  Six times.  “You have to create a sustainable population,” Slade said.  “A population can’t sustain itself if you wipe out all the adult specimens.”

“You have chickens,” Rat said, gesturing to the cardboard boxes of chicks that Slade painstakingly hatched in his self-made solar incubators only a week before.  “They’ll make more chickens.”

“In a year,” Slade cried.

She cocked her head and blinked as if that hadn’t occurred to her.

“Meanwhile, you destroyed what little protein supply we had in the form of their eggs and reduced the genetic diversity by half,” Slade snapped, pressing his advantage.  “You’ve bottlenecked us, and it’s only the first generation!”

“People were going to die,” Rat said.  Because that made everything better.

At that point, Slade stopped trying to argue, because it was as pointless as trying to debate a stick of wood.  Instead, he began counting down the number of minutes in his head until Tuesday started.  He’d already planned out his sweet, sweet revenge, but as he sat there, waiting, he kept finding ways to tinker with it.  For instance:  Did he want her to apologize on her knees or on all fours?  Both of them had their benefits…

“What are you doing?” Rat asked eventually, sounding somewhat suspicious.  “You’re not normally this quiet.”

“I’m getting even,” Slade said absently.  From either position, her copious begging was nice.  He then began to plot out what she would wear for her day of retribution, mentally stripping her down and fitting various thongs, brassieres, stockings, miniskirts, and leather on her supple body, examining the garments from all sides and poses as he determined the merits of each.

Unfortunately, that display devolved into other types of displays, and suddenly Slade was quite thoroughly distracted.

“Are you pole-dancing in your head again?” Rat demanded, startling him.  “You get this weird look on your face when you’re pole-dancing.”

“No,” Slade said.  She was pole-dancing.  He needed, he decided, to rig a pole for her personal use this Tuesday—which was approximately two minutes away.  She would force the Guild to march again and leave his contraption behind on Wednesday, but until then, Tuesday, his day, would be a day of rest and entertainment.  He began plotting out the schematics of the device as he watched her do a spinning straddle down into a box splits.

“He’s lying,” Tyson said, flicking a cleaned chicken bone at him across the fire.  The big blond reached for another of Slade’s chicken legs.

“You’re lying,” Rat agreed.

“What size gloves do you wear?” Slade asked distractedly, trying to gauge the best dimensions of the pole.  He watched Rat do a Stag down to a Rainbow Marchenko, then her sweaty body swiveled from a Closed Inside Leg Hang into a Chopsticks.

Rat squinted at him.  “Large women’s, medium men’s.”

“So approximately eight, eight and a half inch circumference around the palm?” he asked, mentally adjusting the pole circumference to more closely match her ideal grip size.

“Don’t give him any more information,” Tyson said.

This time, the Congie’s suspicion was palpable.  “I don’t know the scale in inches.”

But Slade already had everything he needed.  At 12:00:01 a.m., he jumped to his feet and kicked the high heels into the fire.  “Tell the flock I’ll be back in an hour or two!  I need to scout out some supplies!”

Rat squinted at him.  “It’s Monday.  You have to call them your ‘groupies’ or your ‘gang’ or your ‘followers’ on Monday.”

Slade paused to grin at her.  “And that, my booted badass, is where you’d be wrong.”

Tyson, who had become their official time-keeping judge, glanced down at his watch, one of the old mechanical wind-ups that hadn’t been destroyed by the EMP.  “I’ll be damned,” he muttered.  “How the hell do you do that?”

Slade blew them a kiss, then skipped off towards the tent for something warmer to wear, visions of pole-dancing Congies twisting in his head.

He had just finished getting dressed and had started digging through his things beside his bed when he heard someone open the flap and come inside behind him.

“I need to organize a search party,” Slade told his minion without looking up.  “We’re looking for a metal pole and welding equipment, and we only have a few hours.”

“Listen, you crazy nutbag,” an obviously upset man said, “I’m not a killer—they put me away for something I didn’t do—but the camp got together and I drew the short straw.  It’s time for some new leadership.”

Slade held up a dildo and eyed it.  He’d spent several hours modifying it a few days back, cannibalizing the power source on one of Tyson’s guns and hiding the evidence in the woods while the big man—and everyone else—was sleeping.  As far as Tyson knew, he’d just ‘lost’ it somewhere along the line.  For Slade, though, it had just been one more way to pass time that he wished he didn’t have.

Insomnia.  Along with the severe, mind-crushing headaches that seemed to be getting worse regardless of how much gum Slade chewed, insomnia was one of the many unfortunate side-effects of being completely brilliant.  He was lucky if he got three hours a night, which gave him four hours more than most people every day in which he had to amuse himself or utterly lose his mind.  “The pole needs to be about forty-five to fifty millimeters in diameter, with either a chrome or a titanium-gold finish.”

“Sorry I gotta do this to you, man.  Real sorry.  I mean, maybe I did stab a few people in my younger days, but none of them died, you know?  Even the paralyzed kid lived.  So believe me when I tell you I’m a good guy, and this is really hard.”

“About ten to twelve feet tall would be ideal, because we’re going to be planting it three to four feet in the ground for stability.”  He swiveled to face the man.  “For the welding equipment, you can skip the arc welder.  This little baby can do up to two hundred and thirty volts without breaking a sweat, so all I really need is some scrap metal and jumper cables.  I’m sure there’s a handyman’s garage around here that probably has something like that.”

The man—Slade recognized him as Jimmy—slowly glanced at the big phallic object in Slade’s hand.  He blinked like a bovid, then said, “I must have missed something.”

“Oh, you did,” Slade said helpfully.  Slade made the super-secret series of clockwise-counterclockwise twists needed to turn on his device.

With the last click, tent-wide arcs of blue-white energy began crackling from the device and dancing across every surface inside the tent with the same ear-piercing sizzle as an electric chair mid-fry.  The man with the gun started to scream, even though the energy was dancing harmlessly across his body and shooting out his fingertips and toes.

Slade had been trying to improve upon the Tesla Coil, but he’d gotten sidetracked by how much fun it was going to be to totally blow Rat’s mind when she was least expecting it.  As a result, his little device hadn’t really had much of a purpose except to make his hair stand on end and the room snap and course with lightning.  As the man was screaming, Slade reached out and took his gun.

“See,” Slade said, having to shout to be heard above the sizzle of electrons as he brought the device right up close to his face, so the blinding blue-white arcs were dancing across his features.  He could feel electricity coruscating through his hair, licking every surface of his body.  He took a step forward, the eardrum-shattering electric crackle blotting out all other sound in the world.  “I was planning on saving it for Rat, since my lady love doesn’t yet appreciate my genius, but I might as well try it on you first.  Would you like to experience the oral or rectal version?”  He reached for the other guy, surrounded by the stink of ozone.

Shrieking, the man stumbled backwards until he fell on his ass on the tent floor.

Seeing Slade lit up like the epicenter of the Electron Apocalypse above him, the man’s blue eyes widened until there was nothing but whites all around, then, screaming, scrabbled up from the ground and dove out of the tent.  He was still screaming as he stumbled down the hill, back into the main camp.  Outside, heavy boots were running towards the tent flap from the scene of their crime at the fireside.  “What in the ever-lovin’ fu—”  Slade saw a shadow as one of his thugs reached for the flap.

Slade switched the device off and the tent immediately returned to total serenity and silence.

Tyson lifted the flap, revealing both him and Rat staring in the entryway to the now-dark tent, looking in at him suspiciously.

“Hello,” Slade said.  He grinned, showing them his teeth, which he had taken to bleaching because he was having to find new and interesting ways to amuse himself at night.

“It looked like the Apocalypse just took place inside your tent,” Tyson informed him, panting and disheveled.

“Oh really?”  Slade frowned and glanced around him.  “When?”

“Just now,” Tyson snapped.  “You can’t tell us you didn’t see that lights show just now.  My retinas still hurt.”

“Oh?” Slade asked.  Come to think of it, his retinas were somewhat seared.  He was having to look at Tyson sideways, because, by putting the device so close to his face, he now had purple after-images lanced through his vision.  Or was that because one of the bolts had danced across his eyeballs?  He hoped the damage wasn’t permanent.  “A lights show?  Is the aurora out?”  He cocked his head to look at the sky over their shoulders.

Tyson narrowed his eyes.

“Where did you get the gun?” Rat demanded.

“From that guy,” Slade said, gesturing at the man who was still screaming somewhere deeper in camp.  The other two, who apparently hadn’t heard the man screaming over the crackling sizzle of electricity, gave each other a confused look and glanced out at the camp behind them.

“You want it?” Slade offered.  After all, he owed Tyson a gun.  He held it out.

Tyson made no move to take it.  “What did you do?”

“Is that a dildo?” Rat demanded.  Her eyes had migrated to the big obelisk-shaped device in his other hand.  “What are you doing in here with a gigantic dildo?

“With another man,” Tyson added, raising a brow.

“Nothing.”  Anymore.  Slade carefully tucked the dildo into the front pocket of his new flannel shirt, but was dissatisfied with the way it stuck out ridiculously—it had to be a big dildo to hold a plasma pistol’s power core—and shoved it into the cargo pocket of his shorts, instead.

“Sam, cut the bullshit, what did you do?” Tyson growled.

“I really don’t know what you’re talking about,” Slade said.  He clapped his hands together and grinned.  “Who’s up for a scavenging run?”

His thugs just continued to stare at him.  Sighing deeply, Slade brushed past them, into the main campsite, preparing to pluck voluntolds from his flock.

Except his flock was packing, putting their gear and equipment into their backpacks and filtering out into the darkness in little groups.

“Huh,” Slade said.

Rat and Tyson came to stand beside him, watching the exodus.

“Was wondering when that would happen,” Tyson said.  “With all those crazy ultimatums you’ve been making lately.”

“They were her ultimatums,” Slade muttered.  “Guys, aren’t you going to stop my minions from leaving?!”  He gestured for them to descend upon the unfaithful with their thuggish vengeance.

Rat yawned and went back to the fire to sharpen her knife.

“Rat,” Slade hissed.  “They’re leaving.  The workforce of our new society is leaving.”

Rat ignored him.

Slade considered telling her to go get them, since it was Tuesday, but then shrugged.  They’d be back.  Or at least half of them would.  If they were lucky.

Still standing at Slade’s side on the ridge, Tyson said, “What was the light in the tent, Sam?”

“Nothing,” Slade said.  “You up to go scavenging with me?”

“What for?” Tyson asked.

“It’s Tuesday, so I need to find a good pole and it’s going to be too heavy for me to carry back on my own,” Slade said.

Tyson gave him a blank look.

“For Rat to dance on!” Slade cried, disgusted that he had to explain himself.

Tyson’s face cleared.  “It’s midnight,” he said.  Then, depressingly, he dumped the second meager offering his neurons had managed to process into the conversation, following that first obvious statement up with another:  “I hear those huge lizards hunt by heat signatures.  You should wait until daylight.”

“That’s seven hours from now!” Slade cried.  He refused to waste seven good hours of his day huddling in the dark because of a gigantic alien lizard.  “Rat!” he shouted.  “Get over here!  We’re going scavenging!”

“It’s just past midnight,” she called back, sounding bored.  “You should wait until it’s light out.  Less chance the kreenit will track you in daylight.”

Slade, who had become over-exposed to thuggish small-mindedness in the last few weeks, had to contain the urge to prance in frustration.  “Opinion noted and disregarded.  Now let’s go!  We’re wasting time!”



“Better do as he says,” Tyson said.  “He gets something in his head, he doesn’t let it go for weeks.”  Glancing back at Slade’s forehead with a thoughtful look, Tyson continued, “It kinda gets stuck in there, like magnets lodged in a cat’s intestines.”

“Besides,” Slade said, ignoring the jab, “as I mentioned before, it’s Tuesday.  You have to do what I say on Tuesday, and I say we’re off to hunt down a good striptease pole.”

Rat rolled her eyes and got to her feet, shoving the monomolecular blade into its sheath.  “You’re the Prime.  Today.  Which way we going?”

Slade, who had been doing reconnaissance in his head while talking to them, said, “There’s going to be a good pole in a suburban basement that way.”  He gestured to the west.

Tyson glanced at Rat, then back at him.  “How do you know that?”  He sounded unnerved, like Slade had said he was going to die in two and a half days.

“I’m guessing,” Slade said.  “It’s a guess, Tyson.  Nobody can know something like that.”  And then, before they could waste his processing capacity with more useless vocalizations, he started into the forest, heading in the direction of the closest town.

#

“Sam, you’ll need a flashlight!” Rat called after her ka-par slave’s retreating back.  Unlike herself, Sam’s eyes hadn’t been augmented by the Congressional Ground Force to better see—and kill—its enemies in the dark.

Sam either ignored her or didn’t hear her, which was just as common.  Sighing, Rat picked up another couple flashlights and tucked them into her vest pockets.  She watched Sam go for a moment before asking Tyson, “You gonna follow him?”

“Debating,” the big blond said.  He cocked his head at Rat.  “You?”

Rat supposed that if she let Sam go off alone, it would solve her dilemma of when to kill him.  “Same.”

Tyson grunted with a nod, still watching him.  “Know what you mean.”

“Yeah,” Rat said.  She crossed her arms, staring off into the darkness, still trying to decide.

Long minutes passed.

“He’s gonna die out there,” Tyson pointed out, after Sam’s back had disappeared amidst the bushes and he hadn’t come back whimpering about poison ivy or bugs.

“Yep,” Rat agreed.

“I’d miss his omelets,” Tyson said.

Strangely, Rat felt the same way.  “Yeah.”

Neither of them made any effort to move.

“Is the sex good?” Tyson finally asked.

“Phenomenal,” Rat said.

Tyson chuckled.  “Thought so.”  Another pause.  “Think he’d ever swing for schlong?”

Rat considered.  “Maybe, but I doubt it.”

Tyson grunted.  Together they continued to watch the forest where their Fearless Leader had disappeared.  Then, “Mind if I try?”

“Go for it,” Rat said.  She didn’t plan to let him live much longer, anyway.

Tyson grunted again, though he looked interested.  “Think I’d have to drug him?”  The big man sounded as if he were only half joking.

“Nah,” Rat said.  “Sam said drugs don’t work on him.  Probably the Huouyt hybrid thing.”

Tyson sighed.  “I was working up to asking when you showed up.  You know he totally fell for you, right?”

Rat actually felt a little guilty.  “I gathered.”

Tyson nodded and they fell into another silence.

“We should probably go save him,” Rat said.

“Probably.”

They continued to stand there in contemplation.  Then, heaving a huge sigh, Tyson shrugged his rifle over his shoulder and, shaking his head, started down the hill after Sam.

Rat, who was the only one of the three who could see in the dark, grabbed her own rifle and went after them.  She could wait another week to fulfill her obligation to Mekkval and kill Sam.  She was, surprisingly, enjoying Sam…

#

Slade realized he had walked into a kreenit’s feeding grounds around the same time he stepped on a digested pile of Human bones.  It took him a moment to realize they were whole Human bones.  Because the alien lizards swallowed people whole.  Because they were big enough to do that.

Slade spent several moments staring down at the pile of bones, calculating the size of the creature responsible, and the time elapsed since the turd’s gestation.

It was still steaming.  That wasn’t good.

A few feet away, someone started screaming—a horrible sound that ended in a wet rip—and big feet started thundering towards him through the total darkness.  He vaguely saw a set of jaws go wide, sharklike rows of triangular black teeth like an unholy saw rushing towards him in the darkness.

Because he was a resourceful man, Gorthrak the Destroyer calmly pulled out his lightning weapon as the ancient evil dragon—no, a tarasque—descended upon him…

#

Sam’s thin, feminine scream was unmistakable even from this distance, followed by the enraged roar of a kreenit.

“Oh shit, do you hear that?” Tyson cried, breaking into a run.

Rat did hear it, and a lump of dread was coalescing in her gut.  Dread, and guilt, because she knew Sam was already dead.  She put on speed, following Tyson at a lope.

About three seconds later, the dark forest ahead of them burst into an overwhelming array of sizzling electricity that made them both gasp and stagger, blind from the forked after-images seared into their retinas.

Rat stumbled.  “What the…”

“It’s gotta be that fucking dildo,” Tyson muttered, shielding his eyes with one arm.  “Come on.”

Indeed, as they crested the small hill overlooking the scene and came to a halt, they saw Sam’s dildo lying on the ground, electrified like something from the bowels of a Lethian megastorm, arcing lightning fifty digs up and down the trunks of nearby trees.  Sam was nowhere in sight.  The kreenit itself was rearing back, roaring and thrashing as if it had eaten something bad.

Which it probably had.

With the kreenit distracted, both of them dropped to their stomachs to survey the scene, which could have been taken right out of a Jahul horror-vid. Men and women, a lot of whom Rat recognized, were ripped apart en masse on the glossy, blood-soaked ground—an indication that the kreenit wasn’t hungry, and was simply playing with its food to pass the time.

“Shit,” Tyson whispered, barely audible.  “You know how to kill that thing?”

“I need it to be facing the opposite direction,” Rat said, “but yeah.”

“Define facing the other direction,” Tyson said warily.

“I need a shot at the back of its head,” Rat whispered back.  She would have given anything at this point to be protected by Max’s heat-cancellation technology, because she knew at any second, the kreenit was going to notice them and then both she and Tyson would follow in Sam’s footsteps.

“Okay,” Tyson whispered.  “Say I get its attention.  How much time would it take to kill it?”

“Too much,” Rat replied.  The kreenit continued to scream and shake its head, almost as if whatever it had just swallowed was fighting back.

“Twenty bucks says he’s still alive in there,” Tyson said.

“No way,” Rat whispered back, but she wasn’t so sure…

They waited, but the kreenit swallowed whatever it had been struggling with, then started to stalk around the electrified dildo, snarling, jerking back and howling whenever the arcs of energy hit its muzzle, knocking down trees with its angry thrashing.  The kreenit was getting dangerously close, one of the trees hitting the ground only a few digs from them, and Tyson looked about ready to get up and run.

“Hold on,” Rat whispered.  “He’s gonna give me a shot.”  It wasn’t ideal, because the rifle she currently held was two grades lower than the plasma weapons she was used to using, but it was going to have to do.

Tyson tensed, but she was surprised when he remained motionless in position, waiting.  She knew that most, when faced with such raw animal power, would have bolted mindlessly on sheer adrenaline and terror.  “Where?” he whispered, sighting on the animal.

“Behind the horns.”  Rat waited until the kreenit, snapping and snarling at the dildo, had walked in a semicircle, then, once the bald spot at the back of its head was within sight, she fired.

Tyson fired with her, and the beast jerked as one of their rounds struck home.  “Go!” Rat cried, jumping up.  “We’ve gotta get at its chest!”  She raced down the hill, Tyson close on her heels, and dropped her rifle to pull out her laser knife.  She reached the unconscious kreenit’s front quarters and began cutting away scales, both the oil-on-water, silky-smooth outer scales and the gold, glassy-feeling underscales, revealing the purple-tinged flesh underneath.  She started hacking away at that to expose a pathway into the creature’s chest…

Already, it was starting to twitch and wake.

“Fire!” she cried, jumping out of the way.  Tyson took aim and started emptying his plasma rifle into the creature’s innards.

Before she was fully satisfied it would die, Rat grabbed him, ducked to retrieve her gun, and started running out of range.  “Come on!” she cried.  “It’s gonna get ugly!”

And indeed, when the kreenit regained its feet, it shrieked and starting clawing at itself, then began shredding the land around it, throwing pieces of trees, bodies, and rocks into the air in its death-throes.

“Whoa,” Tyson whispered, once the house-sized, rainbow-scaled beast had finally gone still.  The place where they had been standing was a churned, splintered mess lit up in the continued electric sizzle of Sam’s device.  The land had been pulverized for a five-rod radius, all except for its car-sized piles of crap, which it seemed to have avoided on instinct even in its death-throes.

It was then that they heard the muffled groan coming from the kreenit’s body.

Rat and Tyson glanced at each other.  Cocking her head, Rat said, “Could he…”

The sound came again, more desperate this time.

“Take my knife!” Rat cried, tossing Tyson her monomolecular hunting blade.  She yanked her own laser knife free and rushed down to the kreenit’s stomach and began prying away scales, cutting them free from the purple skin as quickly as she could.  Tyson got in beside her and soon they had enough of a space cleared to start hacking at the creature’s belly itself.  The muffled grunting sounds, however, had stopped.  “Hold on, Sam!” Rat shouted as they cut the creature’s abdomen open, spilling rancid guts everywhere.  The stomach, a white balloon of fetid flesh the size of a van, became visible after they pulled intestines and other orange and purple organs away.  Climbing up into the mess, Rat stabbed her knife through the inch-thick wall of the stomach lining, then tore downward.  Human body parts—as well as tree branches, stones, and roofing tiles—slid out in a wet wave through the slit she had created.

The bodies that came out, however, were unmistakably dead.

“Sam!” Rat called, climbing into the stomach cavity with a flashlight to look for him.

“You think he’s lodged in the esophagus?” Tyson cried, wading into the creature’s innards with her.

“Maybe,” Rat said.  “Sam!”  When she got no response, she tossed the flashlight to Tyson.  “Here, hold this.”  She grabbed a pair of booted feet that were only halfway inside the stomach and started yanking on them, throwing her full weight into it.  “Sam!  Saa—

The legs came off at a truncated torso, leaving Rat tumbling backwards amidst the stomach acids and body parts.

“Mothers’ scales,” she whispered softly.  “Sam…”

“I think I’m going to be sick,” Tyson said.  He put his hand to his mouth and started to turn away.

“Hey guys,” Sam said, cocking his head and looking in at them from just outside the abdominal cavity.  “See?  I told you I’d make something useful with all my late-night tinkering!”  He was carrying his dildo in his pocket again, the pink device deceptively quiet, no longer emitting the fifty-dig arcs of electricity that they had unmistakably seen earlier.

Sam glanced at the insides of the creature’s ribs, then at the pile of bodies they’d climbed atop, then back at them.  With a little frown of confusion, he said, “Why are you guys crawling around inside a lizard’s stomach?”

Rat, who was covered in viscera both Human and alien, found herself unable to reply.

Tyson, who was similarly doused in gore, said, “We saw you get eaten, Sam.”

Sam gave them a confused look.  “Obviously, you didn’t.”

“Well, then how the fuck did you—” Tyson started.

“I threw my lightning weapon at the dragon’s face and buried myself in its hot shit as it was distracted, using the ambient heat to blind it to my presence,” Sam said, as if Tyson was a furg for asking.  “I figured if it was like most creatures, it would hesitate in nosing through its own crap to find me.  Parasites and all that.”

Indeed, he seemed to have several wriggling black intestinal worms stuck to his crap-soaked shirt, each about the length of his arm.

Rat felt her fists tightening on the wet fluids that now coated her gloves, arms, legs, and every other part of her body.  “Sam…” she started, trying not to seethe.

Sam glanced over his shoulder.  “Hey look, our wayward flock is back!”  Grinning, he turned and waved to the bedraggled groups of people filtering out of the woods towards them.  “Come claim your dragon scales!” he called loudly.  “These babies are what heirlooms are made of, folks!  Tell your grandkids you were part of a dragon slaying!  They’re useful as anything from frying pans to riot shields—completely non-stick!  Tithes will be made to the main camp in the form of vegetable seeds, cannabis, or survival gear.”

Totally disgusted, Rat climbed out of the beast’s stomach cavity with Tyson.  And, as soon as the two of them emerged, a ragged cheer and applause burst out from the little group that had gathered around them—approximately half the size that the Guild had been before the night had started.

Rat blushed, never having liked the limelight, especially after going to work for Mekkval.  She bared her teeth in what she tried to make a smile, hoping they would stop.  Tyson, too, just gave their gathered supporters a disinterested grunt.

“Great!” Sam said, turning back to her.  “Our minions have been properly rebuked for their errant ways.  Now we can go find that pole!”

“Sam,” Rat said, brushing past him in such a way that she didn’t touch his stinking, crap-covered body, “you want a pole, you’re gonna carry it.  I’m going to go clean off.”  Then she turned and started trudging back to camp to sluice the blood and entrails from her hair and clothes.

“Your disobedience is noted and will be addressed later.  Can you do the splits?”

Rat narrowed her eyes, but kept going.

Behind her, she heard, “You!  You look like you’ve got some decent upper body strength.  And you.  You’re both coming with me—I need a couple of able-bodied young apes to carry something for me…”


The Rat

Next Monday, 55 Days after Judgement…

“You’re missing rhythm,” Rat said as she looked through her cards.  “Soul, you know?  Stop moaning and give it some more pep.” She played a king of clubs to try and break Sam’s run.  “Right now, your ‘singing’ sounds like I skewered something with an ovi.”

“It’s not singing,” Tyson said.  The bulky, six-foot, blond hit-man winced at her play, “it’s squalling.”

“It’s cruel and unusual!” Sam whined, dropping all semblance of ‘singing’ with a pout.  The lanky, six-foot-seven datasifter was in his thong again—neon pink because it made him easier to see in the darkness—hovering close to the fire because the night had gotten chilly and Rat had refused to let him wear a coat.  It was, after all, Monday, and she was enjoying watching her ka-par slave’s newfound shoulder muscles ripple, such that they were.  The two weeks of pushups were doing him good.  His abs, though, could definitely use work.  She mentally added More Crunches to her To-Do list before bed tonight.

“Yeah,” Tyson said, “cruel for us.”  He played an eight.

“Tell her that,” Sam said, disgusted.  He jabbed his cards at Rat.  “She’s the one insisting I humiliate myself.”

“I can see your hand,” Rat said.

“Me too,” Tyson said, looking.

“So what?” Sam said, waving it at them.  “I know exactly which cards you have in your hands, so it just makes it a fair game.”  The Tesla of the Congressional Era threw his cards down, face-up, and crossed his arms over his chest and glowered at them in petulant disgust.

Rat narrowed her eyes.  She’d been keeping Sam singing, juggling, dancing, and standing on his head for the last two hours, and he still continued to win.  She had suspected cheating, but she was dealing with a super-genius of headache-inducing proportions.  “Fine,” she said.  “Which cards do I have?”

“Two of clubs, four of diamonds, seven of spades.”  Sam had said it without even hesitating.  Like he was bored.

Rat squinted at him, then at her two of clubs, four of diamonds, and seven of spades.  “No I don’t.”

Sam sighed, deeply and gave her that look.

Rat blushed.  “I don’t.”

“Prove it,” Tyson said, sounding curious, now.

“Yeah,” Sam said, smirking at her.  “Prove it.”

“So what’s he got?” Rat demanded, refusing to blush.

Sam heaved a deep sigh.  “Jack of hearts, six of clubs, and a queen.  Pretty sure it’s a queen of spades, but it could be clubs because of the way he responded to that last club you threw down.”  As if he was talking about what he had for dinner.

Tyson’s immediate stiffening was enough to tell her that Tyson did, indeed, have a jack of hearts, a six of clubs, and a queen of clubs.

“I have a headache, people,” Sam said, as if he had simply revealed the time of day.  “I need my gum.  I’m going to get cranky if I don’t get my gum.”

He can’t read minds, Rat reminded herself.  He’s just that burning smart.  Still, she could see why the talk around camp was that Sam was telepathic.  It was uncanny.  Not even Sol’dan had made her feel this exposed, like he was reading into her every tiny action, carefully calculating out every mental pathway she blundered down, psychologically profiling her based on things as simple as her use or non-use of contractions or tucking or untucking her shirt.  Worse, he had no concept of personal space.  Several times, she’d caught him watching her breathe when he thought she was asleep, or going through her things when she was relieving herself in the woods.  Rat put her cards face-down and crossed her arms.  “Sing.”

“Twinkle Twinkle Little Star,” Tyson offered.  “That should be fun.”  He, too, put down his hand.  He was chewing a piece of grass again, looking bemused.

“Oh bullshit on that,” Sam cried, jumping to his feet.  The triangle of heavy-duty neon pink canvas wrapping his crotch jiggled, leaving little to the imagination.  Holding the makeshift ‘thong’ in place were two industrial-strength bungie-cords that Rat had commissioned a seamstress from their group to make into a replacement for Sam’s last three thongs, which got ‘ruined’ when he decided to ‘punish’ wayward ‘evildoers’ of his tribe last Tuesday with running laps through the thickest, most tangled brush in the area wearing the various thongs Rat had found for him until they ‘disintegrated’ due to ‘poor craftsmanship.’

“I’ve had enough of this crap!”  Sam gestured at his groin, then at the card game, then at the area in general.

“It wouldn’t be so bad if you hadn’t intentionally destroyed your wardrobe,” Rat said, plucking a half-rotten, bug-ridden orange from the meager pile they had picked off the tree in the back of someone’s yard.  She used her knife to slice the skin, then started to peel it.

“I told you, I didn’t,” Sam whined, pointing at the onlookers at the other fires.  “They destroyed the thongs.  Blame them.”

Rat narrowed her eyes.  “You made them do hurdles through bramble bushes and scrub oak.”

“As punishment,” Sam reiterated.  “I was punishing them.”

“You were intentionally ruining your wardrobe,” Rat replied.

He made an indignant gasp.  “It’s not my fault they didn’t treat my belongings with respect.”  Sam gestured to himself in horror.  “I am the victim, here.  The uncouth barbarians ruined my precious undergarments.”  He shoved a thumb through the doubled-over industrial bungie-cord around his waist and pushed it towards her to indicate how tight it was.  “This is just ridiculous.”

“That,” Rat said, “is for ruining my favorite thong.  I liked the purple one.  Until we can find you a decent replacement, you’ll be wearing something of a ‘higher quality craftsmanship’ Wednesday through Monday.”

Sam groaned and released the bungie cord again and tugged at something between his buttcheeks.  “It chafes.  A lot.”

“Yup,” Rat said, completely unconcerned.  “Remember that next time you decide to get intelligent.”

“I am intelligent,” Sam whined, releasing the bungie-induced wedgie with another whine.  “I can’t help it.”

“Tyson?” Rat asked, inspecting the orange for bugs.  “Was Sam being intelligent when he destroyed my favorite thong?”

“My mom said genius and intelligence were two different things,” Tyson said, skewering a piece of rat from a kebob on the fire with his big hunting knife.  “This proves her point.”

Sam gave him an irritated look.  “Don’t you have something fabulous to do?”

“On second thought,” Tyson said, finishing his rodent kebob, “Have him sing Old MacDonald Had A Farm.”  He snatched up a bruised apple from their pile of plunder and began slicing it with his huge hunting knife, grinning.

Sam purpled.  “I am the smartest man on the planet!” he shrieked.  He stomped his foot, further jiggling his package.  Beyond their campfire, the rest of the survivors clustered around their own fires, watching the goings-on at the leaders’ camp with unconcealed interest.

“Hmm,” Tyson mused, eyes dropping to the neon pink duck canvas over their leader’s groin.  “Not bad.”  He bit off a chunk of apple from the tip of his blade, taking it all in.  “Though I’ve definitely seen better.”

“Abs?” Rat suggested.

“Abs,” Tyson agreed.  “Too pudgy.”

Sam actually sputtered.

“Old MacDonald,” Rat ordered, though more due to the vehemence of Sam’s reaction than because she had any idea what song it was.  “It’s Monday.”

Sam narrowed his creepy white-blue eyes at Rat.  “For another three hours and twenty-two minutes.”

The look Sam gave her actually gave Rat tingles.

“Sing, girly-man,” Tyson said.

“I am not a ‘girly-man,’” Sam whined.

The big blond gestured with his big hunting knife at Sam’s pink thong. “Girly.” Then he made a vague gesture at the rest of Sam’s mostly-naked body, “…man.”  He sounded dubious of the second part.  Then he used the impressive blade to skewer a browning apple slice.  “Sing.”

Sam jabbed a big, accusatory finger at Tyson.  “You aren’t in charge of me.”

Tyson raised a platinum brow at Rat.  “So she is?”  For some reason, Sam still hadn’t explained to the rest of their group what had happened that afternoon in the woods after Sam had challenged Rat to ka-par.  He’d abided by her every command, but rather than tell the people who thought he was suddenly off his rocker that he was wearing a thong because he had lost a duel to an assassin who would kill him if he didn’t, he just let them believe whatever they wanted.  Like he didn’t care.

“Yeah, Sam,” Rat said.  “Why are you wearing a thong again tonight?”  She grinned and tossed a mostly-fresh piece of orange into her mouth.

Sam turned to look at her, blushed, swallowed, and dropped his hand.  Probably because, Rat guessed, if he told all their criminal friends the truth of losing to her at ka-par, it would undermine what little ‘street cred’ he had left as leader of their merry band.  Though the bungie-canvas ‘thong’ and ongoing caterwauling was already doing a bang-up job of that.  “Goes with my eyes,” he muttered.

“I think I’ll take a bit more music with my dinner,” Rat told him, around her orange.

Glaring, Sam began to mumble, “Old MacDonald had a farm…”

“Sing!” Tyson shouted, slapping Sam on the naked ass with the flat of his blade.  Though Tyson couldn’t know exactly why Sam did everything Rat told him to on Wednesday through Monday, he had certainly been the first to go with the flow.

Sam squealed and his appalling rendition rose several octaves.  “And on this farm was a gay Viking slut…”  Apparently pleased with the result, Tyson leaned back beside Rat and chewed on his apple, grinning.

“So how’d you do it?” Tyson finally asked, as the caterwauling continued.

“Do what?” Rat asked distractedly.  She was currently trying to determine the best exercises to beef up Sam’s scrawny thighs.

“Win a bet like that,” he gestured at the cacophony with his knife, “with a guy like him.”

“Not a bet,” Rat replied absently.  “A mental duel.”  Squats.  Definitely squats.  Beginning Wednesday.

Tyson peered at her over the apple slice.  “A mental duel.  With the Tesla of the Congressional Era.”

“…Ee-ii-ee-ii-oooooh.

“Yep,” Rat said.

“He brought you into camp on a leash,” Tyson insisted.

“It was Tuesday,” Rat replied.  As opposed to Wednesday through Monday, which were her days.

The big man—he was obviously from a similar job description as Rat herself, though the computer geek with the gum fetish seemed none the wiser—gave her a sideways look and for a long time seemed to be puzzling out a complex problem.  “He really snare you?” Tyson finally asked.

“Yep.”  Rat stood up, sheathed her own knife, and tossed what was left of her orange on the tree-stump for someone else to scavenge.  “That’s enough,” she told her ka-par slave.  It wasn’t her place to divulge Sam’s secrets to his friends.  Especially when he had so little time left to live.  “Bedtime.”

“And on this far—”  Sam’s ‘music’ cut off mid-word.  “Thank you.”  Of all the things she’d had him do since losing at ka-par, singing obviously bothered him the most.  Rat decided she would have to remember that for the next time his seemingly inexhaustible knowledge got on her nerves.  Nothing else seemed to even faze him.

Then she realized there would be no ‘next time’.  She had to finish this.  Tonight.  Before she grew any more attached to the charming furg than she already had.  Leaving him alive for two weeks had been a mistake, one that she was about to rectify.

“You’re both just butt-hurt ‘cause you can’t beat me at cards,” Sam accused the two of them, panting.

It had been a bit annoying, but Rat was actually in a bad mood from something else entirely…

Mekkval.  She’d been procrastinating for weeks, now, but she had promised Mekkval she would kill this man.

This utterly adorkable, brilliant, eccentric, totally justly egotistical man.  It pissed her off.  Sam was obviously a self-made Huouyt hybrid—all Rat had to do was look at his downy, sometimes-wriggly white hair and his creepy electric eyes to know that—but Sam was special.  Sam didn’t sleep like a normal person, usually catching three hours at a time, tops, so he spent a lot of time awake by himself at night.  Whenever she found him spending his nights absently tinkering with something utterly incomprehensible to her by the fire as the rest of the group slept, then surprised them the next morning with some new gadget that, say, skittered ahead of the group scouting for the distinct chemical bouquet of his favorite gum, it became painfully clear to her that, within Sam’s twisted, kooky brain lay the salvation of the Human race.

And she had sworn to kill him.  She’d given her oath.  And she was going to do it tonight, before the terms of their ka-par duel dictated she would spend another day as his slave.  Not that Sam made that part of the agreement particularly odious, but still…  If he somehow figured out she was sent by the Dhasha Representative to kill him, Sam might simply tell her to hold still as he slit her throat, and she would be honor-bound by the laws of ka-par to comply.  On Tuesday.  Her previous two Tuesdays, Rat had been  inwardly terrified the entire day that Sam would somehow piece together her purpose, and she wasn’t willing to endure another twenty-four hours of uncertainty and anxiety, the nagging worry that Sam would simply put a gun to her head and pull the trigger because, sometime over the course of the last week, he discovered her true mission.

Sam held out a rolled-up towel to her, startling her out of her morose thoughts.

“Massage?” Sam asked, face hopeful.  At six-seven, carrying genetics of the psychopathic Huouyt, Sam still somehow managed to strike her as an excited puppy.

“I don’t feel like giving you a massage,” Rat said.  It still bothered her to use her left hand in a way that drew attention to the missing ring finger—probably left over from spending too much time with the Dhasha.  Missing body parts was a weakness, and showing weakness was asking to be killed.

Sam blinked at her in confusion.  “I want to give you a massage.”

Rat immediately grew suspicious.  Men, in her experience, didn’t offer such things without a damn good reason.  “Why?”

He got a charmingly devilish grin and said, “Why, because it means I can get a beautiful woman naked in my bed.”  At her snort, he waved a hand dismissively.  “But if you’re going to be difficult, I’ll just wait three hours and three minutes.”  That Sam always knew exactly what time it was—in any time-zone, Congie or otherwise, down to the nanotic, if necessary—was one of the many things that would have caused most people to put a plasma round through his forehead the first week of knowing him.  Since the illogical timekeeping on this tiny planet made no sense to her, however, Rat actually found his constant reminders refreshing.



“I don’t think I’m up for a massage right now,” Rat said, throwing her gun over her shoulder.  “Take the rest of the night off.  I’m going to go do some scouting.”  It hurt her to end it like this—she liked Sam—but it was something that needed to be done.  Just another job.  A mission.  She’d killed thousands of Huouyt in her lifetime.  This one would be no different.

Except…  Sam wasn’t just a Huouyt.  He was Human, too, and that was the problem.  He was the most disturbingly sexy, undeniably unique, utterly brilliant Human that Rat had ever met.  What she wanted to do was drag him back to the tent, take him up on that massage, and then make love to him until neither one of them could breathe.

But, as desk-driving Directors liked to say, in war, sacrifices had to be made.

Sam’s face fell, probably at the prospect of having her come back at dawn, after a good portion of his allotted time was already gone.  “But Tuesday is coming…”

“I’ll be back in time,” Rat assured him, hoping he couldn’t read her lie.  “I need to check the perimeter.”

Sam waved a dismissive hand.  “We have minions for that.”

Rat met the plea in his eyes and fought the urge to stay anyway, surprised at how strong it was.  After all, a massage did sound nice…  Then reason took back over.  She had duties to Mekkval, and she needed to get her head back on straight.  It was the first rule of her trade—never get attached to the target.  This was just another job, nothing more.  Besides, this man had willingly made himself part Huouyt.  That, in itself, was reason enough to blow his head off.  That he was walking around with the knowledge of how to do it to others was even worse.

Trying to seem as casual and inconspicuous as possible, Rat said, “With those recent thefts in camp, we need someone we can trust patrolling out there.”  She really didn’t want to tip off the supergenius-braniac-who-catches-Congies-with-snares that she was about to kill him.

Sam gestured at Tyson.  “Tyson, get out there.  I’m giving my lady love a massage.”

Tyson heaved a sigh and started reaching for his gun.

“I’ll be back soon,” Rat said, moving away from the fire before Tyson had a chance to stand.  “Couple hours, tops.”  Then she was striding away from the heat of the flames, into the coolness of night.  Behind her, Sam made a disappointed sound and she heard him drop back to his log beside the fire.  Immediately, she felt bad for turning him down.

Don’t.  He’s one of the ones you’re supposed to kill.  He’s a targetMekkval had given her a list, and Samuel Dobbs’s name was on it.  His very existence was a liability to the Human race, and he had to disappear before those genes could spread.

Rat walked faster, seeking the refuge of darkness.  Once she got out of sight of the fire, she swung wide, taking an indirect path to a good sniping hill on the other side of camp that she had noticed the day before.  As she circled the camp, Sam’s words haunted her.  My lady love…  He almost said it as if he believed it.  Which…burned.  He had no idea her true purpose here.  He had no clue that she was using him, that the only reason he was still alive was because there was the strong possibility that he could lead her to the other experiments.

…and that he was so damned cute in that damned crocheted Minion hat, neon pink industrial strength ‘thong,’ and combat boots, that she’d been unable to bring herself to do it last Monday.  And, truth be told, she didn’t want to do it, but Mekkval was a true prince, a warrior whose heart spoke for the greater good, who was willing to do the less palatable things that other species shirked from in order to uphold universal peace.

But Rat was stranded on a planet that wouldn’t see another Congressional ship for six hundred and sixty-six turns.  More than a hundred Human lifetimes.  If she didn’t kill Sam, Mekkval would never know…

Rat stumbled when she realized she was considering letting Sam live—walking away—because he was cute.  Maybe that was his goal.  Maybe that’s why he called her his ‘lady love.’  Huouyt were psychopathic liars at heart.  Maybe he was manipulating her.

But he’s not a Huouyt, she reminded herself.  Not even close.

…but he wasn’t Human, either.  Sam’s self-experimentation had taken Humanity’s greatest mind and turned him into something else entirely.  Something dangerous.  Something she had to execute before he could pass on his mutations and infect the Human race.  The logic was sound.  Mekkval’s reasoning was sound.  If she didn’t kill him, he was going to change Humanity.

But Sam was harmless.  Sure, he let people eat each other and blasphemed regularly, but she had watched him closely this last week.  He really was just a big goofball with an abnormally functional brain.  Surely Mekkval would never find out if she left him live.

Let him live?!? part of her screamed.  She had given her lord her oath!

Rat groaned and stopped beside a tree to slam a fist into her forehead.  No.  She could not let Sam live.  She had to kill him.  She was even then witnessing the genetic bottlenecking of a society.  Streets that had once teemed with vehicles were now utterly empty and abandoned; burgeoning metropolises with bustling spaceports had been suddenly reduced to timid bird and insect sounds. Humanity was facing one of the smallest genetic pools it had seen in thousands of years, the deaths of all but the very strongest within just a few weeks.  Bagan Regency analysts had predicted that only one out of two hundred Humans would survive the first three rotations.  By the end of the first turn, the population would hit pre Bronze-Age lows, then surge even lower, if the kreenit didn’t wipe Humans out altogether.  As ancestral hunters of Dhasha, there was always that possibility…

Yet, if Rat let Sam live, she knew, deep down, that the crazy, utterly brilliant bastard would survive the apocalypse unscathed.  That meant he would have ample opportunity to spread his genes.  That meant that other Humans, his children, would grow and multiply and the Human genome would shift and mutate into something else entirely.  Something…alien.

Before she could talk herself out of it, Rat settled down on a ridge overlooking the camp opposite her exit point and settled into a firing position.  She brought the scope to her eye and found Sam hunched over by the fire, dejectedly picking lint from his towel.

She owed it to Mekkval to pull the trigger.  Remembering her lord sitting in his own filth, replaying the death of his nephew Keval, Rat felt an aching in her chest.  Keval had not been given a warrior’s death.  He had been given a public execution by…freaks.  Genetically engineered vaghi that weren’t even Human, killing a whole regiment of Dhasha as if they had been swatting ants.  The Dhasha empire had shuddered from the blow.  Humans—weaklings—had done what Jreet and an entire Corps of PlanOps couldn’t.  Dhasha princes everywhere had clamored for blood; many for Mekkval’s, for allowing Earth to get away with a Sacred Turn instead of a planet-obliterating ekhta.

Now it was Mekkval’s duty to make sure every trace of those genetics were scoured from the Human gene pool, to restore the balance that had been lost with those neat rows of twitching Dhasha corpses, filling up the live feeds all over the known universe as government news reporters babbled on about the ‘terrifying new species’ and ‘the cowering Dhasha commanders’ and ‘the possible shift in power’.

Her lord had trusted her with his honor.  It was up to Rat to avenge his family, to make things right.  Though Mekkval could have sent half of Congress against this pitiful, barbaric little cesspool, though he could have utterly obliterated it with a word, he had sent only Rat.  A scalpel rather than a planet-killer.  He had sent his best, someone he trusted with something more important than his life, and it was up to her to finish the job.  To heal the wound before it could fester and destroy the whole.

If she failed—if she let Sam live—and Congress found traces of alien genetics in the Human population when it came back after its Sacred Turn, the Regency would simply order the annihilation of all Human life and the Watcher would rebuild the species based on DNA information it had acquired over seventy-four turns of the Human drafts.  To kill Sam now would be to save billions later.

Rat took a deep breath and brought her finger to touch the trigger.  Over the last week, she had made her ka-par slave draw detailed maps to the nearest lab in the mountains south of them, give directions, schematics, and experiment specifics in detail, and if he was telling the truth about this lab’s location, she was relatively sure that it was the missing compound Mekkval sought.  The cold truth of the matter was that she didn’t need Sam anymore.  She had everything tucked neatly in her satchel, could walk away without looking back.

But she liked him.  Through the scope, her eyes caught on that damn Minion hat he wore and she remembered the last time it had saved his life.  Maybe that’s why he wore it.  Maybe he was trying to look harmless.  Maybe it was a façade.

Rat’s finger started to squeeze the trigger.

Sam reached up, grabbed the forehead of his beanie, and pulled it from his head.  There was no mistaking the dejection in his gesture as he tossed it to the log beside him.  Tyson must have asked him a question, then, because Sam sighed and said something, making an unhappy gesture at the darkness surrounding their campfire…

…directly at Rat.

Rat froze, wondering if the gesture had been an accident, or if Sam knew she had circled camp and had pointed to exactly where she was hiding.  If he had, then he knew she was out there in a sniping position, debating whether to kill him.  Rat’s finger automatically tightened for her shot, then she hesitated.  But if he knew that, then why was he just sitting there, letting her take her shot?


#

“Oh, probably sitting out there on a hill somewhere, deciding whether or not to shoot me.”  Slade sighed and dropped his chin into his hands.  He had hoped an offer of a massage would have mollified her enough to delay the inevitable, but she had slipped off before he could throw a happy ending in there, too.

Tyson sat up and peered into the darkness where Rat had disappeared.  “You think she’s going to shoot us?”

“Not you.  Me,” Slade said.  “And she’ll have circled around somewhere.  She’ll probably be over to the east.  Better vantage point out there.  Excellent cover.”  He waved disgustedly at the darkness.  “As if I can even see her in the dark.”  He made a miserable sound.

Tyson paused in examining the darkness to frown at Slade.  “You’re saying the Congie is going to kill you?”

“I’m saying she’s deciding,” Slade replied.  He could feel the high-powered rifle even then sighting in on his temple.  He snagged a half-chewed pack of gum from the milk-crate-and-plywood ‘table’ and popped a piece into his mouth, trying not to fidget.

“Why?” Tyson asked.

“Because I sing for shit,” Slade replied, around the gum.  Already, the pounding headache that had been developing from the vibrations of singing was easing and he could start to concentrate again.  Inevitably, he began to think about how to escape Death-By-Congie, and, realizing he was doing it, Slade immediately shut off that train of thought and concentrated on the average temperature of their campfire, instead.

Tyson gave him a really long look, then said, “Why would Rat want to shoot you?”

Slade sighed, deeply, and braced himself to explain intricate alien politics to a projectile-toting pleb.  “Because Humans are on the bottom rung of the galactic hierarchy and our underbrained, slack-jawed, inbred scientists made some telepathic freaks that scared the utter bejesus crap out of the guys on the top.  The experiments’ very existence now threatens Dhasha supremacy and significantly undermines their stranglehold on power.  The Dhasha must have realized that an entire lab of those genetic experiments escaped the extermination squads Congress sent for them before Judgement, because their illustrious Representative Mekkval sent Rat here to kill off the survivors.”

“Oh,” Tyson said.  To his credit, the big blond didn’t seem too surprised.  He glanced at the darkness again.  “And she thinks you’re one of them?”

Without looking at Tyson, Slade grabbed a ‘lock’ of his ‘hair’ between thumb and forefinger and gave it a sharp tug.  When he released it, the white filaments continued to wriggle in protest, much like intestinal worms.

Tyson blinked at him.  “You let them experiment on you?”

Slade sighed deeply, then decided to explain exactly why the smartest man on Earth had spent thirty-two years with cranium-cracking headaches and the sexual potency of a three-legged giraffe.  “Not exactly,” Slade said.  “One day I was searching the web for something interesting, found a badly-concealed government site claiming to be an out-of-business hair salon, hacked a joke of a security system, found a neat experiment in there about long life and increased intelligence and figured I was already the smartest guy on the planet—hell, maybe the whole Outer Line—bored out of my mind, and richer than most Regency Representatives, and very recently laid, so I didn’t have much to lose.”

You experimented on you.”  Tyson didn’t sound surprised about that, either.

“Yeah, and just look at the good it did me,” Slade said, gesturing disgustedly at his crotch.  “Thirty-two years without so much as a boner, then she wakes everything up and decides to use me as target practice.  I might as well be dying a virgin, man.  That’s like living to sixteen without getting laid…twice.  Damn it!”

“You could run,” Tyson suggested.

Slade raised a brow at his friend.  “You do realize that she is a top-tier assassin that has been working for the known universe’s second most powerful politician killing the Regency’s most dangerous and high-profile targets for the last twenty turns, including Dhasha princes and Va’gan Huouyt, which has earned her a kill-on-sight order from the Triad on Va’ga, and she is still alive to talk about it?”

Tyson bit off a chunk of apple.  Around the pulp, he said, “Figured it was something like that.”  He seemed to consider.  “She that ‘Rat’ hero from Neskfaat who supposedly died?”

“The very same.”  Slade sighed, deeply.  “She’s so super-secret they faked her death, and I’ll bet you anything that Rodemax that disappeared was hers.”

Tyson’s brow went up and he turned to look at the darkness where Slade had gestured.  “She’s got a Rodemax?”  His excitement made the enormous blond look like a kid who’d just been told he was getting a Zero action figure for Christmas, complete with deceased Dhasha and a shoulder-Baga.

“Please try not to alert the assassin with the gun trained on my forehead that I know exactly where she is,” Slade said.

Tyson quite believably modified his look into a stretch and a yawn, then, after a languid moment, leaned forward and said, “She’s got a Rodemax?”  Again, like a kid in a candy store.

“Probably not anymore,” Slade said.  “Seeing how twitchy she is, I’d say the thing probably went rogue.  They do that, especially to non-Huouyt owners who piss them off.  They like to get their kicks that way.  Hunt the hunters, you know?”

Tyson’s blond brow furrowed.  “She’s got a Rodemax after her?  Her Rodemax?”

“Fits the evidence,” Slade said.  He shrugged.

The big Viking blinked.  “And why is she not dead?”

“Two reasons,” Slade said.  He held up a finger.  “First off, no operator that her Max is gonna find on this backwards shithole would equal her in skill.  Just isn’t gonna happen.  Two,” he held up another finger, “I’ve been keeping an eye out.”

Tyson raised an eyebrow brow.  “You.”  The way he said it, Slade might as well have just told him he liked the feeling of pregnancy.

“Yes, me,” Slade cried, deeply insulted.  “What do you think I was doing when I had everyone distracted with the thong-a-thon?”

“Sleeping?” Tyson said.

“No,” Slade replied.  “I was scouting the perimeter for weaknesses.”

“You were sleeping,” Tyson replied.  “I checked.”

“In my head,” Slade cried.  “I was scouting the perimeter for weaknesses in my head.”

Tyson grabbed another apple.  Like any self-respecting three-hundred-pound gay gorilla, Tyson ate a lot.  He bit into it thoughtfully, watching Slade.  Then, “Well, looks like she’s having second thoughts.”

“I know,” Slade said, his back still pricking.  “I wish she’d just hurry up and choose.  I need to take a dump.”  The very last thing he was going to do was die with a half-baked turd sticking out his butt, an industrial-strength pink ‘thong’ around his ankles.

#

Rat hated this.  She hated it.  It was simple.  Just pull the trigger.  Just pull.  The.  Burning.  Trigger.

But as the night wore on, her inner turmoil grew, and the minutes to Tuesday dwindled in her mental clock.  What if it was Tuesday?  If she killed Slade on Tuesday, would she be violating the terms of ka-par?  Technically, he hadn’t told her not to kill him…

Rat watched Slade get up and walk over to the edge of the firelight, and her finger started to depress in a moment of panic, thinking he was trying to escape or come looking for her.  Then Slade yanked the bungie cords off his waist and squatted and she quickly gave him a moment of privacy.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, he walked back to the fire and returned to an animated conversation with his friend.

Pull the trigger, Rat screamed at herself.  Pull it.  You owe it to Mekkval to pull it.

But she liked Slade.  Really liked him.  She got…along…with him.  Better than any man she’d ever met.  And she was never getting off this damned planet.  Ever

#

Tyson peered at him.  “You had sex at fourteen?”

Slade raised an eyebrow.  “You mean you didn’t?”

The big man reddened and grunted, obviously ruffled.

Slade waved a dismissive hand.  “It’s all right.  I was the Wunderkind of the Congressional Era.  Everyone from scientists to government goons to librarians wanted a piece of me.  I was cracking Huouyt code in my basement—stuff that supposedly couldn’t be done except by a Bajna or a Geuji—in between cheeseburgers and shooting shit up in Ueshi HAIS games.  Even before I was rich, every four-eyed egghead that survived the Draft would’ve loved to get me in her pants, and most tried.  After I was rich, well, let’s just say I had that shit on tap.”  He waved another disgusted hand at his crotch.  “‘Had’ being the key word.  Now I can’t get it up for anything but yon fair lady.”

“I pinned your picture up on my wall once,” Tyson said.

“I mean, sure,” Slade went on, “maybe it made it a little easier to do nannite computational theory in my head, but at the cost of sex?  Life is so unfair.”   Slade sighed, thinking of the three decades he had gone without being able to even get a hardon after downing his glowing purple Elixir of Headaches, Blindness, and Impotence.  Like a cursed object in a damned D&D game.

“Right next to Lee Doriath and Ottle Ooreikund.  Not much of a Zero fan, myself.”

What a waste.  The only benefit was that it had made him smarter, and able to instantly and totally concentrate on whatever task was at hand at the time.  That had actually been a plus, though he only gave himself a fifty percent chance of doing it again, should he be magically transported back to his less cautious Pre-Impotency days.  Still, stuff that had taken his full attention back then, could now be compartmentalized and worked on with several projects of the same magnitude at once, sometimes up to six or seven.  In the end, though, it had just made him even more bored because everything interesting he had to work on or contemplate was solved in a fraction of the time.  It made it even more exciting to take risks—like ka-paring a Congie—and Slade, feeling that telescopic lens boring into his forehead, could recognize that much more thrill-seeking of that magnitude wasn’t going to serve him well in the future.

“I gotta tell you, you got exceptional volume.  Always had a thing for smart studs.”

If he had a future.  Granted, the patch-wearing, fate-predicting vagrant had delivered unto him a soul-mate—who was currently peering at him through a self-stabilizing, thermal capable, auto-correcting, one-thousand-power sniper scope—but she hadn’t said how long he would have a soul-mate, a fact that Slade had unfortunately overlooked for the last ninety years.  He’d been naively looking forward to this moment since the instant he’d realized that becoming a crime kingpin was more profitable than going to work for some soulless corporation wanting him to do something inane like produce wonder-drugs, improve Huouyt AI programming, manufacture a better nannite, or even predict the stock market, but now he was beginning to question the merit of his ‘plan.’

“Took it down when West Tassel hit the scene, though.  Jesus that guy was hot.”

Fact:  Patch had told him he’d become a thief and a gang leader.

Fact:  A good portion of his billions pre-Judgement had come from high-tech thievery, and his current flock could quite conceivably be considered a gang.

Fact:  The vagrant had predicted he would snare his soul-mate with a pack of gum.

Fact:  Slade had snared a Congie woman who could obliterate him…with a pack of gum.

Assumed Fact:  Soul-mates didn’t kill each other two weeks after first contact.

“And, well, you were supposedly dead, and who wants to ogle a dead guy when they get off?”

Here’s where he tested his theory.  Was he simply taking a line of bullshit from some jabbering idiot over ninety years ago and forging his own future around it?  Or was there something to this whole soulmate thing?  His inner scientist had to know the answer, and this was the perfect test:

Hardened warrior, personally recruited for a professional hit squad twenty turns ago, sworn by sacred oath to kill the enemies of her lord and his people, having no reason whatsoever to leave Slade alive since he had made a point to give her every ounce of information he knew or could deduce about the experiments to further his goals of proving his hypothesis.  Logically, she would have every reason in the world to shoot him and get on with her mission.  All that was standing between Slade and an oozing plasma wound through his cranium was her hard Congie heart.

Thus, Slade continued to sit there, head bared, waiting for her to take her shot.

“So you’re just gonna sit there?” Tyson finally asked.  Not like he was urging Slade to take cover, just like he was mildly curious what it would look like when Slade’s head exploded.  “That’s it?”

“Yep,” Slade said.  No need to panic the Congie into pulling the trigger with sudden movements.

Tyson pulled out a piece of unidentified jerky and began gnawing on it, watching Slade thoughtfully.  “You didn’t hear a word I said, did you?”

“Of course I did,” Slade said, sighing for the pleb.  “You were telling me about your fumbling teenage years and typically tragic ‘coming out’ story in an attempt to explain away your pathetic sex stats, trying to wow me with a glorious first encounter with a hot man’s man who you secretly fell for because he looked a lot like Zero, but probably conned old women and sold used skimmers, instead.”  He rolled his eyes in boredom.  “Let me tell you right now, my brother is not the sharpest tool in the shed.  I don’t see what the big deal is, to be honest.  Sure, he’s a beefcake, but really?  He’s got a seventh-grade education and shoots things for a living.  The muscles are a hormonal alteration brought about by his food supply, and he’s got fancy suits to throw people around and shoot lightning like that.  It’s not natural, baby.  Not like this.”  He tapped his skull.  “Now a brain…  That’s something I can respect.  If I were gay—which I’m not—I’d go for someone like me or maybe Ottle Oreikund.  Hell, that new singer Tassel was pretty hot.  In a totally heterosexual, academic sort of way.”

Tyson chewed the jerky, watching him.  “You disable her gun or something?” he finally asked.

Slade could have, but that would have corrupted the outcome of his experiment.  And, considering the long (or woefully short)-term ramifications, he really wanted to be right about this whole soul-mate thing.  Sighing again, really hating the itch he was feeling where he was about ninety-eight percent sure that Rat was watching a point upon his forehead with a very nasty plasma rifle, Slade reached down, found his bag of Surviving The End Of The World books, and dug around until he found one about hydroponics: Tomatoes the Wet and Easy Way.

Seeing the cover, Slade shuddered.  He had expected his soul-mate to be brilliant like him and to let him cover the mechanics and physics while she took up the botanical and biological end of things—aspects of science he found personally distasteful and especially boring—but with a Congie as a soul-mate, he was going to have to bend over and take one for the team and study the concepts himself.  He certainly couldn’t ask Rat to study ideal pH levels and algae infestations.  That would simply be cruel and unusual for everyone involved, not to mention probably result in massive starvation…

#

Hydroponics.

Ever since he’d pulled out the book, Rat had been peering at it through the scope, trying to figure out why in the Jreet hells a criminal mastermind could be studying hydroponics.  The first idea that presented itself almost got him shot.

Karwiq bulbs and other herbaceous drugs could be grown with hydroponics.

But as she watched, Sam leaned forward to one of his highly-guarded ‘treasure-chests’ ringing the leader’s campfire and yanked out a handful of colorful envelopes that Rat recognized as vegetable seed packets.

Right along with the marijuana he said was necessary for his budding ‘economy’, Sam had made a point to get his ‘minions’ to collect food seeds—Earth plants that Rat had absolutely no familiarity with, but which bore colorful and apparently edible fruit.  And, when she had started pawing through them one afternoon while he was distracted shaving and had accidentally tipped one package upside down and spilled its contents onto the ground, Sam had dropped his razor and spent a full thirty tics on his hands and knees, still covered in shaving cream, plucking every single seed from the dirt and returning it to the packet.

It was these packets that he was reading now, comparing the information on their backs to the pages of the book.

As Rat watched this, guilt began to well in her gut.  He’s studying how to feed the Guild, once they get to where they’re going, she thought.

And, with that thought, she once again realized that Sam could probably rebuild society all on his own.  So much of what they had lost in the first few hours of Judgement could be recreated with just a handful of his synapses.

And she knew, without a doubt, that Samuel Dobbs could save the world.

Or she could shoot him, and continue Mekkval’s mission to preserve Humanity’s genome.

Wasn’t that the whole point of Judgement, though?  To force Humanity to start over?  Wouldn’t she be defeating the entire purpose of a Sacred Turn of penance if she allowed a walking encyclopedia to simply recreate everything that was lost?

Sitting there, Rat was acutely aware that it was quite possible that the fate of the Human race—what was left of it—hung in the balance of whether or not she pulled the trigger.

Yet she had sworn to pull the trigger.  It was her oath.  Her word.

Then again, Mekkval had told her that the ‘Huouyt hybrid’ was not a priority—the telepath was.  Maybe she could let it slide a bit longer, if she could get him to help her track down the bigger targets.  She still wasn’t sure the necklace that Mekkval had given her to thwart the telepath’s mind-control would actually work, and Sam might be able to come up with something better.

Besides.  If she left Sam alive a little longer, she might be able to trace back Forgotten’s connection to all this.  After jumping through all his hoops on Neskfaat, Rat knew better than anyone how to smell the Geuji’s involvement, and this whole thing stank of it.

The very fact that Forgotten had put together an unstoppable ground team—one starring none other than Zero himself—to specifically spring Samuel Dobbs from his Peacemaker penitentiary meant that Forgotten specifically wanted Sam to live.

Which meant that Sam should die.

…Didn’t it?  She hated the Geuji for what he had put her through on Neskfaat, but if she had to look at it honestly, on the whole, Forgotten’s antics had bettered Congressional society, exposing corruption and deposing tyrants.  Despite the millions of PlanOps deaths, Forgotten had saved lives.

But he’d also destroyed an entire clan of Jreet.  Annihilated a planet.  While Forgotten didn’t strike her as entirely evil, he wasn’t exactly good, either.

Rat groaned and winced, hating the convolutions.  This wasn’t her forte.  She was an assassin.  She followed orders.  She was used to simple black and white scenarios, with questions that only had one answer.  She hated uncertainty.  She hated not knowing what to do.

As her Bagan scout, Klick, had pointed out, Forgotten certainly hadn’t hurt anyone’s feelings by ridding the world of Aez and its blood-thirsty, backwards, war-hungry zealots.  Even the Tribunal itself had welcomed the sudden lack of conflict, torture, and heinous war-crimes in the Old Territory, though they would never condone the deaths of an entire fundamentalist Jreet clan publicly.  And most of the Dhasha that Forgotten had lured to Neskfaat to die had been on Mekkval’s kill-list anyway, for illegal slaving, mass murder, and other atrocities.  Further, Daviin made a much more mature Representative than Prazeil—if any Jreet could really be called ‘mature.’  And, miracle of miracles, the Huouyt had been banned from the Tribunal.  Permanently.  That alone made up for a single war that had been self-contained on a single planet.  Didn’t it?

But had those all been ploys to disguise Forgotten’s true motives?  Some subtle plot buried within a question, shadowed by an enigma?  He had brought the plight of his people to the attention of the masses.  Was that the first step in a much more ominous goal?  One that needed Sam, alive, as a figurehead?

The very thought seemed ridiculous.  What were Humans on the grand scale of the Congressional power struggle?  With three thousand, two hundred and forty-four species all vying for power, most with dozens of planets terraformed and fully inhabited, Humanity wasn’t even a blip on the Regency’s radar.

But the experiments are different, Rat reminded herself.  They had killed entire battalions of Dhasha and exposed Huouyt in pattern, on public wave.  The two biggest strengths of the two most powerful species in Congress and the Human experiments had executed them as effortlessly as crushing fleas, for all to see.

But then, was that truly bad?  Weren’t the Dhasha and the Huouyt too powerful, tearing Congress apart in their struggles for power?

As she contemplated that, Sam slowly flipped through the pages of the hydroponics book, absorbing every diagram, every line of text.  While all the other denizens of the camp were off playing cards or having sex, Sam was studying.  Which told her that, under Sam’s cavalier mask of airheaded indifference, he understood his responsibility to those he led.  He understood the gravity of their situation and was desperately trying to distract them all from the harrowing details of how they were going to survive Judgement.  Seeing the lines of concentration on his face, the total focus, Rat suddenly understood he did enough worrying for all of them.

He would, Rat knew, remember everything he read perfectly until the day he died.  Every step, every tip, every detailed instruction.  Within his brain was the salvation of the Human race.

But would he actually use it to save them?

…or did he have something else in mind?

#

Ugh.  Hydroponics.  Not only was the subject boring, but it was too simple.  In three minutes of interested thought—though Slade admittedly would have found it difficult to dredge up three minutes of interest about plants—he could have guessed the remedial content that the drooling furg of a PhD had written as if it was the Holy Grail of agriculture.

Slade got only a chapter and a half before he tossed the book into the fire, deciding it was worth more to him as BTUs than reading material.  If, he decided, he needed to know sensitive pH requirements of tomatoes, he could deduce it by deconstructing their DNA, not by reading an utterly boring textbook on how to grow a single fruit-bearing plant that he didn’t particularly like to eat anyway.  Too squishy, and the seeds were individually coated with slime.  How disgusting.

Tyson, who had been lying beside the fire reading a hefty, dog-eared George R. R. Martin classic, raised a brow at the burning pages of tomato mediocrity.  “Did you just throw an instruction manual on farming into the fire?”

“Yep,” Slade said, dragging his foot up to his knee to locate and pluck a splinter that had been bothering him for the last day and a half, ever since the Congie had made him run barefoot for complaining about how heavy his boots were.

“Don’t you think we’ll need that?”

“Not if you’ve got me,” Sam said distractedly.  He grabbed Tyson’s knife from the apple wedge it was spearing and, eating the apple wedge, started digging at the sole of his foot with its razor tip.

Watching that, Tyson said, “What, not enough pictures?”

“Too remedial,” Slade said.

“Says it was written by a PhD,” Tyson noted.

“Like I said,” Slade replied.  He retrieved the splinter, flicked his bounty aside, then stuck the knife back into the apple and went back to his end-of-the-world collection and dug around until he found a book about feeding oneself in the wild, entitled Primitive Hunting Tools and Techniques.  He took a moment to bask in its much more manly feel, soaking in the bloody hunting scene on the front cover—a spear-bearing man facing off against sabre toothed cat over a primitive bison carcass.  After an hour of reading an herbivore’s vegetarian drivel, Slade was ready for meat.  Slade flipped it open and found himself looking at a picture of a leather-clad man swinging a pouch over his head, a caribou grazing nearby.  He flipped backward a few pages.

Slings: Not Just for Small Game, the chapter heading read.

Slade raised a brow and started absorbing the fascinating details on how to kill something with a strip of leather and a rock.  Not that there was much native wildlife left to kill, now that millions of starving people had taken to the countryside looking for their next meal, but Slade figured it was best to be prepared…

#

Rat was packing her gun away to return to camp, reluctantly coming to the conclusion that she couldn’t kill Humanity’s hope, when Sam had thrown the hydroponics book in the fire.  She froze in horror.  No, her eyes hadn’t deceived her.  Like a petulant child annoyed with a toy, Sam had burned a book that could mean the difference between starvation and survival for an entire civilization.  She quickly unpacked her gun again.

That was the last itch.  The final, deciding factor in the internal struggle that had been raging within her for the last two weeks was the cold, undeniable fact that Sam really was that selfish.  There was no noble inner core working for the betterment of Humanity.  There was no deeper purpose, no virtuous goal he was trying to achieve.  The moment he came across something useful, he got bored and burned it, then moved on to something infinitely more useless.

Primitive hunting tools?  Over hydroponics?!  Sam wasn’t interested in rebuilding the world.  He was an overeager six-turn child looking to entertain himself in the wreckage of the Human race.  The truth was even then smoking in the ashes of his campfire.  She dragged her scope back to her eye, uncapped it, and zeroed in on his temple.

“Thanks for finally putting things into perspective for me,” Rat said, glaring at him.  She put her finger on the trigger and was beginning to squeeze when she got that wrenching feeling in her gut she always got whenever something Very Wrong was about to happen.  Because she’d lived too long not to pay attention—and because it was what had kept her alive—she rolled to the side only a moment before a high-grade plasma round disintegrated the front half of her rifle into a dissipating blue ooze.  Rat took only a moment to recognize the familiar sight of evaporating matter only a foot from her face, then dropped her now-useless weapon and rolled backwards, away from the edge of her ridge, towards her pack and all of its various replacement guns.

An instant later, a quick burst of three more AI-targeted plasma rounds slammed into the ground she had just vacated and began to dissolve the earth and plant matter there, following her trail into the heavy cover.

Max! Rat’s panicked mind thought as she got low and scrabbled for another gun.  Burn, burn, burn!  He found me!  Her heart took off like a runaway skimmer as more rounds hit the trees around her, lighting up the night with the bluish fire of plasma, barely missing her body as they were swallowed by the alien foliage.

Pinned down, her cover being assaulted, an inferior weapon in her hands, Rat realized she didn’t stand a chance.

Out of options, she pulled her plasma rifle and fired into the air, hoping someone in camp would recognize it for what it was and send in the cavalry to investigate.


Max

Slade was deep in his research, poring over a section about wooly mammoths and pit traps when Tyson lowered his book to his chest, frowning at the sky on the horizon.  “You see that?”

“Yes,” Slade said, frowning at the page.  “This mammoth’s trunk is too short to reach the ground.  Was this guy an idiot?”  He pointed to the diagram of the pachyderm with a snort.  “What was it supposed to eat?  Birds?”

But Tyson was sitting up, looking at something out in the darkness.  “Sam, I think we have visitors.”

“Eh?” Slade forced his attention from the ill-conceived mammoth and glanced up.  Out in the darkness of midnight, people were shooting at each other.  Immediately he groaned.  “Tyson, I’m busy.  This chapter could mean the difference between life or death for our entire tribe.  If they start shooting at us, then you can interrupt me.”  He went back to trying to figure out how to run a mammoth into a trap.  That could be useful someday…

“No, look,” Tyson said.  “They’re shooting at that bluff.  Sam, I think someone’s shooting at Rat.”

“Not interested,” Slade said, ignoring him.  Some of the traps in the book were deviously constructed, with skewers facing downward, rather than upward, to make extracting oneself from a pit more or less impossible without helping hands to dig.

“At Rat,” Tyson repeated, grabbing Slade by the wriggling chin-fuzz and yanking his head painfully around.  “Didn’t you say she had that Rodemax after her?”

Slade frowned, yet again suffering from Neanderthal-induced segue-shock out of the symphony of his mind as he blinked out at the warzone he didn’t care about.  “What about a Rodemax?”

Then he saw the blue flash of plasma fire, then the glowing streaks of return fire, and his mind clicked into focus.  He dropped Primitive Hunting Tools and Techniques and stood up with a cry.  “Somebody’s shooting at Rat!”

“Should we go after them?” Tyson said, already slapping cartridges into his alarming array of guns.

But Slade was already bolting into the darkness at a run.

“Sam!” Tyson cried behind him.  “You want me to call in the troops?!”

Slade leapt a particularly nasty clump of scrub-oak and trampled through the dried grasses on the other side, his combat boots thudding along with the pounding of his heart.  All he could think about was his lady love, pinned down in the darkness, terrified and needing help.

In a voice that was even then fading from distance, Tyson called, “Sam, what the hell are you doing, man?!”

“Stay there!” Slade called over his shoulder.  “Secure the base!  I’ll handle this!”  Besides being the best person for the job, he wanted to make sure that he alone was responsible for dragging his lady love back from the abyss of peril and danger, into the sweet rescuing arms of her hero.  He could see it now, his triumphant victory over the evil AI gun, his combat boot grinding its lifeless circuits into the dirt, Rat clinging to his sweaty body in gratitude, still chained to some lowlife’s throne, fawning up at him in doe-eyed devotion, sexy brass slut-kini glittering in the firelight.  Slade, meanwhile, would take a lesson from his brother and strike a triumphant pose after delivering the killing blow, head held high, massive sword propped on one hip, decked out in strategically-placed ultrasexy plate mail that showed off his huge chest, big bloody dwarven axe stuck in a holster on his back, the enormous crimson-coated crescent blades highlighting his muscular shoulders like the wings of an avenging angel.  Yeah, that was a good image.  He could even put on those fancy greaves the king gave him to look cool.  Less armor class, but more sex appeal.  Maybe she’d even give him Fridays, as a bonus.

“Stay here?!”  Tyson was almost out of vocal reach—Rat’s forced daily deathmarches were definitely making an improvement.  “You’re unarmed!  Against a Rodemax!”

Slade actually stumbled a couple of steps as the glorious Dungeons & Dragons scene evaporated in his head.  Whoops.

Guns, he reminded himself.  Plasma.  Huouyt AIs.  Government patrol bots.

Slade looked down at himself, dressed in nothing but an industrial-strength thong and combat boots—not super-enchanted, pec-highlighting plate mail—then swallowed and looked at the high-grade plasma that was even then sizzling up and down the slope ahead of him.

Seeing the brutal exchange of supertech weapons, Slade decided he really needed to stop playing D&D with himself in his head when he was bored.  At the very least, he needed to get someone else involved.  And dice.  He needed dice.  This random rolling in his highly developed brain was undoubtedly biased somehow.  No wonder he kept getting criticals.

“Sam!” Tyson cried.  “Slade!  Goddamn it, man, it’s dark out there and they’re professionals!”

Professionals.  It took Slade a minor moment to realize what Tyson was talking about.  When he did, he flinched.  Assassins.  The real thing.  Whereas he had spent the major portion of his geekdom imagining himself a shifty rogue or a beeftank warrior fighting dragons and lopping off heads in spectacular style, they’d actually been doing it.

This could get ugly, Slade realized.  Now that he was away from the light of the fire, the cold, moonlit air was making his nipples tighten uncomfortably.  His gonads were doing similar uncomfortable things, to the point where he really wouldn’t want Rat to see him like this.

Then again, the girls loved a good hero, plate mail or not, and that brass bikini looked good on her, and if he managed to take care of her Rodemax problem for her, she would owe him another day of the week.  Plus, he had heard someone in his flock discussing his blacksmithing hobby from before Judgement.  Slade would have to get Rat to model a few things for him…

“Slade!” Tyson shouted, barely audible in the darkness behind him.

“Not now!” Slade shouted back.  Slade glanced around the abandoned roadbed where he stood, cataloguing his assets.  His massive mental cogs started turning for all of two seconds, then he began stripping off his lady love’s instrument of torture, further exposing his balls to the cold chill of midnight.  He put the ass-riding end of the thong into the dirt, stomped on it with a booted foot, and with both hands, ripped the pouch free of its third bungie.  Bending just long enough to snatch up three stones from the ditch, he broke into a run again.

“Sam, dammit!” Tyson shouted from behind him.

Slade ignored him and began positioning a stone into the canvas pouch that had only moments before been cupping his balls.  Now, according to the enchanted skillbook he had acquired on his last raid of the mages’ guild, all he had to do was make a single rotation with his wrist and let go at the proper time…

#

Rat had repositioned herself into a different firing location and was scouting out Max’s last known whereabouts with her scope when she saw Sam sneaking up the hill towards her enemy.  Naked.  In one hand, he held his thong.  Ruined.  Again.  In his other hand, he seemed to be holding something small, like a pebble.

Rat realized she was staring, so she quickly flopped back behind cover and tried to process that staring at a tree trunk, instead.

Fact:  Sam was brilliant.

Fact:  Sam was charging up a hill, alone, with a thong.

Fact:  Sam was also insane.

Fact:  Sam was probably trying to save her.

Fact:  Sam was about to die.

Interested, now, Rat shifted position and found a new vantage point.  As she expected, she found the teenage furgling carrying Max pointed in the wrong direction, aiming down over the opposite end of his hill.  She couldn’t, however, get a clear shot of anything but his foot and lower calf.  She was taking aim at this—she might as well disable the guy’s locomotion, since he had her pinned on the damn ridge with no way down he couldn’t cover with his scope—when she saw Sam ease up out of the bushes about six rods behind the shooter with all the focus and caution of a Dreit stalking its prey.  His creepy purple-white eyes were fixed on the back of the would-be assassin’s head, lines of concentration in his ageless face.

As Rat frowned and watched, Sam stretched out his thong, placed whatever was in his hand in the pouch it made, and started gingerly swirling it around, much like he had on his last striptease.  After a couple rotations, something fell out of the pouch made by his crotch and Sam immediately fumbled to pick it back up.

“Sam, what the hell?” Rat demanded through the scope.  True, the man had been about to die, but now he was obviously trying to save her, and if he died trying to save her, Rat would feel bad for a few minutes.  Well, at least a minute.  She loved hydroponics…

#

“What was that sound?” the hobgoblin lying on the ground whispered.

“Nothing dangerous,” his enchanted weapon replied.  “There is no life-form larger than a lobe within six rods, and no plasma or laser weaponry for half a length, the closest being Rat’s pathetic excuse for rifle over on that hill at exactly two thousand and eleven digs away.”

“No, it sounded like a rock falling.”  The hobgoblin tried to look over his shoulder.

“Like I said, slimer, I took that into account.  The object was travelling at subsonic speeds and is therefore either a branch falling or a disturbance by local fauna.  It is categorically not a threat.  Rat is the threat, and if you don’t move to the shooting location I gave you, immediately, she’s going to kill you.”

The Rodemax’s anti-personnel ward, as expected, had a six-rod area of effect.  Gorthrak the Destroyer carefully lowered another stone into the pouch of his +2 industrial-strength giant sling, careful to stay at a distance of six and a half rods.  He was taking a -4 to hit due to the sling’s abnormal size, but with his new queen’s unexpected help, he had been rapidly improving his stats the last few weeks, so his to-hit chance was evening out.  Gorthrak carefully pulled the sling tight and judged its weight.  Lead or adamantine shot would have had a preferable heft, but he’d managed to find diamond-studded mithril in his scavengings of the riverbed, which would have to do.

Carefully, Gorthrak sighted in on the man on the ground, took a steadying breath, and swung the stone hard, in an arc.

The diamond-studded mithril pellet swung wide—way wide—and embedded itself a full foot-deep into tree trunk a few dozen digs from its target, splintering the trunk with an explosion that made the tree shudder and leaves and twigs rain down like hail.

Damn.  The Rodemax obviously had some sort of deflection spell worked into the ward.  Two shots left.  This wasn’t looking good…

On the ground, the guy stopped crawling towards the opposite edge of the bluff.  “Dude, did you hear that?  Something bounced off a tree over there.  What if she’s behind us?”

“I assure you, Rat is still down there.  I can see her heat signature.  Now keep the furg-loving scope on her or I can’t see what I’m doing.”

“Why should I keep it on her?  There’s dirt in the way.”

“I can see through dirt, furg,” the Rodemax said.

“But I thought I heard—”

“Do you want me to shock you again?” the Rodemax demanded.

Ooh, a lightning weapon.  Gorthrak had always wanted a lightning weapon.  And a Rodemax was a legendary artifact, an object so incredibly rare that just the act of picking it up and living to tell the tale would increase his renown severalfold.  Of course, as with all intelligent weapons, there was the potential for a personality conflict, but with Slade, the potential of the weapon’s personality dominating his own wouldn’t be an issue.  Even though a Rodemax’s intelligence was at minimum twenty, Slade’s was forty-five.  Beyond ancient dragon status.  Not an issue.

Or was the controlling stat willpower?  Or wisdom?  Gorthrak’s willpower could be pretty low, at times, especially when women or interesting puzzles were concerned.  His wisdom, however, was impeccable.  ‘Wisdom’ was just another way of saying ‘intelligence,’ of which Slade had asstons.  Still, the willpower thing bothered him.  Dammit, he’d have to consult the Dungeon Master.  But later.  Tysonia was such a buzzkill when it came to enchanted objects.  He always did assbaggery things like make him roll to keep his fingers whenever he unsheathed his vorpal blade because he didn’t have the proper sheath for it.  Prick.  He could only imagine what Tysonia would try to do with a neutral-evil intelligent item.

Still, even if he couldn’t wield the fabled Rodemax, maybe he could salvage components for imbuing his armor or creating other magic items.  Thus decided, Gorthrak loaded his second stone into his sling and, biting his lip in the universal concentration of a great warrior learning a new skill, rotated his wrist, flinging the stone forward with his body.

This time, the stone buried itself into the ground a few feet from the hobgoblin’s foot, debris from the resulting crater ripping apart the hobgoblin’s boot as it went by, spraying blood and gore and plant matter everywhere.

“Shit!” the hobgoblin cried.  “Something hit my foot.”

“Is it bleeding?” the Rodemax demanded in utter disgust.  “Did it get crushed or dissolved or evaporated?  No?  Then pay attention to the real threat.  I swear to the Jreet gods, I am replacing you at the nearest convenience.”

“Damn, man, chill out.  Okay, yeah, I see her.”

“She’s been observing us, furg!  And she hasn’t put a round through your foot yet.  That’s odd.”

“So maybe she is shooting at us!” the hobgoblin cried, dragging his feet closer to his body.  “Maybe that’s what I felt hit my shoe!”

“No one is shooting, you unlovable furgling fart,” the legendary Rodemax snapped.  “I told you I would have noticed it.  You will start paying attention to my quarry or I will simply end you and start over with someone with neurons.”

The weapon wanted to be liberated!  This was Gorthrak’s lucky day…  He glanced down at the single stone cradled in his open palm.  He was down to a single diamond-studded mithril shot to end the Rodemax’s reign of terror.  In the distance, the damsel huddled in distress, the fate of a kingdom resting solely on the outcome of his next move.  Gorthrak the Destroyer felt the gravity of the situation weighing on him like a thousand pounds of dwarven steel, the pressure almost too much for his mighty shoulders to bear.

Good thing Tysonia wasn’t here, because he would probably try to make Gorthrak roll a Will save to avoid bolting like a pussy.

Gorthrak did a quick mental calculation of the stone size, sling length, the past trajectories, the desired course, and the staggering mechanical force in his arm.  Then, loading his sling, he whispered a prayer to his patron god, which in this adventure happened to be himself, because he had achieved godhood after his single-handed victory over the level forty assassin from the space-plane, then his successful finale defending her from the horde of evil, level thirty-five gangbanger hell-angels sweeping in to capture his kingdom and take his new cohort back to their burning homelands to satisfy their twisted desires.  Oh, and the tarrasques.  How many had it been, now?  Seventeen?

But back to the quest at hand.  Gorthrak answered his prayer to himself with a stat boost and a Blessing of Accuracy—as well as a token charisma sex-appeal bonus because it was expected—then spun the stone in a single, practiced rotation and released.

The diamond-studded mithril impacted the hobgoblin’s helmetless head and it exploded in a gloriously grisly critical hit that coated half the ridge with crimson gore.  The twitching body went limp in a pool of its own fluids, head still gushing blood out into the spattered mush of brains and bone shards.  Gorthrak was grinning at his victory, about to begin collecting his loot, when the enchanted Rodemax said, “Come where I can see you, or I’ll detonate this entire hillside.”

#

Rat watched Sam make not one, not two, but three attempts with his primitive crotch-sling before he straightened, grinning like a furg who had discovered a stash of karwiq bulbs.  Between them, the man’s foot had started to twitch.

No way, Rat thought, frowning at the boot through her scope.  Did the unlovable furg just

Then the grin faded from Sam’s face and he blinked like a Takki on butchering day.

...kill Max’s operator with a rock?  She swallowed.  Soot.  That was really going to piss Max off…

#

In war, Gorthrak had learned over his many glorious decades of combat, one should know when one was beaten.

Thus, he pitied the Rodemax for its assumption it was still in charge.  Obviously, his last wielder had been a raisin-nutted limp-noodle weak-minded furgling with willpower and wisdom scores of 0.

“My operator is not responding to electric shock, which indicates he is unconscious or dead,” Max said.  “And unless you’d like to be, too, I suggest you come forward.”

Into his area of effect, returning control of the situation to the Rodemax.  Yeah, right.  Like that was going to happen.

Then again, Gorthrak really wanted to be able to say he’d held a Rodemax in his hands.  Now that he’d achieved godhood, life was just so boring

“I assure you, Human, I am fully capable of detonating an entire mountainside.  I have a self-contained power source that could support an entire city indefinitely.”

Gorthrak could have walked away, because he knew for a fact that the Huouyt—and therefore Huouyt AI—enjoyed their own existences entirely too much to detonate out of spite.  Still, he had an honest-to-God Rodemax lying in the dirt about fifty-four feet away, and if he could go back and tell Tysonia that he had conquered a Rodemax, Tysonia would forever acknowledge that he was the more studly of the two of them.  Thus, it was time for a Bluff check.

Figuring he was going to need about two minutes of bluff-time, Slade rolled the dice in his head.  Not one, but two natural twenties.  Critical success.  Sweet!

Putting on his thickest redneck drawl, Slade ran brazenly into the Rodemax’s area of effect and said, “Hey, guys!  I found it!  And lordy, I think it talks!”  He gave an utterly perfect hayuck of glee as he bent down and lifted the rifle from the ground.  “Look at this thing, guys!  It’s huge!  I bet aliens made it.”

“Oceans preserve me, I think I just found a stupider one.”  The total disgust in the Rodemax’s voice almost made Slade giggle.  He loved seeing the effects of his nat twenties.

“So you can, what, shoot good?” Slade asked, in the drawl.  “I already shoot good.”  He aimed the rifle at the sky, peering through the scope, as he started walking towards the bluff.

“You are interrupting my hunt, you moronic furg,” the great artifact snapped back at him.  “You just killed my last operator, so that makes you his replacement.  Swing me around to face the far ridge.  Show me where my quarry went.”

Instead of obeying, Gorthrak caressed the metal with loving motions.  “Oh wow.  What nice curves.  Purdy thing like you otta be on a shelf somewhere, not rusting out on the hill.”

“I do not contain iron, and I therefore can not ‘rust,’” the legendary Rodemax snapped at him.  “Iron is used in inferior weaponry, furg, not like the top of the line gear you now hold in your hands.”

Oooh, Gorthrak the Destroyer had found a weak spot.  He decided to exploit it mercilessly with an intelligence check.  Oh, wait, he didn’t have to roll an intelligence check.  Yawn.

“Top of the line?” Gorthrak snorted, still moving them towards the bluff.  “My daddy’s old rifle…now that was ‘top of the line’.  General Robert E. Lee used it for a couple minutes in the Civil War.  There’s a picture and everything.  Had one of those antiques buffs appraise it.  Said it was worth twenty million.”  He used twenty million because he knew a Rodemax, right out of the factory, was worth half as much or less.

“You think I give a Dhasha’s flake about some utterly rudimentary projectile weapon used in a forgotten skirmish on some backwards planet back in its pre-incorporation dark ages?!” the Rodemax demanded.  “It’s like placing a Takki beside a Dhasha.  There is no comparison.”

“You’re right, that thing was a classic,” Gorthrak said, allowing a hint of whimsy into his voice.  “It was the start of everything, man.  Modern hunting rifles.  History.  You ain’t history.  You’re just space-junk.”

Show me the target, or I swear to the Triad I will set off a psionic pulse that will utterly destroy your primitive brain.”

“He wants a target, guys!” Gorthrak cried.  “I think this guy was shooting at something.  You see anyone down there?”  He stepped further towards the bluff, but swung the gun wide, so that it was looking into the gully below.

“She was on the opposite ridge,” the Rodemax replied, frustration evident.  “And stay down.  You’re giving her a direct shot!”

“Oooh, a girl,” Slade laughed.  “What’s she gonna do, assault us with her vagina?”  He hayucked again, growing ever closer to the ridge’s edge and the corresponding dropoff.

The Rodemax got very quiet.  “Listen to me very carefully, you mind-numbingly stupid furg.  I am a thousand times smarter than you, and I have six different ways I could kill you where you stand.  You will do as I tell you, or I will start shocking you like the braindead vaghi maggot you are.”

Uh-oh.  Because Gorthrak, who was the Kingdom of Earth’s smartest man, had a character flaw that left him with a potential -40 intelligence score each time his intelligence was insulted, Gorthrak winced, realizing he was going to have to roll his bluff check again.  He mentally crossed his fingers, then did.

Two natural ones.  Slade resisted the urge to weep.

“Actually,” Slade said, in an aristocratic Russian accent, “it’s only three.  I already deactivated your psionic pulse and your shock grenade, and am working on your gas cartridge while you’re distracted.”  He quickly rolled another bluff.  A fourteen!  Better than nothing…  “At least, that’s what the purdy buttons said.  Hayuck.”

The Rodemax got very quiet.  “Are you insane?”

Oooh, ouch.  Yet another of Gorthrak the Destroyer’s touchy subjects.  And, like something out of a bad dream, Slade rolled another one for response.  Damn it.  Why all the criticals?  A critical success, he could handle, but why so many critical fails?  This was just getting irritating…

“You want to know the truth?!” Slade demanded, spinning the gun around so he was looking down its scope from the business-end.  “Probably!  Okay?  Probably!  Not even a dragon starts at plus forty-five.  That kind of intellect at an abnormally young age had to have left me with some inadequacies in other areas, like maybe my raw physical form, hence why I throw all of my experience into strength and dexterity stats.  The bigger question is do I care.”  He leaned forward, until he and the gun were ‘eye’ to eye.  Squinting at the Rodemax’s sensor, he said, “Not a damn fucking bit. Why?  Because I am Gorthrak the Destroyer, killer of tarrasque, half-dwarf barbarian elf prince raised by dragonkin and adopted by ogre-knights, and not even your entire army of changeling sympathizers could overtake my crown or steal my woman.”

Then, because he’d never have a better chance to intimidate a Rodemax, Slade dropped the act for a moment and said, “So you see, I am a thousand times smarter than you, and I now have your serial number and, by extrapolation, shutdown codes.  If you ever come after Rat again, I will dismantle you and use your parts to hatch chicken eggs.”  Then Slade shoved the weapon over the edge of the bluff and gave it a sarcastic salute as it fell.

#

Rat’s stomach sank when the crazy furgling picked Max up.  Picked him up.  Obviously, the poor, deluded flaker had no idea what he was dealing with, because he was laughing and grinning like a kid in a candy store.  Soot, Rat thought.  Soot, soot!  With Sam under his control, Max would have anything he wanted—anything at all.  Understanding that, Rat knew she had to stop them both, right now, because she could think of nothing worse than putting Sam’s bottomless creativity under the control of Max’s sadistic streak.

A good part of her wanted to prevent the whole miserable Takkiscrew and put her first shot through Sam’s head, but another part of her was curious to get Sam’s side of the story, and what he had done, exactly, to outwit Max.  Thus, she decided to take Plan B and shoot for a chunk of alien flora overhead to hopefully land on the gun, pinning it in place for the time being.

“Come on,” Rat told Sam through the scope.  “Turn to the side and I’ll take him out with a tree branch.  Turn to the side.”  Sam was walking straight towards her, headed towards the bluff, where Max would no doubt want Sam to take up a sniping position and begin hunting her where his previous operator had left off.  Then Sam raised the gun.

Rat was about to say to soot with it and put a blast through Sam’s forehead when Sam whipped the gun around and stared at it, lens-to-eye.  She blinked, and her finger hesitated on the trigger as Sam began giving Max a tirade of red-faced proportions.  Then, reaching the edge of the bluff, he simply threw the Rodemax over the edge with a sarcastic salute.

Max must have realized what was happening a few moments afterwards, because he sent a massive electrical charge up the cliff at Sam, lighting up the entire hillside with its awe-inspiring cloud o’ death—yep, Max was pissed—which Sam narrowly dodged by going wide-eyed, jumping backwards, and falling over the ‘dead’ man, who immediately sat up, holding his head.  Together, they watched, mouth open, as Max’s charge-cloud continued to rise into the darkness above them, a hissing, crackling, multicolored lights display that Rat had gratefully never seen up close.

After it had risen to several dozen rods above them, Sam lowered his head and proceeded to chat the kid up, even checking his goose-egg, before patting the kid on the shoulder and gesturing for him to run along.  The kid, still staring at the lights show, got up and bolted like he expected the cloud to come after him.

Once the kid was gone—liberated, more likely—Sam slowly got to his feet, still eying the cloud.  And, as Rat watched, he pulled a piece of gum out of its wrapper, staring at the sky.

Where the hell did he…?  Then Rat quickly decided she didn’t want to know.  She stayed in that position for several minutes, just staring at Sam through her gun.  She was reasonably sure Sam couldn’t see the bluff at his feet, as he had demonstrated time and again that he had an uncanny knack for memorizing—and then exploring—spatial landscapes with only a second or two to study, and the rest of the time walking around in his underwear and a blindfold, entertaining her and Tyson for hours with his unerring movement around hurdles and impediments.

And this time, he didn’t even have the underwear.

After watching the Rodemax’s charge-cloud completely dissipate, Sam unerringly turned to face her directly, and, as Rat’s hair stood completely on end, her ka-par slave saluted with a grin, then turned to walk back into the bushes, naked ass facing her.

He couldn’t have seen me, Rat thought, watching him through the scope.  He couldn’t possibly have seen me.  Even in daylight, with a scope, someone on that ridge would have had trouble pinpointing Rat on her hillside.

Which meant he somehow had known exactly—to the precise dig—where she was.  Had he watched her return fire?  Rat couldn’t remember shooting at the ridge once Sam had shown up.

Rat waited until the double crescent moon disappeared in the brush, then packed up her gun and ran back to camp.  Tyson met her at the edge of camp with a plasma pistol charged and in one hand.  “He dead?” he asked, looking disappointed.

“No,” Rat said.  “He knocked out the kid who was shooting at me.”

Tyson frowned.  “With what?  He ran off bare-assed naked except for a thong and combat boots.”

“Uh,” Rat said.  And, because she would have called flake had she not seen it through her own scope, she winced and said, “I think he used the thong.”

“To what, strangle him?”

“As a sling,” Rat replied.

Tyson didn’t seem surprised, just cocked his head and said, “Oh.”  If anything, he appeared impressed.

Sam got there about ten minutes afterwards, moving out of the trees with his eyes closed, yet unerringly walking around the obstacles he encountered.  “Sam, what the hell?!” Rat cried, stalking up to him.  “You threw Max down a cliff?  Do you realize how pissed off he’s gonna be?  You might have damaged his finish.”

Sam ignored her and walked up to the fire, then opened his eyes and stared at it blankly.

Immediately, Rat’s heart leapt.  Had Max fried him, after all?  “Sam?”  She tentatively touched his shoulder.

“Hold on,” Sam said, peering into the flames.  A little frown of concentration was etching his brow.  “I think I leveled.”

…leveled?  After Sam did not elaborate, Rat, thinking it was an Earth custom, glanced at Tyson, who was narrowing his eyes.

Rat frowned and turned back to her ka-par slave.  “Sam?  That was Max, right?  He talk to you?  What did he say?”

“Yep,” Sam said, his eyes focusing again.  His face beamed in a grin.  “Leveled.  Gimme a sec to assign skill points.”

While that was still incomprehensible to Rat, Tyson cocked his head and frowned.  “Were you fucking LARPing out there?  Without consulting your DM?”

Sam froze and gave Tyson a hunted look.  “Uh.  No.”

But Tyson’s mouth was hanging open.  To Rat, he said, “The fuckwit was LARPing.  Oh God, and here I was actually worried for your ass.  Seriously, Sam?!  Rat was going to get killed.”

“Dude, it’s the end of the world,” Sam retorted lamely.  “I can do what I want.”

Rat, who finally recognized what Sam had been doing due to her long, unfortunate career being a dungeon-master for two utterly insane Baga, found her own face going slack.  “Not you, too.”  Would that infernal game follow her everywhere?  Klick had even managed to get Benva to play, and there was nothing quite as frustrating as explaining to a Jreet prince why a ‘scaleless coward’ could kill him with a single spell because he didn’t make his Will save.

While Sam went a pleasing shade of red and scuffed at the dirt with a boot, Tyson said, “You’ve probably never heard of it, but it’s where guys with no life and waaaay too much time on their hands run around pretending to kill dragons with sticks and wooden swords.”  He yanked a stick from the fire, the tip still burning.  “See me?  I’m the great and powerful sorcerer Badmanian and I have come to steal your women and plunder.  Cower before me, furglings!”  He waved the stick around, scowling at Sam.

“Dude,” Sam whined, “I’m a god.  I am so beyond the ‘women and plunder’ stage.”

Tyson lowered the stick with a frown.  “You can’t become a god unless you’ve completed the Rite of Ascension.”

Rat didn’t remember reading that part, but it sounded good, so she went with it.  “Burning ashes.  Did that flaker actually try to become a god without going through the proper rites?”  To Sam, she said, “You do know that automatically subtracts 20 levels and curses you, right?”

Tyson’s eyes slid sideways a surprised moment, but he added, “Negative five to all stats.”

“Instantly,” Rat agreed.  “The moment you falsely claim godhood.  You get smited by the real gods.”

“B-b-but I never said—”

“Pretty sure I heard him use the word ‘god,’” Tyson interrupted, cocking his head as if in thought.

“Yeah, pretty sure I did, too,” Rat said.

Sam blinked.  “But I defeated the level forty assassin, turned her into my cohort, and killed the horde of hell-angels who came to take her from me.  Four hundred level thirty-five hell-angels is easily thirty levels of XP.”

“You set fire to a field,” Tyson cried, waving his charred stick in the air in disgust.  “That was not single-handed combat.  The ad-hoc experience for that would be half a level, at most.”

“And the level 40 assassin?” Sam demanded.

Tyson turned and looked Rat critically up and down.  “I’d give her maybe level 15.  Seventeen if you’re really pushing it.”

Rat frowned.  “Thirty-five.”

Tyson raised a brow.  “Twenty?”

“Twenty-five.”

“Twenty-five,” Tyson retorted to Sam.

“But she’s the best at what she does!” Sam cried.  “That makes her level 40.  And I used a snare.  You said I’d get extra XP if I used a snare.”

Tyson laughed.  “What, does she shoot lasers out of her eyes?  Does she grant wishes?  Oh, wait, she has mastered her chi and can float.”  He turned to Rat.  “Can you shoot lasers out of your eyes or float?”

“Nope,” Rat said, crossing her arms.

“Level twenty-five,” Tyson said.  “And anyway, you didn’t complete the Rite of Ascension, and to do that, you need the tongue of a tarrasque.”

“But I killed it seventeen times,” Sam whined.  “You never told me I needed to save the corpses!”

“Sucks to be you,” Rat said.

Then Tyson said, “So let me get this straight.  You ‘killed’ these seventeen ‘tarrasques’—without me—before or after you ‘ascended’?”

Sam swallowed.  “After,” he squeaked.

Tyson tisked and shook his head.  “That renders all your achievements for the last, oh, thirty levels completely moot because the real gods just ganged up and cracked down on you for deity fraud, no appeals.”

“And he’s cursed,” Rat added.

“And you’re cursed.”

Sam swallowed.  “But…?”

Tyson crossed his arms over his chest and peered down at Sam with a dark look.  “You’re questioning the DM?”

“I hear that gets characters sex-changes and missing loot,” Rat added.

“Erm…” Sam squeaked, “…no…”

“Fine,” Tyson said.  “That puts you at, what, level ten?  And because you got so totally p0wned, you might as well reset your stats to something reasonable, like twelves across the board.  Oh, and roll a new character.  You’re not going to be able to live with the shame, so you’ll hide your connection to your former self as much as you can.  Your new name will be…Sue Thongbuster.”

Sam’s mouth fell open.  “Sue?”

Tyson raised a rugged blond brow.  “Your roguish, street-fighter father thought it’d make you grow up tough.  Why, you got a problem with that?”  Rat tapped her foot and waited.

“My intelligence was forty-five,” Sam whined.

“Fifteen, max,” Rat said.  “You just got your ass stomped.”

“She’s not the DM!” Sam cried.  “Tyson, tell her!”

“How much XP would you give for that crap?” Tyson asked Rat conversationally.  “Thirty?”

“A loser trying to gain levels he didn’t earn by soloing a Rodemax?” Rat asked.  She’d had plenty of experience with that, with the Bagas.  “Ten, max.”

“Hey, I used a sling that time,” Sam whined.  “I should at least get double XP.”

Tyson rolled his eyes.  “Fine.  So you defeated, what, a street kid who got conscripted by a Rodemax.  Twenty sounds about right.”

“Twenty thousand?” Sam asked, looking excited.

“No, twenty.”

Sam muttered something and slumped down on a log.

Chuckling, Tyson turned to Rat and said, “Wanna play a sorcerer?  The party needs a sorcerer and it’ll be a pleasant change to his egotistical bullshit.  He always goes for the intelligence stat.  He can be an uneducated, knuckle-dragging furg from the barbaric mountain-lands of Bumfuck Nowhere, and he still maxes out his intelligence stat.”

“Intelligence is innate, not learned,” Sam whined.

“Shut up,” Tyson said.  “So,” he said to Rat, “you wanna play?”  The big blond, whom Rat had seen single-handedly execute a serial rapist only the day before, looked like a big, painfully hopeful kid.  Sam, too, was watching her excitedly, the mountainous cogs in his brain switched off, leaving bare yearning in its place.

A game.  They wanted her to play another game with them.  Immediately, Rat remembered Sol’dan telling her that one of the most important things about being a successful assassin was to never let them drag you into their world.  Keep them at a distance.  If it could be avoided, never reminisce with your targets over a drink, never meet their families, never play cards with them.  Just kill them and move on.

And, for the first time since Sam had shoved Max off the bluff, Rat remembered that Sam was a target.  “Actually,” she said, quickly snagging her gun from where she’d set it against a log, “on second thought, I’d better not.  Gotta go see what I can do to eliminate Max.”  She needed to get her head on straight, and fast.  She started heading back into the darkness, mentally preparing herself to find the nearest sniping position and take out a man who could outwit a Huouyt Rodemax with a piece of underwear.

Sam’s hand on her shoulder made her flinch.  Rat swallowed hard, fought the impulse to punch him in the throat and break his neck, then turned to face him.

Sam was grinning like a Jreet in a melaa pen, and immediately, Rat’s guts curdled with understanding.

“It’s Tuesday,” he reminded her.  And winked.


The Secret to Good Chicken

Tuesday, 56 Days after Judgement…

“There’s no food,” Rat complained, still sprawled limply on the bed, covered in oil, “how do you want me to cook you breakfast without food?”

Sam lifted his head off the pillow and gave her a one-eyed squint over the covers.  “We had food last night.”

“That was last night.”  For her part, Rat didn’t feel particularly inclined to move.  It had been a good massage.  “We were talking about it.  Over cards.”

“I was trying to beat you at cards,” Sam said.  “While dancing and singing and doing gymnastics.  I wasn’t paying attention to the inane stuff.”

Rat lifted her head off the pillow.  “Talking about the inevitability of starving to death is inane?”

“We’re not going to starve to death, so it was pointless, and therefore inane,” Sam said, returning his head to the bed.  “Seriously, you gun-toting brutes have no concept of long-term planning.”

“Says the guy who threw the book on hydroponics in the fire,” Rat said.  Too late, she realized that, in order for her to have seen that, she had to have been watching him through a scope.

As her mind scrambled for something else to say to cover for it, Sam sighed, deeply.  “You too?  Seriously?  Tyson will not shut up about me setting those books on fire.  Like they somehow contain the keys to civilization or something.  What you guys aren’t realizing is that you’ve got the world’s greatest encyclopedia right here in bed with you, and that anything in those books, I know better.”

“So what if you died?” Rat demanded, grateful for the reprieve.  “Where would that leave the rest of us?”

“Don’t let me die,” Sam said, going back to drooling on his pillow.

“That’s not a good plan,” Rat argued.

“No, that’s an excellent plan,” Sam said.  “Keep me alive and I’ll keep people alive.”

It was the truth of that statement that had kept her at an internal standstill for two weeks.  Because, in essence, she was sleeping with the very thing that could get Humanity past its Sacred Turn—a punishment so severe that it drove most species extinct during the six hundred and sixty-six turns of its passing, forcing Congress to repopulate their planet later with stored genetics.  Quickly, Rat had to scramble for a reason he wasn’t important to leave alive, because she once again felt her resolve in her oath to Mekkval wavering dangerously.  Unfortunately, as far as she had seen, Sam really was worth more to Humanity alive than dead, and if she killed him, she might be killing her whole species.  Desperately grasping for something, she said, “You were eating people earlier.”

“And?” Sam demanded.  “Despite what you want to admit, dead Humans are made of meat, and meat keeps people alive.  Burying dead Humans is stupid.”

Rat had had this argument with him before, and she was stunned that he simply could not see why it bothered her to eat people.  She opened her mouth to argue, but was interrupted by a sudden loud slapping of the tent flap.

“Hey.  Sue,” Tyson said as he shook the tent, blessedly giving her the distraction she needed.  “One of our guys just came into camp carrying a live chicken.  Says he found a flock of them at some farmstead out there.  The men are pretty hungry, but you told me to tell you if—”

Sam was on his feet so fast he actually stepped over Rat to get to the door.  He slapped the tent door aside.  “Take me to them!”

Though Rat was not in the proper position to see Tyson’s face through Sam’s back, she could imagine the single blond brow going up in the pause that followed, the slow perusal down Sam’s body, the nod of approval…

“You’ve seen it before, princess,” Sam said, stepping out of the tent with the big thug.

“Yeah, but not when you were oiled up like a Mr. Universe pageant,” Tyson commented.  He twisted and cocked his head past Sam, into the tent at Rat.  “What were you guys doing in there?”

“I gave her a massage,” Sam said impatiently.  “Then we had sex.  Where are the chickens, Tyson?”

Tyson shrugged, then gestured to an unassuming guy standing off to one side of the leaders’ circle, a big rusty-colored bird tucked in his arm.

Immediately upon seeing him, Rat felt that uncomfortable butterfly-feeling in her stomach—the gut feeling she’d come to recognize meant something horrible was about to happen.  She sat up quickly, which made the slender, brown-eyed, brown-haired man give her a curious look before the tent flap came down between them.

Ashes, Rat thought, as the feeling in her gut just started to get worse.  Ashes, ashes…  She scrambled to find her clothes and gear.

She was just beginning to tie her boots when Sam lifted the flap to look in on her, saying, “Hey, they actually found a live chicken.  You up for a—”  Seeing her, he frowned.  “What are you doing?”

Rat liked Sam, but she’d only ever trusted one being in all of Congress with her secret to staying alive on Neskfaat with Zero when no one else had—that it happened to come in the form of gut instincts—and her prince had immediately told her to remain quiet about it, that the scientists of the world would want to dissect her and study her to figure out the secret. That had been decades ago, and Sam was a scientist…

“You wanna leave camp,” Rat said, as nonchalantly as she could.  “It could be dangerous.  I want to be prepared.”

Sam snorted.  “Tuesday,” he said.  Still standing in the doorway stark naked, he made a dismissive gesture at her clothes.  “Underwear and boots, but that’s it.  I’ve still gotta pay you back for the bungie thong.”

Rat considered all the equipment she would have to leave behind due to that command and hesitated.  Her gut was screaming at her that something horrible was about to go down, something big, and all she could think about was that meant she had to be prepared or she was about to be dead.  “I don’t want to leave my stuff here,” she said lamely.

Sam glanced at her pile of weapons and gear around her backpack, then said, “Tyson will watch it—you’ll have to help carry chickens back.  This is the foundation of a civilization that we’re talking about.  It’s important we strike now, before some wandering dumbshit eats them.”  He said the last with a pointed look in her direction.  Then he began to pull on his own ensemble, which included shorts and a T-shirt.

“Wait, we’re leaving Tyson?” Rat demanded, not liking the idea of parting ways with one of their best men.

“You’ll have your rifle,” Sam said, sounding amused.  “We’ll be fine.”

“I want my pistol, too,” Rat argued, that queasiness in her gut starting to make her desperate.

Sam looked at her like he was considering, then he said, “What’s your bra size?”

Rat narrowed her eyes.  “I want my pistol, Sam.  And my knife.”

“Your pistol and your knife get strapped to your body in such a way as to block my view of your elegant curves.  If we come across evildoers, you may kick them in the face or rupture their kidneys.  It would have the same effect.”

Then, without another word, Sam slipped his feet into sandals and headed out the door again, leaving her staring after him, wondering if it was worth breaking the terms of ka-par in order to possibly save both their lives.

Burn it.  Rat wasn’t stupid, and leaving her weapons behind was stupid.  If Sam wanted her to leave camp without them, the fuzzy-headed furg could try to take them from her.

Rat finished lacing her boots, then strapped her weapons to her body, feeling the tension in her gut ease only minutely with every clip and buckle secured.  Something was still wrong, and Rat knew from experience to pay attention to that feeling like her life depended on it, because it usually did.

Predictably, Sam frowned when he saw her exit the tent wearing full combat gear, bristling with weaponry.  Apparently, however, he was more excited about chickens than he was willing to argue, because he simply said, “I’ll punish you later.  For now, let’s go snag us a flock of self-perpetuating foodstuffs.”

Rat wasn’t quite sure what to think when she felt a little thrill at the calm, matter-of-fact way he had said it.  Almost as if…

No.

No way.  She did not enjoy Sam’s deviancies.  It was just a twisted necessity to communicate on the same level as a criminal mastermind, and she was going along with it because she was waiting for the proper opportunity to kill him, and in the meantime, she found the sex decent.

…she just hadn’t found the right time to kill him yet.

But then again, in the two weeks she’d been waiting for the right time, she’d found plenty of reasons not to kill him.

Rat was so conflicted, thinking about that, that she almost missed it when Sam tossed the live chicken to Tyson saying “Do not eat it,” and marched off into the woods with the guy who had brought it to them.  Alone.

Forgetting about her inner battle, she jogged after him.

It was easy to return to the task at hand—staying alive—because as soon as she was alone in the woods with Sam and the man she recognized as one of his scouts, her guts started to twist like someone had stabbed her with an ovi and started wrapping intestines around it.  She could feel something Big coming towards them like a Congressional interstellar.

Thus, she hung back a little, allowing Sam to take the lead, every nerve on the alert for an ambush.

“The chicken was this way,” the man said, once they were out of camp.  He started leading them through the thickets, cutting across the burned-out remains of a small farm, heading for the bushes across the fields.  “We saw a herd of them rooting in a driveway.  One was in rut and aggressive.  The others appeared to be fertile females, from the multiple sexual encounters they were having.”

“So they’ll produce offspring!” Sam cried, as excited as a Baga in a burning circus tent.  “How many were in the herd?”

“I counted eighteen,” the man leading Sam said.  “Plenty of food for the Guild, my liege.”

“Did you see any of their ovulations?” Sam asked, equally as enthusiastically.  “What about any nursing young?”

Rat twitched, frowning, since, just by being around Sam, she was learning something new through osmosis every day.  For some reason, she had always thought chickens just huddled with their young to stay warm, but maybe that’s what the chicks were doing under their wings like that.  And what the soot was an ovulation?  She hated it when Sam’s language lapsed into technical scientific jargon—usually totally without warning—leaving the rest of them behind.

The scout, however, seemed to keep up perfectly.  “No, I don’t think so.”

“Well, you should have,” Sam insisted.  “Where there are chickens, there are ovulations.  And we’d get even more chicken, long-term, if we located a den and stole the gestating podlings.  If you saw one, the husks were probably brown, maybe even white or green?  They excrete clusters of fertilized ovoid cells in concave dens they make from the remnant stalks of grain production, about…”  He held up his thumb and forefinger in an O, “…yay big.”

“We saw those!” the man cried.  “Multiple holes dug out and filled with their ovulations.”

“Really?” Sam said, lowering his voice nervously.  “There were more than one?  We’ll have to be careful harvesting the pod clusters from their dens.”

“Why’s that?” the man asked.  Rat, too, was curious.  Though she was by far not an expert, she for some reason had never thought of chickens as having ‘dens.’

Concern lined his face when Sam said, “I thought you’d found an isolated breeding pair, but you’re describing a brooding territory.  The males congregate to fight for supremacy and the dominant ones grow much larger than the females—about the size of a large hippopotamus—and are incredibly protective of the brooding females, and if there were several herds of young gestating nearby, the dominant male will become more agitated and aggressive and will attempt to spit their venom at us if we enter their mating-zone.  You know the Efrit, right?  Like that.”

The man actually slowed a little, looking wary.  “A neurotoxin?”

“It’s actually very similar to the one that the Efrit hivespinners can release in their death throes, except these can be aimed.  It’s the same chemical compounds, too.  Scientists found it utterly fascinating that it evolved for similar purposes on planets that are thousands of light-years apart.”

“I see,” the man said, looking down at his hands uncomfortably.  He wiped them on his pants.

“Obviously it doesn’t work on Humans, though,” Sam said, waving his hand dismissively.  “Only aliens.  Before Judgement, those ailo scientists were actually looking into the potential of breeding chicken to harvest the male venom for pharmaceutical and military purposes, but they were having trouble buying the patents from Earth’s government, since chicken was developed by the Hershey Company and is therefore corporate property.  Lawsuit went through the Regency and everything.  I hear the Ooreiki wanted it bad, since the Huouyt are so susceptible to it.  The venom has a ninety-percent kill rate just from contact.”

Rat rolled her eyes.  Again Sam had launched into another over-her-head discussion about some inane subject she didn’t care or know anything about.  Chicken farming was such a twentieth-century profession, anyway.  The only ones who still knew anything about it were the ones who had run the machines in the artisanal foods farms.  Hell, she had thought that they called unborn chickens eggs but that just went to show how much she really didn’t understand about her own homeworld.

The man, however, seemed to understand Sam’s ramblings without an issue.  “Perhaps we should let Rat go first,” the man said.  “A creature that dangerous…  I’d feel better to have someone with a gun leading us.”

“Sure you would,” Sam snorted.  “Rat, shoot him.”

Rat, who was busy looking over her shoulder, seeking out the movement behind a shadowy tree trunk behind them, frowned when his words registered and turned back to face them.  “Huh?”

Sam gave her a stunned look.  “You mean you didn’t…?”

The man chopped out with his foot and knocked Sam off his feet, hard onto his back.  A moment later, the man had pulled a gun from the heavy folds of his coat, and was pointing it at Rat.  “Mekkval said you had something special we could use.  Obviously, he was lying, or you wouldn’t be in this situation.  The hybrid furg, though, that we can use.”  Then he started to pull the trigger.

By reflex, Rat made a gloved fist, at the same time depressing the obscure pressure point with a thumb.  The concussive blast that hit the Huouyt made the charge go wide, but barely.  Rat rolled and came up shooting.

But the Huouyt was already moving, getting behind a tree, pushing her to get her back to—

Even as her guts twisted ominously, Rat lunged backwards into the forest, allowing the Huouyt’s shot to fly past her.

Two of them, Rat thought, keeping track.  She was not in a good fighting position, the small trees providing scant cover, and they were almost in a position to flank her.  She prayed to the Mothers, yanked a thumb-sized slicer sticky-boom from the collection on her arm, and hurled it into the forest after the first one, hoping the tree the Huouyt was using as cover could double as a distraction.

Electric pink energy laced with currents of white blasted the area of impact, knocking down trees in a forty-dig swath as the white arcs lanced through them.  The Huouyt screamed—the slicer arcs had unfortunately missed him—but his entire body was laced with fist-sized splinters of tree-trunk.

But Rat didn’t have time to follow up on it because the same tree that had peppered him was now crashing down towards her.  She dove through the undergrowth, breaking branches as she rolled, tearing herself up and back into a run. As the smoke from the explosion cleared, she was in a better firing position for the first one, who was now thoroughly distracted with the arm-length splinters he was trying to pull from his body.  She put two shots in its head and was about to put another in its chest when a plasma round hit the tree an inch from her left eye.  Rat had a startled moment where she watched the bark disintegrate, sure that her own face was about to dissolve with it, then instinct kicked in and she ducked aside just as a second one went for her head. Beside her, the tree started to lean and fall, and Rat lunged backwards to get out of the way, her senses going ballistic as she realized she had just exposed herself to the first Huouyt.

When she looked up again, however, the first Huouyt was gone.  Unfortunately, she didn’t have time to think about that because the second Huouyt was shooting at her again.  She yanked another sticky-boom off her bandolier and hurled it in that direction.  It was a sour smoker, this time, and she used the instant, opaque wall to get into a different position even as the Huouyt trapped inside screamed and tried to claw his way out of the acid fumes.

Meanwhile, somewhere on the smoke-covered ground behind her, Sam was screaming, too.

Feeling a little bad that she’d unintentionally hit Sam, Rat nonetheless used the distraction to change positions, then hunkered down, waiting.  When the Huouyt stood up, damaged skin sloughing off, she put three shots through him and he slumped back to the ground to stay.

Behind her, Sam was limping closer to her, blubbering, holding his boil-covered hands out in front of him.

“Stay back, Sam,” Rat growled.

“My skin,” Sam babbled.

“It’s acid, yes,” Rat snapped.  “We’ll take care of it later.  Get your head down.”  He probably had it in his lungs because the dumbass would have been sucking in breaths to scream, but there wasn’t anything she could do about it right now.  She chanced a glance back at him again.

Sam had lowered himself into a crouch, but he was still dragging himself towards her, leaning heavily on a splintered branch he had acquired along the way.

“I said stay back,” Rat growled.

“Okay!” Sam cried, stopping.  A moment later, the first Huouyt was shooting at her again, having sloughed off the plasma-damaged head—not many Huouyt who knew what they were doing actually put their brains and zora inside a pattern’s head, for it was an obvious place for a sniper hit—firing at her with just a couple eyes having been forged into the pattern of his victim’s neck in a rush.

But the glimpse of the emerging Human eyes where an Adam’s apple should have been gave Rat goosebumps all over.  The usual Huouyt draftees that filled the Congressional ranks did not have the kind of training or discipline to create eyes that complex and that quickly outside of pattern, especially not wounded.  Seeing it, she had no question in her mind that she was dealing with assassins.  Good ones.

Knowing that, Rat swiveled, trained the gun on Sam’s forehead, and said, “Age old question.  Which came first?”

Sam blinked.  “The guy you just shot, I think…”

Rat shot him.  Then she shot him four more times, because, headless, he yanked a laser knife from his clothing and was reaching for her with it.  A half-dissolved zora spilled out of the wound in his abdomen, red and wormy in the smoky sunlight.  He was wearing Sam’s shorts, T-shirt, and sandals.

Which meant Sam was probably dead.

That knowledge hardened something within Rat.  She had been struggling with the need to kill him, but now that he was dead, the sense of loss was hitting her much harder than she would have expected.

The first Huouyt had started firing again, so Rat found another slicer sticky, yanked it free, and hurled it at her opponent.  She had only landed on Earth with twelve of each to last her the rest of her life, so instead of following it up with a sour sticky, like she would have preferred, she sprayed the area with plasma, knowing that plasma rounds would be infinitely easier to acquire in the future.

She must have hit something, because she heard something slump to the ground.  As she maneuvered to get a better look, out of range of the cut trees that were only then starting to fall, she saw that one of the arcs had simply bisected the Huouyt through his chest, effectively cutting his zora in half.  A tree fell on the truncated lower body, and the corpse didn’t even twitch.

Three down, Rat thought, wondering how many more there were.

“Rat!” Sam screamed from somewhere ahead, moving fast.  “Tueeesdaaaaayy!”

Rat felt a startled pang of fear, then broke into a jog, trying to keep as low and fast as she could, without giving any potential onlookers a good shot.

She got close enough to see an un-patterned Huouyt hauling a totally naked Sam through the woods on the end of a cord around his tied hands, then his captor swiveled and started shooting at her.  As Rat was ducking out of the way, Sam tried to pull his rope loose, but only succeeded in getting the Huouyt’s rifle butt to his face.  Sam went down in a pile, whimpering, and the Huouyt went back to trying to figure out where she’d gone in his instant of distraction.

This would have been an excellent time for a sticky, but Rat was about ninety percent sure that was the real Sam, and she didn’t want to risk losing him from proximity to the blast.

And, while Sam was exposed, the Huouyt was hiding behind a fallen tree, using the root bundle as cover.

“You were given a mission!” the Huouyt called from behind the bundle.  “You failed!  Mekkval trusted you, and you betrayed him.  We are only trying to finish the job!”

Feeling a pang of guilt, Rat nonetheless resisted the urge to reply back.  If there was anything she had learned in her fight on Eeloir, when Huouyt got talkative, they were usually trying to outmaneuver their opponents.  Thus, instead of watching the one behind the rootball, Rat started watching the forest around her, listening.  She was relatively sure he was the last of his team, since the Huouyt usually worked in fours—four seemed to be the biggest number of Huouyt that could work together without killing each other more than twenty percent of the time—but Rat was cautious by nature.

Thus, she was in a position to see the shrubbery tremble as something crept up behind her while the Huouyt tried to distract her with a monologue.  She caught the barest ripple of a Jikaln in camouflage before it stopped moving and vanished again.

Five of them, Rat thought, getting goosebumps as she started moving along a fallen log to her left, keeping a screen of leafy bushes between them.  The last time she’d gone up against five Huouyt, the Va’gan Triad had taken exception to the fact that Mekkval had hired a team of non-Va’gans to do his dirty work.  It had been one of the many times that her intuition had kept her alive where she should have died.

For five Huouyt to work together, something big had to be going down, and Rat would have given anything to be able to interrogate them afterwards, to figure out their purpose here.  She couldn’t see them expending those kind of resources just to come after Sam—Huouyt hated the idea of giving up their genetics to anyone, and the fact that Slade was a walking, talking Huouyt hybrid had to really piss them off.

Behind her, the un-patterned Huouyt with Sam was still monologuing about duty and honor—two things a Huouyt respected about as much as flake and urine—and probably using Sam’s DNA to take his pattern while she couldn’t see him.  Joy.

Still, if she couldn’t see him, he couldn’t see her.  Realizing she had an opportunity as long as she could kill the Jikaln-patterned Huouyt in silence, Rat left her little patch of brush and began hunting the hunter.

“The great Rat,” the Huouyt went on.  “Failed a mission.  Could it be because she fell in love with her target?!”

Rat winced, but kept going in silence.  That’s not what had happened.  She’d simply been waiting for the right—

Realizing she’d had that exact same thought about a hundred times in the last two weeks, Rat had to come to the startling realization that there wasn’t going to be a right moment, and if she saved Sam from whatever the Huouyt planned to do with him now, then she was still going to have to struggle with that indefinitely.

She hesitated, watching the Huouyt in Jikaln pattern continue to slink towards her previous hiding place, the only evidence of its passing the sliding of brush against its camouflaged body.

They wanted Sam.  Badly, it seemed.  If she let them have Sam, then it solved her dilemma.

It would also remove the one man from her life that it seemed she actually got along with on a personal level, as crazy and convoluted as their relationship was.  Rat hesitated, trying to imagine surviving the apocalypse without the self-proclaimed Tesla of the Congressional Era.

It wasn’t, she realized, going to happen.  Not because she needed Sam to survive, but because surviving without Sam wasn’t going to have any appeal—as old as she was, as seasoned in war, death, and killing things, Sam brought a whole new perspective to the table that was unexpected and…fun.

The idea of going back to that one-dimensional existence no longer had the allure that it once did.

With that in mind, she circled around to the Jikaln-patterned Huouyt’s back and, despite the fact going into hand-to-hand combat with a Jikaln was about the same as trying to kill a tiger with a knife, Rat knew she needed to get some answers.

And to get answers, she needed to take prisoners…

#

Slade lifted his head at the odd sound in the brush, almost like a frog croaking.  Above him, the Huouyt cocked his head, then slowly lowered Slade’s ‘leash’ to the ground in order to pull a second gun.  “I have one round left, and I’m going to use it on the abomination if you don’t come out so we can—”

“He’s got two pistols with perpetual charges,” Slade called out to his lady love.  “And he’s not going to kill me because he—”

The Huouyt spun to pistol-whip him in the face.  Which, even though the Huouyt was in a weaker, non-patterned form with nothing but boneless, semi-aquatic tentacles, hurt.  A lot.  Slade coughed on blood and spat out a tooth.  When he looked up again, the Huouyt had the barrel of one of its guns to his head, its creepy, psychotic, mirror-like eyes totally unreadable.  Slade realized, gleefully, that that was what his eyes had to look like, and no wonder the people of the Guild thought he was psychotic and a mind-reader.  He giggled.

The Huouyt blinked at him a moment, then growled.  “You will remain silent or I will shoot you.”

“If you were going to shoot me, you would have done it already,” Slade chuckled.

And, for a moment, he thought the Huouyt would shoot him, but then it went back to trying to find Rat.  For a Huouyt, it looked…frantic.

“You’re the last one left, aren’t you?” Slade asked.

“Shut up.”

“I mean, I’m sure there’s some still left in the camp,” Slade went on, “but she already took out all four of your ambush-buddies, leaving just you.”

“Shut up.”  The Huouyt whipped around and slapped a tentacle to Slade’s arm.  Which stung.

When nothing adverse seemed to happen, however, the Huouyt just squinted at that, then frowned at Slade.  From the confusion on his face, it was pretty evident that something pretty awful should have happened.

Hallelujah for self-experimentation with Cursed Potions of Blindness and Impotence!  Giving the Huouyt a wide grin—because Slade figured that would be the creepiest way to punctuate the Huouyt’s confusion—Slade said, “Or maybe I’m one of your old Va’gan teachers, giving you your final test, unbeknownst to you.”

The Huouyt’s eyes actually widened momentarily before it said, “You’re not,” and went back to looking for Rat.  As it did, it pulled a tiny vial from a pouch on its belt and uncapped it.  Then Sam watched in fascination as a wormy red appendage extruded from a slit in its head to swallow the sliver of whatever had been in the vial.

Then, with horrifying quickness—fifteen point seven seconds, by Slade’s estimates—the previously un-patterned Huouyt took the shape of…

No way.

No.  Way.  Slade found his mouth hanging open, staring at the spitting image of Commander Zero, hero of the apocalypse.

“He just changed into my fucking brother!” Sam shouted into the bushes.

“Damn it!” the Huouyt snapped, spinning on him and slamming the gun into the side of Slade’s head repeatedly, rattling his perfect brain around quite thoroughly before he was done.  “Silence!”

Slade thought it was fitting that it was the pattern of his uncouth, thieving thug of a brother trying to damage his brain where no one else had succeeded—the selfish bastard had always been jealous.  “So do all Huouyt beat on people when they’re shit scared,” Slade laughed, spitting blood.  “Or am I just special?”

Seeing he was getting nowhere, the Huouyt made a disgusted sound and turned to stare out at the forest, giving Slade an excellent profile of his brother’s perfect chin.

Slade got the brain, Joe got the chin.  Brains the likes of which Humanity had never seen before had gotten Slade a lifetime of living on the run, fast cash and even faster women, IQ tests, psychological batteries, then eventually prison.  And yet, that ridiculously flawless chin had gotten Slade’s useless brother put on every propaganda poster from here to the Old Territory, reverence from every Congie in the Congressional Ground Force, and free food and alcohol wherever he went.  Damn that chin.  Slade wanted a chin like that.  He wondered how his life would have been different if he’d gotten the chin gene as well as the brain gene.  Maybe when they got to the lab, Slade could give himself the chin-gene, too.  He worried, however, that perhaps they were mutually exclusive…

“You know, you look kind of familiar,” Slade said.

The Huouyt ignored him.

“Kind of like an asshole I once knew.”

No comment from Mr. Cleft.

“She’s out there,” Slade commented.  “A rifle-carrying wraith.  A demon in black.  And she’s gonna put you down.”

The Huouyt in Useless Form twitched, but said nothing.

“I can just imagine what your buddies are going to think when Rat and I walk back to camp unscathed.”

Still peering out at the silent vegetation, the Huouyt with the incredible chin said almost distractedly, “I’ve heard Humans don’t actually need their feet.”

“I wonder how many of your buddies are still back there, waiting for the all-clear to pack up and head back to your ship,” Slade went on.  “I’m guessing three.  Just enough to watch each others’ backs, but not enough to be a waste of resources.”

“Silence!”

“In fact,” Slade went on, “I’m betting you’re wishing pretty badly right now you’d brought the last three on this doomed mission, aren’t you?”  Slade snorted.  “But that’s typical Huouyt arrogance for you.  Who would’ve thought a Human would be kicking the ass of five Va’gan assassins?”

“You will not distract me,” the Huouyt said, without looking at him.  “Stop trying.”  He was still scanning the woods ahead of them with the focus of a cat.

“She’s a girl, you know,” Slade said.  “You’re getting your ass handed to you by a girl.”

“I swear to the ghosts, if you don’t shut up, I will negate you, regardless of what I promised.”

“So you promised,” Slade said, delighted.  “Let’s examine that, shall we?  It’s obvious the Huouyt are embroiled in yet another scheme to take over the universe—yawn.  So did Mekkval wait a few days to give Rri’jan Ze’laa back his zora, or did he simply restore it once they were back in his chambers?”

The Huouyt twitched, but kept watching the brush.

“Interesting,” Slade said.  “So they’re in cahoots.  Let me guess—they want to divide the universe into two hemispheres for their respective species and enslave everyone else using the powers of yonder telepath and his loveable telekinetic and telemorphic friends.”

That made the Huouyt turn to look at him.

“So Twelve-A did survive,” Slade said, delighted.  “I thought he might be a tricky one to put down, when the time came.  How many did he take with him?  Twenty?  Forty?  Probably as many as he could salvage from the Containment wing, am I right?”

The Huouyt cocked its head at him.

“So the Huouyt Nation is here on a secret mission to take back as many experiments as it can find—probably under the guise of collecting the experiments for Mekkval, because he’s the only one who could order the blockade net to open back up for your escape off the planet—and you want to use my superior brain to help you figure out why the cloning isn’t duplicating abilities of the mind as well as the flesh, once you have faked your demise to Mekkval and deposited the experiments in a secret Huouyt lab of your choice.”

“If you open your mouth again, I’m going to kill you,” the Huouyt said.

“Are you sure I’m not one of your old teachers, checking up on you?” Slade said, grinning.

The Huouyt narrowed his eyes, but went back to listening to the forest for signs of Rat’s passage.  Interesting, because it meant they really wanted Slade alive.  Then a stick snapped somewhere nearby, almost imperceptible, and his brother’s perfect chin swiveled to face it.

“I suppose the real question,” Slade said loudly, “is whether or not Mekkval knows you plan to double-cross him.  He’s not stupid, so he must know, which means he has a plan.  But then again, the Huouyt know that, so they probably have a strategy to circumvent his plan.  Question is who thought the most number of moves out.  Personally, I’d put my money on the Dhasha.  He’s old enough he’s learned how to bluff with the best of them, and as we’ve already demonstrated here today, the Huouyt are nothing if not arrogant, totally secure in their own superiority over other races, which leads them to miss things—like the fact the girl they came to kill has killed more Huouyt, Dhasha, or other top-tier targets than any other warrior in the universe, even more than my unloveable brother Zero.”

With smooth, psychotic purpose, the Huouyt swiveled and raised his gun to Slade’s forehead.

Then, like an avenging angel in Congie black, his booted barbarianess lunged from the forest only feet from where they’d been sitting and swiveled to kick the gun out of his brother’s perfect football-player’s hand, sending it flying into the brush and scraping the barrel across Slade’s forehead in the process.

“Ow,” Slade said, reaching up and finding blood.

But his plight was already forgotten.  The two assassins were engaged in an epic life-or-death struggle that disappointingly wasn’t the choreographed elegance that Slade had come to expect from live-action movies.  Instead, they were kicking, elbowing, eye-gouging, and using every facet of their surroundings to their advantage, clumsily hopping over root bundles and fallen logs and flinging distractions of branches and dirt clods at each other with one hand as they desperately tried to get a bead on their opponent with the other…

#


Damn!  Rat’s main goal had become trying to keep the Huouyt from touching any part of her body—a deadly proposition, considering who she was dealing with—and she was losing ground.  The Huouyt was fast, efficient, deadly…  And wearing Zero’s body.

She had to keep reminding herself that she wasn’t actually fighting Zero, but an impostor that somehow had access to Joe’s genetics.  Even with that knowledge, however, it unnerved her on a basic, instinctive level.  Was Zero working with the Huouyt?  Or had they collected his DNA somewhere else, from one of his discarded whiskey glasses, from his corpse?  Or had it been the Watcher on Koliinaat?  If it was the Watcher, how had they gained access to that kind of information?  It would have required a command from the Regency to unlock the genetics files…

All that was twisting frantically through her brain even as she fought the primal fear that she was fighting Zero.  If there was one creature in Congress she would have refused as a mission, it was Zero.  She had seen him fight, and she knew the two of them were equally matched.  Just the body of Zero was giving her enough of a pause to make her clumsy, less confident.  Which was, she estimated, exactly what the Huouyt had been aiming for.

And here Rat had actually thought she could take the Huouyt alive.

On Eeloir, Rat had made a pact with herself never to try to take a Huouyt prisoner again, and with every plasma shot that barely missed her face or vitals, she was being reminded of why.  They were smart, and they were infinitely harder to kill than a Human.

It was about the same time she had given up on taking the Huouyt alive and had begun desperately trying to regain her control over the situation when Sam, who had been forgotten as the lesser danger, kicked the Huouyt in the Human-patterned knee, and there was a weird pop as he crumpled with a scream.  Instincts taking charge, Rat, who was trembling with the struggle to stay one step ahead of the assassin, shot the Huouyt until he stopped twitching.

Then she spun on Sam, aimed her gun at his face, and said, “Age old question.  Which came first?”

Sam rolled his eyes and made a disgusted sound.  “I told you.  Anyone with any basis in science would tell you it was the—”

Rat lifted her gun and glanced in the direction the Huouyt was trying to drag Sam.  So they had some sort of working vehicle…

“—chicken,” Sam said.

Rat whipped around and put the gun back to his head before she realized he was grinning.  He winked one of his electric blue-white eyes.  “Just kidding.  Egg all the way, baby.”

“You realize you almost got shot?” Rat cried.

“I couldn’t help it,” Sam said.

And he probably couldn’t, at that.

Sam squinted at her. “Did you really not know I was making shit up about the chickens?” he demanded.  “I mean, I was sure only an alien would get that stuff wrong.”

Reddening, Rat said, “Earth hasn’t been my home for seventy-four turns.”  She started cutting him free of his bonds.

Sam just blinked at her as the ropes fell from his wrists.  “But the size of a hippopotamus?  And spitting venom?”

Rat went back to searching their surroundings.  “I don’t know how big a hippopotamus is and I’ve fought things that spat venom a dozen different times on a dozen different planets.  It wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility.”

Sam actually looked at her with what appeared to be a newfound respect.  “Huh,” he said.  “Guess it’s a good thing I didn’t quiz you about chickens.”  Then he glanced around them at the forest.  “So he was probably leading us towards his skimmer, since whoever hired him is going to want evidence of death and Huouyt are lazy, so hauling a body long-distance probably wasn’t on his to-do list.  If you were a Huouyt, where would you land a skimmer to hunt for us?”

“You’re looking for a spaceship, not a haauk,” Rat informed him.  “Huouyt wouldn’t have gotten caught dead on this planet during Judgement, so they had to get on the planet afterwards somehow—probably a high-grade courier, the kind reserved for Regency members or Ooreiki priesthood.  That means a spaceship—and we’re probably talking dozens of Huouyt.  They’ll have landed in a lake or ocean somewhere.  Huouyt are aquatic in their natural form.”

Sam gave her a look like she had just explained, in finite detail, the results of adding two and two.  “Obviously.”  He waved a hand.  “Not so obvious is that they had to walk to get here because they found a goddamn chicken, but only after they figured out I wanted chickens, which means their landing site is somewhere nearby because they’ve been trekking back and forth, which means it’s highly unlikely it’s a spaceship, since there aren’t any large bodies of water nearby and they wouldn’t want to leave it exposed to a kreenit.  It also means they want something from us, otherwise we’d probably be dead by now.  Therefore, I want to figure out where they put their skimmer and disable it so they can’t escape to their main ship before I capture them all and interrogate them properly.”

Trying not to feel ruffled at what really was obvious, Rat said, “You can’t capture Huouyt.  That’s suicide, especially without containment facilities.”

But Sam just waved her off.  “I saw some barrels a farmer was using for food storage in that barn a few miles away.  That’ll work to hold them.”

Rat frowned.  “You want to kill them, I can do it for you.”  She was not going to relive Eeloir all over again.

Sam just laughed.  “Find me their skimmer.  I’ll take care of the rest.”

Rat peered at him a moment, considered telling him that during combat and other war-like activities, she was in charge, but then realized what day it was and really didn’t want to listen to him whine about Tuesday.  “Fine.  Get behind me.  I’ll see if I can find their trail.”

As Rat began searching their surroundings for signs of recent passings, Sam sat down beside his brother’s corpse and started opening its mouth and prying open its eyelids so he could peer into its eyeballs.  As if that were not creepy enough, he got out a little pocket knife and started slicing away at the nostrils, revealing the inner workings of the sinuses as she was trying to concentrate on tracking.

“Can you not do that?” Rat asked, finding the weird crunching of bone and sinew as he yanked Zero’s jaw away from his skull incredibly distracting.

“This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to dissect a Huouyt,” Sam said, not stopping.

“That’s your brother’s body,” Rat insisted.  “Have some burning respect.”

Respect?” Sam snorted, flicking a piece of cartilage aside.  “For that self-obsessed boozer?  I don’t think so.”

Rat squinted at Sam, yet again presented with the disturbing fact that Sam seemed to have an unhealthy hatred of the brother who had saved his life.  “He rescued you from that Congie prison,” Rat growled.  “They were going to execute you.”

Sam laughed.  “Execute me?”  He giggled as if he thought that were funny.  “No, they were interviewing me.  ‘Hey Ghost, you wanna eat today?  What’s wrong with this design?’  ‘Hey Ghost, you need to take a piss?  How do you think we could improve this drive system?’  ‘Hey Ghost, you want the lights turned on?  Great, ‘cause we’ve got this really cool puzzle for you to work out that has absolutely no basis in reality aside from the fact we’ve been working on the same thing for a thousand years and haven’t come up with a solution…’”  He snorted and went back to prying at Zero’s face with a knife.

“Shouldn’t you go get the clothes off another one and get dressed or something?” Rat demanded, more than a little unnerved when he leaned down and started slicing at the roof of his brother’s mouth.

Distractedly, Sam said, “Probably got fleas.  The last one I killed had fleas.”

Rat squinted.  “The ‘last’ one?  Why didn’t you dissect that one?”  It was really disturbing to watch him cut away on his brother’s braincase.

“I had to pass its corpse off as a Human and I never got a chance.”

Rat frowned and looked back at him, finally realizing what he had said.  “Wait.  You killed a Huouyt?  You?”  That was…not very likely.  Especially for a civilian.  Even untrained Huouyt were able to take victims’ patterns as easily as changing a skin.

“Don’t sound so surprised,” he chuckled.

“If you never cut him open, how did you even know it was a Huouyt?”

Sam laughed.  “Oh, believe me.  I knew.  It was a Va’gan someone hired to kill me.”

Rat lowered her gun and scowled at him.  “These were Va’gan Huouyt.  There is no way you killed a Va’gan Huouyt.”  He had just proven that in bloody, screaming, whining detail.

Sam ignored her.  He had his tongue stuck in the corner of his mouth and was shoving his finger up the hole he had made in his brother’s nasal cavity, presumably feeling for the brain.  “The pattern it takes really is genetically identical, isn’t it?” he commented, as if he were examining a carrot.  “It’s not just a façade.  That’s awesome.”  He yanked his finger free and wiped it on the Huouyt’s shirt.  “I wonder how they manage it.”

“That red wormy thing in its chest,” Rat said, distractedly.  “They use the genetic material of their victim to take his or her form.”  She had seen—and killed—enough Huouyt to know that the zora was key to the Huouyt’s transformational abilities.

“Yes,” Sam said, turning his attention to the red wormy appendage that had been partially dissolved by plasma, “but how do they get it out to transform?  It looks pretty locked in place.”

“Water,” Rat muttered.  “They’ve gotta douse themselves in water to change back.”  Then she irritatedly insisted, “Look.  Sam.  You didn’t kill a Va’gan Huouyt.  If you did, they would have sent more until you were dead.”

Sam shrugged.  “You kill them with enough authority, they stop trying.  Kind of a professional respect thing, I think.”

“And they only sent one,” Rat growled.  She didn’t believe it.  Not at all.

“Yep.”  He got up and went over to the Jikaln’s corpse and nudged the exposed primary stomach with his boot.  “Oh lookie.  It was eating chicken.  Feathers and all.”  He said it like he had discovered a gold mine.

Rat came over to look.  Indeed, the stomach seemed distended, with a wet mass of reddish feathers oozing from the slit Sam had cut into the white stomach wall.  “Why would a Huouyt eat chicken?  They’ve got ration packs.”

“My guess is they’ve probably been on the planet longer than they anticipated, and they’re shit-scared of leaving without what they came for,” Sam said.  He pulled off the remnants of another Huouyt’s shirt and started carefully piling the bloody feather-mush from the Jikaln onto the garment’s flat center.  When he was done, he tied the T-shirt up carefully at the corners, creating a little wet sack of masticated raw chicken.

Rat found herself staring.  “Sam?”

“Yes?” he asked, as if it were the most natural thing in the world to be naked, carrying the contents of a Huouyt’s stomach in a repurposed tee.

“What are you doing?” Rat asked.

“Saving mankind, one chicken at a time,” Sam said.  “Does the zora have to be in one place, or can it be moved?”

“It can be wherever the Huouyt wants it to be,” Rat said.  “Sam, I am not eating that.”

“You said you were hungry,” Sam said, sounding totally confused.  “Chicken is food.”

When she continued to stare at him, he frowned and added, “You like chicken.”  His frown deepened and he said, “In fact, you like chicken so much you butchered my entire flock for a few drumsticks.”

She shuddered.  “You can eat it.  I’ll starve.”

He continued to look perplexed.  He glanced at her, then at his sack of chewed chicken parts, then back to her.  “Okay,” he said reluctantly, “but maybe you should try it before—”

“No,” Rat said.  “Never.  I’d rather eat Dhasha flake.”

Sam started to object, but Rat quickly walked away before he could try to convince her to eat the contents of a Huouyt’s stomach because, in her current state of hunger, he might actually manage to do it.  “Let’s just get out of here.”

But Sam made her wait as he examined the other four stomachs to ascertain there was no chicken inside.  Shuddering, Rat walked ahead to wait.

She found a recently-walked trail, and in a few short minutes, Rat found the Huouyt haauk hidden behind a fence in some Pre-Judgementer’s now-brown and weed-infested backyard.  It was a covered 8-person model, with a trunk for storage, obscured with a salvaged tarp from a dead guy’s backyard.

“As long as we don’t take it more than ten feet off the ground,” Sam said, the bloody sack slung over one shoulder, “the patrol bots overhead shouldn’t shoot us down.”

“Wait,” Rat said.  “We’re taking it back to camp?”

“What better way to get our new friends’ attention?”

“They will kill us and take it back,” Rat snapped.

“No,” Sam said.  “If they wanted to kill us, they would have done it by now.  They’ve been watching us quite a while, if the state of that guy’s clothes were any indication.  Besides, I’m going to disable it first, so they won’t be going anywhere fast.”

Rat frowned as she tried to make sense of the situation.  “Sam, why would the Huouyt be watching us?”

“Maybe to settle old scores?” Sam said.  He gave her a shrewd look.  “What do you think the chances are Keval faked his own death to avoid assassination by Mekkval?”

Rat snorted, both in ridicule and disgust that he could even say such a thing.  “Keval is Mekkval’s oldest heir.  His nephew.  He was shattered when he died.  Mekkval is the most honorable Dhasha alive today, a leader, and he was more likely to put his own life on the line than to hurt his brother’s son.”  She remembered the filth covering her prince, the squalor of his grief.  She couldn’t exactly tell Sam that’s why she was here, that Mekkval had sworn vengeance on the Human experiments responsible for his nephew’s death, but she wasn’t about to let Sam profane her lord’s good name, either.

“Well, bear with me a moment,” Sam said.  “Let’s say Keval faked his death, just for grins.  Since you and Keval spent so much time together, everyone probably thought you two were in cahoots, and if they put you on the same planet with Keval, you’d lead them to him, and Keval is probably worth more money to them than you are, especially to his uncle.”

“They think Keval’s on this ashbag planet?” Rat demanded with a scoff.  “He’s a prince.”  And the idea that he would fake his death was absurd.  He was the universe’s most popular Dhasha, aside from Mekkval.

“What better place to start a den?” Sam countered.  “No competition.”

That got a cold wave of goosebumps, because it was true.  Keval had always hated the limelight, and that was exactly how a Dhasha prince would think of a devastated Earth:  Paradise.  She was actually surprised that none of them had set up camp to start a slaving colony yet.  To the Dhasha, Humanity was…extremely tempting…in its anatomy.  “I suppose…”

“Just an idea,” Sam said.  “But for right now, if we play our cards right, we will be having chicken for dinner.  I make the best chicken.”  He hefted the bloody sack dripping with stinking digestive juices up onto the skimmer seat and climbed onboard.  Then, as if it were the most normal thing in the world to steal a Huouyt’s skimmer, he yanked the panel from the front console and began resetting it to factory standards.

Minutes later—less than two, to be precise—Sam had overridden the machine’s Huouyt-made programming, set himself as the new user, and they were in the air, albeit low in the air, and headed back for camp to find the other Huouyt.

#

“The strategy is this,” Slade said, dumbing it down for his thugs, “I invite twelve random people into my tent and interview them for a supposed spot in the Guild leadership, with Rat standing beside the interview table with her gun.  If they fail the interview, she shoots them until they stop twitching.  Meanwhile, Tyson will be guarding the door, making sure no one tries to interrupt.”  He cocked his head at Tyson.  “Tyson, what’s a frustrated fairy?”

“A big blond ape with a gun,” Tyson said, hefting his rifle.  He scowled at Slade.  “You already confirmed I’m not a Huouyt, and I haven’t left your sight, so why the fuck do you keep quizzing me?”

“Because I love to hear you say it,” Slade said, waving him off.  Turning back to Rat, he said, “I’ll use a series of questions pertaining to Earth culture, life, and slang, and on the off-chance we actually get one of the Huouyt in the first random-draw, if they fail, they get shot.  Those that pass, we just send them back to the flock.”

“Problem,” Tyson said.  “The moment you let those twelve go out of your sight and bring in the next batch, you’ve completely defeated the purpose.”

“I’ll only need one batch,” Slade said, because it was self-evident.  When his two lackeys just frowned at him like well-fed bovids, however, Slade sighed deeply.  “Just bring Karl Tott in.  I’ll show you.”  He went over to his bed and started fumbling for one of his notebooks under his mattress.  “Oh, and if I make a hand gesture like this…” one-handed over his shoulder, still reaching under the bed, he cocked his hand in the shape of a gun, “then you shoot them.”

“What is that, a dog’s head?”

Slade stopped fumbling and scowled at his hand, which definitely did not look like a dog’s head. “It’s a gun, Rat.”

“So you make a doggie head, I shoot him?  Just like that?”

“It’s a gun,” Slade said, finally finding his notebook and yanking it out from under the mat.  “And yes.”

Rat gave him a long, unconvinced look, then turned and left the tent.

And, while his thugs were less than enthusiastic in their obedience, they were obedient, and that, ultimately, was what mattered.

Slade sat down at his desk, got his good, old-fashioned paper notebook out, and made a couple random comments about the suspected size of Tyson’s penis on it.  He had really gotten into it and was describing the atrophying effect of disuse on phallus girth when Karl walked in, looking nervous.

“Sit,” Slade said, gesturing without looking up.  He continued making notes, bulleting several points.

Karl reluctantly sat, eyes on one of Slade’s drawings.  “You, uh…”  He swallowed.  “I heard you’re looking for a new secretary?”

“Yes,” Slade said.  “How do you spell cum?”

“Uhhh.”  Karl made a nervous sound and scratched at the back of his head.  “Which one?”

“Never mind,” Slade said, setting the notebook aside.  Looking up, he steepled his fingers over the table.  “You can leave now.”

Karl blinked at him, but didn’t seem too upset about the idea.  He actually glanced at Rat before he got out of his chair, though.  “Oh…kay…  I take it I failed?”

“Shoo.”  Slade waved him out.  To Rat, he said, “Tell Tyson to bring me Arnie Davidson.”  He went back to scribbling pointers for Tyson.

When Arnie came in, the man stopped in the doorway upon seeing Slade at his table, writing in his notebook.  Immediately taking that to mean something nefarious, he started to whine, “Man, I’ve got kids…”

“Sit,” Slade said, without looking up.  Instructional diagrams, he was finding, were tricky when he could only guess the approximate size of Tyson’s schlong.  He actually paused and entered a dimension of his mind-universe in order to make a bunch of calculations about Tyson’s hand and foot length, approximate testosterone levels, and body size, then contrasted that with his relative leanness and overall health.  He must have sat there calculating for several minutes, because eventually, Rat slammed the butt of her rifle down on the table in front of him, shattering his thoughts like a Neanderthal’s boulder to a chandelier.  “Sam,” Rat said, gesturing at the pale-face Arnie.  “You’re scaring him.”

“Oh,” Slade said, refocusing.  “Right.  If I said I was boning your wife, what would you say to me?”

Immediately, Arnie flushed purple and lunged to his feet.  “I knew it, you crazy psycho sonofabitch!  I will stuff your goddamn cock so far down your throat it snaps your fucking spine!”  He lunged over the table at Slade, and he got several good punches to the face in before Rat had the self-possession to pull him off.  Or maybe she delayed on purpose.

The way she stood at the tent, arms smugly crossed over her beautiful breasts, Slade was about ninety-eight percent sure she delayed on purpose.

Glaring at her through a black eye, Slade muttered, “I didn’t screw his wife.”

“Obviously,” Rat said, with way too much confidence.

Muttering, Slade said, “Coby Gordon.”

“Why only guys?” Rat asked, not moving from her place at the door.  “A Huouyt’s just as likely to be masquerading as a woman.”

Coby,” Slade grated, “Gordon.”  He went back to his art.

When Coby came in, he took one look at Slade’s paper, then said, “Whoa, dude.  Nice melons.  Those Rat’s?”

“Get out,” Slade said, without looking up.

Rat uncrossed her arms.  “But aren’t you going to—”

“Out!” Slade cried, slapping the paper against the table in frustration.  “Brandon Ubiq.  Quickly, please.  It’s time for my afternoon nap.”

“Uh, yeah, okay.”  Coby chuckled to Rat as he walked out the door.  “Looks like I failed.”

But Rat, bless her, paused to take a good look at his drawing, and Slade could see the gears in her head turning before she went to find Brandon.

Brandon came in casually and sat down.  “Yeah?”

Slade looked him over.  “Rat and I found some unspoiled manmeat and we want you to volunteer to take a load of hot beef from Tyson and spread it around a bit.”

“Of course,” Brandon said, without hesitation.

Slade blinked.  “Wow, what are the odds?”  He made a ‘gun’ gesture with his hand and went back to his drawings.

Nothing happened.  For minutes.  Slade frowned and looked up.

Rat was in her corner, giving him a look like, Are you sure?

They would definitely need to work on that obedience thing.  Slade made the gesture again, repeatedly.

Which was a mistake, because the Huouyt started to get up and Rat proceeded to cover him in Huouyt gore.

“Just don’t hit the stomach!” Slade cried, horrified that Rat would destroy his dinner with her enthusiasm.  When she reluctantly stopped firing, he darted in and started cutting the stomach and its contents out of the corpse.  Another chicken.  Hooray!  Bagging it and setting it aside, he gestured for his minions to remove the alien body.

Slade rubbed as much of the gore from his hands as he could as Rat and Tyson dragged the alien carcass out the back of the tent.  As he passed, Tyson’s eye caught on Slade’s diagrams and his eyebrow went up.  “Eight inches?” he snorted.  “Try again, girly-man.”

Slade frowned, because that completely contradicted his calculations.  “What, nine?”

Tyson laughed.  “Higher.”

“Oh come on!” Slade cried, because that just wasn’t fair.

Tyson was still chuckling to himself as he dragged the corpse away.

The next guy, Delaney Software, came to a sudden, pale halt the moment he lifted the tent flap and looked inside.

“Don’t worry, it’s not mine,” Slade said, flicking more gore off his forehead.

“Yeah, that’s what concerns me,” Delaney said, without moving any closer.

“I’d tell you to sit,” Slade said, “but your chair has been compromised.”  He pointed to the puddle of congealed blood even then settled in the ass-groove.  “So now we gotta do this the hard way.”

“Oh shit, man,” Delaney said.  “At least let me say goodbye to my kids, okay?”

“That’s actually what I’m calling you in to talk about,” Slade said.  “I’m finding myself in desperate need of an altar boy.  I’ve got a very important knob that needs polishing, and I find my wrist tiring of late.”

Delaney blinked.  “You…”

Slade cocked his head, waiting.

You sick sack of shit!” Delaney screamed, charging across the tent at him.

This time, the man had blackened his other eye before Rat deigned to pull him off of him.

“You sick fuck, you come anywhere near him, I’ll kill you!  Kill you!” Delaney howled, kicking the Congie away and going after Slade again.  Rat actually had to put him in a headlock to get him out of the tent.

Spitting blood, Slade checked his jaw for missing teeth before glaring at Rat.  “You could have intervened sooner.”

“Yep,” Rat said.  “Who’s next?”

“Les Mahoney,” Slade muttered.

“That guy with the newborn?” Rat said, frowning.

“Indeed.”  He gestured with bloody knuckles.  “Go do.”

She hesitated.  “You shouldn’t upset a guy with a newborn.  He carries that thing around with him everywhere after the mom died.”  And, despite the gruffness of her words, it was the closest approximation of ‘concern’ that Slade had ever seen from Rat.  He had to look up.

Immediately, Rat flushed.  “I mean, is a Huouyt really going to take the place of a guy who has to bottle-feed an infant like forty times a day?”

“It’s excellent cover,” Slade said.

Rat gave him an unhappy look, but did as she was commanded.

Les arrived a few minutes later carrying his infant girl in one of those belly slings.  “Yeah, boss?  I heard you—”  He, like the others, hesitated at the tent flap.  “It looks like somebody exploded in here.”

“They did.  Is your kid still alive?” Slade asked, gesturing at the waist-sash.

Les twitched and frowned, hefting his bundle.  “What, you think I’d be carrying around a corpse?”

“World’s filled with all kinds,” Slade said, waving off his question.  “So what’s the kid’s name?”

“Melissa,” the man said, his face starting to melt.  “It was Penny’s last wish as she was dy—”

“Penny, that was your wife who died a couple days ago, right?” Slade interrupted.  “Childbirth?”

Les grimaced and looked away, but not before Slade saw tears.  “Yes sir,” he said.  “A week ago now.”

“Did you shag her before she was fully dead?” Slade said.  “I hear it’s best to do when they’re still warm.  Gets the blood pumping, and I hear cold fish helps the grieving process.”  Then he shrugged.  “But honestly I like to wait until after.  Less resistance that way.”

The man froze, then turned and gave him a look of total horror.  Before he could lunge across the table at him, however, Rat got between them.  “It’s nothing personal,” she said.  “Get out.”

Red-faced and flustered, the man eventually turned and did.

Slade sighed, deeply.  He had been so sure the Huouyt would have picked Les as a prime target to infiltrate—having an infant opened so many doors…  If Slade were going to infiltrate the camp, Les would have been his choice.

Then he realized Rat was waiting for his next target.  “Wu Sung,” Slade said.  The moment Wu was shoved inside the tent, he started babbling and complaining and giving excuses.

“So how big is an oriental eggroll?” Slade said.  “Let’s just say Rat and I are…interested.”

Wu stopped arguing with a frown.  “Seriously?”  He glanced at Rat.  “Why…you guys lookin’ for some fun?”  He looked almost eager.  “Shopping around?  Here, lemme show you.”  He started fumbling with his pants.

“She’s mine,” Slade said, irritatedly noting the man’s enthusiasm and deciding to make sure he spent many missions scouting out the dangerous terrain ahead of them to temper that gusto with death.  “Get out.”

Rat raised her brow and held the tent for Wu, then, once he was gone, said, “‘She’s mine, get out?’”

“Technically true for another eight hours,” Slade reminded her.  “Richard Paddock, please?”

Looking bemused, Rat left.  She returned with a graying old man with cataracts.

“So Rat and Tyson and I were planning on laying pipe tonight,” Slade said.  “You wanna help?  Tyson’s got this fetish for old men and doggie.”

The man jerked and gave Slade a look of total disgust.  Mouth opening in outrage, he said—

“Get out,” Slade said.  “What does that put us at?”  He sighed, having to count in his head.  “Seven,” he muttered.  And fifteen whole minutes of his wasted time.  It was going to be a long day.

“It was eight,” Rat said.

Slade frowned and counted again, this time out loud and on his fingers.  He got to seven.

When he came up empty and cocked his head up at her in confusion, she said, “The guy that’s icing your hair.”

“Oh!” Slade cried, “of course!  I forgot to count him.  Send in number nine!”

“Sure,” Rat said.  Then she stood there.  Eventually, much too slowly, she said, “Who’s number nine?”

“Daniel Argot,” Slade said.  “Get him.”

But instead of going, Rat scowled.  “Why are you only picking guys with kids?”

“You’ll see,” Slade said, waving her off.  “Go.”

She returned with Daniel, who was fighting her and Tyson and generally being belligerent.  Upon seeing the gore, however, he froze.  “I didn’t steal Tyson’s gun.”

“You’re right, I did,” Slade said.  “However.  Someone has been spanking Rat’s kitten, and when I find him, he’s going to spend the rest of his life singing soprano.”

“Aaaahhhh, yes, well,” Daniel said, “while she’s lovely, I’m gay.”

Slade frowned.  “You have a kid.”

“My brother’s kid,” Daniel said.  “He died in Judgement.”

“Huh.”  Slade dabbed at his bloody nose with his sleeve, then said, “Fine, get out.”

Needing no other invitation, Daniel ducked his head and hurried from the tent.  Tyson stuck his head in a moment later.  “Did I hear that right?”  He was watching Daniel go with a brow raised in open interest.

“Probably.  He always struck me as a twink that’s been ogling your sexy body in secret.”

Tyson turned to raise a brow at Slade.  “You stole my gun?  I spent weeks looking for that gun.  That was my favorite gun.”

Slade sighed, deeply, once again struck by the fact that his thugs got obsessed with the most inane things.  “Of course it was your favorite.  It had a Kastac-C reactor with a twenty-year life expectancy,” Sam said.

“Which you needed for an arc-welding dildo.”

“Which I needed for an arc-welding dildo.  Get me Matt Stephenson.”

Tyson narrowed his baby blues, but wordlessly, he ducked out of the tent.  A few minutes later, Matt sauntered in.  “I hear you’re looking for a camp supervisor.”  The gore made him pause, but only momentarily.  “What do you need me to do?”

“You ever been in a gimp suit?” Slade asked.

Matt snorted.  “Every Friday at Kink Night.  Mistress was…”  He glanced at Rat.  “A lot like her, actually.”  To Rat, he conversationally said, “You ever tried flogging him?  I can show you a few techniques, if you’d like.”

Rat perked up.

“Get out,” Slade said hastily.  “Now.”

Matt frowned.  “But what about the position?”

“There is no position,” Slade said.  “Out!”  He bodily shoved the man outside and told Tyson to escort him back to his campsite with the instructions never to talk to Rat again, on pain of death.

Coming back inside, seeing that Rat was much too interested, Slade cleared his throat uncomfortably and said, “You know what?  I’m pretty sure we’re done here.  Two more isn’t gonna make a difference.  Ten should do it.”

Rat cocked her head.  “Do what?”

“You’ll see.  Until then, make me something to eat.  I’m hungry, slave-wench.”  He grabbed his notebook and tossed it to Tyson on his way out of the tent.  Seeing the first page, Tyson gave a grunt of interest before Slade was out of hearing range.

“Aside from that chicken,” Rat said, keeping up with him, “which you told us to protect with our lives, there is nothing to eat.”  She was still dressed in full combat gear, which annoyed him.  Sure, there were Huouyt around, but it was his day, dammit.  A little alien inconvenience shouldn’t be allowed to ruin his day…

Making a sound of disgust, Slade said, “Fine.  I’ll come up with something.  But when I do, you will cook it.”  He hesitated.  “…right?”

Rat snorted.  “What, you’re going to pull food out of your ass, Sam?”

“I’ll think of something,” Slade said.  In truth, he had thought of something, but it was going to require the cooperation of a few aliens, and they had been proving rather uncooperative.

Nevertheless, Slade was hungry, and when the Tesla of the Congressional Era was hungry, his headaches—which were already getting worse by the day—became an all-consuming aching throb like something alien was trying to burst out of his head and embrace the world.  If Slade had to change the chemical composition of a goddamn tree, he was going to have something to eat by nightfall, the Huouyt and their machinations be damned.  “How are we coming on those barrels?”

“Look,” Rat said, getting in front of him and poking him in the chest, “So far today, you have had us collect four barrels, fill them with water in the center of camp, and you just made an ass out of yourself interviewing ten of the hundreds of people in our group, and you only found one Huouyt from one shuttle.  You aren’t taking this seriously.  There could be dozens—dozens—more out there in camp!”

Slade blinked at her.  “That’s what I’m hoping.”

But that only seemed to frustrate her.  “This isn’t a game, Sam.”  She gestured at the skimmer, which was even then taking up an honored spot at the leaders’ campsite.  “That was just a single skimmer off a drop-ship.  That’s the kind of standard landing vehicle that comes with ninety-man teams and Dhasha contingents.  There are more, Sam.  You can’t find dozens of Huouyt that don’t want to be found.  You need to start taking this ash seriously.”

“I am taking it seriously,” Slade said, frowning because she had gotten in his way.  “And seriously, Rat, if you don’t get out of my way, we won’t be eating tonight.”

Rat gave him a really long look, then simply turned and walked away.

“I’m going to need your help!” Slade called after her.

Rat ignored him and kept going.  Sighing deeply, Slade said, “It’s Tuesday!”

She stopped.  Then, slowly, she rounded on him and stalked towards him and jammed her finger back into his chest.  “This is dangerous.  Believe me, I can’t express to you how dangerous a situation we are in right now.  I was in a situation like this before, on Eeloir, and they killed everyone in my unit.  If we don’t do something, they are going to kill us.”

“Go sit at the fire and sharpen your knife,” Slade said.  “We’ll have the Huouyt in a couple hours.”

“How?” Rat demanded.  “By sitting on our ass, Sam?!”

“Indeed.”  Slade reached into his duffel, grabbed the book on horticulture called Advanced Plant Propagation Techniques, and sat down beside the fire.  Opening its pages, he said, “Rat, you ever had an interest in biology?”

#

It was excruciating, sitting there on display in the middle of camp as the sun went down, knowing there were more Huouyt out there, knowing that they would be coming for their haauk in the darkness when their guard was down, and being totally unable to do anything about it.

Sam played a fool’s game.  The Huouyt would find any way they could to reclaim their transportation, as a Huouyt’s life always came above its mission.  Always.  Sam seemed convinced that the Huouyt weren’t going to kill them, but Rat had fought Huouyt before.  She knew the moment they realized they were in trouble, Sam, Rat, and Tyson were all dead.

So when Sam sat there, talking about botany and how to clone plants for three hours while her stomach knotted with the same intensity it got when she was sitting in someone else’s rifle sights, Rat started to count down the hours until she could take command of the camp and root the ashers out at the end of a gun.

Then Sam abruptly shut the book and said, “That’s enough time.  Tyson?  Where’s your stash of beef jerky?”

“Screw you, little man,” Tyson said, chewing on yet another stem of grass.  Sam was technically a couple ninths taller, but Tyson had roughly the same body mass as an Ooreiki battlemaster.

“This is important,” Sam whined.  “The fate of our—”

“If you say,” Tyson interrupted, “‘the fate of our civilization’ rests on me doing something for you because you planned on it without asking me one more time, I’m going to go into your tent and piss on your pillow.”

Sam blinked, then he said, “The fate of our society rests on you giving me your beef jerky in the next…”  He cocked his head and got that funny look he always got when accessing his very annoying brain.  “…six minutes.”

Tyson got up, casually tossed the grass aside, and went inside Sam’s tent.  They heard the distinct sound of a zipper being pulled, then the patter of urination.

A minute later, Tyson emerged from the tent, zipping up his jeans.  “It’s in the bottom of my backpack.”

Sam immediately got up to go retrieve the jerky, but Rat, who had to sleep on that bed, wrinkled her nose.  “Seriously, Tyson?”

“Sorry,” he said, shrugging.  “But it was satisfying.”

She sighed in disgust, more because she knew exactly how Tyson felt, not because she planned to ever sleep again with Huouyt in the camp.  Besides, it wasn’t like the world was somehow bereft of decent bedding nowadays.

“Here,” Sam said, startling her by shoving several packets of jerky into her arms, then several packets into Tyson’s.  “Make up nine backpacks full of essentials, like soap and pocket knives and rope and blankets and bottled water and wet wipes.  Go to the nine guys I interviewed.  Tell them we’re sorry I freaked them out and wasted their time, and that I was actually looking for a Huouyt who is hiding in the ranks somewhere and that for some stupid reason, I thought the best place to hide would be guys with kids.  Tell them you know things have been tough, and that you hope this compensates for the crazy shit your leader has been doing lately, and that you’re probably going to kill him in his sleep one of these days if it makes them feel any better.  Oh, and make sure you give Les a box of that dried milk.  His kid should like that.”

Tyson stared down at his packets of jerky, then up at Sam.  “You want me to give my jerky away.”  He held up a hand.  “No.  Wait.  You planned to give my jerky away.  From the beginning.  Your plan depends on it.”

“Yeah,” Sam said, frowning.  “Why?”

Tyson punched him, hard, in the face.  Then, as the Tesla of the Congressional Era fell on his ass in the dirt, Tyson turned to Rat and said, “Let’s go do this, before I change my mind.”

As they were leaving, Sam said from behind them, “Hey, you guys know where my binoculars are?”  His voice was muffled from where his hand was covering his bleeding nose again.

“In the tent,” Tyson said.  “Saw ‘em when I was taking a leak.”

“Thanks!” Sam cried, immediately getting up and going after them.

“You know,” Tyson said conversationally as they walked, “if that guy wasn’t a walking cure for Judgement, I would have put a bullet between his eyes already.”

“Know how you feel,” Rat said.  They did as instructed, raiding the communal ‘depot’ for essentials, then carrying their prizes out into the main group to distribute.  By the time they returned to the leaders’ fire on the hill, they found Sam on his stomach on the ridge above camp, watching the Guild members with binoculars.

Before they’d even had a chance to sit down, he said, “Les and Daniel are Huouyt.  Go get them.  Now.  Rat, you take one, Tyson, you take the other.  Don’t kill them.  Put them in the barrels, dunk ‘em good, then seal them in there.”

Rat frowned down at Sam, who was splayed out on the ground, still naked, his butt almost having something resembling definition as he peered out over the camp, oblivious to his state of undress.  Then she realized what he had said, and she felt a lump of unhappiness rise in her throat, thinking of the guy with the baby.

“You just interviewed Les,” she said.  “You said he wasn’t a Huouyt.”

“He is now,” Sam said.  “Hurry, before he gets out of my sight.”

Frustrated, Rat said, “Fine, Sam, but if we put Les in a barrel and he’s not a Huouyt, you’re the next one to go in a goddamn barrel.  For a week.”

“That’s fine,” Sam said, sounding distracted.  “Hurry, please.”

Muttering, Rat gave Tyson a look, then went to recruit people to help her subdue a suspected Huouyt.  She was generally taking the whole situation less-than-seriously, essentially counting down until it was her day to deal with the problem, when a scream sounded from the other side of camp.  Tyson and a group of men were struggling with Daniel.  One of Tyson’s men was on the ground, bleeding from a gash in his chest.  Another one of them panicked and shot Daniel in the head.

Daniel, spurting blood from his wide-open cranium, didn’t go down, and instead slammed the knife into the neck of the man who had shot him.

Rat saw that, then she turned back to see Les slowly getting to his feet, eyes on Rat and her team.

Rat met his gaze and she knew.  It was the fearless look of a psychopath, a predator.  And then, almost as if Time itself slowed, Les removed the sling from his chest and tossed it carelessly aside.  Rat’s heart felt like something had cut it as the baby within as it hit the ground with a horrifying thud, making a sickly, lifeless whimper before it went still.  Then the Huouyt bolted.

Get that asher!” Rat screamed, reflexively breaking into a run after him.

Though her men were more or less fit, the Huouyt had a decent command over its pattern’s biological processes—in this case, adrenaline—and the two of them quickly outpaced the rest.  Even given her conditioning, Rat normally wouldn’t have been able to keep up.  But remembering the broken sound the infant had made, that tiny whimper, she couldn’t bring herself to stop.  Ahead of her, the Huouyt stumbled, just enough to give her the advantage.  She hit him from behind, kneed the gun from his hand when he turned, and then proceeded to kick and stomp him until he stopped trying to stand up.

It took several minutes, but when she was finished, the entire camp was deathly silent around her.  Rat wiped sweat and hair from her face, heart still hammering wildly, as she looked at the ring of bystanders that had accumulated around her.

“Get over here!” Rat snapped to her gawking men.  “Get a rope around his hands and drag him to the barrels.  And whatever you do, don’t touch him.”

Then, panting, she got back to her feet and stumbled back into camp to check on the tiny bundle the Huouyt had dropped.

The little girl was dead, her neck bent at a crooked angle, her big head twisted awkwardly backwards.  Seeing that, the slice in Rat’s heart became a festering, open wound.

Rat’s hands were shaking as she pulled her body from its wrappings and held the girl’s still-warm corpse to her chest.  She felt some strange agony bubbling up from within, some sense of loss that she had never known before.  She closed her eyes against tears, but she saw the baby fall again, heard that horrible sound as it died, knew that if she had done things differently, it would still be alive…

Rat’s entire world had seemed to narrow to the agony within as she lowered the tiny corpse back to the ground. Rat could never have one of her own, and now she was partially responsible for the death of someone else’s.  An innocent.  A little girl who would never giggle again, never grab her dad’s pinkie and grin because a couple adults that didn’t even know her name had used her as a pawn in one of their violent games.  Because of politics the child had nothing to do with, violence and ideas that were incomprehensible to her infant mind, conflicts of opinion that she had no control over, she now lay still and cold on the ground.

It felt like something within Rat died as she stood up over the tiny corpse.  A hope she never knew she’d had, now replaced with hardened, crusted ashes.  She realized, quite quickly, that she needed to cauterize the inside of that wound with the same balm of death and destruction that she had applied to her daily life for seventy turns.  People died.  So what if they were smaller than the rest?  It felt good for a moment, gave her clarity of mind that allowed her to look down at the tiny form as yet another body in a universe of the dead.

But then the balm sloughed off, dribbling away to once more expose the raw and torn meat underneath, and Rat’s stomach curdled.  Her gaze fell once again to the baby’s glassy, unseeing eyes, the way its head was crumpled in the back, the unnaturally twisted neck.

And then, so that the rest of the camp didn’t see her vomit, she hurried to the edge of the firelight, fell to her knees beside someone’s freshly-deposited crap, and puked until what little she’d eaten that day had joined the cold shit on the ground.  Then she just stayed there, head down and trembling, fighting for control so, like the Dhasha she had come to serve, no one else would see her weakness.

#

Slade was prepping to make chicken when Rat came stalking up the hill towards him at a fast walk.  She stopped just long enough to grab him by the hair and haul him to his feet before she walked him over to a nearby tree and slammed his spine up against its uncomfortably pricky surface.

“You used Les as bait.”  Her face was red with rage, fury brightening her eyes until they shone.  “He had a baby and you used him.  They found his corpse in the woods, you sick flaker!”

Wincing and twisting to keep her from pulling his hair, Slade babbled, “I had to!”

“Tell me,” she snarled, tightening her gloved fist painfully, “why you had to get a man and his infant child killed.”

“Ow!” Slade cried.  “It was either a couple guys with kids, today, or it was you, me, and potentially the rest of the camp tomorrow.  You were on Eeloir!  You know what it’s like.  I had to make a decision!”

Rat released him with a disgusted sound.  She looked away for a moment, shaking her head, then turned back with a scowl.  “How did you know which ones?” she demanded.  “You like your brother?  You sense Huouyt or something?”

Slade snorted.  “That’s bogus.  Nobody can do that.”

Rat narrowed her eyes and leaned forward until their noses were almost touching.  “Don’t you dare try to tell me what’s possible or not.  I’m tired of wasting the impulses of my auditory nerves on a planetside scumbag being wrong.”

Slade quickly cleared his throat.  “They ate the jerky,” he said.

Rat glared, but gave him space again.  “They all ate the jerky.”

“True,” Slade said, “but not before they gave some to their kids.  Daniel scarfed the jerky as soon as he saw it in the bottom of the sack and Les drank the milk we sent for his infant like his own life depended on it.  They never even offered it to their kids.  I was watching.”

Rat watched him for a long time, then just looked away.  Her gaze stopped on the barrels, which had been deathly silent for hours.  “I want to interrogate them.  See why they’re here.”

Slade, who thought it was obvious why they were here, humored her anyway because he’d watched her put down a Huouyt with her feet.  “You’ve got…”  He did a mental calculation.  “Thirty-two minutes.  But you can’t open the barrel and you can’t touch them.”

Rat scowled at him.  “I’ll just interrogate them at my leisure on Wednesday.”

Slade winced, knowing how difficult that would be, but he didn’t try telling her because she might try to ruin his plans.  “Okay, sure, that works.”

Rat gave him another long look, then shook her head and, grabbing her big rifle, said, “I’m going to go watch the camp.  If there was one skimmer, there’s probably more somewhere.”

“Sounds like a great idea!” Slade called after her.  “Can you send Tyson over here when you go?”

Rat said nothing, but she must have heard him, because Tyson came trotting up the hill a few minutes later.  “What’s up, boss?” he said.

“I’m about to make chickens,” Slade said.  “I need your help.”

Tyson’s face immediately scrunched.  “No, man.  I saw where those things came from and—”

“Quick, before Rat gets back, I’ll need you to use your second-favorite gun with essentially the precision of a laser scalpel, because I am without a laser scalpel and I’m not as strong as you nor as accurate as you.  Do you understand?”

Tyson hesitated.  “You need a rifle to make chicken?”

“Hopefully it’s going to be several chickens,” Slade said.  “Though I may have to refine the technique over a few test cases.”

“With a rifle,” Tyson said.

“Yes, Tyson, with a rifle,” Slade said, getting frustrated.  He was running out of time until Wednesday, and he knew Rat would try to grind her big booted foot all over his plans if she knew.  She was…weird like that.  “Now go get your gun and hurry!”  He glanced down over the hill to locate Rat, who was sitting on a small rise amidst some bushes, using the tentative cover to observe the camp below.  “Come on, come on.  I’m hoping to get one, maybe two dozen out of this.”

“Two dozen what?” Tyson asked, frowning.

Chickens, Tyson,” Slade cried.  He went and grabbed Martha from his makeshift dog kennel cage.  Plucking a feather, he then thrust him back inside and locked the gate again.  “See this?”  He held up the reddish plumage.  “This is the key to our food supply.”  He went over and found the other two Tupperware boxes containing pieces he had taken from the Huouyt stomachs—one a cluster of brain matter that he had painstakingly removed from the inside of an intact skull with a toothpick, and the other the inner retinas of a dead bird’s eye, cut into pieces.  He added the feather to a third Tupperware and dropped it back on the towel with the bundles of chicken feet. “Okay, so here’s how we need to do this.  Do you know anything about worms or sea stars…?”

#

Rat was seated on a fallen log, peering out over the camp, when she heard a Huouyt scream.  And keep screaming.  As she was frowning and turning to look, Sam lunged away from one of the barrels atop the hill, shouting, “Now, Tyson, now!”

Tyson ripped the barrel lid off and yanked the Huouyt out onto the dirt and kicked it free.  Recognizing it as the one that had killed the infant, Rat lunged to her feet in horror.  “What are you—”

The Huouyt shrieked again, an utterly eerie sound that Rat had never heard before, and it continued to scream as it started to stumble away from Sam, clawing at itself like someone with a horrible itch.  Rat found herself staring as it shrieked and ran like a wild, drunken thing, stumbling and rolling down the hill in its haste.  All around them, men and women were getting to their feet at their fires, watching the approach of the three-legged Huouyt with nervous concern.

As soon as it reached the bottom of the hill, Rat could see misshapen growths emerging from the Huouyt’s body, almost a dozen of them, taking up more and more of its mass as the rest of its body shifted to accommodate.  Immediately, she leveled her rifle on its brain, ready to put it down before it could take a more dangerous pattern.

She hesitated when she saw the tiny bird head emerging from its throat and its scream ended in a choked gargle.  What the…?  The Huouyt’s legs shortened, then disappeared, leaving it waddling on the ground through the center of camp, moaning as more little heads and feathered bodies began to emerge from its torso.  People got out of its way as it shuddered and strained against the lumps forming within itself.  Like some monster conglomerate from a horror movie, it crawled the last few rods through camp before the birds fully emerged, feathers wet, shaking all over.  Then it slumped, face-first, onto the ground, utterly still.

Total silence reigned in camp as everyone stared at the tiny wad of leftover Huouyt on the ground, even then surrounded by a herd of traumatized-looking birds.

“Excuse me, coming through!” Sam cried, jogging down the hill after them with a handful of burlap sacks.  “Okay, guys, these are going to be slightly evil chickens, so keep that in mind, but their offspring should breed true, and they shouldn’t be smart enough to do anything like peck out our eyes while we sleep or anything.  They’ll just be antisocial, but it’ll only be first-generational stuff.”  He started collecting the stunned-looking chickens from the ground and stuffing them into sacks as the camp stood around and watched.

A few moments later, Tyson came strolling down the hill to join them, looking a little shellshocked.

Finally finding her voice, Rat said, “Sam did you just—”

“Can’t talk, they’ve got a date to see Martha.  We want any eggs to be fertile.

“Martha’s a rooster,” Tyson added.

Rat was just about to ask what a rooster was when Sam lunged past her.  “Quick, grab these!” Sam cried, handing Tyson a cluster of sacks.  The chickens inside were just starting to wake up and fight against the sack.  “We’ll put them all in the tent until we can find a safe zone for them!”  Then Sam was charging back up the hill, a group of struggling, squawking sacks in either fist.

Rat watched him depart, then glanced down at the remnants of what used to be a Huouyt.  It was, beyond a doubt, dead.  What was left looked like a deflated balloon, with only a hollowed-out skin on the ground attached to its flattened head, where its patch of zora had slid out and withered on the ground, now a dull gray instead of the usual crimson.  She picked it up with the tip of her rifle to get a better look.  In total, the corpse was approximately the same mass as a Human hand and forearm.

She dropped it to the ground and got back to her feet just in time to see Sam duck into the tent with Tyson.  Curious, a little stunned, she followed them at a walk.

At the top of the hill, half-sticking out of a barrel, was a chicken the size of Rat, its head carefully bisected with laser fire, the zora removed.  Rat blinked at that, then at the tent, where chickens were squawking as Sam and Tyson cheered them on.  She went over to their tent and lifted the flap.

One chicken was getting attacked by another atop Sam’s mattress, the bigger one actually standing on its protesting victim, bobbing its tail as it held the other by the neck.  Off in a corner, a herd of rust-colored hens ran mindlessly back and forth along the tent wall, leaving droppings wherever they went.  Rat hastily went to retrieve her bag, which had been walked on by Sam’s creations, leaving smelly footprints on her stuff.

Disgusted, she yanked her bag off the floor and, as Sam and Tyson hooted at the chicken on the bed, Rat said, “Sam?”

Looking like a kid in an Ooreiki candy shop, Sam turned to face her, beaming.  “Martha’s a pro,” he said.  “He’s got six of them already!”

“It’s Wednesday,” Rat said.  “And you are profaning my bed with chicken shit.”

“Tyson already pissed on it,” Sam said, waving a hand distractedly.  “I figured you wouldn’t mind.”

Rat narrowed her eyes.  “Slave,” she said.

Sam winced, and Tyson cocked his head at her in interest.

“Go find me some proper bedding,” Rat said, “or I will kill every one of these little abominations and pass them to the Guild for dinner tonight.”

Sam’s mouth fell open.  “You can’t…”

There must have been something in her face, because Sam’s electric blue-white eyes widened and he hastily grabbed his coat and bolted.

“Slave?” Tyson said, one blond brow raised.

“Long story,” Rat said.  “How about you go make sure he doesn’t die out there?”

“You got it, sister,” Tyson said.  Then, hefting his rifle, he went after the creepy scientist.

Alone again, Rat slumped to a chair inside the tent, put her chin in her hands, and watched Martha get laid atop her mattress.  It should have been the distraction she needed to pull herself out of her thoughts of the dead infant, but all Rat could see was the tiny head, caved in at the back, the child’s neck snapped at an odd angle.

In war, she kept telling herself, sacrifices must be made…

But some sacrifices, she knew from experience, stained those who made them to the very core.


The Runt

Tuesday, 77 Days after Judgement

“You know, by taking us towards the massive, scaly walls of death, we’re greatly increasing our chances of becoming breakfast.”

“This says we should be getting close,” Rat said, frowning at the map her ka-par slave had painstakingly hand-drawn for her several weeks before.  “Any idea where to start looking?”

Samuel Dobbs raised his brow at her.  “By like eight hundred and fifty-three percent.”

Rat, who had by now gotten used to his random spewing of facts and fractions, said, “We’re in the right area.  Maybe a ferlii length or two off.”

“Well,” Sam said, cocking his head at something in the valley ahead of them, “you could start with a dead kreenit.  Not much in the universe that can kill those things.”  He paused, grinning at her and Tyson.  “Aside from my booted barbarianess and her fairy princess, that is.”

Rat, well above average height for a girl, was still a ninth-dig shorter than her big ka-par slave, and she couldn’t see whatever it was he was looking at over the screen of brush on the hill in front of them.

Sam gave her a wicked grin.  “Would you like a boost, milady?”

Rat frowned up at him, knowing that a ‘boost’ would include groping, fondling, and probably a kiss.  “No.  We don’t have time.”

“You’re right,” Sam said, looking down at her thong bikini.  “I think you’ll have to climb a tree, instead.  That one, over there.  It has the best view.”

The tree in question did not have the best view of whatever was in the valley, but rather, it had fewer low-lying limbs.  Rolling her eyes in disgust, Rat grabbed a nearby limb and hopped up to look.

“Aww,” Sam complained, from the ground.  “Not fair.”

But Rat wasn’t listening.  There was a dead kreenit taking up a swath of mangled forest about a ferlii-length away, its scales an iridescent purple, green, red, and blue, even at that distance.  A flock of small black Earth-birds were hovering around the body, sitting in the trees or on the huge, exposed ribcage.  The belly of the beast had been ripped away, exposing purple innards.

“Damn,” Rat said, dropping back beside Sam.  “We need to keep our eyes open.  There’s another one around here.”

Her ka-par slave grimaced.  “I really don’t like those things.  One ate my Armani.”

“They do that,” Rat said, grabbing her rifle from Tyson, having no idea what Armani was.

“It was big,” her slave complained.  “It crushed a Rolls-Royce in its jaws and threw it aside to get at me.”

Irritated that he was still stuck on kreenit, Rat said, “It’s not going to be hungry.”

His face lit up with hope.  “Really?  ‘Cause it’s down there eating its friend?”

“Yeah,” Rat agreed.  “This way, it’ll just kill a few of us for the fun of it.”

Sam gave her a flat look with his weird, white-blue eyes.  “Somehow, I don’t think you’re joking.”

Rat frowned at him.  “I’m not.”

“And why am I supposed to agree to this?” Sam demanded.

“Look,” Rat said.  She glanced up the hill.  “I’m going to go see if I can figure out where the other one went.  They like to burrow underground, hang out in caves…   We need to be really careful until I can figure out where its den is and kill it.  You guys stay here until I get back.”

“Uh,” Sam said, “no, I’ll be going with you and Tyson can stay here and guard the massive, smelly herd of alien breakfast.”

Rat snorted and hefted her rifle.  “You’re not coming with me.  You’d just slow me down.”

Sam crossed his arms.  Too late, Rat realized it was Tuesday.

Grimacing, she said, “Fine, but I get to ditch the bikini and wear combat gear.”

“You may wear combat gear over your bikini,” Sam replied.  “Then you may take it off again as soon as the kreenit is dead.”

Rat narrowed her eyes at Sam.  “Wednesday is coming.”

For his part, Tyson still hadn’t gotten over the hot-pink bikini.  He was eying the two of them like whatever Sam had might be contagious.  “Tell me again why you can order her around on Tuesday?” the big man asked.  They still hadn’t told him exactly why Tuesdays were Sam’s days, though the big man—and the rest of the Guild, damn them—seemed perfectly willing to accept the days Rat was in charge.

“Divine inspiration and an irreversible disregard for my own safety,” Sam said.

“I have a loaded gun,” Tyson told him.

“So do I,” Sam said, grinning from ear to ear.  “Hallelujah praise the Lord.  For over a month, now.”

Rat felt herself redden.  “Stay here while I get dressed, then we can go kreenit hunting.”

“Oooh,” Sam said, rubbing his big, soft hands together.  “That sounds like fun.”  He’d made her give him a manicure that morning in front of the entire group, and a pedicure was coming that night.

Rat shuddered inside at the thought of touching his gangly toes, but actually welcomed the company on the hike.  Over the last five weeks that she’d been with her ka-par slave, she’d been a little blown away by his abilities to think outside the box.  Almost like, for Sam, there was no box.  If he had come to her after his morning piss, picking his nose and dressed in holey, shit-streaked underwear, and told her that he’d figured out a way to kill a kreenit with a rock, she would’ve asked how big the rock would have to be, and when he would need it by.

Doubtless, Rat knew, why Tyson put up with his crazy ass.

“Seriously, guys,” Tyson said.  “You gonna tell me or what?”

“It’s not contagious, if that’s what you’re wondering,” Rat said, hefting her gun over her shoulder.  “Private matter.  We’ll work it out.”

Immediately, Tyson’s face cleared.  “Oh, well, that’s good to know.”

Sam frowned.  “What’s contagious?”

Ignoring him, Rat went to her things, unpacked her combat gear, and began putting it on.  Sam followed her and stood behind her as she bent over to dress.

“What’s contagious?” Sam asked, coming around to the side once she’d pulled up her pants.

Throwing her arms into her jacket sleeves, Rat gave him a sideways look.  “I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”

Sam watched her skin disappear almost wistfully.  “How do you know it’s not contagious?”

Rat opened her mouth to state the obvious, then shut it again.  She had, after all, just spent the morning in a hot-pink bikini.

“We’ll need to move fast and keep our voices down,” Rat said, feeling her face heat.  She started buttoning her jacket.

“Oh, of course,” the bastard said, grinning.  Which meant, all along, he had been patiently waiting for her pea-sized brain to realize that, yes, Commander, what he had was definitely catching, and she had it bad.

Flushing, Rat dropped to lace her boots.

“You know,” Sam said, after a moment, “I’m pretty sure this lab would have the proper equipment to restore certain…facets…of your anatomy.  And you haven’t said no.  Are you interested?  This’ll be your best opportunity, like, ever.”

Rat’s fingers stopped on the laces.  She swallowed hard.  It was one of the things she had always wondered about, but had just assumed was lost to her.

Then she thought about all the things that could go wrong—from a botched surgery to her losing her mobility to the child—and fear won over.  What was she thinking, really?  She was a Congie.  Congie women didn’t have kids.  They killed people for a living, and when they got weak, they were killed in return.

“I’m a warrior, not a mother,” she said reluctantly.  She finished tying her boots, grabbed her gun, and stood.

Sam eyed her a little too carefully, and she could see his formidable mental gears turning.  “It’s a Tuesday,” he commented.

And, with that single phrase, he made Rat’s heart skip a beat.  She swallowed hard, tentatively met his gaze, saw…kindness…there, then, before she could do something stupid like take him up on it, grabbed her pack and headed up the mountain for a better vantage point.

Behind her, Sam heaved a huge, audible sigh and followed.

Though going was tough, Sam stayed right behind her the whole way and did surprisingly little complaining—probably due to the fact that a thirty-rod carnivore was somewhere nearby.  And, in truth, Rat was actually somewhat impressed, considering that when she’d first returned to camp with him on a rope, he’d been barely able to jog a few hundred feet without breaking down in an asthma attack.  Her morning sit-up, push-up, and jogging regimen—which she made him do with her on Wednesdays through Mondays—seemed to be working wonders.

…and it was also doing very nice things to his shoulders and back.

“You know,” Sam said, as they worked their way up a mountainside, “I could get used to this.”

She glanced over her shoulder at him.  “What, not being a total wimp who starts wheezing after a minute of anything resembling exercise?”

Sam blinked at her, then said, “Well, I was actually thinking about not having to wear a thong, as I’m sure that climbing a mountain in a thong would lead to chafing, but I suppose that too.”

Rat, whose own thong was riding into uncomfortable places, gave him an irritated look.  “A pact?  No more thongs?”

“Sounds good,” Sam replied.  He gave her a wicked look.  “Starting now?”

Oh, he was good.  Rat was only partially sure the crafty, horny bastard hadn’t planned that.  “We’re hunting a kreenit now,” she said.

“We could spare five minutes to remove your thong,” Sam argued.  “For the sake of your comfort.”

Five?”  Rat paused in the trail and raised a brow at him.

He winced.  “Ten?”

She crossed her arms and waited.

“Okay, twenty, but no more.  I’m still exhausted from last time.”

She continued to give him a flat look.

“It’s Tuesday?” he ventured gingerly.

Forty-five tics later, Rat’s thong had been thoroughly removed and abandoned in the mountain scrub and they were back on the trail.  Sam was rubbing his rear.  “Next time we have a wild frolic in the wilderness, I get to be on top.  I’m pretty sure I have an acorn lodged up my—”

A scream echoed across the valley, carried by the wind.  “Shhh,” Rat snapped, stopping in her tracks to listen.  Sam, oblivious, ran into her, and his exercise-boosted body mass sent her sprawling.

Getting back to her feet, Rat scowled up at her klutz of a slave, but before she could retort, they heard the scream again, a thin, Human wail of terror.

“Was that one of ours?” Sam asked, frowning back the way they had come.

“No,” Rat replied, peering down into the valley below them.  “Someone’s becoming breakfast.”

Sam cocked his head.  “Sounds female.”

“A lot of men sound like women when they scream,” Rat said.

Sam opened his mouth with a slight frown, then closed it again.  “Is it just me, or is it somewhat disturbing that you would know something like that?”

“I’ve seen a lot of men die,” she said distractedly, pinpointing the scream as it echoed again across the lowlands.  “Down in that gulley.”  She hefted her rifle.  “Let’s go.  We’ll get a better vantage on it while it’s distracted.”

“And not save the damsel in distress?” Sam asked, looking appalled.  “Our brave new non-slaving society could always use another damsel in distress.”

Rat frowned at him.  “The damsel in distress is going to be dead long before we get there.”

“I say we go help her,” Sam argued.  “And it’s Tuesday.”

Rat felt one of her first real pangs of annoyance since she’d taken him up on his crazy interpretation of ka-par.  “Since when did you start caring about strangers?”

“Since one stole my heart at the wrong end of a laser rifle,” Sam said.

Rat felt her face redden and she looked up at him, biting her lip.  He just grinned back.

“Life is like a top-secret government file,” he said, grinning at her.  “You never know what you’re going to get.  Hell, she might be one of those experiments you’re looking for.”

Rat grimaced.  If Sam hadn’t figured out why she was looking for the experiments yet, he would soon.  Which meant that he would know it was also her job to kill him.  Which would make things…complicated.  “Fine,” she muttered, turning away from the path farther up the mountain.  She yanked her gun from her shoulder.  “Let’s do this.  But you keep quiet and stay behind me.”

Sam, who hadn’t even brought a gun, grinned and bowed.  “Of course, milady.  By your booted lead, I follow.  Even on a Tuesday.”

He can be a charming Jahul when he isn’t crazy, Rat thought, almost wistful.  She didn’t want to kill him.  She really didn’t want to kill him.  In his brain alone, he probably had enough information stored up to re-build all the technology that Humans had lost—and then some.

But there was that damned oath, and her conscience would never let her rest if she betrayed her prince.

Sam grinned, strange electric-blue eyes flashing with amusement.  “Why, my lady, I believe you might be having second thoughts about killing me.”

Rat stumbled.  Behind her, Sam gestured impatiently.  “Go on!  Our damsel-in-distress-who-might-actually-be-a-man awaits.  We can bargain for my miserable life later.”  He gave her a gentle shove to propel her forward.

Reluctantly, casting him a nervous look, Rat led them down into the gulley, following the sound of screaming.  The scene they stumbled upon, stepping into the dry creekbed at the bottom, made both Rat and Sam stop in their tracks and stare.

A huge, forty-rod kreenit with an odd limp was repeatedly rushing at a very short, skinny young man in jeans and a T-shirt, who was crouched over a motionless, completely-unclothed young woman.  Each time the deformed kreenit got close, however, the animal was picked up and thrown backwards twenty rods—only to start the process over again.  The female scream, it turned out, was, indeed, coming from the small, waif-thin lungs of the man—more a dwarf than a man—who was holding one gloved hand up between himself and the kreenit, the other glove-covered hand holding his head…

“I’ll be damned,” Sam said, staring at the man in fascination.  “It was a man.”

“Shhh,” Rat hissed, as the kreenit made another assault.  The invisible force grabbed it and started slamming its head into the ground, over and over, which only made the kreenit shriek and tear up the riverbed with more fervor.

Seeing the inexplicable force blithely throwing an older kreenit around like a doll, Rat started to get a cold feeling in her gut.  Mekkval was right.  These…creatures…could not be allowed to exist.

“I knew I should’ve gone for the telekinetics!” Sam cried, watching the kreenit get slammed into a stand of willow, knocking them over in a swath of snapping wood and flashing scales.  “That is coolSo much better than blind and impotent!”

“Goddamn it, shut up!” Rat hissed, dragging him down behind a water-rounded boulder with her before he could attract the beast’s attention.  “He looks like he’s got things under control.  We should get the hell outta here.”

In actuality, the small, wiry man in jeans was trembling all over, covered in sweat, and he looked on the verge of collapse.  And kreenit, when worked up into a killing rage, would not stop until their quarry was dead—or they died of exertion.  Which would make things easier on her.  Less to explain when the two experiments ended up missing.

Sam, however, gave her a flat look.  “Go help the poor little guinea-pigs.  We can talk about your loyalties to Mekkval later.”

Rat felt icewater enter her veins.  Her hands tightened on her gun of their own accord, and her heart started to pound as she looked up at him.  For a moment, she just met his eyes, heart thundering like a malfunctioning engine.  Finally, she heard herself whisper, “How long have you known?”

“Since Thong Day,” Sam said.  “Only reason you’d want to go looking for them over having great sex with me.  Now save them, please.  We can talk about killing them on Wednesday.”

Glaring at her ka-par slave, Rat turned and watched the scene play out a few more minutes.  She watched the wiry man tire, then slump after throwing the kreenit backwards in yet another charge.  Promising herself she would, indeed, kill them later, she raised her rifle to follow the kreenit as it pulled itself from the torn and massacred shrubbery.  Rat followed its head in her scope, then, when the beast opened its mouth to roar, she hit it in the back of the throat with laser fire.  As the kreenit shrieked and started shredding the willow grove, she calmly unhooked a plasma cannon from her belt, leveled it on the thrashing behemoth, and, when it twisted around to annihilate the grove opposite her, fired three shots at the back of its head.

The creature went down in a twitching mass.

Rat stood up and, pulling her combat knife free of its belt-sheath, scowled at Sam.  She had a thousand things run through her head, not the least of which was that Sam had just become dangerous, and as such, the smartest thing for her to do would be to ram the knife through his throat and end the conversation.  Yet Sam, who undoubtedly knew she was thinking exactly that, just returned her glare with a placid expression.

“We’ll talk about this later,” she finally promised him.  Then, leaving her Fearless Leader ensconced safely behind his boulder, Rat jogged up to the twitching behemoth and began cutting away chest-scales.

She needn’t have bothered.  The kreenit was dead.  She’d always been lucky in that respect.  She still peeled the scales away and shot it a couple times in the chest, just to be sure, but then got on the walkie-talkie with Tyson.  “We just killed a kreenit,” Rat said, “how you guys holding up there?”

“Haven’t seen anything,” Tyson replied.  “Scout teams found a house with some sacks of powdered grain and some canned vegetables in the basement.  Joyce has some leftover yeast from that last town.  We’re gonna try to craft bread.”

“Sounds good,” Rat said, her mouth watering at the idea.  So far, all the ‘bread’ they had found had been moldy, rock-hard and dry, mouse-eaten, or so filled with preservatives that it tasted like cardboard.  “We’ll see you soon.”  She shoved the walkie-talkie back to the clip on her belt.

“My combat-clad heroine,” Sam said, grinning as he came up to stand beside her.  “Nice shot, as always.  I take it there’s a sweet spot at the back of their skull?”

Rat grunted.

Sam picked up one of the iridescent, torso-sized chest scales and grunted at its weight.  “I still think this would make some wicked armor plating, if we could figure out how to adhere it to—”  He hesitated, frowning at one of the kreenit’s legs.  Rat, who had noticed it at the same time, froze.  From the elbow down, one of the kreenit’s massive front legs appeared to be made out of a grayish stone.  It was perfectly formed, right down to each individual scale, and there was no distinguishable spot where the flesh ended and the stone began.  The front claws and toes had all busted off in the kreenit’s attack on the foliage, and it appeared to be etched in tooth-marks where the kreenit had tried to chew it off.

“That,” Sam said, cocking his head at the leg with a frown, “is interesting.”

Rat swallowed and glanced at the two unconscious abominations, even then baking in the direct sunlight.  “We should kill them.”

“Are you insane?” Sam demanded, gesturing at the leg.  “If they can turn a kreenit’s leg into this, then they can make food.”

Rat, who had been making a completely different mental leap, calculating how many Guild members they could kill if she left them alive, actually had to stop and frown at him.  The idea of weapons being able to create sustenance was so completely beyond her realm of thinking that she was once again stunned by how easily Sam could think outside the box.

She glanced at the experiments nervously.  Flesh to stone, stone to flesh…it wasn’t, after all, that much of a stretch.  Rat, who hadn’t had much to eat in the last couple weeks because, on Wednesdays through Mondays, all four hundred and twelve members of the Survivors’ Guild shared equally what little their advance troops managed to scavenge, felt her stomach twinge in response.  Before she could think about it, she blurted, “You think so?  Food?”

As soon as she said it, she knew it was a mistake.  Sam just crossed his arms over his chest and raised an eyebrow.

“Never mind,” she muttered, face heating again.  “We can’t allow them to live.”

“Why the fuck not?”

Because I swore an oath to Mekkval…  She remembered the Dhasha, covered in his own shit, replaying the images of his dying nephew over and over again.  “Because I have to.”

“Uh-huh,” Sam said.  “And once you kill them all, Mekkval’s going to come get you?  Take you back to the stars?”

Rat hesitated.

Her reluctance was all the furg needed.  “So he plans to leave you here, after you’ve run around doing his errands like a good little monkey.”

She scowled at him.  “I swore an oath of fealty to my prince.  His nephew was killed by experiments like those.”

“Okay,” Sam said, “let’s just assume that’s true.  Why would it matter?”

“My prince wants them dead because even a handful of those abominations could destroy society as we know it.”

Sam gave her a flat look over his crossed arms.  His fingers started to tap against his biceps.  “Gee.”

A rush of anger made her wipe her blade clean of purple kreenit blood on her pantleg and disgustedly slam it back into its sheath.  “An honorless furg like you wouldn’t understand.”

“Oh?” he demanded.  “So I haven’t been living up to my word on Wednesdays through Mondays?”

Which only made her madder, because he had.  “Listen,” she growled.  “We can’t leave them alive to breed because they could take over Congress.”

“So you’re telling me Humans could take over Congress.”

“Yes!” she cried, before she realized his intent.

Sam raised his fuzzy white brow.

“Some of them can control people’s minds,” she blurted, hating the way she felt like she was losing a one-sided argument.

Sam continued to return her gaze with a single, raised eyebrow.

“There would be no freedom!” Rat said, losing her calm.  “No rights to choose.  They would know everything about you, and would be able to dance you to their tunes like puppets on strings.”

Casually, Sam said, “You realize that one of the times I hacked into the Congressional databases, I found files on experimental mind control?”

Rat froze.  She had heard as much in furtive whispers over drinks and had noticed some soldiers behaving…oddly…but she had never managed to confirm its existence before she had begun working for Mekkval.

“It’s now standard equipment for all incoming draftees—in addition to their behavioral modifiers,” Sam said.  “If someone misbehaves or speaks out against Congress nowadays, they don’t bother reprimanding them a third time.  They just switch on the mind-control chip and have them go insult a Dhasha.”

When Rat couldn’t form an argument against that, Sam shrugged and said, “It’s well-known that Aliphei has a thing against free choice in the citizenry, and Congress tries it once every few thousand years, usually when a Dhasha makes the Tribunal.  Your benevolent Prince Mekkval voted for it.”

Fighting a rush of fury that made her want to relieve him of his powder-puff head, Rat said, “You’re lying.”

Sam gave her a long look.  “And I’ve also got daisies growing out of my forehead.”

Rat glanced at his forehead, wondering what a ‘daisy’ was.

Sam sighed.  “Never mind.  I’m not lying, and you know it.”  He cocked his head at her.  “Besides.  Can you imagine how useful they’d be?”

Glancing again at the two unconscious experiments, who had been fighting off a kreenit for at least half an hour, Rat said, “Okay, sure, but what about when we run across a telepath?  It’s all the same gene, just varying degrees of recessivity, and the mutated gene doesn’t behave like any gene they’ve ever seen.  It is alternatively dominant over normal Humans, alternatively not.  Completely unpredictable.  Even clones don’t display the same characteristics.  We save just one and we’ll be introducing telepathy into the populace, completely untraceable, just like the Ooreiki vkala.”

Sam raised both eyebrows at her in a way that clearly stated she had just shocked the crap out of him.

“What?” she muttered, giving him a wary look.

“Since when does a Congie use a word like ‘recessivity?’”

Flushing, because she hadn’t known the word until she’d gotten on a ship for Earth and been forced to pore over Mekkval’s reports, Rat growled, “Congies aren’t stupid.”

“They aren’t educated, either,” Sam commented.

Face burning, Rat muttered, “I studied the reports on my way here.  Something about the gene always being there, and it being a dice-toss as to which one will be expressed, if any at all.  About three percent for the minders, twenty percent for the makers, and the rest movers.  And it’s dominant over ‘normal’ genes, but no control.  No predictability.  Which worried the scientists the most.  They couldn’t figure out what was happening.”

Sam nodded and said, “Meaning if our dear telekinetic over there survives to have sex with females of the Guild, his progeny still have an excellent chance of becoming a minder or a maker.  Yes, I read that.  I find it fascinating.”

Rat grimaced.  “I don’t.  Means that their kids could read my mind.”

“Yes,” Sam said.  “And?”

“Nobody’s going to read my mind,” Rat said stubbornly.

Sam glanced at the two unconscious experiments, then turned back to look at her over his crossed arms.  “Tell you what.  You promise to me, on your honor, that you won’t go shooting yonder meal ticket, and I promise you that, once we find a telepath, if you don’t like him, I’ll help you kill him.”

Rat snorted, thinking of the thought-scrambling necklace that Mekkval had given her.  “I don’t need help killing him.”

Sam’s eyes dropped to her necklace.  “I took a look at it while you were sleeping.  It’s a neat idea, but it’s not going to work.  I read the experiment logs, and I’m pretty sure that these guys somehow sense sentience, not just thought-energy.  I’m actually shocked Mekkval gave it to you—I’m sure he had access to the same reports.  He must’ve been desperate.”

Rat froze, her heart giving a startled thump.  She was so stunned by the revelation of just how much Sam had deduced about her and her mission that all she could say was, “Oh?”

“Yeah,” Sam went on, “The test results were very interesting.  They can sense a person in another room, but not a machine projecting the same recorded thought waves.  Further, brainwashing using projected thought-waves only drives them nuts, whereas it’ll turn most people into mindless slave-zombies.  They’ve got something different working in their brains, and the scientists weren’t able to figure it out.  None of the experiments responded to brainwashing as expected.  It’s almost as if they have a door they can step into and just wait it out.”

Rat was uncomfortably aware of how, over the course of more than two rotations of starvation and loneliness, she was beginning to question the validity of her oath to Mekkval.  She had come to understand, first-hand, the fear the Jreet had for both Rakun, the Jreet hell of Solitude, and Morbu, the Jreet hell of Hunger.  She knew the pain of Nalum—of being abandoned, lost.  With Sam and Tyson and their Guild, she almost felt as if she had a place again.  Within their ragged, hungry band, she almost felt as if she had a home.

Rat glanced at the two survivors, then took a deep breath.  She would never get a better chance to kill them both, and Sam wouldn’t be able to stop her.  Yet his words were disturbing.  Had she really been a Congie so long that she forgot to associate herself with Humans?  Had she really been abroad for so many turns that she heard that Humans had a chance to win their freedom and she balked?

Then she remembered the eight men who had staked her out to rape her in a lonely grove of oak and her face hardened.  Humans, compared to the whole of Congress, were unevolved monsters.  Only the Huouyt were as casually cruel.

“I’ll accept, slave,” Rat said.  “On your word that, if we come across a telepath and I ever give you the command to kill them all, you will help me do it without question.  Even if it’s on a Tuesday.”

Something akin to amusement flickered across Sam’s eyes.  He gave her a small nod of acquiescence.  “As you wish, Mistress,” he said quietly.

Rat narrowed her eyes at him.  Since the very first day, he’d shown absolutely no qualms with calling her Mistress, which meant he was casually lying to her, or he had surrendered to his fate completely, the very first day.  She found it impossible to believe it could be the latter, considering his Dobbs genetics and established criminal nature.  Deciding it was a good time to make it clear to him that his sly insolence would not be tolerated, she stepped up to him and drove a finger into his breastbone.  “I won ka-par,” she growled.

Sam blinked down at her like her comment had come completely out of the blue, then proceeded to eye her as if he expected some sort of trick.  “Yes…”

“You are a slave to honor,” Rat said, stepping forward and poking him again.  “My slave.”

He frowned.  “Yes, and?”

“I don’t know what you’re trying to pull, but I own you.”  She rammed her finger home again.  “I served a Dhasha for the last twenty turns.  That’s what ka-par means.  You submitted completely.  You’re mine.”

Sam was giving her a baffled look.  “Is this about the bikini?”

Seeing absolutely no malice in his face, no attempts at deception, Rat just stared up at him in shock.  He means it, she thought, stunned.  By Beda’s balls, he’s meant it from the beginning…

Blinking up at him, Rat let her finger drop.  The Tesla of the Congressional Era had completely surrendered.  To her.  She found she could only stare, humbled by that knowledge.

“I was wondering when you’d get it,” Sam said softly.  His odd white-blue eyes were at once gentle and intense.  He reached out, took the hand that she’d just driven into his breastbone, lifted it to his lips, and kissed her knuckles.

Rat’s mouth fell open.  She was left standing there, staring up at him in utter speechlessness, until a sound from across the creekbed made them both turn.  The girl on the ground had started to wake, and was staring at them in outright horror.

“We’ll continue this later,” Sam said, giving her a small smile of promise and brushing his lips against the back of her hand once more.  Then, dropping her fingers, he calmly turned to approach the experiments.  The female experiment quickly scooted away from them with a startled, unintelligible cry when she saw him approaching.  She held up a hand in warning.

“What are you doing?!” Rat cried, her hands spasming around her gun.  “She turns things to stone, Sam!”

But Sam neither responded nor slowed.  Instead, he tugged off his shirt and tossed it aside, then unlaced his boots and did the same with his pants.  The girl, for her part, frowned and lowered her hand.  She broke into a huge grin, however, when Sam dropped his underwear.

As Rat’s jaw fell open, Sam walked up to the girl bare-assed naked as if that were the most normal thing in the world.  And the girl, in return, scooted over and began running her hands over Sam’s body in a way that almost seemed like she was blind.

“Uh…Sam?” Rat asked, watching the experiment caress Sam’s body, groping and tugging wherever she felt like.

Sam turned toward Rat slowly, obviously trying to keep from startling his new admirer.  Out of the side of his mouth, he said, “Take off your clothes.”

Rat blinked at him.  “What?  No.”  Her hands clenched on her gun.

“Rat,” Sam warned, “Believe me.  You want to do this.”

She felt her face twist, watching the woman grope him.  “No, I don’t.”

“You do,” Sam argued.

“No,” Rat said, watching the woman’s fingers dip into the exposed cleft between Sam’s cute buttocks.  At the same time, with her other hand, she was putting Sam’s hair into her mouth.  “I’m pretty sure I don’t.”

Still speaking sideways while smiling at the experiment, Sam said, “Tuesday.  Do it.”

Rat rolled her eyes in disgust.  He would use that.  Muttering under her breath, she stripped down to the skin—she was spending more time sans clothes on Earth than she ever had in the Ground Force, Rat thought bitterly—left her clothes in a pile on the creekbed, and walked over to Sam with a pistol in a tight, bone-white grip.

To her amazement, the female experiment—a platinum blonde woman with vivid green eyes—started to beam up at her like a happy child.  The woman had oddly pointed ears and eyes that were too big for her head, which made Rat wince, wondering which alien genetic that Humans had bred into them.  She once again remembered Mekkval’s last request, and how, if she allowed these creatures to live and mix in the gene pool, the Human genome would never be the same.

I’m looking at an invasive species, Rat thought, peering into the woman’s over-large eyes.  One that could destroy everything.

Then the experiment was scrabbling over the river rocks to run her hands over her body, paying special attention to her chest and head.  The woman’s complete silence as she fondled Rat was disconcerting.

“Sam,” Rat said through her teeth, as the woman began to fiddle with a nipple, “please explain.”

Beside her, Sam was grinning like an idiot.  “It said in the test documents that the experiments with the greatest potential were separated from the rest, their minds wiped, and left unclothed and ignorant, to be controlled solely by chip.  They were never allowed to learn language or in any other way interact with their keepers on an emotional level.  They were not allowed to develop beyond the mental state of toddlers.”

“That’s nice,” Rat said, as the pretty blonde released her breast, walked around her and started eying her back.  “Why am I naked?”

“Keep your voice down,” Sam hissed, glancing worriedly at the male, who had just started to wake up, and whose single violet eye had startledly locked on Rat’s face.  His other eye was missing in what looked like an unfortunate graze from plasma fire.  The scarring covered much of the side of his face, stretching the pink skin taut and puckering his whole left cheek.  Very slowly, he pushed himself away from the ground with his hands.  Up close, the high-tech black Congie gloves covering his hands looked almost comical when he was wearing casual jeans and a T-shirt.

In a carefully neutral voice Sam went on, “The scientists mentioned keeping as much skin covered as possible, to keep the experiments from making the connection that they, too, were Human.  I figured they would appreciate a good striptease.”

“They’re appreciating it a bit too much, Sam,” Rat growled, glaring at the woman who was now eating her hair.

“Inside voices,” Sam said quickly, nervously glancing at the auburn-haired man on the ground.  He’d made no attempt to move forward and join his friend in fondling them.

Rat narrowed her eyes and she placed a warning hand on the chest of the woman who was now crowding her personal space to breathe in her ear.  The woman didn’t take a hint, and her green eyes danced with happiness as she slobbered all over Rat’s short brown locks.  Rat resisted the urge to shove the woman’s sunburned body away from her.  “What the hell are we dealing with?  Morons?”

“Children,” Sam said, his face beaming with obvious excitement as he watched them.  “Great big children.”  Clearing his throat, he said, “Rat, you just became Twelve-X.  I am Twelve-Y.”

“Huh?”  She peered at him.

“As far as I know, their experiments were generally grouped in batches of twenty.  So I can be sure we’re not getting duplicates, we’re getting named something between U and Z.  One of the last six letters of the alphabet.”

“Look, I know you’re nuts,” Rat said.  The girl proceeded to stick her finger in Rat’s ear, and this time, Rat did push her away.  “But I am not ‘Twelve-X’,” she said, glaring at the woman.

The woman’s mouth opened in pleasure and she said, “Twelve-B.”

Rat frowned.  “No, I said I wasn’t—”

Sam grabbed her wrist, stepped in front of her, and thrust a finger to his chest.  “Twelve-Y,” he said.  He gestured at the purple-eyed, pointy-eared teenager on the ground that was still eying Rat suspiciously.  “Twelve…?”

The green-eyed woman shook her head vigorously.  “Thirteen-D.”

Both of Sam’s brows went up.  “Whoa.  They actually made a thirteen series.”  He gave the man a respectful look.  “They were still working on twelve when I hacked their computers.  No wonder he’s got the creepy…eye.  Bet they added some Efrit.”  Rat blinked at that.  Now that she was looking, she noticed what looked like a tiny speckling of greenish scales on the underside of the man’s jaw.  Indeed, the man’s longish features looked very similar to those of the reclusive, scaly creatures from the sand dunes of Kordja…

…creatures that were known for avoiding Congress for over a thousand turns by ‘sensing’ them coming.  And hunting in packs, without words.

  “Sam,” Rat said slowly, “these people are dangerous.”

“Isn’t it wonderful?!” Sam cried.  He smiled and bobbed his head at the green-eyed woman, who grinned and nodded back.  “I remember you,” Sam said, grinning.  “You were just a baby when I saw your picture.  Very good at what you do, aren’t you?  They gave you a ten out of ten.  That’s what they always gave me, when I deigned to take their tests.”  The woman continued to smile and nod at him.

Rat was itching to put a plasma round right through the Efrit look-alike’s big purple eye.  “Please tell me you have a plan for all this,” she said.  “Because I get the idea that Efrit-boy, over there, wants to hurl me across the creek.”

“I do,” the young man said, still frowning at her.

Rat froze.

Sam, however, didn’t miss a beat.  “She’s harmless.  Just a grumpy little Congie curmudgeon.  Who taught you to speak?  Dr. Carter?  Her psych-eval said she was a softie.”

The purple-eyed moron was still giving Rat a suspicious look.  “Not Dr. Carter.  Dr. Molotov.  She was called Marie.  Twelve-A killed her, right after he killed all the other sadistic shits running that place.”

Rat watched Sam stiffen a little.  “Ah,” Sam said.  “Okay.”  His creepy electric-blue eyes slid towards Rat and he cleared his throat.  “Is Twelve-A around here anywhere?”

“Twelve-A and everyone else in Containment escaped after Codgson went on his megalomaniac rampage with his Chosen and forgot he’d left them there,” Efrit-boy said.  He cocked his head at Sam a little too casually.  “How’d you know about this place?  You know Codgson?”

“No,” Sam laughed.  “I’m the criminal mastermind that hacked their computer systems so I could experiment on myself.”  He tugged his wriggling white hair.  “Blind, impotent, and unable to shave for the last thirty-two years.”

The man gave Sam a long look, then said, “I heard about you.  Codgson killed about a dozen geneticists trying to get them to copy your experiment so he could run it on himself.”

“He should have just asked me,” Sam laughed.  “I’d have given him the formula for free—misery loves company.”

“Maybe you still can,” the young man said.  “He passed through with his army a couple days ago, looking for Twelve-A.”

He’s talking about the telepath.  Rat felt her heart start to pound.  “Which way did Twelve-A go?”

Immediately, Efrit-boy’s unnatural violet eye sharpened.  “Why do you want to know?”

Rat returned his glare, not about to be brow-beaten by a pointy-eared, glove-wearing furg.  “Because I want to ki—”

Sam quickly shoved her backwards again.  “Because we want to help.”

For the first time, Efrit-boy’s single eye tore from Rat’s and leveled flatly on Sam.  “It sounded to me like she was going to kill him.  Twelve-Y.”  The sarcasm in his voice was not lost on Rat.

“She’s a Congie,” Sam said, shrugging.  “They get itchy trigger-fingers.”

Efrit-boy turned to face Rat directly and said, “They’re not the only ones.”

Rat stiffened, realizing the stupid furg was threatening her.

“Hey now,” Sam said.  “Calm down, okay?  Both of you.  We can all be friends.  My name’s really Slade.  I figured you guys couldn’t talk, so I was trying to find a way to relate.”

“I don’t like military,” Efrit-boy said, to Rat.

“Well, that’s nice,” Rat retorted, “I don’t like dumbass scaly furgs who threaten me.  I tend to shoot them.”

Efrit-boy scowled at Rat for a few more moments, then turned back to Sam and said, “Do you know a doctor?  There’s something wrong with Twelve-B, but she can’t tell me what.  I know she’s in pain.  I’ve been trying to tell her she’s pregnant, but she has no idea what that means.”

At the last, Rat’s heart gave a startled hammer, Mekkval’s fears that the experiments would breed and take over the Human race once again coming to the forefront of her mind.

Sam’s mouth fell open and he again glanced at her anxiously.  “So whose kid?” he asked Efrit-boy.

Efrit-boy’s face twisted in distaste.  “Codgson’s right-hand-prick Chuckles.  When Captain Fucktacular finally pulled his head out of his ass and stopped joyriding through bases collecting tanks and weaponry, he went back to the lab to grab his trophy experiments.  But by then most of them were either dead or gone.  A few of the experiments were still alive in stasis beds, but because they weren’t his precious Twelve-A, he threw a tantrum and gave them to his men to amuse themselves.  Never mind the reason they were in the stasis beds was because they were stronger than that skinny, blue-eyed dipshit.  So yeah, instead of admitting he was a moron that got distracted by something shiny while Twelve-A escaped, Codgson let Chuckles and Co. rape the girls and eviscerate the guys for fun.  The girls that survived the first go-around got carted around like cattle—Codgson was talking about breeding a new race.  Twelve-B’s the only one I managed to save, but she’s not doing too good.  Chuckles had taken her out behind the camp to get one last fuck outta her before he murdered her—the guy had done it to at least three other girls, too, and Codgson didn’t care because Chuckles was his golden child.”

Rat felt her fist tightening on her weapon.  “Who is this Codgson?  I will kill him for you.”

Efrit-boy glanced at her, then at her gun, with a seeming new respect.  “My name’s Mickey.”

Rat narrowed her eyes.  “I didn’t ask for your name.”

“Mickey, we’ll try to help,” Sam interrupted, sounding startlingly genuine.  “Believe me, Rat and I can take this guy.  Where’d Codgson go?”

Efrit-boy hesitated.  “You need to help Twelve-B first.  She’s carrying that loser’s kid.”  Then, giving Rat and Sam a distrustful look, he moved forward and took the woman by the chin and gently tilted her head back so they could both see a wicked scar running ear-to-ear across her throat.  Twelve-B let him hold her there calmly, giggling.

Rat felt her breath catch upon seeing the old knife-wound.  “How did she survive that?” she blurted.

Efrit-boy released Twelve-B’s head and gave Rat a flat look.  “I killed Codgson’s footsoldier fuckwit and took his medical pack.  Then I used up an entire case of nanos on her.”

Rat got cold tingles, realizing that she was very close to sharing the other soldier’s fate.

Sam put his body between them again.  “If you’re talking about Colonel Codgson, of Earth, he has nothing to do with Rat,” Sam said softly.  “Rat’s a Congie.”  There was…warning…in his voice.  And, in that startled moment, Rat realized that Sam was willing to fight for her.  Against a genetic freak that could crush him with a thought.

Efrit-boy must’ve realized that, too, because he peered up at Sam, seemed to judge the more than a full dig of disparity between them, then lowered his gaze back to look at Rat around his shoulder.  Then he seemed to deflate.  “Twelve-B really needs some help,” he said, sounding defeated.  “At first, I thought it was a complication from the knife wound, but I think there’s actually something wrong with her baby.”

Rat frowned.  “I don’t know anything about birthing a—”

Again, Sam bowled over her and said, “I do, Mickey.  And if I can’t figure it out, I’ll get books.  There should be a library in the nearest town.  How long ago did she get…pregnant?”

“Over a month ago,” the pointy-eared kid said.

“I’m going to feel her stomach, all right?  See if I can get an idea of what’s going on?”

Efrit-boy nodded tensely, though Rat saw his hands fist until the leather stretched tight and creaked against his knuckles.

Gently sidling up to the girl, Sam touched her naked stomach.  She squealed with glee and slapped her palm against his chest playfully.  The big man flinched and paused, eyes on her petite hand.  “Uhm.  Thirteen-D, is there any way you can tell her that I’m going to press on her stomach and it’s probably going to hurt, and please don’t turn my arm into stone?”

“No,” Efrit-boy said, still watching him with distrust.  “She can’t talk.”

Sam grimaced and looked down into Twelve-B’s pretty green eyes.  He smiled.  “You wouldn’t hurt me, right, Twelve-B?”

She grinned back up at him and nodded.

Rat watched Sam take a deep breath and give her a nervous grin.  Then he said, “Well, God hates a coward,” and started pressing at her abdomen.

At the girl’s first whimper, Sam quickly pulled away.  He let out a breath he had been holding with a sigh.  “Hokay.  Yeah.  That’s not good.”  He swallowed hard.  “Um, shit.”  He rubbed a hand through his puffy white hair.  “Okay, we need to get her back to wherever you guys came from.  Was there a lab?”

Efrit-boy stiffened instantly.  “We’re not going back there.  That crazy fuck could be there, waiting for us.”

Sam cocked his head.  “What crazy fuck?”

Codgson!” Efrit-boy snapped.  “I told you.  He’s got an army of brainwashed mutant wanna-bes and he’s nearby somewhere.”

“I thought you said he went after Twelve-A,” Sam said.

Efrit-boy grimaced.  “You don’t know Codgson.  I humiliated him pretty bad.  He could’ve decided to spend the next three years staking that place out, on the off-chance I’d come back.  He’s fucking insane.”

“Well, if you know of a better place, I’m all ears,” Sam said.  “I can’t operate on her out here in the dirt.”

Efrit-boy flinched.  “Wait.  Operate?”

“Well, I can’t tell for sure until I get to the proper equipment,” Sam said, “but I think she might be in the middle of an ectopic pregnancy, where her embryo implanted outside the uterine cavity.  From the location of the pain, I’m guessing the right fallopian tube.”

Efrit-boy just stared at him.

Sam frowned.  “There are two tubes inside a female body that run from the ovaries to deliver eggs to the uterus.  They normally have anywhere between a one-in-forty and one-in-a-hundred chance that the fertilized egg will embed in them instead of the womb, and judging by the pain in her pelvis, I’d give it a pretty good chance that’s what we’re looking at.  If so, the resulting embryo is going to need a manual abortion before it can rupture something and cause severe internal hemorrhaging.  Eccysis is one of the leading causes of maternal mortality in the developing world.  Or was, before Judgement.  So I’m guessing it’s going to be one of the biggest killers now that we’re back to shitting in buckets and brushing our teeth in a stream.”

Efrit-boy gave him a blank look.

Sam impatiently gestured at Rat.  “Translate.”

“The baby isn’t where it’s supposed to be,” Rat said, having had two months with the crazy furgling to learn some of his lingo.  “It could kill her.”

“Yes, that!” Sam cried.  “That’s my guess, anyway.  Ectopic pregnancy.  Very bad.  Could be appendicitis, though she’s not feverish.  Has there been pain during her bowel movements or has she experienced any vaginal bleeding?”

Efrit-boy turned to Rat with a small frown.  “He’s what, a walking encyclopedia?”

Rat snorted.  “If only you knew.”

“So…” Efrit-boy said, “…Twelve-B is going to die?”

Sam grimaced.  “Well, not if I can get her to a lab.  I think I can probably help her in time.  It’s only been a month, right?  How long ago did she start hurting?  A week?  Two?”

“What, am I a mind-reader, now?” Efrit-boy demanded.

Are you?” Rat snapped.

Efrit-boy scowled at her.  “The fuck is her problem?”

Sam smoothly said, “Concentrate, Mickey.  If you have any idea how long it’s been, I need to know.  It’ll help me figure out how much time I’ve got to prepare before something ruptures.”

“Keeping in mind I don’t have a calendar and nobody’s given a shit about what day it is for months,” Efrit boy said, “maybe two weeks?”

“Ah,” Sam said.  “That explains it.”  He sucked a breath in through his teeth, then seemed to shake himself.  “Well, I can’t make any judgements for sure until I can get to some sort of imaging hardware and see what we’re dealing with.  But yeah, if it’s what I think it is, it’s a strong possibility.  Could be anything, though…”

Efrit-boy stiffened.  He eyed Twelve-B, who had happily sunk to the ground and was piling rounded river stones on top of one another.  “She won’t like going back.  It’ll make her upset.”

What he left unsaid was, And when she gets upset, she turns things to stone.

“Drugs,” Sam agreed.  “We need drugs.”  He gestured at Rat.  “You.  Take us to town.  We need to make a pharmaceuticals run.”

The idea of intentionally making a childlike Human weapon loopy didn’t exactly rank as one of the smartest things she’d ever heard, but she nodded anyway, because if Samuel Dobbs had said he planned to kill a kreenit with a rock, she would have asked him what size rock he needed, and when.

Besides, she could always kill them on Wednesday…

#


The Paper Man

Slade hesitated in the brush at the edge of the town, listening.  “What do you think?”

She had been staring out at the town for almost ten minutes, now, making absolutely no effort to leave the screen of brush where they huddled.  Instead of responding, she just shook her head.

“Well, we can’t just sit here,” he replied.  She still hadn’t told him what was bugging her, almost as if she didn’t know herself.  Slade glanced at the two experiments behind them.  The thirteen-series, unlike his innocent—and utterly oblivious—companion, had been watching and listening to everything they said with extreme distrust written all over his long, almost lizardine features.

Not only did he look at least partially Efrit—the chin-scales and pointed ears were hard to miss—but Slade suspected he had the Efrit hivemaster ability to kill with a touch, something that had been mentioned as a desirable attribute several times in the experiment documents.  The most obvious, glaring clue was the fact that the man wore black Congie gloves along with the designer jeans and T-shirt.  And, as long as Slade had watched, Thirteen-D hadn’t touched anyone but Twelve-B.  In fact, several times, he had avoided touching him and Rat, when given the chance.

He really hoped Rat didn’t put that much together.  Hivemasters were rare, and they never left their home-planets, being exempt from the Draft by a special accord of Congress.  The likelihood that Rat had ever heard of one, much less seen one, was pretty astronomical.  The Efrit paid their tribute, didn’t create waves with the other members of Congress, kept species-homogenous planets, and never rebelled.

Rat would have had no reason to ever go to an Efrit planet, much less meet a hivemaster, and the fact that the kid was obviously a telekinetic seemed to have thrown her off.  After all, it had been stated several times in the experiment records that the gene expressed itself in one way—either a minder, a mover, or a maker.  But, despite knowing that, Slade was left with one very obvious, glaring truth, one he hoped she was too much of a layman to understand:  The mentals’ gene didn’t produce scales.  They hadn’t used anything with scales.

Which meant the Human scientists had been experimenting with adding something new before they got busted.

It was all so utterly exciting.  He really hoped the Congie could keep her cool until she got to know them—he really didn’t want to have to kill them.  As a scientist himself, the potential—and sheer amount of work that the two experiments behind them represented—was mind-blowing.

Much like their current three-egg omelet breakfasts care of his self-made chickens, it all hinged on making the Congie see that having the two lab-rats alive outweighed the benefits of having them dead.

…which meant he needed to have a one-on-one conversation with Thirteen-D, preferably with the Congie twenty miles distant.  Clearing his throat, he said, “Okay, how about you go scout for bad guys before we drag these two out into the open.”  He gestured at the ruined streets ahead of them.  “I’ll stay with these two.”

Rat glanced at their two companions and grimaced.  “You sure you want to stay behind with them?”  Like she was discussing him hanging out with armed nuclear warheads.

Slade sighed. “I’ll be fine.  They like me, see?”  He grinned at Thirteen-D, who gave him an unreadable look back.

She glared at him and loudly popped another plasma chamber into her gun.  “Fine.  I’ll be back in two hours.”  It was strange how she wasn’t even giving an argument.  Almost like…she didn’t want Slade to come along.

Indeed, before Slade could quiz her on it, she got up and headed off to scout out their trail.

Slade watched her until she was out of earshot, then turned to tell the young man he needed to be careful what he said around Rat.

Too late, Slade realized that the teenager had pulled a glove off and had stepped up behind him while Slade had been watching the Congie.  Slade saw a flash of glowing green fingertips, then blurted, “Oh balls.”  Grimly meeting Slade’s startled look, the young man’s hand snatched out and grabbed Slade’s wrist.

Instantly, every signal from his brain to his body suddenly shut off, and Slade went into total paralysis and drooped to the ground.  His attacker followed calmly, kneeling beside him, still holding him by one hand.  Because he could do nothing else, Slade just stared up at the man holding him, mouth agape.

Thirteen-D held him for several moments, a frown forming on his face.  His vivid purple eye grew dark, then started to scowl, then closed as his brow tightened into a heavy frown.  Then he started to tremble and groan.

This, Slade thought, is where he snips my strings and leaves me to die.

Thirteen-D released him suddenly, gasping.  He fell backwards, away from Slade, and just stared across the dried brown grasses, his violet eye wide in shock, mouth open in confusion.

Slade sat up, feeling tingly and somewhat numb all over, like his whole body had just woken from a dead nerve.  “I take it you liked what you saw?” he asked, rubbing his forehead.

“What the hell are you?” Thirteen-D demanded, panting.  He, too, was sprawled in much the same manner, looking like he was also having trouble with motor control.

Still seated on his ass because his legs had not yet regained their feeling, Slade made his best attempt at a bow, which actually resulted in him smacking his own forehead with a numb hand and wincing.  “The Tesla of the Congressional Era.”

“You’re not Human,” Thirteen-D growled.  “There was too much to take.”

Slade froze and blinked at the kid.  So that is why he speaks so well, he thought.  He’s been assimilating them.  It occurred to him that, if the kid had managed to absorb his memories and personality a la the Efrit hivemasters, Thirteen-D would have no further need for Slade, and could do the operation himself.

Which, apparently, had crossed the kid’s mind, as well.  Slade glanced at the glove, which had been dropped to the ground by his knee, then at the kid’s hand, which was eerily longer and more slender than a Human’s, and was lined with small emerald scales along the inside of each knuckle.  The underside tips of each finger seemed to luminesce in a soft green light, with something purple radiating from a point on the kid’s palm, just out of sight.

“How many have you absorbed so far?” Slade asked softly.

The kid gave him a wary look, then raised his chin in challenge.  “Five.”

Slade stiffened.  He knew, without a doubt, that the knowledge would get Thirteen-D killed if even a whisper of it went to the Congie.  “And that’s how you knew how to use the nanos?”

Thirteen-D nodded slowly, though he had begun looking like a hunted thing.  Beside him, Twelve-B was obliviously building a little teepee out of sticks.

“You were in a special section of the lab?” Slade offered.  “Because they were more afraid of you than the telepaths, right?”

“They were afraid of me,” Thirteen-D said slowly, “but Twelve-A scared them more.  Me, they just locked gloves on my hands.  Twelve-S got them off for me, when we escaped.  Then the Congies killed her.”

“Ah.”  Slade gave the kid—he couldn’t be more than seventeen—a careful look.  “You were going to take my mind, kill me, and help Twelve-B on your own, weren’t you?”

Thirteen-D flushed and looked away.  “I don’t trust scientists.”  Which meant, yes, he had planned on killing him.  And somehow Slade’s labyrinthine mind had spared him that particular fate.  That was comforting.

Acutely aware that Thirteen-D could still bash his formidable brains open on a rock with a mental flick of his thoughts, Slade said, “So, have we decided not to kill me yet?”

“No,” Thirteen-D growled, scowling up at him.  The young man couldn’t have weighed more than ninety pounds and was missing an eye, but Slade had no misconceptions about who would win in a staring contest.

“How much did you get?” Slade asked, curious.  He had always wondered how much of genius was innate and how much was learned.  His jenfurgling brother had made him think that genetics didn’t have much to do with it, meaning it was either spontaneous—Slade’s personal theory—or learned.

Thirteen-D gave him a suspicious look, then, when Slade just waited, he grimaced.  “A lot.  But it doesn’t make much sense.”

Innate, then.  Interesting.  Slade assumed that, by tapping into his experiences and memories, Thirteen-D had probably just experienced the disconcertion that a third-grader would get opening up an advanced college textbook.  Well, a normal third-grader.  When Slade had been nine, he had found PhD-program textbooks fascinating.

Then something disturbing occurred to Slade.  “That telekinesis…  Were you born with it?  Or did you take it from someone?”

Instantly, Thirteen-D’s face grew guarded.  His violet eye lingering on Slade’s face, he eventually looked away and watched Twelve-B build her teepee.

Slade felt his mouth open in a little O.  Another word for the Efrit hivemasters was ‘ooreinaga’, an Ooreiki word for ‘soul-stealer.’  Perhaps they would have to kill this one, if he was running around stealing people’s minds.

“Believe me,” Thirteen-D said softly, still watching his companion.  “I wouldn’t have taken him if I didn’t have to.  Chuckles was…filth.  And now he’s in me, and I can’t let him go because his power is what’s protecting us.”

So the kid wasn’t stupid.  “Where’d you get your speech patterns from?” Slade asked.  “Sounds like someone used to the streets.”

Thirteen-D’s face was dark.  “In the Dark Room, they made me take a kid.  Some petty thief they kidnapped in LA.  They tried to get me to take one of the experiments, but I refused, so they put me in solitary confinement thinking it would make me more pliable.”

Of course they did.  Because they were scientists.  “Let me guess,” Slade said.  “One of their nine-series?  Maybe an eight-series?”

Thirteen-D’s eye sharpened with suspicion, but he nodded.

“And,” Slade offered, “how did you take telekinesis from someone like Chuckles?”

Thirteen-D gave him another wary look.  “I took him into me.”

“And it killed him?” Slade demanded.  As far as he knew, though a large part of Efrit culture was to kidnap enemy warriors and have their hivemasters assimilate them, hivemasters did not have to kill their victims.  If the enemy warriors were particularly gifted or honorable, they could bond with them, like a biological transmitter, wiping out all previous hive-links, and integrate them into the nest.  Doubtless, the Human scientists had been intending to create generals to lead their psychic army.  Not only would something like Thirteen-D be useful for capturing and turning Congress’s own forces against it, but he could in theory be used to control someone like Twelve-A.  Telepaths like Twelve-A were simply too empathetic to kill reliably on their own.  “Does it necessarily have to kill them?”

“I tug them out,” Thirteen-D said warily.  “Tugging them out kills them.  You’re the first one I couldn’t tug out.”

“But do you have to?” Slade demanded.  “Or could you absorb my memories without ‘tugging me out’?”

“I can take some,” Thirteen-D said, “but it takes a lot more time.  Easier to take it all.”

“And you could do it without hurting me?” Slade demanded.  “Without removing that memory?  You’d just duplicate it?”

Thirteen-D eyed him with suspicion.  For a long moment, he said nothing.  Then, reluctantly, he said, “No one has held still for me to try.”

Though the small, rational part of Slade’s brain was mentioning things like Human vegetables and drooling inebriates, the scientist part of Slade was rubbing his hands together with glee.  “Try on me.  Try copying something annoying, like my brother.”

The experiment cocked his head at Slade, frowning.  “You would hold still for that?  Knowing what I…do?  That you might…lose it?”

“Gladly,” Slade laughed.  “The bastard is a dick.”

Thirteen-D had taken on that squinty look that both Rat and Tyson got when they were wondering how many times Slade had been dropped as a child.  Then, glancing at Twelve-B, who had begun pulling grass and laying it down inside her ‘teepee’, Thirteen-D reluctantly moved forward, lifting his hand towards Slade’s head.

Slade caught the man by the wrist and turned his hand over to get a good look at the underside.  As Thirteen-D stiffened, Slade whistled.  He had read about the palms of the hivemasters from those intrepid explorers who had been able to gain special access to the Efrit, but as of yet, no one had managed to get a picture.  “Wow,” Slade said, staring.  A cold wash of goosebumps had erupted down his spine, and his heart had started to suddenly hammer in his chest.  “That’s…hard to explain.”

Indeed, looking into the man’s palm was like looking into a…portal.  A vortex.  A swirling field of dim violet light that seemed to go on forever.  The glowing green pads of each long, slender fingertip almost acted like satellites, fireflies around an arcane campfire.

Looking at Thirteen-D’s palm, for once, Slade didn’t have an explanation.  Or, for that matter, a hypothesis.  It was much like the scales of the Dhasha.  Once, when he was bored, Slade had purchased a Dhasha scale, intent on proving to the world that there was nothing otherworldly about them, and that they were simply a biologically ingenious grouping of molecules into some yet-undiscovered alloy.

Two weeks later, Slade had quietly dumped the scale into a trash bin and gone on to research rich men’s bank accounts.  That, at least, he had understood.

Slowly, his small wrist still encased in Slade’s hand, Thirteen-D closed his fist, eying Slade like a nervous animal.

“So,” Slade said, still staring at the closed fist, “when you ‘tug them out,’ where do they go?”

It took Thirteen-D a moment to reply.  “In me,” he said softly.  “Until I let them go.”

“I…see.”  Slade’s skin was still crawling with goosebumps.  “What happens when you ‘let them go?’  They die?”

“No, they’re already dead,” Thirteen-D said.

Slade swallowed hard.  Ooreinaga.  Soul-stealer.  The Ooreiki, who were extremely sensitive about such things, had, in a move of uncharacteristic violence, demanded that Congress kill all the Efrit once the first hivemaster was discovered, and, when they had been overruled by the Jahul, had refused to cast a vote on the Species Recognition Board in protest.

“You trap them inside?” Slade asked softly, fighting a wave of nausea, remembering the weird violet portal.  “Your…victims?  They stay with you?”

Thirteen-D was still frowning at him.  “Chuckles is still with me.  I let the others go.  I didn’t need them.”

Lovely.  Slade didn’t have any misconceptions as to what the little Efrit would have done with him, had he managed to ‘tug him out’.  Thirteen-D would have digested him, salvaged what he wanted, then Slade would have become the psychic equivalent of a particularly massive log of shit.

Slade peered down at the experiment’s closed fist, which was still glowing slightly around the edges of the palm, where Thirteen-D’s curled fingers weren’t hiding it.  Suddenly, he was very much questioning the brilliance in allowing this creature to touch him again.  Swallowing hard, he looked up at Thirteen-D.

“Having second thoughts?” Thirteen-D said.  He didn’t sound surprised, but he did sound…disappointed?  Like he had wanted to try copying some memories from a willing subject, and Slade’s offer had actually given him some weird kind of hope.  Like the hope of a man who finds themselves so completely different from everyone else that he doesn’t really expect to fit in, much less be trusted.

…which Slade understood all too well.

Aw, hell, Slade said, seeing the regret in Thirteen-D’s violet gaze.  God hates a coward…

#

When Rat returned, Sam was seated on the ground with his back to her and was playing tic-tac-toe with the experiments on the copyright page of his survival manual.  Both of the experiments were grinning and laughing—until they saw Rat.  Then the two of them went into an ominous silence and watched her approach warily.  Turning, Sam saw her and closed his book, immediately breaking out into a beaming smile.  “Why hello, milady.  See anything?”

“There’s a pharmacy and a bookstore,” Rat said.  “Nobody around.  Kreenit shit everywhere.  Most of the buildings knocked down.”  What she left out was that the kreenit had left piles of Human bones every four rods, and everything was soaked with urine, even the undersides of the eaves.  Which bothered her.  A lot.

“Sam,” she said, “was the kreenit we killed male or female?”

Sam cocked his head and blinked the way he always did whenever he was accessing a mental snapshot.  “I didn’t see any dangling parts?” he offered, eyes slightly distant.

“Their parts don’t dangle,” Rat said.  “It’s all internal, contained in their chests.  The difference is the wings.  Females have wings.”

“It didn’t have wings,” Sam said.

“Males tear the females’ wings off during the first breeding,” Rat snapped.  “Did it have scars, Sam?  They would’ve been just behind the shoulder.”

Frowning slightly, Sam said.  “Yep, actually, it did.”

“Ash.”  Rat sucked in a breath through her teeth and glanced back out at the town.  “There’s another one out there.”

Sam frowned.  “There was a dead one farther up the valley.”

“They don’t eat their own mates,” Rat said.  “They do, however, gang up and kill other kreenit that wander into their territory.”  She yanked her walkie-talkie off her belt.  “Tyson, how you holding up?”

Static answered her on the other end.

Sam’s head came up alertly and he frowned.

“Tyson,” Rat said again.  “You okay?”

A little chill started working its way down her spine when she got nothing but silence.

“Maybe his batteries ran out,” Rat said, gesturing at Sam.  “Use the other system.”

Sam obligingly swiveled to drag his walkie-talkie from his backpack, wiped peanut-butter off of it, and, while sucking it from his fingers, flipped on the sound.  Around a thick mouthful of masticated nuts, Sam said, “Hey Tyson, you loveable lackey.  You ignoring us, there, bud?”

Nothing, not even static.

“That’s…not good,” Sam said, swallowing his mouthful of peanut butter convulsively.  He glancing at the town behind her with nervous apprehension.

Rat shouldered her gun.  “All right.  You take your happy ass into town and get whatever you need to save the girl.  I’m going to go find out what the soot is going on.”  She paused, frowning down at the glove-wearing freak, who was still watching her with suspicion.  To Efrit-boy, she said, “Uh…keep him safe, okay?  He’s smart, but not dangerous.  He needs…help.”

The purple-eyed experiment’s suspicion cleared a little.  He gave her a reluctant nod.  Beside him, Sam snorted to Twelve-B.  “Not dangerous?  Did you hear her?”  He offered her a spoonful of peanut-butter.  Twelve-B took a bite, nodding happily.

“Not dangerous.”  Sam scoffed again.  With great dignity, he scooped out another wad of peanut butter, put it in his mouth, and mumbled around it, “Lady…I’m the most dangerous one of the group!”  Then he frowned and swatted at a bee that had landed on his leg, which proceeded to bite him and make him scream.

“He’s not dangerous,” Rat repeated.  She took a deep breath and glanced toward the head of the valley, where they had left Tyson to make camp.  “Okay.  Guess I should get started if I wanna get there by dark.”  Still, she hesitated.  She didn’t, she realized, want to leave Sam alone.  In fact, the feeling was so nagging that it was leaving her ill-at-ease.  She glanced again at the two experiments.  Would they hurt him?  They’d seemed to be getting along okay…

Reluctantly, she pulled a gun from the three she kept on her hip and offered it to Sam.  “You know how to use one of these?”

“No,” Sam said, making no effort to take it.  He hadn’t, she realized, even bothered carrying one since she’d shown up, which made her wonder if he had ever carried one at all.

Rat squinted at him.  “You know how they work.”  Hell, given a forge and a Ueshi alchemist’s lab, he could probably make one.

“Of course, milady.”  He smiled, but still made no move for the gun.

“Just take it, goddamn it,” Rat said, jiggling it.  She sure as hell wasn’t going to give it to the purple-eyed freak.

“I’m an intellectual,” Sam said.  It was the same thing he had whined, over and over, on their daily runs.  “I don’t need one of those—I kill people with my brain.  Besides.”  He reached over and clapped the wiry teenager on the shoulder, startling him.  “I’ve got Mickey to protect me.”

“Mickey,” Rat said flatly.  She still didn’t like the idea of using the experiments’ names, considering she was going to have to kill them to fulfill her obligations to Mekkval, but Sam seemed to be insisting, which irritated her.  The dilemma over Sam was enough—no need to get attached to more of them.

“Mickey’s a badass,” Sam said.

“I’m a badass,” the child-sized man said, pointedly looking at her as he said it.  He popped his tiny gloved knuckles, watching her.

“See?” Sam cried.  “You’re in good company!”

Snorting, Rat didn’t even dignify that with a response.  She left the gun with Sam anyway, dropping it in the grass at his feet when he wouldn’t take it.  “Don’t lose it,” she commanded, when he made a face.  I’ll be back sometime after nightfall.  Keep your walkie-talkie on, and if anything goes wrong, hole up in the library.  It’s the most defensible.  Fewer windows, all concrete.”

“Former firehouse,” Sam said, nodding.

Rat frowned at him.  “How the hell did you—”  But, by this time, she had stopped questioning the random bits of information that her ka-par slave had picked up over a lifetime with an innate curiosity and a completely photographic memory.  She shook herself.  “If something goes wrong, meet at the library.  I’ll be back.”  Then, turning, she went to figure out why Tyson wasn’t answering his walkie-talkie.

She hadn’t taken three steps before she got that same gut-wrench of dread she always got before something was about to go horribly wrong.  Last time, it had been when the Huouyt had tried to kill them.  The time before that, it had been just before she entered Earth’s atmosphere, only tics before a Congressional bot blew her out of the sky.  She stood there, her hairs rising on end all over her body, feeling like someone was using her spine to sight in a rifle.

Slowly, she glanced back over her shoulder at Sam and the two experiments.  The sense of wrongness eased immediately.  When she turned back to the direction of the Survivors’ Guild, however, her gut cramped so hard she felt sick.  The last time she’d felt a pang this strong, she’d been about to receive her summons to go to Neskfaat.

Whatever lay ahead of her, it wasn’t a kreenit.

“Problem?” Sam asked around the remnants of his sandwich.  He’d offered the rest of it the two experiments.  Mickey was eating his, but the woman was rubbing hers in the dirt.

Rat swallowed, still eying the forest ahead of her, filled with that same, gut-deep sense of dread that had saved her countless times before.  She remembered the odd way Tyson had said ‘craft’ bread and swallowed.  “Sam, if you had powdered grain and yeast, what would you do with it?”

“Try to salvage some genetic information, then let it ferment naturally before baking and try to culture the yeast for later generations?”  He gave her a confused frown.  “Why?”

“Give me a simpler answer.”

“Make bread?”

Rat glanced at him.  “Would you ever ‘craft’ it?”

“No, that’s more something you do with wood and stuff that survives more than a few minutes after getting pulled out of the oven.”

“On second thought, give me back my gun.”

Cocking his head at her, Sam soberly did as she asked.

“We now have a codeword,” Rat said, as her gut settled minutely with the cold, hard feel of ruvmestin alloy in her hand.  She didn’t bother dropping it into its sheath.  “If you don’t use ‘purple thong’ the next time I see you, I’m going to shoot you in the head.”

Both of Sam’s eyebrows went up.  “I’ll try to remember that.”

“And you will do the same for me,” Rat said.  “Pink bikini.  If I don’t say it, shoot me.  Just fucking shoot me.”

“I don’t have a gun,” Sam reminded her.  But he looked utterly serious, now.  “What are we dealing with?”

“I think the Huouyt got Tyson,” Rat said.  She took a deep breath and considered bringing Sam and the other two along.  Instantly, the sense of wrongness cramped her guts until she felt the need to puke.  “And you are staying here.”

“You sure you don’t want my—”

No!” Rat snapped, overwhelmed by the urge to get out of there, now.  “You will burning stay here, Sam.”

“You got it,” Sam said softly.  “Should we just hide?  Wait it out?”

Rat’s heart was hammering so hard it was almost impossible to concentrate.  The idea of going after the Survivors’ Guild was bad, but the idea of staying with Sam was worse.  It took all of her effort to say, “That would probably be best.”  She shouldered her gun.  “Don’t follow me.  I don’t care how long I’m gone.  You burning stay here.”

“Meaning you’re not sure you’re coming back,” Sam said in a whisper.  “That how you survived Eeloir and Neskfaat?  You…feel…something?”

Rat thought about telling him—she wanted to tell him—but Mekkval’s warning made her take pause yet again.  Sam was, above all, a scientist, and all she had to do to remind herself of how dangerous that could be to her was to remember the chickens clawing their way out of the Huouyt’s dying body.  “Just don’t follow me,” Rat whispered, feeling the dread roiling within her gut, growing like a cancer.  She needed to get away from Sam, and she needed to do it now.  Steeling herself, she stepped into the brush and left them there.

The walk back, mostly uphill, was exhausting after an entire day on her feet and little to eat, but adrenaline kept Rat’s nerves humming.  She carefully took a wide arc around the valley, coming back to where they had left the Guild from the opposite direction.

The Guild was gone.

The ground wasn’t littered with bodies, as Rat had hoped.  It would have been comforting, because it would have meant it was something other than what she suspected.  Gangs and raiders left bodies everywhere.  Huouyt did not.

Once she’d observed the campsite for an hour in the dark, she stepped forward and examined the trampled area.  There were no coals, no bare-dirt fire-ring—which Tyson had begun to strictly enforce ever since seeing what Sam had done with his lighter.  There was no flour sprinkled on the ground, no signs of bread-making whatsoever.  The ground didn’t even seem very trampled.

Straightening, her palm sweaty on her gun, Rat surveyed the surrounding camp.  It looked as if they hadn’t even stayed to wait for them.  Which meant Tyson had turned on them—something Rat doubted, considering how long he had already put up with Sam—or Tyson was dead.

Rat went back to the bluff overlooking the moonlit valley, where they had left Tyson to keep watch.  Glancing around from that vantage point, she found a tree that seemed more secluded than the rest.  She knew from long turns of experience that standing watch was long, boring, and the monotony was frequently alleviated with coffee or tea.  Which meant lots of bathroom breaks.  And Tyson, being a prude, always went out of his way to not be seen taking a piss.

Swallowing down dread, Rat walked over to the tree.  The old smell of male urine assaulted her senses.  She squatted and looked at the ground, and immediately, her guts started to knot.  Small scuffs ending in drag-marks.  Heading into the woods.

Dread coalescing in her stomach in a cold ball, Rat got up and followed them.

Tyson’s body had been hidden under a carpet of dead leaves and twigs.  His index finger had been cut off.

She was about to shove the forest detritus back over him when she saw his big chest give a single, shallow breath.

“Oh soot!” Rat cried, shoving the rest of the dead leaves away and checking his wounds.  “Tyson?!”  There was a deep gash in one leg, like he’d been sliced open the length of his thigh, and his intestines were showing through a rent in his abdomen.  “Burn me,” Rat whispered.  She pulled off her pack and started rooting through it for nannites.  “Hold on, kid…”

She got the kit, pulled out the applicator, got a good dose, and jammed it into Tyson’s arm.  A few moments later, Tyson twitched, but appeared to stabilize.  He slowly pulled his arm up, to cover the wound in his stomach.

He’d lost way too much blood, though.  Not even the severed finger, which hadn’t been bandaged, was bleeding.

“Ashes,” Rat muttered, looking down at Tyson’s body.  Without her help, he was going to die.  But she didn’t have time to sit around playing nurse—if there was one Huouyt, there were several, and they had a ship, and they had possibly found genetic material they could use.  She needed to find that ship…

“Water,” Tyson croaked.  “Head feels like a Hebbut’s going after it with a hammer.”  Rat flinched.  He still hadn’t opened his eyes, but he was obviously aware of her presence.

Rat was stunned.  With that kind of blood-loss, the man should have been comatose.  Hell, he should have been dead

She quickly leveled her gun on his forehead and got out of reach.  Huouyt were smart.  Too smart.

Still not opening his eyes, Tyson gave a weak laugh.  “Not a Huouyt.”

“Oh yeah?” Rat demanded.  “Prove it.”

Tyson raised his arm weakly and pointed to another lump of dead leaves.

Glaring, keeping one eye fixed on him, Rat went to check it out.  She half-expected a bomb, but she found a dead Huouyt, instead.

“That doesn’t prove flake,” Rat snapped.  “Huouyt kill their own, all the time.  Maybe I should just cut you open and look for zora, eh?”

“They cut it out a long time ago,” Tyson managed.

Rat flinched, her world suddenly coming to a halt.  “What?”

“Long story,” Tyson managed.  “Please.  Water.”

“Did you just admit you’re a Huouyt?” Rat demanded, her anger rising.

With great effort, Tyson shook his head.  “Sold to the Va’gan Death Pool.  Dropped me in the maze to ‘train’ their new recruits.  Cannon fodder, to help them figure out the best way to murder each different species.  Except I kept killing their acolytes, so they eventually picked me up, took me back to their lab, and decided to use me as a Va’gan lab rat with about forty others.  They were trying to replicate the experiments they were doing on Earth.”

“You are flaking me,” Rat snarled.

“Not flaking you,” he said weakly.

Rat’s instincts were screaming at her to put a round through his forehead, then two to his chest, just to make sure.  She actually tightened her finger on the trigger before she relaxed it again.  In all the time she’d known him, Tyson had made her feel like she were missing something important about him.  He seemed too…good…at what he did.

“So how did you get here?” Rat demanded.

“The Huouyt dosed me with something that gave me headaches and made me grow a zora—I was one of the only ones who lived through it, and they were super pissed it ‘didn’t work’.  Then they cut out the zora and tossed me back into the maze, this time for good.  I was Va’gan meat running the maze until Jer’ait Ze’laa found me and we helped each other escape Morinth.”

Rat narrowed her eyes, sensing what could only be flake.  “You’re telling me Jer’ait Ze’laa—the Peacemaster—went back to Va’ga?  That’s a lie.  They would have killed him on sight.”

“They tried,” Tyson agreed.  “He took out the entire assassin school.  Again.  Then he sent me here to watch Sam.”

Rat squinted.  It wasn’t the first time she’d heard that Jer’ait Ze’laa had escaped the city of Va’ga only by slaughtering every teacher, student, and most of the staff—hundreds of trained killers, all out to execute him.  Jer’ait had never confirmed nor denied it, but Sol’dan had once commented, upon seeing Jer’ait passing in the distance, “There goes the second Huouyt in all of history to have left the maze of Va’ga without permission.”

“Who was the first?” Rat had asked.

Sol’dan, the asher, had only smiled at her.

“Please don’t tell Sam,” Tyson said.  “If he knew Jer’ait sent me here to watch him, it’d change things.”

It sure would.  Every time Sam spoke of Jer’ait Ze’laa, it was in the same enraged breath as his brother and twelve billion credits.  Though she still wasn’t a hundred percent convinced that it wasn’t a Huouyt trick, she said, “I’ll get you some water.  Stay here.”  She got up and moved out of hearing range, doubled back from another direction, and watched him for over an hour.

Tyson continued to lay on the ground, staring at the sky, holding his stomach and leg.

Eventually, satisfied that he wasn’t going to get up and try to follow her, Rat went to get water.

She had gotten maybe half a length away when Rat’s earlier dread suddenly became a pounding nausea, curling and twisting her guts into sweaty, heart-pounding knots.

She was pulling out her walkie-talkie when, a few rods behind her, a stick snapped.  Rat spun, saw the camouflaged flicker of a Jikaln against the trees, and started firing.

#

Slade was sifting through books in the local library the next morning when Rat’s voice came to him over the walkie-talkie.  “Hey, Slade, looks like Tyson had a run-in with some Huouyt and the Guild ditched us.  I’m coming back to you so we can decide what to do.  Still got the experiments?”

Slade cocked his head at the device.  Mickey, who had been pawing through huge picture-books with Twelve-B, glanced up at him curiously.  The experiment had gladly exchanged his ratty jeans and T-shirt for fresh clothes that they had found in the nearby department store, but Twelve-B had absolutely refused, finally holding up her hand towards them in a move that clearly told them both “The Next One Of You Who Tries To Dress Me Becomes The Amazing Stone-Headed Man.”

“Slade?” Rat asked again.

Slade put down the gynecology book he’d been reading and slowly pulled the walkie-talkie from his waist.  He frowned at it a moment, then said, “Sounds exciting.  I’ll be sure to wear that purple thong.”

“Great,” Rat said.  “Where are you?  I’m in town right now.”

Slade felt a little tremor of unease ripple down his spine.  “I was getting those drugs we needed and I got lost.  I think I’m in what’s left of a grocery store.”

“You dumbass furg.  Come out into the open where I can find you.”

“Oh, absolutely,” Slade replied.  “Let me just grab another can of peanut-butter, then I’ll be out.”  Then, releasing the button and cutting the link, he switched the walkie-talkie off, lowered it to the table, and left it there.  He had to fight the urge to run outside, find the impostor, grab him by the throat, and demand to know what he’d done with his lady love.  The urge was so strong that he actually had to fist both hands to stay in place.

Something about that woman made him stupid.

By the shelves, Twelve-B was standing and frowning at him.  “So…we’re hiding from her?”

“No,” Slade said, still fighting for control, “we’re going to kill her.”

Mickey seemed to digest that a moment, then said, “Was it another not-person?”

Slade twitched and looked up at his companion.  “Not-person?”

Mickey frowned.  “I don’t know what they are.  They look like people, but inside, they’re not.  Codgson had a couple in his army, and there were several hanging around the lab when we got here.  I didn’t like them.  Inside they’re a lot like…”  Mickey cocked his head accusingly, “…you.”

Slade’s brain immediately snapped into focus.  “You ran into them around here?”

“At the base of the hill near the lab,” Mickey replied.  “Killed three by tugging them out, three by bashing their heads on rocks.”

Slade immediately winced.  “Bashing their heads on rocks is woefully ineffective on a Huouyt.  Their brains are elsewhere.  How long ago did you kill them?”

“Uh,” Mickey said.  “A couple days before you showed up?”

Slade’s breath caught in his throat.  That would have been very good information to know before they sent Rat off to die.

Mickey must have seen his irritation, because he frowned.

Knowing there was nothing they could do about it now, Slade waved a dismissive hand.  “Never mind.  She’s a badass.  She can handle it.”  He took a deep breath and held it.  “But unless I say otherwise, the next time you see Rat, bash her head open on a rock until I can come in and finish the job, okay?”  He glanced at Twelve-B.  “Until then, we need to start teaching your friend some basic words.  I have the feeling shit’s about to get complicated.”

“Um,” Mickey said, “you mean her hurting?”

Slade frowned.  “What?”

“Twelve-B hurts,” Mickey said.  “It’s getting worse.”

Slade, who hadn’t seen any noticeable change from yesterday in the maker’s happy, childlike behavior, raised a brow at Mickey.  “You linked to her, didn’t you?”

Mickey again raised his chin defiantly.  “She doesn’t care.”

So the Human-bred hivemaster was already starting his own minion army.  Slade tapped his finger to his cheek in thought.  “So you can talk with her?  In her head?”

“No,” Mickey said, immediately clamming up nervously again.

“Oh come on,” Slade said.  “There’s a high probability that we’ll all be dead in the next two days, so what does it matter?”

“I can feel where she’s at, what she’s doing,” Mickey said reluctantly.  “And…other stuff.”

“Can she feel you back?” Slade demanded.

“Uh,” Mickey said slowly, “I don’t know.  She can’t—”

“Talk,” Slade finished for him.  He tapped his cheek a few more times.  Hivemasters were supreme generals, and during the conquest of their homeworld, they had taken huge swaths of Congressional soldiery under their command before it was discovered what was happening and they sent in assassins to all but wipe the hivemasters out.  “Do it to me.  We’re gonna find out.”

Mickey scrunched up his face like Slade had told him to bathe in crap.  “Why?”

Slade cocked his head.  “Because I asked you to?”

Mickey looked him up and down with a grimace.  “No offense, but you’re weird.”

“I’m unique,” Slade said.

“Does that mean crazy?” Mickey asked him.

Slade opened his mouth to tell him no, of course not, hahahaha, how silly, then closed it again with a frown.  “We need to test this theory before we go running off looking for Huouyt.  It could save us a lot of heartache later.”  Plus, they could have a handful of shape-changing assassin minions at their beck-and-call.  That could be fun.

The experiment peered at him for several moments in consideration.  Then, finally, “You didn’t say no.  Why would I want to link up with someone who’s crazy?”

“Consider it a science experiment,” Slade gritted.

“I am a science experiment,” Mickey retorted.

Sighing, Slade said, “Fine.  We’ll just study it later, if we survive.”  He glanced at Twelve-B.  “How bad is her pain getting?”

“Bad,” Mickey finally said reluctantly.  “It’s making it hard for me to sleep.”

Never a good sign, when somebody’s pain made it difficult for somebody else to sleep…  Picking up the backpack he’d filled with antibiotics and drugs in the pharmacy, Slade tucked a couple medical textbooks under his arm and said, “Okay, here’s what we’re gonna do.  There’s a Huouyt out there looking for us, probably with nefarious intent.  We’re going to lure him out in the open, then we’re going to kill him.  Then we’ll be taking Twelve-B back to the lab for a better diagnosis and possibly some surgery.”

Mickey gave him a dubious look.  “You ever operated on anyone before?”

Slade gave him a bright smile.  “Does a dead frog count?”

Mickey narrowed his eyes, and again, Slade watched a brief mental video of his own face exploding upon the nice, hard outer wall of the library.  Then, glaring, Mickey said, “A dead frog does not count.”

“Have no fear,” Slade said, clapping him on the shoulder.  “You’re my replacement bodyguard and I’m your personal, resident genius.  Just keep me alive long enough to get a good grasp on what’s wrong with your friend and we’ll figure something out, okay?”

“A dead frog does not count,” Mickey repeated dangerously.

Slade gave a dismissive wave and dropped his stuff in a pile.  “I’ll improvise.”  He started to undress.  “Until then, we need to know if these things are trying to kill us, or have something else in mind.”  As he unzipped his pack and pulled out a spare set of clothes, Twelve-B stood up to reach for a new book, then flinched and doubled over, holding her gut with a whimper.  Mickey immediately went to hold her, wrapping his thin body around her protectively.  As she whined and clung to him, he lifted his head and glared at Slade over her shoulder.

“Don’t worry, kiddo,” Slade said, tugging one of the huge legal books off the shelves and beginning to tear out pages.  “We’ll get her fixed.”  Then, as Mickey watched him with a suspicious frown, Slade started crumpling the pages and packing them inside his empty shirt.  Eventually, Twelve-B crawled out of his arms and went back to her books, leaving Mickey to walk over and peer down at what he was doing.

After several minutes of watching him, Mickey said, “Uh, Slade?”

“Yes, Mickey?”  He kept stuffing the shirt.  Rip.  Crumple.  Stuff.  Rip.  Crumple.  Stuff…

Mickey’s single purple eye lifted to Slade’s face like he was looking at a bug with extremely large breasts.  “What are you doing?”

“This,” Slade said, stuffing the shirt, “is what is called a ‘diversion,’ Mickey.”

“It’s your shirt.  Filled with paper.”

“Very true,” Slade said.  “I love this shirt.  I wear it all the time.”  He finished stuffing his shirt, then shook out his spare pants and stuffed that, too.  When they were packed, he reached up, grabbed the backwards-facing hat someone had stapled to the Books Are Cool poster, and went looking for the librarians’ station.  He hopped behind the librarians’ desk, which was, he realized with a grimace, covered in stale piss—probably someone who had been issued too many library late-fees—then used a sheet of paper to shield his fingers as he tugged open drawers until he found the paper clips and tape.

“I was always very good at crafts,” Slade said, coming back to ‘pin’ his stuffed pants and shirt together with bent paperclips.  Then he went to affixing the hat to a ‘head’ he made out of paper, to which he affixed a full-page photo of himself from a Criminal Psychology textbook.

By the end, he had a stuffed Slade-sized ‘man’ wearing a hat and Slade’s face.  This, he carted out in front of the library and lowered into a reclining position onto one of the two benches.  He tilted the hat down so that it was mostly covering his ‘face’, then folded his ‘arms’ over his ‘abdomen’ and lowered a book over them to hide the fact the dummy had no hands.  For feet, he shoved the legs into his own boots.

“That should do it,” Slade said, gesturing to his companions.  Halfway through his preparations, Mickey had stopped peering at him like he’d lost his marbles and a shrewd look had come over his face.  Twelve-B, on the other hand, had tried repeatedly to peel the picture he’d pasted to the front of the dummy off and excitedly show Slade that it looked just like him.

“Yes, I know it looks like me, dear,” Slade said, gently putting the picture back when she did it again.  “The journalist just about blinded me when he took it.  Come on.  Let’s go meet our creepy friend.”  Then, at a trot, Slade led them across the street and down a block, where they could watch the library from an abandoned hobby-shop.  There, Slade pulled the walkie-talkie from his belt and switched it on.  Bringing his index finger to his lips in a Shhh motion, Slade depressed the button and said, “Hey baby, now I know I’m lost.  I just found the library.  Again.  I think I’m just gonna chill here on the bench out front with some books and wait for you, okay?  I’m really tired from babysitting these two furgs all day.  But I found a really cool hat stapled to one of the posters inside!”

“Where are the experiments?” Rat demanded.

“Upstairs playing,” Slade said.  “There were some coloring books in the kid-room.  They’re having a blast.”

“I’ll be there in nine tics,” Rat’s voice said immediately.

“Gotcha,” Slade said.  Then he switched the walkie-talkie back off and sat back to wait, the binoculars trained on the bench.

He didn’t have to wait the full nine tics.  His head—and his cool new hat—exploded in five.  Twelve-B, who had been watching, sucked in a startled breath to scream, but Mickey quickly grabbed her and slapped a gloved hand over her mouth.  “Shhh,” he said, mimicking Slade’s gesture with a leather-clad finger.  Twelve-B gave Mickey a startled look, then grinned guiltily and nodded.

Out on the bench, Paper Slade was raining down in burning bits of legalese for a twenty-foot radius.

Well, Slade thought, getting a sinking feeling in his gut, that certainly doesn’t bode well for the home team.

“Looks like she wanted you dead,” Mickey said softly.

“Yes,” Slade said, “but on the bright side, now we know he wants us dead.”

You dead,” Mickey said.

“Good point,” Slade said.  “It is, however, far too late to make two more dummies to test the theory.”

“What theory?” Mickey asked, frowning.  “They don’t want us dead.  They tried to take Twelve-B and me on a ship.”

Slade froze, then looked at Mickey.  “You know,” he said slowly, “that would have been very useful information before I got into a guerilla war with a Huouyt assassin.”

“I thought I killed them all,” Mickey said.  “It was after we escaped Codgson.  They used drugs, but I woke up before they were ready.”

Those wonderful Efrit genes at work, Slade thought.  “Okay, so I’ve gotta adjust my game-plan just a little bit.  That’s annoying.”

Mickey gave him a nervous look.  “Adjust it how?”

“I was operating under the assumption we were dealing with Huouyt that were sent by Congress to annihilate any leftover experiments, just like Ra—”  He froze and trailed off at the end.  Glancing at Mickey, whose gaze had sharpened, Slade said, “Huouyt have a long history of trying to take on Congress.  Like, one of the very first things they did, when the first Ooreiki explorers found them, was infiltrate the envoy ship, go back as the ambassador and his team, and try to get a foothold on Poen.  Would have made it, too, if it weren’t for a visiting Jahul.  They can usually tell, though not as well as my goodie-goodie brother, supposedly.”  Slade gave the dead dummy another look.  “If the Huouyt realized there was a lab that didn’t get caught—assuming they didn’t sponsor the lab in the first place—they would have sent a group to bring back any surviving experiments.  Hell, most of their work was done for them.  All they have to do is get you guys to breed like rabbits, cull the rejects, and within a few decades they’ll have their own unstoppable mind-slave army.  Normally, all they’d need was your DNA, but there’s something about you experiments that don’t take well to cloning.  Kind of like the oil palm.”

“Rat wants to kill us?” Mickey said.

Slade waved Mickey’s inevitable questions off without listening, not wanting to waste precious time or brain power explaining the subtleties of DNA methylation to a knuckle-dragging furg who wouldn’t remember it when there was a Huouyt trying to kill them.  “Look it up later, if you want.  Essentially, researchers couldn’t figure out why cloning the oil palm resulted in unusable, twisted, oil-less palm seeds.”

Mickey was still scowling at him.  “Rat was sent to kill us?”

Slade groaned and rolled his eyes in exasperation.  “Seriously, look it up later.  I don’t have time now.  Now shhh.  Time to locate our creepy friend.”  He pulled out his walkie-talkie and held a finger to his lips.

Mickey gave him a suspicious look, but said no more.

Slade depressed the TALK button and said, “Aw, now honey, that hurts!”

In the very next building, at the same time, Slade heard a loud, electronic, “Aw, now honey, that hurts!”  Eyes widening, Slade quickly turned off the instrument completely so that it went dead in his hands.

Did you hear that? he mouthed at Mickey, jabbing his finger at the wall.  Mickey, who was similarly wide-eyed, nodded.  Slade lifted his head to look out the window, but the Huouyt hadn’t left the building.  Unless it was using the walkie-talkie as a decoy, like Slade would.

Fuck, Slade thought.  Huouyt were smart.  Smarter than Humans.  Which meant probably getting close to as smart as him.  Dammit.  “We’ve gotta move,” he whispered.  But which way?  He really didn’t want to leave this to a game of Eenie-Meenie.  Something smart would be slipping out the backs of the stores to change vantage points, knowing he’d been had.  Something knowing that Slade was really smart would be watching the backs of the stores from a nice sniping position.

But did they know Slade was really smart?

He winced, thinking of the dummy.  Well, if they hadn’t known he was really smart, they did now.

“Out the front,” he whispered, pointing.  He started tiptoeing towards the front door of the store, keeping his head low, the Exploding Paper Slade still vivid in his mind.

Reaching the exit, he hesitated and cracked the door open to get a look at the street.  It looked abandoned, but there were an awful lot of dark, empty windows up and down the street.  What if the Huouyt was indeed just using the walkie-talkie as a distraction and was actually even then settling in to an upper-story position on the other side of the road, waiting for him?  What if he was smarter than Slade and was using reverse-reverse-psychology, expecting him to do the smart thing and doing the stupid thing instead, waiting for him to step out into broad daylight so he could blow him away?

For the first time in a very long time, Slade began to get a little freaked out.  He glanced at the two experiments, who were watching him with wide eyes, waiting for their fearless leader to lead them to safety, then lifted his gaze into the store behind them, considering the back door, instead.

Front door or back door?  Where would the Huouyt be watching?  He had the not-so-fun, gut-nagging dread that if he chose the wrong one, he was going to act as a real-life demonstration for the kiddies on the mind-blowing wonders of modern alien weaponry.  Slade swallowed and stared at the front door.  He would be out front, watching the street.  But he was smarter than a Huouyt.  Wasn’t he?

Of course he was.  He could do all sorts of things a Huouyt couldn’t do.  Like empathize.  Or hack Peacemaker files on Levren.  Or invent mind-blowing new weaponry.

Standing there, staring at the doorknob, Slade got the very strong impression that the next few seconds of his life had the potential to really suck.

And I thought this was a good idea…why?

Because, quite simply, he had the equivalent of two mental ekhtas at his beck and call, and it had made him complacent.  Dammit.

Front or back?  One choice would result in an Amazing Exploding Slade, and the other would result in a really fun hide-and-seek game with a Huouyt assassin with energy weaponry.

God hates a coward, Slade thought.  Taking a deep breath, he put his hand on the front doorknob, steeled himself, eased the door open, then walked out.

When a shot didn’t explode his chest into a boiling froth of pretty red gore, Slade motioned for the others to follow.  Together, keeping their heads low, they darted across the road and behind the old tire shop on the other side of the street.  From there, they crossed the tire-yard and entered a stand of water-starved brush, then hurried up the gulley to the brush-covered ridge on the other side.  Then, face down against the ridge, they watched their backtrail, waiting to see if they were followed.

After ten minutes of no movement, Slade gestured for the others to follow him deeper into the town, then out into the wooded hillside on the far side.  Once he was sure he was well out of earshot, Slade lowered the speaker volume and switched on his walkie-talkie again.

“—want to see her again, you’ll give up the experiments.  That’s all we want.  Just a few vaghi that nobody cares about anyway.  A good trade for a Human war hero, no?  Or maybe I should start sending you body parts, let you know I’m serious…”

Slade stiffened.  He had wondered when the threats would start.  Depressing the receiver button, he said, “No need for that.  I wouldn’t believe they were hers even if you did.  How do I know she’s still alive?  Get her to tell me something that only she knows.”

The Huouyt on the other end hesitated.  “I don’t trust you two to not give out code words.  My friends are already headed west, seeking out the others.  If they find them, I’ll have no need of your two rejects and I’ll just kill her.”

Which meant Rat was dead.  A Huouyt had to have genetic material to take a pattern.  Which meant they needed her corpse.  Or her blood.

She can’t be dead, Slade thought stubbornly.  I just met her.  Granted, the creepy-psychic-lady-with-corny-fake-pirate-eyepatch hadn’t given him an amount of time that Slade would spend with his lady love, just that he would meet her.

Deciding to go with the benefit of the doubt, Slade raised the walkie-talkie back to his face and said, “Okay, I’ll do it.”  Silently looking at Mickey, who was frowning, Slade mouthed, No we won’t and shook his head, making a cutting motion with his free hand.  Then he went on, “But I want proof she’s alive.  Get me proof, then we can talk a trade.”

“Agreed,” the Huouyt said.  “I’ll go back to camp and get her.”  Which meant, of course, that he would start hunting Slade immediately.

“I’ll keep my radio on,” Slade said.  “Ghost out.”  He switched his radio off and sighed.  Why did this kind of shit happen to him?

“So,” Mickey said reluctantly, “you aren’t giving us up?”

“Don’t be silly,” Slade said.  “You’re much too valuable to—”  Then he frowned.  If the Huouyt didn’t want to kill Mickey, that made him excellent bait.  He turned to look the wiry man up and down.  Cocking his head at his companion, he said, “Mickey…what do you know about snares?”


Guerilla Warfare

“Make sure you get it tight,” Sam said over the walkie-talkie they had found behind the desk in the hardware store.  “We can’t have the knot slip when it tugs him off his feet.”

“Okay, got it,” Mickey said into his end.  Then he set it down and went back to work.  He was squatting at a noose in front of the propped-open lid of an overturned dumpster, carefully attaching it to a line running to a light-pole out of sight in the alley behind him, when the Huouyt-in-Rat’s-body stepped out of the nearby grocery store, pointed a little penlike device at him, and shot him with it.

There was a thump against his chest, then Mickey’s legs went out from under him and he fell forward, his face lying against the half-tied knot.  He let out a startled cry of warning to Twelve-B, but not before she, too, fell, the line she was wrapping around the trigger-stick still in her hands.

The Huouyt snorted and stepped closer.  “This was it?” he demanded, nudging the unfinished noose with his foot.  “By the halls of Va’ga, I thought this abomination Ghost would be more of a challenge.”  Before Mickey could roll away, the Huouyt-in-Rat’s-body smoothly stepped forward and kicked him in the face.  “That was for last time, pest.”

On the walkie-talkie, Sam said, “You holding in there, Mickey?  Any problems?”

The Huouyt snorted and squatted in front of Mickey.  Taking Mickey by the chin, he yanked his head up to peer into his face.  “Where’s your friend?” the Huouyt demanded.  “What’s he planning?  Where does he sleep?”

Mickey whimpered and tried to turn his head away, but the Huouyt easily held him in place.  Looking into the killer’s cold gray-green eyes, recognizing him as one of the three that Mickey thought he’d killed, Mickey whined in terror.  Sam was right.  They weren’t killed with just a few blows to the head.  And now they had him.  What if they took him back to that ship?  What if they just decided to kill them both and get it over with?  What if Sam was wrong and all they really wanted was his genetic material?

Mickey’s whine built into the beginnings of a scream.

The Huouyt simply smiled at him.  “We made a slight adjustment to the tranquilizer drug.  Instead of a few hours of unconsciousness, this time, the goal was incapacitated-but-aware.  Easier to interrogate difficult subjects when they don’t have the ability to smash your skull into the side of a spaceship, wouldn’t you say?”  Even though they were set in Rat’s face and carried Rat’s gray-green color, the assassin’s cold eyes were alien and inhuman.

Mickey whimpered and squeezed his hands into fists to try and control his terror.  He could feel blood from where the Huouyt had kicked him running down his face and dribbling from his chin.

After scanning his face for a moment, his assailant said, “How do you disarm the security system on the lab?  And where is the abomination that they call Ghost?  The moron carries genetics that do not belong to him.”  When Mickey didn’t answer, the Huouyt gave him a patronizing smile, caressed his cheek, then glanced over at Twelve-B.  “Very well.  I’m sure I could find more interesting topics of conversation.  Do you think she needs all of her fingers?  Humans have ten, after all.”

When Mickey could only stare back at the monster in horror, the Huouyt’s Human face twisted in a sneer.  “Or maybe I’ll just kill you both and take your genetics.  Save myself all this effort.”  His words were utterly serious, completely without remorse.  He pulled a wicked combat blade from his belt and smiled as he said, “How does that sound?”  He placed the flat of the knife against Mickey’s neck, in the same place Twelve-B now carried a gruesome scar, and gave him a cruel, utterly merciless stare.  Feeling the cold steel against his throat, Mickey started to shake.

“Hey, dumbass,” Sam said, shattering the silence.

In a startling instant, the Huouyt dropped Mickey and lunged up, twisting the knife in his hand to throw it.  At the same time, a heavy concrete meridian divider suspended on cables slammed into the Huouyt from behind, knocking the Huouyt over Mickey’s head and into the dumpster, the force of which knocked the dumpster—which was braced from behind—back upright.  The lid immediately slammed down and the two concrete concussion-guns affixed to the other side slammed barbed rebar sideways through the lid, pinning the lid shut to the frame of the dumpster.  A moment later, the six huge jugs of kerosene, now tilted over from sudden shift in position, began pouring their contents through the carefully-made holes that Sam had bored into them the night before.  Then the flares, which had abraded and lit from the closing of the lid, burned away the string holding them in place and fell into the mix.

A moment later, black smoke began churning up through the cracks in the lid and the Huouyt inside began screaming and slamming at the lid.

“Swinging log traps,” Sam said, sticking another piece of gum into his mouth and mashing it between his jaws.  “Gotta love ‘em.”  Mickey had found a pack of Big Red in the back of the sporting goods store, under the rope racks, and Sam had confiscated it and had been chewing it ever since.  “You guys should probably get up,” the big man noted calmly.  “Some of the kerosene’s leaking out.”

Both Mickey and Twelve-B, whom their friend had drilled for hours on what to do, sat up and crab-crawled away from the burning dumpster, which had become a pillar of smoke and fire.

“I take it the scale blocked the dart okay?” Sam asked, still watching the dumpster with arms crossed over his big chest, leaning against the wall of the alley.

Mickey nodded, his eyes wide.  He had known what Sam planned, but actually seeing it in action left him speechless.  For her part, Twelve-B was tugging the dart from her clothes and looking as if she were about to put it in her mouth.

Sam noticed it too, and quickly went to intercept.  “Hold on there, sister,” the big man said, yanking the dart out of her fingers before she could fit it between her lips.  “Not food.  Definitely not food.”

Twelve-B blinked up at him, then defiantly tugged off her shirt, allowing the kreenit scale to clatter to the ground, crossed her arms over her chest, and glared.

“Oh fine,” Sam said, rolling his creepy eyes.  “You earned it.”  He held out a stick of gum for her, which she took with a girly squeal—that ended in a gasp of pain.  She dropped the gum to the pavement as she put her hand against her abdomen and whimpered.

“Right,” Sam said, giving Mickey a nervous look before hiding it again.  In the dumpster, the Huouyt had stopped screaming.  Clearing his throat, Sam said, “Well, I think Toasty is pretty much down for the count.  What say you we get her to the lab?”

Mickey, who was still stunned at what his friend had done, just nodded.  He reached up to touch the place where the Huouyt had kicked him in the face, and his gloved fingers came back with blood.

Sam saw the gesture, then eyed the trashcan with a frown.  “On second thought.  Let’s just wait here a few more minutes to make sure Mr. Krispy actually faces the prettypretty white light this time.  I hear he’s got trouble with that.  Smart fucker like him might be waiting for us to leave.  Right, Krispy?”

Inside the dumpster, the Huouyt started screaming again.  This time, when it started hitting the lid, the rebar bowed.

#

Upon realizing she was dealing with a contingent of Huouyt, most, if not all, of whom were Va’ga-trained, Rat recognized that her priorities had shifted.

She liked Sam.  A lot.

She also realized that, to allow sociopathic ashsouls like the Huouyt to take creatures like Efrit-Boy and Stone-Girl and breed them on some unknown planet and train them in the mind-fucking goodness that was Huouyt society, Congress was going to come to a screeching halt a hell of a lot faster than Mekkval feared.

As in, within a couple decades, rather than a Sacred Turn.  The Huouyt would pour all of their illicit family resources into collecting and reproducing and brainwashing their experimental Human army, and within the course of a few turns, Congress would crumble.

It was as Mekkval said.  She needed to kill the experiments before the Huouyt got to them.  If they managed to capture even one, everything could change.  Everything.

The first thing she needed to do, though, was destroy the Huouyt ship.  Level the playing field, take away their escape route, force them to fight on her terms.

…now she just needed to stay alive long enough to find it.

She had killed two of them, run out of charge, and, had she not brought the gun she’d left with Sam, she would’ve been defenseless when the third one came barreling out of the brush at her patterned as a massive, heavy-limbed Hebbut.

Rat knew there was at least one left, probably a lot more.  The walkie-talkie she had dropped on the ground in her scuffle with the Huouyt was gone, and it wasn’t on any of the bodies.  Which meant they were going to use it to try and get Sam.  Which meant Sam was either going to go jungle-boy and kill a few Huouyt, or Sam was dead.

And, if Sam was dead, Rat needed to make sure that ship never took off.  As it was, there was the chance they had discovered the lab itself, which was probably rife with genetic material.  If that was the case, the group that had taken off after the mysterious ‘Twelve-A’ and the other experiments, using the Survivors’ Guild as food—Rat had discovered three other bodies on the path out of the valley, their nutrient-rich organs removed—wouldn’t even need the other experiments. She suspected all they really wanted was the telepath.

Telepaths were extremely rare, and could produce all three of the genetic expressions in his offspring.  They were so rare, in fact, that they only showed up around three percent of the time if two makers had kids.  Less than a quarter of a percent if it was two movers.  And Sam had said some eye-opening things about Twelve-A.  Not only was the twelve-series several magnitudes stronger than the Human geneticists had ever thought possible, Twelve-A was one of the only telepaths that the scientists of that particular lab had been able to create.  The other one was a Ten-F, who had, even as a baby, been ‘touched.’  She had taken to clawing at her own eyes as a toddler, and would have managed to remove them had the scientists not restrained her in leather mittens.  According to what Sam had told her, all the telepaths produced up to the eleven-series had experienced serious mental issues.  In this particular lab, the eleven series hadn’t even produced a telepath, despite their best attempts.  That Twelve-A was apparently completely stable had baffled even the scientists from other labs—and given them all little egghead scientist wet-dreams.  He’d been so stable, in fact, that at first they had thought he wasn’t a telepath at all, but something else entirely.

Thus, if the Huouyt had penetrated the lab, which Rat was pretty sure they had, they would’ve known that the ‘minder’ they wanted was Twelve-A, not Ten-F.  Which meant Twelve-A needed to die.

But not before she destroyed the ship that would take these bastards to the stars.  Wherever it was, it was going to be underwater.  Huouyt were ancestrally aquatic, and it would be the best way for them to avoid patrol bots.  Which was annoying.  Really annoying.  Rat hated—hated—to swim.  It reminded her too much of Eeloir.

The Huouyt, though, were not stupid.  Which meant they would try to stay as inconspicuous as possible, considering they were breaking about ten Congressional laws just by being here.  They would be out of sight.

Okay, you ashers, Rat thought, climbing the last few feet up what she guessed was a former recreational hiking-path to the highest peak in the vicinity.  Where are you hiding?

The answer, of course, became pretty burning evident when her eyes caught the contours of the creek running up the valley, through the demolished population center, to the reservoir above the town, which was even then sparkling in the sun.

Merciful Ayhi, I hate to swim, Rat thought, grimacing at the clear blue waters of the lake.  At least she had one thing working for her.  Huouyt were lazy.  Not only that, but they all considered themselves innately superior to every other species in Congress, and acted accordingly.  They wouldn’t choose the deepest, darkest part of the lake because they would have to swim further to get to land, and because, with their big brains and malleable bodies, they had an invincibility complex.

Which meant they would choose a spot as close to the surface as possible, and probably no more than twenty feet offshore and thirty feet deep.  Which made Rat’s job a hell of a lot easier.

Easier…  But it was still going to suck.


The Problem with Scalpels

Slade squinted at the nameless coffee shop positioned on an obscure corner of a forgotten road, behind a rusty barbed-wire fence that had been long ago ripped apart by some monstrous force.  The CLOSED FOR BUSINESS sign someone had hung across the ‘window’ was peeling in the sun.  Behind the window, however, Slade saw no tables, no counters, no espresso machines.  Just ominous blackness.  Like the tinted black windshield of a government SUV.

“And that’s where you came out of?” Slade asked.  He didn’t really need to ask—it was obvious—but Mickey hadn’t said anything in almost an hour and he wanted to set the little guy at ease.

When he turned, Mickey was pale and shaking behind the fancy black leather eye-patch he had taken from the hobby-shop that Twelve-B had insisted on entering on their way out of town.  Slade, for his part, was probably similarly pale and shaking, since he’d been carrying the unconscious—and pink boa-wearing—Twelve-B for the better part of three hours, but the hunted look in Mickey’s amethyst eye was enough to make him feel a pang of empathy for the poor kid.  He hesitated and looked again at the wide-open exit, trying to imagine what it would have been like to grow up a science experiment.

In a way, Slade had been his parents’ science experiment.  Ever since the day he had arranged his building-blocks to spell out ‘Mickey Mouse Rocks’ at the age of sixteen months, he’d been constantly under the limelight, his every action watched and analyzed, his next feat eagerly anticipated.  The camera had always been trained on him at holidays and family get-togethers, and a constant train of strange, pinched-faced, clipboard-bearing visitors wanting to poke and prod and analyze him had forced Slade to learn to put on a smile, to charm and manipulate people he didn’t necessarily like.

He knew, though, that it could never be the same.  Seeing Mickey’s face, Slade knew there was fear, there.  Lots of buried fear.

Slade had never really feared anything.  He knew that was one of his shortcomings, one of the things the criminal psychologists pointed to over and over again to illustrate this point or that, mostly that he was a poster-child for Antisocial Personality Disorder, which Slade objected to strenuously.  It wasn’t that he didn’t have fear.  It was that it turned him on.  Because, by its very nature, fear came from something that was not understood, and Slade had so little that he didn’t understand.  The idea that there was something he didn’t know delighted him, and he was so fucking bored most of the time that he delighted in the chance to terrify himself.

He’d tried to explain that to the multiple psychologists that had interviewed him throughout his life, but the small-brained imbeciles had simply added ‘denial’ to his impressive list of diagnoses and left him in his cell to rot.

Besides.  Slade had empathy.  That was one of the biggest marks of an antisocial prick—no empathy.  He had plenty of empathy—just not for rich men, hardened criminals, box-bound scientists, or arrogant, undereducated psychologists.  And that’s all the clipboard-toting government morons had really cared about.

“Hey bud,” Slade said, taking Mickey’s quivering shoulder and giving it a squeeze, “I’m here, okay?”

Mickey didn’t tear his eyes off the front door of the ‘coffee shop.’  “Do we have to go in there?”  His words came out as a whimper.  “Can you do it out here in the sun?”

Slade squinted at the car-packed parking-lot outside the exit.  He supposed he could do it in the sun, but then they always ran the chance that that pesky male kreenit would show itself, say, mid-Caesarian, drawn to the smell of T-cells and oxidizing iron.  Besides, he needed to get some of that imaging equipment up and running to figure out just what the hell was going on with the poor girl, and, gee, it would be somewhat difficult to set up an MRI in the parking-lot.

“We’ve gotta go in,” Slade said.  “It’s the only way I’m gonna figure out what’s wrong with her.”

Mickey grimaced.  “There’s dead people in there.”

Slade sighed, frustrated that they were back to the same conversation for the hundredth time that day.  “Look, I told you:  Once they’re dead, they can’t hurt you.  And, hell, sometimes they’re better off dead, you know what I mean?”

“Ten-F is sitting by the front door,” Mickey said.  “She’s not happy.  Twelve-A killed her.  She wants to stab out his eyes.”  He tore his eyes from the front door and frowned at Slade.  “Yours, too.”

Slade cocked his head at Mickey, felt a brief creep-out factor that left his neck itching, then wrote it off as one of the many quirks of a man who had spent his life in a sanitized cage…and therefore probably couldn’t understand death.  “Ten-F is probably dead at least a month,” Slade said.  “She’s not going to stab out anyone’s eyes.”

“She’s going to try,” Mickey said, his eyes once more falling on the front door, low and a little to the left, in the shadow of an awning.  Slade followed his friend’s gaze.  Did he see something in the shadows?

A little tingle of goosebumps ran down Slade’s spine before he managed to get himself under control.  Shaking himself, he turned and jabbed a finger into Mickey’s thin chest.  “You’re creepy, you know that?  Ten-F is dead.  You told me she’s dead.”  He poked him again.  “You said Twelve-A killed her.”

Mickey frowned up at him.  “He did.”  As if it was the most obvious thing in the world.

Slade frowned at Mickey, then at the front door.  Peering at the cool green paint that was even then baking in the sun, he said, “No one is sitting by the door with scissors.”

“No,” Mickey said, frowning.  “She’s got scalpels.”

Slade’s eyebrows went up and, when Mickey did not retract his statement, he was again faced with that weird, instinctive thrill of terror.  And, unnervingly, this fear did not turn him on.  “I…see.”  He swallowed.  “Uh.”  He glanced back at the entrance, saw what he thought was movement, and felt goosebumps race over his skin like a million pricks of hypodermic needles.

“She’s afraid to leave the building, though,” Mickey said helpfully.  “I don’t think she likes the sun.”

Slade categorized that under Good Things To Know and began to re-assess his need to do the surgery sixty feet underground, in the dark.

There’s nothing there, Slade thought.  He scoured the darkness with his eyes.  The flash of movement had to have been his imagination…right?

Damn, Slade realized, Mickey’s not the only one who doesn’t want to go into the lab…  But then again, maybe that was the little twerp’s intent.  Get his big friend all creeped out so the dumb lummox would do the surgery in the parking lot, not underground in his old stomping grounds.  Slade perceived that Mickey was smart and devious enough for that, but he really didn’t get the feel that the kid was bullshitting him.  And Slade had a very well-tuned bullshit detector.

Realizing he didn’t really have a choice if he wanted to help Twelve-B, Slade grunted and started down the hill.

“Wait, wait!” Mickey cried, running to catch him by an elbow.  “You’re just going to walk past her?!”

Slade grimaced, then studied the front door for several long minutes.  Was it just him or was that the creepy prickling feeling of being watched?  Yeah, he was pretty sure that feeling wasn’t natural.

…or maybe it was just his nerves, making something up to satisfy his unsettled brain.  Because Mickey was bullshitting him.

“Okay, look,” Slade said, as Twelve-B continued to doze—and drool—against his back, “if you’re saying this stuff just to creep me out and allow us to stay outside in the sunshine, it’s really not a good idea to freak out your friend’s surgeon-to-be, okay?  You ever heard what happens to people when their doctors’ hands shake?”

Mickey gave him an irritated look.  “Dude.  You’re not the only one who’s freaked out, big guy.  You think I want that bitch coming at me with knives?”

That loveable L.A. street-rat coming through again.  Slade had a moment of scientific interest, wondering if Mickey’s personality changed each time he ‘tugged out’ a victim, then decided he had more pressing things to think about.  Like a psychicly-gifted smear of mental residue standing at the entrance with a couple of scalpels.

Then he decided that there would be no better time than the present to further his scientific knowledge of a field heretofore unexplored by science.  “All right, Mickey,” he said, eying the front door.  “Is she looking at us?  Or just wandering around aimlessly?  Does she see us?”

“Oh yeah,” Mickey snorted.  “She sees you.  She’s dragging her scalpels over her throat and looking at you.”

“A ghost?!” Slade cried, flicking his hand at the door in disgust.  “Seriously?  I’m looking at a fucking ghost?”  The irony was not lost on him.

Mickey frowned up at him.  “Sam—”

“Don’t call me that,” Slade said.  “Idiots call me that.”  He made a frustrated sound and walked in a circle, Twelve-B still slumped unconscious over his back, needing the peanut gallery to be silent so he could think.

But how did one think about things as irrational as ghosts?  He walked three revolutions before he came back to face Mickey, jabbed a finger into Mickey’s chest, and growled, “We need to get in there.  Tell me how we’re getting in there.”

Mickey peered up at him.  “You’re the genius.”

Oooh.  That…bastard.  “Genius,” Slade gritted, “relates to outwitting bad guys, highly successful thievery, and making exquisite soufflés.  Ghosts and soul-eating vortexes do not apply.”

“I thought you said she couldn’t hurt us,” Mickey accused.

“Well, fuck!” Slade cried.  “How the hell would I know?!  Everybody’s heard about levitating beds and floating kitchen knives.  Seems to me like your dead friends would be a lot more likely to pull that kind of shit while dead.”

Mickey glanced back at the front door for a long moment, brow knitted in what Slade thought to be concentration.  Then, “There’s others inside.”

Slade was not pleased.  He rammed a finger back into Mickey’s thin chest.  “This isn’t funny.  Tell me how we’re going to get past a group of dead people who could potentially control our minds and make our heads spin 360 degrees.”

“Uh.”  Mickey cocked his head at the entrance.  “You think they could do that?”

Can they?” Slade demanded.

“I don’t know…” Mickey said reluctantly.  “They weren’t here earlier.  I think they’re terrified of Codgson.”

“And what’s Codgson look like?” Slade demanded immediately, grasping at his very first usable lead.

“Ten-F is a telepath,” Mickey said.  “They’re not like Huouyt—you can’t just slap a piece of paper over your face and make them think you’re somebody else.”

“Goddamn it,” Slade muttered.  Not only had he been forced to accept that there could be such a thing as ghosts—real ghosts—he was now about fifty percent sure that levitating scalpels were in his near future.  He thought about that a moment, then said, “All right.  Could you go tug her…uh…out?”

“Tug her out of what?” Mickey asked, frowning up at him.

Existence!” Slade snapped.  The idea of floating scalpels was really disturbing.  He’d watched way too many horror shows during those long years of boredom.  Hell, this was the first time he’d been honestly unnerved in, oh, forever.

Mickey made a face.  “I’d have to tug her into me, and she’s crazy.  Even crazier than you.”

“Would she be able to stab us in the back with scalpels if she was in you?” Slade retorted.

“No,” Mickey replied.  “But I wouldn’t like her.”

“Okay,” Slade growled, “can you use your eerie voodoo powers to just make her vanish, maybe?”

“I can pull her into me or let her go,” Mickey said.  “I don’t want her in me, and she’s not in me, so I can’t let her go.”

A muscle in Slade’s neck twitched.  “How about you pull her into you and then let her go, once we’re finished doing what we need to do?”

Mickey gave him a look that made it clear he thought Slade had consumed bat shit for breakfast that morning.  “Then she’d be right back to where she is now.”

Slade peered at the young man for several minutes, then narrowed his eyes, feeling ridiculous that he was having an argument with a science experiment about, essentially, what was the best way to kill a ghost.  Thus, he had to mutter through his teeth when he said, “What’s the best way to kill her?”

Mickey stared at him like he was deeply, irreversibly stupid.  “She’s already dead.”

Slade thought about that a moment, then gingerly put Twelve-B down against the tire of an empty SUV.  Then he straightened and took a deep breath, looking at the darkened interior of the open door.

“What are you doing?” Mickey asked, frowning up at him, then at the door.

“God hates a coward,” Slade said, steeling himself.  He started towards the entrance.

About halfway there, a bout of weird, hysterical female laughter hit his mind like a gong on all sides.  Slade grunted and stumbled, holding his head to his hands.  Okay, so maybe Mickey’s Creepy Ghost Theory was having more merit…

He forced himself to stumble forward, not about to be scared off by his imagination and an incorporeal being.  He was a scientist.

He got maybe twelve feet from the door before Mickey grabbed him and yanked his head down just in time for something to lodge in the windshield of the van beside them.  Seeing the entire pane of glass explode from some unknown force, Slade screamed and crab-crawled backwards.  Keeping pace with his face, the metal side of the van near his head began to rend open under some invisible talon, curls of steel peeling back under the pressure.  All the while, a woman cackled in his head, kind of like she was screaming and laughing at the same time.

“Come on!” Mickey cried, from behind him.  “She doesn’t like the sun!”

Realizing the only thing separating him from a raging poltergeist with a surgeon fetish was a thin band of shadow from an overhead awning, Slade scrambled backwards until his ass was sitting on Mickey’s feet.  “Fuck me fuck me is she gone?” he babbled, his heart pounding in ragged arcs of adrenaline.

“No, she’s watching us,” Mickey said softly, staring at something near the door.

From his new vantage on the ground, Slade was able to see the bodies of what looked like two Humans near the entrance, previously hidden by the bulk of a Mercedes-Benz.  Unlike most post-Judgement Humans, though, these were wearing clean combat gear and carrying very expensive-looking alien guns.

At least, the combat gear had been clean, before something sharp had ripped them apart and spread Human body parts everywhere.  Slade stared at the exposed zora of two dead Huouyt, then swallowed.

“Well, looks like my creepy friends found your creepy friends,” Slade managed.

“They are not my friends,” Mickey said.

Slade glanced back at the entrance to the lab.  Though he saw nothing, his eyes flickered back to the scalpel-marks lining the side of the otherwise brand-new van.  “So, uh, what now?”

Mickey yanked his feet out from under his ass and peered up at him.  “You’re the—”

“Genius, yes,” Slade muttered.  “I get that.  But you can see her, where I apparently can’t, and you have the Portal-o-Death attached to your palm.”

“I’m not pulling her in,” Mickey said stubbornly.  “She’s crazy.”

“What about linking to her?” Slade demanded.  “Could you do that?”

“Ew!” Mickey cried.  “She’s dead!  And crazy!”

Slade dragged a hand down his face, then peered at Mickey, then at the entrance to the lab, then at the drooling experiment.  They’d fed her enough drugs to keep her knocked out cold for another six, maybe eight hours, but he had no idea how bad her condition was until he could get her to a lab.  She could, after all, be bleeding internally, and he would have no idea until blood started putting pressure on her diaphragm and she simply stopped breathing.

“You know,” Slade growled, shoving a hand at the entrance to the lab, “this is like those damn video games I would play as a kid.  Except a hell of a lot less cool.”

“I always wanted to play a video game,” Mickey replied.  “The guy from L.A. played a lot of them.  He thought they were better than real life.”

“I believed the same thing before I met you,” Slade said, again looking at the scalpel-marks in the car, then at the pieces of Huouyt scattered on the ground on the other side of the dusty Mercedes, “but Life just got a lot more interesting.”  He swallowed and turned back to Mickey.  “You realize if we go in there we’re dead, right?”

Mickey emphatically nodded.

“But we have to go in there, if we’re gonna help Twelve-B,” Slade growled.  “All the medical clinics are demolished and this shithole town doesn’t have a hospital.”

Mickey winced and glanced back at the entrance.

Slade frowned at the shadows that were being cast around them from the midday sun, then at the entrance to the lab.  “Why doesn’t she like the sun?  Ghosts prefer darkness or something?”

“Twelve-A showed us the sun before we escaped, to counter Ten-F’s crazy,” Mickey said.  “And when Ten-F went nuts, Twelve-A axed her.”

Slade frowned.  “So she associates the sun with the mental badass who killed her?”

Mickey grimaced.  “I dunno.  I wouldn’t really call him a badass.  More of a pansy, actually.”

“But he killed her.”

“Well, yeah.”

Slade felt his monumental mental cogs starting to turn.  Cocking his head, he stood up, went to the nearest car—a nice BMW—and started kicking the drivers’ side mirror until it popped off in a snap of complaining metal and plastic.  Slade picked it up, then tilted it to catch the sunlight, which he then bounced off the entrance to the lab.

“She’s backing up!” Mickey cried.  “She’s going inside!”

Slade lowered the mirror, frowning.  He busted out the window of a huge pickup truck, reached inside, and popped the hood.  Shoving the hood out of the way, he eyed the guts of the engine inside.  Mickey came over to stand beside him, climbing up onto the front grill to get a better look.

“What are we doing?” Mickey asked quietly.

“We, my dear replacement lackey,” Slade said, eying the car battery bolted to the frame, “are going to build ourselves a flashlight.  Hold this up for me.”  He gestured to the hood of the truck.

Mickey frowned at the hood, then at him.  “What, with my hand?”

“Yes, with your hand,” Slade said, exasperated.  “What else would you hold it up with?  Your head?”

Giving him a funny look, Mickey dragged a metal rod from its resting-spot in the front of the frame, swiveled it up, and stuck the crooked end of the rod into a hole on the underside of the hood.  Slade stared at it, then at the groove it had come out of.

“You didn’t do a lot of mechanics, did you?” Mickey asked, giving him that Time To Patronize The Crazy Person look again.

“Remember the dumpster,” Slade muttered.

“But seriously?” Mickey demanded.  “The hood lift?”

“Dad did all the mechanics and he liked my brother better,” Slade muttered.  “And I was making enough money by the time I was fourteen that I could pay people to waste their time on my car.”

“So what you’re saying is I probably know more about this car than you,” Mickey replied.

Slade gave him an irritated look.  “I know everything about how it works, right down to the precise mathematical calculations on the combustion that makes the pistons drive the engine.”

“But you didn’t know about the hood lift.”

Slade narrowed his eyes.  “I’ll be right back.  I’ve gotta find a wrench.”

“Sure it isn’t a ratchet you’re looking for?” Mickey said, grinning.  Then, when Slade just scowled at him, “What about a hammer?”

Slade glared and turned, went around the truck, opened up the crew-cab, and went looking for a wrench.

#

Rat’s stomach was starting to complain again by the time she reached the shore of the reservoir and began looking for a likely place for a group of Huouyt to drop a ship.  Tyson, the stubborn furg that he was, had insisted on heading east to find the Guild and execute the Huouyt who had taken his place.  Before parting ways, they had come up with the codephrases ‘fairy princess,’ ‘booted badass,’ and ‘mad scientist,’ for when they met again.

Trekking over the mountain with her, however, hadn’t really been an option in his condition.  As it was, Rat had been carrying three guns, hiking rough terrain, hadn’t had anything to eat in over a day, and was starting to feel the effects.  She had a jar of peanut-butter in her backpack, but she’d been afraid to open it, having seen kreenit signs everywhere on her hike to the reservoir.  A big one.

Thankfully, she didn’t have to wait for her quarry long.  About twenty minutes after she arrived at the edge of the reservoir, she watched a group of Huouyt carry a couple Human corpses to the edge of the water, probably a couple ninth-lengths from where she squatted on a slope overlooking the dam.  While one of the five stood guard, they paused to take off their Human clothes, stuffed them into waterproof backpacks, and slipped into the chillingly deep blue water pulling the corpses with them.

All while, the fifth Huouyt stood on the bank with a rifle, watching their backtrail.  She could see another Huouyt in the forest, watching that one.

Damn, Rat thought, eying the steepness of the bank at their exit point.  They were being more cautious than she’d expected, which meant the ship was probably deeper than she could handle on a single breath.

Damn, damn.  Once two of the four Huouyt returned from delivering the bodies to their ship and rejoined the two Huouyt waiting for them at the edge of the lake, the four of them turned and departed back into the forest.  Rat watched them go from her higher vantage until they disappeared into the trees, then sat there trying to figure out what the hell she was going to do next.

First off, she decided, she needed a better idea of what she was dealing with.

Rat carefully climbed down to the steep, tree-studded earthen dam and crept out along its crest until she was straddling the center of the dam closest to where the Huouyt had climbed out.  She could still see their wet tracks across the jagged boulders heading into the woods.  Leaning over the edge of the dam, looking straight down, she couldn’t even see the outline of the ship itself, the water was so deep.

Damn!

Rat knew the chances of finding reliable diving equipment in the town were pretty much nil, not to mention the fact that all Human underwater technologies were generally explosive and released massive clouds of bubbles that, gee, were sure to attract attention from the paranoid psychopaths with guns.

Think, Rat, think! she urged.  If they had corpses, they had genetic material.  If they had the material, they might have what they needed to make their army, and Twelve-A and his group were only icing on the cake.  Which meant the ones on the ship could decide to ditch their friends and leave at any time to go claim their prize, in bigger portions due to the missing members.  Huouyt were notorious for that.

She guessed, however, that whoever sent them here had given them explicit instructions to bring back a telepath.  After all, from Mekkval’s reports on the labs and the eye-opening things Sam had told her, the telepaths were the Holy Grail of the scientists’ experiments.  And Twelve-A…

Well, Twelve-A needed to die, and all trace of him wiped out before irreversible damage was done to the Human gene pool.  She didn’t care what Sam said.  Something that dangerous could not be allowed to pollute the surviving population.

Still, looking out over the wind-whipped, dark depths of the reservoir, under which her quarry even then had the corpses they’d come for, Rat realized she had other priorities.  Like making sure the ones still on the ship didn’t take off.

Think!  She had the irritating knowledge that, had Sam been there, he would have calmly told her how to painlessly and efficiently kill all the Huouyt with the most dramatic flair—keeping in mind his love for an audience—all while chewing gum and trying to light a fire with a stick.

Then it struck her.  Chemicals.  Huouyt were susceptible to chemicals.  Household chemicals.  Like bleach, ammonia, and oven cleaner.  Rat eyed the surface of the lake, trying to decide whether or not she could cart enough chemicals up the hill to actually kill the Huouyt.

Maybe give them an eye-irritant, but not kill them.  From the steep slopes of the mountains on either side, she was looking at probably a hundred to two hundred feet of water near the center.  Multiply that by three hundred rods across and half a ferlii-length long…  Though she wasn’t a math whiz, she knew that it took almost an eighth of a cup of bleach per gallon of water to kill a Huouyt.  And she was looking at a lot of gallons.  Damn.  Besides, that would be no assurance against the Huouyt already on the ship.

Not for the first time, she missed her biosuit.  She wouldn’t have to be crouched up here, raking through her brain like a furg if she could simply put on her suit, grab a gun, and go to war.  That was what she was good at.  Not sitting around trying to pull a miracle out of her ass.

She was so deeply involved in this train of thought that she completely missed the sound of scaly feet on boulders and dirt until a rock the size of her head tumbled over the edge of the earthen dam to splash into the water below, so close it seemed almost directly beneath her.  Rat froze and turned as quickly as she dared.

A massive, fifty-rod male kreenit was standing at the edge of the dam only three rods away from where she huddled in the brush, its enormous, taloned feet gripping the boulder-strewn lip of the drop-off in a grinding of stone and monomolecular razors.  Its iridescence caught and reflected the sun like it was covered in thousands of moving, swirling gems of every color.  It was lifting its head to the wind, sniffing at the air.

Sniffing for her.

Swallowing hard, Rat reached for her rifle as unobtrusively as she could.

The kreenit—which was close enough to simply turn its head on its long neck and grab her—whuffed and shifted on the dam, knocking more torso-sized boulders into the water below.

Ash, Rat’s panicked mind thought, freezing.  Ash, ash…

She thought about jumping off the dam and taking her chances with the Huouyt, trying to swim for safety, but then the kreenit saw a small bird in a nearby tree and snapped at it, tearing tree, earth, and rock off the dam, shaking it, and throwing it into the water below.  Then it turned, and, swishing its tail in a move that came a hairsbreadth from slapping Rat off the edge of the dam, lazily started down the earth-and-boulder wall towards the opposite mountain slope, stopping every few rods to sniff at the air.

Looking at the huge divot that the kreenit had left in the top of the dam, watching the massive eucalyptus tree roll into the water below and start to sink, tugged downward by the rocks and stones clinging to its rootball, Rat had a sudden moment of clarity.  She cocked her head at the kreenit, then at the stone under her feet.  Then, frowning, she glanced up at the hilltop behind her, opposite the mountainside the kreenit was headed towards.

The first rule in the Planetary Operations manual, her instructor had barked at her a thousand times, is burn the manual.  You always use the materials available to you, be they in the book or not.  And kreenit, ancestrally, burrowed for their dinner.

Once she was sure the kreenit was out of earshot, Rat turned and started sprinting across the dam, up the hill.

Rat made it to the other side before the kreenit had left the dam.  Settling into a firing stance, she took aim at the membranous tip of the kreenit’s tail and pulled the trigger.

A kreenit’s tail, while in no way a life-threatening place to injure, was very sensitive, more a sensory—and sexual—organ than a method of balance.  Which made it the absolute best way to piss a kreenit off, should anyone ever be stupid enough to want to do so.  The kreenit screamed and whirled, slicing its claws at the trees, the ground, the air, throwing debris in all directions.  With the laser rifle she’d taken from the Huouyt, Rat tracked the kreenit a few rods along the dam—closer to the center—and fired again, setting one of the trees into a sizzling blaze ahead of it.  The kreenit bellowed and rushed forward, thrashing at the brush and clawing the tree and stone to pieces, flinging boulders aside like pebbles.  Then, switching guns to something with more flair, Rat fired at the ground in front of it, sending charge after charge to explode against the ground in front of the beast’s face.

And, like a fox digging for a mouse, the kreenit started an all-out demolition of the earthen dam, flinging dirt, boulders, rebar, trees, and concrete in all directions as it attempted to root out the cause of its pain.  The first trickle of water passed between its gemlike legs as it continued tearing at the hole, obliterating in minutes what it had taken Human beings months to construct.

Fifteen minutes later, the kreenit crawled out of the hole it had made and, huffing and grunting angrily, clattered off along the lakeshore, toward Rat’s hideaway.  The damage, however, had been done.  What had started as a trickle was beginning to morph into an all-out flood.  Water was picking up speed and force as it tore away more earth and stone, widening the hole, making even more of the dam crumble.

Twenty minutes after the kreenit walked away, the water was rushing out of the dam with enough force that it was tearing away whole boulders, tumbling them out of the dam and down the valley in a roiling, churning brown flood.  The roar of the water and rocks washing downstream was almost like a carrier engine, and even from this distance, Rat felt the ground shake.  Below her, the water level had already dropped by a foot and the kreenit was stopped at the water’s edge, mud squishing between its scythelike talons as it sniffed at newly-exposed lake bottom.

  One foot became six, then twelve, then thirty.  The Huouyt ship slowly became visible through the water as more of the reservoir washed away, leaving sucking, brown, clay-like lakebed in its wake.  Within two hours, sixty feet of lake had been exposed, and the four Huouyt had come running back, only to stall out when they saw the enormous kreenit snapping fish out of the mud in their path.  As they huddled in the brush, quietly discussing what they were going to do, Rat lifted her gun, aimed at the closest Huouyt’s chest, and pulled the trigger.

The Huouyt gave a startled cry, which made the kreenit’s head come up, which made the other Huouyt start firing at it.  Which made the kreenit bellow and charge.

Five minutes and four dead Huouyt later, the kreenit was back to digging flopping, suffocating fish out of the mud.  Out in the lake, the first silvery curves of a Huouyt ultralight interstellar were beginning to emerge from the water surface.  Nearby, a Huouyt surfaced, its big, electric-blue eyes locating the breach in the dam, its back to the kreenit.  As Rat hunkered there and watched, it lifted a tiny radio receiver to its mouth as the water continued to recede down the edges of the ship, exposing several feet of gleaming metal.  “Merciful dead.  Yeah, the dam broke,” it said in Gha’Salaoian Huouyt, its musical voice carrying over the water and mud like she were standing right beside it.  “Jenfurgling Humans can’t even build a proper dam.  What?  No, there’s nobody out here…”

A moment later, strips of Huouyt was being introduced to strips of ship as the kreenit tore them both apart, spraying water and curls of metal in all directions as it mindlessly attacked the vessel, burrowing into its innards and reaching the morsels inside.

Kreenit, Rat had learned on Eeloir, had what some would term as a crude genetic memory.  If a beast’s dam or sire had once found food inside an ancient Congressional scouting vessel, for instance, any baby kreenit born afterwards to that line would know that food could be found inside ships.  Hence their annoying propensity to gleefully destroy said ships whenever possible, part of why they were so desirable as a punitive measure on planets that Congress didn’t want to see regain its tech.

Once she had stayed long enough to be sure the Huouyt ship was disabled beyond all repair, Rat went looking for Sam.


Braving The Dark

By Slade’s estimates, it was getting close to two o’clock in the afternoon by the time they had two wheel-mounted ‘flashlights’ built.  And, by ‘flashlights,’ Slade meant two multi-directional groupings of car-batteries and headlights that he had fastened on the frame of a bike.  Mickey, being ninety pounds and scrawny, got to push the skateboard piled with extra batteries.  Slade, being a beast, got to push the bike and carry the unconscious chick.  Joy.

“How’s it working?” Slade demanded, Twelve-B once again slumped over his shoulders and drooling.

“She’s backing up,” Mickey replied, still sounding nervous about the whole idea.  “Sam, are you sure—”

“No, I’m not sure!” Slade cried.  “And stop calling me ‘Sam.’  My name is Slade.”

“The Congie called you Sam,” Mickey replied stubbornly.

Slade narrowed his eyes.  “Congies aren’t known for their smarts.”

“Well, she sounded pretty sure of herself,” Mickey replied.  “Hey, Sam, I think this might work.  Ten-F is backing up.”

Fighting irritation, Slade said, “Then either she’s photophobic or she’s very smart and we’re both dead.  What about the others?”

Mickey grimaced.  “They’re just standing there.”

Slade hesitated.  They’d already passed over the ghost’s ‘territory’ and were entering the shady area of the awning.  “Uh…  Are they hostile?”

“How the hell should I know?” Mickey demanded.

“Because you’re my personal ghost buster,” Slade snapped.  “And because you can see them, you dumbass!”

“Yeah,” Mickey said, “I see them.  So?”

It took everything Slade had not to beat his head against the handle-bars of his mobile ghost-repellant.  Very carefully, he said, “All right, Mickey.  Take a good look.  Do they have smiles on their faces?  Or are they, oh, I dunno, drawing scalpels across their fucking necks?!”

“She had a smile on her face when she was doing that.”

“That’s it.”  Slade put out the kickstand on his flashlight, hitched Twelve-B more tightly over his shoulders, turned around, and walked back towards the town.

“Where are you going?!” Mickey cried.

“To the cemetery,” Slade snapped, not slowing.

He could feel Mickey peering at him.  “Why?” he called.

“Because,” Slade snapped over his shoulder, “I want Twelve-B to be in a restful spot when she dies.”

An invisible wall sprang up in front of him so suddenly that Slade smashed into it with his nose.

“They’re not glaring,” Mickey said, sounding anxious and guilty.  “They’re just watching.  They were scared when they died, and they kind of starved to death.  Nobody could get them to go outside.  They’re all just kind of huddled there in the dark.”

Scowling, refusing to reach up and check his nose for blood, Slade turned and said, “Thank you.  Is there anything else you would like to tell me before I take the three of us into a crypt with a scalpel-wielding poltergeist?”  He hated being uninformed, and he hated having to rely on other people—stupid people—to give him details he should be able to discover for himself.  The first thing he was going to do once this was all said and done, Slade decided, was invent some way to see ghosts, then follow that up with a handy little ectoplasmic vacuum cleaner.

Returning to his bike, Slade none-too-gently slapped back the kickstand and said, “Is she still gone?”

Mickey nodded.  “She’s not getting anywhere near the light.”

“All right,” Slade muttered.  “Let’s get this over with.”  He took a deep breath, then braced himself and led Mickey up through the front door and into the building.

The first thing that his trusty ghost-repellant showed him was a guard booth to one side of what looked like a three-inch-thick bulletproof glass wall that had been shattered completely to hell.  The first thing his nose showed him was, farther down the hall, across the scattered glass shards, were dozens of naked bodies.  He frowned.  “They just didn’t want to go outside?”

A sadness crossed Mickey’s face as he said, “Codgson reviewed the tapes and they were afraid to go outside with Twelve-A.”

“What about Twelve-A?” Slade demanded.  “He just left them?”

“He was scared, too.”

“Scared of what?” Slade growled, irritated that he couldn’t see the threats around them.

“The dark,” Mickey said.

“Scared of the dark?!” Slade cried.

“They made them fight in the dark,” Mickey said.

Slade glanced at the open door, which was at most thirty feet from the collapsed bodies.  “The exit was right there.”

“There was glass on the floor and they had bare feet.”  At Slade’s narrow look, Mickey shrugged.  “Most of them weren’t very smart.”

Grunting, Slade started to gingerly push the bike through the hall of bodies.  As he did, he got the uncanny feeling he was being watched.  His spine prickled.  His arms burst out in goosebumps.  His heart started to race.

It’s your imagination, Slade thought.  Just your imagination.

Mickey, for his part, had gone utterly silent, eyes flickering to odd spots in the hall, his face growing pale and slick with sweat.

“Now would be an excellent time to assure your resident surgeon that a horde of dead people are not about to stab him in the eyes with razor blades,” Slade reminded him.

“They’re not razor-blades,” Mickey said.

Slade’s heart came to a sudden, startled stop.  “Scissors?”

“No, I mean, they’re not attacking you,” Mickey managed.  “They’re just…looking.”

“How many are there?” Slade demanded, deciding the best way to get through this would be to go into scientist-mode and stop thinking about scalpels.

“Four,” Mickey whispered.

Slade did a quick mental tally of the corpses.  Thirty-four experiments, just sprawled on the floor, dead, their bodies withered from starvation and dehydration.  “So only some of them turn into ghosts,” Slade said, firmly tugging on his researcher hat.

“Yeah, those that have the balls.”

Those that have the balls…  “Huh.”  Slade had gone through a morbid fascination with ghosts and mummies and spontaneous combustion as a kid, and he considered all the reports of shades and poltergeists haunting the same lonely stretch of road or filthy alley where they were murdered and he wondered if perhaps there was some sort of mental energy that certain types of the more…gifted…Humans could project—embed??—into their surroundings at and around the time of death.  It would make sense, as the ratio of Human deaths vs. ghost reportings had easily been in the 1:300,000 range, but here he was looking at five out of thirty-four.  Almost a fifteen percent chance of becoming one of the walking undead…

Plus, there was also the fact that Rat seemed pretty insistent that the Ooreiki temple-world of Poen was chock-full of ancient ghosts that made themselves known to people who were invited to the Ooreiki’s most sacred planet.  Which was like, no one.  No one except Rat and Slade’s remarkably mediocre brother that some war-deity somewhere had to have taken a liking to because there was just no other way to explain Joe’s survival and subsequent rise to fame.

“You look constipated,” Mickey noted, utterly obliterating his train of thought.  “You’ve never seen the balls?”

“I’m thinking,” Slade said.  “Your resident genius is thinking, bat-boy.  Silence.”

“Codgson thought someone tampered with the experiments.  They found these weird glowing ball thingies in like a fifth of the—”

Shhhh!”  Yet again, the plebs of the world had shattered the symphony of his mind with the greasy, hayucking dross of beer and Friday Night Football.

Mickey sighed and went quiet.  Eventually, he said, “Those dead people stink.”

Indeed, the smell of rotting meat was almost enough to gag him.  Slade glared.  “Let’s say these ‘ghosts’ are actually just a case of a faulty datacard that needs to be wiped.  Like it had the wrong info embedded into it and now we just need to erase it and start over.  How would you start over?”

Mickey blinked at him with the look of a stone-deaf chimp.

Trying to tone it down for the idiots of the group, Slade said, “Whatever energy these experiments are manipulating, it can obviously be instilled in their surroundings and stored there, like info on a datacard.  We need to find a way to erase the card.  Erase the card, boom, problem solved.”

“Uh,” Mickey said, “What datacard?”

“Ten-F’s datacard,” Slade sighed.

“She’s dead,” Mickey said, frowning.

Slade narrowed his eyes.  “You are being intentionally dense.”

“There’s no card,” Mickey replied.  “You see a card?  I don’t see a card.”

“It’s metaphorical.”  Slade wanted to say that yes, the wiry little patch-wearing bastard would see a card on his coroner, hanging from her pretty white coat, just as soon as Slade got to a gun, leveled it between his eyes, and blew him away, but he refrained, considering Mickey was currently his only means of spotting the psychopathic scalpel-wielding freak and he didn’t want to upset his replacement lackey until Tyson or Rat could come back and take his place.  Preferably with a gun he could level between the sarcastic little shit’s eyes.  Or fit right over his freaky purple eyeball.  That would probably have more effect.

“Ghosts put me in a bad mood,” Slade commented.

“You and me both,” Mickey said, rubbing his hands over his arms.  The kid was actually having to shove corpses aside to get through with his overladen skateboard, and the stench was unbelievable.

“So,” Slade suggested, “if these guys standing around aren’t crazy, why don’t you pull them in?”

Mickey gave him another disgusted look.  “They’re dea—”

“Dead, yes,” Slade interrupted, when his foot misstepped and it went through a rotting arm, squishing putrid flesh and maggots everywhere.  “Thank you for clarifying that for me.”  He kicked fetid skin off the bottom of his foot, swallowing down nausea at the immediate odor of decay that followed.  “Why don’t you do it anyway?”

“They’re dumb.  You really want me to be like that?” Mickey demanded.

Slade considered that, considered saying something to the effect of, “No, of course I don’t want you to become stupider than you already are,” and then refrained, realizing the kid probably had the ability to squish him with his mind.  He began to whistle, instead.

Scowling, Mickey said, “You’re a smartass, you know that?”

Realizing he was going to get nowhere with the inebriate, Slade decided to file the conversation of dumbness and datacards away for later, to be brought up again at a time when they weren’t pushing cartloads of lead and acid through putrescent Human corpses and five dead, possibly homicidal science experiments who had a penchant for scalpels and razor blades.  “Where is Ten-F now?” he asked.

Mickey’s eyes immediately lifted nervously to the far end of the hall.  “She’s over there.”

“Use your words, please,” Slade said, as they weaved their way past the last of the corpses and into the empty hallway beyond.  “A distance would be good.”

“End of the hall,” Mickey said.

His response was less than satisfactory, but Slade grunted.  “What are the others doing?”

“Just watching,” Mickey said.  “They don’t like you, Sam.”  The ominous way he said it left cold tingles of alarm crawling up Slade’s back.

“Great,” Slade muttered.  They walked down the hall, took a left, and stopped at the first set of doors, where Slade read the room descriptions before they moved on.  Then, indignant, “Why the fuck not?”

“Well, uh,” Mickey said, eying him, “you’re a lot like the guys who kept us in here.”

Slade snorted.  They stopped at another room, this one marked MECHANICAL/EMERGENCY, and Slade tried the door, which was locked.  “Believe me, kid.”  He propped the bike up against the wall and lowered Twelve-B to the ground.  Pulling a piece of gum from his front pocket and popping it into his mouth, he gave Mickey a wide, confident smile.  “I am nothing like the guys who put you in here.”  He turned, squared off against the door, and kicked it open.

Except, instead of bursting open in a glorious punctuation of his badassery, Slade’s foot exploded in a blast of pain.  Lots.  Of pain.  And the door remained thoroughly shut.

“You know,” Mickey said with a sly smile as Slade groaned and doubled over to cradle his foot, “I think you might be right, Boss.”

“Shut up,” Slade muttered, holding his arch.  He gestured at the door in irritation.  “Get that bastard open for me before I use your head as a battering ram.”

Mickey gave him a sarcastic salute, put his palm out and, with an elegant flourish, burst the door inward with such force that there was a whomph of air pressure equalizing around them.  Then, brushing nonexistent dust off his gloved hands, the four-foot-tall twit looked up at him with a smug grin.  “Anything else?”

Slade lowered his foot to the ground.  “I hate you.”  Then, scowling at his companion, he yanked Mickey’s flashlight out of his hand and hobbled into the mechanical room.

Sure enough, inside, he found an emergency generator and a linkup to a solar array, which had kept the emergency battery banks at full charge.  He went over, checked the fuel on the generator, noted it had enough for a couple days, then fired it up.  “You know what, Mickey?” he asked, as he went over to the wall and opened up the massive breaker box.  “You be Magneto.”  He went to the circuit breakers and studied the handy map and table of locations, then began switching the main power from outside-sourced to emergency backup.  With each click, the lights somewhere in the building came back on.  He left the power off in strategic areas of the building, giving Ten-F a place to hang out and keep her scalpels company, but turned on the rest.  He left lights in the mechanical room and outside hall very last for punctuation purposes.  “I’m perfectly happy being Dr. Xavier.”  He slapped the breaker box shut.

“You mean Tony Stark,” Mickey commented, eyes on something farther down the hall.  “He was insane too, you know.”

Slade narrowed his eyes.  “Where’s Ten-F?”

“She’s hiding in the dark you left for her,” Mickey said, watching the shadows in the distance.

“Excellent,” Slade said.  “Let’s get this show on the road.”  He walked out and slapped the LED flashlight back against Mickey’s chest, heaved the unconscious woman back over his shoulder, grabbed his bulky, overladen bike, and started toward the area of the map that had been marked IMAGING.  A few minutes down the tangle of corridors, however, he realized that Mickey wasn’t following him.

Frowning, Slade glanced over his shoulder.  Mickey was staring at a small, unmarked green door set into the wall.  His smug grin was gone, replaced by a petrified look.  He was shaking, the flashlight almost falling from his fingers.

Slade glanced at the door, recognized it as the one marked CLINICAL TRIALS on the handy diagram of the building he now carried in his head, then immediately lowered the bike against the wall and went back to his little friend.

“Hey,” Slade said, grabbing his thin shoulder and giving it a squeeze.

Mickey continued to stare at the green door in a sweaty pallor.

Slade stepped between Mickey and the door and squatted in front of him.  “Hey!”  He snapped his fingers.

Mickey reluctantly blinked and refocused on Slade’s face, looking a little dazed.  Slade felt a pang of anguish at the obvious terror in the kid’s face and took his gloved palm and gave it a squeeze.  “You okay there, bud?” Slade asked gently.

Mickey anxiously tugged his fingers out of Slade’s hand and took a step back, his lips formed into a tight line.  He was trembling, his breathing sped up to near-hyperventilation levels.  Slade thought he was going to run, but reluctantly, Mickey nodded.

“You sure?” Slade asked.  Mickey didn’t look okay.  He looked like he was on the verge of having an all-out panic attack.  Which could be bad, coming from a telekinetic, soul-sucking puppetmaster.

“F-fine,” Mickey whimpered.  His eyes had dropped to something in the hall in front of them, and Slade noticed for the first time the bodies huddled in the hall ahead of him.

“Th-they…di-didn’t…w-w-w-w—”

“Didn’t want to get close to this door,” Slade finished softly.  “So they starved to death rather than find the exit.”  He glanced again at the unobtrusive green portal.  “All right, Mickey.”  He got up slowly and put his bulk between the door and Mickey, who was once again staring at the door.  “Come on,” he said, taking him by the arm, “Walk between me and the wall.  Don’t look at it.”

“I wanna go home,” Mickey whimpered.

Slade opened his mouth to make a sarcastic comment that, technically, they were in his home, then his eyes fell on the cluster of huddled, naked dead bodies and his words died in his throat in an ashamed puff of mental exhaust.  Clearing his throat, he said softly, “We’ll get you out of here soon.”

“P-p-pr—” Mickey stuttered.

“Promise,” Slade finished for him.  “Come on.”

To his extreme relief, Mickey yielded to his gentle tug deeper into the hall.  Slade wasn’t quite sure what he would have done had mini-Magneto decided he was not going any farther, but he knew his plan for helping his drooling friend would have come to a crashing halt.

“All right,” Slade said, pushing the bike ahead of them.  “Just a little farther and we’ll be able to figure out what’s going on with her, okay?”

“Okay,” Mickey whimpered.

As they worked their way around the second group of dead bodies, Slade watched his companion rapidly lose even more of his composure, until Mickey was barely holding the rope to the battery-skateboard, while at the same time he had taken to clutching Slade’s shirt-hem with a death-grip.  Mickey said nothing as they walked, just nodding or shaking his head whenever Slade tried to make polite, distracting conversation.

“We’re here,” Slade said softly, stopping at the door to the imaging center.  “You gonna be okay?”

Mickey nodded again, despite the fact that he was obviously not okay.

“Tell me about your friend Twelve-B,” Slade said, reaching for the door, which was locked.  He dragged out the magnetic keycard he had taken from the crow-eaten corpse of one Dr. Molotov in the parking-lot and swiped it.  “How did you meet her?”

Mickey’s purple eye slowly climbed from the hall to meet his face, and for the first time in ten minutes, Slade saw a flicker of that old Time To Humor The Crazy Man.  “We were raised together in a genetics experiment.”

“Oh yeah?” Slade asked, when the door beeped green and he shoved it open.  “You two lovebirds have the same cell or what?  Have some great sex when the doctors weren’t looking?”

Mickey’s pallor further retreated, to be replaced by a small frown.  “No.  They left me and some others in solitary at the back of a separate wing.  Twelve-B was in the main part of the Containment wing.  She was one of the ones Twelve-A left behind because she was in stasis.”

“So you haven’t had sex with her,” Slade said, deciding he’d stumbled upon a good distraction, by the frown on Mickey’s face.

The frown morphed into indignant fury.  Jackpot!  “She was raped, asshole!”

“So?” Slade asked, distracted.  “That doesn’t make her incapable.”

“No, goddamn it,” Mickey snapped.  “I didn’t have sex with her.”

“So you are a virgin.  Thought so.  I can read it all over your face.  Innocence with a tint of hope…”  Stepping into the room, he was relieved to see a sonogram machine in one corner.  He hadn’t been looking forward to fiddling with intravenous contrast agents for a CT scan or an MRI.  Wheeling the ghost-busting bike into the center of the room, he pointed one of the brighter headlights at the entrance and put the kickstand up, then carried Twelve-B over to a padded exam table beside the sonogram machine, identical to a hospital table in all ways except for the ominous leather restraints handing from the edges.

Turning back, Slade realized that Mickey had gone beet red and was carefully looking at anything but Slade and his patient.

“Ah,” Slade said, amused.  “I see.”  He went over and began powering on the sonogram machine.  “So how’s that lack of sex working out for you, Mickey?”

Mickey flushed brighter and started kicking at the floor.  “You are such a dick.”

“Oh yeah?” Slade said, as he began prepping the transducer probe. “Have you just never had the opportunity, coming from a life of containment, or have you tried and been rebuffed?  Personally, I think the second option is the worst kind of virgin.  They’re the kind that end up forty and hairy and still unable to get laid.”

“Don’t be an asshole!” Mickey snapped, stepping into the room with him.

“So you were rebuffed,” Slade said distractedly, as he fiddled with the equipment.  “How interesting.  Who was she?  Did she actually have tits?”

“Of course she did!” Mickey growled.  “Not that it’s any of your business.”

Slade stopped in applying the probe to Twelve-B’s stomach.  “Kid,” Slade said, somehow keeping a straight face, “I’m your doctor.  I need to know these things.”

Mickey narrowed his eyes.  “You’re not a doctor.”

“Actually,” Slade said, stuffing another piece of gum into his mouth as he watched the black-and-white image on the screen, “I am.  In eight different specialties.  Had six PhDs before I was twenty.  Kind of stopped caring after that, though.  Money got more interesting.”

“You’re not a doctor,” Mickey repeated.

Slade chuckled and started imaging Twelve-B’s uterus and fallopian tubes.  As he’d feared, the right fallopian tube was distended, allowing it to actually show up on a sonogram.  “Damn,” he muttered.  He examined the rest of her abdomen anyway, to make sure, but final analysis pointed very strongly to ectopic pregnancy of the right fallopian tube. A bad one. “That’s not good.”

Mickey’s face had fallen.  “She’s going to die?”

Slade caught himself, remembering his audience.  He set the transducer probe aside and switched off the machine.  “Well, not good, no.  But it doesn’t look like it’s ruptured yet, at least from what I can tell here.  But yeah, I’m gonna need to do a little surgery.”

A man probably couldn’t have looked more devastated if Slade had told him she was already dead.

“Don’t worry!” Slade cried.  “I can handle this.”

When Mickey tore his gaze up from Twelve-B’s prone form to meet his face, there were tears in it.  “A dead frog doesn’t count,” he whispered.

And, for the first time, looking at a terrified kid, Slade realized the weight of responsibility of what he was about to do.  It wasn’t just theory and diagrams and bullet-points.  It wasn’t an experiment.  It wasn’t something to do when he was bored.  He was about to operate on a Human being.  And, when he turned to look at Twelve-B’s peaceful, sleep-slackened face, Slade realized that Mickey was right.

A dead frog did not count.

#

Rat had found the library abandoned and was making her second nighttime pass slogging through the waterlogged town when she saw the cables someone had affixed to a light-pole and hesitated.  Following the cable into an alley—while keeping a wary distance—she found a dumpster that had most of its paint burned off the outside.  Melted blue plastic jugs and what looked like some form of singed guns were affixed to the top of the lid.  Bands of rebar had been forced through the lid and into the frame of the dumpster itself.  Frowning, now, she carefully went over and pried up a tiny corner of the top and shone a flashlight inside.

She immediately wished she hadn’t.  Rat found herself looking at her own roasted face, open in a scream.  The concrete meridian divider her corpse was sitting on was covered in scorch-marks, and the whole inside of the dumpster was black with creosote.

One point for the good guys, Rat thought, with a grudging smile.  She dropped the lid and looked around.  “All right, Sammy,” she said, “where are you?”  She had mentally given herself two days to find Sam before she could no longer justify hanging around waiting for him when the Huouyt were descending on Twelve-A.  Which meant she needed to find the lab.

If I were a top-secret government research facility, Rat thought, where would I be?

It would need to be somewhere secluded, but on a road where heavy traffic would go unnoticed.  Which, she supposed, meant either a factory or near another government facility that the Average Joe didn’t give a crap about…

Frowning, Rat thought of the reservoir.  Reservoirs had water-treatment plants.  But where?  She was running out of time.  She was about to head back to the reservoir and spend her last day scouring the mountainsides there when she saw the full-color swimsuit ad for a purple spandex thong affixed to the concrete wall across the alley.  Her eyes had already slid over it and dismissed it when, with a start, she realized that, unlike the other papers and posters left over from before Judgement, the thong poster was not sun-bleached.

Her heart starting to pound, Rat crossed the street and, after warily checking for strings, wires, or other nastiness leading from under the paper, yanked the sheet down.  On the other side, scrawled in Human English, Sam had written:

“Well, Kitten, here’s hoping that the, uh, ‘genetic material’ that this guy collected was from a certain bikini we left stranded on the hillside, and not your dead body.  I don’t give it much of a chance, but you’ve surprised people before.  So, my lady love, if you’re reading this, from the descriptions the mouthy little twit is giving me, his home is somewhere along the road out of town, disguised as an abandoned coffee-shop.  It should be on the right off the main road, maybe a hundred yards out of sight on a dirt drive, surrounded by barbed wire fencing.  He says it’s unmarked.  I’ll draw you a little picture, but this is as good as I could get from the twerp before he got bored and wanted to go play with his new slingshot.”

Rat glanced at the diagram, then continued to the final note scrawled at the bottom of the page.

P.S.  We found a new set of walkie-talkies at the sports store down the road.  There’s one on the park bench around the corner, under an overturned cardboard box.  But before you try calling me, please remember the gum.

Rat frowned.  Remember the gum?  As far as she knew, she didn’t owe him any gum.  Folding Sam’s note and stuffing it in her pocket, she went around the corner and immediately found a wrought-iron bench that had been thoughtfully bolted to a concrete pad by a city beautification program.  A cardboard box had been set atop it, untouched by the flood.  She slogged over to it and frowned down at the box.  She was about to reach for it when she had a sudden, nagging unease twist in her guts.  She froze, then carefully removed her hand.

She opened his note and read it again.

…Please remember the gum.  What the hell did that—

Then she remembered how Sam had originally trapped her with a snare and Rat hastily backed away from the bench.  Though there was three inches of water covering the street from the remnants of the flood, she could see the taut little line that went from the water in front of the bench and up to something underneath the box.  Backing up farther, Rat picked up a rock from a flower edging and tossed it at the cardboard.

Instantly, the line snapped free and a cable that had been hidden under the water jerked tight in a sizzling splash and disappeared through a window on the other side of street.  When Rat looked, she saw that directly inside the window, an array of blades and pointy, uncomfortable-looking objects had been affixed to the concrete wall, creating a Tunnel O’Death for anything unfortunate enough to be dragged through it.  Then, a moment later, the house exploded in a concussive blast that knocked Rat off her feet and blew out all the windows in the building.

He’s not fucking around, Rat thought, impressed.

This time, she retrieved a twelve-foot flagpole to push the box over and reveal its contents.

A walkie-talkie taped to another note.  Her spine itching, Rat stepped forward, eyed the walkie-talkie from all sides, then, when she was sure there were no strings, wires, or pressure-plates leading from the device, she carefully picked it up.  Peeling the note free, she opened it.

Either you’re lucky Huouyt #2, or you’re my lady love.  In either case, you won’t be able to call me until you get within range.  These things have a maximum useable distance of a mile.  Good luck.

Rat glanced at the walkie-talkie, then at the diagram Sam had made for her.  Then, glancing at the inferno that was even then beginning to engulf the stores around it, Rat decided it was time to get away from the enormous fiery pillar of smoke before it attracted unwanted attention.

Stuffing the walkie-talkie into her pocket, Rat was just turning to head south when she saw the huge male kreenit’s head emerge from an alley ten rods away.  Rat swallowed, hard, knowing that, being in the center of the road, with three inches or more of water covering everything, she really had little chance of getting out of sight before it heard her.  Heart hammering, she slowly began reaching for her pistol.

The kreenit lifted its nose and huffed at the fiery building, then turned to look down the road opposite her.

Rat’s fingers found her gun holster and she very carefully lifted the snap.

The metallic click sounded like a sonic boom going off.  The kreenit, however, seemed interested in licking the wall opposite the burning building, then lifting its tree-sized leg to piss on it.  Rat shuddered and, nerves zinging with adrenaline, started to pull the weapon free.

Just as she had the weapon free of the sheath, there was a jingle of the snap against the metal as the gun slid the rest of the way out of the holster.  An instant later, the kreenit’s massive, tooth-filled head swung around and two pupilless green eyes the size of Human heads locked onto her like homing drones.


A Dead Frog Doesn’t Count

Over the course of an hour, Slade had gathered all the tools and equipment he needed from various places in the lab—a lot more than he needed, actually, having even dragged in shelves of chemicals that really had little practical use, but were comforting to him nonetheless.  Yet, even with gloved hands, his patient’s stomach shaven and swabbed in antiseptics, his drugs and knives laid out in perfect order, Slade was having trouble making the first cut.  He wasn’t sure if it was the ghost that Mickey said was still hunched somewhere outside the door of the room, his personal exhaustion, or the fact that he was about to operate on a Human being.

A Human being who, if she woke up during the procedure, could go vengeful cockatrice on his ass and turn him to stone.

“This isn’t going to work, is it?” Mickey asked softly.

“It’s going to work,” Slade snapped.  “Stop asking.”  He bit his lip and stared down at the unconscious experiment.  He had given her more drugs, as a precautionary measure, but it wasn’t her waking up that he was most concerned about.

It was Mickey’s reaction, should his singular foray into medical science end in a corpse.

He’d studied the diagrams and medical journals and notes until he was seeing uteruses and fallopian tubes every time he closed his eyes.  He’d memorized the name of every inner organ, the precise lengths and size of every cut and stitch, the terminology of everything that could go horribly wrong the moment he placed scalpel to flesh.  He knew, depending on what he found when he performed his laparotomy, whether the procedure would be able to save the fallopian tube with a linear salpingostomy, or whether he would have to remove a portion of the tube itself in a salpingectomy.  He knew what to do if the fallopian tube had ruptured and there was internal bleeding.  He knew what drugs to use in the case of hypertension or eclampsia.  He knew how to restart her heart if she went into cardiac arrest.  He had a whole fucking shelf of nanos on standby.

…and he still felt like a virgin getting his first glimpse of live pussy.

“You look nervous,” Mickey noted softly.

“I’m thinking,” Slade growled.  “Something that I understand is foreign to you, but, as the man with the scalpel and the very large brain, I’ve gotta ask you to please stop talking.”

“You’re right,” Mickey said, giving him a flat look over scrawny crossed arms, “you do have a fat head.”

Slade twisted to glare at the little dweeb.  “At least I don’t look like some sort of lizard,” Slade retorted.  “Shut up, okay?”

“What kind of lizard?” Mickey asked, curious.  “I’ve been trying to figure out what they did to me.”

Slade groaned.  Did the kid just not understand or was he just a complete and total moron?  “It’s called an Efrit hivemaster, and technically, they didn’t do it to you, you were born with it because they tinkered with your parent cell’s DNA.”

“So what’d they do to you?” Mickey asked.  “And don’t tell me that hair and your whacked-out eyes are normal.”

Deciding it was best to just humor the small, annoying teen with the very large mouth before Slade lost it and threw something sharp at him—and subsequently had it telekinetically returned to him and, oh, say, lodged into his eye for the effort, Slade took a breath to steady himself and said, “They were experimenting with making a very intelligent Human with the ability to shapeshift.”

Both of Mickey’s eyes went up.  “You can shapeshift?”

“No,” Slade snorted.  “But it did help with the brainpower a bit.  As long as I keep gum on hand.  Headaches are a bitch.  Shut up, okay?”

“I wish I could shapeshift.”

Through teeth gritted so hard they hurt, Slade said, “And I wish I could suck out people’s souls and consume their powers like Rogue.  Shut up or I swear to God you will be the first virgin I skewer with something other than my dick.”

Mickey gave him a smug look.  “You could try it, Fuzzy.”

Slade tightened his hands into fists and was about to grab something destructive and go after the little twerp when he realized what Mickey was doing.  His nerves—and his shaking hands—had effectively been alleviated with pure, pissed-off Samuel Dobbs.

Slade allowed the tension in his shoulders to release.  “Thanks,” he muttered.

Mickey shrugged.  “You did it for me.”

So he had.  Slade glanced again at the unconscious woman on his surgeon’s table, her stomach even then lit up with bright operating lights.  Then, before he could allow himself the chance to get freaked out again, he picked up a scalpel and went to work.

#

Rat scrambled over another pile of rubble, narrowly evading the kreenit’s jaws for the third time that morning.  Behind her, a half-destroyed concrete wall exploded under the gnashing black teeth of the beast behind her.

“Beda’s bones!” she screamed, hurdling another barrier and diving inside the library.

Like a ferret hunting out a mouse, the kreenit barreled through the front of the building after her, knocking glass out and bookshelves over as it forced its huge, scaly body into the front room with her.  Books and furniture from the second story started raining down on all sides, dislodged by the way the kreenit’s back was tearing up the second-story floor.

Rat, who hadn’t slowed, reached the back of the building, yanked the emergency fire escape door open, and hurtled out the other side.  The kreenit was right on her tail, simply knocking the building over to get at her.

Diving through the smashed-out front windows of another flimsy Human construction, Rat scrambled over the toppled tables and vandalized furniture of a café, then out the other side and into the street beyond.  The kreenit, slowed slightly by the darkness of the café, nonetheless was able to hone in on her location and resume its charge.  She’d already shot the beast six times to the back of the head, none of which had so much as made it twitch.  She’d heard of such things before in her PlanOps lectures, when a kreenit was especially large and the scales had been given enough time to thicken around the back of the cranium that the energy impact no longer affected them, but it was the first time she’d encountered it in practice.  Her PlanOps instructors’ recommendation when she finally ran across one?  Drop your weapon, bend over, put your head between your legs, and kiss your simian ass goodbye, because you aren’t going to survive it, furgling.

Kreenit were fast, and, as others in the town had obviously discovered—considering the dismantled buildings everywhere—hiding from the kreenit was the only real method of keeping the beast at bay.  Which was, as the piles of soggy, shit-covered Human bones littering the town were a testament to, woefully ineffective.

She needed a distraction, and fast.  Behind her, the utterly massive animal was smashing through the café and barreling around the corner.  She was frantically trying to come up with something more interesting to a kreenit than a running morsel of live Human flesh, when she heard the sound of falling water somewhere under her feet.  She paused just long enough to see a hole that the kreenit’s foot had punctured in the sidewalk, sucking up water.  The hole was small, dubiously big enough to fit her head or hips, but obviously opened to some sort of man-made tunnel beyond.  Having no idea if she’d fit or only get stuck halfway, Rat, like so many moments in her life, made a split-second decision based entirely on her gut.  And her gut said go for the hole.  She was tall for a woman, but she was also very lean.  She tugged her backpack off, threw it behind her in the kreenit’s path, and used the extra seconds that gained her to slide face-first into the hole in the concrete.

Then, knee-deep in running water, she started sloshing up the tunnel, away from the thunder of the kreenit’s approach.  As the kreenit roared and started ripping at her entry point, widening it by car-sized chunks, Rat took a side-tunnel and sprinted up what she assumed to be a different street.  Spillages of floodwater rained down on her from all sides.  She was just starting to panic, wondering if she had somehow trapped herself in a self-contained tunnel system with an animal that burrowed for its food, when she saw a ladder leading to a tiny speck of light in the ceiling up ahead.  Behind her, she could hear a cascade of water and concrete filling the tunnel from the kreenit’s efforts to dig her out.

Swallowing, Rat climbed the ladder and felt around the little hole for a latch.  She fought panic when she found nothing but a ring of cold, hard steel.  She was just starting to climb down and try to find some other exit point when the kreenit’s front feet slammed into the ground as the beast reared and hopped, collapsing the tunnel one huge section at a time, making the metal above her head jiggle and clank.  Frowning, Rat climbed back to the metal ring and pushed on it.

With enough pressure, the metal disc lifted, leaving her looking at an empty alley above the flood water-level.

Heart pounding, listening to the sounds of digging getting closer, Rat carefully pushed the tunnel lid up and, as quietly as she could, considering it had to weigh over forty lobes, shoved it aside.  Then she scrambled out the hole and bolted for the other end of town.

The kreenit, thank the unlovable Jreet gods, did not follow her.  Though, Rat knew, it would.  Being one of the only large meals still alive in the area—and after she had worked it up into such a frenzy—the kreenit was going to keep looking until it found her trail, then it would hunt her down across the planet if necessary.

Which meant she needed to find Sam and his creepy little friends, fast.  At a run, Rat pulled out the map that Sam had left her and headed south.

#

Slade made the final stitch, knotted the thread, set down his forceps, administered nanos, then, returning the nannite solution to the cart, he took two steps backwards and fell on his ass and hyperventilated on the middle of the operating-room floor.

Mickey, who had been seated in a fold-out chair with one leg within the 10-foot Do Not Cross line that Slade had insisted upon, lunged out of his seat and rushed to the table to get a good look at Twelve-B.  “What’s wrong with her?!” Mickey cried, running his eyes desperately over her body.  Twelve-B, for her part, was breathing normally.

From the floor, Slade let out an uncontrollable laugh, which ended in a sob.  He took several deep breaths, letting them out in panting, laughing whines, then closed his eyes and just tried to quell the tremor in his hands.

“What’s wrong?” Mickey cried, still looking over Twelve-B.  “What’s wrong with her, you asshole?!”

Slade let out a hysterical giggle and opened his eyes.  Then, at Mickey’s sharp look, he sobered.  “Nothing.”  He swallowed hard and flexed his hands into fists and back.  They were still trembling like he’d just fought a wrestling match with a cougar.  “Nothing,” he repeated, amazed.  “She’s fine.”

Mickey’s brow tightened in a frown.  “Then why are you crying?”  He obviously didn’t believe him.

Slade wiped tears from his cheeks and just shook his head on another happy bubble of relief.  “Nothing’s wrong with her.  That’s why I’m laughing.”  At Mickey’s continued scowl, Slade dropped his arm and said, “She’s fine.  Stop worrying, you little prick.”  Still shaking, he spent a few more minutes just soaking in his own relief, then forced himself back to his feet and walked over to examine his patient, who was still drooling on her tiny, sanitized pillow.  He took a deep breath, then picked up Twelve-B’s warm, limp hand.  “You hear that, Emerald?  You’re fine.”

Immediately, Mickey stiffened.  “Emerald?  Her name’s Twelve-B.”

“I hate calling her Twelve-B,” Slade said.  “And I had plenty of time to think about what I’d call her if she lived.  She lived.  Her eyes are the brightest, deepest green I’ve ever seen.  Her name is Emerald.  Doctor privilege.”  He cocked his head at Mickey.  “As for you…  How does Virginia work?  Mickey is too…ambiguous.  This is so much more accurate.”

Mickey looked at him so long that Slade wondered if now would be the time the half-pint virgin decided to squeeze his brains from his ear canals.  “Lots of the People’s eyes are green,” Mickey finally said, irritation straining his face.

Slade waved off his comment disgustedly.  “Of course they are.  An aftereffect of playing with recessive genetics.  But she’s the one whose life I just saved, so she gets to be called Emerald.”

Mickey grimaced, but turned back to Emerald.  “You sure there’s nothing wrong with her?”

“She’s fine,” Slade said, still somewhat stunned by the fact.  “She should be feeling good as new in a couple hours.”

“She feels a lot better right now,” Mickey admitted.

Slade gave a goofy grin, so relieved he almost giggled again.  Then an odd scratching sound from the lighted hallway made him frown.  Eyes on the hall, he said, “Is that Ten-F?”

Mickey glanced at the door and winced.  “Uh, yeah.”

In a fully-lit hallway, with the headlights focused directly on the entrance.

“Fuck me,” Slade said, “that’s not good.”

“So what do we do?” Mickey asked, worriedly.

“Start packing up,” Slade said.  “We want as much of the equipment as we can take with us.  Scalpels, drugs, chemicals, you name it, I want it.”  Slade rolled up the bloody towel and its array of knives, spreaders, magnifiers, and other handy devices, knowing this was probably the last time in his life he would ever see the inside of a proper lab.  He threw that into another towel and tied it shut, promising himself he’d clean it later, before the blood could eat the blades.  Nearby, Mickey started shoving the bottles of nannites, drugs, and lab chemicals into the backpack.

In the hallway outside, the scratching sound had stopped.

“What’s she doing, Mickey?” Slade demanded.

“Uh,” Mickey said nervously, “standing in the door.”

“In the headlights?” Slade demanded.

“Uh, yeah.”  Mickey swallowed hard.

Pack!” Slade cried.  He threw a last few things into his pile, mentally sent a prayer to the post-surgery recovery gods, bent down, and flipped the unconscious woman over his shoulder.  Grabbing the bundle of surgery tools and his flashlight, he gestured for Mickey to follow him out the back of the surgery.  “This way,” he said.

Mickey’s eyes immediately widened.  “We’re leaving the bike?”

“And the batteries,” Slade confirmed.  “Let’s go!”

But Mickey didn’t move.  “Why are we leaving the bike?”

“Because I’m counting on the physics that two males, more or less in their prime, can outrun a female who never worked out a day in her life.

Mickey blinked at him.  “But she’s dea—”

“Let’s go, goddamn it!” Slade shouted, throwing the door open.  “Run, or I swear to God, when she kills me, I’ll haunt your ass until you have to tug me in.”

Mickey went so utterly pale Slade had to wonder if he was bleeding from his feet.  Then the little guy snatched up the backpack and dodged out the open door with him.

“Now go!” Slade cried, lunging out the door and hurtling up the hallway with him.  Then they were bolting around the corner and up the hall.  And Slade, even carrying a hundred and thirty pounds of unconscious, drooling woman, at six-foot-seven and having recently fallen under the cruel microscope of a sadistic Congie, was still able to keep up with the wiry little twit.

Behind them, they heard a shriek and the clatter of headlights and batteries as something knocked the bike over and started shredding the electronics of the room they’d just left.

“Go, go, go, go, go!” Slade cried.  They bolted for the surface, through hallways that Slade had left intentionally dark…to attract ghosts.  A minute later, the darkened hall connected with one of the well-lit corridors and they burst out into the light with relieved gasps.

Behind them, they heard cackling.

“Run!” Slade cried, pushing Mickey ahead of him.  If they could just keep going, they were home free.  Mickey jumped, then gave another impressive burst of speed for a little guy.

Then they were lunging over rancid bodies and Mickey was starting to slow, the obscure green door looming ahead of them.  Behind them, much too close for comfort, the sound of razor blades digging into concrete was catching up.

Run, you little twit,” Slade snapped, shoving him.

Mickey stumbled, blinked, and ran.

“Which way?!” Mickey screamed, as they neared an intersection.

“Left, go left!” Slade cried, accessing his mental snapshot of the compound.

Mickey turned right, and he was too far ahead for Slade to grab him and tug him to the left.

“Your other left!” Slade shouted at his back.  Mickey either didn’t hear him or was too caught up in his terror to care.  Seeing him bolting down the wrong hallway, Slade academically considered leaving him behind to distract the psycho with the knife.  Then that empathy the psychologists loved to disregard clunked into focus, leaving him with a heavy weight in his chest, and, the sound of knives etching the concrete behind him, Slade faced a life-or-death split-second decision.

If Slade left him here, Mickey was going to die alone and scared in the very same place that, if there were any justice at all in the world, he should never have had to return to in the first place.

Yet, if Slade ran after him, both of them were going to die.  Horribly.

Then the sound of laughing began to echo in his head and Slade thought, God hates a coward.  He cursed and ran after the lizard-faced twit.

As they hurtled through the hallways at full speed, their boots squeaking on the polished floors, Slade analyzed the map of the facility in his mind, trying desperately to plan a loop to get them back to the surface.  “Take a left!” he shouted, putting on a burst of speed to grab Mickey by the shirt and shove him left when he again tried to go right.  “We’ll work our way around her!”  Then he was leading the pack, turning them in a wide arc, mentally plotting a course through the maze in his mind.

They came to a sudden halt when they met a brick wall where there should have been a door.  Slade’s mouth fell open.  “That wasn’t on the map!” he cried, feeling betrayed.

“She’s still behind us!” Mickey screamed, shoving Slade to the side, toward a door set into the wall marked OBSERVATION.

Slade frowned at the door, recognizing it as a short hall that dead-ended in an observation deck from his map, but Mickey was already blasting it open and pushing them inside.

Instantly, the stink of rot and decay hit them in an overpowering olfactory assault that made Slade’s stomach spasm.  He tried to slow, but Mickey was shoving him forward with his mind, now, probably buoyed by sheer terror.

Immediately in the hallway on the other side, Slade’s flashlight picked up the unmistakable shapes of bodies.  All of these, however, were dressed in government uniforms, lab coats, and expensive suits, all stained with the juices of decay.  Unlike the bodies in the outer halls, however, these had not been consumed by flies, and the stink was overpowering.

“Oh my God,” Slade gagged, holding his hand to his mouth.  He tried to stop, knowing that, for so many officials to have died in one place, whatever was back here could not be good, but Mickey was shoving him relentlessly onward.  “Mickey, stop!” he cried, seeing that, sure enough, they were headed into a dead-end room that was even then propped open with dead bodies.

But Mickey kicked the door shut behind them and then shoved Slade farther through the clusters of bodies, shoving a corpse blocking the second door out of the way so he could wrench that one shut, too.  The stench from the dislodged body was unbelievable.  This time, Slade couldn’t resist the urge to retch.

Dropping to his knees, he had just enough time to lower Emerald to a spot devoid of corpses before he emptied his meager breakfast out over the floor in a visceral response to the rot around him.  “Mickey, goddamn it,” he gasped, “now we’re stuck!”

But Mickey was now wide-eyed, staring at the corpses littering the room.  His flashlight was darting from the individual bodies, then to the huge, tinted observation window overlooking what Slade assumed to be the Dark Room.

“They’re dead?” Mickey whispered.

“I’m more interested in the poltergeist at the moment,” Slade snapped.  “You realize this is a dead fucking end, right, Mickey?!”  He picked Emerald up and carried her away from the clusters of bodies around the door and put his back to the wall, panting.  His heart was hammering.  “Where is she?”

Mickey was still staring at the corpses, the flashlight once again trying to fall from his fingers.

Mickey!” Slade shouted.  “Where is Ten-F?!”

Mickey swallowed and tore his eyes from the lab-coated corpses.  “Ten-F?”  He sounded like a scared little kid.

“The one that’s trying to kill us,” Slade reminded him.

Mickey seemed to shake himself and glanced behind them at the door.  “She’s still back there.”  Indeed, now that Slade was paying attention, he could hear the rending of sheet-metal over the hammering of his heart.

“Mickey,” Slade said evenly, “we need to figure something out, and fast.”  He gestured at the window.  “Can you get us through that?”

Mickey glanced at the sheet of glass, then walked over and warily put his hand to it.  He frowned and grunted, then bent slightly, holding his head.

“What?” Slade demanded.

“It’s not breaking,” Mickey gritted.

Of course not.  Because the researchers in their nice, cushy chairs monitoring the experiments inside wouldn’t want to be disturbed by minor unpleasantries like exploding glass or self-propelled scalpels.  They would have made it thick enough to hold back a tank.  Maybe one of the eleven or twelve series could have broken through, but Mickey had told him it was Eight-F.  A lackey that Codgson had clearly picked for his psychotic properties, not his latent talents.  It wasn’t until the Eleven-Series that things really started getting interesting…

“Dammit,” Slade muttered, listening to the poltergeist carving her way towards them with an ethereal scalpel.  “Damn, damn!”  He swallowed hard, thinking.  Glass could be broken with sound, differences in air pressure, heat, or electricity.  It could also be melted with acid.  He didn’t have any industrial strength acid, and he was fairly sure they didn’t have what it took to scream at the right pitch to break the glass—even with the threat of scalpels.  And, if Mickey couldn’t simply break it, then he doubted getting him to shove air out of the room was going to do anything other than suffocate them.  He glanced at the empty workstations with their blackened display monitors.  The Dark Room was, unfortunately, not one of the places that Slade had considered a priority for electrical power.

That left heat.

Slade glanced at the backpack that Mickey even then carried on his shoulder.  Stepping up, he yanked the pack from his friend’s back and started digging through it.  “Watch her,” he ordered.  “I’m gonna pull something out of my ass.”  He yanked out the various bottles of lab goodies he’d taken from the supply rooms, eying each before tossing it aside.  He hesitated when he found the bottle of pure zinc powder, which he set aside.  Saying a prayer to the gods of fun, explosive science experiments, he went through the last four bottles, then let out a little giggle of relief when he found a bottle of powdered sulfur.

“All right,” Slade said, “I need you to form half a bowl with your mind.  A regular-sized bowl, cupped against the glass.  Right here.  Now.”  He pointed to the center of the wall of glass, then hastily cupped it with his hand for emphasis.  “You’ve gotta let air get to the fire or it’ll go out.  Got it?!”

Mickey glanced at the glass, gave him a look like he had monkeys coming out of his ears, then turned to look over his shoulder at the progress of the knife-wielding maniac.  “But she’s almost—”

“A bowl,” Slade shouted.  “Now.”

Blinking, Mickey glanced again at the floor in front of him.  “Just a bowl?”

“Yes, do it.  I’m going to set it on fire, then you’re gonna hold it there.  Got it?”

Mickey frowned at him, but thankfully did as he was told.

As soon as Slade felt the ‘bowl’ solidify against the glass, he dumped all of the zinc and all of the sulfur into it and mixed it with a scalpel.  “Okay, keep holding it,” he said.  He got a whole pack of matches, flipped the paper protector back, then swiped them across the ignition band of another pack.  Before the matches had a chance to fully light, he dropped it into the bowl.  “Hold on!” Slade cried, eying the bowl, then the exit.  The poltergeist had reached the second door and was clawing at it with her knives.  “Things are about to get interesting.”

“But she’s—”

“Yes, I know she’s coming,” Slade snapped, grabbing him by the face and forcing his head back around to look at the ‘bowl’ of zinc and sulfur.  “Focus on what you’re doing or we’re both gonna die.”  As he had hoped, the igniting potassium chlorate and red phosphorus of the match heads made enough heat to ignite the zinc and sulfur combination.  Seeing the sudden blue flame leap out of the ‘bowl,’ Mickey jerked backwards.

“Keep holding it against the glass,” Slade warned him.

The sheer amount of zinc and sulfur that Slade had poured into Mickey’s ‘bowl’ began burning so violently that a sheet of blue-green flame two feet high was lighting up the entire room, making the grisly faces of the corpses glow and flicker almost like they were in motion.  The glass behind the zinc-sulfur flare was starting to heat a molten red.

Then, like an ice cube dropped into a glass of warm water, the entire pane of glass split and cracked, creating a jagged thunderbolt-shaped fissure across the surface.

“Push it out!” Slade cried.  “Shove it!”

Mickey gave a sweaty frown, then he was pushing the glass—fireball and all—into the room beyond.  At the same time, Ten-F’s high-pitched giggling hit his mind like a twenty-foot gong.  A fast learner, Slade dropped and rolled, and a moment later, the wall near his head became a furrow of pulverized concrete.

“Fuck!” Slade screamed, rolling over one of the decomposed bodies.  He had a mental spasm of horror at the way the corpse seemed to squish gelatinously underneath him, but he was already scrabbling up, crawling towards Emerald.  “Get out through the window!” Slade screamed at Mickey.  “Go!  Run!”

But Mickey was standing there staring in at the hemispherical space that was inside of the Dark Room—now brilliantly lit up with a continuing reaction of zinc sulfide—with the same terrified eyes of a scared little kid.

Then another insane, shrill scream reverberated through his mind and Slade hastily rolled out of the way.  For his part, Mickey was backing away from the window with a look of total horror.  Realizing that Mickey wasn’t going to willingly enter the room while conscious, something knocked the rest of the rust off Slade’s mental gears.  He remembered the cluster of bodies on the far side of the green door, willing to starve to death before they passed the door.  As Slade crab-crawled away from the otherworldly furrow cutting its way through the floor, towards his feet, something clicked for him.

The Dark Room, he thought.  She’s gonna be afraid of the Dark Room. 

Making another split-second decision, Slade grabbed Emerald, threw her over his shoulder as gently as he could in his haste, and launched himself at Mickey.  He hit the little man in the back with a linebacker’s move and the three of them went tumbling through the window, narrowly avoiding the burning sulfur on the floor.

“No!” Mickey shrieked, kicking at him.  “No!

“Come on,” Slade shouted, tugging the smaller man.  “We can still get out of here!”

“Let go!” Mickey screamed, desperately trying to get back in the room with the deranged dead person.

Unwilling to deal with his horseshit with a knife-wielding maniac nearby, Slade grabbed him by the hair and started yanking him towards the exit.

Slade wasn’t sure if it was desperation, animal fury, or sheer, unadulterated terror, but Mickey yanked off his glove with his teeth and grasped Slade’s forearm with his glowing fingers, a heart-stoppingly sinister look in his single amethyst eye.  Slade immediately collapsed, his legs going completely numb, his back caught under the body of the woman he’d been carrying.  Realizing that Mickey was about to try and kill him again, Slade tried to twist away, attempting to tug himself out of the hiveminder’s grip.  And, in that instant, a naked woman appeared in the busted window, staring in at them in pale-faced terror.

“Wait!” Slade cried, barely even paying attention to the man who was trying to kill him.  He held up a trembling, numb hand.  “Just wait.”

Mickey seemed to blink, but only momentarily.  Then his face tightened in a frown again and the purple glow in his hand became almost as eye-searing as the zinc sulfide reaction.  Slade felt the rest of his body going numb.

“No, goddamn it, stop trying to kill me, Virginia, I can see her,” Slade snapped.  “She’s right there!”

Mickey hesitated, tentatively meeting Slade’s eyes, then nervously followed his gaze back to the window.

The woman standing at the broken glass was naked, but looked almost like a solidification of stationary, fuzzy mist—or dust particles.  The colors were rich, but at the same time less intense, as if there were infinite space between each speck of ‘dust,’ leaving her looking almost washed out.  Her visage was utterly unaffected by the flaring zinc and sulfur that was even then sputtering and dying in the center of the Dark Room.  If anything, the sputtering flashes of light made her less visible.

“You see her?” Mickey whispered, once the zinc and Sulphur reaction had gone completely out, leaving the only light that of the flashlights that they’d left back up in the observation deck with the ghost.

Something about the appearance of the apparition was suddenly making sense to him, and Slade felt his mind churning in an exciting new direction.  Back inside the window, the specter dropped her scalpels and slumped into a fetal position, hugging her knees and staring at the room, crying.  In a fifteen-foot perfect sphere all around her, the walls, glass, and even the air seemed to carry their own luminescence, something that was definitely not there before Mickey grabbed his arm.  He and Mickey, at least for the time being, had been completely forgotten in favor of the greater horror of the Dark Room.

“Why didn’t you say the walls were glowing around her?” Slade cried.

“I thought it was obvious,” Mickey said, frowning at him.  In this new light, Mickey, too, had a glimmering sphere of energy around him, though his was a shade of purple and had no hard lines, instead fading outwards until it was imperceptible.

Excited, now, Slade ineffectually tried to get to his feet.  Irritated that he couldn’t move, he gave a weak tug of his arm and said, “Let me stand up.  But for the love of God keep holding onto me.”

Mickey reluctantly released whatever mental hold he’d taken on him, allowing Slade to numbly get back to his feet.  Mickey followed him, still gripping his arm.

“Look at it,” Slade said, gesturing.  Now that he was standing, Slade could see the edge of the bluish luminescence on the floor at his feet, running in a circle around the terrified woman.  “She isn’t even seeing us right now.  See?”  He waved his hands and her head didn’t even turn to look.

Mickey blinked at him.  “What?”

Slade was so excited now that he could barely form words.  “She no longer sees us, Mickey.  You know what that means?”

Mickey just gave him a blank look.

Slade groaned.  “Okay.  See that sphere?” he insisted.  “I’ll bet you anything that’s the imprint of her consciousness, or what’s left of it.  A psychic time-capsule.  And we’re outside it, so we just ceased to exist to her.  Watch.”  For Mickey’s clarification, Slade put one hand to cup his mouth and shouted, “Hey!  Ten-F!

“What are you doing?!” Mickey screamed, scrabbling to get behind him, effectively using Slade as a Human shield.

Slade stayed where he was.  And, as he had expected, Ten-F never even twitched.  He grinned.  “And without physical ears, she’s going to have a hard time making sense of sound-waves that come into her sphere from outside, if she can even do it at all.  Once we cross that shiny blue line, on the other hand…”  he inched his foot toward the shimmering edge of the sphere.  “I’ll bet you any thoughts we have in there are going to become vivid enough to her that she actually thinks they’re real.”

Mickey gave Ten-F a skeptical look.  “Why’s she crying?”

Slade turned and lifted a brow at his little friend.  “Why were you going to kill me?”

Mickey hesitated, flushing.  “I, uh…”

Slade waved it off.  “Doesn’t matter.  I forcibly introduced you to the scene of a childhood trauma, you panicked.  It’s actually very common, and is what is keeping Ten-F on the other side of that wall, so I’m totally fine with it.”  He turned to give Ten-F another look, considering.  “I’ll bet you anything that we could walk right by her, if we were able to think of ourselves as something she would completely overlook in life, like a chair or a table.”

“How about we just go, instead?” Mickey said.  “This place is really freaking me out, Sam.”

But Slade was too interested to be tugged away.  “This is important, Mickey,” he said.  “Hundreds of years of paranormal investigators have tried to figure this shit out, but they’ve never been able to see it like this.”  He turned to give Mickey a solemn look.  “I have to test this.  You realize that, right?”

Mickey gave him a flat look.

“I do,” Slade insisted.  “Your resident genius would not be able to live with himself afterwards if he passed this up, you know that, right?”

“Test it how?” Mickey asked warily.  Like he was asking him to bathe in Human sewage.

“Well, that’s obvious,” Slade laughed, waving a dismissive hand.  “By making her think that I’m a harmless piece of furniture.”

Mickey squinted up at him.

“Watch,” Slade said, now thoroughly caught up in the coolness of his latest science project.  Then, as Mickey squeaked out a startled objection, he stepped solidly into Ten-F’s sphere and started thinking of himself as a door.  A big, six-foot-seven, fuzzy-headed door.

Ten-F’s head twitched towards him and an angry snarl came over her face the moment he stepped into her sphere, but as soon as Slade started thinking about how smooth and green his paint was, her fury faded and she looked elsewhere.  Slade proceeded to step forward, pulling Mickey behind him, until he was standing directly in front of the crying woman.  She moved slightly to look around him at the room beyond.  Like she was trying to see past a door.

Still firmly thinking of his steely nature and well-oiled hinges, Slade calmly bent down and began collecting his bottles and instruments that had been dropped on the other side of the window in the scuffle.  Then, once he had all their belongings collected, Slade leaned forward and flicked Ten-F in the forehead with his index finger.  As soon as his finger passed through the cool electric sizzle of her face, Ten-F grimaced and shoved him away irritatedly, then scooted to the side to get a better view of the inside of the Dark Room.

Slade gave her a few more minutes, to prove his point, then stepped back out of her sphere and stopped thinking of himself as Door-Slade.  “And that,” he said, grinning, “is why they hate me, Mickey.  I think like a scientist.”

Mickey’s jaw had fallen open.  For a long time, he just stared at the dead science experiment.  “You flicked her in the forehead.”

“Yes,” Slade said, grinning.  “And I got our stuff back.”  He hefted the backpack over his shoulder pointedly.  “See?”

Then Mickey quietly cleared his throat.  “Remind me never to piss you off.”

Slade laughed.  “That’s generally recommended for evil geniuses, yes.”

“No,” Mickey said, looking worried.  “I mean really.”  What was left unsaid was that, gee, five minutes ago, Mickey had been trying to kill him.

Slade waved him off.  “You’re safe.  You were having an acute psychological response to deeply-embedded subconscious stimuli.”  At Mickey’s blank look, he winked.  “Besides.  I don’t hurt my friends.”  Twisting, he glanced at the exit to the Dark Room.  “What do you say about us getting out of here before she gets bored with her little pity-party and decides to go wandering the halls again?”

Mickey swallowed.  “Can she follow us outside?”

“Doubt it,” Slade said.  “She’s basically a psychic Polaroid, so she’s likely going to stick to places she saw during life.  Probably why she was hesitating at the edge of the parking lot.  It wasn’t the light, per se.  If what you said about her death was correct, she never saw the outside and she wasn’t able to process it without a brain, so it confused her.  Still, I don’t want to have to spend the next thirty minutes thinking of myself as a door to get back outside, so let’s get this show on the road before she forgets why she’s crying and decides to go exploring again.”

“Okay,” Mickey said, sounding almost…meek?

“Keep holding my arm,” Slade told him, bending to retrieve Emerald.  “I wanna be able to see anything else that comes at us.”  Rolling her over, he winced at the cuts and abrasions on her chest and face from the fall.  Then, pulling her over his shoulder, he led them through the darkened prep-area of the Dark Room and then stepped back while Mickey did the honors of opening the door for him.

Immediately, they were blinded with the fluorescent lights of the hall beyond.

As quickly as he could, Slade led them back through the labyrinth of halls toward the surface—stopping momentarily to switch off the power systems—and hesitated at the pile of bodies in the hall on the wrong side of the glass.  As Mickey had told him, four more psychic residuals were huddled together in perpetual mental misery at the edge of the broken glass, shivering in continuous terror.

“That’s sad,” Slade said softly.

The four ghosts’ spheres were much smaller than Ten-F’s, barely covering six feet each.  Slade tried to imagine what it would be like to spend an eternity trapped within six feet of awareness and he mentally added ‘Wipe the Card’ to his mental To Do list.  “Let’s get out of here,” he said softly.  He led Mickey through the hall of bodies, then endured the heart-wrenching way the residuals’ heads came up to give him fearful looks as he passed through their spheres.  Because I think like a scientist, Slade thought, feeling awful.

Then the glass was crunching under their boots and they were exiting the building, stepping out into the cool air of evening.  Once they were again standing in the parking lot, Slade let out the breath he’d been holding.  “You can let go of my arm, now, Mickey,” he said softly.

Mickey released him almost reluctantly.  The place where the little guy had been gripping his forearm was white from the tightness of his grip.

“Well,” Slade managed, after mentally steadying himself, “that was actually a good lesson for us, kind of a ‘for future reference’ sort of thing.”

“Future reference?” Mickey asked, turning back to eye the front door again.

“Well,” Slade said, patting the calves of the unconscious woman slung over his shoulder, “if we succeed in finding Twelve-A and the rest of your friends, we’ll have to keep in mind they have a high chance of ending up like Ten-F.  I’m not going to speculate on doomed souls or anything silly like that, but I will say that there’s pretty damned good evidence that they’re leaving something behind, and we’d like to avoid it, if we can.”  When Mickey just frowned at him, Slade sighed and simplified.  “We have to make sure they die happy.”

“They are leaving something,” Mickey insisted.  “I told you.  It’s basically a glowing marble.  Codgson’s guys were finding them in the autopsies, after they examined the bodies of some of the culls, mostly the Twelve series.  For some reason, Codgson was sure that meant the Ooreiki had tampered with his experiments somehow.  Really pissed him off.  He broke most of the marbles, which kept making Elfie scream, so he killed Elfie.”

The regret in Mickey’s voice made Slade tear his eyes from the dead experiments to find Mickey’s face.  “Elfie?” he urged.

Mickey shrugged, but there was pain in his face.  “He was in my series.  We shared cells next to each other.  He was like me—he could see the ghosts that were wandering the halls outside the room where they were collecting the marbles.  It hurt him a lot more when Codgson started destroying them, though.  Like started screaming for hours.  It got on Codgson’s nerves, so he killed him.  Said he was useless, anyway.  Pretty sure Codgson didn’t know Elfie saw the ghosts.”

“But it was just the two of you?” Slade asked

Mickey shrugged again.  “They tried to make others, but yeah.  Elfie and I were the only ones that actually turned out right.  The rest had one leg or no eyes or missing hearts or looked like lizards.  Codgson gave me a tour of the thirteen-series archives when he wanted to scare me, and it was creepy.”

“I’ll bet,” Slade said, remembering the walls of preserved fetuses, most of which didn’t even look Human.

Mickey glanced back at the opening to the lab and, Slade suspected, to the dead experiments huddled inside.  “They’re gonna be like that forever?”

Slade winced.  “Without outside interference?”  He hesitated, wondering how long the ‘data’ embedded in the physical matter of the lab would last.  “Possibly.”  This was one self-made hypothesis that Slade actually wasn’t looking forward to proving.  He glanced at the darkened cars around them, deciding to change the subject before he started feeling bad enough to question the ethics of whether or not, as a special kind of genius who could figure out how to put the dead to rest, whether he was morally obligated to do so.

Later, he promised himself.  You can think about that later.  Slade cleared his throat.  “We need to find a safe place to sleep, and I’m not sleeping in there with the dead people.”

“That makes two of us,” Mickey agreed.

Slade considered the cars around them.  Though quarters would be somewhat cramped—especially for a gangly, six-foot-seven beast—a reclining, upholstered seat made as good a bed as any pile of moss and pine boughs he could scrounge together in the dark.  Slowly setting Emerald down against a car tire, he said, “How do you feel about sleeping together for body-warmth, Virginia?”

“How do you feel like a bloody nose, Fuzzy?”

Slade laughed.  So much for the little twit being leery of pissing him off.  Proper minion veneration was so short-lived.  He sighed and went over to the closest van and yanked the sliding door open.  Checking the inside—and flicking some moldy fast-food wrappers out of the way—he said, “Fine.  Help me find some blankets or coats or floor-mats or something.  We’re sleeping here tonight.”

“Whatever you say, Boss,” Mickey said.  And, for once, it didn’t sound like he was being sarcastic.


With a Rock…

Saturday, 80 Days After Judgement

It seemed like Slade had just fallen asleep before Rat’s frantic voice sounded on the walkie-talkie.  “Sam, if you’re out there, I’ve got the biggest kreenit I’ve ever seen right on my tail.  Can’t kill it.  I need one of your creepy friends to do that stone trick on it, okay?”

Hearing her voice again, Slade felt a rush of hope, then immediately stifled it.  Hope was dangerous, especially when dealing with Huouyt, and he was ninety percent sure he was dealing with a Huouyt.  Depressing the TALK button, he said, “The irony that you need the experiments’ help is not lost on me.  Is it lost on you, Mickey?”  Mickey shook his head.  Slade returned his attention to the radio.  “It’s not lost on him, either,” he informed her.

“Yeah, well, the ‘irony’ is about fifty rods long and right on my ass.”

“We’ll be sure to get out of sight.”

“Listen to me, goddamn it,” Maybe-Rat shouted.  “You’re my ka-par slave and it’s Saturday and I’m telling you to get them on board!”

Slade frowned and counted the days that had passed on his fingers.  “So it is Saturday.”

“She’s not using the password,” Mickey noted.

“Believe me, I noticed,” Slade replied.

There was a long pause, then, Pink bikini!” Rat shrieked, and Slade was pretty sure he heard the sound of something crashing in the background before the feed cut off again.

Slade sat up fast.  Heart hammering as his sleepy mental gears started to thunk into place, he glanced at Emerald’s peacefully napping form and said, “Hey, uh, sweetie, our stone munchkin’s down for the count.  She’s recovering from surgery and post-poltergeist trauma.  And you saw what happened the last time Mickey tried to take out a kreenit.”

There was a long pause, then, “I’ll lead it away from you.”

Slade frowned slightly at the sudden solemnity in the woman’s voice.  She oozed ‘duty’ like a fish oozed slime.  She’s planning to die, he realized, irritated.  “No,” he said, “I’m saying you’re going to keep it entertained for a few more minutes while Mickey and I hash out a plan.”

“Sam, I don’t know…” Rat said reluctantly.  “I wasn’t kidding.  This is the biggest kreenit I’ve ever seen.  I didn’t even know they got this big.”

“Just give us half an hour,” Slade said, glancing at the huge rocks that had been spaced across the front of the ‘café’ in a surreptitious car-bomb barricade under the guise of oooh, look at the prettypretty boulder!!

“Half an—” she cried.  Then there was another long silence, followed by, “I’ll see what I can do.”  Then another pause.  “But it’s gonna be tough.”

“Do it,” Slade said.  Then, after a moment, “And stay alive, okay?  I miss my resident badass.  Even on Saturdays.” Then Slade climbed out of the van, dragging a groggy Mickey with him.  “Come on, Virginia,” he said, tugging him towards the road.  “While my lady love is off valiantly distracting the beast, I’ve gotta pull another miracle outta my ass.”

“Call me Virginia again and you’ll be pulling my fist out of your ass.”

Oh, the opportunities!  Delighted, Slade squinted back at his diminutive companion.  “I’ve heard chronic virginity can be bad for mental health, but honestly, obsessing over orifices is probably a sign you need to seek help.  Have you tried the five-fingered solution?  I can demonstrate if you need a hand…”

“You know what?” Mickey cried, “you’re right!  I do need a hand.  Bring it, Fluffy.”  He stood there, gesturing to his crotch, cocking his head and waiting.

“It would be awkward,” Slade bemoaned.

“No one here but us,” Mickey challenged, obviously determined to call his bluff.

“No,” Slade corrected solemnly.  “I mean my hand wouldn’t fit.  It would be physically awkward.  I’d probably wear out the pads of my index finger and thumb in the doomed attempt.”

“Experience talking?” Mickey asked, looking totally unfazed.  “Maybe spent a bit too much time hanging around primary schools in between your time-slots at the glory holes?”

Oooh.  He liked this guy!  “Is that why you haven’t had a girl?  They keep mistaking you for a runaway kid?”

“What is it like to have worms crawling out of your head?  Anyone sprayed you with insecticide yet?”

“I know what happened!” Slade cried.  “They found your daddy dancing around a pot o’ gold and got him to jizz into a cup!  Curious that your hair isn’t red, though…”

“So as an official alien hybrid, do you have a vagina in your face now or what?”  Mickey put a finger to his face thoughtfully and tsked.  “No, wait, that was before the hybridization…”

Slade chuckled.  “Strangely,” he said, clapping him on the back, “I think we’re gonna get along.”

Mickey squinted up at him.  “You might be right,” he said reluctantly.  “I’ve kinda become immune to ‘crazy’ over the last few months.  You ain’t got nothing on Codgson.”

Slade felt his brow tighten, insulted that he was being compared to a murdering psychopath with megalomania, a superiority complex, and tendencies towards delusion.  Already, he felt his 45 Intelligence stat slipping towards 0.  “I’m not like him at all.”

“Really, Sammy?  Where’d you pick up the name Slade, anyway?  You make it up when you were fourteen because you thought it sounded cool or something?”

Slade’s mouth dropped open, because he had made up his alias when he was fourteen because he’d thought it was cool.  “Uh…”

“Yeah, thought so,” Mickey snorted.  “We should probably go save Rat before she gets over her brief interest in entomology and finds someone more her own species.”

Slade, who had never even taken that into consideration, suddenly found himself worrying whether or not Rat did have a problem with cross-species romance.

“Then again, I hear Congies go for all sorts,” Mickey said, waving his hand dismissively.  “She’s probably used to it by now. Though I hear an actual Huouyt can make it as big as he wants, so you’ve got a pretty high bar to meet right there.”

Slade’s mouth was hanging open, because he’d heard that rumor, too.  And Rat had made allusions to her bedding a Huouyt in pattern…

Then Slade realized that Mickey was smirking at him.  Recognizing that, for the first time in his life, he had just lost a bout of male verbal sparring, Slade was shocked to speechlessness.

Deciding it was time to change the subject, Slade said, “You’re right, we don’t have time.  Rat needs help.”  He bent to pick up a dislodged rock, eyed it, then rejected it.  He picked up another one and turned it over in his hand.

“What’s that for?” Mickey asked, raising a brow like he thought Slade was going to use it on him.

“It’s to save my lady love before she gets eaten by the universe’s biggest lizard.”  Slade stuffed the rock in his pocket.

“Oh,” Mickey said, slapping his hand to his face.  “I’m sorry.  I thought that had already happened.  I mean, it seemed like you two were so close.”

Squinting at his small, annoyingly mouthy companion, Slade went looking for something heroic to do.


#

The thirty-nine tics that followed were the longest of Rat’s life.  When hanging up on Sam and hitting her stopwatch for the Congie equivalent of ‘half an hour’, she fully hadn’t expected to survive it.  Still, Sam’s last, playful little comment infused her with a determination she was pretty sure she otherwise wouldn’t have had.  She wanted to see the big goofy furg again.  Thus, she gave it her best, and spent the time running the kreenit around through the woods, slowing him down with trees, vandalized cars, culverts, abandoned houses, and telephone-poles, until her limbs were having trouble responding and her heart was threatening to explode.

When Rat’s timer went off, she yanked her walkie-talkie free, started bolting back toward the unmarked gravel driveway, and shouted, “I’m coming!  What do I do?!”

“Well,” Sam said, “generally when one has that problem, they let go and enjoy the ride.”

It took Rat a moment to realize that he wasn’t talking about kreenit or running for her life.  When she did realize what he was talking about, she just about had an aneurysm.  “This is not the time to have your mind in the gutter!” she shrieked.

“With you,” Sam chuckled, “I’ve always got my mind in the gutter.  Just run for the door marked ‘Coffee Shop’.  Mickey and I will take it from there.”

Lowering the walkie-talkie, Rat sprinted towards the little door set into the mountainside.  With nothing to slow it, the kreenit was catching up.  Screaming, Rat hurtled around the dusty cars and between the boulders, into the blessed blackness of the coffee-shop entryway beyond.  She briefly noticed dozens of cables lining the inside of the hallway, going deeper, before she was lunging over them and hurtling farther into the darkness, stumbling over glass and bodies.

Behind her, the kreenit’s enormous head followed her into the corridor, mouth open wide and snapping, pushing its way through the haphazard tangle of wires as if they were nothing but thread.  She turned in horror, realizing she had just trapped herself in a tunnel with a kreenit.

“Mickey, now,” Sam calmly called from the darkness behind Rat.

Then, all as one, the dozens of cables—phone and electric lines, she realized—snapped taut, tightening down on the kreenit’s head and snout, pulling it deeper into the tunnel with her.  Screaming, Rat stumbled backwards as the kreenit’s huge head plowed through the glass and corpses towards her, snout cinched tight, huge green eyes filled with murder.

Sam, on the other hand, started walking past her, towards the pinioned beast.

“Sam?!” she cried, stumbling backwards.  “What are you doing?!”

“They can’t dig if their front feet aren’t given the leverage,” Sam said, casually stopping in front of the panting, struggling beast’s truck-sized head.  He bent down and picked up what looked like a hastily-carved wooden spear and a large, dirty rock.  As the kreenit screamed and tried to thrash, Sam fed the spear through its fist-sized nostril, backwards towards its head, then, when he met resistance, backed up and, taking careful aim, started pounding on the end of the spear with the rock.  The kreenit let out a rumbling snarl through its cinched-shut jaws and renewed its struggles, but the beast was unable to remove its head from Sam’s reach.

Rat watched the length of wood disappear into the kreenit’s sinus cavity, then watched the kreenit give a sudden twitch with Sam’s last blow.

“That was the same nerve bundle you keep trying to reach when you hit it in the back of the head,” Sam said.  “Just from the other side.”  He patted the stunned creature’s snout.  “Should hold still better, now.”

Rat’s eyes widened in panic and scrambled for her gun.  “You have to carve away the scales and shoot them in the chest!”  Which was going to be impossible, because the kreenit’s head was all she could see.

Sam tisked and, ignoring her completely, yanked the bloody spear loose.  Flinging it aside, he took a bottle of what looked like bleach from the wall beside him and poured it into the kreenit’s flaring nostril.  He immediately followed that with fist-sized rock from his pocket, which he began wedging it into the beast’s nose, slamming the bigger rock into it to force it into the kreenit’s nasal cavity.

Once the first rock was secure, Sam ducked under the massive tangle of taut cables.  As Rat watched, he reached down, grabbed a bottle of what looked like household cleaner from where it had been left against the opposite wall, unscrewed the cap, and emptied the entire bottle into the creature’s other nostril.  As the kreenit shuddered and twitched, Sam quickly followed that up by pounding another rock into the kreenit’s other nostril, plugging it.

Already, the kreenit was recovering, the cables snapping taut once more as it began to thrash with sudden, increased violence.

Then, stepping back beside Rat, Sam turned and called into the darkness behind them, “You can let him go, now.”  He gently touched Rat’s shoulder and moved her aside.  “And you should probably avoid the cables, my dear.”

A moment later, the kreenit tugged backwards and the entire mass of cables went zinging up the hallway to whip out into the parking lot as the kreenit fled.  She watched, fascinated, as the massive beast bellowed and shook its head back and forth, then started clawing at its face.  With another muffled scream, it turned and started barreling off in the opposite direction.  It made maybe forty rods before it stumbled, slowed, and slumped to the ground.

Did he just…  Slack-jawed, Rat turned back to face her ka-par slave.

Grinning, Sam put his big arm around her, swept her up, and gave her a passionate kiss on the lips.  “Hello, darling,” he said, smiling down at her.

But Rat looked around him at the dead kreenit, then to Sam, then back to the kreenit.  “Did you just…”

Sam sighed deeply.  “Fine, don’t be happy to see me.”  He made a dismissive gesture.  “Bleach and ammonia.” When she just stared at him, Sam sighed again.  “They had it in the janitor’s closet.  Highly toxic when mixed together.  Makes hydrochloric acid, chlorine gas, and boiling liquid hydrazine.  It’s the gasses that really do the trick, though.  Deadly stuff.  You wouldn’t want it sloshing around in your sinuses, that’s for sure.  Helped that he shook it up good.  Sped up the reaction rather nicely.”

“Did you just…”  Rat glanced at the dead kreenit, then at the bloody spear and its melon-sized rock.  “…with a spear?”

“I had to use the spear,” Sam told her, frowning, “or it would’ve snorted the chemicals out before I could seal them in there with the rocks.”

Rat stared up at Sam, then glanced again at the dead kreenit.  “Sam, you just killed a kreenit with a rock?”

“Well, no, technically, I killed a kreenit with chlorine gas and hydrochloric acid,” Sam said.  Then he frowned.  “Why?”

Rat stared up at her ka-par slave for several minutes, then managed, “No reason.”

“By the way,” Sam said, pulling her tight against his abdomen, “I know it’s Saturday, but I really hate that purple thong.”  He was smiling, but she got a sudden wash of unease that twisted her guts into a cold knot.  And, with that, Rat came to the sudden realization that Sam’s other hand was out of sight, just in the right place to plant a blade in her abdomen and yank up…

“Not as much as I hate that pink bikini,” Rat said.  “Truce?”

Sam grinned, bent down, and kissed her again.  “Truce.”  She swallowed hard when she heard a blade slip back into a sheath on his hip.  Perhaps her ka-par slave wasn’t as stupid as she’d first taken him for…

Then she remembered the biggest kreenit she’d ever seen stumbling around like it was drunk before simply falling over dead, and realized that, not only was Sam not stupid, but for the first time in her life, after having hundreds of highly intelligent men, she was totally out of her league.

And, feeling his warm arms around her, his masculine lips claiming hers, she was totally okay with that.  She felt herself melting into his body, enjoying his hard lines, his strength…

“Ew, guys, really?” Mickey said, stepping out of the darkness of the hallway.  “I mean, really?”  He gestured out at the dead kreenit in the parking lot.  “You haven’t even checked to see if it’s dead yet.”

Without looking, Rat and Sam said together, “It’s dead.”  And finished their kiss.

And then, when Sam pulled away, he gave Rat a strange look.  “Sorry, love.”

A moment later, Rat felt the sting of a hypodermic needle in her side.  Even as Rat was falling, horrified, Sam caught her and carefully lowered her to the ground.  “Mickey, you got the gurney?”

“You sure about this?” Mickey said.  “Shit, man, she might kill you…”

Sam met her eyes, searching.  “God hates a coward.”  And then Rat was succumbing to oblivion.

#

“It’s yours.”

Rat stared at the sleek, yet unassuming piece of metal that appeared to blend in with every other gun she’d ever seen, yet still had an ominous sense of danger that radiated from it like the blackest, deadliest sniper rifles.  “I thought they didn’t let anyone but the Huouyt carry these guns.”

“I pulled some strings and got it crafted for you,” Mekkval said.  “For your loyalty, it was the least I could do.”

Rat remembered feeling overwhelmed, the total devotion to her prince as his Takki chamberlain carefully handed the gun to her.

Once its heat-neutral curves were in her hands, Rat, always the pragmatist, had snapped out of her reverie long enough to say, “Rodemaxes sometimes go rogue.  Is there a shutdown code?”

“334-YellowJreet—291,” Mekkval had said.  “Once it has been activated and you claim its service, you have only to speak those words.  However, I was in the middle of a several-planet diplomatic trade negotiation and I wasn’t getting much sleep, so you should probably test it, just to make sure I remembered the code correctly.”

At those words, Rat watched Mekkval’s Takki servant jerk and glance at his prince, then turn back to Rat with a shrewd, cunning look.  Something that, at the time, had almost felt like…smugness.  She hadn’t thought it too out of place, considering that the Takki made no effort to conceal the fact they hated Rat for being so close to their master, and that she was usurping their rightful place at their master’s side.

He knew, Rat thought, stunned.  He knew Mekkval was setting me up.

“Let me buy you dinner!” Rat had offered her prince.  “I haven’t seen you since the Arghatt op failed.”  It had been the latest in a string of ops that had made her uncomfortable, but the Arghatt op had flipped some unexpected switch within her, for the first time making her completely unable to do her job. Counter to what she expected, her prince hadn’t ordered her to kill his vocal political rival Arghatt, but instead, all of Arghatt’s children, most not even knee-high on their father.  Mekkval had been very specific.  Thirty-two Dhasha princelings were to be put to death, one having only hatched weeks before.  Rat hadn’t been able to do it.  She and Klick had refused outright, and both Sol’dan and Benva had agreed—for once—that the task was dishonorable.  They had let Prince Arghatt and his family pass through the kill zone unmolested, and they had explained to Mekkval together that, while they were technically mercenaries, they would not be killing children in a political coup.  Mekkval had never so much as made a snort of anger, and he had seemed totally calm throughout the discussion.

“He’s going to try to have us killed,” Sol’dan had said, once they were alone in a café later that night.  “Watch your backs.”  Rat had laughed it off, thinking her Second was just overly paranoid.

But Rat remembered watching the great Dhasha depart her hotel room with his retinue, and remembered staring down at her new rifle, trying to figure out how to turn it on.  Mekkval had left her nothing, not even a note on its operation.  She had thought it was because he trusted her prowess, that he simply assumed she knew more than she did.

Without a manual, without instructions, she’d struggled to piece everything together.

Then, oddly, while she was sitting there in the hotel room, scratching her head, the rifle had unexpectedly turned on.  She hadn’t touched anything, and in fact had been looking at it from afar, leaned back in a chair, the rifle on the ornate table in front of her.  At the time, she had thought she must have triggered the ON switch earlier, and that a Rodemax simply took time to power up, but she knew now that a Rodemax powered up instantly, and that the button that she had pressed a dozen times in her search for the ‘ON’ switch should have turned it on immediately.

“Welcome,” the Rodemax had said.  “I assume you are my new owner?”

The way Max had said it had made Rat think he’d belonged to someone else before her, but she remembered thinking that couldn’t be right, because Mekkval had said he had commissioned one just for her.

“Great,” Max had said.  “Before we go any further, may I suggest you do not try to disable me.  It’s in your best interest to leave me active and aware and capable of assisting in whatever situation we find ourselves in, for we have more enemies than you know.”

Right then, Rat had felt the urge to use the shutdown sequence, just to establish that she was not about to deal with his crap.  Yet, the very moment she had the thought, her guts cramped with the horrible feeling of something about to go terribly wrong.  She’d closed her mouth, thinking that her words would have started the relationship off on the wrong foot, and had instead said, “I’m Rat.”

No sooner had she introduced herself than Max had begun searching for weaknesses.  “If I’m not mistaken, you’re a Human.  They have…two sexes, yes?  Should I call you a ‘he’ or a ‘she’?”

“Female,” Rat had told him, unwittingly.

“Oh, my apologies,” Max said with faux discomfort, “I believe that was a bad question, since the Ground Force spays its female Human troops.”  Commiseratingly, he said, “You would really be considered an ‘it,’ wouldn’t you?”

Rat grimaced and twisted away with the shame.

“Oh shit, she’s waking up.  Did you hide her gun?”

“Of course I hid her damn gun.  And her knife.  And her other knife…  Get away from her bed.  She’s faster than you.”

“Still think you should’ve used handcuffs or something.  She’s not gonna be happy with you.”

“Handcuffs wouldn’t go over well—it’s not Tuesday.”

“What the fuck does that mean?”

“Shhh!  She’s opening her eyes!  Act natural.”

“You mean you aren’t going to tell her?!”

Rat opened her eyes and hurled herself off the gurney, her heart hammering as she took in her surroundings.

She was in a lab, surrounded by fluorescent lights.  Her scalp felt raw, and…different.  She reached up and touched her shaved head.  Her fingers came back marred by a brownish substance that smelled vaguely antiseptic.  A few feet away, Sam had grabbed Mickey and shoved the smaller experiment behind him, something akin to fear in his eyes.  He gave a nervous smile.  “Heya Rat.  How ya doing?”

Rat lunged across the room and grabbed Sam by the throat, shoving him hard against a wall.  “What,” she snarled into his face, “did you just do to me, Sam?!”  She felt like killing him.  No, she would kill him, just as soon as she figured out what the filthy chunk of flake was up to.

“I, uh, well…”  Sam glanced at Mickey, who was backing away, holding up his hands and shaking his head.  “You had some internal issues I decided to take care of.  You know, some shrapnel, excessive scar tissue, improperly healed ribs, pelvis damage…  Oh, and this.”  He reached out and plucked a bloody black egg-shaped device from the table and held it up between them.  “I thought it was weird Mekkval gave you the wrong codes to the Rodemax, so I built a scanner while you were sleeping a few nights ago and was a little disturbed to find a planetside frequency communicating directly with something inside your brain.  So first chance I got, I pulled it out.”

Rat had trouble tearing her eyes from his electric, purple-white gaze to focus on the device.  As soon as she saw it, her spine prickled with goosebumps.  She had seen it before, in good men who had, for no reason whatsoever, walked up to a Dhasha and insulted its heritage.  “What is it?” she asked, though she already knew.

“Well, most of them are pretty simple, but this one’s a doozy.”  With the excitement of a recruit describing his latest gun, Sam said, “This one’s a jack of all trades.  Tracking, biofeedback, mind control, subject termination, visual transmission…  Someone’s been watching you, learning everything you do.  It’s a surveillance device, high-grade.  Contains a self-destruct unit, should you piss off your nanny.  That’s why I had to do it without warning.”  He cocked his head at her as if he had just described a flavor of candy.  “When was the last time you went into surgery?  Any instance where you can remember missing time?”

Rat remembered the weird time discrepancy in her ship’s log and how long she thought she had been on Koliinaat, talking to Mekkval.  She remembered Max making the odd comment that she’d been gone longer than expected.  She hadn’t pursued it, simply went to the cockpit and set a course for Earth.  She remembered feeling so focused, so intent on avenging her prince…

Then, like a blinding flash that lit up the darkness, she remembered a Takki stepping into her path on the way out of Mekkval’s chambers, remembered its sneer as two others joined it behind her.  She remembered them snicker as they surrounded her, then a sting as something lodged in her back from behind and her legs immediately went out from underneath her.

“Either she’s guilty, and she’ll lead him straight to Keval,” the Takki closest to her said to the others, “or she’s innocent, and she’ll find the experiments.  Either way, our lord wins.”

“Shh!” one behind her cried.  “Master said not to let her know it’s there.”

The Takki had a cruel twist to its muzzle.  “She will remember nothing.”

Rat felt her world begin to crumble around her.  “Mekkval…?”  It was all she could get out.

Sam carefully pushed her hand from around his throat and said, “Was playing you all along, kitten.”

Rat suddenly found it hard to breathe.  “But he told me…”

“You were a pawn in one of his power plays,” Sam insisted.  “I’m guessing this one involved his nephew, Keval.”

Rat blinked at the device, totally overwhelmed by the betrayal.  “Keval?”

“For some reason,” Sam said, “Mekkval seems to think that Keval’s alive and on Earth, planning a coup.  Why would that be?”

Rat remembered Keval and Mekkval almost coming to blows over the last time Keval had come back from a successful mission against a rogue prince.  The planet he had liberated had decided to throw a parade in his honor, and it had been all over the news.  Wave after wave in every corner of the universe had shown Keval graciously accepting slaves and wives before a great audience of Dhasha and Takki.  Then one of the Dhasha had begun a chant that Rat could still hear, to this day.  Take the seat!  A son of Bagkhal should rule!  Ke-val!  Ke-val!  Ke-val!

Keval had excused himself quickly, but the chant had gone on…and it had carried across the galaxy.  When Keval had returned to Koliinaat, Mekkval had been in a rage.

“Ka-par!” Mekkval had snarled.  “Mahid ka-par!”

Keval had avoided meeting the enraged prince’s eyes.  “Uncle, I’ve told you a thousand times, I’m not interested in—”

“Now!” Mekkval had shrieked, batting his nephew in the shoulder hard enough to rip away scales and lodge them into the wall.  “You forget yourself, and it is time you learn your place, slave!”

And then, slowly, Keval had looked up.  There had been something in his stare that made even Mekkval flinch.  With total calm and complete steeliness, Keval had said, “Believe me, uncle.  You don’t want to ka-par.”  Then he had turned his back to Mekkval and walked away.

Rat, who had stood in mute horror as the two predators had clashed, had nonetheless been shocked when Keval turned his back to Mekkval.  It was a sign of such total disrespect, a challenge of the utmost order, that she knew one of them would die that day.

And yet, Mekkval hadn’t attacked.  He’d simply let his nephew walk away.

Rat thought about how Keval had almost died in an accident a few days later, how he’d lost twenty children and two wives in the explosion.  She thought about how he’d gone to visit Jer’ait Ze’laa and then disappeared for a rotation.  Then, when he had returned, Mekkval had told him to ‘put down’ the scientists and their abominations on Earth.  And he had, and Mekkval had spent weeks watching his final death-clip, obsessing over every tiny detail…

He was enraged, Rat realized, looking back.  He wasn’t feeling guilty for sending Keval to die.  He was replaying it because he knew it was fake…

“But Keval doesn’t want the Representative seat,” Rat insisted.  “He told Mekkval that.”

“Kitten,” Sam said slowly, “politicians like Mekkval don’t get to the Tribunal by trusting potential rivals.  He probably assumed Keval was just buying time so he could challenge.”

But Rat knew that wasn’t true.  She’d gone on enough ops with Keval to know that he loved his privacy, his seclusion.  And, even stranger for a Dhasha, his wives and children.  Politics simply didn’t appeal to him.  The idea of him challenging Mekkval for his seat was ludicrous.

And yet…  Knowing how shrewd Mekkval was, how suspicious and paranoid, Rat could see where Sam might be right.

“So Keval is on Earth?” Rat asked softly.

“Mekkval seems to believe so,” Sam agreed.

“Why?” Rat whispered.

“You want me to guess?” Sam asked.

Rat felt that sudden odd knowledge that she was standing on a precipice, that to get Sam’s opinion would send her teetering off into dark, unexplored territory she had subconsciously avoided for turns, and it would call the very pillars of her existence into question.

Rat glanced down at the black, egg-shaped object in her hand and said, “Yes.”

“My guess is that your prince Mekkval was the mysterious benefactor financing the experiments on Earth,” Sam said.  “And Keval came here looking for proof, then brought it to Koliinaat so he could expose Mekkval’s involvement and depose him.  Except Mekkval intervened, tampered with the evidence, and suddenly Earth is entirely to blame.  Mekkval then tried to have Keval killed, but Keval knew it was coming and used it to fake his own death so he had more time to look into Mekkval’s wrongdoings.  Except he probably didn’t intend to be here for Judgement—I’m guessing that Mekkval gave the order to start Judgement three days early, to keep Keval from leaving and hopefully kill him in the process.”

Remembering the unexpected attack on her ship and the crash that had followed, Rat felt sick.  “So Mekkval…caused…all of this?”  She didn’t have to ask why Mekkval would have sponsored the experiments—she had seen the regiments of Dhasha die.  She was being replaced.

“That’s my guess,” Sam said.  “And I’m also guessing the Huouyt are trying to capitalize on it.  Mickey told me they tried to kidnap him, get him on a ship…”

But Rat had stopped listening.  The knowledge that her prince, her idol, had sown such evil, such strife, then had lied to her about it—it was almost too much to take.  She stumbled to the wall and leaned against it.

The action, oddly, made her abdomen twinge in a way it never had before.  She glanced down, frowning at the way her shirt was untucked. Confused, she started to lift the hem—

“So,” Sam said quickly, “now that you’re no longer in danger of your head exploding, how about we get out of here and go see how Tyson’s doing, eh?”

“Sam, why—”

But Sam was already throwing his pack over his shoulder, grabbing the female experiment by the hand, and tugging her out of the room, leaving Mickey standing there behind him, looking like a Takki caught stealing from a pantry.  And then, before Rat could question him, the wiry, four-foot experiment turned and bolted after his friend.

Faced with going after them or being left alone in a strange room full of incomprehensible medical equipment, Rat followed.


The Assassin

“So you think that’s the real one or the fake one?” Slade asked, as they sat in the bushes and watched Tyson eat one of his hard-earned eggs through Rat’s scope.

“It’s fake,” Tyson said, coming limping up the ridge behind them.  “At least, according to the fairy princess.”  He hesitated, giving Mickey and Emerald uncertain looks.

“What, waiting for a booted badass to do your dirty work for you?” Rat asked.

Tyson grunted and they both looked at Slade.

Slade ignored the stupid and unnecessary interplay, still scowling at the camp through the scope.  “They’re eating my eggs.”

Tyson pulled a gun and put it to the back of Slade’s head.  “You got something to say, you say it quickly.”

Slade reached up, pushed the gun away from his braincase, and, without taking his attention from the Huouyt masquerading as the three of them said, “They’re eating my eggs.”

Tyson cocked his head at Rat and raised an eyebrow.  “You tell him?”

Rat sighed.  “Of course I told him.”

Tyson’s eyes narrowed.  “Oh yeah?  How long ago?”

Scowling at Slade, she said, “About three minutes.”

“He leave your sight in the last three minutes?” Tyson demanded.

“Nope.”

“Why is it,” Slade muttered, ignoring the thugs and their thuggish exchange, “that every time someone brilliant comes up with something that could save the world, knuckle-dragging idiots have to destroy it?”

Tyson bumped Slade in the back of the head with his gun again.  “Say it.”

Slade sighed deeply.  He had taken great affront to the ‘mad scientist’ quip and had told Rat that he refused to demean himself that way.  Turning to Tyson, he said, “You want proof?  Let’s talk about you.  You are an anal assassin.  An ass bandit.  A back door enthusiast.  A cock jockey.  A poof.  A bone smuggler.  A brown bat.  A mattress muncher.  A booty buffer.  A turd burglar.  A bum-driller.  An anal engineer.  A butt pirate.  A chutney ferret.  A pole knocker.  A hole puncher.  A donut muncher.  A flaming fruit.  A nancy.  A fudge packer.  A knob jockey.  A marmite miner.  A pansy.  A pillow biter.  A poof.  A brownie queen.  A ring raider.  A shit stabber.  An analizer.  A twink.  And a big, blond, super burly, ultra-sexy fairy, if you’re into that sort of thing.”

“You said ‘poof’ twice,” Tyson said.

Slade frowned and rewound it in his head.  “Huh.  So I did.”

Tyson kept the gun trained on his head.  “None of those was the password.”

“I hate the password.  The password can die.”

“There is nothing wrong with the password!” Rat snapped, for the hundredth time.  She turned to face him.  “Do you really have to make an issue out of this?”

You got to be a booted badass,” Slade said.  “He got to be gay, which he is.  And I get to be crazy?”

“You are crazy,” Tyson and Rat said in unison.

He snorted and crossed his arms.  “To mere plebs, it may appear that way.  Then again, such is the fate of genius.”

“What’s the password?” Tyson insisted, tapping Slade’s skull.

Rat sighed and shoved Tyson’s gun aside.  “Let it go—it’s Sam.”

“I know it’s Sam,” Tyson said.  “I just wanna hear the prick say it.”

“Focus,” Rat said.  “We need to figure out how we’re going to lure them out.”

Satisfied that his booted badass would protect him from the flaming homosexual with the gun, Slade went back to watching the Huouyt.

The Huouyt was gone.

Pursing his lips, Slade said, “Guys?”  He gestured at the empty campsite.  “Our egg-thieving friends have vanished.”

Immediately, Rat trained her binoculars around the camp and cursed.  “They must have seen us.”

Tyson was dropping to the ground beside Slade, all business now.  “They’ll probably be trying to flank us.  Should I fall back and take the right?”

“They’ll be coming in from the west.  Try to get to the treeline before they—”

Still peering through her scope, Slade frowned.  “Ooooorrr they’re engaging in some sort of top-secret conversation with the universe’s most powerful Dhasha and they didn’t want to be disturbed.”  He lifted his eye from the scope and pointed to a secluded area out of hearing distance from camp, where five Huouyt were gathered around a projector.

Rat immediately frowned and twisted to get a better look.  “It’s Mekkval.”  She actually sounded surprised.  “He’s talking to Huouyt.”

“Yes,” Slade said.  “Which confirms my—”

But Rat was already yanking her rifle out of Slade’s hands and lunging to her feet, leaving Slade, Tyson, and the two experiments huddling on the ridge as she started zig-zagging down through the brush, towards the cluster of assassins.

“You know,” Slade said, watching that, “If she wasn’t such a badass, I’d be worried right now.”

Tyson put the gun back to Slade’s head.  “Say it.”

“Dream on, buttburgler,” Slade replied.

#

Rat hovered in the brush at the edge of the gathering, listening to the five Huouyt gathered around the comm device.

“…signal went dead.  Have you seen her?”  It was her prince, who was being projected before them in all of his resplendent, rainbow-scaled glory, showing none of the unkempt anguish he had shown her before she left for Earth.  The hologram appeared to be coming from a rock sitting upon the ground upon some forest detritus.

“One of our brothers must have killed her,” one of the Huouyt said.  There were five of them—one Rat, one Sam, one Tyson, and two masquerading as scouts.

“The abomination that she is with dismantled the monitoring device,” Mekkval snapped.

The Huouyt looked at each other.  “Then she is as good as dead,” one of them said.  “Surgery would have triggered the destruct sequence.”

Mekkval was pacing, now.  “We can’t take any chances.  I want her dead.”

“You gave her to us to study,” the Huouyt in Rat’s form said.  “We’ve already proven that these unnatural Human genes aren’t reliably reproduced with cloning.  We need a living sample to take back to Va’ga with us.”

Upon hearing that, Rat felt a spasm of horror.  It had to be a lie.  Mekkval wouldn’t have betrayed her like that…

“I offered to let you have her if you could use her to flush out Keval.  You haven’t flushed out Keval, you don’t get the sample.  It’s that simple.”

“We have Keval,” the Huouyt in Sam’s pattern said.  “We’ve got him pinned in the mountains.  We’ll use her form to get close enough to subdue him.”

“Alive!” Mekkval snapped.  “He must be seen alive in order for me to publicly remove his claim.”

“Yes, you’ve said this,” the Huouyt in Rat’s pattern said.  “And what we are saying to you is that we have him and his family pinned in a valley less than ten lengths from here, and that he will not be going anywhere.  Unfortunately, his Takki have dug him a deep den against the kreenit, and they sealed it.  It will take time to get to him and get him out.”

“And my experiments?” Mekkval demanded.  “Twelve-A…  Has he been rounded up?”

“They…”  One of the Huouyt ‘scouts’ glanced at his companions.  “…are taking longer to acquire than expected.”

“Why?” Mekkval demanded.

“Dobbs is protecting them,” the Huouyt in Sam’s pattern said.  “We sent a team out there to observe, and that was the last thing we heard from them before they disappeared.”

Rat frowned.  She couldn’t exactly classify Sam’s blunders as ‘protection’…

“That drunken clown isn’t in any position to protect anything,” Mekkval snapped.  “How many were in the team?”

“Eight,” the Huouyt replied.  “All of them went silent six days ago.”

“Eight Va’gans against one drunk?  They either collected the experiments and betrayed you,” Mekkval said, “or something else killed them.  We made sure Dobbs was drinking himself to death.  He’s lucky he’s still breathing at this point.”

Rat’s body, which was already straining from the pounding of her heart, began to tremble with rage.  The last time she had seen Zero, he had looked like the walking dead.  The idea that her prince may have had a role in it left her seething.  She had to know why.

“Annoying that you let him seek out your experiments, though,” the Huouyt said.  “That makes collecting them both harder.”

“It was that damned Jreet itch,” Mekkval snapped.  “I had nothing to do with it.”

The Huouyt glanced at each other again.  “Since we are on the subject of Daviin ga Vora…  Any word on his whereabouts after your assassination attempt failed?”

“The Regency has a standing order for his arrest,” Mekkval said, bristling.  “The worm is hiding under a rock where he belongs.”

And he tried to kill Daviin, Rat thought, anger rapidly progressing into something much worse.  One of the fairest, most honest Representatives in Congress and Mekkval had tried to kill him…

The Huouyt wearing Sam’s pattern looked nervous.  “Before our team went silent, there was a…mention…of some abnormal mass signatures.  Could the Representative be—”

“On Earth?” Mekkval laughed.  “Conspiring with Keval?  Please.  I’d be more concerned that Jer’ait Ze’laa was there with you, rather than that fat worm.”

Is Jer’ait Ze’laa here with us?” the Huouyt in Tyson’s form demanded.  “There’s rumors he went to Va’ga on your urging—”

Yes, he went to Va’ga,” Mekkval snapped.

“On your urging?” the Huouyt insisted.

“I thought it was a good place to make him disappear,” Mekkval snarled.

“So you say,” the Tyson-Huouyt said calmly.  “But I find it…odd…that you would send the Peacemaker to investigate your allies.”

“It was an attempt to get him out of the picture.  I thought he could get lost in the labyrinth and no one would be the wiser.”  Mekkval made a derisive snort.  “It seems I overestimated the abilities of your ‘best.’”

“So he did come back out again?”  For the first time, Rat saw unease in the five Huouyt in front of her.  Immediately, the Huouyt in Sam’s pattern reached forward and muted the sound, then turned to the others and said, “If Jer’ait came out of Va’ga alive, we should consider our program compromised.”

“I find it more disturbing that Mekkval tried to put us under the Peacemaker’s microscope,” Rat-Huouyt said.

“We have to assume Jer’ait made it into the prison,” a scout-Huouyt said.  “He did it once before, and if he saw what we were doing within the city, he might be here on Earth looking to link the two…”

“If Jer’ait found anything in Va’ga, he would have brought it to the Tribunal,” the other scout said.  “If he’s on Earth, it’s more likely he’s here looking for dirt on Mekkval, which we could work to our advantage.”

“Turn the sound back on,” Tyson-Huouyt snapped.  “Before the furg suspects.”

Sam-Huouyt reached forward and took the rock-shaped transmitter off Private mode.  To Mekkval, he said, “My friends and I are beginning to question your devotion to this cause.”

Mekkval gave an enraged roar.  “I gave you Zero and Daviin on a plate, and you botched them both.  I gave you Keval and he escaped.  Then I gave you Jer’ait—a deformed reject—and you failed to kill him, too.”

“We’ve seen the surveillance following those ‘failures’,” one of the Huouyt snapped.  “There is a Baga interfering in each.  I am finding it difficult to imagine who else has a Baga in his personal employ than…you?”

“I had Klick killed a turn ago,” Mekkval snarled.  “The Baga is not mine.”

Rat’s heart gave a startled hammer, suddenly realizing why Klick hadn’t yet come back from her ‘vacation’ after Glaxxion.  Oh no.  She thought of her old friend’s final message, the strange paranoia that seemed to be behind the words…

I think something horrible is happening, Klick had written her using the odd venue of their Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying account, and you need to get out if you can.  Sol’dan’s right.  We’ve outlived our usefulness.  At first, Rat had thought it was just Klick in character again, but the Baga hadn’t sent a single thing after that, despite repeated attempts to get her to clarify on Rat’s part.

“And you could have killed Jer’ait when you had him on Morinth,” Mekkval went on.  “Instead, Jer’ait went to Earth and puts our entire project in jeopardy.  You do realize that if we don’t get Zero out of the way, we lose the backing of the Trith.”

“So Jer’ait is here,” the Huouyt in Tyson’s form snapped.  “Don’t you feel that would have been good information for us to know before we split our forces to run your errands?  Over half of our people are no longer responding on nightly comm checks.”

“What if it was Jer’ait that killed our team of eight?” the Huouyt in Sam’s form demanded.  “What if he’s already with Dobbs?”

“Things are rapidly getting out of hand,” a Huouyt scout said.  “First Keval, then Daviin, then Jer’ait…  It appears that we are holding up our end, Mekkval.  What are you doing to hold up yours?  Even the slave you promised us slipped her collar.”

Slave, Rat thought, her chest clenching in fury.  He couldn’t have thought of me as a—

“My slave is still yours, once your bargain is upheld and you get my experiments to my breeding pens on Tavukk.  As to the rest, the Trith says Zero is key.  Capture the furgling, kill him if you have to, just get him off Earth.”

Rat felt herself gripping her rifle so hard the bones in her joints hurt.  She had been to Mekkval’s breeding pens on Tavukk.  She had seen the Humans there, bred in squalor and misery.  It had made her so uncomfortable that she had offered to buy them from him, and Mekkval had, in return, promised to free them all and shut down the pens for good.

He couldn’t have sided with the Trith.  He couldn’t…

The Huouyt glanced at each other again, and it was the one in Rat’s form that spoke.  “There is…another…matter.  The Human who ran Lab 13.  You are aware he trained hundreds of experiments as soldiers, yes?”

“They were the weakest in the lab, and are of no concern to us,” Mekkval said impatiently.  “We only need the ones that Twelve-A absconded with.”

“We had a run-in with him about a week ago,” the Huouyt went on.  “Those experiments didn’t die in the lab, as we thought.  The Human mobilized them before Judgement.  They are now in full military convoy, capturing any Humans they come across, and they somehow figured out how to detect our plants—all of them were executed the same day, publicly.  The Human leading them goes on at length about this prophecy about a speech…”

“We don’t need him or his rejects,” Mekkval interrupted.  “What the vermin do on their mudball is of no concern to us.  What Jer’ait and the worm do doesn’t matter.  Once we’ve removed the experiments we want, we will simply drop an ekhta on the planet and allow Humans to start over elsewhere, and all of this will be moot.  Capture Keval and get my experiments.  You have half a rotation before I destroy the planet.”  Mekkval made a swiping gesture and the link suddenly went dead.

“I can’t believe Rri’jan allied us with that furg,” the Huouyt in Sam’s pattern said.  “It is like trying to converse with a nutrient-starved Jahul.”

“All we have to do is get the experiments,” Rat-Huouyt said.  “Once we get them to a place of our choosing, Mekkval loses his bargaining chips.”

“It’s amusing that he thought he had any to begin with,” Sam-Huouyt snickered.  “That he actually thinks this alliance was made because he offered us one of his slaves…”

Unable to listen to any more, Rat brought the rifle up and fired.  She took Sam-Huouyt’s head off at the shoulders, then followed that with two shots from her plasma pistol to the chest.  She saw the red, womy zora appear just before it began to dissolve and the Huouyt started to scream.

But Rat had dropped her rifle and was already moving on, activating her laser knife.  She sliced another Huouyt—this one in her own pattern—open, from groin to sternum, and yanked the zora out by hand, cutting it free in a sharp gesture as the Huouyt’s mirror-like eyes went wide, then shot his partner with three plasma rounds to the head and torso.  She moved on to Tyson, who was holding up his hands and saying, “Rat, Rat!  I’m so glad it’s you!  I evaded the bastard that tried to kill me and infiltrated these guys for you—”

Rat shot him.  She was swiveling to take out the last one when the cold barrel of a pistol muzzle touched the back of her skull.  “There was cold fury in the Huouyt’s words when he said, “You just made a terrible—”

A laser round sliced the Huouyt in half, then in half again.  Rat didn’t even glance up at Tyson on his hill, instead shoving the dead body of the fourth Huouyt away from her and picking up the comm unit masquerading as a stone.  She turned it away from the carnage, then found the little button on the side and switched it on, then waited as the link connected.

“What?” Mekkval roared, his hologram appearing in lifelike size, looming over her.  “I have to appear before the Regency in six tics.”

“I’ll try not to keep you,” Rat said, rage and hurt so thoroughly claiming her that she found it difficult to speak.  “I just wanted to know a couple things.”

“For the love of the Mothers, what?!” Mekkval demanded.

“Did you actually see your Baga’s body?  How can you be sure this one plaguing us is not yours?”

Mekkval made a sound of impatience.  “They brought me her head.  Genetics tests confirmed it was her.  It’s someone else’s agent causing the problems.  I’d suspect one of Jer’ait’s Peacemakers.”

Rat nodded with outward calm, though inside, she was a seething pillar of rage.  “And once we find Zero, what are we supposed to do with him?”

“We discussed this, you furg creature,” Mekkval snapped.  “I’ve already said this four times:  The Trith Council say they need to cut him from all the dimensions at once to properly end his distortions.  But don’t worry about that.  Just send him to me, I’ll send him on to Trith.”

Rat found it hard to breathe.  She felt tears stinging her eyes when she said, “And your slave?  Have you no care whatsoever what we do with her after we capture her?”

Mekkval snorted.  “She is disobedient meat.  I would say breed her, but I never bothered to have that function replaced.  Then again, you should probably breed her anyway.  I owe her that much for humiliating me on Arghatt.  Yet another female that doesn’t know her place.”

“Ah,” Rat whispered.

“Anything else?!” Mekkval demanded.  “I have a meeting to attend to.”

“Probably nothing of consequence,” Rat managed.  “I just wanted to see your face when I told you your slave is dead.”

“Oh, please,” Mekkval snorted.  “Don’t think you can try to negate our bargain by capturing her and hauling her off the planet under the guise of killing her.  I will find out.  I have eyes everywhere.”

“No,” Rat said.  “She is now dead to you.”  Rat turned the comm unit to show the carnage behind her, then returned it to face her.

On the other end, Mekkval had gone still.  “You realize you’re not going to live through this, don’t you?”

“Perhaps you should come down here and we’ll see.”

“Was that a challenge?!” Mekkval screamed.  You?  A Human?”

Her voice ice, Rat said, “I’ve killed more princes than you have, my lord.”

Mekkval bristled, but Rat wasn’t finished.  “First, I’m going to find Keval, then I’m going to help him.  Then I’m going to find Zero, and I’m going to help him.  Then I’m going to find you, you lying, honorless sack of meat.  I will hunt you down.  No matter how deep your den—”

“Stop it,” Mekkval blurted, recoiling.

“—how thick your slaves, how many your sons. I will fight my way to wherever you hide and spill your entrails at my feet.  I will ensure your heirs denounce your name, and your wives line my den with their gold.  I swear this oath—”

“Don’t,” Mekkval warned.

“—from the heart of a warrior, the soul of a prince.  May my heirs record and remember this oath I make to you, for I will not end my hunt until—”

Stop!” Mekkval snapped.

“—you are dead.”

Mekkval went very quiet on the other end.  Then he made the cutting gesture and the comm unit went dark.

“You know,” Sam said behind her, “if you were angling to get the world hit with an ekhta a couple weeks early, I think you just did it.”

Rat spun and put her gun to Sam’s forehead.  “Password,” she said, trembling.  “Now.”

Sam met her eyes, and apparently didn’t like what he saw there.  “Mad scientist,” he whispered.

Without another word, Rat lowered her gun and went looking for Keval.

-END-


About the Author

The Scientist, the Rat, and the Assassin

My name is Sara King and I’m going to change the world.

No, seriously.  I am.  And I need your help.  My goal is simple.  I want to champion, define, and spread character writing throughout the galaxy.  (Okay, maybe we can just start with Planet Earth.)  I want to take good writing out of the hands of the huge corporations who have had a stranglehold on the publishing industry for so long and reconnect it to the people (you) and what you really want.  I want to democratize writing as an art form.  Something that’s always been controlled by an elite few who have (in my opinion) a different idea of what is ‘good writing’ than the rest of the world, and have been feeding the sci-fi audience over 50% crap for the last 40 years.

To assist me in my goals to take over the world (crap, did I say that out loud??), please leave a review for this book!  It’s the first and easiest way for you guys to chip in and assist your friendly neighborhood writer-gal.  And believe me, every review helps otherwise unknown books like mine stand up against the likes of the Big Boys on an impersonal site like Amazon.

Also, I have an email!  (Totally surprising, I know.)  Use it!  (Don’t you know that fanmail keeps writers going through those dark times when we run out of chocolate???)  I love posting letters on Facebook—gives me something fulfilling to do with my time.  ;)  Shoot me a line!  [email protected]

You can also SIGN UP FOR MY MAILING LIST!  Seriously, I give away free books, ask people to beta-read scenes and novels, and give updates on all the series I’m currently working on.  Stay informed! 

And, for those of you who do the Facebook thing, check me out:  http://www.facebook.com/kingfiction (personal) or http://www.facebook.com/sknovel (my author page) or stay up to date on continuous new ZERO publications with The Legend of ZERO fan page:  http://www.facebook.com/legendofzero


Afterword

This is one of many ZERO novellas (technically, this one was 85,000 words, so it’s actually considered a novel by a lot of folks) that will be coming out in the next few months as I try to work my way up to finishing ZERO4.  About half of this story was cut directly from the next ZERO novel, and the rest I intended to put in Book 4, but my Muse was failing me because already, Book 4 was enormous (about 200k words on paper, with another 400k+ in my head to make it all work) and it was clogging up the works.

As you probably noted, however, it was fun and important to the storyline, so I needed to find a way to get it to the readers.  Thus, its current format as a novella.  I’ll be doing that with a few others in order to finalize Book 4 and keep Joe at the forefront of the book where he should be, so keep your eyes out for the rest!

Also, I know I’ve said this before (I repeat myself because few people actually believe me…but kick themselves afterwards) if you liked ZERO, you’d probably like Outer Bounds: Fortune’s Rising and Millennium Potion: Wings of Retribution.  Like ZERO, they’re both character sci-fi novels that’ll rock your world, but for some reason they didn’t win the popularity lottery.  (And we all know what a great indication of quality popularity is.)

And guys?  Thanks.  You are freakin’ awesome.


Sara Recommends

The Scientist, the Rat, and the Assassin

If you’re looking for another great character novel by an independent author, try Changes by Charles Colyott.  He’s one of the very best indie character writers I’ve ever read, and he’s woefully undiscovered by the masses.  Here’s an excerpt of his Tai Chi sci-fi thriller:

Changes

By Charles Colyott

Chapter 1

Yu Bei:  Preparation.

I fell into the stance effortlessly and stood until my breath came slow, quiet, and easy.  I focused on the feel of stale air on my skin, the flash of dust motes gleaming golden in the sunlight, and the stink of rotting fish from the dumpster down in the alley.  Cardboard boxes still lined the walls of my apartment, stacked in random, leaning columns; I ignored them.  Cobwebs caught the light and shone against the dingy ceiling; a wayward water beetle scrabbled along the floor, looking for a meal or, perhaps, a way back to its home.  And through the open windows, guttural shouts in Cantonese, bits of conversation in lilting Mandarin, and heat: oppressive, humid, Midwestern heat.  I pushed the distractions from my mind.

Qi Shi:  Begin.

I start to move, searching for the stillness in motion, the motion in stillness.  The postures shift from one to another without pausing, without breaking.  ‘Grasp Sparrow’s Tail’ to ‘Single Whip,’ flowing into ‘Lift hands’.  I moved through them, my mind quiet, almost peaceful.  It was a refreshing change.

If someone asked me why I still practiced Tai Chi, after everything, I’m not sure I could give them an answer.  I would probably say that it was comforting or relaxing, or maybe I would quote some study about the health benefits of the practice, but none of that was it, not really.  I just kept on doing it.

The ringer was off on the phone, but I heard the answering machine whir to life in the kitchen. A voice, incoherent and low, muttered something gruff and clicked loudly as the caller hung up.  I pushed it out of my head, something to handle later, after.  By the time I began the first ‘Cloudy Hands’ set, my arms felt heavy, inflated, and numb.  Sometime during the third section of the form, the damned machine started muttering again - more incoherent male voice, a bit more urgent and pissy-sounding this time.  Whoever it was, they would just have to wait.

After closing the form, I glanced at the clock.  Fifty-five minutes from start to finish, and my muscles knew it.  My thighs and calves burned and glistened with a layer of sweat.  I went to the fridge, grabbed a beer, and took a long pull from the glass bottle, relishing the wave of chills that started in my throat and stomach and spread outward through my body.

I listened to my messages.  Both were from some cop, a Detective Knox, and he said he wanted to ask me a few questions.  About what, he didn’t say.  I called the station, spoke to the detective, and told him he could meet me in twenty minutes.

I showered but didn’t bother to shave.  After running a towel through my hair, I bunched it into a ponytail, and got dressed - loose, black drawstring pants and a white tank top.  I slipped on my battered black Converse All-Stars, grabbed a cardboard box from the kitchen table, took another beer from the fridge, and left.

A flight of steep, narrow stairs lead down to street level to my shop.  As I emerged from the relatively cool, dim entryway, I shaded my eyes from the sun and once again cursed my particular migratory choice.  I couldn't have picked someplace like San Francisco.  No, it had to be St. Louis…  The city with the shittiest excuse for a Chinatown I've ever seen.  I like to call it China-street.

I unlocked the front door of my shop and went in, greeted as ever by the familiar sour stink of herbs and the cloying, medicinal smell of antiseptics.  A stack of bills littered the floor by the mail slot.  I kicked them into the corner, halfway under a bookshelf, dropped the box on the counter, and went in the back room to start a pot of coffee.  I don’t drink the stuff much myself, but I keep it around for clients.  I’ve never known a cop to turn down a free cup of coffee.

I was drinking my beer and checking my appointment book when the cop showed up.  I knew him immediately from the bad suit; somebody needed to tell this kid Miami Vice was cancelled ages ago.  He was a youngish guy, maybe mid-thirties, very yuppie.  Very clean-shaven.  Either that or his face hadn’t figured out how to grow hair yet.  He walked in, looked around as I finished scribbling notes on the calendar, and finally said, "I’m looking for Mr. Lee?"

"That’s me."  I said.

"You’re Randall Lee?"

I nodded.

"And this is your place." He said.

It wasn’t really a question, but I answered it anyway.

He frowned, probably thinking that there must’ve been some sort of mistake.  I was used to the reaction.

"I guess," he said, rubbing his bare chin, "I just figured you’d be more…"

I raised an eyebrow.

"…Oriental," he finished.

I took the box from the counter, slid my fingers under the thick brown packing tape, and pulled.

"Things are oriental, Detective.  People are Asian.  As you say, I am neither.  Just another Gwailo like yourself."

He put his hands on his hips, probably in an attempt to look powerful or intimidating.  He just ended up looking pouty.

"How long you been a cop?" I asked.

"Why?"

"Curious, that’s all."

"Almost seven years." he said.

I glanced at his shiny badge, prominently displayed, as it was, on his belt, and said, "And a detective?"

"Two months."

"And you’ve been working this neighborhood for those two months?"

"Mostly, yeah." He said.

I nodded and said, "How’s that been working out for you?"

He sneered a little. "Y’know what, pal?  I don’t really need any shit from you, alright?"

"What exactly do you need from me, Detective?"  I said.

His face clouded. I couldn’t tell if it was anger, embarrassment, or, most likely, a little of both.  Conflicted as he was, I figured it might take a while for him to spill it.  So I carried my box over to the shelves of herbs and began unpacking.

"Look, the department doesn’t typically enlist the help of civilians but we’re a bit short on resources at the moment…"

I brushed Styrofoam peanuts from the packing list and gave it a quick once-over.

"…and we’ve got a situation right now… are you even paying attention?"

I looked up at him, hefting a bag of Siberian Ginseng, and said, "Absolutely, but you’ll excuse me if I work as we talk?  I’m a little busy."

"There was a murder last night.  A Chinese prostitute."  He said the word slowly, with emphasis.  Smartass.  I was starting to like him a little.

"So?" I said.

"So nobody’s talking to us ‘white devils’, and we got nobody on the force who speaks Chinese."

I looked up.  "How is that possible?"

"We only ever had a few to begin with.  A couple joined Homeland Security, and Joanie - she was the last one – she’s on maternity leave."

"So… you need a translator." I said.

"Well, yeah, but we were hoping to find somebody they’d talk to.  Y’know, one of them."

"I could show them my jade secret decoder ring." I said.

He frowned and said, "You’re kind of an asshole, you know that?"

"I get that a lot, yeah."

He stared at me for a minute.

He turned to leave.

As he reached for the door, I said, "Alright, Detective, my first appointment’s not till two-thirty.  That gives us a couple hours."

Chapter 2

Knox drove a white, unmarked sedan.  The big boxy thing may as well have had a giant speaker on the roof blasting the theme to Cops, though; nobody but a cop would be driving that thing around.  The interior smelled.  It reminded me of a time when I was a kid and somebody puked in the school bus.

"Your car smells like baked-in vomit," I said conversationally.

"Thanks," he replied.  "Man, I could really use some coffee.  You want some coffee?"

"I made some, actually…forgot to offer you any, though."

"Am I supposed to say that it’s the thought that counts?"

I shrugged and said, "So, what happened to her?"

"Who?"

"The girl we’re asking around about.  You got ADHD or something?"

"We’re looking into it."

"The girl or the ADHD?"

"The hooker." he said.  He wasn’t as amused as I was, apparently, with my wit.  I was pretty used to that.

"I know I’m not a cop," I said, "but isn’t it usually sort of obvious how somebody was killed?"

"Yeah.  Usually."

"But not this time?"

"No."

He stared out the window, presumably at a couple of kids playing in the parking lot of an old, boarded up Church’s Fried Chicken.

"Why not?"  I said.

He looked at me.  "Why you wanna know so much?  All you have to do is ask the questions and tell me the answers.  Just translation, that’s all."

I shrugged.  "Hey, you came to me for help, detective.  If I don’t know a bit about what’s going on I might not translate so good…"

He made a snuffly-sighing sound and tapped his fingers on the steering wheel.  "Alright, but you don’t say shit to anybody about this, got it?" he said.

"Sure."

"…She was blue."

"It’s my understanding that’s a time-honored tradition among corpses."

Knox glared at me and sighed.  "I’m not talking about regular dead body blue.  She was…really fucking blue."

Okie dokie.

"And naked, but no marks on her anywhere.  No sign of struggle, no sign of sexual contact.  Her hands were balled up real tight, fingers all bunched up like fucking claws."

"O.D.?"  I said.

"No sign of a needle or anything else.  Preliminaries say her blood was clean.  Plus… and you tell this shit to the papers and I’ll kick your fucking ass… Her eyes were filled up with blood…from the inside, y’know?  Same with her nose and mouth… it was like something inside her…popped.  Coroner said he’d never seen anything like it."

Interesting.

"Still," I said, "you called it murder… if you can’t even tell how she died, how can you be sure?"

"She was laid out."

"What do you mean?"

"You’ll see," he said.

It was the last thing either of us said before we hit the east side.  Knox had to swerve to avoid hitting a pair of feral dogs fighting over a scrap of garbage in the street.  An eighty pound crack whore shambled along the sidewalk, weaving like a zombie.  Paint peeled from an ancient billboard that proclaimed that Jesus was the answer.  I felt like I must’ve missed the question.

"You ever see that movie Escape from New York?"  Knox said.  "Kurt Russell, John Carpenter...y'know that one?"

"I don't really see a lot of movies," I said.

"It's one of those post-apocalyptic deals.  New York’s a big prison.  Anyway, parts of that movie were filmed right along here."

I can't say I was surprised.  Post-apocalyptic was right.  We passed a block of abandoned buildings, collapsed structures, and burned wreckage.  The ‘Taste of Asia’ spa sat wedged between a strip club and a porn shop.  A pervert’s oasis.  It was a squat, shoebox-shaped building, decked out with neon and amateurish paintings of half-nude geisha girls on the door.  A painted sign on the side of the building proclaimed that, "This establishment is not responsible for damage to your property or person.  Enter at own risk."

We decided to risk it.  We went inside.

The place smelled like cheap cherry air freshener, but underneath was the stink of sweat, cigarette smoke, mildew and mothballs.  I recognized the madam despite her caked-on face paint.  She’d been in to see me a few times about her arthritis.  She spotted me with Knox, looked at the floor, clasped her hands, and bowed.

In Cantonese, she said, "Doctor Lee?  What a surprise… what brings you?"

I told her.

She nodded, wiped an invisible tear from the corner of one pasty eye, and turned to walk away.  She gestured for us to follow.

A few cops milled in and out of the various rooms.  I caught curious looks from some of them.  I felt the irrational urge to smile and wave, but I refrained.

The madam led us to one of the back rooms.  The bitter tang of ammonia stung my nostrils.  I covered my nose with my hand - for all that helped - and followed Knox inside.

"They took the body early this morning, but we’ve kept the rest of the scene the same."  He said.

The massage table, the only furniture in the small room, was covered with white silk.  The floor surrounding it was blanketed in single bills of Monopoly money.  Yellow scraps of paper painted with red ink hung from the walls.  I read the characters on several.  They were mostly insults, gross descriptions of bodily functions, that sort of thing.

Several small jars lay around the room.  I knelt by one and realized that the smell came from them: they were filled with piss.

Lovely.

I wondered whose piss it was and whether there was a way to fingerprint waste products.  Then I realized that I was wasting time.  Sometimes I annoy even myself.

I called to the madam and asked what she knew about the scene.  Her observations weren’t much different from my own.  Her theory on the girl’s death, however, tripped me up momentarily.  I disagreed with her, but she kept on repeating herself.  I turned to Knox.

"Could I see the body?" I asked.

"No.  Why?"

I stared at him and blinked.

He shrugged uneasily and said, "Is it important?"

I kept on staring.

"You can stare at me all day, but that’s not going to get you in to see the body."

"What if I told you that I might be able to give you the cause of death?"

He shrugged again and said, "Alright, alright…Why the fuck not?  It’s all a clusterfuck anyway.  I’ll call ahead, make sure they know I’m bringing you."

We went outside.  I took a deep breath of the (relatively) fresh air.  We got in the car and headed for the morgue.

 Knox said, "What’d the madam say?  The point of you being here, y’know, is to translate.  So fucking translate."

I took a deep breath and said, "She didn’t have much to say.  Superstitious nonsense, mostly.  But listen, detective, whoever killed this girl set everything up like a mock funeral.  They did it as an insult.  Taoists believe that if a person isn’t properly buried their soul cannot rest. Whoever did this… they didn’t just want her dead.  They wanted her damned."

-End Sample-

Get the rest of Changes by Charles Colyott on Amazon here!

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