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The back of the book gave a short blurb describing the action to be found within, and Duggan read it in a slow series of words, his thick lips moving along with the syllables.

When Officer Misty Kein finds herself squaring off against the mob’s number one assassin, it will be her wits and not her badge that will be needed.

He grimaced and slid the volume back onto the shelf. Heavy fingers traced the spines of the other books.

“Can I help you find anything?”

The voice was calm and soft, and Duggan pivoted on a heel to see a cassowary female looking at him. Sharp eyes looked out at him from inside the bright blue colored head, tracking from his hideously scarred face to the obscenities carved into his plastron and tattooed on his flesh. He made no effort to cover himself, as he had made none since arriving on Z262. The uniform that marked him as ArCorp Security did nothing to hide some of his worse markings. Her beak separated to a narrow gap and she tilted her head toward the shelf.

“Ummm,” he said, “The uh, the –”

He waved in a vague motion toward the shelves.

“Books?” she prompted. He nodded.

“Yeah. Book. Lissa. Um, she’s my partner. She said to come here,” he stammered.

“Is there anything specific you are looking for?”

He turned away, looking at the rows of books. “Nah,” he finally muttered. He took a step to the bird’s right. “I ain’t…”

She made a show of looking around them before leaning in toward the enormous tortoise. “You’re not a big reader, right?” she asked. He chuckled.

“At least you didn’t say it like I had done something bad.”

“Not everyone is as addicted to the written word as I am,” she said. She swept a thin arm in a gesture that encompassed the entire building. “This is mostly mine.”

“All of these?” Duggan asked, his eyes widening. He looked back and forth at the shelves around him. They stood to just a hand’s span above his head and ran easily a meter wide. The room had dozens of them, all occupied with various books, magazines, and other reading material.

“I am an avid reader.”

She paused then and slapped her own forehead with a palm. “I am so sorry. My manners these days! I’m Jori. Jori Maleen.”

“Duggan,” he replied, automatically extending a massive hand. When she took it, her fingers were dwarfed. His hand was rough and leathery, with heavy calluses and prominent knuckles that were massive humps under the gray-green skin.

“No last name?” she asked. Her head was tilted again, looking at him from a sideways angle. He smiled and released her tiny hand.

“That is my last name,” he said. “I ain’t used my first name in years, except on legal papers.”

”My father was a Marine,” she said. “I’m familiar. He would have introduced himself with his last name first.”

“Yeah.”

Several seconds passed and he became aware that she was standing still, head remaining cocked ever so slightly to one side as she stared at him. He looked into her eyes. There was no reproach visible there, no hint that she somehow felt less of him since he did not read the way she did. He held the gaze for a moment, noticing for the first time the half-moon of white beneath her left eye. Her beak split in a smile.

“Cron,” he said. “My name is Cron.”

“Lovely to meet you, Cron. Now what kind of book were you looking for?”

He lowered his gaze. “I don’t really know,” he admitted. “I’m just trying to find something to occupy my time between patrols and on my off days, you know? All I read these days are the same six comic books and a couple of old field manuals. Pretty fu… It’s pretty boring,” he said, catching himself before the obscenity slipped out.

“Well, I’m certain there is something here that would catch your fancy,” Jori said. She turned on one thin leg, working her way down an aisle with a bobbing gait. Her sharp extended claws tapped on the floor with a rhythm. After a second, Duggan followed her. He had to turn a bit sideways to fit his bulk between the shelves. The butt of his sidearm bounced off the shelves with every shuffling step.

“Six comic books?” Jori asked, reaching up to the top row. She pulled out plastic containers with various brightly colored covers visible so that he could see them. “I have a few here as well. I don’t know what kind or titles you like best.”

“The ones I have now are mostly action, but I had a subscription to ElectroFox once. That was years back.”

“If you want, you could bring them here, and then others could read them as well,” she told him, pulling down a container. She opened the box.

War Bear,” she said, reading the label. “Issues one-twenty through one-thirty-three. Got them from Zhen Darri over at the mercantile.”

Duggan did not hesitate to slip a massive hand into a pocket of his utility trousers.

“How much?” he asked around the stump of unlit cigar that occupied the corner of his mouth.

Jori turned to regard him, her head tilting once again.

“How much what?”

“For the comics,” he said. He pulled a wallet from his pocket and fanned it open to display a sheaf of corporate scrip.

A honking sound blew past her beak and she raised her left hand in his direction.

“Have you never been in a library?” she asked. Duggan stood for a moment, looking at his wallet in confusion.

“I don’t… No. I haven’t,” he said. “I mean, I’ve been by here and stuff, but not, like, inside.”

She gently pushed at the wallet, directing it back toward Duggan’s enormous form. Her voice was higher when she spoke, and her smile was back.

“You don’t buy these. You borrow them. You come here and you take a book. When you have read it, you bring it back. We put it back on the shelf for someone else to read, and you can take a different one. That’s why I suggested you bring your own comics here. Let others have the joy of reading them.”

“So I ain’t gotta pay for these?”

“Not at all. Just keep them in good condition and bring them back when you have finished. Then we can find you something new to try. They will be around should you wish to revisit them.”

“That’s… I…I can do that,” he said, hesitating as he thought through the process. “I’ll bring you mine when I come back, if that’s okay.”

“Of course it is,” Jori told him. “I look forward to reading them myself.”

“You wanna read my old comics?”

Her eyes rolled back and she made a noise that bordered on ecstatic. A long shudder rolled down her back and her feathers ruffled.

“Oh, my, yes. Something I have not experienced before? A chance to step outside reality and be part of a story for a while? I am a voracious reader, Cron. Nothing makes me as happy.”

“Well, all right, then,” he said. “As long as you’re not gonna tackle me or start screamin’ that I stole your stuff.”

She made the honking noise again, and he realized it was laughter. Her tiny hand came up to touch his muscular upper arm and she leaned against him as she laughed.

“Trust me,” she said. “You’re fine. Let me get you a bag to carry them in.”

“Oh, now, I can take ‘em like this.”

“Not on your life. I’m going to make sure you get something nice,” Jori said, strutting to a long counter and bending down as she reached behind it. “Tackle you,” she said, bursting into laughter again at the thought.

“What made you decide to do this?” he asked. His gesture at the shelves of books was lost on her, unable as she was to see it.

“You mean the library?”

“Yeah. I mean, you’ve got a job, but if you ain’t sellin’ the books, then you ain’t gettin’ paid. How’s that gonna work?”

Her head popped up and she smiled again at him before ducking below the counter once again. “I had a few dozen crates of books in my home, so I told the recruiters that I wanted to open a library. Let the other colonists have a place of refuge, as it were. As to money? ArCorp actually subsidized the idea. They provided me with additional material and allowed me a substantial purchase amount to add even further.”

She emerged a moment later with a bright blue bag of heavy woven material. Thick rope loops made up handles for the bag. She extended it to Duggan, who took it gingerly between his fingers.

“Next time you come, you’ll have a bag to carry books in,” she said. “From now on, as often as you want.”

He slipped the issues of War Bear into the bag in as cautious a manner as he was able.

“I’ll bring you those others tomorrow,” he said in a solemn tone.

“There’s no rush,” she assured him. “Take your time. Bring them when you return the ones you have. I’ll be here. Well, as long as you come during office hours,” she added.

His lips split into a smile, which took the edge off of his fierce countenance for a moment.

“I’ll do that,” he said. He turned for the door, but Jori was a step ahead of him, her arm flashing up to a shelf and holding out a thin book. Duggan recognized it as the one about the cop and the assassin.

“You were looking at this one?” she asked.

“Uhh, yeah. How did you…”

“You left it sticking out past the others. Lucky guess on my part.”

“Oh. I wasn’t sure if it was… I didn’t…”

“Lots of violence in it,” she said, taking the pressure off of him. “I don’t know if you’re ready to handle that.”

“Jori, I’m –” he began, looking at her for the moment it took for him to realize she had been joking. He chuckled then, a deep rumbling within his chest.

“You got me,” he said.

She winked in reply and tipped the novel into his bag. “I think you should try this one,” she said. “Let me know what you think. It was very nice to meet you, Cron.”

“You too, Jori. I’ll see ya when I come back,” Duggan told her as he stepped out of her shop and into the heat of the early afternoon. His eyes rebelled against the glare of the brilliant yellow sun that hammered down onto the baked ground.

“I look forward to it. Have fun!” she called.

The door closed behind him and Duggan took off down the street, the blue bag swinging in his hand. He waved at a pair of calico-patterned cats in mining outfits, sending a happy grin their way.

When he opened the door to his home, Lissa was there. The mongoose was reclined on his couch, stuffing something crunchy into her mouth and washing it down with one of his beers.

“Where ya been?” she asked, swallowing.

“Book place,” he said. She had known him long enough to catch the excitement in his tone.

“You went? Good on ya!” Lissa said, sitting up. She necked the bottle and swallowed three times before setting it onto his coffee table.

“I did,” he said. He pulled out the comics and the novel, holding them with a gentleness that bordered on reverence. He looked at them for a moment and then up at his partner.

“Jori’s nice,” he said.

“Jori?”

“She works there. Runs the place. Cassowary female.”

“Oh. I never got her name,” Lissa admitted.

“I did. She’s nice,” he repeated. He turned a stare on Lissa, silently daring her to make fun of him. She shook her head, knowing it was what he expected.

“I’m glad.”

“Thanks for telling me where to go.”

She laughed a quick bark of a laugh. “I’m good at telling you where to go,” she said. “Tell you what though: You start reading more than manuals on machine guns, and we’ll be even.”

He held up the novel, displaying the picture of the sleek Shepherd cop pointing a handgun at a duster-clad Doberman.

“I know just where to start.”

 

<<<END>>>

The rumbling through the floor brought Jinx out of a sound sleep even before the roaring of the explosion rocked her small home. Like a thunderclap with added bass, the sound cracked two of her windows, the glass blowing inward a frantic heartbeat later as the wave of force struck.

She was out of bed and diving across the floor before the echoes had begun to fade. Her tail twitched back and forth like an angry serpent as she grabbed at the pants she had worn when she saw Emiko yesterday. Shoving her feet into them, she jerked them up over her legs, fighting for a second to get over the thickest part of her thighs. Two snaps and a click later, and the belted garment was in place.

A quick step to the wall, avoiding putting her feet in the glass that now littered the grimy carpet, she jerked her head up to the edge of the window and just as quickly brought it back down. The jumbled images she had seen sorted themselves as she concentrated on making sense of the vision.

The explosion had been a couple blocks away, judging from the smoke and dust in the area. Flames were still licking at trees and a cacophony of distant vehicle alarms began to drift on the air. The sun had barely crested the horizon.

“Been two good months. Guess I shoulda seen it coming,” she whispered to herself, turning away from the window. There was no need to look further yet. The fact that it had been centered where it was meant there was no direct threat to her and she could finish dressing.

It was only then that she noticed the weight of the Ferox in her hand. The heavy pistol had been under her pillow as she slept. Grabbing it before leaving the relative comfort of the shabby bed was a reflex action. She slipped it into the holster that was still attached to the belt on her pants, tucking the metal inside her waistband and pressing the warm grips to her ribs.

The closet yielded a soft green tunic that wrapped over her shoulders and then angled across her torso in an overlapping ‘X’ pattern to button again at the waist. The blouse flared at the hips and dropped another hands’ span in a ruffled effect that served to distract the eye from noticing the butt of the heavy pistol if it happened to be visible through the fabric.

She pulled down the bright orange medical kit from above her kitchen sink and glanced at the contents. A half dozen plastic bandages for minor cuts, alcohol wipes, antiseptic pads, and a small roll of gauze. It had been a part of the house that she had accepted as just being there all along. Now she understood why. The gauze went in a pocket and the remainder of the kit sailed into the garbage can. A drawer yielded a fistful of shirts that with the help of her knife could be made into bandages.

She jammed her feet into her boots and threw open the creaking front door. Careful not to put her full weight on the left side of the broken third step, she dashed from the house and toward the scene.

“Get back inside,” she called out to Ira Morehouse and his wife Anj. “It’s not safe!”

The two poodles had stepped out onto the porch as she approached, curious as to the nature of the explosion. The pointed finger by the sprinting serval was met with a nod and a wave as they turned back toward their broken down home. The windows along the front facing were all shattered and most had been blasted into the building. They would spend the day sweeping and repairing, but both of the Morehouses knew enough to listen to Jinx when she sounded authoritative.

It had been two days after the serval arrived in their neighborhood that Ira was attacked by a trio of young mutts intent on taking the older dog’s briefcase. His initial resistance bought him a beating, and even after he relinquished the case, their sense of being disrespected overrode their greed and they didn’t stop the onslaught of paws. When Jinx stepped in, the first warning any of them had was the crack of bone as she applied a length of metal pipe to the knee of one attacker. As the pup went down with a shriek, she launched into a rapid attack sequence that put the other two mutts down and out within a few seconds. Not a single one of the three escaped without at least one broken bone, and blood painted the sidewalk in quantity.

Showing as much tenderness as she had violence, Jinx helped Ira to his feet and walked him to his house. His briefcase was retrieved and she wiped the spattered blood off it with the sleeve of her own shirt. Only after she was certain that he was all right and ensconced in his house with Anj did Jinx return to the battered mutts.

“My turf now,” she said, pinching the muzzle of the kneecapped one shut so he was forced to listen. “If I see you or these two here again, and I mean ever, I’ll kill you. Prison don’t mean shit to me, pup, not after the places I’ve been. I’ll get free food and a roof over my head. You’ll be telling Gann why you were a disappointment in this life. Got it?”

His head quivering as he tried to hold back tears, the pup nodded. Jinx handed him the bloody pipe she had used on him and his partners.

“You can use it as a crutch,” she said. “Try to hit me with it, though, and your other knee goes too.”

She stood and walked away without a backward glance at the maimed thug. From that day on, she and the Morehouses had maintained a friendly relationship.

That had been two months ago, and inwardly, she marveled at how long it had taken for something bad to happen. She skirted a sedan that had been parked in the street. It had no glass left and the left side looked as though a dozen Folk had gone after it with sledgehammers.

The first injured she found was a calico cat in a t-shirt that advertised some celebrity she did not recognize. The cat was in shock, with his eyes blank and staring as blood ran down his face. She checked his wounds and found them to be multiple small cuts, likely from blown glass, and abandoned him to move deeper toward the scene of the blast. Already the sound of sirens could be heard in the distance.

She moved on for another block, helping an elderly skunk with his cuts and an early morning jogger who had been taken by surprise. Her leg would recover given time, and Jinx left her with a t-shirt wrapped around the chunk of metal buried in her thigh and half of a second shirt pressed to the worst of the shrapnel wounds.

She smelled chemicals and smoke on the wind now. The fires that had erupted in response to the blast had burned inside businesses and residences, and the mingled scents gnawed at the sensitive tissues of her nose. Debris was more common now, and she frequently had to step over or around objects that should not have been where they were. Mailboxes and pieces of trees blocked sidewalks and streets.

She turned left on Flagler street and the epicenter of the blast loomed in her vision. It had been in front of the noodle shop, wiping out the small eatery and the apartment above it. The car that had borne the explosives had left a huge hole in the ground, and very little remained of it. Part of the chassis was embedded in the front of the toy store across from where the noodle shop had been.

“Good thing it was early!” shouted a voice. Jinx looked past the blast scene to see a brown bear headed her way at a waddling run. He was kind of cute, she noted before shutting off that part of her thoughts.

“Yeah,” she agreed, peering into the toy store. The inside was a shambles. The inventory had been blasted across the shop and the overhead sprinklers had activated in response to fire of some kind. Filthy water ran on the floor where it was soaked up by plush dolls that no one would ever play with after today.

“Anything good?” the bear asked as he neared. She arched a brow.

“What?”

“In the store. Anything good?”

“Blown up toys.” She was unable to keep the distaste from her voice. Sharp eyes looked him over once more. Before he could speak again, she pointed back the way he came.

“You might want to head back that way. Bad things happen to Folk around me, and they get worse when I know they’re here to loot a disaster scene.”

“Hey, I’m just –”

The words cut off, dying in his throat as Jinx slipped the Ferox from its rig. The bore of the pistol looked big enough to step into when it pointed at his face.

“Now,” she said.

He turned to flee, and she could taste his fear on the air. She returned the pistol to its holster and went back to looking for injured.

She was on her knees holding a shirt to the bleeding head of a bus driver when the security forces announced themselves. The leopard had been caught in the blast as he prepped his machine for its first run of the day. Stunned by the attack, he had been thrown into the frame of the bus and split his head open on impact. He was there until the serval had found him slumped against the front tire of his bus. He mumbled as she held him, less than half his words coherent. Blood traces in his ears and nose spoke of the overpressure.

“This cat needs an ambulance,” she said, swiveling her head in a slow arc to make out the tiger that loomed behind her. He had a shotgun in hand and a pistol on his hip, and wore a uniform that was already stained and dirty from what he had seen this morning.

“He’ll get it. What about you?”

“I live back that way,” she said, tilting her head toward her home. “Came to see if I could help.”

“You a medic?”

“Nah. Learned basic aid in the army.”

“Lucky you were here.”

“Trust me, pal. Luck isn’t involved. There’s a reason they call me Jinx.”

“Ah. Bad luck then?”

“More than you could know.”

He handed her a business card. “Well, you’re helping keep him alive,” he told her, nodding toward the leopard she held. “Doesn’t sound so bad to me. Stay here with him. Medical is on the way. Once they get here, start working your way out. Anyone hassles you, show them my card and tell them Vidor said you were ok. I’m moving on.”

Without waiting for questions or comments from her, he was gone, stalking away on powerful legs.

“Thanks,” she said to his back. In her lap, the bus driver moaned and she returned her attention to him.

“We’ll have you out of here before you know it,” she said.

She glanced down at the card. She had left a bloody fingerprint on it already.

“Figures,” she muttered, wiping it on her pants.

<<END>>

Author’s note: The following tales are a composite of a single event, each told from the point of view of their narrative character: A local townie bent on revenge, a corporate employee, and a street thief.  Each piece was designed to be a small bite of the environment at hand. The stories are set in the fictional world of Lester Smith’s Dark Conspiracy roleplaying game (Copyright 1991, Game Designers’ Workshop).

 

Anthill Morning

The Shooter

He’s ahead of me in the crowd and I ain’t planning to let him get away. That stupid red shirt from last year’s Decline concert marks him good and gives me a point of reference, but on the other hand the weather is not as crappy as usual and so the streets are packed. The sidewalk is like swimming through people, and when I try stepping onto the street itself I damn near get a Zil enema.

Homey’s keeping up a moderate pace. Doesn’t seem to be in a hurry. That makes it easier to follow someone, but to be honest I would just as soon he gets where he’s going. Shooting a man on a city street ain’t big on my list for today.

Witnesses are gonna be a bitch no matter what. Pop a couple caps in some monkey, even here in the upper Anthill, and folks are gonna take notice. The kick will be limiting exposure. If he’ll just go into a store or something, somewhere that limits vision and blocks some of the sound, I’ll splash his head all over the walls and just keep trucking. I kind of hope he goes into some clothing store. Wrap the .45 in a heavy shirt or something, and maybe that will mitigate the sound. Worked for Tyrone What’s-his-name in that spy film last year.

He strolls past the big Asian market thing like he can’t even hear them calling out to him. I snatch up one of those little bottled soda things and toss some aged mama-san a couple wadded notes as payment. I don’t care about any change, even though I hear her call out that I have some coming. I just turn and wink at her while taking a drink. She smiles and pockets the change.

If things go the way they could, I won’t need any money after today. Either I’ll get back the case and be able to sell it for enough to retire, or I’ll get arrested — or I’ll get dead. Either one means about the same thing as far as those bits of scrip go.

He starts cutting eastbound and passes by a Night Shift. I see his eyes reflected in the glass. I’m too close. If he sees me… The .45 feels like a brick in my waistband, but if I have to I’ll drill this asshole right here. He runs a hand back across his hair, slicking it down where the wind is getting to it.

The rain starts. Not sure why it waited this long, but it’s those early showers that just feel good and get you a little wet. The big storms will come later, not that this murdering sack of shit is gonna be around for any of it. That ain’t the kind of wet he’s gonna be. Dude comes into my house and ganks my friends, steals my cargo, and thinks I ain’t coming after him, then he needs to think again.

I stop for a second at a vendor. Let him get a few extra steps. The distance will help. I hadn’t realized I was getting that close until I was looking over his shoulder. A couple bucks later and I’m munching on some kind of meat on a stick. It’s either really shitty myco or it’s fairly tasty mouse. I ain’t asking which. I see him further east, ducking behind the big grocery store. I’m actually glad he didn’t go in there. They’ve got sec men that have good relations with the local badges. That means they remember people who do things like execute their customers. Hell, they’ll probably shoot back, and they actually know what they’re doing. Me, I’m running off what that Devil Bat showed me when he sold the gun to me.

I round the corner and see that he has passed the big game shop. There’s a little space out beside it with some tables and benches and stuff where people used to meet for chess games and romantic talks and such. I can see him making a casual approach. There are half a dozen people there at various tables. I’m throwing out the two Dobies making out, and the dude smoking a cheap cigar while he reads the latest issue of HiTek Dreamz is a no-brainer. It’s the mook in the business suit that looks entirely out of place and I figure that’s his mark. He’s gonna give my case to this nome wannabe? Not today.

As he takes another slow step forward, I make three of my own. My heart is racing faster than my steps. I reach for the metal and it fits my hand like it was made for it. I bring it out of my waistband and look down to make sure the safety thing is off. I cock it with my thumb and make the next few steps his last.

“This is for Shank and Leo,” I say as the gun comes up. He starts to turn and then it’s bucking in my hand. So loud. I can see the empty shell flying up and away as I pull the trigger again. His head is pretty much gone. He’s still falling but I grab the case and rip it out of his hands. It’s already sticky with his blood. So is Suit Boy, and a part of me thinks that’s pretty funny.

I turn and cut back up parallel to Penn in the alley. I keep seeing his head crack open. I’m gonna puke. I know I am, but I can’t yet. Heading north now, putting on speed. The badges will be coming. CorpSec or HardCop, it won’t matter if I get caught. Only difference there will be Corpers putting me down while the real ones do the arrest thing.

There’s a mushhead sitting by the sidewalk at Mackie’s, behind his coin bucket. Looks like he ate half of PharmaTech’s inventory. I can hear the sirens as I kneel down by him. Jesus, he stinks. He turns and mutters something as I shove a pile of scrip in his bucket and tell him some crap about God watching over him. The .45 fits real good under the piled up coat and assorted crap he’s got stacked beside him. I pat him on the head like a puppy and keep moving, though I change to the west now. Two blocks up and no pursuit. Time to change directions.

It’s about two more blocks when the thought of what I did really sinks in. I grab a trash can out beside Taste of Taipei and rip off the cover. The maggots crawling over whatever is in the can make it even easier and the fried mouse comes back up in a rush of cheap Japanese soda and bile. I wipe my mouth and straighten up.

“You did good back there,” I hear. I jump. Whoever they are, they got close without me hearing. I turn to see her, all slick looking and very much at ease here. Nice clothes. Heh. Nice rack. I look back up to see her smile. An eyebrow arches and she glances down at my waist. As I start to look down too, she’s in motion. The foot hits me square in the balls and the world explodes into brilliant swirls of color. I reach for her but she’s already inside my grasp. I can feel the knife then, in and out, in and out. Stabbing me so fast. It doesn’t feel like anything at first but now it’s starting to feel somehow cold and hot at the same time. That obsessive part of me wants to count the times she put it in me but I can’t. Making the thoughts stick is hard.

I can feel her pulling the case. It’s mine. I need it. You can’t have it. Gotta keep hold.

Cold.

Getting dark. Why is it so dark?

 

The Buyer

What a filthy place.

How do people even live here?

I dodge a puddle of water that is brimming with scum. That would ruin my shoes.

I passed out of the last Controlled Zone five blocks ago, but this area should be classed as a complete NoGo. I saw actual street gangs. Not the kind on the trid, but real, actual criminal gang members, with knives and bats and stuff. One of them even had a gun. I saw the handle thing sticking out of his pants. The briefing dossier on this area is in serious need of a rewrite.

This had better pay off or I am going to be angry. I can’t believe I had to come here. I deserve so much better than this. It has to be Brantley and his interference. I’ll be filing a complaint as soon as I get back and can get the stench of this place out of my clothes.

I step around a bundle that might well be a used diaper and keep walking. There’s a man in a robe up ahead, waving some kind of book. He sounds like some kind of trid evangelist. As I get near, his eyes light up and he starts talking to me like I’m some kind of long lost family member.

Someone bumps into me and I spin, reaching up to hold onto the thick packet in my breast pocket. Well, she wasn’t attacking me. She looks to be intoxicated or something. It’s a pity. She’s a pretty thing. She lifts her breasts and wiggles them through her soft grey blouse.

“Wanna party?” she mumbles, smiling at me. Why on earth would anyone want to ‘party’ with someone obviously on drugs? Unable to form words to express my level of discomfort and lack of desire to be with her, I point to my wedding band and turn back in time to see the evangelist grinning at the girl. She wanders away singing as he begins to tell me something about my soul. As if I need a lecture on my soul from a man lusting after that drug-addled street girl.

Giving up on the evangelist, I turn away and nearly walk into a gorgeous young girl with bright purple hair. I never thought that facial piercings were all that attractive, but on her, they certainly seem to work. For a moment I am lost in thought, and then I remember why I am here, just in time to catch an angry glare from the hairy man in the leather straps that is her escort. He looks like one of those arena fighters Mildred likes to watch on the trid. Knowing what I’ve seen in this area, he’s probably her pimp. I sigh and move on. It’s for the best. If they knew what I was carrying, they would probably rob me.

I step around the edge of some store selling “smoking accessories”, although what I can see inside there doesn’t have anything to do with decent cigars. There are yet more freaks in there. This place is horrid.

Someone has their music turned up too loud. It’s offensive. No one wants to hear your – it’s in a car? That loud and it’s in a car? How can they drive? If this was home, the security forces would have torn that thing into scrap metal and you dirty people would be – don’t get out! Don’t get out! No no no.

That man just pulled some kind of giant gun from under his jacket and stuck it in the nose of the man on the corner, and then dragged him right into the loud car. They just took that guy right off the corner! No one’s going to stop them. No police, no security force. How do people even live here?

There’s a coffee shop up ahead on my right that doesn’t seem to have too much going on. Maybe I can get something to drink. I wonder what the chances are of them having a caramel macchiato?

I order one and the fat man behind the counter – with a nose ring, of all things – tells me they only have coffee. I get one with as much cream as they will put in it. Powdered cream in what was undoubtedly thrift store coffee. It tastes as bad as it looks but it’s vaguely approaching coffee.

It’s started to rain, and I notice no one is carrying an umbrella. The majority of the people get closer to awnings or doorways, but no one is putting on any protective gear. What are they going to do when the acid hits?

South of the alleged coffee shop, I see my meeting place. Just past a place selling games and cards and little tiny figures, there’s a picnic area — or at least that’s what it looks like. Plastic tables and benches, a random assortment of round tables with loose plastic chairs, and the occasional trash can.

I take up space in a seriously uncomfortable chair. I’m going to get dust all over my suit, but at least I’ll be able to see the seller when he arrives. I figure I will have to burn the suit anyway. After being down in this neighborhood, there is no hope for it. I can smell the stink of a bad cigar on the wind, and when I look, I can see the fat man smoking it. He’s reading some magazine. HiTek Dreamz? Really? Look at you. The closest you’ll get to anything HiTek is right there in your magazine. You’re as likely to end up in my part of town as those two nasty men kissing behind you. Nobody wants to see that! Save it for the bedroom.

He’s three minutes late. Three minutes. I’ve seen men fired for less. When he gets here I’m going to give him a piece of my mind. I do not like being kept waiting. A lack of punctuality shows disrespect for your business partner.

Is that him? That’s a courier case, at least. He’s heading my way. It looks like this is the right guy. Time to remember that stupid code phrase. What was it? I can’t remember. Think. Think. Here he comes. Something about a giraffe.

Who is that? Dear sweet Jesus, he’s got a –

He shot him! He shot him! It’s so loud! I can’t hear anything. Oh God, he just killed him! It’s all over me and I’m gonna be sick and oh my God please don’t kill me!

He can keep the case, just don’t let him kill me please oh please.

He’s running away and I hear the men behind me screaming and running. All I can see is this thing on my table. It’s like some kind of opened fruit. A moment ago this was a human being. Now it’s just –

I lean over and vomit onto the concrete. My hands are shaking and I heave again. My eyes are stinging from the acid going up my nose.

“Well, damn. That’s gonna leave a mark,” I hear. I straighten up. There’s blood and brain on my shirt and I feel my body trying to be sick again. Swallowing, I turn to look.

She’s lovely, even squeezed into whatever that outfit is. I suppose it must be fashionable somewhere. I wish my suit wasn’t ruined. I can at least smile at her. She looks familiar.

“Hey, aren’t you -” I start to ask.

She sticks a hand out and I automatically reach to shake it before I realize she’s holding a knife. The smile hasn’t faded from her mouth, but she’s holding a knife on me!

“Inside right breast pocket, mister. You know what I’m here for. Don’t try to play hero and you’ll be back in your MikeTown haven by sunset. Anything stupid and they’ll find your bloody corpse right here with dead boy.”

As if I’m going to do anything. She’s got a knife. I’m not some trid hero fighter. And just like that, there goes thirty thousand. How am I going to explain what happened here? Money gone and nothing to show for it? God, they’ll fire me.

She’s a ghost now, just a flicker of motion beyond the next building, moving at a full run that I couldn’t keep up with on my best day. I scratch my head and look around. Everyone ran away, but now some people are starting to drift back and peek around the corners of the buildings. Oh no. They’re going to think I did this!

I’m up and moving. Back past the front of the game store, with its inhabitants peering through barred glass at me as I run. My suit is filthy and no one pays me a second glance this time as I fly past them. If they let me keep my job, I’m never coming back here. Not once.

 

The Booster

“Bring that case and all will be forgiven.”

You know, when you hear that kind of thing, it makes you wonder why you got into this line of work in the first place. When it’s coming at you from the Don, that question is a deafening scream. Most folks don’t get a second chance, but based on my past history, he’s prepared to allow me a shot.

So to make reparations, I’m shadowing this MikeTown idiot through the south side. According to our intel, he’s meeting with the seller this morning. If I follow him, he’ll lead me straight to the case.

Friggin’ tourist. He’s so lost here. You can tell he doesn’t come down from his ivory tower real often. I keep wanting to walk up and escort him to where we’re going just to get past the way he stops and stares at everything. I mean, seriously? What kind of dumbass is gonna give the hairy eyeball to a crew of Ragged Ones? I just hope he doesn’t do anything irreparably stupid before I can get to the case. After that, he’s on his own.

He wanders along with his head up his ass, heading straight for a street preacher. Dude’s all waving his arms and lecturing, but this idiot is gonna walk right into him. I wanna yell at him: Skirt him. Go right. Go right — but it won’t do any good.

And now I’ve gotta go past him while he hears the good word or some shit. Well, at least I can make this a profitable move.

I bump into him as I pass, just so. Two pockets checked and I’m snatching what feels like a bankbook of some type. No heavy wads of scrip. Unless this book has a fortune hidden in about three sheets I’m screwed.

“Sorry, man,” I mumble, taking on the affect of a stoned out Gidget. I let a sleepy smile pass across my face as I see him protectively clutch at the right breast of his immaculate suit. In response I cup both of mine and shake them at him a little. “Wanna party?”

He looks disgusted – which is, I must say, kind of an ego blow – even as the street preacher licks at his lips and grins at me. At least I’m not completely scragged.

As the mark sputters a protest I slide past, stumbling through the steps of some dance that goes with the Queenly Flux tune I start warbling. I slap the ass of an over-pierced drag queen with purple hair as she walks by, escorted by a tatted-up bear in some S&M leather harness crap who gives me a dirty look but doesn’t say anything.

I’m past them now and veering into a shite little bodega. I duck behind a merch rack and wait for Idiot Boy to get away from the preacher. Cursing my luck at picking the place with the most hideous fashion ever, I pluck a t-shirt from a rack and slip it over my head. Great. Alabama Meat Packing. Really? Souvenir shirts from a meat company? Whatever. It’ll keep the mark from recognizing me, I guess. I top it off with a skate beanie and an Adolph Coors – the only water I can see in this place with an honest-to-God factory seal on it. Twenty-seven bucks later, I’m out the door about fifty feet behind Suit Boy…and then ducking in the doorway of a taquiera while he stands open-mouthed and watches a Devil Bat snatch-and-grab. It’s a money hit, what with them actually throwing the guy in their car rather than just whacking him.

I flag the shopkeep and order a taco. The mark is arguing with the counter guy at a coffee shop, so I might as well get a snack. Why in the hell can this asshole not just go to his damned meet? I slip the pinched bankbook out and give it a glance. Not a bankbook after all. Corporate ID pouch. Nice. That’ll bring a few ducats.

It starts to drizzle. Cool drops. Not too thick yet, but as humid as the air is, it’s coming. I want to be through with this before the chem storms hit.

He moves again after a few minutes sipping at an overpriced something in a brown cup and now he’s cutting south toward some kind of game shop. There’s a Korean joint here, too. I’m half tempted to wait in there, but I just know the meet will come and he’ll wind up leaving some other way. I’m not going home without that case. He goes past the game shop to a section with tables and chairs, looks around and takes a seat where he can watch to the west. I slip into the shop itself.

It’s warm and dry in here. Some fuzz-faced dude with a fistful of card decks gives me the once-over. I grin and peel off the Alabama Meat shirt. He drops his cards when I toss the shirt to him. The beanie goes with it. I ruffle my hair back up, but the spikes are a lost cause, thanks to the stupid hat. Beardly McBeardson seems to think it looks good, though. That or my cleavage. Either one works.

I glance out through the window and Suit Boy’s still sitting there, looking around at the people at other tables. I pick up some big box with starships on it and pretend to read the back so I won’t get chucked out.

“You, uh, you play Centauri Command?” asks Beardly. I smile.

“No. Just checking it out. Do you?”

He starts to answer, but the sudden eruption of gunfire outside silences him. I spin and leap out the door, the game box sailing across the room as I do. Suit Boy is sitting with a terrified expression on his face — along with a lot of blood and brain. There’s a dead guy splashed on his table and some dickhead in faded jeans and an oversized FunkFerret t-shirt is ripping off my case. Dead guy is the meet, then. Great.

The FunkFerret guy is bailing and Suit Boy is puking his guts out. Everybody else is running and screaming like they were the ones that took a bullet. I catch a bead on the runner and then wander over to Suit Boy. There’s a .45 casing on the table. That’s something to keep in mind when I find the shooter. He’s got a cannon.

There’s a snick as the switchblade snaps open, and a minute later Suit Boy is passing me his wallet. Yeah. There’s the cash. A quick glance shows it to be probably twenty kay or more in Ford-Revlon scrip. I blow him a kiss and take off, hot on FunkFerret’s track.

He’s fast, and he’s blowing past crowds like someone who just shot a man. No attempt at stealth. That’s either gonna make this easier or one hell of a lot harder. If he attracts security attention, we’re boned. Cutting back behind Hubcap Haven and pushing those stringy legs for all he’s worth. Glad I’ve always been a runner. He won’t get away based on speed or distance alone.

I slow to a gentle walk now as he kneels by a human speed bump in front of a Mackie’s store. Nice chunk of change he’s adding to the boy’s bowl. Back up and moving, but this time he’s at a slower pace. No running now. He seems confident that there is no pursuit. He knows these alleys, though, and that puts him one up on me.

I catch up to him as he’s barfing out beside some Chinese joint. Why is it everybody’s gotta puke around me? These guys are gonna give me a complex.

“You did good back there,” I call out, and he whirls. The case is still dangling from his left hand. Predictably, he scans my body, so I smile and look down like I’m admiring his package. He glances down, too, and when he’s not looking at my eyes I know he won’t see it coming until it’s too late. Snapkick to the jewels, baby. I hit him like I’m punting at the Superbowl.

Before he can move, I’m in close, the switchblade working with me in a series of stabs that are not so much graceful as they are frequent. As fast as I can work the blade I’m tagging him, right through the FunkFerret logo. I can’t let him get to the pistol he had. Blood runs thick and hot over my hand, and his slapping blows are slowing and getting weaker. I grab the case with my left hand and boot him in the guts to break his grip.

He hits the deck and I’m gone.

 

<<End>>

 

 

 

Cold was something Jake didn’t do well, but Connecticut in winter leaves a man with no real choice. He was standing leaned against a light post, watching over the parking lot. In the old days there would have been a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, but he had quit a few years back.

It’s a pity, he thought. The image would have been perfect with a cloud of smoke drifting from his position under the lamp. As it was, he stood there, one leg crossed at the shin in front of the other, his hands jammed in the pockets of his leather jacket, and his face shadowed by the brim of his hat. Snow swirled around his boots, borne on the chilly north wind.

The door opened with a tiny chime of sound, and the employees filed out into the night, heading for their cars. He watched in silence until his eyes reached her. He had situated himself so that she would pass within a few dozen feet of his location and he waited patiently as she approached. He was stock still now, even his breathing slowed. Deer had walked within ten paces of him when he was like this, and there had once been a bobcat that came close enough to sniff at his foot.

“Happy birthday,” he whispered in a husky tone. She started, hand rising in a defensive pose. Her eyes narrowed as she stared into the shadows.

“Who are you?” she demanded. He slipped off his hat and grinned as the light fell on him.

“I made the trip.”

“Jake?”

“In the flesh.”

He took a couple of steps toward her, unsure if he had made the right decision. Would she flee?

That adorable smirk stretched her lips. “How’d you do it?”

He held out a small box. Roughly the size of a television remote, its surface flickered with colored lights.

“I told you I was working on a teleporter.”

He was at her side then, hand reaching up to brush her silky hair aside. Her eyes flashed in response to his own. She tilted her head back.

“You built something that lets you go anywhere, any time, and you chose here?”

“Well, it IS your birthday,” he said.

Their lips met and he knew the teleporter had been a good plan.

 

The big hand landed on Terry’s shoulder and a gravelly voice spoke in his ear.

“Carrie wants to talk to you.”

The quiet man turned and looked up into the face of the bouncer. The man’s eyes were sharp and brown, set deep in a wide face. Terry, by comparison, was whip-thin and his green eyes seemed possessed of a faraway quality.

“Easy, pal,” urged Vincent. The bouncer could not help but notice that the statement was directed to Terry, and not to him, as would be usual. He expected people to tell him to back off, but the tone this man had used to the thin man he was with made the giant bouncer slip his own hand from the shoulder of the customer.

“What about?” Terry asked.

“Dunno,” the mountain said. “She just pointed you out and said if you was leaving, to stop you for a second.”

The blaring speakers concealed around inside the club were pounding out a bass beat that overpowered most of the song. Terry nodded and jerked his head in the general direction of the interior.

“I’ll be out front having a smoke when the song ends.”

The big man scanned him, practiced eyes looking for any sign of deception or ill intent. “I’ll be bringing her out. She don’t get out of my reach. You get it?”

“Got it.”

A handful of minutes later, the dark head of the bouncer peered around the door frame. In one direction, a group of what looked like fraternity members were passing around the remains of a bottle of Jagermeister before they entered the strip club. Looking the other way, he saw Terry and Vincent. The former stood in a relaxed pose that had a touch of wariness about it, while his friend was leaned against the wall. Both had cigarettes in their hands as they quietly conversed.

He stepped through the door, dwarfing the woman he escorted. Corded ebony muscle gleamed under the exterior lighting in a manner it had not inside. He was a truly massive specimen of humanity, and the frat boys quailed when they saw him step out. The Jagermeister bottle clinked against the pavement where it was hastily dropped.

At his side, the woman in the tan halter top and denim cutoffs grinned. She patted the bouncer on the arm and started off at a casual walk. He was right behind her, and she knew it. Marcus had seen her through many a bad scene, and she felt confident that this would be no different.

“Hey,” she said by way of greeting, tossing back her ponytail to let it fall on her back.

Terry nodded. “Miss,” he said in a pleasant tone.

“Got a sec?”

“Hey, Vince, gimme a minute, yeah?” Terry said by way of reply. His friend stepped away several paces and sat on the hood of a grey BMW.

“Marcus?” she prompted, raising an eyebrow at her escort. He didn’t budge, his eyes fixed on Terry.

“S’all good,” the thin man said. “He’s got a job to do.”

She smiled at that and reached out with one slim hand to pluck the cigarette from Terry’s grasp. Nails painted the same scarlet color as her hair contrasted with the white filter as she took a drag. When she returned it, traces of a pink lip gloss decorated the filter.

“How did you do it?” she asked.

“Pulled it out of a box and lit it.”

“That’s not what I mean and you know it. No one has ever managed to make it through that performance before, with their pants staying dry. Not with me and Treasure both working on you.”

He grinned. “That’s why I told you to make it a timed performance, miss.”

“It’s Carrie,” she corrected, although she had to admit that she enjoyed the feeling of having someone use some kind of formality with her.

He tucked the smoke into the corner of his mouth, tasting the sweetness of her lip gloss. His hand extended before him in a slow maneuver designed not to antagonize the enormous bouncer.

“Terry.”

She thought for a brief moment that he had mispronounced her name, but then her eyes lit up and she reached out to take his hand in her own and gently shake it. His grip was strong but subdued, the feeling of one who knew they could crush her hand but consciously made an effort to control themselves.

“I could tell you liked it,” she said.

“That I did,” he admitted. “You’ve got a gift.”

“But you didn’t come,” she said.

“Nope.” He was non-plussed at her casual crudity.

“But that’s what the dance is about!”

She was confused and seemed to be a bit miffed by his lack of response. Terry took another short drag and handed her the Camel before tucking his fingertips into the pockets of his jeans.

“I don’t mean to insult you, Carrie, or your friend in there. You’re both amazing at what you do. I just prefer to save my…” He paused, thinking of the right word to use. “…my response, for a more private setting.”

“That’s a lot of self-control.”

“It’s all I have left,” he said. He half-bowed from the waist. “You have a lovely night, Carrie. It was wonderful to meet you.”

“Happy birthday, Terry,” she replied, her voice a little slow in coming, but friendly when it did.

“Thanks for watching over her,” Terry said to Marcus. “I know folks don’t tell you that, but you do a good thing.”

The big man grinned. “Thanks,” he said.

As he turned to leave, Carrie took a step forward. “Hey!” she called. He turned to see a strange look in her eyes.

“Yeah?”

“You aren’t gonna ask for my number or anything?”

“Most guys do that?”

“Yes,” she said. Behind her, Marcus silently nodded.

“I ain’t them,” he said. He opened the passenger door of the BMW as Vincent got in. With a final smile, he dropped into place in the leather seat and closed the door. He watched the dancer as Vincent pulled them out of the parking lot. In turn, she kept her eyes on the BMW through the whole exit.

It’s April,, and that means a great many things to people. To me, it’s time for Camp NaNoWriMo!

A more relaxed and casual setting than the balls-out novel creation that is November’s NaNoWriMo, Camp is much more mellow. It is still a place to focus on your writing, and to create something new and exciting, but it also is more encouraging of interaction. Camp NaNo has “cabins”, virtual hangouts for up to a dozen authors in each to co-exist for the month. This allows people to chat and get to know one another, to learn about tricks others might have, and to encourage other writers in their efforts.

My cabin this year consists of some friends from former Camps (Hi, Gwendlyn! If you’re reading this, I’m waving!) and some folks that are part of a NaNo support group on Facebook (Hello to you all as well!). Phyl, Erin, and Lisa all conspired to keep me on my toes last November. The hourly sprints to add content they organized and took part in made NaNo infinitely more fun. Lisa is also a Pen and Cape Society member, as is Nick — our last current member. I am in great company, folks!

I decided that this year, I will focus on stories from Z262. You should start seeing them pop up from time to time, most often as soon as I have completed one and can quickly format it for the blog page. I am doing a quick read on each one to check spelling and the occasional bit of grammar, but I am not making these a polished third draft kind of thing. When Z262 tales drop, they’re a little raw, a little more organic than other things I might scribe, and some times that means they’re a bit sharper in tone. I should also note that the Z262 stories are a bit more ‘adult’ in tone than some of my other work. Frequent graphic language and violence pervades them, and sexual undertones can sometimes become overtones in short order. So, you know, trigger warnings and yep. Uh-huh.

Anyway, welcome to April, and happy camping to those of you who are taking part!

TMM

I have a new short story in the latest issue of Protodimension Magazine.

Devoted to gaming aids for horror and dark science fiction roleplaying games, Protodimension has been a favorite for some time now. They publish scenarios, item descriptions, new monsters, settings, and fiction for games, just as a start. Y’all know I like to throw a story out from time to time, right? Well, now so do they! Anthill Morning: the Shooter is in the newest issue, available for free download at their site, Protodimension.com, and I’m thrilled to be in there!

One of the games they support is a wonderful piece of work from years back that has seen a couple of resurgences, called Dark Conspiracy. I started playing DC a few months after Game Designers Workshop released it back in 1991. It was a great premise, with an incredible amount of work poured into the system and the background. Through the years I’ve traded or sold a few RPG’s here and there, but my DC books stayed on the shelf (and they’re still there!). Many a character in one story or another of mine was rendered as a playable character for the system, giving me a concrete idea of their capabilities that I could wrap details around. If you’ve read some of the short fiction pieces on this site, you may have met some of those characters.  Thank You Very Much is based on the hunt for a telepathic monster and involves one of my sweep teams, including Abraham Tallcloud, a frequent “playtester” of mine for scenes in my stories. He can also be found in An Evening with Abe, a short story fragment about the aftermath of a demonic invasion.

The fine folks over at Protodimension Magazine — Tad Kelson, Lee Williams, and Norm Fenlason — are great guys and avid gamers. They have a game publishing company of their own, 3Hombres Games, and are publishing the new version of this great game, with Book 1 titled Conspiracy Rules. You can browse all their content on DriveThruRPG HERE.

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Anthill Morning is still in further development, and The Shooter is merely the first chapter of the story. Hopefully I’ll have plenty more to offer in future issues of Protodimension. I’m looking forward to it.

In preparation for the February 29 release of the superhero anthology We Were Heroes, publisher Martin Ingham asked me a few questions. Naturally, I answered them, because not doing so would just be weird. Step by step, the author interviews will reveal the true me, and forensic detectives everywhere will wet themselves in horror! MwaHaHaHa! (See? There’s the patented evil laugh!)

Check me out over HERE!

 

Did you ever have an urge to taste gun oil?

Vikki sat looking at the weapon in her hands, rolling it back and forth. Chambered for a high-energy hunting cartridge, it was one of those things that every household on Z262 had. The opportunity to add to the community meat supply and keep the pests out of the gardens was one that no one would pass up. Vikki knew all too well what she held and what it was capable of, but it was the blackness in her head that kept calling to her. The chip player mounted up on the edge of her bed kept running. The same song, over and over on an infinite repeat loop. A driving beat, fast chords, and lyrics that spoke to her current mood.

Taste it as it swirls around your tongue?

She thought back to the life she had left behind before coming along on this stupid venture, and tears flowed through the soft fur around her eyes. She had friends there, and a life — of sorts. Not everything had gone the way she wanted, but that was nothing. Sure, it had sucked when Derek left her, but even then her thoughts hadn’t been this dark.

Suck the shining barrel,

The offer had been a good one. A chance to escape from a life that was rapidly spiraling into disuse and disinterest. She had realized that her existence was shallow and vapid, and if she did not attempt to do something with it, she was wasting the one chance she had been given. Without Derek, there was no one even to keep her grounded in reality.

deep into your mouth,

Since the arrival on Z262, life had taken on a decidedly more interesting feel. Constant work kept her from overthinking too much, but on evenings like this, when she had put away one too many glasses of the wine that Buck and Eric made, her thoughts flowed back to the past and she found herself facing a curious mix of homesickness for the life she had left and gratitude that she had gotten away when she did.

pull the fucking trigger

Now she found herself on the definite downslope of the memories. Realization that she was locked in to the contract she had signed, that she was in fact stationed here for a minimum five year assignment, sent her mind tumbling back into the past, where the darker thoughts waited to chew them up. Thoughts of how she would never see her friends again. She could not even communicate with them, save for actual, physical, pen-on-paper letters sent by ferry once a year as the resupply craft landed. That gave her a virtual eternity to wait. Life in the colony for anyone not a miner involved primarily agriculture, and Vikki had no previous experience in that realm. Even the local jobs were slim, most run by a family. Contract law experience was in no demand.

and the deed is done.

“Yeah, it is,” she whispered. She hefted the pistol and jammed the barrel into her mouth.

“Hey, is that Satanika I hear?”

The voice came from her front door – a door that Vikki did not remember leaving open. Her eyes jerked up to see him standing there. Tall, lean of form, and well-muscled. He was one of the security crew, but she couldn’t recall his name. The cheetah was dressed in what she had heard referred to as their casual uniform: A patterned t-shirt was tucked into pants that had more pockets than Vikki could ever imagine needing. He wore boots, but not the spit-polished parade-ground boots she had seen on some military troops. These were sturdy, workmanlike things that spoke of practicality. He wore a handgun of some sort on his hip, and one of the short-barrelled rifles she had seen them holding was slung over his shoulder and rested on his back.

Make the shot!

She slipped the thin barrel of the pistol from her mouth and, eyes flowing freely with tears, nodded.

A smile quirked at the corner of his lips. “Haven’t heard them in years. Saw them live when I was just a cub. Knocked me square on my ass. Thumper spit on me,” he added with a grin that was slowly mirrored on her face.

“He always spits on someone.”

“Yeah, but it was me that time!” His voice was raw and throaty, and a strange thrill ran through her as she heard it. He had a proud grin stretching his features, and she knew why. The fact that, of all the Folk on this miserable planet, they were probably the only two to who Satanika meant anything was not lost on her. Her hand slid down to her lap, taking the pistol with it.

Take your spot!

“You’re Vikki, right? Vikki Duris?” he asked. When he looked at her, she felt urges well up within her. His eyes were so pale that it seemed he had no pupils, but that somehow seemed to intensify his gaze.

“Ummm…yeah?” she answered, her inflection making a question of what should have been an easy statement. She reached up to wipe the tears from her eyes.

“I’m Kurt. I came to escort you to the Captain’s office,” he said.

“Oh?” she asked, eyes widening. “Did I do something wrong?” No one since landfall had been arrested, but she had heard rumors of what had occurred to Folk on other planets that left her suddenly sick.

“Relax,” he urged, helping her to stand. A casual tug removed the pistol from her grasp. He worked the action with a practiced hand, letting the cartridge inside fly free to rattle on the floor. He locked the slide open and tossed the weapon onto the chair where she had been sitting. “It’s something about putting you on a new project.”

“A what?”

Give it all!

“I don’t have the details. I’m just the messenger.”

Vikki looked at him for a moment, questions spiraling around in her brain. She had so many, but Kurt had made it clear he did not have the answers she would seek.

Paint the wall!

She nodded and grabbed her bag. The sling bag that was standard wear for most miners held their property – and frequently their lunch – and it was close enough to the purse she had carried for so many years as to be familiar.

Never too late to heed the call!

He followed her out of the house and closed the door behind them, leaving the chip player running. She took two steps before turning shining eyes onto him.

“Are you going to tell them about, ummm, I mean…”

“The Satanika?” he shot back with a wink. “No way! I’m just glad someone here has good taste in music. I might ask to borrow your chip one day, though.”

“No, I meant the other.”

He shook his head. “Never a word. We all have off days in our lives.”

She took in a long, slow breath and nodded at him again.

“I guess we do at that.”

 

<<<END>>>

 

 

 

 

The sheet had once been white, but the dismantled weapons that took up space on the fabric had long since stained it. This wasn’t the first time the sheet had been used for this purpose. On one side of the table, Duggan hunched over the frame of his machinegun. He had the grip section in one tattooed hand and was using a stiff-bristled toothbrush to scrub at the interior, clearing fouling from where it had built up in the trigger assembly. There was a little bit of carbon there, but mostly it was the omnipresent yellow dust.

“This all you’ve got?” Lissa called from the kitchen.

“Is what all I’ve got?” he asked. He picked up a slim pick and slid it in behind the hammer, flicking away a tiny bit of burned oil.

“There’s a bottle of Smitty’s in the refrigerator. Cheap wine? That’s it?”

He blew across the springs, examining them under the brilliant light streaming from the directed overhead lamp.

“Look in the cabinet over the sink.”

From the kitchen came a rumbling and shuffling noise, followed by a delighted yelp. “Been holding out on me, have ya?”

“Always do, fam. Always do. If I told you everything there wouldn’t be any surprises.”

Lissa appeared around the corner carrying a dark brown earthenware jug and two mugs. The cork popped free from the jug and she tipped it up, letting a pale amber liquid flow into one of the mugs. “You got a full jug of Buck’s Best? How much did this run you?”

“Two squirrels and a rabbit.”

She stopped mid pour. When he looked up from the bolt group in his hand, she was staring wide-eyed at him. He looked back at her with a flat expression.

“What?”

“You… Damn it, Duggan, you’re trading corpses for liquor?”

“Of course not,” he said with a gentle smile. Her shoulder slumped and she licked at her lips.

“Had me going,” she confessed, beginning to pour the second mug.

“It was just the pelts and teeth.”

He reached out for a bottle of solvent, dripping three drops onto his cleaning brush and setting aside the bottle before looking up at her again.

“What? Nobody wants toothie meat.”

“Tell me you’re kidding, D.”

“Should I be?”

“You’d damned well better!”

He shrugged and returned to his cleaning task. After a moment, his shoulders began to rock a little and soon he could not hold in the laughter. It echoed in the house and he set aside the bolt, pushing back from the table and standing before grabbing his mug from the mongoose. He took a deep swig of the fiery liquor as she looked up at him. Her eyes were wide again, but this time, her overall expression was that of disbelief. She reached out and jerked his mug back out of his hand and tipped the contents into her own mouth.

“Hey, that’s mine!”

“Serves you right,” she said in a huff of whiskey-scented breath. “I was beginning to worry.”

“Give me some fucking credit, Lissa. Body sharking for whiskey?” He shook his head in mock sadness as he sat back down.

“If it was anyone else, I wouldn’t think twice. But, damn, I’ve seen you pull some twisted shit.”

“I’d never do that. I mean, not for alcohol. I might trade them for –”

“Stop!” she yelled, punching him in the arm before he could finish the sentence. It was marginally akin to slamming her fist into a wall, and had she not had so much time to practice the maneuver she might well have injured herself. Working with Duggan for as long as she had, this was definitely not the first time she had smacked him.

He tilted back his head and roared with laughter.

“Why does anyone think you’re funny?” she asked, hopping onto the chair opposite his own. She filled his mug again and pushed it his way before swiping one of his cleaning rods. By the time he had calmed enough to answer, she had a solvent-soaked rag down the barrel of her rifle.

“What do you mean, why? It’s ’cause I am funny!” he told her.

She looked at him, holding a neutral expression. “You know what’s funny about you, Duggan?” she asked. There was a sharp hint of challenge in her tone. He looked in her eyes for a moment and then back down at the bolt he held.

“What is?” he asked. His voice was uncharacteristically soft.

Lissa let the moment stretch until it was on the verge of becoming uncomfortable. Waiting until the big turtle raised his armored head to look at her with a mix of suspicion and dread, she grinned in a dazzling display of sharp white teeth and spoke.

“Your mom.”

The room echoed with the shared laughter of the two partners. They reveled in the old joke and even after their laughing died out, the occasional snicker could be heard.

Duggan lifted the mug to his mouth and took a hefty swallow of his whiskey, years of experience allowing him to do so without even wetting the unlit cigar that nestled in the corner of his mouth. Setting the mug aside, he grabbed for the tiny bottle of lubricant that stood in the center of the table. He tapped the tip in a precise series of movements, each transferring a drop of a thin grey solution onto different parts of his weapon that were wear-prone. He ran a short line here and a trio of drops there, a ritual he had practiced so many times he could quite literally do it in the dark.

“So… You gonna stay here?” Lissa asked in a quiet, tentative voice.

“I can come home with you if you want, Lis’,” he said, lips peeling back in a grin. “Didn’t know you felt that way.”

“In your dreams, shell-boy. You know damn well what I mean.”

“Got a month to figure it out, yeah? Before we gotta get the papers in, I mean?”

She snatched up the lubricant and dripped it onto the exposed action of her rifle. Using the tip of a finger to smear it around on the metal, she concentrated on the task just enough to make it clear to Duggan that she was holding back.

“You made up your mind already, didn’t you?” he asked. “Staying.”

“Think so, yeah.”

“Think the toothies will keep coming?”

“Yeah. I do.”

“That’s what I thought, too. Signed my re-up this morning. Fucking hot on this bitch, but there’s a shitload of killing to do.”

She nodded, snapping a retaining pin into place. Her hesitance was a thing of the past. “We go somewhere else, there’s no telling what’s gonna happen, right?”

“Probably wind up in some piece of shit garrison, waiting for someone to jump at shadows.”

“Building security for corp-types who think they’re important.”

He shook his head. “Nope. I’d sooner get fucked by President What’s-his-name.”

“I’ll sell tickets to that one.”

He snapped closed the cover atop his weapon and worked the charging handle several times to ensure that it moved smoothly. Standing from the table, he stood the machinegun in the corner. Beside it was a 200-round canister of linked ammunition.

“So what’s for dinner?” he asked.

“How should I know, dumbass? It’s your house.”

“You wanna eat my cooking? I mean, if you feel up to it…”

“Nope,” she replied, head popping up and swiveling back and forth in an exaggerated negative motion. “Nope nope nope.”

“The Strip?” he asked, hooking a thumb over a shoulder in the general direction of the ramshackle buildings that had cropped up as businesses since the colony had been established. More than one had put together some form of restaurant.

She nodded as her rifle clicked together. She ran it through a quick series of checks to ensure it was working properly. When she was satisfied, she stood it up next to his machinegun. They made a great pair: One sleek, trim, and fast and the other heavy and brutal. She chuckled to herself as the similarity sank home.

 

<<<END>>>