Sunday, July 29, 2012


By Edward M. Erdelac

Considine stared at himself in the mirror. Puffy, sutured flesh peered out from beneath the stark bandage over his left eye, where a shard of Brendermeyer’s femur had torn a gash. His blue eyes looked sunken in their bruised sockets, and the second degree burns on his neck and chin were an angry red.

Not as angry as he felt, though. In this case, what was inside him was much worse than how he looked.

He was on a hefty dose of pain suppressants, but not so heavy as the clinicians had prescribed. He needed a clear head.

He had nearly shared Brendermeyer’s unfortunate end. Luckily Jelly hadn’t skimped on the cabin safety measures when he’d last refit the craft.

“You alright in there, Stanlon?”

Gorsh. To have to deal with him now. He gritted his teeth. Gorsh would expect questions, and he had them, but he was loathe to waste time listening to Gorsh’s non-answers.

But he had to keep up appearances.

He opened the door to Gorsh’s private restroom and stepped out into his posh office, with its Peace Council sigil on the wall and its massive viewport gazing out at the planet below.

Plush rug, chrome desk, tasteful art. Yes, Gorsh, you’ve done well for yourself.

“Have a seat,” Gorsh said, motioning to a comfortable chair in front of his desk.  “I’ll get you a drink.”

“Not with the pain suppressants, no thanks,” Considine said, limping over to the chair and easing slowly and agonizingly down into it. The fabric was like a scouring pad on his tender leg, even through his trousers.

“You sure you’re alright?”

“Don’t sound so disappointed, Gorsh.”

“Don’t be stupid. You nearly checked out. We were partners once. I’m concerned.”

He poured himself a drink of greenish fluid and downed it in a gulp.

Considine leered.

“What’s so funny?” said Gorsh.

“You. Still at the libations after all these years. Yet you’ve got a seat on the Council, and my sobriety, where did that get me?”

Gorsh smiled slightly.

“Never too late to start thinking about your career,” he said, offering the bottle once more.

“I’d rather smoke,” he said, pulling his singed pack of kelpweed cigarettes out of his pocket.

“Oh God, don’t tell me you’ve taken up smoking that seaweed garbage.”

“It’s an acquired taste,” Considine admitted, knocking one loose and pushing it into his lips. “Light?”

“I don’t want my office smelling like a fish market,” Gorsh said, settling in his chair.

“All heart, like always,” Considine said, replacing the cigarette and sighing.

“You’ll want to know, we have a lead on the bomber,” Gorsh said.

“I don’t want to hear about your leads. I want to know why he isn’t in custody, when he did the deed in front of you and two of your crack full-time Enforcers.”

“The bay was on fire, Stanlon,” Gorsh said, opening his hands. “My first concern was to get you clear of the wreckage.”

“Convenient,” Considine muttered. “Alright, what’s your lead?”

“We had an incident that caused some anti-Enforcer backlash a little while ago. There’s a sort of fringe dissident group operating on Avenir now. The Pigkillers….”

Considine’s mind wandered. Pigkillers. Terrorists. Just as he’d suspected, Gorsh’s lead was a damned smokescreen. He already knew the identity of the bomber, just as Considine did.

It was Orin Bantry, Morgenstar Munition’s star employee and Aloysius Morgenstar’s personal go to it guy by way of detonite.  Considine had smelled the stuff when they’d confiscated it from Croix in Zirconia, and he’d smelled it again when it blew Brendermeyer to pieces.

Somebody should have told Orin to stop wearing that stupid company cap.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Come On Home

by Caitlyn Konze

Come back to us, Daddy. Please.

Leothold was buoyant when he heard it. Her voice wrapped around him like a zero-G harness. Pressure built around his shoulders and thighs. His tried pulling as much air into his lungs as possible, but it wasn't enough. He needed to get to the adjustment clips but his limbs were dead in the water.

“He's waking up. Hot damn, he's actually waking up!”

His need for that voice drove his eyelids open.

“Everything's fuzzy.” His voice sounded like someone chucked a bag of bolts into his ship's thrust reactor.

“You haven't used your eyes for nine Foundings, Dad. Just give yourself a minute.”

“Soepy?” A tall, thin blob slid to his side. After a few blinks he could start to see a long nose, pointed chin, and wide, dark eyes.

“Yeah. I'm here.” Leo's vision cleared enough to notice the differences in his daughter. Her cheeks were no longer rounded with baby fat, but concave. The skin of her face was pulled tight. Her trachea bulged from her neck. He wondered if she had gone nine Foundings without a proper meal. Nine Foundings. Could it be true? It had to or he'd be in a horse, not a bed. Dangerous work, wrangling ore, but it put food on the table.

“What happened?”

Soepy sighed. “Your boys said you were lining up for a drive. Debris caught your horse. Lost pit pressure in seconds.” She shook her head slowly. “Your insides would have been your outsides if your team hadn't scrambled like they did.”

Strands of memories began weaving together. Nalia ripping into him for putting off suit maintenance. Little Sephon crying in the background. Leo arguing that his oxygen tank was still a quarter full, not yet worth filling. It was probably his tank that spared him. Leo thanked God he was still alive.

Soepy flinched like someone moved to hit her.

“You okay, kiddo?”

Soepy looked at her feet and whispered, “It's war, Dad.”

Leo figured it was just disorientation from being unconscious for so long, but his eyes were good now and his voice was smoothing out. Still, his gut wouldn't unknot. There was a piece missing from this puzzle, but he just couldn't find it. Nalia would know. Sharp as a beetle mandible, that one.

“Where's your mother?”

“Dead.” said a voice deeper than Leo's daughter's.

“What? Impossible.” He tried to throw his feet over the bed, but his entire body was bound in gauze. Various tubes snaked around his limbs, holding him in place.

The hissed as it lifted. A thin boy and man in a white lab coat ducked into the room. The boy pumped his arms forward and back with exaggerated effort with a sing-song laugh.

“Tell me what's going on, or so help me—”

“You'll what,” said the man in the white coat. “You'll breathe on us?”

The crazy kid slapped the wall with his large hands. Another round of giggles spewed from his mouth.


He heard Soepy bark his name, but Leo's brain rebelled against the knowledge.

“Say hello to Daddy, little brother.”

“They'll be plenty of time for family reunions later.” White Coat pulled a syringe of red liquid, and a thick needle from his pocket. Something inside Leo twisted like a cut hydraulic hose.

“Flip him.”

His children tugged on the sides of his bed and the whole thing spun so Leo had only the floor for company. He heard his son start singing.

“The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out.”

Soepy stuck her head under the bed. “Your body will last longer if you’re willing, Leothold. Everyone lives like this now. Get used to it.”

He screamed as the needle pierced his spine.


Leo's body twitched. His breath came in sharp gasps. His closed eyes searched for something. Nalia would give anything to know for what. Six-month-old Sephon arched in her arms. She bounced from foot to foot.

“He's been like this since the accident last month.” The man in the white lab coat assured her there was still hope. But hope had started sliding from her heart weeks ago. She was slowly preparing herself to accept her husband might never wake up. Little Soepy held her daddy's hand, petting it like one of her stuffed animals.

“She'll be fine here. If you'll follow me, we can discuss your options.”

Nalia nodded. Before the door lowered, she heard her daughter's small voice.

“Come back to us, Daddy. Please.”

Sunday, July 22, 2012

RC Rattler: Q Ship

by Walt Staples -

“Ears” Seelowe jerked upright and tilted his head in a listening attitude. After a moment, he spoke into his mic, “Mr. Harris, I got a Bow Tie 23 area search sensor.”

The Officer of the Deck killed his reader and asked. “Where away?”

The electronics countermeasures tech made a minute adjustment. “I make it at twenty-three-point-two degrees, azimuth forty-six-point-four.”

“Is he painting us yet?”

“Ears” shook his head even though the watch officer could not see the movement through the back of the environment suit’s helmet. “No, sir. I’m pretty sure we’re just out of range. Looking at the Doppler shift though, he’s burning reaction mass like Santa left it for him.”

Lieutenant (junior grade) Toco Harris grinned to himself. “Chief, please sound ‘general quarters.’” He looked to his right as Muguto Roberts, the cutter’s Chief of Boat, sounded the klaxon. “Sparks, stand by for their hail. And remember, we’re just a fat, dumb, and happy peace-abiding merchantman with lots of goodies in our barge tow.”

The signal floosie’s grin was that of a wolf as he replied, “Aye, sir, I’m ready. I’m piping a bit of music through so they’ll hear it in the background.”

“Out of idle curiosity, Sparks, what is it?”

The grin became innocent, “Gregorian chant, sir. I didn’t want to make them think ‘military.’”

Harris chuckled. “Works for me.”

The cutter’s captain chose this moment to nonchalantly make an appearance on deck, or as nonchalant as a man in an environment suit can appear while carrying an assault weapon and load-bearing equipment. The A.I. obligingly sang out, “Captain on the bridge.” He stopped, ran an experienced eye over the various readouts, then turned to Harris. “XO, I relieve you. The deck is mine.”

Harris stood. “Aye aye, sir. You have the deck.” He reached for the load-bearing equipment and slung it about his person, then reached for the assault weapon.

Lieutenant (senior grade) Ryku Gomez grinned at his executive officer. “There now, XO, don’t say I never give you nothing.”

The younger man brought his weapon to a reasonable salute. “Aye, sir, I shan’t. But I really don’t remember any of this on my Christmas list.”

“Maybe next time.” Gomez tried to keep it light as did his friend. He tried hard not to think about everything that might happen to his XO in the next hour. “Off with you, now.”

Harris flashed him a grin and departed for the portside airlock.


Exiting the portside airlock, Harris joined the seven environment suited members of the boarding party standing on the cutter’s exterior skin on the side opposite the approaching ship. He continued to monitor the situation via the cutter’s open communication channel. He heard “Ears” report, “Captain, another sensor’s just joined the Bow Tie. I make it a Square Box 5 ranging sensor. And...they’ve spotted us.” A lisping voice suddenly sounded, “Ahoy, Quartermain Tow! Heath to and prepare for boarding!”

“Boats” Halsey snickered over the laser line-of-sight, “Oh, we be preparin’ all right, darlin’.”

Sparks’ voice was that of a man jerked totally awake as he rapped out, “Who be hailing us? Identify, mun, yes?” The chant provided a nice counterpoint in the background.

“Thith ith the Devil’th Tea Party. Now heath to!”

The flare on the drive unit promptly flickered out. A few moments later, they felt a tremor run through the cutter and the barges attached to her starboard side as the pirate matched course and grappled. There was a second tremor as the “panic party” launched a lifeboat in an apparent escape attempt. Pieces of the blown lifeboat cover fluttered in a cloud. At this, Harris called, “Boarders away!” and the boarding party triggered their reaction packs, flying outward until they reached the ends of their tethers.  Their impetus carried them out and around the cutter’s starboard side, hidden among the debris from the lifeboat cover. He looked down to see the pirate boarding party enter the cutter’s starboard airlock and the outer hatch close. They touched down lightly on the hull of the Devil’s Tea Party. Halsey led his two boarders aft to the engineering spaces, “Guns” Morgan and one other covered the pirates’ airlock hatch., while Harris led his two forward to the bridge. The two crewmen with him set their burdens on the hull and stepped back.

One of the pirates in the cutter’s airlock shouted, “Open, blast you!”

The captain’s voice rang out, “This is the Revenue Cutter Rattler. Devil’s Tea Party, surrender, cut your drive, and open your lock.”

There came the dull sound of a shot and a projectile ricocheting in an enclosed space mixed with screams. Gomez said three words, “Boarding party, execute!”

Both demolition men at the bridge and the two at engineering triggered their igniters and the four shaped charges burned through the pirate hull. As the charges disappeared in a flash, a column of water vapor, dust, and debris, exploded outward from the breaches they made. A human body was blown from one of the holes over the bridge. Harris felt a chill queasiness as he watched the body cartwheel out of sight.

Captain Gomez’s voice was conversational. “You in the airlock. You have a choice. You may surrender and show this by unloading your weapons, field stripping them, and removing all clothing. Or, you may wait there in the lock until your suits’ consumables are exhausted. As I say, your choice.”

The six pirates in the airlock, including the one wounded by his own ricochet, began surrendering when their suits’ water gave out. The last held out until his O2 was used up and his compatriots stripped his unconscious form. The two survivors still aboard the Devil’s Tea Party made it known that they also would like to surrender.


Harris gazed at the light playing through his glass of near-beer as he asked, “So, how long can we use this wheeze before they get wise to it?”

On the other side of the Wardroom table, Captain Gomez blew on his tea like a proper ash-eater, then took a sip. “Don’t know, Toco. It’s going to get out eventually. If nothing else, when the mutts come up for trial.”

“When’s that?”

The Rattler’s CO tilted his head and raised his eyebrows. “Council’s sitting on it as long as they can in good conscience. They badly want this section of the Oort Cloud cleared of ice pirates.”

“How long do you think that will take?”

Gomez thought for a moment, then answered, “Probably not all that long. We’re making it pretty hot for them. According to intelligence, they’re not moving in to fill the niches we open nearly as fast as they were. Tells me they’re getting spooked about this area.” He took a sip, and half smiled. “Near as I can figure, when it gets scary enough, they’ll move their hunting somewhere else.”

The XO took a sip of his drink. “And we’ll go chase them there, until they move on again.”

The Captain broke into a grin. “You got to admit, the Revenue Service does foster job security.”

Thursday, July 19, 2012


by Joseph H. Ficor

The trio stepped off the elevator and looked at the motley array of ships. It was a collection of all shapes and sizes.

Shouhei’s heart leapt in joy at the sight of so many spacefaring beauties. How he greatly desired to step aboard one and fly among the blackness. He made sure that his emotion did not show on his face.

“Look for a ship that looks like a long, gray needle.” Major Stotter added, “Deadly force is authorized if you deem it necessary.”

Everyone unholstered his pistol. Shouhei fought to suppress a smile at the sight of sweat beading on Hicks’s brow. He never thought that he would see the day when Hicks would be silent.

The ship in question was found within a few minutes. Stotter motioned Hicks and Shouhei to take up positions around the ship while he covered the main hatch.

“Artimus Rawlings,” Stotter called out. “Come out and surrender peacefully. You are under arrest for delinquent docking fee payments and suspicion of ore smuggling. If you just come with us quietly, I assure you that this matter will be cleared up very easily.”

A bullet narrowly missed Stotter’s head. Stotter dived behind a stack of nearby ore containers before Rawlings fired another shot.

Shouhei followed his superior’s example. He took up a position behind the control panel of a loading crane.

More shots were fired.

Hicks was not so fast. He was lying on the deck, his head surrounded by a steadily growing crimson puddle.

Stotter feigned rage. “Rawlings! I’m going to deep space you for that!”

“Shut up Stotter,” Rawlings screamed back. “You have as much feeling for your men as a whale has for its dung.”

Stotter and Rawlings exchanged verbal barbs—and occasionally shots.

Shouhei caught sight of the suspect. He was sheltered behind a landing strut of another ship. The strut’s cover provided excellent protection against Stotter’s pistol.

Shouhei fired some rounds that startled Rawlings more than anything else.

He returned fire.

Shouhei ducked as the rounds sounded on the control panel in front of him.

Shouhei got back up to return fire, but he could not see Rawlings.

The hot barrel touching his temple alerted him to Rawling’s new location.

“I’m going to send you into early retirement, Enforcer.”

“Rawlings,” Stotter shouting as he pointed the pistol at Rawlings. “Stand down!”

Rawlings turned his head. “Or wha…”

Shouhei took quick action and shot Rawlings in the left knee. Then he hit Rawlings in the jaw with his pistol. Rawlings fell to the deck. He was out cold.

Stotter rushed over. “Are you okay, boy?”

“Yessir,” Shouhei responded.

“Why didn’t you kill him?” Stotter demanded.

“I don’t know, Sir.” Shouhei responded as he looked down at Hick’s dead body. “It just didn’t seem right. I know that he had killed one of our own, but I couldn’t do it, Sir. I’m sorry.”

Stotter pointed his pistol at the back of Shouhei’s head. “Me too.”

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Don't Play Nice

by Kaye Jeffreys

Penny knocked on Kinsee's door and steadied herself.

The door opened and a friendly looking woman peered out.

"Hi, I'm looking for my friend, Jereth." Penny worked hard to follow the script closely. "He said he might be here."

"Jereth? No. He's not here. He went landside over a week ago."

"Landside?" That wasn't part of the script she'd have to improvise. "What's he doing landside?"

The woman laughed. "That's a good question. He doesn't belong landside, now, does he."

"Where did he go, landside, I mean." Penny shifted her weight from one foot to the other.

"I'm not sure where he is right now. I haven't heard from them in a few days. An earthquake knocked out communications."

"They? Who is he with?"

"With my daughter and her aid team. They had to go back toward some mountain range to check up on an independent miner."

"No communication, though. How will you get hold of them?"

"They will contact me when things are back up. Do you want me to take your name and contact info and give it to them?"

"No." When the lady started asking questions about her, it was time to go. "No. I'll try back later. Thanks."


Penny ran to the Benji Frank store. Gus leaned by the door waiting for her. "Well?"

"I got something." She was out of breath.

"Take it easy. We've got time." He chewed his toothpick.

Penny nodded and waited a few minutes to catch her breath. "He went landside, aid work."


"That's what she said."

"That doesn't make sense."

"It's all I could get."

"It's more than anyone else could get." Gus smiled at her great big. "It's better than nothing, right? And the boss is getting tired of nothing."

 "Do you have anything else for me to do?"

"No, go on home. I'll take it from here."

"But we need the money and I want to help."

"If I need help, I'll call you. Otherwise stay away from me when I'm working. The people I work for don't play nice."

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Hermit's Cache

By Jeff Chapman

Elihu’s eyes darted from the blanket hanging across the cave’s entrance to the hearth. That groan didn’t sound like the wind. He sat perfectly still, holding his breath, listening. He knew he should grab his spear and prepare to fight whatever might be coming, but after finding some comfort from the storm, the last thing he wanted to do was fight. The struggle to keep his family alive weighed on his soul and the addition of his congregation’s troubles nearly crushed it. He’d stumbled into a black pit with no bottom and no rope. Every day he fought the good fight and every time he coughed and saw the ash in his phlegm, the circle of light at the top of the pit contracted, but somehow he held everyone up.

Strength swelled in his core, as it always did, thank God. His fingers curled around his spear.

The pile of blankets stirred, a faint ripple, but enough to trip his tightly strung senses. Another groan. He saw it now--the feet, the bent knees, the torso--a human form curled beneath the blankets. He folded back the top edge of the covers. White hair streaked with gray crowned an old man’s head and brushed his shoulders. A white beard covered his face and neck, trailing down to his chest. Something hard and cylindrical rolled beneath Elihu’s knee, the old man’s spear. Of course, he would sleep with it, thought Elihu. There was no more need to worry if someone would come back.

Elihu gently shook the man’s shoulder. The old man groaned. Some kind of hermit, Elihu thought.

“Hello? Are you sick?”

The old man’s forehead felt hot and dry. Elihu poured some water from his canteen into a bowl. Cradling the hermit’s head in the crook of his arm, he dripped water on the man’s cracked lips. The hermit licked the moisture. Elihu persisted in dripping water until the old man opened his mouth enough to drink in short sips.

“I don’t have much water,” said Elihu, “but you’re welcome to what I have.”

The hermit’s eyelids fluttered across steel-gray irises. He nodded then sank back into sleep.

Elihu sighed. He possessed the will to help without the means. He decided to make a travois with the two spears and the blankets and drag the hermit to Tube Hill when the storm passed. Not that they could do much for him there, but he couldn’t leave him here. Elihu folded a blanket into a pillow and placed it underneath the wadded blanket on which the old man’s head rested.

Elihu’s eyebrows knitted in surprise when his fingers brushed a bag of metal pieces that moved and clinked under his touch, coins. “What’s this,” he whispered. He pulled two items out from beneath the old man’s pillow. A drawstring cinched the pouch whose bottom bulged with the coin’s weight. He pulled it open. Gold, silver, and platinum coins--more money than he had ever seen, more than would pass through his hands in a lifetime--winked at him in the lamp’s dancing light.

He glanced at the old man whose chest rose and fell with the shallowest of breaths. Was this the cache of a lonely bug hunter? His gaze passed over the glittering walls and what at first escaped his notice, the gouges of a chisel, shouted at him. “What have you found out here?” he said to the old man.

Elihu remembered Elsa begging for scraps at his doorstep. With these coins he could feed his family and Elsa’s family, his congregation, his entire village for years. He could move his family to Zirconia, buy his children hope, and rekindle the sparkle in his wife’s eyes.

What sort of man sleeps on a hoard like this in the midst of such suffering? Stories of dragons came to mind. If the old man died, he thought. And then he recalled what happened to those who coveted a dragon’s hoard and took the dragon’s place atop its pile of shiny things. Elihu cinched the pouch and flung it against the rock wall. It landed on the second item from beneath the old miser’s pillow.

He picked up a sheaf of stiffened bristle fabric cut into rectangles and knotted together with twine along the left edge, a homemade book. The beige cover, splotched with darker shades of brown was blank. Elihu turned back the cover. Small squiggles in a dark-yellow ink--bug blood, he well knew that stain--sprawled across the pages. Thumbing through the book, he found page after page of tightly packed markings. The last three pages were blank. He laid the open book on the cavern floor in front of the hearth and knelt over it, puzzling over the characters which flowed across the page in an unbroken stream, line after line. The script could be very ancient or very new, he thought, or nothing. Someone at the university or the monasteries might know.

Elihu studied the old man, wondering what sort of man creates a book that no one can read. One of the traveling ministers could arrange passage to the Abbey of Francis. And what would become of the rest of those coins, barring a miraculous recovery? He knew better than to hope for a windfall for Tube Hill. Brother Trollope might direct some back to Elihu’s congregation, but not the others. The whiskers on the old man’s lip trembled with his breathing.

Elihu bit his lip in anger. “Perhaps I should throw lots to see who gets your money and possessions?” Better to remove temptation than struggle to fight it. That’s what his father always used to say. He tucked the coin pouch under the hermit’s pillow, to remind himself of its owner.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012


by Fred Warren

“Ninja outfits, Carson? Seriously?” Melanie wrestled with the black mask shrouding her head and face. The eye slit had somehow gotten turned around the wrong way and she couldn’t see anything. Virtual reality could be amazing, but she still didn’t see the point of the sort of realism that simulated clothes going askew.

“You said we have to be stealthy. And how many times do I have to tell you to call me Rhino?”

She gave the mask a final yank and glared at her brother. “This isn’t a game, Car…Rhino. We’re not going to sneak up on the firewall and stab it with a knife. I mean, look at it.”

The firewall manifested in the simulation as a towering range of obsidian mountains spanning the visible horizon--enormous, black, jagged teeth poised to devour the twilit sky. Melanie, Carson, and Hamsa crouched behind their rally point, a low hillock that felt profoundly inadequate to screen them from any observers watching from the heights.

“All right, fine! It makes me feel less…visible, okay?” Carson shoved the dagger he’d been fiddling with into the belt of his shozoku and turned away.


Hamsa chuckled. “You’re on point, Mouse. What now?” Even in ninja garb, his avatar looked more like a sumo wrestler than an assassin.

“Where’s Jumbo’s Folly?”

“It should be right in front of us,” said Carson. “Look for a glow at the base of the mountain. There should be a crack where Jumbo broke in.”

“There!” Hamsa pointed to an indentation in the obsidian wall, about 200 meters away and slightly to the right of their position.

Melanie squinted in that direction. “I don’t see…wait. You’re right. There it is...that hazy green patch. Good eye, Orca.”

“How are we going to get over there without anybody seeing us?”

“I don’t think there is anybody. From what you told me, Jumbo didn’t encounter any resistance until he started his hack. The defenses don’t kick in until they sense an intrusion.” Melanie stood up. “Follow me.”

Carson didn’t move. “Uh, about Orca and I wait a few paces to make sure they don’t have some kind of death ray aimed at you?”

Hamsa grabbed Carson by the arm and hauled him to his feet. “C’mon, Rhino. Mouse is in charge. We have to follow her orders.”

They trotted in a loose column toward the green glow. She’d die before giving Carson the satisfaction of betraying her own fear, but Melanie found herself checking the mountainside every few seconds from the corner of her eye. There were no signs of life, yet she could feel a kind of pressure from it, a massive power, coiled and waiting.

But nothing happened. Nothing moved on the silent monolith of ebony glass. No alarms sounded; no death rays flashed out to meet them.

As they drew nearer, the glow coalesced into a zigzagging crack that traveled 10 meters diagonally upward from the mountain’s foot. There was a pile of rusty scrap metal with bits scattered across the ground, and something that looked like a huge, twisted drill bit wedged into the obsidian where the crack began.

The remains of Jumbo McLaren’s security hack, left behind by its incinerated creator.

Hamsa shook his head. “It’s too narrow. We’ll never fit into that.”

“We don’t have to.” Melanie fished around in a pocket of her shozoku and pulled out a short length of fabric, a few centimeters wide.

“What’s that?”

“Not what. Who. Gentlemen, meet Flat Audrey.”

“It looks like a piece of tape.” Hamsa bent down to take a closer look.

“Audrey is a sophisticated micro-AI, optimized for information collection. A flatworm. She was my tech school graduation project. Say hello, Audrey.”

The fabric curled up into an S shape and warbled, *HELLO, AUDREY.*

“Oh, yes,” Carson sneered, “Very sophisticated. Does it tell jokes, or does it just sit there, being a joke?”


Melanie swatted Carson’s head. “Pay attention. Audrey will go into the crack, follow the data leak, merge with the network inside the firewall, and camouflage herself as a diagnostic subroutine. She’ll collect information for a couple of days, then return to us. She’s got 20 teras of storage.  I’ve instructed her to pinpoint weaknesses in the security protocols, analyze their encryption scheme, and collect access keys. With that information, we can find our own way in.”

“You’re an impressive little bug, Audrey,” said Hamsa, nudging Audrey with a finger.


Melanie smiled inside her ninja mask. “Audrey also enjoys compliments.”

She drew a katana from the sheath strapped to her back and gently placed Audrey on its tip. “All right…if we get any reaction at all from this, everybody logs out immediately. Understood?”

“Understood.” Hamsa took a step back.

Carson hesitated a moment. “Be careful, Mel.”

Melanie extended her arms, slowly pushing the katana’s blade toward the crack in the mountain. She inhaled sharply as it entered the aurora of green mist surrounding the crevice, but there was no change in the glow, or any other sign of trouble. She positioned the blade’s point as close to the opening as she could without touching the obsidian. “Audrey, deploy. Recovery in 48 hours.”

*DEPLOYING.* The flatworm extended itself and slid into the gap like a tiny snake, its skin instantly matching the color and texture of the volcanic glass, and vanished.

Melanie pulled back and returned her katana to its sheath with a sigh. “She’s in. Now, we wait.”


by Fred Warren

Melanie closed the maintenance access panel on the contoured platform that supported Hamsa El-Hashem's--Orca's--swollen body. Swathed in a black simsuit and matching helmet, the nickname was apt. He looked like a baby whale strapped to a slab in some deranged zoologist's lab, awaiting dissection. The two cyborgs keeping silent vigil at the foot of the table only reinforced the mental image. Even the air in the narrow compartment smelled faintly of formaldehyde.

She shuddered as she moved to the control console on the opposite wall and toggled the comm circuit. “All done. You now have industrial-strength surge protection between the network and your sim interface. Nothing short of a lightning bolt is gonna get through that.”

The reply was deep and raspy--and it came from the blob on the table, not the console. Orca reached out toward Melanie with one hand. “Thanks, Mouse. I hope it's enough.”

It took both of Melanie's hands to enfold his. “Enough? Weren't you listening, Hamsa? I told you, nothing short of...”

“You never saw the vids of what happened to Jumbo, did you?”

“No. I didn't. You guys said he took some electrical feedback when he cracked the firewall, and it killed him.”

“It didn't just kill him, Mouse. It cooked him. His simsuit melted into his skin.”

“Don't worry. This mod will give you enough time to bail before anything gets through.” Melanie hoped her voice carried more conviction than she was feeling now. Shells. What's hiding behind that firewall?

He pulled his hand back, giving one of hers a squeeze as they separated. “You better go suit up. Rhino's getting itchy. The Folly's been hot 30 minutes now, and it's never stayed active more than an hour.”

“Keep him on a short leash until I log in. I'm on point for this op. You both promised.”

“Yeah, and we both still think you're crazy. This plan of yours better be something special.”

“It is. Count on it.” Melanie gathered up her tools and moved toward the door of Orca's apartment, taking care not to touch the cyborgs as she passed them. It was totally irrational, but they made her skin crawl.

Orca called out after her. “Hey, Mouse, how's Rhino looking? I mean, for real?”

She didn't turn around. “I don't know. Carson...wouldn't let me in. I had to pass the parts through a slot in his door and upload instructions to his Franks over the net. I'm praying they didn't screw up.”

“That's too bad, but I can understand why he wouldn't want you to see him like this. Like me.”

“Well, I don't understand. He's my brother. I don't care what he looks like. I want to hold his hand. I want to feel him breathing. For all I know, he's already dead, and I've been talking to some souped-up A.I. the past two months.”

Orca chuckled--a metallic, rattling sound. “No, you'd know the difference, Mouse. Better than anybody.”

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Stiff Welcome

By Edward M. Erdelac

Considine eased the Zirconian shuttle through the magnetic field and cut the engines, automatically kicking in the stabilizers, which allowed the small ship to float easily in and down to the deck.

It was one of only three shuttles the Zirconian branch of the Peacekeepers employed. There was hardly any call for interplanetary transfers beyond shipping the occasional convict to Sheba. Most prisoners were put to work in Zirconia, so even that was a dubious requirement. They’d once had four, but the fourth had developed some kind of debilitating mechanical failure and had been cannibalized by its three comrades.

This particular shuttle handled sluggishly, and had a faulty rear left stabilization emitter, which caused it to dip in that quarter at random intervals, making the drink containers in the cabin mostly useless.

Considine spied a pair of suited Enforcers in their pristine tactical combat armor flanking a third man in a tailormade long coat, whose balding pate he recognized as belonging to his old partner Gorsh.

As he settled the ship down and unbuckled his safety belts, Brendermeyer was already heading for the hatch.

“Avenir here I come,” he grinned. “Big time.”

“You’re not going to find a warm welcome, I’m afraid.” Considine said. “Remember, they’re expecting Croix. You’re going to be something of a disappointment, I’m afraid.”

“I’m a comedian, Inspector,” Brendermeyer said, winking back at him as the hatch shot open. “I’m used to disappointing people.”

Considine had never yet caught Brendermeyer’s act. He couldn’t say he even remembered the moonlighting Enforcer ever telling a joke. At least, not one that he had remembered as funny.

It turned out, he never would.

Brendermeyer barely waited for the gangway to descend before he swung down onto the deck.

He was still taking in his brand new surroundings, so he didn’t notice the gaunt man in the red jumpsuit and pulled down cap pushing the air-dolly with the mag-clamps for the shuttle struts. Why should he? It was standard procedure to secure the ship to the deck for safety.

Except that the worker was vaguely familiar. Considine’s homunculus began to kick his teeth like mad.

Brendermeyer didn’t see the worker break into a run, shoving the air-dolly straight at the shuttle. Briefly out of control and speeding from the momentum, the floating cart whizzed towards Brendermeyer.

Considine shouted a warning, and the funnyman Enforcer did manage to side step the runaway air-dolly. It struck the gangway and promptly detonated, as no air-dolly bearing mere mag-clamps should have.

The force of the explosion ripped Brendermeyer to pieces and flung fire and metal and blazing bone up into the shuttle.

Considine was thrown against the canopy and slammed back down onto the console. He heard the emergency klaxons sound and the hissing of the flame retarders. At least they worked. He experienced the shocking sensation of being bathed for a brief moment in intense heat and then he was doused with a mound of cool but foul smelling chemical foam.

Avenir, he thought for one brief, bitter moment, before he lost consciousness.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Anjelika's Heritage: Secrets

by Caitlyn Konze -

A stuttering hiss made Anjelika jump and back-pedal into her father. His firm grip on her shoulders melted her fear like light dissolves nightmares. Pistons twice her size inhaled hot air and exhaled steam that left a tint of iron on her tongue. Chunks of metal clanged together somewhere beyond her field of vapor-obscured vision. When her father said they needed to talk, the intestinal workings of Avenir was the last place she thought they'd go.

“What are we doing here?”

“Making sure we aren't overheard.”

Anjelika raised an eyebrow. Mission accomplished, considering the only way to communicate among the mechanical cacophony was to shout directly into each other's ears.

Her father shook the battered letter centimeters from her nose.

“I don't know who wrote this, but it means we are not as safe as I thought.”

The muscles in Anjelika's jaw clamped together and her eyes widened. Avenir Acquisitions Administrator Davik Loynis, her father, whose orders came directly from the Peace Council, was concerned for his safety? No one gained or relinquished permanent residency on this orbital ship without her father's signature. Do the Council not trust the people they appoint? Had her family been under some kind of surveillance this whole time? Who else would have the resources to harm someone with her father's status? The direction of Anjelika's thoughts propelled her to more and more preposterous conclusions until she arrived at one that made her heart protest its own rhythm.


“Was not the victim of an accidental hull breach.”

Anjelika wrenched her head out of her father's hands and locked gazes with his red, baggage-laden eyes.

“Then what was she a victim of?”

He couldn't have heard her, but her father's shoulders rose and drooped with the heavy understanding of his daughter's inquisition. She allowed him to speak into her ear again.

“There are things you wouldn't understand–”

“Then start explaining them.”

Her father pinched the bridge of his nose before leaning close. “I love you, Jeli, and you have to trust that I continue to love no woman more than I love your mother.”

The use of her childhood nickname stung the backs of her eyeballs with tears. She swallowed. “Continue to love?”

Her father cupped either side of her head so she couldn't pull away. “Yes, honey. Your mother is still alive.”

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Rejoicing In Hope

by Travis Perry

Elsa hauled a wooden bucket of dirty water out of the tavern.  She carried it downhill and poured into a coarse gully leading to the bay.  She planned to next retrieve a clean bucketful from the well and finish her cleaning, when she saw a man walking up toward her.  Not many men came around the tavern in the middle of the day—they were out hunting.

The man was tall and unshaven, gaunt like he hadn’t eaten in a while, with dark hair and eyes, and tattered clothing smelling of seawater.  He stumbled like he’d been wounded in his right leg, while burns plainly showed themselves on his rugged face.

“Young man, are you all right?”

He turned toward her and grimaced.  “I’ve been better.”

She walked to him and put her shoulder under his arm.  “I’m not that bad off,” he said, but he allowed her to help.  She took him to the well sat him on its edge and hauled up water for him to drink.

“Thanks, old lady.”

“I’d do it for anyone.  What’s your name, young man?”

“Ernsto…last name doesn’t matter.”

“Of course,” she answered, offering him an understanding smile.  Many of the new hunters had pasts they didn’t want to talk about.

“Say, old lady, you remind me of my grandma.  Can you help me with something?”

“I’ll do whatever I can.”

He reached inside his left front pants pocket and pulled free a dark sack.  It clicked with movement and she could make out shapes of round hard objects.  As if it were filled with coins.  “Could you take these for me?  They’re gettin’ awful heavy.  You wouldn’t believe what I went through to bring them this far.”

“All of them?  Surely you don’t mean it!”

“Surely I do.”

“May I…look at them?” 

“Why don’ you wait ‘till I leave, Grandma.”

Elsa waited but she was overjoyed.  It was a huge cache of copper coins, maybe fifty or more.  These by themselves might be enough to pay for trip to the orphanage, especially if there were a silver or two hidden among them.  In her mind she praised God and she hummed a happy hymn as she washed Ernsto’s wounds.

He rested with her a half an hour or so, but then arose and started walking inland.  “I’m goin’ huntin’, Elsa.  You take care.”

“God bless you, young man.  And thank you,” she added, rattling the coin bag.

She didn’t open it right away.  Some part of her had begun to fear there must be something wrong—perhaps the metal pieces were cheap tin slugs instead of money…though the bag seemed too heavy for that. 

In the evening, after finishing the tavern floor, in the isolation of the privy, she emptied out the coins.  At first it seemed her fears had come true, the coins were very light colored, like tin.  But then she realized what they really were.  Platinum.

She almost squealed but stopped herself in time.  It wouldn’t do to let everyone know what she had.  People got killed for far less. 

But this would change everything.  She could now afford new hunting gear.  She could return home with her grandchildren and teach them what they needed to know to survive—her family could live on.  In freedom.  In peace.  And most importantly, together.

Her heart poured out into silent song, Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise Him all creatures here below…

Sunday, July 1, 2012


by Walt Staples

The wrench slipped and clanged against the manifold. Israel Hands grimaced. He held his breath, listening. All he heard were the normal ship sounds—the wheeze of the air handlers, the creaking and pop of the hull as the rotating freighter turned a new side to the glare of 94 Ceti A's blaze. Satisfied, the engineer went on with installing the spigot on the blower motor supply line.

His mind wandered to Captain Merry, the late Captain George Merry he reminded himself. He thought of the orange bodybag holding the captain with which he had shared John Silver's walk-in-cooler while hiding. Outside in the galley, he first heard angry voices, then sounds of a commotion, a scream, finally silence. When he could stand the waiting no longer, he eased the door of the cooler open. Silver, the tall cook, lay on his face; the handle of one of his carving knives protruding from his back. Somehow, his prosthetic leg had become detached in the struggle. Hands scowled at the murdered man; no doubt Jim Hawkins' handiwork. He enjoyed doing Smollett's dirty work.

Hands had not cared for Smollett since the first officer came aboard. While Merry was quiet, competent, and easygoing, Smollett—now “Captain Smollett”--showed the marks of a martinet.

The engineer considered the opposition. Smollett, Hawkins, Livesey probably, Hunter, and Joy. Gunn? Maybe yes, maybe no. Ben Gunn was impossible to figure; more a force of nature than a man.

He tightened the coupling. Hooking the wrench to his belt, he paused and listened once more. Nothing. Hands quickly threaded the heavy hose onto the spigot and snugged it down.

“Barratry,” that's what they called it—a captain stealing the cargo with which he was entrusted. The goods in the strongroom had proved too much for Smollett. The engineer wondered what was on the manifest that set the crime in motion.

Hands crossed himself and said a quick prayer for the spirit of “Long John” Silver. Had he not overheard the plot and pushed Hands into the cooler when he heard Smollett's faction coming, the engineer was sure he too would be lying on the galley deck beside the Imperium Traveler's cook. He smiled sadly as he remembered Silver tickled to death that Steve Jackson, the shipping line's owner, knew him by name. He sighed, a good man gone.

Down the companionway, someone dropped a metal object. Hands heard a snarled profanity that could only  have come from Hawkins. The engineer grinned wolfishly. The tell-tale on the bridge showed Hands back aft in the drive room rather than in Life Support. Amazing what one could do with a screwdriver.

The Imperium Traveler's engineer pulled on a pair of heavily padded gauntlets and picked up the  free end of the hose. He checked that the nozzle was closed, then opened the valve on the spigot all the way.

He heard footfalls approaching from forward. He peeked a bit too far around the door combing. Jim Hawkins, in the lead, saw him and snapped off a shot from the ship pistol he carried. The frangible bullet hit the combing just to the side of his head and shattered. The projectiles wouldn't hole hard surfaces, but they would hole skin and muscle.

Smollett called out, “Jim, put that away. Israel is a friend. There's no call for that sort of thing.” After a moment, he continued in a wheedling voice, “Now, Israel, Jim has put the pistol away. Why don't you come on out and we'll discuss the whole thing.”

Hands stayed hidden. “There's nothing to be discussed. You're stealing the ship and her cargo. That's barratry! We've nothing to talk about.”

Smollett sounded pained, “But, Israel, that's such a harsh word. Besides, you can be a rich man.”

Hands felt the blood rise in his face. “I work for Steve Jackson,” he shouted. “I've eaten his salt.” He stepped around the edge of the door into the companionway, pointed the nozzle at the four men there, opened it, and roared, “I will not break my oath.”

Hawkins got off one shot before the stream of live steam took him and the others. The round hit Hands low in the right leg, causing him to fall back against the bulkhead and slide down to sit on the deck. He managed to keep the steam on its targets until the screams ceased. Eventually, he closed the nozzle.

His leg burned to the point that he glanced down to make sure he hadn't scalded himself as well. He dropped the hose, and opened and slapped a med pack over the wound. He looked at the four bodies that shared the companionway with him and decided that med packs would be of little use. Between the painkillers in the med pack, nervous exhaustion, and the horror at his success, Hands zoned out.

When he returned to alertness, he found Doctor Livesey treating his wound. The ship's rabbity medico smiled sickly at him, then glanced up nervously at Ben Gunn. The latter leaned against the bulkhead idly cleaning under his fingernails with a vicious-looking dagger. Livesey turned back to Hands. “Ah, Israel. You've returned to us. Everything's under control. The Revenue Cutter Wolverine will be along side in an hour.” He looked at Gunn. “See, Ben? I told you I'd take care of him.”

The cargo master leered down at the medico. “Oh, aye, pleasant as pie aren't we, good croaker? The thought of spending time, just the two of us, strongly concentrates the mind, does it not? No forgetting a syllable of the Hippocratic Oath as well as the one you made to this ship, is there?” He giggled, then cocked his head to take in the hose and spigot. “And, Israel, my young lad, wherever did you find steam on our darling old Imperium Traveler?”

Hands nodded toward the Life Support compartment. “The steam's a byproduct of cooling the fusion chamber. It's piped forward to turn the blower motors.”

Gunn thought it over for a moment, then giggled again. The engineer reflected that it was proof of Gunn's genius as a cargo master that captains willingly put up with his oddity.

Gunn looked at him with a bird-like twinkle. “How came you by the idea to use steam in such an innovative way, my boy?”

Hands glanced at the bodies and shuddered, then back up at Gunn. He said, tiredly, “The ancient classic about a ship's engineer, The Sand Pebbles.”