[personal profile] hwrnmnbsol
The cargo flats slammed into each other, a train wreck on a grand scale unfolding in slow motion. The barges were a quarter mile long. One was empty and the other was full of recycling waste. They buckled and rippled down their lengths, cracking open on all sides, their momentum nearly cancelling out and leaving the wreck dead in space. The contents of the full barge, an uneven silvery chaff, billowed out into a shimmering cloud. Tiny tugs jetted around like gnats, trying to figure out how to disentangle the mess and keep it from impacting traffic around the port at Gray Lady.

_Golden_Empire_ was in no danger from the wreck, but her outbound trajectory necessarily carried her through the chaff cloud. The long, slender cruise liner soared gracefully through the mess, leaving disorder and mayhem behind as she glided for the stars.

I got on the comm. "Nice driving, Grabsy," I said. "I was just telling Lopez: the best way to get a giant cactus to successfully ram a target is to tell him to miss it."

"Funny," replied Grabsy after only a brief pause, "*I* was just telling Kima that the best way to get a failed space marine to fuck off is to tell him to fuck off." He cleared his throat. "Fuck off," he added.

"Less talk, please," said McMillan. "We're still at a delicate phase of the operation. Grabsy and Kima, jettison immediately and join up with Jackpot. Lopez, you're ready to go EVA?"

"Aye aye, cap'n," said Lopez tonelessly. I felt a pang, hearing my weasard engineer call another man 'captain', even though I knew Lopez was empowering the word with all the respect one would use to pronounce an epithet aimed at a person guilty of having carnal relations with the woman who birthed him.

"Jackpot, I need _Glom_ burning in fifteen seconds, or we'll miss our window," added McMillan.

"Tick tock, I got it," I grumbled, firing the unusual craft's engines, jetting into the chaff cloud and taking up station behind _Golden_Empire_. "I'd like to help you through a window," I added under my breath, knowing perfectly well that he could hear me.

"And no more lip," McMillan added sharply. "You're my crew now, and there's only one way out of it."

"Yeah," I said, fingering the explosive collar fitted around my neck. "I know."


_Golden_Empire_ was positioning herself for exit burn. For a warp drive to work, you have to have several things. You have to have a lot of mass, which is why little ships can't warp. They can draft behind a big ship and leech off their warp bubble, but if they get separated in warp, the little ship will atomize. Next, you have to generate a lot of energy, which is why warping is expensive. And finally, you have to be undergoing a tremendous amount of acceleration at the moment you enter warp. Without that boost the warp bubble can't form, your ship can't outrace the high-powered graviton field you're generating, and you get eaten by a very short-lived black hole. So, you know, don't forget step three.

_Golden_Empire's_ engines were glowing a cherry red already; she would be firing within the minute. During this time her rear-facing cameras would be blind. I got _Glom_ into position and began maneuvering her towards the tail of the big liner.

The comm crackled. "Jackpot, me and Kima are aboard," Grabsy announced.

"I shall alert the media," I replied.

"The stupid media," Lopez clarified.

_Glom_ was a ship that McMillan had made on spec. From the back it looked exactly like the tail-end of _Golden_Empire_, although its engine discharge cones were just big open cylinders; we had small maneuvering engines that could be disengaged and jettisoned. The ship was only about twenty feet thick from aft to stern. It was slow and moved like a cow. Fortunately, I only needed it to move for the next sixty seconds or so.

The engines of the liner began to glow blue. I *really* needed _Glom_ to move. I jetted her up to the back end of the big ship, aligning my sighting lasers to the docking points, and crept her up as carefully as I could with limited time to spare.

Lopez was suited and out on the hull. "No time to waste; I'm jumping it," said my Weasard. He didn't wait for me to call him an idiot – we've been together long enough that it was just understood – and he launched himself across the shrinking gap between ships. Lopez let his magnetic boots clamp onto _Golden_Empire_'s hull. Then he homed in on the first of two aft-facing cameras and began fooling around on it with a rotodriver.

"First camera's loose," he said, scampering over the hull towards the second emplacement.

"Docking," I said. The two ships brushed together with only a faint scrape. The banked engines of the liner roared through the cylinder holes of _Glom_. I engaged the magnetic links. We were glommed on.

"Second camera!" shouted Lopez, huffing and puffing.

"Get your tail inside, reptile!" I barked. "This thing's got wheels!"

"Comin', Ma!" chirped Lopez delightedly. The surface port cycled. My buddy and first mate was inside.

There was a jolt, and the hull of _Glom_ began to pop with a sudden increase in surface temperature. The engines were burning in earnest now. I was thrown back against my couch. I hoped Lopez was someplace comfortable, or at least wasn't in the same room with Grabsy. Carnegieans are basically three-meter mobile saguaro cacti; being thrown onto one wouldn't be much fun.

"Engaging rear cameras," I said. I powered up the two cameras on _Glom_ that provided the same view of our rear that the ones on _Golden_Empire_ had done, then patched the feed into the repeaters that Lopez had attached to the dead cameras. Whoever was looking in the rear-view mirror of the big ship would see exactly what they would have seen before we got there, and in the unlikely event that somebody did an EVA while in warp, it was probable that nobody would notice the extra twenty feet on a craft that was one hundred and fifty times that in length.

The first phase of the mission complete, we assembled in _Glom_'s cramped central compartment. Lopez had already made himself comfortable in my beanbag. There's something special about the relationship between a man and his weasard, and that something is a constant state of infighting. Me and Lopez always existed in a constant state of friendly joshing – you know, I take a leak in his bedding; he surgically removes a toe while I'm sleeping; I sabotage his oxygen readout so it screams EMPTY EMPTY while he's on EVA; he reattaches my toe to my chin – simple little stuff. But we loved each other, I suppose, as only two thieves and hired killers could love one another. I really did mean to keep my promise to him to sign his emancipation papers, someday, when doing so wouldn't get us arrested.

Grabsy let himself in, needing to bend almost double to fit through the hatch. That's not easy for a Carnegiean; they have very hard hides, which gives them the useful ability to survive hard space, unprotected, for extended periods with no ill effects. Grabsy was also very strong and very spiny, and was also somewhat of a dick. This set him apart from me and Lopez. We were all dick.

Grabsy came in with Kima. Kima messes up my brain. She's a human female, and her shape interferes with the operations of my nervous system. When she's around I have difficulty saying intelligent things. Lopez likes to say that she just makes me more like myself. He also likes to tease me in front of her, which makes me angry. I'm not sure why; she always was coolly professional around me. She was already part of McMillan's gang when we got picked up at Tierra Salvador; no explosive collar for Kima.

The same was true for Sarpalian, who was best described as a big black lizard in a turtleneck sweater. Sarpalian was a Gimchik and was supposedly a chemist. Why we needed one of those was anybody's guess. As far as I could tell, he wasn't much good at conversation, he didn't drink or arm-wrestle, and if he had a means of killing somebody it would have been by boring them to death. This made him, in my book, disposable. But, hey, every team needs somebody disposable. Look, SOMEBODY has to pull any levers you come across.

Last was McMillan's monitor, a skinny aluminum truss-built android. McMillan talked through it; we never saw him directly.

"You didn't come along, McMillan?" I asked.

"I'm on the Deuce," McMillan answered. "It has its own warp drive, remember?" Gorelid Deuces were the smallest known craft to have a reliable warp drive. That, plus their highly effective cloak, made them among the most dangerous craft smaller than a cruiser.

"Yeah, but once we reach warp, you won't be able to give us orders. Or trigger our head exploders," Lopez pointed out.

"Don't worry about that," McMillan growled. "I've downloaded a large part of my mental capacity into my monitor. It can give direction, or blow your heads off, perfectly well."

"Oh, yeah," said Grabsy in his usual somewhat strangled voice. His collar actually cut into his hide below his face; it had to, on account of the fact that he had no neck to speak of. "That was Swami's trick. Downloaded his brain into every computer in the system."

"Ah, Swami," said McMillan. "My little brother, after a fashion. So full of potential, all so sadly unrealized."

"We liked working for Swami," Lopez complained. "He didn't threaten to blow our heads off."

"That's right," I agreed. "When Swami blew somebody's head off, he just did it with no warning."

"Could you boys settle down?" Kima asked sweetly. "I want to find out what we're after."

"Urr," I said. That was about the best I could do when addressed by Kima.

"Well, I just kind of assumed we were going to loot a liner full of rich people," Lopez said uncertainly.

"If that had been the goal," the Monitor said, "we could have skipped the rather expensive and complicated glomming phase. We could have just drafted behind the liner along with the half-dozen other ships that do the same thing on every run, and then boarded the ship during warp."

"So how come we didn't do that?" Grabsy asked.

"Because this liner isn't allowing drafting," McMillan said. "They're strictly solo on this run. You see, even though this is _Golden_Empire_'s typical run between Gray Lady and Tharpe's Star, this particular trip has a special guest, and a special cargo."

"Yeah, but luxury liners are full of special guests," I said. "How many millions of credits does it take to buy a ticket on that thing?"

"Need more zeroes," McMillan advised. "No, this guest is really special. The civil war on Nega is over; peace will be declared Galaxy-wide in a week. _Golden_Empire_ has the Negelian Crown Prince aboard, returning to rule his republic."

THAT was news. I hadn't even been aware that the Crown Prince was still alive, let alone was anywhere nearby. Not for the last time, I wondered where people like McMillan and Swami got their information.

"Okay, so what's the cargo?" asked Lopez. Kima gasped, and her big beautiful eyes went wide. Then she smiled and nodded knowingly.

"That's good," she said approvingly.

"What's good?" asked Grabsy.

"Kima refers," said McMillan's disembodied voice, "to the Negelian Chain of Office, the hereditary symbol of rule on Nega. Whoever wears it is the technical ruler of fifteen worlds and forty moons. Whoever holds it controls the fate of a quadrant of the galaxy. And whoever sells it will be very, very rich."

I turned to Lopez. "He's about to say the expensive word, isn't he?"

"Its links," said McMillan, "are forged of the purest Javanite."

Lopez nodded. "Yup," he said.

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September 2012

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