[personal profile] hwrnmnbsol
"Okay, let's review," said Lopez. "We're going to whack the Crown Prince, steal his Chain of Awesomeness, and…"

"No," said McMillan. "Nobody gets whacked. At least, not indiscriminately. You see, it is of paramount importance that we steal the chain without its loss being discovered."

"No indiscriminate violence?" I asked. "Oh well; I'll try to stay busy."

"You'll have plenty on your hands," McMillan said. "There are four squadrons of Space Marines on board, playing the Crown Prince's babysitters."

I blinked. I used to be a Space Marine. Tough bastards. Good with guns, swords, fists. Don't like being betrayed. "Uh…" I said, "how do you expect me to deal with them without…"

"One thing at a time," said McMillan. "You should be aware that the Chain of Office is too valuable to be kept on the Crown Prince's person. A special vault has been built to house it."

"Oh yes," said Lopez, "the easy-to-penetrate variety of vault, no doubt."

"Penetrating the vault will not be hard," said McMillan. "However, its walls house a containment bubble full of Fatir gas."

Kima whistled. "That eats through anything," she said. "No known cure."

"Not quite anything," hissed Sarpalian.

"Oh, let me guess," I said. "It can't eat Javanite."

"It cannot," said McMillan. "The artificial gravity pushes away from all the walls, and the chain floats at the center."

"Okay, STOP," said Grabsy. "Just so we can sum up: we're going to remove the chain from a trapped vault, without letting anybody know, without killing anybody, without disturbing anything, and then we're going to get away, right?"

"Yes," said McMillan. "We'll start by infiltrating the ship's fire command system."

Grabsy threw up his hands. "Wake me up when there's a plan I can understand," he said, retiring to his bunk. The briefing meeting broke up, and as McMillan wasn't in the head-blowing-up mood, Lopez and I retired as well.



I was bushed after our busy day of sabotage and sneakiness. I lay down on my bunk and was asleep as soon as I closed my eyes. When I woke up, Lopez was coughing and gagging. This is a sound I've heard before, but usually in the context of strong drink, which appeared to be noticeably absent when one was serving in McMillan's company. I turned on my penlight. "Hey, buddy; you okay?" I asked, peering over the edge of the bunk at my Weasard.

Lopez sat up. He looked drawn and miserable. "I feel terrible, boss," he said. "I think I caught something on Tierra Salvador."

"Caught something? Like a disease?" Respiratory disease was nothing to screw around with on a small ship.

"Nah," said Lopez weakly. "More like a parasitic thing."

"That's nasty, Lopez," I said. "Do me a favor and don't crap in my vacc suit anymore; I don't want what you got."

"It's not like that. Aw, man; look out…" Lopez coughed and retched over the edge. A cloud of nasty looking mucus dropped on the floor. There was something squirming in it; it looked like a round tadpole the size of a marble.

"That's really nasty," I observed, and crushed the thing. It stopped squirming.

"We better not tell McMillan," I said. "He might decide a sick Weasard isn't worth keeping around."

"Oh, Jackpot," Lopez said sadly. "What do you think the odds are that McMillan doesn't know the tiniest thing we say and do, as soon as it happens?"

I thought about how McMillan had implanted sensors in the last gang of his that we had met. "Probably zero," I said. We didn't get any more sleep.

After the rest cycle we reconvened. "We've hit warp," McMillan's monitor said. "Grabsy, you'll be going EVA; I've patched into the cameras, so I can make you disappear off of them. You're going to do a little welding. Sarpalian, I want you down on the pool level. I'll share some schematics with you; you'll need to see where the nozzle will have to be located. Kima, you'll be on the Lido deck, working the Crown Prince angle. Don't make any contact yet; just see if you can get him to notice you."

Kima smiled. "Later, I'll see if I can get him to not notice me."

McMillan's assignments continued. "Lopez, you'll be infiltrating the ship's maintenance crew. Lots of other weasards on board the ship; you should blend right in."

"Oh, yeah," said Lopez sarcastically, "and nobody will notice the new guy, because we all look the same, right?"

"Frankly, yes," McMillan answered. "One of the products of being an engineered race. Weasards have a .018 Commonality Index on the Sapir Racial Homogeneity Scale."

Lopez thought about that. "Yeah, okay," he said. "Fair enough."

"What about me?" I said. "Where do you want me to go? I'd be glad to commandeer one of the bars."

"No such luck," McMillan said. "You're going to the gym."

"Look, if I've put on a few pounds, it can't be because of the food around this joint," I commented.

"Shut up," said McMillan's voice irritably. "The gym's in the same compartment as the vault. You'll need to be there when the fire breaks out."

"Oh," I said. "There's going to be a fire?"

"No," said McMillan.

"Okay," I said. "Hey, you know what's great about a plan that nobody understands? You can completely screw it up and still feel like a winner."

"Everybody get off my boat," McMillan ordered.

**

The monitor issued everybody earpiece comms. We costumed up from outfits in _Glom_'s locker. Lopez got a red jumpsuit covered with pockets. I was issued a sport unitard with a neck long enough to cover the gizmo that would blow my head off if I crossed the line. Kima came out of her cabin wearing a one-shoulder thing with a short sarong, then drew up short. She must have noticed me staring. And drooling.

"Down, boy," she purred.

"You have to pardon my friend," Lopez said brightly. "He's shy."

"Shut up, Lopez," I muttered.

"And he's much too much the gentleman to say what's on his mind, which is that he'd like to mate with you in ways that run the spectrum from Vanilla to There Oughta Be a Law," Lopez added.

"Lopez…" I growled.

"I dare say," continued Lopez, "were you to succumb to my friend's, quote, charms, unquote, he could definitely provide himself with the best five minutes of his life. And also the best hour of yours, when he stopped."

"Look," I said to Kima, "I'm embarrassed, and I'm sorry. Can we just go do our jobs?"

"Sure," said Kima. She leaned in to dab saliva off my chin with a napkin. She was wearing some kind of musk. My eyes rolled back in my skull. When they were capable of receiving visual input again, she was gone.

"You are so smooth," Lopez commented. "You are, like, baby's-ass levels of smoothness. When I grow up I want you to teach me all of your moves so I can do the opposite and have five wives."

"Weasard for sale," I muttered, heading for the hatch.

_Glom_ had automatically burned a hole in the back of _Golden_Empire_'s bulkhead when we linked up. The hatch was nearly flush with the disused storage bay's wall that the hole opened onto. From the liner's side, the door was indistinguishable from a piece of welded plate. I closed up the door and sneaked out into the access hall. I was loose on the ship.

_Golden_Empire_ was a luxury liner without peer. It was kept at a constant .9G's and 74 degrees Fahrenheit, and thick-pile carpeting ran the length of its miles of corridors. The top level of the ship was the Lido deck, which was entirely a white-sand beach fronting a blue lagoon, all covered by a nearly translucent dome that allowed the passengers to admire the multicolored streaks of light that were visible during warp. Every comfort of a paradise planet was available on the _Golden_Empire_, ranging from casinos and nightclubs to shopping to sporting events of all sorts. It was rumored they even had their own Pornomat, although I couldn't find it on the ship's schematics.

I mingled with the thousands of super-wealthy travelers who were taking the five-day journey to Tharpe's Star. That place wasn't anybody's final destination; Nega was just next door, and with the Negelians just finishing up a major internecine war, Tharpe's Star wasn't the sort of place that the ultra-rich would consider safe. Cruising from star to star was something of a way of life for those with the means to do it; it was a way to roam the galaxy without ever leaving the comfort and security of one's own little private luxury moonlet.

I took a tube down to 'R' deck, which was where the gymnasium was located. It was one of the lowest levels on the ship; only the Olympic water sports level was below it. I got off the elevator and made my way to the weight room. The place was huge and filled with equipment. Mirrors lined every surface, so gauging the room's size was difficult to manage. Apparently lifting heavy weights wasn't a popular sport among the current passengers; only a handful of people were using the gear. Those who were there hung together; they all had a thick-necked, square-jawed, overly-watchful look to them that I found distressingly familiar. I was in a gym with a dozen Space Marines.

I set up on a weight press machine and began lifting 250 kg. It was easy in a .9G environment; the 1.4G muscles get soft but they never really lose their oomph. McMillan's voice startled me, almost causing me to drop the bar.

"The mirrored wall to your left," said the voice, "is the wall between you and the vault. It's two feet thick, half of which is solid steel, and the other half of which is the containment generator. Punching through it won't be easy. So, we're not going to do that."

"Okay," I grunted subvocally, not stopping my reps.

"We're going to take out the marine detachment guarding the door, instead," said McMillan. "Or, rather, you're going to do that. What would make that easy for you? Killing the lights? Losing gravity control?"

"These guys eat darkness, sleep zero-G and shit vacuum," I told McMillan. "We're not going to hose them by changing the terrain."

"Water, sir?" A steward offered to put a bottle on a small silver table next to me. I nodded and kept lifting. The attendant went away.

"All right," said McMillan. "How about weaponry? On-duty marines appear to be armed with stunrods and blaster pistols detuned to make a lot of heat but not a lot of structural damage. I could arrange some concussion grenades, perhaps a little deliriant gas…."

"Heated towel, sir?" said the steward, holding one up with tongs.

"Go away," I grunted.

"Yes, sir," said the man deferentially. "Also, don't forget about the IFF settings on the Space Marine's weapons."

"What?" I said, but the attendant was already walking down the line.

"What was that?" asked McMillan sharply.

"Damned steward just sassed me," I said, thinking quickly. "Anyway, here's an idea. Space Marines have Identification Friend/Foe systems built into their weaponry. Firefights get intense in close quarters; it's an automatic setting to prevent shooting your buddy. If you could get me to show up on their radar as a friend…."

"Then we could make you blaster-proof," concluded McMillan. "Nice thinking, Jackpot. You're not as dumb as you seem to be."

"I seem dumb?" I asked.

"Or maybe you are," he said. "I've got to work on this. Back in ten."

The steward hovered at a discreet distance. I sat up on my bench and squinted at him. He caught my look and came over, smiling benignly. "He can't hear either of us right now," said the man.

There was something familiar about the fellow. He had an average build and a pale complexion, but there was a quickness and a birdlike nature to the way his eyes moved that I was having a hard time placing. Then it hit me.

"Swami?" I said, unbelievingly.

"On the inside," he admitted.

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September 2012

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