[personal profile] hwrnmnbsol
"That was some pretty radical plastic surgery that you had," I admired. Swami didn't look anything like the painfully thin little stick-man I had known for a long time.

"I actually decided to do a brain transplant," Swami said. "It was easier. Also, once you've done one, it's easy to just pull up roots, as it were, and move on to another body."

"Yeah?" I asked. "What happened to the other brains? The original occupants, I mean?"

"That's not an interesting question," said Swami. "The interesting question is, how am I going to spring you and your friends?"

"I like that question," I said. "You can start by getting this collar off."

"Nope," said Swami. "Can't do that. I know McMillan and his handiwork; getting that off safely will not be a quick exercise. No, we'll have to play a complicated game. You'll have to remain in his service, follow through with the plan, while I work on getting you free."

"Yeah, okay," I said. The space marines were starting to stare at me, engaged as I was in a conversation with one of the help. I sat down on my bench and resumed pumping iron. Swami removed one of my shoes and started relacing it.

"Well, you better free us before we get off the ship," I suggested. "McMillan's still out there in his Gorelid Deuce; this is probably a lot easier to pull off while he's remote."

Swami shook his head. "I think McMillan lied to you, Jackpot," he said. "I very much doubt that he would do this job remotely. No, I think the odds are excellent that, for reasons of his own, McMillan has chosen not to tell you how close he really is. I'll put five to one odds that he's on board _Golden_Empire_."

"Yeah?" I said. "Staying in one of the luxury suites while we squat in our own stink on _Glom_, eh?"

"Possibly," said Swami, "but he might be even closer than that. I'll give you three to one odds that he's actually part of _Glom_'s crew."


"What?" I said. "_Glom_'s crew? But there's just me, Lopez,…"

Swami noded. "Kima, who you know nothing about; Sarpalian, ditto…"

"And Grabsy, who is clearly not some kind of a genius," I added.

"Isn't he?" asked Swami. "He's actually the most likely of the bunch. He was certainly awfully conveniently available during the run on Tierra Salvador."

"Yeah, but all these people have been in the same room with me when McMillan was giving orders," I pointed out.

"Oh, honestly, Jackpot," said Swami. "I can think of a number of ways a clever fellow could make that happen. Throws suspicion off; just the sort of parlor-trick a charlatan like McMillan would pull."

I cocked my head at Swami. "McMillan called you his little brother. You know a lot about him. Is this more than a professional rivalry?"

Swami sighed. "We were part of the same eugenics program," he said. "Yes, we go back a long ways. I'm sorry you got caught in the middle, Jackpot. I promise I'll do my best to get you and Lopez out of this." He stood up.

"Back to work," he said. "I'll see you around. You have a visitor."

A shadow fell over me. One of the space marines was blocking my light. He was looking at the weight I was pressing. "Two fifty," he grunted. "Impressive. One point five gees?"

"Nah, one point four," I said. "I'm just a badass."

The Spam looked at me. "You ain't no rich boy," he said. "You a cop?"

I thought fast. "Nah, bodyguard," I said. "Part of Leeka Spice's detail."

The marine frowned. "Then how come you down here?"

"Sometimes she lets me slack off when I get tired of carrying her litter around," I said. "Then I'm under strict instructions to seek out the manliest men and get their stink all over me. So here I am, letting you drip sweat in my eyes, cuddlebuns."

Spam-boy turned to his buddies. "Hey, we got a live one over here!" he called.

"Don't kill them yet," McMillan warned.

"I like the 'yet'," I muttered in my throat.

"You'll get your chance," said McMillan. "Lopez is working on the Fire Control Room. Keep it cool for now."

"Maybe you should find another weight room," said the space marine, as several of his buddies came wandering up. They all had the same basic physique – squat, well-defined muscles, not much fat. Space Marines are highly predictable; given an option between fighting and not fighting, they will fight; absent a fighting option, they will construct one, out of thin air if necessary.

I figured I could take them. But orders are orders, especially when they come from the guy who can push a button and pop your head off.

"Yeah, okay," I drawled, getting up and swigging the water Swami had thoughtfully provided. "I'm getting enough exercise dragging my big brass balls around. You boys enjoy your little rec-room sausage fest; I'm going to find something to drink where military men aren't invited." I headed for the exit. Spammy grabbed me by the arm.

"Hey," he said suspiciously, "how'd you know we're military?"

Oops. "Well, it was either that or clowns," I replied. "But none of you are funny enough. And you're definitely not scary." I yanked my arm away, having won a moral victory of sorts, and breezed off into the sunset.

On my way back up the tube, I checked in on the rest of the team. "You out there, Grabsy?" I asked. "Literally? Because it's nice and warm in here."

"I hate you, Jackpot," said the Carnegiean. His signal was a little crackly on account of his being outside the ship's radiation shielding. "But warmth isn't a problem. I wish I had your little furry friend out here; he's a whiz with welding, and it might be fun to set his tail on fire."

"There's no arson in space, silly," I reminded Grabsy. "Anyway, just be careful not to lose your grip on the hull. That warp wake is only fifty feet over your head; if you hit that, you'll atomize as you drop below the speed of light. And that would make me cry while I was pawing through your personal effects." I cut the line and got hold of Lopez.

My weasard was coughing again. "Shit, Lopez," I said, "you sound like Grabsy looks."

"And I feel like your ass smells," Lopez replied, once he had his breath back. "Christ, Jackpot, I think I'm dying."

"Sounds pretty serious," I said. "We better get McMillan to check you out. He can probably fix you up."

"I don't want or need any fixing up from that bastard," said Lopez. "I'd rather be doctored by Mincey than McMillan. Hey, I wonder what ever happened to that guy?"

"Who knows?" I said, still relishing the memory of spacing our ex-doctor. Some joys just have to remain private. "So what are you up to?"

"Oh, who the hell knows?" Lopez growled. "Swami at least used to explain his plans. McMillan doesn't tell us jack. I think I've rigged up a way to gas anybody in the fire control room, and then get us inside quickly. Next I'm supposed to get down to the underdecks and break out some heavy gear that McMillan put in with the ship's luggage. Busy, busy."

"Laziness is overrated," I commented.

"Yeah?" answered Lopez in his best surly tones. "By who?"

"Morons," I said, then hung up.

The tube let me off on the Lido deck. I went to see how Kima was doing. It took awhile to find her; the Lido was huge. I was also inappropriately dressed; I had to find some boxer shorts and a floral-print shirt so I could blend in. Then I wandered the beach. The artificial sun shone down at an angle from the forward-decks side, generating lots of shady patches below the artificial palms. Laughing young people, all beautiful, splashed in the water and drank large volumes of alcohol. Older people, those for whom the rejuvenation treatments didn't take so well, lay on deck chairs wrapped up in towels like mummies. Life aboard the _Golden_Empire_ could be pretty wonderful, I considered. All it would take to achieve it would be getting my hands on a largish quantity of Javanite.

Oh, and not dying.

I found Kima. She was in the water up to her neck, her hair wet and her eyes sparkling. She spotted me and came out of the water. She must have been wearing a slinky kind of swimwear under her beachwear outfit. I stared, mesmerized, as she slowly emerged, water droplets streaming away off her skin. To call her statuesque would be to grossly overrate the aesthetics of statuary.

Kima stalked towards me, her hips shifting, a half-smile playing across her lips. I was completely paralyzed. Kima came right up to me, her face within inches of mine, and draped a casual arm over one of my shoulders. I licked my lips.

"What are we doing?" I asked.

Her green eyes bored into mine. "We're making the Crown Prince jealous," she said, laughing lightly as if what I had just said was terribly amusing.

"Oh," I said, crestfallen. "That's what we're doing."

"He's right over there," she said, turning and waving gaily. There was a large retinue encamped on a raised platform under the palms. A man with sunglasses that screened his entire face raised one hand slightly – a wave or a salute or both.

"He gave me this," said Kima, showing off a flashy bracelet.

"Oh, nice," I said, glancing at it. "Platinum and Cyrilium; maybe four carats of diamonds and half that of sapphires. On the open market, I'd say…"

"Stuff it," she said, still smiling. "The important thing is, I'm getting in."

"Or he's getting in, however you want to look at it," I said. "Hey, how jealous do we need to make the guy?"

"Oh, probably just a little more jealous than you," Kima said. She looked me up and down.

"Jackpot," she said, "you are a pasty, pasty man."

"Streakers don't make it in space," I commented.

Kima laughed out loud. "You're actually kind of funny," she said. She glanced over at the Crown Prince.

"I think he's jealous enough now," she said. "You should probably go."

"Right," I said, backing away from her. I raised my voice.

"I'll just, uh, go back to the thing. The thing I was doing. Earlier. Before." I turned and stalked back to the tube.

The crappy thing was, I really was jealous.

**

Back on _Glom_, McMillan's monitor had some toys assembled.

"All right," McMillan told me. "This is a one-man wrecking crew type operation."

"Now you are speaking my language," I said. "And you're using the right dialect and everything, including all the fancy swear words."

"We're going to spoof a fire," said McMillan. "There won't really be a fire, but the fire control room won't know that. They're going to go by the book for when a fire breaks out on board the ship, and they're going to drop all the fire walls. The compartment with the vault will be sealed off. That's when you'll strike."

"Now," I said uncertainly, "I thought we were supposed to be doing this all sneaky-like, such that nobody would ever know that we breached the vault. Which would seem to throw a wrench in the whole wrecking-crew concept."

"We are going to make it look like the Space Marines have defected, and are going to botch an attempt on the vault," said McMillan. "Of course none of them will survive this exercise; all that will remain behind will be the evidence of their passage. This will conceal the actual, successful penetration of the vault. On this mission, you will dress as a Space Marine, and this will be captured by the cameras, making it appear that conflict in their ranks led to the failure of their raid."

"Gotcha," I said. "Now then, toys."

"Reciprocating sword," said the monitor. "This one is lighter and better balanced; the blade alloy is a new confection that should effectively rip through anything." The huge chainsaw-like weapon had letters running along the side that said UNNATURAL AXE. "Very pretty," I said.

"Blaster rifle," continued McMillan's voice. "Targeting computer homes in on IFF signals. 35% increased MBTU output. It may fire a little hot; wear gloves." We moved down the line.

"Concussion grenades," pointed out the monitor. "Flash grenades. Smoke grenades. Combat knife."

I pointed at a big iron bar on the table. "What's that?" I asked.

"That's a big iron bar," said McMillan.

"Hot damn," I said.

"This is Space Marine body armor," said McMillan. "I think you recognize it."

"I do." I ran my fingers over the double-eagle insignia. "It's been a while since I wore this."

"And dishonored it," said McMillan. Couldn't resist a little jab, eh, bastard?

"Yeah," I admitted, "but I made it look good."

"This one gives off IFF signal. It also has an ablative inner core to take some of the punch out of blaster fire. Helmet does infrared and will also do a heads-up display of all the IFF signals in the area."

"I like these toys," I said with satisfaction.

"They're tools, not toys, and you're on the clock," said McMillan. "Now get to work."

"What, now?" I asked.

"Why wait?" said McMillan. "We'll time the operation based on when you get down there."

"Is there time for, I dunno, waste elimination?"

"Make it snappy," said McMillan.

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September 2012

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