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Lopez backpedaled away from the vault in horror; I followed suit.

"Up the tube," I suggested.

"Compartment's sealed off," Lopez said.

"We could pinch off the vent tube," I said.

"And let the Fatir gas loose in the compartment, in which case we'll die messily, and then we'll be vented to space anyway because it'll eat its way down through the hull." Lopez looked around. "Well, we have lots of blasters; we could shoot each other."

"We could set one of the blasters on overload and let it get sucked down the vent tube," I suggested. "Won't save us, but might take McMillan out too."

"That's a thought," said Lopez. It was getting difficult to hear. Lopez suddenly convulsed in a coughing spasm. When he came up, one of those weird tadpole parasites was glistening on the carpet. It opened a maw and uttered a piercing scream, almost too high pitched to be audible. I stepped on it.

Swami's voice sounded in my ear. "You have a problem," he said.

"You *are* a genius," I said gratefully.

"Who are you talking to?" Lopez asked irritably.

"I…." I reconsidered. McMillan might not be able to hear me, but perhaps he could still listen in on Lopez. "Nobody," I said.

"Here's a thought," said Swami. "The magnetic bottle in the vault is still working. As the Fatir gas gets drawn out, it'll draw the remaining oxygen on the floor behind it. There won't be a lot of vapor pressure, but…."

"C'mon, Lopez," I said, pulling my friend towards the vault. We peered past the vent tube, the breeze ruffling our hair. The mass of Fatir gas was a billowing cloud, held only a couple of feet off the vault's wall. A thin ribbon of purple spiraled into the vent tube, gyrating lazily in the air.

"Let's go," I said, pulling Lopez. I ducked under the vent tube and pressed my back flat against the vault wall. I started edging my way around the side.

"You're crazy," said Lopez.

"Crazy like a fox that enjoys aerobic respiration," I said. There was a rushing in my ears, but I knew it wasn't a real sound. I'd been decompressed enough times to know the noise your blood makes when there's no air.

I held out a hand. "Come and live," I said. "Or stay and die."

Lopez's whiskers twitched. "Shit," he said, and put his hand in mine.


I don't know what that little creep was so worried about. Lopez can fit in a locker. I know; I've put him in one. Me, I'm big. Even pressed up against the wall as far as I could go, the roiling mass of gas was only inches away from my chest plate. Worse, gravity pointed inward, however weakly; I had to hang onto ridges in the wall to keep myself from falling into certain death.

I ooched my way towards the corner. I had hoped that the gravity plates would create a rounding of the corners of the containment bubble, but there was no such luck; the purple haze of the Fatir gas made a clean, well-defined corner hanging in the air where I would have to cross from one wall to the next.

I made several attempts to throw my shoulder around the corner, but in each case I had to stop short before the gas touched me. I was just the wrong shape for crossing safely. Nothing I could do could keep part of me from contacting the Fatir cloud.

"Screw it," I said, throwing my body around the corner. The gas licked my armor's chest plate. It immediately began pitting and melted away alarmingly from the point of contact. I felt an agonizing burning and watched in horror as the undermesh of the armor was exposed, then my shirt, and then my blistering skin. It stopped there, though. My ribs felt intact. I pressed on.

As I got towards the back of the vault, the Fatir swirling in the center thinned out. Only a few tendrils of purple licked out from the central mass. I pressed up against the rear wall and tentatively stuck my head across the containment interface. The air was definitely thicker inside the bubble. I breathed deeply, then looked down and saw Lopez gasping. I grabbed him by the tail and dangled his head inside the pocket. "Whew," he said, his eyes completely bloodshot. "Better."

"Yeah," I said. "Better for now, anyway."

"That was sheer genius, getting back here, Jackpot," said Lopez admiringly. "I mean it. That's why you're the boss."

I wasn't in the mood to set him straight. "Look," I said instead.

As the Fatir drained away, a magical sight swam into view in the center of the vault. Tantalizing flashes of gold resolved into a clear view of the Negelian Chain of Office, tumbling over and over, its links wrapping in on itself, seeming to dance seductively.

"Wow," Lopez said. "Shiny."

"Yeah," I said. "Now quiet down." McMillan put this plan into effect to get the chain, and he would be coming to collect it, or sending somebody to get it. If we played dead, maybe he'd assume we were.

As we waited, my mind started turning over and over. I frowned. What if this whole caper wasn't about getting the Negelian chain of office at all? What if, I wondered, this was really just part of the extended feud between McMillan and Swami? Me and Lopez were plainly valuable to McMillan, but what if our value had less to do with our abilities as thieves and scumbags, and more to do with our personal connection with Swami? What if exposing us to danger was really just an attempt to draw Swami out?

The last of the Fatir gas swirled down the vent tube. Lopez looked at me. I held a finger to my lips to shush him. We waited.

The draw of the vent stopped. Then the tube began jiggling. Something was moving down it. I pulled a smoke grenade off my belt and opened it up. The containment field quickly clouded up. I put Lopez on my back, then let go of the wall of the vault. We slowly dropped towards the center. Lopez grabbed the chain of office and wrapped it around his waist, admiring how it looked against his maintenance jumpsuit.

I peered intently through the cloud, concentrating on the direction of the vent tube. Something flailed in the indistinctness. It was a glove, reaching, stretching out. Then another. And then there was a facemask, the dome of a vacc suit, with Sarpalian's very surprised reptilian face inside.

There's a particular problem one has when somebody else is wearing your vacc suit. Usually they don't want to give it back, and violence is typically required to compel them to do the right thing. The problem is, most forms of violence run the risk of doing structural damage to the very object you want to confiscate.

But hey – that's why they make heavy iron bars.

**

"Been a while since we rode tandem," I commented to Lopez.

"Yeah," said my weasard. Both of our necks barely fit in the suit's collar, and our faces were smashed cheek-to-cheek. But hey, when you're decompressed, you do what you have to do. Good thing vacc suits are one size fits all.

"Your breath smells like weasard kibble," I complained, as I ducked under the vent tube. Sarpalian was skinny enough to crawl through it, but there was no way I'd fit through it; we've have to find another way out.

"Yours does too," said Lopez. "Man, McMillan had terrible rations. You'd think a criminal mastermind could figure out how to bring a few turkey pot pies aboard."

"When we find him, I'm making McMillan into a goddamn pot pie," I said. I didn't care if he could hear us anymore. We had the Chain of Office; if he wanted it, he could freaking well come and get it.

I went back to the maintenance shaft where the vent tube snaked down to the pool level. Using my combat knife, I cut the plas of the tube away and pushed the rest down before me as I climbed down.

The lights were on in the pool level, but suit gauges indicated there was no air pressure at all. The pool was dry, and heavy equipment was strewn all around poolside. The remnants of the vent tube disappeared into a huge thimble – the vortex nozzle – which then piped up to a collar that dove into the bottom of the pool. Lopez tapped my shoulder.

"That's where the hull's the thinnest," he said. "Grabsy punched through the side of the ship there, and the Fatir all vented out safely."

"Okay, I see that," I said, dropping to the floor. "The question is, according to the plan, McMillan didn't want anybody to know a crime had occurred. So, clearly, he was going to have to put a replacement chain back, and some replacement gas. How was he going to do that? Is any of this stuff good for that?"

"Uh… no," Lopez admitted. "I have no idea how that phase of the plan was supposed to go."

"Not that we care, I mean," I said. "The plan was screwed the moment McMillan tried to off us."

Swami's voice sounded in my ear. "Jackpot," he said. He sounded very distant; very distracted.

"What's up, Swami?" I said. Lopez frowned at me, his whiskers tickling my neck. "I'm talking to Swami," I said.

"I don't hear nothing," said Lopez.

"Genius only talks to genius," I said. "Swami, are you okay? You sound funny."

"Jackpot…" said Swami. "I'll be going offline for a bit. I'll do a few things to keep McMillan off your tail while you get clear. I'll catch you guys later."

"Swami? Swami?!" I said. "Shit, Lopez; he's bailing on us."

"You're hallucinating from oxygen loss," Lopez accused. "Swami was never around."

"No, I've been talking to him ever since we came on board," I said. "I even saw him in person. Well, somebody who claimed to be him, anyway." I frowned.

"Maybe it was McMillan," said Lopez. "That sounds like his speed of mindfuck."

"No, it had to be Swami," I said, although I wasn't 100% certain. "He told me McMillan was likely somebody on board _Glom_."

"Yeah?" said Lopez. "Well, whoever it is, it couldn't possibly be Grabsy."

"That's what I said." I picked through all the equipment on the floor. Cutting tools, welding rigs – nothing that looked like it could generate Fatir gas, or store it safely.

"Here's an idea," said Lopez. "Maybe Swami is you."

"Now who's hallucinating?" I asked.

"I dunno," said Lopez. "But only you can hear him or see him. He wrote his mind onto a bunch of computer systems; maybe he wrote it onto an unused corner of your brain too."

"That's interesting," I said.

The floor vibrated, and then the discharge tube off the nozzle folded up. There was a hole into hard space, and Grabsy was coming through it. Our eyes met. He wasn't wearing a suit, and he also wasn't wearing a collar anymore.

I waggled a finger at Grabsy. Grabsy frowned.

I went for my blaster, but Grabsy was too quick. He ducked back down the hole and was gone before I could fry him. I jumped down to the floor of the pool to give pursuit, and this must have jarred Lopez. He began to cough again.

"Oh, no," I groaned. "Not in the helmet."

"Sorry," rasped Lopez. He gagged and then coughed once more. A huge glob of mucus hit the front of the dome. One of the tadpole-things was in it. It was huge, the size of a cherry, and bright red.

"Oh God," I said, staring at the thing squirming around. "Can you reach it?"

"Through this collar?" The tadpole rolled over and gaped its mouth open, giving one of its piercing cries.

"Maybe you can bite it," I said.

"I'm not putting that thing in my mouth!" protested Lopez.

"It came OUT of your mouth!" I argued. "Oh, hell; it's moving."

The thing started sliming its way up over the roof of the dome. I jumped up and down and batted at the top of the dome to try to dislodge it, but it adhered to the glass and slowly slimed its way directly over us. Then, sticking to the dome with its tail, it dropped its tiny head down towards us. Its mouth gaped open.

"MUST…HAVE…JAVANITE!" it squeaked. I frowned.

Lopez gaped. "Hoggrid?!" he said.

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September 2012

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