[personal profile] hwrnmnbsol
"Christ, Lopez," I accused, "you just coughed up Hoggrid."

"That's impossible!" said Lopez, peering anxiously at the fleshy tadpole dangling from the dome of our vacc suit. "Hoggrid died back on the Pestle! I… I ate him!"

"YES," squeaked the tadpole. "ORGANIC MATRIX WAS PRESERVED. SPORIFIED REGROWTH HAS BEEN PROCEEDING IN LOPEZ-TISSUES."

"I don't know how you Betellians like to do things," Lopez said hotly, "but around these parts, friends don't grow as tumors in friends' bodies!"

"NECESSARY FOR CONTINUATION OF LIFE," said Hoggrid. "I EXPRESS GRATITUDE."

"Wow, Hoggrid," I said, "I'm impressed. That was almost lifelike of you. So you've been germinating in Lopez's gut all this time, just biding your time?"

"NEGATIVE," Hoggrid replied. "HOGGRID-SELF EXISTS IN NON-SPATIAL DIMENSION. ORGANIC/MACHINE INTERFACE IS ONLY PROJECTION INTO YOUR SPACE."

"Nice," I said. "Hear that, Lopez? Hoggrid's been projecting into you."

"Shut the hell up," barked Lopez. "So, Hoggrid, how do we get you into your own machine-body?"

"MUST HAVE JAVANITE," piped the tiny Hoggrid-worm. It oozed its way down the back of our helmet on its way to the collar.

"Wait wait wait!" said Lopez frantically. "This Javanite? The Chain of Office? You can't have this; it's spoken for."

"Also, I don't really want you crawling down the back of my… oh jeez, he's doing it." I squirmed as the tiny creature slimed down my nape.

"JAVANITE," squeaked Hoggrid, barely audibly.

"He's going to eat the loot!" Lopez sobbed.

"Let him," I said. "We're busy."


I crawled down the hole through the hull. It was four feet thick; the builders of _Golden_Empire_ weren't fooling around. I carefully poked the dome of our shared vacc suit out into hard space and looked around.

Directly over our heads, streaks of colorful light indicated the interface of the warp bubble. It was impossible to tell if it was ten feet away or ten miles. The interface marked the point where trans-light motion was occurring on the inside, and sub-light space was on the outside. The interface was supposedly only a few feet thick, and somewhere within it was a discontinuity where things moved at exactly the speed of light. Crossing this threshold supposedly involved the exchange of large amounts of energy, and intersecting it was supposed to be Bad with a capital 'B'.

A vast purple cloud hung in space above us. I realized that it was the Fatir gas, which had vented out of the ship, but owing to the inertial stasis of the warp bubble, it didn't have anywhere to go from there. A thin curl of it was being drawn into the warp interface, and the colored lights streaked by a little brighter where the gas streamed into it. It looked like a pile of purple yarn, with one end being slowly pulled out.

There was a cutting torch station and a welding rig docked magnetically to the ship's hull. The edge of the hull was scored around the opening we were looking through, and a huge metal thimble tumbled end over end a short distance away. That must have been the tip of the vortex nozzle, which Grabsy had to have removed in order to open the hole up as an accessway. But there was no sign of Grabsy.

"He must be around the curve of the hull," Lopez said. "Maybe he's trying to get back to _Glom_."

"No way he can move that fast," I said. "No, he's still around here somewhere." I crawled carefully out of the opening, activating the magnetic boots so I could walk on the outside of the hull. I turned in a full circle with my blaster at the ready.

I opened up a general-transmission frequency on the comm. "Grabsy," I said, "me and Lopez got no beef with you. It's McMillan who's on our shit list. Let's work out how we can get out of this without any of us dying, and with everybody turning a profit."

"Bullshit," said Lopez, once I had finished sending. "That guy was born on my shit list. Yours, too. Tell me you're not really wanting to work things out. He'll kill us as soon as look at us."

"Gotta have priorities," I said. "Besides, Grabsy's mostly been straight up with us, at least recently. Sometimes people change."

The speakers in the suit activated. "Guys," said Grabsy, "maybe we can do a deal. Do you have the Chain of Office?"

"Maybe," I said. "Maybe I've hidden it somewhere. We can talk some more about it when you've come out in the open."

Grabsy stuck an arm out of the tumbling nozzle and waved. "Here I am," he said. "There, I've shown you a little trust; you can show me a little. Where's Sarpalian?"

"He's back in the vault," I said. "And just outside the vault. And all over the inside of this suit."

"I thought that suit looked familiar," said Grabsy. "Sloppy Gimchik, letting a couple of airless losers take his suit off of him like that. Well, that simplifies negotiations somewhat."

"I don't see how dividing a chain by three is any easier than dividing by four," Lopez answered.

"That's not what I mean," Grabsy said. "I always knew we'd have to cut Sarpalian out of the profit at the end, so I did a little work on his suit. Goodbye, guys."

"I take it back; some people never change," I said.

A mechanical voice sounded from somewhere inside our chest cavity. "YOU SHOULD BE AWARE," said Hoggrid's voice, "THAT SOMEBODY IS ATTEMPTING TO ACTIVATE AN EXPLOSIVE MECHANISM INSIDE THIS SUIT."

"I trust you are doing something about this, Hoggrid," I said.

"MECHANISM HAS BEEN ASSIMILATED INTO NEW MACHINE INTERFACE," said the Betellian.

"Oh man, I feel something crawling on me," moaned Lopez. "Quit tickling, Hoggrid!"

"APOLOGIES," said Hoggrid. "EXPLOSIVE MECHANISMS AROUND YOUR NECKS ARE ALSO BEING ASSIMILIATED." Spidery cold fingers felt their way up to my throat. "LATEST ORGANIC STYLE OF WEARING DANGEROUS EXPLOSIVES – HIGHLY ABSURD."

"Careful with that!" I warned. "That's McMillan's invention. Swami said it would be difficult to be safely removed."

"COUNTER-TAMPERING MEASURES HAVE ALREADY BEEN DEACTIVATED," said Hoggrid. I felt a release of pressure from around my neck.

"Well done, Hoggrid," I said. "Now do me and Lopez both a favor: find a comfortable position to stay in, and then DON'T. MOVE."

"NO," said Hoggrid. "SUIT IS TOO CONFINING." I felt tiny metal legs crawl down my leg.

"What are you doing?" I demanded. "Hoggrid, what are you… AA!" Alarms lit up on the suit's displays as Hoggrid violated suit containment. "What the hell!" I screamed as the suit fogged up.

But just as quickly, the alarms silenced themselves. Something mechanical was latched on to the outside of my suit leg, and was repairing a neat hole in the fabric with a tiny laser. It looked something like a glove covered with staplers. The suit containment was only lost for a second or two, and Lopez and I were no worse for the wear.

"Get off of me, you stupid Betellian!" I said, kicking the tiny robot loose. It cartwheeled above the surface of _Golden_Empire_'s hull before firing tiny attitude jets, righting itself, and jetting down to clamp onto the skin of the ship.

"Jackpot, look out!" shouted Lopez, but he was too late. A shadow moved across my faceplate, a fraction of a second before something big and heavy slammed into me.

We were tumbling. I had lost my blaster and my reciprocating sword. We were flying aft over the surface of the ship. I could see the big metal nozzle hanging over the opening in the ship we had come through. Grabsy must have had some kind of rocket-pack, which he had used to push the heavy mass of metal towards us while we were distracted. We were spinning too quickly for me to get my bearings. The hull looked very far away now, which meant the interface –

The interface. It couldn't be far away now. The universe strobed between images of _Golden_Empire_'s underside, and a mass of neon color. We were hurtling toward it. If we touched it, we would rapidly decelerate out of warp, with catastrophic effects. The vacc suit had reaction jets, but if I fired them, I might boost us into danger instead of out of it. On the other hand, not firing them meant certain death. I timed our cartwheeling, tried to pick a time when I had the ship full in my sights, and then fired.

We were still tumbling, but our vector had changed. I nudged on attitude control, trying to slow our spin, which for a time made our wheeling even more chaotic. Eventually I was able to brake our rotation and bring us to a stop.

"Don't move," whispered Lopez. "Don't move a muscle."

I looked left, and then right. A wisp of something purple wrapped around us, arcing above and in front of the dome's faceplate. My eyes tried to focus on it, but it wasn't fully substantial.

The Fatir gas. We were in the cloud, or on the edge of it. The closest wisp was inches from the suit's arm. I gingerly moved my hand away from the corrosive agent, but a billowing mass was just on the other side of me.

A blaster ray shot from the ship's hull and lanced through the cloud a few feet away from me. It was Grabsy, taking pot shots at us from the safety of his metal nozzle, which hovered just off _Golden_Empire_'s hull. Fortunately, Grabsy always had been an up-close-and-personal kind of guy; his aim was not particularly good. Of course, it would only take a single hit to hole us, and it would take only the briefest of contact with Fatir gas to eat through the suit.

"Careful with that," I broadcast. "Me and Lopez have the Javanite right here. You send us to Kingdom Come and you'll never get even a taste of it."

"I don't believe you," said Grabsy. "First of all, I don't think either of you would be so dumb as to bring the loot with you."

"Hear that, Lopez?" I asked. "We're dumber than expected."

One of the cutting rigs was on the move. Unexpectedly the thing had sprouted legs and was gamely marching up behind Grabsy.

"But besides that," Grabsy continued, "I just want to shoot you guys. I've always just wanted to shoot you smug jokers, and see your faces as you die. Well, now I've got both of you in one place. When else am I gonna get this opportunity? I don't care how much Javanite it costs me; you can't put a price on killing assholes who deserve it."

The tank on the cutter exploded silently, the detonation occurring directly under Grabsy and his metal cylinder. The barrel flew upwards, spinning rapidly with Grabsy trapped inside it. Lopez and I watched it rise towards the warp interface.

"You know, Jackpot," said Lopez, "there's probably a joke here about Carnegieans and their ability to drive."

"Hush, Lopez," I said prayerfully, as the edge of the cylinder began to spark. "Let's just enjoy the moment."

We did.

**

Lopez and I gingerly extracted ourselves from the cloud and joined Hoggrid down on the hull. Hoggrid was now inhabiting a welding rig, or something that had started out life as a welding rig and was now something more akin to a refrigerator with legs and a single electric-arc arm. Lopez and I traversed the hull towards _Glom_ with Hoggrid trundling along behind us.

The ship was dark and empty. Once we atmosphered up, Lopez and I extracted ourselves from the suit. "Hey," griped Lopez, pulling out the Chain of Office. "I think this is one link shorter than it used to be."

"Hoggrid!" I shouted.

"MUST HAVE JAVANITE," said Hoggrid, sitting down in a corner and not moving for hours.

"All right, this is the most screwed up caper in the history of screwed up capers," I said. "However, for once we have the loot and an operational ship. Let's just get out of here."

"Um," said Lopez, firing up the ship's console and frowning. "We may have a problem. We need _Golden_Empire_ to decelerate us safetly down from warp."

"Okay," I said. "What will it take for that to happen?"

"Not sure," said Lopez. "I think McMillan lied to us about something."

"What's that?" I asked.

"Well, you know how he said that we'd be spoofing a fire in fire control, but there wouldn't really be a fire?" Lopez's fingers played over the keyboard. An image came up of the Lido deck. Jets of flame were shooting up out of cracks in the floor; passengers and crew were running around screaming.

"That dirty dog," I swore.

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September 2012

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