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I turned _Glom_'s exterior viewers upward and frowned. "Lopez," I said, "is it just an optical illusion, or is the warp interface shrinking?"

Lopez tapped at his keyboard. "Well," he said, "I have good news and bad news."

"I could use some good news," I said.

"There's nothing wrong with your eyes," Lopez reported. "Guess what the bad news is?"

I rubbed my temples. "Please, in these last few moments, let's not resort to strangling each other," I begged.

"Yeah, it's shrinking," said Lopez. "_Golden_Empire_'s warp engines are offline. We're slowly coasting to a halt. When the bubble collapses, we're going to turn into a very interesting contrail spread out over several light-years of empty space."

"Okay, get the engines back online," I said impatiently.

"Can't," Lopez said. "External override. Some sneaky McMillan-shaped bastard has me locked out."

"That's ridiculous," I said. "The only thing maintaining the warp bubble is _Golden_Empire_. If she goes down, McMillan goes down with us. Where's he operating from, anyway?"

Lopez's quick hands flew over the keyboard. "I'm guessing from there," he said, bringing a view up on the big screen.

It was a shot of _Golden_Empire_'s underside, near the fore. The big liner's top was the dome that covered Lido Deck; the bottom was largely flat. A door was opening, and some kind of smaller craft was being dropped down on a boom. It was dwarfed by _Golden_Empire_, of course, but it measured a large enough fraction of the liner's beam that it must still be quite large, capable of carrying hundreds of passengers.

"Lifeboat?" I asked.

"No," said Lopez. "According to the registry, that's a luxury yacht. The Crown Prince owns it."

"Betcha a Crown Prince can afford a warp generator on his private toy spaceship," I said.

"No bets," said Lopez.


"Okay, I'm releasing _Glom_," I said. "Warp engines are offline; we won't get burned when we decouple from the burner cylinders."

"You can't catch that thing," scoffed Lopez. "Look at the engines on that mama. As soon as it releases from the boom, it's going to be gone faster than you can WAIT COME BACK."

"So stop it from releasing from the boom," I snapped. "Delay it. Anything."

Lopez's eyes narrowed. "Anything?" he asked.

My eyes narrowed as well. "If I say 'anything', will I regret it?"

"Yes," said Lopez positively.

"All right," I said. "Anything."

"Cool," said Lopez. "I've always wanted to try this."

_Glom_ released from the back end of _Golden_Empire_. I fired dorsal thrusters to push us down below the belly of the big ship. As _Glom_ started pushing downwards, the back end of _Golden_Empire_ started vibrating, and the rear of the ship crept upwards. "What the hell?!" I shouted.

"Relax," said Lopez. "Warp engines are offline, but I'm tapped into attitude control. We're just going to lean over a bit."

We dropped below the bottom of _Golden_Empire_. Lopez was skewing the liner so that its nose dipped down. The yacht on its boom was positioned with its engines set to burn forwards, but now the daylight between the liner and the edge of the warp bubble was closing. There was precious little room for the Crown Prince's craft to escape.

I threw _Glom_'s main thrusters on full burn. "I'm coming to get you, McMillan," I said. "Or should I say, Kima."

"Kima, huh?" asked Lopez.

"It's obvious, isn't it?" I said. "Clearly getting close to the Crown Prince was the key to the part of the plan where McMillan successfully escapes."

"WITHOUT THE JAVANITE," said Hoggrid. I jumped; I had forgotten he was there.

"Yeah, well, I haven't figured out all the details of his plan yet," I said defensively. "I'm not a genius, just the guy who shoots them."

The yacht had detached from the boom. It was now turning to point starboard. "Can he warp sideways out of our field?" I asked.

"With enough acceleration, yeah," said Lopez grimly. "Unless we up the pressure."

_Golden_Empire_'s dip became even more noticeable; Lopez brought the front end of the ship down until it actually contacted the edge of the warp bubble. The nose of the liner, which served as a forward observatory for the stargazers on board, dissolved in beautiful streaks of red and green and yellow. A stream of sparks showered the yacht, and the mammoth hull of _Golden_Empire_ pressed down on the smaller craft like a shoe stepping on a bug. The yacht's pilot was obliged to fire thrusters to push the craft towards the liner's aft, towards us.

"He can't warp while he's moving sideways, can he?" I asked.

"Nope," said Lopez. "But he'll turn into us."

Sure enough, the yacht started to come about, its nose slowly turning to face towards us. _Glom_ got up a full head of steam, hurtling forwards towards the sleek white starship. Twin energy beams lanced out and drew lines across the forward bulkhead of our blocky craft.

"Hey, they're shooting at us!" squeaked Lopez. "Who puts beam weapons on a freakin' pleasure craft?"

"Anybody who takes pleasure in atomizing people," I answered. "And Crown Princes, apparently. Any damage?"

"Nothing serious," Lopez replied. "_Glom_'s made to wrap around ginormous warp engines and be happy; a little extra energy won't hurt anything."

"Good," I said. "Put on a vacc suit anyway, just in case." I got back into Sarpalian's suit.

"None in my size," Lopez said. "We'll have to tandem it again."

Hoggrid got to his feet and lurched towards Lopez. A cavity opened on his front plate, and he rapidly scooped the Weasard up into his innards. The door slammed. "LOPEZ SECURED," said Hoggrid.

"Let me out of here!" Lopez demanded through the comm. "How am I supposed to control _Golden_Empire_?"

"INTERNAL COMPUTER INTERFACE REALLOCATED," said Hoggrid, and his external skin shifted subtly.

"Whoa!" shouted Lopez. "I mean, hey. That's pretty cool. Can I get some air conditioning too, and maybe make it smell a little less like, well, you?"

_Glom_ closed the gap on the yacht. It had come about fully, and its engines were starting to glow. "No time to dock," said Lopez. "That thing's seconds away from launching."

"Who's docking?" I said. "Strap in!"

_Glom_ plowed full-on into the nosecone of the yacht. Our mass was enough to push the yacht back into the downward-sloping underside of _Golden_Empire_. The topmost of its engine clusters sheared off, and the back end crumpled. _Glom_ split open, and we were in hard vacuum instantly; only the straps on my crash couch had kept me from splatting against the vision panel. Hoggrid stayed completely motionless, of course; I assumed he was magnetized.

The yacht was crippled; it was going nowhere. Apparently the occupants of the ship knew it, too. "Jackpot," said Lopez, "it looks like _Golden_Empire_'s warp engines are coming back online."

"Better right the ship, then," I said. "And since we're all in this together, we'd better pay our shipmates a visit."

As the nose of _Golden_Empire_ lifted away from the re-expanding warp bubble, the exposed compartments of the ship black and airless, and the edges still glowing a cherry red, Hoggrid and I went EVA. I had a blaster. Hoggrid had apparently reestablished his ability to fire a maser. A squad of the Negelian Royal Guard came out to meet us. I basically hid behind Hoggrid and let him mow them down. They say that the meek shall inherit the Earth; they can have that dump – I'll be siding with the super-powered aliens and taking everything else.

Hoggrid cut a hole in the skin of the yacht and we climbed inside. I shot a bunch of guys. Hoggrid shot a bunch of guys. Lopez yelled and screamed. It was just like old times.

We made our way to the Royal Chambers, deep in the heart of the craft. There we found a scene that was, I must admit, not expected by me. Kima was in the bedchamber of the Crown Prince, which had been sealed against intrusion, but when you knock on a door with a maser, you don't really need anybody to open it for you. Two bodies were lying on surgical tables. One of them was the Crown Prince. The other was Swami's liner steward body. The tops of their skulls had been removed.

"Swami," I swore.

"MCMILLAN," said Hoggrid.

"Both," said Kima coldly. "They're the same individual. The eugenics program that tried to make the intellectual superman had only a single test subject. The program was a success in most respects, but the hyperactivity of the resulting mind was too much for a single personality. The mind fragmented into two distinct selves. Swami and McMillan lived entirely separate lives, each so completely in denial about the existence of their other half that they blocked out any information that might let them realize that they were the same being. They knew that some other hyperintelligent person was out there in the universe, but without knowing that they were it, they turned it into a kind of duel."

"So this entire caper has just been about trying to draw the other out into the open," I said triumphantly. "Just as I suspected."

"You're not so smart," Lopez sniffed.

"Well, it's true that the business with the Chain of Office was an attempt by McMillan to trap Swami," said Kima. "But the real objective was the Crown Prince. By putting their brain inside his body, they could effectively become the ruler of a significant portion of the galaxy."

"Yeah?" I asked. "And was that Swami's plan, or McMillan's?"

"Both," said Kima. "Both thought of it independently and pursued it in parallel. They're really the same brain, and they think very similarly. Both thought they had hired me to do the surgery. I'm a brain surgeon, by the way."

"You're a very hot brain surgeon," I said.

"Thank you," said Kima, smiling. "Look, where do we go from here? Obviously with both Swami and McMillan out of action, you have the upper hand. What do you do now?"

I shrugged. "I dunno," I said. I meant it, too. I had no idea what I should do next.

Kima stood disconcertingly close to me and gave me the high-wattage smile. "Then let me make a suggestion," she said. "Forget this big-brained freak. Fry him now before I can do the exchange. Then, while your friends monitor me, I can put your brain in the Crown Prince. You can take his place on the Negelian Throne. And you can take me as your concubine. There is no downside."

"Except for Swami/McMillan," I said. "And the Crown Prince. And everybody in Nega. And my awesome body, which deserves a brain."

"I'd take your body, if you're done with it," Lopez suggested.

"Get out of here, Hoggrid and Lopez," I said. "I gotta think." Hoggrid clomped out.

"What's to think about?" purred Kima. "What have you ever dreamed about? Money? Power? Something else?" The surgeon pressed herself against my vacc suit. "It's all right here. All you have to do is pull the trigger."

Pull the trigger. I could do it. I could shoot McMillan, but in so doing I would shoot Swami. I could kill the Crown Prince and take his throne, but then I'd have to be a ruler, a job that I was pretty sure I'd find annoying. I could probably also nail a hot brain surgeon, but likely as not she'd probably cut up my brainstem as soon as somebody more useful came along. Plusses and minuses. What to do?

Somebody wise once said: when in doubt, shoot everybody.

So, I went with that.

**

We stopped at a cash machine on Tharpe's Star. Lopez was wearing a new tuxedo. It was made of Yantry fur; very expensive. I had a new suit as well, impeccably tailored. My pinky ring was made of Javanite. Hoggrid had gone back to Betel; he had enough Javanite to reproduce, but he wanted us to look him up later on.

The girl in the limousine honked impatiently. It was the bartender from _Golden_Empire_ in the silver bikini. "We'll have to get rid of that one soon," said Lopez around his cigar.

"In due time, my good man," I said. "Our next caper's planning isn't done yet. As I was saying, there's a Space Marine payroll we can intercept. Easy money, baby. What do you say?"

The cash machine clicked and whirred. "Interesting," said Swam1.

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September 2012

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