Things were quiet for the time being. The cops had made three separate inroads into the museum, and we had beaten them back at every opening. But they were hitting us hard too. Half of my Chulkos were dinged up, two of them seriously so, although everybody was still mobile. Me and Grabsy were still basically intact, but Lopez had lost a thumb and wouldn't stop bitching. I doped him up with our painkillers as much as I judged was prudent without making his brain useless.

But the cops had backed off. A faint rumble in the ground suggested that vehicles with heavy treads were being called to duty, and that meant bad things in short order. We were taking this opportunity to shoot some footage of us defending the halls. I had Chulkos pose in defensive positions behind doorways and objects of Mestazi cultural significance, pretending to exchange fire with advancing police officers. From time to time they fell down, too, all per instructions. I had no idea why Swam1 wanted us to do this, but you don't question the Swami or his cerebral constructs, even if they're only running at 10% capacity of the real deal.

Actually, Swam1 had been very busy making and distributing televised propaganda. Our brave defense of the Museum had been thoroughly chronicled, complete with ridiculous bias towards the Chulko point of view, and was being continuously broad-banded across every media frequency on Tierra Salvador. Swam1 had taken over every Chulko station's antenna on the planet, which failed to impress Lopez. When the Mestazi shut those down, they discovered the signal was actually coming from Mestazi antennae, which also failed to impress Lopez. Then, when they closed down every broadcast tower on the planet, they discovered the signal was coming from every personal comm unit on the planet. This impressed Lopez a little. But when they shut down all comm traffic and found the signal was being broadcast using the harmonic frequencies of the planet itself, Lopez was forced to concede this was a technical feat of no small proportion.
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The pounding at the front doors was becoming more insistent. I put my back against the paneled wood and braced against the slippery floor along with three of my strongest Chulkos. Lopez was balancing on top of my head and peeping through the clerestory windows.

"Uh oh," he said. "The cops are bringing a ram."

We were on the fourth hour of our standoff. After a few initial sorties using firearms, the police finally figured out that their antiquities were fragile. As we weren't fighting back with lethal force, they decided (as Swam1 had predicted) that they would try to take us by brute force. We had done a decent job of holding them off, but everybody knew it couldn't last.

The comm buzzed in my ear. "Jackpot," said Grabsy, "there are snipers on the roof."

"I'm a little busy right now," I grunted.

"Shall I take it upon myself to resolve this little difficulty by any prudent means?"

I had to think about that one. "Uh, sure," I said. "Still no killing, though. Not yet."

Grabsy pondered that one. "Supposing a person were to fall from a great height," he suggested, "and the resulting impact were to kill that person, leaving me blameless."

"Stop splitting needles," I barked.

"Oh, all right," sulked Grabsy and signed off.
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I think I'm going to try to wrap this up in ten pieces.

The following day started out quietly. It was a Mastazi day of rest and most of the businesses were closed. Tourists were visiting the museum district. The Museo Nacionale was hosting modest crowds of patrons, most of them Mastazi, a few off-worlders, and zero Chulkos. Soft music played over the speaker system. Solid Chulko security guards hulked in corners of galleries while willowy Mastazi docents led tours and chided visitors not to touch the exhibits. It was, in short, a fine day for museum-going.

I say 'was'.

I kicked the doors open and strolled into the Museum foyer. Team Aloha, consisting of half my Chulkos and all of my Weasards, followed me in. Grabsy and Team Bye-bye were coming in the freight entrance, hopefully at more or less the same time.

"Hello, howdy, Buenos noches," I drawled, waving a conspicuous blaster. There was a metal detector and a security cordon up at the front; a ticket counter and information booth near the back. The knot of security guards and sprinkling of patrons looked up in alarm.

Lopez pushed his equipment cart into the foyer and pulled his own blaster. The Chulkos fanned out, some of them with blasters and the rest with clubs.

"Sir," said the chief security guard in heavily accented Imperial English, "you cannot bring weapons in here!"

"Weapons?" I said. "Oh, no, compadre. These aren't weapons. This is photographic equipment. PHOTOGRAFICO. Lopez, take the man's picture."

Lopez shot the guard high in the chest. The force of the blaster took him off his feet and laid him out on the ground where he moaned quietly. Minimum power setting. Swam1's orders.

The Chulkos drew beads on the remaining security officers. I saw the Mastazi at the information counter pick up a handset. Activating my left glove, I melted the top of the metal detector archway; it fell into two pieces. I pointed the blaster at the caller.

"Hi honey, I'm home!" I bellowed.

Lopez scampered over, took the phone from the lady's hand, and put it back in the cradle. "What's for dinner?" he asked, smirking.

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I picked up Grabsy a few hours later. He had chosen a small piece of wreckage to attach himself to, figuring the authorities would have better things to do than chase down every piece of debris from the satellite meltdown. He spent a few minutes inflating his lungs before talking to me.

"I'm getting tired of orbital work," Grabsy complained. "My joints hurt more than they used to. Also, blood stains never really come out."

"But you're so good at it," I said. "Everything went smoothly, I trust?"

"Oh, sure," said Grabsy. "I threw a cable loop around the freighter cabin. When you guys told them to start reeling out, the loop cut the ship in half. The guys in the ship weren't suited up; they went for a vacuum swim in a hurry."

"What about the guys screwing with the satellite controls?" I asked.

"Yeah, well," Grabsy replied noncommittally. "They weren't armed, and suit containment ain't what it used to be."

"I don't suppose you found anything of value on the ship?" I asked.

"They had it stripped down for weight," Grabsy told me. "I guess they wanted to save their delta-V for precious objects."

I didn't ask if Grabsy found the body of McMillan. First, I had no idea what McMillan looked like. Second, I figured there was no way he could have died so easily, or even been on that ship. Guys like Swami and McMillan aren't like the rest of us. They think three moves ahead of the furthest move we can think of. I figure when one of those two dies, they'll have the nearest star rigged to go nova out of spite.

We dropped back down to Tierra Salvador and snuck into the junkyard. Lopez and the goons had assembled there with a big pile of gear. They also had the cash machine containing Swam1. It had obviously been torn out of the bank's wall and carried to the junkyard by hand. "Oh, hi!" said Lopez, wiring the bank machine up to a power lead. "I figured this would make meetings simpler."
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Part Six. I think this is near the halfway point.

I had to admit, McMillan's gang had put together a decent plan to break into the Museo Nacionale. Tunnelling up from the sewers, team one would create a hole as thick around as my finger in the floor of the main gallery. A stream of microbearings would be pumped up onto the floor at a high rate of speed. This would be too light to set off the floor pressure detectors. Once the floor was covered with a layer of the bearings, they would electrostatically lock and optically mimic the surface below them. This would make a good load-bearing surface that would also pass visual and tactile inspection.

Team two would insert via glider on the roof of the dome. The gantry to fix the spire I had broken off was in place and would be their landing platform. They would remove the temporary cap, exposing a hole two meters across looking down onto the main gallery. They would rappel down and secure various objects of art to the bearing floor.

Team three would storm an unmanned satellite owned by the Mastazi government. It contained a space elevator they used for military purposes. The team would take over the elevator's functions and drop the cable. The satellite would be overhead for about five minutes. During that time team two would guide the cable down through the hole in the dome and fasten it to the electrostatic floor. The cable would then reel everything up, breaking the severed dome away in the process and hauling it up with floor, artifacts, criminals and all. They had a Black Angel to escape in – the traditional fast, stealthy freighter of smugglers. I coveted it.

We were going to have to screw up all three facets of McMillan's plan. Furthermore, we need to do it in such a way that nobody in the Museo realized they had almost been robbed. Swam1 had said so.

"How come we don't just wait for them to take the stuff and then take it from them?" I had asked.

"Because their plan won't work," Swam1 had told me. "They're as good as dead anyway. We might as well fleece them of their gear and keep them from tipping off the authorities."
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"Oh, get up," I snarled, dispensing encouragement with my boots. If there's one thing I can't stand it's being groveled to when I'm not threatening anybody. The Chulkos got up, but they continued to look at me worshipfully.

"Now be nice to them," chided Lopez. "You've just picked up a dozen zealots who'd take a slug for you."

"The challenge," I said, "will be convincing them that our impending crime spree is actually a devotional act."

"You'll have some 'splainin' to do," Lopez said. "Make sure to inform them that I'm a God too. Grabsy, please instruct the Chulkos that I am Lopez, God's Gift to the Ladies."

"As the mouthpiece of the Gods," Grabsy said, "I feel that my role in this operation has grown. Specifically, I want a double-share."

"Nobody gets a double-share," I said. "Gods and lesser beings share and share alike."

"Boy, it'd be a shame if these Chulkos found out what a poser you are at a critical moment," said Grabsy dangerously.

"It sure would," said Lopez. "I'd hate to see them make you into a rain-stick because of your heresy." Weasard and Carnegiean squared off, short glaring up at tall.

"Disciples, please," I said, interposing. "Let's not fall to squabbling like dogs. We'll squabble at the proper time and place, like sapient beings, with guns. But right now I very much want to get off this cargo ship, so let's pack the Delusional Dozen into _Wash_Me_ and chase down this help that Swami offered."

Nobody thought this was a dumb idea, so we packed everything that wasn't nailed down into the dropship and bailed out. The cargo ship had docked itself at an automated orbital lading facility; nobody saw us leave.
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Part 4. While I have a general direction, I'm not sure how long it will take me to get there. Also, not a lot of action in this one, which is going to happen if I'm only writing 1000 words. Sorry.

It turned out Swami did have a plan for getting us out of the wrecked prison capsule. The cargo ship dropped us only a few minutes out of Tierra Salvador, giving me a few bad moments, and then an inbound cargo ship of the same kind picked us up. By the time the police caught up to the _Capstan_, they found no trace of us and a perfectly legitimate-looking glitch in the navigation computer. As far as the authorities were concerned, we were dead and off the radar with no suspicion of foul play.

The bay of the new cargo ship pressurized itself, and we all crawled out of the capsule remains. Half the Chulkos had decompression sickness, and one who had failed to submerge his head had blood pooling in his ears, but me and Lopez and Grabsy were all okay.

Also in the bay were several lockers and a small ship. The lockers held clothing, food and some self-inflating furniture. That Swami – he thinks of everything. The ship was a grubby pan-environmental dropship, a Cricket, built for inserting geologists into exotic-atmosphere planets. It didn't have any guns but it was fast and functional, and all identifying marks had been removed. It was covered with a thin layer of grey mud.

"I dub thee the _USS_Wash_Me_," Lopez proclaimed, writing the name on the side of the craft.
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I have an idea for where this will go now.

It was about ten days later when Swami buzzed us back. It was my turn to hide the comm bud, so I was thrilled in more than one way to receive his call.

"Hello?" I said, as soon as was sanitarily convenient.

"How are you, Jackpot?" asked Swami in his birdlike voice. He was always friendly, but there wasn't a lot of warmth behind anything he said. I used to think he was some of machine intelligence, but I've seen enough of his blood to know Swami's as biological as they come.

"Well, I'll tell you, Swami," I replied. "I've gotten to know my fellow Chulko inmates, and I think they're all fine fellows. They're all dumb as rocks, they live simple lives fueled by alcohol and a burning hatred of the Mastazi who have conquered their world, and they would have skinned and eaten Lopez several times over by now if I hadn't strongly disincentivized this activity. If the plan to spring us requires them all to die messily, I think I'll be able to live with that."

"Hm," said Swami. "Did you say they don't like the Mastazi? That's very interesting."

"Why is that interesting?" I said. Sometimes I don't get Swami and his strange non sequiturs.

"I think we'll want to be saving them," Swami said. "They may come in useful when we go after the horn of Khmamgdan."
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Part two. Where am I going? I do not know. Let's find out.

Our trip through the Balboa City justice system was nasty, brutish and short, full of unpleasant things such as judgment and justice. Me and Lopez were sent up to the Tierra Salvador maximum security prison unit. And when I say 'sent up' I mean it literally.

The unit was a series of interlocked tubes, strictly zero gravity, at some annoying Lagrangian point in the system. Space is a natural match with incarceration; it's harder to get up to shenanigans in freefall, you can quell riots by lowering the oxygen mix, and it's impossible to tunnel your way out with a spoon.

Of course me and Lopez were old pros at jail. We had an informal kind of competition to see who could smuggle more stuff in using their rectum. I had Lopez beat on volume, but my Weasard engineer was a more efficient packer. Between the two of us we brought in a substantial amount of the local currency (Tierra Salvador reverted to cash after the Third Crash and never switched back), several tabs of painkillers, a comm bud, and a slim stunrod (well played, Lopez; well played). While the other new inmates were retching from zero-G sickness, me and Lopez were doing cartwheels and casing the joint for weak points. I figured we'd be kings of the stir in a week and own it in five.
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The drill: Do not know where I am going. Write 1000 words and look for an exit. Write until done.

The thing I enjoy about a co-pilot with a broken neck is that they don't talk much. That's a welcome change for me. My usual co-pilot is a Weasard, a genetic splice between human and weasel DNA engineered specifically for starship maintenance. Lopez is a pretty good hand with tech stuff (which sets him well apart from most ship engineers) and is more likely to be helpful than not in a firefight (again, special) but he simply won't shut up. That upsets me.

I didn't kill my co-pilot because I was mad, though. This was all business. A word regarding accomplices: NO. If you're going to get into the business of crime, avoid large groups. They cut into your profits, they might sell you out, and the odds are good that eventually their screw-ups will get you in trouble. Sure, Dino scored the trihopper for us, and he had paid off the cops in Balboa City, but he didn't have anything to do the rest of the way. Killing him was a mercy, in a way; it spared Dino being bored. I'm a saint.

I flew the trihopper with the lights off. It was night and the outskirts of Balboa City slipped by invisibly below me. I wasn't missing much. I had seen the slums in the daylight; the Chulko majority lived in conditions so squalid that I could take a dump on their front doorsteps and instantly improve their home's curb appeal. The Mastazi overlords lived in the tall, slim pyramids hulking in the center of Balboa City, and they had it good. I was glad I was stealing from the Mastazi. I mean, I have nothing against robbing poor people, but dammit, they don't have squat.

The comm crackled. "Yo, Jackpot," said Lopez.

I frowned. Asking a weasard for radio silence is like asking a co-pilot with a broken neck to sit up straight. I thumbed the return key.

"Codenames, remember?" I growled.

"Oh right, boss; sorry!" Lopez replied cheerfully. "Hey, uh, you got your ears on, Big Dong?"
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September 2012

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