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.

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"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."

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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.

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I waltzed through the corridors of _Golden_Empire_, tricked out in Space Marine regalia and loaded for bear. Giant, steel-plated, atomic-fire-breathing bear. It wasn't a big deal if anybody saw me. According to McMillan's plan, we wanted people to see me. And what were they going to do, detain me?

People gaped as I tromped down the softly-lit, comfortably-carpeted halls. "Excuse me, ma'am," I said, tipping my beret. "Space Marine coming through. Beg your pardon. One side, please. Have a nice day." Passengers and crew automatically moved aside. I had a blaster rifle and they didn't, but even worse: I was polite.

My teammates called in to wish me luck. "Don't die," Grabsy said encouragingly.

"Thanks, pal," I replied.

"When you kill 'em," said Lopez, "Don't just kill 'em for the money. Kill 'em because they're goddamn space marines."

"And because of the money," I appended.

"Yes," said Lopez firmly.

"Knock 'em dead," said Kima.

"Okay," I replied. "I may have to shoot a few too."

I pushed the button for the tube down to 'R' deck. Near the tube station was a bartending kiosk. An attractive bartender in a silver bikini took me in with wide eyes. "Is there some kind of emergency?" she asked.

"Yes," I replied, "in my pants." I waggled my eyebrows.

One of the bartender's eyebrows rose a fraction. "As a line," she informed me, "that doesn't really work."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm a little distracted. I might die in the next sixty seconds."

"Oh," she said. She squinted at me suspiciously. "Are you sure you're a real Space Marine?"

The tube arrived; I got in. "Watch the news tomorrow and find out," I suggested. The door closed.

Approximately a million years later, the door opened again, and I stepped out onto 'R' deck. There was, for the moment, nobody in sight.

"Initiating Operation Scary Diversion," said McMillan's voice. A second later klaxons started sounding, and alarm lights flashed. THERE IS AN ENVIRONMENTAL EMERGENCY, said a robotic voice. REMAIN IN YOUR ROOMS AND STAY CALM.

"Yeah," I muttered, cocking the blaster rifle. "Stay where you are, and roll over."

Read more... )
"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."

Read more... )
"Okay, let's review," said Lopez. "We're going to whack the Crown Prince, steal his Chain of Awesomeness, and…"

"No," said McMillan. "Nobody gets whacked. At least, not indiscriminately. You see, it is of paramount importance that we steal the chain without its loss being discovered."

"No indiscriminate violence?" I asked. "Oh well; I'll try to stay busy."

"You'll have plenty on your hands," McMillan said. "There are four squadrons of Space Marines on board, playing the Crown Prince's babysitters."

I blinked. I used to be a Space Marine. Tough bastards. Good with guns, swords, fists. Don't like being betrayed. "Uh…" I said, "how do you expect me to deal with them without…"

"One thing at a time," said McMillan. "You should be aware that the Chain of Office is too valuable to be kept on the Crown Prince's person. A special vault has been built to house it."

"Oh yes," said Lopez, "the easy-to-penetrate variety of vault, no doubt."

"Penetrating the vault will not be hard," said McMillan. "However, its walls house a containment bubble full of Fatir gas."

Kima whistled. "That eats through anything," she said. "No known cure."

"Not quite anything," hissed Sarpalian.

"Oh, let me guess," I said. "It can't eat Javanite."

"It cannot," said McMillan. "The artificial gravity pushes away from all the walls, and the chain floats at the center."

"Okay, STOP," said Grabsy. "Just so we can sum up: we're going to remove the chain from a trapped vault, without letting anybody know, without killing anybody, without disturbing anything, and then we're going to get away, right?"

"Yes," said McMillan. "We'll start by infiltrating the ship's fire command system."

Grabsy threw up his hands. "Wake me up when there's a plan I can understand," he said, retiring to his bunk. The briefing meeting broke up, and as McMillan wasn't in the head-blowing-up mood, Lopez and I retired as well.

Read more... )
The cargo flats slammed into each other, a train wreck on a grand scale unfolding in slow motion. The barges were a quarter mile long. One was empty and the other was full of recycling waste. They buckled and rippled down their lengths, cracking open on all sides, their momentum nearly cancelling out and leaving the wreck dead in space. The contents of the full barge, an uneven silvery chaff, billowed out into a shimmering cloud. Tiny tugs jetted around like gnats, trying to figure out how to disentangle the mess and keep it from impacting traffic around the port at Gray Lady.

_Golden_Empire_ was in no danger from the wreck, but her outbound trajectory necessarily carried her through the chaff cloud. The long, slender cruise liner soared gracefully through the mess, leaving disorder and mayhem behind as she glided for the stars.

I got on the comm. "Nice driving, Grabsy," I said. "I was just telling Lopez: the best way to get a giant cactus to successfully ram a target is to tell him to miss it."

"Funny," replied Grabsy after only a brief pause, "*I* was just telling Kima that the best way to get a failed space marine to fuck off is to tell him to fuck off." He cleared his throat. "Fuck off," he added.

"Less talk, please," said McMillan. "We're still at a delicate phase of the operation. Grabsy and Kima, jettison immediately and join up with Jackpot. Lopez, you're ready to go EVA?"

"Aye aye, cap'n," said Lopez tonelessly. I felt a pang, hearing my weasard engineer call another man 'captain', even though I knew Lopez was empowering the word with all the respect one would use to pronounce an epithet aimed at a person guilty of having carnal relations with the woman who birthed him.

"Jackpot, I need _Glom_ burning in fifteen seconds, or we'll miss our window," added McMillan.

"Tick tock, I got it," I grumbled, firing the unusual craft's engines, jetting into the chaff cloud and taking up station behind _Golden_Empire_. "I'd like to help you through a window," I added under my breath, knowing perfectly well that he could hear me.

"And no more lip," McMillan added sharply. "You're my crew now, and there's only one way out of it."

"Yeah," I said, fingering the explosive collar fitted around my neck. "I know."

Read more... )

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