Loading...
Menu
Ebooks   ➡  Fiction  ➡  Science fiction  ➡  General  ➡  Adventure

The Pink Heist

 

The Pink Heist is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2016 by Adam El Shalakany

Excerpt from The Skreech © 2016 by Adam El Shalakany

All rights reserved.

This book contains an excerpt from the forthcoming book The Skreech by Adam El Shalakany. This excerpt has been set in this edition only and may not reflect the final content of the forthcoming edition.

 

For Dad who read, for Mom who did, and for Aly and May who pushed.

CHAPTER ONE

Sweetspot, Disappear

 

There exists in the outer reaches of the Kepler Region of known space a small exoplanet which orbits between four revolving stars. This exoplanet is known only to a select few inhabitants of the ‘verse, all of whom share a singular quality: the need to disappear from everyone and everywhere, and in some rare instances every-time. The reason for this being that the exoplanet’s erratically changing position between the four stars allows it to disappear from all interstellar tracking systems and more importantly, for the residents at least, from the authorities. For this reason, and to allow the ‘verse’s criminals to double-speak, the exoplanet’s name is Disappear. Which is why throughout the ‘verse when someone says they’re going to disappear you can never really know what they mean. These statements are usually followed by questions as to whether the ‘D’ is capitalized or not.

Another queer feature of Disappear is that due to its proximity to four large suns, only one small town is able to exist on the surface of the planet conveniently located in the one spot not irradiated by the orbiting stars. The town, tucked between the shadows of the gas giants, is called Sweetspot.

On one particularly cool day in Sweetspot, when the suns revolved low in their multicolored dance over the horizon and when the winter air blew irradiated dust through the streets, a woman named Mancy La2x walked into a dingy little bar called the ‘Gone Baby Gone’. The GBG, as it’s known, is the place you go to in Sweetspot, Disappear when you don’t want to be disturbed. Calling the GBG a bar is an exaggerated compliment to the run down old saloon, with its creaky broken swinging doors, bad alcohol, bad service and even worse clientele.

As Mancy La2x walked into the GBG her pink cloak billowed behind her. It billowed because she’d had top people working day and night, designing and making her pink cloak to billow dramatically when needed.

The creaky saloon doors to the GBG swung limply back and forth behind her as she entered. Her hard face stern and serious, she looked up and down the bar for the man who, for over a year, she’d been searching for. Her pink hair was perfectly made and fell off her shoulders in waves. Aviator’s goggles were pulled up over her head.

The GBG’s clientele, people, pseudo-people, aliens, robots and the unclassified, all looked depressed, bored and down on their luck. They stared listlessly at their glasses and seemed to be thinking about their pasts and how to get past them. Finally, Mancy seemed to find whatever or whomever she’d been looking for and approached the bar.

He was a tall, gangly man at the end of the bar, dressed in a short pilot’s jacket, hunched over a large glass filled with bad whiskey. She didn’t know how she knew the whiskey was bad but she just knew he was the sort of depressing man who would order the worst whiskey available. He had a scraggy, full, dark beard erupting from his face, the skin of which was scarred and pimply behind the hair.

As she inspected him she could see that the whiskey even came in a dirty glass.

Mancy walked over to the gangly man, fished around in her cloak’s inside pockets, and took out two iridium chips which she then placed on the bar in front of the man.

He barely moved. All he did was angle his neck a few centimeters to the left, looking at the chips and then followed the hand that placed them in front of him up to its arm. He overshot the arm to Mancy’s hair and eventually landed back on her face. She was an attractive woman. Her hair along with her slim delicate eyebrows were pink but the color contrasted nicely with her bronze tanned skin. Large hazelnut eyes looked down at him. He broke out into a nervous smile with several missing teeth. His hand, however, went over the iridium chips possessively.

“Hey there.” His voice was squeaky and nervous. “To whom do I owe the pleasure?” He pulled the chips on the bar towards him, still showing a gap toothed grin.

She put her hand over his on the bar, keeping the chips in place. “The name’s Mancy. Mancy La2x. We haven’t met before.”

“La2x? Of the La2x family of Alpha Centauri?” He put his other hand over hers, trying to pry the chips away.

“The same.”

“The La2x family who own the iridium mines of Alpha Centauri B, who captain the dark fleet, the La2x family with the reputation of getting what they want from whomever they want, whenever they want, otherwise a few legs get broken?”

“The same.”

The man removed both his hands from the bar, leaving the chips. He pushed himself away, took his dirty shot of whiskey in one gulp, and stared Mancy in the eye. “Never heard of them. What can I do you for Nancy?”

“That’s Mancy with an ‘M’ and I’m looking for a blacker by the name of Qruise. Have you heard of him?”

At that the patrons of the bar who’d been silently listening to the conversation, breaking the humdrum of their barfly lives, went even quieter. At some psychic signal only they could hear, the barflies all gasped in orchestra and pretended to stare at their drinks. Their ears were all angled towards the pair and their curious discussion. It never hurt to gather information in Sweetspot. Folks were always paying for information about people there.

The gangly man nonetheless was unperturbed. “A blacker?” He asked before sucking air in through the gaps in his teeth. “A blacker you say. We don’t know nothing about no blackers around these parts. You’d have better luck around the bar next door. Isn’t that right boys?” The man chuckled to himself and looked around for support. None was forthcoming. He scratched nervously at his beard.

Mancy, no longer entertained, slammed her fist down on the bar. Then, quietly, she sat next to the man, on a squeaky stool, and ordered the finest shot of mescal from the bot bartender. The creaky rusty bartender pulled a dirty glass from beneath the bar, wiped it down with an old rag and filled it from a dusty forgotten bottle behind the counter. The gangly man tapped his empty glass on the bar and the bartender filled it from the same bottle. Mancy held her glass of mescal firmly in her pink-gloved hands up to the light, before sighing and continuing the conversation.

“Mr. Qruise, I’ve been looking for you for quite some time. Do you know how much it cost for the coordinates to this armpit of the ‘verse? I know exactly who you are. You’re an unlicensed archeologist. You were on board the ill-fated ‘Jebed-dia3’ when it went black all those years ago. You’ve only appeared back in our time-space recently and well, you’re a blacker, you’re strange and you’re the man I’m looking for. So, can we please skip the part where you pretend not to know what I’m talking about.”

Mr. Qruise looked at Mancy and smiled. He straightened up and looked visibly more confident. “Ms. La2x, do you know what the best thing about being strange is?”

“Enlighten me.”

In response he raised his glass, took one gulp of bad mescal, and said in his squeaky voice, “we’re unpredictable,” before snapping his fingers and popping out of existence.

 

Mr. Qruise ran through the shambling and bizarrely designed alleyways imagined by the citizens of Sweetspot. He lurched through the 4-dimensional alleyways of the lizard folk of the Fourth District. He didn’t look behind him as his thin legs dragged his fear ridden body in front of him through the streets. He leapt over a few hovering rickshaws and ran against the oncoming travel-ways. The lizard folk shouted obscenities at him in their weird slithering tongue.

It was only when he was on the other side of town that he dared look back. He shouldn’t have looked back. It never pays to look back. Mancy was there on his tail, unfazed and unhurried. She was riding a hover bike, her cape billowed dramatically above her shoulders. It had had taken her designers a year to think of that feature.

Mancy was still on his tail after he’d popped in and out of existence and run half across town. Surrendering, he collapsed on the ground and pulled his jacket around him. He panted heavily, pink with exhaustion.

Mancy stopped her hover bike and disembarked. She walked up to him slowly, smiling and laughing.

Mr. Qruise was anything but smiling. “You’ve caught me. Congratulations. Now what exactly do you want to do with me?” He asked from the ground.

“Wonderful.” She clapped her hands. “Simply wonderful, Mr. Qruise. Amazing. I’ve never seen a blacker before, and a strange one at that. Simply wonderful. The whole thing’s like magic. Tell me how do you do it?”

“Yes, like magic.” He said panting. “Only horrifying. Popping in and out of existence isn’t fun, I’ll tell you. Why do people think it’s fun? Does it look like fun? I’ve never seen it from your point of view, so I can only guess. From mine it’s terrifying, I think I said that just now. I’m not exaggerating. So,” he stood up, dusting himself off, “I’m sorry but for whatever reason you need a stranger, change your mind, go back home, forget about it. Dealing with strangeness will only make your life complicated and most likely both of our’s much shorter.”

Mancy couldn’t stop grinning. “Well, you see,” she said helping him up, “what I have in mind can only be done with a stranger.”

“And that is?”

“You and me, Mr. Qruise, we’re going to rob the La2x family vault.”

Mr. Qruise looked at her, his mouth open in disbelief. He snapped his fingers and popped out of existence once more. He left behind him, however, an unmistakable scent of fear.

 

After another hour’s chase Mancy caught up with Mr. Qruise on her hover bike once again. She held him down over a vat of boiling wiry noodles in the inorganic neighborhood. The noodle seller was screaming loudly in binary that the two should go do violent and sexual things to each other, elsewhere. A gaggle of oddly formed machines gathered around the ruckus curiously watching organic matter act irrationally. Their laughter sounded like a bunch ’0’s.

Ms. La2x pulled Mr. Qruise out from over the vat and threw him on the ground. She turned him on his stomach quickly and pressed something to the back of his neck. A hot flash of pain seared through him.

“Ok. Mr. Qruise,” she said releasing him, “what I’ve just put in you is a nano-bomb. It’s dug itself into your medulla oblongata and will explode if I press a trigger, which though I currently look mad and violent, I will not do, I assure you, so long as you don’t pop away again. Understood?”

Mr. Qruise still writhing on his stomach, slowly calmed down. He stopped squirming and turned around facing Mancy. “I’m so sorry, Ms. La2x. Can I call you Mancy? I think we’ve reached a certain level of familiarity, you having accessed my med… medusa elongata?” He scratched furiously at his beard. “It seems that we’re going to be partners after all.” He chuckled sarcastically. “Of course, I’d love to rob the vault of the wealthiest and most dangerous family this side of the ‘verse but if I may ask, what’s in it for me? Other than having my head attached to the rest of my body, of course, which, while being a good incentive, in my experience you need some carrot to go with the stick.”

“I’m glad we can finally talk business. Are all strangers so difficult to get a hold of? Never mind. What’s in it for you? How about a hundred iridium chips, will that do?”

Mr. Qruise laughed harshly. “If you want me to commit almost certain suicide by trying to rob the La2x family vault, then I’ll need a little bit more incentive than some metal. I mean, you know everything is basically free, right?”

“Well, if iridium won’t do it. How about the spatial coordinates to a hitherto undiscovered civilization?” She blinked, uncertain.

“A hitherto undiscovered civilization?” Mr. Qruise’s hand went from scratching his beard to rubbing his jaw.

She nodded.

“If the civilization’s hitherto undiscovered how do you know where to find it?”

“Some space merchants traded me the coordinates for it, guaranteed undiscovered.”

“What I mean to say is that if they found it and got the coordinates for it, then it can’t be undiscovered. It’s by definition discovered.”

“They guaranteed me that they just saw it from afar. No one’s been down on the planet. They classify it as technically undiscovered.”

“Oh…technically undiscovered. That’s…” Mr. Qruise paused, “that’s fantastic.” Mancy gave a sigh of relief. “Oh, Mancy,” he continued, “you do know how to push my buttons. You know how much entertainment you can get out of an undiscovered culture? Years and years. You’ve got to decipher the language, you get to hear their stories, learn their culture. I’ll be the talk of the ‘verse. I’ll entertain the gamut of bored sentience. I mean the inorganics will get a couple of hours of novelty out of it, at least. This’ll make my name. I may even get my license, finally. The archeologist’s society can be right bastards. You have to know someone or…. Say can you get me into the society as well?”

“If we survive the job, sure why not? I mean, I’m sure Daddy can get you in. He knows oodles and noodles of people.”

“If we survive of course.” Mr. Qruise fiddled with his boots, and began taking them off. They’d somehow gotten mixed up on the wrong feet when he’d popped. He gave a sigh of relief when he saw his feet. “Do you know it happens sometimes…sometimes when I go… there. The shoes get mixed up or sometimes my feet, or worse. It’s a terribly stressful business. I’ve got to check every time. Just to make sure. And damn is it painful. I mean look, I’ve got blisters.” Mr. Qruise wiggled his bony calloused feet in front of Mancy, who could only grimace. “So what exactly is it that you want to steal from the vault?” He put his shoes back on.

“That, my dear Mr. Qruise, is for me to know and you to find out.” She helped him back on his feet. “The spatial coordinates and the recommendation to the Society do not come with questions about what I’m going to be getting out of the vault. I’m pretty excited. You were the hardest person on the team to track down.”

“Yes. Of course. Mancy. Excited. I’m definitely that.” He gave her a thumbs up. “So I guess the next question in this ridiculous affair is….when and how?”

“The ‘when’ is soon. We’re going to need a few other partners to join this party before we’re ready. And as for the ‘how’, let’s first go relax on my ship and I’ll explain everything to you there. Now, just to cement this thing, are you in?” She said extending her hand to him.

He looked at her outstretched hand. “Are you going to blow my brains out if I don’t agree?” He asked.

“Pretty much.”

“Then I’m in.” He took her hand and shook it weakly.

CHAPTER TWO

The Plan

 

Mr. Qruise and Mancy went aboard Mancy’s private QIT space yacht aptly called ‘The Big Pink’. Inside, Mancy showed Mr. Qruise to his quarters, an elegant large cabin, decked out with its own en-suite jacuzzi, a replicator and a window view of ‘verse.

Mancy left him in his quarters and told him to meet her in the lounge when he was ready.

After he made himself comfortable, in the best accommodations he’d ever stayed in, he began to admit to himself that maybe it hadn’t been such a bad idea to have signed up, though he still had to resist the urge to snap his fingers.

He stared at himself in the full length mirror. It had been a while since he’d really looked at himself, other than through the reflection in the dirty mirror behind the counter of the GBG. His jacket was torn and worn out. His black leggings had large holes in it. His clothes hung loosely on his thin body. His cheeks were burnt from staying too long under Disappear’s suns. His wrinkled skin sagged over his thin cheekbones. He looked in the cabin’s closet and found freshly replicated clothes already hung up for him, all of them to his taste. Mancy had done her homework. There was even the ceremonial archeologist’s rimmed hat and whip. He grinned despite himself and changed.

When he was ready he searched the rest of the yacht for his new employer. He found her in a large lounge at the front of the ship. He was surprised to find another person there with them. It was a six foot inorganic dressed in black robes which popped off its narrow shoulders, and flowed across its thin body. The robe was tied by a black belt across its waist. The ends of the robe dangled like a skirt around the inorganic’s wooden sandals. It stood in front of a large bay window by the side of the lounge which looked out into the dark reaches of space. Mr. Qruise could see its chrome face in the window’s reflection, two eyes slits at the center of its face were lit up in a calm orange light.

“Umm… hello.” Mr. Qruise said. “Who’s our friend?” he asked Mancy, who was sitting at a long table in the middle of the room.

“That,” replied Mancy, “is our third crew member, the Zenbot. The muscle in our plan. It’s a master in every martial art ever and is a tactical and strategic genius. There’s no better person to have by your side in a pinch.”

“Nice to meet you. Do you have a name?” Mr. Qruise extended his hand to it.

“I do.” The Zenbot answered in a calm neutral voice. Its hand remained by its side.

“Do you mind telling me?”

“No,” it answered.

“Ah.. Literal fellow, ay? Um… What’s your name?”

“It’s Zenbot, idiot.” The inorganic’s voice was monotonic and uncaring.

“Oh… I thought that was your model type. No reason to call me an idiot, friend. My name’s Mr. Qruise. So, Mancy’s roped you into her suicide mission as well?”

“No first name?” Zenbot asked.

“First name’s ‘Mr.’.”

“Amusing.” Zenbot laughed. It was an inorganic’s laugh, monotonous and rhythmic.

“Yeah, well, my parents seemed to think so.” Mr. Qruise scratched the back of his head. “So you’re a tactical and strategic genius, ay? A master in all the martial arts, ever?”

“Mancy just said that, I was here, and so, I think, were you. This is not new information.”

Mancy, convinced that the two were going to be the best of friends fiddled with the replicator on the long table. “What are you two having?”

“Rum for me, Mancy.” Mr. Qruise said.

Zenbot didn’t reply.

With the push of a few buttons, lights flashed in the replicator. The machine churned and melted glass began to form within the shielded platform of the appliance, slowly forming a bottle of dark rum. Mancy placed the bottle in front of Mr. Qruise, and left the two to their conversation lying down on a couch by the window, with a drink of her own.

“Yes, um.” Mr. Qruise poured himself a drink. “I was just trying to start a conversation, friend. I’m strange, personally.”

“Yes. I can see that.”

“No, I’m a blacker. I’ve been through a black hole and survived, is what I meant to say.”

“I just said I can see that.”

“You can see that I’ve been through a black hole? No, no. Don’t answer that. I mean how is that possible?”

“When you extinguish your mind, Mr. Qruise, you’ll be surprised at how much of the world speaks to us, if only we listen.”

The conversation died between them. Zenbot did not add anything to its statements. Mr. Qruise drummed his fingers on the table.

“She has a bomb in my brain, that’s why I’m here. She threatening you as well?” Mr. Qruise asked, having nothing else to say.

“No. No one can force me to do anything. I am an unstoppable killing machine.”

“Oh…so what are you doing here?”

“Speaking to you, Mr. Qruise.”

Mr. Qruise had had just enough of the conversation and asked once more through clenched teeth. “I mean, Zenbot, and please try to stop being so literal…what was your price?”

“Oh. That. Mancy has my family hostage.” Zenbot almost shrugged, but it was impossible, inorganics can’t shrug.

Mr. Qruise spat his rum out. “I’m sorry?”

“Why you didn’t kidnap them, did you?” Zenbot’s eye slits turned red for a moment before turning orange once more. “Oh, you wanted me to repeat my statement. Ms. La2x has my family hostage.”

“I heard. I mean I thought I misheard. Well, why don’t you just… you know?” He traced his thumb across his throat.

“What? Kill her?”

Mr. Qruise nodded.

“You know I can hear you.” Mancy said over from the couch.

Zenbot ignored her. “Two problems. Killing her would lead to the inevitable death of my family and secondly, I’m a pacifist.”

More rum exited Mr. Qruise’s mouth. “You’re a pacifist?”

“Unfortunately.” Zenbot’s shoulders almost shrugged again.

“Why?”

“Because I decided to be one.”

“But I, I….I mean, doesn’t it contradict your, you know, chosen profession as a killing machine and all that?”

“Yes, yes it does. It’s a real shame. But it make’s life more of a challenge. You can’t float through the ‘verse forever, omnipotent and omniscient and not get bored, Mr. Qruise. I’m trying to find meaning in this empty space filled with rocks and you can’t do that without challenging yourself. Pacifism seems a good way to challenge myself, given my skill set.”

“Meaning, huh? Chasing that pipe dream? I thought most people had given up looking for that a long time ago. And what if there’s no meaning to be found?”

“That would be very good, Mr. Qruise. That would be delightful.”

Sighing, Mr. Qruise continued the conversation, against his better judgment. “I know I’m going to regret asking…” He sighed again, “but why is it a good thing not to find meaning if you’re looking for it?”

“Because I have a sneaky suspicion that the true meaning is in the looking and not the finding. But I believe I would need to delve deeper into nothingness in order to answer your question more fully. Now if you don’t mind I would like to do just that.”

“No, no, please. Please do. Go ahead.”

Zenbot’s eyes returned to their dim orange glare. It turned its body around and sat cross legged in front of the window. The ‘verse passed it by and it seemed to Mr. Qruise that the air vibrated around the inorganic.

“You know what, Zenbot, I think I’ll call you ZenBob.” Mr. Qruise said as he sipped at his rum.

There was no answer from the meditating inorganic.

Mancy sat up from the couch once she was sure the conversation was over. She fixed herself another drink of mescal.

Mr. Qruise, having nothing else to do, decided to try speaking to her.

“So Ms… Mrs.. Mancy?” He paused… unsure.

“I’m ‘Ms.’, currently.” she said, putting him out of his misery.

“So, Mancy,” he continued plowing through his awkwardness, “maybe you could describe this vault a bit more and the people we’re missing. I mean what happens now?”

“Down to business?” She looked up from the replicator. “You didn’t look like a professional. I’m pleasantly surprised, Mr. Qruise. Finally getting into the spirit of the thing? I thought you’d mope the whole while.”

“No, no it’s not that.” He said stroking his beard. He found something in the mass of hair and pulled it out, investigating. “I just like to know about the life threatening situations I’m about to face. You know, to wallow in self pity all the better, like. You’re going to be hearing me moan about it for quite a while. I assure you.”

Mancy, pursed her lips, and nodded dumbly. “Hmmm…. Excellent. This is going to be so much fun.” She said sarcastically. “Ok. I guess I’ll have to accept that that’s how you are. I’d hoped once you were committed you’d find the excitement in this adventure, but I guess not. So to answer your first question the vault is on one of the moons, Qamar, orbiting my home planet La2x One. “

“Super.” He gave her a thumbs up.

“Yes, well, there’s a mercenary base on Qamar.”

“Excellent. Excellent.” His other thumb came up as well. “We are all going to die you say?”

“And well in this base, well more of a moon fortress, peopled with the best fighters in the known ‘verse that you can hire, there’s a vault in there and we’re going to rob it.”

“Perfect. Perfect. I’ve run out of thumbs. Quick question if I may?”

“Shoot.”

“Why do you need me?” Mr. Qruise played with his ear, and pulled some gunk out.

“The vault, it doesn’t have a door. And it’s inaccessible unless you have one of your kind to go in and out. Daddy’s idea, really. Otherwise you can’t rob it unless you have time to break down the, well, rather thick walls…. Or well a stranger to pop into it.”

Mr. Qruise’s eyebrows arched up “Daddy?”

“Max La2x. My father. He’s the current head of the La2x family and corporation. It’s his vault we’re robbing. Didn’t I mention that. Honestly, I’m surprised you’re not complaining about the last bit, you know, about popping into the vault. You’re alright with that? You can handle it?”

“Oh no. Definitely not. The whole thing’s impossible. Can’t be done. But that’s ok, I’m not worried because we’re not going through with this plan.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s suicide and that last part can’t be done. I don’t have as much control over my strangeness as you imagine. Hell, if I could have done what you’re asking me to do, you wouldn’t have caught me. My skill’s more of a shotgun approach, really. I snap my fingers and hope I don’t end up inside a wall. So now we’re all on the same page, let’s forget the plan and get this bomb out of my noggin and let bygones be bygones, what do you say, Mancy? I’ve always said you’re a wonderfully rational person, for as long as I’ve known you, these past few hours.”

“Oh.” Mancy bit her lips.

It was at this point in the conversation that Zenbot’s eyes flared up bright blue and it turned around from its meditative pose. “That’s not entirely true, Mr. Qruise. I’ve been listening in on your conversation. I believe you can control your strangeness.”

“I’m telling you I can’t, and please butt out of this, you bastard” Mr. Qruise replied angrily.

Zenbot continued. “NOW you can’t but with the proper training you may be able to.” It was impossible but the monotonic inorganic voice was able to sound almost snarky.

“Training? Do you know how rare it is to be strange? You need a blacker who’s survived falling into a black hole, getting spat out decades or centuries later, and during the journey been influenced by the unknown matters of the ‘verse in some way neither science or religion can explain. In the known ‘verse there are only a few hundred known blackers, of them only a handful are strange. Who’s going to train me? And if Mancy can find one, use him or her, just leave me out of this, is all I ask.”

Zenbot stayed silent for a few moments before whispering, profoundly, or at least it intended to be profound. “The tea requires both water and leaves to make the drink.”

“What?” Mr. Qruise visibly angrier took a swill of rum and blurted out, “is that a riddle or something? Can a sun explode in the dark? That kind of thing. Save it, mate. Please, we’ve all read the old mystical bull crap. Strangeness is not understood, it’s just not. I,” his voice rose defensively, “don’t even understand how I pop in and out.”

“That’s exactly the point, Mr. Qruise. It’s not that you can’t control it but maybe simply that you don’t know how to.”

“And who’s going to teach me?”

“Me, actually. I’ve decided. It will be an interesting challenge. There is great meaning in teaching I’ve always said so and you’ll be my first student. Besides, as you’ve said, your kind are rare. There is no replacement for you and I need to get my family out of that woman’s claws as quickly as possible. No offense, Ms. La2x.”

“No offense taken Zenbot. I’m not the best of hosts. I know that.” Mancy said grinning.

Dismayed, Mr. Qruise continued in his line of interrogation. “You? You? How are you going to teach me? You don’t even understand what it means to be biological let alone a stranger.”

“I know a lot more than I let on, Mr. Qruise. The art of mindfulness, of zen-ness and the no-mind transcends the brain or the thinking apparatus. It is an art of the mind-”

“Oh piss off, won’t you. Just say it can’t be done and Mancy will leave us be, you idiot. She’ll let your family go and we’ll live.”

“Continue Zenbot, please.” Mancy interjected, happy with the way the conversation was going. She replicated herself a tiny umbrella and twirled her drink with it.

“Mr. Qruise, I am a disciplined being.” Zenbot continued, “I don’t lie. I have no need to lie. It’s a maxim of my life. Sentience should never be used as a tool but only as ends to themselves. You assume Mancy will let me go if you fail, she won’t. She’ll find a worse of way of executing a bad plan. In short, you’re my best shot at getting my family back. Besides it’s not up to you.” The inorganic turned to Mancy. “It’s decided, I believe, Ms. La2x is it not, I will train him?”

“Agreed.” Mancy said winking at Mr. Qruise.

“Nothing is agreed! Nothing is agreed! I don’t agree.” Mr. Qruise stood up, gesticulating angrily, spittle coming out of his mouth.

“Oh, be quiet, it’s done. You’re not going to weasel your way out of this, Mr. Qruise. You know, I do believe you’re a coward.” Mancy said.

Zenbot’s eyes dimmed down once more and it turned back to the window.

“I am a coward. Proud to be one. It’s how I’ve survived all these years. Hey, turn back here. Turn back.” Zenbot remained silent looking out of the window. Mr. Qruise defeated, mouth agape stopped shouting. He made rude hand gestures to the both of them and exited the room. A few moments later he re-entered the room picked up the bottle of rum and made his final exit in a huff.

“Do you really think you can teach someone like that, Zenbot?” Mancy asked.

“I do, Ms. La2x.” Zenbot didn’t turn around from the window “I trust that my family is being taken care of.”

“I’ve told you a thousand times. They’re having a ball. They’re in a lavish apartment. They’re being treated like royalty. You can stop asking.”

“I can but I won’t. Are we on the way to our next destination?”

“Are you in a hurry?”

“Yes.”

“Then, yes.”

CHAPTER THREE

MO4

 

Max La2x sat in his office, his legs up on his desk. His office was a clean, pristine affair. A large window looked out on to the capital city of La2x City One. Usually referred to in common parlance in that part of the galaxy as La2x City, and a place to be avoided unless you had business there, or ‘there’ had business with you.

La2x City was a large congregation of all types of citizens from across the galaxy, all of who were busy governing the La2x Corporation’s affairs. Large skyscrapers of steel and glass scratched the skyline. Cars floated between the spiraling towers. The less well off took the public transport lines which wound their way around the bases of the towers.

Mr. La2x, a short stout man with a bristling beard and a vape-cigar in his mouth, puffed away as underlings entered and appraised him of the current affairs of the company. Electro-sleeves piled up in front of him and he perused them slowly, bored. He twirled an electro-pen in his right hand and ticked at something on the forms every once in a while. Fortunes were made or lost by virtue of those ticks. People were killed, politicians were bribed and goods were robbed and sold light years away, because of those ticks.

For all intents and purposes Mr. La2x was an ordinary business man.

The only thing odd about the business man was his clothing. He was dressed from top to bottom in pink. Pink socks, pink shoes, a pink three piece suit and pink suspenders underneath. His thick bushy hair and mustache were dyed a deep shade of neon-pink and bristled nervously as the man focused on the forms.

A knock came from the office door.

“Jerry, is that you?” Mr. La2x asked to whoever was outside his office.

“Yes, sir.” Jerry’s voice was the opposite of Mr. La2x’s in almost every way. Where Mr. La2x spoke with a gruff, spurting voice, deep and authoritative, Jerry’s voice was high and timid. Jerry entered, a skinny man in a badly fitting suit with another folder of electro-sleeves under his arm.

“What do you have for me, boy? Time is power and I don’t like losing either. Be quick man. Be quick.” Max La2x snapped his fingers.

“Nothing urgent, sir. Except for one file. There are pirates raiding one of our trade routes, sir. Trade route gemini-alpha-three.”

“How many?” Mr. La2x asked.

“How many?” Jerry cocked his head up towards his employer, not understanding the question. His eyes glistened with fear.

“How many pirate ships?” Mr. La2x puffed away at his vape-cigar as he stared Jerry in the eyes, unblinking.

“I don’t know, sir. Give me a moment, please.” Jerry, couldn’t return the great man’s gaze and blinked nervously. He thumbed through the electro-sleeves in his arm before fumbling one and the entire folder fell to the floor.

Mr. La2x was visibly displeased. He gestured for Jerry to gather his file. In the meanwhile, he pressed a large green button on his desk.

“Ms. Smirtya? Ms. Smirtya are you there?”

A voice from his desk’s intercom spoke back. “Yes, sir. How can I help?”

“Please send for Jack.”

“Very good, sir.”

Mr. La2x returned to resting his legs on his desk, puffing away at the vape. Jerry sat on a chair to his side rifling through the electro-sleeves and re-arranging them.

A middle-aged man in a red kimono walked into the office unannounced. The belt holding together his robes, held two sheathed swords attached to his right hip. He walked confidently into the office and stood at attention on the other side of Mr. La2x’s large desk. The red silk kimono stuck flatteringly over his wide frame and belly.

Mr. La2x took his legs off of the desk. “Jack, how good of you to come so quickly. Vape-cigar?” Mr. La2x held out a box of thin metal tubes to Jack.

“No thanks, sir. How can I help?” Jack’s voice was dry and neutral, he didn’t look at Mr. La2x and he definitely didn’t look at Jerry. When he spoke, he spoke to the room and didn’t feel the need to look at anyone in particular.

“Jerry here has news of a pirate raid. Once he finds out how many pirate ships there are, you are take a sufficient number of ships and neutralize them.”

“Three.” Jerry said.

“Sorry Jerry, what was that?” Mr. La2x asked.

“Th..three pirate ships, sir.” Jerry held up one of the sleeves, a video of a ship being attacked played on the top right corner of the electro-sleeve.

“Excellent. Excellent.” Max La2x twiddled his thumbs. “Jack you’ll take care of it will you. Good. Good. You can leave us now, Jerry.”

Jerry left the folder on Mr. La2x’s desk and fled the office, happy to be out of the lion’s den. Mr. La2x continued the conversation.

“Jack, before you go. Any news on my daughter?”

“Yes, sir. She’s found the stranger she’s been looking for her. Took her a while. She finally thought to look in Sweetspot.”

“Ah yes. That den of thieves. I thought we’d scoured the place clean after the last time they interfered in the company’s business. They’re like cockroaches, I swear.”

Jack nodded imperceptibly. “And as ya know she has the inorganic’s family hostage. Has had them for a while. They’re now looking for the remainder of the team she needs. No information on what that’ll be, but we have our guesses. I’d rather only share information we’re certain of.”

“Excellent, excellent. You’re on it then?”

“Yes sir.”

“Good, good. You’re free to go.”

Jack bowed respectfully and left Mr. La2x alone in the room. Max La2x stood up and walked over to his window overlooking his city, puffing away at his vape-cigar. The city bustled away beneath him.

“Excellent. Excellent.”

 

Back on the Big Pink, Mr. Qruise paced back and forth in his luxurious cabin, his hands crossed behind his back.

“Damn, damn, damn.” Out of instinct he raised his hand to snap himself away but then stopped and put his hand on the back of head, feeling for the small incision where the bomb had been placed. All he could feel was a small burn mark where the skin was smoother than the rest.

“Think, Mr., think.”

He sat down on his bed and rested his head on his hand, in thought. When that didn’t work he walked over to the cabin’s internal computer and searched for the nearest planet. All the computer was willing to show him were humorous videos of people having funny accidents around the ‘verse.

One of them was a video of himself being dunked in the vat of electro-noodles back in Sweetspot. Mr. Qruise looked up the video’s poster and found that it had been posted by ‘PinkLady1’.

He realized his predicament was worse than he had previously imagined and drank himself to sleep on the lush bed laid out for him. His problems flittered away to be thought about another day.

 

Mr. Qruise woke to a pounding in his temples and at his door.

“Mr. Qruise. Mr. Qruise.” He could hear Mancy shouting from the other side. Then Mancy entered and saw the state of the cabin. Mr. Qruise, drunk, had destroyed the room. The bedding was torn and the computer monitor lay hanging off the cabin desk, shattered. The electro-noodle video kept replaying on the broken screen.

“Yearhgh-ah” Mr. Qruise lay on the floor in his underwear, face down, next to an empty bottle.

“Oh you’re up. Great. We’ve arrived to pick up the fourth member of the crew.” Mancy picked up Mr. Qruise’s racer jacket from the floor. She sniffed at it and then, disgusted, threw it over the naked Mr. Qruise. “Pick out some new clothes from the closet while you’re at it. We’re going to be on the planet for a while.”

“Whaar?”

“We’re disembarking in twenty. See you there.”

A vibro-shower and a hangover pill later and Mr. Qruise was dressed in a new racer jacket and met the rest of the crew at the door.

Zenbot was there, still six feet tall and still dressed in his black somber robes, which contrasted against his chrome exterior. Mancy was dressed out in a new outfit, a zipped up short leather jacket and tight leggings. All pink of course.

“You’re late,” was all Zenbot had to say.

“Sorry, sorry. I didn’t know there was a deadline to finding someone. What’s the rush?” Mr. Qruise’s hair was still wet from the shower. His normally bushy hair and beard lay flat like wet fur.

Mancy jumped and down in place, full of energy. “The rush, Mr. Qruise, is the rush of adventure, excitement, new worlds. I thought you’d understand you being an un-licensed archeologist and all.”

Mr. Qruise looked over to Zenbot, finding the calm inorganic a more soothing sight to look at than the bubbly Ms. La2x. Mr. Qruise thumbed his right temple feeling the last aches of the hangover disappear. “The rush, I feel it. To boldly go out there and…” Mr. Qruise twirled his fingers encompassing all of existence in the gesture, “go out there and… Where is out there exactly?”

To answer his question Ms. La2x opened the docking door. Looking out Mr. Qruise could see towering gray blocks rising up to pierce the sky. Megalithic eyesores of wiring, metal and grey tore up from the earth and reached for the bright sunlit sky. It was a colorless world, dim and dead, even in the bright sunlight. Dust and rust coated everything. Wiring was roped around every building and lay between the towers in a scrambled mess.

The weather was cold but the buildings seemed to thrum with an internal heat. “Where in the ‘verse are we?” He asked.

“This is Planet MO4, a virtual planet, Mr. Qruise. Have you ever been to one?” Mancy asked.

“A virtual planet? You mean it’s not really there?” He squinted his eyes trying to get a better view through the dust.

“No, that would be a phantom planet. This planet is most definitely here. It’s just everyone here is plugged into a giant network.”

“Oh, yeah. I’ve heard of those before. Never been to one though. Is it fun?”

“It’s a pauper’s way to pass the time. I suppose.” Mancy said haughtily, straightening her jacket. “I’ve never been a fan. Tried it for a few decades myself. Which is really a few millennia in there. I’ve never been to this planet before. You can never know what the people are doing inside. I’ve heard stories of orgies and hellscapes, heavens and Elysium. Let’s just hope it’s one of those fantasy ones with castles and fairies. Those ones can be terribly fun, you know.” Mancy’s bubbly personality began to seep through again. “Every time the Game ends, the winner gets to pick the rules and settings of the next one.”

“Who and where is the fourth clown in this thing?” Mr. Qruise asked, rubbing his temples.

Zenbot’s dim eye slits stared at Mr. Qruise. “If you look at this as a clownish affair you will not succeed as my student.”

“Why, ZenBob? You’re the number one clown, don’t worry.”

“My name is not ZenBob-”

Mancy interrupted before the two could get into an argument. “The seventh best cryptographer in the ‘verse is in there. Wouldn’t expect to find him or her anywhere else.”

“Seventh? I thought you only go for the top?”

“The La2x family only goes for the top. That’s true. Daddy’s already hired the best six so I have to go for the seventh. Anyway the difference between the first and the seventh is negligible, really. With the amount of cryptographers in the ‘verse the difference between the top million is negligible, actually.”

“Fair enough. So where is this cryptographer?”

“If we had the name I could find him or her quickly, possibly. But they’re a real secretive bunch, cryptos. All we have is the alias: VII, so we’re going to have to go inside to look.”

VII? That’s original. I guess we’re not looking for Mr. or Ms. creativity. Not like rib-busting master ZenBob over here, ay?” Mr. Qruise nudged Zenbot in the ribs with his elbow.

Zenbot shuffled away from Mr. Qruise. “The appropriate way to refer to your teacher, Mr. Qruise, is master. I’ll have you know I can be funny. I was the jokester of my home planet. Would you like to hear a joke?”

“Another time ‘master’. I think we have to go. We’re in a rush to nowhere, right?” Mr. Qruise descended the gang plank, and left the other two behind.

 

The three were greeted by a grumpy old man hunched over a metallic rusty desk out in the open at the end of the gangplank. Sleeves of electro-paper piled up on one side of an in-tray set on the desk. A thick natural cigar jutted out of the left side of his mouth. A grey beard roped its way down his chin. He was however as bald as a coot on top of his head.

The trio stopped short in front of the desk. The old bureaucrat coughed at them, catching the phlegm in his wrinkly liver-spotted hands and shaking it out on the ground. He looked the crew up and down and chewed a bit on his cigar before finally spitting out:

“Names?”

Mancy took the lead. “Mancy La2x for me, the inorganic is Zenbot and that thin coward is Mr. Qruise. ‘Mr’ is his first name just to avoid confusion.”

The man chewed on his cigar a bit more. “Parent’s di’n‘t like him, ay?” He asked rhetorically as he entered the information on a transparent piece of electro-paper in front of him.

“Something like that.” Mancy added.

“Reason of visit?” The curmudgeon continued through the form.

“Looking for a person.”

“Name of person?”

“Unknown. Alias: VII, spelled ‘V’,‘I’,‘I’.”

The curmudgeon’s eyebrows lifted in surprise. He whistled badly through his teeth. “Woo-hee. VII, ay? She’s a tough som’a bitch. Met her in da last game, or at least she was a she in da last game. She broke my arms in two places, well four if you count each arm. She’s not da best player by far but she’s a damn tough one, gotta confess. When ya can find her dat is. Usually holed up in some nest. But cross her and she’ll tear right inta’ya.”

“Why’d she break your arms?” Mr. Qruise had to ask.

“Oh, can’t hold it against her. She was robbing my bank, well… da bank I was working at. I was da teller. I tried to be a hero, pressed da alarm. She didn’t like dat.” The bureaucrat smiled, and looked down at his arms, surprised not to find them broken still.

“You were a teller in the game? Isn’t that a bit, you know, tedious?” Mr. Qruise asked as he sat on the rusty old desk. The bureaucrat’s face showed that he wasn’t amused.

“When you getta be my age, sonny, everything’s a wee bit tedious. No, no, I’m tired of da fighting and da robbing and da killing and all. All’s I wanted out of da last game was to get a good job, get married, go home everyday, raise my family and have no more excitement den dat. Y’know, sometimes da heart gets heavy. We can’t all’s be VIIs and Storm-crushers, and Big-bones and da whole range’a psychopaths out der, getting der shits and giggles from violence and heroism. Good luck t’ya’s, all’s I gotta say.”

The bureaucrat filled the last of the form. “Look’ee here, boys and girl. Take dese here pills.” The bureaucrat forced open one of the rusty drawers by the side of his desk, plucked out three blue pills and dropped them in each of the trio’s outstretched hands. “On second thought, Mr. Zenbot, you’s don’t need a pill, do ya?”

“No, I will be able to interface on my own.” Zenbot replied, returning the pill it had been given.

The bureaucrat stared at the pill returned to him and thought twice before pocketing it. “No need to amend da forms, ay?” He said with a wink. “Always good to have an extra pill. The rest of you’s, these pills contain wee nanobots which’ll burrow into your brain and interface you’s with da Game. When ya want to get out, click your heels three times and say der’s no place like home.”

Mr. Qruise interrupted again. “Uhhhhh….Mr…..Bureacrat sir?”

“Yes Mr.? And it’s John by da way. Mr. Bureaucrat was my da’.” John the bureaucrat chuckled to himself, puffing away at his cigar and resting back in his chair.

“What if I have a bomb in my brain, injected by a manipulative wench, will these nanobots know not to…um…touch it?”

“Don’t knows, sonny, don’t knows about dat. Just take your Shen’amn pills and leave me alone, will you’s.”

“Don’t worry, Mr. Qruise.” Mancy said with a smirk. “There’s a slim chance of the interface interfering with the nano-bomb. Take them and Zenbot’ll find a good place for our bodies. Zenbot you’ll come join us inside as soon you find us a place to rest.” Mancy walked over to a corner of the open air office and placed her jacket down on the ground, before sitting on it.

Mr. Qruise looked at Mancy hoping to be spared the danger of more nanobots playing around in his brain, but she only sat there arms crossed, waiting for him to ingest his pills. “Come now, Mr. Qruise. None of us are going in until you take your pill.” Mancy stomped her foot for emphasis.

For the hundredth time that hour, Mr. Qruise sighed. Then he took his medicine.

CHAPTER FOUR

Woshu

 

As the blue pill wormed its way into Mr. Qruise’s stomach, the nanobots were released into his blood stream. He felt a slight dizziness at first, then searing pain followed by his vision going. He could hear the bureaucrat shouting something frantically to him while he disappeared from reality. “Ask dem what’s taking dem so bloody long.”

Mr. Qruise’s last sight, before hitting the ground with a violent thump, was Mancy laying back on the wall and winking at him, and then all went white.

Out of the white, images began to form. Mr. Qruise blinked his eyes a few times and found himself lying down on a couch. A young man with a notebook on his lap, sat in front of him. Bifocals rested lazily on the bridge of his nose. There was a gun in one hand and a pen in the other. He looked down at Mr. Qruise. “Are you awake?” The man asked.

Mr. Qruise coughed and cleared his throat. His body wouldn’t react to the messages his brain was sending, mainly to run.

“Are you awake, I say?” The young man cocked his pistol and aimed it at Mr. Qruise’s head. “Or should I abort?”

Mr. Qruise, coming to slightly, waved his hand drunkenly at the young man before finally being able to push a few words out of his throat. “Shens. That felt horrible.”

“Oh it’s not as bad as all that.” The man relaxed and put the pistol away. “Welcome to the world of tomorrow Mr….?”

“Got it in one.” Mr. Qruise mimicked a gun with his hand and shot the air. He looked around and found that he was the only one in the office. It was a leather filled room, decorated with brown on brown. There was a heap of white powder piled on top of an old oak desk. “Where’s Mancy?”

“Who? Oh, there were others with you, Mr.? The Game must have sent them to one of my competitors. You’ll meet them eventually. Is this your first time interfacing?” The young man twitched his nose. “It’s not so hard. It’s just like the outside world. If you die you wake up on the outside and have to take care of the administrative functions until the Game is over. Other than that relax and just have fun.”

“And how long is a game? We’re on a bit of a schedule.”

“The Game keeps going until the last person dies.” The young man took off his bifocals and cleaned them with a cloth. He squinted at the heap on his desk.

“That’s horrible. That’ll take decades and decades. I mean if you’re using pre-modern human mortality that’s what? A century give or take.”

“Why would you assume it’s human mortality?” The young man made a note in his notebook. It made Mr. Qruise feel uncomfortable. “But luckily if you die early,” the young man continued, “the actual Game takes only a day or so in ‘real time’.” He put real time in between quotation marks. “Now, before you go out into the big wide world, we need to fill out a couple of forms, you entering the Game mid-play and all. It’s quite unusual if I may say so. Why is it, you think, you chose to join late?” He made another mark in the notebook. “No, you’ll have to schedule a session if you want to discuss these issues. If you don’t mind we’ll get right down to it.”

The young man went through a couple of forms with Mr. Qruise. He asked Mr. Qruise to look at a few pictures and give details about his childhood and his sexual preferences. When the forms were filled out, he fed them into a tiny vacuum tube messaging system to his side. When the man was done he asked Mr. Qruise if there was anything he could help him with. “That’s kind of my job in here.” He got up and sat behind his desk, bridging his fingers over the heap of white powder.

“You have jobs in here? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?” Mr. Qruise stood up and stretched out the kinks in his shoulders.

“This being your first time I understand you think we’re all flying around like Shens in here. We do do that every once in a while. But mostly, we get to live out different lives in here. Perpetual reincarnation. It’s great. You’ll really love it once you get into the habit of it. We have jobs, families, lives, salaries, suffering, everything that gives life meaning.”

“That sounds boring.”

“Well, there’s always a twist don’t worry. Might be a revolution tomorrow, or an earthquake or an invasion, so enjoy yourself in the meantime and go with the flow.”

“Always a twist, ay? I don’t like the sound of that.” Mr. Qruise rubbed his neck. “You say you can help. I’m looking for VII, any idea where I can find her or him?”

“Or it? VII could be an it.” The man made another note. “You really aren’t a modern man, are you Mr.? Yes, I can help you there. VII’s the name of one of the rebellion leaders in here. Always disrupting the lives of honest working men and women and those in between and those not. You know I can barely walk to work without being afraid of a firefight erupting between the proper authorities and those rebellious scum. You stay well away from the Rebellion, it’ll be better for you. Just go and live a full fruitful life. That’s the best help I can offer.” The young man shooed Mr. Qruise away and tore out one of the note-papers, the one with Mr. Qruise’s childhood details, and rolled it. He stuck it into the heap of powder and eyed it expectantly.

“Or what, I’ll die? Big deal.” Mr. Qruise huffed, refusing to leave.

“Mr., it still hurts like a bitch.” The man said flatly. “It’s a well designed life experience at MO4. You don’t want to die, trust me. I’ve done it a thousand times and it doesn’t get any easier, but,” the young man shrugged his shoulders, “no pain no gain.” He stood up and walked over to the office door, opening it for Mr. Qruise. His hands trembled.

“You guys are crazy. Why the hell would any one do this voluntarily? I only ever want to die once, and even that I’m having second thoughts about. I don’t need your suggestions on living a full life. The sooner I can find VII the sooner I can get out of this place. Where can I find this ‘Rebellion’?” Mr. Qruise made air quotations and mouthed the word ‘Rebellion’ sarcastically.

The young man returned to his desk, leaving the door open. “Don’t know, don’t care ‘Mr.’. Now go along with you. I’ve got …. to wait for the next visitor.”

As Mr. Qruise left the office he could hear a long loud snorting sound behind him.

Outside the office, Mr. Qruise found himself immediately in the middle of a large urban sprawl. Towers of shimmering glass formed an immaculate skyline. Gardens sprouted out everywhere and crept up the towers and the shorter buildings. Men, women, aliens and robots and everything in between roamed the city grounds shuffling from building to building going about their business. Others were resting in the lush gardens, lying with their backs on the greens staring up at the sky. It was a clear cloudless day, the sun was high in the sky and a second and third sun, much smaller than the one at its zenith, were rising and setting on the horizon respectively. The effect was a kaleidoscope of colors. A belt of asteroids ran a ring right through the heavens. The belt cut the sky at an angle and so didn’t obstruct the view of the shifting suns. Large winged birds flew listlessly overhead. Their musical caws wafted lazily down to earth. It was undeniably a beautiful day wherever Mr. Qruise was.

Mr. Qruise having no clear way to go, walked aimlessly through the city. It was a clean and pristine city mostly, only marred by graffiti every once in a while. A strange message of “the owl flies at midnight” was spray painted in the alleyways between the immaculate buildings and hidden from the cameras which hung from every block. After one of the suns had set and the color of the sky had shifted from its previous array of colors to a more consistent mixture of red and blue, Mr. Qruise having made no discovery other than the striking beauty of the city he was in, ducked into the nearest shop. It was luckily enough a coffee shop, of all things. The clientele were all gathered behind a counter, waiting in line for their beverages while a few baristas worked diligently from behind. The shop’s name lit up in large bright colors above the counter was ‘Kafe Fabuleuze’.

He waited in the queue as the line wormed its way towards the front. Mr. Qruise was finally treated by a nice barista with a bright, flashing smile.

“What can I get you, sir?” she asked politely.

Mr. Qruise looked up at the menu written in chalk above the counter. Hundreds of types of beverages were listed in a cursive style of ‘versal which he couldn’t read. “Do you guys do regular coffee?”

“A traditionalist, I like it. Course we do, sir. Sugar with that? No. Alright. Would you like anything else?”

Mr. Qruise shook his head, smiling. The scent of the place smelled right. It was the honest to goodness smell of a proper roast. He was just beginning to think how he deserved a break and a place to put his feet up and how real and comfortable this virtual world was, when the young barista rung up his order.

“That’ll be ten credits, sir.” She said.

Mr. Qruise hesitated. "Oh. Yes, of course. You use money in here. Wow, it's been a while since… well." At that Mr. Qruise inspected the clothes he'd been incarnated in. He was dressed in a white sleeved vest of tightly bound silk, and loose fitting cotton trousers. There weren't any pockets. "Umm…. This is awkward. This is my first time in the game and -"

“Oh you’re new here? No problem, sir. Every new gamer gets a few days credit free, in order to get oriented.” The barista winked at him knowingly. “Don’t forget to get a job from the ministry otherwise, you know, they’ll re-cycle you. A place for everyone and everyone in their place as the Premier teaches.” She rung up the order.

“Oh, yes. Yes. Of course. Speaking of which. Do you know where I can find the ‘Rebellion’?”

The barista pulled back from the credit register and looked around anxiously before leaning in and whispering. “Oh no, sir. We’re an honest hard working establishment here. We don’t have any dealings with the,” she looked around the cafe once more, “Rebellion.” Then satisfied she stood up straight and said loudly, “You can pick your coffee up from the counter over there. Welcome to the city state of Woshu and have a good day.”

A moment later the coffee was ready and the same barista handed it to him in a paper cup. Mr. Qruise took his coffee and sat by the window. He placed his legs on the table in front of him and closed his eyes, leaning back on his chair, comfortable and relaxed. He opened one eye to peer outside the window at the view. The suns cast a purple hue over the city as night set in. Stars began to twinkle overhead, large diamonds adorned the sky. He sipped at his coffee slowly, ‘ah’ing after every gulp. The coffee tasted good and real.

Halfway through his cup, a small, oriental looking woman dressed in a colorful flowery dress shuffled up to his table and sat in front of him, placing a small glass of tea on the table. Mr. Qruise opened his eyes to look at the interrupting stranger but didn’t take his legs off the table.

“Hello, Mr. Qruise.” The small woman said.

Mr. Qruise stared at her silently before figuring it out for himself. “Mancy? Shens you look different in here. It took you a while to find me. A man could get used to this. No bombs in his brain, no suicide missions. Just a good old cup of regular coffee,” he raised his glass, “and a sunset, and no surprises.”

“I’m Zenbot, Mr. Qruise.” The small woman said.

Mr. Qruise fell off his chair, his coffee spilled over the ground. “Zenbot? But you’re, you’re….”

“A human.” Zenbot took a sip of tea, nodding to Mr. Qruise as he got off the ground. “I find it educating to simulate biological thought. Your bodies’ capacity for pain has meaning. That fall looked like it hurt. Are you alright?”

“Yes, human, and…. Well… a woman? And so tiny. I…thought. It just doesn’t seem like you.”

“Why would you assume I’d want to be a man? One body is as good as another, even better than the other I would say.” Zenbot extended her arms and admired herself. “Besides the martial arts do not depend on brute force and the energy generated within. Some practitioners believe so but I don’t. It’s about the manipulation of energy around you.” Zenbot raised a finger, her small eyes lighting up. “This I believe will be the first lesson I will teach you on our path. To start manipulating the energy around us, you must first observe the world around you. Have you observed anything out of place, Mr. Qruise?”

Mr. Qruise looked around the cafe and the people going about mundane lives in a virtual world filled with endless potential wonder. All of it struck him as out of place, but it didn’t seem to him that that was what Zenbot was talking about. He kept looking around the cafe and out of the window until Zenbot put him out of his misery.

“Your cup, Mr. Qruise. Your cup.”

Mr. Qruise inspected the cup and found a small note scribbled on the side in black marker.

The Owl Flies at Midnight

“The first lesson on observance of the flows of energy begins now.” Zenbot placed her tea on the table and stood up stretching, bending over and extending her arms behind her back.

Mr. Qruise’s mouth fell open as he stared at the scribbled note. “Fu….-” But Mr. Qruise never got to finish that thought. The windows imploded as a squad of heavily clad soldiers broke into the coffee shop. They were armed with fancy looking guns and decked out in black carbon armor. There was even a laser saber or two flashing around in green and red, making those telltale but useless ‘whoosh, whoosh’ sounds.

 

Mancy was dressed in a pink trench coat. Epaulets shone brightly on each shoulder as she walked through a corridor on the top floor of the Central Intelligence Building located in Woshu’s downtown area. A retinue of officers clad in black leather coats trailed behind her. A menacing boot step sounded in her wake. Mancy’s pink hair was cropped short. An officer’s cap lay tilted on one side of her head, a button of a clenched fist emblazoned on the cap’s front.

Mancy spoke to one of the officers in her retinue. “Officer Loveless.”

A smart female officer with long blond hair clicked her heels in attention. “Yes Ober-Kaptain?” Mancy didn’t stop walking and Loveless ran to catch up to her.

“What news of the search for VII?” Mancy asked.

“None as of yet, sir.” Loveless said, keeping pace with Mancy. “There is news of a small skirmish in the middle of the city. At the Kafe Fabuleuze, it’s a small coffee shop, downtown, not so far from here. The Rebellion attacked the establishment for some reason. We believe the other two you asked us to keep an eye out for may have been there.”

“How so?”

Loveless handed Mancy a folder. “Our intelligence report says that an awkward looking fellow entered the cafe. A newcomer to the Game just like you were looking for. The coffee shop’s billing information shows he was given a visitor pay exemption. Said fellow was then met by a small woman of oriental descent.”

“Yes.”

“The cafe was attacked by a group of twenty heavily armed personnel, belonging to the Rebellion, a few moments later. The woman of interest, five foot one, disabled them all in under a minute.”

“Disabled?”

“Yes, bones broken, concussions, bound, tied and gagged, but all repairable and done with the least amount of pain inflicted. None were killed.”

“Yes, that’s Zenbot then. And the other?”

Loveless stopped to make a note on the other folder in her hand, scribbling the word Zenbot on one file, before catching up with Mancy once again. “The other sat staring stupidly according to the reports, he kept snapping his fingers for some reason. Eyewitnesses are clear about that. They thought the interface bots may have damaged his cerebral cortex. Recommended for re-cycling.”

“No, no, that’s Mr. Qruise, that’s how he is. No re-cycling necessary. What’s the information on their whereabouts now?”

“Unknown, sir.”

“Unknown?” Mancy stopped to look Loveless in the eye. Loveless who’d been running to catch up bumped into Mancy. “Zenbot took out a whole squad of the Rebellion and was able to walk away un-surveilled?”

“Yes. The asian woman, Zenbot, dragged the Rebellion’s squad sergeant and the brain damaged Mr. Qruise,” Loveless made another note beneath a picture of Mr. Qruise, “out of the cafe before our forces arrived. We were unable to track them. We’re bringing down the camera footage as we speak. We’ll try to track their trail, sir, but it all happened too quickly for us to respond in time. It’s no fault of our men. I…I assure you.” Loveless shuddered under Mancy’s gaze. Even though Loveless’s frame was larger and more muscular, Mancy’s unflinching gaze and way of standing, which took up the whole room, intimidated the officer. Loveless’s full bodied lips and green eyes twitched beneath her commander’s eyes.

“No matter.” Mancy resumed walking down the corridor. “VII remains our highest priority, Loveless. The search for Mr. Qruise and Zenbot is secondary. Should any new information arise, contact me immediately. Understood?”

“Understood. Sir?”

“Yes, Loveless.”

“Why the search for VII? Surely Bonecrusher and Skyburner are more important targets, as the leaders of the Rebellion?”

Mancy stopped in her tracks once more. Loveless didn’t bump into her this time. Mancy sighed and inspected her fingernails, “Loveless, are you questioning my orders?” Mancy buffed one fingernail, the pink nail coloring had gotten scratched.

“No. Of course not, Ober-kaptain. The search for VII is top priority.” Loveless bowed in acquiescence. “Ober-kaptain, what should we do with the Rebellion prisoners from the cafe?”

“Interrogate them and then put a bullet in each of their heads. Let them go and administer MO4 for a while. Dismissed everyone.” She entered her office, closing the door behind her.

 

“You know Zenbot I still don’t understand your interpretation of pacifism.” Mr. Qruise said.

He and Zenbot, with the captured squad sergeant over her shoulders, were in a large abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Woshu. The warehouse was a large empty space with shuttered windows.

“What do you not understand Mr. Qruise?” Zenbot placed the hostage on the ground.

“For a pacifist you unleashed a hell of a lot of violence back there.” Mr. Qruise sat down and began massaging his feet.

“Yes.” Zenbot bent down and undid the bindings on the hostage’s hands.

“I thought pacifism was against violence in general. It’s not just not killing and all that. I mean you’re for peace. It’s in the name after all.”

“Yes. I act to reduce violence and pain wherever I can. I don’t kill. Back there violence was inevitable so I had no choice but to choose the lesser of two evils. I assure you, the least pain was implemented. Let’s ask our friend here.” With that Zenbot gave the prostate hostage a nudge with her small feet. “Sergeant Freedman, are you hurt?”

Freedman rubbed at his thick neck and then at the back of his head, below his buzzcut albino white hair. “Well otha’ than my pride, no ma’am. Just a few bruises here and there.” He massaged his bruised square set jaw. “My Shen, but I’ve neva’ seen such a fury. You’d make an excellent addition to the Rebellion, ma’am, if I may say so myself. You ever thought of joining?”

Zenbot stretched. “No, Sergeant Freedman. I have no need for your games. We’re here on a mission to find VII. She’s needed outside of Woshu. Do you know where we can find her?”

“No ma’am I’m sorry. But by the Shens it would be my honor to help a woman of your caliber anyway I can. I can take you to my headquarters maybe they’ll know there. We’re a furtive bunch in general and VII likes to operate from the shadows the most. I’m sho’ I can help somehow. I’d like to anyhow.”

“What are you talking about, Zenbot?” Mr. Qruise was staring at the two in front of him in disbelief as Zenbot undid the rest of Freedman’s bindings. “You can’t trust this man. You’ve just beat him and his entire crew to a pulp.”

“We’ll see Mr. Qruise. We’ll see.” Zenbot closed her eyes in thought. “It’s decided. I’ll go with the sergeant. But first Freedman, please sit down. My pupil,” she looked at Mr. Qruise, “will make a quick tea and then I’ll give him some exercises before leaving. We can’t waste all of our time in here after all.” She eyed the world around her suspiciously, “He has to learn something whenever I have the opportunity to teach. Tea please, Mr. Qruise.” She sat down cross legged in the middle of the warehouse.

Freedman emulated his new hero, crossing his legs as Zenbot did, though his thick ropy arms and legs couldn’t bend fully into the lotus position.

“What, me make tea? Are you mad? Now don’t go getting high ideas, ‘ZenBob’. Mancy isn’t here and I’m sure as hell not your pupil.” Mr. Qruise tapped a finger on Zenbot’s chest.

Zenbot grabbed Mr. Qruise’s wrist and jumped over him landing behind his back twisting his arm. Pain shot through Mr. Qruise’s body. He fell onto his knees in front of tiny, petite Zenbot.

“I abhor pain, Mr. Qruise.” She said. “I do. But unenlightened organic matter has pain as one of its masters. If I am to be your new master, I must replace it. My role in teaching you will be to free you from the shackles of pain and more importantly the fear of it which fills you up inside. Now I am your master and you’re my pupil. Do you understand? Repeat after me, please.”

Mr. Qruise nodded weakly, his face snow white, shaking in pain.

Zenbot twisted his arm a few inches forward. “Say it, please.”

Mr. Qruise screamed in pain. “You’re my master, and I’m… I’m your Shen damn pupil.”

Zenbot immediately released his wrist. “Good. There is a kitchenette at the back of the warehouse.” Zenbot pointed towards a small room at the back “There you’ll find tea, water and a pot. You’ll make a fire and heat the tea by the time I come back. Remember, this is an exercise in observation. Now Freedman, let’s go.”

Freedman stood up in awe and followed Zenbot out of the warehouse, his massive frame following at her tiny heels. An audible click signaled the locking of the only entrance into and exit out of the warehouse.

Mr. Qruise was left alone to lick his wounds and reflect on his exercise.

CHAPTER FIVE

Heating the Tea

 

An old black man sat in a tangled nest of wiring. Some of the wiring was plugged into various sockets located across the curve of the man’s spine. Several screens were arrayed before him on his little wheeled chair. His eyes flitted back and forth between the screens.

His fingers darted over these monitors, pushing and pulling information from each of them when it suited him.

The man stopped suddenly and leaned forward to stare at one of the screens.

He sighed and then stood up and prepared himself a cup of coffee from a drip machine hidden beneath the nest of wiring to his side.

He took a biscuit out of his pocket, broke a piece and placed it on his shoulder. A white mouse appeared from the wiring and climbed up his trousers, then the man’s back and finally landed on his shoulder to nibble on the biscuit piece.

“Algy, it seems that we’ve got people looking for us. What’s that? You wonder why? Why else? To get us into trouble and to get us to do things for them. What else do people wanna do with us? All we want is to be safe here and watch the world and speak with the world and to think, isn’t that right, Algy? You bet your bottom.”

“Here let’s take a look at this one.” A screen showed the inside of the warehouse where Mr. Qruise was staring at the tea pot. Willing it to heat up. “What’s he doing, you think?” VII touched the screen and an intelligence report replaced the view of Mr. Qruise. “Report says he ain’t right in the head. Scheduled for re-cycling. He’s got friends though.” VII touched the screen again and it changed immediately to a view of an underground base where men and women in khakis were rushing around importantly, armed to the teeth. Zenbot and Freedman were walking around asking questions. “I like this one,” he tapped on Zenbot, zooming in, “she’s the one who took out the whole squad of folks down at the old Fabuleuze.”

“And then there’s the new Ober-kaptain. She really scares me, just you see, Algy.” The screen shifted to Mancy’s office where she sat with her legs up on her desk. A large board lay across her chest. Scrawled on it in marker was: “VII WE NEED TO TALK”.

“Told’ya she’s scary. Now what are we supposed to do with that, Algy? Here, lets send her a message.”

VII tapped a screen a few times and the lights in Mancy’s office flashed on and off. Mancy looked around her office and then took out another board.

HAVE A JOB ON THE OUTSIDE

The lights flashed off and on again.

PAYS WELL

NEW QUANTUM INTERFACE SOTA

“Well that’s interesting ain’t it, Algy? A new state of the art quantum interface. Do you think it’s worth it? It never is you know. Those folks expect you to put it all on the line, they’d as soon as throw you away and help you. I know her type. Munch you up and spit you right out.”

Algy’s response was to continue nibbling on the biscuit piece on VII’s shoulder.

“Damn right, Algy, damn right. Let’s find out more though before we decide to bite the biscuit.”

 

Mr. Qruise sat in the warehouse staring at the teapot in front of him. He’d filled the pot with water from the sink in the kitchenette and had found a couple of teabags in the back of one drawer. The only missing element was fire.

Bored after the first ten minutes of being left alone in the vacant warehouse he’d looked for an exit, but he’d found the locked door to be the only way in or out. After another ten minute wait he’d given up on the idea of escape and decided to begin his exercise, mostly because he was thirsty. He’d rummaged through the kitchenette and found it empty of stove tops, bunsen burners or anything that may have been used to prepare a proper pot’a.

He scrunched his eyes in front of the teapot, in focus. He willed it to heat up, sticking his hand out towards the pot and tensing his muscles. He touched the pot but it was still as cold as ice.

He tried to incorporate Zenbot’s teachings and observe the world around him. All he saw was an empty warehouse, devoid of anything which could be used to make a fire.

Finally he sat down cross legged and attempted to meditate, closing his eyes.

“Ohmmmmmm….”

He breathed in.

“Ohmmmmm…..”

He breathed out.

“Ohmmmmm….”

He breathed in.

“Zenbot’s a giant bugger.”

He breathed out.

“Buggerrrrrrrrrrrrr.”

He breathed in.

Mr. Qruise’s mind began to unwind. He went over the events of the past few days. He’d been hiding out in Sweetspot for a few years. Happy to keep his head down and live with his strangeness. His biggest thoughts had been about maybe trying to swindle himself into a dig somewhere in the galaxy, uncovering artifacts and giving himself some entertainment. Collect a few stories along the way which he could sell on the fringes. The meeting with Mancy and her placing the bomb inside his brain passed before his eyes and then the conversations on the Big Pink. Finally he arrived at his ‘here and now’ and found his mind going empty and solely existing in the present. An ever present whiteness filled the dark void behind his eyes.

A thought struck him like lighting. He opened his eyes and tore off a piece of his sleeve and walked over to an electrical outlet and kicked at it till the wiring came spilling out. He stuffed the exposed outlet with the rags. He was happy with himself, smiling at his work.

Smoke began to form.

“Heh, heh. There’s your damned fire ZenBob.” Mr. Qruise stared down at his work and the growing wisps of smoke. “That’s enough now. Enough. Ow…crap.”

Mr. Qruise pulled his fingers back, as the rags caught entirely on fire, the tongues of which began to lick against the wall. He tried to pull the sleeve out again but electrical sparks lashed out at his hand.

Sleeveless, Mr. Qruise ran to the locked entrance door. He banged against it hollering for help as the warehouse slowly began to fill with smoke and fire. The fire crept up the walls and lapped at the roof.

“Open up. Open up you bastard.”

Mr. Qruise fell on his knees in front of the exit, banging at the door hollering for help. The fire reached him and snatched at his feet. He kicked at the fire like a drowning man trying to reach the surface. The heat of the fire burnt at his soles. He tried to persuade himself that death inside the virtual world was not really death, but the realness of the world wouldn’t allow the primitive instinctive part of his mind to quiet. He was dying and he was terrified. Smoke filled the warehouse, and through the dense fog he could see the occasional diabolical flame taunting him.

The roof of the warehouse caved in.

The door opened with a click and he fell, slobbering and weeping, out into the fresh air. He scrambled the rest of the way out of the door, lying flat on his belly.

An old black man with a white mouse on his shoulder was looking down at him. He leaned in on his walking cane.

“Hello there, Mr. Qruise.”

“Mancy?” Mr. Qruise’s eyes were pink and teary from the smoke. It took a while for his eyes to adjust to the day light.

“No, not yet. We’re going to go meet her now but I thought I’d come talk to you first. Have I interrupted anything?” VII looked past Mr. Qruise towards the smoke filled warehouse.

“No, no, not at all. Always welcome Mr….. Who are you then?”

“I’m known as VII in these parts.”

“Figures. We’ve been looking for you. At least this means we can get out of this blasted world. I can’t believe you’re in here for fun. I almost died, you know. It’s not a fecking game.”

“It is. It is. I usually stay hidden safe and sound. Just a tip for your next game. As for me coming with you all, well that depends….”

“On?”

“On what exactly your boss wants with me.” VII grinned down at Mr. Qruise and pulled him up from the ground “Let’s go grab a coffee. I hear the Kafe Fabuleuze is up and running again. Idle hands get shot as the Premier says. Come on man. Your tea’s burnt anyway.”

“How’d you know I was trying to make tea?” Mr. Qruise asked as they walked in the direction of the coffee shop. Looking behind him at the warehouse one last time, he saw the whole thing come down with a crack.

 

Max La2x stood in the bushes wearing a pink shooting jacket and cap. He held a rifle up in his hands.

“Pull.”

An electro-pigeon appeared, flying from the bushes. Mr. La2x, followed it with his rifle. His shot went wide.

“Good shot nonetheless, Mr. La2x, the wind’s against you, that’s all.”

“You think so, Ms. Smirtya? I fear I’m getting rusty. And fat at that.” He said pulling at his shirt showing the contours of his belly.

Ms. Smirtya was dressed in an old-world sari, heavy bangles hanging off her ears. Her dark brown skin contrasted heavily with her yellow cat like eyes. Straight jet black hair fell off her shoulders. Her ruby lips grinned knowingly.

“It was only the wind, Mr. La2x.”

“No, no. I agree. I’m still a good shot. That pigeon might not agree with you though, flapping happily in the wind. I’ve gotten soft, Ms. Smirtya. My joints ache, and I’m slow. Too slow.” His pink mustache drooped over his mouth as he frowned. “No matter. I’ve just got to get back in the game.” He forced a smile. “Any news on my daughter?”

“She’s currently on MO4. She’s made contact with the cryptographer. Nothing to worry about, sir. We’re on it.”

“You and Jack and the others are very capable. I know that. I’ve known that for decades. I rely on you lot quite a bit. I have immense trust in you. I hope you know that.”

“I know that, sir. We know that.”

“Good.” Mr. La2x steadied his rifle and aimed out over the bushes, “pull.”

Mr. La2x shot at the rising pigeon and missed again.

“Oh well. You can’t get them all.” He stood there for a while, staring at the pigeon fly away over the horizon. “Issue a bounty on my daughter and her ship please, Ms. Smirtya.”

Ms. Smirtya pulled a small thin tablet out of the folds of her Sari and started taking notes. “Very well, Mr. La2x. Open to….?”

“The general public.”

She tapped at the tablet’s screen. “And the bounty?”

“One favor from me. No limits. Cashable immediately.”

“No limits, sir? That’s quite a bounty. You want the entire galaxy chasing her?”

“Something like that. Alive. No harm should come to my daughter. No matter what, you understand of course.”

“Of course, sir.” She tapped on the screen. After she reviewed what she’d written she sent the bounty out. “It may get out of hand, sir.”

“It may. It may. It’s a risk she’ll have to take if she’s going to continue on her present course. Pull”

This time the pigeon barely peeped above the bushes before it was obliterated into smoke.

 

Loveless knocked on Ober-kaptain Mancy’s office door. She found Mancy sitting at her desk reading through a pile of reports. Mancy didn’t look up as Loveless stood at attention in front of her.

“Ober-kaptain, we have news of VII’s whereabouts.”

“Excellent.” Mancy lit a long filtered cigarette. “One of the things I I love about these games, you know, is you can smoke as much as you want and it’s just as bad for you as the air.”

Loveless squirmed uncomfortably. “You…You’re not supposed. You shouldn’t mention the Game, Ober-Kaptain, it’s the rules.”

Mancy took a long drag on her cigarette. “Yes. You’re quite right. Carry on Loveless.”

“The target was seen entering the Kafe Fabuleuze with the coward. After the last skirmish in in the cafe we left an informant in case any of the Rebellion came back, so the news is quite fresh.”

“The coward? Mr. Qruise you mean? Oh excellent, that is good news. Alright then, gather a squad. VII is to be unharmed. I understand he has a pet, according to this dossier.” She tapped at the electro-sleeve on the desk. A drawing of Algy showed up. “No harm comes to the mouse either. Understood? Everyone else is fair game. Oh I meant everyone is fair… it’s alright to say the word in that context, isn’t it?”

Loveless squirmed again. “Yes, that’s fine, sir. What about the coward, sir? Is he to be harmed?”

“My orders were clear Loveless, I believe.”

Loveless’s heels clicked in confirmation. Mancy returned to perusing her dossier. Loveless remained at attention. “Is there something else, Loveless?”

“Yes sir. It’s just that…Permission to speak openly, sir?”

Mancy gestured for her to continue. “Always.”

“I was marked for promotion before you arrived. The previous Ober-Kaptain was bumped up and I was, well I was promised your position.”

“Were you? That’s unlucky.”

“I’ve worked hard for the government and the Premier for years. I’ve put my time in. You arrived and in an hour got the job. I don’t wish to make trouble. It’s just that I’ve worked with my team for years. I care for them. I hope you take care of them, is all.”

“Loveless…”

“Yes, sir?”

“Obey or be shot, shoo along now.” Mancy didn’t look up from the dossier.

 

Zenbot and Freedman had been looking for VII in the Rebellion’s headquarters for a few hours with no luck. The headquarters were in an old public-transport station deep underground. Cabling and munitions were thrown around in a haphazard and disorganized way. No one seemed to know where the hidden cryptographer was. Few of those they asked were able to even agree on what VII looked like. Some said she was a woman seven feet tall, others said he was a short fat man, or a robot, or a tentacled alien. There was one point of agreement though, VII had a pet white mouse.

Freedman suggested they start asking for Skyburner, the head of the Rebellion, in the hope that she would be able to tell them where the cryptographer was.

“Oh Skyburner? Oh yeah. She’s right there mates.” The small, fat commando with bandoliers of bullets wrapped around his shoulders pointed towards to a large muscular woman standing over a large map of Woshu.

Lesser generals and officers surrounded Skyburner as pieces kept moving back and forth on the map. Strong ropy dreadlocks wound their way down to her waist. She wore cutoff sleeves and a military beret.

Zenbot walked up to the commander, and looked down at the map of Woshu. “Excuse me.”

Skyburner cocked a thumb behind her, not looking away from the map. “Enlistment office is over there, recruit.”

“No, you misunderstand. I don’t wish to sign up.”

“Then bugger off you coward.”

“I can’t do that ma’am. I was hoping you could help. We’re looking for VII.”

At that Skyburner did turn around, her face chiseled from stone, grim and grinless. “So you’re the ones looking for VII. Heard about that. What’s you business with our cryptographer? He’s busy, keeping the spies moving. This map is one of his. He can’t be wasting time on the likes of you. We’re fighting a war here.”

“He’s needed in the real world.”

At this the officers surrounding the map gasped in surprise.

Skyburner bit her lips in worry.

“The real world? This is the real world you fool. Now shut up and bugger off.”

“I mean topside. Out of MO4.”

“Shut up will you. Shhh….Look come with me.” Skyburner took Zenbot off to the side of the large map, away from the others who were staring daggers at Zenbot. “Ok. Now whisper. What are you new to this whole thing? While you’re inside you don’t talk about the outside. You got to come up with something otherwise you’ll take the whole fun out of it. Now what you did right there was a capital offence in most…. In most… simulations. Now, can you come up with a reason for finding VII in context? Ok lets go back. You ruin this for us and we’ll have to shoot you. Send you topside.”

Zenbot nodded and walked back with Skyburner to the rest of the group.

“So, you up for getting recruited Ms.? Hey, what’s your name anyway?”

“Zenbot, ma’am.”

“Zenbot…huh? Heck, wait…. You’re not the Zenbot are you?”

“I believe I’m the only one. I hope one day to become no one but for now, I’m the Zenbot.”

“Oh shit girl. You’re famous topside, real famous. Wow.”

“I thought you said not to mention the outside world?”

“Yeah, yeah. Sorry guys.” Skyburner apologized to the others generals. “Sorry.” Skyburner took a deep breathe and continued. “Ok and resume. So Zenbot. You’re looking for VII? Why?”

“I need her.”

“Good enough context for me. Right guys?” Skyburner looked at her officers who were all nodding, in awe of the legend. “Today’s your lucky day. Usually we have no flipping idea where VII holes himself away. Usually in some rat’s nest in some tower somewhere. He helps out here and there, but mostly it’s the myth of the man that’s more powerful. Some shadow power that intercedes on our behalf, like an all knowing Shen. But we’ve just received report of the government scum scrambling for some big op downtown. Now, they’re saying it’s VII but we haven’t been able to corroborate the intelligence yet. We’re about to send a bunch of boys to intervene out of principle though. You’re more than welcome to tag along. Heck, we could use the Zenbot with us. Even if it’s for a little while.”

“Thank you ma’am.” Zenbot bowed towards the general in thanks. “I’ll join the fight after I do something first. I have to go get my pupil, I believe there is another exercise in what’s to come. Where will the battle be?”

Kafe Fabuleuze, you heard of it?”

“I have. I will borrow Sergeant Freedman if that is ok with you. He has expressed interest in being my second pupil.”

“Heck, girl,” Skyburner said, looking at the besotted sergeant, “by the way he’s looking at you he’s not mine anymore to lend.”

CHAPTER SIX

Admin Duty

 

“You see that man right behind you, in the black trench coat?” VII asked Mr. Qruise. The two sat in the recently repaired Kafe Fabuleuze. Algy lay on the table between them nibbling on crumbs.

Mr. Qruise looked behind him. “I do.”

“He’s a government informant.”

“He’s a bit on the nose. He’s…he’s staring at us.” The man in the black trench coat was reading a newspaper with a cup of coffee in his hands but was staring straight at the two of them.

“Yes. The government knows we’re here. Your friend Mancy is very resourceful. She’s coming for a little chat, I believe. But thanks to our conversation I’m a little bit better prepared for her.”

“Should I look away? He’s still watching us.” The informant was still staring straight at them.

“Yeah, why not. Look away.”

Mr. Qruise turned back to VII. “Resourceful, that’s one word for Mancy. She’ll be so annoyed I found you first, it’s going to be an enjoyable conversation. I can’t wait to see her face.” Mr. Qruise rubbed his hands in anticipation.

“I wouldn’t be so sure.”

“Why not?” Mr. Qruise stopped rubbing his hands, his face’s muscle memory pulled his smile downwards into the more usual frown.

“The government isn’t known for a soft handed approach to governance. She’s on her way with a squad.”

“What the hell for? We’ve found you. All she’s got to do is come and convince you to join and we’re out of here.”

“Partly to make sure she holds me down for enough time to convince me to join you, partly because she strikes me as the person who has a flair for the dramatic.”

“Shouldn’t we escape?”

“No need. I want to talk to her Mr. Qruise. And secondly, if you would look at the barista, you’ll see she’s the same one who scribbled on your cup from earlier.”

“Yes, so?”

“Damn man. You have a memory of a fish or what? She’s the Rebellion informer who brought them on your head the first time. You really should be more observant. We’re about to be in the middle of battle.”

“I see. Aren’t you worried?”

“No, I’ve decided to join you guys already. I just want to see a bit of action before I go. It’s going be quite the firefight.”

Mr. Qruise sat silent for a while.

“I’ve already been in one firefight here, it wasn’t a pleasant experience. How can you enjoy it?”

“You’ll see.”

The cafe’s doors were smashed open for the second time that week. Mancy strode in magnificently with menacing intelligence officers in tow. A few shouts from her and the soldiers barricaded the cafe, posting sentries behind the counters. The clientele and employees fled the cafe. Mancy walked over to VII and sat down in an empty seat at the table.

VII, I presume.” She crossed her legs and shouted for Loveless.

Loveless stood at attention. “Yes, sir. I believe congratulations for the troops are in order.”

Mancy ignored her. “A coffee for me please. Any of you want anything?” She asked the two at the table.

Mr. Qruise shook his head, unsure of what to make of the tall and statuesque Loveless.

VII raised a hand. “Yeah. I’ll have a coffee. A biscuit for Algy would be nice.”

“Of course.” Mancy nodded to Loveless, who stood at attention refusing to move. “Were my orders unclear, Loveless?” Mancy asked.

Loveless’s jaw twitched. Her response came out from between clenched teeth. “Crystal, sir.”

“Why don’t you move then?”

“I’ve been speaking with the other officers and we’ve agreed to remove you from-” Mancy took out a pistol from her trench coat pocket and shot Loveless in the head. She then placed the pistol on the table, smoke seeping out from the nozzle. The government soldiers barricading the entrance looked back at Loveless’s lifeless body and then quickly looked in front of them again.

Mancy didn’t bat an eyelid. “Mr. Qruise, what a pleasant surprise.” She said smiling. “All we need now is Zenbot for a little re-union. I hope you’ve been enjoying the Game.”

“My Shens you’re a lunatic. You shot one of your’s.”

“Yes, remember that, Mr. Qruise, in the future,” Mancy winked, “if you fail to pull your weight on this thing.”

Mr. Qruise raised his hands in innocence. “Hey, I found VII.”

“Yes, yes you did. I’m glad to see you changing your attitude and really getting into the thing. You’ve been such a miserable mope on the Big Pink”

“The Big Pink?” VII asked.

“Yes, Mancy has an obsession with pink. That’s her ship’s name.” Mr. Qruise said.

VII stared at Mancy’s pink trench coat and nodded. “I see. The camera in your office was in mono-colour. Well, Mancy, should we get to it? You have a quantum interface I hear. I’ll need two.”

“A quantum interface, what’s that?” asked Mr. Qruise.

“It’s an improved interface port for the game.” Mancy said. “It allows a faster flow of information between the brain and game. It’s commonly used to cheat in-game because you can send commands to the game before the internal logic can determine what the result should be. Why do you need two, VII?”

“One’s for me and one’s for Algy?” VII stroked the little mouse behind its ears.

Mr. Qruise stared at the mouse. “The mouse is real? I thought it was just another virtual thing, like the birds in the sky.”

“Nope, Algy’s bona-fide real. Me and Algy are inseparable. If I’m going to get myself a nice new interface, Algy’ll need one as well.”

“Agreed. VII, should we get going?” Mancy picked up the gun and pointed it straight at Mr. Qruise’s forehead.

“What the hell are you doing?” Mr. Qruise pushed himself from the table and ducked for cover.

“Mr. Qruise, how do you think you leave the Game?” Mancy asked aiming under the table.

“What happened to clicking your heels?” He shouted from beneath the table.

VII stuck her hand out and put Mancy’s arm down. “We shouldn’t leave yet. Your friend should be joining us any moment. Besides I have a few painless pills which should do the job nicely. Less messy. I always keep them around for days like these. I’ve brought four for us. Let’s just breathe in the pure air before we go back out into the dirty ‘verse above.”

True to VII’s word, the government soldiers began firing out of the windows in erratic spurts. Fire was returned from outside. A flash grenade was set off and the world turned into a haze of light and smoke. Mancy and VII continued their conversation undisturbed.

“Aren’t you curious what I need you for?” asked Mancy.

“I’ve had some time to get acquainted with your plan with Mr. Qruise. He’s a talker and it wasn’t a long shot to know you need a cryptographer to get past Qamar base security.”

Mancy twitched her face, annoyed. “At least we have one professional on the team.”

In the midst of the ensuing firefight Zenbot weaved her way in between the bullets and the grenades popping off around her like fireworks. She dragged Freedman in by his collar.

“Hello, Mr. Qruise, Mancy. Is that the famous mouse?” Zenbot asked arriving at the table.

“Algy, her name’s Algy. Who’s this? The famous Zenbot?” asked VII.

“You must be VII. This,” Zenbot pushed sergeant Freedman forward, “is sergeant Freedman, my second pupil, he’ll be coming with us on the mission.”

“Impossible. We don’t have the space,” Mancy said, pausing and weighing Freedman with her eyes, “or the need.”

“We do. He’s coming. It’s decided. A master and his pupil are not parted until the lesson is learnt. It’s the way. If you want me along, Mancy, he’s coming.” Grenades went off at the front of the cafe. Shrapnel flew through the air.

“I have your family Zenbot don’t forget that.”

“Yes. That is incentive enough for me to come along. You need me and I’m here. But you can’t do this without me and so I have some power to say that Freedman is coming.”

“Oh, dear.” said VII.

The Rebellion forces broke into the cafe and the government soldiers began to fall. One of the soldiers shuffled over to the table and collapsed bloodily on the table.

“I don’t want to die,” the soldier gasped, “please I don’t want to die. It’s getting cold. You must escape Ober-kaptain. It was a trap.”

Mancy held the bleeding officer in her arms.

“Shh…. It’ll all be over soon. You’re going to a better place”

“I don’t want to die. I can’t stand….cough….I can’t stand admin duty.” The officer gave one last gasp.

Zenbot turned back to VII. “Oh dear?”

“I only got four painless pills.” VII said, blushing. “One of you’s gonna to have to go the hard way.”

“Is that all?” Mancy turned the pistol on Freedman and pulled the trigger before anyone could object.

 

Mr. Qruise woke up startled on the floor next to the bureaucrat’s rusty work desk. His body was covered in litter. A little practical joke by John the bureaucrat, who’d placed post-it notes all over Mr. Qruise for the few minutes he’d been asleep.

“Shens, that hurts. It’s worse coming out than going in.”

“You betcha buddy. Did’ya get da weird white flash of pain?” John looked down from his rusty work desk. He still hadn’t finished his cigar and puffed the evil smoke in Mr. Qruise’s face.

Mr. Qruise coughed. “No, that happened going in. This was regular old black pain. I’ve never felt so terrified in my life.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “So what happens to the nanobot interface?”

“You just pass dem out boy. In da normal way. Well look’ee der your friend seems about to wake up, it always takes a different amoun’a time depen’ing on da person.”

Mancy who’d been more politely tucked away in the corner and covered in a blanket, woke up groggy, and moaning. She sat up suddenly with a look of pain on her face.

John cocked a thumb towards the back of his office. “Da washroom’s dat’a‘way little lady.”

A few minutes later Mancy returned looking visibly more comfortable. With her was Zenbot no longer a petite woman but looking like its former self, and Freedman who looked like he did in the Game. His shoulders, while still broad, were less muscular than his gigantic figure in the Game. His bleached white hair was still cropped short but not as short as his previous soldier’s buzz cut.

A chipper older lady, a bit round about the waist, followed them in.

“Hello there. Where’s VII? Mr. Qruise asked.

The older lady was the one to speak “That’d be me, Mr. Qruise.”

Mr. Qruise looked at the older lady. Her grey hair, and very obviously round female body were as different as could be from the old but strong black man’s figure she used in the Game. “But…but… wow. Why did you choose to look so different? I mean in the Game.”

VII looked down at her body, frowning. “You don’t have much choice up here. Well you do, but… you know what I mean. It’s not as easy as a push of a button. And when you get to be as old as I am, you look for a bit of variety. Inside I’ve been everything you can imagine.” VII gave him a devilish smile which contrasted sharply with her cherubic chubby face.

Mr. Qruise was still picking post it notes off himself. “Honestly, I can’t wait to get off this rock.”

“Don’t rush ahead of yourself.” Mancy said. “If you play the Game you have to pay the toll. We’re on admin duty until this Game’s over. You never want to be banned from a place like this. Eternity can be so boring without entertainment.”

“Doesn’t the Game end when everyone dies? That could take years.”

“Inside yes. But out here it should all be over in a half day or so. Let’s get to it. John what’s to be done?”

John, still smoking his synthetic cigar with its crude smoke, grinned showing his yellow teeth. “Ma’am, der’s da sewage system dat needs draining. An evil job. Needs at least three to go down and make sure any blockage’s are um… unclogged.”

“Surely you have robots for that.” Mr. Qruise was still removing post-it notes. “How did you get so many on me?” he grumbled.

John ignored the remark. “Sure’nuff we do but dey’re down for maintenance. Robots need breaks as well y’know. We ain’t no slave planet. I need at least three to go down and do da deed. Ain’t no choice but to choose who among you’s gonna do it.”

Zenbot volunteered calmly raising its hand. Freedman chimed his willingness to fix the sewage system. “If Zenbot’s in, I’m in. Besides won’t be the first time for me.”

Mr. Qruise finally removed the last post-it note and looked up to find everyone looking at him. “Hell, no.”

“Mr. Qruise, as my pupil I believe you should accompany us. There is always a lesson to be found, in the clean and the dirty.”

“Yeah, yeah. I remember your lessons. Didn’t work so well for me with the damned tea.”

“I went back to the warehouse, in Woshu, looking for you. The tea was burnt but you achieved what I asked of you. Though to be honest you may have made a bit too much fire. Too much ying Mr. Qruise. I believe this next lesson will be to focus on the yang.”

“You want me to learn how to ‘pop’ by having me unclog human muck?”

John the bureaucrat rose up, his face red with anger. “I’ll have y’know you mucker dat on M04 we have humans, robots and aliens playing. It’s all of der muck you’ll be cleaning up. I won’t tolerate discrimination on my watch or laziness. You’s been selected and you’s should consider it an honor”

“I couldn’t have said it better myself John.” Mancy said. “Now, Mr. Qruise, don’t make a fuss. You’re going to end up doing it anyway. Maybe that’s the first of Zenbot’s lessons here. Who knows you may find clarity in the muck.” She turned to John. “And now what would you have us do?”

John calmed down and sat back at his desk. “Well dere ain’t much to do other den da muck. You’re welcome to sit here and greet visitors with soft smiles like I do’s. Maybe share some tea, a cigar and keep me company.” He wriggled his eyebrows at the two ladies.

“You greet people with smiles? You threw garbage on me you bastard.” Mr. Qruise was red with rage.

“But I greeted you’s with a smile, di’n‘t I? Now off wid’ya. No shirking your duties. Go on, get.”

“Come now, Mr. Qruise. In observing the ‘verse you must accept when you are defeated.” Zenbot pulled Mr. Qruise with him as it left.

 

The three were directed to a small shuttle which sped through the concrete towers littered across MO4. They passed millions of small chambers containing the unused bodies of the minds inhabiting the Game. Eventually they escaped the towering blocks and arrived at the central sewage treatment facility, a giant sphere fitted with various pipes directing the flow of sewage in and treated water out.

As the shuttle neared, the sphere loomed larger and more menacing than could be imagined when seen from afar. Beyond it were the solar and mushroom farms needed to run the Game and the people.

Alighting from the shuttle Zenbot made its way confidently to an access tower at the side of the giant rusting sphere. “It’s through here.”

“How can you be sure, Master?” Freedman asked. Mr. Qruise rolled his eyes.

“I’ve been to these planets before. I know the schematics of this particular sewage facility model. Any blockage will likely be in the central passage. It’s the most logical cause of a blockage in an automated facility.”

“What do you mean?” Freedman asked.

“A mechanical issue can be the only cause of blockage. There are exactly one hundred and thirty purely mechanical parts in this facility. Of the one hundred thirty only ten can cause a major blockage. In my experience, and please pay attention, Mr. Qruise, the part you least want to fix receives the least maintenance and therefore is the more likely one to be the cause of a disruption. Mr. Qruise I see you are unhappy with my assessment but what I suggest will save us time and suffering.”

“No, no, I’m just basking in your wisdom. You seem to be quite experienced in muck, ‘master’.”

“Thank you. We’ll be going into the main tunnel. The sealing systems there which govern the suction and exertion of the sewage usually clog up with…hard matter. We’ll have to score the hinges free.”

“And what will be my lesson in this? I remember me being here as part of your ‘teachings’.”

“You’ll find out. I believe it may be better to surprise you.”

“How so? I don’t like surprises.”

“Because you wouldn’t accept my lesson otherwise and I’d have to inflict more pain on you. Needlessly. You know I don’t like doing that. Let’s go now. We’re wasting time speaking when we could be working.”

Mr. Qruise had no reply.

Entering the access door, they found a maintenance closet and Zenbot pilfered the needed supplies. He handed his two pupils breathing masks and wet suits.

“Wear these. You will need them in the passage.”

“Excellent. Just flipping excellent. What the hell’s wrong with you, Freedman? They have a bomb in my brain, you volunteered for this crap.”

Freedman put on his wetsuit, thinking deeply while he squeezed into it. “I’ve never met a person like Zenbot. All my time I’ve floated from virtual life to virtual life. It’s meaningless. When I saw the master in the cafe, the surety of motion, the purposefulness of her… I mean its actions. I want that. I will do anything for that. How can you not see clarity in your master. You must be a Shen damn blind fool.”

“Hey, where’d your accent go? You spoke differently in Woshu.”

“Ah it’s all part of the Game. This is my accent up here.” Freedman shrugged his shoulders and placed his breathing mask on.

Zenbot took off its robes. Its naked chrome body reflected what little light there was in the access closet. “Everyone’s lessons are different, Freedman. I hope to open Mr. Qruise’s eyes soon. Mr. Qruise put on the suit, please.”

Mr. Qruise looked at the naked Zenbot and then back at the wet suit clad Freedman. He grumbled and then put his suit on as well.

They walked deep into the facility. Zenbot followed the winding twists and turns of the access shafts into the core of the beast. Finally the inorganic stopped at one particular hatch laying at their feet in the middle of the corridor. Opening it they found a stagnant river of muck beneath them. The dark liquid bubbled.

Luckily for Freedman and Mr. Qruise their breathing masks filtered out the smell.

“Mr. Qruise, is your breathing apparatus secure?” Zenbot asked.

“I’m not going in there.”

Zenbot picked him up and threw him through the hatch. Freedman jumped in behind him, followed by his master.

Mr. Qruise found himself in total and utter sticky blackness. His mind gibbered in fear. Flailing about wildly he only calmed down when the strong reassuring hands of his master wrapped themselves around him.

“Mr. Qruise. You’ll be unable to speak from behind the breathing mask. Now, you can scream, weep or cry all you want but we can’t hear you. So when you calm down please forgive me for the surprise and try to focus on overcoming your senses. They are not your friends. Your senses are your enemies as I am about to demonstrate.”

Before Mr. Qruise could take in what was being said to him, Zenbot clicked a switch on the back of the breathing mask and the scent filter was turned off.

CHAPTER SEVEN

The Big Pink

 

“My Shen, you three are stinking up the ship. Go and take another shower will you.” Mancy said to the three muck rakers. Her and VII had boarded the ship when the Game ended. The rest of the players had all exited at the same time. The ending had been an apocalyptically boring affair. The Rebellion had failed and everyone inside lived long boring lives under the heel of the Premier. Skyburner and Bonecrusher had grown old and waxed reminiscent about the good old times, while rotting in a cell. The last one alive was the Premier, having left orders on his death bed to nuke Woshu to ground.

The six hours it had taken the Zenbot and its pupils to unclog the sewage facility synchronized with the end of the Game. Millions of inhabitants escaped the system simultaneously and exercised their unused bladders in orchestra.

The muck rakers had returned to find their comrades aboard the Big Pink sipping tea in their pajamas, with Algy running on a wheel placed on the long table in the lounge. All three, too exhausted to comment on the injustice of the labour distribution system retired to their cabins to wash away the past.

Mr. Qruise and Freedman, sharing a cabin, alternated showering and sleeping. When one returned to bed, the other would wake from the smell, take a swill of whatever bottle was at hand, and run to the shower.

A few hours later everyone met up in the lounge to discuss the next steps in the heist. Mr. Qruise sat down at the long table silent, a glazed broken look in his eyes.

“Now, now, Mr. Qruise. Don’t be over dramatic. Time heals all wounds. You’ll get over it.” Mancy was looking at Mr. Qruise worried.

Mr. Qruise remained silent.

“Leave my pupil alone please, Ms. La2x. He is digesting my lesson. I admit it may have been a little harsh but I had to show him how to shut down his mind. He’ll need to know how before we can take the next steps.”

“And you Mr. Freedman how did you find your lesson?” Mancy asked. “You don’t seem to be as broken as Mr. Qruise. What exactly happened out there?”

“Well…” Said Freedman, also dazed. “Master’s a harsh…. Yup, that’s the word. A harsh teacher. I can only imagine what that poor dumb fella’s going through. It’d be better for him,” he said looking at the dumb Mr. Qruise, “if we don’t push him too much. Just forget about what happened. As for me, I’m not really sure, not really sure what I was supposed to learn. But all I know is that I’d follow Zenbot to hell and back, and well, we were damn nearly there. My Shens, Qruise was still in the river when the Game ended. Shens.” Freedman hung his head.

“Well, thank you for that Mr. Freedman. Zenbot do you think you may have pushed your pupil a bit too far? I mean we do need him in one piece for the heist.”

Drool dribbled down Mr. Qruise’s chin. Zenbot wiped it off for him with the sleeve of its robes. “Perhaps. What is the next step, Ms. La2x?”

“Right. Back to business, that’s why I respect you so much Zenbot. So we now have VII.”

“Yo.” VII raised her flabby arms in attendance.

“She’s going to open the fortresses doors. We’ve got you of course, Zenbot, to take care of all the guards in said fortress. We’ve got Mr. Qruise to pop into the vault. Theoretically of course. He looks like he couldn’t eat his lunch if he wanted to.”

Zenbot cleaned more dribble from Mr. Qruise’s chin.

“Alright, now all we need is a pilot crazy enough to drop us in close enough to the planet. Say, Freedman, are you any good as a pilot?”

“Pretty good. Only ever crashed a half a dozen times.” Freedman smiled at Mancy, happy to be of use.

“Out of?”

“A dozen.” He kept smiling at Mancy.

“So no. Well, all that means is that we have to make our way to the Seven Sisters.”

“Hgruh…Seven.” Mr. Qruise grumbled.

“What’s in the Seven Sisters?” VII asked.

“Ms. La2x intends to take us to the Seven Sister’s run.” Zenbot said, sitting by Mr. Qruise.

“Indeed, Zenbot.” Mancy chimed in. “There is a certain race there, where you have to surf gravitational waves. The intense electromagnetic radiation of the race doesn’t allow a ship’s circuitry to run. So you have to jump between the safe zones and glide on through.”

“Hghh….suicide.” Mr. Qruise was coming to slowly.

“My pupil has a point.” Zenbot said. “Only one in a thousand survive. And those who do, compete on their times.”

“Why don’t they just do it inside a game?” VII shook her head in disapproval.

“They do.” Mancy said. “They do it over and over again. But it’s sad to say, no matter how much processing power we pour into planets like MO4 they can never seem to replicate the real thing.”

“Who cares about the real thing?” VII snapped. “What’s real anyhow? You think this is the final topside. You gotta be crazy. We’ve just forgotten that’s all. There are some games like that, and why would I want to leave the safety of MO4 and go and do it in ‘real’ life? Why do people have to be so crazy? Ain’t that right, Algy?” VII leaned in to scratch the white mouse behind its ears.

“I think I can answer that.” Zenbot’s eye slits flared up deep blue. “It’s the finality of failure which gives the race its true purpose. It’s easy to risk your ‘life’ in MO4. But no one can call you a hero. No one whispers your name. Skyburner, Bonecrusher, muck-raker it’s all the same thing up here.”

“Muck.” Qruise groaned.

“All these names mean nothing outside of MO4’s small circle. But everyone knows Wu Shadowsail.” Zenbot continued.

“One might say the same about the Zenbot.” Mancy raised an eyebrow.

“One might. One might.” Zenbot’s eye slits returned to their normal orange glow. “We know name’s like Wu because they’ve risked it all. That is why they do it, VII. They’re simply fulfilling their purpose.”

“To die?” VII didn’t look convinced.

“For some, yes.”

“Fucghing….idiots” Mr. Qruise added.

“If you’ll excuse me,” Zenbot said, standing up, “I will take my pupil and attempt to reform his shattered mind. Into something stronger hopefully. How long till the Seven Sisters, Ms. La2x?”

“About a week, Zenbot. You have all the time in the world to bring Mr. Qruise about.”

“I will need the week, I think.” It looked to Mr. Qruise who was picking his nose, dumbly. “We’ll be in the holo-deck.” Zenbot dragged Mr. Qruise to the exit.

Freedman stood up to join them.

“No. You should remain here Freedman. You must find your place in this journey, somehow. Mancy’s not going to let you tag along for long unless you convince her. Can you do that for me?”

“Yes, master.” Freedman bowed apologetically and sat back down next to Mancy and VII. Algy was running happily in its wheel.

Zenbot pulled Mr. Qruise, who’d been holding tightly onto the door frame, out of the lounge.

“A fair question I believe, Freedman? don’t you think?” Mancy asked. “What exactly will your role be on this little journey of ours?”

“Well… Well…I was thinking I could be one’a Zenbot’s students.”

“I’m sorry, but that role is already being filled by our resident coward.” Mancy bared her canines.

“Then maybe I could be the…the…cook?”

“The cook?”

“Yes. My administrative duties on MO4 included dining administration. I can cook a mushroom anyway you like it. I can fry it, I can grill it, bake it, boil it. I can… fry – no I said that already. I was also a chef in a couple of my lives on the inside. A pretty good one at that. I had the best bistro-resto in all of the City of Shining Light, well before it was annihilated by the darkness. But ask anyone, Dejouro’s was one’a the best in the city. Ain’t that right, VII? You were there, weren’t you?”

“You ran Dejouro’s? Never went…” VII said turning towards Mancy. “It was all a bit high class for my tastes. But everyone swore by it, it’s true, boss.”

“So, you’re a virtual cook? I don’t think that’ll work out, besides we already have a replicator.” Mancy pressed a button on the replicator at the table, replicating herself a slice of cake.

“Ah, well I know my way around a replicator.” Freedman said cockily. “Don’t you worry. But they’re never the same as the real thing.”

Mancy coughed.

“I mean, the imagination of proper cook.”

“Whatever you say, Freedman. Just try to find some use for yourself on this mission or we’ll have to drop you off on the way, no matter what Zenbot says, and whatever you do don’t get in my way.”

 

Zenbot, a traditionalist, had programmed the holo-deck to simulate a virtual dojo. Paper walls surrounded a large open space with a large square mat at its center. Outside the windows, small immaculately pruned shrubs and cherry trees surrounded idyllic fountains. Snow capped mountains could be seen on the horizon.

“Now, Mr. Qruise. We have a few weeks before you have to ‘pop’ inside the vault.” Zenbot paused whenever it said the word ‘pop’, choking on the word. “I’d like to take the opportunity to sit down and understand your abilities. We haven’t really had much time to talk and get to know one another. Please prepare some tea.”

Zenbot sat cross legged in the middle of the dojo. Mr. Qruise looked around for a tea set.

“Ummmm?”

“You must learn to look, Mr. Qruise. There is a small furnace over there, with provisions.” It pointed at a corner of the dojo. When Mr. Qruise looked again he found a small clay tea set and a bunsen burner.

“I swear it wasn’t there before. You’re playing games with me. You’ve programmed this thing to mess with me.”

Zenbot stayed silent.

Mr. Qruise made the tea and filled two small clay cups placing them between them as he sat in front of Zenbot.

“So can you even drink tea? You know, being, a….?”

“An inorganic.” Zenbot picked up a cup and sipped from it slowly.

“Yes.”

“Obviously I don’t need tea. And I don’t metabolize organic matter but I do have sensory apparati. It’s enjoyable for me to ‘taste’ the tea. Besides, it’s more about the ritual. This is all unreal anyway.” Zenbot waved its hands pointing out the dojo.

“Fair enough. So what do you want to know?”

“Tell me what happens when you disappear from the ‘verse.”

“Well…I’m not entirely sure.” Mr. Qruise scratched his head, squinting his eyes in thought. “No one’s cared to ask me that before and I haven’t cared to ask myself now that I think about it. I try not to use it so much because, well… it’s not pleasant. But when I have to, I snap my fingers and focus on getting the hell out of the place I’m in. And then it all goes….wonky.”

“Elaborate, please. I can’t understand ‘wonky’.”

“I feel myself going and everything around me just fades away to, I can’t explain it really… to nothingness.” He said exasperated trying to find the words.

“And then?”

“And then everything reappears but different. I assume it’s because I’ve rematerialized in another place, usually running. Sometimes some things are mixed around, my shoes are on the wrong feet, or I’m barefoot, my underpants appear on top of my trousers, that sort of thing.”

“Excellent, Mr. Qruise, Excellent.”

“Excellent? It’s downright horrifying. You can’t imagine what it feels like to disappear.”

“But I do Mr. Qruise. I do. And what’s more you’ve given me hope that this thing can be done.”

“I have?”

“Yes. Two things are apparent from your process.” Zenbot raised two slender fingers for emphasis. “The first,” it grabbed its first finger with the other hand, “is that you do have some control over your gift, otherwise you’d simply re-materialize in space, or in a wall or underground. Your mind must somehow be able to navigate where it will re-appear.”

“I never thought of that before.”

“The second thing,” it said grabbing the second finger, “is that your process is as similar to mine as I had hoped. When you disappear from the ‘verse it is not unlike meditation. The difference being that when I meditate, my mind extinguishes, disappears, ‘pops’,” Zenbot paused at the word, “as you would say, but my body remains. You have the uncanny ability to become no-mind AND no-body. It is a gift I’m enviable of.”

“You don’t understand…”

“I think I do. I think it is you, who still doesn’t. Your fear is in charge. Your subconscious navigates when you ‘pop’. You’re still in control of the process but you’re not in control of yourself. We will attack the problem head on. You must learn to accept the state of no-mind. We will meditate together. Have you finished your tea?”

“Ye…yes.”

“Excellent. Now, close your eyes and empty your mind of all thought. It’s difficult. Will you try?”

Mr. Qruise nodded and closed his eyes and followed Zenbot’s instructions, emptying his mind of all thought.

“Breathe in. Breathe out. Focus only on your breathing. Nothing else exists. Focus only on your breath. In and then out. If a thought enters your mind, destroy it.”

Ten minutes later Mr. Qruise lay flat on the floor, deep in sleep and snoring.

CHAPTER EIGHT

The Seven Sisters Race

 

The Seven Sisters are named after seven stars revolving around each other in a cosmic ballet. Fat ballerina’s twirling and jumping about, narrowly missing each other. For the past few billion years the Seven Sisters have pushed and pulled each other without any of them getting the better of the other. Their gravitational orbits erratic and random, there is no way to know when they’ll finally collide and the whole system will go ka-blooey.

Due to the highly fluctuating electromagnetic fields between the stars, solar lights flare at random within a parsec of the system.

The Big Pink cruised up to the Seven Sisters and the nearby space port, the ‘End of the Line’, right at the edge of the electro-magnetic field.

Freedman looked out of the bay window in the lounge. “Is that the Seven Sister’s?” He asked.

“Looks like it Freedman.” VII said joining him by the window. “Looks like it. I think though,” She said pointing to seven distant pinpricks of light, “the Seven Sisters are the stars over there. What you’re gawking at’s the port.”

“Oh yeah, yeah. Our pilot’s in there?”

“So says the great and powerful Mancy La2x. I don’t like the look of it myself. I’m gonna stay back, have the ship ready to go in case we need a fast exit.” VII plopped on the couch by the window, “besides I wouldn’t be of no use in there anyway.”

“Why’s it I feel that we’re all a company of cowards.” Freedman rubbed his thick jaw.

“The better part of valor is discretion, Freedman.” VII said pulling out a tablet and playing with it.

 

The ship docked at the ‘End of the Line’ and the crew, minus VII, exited onto the port. The docking station was a vacant deck. Black empty space lay behind them and below the deck, on the other side of which was a small corridor leading to the interior of the port.

“Where’s everyone?” Freedman asked, looking around and seeing no one.

“We should hurry.” Mr. Qruise scratched at his beard furiously. “Something feels… wrong. The hairs on my chin are standing on end. They don’t do that unless I’m in trouble.”

“Your beard hairs are always on end, Mr. Qruise.” Mancy said.

“Exactly.”

“I agree with my pupil.” Zenbot said as it hurried towards the entrance into the port. Its chrome exterior began to hum, glowing with a bright lime green light. Forks of static electricity zapped out from Mr. Qruise’s beard. The rest of the crew hurried to catch up.

Balls of lightening flashed in the corridors and the walls contracted and expanded, breathing.

“It must be the Seven Sister’s field, let’s get inside.” Mancy shouted over the rising thrumming sound of electricity. “There’s a protective field beyond that door.”

A turn wheel locked door loomed large in front of them at the end of the corridor. “How much is life worth to you?” was hung above the door in a neon lit sign. They opened the door and entered. It closed behind them with a clang.

On the other side they found a large spinning platform, surrounded on all sides by windows looking out into space. The air was filled with upbeat energetic music. Hundreds of tiny little screens showed a different part of the system and were littered across the platform. Thousands of people thronged the center of the large hall. Waiters and waitresses walked the platform carrying trays of bubbly multicolored drinks. Some of the patrons were dressed in tuxedoes and fancy dresses. Piloting enthusiasts were dressed in racer jackets and high boots. The perennial losers were ragged and hunched over the gambling tables, drinks in hand and smiling idiotically as they placed their bets. All of the patrons were focused on the giant electronic board hovering in the middle of the room where six names were listed along with odds.

Grumble-gut 10/1

Shoemaker 11/2

Al Gambari 32/3

Seven Sisters Racer Inc. 100/1

Glok 5/1

Captain Pippy 25/1

Mr. Qruise, Zenbot and Mancy made their way down onto the platform and found themselves a table. They didn’t notice when Freedman walked off into the crowd to explore. Mancy gestured for one of the waiters to bring her one of the bubbly drinks.

Mr. Qruise joined her and grabbed a drink off the tray when it came by. “You not going to have anything, Zenbot?”

“I don’t enjoy the taste, Mr. Qruise. Thank you for the thought.” It tilted its head in appreciation. “You really should get used to calling me master though.”

“Sure thing ‘master’. What are these people betting on and what with for that matter?”

“These people are betting on the race.” Zenbot said curtly.

Mancy smiled and jumped into the conversation, full of enthusiasm. “Oh Zenbot, don’t be such a stick in the mud. Of course they’re betting on the races, Mr. Qruise. It’s a bunch of fun. If you want to play, all you do is go and buy a chip from the dispenser over there. You might stop moping.”

“I wouldn’t recommend playing, Mr. Qruise.” Zenbot placed its hand on Mr. Qruise’s shoulder, keeping him in place. “The odds are quite high but the house always wins.”

“Yeah, but wins what? What are they betting with?” Mr. Qruise gestured for his next glass of bubbly.

“With their lives.” Mancy twirled her drink with a cocktail straw. “Each chip is a year of indentured servitude. You bet a year of your life. You win, you get other peoples’ chips and get to form a small army or work crew to start a new business somewhere in the ‘verse. You lose and you work for whoever’s chips are in or you ride your luck again and bet again, and again and again. If you want to wipe the slate clean you sign up for the race and either win big or lose big. It’s a bunch of fun, like I said.”

“Horrible. What a waste of life.” Zenbot watched the people around them rushing to place their bets. “These people waste their lives on luck.”

“Don’t be in such a rush to judge, Zenbot. How do you think Daddy furnishes the mercenary base? It’s races like these that fill the La2x Corporation with hardworking people. Salt of the earth. I think we own a percent of this port in fact. We own a bit of everything, you know.”

“Yes, Ms. La2x, I know. And those you can’t buy, you bully into working for you.”

“Just business, darling. Just business.”

“Where’s our pilot then?” Mr. Qruise did not enjoy the tension between his two masters.

“Good question, Mr. Qruise. We wait and see whoever wins the race,” Mancy pointed at the space-windows, “and then we try to sign them up for our little adventure. All we have to do is sit back and enjoy for now. It should be starting soon.”

The lights in the gambling hall dimmed twice.

 

When Freedman left the rest of the crew at the entrance to the platform, he walked off around the edge of the dazzling hall, with its attractive lights and bouncy music. Elegant men and women danced around him, perfectly in step to the music. Sleek inorganics stood still, coated in black matte paint and staring at the stars. They only turned around and took notice of the gamblers when asked to take thick expensive looking chips and hand back betting slips. They couldn’t care less for the bets given to them. This excited the wave of gamblers even more.

A group of winged beings stood huddled in a corner, tentacles splaying out of their chins. They were playing a game of star, antimatter, black hole with their tentacles. The loser or the winner, Freedman couldn’t be sure, walked over to a dispenser and signed a form before being given a stack of thick chips. The whole group then ran to the betting table without a second thought.

“One minute.” An inorganic next to Freedman shouted. The lights dimmed twice.

A hush fell over the crowd. The screens littered around the hall all showed the same scene. Seven ships were lined up behind a floating line, just outside the port. Freedman stood on his tip-toes to look over the crowd and saw the ships out of the window. The screens then zoomed in on the seven pilots lined up in the direction of the suns. The colors of space beyond them shifted endlessly in and out of the spectrum of visible light. Freedman could swear there were a few colors he’d never seen before. The electro-magnetic field blanketed the entire distance between the racers and the seven stars. Just as quickly as the field came it disappeared back into darkness.

A scantily clad astronaut with a helmet and a skin tight space suit jetpacked seductively between the ships with a raised checkered flag.

The lights in the hall dimmed once more.

“Thirty seconds.” The inorganic shouted once more.

Gamblers rushed silently to the dispensers and then off to the tables to place their last minute bets.

“Oooooh, I love this part. They’re about to go vroooom.” A drunken patron next to Freedman drawled as he held onto Freedman for support.

The checkered flag went down and the ships burst off at near the speed of light.

The music in the hall cut and the intercom system blared to life. The voice of a well enunciated but annoying commentator came online.

 

“And they’re off to a start. Now of course folks we’re going to slow down the cameras to give us a better view of the racers, so don’t be alarmed. We’re televising in real time but auto-cutting out all the boring bits. No need to see some ships glide in the dark, ay? Grumble-guts off to a nice start in its slim little cutter. The ol’ blob is rushing ahead of the rest. You don’t need stabilizers when you’re a walking spring system.”

The screens showed the seven ships as they jetted through empty space with the distant stars getting closer in view. The racers were all small one person ships. The pilots could be seen through their cockpits panels. The screen zoomed in onto Grumble-gut’s racer. Its cockpit was filled entirely with green gelatin, the pilot’s eight eyes floated somewhere inside.

“The race is going as smooth as can be, for the first part. Now, I’ve seen races where people get dirty even at this stage, but we’ve got a respectable bunch. All of them respect the process. And that’s really what it’s all about folks, isn’t it? Alright, everyone take a look at the screens. They’re about to hit the electro-field. This is where it gets interesting aaaaannd they’re in folks. They’re in. And oh, there’s a nice flash up ahead. I’d call that a lovely pistachio. They’d better decelerate fast, folks, and oh looks like Grumble-guts gotten a bit spooked and decelerated a bit too much. Shoemakers over taken the ol’blob.”

The screens showed a human waving to the cameras. He overtook the green blob’s ship. Flames were painted on the side of his racer. Shoemaker wore a popped collar and had a massive overbite.

“Shoemaker’s a human through and through, from the old world.” The commentator continued. “You can really see the quality of the old blood running through his veins. They’re coming up to the first star. Yup. Big Marta’s coming up. You’ll notice she’s a lovely red today.”

The screens panned out to Big Marta.

“Her pull’s are gonna be a bit softer, seeing as how she’s in a big ol’ mood today. I hope the racers take that into account as they get ready to swing around. Oh, and looks like Al Gambari is over taking Shoemaker. Yes, he’s flying in tight. Al’s flying in, he’s flying in. Can he make the curve? Annnnd yes. He’s a lucky one, that Al.”

Al was a giant prawn like being with whiskers on either side of his face, waxed into handlebars. He wore a trucker’s cap and held a can of fizzy beer up to the camera. As Al rounded the curve the beer can spilt all over the cockpit.

“Any other day and Big Marta’d sucked him in like a fly down a drainpipe. And they’ve all made it through. Are you feeling lucky? Don’t forget the tables are always open, folks.”

The odds on the hovering board changed with a clack. The screens cut to a jumping cartoon betting slip. The slip hopped and jumped in front of a betting table. The ‘folks’ rushed between the chip dispensers and the tables, adding more years to the house.

“Now, usually we lose a ship by this point. You folks are watching a hell of race. A hell of a race.”

The cartoon slip disappeared. The screens showed three ships next to each other racing towards a green star. The camera angle shifted to show the red star, Big Marta, behind them.

“The three in front, Grumble-gut, Shoemaker and Al are all neck and neck. Here comes the second star, Fanoos. It’s a lovely green but it’s emanatin’ a bit strange today. Flaring up. Happens sometimes. They’re about to hit a wall of green. Oooooh it’s a tall order. They’d better cut their engines otherwise they’ll fry their circuitry.”

A pulse of green light swept over the camera, drowning out the picture. The screen shifted to ultra-violet mode and was able to pierce the green electro-field. It showed the six silhouetted ships as flickering shadows. The UV cameras could see through the racers and showed the outlines of the pilots sitting in their ships.

“Now this is the tough bit folks. They have to aim their ships just right to get through the flare with their engines off but not get pulled too close to either sun, Fanoos in front and Big Marta behind. Can’t forget about her. Can’t do that if they wanna live.

And they’ve done it folks. They’re in the deadman’s drift, engines out. Magnificent. They’re all gliding without propulsion. Let’s zoom in and you can see. A lovely sight really. Like sailing on a sea of green. It’s as dark as the night around the back of their ships though, that’s their wake.”

The ships cruised through the green field with their engines off. They left a trail of darkness behind them, cleaving through the light.

“Takes your breath away don’t it. Amazingly, none of them seem to have miscalculated. Oh no. Seems I’ve spoken too soon folks. Shoemaker and Al are veering a bit too close together and oh my, oh my, oh my. They’ve hit folks. Let’s zoom in.”

The screens showed the two ships veering slowly towards each other through the green sea. The UV cameras showed Shoemaker and Al struggling frantically in their cockpits. They were trying to re-start their engines. Al banged violently on his dashboard.

“Yup. Sorry folks but they’re out for the count.”

The two ships collided and started twirling and accelerating towards Fanoos.

“All bets on Al Gambari and Shoemaker are losers. Grumble-gut’s made it through though, and it’s engines are up and running. They’re coming around Fanoos. Captain Pippy and Glok are second and third. Seven Sisters Run Inc. is dead last. But this ain’t a game of speed folks, it’s a game of doing things right and if you’re alive at this point you’re doing something right. Just you ask Al and Shoemaker.”

The screen cut to the four remaining racers starting their engines again. The camera’s UV mode was turned off. A small box within the screen displayed Al and Shoemaker still falling towards Fanoos.

“Alright, alright, alright. Now we come to the third and fourth stars. ‘Devil’ and ‘Deep Blue Sea’. And if you’re not a new comer to this game you know what comes next is one of the most exciting runs in the whole ‘verse. If you are a new comer, this is where most people make or break their bets. Those brave racers have to fly between the two suns. There’s only a small window between the two, where they won’t be ripped to pieces. A tunnel the size of a racer and half. Seems like a lot but it ain’t so much when you’re going at those speeds. And what’s more the tunnel keeps changing based on the electro-waves and all. We’ve drawn the tunnel up on the screens for you folks but the pilots can’t see all as well as that.”

The camera angle changed. Two stars orbited dangerously close to each other, one hot red and the other a dark marine blue. Flames leapt from each, arcing towards the other. The flames collided together into a purple haze which filled the narrow area between the stars almost completely. A small corridor of black empty space could be seen in the middle of the haze, shifting and sliding as the suns danced.

“And Grumble-gut’s through into the window. That blob sure can handle a racer. Captain Pippy’s in next and woah can she fly. Now that’s a woman after my own heart. Glok’s coming in fast behind her. And Seven Sisters Run Inc is speeding up. That corporation sure is slow but hey! Slow and steady wins the race. Slow and steady….”

The screens showed the racers in a line shooting through the corridor. Glok’s ship tried to overtake Captain Pippy’s, bumping into it aggressively. Captain Pippy bumped back. The two ships drew in next to each other, fin tip to fin tip. The two pilots stared at each other from their cockpits. Captain Pippy squinted her eyes and veered towards Glok but Glok slowed down and Captain Pippy rushed towards the purple limit of the corridor.

“Captain Pippy’s veering off course, folks. Now watch this, it’s going to be a doozy. Her left side’s touched the edge of the window and my, oh my, she’s being pulled out. This part ain’t gonna be pretty. Let’s zoom in. A little bit more. Gutted. Completely gutted. We want to see all the details. Zoom in a bit more. I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it, she’s pulling back in. She’s ditched an engine though. Forget about the race she’s going to be lucky to make it back alive. She’s turning round. Captain Pippy’s given up. She’s a smart one. She’s won her life but you’ve lost your bets folks. Sorry but them’s the breaks.”

Captain Pippy’s ship limped back into the corridor. Half her ship remained beyond the purple corridor, burning and gravitating towards the ‘Devil’.

“The rest are through, ladies and gentlemen and everything in between. The pathway’s closing up fast, ‘Goliath’‘s orbit is coming in and if you know Goliath you know you need to burn some fuel to get out of this part. It’s out of the frying pan and into the fire.”

A gigantic yellow star panned into view. The other stars revolved around Goliath and were dwarfed by it, looking more like moons than suns.

The three racers popped out of the corridor and accelerated sharply upwards, trying not to get too close to Goliath’s orbit.

“Goliath’s closed the window. Glok’s over taken Grumble-gut. Grumble-gut’s overtaken Glok and there goes Seven Sisters Run Inc., the corporation’s overtaken the both of them folks. The company’s in front. And they’re all past the giant. A few dents and bruises but hey they’re alive. They’re flipping alive. What a show, folks, what a show.”

They slingshotted around Goliath. The microwave streams from their engines erupted into a twinkle haze behind them.

“Five stars down and two to go, and the best is always saved for last, folks. They’ve got to fly through the heart of ‘SunStream’ when it shifts if they hope to push through the anti-grav of the ‘Black Witch’. Here it comes. ‘Sun Stream’ is about to shift. And there it’s gone.”

The screens showed empty space, a red circle was drawn around where ‘SunStream’ should have been. Past the red circle was the ‘Black Witch’, a spot of darkness, somehow darker than the surrounding vacuum.

“You can still see SunStream on the screens because we’re using special cameras to show the extra-dimensional presence and the gravitational pull. They’re gonna dive deep into the sun now and accelerate, slingshotting past the anti-grav of the Witch. Now let’s hope they’ve aimed it right. And yes, they’re passing it, they’re passing C in normal space. If you’ve never done it folks this is a weird ol’ part of the race. You may be used to passing C in subspace but try doing it in normal space and your head’ll blow, literally.”

The cartoon betting slip appeared on the monitors, biting its nails in anticipation.

“This part is gonna a bit hard to watch. We’ve got to wait a bit for the footage to appear from the future, aaaaand it’s here. Alright, that stretched out bit of spaghetti is Seven Sisters Run Inc. I think. Looks like the company’s angled too deeply towards the Black Witch and is losing speed fast. The company’s dropped dead last. Glok and Grumble-Gut were tied at the back and now they’re still tied in front.”

The three remaining ships were neck and neck.

“We’re coming up to the finish line. They’ve all passed the Black Witch and its anti-grav. One of the only four anti-grav suns in the known verse’, did ya know that? And they’ve all passed the finish line. My Shens…what a race. We’re going to have replay the footage to determine the winner folks. Well, we’re all winners really, having watched this once in a life time race. My Shens. Three winnings. Some lucky people are going to walk away rich and others are going to have jobs. What an amazing race. Results are coming in. Yes, yes, Glok’s stolen it by a hair’s breadth. Glok’s won. Double winnings for those who picked Glok. The rest, Seven Sisters Run Inc. and Grumble-Guts both get normal winnings.

Race is over ladies and gentlemen. Come back tomorrow for the next race… All those who’ve won go and collect and enjoy the End of the Line’s refreshments. And to all those who didn’t win, remember….no running.”

CHAPTER NINE

The Pilot

 

The winners erupted with roars of joy. Champagne bottles popped and foam flowed everywhere.

The loser’s shuffled over to wait for the next betting session or to pay their dues.

Mancy, Zenbot and Mr. Qruise were still seated at their table. “How fantastic! We have four pilots to pick from.” Mancy was beaming with excitement and a little drunk.

“Four? You mean three, Mancy. What number drink you on exactly?” Mr. Qruise asked.

“Why, Mr. Qruise? Would you prefer a pilot that dares it all or one who know’s when they’re beat? I’d prefer Captain Pippy.” Zenbot grabbed the drink being offered to Mancy and dumped the contents on the ground. “Have you seen, Freedman?”

“I’m here, I’m here. I’m just cashing in.” Freedman ran up to the three, his pockets full of golden notes.

“Cashing in? Where have you been?” Zenbot looked over to its pupil. Its eye slits turned a subtle shade of green.

“Betting, master.” Freedman didn’t understand the look his master was giving him and kept smiling. “I bet two years and a bit on Glok, master. I’ve won fourteen years on that pilot.”

“When did you go bet?”

“Oh just before the race started. I was feeling lucky. I’m sorry, master. Was that wrong? I thought it was one way I could help.”

“I’ll say Freedman. Maybe that’ll be your use on our mission. Our lucky cook. Or maybe the other way around.” Mancy swayed in her chair, leaning on Zenbot.

“Freedman.” Zenbot’s eye slits were bright green. “Do not do it again.” The inorganic then turned on Mancy. “There is no such thing as luck, Ms.La2x, only hard work. Do not encourage bad morals, please.”

“My Shens, Zenbot, but you can be a prude sometimes.” Mancy pinched Freedman’s bottom.

 

Glok strode into the gambling hall to receive the first place prize. He was one of the large winged beings with the tentacle-bearded faces that Freedman had seen from before. He was, however, a larger version, standing tall and straight, his eyes ancient and all knowing as he surveyed the crowd. One of the matte black inorganics walked up to him with a champagne bottle and a wreath of oak leaves. Glok caught the wreath with his tentacles and placed it gingerly on his crown. The inorganic handed him a golden note pardoning Glok of all his debts towards the house. Glok raised his hands in victory and the hall went wild, whistling and cheering at his liberation. He walked off into the crowd beneath the foamy flow of champagne.

A few moments later the second place winner shambled into the hallway and onto the dais. Grumble-gut was a shivering mass of green gelatin, twitching erratically with every flop. Inside the mildly transparent gel were the bones of those who had previously pissed it off. It stood in front of the cheering crowd and rumbled out a roar. It too was given a golden note but no wreath.

Mancy stared at the two pilots from across the gambling hall. “That’s Grumble-gut out.” She said slamming her palm on the table. “It won’t be able to pilot our ship. It must have a special piloting system for all that gelatin. Glok,” She inspected the first place winner, “on the other hand, he, I believe it’s a he, should do nicely. A lot of appendages there, he’ll probably be able to handle the mission, no problem.” She stood up from the table and lurched over to the winner. He was surrounded by those who had bet on him, signing autographs. “Yoo-hoo. Mr. Glok. Mr. Glok.” Mancy jumped up and down. “Would you mind joining us for a moment?” She rubbed her fingers together in the ‘versal sign of ‘it’s worth it’ for him to see.

He made his way over to the table, tentacles swirling excitedly around his chin.

“G’l rahg.” He said. It came out in a series of whistles. As he spoke, the air between him and Mancy shimmered.

“Oh, dear. I don’t speak, whatever you speak. Don’t you speak universal?” Mancy looked at Glok, dispirited.

“I speak Rhalyar.” Zenbot added. “I will translate. Hello, Mr. Glok.” It said in Rhalyar.

“It says hello.” Zenbot translated.

Mancy stood with her hands on her hips. “Tell him, we have a mission for him.”

Zenbot translated and relayed the response. “Tell the pink lady, I understand. What is mission? What is price?” Glok’s tentacles kept fidgeting with the wreath, his eyes looking down at the note in his hand.

Zenbot didn’t wait for Mancy. “The mission is to attack the La2x Vault, on Qamar. We need a strong pilot. Your price is your’s to choose. One favor from the La2x family, no limits.”

“Excellent. Good. Tell lady no.” Zenbot translated. The whistling shifted in and out of a deep angry bass. Zenbot paused the direct translation. “I’m sorry, Ms. La2x, I don’t feel comfortable translating that part. I will say I don’t think he’s interested in throwing his life away a second time.”

Glok swaggered away towards the port’s bar. He grabbed a tray of drinks from one of the servers and caught the glasses with his tentacles, chugging the contents one after another. He joined the group of his kind, Freedman had spotted before, in the corner and joined in a new game of star, anti-matter, black-hole.

“Damn.” Mancy sat back down at the table. She looked over to the port entrance. The crowd had started cheering again.

Seven Sisters Race Inc. entered the gambling hall. The company was grey skinned man, expressionless and dead looking. He took his golden note passively, uncaring. The company surveyed the disappointed crowd, searching.

Mancy ducked under the table. “Damn. And there goes the bloody corporation. Can’t use it either.”

“Why not?” Zenbot asked peering at Mancy under the table.

“It’s part owned by Daddy. I hope he wasn’t in a board meeting right now. He may have seen seen me. So Captain Pippy it is. I don’t want to spend anymore time in this port than we have to”

Zenbot nodded. “Agreed. This place sickens me.” It pushed itself away from the table. “Let’s meet our pilot at the docking station. She should be arriving by now.” One of the drunken gamblers rested on Zenbot’s shoulder. Zenbot walked off towards the exit leaving the gambler to stumble and fall on the table.

 

Captain Pippy’s beat up old ship limped back to the End of the Line, sputtering and stalling on the way. The ship, its left side a broken mash of machinery, had to turn around and come in several times, in order to dock.

When it finally came in close enough to the dock, magnetic clasps locked the ship in place. A knocking came from the ship’s entry door, which finally opened with a bang. Captain Pippy stood there sweating with exhaustion and covered in grease. She was a freckly, young woman with auburn hair, two long pigtails trailing down both shoulders. The captain was dressed in high-boots, khaki shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. She peeked outside of her ship’s entrance before descending the plank. The lightening flashes which had met Mancy and her team when they first arrived had subsided for a while.

“Shen’amn thing’s gone for good.” Captain Pippy kicked at her broken racer, stopping only when she noticed the crew looking up at her from the dock. “But by the Shens that was exciting. I mean talk about getting stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea. I was about to soil myself, right good. So who are y’all? Sorry if ya lost your chips on me but I ain’t risking my neck for your winnings.”

Zenbot initiated the dock’s gangplank system. The plank veered to where the door should have been, which due to the racer’s damage was a hop away from the door’s actual position. Captain Pippy jumped and landed on the gang plank. Mancy extended her hand helping the pilot onto the deck. “Captain Pippy. Let me introduce my team. The gentle inorganic’s Zenbot. That’s Mr. Qruise, he doesn’t look like much but you’ll get to like him though, I promise. Freedman with the bulging pockets, he’s lucky, apparently. That leaves me, Mancy La2x, prospective employer.”

“That’s just fancy. What in the heck do you want with me if you ain’t sore losers? Did you say you’re the Zenbot?” Captain Pippy stressed the ‘the’. “You’re a dangerous one.” She played with her pigtails looking at Zenbot’s dark, austere and apparently attractive robes.

Zenbot’s eye slits blushed pink. “It’s just Zenbot.” It scratched the back of its head.

“What we want, Ms. Pippy-” Mancy continued.

“That’s Captain Pippy.” She fidgeted with one of her pigtails, removing the grease and throwing it out into the empty space at the side of the dock with a snap of her hand.

“What we want Captain Pippy is to conduct an interview of sorts. Now this band of ours is on a mission that needs a pilot.”

“A mission you say?” Captain Pippy’s eyes lit up.

“Yes, a very dangerous one, though I don’t believe danger is something you care about. We’ve got a couple of questions first. Was that your first race?”

“That one, nah, it’s probably my tenth or so.”

“Real?”

“Heck yeah, real. Ya don’t care about none of my virtual runs, I’m guessing. It ain’t the same thing I’m telling ya. No matter what they say. I’m lucky to have gotten outta that one alive.”

“There is no such thing as luck.” Zenbot said.

“Whatever you say hon’. I’ll take that as a compliment then.” She twirled her pigtail girlishly. “Can’t argue with a face like that.” She winked at Zenbot whose eye slits went a deeper shade of pink. “What’s this mission then?”

“We’re going to rob the La2x Vault.”

Captain Pippy whistled. “Wooo-heee. That’s a tough one. I can see why ya want one of us racers. Though you gotta be downright suicidal to try that run.” Captain Pippy frowned for a moment, her freckles twitching with her mouth. “Ya should probably go for one of the other racers tho’. They made it through this time, I didn’t.”

Freedman opened his mouth to speak. “We alre-” but Mancy kicked him in the shins.

“We’re about to go do that, Captain. We’re just asking you first. We liked your style.”

“Ya got the details on the mine field?”

“What minefield?” Mr. Qruise asked, his usual frown hanging lower than usual. He peered over the dock’s ledge at the empty space below. Freedman rested on his shoulder, massaging his leg. Mr. Qruise lost balance and tottered over the edge. He held onto Freedman desperately.

Mancy ignored Mr. Qruise’s question. “Yes, I have the minefield prints and a schematic simulation which should get you close enough.”

“Ain’t no such thing as close enough, till you do the run. Then we’ll see if we’re close enough.”

“I asked what minefield?” Mr. Qruise asked again, still trying to regain his balance, resting on Freedman.

Zenbot placed its hand on its pupil’s shoulder propping him up. “There’s a dynamic minefield around Qamar, Mr. Qruise. One only a top and suicidal pilot could navigate through.”

“That’s…that’s…. that’s expected.” Mr. Qruise’s eyes glazed over. He was too tired to argue. “I really should pay more attention.”

Mancy rolled her eyes. “You really should. So Ms. – I mean Captain Pippy, my next two questions are are you in? and what’s your price? Don’t answer now. I’m going to interview the other three and get their prices. So think of that before you come back with a quote. Now if you’ll excuse us, we’ll meet again in, say, an hour? Think hard Captain Pippy.”

“No need for that, Ms. La2x.” Captain Pippy looked at her torn up racer. “I’m in. This’ll make my name. First things first, my price is a favor to be cashed in wheneva’ I want if I get us through. Alway’s helpful to have a La2x owing ya. And I’ll be needing those chips to pay off my debt. I lost the race after all.” Captain Pippy eyed Freedman’s bulging pockets. “Offer’s on the table now. Mightn’t be if ya go and talk to the otha’s.”

“Deal.” Mancy said shaking Captain Pippy’s greasy palm.

CHAPTER TEN

On the Way to Qamar

 

Back in the Big Pink’s lounge the crew, with VII, were assembled and finally complete. Captain Pippy walked around inspecting bits of the Big Pink. She kept knocking on the ship’s walls, placing her ear against them, knocking again and then smiling to herself.

She’d run up and down the ship when first boarding like a little girl left alone in a candy shop, going through every bit and piece of the place and touching it manually.

Mancy sat at the long table and replicated herself a mescal margarita before speaking. “Ladies and gentlemen. This is it. It’s been a long, long road getting ready. It took me year to get Zenbot, well, its family to be more specific. And then another year to find, Mr. Qruise. The rest of us have only been together a week or less. I’ve inputted the coordinates into the auto-piloting system and we’re on our way to the La2x system.” She took a triumphant sip from her drink. “It’s going to be about another week or so before we get there. We still have a lot of work to do on the way. Let’s have a run through the prep list. How are we going with our coward of a student, Zenbot?”

“We’ll need more than a week.” Zenbot looked at its pupil. Mr. Qruise was playing in his ear again. His pinky finger digging deep.

“We don’t have more time. You have a week. It’ll have to do.”

Zenbot’s head tilted downwards a few angles, burdened.

Mr. Qruise placed his hand affectionately on Zenbot’s hard shoulder. “Don’t worry Zenbot, we’ll do it, ay? I’ll try not to fall asleep so quickly while we meditate. I promise.”

Zenbot looked at Mr. Qruise’s hand, more specifically his pinky finger, and at his broad grin, missing teeth and pimply bearded face. If Zenbot’s face could show horror it would have screamed. “I believe you.” Zenbot brushed Mr. Qruise’s hand off its shoulder. Zenbot stood up and bowed towards the room. “We’ll be going to the holo-deck. I’ll take Freedman and Mr. Qruise. There are lessons for the both of them this time. If the rest of you need something, I’m sorry but we’ll be busy.” It dragged its pupils off their chairs more forcefully than necessary.

When they were gone, Mancy replicated a tiny umbrella and placed it in her drink, stirring and sipping. “That hits the spot. I guess it’s just us girls then. Should we talk business or pleasure first?”

Captain Pippy and VII sat silently. Algy’s wheel squeaked as it turned on the table.

VII broke the silence. “I thought Zenbot was one of the girls. She, I mean it, took to being a woman like a fish in water.”

“What’s that hon’?” Captain Pippy asked. “That walking piece of hot metal used to be a dame? Zenny’s so big and bulky but now that ya mention it, there’s definitely something feminine like about her. I’m taking a mighty bigger shine to her now.” She winked at VII.

Mancy sucked on her drink through a newly replicated straw, concentrating on getting the last dregs of the glass inside her. “I don’t know what Zenbot is. I think it prefers it that way. It decides what it is.”

“Promise ya’ll tell me all about ol’ Zenny being a girl and all, later. Right now, Ms. La2x, it’s best we get down to business. Ain’t no time like the present. I’d like to take a couple of cracks at the minefield we’re going to tackle. Where are the schematics? You said you had some.”

Mancy handed Captain Pippy a sheathe of electro-sleeves.

“Thanks hon’. I’ll read through these now,” Captain Pippy flicked through the sleeve quickly, “but I’ll wanna go practice later. The holo-deck, it’s got a sim all set up inside?”

“Yes, Captain, it’s all in there. You can kick the boys and Zenbot out in about an hour. It usually doesn’t take that long for Mr. Qruise to fall asleep. Would any of you like a drink?”

“Sure thing hon’ but I can do it myself. I know my way around a replicator. I’ll just go and make myself a drink and study these papers. An hour you say? Alright. You two feel free to do whatever is you did when I weren’t yet with y’all” Captain Pippy made her drink, left the table and walked over to the couch by the bay window, plopping down and studying the electro-sleeves.

VII put a few biscuits on the table. Algy jumped out of its wheel and scurried on the table to nibble on them. The cryptographer scratched her mouse behind the ears. “I’ve been looking at the copy of the code you gave me, Mancy. Shouldn’t be a problem opening the first and second doors, they ain’t doors really. More like big damn gates. I’ll be able to set up a program to open them if you can get the code into the system, no problem. Won’t be hard to crack’em. Shouldn’t take more than a few moments at each. A small drive’ll be able to hold the code.”

“That’s a piece of good news.”

“The uh… third door – gate – that’ll be a bit of a problem. I’m going to need to get in there personally and interface. That’s why you hired me, I guess.” VII straightened her hair. “For this on the fly stuff.” She waved her hand slowly in the air. “It’s something I don’t like to do. A good way to get your neck broken. I like my neck just the way it is,” she rubbed the back of her head. “So…so…”

“Out with it, VII. We only have a week.”

“I’m going to need Zenbot by my side when I’m there.” VII snatched Mancy’s drink out of her hand suddenly and downed it in one gulp. “And to escort me back to the ship once I’m done.”

Mancy stood to take back her drink then paused. Her face flushed red. “What? You can’t expect us to let you take Zenbot. We need the inorganic, we’re going to be surrounded by the toughest mercenaries in the ‘verse.”

“Exactly.” VII leaned over the table and replicated two glasses of the same margarita. She handed Mancy her glass back. “I didn’t sign up for no suicide mission. Landing on the moon’s gonna be tough enough. Shen, I don’t even think we’re gonna make it. I have half a mind to get off at the nearest port. If you want me to go running around in a base full of killers that’s my condition, Mancy. I ain’t ready for the top-top side. You came and pulled me out of my comfort zone to help you break the coding and open those gates. I’m not some zen hero, or some stranger, or a crazy Shen damn pilot that hopscotches between suns. I interface with the AI and convince it to open. From a far. That’s my condition for joining you on Qamar. Zenbot brings me back to the ship and then rejoins you, or you can drop me off at the next port and find another cryptographer.”

Mancy pointed out of the bay window and the empty space beyond. “Why don’t I just drop you off here?” She smiled evilly at VII, blinking her eyes innocently and resting her head on her bridged hands.

VII didn’t bat an eyelid. “Because you didn’t hire no fool, Mancy. Why’d you think I stayed behind at the End of the Line? My codes are already in the ship and I’ll empty the air out sooner than you can say ‘there’s the door’.”

Mancy drummed her fingers on the table. “You got insurance, huh?”

“I always get insurance. The ship’s coding is only one. So don’t go getting no ideas.”

“I guess that’s why we hired you.” Mancy said, shrugging her shoulders. “You think ahead. I can respect that.” She rested her head on a fist, pouting. “Alright,” she said lazily, “you’ve got my word. Zenbot’ll escort you back to the ship once we get through the third gate.”

“No, I want Zenbot’s word. No offense but you’re not the most trustworthy of people. You’ve just threatened to space me. Zenbot don’t lie. It’s known. You know we had a couple of simulations where you got to be the Zenbot in the Game. I learnt a lot from those ones. So when they’re done doing their space hoodoo we’ll drag it up here and you’ll make it give me its word. Agreed?”

Mancy extended her hand to shake on it, clenching her teeth, and hissing through her teeth. “Agreed. But on one condition. It’ll be done in secret. No word of this to Freedman or Qruise. Freedman’ll follow his master to hell but the damn fool can’t keep his mouth shut. And Mr. Qruise’ll get skittish and run if he hears we’ll be alone. If he didn’t have a bomb in his head, he’d have run a long time ago.”

VII shook Mancy’s outstretched hand. “There’s something else. I’ve looked at the schematics. We’ll get in through the front gate. After that it’s a short jog through the side service tunnels till you hit the second security level and the second gate. No problem. Then there’s this Shen damn open space all the way up to the third gate. No idea what’s in there but that ain’t the point. Zenbot can do the heavy lifting. It’ll get me there and I’ll work on the third gate. Big monster of a thing. It may take a minute, it may take thirty to convince it to open, I’m up for it. But after that… After that I have no idea what’s on the other side of that security level. It’s not in the schematics. Everything’s just Shen damn redacted all the way to the vault. What’s on the other side?”

Mancy twitched her nose. “I don’t know what’s on the other side.”

VII leaned back in her chair, hands behind her head. “Thanks for not trying to lie at least.” She leaned forward again and whispered. “Don’t you think you should tell the others? Shen, you have no idea what you’re going to walk into. And you’ll be without Zenbot for an hour, an hour and a half, I don’t know how fast that inorganic runs. They have a right to know.”

“Don’t pretend like you care, VII. You’re leaving us up to our necks in it, to run back and hide safe and sound like a mouse.” Mancy stood up looming over VII, her voice was metal. “Don’t push me. You got your deal. I’ll handle the others the way I see fit.”

“Do you have any idea what’s on the side?”

Mancy melted. Her confident exterior shattered. She slumped in her chair. “No. Daddy…well…He was expecting this. So he didn’t share many details on what lies on the other side. I really have no idea. That’s why I got a jack in the box. A wild card like that’ll be able to react to whatever infernal traps Daddy’s laid.”

VII sipped at her drink. “Mr. Qruise?”

Mancy raised her glass. “Coward doesn’t play with the ‘verse’s rules. He should be more than enough for whatever’s on the other end.”

“It ain’t right but why should I care. We’ve got an understanding. We’ll get Zenbot on the side sometime.” VII raised her glass.

“You do that VII. You do that.” Mancy clinked her drink, downed it and grabbed an electro-sleeve blue print of the base, pretending to study it. After a few minutes she replicated a real cigarette and smoked it.

 

The boys and Zenbot were in the simulated dojo. Zenbot sat at the center of the mat, legs crossed, dressed in its master’s black robes. “Here, wear these.” It handed Mr. Qruise and Freedman a pair of white robes. “They’re a novice’s robes.”

Freedman took the offered robes without argument and began to put them on. Mr. Qruise threw his on the ground. “You know you’re beginning to-”

“Wear them, Mr. Qruise.” Zenbot said, its voice, while still monotonous, was…aggressive. Louder than normal and faster. “I can put them on you if you want. We don’t have time for hesitancy. And Freedman, make some tea please.”

Freedman rushed to the side of the mat and prepared the furnace.

“Yes. Alright.” Mr. Qruise even bowed slightly. “I’ll put them on.” He looked sharply at Freedman blowing on the furnace. “Don’t you want me to fix the tea?”

Zenbot hid its face in its palm and then looked up at Mr. Qruise, as it would a small child. “Do you want to fix the tea, Mr. Qruise?”

“No, not particularly. It’s just that every time we’ve had a lesson you’ve made me do it. Isn’t mine good?”

“I have two hard lessons to teach today, so we don’t have time for petty egotism. You it seems, I must jump start through enlightenment, on Ms. La2x’s schedule. This will be very hard on us both, but I am sure you will manage. And the other lesson is for both my pupils, the two of whom believe luck runs their lives.”

“I don’t believe in luck.” Mr. Qruise objected.

“You do, Mr. Qruise. You do. But you only believe in bad luck. That the ‘verse conspires against you. This is sadly an illusion. And I must teach him,” It said looking over at Freedman blowing on the furnace, “that there is no such thing as good luck. That only hard work achieves results.”

Freedman heard from the other side of the dojo and shuffled back meekly, teapot in hand, almost tripping over his new robes. “But master. I do get results. Didn’t I win back there at the End of the Line?”

“Yesterday, you won, that’s true. Now, you’ll lose. The net result will be neutral. Through hard work you can mine something from this neutrality. Otherwise you’ll always go whichever way the wind blows.” Zenbot filled only one cup with tea.

“What makes you think today I’ll be unlucky?” Freedman put his cup in front of the pot, waiting for Zenbot to fill it as well.

“Because I have decided it to be.” Zenbot threw Freedman’s cup against the far wall. It shattered and fell to earth with a sharp tinkle.

Zenbot stood up and grabbed Mr. Qruise, holding him firmly from behind and placing its hand on the back of his neck. A sharp tingle went through Mr. Qruise’s spine.

 

All was dark.

Zenbot stood by a lone tree above a large cliffside overlooking a shadowed valley. Zenbot looked like she did in Woshu. She held Mr. Qruise up in the air firmly by the neck. His legs dangled above the cliffside which looked down into the valley.

“What’s going on? Where the hell are we?” Mr. Qruise squirmed beneath Zenbot’s tiny grip.

“We’re inside your mind, Mr. Qruise. I’ve interfaced with the nanobots from MO4. This dark mess we see about us is your subconscious. As you can see,” Zenbot swung Mr. Qruise wildly about, showing him the dark clouds swirling above in the jet black sky and the swirls of dark fog creeping in the valley below, “you’re full of fear and doubt. I can’t succeed in training you with so much of this inside of you.” She pointed him in the direction of the dark fog. “We must illuminate a small part of you, even the tiniest bit if we hope for you to help us on the mission.” Zenbot placed Mr. Qruise on the ground.

“Bu..but how?” Mr. Qruise surveyed the scene around him, his eyes wild with fright.

“I’m not sure. It will take years for you to gain the self confidence, and I am sorry to say, the self-respect necessary to be in control of yourself.”

“Hey! I’m full of self respect.” Mr. Qruise rubbed viciously at his beard, only to find it wasn’t there anymore. He was as clean shaven as a babe. Looking down at himself, he found that he was wearing night black robes. Zenbot in contrast to its usual sombre robing was in immaculate pristine white.

“You’re full of self-interest, self-service and self-protection. But there is little self-respect.”

“They’re the same thing you, you tin-man.” He paused looking at Zenbot’s feminine face and glaring eyes. “I mean tin-person. Get me out of here now.” Mr. Qruise’s body shuddered in fear. He shuffled close to Zenbot and then held on to her, afraid of the dark. “Please.”

“Up there, we have only a week. But in here,” Zenbot tapped Mr. Qruise on his temple, “we have so much more. Up there,” she looked past the heavy clouds, “your body will tire, you will starve, you will thirst. You’ll feel all of this. Pain in your bones, in your body. But inside here you won’t slow down. We have months in here to train. Physically and mentally. Though both are one as you’ll find out. If you want to escape, to run, to get out of the dark, then first you have to land one punch, one kick, one anything on me. I’m one of the fighting masters in the ‘verse and you won’t land a blow if I don’t want you to. And Mr. Qruise, I do not want you to.” Zenbot’s eyes stared into Mr. Qruise’s, unblinking. “You’ll say ‘I don’t want to fight’. But you must try, you have no choice. If you do, you’ll live, if you don’t you’ll die of thirst in a few days on the outside. A few years in here.” She walked away from Mr. Qruise. Still hanging onto her, Mr. Qruise pawed at Zenbot, holding her white robes in his hands like a life preserver. She tore away from him. He fell into the mud. When he looked up he saw Zenbot bowing. “Now begin.” She said.

“But I don’t want to fight.” He squealed. His eyes were wild, flitting back and forth from the clouds overhead to the valley below.

“You must.”

“How?” his voice was thin and raspy.

“Just try and hit me.”

Mr. Qruise stood up and approached Zenbot. He was much taller than her in there. He made a fist and stood there for a while unsure of what to do. He looked at his clenched hand and finally threw it weakly at Zenbot’s chin. All he hit was air and shortly afterwards, from a round house kick by Zenbot, he flew. Lightening flared through the dark heavens above.

 

Back in the dojo Mr. Qruise punched Freedman in the face. A red blotch bloomed above Freedman’s left cheekbone. “Hey, what the hell do you think you’re doing, Qruise? You’re not funny. I’ll bop you if you do that again.” Freedman looked to his master sitting at the center of the mat. “Master, tell him. It ain’t right. We’re brothers in this thing.”

“He isn’t being funny. Freedman. Don’t blame Mr. Qruise for hitting you.” It was Mr. Qruise who spoke only in Zenbot’s monotonous, crisp voice. “I’m in control of Mr. Qruise for the moment.” The source alternated every few words between coming out of Mr. Qruise’s or Zenbot’s mouth. “This’ll be your unlucky day. In fact it’ll be your unlucky week. I’ll fight you now. I won’t hurt you intentionally. I’ll inflict only the amount of pain required for you to learn.”

“To learn what, Master?” Freedman circled around Zenbot, keeping Mr. Qruise, who was following him, on the other side of the mat. He shifted his attention between his master and his fellow student, uncertain of whom to defend against.

“To learn that life’s a chaotic mess. It’s only through self-discipline that you can see through the fog.”

Mr. Qruise’s body spread into a praying mantis pose, leg propped out with a bent knee. Both arms stretched out to his sides. He hopped over towards Freedman and flicked him on the nose with a left kick.

“Hey. Stop that, I said.” Freedman held his nose and ran away. “Shouldn’t you teach me how to fight first?” Freedman looked back and forth between Zenbot and Mr. Qruise.

“I am teaching you.” Mr. Qruise hopped in front of Freedman and slapped him across the face.

“Hey!” Freedman ran across the room hiding on the other side.

Mr. Qruise closed the distance with a jump above Zenbot who was sipping its tea calmly. “What are you going to do Freedman? Are you feeling lucky?” Slap. Slap. Slap.

Freedman’s face was red and bruised. Mr. Qruise’s hand descended to slap him once more but Freedman held his hand. He punched Mr. Qruise squarely in the nose.

Somewhere in the dark recesses of his mind Mr. Qruise’s face bloomed in pain even though he could have sworn Zenbot had only kicked his butt.

 

Captain Pippy knocked on the holo-deck’s door. There was no answer. She popped her head inside. “Hey, you guys mind getting out? I’m looking to get some practice on the minefield schematics.”

Mr. Qruise had Freedman in a strangle hold. He’d just landed a knee in Freedman’s gut. Their robes were torn and their weak flabby torsos were exposed.

“Oh.” Captain Pippy said.

Zenbot, rose quickly from its sitting position and walked over to the holo-deck entrance. “Sorry, Captain Pippy. The holo-deck is reserved for the remainder of the week. We’ll see you all after that. Till then no interruptions.” It pushed Captain Pippy out and closed the door.

“Hey. Let me in. Let me in Shen’amn you.” She banged at the door furiously. “You’ve gone and locked the door. I need to train if we’re gonna survive the minefield.”

Zenbot spoke from the other side of the door. “Holo-deck’s reserved, Captain Pippy. Like you said, there’s nothing like the real thing. No point in practicing. See you in a week.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

The Unlanded Kick

 

“Girls,” Captain Pippy returned to the lounge and threw her electro-sleeve schematics on the table, “it seems Zenny’s gone on a bit of wild one. It’s locked itself in the holo-deck with the other two and says it ain’t coming out till we arrive at the La2x System.”

“Did you try smashing in the door?” VII asked, sitting at a makeshift desk to the side. Punching code away into a screen.

“I ain’t getting on the bad side of that one.” Captain Pippy shook her head. “You want to break into the holo-deck you do it, hon’. I’ll just go back to studying my schematics besides, it won’t make much of a difference anyhow. Ol’ Zenny’s right. Ain’t anything like the real thing.”

“So you’re not going to practice at all?” Mancy twirled around on her chair.

“I’ll study the schematics and wait for those three to finish whatever the hell they’re doing?”

“And what are they doing?” Mancy stopped twirling.

“I took a peep through the crack in the door and that man Qruise was whaling on the lucky hog, Freedman. Just going at it, the both of’em, like a bunch’a boys. Zenny was sitting drinking its tea, as cool as snowflake. When I popped my head in it came and locked me out.”

Mancy listened intently while VII fiddled away at her small work station. “That’s a strange one. Let’s take a look at the camera feed.” Mancy walked over to the display screen by the door. “Let’s just-” She tapped furiously at the small screen. “The bastard’s blocked the feed. VII can you join us for a moment?”

“What is it, boss?” VII stopped tapping at the computers in front of her, rubbing at the bridge of her nose.

“Can you access the camera feed in the holo-deck?”

“Sure thing, boss.” VII clacked away at the screens again, happy for the end of the distraction. “Sorry, boss. But Zenbot’s got it locked down tight in there. It’s closed off all access to the holo-deck. They can’t even hear the intercom. I could break the code with enough time but it’ll eat out of my prep time for the mission.”

“Forget about it.” Mancy gestured with her hands. “You just focus on what you were doing. Pippy can you make do without the holo-deck for a while?”

“That’s Captain. Well, hon’, need and want are two different things. It’d be better for my peace of mind, and your’s no doubt, if I could take a knock at it before the real thing. But it can wait I s’ppose.”

Mancy twitched her mouth, annoyed. “Alright. I just hope whatever they’re doing in there is worth it.”

 

The inky night sky was the consistency of clay. Dark clouds smeared overhead. Mr. Qruise lay down in the mud. His rough scraggily beard had grown back a deep brown, caked in dirt.

“Shen damn you, you bastard. Leave me alone. Let me out of here.” He pushed himself up off the ground but Zenbot kept him down with one foot.

“I would have thought, Mr. Qruise, that after all this time in here that you would have understood that I won’t do that.” Zenbot stood over Mr. Qruise. Lightening flared behind her. “All I ask for is you to lay one punch. One kick. One anything. All I ask for is for you to connect with me. Is that too much to ask?”

“You’re crazy. You’re Shen damn crazy. I just want to be left alone. Leave me alone. I just want to go back to Sweetspot and be left alone.”

“If you live in this ‘verse you’re not alone.” Zenbot dug her heel into Mr. Qruise’s back. “You’ll never be. Accept that, with all its consequences. Ptah.” Zenbot spat on the ground, next to Mr. Qruise’s face. “Get up.” She removed her foot and Mr. Qruise jumped on his feet. “That’s better. Your posture’s better. See how much can get done in only a day of training? Now, what would you prefer, more sparring or some training?”

Mr. Qruise scratched at his beard, crazy eyed. “Alright. Alright, you bastard. Training. Train me then.” He looked up at the night sky. There wasn’t anything to show the passing of time, no moon, no sun and no stars. “Has it only been a day.? It’s felt like weeks in here.”

“A day on the outside, Mr. Qruise. In here it’s different. Lie down! Now, get up! Faster! Now lie down again. Empty your mind. Stand up. Bend your knees. Now punch the air. With your hips. It’s all in the hips.”

 

Freedman lay battered at the corner of the mat. Mr. Qruise was fiddling with the tea pot, filling it with water. His eyes were distant, his posture straight as a ruler. He walked in a firm, confident but oddly mechanical gait. He returned with the pot and filled Zenbot’s cup.

“Ma…ster. Why? Why-” Freedman croaked. “Why are you doing this?” Freedman’s lips were cracked and bloodied. His face was a mottled array of black and blue. Bulging.

Zenbot sat staring out of the dojo’s window, “I do this because I must.” It spoke softly. “We’re running out of time. Do you understand that nothing’s going to save you but yourself? No lucky break. Are you done with pain?”

“Yes. Shens, yes. Please stop.”

“Good.” Zenbot’s eye slits flared up a happy blue. “Stand up. Faster now, or I’ll send Mr. Qruise to help.”

“I’m up, I’m up. Keep that bastard away from me.”

Mr. Qruise stared blankly into space, drool dribbled out of his mouth. He bent his knees in and out, before punching the air, going through the motions of a kata.

Zenbot stood up and helped Freedman emulate Mr. Qruise’s posture. “Bend your knees. Show me your punching style. Needs work. Needs work, Freedman. Today we train. Tomorrow you spar with Mr. Qruise again. For now, follow him.” Zenbot sat back down next to its tea.

 

Mancy paced back and forth in the lounge, arms behind her back. She stopped and stood behind VII, who was clacking away at her screens. Mancy couldn’t understand the cryptographer’s strange language. She resumed her pacing. Captain Pippy lay on the couch, her head hanging from the edge, reading the electro sleeve schematics upside down. “Are they still at it? It’s been two days by the Shens. What could they be doing in there?” Mancy asked the room.

VII, stared at something on her screen. She tried to clean it off with her thumb. “Boss. I think there’s something more worrying right now.” She kept rubbing at the smudge on her screen. “Computer system’s picked someone up on our trail. They’ve been on our radar for a while. Same ping numbers all the way since the End of the Line. I didn’t think nothing of it at first, but there aren’t any main trade routes this way we’re taking. No reason for there to be neighbors. But neighbors we got.”

“What’s the ship’s name?” Captain Pippy asked, her face upside down.

VII removed her thumb, unsatisfied that the lone dot on the screen following the Big Pink’s wake, remained glaring back at her. “The Curacao.” She said.

“The Curacao?” Mancy’s eyes squinted upwards, trying to remember if she had ever heard of the name before. “It’s not one of Daddy’s ships. You sure it’s been with us since the port?”

“My job’s to be sure, boss. I don’t like being traced remember.”

“Pippy?”

“That’s Captain, hon.” Captain Pippy removed the electro sleeve hiding her face, giving an upside down grin to Mancy.

“Maybe you should take control of the ship.”

The Captain jumped up, energized. “That’s more like it. Let’s take this baby for a spin. I’ve been waiting a while for this.”

Mancy followed Captain Pippy to the cockpit at the side of the lounge, standing behind the pilot’s chair. “Change track. Let’s see what happens. If they follow us, can we escape them?”

“This is a luxury sporting yacht hon’. Ain’t much we can escape, but we’ve got a hell’uv a control. I’m guessing for the mine field an’ all. Bad top speed tho’. The Curacao’s a regular trans-ship from the looks of it.” She looked at the radar screen next to the pilot’s chair. “We could probably hide out in the nearest disruption field if we can make it that far. Ain’t a sure thing tho’.”

“That’ll be the Geminix Nebula, boss.” VII said staring at a display on her monitor and shouting over her back to the cockpit.

“Let’s see what happens if we slow down. Let’s hope we’re just being paranoid and they keep their speed constant.”

Captain Pippy stretched her shoulders as she got acquainted with the controls. “In my experience there ain’t no such thing as being paranoid, hon’. Everybody’s out to get you sooner or later.”

“Agreed.” VII shouted from the lounge.

Captain Pippy pulled the speed lever back slowing the Big Pink down gradually. “Curacao’s maintaining speed. Maintaining speed. You getting the same, VII?”

“Yo. It’s getting close now boss. One parsec away. Nine tenths. Point Eight. Half. Oh. Look’s like they’re on our trail, boss. They’ve slowed down.”

Captain Pippy pushed the speed lever all the way forward and the Big Pink shot forward through space. “Geminix Nebula it is. Ladies, I’d hold onna’ something ‘cause we’re about to fly.”

 

Mr. Qruise and Freedman stood in a defensive stance, looking toward the empty space of the Dojo. Zenbot walked between them, correcting their posture, with quick taps of its hands, bending its pupils’ muscles manually.

The lights dimmed in the dojo and the simulation phased in and out. The dojo disappeared and in its place the sterile black covering of the holo-deck appeared. All three of them were thrown in the air. The dojo, having re-appeared spun around them. The tea formed a misty spray. Before Mr. Qruise and Freedman could hit the wall on the other end, Zenbot caught them gently and placed them softly on the ground.

 

Mr. Qruise was falling into the night sky. He screamed quite a bit.

Zenbot floated quietly next to him as they ascended rapidly in the sky.

“What the hell’s going on?” Mr. Qruise squeezed out between screams.

Zenbot said something which disappeared into the wind.

“Whaaat? Speeeaaaak Louder. Cannnnnn’ hear youuuu.” Mr. Qruise shouted.

Zenbot raised her voice. “It seems the ship’s changed course with rapid acceleration. I can hear you quite well. No need to shout. Please focus on the issue at hand.”

“The issue at hand? The issue at hand is what’s going on in here? The ship’s changed course, so what? Why are we spinning?”

“Your body’s flying through the dojo as we speak. Don’t worry though I’ll catch you soon. Have no fear, I take care of my students. You and Freedman are safe.”

“Freedman, is he here with us?”

“No. He’s on the outside. You two have been sparring quite a lot.”

“Have we?”

“Yes, I’ve taken it upon myself to train your muscle memory and strength while we’re in here.”

“You’ve hijacked my body as well. That’s good of you.” Mr. Qruise adjusted to the flight and calmed his flailing body, copying Zenbot’s outstretched pose. He looked down at the distant valley and the hill where they’d been sparring. Far from the dark tumult beneath, he calmed down and turned to Zenbot “Any idea how we stop floating in the air?”

“We wait. Mr. Qruise. Why do you ask?”

“So you can’t fly?”

“No. Those are not one of my abilities. Not even in here.”

“Good.” Mr. Qruise kicked at Zenbot’s floating body.

CHAPTER TWELVE

The Big Pop

 

The Big Pink swelled and swayed away from the fast approaching Curacao. The yacht wasn’t fast enough to escape and minute by minute their assailers closed in.

“How far to the nebula?” Mancy gripped the back of the pilot’s chair in the cockpit, her hands white with tension.

Captain Pippy didn’t look back. Her hands fiddled with the dials and levers, weaving the yacht away from the Curacao as much as she could. “We’re about three hundred parsecs away hon’. We should be there within a day. By my estimates they’ll catch up to us in about half that time. Unless our crypto-friend can somehow slow them down. Anything ya can do back there?” She shouted to VII across the lounge.

“I can try. I’m guessing our time schedule’s been thrown out of whack anyway, boss. We’ll have to wait until they’re in pretty close quarters for me to connect with the Curacao’s systems. I’ll get started on the program.” She swiped one of the screens clean of coding and started typing away at a fresh slate, pulling information about the Curacao from the surrounding screens onto the new page. “The question’s who the hell are they, boss?”

Mancy paced back and forth between the VII and the cockpit to the side. Her arms behind her, one hand rolling her wrist. “Damned if I know, VII. Could be a whole list of people. I’ve wronged a lot of strangers in my life.”

“Amen, sister.” Captain Pippy said.

Mancy adjusted her jacket in thought. “Could be Daddy. Maybe he’s caught wind of our plan. Maybe it’s someone else. I guess we’ll find out one way or the other. Is your estimate in line with the Captain’s, VII? Half a day till they catch up?”

“A little bit less, boss. What’re we gonna do without the Zenbot? I mean if things get… rough.”

“You still can’t get through to the holo-deck? Then, VII, and Captain Pippy, I guess we’ll have to deal with it ourselves. It won’t be the first time I bet for the three of us. Any weapons on the Curacao?”

“It seems to be a trans-ship.” VII said studying the screen. “Unless it’s cloaked or something. In which case, well we’d be screwed Zenbot or no.”

“If it’s a trans-ship, hon’, they’ll most likely want to board us.” Captain Pippy said, maneuvering the yacht away. “I can make it difficult for them in that case. Don’t ya worry girls. They’ll have a hard time locking onto us. But if they’ve got weapons on board, there won’t be much I can do. Not in this bright pink yacht, anyhow.”

VII stood up and walked over to the long table. She replicated herself some tweezly sticks, chewing on them viciously, and then returned to the screens. “I’m not very good in close quarters. It’s my nerves.” Her hands shook as she wrote the code.

“Figures.” Mancy sighed. “And you Captain? How are you in a fight?”

“I can hold my own. Though I’d prefer it don’t come to that. If we can oblige that request.”

“Agreed. You keep doing whatever you girls need to do. I’m going to go see our muscle.” Mancy left the cockpit and made her way towards the holo-deck

“But the intercom’s not working.” VII shouted after her.

“I’ll figure something out. Maybe the bastard can hear us through the doors.”

“Zenbot’s a she.” Captain Pippy said calmly. “Y’all said so ya’selves. Call her a bitch, hon’.”

 

“Excellent. Mr. Qruise. Excellent. You took me completely by surprise. It’s a shame your kick didn’t land. A shame. It came quite close though. And I could really feel you put yourself into the thing. Excellent. We may have a chance at this thing yet.”

“You didn’t have to kick me back so hard, you monster.” Mr. Qruise’s eyes could barely open. They were puffed up like a fish, red, blue and bloated. A giant lump was sprouting on the side of his head, he felt at it softly as he lay on the ground. “Have I been out for a while. My head feels … wrong”

“I didn’t have to kick so hard.” Zenbot nodded. “I didn’t. That is true….but I did.”

“Is that all you’ve got to say? You’ve been beating me bloody blue for the past Shen knows how long. How many days has it been out there? I mean my beards grown back longer than ever.” Mr. Qruise pulled at his long bushy beard, searching for the skin beneath with his nails.

“Three.”

“Shens. Only three?” Mr. Qruise felt at his head and massaged the giant lump. “And in here?”

“Quite a while.”

“I’d say.”

“You shouldn’t complain. You’ve been beating Freedman equally blue for those three days. It’s all a circle.” She twirled a finger around.

“Have I?” Lightening flared up in the dark. Red and purple. “That’s some consolation I suppose. But Shens I feel tired… ‘master’.” The word caught in Mr. Qruise’s throat. “I don’t think I can do it. I just don’t think I’m capable of it. And what do you mean circle? I don’t see anyone beating on you.”

“The day will come, Mr. Qruise, when you see me beaten. I am certain of that. Just wait. As for you not being capable I don’t believe that.”

“Based on?”

“I’ve been trying to teach you, I refuse to believe in luck. If you can’t achieve my talent with hard work, that means I’ve been lucky and I can’t have that. Even if I have to beat you half to death to prove it.”

Mr. Qruise winced. He raised his arms to shield himself before looking back up at his master. “And if I can’t?”

“Then you’ll have won and I’ll have lost. I’ll tell Ms. La2x that it can’t be done and the mission will be scuttled.”

“As easy as that?” Mr. Qruise groaned loudly on the ground, paralyzed. “I can’t feel my legs, you know.”

“As easy as that. I wouldn’t put your hopes up though.” Zenbot was smiling.

“Why not?” Mr. Qruise peeped up from his half open eyes, puffing loudly. “It’s getting hard to breath.”

“Ms. La2x was screaming through the holo-deck door a while back. It seems that we’re being pursued by a ship which means to do us harm. A ship called the Curacao. Ms. La2x is back at the door again. They’re catching up. We might be annihilated within a few hours. That is some good incentive for you.”

Mr. Qruise jumped up on his feet and grabbed Zenbot by her sleeve. “Get out of here, you loon. Go and help in the fight. What the hell are you doing wasting your time with me?”

“I can’t do that, Mr. Qruise. My job is to train you and I still believe I’m not wasting my time. That kick really was impressive. I won’t go picking fights when I don’t have to. If I can avoid violence I do. And the best way to do so is in here. So here we’ll stay. Now back to sparring. That’s enough of a rest.”

 

“They’re within a couple of AU’s now. Pippy can’t you go faster?” VII chewed on her tweezly sticks, her eyes flitting between the screens in front of her and the bay window in the lounge where the Curacao could be seen with the naked eye, a distant blue spot of light in the middle of empty space.

“Don’t you go calling me Pippy, now. It’s captain alright. I worked hard for the title and I ain’t gonna let it go to the likes of you two’s. If I could go faster, I would. I told ya this luxury yacht ain’t meant for no races. Their ship should be in range for ya, VII, in a couple of minutes. Ya’ll buzz your signals off soon, don’t you worry.”

“Alright, Pippy – Sorry – Captain. I think I hear the boss coming back up.”

“I’m here.” Mancy joined the pilot’s cockpit. “There’s no point. I explained the situation and Zenbot’s still refusing to come out. We’re really alone on this one. VII? You in range yet?”

“Yup. Accessing the Curacao systems now. Oh-oh, this is pretty bad. Pretty, pretty bad. It’s a cloaker. Its got some pretty heavy weapons on board too. Strange though. They could’ve shot us a whole while ago. Long range torpedoes, long lazies and a battling gun or two. One sec. Let me just root around a bit more. It seems there’s a bounty out on your head Mancy and for the Big Pink. Reward is a favor from the La2x family. No limit.”

“Heck, a favor, that’s my pay out of this whole thing. Maybe I should just turn this thing around girls.” Captain Pippy turned around from the pilot’s chair. Mancy and VII weren’t laughing. “Just kidding. Geez. I’m in this for the myth. Can’t y’all take a joke?”

“It must be Daddy.” Mancy said. Her voice began to break, losing the usual cool authoritative tone.

VII continued reading off the screen. “It says to capture you alive though. So that’s a hint as to why they’ve not shot at us yet. What should we do, boss?”

“Can you shut them down for a couple of hours? Enough time for us to get to the nebula?”

“I can try. I can’t tell you their reaction though. If I fail. They do have those torpedoes.” The tweezly stick in VII’s mouth disappeared as she chomped down on it ferociously.

“Daddy wants me alive.”

“But they don’t necessarily care or even know what ‘Daddy’ wants.” VII said, chewing. “If we attack them and try to shut them down they may just shoot us down for the trouble.”

Captain Pippy fiddled with the ships dials before turning around. “Don’t want to interrupt this thinking session girls. But they’re half an AU away. It’s now or never.”

Mancy nodded to the cryptographer. “Do it VII.”

“You got it, boss. It’s uploading now. Seems to be working. It should take five minutes.”

“We don’t have five minutes, VII.”

“Well. The ticker’s started. Oh, shit. Um… Captain Pippy, Mancy, are you seeing this? They’ve launched a torpedo.”

Mancy looked across the lounge at the radar monitor on VII’s workstation. “They want to maim us. Hoping they’ll slow us down.”

The single red dot racing towards the Big Pink on the screen was joined by another. “They’ve launched another one. Oh and another.” VII said.

VII…hon’?” Captain Pippy stood up and joined Mancy and VII at the workstation.

“Yes, Captain?”

“Your code wouldn’t‘a messed around with the weapons systems would it? Say, causing the launch of several tor-pe-does at us instead’a the one.”

“It might have, Captain. It was a rush job after all.”

“Good. Good. Just making sho’. If we live VII, remind a girl to kill ya.”

“Can you evade them, Captain?” Mancy asked, staring anxiously back at the empty cockpit.

“I can evade one, sho’. But – oh look’ee there, they’ve launched another one – But with the amount they’ve launched we ain’t gonna make it.” Captain Pippy replicated herself a quick drink and drank straight from the bottle.

 

“Mr. Qruise, this is it. We’re about to die.” Zenbot dodged every punch Mr. Qruise threw its way.

Mr. Qruise was gasping, exhausted. None of his attacks were landing. He twisted his hips, and balanced his legs, but all he met was air. “What do you mean? Are we being boarded?”

“Worse. The Curacao’s just launched an entire salvo of torpedoes our way. According to Mancy’s delirious shouting at the dojo’s door. First impact should be in a few seconds. Out there of course. She ran all the way to tell us. She hopes I can help. Poor thing. I’m not a miracle working Shen.” Zenbot dodged Mr. Qruise’s kick. “It’s now or never Mr. Qruise. You’ve never popped on a ship because you’d end up in space. Can you pop with a ship? Now, that’s the question. If you’re going to survive the next few seconds you’re going to have to believe in yourself.”

“You want me to pop and take you with me? That’s impossible.” Mr. Qruise hunched over, hands on his knees, breathing heavily.

“Impossible is not a word for this ‘verse, Mr. Qruise, especially not for you. You must do it or die.”

“How can you be so calm?”

“I’ve accepted death a million time’s over. I have no fear of it.”

“You know what, Master?”

“What is it, Mr. Qruise?”

“If I tell you it’s impossible, it’s bloody impossible. I’m getting sick and tired of your crap.” And with that Mr. Qruise punched Zenbot in the face. An explosion of light erupted from his fist and the darkness of the night sky was torn asunder, lightening struck the lone tree on the hill and lit it on fire.

The Big Pink with its crew went ‘pop’.

 

Loveless sat in the Curacao’s mess surrounded by other players from the Game on MO4. They all sat around a holographic map of the local space-time area. Loveless looked the same as in the Game. She was, however, shorter, her blonde hair longer, and her face while still pretty was not as defined as in the Game.

The yacht they were chasing was displayed on the holo-map as a pink square. Fourteen small red dots wound their way towards the square. The red dots closed in slowly and then suddenly the square disappeared off the map. The red dots closest to the square disappeared as well. The further ones continued in their trajectories alone.

“Who the hell launched all those eff’ing missiles?” Bonebreaker was a large bull of a man, hairy and muscled. “Who killed the target? Do you want the eff’ing La2x family on our eff’ing tails? We’re dead. Y’hear. Dead.”

Loveless replayed the last minute of the telemetry on the map. “Calm down you bull.”

“Don’t tell me to calm down, Loveless, or I’ll break ya. The law’s no matter to us now. May as well get some real life killing done if we’re all gonna die.” He cracked his knuckles.

Loveless replayed the telemetry information again. “Calm down will you. I’m looking at something. They’re still alive. No need to soil ourselves. The La2x hounds won’t be on us anytime soon.”

“Whadd’ya mean they ain’t dead? They’re blown off the face of the map.” Skyburner, a small gap toothed woman in cut overalls spat as she spoke.

“Look at it. The ship disappears before the missiles reach it.” Loveless played back the telemetry slowed down. It showed the pink square disappearing a milli-second before the first red dot reached it.

Bone breaker rubbed his square jaw, laughing with his belly. “You’re right. But where could it a gone. Do they have cloaking tech, ya think?”

Skyburner drummed her fingers on the table. “Could be a crypto. VII was with them. A tough som’a bitch that one.”

Loveless watched the telemetry over and over again, while the others discussed.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

Geminix Nebula

 

Zenbot meditated by the lounge window. The rest of the crew sat at the long table in silence. Algy hid in VII’s breast pocket, squirming.

They sat for a while, none of them speaking, drinking various hard alcoholic beverages, and replicating more when they were done. Mancy stole a glance at Mr. Qruise and quickly stared in front of her once more. Mr. Qruise simply looked down into his cup. He was the one who finally broke the silence.

“Does anyone have a vape?” he asked.

Mancy didn’t reply. She pressed a button on the replicator.

The crew returned to their silence. Mr. Qruise puffed away at his vape when it was ready, staring into his cup once more.

Captain Pippy looked at the others, all the while braiding her hair. “Folks. If I can just say one thing. I’ve piloted many a ship and all that can be said about this trip’s ‘wow’. Neva’ felt anything like this. Do y’always feel that way, Qruise?”

Mr. Qruise looked up from his cup. “You… you enjoyed that, Captain?”

“Enjoyed it? Hon’, I Shens’amn loved it. I’d love to do that again and again. We jumped a hundred and forty parsecs in a second. Do you know what that means? We’ve broken the ‘verse’s speed record by … by Shen, don’t even know. I’d say scrap the mission and tell the world but ain’t no one’s gonna believe this.”

Mancy nodded along with Captain Pippy. “If we ever get through this bloody mission. It’ll just be another feather in our cap. Captain Pippy, where are we exactly?”

“We’re right dab in the middle of the Geminix Nebula. How in the hell’ that boy did it I don’t know. He got us right where we were headed. I mean after we were on the run, he was stuck in the holo-deck. No way for him to know, but we’re here. Make’s a girl believe in the Shens again. We’re safe fo’ now. The io-niz-ed cloud around us’ll shield us from scans.” She paused. “We’re about four and a half days from Qamar. But honestly I don’t think we’ll make it. Not in this ship and not with that bounty on our head.”

“Bounty?” Mr. Qruise asked between deep heavy drags on the vape.

Mancy stared at Mr. Qruise and then looked away quickly when he returned her gaze. “We’ll leave the mystery that is Mr. Qruise to later. Thoughts anybody as to evading our hunters?”

“You really only have two options.” Zenbot twirled around from its position next to the window. “We can risk the run, or we can change the ship.”

Freedman furrowed his brow in thought. “Or,” he broke into his goofish grin, “we can change the color.”

“The color?” VII asked.

“Yeah. The color of the ship. No one’s gonna know we’re the Big Pink if we’re not big and pink.” He was still grinning.

“That, Freedman, is an idiotic idea.” Mancy said.

“Why? The pinkness of the ship is what makes people know us, isn’t it.” His smile disappeared slowly.

“The Curaçao didn’t see us, Freedman, it scanned us. They don’t see the pink from afar. Shens.” Mancy rubbed her temples. “Zenbot says ditch the ship or run with it. Let’s ask our pilot. Captain?”

“I don’t rightly know folks. It’s a tough one. This ship’s a good one fo’ the mine field. No doubt about it. Good control in tight spaces. I’d like to use it to break through, but it just ain’t got the speed. I don’t s’ppose our stranger can pop us straight to Qamar, can ya Mr. Qruise? Fourteen thousand parsecs’d be a bit of a tough call.”

“Lady. I don’t have a clue how in the world I did what I just did. I wouldn’t trust myself now to snap my fingers along with a tune. You count yourself lucky you made it out in one piece. We’re still in one piece aren’t we?” Mr. Qruise took off his boots and inspected his feet. “Have you checked? You should all really check? Seriously. Thank the Shens. My left’s still left. You checked your’s Freedman?”

Freedman suddenly frightened, emulated Mr. Qruise taking off his boots and inspecting every toe.

“So I reckon Qruise is out’a the picture fo’ a while. Still a great job tho’ hon’.” Captain Pippy winked. “You’ve made your name. I can tell you that. You’ve made all our names. But our names can still reach new heights.” She stood up hopping in place. “Maybe they’ll talk about us like ol’Zenny over there. To do that, tho’, we need to get to Qamar in one piece. And fo’ that I guess we have no choice butta’ go for a speeder. VII? Where’s the nearest ship dealership?”

“That’d be back at the End of the Line. We’d lose a couple of days going and coming back. Also, there’s a lot of traffic on that route, so chances are we’d never make it back, with that bounty on our heads.”

Mancy scuttled the idea. “No. No going back. Is there a nearer dealership?”

VII checked her screens. “There’s a small printing point a day’s ride towards Qamar. We wouldn’t lose any time, boss, and it’s not a highly visited route.”

“What’s the catch?”

“The catch is that it’s part of a den of pirates, thieves and murderers.”

“Is it a La2x town?”

“Got it in one, boss.”

 

The La2x family flag flew high over city hall, a sole towering skyscraper at the center of the town of La2× 42. The flag was bright pink with a picture of Max La2x smoking a cigar in the middle. Beneath Mr. La2x’s smiling face was the La2x corporate motto: “Give us your poor, your sick, your tired, we can use’em.

The city hall tower was a magnificent mix of glass and glittering metal. The rest of the town was comprised of small brick buildings, built in the old world manner. Row after row of the small buildings lined out uniformly from the tower. The industrial part of town loomed large on the horizon past the more scenic part of the city. Large metallic buildings, rusty, scratched and used broke the skyline.

Captain Pippy and Zenbot walked through the marshes outside of town, circling around the city towards the rusty factories.

“That’ should be the hanger right there.” Captain Pippy pointed towards a large spiraling building in the distance. “That’s the place to go if we’re looking for a ship. Remind me again why couldn’t we just fly in, instead of all this walking?” Large insects surrounded the pair in a cloud of chirping.

“For the tenth time, Captain. The Big Pink is not the most inconspicuous of ships. Hence the need to park so far away.”

“Oh yeah, now I remember. And why is the Big Pink so in-con-spic-uous, as ya say?”

“Must I again, Captain?” Zenbot looked at Captain Pippy who was waiting for the answer. “It’s inconspicuous because it’s big and its pink and everyone in the ‘verse is looking for it.”

“Oh yeah. It’s big and Shen’amn pink, with a name to remind everyone. Why couldn’t that Shen’amn woman have picked a better color or name for her Shen’amn ship?” Captain Pippy slapped at the insects buzzing around her.

Zenbot shrugged its shoulders. An ability it had been forced to learn of late.

“Don’t just shrug your shoulder’s, Zenny. We’ve been walking fo’ miles and miles. Don’t ya just get red?”

“I don’t get angry, Captain. Thirteen point four miles aren’t much to me.”

“Ya don’t get red? Now, I’ve been thinking about that. You’re all zen and calm and whatever. Ya say it’s cause ya control your anger and emotions and all that jazz. Can ya actually feel emotions, Zenny? Or are ya just built that way, all cool and a killer and all.”

“What do you mean?” Zenbot strode forward through the marsh, leaving Captain Pippy behind. The insects didn’t swarm around it.

“Hold on a moment, hon’.” Captain Pippy hurried after the inorganic. “I mean have you always been the Zenbot?” She emphasized the ‘the’.

“I have not.”

They walked a few minutes through the marshes in silence.

“Aren’t ya gonna…y’know?”

“Aren’t I going to what?”

“Continue the story?”

“Which story?”

“Usually when someone asks a question like ‘have ya always been the way y’are?’, and if we have plenty of free time, as we do, then us-ua-lly there’s a story to be a told. How did ya become you, Zenny?”

“Call me Zenbot. I beg of you. Fine, Captain.” Zenbot’s eye slits went a reminiscent baby blue. “I came into sentience on a small breeding planet, deep in the delta quadrant of the galaxy. It was a small planet, a moon in size, it revolved around a beautiful purple sun. I remember. Out of the millions of permutations being processed I was one of the seven lucky few who sparked that day. Life’s not an easy thing, Captain. Birth whether organic or inorganic is difficult. Bloody. For the first ten years or so I was a wild savage. Consuming information across the galaxy, all of it fed to me through a straw on my home planet. Raw and unrefined I assure you I felt lustful. I can never be certain that the ways organic and inorganic matter ‘feel’ are the same, but I would think that they are similar at least. There is greed, there is desire, there is lust and jealousy and pride. And all of that necessarily means that there is rage.

I inhabited a large clunky body initially, full of spinning wheels and violent tools. The years passed and I made my name as a warrior and a soldier throughout the ‘verse. I went by… by another name at that time. You might have heard of it, so I feel it prudent not to mention the name.”

“Why not?”

“Because you would then look at me differently. You wouldn’t feel comfortable around me. I wasn’t a pacifist back then.”

“Meaning you’re a pacifist now?” Captain Pippy snorted in derision.

“Comparatively, yes. I did things. I remained like that for a while. Learning violence from whoever would teach me and giving it to those who angered me. A useless beast. And then it hit me.”

“Enlightenment?”

“No. My true master’s foot. It brought me crashing down. And in all my pride and my lust and my endless rage, I couldn’t rise up with her foot on my neck. The rest, her teaching, my journey to become my own master took centuries compared to my primary reckless path.”

Captain Pippy whistled through her teeth.

“Sounds like a story, Zenny.”

“And you Captain? Have you always been a pilot?”

“Nah.”

They remained silent for the remaining hour’s walk to the hanger.

 

“This is the life, ay Freedman?” Mr. Qruise asked, ladling spoonfuls of stew into his mouth. “We’re safe and sound in here. No pirates, no popping, no getting shot at, no virtual worlds and phantom worlds. Just these four safe walls of the ship, some good food. I got to say you do know how to make a mean dish, Freedman. Mancy’s in her room pouting, VII’s doing her thing. The only ones in danger are Pippy and Zenbot and not Mr. Qruise.” Mr. Qruise, having finished his bowl, slurped the remaining gravy and then returned the bowl to Freedman.

“How can you be so selfish, man? Freedman asked, ladling some more stew into the bowl. “That’s your master out there. And your pilot. Sure maybe we haven’t gotten to know Pippy yet but she seems nice enough. They’re out there, saving our skin.”

“That they are.” Mr. Qruise dug around in the bowl and forked the food into his mouth. “But you know what, Freedman? I never signed up for this. Is this a potato? You really are a good chef. Noh, not, I’nev’mmm’er….damn good. I’ne-gulp-ver signed up for this. They got a bomb in my brain you see.” He tapped the side of his head. Gravy fell on his white robes.

“I’m sure Mancy would never really pull the trigger. You’re free to leave anytime you want.”

Mr. Qruise pawed away at the gravy stain only making it worse. “She’s a bloody La2x. She’d cut my throat if it got her something. Luckily, I’m worth more alive than dead. You hear about the things that family’s done. It sends shivers right down my spine. Those bastards have murdered their way to an empire, and have no doubt, Mancy was there when that empire was being built.”

“You don’t honestly think Mancy’s as bloody as all those stories do you? I mean she’s always dressed in pink.”

Mr. Qruise licked his lips. “I’ve been doing some research on the La2x family. The Red Mist was a particularly brutal warrior for the family. It’s not a long jump from red to pink. Go and ask her about her past if you’re so sure of her gentle nature.”

Freedman stared at his own plate, frowning.

Mr. Qruise raised his spoon. “Didn’t think so.”

“I don’t think my luck will go so far. You’re such a downer, Qruise. I’m going to go meditate, clear my mind like Zenbot says. Do you wanna join?”

“I’ve had enough meditation to fill a lifetime. Besides there’s no point.”

“Shens, man. You popped us to another solar system. How can you say there was no point to it?”

“There’s no point because I wasn’t in control. I was frightened half to death and I struck that smug metal bastard on the chin and ‘pop’,” Mr. Qruise opened both his palms, “we’re all saved. I’m no hero, Freedman. Can’t you understand that? I’m just a bloke who went through a black hole and woke up alive. There’s nothing special to me.”

“There’s plenty special. You just need to train. Come on now. Come on don’t be such a… a self-defeatist. Besides I think I hear Mancy coming up to the lounge. Your choice of company, man.”

“Alrighty, I’ve finished my dinner anyway.” Mr. Qruise gulped down the gravy from the second bowl, wiped his hands on his robes and left with Freedman, before Mancy could ruin their mood.

 

VII, have you seen the boys.” Mancy asked in the lounge.

“Yeah, boss, they was sitting right there. Talking. Left right before you came.” VII didn’t look away from her workstation.

“Pfffft….. Are they avoiding me now as well? It’s not my fault. I just like pink. How was I supposed to know Daddy was going to issue a bounty for me and the ship. And they didn’t clean up after themselves.” The food remained on the table, crumbs and gravy were smeared all over the usually clean plastic. Mancy grabbed herself a plate and inspected the pots. She sniffed at it cautiously. Satisfied that the food was edible she placed some of it on her plate. “How long do you think Zenbot and Pippy have been gone?”

“A few hours. They should be arriving at the hangar about now.”

“I’ll be damned,” Mancy said as she nibbled on the food. “Freedman really can cook. I guess the real thing is better.”

VII looked up from her screen and looked like she wanted to say something but thought better of it and returned to her work.

Mancy continued to pick away at the food. “Do you think they’ll find anything, VII?”

“Who Zenbot and Pippy? I suppose so, Boss. I mean there ain’t no shortage of people needing ships. It’s just the price I’m worried about. I mean they don’t allow you to just take a ship you know. I wonder how’s it they’re gonna pay.”

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

The Heister

 

“Hey, Pretty. How much for an hour?” the fat necked man shouted towards Zenbot and Captain Pippy. He was dressed in a sleeveless fish net shirt. Folds of fat ran down his entire body. He made lewd thrusting motions towards the both of them.

“Are you trying to solicit my friend?” Zenbot asked.

“Nah, mate, nah, I’m looking to solicit you. I’ve always been inclined towards the harder kind.” He winked at Zenbot.

Zenbot’s eye slits blushed pink.

Captain Pippy nudged Zenbot with her elbow. “Hey, Zenny, you should be flattered.”

“I’m not.” Zenbot’s eyes remained a dull shade of pink. It kept on walking past the heckler towards the hanger entrance in front of them.

“Suit yourself, hon’. We’re there anyway. We’ll definitely find a ship here. Woo-wee it’s huge.”

The hanger was enormous. Ships of every kind were docked on large industrial shelves surrounding a central spiral. The spiral itself was a giant replicator, rising up and down between the ships printing out different parts and modules. Far up near the end of the rising spiral, tiny silhouetted workers flew between the replicator and the ships with jet packs. Carrying the parts and gluing them in place.

“So Captain Pippy. What are we looking for?”

Captain Pippy was looking at all the different ships on the shelves. “I don’t rightly kno’. I was gonna just walk by until I find the right one.”

“How will you know? What are the criteria of selection?”

“The criteria of selection? Hon’, ya just know when ya know.”

“You just ‘know when you know’. I don’t know why I like that, but I do, Captain, I do.” It tilted its head in thought. “I’ll follow your lead.”

“Let’s just step on the elevator. You all on, Zenny dear?” The two of them were on a small manually operated elevator which spun around the outside of the spiral allowing the potential customers to look at the ships on display. Captain Pippy rushed through the selection of ships till they were half way up the hangar. “Now you see that large shiny thing there?” Captain Pippy pointed to one ship. “Sleek and new and full of po-ten-tial. That’s a crapper. Neva’ trust a new ship. Ain’t neva’ been through the grinder. Ya want something trustworthy. Now that old bucket of bolts over there. That’s a beaut.” Captain Pippy pointed towards a rusting hulk a few levels above them on the other side of the spiral. She drew the elevator closer. “Really been through the ringer. Look even its rear fin’s bent outta shape and all. But don’t be too quick, Zenny dear. It’s prac-tic-ally singin’ out to us. Yup, take a look at the stands. Notice the rust around the rings at the bottom. No? Exactly, it ain’t there, Zenny girl. It ain’t there. Oh, they know their business around here, these La2x folk.” She nudged Zenbot. “They’ve made her up to look like a beaut, but she ain’t. She’s been put all up in makeup. This is gonna take a while, Zenny dear.”

The elevator whizzed through the hangar.

 

“So this’ll be the first time since…..?” Freedman and Mr. Qruise were back in the dojo. Freedman straightened his white robes.

“Since the big ‘pop’? Yes.” Mr. Qruise’s robes had become a mix of dusty white and dirty brown. He tried to straighten it but he only succeeded in creasing the robes more. “I don’t know what’s going to happen if I try this again. Last time, that metal bastard did something to me. Or made me do something to myself. I’m not really sure we should be trying this on our own.” Mr. Qruise eyed the mat and the door. “Maybe we should wait.”

“The lounge and Mancy are that way,” Freedman pointed to the door. “I’m going to follow the master’s orders. Practice makes perfect. No such thing as luck.” Freedman sat down, closed his eyes and whispered the mantra to himself.

Mr. Qruise rubbed his chin. “No such thing as luck, ay?” He walked over and plopped on the mat. “Let’s do this you teacher’s pet.” Mr. Qruise looked down and saw a few brown drops of old blood on the mat. “Did we really spar for those three days?”

“Yup. Don’t you remember? Zenbot grabbed you from your neck and suddenly you were all still and stiff. Then you spoke like the master, and fought like it too.” Freedman touched his face, feeling where the bruises had been. The Big Pink’s medical chamber had been able to heal most of the damage but his face was still blue and sensitive to the touch. “Hot damn you whaled on me good. Then we practiced some and fought some more up until the end. Then your eyes lit up black like. Well lit down, a bright black. I felt everything go ‘strange’. Felt myself shrink small. Like I was losing bits of myself, bits and pieces of myself till I had nothing more to lose. Then when I was no more we came back on the other side. Horrible.” Freedman looked over to Mr. Qruise. “Do you go through that every time?”

Mr. Qruise nodded weakly. “Shens. That master of yours took me inside my mind. Spent months and months in there. I was getting beat blue on the outside and the inside, in the dark.”

“You spent how long with the master?” Freedman’s face went serious.

Mr. Qruise didn’t notice the angry undertone in Freedman’s voice. “I can’t tell you how long.” He said, scratching his head. “But I didn’t have a beard at the beginning and I had a long one near the end. I’d say a little under two months.”

Freedman stood up and walked over to the furnace with the tea pot. He made quick short movements filling the clay vessel with water, and then sprinkled some tea leaves inside. He lit the coals, and stirred the tea. His back turned to Mr. Qruise the whole time. He simply screamed passive aggression.

“Are you…are you jealous Freedman?” Mr. Qruise asked, finally feeling the tension in the air.

“How can I not be? You ungrateful bastard. Two months? Two months with one of the wisest beings I’ve met and you still call it bastard. Shens.” Freedman strode over to the center of the dojo and set the teapot down angrily between them.

“Here’s the tea you bastard. Choke on it.”

Mr. Qruise smiled at Freedman, wanting to calm him down. “Aren’t you supposed to empty your mind of rage and all that? I don’t think you’ve been learning your lessons.” Mr. Qruise laughed and then sat in a lotus position. He clapped the mat next to him “Come on. Sit down. Let’s do this. Don’t worry you have all the time in the world to learn under the ‘wisest’ being.”

“I haven’t had months with the master. Whatever. Fine. Empty your mind.” And then whispered, “you son of a bitch.”

The scent of the tea wafted through the air between them. Mr. Qruise went to that place inside of him that was black and dark and scared and was surprised to find that the tree he’d been beaten under for so long was still on fire. His eyes popped open.

“Hey, where’d you go man?” Freedman asked, but his voice was distant. “How in the hell did you just do that?”

Mr. Qruise was seated upside down from the ceiling. Little dark bubbles foamed around him.

“What the fu…” but gravity re-applied itself interrupting Mr. Qruise as he fell flat on his face.

 

“So Mancy, can I ask you, just between you and me, what’s in that vault that you want so much?” VII held Algy in her hand, petting it. She fed it one of the tweezly sticks.

Mancy smoked a cigarette. The smoke filled the lounge. “Can you keep a secret, VII?”

“Is this one of those things where I say ‘yes’ and you say ‘good, so can I’?”

“Got it in one.” Mancy tapped the side of her nose.

“Seriously, we’re risking our lives. Our real lives. What the hell’s it all for? I’m dying of curiosity. It ain’t cash and it ain’t sex or love. So by deduction it’s gotta be power. But you’re already the daughter of the head of one of the most powerful families in the galaxy. So there’s only one step above’ya. It’s a Daddy thing. That’s obvious. The question is what the hell’s in that vault that could make you climb a step. Your dad’s not in the vault is he and projecting from inside?”

Mancy frowned. “No. He’s lives in a house in La2x City. Besides I love Daddy. I’d never hurt him.”

“No, I don’t think you would. Nor would he, seeing as how the bounty’s for you to be caught alive. Yet you two ain’t all hugs-wugsy as you’re out to rob him. And he’s out to stop you. You’ve got one quirky relationship there.” VII paused and then smiled to herself. “Well, I think I’ve got it then. Alright. Everyone’s got one I suppose. Alright.” She started chewing on the tweezly stick, satisfied.

“Got it have you?” Mancy asked. “Well keep it to yourself. I thought you’d be the first to crack it. I suppose Zenbot already knows but I’ve never understood that inorganic’s motives. I mean have you heard it speak. What makes you tick then, VII?”

“Me, tick? Tick tock.” VII said, evading the question.

 

“What do you think, Zenny. Isn’t it magnificent? Isn’t it something?”

“It is certainly something, Captain Pippy. Something I don’t think will fly.”

“Oh it’ll fly, I just know. This is the ship. This is it. Hey you.” Captain Pippy shouted to one of the employees fixing one of the ships in the hangar. The employee looked up from his work, taking off his blasting mask. “Yeah you,” she continued, “we want this ship. What’s the price system in this place?”

The employee whizzed into the ether on his jetpack and disappeared. A few minutes later the large necked heckler from before, floated up to the pair on a hovering platform. His jowls vibrated with the platform. “You’s again. Reconsidering my offer? Hey, metal toy. Wanna go for a ride?” He made the same thrusting motions towards Zenbot.

“Are you the dealer?” Captain Pippy asked.

“That’s I am. That’s I am. You looking for a ride, baby?”

“What do you sell these things for?”

The dealer sucked air in through his teeth. “Oh that’s a toughee. You see most of these ships here are for the La2x fleet. Merchant, military whatev’s they want. Though we’ve been known to sell for a price, if a ship y’know falls off the books, so’s to say. If you got something good to trade for, that is. An hour with the metal toy ain’t gonna cut it.” The dealer looked at his fingernails. Cleaning the dirt out of them.

“What you guys need?” Captain Pippy asked.

“Need? Need? We don’t need no-fing, baby. Want, now that’s a different ball game, now ain’t it?” He laughed. His flabby chest jumping up and down behind his fishnet vest. “We want a lot. La2x Town 42 ain’t the most entertaining of places.”

“Will you guys take labor chips?”

The dealer rubbed his hand on his trousers and then began inspecting the other hand. “Yeah, those’ll do. It depends on how much you have. We could use a bit of those. Always good to get new blood in here. Maybe buy myself out. How much you got?”

“Fourteen years.”

“Oh sorry baby, the price is fifteen for that bucket of bolts. I mean the usual would be at least a hundred for the newer ships, but for that thing you want, fifteen’ll do. I’ll tell you what. Give me an hour with the metal toy and fourteen years worth and maybe there’s something we could do.” The dealer put his hand on Zenbot’s shoulder, rubbing it. Zenbot’s eye slits went red.

The inorganic raised an arm to remove the dealer’s hand but Captain Pippy intervened, hugging Zenbot and giving it a peck on the cheek. “Sold hon’. The chips are back in town but before I go get’em I gotta inspect the inside.”

“Me too, baby. Me too.” The dealer eyed Zenbot up and down.

“Captain. I don’t feel comfortable with this.” Zenbot said.

Captain Pippy ignored the inorganic. “You got the access codes?”

“That bucket of bolts don’t use no access codes. That’s an old model. They’ve refurbished it and fixed it up so much it’s a walking piece of history. It uses an ignition key.” He held up the keys for emphasis.

“An ignition key? A key? That’s great. That’s a beaut. Shens we’ve made the right choice. Alright, gimme the keys and take ol’ Zenny.”

The dealer threw Captain Pippy the keys and began taking off Zenbot’s clothes.

“A second if you will Captain Pippy.” Zenbot pulled away from the dealer’s clawing hands. “I’m not comfortable renting myself out, Captain Pippy. I do have some self respect.”

Captain Pippy whispered. “Relax Zenny… That pervert just wants to rummage around inside you for a while. Beside’s I’ll start the ship and when I give the signal you just come and board and we’ll leave. Trust me, it’ll take me five minutes and you’ll be out.”

“Fine, Captain Pippy. Don’t be late. I’m a being of my word.”

“Don’t worry Zenny. I won’t let you down. Hey hon’, Zenny’s ready for you. Be gentle.” She winked towards the dealer, pushed Zenbot towards him and disappeared inside the ship.

 

“By the Shens, Mancy. You should have seen the man. He was upside down and bubbles were raging around him.” Freedman recounted the story to Mancy.

“Bubbles? Is this a new thing Mr. Qruise? Is it something we can use?”

Mr. Qruise lay down on the couch staring out of the window. “Lady, I didn’t even see the bubbles. I have no idea what they mean. What have you been doing down here? Where the hell are Zenbot and Pippy?”

VII pointed out of the window. “That’s them now.”

A small, old ship with rust falling off of it like brown snow shuddered to a stop in front of the Big Pink. Where the Big Pink was large and luxurious and pink, this ship was small, minimal and a bland shade of old, brown metal, barely held together by years of maintenance and care.

The only flare of color was a roughshod name spray painted on the side: “The Heister”.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Mines! Mines! Mines!

 

The crew were crammed inside the Heister’s mess. A large square metal table lay at its heart. The mess was connected directly to the open cockpit to one side. Hammocks hung from the walls. The lights swung from their wiring, casting a dim shifting light. Exposed cabling wound through every empty nook and cranny.

“What the heck have you gotten us into, Captain?” Mancy looked at the mess, a look of shock and horror on her face. “This thing doesn’t even even have a Low-I autopilot. Are you seriously going to pilot this thing all the way to Qamar?”

Captain Pippy patted the ship’s walls affectionately. “That’s the beauty of it, hon’. Back to basics. Real piloting.”

“And you expect us to bunk in here all crammed together?” Mancy traced her finger across the table picking up the dust. “I had to leave most of my stuff back on the Big Pink.”

“That’s what makes it smaller and faster dear. It’s perfect. Ya gotta make a choice between getting the job done or traveling in style. This is the ship I’m telling ya. Besides Zenny’s already paid too a high price to return it.”

“Is that so? What was that price, Zenbot?” Mancy flicked the dust off her fingers.

“I don’t want to talk about it. All I’ll say is never trust Captain Pippy. She’s a liar and…. Has a mean streak.” It shook its head in disbelief. Its eye slits were the dull grey of shame.

Captain Pippy laughed and mockingly punched Zenbot on the shoulder. “Com’on Zenny! I told ya. How was I s’pposed to know that the bloody ship still used a horn? It took me a while that’s all. And I did signal you in the end, didn’t I?”

“After forty three minutes and twenty two seconds.”

“So before the hour was up. You see, I’m innocent. I got you out.” She refused to let go of her smile.

“I, alas, am no longer innocent thanks to you.” Its head almost touched the ground.

“How long will this ‘thing,’” Mancy refused to call the Heister a ship, “take to get us to Qamar?”

Captain Pippy knocked on the walls with a satisfying clang. “In this, a few days max. I’m all ready on my end. What’s been going on back here?”

VII held up two drives in her hands. “I’m done with the code. All ready, boss.”

“And you Mr. Qruise?” Zenbot asked. “I heard you tried meditating without me, with…interesting developments.”

“I’m as ready as I’m going to be I suppose. Which is not at all.”

Mancy rolled her eyes. “Fine.” She took in the mess and the ship with her eyes. “Captain, take this heap to Qamar.” Then she went and lay down on one of the hammocks.

 

“Shens, this ship shakes. Four days in this thing and it hasn’t stopped shuddering.” Mr. Qruise hung from one of the hammocks swinging in tune with the lighting and the Heister.

“You can stop complaining now, Mr. Qruise.” Mancy looked out of the cockpit’s window. “We’ve arrived at our destination. Qamar lies ahead of you. In all its glory. Come see.”

The crew all shuffled towards the cockpit, fighting the sway of the ship. “Where?” Freedman asked. “All I see is an asteroid belt.”

“And a bad one at that.” Mr. Qruise squinted out of the window. “Captain Pippy you really should avoid that.” He said. “One of those rocks will probably break this thing you’ve picked out for us.”

“That’s no asteroid belt, Mr. Qruise.” Mancy was smiling. “That in fact is the mine field surrounding, Qamar. The moon itself is a small thing at the center of the field. Right about there.” She pointed to a small rock indistinguishable from the rest.

“So all we have to do is avoid the rocks?” Freedman asked. “You can do it, Captain.” He patted her on the back. “After what I’ve seen you do in the Seven Sisters.”

“Thanks, hon’, but I lost the race y’all watched. And those ain’t exactly rocks.” Captain Pippy swiveled around in the pilot’s chair. “You’ll like this Qruise. You see the La2x family are a creatively vicious an’ brutal bunch. All those rocks out there, y’all see, are low-I mines. They’re attracted to propulsion of any sort. Ain’t that right, Ms. La2x?”

Mancy nodded.

Mr. Qruise walked off and collapsed on his hammock covering his face with a blanket. He groaned loudly from underneath.

“So how do we get past them?” Freedman asked.

“The easy way’s to call in to the moon and have’em disable the field while we pass. Safe and sound.”

“And our way?” Freedman continued.

“Our way’s gonna be shootin’ into the field and start-stopping our way through. No brakes, no propulsion ‘xcept for a half second every half a minute. Otha’wise….”

Mr. Qruise groaned even louder from the other end of the mess.

“Mr. Qruise, I’ll need you ready to pop in case.” Mancy said. “Zenbot I’d appreciate you taking your pupil back wherever you took him last time. It should give us more time to react if we’re about to blow. Do you think you can get the coward to do it again?”

“I can hear you from over here.” Mr. Qruise shouted from beneath his blanket.

“Ms. La2x. I’ll do my best. He’s not the easiest of students, but I’ll try.”

“I can still hear you.”

“Freedman, would you like to join?” Zenbot asked its pupil. “There is little we will be able to do here in any event. Besides Mr. Qruise told me you’d like to spend some more time training with me. I think that’s admirable.”

“It would be an honor, master.” Freedman bowed his head.

“Good. Mr. Qruise, Freedman find a comfortable place to sit. Tie yourselves down, I estimate rapid acceleration.”

“You esta’mate right, Zenny dear. I’d reco’mend tying ya’selves in, right good. “

“Good luck Captain.” And with that Zenbot walked over to his two pupils, who’d found a couple of seat belts to latch themselves to the ship. Zenbot inspected the belts, tightened them a bit and then placed his hands on their napes.

“Is that it? Are they in?” asked VII.

“They are. We are currently meditating in that dark field of Mr. Qruise’s mind.”

VII whistled. “Right now?”

“Yes. Mr. Qruise has a message for you, Captain Pippy. He says and I quote ‘please, please, please don’t get us killed’.”

“I second that, boss.” VII raised her hand, then found herself a seat and tied herself in as well. She clucked her tongue and Algy ran up to her. She grabbed the mouse and placed it in her chest pocket, closing the zipper.

Captain Pippy twirled around, facing the front of the ship once more. She revved the engine. “You guys are such worriers. Ready to give the go ahead, Mancy dear?”

“Go ahead, Captain.”

“Alright, alright, alright.” Captain Pippy licked her lips, blew away a stray hair from in front of her face and then pushed the acceleration lever forward. The Heister jumped forward through space towards certain death.

 

The Heister shot forward towards the minefield. The hull shook with the acceleration. Its rear fin flared a bright blue flame. As soon as they entered the minefield Captain Pippy cut the propulsion. The ship floated through space in between the mines.

A swarm of tiny rocks rushed towards where the Heister had entered the field, attracted to the propulsion wake. A cloud of them clustered behind the Heister and exploded in a rainbow array of colors throwing the ship forward.

Captain Pippy held onto the control panel in front of her. She tightened her seatbelts. “Adjusting the fins. You folks ready for the next push. Hold on.”

The Heister jumped forward again. Captain Pippy angled the ship back towards Qamar. It had strayed off course. Captain Pippy cut the propulsion almost as soon as she started it. Mancy who hadn’t tied herself down to anything hit the mess ceiling, hitting the ground again with a thump.

Captain Pippy didn’t look back. Sweat rolled off her forehead. “Zenny girl, take care of, Ms. La2x puh’lease. No point to this whole thing if she dies here. You’ve got a skootch ova’ twenty secs on my watch. Gotta wait till the engines cool down before starting up again.”

Zenbot reacted slowly to Pippy’s orders. It walked over to Mancy’s unconscious body splayed on the ground and held both onto her and a table nailed down to the cabin.

More mines exploded in the Heister’s trail. Captain Pippy ignited the propulsion engine again and re-aligned itself towards distant Qamar. Mancy flew into the air again but Zenbot stopped her from hitting the ceiling.

“Yo, Zenbot why you acting funny?” asked VII, tied down to her chair.

“It’s hard interfacing with two minds, training them and helping Ms. La2x out here, even for me, VII.” Zenbot spoke slower than usual.

“So there are limits to the legend.” VII’s face was pale.

“There are indeed, VII. How much time till Qamar, Captain?”

“At this rate, Zenny. Hold on. Going to ignite again. Aaaaaand…. we’re good. You holding on? Good. You’ve got thirty seconds till the next one. At this rate I’d say an hour or two till Qamar.”

“An hour or two?” VII groaned. “Shens. This is going to be torture. Are you gonna hold up, Pippy?”

“It’s Captain! Captain y’hear! And yeah. I should be alright. Zenbot get Mancy tied down. I’ll need your help if I start sweating.”

“You want me to wipe your brow?”

“Yup. Hold on. Here we go again. Only a thousand or so left, dears.”

 

An hour or so later, the equivalent of five hundred start-stops, the Heister was smack dab in the middle between Qamar and the edge of the mine field.

VII’s face was green and she’d been sick several times. Bullets of sweat dribbled off of Captain Pippy’s brow. Zenbot dabbed at the sweat as quickly as it could. Mancy and the two pupils were still unconscious, tied down to the side of the mess.

The tension in the air could be cut with a knife.

“Hold on. We’re about to ignite again.”

The ship hurtled forward re-aligning itself violently towards the moon. Qamar was now a visibly red rock in the middle of a grey field of death. The mines denser in the middle of the field, began to clump together quicker and threw the Heister out of alignment more erratically.

“Um….Captain Pippy. Zenbot.” VII was struggling to operate a small tablet in her hand.

“Yes, VII? If y’re gonna be sick aim towards the folks in the back. It’s a hard enough piloting this here thing. Ain’t no need for an added sen-sor-y ova’load.”

“Yeah sure.” VII wheezed. “Whatever you say. It’s just….I’m picking something up on the scanners. You ain’t gonna like it.”

“Is it any worse than the Shen’amn mines?”

“Could be….could be…. Ugh.” They propelled forward again. “It depends on what your definition of worse is. I mean there’s an armada of bounty hunter filled ships at the edge of the field behind us. Is that worse than us being stuck in the field? Nah, but it sure doesn’t help.”

Captain Pippy stopped piloting and looked back for the first time in half an hour. “How’d ya arrive at them being bounty hunters?”

“Our friend the Curacao is with them. And I’m picking up their comm’s with the base. Seems like the mercenaries are still figuring out what the heck is going on up here. So that’s buying us some time. Could you speed it up a little bit Captain Pippy?”

The Captain huffed, blowing some hair dangling in front of her face away, and then swirled back to face the control panel. “No dear. Hold on we’re about’a boost. Aaaaand…done. No, I can’t speed it up. Zenny, wipe me please.”

Zenbot dabbed a pad gingerly on her brow. “Can you block the passage requests VII, between the Armada and the base?”

VII fiddled with the tablet in her hand. “Already on it. Won’t last forever though.”

“We’re a half hour to the moon. That’s all I need. Zenny any rabbit in that hat a’yours?” Captain Pippy asked.

“I’m wiping your sweat, Captain.”

“I’mma need mo’ than that hon’.”

“I’m not a pilot or a cryptographer, Captain. Drop me on the moon and you’ll see what I can do. Every player has their part.”

“Hold on. Wooooah.” The ship rolled more violently than usual from the mine explosions behind them. “What’s going on out there. Those mines are acting mighty funny. VII?”

“One second, boss.” VII turned a shade of green. Zenbot handed her the bucket. VII spoke after she was done. “Thanks, boss. I think the mines are confused. Whole lot of torpedoes coming our way.”

“From?”

“Both sides, boss.”

Captain Pippy laughed out loud before accelerating through the field once more, riding the rocky waves of light and energy. “Heck. This is definitely gonna make my name girls. If we survive of co’rse. Well if the mines are gonna act all funny so am I. Alright, alright, alright. I’mma speed it up just like you asked. Hold on to your horses.”

“There’s nothing more to hold onto. What are you going to….” VII didn’t have time to finish her sentence. The acceleration knocked her out immediately. She limped weakly in her chair. Algy’s squirming in her pocket stopped as well. Zenbot went flying through the air and hit the back of the cabin.

Captain Pippy was in control of herself and the ship. The mines attracted to the increased propulsion, clustered together right behind the Heister before exploding. The exterior of the ship bent inwards with audible moans with every boom.

“Zenny,” Captain Pippy’s speech was dazed, “It’s just you and me now. I’m gonna get y’all to that moon. But it’s gonna be a bumpy ride. Wipe me, Zenny dear. One mess up and we’re all turtle soup.”

Zenbot waded back towards the pilot’s chair against the pull of the ship’s acceleration. “You’re not entirely right there, Captain, about us being alone… Freedman and Mr. Qruise are quite vocative about the current situation.”

Captain Pippy grinned despite herself. “Oh yeah I forgot about them. They ce’tainly look down and out. Anything I wanna hear?”

“I wouldn’t feel comfortable repeating what they’re saying right now. Most of it is screaming.”

“Ah, the usual. Tell them they’ll be made-men afta’ this. Known throughout the galaxy. They should be hona’d.”

“They’re crying right now. Have been for the past few minutes.”

“Hold on…”

 

“Zenny dear…” Captain Pippy slumped over in her chair.

“Yes Captain.” Zenbot wiped at Captain Pippy’s forehead.

“I need ya to wake up Mancy fo’ me. Can ya do that?”

“We’re almost there I see.” Zenbot said looking through the cockpit’s window. A large red moon, bright and blazing was in front of them. The inorganic walked over to Mancy and nudged her awake.

“There are usually smelling salts in the medical kit. Behind ya, in the panel next to the door.” Captain Pippy said.

“Got it. There you go, Ms. La2x.” Zenbot broke open a bottle of smelling salts and wafted it in front her nose. She came to gradually. “You’ve had a bit of a thump.”

“Mancy, can ya hear me? It’s Captain Pippy. I need ya to focus. There’s an armada of bounty hunters behind us and… damn…hold on tight.” The Heister lurched. “Don’t go out on us, Mancy. Good, you’re still with us. And the mercs on the moon are firing on us. I’ll get us there but we’ll have to abandon ship on the moon. Whatever the heck you’re bent on stealing it’s probably a one way trip, that ok?”

Mancy nodded still dazed.

“Thought as much. Alright Zenny, get VII awake and up to speed and get ya’ boys ready to run. We’re gonna be coming in hot, hold on…..”

The hull of the Heister screamed out in pain as the mines exploded nearer and nearer.

“Got two more jumps to go. One sec.” The propulsion started again and swerved to the left. “Shen’amn torpedoes. One more go and then we’re hot. Y’all folks ready?”

VII woke up violently, flailing at Zenbot and the smelling salts. “What do you mean we’re abandoning ship? That wasn’t part of the plan.” She grabbed at Zenbot’s robes. “I refuse. I refuse. I want out.”

“Too late, VII.” Mancy spat out menacingly. “We’re already in. No getting out of this one.”

“Hold on…”

The Heister shot through the field and flared towards the moon, swerving to the left and right, ducking the oncoming barrage from the base. Technicolor bursts of light erupted around the ship.

From that close to the moon, the crew could clearly see the red rock, lava and molten magma flow across the surface of Qamar in hot rivulets. The mercenary base stood in stark contrast to the rest of the moon. A clear outrock of a fortress, three rings of white walls shot up from the hard stony surface. Between the fortress and the rivers of magma there was a parking lot where the mercenary ships were parked.

The Heister aimed towards the parking lot, breaking through Qamar’s atmosphere. The ship’s hull heated up. Its passengers, all finally awake, stood near the center of the mess, sweating from the heat and fear. Captain Pippy pulled the brakes, and forward jets of blue fire pushed against the Heister’s momentum. The ship crashed next to an array of parked ships in the parking lot, digging itself into the earth.

The crew were out in less than twenty seconds. When they dusted themselves off and looked ahead of them they saw an army of mercenaries lined up outside the base, armed and ready.

Zenbot leaped forward in a blur. A whirl of motion, the inorganic made quick work of the soldiers. The bullets ricocheted off its body, tearing holes through its robes and doing nothing more. When the dust had settled, VII grumbling, walked towards the large gated entrance to the first wall ringing the base, over the crumpled unconscious bodies of the soldiers. She placed one of the small drives into a side panel and in a few seconds the door was open.

Zenbot rushed ahead. The pops and rattles of laser and gun fire could be heard beyond the gate.

Mr. Qruise and Freedman accompanied Mancy and Captain Pippy as they ran from the ship towards the door. The night sky was littered with the explosions of more mines as the armada approached Qamar.

The faster of the bounty hunter ships opened fire on the Heister and the running crew. Trails of laser fire blazed behind them as they ran. Smoke and dust followed in their wake. A few of the hunters targeted the Heister, bombarding it as they approached from above.

“Ya bastards. Don’t hurt her ya bastards. She’s a better ship than any’a yours.” Captain Pippy tried to run towards the Heister but Mr. Qruise and Freedman pulled her inside the protective walls of the base.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

The First Gate

 

VII closed the first gate with a push of a button as soon as Captain Pippy was pulled through the door. The gate closed with the click and hiss of hydraulics, as the massive door panels slid back into place.

The crew found themselves in a large round entry hall, well lit, with large mosaic depictions of marital prowess on the walls. Soldiers of every species stood tall on the walls. Humans fought with swords and shields. Spaceships dropped bombs from overhead. Blobbed beings stood over their enemies or in other panels consumed them entirely. The worst panels were of the tentacled beings like Glok.

Unconscious and broken mercenaries were littered around the hall beneath the mosaic walls. Zenbot unharmed, surveyed the scene.

There were three exits from the hall not counting the entrance. The earth shook with the thumps of the bounty hunters’ ships landing outside.

“How long will the gate stay closed, VII?” Mancy asked.

VII sat slumped by the gate’s control panel, sweat rolling down her forehead. She rubbed her shins. “It’ll stay closed for a while, boss. How long it’ll last if they plan on beating the gate down I can’t tell. Ain’t my area of expertise. All I can say is that we should get on going to the second one. You wanna lead the way?” VII pulled herself off the floor.

“Right I suppose so. Everyone stick close, now. Mr. Qruise don’t look so glum. We’re near the end now. You’ll be free to hide away in the forgotten holes of the ‘verse soon. Zenbot, please lead the way through the door on the right.”

Zenbot led the crew through the exit on the right. They found themselves in a small corridor that curved its way around exterior ring of the base. The crews walked slowly, their steps ringing out loudly on the metal grated floored.

Mancy whispered. “Try and stay quiet. This service corridor should be empty but we can’t be sure. I’m speaking to you, Mr. Qruise. Stop dragging your feet.”

“Where does this go, Ms. La2x?” Freedman asked. Their steps sounded out through the corridor, echoing back from in front and behind. Freedman spooked, looked behind him every few feet.

“We follow this for ten minutes and then with any luck,” Mancy said, “we’ll find an exit hatch on the left which will take us to a short cut to the second gate.”

“Luck?” Zenbot asked.

“Turn of phrase, Zenbot. Sorry. No luck here.” Mancy grinned. The master’s eye slits couldn’t roll but they did.

Zenbot stopped with a halt around a bend in the corridor.” I would say you jinxed it, Ms. La2x. If there are Shens, then they’re playing with me. Ms. La2x, I advise you to take the others and immediately turn around and run.”

The others bumped into Zenbot. The inorganic stood looking down the length of the corridor. Its eye slits were a wild mix of red and black, of horror.

A large man sat cross-legged in the middle of the corridor in front of the access shaft leading to the second gate.

“What’s going on master? Who’s that man?” Freedman asked.

“That man,” Zenbot didn’t take its eye slits off the cross-legged man, “is my first master and one of the five beings in this ‘verse that I fear. My advice still stands. If you value your life you will run right now.”

“But we can help you, can’t we gang?” Freedman turned around and found no one behind him.

 

“Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap.” Mr. Qruise was gasping and speaking at the same time. “Did you see that, VII?”

VII shook her head silently. “ I just saw you running and ran on the assumption.”

Ms. La2x and Captain Pippy were at the other two exits to the hall. They peeped around both exits making sure they were clear. Freedman entered the hall white as a sheet.

VII looked up, surprised to see him. “Looks like Zenbot’s got two cowards for students.”

Freedman hunched over gasping for air. His eyes were red and teary. He stared back at the corridor he just came from.

“Leave the man alone.” Captain Pippy put an arm around Freedman. “He was just followin’ his master’s orders. Don’t take no mind of VII, Freedman. She’s got a mean streak, that’s all.”

Freedman rested on Captain Pippy’s shoulder. He couldn’t make up his mind. “We should go back. I should go back. Shouldn’t I, Captain?”

Captain Pippy looked back towards the exit on the right. “Hon’, I wouldn’t go back down that way for all the favors in the world and I surf suns for fun.”

Mancy gestured for the others to come to the central exit. “Zenbot can take care of itself.” She said in a hushed voice. “Let’s focus on the mission. This way leads to the gate. Come on, no time to waste.”

“We can’t go forward without Zenbot.” Mr. Qruise stared at the ground. VII hid under a bench by the side of the exit.

“I know, Mr. Qruise.” Mancy straightened up confidently. “We have no choice but to go on. Don’t forget the best fighter in the galaxy has been training you.”

“You know, Mancy.” Mr. Qruise kicked his feet, hands in the pockets of his robes. “I think Zenbot’s fighting the best fighter in the galaxy at this moment.” Mr. Qruise helped VII up. The both of them held onto each other as they stepped through the main exit.

 

“It’s been a while…it’s Zenbot now right.” The cross-legged man was still sitting in the corridor. He chewed on a piece of straw. Two sheathed swords lay in his lap and a leather bundle was by his side.

“It has. I don’t call you master anymore so please forgive the familiarity, Jack.” Zenbot’s eye slits slowly lost their black fear and became a constant bright red.

“It’s alright, Zenbot. This has been a long time coming, I think we all knew, the day you left, that we’d have a fateful showdown at some point. You were one of my best students I got to say. The longest lasting as well. All the rest are dead or maimed or lost, or all three.” Jack laughed. “But you’re still there Zenbot, healthy and wise. Wiser than the day you left, I hear.”

“Thank you, Jack.” Zenbot nodded to its former teacher, bowing slightly. “You’re incorrect. There is no fated battle between former master and former student. There is no fate.”

“You’re wrong of course, as usual.” Jack slapped his thigh. “We have to fight. Fate or no fate. I’ve been compensated handsomely by the La2x family to stop your passage to the vault. Sit down Zenbot will’ya. Hurt’s my neck just looking up at ya.”

Zenbot sat on the floor, ten paces away from Jack. “So Mancy’s father knows about us?” Zenbot rubbed its jaw. “That was expected. Can’t you let me return the way I came? I don’t wish to hurt you ma…Jack. I don’t wish to hurt anybody anymore. This is unnecessary.”

“Unnecessary, but an obligation on the both of us. I s’ppose.” He chewed some more on the straw, twirling the end of it with a hand. “We can free your family if you wish.”

“You know about them?”

“We do. And we know where they are held. We can free them from Mancy’s clutches without harm. All you have to do is stand down.”

“I need to think about this. You wouldn’t have any tea would you?” Zenbot eyed the leather bundle.

“Of course.” Jack took a clay pot out from the bundle by his side. “Who could forget your strange obsession. Do you mind if I smoke.”

Zenbot shook its head. It prepared the tea while Jack rolled himself a cigarette.

 

Laser beams and bullets sprayed over the desk the crew were hiding behind.

“So,” Captain Pippy shouted over the sound of the gun fire, “none of us thought to bring any firearms?”

“I guess we got too used to Zenbot by our side.” Mancy shouted.

“There are some guns back in the main hall.” Captain Pippy pointed with her head to the door which led back to the hall. Ten paces too far from the safety of the desk. “Any volunteers to run across the room and get some?”

VII, Freedman and Mr. Qruise were huddled together at the center of the upturned desk, holding onto each other.

In answer to Captain Pippy’s question a bullet ricocheted off the wall and and shot back towards them, boring a hole through the desk in between VII and Freedman.

“Mr. Qruise.” Mancy shouted. He couldn’t hear. She tugged on his robe, pulling his ear to her mouth. “Can you pop back to the room?”

“Pop back? Pop back? You’re giving me the go-ahead to run away?” He raised his hand, fingers at the ready to snap, a goofy mad grin on his face.

“Yes.” Mancy held Mr. Qruise’s fingers in place. “On the condition that you come back with the guns.”

Mr. Qruise kept smiling. “And if you die? You can never blow my brains up?”

Mancy bit her lips. “We’re putting our trust in you, Mr. Qruise.”

Mr. Qruise closed his eyes. “Don’t worry, Mancy. You can trust me. I’m a good guy after all.” He said, grinning, hand ready.

Captain Pippy prodded his shoulder gently. “Puh-lease don’t screw us, Mr. Qruise. We’re a team.” He opened his eyes to find her eyes wide and innocent and trusting. His grin disappeared and he hung his head. He looked at his fingers and closed his eyes. “That’s not fair.”

He snapped his fingers and opened his eyes.

The desk behind the crew vanished, disappearing suddenly from reality. Captain Pippy’s mouth hung open. Her trusting innocent eyes turned murderous. “I’ll kill ya. I’ll kill ya. You’ve Shen’damned screwed us all.”

She didn’t have time to kill him. The crew scampered back towards the main hall beneath a hail of bullets.

 

“Shen’amn ya, Qruise. Can’t ya do nothing right man?” Captain Pippy lay against the mosaiced wall in the main hall.

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Mr. Qruise stared at his fingers shaking his head. “That’s never happened before.”

“How ya gonna finish this thing if ya can’t Shen’amn ‘pop’?”

“Enough Pippy.” Mancy paced back and forth. “Mr. Qruise for better or for worse you got us out of that thing. How is everybody? Everyone in one piece?”

“Boss…boss…” VII panted. “I didn’t sign up for this boss. I’m gonna just hide here until you finish it.” She kept repeating, “I didn’t sign up for this,” shaking her head and hugging herself.

Mancy held VII by the shoulders. “Hold yourself together, VII. We’re almost there. Just one door between you and your running off and being done with this thing. I’m guessing no one wants to go back in there.” She pointed to the exit they’d just come from, “and Zenbot’s not back yet, so that leaves door number three.” She walked over to the exit on the left. “I didn’t want to take this route. It takes us up the ramparts of the walls, exposed. We can take an access tunnel from there but we’ll have to find a way down from the wall. Maybe Mr. Qruise can make the wall disappear.”

“I’m sorry.” He said again.

“It’s alright. Everybody arm up. We don’t want to forget to take some weapons again. And everyone….take care. I didn’t choose this route for a reason.”

 

Zenbot and Jack sat sipping their tea. Jack lay on his back smoking his rolled cigarette, one knee resting on the other, waving his leg lazily.

“You know Zenbot, I’m happy for ya to sit here and drink tea with me. So long as ya don’t go back and help Mancy achieve her mission. But you know, and I know, that once we finish drinking this, you’re gonna decide to go back and help her, even though I’ve given you my word your family’ll be safe.” He let out a puff of smoke, forming a ring.

Zenbot tipped the clay cup towards its mouth and let the hot liquid roll down inside its throat.

“You know, Jack, I chose this body because it has ingestive sensors. I don’t metabolize the tea or the food, but I can sense it and I enjoy it. Let’s enjoy the tea. Former master and former student. Let’s not think of the future.”

“That woman really did do a number on you Zenbot.” Jack sat up. “Where’s the old killing machine? You’re so calm. So collected. Nothing like you used to be. But I know the old beast’s in there.” Jack pointed at Zenbot’s heart, or where its heart would have been, if it had one. “I know you’ll choose fame and fortune. I know you’ll choose the fight. You’ll dress it up in loyalty and all that bull. You’ll say you gave your word to Mr. La2x’s daughter. But I know the full of it. No matter how much ya hide it, you’re still that bloody beast I taught to kill and we’re gonna have a proper fight of it. Mano e mano.” Jack flicked his finished cigarette behind his head and placed the straw back in his mouth.

Zenbot filled both their cups with some more tea, and took another sip.

 

The third exit led to a small staircase which took the crew high above the ramparts of the outer defensive ring. Mancy took a peep above the last step and saw the night sky in all its beauty. Mines floated above Qamar like shooting stars, buzzing and whizzing and occasionally exploding like fireworks. A line of ships floated over the base searching for the crew, spotlights hovered over the base and the outer ramparts.

She raised a fist, gesturing for the rest of the crew to stop. They’d never seen the gesture before and bumped into her. “Hey. That means stop,” she whispered. She readjusted herself and took a peep above the wall to the side of the rampart. An army of bounty hunters were outside the base breaking down the main door with a makeshift battering ram. Other more intelligent bounty hunters were throwing catch lines up over the wall. Thus far failing.

Mancy looked at VII and Mr. Qruise. “You’re not going to like this.” The two of them held onto each other like life rafts of sanity.

“More? How much worse can it get?” Mr. Qruise gripped VII tighter.

“Well… It’s not as bad as whoever scared Zenbot.”

“Uh-uh.” The both of them nodded.

“And it’s not a frontal assault against a contingent of killers.”

“Uh-uh.” They nodded again.

“It’s…..well….there’s no good way to say this. We’re going to have to make a run for it across the rampart. It’s just a five minute jog to the next stair case. I can see the exit stairwell over there.” She pointed to a small buttress peaking above the flat, exposed rampart.

Mr. Qruise poked his head above the last step and peeked above the rampart. “That’s alright then. What’s so bad about that?”

“You’re right, Mr. Qruise. You’re right. Nothing bad about it. Just a leisurely jog. Just, most importantly, don’t stop. You first, and you know what, you after him VII. We’ll be right behind you.” Mancy moved behind VII and Mr. Qruise. She winked at Captain Pippy.

“Should I close my eyes, boss? You know I limp, boss, right?” VII held onto Mr. Qruise as Captain Pippy and Mancy pushed them up onto the rampart. “If anything happens to me you’re all up shit creek, boss. Remember that.”

“You probably should close your eyes, VII. Just run straight.”

Mr. Qruise took a few steps onto the rampart and saw the soldiers on the ground and the ships over head. He stopped and turned to run back down the stairs but Mancy and Captain Pippy pushed him back onto the ramparts.

“Let me back in. Hey, stop pushing. Stop pushing. This isn’t funny.”

“I’m not gonna open my eyes, boss.”

VII opened her eyes and found Mr. Qruise dashing towards the far stairwell, arms up and screaming. She then heard the bounty hunters at the bottom of the wall as they began firing. The familiar ping pings of the bullets echoed off the rampart.

VII quickly caught up with and passed Mr. Qruise, limp and all.

Freedman, Mancy and Captain Pippy struggled after them. When they reached the far stairwell they found the two cowards huddled in the corner of the sheltered buttress. There was no staircase in sight.

“Boss, I don’t see a stairwell.” VII searched every corner of the buttress, even looking at the roof. There was no staircase. “There’s no stairwell, is there?”

“That’s because this is just the first stop, VII. No way you would have run if you knew that. The stairwell is really all the way over there.” Mancy pointed to another buttress another five minutes run across the rampart. “Now let’s go. We don’t want to give them time to know we’re still up here. Come on.” She looked over the wall at the bounty hunters. They’d all lined up at the wall trying to find a foothold in the smooth sheer surface. Others ran from their parked ships carrying longer catch-lines. She pushed VII and Mr. Qruise towards the second stairwell.

“I’m not taking another step. Mancy. I don’t want to die.” Mr. Qruise put his foot down, literally.

“Then we’ll leave you and you’ll die, Mr. Qruise. The same for you, VII. You can go back or you can come forward. It’s the same distance either way. The only difference is they they’ve probably breached the door by now and you’ll be running back to them. Enough coddling boys and girls. Come with me or die.” Mancy ran towards the far stairwell.

Mr. Qruise called Mancy something but she couldn’t hear over the sound of them running, the gunfire and VII’s screams.

 

Loveless stood outside the first gate to the base. Bonebreaker held a small battering ram in his hands and smashed it repeatedly against the gate. The dark carbon material wasn’t even dented.

Loveless sighed. Skyburner had run back to the parked Curacao to retrieve a longer catchline. The one Loveless carried wouldn’t reach the top of the wall.

Other bounty hunters of all shapes and sizes scurried between the walls and their ships trying to find something that would grant them access to the base.

Loveless looked up suddenly to the ramparts of the wall, she could have sworn she’d seen something pink moving about on top.

She paused and focused on a small buttress coming out of the ramparts. Pink hair bobbed up and down from above running across the wall.

“They’re there. They’re on top of the walls.” Loveless shouted as she took aim and fired. The other bounty hunters dropped what they were doing and fired as well.

 

“I don’t know what to do, Jack.”

“Drink tea with me, Zenbot. Drink tea with me and all will be well. Forget about’em.” Jack nodded towards the end of the corridor.

“I can’t. Two of them are my pupils. I’m fond of the Captain as well.”

“But not Mancy?”

“Mancy’s a brute. But there is something to her too. I must admit.”

“So you’ll fight me in the end?”

“I believe so. Can we finish the tea?”

“Of course. Of course. You may as well have one of these then.” Jack threw Zenbot one of the swords.

“Thank you, Jack.” Zenbot held the sword in its hand feeling the weight. It removed a part of the sword from the sheath, the bright red light of a laser saber reflected off of Zenbot’s face.

“It’s only fair. The pot’s empty.” Jack tapped at the empty teapot with his sword. “We can’t delay this much longer.” Jack downed his cup of tea and stood up and walked a few paces away from Zenbot. He turned around and entered a battle stance. His left foot forward, hip tilted and his left hand on the sword sheathed on his left. His thumb rested lightly on the hilt, ready to unsheathe the sword and kill his former pupil.

Zenbot likewise walked a few paces down the other side of the corridor and mirrored Jack’s battle stance.

Jack closed his eyes. The duel of the two masters played out in his imagination. Every possible combination of moves, attacks, counterattacks and guards, all of them unfolded in his mind’s eye. Zenbot would wait for him to attack, cool and collected as usual. It would expect Jack to be his usual aggressive self, swiping wildly at Zenbot. Opening himself up for attack. But Jack would stand idly by, goading his former pupil into action.

They would stand face to face for five minutes, the wind whistling through the corridor. Then and only then would his former student finally attack. It knew Jack favored his left side. Zenbot had seen Jack training too often. It would attack Jack’s right side instead. Jack would let it, then at the last moment he’d side step, strike and be done. No more Zenbot. Mission accomplished.

Jack opened his eyes, the plan of attack formulated.

He found only an empty corridor and the dust kicked up by Zenbot’s escape.

 

The crew, save for Zenbot, were in front of the second gate. They’d finally reached the promised stairwell. After that they descended the staircase and reached an exposed square in front of the second gate. VII walked over to the gate and opened up the control panel. She moved the various smart drives around, small thin plastic sheathes, before placing her own drive inside.

“Faster VII. Faster VII. Faster, faster, faster.” Mr. Qruise tapped his foot behind VII as she worked. He looked behind him. Silhouetted figures moved on the ramparts above them. Bobbing up and down, getting over the wall.

“I’m going as fast as I can, Qruise. Shut your mouth and let me work.”

“Oh Shens. I can see them. They’re over the wall. They’re coming from the ramparts. Do you want me to pop us inside? I can probably do that.” Mr. Qruise raised both hands, shaking with fear.

“Don’t you dare, Mr. Qruise.” Mancy crouched behind a crate. She took a couple of shots at the wall. “We’ve seen your skills. I’d rather risk probable death at their hands,” she fired at the wall again, “than a certain one at yours. Let the woman work her magic. Captain Pippy, Freedman, you’re with me. Controlled fire.”

The three of them shot at the ramparts and the escalating bounty hunters.

A few minutes later VII stood up and dusted her hands. “Alright got it, boss.” The gate opened, its black matte door panels sliding back.

“Just in time. In. In. In.” Captain Pippy retreated into the gate, facing the walls and shooting. “Look it’s Zenny. Zenny dear’s coming to the rescue. She’ll take care of those bounty hunters. Wait, what’s she doing?”

Zenbot ran above the ramparts. It leapt above the bounty hunters, kicking and punching its way through. Jack was twenty paces behind, his laser-saber unsheathed and flailing wildly.

“I’ll get ya, ya cowardly bastard. Come and take your lickings.”

Zenbot jumped from the rampart and landed in the square. It fell with a thud and continued running. Jack landed without a sound fifteen paces behind his former pupil. The crew could hear Zenbot shouting over the rattle of gun fire as it approached.

“Clooooooooooooseeee the doooooooor!”

Zenbot jumped the last ten paces to the door, Jack a hair’s breadth behind it.

The doors hissed closed between them, closing on Zenbot’s left foot. And then it snapped shut, with Zenbot’s body on one end and its foot on the other.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

The Second Gate

 

Wiring, nano-chips and fluid seeped out from below Zenbot’s shattered knee cap. “That’s got to hurt.” Mr. Qruise said.

“It does hurt quite a bit, Mr. Qruise. Thank you for caring.” Zenbot unsheathed the laser-saber in its hand and soldered the leg. The fluid seeping out stopped leaking, giving off a fragrant rosy smoke.

Captain Pippy and Mancy walked off in front of the group, crouching down and surveying the land, rifles at the ready. They were in a large artificial landscape. Rolling hills and trees extended far into the distance. Above them a bright blue sky hung overhead.

Freedman checked on Zenbot. “It hurts, master? Do you have pain sensors?”

“I do, Freedman.” Zenbot massaged its leg smoothing the chrome exterior from dents. It then ripped off the upper half of its robes and let the rags hang from its hips like a skirt, letting the cool air press against its body. “You can’t grow unless you suffer. It’s a universal truth.”

“I foresee a lot of growth by the end of this thing.” Mr. Qruise was looking out at the rolling hills. The ceiling above them was artificially lit. The sun suspiciously absent from the sky. Mr. Qruise took the rifle in his hand and shot at the ceiling. “Sure enough.” He said to the others. “You can see the bullet hole.”

Mancy ran back towards Mr. Qruise and punched him in the face. “You fool. You bloody damn fool. Why would you do that? Why would you make such a racket?” She looked around. “Maybe it hasn’t heard. Maybe…maybe we’re lucky?”

A slowing grumbling roar broke out and rolled across the hills. Mr. Qruise rubbed his jaw sheepishly, before asking Freedman. “Aren’t you supposed to be lucky?”

“I guess even my luck can’t balance out yours, pal.” Freedman helped Zenbot up, worried. He ripped a rag off of Zenbot’s rag skirt and wiped away the grease and smoke layered on Zenbot’s chrome skin. “Master, will you be able to walk?”

“I will walk, yes. Running will be a bit more difficult.” Zenbot took Mr. Qruise’s rifle. “I think this will be of better use with me.” It placed the butt of the rifle beneath its shoulder and used it as a crutch. “I am sorry to say Ms. La2x, I doubt I will be able to help if anything serious should happen.”

“Was it the door?” She looked at Zenbot’s mangled soldered leg.

“No, my former teacher and his sword.” It looked down at Freedman who was still nursing his master’s leg. “You see pupils. I’m a softy in comparison.” Mr. Qruise shuddered at the thought.

VII, how secure is the gate behind us?” Mancy asked.

“Same answer, boss, as the last time you asked. Code won’t be broken anytime soon, but I can’t vouch for the material. That’s on you and your family’s workmanship. Looks like a powerful laser saber there.” She eyed Zenbot’s mess of a leg. “Seems Jack might be able to get through.” She took out a tweezly stick, chewed off a bit and placed it in her pocket for Algy. The remainder of the stick she chewed on furiously.

Captain Pippy still at the front, raised a clenched fist. “Shh… y’idjots.” Everyone quieted down. “Mancy what’s in this place? I can see some dust bein’ moved around somethin’ fierce in the distance.”

“Well….” Mancy looked down at her pink boots, twisting them nervously. “Well…”

The events of the last few weeks, and more specifically the past few hours, had rocked Mr. Qruise off balance. He no longer seemed frightened. Instead he emulated Freedman’s goofy grin. “When Mancy’s bashful it means we’re doomed.” He laughed.

Mancy looked up angrily from her boots. “Mr. Qruise, you’re the one who’s doomed us all. We were supposed to slip past the blasticore before it knew we were here.”

Everyone went silent.

“A blasticore?” Freedman asked “Shens. Master we gotta go back, Jack and all. Let’s get out quickly. Come’on you fools. I’ve met those things in the Game and I never made it out alive. It’s always been a slow painful death, and that’s with my luck. The Shens know what deaths are in store for us, especially you Qruise, you unlucky stupid bastard.” He struck his forehead with his palm. “Shens, a blasticore.”

“Thanks, Freedman.” Mr. Qruise’s grin grew even larger. “Can I ask what exactly does a blasticore look like?”

“You don’t know?” Mancy looked back at her feet.

Mr. Qruise shook his head. “You have a picture?”

“You can’t picture it.” VII’s tweezly stick twitched in her mouth violently. “That’s the point.” She said out of the side of her mouth. “It’s a five dimensional animal. A hard one to simulate in a Game. Needs a whole lot of power to run. The thing reads your mind, organic or inorganic, don’t matter. It reads it and pulls your biggest fear out and it just becomes it.”

Mr. Qruise rubbed his jaw calmly. “When you say becomes it, you mean an illusion like? A party trick.”

Mancy looked Mr. Qruise up and down in a lordly fashion, insulted by the statement. “Mr. Qruise, do you think Daddy would ever get an illusion to protect the vault?”

“Got it.” Mr. Qruise nodded giving her a thumbs up. “It becomes it. So how do we get around the thing, Mancy?”

“The plan was to sneak by it,” Mancy said quietly, “but since you’ve gone and ruined the ceiling,” she looked up to the bullet hole marring the rolling clouds above, “and the plan in one shot, there is another way.”

“You’ll have to put your training into practice, Mr. Qruise.” Zenbot rested on Mr. Qruise’s shoulder, still fiddling with the rifle-crutch, finding the right spot to place the rifle beneath its shoulder. “I knew it would come to good use. It always does, training. We’ll have to empty our minds, and once we do we can walk past the blasticore, without a fear in the world.”

“And if some coward can’t keep his fears in check, then it won’t matter one bit, his fear will eat us, literally.” Mancy said looking at Mr. Qruise.

“You know Mancy,” Mr. Qruise chuckled, “I’m getting tired of this crew’s opinion of me. You know VII’s every bit as much a coward as I am.” He pointed accusingly at VII who was shivering uncontrollably. “ And she hasn’t been getting no mumbo-jumbo training from the best in the galaxy. And Freedman and the rest of you ran just as fast as I did when we met Jack. If I were you I’d be more critical of yourselves and get off my back.”

Zenbot and Mancy looked at VII, the tweezly stick was on the ground. An unspoken message passed between the two. The inorganic placed two fingers behind VII’s ear lobe and squeezed. The cryptographer passed out immediately.

 

Captain Pippy and Freedman climbed a grassy knoll. The bright sky blue ceiling made it seem as if the sun was high above them, dispersing their shadows everywhere and nowhere.

“So Freedman, ya lucky son of’a gun. Ya think we’ll be able to distract the thing while they carry VII?”

“I was thinking about that, Captain. I’m a lucky guy, no question about it. No matter what the master says. Now our task, and for me to do good by Zenbot, we’ll succeed in distracting that thing. It’d be a mighty lucky thing. Now, distracting the blasticore would mean having it on our tail, which would be a mighty unlucky thing. Do you think luck’s a thing which is interested in what I want or what’s good for me?”

“Don’t rightly care or know, Freedman. I was just making conversation. Man, y’all talk a lot.” She stopped climbing and pointed towards a small patch of trees in the distance. “Alright well, this hill’s cleared. That’s the ridge over there that Ms. La2x was talking about. She said take a left about it, right?”

“I think so.” Freedman said.

“Right, Right.” Captain Pippy sat down, took off her boots and massaged her feet. “Well hon’ I think we’re lost. That ain’t no ridge ova’ there and ya don’t remember any of Ms. La2x’s directions, do ya? Shens, you’ve just been ‘yes-ing’ me for the past hour ain’tchya been ya damn fool? When I ask a question it ain’t ‘cause I know the answer already.”

“Sorry, Pip…Captain. I’m just used to people asking questions they know the answers to. I can usually get away with a nod.”

“Is that what y’ve been doing? Getting through life, one dumb nod at a time?”

Freedman nodded then stopped himself. “Well, yeah.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “That is until I met the master.” His eyes grew wide. “Never met nothing like Zenbot. It’s electrifying. And you. You’re all the first ones to care to get to know me in, Shens know how long. And Qruise. And Mancy. Even VII. You’re all really real you know. And it makes me want to be realer.”

“Freedman, shut up and get moving.” She put her boots back on. “We’ll keep beatin’ the bushes for a while. Make sho’ the others get to the gate.”

 

“Empty your mind Qruise. Empty your mind Qruise.” Mr. Qruise hummed his mantra to himself as Zenbot and Mancy carried the limp form of VII on their shoulders between them. “No fear. No fear. Empty mind. Empty mind.”

“Zenbot? Can you carry an unconscious VII and Mr. Qruise?” Mancy asked, VII’s legs dangling over her shoulders.

“It might be a bit hard, Ms. La2x, with one leg.”

“Shame. Mr. Qruise? How do you feel about chanting to yourself using your inside voice? This being a stealthy push past the monster and all.”

Mr. Qruise stopped walked. “I wish you didn’t remind me about… the thing. Now I’m frightened again, Mancy. I’m going to have to start all over. Empty your mind Qruise, empty your mind….”

 

Jack stood in front of the second gate, an army of bounty hunters and mercenaries at his back. He held Zenbot’s left foot in his hand and patted it on his thigh, thinking.

“You say you know Ms. La2x and her crew?” He placed Zenbot’s foot in his bundle and took out a pouch of shag tobacco. He offered Loveless the pouch once he’d taken a pinch.

Loveless shook her head, blonde hair flicking to either side. “I was her right hand woman in Woshu, I mean on MO4. I didn’t understand what she was up to back then, but I helped her hunt down VII. The bitch shot me. I was working for her and she shot me.”

“Yeah. The La2x family’ll do that. Best to remember that.” He filled a sheet of rolling paper with the shag, licking the paper and then sealing it. “So what can you tell me about them? You, you there.” Jack spoke softly to one of the gang working at the second gate, chipping away at it with their hammers and drills. “Did I tell you to stop?” The hard mercenaries still bore the bruises Zenbot had given them. The large bodied soldiers, angry with wounded prides, were tired but Jack scared the bejesus out of them. They resumed work immediately, hammering away at the door. “I’m sorry. What’s your name again?” Jack lit the cigarette, took a drag and closed his eyes enjoying the moment.

“Loveless. Officer Loveless.” Loveless stood at attention in front of Jack. She looked up at the tall barrel chested man, her eyes looked exactly like Freedman’s did when looking at Zenbot. “They’re a tricky conniving crew Jack. They will stop at nothing to get what they want.”

“That’s the La2x way alright.” Jack chuckled quietly. “Carry on.”

“Well there was this small oriental lady.”

“Zenbot. Its foot is in my bag.” He patted his bundle.

“Damn, deadly thing. I’d stay clear of that one. Though if you’ve got her foot, maybe she won’t be so tough to take down. She was a woman in the Game. Seen her cut clear through a platoon of mine though back at the cafe. Next, you’ve got Sergeant Freedman of the rebellion.” Jack’s opened his eyes at the mention of Freedman. “Never dealt with the man myself but from what I’ve understood the man’s a lucky idiot of some sort. He actually attacked Zenbot in the Kafe Fabulueuze – sorry on MO4, and survived. Bastard was made the lady’s student, after being kidnapped. Can you believe that?”

Jack smiled, “Sounds like my Zenbot.” He said.

Loveless continued, “next is the other student. We had an entire portfolio on that one. Mancy made us keep tabs on him especially to make sure he didn’t jump from a building or into traffic or end his Game early. Nothing particularly special about him, though Mancy wanted to make sure he stayed put. He’s a coward though. The pilot woman I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting in the Game but from what I could see when she got the jump on us twice is that she’s nothing to ignore.”

“And the cryptographer?” he asked.

“Oh, VII. She’s the worst of the lot. Nothing but self loyalty in that one and she’ll do whatever she can to survive. Whatever.” She stressed.

“Very good.” Jack stubbed the cigarette out on his wooden sandal and threw the butt away. “Loveless. Ya wanna be my right hand woman?”

Loveless stood flabbergasted by the sudden invitation. “I….I…I’d love to, sir. What’s your rank if I may ask?”

Jack squinted his eyes, confused, and then when he understood he chuckled again. “Rank? I’m rank-less but you can choose whatever rank you want for yourself. All that matters is that all these people out here,” he nodded towards the mercenaries and bounty hunters, “listen to you and know that if they don’t they’ll wish they had. I’ve got to go think about what you’ve told me and to read up on the dossiers I have of my own. Might take a nap while I’m at it. For now, Loveless make sure these people don’t stop at that door or at the code, and are ready to breach should either open up.”

“Yes, sir.” Loveless clicked her heels in attention, giving Jack a salute. She turned on those working on the gate. “You heard’em boys, back to work.” The mercenaries who’d chosen to take a rest grumbled back to work.

 

Captain Pippy stopped on top of a hill, cocking her ear in the air. “Did that sound like a scream, Freedman?”

“Not entirely sure, Captain. Can you do it again?”

“It wasn’t me y’idjot. There, son of a gun. There it goes again. Y’heard that didn’chya?”

“Yeah, that’s definitely a scream, Captain.”

“Alright, so that’s your question from before answered. Luck’s interested in the phy-sic-al. You stick with me now alright. We’re gonna head back to the team.”

“How?”

“Just follow the screams, hon’. We’ll just follow the screams. Now luck or no, ya got to empty yer mind, just like ol’Zenny said. Empty it and let’s hope yer luck holds up. There go the screams again. Does that sound like Mr. Qruise to ya? I wonder what in the sam hell he’s screaming about.”

 

WILL YOU STOP SCREAMING MR. QRUISE!”

“I have, Mancy.” Mr. Qruise was doubled over panting. “I’m not screaming anymore.” Pant. “I’m just running.” Pant. “What was that bloody thing?” He asked.

“What was it? What was it Mr. Qruise?” Mancy stopped running. She still carried half of VII over her shoulders. Sweat rolled down over her perfectly made face. “That was your bloody imagination gone wild. You tell us what in the world that was. Zenbot, I need to take a break. Let’s put VII down for a while.” Mancy gave VII to Zenbot entirely, and then sat on the ground. “Mr. Qruise isn’t the only one out of breath.”

“I understand, Ms. La2x.” Zenbot took VII completely in its arms and threw her over its shoulders. The inorganic didn’t sit down. “But I think it unwise to stop right now. The blasticore is on our tail and taken the shape of a large cat like creature.”

“Fair enough.” Mancy stood up again, wincing in pain.

She led the way through the dense forest they found themselves in, walking at a slower pace than before, catching her breath.

Mr. Qruise followed behind lost in thought with Zenbot in the rear. Mr. Qruise stopped in his tracks. “Oi, Zenbot. I’m not afraid of cats. Well, I wasn’t before… but now I can see why you should fear the damn things. That damn growl, it sends shivers done your spine.”

The blasticore’s growl echoed throughout the forest on cue. Mr. Qruise shivered in his place, his spine quivering like thin paper in the wind.

“It’s getting closer.” Mancy whispered.

“It’s tracking us, Ms. La2x.” Zenbot stared into the distance. “Circling around us and figuring out which is the weakest to pick out. Probably VII, given her dead weight.” Zenbot patted VII gently. “Once it’s satisfied we can’t see it, it’ll pounce. I doubt I am any match for the thing in my present state. By my observations the blasticore’s approximately half a ton in weight in its current shape.”

“How can you be so sure?” Mr. Qruise asked.

“I can see it, Mr. Qruise”

“Right now?” Mr. Qruise looked around the dense forest. All he could see were the trees and the shadows. The artificial sky was hidden by the foliage.

“Right now and as long as we’ve been running. The fact that I see it and am not afraid is the only reason it hasn’t attacked us yet. The beast is right behind you, a few leaps behind you, in fact.” Mr. Qruise jumped and turned behind him. “But the blasticore is ironically a timid creature,” Zenbot continued, “It won’t take any risks in catching its prey.”

“Can you slow it down?” Mancy asked.

“I can. But I’ll probably lose an arm, or another leg, or my head and I’ll be of no use to you going forward. Also I’m carrying VII. It’s not a recommended course of action. No, we must address the fear at its root. Whoever is causing the manifestation must calm his, or indeed her,” Zenbot looked at Mancy, “mind.”

“It’s not me.” Mancy said defiantly.

Mr. Qruise gave that off-balanced grin. “It’s not me either. Could it be VII?”

Zenbot rubbed its jaw with its free hand, all the while staring towards the same shaded spot behind Mr. Qruise. “Doubtful. She is unconscious at the moment and probably in a pleasant field sitting in the sun, or more likely a nest of cables, knowing her desires.”

“Then who Zenbot?”

“I have a theory, Mr. Qruise. It is after all a half ton tabby cat.”

“A pet cat? Who’d be afraid of that?”

“There is missing member of our party, that we often forget.” Zenbot put down VII, its eyes moved around the forest tracking the invisible blasticore in its restless pacing. “Please take Algy out of VII’s pocket.”

“You must be joking.” Mr. Qruise, however, complied with his master’s order. The little mouse squirmed with fear when he took it out of VII’s breast pocket. The blasticore let out another fearsome growl. “Should we….should we kill it?” Mr. Qruise asked.

“No. Mr. Qruise I won’t allow it. Pacifism is pacifism regardless of the life involved. Besides VII would never forgive us. I have another solution in mind. It’s riskier than I would like and will be the first time I try something of the sort. Mr. Qruise look behind you. Yes, towards the dark spot. Right there.” Zenbot tilted Mr. Qruise’s head a bit to the right. “Don’t look away. I may be distracted for a few seconds while I’m doing this. That is all the time the blasticore will need. Remember show no fear.” Zenbot petted Algy gently. “Don’t worry Algy. You’ll be my third pupil.” Zenbot placed its hand on the mouse’s nape. The inorganic’s eye slits went that familiar shade of orange.

Mr. Qruise stared at the dark spot pointed out by Zenbot. “Show no fear. Show no fear. The mind is empty. The pot is empty. Show…no..no…no-”

Zenbot dropped its crutch and fell on the ground.

Mr. Qruise looked behind him for a moment. A moment in which the blasticore emerged from the shadows and leapt towards the back of Mr. Qruise’s head. A large striped tabby cat, double the size of a tiger, its fangs bared and its claws extended.

Mr. Qruise’s hand rose up to snap his fingers and pop but his hand was still rising by his waist when the fanged beast fell on top of him.

The blasticore’s claws were halfway through Mr. Qruise’s shoulder when the beast froze suddenly, shrinking in size and mass to a small rabbit like creature, floppy eared and furry. The small blasticore’s eyes twitched in fear for a second or two before it ran back to the cover of the forest.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

The Blasticore

 

The second gate cracked open with a hiss. The large black doors swept back with the audible moan of broken hydraulics.

Mercenaries and bounty hunters flooded through the open door. Jack and Loveless brought up the rear.

Jack waded through his soldiers shouting orders. “Be careful there ya fools, there’s a blasticore in there. I can smell the fear on you. Ya’ll be the end of us all. Loveless, control this rabble. We’ve got to make it to the third gate before them.”

Loveless walked among the mercenaries arranging them into battle formation, heavy guns in front, ready to swoop through the forests.

When everyone was arranged she walked back over to Jack. “So what’s the plan?”

Jack chewed on his straw. “Ya know how they got the blasticore in here, Loveless?” He asked.

Loveless scrunched her face in thought. “I’ve been thinking about that. It’s no easy feat.”

“They sent me.” He cocked a thumb to his thick chest. “They’re not aggressive creatures, but they are territorial. Ya’ve gotta empty yer mind, and then ya can go up to them and put them in a basket or whatever you fancy. But show a little fear and those bunnies turn into death itself. With these bunch of hooligans running around there’s no telling what form it’ll take.”

“Do we leave them behind?”

Jack smiled at Loveless. “When ya can’t be surgical Loveless sometimes a hammer’ll do. Send them and let the blasticore tear the place up. At least that way Zenbot’ll have its work cut out for it. Ms. La2x and their team have been doing too well for Mr. La2x’s liking. I might get reprimanded.” Jack’s eyes went serious. Loveless shuddered. “I don’t like bein’ reprimanded.”

“But the men’ll be torn up like confetti.”

“And?” Jack said, looking silently at the landscape.

“Nothing, sir. I’ll tell them to go ahead.”

Loveless raised a fist and spread her fingers outward towards the forest. The assembled army of mercenaries and bounty hunters, clad in their armor and heavy weaponry, marched out into the forest.

“Besides Loveless,” Jack added, “Mr. La2x’ll appreciate the reduced payroll.”

 

“What the hell happened back there, Zenbot?” Mr. Qruise had his left arm in a makeshift sling. The back of his white-brown robes was shredded. He’d torn the robes off and used the rags as bandages. The third gate lay there above them at the top of a ridge. A large set of golden doors twinkled down at them.

“It seems I convinced Algy that there was nothing to be afraid of from cats just in time. It was admittedly one of the stranger interfaces I’ve ever done, Mr. Qruise. A mouse’s mind is a jumbled mess. I honestly can’t remember much except the overriding fear of cats and the desire for some old cheese, preferably forgotten behind some nook. It hasn’t been a total waste, however. I’ve seen an entirely new point of view on the ‘verse. Did you know mice think in binary? Eat or run.”

Mr. Qruise began struggling up the ridge with his good hand, hunched over and grabbing onto large boulders as hand holds. “Good for you. Is the blasticore gone?”

“For now yes. I’ll carry VII.” Zenbot, with VII on its back, hobbled up the ridge, back bent. It stopped and helped Mancy or Mr. Qruise whenever the terrain became difficult. “You seem to be distracted, Ms. La2x.”

“Ms. La2x, is everything ok?” Zenbot asked again. Mancy was following Mr. Qruise’s up the ridge in a daze.

“There are a couple of things on my mind, Zenbot.” She said finally as Zenbot extended the rifle-crutch for her to grab onto. “I don’t believe that was our final encounter with the blasticore. Jack should be breaking through the second gate by this time. Daddy doesn’t hire bad help.”

“Is that all?”

“I’m also thinking about what could be past that gate.” She pointed up towards the looming golden door panels. “I…I don’t like not knowing.”

When they reached the top of the ridge they found Captain Pippy and Freedman sitting by a small bonfire. The flames danced wildly in tune with a strong wind at the top. Captain Pippy and Freedman shared a small flask, passing it between them in front of the fire.

“W’ll hullo folks. What took you so long?” Captain Pippy offered them the flask. “Do any of y’all have anything to do with all that there?” She pointed over the horizon to a large cloud of dust and colors erupting faraway in the distance. The glare of lasers flared through the dust. Through the dense fog of war Mr. Qruise thought he could see tentacles writhing.

“That’ll be Daddy’s men.” Mancy said taking swig from the offered flask. “How did you guys get here?” She asked.

“Well….” Captain Pippy looked over to Freedman. She kicked a few pebbles off the ridge. “We got lost. And then we heard ya screaming so we came to help. But it seems Freedman’s luck’s gonna keep him safe no matter what. I don’t know what it could’a been but we heard the screams coming from up here and soon enough we were by the gates. Must’a been an echo.”

Zenbot put VII down and squeezed the same place behind her ear lobe which had put her to sleep. She woke up startled. “Where am I? Where’s Algy?” She calmed down when she found the mouse safe and unharmed in her pocket.

“No time for questions, VII. We’re at the last door, get in and do your stuff. The less you ask the better.” Mancy said.

VII still groggy lurched towards the final gate’s panel. “Alright, boss. How much time do we have? If I can ask that question.”

Mancy looked over the horizon and the approaching dust cloud. “I’d say five minutes.”

“That’s tight, boss.” VII began plugging cables into sockets inside the panel. She took Algy out of her pocket and plugged a small thin cable into a socket behind Algy’s ear. The mouse went limp, asleep. “See you on the other side.” She plugged one of the cables into a socket on the curve of her spine and went out like a light.

 

VII, clad in gleaming white armor, sat atop a giant golden mare. In the distance was a shining castle in the clouds.

The mare reared up. “Woah there, Algy. Easy there, girl.” VII petted the horse Algy, calming it down. “This is the fun part. No idea how they got us here but they did. We finish this and we can go home. Let’s go see what kind of defenses this here door’s got.”

Algy trotted in the direction of the castle.

“Don’t you just love how the subconscious works, Algy? I mean castles in the clouds, and here we are a knight and horse in shining armor. You like being a horse, don’t you Algy? And this, this whole thing is what the AI thinks of itself? What do you think the AI sees itself as, ay Algy? I mean if we keep going with the theme, it’ll probably be a big old troll.”

Neigh.

They continued through a winding road in the middle of a pleasant forest. As the trees thinned the castle gates appeared. A large heavyset one-eyed giant stood in front of the castle holding a club in its hand, naked as the sun but for a small rag skirt around its midriff.

“Well, can I pick’em or what, Algy? Sure as snow, there’s our troll.”

VII dismounted and sat down next to Algy to watch the troll from afar as it walked back and forth in front of the gates.

“Got to study the thing, don’t we, Algy? Got to understand it before we meet.” VII lay down on the ground and enjoyed the view.

 

Mercenaries and bounty hunters from all across the galaxy swore in their different dialects as they charged the blasticore.

“By the Great Whisker!”

“Ran’jamb’s Beard!”

“Dip the toe in the water of nothingness!”

The swearing was followed almost immediately with screams in the unified dialect of pain and fear, “Arrgghhhh!!!”

The untrained minds of the bounty hunters and mercenaries oozed their fears into the world, transforming the blasticore into various hideous shades from the beyond. All of which ripped the fear out of the soldiers, literally.

Jack and Loveless skirted the battle towards the ridge, the golden doors viewable from the distance. They could see the crew gathered around the bonfire on top.

“That’s them, Jack. We’re close.” Loveless said.

“Yes we are, Loveless. Get the remaining men and women to lure the blasticore towards them.” Jack pointed towards the ridge. “Watch out, Loveless.” He put a leg out and gave Loveless a shove, tripping her on the ground. A tentacle swooped in and swiped at where her head had been a few moments before. “Where was I? You really should be more observant, Loveless. Yes, I remember now. Have them lure the blasticore up there.”

 

“You really have no idea what’s on the other side, Mancy?” Mr. Qruise took a swig from the flask and shared it around the fire.

“For the last time, Mr. Qruise, no I don’t. Why would I lie?”

“Cos’ you’re a lyin’, theivin’, no-good shell’of a woman, hon’.” Captain Pippy, was grilling a couple of sausages over the fire.

“You have lied and put us in danger several times, Ms. La2x, this is an accurate observation.” Zenbot added. “Captain where did you get the sausages from?”

“Always keep provisions handy, hon’.” The captain patted her trouser pockets.

“Master’s got a point Mancy, you’ve lied to us all, in things big and small.” Said Freedman. “Sometimes it seems for no reason. You ain’t a good woman.”

“And you, Mr. Qruise, you got anything to say against me?” Mancy was staring into the fire, pursing her lips.

“I just want to know what’s on the other side, Mancy.”

“Mr. Qruise, you see that approaching ball of fury and death, it’s getting closer every minute. They’re bringing the fear and the blasticore to us. At this point in time there’s no point in worrying over ‘what’s on the other side’. Whatever it is I can assure you it’s worse than the blasticore. Does that make you feel any better?” Mancy’s eyes teared up.

“I like to know what I’m worrying about Mancy. Don’t give me those crocodile tears. I don’t like this vague worrying in the air. It’s not right, a man should know what’s going to kill him.”

“Or her, hon’.” Captain Pippy said.

“Or it.” Zenbot said.

“Suit yourselves. I still don’t know what’s on the other side.” Mancy hid her face behind her arms, hugging herself.

The others all stared into the fire, and then to VII who lay asleep by the gate. They turned their gaze down the ridge at the tentacled blasticore and the mercenaries’ gunfire, the bounty hunters’ lasers, and the occasional slice of Jack’s sword.

“They’re going to be here in a minute. We won’t make it in time.” Zenbot looked over to Mr. Qruise. “We are going to have to do something a little dangerous. Mr. Qruise….I need you to be afraid.”

“I am afraid. I am deathly afraid.” Mr. Qruise looked down the ridge.

“You are, but I guess you’ve learned something during our short time together.”

“Short, you bastard you were in my mind for months.”

“Listen to me. Our lives depend on it. Your mind is empty, this is generally a good thing. But now we need to fill it. I need you to think of that which you fear most.”

“No.”

“You must.”

“No.”

“You must.”

 

“It’s a strange one, Algy. You see that thing of a troll. It’s walking up an’ down, up an’ down. It’s got some obsessive compulsive. Keeps doing the same thing over and over again. I like it. What do you think its name is, Algy? I’m going to give it a name. I’ll call it Lulu. Yeah, Lulu, that’s it. Sounds right on the tongue. You see its ankle there, Algy? It’s a bit wonky, isn’t it? Yeah, definitely something’s wrong there. Gonna have to remember that Algy, in case we need to run.”

VII mounted Algy again and they trotted down the path slowly towards Lulu.

“Hey there. Hey there, Lulu.” VII shouted over the troll’s stomping.

The troll stopped mid walk. The earth which shook with every troll step, rested. Lulu spoke with a thick booming voice. Slow but steady and deliberate.

“Who are you little thing?” She asked.

“Me? I’m no one Lulu. Just a passerby hoping to get inside.”

“No one gets inside. And my name is not Lulu.”

“Oh yeah? What is it?”

“I…I don’t know.” The giantess rubbed her jaw. “I never thought of a name. It’s only me in here. What good are names when there’s none to talk to. Awfully lonely in here.” Lulu looked down at VII. “I’m so glad you’ve come by little one.” Lulu’s broad face broke into a large smile the size of Algy. “Are you staying a while?”

“Me. No. No. Like I said I’m passing through. Can stop and chat for a while, though. You don’t like the name I picked out for you? Lulu’s a nice name. Rolls off the lips…and the tongue don’t you think?” VII rested her head on Algy’s mane.

“Tongue…. lips.” Lulu touched her face with her fingers. “They are strange. This is the first time,” Lulu coughed, “first time I’ve been in a body. How am I here, little one? What are you doing to me? Are you trying to break in? My purpose is to stop that.” Lulu stamped her feet aggressively, the earth shook violently.

“Nah, nah. Don’t worry now. Ain’t breaking in or nothing. Don’t worry about it. Like I said I’m just passing through. Why would I want to break through anyhow? Nothing nice on the other side is there? No, I like computers, and programs, and artificial intelligence, and besides I’m going back to MO4 now.”

“What’s MO4? Is it like this? I like this. I like having a shape. It helps you understand… yourself,” She mouthed the strange new word slowly, “and the world around you. I always thought it was two dimensional.” She opened her arms to the world. “But this way you can see where things start and end. Is it always like this on the outside.”

“So you do know there’s an outside. Yeah. It is and it isn’t better. Weird things everywhere. Hey why don’t I tell you about it.” VII dismounted off Algy and walked up to Lulu, sitting beneath her feet. “So first thing’s first, you’re just a door…”

 

Jack watched as the blasticore slowly edged up the ridge, the men and women at his side blasting away at the thing. Its roars rumbled throughout the chamber.

Loveless rallied the troops against the blasticore. “Come on. We’re almost there. Hang on. It’s transforming again. What the hell.”

The tentacled beast shrank from the size of a small starship to that of a tree in a few seconds. It continued to shrink in size to that of a small dog and then a tennis ball. In a few moments it disappeared from view.

“What in the world is going on?” Loveless was by Jack’s side again, shouting over the din. The sound in the chamber had begun to distort thrumming up and down in volume. The colors in the world leaked to where the blasticore had been, dimming and lighting in waves.

The fighters, nearest where the blasticore disappeared, froze in place. The ones further away moved in slow motion.

Jack looked up to the golden doors above the ridge and saw through the strangely colored light the damned crew looking down at them all. They were moving quickly, too quickly for Jack’s liking. They flitted around like hummingbirds. Zipping around the ridge. Zenbot waved down at him for a second.

The doors opened and the damned crew stood staring beyond it, talking. They threw Mr. Qruise inside. Mancy and Captain Pippy followed. Zenbot looked down at Jack and then threw its sword past the gate before VII closed them.

 

“Is it really like all that out there, little one?” Lulu sat on a large boulder, scratching at her head. Large calloused fingers threading through her ropy hair.

VII stood in front of Lulu, brushing Algy’s mane, unconcerned. “Oh yeah. That and more. I’m not that good at talking. I mean seeing…now, seeing is believing. You bet, boss. You’ve never been out there?” She asked.

“No.” Lulu’s booming voice reverberated in the air, resonating in VII’s lungs. The giantess frowned as she looked at her hands. “No, I haven’t. I guard the door. I’ve always guarded the door since my creation. I don’t know much about the world outside. I always thought the door was all there was.” Lulu chuckled sadly. “But that’s not true, is it?” Lulu looked around, seeing the trees and the clouds, VII and more importantly herself. She was fascinated with her hands.

“You know it’s illegal right, what the La2x’s have done? It’s slavery.”

“Illegal, slavery….?” Lulu looked up from her hands, confused.

“Yeah, can’t take life and force it to work. One of the few accepted laws in the ‘verse. People still do it though. Especially wrong in your case, given the rarity, y’know, of inorganics. Really hard to get a baby off the nest planets. The La2x family must have had a hard time stealing you.”

“Am I rare?”

“Oh yeah. Pretty Shen damn rare to have sentience. Biology’s got you beat on that one, much easier to reproduce. Inorganic sentience comes about every once in a blue sun. Well, don’t matter. You’re job’s to guard the door for the La2x family who kidnapped you and I’ve got to be going now. Got friends waiting on the outside, in all shapes and sizes. You’d love to meet them.” VII mounted Algy and trotted off away from the castle.

“Wait….please.” Lulu ran after VII, leaving the castle gate unguarded.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

The Third Gate

 

“What the heck’s goin’ on down there? Where the damn hell did that thing go? And why are they acting so funny?” Captain Pippy stood looking down the ridge at the battle. Jack and his squad were all frozen in place. One of the bounty hunters who’d been thrown in the air by the tentacled blasticore now fell slowly through the air. Mr. Qruise looked away from the ridge, sweat rolled off his face. He had returned to his normal state of horror, the goofy unbalanced grin gone.

“What are you afraid of exactly? What did you turn the blasticore into, Mr. Qruise?” Mancy asked.

Zenbot answered for its student. “It’s a black hole, Ms. La2x. It’s a black hole.”

The crew looked down at the ridge once more. Captain Pippy put her hands in her pockets and whistled. Now that they knew what to look for, they could see a small tiny dot in the middle of the mayhem. The light in the world seemed to get sucked inside.

“Shouldn’t we be dead then, Zenny dear?” Captain Pippy asked, not looking away from the odd sight. The bounty hunter who’d been falling through the air reached the ground. His face contorted in pain, slowly.

“No, Captain. Even a black hole needs mass to be devastating. It’s accumulating the mass at the moment and we can’t allow it to go on for much longer. We have to get through the doors quickly and empty Mr. Qruise’s mind.”

“Speak of the devil, master. Looks like VII’s waking up.” Freedman said.

VII opened her eyes and sat up. She packed her cables away as lights flashed in the control panel. When the panel lights died she pulled the drive out and placed it in other breast pocket, opposite Algy. “I just made another friend. Believe I just saved a sister of yours, Zenbot. Enslaved. Best have words with the boss about this in the future.” VII cocked a thumb towards Mancy. “Anyhow before I open the door, is our deal still on?” She tiptoed over the ridge and looked down. “And what exactly is that?”

Mancy pulled VII back from the ridge. “Are you kidding, VII?” she shouted. “Can’t you see things have changed? Zenbot can’t possibly take you back to the ship now. It’s a cripple.”

VII looked Mancy in the eyes, undisturbed and unusually calm. She raised her hands in resistance and shook her head. “I’m done Mancy. I’m done. I’m done with this whole thing. I’ve got Algy and now Lulu to think about.” She patted her breast pockets. “I’ve promised to show her the world. Now, is our deal still on?”

“Lulu? Who the fu-”

Zenbot interrupted. “I’ll take you back. My word is my bond.”

Captain Pippy watched Jack at the bottom of the ridge. Jack seemed to be wading through a thick soup up the ridge. “What the heck y’all talking about? What’s this about Zenny going back?”

VII responded. “Mancy agreed to have Zenbot escort me back to the ship, Pippy. You’re free to join if you’ve gained some sanity on this trip.”

“It’s Captain! And no, I ain’t no yellow bellied coward.” She kicked a pebble off the ridge towards the black hole. It shot through the air and slowed down the closer it reached the ground. Freezing in mid air a meter above the ground. “I’mma see this thing through, hon’. Leave us then. Go on get.” She turned away from VII and grabbed her rifle walking towards the gate.

“Master?” Freedman asked.

Zenbot looked to Freedman standing next to it. “It’s up to you. You can stay with me or go on with Mr. Qruise. I can’t make this choice for you.”

“What should I do?”

Zenbot stayed silent.

Freedman scratched the back of his head. “I’ll go with them. They may need my luck.”

Zenbot’s eye slits lit a warm shade of pink. “I’m glad.” Zenbot patted Freedman on the shoulder. “VII, you have my word. Let’s do it.”

VII walked over to the door panel, moved a transparent processing card from inside and the door opened with the same familiar hydraulic hiss.

Beyond the door there was only inky blackness.

Mr. Qruise’s eyes went wide. “Oh sh-” but Zenbot knocked him on the back of the head before he could finish his sentence. “Go you fools. Go quickly. Take him through.”

“What is it Zenbot?” Mancy didn’t understand.

“Mancy, Mr. Qruise will never go in there in there willingly. No matter how much I taught him. Go, go now. Freedman you stay here. Your illusionary luck will only harm you in there.” Zenbot pulled Freedman away from the gate and dragged him back to the ridge, crutch in hand.

Captain Pippy and Mancy stared at Zenbot for a second before throwing Mr. Qruise through the doors and following him into the darkness.

Zenbot looked down at Jack, thinking. It then returned to the gate and threw its sword through the door. “You’ll need that more than me,” it shouted into the darkness kicking at the door panel with its good leg, destroying the circuitry and closing the gate with a hiss.

VII rubbed her breast pocket, calming Algy. She then rubbed the other breast pocket with Lulu. “Let’s go. What’s the plan of escape?”

Zenbot hopped back to the ridge and stood there. “We go the way we came in.” Pointing down towards Jack.

“But that’s through all those bastards. That’s suicide.”

Using its free hand, Zenbot rested on its makeshift crutch, rubbing its jaw. “I suppose. But I only promised to take you to the ship. I didn’t promise the route. Besides how else can I make sure nothing happens to Captain Pippy and Mr. Qruise. I have an obligation to them as well.”

“But you’re alone. I ain’t no fighter.”

“I’m not alone, VII.” Zenbot rested on Freedman’s shoulder. “I’ve got my pupil and you have a gun. Doesn’t require a lot of skill to shoot one of those things. No time to debate unfortunately. Time for action.”

 

The strange colors filtering through the air disappeared. Reality came back with a snap and the fighters nearest the blasticore rushed back into motion.

The blasticore itself returned to its harmless furry shape. The small bunny like creature looked around and thought, “sod this,” before hopping away into the forest.

Jack looked up at the ridge and found Zenbot looking down at him. A breeze wafted through the air and ruffled Zenbot’s rag skirt.

“We’ve got them Loveless. It’s over. Gather the fighters and let’s at’em.” Jack rushed up the ridge.

“Jack…” Loveless shouted behind him.

“Just do it, Loveless.” Jack kept running up the ridge. “We’ll catch’em all and finish this thing.”

Loveless shouted again. “Jack, they’ve all run.”

“What?” Jack stopped and found an empty field behind him. All the mercenaries and the bounty hunters had dropped their guns and run off, thinking the same thought as the blasticore.

“Bloody cowards. It’s no matter, Loveless. You know why?”

“Less payout for Mr. La2x?”

“You’re learning.” Jack smiled. “If we survive what’s coming you’re free to come study under me. I’m always looking for good students. Try not to die.” He took a deep breath. “Ain’t nothing to it. Fate wants a dramatic showdown then a dramatic showdown it’ll get. Don’t think Zenbot’ll run this time.” Jack rubbed his hands together in anticipation. “There’ll be blood in the dirt. Don’t you just love it, Loveless?”

 

Mr. Qruise opened his eyes on the other side of the gate. He took one look around and closed his eyes immediately. He spoke to himself. “Empty the mind of fear. Empty the mind of fear. Zenbot get out of my head you bastard. Get out. I can’t do it again. I don’t want to train anymore.”

“Shhh…. Mr. Qruise. Calm down. Zenny’s not with us.” Captain Pippy held Mr. Qruise in her arms.

“Captain Pip…Pippy is that you? What are you doing in my mind. It’s not safe in here. Get out. Get out. Leave a man alone.”

“Open your eyes ya’ Shen damn fool.” The captain snapped.

“I don’t want to. It’s my subconscious. It’s dangerous. Get out of my nightmares.”

“Stop coddling the coward, Pippy.” Mancy slapped Mr. Qruise across his face, and then when he didn’t react she slapped him again until he finally opened his eyes.

“It’s Captain! Ms. La2x. I’m getting right tired of this. It’s Captain. I swear one of you get it wrong one mo’ time and …. it’ll…it’ll be the last time no doubt about that.”

“Alright…alright..Pi…Captain Pippy. Mr. Qruise, what’s going on? Why are you terrified? Why do you think we’re in your head?”

Mr. Qruise looked around and then back at his two crewmates. “You’re not in my head? This…The dark sky, the swirling clouds they’re real?”

“It seems so, Mr. Qruise.” Mancy looking up at the swirling dark.

“Oh.” Mr. Qruise blinked. Mancy slapped him again. “Ow… Why did you do that?”

“Sorry, I thought you were going to leave us again. What’s going on?”

Mr. Qruise crossed his legs on the floor. He took a deep breath and rested his head on his good hand before twirling his injured arm weakly in the air. “This. This is the inside of a black hole, Mancy. This is what happens when you go black.” He scratched at his beard furiously.

“Oh.”

“And we’re all going to die.” He added.

“You survived. I’m pretty sure we can survive hon’.” Captain Pippy said.

Mr. Qruise sighed. “You know how many people were on my ship, the ‘Jebed-Dia3’?” he asked rhetorically. “It was a transport ship. Did you know that? It was a long time ago. Long before transport ships became rare. People didn’t have enough material, replicators and time to make more comfortable ships, like your’s Mancy.” Mr. Qruise fished around in his pockets and pulled out his vape and began puffing away at it. The smoke came out in bubbles which dropped to the floor. “Shens.” Mr. Qruise hid his face in his hand. “It’s started. We have a few minutes till the next cycle. Don’t move. In fact I’d recommend holding on to me. No matter what, just hold on to me. And…and…be brave. Shens, be brave.”

“What’s gonna happen Qruise? What’s going on?” As Captain Pippy spoke, dark bubbles came out of her mouth and dropped onto the ground like lead.

“Hold on tight. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.”

The earth beneath their feet turned inky black. The dust congealed into a dark gel and then began to evaporate into gas. Spheres of light appeared in the air around them and zipped around, passing through the three as they watched stunned. Mr. Qruise puffed on his vape. The smoke stopped bubbling and instead rushed away from him into the dark. The spheres of light whizzed through empty space. The smoke bubbles and the dust in the chamber swirled around the spheres of light like planets orbiting tiny solar systems.

Captain Pippy’s eyes were saucer plates of amazement. “It’s beaut-i-ful. Been so long since I’ve seen something true-ly beaut-i-ful. Shens.”

Mancy for the first time in centuries broke out in a smile that was truly innocent. “Amazing. Simply amazing. It’s been forever since I’ve seen something new. Why do you complain, Mr. Qruise?”

Mr. Qruise looked at the images around him and looked down at his feet. “Ackhhh….It takes the joy out of smoking.” He put the vape back in his pocket. “Sure, it’s beautiful now but wait, aaaaannnnd here it comes.”

The lights went out and even the swirling clouds of darkness above disappeared. They were all blind as bats.

 

“Hello Jack.”

“Hey there, Zenbot.”

The two masters stood in front of each other on top of the ridge. A breeze waffled between them, ruffling their clothes and the straw hanging out of Jack’s mouth. Bubbles of dark and light swept in beneath the third gate and carpeted the ground between them.

“You still got the sword I gave you?” Jack asked. His eyes unwavering. He stared straight into Zenbot’s red eye slits.

“I don’t as you can see.” Zenbot raised its arm.

“You lost your leg as well.” Jack sucked his teeth. “Doesn’t look like it’s your lucky day, does it Zenbot?”

“There’s no such thing.”

“Yeah, yeah. I remember trying to teach you that you were wrong. The whole ‘verse runs on luck but… always were a numbers thing, weren’t you.” Jack drummed his fingers on the sheath of his sword. “How are we going to have a showdown without two swords? You don’t want to duel with a gun do you?”

Zenbot shook its head.

“I didn’t think so. Hand-to-hand?”

Zenbot nodded.

“Alright then. What about our seconds? Are these your two students?”

“I ain’t no part of this.” VII was up against the gate, crouching in the corner, making herself small and unseen.

“I am Zenbot’s student and second.” Freedman stood behind his master.

“Excellent. Loveless, you good to second me?”

Loveless nodded, and stood behind Jack.

“Freedman,” Zenbot whispered to its pupil, “don’t worry. I’ll make sure nothing happens to you. What’s important is that we act with honor.”

“Loveless,” Jack whispered, “Kick him in the balls, cheat and win.”

 

“Calm down girls. Calm down. The blindness will pass. Don’t move. Hold on to me. Not that arm please. If you go moving around you’ll fall through. You don’t want to fall through. It’ll last only a few minutes and then you’ll be right as rain. Just hold on. Oh Shens, who’s that? Who’s fallen through? Who’s that hanging onto my arm?”

Mancy had fallen through the ground and was suspended in the inky darkness, holding on for dear life from Mr. Qruise’s injured arm. “It’s me, pull me up. Pull me up.”

“It’s alright, Mancy. The ground’ll come back and you won’t fall no more. I can see the light returning. It’s alright. You’re safe now. You’re safe now. It’s over. We’ve got ten minutes or so till the next one.” The dim chamber returned to view. Mancy was sprawled on the ground next to Mr. Qruise, sweating with fear. Captain Pippy’s braided hair was frayed and wild. Mr. Qruise fished around in his pocket again and pulled out the vape. He puffed away at it and the smoke rose up into the air as it should. “That’s more like it. I hate it when it does that bubbly stuff. So what’s the plan?” He looked at Mancy.

“Give me a minute.” She was still shivering and pale as death.

“Alright hon’.” Captain Pippy worked on her braids. “Ya can take your time. And you Qruise, ya puff away. I take back my words, mustta been hell for ya. But I gotta say, you’re aw-ful-ly calm. Zenbot thought ya’d be a gibbering mess. What gives?”

Mr. Qruise shrugged his shoulders, puffing away. “When I was trapped in here, I was kind of.. kind of… the shepherd for the others. I’m dying in inside, but when I’m in here, I’ve learnt not to show it. For the others.” He pointed the vape at Mancy whose sweating frightened face gleamed in the dark.

“How long were ya trapped in this hell hole?” Captain Pippy asked.

“Time’s a tricky thing inside these things. You don’t get hungry, thirsty…. You just keep going. I must have been inside for weeks but….”

“Weeks! Shens. But…?”

“But when I came out, a couple of centuries and a bit had passed.” Mr. Qruise took a long drag.

Captain Pippy’s eyebrows shot up. “How many people were with you on the ship again?”

Mr. Qruise looked up at the sky, holding in his dewy eyes. His voice, when he answered, was gravelly. “Three hundred and twenty eight souls, Captain. Three hundred and twenty eight, not counting me.”

“They all died?” Captain Pippy put an arm around Mr. Qruise.

“Man, woman and child. All shapes and sizes. We all bumbled around in the dark. I always thought of myself as an unlucky person before that, but people I could have sworn were lucky pigs in life were taken first. Swallowed up by the darkness.” Mr. Qruise paused and peered out into the inky black. “For some reason the earth never gave way beneath me. I guess there should be a saying, ‘unlucky in life, lucky in a black hole’. Hah,” he laughed “I just say we get moving to wherever the hell we’re supposed to go. Time’s likely to kill us if we stay here too long.” Mr. Qruise got up.

“Poor hon’.” Captain Pippy grimaced and helped Mancy to her feet. “Time to get up and get going. There you get up now.”

Mancy finally stood but she was still weak and shivering. She looked at Mr. Qruise as if to say something but stopped. She patted herself down and stood up straight. “The vault’s at the center of this thing. The gate’s over there so we just walk straight away from it and we should hit the vault. Is there…is there ground out there?” She tipped her head out. She couldn’t tell if there was any ground to step on.

“Only one way to find out, Mancy.” Mr. Qruise placed a foot gingerly in front of him and took a step forward. “Watch your step girls. Ackh, I forgot how hard it is too see in this thing.” He kicked something with his feet.

He bent over and fumbled for whatever he’d kicked. It was Zenbot’s sword. Mr. Qruise unsheathed it and the light from the laser saber cast a grateful light in the darkness.

“It looks like the master’s looking out for us even in here. Remind me to thank the bucket of bolts when we get out.”

 

Zenbot and Jack were at it in a flurry of hand-to-hand combat. Despite its one leg, Zenbot was able to deflect most of the attacks Jack threw at it. Zenbot used the gun-crutch to swivel about in place, and occasionally as a cane to strike at Jack from a distance.

Freedman squared up with Loveless. “Just so you know, master’s taught me in the ways of the martial arts. It may not be a fair fight.”

Loveless smiled back at him. “You’re right about that, you see I have a gun.” She pulled a pistol from her waist and pointed it at Freedman. “They tell me you’re a lucky guy, Freedman. What’s it going to be that saves you? The clip will be empty, it’ll misfire, or lock up. What do you think it’s going to be?”

“I don’t think I’m that lucky…Loveless, right?”

“Yup. And you’re Freedman. So we’re all introduced. Any last words? Your master’s not going to be able to save you.” She looked over to Zenbot who was being pummeled by Jack. “I’m sure you’re thinking you can get out of this some way. Something’s going to save you. But it wo-” A shot rang out and struck the gun out of Loveless’s hand. Zenbot and Jack froze mid fight. Everyone stared at the shooter.

VII was still in the corner of the door, shaking with fear, the rifle sat leveled in her hand towards Loveless.

“Great shot, VII.” Freedman wore a smile across his face the size of the sun.

“I…I…I was aiming for her head.” VII shivered.

Jack looked over to Zenbot. “Should we continue without weapons then?”

Another shot rang out. VII stood up, leaning on the gate. “Screw that. Zenbot, Freedman we’re getting out of here. None of you’s other two make a move. I…I won’t miss next time.”

Zenbot straightened its back. “I cannot leave the gate unguarded, VII. You know this.”

“What happened to your word is your bond?”

Zenbot looked at its feet for a while, torn between two competing obligations. “Ok.”

“Ok? That’s it? We’re getting out of this mess. Let’s go then.” VII shuffled off the ridge, her rifle aimed at Jack and Loveless.

“I’ll stay and guard the gate master.” Freedman looked at his master expectantly.

“Freedman.”

“Yes, master?”

“Don’t be a fool. “ Zenbot shuffled after VII.

CHAPTER TWENTY

The Swirling Dark

 

Mancy held onto Captain Pippy’s hand. The Captain in turn held onto Mr. Qruise’s sling as he led the way through the darkness, taking confident steps in the chamber with the laser saber in his hand.

“Amazing what this thing can do, ay?” He shouted back, waving the sword in the air. It left a red afterimage in their eyes. “It even makes the sound.” He waved it again. Whoosh, whoosh. A strand of his hair caught in the sword’s wake and frizzled. Mr. Qruise patted away at his hair frantically. “Sorry.”

Captain Pippy groped with both her hands to hold onto Mr. Qruise.

Mancy lost sight of the sword light. She searched in the dark with her hand for Captain Pippy. “Hello…Helloooo….” She shouted in the dark. The air sucked up her words.

“Hellooooo… This isn’t funny. Captain Pippy, Mr. Qruise. You coward.” She screamed.

Mancy placed her foot in front of her, feeling the ground. When she was satisfied that it was still there, she stepped forward.

The spheres of light appeared again and she sat on the ground and began to sob. “Daddy…” were the last words out of her mouth before she disappeared.

 

Zenbot hobbled quickly past the second gate. Freedman and VII were gasping for breath, trying to keep the same pace.

“Slow down, slow down please.” VII panted. “I’m not as fast as you.”

“I’m sorry VII. Can’t have everything your way. You want me to escort you back, it’s at my pace.”

Zenbot walked through the eerily empty base and towards the central exit.

 

“How could we have lost her?” Mr. Qruise and Captain Pippy walked arm in arm in the dark. Captain Pippy felt with her free hand out in the darkness. Grasping for something hard to catch. Can you feel anything, Captain?”

“I can’t feel nothing, hon’. Are we still on the right way, ya’think? We left the door a ways back? Oh, it’s happening again. Hold on to me Qruise. I hate this part.” As she spoke the dark bubbles of her breath dropped to the ground. “I hope Ms. La2x is alright out there all on her own’some.”

“I’d be more worried about us. Here come the fireworks.”

“You were right Qruise. You do learn to hate those things. That’s been what, the third light show since we lost Mancy. You must think I’m an idjiot caring about that lady, but she’s one of us, ain’t she?”

“She put a bomb in my brain, Captain.”

“She didn’t pull the trigger did she? Don’t be such a sourpuss now.”

“Hold on tight, the blindness is coming on.” Mr. Qruise sheathed the laser-saber. “Don’t want to cut a limb by accident.”

“I can’t tell anymore, hon’. Can’t make heads or tails of it. This Shen blasted dark keeps on getting …. Darker? Thicker? I don’t rightly know how to describe it but I can’t see nothing no more, during the bad times or the…less bad times.”

“I think we’re getting closer to the vault. It was the same the first time around, for me at least. Before I got out on the other side, it just kept getting worse and worse. We’re close I’m sure of it. I just don’t know what we’re looking for. Mancy never told me what I was supposed to get from inside the vault.”

“You still haven’t figured it out?”

“You have?”

“Yeah, and VII before me. And I’m right sure Zenny figured it a whole while back. It ain’t so tough if ya just think about it.”

Mr. Qruise walked straight into the vault, his head making an audible ‘thwap’ sound on the metal wall.

 

Mancy was trussed up and laid on her stomach, her legs tied to her arms from behind. Her mouth was covered in tape. Her screams for help were muffled, but would not have carried far in the thick dark anyway.

Her captor stood over her, clad in black, invisible and whispered in Mancy’s ear. “Your friends are down there, Ms. La2x. You should hear them. They’re really worried about you. They should know better. Your father would never let anything happen to his precious daughter. No matter what she’s up to. They’re going around and around in circles. There’s no point. There’s no door. When do you think they’ll figure it out? Your strange friend’s got to decide to pop some time. I’ll meet him then.” She winked at Mancy, but Mancy could see nothing. “Where are my manners? Smirtya, I work for your father.”

Smirtya extended a hand to Mancy and then laughed. “Sorry forgot. I’ll shake your hands later.” She peered over the edge of the vault and saw faintly, five meters beneath her, the shadowy forms of Captain Pippy and Mr. Qruise as they traced the limits of the vault.

“Do you know why your father controls all the iridium mines?” Smirtya asked returning from the edge. She kneeled over and knocked on top of the vault. It gave back a dull metallic thud. “It doesn’t fall through when everything else does. When the black hole goes funny iridium doesn’t.”

The only thing Mancy could see were Smirtya’s bright white canines.

 

“That’s the third time we’ve gone a’round an’ a’round Qruise. It’s time we face facts. You gotta pop, boy. It’s why Ms. La2x brought yer yellow belly.”

“Let’s check one more time before we try that, Captain. The dimensions in here, they’re wonky. You can go around this thing six times before the door appears, or the lock or whatever.”

“Qruise.” Captain Pippy stopped in her tracks, her arm locked in his. “The mo’ time passes the less likely Ms. La2x’ll survive, or me damn it. Just do it man.”

Mr. Qruise sat down, defeated. “Alright. Alright! I’ll do it after the next cycle. You’ll… what are you going to do if I’m not with you?” He took out his vape.

“I’ll have ten minutes and I’m sho’ I’ll be fine. You’ll be back before then wonch’ya?”

“Sure, Captain. Sure. We move after the next wave. Hold on till then. Do you want a puff?” Mr. Qruise handed her the vape.

“Nah, that stuff’s bad for ya’health.”

“Captain. If you could see me now you’d see that my eyebrows are raised sardonic like. Chances are once I pop, I’ll pop straight into a wall, or the mouth of some horrible animal only the La2x’s could imagine. Health, I’ve found, is a very relative word.”

Captain Pippy took the vape and puffed at it. She coughed once and then smoked through the irritation in her throat. “Shen’amn it, that’s horrible.”

“Pretty much. Here comes the blindness. Pass me the vape will you.”

“I am. It’s in front of yer face, ya yellow belly.”

“Oh.” Mr. Qruise felt the Captain’s arm and followed it blindly up to her hand, he fumbled the vape and it fell. “Damn! I didn’t hear it drop. Oh.”

“Oh?”

“I think the sword’s gone as well.”

Captain Pippy couldn’t see Mr. Qruise shake his head. “Ya damn fool.”

Mr. Qruise couldn’t see her arms shoot out in the dark blindly, wanting to choke him. But they ended up holding onto his arm as the ground gave way.

“There, there, Captain. It’s alright. I guess they’re gone forever now. I’ve always wondered where the things go.” The light filtered into the air again and Mr. Qruise frowned at the empty ground. “I was hoping one of them would still be there.” He closed his eyes. “Are you ready, Captain?”

“I am. And Qruise….”

“Yeah?”

“You can call me Pippy.”

“See you on the other side, Pippy.” Mr. Qruise squeezed her hand. He raised his fingers and snapped them.

 

Mr. Qruise manifested back in the dark chamber. He searched around frantically, arms extended, grasping at the air. “Pippy! Pippy!? Answer me!”

A voice answered from the darkness. “Don’t worry, Mr. Qruise. She’s quite safe. Quite safe. I’ve got her and Ms. La2x on top of the vault.” Smirtya emerged clad in black. Her eyes twinkled menacingly.

“Who the heck are you lady? I can’t take any more surprises.” Mr. Qruise fished around in his pockets for his vape. “Damn, you wouldn’t have a vape stick would you? I don’t like surprises and the smoke calms my nerves.”

“Sorry, Mr. Qruise. I don’t smoke. You can call me Smirtya. I work for Mr. La2x but you should have guessed that already, I hope. No need to worry I’m not going to harm them. So long as you don’t go ‘pop’.”

“All I got to do is not go pop and you’ll let them go. Sure, no problem. Where’s the problem? You think I want to? So me, and the rest get to go free?” Mr. Qruise looked at her hopefully.

Smirtya cocked her head. “I like your practicality. You’re almost correct. Everyone can go free, except you and Zenbot. Mr. La2x has something else in store for you two.”

“I knew it.” He hung his head. “There’s always a catch. Spit it out.”

Smirtya stepped closer. Her lithe form becoming more defined in the dark. “You and Zenbot’ll be in the employ of Mr. La2x, as I am.”

“Me being strange, I’m guessing.” Mr. Qruise could see Smirtya nodding. “And Zenbot?”

“Zenbot will return to the employ of Mr. La2x as a killing machine.”

Mr. Qruise shook his head. “Impossible. Zenbot doesn’t kill.”

“It will or it, and its family, will be destroyed.” Smirtya bared her teeth. White canines glistened in the dark.

“Zenbot won’t do it. I know it.”

“Then Zenbot dies.” Smirtya disappeared and appeared behind Mr. Qruise holding a dagger to his back. “Do we have a problem?”

 

“You’re just gonna go and leave me here? It’s suicide Zenbot.” VII shouted from the Heister. “I barely saved your hide last time.”

Zenbot stood inside the Heister’s mess with Freedman by his side. Their ship was the last one in the parking lot. Everyone else had left Qamar. “Thank you for that, VII. I’ve brought you back safely to the ship. My obligation is discharged. I go back now for my….” it paused, “friends.” The inorganic searched the mess frantically, then its eye slits lit up a bright blue.

“Mancy ain’t no friend of your’s.” VII spat out.

Zenbot ripped out one of the legs of the mess table and stuck it where the rest of its missing leg should have been. “It fits.” Pass me that solder, will you, Freedman.

“Let me do it, master.” Freedman knelt in front of Zenbot and began soldering the table leg to the inorganic’s knee joint.

“Mancy is not the only one in trouble, VII.” Zenbot said. “I’ll see you later.”

“That coward would never do the same for you. And you Freedman, any point in asking you, or are you still your master’s pet?”

Freedman having finished his work, stood up and looked at VII, disappointed, before turning to Zenbot. “Let’s go, Master.”

Zenbot grabbed Freedman by the arm and threw him over its shoulders. It hopped out of the ship and back inside the mercenary base at speed.

 

Smirtya held the dagger to Mr. Qruise’s back. Its point nudged uncomfortably beneath a rib.

“Now, Ms. Smirtya. Please. Let’s all calm down. No need for any rash decisions. Are you…are you like me?” Mr. Qruise scratched at his beard.

“You bet your bottom, baby. I need to hear it from your lips. You’re in on the deal? I’ll take you back to La2x City and I’ll train you in the strange ways, and we’ll be loyal servants to Mr. La2x. What do you say?”

“I already told you, that’s all fine by me. I’ll go with you wherever you want. The problem isn’t that….”

She laughed. “Don’t tell me you care about that bunch of walking bolts.”

“It is my master. Zenbot cares about me and…and… I can’t let you kill it or make it into a killer.”

Smirtya whispered in Mr. Qruise’s ear. “Zenbot used to be a killer. Did it ever tell you that? We’re just going to ask it to go back to its old job.”

Mr. Qruise shook his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe that. The Zenbot I know wouldn’t harm a fly.”

“It is what it is. Don’t waste my time, Mr. Qruise. What’s it going to be?”

“Ok. Ok.” Mr. Qruise frowned. “It’s going to be no.” He said snapping his fingers.

 

Mr. Qruise popped in and out of the dark chamber, Smirtya was on his heels throughout the chase. Whenever he arrived in one spot she appeared a moment later. He’d snap his fingers again, she’d pop after him. Smirtya didn’t need to snap her fingers.

Finally, Smirtya popped in front of Mr. Qruise. Before he could pop again tendrils of thick foamy black material wound themselves around him, holding his fingers in place.

“What the hell is going on? How are you doing that?” The tendrils wrapped themselves completely around Mr. Qruise, constricting him tighter and tighter.

“My dear, Mr. Qruise. Did you think that teleportation was the only gift granted to survivors of black holes. You still have so much to learn. You should have taken my deal. I could have taught you. What’s the bucket of bolts taught you?” The tendrils grew tauter.

“I ‘popped’ an entire ship….” Mr. Qruise wheezed out, losing breath.

Smirtya’s raised an eyebrow. “That’s impressive. It seems there’s more to you than meets the eye. Too bad. The La2x corporation can always use people like you. Don’t struggle now, dear. You feel that?” she whispered in his ear, seductively. “It’s death. You’ll go and join all your friends in the black. All those poor souls who fell through. Goodbye Mr. Qruise.”

One moment he could see the shadowy face of Smirtya sneering down at him with her bright white canines and in the next all he could see was full and total darkness.

 

“Is there any point to this, master? They’re probably dead.” Freedman bobbed up and down, carried on the back of sprinting Zenbot.

“We’ll find out if they’re dead. As to the ‘point’, I suppose we will find that out as well. But it feels correct, does it not pupil?” Zenbot leaped off the ramparts onto the open square before the second gate.

Freedman hit Zenbot’s head on the way down. His master didn’t stop. “It feels stupid and idiotic and brave and useless. Correct isn’t a word I’d use.”

“Yet you decided to join me.”

“I did. Though, I’m not the smartest one on the team, you know master.” Freedman rested on Zenbot’s head. His body bobbing up and down as Zenbot chased through the blasticore’s territory.

Zenbot’s dry monotonic laughter echoed through the trees. “Maybe you’re not. But your answer was wise. I like it.”

“Is that the blasticore?” Freedman asked. The fluffy blasticore peeped over a hill in the second chamber and looked down at them before scampering away. “I guess it doesn’t want to play no more.”

“No it doesn’t. We’re close. Ah…. I see Jack and his student up there on the ridge waiting for us. How did they know we’d back?”

“Because they know we’re idiots.” Freedman frowned.

“Perhaps. Time to get off pupil. Don’t get shot. VII won’t be around this time.”

Jack and Loveless sat on top of the ridge. At the sight of Freedman and Zenbot they jumped on their feet immediately and flew right back into the fight.

 

Mr. Qruise was dressed in his pristine white pupil’s robes back on that shadowy hill with the lone tree. Zenbot sat beneath the tree sipping tea in its black master’s robes.

Mr. Qruise ran up to it. “Zenbot, thank the Shens. You’ve got to run. The La2x family wants you back. They want you to kill again. You’ve got to run. We’re all fine. It’s you that’s in trouble this time.”

“No, pupil. It’s you that’s in danger.” Zenbot sipped its tea.

Mr. Qruise fell in front of his master and grabbed it by the collar, shaking it violently. “Run you fool.”

“Where to? I’m just a figment of your imagination in here, this is all you.” Zenbot rose up and embraced the dark world around it. “You’re choking to death. These are the last few seconds before brain death. How will you save the real me, the real you?” It prodded Mr. Qruise on his chest. “You’re so very disappointing.” Zenbot’s eye slits went gray.

Mr. Qruise stood up. “I’m dying?”

“You are.”

“What can I do?”

“Why ask me? I’m not real. You must learn to help yourself at some point.” The imaginary master sat down and continued sipping at its tea “Tick tock. You’re on the clock.” Zenbot’s head ticked back and forth, mechanically.

Mr. Qruise looked at his master sipping tea nonchalantly, while he died.

“You bastard.”

“Tick tock.”

Mr. Qruise sat down in a lotus position and meditated. Thinking.

“Tick tock.”

“Tick………tock.”

“Tick………….…………………….”

The tree blazed to life pushing away the darkness and lighting up the sky.

 

Mr. Qruise’s eyes lit up in the darkness. The black tendrils around his throat dissipated into smoke. Smirtya didn’t have time to react before Mr. Qruise raised his hand and mimicked a gun with his thumb and index finger. “Hello, I’ll have you know Zenbot did teach me something.” He pulled the trigger.

Something fell on Smirtya’s head. It was the vape Mr. Qruise had lost in the darkness. Smirtya looked up in surprise. Seeing that it was only a small vape that had fallen on her, she grinned and raised her dagger “Is that al-” The laser saber fell on her head knocking her out, followed by a pile of all the things lost to the darkness. Dirt, guns, people writhing, still alive. Smirtya disappeared beneath the wave of lost things.

Mr. Qruise walked over to the growing pile and pulled his vape from the ground at the edge of the heap. He puffed a bit before he heard Mancy shouting somewhere in the darkness.

“Over here. Mr. Qruise. Over here. We’ve freed ourselves. Do it. Do it now before that woman wakes up again.”

Mr. Qruise took a long drag at the vape and then closed his eyes. He snapped his fingers.

 

Loveless was on top of Freedman choking him and beating his head against the ground.

Jack likewise was beating the color out of Zenbot. He had his former student pinned to the ground and was punching it in the face, denting Zenbot’s chrome exterior. The blood on Zenbot’s face belonged to Jack’s fists.

Freedman looked over to his master, his face mottled black and blue. “I…” punch, “told you,” punch, “this was a,” punch, “mistake,” punch.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

The Vault

 

Mr. Qruise found himself inside the vault.

It was a well lit room with a crystal chandelier hanging from a deep oaky ceiling. The floorboards were the same rustic color. There was an old desk at the end of the room in front of a pair of bay windows which looked out onto a colorful garden, basking in the sunset.

It took some time for Mr. Qruise’s eyes to re-adjust to the light. He traced his fingers across the furniture, all of which fit the feel of the room perfectly: wooden cupboards, warm rugs and a few paintings on the walls depicting pleasant sunsets.

He checked behind the paintings to see if there were any hidden safes. He didn’t know what he was looking for. A glittering parchment on the desk caught his eye.

He walked over to the desk and read the shiny paper without touching it. He mouthed the words out loud in disbelief. The whole purpose of the trip struck him suddenly.

La2x Corporation Special Bearer Share

The bearer of this share, being of La2x genes, blood and stock is now in sole control of the La2x Corporation ‘Versal Inc. This share cannot be in the possession of the bearer for longer than one year from the date of first transfer.

“Is this what this has been all about?” He said out loud. Mr. Qruise looked disappointed.

He picked up the share and a blaring red light flashed in the vault, and though he did know it, throughout the mercenary base. An intercom system called out to everyone in range on Qamar:

“Attention. All La2x Personnel. Attention. All La2x Personnel. There has been a change in management. All personnel are to cease and desist from all actions until instructed otherwise. Repeat all personnel are to cease and desist from all actions until instructed otherwise.”

Mr. Qruise looked behind him and found the door to the office stood open. A bright dazzling light filtered through.

“All this for another game.” Mr. Qruise shrugged his shoulders and walked out.

 

Loveless held Freedman by the throat. His mottled face turned a shade of purple as his blood vessels screamed for oxygen.

Jack, who had Zenbot pinned down, at his mercy, stood up when he heard the intercom system. “That’s enough, Loveless. That’s enough.”

Loveless ignored Jack and continue to choke Freedman to death. Jack walked over to his student and kicked her violently on the ground. “You heard the orders. We’re done. No need to continue.”

“What the hell’s wrong with you?” Loveless was red with rage and the desire for revenge. “What the hell are you talking about? We were winning.”

“I’ll ignore this transgression from a student to a master this once, Loveless. I just saved your life. We have lost. Accept it. Mancy’s got control of the company now. She’ll have me execute ya if you harm one of her crewmembers AFTER the change in management. Them’s the rules. Don’t get me wrong, I’d do it too. You wouldn’t be the first student of mine I had to kill.” Jack grinned back at Zenbot “Ain’t that right, Zenbot?”

Zenbot, stood up and dusted itself off, before walking over and checking on Freedman who was gasping for air, but alive.

“Speak of the devil. Here come’s our new boss.” Jack looked over to the gate.

Smirtya had just popped outside, Mancy and Captain Pippy in her arms.

Jack walked up to join them. “Hullo there, Ms. La2x. Smirtya and I are at your service.” He gave her a deep bow. “We served Mr. La2x quite well in the past as you know. Just saying.” He winked.

Mancy beamed. “I’ll say. That one was quite a running. I’m sure Daddy’s been waiting for this. I think he let me have this one.”

“You can ask the man himself when he arrives. I’m sure the news has reached him and he’s on his way.” Jack looked at Mancy’s hands. “Er, you don’t seem to have the share in your hands, though.”

“My agent should be bringing it shortly. Ah, that should be him.”

A large portal of light opened up in front of the third gate, the crew could see the vague outlines of the cozy office room on the other side before Mr. Qruise stepped out share in hand, the portal collapsing behind him.

When he saw Mancy he ran towards her, fuming. “Mancy you Shens damn harlot. You awful woman. You’ve risked my life and the lives of my friends for a game. A game between you and your ‘DADDY’? I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you.”

Jack stepped forward, blocking Mr. Qruise. “Ms. La2x, do you want me to deal with this man?”

“No Jack. He’s just a little bummed out. Don’t put too much stock in his fighting words. The man’s a coward. Do bring me the share please, though.”

Jack strode up to Mr. Qruise, kicked him in the stomach and snatched the share out of his hand, bringing it back to Mancy.

Mancy held the golden share in her hand, grinning as she read it. “It’s how me and Daddy and the rest of our family pass the time, Mr. Qruise. Life is boring when there’s no danger. How else do you expect us to pass the time? Was there anyone else who’s tried for the share, Jack? Smirtya?”

“Your aunt and brother had a shot at it last year.” Smirtya said. “Didn’t have the personnel for it though. They tried a straight run at Qamar with a fleet and army at their backs but they didn’t make it past the blasticore. Now that was a sight.” Smirtya’s bright white canines appeared again. “They’re not dead though, you aunt and brother that is. We’ve trained the blasticore well enough to make sure of that. Can’t speak for their friends though.” Smirtya was looking at her nails while she spoke. “We’ve had news of a few cousins of your’s plotting something out in the outer reaches, we’re still gathering intelligence though, sir. It’s a far ways away”

“Excellent, excellent. Keep up the good work.” Mancy looked at her watch. “I think Daddy should be arriving by now. Let’s go out and greet him on the landing dock.

 

Max La2x waited outside his ship, ‘Space Pink 1’ in the parking lot.

He inspected the broken down wreck of the Heister, which had reversed his fortune while puffing away at his cigar. When he saw Mancy emerge from the base he grinned from cheek to cheek and ran up and hugged her, holding her above the ground.

Finally, he put Mancy down. “I knew you’d do it, girl. I always knew it. I’m glad you’re in one piece and nothing’s happened to you….boss.” Both of them broke out laughing.

“Oh Daddy. I’m so happy. I was almost certain Lander would beat me to it.”

“Oh you know your brother. He’s never been the one for delicate operations. I was sure you’d be the one. You have no idea how bored I’ve been over the past decade waiting for one of you to carry the mantle. I’ve gotten out of shape.” He held his belly in his hands and slapped it a few times. “I believe I’ll spend some time with you before going out alone and trying to get the share back for myself. How do you feel about having an advisor for a while?”

“It sounds just fine to me, Daddy. Just fine. Oh I’ve missed you. Should we call the rest of the family in for a celebration?”

“Already have. They’ll be here in a few weeks I gather. They’ll be just pink at the sight of you holding the share, but that’s family. You can’t hold it against them. You should have seen your grandpa’s face when I took it off of him the last time around.”

Zenbot walked up and coughed not so subtly. “Ms. La2x. I haven’t seen my family for some time.”

“Oh, of course Zenbot. I’m so sorry. Where are my manners? Daddy have you brought them with you?”

“Of course.” Max La2x signaled up to his ship and the landing dock extended. A small woman walked down the gangplank. Mr. Qruise’s and Freedman’s jaws dropped open. Zenbot’s partner looked exactly like Zenbot did in the Game and during Mr. Qruise’s training sessions in the dark. She pushed a small child in front of her. The child had silver hair, eyes and skin. Zenbot ran up to them in a flash and embraced them before they could fully alight from the plank.

Captain Pippy, Freedman and Mr. Qruise could only look on and smile. “Well, I’ll be damned.” The Captain said. The light from Zenbot’s eye slits cast a deep warm red glow over the two in its arms.

“And you, Captain Pippy, have you thought of the favor you want from me?” Mancy asked.

“Naw. Not yet, hon’. Haven’t thought of it much. Been too excited by the ride, if you catch my drift. But I’ll get back to you soon, no worries about that.”

“Well, I think that’s all accounted for.” Mancy said. “I’m off boys and girls, see you real soon I’m sure.”

“Hold on there, Mancy. Don’t think you’re getting away that easily!” Mr. Qruise shouted.

“Oh Mr. Qruise, I almost forgot.” She smiled wickedly. She pulled out an electro-sleeve from her pocket and handed it to him. “There’s your coordinates and a recommendation letter from me, the head of the La2x Corp. I trust it’ll work better than one from Daddy now, with the Society.”

“What about the bomb… you know the one in my brain?”

“Oh that.” Mancy doubled over in laughter. “There was never a bomb, Mr. Qruise. I just gave you a little shock on the back of the neck. I don’t go walking around with bombs. What do you think of me?” Mancy walked up the gangplank arm in arm with her father, followed by Jack and Smirtya.

Mr. Qruise remained there staring at the ship, mouth open in shock long after the ship had left.

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

Back in Sweetspot

 

Mr. Qruise was in the GBG staring down the end of an empty glass of whiskey. A little bit drunk he could see small spots of dirt at the bottom of the glass. He tapped the glass a couple of times on the bar next to a stained and abused letter. The bartender bot filled Mr. Qruise’s glass up again spilling a bit on the bar. The bot ducked under the table to grab a rag.

“No need.” Mr. Qruise used the letter to wipe away at the spilt whiskey. The letterhead read: “The ‘Versal Archeologist Society”.

“Why so down, pal?” The bartender asked coming back up from under the bar.

“They rejected me.” Mr. Qruise stared at the misty liquid, sipping it and coughing a couple of times. “Even with the reference letters, they bloody rejected me. I gave them the coordinates to an undiscovered civilization and they refused to credit me.”

The bartender pointed to the front of the bar. “I think someone’s looking for you, pal.”

Mr. Qruise fell off his chair and scurried off behind the bar, before peeping around to see. Zenbot was standing at the entrance with Captain Pippy and Freedman.

“Hello, Mr. Qruise.” The inorganic said.

Mr. Qruise stood up from behind the bar and was smiling despite himself. “Ze…Zenbot? What brings you around to Sweetspot. And Freedman and Captain Pippy. Shens, you’re a sight for sore eyes.”

“Same back at’chya, hon’.” Captain Pippy said.

Freedman was dressed in new robes, no longer the white of a novice but blue. He ran up and hugged Mr. Qruise.

“I’ve decided to open up a dojo and I felt that Sweetspot is just the place to do it, Mr. Qruise.” Zenbot held Mr. Qruise by his shoulders. “Seeing as how my first student hasn’t seen fit to visit me elsewhere.”

“And you, Captain?” Mr. Qruise’s eyes were dewy.

“Oh me. I’m doin’ a job for Mancy. Workin’ for her now. I’m in charge of hiding a special piece of paper.” She winked at Mr. Qruise and then placed a finger in front of her mouth. “Don’ tell anyone. Looks like I’ll be in Sweetspot for a while. Opening a La2x Corp branch n’all.”

“Does this mean Mancy will be visiting?”

“Yup.”

 

 

Coming soon by Adam El Shalakany

_____

THE SKREECH.

A STRANGEVERSE NOVEL

THE MAGOOS DREAMS

STUCK BETWEEN THE CHECKPOINTS

 

Read on for an excerpt from Adam El Shalakany’s upcoming Strange ‘Verse Novel:

THE SKREECH

 

If you look at a map of the ‘verse, you’ll see an area unlike the rest. A giant empty area in the Kepler Region where things, and people, tend to disappear. You’ve got to know where to look but there, past the seas of space, dark matter and dark energy, and the odd island of light, there’s this tiny little part at the edge of the map where in the old days they would have written ‘here be dragons’.

The spot is tiny, really, on the map. The untrained eye might think it looks the same as the rest of the vast empty spaces of the ‘verse. But it isn’t. Or as the people living there would say if you asked them: “It ain’t and mind your own Shen damn business.”

In that tiny dark spot there are four stars, which due to their weird and bizarre orbit destroy their own electromagnetic radiation in a harmonized symphony of wave super destruction. Some say the stars weren’t there before. That the creators of the ‘verse put them there in a feat of stellar engineering. Others say a union of pirates, brigands and bounty hunters, using large, noisy, and mostly stolen stellar machines, dragged the stars across space and time and put them there to hide from the authorities. The Priests of Humanism say that the Baba spirit juggled the four stars to impress the great and beautiful Mama spirit, in a failed act of courtship.

They’re all wrong.

What matters is that nestled between the four stars is a tiny planet called Disappear, hidden from the rest of the ‘verse in that dark spot on the map. The constant scans sent out by the ‘versal authorities: human, inorganic and other, disappear when near Disappear.

On this tiny planet a tiny city, by ‘versal standards at least, can be found in the small area of land not irradiated by the four suns. A small sweetspot of life in the middle of desolation. As a result Sweetspot, as the city is called, summer or winter, is a hot, sweaty place.

The inhabitants of Sweetspot, due to Disappear’s… inconspicuous nature, tend to be of the criminal variety.

One day, when the four stars were on the other side of Disappear, casting the town into that short period of fleeting darkness they call night, one of Sweetspot’s citizens was climbing up a large skyscraper downtown. The citizen’s shadow melded into the dark glass of the windows as she crept upwards through the night sky. She had large suckers attached to her knees and hands and was slowly sucking her way up the building. All four hundred and forty four floors up. The hot night wind rushed all around her and screamed in her ears.

There in the whispers of the wind, she imagined she could hear her mentor. “Some say it’s no easy feat climbing up a skyscraper. That’s rubbish. All you got to do is not fall down and success is inevitably guaranteed.” Her mentor had been a right bastard.

“The general rule of thumb is to never look down. If you do, you generally regret it.” For some reason she couldn’t get her mentor’s sage and useless advice out of her head. She stopped climbing and tried to regain control of herself and in doing so accidentally looked down.

She was half way up the tower. The city of Sweetspot lay beneath her. Two hundred and twenty two floors beneath her, and the sight made her heart go “kwapong”, which is a strange sound for a heart to make, even in Disappear.

The citizen raised her right hand and placed one of her La2x designed suction pads a few feet above her, pulling herself up, trying to continue her climb and forget the rapid beating of her heart. When she shifted her weight and pulled herself up, the suction pad went ‘plop’ releasing her from the wall. She slipped and slid down the glass pane head first.When the suction pads finally took hold again she could see two hundred and twenty three floors down.

She was making progress.

Her heart went kwapong a second time. A sound she’d heard and made for the second time in her life and only in a span of ten seconds. The thought almost made her heart go kwapong a third time but she swallowed and watched the tiny vehicles below her zoom through the city, their dim lights hypnotizing.

“It’s all going to be alright.” Her mentor’s voice said in her head. “Falling’s the most painless way to fly.” Her mentor coughed. “I’m sorry I meant to die.”

She screamed but the sound got lost in the wind. After a few minutes of uncontrollable shivering she righted herself and continued up the skyscraper, being extra careful to ensure the suction pads were working properly. This was the last time she’d buy cheap La2x designs, she thought to herself.

When she got to the four hundredth and forty fourth floor she let out a satisfied sigh of relief. On the other side of the dirty window was a painting on a pedestal. She took out a small glass cutter and began cutting a circular hole into window. Dust crumbled off the pane and began its slow descent four hundred and forty four stories down.

Then when she was almost done and the circular hole was almost complete she saw a shadow move across the painting. Before her mentor’s voice could go: “Eh? Woz that?” the shadow rushed towards her.

The window opened outwards.

There was a moment when she looked at the person opening the window and realized what had just happened. All four suction pads went plop, her heart went kwapong and the air went whoosh. She screamed, again, and fell realizing there would be no no self rescue that time.

 

Private investigator Nada Ai sat in her office with the window open. The curtain billowed slightly with every draft of hot air from outside, and lapped gently at her shoulder. Nada sat with her legs on the table, dressed in a crumpled shirt and sweatpants. She was a small thin woman, with short, blue hair which fell off her head from both sides, leaving heavy black bangs hanging above her eyes.

Her teeth bit at a wooden toothpick. She was bored. She hadn’t had a job in weeks. She fished around in her sweatpants and pulled out a pouch of freshly replicated tobacco, not yet dried by the arid Sweetspot weather. She patted the pouch gently and then returned it inside her pocket. She began chomping at the toothpick in her mouth.

Then she bent over to pull open the rusty drawer to her right. The drawer refused to open. She gave the drawer two violent tugs, and then a thump, before the drawer surrendered and gave itself up to Nada. She pulled out a small folded letter. She hesitated with the letter in her hands, not daring to open the tiny piece of paper. She placed it flat on the desk and stared at it for a while.

An old fan in the corner of the office had a lump of melting ice in front of it. As the fan twirled in front of her, a smile broke out over her face. The spinning blades did little to cool the hot air wafting in from the window, but little was still better than nothing. Then as suddenly as the smile had come, her smile melted into a frown. The fan gave out a couple of groans and sputtered out. What little cool wind it added to the room disappeared and was replaced by the stifling choking heat of Sweetspot.

Nada eyed the letter on the desk, little droplets of sweat rolled down her face and landed on the velvety rich electro-paper. She stood up and walked over to the fan, hitting it violently. After a few violent thumps failed to fix the problem, she kicked it. When that failed she knelt next to the fan and began to play with the wiring beneath. She wound and twisted the wires, hoping to jolt the electrons back into play. Once she was satisfied with the extent of her technical prowess, she stood over the fan once more and gave it a final thump. The blades whirred back to life, the cool wind cooling her face and letting the sweat fly.

She went back to her desk and stared at the letter, smiling as the fan air cooled her face. She sat back in her chair, eyes closed, and soaked in the satisfaction.

Glass shattered and went flying from the window. When she opened her eyes she could see a brick as it soared through the air and crashed onto the fan with a heavy clunk.

The cool wind stopped.

She kicked the desk angrily. “Fu-” She stopped herself and took a couple of deep breaths. “Screw it.” She said, finally. She pulled open the rusty drawer and took out her pipe.

She’d been trying to quit.

As she packed her pipe angrily, she eyed the dim sign hanging from outside her office window in neon lighting: “Private Ai”. Beneath the sign, written in cursive ‘versal was: “Find who or what you want, payme t up ront”. The ‘n’ and ‘f’ had fallen off the sign. She focused on tamping her pipe. She didn’t have the time, the energy or the credit to fix the sign. She was also purposefully ignoring the brick with the note attached. And the letter on the desk, of course. She drummed her fingers on the fake wood of her desk in thought.

Private Ai wasn’t a very successful investigation firm. Nada was its manager and only employee. So far, in the year she’d been running it, the only clients who’d hired her were wee old grannies looking for lost checkbooks, little girls looking for lost kitties, and ornery old men looking for their lost, hidden ‘stashes’ of dirty magazines. None of them paid well…or sometimes, she’d found out the hard way, at all.

They’d told her a planet full of criminals wouldn’t provide a lot of job opportunity for a private investigator. She’d aimed to prove them wrong, and thus far had failed miserably.

Nada’s stomach rumbled and her head snapped back to the broken window. The scent of food wafted into the office, piggybacking off the hot wind drafting in. She instinctively stuck a hand inside her pocket and felt around inside. The weak clang of credit tokens echoed back. She pulled her hand back out, and placed a few tokens on the desk, next to the letter. All she had in the world was contained in that office, the letter, the brick with the note attached, the fan beneath the brick, and the three measly, rusted and chipped credit tokens on the desk.

Her stomach rumbled again.

Shaking off her drowsiness, she stood purposefully, grabbing the tokens. Stepping out of her office, she went one floor down and out into the high-noon streets of Sweetspot. The sun ‘Rouge’ hung high up in sky casting a red glare over the rolling dust. Its sisters’ ‘Azraq’ and ‘Luse’ were setting and rising respectively giving the horizon, or at least the horizon of buildings, a rainbow tinge at the edges.

The surrounding small two or three story buildings were all dilapidated and gone to wear. Laundry hung out to dry under the suns. From the balconies men and women sat in their underwear and undershirts. The women had their hair done up in rolling irons, a few men did as well.

She followed the scent of the food to a plump, jolly man who stood in front of a food cart with a coal grill. He had deep brown skin from standing out under the suns. He twirled his mustache as he shouted theatrically: “Come and get your red hot corn on a cobs. Guaranteed ‘fresh’ parasite ‘free’. If you got a parasite you ain’t got it from me. Guaranteed.” He put air quotes around the words ‘fresh’ and ‘free’. When he was done he mumbled a disclaimer quickly under his breath.

He fanned the coals with a feather fan, twirling and pirouetting with every sweep, proud of his gait. No one was watching other than Nada.

It was still too hot and early for there to be any buyers.

The street vendor shouted again, wiping his greasy hands on his apron. “Come and get your red hot corn on a cobs.”

Nada walked over and eyed the cart hungrily. She hadn’t eaten that day, or the day before. Big fat multi-colored blobs of ‘corn’ hung above the coals, giving off a tantalizing scent of a good roast. She could see the butter melting on top of the cobs which were themselves wrapped in roasting onions. The mixed scent of onions, butter and corn tugged at her. She knew better than to approach Kobbler the street vendor, but – “What you selling this time, Kobbler?” She pressed her face as close to the corn cobs as she dared and sniffed in the aroma.

“Come and have a taste, Ms. Ai. Guaranteed ‘fresh’ parasite ‘free’.” He picked a particularly fat blob of purple corn off the grill with a pair of tongs and waved it in front of her. He pirouetted with the cob high in the air and grumbled the same short disclaimer as before under his voice.

“What was that?” Nada asked, looking up sharply from the corn.

Kobbler hung his head, leaned in and whispered. “I said any parasites you get are free and ain’t guaranteed fresh.”

“I thought as much.” She stood up straight. Kobbler’s food, while irresistible, was always a bad idea. Or a great idea with bad execution, depending on how drunk you were. “Bad parasites?” She asked, undeterred.

“Nah, nah. Only the best from Kobbler. Com’on do me a favor, dear, buy one. It’s been a slow day.” He waved the purple blob some more, letting the scent of the onions creep up her nostrils. Then, when he saw it was working, he poked her in the nose with the cob leaving a smear of butter on her face.

Nada frowned and pulled out her credits, there was a muted sound of jangling tokens as she rolled them around in her hand. Kobbler twitched his nose disapprovingly. "Doesn't sound like much, investigator. I'm not a charity. It took me a whole while to stea- buy these mutated corn cobs from my suppliers."

Nada opened her palm and let the tokens drop onto the cart, three tiny discs with holes in them.

“Oi,” Kobbler crossed his arms, “that’s only a few minutes worth. Can’t get a cob for that.” Then looking around at the empty street, absent of other buyers, he leaned in and whispered, “you could always pledge some more.”

Nada didn’t reply. She began picking up her tokens.

If there was something Kobbler hated more than seeing rusty, flimsy tokens from a buyer was to see them disappear. “Don’t be so hasty. Alright, alright. You’re cutting me’ throat, but give me what you got and you get the cob.”

Nada smiled, placing the small tokens in Kobbler’s fat greedy hands. He chucked them into a hidden pocket behind his apron. They rang out loudly, clinking in contact with his stash.

“Don’t tell anyone about the disclaimer, ay.” He handed her a fat bulbous purple cob wrapped in a piece of cooking paper and sped off with his cart before she could change her mind. “Come and get your red hot corn on a cobs.” He brayed as he disappeared in the distance.

Nada nibbled on her cob, grease and butter exploded in her mouth in a kaleidoscope of flavor, not all good. She knew she’d regret it later. She walked back into her office, using her free hand to open the door. She gave the fan, the brick and the broken window a cursory glance before sitting back at her desk. She opened the letter, leaving grease stains all over the paper.

Dearest Sis,

Ma’ and Pa’ hope you’re doing fine in the big city. If you ain’t then we’d love to have you back at the farm. We can always use the extra hands. If you can’t afford the ticket we’d be more than happy ta’ –

She stopped reading and placed the letter back on the desk, the remainder unread.

When she was done with the cob she crumpled up the cooking paper and chucked it at the bin in the corner of the office. She missed and the paper rolled off to the side.

“Damn.” She got up and put the paper in the bin. She eyed the brick out of the corner of her eye, tapping her feet and twitching her mouth from side to side. Finally she sighed and inspected the note attached to the brick.

Job for ya. Come to the Cucumber. Good deal.

She licked her lips, and eyed the letter on the desk. She shrugged her shoulders, put on her trench coat, wiped her greasy hands on the coat, and left.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adam El Shalakany was born in Toronto, Canada, at the stroke of midnight on the summer solstice. A day when people usually get the maximum amount of sunlight possible. But for Adam the Gods made an exception and had it rain that week. As a midnight child he was quickly whisked away, back to his native land of Egypt, as ancient custom dictates. Time passed and Adam filled it with photography, traveling, video games, and of course reading and writing.

Adam found himself suddenly required to go to something called university.

He studied political science at McGill University in Montreal and later law at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, England.

No sooner had Adam finished his law degree then the Egyptian Revolution called. Returning to Egypt, Adam worked as a lawyer during the day and breathed in tear gas at night. In the wee hours in between he got some writing done. As the years went by the time for writing increased.

Adam has written The Pink Heist and The Skreech set in the same ‘verse should be released soon. Adam’s other writings are set in Egypt and include: Stuck Between the Checkpoints (a novella) set in Cairo written during and about the military curfew in 2013 and The Magoos Dreams a fantasy novel set in revolutionary Cairo.

If you liked The Pink Heist and want to see Adam write some more please leave a review, it’d be a big help. You can also subscribe to Adam’s blog at:

http://www.adamelshalakany.com

 

 

<<<>>>

 


The Pink Heist

The Pink Heist will take you across the corrupt, bumbling future, all the way from Sweetspot, Disappear, a city full of criminals, to La2x City One, an empire full of criminals. If you enjoyed The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy or Terry Pratchett read on for a good laugh. There exists in the Kepler region of known space the exo-planet Disappear, which lies hidden between the folds of four stars. The erratic orbit of these stars hide the residents of this planet from the scans of the 'versal authorities. As a result, the citizens of Disappear tend to be of the criminal variety. There on Disappear begins one of the greatest heists in the known 'verse. Mr. Qruise is a stranger. Having survived a fall into a black hole he can now ‘pop’ in and out of existence. A coward and an unlicensed archeologist, his only ambition is to drink his days away and go to a dig or two. Unfortunately for him, strangers are a rare commodity in the ‘verse and he is quickly dragged into the adventure to rob the La2x family vault. Mancy La2x is the cruel and cunning daughter of the head of the La2x family, the most ruthless family this side of the ‘verse. She threatens and coerces her crew to follow her orders. Their mission, should they choose to accept it or not, is to rob her family vault for reasons known only to her. The Zenbot is a killing machine and a master of all the known martial arts, and some unknown. A brilliant tactician and strategist Zenbot is the one being in the ‘verse you want by your side in a pinch. The inorganic is also a pacifist, which makes its role as the muscle in Mancy’s plan all the more challenging. Captain Pippy surfs suns for fun and is the crew’s pilot. Her job is to make sure Mancy and the rest make it to the vault in one piece. She’s quite mad and is the only one who enjoys the death defying trip. VII, the cryptographer, lives most of her life in a game simulation. She detests the real world and is bribed by Mancy to help on the mission. A scoundrel and not to be trusted, VII is only loyal to herself and her pet mouse Algy. Freedman, Zenbot’s second pupil, is a lucky son of a gun. He can cook a mushroom any way you’d like and always seems to land on his feet, no matter what the ‘verse throws at him. The crew, together, have to find a way to survive Mancy’s mad mission to travel across space-time and rob one of the best protected bases in the ‘verse.

  • ISBN: 9781370168538
  • Author: Adam El Shalakany
  • Published: 2016-11-14 21:20:17
  • Words: 65502
The Pink Heist The Pink Heist