Fool’s Bounty

“In the hands of a shootist, there is no weapon deadlier than a revolver and no shootist deadlier than Eli Warren.” – A Brief History of The Gunfighter by Counsel Scribe Sara Brezal

Fool’s Bounty

Eli was acutely aware of extreme discomfort long before he even opened his eyes to see where he was. The ground was cold and hard with what felt like ridges pressing up into his bare skin. He felt almost naked lying on the floor, his head pounding and he had a soreness that went deep. He forced his eyes open and was met with a bright light from an overhead lamp that set his eyes screaming in pain. Once he had adjusted to the harsh light, he saw a steel-grated ceiling, dark gray. After a second he realized that the steel ceiling wasn’t a ceiling at all but the top of a small cell.
How did I end up here? He tried to think but even that meager effort put his head aflame.
“Oh good, the man’s awake. Are you well, good sir? I say, sir, are you well?”
The voice was thin and soft with a silky accent that Eli was unfamiliar with. Slowly and with great effort, Eli sat up on his elbows and looked around. He saw he was in a bare cage no more than five feet wide by eight feet long. Just outside the bars he saw more cages, one of which was occupied by a short, thin man with long, dark hair tied back in a braid. The man sat crouched, his head cocked to one side and asked, “Good sir, I take it you are at least alive? Does the sir have a name?” The man’s odd way of speech would have confused Eli even with a clear head. Eli just sat there, blinking at the odd little man in a blank confusion. The man stared back with a look of complete calm, as if this sort of thing happened all the time to him. After a few seconds, the man leaped up from the crouching position he was in and said “You, good sir, have the great honor of addressing Darro Bladebraker, expert marksman, master of the fine art of appropriation and swordsman of great renown. It is truly a privilege to make your acquaintance, good and noble sir.”
Master of the fine art of appropriation? Eli rolled the phrase around in his head. “A thief,” was all Eli could muster. “You’re a thief.”
The man called Darro looked hurt. “You wound me, good sir, I am merely an entrepreneur. An impresario.”
“Be quiet.” Eli commanded as he forced himself to a sitting position. He saw that was not naked as he originally thought, just down to an undershirt and his pants. All his gear was missing, including his gun. His gun! The thought of being without his gun almost sent him into a panic. He could make do with any gun, but his gun was one of a kind. He had to find it quickly. Eli stood up slowly, wincing in pain from the effort. Darro watched with great interest and asked, “So, sir, if you will not tell me your name, will you at least tell me what planet we are on?”
“Trinite,” Eli responded, head swimming from standing. He saw the cell had a fold-up bunk attached to the wall. He pulled it out and sat down, resting his head in his hands. He was trying so hard to remember how he had gotten here. The last thing he remembered was drinking in a saloon just outside of Ironden, and the next, he was waking up here. Had he gotten that drunk that fast and been thrown in the drunk tank to sleep it off? If so, this was nothing like any drunk tank he had ever seen before. And that didn’t explain who this Darro was or why he talked so damned strange.
Darro started pacing the short length of his cell. “Trinite, you say? Are you sure? I reside on the great and illustrious planet of Balidor. Why, I have never even heard of, what was it called, Trinite? Where is it located within the Empirium?”
“It’s not. It’s a Spacer planet, a mining world.”
“Oh dear,” Darro sounded as if he would faint. “A Spacer world? I can’t abide Spacer worlds, so uncouth. Still, I will have to make do. So, back to the matter at hand, I have given you my name, would you do me the great honor of giving me yours?”
“Eli. Eli Warren.” He stood up slowly with the automatic gesture of shaking the man’s hand only to remember that he was in a cell and separated by several feet and sat back down.
“Well, Mr. Warren, now that we are properly introduced, might I be so bold as to ask, do you perchance happen to have a price on your head? A rude question, I know, but we appear to be in a conundrum that seems to precipitate slight breaches in etiquette.”
Eli stared back at the man trying to figure out what exactly he had just asked him. The only part of the question that made any sense to him was, “Do you have a price on your head?” If that’s what this odd man wanted to know, why didn’t he just ask? Eli thought about it. He wasn’t sure if he had a bounty on him right now or not. Eli was used to being wanted from time to time, but at the moment, he didn’t think he was. “I’m not sure,” he responded. “But I take it you do.”
“Oh, most certainly, my good friend, and I do say I would think you have one as well. I have been here, wherever here is, for three days. I have not seen any sign of our captors other than a daily delivery of food and drink through a wall slot. I believe we have been taken by bounty hunters. Seeing as I can detect no cameras or surveillance equipment, I would think they are second rate at best.”
Eli scoffed, “Second rate wouldn’t be able to capture me this easily.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure, good sir. The number of bruises you have sustained seems to suggest you put up quite a fight. Tell me, do you have an unusually large headache? I would think that you do. There is a rather nasty burn at the side of your temple. The kind left by a shock glove if held too long. Such an injury would knock you out and cause a bit of memory loss. Do you remember being brought here? No, I should think not. In any case, I do believe it is time we made our escape, wouldn’t you say?”
Darro stood by the cell door punching buttons on the keypad attached to it. “Well, as loath as I am to admit it, I was waiting for someone the likes of you. See, as talented and resourceful as I am, without my equipment, I am little more than a very exceptional and overqualified doorman.” With that, the door to his cell swung open. “As I said, shall we?”
Eli looked hard at the man. “What makes you think I trust you?”
Darro softly chuckled. “Oh, my good Mr. Warren, I suspect you trust me as little as I trust you. I simply see no other viable alternative presenting itself at the moment.” Darro walked over to Eli’s cell door and began pushing at the keypad. “If I could have made my escape by myself, I would have. As resourceful and cunning as I am, I am not one who stands much chance in a fair fight. You, on the other hand, seem like a man who is no stranger to the melee arts. Now, of course, we could sit here and wait for our captors to present themselves and their intentions, but since they are most likely going to sell us to the authorities, I would rather, as they say, make a break for it.” The door opened, and Eli stood to join his would-be partner.

They made their way down a corridor that led to a T-junction. Darro looked around, frantically searching for some kind of terminal. Jutting out of a wall niche was a small screen and keyboard. He dashed to it and began typing away. “If you would be so kind as to keep a look out, I must see if I can find where the storage rooms are. I simply must retrieve my personal effects.” Eli stood back and tried to determine if anyone was coming, but the hallway turned at both ends and there was a constant humming noise that made it difficult to hear anything besides what was right near him.
Darro suddenly jumped and gave a soft cheer. “Here it is, here it is! Come, we must hurry, the storage room is just below us one level. There is an access tube right here.” He pointed down toward a small port in the floor about two and a half feet wide. Once through the port, they dropped into a large, well-lit room filled with boxes and lockers. Eli had begun looking through a trunk for his gun when he looked up and saw a window set in the wall. The view was a star-filled night sky. But that’s not right, he thought. Why was the window showing the sky if it was pointed out the side of the building? He should be seeing land of some kind. He walked closer to the window. Maybe they were in a very tall building, and he would have to look down to see the ground. As he looked closer, he saw a great, open, star-filled void into nothingness. Space. He was in space; that was the only explanation. Eli had never been in space, but knew that space was a cold, dark, vacuum that didn’t support life. His breath caught in his throat. Darro was saying something behind him, but he couldn’t hear him clearly. The void, he thought. There’s nothing between me and emptiness but this window. What if it breaks? He would be sucked out, unable to breathe. He couldn’t breathe now—what was happening? Eli grabbed at his throat as if to remove someone else’s hand from it but found nothing there. He tried to speak, but all he could get out was a whisper, all the time staring into that great vast emptiness. Panic was hitting him. The window. If something should happen to it, was all he could think. Suddenly Darro was grabbing him by the shoulders, saying, “Eli, look at me, not the window, at me! That’s it. Now look at the floor. Do you see it? It’s solid. Feel the gravity. Breathe the air. You are all right.”
Eli looked at him with round, horrified eyes. “The window…”
“Is not going to open,” Darro finished. “I was hoping to avoid this, but it seems that we must deal with this now if we are to proceed. Space can be…disturbing if you are not used to it. The first time I saw it, I was a boy and cried for nearly an hour. Some go mad and try to claw their eyes out. You will be just fine. Just breathe and remember, we are safe in the ship.”
Eli’s instincts took over. You are a gunfighter, he thought. You control your fear, make it your slave, bend it to your will. After a few moments, he was breathing normally. He turned and looked out the window again. The fear jumped up, but this time he caught it, forced it back down. He went back to looking for his gear. They’d only gone through half of the boxes when, from beyond a door, they heard voices growing steadily stronger. Eli looked over at Darro, who was still crouched over a trunk.
“I would suggest you properly greet our soon-to-be-arriving guests,” Darro stated, never moving from the box.
Eli turned toward the door as he heard one man address another.
“Just two days to the jump gate and another to Chorwald and it’s pay day. Within the week, we will be living it up on a beach, drinking Sour Hells, surrounded by women spending credits like they’re water.”
Eli watched the lock slide over and the door slowly open.
He broke into the fighting style in which he was trained. Not the heavy, ham-fistedness of the drunken barroom boxer, nor the smooth movements of the martial artists. It was simply based on knowing the body’s natural weak points and exploiting them. Cause the most amount of damage with the least amount of effort and least amount of danger to one’s hands. A broken hand, which was merely an inconvenience to most men, could mean death for Eli. It would mean he couldn’t shoot with that hand until healed, and if it didn’t heal right, it meant the loss of speed, aim and dexterity—all things essential to the gunfighter.
Eli struck the first man through the door in the nose, driving the cartilage into his brain with the heel of his palm. The man was dead before he hit the floor. The second man stumbled in with some kind of gun in hand. Eli hit him hard in the shoulder, snapping his clavicle like a twig. The man’s arm flopped down, dropping the gun. Eli chopped at his throat, crushing his windpipe. The man went bug-eyed as he collapsed to his knees, trying to gasp for air. Eli grabbed his head and twisted, snapping his neck in a quick jerk. He remembered his instruction on fighting: “Some men talk of an honorable fight,” his instructor had said. “Honor is a boy’s wet dream. A man who comes to kill you will do so with every advantage he has. If he wants your life, make him work for it.”
Just as the last man died, Darro found the box he had been looking for. Eli turned around to see Darro adjusting the gear that he had stated would help them escape. The man’s garb was as confusing as his speech. He had some form of headgear that covered his left eye with a small transparent disk. His hands were covered with some sort of glove that had small wires running up his arms to a vest that was made of what looked like tiny mirrors. Hanging on his hips were holsters that carried some sort of gun that Eli had never seen before and a short thin sword in a scabbard. Darro looked to Eli and said, “There, that should be it. I do believe I have all I need. Did you find your belongings?”
Eli looked around one last time, and in a corner saw a small safe with a keypad. Darro followed his gaze and began typing on the buttons. As the safe door opened, Eli was overcome with a wash of relief. There, in the safe, was his gun. The ancient black revolver. He grabbed the gun and checked the shells in the cylinder. All six rounds were still in their place, the sides still glowed with a soft red hue. Good, he thought. He hated to think he would have to find a way to recast the shells in a place like this. He found his holster and gun belt in a box adjacent to the safe and fitted it around his waist. He slid the gun neatly into the holster, gathered up the rest of his belongings, and turned to face a horrified Darro.
“That’s your weapon?” he asked, barely holding back his rage. “For the love of space get rid of it!”
Eli stared back at him in honest confusion. “Why?” was all he could think to say.
“Why?! It’s a gun you fool! A gun that shoots bullets! Do you have any notion as to what would happen if, for instance, you missed?!? It would rip right through the hull of the ship—that is, of course, if it didn’t hit a power conduit or fuel line first! The outcome of all those delightful scenarios would be death. You would kill us all, and I do mean all of us! So, for the very last time, get rid of it!”
“No.” The answer was plain and in a fashion that gave no room for argument. “I will have to make do without using it, but I will not leave it here.”
“Fine, if that’s how you will be, then at least use this.” Darro handed Eli one of his blasters.
It felt queer in his hand; the weight and balance were all wrong. In place of a trigger, it had a thumb contact and no sights to speak of at all. Eli frowned, “This won’t do.” He handed he blaster back. “I’ll make do, there’s no need to worry about me.”
Darro re holstered the blaster. “Oh I wasn’t thinking of you. I mean to live though this particular ordeal and by no means will I be slowed down by you. Weaponless or no, if you fall behind, I see no reason to help you.”

Eli and Darro skulked silently down the hall toward the drop ship bay that they had found on the computer screen. Eli felt strange going into a fight without his gun in hand. Despite being deadly with unarmed fighting, his first weapon had always been his gun.
They came upon some sort of pressure door that was labeled Shuttle Bay. Darro crouched down and began tapping on the pad strapped to his wrist.
“We will have to be very precise and deliberate in our next step, Eli. I will sneak past the men in the next room and gain access to one of the shuttles. Then, as I start the engines, you must distract the guards long enough for me to start the launch procedures. Once that is done, you must get aboard and I will launch the ship. From there, it is only a matter of disabling their launch codes from our ship’s computer, dropping you off at whatever planet we happen to be near, and then our arrangement will come to its end.”
“Agreed,” Eli nodded. He was growing tired of this man. So far, he had shown almost no skill in a fight but still regarded Eli as an albatross. Still, Eli knew he couldn’t fly a ship without this irritating man’s help. The plan was weak, but Eli couldn’t come up with a better one. “How will you get past the guards?” he asked with more than a little hint of distance in his voice.
Darro stood and smiled wickedly. “Come now, dear Eli, you know me so little?” As he finished speaking, Darro began to flicker and phase out of sight without movement on his part. Eli stepped back in confusion and fear. Was the man a wizard, some rogue mage from the Crimson Counsel? Eli had killed every man he had ever needed to, but he had never faced a age and wasn’t sure if he could kill one. On instinct, Eli pulled his gun and cursed, “Sorcerer!”
“Put that away, you ignorant fool. There’s no magic in this. I stole a prototype stealth vest from a Spacer trade ship some months ago. It renders the wearer transparent.”
Eli saw it now. As the panic melted from him, he looked and found that if he concentrated hard enough, he could still make out Darro’s image. The effect was ghostly, but at a glance he would go unnoticed.
“Give me two minutes, and then distract the guards. I will need at least three minutes to start the ship.”
With that, the image of Darro opened the door behind him, and they both slipped in unnoticed. Eli ducked behind a stack of crates and tried to get an idea of the dimensions of the shuttle bay. He immediately saw two problems. One, the bay was much larger than he had thought it to be. There was no way to distract the guards in a subtle fashion as he had intended. Instead, to get the guards’ attention, he would have to make his presence fully known, which would inevitably start a firefight that he had no way of returning fire in. Second, there was more than one dropship—three, in fact—and he wasn’t sure which one Darro planned on taking. Still, Eli saw no alternative but to go with his part of the plan. If that bastard leaves me here, I will hunt him down to whatever planet he runs to.
The two minutes were up as Eli stood up from cover. He wasn’t sure what he was going to shout at first but found quickly that it wasn’t a problem.
One of the guards saw him at once and shouted, “What the fuck?! Prisoner escape! Get him!”
Another shouted, “It’s Warren! Set for max stun!”
At once, Eli was hit with several bursts of light from the blasters in each man’s hands. Eli was no stranger to being shot with lead bullets, having received several shots in his youth, but never was he shot with a blaster. A bolt hit him in the chest and he looked down, expecting blood. All he found was a slight burned spot on his shirt, but the pain was intense. Still, seeing that there was no penetration, Eli felt no panic. He tucked back down behind the crates. Let them come to me, he thought, killing two men with his bare hands with the element of surprise on his side was one thing; killing five or maybe six armed and armored men was something completely different.
Eli knew he had almost no hope of success. Survival was his only hope. He heard two men approaching from either side of the crates that hid him. Eli leaped up and grabbed one by the face shield and tried to chop at his throat. The meat of his hand met with armor. The man laughed and swung the butt of his blaster rifle into Eli’s gut. Eli doubled over in a grunt of pain. Without hesitation, Eli shouldered the man, lifting him off his feet and slamming him down hard on his back. As soon as the first guard was down, the other guards started firing at Eli, hitting him in the arms and chest, sending pain pulsing through him. Eli tried to remain standing, but he could feel his left leg begin to give out.
He still wasn’t sure which ship Darro had boarded, but he didn’t care. Eli broke into a run toward the ships. The run quickly turned into a sort of quick limp, the bolts of light hitting his thighs. Out of nowhere, Eli saw two blasts being fired in front of him, tracing over his shoulder and hitting two of the guards behind him. He heard screams from his rear and turned to see guards being consumed in a strange electric fire. A third man who was farther back had stopped firing and began to take aim at Eli, then dropped his gun and grabbed the sides of his head, screaming. An electronic shock seemed to wrap around his face as he collapsed and died.
Darro emerged out of thin air and ran to Eli. “Come, Eli, there was a problem with the ship. I’ll spare you the gritty details as we are still being fired upon.” Eli looked up to see the other two guards taking aim from the far side of the shuttle bay. “Hurry, their blasters were only set to stun. The effect should wear off soon. We must get to an escape pod. It may be our last hope.” Darro wrapped Eli’s arm over his shoulder as they quickly moved toward the door, blaster bolts sailing past them from the other direction. They hurried toward a small, round door along the wall, and as it opened, Darro threw Eli inside, diving in after him. With a few quick buttons, Eli heard a voice over a speaker say, “Emergency escape pod activated.” As the effect of the blaster stun began to wear off, Eli became aware of movement and looked out the port window to see the side of the bounty hunters’ ship fading away from them. “Plotting course for nearest planet.” The pod seemed to be running itself.
Darro sat across from Eli. “Well, dear friend, this is not going to work as well as I had wanted it to. The pod will take us to whatever the nearest planet is, which I suspect is yours, but I wasn’t able to jam the bounty hunters’ launch codes. I believe their next course of action will be to follow us down and simply apprehend us once more. Still, it was a valiant effort.”

Eli and Darro quickly disembarked from the landed escape pod to find they had landed on the edge of a great expanse of desert. A thunderous boom came from the sky above as the bounty hunters’ dropship entered the atmosphere. Looking up, Eli asked, “How long?”
“Two minutes, maybe less.” Darro was surveying the land, trying to form some kind of plan. Eli checked the cylinder of his black pistol. Six rounds sat in their places, pulsing softly with a faint reddish hue. “Go,” he said suddenly, “Go and hide.”
Darro started off without argument until he saw Eli was not following him. “What are you planning to do?”
Without turning his head, Eli responded, “I make my stand here.”
The dropship landed thirty yards from Eli. He stood, eyes closed, hands limp at his sides, slowly breathing. He concentrated on his breath, his heart rate, slowing both down as he thought, “I am shapeless. I am water. My gun and I are one. I am gunslinger, and before me, none will stand.”
The crew of the dropship poured out of the bay door and formed up. Five in all, armed and armored, they were an impressive sight. The first man called out, “Eli Warren! Darro Bladebraker! Turn yourselves in and no harm will come to you. Resist and—well, Darro isn’t worth much dead, but you are, Warren!”
Eli slowly opened his eyes and looked at the men. Time felt sluggish as Eli’s hand went for his gun in its holster. The pull was smooth and steady from decades of doing this very act a thousand times before. He thumbed back the hammer and pulled the trigger, sending the first round toward the first man’s head before his arm was even level. Eli knew exactly where it would go. The bullets always went where he told them to go. Just as the first round left the barrel, he fanned the hammer back with his off hand and fired again, this time at the head of the second man, and again at a third. The act had taken less than a second, but as Eli stood, arm outstretched, off hand just hovering over the hammer, as the three man dropped soundlessly to the ground.
There was a pause that seemed to last for an eternity. Eli’s senses were on fire, soaking in and consuming everything around him. He saw every twitch, heard every movement. Without warning, Eli dashed toward the remaining two men. In a panic, they both opened fire, hitting Eli’s left shoulder. His mind registered the hit, but Eli felt no pain. A mad holy rage had taken him. He would be not be stopped. Eli saw the man on the right raise his blaster. Anticipating the shot, Eli dove into a roll, the bolt of light missing him. Eli came up on one knee and fired, sending a bullet to the man’s neck. He clawed at the wound as blood begin spraying, soaking the other shooter. Eli fired once more, knocking the man’s helmet from his head. The look Eli saw was that of fear. “What do you say, hunter,” Eli shouted. “My last bullet to your whole clip?” The man trembled. “I’ll leave you with your life and this tale to tell others if you leave now. If not,” Eli thumbed back the hammer of his gun one last time, “I’ll send you to meet your brothers in hell!”
The man dropped his rifle and stumbled back onto the ship. Soon it was lifting into the air as Eli holstered his gun. Darro emerged from behind some nearby rocks with a look of awe that he quickly concealed. “You could have killed him. Then I would have a ship.”
“True, but alive he’ll tell other bounty hunters and maybe they will think twice about trying to hunt us next time.”
“This fact was not lost on me, my good friend Eli. Say, you wouldn’t happen to have a ship around here? Not that I’m sure where here is.”
Eli looked at his surroundings. “No.”
“Well, what do you have on this miserable little lump in space?”
“Little enough. Come, I’ll show you.”
With that, they began walking toward the nearest town off in the distance.

Bog Swamp

      Tessa ran through the dank, dim swamp. Dark, twisted trees and muddy water surrounded her in a tangled mess. She didn’t know which way to go, but she dodged wet monkey vines as she ran from the monsters that had attacked her group’s camp. Mud and green sludge covered her dark skin, white skirt, pink t-shirt and bare feet. About seventeen, and pretty to most, she kept her curly black hair short for summer. Bastards! I loved this outfit too!  Their groans and clicking noises were getting closer.
      A slimy green hand grabbed her shoulder. Tessa slipped its grasp, only to fall backwards into a mud pit. Her assailant stood on the twisted tree root she had tripped over. The sun peeked through the swamp’s tangled tree tops, giving Tessa just enough light to see the five foot frog that stood like a man.
      Its yellow spotted eyes bulged to either side of its light green face, its underbelly was even paler. It wore a leather loincloth and held a dark wooden club. It croaked loudly into the air as he raised his club. Fuck, I’m going to be killed by something that eats flies.
      There was a flash of light. Tessa closed her eyes, assuming she had died before she knew it. She peeked an eye open. The frogman’s torso now had a deep gash in it, blood and guts spilling out. Oh no. She felt another presence to her right. Slowly she turned to it.
      It wore a dark green cloak with spots of swamp fluids spread throughout. Whoever it was had taken a knee after killing the frogman, and she could see his gloved hand wiping the muck and blood off of a shiny broadsword with his cloak. His voice was deeper than she expected from a man so short, “Are you alright my lady?”
      Tessa wanted to thank him, but the menacing croaks and ribbits of more frogmen approached. She looked back at her savior; he stopped cleaning his sword and turned to face her. Three or more different leathers were stitched together for pants. Tessa thought they were hideous, but she thought his loose, tan shirt was easy to look at. Then he pulled his hood back. Another frogman?! She felt around the puddle and pulled out her dead pursuer’s club.
      The new one had blue spotted eyes with a scar that had nearly stolen his right eye. In a blink, he lunged his sword at her, spun her club from her grip and caught it with his free hand. He offered it back and told her, “Come with me if you want to live.”
      What did I get into? She retook her new club and again, before she could process the movement, he held her around the waist. At least he’s wearing clothes. Tessa felt safe somehow, but she still squeaked, “Shit!” when he leapt from tree to tree, further into the swamp.

      Tessa sat on the far side of the hut. Her savior had offered her a double-barrel shotgun and she accepted. She didn’t care for shell-guns. Energy weapons were so much sleeker, lighter and in her opinion, more reliable.
      The gun felt awkward in her hands, and she scared herself when she broke the gun open. There were two rusty shells loaded, but she couldn’t remember how to tell if a gun shell was used or not. The swordsman frog watched her. He’d know if the shells were good or not, right? She yelped when she snapped it back together. Damn guns.
      The hut floor was covered in eight different rugs. Welcome mats, rubber sheets, animal skins and a few carpets were jammed together like a sloppy puzzle. I guess he can’t be picky. He had a small fire in the center of the hut, keeping some kind of soup at a simmer. His face was strange enough to look at; Tessa was glad he kept his gloves on.
      The walls curved around into an uneven circle, about ten feet in diameter, supporting a roof of loosely thatched branches and moss. I wonder where the savage frogs would’ve taken me.
      She could stand comfortably, even if her frog friend was a bit shorter. He had a wooden table with a metal folding chair and even a two-cushion couch along the other wall. A plastic cooler on wheels served as his current seat; she used the metal chair. Manners too, huh? Tessa liked the smell of the dark brown soup more than she thought she would. More than food though, she wanted answers. She set her gun on the table and spun it to point to the door. “So… Am I the only one that got away?”
      The frog pursed his lips and nodded to the floor.
Shit. “Well, I’m Dr. Tessa Weyland.” She forced her hand out for a handshake. “You can call me Tess.” He’s wearing gloves. He’s wearing gloves.
      He took his hand from the wooden spoon and shook her hand, “Eric.”
      Any other day she would’ve giggled at how he made a “ribbit” noise with his name. It was still funny to her, but the murderous frogmen from earlier had ruined it. She pretended to straighten her skirt to wipe her hand off, to hide it from Eric. “So Eric… you’re going to let me leave right?”
      He dipped his head back down and stirred the soup again. “Whenever you want.”
      Sad puppy much? “Oh! It’s not like I’m not grateful! I just want to make sure you’re not like the—other—frogs.”
      Eric looked disgusted and spit to the side. More under his breath than to Tessa, he said, “I’m nothing like them.”
      “Sorry.” She watched him pour clumps of meat and something green and stringy plop into a tin can. Faking a smile, she accepted the stew. It looked better when I couldn’t see it. “I’d hate to ask so soon—”
      “But?” He kept his eyes on his food.
      “How do I get to the west side of the swamp? I have to let my brothers know I’m safe, and tell others what happened to the rest.”
      Eric sighed. “The swamp lets you in, but nothing escapes.”
      “Oh come on! You cut that other frog easier than bread! What could possibly be worse out here?”
      “Alligator women, fungal zombies, mutant leeches, carnivorous trees, a wyrm, moving puddles, an evil swamp-thing and giant mosquitoes.”
      Did he mean ‘giant worm’? Tessa tilted her head, “Oh, is that all?”
      “No. The swamp itself is alive. Always changing its rivers’ directions and levels, changing the earth, and it attacks your very mind.”
      “So I’m stuck here forever?”
      “I’m afraid so my lady.”
      Why can’t he be a human? Callin’ me ‘lady’ like that… He’d be so cute, instead of so… ew. Tessa cleared her throat, “What about the flying machine? Have you seen it?”
      “Tis’ a blessing to see the sun most days.”
      “Well, it crashed in here a few days ago. That’s actually what we were doing in here.” She looked down at her soup, remembering how the rest of her group was attacked.
      Eric rubbed his chin and took a swallow from his tin cup. “What does it look like?”
      “Like a big, white boat with six stubby wings.”
      Eric narrowed his already-narrow eyes. “I have seen it then, but it does not appear air-worthy.”
      Tessa’s eyes shot open, “Can you take me there?”
      He shrugged, “As you wish.”
      She was a bit surprised. “Oh.”
      “I just—I thought you’d be all chivalrous and say ‘No my lady.’”
      “When you’re stuck in a swamp forever, the smallest chance of escape is difficult to pass up.” He smirked and added, “And I’ll protect you, my lady.”

      Tessa figured they were about ten minutes into their journey, and she was glad she didn’t eat too much soup. Every leap and landing bounced her stomach up and down from throat to groin. She tried to be grateful for the faster transport, but her gut wasn’t. Would Eric notice vomit on his cloak?
      She’d never admit it to anyone, but she was rather comfortable in Eric’s arms now. Tessa knew she was light, but she was still surprised by how effortlessly Eric hopped her around.
      Eric asked, “So what kind of doctor are you Tessa?”
      “I’m an MT.” She noticed his hairless brows contort. “Oh, mech technician. My group studies mech tech. We repair, reverse engineer, recycle and you know, whatever with it.”
      “I presumed doctors to be elderly. You are quite lovely—lively!” He darted his attention back to the swamp.
      Awww! “I’m good at what I do, but hopefully it doesn’t need that much work.”
      “Let us hope then.”
      They stopped a few times for Eric to try and remember where the ship fell. “The swamp changes constantly, but the flying boat shouldn’t move too quickly.” Tessa was just happy they didn’t run into any trouble. They saw an alligator and large spiders, and Eric easily snuck them past a small frogman camp. Tessa didn’t care for the gun in her hands, but she still wished she had more than two shells.

      “That’s it!” Tessa kept her voice down, but not her excitement. The white sun sailor was submerged in swamp up to its wings. Slimy green vines made their way up the hull from the water, blocking round windows and latching to the deck above. Branches and monkey vines also slid their way onboard. Looks like the swamp wants to keep its new toy…
      Eric made one final leap onto the slippery, polymer deck. Tessa slid from his grasp onto her feet. It looked much like a fifty-foot long, white boat. The deck was slightly covered with splinters of broken branches, moss and leaves. Tessa looked up and saw beautiful blue sky from where the ship crashed through the swamp’s canopy. Also on deck were two mounted laser guns on each side. There was a single door towards the bow, leading into the ship’s cabin. Panel windows ran around the cabin from waist to head level, but it was still difficult to see inside.
      Eric stayed close behind her, “What brought her down?”
      Tessa led Eric to the command deck. “That’s one reason we—were looking for it.” She kept her shotgun tight as she grabbed the solid white door. “Ready?” Eric drew his sword and jumped ahead of Tessa right as she opened the door. “Great teamwork…”
      She stepped inside to no one but Eric. Command panels lined the walls, all white with jet black, angled covers. They’d look pretty plain until the power turned back on. Tessa slowly approached the helm. Two thin white podiums rose to waist height, with the tops smoothed over in spotless black orbs. Start-up systems should be… there!
      To the front right corner, she saw the key in the ignition. It looked like an elongated, shiny white chicken egg, perfectly symmetrical. She pulled it from the panel, two dull parallel prongs as small as Tessa’s pinky protruded. “Dammit.” She turned to Eric. “Now I know why it crashed.”
      Eric was still studying the cabin, and a ladder that led up and down behind the helm. “Why?”
      “You see this key here? The brighter these emitters, the more power they hold.”
It took him a second, but he nodded, “And there’s no light at all.”
Tessa sighed and remembered the guns on deck. “Hmm. Let’s see if the guns are networked to the power hub or not.”
      “Uh, sure.”
      It just hit her, He probably has no idea what this stuff is. “You do know what mech tech is right?” She tried not to smile as she walked backwards to the cabin door. Then he nearly killed her with a heart attack. He lunged his sword by her head, into a savage frogman’s eye.
      She panicked and fired her shotgun into its gut. The frog was blown away, but so was the gun. The recoil sent the gun back into Eric.
      The swordsman frog was holding his stomach, the gun resting at his feet. “Oww.”
      “I’m so sorry Eric!”
      “Stay here!”
      He closed the door as he ran to the deck. Tessa caught movement to the left. A dozen savage frogs were making their way onboard. Through the glass, she watched as Eric quickly became outnumbered. She tried to rush out, but the door was jammed. “Come on! What the hell?!” She took a breath and saw that the shotgun on the other side was slid into the door handle so it couldn’t be opened. Goddamn men.
      Tessa quickly scanned the spotless interior. No sign of anything she could even improvise for a weapon. She recognized an empty weapon rack beside the ladder. Then she jumped on the ladder and went to the upper deck. It was cramped, but it was a gunner cockpit. “Yes!” She jumped into the seat and the gun turned on.
      It was a perfect sphere with easy to use controls for swiveling the turret and finding targets, and it all turned on when she sat in the seat. “Hot damn!” With two joysticks in hand, she moved them left to aim back at the deck. It didn’t even turn. “Damn.” To the right, it only moved far enough to be caught in monkey vines. The four barrels were barely two feet long past the cockpit, but they were just long enough to be caught in the vegetation. “Double damn!”
      Okay, think! Gun works, seat mechanism works. It’s not networked, so the deck guns shouldn’t be networked. Right? She turned a few knobs, popped a few compartments and pulled a few wires from the turret and seat. Then she slowly pulled another ignition key from the gun. The two prongs glowed bright green.
      “Dammit!” Green is for plasma bursts and low-level tech. She tried to remember what her teacher said, and she was positive a green key wouldn’t run the ship. Plasma’s only good for weapons, right? She paused. “Right.” She looked over her shoulder and saw Eric losing the fight. Think woman! She looked at the chrome turret and pulled the dead key from her pocket. Should work, right?

      Tessa cut off the door knob like paper with her invention. A skinny rod about three feet long, with the dead key crudely fused at the end. The rod protruded from the end of one of the turret barrels she had disassembled. And below the barrel’s other end was the hastily inserted plasma key. She shoved her elbow into the door and knocked it open.
      Half the frogs that weren’t crowding Eric looked in her direction. Green, uneven light rippled along the rod to the cap, and back to the key. She held the plasma blade comfortably, but her knees were shaking. Okay, I don’t have to win, I just have to get some pressure off of Eric. “Come get some!”
      A few more frogs turned from Eric, and a few more jumped on deck around Tessa. “Shit. Shit, shit, shit.” Okay, what do I know about sword-fighting? Not much. A blue-green frog croaked and charged her from the side. Tessa turned and swung wildly. It ducked under the blade and pounded a club to her stomach. She nearly dropped her weapon, but Tessa gritted her teeth and focused.
      The young scientist spun to the ground, and with the back of her bare heel, she tripped the frog and slammed her plasma blade through its face. The cap bounced off the deck, but the blade cut him in half from hip to eye. In another break-dance move, she spun herself to her feet and held her weapon in two hands. Okay, no one gets to make fun of my dancing anymore.
      She swore she could see caution in the frogs’ eyes now, but they weren’t backing off. Another charged her with a spear. Tessa twirled on her tiptoes and used the momentum to both dodge with a midair jump, and cut through the frog like a blender from the side. Disbelief washed over her. “Holy shit!”
      Two frogs pushed each other back and forth towards Tessa. She pulled her blade back like a baseball bat. Finally the two charged together, flanking her left and right in an instant. She rolled forward to dodge the club and hatchet. She slid to her feet and barely did a back flip in time to dodge a third frog attack. Now I’m getting outnumbered… but Eric’s still getting beat down.
      Tessa was near the edge of the deck. Six frogs formed a semicircle around her, and the laser turret she wanted to get to. She swung the blade at them, barely warding them off. That’s enough space. Spinning back to the turret, she grabbed the turret handle and cut it off of its base with the plasma blade. A bit heavier than I thought. Again she swung her weapon to buy some space, but this time she followed up by shooting a barrage of red lasers from the light, unmounted turret. Their croaks turned to cries of pain, one of them even caught aflame.
      Now all frogs on deck and off looked at Tessa. She propped the gun’s barrel across her sword wrist, it was the only way she could hold it steadily. The flaming frog jumped far over Tessa and into the swamp water. She turned to the frogs surrounding Eric, and pulled the trigger until it was just him. Now they were all off the deck, but not retreating. She turned off the plasma blade and put a hand on Eric, face down; barely breathing.
      “Come on Eric! We need to get out of here, now!” She gently rolled him on his back. His chin slowly expanded with each breath, a subtle, raspy croak sounded out. Tessa looked back at the surrounding frogs, but they were gone.
      His voice was quiet, “How many did I best?”
      Tessa smiled wide and hugged him tight. “It doesn’t matter. I got more.”
      She laughed after she made him laugh, but she could hear the pain in his voice. “Doctor, I’d like to kiss you for saving my life.”
      Tessa felt her cheeks flush, but she let go and looked into his weird, pretty blue eyes. She smiled a bit wider and furrowed her brows. “Alright, but… you’re so damned ugly.”
      She leaned down as he pushed his head up, and they kissed.


The Judgery

You wake up.

How long have you been asleep?

You look at the clock…10 minutes; A good night’s rest. You usually only sleep 5 minutes, so this is a big improvement. Your doctor told you to start getting more sleep. He gave you steps to help you improve your sleep. You followed them. They worked. 10 minutes is good, but you probably shouldn’t sleep more than that.

You remove the SleepFast device from your head and place it back on it’s stand at the side of your bed. It looks almost like a pedestal. It stands so tall that from your bed you have to look up. You only look down at it once you’re out of bed.

Your feet hit the floor. A light races from one edge of the black baseboard to the other side, turning the baseboards white, lighting the carpet beneath your feet. A voice greets you:

“Hello! Good morning! The sun might not show his face today, and it is going to rain, but don’t despair! Tomorrow looks to be sunny with a high of seventy degrees! Wednesday is always rain day! It is necessary for the beauty of the planet!”

The cheeriness of the male voice was a little too much for this time in the morning. It always was. It had a way of getting under your skin. The cheery voice was supposed to make you happy and keep you in a good mood. But it almost had the opposite effect.

* * * *

The morning commute to work is dreadful. It must be taking 5 minutes. There was a jam somewhere. Traffic got backed up for miles. You left for work a minute earlier than usual to compensate for any delays. You hope you don’t get there late. Again. And get reamed by your boss. Again.

Luckily, you reached work just in time. The doorway scans the chip in your wrist and you’re officially on the clock. In the system. The elevator wasn’t working, so you had to take the Escastairs. Up 3 floors. Could this day start off any worse? You think to yourself. You know your coworkers are thinking the same thing. Everybody has this look of dissatisfaction as they walk up the moving stairs that inconveniently wind their way around the facility with little exit points for different floors. You get off on the third and head down another moving walkway.

You reach your department. You walk into the cube matrix and take the transport to your cube. It’s in upper-middle-northeast corner. There are one hundred cubes in this matrix. You are one out of a hundred. You strap into your floating chair with the rounded bottom and back. It’s comfortable. More comfortable than it has any right to be. You guess they had to make something comfortable. You spin the chair around and look at your wrap-around desk. It comes out from the wall in a never ending loop. Everywhere you look there is desk. It sickens you. You look down. The floor is about five feet down. It would be dangerous if the gravity was turned on in here. Luckily, the gravity was only turned on for the desk to keep all papers and tools from floating away. You laugh. “Luckily”.

You decide to get to work and manipulate the chair over to the edge of the desk. It doesn’t matter where. Your arms, having been free floating all this time, latch down onto the desk like they’re being suctioned. It’s a feeling you never get used to. It’s probably not good for your arms. But they never really think about what’s good for you. They only think about what’s good for them. The bastards. Best not to think too loud. They might hear you.

You start on your paper work. Sometimes you get to thinking this job is designed so that you never get your work done and you always get more and more every day. It sucks the life out of you. It sucks the life out of everyone. Everyone is lifeless. Everyone is dead. What are we even doing here anymore? On Earth, you mean. You wonder what the point of life is now that humanity’s soul and vibrance is gone. It’s a miracle you even had a thought like that. Maybe that’s hope enough. But you doubt it.

That voice that greets you in the morning every time your feet touch the carpet starts to make more sense. It’s a last resort to try and keep some kind of life alive. Even if it is artificial. Could artificial life be more living than real life? You need to stop thinking. This is getting too deep and serious. You need to focus on your work. Maybe if you work hard enough and fast enough you can get through the whole stack of papers and have less tomorrow. Or is that just how they want you to feel?

Dammit. You have no idea what’s them and what’s you anymore. They’ve screwed with you so much that it’s fogging your mind. All the stuff they’ve done is atrocious. They made a device that allows 10 minutes of sleep to do as much good for your body as 8 hours used to do. Then they extended the work day by 6 hours. Then they made transportation go exponentially faster so you can get anywhere in a fraction of the time it used to take. Then they extended the work day another hour. How much time was there in a day anymore? How much was spent at work? What do people do in their free time?

You stop yourself. You’re doing it again. Just get to work. It’s not like the faster or harder you work, the more you’ll be rewarded, but at least you can get your mind off of things. That’s all you want at this point. You just want to stop thinking. It feels like a curse. You envy the people who have fully accepted their robotness. Which brings up a good question. Why haven’t they just replaced everyone with robots?

You pick up the first paper on your pile. At first you just stare at the words. You stare through the words, into the white space between the black letters. You stop thinking altogether. You get into a sort of trance and it fills you with peace. A bright flash hits your eyes and you snap out of it. You notice an arm retract into the ceiling. It was one of those robots that scans your life systems. If it thinks you might be dead it comes down and scans you to make sure. Great. Even a robot thinks you’re dead. You look at the page again. This time you actually read it:

Name: Ben Fit

(All names and surnames were shortened to one syllable to save time).

Occupation: Construction worker
Claim: Jen Goop stole one of his spoons. He wants one million dollars in compensation.

Is this a joke? You don’t even have to debate yourself on this one. You write on the line at the bottom:

Rule in favor of the defendant.

One suit down, about one thousand to go. Why do people even bother anymore? You guess you shouldn’t complain. If people didn’t file ridiculous lawsuits against each other you’d be out of a job. Sometimes you regret going to law school, but there are worse jobs than being a Judgery. Although most of the time you feel like law school was completely unnecessary. Most people with half a brain could determine 90% of the suits that come across your desk.

You read the next one:

Name: Ron Yunk
Occupation: Cobbler
Claim: Dan Hup ruled unjustly. Wants one million dollars in compensation.

What the hell? You think. That’s your name. Why is this file on your desk? It’s clearly a conflict of interest. It’s against the law to judge yourself. This file should have been sent somewhere else. You try to remember the procedure for something like this.

“Call boss,” you say. The cube goes dark and a square pops up in thin air with your boss on it.

“Yes, Dan?” she says.

“I got a suit against myself by mistake. What do I do with it?”

“That’s a breach of the law. I’m sending someone to arrest you. Just sit tight.” The screen goes blank, then collapses on itself. Your cube turns red.

“What the hell?!” you scream.

You try to jump, but you’re still strapped to your chair, so you just kind of spin around until you’re upside down. You unbuckle yourself and start floating toward the door at the ceiling. Suddenly, gravity kicks in and you are pulled to the floor like an elevator with a snapped cable. It hurts. It hurts a lot. You try to figure out a way to get to the door. You can reach the desk. You climb onto it. From there you can reach the door in the ceiling. You open it and climb out.

What now? You can’t just take the transport down. You’ll have to scale down the outside of the cube matrix. It’s not going to be easy. No time to waste. You run down the hallway and to the edge of the cube matrix. You’ll have to break through the wall. They’re coming. You can hear them. Luckily, everybody’s very cheap about buildings. You punch the wall repeatedly and it tears and breaks fairly easily. You rip a hole big enough to fit through and look down.

The outside is smooth. Not much, if anything, to grab onto. You might just have to slide. You climb out, hanging by your fingers, then turn around and let go. Your butt touches the side as you slide down the length of a football field. You start wondering if this was a bad idea. Once you get to the last cube, you grab onto the protrusion of its wall and stop yourself. It hurts your fingers. You let yourself calm down a bit, then let go. You fall to the ground. The pain sensors in your brain go off, but you ignore them.

You run. There are guards coming toward you. All the guards. You’ve never fought. Never been trained to fight. First your first attempt here, you don’t do too bad. The guards level you within about 30 seconds and beat you into submission. It hurts. They cuff you.

* * * *

You wake up in a room. You don’t know when you went unconscious or how long you’ve been out. You’re not sure you even remember what all happened. Your boss sits in front of you. You’re sitting at a table in a bland room. It dulls the senses.

“I didn’t do anything,” you say. The boss doesn’t respond. “It’s just a mistake. The wrong file got put in my stack.” The boss kind of leans back.

“Then why did you run?” your boss asks you condescendingly. You don’t respond. “It’s standard procedure to make an arrest in this situation. Then it gets resolved. Then you go free. There’s nothing to get excited about.”

“You can say that again,” you say, to the confusion of your boss.

“Unfortunately, I have no choice but to fire you.”

“I figured.”

“I also have to send you to jail.”

“That I didn’t.” You don’t know why it hadn’t crossed your mind, but it makes sense and you don’t fight it.

“You will spend thirty days in jail. Upon release they will assign you another job utilizing your skillset.”

That is the end of it. The guards haul you off. You travel to the prison. You wonder if it will actually be so bad. You hadn’t been to prison before. It couldn’t be any worse than work. Maybe it would be better.

You reach the prison and see a giant cube of a building. When you enter, you start to get a sense of dread. You are quickly filed along and get into put into your section. You’re in prison attire and you aren’t entirely sure how everything happened so quickly or where the clothes came from. Within five minutes of arriving, you are brought to the door of your cell. It opens and you go in.

It’s a damn cube. It doesn’t look much different from your work cube. Same desk. Same chair. You have the undesirable task of building parts for machinery.

You look down. There’s a bed on the floor.

You work for hours. Hours upon hours. The walls turn black. It must be time for sleep. You float down to the bed and get situated. You see a SleepFast sitting there beside you. Not tonight. Tonight you’ll enjoy a nice long sleep. After thirty seconds of shut-eye, a robot arm comes down and scans you. You cover your eyes with your hand. A cheery voice says:

“Hey, buddy! Please use the SleepFast! It gives you all the sleep you need in a fraction of the time!”

You groan and shut your eyes again, hoping the robot will go away. It’s the same damn voice that greeted you in the morning.

“Hey, buddy! Hate to be a stickler, but I’m gonna have to ask you to use the SleepFast! It gives you all the sleep you need in a fraction of the time!”

The voice seemed a little menacing in that last sentence. Was it threatening you? You ignore it again, hoping it will leave you the hell alone.

“Hey, pal! Sorry to bother you, but I’m gonna need you to use the SleepFast! It gives you all the sleep you need in a fraction of the time!”

He was definitely threatening you that time. You ignore it again just to see what happens. The robot shines a blinding light in your face.

“Look alive, buddy! I hate to do this, but you really need to use the SleepFast! It gives you all the sleep you need in a fraction of the time!”

Or what? You think. Maybe it would just keep annoying you.

“Hey! I just got a great idea! How about I play some soothing music to help you sleep! If you use the SleepFast, it gives you all the sleep you need in a fraction of the time!”

The most horrendously happy song starts playing. Bubbling its way into your brain. Fine. It wins. You grab the helmet and strap in, then turn over to sleep. The music stops. The light fades. The robot ascends. At least the future got prison right.

The Assassin

“Some wish they would have killed the Gun of Dawn when they had the chance. Then shudder to think of the cost of such a task.” – The Coming of the Gun of Dawn by Counsel Scribe Sara Brezal.

 Private Cran Horne heard the barracks’ alarm and was up putting on his uniform before he had even realized something was happening. Years of training in the Space Marines had taught him to be ready at a moment’s notice, which was good, considering he rarely had more than that to prepare. He was fitting his boots on when a tall man entered the barracks room and shouted, “All right, Marines! I want you suited up and in the briefing room in ten minutes!” No other orders were given or needed.

Cran looked up and saw that some men were already making their way to the briefing room. He zipped up his boots and headed to join them. Once in the room, Cran took his seat and looked around. All told, there were 100 men and women here, the full count of the platoon. The lieutenant entered the room from a door to the left of a stage where a display was set up and shouted, “Attention!”

The whole platoon stood up and became silent as a short, older man walked in, placed some papers he was carrying down, and said quietly, “As you were.” The platoon sat down and the briefing began.

“Ladies and gentlemen, my name is admiral Konright and I come with a mission. Right now we are in orbit around planet 8265, better known as Trinite. Our target is a small city in Quadrant Two, Sector Five that the locals call New Pump City. Our goal is to land in the city, set up a perimeter, and secure a building in the center of town. From there, we wait until Special Operations arrives.” At this, the platoon began murmuring to one another. The lieutenant stood up and shouted, “As you were!” The room became silent.

Cran thought to himself, Special operations? This must be big. They are the best- trained unit in the guild, tough as nails.

The admiral continued the briefing. “I want this to go down by the numbers, people. You are going in hot but are not to engage any targets unless given authorization. We will be dropping in at 0700 local time, so I’m sure we will be a surprise to the people just starting their day. Your job is to keep this cool and precise. Do you understand?”

“Sir, yes sir,” was the answer in unison.

“Then I will turn you over to your commanding officer.”

The lieutenant shouted, “Alright people, you heard the man. We got a job to do! I want you geared up and ready to go in fifteen minutes. Predrop count down starts in twenty. Let’s move!”

Cran stood up and headed toward his weapon locker.


Cran sat, strapped in his seat of the orbital drop ship awaiting final countdown. He always hated this part. His training had prepared him for just about anything, but he never could seem to get used to drops. It was the way his stomach was flung up into his throat then; as the ship pointed nose first toward the planet, his chest was pushed back and he would have to hold his breath to keep from blacking out.

He found it best to try and keep his mind on other things, mainly the mission after the drop. Why would special ops be concerned with a small backwater town on this out-of-the-way planet? Maybe the miners there had discovered something rare, some kind of new energy source. But if that was the case, why the S.O.? They were never called out except for missions of extreme danger and secrecy. Every once in a while, you would hear of an S.O. mission where someone had to be bumped off, or a local militia was shouting about independence from the guild. Those were the type of conflicts where you wanted things done nice and quiet like. Leave no loose ends.

Cran’s thoughts snapped back to the drop as the flight master said over the intercom, “Three, two, ready, DROP!” The ship plummeted out of the hangar and began its fall toward the planet below. Cran closed his eyes and tried to force his stomach back to its normal place. Then, as the ship went nose first, he began the breathing technique he’d had drilled into his head. Cran held his breath and counted: three, two, one. He grunted the air out of his lungs and took in another breath. He would have to keep doing this for the next few seconds until the ship hit the lower atmosphere and the G forces were lowered. Then the hard part would be over.

After what felt like an eternity, the ship did just what it was supposed to and they began landing procedures. Cran grabbed the blast rifle that was secured in a rack about his head and did a final check of his gear. The lieutenant shouted, “Thirty seconds to L.Z.”


The sun rose slowly over the horizon as the people of New Pump City began their day. All except the patrons of The Hand Well Tavern, who were still drinking from the night before. The Hand Well was the only tavern in New Pump that never closed after they learned many preferred beer with their breakfast over coffee.

It was just about time for the shift change for the piano player when suddenly a man burst through the swinging doors and shouted, “Spacers! Spacers be comin’ in drop ships! At least a hundred men by the looks of things!”

“What in the great hell are you talking about, Frank?” asked a man playing cards in the far corner. “Ain’t no reason for Spacers to be comin’ here. Probably just smugglers come to make a buy. Now either sit your ass down and have a drink or get the hell out of here!”

Frank started to move when suddenly a large man in Spacer armor shouldered his way into the bar, throwing Frank aside. He was soon followed by an equally armored woman who stepped to the opposite side of the doorway. The whole saloon dropped to the floor at the site of the armed troops. All but one man sitting inconspicuously at the far end of the bar. The marines drew their aim on the man and said, “On the ground, now!”

The man, who was dressed in a very fine black suit, responded without looking up, “Not until I finish my drink. Maybe not even then.” The marines briefly looked at each other in confusion, then turned back to shout at the man again. Before they got the chance, a tall woman in a black trench coat and beret with a Spacer logo on it walked in and said calmly. “That won’t be necessary, soldier. I do believe he is the one we came for. Mr. Eli Warren, would you kindly come with us?”

Eli looked up slowly at her and threw back his drink. He stood up and tossed a gold piece to the bartender, who was still cowering below the bar. He walked out the saloon door and saw the nearly one hundred or so Spacer troops securing the town square. As the marines fitted handcuffs on Eli’s wrists, he looked to the woman in black and asked, “Do you think you brought enough men?”


Eli was forced down into a hard metal chair. The table in front of him had all of his possessions organized on top of it. His saddle pack, a small purse of gold coins, assorted trinkets of various uses and an ancient black revolver. The room was small and barely held the two guards standing at either side of the only door. Eli sat calmly with his hands, still in cuffs, placed on his lap. Despite his rage toward his captors, he showed no emotion. His curiosity as to exactly why these people wanted him slightly outweighed his anger. They were Spacers; that was plain enough to see. No one else would have built a base this advanced out here in the middle of nowhere. But why him? Spacers never cared much for the people of Trinite, or any planet; all they cared about was the raw materials the planet produced. Eli wasn’t a miner or some town official, so he could see no reason why they wanted him.

After several minutes, the door behind Eli opened and the woman in black entered with a folder under her arm. She had taken off her trench coat to reveal an officer’s uniform. She looked down at his cuffs and sighed, “I apologize; those should have been removed when they brought you here. Allow me.” She unlocked the cuffs and sat down in a chair on the opposite side of the table. “Can I offer you something to drink? Coffee or tea, perhaps?”

Eli thought, So, we’re playing the good cop, I see. Did they really think so little of him that he would be brought in by such an old ploy? “Whiskey,” was his only response. A slight hint of confusion flashed on the woman’s face in the briefest of instants before she composed herself and nodded to one of the guards. The look on her face, despite its briefness, spoke volumes to Eli. If a man wanting whiskey at any hour surprised her, then she definitely wasn’t from here and hadn’t been stationed here long.

The guard brought a delicate-looking glass filled one-quarter of the way with a dark spirit. Eli picked it up and sipped it. It was a finer quality than he was used to. He set the glass down and said nothing. Whoever this Spacer was, she had the upper hand and Eli would do nothing to increase that hand. Silence would undoubtedly cause her to wonder what he was thinking. Slowly she paced the width of the room and began reading the folder in her hand as if it was the first time seeing it.

“Eli Warren. Age, unknown. Place of birth, unknown. Current whereabouts, unknown. You are a hard man to find, Mr. Warren. In the past week, none of my operatives could find anyone who even knew what you looked like, let alone where you could be found.”

God, he thought, this woman is hurling information at me. So her “operatives,” not her, have been here only a week. He was surprised they had found him that quickly. Still, the number of people the Spacers seem to have devoted to his location was a bit much. They must have wanted him pretty bad.

She continued, “The stories some people tell about you are pretty hard to believe, some even fantastic. One person claimed you trained under the famous gunslinger Cort Owen, but that would make you almost one hundred and you don’t look like you could be over fifty. Another man claimed you shot and killed all three of the God’s Gun assassins with one bullet.”

Eli responded drily, “I hadn’t heard that one before. Who do you think I am?”

“I think you’re just a drifter with a good shot and a lot of luck, but my superiors feel otherwise.”

This news did not please Eli at all. He didn’t like the idea of anyone in the Spacer Guild having even heard of him, especially the higher ups. He had a level of anonymity that he wished to retain. The woman sat down across from him and said, “I have a job offer.”

“The answer is no.”

“You don’t know what the job is.”

“It doesn’t matter. I know how you Spacers work. You have a problem, you nuke it from orbit. Problem solved. You don’t need me.”

She chuckled at that. “Mr. Warren, you should know that the production and use of nuclear weapons is strictly forbidden by both the Space Guild and the Emperium. Besides, the problem we have is something we wish to handle a bit more…inconspicuously.”

“Yes, I see, sending a hundred men in ships to get me should go unnoticed,” Eli responded sarcastically. He had grown tired of this game and wanted to get to the point.

“A show of force was deemed necessary. Besides, it should add to your already larger than life reputation. But I digress. Have you ever heard of a group known as the Thuggee?”

The royal assassins of the Emperium, rumored to be so elite in the art of killing that only the head of royal houses could afford their services. Eli thought. “I’ve heard of them, what are they to me?”

“Three weeks ago a Thuggee assassin went rogue and fled to this planet. We tracked him down to an abandoned Spacer prison facility that was set up before the planet was deemed suitable for mining.”

Eli looked into the woman’s eyes. “You know where he is. Just send in some of your troops and flush him out. You don’t need me.”

“We tried that already. After the first dozen or so casualties, we decided to try a different approach. You.”

“And what makes you think I will help you? I have no reason to stick out my neck for you or anyone else.”

“Does the name Coddingtown mean anything to you, Mr. Warren?”

Damn, he thought, now they have me by the balls and worse yet, they know it. It’s no wonder they were so cavalier with their information. They were holding a trump card the whole time.

The woman looked down at her folder. “It says here you are a wanted man for what happened to Coddingtown. It says you destroyed the whole town, killing everyone in the process.”

Coddingtown was an accident, but there is no one left alive to confirm my innocence, Eli thought bitterly.

“No wonder you went to such great lengths to hide your identity. If you do this for us, the Space Guild will forgive the town’s destruction and forget the many deaths you have caused.”

No, Eli thought. Nothing you do could make people forget those deaths. The name Eli Warren will still be known, and known for death.

“Fine,” he spit out, “I’ll do it.”

“Good, we can get you any equipment you need, guns, high grade armor, explosives…”

“Just my belongings.” Eli responded plainly.

The woman looked down at the table with Eli’s things on it. “This?” she said with a tone of disbelief. “An old revolver with no ammunition, and an ancient bullet mold? Mr. Warren, I can offer you cutting-edge technology and weapons.”

“All I will need from you is some information and I will be on my way.” He stood up and picked a lambskin roll sitting on the table, undid the leather strap and revealed a hand-drawn map that looked old and hard used. “First off, where are we now?”

“We are in Quadrant…”

“On the map!” Eli sharply interrupted.

The woman looked down and pointed to a spot just east of a mountain range.

“And the target?” Eli asked.

The woman moved her finger east about three inches.

Eli rolled up the map and began repacking his things in his saddlebag. “It will take me three days to walk there, another day to get the job done and three more days to walk back. If you don’t hear from me in a week, I am more than likely dead.”

“We can fly you out there in a few hours—” the women started.

“I walk.” There was no room for argument in Eli’s voice. If he was to do this, he would do it his way and that was that. As he finished packing his things, he turned and began walking out the door. The women in black said, “Mr. Warren, you never gave me a chance to give you my name. You may need it later.”

“No” Eli said, “I won’t.”



Eli sat over the fire working the last of his bullets in the ancient cast. As the round cooled in the mold, he whispered a soft prayer. “Darkest day and cursed night, guild my bullet and give it flight.” Six rounds, six prayers. The old man who had given him the cast told him the bullets would not work unless the prayers were said, and Eli was not fool enough to put that statement to the test. Curse that old man, he thought. He called himself The Alchemist, and Eli had sought him looking for answers. All he got was this damned mold and even more questions.

Eli ejected the round from the mold and held it in his hands. The ruin molded in the side of the round glowed a soft reddish hue. Eli knew very little of magic but knew enough to be afraid of it, and this mold scared him. He quickly put the bullet in the black revolver’s cylinder. As much as the mold scared him, the gun scared him even more. Eli had carried the black gun for years with no ammo, seeming to not be able to part with it. The ancient mold was the only way to get bullets that would fit the gun, or at least that’s what The Alchemist had told him. He looked down at the gun and tried to remember the last time he had filled all six chambers. He rarely need more than one. Still, he had never tried to kill a member of the Thuggee before, either. Eli had the stomach for killing, but he took no pleasure from it. The fact that it was his only apparent skill had to be a cosmic joke. He looked down at his hands and thought, Why couldn’t these be miner’s hands, or farmer’s hands? No these are gunfighter hands? He cursed whatever deity blessed him with them.

Eli looked down into a valley at the building set at the base of a mountain. It had been built at a time when Trinite was to be used as a prison planet, but the discovery of the alloy trinitanium had laid that plan to rest. That was over 150 years ago, and the prison, advanced for its time as it was, had sat there unused and abandoned.

Eli collected his things. It would be dawn soon and he wanted to be done with this job. It was full-on morning by the time he made it down the hill to the main prison building. He found the front entrance door barred but was able to climb in a side window. Pulling his gun from its holster, he made his way through a maze of pipes and air ducts. This must be a maintenance corridor, he thought as he groped in the darkness. The corridor led to a large room where the pipes and ducts went out in all directions. The room’s only light source came from hundreds of little candles that lined the ductwork. Eli thumbed back the hammer on his revolver. This is not what he had expected, not even close.

“Eli Warren.” A voice called out to him, echoing off the steel walls. Eli spun, trying to determine where it had come from.

“Eli Jacobs Warren.” Eli’s blood went cold. No one knew his whole name, his true name. There was power in one’s true name, dangerous power, and if this assassin knew even a little magic, he could kill Eli with it…or worse. Eli circled around, his back as close to the wall as possible. He tried desperately to slow his breathing and heartbeat down; he had to stay in control. Any sympathy Eli had for this man, any thoughts of sparing his life, were gone. His death was now a matter of necessity. No one could know his true name.

“Yes,” the voice called out, “I know much about you Eli, much and more. I know you have been to The Alchemist. I know you have the gun and I know its true purpose. You are Shakti, and that is why you must die.”

The title, if that was what it was, had no meaning to Eli. He had never heard such a name before.

“That is why I instigated this whole charade,” the voice continued. “Simply luring you here wasn’t enough. I needed someone to force you.”

So, this man had used the Spacers to force him into a trap, Eli thought. The Spacers had no idea that they were being used. Eli’s eyes darted all over the huge room, looking for any sign of movement. No matter what this person knew, Eli was still what he was, a gunfighter—and a damn good one. That’s when Eli heard the thwomp of a dart gun and saw a small shaft appear in his upper thigh. “Damn!” he grunted.

“Yes, Eli, the poison works fast, a death far to simple for someone like you, but it will do. If I don’t kill you, the Necromancer will, and all of creation will be his slave then.”

Eli felt the dart’s venom start to course through him. His vision slowed and started to blur; his mind was starting to fog. Eli fell to one knee, struggling to remain upright. A figure emerged from a mess of pipes and began walking toward him. The man was tall and thin, wearing flowing silks and a turban on a head of black hair and dark beard. Eli aimed and fired but missed, the drug taking its hold on him.

One chance, he thought, must get him close. Eli dropped his other knee as the man approached, drawing a large dagger.

“Your limbs should be very numb by now. Please forgive me, Eli. I have no hate toward you, but you simply must die. If I could find you, then surely the Necromancer will, too. If he has the gun and your blood…well, that simply must not happen.” He raised the dagger over his head and started chanting in a tongue that Eli did not know.

Now, Eli thought. With all the strength that remained in him, he stood up and thrust his gun into the man’s stomach, firing. The man dropped the dagger and slumped to the floor.

“How?” he choked, spitting up blood. “The poison…”

“Didn’t work.” Eli finished, struggling to remain standing.

“You don’t understand,” the Thuggee whispered. “You must die. You have to die. You are Shakti. It has been prophesied..” The word trailed off as the man died.

Eli returned the gun to his holster and started limping back toward the window he had come in through. Shakti. Eli didn’t know what the word meant, didn’t know if he wanted to find out. The word had a foul taste to it and left unsettling questions in his mind. Who was this Necromancer and why did he need Eli’s blood? The thought of a prophecy left him even more unsettled. Eli was unsure what had started here today, but he was sure that it would end in blood…and rage.

The Taking of Ironside

Trinight breeds men as harsh and unforgiving as it is.” – Local Tringht saying

The Taking of Ironside.

The sun beat down hard on Duncan Halleck as he made his way though the dirt streets of Douglas. Taking a handkerchief from a back pocket, he wiped sweat that was starting to run down his bald head.

Ah, Douglas, the boom town of Trinight—or the closest thing to a boom town this planet would ever know, thought Duncan. Everyone knew the quick growth of Douglas had been due to the installation of the new steam train that ran between Red Rock Canyon and Darkstar. Douglas was the only other stop on the line, hauling raw ore from the mines to be exported to other planets. The job could be done faster with an anti-grav rail, but the Crimson Cartel was not in the habit of investing such tech on backwater planets. Tech like that was expensive to import and expensive to install. No, these people would only get what could be fabricated on-planet, and that was simple enough.

Duncan looked down at a small GPS device strapped to his wrist. “One more saloon to go, then the real work starts,” he muttered out loud. As Duncan opened the bar doors, the busy saloon came to a halt. This didn’t surprise Duncan, considering the way he was dressed. He wore a high-grade combat vest with no shirt underneath, a pair of scatter pistols hung in hustlers under his arms, and the handle of a lever-action blunderbuss could be seen sticking out of a harness on his back. That much firepower was rarely needed, but Duncan would have felt naked with less.

As the people stared at the stocky man, clearly wondering what his intentions were, Duncan spoke out in a clear voice. “May I have your attention, please?” He knew he already had it, but thought it best to be polite, “My name is Duncan Halleck and I represent Alcome Industries of the Crimson Cartel. I have been authorized to hire ten men to guard the cargo car of the Ironside train between here and Darkstar. Any man with a weapon and the will to use it is welcome to apply. Applicants must register by the train station by tonight.”

A man shouted from the back of the saloon, “How much this job pay?”

“Fifty spacer credits,” Duncan replied. He knew the credits would be a dealbreaker for some; they wanted gold, and nobody traded in gold outside of this planet. His own home planet had gold in such abundance that the stuff was practically worthless. The only money anybody used outside of the Emperioum was spacer credits; anything else was simply raw material for spacer tech.

Duncan walked out into the hot noon sun and made his way to his “office,” which was a small table under a tarp by the train station. He sat down and began cleaning one of his scatter guns—not that it needed cleaning. He hadn’t fired it in what felt like ages, but he was always sure to keep it in good working order. He missed the good old days, running with the Bloody Talon mech company. He had joined when he was seventeen and quickly became a top lieutenant. Back then, he could count on a firefight before breakfast, and he fell asleep to the sound of gunfire in his head. For thirty years, he had run with Bloody Talon, until they forced him to retire. They threw promotion after promotion his way, but he wouldn’t take them. Never wanted to become a logistic clerk worrying about payroll.

That’s what I’ve become, he thought to himself, a clerk. He knew having worked his way to head of security at his age was an accomplishment, but he now spent more time behind a desk taking reports than heading up missions. The only field time he had gotten in the last six months was this “package job,” and that was as bad as babysitting. Nothing about this job made any sense. Why was he picked to guard this box and why was he to recruit from the local population instead of his own men?

Duncan was rolling these thoughts in his mind when a shadow fell on the table, snapping him back to reality. In front of him stood a tall man of thirty with black hair and a heavy mustache. He wore a black hat and a white shirt with a black vest that must have been unbearable in the sun’s heat. Duncan pulled out a small data pad from his pack and began filling out the application.


“Eli” responded the stranger.

“Last name?”

“Just Eli.”

Duncan looked up from the pad into the stranger’s dark crimson eyes and tried to get a read on him. There was something about this man that seemed off-putting. It wasn’t odd around here for people to withhold their last names—most didn’t trust the Cartel completely—but this man had an air of power about him as well. As though, with one gun, he could wipe out a whole town.

“I assume you will want payment in cash, then.”

“That would be helpful.”

Duncan paused for a brief moment and then asked sharply, “What weapons do you have?”

Eli pulled a silver, nickel-plated top-break revolver from a holster at his side and laid it on the table. A fine gun, thought Duncan, but then he noticed a second gun still tucked into the man’s gun belt. “What about that one?” he asked. The stranger looked at it as if he had forgotten it was there.

“No ammo,” he plainly replied.

Duncan look over the man’s gun belt and saw at least fifty cartridges in the shell loops.

The man, seemingly reading his mind, said, “They don’t fit.”

What kind of man carries an unloaded gun with no shells to fill it with? But as the day was getting hotter and Duncan was beginning to lose interest in the man, he decided the top-break would do just fine.

“OK, Just Eli, be at the train station at 6:00 am. We leave at 6:10,” he said, and left it at that.


The sun was setting by the time Duncan made his way back to the hotel. He was tired, but he had his ten men. Not the ten men he had wanted, mind you, but ten men nonetheless. He arrived at the hotel anxious for a hot meal, a strong beer, and a soft bed. When did you start looking forward to these things? he chastised himself. You used to stay up all night drinking and playing pool, fighting your buddies and chasing women.

Duncan pushed his way though the crowded hotel bar. It was busy tonight, with men drinking and gambling. A group of young men were challenging each other to knife throwing at an old dart board. Duncan watched with a passing curiosity as one of the knives found the bullseye and the men cheered.

It wasn’t so long ago that I could have beaten them all, he thought to himself.

Wasn’t it? A thought came unbidden into his mind. It’s been 10 years, maybe more. But by all means, go over to them and try a throw. Make a fool of yourself.

Duncan sighed softly to himself and began climbing the steps to his room. For the first time in his life, he felt old.



The next morning, Duncan found that only six of the men showed up for the job, one of whom was sent away for still being clearly drunk from the night before. Out of the five he had left to him, he guessed only five had ever shot a gun before: one by the name of Cole Fisher, who had claimed to be a law man in his younger days (which couldn’t have been too far behind him) and the one called Eli. The other three were as green as they could be.

They took their places in the armored car around the box that they were to guard. The box was made from a rich, black, off-world wood with ornate carvings on the side and metal inlaid in the lid. Duncan had no idea what was in it, and didn’t want to know. His job was to see it safely to Mr. Alcome and that was all he had to concern himself with.

Duncan placed his blunderbuss in a gun rack and took his seat. The ride would be a long and uncomfortable one, but he was beginning to think that it would be a quiet one. After all, if he didn’t know about the box, there was small chance that anyone else did—and besides, what group of thieves would risk their lives on a mystery box?

Duncan’s hopes for a quiet ride were soon shattered due to a pair of brothers he had hired who, for reasons Duncan couldn’t understand, thought that fifty spacer credits were worth fifty gold pieces.This amused Duncan, not only because fifty credits was not nearly worth fifty in gold—a tidy sum on this rock—but that they would never find any businessman willing to make the exchange.

Duncan’s amusement soon vanished as they began to talk at great length as to what they were planning to do with this newly imagined wealth.After the first hour of this, Duncan’s head started to throb. He grabbed his side pack at his feet and told the men he was going to inspect the dining car. The men ignored him—even Eli, who seemed to be sleeping. Duncan turned and made his way out.



Duncan sat in the dinner car at the front of the train enjoying a beer when the bandits attacked. The train came to an abrupt stop, causing some of the riders to stumble and lose their balance. He knew what was going on even before the screaming started and the shouts of “Get the fuck down!” began. Of all the days these dumb bastards had to hit the train, he thought. This was going to get bad, and by the end of it, some of them were going to wish their fathers had never paid for their mothers.

The bandits entered the dinner car from the back end and began yelling for people to hand over their valuables. Duncan stayed seated in a booth with his back toward the assailants. As they walked past him collecting wallets and watches, he eyed them with a single glance. What he saw did not make him very happy. The guns the bandits carried were old but finely made and in good shape. Their body armor was cheap and second rate, probably traded from smugglers, but Duncan had hoped that they would have no armor at all. These were definitely local boys, and his regular crew would have made quick and quiet work of all of them. But you don’t have your regulars here, do you, old man? he thought to himself. No, all you have are a bunch of wannabe gunslingers who have never fired at anything that could fire back if they missed. Then it hit him: his blunderbuss was still sitting in the gun rack in the armored car with his men. That was bad. Even worse was the fact that he had no extra shells for the scatter guns under his arms. He had left his pack with the shells by the bar located at the end of the dinner car. Four shots, he thought, that was what he had to work with to get him to the bar, grab his pack and dive for cover. After that it was easy—just find his shells, load his guns and blast away whoever was left. That, and not get blasted in the process.

Duncan was so deep in thought that he didn’t notice a bandit was demanding his wallet. Duncan looked up at the man and the gun pointed at his face. The sight of the gun sent a surge through him. He hadn’t had a gun pointed at him in almost ten years, and he found the sensation thrilling, like the memory of an old lover. He heard blood rushing in his ears, his breath quickened slightly, and he felt a sudden surge of adrenalin.

“Wallet, old man. Now!” the bandit demanded.

Duncan’s hand shot out almost on instinct, grabbing the man’s wrist and pulling him down to meet the scatter gun, which seem to materialize in Duncan’s hand. The blast at point blank range cut through the man’s armor, blowing a hole out his back the size of a fist. One shot, one kill, thought Duncan, and with that, he was up. Using the man’s dead body as a shield, he shuffled back toward the bar and his waiting bag. The body took four or five shots until it became more trouble than it was worth. Duncan dropped the body and dove behind a booth. The booth backing provided little cover, but it was better than having his ass in the breeze.

People were trying desperately to get out of the car itself, the bandits were screaming for people to get down, obviously not prepared for this to turn into a gunfight. Good, he thought, soon my men will come bursting through that back door and cut the bandits down. That’s when he noticed that the door was already open, leaving a clear view into the car behind them. Duncan saw five dead bandits strewn about the car, but none of the men who had joined him were among them. One more hard push and he would be at the small bar and his pack. Then, he thought, this fight can start.

The car was all but empty of innocent bystanders at this point, so Duncan jumped up and ran for the bar. Ill-aimed bullets flew past his head as he turned, leaping backwards and firing both barrels of his gun. He hit the wall and landed hard on the floor to find Eli crouched, reloading his top-break.

“What in the great space are you doing here?!” Duncan shouted over gunfire.

“Watching you,” Eli said coolly. “I would have been here sooner but I had some problems of my own.”

“That blood bath back there your handiwork?”

“No one else stayed to finish the job. The men you hired weren’t worth a whole hell of a lot.”

Eli finished loading his gun and handed Duncan his pack containing the extra shells. With the smooth precision that comes with decades of practice, Duncan loaded his guns and snapped the barrels back in place. He nodded to Eli and then jumped from cover. He aimed and shot two men before they even got a shot off. He ran forward toward the bandits with a maddening shout. Duncan didn’t even feel the bullet that bit into his exposed shoulder as he barreled over the man who fired it. Duncan put a boot to the man’s head at the same time that he opened fire at another man’s face.

This is what I was made for! he thought as he reloaded both barrels with his off hand. This is what I live for! He pistol whipped a man in the temple and gunned down a fourth man trying to escape out the end door. When it was all said and done, Duncan stood in a mess of dead men and blood, some of which was his.

Eli calmly walked over to him holstering his pistol and said slowly, “So, are we still planning to get to Darkstar? I have business that needs attending.”

Forget that Dimension!

Barry hummed as he concentrated, “Take my love, take my land, take me where I cannot stand.”

The dirty technician fine tuned two gigantic knobs at once. The fate of the rest of his fellow man laid on him. Three hundred or less citizens took shelter in the beaten down bomb shelter. The surface was crawling with hard-shelled spider-like aliens, eating the few humans and animals that survived the initial invasion. The foot soldiers carried weapons that would burn anything short of steel in a few seconds.

Barry was lucky enough to have been stationed in area fifty-one when they arrived. He was part of Project Stargate; trying to open a man-made rift into other, habitable dimensions. Each combination of knobs and a few hundred switches were used to tune in to specific frequencies. He could also open a rift for a few minutes, but he only had enough power to keep one open long enough for an evacuation.

He wasn’t even the project leader. Barry was in mid-training for the enormous blue sphere and its primitive controls. Luckily the glowing ball gave enough light to fill the room, so he saved precious energy for his light bill. Still, he whipped out a flashlight for more precise readings on the instruments spread throughout the decent sized lab.

Colonel Amanda Sans entered, “Any progress doc?”

“You know I’m just a tech right? The real doc never made it back to work.”

“I’m aware. So, any progress?”

Barry sighed and twisted around to his personal refrigerator. He pulled off seven pictures and described each, “Here, we got two deserts, one with a constant sulfur storm, the other with a white dwarf for a sun. Here’s a forest with ammonia-based life—”

“That’s bad right?”

“Only if you want to breathe there. That one, sent a drone through to confirm that at least half the planet is covered in very active volcanoes. This jungle could be colonized, if the trees don’t like the taste of humans.”

The colonel shook her head, “Skip.”

“Now this one, is identical to our Earth, but it looks like another kind of alien species wiped out another kind of alien race.”

“Would they like us?”

“They shot our drone on sight, smelled the camera, and ate it.”

“What about this last one? It’s all black.”

“I’m not sure, I got a lot of positive atmospheric readings, but I’m going to send a drone with night vision.”

“Well, it looks like you’re getting closer. Keep up the good work.” The colonel handed the pictures back and nodded before leaving.

Barry looked at the last picture. I got a good feeling about you.


Cindy sat at the edge of her bed, hunching forward as she concentrated. At that moment, she had nothing to say or yell into her headset. Her fingers and thumbs had become one with her controls. Left! She threw a knife into the kid that sounded way too young to be playing a Mature-rated game. “How’d that feel you little bastard?!”

Enemy fire to her rear. She swung the analog sticks and jumped right, then she scored a headshot in midair. “Holy shit! Did anyone else see that?”

Crash! Slam! Cindy dove off the bed to the mostly clean carpet. Something as big as a softball put a hole in her closet door. She inched herself over the bed to see a dirty chrome sphere half planted in her wall. Cindy dropped the controller and grabbed an empty beer bottle for a weapon. She still flinched when the metal ball popped free and hovered a few feet in front of her.

“Holy shit!”

The orb twirled a lens to Cindy, then opened up with a dozen kinds of probes, lights and syringes. Cindy hurled the bottle at the drone and ducked behind her bed for a baseball bat. “Stay away!”

A pale man in a dirty lab coat entered from the closet. “No need to panic!”


Barry punched a few buttons on some kind of PDA, causing the drone to clamp shut, and hover back into the closet. “Is that better?”

“Who the fuck are you?!”

“I’m Barry, kind of a scientist. And I need your help.”


About ten minutes of talking had finally gotten Cindy to calm down. Barry was still asking about major differences in their worlds. It all sounded fine until Barry glanced at the DVD and Blu ray shelves. “Cindy, I see you only have one season of Firefly.”

“Oh, it got cancelled after thirteen episodes.”

Barry’s face paled. “You told me you didn’t have an apocalypse here.”

“Wait, what?”

Barry was already moving back to the closet, “The only thing that keeps my people going, is knowing that President Whedon will continue to bring us the best damned television we’ve ever known. I didn’t even watch the season ten finale before coming here!”

“Take me with you!”


Colonel Sans entered Barry’s lab and rested her palm on the pistol at her hip. “What’s this?”

Barry stopped in his tracks, ready to throw a small box into the rift sphere. “This world needs our help. Every show that keeps our people motivated has been cancelled in there.”

“Is there a hostile alien invasion on the other side?”

“Just humans.”

“Exactly like us?”


“Then how about we evacuate and bring everything with us?”

Barry felt a little stupid, “I guess that’s a better plan.”




“Are you ready?”

“F, I don’t know if you’re ready.”

“No, I am. This has been a long time coming.”

She’s staring at me. Her eyes turn back to the screen as coordinates flash. Q has been with me since the beginning, though she never told me why. There is nothing for her to gain from this. No glory, nothing solved, nothing at all.



“You never told me why.”

“Why what?”

“You know damn well what I mean.”

“I guess you deserve to know, because when it is done I will go my way and you will go yours. Do remember when I found you?”

“Yeah. You were helping Doc with the underground clinic. I came in bloodied and broken. You were the one that helped develop the cybernetics and the biometrics that reside in my eye and my right arm. You made the Double Tap and my dagger as well.”

“You, while you were under the anesthetics, spoke of trying to find someone you loved. That you would stop at nothing to find them. I wanted to be part of your journey. To help.”

“That’s it?”


“Thank you.”


“The hell? Oh yeah.”


The face of this unremovable watch read 21:13 again. I still don’t understand the purpose of it.


“So, where am I going?”

“No, where are we going.”

“Q, you can’t.”

“F, I was here from the start. I’m going to see the end.”

“Then let’s go.”

She wrote down the coordinates. I loaded D.T. Grabbed whatever ammunition we had left. Q unlocked a drawer on her desk and removed a second Double Tap.

“What? You thought you had the only one? I’m more prepared then you know.”

It only took two hours to get to our destination. A house. A large one. With gate. And guards. A lot of them.

“You ready Q? ”

A slight smile formed at her lips and she held up her left arm. The skin began to tear away and a blade appeared.

“Where do you think I got the ideas for your weapons? Doc found me, as I found you, broken. Then he rebuilt me. Made me a weapon. Watch this.”

Then the fabric on her back began to rip. Two more blades appeared. Then they split. Pain shot up my spine.

“Don’t worry. It subsides quickly.”

Soon, blades were floating around me.

“Think of how you want them to move, and they will.”

“Why the hell did you not tell me about these before. Fuck Q, this-” I took a breath and tried to gather my thoughts but could only say, “-is fucking awesome. I feel like a kid on Christmas morning.”

She smiles.

“Let’s finish this.”

To Start Off Alive

It was already a long commute to the heart of the city. But it got even longer.

It was only five minutes after I got on the subway that it happened. Five men got on. And they took over the train. They pulled out guns and that was that. They didn’t look too much different than me. One of the men had a nasty cough. That made us all a little uneasy.

We couldn’t hear what was going on when they started talking with the people in the control room. They could’ve stopped the train if they wanted to. I suppose they didn’t because the terrorists probably threatened to kill people if they did.

About twenty minutes went by and someone else on the train had developed a nasty cough. I must not have noticed it before. Come to think of it, a couple people had the same cough. They all sounded like they’d been smoking ten packs a day for thirty years. Maybe they had been.

I couldn’t explain it, but I didn’t feel tense or scared. At least, not at first. It’s not like terrorism was routine or anything, but I just didn’t feel afraid. And looking around, nobody else really seemed to be scared either. We all were just at peace with the situation somehow.

By half an hour into it, over half the people on the train were coughing. Needless to say, I covered my mouth with my jacket. I doubted it would do much good, but it made me feel better than doing nothing. But even then I hadn’t started worrying. It was ominous for sure, and a little unnerving maybe, but it didn’t actually frighten me. But then something happened. Something that changed everything. And it was then that I started to worry. And it was then that everybody got scared.

Forty-five minutes in, the terrorist with the cough took to the ground. He coughed up some kind of black liquid. That didn’t bode well for the other coughers. The man started to shake violently and fell onto his back. Then his skin started disappearing. He was still alive when his skin had completely dissolved and all you could see was his muscle. Perhaps the most terrifying part was that he wasn’t screaming. Then it got weird.

The black liquid he had coughed up started moving. It inched toward his body and wrapped itself around him like a cocoon. It looked like he was in a body bag. His body stopped moving. For the next five minutes there was complete silence. Nobody even coughed once. They were probably trying to stifle them. Even the terrorists stopped terrorising.

After those five minutes, the cocoon opened up and out stepped less of a man and more of an insect. Or reptile. It was hard to be sure. But it was out of this world, I’ll tell you that much. Maybe it wasn’t out of this world. Maybe just from one of the dark corners. But it was ugly as all hell. It didn’t seem hostile, though. Terrifying, but not threatening. The whatever-it-was looked at his friends – or whatever they were to him now – as if he still recognized them. Then it ripped open the train doors and leaped out.

The biggest question we all had was: How long had he had the cough? Was it days? Hours? Did it start just before he got on the train? The terrorists had the presence of mind to let the control room know what happened. They understood the gravity of the situation.

The government tried to quarantine us, but we all knew it didn’t matter. It was too late. That thing already got out. It would infect others. The battle was already lost. After another few hours, almost everybody on the train was coughing. We were all just waiting for someone else to cough up black stuff. It was the worst waiting game I had ever played.

Another few hours passed. One person started shaking. Then another. Soon half the place was shaking and vomiting black stuff.

Then I coughed.

Back and Forth

The city glowed neon in the nighttime. Maybe it was just my goggles. They made everything look a little funny. Not that everything wasn’t funny. Not “haha” funny. Peculiar funny. The kinda funny where crooks and politicians do things that don’t make a whole lotta sense. But who’s the crook and who’s the politician?

I’d been followin’ this guy for the better part of an hour. Waitin’ for him to slip up. My client had their suspicions, but I knew he was guilty. They always were. My feet kicked up water from the puddles forming from the rain. It was making my socks wet.

The world flickered. Damn goggles. Hadn’t worked right since I got ‘em. But as much as they failed, they also helped me keep track of whoever I was following. It helps in the private investigation business. Made my job easier, that’s for sure. The guy I was followin’ turned and entered a building. Finally.

I turned to follow and the world flickered again. Instead of a door, I found a brick wall. Smacked m’damn nose on it. I stepped back and tried to make sense of it. The world flickered back and I saw the door again. I grabbed the knob and then-

Brick wall. My hand was encased perfectly in brick. This was a helluva conundrum. What the hell was going on? I didn’t see anybody else on the sidewalk.

“Little help!” I called. No reply. Looks like I was stuck. I’d have taken my goggles off if not for fear I’d get stuck in that personless void. I tried the usual. Kick the brick wall. Punch the brick wall with my free, non-dominant hand. Headbutt the brick wall. As usual, nothing. I just had to wait for the flicker.


Hours passed. I actually started to think about life and philosophy. I didn’t like it. Thankfully the world flickered back just as I was getting too deep for comfort and I shoved the door open and dashed inside the building. I ripped the goggles off my face and threw ‘em to the ground. Then I went down the stairwell and into whatever dive bar this guy led me to.

I saw him. Sittin’ there like a typical bastard. He gave off the stench of the type-a rat you wouldn’t even let touch the bottom of your shoe. He was chattin’ up some broad. They held hands and I saw the transaction. When they got up and started walkin’ to the door, I got in their way.

“Norton,” I said with my best mean face on. I stepped forward and grabbed his throat.


I held nothing. I stood in the middle of an empty room, losing my balance. I fell flat on my face. My patience was wearing thin. I ran around trying to find a door. I found it and ran out to the empty street. No cars or anything. Weird. Without rhyme or reason I just started running.


I bumped into somebody and we fell to the ground. The back of his head looked familiar. I flipped him over and it was HIM. Norton.

“I caught you, you son of a bitch!” I said. I went to smack his face for the trouble.


My hand flew through the air. I nearly smacked my own self in the face. I just sat down. What was the point?


Somebody’s knee hit my nose, breaking it. They’d been running. They tripped over me. I was in pain, but not showin’ it. I stood up and hailed a taxi, asked him to take me to my office. I was done for the day. Everything was getting a little too crazy for my taste. We made it halfway there, no incident. Then-


I was sailing through the air at a good forty m-p-h. There was no way this was ending well. I flew through the air for a long time. Before I hit the ground-


I landed on an oncoming car and was terrified, the wind nearly blowing my face off. The startled driver stopped the car and it threw me forward. It took a bit to get my head straight. The driver was angry at me, of course. I threw him aside and, uh, commandeered his vehicle. Bless my stars, I made it to my office. I quickly called my client and told her I discovered her husband cheating. I didn’t want any more part of it. There was no telling if it was the case that made these weird things start happening or if it was just a coincidence. I looked out the window. How could I even be sure what was real anymore? Through the window I didn’t see any people. No cars. No lights. No rain. The buildings looked like cardboard boxes. Everything bland and lifeless.

I’m in the other world. Maybe it’s better here. No funny stuff. Everything’s just the way it is.

I’m hungry.

Great Opportunity — Apply Now!

The farther humans expanded into space, the more necessary it became to figure out a timely way to communicate. Advanced technology was still bound by physics; while it was easy to get bit of voice data or text to go very fast, as opposed to a large spacecraft, there was a growing lag between sender and receiver because, often, “very fast” is still too slow.

Even as far back as the 1900s there was a glimmer of hope in the form of a quantum mechanics concept called “quantum entanglement.” Entanglement was a verified phenomenon that some particles were “hitched” at such a core level that something happening to particle A would be reflected by particle B instantaneously.

Not at speed of light, but instantaneously. Regardless of distance.

At least, as far as scientists could confirm. Even 300-odd years later it seemed like there was much unknown in the world of physics. Granted, some of that was doubtlessly due to subtleties so minute that their instruments couldn’t pick them up.

Regardless, quantum entanglement was the proverbial dangling carrot that scientists across the colonized universe were chasing. If entanglement could be harnessed on a larger scale? At the whim of humans? Communication would be revolutionized.


Juan almost deleted the email. After all, the subject “GREAT OPPORTUNITY — APPLY NOW!” hardly inspired confidence. Most of his spam contained a lot of false hope. But just as his finger hovered over the delete button, he noticed the email address was sent from was a .gov domain.

It was still probably spam, but .gov emails were important spam. They fell in the category of “good to know” more than “dear Lord did I just get a virus.”

Juan, it started off.
My name is Craig Folstar from the research and development branch of NASA. I have been working with a team of researchers to revolutionize the way we communicate. We have been informed that you are leaving with a research team headed for Pluto.

We have developed a tool that will allow real-time communication with a loved one without lag. However, we need testers, which is where you come in. We’d like you to be one of our early beta testers to make sure our device works in a real situation. If you agree, we’d give you a prototype to use as you wish to communicate with one person on Earth.

Please call me at [redacted] for more info, or fill out the attached form to get started!

Craig Folstar
[Address redacted]

“Huh,” said Juan, scratching his head. He had been stressing out a bit about being away from his wife for so long. Sure, there was email and time-delayed voice messages and video (it typically took between 4 and 4 ½ hours for communications to reach Earth from Pluto and vice-versa), but it wasn’t the same as having an actual conversation.


Going on this research trip was the opportunity of a lifetime. He’d been on several smaller trips: Mars, the moon, Venus, but that was practically local. Heck, anything beyond Mars was out of text message range. His boss likened it to the Wild Wild West, where the law was minimal–in large part due to the pain of communicating.

And this was going to be a long trip. Flight speed had increased greatly since the dawn of the 21st Century. At the turn of the century it would take about nine years to reach Pluto from Earth. Fast forward 200 years and that time was reduced to one year. That’s a major improvement.

Yet still one long freakin’ year.

Unlike in the movies, where people are put in stasis for a trip, everyone on the ship would stay awake. As nice as the concept of stasis was for science fiction, reality turned out to be much different; not only had technology failed to safely induce the state of stasis, it had turned out that maintaining stasis cost more in fuel than providing food and amenities for the men.

Thus, no stasis. Every inch of the trip would be experienced by its men.


The package was nondescript to the mail carrier. Just another box. Just another delivery. But Juan jittered nervously as he used a utility knife to break the seal. It seemed that such a classified device would be delivered with more security; it was laughably easy to open the box. It could have contained a bunch of books, not the greatest technological breakthrough of the century.

In the box, surrounded by packing peanuts, were two identical devices.

Juan set each on his kitchen table. They were pendulums. The base was circular. Two metal rods about a foot high jutted above the base, with a smaller metal rod connecting them at the top. It was from this horizontal rod that the pendulum hung. The pendulum looked like an inverted teardrop, round at the top, and forming a point. Taped to the side of the pendulum was a bag of sand.

There was also a brochure. Juan opened it and started reading.

How to operate your Distance Communicator.

1. There are two main communication functions provided by the device: physical and verbal.

2. The position of pendulum A will be applied to pendulum B. Tapping one pendulum will cause both to take on the same swing simultaneously.

3. It will also reflect movements that seem to defy gravity–for example, take up one of the pendulums and wrap it around the suspension bar, and the other pendulum will do it without need other physical interaction. At all times the two pendulums will be synchronized.

4. A button on the base of the pendulum activates the ability for the pendulum to transmit and receive sound waves. Due to privacy considerations, both buttons need to be activated to send or receive sounds through the device.

5. As such, signaling via the pendulum that one person wishes to communicate verbally is recommended.

6. Users during our local trials reported that putting sand in the base of each pendulum would allow the pendulum to create designs when swung and would use it as a visual “hi” when one party wasn’t at their pendulum.

7. When sand is in the base, a switch on the side will raise or lower the pendulum; this will be reflected by both pendulums!

Please note that, at this time, there is not a way to send text through the pendulum. Expect the same delays for text and Internet usage that you would normally experience for your journey.

Grabbing one of the pendulums, Juan lifted it. At the same time, the other pendulum raised up. It was heavier than he expected. He moved the pendulum around, dazzled by the way the other pendulum responded without being touched.

“Wow,” he said.


As far as NASA researchers could determine, the entanglement process meant that only two objects could be paired. However, each device was outfitted with a transmitter to send daily reports to the development team. No personal information, mind you–just crucial usage reports, diagnostics, and other technical stuff.

In addition, both Juan and his wife would need to fill out a journal about their experiences. Most of the stuff should be in the automatically generated reports, but NASA didn’t mind the duplication. It was important to get feedback from the actual users.


By the time Juan had been in space a week, he and his wife had worked out a routine. Give the pendulum a tap. If the other person was around, they’d hit the sound wave button and, as a sign to the other person, they’d hang the pendulum over the support. Then the initiator would hit the sound wave button. If the initial tap wasn’t responded to, well, they’d lower the pendulum and leave a design in the sand.

The deeper into space Juan went he found himself half-expecting the device to not function as advertised. Initial prototypes always have kinks. Always. All the theory in the world can’t create a perfect device the first time around.

But if there were problems, they weren’t reflected on the user side. While the other researchers were severely missing their loved ones, Juan was still feeling a sense of intimacy with his wife. Maybe not physically, but there was a closeness that he’d never before experienced during times of prolonged separation.


They’d been on Pluto for four months. Hard months, but productive. Juan still communicated regularly with his wife, although he was so busy that they’d mostly decreased verbal communication to once a day. Instead, they started to keep the pendulum in the sand, tapping it at various points in the day.

“Hi,” communicated the flowery swirls. And, “Thinking of you.” And, “Missing you.” And, “Hope you’re well.” Sometimes they’d layer the designs one on top of the other to create a visual conversation, one without specifically implied meaning, but intelligible nonetheless.

Juan would do paperwork in his room, one eye on his papers, the other on the pendulum. If he saw the pendulum move it’d give him an energetic boost. Just being thought of and watching the pendulum swing in real time–it was good.


Back when he was first dating his wife he’d check his cell phone every two seconds to see if he got a text. And then after they’d dated for a while he didn’t check every two seconds, but did keep a section of his brain trained on any movement of that phone.

And as things happen, after several years of marriage, it stopped being important to check the cell during work. If something was important, she’d call his work number. And evenings were spent together. There was no reason to feel tied to a specific communication device.

But now it was different. It was like those dating days where every second could be a second when the pendulum moved. It was like his eyes could only spend a few seconds on his paperwork before drifting up to make sure the pendulum hadn’t started swinging.

It was like a gnat constantly buzzing in his ear. It was kind of fun. And very detrimental to his work productivity. Suddenly, he lived and breathed for every jostle of that pendulum.


The pendulum jerked.

Juan looked up, surprised. He’d never seen such a violent action from the pendulum before. But it didn’t stop there. The pendulum started whipping around on its wire, contorting and wrapping itself around the support posts. An extra-violent movement caused the whole thing to tumble off the table.


It skidded along the floor several paces, and then back, each movement seemingly more intense than the last.

And then nothing.

The pendulum lay on its side, as if gasping. Except there was no sound.

“What?” said Juan.

He picked up the pendulum and set it back on the desk. He pushed the soundwave button. “You there, hon?”


He tried tapping the pendulum.

Nothing. It just swung naturally back and forth, like a regular pendulum. Maybe her device broke. NASA wouldn’t like that. He sent her a quick email to see what was up and tried to force his focus back to his paperwork–albeit work interrupted every few minutes so he could tap.


First hour: nothing.

Second hour: nothing.

Third hour: nothing.

Aside from overnight, Juan was pretty confident he’d not gone more than two hours without seeing a tap of some kind from her.

Fourth hour: nothing.

Juan tried to get some lunch in his belly, but it tasted like brown Autumn leaves in his mouth.

Fifth hour: nothing.

The clock seemed to be ticking extra slowly.

Sixth hour: nothing.

Juan buried his head in his hands.


During that sixth hour that the ship captain received a transmission. This wasn’t uncommon. He usually received one every three minutes, give or take. Various people at NASA had every reason to need to interact with him.

This was not from NASA.

“Da fuck?” he said colloquially.

The transmission contained three websites.

Internet was technically impossible at that distance. With a 4+ hour lag between Earth and Pluto, it would take eight hours just to receive a single web page. So NASA had created a makeshift workaround. A copy of the Internet was contained on their very ship, updated every three days.

Not the whole Internet, mind you. That would take more server space than NASA money could afford, and more physical real estate on the ship than was possible. However, it did cherry-pick the some crucial sites for the men and women:,,, a limited, among others.

Even Netflix was provided, although instead of a web interface it was two movies and five TV episodes handpicked for the NASA personnel. That helped to limit the amount of data being stored on ship.

Pluto’s Internet had just been updated the day before. Yet here were three sites, packaged together like a special delivery, which showed that perhaps once every three days wasn’t frequently enough.

The websites all said one thing: WAR.


“Men, the United States has been attacked, heavily. NASA is seriously crippled. Philadelphia has been flattened. San Francisco is on fire. Chicago reeling. Washington DC is rubble. I don’t know that I believe in a first strike deathblow, but what the States received today is pretty damn close.

“A lot of casualties. A whole lot of casualties. Juan,” said the captain, turning, “I’ve gotten a note that your house was hit in the blast. Your wife–” The captain’s voice broke momentarily. “I’m sorry.”


I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. The words echoed in Juan’s brain over and over like the end of a filmstrip flapping about. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.

Juan tapped the pendulum. He stopped it. Tap. Stop. Tap. Stop.