The Comic Shop Conundrum

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Don Simpson’s Yarn Man. This is where my sense of humor resides. I’m weird.

As I browsed the latest and greatest news articles that the mysterious Google algorithms had deduced were what I wanted to see, I ran across this story on Gizmodo.

I’m not going to quibble with the author, a Mr. Charles Pulliam-Moore. And by that I mean, I am going to quibble, but I’m not going to try not to be a jackass about it. His experiences are his experiences, and I have no doubt that any attempted argument on my part to dissuade him from his opinion of comic book stores would come to nothing. And it may just be that’s how Charles is; he enjoys reading trade paperbacks and online comics and he finds little or no joy in the retail side of it. Even if I can’t change that – and I know I probably can’t – well, it makes me a little sad. And perhaps a little defensive.

Part of the problem here is that, in spite of how I feel about the medium of comic books, the specialty shops that sell them, or the people who work behind the counter, Charles has a point. Some, but by no means all, comic retailers have shops that are cluttered or disorganized. Sometimes you run into people who are working there to feed their own comic book habit or because they are missing whatever genetic marker it is that makes people have the ability to tolerate putting in 40+ hours in an office and not go fucking insane. They may have zero interest in helping someone who isn’t already immersed in the somewhat arcane world of comics and don’t want to just be nice.

It happens. I know. I’ve been in those shops myself, and it’s fucking annoying. The only thing worse than a shop of unresponsive, mouth-breathing fanboys is a staff of unresponsive, mouth-breathing fanboys.

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The incredible Troy-David Phillips of Flashback Comics in Woodbridge, VA. Go see him!

I’ve been in stores where I walk in the first time and say, “Hi, I’m Sebastian. I really like stuff like Sandman, Preacher, Strangers in Paradise, Hermes the Eye-Ball Kid and anything drawn by Don Simpson, Barry Windsor-Smith or P. Craig Russell, any suggestions?” And if they say something like, “Dude. Marvel is over there. DC is over there. Image is over there…” well, I vote with my feet. You don’t have to blow my mind with your encyclopedic knowledge of story lines, or know who inked issue 182 of Fantastic Four (yes, Troy at Flashback Comics, I know you know it was Joe Sinnott, and that’s why you’re the MAN). That doesn’t hurt, of course, and I will be appropriately in awe of such minutia, but what really makes a store work for me is that the person behind the counter gives a shit. Those are the stores I go back to and open up a subscription.

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Richard Evans at Bedrock City Comics in Houston, TX. As I like to call it, “The Center of the Comic Book Universe”.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I worked in a comic book store a while back. Bedrock City Comics in Houston, to be exact. When I was there, it was a small but thriving operation. The main store on Westheimer hadn’t expanded yet and it was one of those intimate retail specialty stores Charles might have hated. I like to think he wouldn’t, however; besides being well-organized, the owner (Richard Evans) and the manager (Mike Steenbergen) had a philosophy that it wasn’t just about retailing funny books, and it sure wasn’t meant to be some repository of arcane lore  and “over stuffed museum shop”. They taught me that building relationships with the customer was the foundation of a successful shop and if it wasn’t a place were people enjoyed themselves, they wouldn’t come back. Oh, and that playing Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s Karn Evil 9 Pts. I-IV on the store jambox was NOT conducive to a fun atmosphere no matter what. Point taken.

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It was never as fun as the picture made it look. EVER.

Comic books should be fun. I remember buying comic books at the grocery store. Okay, I’m old. I’m not saying I took my dimes down to Mr. Cacciatore’s Green Grocer and Liquor Emporium to buy the latest issue of All-American Comics or Outlaw Kid! But when I was a bit younger there weren’t that many comic books stores around so if I wanted a fix of Captain AmericaFantastic Four, or Thor (I was a Marvel guy even then – never mind my obsession with Superman’s cousin Power Girl) I’d toss one into the cart when my mom wasn’t looking. Thanks, Mom. Getting home and reading it cover to cover was a joy. Learning to draw by tracing the characters was awesome. Spending a couple of bucks on those “100 Piece Toy Soldier” sets (comes packed in it’s own footlocker!) was a lesson in expectation vs. reality (and the evil world of misleading advertising). I still have some of those 1970’s gems, and if I hadn’t read them to pieces, they might be worth a bit more.

Going to buy new comics, or to discover old ones, should also be fun. Maybe because I have a couple of degrees in English and spent an inordinate amount of time in libraries (those weird buildings where they store actual books? yeah, told you I was old) I like comic book stores. Talking with the staff, finding out what’s new, browsing through overstuffed and heavy long boxes, ogling the high-grade Golden Age or Silver Age books, admiring the toys and statues… man, that’s a blast. Do I occasionally have to deal with over-exuberant customers who break into my conversation or clog up the aisle? Well, sure. That happens. And it happens in lots of other places, too. It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy eating a burger at a bar or standing in line at the post office.

This sounds like an attempt to justify my own good experiences, both on the retail side and the customer side. Perhaps. I do wish I could bring Charles to one of the stores I enjoy and see if maybe, just maybe, he could share in my enthusiasm.

 

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Black Sabbath – The Eponymous First Album – Review

Black-SabbathThis came out 48 years ago today and in honor of this momentous occasion, I’ve resurrected a review I wrote way back in the early days of the 21st century.

“The cataract of darkness form fully, the long black night begins, yet still, by the lake a young girl waits, unseeing she believes herself unseen, she smiles, faintly at the distant tolling bell, and the still falling rain.” – Part of a poem on the original album sleeve.

On February 13, 1970 Warner released Black Sabbath’s debut album and rock ‘n roll was forever changed. Black Sabbath played a new form of rock that was heavy, evil, and loud, and along with bands like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, and Blue Cheer, helped give birth to heavy metal. Black Sabbath has the distinction of being one of the few bands that can claim to be a huge influence of two different genres: metal and doom.

The first album is as a menacing a piece of music as one could hope to find in the saccharine world of early ’70’s rock. It was meant to be; the idea was to write scary music, the rock n’ roll equivalent of a good horror film. Even the name of the group was taken from a (crappy!) 1930’s Boris Karloff film. The new songs the band were creating dealt with the occult, war, and the nature of evil, subjects which have gone on to be fertile ground for heavy metal. By today’s standards, it may all seem a bit tame, but in 1970 people weren’t used to hearing Satan and Lucifer mentioned in rock.

 

For the first time songs that were frightening and intense both musically and lyrically were making their way onto the world’s stage. It’s the subject matter that sets Black Sabbath apart from Deep Purple’s “In Rock” or Led Zeppelin’s first two albums, both of which were more contemporary and less fantastic in theme. The lyrics aren’t totally over the top evil, but just dark and sinister enough to thrill the kids and scare their parents.

Tony Iommi, despite a severe accident to his right hand prior to the recording of this album, creates the prototype for heavy metal guitar. Down tuned and thick, the sound is a paradigm shift for rock n’ roll guitar; still based on the blues but now roaring out of over-driven amplifiers, loud, heavy, and distorted. Ozzy Osbourne’s distinctive voice makes up in charisma for what it lacks in range, while behind those two Bill Ward and Geezer Butler pound away on drums and bass. Rodger Bain’s production on the original is competent for the era, and surprisingly good considering the incredibly short time spent in the studio.

 

“Black Sabbath” the song is audio dynamite: after a brief intro of rain and thunder, Iommi’s massive guitar pounds that slow, evil tritone riff into the listener’s skull. Ozzy has a unique voice. He manages to sound both like the “great black shape” and scared of this apparition at the same time. “The Wizard” has an Ozzy harmonica bit in front of another great riff punctuated by Ward’s drums. Geezer Butler slips in a fluid bass solo before the crushingly heavy “N.I.B.”, which despite the sinister lyrics didn’t stand for Nativity In Black (as some proposed) but rather was a nickname for Bill Ward’s beard, which looked like the nib of a pen… or so the band insisted. Accusations of Satanism brought the kind of attention and press coverage no mere drinking binge, groupie sex acts or dangerous practical jokes could ever hope to equal. The bluesy “Evil Woman” is on the British release but on the American release the Ansley Dunbar song “Wicked World” is included instead; both are good examples of how Black Sabbath grew from their origins as a blues cover band. “Wasp/Behind the Wall of Sleep” seems like a bit of a toss off, but it’s wrapped in a classic Iommi riff and Bill Ward’s swinging drums belie the jazz influences behind his style. “A Bit of Finger/Sleeping Village” is a bit of a sleeper, perhaps, but oh… that riff. Tony can make five notes downright inspiring. The song merges almost seamlessly into “The Warning”, a ten-minute opus that allows the band to open up, especially Tony Iommi. But without Bill Ward and Geezer Butler providing a solid foundation, Tony’s meanderings wouldn’t have nearly the same impact. Geezer Butler is, without a doubt, the most underrated bass player in the long history of metal. I can’t imagine hearing these songs without him.

Controversial in their day, Black Sabbath were reviled by parents and conservative religious groups, again breaking ground for metal groups which followed in their wake. This first album, rough around the edges as it may be, remains at the heart of a genre that has branched out far from its roots and humble beginnings. It’s dark and scary and loud, and damn if that’s not what a metal fan wants on a Friday night!

But excess alone doesn’t explain the kind of hero worship Black Sabbath has inspired.  From the very beginning they had tapped into a source that resonated strongly with a certain segment of the population… and spawned, as Iron Maiden dubbed them, the Earthdogs, Hellrats, Rivet Heads and Metal Maniacs of the world. Both loved and loathed, it’s a sound that once unleashed has yet to be reigned in.

(I wrote this back in… gulp… 2003 when I was trying to get a foothold with the mighty Deadtide.com crew. I remember where I was when I wrote the original draft, which I revised a bit here. I had a computer, a pallet to sleep on, and a bunch of CD’s. That was about it… sigh.)

 

 

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CARNIVOROUS HUNTING BICYCLE HIDES IN PLAIN SIGHT

20180128_110708January 28, 2018 (VA) Local shoppers at Potomac Mills were shocked when a dangerous carnivorous bicycle was discovered hiding in plain sight behind the Bahama Breeze.

Thomas Parnam (27) of Lorton was cutting behind the restaurant from the AMC 18 movie theater and spotted it on the ground near a small tree. His first thought was that it was simply an abandoned bicycle and he approached it to see if it was locked. It wasn’t until it snapped at him that he realized how close he’d come to being eaten.

“It was acting wounded,” Parnam said. “The derailleur appeared to have come off the rear wheel and the chain was hanging loose. It had a nice chrome green paint job. When I got closer, it suddenly reared up off the ground and had a go at me.”

He ran into Potomac Mills and called mall security, who rushed into action and cordoned off the area around the composite framed beast.

“That young man is a hero,” said Sylvio Manbun, head of mall security. “This could have been a real tragedy. A carnivorous hunting bicycle might have had struggled to devour an adult human, but if a small child or elderly person had come too close, we’d be looking at a very nasty scene.”

Resident experts from the nearby Olde Town Bicycles shop were summoned to the scene to handle the dangerous creature. As a horde of onlookers cheered them on from a safe distance, the brave bicycle wranglers surrounded the bike, which spun vicious carbon fiber wheels and even rang a small bell attached to the handlebars as they closed in on it.

“You can’t be too careful with these things,” said Max Silverhammer of Olde Town Bicycles. “They may look like a harmless domesticated two-wheeled, non-motorized conveyance, even down to a well-known manufacturers label on the frame… this one was clearly marked as a Glendale… but that’s just clever camouflage to lure the unsuspecting victim close enough for them to pounce.”

More normally found in the wild, often in proximity to mountain bike trails, carnivorous hunter bicycles (habebat vehentem Laufmaschine ) typically hide beneath piles of leaves or sometimes lean up against trees.

“We’ve been seeing them in urban areas more and more,” Silverhammer added. “As their natural habitats continue to be encroached, we’re going to see more of this, especially in the lean winter months when hunger drives them to more populated areas, looking for food. It’s sad really as they’re magnificent creatures and really misunderstood. This one, for instance, is really quite beautiful despite being so deadly.”

Olde Time Bicycle wranglers quickly secured the beast and sedated it. “We’ll take him out to the country, there’s a nice downhill track where we’ve relocated several others over the last couple of months. I’m sure he’ll be fine, and will soon be feeding on his usual diet of lost children and despondent hikers in no time.”

Thomas Parnam, for one, will be a little more cautious the next time he sees a seemingly abandoned bicycle. “Just because it isn’t locked up or appears to be broken, that doesn’t mean it can’t still be dangerous,” he said. “I’ve learned my lesson.”

Olde Town Bicycles urges anyone who thinks they’ve seen a carnivorous hunting bicycle to contact local law enforcement and don’t attempt to take matters into their own hands. “You’d be surprised,” said Silverhammer, “but people think that just because it looks familiar, it can be easily handled. Leave it to the professionals. We don’t want anyone losing a finger in the wheels or getting a pant leg torn in the chain mechanism. It’s just not worth it.”

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Review: The Nutley Brass: The Misfits Meet the Nutley Brass at the Fiend Club Lounge

(This is a review I penned for Deadtide.com back in 2005. I was looking for something else, and found this, and wanted to give it some new life.)

Crawling through gutter muck in the deep purple predawn isn’t my normal mode of transportation, but my car got towed, my cell phone died, and the so-called friends that I’d been drinking with all night suddenly turned vicious and administered boots to the head while I was pissing on an alley wall. So there I was, crawling along in a light but persistent rain, feeling awful and desperate to be somewhere other than on the nearly deserted downtown streets. Out of the corner of my swollen eye, a flickering neon sign cast a ghoulish glow. I thought I knew all the clubs and bars and after-hours joints in this town, but I’d never heard of The Fiend Club Lounge. Reasoning that more drinking couldn’t do any more harm, I pushed through the moaning piles of garbage (wait a minute… moaning garbage? I made a command decision to let well enough alone) and knocked on the rune-incrusted door. After a minute, the door slot slid open, exhaling a puff of foul, greasy smoke that reeked of the open grave. I girded my soul and stepped up to the door as a pair of faintly glowing eyes faded into view.

“Yeeeerrrssssh,” said the door…man? Woman? Thing?

“I’d love to come in an have a drink,” I attempted to say, but with a drunken tongue and painfully split and swollen lips, what came out was an unintelligible mush. To my surprise, the door swung open and several pairs of suspiciously rotted arms reached out and roughly dragged me into the Fiend Club Lounge.

“Wellllllllcuummm, zir,” he said, possibly mistaking me for a patron. The doorman thing was huge, bloated, and thoroughly pierced with a variety of hooks, pins, staves and a few extra arms which were busy groping me. Through the persistent gloom and smoke, I could just make out the contours of a bar full of people, so I shook off the welcome wagon and bellied up to the bar. The barman could have been the doorman’s sawed-off Siamese twin, and before I even ordered a drink he was tossing together various ingredients. I could have sworn that a few chunks of flesh flaked off into the drink, but in the semi-dark it was hard to tell. Sitting back in the stool, I sipped the odd tasting concoction and took a good look around.

There was a dude on stage dressed in a funeral home reject of a suit, leaning on a mic stand and telling jokes that no one seemed to hear or understand. Plenty of good looking ladies were at the bar, or sitting at tables, and they all had a particular look; sort of a late ’50’s glamorous thing, sexy dresses and steely hair. And the other patrons? well, they looked the worse for wear. Decay seemed to be the order of the night.

On stage, the comedian was dying a proverbial death (and possibly a real one) while behind him and band was setting up. Good, music… that was what was missing from the whole equation; a lounge as decadent as this needed a killer soundtrack. After a few minutes the comedian said, “Ladies, fish, and gentlemen, the Fiend Club Lounge presents the melodious sounds of The Nutley Brass!” Muffled applause squeezed through the thick smoke, and the lights came down, plunging the room into darkness.

The Nutley Brass kicked into the first song, and something (or someone) started squeezing my thigh, but I tried to ignore it because the opening bars sounded hauntingly familiar. The band was illuminated from below, a spectral glow that cast perverse shadows on the walls. I was tapping my foot and half-singing some words when the shock of recognition went through me… this was a Misfits song that I liked… “Last Caress”! I leaned over towards the bartender and said, “I’ll have another one of these things… what’re they called?”

“Epiphanies,” he said, slinging bottles around. Fair enough, I thought. If a brass band is going to do Misfits covers, what better place to take it in than a lounge from hell populated by the undead and their ravishing women?

“Good evening, thanks for coming out to the Fiend Club Lounge,” said the band leader, “I’m Sam Elwitt and this is The Nutley Brass. We’d like to dedicate this next one to all the undead aliens out there… this is for you,” as they broke into the classic “Astro Zombies”. That got a blurry cheer from the crowd, some of which started dancing with their dates, occasionally slipping on the blood covered floor or getting their feet tangled up in someone’s intestines.

“This isn’t an Iron Maiden song,” Sam said next, “but it’s called ‘Where Eagles Dare'”. It started with a weird sitar-like riff before the brass popped in. I was totally into it; there weren’t any vocals, but I knew the words to these songs… I’d grown up on the Misfits, after all.

“Please welcome to the stage Claire McKeen, she’s going to add her pipes to this next one… Claire McKeen, everyone. No relation to Dave, so don’t ask her.” All velvety curves, she swayed as the opening strains of “Some Kinda Hate” cut through the gloom. “Hybrid Moments” and “Hatebreeders” went by in a flash of brass before Sam cut loose on the mighty marimba, signaling the start of “Teenagers from Mars”, while Claire and the band added odd train sounds to the background.

This was all very fun stuff, a rather severe retelling of the classic Misfits songs but done with a sense of humor and tongue firmly planted in rotted cheek. The undead where getting down on the dance floor, sweat and body parts flying through the air as songs like “Attitude” and “Angelfuck” (complete with a mad scientist’s gruesome experiments) whipped them into a frenzy. And then it was over, almost before it got started.

“You’ve been a great crowd, thanks so much for coming out tonight, we’re The Nutley Brass. We’d like to leave you with two real chestnuts,” intoned Sam, “This is ‘Skulls’… and the last song we’ll be playing for you tonight is ‘Die, Die My Darling’, which we dedicate to all the hell dogs, earth rats, and rivet heads out there.”

When they were done and the lights came up a bit, I detached the hand that had been massaging my thigh and looked around for its owner. Not finding a likely candidate nearby, I stuck it in my glass and oozed out the door. Dawn was swiftly arising, my head was throbbing, and I’d be humming those Misfits tunes for weeks to come. I never did find that hellishly haunted lounge again…

STANDOUT TRACKS

Last Caress
Astro Zombies
Die, Die, My Darling

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Tales from Under a Binary Sun: Runaway Boy

The temporary shelter among the rubble offered almost no protection from the winds that whipped over the dunes. The ruins had once been a barracks, erected in haste during one of the never ending Corporate Wars that consumed the planet. Flames from a small fire guttered with a shift in the wind and smoke drifted into the youthful, unlined face of Javo Loopstock. He held his breath and squinted, then ducked sideways a bit. He’d been warned that the fire was a risk but after three days of cold rations gulped down in the freezing desert he wanted to be warm. To hell with what that crazy woman said.

“You should put it out,” her voice said from outside the flickering circle of light. “You had your tea and warmed your ass. Now it’s just a beacon for trouble.”

“Any trouble comes this way, you’ll handle it,” snapped Javo. “That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”

The woman stepped out of the darkness. Liza-Ennui Bangstar was a veteran of the notorious Tricaricom Military Division. Bio-mech enhancements and android augments had replaced limps and organs lost in battle; and thanks to the corporate med-techs, the line between human and machine was blurred. Perhaps she had once been attractive, but to Javo she was merely impressive and more than a little intimidating. She stared at him with perfectly machined eyes incapable of mercy or any hint of softness.

“That’s what your father contracted me for, yes,” she said, “and that’s what I’ll do.”

“So? What’s the problem?”

She contemplated the flickering flame. “Trouble doesn’t need an invitation,” she said quietly. “It just needs a direction.”

“You’re a paranoid.”

“And you’re careless. It’s likely to get us both killed.” She stood up. “Put it out, Javo, or I’ll piss on it myself.” She walked away, making no noise as she merged back into the darkness.

“Oh so you can still piss?” Javo muttered.

“I heard that.”

Javo cursed to himself. He didn’t understand why Father had to hire her for this run. There were plenty of mercenaries who would have killed each other for this job. But no, the old man had to go with Bangstar: a woman with an admittedly terrifying reputation who radiated cold shards of menace even before she reached for a weapon. He knocked down the fire and a shower of sparks rose into the cold air.

 

She watched the sparks fly up and heaved a sigh. Two more nights of this and they’d be in Water’s Gap and if she were lucky she’d never see this little shitheel again. She’d taken jobs that were far more dangerous in the past but it was hard to recall any that had been so annoying. The offspring of resource-rich landowners should never be allowed to leave the friendly confines of the compound and they certainly had no business in the former battlegrounds. Why Loopstock The Elder hadn’t put this gibbering idiot on a slow sky barge from Dharma to Water’s Gap was an unknown; she’d asked, but he hadn’t seen fit to answer.

Instead, they’d been outfitted with a couple of speedy jetters, low altitude skim-bikes that were fast but lightly armored and even more lightly armed. In keeping with some bizarre Loopstock tradition, they were painted a garish tint of red and covered with stylized flames. It was a five day run from the compound to the Gap on a jetter, through territory that while nominally under the joint control of the rival corporations Tricaricom and Amking—per the agreement that had ended the latest war—the war scared wastes harbored any number of highly dangerous possibilities and unknowns.

“That includes radicalized bandits,” she’d ticked off her fingers while Acha Loopstock stared at her from behind a desk carved from a single fell oak, “the predatory native wildlife of course, traitor Corporate agents, deserters and rogue elements leftover from the last war, and probably a few rogue war-beasts and battle-droids roaming around looking for something to kill.”

He’d nodded. “This is why I’m hiring the best.”

Liza had shaken her head. “You need an army, not me. If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were trying to get rid of him. And me.”

“It has to be done this way,” Loopstock had insisted. “Speed is of the essence. More than that is none of your concern.”

She wasn’t even sure why she’d taken it. She didn’t need the job. She had enough stashed away, in corporate script, metal, and slow decay isotopes, to allow for a comfortable if boring existence on this planet or even on a more pleasant one not brimming with hateful memories. She wasn’t burdened by family or business associates. She was even clear of the Tricaricom Military Divison, despite their rancorous past: thanks to a few stealth operations she had earned a retroactive honorable discharge and cleared the deserter status that had hung over her head for so long.

Liza circled the perimeter, checking the goodies she’d deployed: a few lethal surprises, but mostly motion sensors to give her a few seconds warning if anything did try to get cute. She could handle almost anything out here that wasn’t a Chief Executive-class battle-droid; and if one of those heavy metal motherfuckers locked onto them, she’d hit the throttle and not look back, contract or not.

As she swept the horizon with her monoculars, set to heat detection, the memories of those insane battles flickered in her mind, massive battle-droids that unleashed unbelievable firepower upon each other, beams of focused energy that sizzled across dampening shields, the sharp smell of ozone in the air as shields collapsed and the wretched sound of metal broken apart with explosive fury. All the while, beneath their churning treads or armored legs, the human elements of the corporate armies blasted away in a pale mockery of the metal gods fighting above them.

These battles between corporate entities raged because there was no one to stop them. The Sol governments were only interested in the continued delivery of raw material, not in who delivered it. Early in the history of extra-Sol exploitation, as the first Tannhauser Gates were activated around planets viable for either colonization or rich with resources, an effort had been made to cooperate for the greater good. It was, after all, a hideously expensive enterprise, and the few corporations that could afford it stood to make more by working together. That period of good will had lasted right up until the first serious profits were made; when it became clear how much was at stake, the planets became blood drenched battle grounds.

It was during one of those wretched conflicts that Liza had a moment of clarity, or stepped across the breach into insanity, depending on who was doing the telling. History recorded this as the Battle of Fey Ridge. Amking’s Computer Warfare Division successfully hacked the Tricaricom battle command orbital relay station and scrambled the brains of the indomitable battle-droids. Liza had watched in disbelief as the monstrous war machines fell over, churned in circles, or simply ran away into the wilderness. The resulting carnage among the human troops was indescribable. At some point, falling back from one defensive position to another, she’d snapped. One of her primary commitments was to look after her battle-workers and protect the company assets. Instead, she abandoned them and saved her own ass, which earned her a terrible rating on her next review. She’d deserted soon after that and hadn’t looked back. It wasn’t a proud moment, and the sting of that betrayal had never really gone away.

She froze, forced back into the present by a blip of heat signature. She zoomed in one the area but now there was nothing.

There had been something, though. As she feared, they weren’t the only ones out here tonight.

 

There were three of them, crouched low behind a shallow dune. Every inch of skin was covered with heat dampening material; one of them was busy adjusting his cloak.

“I told you to keep that wrapped tight, Sicnarf,” a voice hissed.

“Sorry, boss; nobody saw nothing.”

“You’d better hope not,” Nicky Shag the Nothing said. “Of all the bad luck! The old man could have hired any of the scum in Dharma. But it had to be her, didn’t it?”

Nicky waited until he thought it might be safe and eased his head over the top of the ridge. The googles that hid his eyes adjusted automatically but now that the fire was out, there wasn’t much to see. Some heat still came off the rapidly cooling engines of the two jetters, and there was no sign of the kid. The woman who stalked around down there didn’t give off a heat signature or make any noise but he knew she was there. For once, he wasn’t too concerned with having her slip over to check them out. Even if she had seen something, she couldn’t leave the package alone and she sure wasn’t going to drag him with her. He was a liability to her and a boon to Nicky and his crew.

“You know her, then?” Sicnarf asked, his voice low.

Nicky simply nodded.

“What’s the big deal, anyway?” Sicnarf groused. “One guard and three of us—we could grind her out like that.” He mimed crushing something beneath his gloved fist.

“Lighten up, Sicnarf.” Nicky said. “We’re backing out now, so keep low, move fast, and keep quiet.” He led the way, crouched over but still moving at a high rate of speed. The other two followed behind him. They jogged along a broken track for half a klick until they reached the cache point. Water and ammunition were carefully concealed among the rocks, along with the punched-up sled Nicky had stolen from Dong the Butcher a while back.

“I still say we should take her tonight,” Sicnarf complained. “Go blasting in on the sled and squash her. What’d’ya say to that, Ochos?”

Ochos, the third man in their group, had kept quiet until then. He lifted the material that masked his face and swallowed some water. His skin was brown and coarse, a long crooked nose splitting bright eyes beneath a heavy brow. “I says you’re a fucking idiot,” Ochos muttered. “I call first watch.”

Nicky nodded. “Keep sharp. She didn’t see us, she won’t come after. But keep sharp anyway, you know? Just in case.”

Sicnarf made a show of checking his rifle. “What’s she like, then?” he asked. “I never knew you or Ochos to be scared of anything out here.”

“It ain’t fear, you git. It’s respect. You don’t go kicking a snake pile just to see what bites,” Nicky said. “Manger-Captain Liza-Ennui Bangstar. She’s lethal, and it’s not just the eighteen ways she knows to kill you with a pointy stick. Tricaricom invested a lot of time and money in training her; she doesn’t think like you or me. She’s devious and crazy and has been augmented from top to bottom for maximum lethality.”

“How do you know all that?”

Nicky settled onto the ground and stripped back his face mask, revealing a face like a rock that had been in a fight with other bigger rocks. Scar tissue creased his cheeks like erosion carving up a mountain. “She’s a fucking legend, isn’t she? But I been around a bit. Before all that legend bullshit, I knew her: we was in the Home together. Got hired into the TMD at the same time, went through Orientation-Boot together. But she was special and I wasn’t; she ended up in charge of my unit. I fought next to her enough to know it’s not just reputation—she’s a piece of work and then some, even if she was a fucking deserter.”

“Oh.” Sicnarf coughed. “Didn’t you defect, too?”

“No, I was arrested and sentenced to death, and escaped. There’s a difference,” Nicky grumped. “Listen, I got something planned up here, don’t you fret. There’s a thing she doesn’t know; we’ll take a crack at her tomorrow but it’s going to be on my terms, not hers. It’ll be a small advantage, so we’ll have to make the most of it. You’ll see. We’ll sled up close before dawn, so get whatever sleep you can.”

 

Liza had the young man up and ready to go just as dawn broke. She’d only slept for a short bursts but it had been enough. Javo was groggy and more than a little grumpy; he fiddled around with the jetter while she sat in the saddle, gunned the engine and scanned the horizon. She was pretty sure he was stalling just to be a pain in the ass.

“Get that bike fired up and ready to move or I’m leaving you behind,” she snarled. “I’d rather deal with the fallout from not delivering you than wait to get jumped here.”

He kept his head down and said nothing, still messing around with the storage compartment. She revved the engine, ready to make good on her promise, when he darted away from the jetter and disappeared behind the rocks where they’d camped.

“You fucking nit—” but the curse died on her lips. She dove to the side and the shot intended to splatter her head kicked up dirt a few meters away. The shot came from behind her; she had ducked it more by instinct than training or experience. She risked a glance over the top of the idling jetter, squinting into the rising suns, but the sniper was well hidden.

 

Ochos spat and lined up for another opportunity; only now she was behind the bike and he didn’t have a clear shot. Her head popped up for a moment and then disappeared.

“You weren’t supposed to miss that,” Nicky Shag the Nothing muttered.

“She wasn’t supposed to move,” Ochos said. “I could put a round in the fuel tank,” he offered. “That’d get her moving.”

Nicky drummed his fingers against his thigh. “Not yet. I want to see what she does.”

Sicnarf scoffed. “That was your whole plan; get the kid to stall her and line up for a single shot?”

“Shut it, or I’ll put a round through you,” Nicky snarled. “There’s more to it than just this.”

 

“Javo Loopstock, you little shitstain,” Liza shouted. “I hope you know what you’re doing, because you just pissed me off.”

There was no answer. As much as she wanted to stick around and teach the kid a lesson, it was time to go. She reached over the seat with her metallic right arm and held tight. Her left hand reached up and grabbed the throttle. The bulk of her body was behind the jetter and even though it leaned hard with her weight unevenly distributed, she was still able to put it in the air and get it moving. She kept going sideways to the suns, and more than one shot pinged off the metal chassis, but she didn’t slow down until she’d put a good klick between her and whoever was trying to kill her. When she thought it was safe, she swung into the seat and blasted out across the wasteland at full speed.

Crossed up by a child! Now that was something new. Betrayal was common coin in her profession, an often useful shortcut; she wasn’t averse to using it herself when the occasion called for it, and as such she didn’t have any more animosity toward Javo Loopstock than she had before. She was, however, irritated for thinking the kid wasn’t devious enough to pull a stunt like that. The set-up, such as it was, had failed; but she’d still been complacent enough to not see it coming, and had underestimated the son of a guy who had pulled some vicious betrayals in his day. She was determined to make both father and son regret it.

The contract wasn’t cancelled, at least not in her mind. She still had a job to do and now there was more than just the money on the line. You could get killed by a neutron death ray shot from space or you could get killed when the bastard next to you picked up a rock and hit you in the skull. Either way you were dead. Her professional pride had been impugned and she was pretty damn well riled up.

Something was kicking up dust off to her left. Liza hit the air brakes and coasted to a stop. She stood in the saddle and scanned the dust cloud with the monoculers. There was a glint of metal and she refocused, then drew a long breath. Battle-droid—but a smaller one, a Pirhano Mk III by the looks of it, stomping around, way off the control grid and operating on programmed routines never designed for survival mode. No telling how old it was; they had enough independent power to operate for years in passive mode. She was outside of the detection sphere, though, and unless it came stomping toward her, it was no immediate threat.

Time to assess the damage to the jetter; she wasn’t inclined to traverse these old battlefields on foot. A few minutes later, she sat back and shook her head. Nothing major, the shielding around the engine had held, and the main propulsion seemed intact, but the rotors that gave the jetter lift had taken some hits; one of the blades was beyond repair. It wouldn’t cripple her but it would crimp her maneuverability. The jetter was equipped with a small tool kit; she removed the crippled metal piece and worked out her next move.

As she checked the rest of the jetter, she came across something unusual under the seat. She carefully removed it, then sat down on the hard ground and broke it apart: power supply, some sort of grid, a switch and a remote trigger, and a safety lock, still engaged, but no explosives. She put it down in the dirt and flipped the safety, triggered it, and stepped back. It hummed and then a massive energy surge discharged into the air with a wicked crackle. It wouldn’t have killed her, but she would have been shocked stupid and immobile just long enough for someone to take a shot at her. She remembered Javo fumbling around with his bike; he must’ve been readying the trigger, only it didn’t go off because he’d forgotten the safety. It wasn’t the first time she’d been spared by nothing more than dumb luck.

She hoped Javo was with the sniper; if he wasn’t, and had jetted off on his own, it compounded the work ahead of her. If they’d split up, she had to decide who to go after first and neither choice was any better than the other; she felt equally antagonistic toward both parties. The other problem was one of cover, or the lack of cover. A jetter could be seen for miles, and if she took a wide path to avoid being seen, she’d waste time she didn’t have. She could, of course, call for help: the Shattering Sky was still in orbit on this side of the planet and had the capability to give her some useful intel or more but then again, it meant she would owe Captain Jaxx a favor and that was just digging one hole to fill another. She reduced her options again and again until a fairly simple albeit suicidal solution presented itself.

Liza climbed back into the saddle, fired up the machine, and made sure a grenade was within easy reach. Time to execute Operation Drive Right Straight Into The Mouth of Hell While Being Chased By A Dragon.

 

The three mercenaries brought the sled out of hiding and met Javo Loopstock near the ruins where he’d camped the night before.

“You are without a doubt the worst bunch of self-described mercenaries I have ever dealt with!” yowled Javo. He was face to face with Nicky Shag the Nothing though he barely came up to the man’s chest.

“She was supposed to be immobilized,” Nicky reminded him. “You were going to neutralize the person guarding you with that gizmo on the bike.”

Javo shrugged. “It didn’t work. I punched the button, nothing happened. But you had one job! It’s unbelievable! A child could have made that shot.”

Ochos nodded. “Why didn’t you, then?”

Javo didn’t bother to turn around. “Was he addressing me? Why is your servant addressing me?” he seethed.

Nicky didn’t allow any of the emotion he felt to show anywhere other than in his eyes. His voice remained casual and uninflected. “Servant? You’d do good to remember this isn’t the Loopstock Compound,” he said.

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning Ochos here ain’t my servant and if he gets it in his head that watering the dirt with your blood might be a good idea, it would be just another unfortunate accident in an area that has seen so many unfortunate accidents.”

To his credit, Javo didn’t flinch, at least not that the older man saw. Tough little bastard, but then he had to be to survive under the elder Loopstock long enough to have hairy on his balls.

“Oi, the squirtle is right though, isn’t he,” Sicnarf chimed in. “I’m telling you, that was a daft plan to begin with.”

Nicky’s eyes, already burning with pale fire, narrowed as if to focus on his target and burn Sicnarf into the ground. “It was his bloody daft plan!” he barked, pointing at Javo. “And I swear by all things mechanical, one more fucking word out of you and your family won’t even find your bones!” He turned to Ochos, who had swiveled away from the other three. “What are you doing?”

Ochos scanned the horizon, first with his eyes, then with the scope of his rifle. “We should go,” he said, his voice low.

“You see something?” Nicky stood next to him. “There’s nothing out there. She’s long gone. Blasted out of here. She doesn’t care. She won’t be back.”

A line of dust appeared on the horizon.

“We should go,” the rifleman repeated, “now.”

That was enough for Nicky. “Right, we’re off, then.” He jogged over to the sled and clambered up the ladder, Ochos on his heels. Sicnarf looked back and forth between the kid and his boss.

“Where are you going?” Javo shouted.

“The fuck away from here, kid,” Nicky said. “I can’t stop you from following us. Or if you wanted to strike out on your own, your father’s compound is three days ride back that away.” He jabbed his thumb back over his shoulder. The sled hummed to life and rose a meter off the ground. “If Ochos says it’s time to go, it’s time to go. He’s got a sense about these things.”

Javo just stood there, his arms crossed. “Too bad one of his talents isn’t hitting what he’s aiming at!” he shouted. “You’re still under contract!”

Nicky shook his head. “We can argue about this all you want, Javo my boy, but just not here.” He throttled up and swung the sled around. It was an industrial model, made for moving supplies or raw material; Nicky had stripped it down and beefed the engine but it still wasn’t nearly as fast as he would have liked. “You know where to find us. You coming, Siggy? Or sticking around here to babysit?”

Sicnarf was about to answer when Javo grabbed his arm.

“What is that?” Javo asked. “You feel it?”

The ground had begun to rhythmically vibrate. Sicnarf yanked his arm away from Javo and sprinted for the sled, leaping for the ladder that was now well above the surface of the desert floor. Ochos leaned over and reached out his hand as Nicky goosed the throttle and the sled started to move.

“I don’t understand,” Javo said but the sled had lumbered off and there was no one left to hear him. He stared at the rapidly growing cloud of dust moving toward him. A large, dark shape was now visible, lumbering forward on mechanical legs that devoured distance with each stride. Survival instinct kicked in and he ran for the jetter. He fumbled with the starter, each second wasted punctuated with ever increasing ground tremors. When it finally started, he yanked the controls so hard the jetter whined as he whipped it around and pointed the nose in the direction the sled had gone. He spared one last glance over his shoulder, cringed, and cranked it up to speed.

 

Liza Bangstar cut hard left and zagged back to the right almost immediately. The trick, if it could be called that, to avoid being picked up by the targeting protocols of a battle-droid was to avoid patterns and be unpredictable. She didn’t have to worry about outrunning it; the jetter was at top speed and at that she was barely leading the massive metal bastard. Her sideways movements kept her from being scorched or blown to bits but were also slowing her down.

She had no idea how much ammo it still had. The missiles racks that rose from the shoulders were empty, but the Pirhano had enough conventional weapon systems to make it a formidable opponent against anything that wasn’t another battle-droid. The smaller models didn’t have the capacity to carry the dreaded beam weapons. They were usually deployed against ground troops, mobile weapons platforms, or sometimes kitted out with high yield cannons and used as anti-aircraft. Still, no one in their right mind would stick around with an activated Pirhano charging toward them. Then again, no one in their right mind would try to bait a rogue, damaged Amking battle-droid into chasing them across the battle blasted plain.

To get it to change the threat assessment on her from “passive civilian craft” to “active enemy” and chase her back toward the camp, she’d swooped in close, lobbed a grenade and bolted just as it exploded. The Pirhano had stopped chasing its own tail and started to charge after the jetter. Of course, if the sniper had already slunk away into the hills, she was going to have to shake this metal monstrosity before it made her into a grease stain on the killing sands.

On cue, she was bracketed by shells whipping past her. But she also saw the ruins ahead, and just beyond that, some sort of heavy sled and a speeding jetter about to pass it.

This would be fun—if she could stay alive.

 

“Can we outrun it?” Nicky Shag the Nothing asked.

“Nah,” Ochos replied, watching from the back. “They’re gaining.”

“Can we outgun it?”

“You have a tactical thermal on board?”

Nicky sagged. “Shit. Is there anything good you can tell me?”

“The way she’s ducking and dodging in front of that thing is fucking beautiful,” Ochos said, a hint of disbelief in his voice. “I know she’s good, but that’s some upper level shit there.”

“Not helping, Ochos.”

Javo slid past them at full throttle on the right, his head low, and didn’t look back. Nicky cursed the day he’d let greed overcome his better judgement and taken this job. It had seemed like such easy money: the kid would pay them to knock of his guard and give him safe haven anywhere but the Loopstock home. Now it had degenerated into fleeing from some insane battle-droid and one very pissed off former comrade-in-arms who would likely flay the three of them and make a nice set of chaps from their skins. It was about as depressing a reality as he could have imagined.

“Angle away from it,” Ochos yelled, pointing to the left, “toward the Claws!”

The Claws were a natural rock formation, pillars that towered above the sands as if some gargantuan beast had been buried there and had breached the surface with grasping hands. It made sense: if Nicky could weave between the rocks, there was a good chance the less agile kill-bot wouldn’t be able to keep up—if he could get there before the damn thing caught up to them.

 

Liza saw the heavier floater angle left while the jetter kept going straight ahead, but she was a bit too occupied trying to stay alive to even curse. The Pirhano was not only gaining on her, it was coming dangerously close to zeroing in on the bike, no matter how much she jerked and jinked. The thought that that this wasn’t the greatest plan she’d ever come up with floated to the surface but it was a bit late to be second-guessing. Either this would work or—well, it had better work. In fact, it already had, for the most part.

She’d get the kid later. She hadn’t really counted on the Pirhano to take out the mercenaries he’d hired; she’d wanted to flush them out and avoid a prolonged sniper battle when the odds weren’t in her favor. That part was a smashing success. They were headed to the Claws, which was a pretty good plan, something she would have done herself. The Pirhano was fast in a straight line but couldn’t really pivot at full speed. If they were good drivers, they could get far enough away from the battle-droid that if—when—it killed her, the sensors wouldn’t perceive them as a threat and it go back to stomping around in circles.

A blast of heat from behind reminded her that her options were becoming limited with every stride. It was nearly close enough now to roast her with the flame thrower, but their relative speed shaved meters from the maximum range of the weapon. As it hosed the sands behind her, the liquid fuel ignited and stuck to everything it touched. The Pirhano ran through the blaze and while some of it splashed up and plastered the armored exoskeleton, it wasn’t enough to do more than melt the faded paint job. She had some high-yield explosives, but they were all anti-personnel devices and useless against the metal beast. What she needed was a military quality fusion beamer but she’d left it at home.

She leaned hard and pointed the bike in the direction of the Claws. The sled had just reached the first pillar and kicked up a cloud of dust as it shot into the rocky maze. The hard turn had given her a bit of separation as the Pirhano adjusted to the new route. If she could get there herself, she’d have a chance…

The jetter shuddered hard and the front end shot into the air as several high caliber rounds disintegrated the tail rotor. Liza gripped the control bar with all the power in her augmented arms, straining to get her ride back under control but without any lift on the back end it was impossible. She lost her footing on the pegs and found herself hanging from the handle bar as the jetter broke apart, losing speed as it twisted wildly toward the ground. Her plans had always involved a sudden and violent end, only it was supposed to happen to someone else, not her.

She let go and threw herself sideways. The jetter rolled over, lost more speed and was about to dive into the dirt when it flew apart in the most explosive manner possible as the Pirhano zeroed in on it and did what it was programmed to do. The massive machine slowed to a stop and went into passive mode, searching for additional enemies.

Liza was face down in the dust. She wondered for a brief moment if anyone had witnessed her ignoble defeat. There was her not inconsiderable reputation as a legendary bad ass to consider and something like this would make a serious dent. She reminded herself that there would be plenty of time to worry about that later, over a cold drink of something almost deadly, if she could manage to survive being the next target destroyed.

She lay very still. Not that it mattered, as these machines were equipped with enough sensors to pick up a fart in a thunderstorm. The Pirhano had skidded to a stop a hundred or so meters from she had landed; the smoking remains of the jetter were between them. She hurt all over, but it didn’t feel like anything was broken.

A voice crackled in her ear, over the imbedded comm-link system.

“I’d bury my face in the sand if I were you,” someone said. “In 3… 2… 1…”

The air began to sizzle and blister. She rolled over and shut her eyes, pulling the hood of the cloak over the back of her head. There was a hideous crackle and she felt, rather than saw, a beam of immense energy spike the ground. She waited a few seconds and then raised her head.

The battle-droid stood for a long moment on wobbly legs, blobs of molten metal dripping into the smoking sands, and then slowly fell over. A massive hole had been punched straight through it. That kind of power was reserved for the largest kill-bots or a starship.

“I had to wait until it stopped to get a lock on it,” the voice in her ear said. “It’s not easy hitting a moving target that size from orbit.”

“Captain Jaxx?” she asked.

“When you tell this story, you can say it was me who selflessly and with no thought of reward helped out a friend, or you can say the gods took pity on you. Either way, it’ll make a hell of a tale. Nice dismount, by the way. Very graceful. The crew up here gave you points for style.”

She stood up. “Shit, the whole crew saw that?”

“We’ve been tracking you ever since you taunted that rogue Pirhano. It looked like you needed some help. Unless, of course, you wish to insist you had a plan and it was all under control,” laughed the captain of the Shattering Sky.

Not for the first time, Liza Bangstar was simultaneously annoyed and thankful of her friend, a man who occupied the fuzzy legal ground somewhere between pirate and merchant of fortune. “How’d you know I was even out here?”

“I haven’t been authorized to tell you that,” Captain Jaxx said, “and I won’t. Draw what conclusions you want from that.”

“I’m stuck out here without transport, Jaxx.”

“Actually, the sled those three mercs you were chasing has turned around and is headed back your direction.”

 

Sicnarf shook his head and pointed over his shoulder. “You two have gone going that direction as fast as this piece of shit will take us?” When Nicky and Ochos said nothing he added, “That thing may still be there, you know. No guarantee that beam hit anything at all.”

“Maybe it did, maybe it didn’t,” Nicky grunted. “But you don’t fire off a shot from orbit unless you mean to hit something. Besides, look at that smoke, something got slagged but good.” He slowed the sled down. “Off with you,” he said to Ochos, who nodded and leaped to the ground. “We’re going to pin her down so Ochos can take the shot he should have made this morning. Now you know the whole plan so shut up and get yourself ready for a firefight.”

A few minutes later they were on the edge of the Claws. Nicky stopped the sled and the two men climbed down the ladder. They adjusted and checked their weapons before creeping the last few meters until they had a good view of the destruction. He was right: the battle-droid had been burnt down to the ground, a smoldering heap of rubble.

“That’s beautiful,” Nicky muttered. He keyed his throat mic. “See her?”

“Negative,” Ochos replied. “Her jetter got blown to bits, there’s pieces of it all over. Maybe she got nailed.”

“Maybe.” Nicky turned to Sicnarf. “Time to go and make a living, Sic. Go poke around and see if she pops up and shoots you.” He shoved the younger man forward.

Sicnarf stumbled but regained his footing. He crouched down and ran a few paces, then dropped to his knees and brought his rifle up. Nicky scanned the horizon but there was precious little in the way of cover, just a few sunken areas peppered with rocks…

“Sic! On yer left, boy, how can you not see that?” Nicky’s voice hissed in Sicnarf’s ear. He fell forward from his knees to his belly and tried to become one with the desert floor while simultaneously aiming at whatever Nicky had seen. There was something there, a bit of helmet perhaps, a glint of something. He opened fire, peppering the rocks with wild shots. From behind he heard Nicky’s gun open up, the powerful rounds exploding much nearer to the target. When Sicnarf looked again through the scope, there was nothing there.

“Nicky Shag the Nothing,” a woman’s voice said in the comm-link.

“Yeah?”

“I’m not happy with you, Nicky.”

Sicnarf was puzzled. Where was she? How was she on their comm channel? It was a direct link between the three of them. The only way she could talk to them was if…

“You took out Ochos, then?” Nicky asked as if reading Sicnarf’s thoughts.

“Of course; he’ll live—for now—which is pretty generous considering you had him try to shoot me earlier today.”

“Well, you know how it is.”

“Oh I do, believe me. Perhaps we can all have a civilized chat like old comrades instead of trying to butcher each other.”

“It’s a fair cop.”

“Then meet me back at the sled.”

Sicnarf walked back toward Nicky, shaking his head. This had turned into one of the worst days of his life, and he’d been raised in a corporate institution for war orphans run by the Nuns of the Order of the Clenched Fist, so he’d seen some bad days. He couldn’t understand why Nicky had given up so easy. As he neared the older man, he held up his gun.

Nicky shook his head. “Keep your hands well clear of the trigger, Sic. Don’t even think about getting the drop on her,” Nicky whispered. “We’ll play it her way—for now. Just keep yer trap shut and let me do the talking.”

Sicnarf shook his head but followed the older man’s lead. When they got back to the sled the woman was already there. The unconscious body of Ochos lay nearby; half his face looked like it had run into a wall.

Sicnarf looked her over as she stood up, curious about this legendary soldier of fortune. Like them, she was dressed for the desert: boots and leg wraps, a hooded cloak, googles pushed up on her forehead and a breathing filter hung loose around her neck. Her arms, where exposed, were clearly military grade prosthetics designed for functionality, not looks. Part of her face, from the bridge of her nose to her temples, including her eyes, had been augmented as well. She looked—fierce. It was the only word that came to mind. The weapon slung across her chest was an unfamiliar design, clearly not the usual cast-off corporate army rifles everyone around here carried.

She waved them over. “Grab some desert,” she said. Her voice was raspy and hoarse but tinged with an edge that indicated she was used to her orders being obeyed. Right now she appeared to be amused about something and Sicnarf could not think for the life of him what someone like her would find funny under these circumstances. “How long as it been, Nicky?”

“Two Solar years ago, we was on opposite sides of that Curad Uprising mess.” Nicky replied. “Ten years since Fey Ridge.”

“Still mad about that?”

Nicky scooped up handful of dirt and let it dribble back to the ground. “You had your reasons. Who cares now, right?”

“It was a stupid war, that one,” she said and Nicky could hear more than a tinge of bitterness. “They all are, but that one was more stupid than most.”

Nicky nodded. “If you say so. It was all just a paycheck to me.”

“Speaking of stupid, let me see if I’ve got this right. That shitstain on the pants of humanity, Javo Loopstock, hired you to—what exactly?”

“Kill whoever was escorting him to Water’s Gap and help him be scarce for a while. He wanted to hide out with us. All he said was that he wasn’t going to be traded like a pile of veggies.”

“And you had no trouble with that when you saw it was me?” She held up her hand. “Wait, don’t answer that, it’s too depressing. You always were a horrible little man.” Nicky tilted his head slightly and shrugged. Liza continued. “The old man hired me to protect him and forced me to take him out on the jetters instead of a float rig. Said time was of the essence but that’s all he’d tell me. The kid must have gotten the idea that whatever was going to happen in Water’s Gap wasn’t going to be good for him.”

“He never said. He paid up front what I asked, even though it was ridiculous. If I’d known it was going to be you, I would have tripled it. At least.”

She closed her eyes and appeared to be lost in thought. Sicnarf let his hand inch toward the handle of his rifle. He froze when she spoke again, her eyes still closed.

“What’s this one called, the one with the bright idea to try and shoot me?”

“Sicnarf,” Nicky said and shot a sideways look at the young man.

“Move that hand one more centimeter and you’ll lose your breathing privileges, Sicnarf,” she said. “This is a parlay, and you’ve got learn to respect the parlay. We can go back to trying to blow each other’s brains out once we’re done talking, if we feel like it.” She opened her eyes and stared at him.

“Sorry,” Sicnarf said, and for once, he actually was.

Ochos stirred a bit and opened the one eye that was still functional. She walked over and helped him sit up, then handed him her own canteen.

“Just a little,” she said. “I still might have to walk out of here.” Ochos nodded and took a few sips, then spat out some blood. “Nothing personal, you understand.” He nodded again and handed the canteen back to her. “Look, Nicky, it’s like this. I consider myself still on contract with the Old Man. I’m going to track that little fuckstick down and take him to where he’s supposed to go but I don’t need you dogging me the rest of the way. You said you got paid. Why not just take that and be done with this? It’s not like you didn’t try real hard, if your professional pride is on the line here.”

Nicky tried not to look too relieved. “We can do that. You’ll be wanting something in exchange?”

“You want to live and I want a lift back to Dharma since my jetter got a bit exploded. Seems like a fair exchange to me.”

“I bragged earlier about how you was being a sort of tactical genius,” Nicky said. “You mind shinning a light on what you was doing by getting that Pirhano all agitated?”

Liza narrowed her eyes but then laughed and shrugged. “I admit it was a risk, but as I saw it, there was a good chance it would pay off. As it turns out, I underestimated that bucket of bolts and it shot the jetter right out from under me.”

“I say you overestimated your own ability,” Sicnarf said. Nicky sucked in a breath and held it while Liza contemplated the young man. Finally she ducked her head to one side and spit on the ground.

“Yeah? That too, I suppose, you cheeky little bastard.”

Nicky let out his breath with a whoosh of air.

Liza helped Ochos to his feet. “Let’s get out of here,” she said. “It’s a long way back and I’m developing a powerful thirst for something that will make me forget this whole stupid day ever happened.”

 

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Tales from Under a Binary Sun: Dharma for One

(Title lovingly lifted from Jethro Tull. This is a reworking of a story from about three years ago, only the main character is now named after one of my friends from middle school and she is even more bad ass than before.)

It was just past midnight. Liza-Ennui Bangstar didn’t flinch or even look up from her drink when an errant elbow smashed against her right arm. She’d spent a generous portion of her drinking time fighting back the urge to simply kill the three sumpsuckers crowded around the bar to her right. She had a strong suspicion that no one would miss them; in fact their ignominious demise, which she had plotted out in eighteen different but all equally delightful scenarios, would be a benefit to the city of Dharma. Based on the comments she couldn’t help but overhearing, some of which had been directed at her, the synthetic hooch and stimsticks they’d been sucking down all night were merely a prelude to an evening of violence and rape.

She was a walking arsenal of lethality. Yet she hadn’t come to The Bitch’s Crystal looking for murder. It was always on the menu, of course, but trouble had been riding her for so long she couldn’t remember the last time she wasn’t thigh deep in swirling drama. Tonight was supposed to be the balm for all that, just her and a bottle of actual vodka, smuggled from Old Earth. It was hideously expensive, of course, but she could afford to buy the Crystal, throw everyone out, lock the door and drink herself to death—if that was her desire.

The pub had long been a favorite haunt, a drinking person’s utopia, unsavory and unclean; where reputations meant nothing and the Local Defense Force was more likely to be knocking back in a corner booth than pushing people around. If there was trouble you were expected to be able to handle it on your own; otherwise, you wouldn’t have walked through the doors in the first place.

Liza finished what was left in her glass and nodded to the bartender. Conray had her bottle on ice, and when he pulled it out of the cooler it seemed to glow in the purplish black light that illuminated the bottom of the bar. He held it up so she could see how much was left—or how much she’d drank—she nodded and pushed her glass closer to him.

“What’s that then?” The erstwhile rapist to her right noticed the bottle and saw it as an opportunity to introduce himself—or at least that’s what Liza imagined he was doing. It was difficult to tell what he actually meant.

Liza shook her head and closed the protective shield over her cybernetic eyes for a moment. When she opened them again and turned her head to the right, she saw that the other two were staring at her as well, and not in the friendly “I’d like to know more about you because you seem nice” kind of way.

“Conray…” Liza growled.

Part of the job description to be a bartender in a place like The Bitch’s Crystal was the ability to look like you could crack apart bones and snort the marrow. Buck Conray was that and more, a genetically enhanced slab of walking muscle with the kind of face that made normal people suspect he had recently massacred a whole planet of puppies. And while this fearsome aspect was not a front—Liza had seen him in unabashed, blood splattering action—she also knew that when he wasn’t serving up toxic mouthwash he painted surprisingly delicate portraits and enjoyed a strong cup of tea. At that moment, however, as he took a step towards the drunks, he was every inch the bringer of mayhem he appeared.

“She doesn’t want to talk to you,” he rumbled. “She wants to be left alone.” He held up one massive hand before they could answer. Liza smiled when she noticed a tiny patch of cerulean paint just on the side of his palm, somehow missed when he cleaned up from painting. “Keep it up and you won’t be able to fuck, talk, or walk—in that order.”

“Oh really? And who’s going to do that, eh?”

Liza knew this type. Before she’d turned mercenary, she’d spent years in the military division of Tricaricom, one of several corporate behemoths that wrestled for control over the extra-Solar planetary systems. Life in the military division brought her into contact with some of the best people she’d ever met, but also some of the worst: people who saw their job as an opportunity to indulge their worst instincts. Coarse, unreliable, and brutal to anyone they considered weak, they were often the epitome of what gave humans such a bad reputation.

Conray grunted and jabbed a thumb like appendage toward her. “She will.”

“She? You call that a she?” The guy scoffed. “There’s more metal than meat on them bones.”

Conray shrugged. “Well, I tried.” He filled her glass with vodka. “No blood on the bar, if you don’t mind—it’s a bitch to clean and disinfect.”

Liza downed the drink. It was easy to be ultra-violent. There was a switch in her brain—imaginary, of course—and all she had to do was flick it. How many people had died because of her? How many more would be killed under her hands? She’d shot, stabbed, drowned, or exploded a cattle call of enemies. She’d pushed launch command buttons and sent a barrage of Damnation missiles shrieking into the sky and she’d choked the life out of a soldier, eye to eye with him as he died. She may have even bored one person to death. Nothing about any of that was pleasant. It was a chore and all those dead bodies weighed her down somewhere deep inside, in places she couldn’t look into for long without getting grumpy.

It was like she didn’t have other talents. She totally did. One of the reasons she’d been marked for advanced tactical training was her utter mastery of the silly aptitude tests Tricaricom insisted on giving all new employees. She spoke multiple languages, she could play piano, and she had a flair for programming. But Tricaricom wasn’t interested in her ability to do anything other than kill and destroy. That was fine with her when she was first recruited from the ranks of the Tricaricom Home for War Orphans. Unlike many of her peers, she hadn’t been associated with any of the corporate-sponsored local street gangs—like the Tricaricom Cardinals and Amking Apollos who fought endless battles for control of her old neighborhood—but her time at the Home hinted at a future in the fine art of blowing up shit on this resource rich planet circling a binary star system on the edge of the galactic spiral, a year of slow-space travel from the nearest Tannhauser Gate and a billion zuleks away from a trip through it to Earth.

Her corporate military career had ended in flames, but not before she’d been promoted to Manager-Captain and commanded her own battle pod. When she walked away from Tricaricom, her desertion and the subsequent legal entanglements were enough to keep her from being eligible to return to Earth. She did what many other people did who had been trained and groomed as killing machines: she became an independent mercenary or indie-merk.

She turned to her right and stared at the three men. . They had the corded, heavily muscled look of anabolic junkies, a look she associated with the dumbest soldier-workers she’d commanded. The people around them, sensing someone was about to be unattached to their limbs, backed up and created a small pocket of space around them. The three were armed; she could see pistol grips and knife hilts and the bulges of piecemeal battle armor beneath their garish but functional clothing. She wasn’t unarmed: Liza pushed back her jacket; her twin energy pistols, Prince and Princess, were within easy reach.

The one who had questioned her gender was right about one thing: she hadn’t made it out of Tricaricom’s Military Division without leaving bits and pieces of herself—bloody, burnt, blown up bits and pieces—either on the battlefield or the floors of the Organic Maintenance Division. The corporation looked upon those injuries as opportunities to increase their return on investing in her. Her missing body parts were replaced with military-grade prostheses constructed from layers of carbon and steel fiber polymers; she opted to leave them uncovered by artificial skin, a raw machine quality she quite enjoyed. She regretted none of it, except perhaps the loss of her eyes; she had always liked her eyes, but they had been badly burned and were replaced along with half her face, from the bridge of her nose and up. She was still classified as human, though the balance between cyborg and organic couldn’t tilt too much more toward the mechanical if she wanted to stay that way.

The one piece they hadn’t modified was her brain, unless you counted the endless hours of training and conditioning she’d endured. Neural net implants and whatever might be all the rage but she would rather die than have them mucking around in her head. Once you let that happen, you lost that essential quality that made you human. She didn’t believe she had a soul, not exactly, but she wasn’t going to take the chance of corrupting whatever it was that made her her; not for the sake of a faster metabolism or a constant uplink. As far as she was concerned, it just wasn’t worth it.

She wondered if these three were hard-wired. They didn’t look like they could afford it, but there were back-alley surgeons who were willing to stick anything into the brains of the idiots who came to them. Not that it would help them in these particular fight; she didn’t have to be fast, just smart, and in that they could never hope to match her.

“Liza-Ennui!”

Liza didn’t turn or even glance behind her. She recognized the voice, an unmistakable rasp from a throat roughened by endless stimsticks. In the eyes of the three in front of her, she saw a splash of fear mixed with drunken befuddlement as Susy Bansíde led her brother Charles into the bar.

Susy’s mere presence made people uncomfortable. In point of fact she was affable and generous with her friends, though in public she maintained an air of barely restrained psychosis. She dressed like she’d gone to war with the closet of a space pirate and lost. She was tall and lean, in peak physical condition, and she’d never backed down from a fight. She was a natural chaotic force and even without her creepy brother by her side she oozed deadly intimidation. Charles Bansíde was not like her in the least; slight and unassuming, his eyes always covered by lenses built into his face, he radiated cold malice and anyone near him felt the subtle tickling inside their head from his latent psychic power. Together they were as lethal as any war beast roaming the wastelands and twice as unpredictable.

They were also one of the few friends Liza had in this city.

Liza crossed her arms over her chest and raised an eyebrow as Susy and Charles stood next to her.

“This ain’t got nothing to do with her and… that thing!” one of the men shouted.

“You mean doesn’t have anything, don’t you?” Charles had the annoying hobby of correcting grammar, a full time occupation given the company his sister kept.

“What?” The three looked at each other and back to Liza, Susy, and Charles. Odds were silently weighed. Booze driven bravado ebbed slightly in the face of two well-armed indie-merks and the weird boy who liked correcting people.

“We ain’t got time for it,” the leader declared. “We got… things we gots to do. I mean… we don’t have time. And we have things… to do. Somewhere else, even.” They pushed through the crowd toward the door.

Under his breath, Charles continued to correct and everyone nearby let out a collective breath. Bar chatter went back to normal volume, and Liza turned back to her bottle.

“You ruined my fun,” Liza pouted.

“I thought you didn’t like to fight on dranknight,” Susy pointed out as she took the recently vacated and still warm seat next to her friend.

“I don’t. I was hoping to scare them into submission with subtle but meaningful glances and veiled hints of violence.”

“She also wanted to pee on them,” Charles offered.

“Charles, I’m thinking right now about what to do to you if you don’t stay out of my head,” Liza snarled.

Charles gasped and took a step back. “Beer, please!” he motioned to Conray.

“Good thing we showed up when we did then,” Susy laughed, then waved her hands in front of her. “No, no, I didn’t mean you couldn’t handle them. But we saved you the trouble of worrying about getting blood on Conray’s bar.”

“It’s really hard to get out of the grooves,” Conray said as he slid a beer over to Charles. “The usual, Susy?”

“Not tonight, I’m not drinking.”

A shocked silence, a collective gasp from everyone in earshot.

Susy shook her head. “Oh come on, is it that surprising?” Heads bobbed all around the bar. “I mean I’m not drinking yet, there’s other things I gotta do first.”

“Have to do,” Charles said, and winced when she punched him.

Conray closed his wide open mouth and blinked. “Well that’s a mercy, I thought the universe had turned itself inside out.”

Liza filled her own glass. “Tell me these other things don’t have anything to do with me.”

“You don’t want to hear about this sweet job?”

“The last time you uttered the words sweet job to me, we ended up blowing up a half a moon and altering the gravity well around Hyde’s Planet, not to mention being chased halfway across the sector by an army of murder-bots.”

“And it was totally worth it! We saved the galaxy!”

“No, we didn’t. I don’t remember it that way at all. I know we saved our own asses. And I lost a finger, pushing me even further down the road to android status.”

“I did pay for the prosthesis, Liza.”

“That’s hardly the point. Well, maybe it is. I don’t know.”

“Do you want to hear about this job or not? It’s so easy. I mean, nothing to it.”

Liza groaned. “Against all better judgement, I’ll give you a strong maybe.”

Susy grinned. “As in, maybe you’ll do it?”

“No, maybe I’ll listen.”

“It’ll have to be good enough, then.. Here’s the deal: a week from now, Durgen Sparkle is going to make an appearance—in person—at the Tricaricom Home for War Orphans. All the way from Earth! And besides the usual security detail, his people want a couple of local indie-merks to supplement them. Somehow my name came up…”

“Shocker!”

Susy ignored Liza and keep going. “…and they told me I could hire whoever I wanted. Naturally, the first person I thought of was you.”

“Why?”

“Come on, weren’t you raised in that place? You must know everything tactical it’s possible to know about it.”

“Of course I do. That’s why I want to stay as far away from it as possible. As far as working security goes, you’ve got to be kidding, right? Ever tried to secure a building filled with extremely dangerous children being trained by sociopaths to be extremely dangerous adults?”

“Not exactly, no.”

Liza shook her head and frowned. “I don’t think you thought this all the way through. What the fuck is a Durgen Sparkle, anyway?”

Charles scoffed but said nothing. Liza finally turned and looked at Susy, who couldn’t keep a look of rolling surprise from her face.

“Seriously? I mean, he’s the biggest thing right now. Like, supertzar. An entertainment comet. The greatest thing since—since Slow Pump!”

“Who?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me. Do you pay no attention to popular culture? How can you call yourself a member of the human species and not know these things?”

Liza sighed. “Okay, fine, so he’s some sort of what,entertainer or something? And why in the hell would he be coming all the way out here?”

“It’s good press. And he needs good press right now. People love it when their stars get in scandals but he’s one more pregnant wife of someone else from getting kicked out of pop idol orbit. So he’s going to come out here, do a show, thrill some orphans, and by the time he gets back he’ll be riding a new wave of fame for his grand charitable contributions, so to speak.”

Charles leaned over and broke in. “Of course the whole thing is being filmed and will be marketed as the greatest adventure a pop star has ever had. It should take him to an unprecedented level of fame and stardom.”

“Sounds awful.” As Liza said this, she had one eye on the door, where some sort of ruckus had started. “Count me the hell out.”

“But you said maybe!” Susy groused. She noticed her friend was no longer paying attention to her. “Liza, what’re you looking… oh. Ah, crap.”

The three lads from earlier had returned and from the determined glare in their eyes—and the Tricaricom Mk III Plasma Personnel Suppressor they lugged through the door—they intended to have the last word. It was well designed to reduce large amounts of matter to component atoms, if that was your objective; not a subtle weapon but an effective one.

“You sure you know how to use that?” Liza slowly drawled. She watched his eyes, not the narrow opening at the end of the weapon where the bolt of compressed and superheated hydrogen would eject. It was all in the eyes. She could hear the whine of the electromagnetic containment field, ready to discharge. She’d never really liked them; they had a tendency to overheat while recharging or they would simply explode when the containment field failed. When it worked, however, it was as terrifying to those who saw it in operation as it was deadly to those caught in the hissing, spitting blue beam of deadly plasma. She had to wonder how they’d gotten hold of one; it wasn’t the kind of thing Tricaricom Military Division wanted out on the streets and in the hands of miscreants filled with synthetic booze and murderous intent. She could hear Charles behind her, muttering something that sounded like “there will be time”. It seemed an odd thing to say at that exact moment; if she wasn’t reduced to gaseous bits in the next few seconds, Liza made a note to ask him what that was all about.

The crowd, which had earlier pulled back to watch a potential bit of free-to-see bloodletting, was in the process of energetically being somewhere else as quickly as possible. Conray picked up a towel and began to polish a glass.

“You’re gonna burn real good!” the man howled.

Very well,” Charles corrected.

“Shut the fuck up! What’s wrong with you?” The nozzle flicked in Charles’s direction and Liza saw the man’s eyes begin to tighten. She might be able to get off a shot but if his hand convulsed on the trigger it might not make any difference. She felt Susy next to her and felt the pressure of her arm around her as the taller woman gave her a hug. That was odd, why would she…

A deafening roar exploded next to her left ear and her eyes shuttered automatically to protect them from the muzzle flash. Liza dropped to one knee and forced her eyes open; her own hand cannon was in her hand though she wasn’t even aware she’d reached for it.

The wielder of the Plasma Personnel Suppressor no longer possessed a head. His body tottered a bit; Liza’s eyes zeroed in on the hand still wrapped around the handle and the finger threaded through the trigger guard. The knuckle whitened as the finger, independent of brain driven impulse, squeezed the trigger. Susy unleashed another shot, the mass reactive shell punched into the chest and exploded, the force driving the body backward as if shoved by a giant hand.

The finger twitched. There was a crackle of discharging energy and a large portion of the wall behind them was vaporized as the beam cut through the air, arcing up to impact the ceiling. Liza watched with morbid fascination as it cut through into the rooms above the bar, then began to slide sideways as the body holding it lost integrity. The beam sliced down the wall toward the bar and finally fizzled out, the charge expended. Conray hadn’t flinched and gave the glass in his hand one final swipe before setting it down.

Liza and Susy were moving, guns trained on the two still holding the tanks of compressed hydrogen, faces spattered with the remains of their friend. Liza expected them to continue the attack but they were frozen, as if what they’d seen in the last few seconds had robbed them of initiative. Liza reached them first and powered down the weapon before either one snapped to and remembered why they’d come back to the Bitch’s Crystal.

“I guess we’ll be closing early tonight,” Conray sighed. He reached under the bar and came up with a fire suppression canister which he directed at the smoldering path of destruction.

The two women restrained the hapless lads with plastic ties. Liza was only hearing out of one side; the other ear was washed out. Susy grinned and said something; Liza shook her head and turned so that she could hear her.

“What?” Her ear rang like a carillon gone mad.

“I said, I think you owe me one,” Susy repeated.

“Yeah, it might snow,” Liza shouted, then put a hand to her ear. “Fuck, I think you busted something in there,” she said, trying to modulate her volume.

“Come on, what do you say? I think that’s worth one day of working a security detail.”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you arranged everything already.”

Susy grinned. “I wish I was that devious. I’m just being horribly opportunistic.”

Liza shook her head and walked to the bar, a little unsteady. Conray snagged the vodka bottle from the ice, wrapped it in a towel, and handed it to her. She nodded her thanks and surveyed the damage before walking to the door. Sirens were closing in from multiple directions. She didn’t want to be around when they arrived. She stopped in the entrance and shook her head. When she turned around, Susy was still standing there. Liza hated that smile.

“Fine, whatever,” she muttered and walked into the night.

“Yes!” Susy shouted. “This is going to be so much fun! Can you feel the locomotion?”

In the background, Charles grinned and murmured, “There will be time…”

Susy glared at him. “I told you about that. Don’t bring me down, Charles. There’s too much revolution around here already. Remember, when the going gets weird…”

“…the weird turn pro,” he said.

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Softball Game (to the tune of Garth Brooks’ “Rodeo”)

(I changed the gender of the main character, so if you’re a guy, just change it back in your head!)

 

Her heart beats slow and steady
She’s oiled up her glove
Her bag’s all packed and ready
It’s time for the game she loves
The tournament’s this weekend
If they don’t win it’s a shame
It’s not just a competition
It’s the damned old softball game

(Chorus)
Well it’s bats and balls
It’s third strike calls
Runnin’ at the crack of the bat
It’s the bruises on her fingers
And the pain that still lingers
But a trophy will heal all that
It’s gloves and socks
Sweat proof sunblock
It’s cleats soaked by the rain
It’s the heat and the stench
And the chants from the bench
This thing they call softball game

Best not try to distract her
When her eyes are on the ball
Making the play consumes her
She catches it at the wall
And it’s I’ll be back on Monday
When it’s time to get on the plane
You know she doesn’t want anything
Like she wants her softball game

(Chorus)
Well it’s bats and balls
It’s third strike calls
Runnin’ at the crack of the bat
It’s the bruises on her fingers
And the pain that still lingers
But a trophy will heal all that
It’s gloves and socks
Sweat proof sunblock
It’s cleats soaked by the rain
It’s the heat and the stench
And the chants from the bench
This thing they call softball game

It’ll drive a player crazy
It’ll drive girlfriends insane
And she’ll give up everything she loves
To play a double header in the rain
A closet of jerseys and old batting gloves
Is all she’ll have to claim
For all the years that she spent playin’
This dream they call softball game

(Chorus)
Well it’s bats and balls
It’s third strike calls
Runnin’ at the crack of the bat
It’s the bruises on her fingers
And the pain that still lingers
But a trophy will heal all that
It’s gloves and socks
Sweat proof sunblock
It’s cleats soaked by the rain
It’s the heat and the stench
And the chants from the bench
This thing they call softball game

It’s the scabs and the blisters
It’s the cheers from her sisters
And they call the thing softball game!

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