by Corvus and ShadowWolf
Text ©2006 Corvus and ShadowWolf; illustration ©2006 Cubist

Home -=- #5 -=- ANTHRO #5 Stories
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Editor’s note: Cleared for Departure is the fabulous first Reaper and Strider story. Its sequels are Don’t Forget to Tip Your Assassins (Anthro #6), Fish, Barrel, Dynamite (Anthro #10), and You Say ‘Paranoid’, I Say ‘Adequately Aware’ (Anthro #28), and The Favor of Doom (Anthro #31),

   Okay: Let’s suppose a decadent multiversal megacorporation kidnapped a pair of clinical sociopaths, and forced them to compete in a potentially-lethal ‘game show’ called TransWar whose primary point of interest is reality-altering tech that allows total bodily transmutation. Let’s further suppose that both of said sociopaths used the tech to remake themselves as cybernetically enhanced killing machines, one an anthropomorphic wolf, and the other a tiger/dragon hybrid. And finally, let’s suppose that these two vaguely-stable ambulatory demolition zones decided to team up against TransWar’s ‘host’, an ex-military hardcase named Rale Surino who escaped death thanks to having more than a few aces up his own sleeve. Supposing all that… what comes next? The continuing misadventures of Reaper and Strider, the Bastard Assassins From Hell, that’s what. If they think you’re an appropriate target, may God have mercy on your soul—because they sure won’t!
   As we look in on our heroes protagonists main characters, they’re just about to embark on a little joyride that will teach them a number of
Fun Things To Do For Revenge…


   Reaper’s ship was decent, and he was right: Surino was a danger to us both. Not only did he have a face to match Reaper’s name, he knew my new form as well. Anyway, I had a personal score to settle. Not to mention that I hadn’t signed up for that game of his. Though it was fun—
   «Hal, get me on a network.»
   «Working on it, Boss. Heavy ICE guarding this net’s access points.»
   «Want me to help?»
He didn’t reply. Instead the world dissolved into a computer-generated graphic of the network Hal had logged me onto. ‘In a GalaxyNet far, far away’, huh? Good to know that senseless advertising slogans are a multiversal constant. And in six million languages, too, I thought, then spotted what I was looking for. It was wonderfully easy to latch onto the database feed and ride it into a server.
   «Hal, mirror!» I commanded as a spider-like green ICE knocked me off the feed just inside the server. Seconds later there was a duplicate of me standing on the opposite side of the sentry program, throwing its limited AI into a panic. Before it could signal a breach I reached out with a white-noise program and overwrote its memory space. “That was easy.” I muttered as I reattached myself to the feed and soared into the server’s data processing unit.
   I dropped off the feed a few seconds before it hit the deconstruction point. I’d seen too many idiots die trying to access a server through one of them. Instead I targeted the nearest ‘local’ access point and started walking towards it.
   «Watch it, Boss! Black ICE hunter-killers in this area.»
   «Shit! ICE-mimic!»
Nothing changed for me, but to the rest of the network I now appeared to belong there—just another of the myriad quasi-intelligent intrusion-countermeasures programs that protect all sensitive data. Thus disguised, I managed to find an ICE port into the server’s data-core. I laughed as it verified I was one of its own ICE programs and opened to let me through. That would never have worked on Earth! Either someone here was braindead, or this universe didn’t have any good hackers.
   Once inside, I went to work looking for a credentials file. But where they had failed to keep me from actually gaining access to the data store, I was stymied by a very strange filing system. After ten minutes of fruitless searching—what the hell was a ‘quatloo’?—I was ready to give up.
   «Hal, you’ve had contact with nets in this ’verse. Where the hell are they keeping the credentials files? I’m ready to just toast this system and move on.»
   «Boss, check Aleph-Null-Stroke-Dot-Null-Null-Aleph-Gamma-Aleph.»
   “Bloody Hell! That’s almost as braindead a file name as the Tin-Stars used for my info,” I muttered as I made my way through the database and located the file. It didn’t take me but one try to crack the file’s encryption. Then my net image changed once again, into that of the 75 year old company CEO. Using his access I opened a full net-search query and got a lead on where some data on the Ultrarena might be. Two simple commands later and I was attached to an outgoing data-pipe heading for a server that was in the oldest portion of the net.
   My trip ended abruptly with the target server in sight. The data pipe was cut off—and at the damned end-point. Meant the server, or its administrator (if there was one) was expecting me. Okay, they want to play? They’ll learn how hard I play.
   «Hal. Tactical tools.»
I cracked my virtual knuckles as a suit of armor and a dozen weapons flashed into existence around me. Enough with the sneaking and skulking—now it was time to teach the people of this universe why I’m feared as both a hacker and an assassin.
   «Hal, auto-nav. Get me to the front door.»
«Boss, this place has heavy ICE activity.»
   «Hal, just do it!»
Hal’s one sweet little AI. His original implementation was a toy my parents had bought to be my companion while they wasted their lives making a living inside the corporate spires. He’d grown and changed a lot since then. But he still had a thick streak of protectiveness that I couldn’t remove without risking the rest of his neural net collapsing.
   The landscape shifted and changed as Hal re-aligned my virtual body’s net address so I was located at the main entrance to the server. What greeted me was a sight I’d never seen before: A veritable phalanx of black-and-red ICE lining all usable approaches. Whoever’d programmed it, the guy seemed to have a real soft spot for military history.
   «Hal, what were those guys in Greece called?»
   «Lots of guys in Greece, Boss. You mean the Spartans?»
   «No, I meant what was the generic term for the soldiers?»
«Hoplites, Boss.»
Well, these hoplites had a major flaw in their AI: Two-dimensional thinking. It would never cease to amaze me how many ‘security professionals’ forgot to cover the Z axis. And here I am, with the perfect tool for the job…
   «Hal, run program Alpha-10.»
I floated off the virtual road and into the air. About three hundred feet up my rise stopped and I zoomed backwards at an immense speed. Maybe a mile distant the main loop of the program started and my armor flowed outward, assuming the form of one of the most fearsome aircraft produced before the collapse of centralized governments. After orienting myself with the cockpit of the aptly named ‘warthog’, I cued Hal to activate the second phase of the program: «Hal, you may fire when ready.»
   The virtual engines of the A-10 attack aircraft I was now inside roared to life! I was streaking towards the server fast enough that I had to activate a neuro-kinetic enhancer just to hit the trigger and release the bombs. Then it was yank back on the stick—hard—and slam the throttles wide open. “Climb, baby, climb!” I chanted as the first of the logic-bombs I’d dropped went off with an actinic flash. I’d made six hundred feet when the supersonic shockwaves buffetted the plane and slammed it into the side of the pyramid-shaped server.
   «Hal, stabilize the program!»
   «I’m givin’er all she’s got, Cap’n!» Sarcasm from an AI? Who knew? Never mind; there were three more… Three brilliant flashes of light dropped that count to zero as the remaining logic bombs detonated. The floor of the aircraft shimmered as Hal fought to keep the program’s code stable enough to protect me in case it crashed. That would be a bad thing—it was running on the same machine as Hal—if it went, it might not take down just Hal, but half my brain if any of the circuits overloaded.
   «Hal, kill the process!»
The plane disappeared, and I began falling towards the all too distant ground. Thankfully I never activated that program without a backup plan. Then my hand closed on nothing when it should have found the activation switch for my backup-plan: A gliderpack. Frak! Just my damned luck that killing the plane’s program killed my backup.
   «Hal, program PTC!»
A parachute flashed into life above me and the harnesses came into being at the same time. The shock of the abrupt deceleration ripped the breath from my lungs and, had this been reality, would have left massive bruises on my chest and thighs. A minute later my feet touched the ground and the parachute disappeared. I was surrounded by emptiness, a singular lack of any running program, so I boldly walked up to the server’s primary access port.
   I was stunned when a hyper-complex eight-dimensional puzzle lock popped into existence. I’d never solve it in this lifetime, me not being a computer. Fortunately, I knew someone who was. My AI was a champ at designing these things, and even better at breaking them.
   «Hal, get the lock for me.»
The lock beeped and flashed as Hal hit it with a barrage of commands. Three minutes passed, but then it popped open into a full access terminal. I started typing away, sending a barrage of search queries into the system. By the fifteenth one I’d hit paydirt and found a package of information on the Ultrarena. Its time-stamp was old, but it would have to do, as I was worn out from my near-death experience. Hal killed the connection without me having to even attempt a command, and the world swirled back into view. The file opened and started scrolling in my vision.
   I took in the data, scant and ancient as it was, then shook my head to clear it and closed the file. “Reaper, seems the Ultrarena is run by Interactive Networks. No info on where it is, and none on the company itself.” The data was good, but not that good. Hopefully that name would lead us to better information. Now more than ever I wanted to see Surino’s eyes bulge as I choked the life out of him.
   “Ion trail. We might be able to just track him down.”
   Now that was damned good news. I wanted my personal gear back, but I’d walked away from the dead-brained TransWars with a portable arsenal that would hold me over until I could get Reaper to stop off at Earth—my Earth, that is. In one of the lockers I found a harness that fit perfectly, and that let me mount all the weapons I had. My only regret was the anti-matter mines—or lack thereof. The ones I’d found on the colony had all been used for one purpose or another.


   Finally home! The Persephone had been both my home and base of operations for over a decade. She was a mid-sized transport, large enough for me to be comfortable, but not enough to be unwieldy. Her hull was intentionally unchanged, but her interior would give the original designers heart attacks. There were several crew cabins, most of which were used to store the odds and ends I’d collected over the years, and a large cargo hold used for the same purpose. Breathing deeply, I basked in the familiar smells. Everything was as it should be… except for Strider.
   “Crew quarters and galley are up there. ” I pointed to the upper deck and continued on. “Flight deck is this way.” Strider dropped most of his gear and followed. Lifting one claw in the air, and without turning around, I added, “And play nice with the ship’s computer.”
   With the flight deck just as it had been left, I sat down at one of the consoles and began supervising the activation of all systems from standby mode. Meanwhile, Strider stood motionless in an apparent trance. He must have been trying to access the information networks on the habitat. Persephone was almost fully awake by the time Strider came out of his VR trance.
   “Reaper, seems the Ultrarena is run by Interactive Networks. No info on where it is, and none on the company itself.”
   Not much to go on, I thought. Joy.
   The console I was at flashed. Persephone—the ship’s AI, I mean—had been listening in and flashed a chart of local space. It showed a single large ion trail leading away from the remains of the Ultrarena facility. The ion trail was likely caused by Surino’s ship. This might actually be easy! Yeah, right…
   “Ion trail. It should be easy to follow,” I responded.
   Strider nodded in grudging approval and stalked off the flight deck. He always stalked. You may think it stupid, but it didn’t bother me that he was roaming my ship. Any actual damage he could do would hurt him too, and, though he tried to hide it, I could tell that he wasn’t comfortable in space. Besides, for now, my enemy was his enemy. That made him trustworthy, at least until he figured it was more to his benefit to shoot me in the back. To get an early start on that occurrence, I decided to take some precautions, which the ship could handle.
   “Perse, keep track of Strider. Don’t let him get where he shouldn’t be. Oh, and, don’t make yourself known to him just yet.”
   “Sure thing, mon capitan!”
   I smirked. It was nearly impossible to keep the computer’s AI from calling me ‘captain’, or some variation thereof. Every time I thought I’d gotten her to stop, she’d start right back up again. Still, her current personality was better than what she was like when I acquired her. Originally she’d been a military transport. The old Persephone had a dry, strictly business demeanor. At least her current mode of address was better than yes, dear.
   “Enable full cloak and plot a course to follow the ion stream. Speed at point four P.S.L. Let me know discreetly if anything shows up on sensors.”
   “You got it, my general. Anything else while I’ve got you?”
   “No, Perse,” I replied, rather amused. “Just keep a close eye on Strider. He’s a Class AA enemy. Target but don’t harm him.” She had enough tricks and internal defenses to vaporize Strider if she wanted to.
   “Rats! You got it, my lord.”
   Strider was rummaging around in the hold when I caught up with him, poking through some of the odds and ends I’d picked up in my travels. I had kept every weapon that I’d gotten my hands on, as well as any tech that seemed useful to my line of work. To be honest, I didn’t even know exactly what I had, or where all the things that I’d stashed on my ship over the years had gone. Strider turned around at the sound of my remaining weapons clattering onto a shelf.
   “I thought I’d find you in here. I’ve set the autopilot to follow the ion trail.”
   There was the crackle of electricity in the distance, and the lights dimmed for a second. Persephone didn’t like being called ‘autopilot’, but I’d need her as my ace-in-the-hole when Strider decided I wasn’t necessary any longer. I’d just have to suffer through her wrath latter.
   “Not a bad ship.” Strider said.
   An alert chirped through the ship. Persephone must have come across something, but this soon? Spinning around, claws screeching on the deck, I walked out of the room and back to the flight deck. Something wasn’t right. Behind me I could hear Strider following. It only took a minute to get back. A navigational hologram was already projected indicating the ion trail, but—it just ended. All that was left was a fading explosion of quantum flux.
   The bastard had jumped. There was no chance of following his trail now.
   “Trail ends here,” I stated.
   “Any other bright ideas?”
   “Yeah. There’s this bar on Earth; I don’t know how or why, but a version of this place exists in every universe I’ve ever visited. It’s always been a good place to find information.”
   “Sounds as good a target as any.”
   Absent-mindedly I wondered if Strider had experienced an FTL jump before. It’s a bit of a shock the first time. Something like having one’s insides sliced, diced, grated, and blended, before being cemented back together. I manually entered the coordinates for Earth. The ship’s FTL was a Talon 2 series quantum tunneling drive that, as an ever-handy side effect, allowed me to jump between universes, as well as from point to point in the same. I’d grabbed the drive from some ship that belonged to an I.D.I.C. The pilot was an eagle named Shockwave—asked me to go back and solve their civil war or something. Yeah, right. Anyway, I’m told that both drives work on the same principle, but I shot the last guy who tried to explain it to me. Got me 200 credits.
   I activated the drive—without warning. There was a bright flash, a momentary feeling of disorientation and then complete silence. I was impressed; Strider hadn’t puked.
   “What the hell was that?!” Strider asked.
   “Fifty thousand light years.”
   That jump had landed us in the middle of the Terran system, about two light-minutes from Earth. From this distance, this one looked about the same as the others; almost perfect. Fortunately, it was one that was mostly an atomic wasteland, hence no customs to blast through. I hated repainting Persephone. As I recalled, some bright brain had decided the human race had to be shrunk and tried to do it biologically. The powers had blamed each other and it escalated. All that remained was a nice lawless wasteland, a perfect place to wreak havoc and mass destruction.


   “The trail ends here.” Not exactly what I’d wanted to hear; I was itching to get my hands on Surino in the worst way. Shoving aside my anger at the situation, I ran through some possible solutions. Sadly, none were all that viable. I needed more information. Being in an alternate universe, who knows how far from Earth, I didn’t have a lot of options.
   I paused and thought before finally bursting out, “Any other bright ideas?” Being nearly powerless is not a situation I was used to. And I definitely didn’t like to find myself in. Rather than risk doing something that might get me tossed out an airlock, I ran through everything I knew about Surino: Frentakian. Ex-Military. Martial Arts master. Highly intelligent. Nano-augmented… Not a lot to go on.
   «Hal, start a search of the public networks for all people matching those criteria.»
«On it, Boss. Network’s kinda tiny here, but I’ll see what I can do.»
“There’s a bar on Earth I know of…” I started to tune out Reaper. Don’t get me wrong: He’s great to have on your side, but sometimes it’s ‘Too much talk, too few bullets.’ Or at least I ignored him until HAL whispered in my ear that he’d mentioned Earth… Then my brain caught up and I listened with rapt attention. “—in every universe I’ve visited. It’s a good place to get information.”
   «Can the explanation and get the frak going!» I yelled at him in my mind. The thought of being tossed out an airlock was what kept me from saying it out loud. Instead, I flopped into a seat and focused on cleaning my weapons; in my book, the only thing better than cleaning weapons was using them. Using the tip of a claw I hit the release and opened the top of one of my Eta-Blasters.
   Then the world jerked around me, like the whole ship had been tossed in a blender for a split second.
   «Hal, systems check!»
“What the fuck was that?” I screamed.
   «All systems nominal, Boss.»
“Fifty thousand light years.” Reaper replied, grinning like a bloody Cheshire cat.
   «Hal, how long was that pulse?»
«Point three one microseconds.»
Jesus! That worked out to… a hell of a lot faster than I thought a ship could move and not be squashed flat by C-plus dust. But what did I know? This ship could have some sort of shielding that kept it intact during jumps like that.
   None of that mattered. If this was Earth, I needed to be prepared—doubly so if this one was in the same universe that had pulled off the game that had brought me here. Who knew what kind of tech they had for me to steal? I slammed the Eta-Blaster closed and walked back to the cabin I’d found free.
   The holo-costume I’d pilfered from one of the cabins being used for storage fit easily on my harness, and the chaingun went onto a quick-release back holster. Keep your friends handy, and the high-caliber rapidfire handier. Whatever else Reaper might be, he sure knows how to keep a place loaded for all possible occasions. All that was left was to let Hal program the costume to give me my old human appearance, and I’d be ready for this ‘bar’.
   A few minutes later the ship landed and I turned on the costume. You’d think light would be painless, but it tingled. I didn’t know (or care) how—that was for Hal and the techs. Reaper led the way and we walked the mile to the bar. I admit that the squashed match-selling girl in rags under one of the cloaked landing gear was a bit odd, but them’s the breaks.
   Unlike my Earth, this was an urban wasteland without the ‘urban’. Nothing but a desert, a scrub of blasted ruin. Hal commented on the high, but non-lethal, levels of radiation. After the first half-mile I wished he’d landed closer; the holo-costume’s emitter was driving Hal nuts with its constant string of self-generated ‘power down’ commands. So I shut off the holo-costume and turned on my cloak.
   “So, Reaper, what’s the name of this bar anyway?”
   “Dark Horse Tavern.”
   Laughter ripped out of me. That bar was my favorite watering hole… and suddenly the twisted ruins became weirdly recognizable. Leaning into a run, and turning the damned holo-costume back on, I was inside the bar talking to a familiar face sooner than you could have gotten your crosshairs on me. Old Pete didn’t recognize me, even with the holo-costume showing my pre-game face, but with him money was always the top motivator. So I plopped a stack of bills down on the table after taking a seat across from him.


   The Dark Horse Tavern. Somehow, it remained relatively constant in the multiverse, always looking the same, always having the same bartender. Any information could always be gained there. The question was always cost—money, persuasion, or expensive ammunition. I set the ship down in an open area several kilometers from the Dark Horse, and kept the cloak enabled. Leaving everything powered up for a quick launch, I headed to the lower airlock. On my way, I grabbed a few ‘don’t leave home without it’ items from the hold: a pair of custom .50cal MAC-10s, two .45cal MP5Ks, an Eta-Blaster, ten kilos of high explosives, the railgun I’d picked up on Ultrarena 4, and my usual holo-generator. Although the SMGs weren’t the most lethal of weapons, nothing beats the skull-numbing boom-boom-boom of high caliber AP ammo. The ensemble was completed by a large black trench coat and a pair of dark sunglasses. Sure, I didn’t actually need them but they intimidated, and that’s what’s important.
   Waiting by the airlock hatch looking like his old self was Strider. He must have dug up one of my spare holo-generators. Those things were old and flaky—it had taken me a while to get mine to hold an image for more than a few seconds without resetting, which explained the slight flicker that was visible in Strider’s image. I guessed he was having Hal keep his generator online. Luckily, the distortion was at such a high frequency that nobody else would be able to see it.
   Nodding at Strider, I ducked into the airlock, enabling my holo-generator as I did. A holographic image flashed around my body, concealing my weapons and my appearance; my features would be hidden, but there would still be the danger of somebody bumping either my wings or my weapons. I scanned the area and smirked when I noticed a flattened and bloody figure in rags, lying in the depression made by one of the landing pads. A cool breeze kicked up dust as Strider and I disappeared into the night. After ten minutes or so I heard Strider curse quietly as he faded into invisibility.
   “So, Reaper: What’s the name of this bar, anyway?”
   “Usually it’s called the Dark Horse Tavern.”
   In the darkness, I could hear Strider’s disembodied laughter. It wasn’t surprising that he knew about the Dark Horse. The truth was, I’d gone there in his universe when I was after him. Hadn’t been able to get much information—they all feared Strider enough to keep their mouths shut. They ended up fearing .50cal ammo more, but by then they were all dead. When we got there, Strider stepped into the tavern first, and I followed ducking through the doorway. Strider may not have been much of a curiosity, everyone stopped and took a long, apprehensive look at me before returning to their drinks. Good. I was worried I’d have to shoot somebody to get some attention. It’s a lot of fun, granted, but .50cal ammo is expensive!
   Strider sat down at a table and began talking to someone he must have recognized. The man had a look of confusion and disinterest until a stack of bills was laid on the table. His eyes lit up and Strider had his full attention. Meanwhile, I stood to the side, merely an imposing figure, and let Strider work this man for the information.

to be continued

or else…

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