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

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

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   The bar went silent for a second as Reaper walked through the doors. After a moment the noise resumed. I looked across the table at Fat Pete, who took a nervous sip from his beer. I smiled.
   “Pete, I need some info.”
   “Get lost.”
   I’d gotten that reply five years ago in my own dimension the first time I’d asked Pete. So I pulled a stack of bills (borrowed from one of the rooms in Reaper’s ship) out of my harness, making it look like magic as it materialized through the hologram. One quick fan and a heavy thump, and they dropped onto the table.
   “I’m looking for a man named Rale Surino that works for Interactive Networks,” I said as Pete reached for the money.
   Pete counted it before paying attention to me and smiling. “This should cover all the fees. Let me make one phone call and the data’ll be here in the next hour.”
   Okay; fine by me. Motioning at the bartender, I called out, “Hey! I’ll take a Draft and Jack, and give Pete a refill on me.” Kicking out a chair, I motioned to Reaper. He sat down, the chair creaking under his weight.
   “Pete, meet my business partner: Sam R. Totenkopf.”
   Pete nodded, looking a bit worried about Reaper’s size. Smiling, I motioned around the room. “Hey, look around—this place isn’t where people come to get violent. So chill, Pete. Be nice to Sam here.”
   That’s about when the drinks reached the table. I slammed the liquor back, sipping at the lukewarm beer. It’d been a week since I’d had a beer and I really needed the buzz to help me relax.
   «Hal, open a channel to Reaper.»
«Channel Open, Boss.»
Reaper got the first word in.
   «Something isn’t right. Be ready to move.» The bar was abnormally quiet, even for the Dark Horse Tavern. And Pete was way too fidgety for my liking—almost like he’d act if someone had asked about me, in my universe anyway. Maybe the people from Interactive Networks had a long arm and everyone was scared to reveal information about them.
   «Gotcha. Something’s fishy.» Reaper replied and closed the channel.
   Reaching down, I unlatched my holsters. They contained a pair of flechette pistols—spoils of combat from the TransWars. Above the table I just took a leisurely sip of my beer. Several patrons looked around furtively, paid their bills, and hurried out the doors. Something was definitely wrong—because one of them was Jack Demerson. If this universe was anything like mine, he’d much rather be sleeping under the piano.


   Strider ordered a Draft, a Jack and a refill for this ‘Pete’. I declined when the bartender asked if I wanted anything; this was business. Strider kicked a chair out from under the table and I sat down cautiously, the chair creaking ominously under my weight. He introduced me as ‘Sam R. Totenkopf’, his business partner, a name I found very amusing. Of course, Pete didn’t see any of the humor in this, which was for the best. He was visibly nervous with me sitting so close. And we still needed information out of him.
   “… look around—this place isn’t where people come to get violent. So chill, Pete, and be nice to Sam here.” Strider said to Pete. I nodded in solemn agreement and admiration. The comment had been both a subtle threat to Pete, and a reminder to me that we were here for info, not carnage.
   Strider’s liquor was gone moments after the glass touched the table; he began calmly sipping his beer. Pete, on the other hand, furtively looked at his drink, the bartender, and then his drink. Pete was a weasel, pure and simple. Such a damn weasel! Hell, he even looked like one, either by choice, or by an odd twist of fate. Strider must have noticed, too, because he began to visually scan the tavern.
   «Let it through, Sam.»
I asked Strider through the open comm-channel. Something wasn’t right. The bartender was keeping a close eye on both us, and on the door. There’d also been one or two patrons that had slipped quietly out the door—always a bad sign—right after Strider mentioned ‘Interactive Networks’.
   «Something isn’t right. Be ready to move,» Strider replied, ignoring my tone.
   «Gotcha. Something’s fishy.» I closed the channel.
   When will people like this ever learn? Look: When obviously dangerous-looking people walk into a place like this, carrying too much ordnance and asking the wrong kinds of questions, you do not stay within the blast radius! In addition to being more than they appear, those kinds of people are more detrimental to the immediate health and well-being of everyone in the room than whatever was frightening the idiots in the first place. I would know. It’d be a shame to have to level a perfectly good bar…
   As discreetly as possible, I checked the safeties on my weapons, and shifted my weight to move at a moment’s notice. The chair creaked beneath me. At the same time I took a quick look around, to strategically assess the tavern and its patrons. By that time, most of them had slipped out, and those that hadn’t looked like they weren’t going to budge. It looked like things were shaping up for some unfair, no-holds-barred, unbalanced mayhem—finally!
   «Show me, Sam.»
   A thermal scan overlaid itself across my field of vision; there was a large group of armed personnel just outside the tavern door. Somebody had tipped off the local goon squad, and I wanted to know just who. Pete seemed like he might be able to help me with that. The overlay disappeared as I slowly reached my ‘hand’ across the table and wrapped it around his glass.
   «Sam, freeze the glass.»
   «SIR! YES, SIR!»

   High-grade military technology—feh! There are times I’m tempted to swear off it for good, just so I never have to deal with all that sir-yes-sir bullshit ever again. But we all have our crosses to bear; mine is to always use the most advanced equipment available… and that means miltech. Like Sam.
   Pete’s eyes widened as the glass frosted over. Sam had pulled all the ambient energy out of the glass, instantly freezing it. Solid. Looks like Pete had gotten the message.
   “Who are they?” I said in a low, menacing tone as I gestured at the door.
   “I… I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Pete stammered back.
   “Your friends. Who are they? Who tipped them off?”
   «Sam, open the comm-channel again.»

   «Strider, if you haven’t noticed, there’s a large force of armed hostiles outside.»
   «Oh, so that’s what they are? Goodie!» he replied. He also sent an image of a werewolf tearing through a mass of bodies.
   «More lambs for the slaughter, eh, wolf-boy?»
   «Sure. This is a problem? They’ll take out Pete first. I would,»
Strider said coldly.
   «No can do; we need him alive. For now, at least.»
   «Party-pooper. Any ideas?»
   «Yeah—play along with me here,»
I said and closed the channel.
   Pete remained obstinately silent—no surprise, since that little chat had only taken a second or so of realtime.
   “Strider, our friend here doesn’t want to talk. Should I show him why he should be nice to me?”
   Strider chuckled. “Sorry Pete, you’re on your own.”
   Before Pete could comprehend what had happened, I stood up, knocked the table over, kicked it across the room, ripped him from his chair, and dangled him by his neck at arm’s length. A satisfying look of shock and terror swept across his face.
   The remaining patrons jumped as well, most slowly reaching for their weapons. Like I cared.
   “You’re no… you’re not … human.” Pete managed to croak as the expression on his face changed.
   “No! What was your first clue?” Strider asked with a snide grin.
   “Yeah, we got us a real genius here,” I replied in a sarcastic drawl as I drew a .50-cal. SMG that materialized into view as it passed outside the hologram. The real problem with holo-disguises is that only the appearance is masked. So far I’d been successful in keeping anybody from getting too close, except for Pete here who could feel my fur around his neck. But then he was (a) expendable, and (b) scheduled to be expended anyway, so it didn’t matter.
   «Sam: Targeting HUD.»
   «SIR! YES, SIR!»

   In a few seconds, the so-called armed force outside the door would storm the tavern, and any ringers inside would open fire. In one swift move (aided by Sam), I fired one round through Pete’s right thigh to immobilize him, and another into the right side of his chest. The bullet grazed his skin—a very messy wound but non-life-threatening. Pete would live; as for the rest, however, you can’t make an omelet without napalming a few henhouses.
   My ears perked up when Strider drew his own weapons. Dropping the now-inert Pete to the floor, I drew my other SMG as I spun around to face the doorway. My timing was perfect: Just as I raised my weapons to fire, the door burst open. Shards from the windows flew everywhere as armed figures in nondescript black assault gear poured into the room.


   A window popped up in my vision as Hal showed me a view of Reaper with the holo-costume filtered out. He’d been fidgeting real strangely, but it wasn’t his Tourette’s acting up; he was just checking the safeties on his personal arsenal. All of his personal arsenal… Knowing him, he wasn’t just killing time, he knew something was up.
   «Hal, proximity scan.»
   «Military types, Boss. Six platoons. Three each, front and back entrances.»

   Before I could rip any information from Pete about who the goons were, Reaper’s hand wrapped around the beer in front of him. With a crackle and tink of breaking glass, the beer went from room-temp to zero Kelvin in nothing flat. Rocking in his chair in surprise, Pete jerked backward as I slammed my hand onto the table. Reaper spoke.
   “Who are they?” Reaper’s words came out in an emotionless monotone. Their implication seemed plain to Pete as he scooted his chair backwards, his heart rate slamming up to 160.
   “I-I-I don’t kno… know what… you’re talking about…” Same old Pete: Put danger in his face, and he finds a backbone where you least expect it. The acid scent that oozed up from him confirmed that he was terrified enough to piss his pants. Stupid wimp…
   «Guess what? There’s a large armed force outside,» Reaper’s voice spoke in my ears over the comm-channel.
   «For me? You shouldn’t have!»
   I sent a ‘one-werewolf assault team’ picture along with the message; a not-too-subtle way of telling him I was planned on taking as many of the bastards with me as I could. Hal’s scans had shown that the goons wore body armor—like it mattered—and I kind of hoped they might have some shields to try and give them some semblance of protection.
   «Lambs for the slaughter…» Reaper’s reply had a laugh running underneath it. With one hand I reached for a flechette pistol as the other grabbed the handle of the monofilament whip I had on my thigh.
   «Yep. They’ll take Pete out first. It’s what I’d do.» I didn’t send an undercurrent to the message. Relying on Reaper’s experience to tell him I was ready, I slid my chair back slightly, which meant I was ready to move. But I had no idea how to handle the Pete situation—he was still our best bet for information about Interactive Networks.
   «Fine, but we need him alive.» The message was clear, and I was a little pissed at Reaper thinking I needed to be reminded of that. Channel the rage, Strider. You need Reaper to find Surino. I ran through some possible exit scenarios.
   «Aw, you’re no fun any more. Ideas?» I asked.
   «Just this: Play along,» Reaper replied and closed the channel.
   “Strider, our friend here doesn’t want to talk. Should I show him why he should be nice to me?” Reaper’s voice was cold as ice and lacking all emotion. Mine is similar, but his raised goosebumps on my arms anyway.
   Shaking my head, I chuckled. “Sorry, Pete. You’re on your own this time.”
   Reaper and I moved simultaneously. I stood and spun, pulling the flechette pistol and dumping a thousand razor-sharp needles shredding the bartender’s chest. Running at the maximum my neuro-kinetics could handle, I was facing the door with the pistol holstered and the whip ready before the needles turned the bartender into hamburger.
   And my partner? Well, flechettes are vicious, but quiet. Reaper, now, he’s vicious—and loud. Behind me I heard Reaper’s .50-cal. SMG bark twice in rapid succession. He better not have killed Pete, and if Pete lived, I was certain that this incarnation would never forget us. Before the bartender even had time to notice he was dead, the front door of the bar blew open, as did the glass window. To my hyped metabolism, the explosions slowly flowed into the room. Before the vapour had even begun to clear I bolted forward and took out the first two rows of troops coming through the window with a single snap of my wonderful whip.
   Monofilament whips are way cool. Damn near un-fucking-breakable, and they slice through anything except nothing—say, energy barriers like oscillating force fields. A nice, clean, mirror-smooth cut. As the bodies bloodlessly dropped into two pieces, the halves sliding apart with a sucking sound, the upper torsos schlomped onto the floor—then blood sprayed. Meanwhile, I growled and swirled the whip over my head, then down, splitting another pair of soldiers in half vertically. Hey! What’s life without a little variety? Pulling on the handle to start another swing, something snapped. Frack! Yup, the monofilament was, indeed, nearly unbreakable, and it proved it. By breaking.
   The overamplified drum solo of Reaper’s guns roared behind me as I shifted my neuro-kinetics back down to realtime and punched the next soldier I saw. My fist crunched into his skull, exchanging his organ cluster for a shower of bone and blood. I turned and told Hal to let the holo-costume shut off. A bullet slammed into my chest, squeezing between muscle and bone, and then one exploded into the side of my head. Now I was pissed! Roaring, I launched myself into a platoon-sized crowd of soldiers and began tearing arms and legs and torsos apart, dismembering the toys with my bare hands. All around me was the ripping of torn muscle, the crunch of bone, the screaming of the doomed, and the thick scent of blood and terror.
   «Reaper, in ten seconds me and my chaingun are gonna level the rest of the crowd out front.»
   «Check. I’ll cover the rear and get Pete.»

   The comm line closed. I spun up to my emergency neuro-kinetic level—what Hal calls ‘peck-and-paw mode’, for no reason he’s ever explained to me. Ten more soldiers fell, filling the air with beautiful slo-mo fountains of blood as my claws tore open vital veins and arteries. There wasn’t time for me to hear anything, wasn’t time for the wonderful scent of blood and gore to diffuse all the way over to me. Seconds passed like minutes—literally. Long before the ten seconds I’d given myself to get to the backside of the crowd were over, I was standing on the opposite side of the street and leveling my chaingun at the soldiers. Silent death is good for efficiency, but a nice noisy death has a power all its own.
   As the tenth second dragged by, I dropped down to a safer level of neuro-kinetic boost and pulled the trigger of the chaingun. Across the street ears were shattered by the staccato boom of my fifty-caliber baby; its heavy recoil tried to walk the gun up and to the right. No problem. With bulging muscles, I kept the gun where I wanted it, raking it across the backs of the soldiers, leaving nothing behind but showers of blood and gore. Fifteen seconds after I’d sent my last message to Reaper, there wasn’t a single soldier standing. That long? Hmm… Maybe age is slowing me down…
   Rather than risk leaving one alive, I slipped the chaingun back into the quick-release sling and ordered Hal to restart the holo-costume. Like a shark rising from the depths, I forced myself back to real-time and began wasting the wounded. Dead men don’t gossip worth a damn, you know? I’d won anonymity with this new form and I wasn’t about to lose it without a fight. Sure, the latest upgrades made me nearly unkillable, but if they novaed the sun, I might not be able to get away in time…


   Standing with my back to Strider, I watched thirty soldiers pour in through both the back door and the shattered windows in slow motion. The odds hardly seemed fair—for them, I mean—but what can you do? I opened fire on the blob of soldiers and dropped them to the floor. Strider opened a comm-channel.
   «Reaper, in ten seconds I’m pulling out my chain gun and leveling the crowd out front.»
   «Got it. I’ll go out the rear and take Pete with me.»
One of the soldiers moved as I closed the channel. What gives..?
   «Sam. Tactical assessment?»
   «Heavy—aw, shit. That’s no fair! Any kills?»

   Sam flashed up a generic model of a soldier with markers where each of my shots had impacted. Nothing! Not one bleedin’ round had made it past their armor! And a gunshot without an entrance wound is like a day without sunshine… Taking a quick look around, I remembered why I didn’t like indoor fights: No damn room to move. Bloody Hell! I holstered my MAC-10s and swung the railgun around.
   «Sam, I need all the neuro-kinetics you can give me.»
   Sam was right about 15kps being too high; the rounds would go right through. Who’d have thought I’d ever be worried about overkill? After dialing back the power, I dug my claws into the floor and fired a single round into the soldier lying closest to me. Sam kindly updated the display: Perfect kill shot, clean through the armor. So much for their colorful, crunchy shell. Leisurely I moved around the room, cracking a round into one soldier after another. Behind me, large sections of the floor began collapsing from the collateral damage, not to mention the weight of the targets. Well, it was their fault for making me waste ammunition!
   CrRaaackkk! The whole floor gave out, and Pete, along with a handful of still-breathing targets, fell down a large rift. Shit! Abandoning the remaining soldiers, I dropped downstairs myself to collect Pete. My hindpaws squooshed through wiggling bodies below me, and I shredded the rest that had fallen; two clean decapitations, one just plain crushed, and four snapped necks. No room and no time to play with my toys. In two shakes of a wolf/dragon hybrid’s tail, I scattered five bricks of C-4 around the basement; in twenty seconds the Dark Horse Tavern would be nothing more than rubble. Of course, like the soldiers, it would pop back up inside of a month. Pete was conscious when I grabbed him, and, when I was about to leap out, my ears focused on a noise above me. I looked up.
   Ten soldiers demonstrated I hadn’t hit them hard enough before. They’d gotten up—and were feebly aiming their pulse rifles down at me. Gods, I was getting old! They were persistent. Stupid, but persistent. On the bright side, if these guys’ madness was any indication, I might have a worthwhile fight on my hands taking out the ones behind this. Before they could react, the first three each took a round in the chest. The momentum of the bullets launched them through the roof of the tavern. Rounds slammed into my armor as I eliminated several more targets. Two more went through the widening hole in the roof as several bullets tore through my right wing. That hurt! Bloody Hell! Spinning to face the last soldier, I roared at him just before I sent him crashing through the bar and out the back wall: “Hey, asshole! I’m not like you—pain hurts me!”
   «Sam: Kill the holo-generator and cut back the neuro-kinetic level.»
   «SIR! I—»

   «Just do it, Sam.»
   «SIR! YES, SIR!»

   The holographic disguise dissolved around me as I turned to pick up Pete. He looked and smelled terrified, then shocked, at my appearance. How the hell did he know I wasn’t human? Hefting Pete over my shoulder, I jumped out of the basement and glanced around the room. One soldier remained, scrambling to get out the back door. I decided to help him out with a round through his chest, whose momentum sent him crashing through the door. My kindness was rewarded as a small piece of the wall collapsed, revealing another two-dozen soldiers intent on finishing me off.
   Pete was still being uncooperative, and I still hadn’t gotten what I needed out of him yet so couldn’t just rip his head off. A sharp blow changed his attitude—he went limp.
   «Sam: Enable the EM cloak.»

   Cranking up the velocity on my railgun, I burst through the remains of the wall. With my railgun thundering, I waved it back and forth along the crowd of soldiers, laughing coldly and taking out three or more with every shot. Too soon, it was all over.
   «Sam: Open a comm-channel to Strider.»
   «Yoo-hoo, wolfboy! Fire in the hole!»
   Two seconds later, the C-4 in the Dark Horse blew. The shockwave ripped the building apart from one end to the other. Even holding back, I could see each explosion distinctly; absolutely beautiful! The shell of the Dark Horse splintered gracefully, scattering in all directions. The roof flew up two hundred feet into the air, and burning debris rained down on the ruins and surrounding area. By the time the roof hit the ground and shattered, sending flaming shards ricocheting across the street, there was virtually nothing of the Dark Horse left. I was always proud of a job well done! Strangely though, one corner of the tavern was untouched.
   «Sam: Kill count?»
Sam said as the stats flashed into view.
   Admiring my handiwork, I slowly walked back to where the front of the tavern used to be. Ah! The sweet smell of burning corpses wafted through my nostrils. You can never be sure something is dead until it’s been shot, blown up, burned, and shattered. And even then there was the likes of… Surino. I fired in anger at a few soldiers nearby who didn’t look dead enough. These goons were definitely his, though they couldn’t possibly be the super-soldiers he’d promised. These weren’t even fun to play with!
   Strider was standing across the street from the smoldering ruins with a platoon of dead soldiers at his feet, blood dripping from his claws. He looked very pleased with himself; it seemed his new form suited him very well indeed. Still cloaked, I walked over to Strider.
   “Got Pete?” he asked.
   Growling quietly I dropped an unconscious Pete in front of Strider.
   «Sam: Drop the cloak.»

   “This friend of yours better be worth it, Strider.”
   “Friend? No. He was just an informant.”
   Pete had better have some good information, or he’d find new meaning to the word ‘pain’, just before being thrown out an airlock. Glancing back at the Dark Horse for a moment, I noticed that one corner of the tavern was completely untouched. There was even… no fucking way! There was what appeared to be a human woman in her late fifties to early sixties. Somehow she’d managed to survive the whole incident unscathed. Either she was incredibly lucky, or she’d been cursed for some horrible wrong. Whatever; she was completely drunk and posed no threat. Feeling magnanimous, I decided to let her live.


   A chuckle tore through me as I watched Reaper struggling to keep Pete alive in the firefight. Okay, I’d shafted him by not taking Pete out the front, but them’s the breaks. Sure seemed that Reaper was having an awful damn lot of fun in there…
   With a cloud of dust, and stench of diesel, three APCs roared up and soldiers began dismounting. My cloak was still active so I could just sit back and watch, but what fun would that be? My hand tapped the release and I swung the chaingun into position.
   «Hal, drop the cloak.»
   I whistled, and a few soldiers turned. Always thought it was better to see who killed you than to just die. Not much better, but better. My fingers spasmed around the trigger of the chaingun and it roared to life, spewing a stream of AP bullets into the open back of one of the APCs. Idiots: What’s the damn point of armor if you’re not gonna stay behind it? Okay, that got their attention, but only half a platoon was heading towards me. What kind of challenge is twenty enemies?
   “Hey! Numbnuts!” I screamed, triggering a burst into the ground so that it exploded just behind another group of soldiers. The entire company worth of soldiers turned and stared, but only for a second. Huh—some half-decent training here. Knowing it meant the difference between fun, and having to waste time chasing them down, or—worse—letting Reaper take them out, I swung the chaingun back into its holding position and cracked my neck.
   Shouting, the soldiers charged towards me. Guess they weren’t interested in surrender. Hal knew me well enough that he figured out what I was going to do and kicked my neuro-kinetics to their emergency stops, also giving me a dose of Type 3 Epi. When the soldiers were within arm’s reach I lashed out, my claws ripping through the throat of the nearest soldier.
   He kept moving—the body hadn’t realized it was dead yet. The gunfire began, the barks of the rifles dopplering out as I jumped into the air pulling a pair of flechette pistols. Two clock-seconds after shredding the fool’s throat I dropped back to realtime, laughing at the soldiers looking around for me. I was at the top of my arc; I opened fire as I fell the 30 feet towards the ground.
   «Hal, casualties?»
«Thirty-two dead in the first five seconds, Boss.»
   «Good. That’s a Personal Best.»
And here I’d been afraid I was beginning to slow down!
   «Yo! Strider! Fire in the hole!» Reaper’s voice echoed through our comm-link. Ignoring it for the moment, I waited for the right time to launch my next attack. Just as my paws fell to head level of the soldiers, I lashed out, having returned to full neuro-kinetic boost during my descent. Four… Five… Six… Seven… Eight kicks and… aw, fuck. Not even one of their necks was strong enough to hold onto the head!? Oh, well… shit happens. Slamming into the ground, I burst forward, the explosion of the bar behind me adding a little to my momentum. Half a second later my fist shattered the face of another soldier as I leaned in and rammed my shoulder into the solar-plexus of another. Feeling the delicious snap of his spine, I pulled the flechette pistols again, spinning into a crouch just before pulling the triggers.
   «A few. Fifty in seven seconds, Boss.»
   «Good, another record.»

   Standing still, not even out of breath, surrounded by the dead and dying, groans and screams caressing my ears, I put the guns away, dropping back to real-time and taking a deep breath. Odors of blood and gore and crap and urine—I guess I couldn’t blame some of them for the lack of bladder control—filled my nostrils. I had to give Reaper credit, the explosion of the Dark Horse had been spectacular. Not as good as my unfair, fifty-to-one-odds slaughter, but not bad.
   «Boss, Reaper’s cloaked and about two feet to your left.»
   «Thanks, Hal.»
To Reaper, I said, “Got Pete?”
   He didn’t respond immediately. Whether he was pissed I’d made him keep Pete alive, or was just catching his breath, I didn’t care. All that mattered was the information Pete could give us.
   He dropped his cloak. “I hope this friend of yours is worth it.”
   “Not ‘friend’. Informant,” I replied, wiping the blood off my claws with a scrap of a soldier’s uniform. He’d damned well better be worth it—I didn’t like fights as unfair as this one had been. Hell, it was almost as bad as the clowns I’d been in the TransWars against. Only Reaper had proved challenging, but then he thinks a lot like me.
   Reaper had Pete over his shoulder and had started walking before I finished speaking. Bastard. Catching sight of the featherless areas on his wings, I shook my head. It was a mile back to the ship, and I didn’t feel like walking.
   “Reaper!” Turning, he looked at me as I cocked my head at one of the abandoned APCs. “Wheels.”
   Truthfully I’d expected the drivers to take off, but they weren’t there to bug out. This Earth seemed to be devoid of manpower or some stupid shit like that. Why else would the drivers have dismounted with the rest of the prey? The APC shook a little as I dropped the chaingun and squeezed into the driver’s seat, and shook again as Reaper tossed Pete into a seat and got inside. Damned cheap suspension. It was a tight squeeze, but I couldn’t have given a damn about what’s-his-name’s comfort.
   Once the ‘rear door closed’ indicator light flashed green, I flicked the drive train into reverse and peeled out. Spewing beautiful thick white smoke, the six tires of the overgrown ATV spun, then caught traction, rocketing the vehicle backwards. I slammed the brake pedal to the floor, spun the wheel and kicked the transmission into drive. Slamming the gas to the floor with my foot, I let the revs kick up to above five thousand before releasing the brakes.
   My ears flicked at a soft thud from the passenger compartment—Reaper slapping Pete to wake him up. A moment of silence, and then a startled scream of fear. It almost sounded like Pete was saying my partner’s name. I laughed, the sound punctuated by the screech as the transmission of the APC kicked over to its top gear. The landscape flew by. Sure, we’d been only a mile from the ship, but I was taking the scenic route, giving Reaper some time to play with Pete. We needed his information, and I was pretty sure Reaper’d rather not take him aboard the ship.
   Ten minutes passed before the comm-channel crackled to life and Reaper spoke in my ear. «He’s not talking. Time for more direct tactics.»
   Flashing an acknowledgement signal back to him, I spun the wheel, heading due south to where the ship was parked. Three more minutes passed before I screeched the APC to a halt behind the cloaked spacecraft, and shut her down. The truck’s rear hatch hissed open; the suspension shook as Reaper got out, dragging Pete. I followed, stopping to place a few blocks of C4 in the crew compartment and grab my chaingun.
   “Reaper. Open the ship and let’s get off this shitball.”
   I’d have bet the ship had been listening; the hatch we’d exited from thudded to the ground, revealing the interior of the ship, looking like a hole in the air. Pete collapsed, begging us not to force him to ride into space, jabbering something about it being illegal for anyone to leave the planet without the “Companies” permission. As though we cared. Making sure the holo-cloak was off, I let him see my shiny, sharp teeth, then shoved him up the ramp.


   “Reaper!” Strider yelled behind me. Now what was he going on about? All I wanted was to get Pete back to the Persephone and drag what I needed out of him. Turning around, I saw Strider cocking his head at a nearby APC. “Wheels.”
   Ha! Made sense—Strider was giving me a chance to spend some quality time torturing our new friend. I hated cleaning blood off the decks almost as much as repainting Perse’s hull.
   After throwing a limp Pete into the back of the APC where he landed with a thump and a crack—hope I didn’t break anything important—I rifled through a nearby corpse.. Officers! It’s almost guaranteed that they would carry useless weapons, in this case a .45 revolver in a handy shoulder holster. Perfect! After cracking open the cylinders to check for a full load, I snapped it shut and spun them. Sure, an automatic pistol was more efficient, but it didn’t have the same feel as a revolver.
   Hopping on to the APC exit ramp, I rocked the heavy transport. Frackin’ weapons designers! Why did they always have to design things so small? I tossed my railgun on one of the seats, and then scrunched through the opening. Slamming the button for night vision lights, I closed the ramp. The transmission screeched, and everything in the compartment shifted as Strider gunned the APC forward.
   I looked down at Pete. Still unconscious, as though that would do him any good. Knocking him around, I waited patiently until he came to. He took one look at me in the dim red light, then his eyes widened, shit burst into his pants, “Reaper” screamed from his lips, and he nearly passed out again. I didn’t have time for this. Like fingers digging into soft clay, I dug my claws into his right thigh. Ah! There was the broken bone! Without a word, I held the revolver in front of his nose and flipped it open to show that it was fully loaded.
   “Let’s play a game, Pete,” I said, firing one round through his left leg. Over his screams I shouted, “Next is the broken one.”
   His cries faded to a faint whimpering as I spun the chamber block and stopped it on the spent round.
   “You gonna tell me what I want to know?” I pressed the barrel to his forehead. The trigger went click. “S’okay if you don’t talk—we’ll just find out how long it takes before I miss.” Pete squirmed and I heard bone scraping against bone in his right leg as I spun the block again. Click. “My record is seventeen times.” I wasn’t worried about shooting him; I knew where the spent round was. I could keep this up all day, or until I got bored, whichever came first.
   Pete was stubborn, I had to give him that. Even in the face of terror and certain death he wouldn’t talk. Interactive Networks had to have a strong hold on this universe to get poor schmucks like Pete to risk their lives protecting what little information they actually knew. Ten minutes of clicks to his head, a few kicks to his right leg, a lot of screaming. Entertaining… but not useful, and it hurt my ears. After ten minutes of getting nowhere I had Sam open a comm-channel.
   «He’s not talking; time for more direct tactics.»
   After an acknowledgement chirp, the APC rocked again as Strider turned sharply south back to my ship. Three minutes later it halted close to the Persephone and its engine coughed into silence. Smashing in the door release, which exploded in a shower of sparks, I watched the ramp hiss open, hitting the ground with a dull thud. I grabbed my railgun and yanked Pete up by his collar. Even through his sobs of pain he tried to struggle, as if that would do him any good. All it did was splatter blood all over as I dragged him outside. The truck groaned as I padded down the ramp a mere twenty meters from my ship.
   «Sam: Open a subspace channel to Perse.»

   “Come on, Reaper. Open ’er up and let’s get off this shitball!” Strider burst out.
   «Perse, open the main loading ramp.»
   «But of course, Mon Capitan!»

   AIs… With a soft whoosh of equalizing pressure, the loading ramp glided downward, revealing the cargo bay like a hole in reality. A light cloud of dust and ash were kicked up and swirled around as it hit the ground. For a second Pete was silent, staring, and then he started screaming and struggling all over again. He kept screaming about “Space—anything but space!” Strider’s hologram dissolved around him, and he bared his teeth at Pete. Didn’t do much for Pete’s complexion; I mean, I never knew a human could be that white! As I activated the door mechanism, Strider shoved him up the ramp.
   “Don’t like space, Pete?” I sneered. “Perse-” Crap, almost let it slip! Strider gave me a puzzled look.
   «Sam: Have Perse fire up the sublight engines.» The Persephone shuddered slightly as she lifted off the ground, dust and pebbles kicking up below. Thirty seconds later we were in low orbit.
   Picking Pete up by his collar, I dragged him to the main port airlock, tossed him in and set it to slowly depressurize. I’d modified it, installed a huge display showing the ambient pressure, just to make sure anybody who needed to know knew they were screwed. Right on cue he panicked, beating on the hatch, knowing that he had only moments to live.
   “Where can we find Surino?” I asked.
   Pete didn’t reply. Instead he kept beating on the hatch with a faint staccato thumping—thank you, KeldoMart™ insulation—until he passed out. Fracking hell! Who’d have thought a weasel like him would be able to keep quiet in the face of death and pain? At least getting him to tell us everything we wanted to know was a challenge. I was getting tired of easy fights anyhow.
   “Strider, hold Pete here.”
   Making my way down to the cargo bay, I heard Pete screaming and sobbing. Looks like Strider had some fun with him while I was gone. I hopped the rail and landed on the cargo bay deck with a dull thud, and went straight to one of my stasis lockers to get some interrogation nanites. Not so much fun, but a lot more certain. Hypo-spray in hand, I made my way back to where Pete was dangling in Strider’s grasp, clothes shredded, spewing globs of blood all over my deck. How the frack was he still defending Interactive Networks? They must own this universe. It didn’t matter—I had the ultimate key.
   Not caring anymore, I shoved the spray against Pete’s broken leg and injected the contents. Even faster than the nanites could act, he grabbed his head, screaming in agony. Strider dropped him to the deck with a schlump of blood and meat.
   “How’ll that get anything out of him?” Strider asked with a snarl.
   “Just letting Hal have some fun. He’s all yours.”
   Strider smiled.
   Pete was writhing on the deck, screaming like a banshee, as Strider went into a VR trance. Seconds passed, and then Pete howled. Blood oozed out his lips and nose and ears. He slumped dead just as Strider came out of VR.
   “Got what we need, Reaper. You know,” he kicked the corpse, “I think somebody doesn’t like us.”
   I shrugged. “So what else is new?” I tossed what was left of Pete into the airlock and hit the emergency venting. “Playtime’s over. Where to?”
   “Surino’s ship is at a shipyard in the Panaran system.”
   Giving the airlock a mock salute, I headed back to the flight deck with Strider right behind me. “I’m not cleaning that up, you know.”
   “Don’t you got bots to do it?”
   I just growled.
   Perse had the coordinates for the shipyard on the navigational holo when I stepped on to the flight deck. As usual, she was efficient, but right now that would only alert Strider to her presence before he could be trusted. With the coordinates laid in, and Perse taking care of the flight, I collapsed into the chair as she prepared to jump.


   I had a hard time not laughing as Pete struggled to breathe in the airlock. It wasn’t the way he looked; the Pete I knew could only be this tight-lipped when the questions were about, well, me. Interactive Networks had to be the most powerful company in this universe to make people that loyal. Didn’t matter, though. I had options, and eventually he’d talk.
   When he finally collapsed, Reaper cursed and opened the airlock. Cracking my knuckles, I kept a straight face. Reaper spun about and started off. “Keep Pete here!” he ordered me. That just annoyed me—being ordered around, I mean. Remember the mission, remember the mission…
   «Hal, Reaper took it easy on him.»
«Agreed, Boss. Class One interrogation?»
   «You got it. Mild acid in the claws.»

   Pulling the overweight body of Pete out of the airlock, I smacked him twice. He screamed as he came to. Such a nice sound, a scream: Pure and simple and primal. Grinning, I watched as he fought to get free of my grip.
   “Pete, just tell me where Surino is. You know you will… eventually.”
   “Go—go to hell!”
   Now I was pissed. Kicking twice, I shattered his kneecaps, then dropped him onto his now-useless legs. More wonderful screams of exquisite agony. Much better! They didn’t help, though, as he wasn’t talking. Okay, time to get on with the real work. Squatting next to him, I smiled.
   “Pete, just tell me what I want to know. One little planet and the pain will end. Is Surino really worth this? We both know you’re not living through this, and I will get the information. Make it easy on yourself.”
   That’s when he made his second mistake: He coughed and spit in my face.
   Up until then I’d been trying to be nice—for old times’ sake and all that—but that was the last straw. Wrapping one hand around his shoulder, I dragged him upright as I stood. “You know how much I hate causing pain, Pete. We used to be friends. But you double-crossed me. It’s like the game of Diplomacy; backstabbers never prosper. And now… now… you refuse to give me one teeny-tiny, insignificant little piece of information?”
   “Strider… oh—oh god…”
   Pulling the claws of my free hand down his chest, I sliced four neat parallel furrows in his skin. More screams of pain and agony tore themselves from his lips. His knowing my name was annoying, but only until he broke. Only until he started giving me the answers I wanted. Blood oozed out of the wounds and began slithering down his chest.
   “Where is Surino?”
   “Fuck—fuck off!”
   Again, very slow, I cut a second set of furrows in his chest, at right angles to the first set. I was getting seriously pissed. You ever tried getting skin out from beneath your claws? It’s a bastard, believe me. Then my toy passed out again—wimp.
   I dropped him to his broken knees, which shocked him back awake. More delectable screams of pain… Focus, Strider! No way I was cleaning the damn deck.
   “Where? Is? Surino?”
   I carved a strip of flesh free from his chest and held it in front of his eyes. The acid dribbling out of the pores in my claws made the flesh bubble, melting and curdling into a putrid rotten slime. The airlock filled with an acrid, eye-watering, decaying meat stench. But no screams—not even one tiny little scream! Pete’s mouth remained stubbornly closed, though the blood dragging itself the corner of his mouth confirmed I’d hurt him.
   Pete still had lots of flesh, and room for lots more furrows. I was debating if it was time to start playing tic-tac-toe in the crisscrossed slashes when Reaper reappeared and injected something into Pete. Truth serum? I would have thought he’d known better, damn things were notorious for their unreliability. Maybe some type of neuro-active poison to force him to start babbling as it ate his brain? I’d ran into that shit working on a contract for Johnsons Biogenics…
   “That’s gonna get anything out of him?”
   “Ask Hal; just letting your better half have some fun. He’s all yours.”
   «What’s he babbling about, Hal?»
«Boss, he’s a genius! That was a bunch of nanites—they’ve set up a network in Pete’s brain. We can do a ghost-hack!»
   Taking all the self-control I could muster, I managed to not laugh like a… Hold it. Why the fuck not? I laughed like a maniac. Reaper had broken out an interrogation tool I’d wished again and again had existed when I dealt with people lacking a neuro-comp. Pushing my neuro-kinetics to ten times normal speed, I ran down a quick checklist, smiled and nodded.
   «Open the connection, Hal.»
   Blurring out of focus around me, my sensorium was rebuilt into the jumble of geometric shapes and sharp colors of a standard VR environment. In front of me was a server with no active data transfers, all around me was the complex network of the ship’s computers. The central one almost glowed like an AI, but that wasn’t possible. I reached up and opened a storage compartment inside Hal and watched as a dozen tools specially designed for the task ahead appeared.
   «Reorient on Pete.»
   The vista around me blurred and reformed. I was standing in front of an impressive server. For a second I wasn’t sure Hal had chosen the right signal, then a bot materialized in front of me.
   “This is a restricted area. Attempted entry by any unauthorized person will result in the release of black ICE. Press OK to acknowledge receipt of this message. Press REPEAT to have it repeated. If you are not receiving this message clearly, press ENTER to submit a bug report. Be warned that pressing any key, and/or touching any mouse and/or trackpad and/or trackball, and/or performing any kind of data input/manipulation/transmission whatsoever, will result in the immediate release of black ICE. We hope you will enjoy your interface with MicroApple™ User-Obsequious Friendly Firewall Software. MicroApple™: We may be the only software company in existence, but we try not to act like it. Have a nice day!” And it spoke in Pete’s voice… Well, Reaper sure had an ugly sense of humor—not that there’s anything wrong with that!—if this was a result of the nanites he’d injected into Pete. On the other hand, maybe Pete had studied anti-hacking techniques. Not that I cared; he was toast either way.
   Grabbing the first tool, it became what I needed: A monoblade. One slash and the bot dissolved. Another slash against the side of the server had no effect, so I put the blade away and stepped back. Most people who don’t have a neuro-cannular interface system collapse when their defenses are attacked, even with a simple tool like my monoblade program. Pete’s defenses were still rock solid.
   «Hal? We still got the big probe?»
«Sorry, Boss. Used that up on Thomas Kincaid, remember?»
   «Dammit. Thoughts?»
«How about the ablater?»
   Now there was an idea! By its design specs, the ablater was built to burrow holes in firewalls. Nothing anywhere about it being used for ghost-hacks—like that had ever stopped me before. In fact… given the unexpected nature of the assault, it would probably have a high chance of cracking Pete’s astonishing mental defenses.
   And best of all, it would be painful.
   «Okay, Hal, let’s do it. Let ’er rip!»
   A chaingun popped into existence on the ground in front of me. Leaning down, I picked it up and slid its strap over my shoulder. The heft and feel of it mirrored what I’d gotten used to in the TransWars, so it didn’t take long before I was merrily firing at the server.
   «Watch it, Boss! The connection quality is deteriorating.»
   Hmm. Either Pete was dying, or his immune system was getting the better of the nanites Reaper had injected him with. Either way, the end result would be a complete loss, so I couldn’t waste any time. I held the chain gun steady, firing at a single point. The entire server-construct shook as the virtual bullets of the ablater slammed into it. Progress was slow but steady, the rain of bullets slowly digging a hole through the wall Pete had somehow erected around his mind.
   Red cracks appeared—spread like electric centipedes—the wall began to melt. With a thunderous crash it exploded, shards flying in all directions, fading to a grid outline and then nothing. The construct vanished entirely as I dropped the ablater—wups! Stupid me: A horde of glistening black ICE boiled out of the now-unprotected server-construct that represented Pete’s mind. Each ICE-thing looked like a wet black rubber chicken, and their razor-edged beaks glistened with the distilled malice of ten billion Kentucky Fried Chicken drumsticks. Nothing I couldn’t handle, but it had taken me by surprise. I hate being surprised!
   «Hal! Shields, flight!»
   A glowing bubble of shimmering yellow surrounded me, crackling with static electricity as the first wave of the ICE attacked, beaks pecking. Gracefully I floated up—but the bastards had functional wings! They pursued, furiously pecking like an airborne school of piranha/Chihuahua hybrids. The mass of black countermeasures engulfed me in nothing flat, and my shield wasn’t happy. A person without a neuro-comp, or at least a neuro-cannular jack, shouldn’t be able to have ICE guarding their ghosts, damnit! That cold fact didn’t help me as the existence of the pecking ducks threw that rule out the window. Pete had just broken so many generally accepted rules of the game that I was a bit concerned I might have taken on a challenge too large for me… Yeah, right!
   «Okay, Hal: What do we have in the toybox—I mean arsenal—today?»
«Two Memory scramblers, wide range. 100 BOF progs. 10 Random overwriters. 50 Replicating disassemblers.»
   «Can you limit the disassemblers to ICE?»
«Yep. Was going to suggest that.»
   «Cool. Lock and load.»

   A weapon that looked like a cross between a 30mm recoilless rifle and a missile launcher materialized in my hands. Chuckling, I popped open the red and green targeting grid and took aim at one of the furiously pecking ICE. A twitch of a virtual finger sent the round on its way.
   Then I just floated there, my shield slowly collapsing inward, and watched the destruction. The targeted duck squeaked, looked at me with glowing red eyes of hatred, and then exploded in a cloud of semi-liquid goo. Those ducks on whom the glop splatted stopped pecking, glared, and then exploded in the same fashion. It didn’t take long until all the black ICE was gone, fallen into a pool of slightly smoking marmalade on the ground. Occasionally a bubble blurped to the surface, releasing a quaaack with too much bass and the reverb set way too high. Floating downward, I stopped just as the arc of the shield below me pressed downward into the jellied goo. The missile launcher shut down and returned to my stock of hacking tools. Reaching into the goo—it was warm and slick, like hot oil—I grabbed the ablater from where I dropped it, none the worse for wear. There was no guarantee that I’d seen the last of the ICE, and who knew what other nasty tricks Interactive Networks had layered into Pete’s mind?
   Once more I was in front of the huge server construct that represented Pete’s mind, the sea of goo slowly glurping behind me. Another bot popped up, this one in the shape of an old, old PET terminal. An old, gray-haired human face appeared on the screen. I was ready to wipe it from existence with a simple white-noise overwrite when it spoke a few words: “May I be of assistance?”
   Walking past it, I popped open a query interface. It was possible that the bot could be useful, but I was on a clock; I had to rip as much information on Interactive Networks as I could from Pete’s mind—and rip it quick and hard, in case the access started a self-erase. Fingers flashing across the keyboard, I located a data pipe and connected it to Hal. Aha! The data I most wanted popped up on the screen. With the truth in hand, I could afford to experiment a little. I turned to the PETbot.
   “What’s the current location of Rale Surino?”
   “Working… Accessing… Last data received shows his ship in the process of pulling into spacedock at the Panaran shipyards. Have you fixed the Ark?”
   Well, what do you know: The bot had been truthful, though I had no clue what the last bit was for. Chuckling, I checked the terminal—data transfer was 90% complete and would be finished momentarily. Having about two minutes to play with, I used the terminal to reprogram a few lines of code inside Pete’s mind. No real big change, but it would keep him from feeling any pain for as long as he lived. Hey, I’m not cruel! Well… okay, maybe I am cruel, but I’m no sadist. I don’t need to cause pain; I can quit any time I want to! Besides, I’d promised the Pete I’d known that if I ever killed him, or let him be killed, he’d never feel a thing.
   «Hal, how much data was there on Interactive Networks?»
«Quite a bit, Boss. You know you also pulled in all the information on his bank accounts, and a bunch of other stuff?»
   «You bet, Hal—money is what drives the universe. Besides, it’s not as though he needs it any more. As for the rest, those are Pete’s data sources.»

   If Hal responded to that, I didn’t hear it. As it dissolved, the virtual universe was replaced by solid reality. Giving Pete’s dying body a last kick, I looked at Reaper, who’d just asked me if I had our next destination.
   “Panaran Shipyards.”

to be continued

God help us all…

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