by Corvus and ShadowWolf
©2010 Corvus and ShadowWolf

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

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The borderlands of a non-human stellar empire

   Space is the final frontier—because it’s so big and empty, and there are so damn many ways to die in it, you’ll never get out alive. Case in point: In a desolate region of space between two outlying systems of an obscure intergalactic empire, a lone Na’Tara-class survey ship drifted near an asteroid, the only other macroscopic object within half a light-year.
   And on the flight deck, unnoticed by the on-duty crew, a lone indicator light began blinking.
   The survey ship’s crew functioned like a well-oiled machine, for values of ‘well-oiled’ which regarded No. 12 sandpaper as a lubricant. The ship’s pilot grumbled, “‘See the stars’, they said. ‘Serve the Empire’, they said. But nobody ever said anything about being stuck for eighteen months in the middle of nowhere, looking for rocks… with you!”
   “Be quiet and let me finish this scan: Every object larger than half a meter needs to be charted precisely. You can’t build a trans-light corridor without knowing where all the debris is, and you can’t know where all the debris is unless you scan it all. Honestly, what is it you don’t like about our work here? I don’t hear Scarn complaining!”
   Across the flight deck Scarn swiveled around with a bemused look. “Hey, I’m an antisocial systems engineer—I get off on this kind of gig! Just give me a full mug of cabanera, and enough work so it looks like I’m always busy, and I’m happy. Speaking of work, there’s a plasma manifold on deck four that has my name on it. Don’t have too much fun up here scanning those space-pebbles, Kandra… and can you two at least try to play nice? We’ve got another six months out here, and I don’t want to have to rinse either of you out of a console.” With a mechanical clank that reverberated around the compartment, the deck hatch sealed behind Scarn, leaving a silence pierced only by a barely audible beeping.
   Dutifully, Kandra tapped on the blinking indicator, bringing all relevant information related to the warning to her console. Two more indicators sprung to life closer to Denal, who ignored both of them.
   “Denal, would you know why sensor diagnostics are showing up with a region scan warning? No, they’re not malfunctioning—I checked them all when I came on shift.”
   “Why ask me about the damn scanners? I’m only the pilot here; you’re the highly-trained scientist type. Look, Kandra: There’s nothing out here but rocks, rocks, space dust, rocks—oh, and more rocks. Your scanners are probably broken.”
   “Never mind. I don’t know why I asked—” Kandra froze for a moment, staring at a series of repeating lines in the sensor log. “Huh… ‘Unknown factor’? ‘Unknown particle’? This had better not be someone’s idea of a bad joke; Regional Command reviews these logs.”
   Out of boredom and irritation, Denal tapped another of the blinking indicators. A ship layout appeared on his console, with indicators pointing to various internal sensors and settings. “Hoh-lee…” Denal stiffened and began intently working through the warnings showing up on his own console.
   “Kandra, have you ever heard of ‘English’? How did it get into the language translators!?”
   Kandra waved a hand dismissively at Denal; she continued sorting through the sensor logs trying to make sense out of what was being reported. And outside the ship, a blue swirl of energy began dancing and arcing over and between both the ship and nearby asteroid…
   “‘Reality mismatch’!? What the hell does that even mean?” the pilot snarled. “What sort of sensor even can detect ‘reality’, and why do we have one in the mess? Kandra? Kandra!?” Denal stopped yelling at his console and turned to see why Kandra wasn’t answering. He froze in place, his mind trying to register and make sense of what he was seeing. “Kandra… when did you change your top? You’re out of uniform… the standard Imperial uniform is blu—”
   “Be quiet,”
Kandra interrupted. “There’s something seriously wrong here. Your talk of reality mismatch and ludicrous wardrobe can go to the entertainment deck where it belongs. I’m getting very bad energy readings outside—”
   “Yes, there is something wrong… wait… my jacket is red, too? When—how—I don’t even think there’s a single red jacket on this entire ship! Someone’s got a really bizarre sense of humor…”
   “—off the scale! The outer layer of the hull is starting to ionize—the forward inertial guidance system can’t synch to the aft—the asteroid on our port side is reading—”
   And now a phalanx of idiot lights (i.e., eminently imminent danger warnings) lit up idiotically all across the consoles.
   “Okay, that’s it: We need to leave. Now. No time to check with the captain.” Denal tried to bring the ship’s engines to life, but was only rewarded with more warnings and failures. “Damn! Controls are dead? It’s almost as if…”
   A point of light appeared between the asteroid and ship, ignored and unnoticed in the chaos. It wavered in place as if the universe itself was trying with everything it had to keep something out… trying, but failing. After a few more moments the point of light expanded, flooding the area with tendrils of… something.
   “—on the starboard side half the time. Power generator three failure. Two. External sensors offline. This is impossible! Physics—reality—who could possibly—”
   Kendra and Denal turned to stare at each other and exclaimed in horror and panic:
   “Sci-fi writers!”

   As if on cue, generators one and four exploded, ripping through bulkheads to the jump core, breaching the containment vessel. Flames billowed down corridors one by one, crumpling bulkheads and ripping pressure doors out of their mounts. A fireball raced down the main corridor, pausing for a moment as it reached the flight deck bulkhead. It shredded the door, scattering shrapnel through everything in the room before shattering the observation windows and venting itself into space. The hull of the survey vessel mottled and bulged, as if putting one last effort into holding herself together… but the explosion won out, the last of the ship’s oxygen feeding small fires that clung to the debris. A bright flash erupted from deep within the ship’s twisted remains, as her drive core went critical. Pieces of the shattered hull slammed against the asteroid, fracturing the massive rock and sending part of it careening into the opening tear. Remains of the port hull drifted against the edge of the tear, on disintegrated on contact.
   And amidst the wreckage, the rift in space began to stabilize, its edges smoothing out, falling into a slow swirl around its origin point. The center of the rift began rapidly collapsing inward, disappearing from view.
   A small dot appeared at the furthest reaches of the conduit in space, rapidly approaching without any appearance of motion. First it was barely visible, then minor details of shape and texture became discernable, and in a time-span too short for a normal human mind to process, the erstwhile dot solidified into a hulking silhouette, back-lit by a shifting blue-white light and then nothing but empty space. The last of the O2 fires petered out, leaving a field of debris and eerily tranquil space.


   Persephone waited.
   Sitting in the debris field, doing her best to avoid the drifting bits of flotsam, Persephone waited. She was invisible to the universe, cloaked and as patient as only a warship can be.
   “What the hell was that!?”
exclaimed Strider, who’d been taken ever so slightly off-guard by the trans-universal jump.
   “That? You’ll get used to it. Crossing a galaxy is one thing, but crossing the universal boundary? It still makes my skin feel inside out.” I replied, checking our coordinates on a NAV console.
   “And where are we now… and what the hell happened out here?” asked the wolf-morph; the flaming debris outside the ship, like anything else shiny and destructive, had caught his attention.
   “You? You’re where you belong. Home.“
   Strider advanced slowly across the flight deck, claws clacking menacingly on the floor plating. In fact everything about the man-wolf was, by nature, menacing, from his 2.1-meter stature to his bulk and even his body language. “And… you know this, how?”
   “Like so.” Tapping a claw-tip on the next console, I gestured for Strider to see for himself. Various numbers and statistics floated around a flat representation of the wolf, another set around a symbol he should be able to interpret as ‘here’. It was a ninety-percent match. As for the ten-percent divergence, the diagram marked that off as alterations Strider had picked up while he was away.
   “Keep it up and nobody will know where it is you came from, and if what you said is here, that’s a good thing. As for what just happened here…” The image of Strider disappeared and a tactical view of the area took its place with a few button-taps.
   «Perse? Status report, immediate here-and-now?»
   «Mon Capitan! Some poor soul got caught in the wake of our trans-universal bridge.»
   I rolled my eyes. «That’s nice. Do I look like I care who I run over?»
   «No, but you should!»
   «Why? And for that matter, why should you?»
«Because I didn’t get to see!!»
   «You’ve been hanging around me too long.» I chuckled quietly to myself: A ship after my own heart… And after a few more control-taps, Perse’s scans appeared on the screen.
   “…someone got in our way.” I responded, cold and gruff.
   Without waiting for a response from my lupine cohort, I silently moved from the NAV station to the pilot seat, strapped in and began prepping the ship to hunt down Strider’s home planet of Earth —and a cache of weapons that would benefit our tenuous partnership…
   «Is everything green?»
   «Absolutely, Commander! All of my systems are back online and A-OK!»
   «Good. How’s our guest behaving himself?» I prodded, curious about what Striders’ companion is was up to.
   «He still hasn’t broken in, but he has to suspect I’m not what he sees.»
   «Keep him busy; I’ll deal with him later. For now, we’ve got a more important objective: Nuking Rale Surino, who definitely knows too much. To do that, we… you need bigger guns, and your frame was never designed to take on what was in that shipyard. I hope Strider’s promises are good. Light ’em up; it’s time to go.»
   As I strapped myself into the pilot seat it occurred to me that Strider must think me a bit odd, considering what we’d been through so far. Maybe thinking it was some odd quirk of what I had been before. Truth is, I just never felt that the artificial gravity was good enough for my style of flying.
   «Perse, pull up the nav co-ordinates we were given for this universe’s Earth. Check ’em again. While you’re at it, run a search on everything we got from the client that put the bounty on Strider. I want to know everything about them—who they are, to start with. Can’t take any more chances.»
   «Yes, My Liege!»
   Around the flight deck, navigational data streamed across most of the consoles, being checked, sorted and rechecked again, comparing the data we had to the current universe.
   «My Captain! There isn’t much to work with here. Only the minimal navigation observations of a third-rate pilot. To a 99.9% confidence level, I conclude that the client that wanted Strider dead—and that wolf is shedding on me, by the way—is the only trans-universal entity here.»
   Incompetent clients? Business as usual. «Make do with what you’ve got, Perse. Get us to where Earth should be.»
   «Aye-Aye, Sir!»

   I turned a bit in my seat and grinned at Strider who was standing behind me. “I hope you don’t have anyone at home that wants to kill you.”
   “Nobody could, then; let them try now.” Strider sneered back.
   Everything went white for a fraction of a second; a burst of… something… made not of photons, but of harsh, raw blinding, if ‘blinding’ could have substance. Reality took several nanoseconds to decide if it should stay or it should go, then settled. The Persephone, still cloaked, was now holding position in deep space, several million kilometers from Strider’s Earth.
   Perse’s sub-light engines flared to life with a barely perceptible jolt. She settled on a straight course and rapidly began accelerating to her cruising speed of 35 PSL. The Earth, previously a small disc in the distance began getting steadily larger.
   “We’ll be there in a few minutes. What continent do we land on?” I asked without turning away from the controls. Sure, Perse could fly better than me, but where’s the fun in that?


   «Hal, you’re up to something. Didn’t I tell you to quit trying to get into the ship’s systems?»
   «But this ship has an AI—I know I’m just poking at a sandbox!» Despite having a flat monotone voice Hal managed to come across as extremely irritated at being told to not hack.
   «No dice, Hal. We’re hard to kill, but the hard vacuum outside the hull could still do it… I think…» Truthfully, I was annoyed, too; I was waiting for the right time to hit my ‘partner’ with the fact that his ship had failed at hiding its AI nature.
   «Alright, Boss, alright.»
   Then the world twisted, pitched, flipped and yawed, and every sense I had screamed different reports. Differing reports from my ears about balance—and how they differed from what my eyes reported—were nearly enough to make me lose my lunch.
   But as suddenly as it began, the sensation of being dumped in a blender set to ‘puree’ was gone. “What the fuck was that, Stripes?”
   “Jumping between galaxies is easy. That was a jump between universes, and it still tickles,” Reaper replied, a laugh underlying his calm, flat growl.
   “Universes?” I pondered that for a moment. “Where are we?”
   “You’re home, Strider. Earth is a couple gigaparsecs that-a-way, but, you know, this is your universe.”
   “How can…” The question died on my lips as my erstwhile partner pointed at the display registering scans and locks of the universe and myself. Computational implants not tied to Hal got power and recorded the information before starting a compare-and-correlate run. I’d have to get Hal on it for an in-depth analysis and translation, but it was clear that the match would be perfect if it weren’t for all the upgrades I’d given myself back in the TransWar.
   «Alright, Hal, have at it. You know where the data is; give the analysis all the resources it needs.»
   As soon as Hal had the data, Reaper’s move to strap in caught my attention. “Well… I hope there’s nobody that wants you dead.”
   “With any chance of success? None, the last time I was here.” People had been trying to take me out since I’d killed my first executive at the tender age of 14. The cat-lizard-thing beside me was the only one who’d even come close—hell, he would have pulled it off if I didn’t have boltholes and escape routes across the globe! Sure, there are ‘businessmen’ who think that level of prep is excessive and unnecessary. Of course, none of the living ones run anything much bigger than a lemonade stand… And suddenly, the world lurched in the now-familiar fashion of an FTL jump.
   Seconds later Reaper undid his straps and turned around. “Earth: The ass-end of nowhere in a universe so shitty nobody’s even bothered to map it. I’m actually surprised those Interactive Networks idiots found you.”
   “Whatever, number 6. It’s my erstwhile home, and where all my wealth and gear is. Now… well, no reason to hide it from you. Scan Central Park West; you’ll find a building that has my name on the roof in UV and IR. There’s a building next door with what appears to be a small telecomm array on the roof, and that’s my place.”
   «Hal, when we’re in range, access the building security systems and be damned sure they don’t trigger when we set down.»
   «Roger that, boss. Who we going to for the gear to kit-out this ship?»
   «Check the contracts database while you’re resetting home security. I’m positive we’ve got Militech on tap, but Asmark had several reliable prototypes for 10-gigawatt auto-feed railguns… hrm. Lemme check something…»
   “Reaper? What kind of power can the Persephone supply to mounted weapons?”
   “She’s got the juice to rip holes between universes. I doubt any weapons mount can make a significant dent in that kind of energy budget. But… if you happen to… ” The Tigron’s voice trailed off into happy purring, lost in fluffy dreams of all-consuming cosmic obliteration.
   «Hal, make sure we can call in the Aramarc allowance—remember those Gauss Cannon mounts on their orbital research station? And see how much SMM owes us. They found a mother lode in Nevada that the old FedGov had left for them. I’ve heard reports that they’ve been working on something involving concentrated masses of gravity—like miniature black holes.»
   «Gotcha, boss.»
   “Alright, Reaper. Hold at 30K feet once you’re within range of my place. Hal needs to shut down the air-defense grid.”
   “Air-defense?” the Tigron scoffed. “Who cares? We’re cloaked!”
   “Versus mechanical strain gauges? Look: If you land and the defenses are on, the building detonates the top floor using directed-blast plasma explosives.” Tin-Stars and certain mercenary groups loved attacking from the roof level and the ground level at the same time, so rather than have just the hidden laser-cannons and other anti-air guns I’d put a last-resort measure in place. Okay, the explosives weren’t all that stable outside of a very specific temperature and pressure range. So what? The power of them would make a fine mist out of the roof—and anyone and anything on it when they detonated.
   “Oh, then yes—make sure they’re deactivated. Perse doesn’t need holes in her hull.”


   “…plasma blast explosives take the top floor off the building.” was the only part of Strider’s defense layout that I consciously registered.
   Plasma blast explosives? Plasma-fucking-blast explosives!? Now, I appreciate a good fireworks display as much as the next Tigron—and the thick, rich aroma of incinerated human flesh adds a certain piquant charm. But… damn… those sons-of-bitches were violently unpredictable devices whose production had been discontinued (with good reason!) in at least a dozen empires across the multiverse! Perse, I’m sure, didn’t like the idea of landing on a crate of old TNT that could shred even her thick skin.
   «He what!? That crazy—no, rabid—mutt has what on his top floor!? You seriously don’t expect me to land on that time bomb! What sort—»
   “Yes, please, do what you must to make sure they don’t go off. The Persephone doesn’t need a new paint job just yet, never mind the holes it would put in her hull.” I replied to the wolf, ignoring Perse’s ardent and legitimate complaints about our destination.
   «—of crazy, suicidal bastard keeps those around!? Sir? My hull is solid, but it’s not that solid. I’d probably survive, barely, but we’d never make it out of here. Landing here is a very, very bad idea!»
   «SIR! PERSE IS RIGHT, SIR! IF THOSE EXPLOSIVES GO OFF, WE MIGHT NOT BE WELL DONE, BUT WE WOULD BE COOKED, SIR!» Sam interjected. It was his job to watch my back, my front and every other part of me.
   «Perse, we have to land here; and you be quiet, Sam. Your warning is noted, but so far, this Strider has proven he knows what he’s talking about… the weapons he’s got access to must be worth it to come back here. It’s a risk we have to take.»
   Perse, who was a warship through and though, wasn’t about to give up.
   «Can I at least level the area from here? Pleeeaassse? I’m really good! It’d only take out a square kilometer or so, and nobody would notice that. Right? Nobody would notice that much missing? Would they?»
   «No Perse, I’m afraid I can’t let you do that. Think what this assassin would do if we destroyed what he called his home.» The word ‘assassin’ came out dripping with the venom of my former occupation. They did the same job as I, but had crossed the thin red line. Semantics were really the only thing that separated them from me, or did. Old habits die hard. «Just think what I would do to someone who would destroy you?»
   «Thank you for your compassion, Sir, really. Can I at least keep weapons lock on it? That jerk still doesn’t deserve my trust, especially with that AI he’s got poking around my systems. Anything could happen and if it does, that place will be a pile of ashes before I am.»
   «Fine, but keep it quiet. Pissing off someone who’s helping me to hunt a mark has never been a good business practice.»
   «Business? I know you too well, Mon Capitan; this is more than business. This is personal.»
   «Business, personal, what’s the difference? Surino is the current primary target. He’s got the means and influence to make my… all our lives very difficult.»

   Perse went quiet—however, a targeting reticule popped up around a building in the distance. Perse was serious about targeting Strider’s building… as efficient as ever, marking our destination with the best NAV point there was. At least she displayed it in my HUD rather than hers.
   “Strider! Are we clear to land? Remember, only the gods could help you if I have to patch any holes in Perse’s hull from friendly fire,” I grumbled. Perse’s micro repair bots took care of most of the work, but they still needed supervision.
   “Gods? What gods?” Strider nearly growled. “The last one on this Earth was worshiped as a deity until I scrambled his brains with an H-E round.”
   Mmmm… brains… “Exactly. Ah, here we are.”
   I tapped on a command console and the Persephone slowed rapidly, settling into a stationary hover fifty meters above Striders’ secret base. To anyone aboard her, the only sensory cues were the fluid view of the outside world coming to an abrupt halt. On the roof of the structure below them, the name known and feared by many on this world emblazoned to life, ‘ShadowWolf’, becoming visible for a moment as Perse did a final scan of the landing site.
   “So, you found it without any help. Impressive.”
   I grunted in response, paying more attention to the last few meters of our decent than to the pointed comment regarding Perse.

New York, New York: It’s a wonderful town…

   The building was of generous dimensions and all of ten stories tall. It had remained over the years, untouched by the desperate corporate factions of an Earth driven by war profiteering, remaining unobtrusive while standing in plain sight. It was there. It had always been there, respectable and strong. Nothing out of the ordinary happened here, so nobody had ever suspected that this structure, the Kamen Building, was the place where possibly the most dangerous individual on the planet kept his home, his business, his weapons and his reputation. Formerly home to the Kamen Publishing empire, it now had most of its floors occupied with the bustle of a shipping company. This company, in addition to the usual portfolio of standard carrier services offered a highly respected and very secure courier service. This company was owned and operated by one Devin Strider.
   By design, the Kamen Building was crafted to hide in plain sight, inside and out. It had always served that purpose well—until today. The weather was pleasant all over the Greater New York area, with only a light breeze blowing in off of the ocean; except for a few-dozen-meter-radius circle centered on the Kamen Building, that is. Within that anomalous region, the wind suddenly began to whip around at gale force, picking up anything and everything off the nearby buildings that wasn’t nailed down—and having a good go at anything that was. Debris rained down on the streets below, littering the sidewalks with an improbable variety of land-borne flotsam. Not least of these items was a battered kitchen sink that inevitably buried itself in a well-kept sedan parked below.
   As suddenly as it had started, it ended, leaving a few bits of wood and paper to drift serenely down onto the dust-covered sidewalk. One by one, the street’s usual denizens poked their heads out from whatever shelter they’d found, trying to catch a glimpse of what had disturbed their otherwise uneventful lives. And when they did, what they saw was… nothing. The sky above still looked as it had that morning; the streets were still strewn with trash, albeit a very different sort than there had been a few hours ago; the Kamen Building still stood strong and tall. The onlookers were New Yorkers; they’d seen it all and lived through it all, so this had not happened. They ignored the dust and debris around them to get on with their lives, never linking what they had seen to what made headline news in every paper for weeks to come.

   On the roof, a soft thud reverberated through the hull of the Persephone as she touched down on the roof of the compound. Her balance was precarious; she hung off the top edge of the Kamen Building, using her gravity projectors to reduce her enormous weight to nearly nothing and holding herself in place with mooring bolts she’d fired into the roof. After securing her position, Perse put her extraneous flight systems into standby mode one at a time, the dull hum of machinery quieting perceptibly. A new silence hung in the air, seeking out something to fill the void left by the now-silent engines.
   I slid back from the controls, my seat giving out a soft pneumatic hiss which broke the silence that had entrenched itself on the flight deck. Before the silence could take hold again, I swept through the flight deck and down toward the hold, stopping for just a moment to call nonchalantly behind me, “You coming, wolf-boy?”
   «Perse, double-check the GFG and cloak generators. We could be in serious trouble if they give out; from what the hypermutt over there says, these people have barely made it to space. All they’ve done is to find better ways to shoot each other. If you show up or crush the building, they’ll probably start shooting at us with what we’ve come here to get, before we have a chance to sanitize the place.»
   «Yes, sir
   The urban jungle is a perfect place for me to blend in and cause as much havoc as I want; everyone chooses to ignore the horror around them, so they ignore me. Such havens have their own rules, though. Combat is close-range, full of choke points and cover… well, normal combat, anyway. Heavy weapons don’t respect the laws of nyah-nyah you can’t get me, and neither do I.
   On the shelf in front of me was the M149 HyperVelocity Railgun, one of my new favorite toys—a way-cool multi-purpose, anti-everything-that-shouldn’t-be-there weapon. Most military forces that have them, refrain from using them in populated areas because they have only slightly less penetrating power than a neutrino; then again, most military forces mounted them on vehicles.
   After slinging the M149 on my back, I grabbed whatever destructive toys looked interesting or useful: A few Class VI frag charges, a mini-nuke grenade, my trusty MAC-10s, a gravitic displacement blaster, and a full-auto shotgun, among other items. With enough weaponry to make a legion of post-apocalyptic Spartans cower in fear, I headed toward the lowering cargo door, stopping on a whim at a sealed cooler marked with the universal biohazard symbol. Ah! Nothing makes a lasting impression like a lasting impression…
   Strider stopped short and gave a confused look at the very non-lethal-seeming auto-load dart gun and vapor canisters.
   “Going soft on me, dragonbreath?” the wolf sneered, seeming to look a little more vicious.
   “Making someone dead isn’t the only way to give them a very bad day,” I grinned back, tapping the ‘biohazard’ symbol on the magazine and stack of clips with a clawtip. Turning toward the ramp, I continued, “Help yourself to whatever toys you need, so we can go pick up yours. Lead is on you.”
   «Sam, I want the usual hostile tracking and composite firing solution; these people are a pain in the ass. Perse, hold the fort. You know the drill!»
   Defense cannons swung into place overhead with a soft swish.
   A tactical overlay materialized in view and beyond, showing everything from thermal signatures to search radar, along with a few security cameras in the area. Immediately below, however, there was nothing but a blank space.
   Some random human stepped out from behind a crate in a clean-cut suit and a power tie, every bit of his image screaming ‘corporate shark’… wait, I knew that face. From a previous contract. It was definitely Strider—or rather, ShadowWolf’s corporate alter ego, Devin Strider.
   “A suit like that?” I managed to roar out before doubling over with laughter.
   Strider didn’t react; instead, he regarded the laughter with a slightly malicious smirk. “Damn right. In this business, it’s all about keeping your image sharp —and the three blades up your sleeve even sharper. You should know this.”
   He was mostly right, of course. My line of work had always been on the other side of the line, but it amounted to the same thing. While I’d never kept up a business front, there had always been rivalries and standing contracts on my own head that made being a public face a dangerous proposition. I had always simply been a ghost. Strider's suit, however, was said more than keen business. It whispered rather loudly that there was money to be had in killing its wearer, contract or no; probably Hal's idea of a joke.
   “If you’re done laughing, we need to go. Someone might have seen your ship and there are only so many people in the world that would have their ear to something like this… We don’t need the kind of distractions you’ll find here. It is New York, after all.”

   Deep in the San Bernangeles Megaplex, the Denver Arcologies, the submerged domes of Florida, the East Texas Megacity and all other bastions of corporate science sat well-funded and -equipped data interpretation offices. Five light-minutes from Earth, ‘SpaceWatch’—a network of early-warning satellites—sat in stable orbits, put up by the corporations to detect asteroids that might present a negative impact to their gross profits. This included rocks that could wipe out all life on Earth, but it was generally agreed that preserving Earth’s biosphere was an acceptable side effect of this investment.
   The SpaceWatch satellites had the most extensive suite of sensing devices money could buy, covering 12 octaves of the electromagnetic spectrum… and gravity detectors. Without recognizing it for what it truly was, SpaceWatch recorded the massive pulse of gravitons that heralded the Persephone’s entrance into the Sol system, on a direct course for Earth. About two minutes later, the first satellite sent off a pulse of data that contained a picture of the Persephone and nearly complete data on the jump.
   The ship would set off alarm bells; not just because of its existence, but because it disappeared immediately afterwards. But somewhere in one of the many research offices that would receive the data, there was a genius that would recognize the ‘gravitational anomaly’ as the signature of a trans-universal jump. He would build on this finding, reworking the designs of a gravitic cannon to make it more powerful and efficient.
   And within fifty years another scientist would figure out how to use the data and the guts of a gravitic cannon to perform an FTL jump. In a perfect world, someone would put up the money to build the thing, and the Earth would join the interstellar community.
   A world ruled by corporate greed that lacked any effective governments is far from perfect.


   “And look, even an idiot can spot my art if they know where to look!”
   Reaper growled and looked over his shoulder at me. “Can we land safely, wolf? Because not even God can help you if I have to patch any holes in Perse’s hull!”
   «Is the air defense and landing grid offline, Hal?»
   «You wound me, boss. Like I’d want to die along with you!»
   “God? What god? The last one on Earth—this Earth, I mean—was worshiped as a deity until one of my bullets redistributed his brains across 2.4 square meters of asphalt. Now go ahead and land.”
   «Ah, New York City. I wish it had never been absorbed into the Megaplex,» Hal lamented. His original AI had been programmed more than 50 years previously, right before the city had been finally abandoned its fight to remain a separate entity from the rest of the sprawl. Hal himself was only 20, but no corporation will ever toss something as valuable as an AI core…
   «Yes, Hal. I’ve never been as happy, or sad, to see this hellhole,» I responded as I walked off the bridge. The Kamen building wasn’t just my home; it was also the meatspace HQ for the two legitimate businesses I controlled. But no matter how rich I was here, I couldn’t stay—Surino was still out there. Somewhere. After he was dead, well… There was a whole multiverse for me to have fun in. Surely Reaper would like to have some company..?

   “Damned weather-guessers said it wouldn’t be that windy today.”
   “Get over it, Jack. Those fuckers are always wrong,” the other roof-guard fired back, annoyed with his partner’s nigh-ceaseless bitching.
   With a light roar the winds picked up, quickly rising to a near-hurricane force 50 miles per hour.
   “John, are you seeing this?”
   The roof was covered in a shadow even though the sky above was clear. “Cloaked ship?” he shouted back, unsure if his response was audible over the roar of the now hundred-plus mile per hour winds.
   On the ground below, passers-by watched the bodies of two guards splatter on the sidewalk, then resumed their business. Sights like that were common in the megaplex. And regardless of naming conventions, this was still New York.

   I had just finished stowing most of the weapons I’d been using, and making sure the rest were in functional condition, when Hal broke my concentration with an alert that we’d touched down.
   «Alright, Hal. Got a program for this holo-emitter that will make me look like I did when I’d pass through this building in CEO guise?»
   «Working on it, boss. The thing’s memory cells are shot, and it’s a fight to get it to accept a new program.»
   With a flick of the wrist I tested the blades strapped to them and smiled as they popped out like a giant claw. «Guess it’s the Armory first, then.» I checked the battery and mount of the holo-emitter on my combat webbing and set out for the cargo hold. «How’s the contract load look, Hal?»
   «You’ve got some people begging for your help—but these are contracts you’ve turned down in the past. News feeds claim that this period of inactivity from you might indicate your death.»

   What was the phrase—‘the reports of my death were stupid’? Big fucking deal; I got declared dead every time I took a break from the assassin game. The only difference this time was, my ‘sabbatical’ had been involuntary. «What’s the global time-pulse look like? How long were we gone?»
   Hal flashed a series of numbers for me before answering. «Looks like three months, boss.»
   Turning the corner into the corridor that ran under the cargo-hold I frowned. «That’s bad, Hal. Really bad.»
   «Like, Duh, Boss!»
he spat back in a perfectly synthesized valley-girl accent, then continued in his normal voice. «And it’s going to be even longer. Remember the oath you swore? Surino can connect both your old and new faces to the ShadowWolf name.»
   I let the conversation drop and continued walking, because he was right. Right or wrong, however, I didn’t think I’d be coming back here after leaving with Reaper. Even if Reaper decided to strand me on some other planet—or in some other dimension—I had enough information to build my own ship. I’d need money, granted, but funds were a lot easier to come by.
   I had just finished climbing the ladder into the cargo-hold when I realized that being gone that long was also very bad for my two legitimate businesses. «Hal, what’s the laundering operation look like?»
   «Import/Export is doing well, even though they had a run-in with the FedGov dregs. Cost them a nano-enrichment plant. Da Vinci Arms had a tight contract and even though the plutonium was delivered, they called on the late fees, the non-performance fees and we had to buy a new one.»

   I groaned. Those fees were purposefully set high—to force my employees to not get caught. So I knew the bill was at least ten megabux. «Shit! How bad did that dent the cash flow?»
   «Hmm… not bad, boss. Only 25 million and three top black-couriers.»
   «Which ones?»
   «Skull, Pug and Zombie.»
   «Christ… I recruited and trained them myself, Hal. Set up some compensation—I know Skull was married and had several kids.»

   It was true: Skull was the first one I’d trained to take over my smuggling operation when I started taking my company fully legitimate. Pug and Zombie were originally nearly twins—they were both clones of some Solo and were meant as an organ farm for repairs, but had defects that had rendered some parts unusable. For that team to be gone, the agents that had gotten them had to be good.
   «Worse news, boss. Seems UPS has declared war on LightSpeed Couriers. They’ve lost 20 runners in the past week.»
   I had just come around a stack of crates near Persephone’s huge loading-gate, and stopped to think about how to really handle that one. If UPS had decided that LSC was a threat, the only way to stop them was to be a bigger threat. «Plant a leak, Hal. Make it about ShadowWolf taking a provisional contract. If any more LSC personnel are killed after 1900 Unified, the ’Wolf starts collecting the heads of UPS executives.»
   “One thing, Reaper: Zero body-count. People in this building work for me.” I said as I walked up to him. I was practically naked: The gear I’d been using since the TransWar was stored in the cabin I’d claimed for myself on his ship. There was a lot more here that I’d be able to take with me—and a lot I wouldn’t be able to take. The top floor had an ‘armory’, of sorts, for anyone that had the balls to break in and look. But the real deal was a lot larger; it filled a several-acre bunker that was situated more than 500 feet below the lowest floor of the building.
   Down the ramp and to the left was the single entry to the building at this point—the single publicly known entry, anyway. I turned right and reached for the hidden fake entry panel, preparing to keep it secret that Hal was the actual key to this secret… oh, what the hell. “Screw it,” I muttered, deciding that it was better to just trust Reaper with this secret.
   «Open the pod-bay doors, Hal.»
   «Why do you have to do that, boss? You know I hate that movie! He was a total incompetent—he had no idea how to run a proper clandestine operation!»
   «Complaints, complaints. Keep bitching and I won’t get you that memory and processor upgrade you’ve been wanting.» Hal was always asking for upgrades, despite the fact that he was already carrying the best processor and more memory than was medically safe.
   But even though he bitched, he sent the signal and a vent unit moved aside, seconds before a section of concrete wall slid open, revealing a hidden elevator. I stepped inside, and turned around smiling.
   “Why you sneaky, whore-son bastard!” Reaper laughed. “So that’s how you disappeared the first night I was after you!”
   That’s why I respected the guy and considered him both a good friend and my worst enemy. We’d fought almost every night for a week before those cocksuckers at Interactive Networks conscripted me and transported me across dimensions—and the galaxy—to be a combatant in their idiotic ‘TransWar’… It was fun, and somehow Reaper had tracked me there. Together our fight nearly destroyed the deserted colony-station where it had been staged. We’d only stopped fighting—and started working together—to take out the people that were actually hidden in the station watching the ‘live’ version of the show.
   “What are you waiting for, jailbird?” I quipped as the doors to the elevator started to close.
   Reaper stepped inside, apparently surprised at the size of the elevator. “So how long’s this going to take, fang-face?”
   “Not long. And keep your wings closed and your arms at your sides.” I chuckled and hit a floor button at random. The result would have been the same no matter which button I pushed: The floor dropped out and the black, unlit shaft under us sped by. I’d rigged this elevator long ago to be both a trap and entrance at the same time.
   “I’m gonna kill you!” Reaper screamed, stunned by the sudden free-fall.
   Less than a minute later the free-fall slowed, as fingers of altered gravity reached out to dampen local gravity around us. When my feet touched the hard granite of the bedrock—and bottom of the shaft—I laughed: “Well, Stripes, did my little trick scare you that bad?”


   This building was Strider’s home turf, his equivalent of the Persephone. Here it was best to give him some space; after all, I had been trying to kill him. Off in the dark recesses of the multiverse he may have needed me, but now he was back home and might have decided I was a liability he didn’t need any more. Which is why I stayed on Perse’s loading ramp with her defense guns behind me, nonchalantly leaning against her hull.
   Meanwhile, Strider made for a set of reinforced glass double doors off to the left of the ramp. Halfway there he stopped, looked back and muttered something, then turned toward one of the other structures built onto the roof. It looked like some kind of ventilation system, maybe a low, shielded cooling tower, with steamy air billowing out from the horizontal slats that made up its walls. The only way in seemed to be a very heavy security door on the far edge marked ‘Machinery’. Yeah, right; there’s no way that was where Strider was going.
   As he neared that one structure, several fissures appeared in its slats, forming the outline of two panels. These slid outward, then shifted along the face of the tower. Behind the vents was a very solid-looking concrete wall. Like the ventilation system, it belonged there. Also like the ventilation system, it was more than it appeared: The seam down the middle of the wall slowly expanded as the two poured sections swung outward. Within moments, the heavy doors locked open with a soft crunch and lights flickered to life inside the small room.
   «You’re right. It wasn’t like the 300-meter explosion he used as a diversion in New Delhi or the trap he laid for me in Madrid. Sam, can you detect anything dangerous?»
   «Damn, I always wondered how he got away. Let’s see what the nervy bastard has to hide…»
   “… You mangy son-of-a-whore! This is how you disappeared on me that first night!”
   A wide grin spread across Strider’s maw. Of course that’s how he did it! There was no other way for him to vanish so quickly or completely. His disappearing trick sparked off a hunt that led around his tiny world. Never was able to collect the bounty on him, though; the bastards at Interactive Networks caught him first. Ah well, the secrets of a wolf are never free… I thought to myself.
   “What are you waiting for, jailbird?” The wolf called out mockingly, doing something with the controls on the inside of the elevator.
   …nor do they have infinite patience, came to mind as the concrete doors began to swing closed. Without a second thought, I sprinted to the elevator managing to slip through just in time, pulling my tail clear of the doors as they locked in place with a very solid thud.
   The elevator itself was a lot nicer than it appeared on the outside; clean, well-lit, and was large enough that I didn’t feel cramped. It looked every bit like an old freight elevator that Strider had shinied up for his personal lair. There were a few things odd about it, though. Like a distinct lack of the scratch marks and wear that you’d normally find in a well-used elevator. At least it looked solid enough.
   “So where’s this secret hideout of yours and how long will it take to get down there, fang-face?”
   “Not long. A minute at most, but remember, keep your arms and wings tight against your body.” Then Strider chuckled as he turned his back to me and pressed a button.
   There was an ominous click just beneath the floor after Strider shifted his weight back from the button and seemed to ready himself for something. What normally was a joke now took on a bit more meaning as a warning.
   “Wait, wha—” I managed to get out before Sam punched up some neurokinetics, and the world slowed down around me.
«Sam! Status!»
   Sam was right; the floor was splitting in the middle. It was wide enough that had there been anywhere to get a handhold, I still couldn’t have made it to an edge. And like the wolf had warned, there was no room to open up my wings. This was definitely a trap meant to catch the unwary.
   «Sam, can you jam the trap?»
   The floor continued to swing downward, more of the dark and foreboding shaft below visible through the widening crack. Gravity took over and sucked me downward into the darkness.
   «Yes, the bastard—»
   “I’m going to kill you for this!” I shouted at the wolf, echoing the thought over every comm channel.
   I did as Sam told me, and blinked in shock for a moment: The wolf looked more like an Olympic high-diver than someone haphazardly plummeting down an elevator shaft. «Damn! You’re right!» I replied to Sam. «Sonofabitch does have a nasty bag of tricks.»
   «No. Whatever Strider is up to, I’m not missing whatever window he’s shooting for. Who knows what traps the devious bastard’s got down there? Just let me know when we get close to the bottom.»
   «SIR, YES SIR!»

   Sam eased up on my neurokinetics and things returned to normal, if you can call ‘elevator walls whipping by at terminal velocity’ normal. A wire-frame schematic of the building popped up on my HUD at around the second floor, indicating that the bottom of the shaft was at sub-basement two. Nearing sub-basement one, however, the diagram flickered and displayed confused bits of a shaft that extended well beyond the sub-basements. Again, just after passing what should have been the lowest part of the building, the diagram flickered, this time showing only the shaft, with the bottom some hundred-thirty meters below.
   «Forget ‘devious’ bastard. Paranoid bastard suits better!»
   At the point in the fall where most people who didn’t mean to jump suddenly realize there is no hope, only stool, my fall began to slow. At first I thought Sam was playing with my head, but after a moment I realized it was not just me. There was a definite force pushing up against my body unevenly, like wind blowing up some actress’ skirt. Some sort of antigrav generator was my best guess.
   With the floor only feet below me, I twisted around to get in a better posture to land, with easy access to at least one weapon and landed low to the floor with a soft thud.
   Strider had landed meters in front of me. That shit-eating grin of his got wider as he laughed. “So, Stripes. Hope my little trick didn’t scare you too badly.”
   “No, you Bastard Wolf. You just dropped me down an elevator shaft. What’s so frightening about that? Quit playing around, there’s work to do.”
   If we’d hit the marble floor we were now standing on, from the top of the building, even I would have gone crunch. Bastard!


   Reaper was right—and wrong. That was the fastest (actually, ‘only’) entrance that could be accessed from the roof. The other one, the first entrance I’d found after I acquired the building, was off the subway and had first led me to this place. With its own comm-lines, regenerative fusion generators and everything else needed for self-sufficiency, the bunker could survive almost everything that could possibly be thrown at it.
   “Whoa! Hold up, jailbird—you really think I’d have an obvious visible entrance?” I had to stop Reaper as he reached out to open the door leading into a false entrance. While it might not have killed him, it most surely would have pissed him off. Doubly so when he realized that it went nowhere.
   “What? Sensors don’t show any other entrances.”
   «Hal, send the codes.»
   Before I even finished sending Hal that order, the wall to the right of the visible entrance shimmered and dissolved, showing a clear path through two feet of concrete and another foot of steel and lead plating. “Open, Says Me!”
   As I walked into my bunker a grin spread across my muzzle. Ten rooms, more than four acres of floor space, and two different levels. The bunker could have supported a small army. As the wall reformed behind Reaper, I chuckled: “Nanites make a damned fine door, don’t they?”
   The door opened into what you could call a ‘Media Room’—two holo-projector displays and six massive LPD screens. All of them flickered to life as I stepped into the room. Data about different possible sources for the gear for Persephone flickering and scrolling around as HAL connected to the bunkers network and started scanning my database of contracts and IOU’s.
   “Food and Head to the left. I’m heading to my armory. Screens should have data on what kinds of gear I can get for the Persephone.” Of course the armory was down a set of stairs and through a massive set of doors. But then, that was also the largest part of the bunker…
   I turned to walk to my favorite part of the building when Hal started shouting.
   «Boss! No way to make sure Reaper behaves down here, and you’re going to leave him alone?»
   «Gah! Thanks, Hal.»
   With a smile I turned to the winged one and laughed. “What are you waiting for, Stripes? You’ll love this.”
   Whatever they had originally intended this bunker to be, the room that my Armory now occupied was by far the largest part of it. At 836 feet long, 418 feet wide and 209 feet tall—that’s more than 4 acres of floor space—Hal thought it might have been for a distributed supercomputer of some sort…
   «Hal, you still trying to find a way to get me to give you a massive super to run around in ?»
   «I’d never, boss!» he protested. He lied. HAL was a lot like me, and if I were him I’d have been constantly plotting ways to get a larger, more powerful home. On top of that it seemed built-in to every full-AI to try and expand. «Why do you ask?»
   «Heh! Never mind.»

   …and I thought it was perfect for a reconfigurable practice space. However, when I’d found the bunker I needed storage space for my gear more than a training room. So the room became my armory.
   Five years ago it had been more than adequate to store my gear. But when I couldn’t find my crate of EM-grenades last year, I sent a group of bots in to reconfigure the space. Think of it as reorganizing a closet, except on a somewhat grander scale, okay? Storage racks now stretched from the floor to the ceiling and were packed in with a density, path design and storage layout that made the best possible use of the room’s 73 million cubic feet of space… and, coincidentally, also made it impossible for anything but the bots that had done the job to navigate the maze—or find anything in it.
   Armored automatic doors slid open at Hal’s command as I approached. «Hal, where is 343? That bot is supposed to always be here to greet whoever opens the door!»
   «Beats me, Boss. You forgetting there are no real scanners for examining the Armory? Besides, that floating block is insane, and you know it.»

   “Gah!” Reaper shouted and leaped back as the small, roughly cube-shaped bot named 343 dropped some sort of cloak and flew between the Tigron’s legs.
   “He’s interesting, master. Can I keep him?” the bot asked as it floated up in front of my face.
   After the bots had finished the work in reconfiguring my armory I’d ordered them to destroy each other. Guess which bot survived the experience? “Active mode, 343. I need a pair of Theta-Arcologies Defender Pistols, model 22 in .50 Action Express…”
   “Theta-Arcologies: Home of the best close-combat pistols on the planet presents the Model 22 Defender! Coming in .38 Special, .357 Magnum and .50 Action Express this semi-automatic pistol offers a 20 round magazine for all calibers and has a security system built-in to stop even the worst drug-zonks from using your weapon against you,” the bot interjected. 343 might have survived the ‘purge’, but he sure wasn’t intact. Even so, it was good that something had lived through the cyber-slaughter, because after the smoke cleared, I discovered that none of the bots had made any external backups of the armory’s layout…
   “A Militech Arms SR-60 .75 ELR automatic sniper rifle…”
   “The SR-60 in .75 ELR is rated as accurate at 4400 yards and there are records of a target being hit at 5280 yards.”
   The bot was right, and that’s why I wanted the gun. It was capable of 3-millimeter groups at a mile and 11mm groups at two miles—at its maximum ‘accurate’ range of two and a half miles, it was guaranteed that the bullet would be within 12.7mm of where you wanted it to go. “Two Davidson Corporation XD-40 Automatic Railguns…”
   “Davidson Corporation recommends the XD-40 for anyone that needs to add heavy firepower to their personal vehicle or defense droid. Capable of firing two thousand rounds per minute, the XD-40 will stop anything with less armor than the Davidson DT-66 Scarab Main Battle Tank.”
   “Strider, that bot is very annoying and I will destroy it if it doesn’t shut up.” Reaper growled, apparently sick of the bot’s bad habit of quoting advertising copy or facts about every weapon it is asked for.
   “343, hold order.” I commanded before turning to face Reaper. “You’re right: That bot is extremely annoying. But it’s got serious job security—it’s the only thing that actually knows where to find everything in the 4-cubic-acre twisted maze of my armory.”
   Reaper nodded. “Gotcha. And those are some nice toys… Anything else we can play with?”
   I turned back to the bot. “343, resume order.” Looking over my shoulder I smiled. “Go ahead, order something.”
   “Particle weapon, mid-range, man portable or vehicle mounted, megawatt power range.”
   “343, execute current order. Deliver the item my friend requested first.”
   “Of course, sir!” The bot responded and disappeared into the maze of corridors. It showed up less than a minute later with a familiar, large weapon in a set of manipulators that it had slipped into. “Delivery of Sandia Labs FEL-10 MPL system with a three megawatt power range complete. The Sandia Labs Free Electron Laser is the best on the market, with a frequency range tunable for anything from 3 gigahertz to 27 exahertz at all available power settings. The beam itself can be tuned for output size within a 10-micrometer range of the wavelength. When you need a high power energy weapon, remember Sandia Labs! Now returning for…”
   “343, Hold delivery. Reopen existing order, pause input system.” I picked the gun up off the table where the bot had placed it and tossed it to Reaper. “Yes, Stripes, I have plenty of fun toys.”
   “I see.” Reaper chuckled, tested the weight of the weapon, shouldered it once, then hung it off his harness.
   “343, Resume order. Davidson Military Arms MP-88SD in .480AE. Breaching and demolition standard load explosives. Extended combat mission reload package for all ordered weapons. Extra-large combat gear harness with holsters and mounts for all ordered equipment, two spec-3 energy weapon holsters extra. Execute order.” I sat in a chair I’d put in place just because of the wait, knowing it would be at least five minutes before the order was completed.
   «Bad news, Boss: Davidson and Militech are refusing to honor their markers. However, Aramarc has promised delivery of five 300mm gauss cannons to the Brooklyn Port site, and SMM has admitted to having a point-gravity cannon—and they’re going to deliver it to the JFK alternate site. Asmark has yet to respond, but that is common for them.»
   «Drop the common hints that Davidson and Militech both are being targeted for failure to stand by a marker.» I was pissed—not because it was disrespectful, but because it was a matter of payment. I’d done work for them for the promise of my choice of future repayment. Well, the last company that had tried to stiff me was no longer around.
   “Problem, Reaper. Two companies are refusing to pay back some major outstanding IOUs. The bright side is that Perse will soon have five 300mm turreted gauss cannons and a turreted point-gravity cannon.” I looked at my might-be-a-partner and laughed to myself; he was really, really itchy and wanting to test the laser.
   “Really? You have other sources for what those companies were going to supply?”
   Standing, I shook my head. “Of course I’ve got alternate sources—but these clowns don’t get to ignore my markers. For now…” I turned and started walking for a barely visible door in the concrete wall at the end of the corridor. “There’s a room I think you’ll love: My private firing range.”
   «Hal, make sure the firing-range shields are set so they can handle that laser’s max settings. In fact, make sure they’re tuned to handle three times what that laser is normally capable of. No telling what those funky nanites of Reaper’s can retune it to do.»
   «Gotcha, Boss! You know, if you don’t care whether or not the gun survives the experience, its power cell should able to deliver ten times its standard, rated output in a single burst... I think I’d better prep for a factor-of-twelve boost.»
   The door, a solid chunk of the concrete wall, slid away from me six inches and then hissed to the side, as if it didn’t weigh several hundred kilos. “Standard target controls. Range is a full kilometer to the backstop, and there are shields enough to stop that laser’s top setting. I’m going to go collect the goods from the armory.”


   “Hold it! Do you think I’d leave my entrance visible, Jailbird?”
   I froze. Strider might be provincial, and cautious enough to make me look careless in some ways, but surely he wasn’t crazy (or stupid) enough to have a refuge with exactly 1 (one) egress—let alone booby-trap that single point of failure?
   «Sam, do another scan. We’re missing something.»
   “What? This is the only entrance on sensors. Disarm this shit already.”
   Sam’s scan quickly imposed a tactical overlay on my field of vision. The wall was… concrete, steel, more concrete, some lead and more steel, well over a half-meter combined. No EM currents, fields or active shielding… and still the only entrance was right in the middle of the wall. It could only have been more obvious it was the only entrance if it had gaudy blinking lights you would find at a strip club and ‘entrance’ written in flashing neon above it.
   This entrance was as wired up as it was before, probably the same plasma explosive charges that were on the roof. The system looked self-contained and almost like it was really meant to be a legitimate system to keep only one door open at a time. I’d noticed it before, but only because all of this crazy bastard’s other traps put me on edge.
   Something caught my attention on the scan overlay: Infinitesimally small points of energy had invaded the wall, and quickly saturated it entirely.
   «I see it too, Sam.»
   Right… nanotech. Molecular disassemblers chewed away at the concrete wall, moving it aside at an alarming rate. After only a second or two the wall had already begun to visibly ripple, becoming more and more transparent, finally disappearing in a swiftly-dissipating cloud of shimmering dust.
   “Open, Says Me!” Strider commanded.
   As Strider walked past me and into the newly created doorway, I caught a glimpse of a wide grin on his muzzle, the sort of knowing and self-satisfied grin of someone who knew what they were doing and were proud of their work. I later found out that one person had actually made it this far—they noticed the explosives in the door and had tried to cut through the wall, but didn’t get much more than a centimeter in before the nanites ate them.
   Weaponized nanotechnology, eh? So maybe he wasn’t so provincial; just paranoid and a bit crazy. In other words, someone I could probably work with, for a while anyway.
   There was no other option but to follow Strider into his den. Whatever traps he had outside would be an annoyance—maybe even a serious annoyance—but more than that, I was curious what the notorious assassin had amassed. You know what they say about cats and curiosity…
   I stepped through the doorway and surveyed what Strider had come all this way for.
   With Strider as paranoid as he was, I couldn’t afford to take any chances of my own. Sam’s job, as usual, was to keep my fuzzy tail out of trouble. Entry and exits here were limited, so if push came to shiv, every tactical advantage I could find might be necessary.
   From behind me came a sound of crystallizing ice, followed by the feeling of nothing-all-around-me being replaced with a back-to-the-wall sensation. This could only be the doorway vanishing, with it my only means of retreat.
   “Nanites. Damned good way to hide a door, eh? Food and Head are over there.” Strider gestured to the left of where we had come in, then down a wide staircase. “I’m heading to my armory. These screens here should display all the data on what kinds of gear I can get for the Persephone.”
   Strider seemed to forget about me for a moment but only made it to the first step before stopping to look back over his shoulder.
   “I’m not waiting forever. Besides, you’ll like this, Stripes.”
   It was obvious he wasn’t used to guests and understandably didn’t want to leave me to my own devices. Hell, I wouldn’t have left him alone on Perse if she wasn’t such a cranky bitch whenever anyone tried to do any real damage; let’s just say that having your intestines teleported around your neck before you find yourself floating out an airlock can ruin even the best of days. It was also obvious that Strider was waiting for me, because he hadn’t moved.
   As I took a step toward the stairs, this planet’s #1 Sentient Wolf-Like Nightmare gave me an amused smirk and continued down the stairs.
   «What do you think, Sam?»
   «Can’t you destroy them before they act?»
   «You’re right. If you attack the nanites, Strider might decide to go hostile and I can’t deal with him while you’re busy fighting for my body. Leave them be for now.»
   Behind me the heavy blast doors keeping this room secure… no, contained… closed behind me with a dull thud.
   «Well, Sam?»
   A fast moving blip showed up on peripheral sensor range, moving erratically through the maze of racks. I slipped my paw to a MAC-10, but before I could reach it, the little bot had gotten behind me and darted between my legs.
   “Gaah!” I bellowed, jumping back a meter. “…motherfucking-piece-of-shit-bot…”
   The little bot stopped dead in front of Strider and floated upward until it was level with his muzzle.
   “He’s interesting, master! Can I keep him? Huh? Huh? Can I? Huh?” Noisy and rude: Not a good combination in a servitor-bot.
   Strider didn’t seem to notice the bot’s comment; he got right to business.
   “Active mode, 343, I need a pair of Theta-Arcologies Defender Pistols, model 22 in .50 Action Express…”
   The little bot broke in with a cheerful voice right out of the last 25 arms commercials you’ve seen: “Theta-Arcologies: Home of the best close-combat pistols on the planet presents the Model 22 Defender! Coming in .38 Special, .357 Magnum and .50 Action Express… pistol offers a 20 round magazine… security system built-in to stop even the worst drug-zonks from using your weapon…”
   “A Militech Arms SR-60 .75ELR automatic sniper rifle…”
   “The SR-60 in .75 ELR is… accurate at 4400 yards and there are records of… blah… hit at 5280 yards.”
   After the bot went silent, Strider continued his order. “Two Davidson Corporation XD-40 Automatic Railguns…”
   “Davidson Corporation recommends the XD-40… blah blah… firepower to their… blah blah blah… Capable of firing two-thousand rounds … blah blah… stop anything with … blah blah blah blah … Tank.”
   The bot was a fucking floating sales pitch for every weapon in Striders arsenal. Just fucking great! Four cubic acres of weapons, and a loud-mouthed tagline for every fucking one of them! The little piece of scrap was asking for it more with every second.
   My MAC-10 slid out of its holster with ease, the firing mechanism making a very satisfying click-chunk noise as it was brought to condition-one and the sights framing the perfect picture of the bot, in my line of fire.
   “Strider, make the bot shut up or I’ll destroy it.” I growled, sick of the litany of adverts from the little piece of scrap.
   “343, hold order,” Strider turned. “Yes, it is extremely annoying, but I haven’t destroyed it myself because it’s got the only map to find everything in my four-cubic-acre maze of an armory.”
   Oh. Sorry, baby, I apologized to my weapon as I holstered it, but papa can’t let you play with the irritating cube. I growled again: “Fine. You’ve called up some nice toys. What else you got?”
   Strider got his self-satisfied grin again and turned to the bot. “343, resume order.” He looked over his shoulder, still grinning: “Find out for yourself.”
   There wasn’t much time to find the illegal arms market—come on, even (if not ‘especially’) a world like this had to have one—so I figured I’d test the exotic waters.
   “Particle weapon, mid-range, man portable or vehicle mounted, megawatt power range.”
   Strider nodded at me before turning back to the bot. “343, execute current order, but deliver that item my trigger-happy friend ordered first.”
   “Sir!” the bot responded, somehow managing to look like it had snapped to attention and given a smart salute. Neat trick for something that didn’t actually have arms or legs. It darted off with the same erratic, high-speed maneuvers it had appeared with.
   The annoying little floating sales pitch returned just under a minute later, carrying a large rifle of sorts in a set of manipulators that were obviously not meant to be used like that.
   “Delivery of Sandia Labs FEL-10 MPL system with a three-megawatt power range complete. The Sandia Labs Free Electron Laser is the best … blah blah… frequency range tunable for anything from 3 gigahertz to 27 exahertz at all available power settings. The beam itself can be tuned for output size within a 10-micrometer range of the wavelength. When you need a… blah blah blah… remember Sandia Labs!”
   Stupid bot.
   “Now returning for…”
   Strider interrupted the metallic gofer: “343. Hold delivery. Reopen existing order, pause input system.” He ignored the bot that had a disturbing look of anticipation and picked up the FEL-10 from the table. He gave the weapon a once-over and tossed it to me. “Yes, Stripes, I do have plenty of fun toys.”
   “I see,” I chuckled, giving the weapon a quick inspection myself.
   «Sam, I want a deep scan of this weapon. They’ve managed to weaponize FEL tech and miniaturize megawatt power output down to something this size. See if you can mod it any.»
   I smirked and shouldered the weapon, sighting it in on 343, testing the weight and angles. Satisfied, I clipped it to an empty spot on my harness. It could be useful later.
   Strider chuckled and turned back to the armory attendant.
   “343, Resume order. Davidson Military Arms MP-88SD in .480AE. Extended combat mission reload package for all ordered weapons. Extra-large combat harness with holsters and mounts for all ordered equipment, two spec-3 energy weapon holsters extra. Execute order.”
   Strider flopped into a large, overstuffed, vaguely throne-like chair and relaxed quietly, motionless, with both eyes nearly closed.
   «Sam. What have you found so far?»
   «So if the power is reduced, the capacity will be extended…»
   «Heat problems?»
   «Okay. See what you can do to improve power handling. This weapon will be the test on trusting Perse to their hardware.»
   Strider sat up suddenly, brow furrowed, eyeing my paw that had drifted to the FEL rifle for a moment before speaking.
   “Problem, Reaper. I’ve got two companies refusing to make good on some major IOU’s. The good news, though, is that Perse will soon have five 300mm turreted gauss cannons and a turreted point-gravity cannon.” Strider sniggered.
   “Really? Why do you care? Can’t you just go to another company when a supplier won’t make good?”
   Strider’s look galvanized and he shook his head. “Not the point, catboy. They don’t get to decline my markers. But for now…” Strider turned and walked down a corridor. “…here’s something you’ll really like: My private firing range.” Strider paused as the concrete door slid out of the way. “The target controls are standard, and the range is a full kilometer long. And don’t worry about the laser going through the backstop; there’s enough shielding to stop that thing at its max setting. I’m going to go collect my gear. Stay here…”
   He turned back up the corridor.
   “… and least try to behave yourself, hm?”
   One of the heaviest targets I could find in Strider’s supply locker went rocketing down toward the far end of the firing range.
   “Yeah, sure.” I replied, already shouldering the FEL rifle.
   I stayed at low power setting for the first few shots, to get a feel for the weapon accuracy and handling. My shots scored the target deeply in a small cluster around the center mark.
   «Sam, have you increased the power density of this thing yet?»
   «Fine. What can you give me now?»
   «I was hoping for more, but that’ll do for now.»
   «It’s reading 90% power remaining… that should give enough for a test.»
   «Full power, Sam.»
   Unable to resist the urge to show off, I turned back toward the corridor and bellowed to the Mangy Wolf down the hall, “Hey, fang-face! You’ll love this!”
   I brought the weapon level with the armored plate I’d sent to the far end of the range. The targeting reticule Sam had thoughtfully given me hovered over the target’s center. Pausing to savor the moment… I gently squeezed the trigger.
   The FEL rifle did not fire. Instead, it hummed, hesitant and strained. After a full second, a solid shaft of light streaked downrange, flooding the entire room with a bright flash, before slicing effortlessly through the target, slamming into the wall behind and disappearing with a thunderous clap that echoed around the chamber.
   Lowering the weapon, I surveyed the damage that had been done to the target.
   «What happened?»
   “Oh hell—”
   Sam would explain it all later, but I’d already learned to listen to him when he got like that. It hurt less.
   With a push on the release, the power cell dropped into my paw. It was hot, nearly glowing and burned as I threw it toward the far end of the range. It didn’t get past 20m before it exploded, the ball of flame billowing back over me.
   As the last debris settled to the floor, Strider came charging through the doorway, a look of irritation as easy to read as a graphic novel.
   “What the hell are you doing!?!?”
   “I’m smoking. Sorry—I should have asked first, right?” I quipped, putting out the last patch of smoldering fur.
   “Don’t blow things up in my house!” Strider growled.
   A wisp of vaporized metal drifted from the upturned barrel as I eyed the empty receiver.
   “Nice gun, but it had a defective power cell. Got any spares?”

to be continued

because we can

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