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CHAPTER THIRTY-NINE: SPACE OPERA

A person had better be prepared to defend himself in this world, because, thanks mostly to the laws of Physics, nobody—not your neighbors, not your friends, not even your family, and especially not the police—can be counted on to be there when you need them.

I’ve repeated this observation many times in speeches I’ve given over the years. When the day comes that someone in the audience asks me, “What’s the police?”, I’ll know that someone was listening.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

Warning! Catastrophic engine failure in thirty-two seconds! Warning! Catastrophic engine failure in thirty seconds! Warning! Catastrophic engine failure in twenty-eight seconds! Warning! Catastrophic—

Wilson reached to his left forearm to switch the channel his suit radio was receiving on. Shorty saw him, and signalled to Marko and Scotty.

“You here, Commodore?” Shorty asked, having switched frequencies, himself.

Wilson said, “None of us is going to be here if we don’t get this done!”

The four of them were laboring, tools in hand, in the two-foot space between Shorty’s vessel and its bad engine—the one Wilson had shot off, then helped reattach to the ship, La Diabla, or She Devil as Wilson now thought of her—before it exploded, taking most of the vessel with it. La Diabla had been warning them like this for twenty minutes, during which they’d discovered that the mechanism for jettisoning engines that were about to fail catastrophically had failed catastrophically itself during the firefight or afterward, when the engine had been rewelded onto its four stanchions, each of which now had to be cut manually.

“Okay, here we go, gentlemen!” Mikey chose that moment to jet into the center of the narrow space with a package under his arm. “One Gabney Mark Four probe motor, sans probe! Very expensive—I’m sure glad it isn’t mine. I’ll just install it at the center of gravity and back away. You guys sing out when your stanchions are cut and I’ll fire!”

It was hard going, as the stanchions—in effect, each bore a twelfth of the ship’s mass, multipled by acceleration—were tough. There weren’t enough torches available—Scotty and Marko had them—so Wilson and Shorty had resorted to hacksaws to cut the bad engine free.

“I’m clear!” Marko shouted. He shut his cutting torch off to back away.

“Me, too!” cried Scotty. He had a bad moment with a tangled hose, but got it clear of the engine and itself, and joined Scotty where he hung.

Wilson was only about halfway through the stanchion. It had just occurred to him the try the particle cannon or one of the lasers he had aboard Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend—but only too late to do any good. In some ways, he thought, it was the story of his whole life so far.

“I’m clear!” shouted Shorty.

“Then the three of you get out of here!,” said Wilson. “Away from the—”

In that instant, the stanchion broke free, Wilson jetted backwards, away from La Diabla as fast as he could, and Mikey fired the probe motor which, slowly at first, but gathering speed rapidly, took the failing engine away. At about two miles, by Wilson’s estimate, it exploded.

“That was close,” said Scotty.

Marko managed a relieved whistle.

“Hey, you guys, we’ve got the board finished, in here,” said Casey McCarthy, the person formerly known to Wilson as “Beanpole”. He and Merton Kwembly—”Boils”—were aboard La Diabla now, making all the adjustments necessary for thrusting on two engines instead of three.

They’d taken Pimble Pharch—”Fatty”—with them, mostly to keep an eye on him, but he’d proven himself helpful. It had been his idea to use the probe motor—he’d had it in his “junk” compartment—when they couldn’t get the explosive bolts to work.

“Okay, gentlemen, good job!” Wilson said. “But the coffee break’s over for now! Everybody back to your ships! We’ve gotta make gees again!”

They were about three quarters of the way to catching up with The City of Newark, but had had to drop out of acceleration to deal with this problem, and they’d lost two hours. As Wilson plunked himself back in his pilot’s chair, Mighty Mouse’s Girfriend was showing an image.

“I’ve still got a radar lock on her! Shorty, are you ready? Good. Then it’s blast on five, four, three, two, one, now!” He hit ENTER on his keyboard and slammed backward into his chair at one point two gees.

“Hey, Commodore!” It was Scotty. He was going to have trouble keeping up. “We haven’t discussed what we’re gonna do when we get there.”

“Second the motion,” replied Mikey.

“It wasn’t a motion,” Wilson replied. “And this isn’t a body that accepts them. I don’t know what we’ll do, because we don’t have any information on which to base plans or decisions. Just keep your eyes and ears open and maybe something will come to us in the time that’s left.”

Over the next several hours, they batted it back and forth, but, as Wilson had predicted, they couldn’t plan without more information. He had a couple of meals, he slept, and so did the others, by turn. A break came when his radar, programmed to warn him of any changes, beeped.

“Seems we’ve got ourselves two targets out there! We’re close enough to resolve that many blips. Somebody has docked with City of Newark.”

“Judging from the profile and proportion to the liner, I’d say she’s a Swan-class private hull,” said Marko, who had the highest resolution radar in the little squadron. “They’re built flat, like a cockroach or a manta ray, with enough power and structural integrity to land anywhere but Earth. We’re seeing her stern-on. I toured one once at L-Five. Not as much room as a liner, but what there is is choice!”

“What do you suppose she’s doing with the City of Newark?” asked Mikey. His Albuquerque Gal was just to Wilson’s port and a little ahead.

“Mating?” Scotty, aboard Nessie, suggested.

Shorty said, “No, it’s the getaway yacht. And probably a stolen one.”

Quickly, Wilson checked on the SolarNet, looking for stolen spaceships. Sure enough, a Swan-class vessel was missing from Lunar orbit.

“It’s the White Winged Dove, gents, out of Armstrong City,” he announced. The owner is some Earthside mining corporation. I wonder what ‘gypsum’ is. She’s been gone for two days, and they found the chairman of the board and his girlfriend, plus the pilot and co-pilot, floating in stationary orbit over Armstrong, enjoying space without a spacesuit.”

“Geez,” said Shorty. “Wow. Just gimme plain old robbers every time. These guys with political agendas gimme the creeps.” He shuddered, and the others could hear him do it over the intership radio.

Lights lit by themselves across his control panel as Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend made large and small adjustments to match the City of Newark‘s acceleration, velocity, and course. Suddenly, Wilson was experiencing a third of a gee—Martian gravity—and it felt relaxing.

“Everybody else make the change?” he asked.

One by one, the others reported in. They were all on course for rendezvous with the hijacked City of Newark, and arming their weapons.

******

Unbelievable, thought Crenicichla. It’s absolutely unbelievable. They’re all dead, every single last one of them. Her gaggle of ragtag hooligans, my overpriced and overrated clones, everybody but me and poor Krystal, and I can’t get this godforsaken spaceship started by myself!

At least it wasn’t a matter of security systems and passwords. The stolen yacht had been deserted when he’d carried Krystal over from the City of Newark. Her engines were cold and she was being pulled along at one third gee by the liner. He’d meant to look at her commissioning plaque when he’d come aboard, but had forgotten to. It was peculiar, not knowing the name of the vessel you were attempting to start and run.

Some kind of bird—White Swan—or was that the class of the vessel?

He’d also intended for at least two of the clones to remain aboard and ready for a quick getaway, but apparently, given the flexible, ad hoc way Null Delta Em liked to run things, in the rapidly-growing crisis aboard the City of Newark, Krystal had found other uses for them, and they’d eventually met their individual fates. What a damn waste.

After taking care of Krystal as best he could and running forward to begin the start-up cycle, he’d closed all four airlock doors and securely bolted those of the yacht. At least he and Krystal were safe for a while. The wretched, world-wrecking, capitalist reactionary bastards who’d messed up the radical environmentalist statement of the century would perish, freezing, gasping for breath, or in a splendid collision.

He almost wished that he could be there to see it. He hoped that they lasted long enough, even without the life support he’d ordered powered down, to watch Phobos looming bigger and bigger outside their windows. Imagine the screaming, when they figured out what was going on, the hair-tearing, the soul-rending anguish. It was a heart-warming thought.

His hands raced over the keyboards, slowly eliciting the desired responses. Not much longer, now, and they would be away from here at last. He began to think about where they would go, to let things cool off. Someplace isolated, lonely, a little romantic, but with good restaurants.

But another thought intruded on him …

Where the hell had they gotten all those guns? He’d thought East American Space Lines strictly forbade weapons in civilian hands, just as the East American government, with its “a metal-detector in every doorway” policy, did at home. In fact he’d counted on it. Governments always make it easy to prey on the weak because they need the weak, themselves, to prey on. The kind of people who run governments would rather see a woman raped in an alley, and strangled with her own pantyhose, than see her with a gun in her hand. He’d thought that Null Delta Em was safe to do exactly as they wished with the ship and with its passengers.

Something had gone very, very wrong.

Krystal was badly wounded, and that begged another question. When had he developed feelings for this woman? Usually he viewed women as a disposable convenience. He simply loved them and left them. In fact he hadn’t had sex with the same girl twice, in the last twenty-five years.

He hadn’t had sex with Krystal at all, and yet …

The ship, whatever her name was, had good first aid facilities. He’d laid Krystal on a work table in the aft section and looked to her wounds. One of them, high in her right forearm, she’d get over. The slug was still there, just under the skin. He made a tiny incision and the bullet practically popped out. Another, across the very top of her left shoulder, was trivial. The projectile had passed almost harmlessly through an inch and a half of flesh and was long gone. He had the distinct impression they had all come from the same damned weapon.

Where the hell had they gotten all those guns? What’s the world coming to, when your potential victims are all armed as well as you are?

But a bullet had grazed her left temple, leaving a long, shallow furrow, crackling the skull beneath it. It was as if its energy had poached her left eye, turning it a horrifying opaque white, and she would probably never see out of it again. But he would take care of her.

And of Llyra Ngu and Jasmeen Khalidov, in a different way, when the time came. He’d seen them from the stairway, with those things in their hands. What the hell did ice-skaters need with high-capacity ten millimeter semiautomatic pistols, anyway? Back home, they’d be doing a long stretch for illegal gun possession, washing prison laundry, and servicing the matrons.

And now, of course, they would just be dead. In a way, his hands were around their throats this very minute, suffocating them, freezing them, ready, in a little while, to fling their frozen bodies at an alien world.

Krystal remained unconscious, stirring now and again, murmuring, with a sweet smile on her lips. That was probably the morphine he’d given her, the only drug he’d ever been tempted by, himself. She was getting extra oxygen from a slotted mask. As best he could, he’d dressed her wounds—there were some remarkable medicines these days, and he’d applied them well before covering her up—and strapped her down to the table, which was bolted to the floor. The ship’s aft section was spherical, he observed, on gimbals, and would keep her quiet, safe, and perfectly flat, whatever the rest of the vessel happened to be doing.

Now, he was back on the flight deck, going through the check-list one item at a time. He was not familiar with this particular class of ship, but he could fly a lot of different aircraft and spacecraft. He estimated it would take him no more than another hour to complete the tasks required of him by this big aluminum-covered book and get her moving.

A couple of days and they’d be back in the Moon, battered but unbowed. There was a restaurant he knew that served vegetarian haute cuisine. He wondered if Krystal would like that, or a rare, bloody steak.

She was his kind of girl.

Odd, somene had just sent a narrow-beam text-message to the little ship, addressed to NDE, while he was below with Krystal.

******

Virtually the minute that Wilson came within visual range—admittedly through a thousand-power electronic telescope—of the City of Newark and her companion, presumably the stolen yacht White Winged Dove, the latter detached herself from the former, and veered away at high acceration on a different course than the passenger liner.

White Winged Dove had two hybrid fusion engines, according to her published specifications, one stacked atop the other, and half a dozen thrusters in her nose that would have served a lesser ship as engines. She was hard to mistake now. Marko had said that she would look like a manta ray or a cockroach. To him, she looked like a “miller” moth, the kind that come out by the millions in the Pallas summer, with graceful delta wings.

Wilson thought furiously, torn between his concern for two of the most important people in his life, and the badguys who were getting away.

“Marko! Mikey!” he shouted into the radio. “Get after that ship! Use lasers and target her engines. Remember there might be hostages. I’ll see to the liner. Take Casey with you! That all right with you, Casey?”

“Well, sure! I—”

“All right—go!” Wilson could see the navigation program play out on his console, as Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend matched the liner’s acceleration, velocity, and course precisely. Having skipped Turnover, she was going faster, by now, than anything he’d ever seen, except for that mysterious black asteroid they’d been chasing only hours ago.

One of his auxiliary radar systems informed him that Scotty’s Nessie, Shorty’s La Diabla Merton’s Whispers of Divinity, and Pimble Pharch’s Lilac Waffle were matching up, as well. He hoped the four of them would be enough, and brushed his hand across the front of his envirosuit to feel the outline of his .270 Herron twelve-shooter. He’d bring his Grizzly magnum .45 with him, too, when they boarded the City of Newark.

“I have a blueprint of the City of Newark up on my system, now,” Scotty told them. Wilson saw an icon appear on his screen that was an offer to share the image, but he left it alone for the moment “There’s only one passenger lock, believe it or not, near the stern, between the engines and the cargo spaces. They don’t need any more than that, it says here, because the individual staterooms act as lifeboats in an emergency.”

“And you can see how well that’s worked out,” Shorty observed. The space liner, of course, was completely intact, without a single cabin missing.

“None of our airlocks will mate with that big passenger entry,” said Wilson. “It’s half again the height and four times as wide as mine.”

“It says here there’s a smaller door built into the outer one,” Scotty said. “There’s also an emergency lock for the flight crew, an L-shaped tube from their deck, out through the kitchen level to the hull. It looks like it has the same standard dimensions as our own.”

“There’s an airlock on each of the freight levels, too,” said Shorty.

“All right, Scotty, you and Pharch take the lock in the passenger door. Shorty and Merton, work the cargo locks. I’ll tackle the one for the flight deck. Before you go, gentlemen, take a good hard look at your sensors. Life support in that ship is failing. It’s very cold, without much oxygen.”

“Pretty much,” said Scotty.

“Don’t you worry, Commodore, we’ll wear our long, red, winter underwear.”

Wilson was gratified that his voice hadn’t wavered. His sister was in there, where it was so cold and the oxygen was gone, and so was Jasmeen.

Making tiny movements with his fingers on the joystick, he turned his little ship over so that his portside lock was close to the ship, and maneuvered Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend along the hull of the City of Newark until he found the emergency flight crew airlock. An inch at a time, he brought his ship closer to the other, until the locks triggered mutual responses, extended short tubes, and engaged each other. Maybe Scotty’s remark about spaceships mating hadn’t been so far off, after all.

Automatically, the larger vessel informed the smaller vessel of conditions inside. The temperature was a hundred ten degrees below zero, air pressure was normal, but the water vapor and carbon dioxide had long since frozen out of it, and the oxygen level was at only two percent. It almost appeared that it was being systematically removed.

Wilson slowly reduced his own ship’s thrust until the City of Newark was accelerating for them both. He ran an electronic diagnosis of the stresses on the airlock connection and found them to be within tolerances.

He reached for his helmet, his gloves, and his other gun, which he strapped around his envirosuit. He knew what he was going to find over there, but couldn’t bring himself to believe it—all the while he wondered what he was going to tell his parents. Llyra was their darling baby, which was all right with him, she was his darling baby, too.

And if lovely Jasmeen were dead, he suddenly realized, it would extinguish the light of the universe, a light he’d taken for granted—and hadn’t really been aware was shining—until the horror of this moment. Jasmeen was the prettiest—and funniest—girl he’d ever known.

He was glad he wouldn’t have to be the one to tell Uncle Mohammed and Aunt Beliita. Or Mohammed’s brother, Ali, or Beliita’s brother, Saladin.

Trying to shake off what could well become a paralytic mood, he climbed down the ladder into the living space. then back up to the airlock. Lights inside his suit told him all his seals were good and all his systems were running properly. He opened the inner door, climbed in, and shut it behind him. Pressures were already equalized, give or take a pound per square inch, but the air over there was no good.

He opened the outer door of his own ship, the outer door of the other ship, climbed through and closed both doors behind him. He then opened the inner door of the City of Newark‘s airlock and crawled through, into a tunnel, circular in cross-section, that formed the end of the flight crew’s emergency escape system. He closed the inner door, adjusted his boots to adhere as best they could to a surface intended for escapees to slide on, and began a slow crawl inward and forward to the flight deck.

On the way, he spoke to the others. Scotty and Pharch had found the small door set in the larger door of the passenger airlock, and had engaged with it and powered down, but they were having trouble getting it opened up.

Shorty and Merton had teamed up to work on the same entry, about amidships, where cargo would be stowed. Wilson had suspected that Shorty would be a good man with doors, and he was. Their trouble was that their own ships, tethered loosely to the liner, were still blasting away at a third of a gee—the highest boost, apparently, of which the City of Newark was capable—and they would have to be attached to the liner rigidly, somehow, before they could shut her down.

“We’re into the passenger lock,” Scotty said abruptly. “There’s a headless—”

Merton and Shorty made noises that went with a grimace and Wilson sincerely hoped he wasn’t listening to Scotty or Pharch throwing up inside their helmets. It would take the nanobots at least an hour to clean it up.

“—Oh, geez. Almost lost it there for a moment. There’s a, uh, headless body in the main airlock. Looks like it could be one of the East American government’s spaceship cops. We’ll go on into the ship, now.”

******

“Where do you suppose he’s headed?” Casey McCarthy asked nobody in particular. Marko could see Casey’s Lady of Spain running to port of his own asteroid hunter Mina. Mikey’s Albuquerque Gal was on his starboard.

He replied, “Looks to me like he’s circling back to the Earth/Moon system, or possibly one of the Lagrange points. He seems to be sending encrypted signals back that way. I don’t believe he’s gonna make it, though.”

“Not gonna make it?” Casey asked. “Why? Is something wrong with his—”

“He’s not gonna make it,” said Marko, “because I’m not gonna let him make it!”

“Oh,” said Casey. “I see—you’re not gonna blow the guy up, are you? Don’t do that. What about the reward?”

Mikey snorted. “What reward? Nobody said anything about a reward. Doesn’t ‘Action is our reward’ mean anything to you guys?” It probably didn’t. The reference was almost two centuries obsolete.

Marko said, “Okay, when we get caught up to the White Winged Dove, carefully shoot for his upper engine. Less chance of hitting his pressurized spaces that way, and don’t fail to remember that he could be carrying hostages.”

Mikey quickly signalled his assent. For a long moment afterward, however, there was complete silence over the intership radio.

“Casey?” Marko demanded.

“I was the guy who wanted to keep ‘em in one piece, anyway.”

“That you were, Casey,” said Mikey. “That you were. There may yet be a reward, who knows?

“Oh yeah, who from?” asked Marko.

“That’s ‘whom from’,” Mikey corrected him.

Casey rushed in. “From the East American spacelines whose passenger ship was hijacked. They’d probably like to get it back. It’s only worth seventy or eighty quadrillion East American funnybucks.”

“And so is my little baby sister’s tricycle!” said Marko. They laughed.

“Or from the owners whose yacht was stolen,” said Mikey. Then he remembered the chairman of the board and his secretary. They were probably having a pretty good time, up until they died. “Or their heirs.”

Marko suggested, “Maybe even from the Curringer Corporation, itself, for saving all those lives and all that infrastructure on Mars. Biggest terraformation project ever done, and the cheapest, but still … ”

“I like the way you guys think,” Casey said. “Howya figure that last?”

“From the course the City of Newark was on,” Marko told him. “Mars was pretty obviously the target, but I checked with my cyber-ephemeris, and I think they were planning to deorbit Phobos and kill Mars.”

Mikey and Casey both whistled.

“Like the dinosaurs,” Casey said. “Neat, if it’s physically possible.”

Marko began, “That’s why—Hang on a minute, I’ve got a visual. Now to get my crosshairs on that upper engine … fire!” They both saw his tracer splash the ship ahead. The working beam that ran parallel to it, of course, was invisible. “Damn! No apparent effect.”

“You’re shooting right down the bore of the engine. You can’t fight a plasma torch with a laser,” Mikey said. That’s like a water fight where one guy has a fire hose and the other has a squirtgun.”

“I believe you—hang on!” Marko accelerated until he had drawn even with the stolen pleasure vessel, then fired at the side of the upper engine, which obliged him by coming apart in a hail of rocket parts.

“Watch him! Watch him!” Casey shouted. “He’s turning again! He’s turning!”

******

Crenicichla had just transmitted his acceptance of the mysterious offer he’d received by text message, along with the number of a Swiss bank account containing a hundred thousand ounces of platinum, when the explosion of the upper engine lifted the tail of the stolen space yacht in a way that he didn’t know how to compensate for. The ship was still going full blast—apparently the engines were completely independent—but at a lower rate of acceleration, and it was slowly beginning to describe a large verticle circle as the pitch—

Pitch. That was it, pitch. His eyes devoured the console slanting up before him, until they came to section labelled “Pitch Management”. Yes, there was some kind of indicator built into the panel—an inset red light that was blinking furiously; he wondered why he hadn’t seen it before now—and it agreed with him about what the spacecraft was doing.

He reached over to his left and flipped a toggle labelled “Auto Pitch Control”, heard noises from the thrusters under the vessel’s nose, and the ship slowly stopped falling forward the way it had been doing.

But the heading … the heading … the goddamned heading …

Radar said that his attackers, three of them, had overflown him and were coming back around now for a second pass. It took him what seemed like an eternity to find out what the heading had been, how far off course they were now, and how to get back on course. He began pushing buttons.

At least he knew now that his original mission was a guaranteed success.

“I wouldn’t bother with all that stuff if I were you,” said a voice from behind him. It was a man’s voice, with a quality something like peanut-buttered sandpaper. Turning around in the pilot’s seat as far as the four-point seatbelt system would allow, Crenicichla reached for the autopistol under his jacket, but it was gone. He remembered taking it out and setting it aside somewhere when he was working on Krystal.

“Looking for this?” the stranger asked, holding Crenicichla’s pistol between thumb and forefinger. It was the plastic kind that required little training or practice to operate, intended for people who didn’t like guns much. The man’s other hand held some kind of plasma weapon with a huge, pitted orifice. “I found it down in your makeshift hospital.”

Crenicichla put his hand out. “Nice of you to bring it to me.”

The man grinned and put it in his pocket. “Do you have any idea how hard it is to climb that aisle ladder at the one third gee you’re doing?”

“Well, gosh, if I’d known—”

“That was a good job you did with Krystal, by the way. I was a medic in the last war my country ever fought, and I should know. She’s pretty badly busted up, but my guess is that she’ll outlive both of us.”

Crenicichla was about to respond by reflex to the compliment, but stopped himself. The interloper was in his late fifties or early sixties, incredibly tall and lanky. He stood casually behind the co-pilot’s seat, his head brushing the ceiling. “Who the hell are you, and how did you get on my ship?”

“Your ship? Stolen fair and square from—oh, well, we’ll let that pass.” He looked down modestly. “I go by a lot of names. Call me Ishmael.”

I will not!” He discovered he’d pounded both fists on the chair arms.

The newcomer laughed. “Then call me Aaron. I got in because you had other errands to run and didn’t secure the airlock the very first thing. It’s a common error. I might have made it myself, given the circumstances.”

Crenicichla was furious. “What do you want?”

“Not a lot, really. My job here is more or less finished. I was hired to protect a couple of young people from you and yours, becoming very fond of them in the process, and I figured that the best way to help them, at this point, is to come along with you and make sure you don’t get into any more trouble—at least any trouble that involves them.”

“Llyra Ngu and Jasmeen Khalidov—or Wilson Ngu. I should have known.”

“No point denying it,” he shrugged. “It’s been one of my most interesting cases, and one of the most educational, what with all the figure skating and asteroid hunting. A person should never stop learning.”

“It’s an outrage, that’s what it is! Why, they’re nothing but parasites! Spoiled, wealthy children of privilege—they’re just plain bad luck!”

“For you, maybe, but what does that make your backers, and their centuries and generations of ill-gotten plunder? Say, we’re about to have company again. Why don’t you get to work now and put us on a new heading?”

“Why should I—oh, that’s right. Because you have the guns. What heading?”

Aaron looked thoughtful and smiled. “How about Mars?”

“Mars?” Crenicichla was shocked. “But if I do that—”

“We’ll be destroyed when the planet is? You know, somehow I doubt it, Johnnie. My guess is that we’re being fired on by a little group—probably working with Llyra’s brother Wilson—who are also doing something about the City of Newark right now. Those are asteroid hunters out there, my young friend, and they’re accustomed to dragging large celestial objects travelling at absurdly high velocities, off course.”

“But the Cause! All of my plans—” Suddenly he felt grateful to his mysterious and mercenary correspondent. Maybe he hadn’t spent all that money in vain.

“They’ll board that space liner, get her engines shut down, and if anybody they care for has been injured, let alone killed, then they’ll track you down like some kind of animal, Johnnie, pull your intestines out through a hole in your navel, tenderly roast them over a slow fire while you watch, and feed them to you an inch at a time. What do you think of that for a plan? You’d be better off on Mars even if it does explode.”

Hardly able to function for the icy terror pumping through his veins—he couldn’t remember ever being more frightened than this—Crenicichla let the computer tell him how to get to Mars from where he was, and—just as Marko and his three friends passed again, spitting fire and metal—ducked under on a new heading to the formerly Red Planet.

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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