by Corvus and ShadowWolf
Text ©2007 Corvus and ShadowWolf; illustration ©2007 Cubist

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

   This episode of Reaper & Strider: Bastard Assassins from Hell is brought to you by GottaMunch Industries, makers of the immensely popular LongPork®™ line of synthetic vat-grown flesh products for discriminating diners. Thanks to liberal R&D budgets and dedicated teams of gengineers who aren’t afraid to challenge the archaic dogmas of so-called ‘morality’, GottaMunch Industries is proud to be the only legitimate source of food-like LongPork®™ animal meat substitutes expressly designed for every digestive system! You’ll find LongPork®™ Emerald in the deli section of your local KeldoMart.


   It was unmistakable. The shipyard was a mere 100 kilometers off the port side, and its features were now completely visible. I’d only seen a handful of others like it in the different universes I’d visited; all were identical, but in different star systems. One of them was in my home ’verse, and it was the one that had built Persephone.
   «Looks like home, doesn’t it, Perse?»
   «Yes, my liege, but it doesn’t smell right.»
   Strider’s claws screeched on the deck-plates as he stepped onto the flight deck. I wasn’t sure where he’d been lurking, but he was definitely up to no good; after all, I had been trying to kill him. Knowing him, he was probably drooling over the the weapons stores or trying to hack Perse.
   «Perse, any troubles with Strider?»
   «Not really, Mon Capitan. I’ve been entertaining myself with his AI. It thinks it’s got the run of my systems, but I control the horizontal. I control the vertical. It’s playing in a sandboxed simulation of antiquated control systems.»
   «What’s he been trying to get into?»
   «Well, sir, it’s tried to invade weapons and navigation systems as well as the information database. It’s what I would have expected. If it’s all right sir, I’ve been feeding genuine information stripped of anything sensitive into the data stream.»
   «Okay—but if HAL tries anything, fry ’im.»
   Strider stared the massive space station for a moment.
   ”The Panaran Shipyards: Home of some of the most powerful weapons systems in the galaxy,” Strider quipped nonchalantly. What he said was true—it might as well have been the station’s slogan.
   ”If it’s anything like the one in my universe, trying to sneak in is basically pointless. Hang on to your fur—you’re gonna like this.”
   It’s all about the entrance: If you have to make one, you’d better go all-out. That’s why I chose Door Number Two. I told Perse to jump us directly into the station’s main docking bay, and manually armed the shipboard weapons and PDLs for Strider’s benefit. After a quick grin at him, I triggered the jump sequence. Seconds later came the familiar bright flash of light and gut-wrenching pain. What a rush!
   As the jump-caused washout cleared from my vision, I couldn’t help but chuckle at where we were. Perse’s nose was ten meters from the dock control room, which was now a twisted pile of rubble. Well, the recognizeable bits of it, anyhow. I eased Persephone around until her bow pointed at the hangar doors, surveying our handiwork. The whole bay was demolished; part of the deck above was exposed, the hangar deck-plates were twisted like metallic taffy, the control room was half-gone, there were bright arcs from shorted-out power conduits throughout the bay, and the main hangar doors were fused shut. It’d be an awfully damned long time before anyone used this hangar again. As in ‘never’, if I had anything to say about it…
   Persephone set down on (what was left of) the deck with a screech that reverberated through the hull; she shifted slightly as the overstressed floor buckled even more. Without a word, I left the flight deck and went down to the cargo bay. In addition to my usual MAC-10s, MP5Ks and Eta-Blaster, I grabbed another ten kilos of C-4, a fuel/air bomb, a can of Thermo-Foam and my plasma gatling.
   «Perse, arm your cargo bay defense grid. Full kill authority. And open the main door.»
   «You got it, sir!»
Perse’s cargo bay defenses, a pair of FEL cannons*, swung into place with a barely-audible ‘click’ as the main cargo ramp lowered itself to the heavily damaged cargo bay floor. Stepping off the ramp, I surveyed the battlefield, or what was left of it. The floor was still warm; showers of sparks exploded sporadically around the docking bay. The control room was completely disintegrated, and debris from whatever ship was docked here previously was scattered across the deck.

*I do not love thee, Doctor FEL;
Thy Free-Electron Lasers tell
A tale of ruins much like Hell.
I do not love thee, Doctor FEL.

   I chuckled and disabled the safety on my gatling cannon, then turned to Strider. “Care to have some fun?”
   “Always.” Strider replied with a slight grin.
   «Do it.»
   Sam enabled my EM cloak field; I vanished from sight. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Strider disappear, too—he must have also noticed our welcoming committee.
   At that moment, sparks showered from the docking bay doors, which promptly exploded, leaving a gaping hole to the corridor. A dozen or so soldiers flowed haphazardly into the landing bay, looking a bit confused. I had Sam open a channel to Strider.
   «I’ll get the seven on the left. You take the ones on the right, okay?»
   «Already on it,» was Strider’s reply, as the furthest soldier to the left crumpled to the floor.
   Adorable looks of unreasoning terror showed up on the rest of the soldiers’ faces as Strider launched the next one against the nearest bulkhead. I sunk my claws into two of them and pulled sharply; both collapsed like stacks of thickly-sliced pepperoni. I bisected the next four before they could move, and the seventh (and last, damnit) got an uppercut that left him impaled in the ceiling up to his ribcage. These were Interactive Networks henchthings? It is to laugh! No question, IN’s standards had dropped below what previous experience led me to expect. I hoped they wouldn’t underestimate me again… With no viable targets within line-of-sight, Sam dropped the EM cloak.
   “You’ve already got a map of the facility, right?” I growled at my lupine partner-in-mayhem. He just rolled his eyes, as if to diss me for doubting his ability. Whatever; I gestured at the remains of the doorway. “After you, my dear Strider.”

Elsewhere, a few minutes earlier

   In a near-empty docking bay whose cavernous volume dwarfed its only occupants, a single cargo transport ship and a pair of bored guards: “Man, this sucks! Getting stuck guarding the hangar—I mean, nothing ever happens here.”
   “You poor baby. At least you’re Security—you get to rotate through. Me? I’m stuck here. Hey, did you catch the last segments of Ultrarena?”
   “Pretty wild, eh? That Peaches character actually won. I was hoping for more of a dramatic finish, myself. But those other freaks, Strider and, what was it, Reaper—you think they’ll follow through on their threat to get Captain Surino? Wait… you were assigned to the dock his ship was in, right?”
   “You know I can’t talk about that. That’s a level-five dock!”
   “Aw, come on. Every other job was suspended just after the airing of that last segment, and if you’re here, they’ve gotta be done with his ship!”
   “Oh, alright. As soon as the incident on Ultrarena happened, the retrofits to Surino’s ship were given the highest priority. It left three hours ago.”
   “You think those two can actually make it here?”
   “Of course not! This facility is too obscure—the likes of them won’t even know about it. Even if they do, you’ve got nothing to worry about, being stuck here all the time. It’s impossible to get in here without landing clearance, and who the hell would fight their way into a hangar deck… wait, what was that?”
   “Oh, it was probably nothing. This place has a way of making you think you heard something.”
   Blue energy arced across the main hangar doors and floor. Smaller, barely noticeable bolts arced along the walls of the control room.
   “No—I’m serious—there it is again!”
   “Come on, it’s all in your… Oh, shit! Run away!”
   A small point of distorted space appeared in the middle of the hangar bay, just above the small cargo transport, and quickly rippled out to fill most of the available space. Bolts of energy arced out from the distorted sphere, burning odd patterns into the walls and overloading the power-and-light conduits. A ball of flame erupted from the lone transport as the distortion chewed into it like a fat man inhaling pizza, and a shower of sparks erupted from the main hangar doors as a massive bolt of energy hit them. The bubble disintegrated everything it expanded into, not least the control room. A second later the bubble collapsed in on itself, leaving the bay completely dark.


   «HAL, you get anything on how this ship operates?»
«Some, but this system feels weird. Almost like a sandbox.»
   «HAL! I need to know how this ship works and how to pilot it or one like it. Nothing else!»
   «HAL, order Alpha-17. Null priority on all exploration, except for the particular targets I’ve specified.»
«Yes, boss,» HAL said, and I could’ve sworn he ‘sounded’ like a kid who’d just been forbidden to play with a wonderful toy. Sometimes I wonder if I let HAL develop too much of an independent streak. Sure, his little ‘field trips’ can turn up a lot of useful data—but sometimes, like now, they can also be a pain in the ass. Reaper might not quite be an enemy any more… but he sure wasn’t a friend, yet, either. No sense giving him an excuse to jettison me out an airlock without a pressure-suit; whatever secrets he kept in his ship’s computer, I was willing to leave them be. For now, anyway.
   I closed the Eta-Blasters and slid them into their holsters, then hooked up a pair of anti-tank mines on my thighs. Reaper did have a lot of nice ordinance around, including a few thousand feet of DetCord, which I was also now carrying. The rest of my standard arsenal felt comfortable, finally, but I still felt a little naked. More rummaging through storage rooms found something to fix that. A nice pair of blades, mono-edged and in an original configuration—designed to mount to the forearm and snap open with a particular muscle flex.
   «Boss, we’re coming out of FTL.»
   I ran for the flight deck. Sure, I’d probably end up trashing the place just for the hell of it, but that was no reason to miss getting a good look at the station first, right? My claws scrabbled on the deckplates and I grabbed the door frame to keep from falling over. Running through a ship with steel decks—feh! Not something I should be doing with my new body. My paw-pads just didn’t have the same traction on this surface. Damn, the station was huge… easily capable of handling those humongous triangle-shaped ships from one of the old flat-vid movies.
   After the now-familiar rending jolt of entering FTL, I started to yell at Reaper for leaving our target, the place where Surino’s ship was supposed to be… then the world outside the windows resolved into the interior of a docking bay. Badly damaged, and by that I mean ‘looking about how we’d left the bar back on Earth’, I was wondering exactly how we were supposed to get to the exit doors when the ship spun and settled to the floor of the less-than-spacious docking bay.
   As Reaper pulled his seat away from the controls, I headed for the main hangar. If I had to set foot on my first ‘Space Station’ it’d be in style, not by crawling out some idiotic hatchway. Reaper had the same idea, because he reached the back of the cargo bay a few seconds after I did and the hatch opened. We walked down in step, a pair of hardened killers looking for revenge.
   «Boss, fourteen armed men outside the door.»
   I cloaked and smiled. Seconds later the door sizzled and blew open. I inhaled the scent of the explosives and my heart pounded loud in my ears. Reaper’s voice crackled over our commlink: «Strider, I got the left seven.» I smiled wider. Split it down the middle—I liked that. With a flick of the wrist, my new toys twanged into position and I ran the short distance toward the first of the other toys. I mean ‘targets’. Whatever!
   Not wanting to waste the surprise of the blades on the first action figure I came across, I spun into a side-kick to the squishy part of the solar plexus hard enough to crack his spine. Before they could respond, the next two lost their heads and I got a taste of the third’s blood as I tore out his throat with my teeth. The tangy, slightly metallic taste of his blood drove my adrenaline through the roof; I spun through the last four in less time than it takes a flea to bite a dog.
   Meanwhile, Reaper came to a stop beside me. I dropped the cloak, my tongue flashing out to lick up the blood that stained the fur of my muzzle. He shot me a rebuking glance, and I fired back with my best ‘What?’ stare.
   «HAL, you get directions yet?»
«Had them right after the ship landed. This place has no real security.»
   “Where to?” Reaper asked.
   I pointed down the hall to our left and tapped the blades back into position. They’d already proven their worth, but I’d much rather have the comfortable weight of a gun in my hands. I pulled my Eta-Blasters from their holsters and dropped the cloak. “They know we’re here by now, Reaper. What’s the point in hiding who’s causing the trouble?”
   “Care for a bet on when they actually do something about us?”
   HAL floated the map in my vision and highlighted likely choke points, before flashing an alert. “Sorry, Reaper,” I growled. “Too late: They just activated internal security. Bulkheads are being closed and security fields raised.”
   “And?” he said with a grin.
   I didn’t reply. Because that single word made me realize I’d just reacted like I would have before that fun but idiotic TransWar. After all, I was carrying enough explosives to cut my way to the people in charge, as was Reaper, and HAL was inside their systems. Security fields and bulkheads? Maybe they might have been a problem when I was still in my frail human body… but now? They were merely an annoyance.
   «Boss, big problem. I’m barely half a step ahead of the ICE that just flooded the net… I’m not going to be able to stay hidden much longer. Should I pull out?»
   “Fuck!” I yelled—«Scram, HAL!»—and sprayed the hallway with bolts of electric-blue energy from the Eta-Blasters in frustration. “Reaper, real network security here. Pulling HAL out.”
   Reaper growled but nodded. So our biggest advantage over the schlubs manning security here was now gone? He was right: It really didn’t matter. We might have lost control of the security nets, but we could more than make up for it with sheer firepower and skill. After all, we hadn’t been the favorites to win the TransWar because of our looks.
   Another twenty feet and we came to the first bulkhead. HAL overlaid information from my extended sensor suite; I could see one or two companies of troops, heavily armed and apparently armored, on the other side. The bulkhead was sealed, natch—good thing I carried a key! I pulled two items from as many pockets, duct-taped a length of DetCord all the way around the edge of the steel door, then stepped back and pushed the button.
   DetCord is often used as fuse material, but it’s a damn good high explosive in its own right—it was originally designed as a cutting charge, and the stuff burns at a rate of nearly 200,000 feet per second. It went off with a wonderful boom the instant I hit the trigger; the bulkhead fell in towards us, slamming to the ground with a loud bang.
   The goombahs on the other side caught their cue: They immediately opened up on us, and I was surrounded by the lovely aroma of gunpower and ozone. Reaper returned fire before their rounds reached us, filling the corridor with long bursts from his plasma rifle, but I waited until the first bullet hit my chest.
   Ow! The damn thing hurt—it exploded on impact! Fuckers were playing dirty, just the way I liked it. With a roar I opened up with the Eta-Blasters and finished the troops Reaper’s plasma-blasts had missed. What? You’ve never seen an Eta-Blaster in action? You poor, deprived soul! They fire a seriously exotic form of ammo: A jacketed bolt of dissociated strange quarks. That stuff’s real rare, and even more lethal. How it works is, when those little subatomic bastards touch anything, the jacket goes away and the quarks inside try to hook up with the quarks of whatever got hit. End result: A simply darling pocket-sized nuclear explosion that looks wonderful and leaves quite deadly wounds.

Elsewhere, a couple minutes closer to the present

   “Roteblu, you think they’re actually going to hit this point?”
   “Don’t know, Shen. I sure hope not.”
   “Who is it, anyway?”
   “Who knows? We sent a response team to Bay 9A to take ’em down after their hyperjump, and the bogies were completely cloaked when they hit our people.”
   The hallway was still well lit, but rapid-deploy shields had been set up to give the guards some protection against the attackers. Shen and Roteblu crouched behind the shield closest to the emergency bulkhead that had slammed shut when the alarm was sounded. In their blood-red security team uniforms, they looked like economy-sized cinnamon candies on the monitor in the central control room.
   Seconds later, the cameras caught the two attackers as they decloaked. The station’s comm-system gave its troops their orders in a Prozac-worthy tone of unruffled placidity: “Message to all personnel: Our unauthorized guests have been confirmed to be Reaper and Strider, the two maximally differently-sane contestants from the most recent Ultrarena. Accordingly, you are hereby authorized to utilize your most destructive weaponry in the interest of achieving optimal overkill. Repeat, you have authorization to achieve optimal overkill. Have a nice day, and remember: For the next thirteen minutes, the cafeteria’s Seven-Star Cordon Puce Gourmet Entree™ will be Capybara Haggis a la McDonalds. Available appetizers inc-”
   Whatever else was on the menu was drowned out by the thunderous shockwave that slammed down the corridor as the bulkhead fell forward. Shen was the first to move, his rifle stutter-barking as he opened fire on the Tigron and Wolf that had nearly killed the first Ultrarena winner—Rale Surino. “Thor’s Hammer!” Roteblu shouted as plasma rounds started passing overhead.
   Finally getting the magazine of explosive rounds into his rifle, Roteblu opened the precision sights and targeted the furball’s chest—he wasn’t sure why the wolf wasn’t firing back, but as long as he had a clear shot, why not take advantage? As he pulled the trigger he remembered the commentary from the Ultrarena and immediately regretted it. His teeth chattering in unaccustomed fear, Roteblu flipped the rate-selector to ‘much too fast’ and emptied the entire clip at the wolf.


   “Wait, no, he’s not—” crack! The soldier’s last words were lost in a soft gurgle as his neck snapped in my paw.
   “Hey! Question, then kill!” Strider snapped at me as he caught up from having his own fun back down the corridor.
   The blast doors for the fourth and final high security dock loomed before me; the last place Perse couldn’t scan. A stream of high-energy plasma from my cannon punched through the bulkhead around the door as I traced its outline. Strider stepped in front of the door and kicked its remains inward with a loud crash.
   «Grrr. No ship?»
   «You still have the layout of this place? The differences shouldn’t be too big.»
   Me and Strider blurred into the hangar and cut straight through the toy soldiers like a vibrochainsaw through whale blubber. My .50 cal MAC-10s thundered a jolly percussion solo as we zipped in. Body armor or no, a .50cal bullet to the face is sure death; too bad it’s kind of clumsy for face-to-face work. I holstered my guns, replacing them with a big-ass blade I’d snagged off of some bozo who’d lost his head (and neck); I used the knife to great effect as I carved my way through the formation. Bored now… time for an experiment. I slapped a two-second timer onto a 1-kg block of C-4 and impaled the boom-stuff on my stolen knife. After picking a conveniently-placed target, I spun around the putz, firmly planted the knife in his back, and leapt over him and his surviving buddies in a 10-meter-high arc, all before Mr. Bomb-In-Back had time to react. Just before I landed, my wings snapped open—a fully-extended airbrake—and I landed on the deck with a dull thud.
   The C-4 blew in all its glory. Flaming bodies and charred bits of soldier followed mouth-watering trajectories as they flew off to every corner of the hangar. Strider, his fur smoldering in patches, calmly walked out of the smoke and settling debris.
   “Dude! How about you fuckin’ warn me next time!?”
   “You’ll live.”
   “Fine, but where’s the damn ship?”
   “Hey, it was your friend that gave us the intel.”
   “Informant, not friend,” Strider growled. “This the last hangar?”
   “Yeah.” I nodded. “Surino’s gone for sure, but there’s a control room—”
   “—back a kilometer and up four decks.” Then, having rudely interruped me, Strider spun around to leave the charred rubble.
   We got about halfway to the lift before I heard more troops heading our direction. Their enthusiasm in the face of obvious defeat was mind-blowing. By this point most people would have turned tail and run; but the mercs employed by Interactive Networks, well, they had to be paid extremely well. Or they were completely insane… or the other option…
   «Sam, display incoming.»
   Glowing lines flashed into view: A schematic layout of the deck we were on, plus the ones immediately above and below. The map was peppered with mobile markers— incoming targets, a few of which looked bigger than the rest.
   «Sam: What am I looking at here?»
   «Hah! That does make things at least a little more interesting. Cloak and enable target locking.»
   With a quiet chuckle, Strider vanished from sight at nearly the same time I did. Of course he’d known what was waiting for us, the same as I did; by the sound of things, he was getting tired of easy kills, too. It still wasn’t a fair fight, but who ever said we had to play fair?
   About ten meters from the soldiers’ position, one opened fire and the rest followed. My first thought was What the fuck?—then I realized that even if we were invisible, we damn sure weren’t inaudible. Dragon claws on metal deckplates, you know? Like it mattered; these yutzes couldn’t hit a barrel from the inside even when they had something to target. Only a few rounds actually hit home, one tearing through my thigh, the rest pinging off my armor.
   I swung the Gatling cannon off my shoulder and fired at the line of soldiers blocking the hall. Point-blank plasma rounds—yum! Some things you just never get tired of, you know? Anyway, my shots easily burned through their flesh and armor, leveling almost every one standing.
   Meanwhile, Strider was busy, too; out of the corner of my eye, I saw two blasts from his Eta-Blasters rip through a mech. It burst into a pretty flower of flame and shrapnel. At the same moment, the mechs closest to me opened fire with some sort of energy cannon. Damn, that stung!
   «Sam, what the hell was that?»
   Mechs—feh! Fracking metal monstrosities, they were. I let go of my cannon (that’s why I had it on a sling, okay?) and gave one of those metal tuxedos a solid punch to the midsection. The mech’s armor plating gave under my fist, and welded seams crumpled and tore. Metal screeched as my blow sent the mech sliding back across the deck to slam into a bulkhead. For an encore, I ripped the cannon arm off of a second mech with a single smooth motion and swung my new club in a full arc, knocking Number Two’s head clean off. I told Sam to lose the cloak as I let the cannon clatter to the deck. Then, as I materialized into view, I turned my attention to the last of the soldiers. The mech behind me settled on its knees and exploded, showering the hallway in sparks; a totally suitable backdrop for the menacing grin I gave these last few toys.
   “Hey! Spam in a can, and human sushi! Looks tasty to me—what do you think, Strider?”
   The soldiers’ faces melted into looks of shock and fear. Apparently, the thought of being eaten alive wasn’t very appetizing—well, at least not to them, anyway.
   “Not enough meat on ’em,” said the disembodied voice of Strider, playing along.
   “What a shame,” I sneered and unsheathed my claws. In less time than it takes to read about it, I was standing on the far side of the soldiers. Blood slowly flowed from the deep gashes on each of them. All four stared in shock for a moment, then collapsed in near-unison. I continued on to the elevator without turning around, counting the kills by the soft thud as each hit the floor.
   Strider beat me to the lift. I followed him on. Like everything else on the station, the designers had actually made allowances for larger beings and equipment. This lift was damn near big enough to be a freight elevator; it would have been nice, except for the annoying elevator music.
   After about three decks’ worth of increasingly agitated looks, Strider finally pulled out an Eta-Blaster and wasted the speaker. The noise from the shot proper almost drowned out the speaker’s dying squawk, and then it fell silent. Thank. God. I turned slightly to look at Strider and turned back to the lift door.
   “I hate elevator music,” he said matter-of-factly.
   The doors opened to a very pristine looking deck, with a large, round and very shiny vault-looking door.
   «Of course there’s no way to open the door.»
   I tossed my can of Thermo-Foam to Strider; he immediately put it to work filling the seam on the door. The ’Foam went off with a strobe-blast of mid-five-digits heat, a bright flash, and a puff of gray smoke that drifted off almost instantly. With the amount of Thermo-Foam he’d used, the door and locking mechanism should have easily been reduced to puddles of molten slag on the floor… but it wasn’t. Impossible! The bloody door just stood there, mocking us in silence, without so much as even a scorch mark on it!
   «Sam, what in God’s name is that thing made of?»
   «Maybe they came across something new… Analyze it. If we can duplicate the stuff later, I’ve got some weapons that could really use it. Is there any other way to open this door?»
   My mouth broke into a wide fangy grin. Time for ‘Old Reliable’: I swung my plasma cannon around to open fire at the base of the bulkhead near the door at full power. There you go, Baby. Poppa’s sorry he had to put you away before. The plasma bursts formed a solid stream which cut through the wall with ease, casting off showers of sparks and leaving the bulkhead warped and deformed. I released the trigger when a ribbon of light showed all the way around around the door. The barrels continued to spin for a short while before slowing to a halt.
   With the edges of the door still glowing orange, Strider kicked in the bulkhead. It fell inwards with Strider riding it to the floor, where it landed with a reverberating crunch. From inside the room I heard him yell, “Son of a—there’s nobody fuckin’ in here!”

Elsewhere, catching up to the current moment

   “Hahaha… Today sure was a good day to request an assignment in this tomb! Nothing ever happens here, right?”
   “I wish you wouldn’t talk like that with those two monsters loose on the station.”
   “What are you worrying about? There’s literally an army between them and us! Besides, we’re in the most secure room in this place.”
   “‘Secure’!? Gaah! Do you have any idea what’s been going on? Did you even watch Ultrarena?”
   “Holy shit! They took out all the soldiers we had waiting for them!”
   “What’d I tell you? We’re dead… we’re fuckin’ dead.”
   “Quit your whining! What makes you think they’ll come for us?”
   “You do realize that they’re after Surino, and he’s gone. The only place they can get his official flight plan is from the high security terminal… that high security terminal.”
   “Oh. Shit.”


    It had been a long fight, but at last we’d reached the final set of speedbumps, I mean guards, between us and our target. My fur was drenched in blood; my jaws ached from having ripped out a few too many throats; and I had fabric and flesh stuck under my claws. But it was all worth it: According to the data HAL grabbed before he pulled out of the station’s nets, Surino’s ship was in the bay directly ahead of us.
   Reaper roared and started breaking toys—sorry, ‘killing soldiers’—before I could stop him. Not that I gave two wet farts about their lives, but jeez, what’s wrong with interrogating them about conditions inside the bay before we just walked in? Twenty seconds (and as many dead bodies) later, he had his hands on the last soldier between us and the refit bay. “Wait, he’s not…” the soldier started to say before the Tigron’s huge hands folded his neck into an origami snake.
   “Dammit! Question first, kill last!” I yelled at Reaper.
   «HAL, what do the sensors show?»
«Not much, boss. Too much interference, even for the quantum detectors.»
   I was pulled from my studies of HAL’s sensor sweeps by the sound of a plasma Gatling on full auto. Taking advantage of the situation, I stepped in front of the door, made sure my EM-cloak was active, and kicked the remnants of the bulkhead door in. One paw landed on the metal before it crashed to the floor, and the next caught the still-hot edge as I ran into the hangar.
   «No ship, Boss.»
   «Fucking shit! Where’s the nearest terminal?»
   Right then, bullets started tearing up the deck plates around me. I didn’t know how they’d figured out where I was—my cloak covered all EM bands—but however they’d done it, they were targeting me. No time to waste; I leaped for the nearest group of soldiers at full neuro-kinetic boost. Two bullets lanced through my leg as I beheaded the first three soldiers.
   «HAL, full repair mode. Turn off the cloak.»
   Then a blade appeared in a soldier I was preparing to kill—a blade with an attached block of C-4. I dove out of the way as the explosives detonated. Standing, I looked at Reaper and grinned.
   “Fucking hell, ya big goof! Warn me the next time!” I shouted, struggling to control the laughter that threatened to break free.
   “You’ll live,” he replied. Ah, it’s good to have comrades who see things your way… but never mind that, we had a mission. Speaking of which—
   “Ship’s gone.”
   Reaper shrugged. “Was your friend.”
   “Informant.” I shouted. The exchange took less than three seconds, having taken place at high neuro-kinetic boost levels… hey, wait a second… Where was the opposition? I looked around; we’d managed to clear the bay of enemies.
   “We’re clear. Surino’s gone, like a fucking coward he ran. But there is a—”
   “—control room. Kilometer back, four decks up.”
   «HAL, how’s the repairs?» I didn’t worry about things like that—I’d rerouted all my pain-sensing nerves back in the TransWar, and with one thing and another, I hadn’t gotten around to restoring them.
   «Almost complete. Just need to regenerate the dermal plating. Those bullets were fired from a coil-gun—did a lot of damage.»
   That meant a sprint was out, and so was keeping up the n-k boost level. The nanites in my body weren’t omnipotent; they could keep me going at lethal velocities, or they could rebuild fried cells, but not both at once. Well, I’d just have to slow down for the time being, and a kilometer walk would be perfect for that. HAL would alert me when the repairs were complete, so I started walking towards the nearest lift.
   I was about halfway there when my built-in tailgunner gave me the ‘all clear’. Good timing, because that was only just before more troops started filling the corridor. So I triggered my arm-blades, spun back up to my full neuro-kinetic boost level, and cloaked. At full n-k, I’ve got buckets and buckets of time to burn while I wait for the rest of the Universe to catch up. Of course, having that much time on my paws means I also have to vary my tactics a lot. I mean, sure, disembowelments are good, clean family fun… but you can only do so many crotch-to-sternum slashes before it gets kind of dull, you know? Hmmm… got it! Random amputations! More than a dozen unattached arms, legs and heads later, I was getting bored, so I decided to just castrate the fuckers.
   How the hell many soldiers was Interactive Networks willing to throw at us, anyway? It was starting to piss me off! As I castrated my fifteenth enemy, there was a mechanical whine and a massive explosion right where I’d been standing. Okay, keep moving—I dropped another soldier and drew the Eta-Blasters holstered at my hips. Some damn otaku in this universe had made a huge, robotic suit of armor!
   «HAL, where is that thing’s power core?»
   A blip showed up in my vision. I recloaked and leaped into the air, angling my jump to land behind the thing; the blip tracked with the suit as I spun over it. When my feet hit the deck-plates I opened fire, my blasters’ actinic blue bolts leaving streaks in my vision as they tore into the suit’s power supply and made their own exit wound out front.
   «Boss, two of them are moving for Reaper.»
   That was a problem—without Reaper to pilot the ship I’d be stuck here. And seeing as the two that were after him seemed larger and better armored than the one I’d just dropped, he might have a problem. Okay, not really—he was just as good in a fight as I am—but I wasn’t about to let him have all the fun! So I poured on the speed and angled through the remaining troops towards the armored suits.
   Aw, heck! The last two were gone before I got there, one crushed and ripped apart and the other decapitated. Then Reaper dropped his cloak. Sensing a chance to get rid of some soldiers without any more ultraviolence—hey, I enjoy gratuitous murder as much as the next psychopath, but this crap was pointless—I held off killing them and waited next to him.
   “These look tasty, don’t they?”
   The once-stoic soldiers suddenly looked ready to run. My stomach rumbled, but I was more in the mood for a classic cheese-steak than long pig.
   “Hmmm… naah. Not enough meat on those bones.”
   “What a shame…” Reaper’s claws popped free of their sheaths and the remaining soldiers turned into a fountain of blood as he disappeared into a blur of motion. I dropped the cloak and laughed as the bodies slowly crumpled to the deck.
   As I stepped into the lift I looked around. The design of the station had everything large enough for me and Reaper to be comfortable; made sense, if their defensive plans included those oversized suits of armor. Even so, Reaper’s large frame filled the lift’s doorway as he stepped in. Then the doors hissed shut and the elevator started its four deck trip.
   Almost immediately the music started. The same damned tinkly-ass piano music that all elevators have. Annoying as hell, even more annoying when you’ve been trapped in an elevator on the floor of the sea for three hours.
   «HAL, tune out that damned music.»
   «No can do, boss. The frequency range is too wide; I can’t remove it without filtering all sound.»
   Damned computer had good logic. If I couldn’t hear, I’d be massively handicapped if it came to a fight. I was able to ignore it for another few minutes, but then it got to be too much. A single blast from one of my energy guns stopped the music and I was able to calm down a little bit.
   As I leaned back against one of the elevator’s walls I spotted Reaper staring at me. “What? I hate elevator music. Drives me nuts.”
   Not long after that, thankfully, the elevator came to a stop and its doors hissed open. Unfortunately, the room beyond was totally empty. Not even a control panel for the door on the other end of the room! And from the looks of it, that door wouldn’t open without a lot of force. Well, fine, I had... shit. I was fresh out of DetCord. And if HAL’s scans were as accurate as they always were, the damn thing was shielded against energy weapons.
   “Catch!” Reaper yelled and tossed something to me.
   I automatically reached out and plucked the object from the air. Turns out that he’d been holding out on me—it was a can of Thermo-Foam! Just what the doctor ordered for loosening up a recalcitrant door. It only took me a minute to empty the can into the door’s seams and detonate it. The door stayed shut—impossibly and oddly shut—no fair! One eternal truth had guided my steps all through my long life: Every problem can be solved by a suitable application of high explosives…

Elsewhere, even as we speak

   “Jackson, come on! We need to barricade that door! They’ll tear us apart if they get in here!”
   A hissing boom filled the tiny tomb-like vault of the central security computer room.
   “What was that?”
   “Sounded like Thermo-Foam. Wait—the door held! Maybe they’re not as bad as they appeared on TV—let’s get ’em!”
   Johnson, a tall gangly guy in the red suit of a high-security area guard, pulled a lightweight pulsed plasma rifle from a cabinet and tossed its twin to his companion. Then he charged the door. With a rolling boom, huge balls of plasma tore through the less-armored walls around the door.
   “Oh, sh—Davis! Come on! Prop the door up! We can’t let them…” With a sickening crunch the door slammed against the deckplates, its multi-ton bulk flattening the guards into messy protoplasmic pancakes.


   I looked at the door dumbfounded. Aside from Reaper’s last few blocks of C-4, we were out of explosives—and the door had resisted the blast from a full can of Thermo-Foam! And if Thermo-Foam couldn’t do the job, there was no way C-4 would; the blast would just damage the room we were in. Sure, I could hack the system from here, but from HAL’s earlier work I knew needed a secure terminal to access any secure database. I was ready to try blowing through the walls with my chaingun when Reaper told me to get away from the door.
   He swung his huge gatling into position and opened fire. It looked like one burst to me, but there was now a shining line of light all the way around the door. Guess I’m not the only guy in the room who’s got neuro-kinetic boost on tap, huh? I just smiled and kicked in the door with all my strength. There was a shout from the other side as the door crashed in. I was way irritated, what with the door being so damn hard to open, and I looked forward to handling the guards HAL’s thermal sensors had spotted.
   My claws left scratches on the metal door as I sprinted inside, Eta-Blasters drawn. HAL had already marked two targets in the room, and I figured a good way to help locate Surino would be an old-fashioned interrogation. Unless they’d been taught how to resist even the worst torture… well, I’d bomb that bridge when I came to it. Unfortunately the room was empty—the only signs of life were (a) me, and (b) ribbons of blood seeping out from under the remnants of the door.
   “Dammit, Strider. Make them talk first!” Reaper said in a deadpan voice. I laughed and turned to the terminal.
   I walked over to the terminal and started punching in commands, needing to use the thing to get onto the station’s nets. It didn’t take me long to find an open account and make the connection. After that it was up to HAL to get me into the system, and I’d handle the security systems and find out where that damned chicken Surino had gotten to. ‘Demon of Frentak 5’? Yeah, right. More like ‘chicken-shit’—but that was beside the point.
   «HAL, standard frequencies. Let’s have some fun.»
   Reality dissolved around me and I immediately started coughing. The virtual environment around me was thick with steam and smoke. “HAL! Where the fuck is my interface!?” I shouted, my nostrils clogged with the microscopic drops of oil that clogged the air in aerosol suspension.
   «This is it, Boss! System overrides—this is the only interface it will accept.»
   «Damn! Shutdown atmosphere pickups on our end. This shit’s making it hard to think.» I coughed again, hoping HAL would be able to turn off those systems without causing the terminal to terminate the connection. If he couldn’t, I’d just have to build a program to act like an old-fashioned gas mask and hope it didn’t impede my ability to get the job done.
   «Done, Boss,» HAL reported (needlessly) less than a second later. My vision cleared and I was able to breathe without coughing at the same time. Now all I had to do was locate the secure system interconnect point and dig out the schedule Surino’s ship was on. Only problem was, this system was so clogged with smoke and steam that I’d have to slog through the stuff to find it. Could take a long time—which might be why the system enforced this sim-model.
   Then the smoke cleared for a moment: I spotted a pillar of light in the distance. Well, that was closer to a data-pipe than anything else this sim had to offer, so I headed towards it. Hah! This weird exoskeletal mix of gears, chains and steam engines got in my way almost instantly—good news, because the obstacle suggested I’d guessed right. The robotic guardian looked like something from a Luddite’s worst nightmare, and was armed with mass quantities of mouth-watering weaponry.
   Immediately I reached for my ablater, knowing that the target’s armor would withstand anything less. But when the program finished initializing, I found that my own weapon was a lot less appealing than its normally stylish chaingun-type looks. The beast of a weapon that materialized was manually powered and had a huge tube-magazine sticking out the top. Well, cosmetics—whatever its looks, its purpose was the same, so I steadied the weapon and started turning the crank.
   The massive recoil startled me as one-inch rockets flew from the barrels, exploding on impact with the system’s clockwork defender. As the gun’s magazine ran empty I looked over how the system had chosen to portray one of my favorite tools and smiled. Despite the obsolescent looks, it had lots more power than it should have; the defender was fucking gone—disappeared in a shower of oil and bits of machinery.
   After stowing the ablater, I resumed my trek towards the pillar of light. hoping it was the connection I needed and not some kind of red herring. «HAL, do we have any way to find out if that pillar is an access port?»
   «I’ve been looking at the raw data, boss. It is an access port, but it’s locked down. Shit! Boss, a swarm of Class Three black ICE just popped into the data stream.» I’d caught—something—but all I got was a vague impression of speed, size, and power. «Very streamlined, almost like they were put together by an AI.»
   I started running as fast as I could for the access port. Stand and fight? Forget it—anything above Class Two was nasty, and if the code was streamlined… «HAL, I’m going to need something big. We still got any of those random access overwriters?»
   «One left, boss. But I think I can get you more than ten runs out of it. Just keep away from that ICE for a few more seconds.»
   Stay away from it? My clearest impression of the thing was ‘three massive legs’, and I assumed it had more. Staying away from that beast was my top priority, especially since the noise of it moving told me just how massive this single piece of ICE was.
   «Boss, jump backwards!»
   Rather than argue, I moved. A fourth huge leg planted its foot-end right where I’d been standing. «Thanks, HAL. That toy ready?»
   «Yep! Starting ’er up for you now, Boss.»
   «Hold off on that, HAL. Let me get on top of this thing first.»
   I jumped, wrapped my hands around one of the leg’s iron braces, and started climbing up it. Talk about stunned—it was three minutes before I had to maneuver around the first joint, ten meters off the ground. Nice view; clear line of sight on everything around me, including a royal shitload of scuttling metal whatzits. With a shake of my head I laughed and continued up the leg of the big-ass sim this system was using as ICE.
   The rest of the climb was the same, slow and boring. But I did finally get a glimpse at what this ICE was supposed to be: A giant fucking spider! I’m talking huge—the legs had to be 25 meters long, and the whole thing was probably 70 meters from one end to another. Real impressive, considering that this sim apparently had full function—its designer hadn’t missed a single trick.
   «Okay HAL, activate that program.»
   The gun that materialized in my hands was massive—three short 120mm barrels with backblast compensators. It appeared to be fully automatic, a simple recoil-driven design, even if I’d never handled anything like it before. But, unfamiliar looks and proportions or not, the thing was a gun! Point-and-shoot interface, right? A ripple of laughter (and one trigger-pull) later, the huge spider-looking ICE was crashing to the ground. I stowed the gun and leaped to safety, landing in front of the spider’s smaller siblings… all hundred-something-thousand of them.
   «HAL, anything in reserve there?»
   «Picked up a chunk of code from that ICE, boss. Just finished reworking it. It’s coming online… now.»
   The new gun materialized on cue. At least it seemed like it might have come from the proper century, even if it did look a bit odd. I aimed and pulled the trigger. A cobalt-blue flash of electricity split the air, shattering the ‘baby’ spider I’d aimed at—and ten of its closest friends. Whatever code HAL had salvaged from that ICE, it was going to save me a hell of a lot of time. My finger flexed; the gun clacked; again and again, the actinic beam of electricity leaped from the tip of the gun and the spiders disappeared in showers of ozone and metal fragments. Nice toy!
   The fireworks ended too soon. Of course, there weren’t any targets left, but still… After stowing the gun, I started running again. The ICE resistance was minimal so far, but there had been mass quantities of it. And what with the continual action, there hadn’t been any good time for me to take five and replenish my depleted virtual arsenal. So I was now down to a few weapons—including one last big trick, which I had a feeling I was going to need. Only problem was that I couldn’t be sure it would work here; not if HAL was right about this terminal being protected by an AI.
   Three minutes later, Sim Standard Time, I was looking at a tilted wall topped with a firewall-looking barrier. And the pillar of light that I knew was the access port was on the other side. I needed a way up the sheer wall, and through the firewall. Hmmm... with that layout, my ablater would be useless, and none of my other prepped tools could get me there. Give up? I guess most people might have, but then I wasn’t ‘most people’.
   «HAL, find me a way through that firewall.»
   «Boss, why not redirect a data bus?»
   «How would that work?»
   «This system works with close to real-world physics. Look to your left—that train is a data bus.»
   I felt really stupid after HAL pointed out the obvious. Hey, I know what trains look like; it’s just that they don’t burn coal, and they don’t have tall funnels that belch thick black clouds of smoke and ash, okay? And, yep, there were the tracks—running right up into the wall. I didn’t know how lifelike the local physics model was, but it was worth a shot. So it was a balls-to-the-wall sprint to the train’s locomotive; a quick blast from the ablater to erase any obstacles to me seizing the train; and I was in charge of something that hadn’t been seen on earth, except in miniature, for a hundred years.
   With a childish grin on my face, I kicked open the pressure valves and pulled the whistle rope. The engine chugged and started to pick up speed. By the time it reached the firewall, that sucker was really moving. The simulated wind had my fur flapping and I loved it. Only one thing could make it better: Having the train actually penetrate the damn barrier.
   «Two seconds, Boss.»
   On cue, the train’s front end hit with an explosive crash; the firewall shattered, and I had a front-row seat to enjoy it from. No sense becoming part of the show—I jumped free of the operator’s cabin before it got crushed like a six-meter beer can. Had to roll several times before I bled off the momentum I’d picked up riding the train. When I got to my feet and turned to face the access port I saw another firewall, this one made of small segments spinning around the column of light rapidly.
   «HAL, can you slow the…» I started to ask HAL if he could do something to give me a better chance at breaking the strange, spinning firewall when the panels lifted; beyond them was a weird figure pulling cables and levers. Then the panels slammed closed again. Had I just gotten a glimpse of the AI, or was someone working full time to run this place? Probably the AI.
   «Boss, that seems to be a specialized firewall to protect the AI. But—»
   «—it needs to open and close on a regular basis so it can control this sim,» I finished HAL’s sentence, having figured it out as he started to speak. Okay: The panels had to lift like that on a regular basis, which meant I had a good chance of slaughtering the AI while it was exposed and vulnerable.
   «HAL, give me the anti-AI overwrite program.»
   «You sure, Boss? Militech never did finish testing it.»
   «Just load the damn program.»
   A skeletal latticework of iron rods materialized around my upper body, complete with with a strange, rectangular-barreled gun under my right arm. The weight became real; then the grips and trigger faded in. I smiled, and waited for the panels to open again… There! Hah! I opened fire. Spinning discs flew from the barrel, topped with what appeared to be analog computers.
   Each disc flew straight for the first few feet, then short, sharp blades ka-chunked out with a metallic ringing sound—razor-edged boomerangs with mechanical guidance systems. Weird, but cool! As the defense-panels slammed into active mode, my babies flipped up in a beautifully precise display of formation flying and flew in at the figure outlined by the light of the access port. Only one made it inside the barrier before it closed. That’s all I needed; as the other ’rangs exploded harmlessly on the wall, a muffled scream filled the air and the barrier disassembled itself into a pixelated mess.
   Then the sim reconfigured around me. By the time I strolled into the access port, (virtual) Reality was back to the way I liked it. The search was trivial; I found the bits I sought almost immediately, and I laughed as HAL dropped the connection. As real Reality came into being around me, the smell of freshly fired weapons punched me in the nose—I reflexively drew my Eta-Blasters.
   “Relax, Strider,” my associate said. “I took ’em out while you were still cracking the network.”


   I stepped through the smoldering hole in the bulkhead and crouched in the middle of the door as I surveyed the room. Strider was right; of the two guards that had been here, the only trace was a pool of blood, slowly running across the deck, and fine red droplets splattered across the closest wall.
   I tsk-tsked at him: “Kill them after you get them to talk! Remember?”
   Strider ignored me and went to work on the terminal. From the looks of it, he was going full VR. What he was doing might be necessary, but it was also rather dull for me; I invested my time inspecting my Gatling cannon.
   «Sam, can you get anything about the metal now?»
   Kthunk! A metallic clank drifted through the open doorway from somewhere down the hall. My ears perked up and twisted a bit to focus on the noise. Kthunk! The noise seemed a few feet closer. I shut the access panel on my weapon and powered it up, ready for a fight.
   «Sam, display tactical map.»
   Continued silence.
   «Sam! Answer me!»
   «Never mind that! Tactical display!»
   An overlay flashed into view—a map, with information on all close targets. Kthunk! Damnit! Another couple of footsoldiers, and another mechsuit, were advancing down the corridor. When will they learn? I thought to myself, resting one foot-paw on the door wreckage and training my cannon on the opening.
   With his back against the far side of the bulkhead, one of the footsoldiers peeked around the corner, weapon at the ready. He hesitated for a moment, then tried to sneak to the other side of the doorway as another soldier took his place, this one with weapon pointed in my direction; standard assault tactics. I squeezed the trigger and fired a single burst that blazed across the vault and tore through the soldier’s head. His skull exploded in a shower of bone and gore as his decapitated body slowly collapsed to its knees and shlumped to the floor. The soldier covering him stared in horror at his comrade; seeing his comrade collapsed on the floor he opened fire and tried to rush me. Several blasts sizzled against my armor and singed my fur as I fired a three round burst into the soldiers chest. He must not have been wearing any armor, because his torso was nearly shredded by the first two blasts; the third went clean through, leaving a scorch mark on the far wall.
   Meanwhile, Strider was still deep in VR; not only was his body vulnerable, but any damage to the system he was connected to might have nasty effects on his brain and/or mind. This wouldn’t have been a problem, except that I still needed the information he was digging up. Ergo, I had to protect the silly wolf at all cost.
   «It’s an AI?»
   The mech set one foot down, just in front of the hole in the wall, then the other. It settled down on its leg joints and its torso turned to face me with dual heavy railguns. Shit! Targeting information flashed into view—markers appearing over possible weak points—and schematics popped into my field of vision along with a rotating wire-frame model: The tin can was a Dynatech Systems Model 204 Battle Droid.
   «Sam, display the power core.»
All of the targeting marks disappeared except for one in the center of the mech.
   Sounds good to me. I opened fire on the mech; I got a half dozen rounds off before it could return fire. Its railguns sparked twice; their projectiles blew large holes in my armor, which, being ablative, absorbed most of the impact. Fortunately, I had a highly significant rate-of-fire advantage over the mech. Ten of my rounds later, the mech’s armor was starting to get lighter; mine was well on the way to repairing itself. At round twenty, the mech’s armor was glowing; it fired another volley; this time one of its rounds was stopped by my armor, but the other punched completely through the full thickness of my torso before burying itself in the wall behind me. The pain would have been nigh-unendurable, had Sam not been damping those neural impulses.
   As Sam predicted, round twenty-five blasted through the armor, peeling it inwards. There was a small flash from somewhere inside the mech and a small cloud of thick black smoke drifted out through the entrance wound. The mech’s torso exploded, showering flaming bits of debris all over the vault and corridor outside. Time to see how bad the damage was… At my signal, Sam killed the pain-damping; the railgun wound spewed searing agony through my body, and I dropped to one knee.
   «Sam! Status!»
   “Damn lucky shot,” I muttered. I pulled myself to my feet and stepped into the corridor. There was a lone soldier to my left, about four meters away, his weapon trained on the door; when he caught sight of me, his jaw dropped and his eyes got wide. He dropped his weapon tried to run away, the fool. Bloody annoying mercs—before he had a chance to get anywhere, I’d unholstered one of my MAC-10s and dropped him to the deck.
   The tactical display showed no more targets on that deck, so I turned back to the vault and surveyed the damage. Both Strider and the terminal were unharmed. That wolf damned well better have dug up the data I sought! Considering the numerous ‘dead or alive’ rewards on his head, him getting fragged would have been quite lucrative for me; but as long as he was useful, that could wait. I had a higher priority—that being Surino’s head. On a platter.
   «Sam, open a channel to Perse.»
   «Yes, my liege?»
   «Perse, I need an exit on this level.»
   «You got it, my lord!»
And then she giggled softly…

   In the cargo bay, Perse’s loading ramp hissed softly and slowly eased shut as her main drive started up with a soft hum. All of her external lights cycled through their preflight status and her landing struts retracted. With a barely audible metallic noise, her weapons ports opened on the leading edge of her frame.
   «Perse, take out the hangar door.»
   «But my lord—»
   «Do it, Perse.»
   «Yes, my captain!»
   The staccato drumbeat of Perse’s railguns shattered the silence of the cargo bay, cutting the fused door to shreds. The tattered and twisted remnants of that door blew out into the vacuum of space, creating a hollow boom that reverberated through the whole of the station as it strained against the sudden loss of pressure. Alarms blared throughout the station, an odd background to the inhumanly calm voice on its internal comm network: “Attention, all personnel. Due to an unscheduled catastrophic hull breach on deck eighteen, tonight’s Acme Of Drama™ Classic Film Presentation, Debbie Does Deionychus, will not be shown in the Puce Theatre on deck seventeen.” Somewhere off in the distance, emergency bulkheads hissed closed. “Pressure-retention walls are currently in process of deploying. Those personnel who are currently on the vacuum side of any pressure-retention wall are strongly advised to reassign themselves to a more alveoli-compatible location within the next… eleven… seconds. For those personnel who have remained on the oxygenated side of the pressure-retention walls, Debbie Does Deionychus will be shown in the Mauve Theatre on deck sixty-nine…” It didn’t take long for the air pressure to drop below the minimum necessary to carry sound-waves, after which the hangar quieted down real good.
   The Persephone glided slowly out of the hangar on her maneuvering thrusters. Once clear of the wreckage, her sublight engines flashed to life; she banked up along the outer hull of the station, dodging various antenna clusters and protrusions. She leveled out at deck one hundred and forty and braked to a halt, then slowly drifted towards the station hull until her port airlock latched solidly against it.

   «Do it, Sam. We’ll need that for other repairs anyway.»
   My armor finished knitting itself back together as Strider finally came out of VR. He immediately drew his Eta-Blasters and looked furtively around the vault.
   “Relax,” I said. “I already got ‘em. Where’d that scum get to?”
   “I’ve got his next destinations. But first, you can jump universes, right? I’m going to need some toys from home.”
   A rumble echoed through the station.
   “Reaper! What the hell was that?”
   “That was Persephone. She’ll be waiting for us down the corridor.”
   He gave me a doubtful look. “There’s an airlock on this level?”
   “Not exactly,” I said, dismissing his concerns with a smirk and a wave of my forepaw. I jogged a good ways down the hall before abruptly turning into an empty storeroom and leaning on the bulkhead just inside the door, apparently waiting for something.
   Strider had kept pace with me. “Now what, Reaper?”
   “Keep your fur on. Just wait.”
   «In position, m’lud.»
   «Okay, Perse, torch the hull.»
   A bright point of light formed on the wall, about fourteen feet up, emitting a shower of sparks into the room. The point split in two; each of them crept down the bulkhead, joining again at the bottom. With a loud thump and another shower of sparks, the panel flew across the room and clattered to the deck. Light glowed beyond the bulkhead, flooding out through the hole and illuminating one of Persephone’s airlocks.
   «Perse, time to have some fun. You remember that game called ‘pool’?»
   «Yep. And I remember I always beat you at it!»
   «Yeah, yeah… We’re going to play with the docked ships.»
   «Oooooo! Is that wolf playing, too?»
   «Yes, Perse, the wolf is playing too. Map the local ships and get a holographic table ready, will you? We’ll be right there.»
   The airlock door sealed behind us with a soft hiss; Strider in tow, I headed to the flight deck. I took my place at the pilot’s station and the seat slid forward with a soft hiss. The docking clamps released their hold, and the seal holding in the station’s atmosphere broke. Air rushed into the void, its thrust pushing us away from the hull. Using Persephone’s maneuvering thrusters, I nudged us around to get a look at the hole that was still venting oxygen and debris into space. Hmmm… I wonder if Interactive Networks will try to cover this up as a ‘natural disaster’? Nah, that would be too convenient.
   I turned to Strider. “Care for a game of pool?”
   “You’ve got a real pool table?”
   “No. I was thinking something a little bigger: Ships.” A sly grin crept across my face.
   “Ships for balls? Sweet!” he replied with a smirk. “Where’s my cue?”
   «Perse, you have that map ready?»
   «You betcha. How do you want to move the ships?»
   «Reverse the GFG* and use a—»
   «—focused gravity stream to slingshot them. I got it, hon’! Everything’s a go—by your command.»

*Would you believe, ‘GFG’ stands for ‘Gravity Field Generator’?

   Behind me, Strider’s claws scraped on the deck plating as I made my way to the galley on A deck. It was a sparsely furnished room, with a small kitchen near one end with no table or chairs. Strider glared at me. I could tell he was thinking ‘why the hell are we here?’ I just grinned back and tapped a few buttons on the door console. Perse took the cue and started generating a pool table. A mist formed near the floor, swirling toward the middle of the room and collecting into larger particles as it neared the center. A very realistic and very solid mahogany pool table materialized out of the mist, complete with six cues on a rack.
   The top of the table faded to a starry three-dimensional map of the shipyards, complete with miniatures of all the docked ships. As I tossed Strider one of the pool cues, the Persephone-marker darted across the map and hovered near the closest ship; then she returned to her previous position, dragging the other ship back with her. The other ship, a medium cruiser twice the size of Perse, began to circle her in a close orbit, slow at first but quickly picking up speed.
   «Perse? Fire up the power cores for that ship and any others you launch.»
   «I like that idea, Sir! Consider it done.»
   Strider picked up on how the little game was supposed to work right away and set up his first shot. The cue struck the model of Perse with a dull clack, and the ship orbiting Perse shot off across the map.
   A ‘screen’ materialized above the table, showing an exterior view of the ship hurtling across the shipyards, with an external camera on the other ship. It barely missed two docked tankers on its way to slam into the side of a medium cruiser. Escaping atmosphere from the cruiser fed flames which billowed out into the vacuum of space and tore into the tankers like wet cardboard. Both ships disintegrated quickly, spreading a field of debris and frozen gasses throughout the shipyards.
   “Interactive mayhem! I like it!” Strider chuckled as he backed away from the table. A moment later a glowing ‘500’ appeared on one side of the floating display and caught both our attentions. “Huh. We’re playing for points?”
   “That’s how it looks,” I replied with a hint of annoyance in my voice.
   «Perse? What are you doing?»
   «Just having some fun, Mon Capitan.»
   «Fine. Next time, don’t have so much fun.»
   As I set up my first shot I noticed Perse had chosen a tanker this time, so I aimed for one of the heavy cruisers. My ‘ball’ rocketed off, as Strider’s had done; head-on collision with the cruiser. The tanker exploded and disintegrated instantly, but there was a perceptible pause before the cruiser went up. Geysers of flame spewed out along the length of its hull before it abruptly burst asunder. Debris from its demise shot through the ships docked at either side of the cruiser, taking them out as well.
   A glowing ‘525’ appeared on my side of the display.
   “What? That was least five hundred and thirty points!” I exclaimed indignantly. Strider just gave me a smug, lupine grin.
   «What are you trying to pull, Perse?»
   «Nothing, my liege! I’m just trying to help your game by giving you a handicap.»
And then Perse giggled, the cybernetic strumpet.
   The rest of the game went about the same: Trillions of credits worth of spacecraft being used as toys, and me struggling to keep up because of Perse’s ‘thoughtfulness’. It ended as the explosion from the last ships flared out; the pool table dissolved into thin air, leaving the room a sparse galley once more.
   “There’s one last thing to do before we get the toys you were talking about. We gotta blow this joint—and I do mean blow,” I said with an evil chuckle.
   «You betcha, Sam. It’s been too long.»
   Strider followed me back to the flight deck and grabbed a chair by one of the control consoles—he was probably curious about what I had up my sleeve. I smirked and slid the pilot’s seat forward into its locked position before tapping at the armament console. While I worked, Persephone slowly drifted around until her bow was facing the station, with a perfect view from anywhere on the flight deck.
   “Watch this.”
   I tapped one last button on the console, and then leaned back in smug satisfaction. A single missile fired at the station, and the further it got from Perse, the faster it moved; exponential acceleration is fun! It tore clean through the station’s hull, leaving almost no visible point of impact. Then a semi-visible shockwave spread out from the station. A few milliseconds later, the station burst all of its seams, exploding in a pure white fireball that completely obliterated the station, quickly fading to interstellar black.
   «Perse, take some scans of Strider and get a lock on his universe. Has HAL been behaving himself?»
   «No hey problemo, Señor! I’ve had a lock on it since the wolf asked about dimension hopping. And as for HAL, he’s been snooping around, but nothing serious.»
   I turned to Strider. “Now that that’s taken care of,” I grinned, “hold on to your fur, ’cause we’re taking you back to ‘Kansas’.”
   Perse’s reactor hummed, pouring unimaginable amounts of power into her trans-universal drive; soon, a bright and quickly growing point of light appeared a kilometer in front of our bow. The light-mote quickly transmuted itself into a slowly spiraling cloud of something that looked like blue gas that quickly pushed away all of the debris. I eased us forward, slipping into the wormhole that led to Strider’s home universe.


    The pool game was buckets of fun. Watching the death of the shipyard, now, that was much better. Just a pity that the type of missile Reaper used to do it wouldn’t touch Surino’s battleship. For that we’d need serious firepower—gigawatt lasers, C-minus mass drivers, antimatter. Fortunately, I knew exactly where to get it all.
   Then we jumped to my home dimension. Just as the ship lurched, I laughed at the looks I was going to get walking into the restricted weapons lab of Militech. Oh, yeah, this was going to be a lot of fun. Triple the level I’d had on the station, if Militech decided not to honor its agreement to provide me with weapons…

to be continued

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