The Quantum Pirate by Arthur Byron Cover – FREE STORY




“Friend, what is your opinion of Emperor Justinian’s new reprobate re-education program?”

“Reprobate I understand; re-education I understand; but what is this thing called an opinion?”

(An ancient witticism, attributed to an anonymous free associator.)















For a thousand centuries Coppeweb the 73rd had labored as a regulator in the service of his Great Lord and Overseer, Emperor Justinian Melinus, Most Grandiose and Supreme Arbitrator of Sentient Society. That fact alone distinguished him as a prominent and influential entity, one whose very existence implied feats of historical importance.

Another fact: Coppeweb’s possession of a name was purely a matter of convenience for upper management. For all practical intents and purposes, regulators were anonymous, interchangeable, and totally devoid of individuality. None could be said to have a unique world view. Their sole distinguishing trait was the serial number on their backsides, a serial number no one ever saw because regulators were fused to their work stations and never moved around of their own accord.

Regulators’ collective workstation was an out of the way terminal in a remote location deep, deep in the bowels of a satellite with a circumference half a mile long. The satellite – designated by serial number – was part of an epic conglomeration of planets and satellites in a great artificial solar system called the Star Castle.

The Star Castle was the cold, cryptic capricious heart of the Empire. From its vast office floors, its endless maze of lifts and corridors, its gargantuan computer array emanated countless directives to the far corners of the Empire. Its every communication was intended to reflect Justinian’s demands, to play some small part in the implementation of his grand schemes. Needless to say, Justinian made a lot of demands.

His instructions were carried out without question, for it was one of those common denominators of existence that Justinian’s plans were beyond the ken of the Little Entities, a class of sentients that included everyone but Justinian. The vast majority of directives were simple and were performed efficiently and without deviation from the timeline.

Some actions, however, required a subtle touch. They required fiddling with or even reversing tributaries of time in order to achieve a preconceived result. Or they required reaching into a mind the size and import of a mote – a mote whose existence amounted to a blink of an eye – and altering a thought or inclination at a precise nanosecond. That was the kind of job for which the corps of Regulators was invented, and Coppeweb was proud, to the extent his programming permitted, to do his part.

For over a millennia he had been as dutiful, as loyal, and, frankly, as mundane as a cog in an analogue watch. He had no reason to think his future would be any different from his present, or for that matter, any reason to think of any kind of future. He had no reason to believe anything unusual or extraordinary would happen to him. His comprehension of concepts such as love, hatred, tyranny, freedom, individuality and social adhesion was in the most marginal sense only.

Never had it occurred to him he might be susceptible to an unauthorized experience, that he might learn, in a flash, from the top of his head on down, the unfathomable shock of being struck by the thunderbolt of common emotions.

Yet that is precisely what happened. He experienced feelings. The very admission implied he was far from the cool, distant, displaced, dispassionate, beyond-the-know-it-all type he believed himself to be, but a regular joe, as susceptible to irrational feelings and desires as all the other regular joes. In retrospect, the idea was perfectly logical – why wouldn’t he be susceptible? – but in the moment it perplexed and terrified him.

That too was perfectly reasonable. Thanatophobia was something one was duty-bound to feel once one has become emotionally invested in the fate of someone whose lifespan lasted as long a match in a hurricane. Yet from the moment he spied her – this vicious, vivacious creature – time slowed to a prosaic pace, yet his life had developed new meaning with the quickness of light.

The assignment had been to sow suspicion, just enough to inspire a bit of caution, in the mind of a hauler captain making a typical run, taking a convention course on its way to the Star Castle. The cargo was nothing special: a thousand barrels of coffee, crates of clothing and toys endemic to popular cultures here and there, a hundred metric tons of alloys, and a few hundred holds filled with seeds. There was a ton of fish eggs in suspended animation, and a miscellaneous crate or two of alchemical ingredients, such as purple Sulphur, and powders ground from the bladders of criminals whose governing bodies failed to recognize sentient rights conventions.

Not insignificantly, a tiny compartment in the back of the hold contained several extra-legal crates, each stamped with the Emperor’s Seal, in the form of a stylized triangle with a downturned handlebar moustache slashed across the middle. The seal meant only the highest ranking members of the nobility were permitted to inspect the contents. The nickname for the Emperor’s Seal among commonfolk was the Vainglorious Seal of Anonymity. Coppeweb deduced, correctly, the crates were the reason he’d been directed to prod the captain to take extra precautions, despite the already infinitesimal chance the ship would fall prey to marauders.

Such an approach was strictly routine, but it so happened the mere fact the captain took the precautions alerted a certain clerk to the possibility the manifest might be worth a closer look. A minion of modest heritage and an even lower status, the clerk was seriously in debt, to a certain lady marauder thus far overlooked in Justinian’s computations. Rarely did lone elements derail the course of a grand tributary for long – a single entity in an Empire this vast had the impact of a pebble in an ocean – so no one gave it a second thought when the clerk alerted this miscreant of the shipment and thereafter passes out of our story. The miscreant herself, though, was positively smashing. Coppeweb immediately recognized her as special.

Her name was Velouria Davenport, and she was the daughter of a clan of the Inferior Merchant Class. The Inferior Merchants were as infamous as much as they were envied, for they alone had harnessed the power of true love, so the best unions possible would ensure the advancement of their people and culture. That culture was deliberately engineered to be the most transactional in contemporary society. They used combinations of genetic manipulation, generational planning, and inviolate contracts. Those methods were infallible, always successful. Partners of the inferior class invariably believed they were soul mates, destined to be together by a force of nature Justinian himself could not overrule.

People who cared about that sort of thing ranked the Davenport clan as a gaggle of inelegant johnny-come-latelys. The Davenports were, in turn, brash, ambitious, and exploited their children ruthlessly. It was how they expressed their love.

Velouria’s parents loved her very much. She was engineered to bear children smarter, brighter, faster, and more avaricious than normal. A life plan of no small privilege had been laid out before her. She had been raised to expect herself to exceed the family’s standards, in terms of financial success, motherhood, social status, and personal satisfaction.

At first, everything had seemed to be going smashingly. Vee was dutifully brilliant in her academic pursuits; physically she was athletic and attractive. She attended all the right social events and behaved properly throughout every one. In many ways she was indistinguishable from her equally exceptional peers, which was something of a disappointment to some in her family. Even so, she gave every indication of growing up to be a shark in a sea of piranhas.

Sure, she had her wild, rebellious moments. Every inferior kid did. They wanted to take the same kind of risks the kids in the other clans did – the risk of finding your true love on your own, for instance. They wanted to believe true love was dependent on free will. They needed to believe love was more than a signed contract and good intentions. They were certain the only path to true love was through the heart.

Inevitably though, their genetic programming kicked in and they joyfully embraced the virtues of arranged romance. The whirlwind sensation of being helplessly in love while believing it a whim of the gods and not something your parents had planned for you might be illusionary, but they found it impossible to distinguish from the “real thing” – whatever that was – and so took the path of least resistance.

However: hidden deep within the recesses of Vee’s resolute psyche was the notion that belief alone, without substantiation, was a fool’s game; that whenever others present you with limited options, you make another. Her decision to rebel, when it came, was swift and unexpected.

One day she was a perfectly behaved, dutifully focused young lady, planning her debutante ball; the next, she was nowhere to be seen, found, or texted. All the usual means of tracking someone proved to be dead ends, and an army of private detectives, organic and otherwise, were dispensed, to no avail. It was as if Vee’d fallen into a black hole.

The scandal was spectacular while it lasted. Speculation was endless. News specials were built around her disappearance. The possibility she’d been murdered was considered. “Where’s Velouria?” became a popular game that swept through several cultures like radioactivity.

Eventually, though, interest died down; the case of the missing Inferior child was as forgotten as yesterday’s news feeds. For years there was no story to tell, nothing to add to the mystery, nothing to stir the popular imagination. It seemed the only effect of her disappearance was to make the other clans wonder if their investments with the Davenports were sound.

Then came the rumors, the whispers, the urban tales. The allusions in clandestine broadcasts, the whispering among the disaffected species. The vague implications in the off-color jokes, the curious nursery rhymes. The idea that in that arm of the Empire called the Ripostus, in the minor star clusters at the tip of the edge of the rim, a most devious, savage, resourceful, greedy, attractive miscreant was breaking criminal records, criminal hearts, and criminal traditions.

No frail, she; this was a vixen who operated without precedent and without honor. Rumor had it her background was aristocratic, wealthy, entrepreneurial, of quasi-Royal status. She had rebelled and sworn to live her life defying any and all conventions of civilized society, an oath that, it so happened, played to her strengths. Velouria Davenport was said to have left behind her a trail of dead bodies that, if lined together, would stretch between this star and the close neighbor of your choosing.

She was that dreaded thing – a spontaneous, unvetted underground folk hero. Not that she cared. The first thing anybody with a brain got about her was her penchant for not giving a damn. Perhaps it was that quality, most of all, that inspired Coppeweb’s amour.

At the moment he first noticed her – closing in on one of her last moments, he was afraid – she was the captain of a pirate ship christened the Jacobite. Her crew had names like Cartwheel, Noxious, and Dead Silk. They don’t figure directly in our story, but with Vee leading the charge, they were quite delighted to create enormous cash flow problems for big business. Already wealthier than the dreams of avarice, the pirates pursued their desire to sow chaos with an intensity that became the envy of young radicals everywhere.

Velouria was believed all the more remarkable due to her background as a scion of the Inferior Merchant Class. Their turbulent years came with a genetically-induced clean break; the pheromones switch on and the person fell helplessly, hopelessly, in love with their contractually specified life-partner.

So deep and binding was this love that all rebellious spirit was put to use pleasing their significant other. The very notion of a runaway bride was beyond the pale, and was only alluded to in the popular culture. Some things just weren’t done! Some standards were to be upheld at all costs!

And yet – ! One woman had refused. Instead of living in shame, or shuffling off this mortal coil with a semblance of honor, she had become the most feared star bandit since the days of the antebellum epochs.

And if all that wasn’t enough, she was smashing.

Coppeweb believed it. How he believed it! He had no idea if he breathed of his own accord or with the aid of cybernetic implants. His heart raced. The mere sight of her had thrown a few monkey wrenches into his works, and the feeling was good.

And who could blame him? Even in a galaxy where beauty genes were dispensed with pharmaceutical ease, Velouria Davenport stood out as the epitome of a feminine ideal. Hers was the face of an angel, with the soul of the devil lurking behind those bright yellow eyes. Her hair was a tumultuous crimson. Her sense of fashion was impeccable. Her outfit of choice for marauding a defenseless hauler and its hapless crew was a yellow frock coat with tails, maroon bell-bottom trousers, an orange blouse, a green sash, and black boots. All manner of weapons were concealed in her clothing, so that she might be said to not so much wear an ensemble as an arsenal. It all added up to a fantastic vision.

It didn’t hurt – from Coppeweb’s perspective – that she was absolutely vicious. She showed no mercy – she was as brutal to the surrendering and the cowering as to the stubborn and combative. Compared to her, the most battle experienced hands were paint ball amateurs. No doubt about it, Coppeweb observed to himself as she cut and slashed her way through the cooks and indentured passengers in the kitchen, she enjoyed her work. Occasionally she paused to taste a pastry or sample the dehydrated mashed potatoes, but then it was back to the arduous task of slicing a man’s neck to the bone or shooting someone in the head (or back). Her clothing was covered in red and ultramarine blood. More than once he felt a vicarious flush of pride at the blood splatter patterns she created for the doors and walls.

Already Coppeweb’s id felt like it was going down for the last time in a whirlpool. What. A. Female. Surely she was a mutant of some sort, a happy accident of a genetic miscalculation, because based on what he’d seen of this Inferior Merchant Class before, none of them possessed the breadth of view necessary to plan for such a glorious creature! She was the sort of being whose life symbolizes a key date in altering the course of history. What was there not to love?

Vee and her fellow reprobates spaced the corpses of the luckless hauler crew, then settled down with a few bottles of wine and soda pop while they inventoried the spoils. An entire hold was filled with 20 thousand cubic yards of chocolate bars. In addition to those things already mentioned, they found crates of nitrogen pills, giant rolls of textiles, refrigerated compartments of mushroom spores. Dead Silk declared dibs on the captain’s stash of a controlled substance – royal beer. Ironically, part of the cargo was a huge cache of weaponry which, if the crew had known how to use, might have given them a halfway decent chance.

The most salient fact, they observed to their immense satisfaction, was the staggering economic potential in their possession. And that was before they’d found the compartment with the crates bearing the Sign of the Upturned Moustache – the Emperor’s Seal.

The moustache was broad, pitch black, upturned (obviously), and curled. Above it two dots indicated nostrils and two strokes marked eyebrows. Simple, yes, almost simplistic, yet those simple lines were drawn with grace and wit, as if a grand master had made a mark in the sand. It was the symbol of absolute authority, and meant the contents were sacrosanct. They were meant for the Emperor’s hands only, or rather, more precisely, one of the various planet-sized Repositories within the Star Castle.

Unbeknownst to the others, Velouria noticed a tiny wooden box lying in a corner; apparently it had been misplaced and forgotten. Her fine instinct for larceny piqued her penchant for secrecy. Already she suspected the contents, whatever they were, were something she’d want to keep to herself. She pocketed the box and excused herself.

The others barely noticed. They were too busy prying open the crates and examining the artifacts contained therein – none of which, I am compelled to add, struck them as particularly valuable in and of themselves; the Emperor’s Seal alone bestowed value.

Well, in their opinion. As for Vee, once she was alone in an officer’s cabin, she found herself awash in a hazy, yet powerful glow of anticipation.

She opened the box to find a sliver of metal, a tiny thumb drive.

Old technology, she thought, extremely old.

Older than she’d ever encountered, dreamed of, or read about.

Older than the puny records of the pre-ancient epochs before the establishment of the Empire.

She sensed it was not only impossibly valuable, but dangerous. She wasted no time whatsoever in speculating on what sort of information might be contained on the drive. Without hesitation she hid the drive in a place no one was going to nose around in for the time being, then went about her business.

Coppeweb, meanwhile, recognized the drive for what it was: the source of unvetted information. Who knew what sort of radical or deviant notions might be contained within those ancient bytes? Who knew what impact it might have on susceptible minds? Unsanctioned mythological components, for instance, were known to have had adverse effects that rippled across the centuries, causing Justinian – or who shall ever be living in His place, long may He live – endless umbrage.

Further rumination was curtailed by the need to disrespect the dead. It was the common practice to place the deceased in a space pod so the corpse might be preserved until it was captured by a gravitational force, the bigger the better. Vee and her band unceremoniously ejected the dead bodies through the waste docks, a deliberate affront against every decorum the Empire held dear.

Coppeweb pronounced the pirate band mediocre scum, but Velouria was a most radiant exception.

The pirates stripped the freighter of everything they considered most valuable, especially the chocolate, and then left it on the edge of an uncolonized solar system, setting it on a course for the sun, where it would be reduced into atoms.

A terrible unease took hold of Coppeweb. His fear for Velouria’s life had grown immense. The entire cosmos depended on her for its validation.

One strange thing though: up to now, those premonitions he’d had regarding Vee’s future were unflaggingly dire. Now there were no premonitions to be had.

There was only one explanation for that, an eventuality which he was determined to prevent.

Radical action was necessary.

Without pausing to consider the rationale behind it, he checked out his contract.

Well, well, he noted with satisfaction: nothing expressly forbade him from taking an unscheduled leave of absence, on his own recognizance.

In fact, the concept of taking a leave of absence to deal with a personal matter wasn’t mentioned in the contract, as if the possibility was by definition beyond the pale.

That settled it then. He would take a long, well deserved vacation.

But to do that, he needed to push a red button at the far edge of the console before him, a console fused with his body.

To accomplish that seemingly modest task, he had to move.

He hadn’t moved of his own accord for decades. He furrowed his brow. The puny effort inflamed his nerves dearly, an indication of the sheer agony surely awaiting him upon further movement, but he was undeterred.

Impulsively, he tore his left shoulder from its backrest. The movement shredded his skin. Cables and wires were yanked from muscle and bone. The pleasure he felt from asserting himself was mitigated by his introduction to blinding, searing agony.

Struggling to concentrate, he put his mind to visualizing the pain and packing it into a smooth rubber ball. He took that ball and threw it into the super black hole in the center of the Empire and pretended the pain was gone with it.

It hadn’t. He felt a sinking certainty his physical torment wasn’t going to end any time soon.

He concentrated on using the lenses embedded in his eye sockets.

Things came into focus. There it was!

The shiny red button.

Tantalizingly close, yet way over there, far, far away.

Plugs, wires, and processors were wrenched from his arm as he lifted it laboriously from the place where it had rested most of his life.

Screams of agony echoed through his work station while he walked his fingers toward the shiny red button. His screams reminded him of music.

By the time he was within striking distance of the red button, he was exhausted. Each breath brought on a new wave of agony. He was aware his stomach was empty and his bladder was holding tight – two situations he’d never had to worry about while connected. What a difference a few moments could make in one’s life! Definitely something to ponder over – later, once Velouria’s happy future was secured.

He girded himself and, from untapped reservoirs of strength, lifted his forefinger.

Higher! he urged himself. Must lift it higher and higher! Higher than anyone’s ever lifted a finger before. Just one more 16th of an inch – you’re almost there. You can do it! You can do it for Velouria! For love!

Eventually his bloody fingertip hovered above the shiny red button, like a boulder suspended in the air.

Great galaxies, he belatedly realized; Justinian will be beside himself.

Oh well, far as enlightened despots go, he’s somewhat overrated.

With a burst of energy, he dropped his finger on the button.

There was a sizzle. A spark. A second, more emphatic sizzle.

He became immersed in an electrical storm. His every cell was being dissected, reconstituted, and dissected again.

And then –


His voyage into space was on. It was his first.



Bhangra Joe was a tough old buzz saw. As a matter of fact, he was the toughest Mollusk who’d ever lived.

The lack of qualifiers is deliberate. Bipedal diversity in the Empire is traced back to roughly seven hundred points of origin; granted, there’s a lot of disagreement over exactly what constitutes a point of origin, but the point is, of seven hundred, only eight derive from a molluscan tree. Historically they fared poorly in both man-to-man combat and warfare generally, yet were adapt at bureaucracy; as a result the Emperors granted their clans great opportunity in the white collar professions, and in those positions the Mollusks have established themselves as an important ingredient in the galactic gumbo.

Not so Bhangra Joe. Legend has it that when he was born, he had such vitality that he ate an onion whole and demolished a field of lettuce. It sounds far-fetched, but people who’d met him when he was younger could see how it might have some basis in reality. After all, it was unusual for anyone to work his way up from soldier, then to captain, then accomplished smuggler, and eventually a “made” entity in as little as a decade, yet Joe’d done it in half the time. Today he was a balebos, a godfather among godfathers. In this position he was undisputed.

Joe’s underground empire extended across the Three Star Clusters, which consisted of the Edge, the Partition, and the Bulwark. His home base was Attrition Station, a massive artificial satellite that served as the primary hub for travel and commerce between the Three Clusters. Between 20 to 25 million souls resided there, depending on how you counted the unofficial residents, and over a million entities passed through its gates on an average day.

Recently Joe’d been thinking about his old partners in crime, those entities he’d elbowed out of his way, those who’d offered him their friendship and those who had not. The recollections were of no great moment in and of themselves, but collectively they’d sparked an epiphany, and he’d begun to wonder if it was too late to add a new layer of meaning to his life. He had everything an upright Mollusk could ever want, but he missed the prospect of not knowing what opportunity the next day might bring.

Also, he sensed a certain amount of insincerity when interacting with his fellow miscreants. He wanted to know that when he won at cards, it was because of his betting skill, not because his opponents let him win because they were afraid of him. He wanted to know if his dinner guests truly enjoyed his speckled hot dogs, which he prepared personally, or if they had barf bags hidden in their pockets. He wanted to know if entities would think favorably of him when he was gone.

Most of all, he needed to know what if he was still made of the right stuff. Had he reached his position because of his own innate worth, or because he’d gotten a few good breaks, none of which had anything to do with his character? And he even want to stay where he was, the most quietly powerful person for lightyears around? Maybe it was time to go walkabout. Always a possibility, but first, he’d better get a new pair of boots.

Those questions weighed heavily on Joe’s mind while he performed his toilet, prior to embarking on yet another day’s facilely satisfying work. Throughout, he sang a popular song to himself, an earworm with lyrics he could never quite get right:

He walked. He walked on down the hall.

He came to a room. He came to a room inside. He was looking for the room outside. He went into the room.

Inside was outside. He walked on down the hall.

Uplifting stuff. Singing the right song never failed to brighten his mood.

He dressed in a red and blue seersucker suit, and inspected his image in a full-length mirror. The suit showed off his broad shoulders perfectly. Granted, he was stocky, like a squashed fire hydrant, but he had right number of arms and legs. Not a bad look, he thought. If it hadn’t been for his epidermal shell, his 27 sensory orbs and tentacles, and the weird undulating orifice in the center of his face, people would have judged him almost humanoid.

His front door dilated opened with an obnoxious grinding of gears. “You decent, boss?” sang out a voice with a twang thick enough to be severed with a knife. That would be Motzetz Dam – Motzy – his second in command. She had a plain face and today wore a plain gray dress, but beneath her bland exterior boiled a wellspring of passion and cruelty. She once made love to a minion while Joe was torturing the man’s wife downstairs. So deft was her touch in criminal politics that her rivals seemed to fall by the wayside through no effort of her own. So effective was her leadership that she’d made herself essential in the organization before Joe had a chance to change his mind about her. So accurate was her foresight, Empire renowned quasi-dimensional chess masters refused to compete opposite her.

“As decent as ever,” said Joe, coming out to meet her. “Truthfully though, could you tell the difference?”

“Well, I have made it a matter of principle never to see a Mollusk naked,” said Motzy. “Otherwise, how would I respect him in the future?”

“Oh, you might,” Joe replied with some tentacle movement. His orifice did something grotesque. “You’d be surprised how a mammal reacts to slime while in the moment.”

“I’d like to say nothing surprises me at this point,” said Motzy, “but then again, I’d rather not know.”

“What song is it where the man walks down the hall and comes to a room?”

“The loo or a room in general?”

“There’s a song where a man walks down the hall to go to the loo?”

“Undoubtedly. I’m just trying to clarify the question. Have you developed an undue interest in mammalian toilet customs I’m unaware of?”

“I have an earworm buzzing around in my head.”

“You don’t have ears, not in the traditional sense.”

“Figuratively. Is there a song where a man walks down the hall, goes into an outdoors room, and walks down another hall?”

“Hmm, come to think of, there is a folksong about the bureaucracy in the Star Castle going around. It’s in heavy rotation by the corner musicians.”

“What’s it about?”

“Punch cards, I think. It’s very old. Does that answer your question?”

“Not by a long shot. How do I look?”

“Decent. You’d be a star if you could tap dance.”

“Stop torturing me,” he said, clogging.

“It’s showtime, boss.”

Showtime entailed the long walk – saunter, really – from Joe’s insanely luxurious digs in the “top” ring to the bourgeois parts of Attrition in the middle. There were quicker ways to make the journey, but the walk helped keep him in the forefront as a man of the people, which one of his many levers of influence over the Emperor’s minions.

Besides, as Joe was fond of observing, you don’t catch the genuine mood of a people by remote. You catch it by being among them and basking in their ambience. You dispense favors and advice to those who ask, and you never ask for anything in return – openly. You chat with the workers and engineers, patronage the shops, and flatter the minions, but they all know without saying a certain bargain has been sealed.

While Joe didn’t take the same route every time – the better to throw potential assassins and other undesirables off their game – he made it a point to always pop in a shop or stop at a newsstand so he could cultivate a relationship with the proprietors and staff; often the visits were not as casual as they appeared, and served as an unspoken reminder of the importance of keeping up with one’s obligations.

Joe and Motzy were accompanied on these walks by Joe’s immense bodyguard, a hulking brute named Rosh Kerove. Rosh was so dumb it was widely believed he’d lost a game of chess to a box of rocks. He was indefatigably loyal and didn’t mind dying for his boss. He’d already died for his boss three times; he was resuscitated with the aid of cybernetic improvements. Alas, very little could be done about his brain. He was as dumb as ever.

Today’s stroll took Joe et. al. through the Thundercloud, a high end commercial zone catering to the elite. An aroma of rare spices and atomized custard filled the air; the ceiling was high and the foliage plentiful. When Joe and company reached a rotating wheel of platforms that would take them to the lower levels, Rosh Kerov’s size dictated he ride alone. The platform groaned beneath his weight.

They arrived at the Ophidia Propinquity, where the serpentine residents bunked; they crossed through the Nitrous Oxide Airways, giggling as usual, through the Ishtar Gate, and came out on the Hirowawa Stretch, which was basically a giant commissary where the foods of a hundred cultures converged. One of the great secrets to the wealth of Attrition was the knowledge people will pay a small fortune for authentic cuisine, especially if they are a long, long way from home.

Joe paused to buy a flower for his lapel from a young girl who looked like she was five, but in truth was a century old. She was cute little tigress thing, with freckles and bangs, and a big fat basil cigar in her mouth. Her teeth had green stains.

Joe took the cigar from her mouth. “Don’t you know those things are bad for you?”

“Bad for Mollusks, maybe,” said the flower girl.

“Now we’re talking mammalian supremacy?” asked Joe.

“Not me, buster,” said the flower girl with a wink. “I’m a plant.”

“More specifically, a weed,” said Joe. The bobbing of several tentacles was meant to indicate a smile. His orifice did something disgusting. “Pay the lady, Motzy.”

Joe greeted the sight of a sign with a giant red J with a pronounced tummy rumble. Joe had a hundred twenty seven times the olfactory capacity of the average humanoid and could detect passed gas a mile away; a cornucopia of odor emanated from the garish façade of Jedburgh Jet’s Eats, the finest sit-down restaurant on the station. J’s boasted the best bunion cakes in the outer Ripostus, the most succulent squirm dogs, and the daintiest cornbread. And that was just for starters. The closer he came, the more Joe’s tentacles undulated and the more his stomach anticipated the fine repass traditionally waiting him in his private dining room.

Of course, he could always depend on there being a crowd of friends and well-wishers at the entrance. Four other guys named Joe met him in the foyer and asked for his autograph, which he was only too glad to provide. While Motzy chatted up the bouncer, a string bean of mammoth proportions, with Rosh looming over the potted plants portentously, Joe noticed Beatrice, the maître d’, was having difficulty looking directly at his tentacles. Beatrice’s heritage was that of feathered subterranean geckos, so her eyes were very large and expressive. Right now they darted about as if expressing a desire to head for the nearest escape route.

One of Joe’s aphorisms, cherished since childhood, was the shortest path over a salted road is a straight line, and in that spirit he strode up to her podium, clogged a few steps to illustrate his gentle mood, and asked with unfeigned concern what the @$%^# her problem was.

For a moment – an excruciatingly long moment during which he feared she would burst into tears and mess up his suit – she chewed her lower lip with those weird shovel-like incisors.

“Spit it out!” said Joe, immediately regretting his words, his fear being she might take them literally.

“I’m sorry, boss!” she whispered. “I failed you! I’ve disappointed you! I debase myself before you. I humiliate myself. I shall bathe myself in the acid shower of your secretion.”

“Slow down, Bea,” said Joe. “Is this because you feel inadequate in general, or is this most recent bout of worthlessness due to a recent occurrence?”

She nodded pitifully. “Do I have to choose?”

“Let’s narrow things down to today.”

“It’s because of that woman, that despicable creature. She said she had to see you, and when I told her she had to wait her turn like everybody else, she waltzed right into your private room as if she owned the place. I couldn’t stop her, boss. She said when you found out what she had to offer, you’d wouldn’t have wanted her to wait either.”

“She still there?”


Beatrice’s admission was tantamount to a declaration of treasonous failure, but Joe was feeling tolerant today.

“I see,” he said. “Do you have any idea as to the identity of this impertinent individual?”

“Other than she’s human and dresses like she’s attending a costume party, I have no idea,” said Beatrice. “I did get the impression her reluctance to come into contact with authority was no obstacle to her desire to show off in public.”

“Clearly an Inferior of the Merchant Class,” said Rosh Kerov contemptuously. He was the type of person who never forgave a subgroup for the transgressions of a single individual, and 30 years ago an Inferior had overcharged him for essential replacement parts. “Want I should dominate her?”

“No, I have the suspicion it wouldn’t be fair fight,” said Joe. “For you.”

“Boss, I’m truly sorry,” said Beatrice again. “I shall gladly piddle.”

“Please, the last visit from the epidemiologists was trouble enough.”

“She left you something – this!” said Beatrice. She presented him with a huge green basil cigar, gift wrapped with white paper and a garish red bow.

Joe’s orifice did something strange as he held the cigar to his face; his sensory organs nuzzled over it like a pack of dogs set upon the bones of a drowned giant. “Hmmm. Pure Romanian fruit basil.”

The cigar wiggled. “Is it still alive?” Rosh asked, aghast.

“Not particularly,” said Joe, “but it might help my uninvited guest survive the afternoon.”

“What about me, sir?” asked Beatrice anxiously.


“Will I survive?”

“Well,” said Joe, drawing out the word to unprecedented length, “you did give me the cigar, so sure, you can live.”

“Thank you,” said Beatrice. “Does that mean I can keep the other one for myself?”

Joe’s orifice did something you can’t communicate in English.

“I’ll take that as a yes. Thank you,” said Beatrice, withdrawing.

Joe and Motzy walked side-by-side through a bustling aisle. They acknowledged essential workers and clientele alike. Rosh’s foreboding presence discouraged prolonged chit-chat, as his way of focusing had been known to give empaths heart attacks.

Joe made a point, however, of catching the attention of an ally here, an associate there, just to remind everyone he was more important than a mere local celebrity. A man he did not recognize was doing his best not to look at him, so he rapped on the man’s table and said hello, just to watch the man jump. Rosh paused to glare down at him with menacing intent.

Joe stopped at a table in one of the rear nooks. A man with a putrid stock of white hair stood up and took Joe’s hand. He bowed in respect. His name was Vince Apolek, and he was the lead attorney for the Attrition Committee of Governors, a group of ideological hacks who worked together about as well as the name implied.

The other two at the table stood and bowed. Joe recognized them both: Professor Zardoz, the renowned and somewhat erratic virtual critic, wearing a pair of leather briefs, a monocle, two gun belts across his naked chest, and his hair in a large pony tail; and Mandy Gee, a turquoise human from a frontier sector whose name eluded Joe at the moment. Gee was one of those residents with no visible means of support; rumor had it that he was a snitch for several rival corporate and/or nationalistic interests. Zardoz was stiff and aggressive, Gee relaxed despite his formality.

Joe indicated they should sit. “I trust you boys are enjoying yourselves at this fine establishment?”

“Reasonably,” said Zardoz.

“Absolutely,” said Gee.

“You know me,” said Vince. “Another day, another lunch. And I like my lunches,” He patted his belly.

“Second lunch, or third?” asked Motzy.

“I’m a grazer, so I suppose the number is relative, like everything else,” said Vince.

“What’s on the agenda today?” she asked.

“Deep fried whale meat bunion cakes, from the looks of it,” said Rosh.

“Zardoz here is thinking of opening a masculine intuition center,” said Vince, “and we’re tossing around a few ideas to see if they go into orbit.”

Motzy laughed. “Are you serious? His titties are bigger than mine!”

Zardoz’s face turned red and he folded his arms across his chest. “My body doesn’t process protein the way it used to. That doesn’t make me any less masculine.”

Joe’s orifice did something repulsive.

“I apologize,” said Motzy to Zardoz, only moderately chastised.

“Be good, Motzy,” said Joe. He put his hand on Vince’s shoulder. “I need to speak with Vince about something.”

Vince and Joe stepped away and spoke softly, providing one another with an illusion of privacy.

“Something I can do for you, Joe?” Vince asked.

“Maybe something I can do for you,” said Joe. “A little whistleblower told me your son Gobi is struggling.”

“He’s been struggling since the crib,” said Vince. “I’m afraid that when it comes to the nature vs. nurture test, Gobi gets an incomplete. He’s participated in a few too many tavern brawls for the Board of Personal Responsibility to overlook, and as a result they want him to perform 7 hundred hours of community service in the ice conversion plant. The boy’s neurotic enough as it is, and I’m worried he’ll succumb to the influence of the free thinkers over there and return as one of them.”

“I wouldn’t worry about,” said Joe. “Few of them think as well as they believe. However, I have some tiny pull with the Board. I might be able to put it to good use.”

“Pardon me, sir,” broke in Motzy, “but Gobi’s been hanging with Klaus Zephir, a bill collector for the Zoltan bootleggers. Those brawls were the outcome of failed efforts on Gobi’s part to extract outstanding debts, in order to curry favor with Klaus. The boy’s more likely to become a productive member of society if he becomes a free thinker.”

“Ye gads! I hope not!” exclaimed Vince. “They say free thinkers are worse than eggheads – twice as hard, yet so much easier to break.”

“Tell you what,” said Joe, “let me take the lad under my shell till he’s old enough to think for himself. I have a few associates who could channel the talents of such a spirited young man into more constructive enterprises.”

Vince blanched. “A generous offer, most assuredly, but I hear tell that (ahem) your people are known to extract the definitive penalty from the incompetent.”

“Oh, that hardly ever happens,” said Joe, dismissively. “Besides, haven’t you heard? I’ve had an epiphany. From now on, my sole pursuits in life are peace, love and understanding.”

Vince laughed, then caught himself.

“What’s so funny about that?” Joe asked.

“Sorry, it just struck me that way,” said Vince.

“At first blush,” said Motzy helpfully.

“Yes, at first blush,” said Vince. “Come to think of it, peace, love, and understanding are what the Empire needs now.”

Joe’s orifice did something disagreeable. “Yes, that mammalian sense of irony. It can be elusive sometimes. I do like your mother-in-law jokes though.”

“You haven’t met mine,” said Vince, taking Joe’s hand as a gesture of respect. “Thank you, boss. My son will take you up on your kind offer. By the way,” he added before Joe could move away, “who’s the young lady making herself at home in your private room?”

“I have no idea,” said Joe, “but Rosh is about to rectify the situation for me, aren’t you, Rosh?”

Rosh made an affirmative grunt that sounded like an underground explosion. He tucked in his shirt, lumbered to the water station, took a huge swig from a carafe, then lumbered to the heavily-tasseled curtain that served as the gateway to Joe’s private room.

“I’ll be back, boss,” he said.

Joe’s orifice did something vile, while Motzy’s expression basically said, Be quick about it.

Rosh disappeared. Motzy smiled at Vince. Vince nodded back. Zardoz and Gee waited with great anticipation.

From inside the private room, there emanated not a sound. Things remained quiet for many moments. Many.

When it became apparent they’d be waiting for a while, Motzy took a seat and Joe tuned his antennae on the symphonic accompaniment of Jedburgh’s river of life – dishes clattering, cart wheels squeaking, people babbling incessantly and happily in the common tongue, lobsters and other forms of wild life screaming as they are plunged into boiling water. In his mind it added up to being in touch with the common folk – the entire range of entities frequenting his territory, respecting him, and adding to his coffers – unofficially, anyway. What’s more, the travelers would remember for the remainder of their lives that they’d been to Attrition and dined at Jedburgh’s, where they ate the best sizzled lemon bread in the Clusters. So long as the joint was making noise, they were happy, and as long as they were happy, he was happy.

Nonetheless, there was still no noise to be heard from the private room.

“It’s quiet,” said Zardoz.

“Too quiet,” said Gee.

“Be quiet,” said Motzy.

Suddenly there was a tremendous crash, so powerful the walls and floors shook, setting off alarms throughout the station.

Joe snapped his fingers at a waiter, who snapped his fingers at Beatrice in the distance. Moments later, the only alarms you could hear were outside Jedburgh’s. As if on cue, the people went about their business, clattering and chattering just as much as before.

Yet from the private room, there emanated more silence.

Joe signaled to Motzy that she should enter.

She sighed with annoyance and produced a long blade from her belt. She used it to open the curtains as she passed through.

“Oh, &%$#@,” she exclaimed. “Rosh!”

Joe’s orifice did something horrendous. “Now what?” Without further ado he pushed past her into his sanctuary. The sight that greeted him violated his soul.

Rosh lay flat on his back. A strange woman stood with one foot on his chest. In her right hand she held a cutlass, the tip of which was positioned on Rosh’s groin. In her left she held a curried turkey leg. Her mouth happened to very full when Joe came in.

“Pardon me,” she mumbled. She masticated with spirit but with great leisure. The clock was ticking. Finally she swallowed the portion whole and said, “My apologies. One of the few admonitions from my childhood I take seriously is to not talk with my mouth full. Bhangra Joe, I presume?”

Joe and Motzy recognized her instantly, of course; Rosh was in no position to recognize anyone. He never thought in terms of current events, and so unlike his superiors, had had no idea the flamboyant pirate he’d just met was the very one creating such consternation about the Three Clusters and the Riposte. The fact she’d come to Attrition wasn’t too surprising, given the scuttlebutt that The Jacobite had had a couple of controversial, ahem, finds recently, but the fact she was so open about it – well, she had courage, was reckless, or a combination of the two. Either way, Velouria’s presence aroused Joe’s admirations, and just plain aroused Motzy.

Vee’s clothing had been pressed and cleaned since we’d last seen her; only Joe detected the telltale odor of the fabric where it’d been stained with blood. No Mollusk blood, thankfully. Joe had an implicit bias against Mammals who took delight in slaying Mollusks. It was as if their minds were unable to grasp that a walking, talking Mollusk was as much a sentient entity with rights as those whose ancestors evolved from less challenging developmental backgrounds.

“And you,” said Joe, “must be the notorious Velouria Davenport, late of the Inferior Merchant Clans. I should have guessed that if anyone had the audacity to cross my threshold without permission, it would be the scourge of the spaceways.”

“Boss,” whined Rosh from the floor.

“Did I say you could talk, puppy boy?” Vee asked, tweaking the point of the blade.

Rosh let out a pathetic squeal.

“Did I say you could squeal?” she asked, adjusting the tip.

“Can I squeal?” Rosh asked.

Vee tore a large bite of the turkey leg with her teeth. “No.”

Joe’s orifice did something red. “I would appreciate it, young lady, if you refrained from molesting my security.”

“I have not yet begun to molest,” said Vee, making an adjustment to the blade that sent Rosh scrambling backwards.

Rosh made it about four inches before Vee put her foot back on his chest and moved the tip of the blade to his nostrils.

“Did I say you could move?” she asked.

“Boss,” said Rosh, “may I have the rest of the day off? I have some personal matters to attend to.”

“Phew!” said Vee, “I’ll say you do! Promise not to flaunt your toxic masculinity again? For the next hour or so anyway?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Rosh submissively.

“Rosh, get out of here,” said Joe. “Ms. Davenport, I admit I’m impressed with you. Rosh is the equal of fifty men.”

“That still puts him at a disadvantage, far as I’m concerned,” said Vee. With a touch, her cutlass contracted and disappeared up her sleeve. She sat at the head of the table and examined anew the feast laid out before her: cubes of deep-fried wheat bread, silver corndogs, vanilla ice cream, lines of sugar, limburger cheese and crackers, and of course the house specialties, bunion cakes. There was also a plate of vegetables cuttings laid around a bowl of dip resembling molten lava. She inhaled deeply, like a connoisseur just back from a forty day fast, and popped a yellow celery stick in her mouth. She rolled it between her teeth, chewed it minimally, and swallowed.

“That’s my favorite chair,” said Joe.

“I can see why,” said Vee. “It’s incredibly comfortable. And the way its back adjusts to yours is nothing short of fantastic! It must have cost you a pretty penny. You can call me Vee, by the way. All my friends do.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” said Motzy, playing it cool.

“What I mean,” said Joe, “is that it’s my chair, where I sit.”

“Why didn’t you say so?” asked Vee, moving to the right hand chair next to him – Motzy’s usual spot.

Joe’s orifice did something necrotic. This was an reaction Motzy understood, and she signaled to Joe she’d make an adjustment, then took the chair on the left, which the members of the organization generally referred to as the hot seat.

Motzy looked forward to giving Vee a closer examination. She was keen to explore her erotic interest in this woman, which is about as delicate as I can put it. Why her?, she wondered. Perhaps it was the way Vee’s hair tumbled, perhaps it the shallow scar down her cheek, or her aura of divine privilege. Yes, that last was definitely a contender. Motzy had a yen for divine privilege. However – and this was a huge one – normally Motzy preferred a little romance mixed with her passion. Usually that required her target know how to be civilized when the occasion required it, and this woman’s civilized veneer was about as thin as a microchip, which in those days was as tall as fifteen stacked fundamental biological units. Ah, sweet mystery of life, she sighed.

Vee reached across the table, pulled a leg from a deep-fried turkey with one hand and grabbed a carafe of wine with the other, then without further ado tore off a another bite of turkey. She washed it down with a huge swig. She breathed out with immense satisfaction.

“I hope you don’t mind I started without you. The aroma in this roadhouse is amazing! It was killing me! Is this real turkey, or is it the hydroponic variety? Usually I can tell, but the taste of this one smacks of authenticity.”

“Hmm,” said Joe. “I have no idea. Authenticity isn’t high on my list of criteria for a good cut of poultry.”

“He’s more interested in how long it’s been outside the refrigerator,” said Motzy.

Joe pressed a button beneath the table. It said awooga! “Where’s Nancy?” he asked. “She should shed some light on the subject.”

“I was hiding, boss,” whined a petite blonde with dark skin and a white apron, gliding into the room on a pair of pneumatic skates. She bowed at Vee and said, “I saw Rosh on the way out. I don’t like the way you treat the help.”

“Now, now, Nancy,” said Joe. “The matter has been put aside for the time being. Besides, Rosh knew the job was dangerous when he took it.”

“No, boss, I don’t believe he did,” said Nancy.

“He didn’t?” said Joe.

“Probably not,” said Motzy. “He’s not the swiftest animal on the station.”

“Is there something I can get for you, boss?’ asked Nancy. “And the ladies, of course.”

“I’d like a fresh mudball,” said Joe, “over easy.”

“What’s the coffee situation today?” asked Motzy.

Nancy blanched. “The dock workers’ strike hasn’t ended yet. Should be a vote soon, and the regular shipments should return by the meridian hour.”

“Hmmm,” said Motzy.

“There are a few grounds of contraband I scored from one of Joe’s favorite smugglers,” said Nancy. “Just so you know I’m not going behind your back,” she added, winking at Joe.

Joe’s orifice did something uncanny. “Now, now, Nancy, it goes against my principles to undermine an entity seeking kale.”

“That’s quite a convenient principle,” said Vee.

“It’s not principle, it’s politics,” said Joe. “Mammals are influenced quite remarkably by meaningless gestures, even if no one is there to see them.”

“Well, it so happens the reason I’ve come to see you, Joe,” said Vee, “is because I’ve happened to come across a few tons of coffee. The aroma is stifling my ship and I want to unload it quickly, so I can go back to smelling like myself.”

“You undoubtedly have an entire litany of other reasons,” said Joe. “Would this cargo, which you’re currently offering me at what I assume is an extremely favorable price, happen to include three tons of pumpkin seeds and another two of desert mung?”

“Why, how did you know?” asked Vee, stretching to relax.

“It’s not all I know. I also know that you and your merry band of entities are under suspicion of spacing without proper burial, and to have been responsible for the need to space the luckless bastards in the first place.”

“Lies! Lies and %$#@& lies!” replied Vee. Her sincerity depended on one’s perspective. Motzy prayed she was speaking truth to power, while Joe thought she was blowing smoke up his orifice. “The Jacobite has a spotless reputation.”

“That’s because no one has lived to tell the tale,” said Joe. “Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not judging you. Perhaps I’d behave exactly the same way under the same circumstances, though if I may, some advice: don’t make enemies of everyone. One day you’ll need a friend.”

“Do you want to be my friend?”

“I’ll need to learn what sort of ally you’ll be first,” said Joe.

“Is that how he treated you?” Vee asked Motzy.

Motzy shrugged. “An entity in his position needs to be careful about who he chooses as friends, or allies.”

“I’d rather just bargain and get it over with,” said Vee.

“Indulge me,” said Joe. “I am in the possession of exposition which I believe you are unaware of.”

“He likes to snail-plain,” said Motzy.

“If it helps me maximize my profit, I’m all for it,” said Vee. “But I would appreciate it if it happens before shark week.”

“Last century a crevice in the spacetime continuum was discovered,” said Joe. “They call the place the Ruptured Zone. Statistically it was an anomaly of anarchic attributes, wherein inconsistencies in the law and order of the universe are balanced by opposite but equal attributes. Although whether this one was an action or a reaction was never determined. Either way, The Ruptured Zone is big, really, really, really big.”

“Really?” asked Vee. “Honestly and truly?”

“Really,” said Joe, determined to stay on topic. “Although the answer to your last question mark is, maybe. There are reports that it’s smaller on the inside than it is on the outside, and vice versa. Nothing that happens there is to be believed, whether or not you remember it, have recorded it, or have returned with unassailable proof. The first explorers who returned had difficulty retaining their sanity, and they maintain the possibility that those explorers who lost their lives in the name of the Empire – some quite spectacularly – still lived, somewhere in the nooks and crannies of the zone.

“However, their travails weren’t without dividends. The survivors returned with prizes – a treasure trove of archaeological finds – pots, five dimensional lampshades, four-arms crosses, petrified peanuts, peppers, and pork – all as real and readily definable as you or I, all things that, under normal conditions, would be regarded as typical of your average excavation site.

“Immediately the Emperor called dibs – each and every relic was destined for the Star Castle, regardless of scientific or historical interest. There were to be no museum exhibits, scientific inquiry, dissertations on the relics themselves, nor any human interest stories in the culture about those who’d sacrificed so much, so the sentient world could learn so little. They were not be examined, touched, or speculated upon. Once they were packed in a crate, that crate was to be opened by no one but a Curator for the Dark Repository, where the dead things go.”

Joe’s orifice did something outlandish. “Naturally the minions assumed the crates’ very importance would attract the interest of scalawags and ruffians.”

“Good call, that,” said Motzy.

“So it was to prevent that very possibility that some wag cooked up the notion the safest way to transport the cargo was to be as inconspicuous as possible. Cargo designated with the Sign of the Upturned Moustache is shipped in high traffic shipping routes all the time. Usually the items are intended for the residents and are so mundane as to never be worth the risk of your personal history being changed, so your mother and father never meet. And what do you know, I’m fairly certain everything would have gone as planned had not one particular scalawag, more daring and reckless than any scalawag who has come before, become alerted to the cargo.”

Vee bristled with pride. She never could resist reacting positively to a compliment.

“I am honored that you have come to me,” Joe continued. His orifice did something that turned its tissue purple. “I happen to admire your daring, your verve, your warm-blooded vitality. Your willingness to not allow anything – not even the most stringent social injunction known to the sentient species – to stop you from getting what you want is admirable. In fact, when it comes to entities who are admirable in that sense, it is possible you become the most admirable scalawag who ever lived.”

Vee blushed. “Thanks.”

“It would be a shame if all that went to waste.”

Vee did a spit take. “What?”

Joe’s orifice did something truly hideous. “My dear, you live in a dream world. You paraded around Attrition as if an ordinary citizen. Wit and determination alone cannot forestall the sticky grip of the minions, particularly those spelled with a capital M. Sooner or later, they will capture you. I believe sooner.”

Motzy noted that Vee’s body language had changed and the fingers of one hand crept toward her wrist. The fingers were exceedingly long and dexterous.

“Miss Davenport, I sense your muscles as easily as you can read a sign,” said Joe. “Nor I wager, will you get the drop, as it were, on my steadfast right hand. Is that not correct, Motzy?”

“Uh, absolutely. Of course.”

“Your capture will be inevitable,” said Joe. “If not before you exit the station, then surely not long afterwards. And that will only be true if you conduct yourself with the caution and stealth commiserate with the habits of the successful criminal.”

“I’m ready to take a cash offer.”

Joe’s orifice did something that should have been illegal. “I have a better offer: your freedom.”

“I already have that.”

“How obstinate are you? Freedom is not long for you. Soon you will be imprisoned for the rest of your life, or worse, you will be reeducated and resume your contracted destiny. Is that how you want to spend the rest of your days, Velouria? In the arms of your lover? Answer me. Come on. Snail got your tongue?”

“I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”

“But do not worry. I have no interest in ratting you out to the minions. Quite the contrary. I’m interested in ensuring you have a future outside the confines of the law. But you must accept my offer and you must not waste time.”

“What about my prize?”

“You must sacrifice it – completely.”

“May I keep some chocolate?”

“Perhaps, but every crate with the Emperor’s Seal must be accounted for?”

“What about my ship?”

“My dear, minions love their forfeiture.”

“My crew?

“They must be sacrificed as well. The minions love their perps too.”

“Then where is my freedom?”

“With me! In my organization. It’s becoming complacent, stale. It needs a go-getter who knows how to stab someone in the back to stir things up.”

“None of this sounds like freedom to me,” said Vee sullenly.

“I will need bargaining chips if I am to convince the minions to cease being interested in one puny, unimportant scalawag, but in order to accomplish that, you will have to cash out. Everything you have must come be in my control. Otherwise, helping you won’t be worth the risk and you can go on your merry way.”

“I can be your mentor,” Motzy volunteered, a mite more enthusiastically than she’d intended.

“Perhaps you shall,” said Joe. “However, we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, the young lady must consent to our offer.”

“At the price of betraying my crew!” exclaimed Vee. “What kind of outlaw does that?”

“The free kind,” said Joe.

“The kind without honor,” said Motzy, “which works for us.”

Silence ensued. They didn’t have to be Regulators to know the next few moments would decide the course of their lives. None had an idea what to expect; it was like throwing their dice into an abyss, and never seeing what number landed on top.

Joe’s tentacles were at full alert, waiting for Vee’s muscles to betray her attack.

The babble outside receded to the background of their soundscape. Vee smiled, though not without a certain exasperated air, as if the entire affair was a bother. Motzy twitched. Joe’s orifice did something that under different circumstances might have been laughable.

What might have happened next, what decision Vee might have made, is beyond all narrative authenticity, because the moment Vee opened her mouth to make her decision known, the curtains parted; between them lurched a primly dressed man whose face bore the distinct markings of Beatrice’s fingernails. His eyes burned with a peculiar madness, but when he saw Vee, they softened and his expression assumed a beatific glow.

“Pussycat!” he said, breathlessly.


Vee’s response was instantaneous. With a flick of the wrist, a throwing star appeared in her hand and she flung it at the interloper.

The throwing star traveled with the speed of lightning, but with weary eyes, the man batted it away with his umbrella.

The missile broke a glass tchotchke and lodged in a singing plant, which screamed.

Yes, he had an umbrella. So fastidious was this gentleman’s sense of fashion that no ensemble was complete without a handheld accessory that could be put to several uses.

Joe’s orifice did something ostentatious. “That’s my favorite plant!” His tentacles made tiny, frantic circles in the air. Presumably he was speaking to the pair of uninvited guests when he said, “How could you? It so impolite to walk into an entity’s sanctuary and maim his favorite plant!”

“You want I should uproot it, boss?” asked Motzy.

The plant clammed up, immediately.

“We’ll give you fresh holy water later, snookums,” said Joe.

This moment of tenderness was broken when Vee, after having grown frustrated because the newcomer had yet to withdraw, smashed a wine bottle on a table and thrust the broken neck in his general direction.

“Hey!” exclaimed Joe. “That’s my floor! Will you two stop wrecking the place?”

“What have I done?” asked the newcomer, by way of reminding everyone he’d been the intended target of all this destruction.

“You started it,” said Vee.

“What did I do?”

“You showed up. I was happily minding my own business when all of sudden you threw a monkey wrench into everything simply by showing up at the most inopportune time.”

Joe took out a huge pink handkerchief and blew his orifice, coughing up a gob of yellow goo.

The newcomer took that as some sort of sign. He turned and bowed with much condescension toward his involuntary hosts.

“Allow me to introduce myself,” he said with great weariness. “I am Jordi Alfonso Aragon Ruspoli. My family is a subsidy of the Great Klemenstine Wing of the Grandee Branch of the Inferior Merchant Clans. I ask your forbearance while my betrothed and I renegotiate our love affair. And please, if I seem to you gruff or presumptuous, I humbly beg your forgiveness in advance. An entity of my station generally does not mingle with the commonfolk, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Silly me, though. I have forgotten my manners. Who might you be?”

“I am not accustomed to introducing myself to strangers,” said Joe dryly.

He was so angry his blood pressure was rising. And when his blood pressure rose, his blood boiled. Literally. Sentient Mollusks have an unfortunate tendency to explode if they become too angry. Motzy had a vision of the private sanctum covered in the blood and guts of its most dedicated champion. The minions would demand forms be filled out, and several statements made at minion HQ. Her answers would be crosschecked until the end of time. And knowing Jedburgh’s, she’d probably have to assume a position of responsibility, and people will expect her to have answers to all their imbecilic questions. Therefore she chose to intervene before Joe’s biological limitations got the best of him.

“Allow me to introduce my friend and employer, Bhangra Joe,” she said. “He is quite well known in these parts as a businessman. You could even call him a tycoon.”

Jordi’s eyebrows rose in approval. “Ah, a businessman. Why didn’t you say so? You’re an entity after my own heart, Bhangra Joe. And don’t worry, sir. It doesn’t bother me that you are a Mollusk. I am considered very open minded in some circles.”

“Good to know,” said Motzy. “I am Mr. Joe’s associate, Motzetz Dam, but friends and enemies alike call me Motzy.”

Jordi bowed his head with some modicum of respect. “It has long been my contention that an entity without enemies is an entity not worth knowing. You charm me relentlessly, my dear.”

Motzy began having a sympathetic blood pressure spike – made worse by Vee’s unabashed enjoyment of watching them tolerate that exquisite type of condescension only inferiors could employ.

It’s vaguely possible Jordi sensed their dislike, but the truth was, he didn’t give a damn. He was here for one person and one person only. The rest of civilized society could be banished to Andromeda, for all he cared. He was dressed to impress, in the very apex of the styles for casual vacationers; after all, if he’d dressed formally, as if to negotiate a more favorable position in her life, then she’d realize the extent of his desperation. And if there was one thing he’d learned in his graduate huckster class, the desperate never prospered.

So in that spirit: the aforementioned umbrella, nice corduroy slacks, an open collar blue shirt, modest bling, and hushpuppies. Although it was loose and provided freedom of movement, the thing Jordi liked best about his ensemble was all the places where he could conceal weapons. Weapons were a necessity, obviously – the well-dressed man in the Riposte was a target for the unscrupulous – but fashion and strategy alike demanded he be discrete about it. His every hair was plastered in place and his monocle was bonded to his eye socket. His eyes were wide, blue, and alert. His smile was intended to be ingratiating.

It failed. “Don’t you have some business here?” Motzy asked. “Mr. Joe is a busy entity.”

“You are correct, my dear,” said Jordi. “As much as I would like to avail myself further of your charm, my fiancée and I need to have what they call in the vernacular a conversation.”

“I am not your fiancée,” said Vee. “I’d thought my behavior of the last few years would have dissuaded you of that notion. By the Emperor’s pajamas, you are dense beyond belief!”

“Oh, my dear,” said Jordi, “my love for you can never be discouraged. After all, it is fused with the very essence of my being, as is your love for me. You cannot deny it. Do you admit – you cannot deny it? Can’t you feel the magnetic connection between us?”

“I cannot admit it, because I feel nothing. Well – nausea.”

“That is what they call the butterfly effect,” said Jordi with masculine certainty.

“I’m pretty certain it’s what they call ‘about to puke’.”

“You sure are beautiful when you try to deny the truth. You are experiencing butterflies in your stomach – a quaint way of saying being in my company discombobulates you – hence the butterfly effect.”

“No, the butterfly effect is something else.”

“No, it isn’t,” Jordi insisted. “It refers to the feeling one has when one desires nothing more than being swept up in the arms of one’s true love and being ravished to your heart’s content.”

“No,” Vee insisted, “it’s what happens when you step on a butterfly.”

“What happens?”

“I don’t know. All I know is, the butterfly effect is caused by stepping on a butterfly.”

“My dear, there is only one medicine for melancholy.”

“Jordi, you’re the first inferior I haven’t skewered on sight in the past year. Perhaps that’s the source of my nausea.”

Jordi sighed deeply, with feeling. “I take solace in the aphorism that the path of true love rarely walks the straight and narrow. It invariably reaches its destination, however. How can it not? Has not our personal proximity ignited feelings of caring and empathy?”


“Do you not feel the euphoria? The despair?”

“No, and no.”

“The need to smile in my presence?”

“Quite the opposite, really.”

“A profound yearning to get frisky?”


“The ticking of your biological doomsday clock?”


“An irrational urge to pick a fight with me?”

“You have no idea.”

“To laugh at one of my jokes?”

“Try me.”

“Two spacers walk out of a bar. It could happen.”

“Definitely. Not. Funny.”

Jordi frowned. He was seriously deflated. He tried a tempura ant cluster dipped in a vinegar dip. His face promptly turned beet red.

“Why are you here?” Vee asked.

Jordi panted until he could say, “I am here to claim you as my wife, as decreed by law, custom, and desire.”

“I do not recognize your law, I defy your customs, and I will never share your bed. Or your couch or closet or any other place you care to couple.”

“How poorly you know your own mind,” said Jordi. “If only you knew the sheckles I could have accrued, the opportunity I wasted, to search for you. Wait. Something’s wrong. You’re not reacting to me in the slightest. That’s impossible. We are a perfect genetic romantic match. We share a passion that should never die.”


“Yet it is dead. How can this be?”

“It was easy. I had a hysterectomy. It, in effect, stopped my doomsday clock.” She snapped her fingers. The sound was emphatic and final.

We may surmise that Jordi had endured much humiliation from his peers, whose very constitution guaranteed true love was one proposition they would never lose at; from his family, who amortized his wasted potential; and from the myriad inferior regulatory boards and foundations, who tracked past performance and future potential. These ignominies he had borne without complaint, because every piece of propaganda he’d ever assimilated into his worldview emphasized the need to focus on the goal, never on the travails one must endure to reach it. But this last bit of news was more than he could bear.

“You’ve destroyed our children!” he said. “What kind of mother are you?”

Vee grinned slyly.

“I am aghast,” said Jordi. “Mother always told me that the treacherous sex would rather sow anarchy than compromise, but I never realized a woman could go to such extremes.”

Vee crossed her legs in satisfaction. “Get used to it.”

“I am ruined!” Jordi exclaimed. “Ruined! What can a man do and still call himself a man? I know! I could kill you, clone you, and then wait for you to come of age the second time around. Assuming I’m out of jail by then.” He made an observation to himself and laughed. “I suppose you can call that looking on the bright side of a problem.”

“Bitch, please,” said Vee. “You’re rich enough to marry whoever it pleases you.”

“To whom? A nouveau contract mail order bride? Never! The very concept is – is excrement incarnate! I wouldn’t procreate with one of those creatures using his johnson” – he indicated Joe – “much less my own.”

“Hmmm, from what I know of Mollusk anatomy,” said Vee, favoring Joe with a wink, “you may not have much of a choice.”

“Don’t think of our union as an end,” said Jordi. “Think of it as a beginning, the start of a new kind of living, leading to a better, more fulfilling way of life.”

“Jordi, I think of it as not happening. Besides, I don’t care what the genes or the stars say, we’re a study in contrasts. You believe in love, I believe in pleasure. You’re motivated by wealth, I believe wealth is transitory at worst, a fringe benefit at best. Your life is scripted by tradition, duty, contract, and the law – while I labor under no restrictions. There can be no rapprochement between us and you might as well give up trying.”

“Never,” said Jordi, wiping a tear form his eye with a handkerchief. He blew his nose with a weary honk.

Despite herself, Vee mustered a modicum of compassion for Jordi. “Your handkerchief is disgusting, hardly worth wasting a tear on. Here, have one of mine. I can have a ton back on the ship. But there’s a condition attached.”

As she spoke, he reached for the handkerchief, but she pulled it away before he could touch it.

“There usually is,” said Jordi.

“Choose my handkerchief, have a good cry and get it over with.” She produced her cutlass from its sleeve and positioned the tip of the blade at his throat. “Or choose the blade and breathe your last. Either way, I shall be finished with you.”

Joe’s orifice did something horrid. Motzy held her breath.

Meanwhile, Jordi’s lower lip trembled like that of a man on the verge of a seizure.

“Decide,” said Vee.

Slowly he pushed back his chair and stood. Vee moved to keep her blade at his throat. He attempted to smile warmly. It did not go well.

“Decide,” insisted Vee.

“I will,” said Jordi. “Right this second.”

“When? Choose. The handkerchief – or your life.”

“I’m thinking, #%!$^&, I’m thinking.”

“You have one second.”

He got as far as opening his mouth. Which is not to say he’d made his decision; he hadn’t. Notwithstanding, he was fated never to know what he would have said, because suddenly a vicious snap filled the air, and a ball bearing flew across the room and struck Vee on her fingers holding the handkerchief.

“#@!&%,” she said. She dropped the handkerchief and shook her fingers as if they were wet. Meanwhile, the bearing ball rebounded into a nearby light fixture and smashed it with great gusto.

Part way through the curtain floated a massive figure, the head, torso, and arms of a man whose top half was his only half. The rest of him consisted of a flying disc which, with a few notable exceptions, provided him with all the mobility and life support systems a man could desire. He’d already reloaded his slingshot with another bearing ball.

“Well, if it isn’t the gentleman caller!” Motzy said dryly.

“Bugger!” exclaimed Joe.


“Who is this torso on a plate?” demanded Vee.

The half-man with the slingshot in hand laughed. “I see I have the advantage of you, young lady, and that of your friend here. I know very well who the both of you are, while you know nothing about me. Hardly seems fair. I shall rectify the matter at once. My name is Sugar Dan Masterton, or Sugar Dan for short.”

“I see you’re unannounced as usual,” said Joe. “Here, take a flight path. Join us. Enjoy the show.”

Somberly Vee examined her fingers. “I don’t care what your name is. I want to know why I shouldn’t put you out of your misery like the handicapped lout you are.”

Jordi thought her concentration was perhaps sufficiently diverted to try to step away. It wasn’t.

“Do I look like sloppy seconds to you?” said Sugar Dan. “If anyone is going to die first today, it shall be me.”

“Are you trying to be funny?” Vee asked.

“Alas,” said Sugar Dan, “it is my lot in life to be a floater. I have assimilated its limitations into my philosophical world view and have embraced it. My taste buds have been cybernetically altered to enhance pleasure, for instance.”

Joe’s orifice did something revolting. He remembered who was in charge here and, tentacles rotating, stepped forward and emphatically pushed the blade away from Jordi’s throat.

“Sit,” he instructed. “Both of you.” He took his seat at the head of the table and drummed his fingers, waiting impatiently for them to comply.

He gestured for the others to sit. The table provided for eight seats, so while Motzy and Jordi sat on either side of Joe, Vee picked the far end.

Meanwhile, Sugar Dan floated above the table at an extreme tilt, which provided quicker access to certain delicacies. Motzy slapped his hand, hard. “Stop it!” she said.

Sugar Dan buzzed out of range. “That was uncalled for.”

Motzy was unrepentant.

“My apologies for striking you with my ball bearing,” said Sugar Dan to Vee. “I was aiming for your cutlass. I feared the spill of blood. It invariably dampens my appetite.”

“Some people are like children” said Vee, reaching for a freeze-dried Alburian tadpole. Some people boycotted tadpoles because they believed them intelligent, but Vee didn’t care; they tasted good. “Blood has the opposite effect on me.”

“As was intended,” said Jordi sagely. “We Inferiors have exclusive rights to personality additives that facilitate an active association between blood and business. It comes with the territory, so to speak. Of course, when a woman’s energy is misdirected, unproductivity and stagnation result, and she compensates both amorally and irrationally. Is that not true, Vee?”

“Bite me,” said Vee.

This is the best news I’ve gotten all week, thought Motzy, keenly aware she’d lost her poker face.

“Much as I’m loathe to give romantic advice to Mammals, Jordi,” said Joe, “you’ll be well off to admit to yourself that you’ve been jilted, stabbed in the back, tossed aside like a chewed up wad of gum, and that by this point, you’re throwing good karma after bad.”

“Young man,” said Sugar Dan, “you’re wound up too tight. Look at this woman. She’s coiled like a spring, and you’re as wrung as a wash rag.” Then to Vee: “You look terrific, by the way. Love the scar.”

Vee glared at him. “Buster, if you had a posterior, I’d kick it from here to Alpha Centura.”

“That is no way to speak to an entity who is willing to make you a better offer than my good friend Joe here.”

“You’ve come here to gaslight me?” exclaimed Joe. His orifice did something trite. “That’s unethical!”

Sugar Dan shrugged. “I am a criminal.”

“So am I! But I have ethics! I mean, without standards, there’s no point in building so much as a façade of civilization!”

“Ms. Davenport did come to talk to us,” said Motzy reasonably. “And this is our house, so to speak. Furthermore, the two had just about come to an agreement.”

“That is a scurrilous untruth!” said Vee.

“Allow me to guess the terms of the offer,” said Sugar Dan. “In exchange for helping you to elude the minions, you forfeit your ship, treasure, and crew, and accept a lowly position in Joe’s organization, whereas I, Sugar Dan Masterton, will appoint you a captain and allow you great autonomy. Just as soon as it’s safe for you to show your face, that is. Of course you have to forfeit everything, because Joe’s right about one thing: protecting you from the consequences of your actions will be expensive. However, I’m willing to throw in a couple of your favorite crew members if it’ll sweeten the deal.

“Sugar Dan,” said Joe, “it’s only your audacity that prevents me from breaking you down like a giant microorganism.”

“Slug, please,” said Sugar Dan boastfully. “You’ll have to catch me first.”

“Come away with me,” Jordi pled to Vee. “The clan will accept you so long as you get your body fixed and fall in love again with me.”

“I never loved you!” exclaimed Vee. “What kind of love has small print and a dotted line?”

The answer was presumably a simple one, but it was fated never to be detailed, because that was the moment when a militaristic voice with a distinct gurgle broke into the background music and demanded no one move, everyone remain where they were standing, sitting, or floating, lest they be proclaimed obstructers of the peace and get their asses fried.

All ambient noises beyond the curtain ceased. Jedburgh’s sounded hollow, like an empty theatre. The lack of audio input was ominous and protracted.

Suddenly there was a rapping, a tapping on the door frame behind the curtain.

“Knock, knock?” someone asked. “Anyone home?”


It practically goes without saying that right now Joe’s orifice was doing something beyond the capacity of the language to capture.

Motzy sneered with great antipathy.

Sugar Dan’s face was unreadable as he readied his slingshot.

Vee and Jordi looked at one another and shrugged. Inferiors were culturally predisposed to note the number and location of exits from any given room – a byproduct of centuries of lessons learned – so while their poses were relaxed, as if nothing untoward was in the offering – their qi worked in perfect harmony. Jordi was confident this next business, whatever it was, had nothing to do with him, whereas Vee was poised to take advantage of the nearest available exit, which was the vent in the ceiling.

A single finger – the hand was gloved – poked through the curtain and opened it ever so slightly. “Please don’t shoot,” said a man who – already – demonstrated a wane, arrogant essence. “I’m just your friendly neighborhood Inspector General.”

“Bugger,” said Sugar Dan.

“Well, if it isn’t the walking buzzkill,” said Motzy. “Folks, I’d like to introduce you to our favorite bogus inspector general – Judge Debbil Rose,”

Judge Rose couldn’t help noticing no one stood to greet him – Sugar Dan managed not so much as a tilt. He pretended their lack of deference was a matter of course and took a seat across from Vee. “Madam. Your reputation proceeds you,” he said.

“Wish I could say the same about you,” Vee replied.

Joe’s orifice reeked of clover. Motzy covered her mouth and composed herself before explaining to the other uninvited guests that Judge Rose was among the least capricious and irrational of the Inspector Generals, who as a rule were underqualified. Motzy pulled no punches in emphasizing that otherwise Judge Rose was typical of his calling, and once every few weeks was the recipient of a small gratuity, courtesy of Joe. It was an open secret because a) no one could do anything about it and b) none of Judge Rose’s superiors gave a damn how their underlings supplemented their income.

“That’s all very interesting,” said Sugar Dan, “but none of it explains why I’ve never heard of him.”

“You’ve got to learn how to keep your ear to the ether,” said Joe as if it were obvious.

“Are there any more interruptions imminent?” Jordi asked. “Because I am overwhelmingly drawn to this female, and though she has butchered herself for no good reason, the wound is repairable and therefore her innate drive to be a good citizen can be recharged.” He spoke languidly, as if certain his patience ultimately would be rewarded regardless of what happened today. “I yearn to explore her body intimately, and although she denies it, she yearns to explore mine. Therefore, the Judge’s business can wait.”

Vee rolled her eyes and moved a hand to an inside pocket.

Eyes widened. Muscles tensed. Fingers twitched. An orifice did something nasty.

“Pardon me,” she said, smiling. And withdrew a self-igniting cabbage stick. She blew on the tip, it caught fire, and she took a luxurious hit. Her attitude was similar to the ones adults had while self-righteously indulging a bad habit before the children.

Then she blew the smoke directly at Jordi’s face, presumably because she was curious about how he’d react.

Jordi’s face turned as red as a rose. He controlled himself with obvious difficulty. He did his best to remain stoic, but his efforts were waylaid by the coming of a sneeze. He fought valiantly for the right not to sneeze, but his efforts, like all such efforts, was doomed from the get-go.

“It’s not too late to reconsider my advice,” Joe told him.

Judge Debbil Rose watched the interaction with the air of a man whose seen enough tardy courtroom drama in his lifetime. He had a boxer’s face, in that it looked like it’d been run over by a truck a couple of times. He wore an exquisitely tailored blue jacket, with exaggerated shoulder pads. His trousers were slightly baggy and blue, and also would have presented a meticulous style had it not been for the preposterous codpiece.

“The room please,” he said.

No one moved.

“I have some private business to discuss with Ms. Davenport,” he said when it became apparent he wasn’t going to be treated with the deference he was used to. “I would like. The room.”

“Are you going to let him talk to you that way, Joe?” Vee asked. “No self-respecting balebos would permit the deliberate subversion of his authority without giving his rival a taste of his own petard.”

“The petard here is especially delicious,” offered Sugar Dan. “They have their own special irony sauce.”

Judge Rose folded his arms and pouted as if he’d never heard of such a thing. “It makes no difference.”

Joe’s orifice did something nauseating. Noticing Judge Rose making a face, he took umbrage and said, “I demand to know if you’re prejudiced against Mollusks!”

“I hate them all,” said Judge Rose. “Equally.”

“So long as we’re clear,” said Joe. “In the meantime I would like to draw to your attention, Judge, I have diplomatic immunity on this station, as well as all the other legal immunities. Furthermore, sir, I find you arrogant and overbearing, and you need to learn a little respect for one who has a thousand puppets at his command, in every district in your jurisdiction.”

“He’s trying to say, nicely,” said Motzy, “you don’t have enough shoulders to look over.”

Sugar Dan laughed. “Don’t you see what she’d done? She’s pitted you against one another and taken control of the agenda.”

“She has not!” Joe exclaimed.

“No way!” Judge Rose exclaimed.

“Way!” Vee said. “Now, Judge, why don’t you explain what you expect of me, so I’ll have some idea what not to do?”

“Your insolence shall be the death of you, young frail,” said Judge Rose.

“Probably,” said Vee.

The Judge took a folding chair from the wall, opened it, and straddled it, all with the pace of a man at his leisure. “Never before have I met someone who has fallen so far and yet thought so little of it.”

Vee shrugged. “Fine.”

“For the first time in your life,” said Judge Rose, “your insolence might serve you well. But only once, and only right this minute. Normally your absolute rejection of authority is so brazen and disrespectful that I would justified in sentencing you to death on the spot.”

Vee crossed her arms. “I wouldn’t advise carrying it out that way.”

“Yes. Precautions might be advisable. Nonetheless, my superiors – and I do have some, regrettably – want me to make you an offer I hope you’ll refuse. They believe you possess an aura setting you apart from your run-of-the-mill psychopath. They have also noticed – and why they believe this, I have no idea, but because they believe, I must – they have noticed the vagaries of time and fate do not apply to you. Forbidden history has shown that such individuals are rare but best harnessed. Otherwise their lives are not restricted to the usual tributaries. They are statistical anomalies. They may bend, like reeds in the wind, but should they break, their fighting spirit inspires the common rabble. And if you knew the common rabble as I do, then you’d know they’re as apt to be inspired by a bad idea as a good one.”

“Now you’re getting personal,” Vee said.

“Of course I am, because you’re one of them. Evidently. Against all odds.”

“Do not listen to him!” said Jordi, in the most forceful tones he’d used thus far. “Darling, you are truly as exceptional, as he says, but there is nothing about you so original that gives the future historians something to anguish over.”

Sugar Dan whistled in amazement. “That is the single worst pitch it has ever been my displeasure to hear.”

“My superiors have ordered me to recruit you,” said Judge Rose, unperturbed. “However much they disapprove of you and your methods, they believe it vaguely possible you can be trained to serve the Empire.”

“We saw her first!” Motzy exclaimed.

“I have dibs!” insisted Jordi. “It’s on my birth certificate!”

Joe’s orifice did something gravity defying.

“Will you stop that?” said Vee, getting as much into his face as she dared. “It’s distracting!”

Joe shrugged.

“He can’t help it,” Sugar Dan explained. “It’s a natural function. It ignites a reflex response in Mammals that can take years to control. Most entities wouldn’t bother when it comes to Mollusks and let the disgusted expressions fall as they may, but Joe’s position awards him latitude.”

“You’re saying you’re used to it.”

“If I did, I’ll be lying.”

“I demand order in this venue!” Judge Rose insisted, a demand that was taken with many wry expressions and some new moves from the orifice.

“However,” the Judge continued, “come with me of your own free will, and you will have freedom. You will know a bliss impossible to achieve within the perimeters of ordinary men and women. All you have to do is liberate those items we tell you, and eliminate those we tell you. Your fees shall be exorbitant, and they will always be met. You have my word. And you can put the Seal of the Moustache where the sun don’t shine if you don’t believe me.”

“In that case,” said Vee, “I’ll take your word for it. But what’s the catch?”

“Catch?” asked Judge Rose.

“There’s always a catch,” said Motzy.

“I guarantee it,” said Sugar D. “You had a catch, didn’t you, Joe?”

Joe’s orifice did something peculiar. “Well, since you put it that way, yes, but isn’t a catch in your offer as well?”

Sugar D blushed. “Oh, only in a manner of speaking.”

“Which amount to the same catch,” Vee decided. “Let’s take the matter in another direction. Judge Rose, how much of the prize do I get to keep?”

Judge Rose was flustered. “Uh, none of course.”

“My ship?”


“My crew? They walk, correct?”

“Uh, actually, theirs will be a life of pain, suffering, and suicide squads. I now declare this parlay over. Velouria Davenport, much as I hate to put undue strain on your delicate nature, you must agree to my bargain in the next thirty seconds or you will lose every scintilla of your freedom.”

“Harrumph,” said Vee, frowning. She made sure everyone could see both her hands. “Okay, I have made my decision.”

They waited.

“Well – ?” said Judge Rose.

“And. It. Is – ”

It’s safe to say that even during that final nanosecond, Vee had no idea what her answer would be. We may safely presume it would have involved a certain amount of bloodshed. Fate, however, or rather that cosmic uncertainty that pervaded her destiny, provided her with the option of putting off her decision, in the form of the distant cadence of a relentless march.

It grew louder with each step. The vibrations grew stronger. All chatter on the other side of the curtain ceased.

“&^%$# it!” Motzy exclaimed, slamming her fist on a table so violently all the glasses fell over. A potent mixture of brews escaped into the air. “The Curators!”

“I hate the Curators,” said Sugar Dan.

Joe turned away, lest the others spot his orifice move in a way he’d been brought up not to display in public.

“A fine mess you’ve gotten us into,” said Jordi.

Vee huffed in protest. It was difficult to gauge how seriously she took her own objection, as Jordi recognized she sounded exactly like the old windbags at the clubs. “They’re not here because of me!” she said. “This is the Judge’s doing! They resent his corruption and incompetence and are here to put an end to it!”

Judge Rose considered executing her on the spot. Only the fear, well-founded, she would not be as compliant as others who’d received a similar sentence, dissuaded him.

Meanwhile, the din reached a crescendo of sorts. A storm of crashes and cries signaled the Curators had march stepped their way into the establishment, and moved forward without heed of obstacle.

When just outside the curtain, the march suddenly ceased. The impact was no more or less thunderous than the preceding ones, but it was decisive. The stillness that followed was comparative only.

Officers protested, those caught underfoot begged for help, gases hissed, and liquids dripped. Suddenly something went whoosh, and there was much ado until the fire was put out.

But so far, no one had entered. The curtain remained perfectly still.

So Vee and her inadvertent posse waited, with nothing to do but savor their shared dread at the mere prospect of having to deal with the Curators.


A word about the Curators. They were universally regarded as having the dullest, most picayune obsessed minds in the Empire. This was a distinction they earned with ease, though the fact the Curators were robots and thus were inherently limited to viewing the universe logically, literally, and monotonously. Of course, other robot models and A.I.s also deemed them extreme and preferred not to be in their presence.

The Curators’ domain, their sole reason for being, was the keeping of the Dark Repository and all the things therein, of which much was suspected, but little was known. Once an item passed through organic digits, all records of its existence beyond the barrier were erased. A few minds and lives had been erased too, without malice, for the Curators were incapable of that, but in the name of preserving the sanctity of ignorance, they were capable of taking extraordinary inhumane measures. Even the most benign interaction with such an entity could be a serious pain, if not a lethal one. It was said Justinian himself kept several layers of bureaucracy between Himself and the Curators, in order to prevent the necessity of communicating with one. (They had a reputation, not altogether undeserved, of asking too many questions.)

About their appearance: on a matter of form, they were enamored of non-logical geometry. Form followed function as little as possible with this crew. Their legs were askew, their torsos shaped like broken fractals, their motions consisted of slow blurs, and their sensors placed at random. You’d think the typical Curator couldn’t get from one side of the room to the other without falling over, but their marching was flawless, their agility not to be underestimated.

A lone Curator was bad enough, but whenever the situation was critical – as for example, when an item was lost in route – they hunted in droves.

Such a drove remained just on the threshold of Joe’s private room, waiting, delaying, perhaps procrastinating – all traits, I hasten to add, never before associated with the Curators. Finally, the babble of mechanical voices became audible. It sounded like an onslaught of crickets made of razor blades. It reached a climaxed while sounding like the clash of buzzsaws on the battlefield, then suddenly ceased. In the silence that followed, a robot mumbled.

Many of the phrases were incomprehensible, but Why me? and Not my fault stood out among all the jumble.

Motzy raised her eyebrows. Vee sensed the woman’s vitals had just shot up another notch. She suspected her respect for the woman was about to grow.

“Howdy visitations!” said the Curator entering the room. “Howdy visitations!”

His body was predominantly composed of squares resembling slices of processed blue cheese, all attached to a multitude of limbs and protuberances. Several progressions of squares phased somewhere and back again, giving the impression he was surrounded by living motion indicators. His hands and feet were highly functional. The digits were composed of rows of tiny bolts; the fingertips were as sharp as needles and the toes flexible enough to hurl a baseball. Their number varied, depending on how his inner logic moved him.

Vee stood, laying a hand, at last, on her cutlass. Judge Rose, arms akimbo, posed defiantly. Sugar Dan had rested his slingshot on his disc top, yet twirled a shot in his fingers. Jordi remained seated, arms folded across his chest, his mood indignant and resolute.

Joe’s orifice did something Motzy found rather repetitive.

The Curator’s walk was as graceful as a creature with four trunks instead of legs, but it was swift and strong. Before the others could process what was happening, he stood before Vee with his misshaped extremity almost directed at her face.

“Thief! Criminal! Organic slime of the ball!” he said, pronouncing every word with great solemnity. “Regurgitate! Regurgitate!”

“Regurgitate?” asked Vee, aghast. “Are you hungry?”

“Choose another word, Mezuzah,” offered Motzy.

“Relinquish! Relinquish!” said the Curator she called Mezuzah. A spark flew and he was suddenly silent, silent and frozen.

All eyes and antennae turned toward Motzy. Vee and Jordi saw something in her that only Sugar Dan had seen before, and which Joe was biologically unable to appreciate, and that was her broad, beautiful grin, so infectious that it transformed the plain (but strong) woman into another league altogether. Even Judge Rose was impressed; no one ever knew, but at that moment he gave serious thought to pooching her.

“Let me get this straight,” said Vee. “The two of you have met?”

“Joe, Dan, all,” said Motzy, “it is my pleasure to introduce Mezuzah Smithers-Jones, something something something of the Dark Repository.”

“Something something something,” said Sugar Dan. “Impressive.”

Motzy shrugged. “It’s more a number than a title.”

Vee moved her forefingers this way and that. “And the two of you have – ?”

“Is that even possible?” asked Jordi.

“Mezuzah!” Motzy gushed. “I haven’t seen you in an industrial age! How have you been? What have you been up to?”

For a robot who was standing still, Mezuzah generated a slew of motion indicators. “Same old, same old!” he said desperately.

“I demand an explanation,” said Vee, whose grin matched Motzy’s tooth for tooth.

For once the others had something in common: they wanted the straight skinny, but were too embarrassed to admit it. Except for Vee, of course, who’d admit to anything so long as it was in her favor and bore some resemblance to the truth. And Mezuzah, naturally, who was terrified as only one resolutely logical in all matters can be and wanted the expose of his personal life to be over as quick as possible. Basically, none voiced an objection for a break from the main subject at hand for a quick sidebar.

“You ask, how do I know the Curator standing beside me possesses a secret disposition so sweet, the honey bees buzz around his id? Because we attended a singles’ event for those drawn to exophilia and technosexuality. As you know, robots tend to be conformists, to the extent their individuality is limited to their vin number. So obviously any artificial creature attending such an event has a hung inhibition program or is malfunctioning in some discrete way. When I met Mezuzah at the oyster bar, I became fascinated with how his mind works, and wanted to get to know him better. The most natural thing in the world, really.”

“Yes, but, how did you – ?” Vee asked, moving her fingers again.

Motzy laughed and waved off the question. “Oh, with a Curator, it isn’t really like that. Although truth to tell, I did find wearing a fat suit helpful.”

“Details! Details!” Vee insisted.

“Those of us who take the road less traveled are far from the simple-minded hedonists portrayed in sour romances and hideous psychodramas,” said Motzy modestly. “We contain within ourselves untapped nebulas of dimension and potential, and in order to know ourselves, we must not only push the envelope, we must seal it and send it overnight across the void. And we know better than anyone how the corporeal hinders the transcendent. The moment Mezuzah and I came in contact, we recognized that our minds, merged together, would achieve a union that would transform our entire bodies into one giant erogenous zone.”

“And they say all the frontiers have been conquered,” said Sugar Dan. “Motzy, I salute you!”

Motzy beamed. “Alas, I fear it is business and not gratuitous nirvana that has brought my mind-meld buddy to our humble hub.”

In the back of her brain, Vee heard her mother say, Vee, close your mouth, you’ll swallow a bug.

Motzy winked at her. “We can always try a trio.”

“I’m flattered, but I’ll pass. Two egos in a bedroom is plenty.”

“Who sent you?” Judge Rose asked Mezuzah. “The Bureau of Redundancy Bureau? In case you haven’t noticed, I have already acquired the target. Your presence is unnecessary.”

“Table discussion!” said Mezuzah. “Table discussion! Instead must insist the shunned inferior produce Item 62 dash 7 π!” He extended a digit in Velouria’s direction. “Expectorate! Expectorate!”

Vee bit her thumbnail and rolled her eyes as if deep in thought. “Item 62 dash 7 π, eh? Can’t say I recall anything listed in the manifest like that. And you suspect that I might know its whereabouts?”

“Do not disseminate! Do not disseminate! We, the Curators of the Dark Repository, are way ahead of you! Way ahead! The Jacobite is in the elliptical hands of my fellow curators and has been disassembled! The cargo has been analyzed! Item 62 dash 7 π unaccounted for! Obviously mules involved! Obvious mules! Crew dissected! Crew dissected. Item not found! Item not found! Therefore must deduce! Must deduce heinous Inferior in possession of Item 62 dash 7 π!”

“Perhaps you should,” said Jordi, “tell us exactly what Item 62 dash 7 π is, or is believed to be.”

Judge Rose cleared his throat and looked directly at the Mezuzah’s uppermost. “Please don’t tell us the Seal of the Upturned Moustache alone warrants your interference.”

“Exposition!” said Mezuzah. “Exposition! Mezuzah hate exposition! Mezuzah already know everything!”

“Except for the location of Item whatever,” said Vee boldly.

Mezuzah paused. “Alas,” he said mournfully, “Mezuzah not know that.”

“Just shut up and say your piece,” said an exasperated Joe.

“Item 62 dash 7 π is a hard drive of ancient derivation,” said Mezuzah. “Item 62 dash 7 π stores unvetted information of uncatalogued origin and tachyon contamination! Universe of origin questionable! Very questionable!”

Joe’s orifice did something sideways. “It sounds like it has already been examined to some extent. Why is the information still unvetted?”

“Binary code strange! Binary code elusive! Binary code hexadecimal yet does not add up!”

“What’s the matter?” asked Jordi dryly. “Does not one and one make two in this code?”

“Does not! Does not! Makes two but not same two! Makes two but different two!”

“In what substantial way might they be different?” asked Vee.

“It’s a riddle!” said Sugar Dan.

“Right!” said Motzy. “What’s the difference between two and two?”

“Or how can you tell two and two apart?” said Jordi dryly, enjoying himself, however much doing so pained him.

“Mezuzah confess bafflement! Confess bafflement! Early examination by organic sentients revealed access was complex but possible, particularly since the observer couldn’t help but decide which two it was simply by looking at it. Principle breakthrough had disastrous results! Disastrous! Regrettable! Regrettable!”

“Must have been bad if a machine can regret it,” said Joe.

“What kind of results?” demanded Judge Rose. “Spit it out!”

“The kind of results that drive men mad!” said Mezuzah. “Mad, I say!”

“I say,” Jordi whispered.

“Mad is such a broad term,” said Motzy.

“Yes,” agreed Sugar Dan. “What shade of madness are we dealing with? Stark raving mad?”

“Psychopathically insane?” asked Judge Rose.

“Chemophobia?” asked Joe.

Motzy spun her finger at her temple, making the universal sign of being driven crazy.

“Poor. Impulse. Control,” said Jordi.

“Bonkers?” asked Vee.

Mezuzah shivered. “Arithmomania! The uncontrollable urge to count.”

“For a Curator,” said Vee, “that’s like bed-wetting.”

“Safe return of Item 62 dash 7 π is paramount! All other conditions secondary! In that spirit, Curators have been authorized to make Velouria Davenport, disgraced Inferior, one time offer! Repeat: One time! One time!”

“Been there, done that,” said Vee dryly.

“Trust me, you’d rather take my offer,” said Judge Rose.

“He’s lying,” said Joe. “As soon as he gets what he wants, he’ll space you without a second thought.”

“Or a first one,” said Jordi. “Darling, trust me! Trust me! Come with me. I can protect you from these louts! The clan will protect you! I beseech you!’

“Tick-tock, young lady,” said Mezuzah, “tick-tock.”

Again, Vee got as far as opening her mouth.




They say a brave man experiences true love but once in his life, while a coward loves often, but never truly.

By that standard, Coppehead was extraordinarily brave.

Granted, he was foolish, impulsive, waylaid by his first experience with an emotion he wasn’t prepared to encounter. Not to mention the fact he didn’t have both oars in the water.

That said, he was brave nonetheless. He had acted, and acted decisively, without regard for the consequences, acted without regret and yes, he had to admit, without reason. He had passed through the magnificent vistas of space before, but never while his emotions boiled like the surface of a birthing planet, never while so vulnerable to their cold, indifferent beauty, never while believing so fervently that he stood apart from the cosmic birth/rebirth cycle, that the essence of eternity churned in his heart.

Truly, love had changed him. He was a better entity, at last capable of appreciating the better things in life.

All that mattered, in the end, was love. Finally he understood why all those hacks relied on all those dreary, repetitive phrases about love and friendship and family – because as banal as those phrases might be, they were quite literally True, representative of the most fundamental fact of life. Love might be commonplace, so ordinary as to be jejune, but it made life worth living.

There was, of course, only one problem, and that was the as of yet unanswerable question of how his beloved might react upon receiving his declaration of devotion. One of the things he found most attractive about Velouria was her unpredictability. The range of her probable responses went from glorious acceptance, quickly followed by a life of bliss, to coy aloofness, the better to toy with him, as a cat toys with lunch.

It didn’t occur to him she might reject him altogether. As you may have gathered, Regulators as a rule weren’t ideal physical specimens. Realistically, he might have to accept he would take some getting used to.

Perhaps, in the unlikely event she had misgivings, they could get to know one another gradually. They could spend some time together touring the great vista, or perhaps the Star Castle, which he’d never explored – because, he decided mournfully, he’d had no one to share the experience with.

Ultimately, of course, that fateful spark would ignite between them, and they would come together with magnetic force, and they would be impossible to pry apart until – until –

She shuffled off. For it is the fate of mortals to be transitory. And while he might be able to rewrite the rules for a while, sooner or later, her body and soul would reach their logical conclusion. Their love was a tragedy waiting to happen.

He would have to do something about that, cheat destiny somehow. Isn’t that what lovers did for one another, as a matter of routine? Perhaps he could upload her consciousness into his, and together they would give new meaning to the concept of being inseparable.

So lost was he in thought that he failed to follow his flight plan as faithfully as he might have. Somewhere along the way, his trajectory deviated by the length of a molecule or two. Now that might seem like not much, at first, but after several million light years, it begins to add up. This is doubly consequential for a moving target. By the time Attrition came into conventional view, Coppehead was going to hit fifty yards wide of his mark. He was so preoccupied with his visions of a blissful future that he compounded his error with his overconfidence, the assumption that everything would go as planned for the simple reason he’d planned it. By the time he noticed he had to adjust, it was already too late.

He smashed a central nodule at five thousand mph. In an instant he was no more. It is doubtful even a mind as sharp as his could have slowed down to ponder the implications of his impending demise. We can only believe that if Coppehead retain sufficient consciousness for contemplation during his final second, his resolution remained firm, and he had loved without regret.

Needless to say, that final second was an eventful one. It took that long for the first ten thousand souls to lose their lives. Thirteen million square feet of floorspace was pulverized. Vacuum breaches opened up and explosions of oxygen, gas, and fire lasted long enough to incinerate thousands before they died of exposure. Coppehead’s cranium was the first thing to be pulverized, but his body, which was equipped with quite the exo-skeleton, tore a tunnel a half a mile wide and twice as long into the structure of the station. It facilitated the collapse of foundations, the rupture of walls, and the fracturing of the artificial gravity. Coppehead had come in at an angle, so that the rotation of station reacted as tire might hitting a bump in the road, shaking the entire thing like a rattle in fast music. Everything was supposed to be nailed down, but in a place where rules were optional, most of what constituted everything wasn’t. People had as much to fear from the moving objects as they did from hitting the walls, ceilings, and floors.

Meanwhile, Velouria’s mouth remained open until she saw the plastic salt shaker coming her way. Then she was in the air and had kicked someone in the face. She still had no idea what she would have decided.

Now might be as good a time as any to point out that, in the end, Coppehead had been right about one thing. He would not be missed. The Bureaucrats That Be didn’t notice his absence until he was already history; thus they had neither the opportunity nor the inclination to ask what had prompted his traitorous malfunction. They ordered his replacement piece and returned to their games of macro-analysis. (Perhaps it wouldn’t be out of line to mention the Bureaucrats That Be were poorly equipped for micro-analysis.)

The event that came to be known as The Attrition Crisis had repercussions that lasted for centuries. Justinian and his minions were unprepared for an unforeseen event. From their vantage point, all sentient interaction was a deep texture with malleable ingredients, and the galaxy a playing venue in which every variable could be accounted for.

Of course someone had to be held accountable. It was decided since no one was directly responsible for failing to take into consideration the unforeseen, then no one was responsible. That didn’t mean a few entities weren’t indirectly responsible. A few heads rolled, literally, and some history was rewritten. Examples were made, and the terror of institutional reorganization was sidestepped.

But I digress. In Joe’s private room, he and his guests were pounded and beaten by crashing into one another, the furniture, and the walls.

Joe died a terrible and undeserved death, when the back of his shell cracked against the edge of a tabletop. He became dazed and unable to ward off any objects during his collisions with the ceilings and walls. He was vaguely aware he was in the midst of an unnatural disaster. He felt the warmth of his mucous and blood seeping through his jacket. The emergency lights flashed and for some reason reminded him of his homeworld, where the swamps were plentiful and warm and the leaves lay on the ground.

The last thing he remembered was what happened after the man had walked down the hall. Then he was gone.

Having spent a vast portion of her formative years as a scalawag herself, Motzy succeeded in adjusting her trajectory toward a vent large enough for a human to hide in. She was thrown off course by a cushion, then a frantic Judge Rose, but managed to grab the cover to a ventilation shaft, rip it off its hinges (already in a weakened state), and crawl inside, where she theorized she would be safe from flying people and objects.

She scrambled in headfirst, only to discover, when it was already too late, the air in the shaft was being sucked into a distant breach, and taking her with it.

She was dragged a hundred yards before she managed to grab the corner of an adjacent duct, and, with some difficulty, gasping for breath all the while, she pulled herself into the (presumably) safer shaft. It was quickly ruptured by the tip of a giant metal shard that missed her by only a few inches. It brought with it two kinds of news. On the plus side, the shard protected her from the suction.

On the negative side, a giant ball of flame was headed in her direction.

Meanwhile, Sugar Dan took advantage of his mobility. At the first sign of the shock wave, he zipped through the curtain and into the chaos of the dining area, where the silverware, food, plates, chairs, tables, people, corpses, and body parts were being tossed about like so many popcorn kernels. The robots magnetized or otherwise attached themselves to flat surfaces, a reasonable strategy that might have done them more harm than good – first because they were easy targets for all the debris, and secondly because the shock waves, strong enough to splinter and liquify steel columns 50 yards in diameter, shook them like tuning forks. If they weren’t dented or totaled by the debris, their every thread, bolt, stud and washer loosened and became compromised. Digits refused to work or fell off. The ability to judge distance became a thing of the past. Pistons got bent out of shape. Their tiny engine blocks broke in two. Some had their appearance altered to hideous effect by the onslaught, though, truth to tell, only other Curators noticed the difference.

And, as is usual with mechanical things, every potential problem that could have been taken care of beforehand became a crisis. So joints froze, programs hung, and leaks sprung.

All the while Sugar Dan zipped by; he was terrified by all the destruction, gripped in the stone cold fear of an early and undeserved demise, yet he was laughing. Laughing! His ability to bypass obstacles would ensure his ability to stay on the right side of the emergency seals. He was going to make it. No wonder he was laughing. He was still laughing when the withered corpse of a huge nitrous being covered his face, sticking to it like a giant piece of flypaper. Unable to see, too afraid to stop, he accidentally sliced some citizens in two before his disc became caught in a wall. The sudden stop snapped his neck.

Whenever Judge Rose saw a star crash coming, he had the good sense to disembark before he got run over. It was the most important quality to his success as a minion; he’d risen through the ranks by efficiency, results, subterfuge, and criminality. For the first time since stepping on Attrition, he feared he might step off this mortal coil with a few backs left unstabbed. He could not die. Not now. The Empire still needed him. Justinian would still recognize him, and single him out for a few words of faint praise (the highest honor possible for one of his rank).

So in order to do his duty in the future, and only for that reason (he told himself), he grabbed Mezuzah and held on for dear life, using the entity’s body as a shield whenever possible. Suddenly he realized why a fat suit was necessary.

“Release me! Let me go!” exclaimed the Curator, who was very much the priss when it came to Organics.

“When the Emperor farts in Hell!” exclaimed Judge Rose, as best one could when one’s teeth are being shaken out of the gums. “You’re my best chance to get out of here alive!”

“Outrageous! Outrageous!” exclaimed the Curator. “I’m stupefied! Stupefied, I say!”

Judge Rose’s next words were snuffed out by the exploding fireball that had taken out Motzy moments earlier, along with his life. A lack of oxygen extinguished the fireball in the time it takes to snap your fingers, but the heat and violence was so intense, it had more than enough time to incinerate Judge Rose.

Mezuzah was unfazed by the heat, and he was equipped to withstand the subsequent vacuum that overwhelmed what little remained of the once-proud establishment. He was, however, dismayed that the carbonized remains of this jejune organic creature were seared on his body. The man’s juices froze his joints and his overdone organs clung to his sensors, severely impairing his information gathering capabilities. His communications were jammed, and so too were the demagnetization devices that could have freed him to walk to an environment more conducive to continued existence.

As if his situation wasn’t trying enough already, he was also trapped on a fragment headed for parts unknown. Obviously rescue wasn’t imminent. He would be stuck on the fragment for a long, lonely time, perfectly capable of preserving his intelligence, but also perfectly incapable of doing anything meaningful with his life.

Subsequent events, or lack thereof, proved Mezuzah correct. He remained magnetized to the fragment, a prisoner in an interstellar cage, for a decade. He’d spent the time trapped in an elliptical orbit around the husk that remained of Attrition. He preoccupied himself by concentrating on imagined outside events, as if to conjure a rescue. By the time he was picked up by a salvage ship, his mind was hung and he was repeating, incessantly, the words of a song with lyrics he couldn’t quite articulate, about a man going down the hall.

At the moment of catastrophe, the ceiling came down on the Attrition Committee of Governors. Every soul in the zero-g birthing module was lost. Ships broke free of their moorings. Space walkers suddenly found themselves flying into the void. Domes shattered, crops failed, factories fell apart. Automatic weapon systems triggered, and for an hour, despite the most dire of circumstances, law enforcement and the military believed the other was waging war against them, a favor they were happy to return. The chaos in the aftermath of the event was extreme in every part of the station, and it’s no wonder one of the more curious results went unnoticed.

The dissolution of Coppehead’s body released the tachyons embedded in his anatomy, those peculiar particles that allow Regulators to shimmy back and forth in time, so they might fine-tune their alterations.

Liberated from the constraints of Coppehead’s discipline, they ping-ponged at light speed from one indefinable coordinate to the next. The lines indicated from their progress resembled the interwoven fabric of a complex stitching pattern. Eventually, their decline in energy would paradoxically accelerate their speed to that of faster than light, and they would cease to affect events altogether. But in the meantime they formed bubbles that those who presumed themselves witty called time droppings. Whatever they were called, they still looked like bubbles.

Their relationship to reality was nebulous at best, but they managed to form around and pick up numerous objects, gulps of chemical gases, and various entities, in whole or part, and deposit the contents at different points and times in the future or past Attrition. The site was not always conducive to survival.

A time bubble snatched up Velouria and Jordi while they crashed against opposing walls. All of sudden they were trapped together in a tiny berth, traveling somewhere.

Vee’s mouth was still open.

“Well?” demanded Jordi. “What’s it going to be?”



“Good question,” said Vee. “I’d kill for a cup of cappuccino right now.”

“You probably would,” mumbled Jordi dryly.

Independently, they wondered at the opaque walls of the strange sphere that had saved their lives – at least for the time being. When they touched it, their fingers tingled painfully as they made an impression in what felt like an energy membrane. When they looked closely at it, its blue surface revealed illusions of remarkable depth, and the textures within communicated both color and sound. Beyond the membrane, their position relative to the surrounding debris remained constant, though beyond, lights strobed and it was clear an entire wall of the station had been blown out.

“What? Place? Is this?” Jordi demanded.

“A lifeboat of some kind, I would wager,” said Vee. She turned to face him and leaned against the membrane as hard as she dared.

“For we alone?” asked Jordi, with some hope in his voice.


His expression was joyous. “Then once again the universe has conspired to bring us together. Don’t you understand? Can you not feel the miraculous tendrils of fate, manipulating time and circumstance in answer to the desperate cry of our love?”

“You presume much, sir.”

His expression lost some of its luster. “I presume nothing. As an Inferior, I have an inalienable birthright, as do you. That birthright binds us as surely as an electron is bound to a nucleus.”

“I believe this is a case where the observer definitely affects the outcome.”

He drew to his full height. The flooring was curved, so he was off-balance and seemed about to fall into her.

Vee leaned back, making an impression, and got zapped. She jumped forward and with upraised palm indicated he should lean away.

Appalled at the demand, he acquiesced nonetheless. “Velouria, I ask you: look deep in your heart, and answer me truly. If I was but a man, without a contract and a heritage to uphold, and we met, and you were a woman as free as I, that you would claim me as your life partner. It is a dream I have.”

“One handed down from the ages. I think not. As a matter of fact, I can’t think of a single circumstance that would entice me to bestow my favors upon you.”

“We can be in here for a long time. You don’t struck me as a woman who can deny the call of nature.”

“Or we can already be dead, and just don’t know it yet.”

“You always look on the bright side. Don’t you have any regrets?”

“Only that there are norms I’ve yet to violate.”

“You don’t regret you won’t have children or make a fortune?”

Vee shrugged. “That strikes me as almost humorous. Why would I regret not doing something I never intended to do?”

Jordi’s eyes widened. “Your nihilism is impressive. But the only problem in believing there’s nothing worth doing is, you never do anything. You accomplish nothing. Your sound and fury signifies nothing. You rebel against vicissitudes of existence none of us can do anything about. You might as well be contemptible of the air or rail against the ineptitude of the Big Bang. All that energy wasted, when you could be accruing assets and raising a family. And as you surely must be aware of by now, only the one who is at peace with herself, and lives a life of reward, can strike the proper balance between happiness and insight.”

“I have a sudden urge to cut your femoral artery.”

Jordi shrugged off the threat. “And yet you have not.”

“Don’t press your luck.”

“Has anyone ever told you that your nose scrunches up so delicately, so endearingly, when you’re mad?”

“You do like to live dangerously.”

“Do you find that trait admirable?” Jordi asked, straightening his shoulders and brushing off some imaginary lint.

“Not in other people.”

Jordi harumphed. “How do you expect this to end? Bloody, I suppose.”

Vee shrugged. “Doesn’t matter, so long as it ends my way.”

Jordi nodded. “Right. Bloody.”

Events beyond the membrane were a blur. At times the flashing lights might have meant death to the photosensitive epileptic. The periods of black were beyond pitch, but they were few. Otherwise what transpired beyond those walls was a flurry of movement and patterns that moved just slow enough for them to discern they might signify deliberate sentient action. They gave the travelers the impression they were going somewhere, if nowhere else, than through time. How long they would remain this way was not clear. Vee regarded it as having gone on long enough.

She had to admit, though, she was conscious of a certain ambience she somehow deemed trustworthy. Her confidence in a safe outcome – for her at least – was unyielding.

“Why are you so hostile?” Jordi asked, thus confirming her every negative impression about him.

“You are from the past,” she said, “where the dead things belong.”

“Have you no concept of a future? What would you want to do, should we be released from this infernal prison?”

Vee gave a moment to her answer. “I do have to see a doctor about a yeast infection.”

Jordi felt the blood drain from his face and pool in his feet. “Your insolence – !” was all he could say, but those two simple words concealed a plethora of conflicting emotions: repulsion and desire, loathing and tenderness, domination and surrender, swirling in a vast gumbo of unrequited passion. The visible evidence of his desire was most apparent. His vitality overwhelmed his common sense and, responding to genetic programming predating the Inferiors by epochs, took her by the arms and pressed his lips against hers.

The sensation was delightful. He had taken the precaution of noting, beforehand, that at the moment her hands were empty.

He was charged with victory! Sure, she tensed and her eyes nearly popped out of her head, but she hadn’t moved. She was letting him taste her! Oh life! Oh wonder! Oh success!

That moment, in real time, lasted only about a nanosecond. An objective person might think her reaction instantaneous.

She raked her fingernails across his face. Jordi was horrified at his injury – his face was shredded to the bone – and he was also ashamed, because he should have remembered Inferior ladies, even respectable ones, had retractable claws.

His pain was blinding. The blood splatter was spectacular. His rage was incandescent. The myriad self-control techniques he learned in his apprenticeship were barely enough to restrain him from risking a second lunge, this time with the intent to murder.

Instinctively he put his hand to the wound, and just as instinctively she had the tip of her dagger at his throat. Jordi glared at her – and perhaps felt a tad grateful, though not to her, he hadn’t lost an eye.

“Go ahead,” he said. “Go on. Kill me. Slay me with no more thought than you would a heifer, I will not object. Perhaps only then, when it is too late, will you fully assimilate into your worldview the knowledge that I love you more than a man loves the stars, the air he breathes, the numbers he crunches, or the best friend who always has his backside.”

He stood tall, proud, oblivious to his blood, yet all too conscious of his heartache.

“I ask you, once again,” he continued, “will you carry forth your destiny and take me as your lawfully wedded partner?”

Vee telegraphed a raking that could have cut him to the brainstem. He turned away and dropped his shoulder. He had almost congratulated himself for having avoiding another wounding when she planted her foot on his hip and pushed him into the membrane with a strength belied by her modest physique.

Jordi screamed and for an instant his skeleton was visible. A lesser woman might have felt sorry for him.

However, Vee never felt sorry for anyone. The hopelessly programmed made their decisions as readily as everyone else, in her view. She ruminated no further, for suddenly Jordi’s weight cracked the membrane and things began to fizzle. The moving colors and shapes beyond the membrane oscillated in and out of reality; times and places were out of sync, and the crack behind Jordi widened.

Vee blinked and he was gone. Disappeared. The blurs had left him far behind before she could wonder what this meant for her.

Fragments of membrane oozed in and out of reality. Beyond were hints of construction and industry; forests grew, withered, and died within moments. Bodies of water pooled and dried. Stars came and went; the background she presumed to be space put on a tremendous light show, then gradually coalesced into a harsh florescent glare. At first she’d been holding her breath, but after a while it became apparent there was nothing to breathe.

Velouria prepared herself for death. It had been a long, strange ride. Well, actually, not nearly for as long as she wanted it, but when her life was viewed from a certain perspective, she’d been lucky to have experienced as much as she had.

Too bad. She would have liked to be in control of this secret information she’d been carrying around. She prayed to the ghosts of the gods, who’d existed before the days of rational thought, that it would come into the possession of another miscreant such as herself. Oh well. Future rebellions would have to be triggered in her spirit, if not her name.

Yet, even as she resigned herself to meeting the moment that proves all men are created equal, a curious sense of optimism rose inside her. As resolutely as possible, she’d sworn to perpetuate none of the values she’d supposedly inherited with her birth contracts, to seek only pleasure and gratification, and to renounce all obedience to authority, and she believed she’d lived up to that promise.

What she failed to notice was the universe was treating her with more hospitality than usual. The remnants of Coppeweb’s spirit watched over her and guided her forward, transitioning her from the bubble to her new reality as easily as one steps off a treadmill.

She stopped cold, momentarily oblivious to the fact she had suddenly materialized into the traffic flow of a gaggle of pedestrians. They were forced to change direction at the last moment so as not to bump into her. Someone said, “Where the hell did you come from, woman?”

Normally that would have elicited an impolite response, but Vee was too disoriented for that. One of the few benefits of her genetic heritage was heightened sensory awareness, to the extent she’d had to learn to control, or moderate, her senses. Years of practice suppressing them suddenly were of little value. Her pulse raced too quickly, her mind reeled, and she couldn’t catch her breath. One thought, and one thought only, raged from her brainstem to her cortex – What place is this? What place is this?

Her first observation was she was grounded somewhere. The gravity lacked the passivity she associated with the artificial variety. Then she focused on the impressive planet – a green gas giant with orange storms and aquamarine clouds – visible through perfectly adjusted celestial window overhead. The window formed the entirety of the ceiling, and its clarity was the next best thing to being marooned out there. She failed to recognize the planet, but from the look of things, it was a hub of significance. Its space was festooned with moons, satellites, and ships. It was encircled by a blue ring, indicating methane ice, which alone indicated a flourishing import/export business. At least, if things worked here the way she was used to.

The security of love she was experiencing dissipated, along with the rest of Coppeweb’s tachyons. She barely noticed. She glided through the crowd, against traffic, to rest against a wall and get her bearings. It was a mudbrick wall. It was plentifully bestrewn with signs and posters. The flooring was synthetic, fashioned to have the look and feel of a natural trail in an arid area. Windows were arched or square, though the sizes varied. She inspected the wood frame of a square one, and noted the grain moved as if simmering in a long, slow heat. She wondered if the wood was still among the living, somehow.

The people were consolingly familiar, though their fashions and their genetic modifications occasionally had new variations. The promenade was a sea of blue and white faces, curious hair stylings, triangular skulls, cybernetic augmentation, capes and codpieces, undulating orifices, nude nuns and mad monks, kilts and jejune business styles. There was a greater prevalence of pot bellies and bad moustaches than she was used to, as well as more beings contained in energy suits.

Non-humanoids mingled more freely with the humanoids as well, indicating that the sort of mores she’d grown up with were lax here, wherever – whenever here was. Spheroids, trapezoids, and telzoids motored freely in the upper echelons, albeit not without the occasional dropping alert.

She was confident those changes were on the surface only, mere differences of fashion and style. Deep down inside, these folks were ruled by the same passions, irrationalities, and self-serving pieties as those she’d just ditched. It wouldn’t be long before she felt right at home here.

The words on the signs were written in the common tongue, which wasn’t surprising, since the common tongue predated all historical documentation.

The largest sign – the first one she could focus on after getting her initial bearings – contained pertinent information. Welcome to Xanadium Fortress, it read. If you lived here, you’d be home by now.

Others signs read:

Shadow Baby Farms. Harvest Your Brood Today.

Shoes! Three for 25 credits.

Beware of Low Hanging Feather Bombs.

There was a wanted poster for an entity shown dressed in an overcoat, with a big question mark plastered over his face. His name was 00π. He was apparently notorious, but was so mysterious, even his species was unknown.

And there were public service bromides, such as There’s plenty of room for all sentient Amphibians and Don’t sit next to the mashed potatoes.

Her favorite was Like a cult, but without the animal sacrifice – Boilerplate Ministries.

For hours Vee wandered the corridors and promenades. She purloined some fruit and drink by causing distractions, but otherwise, she kept a low profile, at least as low as was possible for a woman for whom the most stylish thing about her, at least from the Xanadium perspective, was the blood splatter on her frock coat.

Gradually she realized Xanadium had been erected on the husk of Attrition. She hadn’t expected that. After all, one of the big problems Empire renegade scientists had found with time travel was, the universe didn’t stand still while you traveled in time, though you did. And considering the universe was only approximately 30 percent matter, the odds of alighting on a solid surface with the right kind of air and right amount of gravity were rather low.

Xanadium was a big place, larger than some moons she’d been on. It was vaguely hospitable. She could go walkabout for weeks if she wanted. The minions discouraged that sort of thing, she figured. Going walkabout was, in the eyes of the authorities, the equivalent of being homeless. On a more positive note, however, the prospect of outwitting the minions stimulated her joie de vivre, and the longer she went unnoticed by them, the greater the thrill. She mastered the craft of being inconspicuous, and even managed to procure some antibiotics. She concealed her treasure in a hidden pocket of her coat, which never left her sight and which she wore in her sleep.

Velouria was one of those creatures who manages to look great regardless of the circumstances, so with minor upkeep, she largely looked herself, even after she’d began to lose track of time. Her clothing, however, had reached the state when the spray cleaners could no longer do the job. The decline in her appearance was directly proportional to the state of her dissatisfaction, and she was considering pilfering a stake in a gambling game when suddenly a man whose stock of green hair resembled a giant dust bunny accosted her and said, “Where the name of the Emperor’s blue balls have you been?”

“Uh, around.”

“That’s half an hour too late! Look me look at you.”

He stepped back and examined her with clinical efficiency. She returned the compliment. He was a blue-skinned mostly-human with green stubble, two antennae on his forehead, and a powerful beta odor. He wore a green tuxedo with a black and white T-shirt. On the black background was the white logo of a defiantly posed middle finger, rising at a slashing angle, as if it was the sword breaking the convoluted onion dome that was a popular symbol for the universal stock exchange. Tiny icons resembling an S or E looked about to be buried in the rubble. Below were the words:

Eat At Vee’s: Gin powder, bunions, and smarts.

Vee looked the man between the eyes, which were like crystal. She figured it likely males of his ilk could be handsome as anyone, but he wasn’t one of them. He was as pudgy as a marshmallow.

He was, however, forward. Without so much as a by-your-leave, he opened her coat lapel and made to inspect it. She slapped his hand away and, before either of them formed a further thought, had the blade from her sleeve pointed at his throat.

He was most unperturbed. The entities on the promenade seemed not to notice. He moved the blade away from his personal space with a forefinger. Then he stepped back, took her in again, nodded to himself with the air of a man who’s just decided what he wants for dinner, and said, “A little aggressive, maybe. You’ll have to tone down the confrontation a bit. But your verisimilitude is good. And you do seem a natural.”


“Don’t be a smart ass.”

“Too late. Speaking of late, what am I late for?”

“Your job interview for the hostess position, of course.”

He gestured toward a sign overhead. It was big enough to be seen a lightyear away, and overlooked the grand entrance to a glorified gin joint named Velouria’s Secret: Gin Powder, Bunions, and Spirits. Beneath an opulent archway was a highly lifelike animatronic figure of a strikingly handsome, wonderfully stern, bald-headed woman. She had bushy red eyebrows and wore an eyepatch over the left eye. She wore a cream bastion shirt, a yellow sash, baggy brown shorts that fell below the knees, and leather sandals. She held forth a scythe shaped like a question mark in a comic script font and, with a snap of the fingers, said, “Come hang at the water hole celebrating the most notorious scallywag of all time – Velouria Davenport. Get drunk. Eat your guts out. See if I care.”

“It is a hallmark of Vee’s Secret that the guest be greeted by a hostess in a Davenport costume. I must say, yours may not be the most accurate, but it does capture something of her flair. I especially approve of the blood stains. Is it real blood?”

“What do you think?”

“Good point. Why spoil the illusion by revealing one’s technique?”

“Exactly. What’s my backstory, by the way? My understanding of this Davenport was that she was complicated and rarely given to consistency. Exactly which aspect of her personality are you emphasizing for the purposes of entertaining the general public?”

“A method actress! I thought as much. The public wants to see Velouria the lover as much as Velouria the rogue. They want to see the woman who rejected all materialism and rule of law to be true to her inner anarchist, but who was secretly in love with her betrothed and would have gladly thrown away a life of freedom and defiance, if only she could believe Jordi loved her not because of his contractual obligation, but of his own independent free will.”

“What’s the point of free will if it isn’t independent?”

“That very question was responsible for a drunken brawl just last night. The clientele might seem like a bunch of anti-intellectual hedonists, but scratch the surface and you’ll find many would-be pundits. I think you’ll fit in well here.”

“I’m so honored. Have we been introduced?”

He smiled, exposing gritty teeth and one fang, and said, “I am the humble manager of Vee’s Secret, Tokusatsu Jones. And you?”

“Strangely, my name is Velouria, ah, Respoli. My parents were fans, and couldn’t resist their little joke.”

Tokusatsu nodded sagely. “Many a bonding has been forged over the mutual love of the tale of Velouria’s revenge on the jealous fuck buddy who slew her one true love in a fit of pique.”

“Which of the two was a Respoli? In your opinion, of course.”

“Ain’t nobody’s business what I think. I’m just here to validate what other people think, whatever that is.” He winked. “It pays to be flexible.” He inspected her one more time, frowned, then rattled off the hours, terms, and rules regarding how she was supposed to treat the customers, both on the job and, ahem, on her own time.

Vee barely paid attention. She waited for him to finish, then took his hand and shook it vigorously. “It’s a deal. But you still haven’t told me what my audience expects to feel.”

“Many are interested in having the vicarious thrill of being in the presence of the popular goddess of love and death.”

“Ah, could you be a little more specific?”

“The males, in particular, want to imagine they are in the presence of a female who could sit on their face and bite off their pecker at the same time.”

Vee whistled in amazement. “Yikes! There’s no audition for that, I hope.”

“Thankfully, no, though you’d be surprised how many volunteer to be a test subject. I tell you, something dark and disturbing has infected the sentient soul.”

“Do I have to say yo ho ho and shiver me FTLs a lot?”

Tokusatsu smiled sagely. “If you must.”







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