(reading time: 43 minutes)
Labor of Love
A rickety shack of a house buzzed with activity. Like most dwellings on Mavercree, there wasn’t another one for miles. Sixteen vehicles were parked all around the home, with two being bigger than the building itself. People moved in and out of the single door; they had to turn sideways for two to fit. The wooden cabin shuddered with everyone’s steps and the light rain dripping over the clogged gutters looked like nervous sweat. The poor building had never seen such a flurry of bodies.
The kitchen, being the largest of the four rooms, acted as the nerve center of the temporary collection of laborers. The man with the greatest labors, Perseus, sat at the table. He dined on a huge slab of meat that his tarnished little steak knife could barely cut through. Across from him another man enjoyed a plate of the meat as well, but he had to stop every other bite to marvel at the people around him. Carpenters busied themselves plugging the leaks in his ceiling. A plumber and his pimple-faced apprentice were swapping the pipes under his sink with shiny new ones. A taxidermist had the living room mostly to himself; he needed the space to stretch the skin of the ice leopard over the mold he had brought with him.
Ardent Cloy was not a wealthy man. He’d dumped himself on Mavercree when he was just twenty to escape an arrest warrant for forgery and never looked back. When it came down to it he preferred running in terror from wildlife rather than other people, so he made his living here by taking treks out into the mountains and panning for bones and minerals to sell. He’d lived that way peacefully for twenty-three years and had only been visited three times: once by his mother, once by his brother, and once by his mother and brother together.
The appearance of Perseus had startled him greatly. He’d answered the door with a knife in hand, the knife Perseus now used to devour his prize, and threatened the visitor. Perseus had kept his cool and offered Ardent an exorbitant number of loaves to let him use the cabin as his home base while he hunted some local fare. All the work being done on the house was Perseus’ free gift to Ardent for being so hospitable.
“I suppose I should thank you… for all this,” Ardent said. The words caught in his throat some. Before Perseus arrived he hadn’t actually spoken to another person in three weeks.
“Are you sure you don’t want me to get a decorator in here?” Perseus asked between large bites. A rope of amber grease slid down his chin and into his beard. He wiped it away with an expensive looking red napkin.
“The repairs will be fine,” Ardent answered. “I stopped seeing the need for things like wallpaper when I was young.”
“I admire that,” Perseus said with a smile. “I must admit I’ve grown a little spoiled myself. That’s one reason I take these trips; I have to make sure I haven’t gotten too soft.”
“That’s a fine trophy you’ve got now,” Ardent said, gesturing to the taxidermist’s work-in-progress.
Perseus nodded without looking back at the creature. He would take the beast as a souvenir, but the knowledge that he had defeated it was the real trophy. He’d cheated time with telomere boosts, but everything else he earned. He scratched absentmindedly at the strap of his eye patch.
The meal was interrupted by Perseus’ datawatch flashing. He separated the rim of the device and pinched it; it contracted into a ring small enough to fit inside his ear. Perseus put the earpiece in place and activated the watch, but left the hologram off.
“Percy, are you there?” Magdalayna asked.
“Yes dear,” he answered. He covered the watch with one hand. “It’s the old ball and chain,” Perseus said to Ardent and rolled his eye. Ardent smirked and tucked back into his leopard steak.
“Are you finished with your hunting?” she asked.
“Yes, the last of it is on my plate right now.”
“Good, good. So, my love, we’ve had a complication with your pearl,” she admitted. Perseus leaned back in his chair and scratched at his eye patch again. He’d purposefully kept himself unplugged for a few days to focus on the hunt, but now he regretted it. The second he wasn’t watching someone had slipped up. If only I had my father’s eyes, he thought.
“Did Shem not get it?” Perseus asked, keeping his language vague so no one around could discern the topic. “I arranged it so it would not be difficult for him.”
“Well… wait, what do you mean you arranged it?”
“I had connections there Maggie. I cleared all the obstacles so Shem wouldn’t have trouble.”
“Why would you do that? Why make him go in the first place if you had people on the inside! You made our son act the thief when he didn’t even need to! He told me he was forced to kill people to get that trinket of yours!” Magdalayna shouted. Perseus pulled the earpiece out and tried to rub the shouting out of his ear canal with a finger. Ardent looked at him with a stupid grin. Can’t live with them, can’t live without them, it seemed to say.
“It was a test for him,” Perseus said through gritted teeth. “I was hoping the boy would live up to his potential. I’m shocked he had to do that. I’ll need to have a very serious talk with him.”
“Don’t you yell at him after what he’s been through…”
“The trinket?” Perseus interrupted.
“Shem got a hold of it just fine at first. Then, apparently, he tried getting it close to an Amazon based on something he heard you say. He thought he was doing you a favor, but some strange man showed up and they outnumbered him and took the pearl.”
“It wasn’t just some man,” a new voice corrected.
“Emzara is that you?” Perseus asked. He stood up from the table and began to pace around the under-construction leopard. He picked up a glass cat eye from a work bench and watched the green thing glint in the light.
“Yes, hey Dad,” Emzara said warmly before her voice cut back to an informative tone. “The guy who has the Appearl is Dana Rudolph, you know, the travel writer.”
“You’re kidding,” Perseus said with a slight chuckle.
“I’m not,” Emzara said. “Do you know him?”
“Not personally. He has given some rather poor reviews to some of the properties I own. Do you know where he went with it?”
“No Dad, I’m sorry. He pulled a crazy stunt on the freight bridge near the house when I was closing in. Nearly drowned us all. I lost the trail too,” she admitted, audibly biting her lip. “It was only about an hour ago that I managed to place his face. What do you need this thing for Dad?”
“No need to discuss that now,” Perseus said. “How long has it been since we’ve had some father-daughter time Emzara? Do you want to go see a movie when I get back? Oh, I know. We could go to that park you used to love and see if they still have that petting zoo.”
“I’d like that,” Emzara said with an implied smile. “But I think my favorite sheep, the one with the limp that they named Dandelion, is probably dead by now.”
“Well if he’s not I’ll get him some telomere boosts,” Perseus declared grandly. “He’ll be a lamb again. I’ll buy him up, slap a bow on him, and give you your new pet.”
“He’d eat the bow Dad,” Emzara joked. Magdalayna nudged her daughter out of the way to get back to the receiver.
“Percy. What do you want us to do about the pearl?”
“Nothing. I’ll handle it from here. I know enough people in that region to work it out. The police will take care of it and return what is mine.”
“Are you coming home?” Magdalayna asked.
“Not quite yet. I’ve got one more order of business on Nephilnaut. I’ll be back in less than a week for sure.”
“Your children miss you,” she chided her husband.
“Where are they? I’ll say hello to them now,” he offered.
“It’s only three o’clock here Percy. They’re all still in school.”
“Ah yes. I always forget which rock I’m on. Oh well. You two behave until I get back.”
Perseus hung up and returned the glass eye to the bench. Ardent eyed the man, who seemed deep in thought. When he came out of that momentary fugue he was all smiles again. He patted Ardent on the back.
“So no decorator. But I have two words for you: hot tub. Of course we’ll have to put a deck in first.”
Ardent wiped sweat from his forehead. When Perseus was done with him he might have the nicest home on Mavercree. He’d be as lonely and pathetic as ever, but he could stew out back in a pot of water and ponder the stroke of empty luck that was Perseus Knarkid.
Shay had to stifle her laughter when they arrived at Buck’s home. She had expected the small humble birdhouse of a starving artist, perhaps something she couldn’t even fit inside. Instead they were welcomed into a sprawling apartment on the twentieth floor of a massive complex. One wall of the living room was just plate glass and looked out over a bustling clean city. His floor was a selection of light-up tiles that turned blue or green when you stepped on them. His kitchen countertop was a slab of silvery marble atop a tall fish tank populated by fish bred to look like sharks.
His furniture was blue leather, complete with mechanical ottomans that wheeled over to you when you whistled. Glass liquor bottles in all colors and sizes lined the kitchen wall. Upon entering Buck immediately kicked off his shoes and fixed himself a drink. He brought a bowl of chilled and sliced mixed fruit out of the fridge and randomly threw three forks into it: a salad fork, a plastic fork, and a fondue fork.
“Make yourselves at home,” he said. “I call this the dojo.” Dana and Shay both sank into the couch noisily when they sat down. Buck swaggered over and dropped the bowl of fruit in Shay’s lap. She shrugged at Dana a little and skewered some pineapple. “Can I get you guys a drink?” Buck asked after he had downed his own.
“Dana doesn’t drink,” Shay informed. Dana gave her a look that suggested he was fully capable of telling Buck that himself. “I’d do that whole bridge thing again to get some absinthe though,” she said.
“You got it,” Buck said and went to pour her a glass.
“So about this Perseus…” Dana started, getting up from the couch and kicking the overly eager ottoman away.
“Oh yeah… you want to meet the bastard?” Buck offered as he handed Shay her drink.
“What do you mean meet him?” Dana asked.
“Meet him in a sense. I’ve got something that looks like him around here.” Buck scurried down a hall and out of sight. Dana and Shay heard him rolling something across the tile floor. When he came back into view he pushed a strange object with a metal base and four small wheels. He rolled it to the center of the living room where there was plenty of space and stopped. Then he flipped a tiny switch on the object’s bottom and its wheels flattened and suctioned onto the floor so it could not be moved.
Atop the metal base was what looked like the torso of a physically fit male made out of dull orange rubber. The head, however, looked nearly alive. It had the face of a man in his sixties with a white beard and an eye patch.
Dana examined the face closely. He was startled to see the one exposed eye on the object following his gaze.
“What is this thing?” he asked.
“Do you remember how you two seemed a bit confused when I mentioned I was a boxer, a roboticist, and an artist?” They both nodded. Shay dropped her fork and swallowed a chunk of orange. Something about the device’s face put her off her appetite. “Well this is the culmination of my efforts,” Buck said proudly. “This is my art. It’s a programmable foe-mimicking punching bag. If you’ve got someone boiling the blood in your veins, but common courtesy and the law say you can’t haul off and hit them, just come home, program his or her face into this bad boy, and punch them to your heart’s desire.”
“You make these?” Shay asked.
“I used to,” Buck said, enthusiasm dying some. “They’re a real luxury item but they sold well around here. You wouldn’t believe how passive aggressive people on Maymow can be. They’re not interested in conflict resolution. They like to let things stew and steam. They gave me loaves and loaves for customized units like this; some people even ordered me to encrust parts of it in precious gems.”
“How do you program in a face?” Dana asked, his eyes not moving from the punching bag’s. Buck pulled a small datapad from behind the unit and tossed it to Dana.
“Just look up their identifying information in that. If there’s a public record like a boat license or something it’ll take their picture and recreate them on the unit. If their voice is on record anywhere on any data web the computer in the base writes a mimicking code for that too. You can make them say whatever you want in their voice. You can make them ask to be punched in the face. Then you can make them ask for second helpings.”
Dana’s fingers worked through the records on the datapad very quickly. Within a minute he’d found the person he searched for. He clicked a confirmation bar on the pad and watched as the face of Perseus Knarkid disappeared from the unit. The skin softened. The lower portion of the cheeks puffed out into jowls. The hairline receded. The eye patch sank into the skin and vanished.
“Do I need gloves for this?” Dana asked as he dropped the datapad on the couch.
“No, the bags of magnetized powder under the skin absorb the impacts of…” Buck tried explaining. Before he could finish Dana was already throwing a string of punches. The unit’s suction cups held it in place as Dana grunted and chained three rights to an uppercut with his left. The face responded as if it were alive. Bruises formed on its cheeks. It whimpered in exactly the right voice and begged for mercy.
“Who is that?” Shay asked.
“A colleague,” Dana puffed. He punched his colleague square in the nose. “He thinks my reviews are too short. He thinks he’s better than me.” Dana shouted and punched the face until he started to run short of breath. It looked like he was about to stop, but instead he picked up the datapad and programmed ten or so more faces into it. Now, every time he punched it, the face and voice changed. He cycled through his enemies and annoying acquaintances with a string of blows that could fell a herd of rodeo bulls.
“You’re a god damn genius,” Dana told Buck with complete sincerity before he continued his rampage.
“Thank you,” Buck replied. It had been quite a while since he’d shown his work to anyone.
“Is one of those faces that dick General?” Shay asked.
“Yeah,” Dana answered. He punched his way through three faces so Shay could get a good look at the man. “This guy,” Dana identified. He pressed on the datapad to prevent the punching bag from cycling away. Then he punched that particular face until the eyes were swollen shut and the teeth had receded into the jaw to make it appear that he’d knocked them out.
“What dick General?” Buck asked.
“Long story,” Dana grunted. He kept punching.
“You said that you don’t make these anymore. Why?” Shay asked.
“Perseus Knarkid is why,” Buck said. He took a deep breath through his nose. Then he strolled over to the fruit bowl, grabbed a grape, and popped it in his mouth. He whistled to an ottoman and then sat on it. “The man destroyed my career.”
“How did he do that?” Shay asked.
“He found a sinister way to throw his money in my face. It started when I was at a party with some potential business partners. Very highbrow crowd. Every ear and cuff weighed down by diamonds. We were showing off my work and I was taking some custom orders. Along comes Mr. Knarkid. Everyone practically bowed to him but I didn’t really pick up on it. He asked me for a special unit. He wanted one with a silver frame and realistic skin all over the torso. He wanted blood to spurt out of it at all the major artery sights.” Buck slid a finger across his neck.
“Now that was a tad morbid but I would’ve been up to the challenge. The problem was that he was a little too late. I’d filled my schedule for the next few months already and had decided, about forty-five minutes ago, to not arrange anymore until I’d finished the others. I told him so. At first he didn’t seem so bent up about it; he just offered me twice the estimate I gave him. Me being the bastion of artistic integrity that I am, I told him that I never went back on my word and that I couldn’t move him to the front of the list no matter how much he paid me. He still just thought I was pitching a stone ball. Offered me quadruple. I told him no deal. Then he offered me ten times the asking price.”
“How much is that?” Shay asked. Dana was puffing off to the side, having decided he should pay attention to that part.
“You could buy three boats for that many loaves,” Buck said, “and then have a fancy dinner with the crumbs left over. Now I was getting pretty angry. I admit that a little of it was me not wanting to swallow my pride when he hit the magic number that would make me melt and trade in my artist’s beret for a top hat. So I told him, using a few key words, that he could go jump off Maymow’s highest peak.”
“Sargalay Mountain,” Dana said casually. The others looked at him. “It’s the highest… never mind. Keep going.”
“So then something changed in that one eye of his,” Buck said darkly. “He said he did not find my negotiating style amusing. I told him I wasn’t there for his amusement. I’ve got to admit that look in his eye made me want to pull my words back and gag myself with them. When the other guests saw him getting angry they kind of inched away from us; all of a sudden I was alone with him in a crowded room. He leaned in and asked ‘Do you think you’re doing anything for this world?’ I just looked at him. I was wondering how someone so nuts managed to get rich in the first place. Then he said ‘I’m the only who can do anything for us. I’m the money. You understand? All the money. Because I’m the mind, the heart, and the body that drives everything you see.’ Then he just walked away.”
“And that was enough to put you off your game?” Dana asked. He took a seat and watched fake blood trickle down the General’s chin.
“Oh no,” Buck said and shook his head. “That came about nine days later. I received an invitation to what I thought was another upper crust gathering, but when I showed up I was ushered into a small warehouse by some locksmiths. Then I was greeted by Mr. Knarkid, who stood on some kind of maintenance walkway near the ceiling. I guess it was real important that he be above me when he did it.”
“Did what?” Shay asked.
“Destroyed my entire body of work. You see he’d tracked down every punching bag I’d sold in the last two years, bought them all away from their owners, and lined them up in neat rows on the warehouse floor. ‘You see,’ he said, ‘I told you I was everything.’ Then two locksmith archers appeared at his sides and fired flaming arrows, one by one, into each punching bag. I had to watch as he burned them all. He had them all turned on too, so it was basically a snapshot of hell. Faces screaming as they burned, unable to go anywhere.” They were all silent for a moment.
“It may not seem that bad to some people,” Buck continued coldly, “but those things were my art. Each one had a unique combination of components, software, and facial animations. I poured my soul into each one. It was okay that they were going to spend their lives in pain because I felt that pain making them.”
Dana pressed the pad a few times and brought back Perseus’ face so Buck could get a punch in. Buck shrugged the offer off.
“You can’t get revenge on this guy. Nothing sticks to him. What he did shattered my desire to make more of these. I saw no reason he couldn’t just buy them all up again. What would it matter if I had the money? It’d be like selling fireworks. I couldn’t work hard on them just to see them blown up a week later. Perseus though… he made sure I had no options just in case his little stunt wasn’t discouraging enough. I’d recently made a deal with a big sports equipment distributor. We were set to take my bags off-rock and start making some real loaves. Those guys called and told me the deal was off. Every deal I’d made was off. Even the custom orders. So now… I’m basically broke and I have to move out of the dojo before the month is up.” Buck stared at the ceiling. “That’s who you guys pissed off.” He folded his legs up onto the ottoman and whistled three notes. The stool wheeled the sad little man out of the room and down the hall. “Make yourselves at home,” he repeated as he was on his way out. “This place is just as much yours now as it is mine. I’ll order us some food for the evening. Maybe then you’ll let me fiddle with that pearl some more.”
Dinner that evening consisted of three large pizzas and a gallon of club soda. Dana drank it straight while the other two mixed it with various fruit juices and alcohols from Buck’s dwindling fridge stocks. The men poked fun at Shay’s choices in toppings: bacon, hot peppers, garlic, smoked salmon, and cheese curds. She ignored the gibes and finished the whole pizza before they’d made it to their fourth slices. After dinner the trio lazed around the dojo, picked apart the first third of a terrible movie before giving up on it, and then swapped stories in a typical post-binge fashion: voices softened and quieted by their relaxed necks conforming to various parts of the furniture.
Shay told them about the time she had broken shipping laws by escorting a twenty-foot tree down the river so she could deliver it on time. She described the shouting Amazon boaters above her and how she just waved at them while she rode the tree down the current. Buck talked about his home, the planet Galglow, where most buildings were formed by directing living plant tissue rather than shaping stone or metal. In the course of describing some of the worst theme parks he’d ever visited for work, Dana mentioned an excellent date he’d had.
“Woah back up,” Shay interrupted. She pointed the fondue fork at him, which she’d been using to skewer rapidly drying fruit for dessert. “Who was your date? I want to know what kind of manly man gets Dana Rudolph’s engine going.”
“I had a gay experience once,” Buck said grandly, waving a pizza crust like a magic wand. “It involved a skywriting pilot from Bloomury and two free tickets to the largest botanical gardens in…”
“No more craziness out of you,” Shay said and playfully knocked Buck back onto his ottoman with an outstretched foot. “We’ve already heard the adventures of the boxing-artsy-roboticist. I want to hear about Dana.” Her eyes fixed onto his. Buck politely nibbled on his crust and waited for his turn to speak.
“There’s nothing to tell,” Dana said. “You already met him.”
“Who…” Shay said and thought for a moment. “You don’t mean… that bartender on Tremory?” She smirked.
“His name is Isaac,” Dana reminded.
“Really? Him?” she asked skeptically.
“And what’s wrong with him?” Dana challenged.
“Nothing, I guess. He was just kind of… you know… fat.”
“All the best cooks are,” he defended.
“You’re right, I’m sorry,” Shay said, stifling a giggle. “Are you two together still?”
“No, it didn’t work out. He’s a friend now.”
“Have you ever even been with a woman?” Shay asked. The question came out more aggressively than she’d hoped.
“I don’t know,” Dana spat back, reminding Shay of his history. She apologized weakly and rubbed his shoulder with one hand. “I think it’s time we hit the hay. We’ll have to make some plans tomorrow. Buck, thanks again for the hospitality.”
“Oh sure, sure,” Buck said. It seemed like he had more to say, but decided to stow the questions away until the morning. “There’s a spare bedroom down the hall there. You two can share, or one of you can take the couch, or the lovely Miss Shay is welcome to share my bed with me.”
“How long is your bed?” Shay asked with an arched eyebrow, standing to remind him how tall she was.
“I guess it will be a tad short,” he said disappointedly. “The guest one is human-sized though. We could share that.”
“No thanks Buck,” she said with a smile. “I like you, so I don’t want to roll on you in the middle of the night and crush you to death.”
“I appreciate that,” Buck said. “I’ll let you two figure out the spare bed then. Goodnight.” With that the Leprechaun dismounted his ottoman and headed off to bed.
“I’ll take the couch,” Dana said as soon as Buck was out of earshot. Shay could tell he didn’t want to hear anything else about it. She smiled, nodded, and said goodnight before taking her belongings to the spare room.
Dana was not one to skip daily hygiene. To him it was a rooting experience, something to keep his mind from floating away and becoming so much vapor. He knew he was present, conscious, and alive because his teeth were still there and they still needed protection from all the fine food he ate. He took his small travelling bag from his suitcase and visited the bathroom. He brushed his teeth, washed his face, tweezed some obvious nose hair, and cleaned under his fingernails. He stared into the mirror. He whispered his own name three times. The fear still got to him occasionally. The fear that his blood ruby would become a natural cycle like the waning of the moon. The fear that his body would wake up, having destroyed Dana in the middle of the night and replaced him with another nobody who would eat up the information around them like so many candies until it made them extremely sick. If I was as flexible as the Appearl I would be more resilient, he thought. I could last longer.
The early morning light coming through the dojo’s glass wall roused Dana earlier than he would have liked. The rays of the dawn combined with the blue décor of the dojo to make everything look barren and dry. The apartment looked a bit like a furniture catalogue photo printed in black and white.
He went to sit up and noticed that one of Shay’s giant hands was once again resting flatly on his chest. There was no room on the couch for two humans, especially with one being an Amazon, so Shay was seated on the floor in front of the couch with one arm stretched back. She was fast asleep, her head resting on one of Dana’s ankles.
Dana rolled his eyes. This is getting out of hand, he thought. She needs someone to tell her to stop embarrassing herself. Or someone to slap her back to reality. I suppose I could slap her right now…
Dana raised his hand a little, which was movement enough to cause Shay to stir. She lifted her head and quickly pulled her hand away from him.
“Oh good morning,” she said quickly, wincing in the bright light. She rose to her feet and wobbled a little. “Sorry I got up pretty early and was looking for some… some breakfast and I guess I just sat down and zonked out again.”
“Is that so?” Dana asked. He could see the red lines in the side of her face from the creases in his pants. They suggested she’d been there several hours.
“Look, Shay,” Dana started. Buck came running down the hall in nothing but his boxer shorts, active Appearl in hand, babbling.
“Okay, so we have a problem,” he said quickly.
“What are you doing with that?” Shay asked angrily. She snatched the pearl out of his hands. “This was in my bag.”
“Yes I know,” Buck said, eager to push through the admission of guilt. “I just dug it out to try some things. It’s incredible. I can access anything in range. I can control my watch, the lights, the security system of the building! Its programming is so flexible that it doesn’t need to run many processes to copy code, it just naturally… never mind. The problem.”
“The problem is your sticky fingers,” Shay said.
“Well you can turn me into the police when they get here!” the Leprechaun shouted.
“What?” Dana groaned.
“I was messing with the pearl and it picked up approaching police communications. They’re coming to arrest us! I guess since his kids couldn’t handle us Knarkid called the cops himself.”
“Dana, where do we go?” Shay asked, hoping her companion had another of his many escape plans.
“We can’t stay on this rock,” Buck said, “Knarkid runs it. I bet the cops will take us right to him.”
“Do you have a vehicle Buck?” Dana asked.
“I’ve got a boat in the garage. It’s cleared for space but I need like… three minutes to slap some godsweat on it. They’ll be here before that!”
“Go get started,” Dana said. “Shay and I will hold them off.” Buck ran towards the back of the dojo and flung open the garage door.
“I’m not sure I want to fight cops. I mean I’d fight them any day on Tortim, but here…” Shay objected.
“We don’t have a lot of choice. You ever been handcuffed Shay?” Dana asked. She shook her head no. “Every time you move your hands you see them. With your hands so close like that… It’s like someone forcing you to pray to their god. Do you want to be on your knees before Perseus and that snot farcoward kid, looking like your praying to him? Begging his forgiveness?
“You’re right.” Shay admitted. She retreated to the guest room to quickly don her IML gear and pack her bag. Dana rummaged through his suitcase as well and armored up. In the process he got an idea. He zipped up the suitcase and ordered the hovering object to position itself beside the dojo’s main door.
We just need a couple minutes, Dana thought. Just need to keep them off their feet. Keep them confused. Then we blast off this rock. We’ll head for Sunsa. No way his strings have reached an Amazon world.
The dojo filled with whirring and spraying sounds as they heard the various nozzles built into the garage wall start spraying C-gel over the compact boat. Shay gently handed the bag with the pearl to Buck, who slung it in front of him and held it like an infant. The Leprechaun stood in the open doorway to the garage, ready to give the signal when the boat was ready. He pulled on his IML gloves and cracked his neck.
He suddenly remembered something and abandoned his post. He returned thirty seconds later with his punching bag prototype and quickly stowed it in the boat’s trunk, his hands slipping and sliding all over the place as he touched the C-gel.
Shay pushed the couch up against the door. She flipped the overactive ottomans upside down so they wouldn’t roll away from the barricade. Then she drew her mace and positioned herself close to Dana. Well aware of how injuring police officers looked to the public, Dana had chosen to use his IML bat instead of the sword. Bruises didn’t have to be censored on the evening news like gashes did.
They grew tense waiting for the inevitable knock.
Thwok! Something heavy hit the door. The couch shuddered. Thwok! Thwok! The door cracked in the middle. The couch legs squealed across the floor as the wrecked door was flung forward. A wave of blue uniforms poured into the room. Most held long clubs with electric tips designed to quickly subdue. One of them had a long net on a rope he was prepared to throw over them.
“Suitcase, this way!” Dana shouted. His giant floating bag moved towards him from its position next to the door. In the process the heavy object knocked most of the cops to the ground. They squirmed awkwardly, two accidently being stunned by a friendly baton. Dana positioned the suitcase in front of him like a floating shield and backed up into the hallway that led to the garage. Shay stayed behind it as well. The hall was just narrow enough that it forced the cops to bottleneck.
They stabbed at the suitcase, covering its side in tiny scorch marks. The officer with the net tossed it over the top of the suitcase. He had decent aim; it fell directly over Shay’s head. Unfortunately for him, it only reached down to her knees. She ripped the object off and pulled the cord connected to it. The officer refused to let go; he was pulled through the air and over top of the case. It was briefly weighed down by his body, but Shay pulled him off and knocked him unconscious with one punch.
The Amazon leaned down and swept her leg under the suitcase, toppling two more cops momentarily. They were still forced to back up and were only about ten feet away from Buck and the garage.
“We almost done in there?” Dana called over his shoulder.
“Thirty seconds!” Buck shouted back. He switched off the C-gel nozzles and hopped into the driver’s seat to start the engine and prepare for takeoff.
Dana and Shay reached the garage door and positioned the suitcase to block most of it. From there they held back the tide of the law for the remaining seconds. When Buck gave them the signal Dana pulled the suitcase away as quickly as he could and shoved it into the boat’s open door. The two of them hopped in and Buck sealed the craft. Officers banged on the door fruitlessly. The garage door opened before them, reminding Shay how high they were off the ground. The craft lifted and moved slowly forward. Buck took the time to make sure he didn’t push any officers out the open door. When they were clear the vehicle climbed rapidly. Shay watched out the window as the mountains of Maymow became hills, then bumps, and then drawings on the surface of a marble. The blackness of space enveloped them and they all breathed a sigh of relief.
“Will they follow us?” Shay asked.
“Not off world,” Dana said. “They don’t have jurisdiction. We’re in Collective space now. They’d have to call special forces and we’ll be long gone by the time they get here. Besides, I don’t think Knarkid wields the same influence over the whole Collective as he does on Maymow.”
“We might still run into his kids,” Buck said.
“The farcoward and the blonde?” Dana asked.
“Well maybe, but that’s something else about Knarkid. The guy has one serious extended family. I heard somebody say once that he had forty-five kids from eight or ten women. So there might be a Knarkid on every rock.” The Leprechaun grimaced at the thought.
Shay tried to get comfortable in the backseat. She didn’t fit up front, so Dana was seated next to Buck, who continued to pilot them away from Maymow. The Amazon grunted and winced as she positioned herself lengthwise across the backseats. She still had to fold her legs. She pushed Dana’s suitcase to the floor and rested her elbow on it.
“This is a nice boat,” Dana commented, looking at the bronze color of the hood and the leather interior. When he opened the glove compartment he saw it was refrigerated and contained several orb-shaped glass bottles of water. He removed one and tossed it back to Shay and took one for himself. They both drank deeply.
“Thanks,” Buck said. “It’s not technically mine anymore, but thanks anyway. Someone’s going to try to repossess it tomorrow.”
“I’ll make a call and get it straightened out,” Dana said. “We might need this boat, so I’ll get your next few payments in.”
“Hey thanks buddy. You two are something else. I didn’t think anybody else was crazy enough to take on Knarkid,” Buck said.
“We’re hardly taking him on,” Shay said morosely. “It seems we just wind up running from him and his brats.”
“We got in over our heads,” Dana admitted. “I thought we were dealing with a thief, someone we could handle with brute force. Now that I know we’re up against a genuine shadowy conspiracy we actually need a plan. So we’ll lay low for a while. Buck, take us to Sunsa. I’ve got a friend we can stay with.”
“Ooh, beach planet,” Buck said with a grin. “I’m okay with lying low in the sun and sand.”
“Wait!” Shay said and sat up. She banged her head on the roof. “There’s got to be a different planet we can go to.”
“I figured you wouldn’t be too happy about it,” Dana said. He didn’t sound particularly bothered by her distress though.
“What’s wrong with Sunsa?” Buck asked her over his shoulder. “It’s an Amazon rock.”
“You might think that,” Shay started, “since it’s covered in seven foot tall women, but it’s actually home to a bunch of spineless drug-addled man worshippers. You see, a real Amazon doesn’t lie around all day braiding her hair and making sea shell necklaces to sell to tourists.”
“Allowing men to live on their planet does not make them any less Amazon than you,” Dana said, interrupting her tirade.
“It so does!” Shay practically shouted. “They live without dignity. They take the muscle and sweat our mothers gave us and they waste it worrying about whether or not the guy down the street likes them. Trying to impress him with slutty gross dance moves. It’s degrading. Not to one Amazon, to all Amazons.”
“You’ve never even been to Sunsa,” Dana argued.
“I’ve seen it on the web,” she deflected.
“You know, someone could argue that the Tortim Amazons are an embarrassment to Amazons because they’re not as conservative as the ascetics on Alkabrine,” Dana reasoned.
“That’s ridiculous,” Shay said, “Those hags don’t know how to have any fun. Amazons have to find the right balance for a fruitful and successful life, and that balance is Tortim.”
“We’re going to Sunsa!” Dana shouted. Shay quieted. “If you want off this boat we’ll make a detour and drop you at the nearest port. The Appearl is coming with me to Sunsa. Are you staying or going?”
Shay did not enjoy being put on the spot. She did not want to admit that even though she was scrunched into a metal box hurtling through space, she was where she wanted to be. She didn’t want to leave Dana. She didn’t want to leave the Appearl. She thought about its light. Then she thought about how dark everything would seem once it was gone.
“Alright, I’m still in,” she relented. “There will be hell to pay if any of them try to braid my hair.”
“Fair enough,” Dana said. He smiled a little. “If that happens I promise to bravely throw my hair in front of yours.” The three of them chuckled.
They filled the next half hour with conversation, everyone politely ignoring the fact that Buck wore nothing but underwear and gloves. Dana used his datawatch to get the boat paid for. Then he made a call to his editor and told him some of what happened. He said that he’d been falsely accused of theft and been chased off Maymow by the police. He mentioned he would cool his heels on Sunsa. His exasperated editor said he would get the publisher’s lawyers to investigate the claims and then he begged Dana not to hop rocks for a while. Dana said he would think about it.
“He sounded like he had a headache,” Shay said.
“I did my best to give him one,” Dana answered. “All he does is move the occasional punctuation mark around, so I make sure he earns all the money I dump in his lap. He gets to deal with the publisher and the lawyers and the people who are unhappy with their reviews.”
“And what do you have to deal with?” Buck asked.
Something on the boat’s dashboard beeped. An object rocketed past them. It was saucer shaped and topped by a large metal ball. The ball was decorated with the Dark&Dagger logo. Buck slowed the craft to a stop and the strange new ship turned to face them. The two machines were a couple hundred feet apart.
“Who is that?” Shay asked, sticking her head between the two front seats. Buck clicked around on the dashboard, trying to hail the craft.
“He’s not responding,” Buck said.
“Do we know anybody else who wears the crab?” Dana asked rhetorically. “The kid must’ve followed the cops and then us. He waited until we were in the middle of nowhere.”
“What’s that ball on top of his boat?” Shay asked.
“It’s a flail,” Buck said grimly. “He wants to smash us open like a clam and take the pearl when it falls out.”
The energy weapons that used to adorn the vehicles of space had also gone the way of the gun. Though space combat was uncommon, when it occurred it was now more akin to jousting; ships were fitted with all manner of lances, rams, axes, and lassoes. The craft Shem piloted was a small model designed particularly for attack and not self-defense. It was illegal to manufacture on any Collective world.
“Well do we have any weapons?” Shay asked.
“We could chuck your mace out the window,” Buck said sarcastically. Shem’s craft turned upside down. The ball detached from the craft after Shem pulled up, unspooling the metal cable that kept it connected. Then his ship began to rotate. The flail traveled in wide circles around the vehicle as it built up force. Though there was no sound in the vacuum of space, the trio’s ears filled in the blanks.
The cable shortened and the flail circled faster. Shem pushed himself into the controls and charged. Buck turned the boat so quickly that all three of them, under the effects of the boat’s artificial gravity, were thrown to the left. Shay’s head smacked into an armrest. Dana’s safety belt dug into his side. Once Shem had made his first pass Buck jetted forward and tried to outrun the boat of war. Shem had not wasted his family’s fortune, as the boat had no trouble keeping pace with the Leprechaun’s. He caught up with them and smashed the flail into the bottom of their boat. Warning lights flashed in front of them. Three separate alarms went off.
“He’s faster than us!” Buck shouted. “We’re sitting ducks; I’ve got nothing!”
“You’ve got something,” Dana said and reached towards the Leprechaun. He removed the Appearl from the bag around Buck’s chest. The object quivered with light, small pictures flying across its surface so quickly that they blurred. Dana placed it in his lap and used his hands to slow the pictures.
“No, no, no,” Buck said, looking away from the controls briefly. “That’s not how you do it. It’s not a watch. If you slow down the images you slow down the program. Try and move with it. Let it pick the pathways.” The flail smashed into them again. Two more warning lights popped up. The craft was forcibly spun around and they could see small pieces of their hull through the viewing glass.
“Shut up and drive,” Dana grunted. He did his best to follow the instructions anyway. He wanted to access the boat’s computer but the Appearl did not make it easy this time. The device seemed busy playing with the previous programs it had accessed and some things Buck had fiddled with that morning. He saw layers and layers of flattened pictures that popped into full color only when he touched them. He sifted through virtual rivers, crowds, and jumbles of words and numbers.
The flail came in again but Buck managed to roll out of the way. Shay felt like her stomach was draining into her throat. Her head swam as she felt all the blood rush to her feet. Having spent her life walking barefoot through forests, meadows, and quarries, she had no desire to be flattened like a tin can out in the blackness. I deserve to be felled like a tree, she thought. Damn these farcowards.
Shem’s weapon clipped them again. The flail flew in front of them as it spun around. It was about to smash through the front of the boat but Buck dipped just enough for a miss. Dana found a hologram of Shem’s boat on the pearl’s surface; it was small and revolving around a news anchor’s head like a moon, but he managed to pinch it between his fingers. He spun it around the pearl so as not to pull the device entirely away from what seemed to be a daydream. He moved his hands about and spread his fingers, magnifying the boat. He saw streams of numbers focused in its cockpit. He reached into the hologram and tore the numbers away.
The pearl dimmed, all holograms but the hollowed out boat disappearing. Dana kept his hand clutched tightly. Even though the image no longer existed where the pearl couldn’t project, he was afraid the device would interpret an open hand as a sign to return the numbers to the boat. They all waited for the next hit, but it didn’t come.
“What did you do?” Shay asked.
“He shut down the kid’s computers,” Buck said. He pointed out into space. “Look.” They all craned their heads and saw Shem’s craft. Its spinning had halted and it drifted harmlessly along, trailing its flail like a listless yoyo. Shem raged inside the cockpit and slammed his hands on the controls. He tried to force the flight sticks to move but they were frozen in place. He tried to hail their boat but his communications were down as well. Buck pulled towards him so they could get a better look at the amusing impotence of his rage.
“I wish we had some popcorn,” Shay joked. Shem’s face became a strange shade of purple, like a decorative pillow stained with sweat. He howled and howled silently for a full minute. After that Buck gently removed the Appearl from Dana’s lap and asked him to open his hand. When the numbers reappeared Buck swiftly took them and sprinkled them over the Appearl like a pinch of salt over a pot of soup. He used his other hand to keep the hollow boat pushed away from the new program he was building. The Leprechaun’s nimble fingers threw some numbers into a small river of light and waited to see how they behaved. Then he used his finger to make the river into a closed circle. He tapped numbers and words as they floated by, highlighting them and producing harmonic sounds. If hummingbirds could sing I bet they’d sound like that, Shay thought.
“When I put this back in the boat we can send him wherever we want,” Buck said slyly. “So where should we send the farcoward on his little vacation? Quarantory so he can get a few infections before he even breaks the atmosphere? Phyxire so he can slowly choke to death on the poison air?”
“Obviously we’re not going to kill him,” Dana said. He wasn’t quite sure whether Buck’s suggestions were serious. “Even if we wanted to that would make our legal situation a hell of a lot worse.”
“Send him to Tortim,” Shay said with the brightest smile Dana had ever seen her wear.
“I said we don’t want him to die,” Dana chuckled.
“Oh they won’t kill him, trust me. When a man arrives on their doorstep unannounced he’ll be… detained.” Buck and Dana both looked over their shoulders at her with arched eyebrows. There was still a touch of male solidarity in them despite Shem’s attempts to bludgeon them to death. “Not permanently,” Shay clarified, still smiling. “They’ll keep him a few days. Grill him up like some pineapple. Maybe someone will rough him up a little. Then when someone calls for him he’ll be released.”
“And you don’t think anybody will… decide to keep him?” Dana asked.
“Not when he glides into port covered in crabs.”
“It’s settled then. Buck, give the man his ticket.”
The Leprechaun crafted a tiny circle of code from the holograms and inserted it into the miniature of Shem’s boat. Then he sewed up the holes with his finger tip and brought it close to the pearl’s surface.
Shem’s craft stirred. He stopped his temper tantrum and tried to steer. The craft moved, but not in response to his frantic button pressing. The Appearl had given it a destination and it would be sure to get there before responding to any other commands. Shem banged on the glass and cursed them. The trio waved goodbye as the weaponized boat took off for its exotic target world. As far as babysitters go, the Amazons would keep him out of trouble.