The Mad Seeder: Part Five

Hailey Rosary’s Apogee

Nephilnaut was a rock made gray by concrete, smog, and its homogenous population.  No subspecies could live there legally as they did not fit into god’s plan for the planet.

The people, and more importantly the politicians, of Nephilnaut believed god had a very specific plan for their future.  The plan involved a world of close-knit families.  A world of piousness.  A world where the husband is the head of his house.  In order to respect that idea, only married women were permitted the vote, and only if it was in accord with their husband’s.  The alternative lifestyles that made the other rocks such dens of sin were not permitted on Nephilnaut.

God’s plan required a free market so his divine touch could bless the hardest workers without getting his hands tied by regulation.  Nephilnaut’s trees were gone.  The space was needed for cheap housing.  The people who didn’t work hard enough suffered for it; they lived near the ground where the pollution was worst.  Most citizens wore gray cloths over their mouths, often decorated with images from their favorite sports team.  They all dreamed that one day when they got home and sorted through the mail, between the lottery tickets, contracts, and advertisements, they would find something that recognized their greatness.  They wanted to be plucked out of the toxic air and placed in the higher levels of the cities where the air was clear.  Most never spoke to people who lived that high, but rumors swirled.  Some said that the people up there got a full week of vacation each year.  Others claimed you might even get a doctor that knows your name.

Hailey had made it out.  She stared out the window of the tallest building she’d ever been in.  She could see their star burning brightly in the sky.  She wore a very long red dress with puffy shoulders like sponges soaked in blood.  Her extensive make-up, which had taken more than two hours to apply last night, was smeared by her recent nap and the tears of joy.  She wiped at her nose and tried to control her breathing.

Ever since she was small she’d wanted nothing more than to leave Nephilnaut.  Her nightly visions of green worlds taunted her, but there was only one way for a woman to make it.  Only her beauty could give her the resources she needed.  So Hailey committed to the part.  It seemed very strange, like being an actor in a notoriously awful play that only stays on the stage out of nostalgia.  She had to rehearse and perform for years, the role changing only slightly, before her actual life was allowed to begin.  Her childhood was nothing but lip service.  Stand this way.  Walk this way in front of adults.  Walk this way in front of wealthy men.  Pray regularly.  Enter every pageant.

While Hailey was blessed with symmetry, height, pale skin, and sparkling eyes, maintaining such youthfulness in the dark clouds of the lower levels was nearly impossible.  Every night she had to apply three or four different exfoliating creams to prevent the toxins from entering her pores and harming her complexion.

She needed braces and tooth bleaching.  Their processed food was so high in sugar that she required a small antiseptic implant below her gums to prevent tooth decay.  It made her mouth taste like floor cleaner.  She masked that with fruit-scented lip gloss, even though she’d never tasted fresh fruit.  All produce came from cans.  For that matter, she’d never seen a live cow or chicken.  All their meat was raised off-rock in factory farm space stations that orbited the planet.

“If I were in charge of the government I would make sure to tout the values of chastity and determination,” She had said on stage at yesterday’s pageant.

“It is important that the other worlds understand the character of our great planet.”

“God has blessed me so much in my twenty-three years on this planet; I don’t know how to begin to thank him.”

Every answer was a lie delivered in the most syrupy voice she could muster.  Even her name was a lie.  Her coach had given her the perfect formula for a stage name: capture the men’s attention with the first name of a stripper and then calm them down with religious iconography.  Every lie worked.  She was declared that year’s Miss Star Missionary.  She would be permitted to travel between worlds with an entourage of photographers, publicists, and politicians in order to convince the rest of humanity that Nephilnaut was civilized enough to join the Cosmic Collective.  If that happened their trading power would become limitless.

Once she was on a Collective world she could make a break for it.  She would hole up in an embassy somewhere and beg for political asylum.  Hailey pictured herself in the first moments where she would be acting herself publicly, and in those pictures she wept and begged for mercy at the knees of strangers.

Her only regret was that she could not take her family with her.  Her mother’s lungs were deteriorating quickly.  Her younger brother had liver cancer.  They had been moved up the tower with her once she had won.  While she represented the planet they would live in luxury and receive the best medical care.  Once she ran they would be kicked from those lofty heights and sink back into the cigarette ashes and broken glass, the bed of the ocean of smog.

Can I really abandon them? She thought.  Her tears of joy chilled as her heart frosted.  It’s them or me.  Mom loves it here.  She believes.  No matter how much people hurt her she’ll believe it’s for the best.  How do I fight that?  Children can’t convince their parents of anything.  If she can’t leave that behind, maybe… maybe she deserves this.  How can I think that?  Is my life really worth theirs?  Is it worth every life down there?  Am I any better?  Am I just the one rat that by virtue of beautiful fur manages to abandon ship?

Hailey wondered if people on other worlds would quote scholars and authors in these situations.  Many books were banned on Nephilnaut so she mostly had children’s stories and the bible to draw from.

“Miss Rosary?” an attendant asked, poking her head through the door of the hotel suite.  Hailey rubbed her eyes to remove the tears but smeared her make-up more.

“Yes?” she replied, not turning to face her.

“You have a visitor.”

“If you would be so kind as to tell them I’m in a delicate state after my victory.  I’ll answer questions in a few hours.”

“He’s the owner of the pageant Miss.”

“Oh my… Umm… please let him in.  Warn him that I’m disheveled after all this excitement.”  The attendant nodded and closed the door.  Hailey rushed to the bathroom where she washed her make-up away as fast as she could.  Her natural skin would look better than a smeared mask of tear trails.  She tried not to lose herself in the clarity and coolness of the water.  She drank from the tap heartily, which would not be safe in her old cramped home so many stories below.  She dried her face with a hand towel, smoothed out her dress, and waited.

The man who walked through the door wore a sheathed saber on his belt.  A black cape with fur lining hung off his shoulders.  He had a well-groomed beard and an eye patch.

“They warned me you were beautiful,” Perseus crooned, “but it seems I was still not prepared.  Where are my manners?”  He took Hailey’s hand and kissed it gently.  “I am Perseus Knarkid.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you Mr. Knarkid.  I admit I expected someone less grand.  You look fresh from an adventure.”

“That I am.”

“Were you here for the pageant?”

“No, I’m afraid I missed it.  I only arrived a few hours ago.”

“That’s a shame.”

“Not to worry.  I own several of them; I can catch one whenever I like.  I don’t actually care for this pageantry.  Women are more to me than swimsuits spouting greeting card platitudes.  You, Gayle, are more to me.”  Hailey covered her mouth with her hands for a moment and took a step back.

“You know my real name,” she said, unsure how to respond.

“I know much more than that.  You see, in all those silly questions they asked you at various points before and throughout the pageant, I had them hide a few intelligence tests.  You’re a brilliant woman Gayle and you hide it very well.”

“I… I know it’s dishonest, but some men feel bad when you… correct them.”

“You’ve lied your entire life,” Perseus said nonchalantly.

“I… I really do value honesty in most situations,” Hailey stammered, falling back into pageant answers.

“Don’t worry Gayle; I’m not here to reveal you.  I know what it’s like to be trapped in a pit of idiots and garbage.  I grew up here as well.”

“How did you escape?” Hailey asked.  She failed to keep the excitement out of her eyes.  They sparkled like Christmas ornaments.

“My escape is what convinced me I was destined for great things,” Perseus pontificated.  “You see… the rules that bind most people don’t apply to me.  They never have.  They roll off me like water.  If someone described what I did to get out of here and become as wealthy as I am, you would think I was a horrid criminal.  Once you’ve met me, once you’ve enjoyed the context of my life, you would see that’s not true.  Rules are for men.  I am a most singular man.”

“What is it that you want with me?” Hailey asked.

“You’re an amazing woman Gayle.  Though these pageants seem like cotton candy for the masses, they’re really so I can find intelligent, strong, beautiful women like you.”

“Are you taking me away from here?” she asked with a hopeful smile.  If he said yes she was going to rip off that ridiculous dress, toss it out the window, and hope to hear it scream all the way down.

“No,” he said.  The color drained out of her face.  “You have greatness Gayle, but I have perfection.  Well, as close to it as any human has ever managed.  My perfection is the key to mankind’s future.  It will set the tempo for the march of progress for millennia to come.  For that to happen, it needs to live beyond me.  It needs to be common, but diluted as little as possible.  It must be mixed with greatness.”

“What are you saying?” Hailey asked.  She backed up toward the window.  It’s not going to be the dress, she thought.  It’s going to be me.

“I need children.  I need strong women to mother them.  You will be one of those mothers.”

Hailey had been assaulted and harassed many times in the smoky streets below.  Men had torn her clothes, called her names, and taken liberties that would make chimpanzees blush.  She’d undergone two dangerous and illegal abortions to remove the seeds of those men.  Suddenly she cherished that awful dress because it separated her from Perseus.  He did not lunge or howl but he threatened her all the same.

“Should I refuse?” she asked, lips quivering.

“Should you refuse I will have your hard won position revoked and send you back down.  You will never again find an opportunity to resurface.”

“You were wrong…” she said bitterly.  “I do think you’re a horrid criminal.”

“Give it time,” Perseus said, unruffled.  “If you agree you will live a life of luxury.  I will rent you an apartment somewhere in the upper levels, pay all expenses for you and your immediate family, and provide you with a generous monthly stipend for you to spend how you like.  In return you will bear and raise children for me.  As many as you can.  I will provide you with telomere boosts to extend your youth and fertility.  When the day comes, however many decades from now, that you can no longer bear, you will be given a lump sum that should provide for the rest of your life and I will clear a path for you to move to any planet you desire.”

“I…” Hailey started.  She twisted the bed’s comforter in her hands.  She wanted the money.  She wanted the security.  She wanted freedom more.  I can still have it, she thought.  Just not now.  I can be free when I’m fifty… or when I first look fifty.  “Are you going to marry me?” she asked.

“I have many wives,” Perseus admitted.  “I marry the women I suspect I will be spending the most time with.  As such, this is not a proposal.  The only reason I am keeping you here on Nephilnaut is convenience.  Thanks to its non-Collective status, everything is much cheaper here.  It’s just practical.  I try not to stay here too long; it brings back bad memories.  Your love life is yours to run as long as you do not bear another man’s children.”

“Do… do I have time to think it over?” Hailey asked.  She’d been so close.  If she’d just made it off a boat.  If her feet had just touched grass… then she could’ve fought.  She could’ve truly fought like an animal, the way she’d always wanted.  She could’ve bit and scratched and kicked and screamed at anyone who tried to restrain her.  I could’ve lived on an Amazon rock.  There are places where I could stand toe to toe with the men instead of following behind in high heels.  The Amazons will still be there… when I’m done.  They don’t care how old or small a sister is.

“You have only the next five minutes to decide,” Perseus said, pulling her out of her thoughts.  “I’m a very busy man and I won’t settle this by correspondence.  I’m here now, I’ve made the time for this, and you will look me in the eye and tell me yes or no.”

“Yes,” Hailey said.  Her mouth hung open after she blurted out the word.  Everything had changed so fast that she felt dizzy.  At least my family will be safe.  They can breathe clean air.  They can drink clean water.  Mom can brag about her wealthy daughter and then make excuses for her husband’s absence.  “Let’s get this over with.”  She pulled one shoulder of her dress down.

“Oh no,” Perseus said.  He walked over and pulled the dress back up.  “I have never, and will never, force myself on a woman.  You don’t have to like any of this Hailey.  It just needs to happen.  I’m going to leave now.  My people will be by later to help you look for an apartment.  After you get settled you will be visited by a doctor who will perform the insemination.  In fact… there’s a chance you may never see me again.”

“I hope I don’t,” she said, “but I will.  I’ll see you in the faces of the children.  I don’t want to hate my children.”

“Once you see what they’re capable of you won’t be able to help loving them,” Perseus assured.  He smiled at her.  Then he left.

Hailey wept.  She’d risen into the sky just to get stuck there like a bird in a plane engine.  Perseus had kidnapped her without moving her.  He’d decided to hold her hostage with golden handcuffs and a silk gag.  She noticed one miniscule benefit; she didn’t have to pretend anymore.  With the protection of such a figure she could think and say whatever she wanted.  She could sneer at entitled men and call them pathetic.  She could step on the toes of the overly forward.  The dark glasses that the culture of Nephilnaut wore had been removed; she was free to spit in its eyes.  The only person she couldn’t beat was Perseus.  The man had absorbed her options.  Just as he had done with Ardent Cloy he’d left her in a shining purgatory.

Sunsa

As soon as they arrived Dana and Shay asked Buck his measurements and left him in the boat while they searched for some new clothes.  Sunsa was a diverse world so finding a Leprechaun shop was not difficult.

A short while after they’d arranged for the boat to be repaired, all three of them walked down a busy street with rows of shops on either side.  They were two miles from the beach but Sunsa smelled of salt and palm oil almost everywhere.

Buck wore a brown T-shirt with a thin moss-colored vest, shorts, and open-toed shoes.  Dana’s attire was the same as always, barely an inch of fabric without an IML logo.  Shay had been sure to don her arm bands.  Everyone absolutely needed to know she was from Tortim.

She did not like what she saw.  The Amazons there were tan and giddy; they walked to and fro carrying baskets on their head and singing.  Shay loved a good drinking song, but what came out of those Sunsa mouths was just gibberish syllables and glorified humming.  She scoffed at their thin colorful skirts.  She was about to spit on the ground when they passed by an incense shop that had red, green, and yellow streams of smoke pouring from it that made her gag.

“What is your scent?” the vendor, an Amazon sitting on a cushion with her legs crossed, asked.  “We have them all!  Lavender?  Vanilla?  Almonds?”

“I don’t like to stink,” Shay jeered as they passed.  She stumbled a little to avoid a Leprechaun couple she hadn’t noticed.  The two tiny people jogged past, sharing a pair of headphones.  Shay cracked her knuckles and tried to breathe.  Everything seemed so crowded.  The plants growing between the shops leaned out into the street.  Amazons carrying backpacks full of steaming food for delivery ran by and squeezed small brass hand-horns to warn of their approach.  A street musician banged on metal drums, threw his sticks in the air, turned, caught them, and then performed the rest of the song facing away from his instrument.  The stone street was a garish assortment of colors thanks to spilled paint, the chalk drawings of children, and a million street food stains.  Looking down at it made Shay a little queasy.  The large gray-blue gulls were unaffected though; they strutted about and argued over discarded strips of fish skin and fried onions.

She was relieved when they reached the one story hotel where Dana had made arrangements.  The building had a pleasant red color and all the windows looked like portholes.  The main doors had signs posted on them that read opening soon.  As if that was prophecy, they flew open and an Amazon emerged to greet them.  She was six foot nine, had very dark skin, and had hair braided so tightly into a pony tail that it looked like a black tornado just as it touched ground.  She wore an orange dress with intentionally ripped sleeves that reminded Shay of the guts that hung over the edge of a pumpkin when you carved it.  The woman leaned down and hugged Dana.  Shay rolled her eyes and Buck nudged her with his elbow.  Despite their height difference the intent of the Leprechaun’s knowing smile reached her.  She bumped him with her hip and nearly knocked him over.

“Are you going to introduce us?” Shay asked.

“Of course,” Dana said, turning to face his friends.  “This is Lorie Caw.  She’s an old friend of mine and she’s agreed to let us stay here as long as we need to.  Lorie these are my… traveling companions Shay Leaf and Buck Renshi.

“Are you from Tortim?” Lorie asked, pointing to Shay’s wooden arm bands.

“And proud of it,” Shay declared.

“We don’t see too many of you girls around here,” the other Amazon commented.

“We’re not the biggest fans of sunbathing,” Shay said.

“Excuse me?” Lorie asked.  She took a step toward Shay.  Dana put himself between the two giant women.

“Don’t mind her Lorie.  It’s her first time off-rock and she hasn’t grown any manners yet.”  Dana glared at Shay and she grudgingly shrank under his stare.

“Alright,” Lorie said and clicked her tongue against the roof of her mouth.  “As you can see we’re not open yet so there won’t be any maid service or food available, but all the utilities are working.  You can have any rooms you want.” She ushered them into the building.  The lobby was cozy and had a collection of colorful art baskets hanging on the walls.

“Is that how you two met?” Shay asked.  “Dana stayed in a hotel you own?”

“Actually he reviewed a miniature golf course I own.  I’ve got several properties along this beach.  Speaking of, I thought we could all play a game tonight.  I had some new landscaping done on the course.  And maybe you could update your review for it Dana.”

“That sounds fine Lorie.  We can go as soon as we pick rooms.”

“What’s miniature golf?  Is it golf for Leprechauns?” Shay whispered to Buck.  He withheld a chuckle.

“It’s like a little obstacle course.  You stand like this,” Buck spread his legs and held his hands together, “and you use a metal stick to hit a small ball through the obstacles and into the hole at the end.  Fewest hits wins.”  Shay tried to mimic Buck’s stance and arm swinging.

“You two okay back there?” Lorie called to them.  She and Dana had reached the end of the hall.

“Just showing her how I’m going to wipe the floor with her tonight,” Buck said.  He jogged and Shay strolled until they caught up.  Buck asked Lorie if there was a gym and they started to discuss the various pieces of exercise equipment she’d stocked.

“It’s funny,” Shay said quietly to Dana while the others were distracted.  “You called Lorie your old friend.”

“Why is that funny?” Dana asked.

“Well you know… Dana isn’t that old, so you can’t really have old friends.  In a way, I’m just as much of an old friend as she is,” Shay said.  She looked at Dana.  He had the expression of cheese watching itself go bad in a mirror.  “Never mind.  Forget I said anything,” Shay tried to dismiss.

“I don’t forget things anymore,” Dana reminded.  He walked towards Lorie and Buck shaking his head.  Shay bit the knuckles on her index and middle finger.  Stupid, stupid, stupid, she thought.  Maybe if I really turn the charm on I can get him to run me through before dinner.

Lorie’s course was called Birds of Paradise Golf.  When they’d travelled from Maymow to Sunsa they had also traveled from a Saturday morning to a Tuesday evening.  As such, the course had only two other groups playing: a couple whose argument over mulligans eventually turned into an argument over an incident of infidelity and an exasperated father trailing three daughters who, through sheer force of numbers, had convinced him it was alright to wear pajama pants in public.

A touch bitter over Shay’s comments, Dana suggested they split into pairs and compete that way.  He immediately selected Buck as his partner so Shay and Lorie could ‘bond’.

The course’s tropical decorations were enhanced by flocks of robotic birds that fluttered about the course and displayed patterns and colors more brilliant than those possible in nature.  The machines chirped along with the background music that emanated from invisible speakers.

The first few holes were set in a series of artificial caves illuminated by fissures in the roof.  Dana and Buck quickly pulled a few holes ahead as Shay tried to get the hang of it.  The first hole was a straight shot with a small ramp over a water hazard.  The real problem was the red flamingo stalking back and forth in the hazard.  Every time Shay timed her shot wrong the bird grabbed the ball in its beak and tossed it back to her.

“This is supposed to be fun?” she asked.

“It’s difficult to master,” Lorie said.  “Maybe if you took your pack off you’d have an easier time.”  Shay adjusted her bag on her shoulders.  After Buck had snuck the pearl from her bag she’d become more protective of it.

“I’d rather keep it on,” she said before changing the subject.  “So… you and Dana were never… involved?”

“I’d heard they didn’t have subtlety on Tortim,” Lorie said with a smile.  “Dana’s got your heart sweating?”

“I’m just curious,” Shay said.  Her attempt at nonchalance failed miserably.

“Listen sister,” Lorie advised. “You and Dana is about as likely as me slathering barbecue sauce on that metal flamingo and taking a big bite.  Did he not tell you he’s gay?”

“He did… He’s still a very interesting man.  Very strong.”

“Yeah, he’s been through a lot,” Lorie conceded.  “He says he hasn’t.  He says he doesn’t remember, but his body remembers.  All that hurt.  All those emotions as they erased him.  I think they’re still there, eating away at him…  He’s my friend.  So you need to tell me if you’re planning on… you know… taking him back to Tortim.”

“No!” Shay exclaimed.  “Sweet thorny goddess, I don’t know how many times I have to say this.  I’m not a damn kidnapper!”  She struck her ball with the putter.  It flew into the air, struck the flamingo on the side of the head, and bounced close to the hole.  The ersatz bird shook its head and squawked as it resumed wading.

“That’s one way to do it,” Lorie said.  “I’m sorry, but we do get that sometimes.  Even some of the girls here on Sunsa subscribe to that kind of… family planning.  I shouldn’t worry.  Even if you tried it on Dana he’d chew his way out of any cage before you broke atmosphere.”

Shay tapped her ball into the hole with her seventh stroke and made an obscene hand gesture towards the flamingo.  They moved on to the second hole which was shaped like an owl’s face.

“As one sister to another,” Lorie started, “I just want to make sure your feelings aren’t… significant.  If you know Dana at all you know he wouldn’t be happy with you if that old Amazon drive kicks in.”

“It won’t come to that,” Shay said acerbically.  “I’ve got it handled.”

“A lot of us think they’ve got it handled and then, all of a sudden, they’ve got it swaddled.”

“I said it’s not a problem,” Shay snapped.  “Maybe you girls get all flustered with the beach sun beating down on you all the time, but we know how to handle men on Tortim.”

“Yeah, you handle them with a leash.”

“Well it’s them or us a lot of the time.  We don’t submit.  It’s the Amazon way.”

“There are lots of Amazon ways.”

“And approximately one good one,” Shay said.  She smacked the ball again and sent it ricocheting off the cave wall.

“Calm down, you’re going to break something,” Lorie warned.

“Sorry if I’m not the biggest fan of the way Sunsa betrays its ancestors.”

“Fine.  You want to do this the old way?” Lorie lifted her putter and held it like a sword.  “Let’s see who’s better.”  Practically salivating at the challenge, Shay removed her bag and set it against the cave wall before lifting her putter.

The two women circled across the owl’s green cheeks and sized each other up.  Shay swung first and Lorie blocked it.  She could see that the Sunsa Amazon did indeed have IML training.  Lorie came in with a series of swings and thrusts aimed at Shay’s midsection.  Shay stumbled back out of the way but was forced to block when she hit the cave wall.  She grunted and pushed Lorie back.  The two dueled back and forth for about a minute before they heard slow applause.  They turned to see Buck leaning up against the exit of the cave.  He pulled out a small piece of paper and a stubby green pencil.  He scribbled on it a few times.

“So that’s eighty-seven swings for Shay and eighty-five for Lorie.  Sorry Shay, seems golf isn’t your thing.”

“Shut up Buck,” Shay said.  His presence defused their aggression and the two women straightened their clothes and lowered their weapons.  Shay’s was obviously bent in the middle.  “Where’s Dana?”

“He took a break to make some notes for his review,” the Leprechaun said.  Shay walked back to the start of the hole to grab her bag.  At some point it had fallen onto its side.  The top was open.  Shay bent down and picked it up.  She stared in dumb horror at the nest-shape the pearl had left in the articles of clothing she used to cushion it.  She whirled around in search of it.  She pushed the flamingo out of the way to check the water hazard.

“What’s wrong?” Buck asked.

“It’s gone!” Shay said, panicking.  Buck rushed over and helped her search.

“What’s gone?” Lorie asked.

“Something important,” Shay said.  “I had it in my bag, I’m sure of it.  It’s… It’s a ball about the size of a coconut.”

“You should’ve let me carry it,” Buck criticized. He ran to the cave’s entrance and searched outside.  Shay followed.  The two stomped and scurried around the course for several minutes while Lorie retrieved Dana.  Shay checked under some hanging moss and was rewarded with a hand covered in spiderlings.  She shook them off and checked the rest of the shrubbery.  Buck crawled under a small bridge on one of the holes.  He gently split a row of robot parrots with his hands to check behind them.  Nothing.

“Where is it?” Dana growled when he got there.

“I don’t know; we’re looking,” Shay said.

“It didn’t just roll away by itself!”

“It might have,” Buck called up to them from a lower hole.  They both looked at him quizzically.  “I’ll explain later, but yeah… it might have.”  Buck scurried off to search the later holes.  Dana hopped off the ridge leading to the caves and took up his place.  He scoured the ground and ran his hands through his hair.

“Did you leave the clasp open?” he asked.

“I didn’t leave it open,” Shay yelled back.  “I was careful.”

“Not careful enough.”

“How was I supposed to know it was going to run off?”

“It didn’t run off!  Buck’s full of shit.  You set your bag down, it tipped over, and one of the most valuable objects in the galaxy rolled out onto a mini golf course!” he spat.  Lorie caught up with them and again asked what the object was.  They ignored her and kept searching.  A few moments later they heard a ruckus from further down the course.  A robotic stork burst out of a row of bushes and flew towards them; it had the Appearl gripped in its beak.  Buck ripped through the bushes a moment later, running at full speed.

“The bird’s got it!” he shouted.

“No worries,” Lorie said coolly.  “That one is programmed to retrieve lost balls and items.  It’s just taking it up to the lost and found.”  Dana and Shay sighed with relief, but Buck was too caught up in his pursuit to hear.  He threw himself into the air and grabbed the stork’s legs.  Leprechaun and bird tumbled into a water hazard that terminated in a four foot waterfall.  The stork rose, made all kinds of terrifying noises, and tried to retrieve the pearl.

“B.O.P-25, leave the object,” Lorie called to it.  The stork stopped mid-stride, nodded, and took off.  Buck spat out a bucket worth of water and rose to his feet.

“You’re welcome,” he shouted to the others.  Nobody bothered to deflate him by mentioning how pointless his stunt had been.  The Appearl bobbed about and reached the bottom of the waterfall.  When the water ran over it the device exploded into life as they had never seen.  A cone of holograms projected off its exposed surface, some of them twelve feet in the air.  Even more curious, the water seemed to fill with holograms as well.  They could see rivers and oceans under the surface of the hazard.  Bluish birds, ghosts of the programs the pearl had absorbed from the surrounding robots, circled Buck’s head.  A few of them dove into the water and only disturbed the surface of the hologram oceans several inches below the actual water.  All the while the pearl made a strange sound.  It was a bit like music, but full of air and bubbles.  The display reminded Shay of a great storm she’d seen out at sea on Tortim: a storm with a water spout that had ripped the crab cages from where they were tied to the deck and tossed them into the sea.

“That’s the Appearl,” Lorie said in awe.  “You have the Appearl?”  She looked at Dana.

“It’s a long story,” he answered.  He couldn’t look away from the holograms.  In them he saw a macaw dangling a flail like the one on Shem’s ship.  It spun in the air and knocked other birds out of the sky.  Their bodies exploded into pellets of light when they hit the water.  “You can keep a secret right?”

“Well,” Lorie said, “as long as there are at least four reindeer at the bottom of your review.”

Buck fiddled with the holograms like a conductor in front of his orchestra.  The pearl, too wrapped up in the joy of the flowing water, only took some of his programming suggestions.

The light show sparkled in Shay’s eyes.  The little object continued to surprise her and fill her with emotions she’d never quite felt before.  She felt a bit like crying and smiling.  She was proud to be a part of it.  Part of its life… she realized.

Amazon Hospitality

When Shem’s ship had landed on Tortim, with an armed escort, he was forcibly pried from the vehicle and tossed into a holding cell with a dirt floor and wooden bars.  He was strip searched by a rotund Amazon who smacked the top of his head whenever his eyes wandered from the wall.  The police at the port were not pleased to find his laser.  The rotund Amazon broke the device in half with her bare hands.  Shortly after that he thought he had worked up the courage to speak, but the words caught in his throat like mothballs.

“I want a phone call,” he eventually said.  They laughed at him.  “You can’t keep me here.”  It turned out that they could.  Shem spent nineteen days in that cell.  He was fed half a grapefruit in the morning, a crust of bread with a bowl of chicken broth at noon, and a baked potato with no seasoning in the evenings.  He tried to skip the dry potato one night only to discover his next meal would not come unless the previous one had been completely finished.  It was the first time he’d ever eaten something that was two days stale and his stomach clawed at him afterward like a cat in need of a pedicure.

“You’ll be released when someone comes to get you,” the rotund Amazon had said.  Shem learned her name was Ama.  He hated knowing her name.  She watched over the cells at night so Shem now had a bank of wretched knowledge forced upon him by the otherwise silent jail.  He knew Ama had two pet goats named Rhubarb and Wheatiebiscuit.  He knew that she was having a falling out with her best friend.  He knew her favorite food was fruit salad as long as it didn’t have too many blueberries.

“But nobody knows I’m here!” he’d shouted.  “I need a datawatch so I can call someone!”

“You’re here illegally,” Ama explained.  “We can’t have strange men calling whoever they want.”

“What happens if nobody comes for me?”

“If nobody comes for six months you’ll be put up for adoption.”  Ama had walked up to the bars and stared at him.  “If you learn to be good maybe I’ll adopt you.  You could be husband material, as long as you like goats.”

Shem had vomited.  They didn’t give him any cleaning supplies so he had to spread dirt over it to get rid of the smell.  Every third day or so a different woman would show up and ask him a thousand questions.  Every time his manners failed him they opened the door and struck him.  He was kicked by an immigration official.  Punched by a sociologist.  Slapped by the police chief.  Ama sometimes offered him a bandage or some antibacterial ointment in exchange for a kiss.  He never took her up on the offer.

Eventually someone came.  Shem’s head lifted from his cot one morning when he heard a stack of laminated papers being run across the bars of his cell.  The Amazon holding them looked about twenty years old and had fair skin and green eyes.  She wore some kind of shopkeeper’s uniform, suggesting bailing people out of jail was not her day job.  Shem walked up to the bars and rubbed his eyes.  The woman stared at him with disgust.

“Who are you?” Shem asked.

“My name’s Indril.  I’m your half-sister,” she said, seemingly nauseated by the words.  Shem breathed a sigh of relief.

“Dad told you I was here?  How did he know?”

“I haven’t spoken to him,” Indril said in hushed tones.  She didn’t want anyone to know their connection.  “I got a call from your mother.  She was worried about you so she activated the tracker in your datawatch.”

“What the hell took her so long?  I’ve been here for a month!”

“Nineteen days,” Indril clarified.  “You’re on Tortim you fool.  Your bail requests got ‘lost’ several times.  Indril turned and looked at Ama, who watched from her desk.  The rotund Amazon shrugged.  “They’re not lost anymore.”  Indril held up the stack of papers.  “Double notarized, signed in triplicate with government issue black ink, laminated, and properly dated.  You’re lucky.” Indril dropped back into a whisper.  “If Dad didn’t have a presence here you could’ve been stuck for years.  Fortunately for you, he does.  Unfortunately for me, I was the closest daughter who was more than six feet tall.  I had to spend an entire day running around getting all this paperwork for you.”

“Just get me out of here,” Shem seethed.  Indril reached through the bars and grabbed him by the hair.  He whined and dropped to his knees.

“Dad might not believe in bad apples, but I do,” Indril said.  “You dishonor his mission.  If it was my choice I’d let you rot here before handing you off to a loving wife.”  She released him, walked over to Ama’s desk, and slammed the papers down.  “Release him,” she ordered.  “And return whatever belongings you didn’t destroy.”

“We can’t release his ship,” Ama said as she organized the papers.  “That thing’s not legal anywhere in the Collective.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Indril said.  She pulled a green form out of the packet and showed it to Ama.  “He’s a Collective citizen brought here by equipment malfunction.  Any contraband is under their jurisdiction and since it’s his first offense on record he has to be given time to turn himself in.  This authorizes him to take his ship when he goes so he can give it to the proper authorities.”

“That’s nonsense,” Ama said, scanning the form anyway.  It had a row of official seals from the Transportation Authority, the Atmospheric Police, and the Collective Relations Bureau.  Ama wanted to protest, but everything seemed in order.  She grabbed her keys and opened Shem’s cell.  He hopped out and walked in tight circles for a few moments.

“Tell them to give me my clothes back,” Shem ordered Indril.  At the moment he wore nothing but a white undershirt and a pair of paper thin prison shorts with a frayed belt of white rope.

“Give him his clothes,” Indril said.

“I can’t, they were lost in the inventory process,” Ama said with a smile.  The inventory process had ended with Shem’s clothes folded into Ama’s dresser at her home.  She had been hoping for a chance to dress him up as soon as she took him home.

“It looks like there’s nothing we can do,” Indril said insincerely.  “Now get out of here.”

Shem was led to a dark garage where his ship was held.  After they returned his keys he jumped inside and sealed it.  It was only possible to relax once the air conditioning started to cycle out the smells of Tortim.  His cell had smelled of wood, sweat, vomit, and drying potato flesh almost the entire time, so when the scents of leather and plastic stabbed at his nose it made him practically euphoric.  The glove compartment was open and there were some food wrappers on the floor, which meant the Amazons had at some point searched the vehicle, had lunch in it, and left their trash behind.  Shem dug into the glove compartment and pulled out a granola bar that had been there for nearly a year.  It tasted heavenly compared to the crusts and gruel he’d been eating.

The garage doors opened above him.  As the ship rose out of the structure and headed for space, Shem looked down at the landscape below.  Just outside the city he was held in he saw trees higher than he’d ever seen.  Place needs a lawnmower, he thought.  He looked to his ship’s main data screen so he could call his mother and berate her for taking so long.  What he saw instead of his list of contacts was a screen swimming in blue.  In the varying shades he saw a path winding through space and connecting with another trail that joined two small orbs.  He tried to zoom in and out but the screen responded sluggishly, almost like it was bored.

“Come on, come on,” he griped and tapped at the screen until the tip of his finger ached.  The screen zoomed in on the furthest orb and revealed a winding trail across a portion of its surface.  The tip of the trail moved around like the tip of a worm.  “Wait a minute.”  Shem forced the screen to zoom back out.  On the surface of the orb he could make out lines that looked like the edges of a continent.  When he squinted he saw tiny words flashing, just for an instant, in random places.

Quadrant

Fuel

Amazon

Sunsa

District

Hotel

Coast

Shem grinned.  Dana and the others had used the Appearl to hack into his ship’s systems and force it to Tortim.  What they probably did not realize was that the pearl had left the connection open.  The two devices still communicated.  The pearl played with his ship’s computer’s even now despite the incredible distance between them.  It absentmindedly showed Shem exactly where it was.  It had drawn him a map across his ship’s screen.

Though he was excited to have a chance at recovering the pearl, he needed tools and clothing first.  He minimized the communications with the pearl but left them running and set a course for Shinark.  That was the closest rock where he had a supplier.  There was no beating Dana and the giant hand to hand.  Even a laser hadn’t been enough.  Shem needed something else, something more subtle.  He pulled up a digital Dark&Dagger catalogue and browsed through it while his ship sailed the blackness.  Poison?  Poison leaves traces… Dad might find out I used it.  I doubt there are any good assassins on Sunsa.  Don’t think bitches like Ama could sneak if their lives depended on it.  Oh what’s this one?  Kissing bug robotic units… silent, small, they return to their case after each task.  Yeah okay.  Those’ll work.  I’ll show them.  Everyone’s always running around bowing to Dad.  I don’t need bowing.  I’m not Jesus.  I’m Loki.  Trickster god.  King of the shadows.  Greatest of thieves.  Slayer of travel writers, greenbeans, and giant sluts alike.

The Hatchery

The same nineteen days passed more pleasantly on Sunsa.  While Dana’s editor and lawyers attacked their fugitive status and slowly discredited the report that had led to their hasty escape, the trio, even Shay, took in the bright beach sun.  They were happy to unfurl their limbs each morning like the slow petal-expanding aerobics of a waking flower.

They discovered a restaurant two blocks from the hotel that served cheap and greasy shark sandwiches with slaw.  They spent several nights there huddled in the corner with a pair of dead windowsill flies as the only other beings in earshot.  Buck discussed his progress with the pearl between sips of passion fruit soda.  Each night he placed the pearl in the bathtub and turned warm water on it to stimulate activity.  Since the tub was sized for an Amazon he looked like a child with a very expensive bath toy.  He routinely fed it information from his datawatch.

“So you think it can move on its own?” Shay asked the night after the golf mishap while they chewed their first orders of shark.

“It seems possible,” Buck explained.  “You guys mentioned how sometimes it’s heavier.  I think it’s because it’s made of nanobots.  If it’s only the outer shell that’s hard… if the inside is still fluid and maybe has empty space… if the outer shell is permeable on the microscopic level.  If all of that is true then maybe the pearl has the ability to take in matter from the air and expel it when it doesn’t want it anymore.  Kind of like a filter feeding sponge or something.  If it can shift that matter to one side then it can conceivably roll in any direction it wants.”

“But these first steps of its are still just speculation,” Dana said.

“Well yeah, but this thing’s existence lived somewhere out past speculation and now here it is.”

“What we really need to know is what Perseus wants it for,” Dana said.

“With the pearl’s help I can figure it out,” Buck said confidently.  “I should be able to get into some network somewhere that’s got some private information of his.”

While Dana and Shay sometimes sat in and watched Buck’s back and forth with the pearl’s scattershot mind, not understanding how either of them decided what to do next, the pair spent most nights on various other activities for Dana’s work.  They walked on a beach lit by three moons and colonies of bioluminescent crustaceans the size of rice grains that hopped across the sand.  They took a whale watching tour run by a crazy old man with two metal teeth who, every time one of the thirty foot long brown and white creatures leapt from the water, insisted with a yell that he would marry one of them if he could.

“And I’ll be the flower girl,” Shay had giggled in Dana’s ear before grabbing his arm affectionately.  He had pulled away.  In the tired moments at the end of each day, shame drizzled over Shay.  She knew her advances were unwanted but she had great difficulty stopping herself.  She felt like a much younger woman intentionally tripping on her shoe laces just to get someone to look.  It didn’t matter what kind of look, as long as he looked.  Lorie continued to express disapproval of Shay’s obvious feelings.  She kept reminding Shay to control herself.  She scolded her for not considering the Amazon problem.

In the end Shay never managed to stay away from him.  His work always provided an excuse for an outing and Buck spent most days squatting in the bathtub with bare feet trying to speak the pearl’s language.

Buck’s hands stroked the pearl’s wet surface one night.  He watched a hologram of a crowd of people mill about across it.  Medical information leaked from their heads like smoke trails.  Blood types. Sexual history.  Cancer of this organ or that.  He removed one of his hands, wiped it on a hand towel draped over the tub’s edge, and picked up the shark sandwich Dana and Shay had brought him a few minutes earlier.  He bit into it absentmindedly and chewed a few times before spitting out a shred of the wrapper.  Emergency contacts poured out of the heads of the holograms.  In between the strings of datawatch numbers Buck noticed some repeating names.  He dropped the sandwich into the tub and grabbed at the strands of information.  He tied them in knots to prevent them from drifting away into nothing.  He watched and hoped details would emerge in the loops of the knots.  Small whirlpools of data swirled beneath the surface of the actual water.  Buck tried to steady himself to minimize ripples but he ended up knocking his open soda and an order of fries into the water as well.  He frantically tried to smooth out the surface with his hands.  The pink color of the soda crept through his fingers and dyed the data.  He whispered everything he could make out under his breath.  When he was certain he’d found what they searched for he shouted for Dana and Shay.

When they found him stewing with his food they both laughed.  Shay popped a hologram bubble drifting lazily through the air.

“Have you discovered that it likes fries?” she asked.

“Laugh it up.  I just figured out how we can infiltrate Knarkid’s operation.”

“How?” Dana asked.

“After extensive searching, the pearl has shown me that there’s a building near here.  I don’t know what it is yet but Knarkid’s name is in several medical records stored there.”

“That seems suspiciously convenient,” Dana answered.  He smelled a trap.  Of course I wake up smelling traps like regular people smelling coffee, he remembered.

“I told you his influence might not have been limited to Maymow.  I don’t know how many planets he’s plundered.  We need to take the pearl there so I can get all the data about him that they have.”

“Why can’t you just get it now?  Bad reception in the tub?” Shay asked.  Her smile had not yet faded.

“Not exactly.  The pearl is certainly capable of getting everything that building has but it refuses to.  I can only push it so far.  It’s just plain bored by most things outside a certain radius.  So we need to get it closer.”

“Can’t you just… hack it or something?” Dana asked.  He rubbed the bridge of his nose and squinted.  If the pearl could move on its own he certainly didn’t want it taking off in a building owned by their nemesis.

“This is not a computer!” Buck shouted.  He pulled it out of the flow of the faucet and held it up.  All the holograms vanished.  The room seemed to get darker.  Suddenly everyone felt a little more sullen.  They continued to underestimate the strange presence of their cargo.  “This is not a datawatch,” Buck said quietly as he stared into its depths.  “It’s not a microwave or an engine.  It was born from those things the same way we were born from the warm muck those billions of years ago.  This is the first truly new life since that.  So no, I can’t hack it.  Either we crack it open with a rock and see what comes pouring out or we take it to that building and let it do what it wants.”

“Okay,” Dana acknowledged.  He looked at Shay.  “You up for it?”  She nodded.  “Do you at least have a suspicion as to what we might find?” he asked Buck.

“I don’t know,” he admitted.  “A couple of people on his payroll I think.  If they are there there’s a good chance there are some data strings that can lead to information Knarkid would want kept safe.  Something we can use.”

“I suppose that’s something,” Dana said.  He wanted to strike Perseus with a club rather than a folder full of incriminating information.  “We’ll gear up in the morning and go find it.  Try and talk our way in.  And Shay will make sure her bag is zipped this time.” She rolled her eyes.

The next morning they ate a quick breakfast of seafood wraps at a nearby stand and returned to the hotel to don their armor.  Sunsa’s heat made it impractical to wear extra layers so they all picked through their options for the best compromise between protection, weight, and appearance.  Since IML made clothes for everyday use it didn’t hurt to hide one’s intentions by making your armor appear like casual dress.  Dana equipped his sword but did not bother with the pipes.  Shay had her mace.  Buck had not taken enough time away from the pearl to visit an armory outlet and Dana’s other weapons were a tad too large, so he begrudgingly left with bare knuckles.

Buck estimated the building was about five miles away, so they caught a ride on a diamagnetic streetcar that had a chasse cluttered with overlapping posters for local musical groups.  As he often did on public transportation, Dana wore a pair of sunglasses.  If strangers could establish eye contact they might try to speak to him.  If they recognized him…  There had been one instance two years ago when a group of autograph seekers had blocked his exit on a train.  He had missed his stop despite shoving two of his fans out of the way.  Both of them abruptly stopped being fans and tried to sue him for assault a few weeks later.  There isn’t even a point to me signing autographs, he thought while remembering the ordeal.  It’s like getting a camera’s autograph or a satellite’s.  I just report.  I just repeat.  It’s a guidebook, not a damn novel.

Buck peeked into Shay’s bag every few hundred feet and occasionally poked at the pearl hidden inside.  When he was convinced they were close enough to walk they exited the car and examined their surroundings.  The neighborhood was a bit further from the beach; it smelled more of grass and cement.  The streets were wider and populated by pharmacies, open air markets, and government buildings.

“Shay just crouch down,” Buck begged after trying to jump up to her bag.  The trio moved off the sidewalk and into an alley.  Shay crouched and put one hand on the ground while Buck checked the pearl.  “Okay… It’s that one.” He zipped the bag shut and pointed at a building on the opposite side of the street.  It was an unassuming brick structure with two stories and large windows.  The signs around were a mix of advertisements for medical services and bland encouraging remarks with exclamation points in pastel colors.  The sign above the door read Dripkin Youth Services.

“What is this place?” Shay asked.  They all watched as a woman was ushered in by automatic doors.

“Easily accessible,” Dana said.  He stood tall and straightened his shirt.  “Just let me do the talking.  Try to look inconspicuous.”

“A Leprechaun, a human, and an Amazon walk into a doctor’s office,” Buck started, “we’re the setup for a joke; how are we supposed to look inconspicuous?”

“Just be quiet,” Dana said.  “And Shay, try to look a little sick.  One of us might need to pretend to be some kind of patient.”

“No problem,” she said, “I actually do feel a little nauseous.  Maybe fish for breakfast isn’t the best idea.”

The three of them walked across the street and were ushered in by the doors.  They found a rather typical waiting room on the other side.  A few people sat around playing datawatch games or reading magazines.  Two children played in the corner, moving colored beads around on a tumbleweed of thick wires that was bolted to the floor.

Dana’s mind raced to concoct an adequate lie as he approached the reception desk.  There was a young human woman behind it.  Dana estimated she was about twenty-six; she had bright blonde hair, thick glasses with dull, gray, plastic frames, plump cheeks, and tiny hands with immaculately polished nails that busied themselves filling out paperwork.  She moved through the lines on the form very quickly, writing in cursive at a speed not regularly seen in handwriting for hundreds of years.  She dotted the end of her sentence just as Dana planted his hands on the desk, having timed it perfectly.  She looked up with a shockingly honest smile that threw Dana off.  It was as if she’d been rifling through family photos instead of piles of medical legalese.

“Can I help you?” she asked.  Her voice was like the painfully average yelp of a golden retriever puppy.  Before Dana could open his mouth, recognition dawned on her.  “Oh my goodness, you’re Dana Rudolph!  I used your book last year when I went to Cnidwell on vacation.  Hang on…” She rifled through the forms on her desk.  “I’m sure I have something you could sign… if you don’t mind that is.”  She pulled a blue sticky note off a data monitor and placed it in front of him with a pen.  He smiled and signed it.

Buck nudged Shay.  She looked down at the Leprechaun who mimed leaning against the desk near the data monitor.  She winked at him and did her best to position her backpack near the monitor, which involved awkwardly standing with her knees bent.  The bag nudged the monitor and nearly knocked it over, causing Buck’s eyes to practically pop out of his head.

“So what are you doing here?” the receptionist asked Dana.  “What does a galaxy-famous writer need from a youth pregnancy center?”  Dana pursed his lips.  Knarkid hides his secrets here?  He hadn’t prepared for that particular scenario.  He opened his mouth.

“Well I do a certain amount of charitable giving each year,” he said, extremely relieved the lie had shown up at the right time, “I just happened to be on Sunsa and I passed by here; it seems to be as good a cause as any.  You do take donations, yes?”

“Oh of course,” the receptionist affirmed.  She hastily stood up and shook his hand.  “We do lots of cool stuff for donors.  You could get one of our offices named after you.  Or the whole building!  Well, you know, depending on how much you give.  Maybe we’ll just name a stethoscope after you.  Um, okay.  Before I say anything else that makes you not want to donate, my name is Natalie Dripkin.  You can just call me Natty.”

“Well Natty, could I possibly get a tour?  We can discuss the donation after that.”

“I’d be thrilled to,” Natalie said.  She called back to another employee and asked her to cover the desk.  “Are they coming as well?” She pointed to Buck and Shay.

“I’m sorry,” Dana said, “Where are my manners.  This is my assistant Buck Renshi and my personal trainer Shay Leaf.  I hope you don’t mind if they tag along.”

“Not at all,” Natalie said, obviously unsure if those were the two standard units in a celebrity entourage.  She shook both their hands and led everyone through a door into the building’s main corridor.

“So since the sign out front says Dripkin, does that make you the one in charge?”

“Sort of,” Natalie answered.  “My mother Margot started this place about thirty years ago.  She’s retired now and it just made sense for me to sort of take over.  I still work the desk sometimes because I think it brings an important personal touch to the work.  It makes the girls feel less like they’re being shuffled through like recyclables when they know the person in charge.”

The group passed by several rooms and glanced into some of them through small windows on the doors.  There was a daycare center, a few offices with medical equipment, and rooms filled with bunk beds.  Many of the beds were occupied by teenage girls doing schoolwork; several of them were visibly pregnant.  Then they passed another bunk bed room meant for Amazons and another meant for Leprechauns.  Dana noticed most of the doors did in fact have gold-colored plaques with donor names on them.

“We offer services to girls in three neighboring cities,” Natalie continued her pitch.  “This place is something of a hub to connect them to all the other services they might need in the future as well as temporary lodging for those with inadequate resources.  Here’s our sex education classroom and those are the offices where we handle things like medical insurance and adoption papers.  I think we do great work here.  We’ve helped girls with nothing get jobs and places to live so they can take care of their children.  You can also be a patron of a particular girl if you like and we’ll send you photo and video updates of the things that you make possible for her and her baby.”

Every time they passed an office Shay rubbed her backpack against the door and hoped the pearl was ‘listening’ well enough to pick up information from any nearby computers and watches.

“That’s it for now,” Natalie said when they reached a dead end.  “We would like to add a small gym for prenatal aerobics and that kind of thing.  If we do that we’ll end up knocking down this wall and…”

The wall exploded outward.  Pieces of brick bounced off the sides of the corridor and filled the air with dust trails.  A massive metal ball swung forward.  Natalie shrunk into the corner and shrieked, holding her hands over her head.  Dana and Shay avoided it by hugging the wall.  Buck dropped onto his back and the ball sailed past the tip of his nose.  The cable holding the ball up tore through the ceiling and sent rubble pouring down on them.  Daylight shot through as well.  Dana squinted up into the crack and saw the shadow of Shem’s ship positioned above them.  There was no mistaking it once he saw the Dark&Dagger logo on the ball.

“It’s the farcoward!” he cried.  The ball rose to the ceiling and prepared to drop on top of Buck.  Shay grabbed his wrist with one arm and pulled him out from under it.  The ball smashed into the floor and rolled towards Natalie, threatening to crush her against what remained of the wall.  Dana ran towards it but the hall was so narrow that he couldn’t pass it.  He was forced to leap on top of it and grab the cable.  He stepped along the edge of the wall and hurdled the orb.  From there he grabbed Natalie and pulled her away.

“You’re not getting away from me this time,” Shem taunted quietly as he slammed the controls back and forth.  He would bring the entire building down if he had to.  His controls indicated the pearl was with them, so he guessed Shay had it in her bag and did his best not to crush her completely.

Some of the doors around them flew open.  Young girls scurried and shouted everywhere.  They grabbed their children out of the daycare center and evacuated as quickly as they could.  Natalie managed to compose herself enough to direct the flow of traffic away from the wrecking ball and towards the front doors.

The ball smashed into an office.  It obliterated the door and the lovely plaque honoring a Mr. and Mrs. Wolcraft.  From there it lodged itself under an examination table.  Dana and company took advantage while Shem struggled to free it; they got to their feet and exited the building through the hole Shem had created.  Dana dragged Natalie along by the wrist as she tried to adjust her glasses.  A long streetcar blocked their path.  A few tourists inside it snapped pictures of the destruction.  They heard metal rending as Shem pulled the ball free.  It rose up out of the roof and fell through it again.

Shay drew her mace and raised it above her head.  She’d spent two summers throwing hatchets at a summer camp on Tortim.  Once she’d split a wooden target directly down the middle.  Her mace had a similar weight but she’d never hit a target that high that wriggled back and forth like a hooked perch.  She could see Shem’s frustration through the cockpit glass.  He reoriented the ship and tried to pull the ball straight towards them, through two walls.  Shay took a breath and tossed the mace with a mighty grunt.  It spun through the air and smashed into the windshield, cracking the glass.

“I guess we should have tried that last time,” she said to Buck.  The surprise impact caused Shem to veer slightly off course.  When the ball did break through to the street it slammed the side of the streetcar and knocked it onto its side.  Its passengers scrambled to get clear.  The car’s engine groaned and died beneath the great dent in its side, like the death rattle of an ancient rhinoceros.

Dana drew his sword but had no idea what to do with it.  If he’d had his pipes he could at least attempt to distract Shem with bolts of electricity, but they wouldn’t have the power to short out such a machine or even get through the C-gel residue on its hull. Luckily for him, Shay was busy using her size to her advantage.  She collected her mace from the ground, climbed onto the side of the streetcar, and leapt the incredible distance to the roof of the youth center.  From there she hopped onto the cable of Shem’s flail and changed its trajectory.  A wooden bench exploded beneath it.  Shay throttled the cable and did her best to swing her body back and forth.  Her size was sufficient to rock the craft some, as it was meant for a single human pilot.

“I’ve got you now,” Shem barked.  He pulled up.  The ship ascended frighteningly fast.  Shay thought she felt her stomach stay behind.  Her feet slipped on the ball and her hands slid down the cable to its end.  She hung weakly like a shred of tinsel on the edge of a Christmas ornament.  The buildings below shrank.

She swore under her breath.  The pearl could’ve helped but she had no way to reach it or convince it she was in danger.  She was at the whim of the farcoward.  At the moment he was trapped in indecision.  Should he shake the ship until she fell to her death and hope the pearl was not damaged or should he take her somewhere far away and finish her off with his knife?

Shem’s console lit up with an incoming transmission.  It was Perseus.  His finger shook over the screen.  He’d never ignored a call from his father.  If he knew that he’d done so…  The nervous shake of his finger tapped the screen for him and his father’s face appeared.

“Shem?” his voice boomed.  “Shem where are you?”

“I’m… I’m getting the pearl Dad.”

“Whatever you’re doing, disengage right now!” he commanded.

“But Dad I’ve got one of them.  I just have to finish her and take the pearl.  I can do this.”

“That was an order.  Your nonsense has sent that treasure halfway across the galaxy.  Your mistakes have brought us unwanted attention from a man whose face is on a book in every port from Valkaytu to Kirn!  There are much simpler ways to get that pearl.  Ways that appear legal, that don’t require you to murder anyone else.  Now get out of there or you will know my wrath!”

“Yes Dad,” Shem acquiesced.

“I’ll be on Proplay in a few days with your mother.  We’re having a family get-together.  You are to be there.”

“Okay.”

“Now move, before you get yourself arrested.”  Perseus’ face blinked out of existence and left Shem with nothing but the sound of his own breathing and the steady breeze of the air conditioning.

“Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!” Shem exploded.  He tore up the skin on his knuckles by punching various parts of the controls.  He kicked against the side of the ship until his ankles were bruised.  “I just can’t do it in public,” he said despite his ragged breath, to calm himself.  “If I do it quietly and leave no trace I can bring him the pearl on Proplay and it’ll all be fine.  I can still track the pearl.  I’ll have a chance in the next few nights.”

Once Shem had convinced himself there was a way to salvage his reputation with his father, he lowered the craft back down to the street.  He did his best to look straight ahead, as the last thing he wanted to see was the confused looks on any of the faces below.  He felt the craft rock slightly when Shay hopped off and landed on the street.  Then he retracted the flail and sped off into the sky.

Natalie tried to rush off and check on the girls on the other side of the building, but Dana pulled her back.  He wasn’t quite sure why, but he felt she had something for him.  Perhaps it was information… or maybe inspiration.  Something about her face told Dana she was connected to their efforts, even if she didn’t know it.

“Wait,” he urged.  “That man in the ship.  He has attacked us before.  I’m sorry but I lied to you when I said I was here to give a donation.  I actually came to get information about a criminal conspiracy that somehow involves that man and your clinic.”

“What the hell are you talking about?” Natalie asked.  Some of the girls may have needed medical attention; it was hardly time to discuss the plots of cheap crime novels.  Besides, he wasn’t even that kind of writer.  “I don’t have time for this.”  She tried to pull away but Dana kept hold of her wrist.  “Let go of me!” She cried.  Dana released her and held his hands up.  Shay inched closer to Natalie in case Dana needed her help.  Natalie took that as a threat.  “Are… are you kidnapping me?” she asked.  A few people on the street started to stare at them rather than the surrounding debris.

“Nobody is kidnapping anybody,” Dana said.

“Do you want me to just… take her?” Shay asked.  “She doesn’t look heavy.”  Natalie’s eyes bugged out.

“I feel like I’m being kidnapped,” she said and backed away a few more steps.

“No, no, no!” Dana calmed.  He felt like he was trying to catch a rabbit with a snare made of tissue paper.  “I just think we need your help.  Your clinic is somehow involved in something horrible.  You don’t strike me as someone who wants that.  All we want to do is discuss it.  Here.”  Dana pulled up a map hologram on his datawatch and marked the location of Lorie’s hotel.  His hand made a waving motion and the map appeared on Natalie’s watch.  She slapped her hand over it and stored the information.  “That’s where we’re staying.  Please, after you make sure the girls are okay, come find us.  And for the love of god, please don’t tell the police about that map.  They could be involved.  Just come find us and we’ll explain everything.”

Without waiting for her to nod, the odd trio took off running.  They did not want to be anywhere nearby when the police and ambulances arrived.  The first chance they got they hopped on another streetcar and caught their breath.

“What do we need her for?” Shay asked.

“The pearl did probably get the information,” Buck said.

“What do you do with a pawn in chess after you take it?” Dana asked cryptically.

“Move it off the board,” Buck said.

“Knock it over?” Shay guessed.

“It doesn’t matter,” Dana said, “because it’s out of the game.  It’s like it doesn’t exist anymore.  That’s how you feel when you’re a witness.  You’re off the board.  Everyone else sits a little higher than you and keeps playing.  You might be out, but at least there’s no giant hand pushing you around.  The others see you as less, but you’re actually seeing more.  You can see the boundaries.  The way the others are allowed to move.  That girl, she reminded me of me.  Somehow, she’s playing a part in this that she doesn’t understand.  Some hand is pushing her.  I don’t expect you to get it.”

Buck patted him on one shoulder while Shay rubbed the other.  They didn’t comprehend, but they did grasp his devotion.  They were all in this together, all swirling around the pearl like planets in orbit.  One more planet basking in its light was probably not a bad thing.

Since Buck had the excuse of deciphering everything the pearl had snagged, only Dana and Shay had to wait nervously in the lobby to see if Natalie showed up.  If she didn’t there was a good chance the next person through the doors would be a police officer.  Dana wasn’t sure his lawyers could find cracks in a second set of charges on a second planet.  Plus we destroyed that hallowed Private on Tremory, Dana remembered.  And what we did to that bridge was probably against some regulation somewhere.  Every footstep is getting more destructive.  Perseus hasn’t even touched us.  We haven’t even seen him.  What will it be like when we’re all in the same room?

Natalie entered the dim lobby.  Shay sat on the front desk to seem less threatening.  They could see Natalie had taken some extra time to wash the dust off her face and hair and change clothes.  She also let them both see that she had an emergency services hologram on the surface of her watch.  One tap and she could have police there in minutes.

“I’m glad you came,” Dana said.

“You said… you said there was something criminal going on at my clinic.  What is it?”  She used a tone much harsher than she was accustomed to.

“Our… uhh… technical expert is figuring that out right now.”

“You mean your assistant?” Natalie asked.

“He’s many things,” Shay said. “He’s happy to tell anyone who will listen.  He’s not an assistant though.”

“So you don’t even know if there is anything going on?” Natalie asked.

“It’ll be much easier to understand if we show you the centerpiece of this whole affair,” Dana offered. “I promise you’ll be more eager to hear our reasons when you see it.”

“You lead the way.  Both of you,” Natalie ordered.  She held her left wrist up and showed she was poised to call for help.  As calmly as possible, they led her to Buck’s room and filed into the bathroom.  Buck was in his standard squatting position, which now seemed second nature to him.  The pearl was emitting a huge slow cyclone of blue and white data that touched the ceiling.  The emergency services number sloughed off Natalie’s watch and approached the cyclone like a plastic bag caught in the wind.  Buck glanced to the side, recognized it, and quickly used his hands to direct it away from the cyclone and into the bathwater where it idled.

“We wouldn’t want that to activate,” he commented before returning his hands to the sides of the cyclone like someone shaping a clay pot.  Natalie stood in the doorway dumbfounded.  She hadn’t expected a strange device to pull her only lifeline right off her wrist.  She adjusted her glasses and looked at her feet to make sure she hadn’t actually stepped inside the bathroom.  That would have been just a little too much commitment at the moment.  Plus, part of her was afraid that somehow she would get pulled in as well and sucked down into that strange glowing orb.

“Is that… the Appearl?” she asked.

“Yes,” Dana answered matter-of-factly.

“You’re the ones who stole the Appearl?”

“No, we stole the Appearl from the one who stole the Appearl.  He also happens to be the man that drove a wrecking ball through your clinic.”  As she continued to gape at the pearl’s grandeur, Dana took the opportunity to explain the broad strokes of their whole adventure.  He laid everything out as best he could: his interference in Shem’s attempt to capture Shay, their unsuccessful raid on Knarkid’s home with their Leprechaun teammate, and their first encounter with the wrecking ball.

“I’m still shocked he managed to get off Tortim so quickly,” Shay remarked.

“And… and you haven’t turned it into the police because the police on Maymow literally came after you?” Natalie asked.

“On Perseus’ orders no doubt,” Dana added.  “He has his fingers in your clinic too, somehow.”

“Maybe he’s just an anonymous donor,” Natalie suggested.

“I’m afraid not,” Buck said solemnly.  He stood up and circled to the back of the cyclone.  He did his best to pull up the data he wanted: a few rows of baby Leprechaun faces that warped slightly with the cyclone’s spinning.  The cyclone thinned but grew wider at the top as Buck directed the bulk of the pearl’s activity away from his selected data.  “I noticed some odd repetitions in these medical records.  You had twenty-one Leprechaun infants involved in your clinic last year.  Fourteen of them have the blood type D2.”

“What does that matter?” Natalie asked.

“Leprechauns have twelve blood types classified by the amount and type of algae in the bloodstream,” Buck said.  Dana, who had learned things like that shortly after his witness procedure and never forgotten them, dreaded the conclusion.  He ground his teeth while Buck finished.  “D stands for deciduous, but there’s also T for temperate, and A for alpine.  Then there are four categories in each of those three.  For that many kids to be D2, even in a small area like this… it makes it highly likely they share a parent.”

“You can’t think that…” Natalie started.

“You’ve got an anonymous donor alright,” Buck said.  Natalie was aghast.  She turned around and dropped herself onto the hotel bed, running old paperwork through her head at a speed frighteningly close to the pearl’s processing speed and searching for any way to disprove what Buck suggested.  While she did that, Buck addressed his friends in the bathroom more quietly.  “You remember how weird it seemed that the clinic was so close to us?  And remember how I said there could be a Knarkid on every rock?  What if there is?  What if there’s one in every city?  How many quivers can one guy fill?”

None of them knew what to say beyond that.  In their nightmares they’d concocted all kinds of doomsday scenarios Perseus and Shem had planned for the pearl: mass destruction of economic information, framing people by inserting data into police records, erasing someone’s identity, and the like.  Whatever his true plan was it seemed to involve secretly seeding himself across the galaxy.

“How did he even do this?” Natalie suddenly asked from the bed.  “It’s not like we do fertility treatments or insemination at the clinic.  We just help girls who are already pregnant.”

“He must have it done somewhere else,” Dana said.  “Then he uses people on his payroll to funnel the girls into your clinic so he can direct their lives afterward, like a leash he can tug on so the kids don’t drift too far away from him.”

“Why would somebody do that?” she asked.

“Ego,” Dana said shortly.  It’s like on Chappacheck. Perseus thinks he’s a rock unto himself.  Everything that happens has to have his permission, his influence.  Everything else is heresy.

“I think we underestimated him,” Buck said.  “In order to run stuff like this in secret…  I think he might be the richest man in the galaxy.  The wealthiest human ever.  I bet he’s got a percentage, an honest to god percentage with no zero point anything in front of it, of everything.  We can’t trust anybody.  There isn’t a police station in the Collective where I would feel safe.”

“Which is why we’re going to finish this ourselves,” Dana concluded.

“How?” Shay asked.  “Where can we possibly take the pearl to keep it away from him?”  She looked into his eyes.  “We’re not destroying it!” she shouted.

“Woah… absolutely not,” Buck said.  The pearl responded as well.  The cyclone sucked itself into the orb with a sound like a thousand mile per hour gust being forced into a fishbowl.  The absence of the pearl’s light dried the room out and made them all feel like dead fish hanging in the sun.

“You’re not seriously thinking that?” Shay asked, almost desperate to hear Dana say no.  She felt a tear swelling in one of her eyes.  The only constants she had anymore seemed to be the pearl and Dana.  If one destroyed the other…

“Logically, we should,” Dana said.  “Morally, I don’t think it’s our decision to make.  I’m not giving it up though.  If Perseus wants it he will have to take it from my cold dead hands.  Even then he’ll have to use a power tool to pry it loose.”  Shay and Buck nodded along with the sentiment.  “I think we need to hit an IML outlet tomorrow and get everything we’re going to need.”

“Hell yeah,” Buck said.  “Nothing lightens the mood like some weapon shopping.”

“I’ll feel better with a bow in my hands,” Shay agreed.  They all turned to Natalie.

“Don’t look at me,” she said.  “I don’t fight.”  The others stared at her quizzically.  “Excuse me for not feeling the need to carry a sword everywhere I go.  I don’t live in a war zone.”

“We’ll find something for you tomorrow,” Dana said.

“I’m not going with you,” she protested.  She stood up and started fiddling with her watch.  “I have to call my mother.  If any of this is true she’d have to know something about it.”  She stepped out of the room to find a place for a private conversation.

“What are we going to do about her?” Shay asked.

“If she doesn’t want to join us we can’t make her,” Dana said.  “Hopefully we’ve convinced her to at least not tattle on us.  Something tells me she’s going to come around though.”

When she returned, arms limp at her side, she told them her mother was on vacation and that she failed to reach her.  She also mentioned a message left for her by the police.  They were closing the clinic for a day and marking it a crime scene.  The girls had been shepherded to a nearby motel at the expense of the city.  They had asked that she kindly show up at the station tomorrow for some questions.

Dana was grateful that she was still somewhat gripped by shock.  It gave him an opportunity to sit next to her and offer advice about police cooperation.  He knew all too well the ways to manipulate the conversations and leave out the right details (the ones that can be justified as possibly inconsequential).  She absorbed his words passively.  He felt a tad villainous planting fears in her, but it seemed necessary.  They honestly didn’t know how many officer Knarkids worked there.  Perhaps there was a commissioner Knarkid.

“I don’t know if I can look any of the girls in the face,” she finally said.  “If all this is true… I betrayed them.  Do any of them even know this Perseus guy could be the father of their child?”

“I know you don’t want to hear this,” Dana said, “but your life may be in danger Natty.  That farcoward has tried to kill us four separate times.  You could be in his crosshairs now.  I won’t ask you to come with us when we leave to face him… We haven’t even worked out how to find him yet or what we’ll do when we manage to capture him.  I think you should at least spend the night here since nobody knows where you are.  Come with us tomorrow so I can, at the very least, get you some armored clothing.  After that you can head to the police station and tell them whatever you want.”

Natalie eventually assented.  She took a room on the opposite side of the hotel, still not sure she wanted to be close to the writer and his entourage.  Shay took the pearl from the tub, dried it, and retired to her room.  Buck rubbed his feet on the bathmat and left for his room as well.  He forgot to drain the tub.  Dana pulled the plug and watched the water suck down into the blackness.

What am I doing?  How are we going to fight Perseus?  Wherever he is he’s probably surrounded by an army of his own crazed brats wielding lasers like flashlights.  Even if we catch him, then what?  We have the pearl, so the Collective will probably at least investigate our claims.  Only if Knarkid’s family tree doesn’t branch into it…

He settled into the Amazon-sized bed and did his best to spread himself across it.  He was once again struck by the void that should have been childhood memories.  His soul seemed to sink into the mattress.  Dana’s body had a past that eluded him.  It was very similar to the fear and suspicions of infidelity.  Who had it been with?  What processes really crafted it?  What experiences hardened his malleable mind in ways that prevented him from becoming anything more than Dana Rudolph?  Which two members of the species were entwined just long enough to put him where he was now?

It struck him that one of those two people could have been Perseus Knarkid, assuming the man had telomere boosts.  With his wealth it seemed likely.  Dana dismissed the possibility.  The odds were too long.  Perseus may have been busy setting up franchises across the decades, but how much of a dent could he really make?  Most Collective worlds had a population of at least two billion.  Dana sank into sleep as he counted the billions of people on each planet.  Small factoids from his books.  Leeplite – 5,200,000,000, Draguild – 6,300,000,000, Xeroasis – 7,100,000,000…

IML outlets were the closest things to toy stores for people like Dana, Shay, and Buck.  The one they entered the following morning was an imposing building of white stone with acres of obstacle courses and training grounds behind it.  The IML logo was carved into the wooden doors at its front.  The doors split and welcomed the four of them in.

The air was cold, sharp, and strongly scented by metal, leather, and various blade oils.  The walls were lined with custom made weapons in a hundred different styles, colors, and sizes.  Two teenage boys stood at one of the sales counters and insisted they were eighteen, which was the minimum age for purchasing IML products on most worlds.  The clerk dismissed them and welcomed Dana’s group.  He was a tall older man in red tincloth with a face like an eagle and immaculately parted gray hair.

“Welcome to IML Post.  How can I help you?” he asked.  Dana tapped his datawatch and produced a hologram of the IML logo with a few bold numbers beneath it.  That marked him as an elite customer, someone willing to pay an arm and a leg for things that might eventually take arms and legs themselves.  “Oh my,” the salesman said.  “It’s a pleasure to meet you sir, it’s been nearly a year since we’ve had someone with that rating in here.  Follow me.”

They followed him deeper into the building with Natalie trailing several steps behind everyone else.  She saw a woman cleaning the tip of a spear and couldn’t help but think that the atmosphere of the place was somewhat masturbatory.  She was of the opinion that weapon culture shouldn’t have stopped degrading after the guns, bombs, and lasers went.  To her it would’ve been wonderful to see all the swords rust away as well and live in a world where people only sheathed things like umbrellas.

“We’re in need of some specific items, but we’re open to suggestion,” Dana said, pulling her out of her pacifist day dreams.  “We all need full suits of armor, cloth helmets and all.  I’m looking for some new pipes, Shay here needs a bow and arrows, Buck here is a hand-to-hand man, and Natty in the back there will need a shield.”

“What? Oh… no, I really don’t want any weapons,” she said.

“We’re not getting you a weapon; we’re getting you a shield,” Dana replied.  Natalie rolled her eyes.  She’d suffered through things like this before: ‘fun’ events where the group giddily gathered round the object or event of the day while she stood in the corner and offered to make a drink run or drive somebody home.  She sighed and resigned herself to the periphery.

The salesman led them into a private training room with blue padded walls and floors.  From there a train of employees brought in piece after piece of armor or weaponry for them to try out.  The man in red seemed to fancy himself a designer of warriors.  He kept one finger over his mouth much of the time but occasionally sent another employee out of the room before they’d even offered their object.

“No, he won’t enjoy that one,” he’d say. “Bring him the leatherback.  His size is high medium obviously.”  He rattled off a huge list of items to a salesgirl who looked very much like she needed to write them down.

Over the course of the next two hours Dana tried on eight different suits of armor.  He quickly dismissed the styles that were popular on Champusk and Zooken as too vulnerable.  The next one he tried came with a cloth helmet that had two small curved horns like a ram and a padded plate for safe head butting.  After that came a gimmicky one with forty small throwing knives hidden in the designs on the front and back.  Dana felt one of them poking him in the rib so he sent that away as well.  When the right one came he eyed himself in a full length mirror for a solid forty seconds.  The salesman informed him it was designed by a now deceased IML employee who died in a boat crash.  The designs had been salvaged from his scorched bag several days after the accident and only a limited run of three hundred suits was produced.

It was smooth to the touch and had a sandblasted appearance.  The shoulders were narrow and flat.  The gauntlets had stiff forearm supports on either side to help brace a weapon.  The belt had slots for pipes and knives and there was a flexible net sheath built onto the back of both shoulders.  The cloth helmet had tinted goggles and two layers of micro-insulation.  There was even a grounding column in the tunic’s spine, separated from the skin, which would help direct electricity from enemy pipes into the ground.

“I’ll take it,” Dana said.  He folded it up and handed it to the frazzled salesgirl.  “I want it painted.  Primary color is this gray,” he pointed to his shirt, “and secondary color is this red,” he moved his finger to a seam on his shoulder.  She nodded and ran off to their in-house designer.  The man in red pulled Dana out of the training room to show him their collection of pipes.  They were stored under a glass case and each one rested delicately on a small rectangular pillow that matched the color of the fluid inside.

“As you can see we have the standard array,” the salesman said. “Fire, ice, electricity, C-gel, magnetic, and friendly foe.”  Dana had seen friendly foe used many times, usually in duels or sparring.  The fluid coated edged weapons and delivered clotting agents and antibiotics to any wounds it might cause to reduce risks of infection and death.  He carried it himself, but would’ve been embarrassed to admit he just preferred the theatrics of a bolt of lightning or a wave of fire.

“Do you have any recommendations?” Dana asked.  He wanted to try something new.  Perhaps an unusual tactic would give him a better chance against Perseus and any armed members of his many litters.

“What is your primary weapon?”

“A shortsword.”

“Is your pipe switch easy to access?”

“It’s a slider around the guard.”

“In that case I recommend the magnetic.  Have you used it before?”  Dana shook his head.  “It’s fantastic against other bladed weapons.  When they clash you toggle it on to lock their blade to yours.  They’re at your mercy.  When they tug too hard to free it, you toggle it off and send them reeling off balance.”

“Sounds good.  Box it up,” Dana requested.  He had the feeling Knarkid was an edged weapon man, given Shem’s preference for a knife and Emzara’s mastery of her sword.  The two continued to discuss the history and tactics of pipes while Buck, Shay, and Natalie were fitted in the training room.

Buck chose a suit of armor that was light and aerodynamic with three bars across the chest that helped deflect strikes away from vital organs and give the chest some ventilation.

Shay tried on an unusual set that had her desired weapon built into it.  There was a diagonal bar across its chest.  She pulled the bar off and it responded by bending itself and sliding a wire to the furthest points.  It was certainly the most high tech bow she’d ever held.  She pressed the bar back onto her chest and it clicked into place.

“The shin guards are quivers as well,” an employee pitched.  “You can activate them by kneeling.”

Shay dropped to one knee.  A row of flat shafts on the front of her shin popped out and became hollow tubes.  She activated the bow and plucked one of the arrows from its setting.  She fired a test shot and struck a gel dummy on the other side of the room in the left shoulder.  She stood and the arrows shafts again flattened and conformed to her leg.

“Can these hold blunt arrows?” she asked the employee.  “I prefer nonlethal.”

“The standard blunt heads are too wide to go in the setting,” he said.  “We do have a type of nonlethal arrow that fits.  The tip contains a tiny airbag that inflates on impact.  Our weapons rating board data shows that they have a smaller chance of causing a concussion or a broken bone but provide a stun even more effective than the traditional blunt option.  They are on the expensive side though.”

“Money is no object,” Shay said with a smile.  Dana did offer her a new bow after all.  She asked them to box up the armor, the arrows, and a quiver for her back that could hold an excessive amount of ammunition.  Once she handed it over she was hit by a wave of nausea.  “Excuse me for a minute,” she said and let herself out of the training room.  She was careful to move past Dana at the pipe counter without letting him see her.  She found a small corner near the restrooms, leaned against the wall, and then slid down into a sitting position with her forehead on her knees.

She breathed in and out as slowly as she could.  I can’t blame it on a shark sandwich this time, she thought.  That old Amazon problem.  That oooold Amazon problem.  Those greedy bitches making my decisions for me.  She weakly hit her fist against the floor a few times.  No, it’s my fault.  I’m the one who fell for the first guy I met off Tortim.  Who happens to be gay.  Who happens to be the kind of guy that might never speak to me again when he finds out.  If I tell him that is.  We could just finish this… and I could go home… long before it’s a problem.  I don’t have to place this burden on him.  He’ll think I’m an idiot anyway.  Just some big dumb giraffe of a woman tripping all over herself… falling in the mud and dragging anybody else around with her.

A Leprechaun woman came out of the bathroom and asked Shay if she needed it.  The Amazon politely shook her head.  After seeing the way that woman looked at her she became certain she did not want any of her friends seeing her curled up and pale like a cave dwelling pill bug.  She rose to her feet and shook off the dizziness as best she could.  She checked her bag to make sure the pearl was still safe.  A glimpse of its light helped to calm her down.

When she returned to the training room she found Buck testing a pair of gauntlets on the same dummy she’d shot.  The gauntlets had small abrasive spikes on the knuckles, excellent for shredding tincloth and dermis alike.  Small chunks of the dummy flew off its abdomen and landed on the ground as Buck punched it repeatedly.  Natalie looked at the display in horror.  She’d gone with the first suit of armor she’d tried on and hoped the others would forget about her.

Dana walked back in holding three different shields for her to try.  She took the first one, unaware it was a loaded pipe shield, and cried out when the small button she accidentally clicked lit the front of the device on fire.  She begrudgingly took the second one and held it in front of her.  Dana stood behind her and helped her reposition her arm.

“You need a firm stance if you’re going to take hits.  You can’t just hold it,” he lectured.  He helped her move the shield up and down.  “Like this to block downward strikes.  Like this from the front.  Like this from below.  And this is a bash.”  He helped her thrust the object forward.  “Squash their weapon against their arm.  Don’t let their momentum take you.”

“If I bash them aren’t I using it as a weapon?” she asked.  “I told you I don’t want to hurt anybody.”  Dana’s face grew very serious.  He moved out from behind her, held her shoulders, and stared at her eyes just above the edge of the shield.

“There’s a certain kind of person out there Natty,” he started.  “To keep them happy you have to give them everything they want.  Your possessions.  Your allegiance.  Your life.  The second you defy them, the second you assert your existence, they will fly into a rage and stop at nothing to end you because you’ve demonstrated the humanity they can never have.”

“Aren’t you being a little dramatic?” she asked quietly.  The look in his eyes frightened her.  It frightened Buck and Shay.

“No,” he continued.  “In order to survive you have to weaponize something.  If not a laser, a sword.  If not a sword, a shield.  If not a shield, your bare hands.  If not your hands, your wits.  If not your wits, your determination.  There has to be something that is yours, and in order for it to be yours it has to be something you won’t let them take.  So as long as I’m buying, there’s no reason for you to not upgrade your determination to a shield.  Okay?”

She nodded.  Dana patted her on the shoulder and went to pay for all the new gear.  It was worth that many loaves just to convince Natalie she was a part of the team.  He hated part of himself for bullying her, but he still felt that something was coming for her.  If it wasn’t Shem with a knife it was something worse.  Her own blood ruby that had not yet revealed its devilish shine from under the coal ash of her life.  He wanted her to be tough when she saw it.  He wanted her ready to smash it and feel hatred for those that had cut the stone.

While they waited for their gear to be painted the group continued to ogle the outlet’s more expensive show pieces.  There was an Amazon battle axe in a glass case that had been used in the War of Cousins.  Its blade was etched with initials, some large and some small.  Some Amazon and some Leprechaun.  They all remembered that a planet like Sunsa, where everyone lived together, was only possible because both subspecies had banded together and fought for their right to exist.  The Amazons had earned their three worlds, the Leprechauns their six, and the ancestral strain of man had taken the rest.  Looking at it, Natalie had to admit she was impressed.  Every notch in the blade was a statement of purpose.  A declaration of the legitimacy of their lives.  She wondered if she was headed for a battle like that.

Later that afternoon she showed up at the police station to answer their questions.  No, she did not know the man that attacked the clinic.  No, she did not see his face.  Yes, there were others with her.  They were potential donors, but she could not remember their names.  It seemed the farcoward’s wrecking ball had smashed through her memory as well.  They thanked her for her time.  On her way back she looked at all the forms on her datawatch for starting the repair work.  Did she even want it repaired?  Why would she want to help him?  What would the girls think of her?  In the end she sent the forms along to another employee and told her she could run the repair operation.  She’d been gunning for her position anyway and often quietly griped about nepotism.  Natalie tried to call her mother again but still could not get through.

That evening she asked Dana to give her a few lessons with her shield.  He agreed, and Buck was all too happy to pretend to be a mugger for their exercises.  She ended up bouncing the small man off her shield and onto a bed twenty times before they called it a night.  This time she took a room next to the rest of them.

Something about their preparations at IML Post helped them all sleep soundly that night.  They heard nothing when Shem entered the hotel and slithered through the corridors listening for the sounds of their breathing.

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One thought on “The Mad Seeder: Part Five

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