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Kitty Kitty

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"Harper, don't drink that," Rommie said, staring at the drink in Harper's hand. He stopped with the lip of the glass touching his teeth and went cross-eyed trying to look at it. "It's been adulterated with substances that you really shouldn't ingest."

He put the glass down. Beka and Tyr set theirs down as well, looking uneasy. Rommie picked each up in turn and smelled them. "Engine grease," she told Harper.

"Antifreeze," she told Beka.

She raised her eyebrow at Tyr's. "Radioactive fallout. My goodness. Fortunately, there's not enough in there to kill you, or even make you ill. Harper, on the other hand, can't take as many chances."

"I thought that drink had some extra body," Tyr said. He looked balefully at the bartender.

Harper grabbed his vest. "Tyr, I think we can afford to get into a fight here..."

"We can't," Beka said. "Not until Dylan's done with his talks. Then? We get a refund. With interest." She shoved her glass away.

"Great party," Rommie said.

Harper slumped in his seat, folding his arms. "I think we need to have a word with Dylan about what, exactly, we're looking for in a planet. Jagged cliffs, vicious packs of animals, and temperatures hotter than the center of the slipstream core, those are bad enough, but I don't think that 'bars that don't poison us' is too much to ask."

"Or even bars, plural," Beka said. "This is it."

"A formal system of government would be quite nice as well. The title of the man that Dylan is speaking with is old-fashioned slang for 'mob boss.'" Rommie pursed her lips, showing exactly what she thought of that.

"At least the natives are friendly," Tyr said, glaring around the bar.

There were only a few other people in the bar, here on Vargo in the middle of the day. A drunk in it for the long haul, a couple of bored human guys who could be mercenaries or day laborers, and three tough, angry-looking women whispering together. Harper heard "Nietzschean" whispered more than once.

The door swung open and another guy walked in. Medium tall, skinny as a wire, shaved bald and carrying a big gun at his side. Pretty typical--

Harper blinked.

Not a guy. A woman, tall and plain, almost completely disguised in goggles and utilitarian clothes. She pushed the goggles up her forehead, walked straight to the bar and slapped down a flat picture. "Seen him?" she asked. Her voice was pitched low and scratchy.

The bartender looked down at the picture and shrugged. "I see a lot of people on Free Nights."

"You'd know," the woman said. "He's hard to miss. If you see him, let me know. The name's Jack, and I'm not from around here." She picked up the picture and turned, checking out the rest of the bar.

She really was not pretty at all. Big eyes, but also big ears sticking out from her bald head; still, she had eyes like lasers and a great big gun, and that made her attractive in a I-could-kill-you-without-blinking way. Harper was a sucker for that. He checked her out right back.

She crossed the room slowly. "You're not from around here," she said to the table as a whole.

"Sure aren't." Beka leaned forward. "Looking for someone?"

"My partner. Look familiar?" Jack handed Beka the picture.

"What's his name?" Beka asked, looking at the picture.


Beka shook her head and handed it to Rommie; Rommie glanced at it and passed it to Tyr. Tyr took a long look, frowning, and finally gave it to Harper.

Harper winced. "Looks like someone I met once in a blind alley." The human in the picture was blunt and vicious-looking, bald and goggled just like Jack, holding a knife like it was his baby.

"He would never walk into a blind alley," Jack said.

"So what did he walk into?" Beka asked. "Anything we should watch out for?"

Jack took the picture back from Harper. "An acquaintance of ours went missing down by the old caves. He had some information for us and we'd like to get hold of it. My partner followed his tracks down into the caves seven days ago, and that's all I know."

"Have you considered the possibility that he's dead?" Tyr asked.

"He's not dead." Her voice was sharp. Her pitch heightened noticeably.

Tyr smirked.

"This isn't anywhere near the toughest scrape we've been in, Über," Jack snarled at him. "The sun hasn't gone out and the rivers aren't running backwards and monkeys aren't flying out my ass, so guess what? He's alive. Because all of those things are going to happen first before my partner gets killed on a miserable little dust ball like this."

Tyr stared at her, crossing his arms slowly on the table, bone spurs erect. "What kind of information?" Rommie cut in.

Jack straightened up. "I don't know." She was lying. She wasn't that bad at it, but Harper was a pro, and he could hear it in her pauses.

"Because the bartender recognized your partner. He lied to you. Why?"

Jack glanced at the bartender. She looked down at the table and for a second, her mouth turned down and her face softened and she looked scared. "Maybe he met him in a blind alley," she said, toughening back up as she shot a look at Harper and then at Beka. "Look--"

"We'll talk to our captain," Beka said. "As it happens, we have a little down time, but we'll have to clear a venture like this with him first."

Jack nodded sharply. "You can find me by the port. My ship's the one in pieces."

"We'll let you know in an hour or so." Beka stood; the rest of them followed her lead.

Tyr lounged in the Maru pilot's chair, cleaning the dust from his sidearm. "I have dust in my joints," Rommie complained. "How did I get dust in my joints?"

"Planets, yeccch." Beka dumped sand out of her boots. "Harper, any luck getting Dylan yet?"

"I'm on hold. They have an easy-listening version of 'Anarchy in the UK' on their comm system. This is sick and wrong." Harper held the headset away from his ears.

"Damn. Didn't Trance say she was going to carry a communicator?"

"Yeah. She's playing with plants in the conservatory and hasn't seen Dylan in hours." The headset beeped. "Wait, here we go!" He transferred the connection to the Maru's screen.

"Hi, guys. Enjoying your shore leave?" Dylan smiled all sparkly and big.

"Yeah," Harper said, "between the packs of wild dog-things roaming the streets at night and the radioactive cocktails at the only bar in town, it's been a real riot."

"We may have found a job." Beka leaned on the back of Harper's chair. "There's a woman in town looking for her partner, who disappeared looking for some very interesting information--possibly information that people are willing to kill for."

"The bartender clearly recognized the picture of her partner. I could hear his heart rate increasing, and he began to sweat. I believe he was afraid," Rommie said.

"Did she say what kind of information?" Dylan was definitely interested.

"She said she didn't know. She was lying," Harper said.

Dylan narrowed his eyes. "Lots of lies here."

"I know her partner." Tyr slid home the bolt of his sidearm; the bright sound echoed around the bridge. "Unfortunately, I can't remember how."

"Smells like a mystery," Dylan said.

"I think it's in our best interest to find out what scares the local gorillas, especially since you're in negotiations with the head gorilla."

"I think you're right. Where did this individual disappear? And what's his name?" Dylan asked.

"In the cave systems east of town, so communications are going to be an issue. The man's name is Fry and the woman's name is Jack."

"Okay. So... check in at the same time every day?" Dylan looked down, probably to check the time.

Beka nodded. "1600 Universal time?"

"Can do. Who's going?"

"We should leave Harper here," Tyr said.


Beka turned to Tyr. Her hand landed on top of Harper's head. "No, I want him with. Tyr, between you and me and Harper we know a hefty chunk of the seamy underworld, and I think this is going to be an issue. I want Harper along in case he catches something we don't."


Tyr waved his hand dismissively.

"1600," Dylan said, and closed the connection. Harper yanked off the headset before they started mangling the Sex Pistols at him again.

"Right. Let's pack."

The little ship really was in pieces. Fried pieces. They must have hit the atmosphere wrong--the burn pattern rippled in waves over the entire surface rather than radiating from a strike point as it would have from combat damage.

Jack's boots stuck out from under the nose of the courier. Conduits were strewn over the packed earth of the dockyard.

Harper ran ahead of the others, eager to get his hands greasy. "Hey there!" he called from a safe distance. "What happened?"

Jack slid out quickly and sat up. "Hey."

Harper dropped to his kneepads beside her and checked out the damage. "Jeez Louise, are those the hydraulics?" They were melted clean through.

"Yeah... you know ships?"

Harper laughed. "Do I know ships? Does a Nietzschean know his ancestors? Seamus Harper, chief engineer for the Andromeda Ascendant," he said, sticking out his hand.

Jack's eyes went wide. She shook his hand. "The Andromeda?"

"Yep. You mind if I take a look?"

"Nah--you mean the Andromeda? From the news?"

"The one and only," Rommie said.

"Crap." Jack rubbed her head.

Beka circled around the ship, taking a look. "We're interested in helping find your partner. What the heck happened here?"

"We bumped into a satellite that wasn't on the map and were knocked off course. How come you guys are interested in my guy? I thought you were out fighting wars and things." Jack backed up to her ship. Harper climbed up the side and looked at the communications array on top. Sure enough, there were the remnants of a black vane melted into the metal. He straddled the hull and checked out the damage.

"As it happens, we had some free time, and this sounds a good deal more interesting than watching the paint peel at the local house of ill repute." Tyr nodded to her. "Tyr Anasazi."

"Jack Sprat." She pulled the goggles off and rubbed the strap nervously between her fingers.

"Beka Valentine." Beka finished her circuit of the ship and offered Jack her hand. Jack shook it.

"And you can call me Rommie," Rommie said. Jack nodded. She kept her back pressed firmly to the ship.

Tyr poked quietly through the bins inside the ship. Harper saw him bring a shirt to his nose, grimace and set it down again. Then he walked back around to the side of the ship, joining Beka and Rommie as they eyed the damage.

"Hey," Harper said. Jack's head jerked up. "Where's the slipstream on this thing?"

"There isn't any," Jack said.

Harper frowned. "Then how do you get between sectors?"

"We don't. I've lived in this sector my whole life." Jack's mouth flattened into a straight line; she looked grim and very, very old. She was maybe twenty. Maybe. "There's cryosleep for transport between stars, but mostly--we stay put."

"That blows." Harper stood and carefully slid down the side of the little ship. Tyr caught him in midair and lowered him to the ground. "Thanks, buddy. Um, I don't know if this is fixable. You need a lot of parts--it would probably be cheaper just to get a new ship. The hydraulics are melted out and the hull is warped. Might have seal problems. And then there's the engine... sometimes a hot entry can send things out of alignment, so they cool down in the wrong position."

Pain was written all over the woman's face. "Sorry," Harper added.

"Yeah. Well, fuck." She bashed her fist against the ship. "The satellite knocked us off course, so we had to swing around in a circle through the atmosphere, worked up too much friction and blew the hull. If I'd been flying, we would have crashed. The hydraulics burned out and my partner had to steer with the strength in his arms. This fucking job was supposed to get us a new ship." She bit her lip and took a deep breath. "You're gonna help us?"

"Yeah. We are," Beka said.

"Well." Jack let out her breath. "Thanks." She smiled.

And who knew Beka had headlamps? But she'd whisked them out of some hidden corner of the Maru, so they all could see underground.

The mouth of the cave was just a big wedge cut into the sandy cliffside by the river. At the point of the wedge, there was a crack, and the crack went deep into the cliffs, wide enough for three people side by side. Tyr and Beka took the lead, Harper and Jack the middle, and Rommie the back.

"I found his boot prints here," Jack said, "but I didn't have a light so I didn't go far. I just called his name for a while."

"That's his name? Just Fry?" Harper asked. "Usually humans have two. Or more. I myself have three of the best."

"John Fry," she said.

They walked down a sandy slope, slipping a little, holding onto each other. Jack's arm was thin but hard with muscle. Good to hang onto. Jack looked stressed, though, more so the farther they went down.

"I smell animals," Tyr said. "Carnivores. Large."

"Yeah, that's Fry," Jack said. Tyr looked amused, but Jack didn't.

The light reflected from the mouth of the cave faded until all they had were their headlamps. Tyr stopped, occasionally, to check out the footprints along the floor of the cave. "The sand is thick all through here. We should be able to follows his tracks easily."

"Which means he didn't get lost," Jack said.

"Probably not."

Jack nodded and swallowed. "So we keep going."

The headlamps shone pools of light a couple of meters in front of their feet. Tyr prowled along like a heat-seeking crawler; Beka strode beside him, all confidence. Jack was knees and elbows but still graceful, like a long-legged bird walking through water. Then there was Rommie, who was a tank on cute little feet. "I hear water," Rommie told Tyr about half an hour down.

"It may not mean anything." Tyr reached out and scratched at the rock with his nails. "The rock is porous."

"How porous?" Harper asked. "And does that mean weak?"

"Are you frightened, boy?"


Beka ruffled his hair. "You can tell us."

"Quit it!" He knocked her hand away.

"I'm frightened," Jack said softly. Harper looked at her; she was tense as a shipping wire. "I don't like being underground."

"We are quite safe," Tyr said. "I have no intention of dying here."

"I've just--been in places like this before, and it went badly."

"Do you want to turn back?" Tyr snapped.


"Good. Then we walk on."

The walls were rough and gray like slag metal. It ate up the light from the headlamps, leaving Harper a little claustrophobic.

The passage leveled out into a big bowl with a low ceiling and a hole overhead. They pointed their headlamps around them, into the corners. There was an opening on the other side and several large cracks in the wall.

"The tracks--" Tyr looked up. Harper looked that way also, but couldn't see anything.

But then someone's headlamp passed over something moving. Something big.

Something growled in the corner.

"Down! Go! Now!" Tyr fired his rifle at the thing in the corner. Beka charged down the floor toward the opening at the end, leading them; Jack ran alongside her, and Rommie kept pace with Harper, and something growled LOUD--

Then Tyr was running alongside them, and then he was yanking Harper's arm and pointing up to a ledge in the wall.

Tyr jumped up to the ledge in two bounds. He grabbed the others and pulled them up one by one, and they huddled back under the overhang as the beast prowled below them.

"That would be a cave lion," Jack said, looking down. The lion snarled and pawed at the wall.

"It can't reach us up here," Tyr said, "but I don't think I hit them, either of them. We walked directly into a nest."

"So did I," said someone on the other side of the ledge.

They all jerked their heads up and there was a human directly across from them. He held his hand up, shielding his eyes. "Kitty!" Jack cried.

He smiled. His eyes glittered in a way that wasn't human at all. "Hey, baby," Fry said. "What took you so long?"

"I knew you weren't dead! I just--had to get some help." Jack scrabbled forward and a chunk of sandstone broke off under her hands, hitting the cave lion on the back. The lion snarled and pawed up at them.

"This is your guy? That was easier than I thought. Tyr, shoot those things and let's get the hell out of here," Beka said.

"I don't have clearance for a shot up here," Tyr said. On his hands and knees, his back was against the ceiling.

"We can distract them--maybe shatter some of this ledge, give you enough time to drop down," Beka said.

"If it were just a question of killing them, I'd be out of here already." Fry's eyes shone from between his fingers. He was covered in something like mud. "The catch is that these guys are under the protection of the Kahuna. Sort of his symbol. If you kill a cave lion, you're in a world of trouble." Fry smiled with a glitter of teeth. "If it were just me? Different story. But I've got a woman with a broken ship and no money."

"Hey, I can take care of myself!"

"Aw, baby. Two or three guys? Sure. Twenty guys? No."

"And we have a ship, but the captain would not be thrilled." Beka looked up, shining her headlamp into the corners of the ledge. Fry winced away as the lamp shone into his face. "Okay. That's the last resort. Other options?" Beka asked.

"We could possibly stun the lions with the force lances," Rommie said, "but that runs the risk of either killing them or just making them angrier."

"There's a tunnel that might be a way out. Too narrow for me, but a woman could squeeze through and chip it out," Fry said.

Tyr shone his headlamp into Fry's face deliberately. Fry looked aside. "Why are you covered in blood?" Tyr demanded.

"They don't eat carrion." Fry crawled backwards into the darkness.

The ledge let them out in another passage. Fry stood against the wall, casually naked apart from his boots, smeared in red and brown gore. Harper couldn't stop looking--there was plenty to look at. Fry was a big guy. It was obvious why Jack called him Kitty, too. His eyes shone from the inside like a cat's. "They don't come back here unless they have a reason," Fry said. "The blood is a disincentive."

The smell of the rotting blood was pretty potent. Harper was definitely with the lions there. "That way is the tunnel," Fry said, pointing to the left. "That way is a waterfall and a stream."

"I heard that on the way down. It must be close to the surface," Rommie said.

"Sure. But it's a eight-inch hole through six feet of rock." Fry still held his hand in front of his eyes. Were they natural or created? Harper hadn't ever met anyone modified to see in the dark.

"Well--how about Beka and Rommie and I go check out the tunnel, and you and the guys go to the water, and then they can watch your back. Because I'm not kissing you until you wash that off," Jack said. "I'm just not."

Fry threw his head back and laughed with a voice like an earthquake. "Baby! You're breaking my heart!"

"And you're breaking my nose, kitty."

"Sounds like a plan," Beka said. And Harper wanted to say "thanks for leaving us with the stinky naked guy"--but the stinky naked guy could break him in half, so maybe not.

Anyway, Harper saw something interesting.

Harper set up a flare lamp in the middle of the cave as Fry pulled a pair of goggles over his head. Tyr stood guard by the door.

Fry scrubbed his hands in the pool, then pulled his pants out of the stream and wrung them out. He draped them over a rock and stepped under the waterfall. The blood peeled away under the jet of water.

Harper looked at his hip. Yeah, there it was. The mark was huge, stretched and nearly invisible, meaning he'd gotten it when he was a baby, but he could still make out the code if he looked hard enough.

He looked up and Fry was smirking at him. Caught in the act. "So who are you?" Fry asked.

Harper puffed up his chest. "Seamus Harper, engineer and genius, here to rescue you."

Fry smirked. "John Fry, pilot and moron. Pleased to meet you."

"So, New York City... tough neighborhood," Harper said.

Harper expected him to freak, but Fry just raised his eyebrows. "Yeah. You know the code?"

Harper nodded. "Yeah! I stole a codebook once. I thought it might be something good, but it was just the city codes."

Fry leaned his head back into the water, letting it pour over his goggles. "So let's see yours."

"What are you talking about?" Tyr said, eyeing them both intently.

"You don't know?" Fry said.

"He's Kodiak, not Dragan," Harper told him.

"That makes a difference?" Water bounced off Fry's scalp and spattered Harper's shirt.

"Big one."

Tyr strolled closer, hands resting casually on his gun belt. "The Drago-Kazov betrayed and murdered us. What code are you speaking of?"

"The tattoo code," Harper said. "It shows where we were born, which also, not incidentally, is where we're supposed to live and die." He tugged down the waistband of his trousers and pulled aside his shirt, exposing the sharper tattoo on his own hip. "Mine's for Boston. See?"

Tyr looked, frowning.

"Boston." Fry almost sounded surprised. "Boston's on lockdown."

"Yeah. Six decades now."

"And you got out." Fry cocked his head. "That's like escaping from prison. How'd you do it?"

Harper shrugged. "A guy was looking for people who knew the Dragan systems. I knew, so I volunteered. He said he'd give me a job if I got him through the security network with his cargo. I got him through, he tried to welch, and Beka kicked him out and kept me."

"Not bad," Fry said.

"How'd you get out?"

"Someone bought me. And then, after they taught me to pilot, I just... walked away." Fry smiled. "With ten thousand thrones."

"Hey! Never underestimate the kludge." Harper offered his fist. Fry punched it and grinned. Plenty of teeth.

"Yours is clearer, Harper," Tyr said.

"I got it when I was older. You were born in New York, right?" Harper asked Fry. Fry nodded. "I was born outside Boston and wasn't recorded," Harper said.

"Outside the perimeter. Outside with the Magog," Fry said.

"Yeah. Exactly."

"Shit," Fry said. "You're a bad-ass, aren't you, Seamus Harper?"

"Nah." Harper looked down at the blood-laced water. "After my little sister died from eating a radioactive apple and my cousins were killed by Magog, my family decided freedom wasn't such great shakes and moved inside. And that's when I got tattooed. And I haven't grown a whole lot since then, so lucky me, it's still bright and shiny." You didn't really grow in the refugee camp. You just survived. The only ones who thrived were... He glanced up at Fry. "There a lot of mutts in New York?"

Fry looked back at him through the goggles and the water. He very slowly tensed, folding his arms over his chest. "You care to reword that question?" he asked, voice a low snarl.

"I got mutts in my family, it's not a big deal, I'm just curious." Harper raised his hands and backed up a step. "I'm wondering if it's a Boston thing or an everywhere thing--I've never been anywhere else on Earth."

Fry's mouth flattened out as Harper talked. He drummed his fingers on his arm. Harper could feel Tyr at his back and told himself not to worry. He'd learned all about the value of big friends in the refugee camps, and Tyr was bigger than Fry.

Fry pulled his goggles off and let them dangle from his fingertips. His eyes gleamed like titanium. "Sure. There's lots of mutts in New York. They have mutts where you come from, Kodiak?"

"I doubt it," Tyr said.

"They also call us mules. It's when a human man cozies up to a Nietzschean woman--or a bunch of Nietzschean men catch a human woman out on the streets after curfew. Personally, I don't know. My mother dumped me in the trash when I was an hour old." He glanced deliberately from Harper to Tyr. "We tend to make humans uncomfortable, but it's the Nietzscheans that really hate us."

It was obvious, if you knew how to look. Pure humans didn't get that big on a thousand calories a day. Übers looked polished. Perfect. Half-Übers looked like Übers without the bone spurs. Fry looked just like Tyr, minus the hair.

"The Drago-Kazov let you live? Kodiak would have drowned you as an infant."

"Right." Fry showed teeth. "Race mixing weakens the race. You're welcome to try to finish the job."

"We came here to rescue you, not kill you," Tyr said, and sat down on a rock, checking his gun. The bone blades knifed through the air with every motion.

Harper ducked his head, looking at Fry's boots ankle-deep in the stream. "At three-quarters, the bone spurs come back," he said. "That's my second cousin. His mom pulled them out with pliers when he was a baby. He still has scars. Look, as far as I'm concerned, you're human."

"Gee, Seamus, thanks." Fry twirled the goggles around his fingers, tossing them on top of his pants. "But you know what? I'm still a mule." He crouched down into the water, rubbing at the last bits of sticky blood.

Harper sat down next to Tyr until the women came back.

Rommie took the lead, occasionally punching down stray rocks. She was an android. She could do that. Jack couldn't even imagine the money it would take to make a machine look so much like a real woman.

Nobody she knew had those kind of resources. They didn't even run the slipstream routes out here, since nobody could pay for them. Instead everyone just went out of commission for six months or six years in cold storage while the slow little ships puttered from star to star--

They didn't have a cryo pod on their ship. Fry never fell asleep in them. He said it was the Nietzschean in him; he was just too tough to go down.

If she thought about how far underground they were, it started to freak her out. She focused on Fry instead--saving his butt. She thought about the ship she was going to get when they finally hit it big.

Slipstream. Yeah.

"Jack, you're narrower than I am. Can we switch places?"

"Yeah." Jack slid past Rommie in the wide part of the tunnel--android, she said, but she felt so human--and took the lead, squeezing through the narrow crack. Beka was the biggest and hadn't been able to make it through this last part at all. "What do we do if this actually goes someplace? Fry and your guy Tyr, they're both twice as big as me."

"I have methods."

Jack tilted her head, shining the lamp on the floor ahead of her, and suddenly realized that the tunnel opened up and there were bones on the floor. Lots of bones. "Oh, shit," she whispered, and started sliding back. "I think this leads back into the nest."

And with her next breath one of the lions leaped up, snarling into the hole. Jack yelped.

"Jack!" Rommie shouted. "Are you all right?"

"I'm coming back, it's right here, shit!" She could barely move in the space, just slide sideways with her heart pounding and her knife in her hand and her fingers pushing her along the rock.

The lion pawed at the crack, scratching free a flurry of dust. Up and down and then sideways and oh GOD--claws hooked through her forearm. It didn't hurt. That should hurt, but it didn't hurt, God--

"Rommie, it's GOT ME!" she shouted. She had her knife in the other hand but there was no room. No room to move--she just had to dig her feet in and stare into those evil golden eyes and keep from being pulled into that snarling mouth.

Booming sound in the other direction. Dust and cracking, breaking sounds. The lion curled its lips, showing off six inch teeth. Bigger than her knife. Overkill. Tacky.

"Jack!" Rommie was suddenly beside her, covered in dust, shoving her force lance past Jack. She slipped it between the lion's paw and Jack's arm and unhooked the claws forcefully. The lion immediately stuck the other paw in, but Rommie whapped it in the face with the force lance. It looked confused and backed off to rub its nose.

"I'm stuck," Rommie said. "I'll have to break out. If the ceiling falls and we both die, I apologize." With that, she hit a crag in the wall with the heel of her hand, breaking it off, and they both had room to move.

The claw wounds still didn't hurt. Rommie took Jack's other hand and pulled her back to Beka, and it just... throbbed. She felt a little dizzy.

"Med kit!" Rommie shouted as they emerged in the little chamber. Beka was right there, waiting. "The tunnel leads back into the den. The lions grabbed her," Rommie said.

"Ugly, but I can fix it," Beka said, holding Jack's arm. She sprayed something over the gouges, then opened up a packet and wrapped something warm and sticky around Jack's entire forearm.

Jack blinked. "Is that skin sealant?" Expensive--

"Yeah--it has embedded nanobots, so it should fix you up pretty quick. How do you feel? Can you walk? Did you lose much blood?" Beka touched Jack's forehead.

"I thought they only had this stuff in holoshows... everyone's rich there. Are you rich? Can you get rich being a hero?" She felt dizzier, and leaned against Rommie.

"I'm far from rich. Everyone has this stuff--wait, is this sector really that poor?" Beka hesitated for a moment, but put her arm around Jack's shoulders, sitting down with her. "Jack. Kid. Do you want to come back with us? I saw what you did to that little ship--you're good. If you can keep that thing running, you could handle anything with some training."

Jack leaned against her, just resting, feeling the sickening throb in her arm. Her instincts said no--don't take anything from anyone, because then they can take shit back--but she wanted to say yes, to say yes so loud the walls shook. She was twenty years old and she'd had to fight hard for scraps all her life and she just wanted a taste of life like it was on the holoshows.

"What about my ship? And Fry?" she said anyway.

"A big, naked man is always useful. The ship is dead no matter what. Think it over--we have to get out first."

"Yeah--ow, shit!" Her arm flared up bright and hot. "I bet you have slipstream, too, don't you? You have slipstream so you can go anywhere--"

"Yeah. Yeah, pretty much anywhere. Come on, let's get back to the others."

Rommie picked Jack up and Jack slumped into her arms.

A mechanical woman. She'd read about them but never seen them. She wondered what else there was out there to see.

Fry jumped up and grabbed Jack out of Rommie's arms as soon as they walked in. "I'm okay, kitty," she said softly. He petted her stubbly head.

"The passage is now large enough for everyone to pass through, but unfortunately it leads back into the nest," Rommie told Tyr.

"We'll just have to bull our way through," Tyr said, and looked at Beka.

Beka nodded. "Tomorrow. I'm wiped." She slumped down next to Harper. "What's for dinner, honey?"

"Food cubes! Your favorite!" Harper held up the pouch.

"Ooh!" Beka bounced with holoshow glee and dug in.

"...check in the mail?" Harper heard Jack murmur to Fry.

"Check's in the kitchen," Fry replied, almost too soft to hear.

Harper exchanged a look with Beka. She raised her eyebrows; she'd heard too.

"Mr. Fry," Beka said, turning to him, "we never had the chance to talk. Did you find what you were looking for?"

Fry shook his head. "All that for nothing."

"Yeah, I know how that goes." Beka smiled.

Fry was wrapped around Jack like a blanket as she slept.

Rommie sat in the mouth of the chamber. She didn't sleep, so she was standing guard as the others rested.

The flare lamp kept the chamber warm and lit without using much oxygen. Beka was curled up beside it with her eyes closed. She wasn't relaxed enough to actually be asleep yet, though.

Tyr reclined on the opposite side of the fire, near Rommie, one hand on his rifle. Harper slid over beside him. "Thinking deep thoughts?" he asked quietly.

"Should I be?" Tyr's mouth quirked slightly.

"Nah." Harper wrapped his arms around his knees, looking over the lamp at Fry and Jack.

"But you are."

"Maybe." He looked up at Tyr, wondering what his parents were aiming for when they got together. Looks? Brains? Genetic code better than anyone else on the block? "What do Nietzscheans do with mutts born to Nietzschean women?"

Tyr frowned. "I have no idea. To the best of my knowledge, the issue has never arisen."

"Come on. Never?"

"I suppose if she didn't kill or abort the child, she would send it away to a human or Perseid colony to be adopted. There's nothing for a child with such defective genes in a Pride--they could never marry. They wouldn't be truly Nietzschean." Tyr raised his eyebrows at Harper.

"A mom wouldn't love her kid if it were defective?"

"It would be cruel. Family is everything--for the child as well as the mother." Tyr's eyes softened slightly. "I realize it seems harsh, but this is what we are."

Harper shrugged and looked at his boots. "I'm related to everyone in the Boston ghetto within five generations, did you know that? Mutts and all. Family."

"Human society isn't like Nietzschean society. A Nietzschean without a pride is nobody."

Harper eyed Tyr. "So who the hell are you?"

"The Alpha of Kodiak Pride."

"Oh, nice rationalization!" Harper kicked Tyr's knee. Tyr grabbed his foot and pulled, knocking him over onto his back.

"Don't push your luck, little man," Tyr said, but he was smiling.

Harper brought his knees back up. The part that bothered him was that he understood Tyr completely. He wondered where you really drew the line between human and Nietzschean.

His cousin Banner was three-fourths Nietzschean. When he was ten, he was as big as his sixteen-year-old brother, but that was the part of it that didn't matter. If it was just the body--humans came in all shapes and sizes, no problem.

It was the violence that killed him. A platoon came through grabbing teenagers for the factories. They grabbed Banner's brother Victor and Banner charged them; they knocked him back and he charged again, and again, until they shot him in the head.

They took his brother anyway. His mother Marta died soon after in the blue shivers epidemic, and then Victor showed up dead just outside the perimeter and they were all entombed in the dead house together.

Fry stirred. Harper looked at the fire, hugging his knees.

Maybe--maybe if Marta had been taken in, maybe if Banner had been raised by Nietzscheans they could have dealt with him--or maybe they would have just murdered him and left him without a grave or a name to put on it. Genetics mattered. Birth mattered. Everyone in the ghetto was born to die badly. Harper rested his chin on his knees and wondered how many in his family were still alive.

Fry rubbed his forehead. He seemed to be looking at Harper, but Harper couldn't tell through the goggles. He could have been eyeballing Tyr or Rommie or anyone.

Fry sat up a little, shifting Jack in his lap, and held his hands out to the fire.

Both hands. Index fingers pressed together at the tips, middle fingers curled up, thumbs pressing the ring and pinky fingers to his palm. Sign of the rat.

Harper looked up and Fry smiled.

And hey, that was a challenge. Harper scooted nearer, around the fire, and held his hands up, palms out, with his thumbs together and his pinky and ring fingers splayed out. Cat.

Fry responded with both thumbs pressed to his chin. Human.

Harper clenched his hands into fists and hooked his thumbs together. Virus. New tactic.

Fry shook his head. He made fists and extended his index fingers together. Vaccine.

Harper interlaced his fingers, tucking his thumbs in and letting his fingers all extend stiffly. Fry frowned. "The hell's that?" he asked.

"Blue shivers," Harper said. There was no vaccine or cure.

Fry nodded and retaliated with his hands interlaced and his thumbs sticking up--nanobots, which could fix anything.

Harper made fists, thumbs pointing down, and touched them together side to side, so the squareness of his hands made a stair step shape. Lightning.

Fry hesitated--almost long enough to lose--but then made a fist and clamped his other hand around it. That was another change in tactics, but one Harper had seen before. That was the sign for friends--the people who would pick you up and bury you and remember you after the lightning.

Harper paused as well, not quite long enough to lose, but then crossed his hands at the wrist. Nietzscheans--who killed the people who remembered you.

Fry didn't pause. He held his fists out palms-up. Rebellion

Harper met Fry's shielded eyes. He held his hands out, open and palms-down: Genocide.

Fry hesitated--and lost. "Damn," he muttered, "what's the sign for a comet hitting Earth?"

Harper smiled and knocked his fists into each other.

"I would have had you then." Fry leaned back onto his elbows. Jack grimaced in her sleep, hands twitching a little. The bruises on her arms were fading already.

"Nah. There's always more. They're persistent that way." Harper rolled over onto his side and grabbed his pack. "Night."

He slept beside Beka. Sometime during the night, she draped her arm around his chest and pulled him in close.

They crawled up the ledge, sandy rock slipping under their hands. The cave lions looked up, but didn't budge. They were snoozing right in the middle of the passageway--right under the ledge.

Tyr poked his head over the ledge. The lions ignored him. "If the animals could be persuaded to move, we could shoot the ledge down and trap them inside the cave system long enough to get out."

Beka looked down at the lions. "You sure they can't reach us up here?"

"Positive," Fry said, behind them all. "They were motivated when they were trying to get me."

Beka picked up a rock and dropped it on them. It bounced off the back of one and onto the leg of the other; they both leaped up, snarling. One stood on its back feet, clawing up at them, but they looked too heavy to jump.

Tyr tossed rocks into the passage in the direction of the exit. One lion pounced on the rocks, batting them around with powerful swipes of its paws. Tyr frowned and tossed them into the passageway leading in, but they didn't take the bait; instead, they settled down, licking each others faces in the passageway leading out.

"We need... bait," Beka said. "Fry, what did you kill to get all that blood?"

"One of those little rat things before I came in."

"Dammit. Have you seen anything inside?"

"Nothing catchable. And if I can't catch something, there's no way in hell you can." Fry's eyes glittered in the darkness.

Harper wriggled up to the front. "Hey Fry--you ever played Teasel?"

Fry frowned. "Never heard of it."

"You know, when you toss pepper, or black powder?" He mimed throwing fuel powder into a Nietzschean soldier's face.

"Broadway!" Fry made a slow sound in the back of his throat. "In New York that's called Broadway. Nah, I never played that."

"Seriously?" Harper didn't know anyone who hadn't played Teasel at least once. There just wasn't that much to do in Boston.

"Orphanage uniform was orange. You could see it a mile away."

"But that's an advantage, then they don't look at your face--"

"Then the base commander calls the orphanage director and the whole orphanage gets punished. They didn't give a shit who actually did it." Fry looked at Harper. "But the kids knew, and whoever did it got pummeled. Or shanked."

"Group discipline," Tyr said. "Very effective."

"By the time I was big enough not to worry about that, they sold me." Fry looked at the walls of the cave. "Right. I'll do it."

"Hey!" Beka pushed herself onto Tyr's back and grabbed Fry's shirt. Fry looked at her hand. "What exactly are you discussing here?"

"Playing Broadway with the lions," Fry said.

Harper propped himself up on his elbows. "You run out, throw pepper in the soldier's face, then run like hell for the nearest drain or alley--any place too small for the Nietzscheans to follow. Mostly kids play it. It's a special kind of fun."

Beka's eyebrows raised. "Is everyone on Earth psychotic? How is this going to help?"

"I draw them off. You shoot down the rocks. I squeeze back up here. Everyone gets out," Fry said.

"Let me just kill the damned things," Tyr said. He struggled to take aim, knocking the butt of the gun against the ceiling of the cave.

"No!" Beka grabbed the barrel of his rifle. "This may actually not be psychotic. But Fry, you stay put. Rommie. You do it."

Rommie crawled forward beside Harper. "Logical. If the lions catch me and rip me to shreds, you can fix me without lasting trauma."

"Better than new, maybe," Harper said.

"Really! Shreds for sure, then."

Fry made a noise in the back of his throat. "They won't fall for it. You don't smell like flesh."

Harper and Rommie both glared at him. "Rommie's perfect!" Harper protested.

"No, he's right," Tyr said. "You smell like a machine."

"How can I smell like prey?" Rommie asked.

"Bandage," Jack said softly from behind them. "They have my scent and the taste of my blood already." She reached up with her good hand and Fry pulled her onto his back.

"Could work," Fry said.

"How do you get this off?" Jack stuck out her arm.

Beka looked from Jack to the lions. "I guess that's our plan. Rommie, you jump down first, draw them off; everyone else jump down when it's safe and start running; Tyr, you and I will shoot down the rocks. Harper, give me your nanowelder so I can undo the skin sealant."

Harper fished the tool out of his pocket and passed it up. When Beka broke the seal, the lions perked up visibly. "Rommie. Ready?"

"Ready." Rommie held out her hand. Beka tugged off the bandage gently--drawing fresh blood from the half-healed wounds--and slapped it into Rommie's palm.


Rommie jumped right down beside the lions. She tapped one on the nose with the bandage and backed toward the crack in the wall as they both whirled toward her.

"Get ready. Hold on," Beka whispered.

A lion leaped at Rommie and she slapped it open-handed, driving it back onto its haunches. The other one reared up beside her and grabbed her head.

"Damn, look at her," Fry breathed.

"Go! Go!" Beka slapped Tyr's and Harper's shoulders and rolled forward, dropping down into the sand. Tyr cradled his gun and followed; Harper pitched down headfirst and landed in a somersault and ran like crazy.

Beka watched the Maru lift into the atmosphere, Harper and Tyr aboard. Diversion. "I'm wondering if this was a bad idea."

"Harper would never let Tyr steal your ship," Rommie said, "and in a battle of wits, I give Harper a slight edge." Her skin was torn at her temple and cheekbone and across the knuckles of both hands, exposing circuitry, but everything important was intact.

Beka smiled. "Okay. Let's go spy on the dynamic duo."

Of course she didn't trust them. Jack wasn't a smooth liar--at least not as smooth as she was.

"Fry got the information," she told Rommie as they crossed the port.

"Yes, I noticed last night that they seemed to be speaking in code. The question is..."

"What is the information, and do we need to take it away again." They reached the end of the dock and Beka saw the wing of Jack's ship.

Rommie grabbed Beka by the shirt and hauled her in close. "Look, they're fighting," she whispered. "I can hear them. This is interesting."

Beka peered around the edge of the building. Jack and Fry were standing in the dusty clearing in the shadow of their scorched ship. Jack's fists were clenched. Fry looked tense.

"She's saying--I want out of here. I want out of this rotten system. They can take us with them, and the ship too. We can use it to pay them." Rommie's eyes darted back and forth, looking at nothing. "He says--but I like it here. No cops, no laws."

"Man after my own heart," Beka said.

"She says--no slipstream, no Gauss rifles, no jobs. No way out. She says--this is our chance. I'm going to take it with or without you." Rommie looked up. "She says--I'll cut it right out of you if you don't come with me. Beka, should we intervene?"

"No, not yet. What does she mean by 'cut it'--wait, he swallowed it, didn't he? He swallowed a data crystal," Beka realized.

"He says--do you think you can? He grabbed her. Beka, do you think--"

"Now we intervene." Beka ran around the side of the building, force lance in hand, Rommie close behind. "Knock it off, you two!" she shouted.

They ignored her. They were focused on each other. Fry pulled his knife but before he could make his move, Rommie grabbed him in a bear hug, lifting him off his feet. "Shit!" he spat. "You brought backup, Jack? You scared of me, Jack?" He struggled, but there was no getting away from Rommie.

Jack shook her head. She didn't look frightened, actually, just upset. "We're just interested parties," Beka said. "How about you tell us just exactly what you have?"

Fry smiled at her. He stopped struggling and just leaned back in Rommie's embrace.

"Promise me you'll get me the hell out of this sector," Jack said to Beka.

Beka turned to her. "Absolutely."

"You betraying me, Jack?" Fry asked.

Jack glared at him. "You said highest bidder. They have a better offer than anyone else in this fucking system. I'm sick to fucking death of the hard scrabble, Fry. Fuck Tangiers. Fuck all of it!"

"You are betraying me. Aw. Baby's all grown up."

Jack turned to Beka. "I want passage. And repairs. And slipstream, and some money, or something to trade."

"What have you got?" Beka asked.

"Plans for a nova bomb from the old Commonwealth." Jack let out her breath. "An old business partner salvaged them--but then he took a detour right into the cave lions. Fry found the data crystal before we found him."

Beka met Rommie's eyes over Fry's shoulder. Fry stared at Jack, smiling slightly. Rommie nodded slightly--and Beka knew exactly what she was thinking; that it might be bogus, but they couldn't take the chance. The highest bidders would probably be the Drago-Kazov, or worse.

"Deal," Beka said.

"Gonna have to gut me," Fry said.

Jack looked down. "Doesn't have to be this way, kitty."

Fry was silent.

"Wait! We can take him up to the ship, do this in surgery." Beka held out her hand. "No killing, okay? Bad day for it."

"It's always a good day for murder," Fry said, and he squirmed out of Rommie's arms and rolled straight for Jack. Jack drew her knife as she danced out of the way. He bounced up to his feet, fast as lightning, and squared off with her, drawing his own knife from his belt.

Beka and Rommie aimed their force lances. "Don't shoot yet," Beka muttered to Rommie--she had a feeling. Jack darted to the left--a feint, and she ducked in low, stabbing toward his belly. He grabbed her wrist and slashed down but she bounced off his leg and out again.

Jack attacked high and Fry was faster this time. He spun her into his arms and dug the tip of his knife into the soft flesh under her chin. "You know what you want? Are you sure?" he growled.

"Yes!" she shouted.

"I could kill you," he breathed. Damn. They probably should have shot him. Jack and Fry were tangled together head to foot, which meant a stunning bolt would affect them both, and Beka didn't think a charge low enough not to kill her would even make him pause.

"Yeah. I know. But here and now, this is nowhere, and it's not going anywhere unless we leave. Come on, kitty, I know you want to! I know you do." Tears in her voice. She was losing it.

He whispered something in her ear. He shifted his grip, turning her face toward his, and kissed her long and hard.

He let go. Beka aimed, ready to take her shot. Jack touched her mouth--and took a data crystal from between her lips. "God," she said, "you're such an asshole," and she grinned as tears ran down her cheeks.

Fry glanced at Beka and raised his hands. Surrender.

"I do know you," Jack said.

Fry looked at the settlement, then at the ship. "Yeah," he said, "I guess you do."

"I take back everything I ever said about you guys not being psychotic," Beka said.

"Harper," Tyr said, out of nowhere.

Harper jumped. "Hey! Don't do that. Seriously. Where did you come from?"

"The surface, where else? And there is something you'll want to see on the observation deck." Tyr draped his arm around Harper's shoulders. Weird. Cuddly Tyr. Harper figured he wanted something.

"You will have to teach me your version of English," Tyr said. "I learned Classical English in school, of course, but that version you were speaking with Fry last night was entirely different."

Yeah, sure enough. "I was speaking ghetto with Fry?"

"When you were playing that game with your fingers--and you must teach me that as well." Tyr elbowed him gently. Harper bounced off the opposite wall and elbowed him back.

"Why must I do any of this?" Harper asked. "I mean, these are complicated things you're asking. The game doesn't have rules, it's just something you know. Ghetto English is the same way."

"It can't possibly be any more complicated than Middle Vedran, and I learned that readily enough. I can learn and I can make it worth your while."

Rommie's hologram zapped into shape in front of them, floating backwards over the floor. "As a point of historical interest, Classical English, Middle Vedran, Than Central Hive Language, and the Perseid Oceanic Trading Language are all among the most complex languages of their respective cultures, due to the fact that they arose in times of great expansion and cultural blossoming. When the latter three combined and Common was organically created, it was a language that drew laws from all and made perfect sense to none--and is exponentially more complicated than any single language. The problem only deepened when Earth joined and humans spread their vocabulary through the worlds."

Tyr gave her a baffled look. "Do you have a point, computer?"

"Why don't you all speak Kolvan?" Rommie asked. "All the known races can pronounce it. The laws are very simple and adhere to the fundamental rules of Vedran, Than, and Perseid languages. It would make your lives much simpler."

"Simpler and cold as an ice cap. That's an artificial language, Rommie," Harper said.

"Artificial doesn't mean bad."

"In fantastically beautiful spaceships? No. In languages? Yes. Anyway, it doesn't obey Human fundamental rules. The verbs are all funny."

"Not to mention that the word for 'love' is 'feu.' Humans and Nietzscheans use that syllable when they smell something bad," Tyr said. "Much as it might offend your sense of order, it simply won't do."

"That's completely irrational," Rommie said, rolling her eyes. Fortunately, they were at the observation deck then, and their Fearless Leader was waiting.

Dylan, Beka, Jack and Fry. Jack's arm was wrapped in a fresh bandage.

"I'm told you have something for me," Dylan said to Jack.

"If you're the boss." She looked at Beka.

"He's the boss," Beka said. Jack fumbled in her pocket and pulled out the crystal. Dylan fed the crystal into one of Rommie's data slots.

"Let's see what we've got," Dylan said. Jack looked down at her feet worriedly.

A few seconds later Rommie's hologram shimmered into sight. "The plans appear to be genuine pre-Fall documents. All specs and markers conform to my information on file."

"How did you come across this?" Dylan asked.

"Acquaintance dropped us a line," Fry said.

"You're resourceful," Dylan said. "We could use people like you."

Harper heard Tyr make a small noise in his throat and elbowed him again. "Five to one against Dylan," Tyr murmured.

"No bet," Harper hissed back.

"Use us in what?" Fry asked.

"The new Commonwealth. A community of planets banded together against the common enemy. I don't know where you're from originally--"


Dylan glanced at Harper. "Then you know all about the Magog. They're coming again, stronger than ever."

"So it's a military alliance. What do you want with us?"

"It's not just military; it's an entirely new government. We're bringing law and order back to the worlds. People have lived in darkness too long."

"Hm." Fry faced Jack, turning his back on Dylan. "So what do you think?"

Jack's eyes flickered around the room. She lifted her chin. "I think anarchy is the way. I think there aren't really any rules, and so we shouldn't bother pretending that there are. I think it's survival of the toughest."

Dylan's mouth flattened. He didn't like that answer, no sir. "And what about the weak?"

"They should get tougher." Jack crossed her arms. "Nobody did me any favors. Or Fry. Why should we make other people think that the universe is a safe and happy place?"

Fry smiled at Dylan. "Like the lady said."

A flash of irritation crossed Dylan's face. "You don't have to--"

"Have to what?" Fry growled and crossed his arms.

Dylan stared him down for a second, then sighed and spread his hands. "Okay. Okay. It looks like we owe you a ship," Dylan said. He looked to Harper.

"Right on that, boss. Just cruise on over to Tir-Nan-Og Drift." Harper gave a mock salute and headed for the hold.

Fry kept walking. The ship never stopped, just kept going and going, corridor after beautiful, shining corridor. A man could do a lot of damage with a ship like this.

Or without it. He caressed the bulkhead anyway. "You are a beauty," he said.

"Thank you." A hologram appeared in front of him--Rommie, the android, with different hair. "Don't get any funny ideas."

He smiled and brushed his cheek along the wall. "Of course not."

"Tyr wants to see you. He's in his quarters. Follow the lights." The hologram winked out and a light set in the wall turned on.

No reason not to. He followed the lights and buzzed at the door.

Tyr sat leaning against the wall, one ankle crossed over the other, handheld resting on his thigh. "Mr. Fry," he said. "Have a seat. Privacy, Andromeda."

Fry picked up a chair one-handed and tossed it down beside the Nietzschean. "Privacy? You think the ship listens to that?"

"She listens to me. And she can be quite helpful if you know which questions to ask." Tyr tapped the handheld and Fry's face appeared in hologram. "Which drift's databases to access."

Fry kept his eyes on Tyr's.

Tyr was like stone. "John Fry and Jack Sprat. You both first appear on record eight years ago after a crash on a predator-infested planet. The ship had no manifest, so they took you at your word. The girl was thirteen years old then."

Fry slapped his palm down on the handheld. "I didn't touch her until she was a woman."

"None of my business," Tyr said. He touched the handheld again, giving it a different set of directions. "Also on the transport was a bounty hunter named William Johns. As it happens, I knew the man. We worked together on a few jobs before he went off in search of the big score--an escaped prisoner with a reward on his head that could buy a small moon. I never heard from him again and frankly I wasn't curious; he wasn't a very likable man. Did he die in the crash?"

"He died from getting his head bit off."

Tyr smirked. "Fitting."

Tyr called up another set of pictures. Documents. The words "wanted for murder" appeared in Vedran standard below Fry's face. "An image search turned up some very interesting results. Jack Sprat was Jillian Geertz-Hansen, native of Tangiers 5, it seems. Her missing persons file was open for six years before her parents declared her dead and abandoned the search. There's a rather touching note attached to her file."

Fry folded his hands under his chin. He twitched his thumb and his favorite knife dropped into his palm.

"While Richard Belager Riddick, native of Earth, property of the Drago-Kazov Pride, was wanted only for the money. Sold at eleven, convicted of your murder at fifteen. Early start," Tyr said, conversationally.

"Not early enough." Fry nudged the knife back and forth between his thumbs.

"You're not very good at the murder business. Convicted four times? In Tangiers--that's just clumsy," Tyr said.

"Only the first time. Everyone else they know about, I killed in the slam."

Tyr flicked to another document. "The bounty on your head is up to eighty thousand thrones."

Fry dropped his hands between his knees, turning the knife in slow circles.

"Still, you disappeared," Tyr said. "Without a trace. As John Fry you have no warrants for your arrest, no money on your head. You have virtually no record at all. All I could find were a few docking permits. Remarkable."

"I was motivated."

"If I gave Dylan this information, he'd probably turn you in for the sake of justice and donate the money to a worthy charity." Tyr's lip turned up in what wasn't quite a smile.

Fry spun the knife silently, thinking--femoral artery, abdominal artery, or simply that big pretty throat...

"Fortunately, I'm not burdened with as many scruples." Tyr leaned forward. "I have a job for you."

Fry stopped the knife. He smiled. "I'm listening."

Harper was looking up schematics when Fry walked into his workroom. "Hey. We're picking up parts from a dealer on Tir-Nan-Og Drift; a little of the Harper magic and a whole lot of welding and we should have you on your way in about a week."

Fry crossed the room wordlessly and picked up a schematic. "That's the normal-space propulsion," Harper said. "Lots of lift so it's ready for planet set-downs, and a little extra lift if you need a surprise." Harper laid his finger beside his nose. Fry raised his eyebrows behind his goggles, almost smiling.

"Tougher skin, too," Harper continued. "And bigger quarters. What did you use before, hammocks?"

Fry nodded. He picked up the schematic of the slipstream drive. "Ever worked on one?" Harper asked.


"I'll show you two around when I put it in. Pretty simple in theory--the hard part is the alignment. That one you just have to figure out on your own."

"We're good at that," Fry said. "We're humans."

"Yeah." Harper pulled his feet up onto the chair and drummed his fingers on his knees. Fry still looked at the schematic. "Do you ever think about going back?" he asked, switching to ghetto English on purpose this time.

"Sure. With a Gauss rifle and some thermonuclear bombs." Fry's accent was foreign and strong, but Harper understood him.

"You ever thinking about retaking Earth?" Harper's fists came together in his lap in the sign of rebellion.

Fry's hands touched in the sign for genocide.

"But what the hell do you care about that?" You've got no family, it's not your risk, it's mine!" He pounded his heart--one way, that was the sign for family; another way, the sign for love; a third way, the sign for revenge.

"You misunderstood me," Fry said. "I think we've already been murdered."

Harper stared at Fry's goggles, catching his breath. He dropped his head and closed his eyes.

Fry leaned against the wall. "You care too much. It's not good for you."

"You sound like a freaking Wayist," Harper said. His head seemed full; his throat was still raw. He sniffed and rubbed his nose on his wrist.

"They have one or two points. You're young, kid. The world isn't nearly done beating you down yet."

Which touched his pride. "Hey, screw you. Nobody beats down Seamus Zelazny Harper. Not all the way."

"You seemed pretty domesticated with that Nietzschean."

Which stung. Dammit. He didn't want it to, but he though about what his cousins would say if they saw him... "Fuck you."

"Fuck you." Fry sounded amused.

"Don't mess around with the guy putting your ship together!" Harper slid a screwdriver into his right hand and a torch into his right.

Fry speared him with his eyes. He walked toward Harper, slowly. Harper shrank back against the bench. "You threatening me?"


"Didn't think so." Fry reached out; Harper shied away, but Fry grabbed the top of his head and shook him roughly. "You a house pet, Seamus Harper?"

Harper lashed out at Fry with the screwdriver--and almost got him, but Fry was fast and jumped out of reach. Harper hopped up onto the bench and crouched down with the screwdriver at the ready.

Fry laughed. "Didn't think so," he said, and he headed for the door.

Harper let out his breath. But he--damn. "Wait," he said.

Fry paused at the door.

Harper grabbed a handheld and keyed into his personal files. He copied onto onto disk and tossed it to Fry. "Here. Watch it later. We're not dead yet."

His cousin Brendan's last broadcast. His last freaking act of defiance. He had to try. Fry stuck it in his pocket and left.

He kept hoping against hope. He was such an idiot.

He wiped his nose, hopped down from the bench, and picked up another schematic.

"What did you and Tyr talk about?" Jack asked. Her knees were bony and painful against his belly. Her gun belt dug into his chest. Her head rested against his cheek, sticky with sweat. She smelled amazing.

"Business." Fry buried his nose in her neck and inhaled.

"What kind of business?"

He stroked her rough-stubbled head. "The interesting kind."

"Is it going to get us in trouble?"

"Not if we do it right." Infiltrate the Dragans. Spy for Tyr Anasazi. No problem at all.

"Hm. Okay." She slid her thigh between his legs and pressed almost painfully. "Want to try out the real water showers?"

A little surgery on both of them and they'd be the most bad-ass Übers in the galaxy. He licked his way up her neck, tasting sweat and dirt. "Absolutely."

Harper ran the scanner over sheets of hull composite, looking for imperfections. He had "Anarchy in the UK" going--the ancient version, not the Vedran Fillies' Choir version.

He understood the words, if not the meaning, not really. He'd grown up trilingual--Ghetto English at home, Classical English for school, Common in front of the Nietzscheans. He was trying to understand an Earth with something left to destroy--an Earth where kids could stand around talking about destroying the government and nobody shot at them.

But that was two thousand years ago. After this recording was made, the Earth had nearly destroyed itself in a world war and then joined the Commonwealth a century later--and since then the culture held its breath. Held still. Everything interesting happened off-planet.

And here it was twenty centuries later and the Earth had nothing to show for it but some big, nasty craters and a bunch of refugees.

Could be worse. Could be Nightsiders. All they had to look back on was a long history of trashing their own planet.

The door opened. Harper looked up. "Hey, Tyr."

Tyr leaned against a crate. "Have you given any thought to my proposal?"

"Proposal? Oh, you mean 'Harper, Teacher of Mysterious Human Ways'." He shrugged. "What do you get out of it?"

"The Drago-Kazov don't know your language, do they?"

"Nah. It's beneath them."

"But Earth is the seat of the Drago-Kazov empire. To try to prove their legitimacy as the next leaders of the Nietzschean people, they've reclaimed the original homeland of humanity."

"Gee, I didn't think you cared," Harper said, looking at the scanner.

"History means a great deal to us."

"So you want an edge. An in they don't have. I don't know if it'll work, Tyr. Of all the humans unfond of Nietzscheans, Earth humans are probably the unfondest."

Tyr shrugged. "At three-quarters, the bone spurs come back..."

Harper paused; he swallowed. "Wow, Tyr, you're a real fucker."

"We're both working toward the same goal! I want the Dragans dead as much as you do--and for precisely the same reasons." Tyr leaned forward and placed his hands on Harper's thighs. "Let us pool our resources."

Harper looked up at Tyr's eyes and down at his hands.

Five hundred years ago they were all the same people.

"Welcome to the family, brother," he said in ghetto English. "Hand me my tool belt and we can get started."

Tyr's brow creased.

"Immersion, it's the only way to go," Harper said in Common, then pointed at his tool belt and said in his own language, "Bring. The tool belt," with the sign for tools, both index and middle fingers crossed, "to me," and he flicked both thumbs under his chin.

Tyr smiled and picked up the belt.



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