Our final interview … did I save the best for last? 🥂

This is one of my world-famous emails, originally sent June 25, 2019. You can get on the list here.


I’m wrestling with The Sickness™️ but…

…I’ll get over it. It doesn’t feel like a Patient Zero kind of thing. This week:

  • A quick note on specials (free ‘n’ cheap stuffs);
  • Your final interview; and
  • An excerpt from Tyche’s Crusade.

Excuse me if I look pale and sickly while we do this. Despite how my frail flesh feels, I’m emotionally stoked – Chromed: Upgrade’s hit #1 on Amazon in cyberpunk, science fiction adventure, distopia, and superhero fantasy. It is free right now, so why not check it out?

On top of that, I’m about to finish my contract and head off on vacation with Rae – we’re heading to the Hawkes Bay, a beautiful slice of New Zealand full of really nice people.

Finished Nevernight, review incoming, but it’s excellent … just started Holy Sister, also excellent (so far). Oh, and I’m listening to an excellent song, too. Check out I’m Good by Wafia, hey? There’s a lot of excellent going around.


5-Star Stuffs for Free ‘n’ Cheap

Last chance to get into these; they close up shop and move to Mexico at the end of the month. All stories hold a 4.5-star or higher rating on the Zon.

ICYMI, you can get Tyche’s Flight free in the Space Opera one if you’re one of the four people reading this who doesn’t have it. Gritty Sci-Fi features both Chromed: Upgrade (pro tip: it’s free, not 99c), and Chromed: Consensus.


John Hindmarsh

Inmate name: John Hindmarsh

Last Known Locations: johnhindmarsh.com | @john_hindmarsh | Facebook

Book in the promo: Broken Glass (Glass Complex Book 1)

John and I share a lot of fans, so many of you will know him. If you don’t, a quick run-down for you: he’s a high functioning ex-patriot Australian, winning the war on leukemia, and he decided to move house during his current round of chemo. He achieves so much it makes me feel sickly (…or, I could just be sick already).

BTW, he’s winning the war on lukemia. Last year he was diagnosed with the bad cancer – AML, or Acute Myeloid Leukemia. Normally you start making funeral plans at that point, but he hammered it into the dirt, plea-bargaining himself down to the current diagnosis of MDS, or Myelodysplasia Syndrome. That’s a switch from a 3-month life expectancy to … well, probably forever, knowing John.


Q: It’s clear you’ve modeled your life on Rear-Admiral Sir John Hindmarsh (RN). If the other John Hindmarsh bodyswapped into your life today, and vice versa, what’s the first thing each of you would do?

What do you mean, I’ve modelled myself on John Hindmarsh, first governor of South Australia from December 1836 to July 1838?

I am he, I tell you.

He – I – was somewhat resourceful; for example, during the Battle of the Nile on 1 August 1798, a fire on board the French line-of-battle ship l’Orient put the Bellerophon in danger; all the other officers on the quarterdeck on the Bellerophon were killed or wounded, so 13-year-old Midshipman John Hindmarsh gathered some of the crew, cut the anchor cables, and raised a spritsail to get the ship moving, out of danger.

How can you not envy that touch of seamanship?

I suspect, if he and I exchanged bodies, the first question uttered by each of us would be exactly the same, namely – Where’s your bloody yacht? And we’d set off for a sail, or else moan incessantly if said yacht had been sold or was parked on the hard. (I sold mine…)

Q: You’ve got a new series running through the presses, and you’re going through chemo, aaaaand moving house, aaaaaaaaand providing advice and mentorship to newbies like me. Is it okay to hate your high-achieving lifestyle a little? No, that’s not the question… Where do you find the time? Is there a TARDIS in your basement?

Aah – multi-tasking, you say? It’s probably worse than you think.

I’m writing my fifteenth book, which is the next story in an Urban Fantasy series: Magic House, Book Three of Zed’s Parallel Universe Chronicles. Zed’s Chronicles focus on a mage and other castaways – including triplets born three years apart, one of whom keeps making a play for the mage – who have ended up in another universe where they battle a variety of magical and demonish opponents. It’s intended to be a six-book series. I’m also writing a novella (The Stockade) for a Sci-Fi anthology , for which I have a deadline of June 15.

Finally, on the book front, there’s a hundred or more other books I must write, some of which have been boiling away in my muse’s brain for years, and others that will be, when I make more room by writing the first lot.

I hope that made sense.

On the personal side. Hmm. Both Cathy (my wife and my marvelous support – no, she didn’t threaten me to include that; I totally mean it) and I ended up in the local hospital early April. We’ve recovered, fortunately, from pneumonia and other items. As a result of this experience, we decided to move from a small country town in California’s High Sierra region to a far larger city environment (think greater Los Angeles, which covers about a thousand square miles), five hundred miles away, where Cathy has family. In the last two months we’ve found and purchased a new house and listed our current house for sale. My resulting task list runs to two pages—from pre-close inspection of the new house to organizing the landscaping of a bare lot of almost half an acre. The former will take a few hours; latter will take six to nine months. In this month, June, I’ll drive about two thousand miles; matching May.

Somehow, I continue to write. Yes, having the TARDIS helps, I must admit. Remember, time is not linear.

Q: Of the stories you’ve written: favourite character, piece of technology, and villain?

A: They’re all bloody favorites, even Lucifer in Zed’s Chronicles. Well, some I have eliminated in the various series, upsetting readers along the way. In Mark One, I even killed a dog – the plot required it, I tell you – and, surprisingly, most readers seem to understand the deed was appropriate to the story: Faithful hound gives his all protecting his human family. My favorite series is The Glass Complex, which starts with the first book I wrote, Broken Glass. It’s science fiction/space opera, which is my favorite reading genre. The hero is Steg de Coeur, and he enjoys and overcomes challenges, risks, and threats, with his Fain companions, through three books. I’m intending to write three more books in the series, because the Fain are getting bored with sitting around doing nothing much. Who are the Fain? You’ll have to read the series. Broken Glass reached ‘best seller’ rank on Amazon a couple of years back.

* * *

Normally this is where I’d extort you to head over to the promo page and get the book for free, but! John’s making it available for a dollar. I really liked Broken Glass, and I’d encourage any sci-fi space opera fan to add it to their collection.

[Gimme John’s Book for a single earth Dollar]


But wait, there’s more!

The final of Tyche’s Fallen, Tyche’s Crusade, arrives next month. Rebekah did the cover, as always. I like how Seth Cleaver turned out, if you can like a man who’s part Ezeroc.

I’ve included an excerpt of it below. If you haven’t finished Tyche’s Lost, you might want to get into that before reading the below. Let’s get in there, yeah?


The Fall of Reason

In ten minutes, you’ll face the most powerful enemy since forever. Chin up.

Nate held onto his acceleration couch’s straps like they’d save him from drowning in a sea of emotions. The dropship was full of anxiety/ready and fear/focus. The feelings rattled against him like pebbles thrown against glass. They came from the men and women with him. Many he didn’t know, and knew he’d never get a chance to on account of them dying below. A few he’d seen in the halls of the Mercenary, and one or two he’d shared a drink with.

The dropship wasn’t built for carrying cargo other than brave souls. Forty Marines shared the trip with the Emperor and Empress. Another six dropships shared their approach vector. Across Earth, the Navy deployed similar ships against Church outposts on the basis you couldn’t be too careful. Their forces were spread thin, but Nate’s future-sense said it wouldn’t matter. The real battle would be here, in San Francisco, in just under ten minutes.

Grace sat in a couch beside him, her face calm. Relaxed, even. He wished he shared her serenity, and certainty that all would be well.

GRACE I don’t think all will be okay, I think it’ll be better with you

NATE I prefer it when you lie to me

She shifted on her acceleration couch. Nate had to admit, even sitting down she drew the eye. She didn’t wear armor, leastways not the type the Marines wore. Her black synthetic clothing was form-fitting. The quartermaster said it’d turn the kiss of steel, maybe even take a kinetic round or two, but he couldn’t guarantee it against blaster fire. Grace had nodded, saying, I don’t plan on getting hit anyway.

Nate, never one to turn away a good ace up the sleeve, wore similar clothing underneath sensible armor. The Empire’s falcon rode golden wings on his chest plate. The armor chafed some, but was light enough so’s not to be bothersome. Gold winked at him from where his gloves didn’t quite meet shirt. His metal arm reminded him not all stories had happy endings.

The dropship wasn’t like his Tyche. Where his heavy lifter was comfortable, a home, this spacecraft was all business. It didn’t even have a whiskey dispenser.

They’d launched from Navy ships in geosynchronous orbit above San Francisco. Their target was the Church of the Undying Dawn’s main Chapel and Pastor Seth Cleaver. Intel said he was inside, waiting to be shucked like an oyster from its shell.

“Hard contact.” The clipped voice came over the ship-wide comm, and belonged to Dennis Boat, an apt name for a Helm. The dropship weaved, leaving Nate’s stomach back aways. He could imagine hands on sticks, steely eyes watching the ground, countermeasures turned to eleven as they headed for the dirt.

It wasn’t a big deal. If the ground assault team hadn’t taken out the air defenses, the trip would’ve been cut short already. And seriously, what kind of church has AA cannons? If there was ever confirmation that Cleaver was the enemy, this was it.

A holo set in the middle of the dropship bloomed to life. It updated with RADAR and LIDAR maps of the terrain, highlighting gun emplacements, the Church’s Chapel, likely numbers of ground forces, and their fellow Marine transports. A dropship’s beacon winked out, the craft torn from the sky by weapons below. Nate closed his eyes, thinking back to a time where he’d protected an Emperor, not play-acted as one. They’d been torn from the sky too, and it’d cost him an arm and a leg.

Grace’s hand found his arm, her touch light but steady. “It’ll be different this time.”

“Hah. You’re only saying that because you weren’t there. This will be the same.” Nate cranked a grin out of spare parts. “Or, it’ll be different. We could die.”

She laughed. “I think we should talk with Cleaver about who should do the dying.”

“Rapid disembark in thirty seconds.” The Helm’s voice remained tense over ship-wide comm. Nate figured Dennis could learn a thing or two about calm under fire from El. Still, despite his anxiety the man did an admirable job of getting them to the deck without the dropship exploding.

The vessel’s engine roar changed in pitch, climbing to a whine. The attitude of the deck shifted as the Helm brought the nose up, scrubbing airspeed through friction and use of Endless fields. Well before Nate thought thirty seconds had time to amble past, the dropship’s wide doors opened, a ramp shooting out. Marines were already boots on metal, running for the dirt outside.

Nate released his harness, raising an eyebrow as Grace shot past and out. How is it you’re the only one still in here? Might be getting old. He clanked across the deck, making the daylight outside. It was weak and grainy, struggling with the clouds and ever-present ash in the atmosphere.

Boat had the courtesy to point the dropship’s ramp toward the Chapel. The building was huge, making the Winter Palace look like an exercise in modesty. It rose against the skyline, basalt and marble winking their contrast in the light. A massive double door waited beyond a faux hedge maze. The doors stood maybe twenty meters tall, large enough not even Kohl could persuade them open.

About what Nate figured as once-serene gardens, hundreds of civilians fought Empire forces. They used blasters as readily as weapons of opportunity. He saw a woman swing a rake at Marine, beside a man trying his level best to skewer a sergeant with the broken haft of a similar gardening tool.

Four other dropships sat to the left and right, their disgorged Marines making progress across manicured lawns. The blue-white flash of plasma fire spat across the space. Debris from a mortar explosion showered Nate with dirt, and debris nicked his face. He touched blood. You and your ideals. You could have left this to others.

“You could have left this to me!” Chad jogged past, offering a mocking half-bow and flourish as he went. The spymaster held a rapier at the ready, sidearm in his other hand.

Saveria followed in his wake. “You really should have. This leading from the front business will get you killed.”

“I was … stop reading my mind!” Nate drew his blaster, wondering what he meant to do with it. Barbecuing civilians didn’t sit well with him, so he also drew his black blade. Slightly less lethal, since you can disarm instead of skewer. The sword felt heavy with intent in his right hand. The golden fingers of his left gripped his sidearm in readiness.

CHAD Wasn’t reading your mind, you’re predictable

SAVERIA Also, we told you so

Nate broke into a ragged run. He wasn’t doing much leading from the front, what with all the waiting by the dropship. The smoke was too thick to see Grace in the melee, what with the visual noise of hundreds of people throwing themselves against the cheese grater of the Empire Navy.

Some good news in this sordid mess was there wouldn’t be Ezeroc here. No roaches boiling up from the dirt. No flying insects with stingers, ready to inject larvae into a person. The nanotech plague worked for humanity now. Algernon bought that with Saveria’s life.

A pair of frenzy-eyed churchgoers ran at Nate. One held a shovel, the other a blaster. The plasma weapon looked to be Navy standard issue, suggesting at least one of them knew how to kill Marines. Shovel-wielder was a short, stocky man who looked like he’d be more at home as a bartender. The woman holding the plasma carbine had the nervous disposition of a bomb maker. She steadied herself, pointed the weapon in Nate’s general direction, and pulled the trigger.

Future-sense tapped Nate on the shoulder. Step to the left three paces. Pause. Right two paces.

Nate danced across the grass. Plasma chewed the space he’d occupied. The woman did a double-take, then glanced at her weapon as if it were to blame. Shovel-wielder reached Nate, taking a wild swing. Nate’s sword caught the shovel on the blade, sliced through steel, and sent it spinning away. He slugged the man across the jaw with the butt of his sidearm. The should-be-an-innkeeper dropped to the dirt in a pile of unrealized potential.

He ran at the woman, blade low. Dodge right. Stop. Duck. Plasma scorched the air. Nate felt the deathly heat of it, the scent of ozone everywhere. He swung his sword, cutting the carbine through the barrel. The weapon sparked, its cartridge detonating in a bright flash. The woman screamed, tucking her burnt hands under her arms.

Nate offered her a nod, then hurried on. Ahead, he caught the gleam of steel as poetry, Grace’s sword moving as a visible extension of her will. She ducked and weaved. Unable to see the future like him, she had to rely on skill. Nate was honest enough to admit he’d rather be lucky than skilled, but Grace had the knack of making skill look desirable.

He joined her in a moment of calm. Smoke chased leaves across the grass, an eddy of wind tousling Grace’s hair. The double doors of the Chapel remained closed. He pointed with his sword. “We need to get in there.”

She nodded. “It’s lucky we brought a bottle opener. Sergeant!” Grace turned to a stocky woman who looked manufactured from granite and salt. “We need that door open.”

“Aye.” The sergeant, a woman who wore the name Hudnall like a combat boot, clicked her comm, bawling orders. Nate caught ordinance and of course there’s no hurry, it’s only the Empress. “Your Highness, might be a good time to take cover.”

Grace nodded but didn’t move. A Marine jogged up, youth and enthusiasm in every motion, a long tubular weapon in hand. He offered Grace a quick smile, shy like he was in the presence of his idol, but shut it down because he was a Marine, for heaven’s sake. “One bottle opener, as requested.”

Sergeant Hudnall glared. “You’re not getting paid overtime, Coles!”

Coles gave a curt nod, dropped to one knee, and raised his launcher. Sighting down the barrel, he paused for a two-count, then pulled the trigger.

A contrail of brilliant fire shot from the weapon to the doors. They exploded in a shower of wood fragments and steel reinforcing. Nate ducked, metal arm up to shield his head, but nothing hit him. The blue crystal glimmer of Grace’s mind-shield held before them, a bubble of safety protecting them and the two Marines. When the debris settled from raining death and fury to there’s a lot of smoke, Nate nodded to Coles. “Nice work, Marine.”

“My pleasure to kill the sworn enemies of the throne, sire.” Coles winked at Hudnall, who swore, then darted back into the fray.

Hudnall watched him go, then turned her regard on Nate. “Anything else, sire?”

“One thing. Very important.” Nate leaned close. “Try not to die. Or let anyone else die.”

Her hard face softened. “It’d be my pleasure, sire.”

Nate gave another nod, then headed toward the breached door. Grace loped at his side. “You always do that. Make them feel like they’re the most valuable person in the world.”

They arrived at the door. Flames still licked the wood. Smoke trickled toward the sky outside and the vaulted ceiling inside. “They’re laying down their lives for us. That’s a thing I can’t look past.”

“I wasn’t criticizing. I was…” She trailed off, eyes wide as she took in the Chapel’s interior. “Thankful. How is it that the Church has a Van Gogh?”

Nate stepped inside the Chapel. Or, Chapel anteroom, because despite this chamber being as large as a stadium, and something Guild Engineers would be proud to construct, it sported many doors leading to locales unknown. Around the interior lay countless objets d’art. The Van Gogh looked real to Nate’s gutter-thief eye. A statue of David copy stood in a shaft of light from above. He squinted. That may be the real David. What’s an Ezeroc-infested person want with artwork?

It caused a niggle of doubt. The Ezeroc didn’t like art. They liked food and saw humanity as a movable feast. If Cleaver had this much art here, he either had a very good interior decorator, was into the collection as a means of wealth preservation, or… Or, he’s not Ezeroc.

Nate shook his head. Saveria called the man a new kind of Queen. Chad, once he woke, agreed with her. They called Seth Cleaver a threat to humanity, not just the throne. Nate shrugged off his nagging thoughts, focusing on the mission ahead. They were here to end that threat. Intel said Seth Cleaver called this place home. Empire spies saw him here, walking about, sucking O2, and passing benedictions.

Five meters inside, feet padding down carpeted steps so plush they needed a mow, Nate felt the stirring of unease. His future-sense cast about, finding no targets, but still sending fingers of cold fear up his back. Ten meters in, even Grace felt it, slowing to a halt, blade raised, head on a swivel. “What is that?”

“Future-sense,” offered Nate. “Or, good ol’ fashioned human dread. Here we are, in the den of a spider.”

“Not that.” She shook her head. “That.”

Nate cocked his head, listening. After a moment, he felt it. So faint you might think you’d missed it, a whisper right on the edge of hearing. It sounded like the hissing of sibilant Ezeroc speech, except… Except there aren’t any Ezeroc on Earth. Not anymore.

He broke into a run. Grace kept pace beside him. A shout behind him brought him up short. “Sire!” Nate turned, taking in Hudnall and a clutch of Marines. “We still storming the gates?”

“Hold here, Sergeant. What’s ahead isn’t for you.”

She hefted her rifle. “Nothing a little plasma won’t cure.”

They’re so willing to throw their lives away for you. That’s why the vote’s important. They need to choose. “Hold here, Sergeant. No one comes through that door.”

Hudnall searched his face, then gave a tight nod before turning to her Marines. “You heard the Emperor. Secure this position. I want clean lines of fire. I want it fast. And you, Coles, will secure that expression in the black depths of your heart before you get entrenching duty!”

Nate headed down the massive room. The sense of space was eerie. It felt as if they walked inside a cavern, a stone vault constructed above, not below the Earth.

“This feels like an Ezeroc burrow,” Grace offered.

“I wish you wouldn’t say what I’m thinking,” Nate said. “It’s not helping my calm.”

“I was just saying, because—”

“Still not helping.” Nate looked about, trying to find targets. There wasn’t anyone in here. No guards. Not a single member of the faithful. Certainly no priests, or whatever the Church stocked in their stead. His sense of unease grew, rising to a crescendo as he felt the still waters of his mind ripple as someone — or something — nearby gathered their will. A powerful esper was at work here.

Grace made no comment, her lips pressed into a line. She would have felt it before him, stronger, and keener to her core. Her sword glinted from the lighting high above, but her black suit gave nothing back to the enemy’s fortress.

“Where is everyone?” Nate turned a slow circle as they approached a shallow stairway leading up a level. It was perhaps ten meters wide. The carpet was as plush as everywhere else, looking new. San Francisco’s still in ruins, but Cleaver’s found materials and people to build himself a shiny new house.

“At Mass.” Grace shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m not familiar with this religion.”

“I’m glad you didn’t say, ‘preparing a trap.’ Because that’s what I was thinking.” Nate swung his sword, getting the feel of it right in his hand.

“I didn’t say that because you’d get anxious again.”

Anxious?

“Or fretful.” She sniffed, then pointed to the doors atop the stairs. “Whatever it is, it’s in there.”

Nate nodded. No more putting this off. He jogged to the steps, swearing a little at the excessive use of vertical space as he climbed, then shouldered the doors open. They didn’t even have the decency to creak, sliding open on hinges so smooth the Guild would no doubt wonder how they worked.

Inside was a smaller room, but no less plush. At the far end was a throne, showing exactly what Seth Cleaver planned. The man already has a Church to rule but has designs on all humanity. It looked like the designer preferred the baroque styles, a tall back rising well above the natural level a human might need for good lumbar support. On the throne sat Cleaver himself.

He looked like he could stand in a hurricane and call the weather mild; his shoulders were wider than Kohl’s, and fervor burned in his eyes like a searchlight. A Caesar cut kept brown hair squared away. He didn’t smile, but Nate imagined straight pearly whites that could chew ceramicrete to powder. “Nathan Chevell.” His voice was a melody to behold. Angels would weep to speak like that.

“No.” Naturally, he’s a sending. The power we’ve felt? It’s him projecting himself into this space. But he’s so clear, so visible. Could Grace send so well? Nate wandered inside, checking out the corners. No guards, and no clergy. “It’s Emperor Chevell. For a while longer, at least.”

“My apologies.” Cleaver smoothed a silk shirt, then stood. He was a titan, grazing the lofty heights of two meters. “What can the Church do for the Empire?”

Grace raised an eyebrow. “The Church? Nothing. We’ve no quarrel with people who want to believe in something bigger than themselves.”

“What she means is, you’re scum, and we’re going to put you to the blade.” Nate hefted his sword for emphasis, then shrugged, almost apologetic. “You know how it is.”

“You wasted all these people to come here.” Cleaver smiled, like a post-cream cat. “Yours and mine both. Mine went willing into the light, Emperor. Did yours?”

“Where are you?” Nate sheathed his blade, then looked at his blaster. Probably won’t be needing that either. He holstered it. “I feel like this is anticlimactic. After Viukde, I expected a brief round of fisticuffs, then one of us bleeding our last on the dusty ground. I wanted to meet you, Pastor, and see what kind of creature figured to make me into a corpse.”

“Earth isn’t good for me right now.” Cleaver cleared his throat, the sound apologetic.

“For your kind, hey?” Nate offered a smile, showing more teeth than strictly necessary.

Cleaver shrugged. “You’re going to kill me without trial. Isn’t it odd that you seek to end your only viable opponent in the election?”

“Not sure that was a part of my plan,” admitted Nate. “I came to end the Ezeroc threat to our home.”

“You’ve nothing to fear from me.” Cleaver paced in front of the throne, like he needed to burn off a little of his brooding demeanor. “They’re a cancer.”

Grace laughed. “You are Ezeroc. You might be able to hide it from those without our gifts, but…” She shook her head. “You will not lead humanity into the darkness.”

Cleaver looked astonished. As a person who’d inflicted more than his fair share of surprise on people, Nate figured the look for genuine. “I’m but a simple pastor.”

“You’re an agent of the enemy,” Grace hissed. She tapped her head with two fingers. “I remember what you did to me. To us.” She swept her arm in a savage arc, indicating all of humanity. “I know what you put in me. I’ll release you, Seth Cleaver.”

“Thing is,” Nate injected himself into the conversation like he’d never left, “records say you were on Viukde. Head of a mission, before leaving with a powerful wind in your sails. Middling at sermons and such before, yet now you have this.”

“I’ve been blessed.” Cleaver’s teeth showed like a shark.

“Fair enough.” Nate turned to Grace. “Do you know where he is?”

She closed her eyes for a moment, then shook her head. “He’s not close. If he was blood of my blood, I might be able to… From the strength of his sending, he’s in-system.”

Cleaver nodded. “I’m not hiding, Empress. We’ll meet when the time’s right.” He snapped out like a candle on the wind, vanishing without even a puff of smoke.

Nate turned toward the doors, feeling weary. It never ends. “Best we find out where he’s gone.”

Grace nodded, then pointed to a cam above the throne. “Why do you suppose the good pastor has surveillance in his sanctum?”

“I can think of several bad reasons, and no good ones.” Nate sighed. “He wasn’t on Earth because the nanobot swarm still holds the line. He looked human, but maybe it’s only skin deep. Would the nanites kill him?”

Grace looked away. “Algernon might know.”

“Time we go ask him.” Nate strode for the door. “While we’re about it, let’s get Kohl sober. I’ve got a job for him.”

Chapter One

When the cap said he had a job, Kohl figured it for a nice easy evening of thuggery. Were it so simple. When Nate went full Emperor on him, holding out Kohl’s Captain of the Black uniform, he wondered who’d died.

The answer, it turned out, was no one, yet. Nate demanded answers, all while feeding Kohl anti-hangover medication. The one ray of sunshine in the whole experiencing was when Nate said, I need you to get intelligence, because my spymaster sucks, and Chad looked sour, like someone stole all his apples.

It was almost worth putting the uniform on for.

But he did it anyway, because talking Nate around when he was like this was a thing a post-hangover Kohl had little patience for. After he’d got out of the cap’s sight, he’d headed for his quarters, stripped the uniform off, and put on his street threads. Nate wanted the whereabouts of Cleaver, and Kohl wouldn’t get that looking like the long arm of the law. Where information like that pooled tended to be at a lower water level, the kind of place sewage settled into after it was done dirtying up the streets. While Kohl didn’t mind a fight, the places he’d be going tonight would view the uniform as a kind of challenge, and he’d be uncomfortably outnumbered.

At least the hangover meds were working.

Pants on below a mostly-clean shirt, Kohl chose boots that looked purpose-built for stomping faces. On the way out of his quarters, he snared his new laser carbine. It was much like his old one, except Hope said this one would work better. He completed his image with a sidearm, then shrugged his way into an armor vest. No sense in being an idiot about combat.

Kohl palmed the door controls and stepped into the corridor outside. His room was below the usual bright-lights-and-happy-smiles levels of the palace. It used to be a store room, and in a way it was again, because it held Kohl and his weapons. It made him hard to track down, aside from those in the know. One such knowledgeable person waited outside, all gleaming gold. “Al.”›

“Hello, October.” The construct straightened from his lounging against the wall. “Where are we going tonight?”

“‘We’re’ not going anywhere. You’re staying here, and I’m going to find out what Dizzy knows.” Kohl figured that was the end of the conversation, charting a course toward the cargo elevator at the end of the hallway.

Al kept pace easy enough. “I believe you’re likely to get yourself killed. Much as I enjoy the festive air of funerals, the Empire needs you in top shape. Chad advised things are likely to get ‘real.’”

“Chad said that?” Kohl hammered the cargo lift’s controls. It clanked somewhere in the shaft above, then began its descent. “That’s not very specific for a man in charge of information.”

“I suspect his attention is focused on other matters.”

“He’s getting laid.” Kohl rubbed the back of his head. “Makes one of us.”

“Jealousy ill becomes you.”

“I ain’t jealous. What he and Ellen do is between them. I got coin I could divert into non-drinking activities. ‘Cept, I need thinking time.” The elevator arrived, door sliding wide. The interior wasn’t dark or dirty. This was the palace, after all. It was big, used to carrying loaders and crates and Guild machinery. He stepped inside.

“You said thinking, but meant drinking.”

“Same thing.” Kohl eyed Al as he slipped into the elevator beside him.

The construct bounced on the balls of his feet, eagerness vibrating off him. He looked ready to rumble, even with that new silver arm of his. “Why are we talking to Dizzy? I thought he was a purveyor of broken starships.”

“Selling broken starships don’t pay the bills.” Kohl selected a level at random, leaning against a wall as the car jerked into motion. “Dizzy’s a hawker of more valuable things.”

“Information.” Al nodded. “So, you’re going to see Dizzy and beat the information out of him.”

“Exactly.” The car stopped, doors sliding open. Al stepped out. Kohl palmed the door controls closed after him, catching the machine’s bright-white stare before they were cut off. No sense in letting Al see the softer side of you.

He pressed another button, more carefully chosen this time. The car resumed motion, heading skyward. Above was the palace garage, replete with vehicles that’d take Kohl close enough to the slums for things to get interesting. He wouldn’t get so close as to get shot down, though.

After a minute, the car settled on the garage level, doors opening to reveal a cornucopia of sights and sounds. People scurried to and fro, loading or fueling air cars, dropships, and lifters. A wide yawning door led to the open air outside, some hundred meters above the ground. Racks of ordnance stood in orderly rows, harried Engineers moving about and speaking soothing words to machines in need of care.

Back against an air car stood Al, like he’d been there waiting awhile. “Hello again, October. Shall we go?”

Kohl stormed from the elevator. “You shouldn’t come this time.”

“Nonsense,” Al said. “I’ve prepared this vehicle for our use.”

Kohl eyed the air car. It was robust in an unflattering way, but more importantly, flew without the Empire’s falcon. Didn’t look armored, but he wasn’t fixing to shoot at or be shot by Dizzy. It’d do. “Fair enough. Get in.”

* * *

San Francisco’s night skyline was aglow, life returning as Hope, by way of her Guild, worked her magic. Almost everywhere had power, and where they didn’t, portable generators served the city’s needs.

One dark smudge on the ground marked the slums. It had less power than most parts, on account of those with an entrepreneurial spirit stealing the deployed generators.

Al piloted the air car, because Kohl didn’t want to. “I like adventures,” the machine admitted.

“I hope you like boring nights too. There.” Kohl pointed at a barren square of dirt where building foundations struggled from the ground like broken teeth. “That’ll do.”

Al guided the machine down, settling into the ruins. The doors winged open, and Kohl stepped into the night air. It smelled of smoke, more here than elsewhere, because this part of the city was hammered harder than others in the war. Also, people burned tires for fun in these parts.

He headed away from the vehicle. A group of four men rushed him from the shadows. They’d seen the air car, no doubt figuring on helping themselves. Kohl didn’t slow, winding his arm back and clotheslining the first with a swing. The man’s feet left the ground, arriving almost at his head height with the force of the strike, before landing with the rest of him on the dirt. He groaned.

The other three came to an abrupt stop. Kohl lifted the asshole on the ground up, dusted him off, and said, “I will pay you a huge amount of coin to make sure this air car is here when I get back.”

“You what?” The clotheslined man looked in decent shape, a little anemic maybe, like he could use a burger and fries.

“Here.” Kohl held out a handful of good Empire coin. “More when I get back.” He sauntered into the night, Al’s golden form jogging after.

“October.” The machine’s voice was hesitant. “You didn’t kill those men.”

“That’s right. Life’s hard enough on those down here without losing your father, or brother.” Kohl adjusted his carbine’s sling, making sure it was ready for an easy grab. “They’re just hungry, is all.”

“What if they take your coins and the air car?”

“Nate’s got plenty of cars,” said Kohl. “He won’t miss that one.”

“And if they’re still about when we return?” Al cast a glance back at the four men.

Kohl followed his stare. The wannabe thugs milled about, turning coins over in their hands, and looking confused. “I’ll give ‘em more coin. I’ve no need of it.”

“You’re not into charity.”

“I’m into recruiting, Al. We’re about to go balls-deep into a new war. One against bigger assholes than last time.” Kohl hawked dirty phlegm onto the ceramicrete sidewalk. “I want people who will fight.”

“Because they’re desperate and hungry?”

“Because they want to fucken win.” Kohl shook his head. “No place for a losing side in what’s coming next. Second place on the podium means becoming food for the roaches.”

Dizzy’s establishment was four more blocks up. The area’s quality descended as they progressed. Watching eyes followed them. Even Kohl’s non-uniformed appearance was moneyed enough to draw interest, but Al stole the show. Constructs didn’t come here often, and when they did, they weren’t made of gold.

The slums were rife with a danger economy. Men and women worked the streets, plying their bodies for coin. Others stole, or tried to, because there wasn’t much worth taking. A burned-out building held what smelled like a copper whiskey establishment, but Kohl knew it wasn’t moonshine you’d want to drink. You’d quaff it to keep warm, hoping the whiskey blanket didn’t kill you on the way.

No one tried to mug them again. Kohl was almost disappointed, because the last encounter hadn’t worked him up enough. Kimberly was always on at him about the importance of a good warm-up, and he figured on a little more action in the next hour.

Dizzy’s place was designed to be difficult to find. The small hustler kept himself off the grid. The main entrance was at the end of a warren of corrugated metal lean-tos. At one time they probably housed the desperate and needy, but the gentrification effect of Dizzy’s business shuffled ‘em on. All that was left was dirt, broken ceramicrete, and the faint smell of stale sweat curling between metal walls.

Kohl squinted at the sky above. It was dark, the moon unable to peer through the ever-present ash cloud glaring over San Francisco. He didn’t mind the darkness. If people didn’t see what he was about, it meant he wouldn’t have so much explaining to do.

“Where are we going?” Algernon stepped around a pile of rubble pinning a plastic bag fluttering in vain for freedom.

“We’re going to a fight club.” A sheet of metal rested like the others, but Kohl’s practiced eye spotted holes cut so a man could grunt it aside.

“You came here to fight?”

“No, I came here so you could fight.” Kohl grabbed the metal, gritted his teeth, and heaved. It moved about a centimeter. “Here. You try.”

Blink, blink. “You want me to fight?” Algernon gleamed as he grabbed the sheet of metal. One golden hand, one silver. He picked up the wall segment like it was a sheet of cardboard, dropping it to the side with a clang.

Kohl winced as he watched Al swivel. If I tried that, I’d be in traction for a month. “It’s what’s gonna happen.” Behind the panel was a more-or-less round hole in a brick wall, a maw of soft gums leading to a stone throat. Down the tunnel, warm yellow light hinted at things of promise. “Huh.”

Algernon raised a gleaming golden finger. “I don’t condone bloodsports.”

“It’s fine.” Kohl adjusted his belt. “Not going to be very bloodsportlike, on account of you being a machine.” He headed into the tunnel, ducking a little to get through the wall. Whoever busted the hole hadn’t figured on their clientele being plus-sized. Maybe there was a separate fighter’s entrance?

The tunnel opened out into a corridor, winding across a ceramicrete floor. Five meters in, they turned a corner and found the first dead guy. He appeared, even in death, a man with whom you wouldn’t want to fuck. Light combat armor, big arms, and tattoos over his face. They weren’t the glowing shit the kids of today got, but old-style ink like Gracie’s dragon. Kohl squatted beside the body. The dead guy’s chest was concave, like he’d been hit by a train. The face ink looked gang-related, some of it recent work. “Might be there’s a land-grab down here. New muscle, working old streets.”

“He’s still warm.” Al turned away. “Dead fifteen or twenty minutes.”

“He’s still armed, too.” Kohl checked the fallen man’s weapon. It was a stubby kinetic weapon, printed from a fabricator, but new enough. He ejected the magazine. “Still got plenty of rounds in here.”

“He shot an armored foe.” Al bent, silver fingers finding a fallen bullet. “Here.”

Kohl took the bullet. The normally rounded nose was squashed. A quick check found another four spent bullets. Quick burst of fire against a shielded enemy. One that busted in his chest and kept on walking without taking his gun. “Construct.”

“My people don’t war with yours.”

“Maybe ain’t your people.” Kohl brushed his hands, then stood. “Betting odds on you just went down, though. If there’s another construct here, it could be an even fight.”

“Hah.” Blink, blink. “Oh, you’re serious. Don’t be alarmed, October. There are no others like me left. I’m the last of my kind. A butterfly, unable to mate. The last bird to hear my own song. A lone dinosaur—”

“I get it.” Kohl lumbered on.

“Perhaps you should go.”

Kohl ground to a halt. “Why the hell would I do that?”

“Because a construct will make short work of you.” Al spread his hands. “I don’t mean to cause offense, but you’re,” he looked Kohl up and down, “meat.”

“Yeah? One of my meat buddies is in here.” Kohl pressed on, reaching a doorway. A big metal door was on the ground beyond, the surface deformed where something very strong punched it free from its hinges. The ground was scraped where metal feet found purchase. The landing beyond the door led down wide steps to a big area, in the middle of which was a fight cage. Inside the cage was nothing but body parts.

Outside the cage, also body parts. Lots of what could’ve been moneyed folk were in pieces. Kohl drew his attention back to his immediate surrounds, because right beside the door were three more guards, all down.

One was still alive. Big, ugly, bald dude. He took in Kohl, then looked past him to Al, gave a whimper, and tried to crawl away. This didn’t go so well on account of him missing an arm, the ragged bloody tatters of a stump leaving red streaks on the dusty floor.

Kohl stepped in before the guy could drag himself down the steps and maybe hurt himself more. He crouched, grabbing the guy’s belt and hauling him back. The asshole tried to fight, but all he managed to do was get blood on Kohl’s arms. “Hey.” Kohl gave him a shake for emphasis. “Hey! What happened?”

“You did.” Ugly’s eyes found Al again. “You and your kind.”

“Ah.” Algernon crouched beside Kohl. “Another construct?”

“Yeah.” The ugly guy faded. Kohl sighed, removing a stim from his combat harness. He jabbed Ugly with it. The stim hissed, and after three seconds, the guy jerked, eyes wide. “I feel—”

“You feel high on life, I get it.” Kohl slapped the side of his face. “Stay with me. A construct came in here, and did all this? Why?”

“Not another construct. Him.” The man pointed with his bloody stump at Al. “I’d remember those eyes anywhere.”

“He’s clearly delusional. All meat socks are prone to massive perception errors.” Al stood, scanning the room. “Wait here.” He went down the steps.

Kohl turned back to Ugly. “Was the construct covered in synthskin?”

“No.” A shake of the head, feeble despite the stim. “It was him. Gold. We know the Emperor’s pet machine. Didn’t figure on having to fight him.”

The pieces didn’t fit, leastways because Al’d been with Kohl all the parts of the night that mattered. “A golden construct came here?”

Ugly nodded. “There’s only one.”

“Did the construct have two golden arms? Or one silver, one gold?” Kohl jabbed a finger in Al’s general direction without looking.

Ugly, now well on the way to dying, turned his head. “Silver?” He slumped further onto the cold ceramicrete. “I don’t know.”

Kohl stood. “Fuck this. Where’s Dizzy?”

“Done. Took him.” Ugly sighed, but it was mostly air escaping a body like rats leaving a sinking ship. “Am I gonna die?”

“Probably.” Kohl tapped his comm, flagging a request for a medtech and a cleanup crew. He didn’t know if his Empire clearance would get much, but it was worth the effort. The big, ugly, bald asshole wasn’t dead, hadn’t run away, and was generally useful by way of both giving information and not crying about it. Patch him up, and he might make a good recruit. “What’s your name?”

“Does it matter?”

“Not today, but it might tomorrow.”

The ghost of a smile lit Ugly’s lips. “Then tomorrow, you’ll have it.”

“Fuck,” Kohl offered, with a hint of irritation, but it was lost on Ugly. The fallen man slipped into unconsciousness. It wasn’t pretty like in the holos. One minute there was something behind those eyes, the next his body sagged, chest barely rising with the body’s will to suck O2. No more answers there, so it was time to root through the garbage.

* * *

The fight cage was about what you’d expect if you’d been in one, which Kohl had. The wire walls brought back memories from a long time ago, when he’d been one of the people making up the grime between the cracks.

He’d had his face pressed against mesh just like the stuff here, while someone worked him over. Kohl shook his head. That was a long time ago.

The cage was about ten meters across. The mesh stretched all the way to the ceiling, fifteen meters above. The lighting up there wasn’t amazing, but he could make out handholds and chains up there. An enterprising fighter might scale the walls, either for escape or tactical advantage, and rain death from above.

Inside the cage was an abattoir. There wasn’t enough intact meat to work out how many people were fighting when shit got real. Remnants of clothes were strewn about, fabric alongside leather, all of it looking red and wet. No armor. No weapons. Wouldn’t be much fun being stuck in a cage with Al, that’s for sure, and Kohl figured whoever came in here didn’t have the golden man’s sunny disposition.

Al sidled on up, like he was cautious about poking the bear. He waited to Kohl’s left. Kohl gave him a glare. “Spit it out.”

“The blood flow in your face tells a story.”

“It says I need more cardio?”

Al shook his head. “Perhaps you should go. Let me finish this.”

Kohl grunted, turning away from the cage. “This was finished before we got here. We need to find Dizzy.”

“Because he’s a friend?” Al’s bright-white eyes scanned the room, doing what was probably the thirtieth pass for clues.

“Because he knows things. The little fuck has fingers in all the pies. This,” Kohl swept his arm, taking in the room at large, “is how a little weasel like him finds intel. Get a bunch of moneyed folk down here. Free drinks,” he pointed at a row of dispensers against a wall, “and sit back and listen for news.”

“There are no recording devices here.” Al shrugged. “I’ve looked.”

“Course not. Bad for business.” Kohl rubbed his nose. “Dizzy’s crew are in the crowd. ‘Cept, they’re in pieces now.” He sighed. “Fuck all this.”

Al stepped closer. “Come, October. We’ll find your friend.” The machine’s eyes brightened. “The good news is we have a trail to follow.”

“Bloody footprints?”

“Better. I thought about what your colleague atop the stairs said. Another golden man, like me. It makes no sense, because I’m,” he pressed his silver hand to his golden chest, “the last of my kind.”

Kohl scratched his head. “You going somewhere with this?”

“What if I’m not the last of my kind?” Al held up a finger. “Don’t interrupt.”

“I wasn’t—”

“Interrupting,” Al said. “I’ve hijacked the city’s surveillance network. There are many black spots, particularly around here. A dead end, but it got me thinking. Do you remember when I almost died?”

“This on Mercury, or the other time above Earth?” Kohl took a step toward the machine. “You know what? I reckon you should just tell me, on account of Dizzy being in the hands of bloodthirsty criminals.”

“Ah, of course.” Al’s eyes dimmed for a second. “I don’t get many opportunities to showcase my talents.”

“You mean, to show off.”

Al steamed on like he hadn’t heard. “Above Earth, in the last major battle, shrapnel penetrated my armor. Hope Baedeker provided her rig as a power source. Post that event she supplied me with a new tritium battery.”

“A what?” Kohl nudged his toe through something red and wet, uncovering an Empire coin. They didn’t steal anything. Just killed everyone and did it quick.

“An atomic energy source. Mine was very old and didn’t work well. An old tritium battery is likely to have errors. Leaks. A whiff of background radiation we can follow.”

Kohl looked about. “There was a leaky reactor in here?”

“Focus, October.” Al clapped his hands, metal chiming. “There is a trail we can follow. I believe the meat sock breathing out his last by the door was partially correct. While I wasn’t here, someone like me was. Do you know what this means?”

“We can find Dizzy?”

“It means I’m not the last of my kind.” Al’s eyes glowed like tiny stars. “I’m not alone.”

* * *

The streets out the back of Dizzy’s fight club looked much like the ones at the front. People were furtive. Lighting was bad. Nothing of value lay anywhere in reach.

Al steamed on ahead, ignoring all. He acted like a hound on a scent, eyes front, pace quick enough to force a jog out of Kohl to keep up. The buildings about them still held despair close like an old addict friend. Fires burned in barrels, but the flames didn’t make Kohl feel warm. It wasn’t the thought of following a stray radiation leak. There’d been plenty of rads in Kohl’s life. Part of starfaring life. You took your pills and the problem went away.

Al had it in his head the end of this particular rainbow held a pot of gold. Gold in the shape of a man or woman, just like him. Except they wouldn’t be, because Al was decent, if a little slow on the uptake. The construct who’d entered Dizzy’s place was a psychopath. They’d milled an entire room of people into gruel.

And maybe it was fair enough. Bloodsport audiences weren’t the most nurturing kind of folks. Could be they deserved their fate, but…

But that motherfucker went above and beyond, didn’t they? What was the term the constructs used before the cap brought ‘em onside? Rendering.

A whole room of people were rendered to a thin slurry, but then the parts’d been wasted. Left to spoil. Kohl eyed Al’s back as the golden man charged ahead. Golden, like the sun, honey, or treasure, but inside lay a crystal mind atop a heart of iron. Al was like them, in the ways that mattered, but his kind? Maybe not all of ‘em were cut of the same cloth.

Al slowed as they approached a wide warehouse. It rose thirty meters from the dirty streets. The walls were constructed of big ceramicrete blocks. It looked intact. All the windows were in place. A little graffiti spoiled the aesthetic some, as did a huddle of assholes out front. Kohl counted five. They wore robes, or maybe the right term was cassocks, but held carbines, which spoiled the holier-than-though look a little.

All the assholes turned, perhaps warned by their god, but more likely because Al was a shining gold beacon with glowing eyes. All five froze for a moment, like they’d seen a ghost. Which is probably close to the truth, on account of another golden man doing the rounds. One looked to start making a fuss. “Hold!”

“Hello, meat sock!” Al called.

The speaker did a double-take. “Meat what?”

Al strode forward. “We’re here on a matter of some importance. You’re holding a man of less than ordinary stature, about so high,” his silver hand jabbed out below Kohl’s shoulder height, “who we’d like to speak with in relation to Empire interests.”

Cassock scrabbled for his carbine. The weapon danced tantalizingly out of reach, probably because churching didn’t provide the same skillset as soldiering, but the intent was clear. Kohl unlimbered his carbine. He shouldered it in a smooth motion, the laser targeting system giving a whine. Red light painted the cassocked asshole, then his body ruptured in soupy gore. A wet splattering sound accompanied the pieces of him raining to the ground.

Al let his hand fall, glancing at Kohl. “I haven’t asked them about the other construct.”

“I’ll save you one.” Kohl moved the barrel of his carbine to cover a woman who’d managed to get her weapon up and pointed in their general direction. It whine-chunked, her body spraying backward in a shower of superheated water and meat. The wall behind her shone red and wet.

One made to run, so Kohl shot him next. Three down. Of the two left, one aimed a weapon at Al, the device roaring as he fired. Kinetic weapon. Bullets pinged off Al’s chassis. The golden man looked at his chest, then turned white eyes on his enemy. “Hold, frail human!” The man kept firing, so Al bent, picking up a stone. When he leaned forward, bullets kept coming, which made Kohl hotfoot it behind a barrel. He risked a peek, seeing Al take aim with a stone. The construct tossed it, the rock passing through his attacker’s head with the sound of a dropped watermelon. Al turned to Kohl. “What on Earth are you doing back there?”

Kohl adjusted his carbine, then leaned further out. He pointed the weapon at the final man’s legs, pulling the trigger. The laser carbine whine-chunked, the man’s leg disappearing into red mist, associated cassock parts blazing into floating carbon. He screamed and fell to the ground, rifle clattering against the rubble-strewn ceramicrete. “Your problem is you don’t understand people.”

“I understand you perfectly.” Al brushed himself off. “You take on challenges you shouldn’t, without numbers on your side. You do it often, and this is the result.” He pointed to the four dead people and one now-crying man.

Kohl worked through that. “I guess we’re kinda dumb that way.” He headed for the mewling asshole on the ground. He grabbed the front of the guy’s cassock, hauling him up. Feels pretty light, but I guess missing legs will do that to you. “Where’s Dizzy?”

“Who?”

“I have a better question.” Al arrived beside Kohl. “Where is my counterpart?”

The man, whose eyes were shining with fear, panic, dread, or a sickly amalgam of all three, settled on Al. “Gone.”

“Gone where?” Kohl gave him another shake.

The ground trembled. The rumble of a titan clearing their throat shook the air. Kohl spun to the warehouse. Through the windows, orange and white light glowed, before roiling flame blew the glass outward. Kohl ducked, glass showering around them. It sprayed across Al’s metal form, but any noise it made was lost in the thunderous roar of a starship’s main drives building pillars of fire.

From the top of the warehouse, a starship nosed for the heavens. Kohl wanted to say, you don’t launch a starship without blast walls, or, who the hell’s flying that thing? He settled for turning, making for a line of ramshackle metal at a run. He dragged the cassocked, one-legged asshole with him.

Skidding around the metal, flames on his heels, he figured this for the end. The metal wall was thick steel. It looked harvested from a dropship. Maybe a drive cowl, even. It’d take the fire but could just as easy blow away while doing so. Kohl cast about for a solution. The air felt oppressive with heat so intense it dried out his eyes and made his tongue rasp across his lips. The air hazed with it, a presence like death shouldering toward him on waves of fire.

Al rounded the wall, his body shimmering with heat. The machine punched his hands into the metal shelter, any clang lost in the raging inferno of a starship launch. Al held onto it, his perfect golden form reflecting the light of flame cascading around the edge of their little sanctuary.

The force of the flames drove the wall back, and one of the construct’s feet slipped. Kohl dropped the cassocked asshole, barging forward. He braced the wall alongside Al. He knew he wasn’t as strong as the machine, but he wasn’t going to die without standing shoulder to shoulder with his friend.

Kohl’s gloves smoked against the metal. He could feel the burning heat through them. The steel and ceramicrete sandwich of it shivered in a buffeting storm, then settled. The air stilled, but Kohl had trouble sucking it in. All the oxygen felt gone. He gasped, sliding to the ground as a starship raced for the heavens.

Al let the wall go, the big piece of metal falling away with the sound like the gong at heaven’s gate. Around them, blackened buildings smoked. A tiny lee of unscorched ground lay about them. Kohl lay back, waiting for the air to be cool enough to not burn his throat, and full of enough O2 he wouldn’t die.

The construct turned bright-white eyes on Kohl. They burned almost as bright as the starship’s drives had. “He did this. Someone like me did this.” A silver hand stretched out to the buildings about them. Screams came from the distance, but close there was nothing but the tick-tick-tick of cooling stone. “Everyone here is dead. Even their own, within the building they launched from. A starship can rise on Endless fields.” The construct turned his eyes to the heavens. “Why?”

“Loose ends,” Kohl rasped. He tried to rise, but his hands hurt where they touched the ground. Burned, most like.

Al took three steps to the robed asshole. He grabbed the man by the cassock, hauling him up and holding him at arm’s length. Where his golden hand touched cloth, fabric smoked from the heat. “Where?”

“I don’t—”

WHERE ARE THEY GOING?” Al’s voice sounded loud as a megaphone.

The man looked away. Kohl didn’t know what he saw in the construct’s face, but it sure as hell wasn’t mercy. “Mercury.”

Al let the man fall, then moved to Kohl. “I can’t pick you up. It will burn you.”

“It’s fine.” Kohl put the barrel of his carbine against the ground, pushing himself upright. “Been standing on my own for long enough. Can do it a while longer.” He took a couple wheezing breaths. “You okay?”

“No.” The construct shook his head. “Mercury is my home. It’s where my people are. And there’s a new coordinator-class construct heading there. Do you know what that means?”

Kohl considered his carbine. “Means I’m gonna need a bigger gun.”


That’s it from me this week. I hope you’re feeling better than I am! Catch you next time.

R

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