“There it is,” Trevor said excitedly, and pointed at two enormous towers of dark glass.  They were connected to each other at the base, as were several small factories and an atrium greenhouse.

Penny flinched at the sound of distant gunfire, but continued to study the imposing twin structures.  She was completely in awe.

Blade rummaged through her possessions, looking for something while grinning like a schoolgirl.  Next to her, Corcey’s delicate fingers expertly rolled a joint.  He too was grinning, which was odd, since he had yet to smoke any of the green bud sandwiched between the folded JtB paper.

They continued to walk through the bombed-out street until they reached the first security perimeter.  Electrified barbed wire stretched so far in both directions that it disappeared out of sight.  Plasteel signs in seven languages warned of landmines.  Concealed in the rubble were at least two pillboxes, bristling with heavy weaponry.  More visible, a Hamaddi in the military Party Police uniform strutted up to them.  He looked like the type of person who enjoyed smashing things.  Two guards on a small wooden platform covered them with fixed lazer rifles as he reached the group, slapping a martial arts baton testingly into one hand.

Ian pulled out what looked to Penny like a driver’s license.  Next to him, Trevor rifled his wallet for a similar card.

The guard started to reach for Ian’s identification when he noticed Corcey, standing menacingly in the back and licking the joint.  Corcey blew on it to dry it, then pushed it behind his left ear.  Beneath a black cowboy hat (that secretly doubled as a yarmulke), long dark locks fell back into place, concealing the cig.  Lusterless black sunglasses sized up the Hammadi.

The hulking Hamaddi guard swaggered past Ian and Trevor, ignored Blade and Penny, and slowly went up to the lanky, long-haired assassin.  Spurs chinked sinisterly on the asphalt: he looked to Penny like a refugee from a Sergio Leone western.

The Hamaddi stopped a hair’s breadth from Corcey, met his gaze levelly.  The massive guard looked like he wanted to crush something.  A skull, for instance.  Corcey stood his ground silently, emanating an aura of barely suppressed rage and violence.  They stared hatefully at each other for several tense moments.  In the distance, a proxyvulture screamed, dove to attack a recent victim of the surrounding war zone.  The Hamaddi snarled, and reached up to Corcey’s face.  Dark, taloned digits extracted the joint and arrogantly perched it on the tip of his own lips.

“Got a light, Ko’re Asaph?” he growled in thick accent around the fatty.

Corcey slowly reached into his skein vest, pulled out a wooden match.  Reaching up, he struck it on the guard’s cheek.  A long red blemish immediately appeared on the Hamaddi’s facial hair (which were actually fine feathers.)  He held it for the unflinching guard, who sucked thickly, held it for a full ten seconds.  After the interminable silence, he blew hot, seedy smoke in Corcey’s face.

“God damn you got ugly,” he told him, then sneaked another hit before Corcey took his joint back.

“Why do I have trouble picturing you working for Party Security?” Corcey asked him, then decided that since the jay was already lit, he may as well smoke it.  The whites around his coal black eyes turned blood red as he power-inhaled.

The Hamaddi grinned the toothy grin that had earned him the nickname Tusk.  “You kidding?  This is a great job!  Great pay,” he rubbed two fingers and thumb together, “snazzy uniform,” he indicated the outfit, which reminded Penny of an Nazi SS officer, “all the dope I can do,” he reached across for the cigarette, and just before dragging, grinned “And, I can kill anybody who pisses me off.”

Corcey nodded, approvingly.

“Want, and I can getcha an application.” Tusk added in a voice strained by a lungfull of cannabis.

“No thanks, Tusk: I couldn’t get used to the underwear.”

Tusk shrugged.  “That’s cool.  Hey, are these guys with you?”  He indicated Ian, Trevor, Blade, and Penny.


Tusk looked over to the platform, and in a sinister, power-monger voice shrieked “Pass!”

A wooden barricade with black and yellow stripes was raised, and then Tusk led Corcey (group in tow) over the threshold and off to the side.

“Lemme give ya a personal escort up there,” Tusk offered, and leaped over the side into a military air car.  It was a Cassidine APC-502, universally known as a “Hogg.”

Niiiiiiiice Hogg,” Corcey told him, eyeing it appreciatively.

“Oh yeah,” Tusk told him, and put the narcotic back in firing position.  “Hoggs are great,” and he inhaled.  “Killed my wife, with a Hogg.”

“Shotgun!” Corcey shrieked at the top of his lungs, and the two guards on the weapons platform instinctively ducked for cover as he took the co-pilot’s chair.  The other four piled into the back.

Tusk started the twin engines, and the car levitated several meters straight into the air.  He locked in another lung of smoke, and then bolted out of the lot with full lights and sirens blazing.  He careened wildly, narrowly averted three collisions, and generally flew like a totally stoned maniac.

“I love this job!” he screamed, and sucked another blast.  In the interest of self-preservation, Corcey buckled up, snagged the doobie back, and held it over his shoulder.  A soft, slender hand with long, contoured fingernails grazed his fingers a second longer than was necessary, then disappeared with the cigarette.

Blade took a drag, then passed it to Ian.  She looked at Penny, brought her finger to her smiling lips to indicate silence.  Then she turned forward and anchored a note into the pointed tip of Corcey’s hat.

Reading it, Penny giggled.


I am a prostitute

and I am red hot and ready

men only, please


Trevor passed her the remnants of the cigarette, but it was down to roach proportions.

Tusk fired a volley of high-explosive tracers at a pedestrian in his way.  The woman dove for cover, narrowly missing both being shot and run over by the insane Hamaddi.

His cry, “Get outa m’ fuckin’ way,Bitch!was drowned out by the sirens.

“So, how long ya in town for?” the driver asked his main passenger.

The lanky assassin had set about the task of twisting another aperitif.  As Penny meekly noted, Tusk’s driving was at the Hunter S. Thompson level, which made the job almost impossible.

“Couple o’ days,” he told his alien chauffeur.  “Maybe less.  We’re lookin’ for someone.”

Tusk had known Corcey in a professional capacity for over eight years.  So he knew what it meant for Corcey to be “lookin’ for someone.”  And Corcey knew Tusk well enough to hastily allay the Hamaddi’s suspicions.  “Don’t worry,” he added, “this isn’t a hit.”

“Who you lookin’ for?”  The security officer stabilized his driving enough to hear the reply.

Cloying smoke drifted from the back, accompanied by feminine hacking.  By the sounds of it, Blade’s lungs were aching for air.  It gave Corcey resolve to finish rolling his treasure.  He put it up to his mouth, snapped open a match, and lit it.  As he inhaled, he looked the Hamaddi dead in the eyes.

Pregnant pause, then “Wicked Lester.”

{Pause for thunderclap on soundtrack}

The Hamaddi nodded, clearly impressed.  He held Corcey’s eyes.

Not a hit?”

Corcey passed the cigarette to his left.  Grinning widely, he echoed “Naw, man.”  The driver relaxed visibly.  He accepted the peace pipe and took a toke.  Corcey smiled his Mickey Rourke smile. “So, has ya seen him?”

Tusk thought of taking another puff, decided he was just about where he liked to be, and passed both the joint and an answer back.

“Last I saw him was about two days ago.  He was hung over and had a tude, but I’m sure he’s sweetened since then.”

“Why do I have an image of a rectum tightening?” pondered Corcey aloud.

“Because we’re talking about Lester and we’re stoned.”

Corcey nodded: it was The Truth.

He, too, decided he’d reached cruising altitude, and turned around to the back.

“Party Favour?” he offered.  Blade accepted, and again her hand touched his a little longer than was truly necessary.

“Thanks,” she told him, and the raised curves of her angel’s mouth slid into a smile.  She held the smile a little longer than was necessary, too.

When Corcey turned back to talk to Tusk, she turned back to Penny.  Blade didn’t know why, but she was feeling slightly materialistic toward this Earthling.  They had been talking about literature.  Blade was describing her favourite book, Three Faces of the Sane, when Penny remarked that the plot was very similar to an Earthly book called The Brothers Karamozov.  This came as little surprise to either.  Blade had already talked about authors whose style reminded Penny of Tennessee Williams and Woody Allen.

“The Earthly literature genre that interests me the most is science fiction,” Blade told her, “because these authors are making up stories about what is essentially my world.”

“How accurate are they?” Penny asked her.

“Depends.  The worst was some idiot named M. Thomas Farrell.  He’s obviously never been to outer space.”

“I doubt that more than a couple hundred people from Earth have been.  Farthest we’ve been was to our moon.”

“That’s understandable, I guess.  You haven’t even broken the light barrier yet, let alone the others.

“There are things faster than light?” Penny asked, stunned.

“Seventeen known things, to be exact,” answered Trevor. “One of them was discovered by the guy we’re going to see.”

“Just who is this Wicked Lester?” Penny asked.

“If I understand your planet correctly,” Ian told her, “Lester would be what you get if you crossed Albert Einstein with Thomas Edison and W. C. Fields.”

“In other words,” inserted Trevor, “He’s a mathematical genius whose love for tinkering is proportional to his love for alcohol.”

“And other sundry items,” added Ian, and took a puff from the joint for emphasis.

Trevor took it next.  “I actually saw part of a W. C. Fields movie my first time on Earth.  It was totally beyond me.”

“It was probably too primitive for you,” Penny suggested.  “Say, what are movies like out here?”

“About the same,” Trevor told her, and handed her the smoking tip of the cigarette.

“What, they’re not 3-dimensional, or like Huxley’s ‘feelies’?”  Uncertainly, Penny sucked on the roach.  It flew into her mouth and down her throat.

“Oh, we have those,” Blade told her while patting her on the back.  The coughing spasm ended, she continued, “but the production cost is so exponential that they only do very, very special films that way.”

The air car began to slow down.

“Like what?” Penny managed to ask.

“The most recent one was a biography of Cheq'Deth.”


“You’ve never heard of Cheq'Deth?” Ian and Trevor said in stunned tandem.

“I’m from Earth,” Penny explained.  They nodded, and Blade giggled.  Her grin was growing wider, and it took little guesswork to figure out why.

They were dropping speed rapidly as the towers drew closer.  As the wind stopped whistling, the signature shriek of gyrojets could be heard in the distance, each ending in a sharp explosion.  Tusk’s sharp ears had already heard them, and the fainter retorts of lazerfire.  They came from behind, and he paid more attention to the rear view than to the front.  He was reducing his speed but not heeding his path.  Failing to distinctly discern the cause of the fighting behind him, he turned his attention before him and managed to pull the hogg’s snout up in time to glide up and over the worn marble stairway to the grand courtyard.  Quickly banking and breaking, he spun to a stop neatly between two of the giant pillars.  A small storm of loose scrap whirled about in its wake. 

Corcey swung out of the aircar first.  He dropped to the ground, and bounced under to the driver’s side of the hovering vehicle.

“Hey, thanks for the ride, man,” he said to their chauffeur.

Tusk leaned over and slapped hands with him.  “No problem, Bro’.  Thank you for the weed.  I’d hang, but I gotta get back to work.  Hey, hope I see you again.”

By then, everybody else was out.  Tusk choked the throttle and bolted out of there with a hail of gunfire.

They walked up to the front entrance, which struck Penny as what the lobby for Satan’s Corporate Headquarters would look like if done in green glass and black marble.  The emblem of The Party was inscribed in gold on a badly scuffed floor.

In Galaqommon calligraphy,




Through the revolving doors, and under security orb scan up to the front desk.

Or so they had tried. Toned and honed security lurked in every shadow.  The moment they were inside, a big bouncer reached over and grabbed Ian.  Thick, heavily tattooed arms pulled him into a beefy chest, and a sinister voice sneered “Let’s see your invitation.”

Ian was quick to show the plastic card that Penny had mistaken for a driver’s license.  Sausage link fingers squeezed ahold of the card, and studied it.  Right over the qomputer bar code was boldface print:  PS1  Ian’s nose was pressed into the nicotine yellow tank top of the guard.  Feebly, he noticed an id laminate that hung around the guard’s thick neck on a leather thong.  It, too, had boldface print:  EVENT STAFF

“He’s got Party clearance,” the bouncer yelled to the other guards, and let Ian go through to the next checkpoint.  The others had shown their cards to guards, and they too were let through.  This left Penny feeling very alone and deserted.

Bubba the Barbarian Bouncer strolled up to her, smacking one gauntletted fist into the other.  Except for the plasma rifle, though Penny, he looks just like a biker.

“Can you verify your Party Status for me, there, Dahrlin’?”

The question came from behind the maxidenim-clad guard.  A grossly rotund figure in a bullet-proof white jumpsuit swaggered up.  He looked at Penny with tender doe eyes, then ran his hands along his jet-black pompadour.

“Uh-Howdy, Ma’am,” he said coyly, “Are you, uh, are, are you a member of our li’l Party here?”  He flashed his eyebrows.

Penny stammered, Blade jumped to her rescue.

“She’s with us.”

“Uh-Thank you, ma’am, we’ll, uh, we’ll a-take it from here.”  His grin at Blade caused his muttonchops to wrinkle along the sides of his face.

The two guards strolled up to her, and without breaking stride picked her up and walked away. Penny was about to protest when she saw Blade wave reassuringly at her  Penny was not reassured.  A transcription of her thoughts at that moment would have made nineteen eighty-four seem cheerful and optimistic by comparison.

Indeed, they did carry her into a room conceptualized by George Orwell and designed by Stanley Kubrick.

A qomputer from the mind of Terry Gilliam stuck its viewscope into Penny Walls’s face as it asked “Name?”

“What?” asked Penny, startled.

Your last name is ‘What’.  Please state your first name.

“It’s not ‘what’!” exclaimed Penny.  Bubba the Bouncer had taken off his maxidenim vest with the titanium chains, and was flexing his muscles, limbering up.

Please answer the following questions, Not What.

“That isn’t my name!” Penny protested.

Your name is not ‘Not What’?” the qomputer asked her.  “What change do you wish to make?


Change requested is an ‘I’.  Will now insert.  Your name is now no longer is ‘Not What?’  Your name is now ‘Nit Wit’.

Penny: “Isn’t this a Monkey’s sketch?”

Bubba looked irritated, and then launched a bludgeoning fist into the robot.  Under the crushing blow of the strike, the machine literally crumbled to scrap.

“I hates it when these damned things go on the blinq.”

"Name?"    The question came from behind Penny, and the voice that asked it wasn’t human.  She turned, and saw a Saladrin with a lab smock fitted around its atmosphere suit.  It was holding a clipboard, and the faceplate stared at her expectantly.

“Penny Walls,” said Penny Walls.

"What planet are you from?"

“Earth.”  She said the name with some pride.

Long pause.

"Third from a yellow sun, one moon?"

Penny was impressed.  “Yes!  You’ve heard of it?”

"I heard someone mention it once.  They went hunting there."  Another curious pause.  "He said they did not have humans on that planet.  It was mostly dinosaurs."  An even longer pause.  Then the voice box modulated:  "Are you a time traveler?"

Again, Penny was impressed.  “Not by intention, but yes!”  Then she wondered if she had said too much.  She didn’t understand Trevor and Ian’s agenda; she was just along for the ride.  “Is that a problem?”

"No," the Saladrin told her.  "Stoneburner's is actually started by Stone about two hundred years form now.  Depending on your point of view, we've been here twenty-three years, five years, or negative two hundred years.  We are tolerant toward temporals, as long as their money is good." 

“Do you take American Express?”

Coldly, "No."  The two bouncers laughed appreciatively.  "Are you a party member?" 


Bubba began to go over her with a metal detector.

"Do you intend to become one?"

“Uh, I don’t know,” stammered Penny.  “I’m with some friends, and we’re looking for someone here.”

"So you're just visiting then?"

She shrugged.  “I guess.  Is that all right?”

“She’s a, she’s got a sheezwithme voucher from one of the other party members,” drawled the guard in the lizard-skin shades.  “Cute li’l darlin, too.”  He smiled appreciatively, and rolls of flesh rippled.

Bubba finished with the detection, and was satisfied she had no large weapons or bombs.  “That’s fine, we just need a blood test.”

“You know,” Penny told him, “I thought you said ‘Blood Test’.”

“We’re going to drain you a quart off to an-ee-lize.”

“Is that the time?” Penny exclaimed, glancing at her watch.  “Well, I hate to tell ya this, but I gotta...”

"We just need a drop, actually," the Saladrin said.

“Why?” she demanded.

"Security—both yours and ours.  MegaClap got in here twice in the past year, and each time infected 80% of the Party within two days.  We had to spend half our budget on nucleic penicillin."

The hippopotamus in the white rhinestone battle-jumpsuit had painlessly taken the sample before she knew it.  The device quickly scanned it for venereal disease.  Penny, who had so far managed to avoid both sex and blood transfusions, had none.  The device also checked her DNA against samples on store in its qomputer files.  It was indexed against the samples of people the Party disliked, universally known as The Stoneburner Shit List.  To get on the Shit List, you had to do something really bad.  Acts of hostility against the Party usually did it.  So did killing a Party member, obviously.  And hoarding booze (as opposed to sharing it.)  Penny, of course, was unknown to the qomputer.

“She’s clear” the guard called.

"Anything to declare?"

“Yes,” said Penny with a straight face, “I’m not wearing any underwear.”

Bubba was typing at a console, and he dutifully added that little piece of information to the data he was entering.  A moment later, five qameras flashed in sequence around her.  Stunned, she heard the hum of machinery.  Just as her eyes cleared, the guard strolled over on blue suede combat boots and handed her a card.  It had a hologram of her on it, and they’d even spelled her name correctly.  Over the bar code, it read  GC (1)  – – S – –

Gate Crasher level 1

Then she was led out the back way, through several dim corridors, past electric double doors, and straight into the lunatic asylum.

Through the thick crowd she was thrust, and then the restraining hand disappeared, as did the guard.  Looking at the absurdity around her, she was very relieved to see Blade and Corcey standing against the far wall, laughing at each other.  After a couple of moments, Blade saw her and waved, and then Corcey smiled.  They walked through the crowd toward her.  Penny noticed that everybody around her had their id cards prominently pinned to themselves.  She followed suit, clipping it to her shirt.

There you are,” said Blade.  “Trev’ and Ian went in to look for Lester.  We thought we’d wait for you.”

“Thanks,” said Penny.

Blade smiled at her, then turned around and began to walk toward the Party Forum.  Penny looked from the retreating albino to the tall Thune standing next to her.  Corcey drew a finger over his mouth, and it took Penny a moment to decipher the universal code for silence.  He smiled playfully at her, and went to follow Blade.  Penny frowned, then looked at the two of them.  After a moment, she suppressed a laugh.  Corcey’s hat no longer had the little note that Blade had lodged in it.  However, her sugary white braid had a piece of paper insidiously anchored to it.  Blade now announced this to all literate people behind her:


blonde nympho 

$10 = 10 minutes

ask about group specials!


She hurried to catch up to them.

She got to the security checkpoint they had just passed through.  Beyond the checkpoint was the first floor of the Party Forum, plus elevators to get to the other floors of the Tower.  A tremendous din could be heard in the distance.

The guard in the booth was a girl with raspberry hair done in a French twist.  She was scrunched up over the desk, and Penny heard this as she approached:

“(snort)  ...yeah...  (snert)   ...wow...  (phnnnnnnnttt)   ...yeah...   ...yeahhhh...  ...    ...  ...yeeaaahhhhhhhhhhh!!!!

She looked up at Penny, nodding slowly.  After a moment, she could focus on the brand new id card.

“Want your hand stamped?” she managed to ask.

For some reason, Penny thought of Disney World, and the handstamps they gave you for readmission.

“Sure,” she said with an innocent smile.

She was expecting to see Mickey or Goofy, or something fun.  She was hugely disappointed when the stamp left a completely unrecognizable blur on her hand.

She felt cheated.  She wanted a hand stamp!

“Do it again” she instructed the girl.  “It didn’t come out.”

It took four more tries, actually, before Penny realized that the ghastly bruise-blue stamp actually had no definable shape.

Penny left the booth, walked up to Blade and Corcey.  They looked stunned.

Wow.  You’ve got balls,” Corcey said, truly impressed.

“Yeah,” concurred Blade, “That’s the most acid I’ve ever seen anybody take in my life.

Edited highlights of Penny’s life flashed before her eyes as she mouthed the words “I’m going to die, aren’t I.”

“No you’re not; now come on.”  And for the second time that day, she was picked up by the arms and taken off to a sinister room.

“It’s okay,” Blade told her on the way.  “Just take a deep breath, count to ten, and then concentrate on who you are.”

Good advice that Penny followed.  Corcey looked at her, slightly concerned.  “You okay?

One...  ...two...  ...three...

Penny nodded hesitantly.  The onrushing sensations were enjoyable, but the newness of the experiences took more than a little getting used to.

...four...  ...five...

They had dragged her off to the side, where the medical facilities for this level were.  Unlike many areas in the two towers, the medical facilities had unrestricted access to all.  Made sense.

...six...  ...seven...  ...eight...

As Penny counted to herself, she was struck with the revelation that whoever created the phonetic sounds to represent these words had no appreciation for aesthetics.  The numbers sounded stupid.  Actually, so did most of the words in the English language, now that she thought about it.  Like “nerve.”  Sounded like some weird word that Steve Martin would come up with while stoned.  And how about...

Blade: “Still with us, Penny?”

Brought back to reality, she decided that she was.  A quote from one of Matt’s tapes served as her answer:

“Sorry, it’s starting to hit me like a two ton... heavy thing.

Two doctors pushed a gurney past them, a Hamaddi strapped down to it.  Penny looked at them wonderingly as Corcey reached over and removed her id tag.  He shoved it into a machine, causing the screen to come to life with information.  Penny nodded: so these cards were more than just outer space equivalents of the “Hello, My Name Is...” theme.

A Hamaddi nurse came up.  “Can I he’p you?” she asked around a mouth-full of bubble gum.

Blade explained the problem, and the nurse nodded.  She went to the far wall, and put her id card into the qomputer loq on the medicine cabinet.  It opened for her.

Penny decided to sit this one down, and perched herself in a comfey chair.  It moved when she landed on it.  Brass wheels on the legs, she noticed.    The upholstery was some type of leather, though probably not from a cow or a horse.  Doubtless they had equivalents in space.  She amusedly pushed herself around the room in her chair when The Revelation hit her.  People used to ride animals whose skin made leather.  That tradition continued with this chair.

“Hey,” she announced, and pointed toward her chair, “this is my steed!”

Blade and Corcey looked at each other despairingly, and shook their heads.  Just then the nurse returned with a glass vial.  The equivalent to an eyedropper was built into the lid.

She glanced at the screen, to know who her patient was.

“'Kay, Walls,” she said reassuringly as she undid the lid.  “This is Liquid Reality.  Stick out your tongue, please.”

Penny looked at the Hamaddi nurse.  It was actually her first up-close encounter with one.  Her hazed mind saw the alien features melting into something like Godzilla.  She blew out a long breath and shook her head to clear it.  After a moment, she opened her mouth, and stuck out the pink tip of her tongue.  The nurse brought the dropper up to her mouth.  Penny saw it rise up in slow motion, leaving a technicolour trail behind it.  Two drops of clear Reality boldly plummeted from the plastic tip and onto her fleshy tongue.  Penny did not feel the impact or taste it; her brain was rerouting all sensory input to the wrong receivers, so she smelled the drops touch her tongue, and heard the bland flavour.

Again the nurse looked at the monitor, and then typed in a brief account of the incident in the Medical History window.  The qomputer debited her for the service.  The nurse saw Penny’s status: Gate Crasher with level 1 access only.  Unlike Party Members, Gate Crashers got no credit.  Penny would have to pay her medical bill (plus any other expenses she was bound to run up) before leaving the Party.

That was the system in theory, of course: it was how the Party helped pay for itself.  It was also one of the reasons for the security.  Keep rival Parties and undesirable from getting in, and to make sure that no one with obligations to the Party’s Minister of Finance got out.

Of course, none of the Party Security or Financial Officers knew that Penny was in partial possession of a portable four-dimensional displacement field, and could leave any time she sodding well wanted to.  In fact, no one in the Party knew it, but that was something Trevor and Ian intended to change.

They were currently cruising the pavilion on the 23rd floor, looking for the one person that they would tell about their little toy.  So far, no sign of him amidst the chaos and throng of people. That throng, they noticed, was divided into two distinct groups.  One group milled around mumbling “Peas and carrots, peas and carrots, peas and carrots...” while the other group mumbled “rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb,...  ...Party rhubarb...”  After several cocktails, it began to sound like a two-part chant.  Distantly, Trevor caught dialogue in the chant.  It came from two people looking at a vidio monitor.

“Wow,” one said over a myriad of feminine screams and cries of anguish, “That’s too good to be artificial.  They must really be hacking her up.”

But aside from people who liked snuff films, they hadn’t located the one person they wanted.

Who they found was much worse.

“Oh shit,” Ian said to Trevor.  “Kauckmeister at 11 O’clock.”

Trevor spat out the champagne he’d been sipping in surprise and horror.  No one noticed, and the stain of spilled bubbly was added to the multitude of mars already in the carpet.  “Has he seen us?”

Ian was already backtracking, trying to hide behind a fold-out table that had largely been picked clean of hors d’oveurs.  Just as he was about to say “no,” the obsequious personage they were avoiding happened to glance their way, and instantly spotted them.

“Trevvie baby!” he cried, and abandoned the person he’d been talking to in favour of rushing over to Ian.  The girl he’d been talking to knew a good thing when she spotted it, and got as far away as she could.

“Oh, shit, he’s coming over,” whimpered Trevor.

“Do we have time to slit our wrists?” Ian asked.  His response was a bear-hug from a rolly polly mound of sweat that smelled like a cross between gardenias (his cologne) and day-old pork rinds (his last meal.)

“Trevor!” he again cried to Ian.

Trevor thought of correcting him, decided not to.

The annoyance looked at him, pointed a finger, and announced “Liam?”

Ian smiled, and pried himself away.

“Good to see you, Kauckmeister,” both lied.

“Hey, you look great,” he told Ian.  Ian began to wonder what was wrong with his appearance. Kauckmeister wore a double-breasted sharkskin suit that was about two sizes too tight.  His shirt was open to reveal a chest that had something more akin to fur than hair on it, with a number of thin gold chains dangling.  His hair was slicked back; the front top was silver white, the back was jet black.  At least he couldn’t be blamed for idiotic die jobs: that was a genetic hick-up from his home world.  But still, Kauckmeister was the last one you’d want fashion advice from, and if he liked Ian’s look, Ian knew there was something wrong with it.

He swigged from a bottle of amber death, then asked “So, how long you two been here?”

“About ten minutes,” Ian said, stalling for time until he or Trevor could think of a way to escape.

“Well, I’ve been here a full month now, and just officially joined The Party!”  He indicated his id card clipped prominently to the jacket’s pocket:  PMGS (1)  MDSN–

Party Member in Good Standing, with Party Clearance level 1.  Here primarily for the Music, Drugs, Sex, and to Network with other professional Party members.

“I bought my way in,” he told them in a tone of confidence.  Trevor wondered if gnawing his leg off so he could limp off to the infirmary would be a good escape ploy.  No, he decided: it would have to be an arm, so he could run out.

“I’m not one of the original Party members, of course,”  Kauckmeister droned on.  “But I get to work closely with many of them.  The Minister of Economic Development put me in charge of soliciting bids from six galaqtiq breweries for the right to build a distilling factory right next to The Tower.[1]  And the Pharmacy has been synthesizing all the drugs here for a full year now, and not only has it paid for itself, but it’s shown a 200% growth as well.”  Kauckmeister smiled.

Ian hated Company Men (or in this case, Party Men) as badly as he hated Amateurs.  Beyond the Boor, Ian saw two girls in expensive, short (and suggestively cut) dresses talking.  One of them, an attractive natural blonde with way too much mouth, looked at him, made eye contact, and smiled a smile that gave him a full erection before coyly turning back to her feminine friend.  Born far-sighted, Ian was able to read her tag from where he stood.  Both she and her friend were Gate-Crashers here primarily for Sex.  He tried to walk around the impeding D’Artagnon to get over to the girl, but Kauckmeister held up a hand to stop him.  Bloated fingers took ahold of his clipped card.  PS1  Party Status, but was more an honourary member than an actual one.  Undoubtedly because he hadn’t spent enough cumulative time there.

“You know, you should consider joining The Party, Trevvie.  I can introduce you to the Acting Host.”  The current Host, of course, had overdosed while at a peace summit with a rival Party two weeks ago.  She was recovering slowly, but at least a treaty had been negotiated: the Opposition Party felt ashamed at the poor quality of the drugs they supplied that had caused the o.d.  About a third of the people here at the Tower were actually Opposition Partiers.  They had been granted Goodwill Party Clearance, but obviously no access to the higher levels.

“You always were good at logistics, and with the new distillery in swing, we need a good man...”

Ian saw the girl look his way once more.  She looked upset that he hadn’t come over yet to play.  She smiled once more, a smile that caused him to openly salivate, and he again tried to scoot past Kauckmeister.  He was, of course, halted.

“Hey, how about we go up to the 101st floor!  L@zerhead’s booked for three days.  Saw ’em last night with Detonator and one of the House bands.  Boss show.”

Ian’s would-be beloved glanced one last time at him, decided that he was either unable or unwilling to come over.  She waved good-bye to him, then she and her friend walked arm in arm over to the turbo lift.  She arrived just as the elevator did.  They both climbed on, and the doors closed just as the next elevator arrived.  Ian watched her disappear, then saw the doors open on the next lift.  A Saladrin got off, and the doors began to close.  Just before it did, he saw who remained on board, intent to go somewhere else.

Ian grabbed Trevor.  “Just spotted Lester on the elevator.”

Trevor quickly shook hands with D’Artagnon.  “I’m on the run from my ex-wife, and I just saw her.  Bye.”

The two of them managed to get to the elevator pad.  Indicators showed that both lifts were dropping to Level Two of the Party Floor.  They summoned a third lift just as the first one arrived 21 floors beneath.

The first elevator slid to a stop, and Ian’s dream girl stepped out into the Party Forum.  A moment later her friend joined her, and together they surveyed the pickings.  There were many people crowded about, all socializing in bizarre ways.  She looked around, and quickly noticed a lurchingly tall man with a fantastic figure.  He had a swimmer’s body: wire-muscled and well-toned; it looked naturally developed, not like he spent five hours in the Party gym each day.  He was very dark and brooding.  His clothes were dark, his skin was dark (and dirty), and he had a very palpable aura of Dark power to him.

It really turned her on.

She studied him, trying to catch his eyes with hers.  He was busy talking to two girls.  One was a tall, slender Caandelenian, the other a younger Earthling.  Earthlings were always so easy to spot: they looked perpetually confused.

The Earthling asked him a question, but he shrugged.  Then the slender Amazon in the mini-skirt, white stockings, and strappy stiletto heels started talking to him.  After a moment, it struck Ian’s lost love that her rival wasn’t actively flirting with him.  In fact, it looked like they were discussing business.  Just as she realized her good fortune, he glanced over the milky white shoulder of the speaker and looked directly at her.  She locked eyes, put on 10% of a smile, and then went with her friend to get some more wine.

Corcey watched her walk off, 10% of a smile on his lips as well.  Rather jarringly, he returned his attention Blade’s question.  He found her looking at him amusedly.  She had correctly identified Corcey’s distraction, and upped the ante to a 25% smile.  Her light gray pupils were but mere specs; like her complexion and hair, her eyes were almost all whites.  The dilation had a lot to do with her THC level, but Penny saw something else in her eyes beside Marijuana.  Playful jealousy.

“I think we should, uh, split up and look for Lester,” Corcey announced.  “We’ll cover more ground that way.”

Blade started to laugh quietly in a brief spasm.  When she recovered, she was forced to admit that in this case, he actually did have a point.  Corcey hunted people for a living; having two tag-alongs would slow him down considerably, especially since neither of them knew what Lester looked like.  She held the tip of her tongue between her front teeth.

“Okay,” she said at last.  Then she held up two fingers, warningly.  “You just behave yourself out there.”  The fingers slapped him across the nose.

“Thank you, sir, may I have another?”

She smiled him off.

As he walked away, she noticed her sticker was no longer on his hat.  Maybe it had fallen off, or...  She snaked an arm around back, felt her braid, and discovered his message.  She read it, and looked up to his disappearing form.

“I’m not blonde, and I’m worth more than ten,” she said to his back, then tossed the note after him.

“Dollars or minutes?”

“Yes,” Blade said with a lusty grin.  Corcey had been swallowed by the crowd.

“Excuse me, ” Penny said to her awkwardly, “But I have no idea what Wicked Lester looks like, and if we split up, I doubt I can find either of you again.”

Blade turned to her, the remnants of her mood still visible in her expression.

“Don’t worry,” she said, and patted her affectionately on the shoulder.  “I don’t know what he looks like, either.  So let’s Party until somebody who does finds him.”

This idea appealed to Penny, especially since she was in the very midst of what, with the alliance with the Rival Party, was now the largest (and most powerful) Party on the planet.  Not, however, in the galaxy.  Two other Parties dwarfed the ones on this planet.  One was Rigel IV, whose Party used, in one way or another, every millimeter of the planet, and was powerful enough to dictate policy for its entire solar system.  The other was Sygnus BX, which was run purely for profit—unlike the others.  Penny didn’t know any of that, of course.  She only knew that there was one Hell of a Rave going on around her right now, and she wanted to be able to say that she was a part of it.

Still, there was this nagging Lester business.  She was about to ask how the others would find her and Blade in this crowd, then somehow knew that they would have no problem.  Corcey struck Penny as being the equivalent of an American Indian: an expert tracker.

Just as they set about looking for the booze, Corcey apprehended them both with titanium grips.  He leaned in between them and whispered “Lester just got off the elevator we’ve been standing next to, and is walking to the Forum’s control room.”  He slapped them both on the shoulders, and passed through them in rapid pursuit of their quarry.

Corcey had to remind himself that he wasn’t supposed to kill the person he was chasing.  Still, he felt all the primal excitement of the hunt as he pursued Lester.  Corcey loved the thrill of the chase, the closing in for the kill.  It was an odd coincidence that he took the time to enjoy the chase at that moment, for seven years to the day in his future, he would begin the most important hunt he would ever undertake, and would feel the same adrenaline buzz.  He walked quickly toward the retreating figure wearing old jeans with a cowboy-style tool belt slung around his hips.  Penny alone recognized Lester’s t-shirt: four white outlines of facial make-up, and the title ‘KISS’.  Penny was also the only one who could have identified the glass bottle of clear fluid he carried in on hand.  Official purveyors to the Russian Court, 1886 to 1917.

That’s right, Wicked Lester was (proudly!) drinking the third worst alcoholic beverage in the Known Universe: rubbing alcohol with gun metal lube and random floor sweepings (packaged, in this case, under the name of ‘Smirnoffs’.)  The Second Worst was a Saladrin concoction, Ol'Janx'Spyrtt   The worst, of course, was another Earthly beverage, ‘Tequila’.

Wicked Lester reached the back wall of the forum, and went up to a door stenciled AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY.  His id tag had WORKING CREW  ALL ACCESS on it; he angrily shoved it into the slot.  The door hissed open.

Trevor and Ian bolted out of the elevator at the other end of the room.  Ian’s sharp eyes quickly picked out the distinctive white mane of Blade as she ran across the floor.  Looking ahead of her, he spotted Corcey, and disappearing through a door, Lester.

Just then, Trevor and Ian were apprehended for the second time by a Party member.

“Trevor!  Ian!  Hey, this is perfect!”

Trevor turned to see the sharp face of Rat.  She’d cut her mousy brown hair since they’d last met.  Close-cropped to her head; it looked good.

“Rat, it’s great to see you, but we gotta...”

She grabbed the both of them.  “We gotta talk,” she said.

Ian watched Lester disappear.  Corcey was the closest to catching him: he and Trevor were too far behind.

“It’s important,” Rat continued, and the arms restraining them slid around them both as she escorted the two to the elevators.  “I think you’ll be very interested in what I have to say.”

Twenty minutes into the future, they would be sitting in Rat’s office, listening to a most extraordinary tale.  And indeed, she would tell them something most interesting.

Twenty minutes into the past, the motherboard for the Forum’s sound system suffered a mysterious accident, and shut down completely.  That was why the Forum had no Multi-Disco dance mixes blaring in it.  The maintenance and sound crew were unable to get it running again, so they called in... Wicked Lester.

Lester resented being called in.  He certainly had better things to be doing, but he knew he had to do this: it was part of the arrangement that let him stay here with Sara.  Besides, he had a pretty good idea of what the problem was, so it shouldn’t take too long.  Stupid gits in Control.  He let the door shut behind him, and began climbing a service ladder to the gondola.

The door clicked shut just as Corcey got to it.  He punched it in frustration: his card gave him access to the liquor cabinets and the pleasure cubicles, but not to the important things.  Blade, however, had long ago considered it wise to join The Party, and so her card would open the door.  He waited impatiently as she and Penny caught up to him.

Just as Blade slid her card through the scanner, loud maxi-metal began shrieking from the speakers.  It was the latest from Blue Fire Lady...



 “The Baby-Eating Bishop of Baths & Wells.”


The Creature from the Black Latrine came knocking on my door

Baldrick awakens us from our slumber

(Good thing, too, for this one charges by the hour)

But fortunately it was only half past four

“My Lord,” he cries, to my surprise, “There is a priest for you outside.”

“Go away, you ugly knave,” sleepily I reply.

“To disturb my rest, you annoying pest, you must surely wish to die,

“So leave me be, run and flee, or I’ll skin and mount your hide.

“And go and tell this bothersome guest, ‘Sod off, annoying priest,

“Or I shall tell the Bishop of Baths & Wells, who upon babies he does feast.”

Then away slinks Baldrick, manservant most rotten,

And I turn to the girl whose name I’ve forgotten

When Baldrick comes crashing through my portal

And behind him I hear a chortle

And the cry, “I am the Baby-Eating Bishop of Baths & Wells!”



Up above, Wicked Lester held the filthy screen for the qomputer’s coolant fan up like a half-eaten cookie in a room full of dieters.  He lectured them on how they shouldn’t smoke pot in the control room, because it clogs up the fan’s screen, which makes the motherboard overheated and shut down.  Phuqing idiots!

He left them, and began descending the ladder, only to step on the head of someone climbing.

“Clear below, asshole!” he shouted in a voice that was surprisingly high-pitched.

“Lester, if you don’t get that stinky foot off my head, I’m gonna rip it off and club you to death with it.”

Surprised pause, then: “Corcey?”

“Hey, Lester...!”

Lester quickly climbed back up to allow his old friend up.  Corcey helped Blade and Penny out of the vertical tube.

“Lester, this is Penny and Blade.”

“Hi,” he said to each.  Blade smiled back.

“Got tired of the mohawk?” Corcey asked, indicating Lester’s hair.  It was one length, and spiked Johnny Rotten Red.

“Believe it or not,” Lester said, and tried to subdue a laugh, “I was working on a mazer suppression grid, and fried myself with a couple megavolts.  Didn’t kill me, but all my hair fell out...”

“Oh, man!” said Corcey, and he started to laugh.  Blade joined in, but Lester laughed hardest.

“Yeah, this shit’s funny now, man, but hey...  Anyway, I’m just gonna let it grow out to one even...   Hey!”  Suddenly, he turned his attention from Corcey to two of the teqnicians standing by the mixing board.  One had a lit joint in his mouth, and was playing with the p.a.’s reverb.

“I just told you not to smoke that shit in here, man!” Wicked Lester screamed shrilly.

The sound engineer looked up from the console, startled.  He looked like the boy who got caught with his hand in the fudge.  Lester stomped up to him, and yanked the joint from his mouth.  He held it up menacingly.

“You want the motherboard to fry again?  Get the phuq out!”

The roadie started to reach for his joint, but Lester screamed “Out!” at an impressive alto octave reminiscent of Jesus clearing the Temple.  The roadie slinked out the side exit and climbed to the level above.  Lester held the cigarette between thumb and his next two fingers, the smoldering tip almost touching the palm of his hand.  He took a power hit, and a long tube of ash formed.  The ash disintegrated as he passed it over to his old friend.

Penny was also at the control board, looking out the window at the Forum of the largest Party she’d ever seen.  Blade leaned over, and indicated some of the flashing led meters.

“Let’s change the music,” she said.

Penny agreed.  Whatever it was, it kind of reminded her of Depeche Mode, if Bruce Springsteen were singing with the Village People on harmony.  What a frightening thought.  She rummaged through her purse while Blade pressed a button on the console.  Something like a credit card—complete with magnetic strip—popped out of a playback unit, and all the music died.  Blade held up the card warily.  “I hate these guys.”

Penny saw what resembled a very sophisticated DAT player.  From the remains of her car she’d salvaged several of the Evil Matt Party Mixes; fishing through her purse, she pulled out Flawed Pasta. Experimenting, she put a cassette into it, and the player contracted to fit the dimensions.  A laser flashed on the eighth inch of magnetic tape, and the qomputer analyzed the signal, adjusted the laser’s band, and corrected the rotation speed.

And a moment later, entire cultures heard Frank Zappa for the first time.

“Hmmmmmm, yummy.” said Corcey, exhaling.  “Kilbrechian Red?”

“Yeah, they grow it in the greenhouse.  I think they’ve really refined this year’s crop.”

Corcey pulled out a plastic baggie.  It was zipped closed at the top; a yellow band and a blue one had interlocked, the green stripe indicating an air-tight seal.  He unrolled it, and showed it to Lester.

“This is, uh...  ...Actually, I’m not sure what this is.  Kind of like Casidine Creeper weed.”[2]

Corcey put away the bag he’d acquired Freyday night as he accepted the fuming fag.

Lester considered the Kilbrechian Red torturing his brain.  “We had some Arctangian Gold we’d gotten from one of L@serhead’s roadies.  It’d been soaked in Maxi-Hash oil, and the paper was uncut sheet acid.  I couldn’t talk for four hours.  Hey, Man,” Lester took on a serious tone.  “I will still pay you good money for some Aridian PsychoBuds.”

Corcey laughed, though the effort was somewhat forced.  “I told you: they’re not for sale.”

The drug he was referring to was sacred to Aridian essenes fixated  on the Gospel of Thomas.  The Thunians believed that only they were privileged to use it, and had strict religious laws about the drug that they called Ba’alistti.   “Hand of Doom.”  One of those laws made it a sin to let the drug fall into unclean hands.  Use of the drug by anyone other than the Thunians themselves was Blaspheme.  Corcey, who was on sabbatical from the Santhunedran, took this Belief to heart.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” was his polite way of refusing to betray his Beliefs.

“So,” Lester asked Corcey, “You just here to Party, or are you icing somebody?”

“No, I came to talk to you, actually,” he said, and took a crisp hit.  He held the flaming cigarette out to the room at large, and a moment later fingertips closed over his extended digits.  Long, sculpted nails grazed over the skin until the pads rested on his cuticles.  Slight pressure of a light squeeze, and then vanished with the cigarette.

Corcey’s eyes floated over to see Blade smiling at him with lips that his thc-swimming mind decreed to be the most perfect hue of red in the spectrum.  The smile was in those milky gray eyes, too—in fact, resplendent everywhere on her perfectly oval face.  The colour of her face, indeed her whole body, suddenly struck him as a unique hue of white.  It wasn’t snowy, it wasn’t ivory, it wasn’t chalky, it was...  Blade.  Looking at her with a curious smile of his own, Corcey decided that no other colour would suit her.

She flashed her eyes, and turned to Penny.  Corcey watched her bring the white cigarette up to her red lips, then realized he was staring.  Awkwardly (and guiltily) he turned away, to see Lester looking at him with a wide grin of his own.  He was chuckling at the scene.

The reprieve Corcey prayed for came: he suddenly remembered that he hadn’t seen Lester in years.

“So what are you doing here?”  He leaned over and flipped Lester’s id pass.

“Don’t get the wrong idea,” Lester said hurriedly, “I don’t do this for a living.”

“Good, you were scaring me.”

“No, it’s part of a deal I’ve worked out.  I’m living with one of the Original Party Members; Sara, in concert promotion. Only Party members can actually live in the Tower, so I cut a deal with The Party to let me stay with her.  I’m listed as an electrical consultant.  I did research for them on the side, too, but that was all under the counter.  Their budget won’t allow it officially, but I got research grants from them just the same.  That’s actually why I came here, but then I met Sara, and the research got audited.”

“Research, eh?” Corcey mused aloud.  He was not surprised.  “Actually, that’s kind of what we came to talk to you about.”

“Oh,” said Lester, extremely interested.

“We want you to take a look at something for us.”

“Not a problem; whip it out.”

By a strange coincidence, Ian said the exact same thing at the exact same time, one Tower over and 156 floors above.

They were in Rat’s office.  The floor was littered with confetti and listless balloons.  On her desk was the whole Galaqtiq catalogue, and a strategically placed, very hip water pipe.  There was nothing smokeable in the bowl, much to their mutual disappointment.

She had said that she had something interesting to show them, and Ian echoed Wicked Lester.

Rat unlocked her desk and pulled out a burn-bag safe.  She disarmed it, reached inside, and pulled out a large skeleton key chiseled from pink marble.  She put it on the desk blotter.

Trevor reached over and took it in his fingers, rolling and twisting it about.

Ian didn’t recognize it, either.

“I assume you have some sort of...” Trevor started.

“Explanation,” Ian finished.

“Exactly,” amended Ian.

“Actually,” Rat told them, “I absolutely cannot give you an explanation.”

“Pity,” said Trevor

“Right shame,” echoed Ian.

“Well, you must understand that as a Party Member, I must do my best to prevent you from knowing certain facts that, as you haven’t adequate Party clearance, you should not know.”

“Ah,” remarked Trevor.

“I can in no way tell you anything about this key, do you understand?”

“Not exactly,” said Ian.  “Could you please give us some examples of these... ‘facts’ that we shouldn’t know about?”

Rat nodded.  “Do you know about the Galaqtiq Qom-Teq survey team sent to explore star FJI 514 four years ago?”

Ian shook his head no.

“Right.  That is an example of something you were not supposed to know about this key that I’m not showing you.”

“I see,” said Ian.

“Good.  Likewise, you are not privileged to the classified information that the survey ship encountered a long range scout floating in the Phoenix Dust Nebula.  Two people were on board, but you wouldn’t know that, of course.  Nor would you be aware that one had died of a very nasty wound; he was mauled from a very large animal.  The other had suffocated.”  She paused.  “The ship had run out of air.”

Trevor and Ian both flinched.  After a suit puncture, that was a space-traveler’s worst nightmare. Trevor had actually faced that once, when he was much, much younger.  The collision blew the frigate’s engines, and they dropped out of warp and into the middle of nowhere.  The Rathgean kamikaze’s impact had also totaled the life support system.  The only one to survive the explosion, Trevor did the quickest work of his life to repair the least damaged hibernation cubicle.  It is no exaggeration to say that when he finally got it working, there were maybe ten mouthfuls of breathable air left.  He sealed himself in, and went to sleep wondering if anyone would ever find him.  You could survive about a Standard Year asleep, maybe a little more.  The record for successful revival was seventeen months, but the recoveree had a lot of brain damage.  Trevor was rescued a week later, but he had no way of knowing that when he went in.

“The ship ran out of air and fuel before it reached its intended destination.” Rat summarized.

“Fascinating,” said Ian.  “I wish I could know more about it.”

“Alas, you are not privileged to know what else they found on board.  A lot of digging and camping equipment; type of stuff you might take on an expedition or safari.”

“I assume I’m not supposed to understand how the key fits into this, because I don’t.”

Rat waived her hand like she was shooing an annoying fly, or perhaps, an annoying question.  “The Key was in the suffocated one’s grip,” she said agitatedly, “But that’s not important, and you don’t know that, anyway.  What it is important for you not to know is what was on the qomputer.  The captain didn’t record a log, but someone identifying himself as the science officer did.  Now, since you know nothing about this shuttle or its science officer, you obviously don’t know that he claims that an ‘unidentified phenomenon’ disrupted their hyperlight field, causing them to travel 270,000 parsecs instantaneously.  I’m told it took them almost a full day to triangulate their position.  It would have taken them two years to get back to where they had been, but they decided to explore the quadrant before heading back.  Apparently they reached a star with four planets in orbit: two gas giants, and two rocks.  But, and I must emphasize that it is absolutely imperative that you not know this, the inner gas giant had nine moons, and one of them was terra-formed.”

“Terra-formed?” Trevor clarified.

“Somebody had already gone out there and done a shake ’n bake?”  Ian pondered.

“Absolutely not!” Rat screamed, insulted.  “That is a totally classified piece of information that I am authorized to deny.  Were there anything to deny: we have our doubts that a moon that far out has been terra-formed.  The science officer’s assertion that the moon was terra-formed to habitability was explained as...” Rat looked at a vidio monitor on her desk, read “ ‘...the only way to explain the unique properties of this moon.  Since terra-forming wreaks havoc with a planet’s nature, and is still an imperfect science, I can only conclude that this planet’s blatant disregard for certain... ...impossibilities... ...with the laws of physics and physical universes is the result of a terra-forming experiment gone tragically awry’.

“What does that mean?” asked Trevor.

“I don’t know, but I couldn’t tell you if I did.  This science officer didn’t give many examples. Inanimate objects moving or appearing out of nowhere.  The two most interesting ones are ‘dead walking’ and the reference ‘...a native crawled across the ceiling to get out of the cave.’  From those we gather that the moon’s occupied; he made no other mention.”

“Not a very good science officer,” remarked Ian.

“We have two other indications that something is on that moon.  The one body was gored by the most psychotic gerbil in the universe, and second, one of the last entries made mentioned that “it” was chasing them, and they were the only two to get back alive.  They bugged out while they still could.   In orbit, apparently they debated on whether they should go back down or get the hell out.  They came to the decision that they would try and get back to our part of the galaxy, and ‘...go back with a phuqin’ nuke.’  Whatever phenomenon that flung them out there didn’t happen again, and they died on the way back.”

“Why do I get the feeling that’s not the end of the story?” inquired Trevor.

“Well, it’s the end of the exciting part.  When Galaqtiq Qom-Teq found the ship, they estimated where it had come from, and launched a long range probe.  It took two years for the probe to get there, and another two years for its report to travel back on sub-space.  The probe was built before the new tachyon transmitters.  Its report just arrived, as a matter of fact.”

She paused for suspense.

“You’re not going to tell us what it said, are you?”

“Well, if you mean ‘am I going to tell you that it confirmed the system’s existence, as well as a habitable moon around the third planet’, then you’re right: I’m not.”

“I’m still a bit vague on the Key,” Ian muttered.

“The Key,” she explained, “were it to exist, has been the subject of a great hypotheses.”

Trevor: “Let’s make this whole situation hypothetical, so we can discuss the Key’s role.”

“Okay,” said Rat.  “Let’s hypothesize that according to the log, after they got there, they started looking for something they referred to with that hatefully vague pronoun, “it”  They never said what “it” was, and we wonder if it was the same “It” that killed half of them.  But we know one thing about it: they wanted it badly enough that they intended to go back for it.

“And it’s safe to hypothesize that this Key that they found is important to getting it.”

“So glad you could play,” Rat nodded.

“Is it safe to hypothesize that you are gearing an expedition out there?”

“Nope,” she said, “and neither is GQT.”

“Oh?  Why not?”

“I’m surprised you’d ask, Trevor, considering you once had to spend some time in a sleep cubicle.”

Trevor understood: the absolute longest you could go in a ship was seventeen months, and this was a twenty-four month trip.  That made him ask, “Not wanting to seem ungrateful, but why are you telling us this?”

“I’m not telling you anything!” she screamed at the top of her lungs.

“What my friend means is ‘why haven’t you told us any of this?’,” corrected Ian.

“Two reasons.  One, this key does not exist and thus is of no importance, and I didn’t just illicitly gain possession of it.  Second, while I actually can’t think of a way to get out there, I thought maybe you can.  I’d heard an interesting rumour about a research lab out in the middle of nowhere called Whitlock’s Rock doing some work with dimensional phasing.”

“We know nothing about that,” interjected Trevor.

“You never heard us say anything about that,” added Ian.

“Of course not,” Rat smiled.  “However, you two have a sense of honour, and I trust you two. I’m not making you an offer.  If I don’t give you the moon’s coordinates and this key, you don’t give me one third of what you don’t find out there.”

Suddenly, the black door swung open on well-oiled hinges, and Corcey, Blade, Lester, and Penny strolled in.

Trevor and Ian saw that they had succeeded in tracking Lester, and just at the right time.

“We’ll get back to you,” Ian told Rat.

“Hi, Rat; Hi, Trevor; Hi, Ian,” Lester called out.

“Just the man we wanted to see,” Trevor announced, and both he and Ian ushered The Wicked One back into an elevator.

As the doors slid shut, Lester addressed Trevor.  “Corcey was just telling me how you’ve acquired a neat little gadget.”

The elevator wasn’t moving.  Trevor tactfully worked this into his reply, “The elevator isn’t moving”

“Perhaps someone should press a button,” suggested Ian.

Lester leaned over, inserted his identification card into the slot, and keyed the 88th floor into the controls.  They began to descend.

“We’ll discuss this in my lab,” he said.

“A most appropriate choice,” agreed Ian.

“Hey, where are you guys staying?”

“Actually,” Corcey said, “We haven’t gotten that far.”

“I’m living out of Sara’s place, but neither of us have been there for three days.  You can crash there, if you want.”

“You haven’t been home for three days?” Penny asked.


“Is there a carp in your bath tub?”

Lester looked at her with a condescending smile.  “She with you?” he asked Corcey.

“Yeah,” he said.

The doors slid apart, and Lester led them down a long, dark hall.  At an anonymous door, he slid in his card and punched in a twenty-three digit code.

Lester’s lab looked like an explosion in a True Value hardware store.  Empty liquor bottles competed with half-assembled machinery for space.  Spare parts and diagrams were everywhere.

“There’s a work table in here somewhere,” he announced, but they quickly gave up looking for it.  Lester kicked away several black-labeled bottles and sat on the floor.

“Let’s see it,” he asked.  Trevor looked over his shoulder to make sure the door was secure.  Confident that they were alone, he reached into his trench coat and whipped it out.

Lester took the device in his hands, studied the qey pad.

“Interesting,” he said at last.  “This may take a while.”

Ten minutes later, the conversation between Lester, Ian, and Trevor was far beyond Penny.  Judging by the bored looks on Corcey and Blade’s faces, they were lost, too.

Blade leaned over to Penny.  “I’m hungry; you hungry?”

“Yeah; I’ve got a craving for pizza.  Can you get that here?”

Of course,” she said, surprised.  “Anthropologists consider a civilization’s inventing za to be to be an important stage of development.  It’s the creation of a food that everybody likes, and thus it is the civilization’s attempt to feed its masses.”

“Ah,” said Penny.

Blade looked between Penny and Corcey.  “I could really go for one right now.”

“Geeve me manja, baybee!” Corcey rasped.

Penny led the way to the door.

“We got the munchies,” Blade told the squatting group, “We’re gonna go chester out.  We’ll be back.”

“I think this is gonna be an all-nighter,” Lester observed, “so why don’t you guys go out and Party?  When you want to crash, Sara’s place is on the 69th floor, S wing, room 30.  The door code is ‘ANIMALIZE’ .”

“I know,” said Corcey with a smile, and he shut the door behind him.

Penny had summoned the elevator, and she and Blade were waiting for both it and Corcey.

“So what do you do, exactly?” Blade asked her.

“Oh, I’m kind of a student.”

“Hmmm,” Blade said, nodding with approval.  “I’m a sculptor, myself.”

“I never knew that,” said Corcey walking up.

Blade shrugged.  “Chisels have an edge, too.”

“There’s a good name for a band somewhere in there,” Penny said.  Behind her, the elevator arrived with a loud ping.

The door opened, and soft, suspiciously Hawaiian-sounding music seeped out.  A wobbling Saladrin in a decidedly leisurely atmosphere suit looked out at the hall, decided this wasn’t the floor it wanted.  Blade, Penny, and Corcey stepped into the roomy lift, and gave the Party-gore a wide birth. Blade estimated that the best chance of finding za would be on level 13.  She keyed the buttons, then noticed it was the only input entered on the screen.  The Saladrin hadn’t requested a floor; apparently it was just along for the ride.

"Bishop to Knight Four," the Saladrin’s voice box announced to the room.  It was facing Penny, and seemed to look at her expectantly.

Penny looked at the four-foot high crab-like being.  After a moment, she replied, “Knight to Rook Three?”

In the swirling methane gas, the Saladrin studied the Earthling, and it’s chemically laden mind plotted the move on its mental gameboard.  Chitinous mandibles contracted into the equivalent of a sneer.  Poor baby, you’re startin’ to lose it, aren’tcha it though.

"King to Rook One," it said with what its voice box’s equivalent to a sneer.

“Rook to Knight Six,” Penny said triumphantly.  “Check Mate.”

When the Saladrin’s swamped mind realized it’d been outmaneuvered, it disobeyed it’s orders and reacted violently.

"Cheatin' Bitch!" the voice box croaked, and it lurched forward on its arachnid legs.

Blade stepped in between almost immediately.  “I advise you to think out your next move,” was all she said.  Corcey had already positioned himself behind it, and his left hand had drifted back to his skein vest.  A holster was sewn inside, at the small of his back.  His fingertips floated over the handle of his eight millimeter, peace.

The offending Saladrin may have been stoned, but it wasn’t stupid.  It immediately backed off.

"I'm good," it said.

The door pinged, then opened to reveal the 13th floor.  Penny stepped up to her tormentor and with a straight face told it “If I see you again, you’ll see me kill you.”

She led the way out.

The door closed on the Saladrin, and it did a quick composure check, and was glad that They weren’t watching this on its qamera.  It took a deep breath of noxious gray-green air, then turned on its radio.

"The two mercenaries and the Earth girl just got out on the 13th floor.  The rest are still up in Lester's Lab."

The two mercenaries were currently congratulating the Earth girl for a great line back in the elevator.  Image was everything, you know.  Penny was just glad that they had stood up for her.

The floor was split-leveled, and made of wood and glass planking  Through the glass, giant multi-coloured goldfish swam underneath.

“They seemed to have changed things since I was last here,” Blade said, frustrated.

Penny looked about, and scratched the back of her head.  Her forearm brushed up against a piece of paper attached to her beret.  She detached it with dread.  Well justified, too.  Two distinct sets of handwriting had written:


kick me!


I’m from Earth!


There were tables set about with various greasy fried foods, and plenty of liquor, but no pizza.  Blade went over to one and scooped some dip onto a plate.  She poured herself a beer from the keg in the freshly-iced bucket, then double-checked her coordinates.

“Yeah, they re-did the phuq out this place,” she said.  Penny looked at a punch bowl filled with small wings, hesitantly picked one up, studied it.

“Used to be a long corridor of rooms going all around this floor of the Tower.  In each room, a drink, a drug, and a food from a specific planet would be represented.”

“An ‘around the world’ party,” said Penny, still studying the appetizer.  She had never eaten un-Earthly food before.

“Around the galaxy, but right.  The Aquamon II room not only had the best za, but the best Angel-food cake I’ve ever had.”

Penny hesitantly took a bite.  The meat was identical to chicken.  But then again, that’s the traditional lie about most exotic foods; “...and it tastes just like chicken!”  But the unusual thing about it was the marinade.  She had never tasted anything like it before; a completely unique flavour.

“I know where you can get some meat that tastes better,” a new voice said, and it was several seconds before Penny realized it was addressing her.  She turned, and encountered a wispy little runt that had materialized out of nowhere.  Pencil thin black mustache, and a red crushed velvet smoking jacket.  Eyes that peculiar shade that indicated he’d been up since April.  He reeked of tequila and Doritos.

“Hey, sexy,” he said to her.

“I’m sorry,” Penny explained to him, “But I think you’ve mistaken me for someone who likes assholes.”

Flippantly, she tossed the wing over her shoulder and walked away.  It took a moment to locate Blade in the crowd.  She was doing some sort of food preparation akin to making a burrito. Corcey was ten feet away, looking at some open cigar boxes on a glass tea service.  One held thick, syrupy buds, another had long green ones with a rainbow of coloured hairs growing out of them.  He seemed to be making a decision.

“I’ve never eaten un-Earthly food before,” Penny told Blade.  “What do you recommend?”

Blade was pouring a rich plumb sauce over her creation.  “Most of it’s pretty good,” she said, scarfing a huge bite of her burrito.  Diced mushrooms and long strips of crunchy tan vegetables fell out onto the carpet.  Around a full mouth, she continued, “but I’m going to see if I can scrounge up some za.”

Corcey came back over with a joint the size of the Hindenburg in his left hand, a brandy snifter with a clear fluid in the other.  Penny would have been very surprised to learn that it held ice water: Corcey didn’t drink.

Blade did, of course, and she quickly drained her beer so she could put the mug down with a clear conscience when she accepted the Hindenburg.  She smiled her thanks at him, then filled her lungs with a delicious blend of three combustible narcotics.  Her friendly smile to Corcey turned a little ludicrous as a rush dissolved her mind.  Her eyes lingered on him as she turned to Penny to pass the joint to her, but Penny was occupied.

“Hey, didn’t we meet on Timmeon?”  If Homer Simpson were a real person, he would be the bald, jaundiced, and extremely heavy man talking to her.

“No,” said Penny, and walked past Corcey, who was studying a long heated buffet with suspicion.

“What is this,” he asked in flawless Hamaddi to a female of that species standing next to him.  She held tongs in mid-air over the dark strips of meat.

“I think it’s qorcee,” she told him, not realizing the pun.  A qorcee was a vicious, temperamental predator bird.  On some planets, like the assassin’s native Aridia, they were rare and treated with a grudging respect.  On other planets, they were a numerous, annoying pest that was hunted for food.  He looked distastefully at the tray of his namesake’s meat.  He wasn’t about to eat his family’s totem animal; in fact, he was quite repulsed.  Once, because his survival had absolutely depended on it, he had eaten human flesh.  He had no real qualms about eating his own species, but his own spiritual family was another matter entirely.  Sadly, he mumbled something Thunian at the carved meat.

“Are you two-timing my old lady?” a thick voice asked him, and Corcey turned to see Tusk had joined the girl.  He was wearing the ugly orange t-shirt of an off-duty police officer, and had snaked an arm around the Hamaddi Corcey had asked dining tips from.

“Actually,” Corcey replied with exaggerated lechery, “I’ve never made it with a Hamaddi before.”  It actually was possible, but alien construction made the actual act painful and largely unsatisfying for both.

“You should try it some time,” Tusk told him with his famous grin, and scratched his girl between the ears.  She started to make a contented noise somewhere between a purr and a chirp.  With his other hand, Tusk idly reached for a strip of meat.

At precisely the same time, Corcey told Tusk the same thing that Blade told Penny: “I wouldn’t eat that, if I were you.”

Corcey’s reference was obvious; Blade’s was to the chishkabob stick that Penny had half way up to her mouth.  Penny decided to go with her advice.

Next to her, Blade was spreading something akin to miracle whip on a piece of bread with a long, serrated knife best suited for quickly slitting a throat.  Penny studied her a moment.

“Why do you prefer knives?” she asked.

Putting sliced tomatoes into the white goo, she replied “Well, first of all, a knife won’t run out of ammunition.  But also, guns are just so damned impersonal. What’s the sport of shooting somebody who’s two hundred meters away and never sees the face of his executioner?”  She turned to her friend.  “There’s a certain satisfaction in killing someone point blank.  Makes the job a little more manageable.”

“Should I infer from that that you don’t really like what you do?”

“Sculpting isn’t paying my bills,” Blade said, sprinkling a coarsely ground powder onto her sandwich.  “At least I’m at the point where I can pick and choose my missions.”  A type of red pepper went on next.  “If more than thirty people are involved, I’m not interested.  Large groups usually mean large engagements, and that depersonalizes the whole thing.  Besides, large groups tend to end up popcorn.”

“I’m sorry,” Penny told her, “you’ve used the word popcorn in a way I’m not familiar with.”

“Last transmission from our troops at AltairIV: ‘They’re chewing our guys up like popcorn!’.  The term stuck.”

“Oh,” said Penny.

“I’m not in this for the money, like a lot of the people.  Most of the good ones aren’t. That attitude just get’s you an expensive coffin.  Take Corcey,” she said, and nodded her head toward him.  “I think he actually likes killing.”

Of course, Blade had almost no knowledge of the Thunian Death Cult, so she had no idea of just how wrong her guess was.

Penny looked over at him, too.  He and two Hamaddis were laughing about something.

“He’s weird,” she said.

“Yeah,” said Blade, studying him from afar.  “Isn’t he?”  Her angelic mouth parted whimsically.  She turned to Penny, the remnants of a glint still in her eyes.

“Let’s get ratted and talk about guys.”

Penny kind of liked the idea, but reminded her of the Liquid Reality.

“Besides,” she said to her nearly albinic companion, “Know what I hate about men?”


“Never met any.”

“Well now you have,” said a male who appeared out of nowhere.  He was exactly Penny’s height, and his skin was a total, lusterless black.  Although the tip of an ear was completely missing, he actually was quite handsome.

“I’m a real man,” he continued, grabbing her hand and shaking it vigorously.

Well, thought Penny, at least they’re getting better-looking.

“And this is an amazing coincidence!  I want pussy, you have pussy!”

Better looking, she amended, but worse attitudes.

“How about we adjourn to a pleasure cubicle?” he asked with a grin.  The bottom front teeth were gone.  “I’ll even buy.”

“You wouldn’t even register on my Peter Meter,” she told him, and went to catch up to Blade.

“If you want to dip off to one of the rooms to play Sleazy Parcheesi,” she was told when she caught up, “go ahead.”

“But I don’t,” she protested.  “Why is this happening to me?”

Blade tapped the – – S – – on her gate crasher card.

“I didn’t ask for that,” she said.  Then she remembered the ‘anything to declare’ dialogue.   Oh, God, as Blackadder would say.  She reached into a bowl, and covered the S with some Guavacado Bob paté.  After that, people left her alone, except for the one guy who drunkenly collided with her.

“Whoops!” he said, apologetically as he fought for balance.  He looked at her tag.  “Sorry, Penny,” he said and was gone.

Penny forgot all about it.

The drunken clod went into the bathroom complex, and suddenly regained his equilibrium.  He was not the slightest drunk.  He looked around the bathroom, saw that no one was paying attention to him.  Good.

He went over to the first available stall, closed the door, and locked it.  He dropped his pants in affectation, then pulled out his radio qom-unit.  In the stall on his left, the grunts, moans, and thunks of impromptu sex.  In the stall on the right, some spastic wheezings.  Either a really intense bowel movement, or someone was doing lines of a drug the Party didn’t allow.

“The Earthling’s name is Penny Walls,” he said into the tiny microphone, “and she isn’t armed.”

The unarmed Earthling, Penny Walls, had caught up to Blade, who had at last found some za.  Or at least, an outlet for it.  The waiter she’d cornered was taking orders.

“Gimme a large deep dish with mushrooms, peppers, onions,”

“No!” shrieked Penny, “I hate onions!”

“This is for me,” she explained to her.  “You can get whatever you want.”  Back to the waiter, “actually, make it double onions, and some diced olives, parsley...”

“They’re ordering za, Mr. Whitlock.”

In the dark, musty shadows of another world, Leonard Whitlock steepled his bloated fingers and contemplated the vidio screen on his desk.  The letters of the bizarre message were the only illumination in his skyscraper office.  Its baleful green light shone weakly on a brass Hanneman pony, and the fleshy face of the office’s only occupant.

“Keep me posted,” he announced to the two-way speaker in the darkness of his desk.  The message was relayed to the command satellite orbiting the Party’s planet, but it would take the tachyon transmission four seconds to get there.  Light would have taken years.

Four seconds later the command satellite received the transmission “Keep me posted”.  The operation’s coordinator looked at the speaker from which the Trinity of words had just floated.  He grabbed his crotch, shook it vigorously, and stuck his tongue out at it.

“What a quizling,” he said.  Everybody ignored him; like the white noise they had to screen out of the transmissions they monitored, they had learned to ignore the rantings of their chief about his chief.

One of them laughed, then said “Deuce says they’re smoking a lot of pot.”

Lieutenant Commander Albert D. Münster laughed himself, then shook his head wonderingly.  His head was very distinctive, or more accurately, his face was.  On the left side were four deep pits the size of an Earthly quarter, the right side had another one.  They were positioned as if a hand had put its palm over his face, which, indeed, is what had happened.  Although Rathgeans most closely resemble giant, bald rats, their hands were taken from frogs.  They enjoyed peeling off a prisoner’s face with those suction cups, and munching on the dips of flesh in view of their former owner.

Albert D. Münster was one of only six people to survive a Rathgean interrogation.

His mirth faded, replaced by the perpetual bitterness he felt ever since The Swarm.  He flipped a switch on the console he lounged at.  The headphone speaker plugged into his ear and miking his mouth was now active.

“Will do, sir.  Uh, hey, we’re getting reports that they’re getting pretty baked.  We presume that the other three are, too.  This might be as good a shot as we get to go to Phase Three.”

The message ran as fast as it could to Leonard Whitlock’s desk, where it floated out for his enjoyment, and then, having served its purpose, died forever.

Whitlock ignored the message; it had died in vain.

What held his attention was the glowing green on his vidio display.

At the top of the screen was a windows application showing five faces and a box.  In order from left to right: Ian, Trevor, Corcey, Blade, and Penny; the box held the files of anybody who had been seen associating with them.  Clicking it would reveal files on Kauckmeister, Lester, Rat, Tusk and his ho, and several casual conversers.

The file that was currently open was that of the Earthling.  Until five minutes ago, they didn’t even know her name  But thanks to an expensive bribe (100 cases of Arctangian Vodka) to a high-placed Party official, Whitlock now knew as much about her as The Party did.  It was her first visit to Stoneburner, so there was no information on her other than she was from some God-forsaken place called Earth (Whitlock had to check a galaqtiq atlas to find it), classified as a Gate Crasher, was there primarily for Sex, and owed the Party 23 bytes for medical care (two drops of Liquid Reality.)  Other than that, it was completely blank.  Not much, but better than nothing.

The Party had plenty of information, however, on the white-haired Caandelenian.  There was much to tell Whitlock about Gretta M. Asmodeus, universally known as Blade.

The long-haired berserker escorting her was most interesting.  The Party had three files under three different names on him.  Just as he had first been contemplating that, his major-domo Fosfernatu saw the screen and tapped the face on the screen.

“I know this guy,” he told Whitlock grimly.  “Name’s Thomas Saintslayer.”  One of the three names supplied by the Party was ‘Damien Saint Slayer’.  None of them were ‘Corcey.’  “Real cold motherfucker.  I saw him suffocate a baby so it wouldn’t cry and give our position.  He also had the highest kill count that job.  He’ll be trouble.”

Whitlock had typed that himself into the on-screen file: “Trouble”.  It was about all that was concretely known about him—almost all of the other information contradicted itself.

He had more than enough information on the last two, Trevor Malcalypse and Ian Danzig.  He’d had the information for over two weeks, from when they had come to him to buy a package deal on munitions.

That still galled him: the phuqers bought his weapons, then used them to attack the research station that he was funding.  That took balls.

The last report from his station had indicated that the dimensional displacement generator still needed some refinement, but the majority of the bugs were worked out.  Then all communications ceased.  He quickly found out why: someone had blown it to neutrinos, but not before they stripped it of anything valuable.

Leonard Whitlock wanted that displacement generator, and he wanted it very badly.  But he wanted it working, and right now, it seemed that not even the people who had it knew how to use it properly.  At least, that was one hypothesis his qomputer had offered.

The wild card, as he saw it, was the Earthling.  A reproduction of her appeared on the screen, along with the few facts they knew about her.  The picture showed her about to nibble on a wing of Arctangian proxychiqen.

Trevor and Ian always had wheels within wheels turning, so they were definitely up to something by including this Walls girl in their group.  But what?  And what had their conversation with Rat been about?

He was liking this less and less.

He looked at the screen.  The very absence of information led him to believe that she was using an alias.  She was important in this somehow.  But how?

“Who the phuq are you?” he asked aloud.

Eight seconds later, a reply came: “I beg your pardon, sir?”

Whitlock looked into the darkness for where the microphone was.

“Nothing,” he said.  “How many people do we have operative?”

High in orbit, Münster checked a qomputer.  One of the perils of incognito surveillance at a Party was the high number of agents who, while trying to blend in, fell casualty to the rigors of the Party.  Of the dozen agents they had, two had become extremely drunk, one (the Saladrin from the elevator) was now in the “bad-trip” wing of the Party’s hospital, and another was missing, presumed to be shacked up in a zero-gee pleasure sphere with two males of her species.

Münster turned on his radio.  “Eight are still reliably functional.”

Eight seconds later, he was asked “When do reinforcements arrive?”

When Whitlock discovered that Ian, Trevor, and three tag-alongs were at The Party, he organized the job very hastily.  He only had fifteen people there at the time (three were in orbit), but more were being immediately shuttled in.  The shuttle was due to arrive in eight hours.

“The first platoon gets here in roughly eight hours,” he transmitted, then silently added ‘in which time they will probably leave.

The delay before an answer was considerable.

“Maintain surveillance until you have more people in place.  Then go to Phase Three.”

Münster shook his head sadly, then echoed an observation about Leonard Whitlock that both Trevor and Ian had made: “What an amateur!”

When Münster had been contracted to do this job, Whitlock had made it very clear that he himself was calling the shots, and that all orders had to go through him.  That was why Münster was only the Lieutenant Commander—while he may have been in charge at the actual site, he still took orders from one higher.  Those orders were slow at best, and generally not thought out very well.  If he were calling the shots, this would have been over with very quickly.  After all, the group was separated and inebriated.  What better time?

But no, the grotesquely rotund Quizling was holding off.

Well, he thought, what do I care?  I get paid no matter what.

“Anubis just returned to the 13th floor,” an incoming transmission from the Party announced.  ‘Anubis’ was the name Corcey was currently using at the Party.

Münster nodded, and updated the qomputer grid of the Party to show that the three of what had become designated as “B Team” were all together again.

Corcey stepped out of the elevator, and instantly spotted his buddy.  It was hard not to: the snaggle-toothed imbecile had made it a point to be everywhere he was, and went painfully out of his way to make it look like he was not watching Corcey.  But he had just gone up to the 88th floor, and D’Artagnon had not followed.  Maybe he was just being paranoid.  Maybe there was more than one person watching him.  He considered going over to talk to him, decided for the moment against it.  He instead looked for the white beacon of Blade’s silky hair.

“You’re not going to give me any, are you,” he said to her as he walked up.  Blade was at the point of marijuana use where her mind had acquired the Three H’s: Happy, Hungry, and Horny (in that order.)  She had already devoured most of her za, and was starting on the last slice with a passion. Next to her, Penny munched contentedly on hers.  It was delicious.

“Well, I don’t know,” Blade told him with a faint flash of teeth.  “What’s in it for me?”

He moved behind her, and began tenderly kneading her shoulders.

“Mmmmmmmmmmmm, that feels nice,” she purred, and then scarfed up the last bite.

Corcey immediately abandoned her, and began to give Penny the best back rub of her life.

“I’ll love you forever if you give me a slice,” he told her.

Penny was not in the mood to be massaged, so she gave him two slices if he promised to go away.

Blade was still ravenous, and just a tiny bit upset that she wasn’t getting his attention.  “You’re not going to give me any of that, are you,” she told him in a hurt voice.

He reached down, and peeled a pepperoni off.  He held the now-vegetarian tip out for her.  She leaned forward to bite, but then he pushed it into her face.  Her hand whipped up and caught his in an iron grip just after it touched the tip of her nose.  She brought the hand up to her mouth, and took a long, slow bite from the slice.  She continued to hold the hand while she making the most erotic display of mastication.

“You’ve got sauce on your nose,” he told her.  There was just a drop of it.

“Oh?” she said to him, then took another bite.  Around chews, she said “Could you help me get it off?”

He leaned forward; his tongue darted out, and the tip licked it off.

Penny looked down at her shoes and shook her head.  Even in outer space, courtship was little changed, and just as silly.

As Blade swallowed her bite, her body began to sway to the beat of the music filtering in overhead.

“Wanna dance?” she asked with casual playfulness.  Her rocking took on a slight serpentine quality as she placed the tips of her fingers lightly over his solar plexus, and smiled perfect ivory teeth.

Corcey was not only proud of the fact that he couldn’t dance, he was smug bout it.

He shook his head sideways in double-time to the song’s tempo.

Blade seemed to be remembering that she liked to dance.  She took her hand away from Corcey and touched Penny’s shoulder.

“You like to dance?”

Penny smiled rather broadly.  “I live to dance.”

Long, thin, and pale fingers closed lightly around her shoulder and beckoned.  Blade’s pointy manicures came close to breaking the skin.

“Hey, Blade,” Corcey called.  She turned around, smiling.

“You behave yourself out there, you hear?”  He pointed two fingers at her, then swacked her across the nose.  Her hand caught his, and she opened his palm.  Bringing it up to her lips, she kissed the palm, then closed his hand and returned it to him.  Flash of eyes, and she walked off hand in hand with Penny.

Corcey watched the two ladies go off to the elevator and descend eleven floors to the Forum Floor.  His thoughts on the two had actually produced something close to a natural smile.  After a moment, he reached behind his ear and pulled down a cigarette rolled in stained yellow paper.  The caffeine-jittering tips of his fingers delicately took an end and twisted counter-clockwise.  A few crumbs of Tobacco Helper tumbled out of the opening and onto his boots, another attached itself to the tip of his tongue when he placed the open end on lower lip.  He pulled out the tattered matchbook, and for the eighteenth time contemplated the bizarre illustration on it.  On the front was a cartoon mouse with a friendly smile and big, round ears. On the back, a monorail circling a geodesic dome.  He was down to the last two matches, one of which he detached and placed over a powder-burn pockmark on the mouse’s round ear.  He folded the back over it, grasped between thumb and forefinger, and snapped it out.  Flame hesitantly sputtered to life, and he held it under the twisted tip of the joint sticking out of his mouth.  He inhaled burning paper, and then the lethal smoke of Alamount Black (hashish-belladonna-stramonium in a 20:1:1 ratio and quick-frosted with nyborg.)  Absently shaking the match (and failing to notice it refused to die) he struggled to maintain his vision during the massive headrush.

It took a full twenty seconds before he realized that what he was looking at was his Butt-Ugly Buddy, poorly attempting to conceal himself behind a potted palm.  Snagglepuss was muttering to himself, and it sounded to Corcey like he was whispering “Yeah, rhubarb...  ...rhubarb...  ...rhubarb...  ...spy rhubarb...”

Special Operative #1 (code name “Ace Weenie”) looked up from his transmitter in time to see the person he was reporting on had made eye contact.  Ace quickly began an impromptu inspection of the vegetation in front of him.  Corcey kept staring at him, not noticing the blisters forming on the tips of two fingers as the flame extinguished itself from the contact.

Ace Weenie began to shuffle away, muttering loudly “I think I’ve been made.”

Up in orbit, Münster groaned.  He put his head in his hands, shook his head sadly.  Staring at the floor absently, he asked “Who’s closest for support?”

Münster’s personal aide stared at the qomputer screen with a three-d graphic of the 18th floor.  A glance showed him where all the friendlies were, plus updates of the reported position of the five hostiles.

“Queen Clam Dip.”

pecial Operative #12 had a good view of both Ace and Corcey, who was extinguishing his 10 byte cigarette on the tip of his tongue.  No surprise when the Assist order came in.

Although Queen Clam Dip was not a woman, he certainly was a Queen.  He licked the tip of his pinkie, ran it along his thinly plucked eyebrow, and scooted past the darling little chap he’d been talking to while watching Anubis.

“’Scuse me, hon.  I’ll be back in just a sec.”

Ace Weenie saw Queen Clam Dip headed his way, and felt a little better.  At the very beginning of the mission, Queen Clam Dip tried to play “drop the soap” with him in the satellite’s communal shower.  Since then he’d steered clear of the queer, but now he was actually glad to have the poov around him.

Blowing out the last lungfull of Alamount Black, Corcey slid the bootleg cigarette back behind his ear, then readjusted his hat.  Hair fell loose in long flowing waves to hide it from the prying the eyes of the Party Security (the nyborg content made it illegal: the narcotic was exclusively manufactured by a rival party.)  Snaggle-tooth was suddenly moving away, which meant he knew Corcey had focused his attention on him.  Corcey looked around, sizing the crowd up.  He saw the approaching #12, but at quick glance the fairie looked like any other outrageous Partygoer.

Having accomplished Phase One: Reconnaissance, and Phase Two: Assessment of Danger, Corcey proceeded on to Phase Three: Pursuit.

His target, Special Operative #1 (real name Victor Von Pearlman from Long Island, New York) turned a corner, and went up to one of the food tables.

Corcey’s head rush was extending in numbing waves down his body; it almost made it hard to walk.  He managed to turn the corner, but almost stumbled as he approached the table where his quarry was.

Ace Weenie nervously turned around, and saw the sinister hat and goatee of his worst nightmare moving directly towards him.  He felt the glacial blackness of Corcey’s eyes boring into him, and panicked.

Two Partygoers protested as Victor clumsily bumped into them as he spun around and began to flee.  Quite a few people gave him curious glances, most assumed he was having a bad hallucination.

Queen Clam Dip (real name Warren Di’Phudjjpacher, from Etam, New Ra’Math) saw the commotion and made the mistake of diverting his attention form Corcey to see what it was.  He saw his comrade rabbiting, and shook his head.  Worst thing to do; presumably Anubis wouldn’t make a move in the open.  Still, it would be best to make a delaying action of some type, to allow Victor time to find refuge.

Turning back to his pursuer, he discovered to his surprise that the distinctive lanky frame was nowhere to be seen.  He quickly surveyed the crowd, but no sign of the black hat or its owner.

With some dread, “Folks, I just lost both of them.”

A new voice came in: Agent #2 (a Saladrin code-named “Deuce Gherkin”) reported   "I think I just spotted Weenie going into the kitchen area.  I'll go and get him."

Unfortunately, the Saladrin encountered something that Victor hadn’t: a waiter.

“I’m sorry,” it was politely told, “but you’re not allowed in here.”

While Deuce Gherkin was asked if there was anything special it would like in the mean-time, Ace Weenie ducked behind a food prep cubicle, breathing hard.  Inside, two chefs were mixing seasonings together in a large simmering pot.  He looked around outside, and saw no one else.  He quickly surveyed his hiding spot.  A small room full of shelves with various industrial-sized canned foods.  The overhead light was off, but enough filtered in from the other room for him to see that most of them were spices and seasonings.

Keeping his voice down low, he whispered into his qom unit, “I think I’m clear.”  He slumped against wall, catching his breath, and began to think of how to get out of there unobserved.  Another floor would be a good place to be.  Hell, another planet would be a good idea.  The novelty of space was fast wearing off, and he again wished he was back on Earth.  His salary for this little job would pay for an economy-class ticket back there.

Saladrin Operative #2 heard Human Operative #1’s affirmation that he was safe, and breathed a methane-laced sigh of relief.  It asked the waiter if there were any of those Ra'Ga'cha larvae canapés left—the kind marinated in the lemon curry sauce.  The waiter said that another waiter had just taken a tray of them out.  The Saladrin nodded, and stalked off in search of both them and any signs of the lanky assassin it was supposed to keep an eye on.

It would find neither.  A waiter had, indeed, been on his way out a minute earlier with a tray of various Saladrin delicacies, intent of laying them out for the arachnid Partygoers.

And he never knew what hit him.

Corcey dragged the unconscious body to a service table, and folded it under the draping doily.  His way into the kitchen was now unblocked.  Just as he slid the tray of alien hors d’oeuvres out of sight, he heard another waiter approaching, and he steeled out of sight down the hall away from the approaching sound.  Moving cautiously, he reached down to his boots.  He pulled his pants’ leg up, exposing the sheathe affixed to the top of his footwear.  Pulling out the long, slender knife, he reversed the blade in along his arm.   This not only concealed it, but aided in the efficiency of cutting a throat.

He then resumed Phase Three.

In his little cubbyhole, Victor reasoned that the kitchen must have a system of elevators to other levels, too, and it would be wisest to use one of these to escape.  In the food prep room next to him, the two cooks were grunting as they lifted the heavy pot off the stove.  In the dimness of his surroundings, Victor heard the sounds become louder as they entered the hall, then fade as they took their preparation to another part of the kitchen.  The sounds dwindled, then disappeared altogether.

He listened intently for several long moments.

The hum of machinery; very, very faintly the sounds of the Party; nothing near him.

He decided that the coast was clear.

Just as he was about to get up and enter the hall, deep clickings of leather heels sounded, and Victor froze.

A shadow fell partially through the doorway as the figure stopped right outside the door.  The shadow had a pointy head, the silhouette of an angular hat.

He gaped at the shadow silently, too scared to make the scream that wanted to find its way out.  The outline of an arm drifted up to that demonic cowboy hat, then made contact with the mouth.  A moment later, there was a loud pop, and the smell of sulfur.  The black reflection cupped its hands to its face, and then made a flicking motion.  A smoldering match landed just inside the doorway, one foot away from Victor.

The sound of shifting weight, then the smell of cloying, bitter smoke.  Victor recognized the smell: high grade hash.

The shadow mutated in form, followed by a scraping of leather as the figure outside looked around.  Another puff of pungent smoke.

Victor had a low tolerance for combustibles, and he felt a cough forming at the back of his throat.  He swallowed in an effort to kill it, but found that his mouth had parched up.

Again, the vague penumbra of a gaseous shadow, followed by more thick, noxious smoke.

The dark specter at the door turned amorphous before resolving into a profile.  A thin-fingered, almost delicate hand came up to the outlines of the goatee, melded with it, and there was a sharp wheezing.  The hat tilted down ten degrees as the figure examined the hand, then tossed the butt away.

It rebounded off the inner wall of the small storage space, and landed an inch from Victor’s hand.  Thin wisps of smoke drifted right into his face, and the urge to cough was more demanding than ever.

Vaguely, he realized that he wasn’t breathing.  He decided to continue holding his breath, lest he make any noise.

The specter outside broke the silence with a painful hacking that sounded truly sick, like lung particles were coming up.

A glob of spittle arced through the door, landing with a loud plop.  Victor noted that the bubbly mass had a membrane of blood interwoven.

A final scraping of leather, then cowboy boots and cowboy hat stalked off.

Victor Von Pearlman had been raised Greek Orthodox, but had drifted away from that dogma as he entered his teens.

Silently, he decided that the first thing he would do when he got back to Long Island would be to spend six hours at Saint Constantine’s, in Manhattan.

The sounds of the assassin disappeared.  Victor counted under his breath to fifty, then decided that it would be best to get out of there, just in case he came back for the smoldering roach.  He got up, and discovered that his muscles had painfully stiffened when he had tensed at the sight of the shadow.

Just as he entered the hallway a voice called to him.

“Hey, are you supposed to be back here?”

Victor surprised himself by not wetting his pants.  He turned, and saw one of the food preppers, walking his way with the empty pot.

He took a deep breath.  “Yeah,” he called out.  “I’m looking for Ron.  Seen him?”

The cook walked up to him.  “Ron?” he asked incredulously.

Victor shuddered.  He’d picked the name at random; well, he thought, it was worth a try.

“Ron left about three months ago,” the preppie said, going into the little work area.  There was a loud metal-on-metal clang.

“Oh?” Victor managed to ask.

“Yeah.  His contract ended.  I think he went back to White Light,” the cook said, emerging empty handed.

“Huh,” he replied, and mentally amended his earlier pledge to twelve hours of prayer.  “I didn’t know.”

“Well,” the cook said, walking away, “now you do.”

“Hey, thanks for telling me.”

“Sure thing,” the cook said over his shoulder.  “And by the way, Alamount Black’s illegal.  You probably better get out of here before someone else smells it.”

Victor nodded, and decided that was a good idea.  The cook turned a corner, and disappeared from sight.  He decided that would be a good idea, too.

One blink later, a thin, delicate hand arced across his neck.  Another clamped over his mouth.  The maneuver wasn’t so much to stifle any screams—the vocal chords were already severed—but to angle the head back to allow maximum cutting exposure.  Corcey finessed the blade into the flesh of the throat, the honed edge slicing the meat with a nice, deep gash.  The jugular bisected neatly, and fluid pumped out far enough to splash the wall.  The thick, rubbery tube of his trachea parted, and backwash from the severed carotid gushed in.  As the hand wielding the reversed knife finished its pass, the other snapped the head counterclockwise, breaking the spine and saving Victor the combined horror of bleeding to death while suffocating in his own blood.

Corcey quickly dragged the corpse into the food prep area.

“Now let’s see who the phuq you are,” he mumbled.

He looked at the name tag.  Victor Von Pearlman, Gate Crasher.  A quick frisk showed no other id.

Had Corcey been less stoned, he would have found the small transmitter unit.  As it was, he was unable to locate what he was most after: answers.

But now that Phase 4 (termination) was complete, he deemed it necessary for Phase 5: evidence cleansing.

He looked around.  The area was full of food prep equipment, most of it quite large, to handle the volume that the Party required.

A ghoulish grin touched his lips.

Picking the body up, a gold necklace fell out of Victor’s shirt.  The necklace was 18 karat gold, though currently tarnished crimson, and had two ornaments on it.  One was a small crucifix (gift from mom), the other a pyramid with an eye in it (initiation gift from the Lodge Master.)

Corcey nodded to himself.


That explained who this geek was.  Being a freelance assassin and mercenary, Corcey hired himself out to a wide range of clients.  In his travels, he had worked both for and against the Illuminated Ones.

He preferred against.

This idiot, he reasoned, must have recognized him from a previous “against” mission, and decided to settle a score.

Turning on a large eleqtrical machine, Corcey considered the matter closed.  Over a chorus of crunching and rending tones, he wiped his knife clean, then resheathed it in his boot.

He afforded himself a smile.  He’d have to tell Blade: she’d be proud of him.

As a matter of fact, Blade was feeling proud of someone at that moment, but it happened to be her Earthling protégé.  On the dance floor, a dweebish quimby had been going around goosing all the girls, and Penny had knocked him flat with one punch—without loosing the beat of the music.

Penny didn’t have the heart to tell Blade that it was actually an accident: arms flailing madly to the music, and bash!

Both were sweating profusely.  The music was fast paced with bizarre time and tempo changes.  It reminded Penny of Earthly House music, except half the instruments she couldn’t identify, and parts of it were extremely psychedelic.  The human body creates a natural high after jogging ten miles; perhaps something similar was happening to her from the madcap dancing.  Certainly would explain why the music was tripping her out.

Wondering if she should sit this one out, she saw Corcey standing idly off to the side with a purine smile that made her think of a cat sitting next to a bird cage that had an open door and a few loose feathers.

She decided to go over to talk to him anyway.

As she got close, she saw smeared blood on his left arm, hastily wiped and still matty.  She decided it prudent not to inquire.

“Hey,” he said as she approached.  His attention was on Blade.  A whirling dervish of white hair, jumping and thrashing to the thunder of the beat.  He’d been observing her for quite a while.  She as often danced alone as with a partner, and she was forced to change those often because few could keep up with her.

“She likes to dance, doesn’t she,” he said.  His tone was one of wonder, contemplating something he didn’t even hope to ever understand.

“Yeah,” Penny replied.  “Dancing’s awesome.  It’s how I participate with the music.”

Blade came over, dripping with sweat, breathing hard, and smiling maniacally.

“You’re a veggie,” he said of Blade, then to Penny “I forget if you are, but in case you carnivate, I’d advise against eating any meat for the duration of your stay.”

Both girls nodded.

To her surprise, a yawn escaped Penny.  It had, after all, been a most eventful day.  She glanced at her watch: back on Earth, it was 2:42 am. Normally she’d be in bed by now, with morning mass five hours away.

Safe to say she’d be missing it.

Still, she had no idea what time it was here, but it seemed late.

“I hate to tell you this,” she told the two, “but I’m zoning out.  How do I get to Lester’s place?”

Blade and Corcey were showing signs of fatigue, too.  It had been an even longer day for the two of them.  They mutually agreed to call it a night, and Blade led the way to the elevator.  They scooted around a long fold-out formica table with several ice-chests holding tubs of ice cream.  One guy had a cone, which he ravenously ate, then spotted a friend of his with another cone.

“Hey,” he said to him, “have you tried the ‘pork’?”

Penny shook her head sadly.  Definitely time to go to bed.

“I’ll qal Trevor when we get up there,” Corcey said as the elevator arrived.  Just after getting in, he noticed the raving drag queen from earlier look right at him.  Corcey almost pondered that, but then Blade took ahold of his shirt and sponged her face with it.  Completely distracted (and still high as a proxyhawk), he forgot all about it for the time being.

After the doors closed, Warren Di’Phudjjpacher watched the elevator dial, then radioed in that all of B-Team was now on the 69th floor.  Then he asked if anyone had seen Victor since he’d last checked in.  He was sure that Victor was frightened, and he knew just how to console him.

The three members of B team followed the signs to the S wing, and very quickly found themselves outside room 69S30.  Corcey was about to tap in the entry code when Blade pushed on the door.

It swung open easily.

The two looked at each other warily, then entered with Penny in tow.  She shut the door behind them.

Lester’s place wasn’t extremely large, like a lot of the quarters for the upper Party members, and it had a really nice view of the city’s skyline.  Everything was a different shade of white.

There was a soft thump from the door at the far end of the living room.  Corcey stalked up to it, and glanced inside.

It was a smallish bedroom, just large enough for a (white) double bed, a very large (white) dresser with a vanity atop it, and another door next to one of the two (cream) night stands; probably to a bathroom.

A woman was facing the ornate vanity’s mirror, but her eyes kept suddenly shifting between it and the bathroom’s door.  She had a worn, triangular face; the chin was the point.  Small mouth, small nose, large jade eyes that were extremely dilated. Both ears were completely pierced with heavy hoops.  She looked exactly twice as old as she really was.  Straight brown hair chained with gray and frizzy from dust and static, pulled back in a pony-tail that reached her hips.

Corcey glanced at the id card pinned to her green peasant blouse, nodded.

“Hi, Sara,” he said in a loud voice.

“Hello,” she said pleasantly, not looking at him.  Her attention kept darting back and forth between the door and the mirror, which was tilted to show her the door as well.

“I’m an old friend of Lester’s.  He said I could crash here with some friends overnight.”

“Oh, okay,” she said, flitting glances spastically.  She had accepted the intrusion calmly enough, and was more concerned with the door.

Blade popped her head in to see who Corcey was talking to.

“Hello,” she said.  Sara waved, but did not take her eyes from the door.

“Are you all right?”

“Every time I turn away from this door, it starts to open.  Watch:” and she turned toward the mirror.  The door remained stationary.

“See?” she said, now scrutinizing the door in her vanity’s reflection.

Corcey looked at Blade, who met his incredulous look with one of her own.

“What day is it, anyway?” Sara asked, again turning toward the door.

“Saturnday night, a little past midnight,” Corcey told her.  “Actually, I guess that makes it Sunday morning now.”

“Oh,” remarked Sara.

Corcey’s long experience with the ba’alistti had given him a good background in dealing with people having bad hallucinations.  God knew he’d had enough of them himself.  But he knew how to handle this.

“I’m going to open the door,” he explained to her, then slowly went past her.  The door was one of the archaic types with a handle.  He turned it, pushed; it swung inwards on well-oiled hinges to reveal a long (white) bathroom.  He let her see that no one was in there, then closed it.

Sara turned away from the door in experimentation, then breathed a sigh of relief.

“Thanks,” she told him.  Corcey wondered just how long she’d been standing there.  Maybe this was why she and Lester hadn’t seen each other in so long.

“I’m sorry this place is such a mess,” she told them.  In actuality, it wasn’t that bad.  “But make yourselves a home.”

She looked at Corcey.  “You were in the Gahmtu Expedition with Lester,” she said.

Corcey smiled.  “He’s talked about me?”

“Lester doesn’t talk about Gahmtu at all,” she told him.  Understandable why; Corcey had still nightmares about it, too.  “But he’s got a picture of you five.”

Penny was looking at the picture at the very moment.  It was on a wall over an imitation (white brick) fireplace.  She recognized Corcey’s and Lester’s faces, wondered who the other three were.  They were, in fact, the only survivors of an 88-man expedition that unexpectedly stepped into what is generally considered the fiercest fight of the whole Rathgean war.  When reinforcements finally showed up, the five were making a desperate last stand, dug in deeper than starving tics on a skinny puppy.

Penny knew none of this, but the looks on the five’s faces, taken right after their rescue, told her everything.

“Where is Lester, anyway,” she heard a voice ask, and turned to see Corcey, Blade, and a girl she quickly assumed to be Sara entering the living room.

“Last I saw him, he was in the Forum’s gondola,” Corcey lied.  If he told her where he really was, she’d probably go find him, and learn about the displacement generator.Lester himself was the one who originally suggested keeping his beloved in ignorance.

“Okay,” she said, and let herself out.  The door shut eleqtriqally behind her, and they had no way of knowing that she would spend the next seven hours standing in front of it, glancing sideways at it.

“What’s in the fridge?” Blade asked Corcey, who already was rummaging through it.  She went over to help inspect the pickings.

Penny flopped on a sofa, which began to contour in a most comforting way to her figure.  She probably would have screamed if she had known that the sofa, plus all the chairs, were actual living creatures.

She nodded off in exactly five seconds.

This is what Penny dreamed:

First it was just blackness, with the ethereal voices of Blade and Corcey drifting about.

These are great with whip cream on them,” a disembodied masculine voice floated through her mind, and an image of a can of Cool Whip appeared in the blackness.  Stream of consciousness flowed to her favourite desert, a dish of chilled raspberries.

Let me try,” a feminine voice purred from behind the fading image of the can and crystal fruit goblet.

By the time they had become blackness, the masculine voice (also fading) said “Knock it off—you’re turning me on.

Penny’s subconscious formed the image of a light switch, and she saw her hand reach out to flip it up.  The darkness began to light up with the illumination of a dream.

Male voice: “I guess this is it, isn’t it.”

Female voice: (coyly) “Play your cards right...

Penny’s dream resolved into an old western saloon, where she saw Blade and Corcey dressed like cowboys and sitting at a table in the midst of hand of strip poker.

There was a very long pause, during which Penny saw herself materialize by the swinging doors.  The dream’s perspective switched from first person to third.

The last vestiges of her awake mind heard the amazingly distant feminine voice whisper “You know where this is going...” and then Penny realized that outside the doors to the saloon was a path that led far away.  She walked out, seeing where it led to.

She found herself back on Earth, with her old friend Matt.  Penny looked around his place.  It was all clean and orderly for a change.  He had even vacuumed.

Have a seat,” he told her, and poured her some chocolate milk.  Matt explained that he was trying to straighten out his eating habits.  He pulled out a wok and started to cook her a Mandarin chicken dinner, which smelled divine.  This was when Penny began to suspect that she was dreaming.  Her suspicions were confirmed when Trevor, Ian, and Lester walked into Matt’s kitchen, making a lot of noise.

Penny wheezed a sharp intake of air and opened her eyes.  She was spread out on the sofa; somebody had put a blanket over her.

Light peered in from the window; it was dawn.  Lester was at the other side of the room, bending over a fish tank.  He splashed water on his face, then reached in amidst the swimming occupants and pulled out a beer.  He handed it to Ian, who grunted thanks, popped it open, and chugged it in one take.  Lester pulled out another glass bottle, but it was already open.  Aquarium water billowed out of the opening; frustrated, he dropped it back in.

“Good morning,” Trevor said to Penny.  Sara was right behind her, managing her temples.  They’d found her outside the door and brought her in.

“Morning,” Penny mumbled, then noticed the blanket.  She was about to go back to sleep, but Trevor rapped lightly on her forehead.

“We figured it out, and we’re getting out of here very shortly.”

Penny nodded, stretched lethargically.  “Did you guys do an all-nighter?”

“Yep,” said Ian, turning on the vidio phone.  He began punching in Rat’s home page number.

Lester went into the little den, Trevor went into the bedroom.

Corcey was sound asleep, a dreamily content smile on his lips.  He actually looked happy, which was odd, since there was a knife-wielding homicidal maniac curled up behind him, matching his contours like two spoons, an arm draped tightly around him.  She, too, had pleasant look on her face.

Trevor knocked.  Corcey awoke instantly with a sharp hiss.  He recognized Trevor, closed his eyes again.  Then the realization he had awakened in Blade’s arms.  The smile broadened; what a wonderful way to start the day, he thought.

“Lester cracked it,” he heard Trevor say, and Blade stirred behind him.

She awoke embracing Corcey, and also decided it was the perfect way to wake up.  A soft mewing noise escaped her throat, and she kissed the back of his neck.  It was salty and slightly sticky.

He ran fingers along her forearm, squeezed her hand.  “So we’re all set then?” he asked the apparition in the door.

“The grid runs on a hexadecimal system, which is why it kept screwing us up.  But it’s surprisingly simple: if you can count to twelve, you can use it.  Wherever you are physically is ground zero.  You enter the first three dimensions as x y z coordinated of where you want to move to, and the forth for when you want to be there.”

Trevor could tell that his explanation was largely lost on his audience, who were still half asleep and wholly horny.  So he decided not to tell them about some of the other tricks Lester had discovered, such as the four additional dimensional circuits hooked up.

Blade squeezed Corcey’s hand back, finally opened her eyes.

“Now what,” she asked the blurry figure.

“We’re pulling out in about an hour.”

“Where to?” she asked, growing a little more alert.

“Ian and I need to go talk to somebody, and then we’ll tell you everything.”

Under the sheets, Blade adjusted the position of one of her bony legs.  The muscles looked stringy, but she had once kicked a man in the nose hard enough to drive cartilage into his brain and kill him.  Her knee had a faint, fading bruise.  She was still wearing the stiletto heels, and Corcey had red welts in the small of his back from where they had dug into him repeatedly over the course of the night.  His upper back was heavily grooved with clawmarks.  Like her fingernails, she filed her toenails to long points, too.  She began tickling the sole of his foot with the talon on her big toe.

Corcey was extremely ticklish, and muttered “Knock it off!”  She did, for a few seconds.  They’d only gotten two hours sleep, but their energy was returning proportionately with their consciousness.  Playfully, Blade resumed her tickling.  Corcey promptly rolled over and attacked her.  Her defenses were more than ready.

Shaking his head, Trevor closed the door, and wrote “Do Not Disturb” on a post-it note.  As he put it on the door, Lester emerged from the den with a pharmaceutical vial, and handed some amphetamines to Ian and Trevor.  Penny declined the offer, but asked where the bathroom was.

Lester looked at the note on his bedroom door, suggested she use the one by the den.

She strolled over to it, but Trevor was inside.  From the sounds, he was singing a little ditty in the shower.

Sara drifted up next to her.  “I’m going to scramble some eggs,” she told her.  “Want some?”

Penny told her yes, and Sara made the same offer to Ian.  He said no, and went back to trying numbers on the vidio phone.

He still had failed to reach her when Trevor, dripping wet but refreshed, came up and traded places.  Ian went off to take a much needed shower, only to find Penny had beaten him to it.

He hesitantly knocked on the bedroom door.

“Yeah?” a chorus called out.

Inside, he found Blade straddling Corcey’s chest, a thick knife in her hand.  She was dry-shaving the figure under her.  They’d had an exhausting, if mutually satisfying shower, and had since dressed.

“I’m gonna grab a shower,” he told the two, and proceeded to take a long, hot soak.

Blade wiped the knife on the sheets, adding stubble to the multitude of stains already there.  She finished the job without even a nick.

“Want some eggs?” Sara asked from the doorway.

Corcey was sitting behind Blade, his legs wrapped around her waist, and weaving five strands of her wet ivory locks into the traditional Caandelenian Battle Braid.

“Eggiwegs?!” Corcey asked.

Sara took that as a yes, and went back to the kitchen.

She was about to ask Trevor if he was hungry, but held her silence as she saw the vidio screen activate.

“Hello?” Rat said at last.  “Oh, hi, Trevor.”  She looked like she’d pulled an all-nighter, too.  “Got time to talk?”


“Good.  Oh, by the way, you five are under surveillance.”


“I don’t know by who; I just know that someone is asking a lot of questions about you. Especially the Earth girl.  Apparently there are several agents at the Party keeping an eye on you; someone paid Security not to mess with them.  More are on the way.”


“That’s all I know.  I can be in my office in five minutes; meet me there.”

“Sure, Rat.  See you then.”

He clicked off, then said to the room at large, “Hey, everybody.  Rat says we have unfriendlies who are extremely interested in us.  Now might be a good time to bug out.”

Lester perused the fish tank for another brew.  “Where are you guys going?”

“That’s for Rat to know, and us to find out.”

He rubbed his hair, yawned.  “Should I assume that this machine is involved?”

“A practical working assumption,” Trevor replied.

“You guys know about something good, don’t you.”

“Another practical working assumption,” echoed Ian.

“Well, now that I’ve told you how to work the machine, it’s time to discuss my fee.  25% of whatever you find.”

“There’s five of us, plus you and Rat.  How ’bout we split it seven ways?”

Lester thought about it for a second.  Since he had no intention of going along (he’d had his share of excitement and adventure on Gahmtu), that sounded reasonable.

Penny was surprised to hear that she was considered an equal partner.  But she wasn’t complaining about that, either.  What she was complaining about was her hair: it was refusing to cooperate.

Corcey and Blade emerged from the bedroom.  Penny smiled when she saw the thick bruise on Blade’s pale skin, just where the shoulder and neck met.  Corcey’s long, dark hair was folded under the hat again, but fortunately it fell in such a way that it camouflaged his love bite.  His was right over his carotid artery, with two jet-black marks from Blade’s pointy incisors.  She locked her jaws tightly on the same spot every time he pushed her over the brink of an orgasm, and it looked to Penny like he’d been ravaged by a vampire.

Ian followed a moment later, dripping wet.  He’d heard about the unwanted attention they were receiving, and had hurriedly dressed.

“Let’s get the flock out of here,” he said.

“Later, Lester,” Corcey called to his old Friend.

Using the new hexadecimal coordinates, Ian programmed the machine for Rat’s office.

He pressed the button just as the apartment’s door blew in.

Fifteen black-clad stormtroopers burst in, waving their lazer rifles at anything that moved.  Lester was in the bathroom at the time; at first all they saw was Sara.

“Hi,” she said, “Want some eggs?”

"We missed them," came the report from the radio.  Münster shook his head in disgust.  If they’d been running this his way, this would have been sewn up last night.

"We got Lester and member Sara," came the follow-up.

Well, that’s better than nothing, he thought.

“Begin interrogation,” he said into his qom unit, and then a very important question drifted into his mind.

“Je'Tep?  How did they get out?”

Long pause before the Saladrin squad commander answered.

"Unclear.  All the walls and windows are intact; no other exits detected."

Münster did some very hard thinking about that, and thirty seconds later arrived at precisely the correct solution.

So that’s what this “device” that Whitlock was so uptight about was.  No wonder he hadn’t specified what it was, other than it was to be delivered undamaged.  When Münster pressed him for details, all Whitlock would do was reassure him that it wasn’t a weapon.  Well, no wonder he hadn’t told him what it was.  Now that he knew, Münster did exactly what Whitlock feared he would do if he found out: go rogue.

The Saladrin’s next report came in.

Münster’s reply: “Torture them to find out.”

Münster’s next reply: “I don’t give a phuq if they’re Party Members.  Extract the information, or I will personally puncture your suit.”

While the commando squad worked that lead, and while his suddenly former employer Leonard Whitlock eagerly awaited for an update that he would not get until one of his few still-loyal officers contacted him hours later, Münster checked all the other leads.  He pulled up a file of all their known associates seen at the Party.

“Unit Four, give me a report on Tusk.”

Garbled reply: “On duty at North Perimeter Checkpoint.”

“Unit Twelve, where’s Kauckmeister?”

“Same place.”  That was, of course, asleep with another man (who charged by the hour.)

“Unit Two, where’s the Rat?”

“In an elevator, heading up.  Probably to her office.”

Oh Really now, he thought.

Rat was more than a bit surprised to see the group waiting for her in her locked office.  She didn’t bother to ask how they got in.

“Kindly don’t tell us that story again,” Ian asked her.

She didn’t, and Ian and Trevor didn’t ask additional questions they’d thought of, which she didn’t answer if she couldn’t.

She handed over the key, then printed the coordinates from the file on her qomputer.

They thanked her, and disappeared with a flash of light just as Rat’s door got kicked in.

“Hello, Rat,” Free Agent Münster said to her.  “We’re going to have a nice, long talk, and I think you know what about.”

The principle subject of that conversation had just materialized 270,000 parsecs away, on a medium-sized moon.  The rings of the gas giant they flew around were faintly visible in the blue atmosphere, as were three other moons.

They looked around to see what kind of a place they were in.  Penny’s response summed it up best.




[continue to next chapter]


[1] The winner, oddly enough was, Canasta/Moline Breweries of Alpha-Centauri, the real owners of the Anhauser-Bush and Duff breweries on Earth.

[2] It was, in fact, Gainesville Green, the pride crop of the University of Florida.  Its former owner was a freshman Gator spending the weekend at Disney World; he was high enough to think the Tiki Room was neat, but wanted to get obliterated for the Haunted House.  He ducked behind the Hall of Presidents to acquire that mind frame, and never knew what hit him.  He woke up half an hour later with a black eye and without his wallet, walkman, favourite Iron Maiden tape, and half ounce of bud.  These had passed into the possession of a Hamaddi universally known as Maggot.  Maggot hung around to pose for some photographs with kids, who assumed this to be a new—if somewhat stinky—costumed character.  He found one last victim to mug: a Gator Frat Rat with a thick wallet and nice watch.  Maggot decided five was the limit of his luck, so he hopped on his runner and warped to New Ra’Math to pawn some of the trinkets he had acquired.  Although Maggot was a slightly above average thief, he was a below-average junkie.  In the New Ra’Math orbiter, he went into the public men’s room to take a dump and smoke a joint in celebration of having sold his merchandise.  Corcey was the next person to walk in.  He smiled in recognition of the pungent reek in the air; imagine his surprise to sit down, reach for the toilet paper, and see a quarter ounce sitting on the dispenser.  Smiling, he pocketed it, then went out to join Trevor, Ian, Blade, and twenty shock troops in their little escapade.