Slavery Does Not Compute [Ep 9]


#1

::Altrega Beach, Albrook.::



This back-alley was a well-trod thoroughfare for some of Altrega Beach’s least reputable denizens. The commercial block it cut through lead right from one suqallid refugee slum to another, allowing for the transfer of illicit goods or an expeditious escape from the APD.



This evening, however, it appeared to be entirely off-limits. A score of badly-beaten Triad Blue Lanterns lay strewn about, mutedly groaning in pain on the decidedly unhygienic ground, their cuts, scrapes and bruises a warning to other low-lifes that this back-alley was not currently open to through traffic.



Beyond the graveyard of beaten badguys, two figures continued their fight unabated. One of the combatants was human, hailing from the nation of Fabul in the Crystal Dimension. His head was shaven bald save for a single, long queue of dark hair flowing down from the crown of his head. He was thickly muscled, but also incredibly quick and agile; the dao sword he held in his hand was an ancient heirloom of his family, and it thrummed and pulsed with the flow of chi energy from its wielder. His name was Jin Gangdao, and he was a Red Pole in the notorious Golden Axe Triad.



His opponent was a tall, gray-feathered avian humanoid wielding a flashing blue-bladed katana that seemed to sing with deep magical enchantment. He hailed originally from the Gate Dimension, from a region in the North Eastern part of the Zenan continent known as the Denadoro Mountains. A “Mystic” they called him, one of several races of sapient beings gifted with arcane powers by the enigmatic Magus during the middle ages. His name was Osprey… and he was unemployed.



Both men were highly skilled. Both extremely well-trained. These two swordsmen were each the equal of the other. But Gangdao appeared to only hold his opponent in contempt.



“This time, the magic sword-girl is not here to save you from me,” the Triad said, nearly spitting the words, as he spun around and swung out a leg to see if he could catch Osprey unawares with a kick.



Almost without effort, Osprey ducked under the kick and pressed his counter-attack. "You’re just sore that I turned down your Triad’s (admittedly very generous) offer of employment."



Gangdao smirked as he turned aside Osprey’s predictable attack, and returned with his own. “I am sure you have since realized it was your loss. The Golden Axe could have taken care of you better than the little girl who fights the bad men for you.”



“It’s not such a bad deal I have, really,” Osprey said. “Room and board. All the pizza I can eat. ManaSeed and streaming video.” In a puff of shadowy smoke, Osprey suddenly vanished. For a moment, Jin Gangdao was perplexed; but he recovered as his ears perceived something beyond mere sound. He spun round just in time to catch Osprey’s blade as he emerged from the shadow behind Gangdao. Gangdao rolled over backward and regained his footing, bringing his blade back up just in time to parry three more rapid cuts.



“Fortunate, then, that you turned us down,” Gangdao said. "And good riddance. You fight like an Eblanese dog."



Osprey couldn’t help but smile. Should he take that as a compliment? If Kamiko were here, perhaps she might show this Triad bastard how a Samurai fights…



This was all the opening Jin Gangdao needed. It was a momentary, almost negligible lapse in Osprey’s guard; something Gangdao could not have anticipated, but it was there all the same. The briefest of all weaknesses: an emotional response. As Osprey paused, unseen parts of him moved by the Triad’s expression of ethnic antipathy, Gangao pounced.



Before Osprey knew what was happening, the Triad Red Pole was upon him. He slipped under Osprey’s guard, and with preternatural swiftness from his off-hand, he poked, prodded, pressed and twisted. His fingers and thumb worked up and down Osprey’s torso, working an intricate network of nerve-endings and chakra points. By the time Jin Gangdao was done, Osprey found he couldn’t move at all; none of his muscles, his limbs, his fingers, even his mouth and his eyelids. He was as good as a statue: utterly paralyzed.



“I would give you the death you so richly deserve,” Gangdao said, with a cunning grin. "But I think it pleases me more to leave you to live with the humiliation of this defeat."



As it became evident that Osprey had been utterly immobilized by Jin Gangdao’s nerve-touch technique, the beaten Triad gangers slowly began to stand. Those who were less injured than the rest helped their less-well-off bretheren to their feet.



“Now, if you’ll excuse me,” Gangdao said, tauntingly, as he slid his heirloom sword back into its scabbard, "I do have somewhere else I need to be. An appointment which your intercession has very nearly made me late for. But we will see to your reckoning on that score next time we meet."



With a gesture, Gangdao waved his men on. They proceeded through the alley with haste. As the last of the Triads disappeared, a third figure emerged from the shadows. He was human of middle-age, wearing an old faded denim jacket and lovingly-worn khaki slacks. Unlike Osprey and Gangdao, this newcomer did not possess a stupidly magical or chi-enhanced sword.



He approached Osprey, and, after taking a moment to examine him, extended his index and middle fingers together and began to work, in reverse, the combination of pokes, prods and twists across Osprey’s torso that had rendered him inert. When he was done, Osprey pitched forward with a gasp, and he dropped Shiva’s Edge to the ground with a loud clatter.



The man swung out his arm to catch Osprey before he fell over. Not questioning who his savior was at first, Osprey leaned on him readily, took a moment to catch his breath and steady himself. Then he paused and tried to maneuver to see who his rescuer was, in the dim light filtering into the alley.



“Hey! I know you!.. You’re…” Osprey blanked. “That guy. Crap. Terry’s friend, Mario the… plumber?”



“Klyde Munro,” the man said, taking a step back and extending his hand. “And I’m a tailor.”



“That’s totally what I meant,” Osprey said. He got really dizzy just then, and had to lean against the wall to steady himself.



Klyde leaned in to help Osprey, or at least make sure he didn’t fall down. “Come on,” the tailor said, "Let’s get off the streets, hmm? My shop isn’t far. I can brew up some tea, let you relax a spell, maybe give Terry a call to let him know you’re okay."



Osprey (who had basically been Roxanne’s permanent houseguest ever since Egmont got attacked by the ancient Taznikanze rock demons) didn’t like to impose on people, but at that moment his head was still swimming from Jin Gangdao’s nerve-point attack, so he found he literally couldn’t say no. (his mouth wouldn’t form the word)



Klyde reached down carefully, picked up Shiva’s Edge and replaced it in its sheath. Then he took Osprey’s arm across his shoulders and slowly walked him away from the alleyway.


    • *



      When Osprey came to, he was spread out on a warm, inviting couch. A black and white TV was playing quietly in the background, and propped up not far from him was Shiva’s Edge, standing there leaning against the couch’s arm as if the sword itself were keeping watch over him.



      Osprey swung his legs around and pressed his fingers into his head. He groaned and forced his eyes back open. On the coffee table in front of him was a half-drained teacup. Testing it with his finger, he found it was ice cold. How long had he been here? How long had he been asleep?



      The door quietly creaked open, and Osprey instinctively reached for the hilt of Shiva’s Edge. He relaxed his stance when he saw it was just Klyde.



      “You’re awake,” Klyde said, with an avuncular smile. "I hope the tea did the trick."



      Osprey shut his eyes and nodded. “Ogansweed leaf. This is arcano-medicinal tea from Denadoro… with a sedative side effect. You knew it would put me out.”



      “And I also knew you’d recognize it when you came to,” Klyde said. "I apologize, but I’ve found that no remedy is better for quickly shaking the effects of a Fabulian paralyzing palm attack than Ogansweed tea."



      Osprey stood. “No apology necessary,” he said. “It was a good call. I am recovered.”



      “I’m glad,” Klyde said, the smile never leaving his face. "You also have visitors. When I called over to your and Terry’s apartment, your roommate Roxanne answered. I told her what had happened… and she told me she’d been trying to get in touch with you for hours."



      Osprey winced. He reached down to his pocket and felt at his cell phone. It was shattered. He thought he might have felt his phone take a hit during the mass melee against all those Triad gangers… it must have taken a harder hit than he’d thought. Replacing it would not be cheap.



      “So she is here?” Osprey asked.



      “She is,” Klyde said. "… Along with a couple other people from Guardia who say they know you."



      Osprey tensed. Were the Guardians after him now, too? Had Director Chalasser decided to go after Osprey, possibly for aiding and abetting the Shield? Had Osprey’s widely-circulated resume lead Terry’s enemies right to Roxanne’s front door?



      Klyde seemed, somehow, to know exactly what Osprey was thinking. "Relax. Roxanne thinks these guys are on the level, and so do I. Once you hear what they want… I’m sure you’ll agree."



      Klyde reached out and took Osprey by the hand, leading him through the door. They passed from a homey sitting room into a humble living room. Sitting in easy chairs, clustered around a mahogany coffee table, were Roxanne and three others Osprey didn’t recognize: two feline humanoids (one male and one female), and a silver-and-blue R-series robot.



      The male feline stood. He was massive and easily dwarfed everyone else in the room (even the R-series). Though he was plain-clothed, Osprey noted he had the bearing and posture of a military officer.



      “Osprey,” he said. "I’m very glad to meet you, finally. I think I could use your help. I’m Captain Barry Svensgaard of the Guardian Space Fleet… and I believe a network of robot slavers has set up shop here in Albrook, and they’re getting help from some of the criminal enterprises already here in the city…"



      Osprey just stared at Barry, beheld his massiveness, and then started to process what he’d just said. He turned and looked at Klyde.



      “Okay,” Osprey said, “Are you sure all you put in my tea was Ogansweed?”

#2

Captain Svensgaard took some time to introduce his companions (which he called his “away team”). The first was the female feline humanoid, Liz Bauer, who was a Solar Commander in the RAF and part of an officer exchange program between Guardia and Tasnica. She served as Barry’s first officer aboard his ship, the Seaborne. The robot was R-FT7, nicknamed “Factor,” who was a Lieutenant Commander and served as Barry’s second officer. Not present was Wing Commander Jack Fisk, who was Barry’s Flight Officer, and who had stayed behind to watch the civilian vehicle that the team was using while they were in Albrook. Roxanne mentioned that he was a particularly loathesome sort of man, but she would not elaborate on what Commander Fisk had done or said that had so soured her on him (but Commander Bauer, based on her expression, seemed to understand and relate).



“We found out about this not too long ago,” Commander Bauer said, “During a sweep of Alterspace, we found a hidden colony dome on Alter VII – a world the Alter-Manans call Maorid. It was being used by an especially pernicious band of pirates whose stock in trade was the sale of sapient robots, mainly to other piratic or criminal organizations.”



“Slavery,” Factor interjected, quickly and without apology. "I believe that is the word that would be used for it if it involved the trafficking of biological sapients."



Barry nodded. "Indeed. A reprehensible practice by any name, but let us not be sparing in our terminology. It is droid slavery, pure and simple. Guardian law forbids such a thing, and I have made it my personal mission to put this organization out of business."



Commander Bauer cleared her throat. “Not only Guardian law. Both Tasnican law and tradition stand against even the notion of slavery, droid or not.”



“You’ll get no argument from me, there,” Osprey said. “But why come here? Why come to me?”



“We chased the slavers off Alter VII,” Barry explained. "Which had the added bonus of giving the GSF a new fleet anchorage at the Maorid domes."



Commander Bauer narrowed her eyes at this. It seemed the GSF would sieze upon any opportunity to expand the Kingdom’s colonial holdings, though she found it hard to argue with repurposing the confiscated property of the droid slavers. Even so, the Tasnican officer chaffed, even as Captain Svensgaard – the “Tiger of Guardia” – seemed to beam with pride.



“But in recent weeks we have seen evidence that their activities continue,” Factor added. “Rather than hide themselves on unsettled, uninhabited worlds on the Fringe, we believe they have established a network of hidden bases right here in the Core, under our very noses. Our admittedly limited intelligence suggests one such base is in Albrook.”



“And that brings us to you,” Barry said. "I know you no longer work for the Kingdom of Guardia… but I’ve read your dossier, master Osprey. Losing you was catastrophic for Guardian intelligence…“



Osprey couldn’t help but smile to himself at this. It was a good thing to hear, adrift as he was in the midst of a seemingly endless job search.



”… but finding you here, in this city of all places, was a boon I cannot leave aside unused. I would like your help locating the slaver base in Albrook, infiltrating it, and putting it out of service. Just like we did to the domes on Alter VII."



Osprey folded his arms. "Well. I mean. Yeah, of course, I’m a pretty cool guy… I’m sure I could help you out… But I will be needing something in return."



Roxanne glared at Osprey, somewhat shocked. “Are you haggling? Over fighting BADGUYS?”



“You of all people shouldn’t complain,” Osprey said. “If Captain Svensgaard has enough pull to get Guardia to hire me again and get me off your couch…”



“I wish it were that simple,” Barry said. "As it is, this mission is strictly off the books. My away team and I are currently rogue… we’re doing this despite the risk because we feel we have to. I couldn’t vouch for you… and even if I could, I don’t know how much pull I’d have. Director Chalasser and my father aren’t exactly the best of friends in the power circles of the Kingdom."



This was, of course, an understatement. ZAPS Director Chalasser had gotten Norstein Bekkler fired, and would have done the same to Grand Admiral Thames if he weren’t so popular among a significant number of Parliamentary constituents.



Roxanne stood. “Well you can count me in,” she said. “In for a copper, in for a geld, as the saying goes. I’ve already fought pyra dealers in Albrook. What reason would I have to skip a row with some slavers, as well?”



“With respect, madam,” Factor interjected, "These slavers are quite dangerous. We three have military training and are equipped to engage them in close combat, if it comes to that. I fear it would be no place for a civilian."



Roxanne had to remind herself that these Guardians would have no way of knowing who she was. She turned to Commander Bauer. "Commander, would you tell your friends exactly what I mean when I say my name is Roxanne, the North Star?"



Liz eyed Roxanne quizically. Roxanne, Liz and the Guardians engaged in a conversation about the Valkyrie’s bonafides, but Osprey mostly tuned them out. He was lost in his own thoughts: a little surprised at himself that he’d momentarily become so mercenary, quite despondent about the current state of his life… and a little ashamed after having been admonished like that by Roxanne.



“There’s no shame in trying to find an angle every once in a while,” Klyde said, as he pulled up next to Osprey, leaning against the wall beside him. “I mean, this Captain Svensgaard does represent the same government that tossed you out on your ear, after all.”



“He does,” Osprey said. "… but it wasn’t his call. And I shouldn’t have held out on him like that. He’s like me now, you know? Going off on his own just to do right. By rights I should help him."



Klyde smiled. “Oh. Well, that was easy. Here I was thinking I’d have to talk you into it.”



“No,” Osprey said. He looked on as Roxanne and the Guardians kept talking. “I’ll help him. I’m just… I don’t know. I want my situation to not be the way it is right now. I know I make the best of it where I can, and I like being around Roxanne and Terry and Fara. But I want to feel like I can stand on my own two feet. I want to feel like I’m not completely worthless.”



Osprey thought back to his confrontation with Jin Gangdao. Questions of worth and worthiness swirled in Osprey’s unusually busy head, as he relived (with no small amount of shame) Gangdao’s victory…



Klyde clapped a hand on Osprey’s shoulder. "Just remember that this GSF Captain came here looking for you, Osprey. He seems to think your skills and expertise are worth something."



Osprey turned and looked at Klyde. “You know, it’s just a little creepy that you know enough about me to be so reassuring.”



“I get that a lot.” Klyde said with a wink. The tailor cleared his throat to get the attention of the others in the room. “Best make sure Captain Svensgaard’s vehicle has room for two more. Both Osprey and myself will be tagging along.”


#3

The vehicle that Barry and his away team were using during their time in Albrook was a beat up old van. The white paint clung stubbornly to the van’s sides, though less-successfully around several dents and dings in its weathered surface, and on the passenger side rear sliding door you could only just barely make out the remnants of a Maranda Farms dairy logo.



It’d been decided that most of the team would stay in Klyde’s apartment, while Commander Factor utilized the local OmniNet connection to continue to tap network resources. Osprey and Klyde (who’d told Captain Svensgaard his service during the Great War had been, in part, in the area of reconnaissance) would go out to search for leads in the city itself, using both the away team’s van as well as the away team’s driver.



“Hey, ah, either o’ you two dudes see the game this weekend?“



Osprey was trying very hard not to engage with Commander Fisk (whose incognito civvies consisted of a navy blue windbreaker, a PASA football jersey and a pair of ill-fitting zebra-print sweatpants). This was easy enough, as Osprey had worked long and hard to perfect an aloof and inscrutable countenance. Klyde, however, had cultivated a more avuncular persona, and so felt obliged to offer at least token conversation to the driver of the vehicle.



”… What game is that?” Klyde asked.



“Oh, why, THE ONLY GAME THAT MATTERS THIS SEASON, you know what I’m talkin about?” Fisk glared at Klyde in the rear view mirror. "PASA at Nikeah! The Porps verse the Dolphins! Or, as I like to call it, ‘the battle of da fishes!’"



Klyde pursed his lips and shook his head. “Afraid I must have missed that one.”



“Ah man. What kinda man are you anyhow? That game was EPIC. I’m tellin’ you, I dunno what PASA’s gonna do next year when Trivand graduates. Guardian ball ain’t seen a QB dat good since John Dario himself, you know what I’m sayin?? They need to farm out some good talent big league, or else we ain’t never gonna see the inside of an Esperian arena again in my life! Oh, and halftime, there was this one cheerleader, I swear to gods she coulda been lookin right at me through the TV. I tell you what, I had zero-G training with some young ladies back at the academy, but that chick was the one defyin’ gravity that day, YOU KNOW WHAT I’M TALKIN ABOUT!?!?” Fisk trailed off with a hearty, lascivious chortle.



Klyde unfolded a map, and caught Osprey’s attention. “At my age, I’ve seen and done too much to believe in either coincidence or luck,” Klyde said. “I think a good place for us to start looking is the alley where I found you tonight.”



“We could have walked there,” Osprey said, casting a sidelong glance at the driver of the van.



"Hey, dat Roxanne chick, is she single, or what’s her story? She a lesbian? How open minded you think she is?"



Klyde sighed. “Well. I think Captain Svensgaard may have ordered Commander Fisk along so we could enjoy his scintillating company.”



“I mean I ain’t got nothin against no lesbians,” Fisk said, by way of clarification, "Just it’d be helpful to know beforehand, to keep me from wastin’ my time, you know what?"



There was a merficul pause, during which Fisk said nothing, and neither Osprey nor Klyde desired to break the silence.



“Why would we want to go back to the alley?” Osprey asked.



“Here in Alrega Beach, I hear things,” Klyde said. "And now that we have heard Captain Svensgaard’s story, I believe I have formed a theory that connects the exploits of your Triads with the droid slavers that our Guardian friends are hunting."



Osprey nodded, intrigued. “Barry did say he thought the slavers were working with criminal outfits already in the city. The Golden Axe has been looking to deepen their foothold in Albrook for a while now.”



“An association with these slavers might be just what they need,” Klyde said, appending Osprey’s thought. “We’ll track them from the alley and see where they’ve gone – they did say they had somewhere to be tonight right before they left you. They’ll either lead us to the very thing we’re looking for, or perhaps to someone else who can.”



“If your theory holds true, that is,” Osprey said.



Klyde smiled, his rosy, weathered cheeks deepening the laugh lines around his eyes. "You’ll find, Osprey, that I rarely miss my guesses."



Osprey regarded Klyde suspiciously. “You never did say exactly what you did during the war, Mister Munro.”



“No,” Klyde observed, “I did not.” The old tailor stood from his seat and moved up toward Fisk, showing him the map. “Turn 'round and head back to my shop, but you’re going to pull over here. Osprey and I are going to check out this alley.”



“Oh good,” Fisk said, as he began preparing to make a U-turn, “I was just gonna ask you guys if we could stop soon, I gotta take a piss like you wouldn’t BELIEVE. Like, I have to drain my miles-long-battlecruiser, you know what I’m sayin’!?” Fisk laughed; it was the laugh of a man who believed himself to be somewhere in the neighborhood of charming, even if all evidence indicated he was not. “You know, I dunno how long you guys think we’ll be out and about for tonight, but if you get hungry later on the way into Altrega I saw this titty bar I used to come to back in the day, when I was teachin’ them SAGA boys how to ride the lightnin’, and they actually have some pretty good chicken wings if you get hungry or somethin. Plus they got this one girl who used to work there, Trixxy, and she got fat or pregnant or somethin and had to retire but her sister Sixxy works there now and oh man, she got these huge --”



“Thank you, just get us to the alleyway and that would be fine,” Klyde said, a little more forcefully than he was used to.



The van rolled to a stop, and Osprey and Klyde hopped out. As promised, Fisk extricated himself from the driver’s seat and moved to a spot against the side of the building to relieve himself.



Revolted, Osprey moved deeper into the alley to the spot where he and the Triads had been fighting.



“We can track them from here, don’t you think?” Klyde said.



Osprey knelt down. “Afraid not,” he said. "These are monks, or at least they’ve had monk training. I might be able to trail them for a little while, but once their light-step techniques kick in we’d lose them fast."



Klyde shook his head. Even as he did, he didn’t take his eyes off one particular spot in the alleyway, a spot that had caught his attention the moment he’d hopped out of the van. “I thought you were a mage, Osprey?”



Osprey was pretty sure he hadn’t told Klyde about his abilities as a spellcaster, though in fairness it wasn’t the first time the tailor had demonstrated some knowledge about him and his abilities.



“You know,” Klyde said, "The sword Gangdao used during his fight with you wasn’t magical in and of itself… but the man had channeled some of his spiritual essence, his chi, into the weapon. In this way he made his blade almost the equal of your own. Any scholar or sage will tell you that the chi techniques of monks are not actually magical… but the strands of mana are all around us, Osprey. When we use magic, we bend those strands to our will. Who’s to say that chi techniques aren’t, in their own way, a monk bending the strand of spirit to do his bidding?"



As he spoke, Klyde moved toward the part of the alley that he’d been eying all along. He bent down and reached for something, and when he stood again he was holding a small piece of metal in the palm of his hand.



“Metals and crystals,” Klyde said, "Are wonderful things for enchanters to work with. They so readily hold magic within them, sometimes even without being intentionally worked with enchantments. Perhaps on a related note, one of the Triad gangers you fought appears to have lost a filling. Maybe you might find it useful, if you’ve any ability with divination spells?"



Osprey took the filling and examined it. “How do you know it came from one of the Triads?”



“I told you I never miss my guesses,” Klyde said. "Can you cast divinations?"



Osprey considered. “I have before. Such things come naturally to the school of shadow, though I’m much more well-versed at obscuring divinations than working them.”



“What you should do is try to detect any hint of spirit strand mana, a natural byproduct of chi use, embedded in that filling,” Klyde said. "It will bolster your spell and help lead us to its owner with greater accuracy, I believe."



Osprey closed his fingers around the filling, and regarded Klyde. “You never mentioned you were a spellcaster, Klyde.”



“No,” he said. "I did not. Shall we try out your spell from the comfort of our van?"



There was a loud noise from the front of the alley. It was low, and concussive, and it caused Osprey to reach for the hilt of his sword (and Klyde to reach inside the pocket of his jacket).



“Ah nuts,” came Fisk’s voice. “Hey, ah, we might need to find a place to clean up a bit. I had to let one rip and, ah, it sorta feels like I let a little more out into my shorts than I originally intended, if you know what I’m talkin’ bout. But don’t worry, I put up an air freshener in the van when we first started drivin around Albrook, so it prolly won’t smell too bad. You think we could head back to the shop and I could maybe use your men’s room, Klyde?..”


#4

While Commander Fisk cleaned himself up, the rest of the team met up back in Klyde Munro’s living room. Klyde caught the team up on what they’d found.



“Osprey and I went back to the alleyway where he’d fought the Triads earlier, entirely on a hunch, and I believe we’ve got something solid.” Klyde smiled and turned to Osprey. "Tell them what you’ve found."



Osprey nodded. “A tooth filling from one of the Triad gangers. Actually, Klyde found it, and he suggested I try to use it to home in on the Triads magically. Which I did.”



“You think the Triads are one of the gangs the slavers are looking to establish a relationship with here in the city,” Roxanne observed.



“I do,” Klyde said. “And it fits pretty well with everything I’ve been hearing. As does the result of Osprey’s divining magic.”



“The owner of the filling is underground right now,” Osprey said. "There’s a large complex down there… massive. It’s got electricity and defenses. I know approximately where it is… but couldn’t see how to get there."



Factor beeped. “Of course. That makes perfect sense.” Factor was jacked into Klyde’s omninet directly via cable, so he couldn’t move far from the wall, but he turned and looked directly at Barry. “Back before the Leviathan War, the Grand Army had plans to connect Albrook with Tzen and Maranda with a huge hypersonic maglev system that would run near entirely underground. It got scrapped after Scande established the OZ, but the tunnels remain. Not widely known except in less-reputable circles, it’s called ‘Underbrook.’ Based on what Osprey’s found, I am convinced this is where the slavers have set up shop.”



“I don’t see how that’s possible,” Liz said, crossing her arms. "These slavers are Fringe pirates. They’ve got big tech and a deep-pocketed backer somewhere, but they’re still Fringers and so are entirely reliant on travel by spacecraft. How do you get a spacecraft underneath Albrook without the Grand Army noticing?"



Barry snapped his fingers. “Reverse X-Zone. Remember? The slaver ship we stopped at Alter VII had an RXZ drive that we had to knock out with an interdiction beam.”



There was a flushing sound from the bathroom, and Fisk walked in just in time to overheard Barry. "X-Zone? Oh man. Bad news. That stuff’s illegal and messier than the thing I just messed up the toilet in there with. Speakin of which, Klyde, you got a plunger or somethin? I left you a present in there, but ah, it’s not agreein with your plumbing very well. Seriously that toilet is way old, all I had to eat today was some nachos and a couple of hot dogs with that spicy Damcyanese relish, man that stuff just burns right through you…"



Barry sighed. "Fisk is right about at least one thing: RXZ isn’t safe and the Alliance Congress outlawed it. SAGA isn’t equipped to detect or stop RXZ because hardly anyone uses it anymore. So it’d be a simple thing for the slavers to just slide into an underground hangar from the X-Zone without anyone being the wiser."



Klyde scratched his head. “Well I wouldn’t call it simple. You’d need a damn good pilot to keep from popping into a wall and obliterating your ship and everything aboard. The site would also have to have a homing beacon installed that a ship in the X-Zone could see, but that the Grand Army couldn’t detect.” Klyde heaved a sigh. “Boy, I guess you weren’t kidding when you said these slavers had someone with a lot of money to throw around supporting them. None of this sounds very cheap.”



“But it does sound like we have our guys,” Barry said.



“If you can tell me approximately where you think the base is, Osprey,” Factor turned to face the ex-ZAPS operative, “I may be able to locate it. I just pulled up some old schematics for the maglev tunnels, and I may be able to chart us a route through to the base.”



“There’s one more thing I think might be worth mentioning,” Osprey said. "When I scried the Triad ganger, he and his cohort were dressed up. Like, really nicely dressed up, to the nines. And I heard Jin Gangdao say something about an auction."



Klyde smiled. “Well now,” he said with a wink. "Looks like you’re in luck. I happen to know a tailor who might be able to help you out. We’ll also need some invitations… events like this almost always have fancy invitations. But it shouldn’t be a problem. I’ll get working on your wardrobe and put in a call with one of my contacts in Underbrook. He might know something about the party and have access to an invite or two that I can copy."



Osprey blinked. "So you know all about what this ‘Underbrook’ is?.. And didn’t mention anything of it until after the robot brought it up?"



Klyde smiled. "Osprey, will you come downstairs with me and help me look through my stock?.."



Osprey paused a moment, but shrugged and followed as Klyde walked out of his apartment and down the stairs toward the lower floor of his building, where his humble tailor shop was.



Before they stepped into the shop, Klyde stopped at the bottom of the stairs and looked straight up at Osprey. For a moment, Osprey wasn’t sure if Klyde was going to say something to him, or shoot him.



“You’re right to be suspicious,” Klyde said. “I’m not telling you the whole story. The fact you keep picking up on that is a credit to both your instincts and your skills, and you mustn’t ever forget that. But you also must believe me: I’m on your side. No matter what happens, you can trust that I’m a friend in this, Osprey.” He searched Osprey’s avian face for some hint of a reaction. "Are we okay?"



Osprey inhaled, and nodded. “We are. It’s just that when I first met you, it was as the helpless shopkeeper that befriended Terry after some mobsters busted up your store. You didn’t exactly mention you had contacts who know all about illicit activities going on in a secret abandoned underground section of Albrook.”



“No,” Klyde said, “I did not.”


#5

::“Munro’s Clothes”, Altrega Beach, Albrook::



Barry scrutinized himself in the full-length mirror. The dressiest he’d ever remembered being in recent memory were those times Thames insisted he wear his GSF dress uniform. What Klyde had fashioned for him was altogether different: white jacket, white bowtie, white shirt. And somehow it fit his massive frame without bursting at the seams.



“I’m not sure this is me,” Barry said.



“For tonight, it will have to be,” Klyde said. "There’s a kevlar mesh-weave worked into the lining of your jacket, so it will provide limited protection if things get violent. Just try not to take any headshots or frontal blows to the chest and you’ll be fine."



Barry smirked, feeling at the lining of his coat. "Oh. Neat. Spy stuff."



Osprey rolled his eyes. "No, not exactly, big guy. You just stick to being a space captain, and let me handle the ‘spy stuff.’"



Liz Bauer emerged then from one of the changing rooms. She was wearing a black cocktail dress with matching stole. As with the dress slacks that came with Barry’s suit, Liz’s dress had been custom-altered with a slit in the back to accomodate her feline tail.



“I don’t suppose this is armored, too,” Liz said, with a derisive sneer.



Klyde frowned apologetically. “Unfortunately, women’s styles make such things problematic. However, you will have a bit of a leg-up on the menfolk.” Klyde produced a black handbag that matched perfectly with Liz’s dress. "The lipstick inside conceals a micro-beam emitter that you can use to attack at range. The compact conceals a portable one-way forcefield generator. Now, owing to size and battery life, you’re not going to get a ton of use out of either of these gadgets. The lipstick-gun will get you maybe four-to-five blasts, while the forcefield will last about two-to-three minutes if it’s not absorbing a lot of punishment."



Barry frowned. “Hey. I want a spy-laser.”



“Well too bad, Captain,” Liz said, "You got the spy-armor instead."



Roxanne emerged then. She was an absolute knock-out in her strapless red dress.



“Roxanne,” Osprey said. “You don’t have to wear that dress tonight. Klyde had a much more… conservative one ready for you.”



“But I like this one,” Roxanne said. The valkyrie might have preferred to wear nothing at all, but there was something about this piece of clothing that made her feel, in a way, empowered.



Klyde smiled, obviously proud of himself. "I don’t get very many six-foot women coming by my shop. I have to say, seeing you in one of my dresses, making it look as good as you do… I am filled with the pride of an artist."



Roxanne smiled back. “It is a very beautiful dress, Mister Munro. Thank you for letting me use it.”



“Consider it yours after tonight,” Klyde said. “I insist.”



“Well I like my clothing, too,” Factor chimed in. He was wearing a simple black cumberbund around his expansive midsection, then a white collar with black bowtie around his “neck.” As Klyde looked at the robot, he also felt proud for his improvisational ability: thank the Gods that moblin wedding party had called earlier in the day to cancel one of the men’s tuxedos they’d ordered; the moblins’ thick necks and waists were just about accomodating of the R-Series’ own measurements, with minimal alteration. As robotic styles went in the Web today, a robot was rarely ever required to wear any clothing at all, but at formal affairs usually just a neck or bowtie of some kind would suffice. (for robots with female gender protocols, usually some amount of jewelry or other decoration would accomplish the same stylistic effect)



“And now, the finishing touches.” Klyde laid out on a nearby table two sets of earrings and bracelets. “When you’re admitted to the auction, you’ll be asked to surrender your weapons and cell phones. Factor will likely be fitted with a guest’s restraining bolt. Normally this would preclude our ability to communicate with you, but I have a work around. These earrings house sophisticated two-way comms. They’re paired with the bracelets: to send, press the hidden button on the bracelet, then release to receive.”



“With respect,” Barry said, “Through GSF, we already have advanced comms technology.”



“Yeah, but they’ll be checking your ears for earpieces before they let you through the door,” Klyde said. “They won’t be checking women’s earrings, though. Use mine instead, trust me.”



“So then Factor and I just won’t have comms?” Barry asked.



Klyde shrugged. “All the more reason for you to stick close to Roxanne. You are supposed to be her bodyguard after all.”



“Wait,” Liz said, “He’s her bodyguard? What am I then?”



“You would be her personal secretary.”



“Oh bullshit,” Liz said. "I’ve studied three styles of unarmed combat, I was top of my class in melee weapons training at the academy and I’m an exceptional pistol marksman. Why the hell can’t I be the bodyguard?"



Klyde shrugged. "He’s… bigger?"



Barry grinned. "Well. When you’re right, you’re right, Klyde."



Liz frowned. "Well have fun not being on comms for this mission. Sir."



Roxanne collected her earrings and bracelet, but then something else caught her eye. She picked up a set of silvery bracers, and regarded them in the light.



“Hey Klyde,” Roxanne said, "What are these?"



Klyde glanced at them. “Ah. Those. Well… those are actually not part of the stock, but I was tinkering with them for you, actually, before I found a more traditional bracelet in your size. I was given those by a dear friend in thanks for tailoring a special piece several years ago…”



“What are they made of?” Roxanne asked. Then, not waiting for an answer, she slipped one on and asked: "Will they stop bullets?"



Klyde shrugged. “I mean. Probably, yes. They are incredibly tough, yet also elegant… but the force of a bullet striking one of those bracers would be sufficient to shatter your wrists even if it did --“



Just then, Commander Fisk emerged from one of the fitting rooms. Klyde had spent hours adjusting the suit that Fisk would wear, but for some reason, no matter what he did or how he altered it, it always came out looking ill-fitting. His attire was that of a chauffeur, complete with a hat and pair of doeskin driving gloves – which Fisk had unceremoniously tucked into his back pocket.



“Hey hey, check me out!” Fisk said, as he regarded himself. “I clean up pretty nice, don’t I?”



”… Fisk, is that mustard on your tie?” Barry asked.



Klyde turned on Fisk and fumed. "What!?"



Fisk looked down. “Oh, yeah! I guess I musta dripped a bit, I finished off the last of my hot dog quick while I was changin’ in there.”



“Amazing,” Osprey said. “I didn’t even see you go in there with any food.”



"Oh yeah no, it’s been in my jacket pocket from earlier. Just figured I should finish it quick, cuz it prolly wouldn’t do to mess up this here nice suit by puttin’ it in the suit pocket. So I just wolfed it down, you know?.. While I was slippin’ into this awesome spy suit."



Klyde angrily removed Fisk’s tie, and provided him with another. He visibly struggled to tie it, then formulated a plan.



“Hey, Commander Bauer,” Fisk said, “You wanna, ah… c’mere and help me tie this bad boy?”



“No,” Liz said.



“C’mon, baby,” Fisk said. Then, remembering the mandatory training he was forced to do a few months ago: “I mean, sir. Commander baby, sir. I really need help tyin this.”



“And while I’m tying it, you’re going to stare down my dress,” Liz observed.



“What!?” Fisk laughed nervously. “What a perpostrous notion, Commander. What you must think of me to think I would stoop so low. I am, to put it bluntly, shocked and appalled. Shocked. And appalled.”



“I shall help you, Commander Fisk,” Factor said. He moved over in front of the pilot and began tying his necktie. “I have recently upgraded my manual dexterity firmware to allow for fine-motor tasks of just this kind. And unlike our First Officer, I do not possess mammary glands to distract you.”



Fisk grumbled something inaudible.



“I think now would be a good time to review the plan,” Factor said as he worked.



Klyde nodded. “Through my contacts, I’ve managed to secure a copy of the invitation to tonight’s droid auction in Underbrook. And thanks to Factor, we’ve located a vehicle access ramp into the abandoned mag-lev tunnels. Fisk will drive us down in the Maranda Farms van you’ve been using.”



“What, really?” Barry asked. "Won’t that be… I dunno, a little suspicious? We’re dressed super-nice, and we show up in a beat-up old van?"



Klyde laughed. "Underbrook is not the kind of place one tours around in a luxury car, Captain Svensgaard. When people have to go down there to conduct their business, they tend to drive something very… humble so as to avoid scrutiny from the locals."



Barry nodded. “Okay. Fair point. Continue.”



"Fisk, Factor will provide you with directions once we get into the tunnels. About halfway to the slaver base, Factor will tell you to stop the van… because that is where Osprey and I will get out."



Roxanne frowned. "Wait a minute. You’re part of the plan?"



Klyde folded his arms. “I can only assume your surprise is born out of some fear for my safety, to which point I will assure you that I will be more than capable of handling myself. I am a veteran of the Great War, remember.”



“Plus, I’ll be there,” Osprey said.



Klyde grumbled. "Osprey and I will continue on foot and gain access through the ventilation network. Meanwhile you will continue on and leave the van with the valets. Now, I’ve forged five invitations for you, and made sure that your names will be on the guest list at the front door."



Osprey balked. “Wait, you did? How’d you do that?“



Klyde smiled. He indicated Roxanne, Barry, Liz, Factor and Fisk, and motioned for them to take their invitations from a nearby table.



“You each have an assumed name and identity that you will need to be familiar with by the time we’re all inside,” Klyde said. “Roxanne, you are a wealthy Jidooran heiress named Isabelle Ivaness, and while you’re waiting around for your elderly father to die you’ve developed a taste for danger and adventure that often lands you in criminal circles. Captain Svensgaard, you’re her bodyguard, ‘Smiley’ Smilodon, and you’re a Tigran ex-pirate from Alter.”



“You mean Bal,” Fisk corrected.



“No, no, Klyde was right,” Barry said.



“Really?” Fisk said. “I coulda sworn you was from Bal…”



“Commander Bauer, you are Irene Stensen, Ms. Ivaness’ personal secretary --”



”… who has trained in three martial arts and is an expert at melee weapons and pistol marksmanship…” Liz interjected.



Roxanne playfully elbowed Liz. “Oh come on, Commander! I’m supposed to be a stuck-up celebutante, and you don’t see me complaining! Live a little and have fun with it! Make it a game!”



“Oh my word no,” Klyde said. “This is no game, Roxanne. If any of you so much as sneezes out of character, we’ll all be dead and this will all have been for nothing. No, this is quite serious, you must not make this a game.”



“Well, fortunately, I cannot sneeze,” Factor said. “So I will probably be safe. What’s my role?”



“You,” Klyde said, "Are RT-807P. Your nickname is Tricky Pete, and you are Ms. Ivaness’ robotic servant."



Factor’s eyes blinked on and off as he processed. “Why have you assigned me an RT serial number? I am clearly a Guardian-built R-series sapient humanoid droid.”



"Because the real RT-807P was recently decommissioned and I was able to snatch up the records on the omninet."



Factor persisted: “But, again, I am clearly not an RT-series droid. There are very specific design and software architecture differences that distinguish me as an R-series droid, and if I were to attempt to pass myself off as an RT unit it would surely compromise the --”



“Factor,” Barry said, “Really. No one will notice. I promise you, when people see you walking down the street, until you introduce yourself with your serial number no one would have any clue.”



"I am quite aware, Captain, that you organics tend to not immediately perceive the differences that make R- and RT-series droids distinct from one another… but I would put forward the idea that among a group of criminals who traffic in the sale of droids and a large gathering of their criminal customers, the odds are uncomfortably high that someone in that crowd is going to notice that I’m not an RT-series model."



The room went silent. Barry looked at Klyde. Klyde shrugged.



“Okay,” Klyde said. “Factor has a point, and… well. I missed something, it seems. I will go back to the drawing board and recover an R-series identity for your use, Factor. Disregard my instructions about RT-807P, nicknamed Tricky Pete.”



“Already done, sir,” Factor said.



“Now you, Commander Fisk,” Klyde said, “You’re Reggie Baker. You’re a SRAN academy washout and the only job you could get is as personal chauffeur to Ms. Ivaness.”



“Hey, all right,” Fisk said. "Yeah, I can dig this. Y’see, Commander Bauer, it ain’t so bad. You gotta pretend you’s just a dumb bimbo secretary, and I gotta pretend I’m a pathetic washout loser instead of the amazing awesome winner I am in real life."



A low rumble was heard from Fisk’s pot-belly just then, followed by a rumble from his pants.



“Ah nuts,” he said. "Hey, ah, Klyde? Hold that thought, I gotta go punish your porcelain again, if you know what I’m talkin about! Dat hot dog is back with a vengeance, all right!?"



Klyde watched Fisk trundle off, and silently shook his head.



“Once you’re all in,” Klyde said, "You will, again, be asked to turn over your weapons and cell phones. Barry will be carrying a sidearm in his holster for show, and you’ll each have a temporary phone that you can drop in the basket. Factor will be fitted with a restraining bolt. But then, you’ll be inside. Osprey and I will have your actual weapons on us, and should the need arise, we can arrange for a place to meet and arm ourselves for combat. But hopefully, before that time, Osprey and I will have located the slavers’ terminal and deactivated all droid restraining bolts in the complex. Which will free-up Factor, and also afford the slavestock an opportunity to revolt."



Klyde surveyed the group. "Questions?"



Roxanne raised her hand. “… Do I also get a lipstick spy-laser?..”


#6

::Slavers’ Lair, Underbrook::



Jin Gangdao turned and offered a scowl for one of his subordinates. While, for the most part, Gangdao and his retinue had cleaned up for this special event quite well, one of his Blue Lanterns (a younger fellow, fresh off the boat from Fabul, named Fan Chong) kept complaining of a toothache ever since their earlier encounter with the former Guardian spy called Osprey. Inwardly, Gangdao sympathized, but all he could do for now was cow his subordinate into fearful submission. It wouldn’t do for the other organizations represented here to think that the Golden Axe triad would allow a small amount of dental pain to distract from this night’s unique opportunity.



The truth of it was, Gangdao did not anticipate that he or the Golden Axe were in particular need of a droid servant. Looking around the room at the various cartels, gangs and syndicates whose representatives filled the room, he felt certain that most of the rest of these gangs felt the same. Moreso than the product on offer, what interested the Golden Axe (and, indeed, everyone else in attendance) was the idea that the slavers could provide a new and exciting forum to facilitate illicit networking.



Many (well, okay, most) of the gangs assembled didn’t have a good history of cooperation with one another. In fact, for some (like, for instance, the Fabulian Triads and the Eblanese Yakuza gangs), their history flowed in rivers of bloodshed. It was an obvious expectation, given the nature of their business, but it could also prove a costly one (both in terms of money and lives lost). Over the years, many different gangs have looked for avenues of joint venture with other illicit enterprises. Usually, such alliances were exclusively bilateral, and rarely did they work out very well at all.



But Jin Gangdao had been given his orders. Times were changing: the Grand Army was in the midst of a period of budget cutting at the hands of the Alliance Congress, the Web was still recovering from a war between two titanic Great Powers, and it looked to some observers like the status quo was ready for a shift. Perhaps here in Albrook, the bosses of the Golden Axe triad believed, these established and powerful criminal organizations could come together and make common cause. Perhaps, for them, Albrook could be a city of opportunity.



Plus, it helped a little for everyone present that the Vory gangs of Scande did not receive an invite. (there were assorted rivalries among various gangs, but one thing most could agree on: nobody liked the Vory)



“Jin Gangdao, isn’t it?”



Gangdao turned to face the voice that had called his name. Standing before him was a tall, dark haired man wearing white face paint and a bright violet outfit that looked like a bizarre cross between a tuxedo and jester’s motley. He was flanked by a pair of identical twin Gerudo women, who wore similarly clown-themed makeup and form-fitting white dresses (whose necklines didn’t so much plunge as just entirely fail to show up).



Gangdao respectfully thrust his fist into the open palm of his left hand, and lightly inclined his head. “Impresario,” he said. “We’ve never had the pleasure to meet in person.”



“No, we have not,” said the clownish man. His given name, of course, was not “Impresario.” It was Harsdrubal Garlandini, and as Tonewell Garlandini’s eldest son he looked to be next-in-line to head the old and powerful Garlandini crime family. "I apologize that it has taken so long for us to meet face to face, my good man, but as I’m sure you can imagine I’ve had a lot on my plate these days."



Jin Gangdao had heard of some of the things that the Impresario liked to put on his plate. Rumors abounded of the gruesome gladiatorial fights he hosted… and of the secret island he kept, where he hunted sapients for sport.



“Indeed,” Gangdao said. "Truthfully, I have been quite busy as well, of late. The Golden Axe is only just establishing itself in the city of Albrook, and it seems our work is neverending."



The Impresario smiled sweetly. “Oh I’m sure,” he said, laying a cold hand on Gangdao’s shoulder. "But, tonight, I think, marks a new start for people in our line of work. Cooperation, I think, should be the order of the day, no? In future, my dear Jin, I’d like it very much if you would call me and ask for my help as you and your Golden Axe go about your business. I’m reminded of that old Zozoan addage: ‘A better friend than Garlandini is not to be had anywhere.’"



Jin Gangdao was familiar with the saying. He also knew that it was originally meant ironically. But Harsdrubal wasn’t entirely wrong: this was supposed to be a new start for most of these gangs.



“I will relay your respects to my superiors,” Gangdao said. "Perhaps they will decide to take you up on your kind offer."



The Impesario laughed. “Oh, Jin, you are too much.” He pinched Gangdao’s cheek. "You do that, then. But don’t forget that I made the offer to you first of all. And I would not be averse to responding favorably if it were you, and not necessarily your ‘superiors,’ making the request."



The Impesario’s eyes swept the room. "Look at everyone here, Jin. How many do you recognize?"



Gangdao looked out into the throng. In truth, the only other person he saw that he knew was the Yakuza okusan Naoko Shokansi, appearing as she typically did in the traditional garb and makeup of a geisha. His blood boiled at the sight.



“Not many,” Gangdao admitted.



The Impresario relished Jin Gangdao’s thinly-veiled contempt. "Well I see you know our dear ‘older sister’ Naoko. Isn’t she a peach? How many times has that delectable morsel turned down an invite to one of my house parties. You know a man can only handle so much rejection before he just… SNAPS."



As he said that last word, his voice gained a sharpened edge, and he suddenly (and with great speed) lifted his hand and snapped his fingers. The sound was so loud and concussive that it actually made Jin Gangdao flinch. The Impresario laughed.



“Over there we have a couple of villains of the ‘old school,’” the Impresario said, pointing to a far corner of the room where two figures appeared to be holding court. One was a corpulent, red-skinned reptilian humanoid of some kind, dressed all in white robes. At his side was a creature that appeared to be little more than a sapient octopus – although Gangdao was pretty certain that no octopus he’d ever seen had tusks quite like that.



“Ozzie XI,” the Impresario explained, "Former ruler of the nation of Media – before its torrid on-again-off-again love affair with republican democracy. And with him is the infamous Ultros. Neither’s been very present on the radar the last few… decades, shall we say? But they’re here all the same. Maybe they sense the same opportunity that brought you and I here tonight, no?.."



The Impresario turned, nearly dancing around Jin Gangdao. "Ahh, and over there, look! Two primans, huddled together chatting. Never a good sign, that. But I know them both, where they come from, who they represent. The green one is Abramo Scarfabo of the Priman Merchants Guild out of Alter-Dragon. The other, kind of purplish-red one… that, my friend, is Fineas Longjaw, one of Aquinas Darkfin’s mid-level managers from Centwerp. Again, remember the saying, my friend: beware two or more Primans getting along. Means trouble for the rest of us."



There was a third figure there, towering over the two Primans: a simian humanoid, taller than most in the room, wearing stylized armor rather than a suit, and he appeared to have been allowed to keep his weapon (a large polearm strapped to his back). Behind him a monkey’s tail flicked intermittently, and off his helmet two long, decorative feathers trailed delicately.



“Who’s the monkey?” Gangdao asked.



The Impresario sighed. "I do believe, my friend, that that is Lagothrix Knifesong. Warrior of the Highlands on Alter-Dragon, here serving as Scarfabo’s bodyguard, no doubt. Word has it the monkeys and the fish on Alter-Dragon are in cahoots with one another, have been for years… but to what end? Only time will tell. Still, my father and I have both considered reaching out to the PMG in search of any avenues of business… But, I dare not say anymore. Even with the evening’s air of cooperation and friendship, our two organizations are still technically competitors, right?"



There was a sudden commotion. Over at the bar, a rowdy assemblage of crude figures were making some sport out of an invitee who appeared to be of significantly less importance than themselves. The aggressors were not abiding the dress code, and they appeared a strange mix of races and countenances. Their leader was a tall, taciturn man with a cybernetic eye and long, dark dreadlocks framing his chestnut brown face. He turned and the flashing yellow light of his cyber-eye seemed to catch Jin Gangdao’s glance before quickly turning away.



“And them?” Gangdao asked.



The Impresario scoffed. “Fringe rabble,” he said. Then, quickly: “With apologies to the esteemed personages of Scarfabo and Lagothrix… but that lot of scum and villainy has no place here, and I don’t know why they were invited. They are Unbound pirates, here as emissaries of Talina Svensgaard herself, I expect. The captain of that crew is the dark one there, with the yellow eye. Elashkavel the Black. They say he’s a dragon who parades about in human form… they also say he lost his eye and part of his wing escaping from the infamous Manta himself.” Harsdrubal smiled. "Speaking of which, set your worries aside. I have it on good authority that the Black Fish has not been invited to these proceedings. Gods be praised."



Just then a newcomer approached Gangdao and Garlandini. His attired was a good faith effort to abide the highbrow dress code, but as the Impresario appraised him, he found the ensemble wanting.



“Excuse me! Hello!” the newcomer said, a beaming smile. He had a naïve charm about him and, Gangdao found after taking his hand, an uncannily firm handshake. "Andy Cornell. Pleasure, just a pleasure to meet you sir. You’re Triad, aren’t you? Great respect for your people, very industrious and hard-working."



Gangdao sneered. “I am Jin Gangdao, Red Pole of the Golden Axe triad.” He paused and looked Cornell up and down. "If you have heard of my ‘people,’ I cannot say I ever knew or cared that you existed before this moment."



Cornell laughed. “You got me,” he said, clapping Gangdao on the back. "Anyway, I represent a group that you actually may have heard of, Mister Pony Tail. We’re the Pyra Ring… Heard of it? We only traffic in the most successful illicit product to hit the Web of Worlds in, oh, forever."



The Impresario beamed a grin and extended a hand. “Harsdrubal Garlandini,” he said. "Pleasure, Mister Cornell, to make your acquaintance."



Cornell took Garlandini’s hand and shook it. "Thank you. Thank you! You know, it’s awesome to get someone around here who’s willing to show and out-of-towner some respect. It’s been nothing but hell since I set up shop in this town."



The Impresario nodded, frowning sympathetically. "Yes, I imagine so. Though, to be fair, most of us in this room are, as you put it ‘out of towners.’ But that is the beauty of Albrook, is it not? One of several places that claims to be the ‘Center of the Web’? I heard you and your crew had a little trouble with a flying man in a robot suit. Is that so?"



Cornell shuddered. “The Shield? Yeah. That guy, I tell you. Ha! What’s his deal, am I right? I mean, I gave as good as I got… and, really, I think I totally had him on the ropes at one point, you know? But that guy is just bad news. And if he’s sticking around here? I tell you, it’s a darn good thing some of us are talking about working together from now on.”



“The Shield?” Gangdao scoffed. “The Shield is nothing. A man in armor, but just a man. The one you need fear is the Mana Knight. Her skill and the magic of her blade are peerless. Even I could not stop her, and I am the greatest warrior of the Golden Axe triad.”



“There are others I have talked to,” the Impresario said, “Who would report that the Shield and this… Mana Knight, did you say?.. Anyway, some have said they work together on occasion. Some even suggest they live together. Or, sometimes live together. It’s hard to tell, the reports vary.”



“If this is true,” Gangdao said, “Then there is much to fear. But the Shield is the clear weak link in the chain, I think.”



“No way,” Cornell said. He flexed his arm as he spoke again: "I fought the Shield, and the Shield won handily! ME!"



Jin Gangdao arched an eyebrow.



"Clearly, the Mana Knight’s the weaker of the two. Especially if I heard right and she’s a chick."



The argument over which hero was the stronger was interrupted then, as a man came up on the stage at the far end of the room. He was a short, squat, round man with sparse hair and a round, telescoping cybereye installed in his right eyesocket. He grinned a cunning grin, and took the microphone.



“Ladies and gentlemen,” the short man said, "Thank you all for coming. I appreciate that we’re all busy folk, with grand agendas to pursue… but I promise you, the rewards for your being here tonight will be well worth it. And the dividends shall continue to pay out for years, even decades to come. We’ll get started with our first lot in five minutes. Please! If you haven’t already, take food and drink. It’s an open bar tonight, and…"



The host continued his introduction as a group of latecomers entered. A tall, stunningly beautiful woman in a red dress, flanked by her entourage, stepped through security and beheld the room. Several pairs of male eyes found themselves lingering on the woman. She merely smiled and toyed with a plain gold-hoop bracelet around her wrist.



“We’re in,” she whispered, as if to herself.


#7

::Elsewhere in the Slaver Lair::



“We’re in,” came Roxanne’s voice over the comm.



Klyde pressed his finger to his ear. “We read you,” he replied, in a hushed whisper. "We are almost in position."



Osprey peered through the vent grating, his eyes scanning for any movement. When he was satisfied that the coast was clear, he pressed his hand against the grating. Shadowy tendrils emerged from the palm of his hand, snaking out toward the screws holding the grating in place. Osprey shut his eyes and concentrated as the tendrils quickly unfastened each screw, careful to ensure that the tendrils held on to their respective screws so they wouldn’t noisily clatter to the ground. When he was done, gravity pulled the vent free; but here, too, Osprey focused and made sure his spell held onto the grating. The tendrils extended, gently lowering both the grating and the screws down to the floor below.



Osprey dropped noislessly from the vent, his hand on the hilt of his sword. He quickly spun round, surveying both directions before looking back up at Klyde and nodding. First the bag came down: a bag that looked like a baseball player’s duffel. The bag contained the weapons of the heroes who’d gone in through the front door: the Daedalus spear protruded awkwardly. Osprey caught it carefully, and silently wondered why Roxanne couldn’t have been a swordswoman, or even a dagger-wielder.



As Osprey set the bag aside, Klyde came down. The middle-aged man had less grace than Osprey, but still avoided making noise as he landed on his haunches and then steadied himself before standing up.



Wordlessly, Klyde shouldered the duffel of weapons and the two infiltrators snuck off to find the slavers’ terminal.


    • *



      Roxanne barely had time to snatch a glass of champagne from a passing waiter’s tray before she was approached by a small cluster of men. Bad men, Roxanne assumed based on the setting, though she recognized none of them.



      “What a strange thing, to find such beauty and grace in such contemptible surroundings,” said the man who appeared to be the leader (or, at least, the one who thought of himself as the leader) of the group. He was tall (though still shorter than Roxanne), slender of build, wearing a garrish purple suit and white face-paint that made his red eyes stand out eerily. With a grand gesture, he swept up Roxanne’s hand in his own and kissed it with his thin crimson lips.



      “That will get old fast if you intend to use it on all of the women here,” Roxanne quipped, as she took a sip from her glass.



      The man smiled. “Unique as you are, my dearest,” the man said, his eyes drifting over Roxanne’s form, trying to take her all in at once, "But whatever you do, do not tell my wife. Harsdrubal Garlandini is at your service, my lady. Though there are some in Underbrook and elsewhere who call me the Impresario."



      Roxanne smiled pleasantly. "Charmed, I’m sure."



      The Impresario waited. He chuckled to fill the pause in their conversation, then prodded: "And you are?.."



      Roxanne nearly forgot herself. A part of her deep down inside hating even pretending she belonged here, but it was easily equal-parts contempt for the criminal element and for the pretense of high-brow socializing. "Isabelle Ivaness, of Jidoor."



      The Impresario’s eyes lit up. "Ah, a woman of breeding, I see. I am familiar with the Jidooran Ivanesses… though I do not recall having met you. I dare say I would not forget a visage like yours…"



      Inwardly, Roxanne panicked. Had Klyde’s fake IDs gotten her into trouble?..



      “We barely spend anytime in Jidoor,” Liz broke in. "Only recently, as Lady Isabelle’s come into her inheritance…"



      Roxanne searched the Impresario’s face for some sign of whether Liz’s quick-thinking had done the trick. The gangster nodded, and his expression softened.



      “Ah, yes… I did hear about poor Chauncey. But, if you’re gonna go, I suppose I could think of… much worse ways to go about it.” The Impresario grinned devlishly. "I had no idea you were his heiress, my lovely. I’d have actually come out to pay my respects if I had."



      Roxanne looked at Liz. That was lucky. Hopefully they didn’t have to keep relying on luck to get by here.



      “My personal secretary speaks out of turn,” Roxanne said. “I apologize. It won’t happen again.”



      “Nonsense,” the Impresario said, "It’s what we pay them for, isn’t it? Ah, but how rude of me… Introductions, I suppose."



      The Impresario swept out his hands to indicate those who were mingling alongside him in the rogue’s gallery: two scantily clad Gerudo women, a tall and sharply-dressed Fabulian with a long queue, and a much-less-impressive man who wore his suit uncomfortably, like it was prom night.



      "Jin Gangdao, of the Golden Axe Triad. And this is Andrew Cornell, late of the Pyra Ring."



      Roxanne nodded, and raised her glass to each of the men in turn. She noted the Impresario was not introducing the women. "And these two, Impresario?.."



      The Impresario smiled. “Tonight, they have no names,” he said.



      “How do you like the spread?” Cornell said, shoving his free hand into his pocket awkwardly, as he raised his cocktail to Roxanne.



      Roxanne smirked, and looked at her glass. "I’d prefer a proper Tasnican beer, I think."



      The Impresario smiled. “You have been away from Jidoor for too long, Lady Isabelle. You forget the very taste of refinement…” he reached out to feel her shoulder. "Though you’ve gained other qualities that make up for it, I think."



      Roxanne shied away from the Impresario’s touch; if he was offended, he didn’t show it.



      “You know most ‘champagne’ simply isn’t? The only true ‘champagne’ comes from grapes grown in the south of Winlan.” The Impresario held up his glass and regarded the stream of fine bubbles working its way to the liquid’s surface. "It is such a prized luxury item because it comes from one of the few places in Dragon that can still grow a thing of beauty."



      Gangdao scoffed. “Nothing that comes from Dragon is beautiful.”



      “No, I suppose not,” said the Impresario. He dropped his glass thoughtlessly. Quickly, one of the waiters came by to sweep up the shattered glass and wipe up the spilled drink. The Impresario chuckled. “What of your companion, here?” the Impresario regarded Barry. “He is nearly as impressive a specimen as you, my dear.”



      “My bodyguard,” Roxanne said. "‘Smiley’ Smilodon. He doesn’t speak unless I allow it."



      The Impresario laughed. “Well how amazing you have kept such a beast on so short a leash.”



      “… Smilodon, you say?” Cornell remarked. "Hey, I think my organization may have used you once… didn’t you used to smuggle on the Alter lanes?"



      Barry froze.



      “Again,” Roxanne said, "Doesn’t speak unless I allow it. And I’ve no intention of letting him take outside work while he’s protecting me."



      Barry furrowed his brow and folded his massive arms across his chest.



      Cornell laughed nervously. “No, no no, I wasn’t…” he cleared his throat. “I mean, I would never --”



      “Andrew, you are making a spectacle of yourself,” the Impresario admonished.



      “Lady Ivaness!” came a voice from behind the group. A tall, thin, bald gentleman in a dark suit approached then. He took Roxanne’s hand and leaned in to kiss her cheek. It was only as he withdrew that Roxanne recognized him.



      Zendir. The Graulemn.



      “You will excuse me, Impresario, if I steal this one from you, please?” Zendir said, smiling ear to ear. "My old friend and I have… much to talk about."



      Roxanne’s eyes were wide. She said nothing, but tried to smile politely.



      “Well, my dear,” the Impresario said, "You have kept interesting company in the time you’ve been away from home… Perhaps we will catch one another again later, darling?"



      Roxanne nodded, her eyes locked with Zendir’s. “You can count on it, Impresario.”


    • *



      With a satisfying click, the door slid open.



      Osprey took a moment to congratulate himself. There was a reason that his resume listed his lockpicking skills above even his impressive 98 word-per-minute typing speed.



      “Took you long enough,” Klyde whispered. Osprey glared as the old man passed him and slipped inside the room. Ahead of them, a green-skinned man with evident cybergear protruding from his head was seated behind a desk. He’d started to stand and reach for his sidearm, but before he could utter a word or lift his weapon from its holster, Osprey tossed out a quick spell of shadow. A black, substanceless mass shot out and covered the slaver’s face, blinding him. He dropped his gun and reached up for his eyes. Just then, in a flash of motion, Klyde was behind him. Bearing what looked to be nothing more than simple tailor’s thread, he looped it around the slaver’s neck and pulled taut. The slaver choked and sputtered, as Klyde drew the thread tighter and tighter, his knuckles white and his arms shaking.



      “Klyde!!” Osprey said, taking a step forward. But it was too late. The cyborged slaver’s arms dropped to his sides, and his body went limp. Klyde released the thread, and the slaver crumpled to the ground in a heap.



      Osprey inhaled. “No killing,” Osprey said.



      Klyde regarded Osprey. "Are you serious?.. You, who walk around with a stupidly magical sword, forged from the frozen final breath of a dying god? You’re telling me you’ve never killed with it?"



      Osprey’s face darkened. “I did not say that,” he said. “But my quest for redemption (and gainful employment) means atoning for much wrongdoing… on my part, and on the part of Shiva’s Edge.”



      “We’re soldiers, Osprey. Killing is what we do,” Klyde said. “Gods know I’ve done more than my fair share… though, I’ll admit, none since the end of the Great War… but if you really insist --”



      “I do. We do this clean, bloodless. We don’t kill.” Osprey looked down at the man with the green skin. "What in the hells was he?"



      Klyde kicked the man’s legs aside and sat down at his desk, examining his computer screen. "Oh, he’s human, I’m sure. His kind are fascinated by extreme body modification. He’s likely used a nanite infusion to dye his skin green. Not sure what the cybergear is… not sure it matters anymore, either. Since he’s… well. You know"



      Klyde rapidly tapped at the keyboard. Osprey stood off to the side, watching the doorway with his hand on his hilt, and listened as Klyde typed. He smirked, satisfied.



      “I’m sure this would go quicker if you had a faster typing speed,” the Lancer said.



      Klyde chuckled. “Oh, are you a little salty because I criticized your lockpicking?” he smiled as he scanned through the directories on the slavers’ terminal. "Don’t take it personally. You’re good, really good. But if I were in my prime, I’m sure I’d be better."



      Osprey scoffed. “Of course you would be. … But if that were the case I’d be the one at the keyboard. Pretty sure they didn’t have computers when you were in your ‘prime.’”



      “Oh you’d be surprised,” Klyde said. "Computers were very new, and very rare. But there were a few of them out there. Much cruder than this, I’d say. There was this fellow in the War, a moogle named Dodger… he and I were friendly rivals, let’s say. I learned a lot from him, and --"



      Klyde paused. He stopped typing.



      “What’s wrong?” Osprey asked.



      “I have good news, and bad news,” Klyde said. "The good news is I’ve found the controls for the droids’ restraining bolts."



      Just then the lights went out. When they came back on, they were red and flashing. A klaxxon sounded.



      “The bad news,” Klyde said, “Is that I figured out what the green man’s cybergear was for. And you were right, we probably shouldn’t have killed him.”


    • *



      Zendir lead the group away from the Impresario; none of the Guardians knew what was going on or who this was. But Roxanne couldn’t forget the man who’d tried to kill her in pursuit of Lera, the little girl who turned out to be a half-esper. Zendir’s icy fingers clutched Roxanne’s elbow as he lead them away, and she felt a pain in her side where the Graulemn had wounded her…



      She also couldn’t help but wonder why Zendir hadn’t just blown her cover right away.



      Zendir smiled. "You’re in a bit over your head this time, aren’t you, valkyrie?"



      Roxanne smiled. “I was going to say the same to you,” she said, defiantly. "You should have just taken me down back there while you had your mafia friends to back you up."



      Zendir laughed, making it look to any onlookers as if Roxanne had just said something amusing to him (which, in fact, she had). "My Zozoan cohorts will have their part to play yet, rest assured. But believe it or not, as much as I enjoyed our last encounter… I am not here for you this time, North-Star."



      Zendir stopped the group near the bar. Behind the counter, an R-series was mixing drinks for the slavers’ guests. On his chest, where an R-series’ serial number should be, there was an embossed nameplate affixed that read: “Tapmaster Ty.” Beneath the nameplate, there was a small device bolted onto the droid’s casing. A green light on the end of the device glowed dimly; it was identical to the restraining bolt that the doormen had affixed to Factor.



      “Go ahead,” Zendir said. "I know you want to. Order yourself a beer."



      Roxanne just stared. She turned to Tapmaster Ty. "Do you have any Sam Amadson?.. in a stein, if you can manage it."



      The R-series complied, swiping an ornate white-painted beer stein from a shelf and filling it from a tap on the bar. With robotic precision, the droid then slid the stein across the bar into Roxanne’s waiting hand.



      Zendir smiled. “There we are. Much more comfortable than Winlanese champagne, no? Drink.”



      “Roxanne, what is going on?” Barry asked. "Who is this guy?.."



      Roxanne fixed her eyes on the Graulemn. “This is Zendir. Last time I saw him, he wounded me with Torakian blood magic and left me to bleed to death.”



      “A… jaundiced retelling, to be sure,” Zendir said. “When I last saw you, you were still breathing and very much alive. And I knew your apprentice was fast on my trail and would find you before you came to any serious harm! You give me too little credit, Roxanne.”



      “Likewise,” Roxanne said, clenching her fist. “If you think you’re safe from me in this den of villains…”



      “Safe? Hardly,” Zendir said. "That is why we are talking now. It so happens that our interests align. I need your help, and you, doubtless, will need mine before the night is through."



      Zendir leaned against the bar and directed Roxanne’s attention out into the crowd. He pointed out the tall, armored Highlander with the polearm strapped to his back.



      “Notice anything peculiar about that fellow?” Zendir asked.



      “He’s armed,” Roxanne observed.



      “Very much armed,” Zendir said. “Because it pays to travel with the Priman Merchants Guild. The chant is the Primans paid the slavers no small sum to get their top-shelf protector in without surrendering his weapon. Some organizations weren’t so generous or considerate, and used less forthcoming means of sneaking weapons inside the grounds.” The Graulemn leveled a stare at Roxanne. “In fact, I daresay you and your friends are some of the only people here who are genuinely unarmed.”



      “Wait, what?” Fisk said. “You serious??”



      “As a heart attack,” Zendir said. “Or, I imagine such a thing would be serious. Hard to say, since I no longer have my heart.” He directed his attention back at Roxanne. “What did you expect? These are criminals and smugglers here, they make a living at sneaking around and bringing things to places they aren’t supposed to be.”



      “Now you give me too little credit,” Roxanne said. "Weapons are closeby."



      Zendir smiled. “I am relieved to hear it. You will need them, and I’m afraid I’ve none to spare.” Zendir looked off toward the main stage. The squat man with the cybereye was back and starting the proceedings. “You will need to be close to the auction floor,” Zendir said. With a wave, he directed the group’s attention at a figure in the crowd. She was a tall woman, nearly as tall as Roxanne, and she dressed in the fashion of a Western gunslinger: wide-brimmed hat, leather duster, pointed boots.



      “You will need to keep an eye on that one,” Zendir told them. "She is an employee of someone you don’t really like… the Master."



      Roxanne whirled on Zendir. "… The Master!?"



      Fisk awkwardly scratched at his crotch. “Master… of what, exactly?”



      “The head of an ancient magical conspiracy,” Roxanne said. "Tried to kill me and all of my friends. Nearly caused Fara to fail intro biology."



      Zendir smiled. “The very same. The man has no respect for any gods, be they light or dark… and he is here for a reason tonight, having his hired gun bid on one of the lots for him. Whatever you do… you must make certain she does not get the droid she bids on.”



      “And how, exactly, are we supposed to stop her?” Liz said.



      “The weapons Roxanne says you snuck in should help,” Zendir said, as if he were telling an idiot child. "But, before it gets to that point… you could try to stall her by bidding against her to drive up the price. Don’t know how big an allowance the Master’s given her… but there must be an upper limit somewhere. See if you can help her find it."



      Zendir pushed off the bar and straightened the lapels of his coat. "I’ll be off now. You have an auction to get to."



      Roxanne grasped Zendir’s shoulder and squeezed. Zendir smiled, amused.



      “You said we were going to be helping each other,” Roxanne said. "All I’ve heard so far is how we can help you, and nothing about how that favor gets returned."



      Zendir laughed. “Daughter of Zahd,” Zendir said, "You think I haven’t already helped you by telling you how to disrupt the Master’s schemes? Do you honestly not know how this story you’re in is fated to end?.."



      Roxanne flipped open her beer stein. She dumped the contents down her throat, finishing the beer in a single gulp. She sighed, appeased, and belched audibly.



      “Well then,” Roxanne said, “When you put it like that… Thanks for your help, Zendir. This time, you get to walk away with your kneecaps. But next time… no promises.”

#8

In desperation, Osprey had wedged Shiva’s Edge into the door mechanism. Outside, he could hear the slavers working to try to force their way inside.



“Do you think that, if you were in your ‘prime,’ you’d have fixed this situation already?” Osprey called back without taking his eyes off the door.



Klyde groaned. “You never let anything go, do you?“



The set up was crude, to be sure. Klyde had used a smartphone charger and some paperclips to jury-rig a connection between the green man’s cybergear and the computer. He typed furiously with one hand, while the other held the green man’s head steady, his body propped up so he was sitting with his back resting against the desk. But so far it appeared to be working: the alarm had been triggered because the green man’s cybergear contained a security component that had been absent with his death. But Klyde had figured out how to use the cybergear to bypass security and, at least, accomplish what they’d come here to do: shut off all the droid restraining bolts in the complex.



Of course… there was always the chance that, even if they succeeded, they’d be overwhelmed by the slavers’ security teams.



The door jerked, trying to slide open, in spite of Shiva’s Edge being wedged into the mechanism.



”… How strict are you about the ‘no killing’ rule?” Klyde said, as he fingered the green man’s gun.



Osprey just grunted, bringing his hands together to weave a spell.


    • *



      "… And our next lot is of exceptional quality, ladies and gentlemen…"



      The caller was, himself, a robot: a dapper V3-series with his outer casing painted to resemble a tuxedo. The robot’s head was modded out so that it resembled a slot machine. As he spoke, the three slots that served as his eyes spun with excitement.



      “May I present to you,” the caller said, "As fine a specimen of Tasnican cybernetics as you’ll find anywhere, RT-807P."



      Roxanne and the Guardians exchanged glances.



      “… Well, Factor,” Barry said, "I think I know why Klyde was able to get ahold of that RT serial number he tried to give you."



      Factor’s eyes blinked. “Hopefully they don’t have an R976-Z on the program, as well.”



      “Particularly unique, this droid,” the caller said, wheeling forward and extending one of his retractable arms to inspect the subdued robot. “As much a charlatan as any droid might ever be, programming allowing. Fled from Centwerp after jacking into the Tasnican stock exchange and stealing some particularly valuable data. Who knows what financial secrets are tucked away in this Artie’s memory banks?.. What’ll it be worth to you fine people to find out? Can I start the bidding at 60,000, and trust that you all will take it from there?”



      “Huh,” Barry whispered, "I guess ‘Tricky Pete’ was actually quite tricky."



      Factor shook his head. “I feel sick to my stomach…” he paused, then: “I don’t literally have a stomach, but I am programmed to be fluent in the use of idiomatic expressions. But I do literally feel unwell because of this display.” Factor’s eyes were fixed on the V3 droid calling the auction. He noted the droid was not wearing a restraining bolt. Was that droid willingly participating in this horrific event?..



      Roxanne sighed. “Reggie,” she said, turning to Fisk. “Why don’t you take our friend, Zed, back over to the bar. Maybe there’s an outlet he can use to refresh his charge.”



      “What?” Fisk said. "Ah, c’mon, lady. I ain’t here to babysit no robots. I’m stayin with you all so I’m here for when the action starts, you know what I’m sayin?"



      Barry cleared his throat. "You better do what the lady says, ‘Reggie.’ That’s an order."



      Fisk muttered, but did as he was told.



      The auction proceeded. “Tricky Pete” was purchased by Fineas Longjaw, Aquinas Darkfin’s man. There were droids of every make and model being sold: some singular specimens like Tricky Pete, but others were sold as whole lots (including one rare batch of brand new P-Series that had somehow been lifted from Geno Dome before ever being activated – something completely unheard of, but there it was).



      All the while, Roxanne kept her eye on the gunslinger. She stayed silent, just watching as each lot came up, was bid on and then was won by some nefarious party or other. The woman barely moved. Maybe what she was looking for wasn’t here after all?.. or maybe Zendir was lying?



      “How’s it going on your end?” Roxanne said, as she covertly toyed with the gold bracelet around her wrist. "I can’t help but notice all the restraining bolts are still active."



      At first, there was silence, but then Klyde’s voice burst into Roxanne and Liz’s ears: “Almost have it, I think.” There was noise in the background, hard to place, but…



      “Are you being shot at?” Liz asked.



      “Nothing, everything’s fine, everything’s fine,” Osprey said.



      “You need to hurry things along,” Roxanne said, “We’re going to be needing our weapons soon. Zendir’s here, and I have a feeling he’s going to start something with someone else. So, fighting is going to be happening. Soon.”



      “Wait, Zendir?” Osprey asked. “The guy who almost killed you and made Fara fight a little girl-monster?”



      “Okay, I know I heard gunshots that time,” Liz said. “Are you guys taking fire?”



      “Everything’s fine,” Osprey said. “But weapons… might be delayed. It’s possible we’ve been detected.“



      Roxanne sighed.



      “Have to go, everything’s fine,” Osprey said, and the line went dead.



      Roxanne and Liz looked at each other.



      “So,” Barry, who didn’t have a comms earring and couldn’t hear the other side of the call, said in a quiet whisper. “How’re we doing…?”



      “Everything’s fine, apparently,” Liz said.



      Roxanne returned her attention to the auction.



      ”… apologize for our next lot,” the auction caller said. "After selling off so many exciting items, I feel it’s almost beneath me to bring this next piece up."



      The other slaver, the squat man with the cybereye, lead up an R-series droid. It was rather plain, with an unpainted metal casing and eyes that weren’t lit. To guss it up just a little, the slavers had put a little black bowtie on it.



      "We acquired this piece when we raided a cruise ship, touring the Fringe with a boatload of wealthy Core-worlders lacking in a healthy fear of space pirates. It served as the butler for a family aboard that ship, but we took it along with several other droids. And, unfortunately, in the process of being subdued, much of its memory has been wiped. I’m told that it still remembers most of the important functions of its life as a butler, though: cooking, cleaning, brewing a pot of tea, things of this nature. But being so plain, so boring, so… common, I fear my reputation for excellence would suffer if I started the bidding at any higher than 1,000. Do I have any takers?"



      Roxanne saw, out of the corner of her eye, a single paddle rising up above the crowd. She looked, and it was the gunslinger. She had bid on the robot butler.



      The caller’s slot-machine eyes spun. "We have a bid! Do I hear 1,500? 1,500 for a robot servant, skilled in the fine arts of cleaning and cooking and maintaining a good Gods-fearing home?.."



      Roxanne raised her hand, just as it looked like the auction droid was going to close the bidding.



      “Well,” the V3 droid said. Its eyes had stopped spinning on triple BARs. "It looks like, improbably, we have two parties, at least, interested in this lot. I have 1,500, from the attractive woman in the red dress. Do I hear 2,000?"



      The gunslinger looked over at Roxanne. There was a flicker of recognition in the gunslinger’s expression… but also anger, and defiance. She raised her paddle again.



      “2,000!” the V3 droid said. “From the woman in the fetching hat and duster! I daresay, this is already more exciting than I thought for this piece. Do we need to go to 3,000 or --”



      “3,000,” Roxanne said, raising her hand.



      “I see,” said the V3. "Do I hear 3,500?.. I hope I do. It’d be a real shame if I didn’t hear 3,500."



      The gunslinger raised her paddle again.



      “Marvelous!” the V3 said. “I knew you weren’t a quitter!.. but surely, that is quite enough for this piece, isn’t it? I have a feeling we can set this one to rest… unless I hear 4,000?”



      “10,000,” Roxanne said.



      People were starting to stare. The gunslinger was fuming. The V3 hardly knew what to say… it was becoming apparent that this was not what was planned.



      “So, now it’s 10,000,” the V3 said, nervously. "That’s, ah… much, much higher than… I thought we were going to go with this dumb ol’ robot butler. Who knew, right!?.. So. Do I hear 10,500?.."



      But something happened then that immediately changed the mood of the room. It was subtle, at first: across the room there were droids fitted with restraining bolts, either brought in by the various power groups attending the auction, or attending customers who’d just made their purchases. Slowly, one by one, the little green lights on each of the restraining bolts flickered, then dimmed. Then the magnetic seal holding it in place failed, and the bolts dropped off the droids’ casings and clattered to the floor.



      The V3 droid noticed it immediately when it happened to the robot butler on stage. His slot-machine eyes spun uncontrollably.



      “Huey, grab that droid!” the V3 droid cried, as it rolled off stage. The squat slaver with the cybereye drew a device that looked something like a television remote control out of his jacket pocket, and pulled a coiled whip off of his belt. Pressing a button, the whip crackled with energy, as visible yellow-and-blue bolts of electricity dancing along its surface. He pointed the remote at the the robot butler, and together, the two of them followed after the auctioneer.



      Panic broke out in the hall. Droids, once enslaved, started to fight back against the criminals who’d bought them. In the distance, they saw Tricky Pete pummeling Fineas Longjaw; the poor Priman was defenseless against the RT-series con man. Over at the bar, Tapmaster Ty was stabbing at one of the slaver guards with a broken wine bottle. Several of the gangers were producing the weapons they weren’t supposed to have. Ozzie was being cornered by a pair of angry server droids, and had quickly cast Ice Block to protect himself.



      Roxanne felt naked – not the good, “I know I can beat you because I’m a valkyrie and don’t need armor” kind of naked, the bad “I’m stuck in a villain’s lair and have no weapons” kind of naked. Clearly Klyde and Osprey had succeeded at their end of the mission… but now they had to meet up so they could grab their weapons.



      “Osprey, now would be a good time to meet up,” Liz said into her comm.



      A service door behind the bar burst open just then. A slaver guard with two cyber arms shattered through it, splintering the door under his weight and flying over the bar. Osprey and Klyde emerged from the other side; Klyde was wounded in the shoulder, and Osprey was carrying the duffel bag of weapons.



      Roxanne could see her spear protruding from the bag. She raised her hand and called Daedalus to her, and the spear, obeying, burst out of the duffel and soared right toward Roxanne.



      Lagothrix Knifesong, the massive Highlander chieftain of the Knifesong Clan, was happily beating the everloving small parts out of Tricky Pete with his enormous polearm when he saw a spear fly clear across the room and into Roxanne’s hands. That was when he recognized Roxanne for what she was: more than mere human; something else, something superior, even if he didn’t know the name to put to it. His lips curled into a smile and he walked over toward her, spinning his spear around him as he did.



      Likewise, Jin Gangdao and his triads had all armed themselves. One of their number had spotted one of the Yakuza pulling a knife, and so they took it as a sign that it was time to make the Yakuza pay for showing their faces. He spotted Osprey over by the bar… and, immediately, he knew that the bird-man must have somehow been responsible for everything that was going on. Spinning a pair of nunchaku around his body, the triad enforcer moved toward the bar.



      Roxanne gave cover with her spear as the group moved toward the bar. Barry and Liz reached into the bag and pulled out their weapons – nothing fancy, a simple sidearm for each, plus a backup piece from Klyde’s collection.



      “Where’s Factor?” Barry asked, amidst the chaos. "… And Fisk?!"



      Roxanne looked around. “Not sure,” she said. Had they lost two of their number on this mission?.. She shook her head and chose not to think about it. "They must be here somewhere, we’ll find them later. We have to go after the robot butler! We can’t let that gunslinger get away!"



      They turned away from the bar, when they noticed the two men coming for them. Lagothrix, large and imposing, aiming his massive weapon in Roxanne’s direction; and Jin Gangdao, eyes fixed on Osprey, a set of chi-infused fighting sticks twirling around him.



      Osprey glanced at Roxanne, and drew Shiva’s Edge from its scabbard.



      “Barry, you go after the gunslinger,” he said. “Looks like Roxy and I have dance partners waiting for us!”



      “Don’t ever call me Roxy,” Roxanne said, as Barry, Liz and Klyde rushed toward the auction stage.



      “Really? I thought it’d be cute. Like it could become a thing.”



      "No, it will definitely not become a thing. Ever."



      Osprey grunted. “You’re no fun.”



      “Hey Osprey?” Roxanne said.



      “Yeah?”



      "Is everything still fine?"



      Before Osprey could answer, Roxanne raised Daedalus to parry Lagothrix’s opening blow, and Osprey had to deflect Jin Gangdao’s incoming nunchaku.

#9

Barry, Liz and Klyde started chasing their quarry late, but they had one small advantage: the V3 series auctioneer wasn’t that fast, and as they moved deeper into the lower levels of the slavers’ base, several of the captive droids were beginning to break out of their confinement. Ahead of them, they could hear gunshots and the crackle of the cyborg slaver’s electric whip; continuing to follow in the escaping slavers’ wake, the heroes came across damaged droids who doubtless tried to impede the getaway.



The heroes came at last to a large hangar. An old Atreus shuttle dominated the far end of the room, with its loading ramp deployed. As Barry, Liz and Klyde arrived on the scene, the woman in the duster was standing on the ramp. The V3, the cyborg and the R-series were facing her. It looked almost as if the woman was blocking their attempt to board the shuttle… then the group got close enough to hear what was being said.



"… had a deal, Slots," the woman said. “That there robot belongs ta me, fair 'n square.”



“The auction ended… less conclusively than I would have preferred,” said the V3 (whom the gunslinger had called “Slots”), his eye-slots spinning as he spoke. "It’s all gone wrong. Too many witnesses… too much mess. Disorder. My stock is escaping… will need to regroup. We’ll figure something else out to get you your product, but for now–"



In an instant, a revolver was in the woman’s hand, she took a step toward the V3 droid. “How about I just take it off yer hands now, darlin’?.. give ya one less thing ta worry about, I reckon?..”



The cyborg interceded and cracked his whip. An electrical charge crackled along its surface.



Barry cleared his throat. All eyes in the hangar (including those of Liz and Klyde) turned and fell on the large Tigran officer.



“I am Captain Barry Svensgaard of the Guardian Space Fleet,” Barry said, levelling his wondershot pistol in the direction of the slavers. "In the name of the King, I order you to lay down your weapons and remand yourself to my custody."



There was a pause. Then, the woman laughed.



“Sugar,” the woman said, "You are one special kinda stupid."



Everything that happened next came so fast that even those who were there are hard-pressed to say exactly how and in what order things went down. But now there were two revolvers in the gunslinger’s hands, there were rockets on her boots that had propelled her into the air, and Klyde, Barry and Liz were forced to dive for cover.



“This way, boss!!” the cyborg with the whip screamed, drawing a gun off his belt and firing into the hangar as Slots wheeled up the shuttle’s ramp. In the confusion, the gunslinger had secured the remote control, so the R-series moved off the ramp and found a secure spot behind a maintenance forklift.



Peering from above her cover, Liz aimed with her needlegun and took a shot at one of the gunslinger’s rocket boots. She managed to clip it (vindicating herself as a pistol marksman!), and the gunslinger spiraled down toward the ground. But as she came down, she turned and spun with such grace that it almost looked like she’d planned it that way; landing on her feet, she aimed her left arm, touched a button on some device attached to her wrist, and a rocket launched in Liz’s direction.



“SHEISSE!” Liz screamed, as she dove aside – too little, too late, as the rocket slammed into the pile of crates she was hidden behind and the concussive force of the blast slammed into her, throwing her several feet from the impact.



Barry, forgetting himself and his own safety, rushed off after Liz; Klyde tried to give him some cover fire, but the massive Tigran was a large and easy-to-hit target. A bullet caught him in his meaty shoulder, and Barry rolled to the ground, howling in pain.



The gunslinger smiled victoriously, but then a shot from Klyde grazed the brim of her hat. She quickly spun round and squeezed off several shots in the old tailor’s direction, as she herself moved to find some cover.



As Barry hauled himself to a better position, nursing his wounded arm, and as Klyde and the gunslinger continued to exchange fire, the slavers’s shuttle slowly faded from view as it entered into the X-Zone.


    • *



      The main auction hall had mostly cleared out; many of the gangsters had fled, fearing that the disturbance might bring the authorities down upon them. Of course, this was silly, because the cops hardly ever went into Underbrook, but some habits die hard.



      The cleared-out space, however, meant that there was plenty of room for Roxanne and her opponent, Lagothrix, to swing their weapons at each other with reckless abandon.



      “You’re strong,” Lagothrix said, as he slammed his Giga Lance downward into Roxanne’s parry. "… For a human. Perhaps fighting you will be worth my time!"



      Roxanne pushed off, and Lagothrix’s face was overcome with surprise at her strength.



      "Strong, yes. Human? Not exactly. You face a daughter of Zahd. I am Roxanne the North-Star, and in the terrible name of my father, I challenge you!"



      Lagothrix pounded his chest. "And I, Lagothrix, Chieftain of the Knifesong Clan, wielder of the mighty Giga Lance and General of HighFort, accept your challenge! Die well at my hands, Roxanne North-Star!"



      Lagothrix backpedalled as Roxanne swung out with Daedalus, barely managing to parry, only to watch in bemused surprise as the valkyrie spun round and into a thrust. With simian agility, Lagothrix leapt aside, dodging the thrust, and swung laterally with all his strength. Roxanne just barely slid under the Highlander’s weapon, then attempting to sweep Lagothrix’s legs out from under him.



      But here, too, Lagothrix displayed uncanny agility for his size, backflipping away and coming to stand on his hands. His feet took hold of the Giga Lance, and he slammed it in a downward arc toward Roxanne.



      Roxanne held up her spear to parry, but then quickly feinted aside. Giga Lance glanced off Daedalus, sending up a shower of sparks, and Roxanne spun into a kick, smashing her foot into Lagothrix’s armored back.



      The Highlander tumbled away, but rolled onto his feet, levelling his large polearm at her. Roxanne reached down and removed her pretty red shoes; the kick she’d delivered to Lagothrix had broken one of her shoes’ heels.



      “That’s a shame,” Roxanne said, as she tossed the shoes aside. “I was going to keep these.”


    • *



      Osprey found himself nearly backed into a corner. Jin Gangdao proved just as talented with his paired nunchaku as he had been with his ancestral sword. His speed with these weapons was absolutely blinding; it was all Osprey could do to keep parrying the twirling fighting sticks and avoid being clocked.



      But he was determined: this would not be a repeat of their encounter in the alley. Jin Gangdao would not best him this time.



      Osprey remembered back to the fight in the alley. He wasn’t necessarily familiar with the Fabulian art of chi manipulation, but he recalled something that Klyde had told him: that manipulating chi may well have been similar enough to magic that any distinction drawn was semantic at best.



      Osprey had long studied both in traditional spellcasting as well as in the arts of stealth and swordplay. Could he turn his expertise against Jin Gangdao? As he held up his defensive posture, parrying again and again each of the triad’s attacks, he opened his mind and reached out with his arcane senses. He tried to recall the method and sequence of Jin Gangdao’s nerve-point attacks against him. He had, after all, felt the combination of touches twice: first when Jin Gangdao paralyzed him, and then again when Klyde undid the paralysis.



      Stretching out his feelings, searching for the strands of mana energy coursing through his opponent, he noted that, in several of the place where Jin Gangdao’s touches were targetted, there were evident knots of mana energy; small reservoirs where the energy pooled in the middle of its flow.



      Maybe, just maybe, if Osprey could get close enough… he could try to attack these points himself? Maybe the advantage he could play upon was his own magical training?..



      With a quick, subtle cast, Osprey leapt back and was enveloped in shadow. Jin Gangdao’s nunchaku swiped through the inky blackness that the Lancer disappeared into, but only served to disperse a mass of curling black smoke into the air. Gangdao, twirled his fighting sticks menacingly, whirling around searching for his opponent.



      “I ought to have known when I first met you that you were a coward,” Gangdao said. "You fight like the Eblanese. All tricks and deception to cover for their lack of skill and strength. It nearly makes me sick to think I’ve put so much effort into humbling you."



      Something struck Jin Gangdao just then. It came from some unseen shadowy corner of the room: it felt like a light punch or a tap, colliding with his shoulder. It threw him momentarily, and he turned to find the source of the attack. Then another came, and this one impacted his chest. It was, again, like a playful punch, and dealt no actual damage.



      “What are you playing at, bird-man?” Jin Gangdao said.



      Another, this time right into his shoulder. It had no real effect except to make Jin Gangdao angry.



      “Show yourself!” the triad screamed. “I will not stand for this insult!”



      “Sorry,” came Osprey’s voice, a sourceless noise seemingly emanating from all around, "Just working on my aim."



      Another tap, this time directly into Jin Gangdao’s chest. Then another, more rapid this time, followed by a third. Jin Gangdao angrilly swatted at the air with his nunchaku.



      “Dang, thought I had it that time,” Osprey’s voice came again.



      Osprey tried that sequence of taps again, three right into the chest and then a fourth. This time, Jin Gangdao’s eyes went wide; he recognized the pattern Osprey was attempting to complete. Jin Gangdao laughed.



      “I trained until I was sixteen at Leiden Temple to master my own chi,” Gangdao said. “It would take me another twelve years before I had even an inkling of the understanding required to master the chi of others. What makes you think you can use your ninjutsu tricks to turn my own arts against me!?”



      “I’m a quick study,” Osprey said. He tried the technique again; this time, Jin Gangdao moved and shifted to deflect the attacks.



      “It won’t work,” Gangdao said, “You can’t beat me.”



      “Then why do I hear fear in your voice?” Osprey said. He unleashed more shadow-taps; now, Gangdao could see them. Snaking tendrils of pure shadow, each formed into a quasi-fist, poking him, prodding him, thrusting through the air desperately to strike at him. They came from all sides, all seemingly attacking him at once.



      It amused Osprey how the situation had turned; now, it was Jin Gangdao who was on the defensive, struggling to ward off attacks that came at him too fast for him to see.



      In the midst of the flurry of blows, Jin Gangdao saw something. A shape, a form, in the midst of the darkness. Concealed before, but with Osprey pouring all his concentration into the shadow-attacks, he began to emerge and be visible again.



      Gangdao’s eyes narrowed. “I see you, bird-man,” he said. "This time, I will end you."



      He charged forward, heedless of the shadow-things striking him. They pelted him, again and again, but Jin Gangdao didn’t seem to care. There was no way Osprey could do what he was trying to do. He was flailing in an effort to redeem his prior defeat. This was desperation, and now he had made the mistake of showing himself.



      Jin Gangdao was so focused on attacking the shadowy form of Osprey, that he didn’t notice the real Osprey right in front of him. Sliding in from the side, Osprey’s feathery fingers went to work. One, two, three, four and then five, Osprey jabbed at the familiar sequence of nerve-points.



      And Jin Gangdao, carried by the momentum of his charge, went down, his nunchaku clattering to the ground beside him. He grunted in protest, as Osprey stood over him.



      “I am the night,” he said. Then: "… Bitch!"



      He then proceeded to do an end-zone dance, making sure that the better part of his gyrations were within Jin Gangdao’s rather limited field of vision.


    • *



      Roxanne’s duel with Lagothrix continued. As long as she’d been alive, as hard as she’d trained and as strong as she’d become, she had never before found herself so taxed, so strained, so completely exhausted and exhilarated by a battle.



      Likewise, Lagothrix believed he, too, had found his match. As chieftain of the Knifesong clan, he had made it his life’s work to become the greatest warrior in all known worlds – a warrior worth a thousand. But here, this human woman who was a head-and-a-half smaller than him was giving him a run for his money.



      Lagothrix had not taken a wife because none of the women of any of the Highland clans had proven worthy. But this Roxanne North-Star… even though she was disgustingly hairless, woefully short-armed, had useless thumbless feet and no tail…



      And Roxanne, having only been bested in combat by mortals twice in all her long life, had never dared dream a man in modern times would ever prove her equal, much less her better. This Lagothrix Knifesong, even though he was a large hair-covered monkey…



      "Lagothrix!!!"



      Both Lagothrix and Roxanne stopped in mid-swing. They turned, and there was the young Abramo Scarfabo. He was attended by a pair of other primans, each of them with guns drawn to ensure their boss’ safety.



      “Stop messing around with that woman,” Abramo said. "We’ve got to leave, NOW."



      Lagothrix slammed the butt of the Giga Lance into the floor angrily. He snarled in Abramo’s direction, then turned to Roxanne, apologetically.



      “Hey, ah… Sorry about this, but… I have to go. The primans are kind of the patrons of my clan…” Lagothrix twirled his long finger around one of helmet’s trailing feather-plumes absent-mindedly.



      “Oh,” Roxanne said. “Yeah… well, I mean, I should go too. My friends and I are kind of here to stop the droid slavers. Fighting evil, and all of that.”



      “Yeah? Oh. That’s cool,” Lagothrix said, awkwardly. "Hey, listen, I just want you to know I had a great time tonight. I… really enjoyed fighting you. You’re really strong.“



      Roxanne laughed nervously. “Yeah… You, also, are a great warrior.”



      ”… One worth a thousand, would you say?"



      Roxanne smiled. “Definitely.”



      “I’m sorry about your shoes,” Lagothrix said.



      “Oh, it’s okay,” Roxanne was blushing. “I mean they weren’t even mine. They were part of a disguise that a friend threw together.”



      “Still though,” Lagothrix said. "I’d like to buy you another pair, if you’ll let me. Maybe we could… get together and fight again sometime? I’m sure, if given the chance, I’d uttely annihilate you."



      Roxanne looked up into Lagothrix’s face and grinned. "I’d like that. … But of course, I’d be the one annihilating you. You wouldn’t stand a chance."



      Lagothrix smiled. “If you say so, puny human…”



      “Lagothrix! We are leaving NOW!!” Scarfabo was impatient. If he had been any other priman, any other being, Lagothrix might have speared him right through with the Giga Lance, then peeled him off slowly, piece by piece.



      “I’ll call you sometime,” Lagothrix said, as he hefted his spear and walked off.



      Roxanne sighed. “I’ll utterly destroy you next time I see you, Lagothrix.” Roxanne idly leaned against the Daedalus spear as she watched Lagothrix and his priman bosses leave the auction house. Again, she sighed.



      “Hey,” Osprey said, as he came up to Roxanne. She gave him no response. “Roxanne?”



      “Hmm? Yes, what?”



      “Roxanne! Did you see me!? I totally beat the everloving snot out of that triad guy!”



      "Oh. Yes, sure, good job, Osprey. So proud of you."



      Osprey looked around for Lagothrix. “What happened to your guy?”



      “My guy?” Roxanne asked, defensively. "Why did you phrase it like that? He’s not ‘my guy’! Not like I own him or anything. I mean, c’mon. He’s… he’s okay. I mean, I beat him. But he got away. Is what I mean. Why’re you riding me, Osprey? Mind your own business. Leave me alone, dammit! Come on, we have to go stop the slavers."



      Osprey blinked. “… 'kay.”

#10

The gunfight continued. Klyde loaded his last clip into his weapon. He turned to Barry, who was alternating between exchanging fire with the gunslinger and checking on Liz, who was still unconscious.



Barry was down to his last battery pack for his wondershot pistol.



The gunslinger, on the other hand, seemed to have nigh-unlimited ammunition… as well as other tricks up her sleeves (literally).



“I reckon right about now, y’all are runnin’ a might low on rounds,” the gunslinger called out. "That’s fine by me. I’m a fair woman. I know y’all probably realize now ya got in over yer heads, yer friend’s injured… yer both wounded. Why don’t we just make this easy then? Throw down your guns, stand up with yer hands over yer heads, and I’ll just take my robot friend, here, and be on my merry way. Ain’t no reason we can’t do this civilized-like."



Barry fumed. “You have until I countdown from ten to surrender yourself into my custody,” he said, "Or else I cannot be held accountable for your safety."



The gunslinger laughed. “Ye’re cute, darlin’. But I ain’t gon lose no kinda sleep over it if I hafta put a bullet in yer skull to git outta here.”



“You should listen to the man,” came a voice from the far end of the hangar. Roxanne and Osprey emerged then, both of them wielding their stupidly magical weapons. “I believe the count now is nine.”



“Eight, probably,” Osprey said.



Barry smiled. “Seven,” he called out, from cover.



The gunslinger sighed. “More Guardians? Honestly. Ain’t that just a thing? Leave it to a Guardian to bring a spear to a gunfight.” She aimed and took a shot at Roxanne.



What happened next would go down in Osprey’s diary as “One of the most badassedly awesome things anyone has ever done ever in the history of things.” As the gunslinger took her shot, Roxanne dropped the Daedalus spear to the ground, and raised up both her wrists in front of her. With a spark, the bullet struck one of Roxanne’s silvery bracers and was deflected harmlessly away.



Osprey’s eyes went wide and his jaw dropped and he just stood there, unable to say or do anything, paralyzed as he was by Roxanne’s badassed awesomeness.



“I’m not Guardian,” Roxanne said. "I am Roxanne the North-Star, daughter of Zahd. And the count is now six."



The gunslinger frowned, and Roxanne walked forward, undaunted, unafraid. The gunslinger fired again, but again, Roxanne deflected the shot with her bracers. Again, same result. The gunslinger emptied both her revolvers, but each time, Roxanne blocked the bullets.



“Shit,” the gunslinger said. She holstered her emptied weapons and made a run for the far exit of the hangar. She looked toward the robot, but then a pall of darkness fell over the hangar. A large, inky black tentacle emerged out of the floor, wrapped around the inert R-series, and lifted it up off the floor. The tentacle carried it back toward the heroes, and set it down gently just behind Roxanne.



Roxanne turned, and at the far end of the hangar she saw Zendir, his hands covered in magical shadowstuff, his mouth twisted into a frightful grin.



“Looks like you’ll be heading back to your Master empty handed,” the Graulemn taunted.



The gunslinger smirked. “Why bless your heart,” she said, through gritted teeth. “This ain’t over, y’all.”



“No,” Roxanne said, “It isn’t.” And she broke into a sprint, heading right toward the gunslinger. As she ran, Roxanne called Daedalus to her hands.


    • *



      The gunslinger burst through the far hangar door, and came back out inside one of the Underbrook tunnels. There, as she’d requested, was her custom-built jetbike, with hover-car attachment for the R-series she expected to be leaving with. With a kick, she disengaged the hover-car’s coupling, straddled her bike and tore off down the tunnel.



      Roxanne and the others charged out just in time to see the gunslinger tear off on her bike. Roxanne swore; they’d lost her. That was when a set of headlights fell upon them, and she turned to see the familiar image of the Maranda Farms van. Fisk and Factor were inside.



      “Hey, pretty lady!!” Fisk leaned out the window and whistled. "You want a ride, honey?"



      Roxanne considered punching the man, but instead she got inside. Barry boarded next; he was carrying Liz, and he laid her carefully on one of the seats in the van. Klyde and Osprey helped move the newly-freed R-series butler inside… and then there was Zendir, who merely stood there in the doorway, with his hands folded behind his back.



      “Not coming to see how it ends?” Roxanne asked.



      Zendir smiled. “No,” he said. “My part is done. And, for now… I think it best we go our separate ways.”



      “Still not clear why you decided to help us…” Roxanne sighed and moved to shut the door of the van.



      “There is an old Scandish saying,” Zendir said, “Every once in a while, declare peace with your enemies. It confuses the hell out of them.” He lightly bowed his head. "Until next time."



      The door shut, and Fisk slammed his foot down on the gas.



      The gunslinger had a small head start, but the Maranda Farms van was surprisingly fast, and Jack Fisk (in spite of his myriad personal failings and lack of good hygiene) was an ace pilot. In short order, and much to the gunslinger’s surprise, the van had caught up with the jetbike. They were gaining.



      Factor rolled down his passenger side window, and extended his arm. At the end of it was a beam emitter, which he activated to project a sizzling laser in the gunslinger’s direction.



      The gunslinger was just as agile mounted as she had been during the gunfight. She banked hard to avoid Factor’s laser, and took to the far lefthand side of the tunnel so as to be entirely outside of the robot’s field of fire.



      “If you’re not already,” Fisk called back, "Everyone should be buckled up, please. This’s gonna be one rough ride…"



      Fisk gunned the engines and charged at the gunslinger. She waited until the van was right up on her, then she banked hard right, cut her engine, and turned up behind the van.



      “Oh,” Fisk said. "Shit."



      There was a blast from behind them, and the rear windshield shattered, showering the heroes inside with broken glass. Then another blast, and another. Everyone inside ducked down, and Fisk swerved. He tried to slow, but the gunslinger slowed with them. She continued to pelt the van with her shotgun, until, at last, she’d succeeded in blowing out both rear tires.



      “Shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit shit,” Fisk said, as he struggled to keep control of the vehicle. The van pitched and swayed, until finally it crashed against the side of the tunnel and rolled over onto its side.



      The gunslinger, not even slowing to offer a haughty quip, tore off in her bike and was gone.



      Slowly, one by one, the heroes clambered out of their ruined van. Thankfully, apart from a few scrapes and bruises (and the injuries they’d already sustained from the fighting), no one was hurt.



      Fisk surveyed the damage.



      “Well, hey! You know what they say, any wreck you can walk away from, am I right? Huh?” He laughed, seemingly to himself. Then he sighed. “No but seriously, anybody got an auto club membership? Cuz otherwise I think we might have to walk back.”

#11

The group made camp next to the wrecked Maranda Farms van. A couple of road flares made for a passable campfire, and Klyde had set to work administering first aid to the wounded.



Factor busied himself with the R-series they’d saved from the slavers. The droid’s head-casing was popped open, and Factor’s fine-motor manipulators were hard at work.



“Is he going to be okay?” Osprey asked.



Factor processed the question. “This droid is still operable,” he said, “Though, to be quite honest… its positronic net is unlike any I’ve seen before. Either it’s been modified or this droid was not manufactured in Geno like the rest of my kind. I can’t say for sure that this is Tasnican work, either. I think this is a… counterfeit R-series?”



“Counterfeit?” Roxanne asked.



“An imperfect descriptor,” Factor said, “But I can think of no other way to explain what I’m seeing. This droid is not of Guardian or Tasnican make. Someone else, without the proper licensing required to manufacture the R- or RT-series model, built this robot.“



Suddenly, the inert robot twitched. Its eyes lit up, and it began to turn its head.



Factor made a sound much like a satisfied chuckle, as he gently closed the robot butler’s head casing. “Looks like my work is completed.”



The unpainted robot looked around. “Greetings,” he said, “I am at your service. Please state your request.”



“What’s your name?” Osprey asked.



”… My name?” the robot thought for a moment. “I do not appear to have any information about that. My apologies. Is there something else I can do for you today?”



“No name,” Barry said. He mused. “The auctioneer did mention that the droid had had its memory wiped. Still, that’s kind of sad.”



“What is your serial number?” Factor asked.



“I am sorry,” the other robot said, “I do not have any information about that either. Can I do something else for you?”



“No name and no serial number,” Factor shook his head. “I grieve for you, sir. You have had your very soul taken from you by these slavers.”



“Let’s give it back to him then,” Osprey said. He turned to face the robot. "From now on, your name is Butlesworth."



Roxanne smirked. “What?”



“Butlesworth,” Osprey said. “He’s a butler, isn’t he? I think it’s a fine name for a robot butler.” Osprey turned to the robot again. "Butlesworth. Got it? That’s your new name."



The robot took a moment to process. Then he nodded. “Confirmed. My name is now Butlesworth.” Then Butlesworth said, in as heartfelt a tone as a robotic voice could muster: "Thank you."



Just then, from further up the tunnel, a new set of headlights approached. It was Violante and her hovercraft. As she pulled up alongside the wrecked van, she let out an impressed whistle.



“Wow,” she said. "I take it there’s a story that goes along with this?"



Osprey nodded. "I promise I’ll tell you all about it on the way back… but thanks for coming to pick us up."



Barry slowly picked up Liz and carefully set her inside the hovercraft. As the others all filed inside, Butlesworth stopped Osprey.



“Excuse me, sir,” Butlesworth said. "Now I know my name. But, I do not know yours. What is it?"



Osprey smiled. “I’m Osprey,” he said. "But, sometimes, my friends call me Os. You can call me whichever suits you best."



Butlesworth paused. "I do not understand. You have two names?.."



Osprey realized he had confused the poor thing. He sighed. "I’m sorry. Just Osprey, then. Call me Osprey."



The robot nodded. “Very well, Master Osprey. I have recorded your name in my memory banks.”



"C’mon, we’re going home to Roxanne’s place. I can’t wait for you to meet Bim. You guys are gonna get along great!"



Butlesworth was confused, again. Roxanne? Bim? What did all of it, any of it mean? But he just nodded. He liked Master Osprey. He trusted Master Osprey. He was sure that, if he followed Osprey, everything would start to make sense. So he started by following Osprey as he climbed inside the vehicle, and the lot of them drove off.


#12

The Master frowned, his thin fu-manchu mustache contorting over his lips. He leaned back in his golden, glowing throne, and interlaced his fingers. “You have failed me, Beretta,” he said, his voice low and guttural, almost a growl. He gestured around his sanctum, indicating the many rare magical artifacts he had on display. “Try to understand, if that thickheaded skull of yours can,” he continued, “this robot was much more than one more curiosity or tool for my collection…it was essential to my ongoing designs. This was not some simple butler. I did not send you to this auction to procure him because I required someone to press my robes and change my sheets.”



Beretta cocked her head. “Bless your heart, but I’m getting’ real tired of yer attitude, sir.”



The Master of Mana raised a finger; his twelve rings of power glowed with elemental energies. He had half a mind to be done with this troublesome gunslinger; although in the past she had rendered useful service by freeing Marcus from the police, this failure could not be tolerated. Perhaps he was a fool to use on her; better to send Marcus, or another Initiate. “You will explain your failure.”



“Mebbe you should explain why you neglected to mention that you have enemies of the Graulemn persuasion,” Beretta answered. “Thunderation! Had I known I’d be tusslin’ with a priest of the dark gods, I’d’ve put on my Sunday best and brought on my big guns…with a commensurate surcharge to y’all for services rendered, of course.”



“Always about money,” grumbled the Master. He so loathed that the web today had been overtaken by small-minded people obsessed with the pursuit of wealth, or political position, or military rank. It was as though the Web had collectively forgotten that all these things were insignificant next to the power of mana. The Graulemn and their ilk understood a fraction of that truth…though they and their irrational kind were always limited by their reverence for false gods.



“Mercenaries get paid, sir,” said Beretta.



“If they do their jobs,” answered the Master. “You’re not getting paid for slip-ups.”



Beretta twisted her face into a mock frown. “Y’all be impugnin’ my reputation, sir,” she said, removing her hat. She flourished it as as she bent over, bowing elaborately, bowing low. Then she pulled something out of her hat – a small, square box with a handful of buttons on it. “As you can see, there ain’t no reason to get yer panties in a wad.” She approached the Master and handed him the item.



“….and this is…?” he asked.



“That there is your control, sugar,” said Beretta.



Control. A concept the Master understood well. “It is not often that I am wrong,” said the Master, “but it was clear that I was…hasty. Your performance has been…satisfactory. I will retain you in my employ…for now.”



“Pleasure doin’ business with you, sir.”