High in the upper floors of the prestigious Brickthorn Tower, Jack Falcon sat proudly in his office. He had finished skimming through the Reality Blogs, which in his world took the form of slightly soggy newsprint, and had turned in his chair to contemplate the panoramic view of downtown Slate City. He looked down on the twinkling city lights with satisfaction as he recalled a few of his past adventures on the streets below. He also briefly wondered just how accurate it really was. How true was it to the post World War II metropolis it was meant to simulate? Such thoughts were rarely fun to entertain for long, however, so he was quickly back to just being proud that this view was from his very own office. It didn't really matter that he could see just as much by levitating very high with the anti-grav boots that he purchased on Polaris 6. It was just nice to know, after all he'd been through and all of the high profile cases that he'd cracked, that he now had enough game cred to afford the best. He then reached for another otherworldly artifact which he had on his desk. It was a pair of thin black gloves, given to him by the Masters who had taught him all he knew of the martial arts. He put them on, held them up to the moon above and examined their fit on his hands. It may have seemed as if he was just trying them on in the name of vanity, but that was because he had meant it to seem that way. He had become aware that he was not alone in his office. There was another presence there. Someone or something invisible had been watching him. It was thorough enough to cloak its sound and smell as well as its image so that even someone with Jack's keen senses couldn't tell it was there right away. It had been there long enough, however, for its aura to leave a mark on the room so dense that even someone of his own limited spiritual discipline could tell exactly where it was. Whoever it was was being sloppy. Jack flicked his wrist and the glove he wore produced a shiny metal throwing star out of mid air. It gleamed in the moonlight as Jack spoke out loud to his unseen guest.
"Any sudden move and this is going right into your head." he stated calmly. "I suggest you show yourself and claim your business now if you expect to get through this alive."
"Tracer!" It was his mother calling. She yelled at him from down the hallway in that tone she always had whenever she was interrupting at the worst possible time.
Tracer tapped the little red TIME OUT icon in the upper left corner of his vision. The digitally generated image blinked from the pristine 3-D view of his office to the stack of multi colored text fields that represented his connection to the wireless omniweb.
"What is it Mom?" he yelled back, "This had better be good!" It sounded like she was in the kitchen. The one that was big enough for just one and a half people to stand in at once.
"Did you drink my last Galxoda?" She sounded distressed, like the fate of the universe was at stake. That was nothing new.
"No Mom, I don't even like that stuff. You must have drunk it and forgot." He shuddered a bit just visualizing those rocket shaped bottles that usually populated their refrigerator. The blue carbonated beverage they contained was filled with sweet luminous crystals floating about inside. It was cynical corporate marketing, targeting the space-age utopian visions of jumpers like his mom. 'Those pudnuckers!' he thought.
There was a pause, like she forgot what she was even yelling about. Again, not uncommon. "Remember I have a cosmo appointment today!" she blurted just before Tracer was about to log back on. "There isn't any food left in this kitchen. Do you know what you're going to eat?"
"I've got it covered, Mom!" he answered back. They both knew that this meant, if he was going to eat at all, he was going to eat at Cyberia's again. Whenever he got hungry, he could always go have an Ultraburger Special, complete with a Harry Berry Smoothie. He could bring his computer there and get his own little booth. It was where he could keep on playing his game the whole time he ate, surrounded by no one but other omniheads, all equally lost in their own personal other worlds. His mother seemed satisfied with his answer for she didn't respond.
Tracer turned his attention back to the window he had at the forefront of his display. As always, it was the blue and gold one crowned with the logo that read in bold capitol letters...
...and was underscored by the phrase...
THE ULTIMATE CROSS-GENRE ROLEPLAYING ENVIRONMENT.
Below that, was a stat bar that boasted the ever-fluctuating current number of users online. It was kind of pointless because it was usually at about 100 million at all times these days. With numbers like that, who was ever counting anyway? All he had to do was tap it and he would be the great detective Jack Falcon again. He'd be back in the game.
Jack reappeared in his office chair, posed in the exact same position as when he left, magical throwing star raised. He was hoping that whoever it was that was spying on him wouldn't get away, but that turned out not to be a concern. His visitor had become visible and was waiting for him, sitting in the chair on the opposite side of the desk. He had already helped himself to one of Jack's cigarettes. His appearance was that of a white teenaged kid with squinty eyes, longish dark hair and a mischievous grin. He wore a blue-gray robe and hat that suggested the style of a medieval fantasy wizard, though his apparent age made him look more like the wizard's apprentice. Around his neck hung the anachronism of gold chains like the ones commonly worn by modern street kids. It was what they would call 'bling'.
"For future reference, Kid," said Jack, not putting his throwing star down, "it's customary in more civilized worlds to knock!"
"Oh bro! I knows you knows that be borin" said the kid who gestured wildly as he talked and made no effort to sound at all medieval. "I knows cause you and I. We be blood. Please allow! I be Zinnard The Wizard, Bros call me Zin! I'm a bad-ass magic usah."
'Poor kid', Jack thought. He was probably banished from the fantasy zones for not playing true to his character. He'd seen it before. The players who delve into swords and sorcery tend like their illusion pure of all things modern. Groups of them will take it upon themselves to force out the players unwilling or unable to cooperate, leaving their characters to wander the other dimensions even more out of place. It actually amused him to think about the reactions he must have got from all of the knights and elves after hearing him talk like a punk on the street corner.
"Right Kid, Right." Jack went along, "Zinnard the Wizard, that's cute. Okay, now is when you tell me exactly why you felt the need to invade my privacy in my very own office."
"Cause I've gots a proposition for ya, bro. You and I, we should be partners."
"Partners!? Why do I need a partner?"
"Cause, we should just be partners, man. Everyone knows you gots the taste for it. I do to, bro! The urge! The need fo speed. You know what I mean? Word!"
"No, I don't know what you mean. In fact, I've barely understood a word you've said since you've shown up. That doesn't bode well for any possible partnership between us. Now, I just might find it useful to have a sorcerer working on my side, but if this is going to be a lasting relationship, we'll have to learn to communicate. You can start proving yourself by saying something that makes sense to me."
"She be alien." said Zin
"I'm afraid you'll have to do a lot better than that." replied Jack.
"Hold on, dawg! I mean the chick coming to see ya now." he explained, moving his head to give his hat a purposeful little twirl, "My magic eye can see through shit. Tells dat dis chick be from space dimension, timeline 14, da Vega system. She be alien! Impressed, bro?"
"Alright, and let's just say she's hostile, perhaps an assassin, hired by someone with a grudge. How's that going to help me out?"
Zin just shrugged, "That job be yo's to figure, Mr. Big Shot Detective."
According to Zin, Jack's new mysterious visitor had just arrived in the ground floor lobby. That meant it would take the building's 1940's style elevator time to get up to the right floor, plenty of time for Jack to get ready. He wasn't kidding when he told Zin that she could mean trouble. Zin refused to leave the room so Jack made him stand behind the desk as he powered up the Ion blaster he had duct-taped to the underside of it. His magic throwing star gloves were already on. He also made sure that his Colt was fully loaded because, for certain problems, the old-fashioned solutions always worked best.
There was a knock at the door.
"Enter if you dare!" Jack called out.
The hallway outside was dark because Jack and most other residents of that floor preferred it that way. For the other tenants, it was for atmospheric reasons. Jack, however, had the very specific desire to watch his new clients step into his office from out of the shadows. He felt that it helped him get an intuitive sense of their true nature, although he could never say why.
She almost looked human when she opened the door. That was because she was wearing a red floral print dress and hat matching the period of Jack's homeworld. Her eyes, however, betrayed her alien nature right away as they glowed large and blue, reflecting back the light like the eyes of a cat. And sure enough, when she stepped through the door and into the light, one could see that she had the face of a cat and that her body, though that of a shapely human female, was covered in fine brown and tan fur. The markings on her face showed her breed to be her race's equivalent to a Siamese.
"Jack Falcon?" she inquired in a cold and tentative voice.
"You got him right here, Babe." said Jack, ready to either do business or dodge whatever came his way. "How might I be of assistance?"
"My name is Seatha Lo-Wisp. I am a special agent for the Republic of Felorin Planets. I come representing my government to request your services."
Business it was. "So you come representing your government, eh Toots?" he leaned back in his chair, putting his feet on his desk. If an entire alien government wanted him, they certainly had the cred and the resources to make it worth his while. This could turn out to be a sweet deal if he played his cards right.
"We don't come cheap, Honey!" Zin blurted out.
"Hey! Did I say you can talk?" Jack turned and pointed at Zin, "I really just haven't gotten around to getting rid of you yet. Don't force me to make it a priority." He looked back to Seatha, "Don't mind him. Anyways, where were we? Oh yeah, I'm afraid I'm not interested, Sweetheart. Sorry."
"Please Mr. Falcon" Seatha continued, "We are in desperate need of someone who can get to the bottom of a great mystery."
"I'm sure you are." he replied, "It's just that I really, really hate the space dimensions. It's a matter of personal preference. Granted, I find the technology useful," he gestured toward the anti-grav boots on his feet, "but the the whole scene makes me sick to my stomach."
"Now, Jack." said Seatha, taking a more personal tone, "If it's credit that you're after with this game, I assure you that money is no object of concern for us. But really, this case is the kind of challenge suitable only for the greatest detective in the multiverse. That's why I'm here."
"Now, flattery won't get you far with me, Babe!" Jack quickly remarked before thinking for a moment, "But, hey. Since you've come all this way, go ahead and tell me the rest of your story."
"As you may or may not know, we have been at continual war with a vile race of creatures called the Dragars. Our home planets share the same solar system. We both have mining colonies on the moon of Augna which is rich in the special ore, Solerium. Solerium is essential to fueling our ultra-fusion reactors. It's the primary source of power in the system. This moon has a very high strategic value."
Jack sighed, "I'm afraid it all sounds like a very monotonous wargame to me so far."
"Our problem is with the ultra-fusion reactor at our main colony on Augna. It isn't producing nearly the power it should. It's in danger of tipping the military advantage to the Dragars and we could loose the whole moon. Then the entire system would be all but theirs."
"Sounds like you should be calling on a technician, not me."
"We have already, of course, and no one can determine what's wrong. While we don't know how yet, we are certain at this point that some form of sabotage is to blame. It's quite possibly from inside."
"Intrigue?! Sabotage?!" Jack's voice perked up, "Now, you're talkin my language, Toots! Why didn't you say so before? Of course, I still don't have any way of knowing you're on the level with me."
"Hey, Man!" Zin piped in from the corner, "I got a bro who be chllin' out in da Vega."
"And again, Sir," Jack kept his calm, "I fail to see how this helps me at all."
"Dig!" said Zin. He pulled a golf ball sized, crystal sphere from the deep pockets of his robe. "This be a communication ball, and my bro, Mitch, he gots one too! Lemme' drop him a line, see if he thinks Catwoman's legit."
Mitch the Minotaur was a party animal. Zin got in touch with him while he was in the middle of a bustling pleasure zone. The sound of loud music, screams and laughter made the crystal ball vibrate.
"Hey, what up dude." grunted the Minotaur on the other sphere.
"Yo, man. Just chillin' wid my bro, Jack Falcon, here." Jack cringed thinking of these two clowns waltzing through a fantasy adventure talking like that. They were probably banished together, "How's dig's in da Vega?"
"Balls out Rad! It be fresh out in da sci-fi side! You should blow that stodgy history class zone. Come play in style!"
"Alright that's enough." groaned Jack, "Just ask him about the damn moon already!"
"Yeah! Hey Mitch. Ya hear 'bout what's goin' down on dis moon, Augna?"
"Felorins er gettin' their furry butts kicked is what I hear. Haw! Haw!"
Jack broke in, "Mitch, do you ever end up going to Augna?"
"Why? It be borin'! So what say you Jack? You takin' the case?"
"What!?" Seatha exclaimed, "You know about the case?"
"Oh Yeah!" said Mitch, "You know dem cats always playing politics, hissin and slingin mud in da news all the time. 'What's right for the republic!', Hissss!, 'Danger in bringing in outsiders!', Rewaow! And blah, blah blah. Guess the decision to call on you came with controversy, Bro."
"Controversy, over me!?" Jack looked the special agent from another planet straight in the eye. His mind was made up. "Lady, you've got yourself a detective!"
The three of them took the elevator to the Brickthorn Tower's garage where Jack had his emerald green Lincoln-Zephyr V-12 parked. He'd had several technicians in from Polaris 6 to make special modifications to it. Over the years, it had become like an old friend who was always really good at getting Jack wherever he needed to go. He often thought it was a shame he couldn't take it through any of the portals.
The elevator door opened and Jack pointed to Zin. "You! Get in the car quick, and get in the back."
"Bro! Dat anyway to talk to yo partner?" Zin protested as they walked.
"You're not my partner." he countered, "In fact, I don't even know why I'm letting you stick around. It's the way to talk, by the way, to someone who doesn't dress according to genre in this dimension. You see her?" he gestured toward Seatha in her red dress and hat, "She fits right in. You in your get up will have the gangster daemons on you the second one of them sees you."
"The gangsta' daemons be wussys, man! We can take 'em."
"Yes they are 'wussys' and we could take them on if we wanted to," agreed Jack, "but there are a lot of them, and I don't want to have to deal with them right now." They got to the car where he unlocked and opened the back door. "So get in back now."
"Well, I wanted da back, anyway." said Zin, sliding into the back seat, "But hey! She don't be fittin' in any mo n' me. I can tell she alien, all covered in fur n' shit."
Jack opened the front passenger side door and stood aside. "Be my guest, lovely lady." He nodded to Seatha.
"Why thank you, sir." She coyly played along with regional customs. Jack shut the door for her after she had taken her seat.
He then looked at Zin, "So you're smarter than the daemons! That's really good to know."
They pulled out onto the street and heard the sound of gunfire. About a block away, some high-end espionage types from a present day timeline were getting into a shoot out with some gangster daemons. Of all the ways to find action in foreign worlds, picking fights with the resident drones was the most obvious and the least creative. 'Amateurs.' thought Jack to himself as he turned and drove the other way down the street.
Like many other portals in this dimension, the portal to the Felorin homeworld was out in the country. This was where they were going, but they still had to go through downtown Slate City first. Seatha sat alert in the front seat of the Zephyr. Her large cat eyes calmly and thoroughly surveyed the passing urban environment.
"I hope you realize that it wasn't at all my idea to make your involvement public." she explained, "I fear that our safety has been compromised because of it."
"Well, I guess we have no choice but to keep an eye out for trouble and hope for the best." Jack reasoned.
They passed though the pleasure zones, the city's red light district. Here, the party, as always, was spilling out into the streets. The brothels they passed were covered with flashing neon signs. Inside, anyone could show a valid age confirmation code and proceed to live out thier sexual fantasies and deepest desires, either with sex daemons or with other characters. Fortunately, the unimaginable array of fetish activity took place indoors and out of site. Out on the sidewalks, however, the crowd never knew when to stop. They were on display, showing off the idealized bodies of their game avatars and making propositions to one another. Some exchanges involved game cred or real money, but many were just for good clean, disease and pregnancy free fun. Most visitors were well disguised, dressed in period clothes so as to avoid a fight. A few, like Seatha, could be recognized as aliens or creatures of other strange origins, out trying to appeal to those with a taste for the exotic. Jack and his two passengers were called out to by characters of both sexes as they passed. He lit a cigarette and kept on driving.
"Yo, man." cried Zin, who was obviously enamored with the sight of such goings on. "We in a hurry?"
"Yes we are!" Jack responded, "If you want to go play, I'd be more than happy to let you out."
"No, I'm cool, bro." Zin poked his head out the window, "Hey, baby!" He was calling to a blond woman in an elegant white gown that showed a lot of cleavage. Her foreign nature was marked by the slender sword that she still wore at her side, its hilt adorned with jewels and nordic runes. "Be back for ya lattah!" he hollered. She gave him the finger.
They got through the zones without any further incident. Before long, they were driving out of the city and into the surrounding countryside. On the lonely, two lane roads, Jack quickly and skillfully penetrated the night in his car, whizzing past barns, corn fields and the occasional gnarled tree.
"We're being followed." Jack muttered. He said it like this sort of thing happens to him everyday.
Seatha and Zin looked back to see the headlights of another car behind them in the distance.
"Could they just be your gangsters?" Seatha asked, "Do you think they could have spotted your friend here?"
"Maybe." said Jack, "Maybe not." He flipped a switch on a dashboard control panel. There was humming sound throughout the car.
"Force field?" Seatha asked.
"Of course." replied Jack.
"You ARE prepared."
"It's the mark of a professional, Sweetheart." He floored the gas pedal and they accelerated down the dark country road. The car behind them increased its speed to keep up.
"Yo man! They totally after us." Zin was watching the pursuing lights from the back window. "The chase be on!"
There was a burst of light from the car behind them. It flew passed Jack's Zephyr and caused an explosion on a nearby hillside.
"That was a Dragar pulse rifle!" exclaimed Seatha.
"Well, now we know they aren't gangsters." said Jack. Two more bursts flew by the car and exploded on the sides of the road ahead. "...and we also know they're lousy shots."
Jack eased up on the accelerator to let his pursuers get a little closer. A pulse burst finally hit the car, shaking them up a bit while being absorbed by the force field. It was a good field but the Zephyr's power cell was limited. They would only be able to take a couple more hits like that one.
"Seatha, can you drive Earth vehicles?" asked Jack.
"Yes, Earth vehicles are easy."
"Good because you're driving this one now." He pressed a button on the control panel and the roof of the car opened to the night sky. An ejector seat threw him into the air. As soon he was out, the roof was back down and a small power teleporter put Seatha behind the wheel. She gained control just in time to keep from going into a ditch.
Jack loved the fact that he could do this sort of thing in the game and not lose his fedora. He activated his anti-grav boots in mid air and the Dragar's car sped by beneath his feet. He made a hard but sure landing on the road behind it, using his gloves to conjure a throwing star in each hand. He threw as he hit the ground, taking out their two back tires immediately. The car spun to a halt at the side of the road. The driver was just barely good enough to keep them from flipping over. He could see his own car further ahead. Seatha was attempting to turn it around, but she was having difficulty on the narrow roadway. She didn't say, after all, that she was any good at driving Earth vehicles, however easy they may be.
Jack waited for the occupants to get out of their now motionless vehicle. There were three of them. The Dragars looked to Jack like what he would call gangster lizards. They were scaly, reptilian humanoid creatures with blood red eyes and long snouts. The period suits and hats that they wore made them look more like the embodiment of gangster life than any of the gangster daemons ever did. He thought they had good taste in ties anyway. Two of them carried the pulse rifles that they had been shooting at his car with. The driver was pulling from his coat an equally high tech looking pistol.
"What's the matter, boys?" Jack called out, "Something on that moon you don't want me to find out about?"
It was the driver that responded. "Not our fault if the pussies are too busy lickin' their balls to work a reactor!" he growled. "We just never stop our enemies from destroying themselves."
"Sounds to me like you think it's an inside job." Jack readied two more throwing stars. The Dragars were taking aim with their weapons.
"You're just going to have to die wondering!" They opened fire.
Jack reactivated his boots and flew spinning into the air, easily dodging the first round of bursts. He thew at the two Dragars with the rifles. His stars bounced harmlessly off of their bodies. Considering where they were from, Jack wasn't surprised that they had personal force fields. That was fine with him. He never minded when he had to get creative. That's why he was happy to see the old broken down sedan by the side of the road. The Dragars were beginning to scatter as Jack made another quick landing between them and the abandoned car. They fired on him again and he, again, flew into the air to dodge the blasts. This time, their weapons hit the old car and it exploded in a ball of smoke and flames that obscured the gangster lizards' vision. Before they could regain their senses, Jack was in the space right behind one of them. He then initiated his super-fast whirlwind kick move on the back of his skull.
Kick one: The shield held. The other two still hadn't seen where he went.
Kick two: The shield was still holding. The Dragar he was kicking was starting to turn around. By then, he had been spotted by the other two.
Kick three: The shield was starting to weaken. His opponent was turned around, but he was too close to aim with his rifle. The other two were taking aim with their guns.
Kick four: The shield was almost used up. Another gangster lizard took a shot at him with a rifle but missed, annihilating only the branches of a tree.
Kick five: The shield gave way and Jack's foot made solid contact with the lizard's jaw, dislocating it, and sending him to the ground. He was then hit by a shot from the driver's laser pistol. It took a sizable chunk out of his health, leaving him at only 36%. That really hurt!
Jack looked at the Dragar that shot him. "You pudnucker!" he shouted. It was a lapse of character, but sometimes that was called for.
"Heh! Heh!" chuckled the gangster lizard, "You primitive humans should stick to the business of your own timelines."
The two remaining Dragars were taking aim for another shot when the white blaze of headlights shined on them. It cast their long shadows on the road and came with the sound of an angry motorized roar. Seatha had finally gotten the Zephyr turned around and she was driving it at full speed toward her natural enemies, forcing both of them to make flying leaps out of the way. The lizard with the rifle recovered quickly and he opened fire on Jack's car, taxing the resistance of its force field. Seatha hit the brakes and spun the car to a screeching halt. With his opponents distracted, Jack made a move to grab the knocked out Dragar's pulse rifle. Now that his car was in jeopardy, there was no more time for monkeying around.
The door of the Zephyr opened up and Seatha came bounding out of it, rolling on the ground to dodge another rifle burst. She stood up holding a thin black wand that she spun in her hand like a baton. In the very next fraction of a second, one end of the wand shot out a rapid burst of blue laser fire, perfectly timed with it's spinning to make two neat streams. With the precision of a machine and the grace of a dancer, she targeted the two Dragars and hammered each of them with a steady focused barrage. Before they could even react, it burnt through their shields and they were left dead and smoking in the middle of the road. She stopped the wand's spinning with its point right next to her mouth and then blew on it like it was an old gunpowder weapon.
"Maybe next time you should eject me." she said smugly.
"That's exactly what I was thinking after I saw you call driving." commented Jack.
"Who's ready for a bad ass magic usah?" shouted Zin as he jumped from the back seat of the car, apparently ready to cast some sort of spell. He then looked around only to realize that the fight was already over. "Well, shit!"
The little city of Le Purr was rather big for a border town. Jack figured that there must be a significant faction of Felorin that were fixated with the style and trappings of his own world. It seemed to be a tourist trap for cats seeking a life with class. The storefronts of the main drag consisted mostly of clothing boutiques, some even with cat people mannequins in the windows, displaying a colorful assortment of fancy tuxedos, gowns and, of course, customized hats. Surely, such fashions could be replicated in their technologically advanced world, but clothes with more authentic code would undoubtedly carry status in certain circles. There was also a theater that constantly showed old Earth cat cartoons as well as a large elaborate palace of a nightclub called Fine Furs from which emanated the sound of upbeat jazz. The population in the streets seemed evenly mixed between human and Felorin. Seatha's people were a varied lot of all sorts of colors and breeds. They were also very curious and many stopped their shopping and socializing to watch as the green Zephyr went by.
One group showed more than just a passing interest in their entering town. It was a gang of about a half dozen stylish cat people. They were hanging out by a subterranean night spot with a red neon sign over its doorway that read: CLUB FANG. Their apparent leader was a large gray and white long haired beast in a purple velvet suit who incessantly puffed on his cigar. Immediately upon seeing Jack's car, his big furry tail switched about. He gave orders to two of his men in a surprisingly high pitched, squeaky voice. They went running, one into the club and one down the street. It was just the local syndicate keeping an eye on things. They probably knew who they were, what they were doing, and that they were just passing though, but they were mobilizing troops just to be safe. 'Smart Kitties', Jack thought to himself. There was a fair amount of intrigue in the air of this town. He could feel it as soon as he entered city limits. He decided that he would have to remember this place for later.
The portal itself shared a small city park with a bronze statue of some legendary Felorin explorer. The portals, the transition points between alternate realities, were represented as large golden ovals of subtly pulsating light. Jack pulled over just outside the park and they all got out of the car. Beside the portal floated a dialog box indicating where it led: VEGA SYSTEM, TIMELINE 14, FELORIN HOMEWORLD, LOCATION 175. Not all portals were so clearly marked. There was also a smaller white panel. It was an access key to a secure database onto which Jack could upload his Zephyr and keep it safe from theft or damage while he was gone.
He placed his hand on the panel and began this process when he spoke, "I'm ready to move on! How about you girls and boys?"
"Don' we be havin' a door straight to dis moon already?" asked Zin.
"Augna has very few portals." answered Seatha, "and none of them connect to here." She then looked to Jack, "Are you sure that you want to let him come along?"
"No, I'm not sure. In fact I'm pretty sure I'd rather not." His car then uploaded to the database. It looked like green digital smoke as it got sucked into the little white square. "But if I'm going where there will be more pulse guns and force fields, I figure having a 'bad ass magic usah' on my side just might be a good idea. Sound right to you, Zin?"
"Now ya talkin', bro!"
He then said to Seatha, "He'll make good cannon fodder if nothing else."
They went through the portal together and stepped out into sudden broad daylight. It had taken them to the light blue sands of a desert region on the Felorin planet. Here, the portal they came from was just one of twenty identical portals, all arranged in a circle about a hundred yards across and all leading to different worlds. Such interdimensional hubs were more common in the sci-fi realities, or so Jack understood. They were instantly approached by a pair of armed Felorin soldiers in tan uniforms. They were told to go stand in a long line of other travelers that led to the silver metal customs building just outside the hub. Seatha then pulled from her purse a black badge that she showed to the guards.
"Sorry, ma'am!" said one of them. "We'll get you a transport right away."
Hovering amongst the scant clouds above them was a massive warship. Its presence made the whole sky look like an ancient space fantasy oil painting. It was a multileveled sideways monolith of bulbous shapes looming over the stark alien terrain. The color scheme of its paint job was a tasteful mix of purple, grey and teal.
"Alright baby!" shouted Zin when he saw it. He threw his arms in the air. "We cruisn' in that mama? Now we talkin' style."
"I'm afraid not, young sir." Seatha told him, "That battleship is here to guard the hub. We all love the portals, but they do represent a serious security breach during times of war. We will be taking a mini shuttle. It will get us there fast enough."
Their shuttle arrived as if on cue. It was first visible only as a dark speck that darted across the sky. As it swooped downward, it became a black triangle that rushed through the air over their heads with no more sound than a faint, shrill hum. Instead of landing right away, it continued its arch back into the sky and it made several quick loops around the giant space cruiser before dropping down on the ground right in front of them. It thew up a hefty cloud of blue dust.
"Bitchin!" shouted Zin. "This should be fun!"
"Typical," commented Jack. "These space scenarios are filled with hot dog pilots."
They boarded the craft to be greeted by a skinny, black haired Felorin in a grey jumpsuit. "All aboard! Come in! Welcome!" He spoke fast and seemed a bit antsy. It was like he was already in a state of withdrawal after not flying for even a moment. "The name's Blackie and I'll be your pilot today! Where to? Where we goin'? What's the destination?"
"We're going to Augna Colony One." Seatha replied.
"Oh boy! Man! Augna!" said Blackie, jumping back into the pilot's seat in the front cockpit. "That's a total war zone nowadays. Very dangerous! Downright foolhardy!" He pressed a button to close the shuttle's entrance. "I'm your man! Are we in a hurry?"
"We need to get there as soon as possible, yes." Jack told him.
"Good!" responded Blackie. It took a few seconds to restart the shuttle's engines and then they shot upwards through the planet's stratosphere.
While they were speeding through space, Seatha went to the back of the shuttle to change out of her Earth clothes. She came back to the main cabin in a tight black uniform. The insignia over her left breast was that of a green cat's eye with the silhouette of a curved dagger in place of an iris. She wore a utility belt that boasted a wide variety of electronic devices and included a special holster for her laser wand. She had at least five throwing knives, one on her belt and two in each boot.
"You can stay in your own clothes here." she said to Jack, "In the more advanced dimensions you can do that and not get assaulted by drones or purists."
Jack looked up from a holographic display that he had called up from the shuttle's data base. It was a diagram of the ultra-fusion reactor at the center of the mystery. He straightened out his trenchcoat and tipped the brim of his fedora in her direction. "My outfit's timeless anyhow, Sweetheart." he said.
Seatha laughed and moved on to the cockpit. She now had her slender, black cat's tail exposed. No longer confined under the skirt of an old fashioned human female's dress, it switched back and forth as she gazed out the front window of the shuttle. They were already close to their destination. The red and orange gas giant that Augna revolved around was steadily getting larger in their view. Zin and Blackie had hit it off and the young wizard had taken the copilot's seat. The two of them had been exchanging stories of past adventures, stopping now and then for a session of loud whooping and hollering with every narrowly dodged astroid. They had gotten quiet, however, as they slowed for approach. Even before the moon itself was visible, the occasional lightning flashes of lasers and explosions could be made out in its vicinity. Augna was solidly in the giant planet's shadow at this time. It was a world completely submerged in night. At first it just looked like a hole in space, a black circle of no stars. It wasn't until it nearly filled the cockpit window that they could see the artificial lights of mining colonies and supply lines. There was a squadron of small fighter ships coming toward them from out of the darkness.
"They're friendly! They're with us! They're ours." said Blackie, reassuring his passengers. Suddenly, another group of vessels came diving from a space somewhere over their heads. They rained beams of light on the approaching formation and there were explosions like popcorn. "They're not!" he squealed. He made an abrupt change of course to avoid the battle erupting in front of them.
"Aren't we getting some kind of military escort?" asked Jack. He had to grab at the wall of the cabin to avoid falling over from the inertia.
"I think that was them," replied Seatha, "and we just watched them get slaughtered."
"Just gun it for the colony, bro!" shouted Zin, who was bobbing up and down in the copilot's seat.
"Reports I read, sources I have, say area over Colony One is where fighting is most intense, non stop, total suicide run." Blackie rattled off, "If we go in, we go in low."
"How low?" Seatha asked.
"Just do what you have to do to get us there." Jack commanded.
"Yeah, just kick it, man!" Zin cheered on, and then the little shuttle shot into the pitch black moon.
They dove into a deep, dark canyon and followed its path as they contacted the colony. After they recived clearance for landing, Blackie pulled out of the canyon and proceeded to weave the shuttle between a series of jagged, rocky hills. The landscape was only dimly lit by the gray light of other moons and the thin corona of the gas giant that took up quarter of the sky. Jack found Augna to be an even more barren and dismal world than he had imagined. Recent terraforming had given the moon a breathable atmosphere and algae was starting to grow on the rocks, but beyond that, it seemed devoid of life or anything that could sustain it.
Augna Colony One looked like a ghost city in space. It was a clump of dark grey towers and domes that would hardly be distinguishable from the lunar rock formations if not for the spotty presence of a few emergency lights.
"Hmm. Anyone home?" Jack asked, watching from the front window as they came in for a landing.
"They're conserving power." said Seatha, "To make sure there is enough for the defense shields and other military operations. We are fortunate enough to be a race endowed with night vision and other superior senses. We don't need too much light. Even so, we're coming to the end of our resources. The way things are going, we wont be able to hold against the Dragar's assault much longer."
"Sounds like a great place to be!" Jack remarked sarcastically, "I guess I'd better crack the case soon."
"Let's hope you can."
They were met at the landing pad by a troop of a dozen soldiers. It was a formidable-looking pride of cat-people standing in formation.
"Quite the honor guard!" said Jack as they exited the shuttle, "You people really shouldn't have."
The Felorin soldiers then pointed their rifles at Jack and Zin. "Halt!" commanded the troop captain. "You two humans stay right where you are."
"...but you really should work on your welcoming technique." Jack added.
"What's this all about?" demanded Seatha, "We are on high priority business of the Republic. We have clearance."
"The Prime Admin is well aware of your clearance, ma'am." said the captain, "We are ordered to take strict precautions, regardless."
"Well," she replied, "I demand to speak to the Prime Admin!"
"That's very interesting, ma'am. He demands to speak with you." The troop leader then gestured to Jack and Zin, "But without the outsiders."
"These outsiders are my guests."
"Sorry ma'am, we have our orders."
"Orders!?" she began, "Let me tell you something about orders! You don't even know the name of my agency because it's so top secret. Believe me when I say that I outrank your Prime Admin in such an astronomical fashion that I can squish him like a bug if I had to. And if that's what I have to do, I will certainly include who was and was not helpful in my report." That scared them into compliance.
Blackie, who was already going into flight withdrawal, had gotten another mission from the Felorin Flight Command. After saying goodbye in about seven different ways, he darted back to the sky in his shuttle. He swerved into a new course between the surrounding hills and left them on the landing pad with the colony soldiers.
They were led to a convoy of jeep-like vehicles on which they were taken through the dark city to its central tower. Jack could now see that, despite how it looked from the air, there were people here after all. They seemed to get along just fine in the darkness with only the light of the other moons to see by. Everywhere they passed, sets of those reflective cat eyes were watching them from the shadows.
The central tower was a metal behemoth of a structure. Its design was that of three enormous spheres stacked on top of each other. It was literally and figuratively the center of all operations. From the lower sphere, train and monorail tracks as well as numerous pipes and wires radiated out to the surrounding buildings and beyond. It looked to Jack like a giant petrified snowman that had grown a million tendrils to simultaneously feed and ensnare the city.
Jack spoke quietly to Seatha. "Is this also where the reactor is located?"
"Yes it is. It's at the building's very core, and up there..." she pointed to a window at the very top, "is where the Prime Admin's office is." There was a light on.
Lazeral Claw, Prime Admin of Augna Colony One, was not happy. His orders had been directly disobeyed and he found himself confronted in his own office by two very dirty looking humans as well as the special agent with a bad attitude. He ordered all six of the guards who had brought them there to stay. He then examined his reflection in the window that overlooked his darkened city. His black and gold administrative uniform looked neat and his long orange fur was properly groomed. He was still in need of loosing weight, but he was working on that. He gripped the handle of his cane and he made sure that the electro-surge generator in it was ready, just in case he needed to defend himself. He then turned to face his guests.
"Agent Lo-Wisp," he said with only the necessary amount of diplomacy in his tone, "I've been eagerly anticipating your arrival."
"Well, Mr. Claw," responded Seatha, "somehow I still don't feel too welcome here."
"And tell me why I should welcome...? " retorted the Prime Admin, "...someone who comes into my jurisdiction, usurps my authority with meaningless threats and a ridiculous plan...?" he then angrily pointed at Jack and Zin with his cane "...and invites such a serious breach to our security?"
"Now wait! I am under authority..."
"You have no authority behind you on this." interrupted Lazerel, "When I was first informed of this, I thought it must be some kind of joke. I was so appalled when I realized that it was serious that I had to do something about it."
"You're the one who went public." Jack concluded out loud.
"And I'm proud of the fact that I did. The outcry over this atrocity has forced the High Council to intervene. An emergency session has been scheduled to take place tomorrow. When that happens, they're going to put it to a vote, and settle the matter as any civilized society would. In the meantime, I have orders, from sources that outrank YOU in an astronomical fashion, Agent Lo-Wisp. And those orders are to keep Mr. Falcon and his companion in custody and under tight surveillance. Under no circumstances are they to go anywhere near the ultra-fusion reactor."
"You know, Mr. Claw," Jack spoke up, "if you don't mind me saying, it almost seems to me like you don't want this mystery solved."
"That's preposterous!" responded Lazerel, "I have practically built this colony with my own two paws. I wish for nothing but its survival. That is why I refuse to trust it to such foolishness. This isn't a simple whodunit or insurance money scam. This is a war between two advanced civilizations. No offense, Mr. Falcon, but you are out of your league here."
"What this is is a bunch of crap politics and you know it!" Seatha contended, "What are we going to do then? Just what is YOUR plan?"
"We are going to replace the reactor." Lazerel proudly announced.
"What?" she cried, "Now you're the one who's got to be joking."
"No joke! We have a new one on the way from Therion as we speak. It will be here in a day and a half."
"And what about the period of time without the shields? We'll be sitting ducks!"
"We're not alone out here, you know. We do have the entire fleet of the Republic on our side. Several key vessels are already in place to defend the city from attack. Oh sure, without the shields there will be damage, but nothing we can't recover from once we regain full power. We've survived a whole lot worse than this, and that's what we'll continue to do."
"Man!" said Zin, "Mitch sho wont kiddin' 'bout them cat fights up here. Reaoww!"
Seatha had at least managed to talk Lazerel into not keeping Jack and Zin in a holding cell. They were, instead, made to stay in a visitor's suite in the tower's middle sphere under heavy guard. The human guests were even allowed to keep a few lights on so they could see. Zin had gone to his own room of the suite to do what he called homework. Jack had heard of some of the challenges that wizards were required to go through in order to advance in level and gain more power: puzzles involving magic symbols, riddles from virtual spirit guides and the like. After thinking about it, he realized he still had no idea how powerful the little guy really was.
With the the help of Felorin high tech medicine, he was almost completely healed from the pulse rifle hit he took earlier. He lit a cigarette and looked out from the balcony of his quarters. The intermittent flashes of light from above indicated that the battle still raged overhead. Directly below him were the suspended rails for some kind of train that led into the side of the building. He followed the path of the rails with his eyes. It came from a more complex system of train tracks by the side of a large hill at the edge of the city. He then watched as a flare of orange light illuminated the inside of a cave in the middle of the hilside. Out of the cave, flew a hulking space tanker that was soon joined in the air by a squadron of fighter craft. The space vehicles ascended into the sky and the flashes of the war above became more intense.
"The solerium must flow." he spoke out loud as he watched the tanker shrink away. As far as he could tell, they made it, but the going was rough.
It wasn't long before Seatha came to visit him.
"Jack, I'm really sorry about this" she said after the hallway guards let her in to join him on the balcony. "It's all so stupid. For you to come all the way here and not even get a chance to work on the case."
"Oh, I'm still working on the case." Jack assured her, "For sure, it is a little tough to do while being stuck up here, but that doesn't keep me from getting a few hunches about things. The view from these digs ain't so bad either." Looking out over the dark alien landscape, Jack could make out the shape of a train approaching on the rails below. "So your people have been over this reactor with a fine tooth comb, I take it. Couldn't find a single thing wrong with it. And now, Mr. Claw thinks he can solve the problem by replacing the reactor."
"A foolish plan!" commented Seatha.
"Sounds that way to me too, Babe. But how are we so sure that that's the problem, anyway? The reactor."
"Well, what else could it be?"
"Good question. This train that's coming. Do you know what its business is all about?"
"It's bringing in solerium from the nearest refinery. It's the alloted shipment for the reactor."
"You mean the reactor that isn't even working?"
"It works well enough to keep the defense shield going, and to keep a light on in your quarters but that's about it."
"You know what I'd be doing if I wasn't stuck right here?" said Jack, "I'd be going down there and checking on that train." He looked down at the rails below. His anti-grav boots were still on. He would be able to just drop down onto the train as it passed underneath. It would be easy if not for the fact that, on one of the lower balconies, were two Felorin guards with their laser rifles out. They were watching him intently with the light of the moons gleaming in their eyes. Jack got the message. The train was short: only and engine and three cars long. There was a mechanical roar in the air as the train passed beneath them and then silence after it was gone.
"But no!" he then said, "I guess we just wait here for your Dragar friends to come down and make slaves of us all, or eat us, or whatever they like to do." He finished his smoke and flicked the butt down onto the balcony with the two guards. It startled them, like they thought for a split second that it was the beginning of some great escape plan. That gave Jack a brief moment of satisfaction.
"Now, Jack. Maybe it's not all so bad." Seatha moved closer to him. "I've spoken further with Lazerel. There is somewhere else he'd let you go."
Jack perked up, "Really? Where?"
"This colony has a pleasure zone too." she said with a hint of a purr in her voice, "You and I could go there, you know, together."
"Oh." Jack turned to continue watching the fireworks of the space battle.
"I'm sorry." she said, "Is the age confirmation a problem for you?"
"It's not that, Toots. I'm just not into the alien sex thing. Not at all."
"That shouldn't matter, of course. We can be made to look like anything we want there. I could look like a human for you, like an attractive, female human. Would you like that?"
Jack turned and put his arm around Seatha, pulling her close. Somewhere in space, a giant warship exploded, and the whole sky was illuminated by a burst of crimson light. Neither of them looked up. They just stared into each-other's eyes.
"Maybe I would like that, Doll." said Jack, "Maybe I'd like that a whole lot!"
"Tracer!" It was his mother calling for him again.
"Just a sec, Babe!" and then he went into time out mode.
"What is it Mom? This had better be good."
"I've got to jet for my cosmo now, and I've got some fellow travelers on the way who are in desperate need of a lift-off. You can help them out, can't you, space-muffin?"
"Aw, Mom! I'm busy here. Can't you have them come back tomorrow or something?"
"Now honey! I know those games are important to you, but if you're just going to sit around and play them for all eternity, I don't think it's asking too much for you to take a little responsibility now and then."
"I just don't know why they can't wait."
"You're a big boy now, Trace! You're 26 years old! You should be able to help out. I've got the downstairs buzzer forwarded to your message address. I'm leaving now. Just help them out!"
After Tracer heard his mother leave the apartment, he promptly turned his message receiving mode to off. He then thought for a moment before retuning to the game. He was, by no means, above virtual sex, but visiting the zones was the sort of thing he did more often when he was younger. Even then, he tended to stick with daemons for satisfying his urges. The problem with hooking up with other players is that you never have any way of knowing for sure just who you were really doing it with. Few people seemed to care about that these days, but he could never bring himself to feel comfortable with it.
Jack returned to find Seatha patiently waiting for him on the balcony. "There you are." she purred, moving close to him again. "Ready to pick up where we left off?"
"But Sweetheart, I barely know ya." It was all he could bring himself to say, but, judging from the way Seatha pulled away from him, she seemed to know exactly what he meant.
"Well, fine then!" she said, "What would you rather do?"
"I would rather you help me get into that reactor chamber, ideally before that train leaves."
"You expect me to disobey orders from the high council?"
"I expect you to serve the high council and your race by not being an idiot like Mr. Claw."
"What makes you so sure that the problem has anything to do with the train?"
"Nothing in particular. It's just a hunch."
"If you want me to risk being tried for treason, you'll have to give me more than just a hunch."
"Hey! My hunches have gotten me as far as I am today. You hire me, you hire my hunches. I guess you can take it or leave it." Seatha didn't say anything. She just stood thinking. "Well, looks like I'm just going to have to make myself comfortable right here." he looked around, "Does this place have anywhere for a guy to make himself a drink?"
"Now stop! There's no way I can get you to the fuel intake bay. That's where you're talking about going. The entire reactor area is under the strictest of security. I myself have clearance but..."
"What if he be invisible?" It was a voice that came from the air right next to them. It was Zin's.
"You little punk!" shouted Jack, "How long have you been spying on us?"
"Not long." The young wizard appeared right before their eyes. "I didn't hear nothin' 'bout you two gettin' nasty."
Jack sighed and then got back to business. "So you say you can make me invisible too?"
"I don' know, Jack. I be havin' to come along. Don' know if you be wantin' dat."
"What to think, Toots? Could you get us there that way?"
Seatha just had to think about it for a few more seconds before she responded. "You two would have to stay very close behind."
Jack turned back to Zin. "You do know that for this to work you have to stay quiet, right?"
Seatha had told the hallway guards that the two humans had logged off until it was time for the council to come to a decision. It wasn't an unlikely story considering that all players had things to distract them from the game, like food to eat, sleep to get, lives to live. That was probably exactly why they had to wait for a vote from the council, for all of them to be able to take time out from the real world. A high percentage of the most extreme sim-heads like themselves even had jobs.
Zin's invisibility spell was more like invisibility deluxe. As Jack had noted when he first met the jive-talkin' wizard, it obscured their sound and smell as well as their image. This was very fortunate for a couple of reasons: The first, and most obvious, was that they were contending with a race with feline senses on whom nothing less would work. The second reason was that, not being able to see each other and having to go through several narrow doorways, Jack and Zin ran into each other several times. The cursing from either one of them would surely have given them away. Zin also had a spell that gave both Jack and himself night vision comparable to that of the Felorin. This was also very fortunate for at most points on their way to the core, the scant lighting was only enough for such creatures anyway.
They followed Seatha onto an elevator that was already being used by a group of Felorin fighter pilots. She played it cool. She acted like she thought she dropped something in the hallway in order to hold the door open. It was just long enough for Jack and Zin to get in and press against the walls.
After the elevator doors closed, one of the pilots asked "Are you the one who brought the outsiders?" It was another female. She was white with black tiger stripes.
"Yes," she said with a sigh. "I am the one responsible for that insolence. What of it?"
"Just being a curious kitty." the pilot replied, "What's your take on the famed Jack Falcon?"
"He's a dog with a bark more impressive than his bite." The pilots laughed.
"What the hell are you talking about?" said Jack, completely unheard.
Seatha continued, "Some Dragars attacked us on his homeworld and he was arrogant enough to try fighting them on his own. He'd be dead if I wasn't there to bail him out."
"I was doing just fine!" protested Jack. This time his voice sounded out loud. It must have been Zin making him audible again just to mess with him. The elevator went silent as the pilots looked around for the source of the voice.
"That's what he said and just how he said it." Seatha picked up after the awkward pause. She then imitated Jack's voice with exaggerated cockiness, "I was doing just fine!" The pilots laughed even harder at that. Then the elevator doors opened they left, still laughing out into the hallway.
After the doors closed again, Zin allowed his own laughter to be heard. "Oh man, bro!" he snickered, "Wish I could see yo face!"
When the elevator got to the reactor level, it required a retinal scan from Seatha for the doors to open. It opened into a large control room were several guards scanned Seatha's badge for validity before she was allowed access to the main chamber.
The reactor chamber was the inside of an enormous sphere with the mysteriously ill ultra-fusion reactor suspended in the middle. The noise of the big machine was broken with sputters and stops. Anyone could tell, just by the sound that it made, that it was not functioning at full capacity. They came out onto a catwalk that circled the middle circumference of the room.
"There's nothing but machines and a few worker daemons here." said Seatha, "You guys can go visible now."
As the spell canceled out, Jack went to the railing of the catwalk for a better look. "Hope you kids had enough fun at my expense in that elevator!"
"That was a stupid thing to do, Zin." Seatha added.
"Hey, who be talkin' shit to begin with an' who can't keep his big mouth shut?"
"That's enough for now, guys." said Jack, "There'll be time for bickering later." Looking down over the railling, he could see the train. It was on a suspended rail system that cut through the lower hemisphere of the room. The first of the three cars was just starting its turn on the intake platform. It was connected to the reactor by three long automated tubes to feed it the precious solerium.
"That platform down there." he pointed where the train was. "That's where I want to check out first."
"Follow me, I know where the stairs are." Seatha began to follow the catwalk.
"You guys can take the stairs." said Jack as he took a good look around the chamber, making sure it was all clear. "I'll meet you down there." He then hurdled himself over the railing and activated his boots. He floated downward through the middle of the sphere in the direction of the train.
"Ungrateful bitch!" cried out Zin. He looked to Seatha "Where dose stairs at?"
Zin and Seatha went through a doorway to get to the spiral staircase that would take them to the train level. Seatha took the lead and they hopped in circles to get down down them as fast as they could. When they got to the train level, a narrow hallway through solid concrete took them back to the reactor chamber. They came out onto the train platform and found themselves surrounded by a pride of Felorin guards.
"Agent LoWisp!" Mr. Claw's voice echoed from a balcony above them. "I am very disappointed. Did you expect me to believe that these scoundrels wouldn't try to come down here? I had secretly hoped to not find you helping them, but I must say that I am not at all surprised that I do."
"We found him, sir!" came the voice of a soldier by the train. "He's underneath this train car." It was the train car that was just behind the one currently unloading. It was surrounded by about another twenty soldiers.
Lazerel Claw then shouted "Mr. Falcon! What, may I ask, are you doing underneath that train car?"
There was only a short pause before Jack's voice replied, "I'm having a look around."
"Get out, now!" Lazeral commanded.
Jack came crawling out from underneath the car with the points of a dozen laser rifles just inches from his head. Lazerel, accompanied by several more guards, descended on a walkway to the train platform. He confronted Jack as he stood up and brushed himself off.
"Now Mr. Falcon, you were expressly forbidden from 'having a look around'. Did I not make myself clear?"
"Oh you made yourself clear." replied Jack , "I just didn't care what a fat cat like you had to say."
Lazerel hissed in his face, "You're going to regret saying that! You're going to the brig now."
"Fine. Can I take this?" He pulled from his trench-coat a strange looking, gray heart-shaped device. He held it in the air and every Felorin rifle in the entire chamber pointed his way.
"What the hell is that?" demanded Lazerel.
"I have no idea what it is yet," said Jack "but I found it duct taped the bottom of your train."
All sets of eyes in the chamber were now focused on this tiny object. It looked like it was made out of scrap metal and spare parts. Embedded in the face of it were four small, rough crystals arranged in a trapezoid pattern. They pulsated out of sync with a soft white light. Next to them was a simple, two way toggle switch.
"Give it to me." Lazerel held out his hand.
"Are you sure you want it, Mr. Claw?" Jack spoke in a doubtful tone, "It could be dangerous."
Lazerel thought twice. "Okay, then, Mr Falcon. I want you to put it down and step away."
"I suppose that would be the smart thing to do, but I think I'd rather just turn it off and see what happens." Before anyone could stop him, he flicked the toggle switch into its other position and the four crystals went dark. Suddenly, the chamber was illuminated with red flashing lights and filled with the echoing, rhythmic buzz of an alarm.
"What's happening?" asked Lazerel of one of his guard captains, "Are we under attack?"
"Negative, Sir!" responded the guard, "That's an industrial alarm. It has something to do with the machinery." The chamber quickly became populated with worker daemons in the form of scruffy cat people in blue overalls and caps. They scurried around the chamber checking connections and reading meters.
"I'm online with engineering!" a communications officer with a headset reported to Lazerel, "They say that it's something wrong with the intake to the reactor. It's not getting the solerium."
"How could that be?" asked the bewildered Prime Admin.
"The answer for that is right here, sir." said one of the workers who was checking a set of gauges on the side of the unloading train car. "This car contains no solerium." The worker then checked a portable computer pad and reported. "The next one is empty too. The final one has some, but only one tenth of its capacity."
"What!?" exclaimed Lazerel "That's impossible!"
Jack took a closer look at the device in his hand. Its design appeared quite primitive and simple. There were a few multi colored wires that were exposed and a couple of bulky knobs on the side. What intrigued him were the four crystals that were somehow integrated into it.
Zin spoke up, "Woa, man! Dat some serious, shit. Dat like totally way out bastard tech. It can like voodoo yo machines n' shit."
"What did he say?" Lazerel asked Jack.
"I think what he means to say is that what we have here is a piece of magic-science hybrid technology." Jack explained, "If I got this figured right, what it does is create an illusion that influences computers and sensors as well as our own perceptions. In this case, the illusion is that there is plenty of fuel where, in fact, there is not." Jack looked to Zin, "You know anything about this stuff?"
"I no nothin' 'bout da tech part. Where I from, they beat you down jus' fer holdin' a pager."
"Well, Mr. Claw." Seatha broke in, "I think that this is proving to be very productive for such an illegal outing, wouldn't you say!"
"Those infernal Dragars!" Lazerel exclaimed, "Just when I think they couldn't possibly stoop any lower, they constantly exceed themselves."
"Oh, this isn't from your Dragars." said Jack, "It could be from someone or some group working for them, perhaps, but what we have here, in my own experience, is very rare. This is not within the capabilities of those space lizards."
"Dammit, it's cheating wherever it's from!" complained a visibly infuriated Mr. Claw. There was a brief, pregnant silence. It seemed that even the worker daemons realized that this was not an easy moment for the Prime Admin of the colony. "Mr. Falcon, I owe you an apology." he said.
"Your apology is accepted, sir. I'm sorry, by the way, that I called you fat."
Lazerel then broke into a very boring speech about what he thought about the discovery. He spoke about things like honest competition, honor in battle, and what in the end was really fair, or something like that. Jack wasn't paying attention. He was lost in further contemplation about the thing that he found. It looked unassuming enough, but there was no doubt about its effectiveness. Even on its world of origin, something that powerful would be hard to either create or acquire. It was more than just that, however, that interested Jack. It was something about the plan in general. It was sleight of hand and yet bold. It was so convoluted that it was absurd and brilliant at the same time. It shouldn't have even come close to working and yet it almost did. It was creative. This was the work of some major player.
"Jack," said Lazerel as he finished his oratory, "I would hope that we could put aside past differences in order to pursue a common goal. I would very much like to know who put this thing on our train."
"You know what, pal? You're in luck," Jack finally looked up from the device, "because so would I."
The good thing about it being attached to the bottom of a train was that it made it easy to trace. From the routine maintenance vessel flying low to the ground, Jack watched the rails passing through the glow of the searchlights underneath. He had insisted that they go to the source incognito because any blatant military activity might show their hand. The result was himself, Seatha, Zin and Lazerel all crammed into a little supply ship with two pilots and a total of eight space cat warriors. Lazerel was determined to make up for his embarrassment by seeing to things personally. So far, patrols had found as many as five more of the illusion generators, all attached to the bottoms of solerium supply trains.
"Where dis be taking us?" asked Zin. He and Jack stood behind Seatha who was seated at the row of controls and screens right behind the copilot. She had been intently monitoring transmissions from the frantically dispatched search patrols.
"The refinery where the train came from." she answered, seeming annoyed by the interruption.
"We have a report from Colony One." announced the copilot, "Power output is back to full capacity. They're asking if we should restore full power to the city?"
"Negative!" came the order from Lazerel, "but be prepared to go to full power in case we need it. We don't want the Dragars to know we're on to their little trick." He then spoke to Jack, "You see, Mr Falcon, I can be clever too."
"Smart move, sir!" Jack half heartedly replied. "So, Seatha. You say there's no one but daemons at this refinery?"
"Well, that's not too sound strategically." he offered.
"It's not, but you know how it goes. Who would want to go there to play? It isn't a very exciting place."
"Yeah, well, wait 'til we get there."
The refinery was a giant metal half dome that looked like a swollen blister on the side of a mountain. The set of rails they followed were just one of many that radiated out from tunnels in the side of the building. They flew in through a bay half way up the dome and set down on the landing pad just inside. They exited the ship to stand on a balcony that looked over the enclosed train yard inside the dome. Everything seemed to be going business as usual. Here, there were a lot more of the scruffy worker daemons, methodically going about their jobs in their blue caps and overalls.
"The refining operation takes place underground." Lazerel informed the others. "This is where the trains are loaded and sent out to the various colonies and space ports. So, Mr. Falcon, tell me this. Do you have any idea what we should be looking for here?"
"Not a clue." replied Jack, "But I think a good place to start would be the next train to Colony One."
Lazerel led the way. They took one of several elevated walkways that led over the bustling train yard. They came to a station marked with the sign that read 'Colony One'. There on a platform, a solitary black haired worker sat and watched a control screen as train cars robotically lined up below him.
"You!" Lazerel ordered the worker, "Stop all operations here, now!"
"Yes, sir." The worker pressed a button on his control panel and one could hear the sound of several big machines powering down. The daemon continued to just stare at the screen and do nothing. Mr. Claw then got two of the soldiers to go down a flight of metal stairs to search the train. As commanded, they checked the undersides first.
"We found another one, sir!" one soldier soon emerged from underneath a car. He held up a four-crystal illusion generator that looked similar to the one that Jack originally found.
"And I'll bet we'll find that those cars are all almost empty now." proclaimed Jack, "It was awful devious of them, to let you have just a little bit of power just to keep you guessing what the problem was."
"Indeed." said Lazerel, "Now, if only we can figure out how they stack us with mostly empty cars to begin with."
"Well, I say we ask our little friend here." he went to the worker daemon and taped him on the back, "Hey, buddy."
The worker turned around and looked Jack in the eye, "Yes sir, how can I help?"
"Jack, come on!" complained Seatha, "You know that you'll never get anything out of him."
"Yeah? Humor me, okay." he spoke again to the drone, "So you got yourself a full train here, buddy?"
"Yup, full ones go out."
"You wanna check for me?"
The worker turned back to his screen and called up a display indicating the content of each train car to be sent out. "Yup, full ones go out." he said again.
They all looked at the display. Flashing red alarm messages showed the cars as being completely or almost empty. The daemon didn't seem to notice.
"See that?" said Jack, "If the illusion generator had still been in place, we would have seen those cars listed as full as well, but it's more than just the illusion going on here. The daemons have been entirely reprogrammed somehow." He spoke to the worker again, "Tell me a little about what you guys do here, pal."
"We load 'em up, send 'em out, take 'em back n' service 'em." intoned the worker.
"...and service them?" inquired Lazerel.
"...n' service 'em." it repeated back.
"That doesn't make any sense." Lazerel replied, "The train cars require occasional maintenance but not regular servicing."
Jack asked the worker one more question. "So where do these cars go to get serviced?"
The worker just responded by saying "Not my department." and he went back to staring at his control screen.
Jack turned to the others and said, "It's the servicing! We're going to have to split up."
Private Monstro just really wanted to shoot someone. He signed up for this mission because he heard that it was of the highest priority. He had hoped that any mission of the highest priority would involve at least a little gunfighting, but as he was quickly discovering with this game, that wasn't always the case. His unit had split up and he now walked alone along a seemingly endless row of train cars in some dreary refinery. It wasn't fair. He was a sleek, orange, feline warrior with big orange eyes. Although the stubbiness of his tail was the result of a genetic defect, he would frequently make up stories about how he lost it in the heat of fierce battle. He was, after all, a fierce fighter. Now, the fierce fighter patrolled a row of train cars with his laser rifle out and his belt well stocked with knives and grenades. He was ready for action. This mission, however, was turning out to be another wild goose chase with no shootable enemy in sight. He came across a worker daemon.
"Freeze or I'll blow your head off!" he commanded, pointing his gun. The worker dropped his tools, raised his hands and looked at him with bewilderment. "Tell me where the servicing is!"
"Not my department." said the worker.
"As you were." Monstro then instructed him, and he continued walking as the worker picked up his tools. Those were his orders: To ask for servicing. If any of the drones responded in any other way than 'Not my department', then he was to report to the commander. That last one was the twenty third that he had asked only to get the same damn response: 'Not my department.' This was by far and away the most boring high priority mission ever. He soon encountered another daemon, one with grey scraggly fur and green eyes. He was adjusting a large valve in an elaborate network of pipes.
"Stop or I'll shoot you full of holes!" he said this time. Such dramatics were not part of his orders, but he had to make this at least a little fun. He asked the worker for servicing.
"Not my department." said the worker. That was it!
"Wrong answer, scumbag!" Monstro sneered. He opened fire on the innocent worker. The rapid laser bursts from his gun blew him to pieces in a second. That felt good!
The daemons were, after all, just representative programs meant to give the game worlds their flavor. No one cared what happened to any of them. Just like no one cared about one such program that took the form of a Felorin worker with white hair and a black patch of fur around his left eye. He was hard at work inspecting a certain row of train cars when he found the barrel of a rifle pressed against his pink nose. It was Monstro, who had been hiding between the cars.
"Listen, Bub!" said Monstro as his victim began quivering with fear, "You want to get out of this alive? It's really simple. All you have to do is tell me where servicing is and no one gets hurt."
"Servicing?" the worker stuttered out, "Why, that's my department." Monstro put his gun down.
The so-called servicing station was toward the back of the dome. It was manned by only a few daemons from a bank of controls that were on the ground rather than on an elevated platform. Soon after it was reported discovered by one of the soldiers, it was converged upon by the whole group.
"Load 'em up, send 'em out, take 'em back n' service 'em." is all the drones would say as they went about their jobs. They had a train with fifteen cars almost ready to go. Where was the train going? No one knew.
"We checked the cars." Seatha reported to Lazerel as he arrived on the scene, "All of them are one hundred percent full of solerium."
"We should put a stop to this procedure, whatever this is!" said the Prime Admin, "We've already lost an unfathomable amount because of this trick."
"Aw shit, man! How else we gonna' know where dis thing goin'?" said Zin, who was watching the stationary train with a great deal of interest.
"Listen here you! Do you have any idea how valuable that train's cargo is?"
"And you run the risk of losing a whole lot more if we don't get to the bottom of this!" Jack interrupted, "Now, everyone be quiet, the train is almost ready to leave."
With a heavy mechanical sigh, the train cars lurched as they readied for more continual motion.
Mr. Claw turned to his troops, "Get on that train, now!" he commanded.
The cat soldiers scrambled up the ladders of the two nearest cars and took positions on their roofs. The sound of the engine's electrical motor was increasing in volume and pitch as it was powering up. Lazerel also spoke into his com link. He was ordering a squadron of fighter ships to be ready to follow the train wherever it went. Then the train began move. It didn't, however, move forward to the exit of the dome, but backwards, toward the back concrete wall of the train yard and it was was accelerating.
"Oh good God!" exclaimed Lazerel, "Someone stop that train!"
It was too late. The last train car, made the first by its current direction, came in contact with the back wall. Then it just went right through.
"Check it out, bros!" shouted Zin, "One mo kick ass illusion! Dis be cool!"
"Another trick!" said Lazerel, "but won't they be surprised to find my men on top of that train."
"Uhm, Sir." said Zin, suddenly much less enthusiastic, "Might not go jus like that."
The soldiers had turned to face the the direction of the train's motion as it continued to disappear into the illusionary wall. The warrior closest to the back of the train stood his ground on the roof as he approached it. When he got to the wall, he was slammed into what appeared to be a solid barrier even though the train underneath him kept moving through. He was knocked off of the roof and onto the ground. Two more soldiers came to the wall and the same thing happened. The rest of them leaped from the top of the train, not wanting to try their luck as it kept accelerating. The train was approaching full speed when the engine that was pushing it through disappeared completely.
"What the hell just happened?" demanded Lazerel.
"Dis illusion be hard!" said Zin, "You know, it be so good, look so real, it be jus like real. All 'bout perceptions, man!"
"Son of a bitch! The atrocities just keep on getting worse."
"So where does the train go to?" asked Seatha, "Just into the side of the mountain?"
"There has been a tunnel there in the past!" Lazeral answered, "It went to territory that has been lost to the Dragars. We have collapsed it since, though."
"Well, it looks like it's been re-dug." said Jack, "Zin, is there really no way anyone can get through that wall?"
"Need wheels dat have you, like, enclosed. An you'd need ta close ya eyes. Then ya get through."
"An enclosed vehicle like that one, maybe?" Jack pointed the other way down the tracks. Sitting on the rails was a tiny personal rail car. It looked like a silver cigar with wheels and windows. There was seating inside for only four people.
"Agent LoWisp," said Lazerel, "Now looks like the time to put your talents for covert operations to good use. I'll give you three of my best men to go in there with you and get me back that train."
"I'm taking Jack and Zin with me." Seatha told him.
"Now that's going too far." Mr. Claw retorted, "This is no time to put such grave trust in outsiders."
"Putting trust in outsiders is what the Dragars have done to make all this happen." She confronted Lazerel face to face and she poked her finger into the chest of his administrative uniform. "Lets face it! Your little wargame here has been infiltrated by some seriously whacked shit, and it is you, Sir, who are out of your league."
Lazerel said nothing as Jack, Zin and Seatha began to walk toward the car. "What I need for you to do now," Seatha continued as she walked away from him, "is get satellite reconnaissance and figure out where this tunnel comes out . Send a stealth team to meet us there. We're going to take control of that train and send it back." She looked about to the surrounding warriors. "Room for one more! I'll take a volunteer."
There were several paws raised, but there was one orange-furred warrior that also began jumping up and down. Seatha pointed to him. "What's your name, soldier?" she asked.
"Private Monstro at your service, ma'am!"
"Get in!" she said, and Monstro practically dove into the back seat with Zin.
"You better not screw this up, Seatha." Lazerel warned. She had gotten in the control seat and was already powering up the motor of the little car.
"Don't worry." Jack said from the front passenger seat just before he shut the car door, "If there's any screwing up to do that's my job." he then turned to face to the eager feline warrior in the back seat. "So Private Monstro. What's your story?"
"Hey, I'm just on board looking for some action." he replied, "I'm hoping to get a chance to shoot somebody."
"Okay," said Jack, "Let's go shoot somebody."
Jack closed his eyes. That really meant that Tracer turned off the visuals from his interface. He could still hear the sounds of a space age rail car moving along the tracks on an alien moon. He could still hear Zin in the back seat, jive talking with the Felorin grunt about going out and 'kickin' ass!' Tracer's eyes, however, gazed down at his gray, palm sized computer unit. He stared for a moment at its single blinking LED and the thin, sliver cord that conected it to the neural interface behind his ear. It sat on a fake wood office desk that he had found in an alley long ago. Night had fallen since he had started his session earlier in the day, but there was no need to go turn on the lights. With the help of outside streetlights and memory, he could make out the image on one of the few posters decorating the white plaster walls of his bedroom. It was a printout of his character, the great detective Jack Falcon, posed on a street corner in his homeworld. He was looking up in this screenshot, up to a sky that contained a universe of possibilities.
"Jack, we're through." it was Seatha's voice. "You can open your eyes now."
He opened his eyes to near blackness. The rail car had headlights but Seatha wouldn't turn them on in order to maintain the element of surprise. Lights from the train lit the tunnel far ahead of them. It was moving fast and they had to push the limits of the little rail car to keep up with it. Eventually, they got to a point where they could see a much brighter light at the other end. That's when they stopped the car and continued on foot.
The tunnel opened out into a giant cave that was lit with artificial light. The rails turned to the left ahead of them and went down a ramp into what used to be a Felorin station. As they carefully rounded the rock wall corner, it was very obviously no longer a Felorin base. The place was filled with Dragars.
In their natural environment, this reptilian race wore monstrous black space armor. While the physical appearance of the actual Dragar characters didn't vary as greatly as the Felorin, they made up for it with the individualistic design of their protective gear. The shape and size of the scale-like plates, the arrangement of spikes, the design nuances of shoulder guards, the color of the trim, all these options, and more, are available to express the real you when going out on a killing rampage with your peers.
The base itself consisted of several levels of walkways and balconies that occupied both sides of the cave. The rail station, with two lengths of track, stretched across the bottom floor. A landing bay for spacecraft was several tiers up at the top. Jack and his companions crouched behind an outcropping of rock just outside the tunnel, over which they would take quick looks at their numerous enemies and the captured train, now parked in the middle of the cave.
There was another train arriving. It was a Dragar train of identical purpose. It was pulling up on the set of rails right next to the Felorin one.
"Looks like they're fixin' to unload the precious cargo." said Jack. "I still don't see anyone or anything but the lizards' work here. Still no clue as to who might be behind this whole illusion scam. Dammit."
"Hold on, bro." said Zin, "What up with dat?"
Flying in through the mouth of the cave, was something that left a vaporous, glowing, orange trail. As it came closer, they could make out that it was a man. He was human, or something that looked human, and he was coming in flying with some kind of jet pack. That's when Jack heard a rhythmic thumping noise.
"Do any of you hear that?" he asked the others.
"Hear what, bro?"
"That pounding sound. Don't any of you hear it?"
"Jack," Seatha came in, "Could it be...? You know."
Tracer tuned off his audio. There it was. That banging sound. It was someone pounding on the front door of his apartment.
"Hold on, folks." said Jack, just before he went into time out mode. "I'll be back in a sec."
The three of them just looked at each other after Jack was gone.
"Hurry back, bro."
Tracer stumbled through the apartment, commanding lights on as he went. He got to the front door and opened it to find himself in another time of his life altogether.
"Trace! Get over here and stay with us while we're on the bus, spacemuffin."
His parents would always get very strange in the other places. They would play space ranger with him constantly while they were at home, but in places like on a bus or in the mall, they would always become still, quiet and very much less fun. It was sometime when he was six when he had finally realized that it was because of the other people. He was starting to notice that a lot of them didn't like the way his mommy and daddy dressed.
It was happening again. It was one of those times that seemed like no particular time. There were things that have happened and things that were happening now and he would sometimes have difficulty telling the difference. It was triggered, this time, by the people who were knocking on his door. More specifically, by the way they looked to him when he opened it.
"Hi, is Arden home?"
The sound of his mother's chosen name put him solidly into the present again. He had opened the door to a young jumper couple. He was always confused by people his own age who were decked out in the trappings of the same counter culture that his parents were into.
"No she's not." Tracer told them, hoping that maybe they would just leave.
The girl was wearing a silver mini dress with a big blue triangle for a collar piece. A white six pointed star was sprawled across her chest. Her hair was also blue and done up in a style that pointed to the heavens in the shape of a cone. She had an ana-tat on her face. It was an ancient constellation chart that slowly rotated around a center point that would have been at her Adam's apple had the tattoo gone down that far. Orion's belt was creeping over the bridge of her nose. The guy was a big asian, probably half chinese, with lots of steroid-induced muscle. He wore a fairly straightforward toga with a silver belt and headband. Looking at the girl again, Tracer was starting to think that she looked familiar.
"Trace?" she said, "Tracer LaFell is that you? Flaring out in all directions, no way!" It all came flooding back into his brain. This was Jennifer, a girl he used to hang out with when he was still in his early teens. That was a long time ago. He had changed a whole lot since then, and evidently, so had she.
"Jenn, Hi" he verbalized.
"I go by Quazarla, now in this age." she corrected him.
"Are you friends with Arden too?"
"Well kind of. Arden's my mom."
"Blow me out an airlock! Isn't that astronomical!?"
"Look! Just get in here and let's do this." said Tracer. He figured that these must be his mother's 'fellow travelers' and, despite him turning off his messaging, they had found their way up to his apartment anyway. Just getting the business over with was probably the best way to get rid of them soon. They sat down on the living-room couch as Tracer got the merchandise from a false bottom in one of the kitchen cupboards.
"Trace! What you been up to? It's been aeons." Jenn or Quazarla asked.
"Oh, not much. Just hanging out." Tracer sat down on a chair by the oval glass coffee table. It had a holographic surface that made it look like a window in the bottom floor of some space-faring vessel. He brought with him the metallic green box his mother kept the stuff in. "How about you?" he asked, regretting that he did instantly afterwards.
"I'm working at an ana-tat clinic on the east side." Jenn or Quazarla said proudly. "That's where I met Robo here." she took hold of the arm of her strong and silent boyfriend. He just sat and smiled. "We're producing some way out cutting edge matter there. Why don't you show him, Starshine?"
Robo pulled the breast of his toga aside, revealing his freshly shaved chest with its newly added animated artwork. It was a robot with a see-through body, the gears and other moving parts moving by way of some complex algorithms as it cycled through a series of poses.
"Cool." said Tracer, really just wanting to move the transaction along. "So how much do you want?"
Robo responded, "We want two decas."
"So where is Arden anyway?" asked Jenn or Quazarla.
"She's having a cosmo tonight."
"Cosmo?" Robo said, "That sounds way out! What's that?"
Tracer spoke slowly for the guy. "Cos - me - tic sur - ger - ry." he explained.
Tracer took from his mother's green metal box two plastic baggies. Each one contained exactly ten little orange pills imprinted with an eight pointed star design. It was the drug known on the streets and in popular culture as starfire. When he was a kid, his mom and dad called it their special candy. These days, it was how his mother supported the both of them.
"That will be two forty then." said Tracer as he set the baggies down on the galactic table.
"Two forty?" Jenn or Quazarla inquired skeptically, "Arden's always given it to me for a hundred a deca. Are you sure?"
"And my mom has always told me that it was one twenty a deca. That's how much it is."
"What's the dosage, man?" asked Robo.
"I don't know what the dosage is!"
"Is your dad around?" the steroid ridden jumper wanna-be asked, "Maybe he knows." Judging from the look of panic on Jenn or Quazarla's face, she already knew.
"My father is dead!" Tracer retorted, "Has been for almost twenty years now. You wanna' know how he died? He took too much of this stuff right here." he pointed to the two bags of pills on the table. "And then he went jumping off a forty story building in an effort to become one with the universe. The most generic jumper death imaginable. Now, it's two forty for two frickin' decas. OKAY?!"
It was Robo that paid for the drugs. He was clearly unused to using cash as a method of payment when he counted out the twenty dollar bills. He laid them out on the table before they took the two baggies and quickly left the apartment.
Tracer ran back to his bedroom only to pause before jacking back in. He really wished that he wasn't going back to a space dimension. 'The work of a great detective is never done.' he thought to himself, and then he re-entered the game.
"There you are." said Seatha when Jack returned. It was in a tone quite different from the last time. "I want to take the big guy alive."
That's when he heard the low voice of a man come in. "...that was the deal. I get all of the solerium derived from this project. That was stated plainly at the beginning." It was coming from Zin's communication sphere. He had taken it out and it was glowing with a soft green light. It seemed that it could also be used as an eavesdropping device.
"This has been a very expensive operation." One could tell that it was a Dragar's voice responding as it resonated out of the crystal ball. "We need to recoup the costs somehow."
Jack looked over the rock to see who it was they were listening in on. The guy with the jet pack was meeting with some Dragars on a platform two levels up from the trains. He was tall, standing a few inches over the tallest Dragar he was speaking to. He was facing away from them so Jack couldn't see his face, only the back of his shaved bald head. He wore a coat of brown leather and grey fur, dark green pants with many pockets and knee high black boots. He carried some kind of really big gun.
"Don't make me laugh!" his baritone voice mocked. "Your race is about to inherit the entire system and you're bitching about having to dig a hole?"
"Her majesty claims there was far more involved in this than she bargained for."
"And the solerium is what I've been in the bargain for in the first place. I'm taking it now. You can tell your queen that if she has a problem with it, she can deal with me at the spaceport. In fact, tell her that I dare her to."
"Sho is a ballsy son of a bitch!" Zin commented.
"How do you plan on taking him alive, doll?" asked Jack.
"I have a taser. I'm going to try hitting him with it from behind while he's diverted."
"A guy flying around with a jet pack, sportin' a gun like that? Odds are he's got a force field on too."
"I know. I can take that down with my laser wand first."
"AND then taser him?"
"I'm really fast."
"What kind of diversion we talking about here?"
"That would be me!" Private Monstro spoke up, "I'm ready to go kick some lizard butt!"
"They've got you outnumbered like a thousand to one."
"I don't give a shit. I've been thinking about starting all over in this game anyway. This gig is boring."
"I'll back you up, bro!" said Zin, slapping the back of the feline warrior.
"Don't promise me that you're going to get yourself killed too." Jack remarked.
"I be fine, man. I'm wily!"
"Well, sounds like we have a diversion for ya, Babe." He took another look over the rock, "I guess that leaves me to try getting control of the train and sending it back. I'll go for the engine after Kamikaze Kitty does his thing."
"Good." agreed Seatha, "That's where we'll meet back up. The engine has space for us to get inside of it so we can get back through the illusion wall."
"Isn't that little car in the way?"
"The train will knock it over like a tin can. I'm going to get into position now. Wait for my signal over Monstro's com link."
"Be careful." said Jack. "You don't have any way of knowing just what you're dealing with."
"You're right, but I do know that I can deal with a whole lot."
"Of that I have no doubt, Sweetheart."
Seatha went into a crouch for about a second, and then she leaped. After landing on a ledge above them, it took her just two additional quick and silent jumps to get to the top of a light fixture. There, she blended with the shadows on the celling of the cave. Jack caught a glimpse of her blue reflecting eyes just before she jumped in some other direction. Then she was gone.
"Check it out, Bro's." said Zin, "I gots an idea."
There was a group of four Dragars guarding the engine of the the Felorin train. Lizard worker daemons had begun the process of unloading its solerium. The guards were passing the time by showing off their more recent armor modifications when they heard a sound coming from the tunnel. They looked up to see a little silver rail car coming their way down the tracks. On top of it stood a solitary orange Felorin soldier with a stubby tail. He had his laser rifle in one hand while he was holding a grenade up to his face with the other. He was pulling out the pin with his teeth.
"What the Hell?" almost all of them said in unison. They aimed their pulse rifles at the suicidal, attacking cat and then there was a flash of light. Suddenly, the rifles they were aiming were pointing in the wrong direction, switched around backwards on their straps.
"Gotcha, ya mo fo's!" a disembodied voice said.
Monstro tossed the grenade in the direction of the Dragar train. It exploded just underneath the nearest car and sent it flying off the rails and over onto its side. All the lizard worker daemons went running. He then took his rifle into both paws.
"Die you scaly bastards!" he shouted, and he opened fire on the Dragars down the rails, quickly picking all of them off as they struggled to reorient their own guns. His timing was perfect as he jumped from the car. It was right when some Dragars from an upper balcony shot it out, causing it to explode into a ball of flame. Monstro hit the ground running, returning fire while going for cover behind a stack of freight boxes.
Jack looked up from the chaos ensuing below. He saw that the big guy had reactivated his jet pack and that he had flown in his direction. He was taking a hovering position just in front of the tunnel and holding up his really big gun, aiming it his way.
"Uh oh!" said Jack. He made a dash out from behind the rock to get out of the way. A surge of red light came flowing from the gun. The resulting explosion laid waste to the thin metal train tracks and caused the mouth of the tunnel to cave in on itself.
'Well, so much for getting the train back,' thought Jack as he turned on his anti-grav boots and flew upwards. The big guy was using a mini ion canon. He had learned how to contend with such things while dealing with mercenaries from the Te Nebula. He produced a throwing star in one of his gloves and threw it at the gun. He hit it square in the mid power converter.
The big guy then looked at Jack. He had four eyes. His face would have been completely human looking if not for the fact that he had two sets of eyes, stacked one over the other, under two sets of thick and angry eyebrows.
"Pudnucker!" he shouted. His ion cannon was already starting to vibrate and shoot out white sparks. He tossed the gun down toward the ground under Jack. It hit something unseen and bounced in the air.
"Ow!" It was Zin, who then turned visible from having his concentration disturbed. It was like the big guy could tell exactly where the wizard was despite his spell. Zin looked down at the ion canon that was dancing and glowing at his feet. "What up wid dat?"
Jack dropped down and grabbed Zin by the back of his robe. He took him high into the air just before the gun exploded in a fury of red and white flames.
"I owe ya one, bro!"
The four eyed man, who was still hovering, was then struck with a thin stream of blue lasers from Seatha's wand. She attacked while she was perched on a rafter behind him. The big guy acted fast. Only a couple of laser shots hit his force field before he kicked his jet pack into full speed. He zoomed about and the vapor trail he left made a giant figure eight in the air as he evaded the lasers. He made himself too fast of a moving target for even Seatha to hit. The remainder of her laser bursts just took out chunks of rock wall. He then swooped into an arch that shot him in her direction. He rammed right into her and knocked her off of the rafter, sending her plummeting to the ground. She landed doing a somersault off the roof of one of the trains. That put her down on the ground right in the midst of a big group of Dragars. She was obviously really upset that her plan wasn't working out and the poor lizards didn't even see her coming. She became a raging black and brown fury of acrobatic kicks, laser bursts and thrown knives. The reptiles fell one by one around her as they clumsily tried to aim their guns.
Jack set Zin down close to where the tunnel used to be.
"Shit, bro! What we gonna do now?"
"I don't know yet, but keep up. I may need all the help I can get." Jack flew back into the air and he found the big guy returning to a hovering mode. He wasn't even bothering to draw his other gun which was some kind of pistol in a holster on his belt. That didn't stop Jack from taking out his Colt. He then fired a shot, hitting him in the chest and weakening his shield. The four eyed man just continued to hover, his smile showing crooked teeth. He watched as Jack moved in closer, getting ready for another shot. Jack figured that after the few hits that Seatha got in, he had a chance of exhausting the rest of this guys force field power.
"Jack Falcon, I presume!" The big guy's low voice dramatically boomed.
"That's right, buddy!" said Jack, "And who the hell are you?"
"Friends and enemies alike call me 4 Eye!"
Jack fired two more quick shots and what was left of 4 Eye's field sputtered out. He then aimed at his head.
"Okay Mr. 4 Eye." said Jack, "Give me your gun. You're coming with me."
4 Eye just continued to hover and let out a boisterous laugh. "One final word of advice, Jack." he then said, "Don't let such rampant publicity be the end of your next character." He pressed and held down a button on a device that also served as his belt buckle. It looked similar in design to the illusion generators, with its analog controls and scrap metal parts. This one, however, had only one large crystal embedded in the middle of it. Upon being activated, it flashed rapidly like a strobe light.
And then Jack fell. Actually, he went down faster than if he just fell. It was like his anti-grav boots began doing the exact opposite of what they were supposed to, pulling him down instead of pushing him up. He was stopped before he hit the ground by a cloud of green glowing bubbles. He was, at first, engulfed in the bubbles and and then the cloud dissipated after his fall was broken. He was dropped, unharmed, the few remaining feet to the floor of the cave. Jack looked around and saw Zin nearby with a few of the green bubbles still emanating from his outstretched fingers.
"Pretty quick wid da payback, eh bro?"
Jack looked up to see that 4 Eye had gone. The jet pack's vapor trail showed him to have headed back to the mouth of the cave. "What just happened there?" he asked.
"Fucker's doin' homework on ya, man! Got's mo o' dat bastard tech set up jus ta do voodoo on yo boots!"
"Alright puny humans! Freeze!" It was a group of Dragars that had approached them with their pulse rifles out and aimed in their direction.
"What's with this 'Freeze' shit?" grunted another lizard, "Let's just waste the meddling scum already."
Zin held out his hand and made a sign with his index and middle finger pointing down. When the Dragars fired their guns, the pulse bursts hit an invisible dome that he and Jack were safely inside. Energy from the blasts then began to accumulate into a glowing pink membrane. The Dragars continued to fire, trying to penetrate the wizard's shield, but they soon realized that the power from their guns did nothing more than add to the intensity of the glowing half dome between them and their targets. By the time they stopped shooting, it was an almost opaque layer of swirling pink and blue.
"Dat all you got, bitches?" taunted Zin. He crossed his arms and said, "Word!" Then the accumulated layer of energy ballooned outward. It scorched the ground and all the objects around them, reducing every Dragar in sight to a charred husk. "How ya like me now? Bad ass magic usah. Dat right!" He then turned to Jack. "Let's go git dis fo eyed son of a bitch!"
They ran toward the mouth of the cave in between the two trains. Judging from the sound of gunfire and explosions coming from the back of the cave, it sounded like Monstro was still alive and continuing to, as he put it, 'kick lizard butt'. As they ran, Jack tried to figure just what he made of this 4 Eye character. As far as he could tell, he was just a very ambitious freelance entrepreneur. Anything as valuable as this solerium stuff would also have a significant black market for it. He was probably just planning to sell it to the highest bidder after he left this god forsaken moon. What confounded Jack was just where the guy might be from or what was up with all of this hybrid technology that he had. The fact that he went by the name 4 Eye implied that he was a unique specimen, and not a member of some race of four eyed people. But when he introduced himself, he did make a point of saying that that was what he was called and not that it was his name. He probably did that just to keep Jack guessing about him. Fortunately, Jack was good at guessing. At that point, he guessed that 4 Eye had gone to the front of the cave to switch train tracks. He would be trying to get away with the train filled with the valuable cargo.
Looking through the gaps between the train cars, they could see Seatha. She had already taken care of numerous Dragar soldiers, but now she was being confronted by three of their leaders. The lizard captains were bigger and meaner looking, with more elaborate designs of armor. They had forgone the ranged weapons and were wielding battle axes composed of red luminous energy. They were really good at using them to deflect the shots from her laser wand. She was in for a tough fight. Then they noticed 4 Eye, who was now hovering in the middle of the cave. Jack and Zin hid between the cars of the Dragar train and watched him as he pressed a button on a wrist control he was wearing. The Felorin train lurched and it began to move in the direction going out of the cave.
"Zin, can you do something about his jet pack?" asked Jack.
Zin thought for a second and then made a few more signs with his hands. Two little flying demons with shiny mauve skin appeared in front of him.
"What up, dawgs." said Zin, "Wanna go fer a sweet, ride?"
They responded by saying "Yo!" and "Word!"
"Dat jet pack be fresh!" He pointed up, and the two little demons looked to see 4 Eye floating above. "Take it fo a spin!"
"Right on, bro!" one of them said. They shot into the air and began flying circles around 4 Eye who looked perplexed at seeing them. He pulled his pistol out of its holster, but by then it was too late. The two demons had each taken a shoulder strap and tore at them with yellow teeth. With his flying unit removed, 4 Eye fell, landing on the top of the Felorin train that was beginning to accelerate on its way out of the cave. The little demons clung to the jet pack as it darted about free of the weight. They whizzed around on it, hollering in excitement, before zooming out the mouth of the cave and into the night sky.
"Good job!" said Jack, "Now go help Seatha. I can take on our four eyed friend from here."
"But Bro! I wanna come too!" They looked over to where Seatha was fighting the reptile captains. She had jumped onto a set of rafters and it had turned out that these Dragars were good at jumping also. Two of them were already on the upper levels with her. She was on the defensive.
"It's simple math, buddy." explained Jack. The engine at the end of the moving train was getting closer. Soon it would be going by them. "If I get on this train to face this guy, then it will be one on one. My odds would be good. Meanwhile, the lady's got her plate full over there. Just go help her out, okay?"
"Alright fine, man. Guess I'll go help ya watch yo bitch's ass."
"She's not my..." Jack started, but by then the end of the train was getting close. "Oh, whatever!" He ran and grabbed the rungs of a ladder on the train's engine as it sped by. He stayed clinging on its side, ridding it, as it left the cave.
He was surprised to find that it wasn't much quieter outside the cave. During his visit to this moon, he had almost come to take for granted the constant flares of the ongoing space war far over his head. His exit from the cave, however, was met with the thunderous sounds of battle taking place well within the newly created atmosphere. In the sky, he saw the glimmering lights of a Felorin warship, much like the one he saw on their homeworld, flying low over the mountains. It was inundated by what looked like a swarm of rabid fireflies. There was also some kind of walking tank battle taking place about a mile away. Jack then saw a smaller war vessel, another Felorin craft judging from its design, coming in for a landing near the mouth of the cave. It was constantly shooting bursts of laser fire to deflect attacking missiles.
'Not really a stealth team.' thought Jack, 'What gives?'
He noted that the terrain on this part of the moon was different. Here the train rails were elevated to carry him about two stories over a rolling sea of sand dunes. He looked down to the ground to see that the train was moving over an entire battalion of Dragar ground troops. The space age reptilian horde was obviously not concerned with the train for he passed right over their heads, unseen. Jack knew that 4 Eye was still on the roof somewhere but he couldn't see where from his place on the side. He was just about to climb a little higher up the ladder to get a better look when he heard the booming low voice call his name.
"Jack?" there was a pause, "Jack, are you there? For all I know, really, I could very well be just talking to myself up here. But there's this hunch of mine... You know what it's like when you have a hunch, Jack? That hunch is that there's no way I could really get this train out of there without expecting to find you hanging off of it. I'm right, aren't I, Jack?" He was so right. From the sound of his voice, he could tell that 4 Eye was walking down the middle of the train cars, heading his way toward the engine. "But let's be reasonable gentlemen, shall we?" the entrepreneur continued, "A fellow adventurer like you can surely relate to my position. I'm just trying to get ahead in the game in my own way. Anything really wrong with that? And now, your mission is complete. You found me out. The cats have their reactor working again and, as far as the solerium goes, they can always dig up more. That's what they're fighting over this place for. If you just let it go, Jack, we all get to go home happy. You can declare victory and I won't have to go through the trouble of killing you. How does that sound?"
By then, Jack got a good fix on 4 Eye's location. He was close. He grabbed one of the upper rungs of the ladder with one hand and made a new throwing star with the other. He lunged his body upward so that his torso would just bob over the top of the train.
"Sounds boring!" he said throwing his star. It was close but he missed. 4 Eye returned fire with his gun, which was some kind of modern, rapid fire machine pistol. Jack dropped back down to the side of the train to have a spray of little plastic bullets go whizzing over his head. It was time, he decided, to act fast. He swung himself into the gap behind the engine, instantly popping out on the other side of the train. There, he found a series of handles which he used to get to the other end of the adjoining car in a matter of seconds. He then did another swing to get onto the roof, doing a flip to land on his feet. It worked. 4 Eye was still facing the direction of his old place on the train. When he heard Jack land on the roof, he swung around to face him. His hand holding the machine pistol came in contact with a karate kick from Jack's foot. The little gun flew off into the darkness, forever lost in the sea of dunes.
Jack then tried for a good old fashioned punch to the big guy's jaw but he turned out to be a lot faster than he looked. He skillfully dodged the blow. 4 Eye then let out a deep mighty roar and then lunged forward, body slamming the great detective and knocking him down on his back. Jack quickly made another throwing star and tossed it at his opponent's forehead. 4 Eye caught the star by slapping his two hands together in front of his face.
"Ha! Ha!" He chuckled mockingly. "You'll have to do better than that, Sir!" He then threw the star back. Jack rolled just in time to dodge his own throwing star. It punctured and stuck into the train right next to his head. He went right back into the offensive with a kick to the stomach, hoping that something like that from his current position would take 4 Eye off guard. That move didn't work. 4 Eye caught Jack's leg in much the same way that caught his star. The next thing Jack knew, he was being swung around in circles.
"Nice doing business with you, Mr. Falcon!" 4 Eye shouted. Then he let go of Jack's leg, flinging him off of the train.
Jack landed on the side of a dune, taking a good amount of damage to his health. He got up as soon as he could, only to see the fast moving train already far down the tracks. He could make out 4 Eye still standing on its roof, waving goodbye as he got further away. He had no other choice. He activated his boots and did a running jump toward the train.
His massive leap was at the top of its arch when he heard 4 Eye shout. "Don't disappoint me like this!" He turned himself in the air, pointing the bottoms of his feet toward the train. That's when he saw the flashing strobe on 4 Eye's belt buckle and that's when his boots began to pull instead of push, just like before. Only this time, instead of pulling Jack down, they pulled him right in 4 Eye's direction, and fast. Jack could swear he heard the big guy say 'Uh Oh' to himself just when he realized what he had done. It made for quite the powerful kick. This time they both went over the side of a train and into a downhill slide. The device must have required its user's concentration to work. Jack regained control of his boots right after his feet made contact. He followed 4 Eye in the air right over him as he continued to skid down the side of a large sand dune, raising plumes of grey dust. Jack pulled out his Colt. When the big guy finally landed at the bottom of the dune, he found the barrel of the gun pointed, point blank, between all of his eyes.
"Oh, I wouldn't want to disappoint ya." said Jack.
The vanquished entrepreneur looked about. He could see the lights of the train disappearing as it went behind another dune. From the other direction, he could see a group of flying vessels approaching fast. They turned out to be hover cycles maned by Felorin. The group of them split up. Some were going to catch up with the train while others were coming their way. The fall cost him most of his health, he had no more weapons and he had the gun of this hot shot detective right there in his face. He had to laugh.
"So, Mr. Falcon, have it your way." he then said, "See ya later!"
There was a flash of yellow light and then 4 Eye was gone. The bastard must have had a reset key. The little golden tokens were not easy to come by and you could only use one once. They were really handy for getting out of a tight spot but not without consequences. When they would return you to your homeworld, it would also negate all of the points and wealth you would have accumulated since you left. Given the ambitiousness of this particular project, that must have added up to a major se-back for Mr. 4 Eye. He was probably really pissed.
"Where is he?" it was Seatha calling from one of the hover cycles. They flew up to Jack, who now stood alone with his gun pointing to empty, barren ground.
"He's gone! Reset key." he shouted back in response. "What's going on? It's like the Fourth of July out here."
"Mr. Claw consulted with his top generals after we left." Seatha explained as she brought the cycle to a stop. "I guess the consensus was to go on the offensive before they could know we were back to full power. The element of surprise worked wondrously in our favor. Now get on and let's get out of here."
Seatha took him on the back of her cycle to the same space vessel he saw landing at the cave earlier. It was already back in the air by the time they got to it and they had to take the cycle far above the dunes to reach its landing bay. From that height, Jack could see that the battle was moving on, pushing further into Dragar territory. The kitties were on the move!
Jack and Seatha were escorted to the bridge of the ship where they found Zin also to be a guest. In command was Lazerel Claw.
"Word up, bro." said Zin when he saw them. "Ya kick his ass?"
"Yeah, I kicked his ass." Jack answered.
"Right on!" and then Jack indulged him in a high five.
"What happened to the grunt?"
"Monstro?" said Seatha, "He survived until our forces arrived, but he went off to join the fighting soon after that."
"We've turned this little trick on their heads." Lazerel announced. "Hopefully this will teach them to think before resorting to such cowardly foul play again." he then looked at Jack. "I was sorry to get the report that our perpetrator got away."
"I was sorry when I had to make that report." he replied, "And I hate to say that I don't even know where that freaky clown even came from. I really wish I did, though." He then looked hopefully at Zin.
"Earth, alternate timeline 3, post-apocalypse, mutant." the wizard recited out loud, "How ya like me now, Bro?"
"You see, Zin." said Jack, "That's why I keep you around."