by Terry L. Mirll
Frank Williamson is a man on the run. In possession of data stolen from the ultra-powerful Ouroboros Corporation, he must travel cross-country to meet his prospective buyer, Nutrisynth, which has offered him a fortune for successful delivery of the data. However, the stolen data is far more valuable than even he realizes.
Frank traverses a sere and barren landscape destroyed by mysterious Interdimensional Free Fall events, or IFFs. On his way, he must evade capture by the ruthless Dr. Richard Lohman, Security Director for Ouroboros. Frank’s prospects begin to improve after he picks up an odd hitchhiker, a four-thumbed, three-eyed, blue-skinned alien called Dippy.
Hildy was first to speak. “Richard, I—”
“Hildy, my darling,” Lohman said stiffly, “if you think you’re going to charm your way back into my good graces, forget it.”
Turning slightly, he eyed Frank with smug satisfaction. The air was warm, though the copious sweat pouring from his face suggested distress rather than any reaction to the heat. Frank, for his part, tried to appear defiant.
“Flemel,” Lohman said, “tell your three-eyed friend to climb down from that... whatever the hell that is.”
“What’s the matter, Lohman?” said Frank. “You’ve never seen a polo pony before?”
Lohman let out a heavy sigh. “I’ll say this only once more. Tell that blue-skinned freak to come down from that thing, or I’ll have Gamma eviscerate him and strangle you with his intestines.”
Dippy did as Lohman commanded and, as Lohman watched Dippy descend from the pony, Frank discreetly reached over and placed the taser in Hildy’s hand. “You may need this,” he whispered.
Dippy took a place at Frank’s side. Frank gave him a pat on the shoulder, then turned his attention to Lohman. “Call me a pessimist, but aren’t you going to kill us no matter what we do?” Frank said.
“Hardly,” Lohman said. “I don’t know the Tellurean. I’ve no quarrel with him, so he can walk away, as far as I’m concerned. And I have no plans whatsoever for killing Hildy, though I’m sure in a few months she may well wish she were dead. So the only one here about to die for certain is you, Flemel. But first I’d like to ask a question. Which one of you was responsible for the attack on my transport?”
Hildy and Frank exchanged curious looks. “Sorry, Lohman,” Frank said. “It wasn’t one of us.”
“It must have been one of you. Someone managed to hack into one of my Grunts and order it to attack me. It was only by my piloting skills that I managed to avoid being killed, though the crash broke nearly every bone in my body.
“Fortunately, I was able to call Beta to rescue me. I can use it long enough to take the files and seek a physician. In the meantime, Gamma will cut you to ribbons and then carry Hildy back home, where I’ve prepared a cage she can call her own. Oh, the fun we’ll have.”
He lifted Beta’s heavy manipulator and held it forward expectantly. “First, the files, if you please.”
“You want them, get them yourself,” Frank said. “Since you’ve made your intentions clear, I’ve got no reason to be cooperative.”
“Suit yourself,” Lohman said. “Gamma, bring me the files Mr. Flemel is carrying. If his hands or fingers get in the way, snip them off. In fact, do it anyway.”
Raising its manipulators, the Grunt responded. It approached, its heavy feet grinding rocks into gravel.
As it drew within arm’s length of Frank, Hildy threw herself upon the Grunt’s shoulder, scrambling up its collar and slapping her taser upon its central processing node at the base of its skull. She had configured the taser to deliver at 100%, enough voltage to kill a man many times over. Still, she doubted it would have much effect on the Grunt. She could only hope the shock would buy them a few seconds, give them enough time to make a run for it, possibly even create enough confusion to allow them to find a place to hide in the nearby hills. Anything was better than just standing there and dying.
Luck was with her. The shock tripped the Grunt’s internal systems, forcing an automatic reboot of its anti-surge buffers. Almost immediately, it came to a dead halt.
Frank admired Hildy’s moxie, but attacking the Grunt was pointless. Obviously, the real threat was Lohman. Quickly dropping to one knee, he grabbed a fist-sized stone and hurled it at Lohman, cracking him right in the forehead. A spray of blood shot into the open air, forcing the doctor back on his heels. The sudden movement rattled his broken bones, and he cried out in anguish.
As Lohman wavered, Dippy sprang forward, leapfrogging over Lohman and landing immediately behind him, where he grabbed him, lifting him high. With a mighty heave of his scrawny shoulders, he threw him some thirty meters backwards, where Lohman crashed roughly on the rocky terrain, screaming in torment.
Shaken but still conscious, Lohman managed to prop himself up on one arm. “Gamma,” he cried, “kill them! Now!”
The Grunt, its system reboot now complete, raised itself to its full height, extending its pincers. But instead of attacking, it came to a complete halt.
“Gamma!” Lohman repeated. “Kill them, I said! Priority One command!”
To everyone’s surprise — Lohman’s in particular — the Grunt turned to face its commander. A silence fell all around them, with only the hot, dry wind whistling past.
With no aplomb, the Grunt lowered its manipulators, lifted slowly into the air, and then rocketed away, bearing northeast.
“Wha...?” Lohman grunted. “Come back! What...?” He fell silent. “No matter,” he growled as he rose to his feet. “Beta will be sufficient for dispatching the three of you.”
He morphed one of his manipulators into a fist, but then, in a swift motion that seemed only to perplex himself, he punched himself in the face. He passed out, still standing upright in his exoskeleton.
Hildy, Frank, and Dippy stood there a moment, until Dippy broke the silence.
“How very odd,” he said.
“Be that as it may,” Frank said, “I’m all for getting out of here before he comes to.”
“That won’t do any good,” Hildy said. “Once he regains consciousness, he’ll just chase us down again.”
“Nah, sheyna,” a voice said. “I’d say his chasing days are over, danken Got.”
Frank shielded his eyes from the sun, and his face filled with delighted surprise. “Solly? Is that you?” he said.
Solomon Goldstein ambled downhill, smiling, his face dripping with sweat. “Hey, Nicky,” he said. “Vie geyts?”
“What are you doing here? When we finished our business together, you told me to scram and never come back. ‘See you never!’ That’s what you said.”
“Change of plans, bubele. I had to keep tabs on our friend Dicky, such a bad boy he’s been.”
“Still is, if you ask me. We need to leave before he wakes up.”
“Nah, he’s harmless. I turned his suit off. Excuse me a second.”
Solly walked up to Lohman, slapping his face. “Dicky, wake up!”
Slowly, Lohman came to, his eyes fluttering as Solly continued to slap him. When he realized who had revived him, his eyes widened.
“Sol — Solly?” he said. “How...? You’re dead. You’re DEAD!!”
“Yeh, nice to see you, too.”
“But you’re dead! Alpha took your head off! I saw it with my own eyes! You’re dead, damn you!” Despite his pain, Lohman began to thrash around, but no one could say whether it was to get away from a ghost or simply to kill Solly all over again. He continued to struggle even when he realized he had been immobilized. Solly seemed quite pleased with himself.
“Nah, hate to disappoint you, fraynd,” he said.
Frank, Hildy, and Dippy approached, forming a semicircle in front of Lohman as he fought to free himself from a living nightmare.
“What’s his deal, Solly?” Frank said.
“When you first approached me with your plans, I realized that if I helped you, Dicky would come gunning for me in the morning, and that he’d shlep one of his toughs along, maybe more. You don’t know this guy like I do. He’s a mean one. So, before he could pay me his visit, I threw together a look-alike. I did a good job, I’d say. Looked absolutely real, didn’t it, Dicky?”
Lohman, at long last, grew quiet. “That...” he said. “That wasn’t— ?”
“A simple job, really. All it would have to do was talk long enough for you to kill it. Don’t I know you, bubele? Then, I inserted a booby-trap into my files and waited for your Grunt to set it off. Sorry about ruining your toy, but I never meant it so much as a practical joke, just a means of incinerating the fake me. If I could get your Grunt to burn it to cinders, in your mind I’d be dead.”
“You faked your death!” Lohman said.
“No, I faked me. You tried to kill me, so YOU faked my death, and don’t think I don’t take that sort of thing personal! Why do you think that Grunt attacked your transport?”
“Delta? That’s impossible! There’s a security—”
“Data is data, you shmok! If it can be programmed, I can hack it.”
“Then why did you let that other Grunt attack us?” Hildy said. “Richard was going to have it—”
“That was your fault, you dumb shiksa,” Solly said. “I was all set to take control when you pulled your stunt with that joy buzzer. You very nearly ruined everything! I said I can hack anything, but don’t think it’s easy.”
Frank took a step forward. “Let’s just call it all water under the bridge,” he said. “The big question is: What do we do with Headhunter Lohman?”
“I say kill him,” Hildy said.
Frank pursed his lips. “For once, I agree with you. He deserves it.”
A voice behind them rang out. “Actually, I don’t think that will be necessary.”
The group turned, and Stevens joined them.
“And just who the hell are you?” Frank asked.
“Who I am is less important than what I am,” Stevens replied. “And what I am is the lead technician of the Ouroboros R&D Division. I need to speak with you about those stolen files.”
“All right, I’ve had just about enough of this crap,” Frank said, his cheeks flushing in anger. He began to shout, turning full circle as his voice rose in outrage. “Is there anybody working for Ouroboros who doesn’t know about the files? Seriously! About the STOLEN files regarding the SECRET Shmeat production program? And Ouroboros’s SUPER-SECRET plans to corner the market on artificial foodstuffs? Anybody?!”
Hildy tentatively pressed a hand against his chest to comfort him.
Despite himself, it worked. Frank ceased shouting, though his irritation remained apparent. “So,” he said, “I take it you want an equal share once I sell the files to Nutrisynth.”
“Actually, Mr. Flemel,” Stevens said, “I should tell you that the information in your possession does not concern itself solely with Shmeat production. It also outlines a process for changing lead into gold.”
The words “Come again?” poised themselves at the blade of Frank’s tongue, readying themselves to burst forward in a sudden and raucous ejaculation.
They never made it past his teeth.
Copyright © 2015 by Terry L. Mirll