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Hero: Chapter Two

       Last updated: Monday, December 8, 2003 01:40 EST



    The pre-mission briefing bore no shattering surprises. There was fuzzy vid from a probe flyby, with scientific data on geology and meteorology, botany and zoology. They were fuzzy because the probe was the size of a basketball and had whisked through at meteoric velocities, then done a datadump; anything larger or less covert would have given away the fact that someone was interested in the system.

    Mission gear was listed, some as required, some optional. Another list had forbidden items. No shocks there, either: nothing that could give away the location of an inhabited planet, no tech gear that didn't include a self-destruct, nothing personal that was indicative of culture or language, etc. Also tediously routine for the team was the situation: Enemy forces: unknown. Friendly forces: none. Attached assets: none. They were needed at once and had only minimal prep time. There was never time rehearse it properly, but there was always time to waste a team or two. They would at least get two days to shake down with their new member. The military was generous in its own way. Day One was today, all talk. Day Two would be a field exercise.

    "The planet is quite Earthlike," the team commander, nickname Bell Toll, said. "Climate is temperate and moderate. I hate to sound too cheerful, but altogether it looks like a walk in the park compared to our usual missions."

    "How do we insert?" Gun Doll asked.

    One of the intel weenies briefing them replied, "A stealthed survey ship found an open tunnel to the system. It was quite unlikely, but there it was. The system they found contains both multiple jovians and this high quality planet. Sensor bots were dropped for their usual sweep, when faint energy emissions and hyper tracks were detected. The bots performed a cursory biosphere sweep and localized the emissions."

    "It's our job to do a drop," Bell Toll continued, "move to the area and determine, hopefully without detection, if there is or is not a Blob base in the area. There's something there, but it could be Blobs, free-colonizer humans or pirates. Or even another, unknown, race. It's up to us to determine which. And for that we'll need our sensat."

    "Tirdal, if I could have your attention, please," he asked, and Tirdal snapped upright. "Tirdal's been in service for quite some time as an intel analyst and interrogator. He's only recently been through the DRT course, but has some experience and time in grade, so, by the chain of command, he will be third in line of command, after me and Shiva. At ease, Tirdal.

    "Class Two, for those of you who slept through all the training sessions, means he can detect emotions and thought processes, but not reliably acquire actual thought symbols. Level Four means he can detect out to a variable but undefined range greater than Level Three. He's going to be one of our early warning systems so we don't walk into a tea party of Blobs. Also, if he can pick up any signs from a distance, we may not have to go in as far. I'm sure you all appreciate the advantage of that." They did. Brave fronts aside, anything that reduced mission risk was a good thing. Everyone took another look at the Darhel, looking as cool as an Oort planet in his brand new uniform. Most of the stares were curious, but a couple were cold. He didn't seem fazed.

    "With all that said, are there any questions not addressed in this briefing or your packets?" There were not. All the questions that the team wanted to ask were on the unofficial forbidden list. "Why are we doing this shit?" "Are we actually expected to survive?" "Is this a good time to ask for a transfer?" Questions that flashed through most of their minds, at least from the second mission onward, but could never be spoken. They were DRT and they hadn't gotten this far by quitting.

    "Then you had better get last minute stuff fixed up and check your gear. Zero seven hundred start tomorrow. The initial oporder will be Thursday at zero nine hundred. We'll probably lift sometime around seventeen hundred to nineteen hundred hours. That's all. Tirdal, follow me," he finished with a point of his finger. He knew better than to leave the Darhel alone for now. The team was still unwinding from their last exercise and wouldn't react well to the stress of an incoming alien sensat. He could already hear the grumbles.

    Despite shorter legs, the Darhel strode easily down the duraplast hallway alongside the captain, feeling the human's conflicting thoughts. Beneath the turmoil, there was order and confidence. Even more than regular troops, sensats needed to know their commanders were prepared to deal with issues. Tirdal felt the coming question arising before Bell Toll opened his mouth. "So what do you think, Tirdal?"

    "Of the situation, Captain? Of the team? Of the preparations?"

    "Of the team, for now."

    "I don't think they like me much," Tirdal said slowly. He said everything slowly. His voice wasn't taciturn or filtered to be deep and empty, that was just how Darhel spoke. His only expression was a flip of his right ear.

    The pictures to either side of them were more formal, line drawings and holos of battles and locales. Bell Toll appeared to study them as he walked, though he'd no doubt seen them thousands of times before.

    "They may not like you," the captain said, frowning. "Yet. But small teams require trust and teamwork. Since you're new and haven't been with the team in their exercises, or missions for that matter, you're naturally going to experience a bit of standoffishness. This is just the nature of being new to a team. Don't let it worry you. Do your job and everyone will forget that…"

    "That I'm a shiftless Darhel freak?" Tirdal supplied with an ear flick.

    "If you take that point of view things will be very rough indeed," the captain said, stopping to lock eyes with the Darhel. "And I won't tolerate discrimination."



    "Yes, Sir," Tirdal agreed, tasting the forceful honesty in the statement. For a wonder, the team commander seemed to accept him at face value: as a "newby" team member, not a Darhel, not an evil demon shylock. Still, the captain was keeping him separated from the rest of the team at present. Tirdal partly appreciated that because there was less stress in their thoughts when he wasn't around, but it wasn't a good sign. They'd have to learn to be comfortable to function.

    "But you still have to respect their unity and work to earn their trust," Bell Toll said, as if he were the sensat. "If you try to mess with the experienced members, they will go hard on you, trust me. You're the new boy, learn to deal."

    "Yes, Sir. I'm prepared for that."

    "Good. They're-we're-going to give you the respect due your rank. But it is up to you to prove that you're worthy to be here, not up to us to prove that we are."

    "Yes, Sir," Tirdal said as they reached the Captain's office.

    "I'm sure you've got your own preparations," Bell Toll said as he turned at his door. "Oporder for the exercise is at 0900. Same briefing room."

    Tirdal flicked his ear again, then left as Bell Toll closed the door.



    Back in the team's briefing room, the NCOIC had just returned. He'd arrived late and left early to deal with details, and no one had had a chance to talk to him, yet. Shiva, as he was known, walked in to the middle of the heated discussion about the Darhel. It was rather vehement, and he'd not even sat down before Thor confronted him.

    "We gotta goddamned Darhel sensat dumped on us, Sarge," he complained without even a nod of greeting.

    "I know, I was here," Shiva said. He was calm. Shiva was always calm. Considering the missions and the troops, it was a good attribute, and he'd made it as long as he had and to his rank because of it.

    "Good. What are you going to do about it?" Thor asked.

    "Nothing," Shiva replied. "Nothing I can do, and he's the sensat we've got. Sorry, Thor, you'll have to get used to him."

    "They probably let the little shrimp ghost Q course," Gorilla put in. "They always go easy on sensats." His voice was deep and gravelly to match his huge size.

    "Think so, huh?" Shiva asked, turning toward him.

    "Yeah, am I wrong?"

    "Well," Shiva drawled, a faint smile of amusement spreading across his face as he spread across the chair in a stretch. "He apparently maxed the course. Not 'exceptional,' but 'maxed.' I called Roy over at Course and the instructors were impressed. And most of 'em hated his guts. So there was no favoritism there."

    "It's probably just like the way chicks get treated," Gun Doll said. "There's so few of us, still, that we stand out. Everyone assumes that women, shrimps, aliens and civvy specialists get special treatment." She looked over at Dagger, who'd hazed her mercilessly upon her arrival, before grudgingly admitting she knew her job. "Right, Dagger?"

    Dagger was putting away fine tools from his cleaning and maintenance kit. He was forever tinkering with his rifle, and carried extra tools to that end. It was probably unauthorized for him to do depot level adjustments, but he shot well enough that no one would dare complain. He laid down a probe and shrugged very slightly.

    "I put him where I put everyone else. If he does his job, I don't have a problem. If Shiva says he maxed the course, I'll assume he can keep up, keep quiet and back us up." Closing the receiver on his gauss rifle, he cycled the mechanism, pressed the stud, and listened to the snap of the ignition circuit. "If he screws up, it'll make more work for me. Then we have a problem."

    Gun Doll, Gorilla and Shiva stared momentarily at each other, not at Dagger. Dagger wasn't paying attention to them. At least not outwardly. It was probably part of his act. He loved to play the cold killer. It was annoying, but it was how Dagger was.

    "Dammit, why did it have to be a Darhel? Why not a human sensat?" Thor groused.

    "Because we don't have enough," Shiva replied. Human sensats were not only rare, but were needed to produce galtech materials, because the only way anyone had figured out to produce most of the gear at that level was the way the Indowy did it-by "praying." Actually, it was a complex ritual of meditation and thought, but it was very intensive and those doing it were not generally available nor disposed to lugging huge rucks through dangerous wilderness. The Michia Mentat, the largest school of the sensory arts, kept pretty much to themselves, and had since the Islendian Republic had split from the Solarian Systems Alliance some hundreds of years before. They'd served more in a diplomatic role between the Fringe and the SSA, and part of the treaty had been written to keep them out of military matters. They'd sat out the rebellion, their focus being within, but everyone knew how badly Earth and its allies would have fared had they been involved. "Don't see you going to sensat testing, Thor."

    "Could be worse. It could be an Indowy sensat who we'd literally have to carry," Gun Doll said.

    "We'll manage," Dagger said and snapped his firing circuit again after his last round of adjustments. It couldn't be coincidence this time. Everyone stared at him.

    "Right," Shiva said, breaking the tableau. "If you plan on drinking, getting laid or anything else tonight, get your crap squared away now. If you don't make excuses, I won't have to make explanations, and we'll all be happier. We're departing straight after a one-day run through. So…



    …live it up now."



    It was well after 1700 when the prep work was done. Shiva was still doing administrative stuff, which never ended-the troops had to be certified as to range time, medical appointments and the other minutiae of military life. Bell Toll was scrounging data, trying to wheedle a few facts that could give his people the edge in this op, as well as drafting the orders and acknowledging briefings. This op was going to play hell with their training schedule for the Readiness Standards Evaluation, which since this wasn't, yet, a "declared war," had to be met. That was the military; stick you out on the raw end one day and put you through chickenshit the next.

    Thor appointed himself patrol leader of the bar crawl, and proceeded to prod the others. He first cornered Dagger in his room, who replied, "Thanks, but if I'm going to be shooting, I'd like to be as sober as possible." His expression wasn't exactly condescending, but Dagger was very much the psychotic loner. He almost turned into a cloistered monk before a mission, and wasn't much of a partier afterwards. He'd been known to have three beers, once or twice. He'd even had an expensive shot of Earth Whisky once. He wasn't cheap; he was just a purist.

    Tirdal was next, and looked somewhat confused. Behind him the lights were dim. The desk had been cleared and set with a small candlelike object, a book and some other items Thor couldn't identify from the door. They were some kind of religious or personal gear, and Thor didn't pry. It wasn't politeness; he was embarrassed. To his inquiry about joining the entourage, Tirdal replied, "You wish for us to appear in public as a group, then attempt to find private entertainment, then return to little sleep?"

    "That's sort of it," Thor agreed. "It's supposed to be fun and help take the edge off."

    Tirdal appeared to consider it for a moment, then replied.

    "My presence would create a disturbance among others that would not be helpful to you, I think. There will be nothing for me to do privately, and if left alone in public, there could be issues. As to 'taking the edge off,' I will meditate most certainly, and review recent events. I also need to study more of both human interaction and technical matters. So I think not. But I do thank you for the invitation. Perhaps when this is over the timing would be more conducive."

    "Well," Thor said, "if you want to observe human interaction, this would be the time."

    "I'm aware of that, and the idea is intriguing," Tirdal replied. "But other considerations take priority. I hope, however, that everyone has a good time on your 'bar crawl'."

    "Thanks, then," Thor said a bit awkwardly. "I hope your meditation goes well." It seemed the polite thing to say.

    He knocked on Ferret's door and found the specialist leaning back in his bunk with his fingers interlaced behind his head.

    "Bar crawl time," Thor said.

    "I'm on it," Ferret said, rolling to his feet and slipping his feet into ship-boots.

    "Glad to hear it," Thor said, with feeling. There was nothing lonelier than a single-handed bar crawl. "The Sarge can't make it, we don't want the Captain along, Dagger's being himself and Tirdal doesn't seem to understand the concept."

    "Just as well," Ferret had told him. "Either of them would scare chicks away, and we don't need a fight tonight, either."

    Thus it was that Gorilla, Ferret, Thor and Gun Doll went looking for distraction before their appointment to spend two months in space and muck. They met right outside the base gate, where everything a homesick young troop could yearn for was available.

    There was the branch of "Feelings, Inc" who had staked out space outside every base on three planets, to sell cheap trinkets to soldiers as "fine jewelry" for their loved ones back home, wherever home might be. The prices were not cheap.

    A vid arcade clattered and dinged, lights flashing through the door. Every machine in the place was cranked to maximum difficulty. Entertainment equipment could be rented at stiff fees, the purveyor sure of their income because troops' ID numbers could be called in to the base if funds were tardy, to be forcibly secured from said troops while their commanders wrote them up for failing to be responsible and for disgracing the service. Only the former mattered to the business in question.

    An old electronics storefront had been converted, the sign out front proclaiming "Bambi's Lingerie." It had once added, "private showings available" until some wiseass had changed the marquee lettering to read, "Ass and head," which had likely been true, Bambi's having been shut down weeks before by the local mayor and police, concerned about the morals of their town. That emphasis on old Solarian "morals" was quaint and hickish on a planet like Islendia.

    However, that concern for morals didn't extend to the rest of the strip of small establishments determined to find some way, any way, to liberate all the cash soldiers and spacers might have. Everyone loved the military, as long as the military had cash to burn. After that, they were free to piss off, or go back on base and quit whining, or spend a complimentary night in the town lockup. The screwing of soldiers wasn't a moral concern, as long as that screwing involved their time and money but not sex. Unless, of course, that sex followed a spending spree in the "Short Time Saloon," the area's only real bar.

    Not being homesick young troops, and far more savvy and sophisticated than anyone might think at their ripe ages of twenty or more, they walked right past Soldier Row and paid no attention.

    "Dancing," Gun Doll insisted. She was made up in electric blue, including a dye for her bobbed hair. She wore a long overtunic to hide her shoulders and hips.



    It wasn't that she was unattractive, but her proportions were unusual, with her height and solid skeleton. Men were intimidated, and even more so when they found out she was a DRT. It was exasperating, and she tried to play it down. Instead she played other things up-the garment was slit down to below her navel.

    "Drinking," said Gorilla. It was a long-standing argument between them. He wore a jacket and tie over his shorts, trying to look casual from his lofty height. Gorilla never wore makeup, because he felt it looked stupid on his craggy face.

    "Drinking and dancing, and lots of chicks," Thor said. Thor had strange styles of fashion, wearing a synthleather jacket at least ten years out of date over striped tights. His bulging thighs and broad shoulders were obvious, he hoped.

    Gun Doll said, "Drinking and dancing, hold the chicks."

    "Oh, I will," Thor agreed, grinning.

    Ferret, wearing jeans and cutaway tunic to show off his pecs, made up lightly and relaxed as always, asked, "Same place as last time, or someplace new?"

    "Who got laid last time?" Gorilla asked.

    "I did," Gun Doll admitted, "But I had to pimp myself to do it. How about somewhere less snooty?"

    "Yeah," Thor agreed, "Somewhere where we'll be recognized for the cold, calculating killers and human sex machines we really are."

    "So, Thor wants to go to Fantasyland," Ferret grinned, elbowing him.

    "Yeah, whatever, there's a bus," Thor said, pointing. "We can get sweaty after we find the chicks."

    They boarded the bus just in time to be hanging at the door as it sought cruising altitude of ten meters. The driver gave them a dirty look, because they were violating the law and it would be his ass if anything happened to them. It was obvious from the clash of styles they were military. Their casual attitude about the height said they were some kind of commandos, as did the cropped hair and thick necks and shoulders. Already they were getting looks, and that suited this group fine.

    They didn't care about ugly looks or amused glances. All they cared about was attention from other young people, preferably attractive, though "attractive" was a slippery term when alcohol or other intoxicants, their other desire, entered the picture. And all of it would make for great stories later.

    As their profession required utter secrecy and low profiles, they made up for the lack when in public. They were loud and brash on the trip, and though they gave no details, that being a prudent standard, there were enough varied commandos stationed there that no one had any doubt they were some of them. That, and the heavier than usual sidearms they carried.

    While having guns didn't of itself attract favorable attention, competence combined with them did. When a feral Posleen might trot down any street, suddenly charging to the attack when the urge and voracious appetite tickled its semi-sapient fancy, the presence of professional killers was a welcome thing. The troops were therefore popular, no matter their young, smartass attitudes. None of the passengers complained about the noise, and a few kept close. Islendia might be urban and modern, but Islendia was also raw and savage. It had been wrested from the Posleen at great cost, and scars across the landscape attested to a generous use of antimatter weapons and crashed Posleen landing craft, sent to reinforce the existing settlement as the humans landed and advanced.

    Being fecund egg layers, the Posleen had been defeated but not wiped out. They came in two classes. "Normals" were semi-sentient, just bright enough to swing a rock, or, if so equipped, pointshoot a weapon. "God Kings" were larger, sentient and scary. Each God King would control up to fifty or sixty normals, running them around like tabletop gaming counters through a handful of Superior Normals. Posleen were parthenogenetic carnivores that looked like a cross between centaurs, crocodiles and ponies. Their defining attribute was their voracious appetite. Their enemies and prey became sushi and jerky in short order.

    When they'd arrived in the sector, armed with star drive and advanced weapons, they'd proceeded to wipe out every planet they came to, like locusts in a field. Then they'd met humanity. Most of the human race had not survived, but, on the other hand, most of the Posleen advance hadn't either. And as the old joke said about "the unstoppable force hitting the immovable object" there had been a lot of side effects. One was "tamed" Darhel. Another was the Tular Posleen.

    The Tular Posleen were a settled, trustworthy race who only rarely ate sentient creatures, and even then only other Posleen, and kept to their own planets. The ferals left behind on a hundred planets were simply ravening beasts to be exterminated. And anyone on such a planet who didn't carry a weapon stayed close to those who did.

    That had been part of what pushed Islendia, her thirty odd Republic planets and similar number of colonies over the edge to rebellion. Earth had wanted to resume the strict weapon controls and environmental standards it had been working on before the Posleen invasion. At which the blighted and struggling worlds of the Fringe had screamed bloody murder. Not drain a swamp because it might "damage the natural balance," when such balance was already screwed by the presence of Posleen in the bog? Not bloody likely. And suggesting one seek permission for an AI guided autocannon with antimatter shells to deal with said Posleen, just because some Earth bureaucrat thought they were "inappropriate" for civilians wasn't a concept to win the hearts and minds of the Fringers.

    The bus trip wasn't long, only about 200 km, through a falling Sun and then into the domed warren of the city proper. Islendia was actually an Earthlike moon of a monstrous gas giant, debatably a brown dwarf, that had been christened Juliana. Juliana was coming into full phase as Isel, the system's star, set, the planet a fluffy wash of colors on the horizon, seeming to stretch endlessly. It would rise to show dun and ochre bands punctuated by bright red roils of reacting hydrogen. Its ring formation and myriad satellites made it a rare sight for those tourists who could afford the steep transit fees, and the complex rotation of it and Islendia around Isel led to very strange day cycles.



    The troops paid little attention. Not only had they grown up with that tangerine monster hanging over them, they'd seen far more exciting things, from their viewpoint, on other planets. Dagger was from far out on the Fringe, and would likely find it interesting, if he were along and if he were disposed to admitting to a human esthetic weakness. They, who had traveled far, kept their attention focused down at the seething fleshpots below.

    The fleshpots were another of Islendia's appeals for the prudish but wealthy residents of the SSA, and the lax laws and taxes of Islendia had permitted the relatively poor former colony build a a hefty trade surplus with the more settled inner worlds. Tourists, however, were becoming less common as Earth and its leechlike dependents became more insular and introspective.

    Something was happening to the inner worlds, something that was rarely spoken of and poorly understood. The visitors, generation by generation, were becoming less and less interested in "Fringer" delights and more and more introspective and studious. On the other hand, that was also easing the political tensions.

    The bus kept its altitude all the way in, coasting between ever taller buildings lit in varying colors. The older ones had plain illumination. The newer ones were lit with panels of color and images, turning them into three-dimensional artwork that rose for dozens of meters above the traffic. The advertisements rose higher than the buildings. Despite the domes and a state-of-the-art defense grid, large meteors were a common occurrence on Islendia, because of the nature of the Juliana system, and a 25 megaton blast in the stratosphere instead of on the surface was still bad for structural integrity. None of the buildings rose above thirty stories. It wasn't common for domes to crack, but if they did, the same shockwave would tear the edifices apart. Hence, most activity was indoors and underground, despite the complications of building down instead of up.

    The driver landed them atop a platform in front of a complex, still a good ten meters up. The four were already crowding the door before it opened, and erupted as they would from an assault pod under fire, swarming out and toward the broad, anachronistic stairs descending into the club called Sector A, its lights dim red to match the décor.

    Thor was first, flashing an ID and waving his card at the sensor. He slowed just enough for the dye marker to slap coldly against his hand, and was already reconning the place as he passed inside. It was fortunate they were sober, as the flashing lights and shifting holograms made visibility an iffy proposition, and it was hard to tell substance from image. That was part of Sector A's appeal. He decided on an empty corner booth, and arrived there at a run, beating another man who looked annoyance at him but didn't dispute it. The booth was one of many set high on the wall, approachable from below only by a ladder, but low enough for "vertical envelopment" of the floor below. Thor scrambled up the ladder with the rest of the team following.

    "Here we go!" Ferret called as he arrived behind Thor, taking the side seat. "A good, clear field of fire."

    "For you to puke?" asked Gorilla, whose height gave him even an even greater view from the booth's position high on the wall. His back was to that wall, too. The others couldn't see past his imposing bulk.

    Thor said, "Ferret, don't get us thrown out by tossing beers, okay? Even if it's a charitable thing to do, it's messy and pisses off the goons."

    "Back soon!" Gun Doll yelled cheerfully, as she swung over the railing and dropped. One of the security goons started yelling at her as she bounced across the floor to join a man who was dancing by himself. She made a hand gesture in the goon's direction that was at least as old as star-faring mankind and grabbed the dancing man by the elbow. At first surprised, he smiled shortly and they melted into the growing crowd.

    Gorilla said, "Score one, Gun Doll. Are we going to hit on chicks? Or drink first?"

    "Drink first," Thor said. "That way when Ferret gets us thrown out it will hurt less."

    The place hadn't filled to capacity before they grew bored and left. There was no time to develop an image or a relationship. The needs were immediate, and constant movement the chosen means of finding company. That it was neither efficient nor cost effective didn't enter into the picture. They'd hit club after club until luck, boredom or morning did them in. Any of them could have explained the folly in their approach, had they stopped to think, but thinking was to be avoided for the moment.

    From Sector A they went to Eden, a club lit only by UV lights. Couples and small groups made out in the near-black corners and nooks built in for that purpose. The building was a converted police command post from the early days of Islendian colonization, and had numerous closets, lockers and offices now converted into open space, some left as lockable cubbies for trysts.

    "Hey, look at the diplopukes!" Ferret said, a bit too loudly. "They're wearing suits!"

    Gun Doll played off it. "Hush, it's not polite to stare."

    The diplomats appeared to be from somewhere in the Solarian Systems Alliance. It was always amusing to see staid, conservative representatives staring in awed embarrassment at painted men and women sweating off their lusts. They arrived expecting yokels. Everyone from their planets knew the Islendian Republic was populated by gun-toting, backwards farmers. Yet those farmers had a deep understanding of sexuality, and a devil-may-care attitude. Tomorrow might bring a meteor too large for the defense net, a feral Posleen to rip one's leg off, or worse, a sport God King leading an oolt of fifty of the damned things to eat a school. So why not eat, drink and screw today, if the work was done and the bills paid?



    There was also a vivid liveliness to the Republic that was missing in the inner worlds. Although the inner worlds were far more technologically adept, it was the Fringe which produced the poets, artists and actors that created the entertainment the inner worlds craved. The daily drama of survival, the life-and-death nature of life on the Fringe seemed to bring out far more artistry than the placid, safe, lives of the Core.

    Whatever the case, the "hicks" were both more alive and more sophisticated than the Core worlders and that life and sophistication was always hard for the Core worlders to fully grasp. Often they saw only a barbaric spectacle, but that spectacle held far more beauty than could be found from Earth to Iota Persei.

    Eden led to Mac's Place, to four or five others they wouldn't remember, but would track by the stamps on their arms. On the street somewhere between Sudsy Capone's Laundromat and Bistro, which rated highly for its original theme, and The Orbital Room with its drunken young women and screaming music, Thor was struck by philosophy.

    "Isn't it odd," he said, "How we, young, strapping, desirable hunks of flesh, Gorilla excepted, of course, on the prowl and itching to get blown, laid or whatever, have some of the poorest luck?"

    "Speak for yourself," Gun Doll snickered. She twirled a man's underwear around her finger. "I had a quickie at Eden while you were busy being hosed by that blonde. And I think that was a guy in trans, anyway-"

    Thor interrupted with, "I assure you she was female. Very female, and-"

    "Yeah? So where's her panties?" Gorilla asked. "You know the rules. No souvenir, no score for the board."

    Sighing, Thor continued, "No, we didn't get that far. My point is, we seem to manage less action than the soft businessmen."

    "They've got more money than you ever will," Gun Doll said. "Besides, where's Ferret?" she asked rhetorically.

    "Still at Sudsy's," Gorilla chuckled. "Last time I saw him, which is while Thor was taking that tumble in the air dryer, he was sneaking behind the machines with something that was very probably female."

    "Yep, saw that," she agreed. "So there goes your profound theory, Thor." Her tongue tripped over the phrase. She'd had a few drinks, too. "The score is One, Ferret and me, half point for you for style because we're being generous, and Gorilla has none yet but the night is young."

    Thor pointed out, "It's three ayem and we've got an oh seven hundred formation."

    "Yep, young," she agreed. "I think I can score two tonight." She was eyeing a man outside a bar, holding a drink and leaning casually against the wall. "Target acquired, fire for effect," she said. Her voice was sultry and seductive and so out of place with her normal personae and the comment.

    Thor and Gorilla chuckled. "Goodnight, Doll. See you in four hours."

    She waved her fingers behind her back as she sidled up to the stranger and smiled a smile that promised him a lot of intense, if brief, fun.

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