“Don’t mess with geneblasters,” repeated the captain as they scanned the wreckage of the fuel depot, the blue light of Kiki’s scanner fanning out sharply in the dust-heavy night, limning a profusion of broken struts and shattered steel-mesh platforms. “Isn’t that what I always say? Kiki, what do I always say about geneblasters?”
“Don’t mess with them, sir,” the robot repeated dolorously.
“It’s just obvious, right? You start –”
An enormous boom, felt as much as heard, the vibration actually visible as a shimmer in the dust, pounded through the darkened city, so they all three involuntarily ducked their heads. But it seemed distant enough, and after a considering pause, Hor pointed out a half-buried chunk of illuximite glowing under the scanner. “Here. Bring the dolly.” Illuximite was ten times as dense as gold – and ten times as valuable. “You start altering this, shifting that, introducing whatever crazy mutagen you found at the bottom of the ocean or whatever, and suddenly shit goes crazy. Flesh bubbling up like fucking chewing gum, mouths everywhere, probably acid for blood… shit could lead anywhere.”
Alger, Hor’s giant yellow ape of a first mate, grunted as she heaved a piece of concrete off their prize and then glanced at her captain dubiously. “You own a geneblaster.”
“Everybody owns a geneblaster. That’s the problem. Here, get the hooks underneath it.” The arms of the dolly squealed a bit in protest, but in a moment the iridescent column of illuximite was securely on the little antigrav platform. “The point is, you’ve got to use it responsibly. You know? It’s serious biomedical tech, for curing diseases and creating new crops and whatnot. You have to be careful with it.”
“Didn’t you use it just the other day?” Alger said. As they talked they moved on to more illuximite, some jade-green dolgon, a pool of shimmering red solemury. Normally the depot would have been heavily guarded, but it seemed the current crisis had convinced the guards to seek employment elsewhere. They tread carefully around smashed load-lifters, great mounds of rubble and hissing pipes, the occasional corpse.
“What? No, I don’t think so.”
“Yes sir, you did,” interjected Kiki.
“I think I would remember.”
“You were trying to pacify the winged gogro we’d captured on Timmin Four. I believe your exact words were, ‘I’m going to ride this bitch into the fucking sunset.'”
Hor laughed. “Oh, yeah. That would’ve been great.”
The image of the captain, who looked a bit like a small, upright anklyosaur, riding the terrifying winged and tentacled bulk of a gogro passed through Alger’s mind, and she gave an involuntary shudder. Like imagining a particularly reckless three-year-old behind the controls of a tank. “Didn’t work, though,” she observed.
“No, those gogros, you wouldn’t believe how stubborn they are. Fucking obstreperous. I did manage to get some tiger stripes on it, though.”
“And what then?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, then what did you do with the –”
“DOWN ON THE GROUND!”
Together the trio raised their hands and slowly turned around, blinking in the sudden glare of a floating sentry-bot above them, and the laser sights of two security guards. “Take it easy,” Hor said. “We’re on your side, guys.”
“Bullshit,” said the one on the left, the line of the laser clearly visible in the dust, its terminus firmly on Hor’s bulbous skull. “Down on your knees!”
The two were Lalamaks, local chaps with grayish skin, big three-fingered hands and an unpleasant profusion of beady black eyes. They were wearing navy-blue windbreakers emblazoned with the Lalamaki equivalent of “SECURITY.”
“We’re with the company,” Hor explained, with just the right touch of alarm. “Just calm down, all right? They brought us in for this. Dangerous materials retrieval.”
“You’re looters,” growled the guard. “And if you don’t lie down, I’m going to turn your head into fucking vapor.”
“Whoa! Hold on!” Slowly Hor came down to the thorny ridges that passed for his knees. Alger followed suit, while Kiki just lowered her round bulk on her whip-like legs until it touched the concrete. “We’ve got credentials, if you’ll just take your finger off the trigger for second. You know what’s going to happen if corporate finds out you shot the team they sent to secure this mess?”
“We’re security,” objected the second Lala.
“Yeah, no shit. You’re security, and we’re disposal. I’ve got proof right here on my handheld.” He pointed down to a device in his belt-pouch. “Let me get it out and show you.”
“Hands up!” barked Lala One. “Tonak, get the thing out for him and take a look.”
Several of Tonak’s eyes looked uncertainly at his partner. “You serious?”
“Yes, I’m serious! I’ll cover you. The bot’s got the rest.”
“Shouldn’t we just call corporate and –”
“There’s no coms, you idiot! Whole system’s knocked out.”
“Oh, yeah.” Tonak hoisted his gun again, raising his voice appropriately. “All right, DOWN ON THE GROUND! Hands out where I can see them!”
To Alger’s surprise, Hor complied, splaying his limbs out in the dust. With an ostentatious display of caution, Tonak crept forward, pressed the gun’s muzzle right against Hor’s head, and fumbled at the pouch. At last he withdrew a thick tablet with a little screen. “This it?”
Tonak turned it over. “I don’t see a verification.”
“I have to bring it up,” Hor pointed out.
“Oh, yeah. But stay down!” Again the guard flourished the gun, then pondered how Hor would operate the device in that position. Finally he knelt, setting it down on the broken concrete by Hor’s head. “Okay. Show me.”
It’s going to electrocute him or something, thought Alger. Fire a pulse wave that will disable their weapons.
Nothing of the sort. Hor tap-tapped at the screen and handed it to the guard. With vigorous caution Tonak backed away toward his cohort, then together they looked at the screen. They exchanged glances, which is quite a process for Lalamaks. “What do you think, Meeg?” Tonak muttered.
Meeg frowned uncertainly. “I don’t know. Might be real, might not. I say we go and get –”
His plan was interrupted by the universe’s loudest, fiercest, most shattering scream, so loud even the robots pressed their limbs against their sensors and cowered. It was followed by the sound of a nearby skyscraper being thrown across the city. Some of it passed directly above the depot, visible through the huge holes in the roof. Turned out seeing half a building ripping through the air above you was at once more exciting but less pleasant than you’d think.
“Fuck fuck fuck,” said Tonak, all eight eyes wide as could be. He scrambled to his feet, backing away rapidly. “That thing’s getting closer.”
Meeg was of sterner stuff. “Where do you think you’re going?”
“Home! Or I don’t know, the mountains? A really deep tunnel?”
“What about them?” He gestured back at the crew.
“What about them?”
“We can’t just leave them.”
“Yes we can. We definitely can.”
“I say we scrag ’em.” Meeg hefted his weapon to his shoulder purposefully. “It’s the safest course of action.”
“Whoa, whoa!” Hor cried. He got up to his knees again. “Okay, look, can I tell you two something?”
“What’s that?” Meeg’s two uppermost eyes narrowed suspiciously. The rest narrowed threateningly.
“We’re not from disposal. We’re interstellar salvage.”
“Pirates! I knew it! See, Tonak, this is why we should just shoot anyone we don’t recognize.” The sentry bot made an approving beep. “Thanks for letting us know. I think I’ll shoot you now.”
“Wait! Do you want to live through this?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, there’s a giant space monster destroying your city!” Hor screeched. “Right now it’s maybe ten blocks away, and it’s coming closer. Even if you survive the next five minutes, the odds of you surviving the next month are about million to one.”
As if to emphasize his point, a mid-sized hovership crashed through one of the remaining sides of the depot and exploded. Again they all ducked.
“On the other hand,” Hor continued when the noise had died down, “I have a spaceship. Right around the corner. So what say you let us go, join up with us, and we’ll go get drinks at a nice bar on Celicon Four?”
“I’ve never been to Celicon,” said Tonak hopefully, looking at his partner.
“I don’t know,” wavered Meeg. “I have a girlfriend here.”
Another ear-splitting screech, causing the very ground to tremble.
“Had, mostly likely,” said Hor.
“Good point. Okay, let’s go.”
Outside was chaos. There was an orange haze over everything from many large fires raging. At least half the buildings were destroyed, especially south of where they stood. Even as they watched another collapsed, just a couple blocks over. There were also rather a lot of explosions, laser flashes, screams, rending metal and the like. They turned north, where things were still mostly intact.
“This way,” Kiki indicated. They were all jogging at a good clip, somewhat hindered by rubble and the dolly, which they certainly weren’t leaving behind. As they ran, however, the tumult seemed to follow them, immensely loud noises startlingly near, the ground vibrating, dust billowing. They all moved a little faster, turning east down a narrow alley, panting and coughing, and hurrying through a metal-slatted fence to an empty lot between a government building and a restaurant, where they’d left the ship, the Cuckoo’s Claw. Hor pressed a control, and the loading ramp opened, showing the light from the cargo bay.
A huge crash, a huger scream, and the restaurant disappeared. From the corner of her eye as they ran, Alger just glimpsed an enormous barbed tentacle, four feet wide and unfathomably long, bash the sentry bot to pieces and swipe poor Meeg from the ground. “Eek,” he said, continuing, “AAAH,” a lamentably unquotable choice of last words.
As soon as they were on board, Hor frantically slapped the button to close the loading bay, yelling at Foomus, the pilot, to “TAKE OFF NOW! NOW!”
Foomus was only too happy to comply, and they all wobbled as the thrusters kicked in. As they felt the lift beneath them they breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Alger turned to Hor. “I saw Meeg get taken by a tentacle.”
Tonak shook his head. “Poor Meeg. Well, it’s how he would’ve wanted to go.”
“There was something unusual about it, as tentacles go.”
Hor shrugged, doing his best to look innocent. Innocent, it turned out, wasn’t his look. “What’s that?”
“Stripes. Tiger stripes.”
“Huh. Weird. Who wants a –”
Suddenly they were all thrown violently sideways, tumbling into the bulkhead. “We’re in trouble!” yelled Foomus from the cockpit.
A glance out a porthole told why. An orange-and-black tentacle half a mile long had snatched them out of the sky and was dragging them back to a spiky mouth the size of a large sinkhole. Foomus fired the plasma cannon at it, making the geneblasted gogro scream in pain and rage, rattling the metal sides of the ship.
All the shaking had knocked open some of the storage lockers in the cargo deck, and much equipment had spilled out, including, Alger saw, the very source of this evil, a shoulder-mounted weapon with a cheery logo on its side reading, Symtech Evo Revo: Get Blasted! Alger shouted at Hor, “What did you do, blow it out the airlock?”
Hor said defensively, “What else could I do? Thing was basically unkillable already.”
“Blew it out in the atmosphere?!”
“What am I, a housemaid?”
The tip of a tentacle had found the seam of the cargo bay door, and with a rending squeal of metal it tore the door open. The whole ship turned on end, the gogro shaking it like a toy, and they all scrabbled for handholds. An enormous eye, large as the opening, swam up disconcertingly close to the door. Was the creature looking for something?
Hor fired at the eye with his little handheld laser. The gogro screamed in pain, and, Alger could have sworn, recognition.
Nearby, Tonak was wedged between two lockers, looking incredulously at Hor. As it happened, the geneblaster had slid right over to him, and now he held it loosely. “Did you cause this?” He looked wonderingly at the weapon. “What did you do, geneblast a gogro or something?”
“Kid, we all do things sometimes we regret,” Hor said placatingly. “Let’s just –”
Tonak fired. The bright red beam caught Hor full in the chest, and his eyes widened in surprise. “Oh, you bastard.”
Then he screamed, as well he might, with his shell cracking open and his limbs arching spastically. Sounded painful, but if you want to make a monster, you’ve got to crack a few shells. Already his form was changing, distorting, getting larger. Incredibly, though, he had somehow retained his grip on the handle of a locker.
As if in demand, the gogro shook the ship again, and more tentacles came questing in. It definitely wanted Hor.
Alger saw what needed to be done. “Sorry, Captain. Them’s the breaks.” With that she seized the handle of a locker herself, swung over agilely, and with one long leg, kicked his grip free.
He fell, eyes wide, and instantly one of the tentacles whipped around him. In a flash he was gone.
The other tentacles loosened around the ship, and with a roar of engines they broke free. Cautiously, as the ship righted itself, they stood up and staggered toward the galley. “Sorry about your captain,” said Tonak, not without some satisfaction. “Probably torn to pieces by now.”
Alger looked out a viewscreen dubiously. “Don’t be so sure. He was always a tough bastard. Now he’s a tough geneblasted bastard.” She tapped the screen. “Just be glad you’re not down there. Nothing worse for your health than a giant mutant monster battle.”