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Gunslinger to the Stars

by Joe Vasicek

Copyright © 2017 Joseph Vasicek.

All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to actual persons, organizations, or events is purely coincidental.

Editing by Josh Leavitt.

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Table of Contents

Copyright Page

Table of Contents

Stranded in the Armpit of the Galaxy

A Gunslinging Job Opportunity

A Misfit Mind Reader

Catching Up on Old Times

Teleporters Are the Worst

Doing My Part for Interspecies Relations

In Space, No One Can Save You from the Stupid

First Contact? All in a Day’s Work

The Gun that Shoots Through Walls

Never Bring a Gun to a Knife Fight

Out of the Alien Frying Pan Analog

Connecting the Dots

A Million-Year Vendetta

Only Fools Know Too Much to Live

Interstellar Letters of Marque and Reprisal

Opening a Jumpgate Ain’t Like Dusting Crops

Hell Hath No Fury Like an Immortal Scorned

Charity Never Faileth (And Neither Does Jane)

Author’s Note | Acknowledgments


The name's Sam Kletchka. Perhaps you've heard of me: captain of the Star Runner, military contractor for Earthfleet, and interstellar privateer. But before all that, I was a hired gun, freelancing across the galaxy one gunslinging job at a time.

This, my friends, is how I went from being stranded in the armpit of the galaxy to becoming the luckiest human being in the universe. Not that it was easy, of course. I've looked death in the face so often, he's practically an old buddy of mine. But when all your worst enemies are immortal, that's a buddy you want on your side.

Stay frosty, my friends. You never know what you’ll find at the next star.

Stranded in the Armpit of the Galaxy

The Gorinal Star Cluster is, in every meaningful sense, the armpit of the galaxy. And it was just my luck to get stranded there when shit hit the fan.

I didn’t know that at the time, of course. My ship, the Star Runner, was in pretty bad shape (don’t ask), and except for the fuel in my tank, I was broke. Desperate as I was for work—any kind of work—the lawless Gorinal Cluster was the only real option for a gunslinger like me.

The name’s Sam, by the way. Sam Kletchka, of New Texas. I spent a year at Earthfleet Academy before dropping out on my twenty-first birthday to seek my fortune among the stars.

Back in those days, Earthfleet was mostly just twentieth-century submarines and aircraft carriers, hastily repurposed and barely spaceworthy. Only three decades had passed since first contact with the galactics and we were still in a mad scramble to put as many colonies on the starmap as possible. With all of our resources tied up in the Gliese colonies, there was no boldly going for the class of ’39.

Fortunately, we didn’t have to seek out new life and new civilizations: they came to us. So, after dropping out of the Earthfleet Academy, I signed onto a Hyadean star freighter and never looked back.

The voyage to the Aldebaran jumpgate was long and tedious. I won’t bore you with the details. Humans are one of the few races that refuse to allow the construction of a jumpgate at their homeworlds—a wise course of action, as you’ll soon discover. So, you can imagine my wonder when I beheld one with my own eyes for the first time.

Picture a large ring like something out of the Halo series, more than ten kilometers in diameter, with a cross section as large as a colony ship. Look through it, and you’re seeing a whole other starscape. It is, quite literally, a doorway to the stars, and it’s always open, without tolls or customs agents or border patrols. The Immortals built the jumpgate network millions of years ago, and it’s as much a feature of the galactic landscape as the stars and planets themselves. Anyone can use them, and no one wants to live in a galaxy without them.

Which is why it freaked the hell out of everyone when the Gorinal Prime jumpgate went dark.

I had flown through not fifteen minutes before and was navigating my approach to the planet when the jumpgate shut down. Went dead. Turned off. There wasn’t even a flash or anything, just a very brief flicker as the distant starscape blinked out. And just like that, the only practical way out of the system was gone.

The comm went haywire almost immediately. A massive Nidrexian jumpgate-hopper had still been in transit and gotten effectively chopped in half. Emergency first responders were scrambling to help, and all the other ships queued to leave filled the channels with panic and mayhem. Nobody knew what to do.

Realizing that I was stranded, I did the only sensible thing and headed to the nearest bar for a drink.

The fifth planet of Gorinal Prime is the only one in the system that’s habitable, if you’re willing to stretch the definition of the word. G-Prime V is essentially a giant desert, with oceans of sand instead of water. Fortunately, the spaceport is on the planet’s north pole, where the weather is cool enough there to have clouds, rain, and even a couple salty seas. With nowhere else to go, I decided to try what was left of my rapidly deteriorating luck.

Every spaceport in the galaxy has a seedy cantina somewhere nearby. At G-Prime V, that’s a place the locals call the Oasis. Finding humans in the Orion Arm isn’t too hard; xenologists, merchants, vagabonds, and men of fortune like myself are all pretty common in that corner of the galaxy. But the Gorinal Cluster is in the Scutum-Crux Arm, on the far side of the galactic core. Out there, humans are as rare as ice on a neutron star.

So you can imagine my shock when I saw a twenty-something blonde at the bar—one who was definitely not happy to see me.

Okay, I guess I have to backtrack a bit. About a month before my arrival at G-Prime, I had been working for a Setarni starship captain, one of those blue-skinned aliens with the facial tentacles. I was second-in-command, which also made me last-in-command, because it was just the two of us. Setarni are fairly similar to humans, with an average height of about two and a half meters, so the Star Runner (which I, um, “appropriated” from my former employer) suited me quite well. Unfortunately, the Setarni captain didn’t. He was a mean son of a bitch who would have sold his own mother for half a tank of fuel, even if his mother was willing to pay full price.

We were flying escort for a Setarni convoy to one of their outlying colonies, near a war zone with the neighboring Zan. Long story short, we got ambushed by slavers, and the son-of-a-bitch captain struck a deal. I argued fiercely against it, but in the end, he sold out his own people for thirty pieces of silver—or in this case, credits in a nearby slave market. Thinking to make a profit off the war, he bought a few cryo-frozen Zan officers to sell to the Setarni before word got back of our betrayal. But a Zan task force detained us on the way back. With no desire to die beside my son-of-a-bitch employer, the moment he teleported onto their ship, I dumped the crytubes and ran like hell.

Unfortunately, it was too late to save the Setarni convoy. I tried to track down the slavers, but they’d already auctioned off their captives, one of whom was a blonde xenologist from Earth named Jane Carter. We’d met briefly at Earthfleet Academy, on a blind date that had gone surprisingly well. We didn’t see each other after that until the Setarni escort job, and I thought I’d never see her ever again.

Except there she was, sitting at the bar in the Oasis. And she was clearly still pissed off at me.

“Uh, hi,” I said, taking the seat next to her.

“You!” she said. Her eyes fixated on me like a targeting lock, and I could tell I was about to get burned.

“Hey, it wasn’t my fault,” I tried to explain. “In fact, I—”

“More than a thousand men, women, and children are slaves thanks to you. You should be ashamed of yourself.”

“It looks like you made out all right, though.”

Her glare only got hotter. “Do you have any idea what it’s like to be sold on an auction block? To stand there like a piece of chattel while hundreds of aliens bid on you? It was the most degrading and humiliating experience of my life.”

“If I had been there, I would have bought you myself.”

I meant that if I’d caught up to her in time, I would have spared her the humiliation by buying her off before the auction. But I’ve never been smooth around women, human or otherwise.

“That came out wrong,” I said quickly. “What I meant was—”

“You pig,” she said, her eyes blazing with rage. “You bottom-sucking, piss-drinking, retrograde cretin!”

I took a deep breath and sighed. “Let’s start over, okay? I’m sorry, Jane—really, I am.”

Her glare cooled, but not by much. She folded her arms and narrowed her eyes.

“And what about the other Setarni? The families that were broken up? The children who will probably be slaves for the rest of their lives?”

“I’m sorry, but that wasn’t my fault. The captain sold them out before I could do anything to stop him.”

“Please don’t tell me he’s here with you.”

“He isn’t,” I said quickly. “We got into an altercation with the Zan, and I handed him over before bugging out.”

Jane smirked. “Betrayal for betrayal. I suppose that’s justice.”

“Can I buy you a drink?”

A word about galactic beverages. Most aliens metabolize sugar about as well as humans metabolize alcohol. By galactic standards, the old-fashioned soda fountains of the 1950s carried some really hard liquor. That said, the truly hard stuff can peel paint, and most barkeeps don’t know human physiology well enough to tell the difference. If you’re looking for more than a sugar buzz, you’re better off brewing it yourself.

Which is why Jane’s answer gave me some cause for concern.

“Sure. Whatever,” she said, leaning heavily on her elbows.

“What do you—”

“I don’t care.”

I frowned. Was she really so far gone that the prospect of getting her stomach pumped didn’t faze her? Or was it a sign that she trusted me?

“Two Hyadean fruit cocktails,” I told the barkeep.

Jane glanced at me sidelong. “Is that your idea of a drink?”

“I came prepared,” I said, pulling a flask out of my jacket pocket. She rolled her eyes, but the corners of her lips curled up in a smile.

“So, what happened after the slave auction?”

She sighed. “I was bought by a band of empath shapeshifters. They were kind enough to free me, so long as I signed an employment contract. I’m working for them now.”

“Empath shapeshifters?”

“It’s a race we haven’t catalogued yet. They feed on emotional energy, and can alter their physical form to match most alien races.”

“Sounds like an interesting bunch,” I said, accepting my cocktail from the barkeep. I drizzled some of my home brew into it and handed the flask to Jane. To my dismay, she refused it. Guess her trust only went so far.

“They’ve been treating me all right. Humans are new to them, so they’re eager to learn as much about us as they can. They run a sort of host club for alien races, catering to their emotional needs.”

“A host club?”

“Yeah. They do what they can to pleasure their clients, and feed off of the positive emotions that ensue.”

“So, a brothel, then.”

She stiffened. “I’d rather not call it that. Sex isn’t the only service they offer.”

To my credit, I kept my mouth shut.

“In any case,” she continued, “they offered me a secretarial position and free room and board, with the understanding that I would help them adapt their skills to humans.”

“Sounds like a cushy job,” I said, taking a drink.

“It’s not like that,” she said, her cheeks blushing red. “I swear, most of the time, I just—”

“Is this man bothering you, my dear?”

It’s strange enough to meet another human on the far side of the galaxy, but it’s even stranger to hear an alien speak English. Not that the empath shapeshifter didn’t do a good human impression. He looked a little like a young David Bowie, which is to say that he’d crawled out of the uncanny valley, if just barely. High cheekbones, pursed lips, and eyebrows that looked more than a little metro, with a wild red carrot top.

I looked from him to Jane and back again. “Empath shapeshifter, right?”

“Yes,” said Jane, sighing. “Ivosh, allow me to introduce my friend Sam. Sam, Ivosh.”

“This man is your friend?”

“Yes, he is. We knew each other at Earthfleet Academy.”

Ivosh’s pursed lips quickly turned to a wan smile, and his hair went from red to brown in almost an instant. “Forgive me for the misunderstanding, my good sir. It is truly a pleasure to meet you.”

The David Bowie look must have been an attempt to intimidate me, because Ivosh dropped it almost immediately—or at least fast-forwarded a couple of decades. He offered his hand and probably would have kissed me on the cheek, if I weren’t so careful to keep my distance.

“Sam is something of a mercenary,” Jane explained. “You want someone dead, pay him well enough, and he’ll get the job done. Unless someone else pays him to turn on you.”

“I prefer ‘man of fortune.’ And contrary to what you might think, Jane, I never go back on my word.”

She rolled her eyes, probably because I didn’t deny being a mercenary. At the time, though, I thought it was my honesty she was questioning. That made me a little touchy.

“Name one time that I’ve lied to you, Jane. One time.”

“Are you forgetting that you stood by and let the slavers take me?”

“That’s different. I was working for someone else. He betrayed you, not me.”

“Oh, for the love of—”

“Friends, please,” said Ivosh, stepping between us. “There is no need for conflict. Whatever the disagreement, I’m sure we can resolve it peacefully.”

I looked at the empath. He seemed to have wilted, and looked surprisingly weak and frail. Jane sighed.

“Ivosh is right,” she said. “Fighting hurts the empaths a lot more than it hurts us. Human emotions are pretty strong stuff.”

“You were the one who called me a liar.”

She frowned. “Did I?”

“Yes, you—”

“Never mind. I’m sorry. Is that better?”

“Yes,” said Ivosh. “Thank you.”

She looked at me expectantly, her arms folded tightly across her chest.

“What?” I asked.

“Aren’t you going to apologize, too?”

“For what?” I said—and instantly regretted it.

“‘For what’?” she said, her jaw dropping in disbelief. “You know, Sam, you’ve got a lot of nerve to come gallivanting in here like some sort of cowboy, especially after—”

Our little pissing match had attracted some unwelcome attention, in particular three large and rather unfriendly looking aliens. Picture the love child of an armadillo and a rock, beaten half to death with the ugly stick. Their tentacle-like tongues flicked in and out of their narrow mouths as they formed a half-circle around us.

“You are hoo-man?” the largest one asked in the local trade language. My wrist console translated for me through my ear-jewel, though I understood well enough to get along without it.

“Yes,” Jane answered before I could say anything. “Though we are not official emissaries, we express our greetings in a spirit of friendship.”

She was a lot better at the trade language than I was, but she had still missed a few non-verbal cues. The two grunts stood with their centers of gravity low and their arm-like upper appendages ready for action, like linebackers just before a play. They all carried dagger-like blades on their belts, with a longer one sheathed on the backs of their knotted shells. It was clear that they weren’t here to establish friendly diplomatic relations.

My hand slipped down to Kindness, the .45 ACP 2011 holstered on my hip.

“You come with us,” the head rockadillo said, its tongue flitting rapidly. “No question. No resist.”

“I’m sorry, but there must be some mistake,” said Jane, frowning at their odd request.

“We no mistake. You hoo-man, you come now. No more talk!”

“Friends, please,” said Ivosh, stepping between them. “There is no need to—”

Without any warning, Grunt Number One lunged forward and threw a punch into Ivosh’s body with a sickening snap, and the empath tumbled over the countertop. Jane screamed, and I bolted into action.

The .45 is an excellent caliber for dealing with unfamiliar races. Having never faced a rockadillo before, I wasn’t sure what to aim for, but the .45’s stopping power covers a multitude of sins. I aimed for the leader’s neck and fired twice. Kindness bucked in my hands, and the rockadillo leader stumbled backwards with dark, oily bodily fluid gushing from his wound. He squealed like a pig, and Grunt Number Two drew one of his blades. Unfortunately for him, Kindness was faster. I shot out his wrist, elbow, and shoulder joints in quick succession. The blade fell from his pudgy armored hand, and his arm went limp, dripping oily blood all over the floor.

With the rockadillos more or less neutralized, I risked a quick glance at Jane. She was huddled on the floor behind me, clutching my leg. I turned and stared the aliens down with Kindness pointed squarely at them, but the fight was over. Grunt Number One dragged the unmoving body of their leader away toward the door, while Grunt Number Two staggered after him.

“Ack mar alakzan!” he shouted in my direction just before leaving. My wrist console attempted to translate, but the rockadillo’s native tongue was not in the database. Still, the meaning was clear: I now had a price on my head.

I eyed the rest of the cantina, my gun still held at the ready. The place was as silent as death, everyone staring at us with unreadable alien expressions. Soon, though, the rumble of conversation returned, and everyone went back to their own business. A cleaning bot came out from around the bar and began to mop up the pool of black blood on the floor.

“Oh my heck,” said Jane, still trembling.

I holstered Kindness and reached down to help her to her feet. Her face was pale and her arms were trembling, so I figured it was a good time for us both to leave.

“Barkeep,” I said, pulling out a credit chit. Behind the counter, Ivosh rose unsteadily to his feet.

“My apologies,” he said, cracking his neck. Though the rockadillo grunt had punched him hard enough to break some bones, he looked none the worse for wear.

“You okay?” I asked.

“I’m perfectly fine,” he said, walking around the counter.

“Are you sure? That blow you took—”

“For members of my species, the physical form is less of a liability than it is for yours. Emotional energy does much to revive us, as I’m certain you can tell.”

He gestured to Jane. Her cheeks were still pale, and she was gripping my arm as if to never let go. I had no idea what was running through her mind, but it was clear to us both that I had just saved her life. Apparently, her relief was enough to make Ivosh regenerate.

“Let’s get out of here,” I said. “Can you take us to your place?”

“Certainly,” said Ivosh. “Come, let’s go.”

I left the credit chit on the counter and followed him out, Jane by my side. The fact that no one else seemed fazed by the gunfight told me everything I needed to know about the Gorinal Cluster. This place was going to be tough.

A Gunslinging Job Opportunity

Before going on, I should take a moment to introduce you to my guns.

My father was never particularly religious, but my mother was a devout Christian and she made me read the Bible cover-to-cover before I left for the stars. In the quiet moments between adventures, I sometimes pull out my pocket Bible to read a passage or two. My favorite is the book of Psalms, and on the long voyage to Aldebaran, I read the following passage in Psalm 36:

Thy Mercy, O Lord, is in the heavens; and thy faithfulness reacheth unto the clouds.

Thy righteousness is like the great mountains; thy judgments are a great deep; O Lord, thou preservest man and beast.

How excellent is thy lovingkindness, O God! therefore the children of men put their trust under the shadow of thy wings.

It was from this verse that I named my guns.

MERCY is a suppressed Ruger .22 Charger Rimfire pistol. She’s as silent and stealthy as a Zan cloakship. Besides being perfect for cloak-and-dagger missions, Mercy is also quite excellent for hunting small game, on the few occasions when I’ve been stranded planetside for extended periods of time.

The next two are AR-15 uppers that I can swap out depending on my needs. FAITHFULNESS is a nine-inch suppressed .300 AAC Blackout upper, perfect for boarding action. I use a homemade subsonic round with the ballistics tuned down just a notch, to allow for onboard fire that won’t accidentally puncture the hull.

RIGHTEOUSNESS is a .50 Beowulf upper specially customized for use in hard vacuum. She’s a massive gun with an enormous punch, enough to blow through a bulkhead and vent atmo. You just have to be careful to brace yourself, otherwise Newton’s Third Law will send you flying.

JUDGMENT is an M203 grenade launcher that attaches quite nicely onto the AR-15 platform. She makes the rifle a little heavier, but in zero gravity, that doesn’t really matter. With the proper munitions, Judgment can light up a firefight like Christmas.

PRESERVATION is a 12-gauge pump-action Mossberg 590A1. She’s a tough old girl that can take almost anything you throw at her. Nothing beats the versatility of a good old-fashioned shotgun, on Earth or in space.

LOVE is my father’s trusty old 9mm 1911. He asked me to take her when I left New Texas for Earthfleet Academy. Besides being stupidly rugged, the 1911 is also quite easy to fabricate replacement parts for. God bless John Moses Browning, patron saint of modern firearms.

KINDNESS is the Gliese Arms .45 ACP 2011 that you’ve already met. The 2011 is a lot like the 1911, but the double-stack magazine allows for fourteen rounds, plus one in the chamber, which isn’t bad for a .45. As you’ve already seen, she’s great for everyday carry, when you never know what you’re gonna run up against.

TRUST is a fifteen-inch Himalayan Imports chainpure kukri: not a gun, but an excellent combat knife. The Nepalese Gurkhas were some of the most badass warriors on Earth, and the kukri is their signature weapon. I acquired Trust from a poker game on Luna. She’s such a beauty, I still can’t believe that the other guy gambled her away.

So, that’s the core of my personal arsenal. I’ve picked up a few more in my travels, but I’ll introduce them to you later.

After leaving the Oasis, Ivosh led us down a side street away from the spaceport. The roads were mostly packed earth and sand—no need for pavement when everyone drives hovercars—but we weren’t the only ones on foot. In fact, there was quite a variety of races milling about the streets. There were reptilians, avians, robots, and cyborgs of various kinds, even a couple insectoids. Those with eyeballs watched us with unabashed curiosity, since us humans were probably the most exotic race on the planet.

“You are curious,” Ivosh noted as we turned into an alleyway. “What do you see that has piqued your interest?”

“Just how many races are there in this star cluster?” I asked.

“More than a hundred,” said Jane, mostly recovered from her shock. “This entire sector used to belong to the Draxxians, an aggressive, expansionist warrior race that refused to integrate with the rest of the galaxy. But the Draxxians consumed all the natural resources on their colony worlds and fell into a series of civil wars that drove them to extinction. Their worlds are empty now, and the Immortals have opened them up to anyone who wants to colonize them.”

“The Draxxians drove themselves to extinction?”

Jane shrugged. “That’s what I’ve heard. None of the surveys show signs of intelligent life anywhere. Just wasteland and ruins.”

“Right this way,” said Ivosh, pointing to an obviously abandoned dome structure. Like the rest of the buildings outside of the spaceport, it was built out of white stone.

“Uh, where are you taking us?” I asked.

“Don’t worry,” said Jane. “This is the fastest way back to the ship.”

We passed a cluster of rat-like aliens, with three reddish eyes and dark, hooded robes. They were huddled around a pile of burning garbage, which reeked of sulfur. Jane covered her nose. I put my hand on my gun.

“I apologize for the unpleasantness,” said Ivosh. “This way.”

He led us into the dusty front room of the structure. Sand had blown in from the street, piling in the corners, but otherwise the place was empty.

“There,” said Ivosh. “Stand exactly in the center.”

We did as he told us. From some unseen pocket, he pulled out a transmitter.

By now, I had a pretty good idea of what was going on. I took a deep breath and closed my eyes. My stomach fluttered, and a wave of nausea made me swoon as I lost all feeling in my legs. For a very brief moment, I felt completely weightless, as if I were in freefall. Then my feet hit firm ground again, and the nausea passed.

“I hate teleporters,” I muttered.

“Welcome to the Silver Diadem,” said Ivosh, clearly relieved to be safely back. I opened my eyes and found we were in a large, circular room with bright red walls and a black-and-white checkered floor. An ornate chandelier hung from the center of the ceiling, filled with glowing baubles, which on closer inspection turned out to be interconnected miniature fish tanks, filled with bioluminescent life. Couches and divans with soft, plush pillows circled the edges of the room. A small hoverbot floated at the edge of the room, regarding us with its glowing mechanical eye.

“Greetings, Ivosh and Lady Jane,” said the hoverbot. “Who have you escorted on-board?”

“This is Sam Kletchka. He’s human.”

“Interesting. Shall I add him to the guest list?”


“Ruby-130 is one of our security drones,” Ivosh explained. “He’s a level-two AI that we, ah, ‘procured’ from an abandoned military depot.”

I nodded, knowing better than to ask too many questions.

“If you’ll come this way,” he said, leading us toward a wide hallway. A set of transparent tubes connected to the chandelier ran along the ceiling, and the bioluminescent fish-things followed us, illuminating the path ahead.

“The Silver Diadem is an old Yeyani royal yacht,” Jane told me. “If it feels a little upscale, that’s why.”

“Nothing but the best for our friends and customers,” Ivosh assured us with a smile. “We want everyone who comes aboard to feel awash in the lap of luxury.”

“I can tell,” I said, wondering how far I was from the Star Runner. “Are we in orbit right now?”

“Oh, no. Orbit is far too insecure. We are currently at an undisclosed location on the surface, some five hundred kilometers from the spaceport.”

“Hiding from someone?”

“Let’s just say that to the extent there is any law in the Gorinal Cluster, we would prefer to avoid it.”

“My kind of people,” I told him. Jane rolled her eyes.

We stepped onto the observation deck, which clearly served as a cafe. The room was long and narrow, with floor-to-ceiling windows running along one side. They offered a magnificent view of the lifeless, rocky wasteland. Holographic tabletops hovered above the floor, with a variety of chairs and divans spread out around them. On the far side of the room was a serverbot kiosk and minibar.

The only other person on board was a mammalian humanoid. He sat at one of the far tables, beverage in one hand and tablet in the other. His face was like a koala’s: round head, large ears, prominent black nose with a small mouth and a pair of beady eyes. He wore all black, with a high-precision energy pistol hanging visibly from a shoulder holster. When we stepped in, he looked nonchalantly up at us, then returned to the tablet in his clawed hands.

“Mike,” Ivosh said in English, walking up to him. “How are you feeling?”

“Not bad,” Mike answered. His voice was low and gravely, like an old man who’s forgotten more things than you’ve ever learned, and knows it too.

“Allow me to introduce you,” Ivosh continued. “This is Sam Kletchka of Earth-space. He’s a human, just like our friend Jane.”

Mike looked up at me “Another human, eh?”

“Yes, sir.”

“We’ll leave you two to become better acquainted,” said Ivosh. “Jane, if you don’t mind?”

“Just a second,” she told him. “Take care, Sam,” she said, turning to me. “I’ll see you in a bit.”

For an awkward moment, she seemed unsure whether to give me a hug or shake my hand. She settled on the handshake and left without another word.

“Have a seat,” said Mike, once we were alone. “Something to drink?”

“No, thanks.”

I sat with my back to the view, directly opposite the table from him. The fact that Mike spoke a human language had set me on edge, though I didn’t know why. He finished his drink and set his tablet down.

“What can I do for you, Sam?”

“I reckon I can do just fine for myself, sir.”

“Call me Mike. And let me rephrase that question: Why are you here?”

He’s interacted with humans before, I realized. Probably quite extensively.

I took a long breath. “Well, I suppose I’m here for Jane.”

“Are you friends?”

“Of a sort. This far out from Earth-space, we humans have to stick together.”

“What do you mean?”

“Back at the Oasis, some thugs tried to kidnap her. Seems there’s a bounty on humans. So long as I can protect her, that’s what I intend to do. Besides, I owe her.”

Mike grunted, his clawed hands clasped on the table in front of him. “Seems reasonable. Who attacked you?”

“Three rock-like guys from a race I’ve never seen before. Ugly bastards.”

“The Kratzni. That’s interesting.”

What’s that supposed to mean?

“Are you gonna ask all the questions here, or do I get to ask a few of my own?”

Mike leaned back, and his ears twitched in an alien gesture that I took for a shrug. “Go ahead, Sam. What do you want to know?”

“First, how do you speak English so well?”

“I have a great affinity for your human languages. Besides English, I also speak Russian, Chinese, Arabic, and Polish.”

“The hell?” I blurted, unable to contain my surprise. “How?”

He made a low grunting noise from deep within his throat. It took me a couple of seconds to realize that he was chuckling.

“You humans are a fascinating race, Sam, full of paradoxes and contradictions. You are incredibly aggressive and warlike, yet you also possess a tremendous capacity for cooperation. Your primitive economic system is fueled by greed, and yet in some ways it is one of the most efficient and egalitarian systems in the galaxy. Your average lifespan is tragically short, but your curiosity is insatiable. In fine, there is hardly another junior race anywhere in the galaxy quite like yours.”

“Uh, thanks,” I said, not sure how to respond.

Mike took a sip from his mug. “Everywhere you go, you reshape the galaxy in your image. In the coming galactic events, I believe that you humans will play a pivotal role.”

“How do you know all this?”

“Haven’t you figured it out yet, Sam? I’m an Immortal.”

His answer blew my mind like a .50-caliber round. There are only three kinds of races in the galaxy: the junior races, who make up at least ninety-nine percent of the population; the mediator races, who interface between the Immortals and the junior races; and the Immortals themselves, the ones who built the jumpgate network and hold galactic society together. Up to this point, I didn’t think anyone had ever seen one of them.

“You? Immortal?” I stammered.

“That’s right.”


“I’m an outcast, Sam. An untouchable. The other Immortals don’t want anything to do with me.”

“Ah,” I said, recovering somewhat.

“Any more questions?”

“Yeah. What are you doing here?”

“I’m the chief of security on the Silver Diadem. When the clientele gets a little too rough, I escort them out.”

“Sounds… interesting.”

“At times,” he said, shrugging again with his ears. “Nothing surprising, but it isn’t dull.”

“Are you the one who picked up Jane at the slave action?”

“No. That was Ivosh.”

An idea struck me. “Say, Mike, are you hiring?”

The patch of fur above his right eye lifted up in a surprisingly human gesture. “It depends. What’s your area of expertise?”

“Gunslinging. You know those Kratzni who ambushed us in the Oasis?” I pulled out Kindness and laid her on the table. “There’s two of them that won’t be coming after us anymore. With the jumpgate down and everyone stranded in this system, I figure you could use a good gunslinger.”

Mike drank the last of his coffee, or whatever he’d been drinking in that mug. “What do you want for pay?”

“Just enough to get back on my feet. I can stay on as long as you need me.”

Normally, I’m a better negotiator than that, but I had a feeling that those beady little koala eyes could see right through me. Besides, it wasn’t about the money so much as protecting Jane. I owed her after what happened with the Setarni, and if those rockadillo Kratznis now had a price on our heads, I wasn’t going to abandon her a second time.

“We can pay you better than that, Sam,” Mike said. “But you have to promise that you won’t work for anyone but me.”

At the time, it didn’t seem like an odd request. Without hardly thinking, I extended my hand across the table.


Mike grasped my hand with his furry claws, the barest hint of a smile creeping onto his alien face. “It’s settled, then. We’ll work out the details later.”

As I would soon learn, the devil is always in the details.

A Misfit Mind Reader

After our deal, Mike took me to the bridge to meet Captain Isiatuk.

The layout of the Sliver Diadem was highly decentralized, the floorplan something of a maze. Fortunately, Mike knew it quite well. The command deck was much more orderly, with a long central corridor running between engineering in the back and the bridge in the front.

“Greetings, Isiatuk,” Mike said as he led me onto the bridge. It was about what you’d expect for a royal starliner: impressively spacious, with an imposing captain’s chair and officers’ stations arranged in front of it. The forward window wrapped around almost the entire room.

“Ah, Mike,” said the empath sitting in the captain’s chair. He or she—or it?—rose to greet us. It was hard to tell whether Isiatuk was a man or a woman. Picture a Slavic Legolas: tall and lithe, with long black hair and a round face.

“Sam Kletchka and I have worked out a partnership,” Mike explained. “I trust you’ll find that acceptable.”

“Certainly,” said Isiatuk, offering me a smile. “Welcome aboard.”

“Thank you, uh… ma’am,” I guessed.

The other empaths giggled. Almost instantly, Isiatuk grew a small pair of boobs.

“We’ll have a room made up for you at once,” she told me. “What are your requirements?”

“With all due respect, ma’am, I’d rather stay on my own ship. Is there any way I could bring it here?”

“Of course,” the captain replied. “Though we would prefer that you fly under cover of night. Our current location is a secret, and we would like to keep it that way.”

“Fine by me.”

“Excellent. We look forward to working with you, Sam Kletchka.”

She leaned forward and kissed me on both cheeks, an unexpectedly intimate gesture. Somehow, it wasn’t awkward at all.

“You do know that the captain was trying to take the form of a human male,” Mike told me as we left the bridge.

“She was?”

Mike grunt-chuckled. “Everything they know about humans, they got from Jane. You’re the first male of your species that they’ve encountered.”

“Does Jane have a thing for girly men?” I mused aloud as we stepped into an elevator. Somehow, I found that difficult to believe.

“At some point, they’ll ask to examine you,” Mike explained. “They won’t without your permission, of course, but it wouldn’t be politic to refuse.”

“You mean like body cavity probing?”

Mike didn’t bother to answer. The doors hissed open, and he stepped out onto the luxuriously carpeted floor.

“Wait,” I said. “Where are we going?”

“Back to the Oasis. You wanted to get your ship, right?”

“Yeah, but Isiatuk said not to fly it back until nightfall.”

“We’ve got a few errands to run along the way.”

* * * * *

We teleported back to the dusty, abandoned building near the Oasis. This time, it was far from empty. About a dozen three-eyed ratlings scurried about, setting up scaffolding and construction equipment.

“This is where the empaths are setting up shop,” Mike explained. “It’s the closest to the spaceport that we can get a strong teleporter signal from the Silver Diadem’s location.”

“Who did you buy it from?”

“No one. This whole settlement is an abandoned Draxxian town. Squatter’s rights.”

“Ah, Mike,” said one of the ratlings—in English. “So good to see you. Heading out to make the rounds?”

“That’s right, Isilibt. Be back after dark.”

“Wait,” I said. “Where did these guys learn a human language? I’ve never seen—”

Before my eyes, Isilibt transformed from a three-eyed ratling to a female human grease monkey—and an attractive one at that. Dark green eyes, short black hair, sarcastic smirk, and a petite body with a fair amount of bust.

“Hello there,” I said, doing a double-take. “You’re one of the empaths?”

“You got it,” she answered with a stunning smile. “What’s your name, honey?”

“Sam Kletchka. I’m the new guy.”

“Well, I’ll be seeing you around then, Sam.”

She winked and returned to her work. I lingered on her long enough that Mike had to take me by the arm.

“We’ve got better things to do,” he said gruffly.

We left the bustling construction zone and turned out into the dusty street. The sun was high and hot, the local denizens all keeping to the shade. I wiped my forehead and did the same.

“I’ve got a hovercar parked in the spaceport,” said Mike. “Anything you need before we go?”

“Yes, actually. Mind if we stop by my ship?”

“Suit yourself.”

The Star Runner was parked in a run-down hangar on the far edge of the spaceport—basically, the cheapest place available. We took an open-air shuttle and walked the rest of the way.

“That’s quite an arsenal,” he said, pointing to my gun safe.

“Want the tour?” I asked as I locked and loaded Love.

“No time. I’ll see you outside.”

I fit Love onto my shoulder holster and threw on my brown leather jacket to conceal her. With a couple extra mags loaded onto my belt, I reloaded Kindness and slipped her on as well. Last of all, I clipped Trust onto my left side, figuring she would be a show of strength to any blade-wielding rockadillos.

When I climbed down the boarding ramp, I found Mike silently examining my ship. He seemed strangely amused by what he saw.

“I can see why you were so desperate for a job.”

“Hey, at least she still flies.”

“Don’t worry, several of the empaths moonlight as mechanics. If you sweet talk them, they might even give you some upgrades.”

The prospect of sweet-talking Isilibt was more than a little distracting.

Mike’s hovercar wasn’t far from the hangar. He kept it parked on the desert side of the spaceport instead of on the town-facing side. Traffic was a lot sparser there.

“You’re gonna need this,” he said, handing me a scarf as we boarded the hovercar. I soon saw why.

We pulled out of the city and accelerated to breakneck speeds, the hot desert wind whipping my face and hair. I checked the map and saw that the desert was ringed with colonies. A question occurred to me.

“Hey Mike, if the spaceport is on the northern pole of this planet, when are we going to see nightfall?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

“Yeah, but—”

“The Silver Diadem is two thousand kilometers south, well below the arctic circle. I’ll let you know when it’s time to go.”

We climbed a massive ridge, barely skimming some of the sharper rocks. Mike was unfazed—clearly, he’d driven this route before.

We stopped at the top of an overlook. “This is going to take a minute,” he said as he climbed out with a pair of binoculars.

He went to the edge of the overlook and scanned the horizon. I squinted, but all I could see were giant dunes of sand. There were no signs of settlement, no smoke or tracks or anything. The only visible sign of habitation were the contrails that crisscrossed the deep blue sky.

“What was that about?” I asked as Mike climbed back into the hovercar.

“The empaths are looking for clients,” he explained as we descended the ridge. “They’ve been spreading the word about the new establishment across the planetnet. Trouble is, some of these races don’t look kindly on the empaths. Our job is to identify the dangerous ones and get a handle on them before they get a handle on us.”

He never told me what he was looking for.

We sped over the dunes at several hundred kilometers per hour. On the horizon, a ring of craggy mountains slowly creeped towards us. I had the strangest sensation that we were motionless while the ground sped by underneath.

“So, how did an Immortal come to work for a junior race?” I asked.

Mike’s ears were pressed almost flat against his head, but I still saw them turn in the Immortal equivalent of a frown. “It’s a long story,” he answered evasively.

“Longer than wherever it is we’re going?”

“The story of my life began before your species was properly house-trained, so yes.”

“Then start with how you came to Gorinal Prime.”

He paused, gazing out across the craggy horizon. “I came to this planet soon after my Immortal brethren opened it for settlement. The opportunity for profit was impossible to miss. I placed my bets with the empaths.”

“Is there any other reason you joined them?”

“Sure,” he said. “We’re alike in a lot of ways. Outcasts. Wanderers. Nomads. Not unlike yourself.”

“I guess.”

We approached a large rock outcropping that reminded me of Ayers Rock in Australia. Mike eased back on the control stick, and we began to gain altitude.

As we climbed the base of the outcropping, the whine of the engine dropped in pitch and we began to slow down. The hot desert wind no longer whipped our faces quite so much, so I unwrapped my scarf and stretched out my arms.

Mike brought us down below the summit. A listening station was located there, just low enough that it didn’t poke out above the ridgeline.

“We’re going to be here a while,” said Mike. “Keep an eye out while I’m working.”

I wasn’t sure what he wanted me to watch for, but his orders were clear enough. I left Trust in the hovercar and set off for the nearby summit.

I’ve always enjoyed rock-climbing. After months of space travel, the chance to stretch my legs put me in a very good mood. It was almost as if I were back on New Texas, hiking in the wilderness near my father’s ranch. As I crested the ridgeline, I caught sight of a settlement about twenty or thirty kilometers away. It was close enough to notice, but far enough not to break the beautiful silence of the desert.

On my way back down, I noticed a plume of smoke nearby. I froze and scanned the ground below until my eyes settled on a wrecked escape pod not two hundred meters away. Drawing Love, I climbed over the rocks, keeping my profile low. When I got within fifty meters, I sighted my gun on the open hatch.

“Hello?” I called out in the local trade language.

No response. I cautiously approached the wreckage. A rock fell behind me, and I spun on my heel. About ten meters away, someone yelped and dove for cover.

“Don’t shoot!” it cried—whoever it was.

“Come out where I can see you!”

A short little alien rose slowly to its feet, its two four-fingered hands in the air. It looked like a cross between the Greek god Pan and Elmer Fudd: hairy legs, stubby arms, and a flat, pig-like nose with a pair of ventral ridges running above each ear. Its big black eyes and jowled face twitched with fear.

It was a Myadian. If I hadn’t been in such a good mood, I would have shot it on the spot.

“Please don’t hurt me,” it pleaded, its dark black eyes as wide as aviator glasses.

“That’s far enough,” I snapped. “Who are you? What’s your name?”

“Tarak,” it answered. “I mean you no harm.”

“Like hell you don’t. I know what you are, Myadian, and you know how close I am to putting a bullet through that telepathic brain of yours.”

The Myadians are a race of telepaths native to the Scutum-Crux Arm. They are extremely adept at mind control, which naturally makes them one of the most hated races in the galaxy. Fortunately, their clannishness keeps them from posing much of a threat to galactic society.

“No funny business, no funny business,” Tarak whimpered. “Please, don’t shoot.”

“Do exactly as I tell you, and no one gets hurt,” I told him. “Now, you’re going to sit down on that rock and tell me how the hell you came here, and then I’m going to decide whether to let you live.”

“Yes, yes,” he said, eagerly complying with my commands. I lowered Love, though I still held her at the ready.

“I’ll tell you the honest truth,” Tarak began, “since from reading your mind, I can tell that—”

“Cut the mind games, freak.”

“Right, of course. I’m normally not such a bad pilot, but the pod must have been damaged in the escape, which is why I crashed it. Thank the Holy Stars I made it out alive!”

“What were you escaping from?”

“It was terrible, sir. Very terrible indeed. My own kind turned on me! Declared me unfit to be part of the clan, and would have turned me over to, ah, to, well…”

“Spit it out.”

“I am undone,” he wailed. “You have seen right through me. I tried to cheat a smuggler, but my mind was weak and my deception discovered. My clan was angry at me, and the chief swore to have my head. I have no home, no friends, no—”

“Quit whining,” I snapped. “Did anyone follow you?”

“Not that I can tell. I think they believe me dead, though I never have been able to tell with them. I’m a horrible telepath, you see.”

I pointed Love straight at him and cocked the hammer. He squealed and covered his big, round head with his hands.

“Mercy!” he cried. “I’m not controlling you, I swear!”

Just to test, I shot between his feet, making him jump almost half a meter.

“Please, please,” he begged. “I’m telling you the truth. If I wasn’t, would I have let you pull that trigger?”

“You might,” I said, not sure whether to believe him. The whole outcast routine could easily be a ruse, meant to lull me into lowering my guard. But if that was the case, why the crashed escape pod? Myadian clans always kept close to their own. Either this guy was one of the most skillful manipulators I’d ever met, or he was telling me the truth. And if he really was that good, he wouldn’t have had to make out on an escape pod.

“Yes, yes,” said Tarak, nodding enthusiastically. “If I really were controlling you, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“Will you stop that?”

He blinked in puzzlement. “Stop what?”

“Reading my mind. It’s rude.”

At that moment, Mike’s hovercar pulled up over the ridge. He brought it down by the wrecked escape pod and climbed out.

“What’s going on here?”

“I’m fine,” I said, holstering Love. “I was just investigating this wreck and questioning the pilot.”

“A Myadian,” said Mike, his alien koala ears perking up. “Now that’s an interesting development.”

“Please help me,” Tarak begged. “I have nowhere to go, no one to turn to. If you don’t—”

“Is he a threat?” Mike asked me, ignoring Tarak’s pleas.

I sighed. “No, I don’t think so.”

“Excellent. He’ll make a great copilot for you.”

I just about doubled over. For his part, Tarak jumped up and down in delight.

“Oh thank you, thank you! I won’t disappoint you, I promise!”

“Now just a second,” I said, turning on Mike. “I decide who I work with. And I prefer to work alone.”

Mike shrugged with his ears. “You could use a good translator, Sam. Even the weakest Myadian can still read minds.”

“But a copilot? Since when—”

“I’m a fast learner,” Tarak offered. “And I’ll follow your orders so fast, you’ll think I’m your own third arm.”

I tried very hard not to visualize that last statement.

“It’s your call, Sam,” Mike told me. “But you’re going to need a good copilot, and Jane and the empaths aren’t available. Unless you can find someone else, I strongly suggest that you take the Myadian.”

“You won’t regret it,” said Tarak. “I’ll be your loyal servant to the end.”

I glanced from Mike to Tarak, considering my options. Mike was right about needing a copilot; the Star Runner was built for a crew of two. And as much as I hated to admit it, this Myadian misfit was probably my best option.

“All right,” I said with a groan.

“Thankyouthankyouthankyou!” Tarak exclaimed, wrapping his stubby little arms around me.

“Enough of that! Get in the hovercar.”

Mike gave a grunting chuckle as we all climbed into the car. Before he took off, though, he looked Tarak in the eye.

“Read my mind.”

For several moments, the two of them stared at each other in silence. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Just as I was about to interrupt, Tarak’s mouth went agape, and he began to shudder.

“Oh my,” he squealed. “I won’t! I won’t!”

“I’m glad that we have an understanding,” said Mike.

Even I knew better than to ask what had just happened.

Catching Up on Old Times

The rest of the day passed uneventfully. We returned to the spaceport a few hours later and flew the Star Runner to the Silver Diadem’s secret location, about a thousand kilometers to the south. It didn’t take long to cross from the sunny north pole into the night.

The Silver Diadem was hidden in a wash at the base of a wide plateau. The nearest settlement, as far as I could tell, was more than four hundred kilometers away. The desert stretched endlessly in every direction, a desolate wasteland that made me wonder how any kind of civilization had arisen on this planet. The place made the Sahara look like prime real estate.

Jane and Captain Isiatuk were waiting for us when we arrived

“How did it go?” she asked as Mike conferred with the captain.

“Not bad, I guess,” I said. “Picked up a new copilot.”

Tarak bowed and offered her a four-fingered hand.

“Pleased to meet you,” he said in the local trade language.

“And greetings to you, as well,” said Jane, smiling as they shook hands. She took to him a lot quicker than I had.

“Is there room on the Silver Diadem for him?” I asked, in English. “I need to rearrange things on my ship before he can sleep there.”

“Of course. I’ll see to it right away.”

“Oh, and Jane, we need to talk sometime.”

She frowned. “About what?”

“Everything. How’s your morning look?”

“Not busy at all. Want to chat over breakfast?”

“Yeah, that sounds good.”

“All right,” she said. “See you then.”

The desert wind howled like a Martian sandstorm: noisy, but lacking strength. It wasn’t comfortable, especially with the creaking of the Star Runner’s damaged bulkheads, but I’ve slept through worse.

In the morning, I met Jane in the cafe. She was alone, with a large platter of pancakes and some citrus-like fruit.

“Good morning,” she greeted me. “The empaths took the liberty of cooking us up some breakfast. Pancakes?”

They smelled delicious, and I didn’t want to shatter the illusion of Earth food by asking what was in them so I answered in the affirmative. The empaths had also prepared some coffee, which was good enough to pass for the real stuff.

“That Tarak is a fascinating person,” Jane began, after we’d settled down with our food. “How did you find him?”

“Wrecked escape pod,” I answered between bites.

“He told me something about a falling out with the other members of his clan. Did you rescue him?”

“I almost shot him.”

She looked at me aghast. “Shot him? Why?”

“Don’t you know what he is?”

“Of course I do. He’s a Myadian.”

“Right. And that makes him dangerous.”

“Oh please,” said Jane, rolling her eyes. “Tarak wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

I set down my fork. “You’ve got to take precautions, Jane, especially in this part of the galaxy. A moment’s hesitation could make the difference between life and death.”

“That still doesn’t justify violence.”

“Sure it does.”

“Is that your answer to everything, Sam? Shoot first and ask questions later?”

I shrugged. “It’s worked for me so far.”

“Oh please,” she said, staring out the window in disgust. I’ve never been good at starting off on the right foot.

“Hey, look: Tarak and I worked things out all right. No hard feelings on either side. And shooting first was the right call back at the Oasis.”

She drew a sharp breath. “I suppose I never thanked you for saving me.”

“Anytime, Jane,” I replied. “I mean that.”

We finished our breakfast in silence and turned to face the window. The sky was turning from yellow to a fiery purple as the last of the evening’s dust storms settled on the horizon. The landscape had a solitary beauty to it, a bit like southern Utah. It brought back memories for both of us.

“Remember our alien survival training at the academy?”

“Yeah,” said Jane. “I was just thinking about that.”

“Didn’t we first meet space-jumping over the western United States?”

“I think so. I dreaded that class so much I put it off until my senior year.”

“And I took it at the earliest opportunity,” I mused. “Funny how we both ended up in a place like this.”


The brilliant colors of the sky gave her skin a warm hue, her golden blonde hair cascading over her shoulders. I felt a sudden urge to put my hands on those shoulders and give them a good, long rub.

“Do you miss Earthfleet Academy?” she asked, oblivious to what was going through my mind.

I shrugged. “Not really.”

“I do. It seemed like there was so much possibility back then—that we were doing big things to pave the way for humanity’s place in the galaxy. That’s why I became a xenolinguist, you know.”

“I remember. You dreamed about making peace between humans and all other races.”

“You remember?” she asked, cocking her head at me.

“Very much so. On our first and only date, you couldn’t stop talking about it.”

She laughed—a clear, bright laugh that suited her well.

“I underestimated you, Sam. I thought you’d forgotten all about me.”

“How could I forget you?”

She gave me one of those funny looks that meant I’d either said something right or something stupid.

“We’re so different, you and me,” she said. “I graduated from the academy with honors, while you dropped out your freshman year. I’ve dedicated my life to fostering peace in the galaxy, while your life’s work is… what, exactly?”

“Peace through strength.”

She cocked her head in puzzlement. “What do you mean?”

I pulled out Love from the holster at my waist, dropped the mag, racked the slide, and handed it to her. She took it gingerly, as if it were a snake.

“Don’t worry, the safety’s on. See what it says on the grip?”

She squinted as she read the engraving.


“That’s my father’s 1911. When I was growing up, he carried it every day, to defend his family from anyone that might have threatened us. That’s why I call it Love.”


“You can’t have peace if the bad guys are always pushing you around. That’s what ‘peace through strength’ means. You’ve got to be able to defend yourself and the people you love—only then can you have peace. Understand?”

She paused. “Yeah. I think I do.”

“Good. Because there’s something else I want to talk about.”

“The jumpgate failure?”

“Yeah. How did you know?”

She glanced over her shoulder and leaned in close. “I think this is a lot bigger than anyone thinks. The G-Prime jumpgate is just the start.”

“Of what?”

“Of some kind of conflict within the ranks of the Immortals. Mike didn’t come to us out of the goodness of his heart. He obviously has an agenda.”

“What do you think he’s up to?”

“I don’t know, and I don’t want to know. The Immortals see all of us junior races as beneath them. They don’t even treat us with contempt, just indifference.”

“So I’ve noticed.”

She took a deep breath. “To be honest, Sam, I’m frightened. I’m just one person in a vast and dangerous galaxy. What can I possibly do?”

“We’ll just have to stick together.”

I took her hand, and she took mine. The way she smiled and squeezed it told me I’d said something right.

At that exact moment, my wrist console buzzed.

“Hang on,” I said, letting her go to check it. “Looks like a call from Mike.”

“From Mike?” she said, frowning. “What does he want?”

“Let’s find out.”

I patched through the audio. After a brief cackle of static, he came through loud and clear. “Sam?”

“It’s me, Mike,” I answered. “What’s up?”

“Isilibt’s been kidnapped. Meet me at the teleporter, and come fully armed.”

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