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Quig had never cared much for philosophy, and he certainly hadn't lived a squeaky-clean life, but this mission was making his fur tingle. He forced himself to watch as the scanner tracked the plasma torpedo to its target before reporting his latest morbid success. "Scratch the last escort. That's two more lives lost."

"We wouldn't be able to outrun them on departure," Sahara said by way of justification. "It had to be done."

Maybe it was necessary, Quig conceded, but did it have to be done by him? He'd spoken out against her original plan to fly the Corona's Light into the sun on the grounds that too many relatively innocent people would be killed. Yet somehow, in her newer, "kinder" plan, Quig had ended up with all the deadliest tasks. He suspected that wasn't an accident.

First, in deference to his superior programming skill, he had been assigned the task of using the bridge computers to modify the security droid protocols, which had undoubtedly resulted in some crew fatalities. Then, ostensibly because only he had the necessary talent, he had been required to alter the ship's life support system to flood Eye One's state room with toxic gas, killing Eye One as well as his butler, chef, secretary, and bodyguards. Finally, with Cobryn busy preparing the Chutoi for departure and Striker One confirming Eye One's death, only Quig was available to rejoin Sahara on the Corona's Light's bridge and eliminate the fighter escorts. That was what, at least a dozen sentients dead by his hand now? He was legitimately a serial killer.

He reminded himself that their goal was the dismantling of a system-spanning criminal organization. If some people had to die on the way to that greater good… well, it was a rat-eat-rat galaxy.

Sahara interrupted his gloomy thoughts. "Before we depart, let's teach these dogs a lesson they won't forget about crossing the Wolf Pack. Jettison a suite."

Quig moved to the abandoned captain's station and found the sequence that would fire Eye One's luxury state room slash escape pod. A moment later, he felt the floor vibrate slightly as he triggered the pod to fire away from the superstructure. Trapped by the sun's gravity, all evidence of how Eye One had been killed would soon be burned away. No one would be the wiser that he was killed by a small band of freedom fighters....

Except, Quig realized with a start, someone would surely realize that the occupant of the only pod launched was one of the solar system's most influential criminals. That someone was sure to kick over every anthill on every planet until they found who was responsible.

Quig thought fast. But what if Eye One's wasn't the only pod launched? That just might work.

No one wealthy enough to afford a suite on the Corona's Light could be truly innocent. Quig triggered the launch of two additional suites. One he chose at random; the other was occupied by the man whose name appeared on their invoice for nabanas. Anyone who imported that much fresh exotic fruit across the galaxy for his personal consumption deserved to die.

Sahara grabbed Quig's shoulder. "What are you doing? I said jettison just one!"

Disappointed that she hadn't understood his intentions, Quig snapped back, "You wanted it to look like that dumb Wolf Pack killed Eye One by accident, didn't you?"

Sahara glared at him, her irritation made more obvious by her twitching antenna. She flicked her eyes sideways; Quig followed her gaze to the captain and the rest of the restrained bridge crew he'd forgotten all about. He gasped at the realization of what he'd done. They must have overheard what he said, and Sahara would never let them live to repeat it. Quig had gotten so good at killing, he could even do it accidentally.

"Go," Sahara ordered coldly. "Tell the others we're leaving. I'll clean up this mess myself."

Quig obeyed meekly. His saluted the Corona's Light captain and crew through the closing elevator doors, knowing he would be the last person outside that room to see them alive.

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Sahara watched over Quig's shoulder as the ysoki hacked the elevator controls. She knew a thing or two about computers, but Quigs proficiency was still impressive. He was a useful guy to have around when you needed to take over an entire luxury starliner.

"Success," he chirped. "I now have access to bridge level."

"Great." Sahara opened the box she was holding and dug through the disgusting nabanas within to withdraw a laser pistol and a couple of flash grenades. "Let's pay them a call."

When the elevator door opened onto the bridge, she tossed the grenades. In the ensuing confusion, Striker One grabbed the captain in a bear hug. His loyal crew surrendered without so much as a fight.

"Captain, you have a problem," said Sahara. "Namely, me. You've got a garbage scow full of the filthiest, richest pieces of trash in the solar system. We've come to make them pay for their crimes against humanity. Tell me, have you ever heard of the Wolf Pack gang?"

"The W-wolf Pack? Slavers? Here? We don't w-want any trouble," the captain stuttered.

"Too late for that. But I'm feeling generous today. Keep cooperating with us, and we might let you live." Turning to Quig, she asked, "How are we doing on security?"

Quig looked up from the computer at the captain's station. "I've removed the crew from the white list."

The captain's eyes went wide. "They'll be treated as intruders. They'll be shot on sight!"

Sahara would hate to be that officer in the cargo bay right now. "Maybe this will teach you to program your security droids to be a little less trigger happy against stowaways."

After finishing tying up the bridge crew, Cobryn had moved to the communications array. "I've disabled the ship's transmitters. We're running silent here now."

"Oh! You should see who's in the passenger manifest," Quig chirped. "Especially on Deck A."

Sahara knew he was speaking in code. Eye One's suite must be on Deck A. She nodded. "Fine. Move all the automated security droids to Deck A, then get yourself to engineering."

Next, carefully avoiding the use of Cobryn's name, she directed him, "Go back down to our ship and be ready. When we leave, we'll be in a hurry."

As Quig and Cobryn left the bridge, the captain summoned enough nerve to ask, "What are you going to do with my ship?"

"It's Wolf Pack's ship now, darling. If I was you, I'd be more a little more focused on what you stand to lose personally, if you know what I mean." She cocked an eyebrow at Striker One, and the android gave the captain a not-so-friendly squeeze.

There was nothing to do now except wait for Quig to do his job. In the meantime, Sahara had time for games. Mind games. "Tell me captain, have you ever thought about how much your life is worth? Have you considered how far you're willing to go, what you're willing to do, who you're willing to kill to get what you want? To survive? I have...."

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Cobryn opened the ship's coms system. "Starliner Corona's Light, this is the shuttle Chutoi making a scheduled delivery of nabana fruit for one of your guests."

"Chutoi, we've been expecting you. Please follow the docking beacon."

"Roger," Cobryn replied. He snapped the microphone off and reached across the piloting console to set the autopilot to the beacon's signal. He was thankful for the assistance. This close to the sun, he'd had to close all the windscreens and fly by instrument alone, which was something he generally preferred not to do. Cobryn hadn't become a pilot just to let computers do all the work.

Sahara leaned back into the captain's chair. "Remember, everyone, we're about to interrupt the vacation of some very rich and powerful people. The only way we're going to emerge from this safely is if we protect our identities scrupulously."

"What does 'scrupulously' mean?" asked Quig.

"It means we need to be very careful. If anyone finds out we're not just deliverymen, we need them to think we're working for the Wolf Pack."

Cobryn said, "It won't matter who they think we're working for if we fail to kill Eye One."

Sahara sighed. "Look, if that's all that's important to you, we could still go with my first plan."

Striker One shook his head firmly. "No. We must keep the killing to a minimum. Otherwise, we're no better than the families."

Cobryn chuckled at the android's naivete. "Who says we're better? Sure, they're liars, thieves, and murderers, but last time I checked, so are we. The only difference between us and them is scale."

"Let's keep it that way."

"Fine. Plan B it is, then," said Sahara. "But if anything goes wrong…"

"It won't," said Quig.

Technically, the decided course of action was plan C. The second plan suggested had been Cobryn's idea to drug the nabana shipment with sleeping draughts then give away free fruit to the entire crew. Sahara had judged that plan "unreliable," claiming they couldn't be sure the crew would willingly eat the fruit. Cobryn suspected it simply wasn't bloodthirsty enough for her.

Cobryn turned his attention back to the piloting console and watched as the autopilot brought the ship gently past the fighter escorts into alignment with the starliner's docking bay. Taking back manual control, he skillfully piloted the shuttle to a rest inside the Corona's Light.

An officer and two security droids were waiting for Cobryn by the time he walked down the Chutoi's loading ramp, nabana in hand.

"Permission to come aboard?" Cobryn asked, offering the standard courtesy when boarding a vessel.

"Permission granted," said the officer. "Your delivery is expected on D Deck."

Cobryn smiled congenially. "Great. It won't take us any time to unload. In the meantime, would you like a complementary nabana, sir?"

"I'd love one, thank you." The officer took the offered fruit and bit into it guilelessly. "What kind of person turns down a nabana?"

What kind of person indeed?

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The speaker of the secure radio in the secret hideout crackled to life as it translated the encoded broadcast. Striker One listened to Haze's computer-modulated voice with growing incredulity.

"After decoding the data you appropriated in your heist, I have discovered that the android Eye One is on a sightseeing starliner orbiting the sun. In an attempt to avoid detection, he is traveling incognito with limited support staff. This presents a unique opportunity for you to cut off the head of one of the Three Families."

No doubt Eye One was a tyrant and a threat to all sentient life in the galaxy, but the leader of The Helpers had a well-earned reputation for foresight and caution. Eye One had built the Helpers from the ground up, making a lot of enemies along the way. For self-protection, he was known to change his appearance and biosignature as often as other creatures changed their shirts. If they couldn't identify Eye One, how could kill him? What were they going to do, shoot down an entire starliner?

Striker One was pleased to hear that his companions shared his reservations.

"Just how do you propose we do this?" asked Sahara. "We're hardly a crack team of assassins."

"We're not assassins at all," clarified Quig.

Maybe you aren't, thought Striker One, but Cobryn had proven himself handy and willing with a laser pistol during the heist, and Sahara… Sahara was colder and harder on the inside than most androids. Maybe Haze did know what he was doing.

"Eye One is aboard the Corona's Light, a state-of-the-art pleasure ship compliant with all Core World regulations, including escape pods for all passengers. In this case, each state room is its own luxurious escape pod. However, there's a key flaw in their design: the orbit of the Corona's Light itself. If there was to be a sudden emergency on board the ship and the escape pods were launched before an appropriate recovery vessel was notified…."

"The pods would be trapped by the sun's gravity and fall into the sun," finished Cobryn. "Those regulation escape pods are tombs!"

Striker One smiled. It didn't matter what Eye One looked like or how clever he was if they could trap him in his room and incinerate the whole apartment. There was just one problem.

"Only the captain of a starliner can trigger an emergency pod separation, and the bridge will be secured and guarded. How will we gain access?"

"I have a plan. Tell me, do any of you like fruit?"

Striker One suspected Haze already knew the answer to that, too.

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87/2096. Internal Affairs (1990)
Does it take a bad cop to catch a bad cop? This movie suggests "yes." (It's that age-old story where the protagonist's pride leads him to dig his own hole and you just want to slap the bastard and scream "you're doing this to yourself, you dipshit!") Far and away, the highlight is Laurie Metcalf as the straight-arrow lesbian cop.

88/2097. The Spoilers (1942)
Worth watching if only for the giant fistfight at its climax, John Wayne plays a naive but noble prospector who turns to violence when the system is rigged against him. The "spoilers" in this case are the bad guys, who like most Western villains, realize too late the errors of their ways.

89/2098. Ford v Ferrari (2019)
Vroom, vroom! 'Merican muscle cars rule the world! Fuck yeah! Matt Damon and Christian Bale put a human face on this marginally fact-based nostalgic love letter to a post-War America when men were men and Capitalistic oligarchs ruled the world. To its credit, this film is very well crafted.

Drink Coke! (Ford v. Ferrari)
Just like a classic Coca-Cola!

90/2099. Posse (1993)
This opens with a frame story in which Woody Strode hectors viewers about how the Black man was written out of the history of the American West, but the movie that follows is just writer/director Mario Van Peebles giving his own version of his father's blaxploitation films. I'd much rather have watched whatever movie the frame story was talking about.

91/2100. Sid and Nancy (1986)
Want to spend two hours with two idiot losers killing themselves with heroin? Me, neither. Good music, though.

92/2101. Bill & Ted Face the Music (2020)
Friend Mike describes this as "the third best Bill & Ted movie," and he's right. Too much CGI makes this movie's universe feel small, but the unapologetic platonic loving relationship between the middle-aged protagonists makes up for all other shortfalls.

More to come.

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Sahara had thought it was a pretty good plan, so far as suicide missions went. But the time for plans had passed. Now was the time for improvisation.

"Fire," she yelled into the kitchen a split second before the billowing smoke set off the private club's automated fire alarm. Staff, band, and guests alike began running for the exit.

There wasn't a fire, not really. The smoke was coming from a nonlethal gas grenade she had surreptitiously dropped behind a convenient stack of dishes by the kitchen door. Though it hadn't been part of the plan, Sahara had brought the grenade just in case she needed to create a distraction like this to help cover for Striker One. Smuggling it in may have been the hardest part; the gown she'd purchased so as not to be conspicuous in this members-only nightclub didn't have many places to hide a canister grenade.

Of course, dancing with a Wolf Pack thug hadn't been any picnic, either. Sahara looked back at the dance floor to see that her dance partner was headed upstairs, no doubt to check on Naom13. That would never do. Time for another improvisation!

Sahara withdrew her other grenade from its uncomfortable hiding place and hurled it at the foot of the staircase in front of the guard where it went off on impact with a blinding flash. He screamed as he clutched at his eyes, lost his balance, and smashed into a table. Seeing him in pain made Sahara happy.

She ran to his side. "Are you all right?" she asked as she pulled him to his feet. "We've got to get you out of here. The fire is triggering explosions!"

"Y-you're my g-guardian angel," he stammered. Sahara rolled her eyes. If only he knew.

She began guiding him across the smoky dance floor towards the exit. They were just passing the elevator when a bell rang and the door slid open, revealing Cobryn and Quig. The ysoki's cheeks were filled to near bursting, and he clutched a knapsack to his chest with both arms. He grinned toothlessly and freed one hand to give Sahara a little wave. Mission accomplished!

"That sounds like the elevator," said the guard.

Sahara played dumb. "What elevator? Are you hearing things? You might have a concussion."

Silently, she pointed vigorously upstairs. Cobryn took the hint; he drew his pistol as he ran up the stairs, taking two at a time. Sticking to the plan, Quig hustled for the exit and their waiting getaway buggy. Sahara continued leading the guard outside.

Between bleats of the fire alarm came a sudden pop.

"Was that a pistol shot?" asked the guard.

Sahara glanced up and saw that the formerly mirrored manager's office window had become transparent, revealing Cobryn and Striker One, who gave her a thumbs up.

"No," Sahara lied again, this time with a smile. "Now stop worrying. We're going to get away with this."

And they did.

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Striker One looked through the two-way window of the second-floor manager's office at the club's main room below. From his position, he could see the ysoki elevator guard, representative of the Garbool family of arms merchants, sleeping on his table and the human elevator guard, representative of the Wolf Pack family of slavers, dancing with Sahara. Striker One could also observe, via the camera monitors on the vault access master system control computer console, Cobryn in the basement security booth and Quig hacking the vault.

But it wasn't the people that Striker One could see that concerned him. He was worried about the missing third elevator guard, the android Naom13.

When Haze had first laid out the plan to steal the datastick and mentioned that Naom13 was among the guards, Striker One knew she could be a real problem. Naom13 was a trusted enforcer in The Helpers organization. She no doubt knew who he was and would recognize him on sight. If she saw him before he saw her, she could derail the entire plan.

Which is why Striker One was pleased to see her emerge into the main room from the kitchen. She was still trouble, but at least he knew where she was.

Naom13 marched to the napping ysoki and slapped the table, snapping him awake. Striker One didn't need to hear through the thick glassteel window to know she was displeased with his sleeping on the job. It was also pretty clear that the Garbool had little interest for the Helpers' opinion about his job performance. He made a rude gesture at Naom13 and wandered out of sight to the club restrooms. Naom13 stormed in the opposite direction, straight towards the staircase to the manager's office.

Striker One looked down at Sahara. Her wide eyes told him that she was aware of the developing situation. However, she seemed to have her hands full keeping her dance partner distracted. Striker One would have to solve this problem himself.

He pressed a button on the computer console to lock the manager's office door. That should keep Naom13 out for a while – so long as she didn't have an access keycard. How long did the door have to hold? On the camera monitor, Quig was opening the vault door. Good. Not long.

A beep alerted Striker One that someone had overridden the manager's office lock with a keycard. He looked up into Naom13's eyes. She drew her laser gun with the speed he would have expected from an experienced android enforcer.

It was at this point that the building fire alarm went off.

To her credit, Naom13 didn't even flinch. "Move away from the console," she instructed over the ringing alarm.

"I cannot do that," Striker One answered calmly.

She stepped forward menacingly. "Do not make me kill you before I've had the chance to interrogate you."

Striker One calculated his options. Could he beat her in a fair fight? Maybe. He was a more advanced model than she was. But he couldn't abandon his position at the console; it was the only way to recall the elevator.

"I said move away from the console," she repeated sternly.

"No," said Striker One.

Another beep from the console indicated that Quig and Cobryn had entered the elevator. Striker One reached for the controls.

Naom13 was faster. The sound of her laser gun firing was swallowed by the fire alarm.

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After a brief pause, the final number in the 5-digit sequence appeared on the hacking tool display. Quig punched the sequence into the keypad and suppressed the urge to do a happy dance as the vault door lock snapped open. Why had the others thought this was going to be difficult?

Every step of the plan had gone smoothly. The private club's robot bouncer hadn't looked twice at their forged credentials. Of the three mobsters they'd been warned would be guarding the elevator, one had been asleep, another wasn't even in the building, and the third had easily fallen for Sahara's charm. Striker One had effortlessly picked a master keycard from the floor manager's pocket and simply walked into the club office where he used the vault access master system control to deactivate the security and send Quig and Cobryn down to the basement vault. Cobryn was now in the vault security booth, ensuring that all local alarms and booby traps were suppressed while Quig packed the hacking tool back into his vest pocket. Every step as smooth as a sand dune.

Quig usually had a harder time getting his own mail.

Who would have guessed that a human, an android, a lashunta, and a ysoki like Quig could form such a formidable team in such a short span of time? Their mysterious handler, Haze, sure had done his homework before bringing them together. Quig was beginning to suspect that the universe was on his side for a change.

He pulled open the vault door to retrieve the datastick and belatedly realized that as good as their plan had been, it wasn't perfect. Instead of the single datastick he'd been expecting, the one holding encrypted secrets powerful enough that the Three Families were willing to kill each other for, the vault contained many datasticks. Dozens. Scores. Maybe a hundred or more. How to tell which one was the right one?

Quig hesitated only a moment as he pondered that question, but it was in that moment that an alarm went off. Maybe the universe wasn't on anyone's side.

"That's the building fire alarm," Cobryn shouted from the security booth down the hall. "The system has triggered an automated lockdown. We've got to get out of here."

So much for figuring out which stick was the right stick. He'd just have to take as many as he could. Quig grabbed a handful of sticks and shoveled them into his cheeks.

"Gross! Use my bag, ratman," Cobryn yelled, throwing his knapsack down the hall. "And hurry up!"

Teamwork for the win!

Seconds later, Quig and the filled knapsack slipped past the inert liquidator disintegrator cannon and joined Cobryn in the waiting elevator. The elevator could only be controlled remotely, but Striker One should be able to see them through the elevator camera. The elevator doors would close any moment now, and then they only had to escape the building before it burnt to the ground. The hard work was done, thought Quig.

He waited for the elevator doors. And waited. And waited....

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Cobryn double-checked that the ship autopilot was on course for the short hop from their hideout to the planet's most populous city then swiveled in his chair to face Sahara in the captain's seat. "Why are we doing this again?" he asked.

"We've been over this," she said with a sigh.

"I know. And it still seems like a bad idea to me."

"I told you; I don't see as we have much choice. As he explained in his encrypted transmission, our mysterious benefactor, Haze, gave us this ship and the means to strike back at the Three Families who have been hunting us. That's too good an opportunity to pass up."

"Hear me out. We could use the ship to run away."

"And keep running forever?" The female lashunta shook her head. "No, thank you. This is the best chance we've got to get the Families off our back. I'm taking it."

"I agree with Sahara," said Striker One. "I am… unenthusiastic about our task at hand, but it does seem the least disagreeable path forward."

Cobryn remained unconvinced. "Speaking of that ‘task at hand,' do you really think we can do it? Steal a datastick right out from under the Three Families' nose? Er, noses?"

"Of course we can," Quig answered cheerfully.

"Of course?"

"We. Can," Quig repeated firmly.

Cobryn closed his eyes and recited what they'd been told. "The datastick Haze wants is in a biometrically-locked vault underneath an access-controlled nightclub, reachable only by an elevator remotely controlled through a manager's office guarded by representatives of each of the Three Families, yes?"

"That's what Haze said, yes," Striker agreed.

"You left out that the elevator lobby has an automated sentry gun: a genuine liquidator disintegrator cannon!" Quig rubbed his furry hands together gleefully.

"I forgot that part," Cobryn said, even though he had not. "Does this sound like a suicide mission to anyone else?"

Sahara admitted, "It does sound like a challenge. But I like a challenge."

"It's a calculated risk," said the android. "If Haze's plan works, and we can steal the datastick without being caught, the Three Families will accuse one another of the theft. If we can turn them against each other, we will be one step closer to our freedom."

Quig frowned. "Who wouldn't want see a liquidator disintegrator cannon up close?"

Who indeed?

Defeated, Cobryn turned back to the piloting console and triggered the autopilot to begin their descent. If it was a heist they wanted, it was a heist they were going to get.

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Striker One punched the goblin in the throat. It felt good. At least it felt good to Striker One. The goblin probably would have had a different opinion if it had still been capable of thought.

Many other races assume that androids do not have feelings, but this is not the case. What is happiness if not a biochemical recognition of satisfaction? And Striker One was very satisfied with punching the goblin to death. After all, that was his purpose in life.

Unlike the meatbags who spent their too-brief lives wondering why they had the misfortune to come into the world, Striker One knew exactly why he had been assembled. He was a first generation soldier created specifically to defend the interests of The Helpers. To this end, Striker One had been constructed stronger and smarter than an average humanoid of his size. His creators had made him good at his assigned role. Too good, in fact. It was the extra smartness that had proved to be the problem.

Although The Helpers considered themselves equivalent to other pharmaceutical corporations, in order to maximize profits, they had allied themselves with the solar system's most notorious gangs of slavers and gun runners to extend their reach, offering synthetic concoctions to non-androids for off-label uses. That was the root of Striker One's troubles. It was one thing to kill a sentient creature attacking The Helpers directly. That was justifiable self defense. However, it was another thing altogether to sell a neutral sentient creature the means to do itself fatal harm. Wasn't that murder?

Asking such questions had gotten Striker One the wrong sort of attention. He was judged to be malfunctioning and was ordered to undergo a factory reset. Instead, he had fled. His programmers should have seen this coming; self-defense was his highest internal directive. If the galaxy was big enough for only either The Helpers or Striker One, Striker One was always going to choose the latter.

Which is what had brought him here, to this goblin-infested bunker in the woods.

"That was the last of them," he called to his companions. "Resistance has been neutralized. You can enter safely."

The human, ysoki, and lashunta stepped through the doorway with unnecessary caution. "I thought you wanted to keep one alive," said Cobryn.

"No, I wanted to interrogate one," corrected Striker One. "They chose not to talk."

"They also didn't build this place," said Sahara. "It's far too advanced for them."

Quig enthusiastically scampered to a large console against the far wall. "This is some fancy communication equipment. Goblins love to take things apart. I wonder if it still works." Quig threw a few switches. A speaker crackled to electronic life.

"You have reached the radio, good," said a heavily modulated voice. It was impossible for Striker One to tell if the voice's owner was male or female, much less what race it might be. "Since you have proven that you can work as a team by defeating the goblin infestation, we can now begin the work I assembled you for: the destruction of the Three Families. It's time for a heist."

Striker One paused wiping the goblin blood from his hands and frowned. Killing a bunker full of goblins to defend his companions had been justifiable self-defense. But a heist? That was stealing. And stealing was always wrong.

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To be continued...