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EPISODE ONE: THE HEIST, PART FOUR

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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EPISODE ONE: THE HEIST, PART THREE

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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EPISODE ONE: THE HEIST, PART TWO

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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EPISODE ONE: THE HEIST, PART ONE

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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PROLOGUE, PART FOUR

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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PROLOGUE, PART THREE

Cobryn opened the throttle all the way. He'd never piloted an exploration buggy before, but the fundamental principles had to be the same as piloting a starship: faster was always better. The four-seat buggy surged forward, nearly tossing its passengers from their seats. Oops. Maybe that was too much throttle.

"Wheeee," Quig shouted gleefully over the roar of the engines and the howl of wind through the open cockpit.

Sahara was less enthused. "I thought you said you knew how to drive one of these things!"

"Obviously he does," answered Striker One. "We are already overtaking our quarry."

It was true, Cobryn noticed. The goblins were slowing their buggy down to navigate the rough-cut path – it didn't even deserve to be called a road – through the forest. They simply weren't willing to take the same risks he was. Of course, taking chances is what had gotten Cobryn into this situation in the first place.

He had taken a chance when he accepted a smuggling job for a client he didn't already know. The pay was great, but it turned out the cargo wasn't. Cobryn might be a lot of things, but he was no slave trafficker. The client hadn't liked Cobryn's change of heart. One thing had led to another, and Cobryn had lost his ship, his reputation, and his freedom. With no better options, Cobryn had taken another chance on a mysterious message. One thing had led to another, and now he was on the other side of the solar system chasing goblins with an annoyingly cheerful ysoki, a humorless android, and a lashunta woman who just might be a bigger gambler than he was.

"What are we going to do if we catch them?" Quig asked.

Cobryn scoffed, "What do you mean 'if'? I out-maneuvered that space pirate, didn't I? I think I can handle a couple of goblins in a go-cart."

"When we get close, I'm going to put this grenade in their driver's face," said Sahara.

Striker One was skeptical. "That may be unwise. Our mysterious benefactor has insisted on secrecy, but those goblins were clearly surveilling our arrival before they fled. It would be useful to know why and where they are headed."

"Whatever you're going to do, you'll need to do it quickly," said Cobryn. It certainly didn't take a pilot of his skill to catch these goblins; they could barely keep their buggy moving. Cobryn relaxed the throttle and pulled alongside them, coming eye to eye with the goblin in their passenger seat. It grinned. Only then did Cobryn notice the plasma pistol in its hand. His reflexes saved his life. (Again.) He jerked the wheel, and the pistol bolt blasted the buggy's windshield frame instead of his head.

"Decision made," said Sahara. She lobbed the grenade.

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PROLOGUE, PART TWO

Sahara twitched her antennae in nervous anticipation. Had she escaped from a noose only to face a firing squad?

"Surrender your vessel and whatever your cargo is, and I just might let you live," ordered the space pirate through the starship's radio.

Sahara toggled the radio to broadcast. "We don't have any cargo of value," she said. It was the truth. The holds were as empty as her pockets. Not even the ship itself was worth more than what a scrap yard would pay for it.

"I'll be the judge of that," came the reply. "Turn off your engines and prepare to be boarded."

An electronic signal from the ship's science station caught Sahara's attention. She looked at the android in the gunner's seat. "The pirate weapon has a target lock on us," Striker One said calmly.

Sahara looked at the ratman. "Are the shields working?"

The furry Ysoki nodded vigorously. "You can count on Quig."

"If you say so, Quig," said Cobryn, the ship's pilot. "But shields won't last forever. A pirate ship like that against a tub like this…. We'll never be able to outrun him or his lasers. Maybe we should comply and hope for mercy."

Sahara's three crew mates waited for her response. She hadn't asked to be captain of this vessel, but she wasn't a trained pilot like the human or a natural engineer like the Ysoki. And she certainly didn't have the artificial man's ability to talk to computers. That left her in the captain's chair by default. It was not a comfortable fit.

The last time she'd been the captain of a starship, it had been on a two-seat craft fleeing the slavers who had captured her and her sister. Their escape plan was Sahara's idea, but it had been her sister's beauty that lured an overconfident jailer into giving up the security codes to the ship that would carry them both to freedom. The plan had worked well, but an unlucky break, a guard's unpredictably overactive bladder, had resulted in her sister being gunned down on the launchpad. Sahara took off without looking back. She knew she would meet the same fate if the slavers ever caught up with her again.

That's why she had been willing to answer the mysterious summons that had led her into this latest pickle. She didn't know where they were headed or why, and she certainly didn't trust her crew mates. But so far as she was concerned, death was a better option than surrendering to a pirate who would only sell her back to her captors.

Turning back to the android, Sahara ordered, "Target his thrusters with our gyrolaser. Let's see if we can't even these odds."

She had made her decision. The die was cast.

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PROLOGUE, PART ONE

This particular starship was unknown to Quig, but he'd certainly seen its like before. Light freighters were the backbone of the solar system's shipping industry, after all. Therefore, it wasn't the unfamiliar surroundings that set the ratman's hairs standing on edge but the three strangers in the airlock with him.

Summoning his nerve, Quig asked in his high-pitched voice, "Excuse me, but is one of you the person who sent for me?" He dialed his personal communicator to the anonymous message he'd received a week before and held it up for the others to see.

The pale, broad-shouldered android raised an eyebrow in a good simulation of how other races would display surprise. "You're willing to expose your data to persons you do not know? That seems… unwise." Artificial men like this one made most sentient organics existentially self-conscious, but Quig had always found them distracting for other reasons. What made these mechanical marvels tick? He'd love to take one apart and find out.

The scruffy-looking (real) human man leaning against the starship's bulkhead smirked. "I was just about to say the same thing. Maybe I got a message. Maybe I didn't. How do I know you didn't send it?" Across the galaxy, no race was as capable of deceit as humans. Quig made a mental note not to trust this one.

"This is getting us nowhere," complained the female lashunta, her forehead antennae twitching in apparent irritation. She kept glancing out the ship's porthole at the docking bay entrance. Was she expecting more company? "Yes, I got the message. Obviously, we all did. The question is what are we going to do about it?"

The android shrugged almost naturally. "I believe we should do as instructed and take this ship to the coordinates indicated. Why else did we come here if not to uncover the mystery behind our summons?"

The human interlaced his fingers and extended his arms to crack his knuckles. "Works for me. I've been itching to get back in space."

"I think we're walking into a trap," said the woman dourly. "But as there are some… people around here who I'd rather not run into again, I don't see as I have any choice."

That was more or less how Quig felt, too. He couldn't go back home where The Families were looking for him. That was certain death. Better to take his chances with this motley crew. Besides, he'd always liked tinkering with alien technology, and if he had to walk into a trap, at least it was a trap well baited with the promise of getting his claws into an advanced starship's innards. “I'll start the engines,” he volunteered cheerfully.

The adventure had begun.

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For the record, Keith, I've found an RPG I hate more than any of The Witchers.

Final Fantasy XV suuuuuuucks.

In the mood for a story-driven RPG and a fan of previous games in the series, I picked it up on in a recent digital sale. The story setup is good. The environment is pretty. But the disappointment set in pretty quickly because those are the only two good things I can say about it. It has terrible gameplay and worse storytelling.

According to online game guides, the game has 15 chapters. I put the game down at Chapter 6. Then, a month later, I picked it back up and slogged on, much to my own detriment. Each chapter proved dumber and more frustrating than the one before it. Final Fantasy XV isn't a game but a psychological experiment in masochism. I finally threw in the towel at the end of Chapter 13 (and deleted the game and all my saves from my system) despite realizing that both Chapters 14 and 15 must be better if only because they couldn't possibly be worse.

Oh, well, they can't all be winners. At least I know that the next game I play can't be worse.

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The following is based on actual events:

My friends and I sat, talked, laughed, and otherwise enjoyed the convivial environment engendered by the rustic treehouse lounge Keith had constructed in his backyard in suburban Cumming, Georgia. Despite the good company, I knew the neighborhood had problems. I had a passed a bright red demon on the streets leading to Keith's house. Fortunately for me, it was preoccupied enjoying its meal of unwary domestic cat. Still, I felt safe up in the treehouse — until we were startled by the sudden appearance of a bright green dragon.

Keith saw my fear and laughed. "Relax. It can't get to us here. I've wrapped the whole tree in a dragon-proof net."

He spoke the truth. Although the dragon bit and bit, it was unable to chew its way through the protective wire. We soon ignored it and went back to having a good time.

When I woke up, I realized the treehouse and dragon had all been part of a very vivid dream. Amazed by how realistic it had all seemed, I decided to drive over to Keith's to tell him about it. I passed no demons on the way, and as expected, there was no treehouse in Keith's yard.

Keith met me in his driveway. You cannot be too cautious these days, so I was careful to wear a mask and stand a socially-accepted distance away from him in the cold December weather as I told him of my dream.

Keith enjoyed my story and laughed. "That's ridiculous. There's no such thing as a dragon-proof net."

Naturally, that's when the dragon swooped down upon us.

I woke up a second time and am now typing this story. But I'm still keeping one eye out. I can't shake the feeling that there's a dragon out there somewhere.

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To be continued...

 

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