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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Pepperidge Farm® Goldfish® Special Edition Disney Mickey Mouse Cheddar crackers. You know, for kids.

If I squint hard enough, I can just about make out that it's supposed to be... Princess Leia?

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81/2090. The Sandlot (1993)
I'd seen this in bits and pieces over the years, but I decided to make myself sit down and watch it all the way through before the Little League World Series this year (because the kids there always list it as their favorite movie). It's heavily influenced by Stand By Me (with a pinch of Field of Dreams), but it's no crime to borrow from great movies.

Drink Coke! (The Sandlot)
baseball and apple pie

82/2091. How to Save a Marriage and Ruin Your Life (1968)
Ah, 1960s sex comedies. They always make the repressed sexual politics of the 1950s seem reasonable by comparison. Dean Martin tries to make his friend give up his mistress, but picks on the wrong girl. Somehow, everyone has a happy ending... except the wife. *shrug*

83/2092. Orlando (1992)
Yes, this is weird, but I like weird. The narrative is really several episodes in the life of a 400-year-old gender-fluid English noble. I'm sure there's a lesson in here somewhere about discovering one's true self. It's certainly a counterpoint to that last movie.

84/2093. Johnny Guitar (1954)
This is no comedy, but it does showcase the typical 1950's viewpoint of how every strong woman amounts to nothing without a strong man backing her up. While the lead villain(ess) is a female Snidely Whiplash sans mustache who hates Joan Crawford's protagonist because they both want the same man, the mob of men that support her are motivated by a very sympathetic cause: maintaining their land and lifestyle against the coming railroad. Sometimes I forgot who I was supposed to be cheering for.

85/2094. Thomasine & Bushrod (1974)
Blaxplotation Bonnie and Clyde. I think this is marginally superior to Bonnie and Clyde, but that's mostly because I really don't like either Bonnie or Clyde. The moral here is that neither love nor insanity is more powerful than the law, by which I mean crazy white racists with guns.

86/2095. Magic Mike (2012)
Everyone talks about all the beefcake, but this is mostly a coming-of-age movie for the two dynamic male leads on opposite sides of the same journey. It's pretty good shlock entertainment, mostly on the strength of Channing Tatum's' screen charisma.

More to come.

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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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I wouldn't have gotten through the summer of 2020 without frequent (weekly) viewings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The balm of summer 2022 is turning out to be Dua Lipa's Future Nostalgia album, which I have listened to every-other day (or more often) since June.

Thanks, Britain!

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75/2084. The Beast Must Die (1974)
This which-one-of-these-people-is-the-werewolf movie feels like a made-for-television Hammer horror, and I mean that as praise. The movie literally takes a pause to allow you to make your guess before the big reveal, and I'm happy to say that I got it half wrong.

76/2085. Death Takes a Holiday (1934)
The anthropomorphic personification of Death at the center of this film is a complete ass, and that character deficiency casts an unpleasant pall over the rest of the melodramatic proceedings. I'm sure it makes a better stage play than movie.

78/2087. Dying for Chocolate: A Curious Caterer Mystery (2022)
Another Hallmark Movies and Mysteries original! This one was a little too easy owing to some early seemingly out-of-place exposition during a character introduction, but I'd rather have an easy puzzle than no puzzle at all.

77/2086. The Sapphires (2012)
A spoonful of sugar — or in this case, pop songs — makes the rather harsh medicines of racism, rejection, and death in the Vietnam War go down in this movie very loosely based on a true story. Yes, it's crafted to gather the widest mainstream appeal, but that works in its favor given the subject matter.

79/2088. Born to Sing (1942)
In this Saturday morning matinee kids' fare of the pre-WWII years, a crooked musical promoter steals an ex-convict's songbook then frames the kids who know the truth. The kids plan to turn the tables by putting on the show themselves in a disused Nazi fifth-column meeting house with the help of a gangster with a heart of gold. I wish it was as good as that sounds, but the closing musical number really got on my nerves.

80/2089. Spies in Disguise (2019)
This, on the other hand, is now be my favorite Will Smith-plays-a-pigeon movie. (Snark aside, it certainly doesn't hurt that Tom Holland's protagonist character is named "Walter." That kid has charm.) It's a spy-lampoon that knows what it's parodying and why.

More to come.

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It bothers me that to get to the 2AM Monday morning re-broadcast of Meet the Press on my local NBC station, I have to wait through two hours of give-me-all-your-money-because-God-wants-me-to-have-it "Christian" prosperity gospel infomercials.

These really can't be for the same audience, right?

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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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Sign of the times:

The most accurate sign you'll see this year
via languagelog.ldc.upen.edu

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To be continued...