By Christian R. Bonawandt



Looking like a cartoon character crushed by anvil, Stendhal's body armor lay in a lump by his feet.  Stendhal looked down at his three-piece suit, which he had been wearing underneath his armor.  The raging wind, roaring in his ears, pressed it tight against his body.  The slack whipped uncontrollably behind him.  But even the wind couldn't smooth out the vein-like wrinkles made in it by the full body armor he had been wearing. 


"That's not exactly inconspicuous," Jet shouted over the wind. 


Of course it wasn't.  Stendhal threw his loafers at him.  "Just be quiet and let me think!" he yelled, strapping on his magna-boots.  His voice was muffled by the wind, but that wasn't why he yelled. 


"Someone woulda realized you don't work here," Jet said. 


"This a huge company!" Stendhal said.  "No one here knows everyone.  Forget it, we're going with the second plan anyway." He started strapping on his body armor. 


Jet took his radio from his belt.  "Eagle Two t' Mountain Top.  Do ya got a visual of The Prey?"


Stendhal shook his head.  Who had agreed on that set of codes anyway?


"Yeah, I got him, Eagle!" Delilah responded, her normally sweet voice filtered by the poor quality of the radio.  She was supposedly somewhere in the building across the street, watching their target with her hawk-like eyes.  Heck, her eyes were better than any bird's.  Stendhal wouldn't have thought her to be so uncanny if she were anything but human.  He often suspected her of having cybernetic enhancements, but she insisted they were natural. 


"Gimme his twenty," Jet said.  Wasn't that truckers' code? What a moron!


"Sixteen floors below you, fourth window from the left.  You'll spot him easy; he's the only male in the room.  All bystanders are large-breasted bimbo secretaries." A hint of sweet bitterness in her speech. 


"Kinda jealous, are we?" Jet said playfully.  "Don't worry, babe, hopefully one day the Breast Fairy will come and --"


Stendhal slapped the back of his head.  Katala punk.  All his kind were punks.  Damn Katala never grew up, like they're teenagers from birth to death. 


"Ah, to hell with you, Jethymer!" she said.  Jet paled, either because she hadn't used code or because had said his full name.  Stendhal couldn't tell. 


"Calm yourself, Dee," Stendhal said into his built-in cyber-radio.  "And keep your feminism to yourself."


"Up yours! I only said that so you'd watch your ricochets.  And just keep in mind, Sten, that I have my own arsenal down here, and I don't need any freaking laser-targeting."


Stendhal shut off his radio.  His stark white face grew hot and flushed.  He threw a piece of jerky in his mouth to keep from grinding his teeth.  Damn it, she didn't need to attack his eyesight.  He made a serious career being a merc with or without good eyes. 


In hopes of distracting himself, he turned to Smyther Reens and asked, "Done yet, Smee?"


Smyther picked his head up from the reel device.  He rubbed his giant, solid black eyes, which took up most of his blue head, and starred at him for a few moments, saying nothing.  This irritated Stendhal.  Everyone had to be a damned comic today?  He burst out before Smyther could make his joke.


"Enough with you and this crap about facial expressions! I don't care that you can't make them, and I don't care what you would be doing if you could.  So just tell me, is the machine working?"


Smyther blinked, nodded rapidly.  "And then some.  I juiced this bad boy to pull and hold a hundred and fifty percent the weight it used to."


"Good," Stendhal said, sighing like an opened air valve.  He finished tightening the last strap of his armor and called Jet over to help him strap on the reel cables.  That took five minutes.  Then Stendhal positioned himself on the edge of the building roof and turned on the camouflage mechanism.  His armor, the cables and the reel turned a solid grayish color that didn't blend much more with concrete building than it would have if they were left black.  He'd do it this way anyway.  It was 1:30 in the afternoon, and Stendhal didn't feel like waiting to see if this guy worked nights.  He wanted to get this over with. 


As if reading his mind, Smyther held up a remote control as long as Stendhal's forearm and almost as thick.  "It'd be faster, you know it would," he said, bouncing up and down on his knees to express his enthusiasm.


"I'm not leveling the building, Smee," Stendhal said for the fiftieth time already.  "Too many damned innocent people."


"Wow, Sten, ya almost sound like a perfessional," Jet said. 


Professional, moron! Stupid Katala punk. 


After sweeping his thick, chin-length green hair behind his pointed ears, he slid on his helmet.


Being a T-Brand design, the helmet had the best form of head and neck cushioning, as well as bullet protection, available.  Not to mention the camouflage technology was compatible with his body suit.  Its only flaw was that it cut off several degrees of side vision, and no assassin would accept that kind of handicap.  But Stendhal didn't give a rat's ass.  He wasn't an assassin -- he was a mercenary.  And even so, he had lost so much of his peripheral vision while in the Kilmount Confederacy military that it made no difference. 


He leaned over the edge and stared hard.  Eighty stories below him lay the concrete road.  The cars looked like toys and the people like dolls from this height, and he used that thought to cool any spark of fear that might ignite unexpectedly, though Stendhal wasn't afraid of heights any more than he was afraid of death.  What he really feared was being injured and crippled --crippled to the point where he couldn't do his job. 


After putting the submachine gun's strap over his shoulder he turned to Smyther and held up his thumb.  Smyther hit the switch on the reel device, and whatever advanced technology made the thing caused it to adhere to the stone building like a super magnet to metal.  Stendhal checked the power of his magna-boots; they wouldn't grip the steel rafters under the stone enough to hold him against gravity, but they would keep him from flying away from the wall if the target shot back.

Then he checked the laser-targeting device on his weapon, turned his back to the street and  jumped. 


The wall in front of him became a grayish blur.  He heard Delilah count fifteen stories over the radio and on the sixteenth he stopped.  The straps of his armor and those that attached him to the reel tightened, straining his joints and electrifying him with a pain so familiar to him that he almost welcomed it. 


Stendhal thrust himself directly in front of the window.  He viewed the scene only long enough to find the target: a tall, muscular Human male with an olive tan and greasy, black hair.  Other people in the room wandered about, but froze at the sight of Stendhal.  He expunged them all from his mind.  Suddenly there was only Stendhal and the target -- and a red laser dot. 


The dot shone on the white button-down shirt of the target like a newly setting sun just above the horizon.  Stendhal pulled the trigger.  The dot became indistinguishable with the blood that erupted erratically from the target's chest like a series of miniature volcanoes.  Stendhal was sure that people were screaming, that the thunderous rattle of his weapon was disturbing the pedestrians below and that the shattering glass of the window was making a big mess.  But these were sounds and events so routine to him that they were like the individual instruments of a popular symphony; easily overlooked for the glory of the whole piece. 


The target stumbled backward, a shredded mess of crimson stains, his shirt stuck to his mutilated brown and red body.  He had one hand on a desk near him, which he used to hold him up.  God-dammit! That guy's chest held half the clip -- fifteen rounds -- and he still stood.  The target's eyes were wide with horror and confusion.  Stendhal tilted the gun until the red dot shown on the target's forehead.  He depressed the trigger briefly; he wanted only one bullet, but shot three.  The target took one above his right eye, the second hit dead center in his forehead and the third took out his left eye. 


He still stood firmly on both legs. 


"Something wrong, Sten?" came Delilah's voice over the radio.  "Why can't you drop him?"


Stendhal hesitated to answer.  Then he saw the target's face turn a deep, scaly green.  His broad shoulders got broader, but only when the bony leathery wings sprouted from his back did Stendhal holler into the cyber-radio: "Abort! It's a set up!"


The pain of the straps on his joints shocked him again as the reel heaved him up.  A classic suicide mission! But why would Jodi of the Seventh Finger send him after a dragon? Why would she want them dead after two years of near flawless service?


Stendhal flipped on to the roof of the building just in time to see Jet leap off the opposite corner with the duffel bag of alternate weapons.  Smyther began fumbling with the reel straps.  Stendhal shoved him so hard the scrawny little guy almost fell over. 


"I'll get the straps and the reel! You make sure Jet doesn't burn rubber without us," Stendhal said.  Tossing Smyther his helmet and gun, he said, "Twelve rounds left." He reached down and pulled his vibro-blade from his boot.  He paused to listen; Smyther leaped over the edge.  Good -- Smyther wasn't waiting for him. 


Stendhal turned on the blade.  It squealed with an increasing pitch as the air around the metal wavered like heat off of asphalt in the summer.  Though the reel straps were harder than most metals, the vibro-blade sliced through them like paper. 


The dragon he had shot roared.  Its resonating voice shook the building.  Stendhal turned for the opposite corner.  What about the reel? He could buy a new one.  But he couldn't remember where he had bought it.  Hell, it wasn't worth his life.  Stendhal heard the dragon crash through the side of the building.  The cracking of stone, shattering of glass and bending of metal created a new symphony of destruction that Stendhal hesitated to admire. 


The dragon let out another pissed-off roar, and Stendhal noted the crackling of the leathery wings as they stretched.  He dashed over to the reel and clicked the switch.  He forgot that he had decided not to take it, but as long it was light -- it wasn't.  He grabbed it anyway and tossed it over the edge, then leaped headfirst after it. 


He plummeted for almost sixty stories before striking the FF cushion field.  The sudden change in momentum disoriented him.  His brain tingled, and his insides felt like liquid.  He managed to twist himself into a sitting position.  His body crashed hard into the back seat of the car, next to the duffel bag.  A shock ran through him starting in his ass and running up his spine.  Some of the seat's springs tore through the leather and clawed at his armor around his thighs. 


The dragon appeared overhead.  Its mammoth body blocked the sun from view; the shadow cast into the alley created darkness like twilight.  Stendhal admired the massive, black reptilian silhouette.  Suddenly his neck jolted, and he almost flew out of the car as Jet peeled out, leaving a puff of smoke and the gritty stench of burnt rubber behind them.  The dragon followed. 


"Stupid open top car," Jet said.  "Thanks to you we're gonna fry!" Stendhal couldn't tell (and didn't care) if Jet was talking to him or the car. 


"Stay in back alleys!" Stendhal shouted.  "Between large buildings, too.  As long it doesn't dive-bomb us we're fine."


"And what about his fire breath?" Jet asked. 


"You'll have to dodge the first stream," Stendhal said, reaching into the thick nylon bag.  "They can only breathe once every ten minutes and it won't take me that long."


"To do what?"


"Kill it."


Jet didn't say anything.  He probably thought it wasn't possible, and that all three of them were doomed.  That was reasonable.  After all, much to the dismay of the dragon community, whenever a contractor wanted his client dead, he sent him into the clutches of one of those supernatural lizards.  Sometimes it was a false assassination, delivery or pick up, bodyguard situation, etc.  In any case, the employee was fired -- pun intended. 


Driving the back alleys kept the beast in the sky above, but the barrage of rottenness from smashed garbage bags and sideswiped trash units proved more than Stendhal could stand.  The car filled with the nauseatingly sweet-sour stench of compiled waste as the leather seats were sprinkled with that ungodly crap-brown liquid from who-knows-where. 


Stendhal took a shotgun from the bag; a five-round pump style he had taken from another mercenary three years ago in Lavender City.  It was loaded.  He checked the laser.  No beam.  All of the lasers probably suffered from the fall. 


They had driven three city blocks with the dragon following, casually waiting for the best time to attack.  Dragons were obnoxiously patient.  Stendhal aimed the shotgun.  He couldn't focus on the dragon's form.  Without the red dot nothing isolated it.  Too impatient to try any harder, Stendhal held down the trigger and used the slide action to fire. 


Five mini-explosions later, the dragon still hovered directly over them.  Stendhal had no idea where the bullets landed, but none of them hit their pursuer. 


"What'd you do anyway, dude?" Smyther asked.  He sat in the front passenger seat with his stick-like legs up and his bony, sandal-clad feet on the dashboard. 


"What do you mean?" Stendhal replied, more annoyed than usual at Smyther's lack of fear – of anything. 


"Why did Jodi send us on a suicide mission? Did you piss her off? Say something you shouldn't have? Do something out of contract? Kill another employee?"


"I don't know what the hell her problem is," Stendhal yelled. 


"You must've done something."


"Dammit, we'll figure this out later!" Stendhal screamed till his voice went horse. 


Suddenly, Stendhal fell onto his left shoulder.  He noticed that the car was on two wheels when the open duffel bag slammed against him.  Half the contents flew over his head into the street.  He pushed the bag off and looked back.  Scattered in the street were several pistols, almost all the extra ammo clips, his favorite bolt rifle and a compact particle beam weapon -- damn, that one was expensive!


Stendhal was grinding his teeth so hard he almost chipped a tooth.  "Why'd you turn, you Katala bastard?"


"Couldn't go straight no more," Jet said, "we'd have hit a building."


They were on a main road with only a few urban vehicles, which Jet was rocketing around and past.  The silly honking of the civilian motorists only added to Stendhal's frustration.  Now they "interfered with civilian life and activities," which violated the government's secret Mercenary Tolerance policy.  Now they could be arrested and held accountable for their actions. 


The dragon's neck swelled.  Stendhal reached over and pulled the lever between the front seats.

The foggy distortion of the force field enveloped them. 


"What are ya doin'?" Jet snapped.  "We'll lose speed."


Groaning like a dying old man, the car decelerated until it moved at the same pace as the others

on the road. 


Stendhal said nothing.  He let the burst of flames that warped around the field answer the question for him.  Inside the field, the air heated.  Stendhal's face got flushed, and he quickly got dizzy.  He dropped to the floor of the backseat of the car where he could hear the generator crackling.  The intensity of the dragon's breath exceeded anything the field had ever taken before

in its three years of life.  It wouldn't hold against a second breath attack.


Killing the dragon was impossible with the equipment they had.  Stendhal needed to incapacitate it for now.  His friend Brunty, a Dragon Drinker, could take it out later. 


For a moment after the flames let up, Jet was silent.  "I thought I was supposta dodge--"


Smyther slapped the back of Jet's head.  He pointed to Stendhal, now sitting up, and said,

"Shush! He needs to think.  You need to drive.  He think, you drive, all quiet! Got it? Good."


For every few hundred of Smyther's obnoxious, worn out, unfunny jokes, and for every few dozen times he smeared his perpetual lack of fear in Stendhal's face, one incident like that more than compensated. 


Stendhal shut off the force field to free the acrid air.  He welcomed the wind in his face; the cooler, fresher air revitalized his mind like an icepack on a sprain.  If he could take out one of its wings, it would be too slow to follow.  Just one wing.  He checked the left over weapons one by one.  Only his TSU-3200 Special Uzi (being a T-Brand product, it wasn't actually an Uzi; just a look-a-like) had a working laser.  He placed the red dot on the massive flapping wing.  He targeted a small area where -- if his arm steadied -- he could empty the entire clip into some part of the left wing.


Stendhal fired.  The dragon didn't bother to dodge.  He made thirty-two ridiculously small holes the leathery piece.  The dragon simply shifted its weight to the other wing.  As it did, Stendhal caught a glimpse of its face.  The left eye was closed.  A jelly-like clot sealed the lids shut.  All the other bullet wounds healed under the metamorphosis, but not its eye. 


It was half-blind. 


The dragon shifted its weight to its front; it was ready to dive-bomb them.  Perfect!


"Watch your rear view," Stendhal said to Jet.  "It's going to dive.  When I say so, make a sharp right."


"And if I can't?" Jet protested. 


"Just turn." Stendhal picked up the reel device.  "Come on you over-evolved snake!" With one foot placed precariously on the trunk, he raised the reel to his chest.  He felt like he was stepping on bubble-wrap, his footing was so unsure.  A strong enough gust of wind in any direction would have tossed him from the vehicle.  But it was this or nothing. 


The dragon dove.  Its claws reached out to grab the whole car.  The stench of toxic, flammable gases, steaming rotten flesh and Cool Ranch Nachos rushed from its maw over Stendhal's face.  The odor burned his nose.  The dragon opened its man-crunching jaws.  Its saliva-glistening teeth could tear through Stendhal's armor like fried chicken.  By the gods, it didn't need to bite him; it could swallow him whole and let its gastric juices liquefy his body as he suffocated. 


He and the dragon briefly made eye contact.  The glowing red gem of a pupil ate up the rest of Stendhal's world.  There was only Stendhal and the dragon -- and the reel. 


Almost subconsciously he yelled, "Turn!" As he flew from the car, Stendhal flipped the switch.  The bottom of the device swung to find a surface to attach to.  Mustering all his strength into his left arm, he pointed the reel's bottom towards the dragon's good eye. 


The reel flew and smacked into the beast's right eye.  Juices gushed between the uneven grooves of the dragon's scales.  Probably tearing part of its eye out, the reel pulled until the entire bottom surface was covered with solid material.  The force of the dragon's agony-filled roar alone knocked Stendhal from his grip.  The resonant sound shook his sternum and caused a ringing in his ears (worsened by the cybernetic amplifiers installed in them).  For a minute he flailed in the air. 


The rest of the world froze for Stendhal.  If he could land on his feet, he could lock his armor at the last moment and get away with only breaking an ankle. 


His body seemed to fall toward the road like a drowned corpse floating to the surface of the water.  He twisted his body so he faced the direction in which he fell.  When he struck the street, he could ease the change in momentum with a running motion.  His body armor would take half of the impact. 


Then he saw Jet had back up.  Desperately, Stendhal lifted his legs over the windshield.  He had no time to recalculate a landing position, and less time to lock his armor.  His ass struck the lightly armored hood making an impressive dent.  He bounced off and rolled fifteen feet.  He was dizzy, but he still felt the fiery pain of a broken hip.  Reflexively, he channeled the pain into a telekinetic burst that shattered a street light bulb.  Glass rained down into the gutters.  It was daytime anyway. 


Jet leaped out of the car and ran over to Stendhal.  He held out his hand to help him up; Stendhal slapped it away and said, "Idiot, I smashed my hip! Wait for me to lock my armor." He opened the controls on the wrist pad and activated the magnetic locks for his lower torso, waist and both legs. 


"Why didn't ya lock them as you fell?" Jet asked. 


"I needed to maneuver, of course! Why'd you back up, anyway?"


"I was trying to catch ya.  Thought I could spare you a broken foot or knee."


Knowing what to do without being told, Smyther came over with the case of shots that was kept under the front seat.  He opened it and handed Stendhal a needle of morphine.  Jet winced.  Being a Katala, morphine was lethal to the punk.  But Stendhal's race (whatever it was) could use morphine like Humans use aspirin. 


"Give me two until I can channel again," Stendhal said.  In this style armor, the only place he could shoot up was in his neck, which seemed to inflict more pain then it numbed.  The second needle hurt less, more from routine than the morphine.  Soon he was in a world of slow, sleep-like heaviness that numbed all his senses except his hearing (a side affect of the cybernetics). 


The dragon stood on four legs in the middle of the road blocking traffic in both directions.  The beast's head and neck writhed and flailed like an unmanned fire hose spraying at full power.  Its wailing, which sounded like a demonic pig squeal, beautifully complimented the beeps of civilian drivers unable to get around the monster.  Stendhal would have enjoyed the sounds, but he knew too well the almost unreal horror of discovering -- or at least believing -- that one was blind.


The musical chaos covered the police sirens until they were just around the corner, but by that time Smyther had dragged Stendhal into the car and Jet was rocketing down a side road heading toward the back alleys.  .  . 




"I don't know if I can trust him," said Stendhal.  "Remember that Dr. Ysz works for Jodi, too."


Smyther nodded.  "But he's not contracted.  He works freelance.  Besides, you need to fix up your hip before you can do anything about this set up."


"I just need something that will let me walk," Stendhal said. 


Stendhal reached for another needle of morphine, but Smyther had placed the case out of reach.  He had been lying on the bed of the motel room for two hours now, still in his locked armor.  Smyther made sure that Stendhal didn't have more than four needles of morphine in him.  Maybe that was wise, but right now he needed to avoid a psychic fit.  The walls of the motel room were of thin wood that couldn't keep out the breeze, let alone withstand a telekinetic tantrum. 


With a light click, Jet closed up his cell phone.  Before Stendhal could ask, he said, "Brunty knows our flame-spitting friend.  He promised to include him in his next soft drink."


Smyther grumbled, disgusted. 


Stendhal said, "We need to have a wide variety of friends in this business, Smee.  Dragon

Drinkers included."


"I just don't like the idea of drinking any kind blood," Smyther said. 


"What do you drink, anyway?" Jet asked.  "And how do you drink?"


Stendhal laughed.  Smyther had no visible mouth.  He had two small slits like snake nostrils that he breathed through and three below those that projected sound like a telephone speaker.  But nowhere on him was there anything that you could say that was for taking in food.  Stendhal had given up trying to answer Jet's question after being with Smyther a year.  Jet was only a few months with them, so he had some time to learn that Smee would never say. 


In order to break the fruitless inquiry, Stendhal said, "Jet, call Dee on the radio again."


"We'll meet up with her in two days at the rendezvous, Sten.  Don't fret," Jet said. 


"I'm not fretting," Stendhal hissed.  "Just call her."


"You have a cyber-radio.  You do it!"


That kid was seriously asking for a beating.  The only reason Stendhal was calm was the morphine.  Stendhal said, "I can't use it, the drugs shut it down.  Now call her!"


Jet shook his head as he picked up his radio.  He knew.  Stendhal gave him a look that said you can know it, but the moment you say it, it's your ass!


"You still need a doctor, Sten, even if it's just a temp-fix so you can walk," Smyther said. 


"Yeah, well, I think you're gonna need to go outside the city to find one.  I don't know which cyber-docs are in on this whole thing."


"She's not responding to the radio," interrupted Jet. 


"Keep trying," Stendhal said trying to sound to passive.  Then he said to Smyther, "Burgundy is ten miles past the garrisons, in Jet's nitro-car you can make it there in . . . wait."


There was movement outside the room -- footsteps.  He gave the hand signal for silence.


Instantly Jet and Smyther froze.  The sound was loud enough for them to hear, but only Stendhal could perceive the details.  Little time between the floorboards' squeaks and each lasted a quick moment.  The person treaded fast and lightly with small feet.  Each step was made carefully, too.  He was trying to be silent, but the building's shitty construction denied him the luxury (which was why they stayed in such a dump).


Jet held both pistols down by his hip with shaky arms.  Stendhal signaled him to holster them, but Jet glanced away from him focusing on the door.  Smyther reached his hand out to Jet, but Stendhal signaled him to stay froze.  He did. 


The person stopped in front of the door.  Two blurred shadows of feet formed under the crack in the door.  The air became thick with nervous tension.  The figure waited, listened.  Stupid Katala punk.  A key was used to unlock the door; it had to be key, because there was no struggle against tumblers, but Jet wouldn't hear that.


The door opened casually.  Stendhal flipped his magna-boot on full.  Jet fired, but the boots pulled his pistol down and he shot the floor.  Delilah dove hard into the corner and fired two blind shots past Jet's ear. 


"Why the hell were you all so quiet?" she shouted. 


"Why the hell were ya walking stealthily? You made us nervous." Jet yelled back, louder. 


Stendhal yelled over them both, "Why the hell didn't you follow my command, Jet?"


"Yer on morphine.  I figured you were too calm."


Stendhal flushed with anger.  He bit down on some more jerky and said between chews,  "Morphine or not, I am in command.  I'm not an idiot, Jet; you told me you're twenty but I've met enough Katala to know you're not a day over sixteen! You could fool a Human but not me.  They don't call me Lieutenant Stendhal Macross because I can't make decisions."


Jet impulsively said, "Nobody calls you that.  Only you --". 


If he had a gun within reach Stendhal would have shot him, but that's why Smyther had kept them all in the bag, and the bag near himself. 


"Enough," Delilah said, "Jet, you're an idiot and Stendhal, you're brain is mush.  Everybody's a moron except Smyther."


Smyther cackled with pride. 


Delilah explained that the police had been scanning radios for information.  She had her radio on but was scrambling their signal while she traced Jet's cell to find them.  She was such a useful member of this crew.  In her two months with Stendhal, she had proved that she could and did think of everything and was prepared for almost any situation.  Stendhal wondered how any operation ever succeeded without her.


She then told them she spoke to Dr. Ysz, and that he was on his way here.  After Stendhal calmed down, she was able to reason with him. 


"Trust me," she said, "Jodi doesn't want you dead.  I bet this thing is deeper than that.  Why would she suddenly turn on you after two years of . . . service?"


Why did she say it like that? Did she know he and Jodi had spent nights together? She couldn't.  She didn't. 


"I need to speak to her.  We'll go to the Seventh Finger Restaurant tonight; if she knows I'm alive, she won't expect me until tomorrow."


"Of course not," Jet said, "Because if we went tomorrow then we'd actually have to, I don't know, plan, prepare, reload, recover.  You know, little things that might actually help us."


Stendhal found his own sarcastic wit lacking, so he just gave him the finger and asked Delilah,  "How'd you know I'd need a doctor?"


"I saw you break your ass when Jet backed up for you," she said. 


"Where were you?"


"Where I needed to be," was all she said before Dr. Ysz arrived.  Stendhal argued with the Katala-Human hybrid for twenty minutes on what kind of treatment he wanted versus what Ysz had brought.  Three times Delilah had to convince Ysz to stay and treat him.  When Ysz finally left, he had drilled a mechanism into Stendhal's spine that would act as external bones and muscles.  Of course, Stendhal had to be knocked unconscious first, which took close to an hour, and the crude surgical procedure took two and a half. 


Five hours later -- after re-equipping and some rest -- Stendhal, Jet and Smyther marched into the Seventh Finger Restaurant through the receiving entrance.  Three guards and one loud-mouthed manager lost their lives to Stendhal's impatient trigger finger. 


They walked unquestioned through the kitchen.  The stench of Human-style food made Stendhal nauseous, which only added to his impatience.  Stendhal was wearing his former army uniform, replacing the sergeant's badge with a lieutenant's, and the Kilmount Confederacy's symbol with his own personal mark.  Underneath it he had light padding that might save him from a knife stab.  Besides, anyone caught wielding gun would soon need bionic arms. 


A heavy wine rack covered the door to Jodi's office.  She was expecting him.  Stendhal could have moved it, but it was probably booby-trapped.  Reluctantly, Stendhal exited the kitchen into the dining area. 


Almost every customer was a Human, of course.  He felt their glances pour over the trio.  They were not staring because a racial mutt in a cut up army uniform was walking through a Human restaurant with two 9mm pistols at his hip and a brand new semi-automatic bolt rifle over his back.  Nor was it because of the leather jacket-clad Katala at his left.  What they were staring at was the lanky bug-eyed being at his right who had enough explosives to level a city block duct- taped to his body over his tie-dyed shirt.


Stendhal heard the subtle cry of a blade being unsheathed.  His hearing never failed him when he needed it most.  He drew his pistol (now refitted with better lasers) and shot a waiter ten feet from him.  Blood burst from his temple and showered the table he was pretending to wait on.  The entire room froze.  For a moment there was silence.  Then the tumult of horrified screams filled the room.  Customers and employees ran for the door, shoving and tripping over each other.  The three at the blood-covered table leaped from their seat, revealing themselves as fellow assassins in disguise.  Jet shot them all dead before they could finish drawing their own weapons.  Jodi should have known to invest in a better race than Humans. 


Up the wide, red-carpeted flight of stairs towered the set of soundproof double doors that shrouded the death and bloodshed from the "elite" customers. 


Probably unfamiliar with death or explosive-clad maniacs, the shady diners in this room waited in silence for an explanation.  "If everybody is really good and behaves themselves, then nobody will have to die," Smyther said as if they children. 


"She's in her office," said a Katala customer in a frilled purple tunic. 


Stendhal nodded and walked up to the metal sliding door (painted to look like oak).  He paused.  If her customers were expecting him, so was she.  As long as Smyther didn't get anxious, they were safe, though.  The three of them formed a train with Stendhal in front and Jet watching the rear.


Stendhal opened the door.  She was behind her desk with a dry expression.  Her hairstyle of the week was two braids that fell over the sides of her elliptical head like dog-ears.  The room was silent; she was alone, yes?


"Yes, I'm alone," she said as if reading his mind.  Her voice was deep and it resonated erotically.  Ever since he got cyber-amplifiers in his ears, that voice became a sedative to him.  He holstered his pistols and walked inside ignoring the train.  She used the controls on her desk to shut the door behind them. 


"You a traitorous witch," Stendhal said trying to sound more pissed off than he was right now.   "You knew our target was dragon."


"Forget that -- " she began. 


"Forget it?" Stendhal suddenly remembered what he was so mad about.  "You know I'm gonna kill you, so just tell me why! Two years! How damned evil can you be?"


"This came from above," she said. 


Stendhal scowled.  "There's nobody above you, I'm not stupid.  You're an independent operator, you told me that the day I signed on.  It's why I signed on with you."


"Things change."


"Did you sell out?"


"It's complicated.  I'm glad you're alive.  I didn't want you dead, but I was told to send you against him specifically."




She was silent.  She started to speak, but stopped. 


"Damn it, you ketta! Who?"


Her glance flitted around the room suspiciously.  "I can't say.  My life is riding on the silence."


Stendhal drew both guns and placed the dots just above her eyes.  "You life is on the line now, so you might as well."


Her cold face melted into a look of motherly worry.  "You don't have to be killed.  He just wants you out of the way.  Flee.  Leave the city.  It doesn't matter what happens to you, he wants the city itself."


"Who wants it?"




The door behind him opened.  Stendhal reflexively turned and shot at whomever was there.  It took five bullets to drop the fat, multi-armed beast, whatever race it was. 


He heard Jodi's chair slide back.  When he turned to face her she was standing, a gun in each hand.  "Don't make this uglier than it already is.  Put away your guns and go."


Jet hesitated to act -- idiot.  Jodi pulled one gun away Stendhal and shot Jet twice in the chest.

He'd be dead soon. 


Smyther screamed: "Next gunshot I hear kills us all!" His finger was quivering over the remote's only button.  Stendhal felt a chill; Smyther was so anxious to press a button he knew full well would kill him and every other person in the building. 


But Jodi was smarter than that.  She shot the remote in half, blasting off Smyther's index finger.  He cursed like it was some petty inconvenience (and in fact it would grow back, but what about the pain?).  He took the bandana from his head and wrapped his bleeding hand in it. 


Before she could ask, Stendhal put his own pistols on the desk and slid them to her.  He undid the strap of the bolt rifle and let drop to floor behind him.  "Who's Dwem," he demanded, "and why does he want me out of the city?"


"You'll have to live with that question," Jodi said.  "Take Delilah and go back to Lavender."


"Why would I take Delilah?" Stendhal burst defensively. 


Jodi lowered the guns and shook her head.  "I'm not blind."


Stendhal was about to rebut when he heard commotion outside.  Chairs sliding and people rushing out wordlessly.  Before Stendhal could turn around, Jodi closed the door again. 


"What's going on?"


"Dwem!" she said dropping her guns.  She headed for the closet.  "There's another way out of here."


Stendhal picked up his bolt rifle, turned on the laser and cocked it.  He looked at Smyther and

said, "Let's go introduce ourselves."


"No, Stendhal -- "


"I've got ten eight inch electric bolts who are dying to meet Dwem," Stendhal said.  He placed the dot on the center of the door. 


"It's not that simple," she shouted, "You don't know Dwem!"


"No punk-ass, especially one named Dwem, is gonna chase me out of my city."


"Damn you, Lieutenant!"


Stendhal paused to look at her.  Their eyes locked.  He felt a force grab hold of his body.  The ground seemed to fall beneath his feet.  Stendhal was in the air; she telekinetically threw him into the closet.  He slammed into the left wall, which rotated and tossed him into another room empty room.  The wall spun again and Smyther smashed into him. 


"I didn't know she could do that," Smyther said as he bounced off Stendhal. 


Neither did Stendhal, but he was too busy trying reopen that spinning door to comment.  The room was four walls, a slightly sloping ceiling and a hanging light fixture. 


"You can't open it from this side," Smyther said. 


"How do you know?" Stendhal asked. 


"I've seen set ups like this before." He pushed on the left wall.  It opened to the outside, above a trash unit.  They were on the opposite side of the receiving entrance. 


Stendhal cursed.  He jumped over the slopped lid of the unit and ran around to the front entrance, not waiting for Smyther.  He made his way back up the stairs.  Some of the bodies had begun to smell; the rot mixed with the Human food made Stendhal's stomach clench. 


When he reached Jodi's office, she was dead and Dwem was gone.  If he hadn't shot her, he would have doubted he was ever here.  Her body had at least eight bullet holes.  They were big --Stendhal guessed the bullets were twelve gauges.  He also saw piece of notepaper stapled to her forehead.  It was written sloppy, like a four-year using a crayon.  The message read: "Your next, Lt. Macross."


Dwem may be a bad ass mercenary, but he wasn't very bright; he misspelled "you're." He was also kind of cliched. 


Why the hell did she toss him in the closet? She should have at least followed them.  What was her damned problem?




Stendhal rolled out of bed quietly.  He had managed to fall asleep on his back, so his body was relaxed.  He opened a palm-size compartment in his armor and took out two hundred credits.   That was almost twice what she had asked.  The sex wasn't good, but she had spent the night, and having a warm body next to him while he slept was worth more (even if she had been good).  He put the money next to the whore and got up. 


The wooden floors of this slummy motel creaked so loud that she woke up before Stendhal made it to the bathroom.  Even if she hadn't, the bathroom door creaked so loud it could have awakened the entire motel.  The water from the shower didn't look clean, the hot water knob was jammed so it would only turn a quarter of the way and he couldn't see himself through the white crud on the mirror.  He didn't even want to look at the toilet, but the room was too small to avoid it; nothing on this planet could have made him sit on it, though!


As he showered, he could hear the whore walking around as she got dressed (more because of the thinness of the walls than his cyber-hearing).  Five minutes later the door shut behind her.


Seconds later it opened again opened again.  It must be Delilah.  The footsteps were heavy – too heavy to be Dee.  He stuck his head out of the shower and put it against the wall.  Something was dragged -- or slid -- across the floor.  The footsteps left the room and the door was shut. 


Stendhal waited a minute, then stepped out of the shower.  He dried his face and hands quickly, then threw the towel around him.  He took the pistol he had hidden behind the mirror last night.  (Lamb-dada, Stendhal's idol, once said, "Anywhere you expect to be in the near future, keep a gun.")


He opened the bathroom door.  There was nothing in the room that wasn't there before.  Whatever was dragged must be under his bed. 


Stendhal walked five paces towards the bed then froze his body.  He could hear a faint humming from underneath.  With the laser, he sighted where he guessed the thing to be exactly.  Then he walked back to bathroom.  Keeping as much of his body behind the wall as possible and still fire accurately, he shot the bed. 


A ball of flaming rusty springs, cotton and wood erupted in the middle of the room.  Stendhal dove to the other side of the miniscule room.  That proved wise; shrapnel poured into the bathroom.  He was sure the opposite was taken out.  Stendhal stayed sitting against wall for a moment.  The sound outburst overloaded his cyber-ears and high-pitched whine it left made dizzy. 


A scream came from down the hall -- a female's shriek.  As his hearing came back, he heard someone burst into the room.  It was Delilah.  She could have been caught in the blast!  If he had known she was so close he wouldn't have done that.  That was stupid!


She sounded shaken.  "Stendhal? Oh crap, Sten!"


"I'm in here," he said. 


As she stepped inside, the door cracked split from its hinges.  Stendhal leaped up and threw himself under the door and caught it.  He threw it over the toilet, and the whole thing cracked in  two. 


"You should have been more careful," she said. 


He thought she talking about door, but she was looking at his towel, which was lying where he had been sitting.  Too late to bother now.  He walked past her and got dressed. 


"Where's Jet and Smyther?" Dee asked when he was done. 


"Jet's dead, and Smyther .  .  .  he's where ever it is that Smyther goes when he needs to regenerate."


There was an awkward pause.  Stendhal was looking directly into her eyes.  They were a fantastic shade of green, like actual emeralds.  That was only fitting with how much power was within those two spheres.  He was very jealous of those eyes. 


"He's a strange creature," Dee said, braking Stendhal's trail of thought. 


"Who is?"


"Smyther Reens.  You're a technical and chemical expert.  He's strange, being able to regenerate and stuff.  No facial expressions, no fear of anything.  He's weird."


"Yeah, he's strange," was the best Stendhal could come up with.


"So what did you find out about the dragon and Jodi?"


"Jodi's dead, too.  Let's go to a pub, I don't want to stand here any more."


The sweat-and-liquor dankness of the pub was thick enough to choke a person.  Stendhal was glad to have some bourbon in his system.  The steady stupor that had grown on him in the last few hours numbed him almost as well as the morphine, but much more sweetly.  There was even a hint of cheeriness creeping up on him, especially when he looked at Dee.  God did his chest swell over those eyes!


"I'd kill for those eyes, Dee.  You know that? Kill! For those things -- " Stendhal drooped in her direction and stuck out two fingers like he was going to poke her eyes out. 


"Enough bourbon, Sten?" She said, dryly. 


He shot upright.  "I'm alright," he said defiantly, flinging his arm as if to bat the question away. 


"Listen, we'd better get outta here.  And not just the tavern, let's get the hell out of Arbok City."


"Gimme ten minutes with Dwem," he said with a hint of sobriety.  "This is my damn city! I don't care what the hell this guy is, I'll make macram‚ out of him."


Two thunderous footsteps caught Stendhal's attention. 


"The last person to threaten me was found in five different dumpsters," said a synthesized voice that sounded like an ogre talking into a wide band radio. 


Stendhal spun around in the stool.  The guy was easily eight, maybe nine feet tall.  He was a 'borg, alright.  Lord knows what he was before, there was barely anything left.  The fact that anything was left was what intimidated Stendhal.  He had seen full-on cyborgs that were really just brains inside robot bodies.  That was no big deal since there was nothing beyond the metal to deal with.  But someone like this -- huge and still part organic -- you never know what the hell he had up his mammoth sleeve.


Some of those 'borgs could be so sickening.  If they were worth anything, they wouldn't need all that bionic crap.  Nobody loses a limb because the gods hate him; they lose them because they're lousy mercs.  Stendhal slid off the chair like a snake getting ready to strike.  He had a 9mm on his belt and the vibro-knife in his boot.  Patrons began gradually filtered out of the place. 


"Please," Dwem barked.  "I'll take you out with my bare hands."


"No, to hell with this," Dee said, jumping from her seat and grabbing Stendhal's shoulder.  "We'll get out of this city.  You do whatever you want here." She turned to Stendhal.  "Come on.  Smyther will find us like he always does.  We've got no ties here without Jodi."


"No," he said, his eyes locked on Dwem.  "This is personal."


"I didn't know Jodi meant that much to you," she said, almost to herself. 


Stendhal twisted his head her way.  "Dee, I'm not saying --"


"I don't have time for this garbage," Dwem growled.  He darted at Delilah with blinding reflexes and seized her neck with his monstrous hands. 


But Delilah wasn't lacking any speed.  She had the .45 out of the back of her pants and got off two shots before Dwem's fist fully clamped.  Both rounds ricocheted off his shoulder, leaving thumb-shaped marks in the metal.


Stendhal drilled three bullets into a fleshy area below his left shoulder blade.  A few seconds passed before Dwem reacted.  Meanwhile, only a quarter sized blotch of blood oozed from the holes, dripping slow like honey. 


Tossing Delilah aside, Dwem lunged at Stendhal.  Stendhal grazed Dwem's camera-lens-like eye before the mecha-beast grabbed his shirt.  He lifted Stendhal overhead, slamming his back into the metal-reinforced ceiling. 


Stendhal went for his vibro-knife.  He felt his shoulders crunch against the floor of the pub before the handle ever touched his palm.  The shock rang through his whole body.  For a few seconds he couldn't see or feel his limbs.  But he could hear. 


He wished he couldn't.  Four more shots rang out.  Even in their echo he could hear the crack of her spine under bionic gears. 


Something boiled up inside Stendhal.  It wasn't pain, but it strong enough to make him cry out. 


Like a marionette being tossed by its master, Dwem was suddenly flung across the room.  He crashed through the table of a booth.  Chunks of wood burst around him.  Finally, Dwen lay there like a dropped puppet, his arms hanging over the benches and one knee bent, his back arched inside the dent it had made in the wall. 


As Stendhal's vision defogged, he climbed to his feet.  He snatched his vibro-knife and switched it on.  The moment the device's wailing reached its peak, he charged. 


The rage fueled him like a turbo engine.  He wrapped both hands around the hilt of his knife and thrust at the mesh of cables that made Dwem's neck. 


Dwem caught both his wrists in one hand and slapped his chest with palm of the other.  Stendhal flopped backward a dozen or so feet, falling on something soft.  After coughing up enough blood to completely cover his shirt, he rolled over.  He found himself starring into those two green eyes, now frozen and lifeless.  How he wished he was dead right now!


Stendhal didn't even react when he felt those cold, greasy hands grasp his braced leg.  The metal bars bent and snapped as Dwem heaved him over the bar, into the liquor shelf.  Glass and alcohol showered him, amplifying the pain and burning in every cut and gash.  As Stendhal bounced off the floor, he felt the searing agony of the broken hip all over again.  But instead of letting out a telekinetic burst, he screamed.  He screamed until there was no air left in his lungs to scream with. 


"Ha! At least that skinny slut took it like a --"


The whole bar exploded with one telekinetic burst.  Dwem threw his hands in front of eyes to protect them from the shrapnel of splintered wood and metal shards.  Stendhal used the telekinesis to drag himself to his feet. 


"I'll break your neck, too, you freak," Dwem growled.  Before Stendhal could think, Dwem had him by the neck.  Stendhal lifted his good leg and planted the foot over the 'borg's metal-and-glass eyes.  Telekinetically he turned his magna-boots on full.  With every last drop of rage he psychically blasted the monster across the room. 


Blood gushed from the two holes in his head like burst water pipes.  Dwem probably cried out, but Stendhal was too busy holding himself in place telekinetically to notice.  He used the laser targeting on his 9mm to put a bullet in each of the spots where Dwem's eyes once were. 


It fell dead.  Stendhal ended the fit, falling almost as limp.  He crawled over to Delilah.  Lifting her head, he closed those wonderful eyes.  Then he looked up at Smyther, who had just walked in. 


"I see," Smyther said.  "Let's get out of here."






© 2002-2003 by Christian R. Bonawandt.  Chris is a journalist from Long Island and part-time Web-fiction junkie.   His publication credits include Shadowkeep, Planet Magazine, Demensions, and  Sci-Fantastic. His other appearances on Aphelion have become the basis of a short novel, which he's trying to get published.