December 2012


Madras emerged from the tattered fuselage. “It’s an Antonov An-2, like I thought,” he said. “Very rugged, very dependable, very Russian. It’s been here a long time.”

“Can you get it started?” Connell said. “I think we could get the runway clear enough to take off.”

“Not in the cards,” Madras said, shaking his head. “This is basically the aeronautical equivalent of a planter now. No spare parts, no aviation gasoline, and it looks like they stripped it before leaving–probably to fix another Antonov. I might be able to get the radio working, or at least cannibalize it to help fix the one inside.”

“Well, that’s something I suppose,” Connell said. “Anything in there to explain why the Russians abandoned this airstrip?”

Madras looked into the cockpit, where rust-colored bloodstains covered everything and the rotted and partially mummified remains of a pilot sat still buckled in. An empty Tokarev semiautomatic pistol and spent shell casings were littered on the floor. “Not a thing. Go inside and I’ll yank the radio out and catch up with you.”

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Counterfeit
The Vyaeh, as a mercantile race, often emphasize psychological tactics in combat with other races. The Vyaeh Ministry of Military Intelligence contains a dedicated Office of Imitation, which designs and creates counterfeits of enemy creatures for the purpose of killing and demoralizing enemy combatants. OI officers are present on every Vyaeh ship of frigate size or larger, as is the specialized equipment needed to manufacture and deploy the counterfeits.

Appearing and acting very much like the creatures they mimic, the counterfeits are designed to notice and gravitate toward openly hostile action against the Vyaeh. They will attempt to infiltrate and disrupt enemy operations as much as they are able, and if detected will detonate themselves in a suicide bombing, coating the area with highly toxic chemicals and shards of armor-piercing bonelike material. They can take substantial punishment, but always explode on death.

Human counterfeits have been encountered in the field by the SCNF, many produced specifically to mimic human combat troops but many also appearing as noncombatants and civillians. They are often armed, but under no circumstances (even to preserve their infiltration of enemy formations) will the counterfeits engage the Vyaeh or Vyaeh-allied troops in battle. This has led to captured Vyaeh being used as a primitive and brutal counterfeit detector test in the field, a practice strongly condemned but unofficially tolerated by the SCNF.

The most advanced human counterfeit units are designed for penetration and disruption of hardened targets, and are equipped with advanced personality simulators and friend-or-foe locators. No counterfeits are exact copies, though, and the errors made by the Vyaeh can be detected by wary observers, and the counterfeits detonated from a safe distance. The more common counterfeits are notorious among SCNF combat troops for their bizarre speech and behavior. Playing of human cultural taboos and perceptions, many of the simulated body types are young and/or female.

Stories of a human-model counterfeit equipped with a faulty detonator that rendered it unable to explode have circulated among SCNF troops in combat sectors. These tales, often with improbably embellished accounts of the defective counterfeit joining forces with human troops, are almost certainly apocryphal.

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Xavier was standing in front of the paper towel dispenser, futilely waving his hands. “Come on, damn you! Spit it out!” The unit was one of the newfangled motion-sensing ones the building had installed during a bird flu scare, but it never seemed to register Xavier’s gesticulations.

“Allow me.” An older man, tanned and with a long white ponytail, was in line behind Xavier.

Xavier obligingly stepped aside. “Is there a trick to it?”

The older man nodded. “The towel dispenser, he is just like a woman,” he said. “One must know how to stimulate it.” The man held out his pinky, daintily inserted it into the towel slot, and moved it a fraction of an inch.

A paper towel whirred out of the slot; the man performed the feat again to get a towel for Xavier. “Is it really that simple?” Xavier asked. “Sticking your finger in there?”

“You must press lightly against the razor-sharp serrated teeth just inside the slot,” the old man said. “Just enough to make it give you what you want, but not enough to draw blood.”

“Just like a woman,” Xavier said wonderingly.

You’d be forgiven for missing them.

People usually stick to the pretty side of downtown, the side that faces out. It gets cleaned regularly, the sidewalks are swept, and the only whiff of danger is if someone drives through a crosswalk.

The other side of downtown…that’s where the steam vents belch forth, where the dumpsters live, where all the doors say STAFF ONLY or NO TRESPASSING. Loading docks and ugly bricks that haven’t been painted in decades because only the employees ever see them.

As before, you could easily be forgiven for overlooking their existence.

Here on a brick wall, there against a concrete retainer, or inscribed on old and asphalted-over manhole covers: spray-painted graffiti, in red, of a triangle inscribed within a set of three large and three small circles. A dozen, all told, each with a twin directly across from it on a line intersecting the old courthouse.

No one saw them arrive; no paint-spattered malcontents slinking away in the dark. They simply arrived, and defied the few futile attempts to clean them made by the idle truck driver or smoke-breaking clerk.

You’d be forgiven for missing them. But soon their purpose will be clear to all, and then you’ll wonder–perhaps as your last conscious thought–how you could have been so blind.

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The sounds of combat echoed from below the mesa. The Ide were apparently holding their own despite their disadvantage in weapons; the roar of musketry was interspersed with the snap from more modern repeaters. Virginia felt sick to her stomach at the thought of her friends, Ranger and Ide alike, killing each other.

But there were more important things to think about. The ceremony had to be almost complete; there were only minutes–seconds, perhaps–to make it to Jake and the Ide elders.

Virginia dipped a hand into her pocket and retrieved a second cylinder for the 1858. With practiced fingers she swapped it out for the smoking and depleted one in her parents’ Remington.

Even from behind the crumbling mudbrick wall, Virginia could hear Strasser’s footsteps and spurs. “Show yourself, you plain and cowardly little girl,” the Ranger cried. “I’ll have our business finished before I deal with Jake.”

Taking a deep breath, Virgina cocked her revolver and rolled out of cover. Strasser was perhaps twenty or twenty-five yards away at the end of a manmade gulch formed by the pueblos.

“You look ridiculous,” Strasser laughed. Despite the adobe dust that caked her, she still presented an elegant and refined silhouette and her Lightning was heavy in hand. “Look at you, the idiotic seed of a wormy old tree, still playing at being her parents. That ridiculous antique’s so big on you it’s a wonder you can get your hands around the grip.”

“I am Virginia MacNeil, daughter of Prosperity Rangers. It doesn’t matter what shooting iron’s in my hand so long as my heart is true.”

Strasser laughed again. “You’ve been reading too many fairy tales, girl. But no matter. I’ll show you a taste of the real world before I take care of that traitor and his Ide confederates above.”

“No more talk,” Virginia growled. “Make your move, you snake.”

They were both silent for a minute, guns in hand but lowered as a bitter wind from below brought with it the sounds of battle.

Revolvers flashed to the firing position. Smirking, Strasser had her Colt lightning leveled and ready first, and squeezed the trigger. To her surprise, there was nothing but a dry snap as the double-action trigger failed. Cursing, she pulled back the hammer for a single-action shot just as Virginia’s finger tightened around the heavy and stubborn trigger of the Remington.

The mining team assembled in the cruiser’s makeshift kitchen, trying their best to ignore the vibration as the ship pitched and yawed to get its hyperspace vector right.

Milford entered, chomping at an electronic cigar–the best he could do in an oxygen-rich environment. “Okay, listen up,” he said. “Me and the cartel have sent you to some awfully tough and awfully illegal places for a spot of mining before, and you’ve done us proud.”

“Even when Higgins got sterilized on that iridium asteroid?” one of the miners laughed.

“Especially when Higgins got sterilized. You know as well as I do that little Higginses were always a bad idea.” Milford flipped on the projector–not the kind of interactive 3-d holography one would get on a legitimate mining guild craft, but an incandescent-powered overhead projector with transparencies.

“We’re headed for 55 Cancri E,” Milford continued. “A diamond planet.”

“You gettin’ married, chief?” another miner chortled.

“Why, you proposin’? I think we should just be friends.” Milford accompanied his quip with a “no more interruptions please” glare. “The cartel is building an illicit space elevator on…well, you don’t need to know where. But they’re going to need as much diamond as they can get.”

The ship shuddered again. “We’ll be dealing with 8 Gs down there, so give yourself time to acclimate and don’t move too fast. You can handle it, but it’s gonna feel like there’s a troop of gorillas sitting on you at first.”

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A pair of viruses sidled up to a host cell’s ribosome after a long day in the bloodstream, looking to unwind their RNA strands and relax.

“Hey,” the first virus said. “Aren’t you a Group IV Caliciviridae Norovirus?”

“Why as a matter of fact I am,” said the second virus. “Name’s Norbert.”

“Clyde. Here to cause infectious gastroenteritis?”

“The very same.”

“Small world, Clyde. Small world.”

“It sure is,” Norbert (who was only 38 nanometers wide) said. “It sure is.”

After contentedly replicating themselves at the ribosome for a while, Norbert turned to Clyde. “Say Clyde. Do you think we’re alive?”

“That’s a good question Norbert,” said Clyde. “There are several schools of thought on the subject. We do evolve and multiply, yet lack many of the other so-called basic aspects of life like requiring nourishment.”

“Huh,” Norbert said. “That’s kind of disappointing, to think that I might not be alive.”

“Look at it this way,” replied Clyde. “If you’re not technically alive, you can never die.”

“Hm, that’s true!” Norbert said, brightening.

“Yep. People may vaccinate against us, but when push comes to shove the only way to destroy a virus is with a really tiny hammer.”

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