Allan Cole, Chris Bunch


Kathryn and Karen

 ...for the usual godzilla reasons


The real Alex Kilgour

..."Who Cares Who Wins"



THE GO SIRENS ululated through the Jannisar cruiser. The thunder of crashing boots died away. The ship's XO nodded in satisfaction as the STATIONS READY panel winked to green. He made a mental note to assign extra penance to one laggard ECM station, then spun in his chair to the captain. "All stations manned. Sigfehr," he reported.

The captain touched the relic that hung under his black tunic, then opened his intercom mike. "Bow, ye of the Jann. as we make our prayer to Talamein.

"O Lord, ye who know all things, bless us as we are about to engage the unbeliever. We ask. as our right due, for your assistance in victory.


The chorus of "S'be't" echoed through the ship. The captain switched to a double channel.

"Communications, you will monitor. Weapons, prepare launch sequence. LRM tubes two, four, six. Target onscreen. Commercial ship. Communications, establish contact with target ship. Weapons, we will launch on my command, after surrender of enemy ship. This is bridge, clear."

The cruiser's prey appeared to be just another obsolescent Register-class mining survey ship wildcatting through the galaxy's outer limits.

Its oval hull was patched, resprayed. corroded, and even rusty from its very occasional atmospheric landings. Its long, spindly landing legs were curled under the ship's body, and the mining grab claws were curled just below the forward controls.

It resembled nothing so much as an elderly crab fleeing a hungry shark.

Actually, the ship was the IA Cienfuegos, an Imperial spy ship, its mission complete and now speeding for home. 

Extract, Morning Report, II Saber Squadron. Mantis Section:

The following detached this date, assigned temporary duty Imperial Auxiliary Ship Cienfuegos (x-file OP CAM-FAR):

STEN, (NI). Lt. OC Mantis Section 13, weapons;

KILGOUR. ALEX. Sgt., NCO1C, Demolitions;

KALDERASH, IDA. Corporal. Pilot & Electronics;

MORREL, BET, Superior Private, Beast Handler;

*BLYRCHYNAUS*. Unranked, Anthropologist, Medic.

Team detached with Indiv Gear. Units 45 & 46.

NOTE: OP CAMFAR under dir O/C Mercury Corps, subsq. entries t/b cleared thru Col. Ian Mahoney, Commander Mercury Corps.

Sten stared approvingly at the nude woman strobe-illuminated by the hydroponic lights. He walked to the edge of the plot and gently picked his way past the two huge, black-and-white Siberian tigers.

One of them opened a sleepy eye, emitted a low growl of recognition. Sten ignored it, and it returned to licking its mate's throat.

Bet turned then frowned, seeing Sten. Sten's heart still thumped when he saw her. She was small, blonde, and muscles rippled under her smooth, tawny skin.

She hesitated, then waded through the waving plants to the edge of the plot and sat beside him. Sten was only slightly taller than Bet, with black hair and brooding black eyes. He was slender, but with the build of a trained acrobat.

"Thought you were asleep," she said.


Bet and Sten sat in silence for a moment—except for the purrs of Munin and Hugin, Bet's two big cats. Neither Bet nor Sten was particularly good at talking. Especially about...

"Thought maybe," Sten tried haltingly, "we should, well, try to figure out what's going on."

"Going wrong, you mean," Bet said softly.

"I guess that pretty well is it," Sten said.

Bet considered. "I'm not sure. We've been together quite awhile. Maybe it's that. Maybe it's this stupid operation. All we've done for a long time now is sit on this clottin' ship and play tech."

"And snarl at each other," Sten added.

"That, too."

"Look," Sten said, "why don't we go back to my compartment? And..." His voice trailed off. Very romantic approach, his mind snapped at him.

Bet hesitated. Considering. Finally she shook her head. "No," she said. "I think I want things left alone until we get back. Maybe—maybe when we're on R and R... maybe then we'll go back to being like we were."

Sten sighed. Then nodded. Perhaps Bet was right. Maybe it was best—

And the intercom sang: "If we aren't disturbing the young lovers, we seem to have a small problem in the control room."

"Like what, Ida?" Sten asked.

The tigers were already up, ears erect, tails swimming gently.

"Like a clottin' great cruiser haulin' up on us from the rear."

Bet and Sten were on their feet, running for the control room.

A relatively short man, about as wide as he was tall, scanned the display from the ship's Janes fiche and grunted. Alex was a heavy-worlder with steel-beam size bones and super-dense muscles. And his accent—Scots because of the original settlers of his homeworld—was as thick as his body.

"Naebody w'knae th' trawble Ah seen," he half sung to himself as he glanced over the description of the ship that was pursuing them.

Sten leaned over his shoulder and read aloud: "619.532. ASSAULT/PATROL CRUISER. Former Imperial Cruiser Turnmaa, Karjala class. Dim: 190 meters by 34...clottin' chubby ship... Crew under Imperial manning: 26 officers, 125 men..."

"Four of us, plus two tigers, against 151 troops," Ida broke in. The Rom woman mused over the odds. She was as chubby as she was greedy. Ida had her fingers in every stock and futures market in the Empire. "If anyone's taking bets, I'll give odds...against us."

Sten ignored her and read on: "Armament: Six Goblin anti-ship launchers, storage thirty-six in reserve...Three Vydall intercept missile launchers, storage forty-five in reserve... four Lynx-output laser systems... usual in-atmosphere AA capability... single chain gun, single Bell-class assault laser, mounted unretractable turrets above A deck. Well-armed little bassid... Okay, now, speed..."

"Ah'm kepit my fingers linkit," Alex murmured.

"Clot," Sten said, "they can outrun us, too."

It was Ida's turn to grunt. "Clottin" computer, all it tells us is that we're swingin' gently, gently in the wind. Any data on who those stinkin' bad guys are?"

Sten didn't bother to answer her. "What's intercept time?" he snapped.

Ida blanked the Janes display and the screen relit: 


Bet cut the readout. "Who cares? I don't think those clowns want to shake our hands." She turned to Sten. "Any ideas, Lieutenant?"

Ida's board buzzed. "Oh-ho. They want to talk to us." Her hand went to the com switch.

Sten stopped her. "Stall them," he said.

There was a reason for Sten's caution. The problem wasn't with the control room—the Cienfuegos was indeed an Imperial spy ship—but except for its hidden super-computer, a rather sophisticated electronic suite, and overpowered engines, it still was pretty much the rustbucket inside as it was on the outer skin.

The problem was its crew: Mantis section, the Empire's super-secret covert mission specialists. Mantis troopers were first given the standard one-year basic as Imperial Guardsmen, then, assuming they had the proper nonmilitary, nonregimented, and ruthless outlook on life, seconded first to Mercury Corps (Imperial Military Intelligence) and then given the two-year-long Mantis training.

Clot the training, Sten thought while trying to come up with a battle that offered even a one-in-ten chance of survival. The problem was really the team's physical appearance: Munin and Hugin, two four-meter-long mutated black-and-white Siberian tigers. One chubby Scotsman. One fat woman wearing a gypsy dress. One pretty woman. And me, Sten thought. Sten, Lieutenant, commanding Mantis Team 13, suicide division.

Whoopie, he thought. Oh, well. Sten motioned to Doc while Ida fumbled with the com keys, making confused responses to the cruiser.

Doc waddled forward. The tendriled koala's real name was *BLYRCHYNAUS*, but since no one could pronounce his Altarian name, they called him Doc. The little anthro expert (and medic) held all human beings in absolute contempt. Though he was mostly considered a pain in the lower extreme, he had two indispensible talents: He could analyze culture from small scraps of evidence; and (as one of the Empire's most formidible carnivores) he had the ability to broadcast feelings of compassion and love for his adorable self and any companions.

"Any idea who they are?" Sten asked.

Doc sniffed. "I have to see them," he said.

Sten signaled Ida, who had taped a crude frame to the com pickup so that she would be the only creature visible on the ship.

"Once more onto the breach of contract," she said and keyed ANSWER.

Three stern faces stared at her from the screen.

"G'head," Ida yawned. "This is Hodell, Survey Ship P21. Ca' Cervi on."

"You will cut your drive instantly. This I order in the name of Talamein and the Jannisars."

Out of sight of the Jann captain, Doc studied the man. Noting his uniform. Analyzing his speech patterns.

Ida gave the captain a puzzled look. "Talamein? Talamein? Do I know him?"

The eyes of the two men beside the captain widened in horror at her blasphemy. The senior officer glared at Ida through the screen.

"You will bring your vessel to an immediate halt and prepare for boarding and arrest.

"By the authority of the Prophet, and Ingild, his emissary in present-time. You have entered proscribed space. Your ship will be seized, you and your crew conveyed to Cosaurus for trial and execution of sentence."

"Y'sure got yourself a great justice system, Cap'n." Ida rose from her chair, turned, and planted her bare, ample buttocks against the pickup. Then, modestly lowering her skirt, she turned back to the screen. She noted with pleasure she'd gotten a reaction from all three black uniforms this time.

"And if nonverbal communication ain't sufficient,"she said, "I'd suggest you put your prophet in one hand and your drakh in the other and see which one fills up first."

Without waiting for an answer, she broke contact.

"A wee bit d'rect, m'lass?" Alex inquired.

Ida just shrugged. Sten waited patiently for Doc's analysis.

The bear's antenna vibrated slightly. "Not pirates or privateers—at least these beings do not so consider themselves. In any case authoritarian, which should be obvious even to these odiferous beasts of Bet's."

Hugin understood enough of the language to know when he was being insulted. He growled, warningly. Doc's antenna moved again, and the growl turned into a purr. He tried to lick Doc's face. The bear pushed him away.

"I find interesting the assumption of absolute authority, which would suggest either a fuehrer state of longstanding or, more probably, one of a metaphysical nature."

"You mean religious," Sten said.

"A belief in anything beyond what one can consume or exploit. Metaphysics, religion, whatever.

"My personal theory would be what you call religious. Note the use of the phrase 'In the name of Talamein' as a possible indicator.

"My estimation would be a military order, based on and supporting a dictatorial, puritanical religion. For the sake of argument, call this order the Jannisars.

"Note also that the officer has carefully positioned two aides to his either side. Neither seemed more than a bodyguard.

"Therefore, I would theorize that our Jannisars are not a majority in this... this Talamein empire, but an elite minority requiring protection.

"Also note the uniforms. Black. I have observed that in the human mind this indicates a desire for the observer to associate the person wearing that uniform with negativism—fear, terror, even death.

"Also, did any of you notice the lack of decoration on all three uniforms? Very uncharacteristic of the human norm, but an indicator that status is coupled with the immaterial — in other words, again, an indicator that we're dealing with metaphysical fanatics."

Doc looked around, waiting for appaluse. He should have known better.

"Ah a'ready kenned they wa' n'better'n a lot'a Campbells," Alex said. "The wee skean dubhs th'had slung a' they belts. No fightin' knives a man wae carry. D'ble-edged, wi' flat handles. A blade like tha's used for naught but puttin' in a man from the rear."

"Anything else, Doc?" Sten asked.

"The barrel that walks like a being said what I had left out," Doc said.

Sten rubbed his chin, wishing, not for the hundredth time, that Mantis had been able to assign them a battle computer before the mission. Finally he looked up at everyone. "The way I see it, we have to let them play the first card."


"ON MY COMMAND," the Jannisar captain said harshly. "Goblin tubes two, four, six, prepare to launch. Launch."

Metal clanged as the three long-range missile tubes lifted above the cruiser's outer skin. Oxygen and solid fuel boiled from the tubes as the Goblins fired.

"We have a launch on missile six and missile two... launch on missile four... missile four, misfire."

"Attempt reignition," the captain said.

"Reignition attempted," the weapons officer droned. "Attempt unsuccessful. Missile failed to ignite. Primary ignition circuits defunct... secondary ignition circuits defunct, missile failed to self-arm."

A Jannisar will never show emotion, the captain thought. He cut off the weapons room circuit, then looked at his executive officer. His expression was also blank. Malfunctions weren't, after all, that unexpected. By the time an Imperial warship was sold, it had generally seen a lot of combat. But still, the captain thought furiously, with the proper tools, what we Jannisar could do in the name of Talamein!

Then he refocused his attention on the missile tracking screen, as the two 5kt missiles homed on the fleeing Cienfuegos.

"Guess he told me," Ida said. "They've launched missiles."

"How long?" Sten asked.

"Impact in... eighty-three seconds. We've got a whole lifetime."

"Not funny," Sten managed as he dropped into a weapons seat and tugged on the helmet.

Into a gray half-world. Part of him "saw" the ghost-images of the other soldiers in the control room. But suddenly he was the missile.

The weapons control system was, of course, no different from the feelies. The helmet's contact rested on the base of the skull and induced direct perception to the brain. The operator, using a standard joystick and remote throttle, kamikazied the missile directly to the target.

Sten "saw" the port open before him... a froth of air expired... then the streaked blackness as his CM missile launched. He flipped another switch on the panel and launched "himself" again. He kept the second antimissile-missile on a slave circuit, holding a path to his flank.

Sten dimly heard Bet, from another panel, snap, "Gremlin flight nine launched... all ECM A-A-A operational... waiting for contact... waiting for contact."

The Gremlins were small antimissiles that provided a false target signature identical to the Cienfuegos. Dead silence, waiting either for the Gremlins to divert and explode the Goblins or for Sten to close his own missiles into range.

Alex noticed that sweat had beaded on Ida's lip hair. Then blinked as salt droplets roll down his forehead, into his eyes. He deliberately looked over at Doc, Hugin, and Munin.