Impostors

I wrote my first story in April or May of 1989. It was about a mutant shark that had legs and the ability to breathe on land. I called it PAWS. By the end of the story, people are trying to kill the land shark right? But it survives, of course (I was already planning a sequel) except it ends up with this scarring along the lower edge of its gills that makes it look like it’s got a paw on the side of its neck.

You can probably tell where the initial idea came from, but that whole thing? I was always fucking weird, man.

Anyway, I wrote a lot of other embarrassingly terrible stories after that. Because that’s what you do. You write this awful thing and that awful thing and another awful thing until one day you write something that’s less awful and one day much later than that you write something that’s decent. Maybe even good.

I made my first paid sale in 2009. I’d been writing for twenty years.

Not that that feels like a long time. I mean, in the context of things. I was a kid for most of that. I was learning and practicing but I was also growing up.

In 2013 I quit working and made writing my sole income. Four years after my first sale, I turned it into a living. I could not have done this alone, and it took months before the money coming in was truly enough to call it a living.

It was around that time my friend Dan and I talked, in an email exchange, about how we felt like we were getting away with something. Like we’d been planning this scam all our lives and it was working but we constantly felt like we’d be discovered at any moment. The jig would eventually be up.

Later on tonight I may watch the movie he and another buddy of his wrote. It came out last year and you definitely heard of it.

Impostor syndrome. If you’re a writer, even one who isn’t making one cent out of words, you’ve felt it. It’s why so many younger or inexperienced writers call themselves “aspiring.” There’s this sense that you’re not really fooling anyone, that you’re not at that level yet, that everyone else knows more about this thing than you. You’re just not qualified. If you just call yourself a writer, well shit, someone might call you on it. The jig would be up.

OK, first of all: if that last paragraph sounds like you and nobody’s told you yet: drop the aspirations. You’re a writer when you write. You may be a godawful one, but that really is the only requisite qualification.

Being good at it is another thing. Like I said before, you have to get all the garbage out of you first. And it will be garbage because no one ever cooks a perfect souffle on the first try.

Fun fact: impostor syndrome (which is also, I learned when getting ready to type this up, known as the impostor experience) doesn’t go away. Ever. And it goes hand in hand with this other ancient writer truism: you are your own worst critic.

Some days I sit down to write and I just stare at this open project and think, “what the hell am I trying to pull here?” I’m looking at a project file with about 70,000 words in it and it’s the third book in a series and I think, “shit. I should jerk those other two off the shelves and throw it all in the trash.” Sometimes I think I’ve just been completely clueless and overconfident, the proverbial straight white male bouncing through the world on sheer privileged arrogance. I just haven’t run into the person who’ll tell me “no” yet. No one wants this crap. Certainly they’re not going to pay me for it, oh no. That’s insane.

And look, our rotten excuse for a civilization seriously undervalues creatives and art, except for some rare and possibly random instances where the art ends up ridiculously overvalued. The artist themself tends to remain poor. That’s a wholly separate issue, though.

Truth is, I wrote my first story in 1989. I’ve been doing this for over thirty years. I take the craft seriously, even if many of my stories are completely absurd. Yeah, I write about sharks with legs. Yeah, I write about zombie mummies and terrorist penguins. What of it?

If you’re a writer – a painter, a sculptor, any kind of artist – and you feel like an impostor … remind yourself of all the time you put into learning your art. Remember the lessons you learned from being terrible. Remember that you got better, and you still are, and you always will be unless you stop.

And that’s the thing: don’t stop.

Seven years ago, my friend Dan said he felt like he was pulling one over on people. Last year he got to attend the premiere of a movie he co-wrote.

Discarded Scenes: Millennials Ruin the Future

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about a subplot I cut from The Adventures of Jimmy Stick. I cut it because it would have added something like 30-40 pages to the finished work without really advancing the main plot or contributing much to the central themes. Even so, I wish I’d kept it.

It was about terrorists. Penguin terrorists.

Anyway. Because I’ve been thinking a lot about that, I thought I’d share something that has already been cut from my new, currently-still-in-outlining project. It’s not much, but it might amuse.

Have Millennials Ruined the Military Parade Industry?

The year is 2079. It’s the birthday of a President who’s been dead for fifty years, but he was the Last President so we still commemorate the day with military parades and the like. There are no longer presidents, not anywhere in the world, but the children and grandchildren of the Last President have things well in hand and you can watch the exciting parades all day (and, let’s be honest, for the rest of the month) on the one true newsfeed, that bastion of fairness and balance, that bulwark against the iniquities of rumor and fake news.

We have a lovely family gathered together to celebrate. They gather round a spread of cheap burgers. The youngest children still believe they are made of beef. Oh ho, but our lovely family is not that wealthy. No, they are merely upper middle class. The working age adults, those between 11 and 94, have on average only three jobs apiece! Truly, this family is on the cusp of one day rising above their middle class roots!

This is a very special occasion, beyond the booming of the heavy guns from the wallscreen as the TROOPS march through Washington, and elsewhere along the coast near where a city called New York once stood above the waters, and still elsewhere through the ruins of a city more ancient than recorded history itself where once there lived those who failed to Support the TROOPS! Woe unto all who fail to Support Them!

Ah, but our fervent patriotism leads us into digression. We were speaking of the special occasion. It is special for this family alone, and so you will not see it on your news broadcasts. You see, Grandpa Joe has just reached retirement age! Yesterday was his 95th birthday. He’s been a hard worker, gave it 79 years. You can’t blame him for the lackadaisical rules of the past century, which kept him from entering the work force until he was nearly finished with basic schooling. He is proud and once was strong. He has lived within his means for all his life, never missed a payment, never drank a store-bought coffee when he could always just get up a little earlier and brew it himself at home! He has a credit score of 612!

Grandpa Joe sits at the place of honor, head of the table. His children spread out along the table beneath him, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren looking up at him with awe from the distance.

Behind him, the wallscreen plays the news. The wallscreen always plays the news.

In a hundred cities around the globe, the holographic ghost of the Last President stands over the abandoned capitals of fallen nations. The people of those nations did not Support the Troops, but they do now. The holograms are huge. They are the best holograms.

The Last President is shouting. He always shouts. It is necessary, since there are now – as there have always been – spineless, do-nothing traitors skulking around, spreading fake news and hoaxes, and the Last President’s Voice must be heard above their mewling and lies.

The family enjoys their meal. Grandpa Joe does not eat. He has not had teeth for forty-six years. He drinks the blended medical juice through a special straw. The drink costs a million dollars per serving. It is necessary, because most of his internal organs have shut down long ago. The Shake keeps him alive. Keeps him shaking, ha ha. The straw was nine hundred thousand. Thank Jesus and the Last President, he only has to pay six hundred million a year in insurance! He has nearly reached his deductible for this year. Just a few billion to go. Hoo, what a great year it’s shaping up to be for Grandpa Joe.

But what’s this? There are people interrupting the parades on the news. They are dirty and skinny and many have open sores. They are clearly bad, bad people. They might even be refugees, which is terrifying. The grandchildren begin to cry. It is not the sores. They have seen sores. Most of them have a few, but luckily none are openly bleeding and weeping and they have not had to shell out for medicine. No, it’s not the sores. The children are crying because those people on the wallscreen have peculiar skin. It’s like they are all sunburnt. You can see right away these aren’t good Christians.

They’re carrying signs, but of course you can’t read the signs. The Trusted News Source has blurred them out to spare you the discomfort of seeing illegible profanities in the primitive dialect of whatever shithole country these mongrels crawled out from.

The Troops are quick to react, of course. They know when they see someone who doesn’t Support them. You see them shifting their posture, bringing their guns to bear. Now they will calmly approach the refugees and reason with them. They will convince the scum to behave themselves, to go back where they came from. If they really want to come here, there are ways. Very cool and legal ways. The Troops will explain. You don’t need to watch, though, all that talking and reasoning and calm behavior would be boring. The news cuts away just before the Troops commence debating in good faith.

Now there are several men and one woman sitting around in a studio, and they are talking. They are, like the Troops, very reasonable people who are very good at explaining things. They explain that the Troops have to be very careful when reasoning with the refugees, because the refugees are crawling with diseases that have terrifying names. Most of the refugees also are rapists, and they are without exception drug pushers. Some of the worst – and they are all the worst, because wherever they came from only sends the worst – will rape you with diseased drugs while simultaneously selling your children into white slavery. The worst slavery. It’s a huge problem, huge.

But you know what else is a problem? asks the blonde woman on the wallscreen. The kids don’t know her name. All the women on the news are blonde.

I sure do, answers one of her smiling co-hosts. He is not smiling now. He looks directly out of the wallscreen.

It’s a real problem, he explains, that there are still ungrateful citizens who think there might just possibly be some slightly different way to go about things. These people will tell you there’s better ways to spend money than on military parades, but that is because these people do not Support the Troops. How can you not see that?

But these people, and they’re all from this one country you can’t find on a map (he doesn’t mention this is because it is no longer on the maps, since the Troops last visited), but the thing is they’ve gotten to the media. Not this trusted news source, mind you, but the entirety of the media has been compromised by their attacks. And the fake news is spreading, and what’s really insidious is that it’s been carefully designed to warp the tender, unformed brains of this great nation’s youth.

And now you see the tragic results, he says sadly. Millennials are ruining the military parade industry, but it’s not their fault really. It’s these godless enemies of the people, spreading lies and starting witch hunts.

Grandpa Joe puts a hand to his chest. His face reddens. There are tears in his eyes. He makes a sort of choking, sobbing sound deep in his throat.

He is clearly moved by the newsman’s patriotism.

2020!

It’s a new year, as you may have noticed. I have plans. Goals. As one does.

So, in 2020 I will:

  • finish and publish volume 3 of The Voidstrider Saga;
  • begin work on my next Johnson Underwood project, working title Florida Man versus the Elder Gods;
  • write more in this blog;
  • write and send actual letters to old friends in far-off places;
  • reconnect in person with old friends in more nearby locales;
  • make efforts to be less cynical and angry, focus on positive things.

That last one … eh, we’ll see.

I’m very excited for the Florida Man project. It’s something that’s been percolating for the last three years. It will be, like the previous Johnson book, sarcastic and satirical. It will be my first real foray into cosmic horror, also. (I’ve dabbled a bit in short form once or twice over the years, but this is my first real effort.)

Ideas are still coming together, but some themes I intend to tackle are the meaninglessness of existence (a proper theme for eldritch cosmic horror, no?) and the What Now? of early middle age. Also, again much like Jimmy Stick, the book will have a whole lot of what the fuck is wrong with these humans anyway? Plus, a lot of humor.

So those are my plans for the New Year. Wish me luck, and in turn may all your own endeavors bear delicious fruit.

2019

Well, that’s over with. Good riddance, right?

I started 2019 in my living room, hanging out with a favorite coworker, my then-girlfriend, and my dog. We drank and played Red Dragon Inn and Layla (the dog) threw up on the floor.

I ended the year at a weird hotel party in Louisville, Kentucky, drinking with some people I know and some people I don’t and some people who just wandered in. A young woman showed me pictures of her 18 cats.

I won’t miss 2019, not gonna lie. I’m glad it’s over. It was a real fucker of a year for me. I have still not managed to finished Voidstrider volume 3. I had a permanent falling out with two once-dear friends whom I had known and been close to for over a decade. Went through a weird, if civil, break-up. Went through a cancer scare (I’m fine!).

I watched the world around me continue to grow darker, more grim.

There were good bits, of course. Some magnificent. I ended the year with hope and optimism, despite that stinker of an ending for a certain beloved franchise. I ended the year with love. I ended the year with a positive balance in the bank, a roof over my head, and food in my belly.

The world is dark and grim, but it is also filled with lights. Some sparkle, others blaze. Watch out for the ones which gutter in the stirring of breezes, the ones that flicker and struggle. Cup your hands around them, if you will, if you are able. Prop them up and preserve them. We’re all we’ve got.

Moving forward, as we always do, as we must, I wish you all the best. May 2020 be a better year than 2019. May you find what you seek, create what you desire, and hold what you cherish. Be excellent to each other and party on, dudes.

Things I Might Say If You Weren’t a Troll Hell-Bent on Ignoring Reason and Facts in Your Noble Quest to Trigger Me

I just saw another manbaby ranting about The Last Jedi, specifically the “Holdo Maneuver,” on Facebook. Quelle fuckin surprise.

Essentially his complaint boils down to: if that’s possible, then why haven’t people been doing it all the time? Why didn’t they blow up the Death Star like that? Why is a woman (especially with unnatural hair color) allowed to do something important? Oops. He didn’t say that part out loud. This totally breaks Star Wars, he did opine. Previous films are rendered suddenly unrealistic!

Wow, bro! You cracked it! No one has pointed that out before, and if they had then any counterarguments would have obviously been dumb SJWs just virtue signalling at each other because they’re so triggered!

I’m not going to get into it with Facebook trolls, not today Satan. But, despite having grown up on the Internet, I still fall victim to one of the classic blunders. I may never have gone in against a Sicilian when death is on the line, but I almost always read the comments.

I was pleased to see a number of people pointing out some serious flaws in his argument, and dismayed to see every reasonable comment met with a bellicose chorus of “but her e-mails!” Shit, I did it again. I mean, of course, that there was a snarky man-baby ready to answer every salient point with completely irrelevant bullshit.

If this is possible, then there would be ways to defend against it. Star Destroyers have no defense against it, ergo it’s not something they need to defend against, ergo it is not possible.

OK, chucklefuck. Beyond the basic logical fallacy in your argument’s construction, consider this. We’ve all seen how making the jump to lightspeed works. Ship travels an extremely short distance rapidly in realspace before vanishing into hyperspace. Have they ever done a jump to hyperspeed where the ship lurches across two or three light seconds before vanishing into that higher dimensional disco? Nope. So: the Holdo Maneuver can only be initiated from very fucking close to its target, which in the case of a Star Destroyer has actually quite a lot of options in defending itself from another ship at close proximity.

Remember that time in Empire when Han banks the Falcon around, completely ignoring common sense and the lack of air resistance in vacuum to charge head-on at a Star Destroyer? And the guys on the bridge are like, “lol, wut” and “what suicidal dipshit would attack a Star Destroyer head on at close range?”

The Holdo Maneuver works for a couple reasons. One, no one would expect it to be successful. Which means no one would expect some idiot to try it. Two, it happens when the ship is being evacuated and the First Order have spotted the fleeing Resistance shuttles and would reasonably assume the capital ship is no longer in the fight.

Yes, that doesn’t mean tactically they should then ignore it as a potential threat, but (a) human beings are not always terribly smart, especially in heated moments and (b) there are soooo many dumb things people have done in SW because of plot requirements in the previous films.

Why didn’t they just blow up the Death Star that way?

See my above point regarding Star Destroyers, and consider how many Rebels died at Yavin when they got close to the thing they needed to get close to in order to blow it up.

It’s a deus ex machina!

Come back when you learn what words mean. Yes, even the Latin ones. I’m sure you’ve been having trouble with quid pro quo lately as well.

It doesn’t make any sense for her to sacrifice herself when they could just make a droid do it. (She probably just wanted attention. You know. Women.)

Droids are sentient, dude. It’s already kind of a problem how they’ve been used.

It makes everything that came before pointless and/or unrealistic.

Come here, buddy. Have a seat right here. Let’s have us a chat about some motherfucking space wizards.

Wait, back up. We may have to start out a little more basic. You do know the difference between real life and make believe, right?

The Angel and the Djinn preview

I swear sometimes this book is going to kill me. I’ve been working on volume 3 of The Voidstrider Saga for almost two years. (I wrote the first one in six months.) The light is showing at the tunnel’s end, at last. I’ve got about 18,000 words to go and then of course the revisions, but let’s not think about that now. Today, I want to give you a little taste.

This is, it goes without saying, raw first draft stuff which will likely see some heavy changes before it goes to print. It’s a little spoilery but not too bad. (And it will make no sense unless you’ve read the first two books, obviously.) Here we go:

Interlude – SADIRA

Garish holograms and flashing OLEDs competed for attention with twirling aug mirages, visible only to those with the right implants or an expensive set of lenses. The aug usually won, thanks to its interactive nature and freedom to dance and twirl in midair, performing dazzling and impossible contortions over the heads of slow-shuffling tourists with wide eyes and deep pockets.


Inebriated business magnates from Earth and Luna mixed with Cerean merchant princes and wealthy Martian patricians, staggering through the haze of light and sound as they made their way to the next attraction. Rich kids from all over the system stumbled about, laughing and heedless of the constant noise of bells and sirens or the neverending clatter of chips emanating from every other establishment they passed.

A middle-aged man in rumpled business formal haggled with a three-armed, green-skinned prostitute outside a red-lit entrance. A servitor, tall and spindly like a stainless steel coatrack, hauled an obese woman in her sixties from another entryway and tossed her carelessly to the ground. She rolled onto her back and stared with eyes gone hazy from some potent narcotic. Nearby, a young man horked vat-grown shellfish into a mobile trash receptacle as his three Belter buddies stood round laughing uproariously.

Downtown Eros on a Saturday night.

A beautiful woman in a loose-fitting, red slacks-and-jacket ensemble strode purposefully along this crowded promenade, ignoring the the outrageous sights and deafening sounds of the glittering asteroid city of sin. She was trailed by six companions, spread out in a tight arc behind her and clad in the same shade of red she herself wore. They moved with purpose through the chaos.

The woman was tall – not quite Belter tall, but tall and slender atop long legs. She had dark brown skin and silken black hair that flowed free over broad shoulders. She walked with her spine straight and her eyes straight ahead, betraying no sign of the nervousness she felt. Sadira had not physically set foot on the asteroid in almost four years. She was counting on anyone who knew her to assume she was here as an aug and nothing more.

She was accompanied by a diverse group, though each was stunningly attractive and none boasted unnatural skin tones like the three-armed streetwalker who had just concluded negotiations with the drunken bussinesman. Three women, two men, one enby; they had as little in common with the green-skinned prostitute as a mountain lion shares with a house cat.

Eros was an exclusive playground for the system’s most obscenely wealthy, but more than one visitor had risked bankruptcy and ruin to spend an evening with one of Sadira’s Companions. Their time and attention came at a steep price, and not for something so trivial and fleeting as sex – although those few clients fortunate enough to earn a Companion’s physical affection often claimed the experience had changed their lives forever. Nevertheless, it was for other skills Sadira’s Companions were so highly sought after.

They had yet other talents as well, talents not for sale or lease at any price. In all the worlds where humans dwelt, none but Sadira could have called on those talents. It was for these talents she brought them along this evening.

Sadira reached the far end of the plaza and continued on along a narrower corridor branching off to one side of the main thoroughfare. The glitzy frontages fell behind as she and her Companions passed into a less heavily trafficked area of the station. Two hundred meters off the plaza, the corridor came to a dead end in a set of double doors undecorated by lights or holos. Above the doors, laser-etched into the wall itself, the emblem of Station Security glowered down on any who approached. Sadira ignored it, leading the way inside.

It was a typical substation, anonymous and interchangeable. It had been chosen by simple virtue of being the closest to the docking spar where Sadira kept her ship. Inside was a wide, featureless lobby with bare steel benches, two cramped visitor’s kiosks, and a long counter. Behind the counter, a bored young woman in uniform sat pretending she wasn’t watching some muted gameshow on her handset. She looked up, bemused at the entrance of seven gorgeous strangers in matching scarlet finery.

“Can I help you people?” the woman managed after a second.

Sadira ignored the officer. It was one of her two male Companions – Bolaji – who leapt the counter in a blur of red fabric and rippling black skin. Bolaji landed beside the startled woman soundlessly. His delicate hands shot out to either side of her head and he jabbed two slender fingers directly into each vagus nerve. The woman crumpled to the floor in a dead faint.

Sadira meanwhile made her way to the end of the counter, where a section lifted up to allow entry. She and the others came around to join Bolaji where he stood gazing down at the unconscious woman. He knelt as Sadira approached, checking to make sure the security officer was still breathing. Like all the Companions, like Sadira herself, Bolaji was determined not to kill anyone.

“Come along,” said Sadira. Bolaji met her eyes briefly, then nodded. He snatched a holstered electrolaser from the woman’s hip before rising to lead the way deeper into the substation. Behind where the stunned woman had sat was a broad corridor leading deeper into the station. Interrogation and holding cells lined one side, offices and a small lab the other. Past these, the corridor ended in a T-junction.

Bolaji and another of the Companions, alabaster-skinned Mariko, preceded Sadira and the rest. They were halfway to the junction when two half-armored officers charged round the corner from the left, a trio of cylindrical crowd suppression drones at their heels.

Sadira stopped and ducked into the alcove of an interrogation cell doorway as her Companions advanced. Crackling electrolaser beams flashed past her shallow cover. Grunts and other sounds of exertion, followed by broken-off screams, reached her ears. She heard flesh and bone striking composite alloy, the throbbing hum of a pulser. Sounds of breakage. Silence.

Sadira stepped out from the doorway and continued down the hall. Her six Companions fell in around her as she reached the junction. Ignoring the two unconscious human guards and three piles of mangled scrap, she turned right at the corner. The central lift was five meters ahead.

Every substation on the asteroid was connected by lift to Security Central. This allowed Station Security to keep a minimal force in any given area, with heavily armed reserves never more than an elevator ride away. It was also Sadira’s way in.

The lift car arrived, empty. Sadira stepped inside. Her Companions followed her, turning around once they were aboard and spreading out to provide cover. The car, designed for the rapid deployment of entire squadrons, was far from crowded with only seven passengers. It rose smoothly, leaving the outer surface levels rapidly behind.

No one spoke. Sadira closed her eyes and focused on measured breathing to quiet her anxiety. Her stomach fluttered and dropped. Panic fed panic, and her heart lurched until she realized it was only the dereasing gravity as they approached the asteroid’s center. She opened her eyes, still counting down each breath.

The lift stopped and the doors opened.

Sadira and the others began to drift from the car floor the moment it stopped. Bolaji and the others flung themselves out, scattering to frustrate any ambush. Lennon, the enby, was last out. They slapped the door control on the way, locking it open. Sadira gripped a rail at what had been chest-height and stayed put. She sucked in breath, one two three four.

Beyond the open doors was an egg-shaped lobby, its long and short axes aligned with Eros’s own. Lifts lined every surface, with grablines criss-crossing the open space and leading up or down or sideways to the enormous circular aperture in the egg’s narrowest point: the entrance to Security Central.

Bolaji, Mariko, and the rest caught hold of grablines as they shot into the foyer’s micrograv. Spinning in place, they aligned themselves with the circular aperture and launched toward it. Cylindrical drones emerged from the aperture. Freed of the heavier gravity their counterparts had endured in the near-surface substation, these drones rose on airjets to meet the intruders. Electrolaser fire crackled, intermixed with the heavier weaponry of the suppression drones.

Sadira bit her lip. Breathe out, one two three four. Breathe in…

Her view was limited to the narrow opening of the lift car’s door. An occasional stunner bolt flashed like controlled lightning. After perhaps a minute, the e-laser fire was replaced by hurtling amethyst toroids of supercharged plasma that left drifting afterimages in her vision.

An unfamiliar voice shouted commands. Human guards had joined the drones, which might be a good sign. Or a very bad one. She heard more energy weapons fire, and the staccato chatter of a machine gun before it cut off amid a lot of angry shouting.

Sadira realized she’d closed her eyes again when she felt a warm feeling of pain building behind them. One two three four. She forced herself to loosen her grip on the rail. Her palm ached with the shape of it. She opened her eyes. One two three four.

The noise of fighting had died down in the egg-shaped foyer. A handful of straggling stunner zaps sounded and then it was quiet. Sadira’s breath caught in her throat on the three count.

“Clear!”

She sagged against the wall. It was Bolaji’s voice.

Sadira allowed herself a second to regather her composure. Then she emerged from the lift car with as much grace as she could summon. She felt clumsy in comparison to her Companions, who waited over — er, down there at the circular entrance.

They hovered around the entrance, holding lightly onto the grablines converging there. As she pulled herself closer, Sadira saw that five of her Companions were clustered around a sixth, who was not moving. Oh no. No… Sadira drew herself to a stop at the edge of the group, staring in horrified anguish over Mariko’s shoulder.

It was Therexa. The woman hung motionless in the center of the group. Her hands floated limp, arms spread to either side. Burn marks scarred her scarlet blouse. A wide hole had been drilled through her midsection. Globules of blood welled up and floated ponderously from the ugly wounds. She was dead.

Sadira’s lip curled around a rising sob of anguish, locking the sound in her mouth behind an ugly, twisted snarl. Her hand reached for Therexa’s body of its own accord. Her eyes saw nothing else. There were sounds, muted. She blinked and the present moment returned, the egg room and her five surviving Companions clustered around her in commingled grief. She swallowed her pain and ripped her eyes from the corpse.

One two three four…

“Keep moving,” she said. “We’ll come back for her.” If any of us survives, anyway. She left that part unsaid. If any of them hadn’t known the risk, it was floating right there staring them in the face now. Therexa. She had loved dogs. Her quarters on the ship were filled with holographic puppies, jumping and yipping and licking at anyone who came through the hatch. Sadira shook her head. “Let’s go.”

Bolaji went first. The others followed him, Sadira coming last. The entryway was a narrow tube, one meter long. Beyond, Security Central opened out around them in a cylindrical hall. Sliding doors circled the hall, breaking up the gunmetal monotony of otherwise featureless curving walls. Guidelines ran along the walls and criss-crossed the open space in a chaotic spider’s web.

Sadira took a moment to match the disorienting layout in front of her with the map she’d memorized before leaving the ship. Bolaji and the rest waited, postures tense and eyes darting to and fro. She nodded to herself and indicated a door three quarters of the way down the hall and forty-five degrees around the cylinder.

They started off, picking their way along the network of guidelines. A door opened a little deeper in the cylinder. An angry face appeared, sneering behind a pistol. Lennon shot first. A nasty little hole appeared in the security officer’s face and he fell back out of sight. Globules of blood floated out into the central space. It took Sadira a moment to realize what Lennon had done. She looked at the enby in surprise.

“For Therexa,” they said with a murderous expression. “I say kill ‘em all.”

“We’re better than that,” Bolaji snapped from several meters ahead, where he was leading the way. The bitter anger threaded through his disappointment made Sadira take a second look at her own reaction. “We’re better than they are.”

“No,” said Sadira, frowning sadly. “They’re being controlled. Directly, indirectly, whether they know it or not. We’re not better than them, Bolaji. Just freer.” She turned her face back toward Lennon. “We’re here to balance that out and break the chains, not slay the chained.”

Lennon bit their lip and nodded. Bloodlust faded from the enby’s eyes, replaced with regret. Sadira reached over and clasped their shoulder. Their eyes locked for an instant. Lennon nodded again, firmer this time.

They made it the rest of the way to the door Sadira had chosen without incident. It wouldn’t open until Lennon shot the control panel. Sparks flew and the emergency system kicked in, slamming the door open to prevent anyone being trapped inside during power loss. The gunfire started immediately.

A bullet tore through Lennon’s shoulder, spinning them away from the open door. The enby clutched at the wound, hissing in pain. The rest pushed back and opened fire. Two heavily armored combat drones emerged, guns blazing. Sadira pushed away from the wall in a near panic. Bolaji screamed as a stream of bullets shredded his kneecap. Mariko tossed an EMP grenade at the drones and shrieked a moment later as machine gun fire tore into her abdomen. Lennon caught at a line to steady her spin and opened fire. The grenade went off. The drones sagged, weapons falling silent.

Sadira sucked in gulping breaths. She couldn’t seem to get enough air. Blood was everywhere. It was on her face. She didn’t think any of it was hers. She wasn’t sure, though. She caught a line nearby and pushed off to reach Mariko. The pale woman had collided with two lines where they crossed, and lay against them like a fly caught in a web. She was breathing still, if raggedly. Her stomach was a gory mess. She opened her eyes when Sadira reached her.

“Mariko…” She clasped the dying woman’s hand. “Oh, no. No, no, no.”

“Finish it,” Mariko said, the words bubbling through the blood in her throat. She coughed, spitting flecks of red across her lips. “For Therexa.”

“And for you,” Sadira promised.

Several moments passed. They could have been an eternity, or no time at all. Sadira looked up. Lennon had bandaged their shoulder as best they could and was helping a grimacing Bolaji adjust the tourniquet he’d wrapped around his thigh. The black man’s left knee was a shattered, pulpy wreck. He blew out a pained breath and gave her a half-hearted thumb’s up.

“You two wait out here,” she told him. “Watch our backs.”

Along with her two remaining Companions, Sadira entered the room. Kal was just a step ahead of her when the wall-mounted laser cut him in half. His face froze in a final expression of surprise as his torso slid away from his hips. Kel opened fire, her wail of grief lost in the thundering buzz of her e-laser. She raked the beam across both walls, scorching the paneling and blasting the mounted lasers to glittery bits. When she finally released the firing stood she lurched to her brother’s side and sobbed.

Tears streamed down Sadira’s cheeks. She pushed ahead. She had a job to finish.

Gunfire sounded out in the corridor. Reinforcements must have arrived, probably from one of the substations. Maybe more than one from the sound of it. Kel clutched at her brother and wept. Lennon and Bolaji fell back to the doorway, firing their commandeered weapons in seemingly every direction.

Sadira reached the massive computer bank at the back of the otherwise empty room. Tears blurred her vision. She wiped at her eyes with one hand, the other digging in her pocket. She pulled out the memory stick, held it up and scrutinized it before turning it around in her hand and searching the terminal before her for a port.

There. All she had to do was stick it in.

She knew the Djinn was dead, knew also the Djinn was always too wily to let that stop her. Somewhere out there, a digital copy of the woman still existed. As long as it did, it would never stop fighting the Angel. And neither would she.

“I told you once I owed you my life,” she whispered, seeing Melynaur’s face in her mind’s eye. “I think now the debt is finally settled.”

She rammed the memory stick into the port. Green light stuttered just above it. The data was transferring, the Djinn’s virus insinuating itself in the Angel’s proxy mainframe. Sadira hoped it would work.