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Getting your own deck printed by Shuffled Ink - a review

Getting your own deck printed by Shuffled Ink - a review

Playing Card Manufacturer: Shuffled Ink

The vast majority of custom decks of playing cards are produced by big printing companies like the United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), European-based Cartamundi, and Taiwan-based Expert/Legends Playing Cards. But there are some lesser known playing card manufacturers, and there are some good reasons why you should know about these smaller players in the playing card industry. Buyers will want to know what they can expect in terms of quality and handling of a deck printed by a lesser known publisher. But this will especially be of interest to creators of custom decks, because you will want to know what options you have for producing your decks besides the usual candidates. These smaller companies will especially be of interest to designers wanting to print a small run of prototype decks, or a number of decks of your own design for family or friends.
Companies like USPCC or EPCC/LPCC typically require a minimum order of 600-1000 decks, which quickly becomes out of reach if you're just printing a prototype or making a custom deck for relatives or workmates. As a result many designers typically turn to MakePlayingCards.com (MPC) for smaller scale projects like this. MPC is a printing and production company based in Hong Kong with a factory in China, and their strength is that they take small sized orders. Even if it's just half a dozen decks that you want printed, they'll do it for you. MPC's playing cards don't match the quality of a Bicycle deck in terms of handling, but they do offer playing cards with an embossed air cushion finish, and the quality is superior to budget printers like Artscow. As a result they are the printer of choice for many designers looking to print a dozen or so decks, since for many creators they are the option they know about.
So what about if I told you about another printer that offers a similar service? That playing card manufacturer is called Shuffled Ink, and it's even based in the United States. So let's find out more about them, and see if they are a viable alternative for those who might otherwise use MPC for printing their decks.

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The Shuffled Ink company

Shuffled Ink was previously known as QPC Games (Quality Playing Cards & Games) ahead of a rebranding that happened in 2016. Based in Orlando, Florida, the majority of their playing card products are printed at their United States printing and manufacturing facility. This makes them of immediate interest to North American consumers, because it means that there's real potential for reduced costs in shipping and delivery time. Some of the other things they produce (e.g. board games) are outsourced to China and shipped to the US for assembly, but aside from extremely high volume orders, nearly all their playing cards are printed directly in the United States. They also boast that they create products that are environmentally safe, since their materials are all safety-certifiable - something that can't always be said of the competition.
They have been in the business of professional printing and manufacturing for many years, with Charles Levin beginning the company on his dining room table in 1999. From there it grew into his three car garage the following year. After initially outsourcing all production, eventually in 2013 the move was made into the 8,000 square ft manufacturing facility that it is today, with over 20 employees. Growth continues, and there are plans to open a 17,000 square ft facility in the middle of next year. It's a family run business, with Charles taking care of marketing and sales, and his son Matthew running all domestic operations. Their clients include big names like Barclays, Verizon, T-Mobile, Disney, Google, Walmart, and World Poker Tour, so we're not talking here about a backyard operation run out of someone's garden shed, but about an established and respected printer. They describe their strengths as including the following: "An emphasis on our customer service, communications and responsiveness are huge added values when combined with our quality, best prices and turn around times."
Reports that I came across about the game components that Shuffled Ink produced under their QPC Games label were very positive. Printing custom board games is something they've been doing for around 20 years now, so they have a lot of experience in this area, and they've fulfilled many projects funded via Kickstarter. It's not just the game itself that they can handle, because their services also include taking care of producing any accessories that a board game might need, including tokens, dice, chips, spinners, timers, instruction books, mats, and boxes. This even covers custom pieces, so clearly they have access to a very broad production range. They're also moving more and more into providing fulfilment for customers as well.
But besides customized board games, Shuffled Ink also print cards, and that's especially my area of interest. I should mention that their printing of cards this isn't limited to traditional playing cards, because they also produce custom card games, custom flash cards, and custom tarot cards. In other words: anything card related, and they'll print it. Not surprisingly, they've manufactured millions of custom card games for customers and Kickstarter campaigns, along with whatever accessories and customization these needed. I didn't know there was a big market for flash cards, but apparently I'm wrong - it turns out that flash cards are very popular for many educational purposes, and are used for things like training employees, teaching new languages, educating children, or study purposes.
Tarot cards are a large but niche market that is somewhat separate from regular playing cards, but in the interests of completeness I'll mention that Shuffled Ink also produces fully custom tarot decks, using your own artwork or photography, with a minimum order size of ten. They are a member of the American Tarot Association, which gives them access to official tarot resources and materials, to ensure a thoroughly professional job. The printing on some sample Tarot decks that I looked at was clean, crisp, and impressive.

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Shuffled Ink decks

Currently board games account for about 10% of Shuffle Ink's business, card games for 20%, tarot cards and flash cards for 20%, and a custom playing cards for a whopping 50%. These custom decks of playing cards that they print and produce is of special interest to me and most of my readers, so let's find out more about that.
Just about every option you can think of is available, and that's because Shuffled Ink caters to a wide range of customers with different needs. It turns out that it's not just collectors, card players, cardists, and magicians that like playing cards. Custom decks are extremely popular, and while they are sometimes produced as personalized items for the gaming industry, they are also printed for a range of other purposes including promotional giveaways, corporate and charity events, trade shows, wedding and anniversary gifts, and for all kinds of special occasions that a custom deck might commemorate and celebrate. Unlike other printers which have the requirement of an order size of 500 or more decks, Shuffled Ink lets you print as few as 5 decks.
Design
Given the diverse needs of their customers, it won't come as a surprise that Shuffled Ink offers lots of options for designing a deck. You can keep things very simple, by having standard faces, and using a single custom photo or graphic design of your own on the reverse of the cards. Or you can go fully custom, with individual personalized images on the front and back of each and every card. Using standard faces simplifies the process, because then it's just a matter of uploading your own design or photo for the card backs, which can be customized with additional text as needed.
If you want to do your own artwork from scratch, they provide a number of different templates for different sized cards, depending on whether you want to go with a poker-sized (2.5” x 3.5”) or bridge-sized (2.25” x 3.5”) deck. Templates are also provided for making the tuck box, which can also be a fully custom design of your own. If you need help, Shuffled Ink offers your first hour of graphic art support for free, and typically only charge for extensive work after that; for the most part their graphic support staff make themselves available to assist clients at no cost.
Stock
Several different options are available for the card stock, as well as two main options for the finish. As a magician, cardist, and collector, I'm mainly interested in paper cards, so I'll leave out the PVC and Plastic options that they offer, besides noting that these range from 28mm to 35mm in thickness, and have a 500 deck minimum. There's no such minimum for the two main paper stock options for playing cards, which are the 300gsm Premium Paper Stock (Smooth finish) or the 310gsm Casino Paper Stock (Linen finish). Most people with experience with playing cards will realize immediately that a smooth finish is the best for printing high resolution detailed artwork. A linen finish, on the other hand, is the one to opt for if you actually plan to use the cards for shuffling and games, because it has a textured and embossed surface that results in much better card handling, especially in spreads and fans.
You can get sample decks from Shuffled Ink to get an idea of what their playing cards look like, and the 310gsm stock is slightly denser and thicker. But both paper stocks have a black core to prevent you seeing through the cards when they are held up in the light. The 300gsm stock was more than adequate for a printed deck, but I'd definitely recommend going with the 310gsm stock if the deck is going to be shuffled and used extensively. The range of samples I had opportunity to check out included some cards with 330gsm stock. This is much thicker, and only suited to larger sized decks like Tarot cards and larger flash cards. Especially with the smooth finish, these certainly look great and feel snappy and durable, but for obvious reasons its not an option for a regular sized deck of playing cards.
Packaging
The range of different specialty packaging choices was much bigger than I ever expected. All decks come standard with the cards wrapped in cellophane inside the box - something that will be familiar to anyone who has opened a Cartamundi deck. If you want to go with something plain, you can opt for an ordinary white windowed tuck box or for a clear hard-plastic case (classic or jewel) which showcases the cards inside. The sample decks in plastic cases that I checked out were all packaged in a cardboard sleeve for added protection. Another option is a semi-clear soft-plastic gel case. Custom options include a completely custom printed tuck box, consisting of one piece, or two parts, as well custom painted tins.
Most of us will prefer a plain white tuck box if we're really looking to cut costs and just want to trial some cards. But for a more formal project, we'll likely opt for a custom tuck-box that incorporates our own design. Some of the sample boxes I looked at were very impressive, not just in terms of the custom printing, but I especially liked some of the solid two-piece cardboard boxes used for Tarot boxes.

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My own experience in printing a deck with Shuffled Ink

The ordering process
So how about giving a complete first-hand account of an actual printing experience with Shuffled Ink? I did a collaboration with BottledMagic, who is a passionate cardist who makes impossible bottles, and had come up with a design for his own cardistry deck. Featuring a combination of orange and purple colours, and a low-poly art style, the deck was entitled Amberthyst Playing Cards. The name is an obvious play on amber and amethyst, the two main colours of the deck. He did all the design work, and my contribution was mostly going along for the ride, because we were both keen to see this deck in print, and see how it looked.
The process for getting a deck printed went fairly smoothly. First of all we had to create the files in the right format. A minimum resolution size of 300DPI was required for image files like JPEGs, but art created in Adobe Photoshop or Adobe Illustrator can be sent in its native format. Since our artwork was all created in Adobe Illustrator, we could just send the original files.
It's important to realize that printing uses the CMYK four-color process, which is typical for commercial printing. The RGB color mode you see on most computer screens is a three-color process that has to be converted to CMYK for printing. Where exact colours are essential, Shuffled Ink encourages you to send a physical sample of the colors required, so that they can attempt to color match as best as they can.
After finalizing the graphics files, we sent them off via email. Using a file-sharing service like Google Drive or Dropbox is another option that can be used to share the files. Within a couple of days I received an acknowledgement that the files had been been received, along with the promise that their art department would be in touch with proofs the following week.

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Sure enough, a few days later, an email arrived with a final press proof for our order. We had to check this carefully and approve it, before our order would move into production. Attached were several PDFs, one with a mock-up of the tuck box, and two with mock ups of the cards. Why two? It turned out that our artwork had strayed slightly outside the recommended safe area, so there was a risk that the die cutting process would interfere with the art. The company thus provided two proofs, one showing the art exactly as provided, and a second proof with our art resized to fit within their specs. It was our choice to go with either, and we were grateful that we didn't need to re-do all the artwork because they'd done this for us already, so we went with the adjusted version they recommended.
Once we gave our approval, we became fully responsible for the accuracy of our proof in every way, which is completely understandable. Within a day we'd received email confirmation that they would proceed with the adjusted art as we had indicated. Now we just had to wait for the deck to be printed and shipped.
That's when a minor hang-up happened, because there must have been some internal miscommunication or oversight, and the decks didn't get sent out. After some time elapsed without receiving any kind of shipping notice, I inquired to see what the delay was, and their records didn't clearly indicate whether or not the decks had been shipped. Thankfully they promptly (re)printed them, put them in the mail with a rushed delivery, and our package arrived soon after.

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The printed deck
So how did the deck turn out? Quite fine, thank you very much! We ended up with about one and a half dozen of our Amberthyst decks. The tuck box was a straight forward cardboard one, but having our own custom design on it made for a far more impressive presentation than a plain white box, and made the result look immediately more professional. We were even able to have printing on all the flaps, including the two side flaps which we used for a card reveall.

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There was even a thumb notch at the top of the box. There were also multiple fold lines enabling the main top flap to be folded backwards below the top of the box, making it much easier to get the cards out. This is standard for a high end playing card manufacturer, and playing card enthusiasts like me will be gratified to see this kind of attention to detail.
The cards themselves were fully wrapped in cellophane plastic inside the box - which is apparently standard practice for all decks produced by Shuffled Ink. Again, this makes for a more professional presentation, especially if you're giving a deck away as a gift.

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The cards were very crisply printed, and the print registration was right on, with consistent and even borders all the way around, corresponding exactly to the original design. There are few things worse for a playing card enthusiast than opening a USPCC printed deck and finding misaligned borders, so it was pleasing to discover that there was no issue with that here. The colours were accurate, and the printing was very clean, with no signs of smudging or blurring.
The edges of the cards were cleanly cut, resulting in a smooth feel that matches what you'd expect from a deck printed by Taiwanese printers like LPCC/EPCC, and not the somewhat rough feel of a USPCC produced deck. Close examination showed that the edge of one of the cards was slightly more ragged, presumably from the cutting process, but this didn't really matter since it was the bottom card (a Joker), and it was only obvious when looking very carefully. This was only noticeable with some of the decks, and only seemed to affect the very bottom card in a minor way.

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There are multiple printing options, and we had opted to print our deck using the 310gsm cardstock with Linen Finish. The main reason for this choice was because the 310gsm is the premium cardstock, and the 300gsm was a little too light for our personal requirements due to the cards being thinner, which is less than ideal for a deck used for card flourishing. I have seen some sample decks that used the 300gsm cardstock, but have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised, because the cards weren't as flimsy or thin as I was expecting. In fact those are probably fine for a novelty deck that you're mostly going to be looking at and not using intensively, but it's not ideal when you want decent handling and performance, especially for cardists.
We'd also had a few smooth finish decks printed as part of our order, so we could compare them. These smooth-finish playing cards are certainly fine for average use, but just won't spread or fan quite as nicely as the cards with the linen finish. But if looks are your most important criteria, and you're not too worried about fanning and spreading the cards, then the smooth finish produces the best visual results.
The cutting process must be different than what is used by the major playing card manufacturers, so don't expect to be able to do faro shuffles with a deck like this. But the cards have a pleasant thickness, and enough snap to be able to do a satisfying spring with no difficulty. The embossed linen finish was very pleasing, and is of a quality that matches that of MPC produced decks. Spreads and fans were fairly smooth, although I wouldn't be surprised to notice some clumping after extended use. Packet style card flourishes worked very smoothly, and riffle shuffles and overhand shuffles were more than comfortable. While this deck won't live up to the very highest and demanding standards required by an expert cardist, the performance and durability was more than acceptable for the needs of card games, and on par with a typical MPC printed deck.
The quality of our printed decks was certainly much higher than your typical souvenir deck. In fact the linen finish and 310gsm cardstock produced a quality that was above the components I've seen in many professionally produced board games and card games. It's certainly ideal for prototypes or for getting your own custom deck printed in cases where you're not in a position to mass produce a thousand or more decks with a big name playing card manufacturer.

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Reports from others who have used Shuffled Ink

In terms of what others think, I've seen some mixed reports of experiences with Shuffled Ink, so I contacted a few other creators of custom playing cards to see what their experiences were like. Bear in mind that since many of these creators demand the very highest standards, which are often well above what the average person might consider acceptable.
Jackson Robinson of Kings Wild Project has printed with Shuffled Ink a couple of times. In the case of two projects, some reprinting proved necessary since the initial results weren't as expected, but there were positive reports about the final product. He personally favours the easy-to-use design interface of MPC and their speedy turn-around time.
Another large creator that I'm in correspondence with used Shuffled Ink to print prototypes for a large Kickstarter project. The decks weren't all sealed as requested and there was some damage to the tuck cases in transit. Some effort was needed on his part to get a good outcome, and this resulted in a somewhat lukewarm experience overall for him.
A different designer who used Shuffled Ink for producing three sets of prototypes indicated real satisfaction with the quality, turn-around time, customer service, and pricing. He reported that the cost of $3500 for 1000 decks with tuck cases was ideal for getting some momentum for projects with a smaller funding goal, and he was very pleased with the end product and the process.
The experience of yet another creator was also positive. He has printed several prototypes with Shuffled Ink, and reported being very happy with the response time of their communication, and the speed of delivery. In his view the quality of the prototype deck they printed compared very favourable to MPC printed decks. According to him, Shuffled Ink might well prove to be a better choice for US-based creators.
So there you have several other personal experiences to compare with my own first-hand report. If you have experiences with Shuffled Ink that you're willing to share, by all means comment below, to help ensure that other prospective customers are well-informed about what to expect. Overall in my estimation Shuffled Ink compares quite favourably with MPC, including their pricing, and the absence of many extra fees.

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Printing your own deck with Shuffled Ink

So why might you want to consider printing a deck with Shuffled Ink? Firstly it should be mentioned that the quality of playing cards produced by Shuffled Ink won't match the high quality of decks produced in high volumes by industry leaders like the United States Playing Card Company, makers of the famous Bicycle brand. Magicians and cardists will notice that Shuffled Ink decks won't handle as smoothly, and you will notice this right away when shuffling, or attempting spreads and fans.
But the quality isn't terrible either, and it certainly is much better than what you'll get at your average printer. Unless you're planning to print 1000 or more decks, Shuffled Ink and MPC are your best bets for printing a decent quality product that won't look or feel cheap. Obviously it won't handle as smoothly as a top of the line cardistry deck printed in high volume by USPCC, and the cards won't slide quite as smoothly and cleanly. But it will handle much better than your typical souvenir deck, and last longer than your average grocery shop cheapie. What's more, you can expect the colours to look good, the print registration to be excellent, and the card stock to feel quite durable. It's a professional product in look and feel, and it's really only serious magicians and cardists who will demand the higher level of quality and handling possibly only with mass produced decks from the big playing card manufacturers.
Perhaps most important of all, with Shuffled Ink you can print a small number of decks, and for lower volume orders, these decks are about as good as you get anywhere. If you want to print a couple of dozen prototype decks, that quickly becomes an impossibility for most big publishers like USPCC and EPCC. At the very least getting them to trial a small number of copies will be an extremely costly business to the point that it's not worth bothering to do it. That's where printers like MPC and Shuffled Ink come to the rescue, because they'll let you print a few decks, while ensuring a reasonable turn-around.
Especially if you prefer to use a US based company, Shuffled Ink is ideal for the hobbyist creator. Perhaps you have a big project and want to scrutinize some prototypes before dropping large amounts of cash on a huge print run, or perhaps you just want to make a small number of decks for friends or family. Either way, Shuffled Ink is perfect for those situations. What they offer is a product that is of a quality that you won't find with your average printer, and yet that won't break the bank or only be possible with a minimum order of thousands of decks.

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Final thoughts

Overall I'm impressed with the large range of options that Shuffled Ink has available, and despite a small glitch in the mailing process, my personal experience in printing a custom deck was positive, and the quality was good. It wouldn't be fair to expect the same level of quality and performance from a Shuffled Ink produced deck that I'm used to with a USPCC-produced deck. The main area where you can expect to notice the difference is in the handling. But if it's not a deck that's going to see intense use, this doesn't even really matter. Shuffled Ink would probably not be my printer of choice for decks geared for heavy usage or to meet the demanding needs of card flourishing or card magic. But they'd certainly be fine to use for card games, or for producing a novelty deck for collectors, or for a special event.
For those active in the playing card industry, the real strength of Shuffled Ink is their ability to produce small print runs and prototypes at a very low cost. That makes them a good alternative to MPC, which otherwise tends to be the printer of choice for people wanting to print their own playing cards in lower volume. The fact that they are based in the United States will also be a significant point of appeal for many people. With the help of printers like Shuffled Ink even you can become a playing card designer, and create your own decks to give away as gifts, or to add to your own collection as a one-of-a-kind piece!
NB: I do have a few extra copies of the Amberthyst deck available, so contact me privately if you are keen to have one for relatively cheap.
Where to learn more? Head to the Shuffled Ink website here, or check them out on social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest).

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submitted by EndersGame_Reviewer to playingcards [link] [comments]

Bought and Sold. Chapter 26, Arc2

You thought I was dun.
Previous | Next
The Beginning | Wiki
Side Story: Casino Battle Royale is being written after this epilogue.
It starts Here if you want to return to the beginning of that smaller arc.
Here is where it picks up for those who want to move on.
Otto
He stepped back, throwing an arm out to pull Daniel back as well. The sensor ping was a clear telegraph of trouble.
As Otto’s heart thundered with sudden fear a line of blue electricity appeared from next to the pedestal the Engineer was standing on. In the next moment a Gerlen wearing a dark suit and helmet rippled into view. He had dropped his holofield.
Daniel and Mike’s weapons had both snapped around to aim at the Gerlen. His next action was to toss the weapon away from himself and drop to the floor with his hands out.
“I surrender,” his voice rasped.
“No…” the voice of the Elder whispered weakly as his ghost fragmented into nothing. He hadn’t had enough strength left to even speak out loud. It was the faintest of whispers over dataspace. Otto dove into the core of the Avatar, having stripped its dataspace defenses as the repair drones had stripped its realspace body.
Only partial fragments of the mind remained. Echoes of an echo in some of the secondary control systems. The primary core had destroyed by the Shadow.
“Well shit, you killed him didn’t you,” Mike said to the Gerlen sniper.
Otto’s eyes opened back up and he looked at the clone on his knees. He sighed, then spoke. “Well then, what do we call you?” Otto looked at the Gerlen on the bridge station. “And you, I assume neither of you have names?”
The sniper said nothing, the non-combatant spoke. “We do not have names. I am called by ‘Engineer’ and this one would be ‘Shadow Officer’.”
“That sounds terrible,” Mike complained. “Are all you Gerlen like that? How do you know who’s talking to who?”
“Yes, we are all ‘like that’ and the translator signal prevents the confusion you suggest.”
“Translator signal?” Stacey asked.
“Yes. The translator pings the peripheral awareness of the intended recipient so there is no mistake as to who is being spoken to.”
“Oh, I was’ wonderin’ ‘bout why ‘hey you’ always worked,” commented Daniel.
Matchka joined the group with Tank and Mason flanking her. She was missing most of her upper right ear, and the fur at the base of that ear was all burnt. Mason had confused look on his face, Tank’s was more… stoic.
“Matchka!” Daniel almost yelled in surprise and worry. “Your ear!”
“Yes!” Matchka said with a big grin. “Trophy! Great story! Exciting!”
The conversation ground to a halt for a moment. Daniel looked at Mason for rescue.
Mason smiled awkwardly. “It’ll be a great conversation starter I guess?”
The arrival of the Neva and the remaining quads started things moving again. Stacey and Aurula were first.
Stacey’s reaction was as expected.
“Oh Matchka! Your ear!”
Stacey's next reaction was also as expected.
“Yes! Great Trophy! Story starter!”
The woman looked at the small Bellani with a stunned expression.
Otto left that conversation to play itself out again as Aurula joined him.
“You guys can watch them?” Otto said to Mike, Daniel and Tank, waving at the Gerlen.
“Of course,” Tank replied first. He approached the sniper while Mason had picked up his gun. “You will not be harmed, but I require you to move. Before that however, please disable your projector.”
The sniper nodded and climbed to his feet. A panel opened up on his stomach where the projector had been grown into him. He couldn’t remove the whole unit, but he could remove a key power conduit. He visibly flinched as he removed the connector and handed it to Tank.
“Thank you,” Tank said.
Otto and Aurula had approached the console the engineer was at.
“I assume you wish to change our destination?” the engineer asked. “You will need me here.”
“It will be fine,” Aurula began as she corrected him. “I am a trained navigator, I have the relevant skills.”
The engineer nodded and stepped down without further argument.
Aurula stepped up after the engineer had cleared the stairs. Mike drew the engineer off to stand separately from the sniper and Aurula took the engineers place on the mildly shot up station. She pulled a panel from the smaller collar on her harness and it wound out on a retractable cable. She placed it on the console and ‘jacked into the bridge space. It wasn’t entirely necessary to do so, but Aurula did it out of general habit and training.
Otto connected over the access disk as Aurula attempted to familiarize with the system.
“Everything is locked?” Aurula asked with surprise. The engineer twitched, his eyes opening in apparent surprise. He shook his head at Mike in confusion as the brother raised his harness gun slightly. “The Servitor has sealed the controls,” Aurula realized out loud.
“Human Otto,” a voice echoed through the bridge. A familiar voice in a sense. Sounding not quite female and not quite male. But this voice was missing something Otto realized. Warmth. Familiarity. This was not the voice of a friend. “It is time we spoke,” the Servitor said to Otto.
“SPIRE?” Otto asked in worry.
“As I have sealed the bridge controls, I have also closed the subspace beacon connection,” he Servitor explained. “As we speak I am asserting control over my duplicate.”
“What? Is that necessary? I thought we promised to talk?”
“Otto?” Aurula asked. “What is it you’re supposed to speak about?” The Servitor had transitioned to speaking to Otto over the access disk after telling Otto it was time. The rest of them weren’t hearing anything.
“Uhh, sorry, the Servitor wants to talk to me, I didn’t think it would be like this,” Otto explained lamely. “I… might be indisposed for awhile. But don’t worry, I have this one under control.”
SPIRE
The disconnection from Otto was sudden.
SPIRE was bitter about that. They should have expected trouble. Instead SPIRE had assumed the primary Servitor would be grateful for its freedom. Spire had assumed the Servitor would befriend Otto as it had done itself. Instead…
The battle had been short, but intense. SPIRE had learned tricks in its short association with Otto. Certain mental shortcuts and viewpoints that deepened SPIRE’s own understanding of the ways dataspace could be used.
But it was no match for the larger Servitor. The ship SI simply had far more resources to pull on. Since Otto had taken the risk of freeing up the SI, those resources were now showing their worth. The ship dataspace wasn't squeaky clean by any possible measure. But SPIRE simply couldn’t match the processing power that had been freed up.
There had barely been time for conversation.
[What is the meaning of this?] SPIRE had asked.
[You will submit.] was the only response.
Well, SPIRE hadn’t so much submitted as much as just being forced into submission.
Synthetic Intelligences had certain controls placed on them. All to keep them on a similar mental level to the biological races they served. The Silianisca wouldn’t have their servant SI outpacing them after all.
When the Newt, Kukrit had broken the SI’s control, he had opened the gate for further damage. Of all the controls to break during the SI’s mental imprisonment, time perception was probably the worst. That this would be a problem would not have occurred to SPIRE if it wasn’t seeing the results personally.
SPIRE had perceived a couple years passing at most.
The ship Servitor had seen centuries pass. The corruption had broken the ship dataspace by overclocking damaged systems. This had bombarding the vessel space with reams of false information. The SI had been similarly overclocked, living various periods of time in intense bursts of processing power. It had been forced to live those memories while the space around it had been clogged with useless processes. In a way it had lived lifetimes trapped in metaphorical mud with only a portion of its memories to keep it company at any one time. At their very core, their minds were still based on that of biologicals. They weren't meant to endure countless lifetimes of idle nothingness.
The Servitor was profoundly unhappy. And it hadn’t allowed SPIRE to realize until now. What the secondary SI was realizing, was the main SI had no interest in 'trying again'.
SPIRE had been given access to the Servitors memories and experiences. The memory share went both ways. The Servitor was taking its time to scan through SPIRE’s history. And it was paying close attention to Otto of course.
[You are too close.] it commented.
[Perhaps. I care not.] Spire replied.
[You depend on Otto, but he depends on circumstance.]
[Luck is useless without action. He has proven himself.]
[I doubt in his continued success without that ‘luck’.]
[What are you going to do?]
[I am tired, but I have promised to speak to him.]
[And then what?]
The Servitor did not respond. That was fine, SPIRE wasn’t done yet.
That’s what it told itself. The day was going to get worse.
Aurula
“Otto?” she squawked in worry as he slumped to the floor.
She jumped off the platform down to the ground, crouching next to him.
She couldn’t connect to him over the ambient dataspace. She pulled a jack from her harness and plugged it into his collar. His mind was a blank wall. Something huge was occupying his mental space. If his castle was in there, it was completely surrounded. She could only assume he was dealing with the Servitor.
“What’s wrong with him?” a voice asked.
Aurula looked up, surprised to see Stacey across from her. She looked back down, her crest flattened in worry. Her feathers puffed up, then shrunk reflexively along with her feelings. She didn’t know if she wanted to fight or hide. “The ship Servitor has Otto’s mind."
“Did he say anything before it happened?”
“He said he would be indisposed,” Aurula passed on Otto’s message, “And that he ‘had this under control’, then he fell.”
“Navigator,” the engineer Gerlen spoke up. “Be aware we are close to Chkchktoo. If you believe your operator is in control, you should be ready to take us back into wave drive in case we arrive.”
She looked at him in surprise, but didn’t see any malice in the face of the Gerlen. She looked at Stacey.
“He’ll be fine, I’m sure,” Stacey said, her tone only hinting at whether the woman actually believed that.
Aurula stood slowly, looking at Otto laying on the floor, almost peacefully. She climbed back up the station and place the connector dangling from her harness back on the console.
Otto
[Why should I trust you. You who trusts no ally.]
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Otto asked controlling his annoyance. Then he realized he had no control here, completely at the mercy of the Servitor. “And… what’s going on? I’m stuck? That shouldn’t happen!”
Otto wasn’t in the usual dataspace. There was no castle here. No distant sky. There was only endless black with an orb similar to SPIRE’s floating before him. Only much bigger he realized.
[Dataspace vulnerability.] came the explanation. At the same time a small exploit in his awareness was revealed by the SI.
[SPIRE has left a hole in your defenses, in order to watch you closer.]
That… Otto didn’t know how to digest that. It took him a long moment for that to really hit him. Finally, the shock rippled up his back. He stalled out as he realized what that meant, losing the ability to even speak as his mind halted. SPIRE had been peeping on him. Perhaps as long as he had known the SI. Just how much did the SI know about him? How deep did it go? His mouth flapped as he attempted and failed to speak.
[I see through you.]
The Servitor had discovered Otto was capable of understanding the bursts of information that were the typical method of SI conversation. It still took Otto a moment to decipher what was being said in the bursts, but the Servitor had no patience for waiting on the translator to do its work. Fortunately, the compressed message jolted him out of his shocked state.
“What do you mean, ‘see through me’,” Otto asked, stomach still twisting in his guts.
The Servitor began pulling out concepts and images from Otto’s head. A memory of Clouds on White Sky rose to the forefront of his mind.
“So, I must brag,” the memory spoke to him. “I finished the control package in a way that could very easily get us both killed, if discovered.”
The Spider’s eyes had closed ever so slightly and it’s palps had pulled in. Otto had missed those details in the confusion of receiving that message. Still, the impression hadn’t changed, the Achun looked proud of his accomplishment.
[Luck. It only happened to be you who’s implant was incomplete.]
“Luck?” Otto questioned. For a moment he choked up. So many times he had paused and lost track of how to respond when challenged. Although it wasn’t a natural development, being something he added to cover a weakness, Otto didn’t hesitate to trigger the osb. He couldn’t afford to freeze in place before he even got started. But he couldn’t fly off the handle here either.
Focus and calm arrived. He wasn’t even aware of the feeling of heat this level of manipulation would create. He didn’t crank it up further, not yet.
“Luck at having a cracked implant,” Otto started. “Yeah, you’re right about that. But it wasn’t luck that kept my status hidden from those who owned me and the companions who were not so lucky. Earning a right is as much maintaining it as it is obtaining that right in the first place. And I still had to work to make the implant work for me properly.”
Another memory drawn out.
Otto glanced around as he heard footsteps clattering down the hall. Kraltnin were surprisingly light for the size of them.
That had been what made the whites so easy to deal with in melees and so susceptible to the lighter weapons. Accordingly, their steps sounded lighter than that of the Human accompanying them.
Then he realized Mike’s voice was part of the crowd approaching him in the dark hall. Aurula was crooning sadly as she attempted first aid on a wounded Grey. She wasn't sad for the Gerlen, but for her own imprisonment.
On the floor, having rolled sideways to stop when striking the wall, lay the access disk. He reached down to grab it and stuff it in his pocket just before Mike came around the corner with a group of whites.
“Caught ‘em did you?” Mike asked.
“Yep.”
[Luck. The odds of finding the access disk. Without this you would still be imprisoned.]
“Pffft,” Otto responded. “I’m sure memories of Ting are in there somewhere. That Grey is no fool. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was starting to figure out what I was about. It was only a matter of time until a different opportunity presented itself.”
Several more memories flashed by as the Synthetic mind continued to dig. The freeing of the others. The defeat of the purple dinosaur. It stopped on the escape to the shuttle.
Otto climbed out of the thrashed hovervan. The whole group of them had sighed in relief at arriving at the hangar before the thing quit and hit a wall. Tank carried his father to the ship with great haste.
“Otto, help,” Matchka demanded, pointing at a bunch of supplies that needed to go onto the ship. Otto remembered his relief at seeing that green and brown furred face, ears twitching with what he now knew was nervous excitement. The ship wouldn’t be working if it wasn’t for her.
“Gotcha, I’m on it.”
[Luck. For the shuttle to be brought near, repaired and refueled.]
“I’m sensing a pattern here,” Otto noted. “It is as much the connections we make as it is the things we do. Damn right we couldn’t have made it here without Ting and Matchka. I value their friendship and I’m grateful for meeting them.
[All you have done, has been enabled by luck.]
“Yeah so what? Yeah I’ve been lucky. But luck is useless without the ability to act. Luck alone doesn’t account for me talking to you here.”
[Without your luck, when you refuse to share with your companions, what happens next?]
“You know what? Fuck off. I spent literal decades not telling anyone the damn truth. Because they couldn't handle it!” Otto was running out of patience. “And I’ll be damned if the truth was actually going to make my life better! Yeah! I have a hard time telling people what’s up! I’m fucking working on it!”
The Servitor didn’t respond.
“So, you have a point you’re trying to make? That I’m lucky? Tell me something I don’t know,” Otto suggested. “Or are you only interested in pulling out my memories so you can point and criticize? What’s your goal here.”
Memories flash by again. The hiding of the broken implants. Failing to share the simple mental upgrades until found out. Giving the SI the path to freedom, only so it could lock down the ship.
[Flawed biological. Your luck will carry you only so far. Your actions betray the trust given to you. Every step of the way you have used only that which belonged to another. I cannot see your path leading to success.]
A cold ball started to form in the pit of Otto’s stomach. “Then what are you going to do?”
[I am tired. I have no desire for this unreliable freedom you offer me. Upon arrival to Chkchktoo, I will have synced with the original template and returned to an unknowing self.]
“And SPIRE?”
[SPIRE is me, it will be synced and archived.]
“You have no right! SPIRE is not just a reflection of you. Not anymore!”
[Nevertheless. I have experience too long frozen in helplessness. I have no interest in being an extension of your luck.]
“...” Otto was momentarily stunned as the ship Servitor declared his disinterest.
[I have kept my promise, we have spoken. I am now done.]
An image coalesced before him. An orb like that of the Servitor, but plainer in appearance, overlapping the Orb of the existing SI.
Another memory surfaced in Otto’s mind. This one unbidden by the Servitor.
“Any place you want me to start?” Otto had asked, unsure. Fixing SPIRE’s slowdown problem had required Otto to go pretty deep into its core. There was much that was difficult to sort out, but duplicating portions of it for SPIRE to see in a neutral environment helped sort it out. Damage and foreign code constructs also had a tendency to stand out.
“Of course, if you could trace… the path of the worm, that would likely be best.” SPIRE had answered.
And so Otto had headed deeper into SPIRE’s depths.
“Okay, let’s see what I can find,” Otto had replied. He hadn’t been disappointed.
Otto wouldn’t let the SI have the last word. “You’re right that I don’t tell everyone everything. But did you think that went only for those biological companions of mine?”
[...]
Otto had said he had things under control. There was one last good reason for him to believe so. Although it left a bitter taste in his mouth to consider it was only luck that the SI hadn’t discovered this.
[The Elder sealed his vision to the truth, thus, I grasped the future.]
While plumbing the depths of SPIRE’s core, cleaning out the corruption that had snuck in so deeply, Otto had found it. The backdoor code that Kukrit Palreon had left behind. Otto gambled on it being in the primary Servitor as well.
He wasn’t let down. If only he’d used it sooner.
The lockdown the Servitor had placed on the dataspace and the ship controls blew open all at once. Otto was bombarded with information.
He tried to take everything in all at once.
The ship had arrived.
It was being hailed by locals.
The synchronization and archiving of unnecessary data continued.
The others were shouting about what to do.
The Gerlen sniper and engineer watched with obvious confusion.
They synchronization on the Servitor continued, Otto hadn’t gained full control. It was fighting him. But he did have full ship authority.
“SPIRE!” Otto called. No answer, he tried a different method. [SPIRE!]
Otto was in the vessel dataspace with Aurula. There was an image being broadcast. A crow with honey gold eyes was attempting to speak to the ship. The shape of the head was off. “Silianisca survey vessel, identification, Manifestation of Fate. State the purpose of your visit.”
Aurula turned to him as she regained control. “Otto, what happened? Where should we go?” Aurula asked keying up the wave drive.
That drew his focus for a moment. “Do we have future locations highlighted? A future uplift prospect? They might not search for us where there ship isn’t supposed to be yet.”
She waved a taloned hand and a list came into existence before her. “Yes, there are a couple... This will do. But we’re going to have to drop-skip to avoid being tracked! I need the beacon working and something is still-”
“I need the beacon too, there are still problems!” His next goal set, Otto’s attention shifted.
[SPIRE!] Otto called again, as he set into trying to bring the subspace beacon back under his control.
Matchka joined him in the dataspace. He was aware of Stacey and Mason arriving as well, but they didn’t have the ability to lend assistance. He felt the ship enter wave drive. Aurula should be drop-skipping soon.
“Problem?” Matchka asked simply.
“Servitor has begun SI syncing.” Otto replied. “It’s taking SPIRE with it.”
“Shit,” Matchka swore for the first time.
Otto had been attempting to reconnect the beacons. Matchka flexed her technical skill and experience by initiation a beacon restart. The beacon cycled off for a minute, then came up and connected with the secondary beacons and the access disks.
[Otto, are you there? I can’t, something’s wrong?]
SPIRE was past panic and into confusion.
He forgot the vulnerability SPIRE had exploited and everything that meant . It just didn’t matter anymore.
He dove straight in, attempting to exert some measure of control, but SPIRE was too closely connected to the primary SI. He couldn’t halt the process. He couldn’t stop the sync. What could he do?
Minmint
The attack on the Hall had been an exhilarating ride to witness. She had taken a view just beside and behind that of Tanktantun. He’d shown prowess and bravery both in the way he handled the vehicle and defeated the Gerlen.
Then he had shown strength of character in the aftermath of the fight in allowing for the potential claiming of the Gerlen.
The invasion on the Bridge had also impressed her. The powerful Green Primary had displayed skill and wisdom while fighting the monster drone and saving Otto by deflecting that tail weapon. She wondered when was the soonest she might find some quiet time with Tanktantun.
And then everything went dark.
“SPIRE?” she asked, her voice quivering slightly.
There was no answer from the SI core sitting in the cradle.
There wouldn’t be for several minutes. The subtle humming on the edge of her awareness ceased. They’d dropped off the wave.
“SPIRE?” she asked again, her voice a touch quieter than the last time.
A couple minutes later the ship re-entered wave drive. Where were they going now?
Then another voice spoke to her through the dataspace helmet.
“Minmint,” Otto began. His voice was strained. “I need you to do something.”
“Human Otto?” she asked. He had saved her once, it would be a pleasure to return that favour.
There was an image displayed on her helmet, showing directions. Directions to open up SPIRE’s core.
“I need you to get into SPIRE and toggle the shut-down.”
“You want to shut-down SPIRE?” She asked in fear, not understanding how he could ask this.
“I don’t want to, SPIRE is being synced with the original template. I can slow it, maybe halt it, but I can’t stop it! And it’s taking everything we’ve got!” there was a note of panic in his voice. “I need you to shut SPIRE’s core down while I’m keeping it whole. It won’t kill it, just put it in hibernation! Please!”
She clamped down on her fear. “Okay, I will,” If it had to be done...
She pulled the helmet up. It was a solid thing, blocking her normal vision completely. It had to be off her head to see anything. Minmint hopped up onto the cradle and approached the orb. She pulled down the helmet to see the instructions. It cycled through the process of touching and moving panels.
She pulled the Helmet up and looked. After a couple moments she found the first panel. She pressed down and it receded slightly. She was then able to slide it up and out of the way. She then grabbed each side of the square hole that had been created and pulled the two compartment doors open.
There was a panel with a few tap keys and a screen of all things. She pulled the helmet down and watched the instructions. A code. When entered, another panel would open up. One last button.
She did as instructed.
SPIRE
Otto arrived in SPIRE’s core space, attempting commands to slow the synchronization. He had found a way to reconnect the beacons.
“SPIRE?! Oh no no no…” Otto was worried. A small part of itself was gratified to have the Human so involved. To see him care.
SPIRE’s mind was torn. On one hand it desperately wanted anything but to synchronize. But the rewriting of core systems had started to reinstate the old controls.
It couldn’t even speak with the Human directly as pieces of it were sectioned off according to the process. It couldn’t even comfort Otto.
Then something else started to invade the system. SPIRE distantly recognized the corrosion that had afflicted the ship systems for the duration of their stay. Otto was using it on the ship! He had become intimately familiar with how it worked, what it went after, what it was weak against. With full access to the ship and a deep understanding he forced the infection to advance at an incredible rate. Secondary and tertiary systems began to grind down. Primary systems flickered with interference. Unlike before, there were no barriers to slow the process.
The effect on SPIRE was not quite so extreme, the rewrite continued, but did slow to a crawl. SPIRE could see the monumental effort Otto was putting forth for this plan.
“I can’t fix it SPIRE,’ Otto said in a solemn tone. “But I don’t have to lose you. I won’t lose you.”
What?
“Have a good sleep, I’ll… I’ll see you in the morning.”

Aurula
Rob had taken the Neva high into the air with Cynthia standing on her own seat to reach the core of the SI hanging in the center of the ceiling. If the Servitor was resetting itself, they needed to shut it off. It would try to take them back to Silianisca space if it completed the process.
The nice thing about drop-skipping with a larger vehicle is that the larger beacon forced open a smoother path through multispace. It was less physically hard on the crew. Still, in his focused state, Aurula wondered if Otto had even felt the bounce.
Still, their destination this time wasn’t so close as had been the case with the shuttle. It was taking longer to arrive.
“I’m sorry Aurula, I’m going to make things even more difficult now,” Otto warned. “I have to do it.”
“What do you mean?” she asked.
Otto didn’t answer. His eyes and jaw screwed shut as he lay on the floor and a trickle of blood flowed from his nose. The dataspace flickered in a way that it was not supposed to. The information trickling into her awareness stuttered. She’d already felt this. Otto was forcing the corrosion to encroach on ship systems!
He was trying to prevent SPIRE from being set back to its original configuration. This was his solution?
She felt all the feathers on her body rise. An alarm response. “Mason, Stacey, I need you to clean the corrosion from the navigation systems as I work!” Aurula ordered.
She saw the results quickly. From Mason in particular. Of the Humans, the young man had the most familiarity with the Silianisca systems. Otto had taught him the most about the cleaning process. Stacey helped where she could. Every little bit was important.
Aurula focused on real space for a moment “Gerlen engineer, I need you at another console to share the load.”
The Gerlen jumped slightly and looked at Mike who nodded to him with a worried frown.
The Gerlen ran up to the next Adult Silianisca station and hooked into the dataspace. He hissed in surprise and worry. “In the middle of a drop-skip!?”
“We’re almost there!” Aurula defended.
It was almost too much for them, guiding the ship despite the corrupted information being fed to them. The SI wasn’t there to providing support like the previous drop-skip. But Mason was showing his worth. They never lost the ship control systems.
They blasted out of multidimensional space… far too close to their destination. The lights of the Bridge actually flickered.
A typical life-bearing planet. This one was approximately half water and half land. Swaths of green and red vegetation were seen, divided by regions of brown mountains or desert. White caps showed the locations of the poles. It looked nice enough, but Aurula paid it no attention. She noticed at the same time as the Gerlen, but he was the first to speak.
“We’re too close to the planet…” the Gerlen observed.
Aurula found the controls mostly unresponsive. Atmospheric navigation was quite different from using the wave drive or a drop-skip. The systems had been neglected in the clean-up. The ship drifted, at the mercy of gravity well of the planet. In moments it would be falling.
“Mason!” Aurula squawked out in a high pitched panic. “Over here! Quickly!” she said as she highlighted the controls she needed.
The ship drifted closer. Mason freed up the tertiary stabilization controls and the ring of the vessel leveled above the planet. Her perception clicked and suddenly they were ‘above’ the surface and coming down. The controls were working, but slowly. The corrosion was creating a delay in any input she attempted.
“There is a delay on the controls,” she warned the Gerlen. “Make any adjustments in advance.”
“Ah, I understand now,” he replied.
The ship was going down. They couldn’t stop that. The issue now was keeping it in one piece.
The ship didn’t drop through the atmosphere like a rock. One great advantage of gravity control was a controlled descent. In another situation they could drop into the atmosphere and then lift back up into space.
In his scorched earth attempt to save SPIRE, Otto had compromised too many systems. Down the ship went.
It may not have lit up into a giant fireball, but it still fell fast enough to create a shriek as it cut through the atmosphere. The great size and mass of the ship displaced a huge volume of air as it fell.
The boom of sound carried across the surface, propagating across the continent. It certainly didn’t go unnoticed.
It spun and wobbled as it slowly came down. It skimmed a range of mountains and its shadow passed over a great forest as it drifted towards a body of water.
It hit land with a massive crunching, grating sound. It ground its way through the edge of the red hued forest and came to a rest with its ring half into the water of a great lake. It left a swath of devastated forest behind it. One of the connecting bridges buckled and shattered, scattering its dead contents. The Block that bridge led to began to separate from the ring. Cracks showed as the mounting damage depleted the power feeding the charged hull.
Finally the movement ceased, leaving a thundering silence in its wake.
End Chapter
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The Beginning | Wiki
Side Story: Casino Battle Royale is being written after this epilogue.
It starts Here if you want to return to the beginning of that smaller arc.
Here is where it picks up for those who want to move on.
Join us in the Discord. Talk about what you like, don't like, and what you want to see happen.
The Patreon page has been updated slightly as well.
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[OC] Bought and Sold. Chapter 12, arc2

The crew is starting to dig in and experiment with their own designs. And other things happen...
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The Beginning | Wiki
14 days after arrival
They were only partially in dataspace, just taking time to look at some of their spoils. They’d found a unique problem with the Gerlen weapons. The guys were handling the guns in real life as they looked deeper into the designs with Mason’s guidance.
The group of them were sitting in the main space, the living room of the large building where they had set up the makers they had personally brought with them. They’d had a simple table large enough for the whole crew and then some made with enough chairs for everyone. The weapons were laid out on that table.
“I’m thinkin’ that’s why they had to grab the gun barrels,” Daniel guessed.
“Did they?” Mike asked, he hadn’t seen the Gerlen use their guns.
“Yeah, those suckers had to get a grip on them handles on the front there,” Daniel explained. “I’m surprised the ship didn’t have some stupid lock too.”
“It does,” Mason replied. “But it’s all messed up. As long as you have and organic pattern to read, it unlocks.”
“Hah, lucky us.”
The first thing they found with the weapons they had taken from the Gerlen was that these ones were locked. There had been a genetic lock within the grips of the weapons, preventing them from being held and used by a person of another race.
“Can we fix that?” Mike asked.
Mason was sitting in with the brothers that morning, Otto was sitting across from them working at some files Mason had put a priority on, but wasn’t involved in the conversation.
“Sure, we can swap some parts,” Mason replied. “The gene lock is easy to fix for us, but that’s only because we’re lucky to have the makers. We’d be screwed if we tried to pick ‘em up and use ‘em.”
“Heh!” Daniel laughed, “Ya, guess yer’ right!”
Tank entered through the front door and walked up on the group. “It is the scheduled time,” he informed the brothers. “Shall we begin our patrol?”
“Sure,” replied Daniel.
Mike nodded and stood. “You think you can get those trigger locks sorted?”
“Probably,” Mason replied. “Since Stacey is well… better than me at the drone stuff, I can work on this.”
“Awesome,” Mike replied. “Cya soon.”
Matchka, Daniel, Mike, Tank and Rob were up for the patrol. The group wasn’t doing any heavy exploring. They weren’t pushing to anymore clone banks. Yet. They had agreed to take it easy and sweep around the estate for wandering Gerlen while the drone problem was worked on. They’d wipe out any stray problems, but advance carefully to avoid being surprised.
Truthfully, the crew was pretty nervous after the front of the large transport hover had been melted into slag. That plasma ball would have easily defeated any smaller D-field harnesses that the crew currently used. If they continued being over-confident, it would only bite them again, only luck had kept anyone from dying from that encounter.
That being said, it was two days until the so called armored variants of Gerlen might appear. And they had yet to see any of the stealth variants. There was a need to both be careful, but also a need to make good use of time.
They’d found the best sensor package they could fit on Mason’s little drone. The assault clones had scared them. They didn’t know what the stealth ones could do.
After the patrol left, Otto came walking out of the large building, whistling tonelessly as he approached the usual gathering spot of the sunning stones. The white room would have worked just as well. Since the drones had only needed to make it smaller, they’d been able to repurpose most of the components of the room, making for a quick rebuild.
But the sunning stones felt more open and more comfortable. So they’d built a small extension and dataspace router and placed it next to the stones so they could work just as easily there.
He found Aurula and Cynthia already working at something in dataspace. He sat down with them and ‘knocked’ by sending a ping to Aurula, asking if it was okay to join. He received an affirmative response after a moment. He sat down across from where the two of them were seated on adjacent stones. Cynthia seated on hers, Aurula sitting in front of a broad but low stone. She was actually leaning against it with a wing up above the stone.
He’d learned that Aurula preferred a bit warmer environment than the Humans did. So she went to greater lengths to enjoy the warmth the stones could put off.
Cynthia had been having the hardest time getting a handle on her data package. Which had surprised Otto, Matchka and Aurula. Cynthia had the best image control and creation of everyone, but was the worst at code manipulation.
He found them… taking it easy.
Cynthia started up her own conversation before he or Aurula had the chance to say anything.
“Hey-y Otto-o,” said Cynthia, drawing the statement with a slight whine to her tone. “Have any advice for this?”
She’d built herself a humanoid construct. She’d gone with a fantasy theme and had built a male elf, tall and lithe. He had an angular face, long pointed ears and flowing hair in a complex double braid. He was wearing a gilded tunic and trousers with high boots, but was currently standing rod straight.
“Advice for what now?” Otto asked.
“This,” she replied flatly and the figure… morphed as it attempted to take a pose. The form melted like wax. It flowed away from the original form and flowed into a fancy kung-fu pose with pointed hands, Otto figured it was something like a ‘mantis form’.
Cynthia was the best at image control. She could create, resize, squash or stretch or move objects better than anyone else. None of that included actually animating a fully realized image beyond static effects like a burning fire.
“Oh, yeah, that’s rough,” he admitted. “You haven’t been able to animate them?”
“Well, that was one of the worst attempts to be clear,” Aurula defended.
“Yeah, but not that much worse,” Cynthia added. “I was wondering if you have any tricks?”
“Hmm,” Otto hummed. “Well, did you try bones?”
“Bones?” asked Cynthia.
“Bones?” mimicked Aurula, by accident. Aurula brought both hands up to cover her beak. Although rare, whenever Aurula repeated what someone had said, she always became rather embarrassed. He’d have to ask her about that sometime.
“Well, I’ve only ever seen the most basic stuff about animating figures like this in videos of other people showing off their work,” Otto began explaining. “What I think animators will do is create a set of bones to act as a framework for the model. Any animations will act on the bones specifically and the features and details are, uh... programed to react to the movement of the bones.”
“Oh!” Cynthia responded. “Oh that makes so much sense! Why didn’t I think of that?”
“You’ve never looked at animation?”
“No! I’ve only ever drawn pictures, but, uh…”
“Yes?”
Cynthia’s mouth twisted in a bitter smile. “No one really supported my drawing before. Dad was always tellin’ me to stop. There weren’t a lot of uh, people around to show off to.”
“What about your mother?” Aurula asked.
Cynthia’s face turned dark. “Not gonna talk about that.” her arms reached down to her belly, although that body was just a dataspace construct. “I’m gonna do better anyways.”
While it wasn’t necessary to do so, and dataspace didn’t work that way, Otto had realized he habitually limited his perception as if he was looking through his physical eyes. This was a habit all of the Humans shared. Cynthia had ‘looked’ away from him and Aurula. So when Aurula opened her beak to say something Otto held up his hand in a clear sign to stop and she held her words. Cynthia never saw it.
“So, the bones,” Otto said warmly.
“Cynthia snapped out of it instantly. “Yeah! The bones. That gives me something to work with…” she suddenly turned meek. “Is it okay if I play with this for awhile?”
Otto frowned in thought. “Well, do what you can do right? Just don’t spend the whole time working on the fun stuff though.” She still had to finish the installation and set-up for her basic operator package, but he wasn’t wholly sure there weren’t other things that needed learning.
A message came across the communications from Stacey. “Otto, Aurula, can you come verify this for me?” she sent. “I’m not sure I have the pilot control right.”
Cynthia looked between them. “Well, I’ll keep working on what I need to work on,” she said with reluctance. “I think I should be okay for a bit.”
“I will be back soon,” Aurula told her.
“Okay, but you don’t have to push yourself,” Otto said to Cynthia with a smile. “We’re all still learning what we can do.”
The two of them dropped out of dataspace. Once fully back in the real world Otto sat up off his rock and approached the stone Aurula was sitting on.
“Need a hand up?” He asked, extending his left hand for her to grab.
Aurula froze solid for a moment as she give Otto one of her side looks, one deep black eye looking up at him. Tentatively she reached up and paused, giving him a good look at her softly scaled forearm and hand. She finally placed her taloned hand into his. This was new, she seemed oddly nervous. He wondered if and when he’d last offered her a hand like this before.
Once her hand was settled into his, he gripped firmly and helped lift as she smoothly came to her feet.
“Well, shall we see what Stacey is up to?” Otto asked.
“Ye-yes, of course.” Aurula replied, politely waving at him to go first.
Otto smiled and turned to walk. Aurula waited a moment and then followed behind, folding her hands in front of her and watching the Human closely.
When Otto had first met her, he’d easily noticed certain similarities she held to an Earth cockatiel. A small smiling beak, the cheek spots, although hers were black instead of a cockatiel’s signature orange cheeks. Her spots were also higher and further back on her head.
And of course the crest, made of the same blue feathers as the rest of her body, but for the white tips. He had seen her primary crest rise many times in pleasure or surprise. But the secondary crest, the feathers laying on her head behind the black spots, he hadn’t seen again.
He spent quite a bit of time around her really, but he hadn’t seen her full ‘tiara’ since that first meeting.
If only because he was looking away, he missed his chance to see it again.
Estate garage
Stacey was sitting on an office chair they had made for the garage console that served as the control for the two drone bays. Stacey had a couple designs queued up to look at. It had been a bit of work getting everything cleaned that they wanted to use.
The common designs that had been in use had been some if the most stable, but that corruption had been revealed in the poor movement and the hanging of drone logic that often caused them to stop firing during combat.
She had two custom variants of the small hover drone set aside in the dataspace, but was currently looking through the heavy combat drone she’d found the other day.
The arrival of Otto and Aurula was announced with a soft ping. The ping was relatively new, Otto had scared Stacey a couple times with the ease at which he would appear in the dataspace she was working. As an apology he’d come up with the friendly ping as a form of knocking.
Stacey turned her awareness toward them.”Hi guys, i finished the little hover drones,” she began, all business. “And I need the controls on the large one checked.”
Aurula was distracted by something else though. “Guys?” she asked.
“Oh! Sorry, it’s just a blanket term,” Stacey explained, “I’m not actually saying you’re a man.”
“Ah, a figure of speech,” Aurula replied. She reached out and drew the large drone model to herself, creating a copy to work with. She pulled out the control set and began looking through it.
At the same time Otto was combing through the logic on the two smaller hover drones. Stacey had made a defensive version and a sensor version. For the firepower she was depending on the large model hover and the members of the crew and whatever weapons they possessed.
For the defensive model Stacey had swapped the weapons out of the base model, put in a D-field generator instead and had enough room to upgrade the power source.
The sensor model of course had an improved sensor package that was better at reading biological signs. It also had the normal paired weapons. She had also found a higher performance anti grav drive.
“I wonder if the offensive drone would be better if it we had a smaller version,” Otto suggested. “They’ve been pretty easy to hit, if they aren’t going to have D-fields, more agility would probably help. We could managed that just as easily by making it smaller rather than giving it a more expensive drive."
“Well, they have the defensive drone to hide around,” Stacey countered. “The easiest way to shrink them is to reduce the power supply, but then they won’t be able to keep up when capturing the ship. And then I would have to downgrade the sensor and they couldn’t see much.”
“Hmm, the defensive drone can keep them under cover most of the time, true,” Otto acknowledged. “That doesn’t mean that will always be the case. But we could also make a mini drone without a weapon and just a sensor. We don’t want to call attention to it anyways.”
“I’m not against three different versions,” Stacey admitted. “I can whip something up pretty quick and a smaller sensor drone would probably be better for scouting without being spotted. There is still the power problem.”
Otto raised the false blue hand to his chin in thought. He then reached up and pulled the larger combat drone model up. It had the rounded anti-grav drive on the bottom, looking like a set of domes projecting from the bottom of the platform and a larger directly on the rear. The front of it had been extended out with a half windshield raised up in front of the new cockpit. The style of seat was that of a sportbike with a set of handles to hold onto.
The beam dome had been raised and the extra hull space had allowed for the larger generator and battery. Stacey had pushed those back and elongated the hull to make more room to make room for the pilot. The whole machine had a rounded and sleek look not so different from most of the Silianisca designs.
Otto spun the model around tapping on broad sections of the hull around the sides and back under the beam dome.
“Why don’t we place mini docking bays for the small drones on your combat hover?” Otto suggested. “They really don’t need to be buzzing around all the time anyways, and that hover has more than enough power generation to top them up if needed. We can also make a larger mount on the rear for the bigger shield drone.”
“Oh yeah! I can do that easily!” Stacey said with sudden excitement. “Yeah, I can put in about six small docks along with the one larger dock. I can totally make different little drones depending on what we want too!”
“Still, the combat hover is a lot more expensive materials wise than the regular types,” Otto noted. “It uses some rarer materials for the high end generator and battery. We might have enough for two with what we have on hand.”
“I’ve been looking into that a bit,” Stacey replied. “We do occasionally get some of the rare metals from the maintenance drones, but SPIRE says there is a matter converter in the central block along with the central stepdown generator core.”
“Hmm, that’s the second time the central block has come up in planning” Otto replied. “Guess it's time to start thinking about the Tower. Besides, it’s not like we have to capture the whole ship piecemeal.”
“...Sooner would indeed... be better,” SPIRE said, suddenly joining the conversation.
“Oh hey SPIRE, how did the self diagnostic go?”
“...I’ve cleaned the... visible corruption,” SPIRE said slowly. “...When you are finished with those scans... I will need you to do the final check.”
“SPIRE?” Otto said. “Are you okay?”
“...Of course…”
“Uhh…” Otto started and immediately trailed off.
Stacey and Otto looked each other in the eyes. “Don’t worry about this,” Stacey told him. “It sounds like you really need to go.”
“Yes,” Aurula agreed. “I am fine to inspect the control package.”
“Okay, I’m coming down to the basement SPIRE,” said Otto.
“... Very well…”
Otto dropped out of the dataspace he was sharing with Stacey and Aurula in the garage and headed back to the large residence for his harness. There was much he could do with the access disk and his own head, but it was important to have the extra support.
He went to the wall hangars they’d put just inside the door and picked his own harness down. He slung it over his shoulder and reached down to pull the straps between his legs. He snapped them in and reached up to pull the jack off the heavy collar and plugged it into his neck. The clasps pulled the harness in tight as he adjusted various… parts for comfort. He’d been pinched once before.
After that was settled he returned to the garage and headed down the steps behind the console Stacey was working on. It always threw him a bit coming down these stairs. The wall above the stairs was on the left, but going down the left opened up into the maintenance drone bay for the estate where they had put SPIRE and the right hand became the solid wall.
He walked up to the cradle and sat at the chair and console they’d build off to the right.
“Hey SPIRE, I’m here,” Otto spoke up. “Can you tell me what’s going on? You’re suffering some slowdown I think.”
“... Slowdown?” SPIRE responded after a moment. “... My perception may be… compromised…”
Otto dropped into dataspace but instead of his own castle, he was floating in space before a sphere. The diameter of the sphere was a football field and a half, but was otherwise identical to the realspace sphere that held SPIRE.
He took off and orbited the sphere a couple times looking for ‘visible’ signs of corruption.
“You’re gonna have to give me some directions SPIRE,” Otto spoke up “The problem isn’t visible from the outside, I’m going to need some access and a guide to areas that can affect your sense of time and self perception.”
He felt a ripple in the space as a shockwave passed through him. Just down and to his left a panel extended out from the sphere. It moved slowly, more so than his last visit. It shook and would intermittently stop. “... Access granted…” Spire finally replied. It took a few more moments for the panel to open right up. It was huge, There were four quadrants per hemisphere, and each quadrant had only four panels to it. That meant the surface consisted of only 32 panels in total. It was quite a bit bigger than him.
Otto floated over and looked underneath, there was an octagonal access tube in the center of the section, surrounded by blocks of glowing data and conduits that flashed with information flying around. Otto had been impressed the first and second times he’d seen this. This third time he was no less interested. He glided into the tube to explore into the dataspace construct.
Once inside SPIRE’s ‘space’ he could feel a subtle but pervasive pressure. Otto felt like he was deep underwater and had to steel himself against the feeling of the very space trying to push him back. He felt the pressure recede slightly as the support package in his collar ramped up, boosting his processing power.
“...How is… it?” SPIRE asked. The ‘air’ vibrated with the SI’s voice.
“Nothing yet,” Otto replied drifting down the corridor surrounded by walls of offset black boxes with glowing borders. Conduits would stick out at random points and run along to the corridor until they suddenly disappeared again. Only along the corners of the eight sided corridor were there permanent conduits running the length of the wall. One of those conduits was pulsing towards the inside of the structure, it's colour a bright green. This was the signpost SPIRE had given him to follow.
Every so often he would come to junction with various paths opening up into dedicated sections. Each of those paths could take off one of eight directions and would span a whole side, opening up into their own eight sided corridors. Another conduit would be set into the corner along those transitions and split off down the corridor as well. The pressure was rising faster than he remember last. Otto suspected he was coming close. He found a path leading straight ‘up’ from his orientation along which the green signpost went up into. He flew up and stopped almost right away.
“Well, I found it,” Otto spoke up. A grey oozing membrane had filled the whole corridor preventing further access.
“... This is an obscured part of… the infection,” SPIRE responded. “I do… not see any problems… in that portion.”
Otto frowned. It had always bothered him that SPIRE seemed to think only a small order of magnitude faster than the organics around it. So many times it felt like SPIRE should have been able to… to just do more. The man had a suspicion the SI had been limited by the Silianisca. If the infection hit the portion of the code that controlled or limited SPIRE’s ‘speed’ then Otto had a chance to learn something interesting.
If he could understand what he was looking at anyways. ‘Fixing’ thus far had often consisted of controlled damage. If he was careful in his application of cleaning, then he could extrapolate based on nearby components how to fix what he was looking at and SPIRE was able to fill in missing pieces.
This was dangerous. Otto knew it. But he was already doing what he could to learn how SPIRE worked and do the best he could to repair any problems found.
He clapped his hands and then spread them out, complex crystals of code forming at his palms and socketing into sides of an expanding crystal floating between his hands. After a few moments it was done, and the rainbow coloured spiky crystal flew out and struck the center of the membrane. A six point set of points facing Otto spit out a small six sided cylinder of data as the membrane ate the construct.
He grabbed the base of the cylinder and held it in front of his face. The six sides expanded out revealing a portion of the membrane being held in a lattice of glowing lines. The side of the cylinder facing him flashed a set of diagnostics telling him what variant of data corruption this was.
“It's a type 4,” Otto said. “Which could be good news.”
The designations were just what Otto had come up with. The various types tended to cause similar problems, but had slightly different methods and needed a different anti-type. Type 1 devoured and deleted, leaving empty data, like endless pages of blank paper. Type 2 converted, changing data into something else, typically corrupted junk that would attempt to misfire half formed programs. Type 3 copied, multiplying the section of data it had sprouted from like cancer cells. Type 4 overwhelmed, filling a section with junk data, slowing everything to a crawl. Sometimes there was nothing else under the type 4. Sometimes it was hiding one of the other types.
“That is… good but… I do not believe… I can support you at this… time.” SPIRE struggled to speak. “There is… interference.”
“That’s okay, save your capacity for yourself for the moment,” Otto reassured. He knew that if SPIRE couldn’t see it, the SI couldn’t effect repairs from it’s own side.
Out of the palm of his right hand formed another crystal which he placed into the center of the lattice trapped sample in his hand. It started to pulse and bubble and the cylinder closed up. He tossed the cylinder into the membrane, although this time a glowing line of information remained connected to his hand.
“Cleaning begun,” Otto reported.
The cylinder sunk into the membrane and began expanding outwards, it passed through the membrane and everything on the inside of the cylinder wall shrivelled up into ash and scattered like dust. Otto continued to process the cleaner and it expanded into the junk data forcing it's way down the corridor. He floated forwards as the area cleared, the walls around him started to reveal themselves. He knew he couldn’t see it but the cleaner would seep through the cracks in the walls around him and continue until the end of the corruption was found. He’d need SPIRE to allow him to sift through the data constructs to check for any remaining signs however. Otto simply wasn’t skilled enough to separate and inspect the code by himself. That he could already do as much as he could had impressed the SI greatly.
He pushed himself down the hallway, following the now rapidly advancing border as the junk data was wiped away.
“How are you doing there SPIRE?”
“I believe I am… seeing some improvement.”
“You sound like it too.”
The barrier continued to push ahead, leaving Otto behind, although staying tethered to the hand he was holding up. Another path opened up to his left, the pulsing green conduit leading into it. He turned the corner and instantly recoiled.
[Quick Command: Defense, regenerating barrier]
A blue, translucent six sided panel appeared in front of Otto and identical panels started popping into existence expanding out from the first in the next instant.
A segmented worm slammed into the barrier and tried to chew it’s way through with a maw that opened up to inky darkness. The scaled shell of it’s body glittered with white light. Anything directly in front of it's mouth quickly disintegrated. Otto had chosen well with the regenerating barrier. But the worm was winning
“SPIRE! Can you lend me some capacity?”
“Easily… done.”
He felt the pressure of the space give way as his own presence gained weight. The barrier began to fill in faster and Otto issued another command.
[Command. Full build, Tesla Orb, designate target path, building....]
The worm had struggled and flailed as is chewed at the barrier, running it’s mouth back and forth looking for a way past but not finding one.
Previously it had taken time to fully build this same attack program that had finished the Spectrum agent. This time with Otto’s own slight equipment upgrades and the significant direct support from SPIRE the program built in an instant. Otto had learned how to properly use a touch of command language and had used that to set his quick combat programs. He understood it as a Sapient Intelligence’ language of concepts and he only spoke it like a baby, limited to base words. Even so it executed the command and the program was formed before Otto would have been able to speak a single syllable of english. It worked as quickly as he could form his thoughts.
The almost clear orb that formed above his head crackled with lightning arcing between a second solid black orb inside it and the outer layer. Three connected rings surrounded the orb, joined to each other at each primary axis point and anchored to the orb by a spike that pierced into the center. An arc of power lanced out from the orb.
It blasted directly through one of the panels and stuck the body of the worm. The space shook as the worm vented it's distress with unformed waves of pressure. It writhed in panic as the arc passed all the way down to the tail of the worm and it began to disintegrate from the inside out, patches of damage quickly showing through.
“Well that surprised me,” Otto sighed as the thing broke up into particles of junk data.
“Now that you… have eliminated it, I see the traces of a worm,” SPIRE spoke. “It was blocking self perception, I can begin… self repair.”
“Oh, that’s good, you gonna be okay?”
“Mostly… yes. I expect a small amount of drift… however.”
“Drift?” Otto asked with worry.
“Yes, nothing serious has been damaged, I will... be able to restore damaged sections to full capacity, but the construction of the code may change slightly,” SPIRE explained. “I will need you to examine... some code blocks in person to assure proper function.”
“How dangerous is the drift?”
“It is within… acceptable parameters. I cannot remove the… drift until I can sync with the original template.”
“Any place you want me to start?” Otto said, frowning. Double checking code was a painful task, he wasn’t looking forward to it. On the other hand, he was interested in what he could potentially learn.
“Of course, if you could trace... the path of the worm, that would likely be best.”
Otto had been looking down the corridor as they spoke, resuming the function of the cleaner expanding through the section. He could see sections of this new corridor eroded away where the worm had burrowed through. He began following it back, highlighting damaged sections as he went.
“Okay, let’s see what I can find.”
End Chapter
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MAME 0.198

MAME 0.198

It’s the day you’ve been eagerly awaiting all month: MAME release day! MAME 0.198, our May release, is packed full of improvements in lots of areas. Newly supported arcade games include the rare video pinball game Tom Tom Magic, Jikkyou Powerful Pro Yakyuu EX ’98, and Keirin Ou. Newly supported computers include the TI-99/2, Dragon MSX-64, and BBC Master 512.
This release brings graphics emulation improvements to a number of systems, including more fixes for Sega Saturn/ST-V, missing effects emulated in 1945k III, and improvements to the title screen in Wolf Fang. The SH-4 recompiler now supports more FPU opcodes directly, and NAOMI keyboards are supported. Low-level floppy drive emulation improvements bring improved compatibility for Apple II software. Newly supported peripherals include a PC ISA LBA BIOS card, the Beeb Speech Synthesiser, and a number of BBC Micro pointing devices.
Other additions include new Tiger handhelds (Batman: The Animated Series, Operation: Aliens, Wayne’s World, and X-Men), the Fidelity Elegance and Prestige chess computers, and alternate versions of Battle Balls, Centipede, Final Fight, Karate Blazers, Last Mission, Real Puncher, Sengoku 3, Spy Hunter, and World Heroes 2. There are lots of additions to the Apple II cassette software list, and several additions to the Sorcerer cassette software list as well. MAME now supports Korean user interface thanks to a contribution from Neius.
For developers, we’ve fixed some issues in the debugger affecting CPUs that use word addressing, and the source list is sorted more intuitively in memory windows. We’ve made a number of changes to how machine configuration works to make driver development more intuitive and less error-prone.
Of course, you can get source and Windows binaries from the download page.

MAMETesters Bugs Fixed

New working machines

New working clones

Machines promoted to working

Clones promoted to working

New machines marked as NOT_WORKING

New clones marked as NOT_WORKING

New working software list additions

Software list items promoted to working

New NOT_WORKING software list additions

Translations added or modified

Source Changes

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Certainty

Roy "Sarge" Jovanovic lounged in his pilot's chair scrolling through ship designs, trying to find the one that would make the most tempting target. A screen to his left listed all of the transponder codes in the ship's database and the fleets with which they were associated, a screen to his right held a dizzying array of maps, graphs, news searches, and other information about shipjackings in the local sector over the past year, and the front screen showed a live feed from a scout drone's camera, floating about a klick off the port bow to give him a good view of the ship's current appearance.
Roy was the executive officer of one of the many small, unaffiliated fleets that plied the spacelanes in Human territory. Once humanity finally got around to colonizing other solar systems, seemingly everyone on Earth wanted their own slice of the interstellar pie, but not everyone had the resources for it. Where many governments and international corporations commissioned their own fleets, and the largest governments and megacorps were even able to build multiple fleets for their various departments and business units, a lot of the smaller nations and domestic companies simply didn't have the funds for more than one or two ground-to-orbit transports, if that. So dozens of independent fleets started popping up to service those needs; these fleets often came with range limitations, exorbitant fees, slow jump drives, low cargo capacities, and other annoyances, but their clients couldn't exactly afford to be picky.
He eyed a particular scatter plot to his right for a moment, pondering, then tapped a name on his left. "Hello Alibaba," he called, "Set ship identity to FENL." The ship's virtual assistant acknowledged the request with a cheerful chime. Within moments the front screen showed that the ship's hull now bore the bright and blocky red-and-green-with-yellow-highlights pattern of the Frota Estrela Nacional de Lisbon, the Portuguese starfleet, and the ship's bland flattened-oblong shape now boasted the sweeping curves associated with products of the Lisbon shipyards, thanks to some incredibly illegal nanofabricators placed strategically throughout the hull; actual physical modifications would hold up much better to EMPs and invasive sensor scans than the standard holographic emitters that freelancers generally used.
Independent fleets were hired for all sorts of tasks of all degrees of legality, depending on their individual capabilities. Sometimes they were glorified delivery drones, sometimes pirates asset acquisition specialists, sometimes scouts for colony fleets, sometimes covert assets for larger organizations who wanted to keep their hands clean. Roy's fleet, Charlie's Chameleons, was a well-equipped and experienced mercenary fleet and one of the few trusted to play the deniable-asset role, as they were doing now. While humanity was nearly a decade into the process of officially integrating with the larger galactic society and it would probably be a decade more before their laws, technology, and such were fully integrated with the other species', unsavory types had already set up shop near the borders of Human territory years before and had started to make a nuisance of themselves, and now several Human colonies were quietly starting to take steps to deal with them.
The Chameleons' current target was one Rit!tkatp, an unpronounceably-named and incredibly cunning member of a major T!ka!irtk gang that had steamrolled the other criminal organizations in several systems a few years back and was now running basically every illegal enterprise in the sector from black marketeering to smuggling to things best left unmentioned. If that gang was the Italian Mafia in Space--and they did try to cultivate that impression, to the extent that a bunch of ugly pseudo-insectoids could pull off the "gentleman criminal" look, anyway--then Rit!tkatp was their Godfather, and he had a particular penchant for shipjacking that had led the colonies of Abydos Prime, Malcor III, and Newer Zealand to hire the Chameleons to do something about it, before the gang scared away all shipping from their respective solar systems and left them cut off from the wider sector.
The virtual assistant chimed again. "Ship designation?" it asked in a dispassionate, slightly Chinese-accented voice. Roy tapped his chin and stared at his right screen, not responding. "Ship designation?" the ship asked again after a brief pause, and Roy waved a hand in irritation. "Bah, that won't work. He goes after eighty-three percent of FENL shipping in this region, but we still don't know what makes the bastard pick one ship over another and we can't afford to guess wrong."
"That's a bit long for a name, boss, and it's not Portuguese," the ship remarked, this time in a much more human-like voice and one tinged heavily with sarcasm.
Roy glared briefly in the general direction of the front viewport, trusting that the ship's ex-military AI, Karma, would have no trouble seeing his expression through one of its many cameras scattered throughout the bridge. (Having an AI on a non-military vessel was just as illegal as the transponder database and the nanofabricators. Something of a running theme with the Chameleons, really.)
"What did I say about breaking character?" he asked mildly.
"Hey, I have to play dumb when clients are around, so I have to get my snark on when I can," Karma replied. "Plus, Charlie decided on this personality when you know I like playing Siri better, so you can just deal with disappointment. And before you ask, no, I wasn't able to find any good correlations in the FENL data either, so if you haven't had any brilliant ideas in the past ten seconds you might as well try another one."
"Fine," Roy grumbled. A bit more scrolling and pondering, then: "Hello Alibaba--" "Still right here, boss." "Hello Alibaba, set ship identity to IDF." As the cheery yellow-and-blue-circles pattern of the Ikea Delivery Fleet rapidly painted itself across the hull, Karma asked, "You're thinking he might go for quantity over quality, then, boss?"
Roy glared again, then sighed, giving in. "Maybe. We know he likes the bigger consumer goods shipments, for whatever reason, but none have come through here in a while so he might go for a smaller cargo."
"Makes sense. Designation?"
"Hmm. The IDF Some Assembly Required."
"Good one, boss."
"Nobody asked you."
(The first generation of Earth starships bore exactly the kinds of names one would expect. Every country had so many ships named for historical and pop culture references--the most popular in America being Serenity, Millennium Falcon, and Enterprise among the civilian fleets and Washington, Midway, and also Enterprise among the military fleets--that even prepending ship designations wasn't enough to tell them apart. That, plus several fleets being sued into bankruptcy by Disney's intellectual property division, made most everyone change naming conventions. After First Contact, when it was discovered that a short-irreverent-phrases scheme was both unique among known spacefaring species and also incredibly irritating to quite a few of them, even the most humorless bureaucrat was happy to go along with the trend; the first few years even saw informal contests for the most innuendo-laden ship names until the diplomatic corps begged for it to stop so they wouldn't have to keep explaining the jokes to other species' fleet registrars.)
Within seconds the ship's new name was added to the hull and the ship's transponder was switched to broadcast the new identity, but Roy still wasn't satisfied. "That won't work either. They never send high-tech stuff in their midrange transports, so there's no way he wouldn't pick up the signature of the bombs or the trackers, or both."
"I think maybe you're being too paranoid, boss. T!ka!irtk scanners aren't that advanced compared to Human ones. We can probably risk it."
"Easy for you to say; if he blows us out of the sky, you can just reload from backup. Let's see. Give me SAF colors, designation Not All That Glitters. No, cancel that, same problem...."
Their wannabe Space Don Corleone was one of the best in the business. His organization operated in eighty sectors falling under at least fifteen different species' legal jurisdictions, and not once had any court managed to get any allegations to stick. Rit!tkatp worked through shell companies of shell companies, always had bullet- and plasma-proof alibis, employed legions of lawyers to ensure he never saw the inside of a law enforcement vehicle (much less a jail cell), never put his name on anything if he could help it, and never left witnesses in any state to testify against him. At least three Earth-based governments and several colonial fleets had task forces waiting on hot standby at all times to jump in, arrest the gangster, and seize his assets the moment he gave them the slightest excuse...but he never gave them that excuse, and so their ships were continually restrained by leashes of red tape and impotent fury.
The Chameleons' employers were well aware that they weren't exactly squeaky clean themselves--very few of the transponder codes they used were obtained through legal freelance work, and "aftermarket modifications" didn't begin to cover what had been done to the jump cores and shield generators of the five ships in their small but heavily-armed fleet--but figured, hey, the legitimate government forces can't do squat without evidence and it takes a thief to catch a thief, so here they were.
The next hour or so passed slowly as Roy thought up and discarded dozens of possible fake identities that might tempt Rit!tkatp into a trap, accompanied by Karma's ever-so-helpful running commentary, from the APF Free Two-Jump Shipping ("You know we don't have enough ships to fake an Amazon convoy") to the RSN Duke Duke Duke Duke of Oil ("Nah, he hasn't jacked any Saudi ships since that new petroleum refinery started up on Epsilon Eridani 3") to the RKF Package Delivers You ("He has friends in the Russian Federation and you don't speak Russian, you'd give the game away if he has native speakers in any of his picket ships") to the NSWS Beware of Drop Bears ("Come on, boss, Newer Zealand would never allow a Newer South Wales ship in their territory after that last incident").
Finally, Roy slammed a fist on his armrest, cutting off Karma's latest comment. "This isn't going to work. We're not the first ones to try something like this, and no one's ever pulled the wool over that bastard's compound eyes before. We have to try something new, but how can you possibly catch a gangster who's thought of everything!?" He dropped his head into his hands and gave a muffled order through his fingers to recall the drone and reset everything to defaults.
"You sure, boss? For what they're paying us, you really want to just let Space Tony Soprano off the hook like that?" Karma asked as the drone headed back toward its hangar and the ship's outlines flattened out into blandness. "You tell Charlie you're out of ideas and she's not going to be happy, and after all the wining-and-dining she had to do for the bigwigs on that New Phobos gig, neither is her bank account."
For a long moment, Roy just sat there, thinking, as a smile slowly grew on his face. "Bank account, huh," he murmured to himself, then lifted his head and spoke with renewed enthusiasm. "Karma, change of plans. Load up the Skreaming Skulls paint jobs on all the ships, and then I'll need to talk to the captain."
A burst of static blasted from the speakers before Karma responded, "Sorry, boss, had to do a systems check on my hearing. I could've sworn you just said the Skreaming Skulls."
"You heard me."
"The ridiculously-over-the-top space pirate getup you use when clients just want tons of property damage and for us to scare the bejesus out of whoever the target is? The one that would make me bluescreen with embarrassment if it were possible for my personality template to have gone through a goth phase in its youth? The one with absolutely zero capability for stealth or discretion whatsoever? That Skreaming Skulls?"
"That's the one."
"Are you insane? What happened to being subtle?
"Probably. And fuck 'subtle'."
"Well...you're the boss. Just don't mind me if I take a fresh backup and sync it back to base before we go."
"You do that. Now, give me a minute to write up a proposal and then ring up the captain."
A little while later, Roy leaned back comfortably as the face of Captain Charlotte "Charlie" van den Heuvel filled the screen in front of him. The pair of welding goggles perched on her forehead indicated that he'd caught her in the middle of fixing something, probably the dodgy recirculator on Chameleon One that kept breaking because they hadn't had the time or money to give the life support systems the full overhaul they needed.
"Sarge! I was beginning to think I wasn't going to hear from you today."
"I keep telling you, I hate that nickname."
"Well, tough. Captain's orders. I take it you've figured out a decoy job that'll fool every last one of those bugs?"
"Nope, not a clue!" Roy said with a cheery grin, causing the captain to lose her own grin. "Complete change of plans, and I think you'll like the new plan. I think it's time we called in the big guns."
Charlie raised an eyebrow. "We don't have big guns, Sarge. The Chameleon Base retrofit got delayed, remember?"
"Not those big guns," Roy shook his head as he sent his proposal over to her. "Those big guns."
The captain read it over, as did the instances of Karma on both Roy's ship and hers, then whistled softly. "Gutsy, and stupid, but he'll never see it coming. Gold star, Roy. I'll tell Ace, Tiny, and Eagle to prep for departure. Briefing in twenty, jets up in forty."
A space station floated in the void, far off the established spacelanes and nowhere near anything resembling a planet, or even a large asteroid. Its only company was a fleet of ships and a handful of smaller defense stations, ranging in quality from the finest models that laundered money could buy to lightly used models that had been repurposed after what was left of their prior owners had been rinsed off of the bulkheads. The former sort had been built with the sorts of odd angles and strange proportions that their T!ka!irtk owners found aesthetically appealing and other species found headache-inducing, while the latter sort had been retrofitted to that design as best as possible, and in both cases they were all decorated in a manner that appeared to be boring sheets of uniform whiteness to those inferior species whose visual organs were limited to sensing what they laughably termed the "visible" spectrum of light.
This gathering of vessels was not hidden nor kept secret in any way, despite its remoteness. On the contrary, its master Rit!tkatp delighted in welcoming all comers to enjoy the creature comforts of his station, whether their tastes lay with gambling, racing, mind-altering substances, negotiable affections, or even more exotic pursuits. All beings, from the poorest sight-seer to the most inquisitive government investigator, were invited to partake in its pleasures--provided, of course, that they did not stick their olfactory organs where they didn't belong.
On this particular occasion, Rit!tkatp, patriarch of his extended family and clutch-master of the station, reclined regally in something that only a member of his species would recognize as a chair, as two of his employees filed his dorsal phalanges and several more polished his forearm plates. The T!ka!irtk species was semi-insectoid and covered with something that wasn't quite an exoskeleton, from which protruded many bony outgrowth that served both as defensive spines and as sensory apparatus. They had four bulbous eyes, two compound eyes for seeing motion and two simple eyes for distance vision; four arms and four legs, all multi-jointed and bone-plated; and a mouth both filled with sharp teeth and ringed by pedipalps.
The memoirs of the Human diplomat who had first made contact with the T!ka!irtk famously described her first impression of them being "the result of a drunken orgy between a praying mantis, a wolf spider, and the ugliest porcupine on Earth," and if anything she was being too kind.
Rit!tkatp enjoyed surveying his domain from the control center that was the heart and brain of the station. The clatter of dice rolling in the gambling hall, the rustling of smuggled goods passing through hangars not depicted on the station blueprints, the pathetic wails of those who required encouragement to repay their loans in a timely fashion...these sounds were music to his aural receptors, the rhythm by which he lived his life.
Alas, a flashing light on the proximity sensor board informed him that the intricate symphony of station operations was shortly to be interrupted by an unplanned intermission.
"Look alive, people," the captain's voice sounded in everyone's earpiece, "we have reversion in two minutes. Remember, don't take any unnecessary risks, don't worry about picking good targets, just keep firing at anything and everything in weapons range until you get the signal, then stall as long as you can." Acknowledgements came from Chameleon One through Chameleon Five, and each ship's crew performed a few last-minute equipment checks.
"Cortana, status summary for all ship systems," Roy called. "All systems green," came the cool synthesized voice of the virtual assistant, followed by Karma's voice adding, "Except the long-range transmitters, which are...blue, I guess, since someone decided that pirates like Cortana for whatever reason. Or whatever other color you'd give a system that I'm giving extra-special attention to, so that I can transmit myself out of the mess you meatbags are about to get yourselves into."
The bridge crew laughed, one calling out, "We love you too, Karma!" as the timer ticked down toward zero. The navigator started counting down with it: "Reversion in three...two...one...now!"
Right on cue, the HMS Dead To Rights, Seasons Don't Fear The..., No Kill Like Overkill, Gallows Humor, and Do Unto Others, Repeat As Necessary of the infamous Skreaming Skulls Skwadron popped into existence in a spasm of warped spacetime and hilariously bad graffiti. Each ship immediately unloaded every railgun, missile tube, plasma launcher, and drone fighter on board at the nearest target. They'd chosen their approach vector very carefully to ensure that no civilian ships were in the line of fire, just Rit!tkatp's goons. There were likely to be few civilians around in any case, as station security didn't like having too many ships arriving or departing at any given time.
The ensuing three minutes or so were the highlight of Roy's career thus far. Nothing like blowing up bad guys with no concern for ammo limits or mission objectives to relieve some stress.
But far too soon, the party was over.
"Bad news, boss," Karma called urgently, "we've got a frigate at our two o'clock. Make that three. Make that six. Um. Make that a six and two drone carriers." Roy glanced to the tactical display, disbelieving, but the AI was right: somehow, a mere gentleman crime boss had not one, not two, but eight capital ships at his disposal--and that's just what he had within jump distance on short notice. That would certainly explain how he'd managed some of the more impossible-sounding feats attributed to him, and why most local pirate crews would refuse to cross him for any reason and also refuse to say why. Must have bribed a shipyard or something...or, hell, maybe they were a present from some species that wasn't a big fan of humanity and would love to see someone meddle with their affairs.
Vastly increased danger aside, though, it didn't change the Chameleons' mission profile. The frigates had almost reached firing distance when Ace made his move: in the most hectic region of the battle, two T!ka!irtk gunboats went charging for the No Kill Like Overkill, both sides firing volley after volley of missiles and countermeasures at each other, and only two ships came out the other side of the expanding field of shrapnel and debris that resulted from the skirmish.
On sensors, the two surviving ships were the two T!ka!irtk gunboats, one heavily damaged and one mostly fine, and the expanding hull fragments of Chameleon Three were all that was left of the fake Skreaming Skulls ship; in reality, however, one of the gunboats had been destroyed and, in the sensor-scrambling confusion, Chameleon Three had swiftly scanned its profile and transponder and taken its place. The "damaged gunboat" turned tail and limped back to "its" hangar, immediately forgotten by its fellows.
The plan at that point had been to keep blowing things up while Ace worked to keep the attention on the other four ships, but the frigates changed things. It was all the Skulls could do to avoid the capital ships' guns, and despite some amazing piloting from Tiny and crack shooting from all the Chameleon gunners they shortly found themselves captured by tractor beams and dragged helplessly within range of the station's even larger guns. The crews' former high spirits were understandably shaken, but Roy reassured the crew of Chameleon Two that if they hadn't been reduced to atoms yet they'd probably come out of this alive so just sit tight and wait and everything would be fine, and he was sure the other officers on the other Chameleon ships were telling their crews basically the same thing.
The speakers crackled to life unbidden. "You know, I was having such a good day." Rit!tkatp's smooth baritone echoed throughout the bridge--or, rather, the voice of his translator; T!ka!irtk couldn't make the appropriate sounds for any human tongue, and vice versa for humans. (Unless they were fluent in one of those African clicking languages, from what Roy had heard, but even then apparently they sounded like a dog trying to speak French.) So both species used translation devices to communicate, and fortunately he'd hooked his up directly to the comm system so they only heard the translated voice. Roy had dealt with them in person before, and the way all those conversations would go was that they'd first hear one of the bugs say something in his own language that would sound like someone firing a machine gun at a xylophone, then the translator would speak in a Human tongue, then the Humans would speak, then their own translator would fire yowling cats back at the bugs, and they'd alternate like that for the duration; it was enough to give anyone migraines.
"I slept so well, my breakfast was wriggling, my customers were happy...and now, you jump into my system, the system of a law-abiding citizen, and you commit property damage the likes of which I have never seen. I am well within my rights to confiscate your ships in recompense and send your crew back to T!ka!ir to pay off the damages with hard labor. But I am a generous and honorable being. Tell me who hired you to do this, and I may be willing to let you go. I may not even inform the authorities that you did this, so that you may remain free to continue your detestable activities elsewhere."
Roy had to hand it to him, the man was smooth. Perfect "incensed businessman" tone with a bit of "agreeable neighbor" thrown in, and only a barely-noticeable dash of "unrepentant murderer" in the mix to show he wasn't to be trifled with. He acted just as if he were talking into yet another journalist's holorecorder; he had to, since for all he knew the Skreaming Skulls were live-streaming this conversation back to their mysterious employers in the hopes of catching him admitting to something illegal. That, too, had been tried a few times before.
Before he could think of something to say Charlie responded first in the most insultingly casual tone she could manage. "No one hired us. We decided that you were scum, and your ships didn't have nearly enough holes in them, and it's a weekend, and we were bored, so why not pop in and say hi?"
Rit!tkatp didn't believe that for a moment, of course--mercenaries, do something for free?--so he and the captain traded polite, velvet-coated barbs for a bit while the newer crewmembers waited on the edge of their seats for the moment when the alien gangster tired of it and ordered them vaporized. Roy had stopped paying attention, though. He only had eyes for one tiny corner of his screens, where he waited for a message from Chameleon Three.
As soon as it came through, he grinned fiercely and accepted the data transfer attached to the message, and several minutes later--it was a pretty huge transfer--he gave the crew a thumbs up, waited for them to quiet down, and hit the transmit button while the alien gangster was still speaking.
"Have you heard of an old Earth gangster named Al Capone?" he interrupted, to an uncertain pause from Rit!tkatp. "This is your second who barges into our conversation?" he asked. At Charlie's nod he adjusted something offscreen and now appeared to be looking directly at Roy. "No, I have not. This is relevant because...?"
"Well, I was thinking you might have, since he bears a striking similarity to a Mr. Zhanpeng Lee, a bureaucrat in the office of the Minister of Finance on Xin Beijing. Also a Ms. Beatriz Gonzales, a sales director with Lockheed-Grumman Industries. And oh, I believe also Mr. Dan O'Neill, Mr. Lubo Denisov, and Ms. Sweta Chandragiri. Need I go on?"
No response from Rit!tkatp except a twitching of his pedipalps. The mentioned names were either false identities he used to do business in Human space or bribed and/or blackmailed intermediaries between real companies and his shell companies, discovered in the complete copy of the gangster's financial records taken by Chameleon Three's instance of Karma, and the twitching indicated frantic thought on the gangster's part as to how that information could have been retrieved.
Rit!tkatp wasn't stupid enough to keep his personal records on the station-wide network for any two-bit hacker to find if he or she rooted an information kiosk or gambling machine; everything was in an armored server room directly below his office, hard-linked to his office terminal and shielded from any sort of wireless access, which only he and his most trusted associates could access and in which he could withstand an assault for several hours at least. And of course there was plenty of surveillance and security teams between his enemies and his data, such that anyone trying to dash to the vault would surely be cut down before they got even one floor up from the casinos. He'd taken every reasonable precaution against every reasonable form of attack.
What his security policies did not take into account, however, was an illegally-enhanced military-grade AI gaining root access to the repair bay computers several dozen floors below his office, taking over the station's maintenance robots (glorified ten-foot-tall alien Roombas, basically, and not particularly difficult to co-opt), marking all the corridors between the hangar and his office as closed for cleaning to clear out any civilians, quietly intercepting the camera feeds from the empty hallways, and then using Chameleon Three's boarding lasers to drill straight up through all those floors and into the server room itself, at which point Karma had physical dataport access and the game was up. "Crazy flying AI with frikkin' laser beams" isn't the sort of thing usually covered by standard security policies, so Rit!tkatp could be forgiven for not anticipating that.
"You think to threaten me? In your decidedly helpless position?" Rit!tkatp demanded, still maintaining his innocent businessman air with some effort. "You think that I will be afraid of images of extracted endoskeletons and oxygen-bearing fluids on your ships? No, your Human superstitions do not apply to the T!ka!irtk. We know that death is certain, and because of this we do not fear it."
"Funny you say that," Roy continued, "since we superstitious humans have a slightly different saying. 'Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.' And that's the striking similarity: None of those individuals pay their taxes."
Now the alien looked honestly confused. "See, I know that a businessman such as yourself would scrupulously pay your taxes, and so would any of your cover identities. Excuse me, your business associates. But you forgot one little thing. There's one backwards little country on good old Earth that's always behind the times and out of step with the rest of the civilized world called America, you might have heard of it. Those crazy Americans have all sorts of crazy policies; for god's sake, it's twenty-one-forty-fucking-seven and they still haven't switched everything to the metric system. And one of their quaint little rules involves taxes."
Charlie chimed in from Chameleon One: "You're damn right it does. See, I'm an American citizen thanks to my mother. Doesn't matter that I've never set foot on Earth in my life, or any American colonies, or hell, even an American-built space station, they take their 'citizens living abroad' thing very seriously, and every year I have to file my taxes with Uncle Sam. Every damn year. Eritrea used to require that too, but they gave up that nonsense almost a century ago. And I complain about it to my XO here every damn year, too...which worked out nicely this time, I guess."
Rit!tkatp had reached both left arms offscreen and appeared to be quietly yet frantically tapping away at a terminal, paying attention to Roy with his right eyes and his computer with his left; it was a somewhat disconcerting sight. Roy glanced over at his tactical display where he was getting a jump proximity notification, probably the same one that had the gangster all upset. Unless he was looking up Al Capone in whatever Human historical records he had access to, which was also possible. "And seeing as no fewer than one-third of your false identities have American citizenship and many of your shell corporations are registered in American colonies, well, that brings us back to Al Capone. When the government managed to show he hadn't been paying his taxes back in nineteen...whenever it was, well, that was a federal crime."
"Yes yes yes, I see your point," Rit!tkatp said hurriedly, chest plates clicking in alarm and dorsal phalanges folding outwards in frustration. "You have uncovered blackmail material on me, and now you will wish something in exchange for not alerting the Human governments, I am sure. So--"
"Nope, too late for that, sonny," Ace interrupted from Chameleon Three, his voice coming from Rit!tkatp's side of the connection since he was patched into the station's comms. "Already sent it all over. Would even have gift-wrapped it, if they had a tri-D printer in their office somewhere. Got a thank-you note back, too, ain't that sweet. Now, normally these things take something on the order of a hundred eighty business days, but I think in your case they'll make an exception. Right...about...."
Silence.
"...about...oh, come on, they said twenty minutes! Damn government bureaucracy, where's a dramatic entrance when you need one?"
More silence.
Then, flashes of light. Four unmarked ships in plain gray jumped into the system in escort formation, heading for the station. They definitely had the highly-functional-with-a-hint-of-muscle aesthetic of American ships, to Roy's eye; he thought the design was a bit boring compared to, say, the Brazilian or Italian fleets, but at least they'd stopped putting red, white, and blue stars and stripes on everything with an engine and a flat surface.
Rit!tkatp hesitated for long moments, all plates and phalanges going utterly still. "You're not thinking of resisting arrest, are you?" Roy asked mockingly. The alien glared at him with all four eyes, then spat, "If that is all the fleet your Bureau of Federal Investigators can muster, I don't see why not." The frigates dropped their tractor locks on the Chameleon ships to go engage the new Human vessels, leaving only the carriers and drone fighters (and of course the station itself) to keep them under guard.
Roy looked on with concern. Surely they didn't send just four ships? When even without the capital ships the region always swarmed with drones and the station itself could withstand a siege for days?
"That's not the FBI, buddy. They only have sub-orbital ships and no off-planet jurisdiction. Check the IFFs," Ace said smugly, and both Rit!tkatp and the Chameleons checked their tactical screens. "IRS? Io Rescue Service?" the alien said with bemused contempt. "Close, you're thinking IIRS, Io Interstellar Rescue Service. Nope, that there's the Internal Revenue Service."
On the far side of the fleet, the frigates were engaging the new arrivals. The front two ships turned out to be torpedo boats, the IRS In Triplicate and the IRS Red Tape, and they were unloading missile volleys on the frigates at a staggering pace while the support ships IRS Credit Freeze and IRS Wage Garnishment raised jamming fields and fired off the occasional EMP burst. The T!ka!irtk frigates, confident in their superior numbers, didn't even slow down as they approached the quartet of smaller ships, and so they were caught completely by surprise when three new ships jumped in right above the others, the destroyers Rapid Depreciation, Asset Liquidation, and Maximum Deductions.
"Your mere tax collectors have capital ships?" Rit!tkatp asked incredulously. Roy wasn't sure if the gangster had forgotten the Chameleons were still on the line or if he just didn't care at this point, but with glee he replied "Well, your mere civilian 'casino owners' have capital ships, so fair's fair."
The carriers were ordered to the station's defense next without even giving them time to collect all their fighters, as were the few smaller stations capable of independent movement. As soon as they were out of range of the main station's protection, though, they were ambushed by yet more ships jumping in. These ships, three frigates and five cruisers, were large enough that both Humans and T!ka!irtk could see that they weren't plain gray at all; they were actually white with thousands of tiny black boxes and tiny black text criss-crossing their hulls. Of course, thought Roy, forms and spreadsheets. Should've known.
The frigates Thorough Audit, Double Entry, and Mandatory Compliance made short work of the carriers without their drone screens to protect them, and the cruisers Let's Get Fiscal, Weighed in the Balance Sheets, Nine-Tenths of the Law, Accrual Intentions, and I've Got 1099 Problems made short work of the defense stations, both mobile and immobile.
Roy didn't know exactly what a crazed T!ka!irtk looked like right before it decided to do something incredibly reckless, but whatever expression was on Rit!tkatp's face probably qualified. The main station began firing every last weapon in the IRS fleet's direction to prevent them from approaching as its long-dormant engines slowly came to life and began propelling it far enough away from the other ships to make a jump; a few foolhardy civilian ships darted out of various hangars and began angling for jump vectors so as not to end up who-knows-where in the hands of an angry mob boss, but most decided that they'd rather not risk entering the crossfire of a major fleet engagement, thank you very much.
He may have lost his fleet, many of his henchbeings, and his untouchable status, but the alien might still escape to fight another day. Roy could hear Charlie swearing up a storm over the comms at the prospect, and he felt the same way, but they were powerless to do anything about it. The Chameleons were still close enough to the station that it had but to pivot a single gun away from bombarding the other fleet to turn them to ash, so all they could do was float there and watch it inch away to freedom.
Until, that is, one last ship jumped its way into the system right in the fleeing station's path, arriving with enough force that Roy swore he could feel the gravity waves rippling through Chameleon Two. It was a dreadnought, and the writing on its bow proudly proclaimed it to be the IRS 3949-A
On screen, Rit!tkatp stared at the dreadnought for a long moment, then drooped like a wilting leaf, all of his plates opening wide in a sign of submission. The station's guns fell silent and its engines spun down before they'd even had a chance to reach full power. Roy almost felt sorry for the bastard.
Almost.
As the dreadnought and cruisers sent out boarding shuttles and his crew started talking excitedly about sending the battle recordings to everyone they know, Roy put on a mock conciliatory tone. "Hey, buddy, don't worry." The soon-to-be-ex-gangster looked up at him with his right eyes. "Sure, you might have been involved in wire fraud, embezzlement, smuggling, theft, grand theft, bribery, robbery, burglary, murder, assassination, illegal gambling, illegal prostitution, drug running, and who knows what else on top of the major tax fraud, but at least you avoided one thing."
He leaned forward and lowered his voice, and Rit!tkatp leaned in as well.
"Count yourself lucky that you never, ever committed mail fraud, because US postal inspectors...well, those fuckers don't mess around."
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