Сборники Художественной, Технической, Справочной, Английской, Нормативной, Исторической, и др. литературы.

HAMMER TIME: DAYS OF THUNDER NO OFFENSE TAKEN by Martin "PCHammer" Rose with Chris "Mako" Meadows

[This is the story that -should- have preceded "A Time To Be Born" ...
actually, this one and several others.  :)  But the order in which they're
finished just can't be helped...]

      Thunder Force log, Standard date September 16th, 2288.  As
      the de facto leader (that means nobody else wants the
      position) of this little band of Wedge Defense Force
      survivors, I've decided to begin keeping a record of our
      work, for whomever may care to see what we've done.  Who
      knows, maybe someday we'll be able to look back and think of
      these as the Good Old Days.  I doubt it, though.

      As I record this, we've just completed our first successful
      task -- the liberation of the Bodacious Vee star system from
      a malicious corporate takeover attempt, and the defeat of
      three warships designed to assist that purpose.  We were
      aided in no small amount by the Sisters of Sol Bianca, a
      small band of brave young women who just happen to be the
      owners of one of the most powerful ships known.  Though they
      were branded as pirates and outlaws before, they are now
      recognized as heroes.

      It does a heart good to see justice done ... especially
      after the incredible injustices we've faced.

                       Wrong Side of the Ocean
                         in association with
                   Smalltime Writers, International
                   a tale of Undocumented Features

                       H A M M E R   T I M E :

                    D A Y S   O F   T H U N D E R

                           NO OFFENSE TAKEN

                      by Martin "PCHammer" Rose
                      with Chris "Mako" Meadows

  "And as I try to make my way to the ordinary world, I will learn to
survive..."  The song faded out, and Chris reached forward and thumbed
the player off.  From what he'd read in the Guide, Funkotron was
anything BUT an ordinary world.
  "Now arriving in the vicinity of Planet Funkotron," Katie Tanner
announced.  "I'm getting an incoming transmission over subspace comm."  
Chris opened his mouth.  "And if you say 'on-screen,' I'll eject you, I
swear I will."
  "Wouldn't think of it.  Put it up."
  The starboard comm screen lit up with a metal visage.  Blaster!  
"Hey, Mako!  Long time no see!"
  Katie popped up on the port monitor.  "Blaster, nice to see you."
  "Hey, it's _especially_ nice t'see _you_," Blaster replied with no
small enthusiasm.
  "Don't leer," Chris coached.  "It doesn't become you."
  Katie's answer was a bit more direct.  "You blasted piece of home
electronics, I'm gonna--"
  "Drop it, Katie," Chris sighed.  "Blaster, we're on our way in.  ETA
is Very Soon."
  "Yeah, I noticed.  Hammer's planetside right now, but he'll be up
soon enough.  Bring'er in t'th'main launch bay."
  "I'm quite capable of bringing myself in, thank you very much," Katie
replied indignantly.
  "Katie, shut up.  Roger, wilco, Blaster.  See you there."
  "I'll be waitin'."  One of his optics blinked off and back on in a
sort of a Cybertronian wink, and his image vanished.
  "Oooooo, he makes me FURIOUS," Katie seethed.
  Chris snickered.  "I think it's kind'a cute."
  "Oh, yeah?  How would you like to be in my shoes and have Arcee
making a pass at you?"
  Chris shrugged.  "I'd go for it.  I'm always open to fascinating new
  "I wanna new pilot!"

  Hammer's Batwing was in the launch bay with the engines still hot,
and he and Blaster were waiting to welcome Chris back.  Katie landed in
Gerwalk mode and let Chris climb out before switching to full Battloid.
  Blaster stepped forward, arms open.  "Hey, Katie!"
  "Come within twenty meters of me and die horribly."  She waved her
immense particle-beam rifle for emphasis.
  "For you, babe, it just might be worth th'risk," Blaster grinned.
  "Children, children, how many times do I have to TELL you?" Martin
interrupted.  "NOT, IN, the HOUSE."
  "Sorry, Hammer," Blaster and Katie said in unison.
  Martin smirked.  "That's better.  I'll call the others in for a
  "In here?" Chris asked.  "The launch bay?"
  "Why not?  It's the easiest way to accommodate those of us who happen
to be over 40 feet tall," Martin replied.  He stepped up to a wall
intercom, tapping its activation switch.  "Attention, all hands --
though I suppose I'd rather have the ears listening -- this is your
ersatz Captain speaking.  It's conference time again, and we're meeting
in the main launch bay.  Dani, be a dear and stop by the mess on your
way down for some munchies, and Eiko, could you help me bring a few
couches from the lounge?  Thanks."
  Chris grinned.  Same old Hammer...

  When they were all gathered together -- the humans sitting on some
borrowed sofas and the Transformers on a couple heavy-duty storage cases
-- Martin formally (well, as close to formal as they came) opened the
discussion.  "Okay, so how'd it go?"
  Chris sighed.  "Ever feel like you were in a Road movie to Berlin?"
  "Can't drive out the way you drove in?"
  "So sneak out this glass of bourbon, and we'll go, already," Nadia
  Martin gave her a sidelong glance in reply, returning his attention
to Chris.  "You speak in riddles, young weed-hopper."
  "That's bad?"
  "I never said that.  But I take it things could be better."
  "Yes, they could, now that you mention it.  I hadn't even reached 3WA
headquarters on Meizuri, just ridin' my Cyke, minding my own business,
when I got jumped by a little group of local motor-mutts."
  "Biker trash.  How quaint."
  "Heavily-armed biker trash.  These goons had military-level weaponry,
and no compunctions about using it."
  Martin looked slightly surprised.  "I take it they weren't too much
trouble, since you made it back here."
  "No," Katie cut in.  "The trouble came later."
  Chris nodded.  "I made it to the 3WA, and got to talk to Yuri.  She's
... not taking this whole situation very well."
  Martin sighed sadly.  Even before he'd met her, he'd always been
partial toward Yuri.  Perhaps it was her fragile beauty, perhaps her
subdued demeanor; whatever the case, hearing that she was still out of
sorts was depressing news.  "I see.  And Kei?"
  "Not around.  Yuri said she was out hunting Gryphon."
  "Oh, happy happy.  Just what the galaxy needs -- a hotheaded Detian
with a vendetta."
  "Anyway, she told me a little of what's been going on while we were
all busy licking our wounds.  Apparently, now that the WDF's dissolved
and our people are scattered all over the place, everyone who's ever had
an ax to grind against us is using us for target practice.  We've got
unsettled scores, old vendettas, bounty-hunters and thrill-seekers
coming out of the walls."
  Eiko slumped in her seat next to Martin.  If she'd known it was going
to come to this, she would've told Largo to take a long walk off a short
pier, all those years ago.  (Not that it would have mattered -- he would
have just found another sucker, and left her alone on a planet full of
corpses.)  If nothing else, the man was definitely teaching her the true
meaning of hatred.
  "But what about our allies?" Noriko queried, beginning a short list
on her fingers.  "The United Galactica, the Salusian Empire, the 3WA--"
  "Everyone else has their hands full," Chris said, breaking her off,
"doing the jobs we've been doing for so long.  And as if that wasn't
enough by itself, just about every enemy the UG has is just about
pouncing en masse.  They're all stretched to their limits; they can't
even keep peace on the streets effectively anymore."
  "Let alone help us," Martin added.  "Life as a Wedge Rat has just
turned Bad."
  Could be worse, Dund signed with a shrug.
  Martin raised an eyebrow at him.  "How?"
  He thought for a moment.  No idea, he replied.  But something'll come
to me.
  "I'm not gonna TOUCH that line."
  Chris cleared his throat.
  "Oh, I'm sorry.  I suppose you were about to tell us about your
  "Well, not in any great detail.  I was just putting on my CVR outside
3WA HQ when I got jumped by a bunch'a goons."
  Danilia sat forward, eyes wide with surprise.  "Right outside?"
  He nodded.  "Right on their doorstep."
  "Lucky for him," Katie broke in, "he was talking to me when he got
brained.  Otherwise, I doubt I could've caught up with his captors soon
  Martin smiled at the Valkyrie.  "Well met, Kate."
  She responded with a V-for-Victory sign.  "Hey, he's practically
helpless without me."
  "Am not," Chris defended.
  "Are too."
  "Am not."
  "Are too."
  "Am not."
  "Are too."
  "Dee too," Martin completed.
  Nadia stretched her long limbs.  "Well, that was unnecessary."
  "And how," Hanson concurred.
  "It's still difficult to believe," Tom said, restoring the former
train of thought, "that the Wedge Defense Force is being thrown to the
Four Winds."
  "Has been thrown, Tom," Martin corrected.  "If anyone were to have
attempted to revive it, it would have been Lord Fahrvergnugen, and he's
ancient history, bordering on mythology."
  Eiko looked at him worriedly.  Was that a hint of resentment in his
  "Guess it's true, then," Blaster said with uncharacteristic gravity.  
"We really are all that's left."
  For a while, the only sound in the bay was the whisper of Katie's
  "Alone, against the galaxy," Noriko observed quietly.  "With nothing
to carry us but the hope that -- someday -- it will all begin anew."
  "Very profound, Skipper," Korren nodded.  "Romantic, in a tragic sort
of way."
  Martin sighed, slumping forward to dump his chin into his hand,
leaning his elbow on his knee.  "So, I take it everyone would just as
soon knuckle under."
  Nine pairs of eyes and two sets of optic sensors peered at him as if
to visually fit him for a straight-jacket.
  He smirked.  "Didn't think so."
  "Well," Chris opined, "having determined that we're not throwing in
the towel, where do we go from here?"
  Martin slowly rose to his feet and walked over to him.  "If you must
know, I think that we've recently established ourselves as a moderately
independent group.  Here, take a look."  He handed Chris one of his
business cards.
  Mako looked it over, with Temper peering over his shoulder.  They
looked back toward him after a moment of disbelief; Chris's face bore a
look of slight distaste.  "'Thunder Force'?"
  "We'd hardly sound formidable if we went by the name 'Clay Pigeons',
now, would we?"
  He looked back to the card.  "Okay, I can see that.  Still..."
  "Oh, park it, Chris," Katie chided from behind him.  "I think it
sounds cool."
  "You two're welcome to join, of course."
  Chris flipped the card over, considering the insignia on the back.  
He hummed a long, thoughtful note.  "I dunno ... we'll have to think
about it."
  Martin shrugged.  "Think all you want.  Talk it over with Kate, too.  
We'll be doing the concert tomorrow, and leaving the system the day
after; by then, if you'll be joining us or just want a ride somewhere,
let me know."  He turned and took a couple paces away.  "For now,
though, you can just hang out while we practice.  Unless you'd rather do
a field trip for a half-a-day or so.  It's a decent planet; highly
musical.  You'd like it, Chris."
  Mako nodded.  "I may just do that.  Do they have Valkyrie-size
  "Take it from me," Blaster chimed in.  "I've been lots'a places,
'n'this one's the best non-cyber world for folks our size I've ever been
to.  These people like just about everybody."
  Chris smiled at the mechanoid.  "That'll be a refreshing change."
  "I'll second that," Katie added.  "Any points of interest?"
  "Well," Blaster grinned, "there's the Coolsville Wash'n'Wax..."
  She hung her head.  "Why do I bother?"
  "I prefer to hand-wash," Chris replied.  He snarfed mightily the
moment he realized that he had, indeed, actually said that.
  "Don't encourage him, Chris," Temper grated.  Of course, everyone
else was just about rolling with laughter by now.
  "Okay, okay," Martin said at last, "that's enough.  Kate, you're
going with Chris, right?"
  "I'll probably regret it, but yes."  Chris tried to look hurt in
response, but failed miserably.
  "Nadia, Hanson ... watch practice, or go with them?"
  The Davions looked at each other, nodded, and looked back at him.  
"We'll go with them," Nadia said.
  "We've been too busy working on the ship to actually tour around down
below," Hanson elaborated.
  "Good deal.  You can take one of the other Valks or a shuttle.  
Korren, how about it?"
  Korren nodded his head toward Chris.  "I'll help with the vacation,
  "Better make it a shuttle, then.  Blaster?"
  The immense Autobot looked slightly surprised at his relatively
diminutive comrade.  "Y'don't need me t'run th'sound board?"
  "Not for a rehearsal.  Murdock's capable of running it himself, if
you'd rather spend a little quality time with our prodigals.  Of course,
we'll need you for the concert, since none of the Team are ACIs."
  Blaster looked over at Katie, who tried to shoot icicles at him
through her expressionless optic visor.  "Suits me fine," he said with a
smile.  "I'll help'em get introduced."
  "Spiffy."  He turned to the last non-band member, and Eiko couldn't
help but notice that his voice softened considerably as he spoke.  
"Riko?  How about it?"
  The little brunette met his gaze evenly, with just a hint of a smile.  
"I'd rather stay ... with you."
  I'm sure you would, Eiko thought darkly.
  Martin nodded to her, then snapped his fingers.  "Oh!  Almost
forgot."  He sprinted over to the Batwing, hopped up to stand beside the
fuselage, and tapped at a point on its side.  "Open cargo hatch beta,"
he announced, and a long, rectangular piece of the astrofighter's armor,
centered roughly around where he'd tapped, moved outward, then slid
down.  Martin reached into the cavity behind it, producing an enormous
carrying case, slightly longer than Eiko was tall.
  "Close cargo hatch beta," he called over his shoulder, walking back
toward the group as the ship's armor reassembled itself.  "Here you go,
Dund.  This is why I was planetside in the first place."
  The enormous mute accepted Hammer's payload eagerly.  He laid the
case on the ground, opened the fasteners, swung the lid up, and
reverently lifted out its contents -- a largeish object resembling an
oddly-shaped tabletop attached to a long, fretted plank, polished to a
reflective smoothness and with strings down its length -- with a very
satisfied look on his face.
  It was, in truth, the biggest, baddest bass guitar you'll ever want
to see.
  "Oh, WOW!" Danilia squealed.  "It's so COOL!"
  Dund wielded the guitar with an authority never before seen in a bass
player.  The phrase "shit-eating" didn't even come close to doing
justice to the size of his grin.
  "You're welcome," Martin stated smugly.  Catching Chris and Kate's
awed stares, he noted, "We lost our old instruments when the Son went
down, so we finally got some replacements.  Dund's bass here was a
special-order we got from a terrific music shop down yonder, run by a
guy named Peabo.  Y'might wanna check the place out."  He received numb
nodding as his reply.
  Time to kick ass and take names, Dund signed.
  "I couldn't agree more.  All right, Pigeons -- let's get dangerous."  
Martin strode from the bay with the rest of the Clay Pigeons close
behind.  Noriko followed at a discreet distance; Eiko's glares hadn't
gone unnoticed.

  The Constellation flew in a close formation with the Righteous
Indignation's shuttle.  Only Mako was aboard the fighter, but he most
assuredly wasn't alone.
  "I can't believe that cybernetic busybody tagged along!" Katie fumed,
finally able to speak one-to-one with Chris.  Her blond image on the
nav/comm screen was positively livid.  "I don't get a moment's peace
when he's around!  What does he think I am, some kind of baby?"
  "Cut him some slack, Kate," Chris sighed.  "He's concerned, like the
rest of us.  He's just trying to help."
  "Help, my iron ass!  I don't see how having to constantly snub some
lovelorn stereo is supposed to help anything!"
  Chris smiled at her.  "Okay, so maybe he's trying to help himself
while he's at it.  If I were a robot, I suppose I'd find you rather
attractive, too."
  She blinked at him, then rolled her eyes.  "Oh, great ... he's
contagious.  Next you'll start making jokes about male and female
interface plugs."
  Chris unsuccessfully tried to suppress a very loud snarf.
  "One more word from you and you'll be landing without a plane,
  "Sorry," Chris managed between stifled chuckles.
  "You'd better be."

  "A little lower.  To the right ... there, perfect."
  "Cables incoming!"
  "Test.  One, two.  Test."
  "Where'd my pedals get to?"
  "Ladies and gentlemen, I'm proud to announce legislation outlawing
the Soviet Union.  The bombing begins in five minutes."
  "Enough with the testing already!  We hear you!"
  The Pigeons were setting up their instruments in the studio Nadia and
Danilia had set up during the later phases of rebuilding the Righteous
Indignation.  It looked like any one of thousands of recording studios
throughout the Quadrant, if somewhat larger than most.
  Martin looked around the room with a sigh.  At their peak, the Clay
Pigeons had several more members than Yes did when they were recording
their album, "Union".  With a little more effort, he'd once thought,
they could actually be an orchestra.  (Well, a chamber orchestra,
anyway.)  Now, thanks to The End of the World as They Knew It (and They
Didn't Feel Fine), they were a classic five-member band -- two guitars,
keys, bass and drums.
  Dani herself was enlisting Dund's help in assembling her newly-
acquired percussion suite.  All told, the entire contraption was easily
twice as tall as she, in its store display.  When Martin had asked her
how she expected to play it, her only reply was a smile, a wink, and a
light giggle.  This, translated into Standard, meant something
approximating "I know what I'm doing, so trust me, okay?"
  As Martin rechecked the connections between his keyboards, tone
generators, and several other controllers, Tom and Eiko were already
starting a mini-jam session of their own, with Tom wailing a complex
melody as Eiko belted out a chorded power rhythm.  Noriko stood quietly
within the sound stage itself, leaving the control room vacant, leaning
against a wall with her arms folded under her chest as her eyes
attentively followed the activity.
  Dund and Dani soon completed their task, and joined the jam.  Dund's
thundering bass was a welcome complement to Eiko's chording, and
immediately confirmed his choice of instruments; it was definitely the
best-sounding bass guitar he'd ever owned.  Dani entered the fray, too,
and Martin laughed as he discovered her solution to the problem -- she'd
had the drums arranged in a hemisphere around herself, with cymbals
almost completely behind, and she stood-sat on a small, padded seat that
nearly prevented her feet from touching the kick pedals.  She beat out a
strong, regular rhythm, and Eiko shifted gears to accompany Tom.
  "I think that might be too fatiguing for a concert-length
performance, Dani."
  "Nah, I'm fine."  She produced a quick Rush-esque riff to emphasize
her point.
  "We'll see.  Murdock?"
  An image of a slightly-crazed-looking man with a baseball cap trying
to cover a head of hair that definitely needed trimming appeared on a
wall monitor.  What could be seen of his shoulders appeared to be
wearing a leather flight jacket.  "Ee-yo, boss!"
  "Everything ship-shape where you are?"
  "Clear as a bell, an' just as dingy."  He spoke with a very slight
Southern United States accent.
  "Good deal."  With that, Martin threw himself into the fray, assuming
a harmony that linked Eiko's accompaniment with Dund's bassline, and, in
that peculiar fashion they'd worked out over the years, directing the
flow of the music from the background.  Noriko smiled as she watched him
play, her foot tapping gently with the rhythm.  She hadn't seen him
perform since they'd parted ways in 2026, and the fact that he still did
was something she found very reassuring.
  Martin took them through several instrumentals and game themes
without so much as a pause in between.  He thought of it as more of a
testament to their ability than to his leadership, since, most of the
time, he never really felt he was in control.  Still, though he denied
it, his was the hand that guided them.  They charged into an extended
version of one of the Stardust Speedway themes from "Sonic CD", finally
starting to feel better about themselves, their lives, and the Universe
as a whole.
  No one noticed Noriko, standing alone with her eyes closed, her whole
body noticeably moving with the beat as she slowly surrendered herself
to the music.  She loved to dance, but after what had happened, what
she'd been through, she thought she'd never be able to dance again...
  The band transitioned once more, working toward a rapid, furious
crescendo.  Their instruments tensed and screamed.  Then, abruptly, they
all stopped, leaving Tom's sole guitar as the only sound in the studio
as he belted out the near-legendary intro to the Dire Straits' "Money
for Nothing".
  When the others joined in, Noriko couldn't hold herself back any
longer.  She pushed away from the wall and went into motion, her legs
and arms tracing graceful, intricate patterns all about her, painting a
hundred images at once on a canvas of thin air.  Her eyes were open, but
she was unaware that she'd rapidly garnered the attention of everyone in
the room, who continued to play as they watched her move, almost in a
state of awe.  Martin, who'd found himself rediscovering precisely how
beautiful she was, nearly missed the first verse, and his brain
defaulted to the Weird Al lyrics before he could stop himself.

    Now lookie here, people, listen to my story
    A little story 'bout a man named Jed
    You know sum'n'?  That poor mountaineer
    They say he barely kept his fam'ly fed
    Now lemme tell ya, one day he was shootin'
    Oh yeah'e was shootin' at some food
    When all of a sudden, right up from the ground, there
    Well, there came a-bubblin' crude
    Oh, that is what maybe you call it
    "black gold" or "Texas tea"
    He gonna move next to Mr. Drysdale
    An' be a Beverly Hillbilly...

  Noriko's impromptu dance routine had moved out onto the floor, and
she was everywhere, a gorgeous blur of barely-controlled, passionate
movement.  The music was her mind and soul, and her body whirled,
kicked, twisted and flew eagerly to meet its demands.  She was only
aware of the band in a cursory fashion, as moving obstacles with which
to avoid colliding.  (Except for one person, that is, and he bloody well
knew who he was.)
  "It's high noon on _my_ sundial," a voice in his head prodded.  He
mentally beat it to a pulp as he continued with the song.

    Before ya know it, all the kinfolk are a-sayin'
    Yeah, buddy, move away from there
    That little Clampett got'is own see-ment pond
    That little Clampett, he's a millionaire
    Now everyone says Californie
    Is the place that you ought'a be
    We gonna load up this ol' truck, now
    We gonna move to Beverly!  (Hills, that is)
         Swimmin' pools
         Move-a move-a movie stars
         Huh.  Lookithat!  Lookithat!

  Where the song would have faded out, however, they kept on playing,
and Noriko kept on moving.  She was covered with a fine, glistening
layer of perspiration; sweat flew from her shoulder-length hair whenever
she spun or snapped her head to one side.
  With every whirl, with every kick, she sent another of the demons
that clung to her flying, shrugging off the terrors that weighed her
down by day and haunted her by night.  The barely-concealed morass of
bitter emotion and fear that had enveloped her spirit was almost
tangibly flaking away.  It was as if her body actually became lighter,
and she moved all the more intensely in response.  She wasn't just
responding to music anymore, but speaking through her movements, telling
of her dreams, her nightmares, her fears and fantasies.  She danced more
eloquently than any author had ever written.
  For the first time in far too long, she felt so alive, and she wanted
to share every part of that life, every part of her being...
  After stretching the song for another five minutes, they brought it
to a rapid, hard coda -- not a slow-down-and-stop or a repeat-and-fade,
but a POW!-that's-it finale.
  Noriko froze just as quickly and stood almost perfectly still, save
for the labored heaving of her chest as she gasped to regain her breath,
working to calm her autonomic system down as the adrenaline rush wore
off.  After an eternity of silence, she opened her eyes.  She could feel
a presence to her right, and a pair of eyes boring into her.  She turned
her head to see.
  Eiko stood no more than a meter from her, still wearing her guitar.  
Its body was the same flaming crimson as her hair.
  The two silently locked stares.
  "Okay ... so, the instruments work," Martin warbled in a feeble
attempt to relieve the tension that had abruptly filled the studio.  
"This is good, okay?  How'd it sound to you, Murdock?"
  "Don't know about him, but it sounded great to me."  The image on the
screen was of an older-looking man with a full head of gray hair.  He
removed a cigar from his mouth to speak.
  "Oh, hi, Hannibal.  Decided to peep on us, I see."
  "Yeahp.  It was worth the time, too.  You gonna find some way to work
her into the act?"
  "I'm not sure."  Martin glanced back at Noriko, who was still engaged
in a staredown with Eiko.  "I've never really thought about adding
choreography to our stage act.  We're a band, not a ballet."
  "You may want to consider it.  She'd make quite an addition."
  Martin shrugged.  "I suppose ... it'd sure boost our fanboy
potential, I'll guarantee that much.  Still, what I know about it could
probably fit into a VIC-20."  Hannibal made a distasteful scowl and
  Turning away from the monitor, Martin addressed the rest of the
group.  "Okay, folks, let's take five or so.  I think we've pretty much
proven that we can still use these things.  After the break, we'll hash
out a playbill."  The group filed out, exchanging nervous glances with
each other and allowing a wide berth around Eiko and Noriko, who
remained motionless.
  After the room had been vacated by all but the three of them, Eiko
walked slowly, cautiously, around Noriko.  Their gazes remained locked,
and Noriko turned slowly, tracking Eiko's movement as she removed her
guitar, placed it on its stand, and started toward the door.  The
redhead ran a hand meaningfully down Martin's arm as she passed him,
giving his fingers a squeeze, which he returned, before walking from the
  Martin's gaze went from the exiting Eiko to the motionless Noriko.  
After Eiko's footsteps had faded, he turned back toward the door and
started walking.  He was four paces from it when he heard the sharp
staccato of rapid footfalls behind him.  When he was at the threshold,
Noriko collided with him from behind, throwing her arms around his waist
and pulling herself tight against him, her hands clawing to grasp his
violet jumpsuit.
  He stopped.  After a moment's hesitation, he put his hands on her
bare arms, gently massaging the backs of her hands.  He felt her relax,
heard her sigh; his mind's eye could almost see her smile.  She soon
released him, dragging her hands around him and down as she pulled them
back, and he left at a brisk walk.
  She never did see the pained look on his face.

  Somewhere within the metal shell which was now her body, Katie
smiled.  She'd nearly forgotten what it meant to have fun, and, loath
though she was to admit it, she had Blaster to thank for this.  He may
act like a drooling weenie at times, but he could be incredibly
thoughtful when he had to.
  He'd been dead-on about one thing, that was for sure; Funkotronians
were very open, and even friendly, toward cybernetic folk.  There were
only a couple places the group had been that day where she and Blaster
had to wait outside due to a human-sized entrance.  She'd actually asked
a few shopkeepers why they had forty-foot-tall doorways, and received
congenial smiles and explanations about high ceilings being In this year
as responses, which struck her as just making an excuse for the sake of
convenience.  Whatever the reason, it certainly beat being left back at
the spaceport, and she was happy to actually get to do the Tourist Thing
with Chris and the others.
  Of course, there were still a few things that were denied her in her
present form.  Shopping for clothes was just such a thing.  Oh, she
could tag along, and she could give advice and make comments, but it
just wasn't the same when everything on the rack was three hundred sizes
too small.
  Noticing her downcast tone of voice, Blaster had excused the two of
them and taken her to another shop which offered a slight variant on the
concept.  She gave him the impression of begrudgingly agreeing, at
first, for the sake of finding some way to make her look less like a WDF
plane.  By now, however, she was really getting into it.
  "Here, Blaster," she said, pointing to an on-screen image of a
Valkyrie colored white with wide black edging and regular stripes, "how
do you think this one would look on me?"
  The mechanoid rubbed his chin thoughtfully.  "I d'know, Temp."  He'd
already taken to giving her callsign a rather severe abbreviation.  
"That doesn't look much diff'rent than what'cher wearin' now."
  "Well, I like the basic white-with-edging motif.  It gives me that
Valiant Crusader look, y'know?"
  Blaster smiled.  "But y'aren't a Crusader; you're a custom Super."
  Kate bobbed her head back and forth as she replied, "Well, Ha, Ha.  
You're a real cut-up, Blaster."
  "Hey, I try.  But seriously, those lines're definitely Not You."
  She considered the image again.  "You could be right.  Maybe I need
something with a little more color."
  Blaster paged forward in the catalog.  "How 'bout this one?"
  Katie made a gagging noise.  "Paisley?!  Yeah, over my deactivated
remains.  And that wretched tie-dye pattern is out of the question, too,
so don't even THINK about it."
  Blaster shook his head.  "Some people just never get hip."
  "Yeah, and some people actually think Nehru jackets look good."
  "Ouch.  Touche, Temper."
  Satisfied that she'd made her point, Katie flipped through several
more patterns, pausing to laugh at the one that had "Baby On Board"
signs painted both on the sides of the fuselage (in fighter and Gerwalk
modes) and across the chest (in Battloid mode).
  "Saaaaaaaaay."  She stopped abruptly.  "I do believe I've found the
very thing."
  The Cybertronian smiled at the image on-screen.  "Y'got that right.  
This one's a genuine head-turner."
  Katie nodded, touching the "Order" button to confirm her selection.  
"This should surprise Chris quite a bit," she said with more than just a
hint of satisfaction.  "See you in a few."  She followed a small line of
clerks who guided her into one of their refinishing salons.
  Blaster's gaze followed her as she went through the large, swinging
door.  She's really come a long way, he noted with no small
satisfaction.  I think she really is learning to enjoy this.
  A low mutter from out in the street caught his attention.  He
couldn't quite make out the words, but the tone of the voices he heard
told him he ought to.  Transforming to boom-box mode, he readily
amplified the conversation and filtered out most other sounds.
  < alive.>>  The voices were clearly those of offworlders; the speech
patterns weren't sufficiently jargon-rich for them to be natives.
  < barely worth my time.>>
  < the Decepticon bounty, plus another bonus 'cause some science types want
to open him up to see how he works.  Here's the sum.>>
  There was an appreciative whistle.  < they want bad?>>
  < their heads.>>
  < triple.  Oh, and they also pay double or better for anyone who was on
the Indignation.  Guess they have cat connections.>>
  Blaster returned to his bipedal form, startling a sales clerk who'd
wandered curiously over to him.  He'd heard more than enough.  As soon
as Katie was done, they'd go collect the others and get back to the
  At least he knew two of them wouldn't be surprised.

  The entire group listened to Blaster's playback in stunned silence.  
  Chris shook his head sadly.  Funkotron was everything he'd been told,
and then some; he was really enjoying his time there when Blaster and
Katie told them to return.  He didn't even get the opportunity to ask
Kate about her "makeover", a rather astonishing new paint job which
decked her, stem to stern, in white-and-black zebra stripes with no sign
of WDF markings or insigniae -- just her registration number.
  After the playback concluded, Martin remained in his Thinker pose for
another minute as, one by one, the group turned to him.
  "It would appear," Tom opened, "that our good fortune has reached its
terminus."  Dund made a gesture whose translation will not be repeated.
  "We should call off the show," Noriko stated firmly.
  "No, we shouldn't."  Eiko folded her arms indignantly over her chest.  
"We made a promise; we should keep it."
  Noriko glared at her.  "We can't risk our lives for the sake of a
  Eiko glared back.  "We also can't go running scared every time we
think we're threatened!"
  "This isn't just a theory!  You heard the tape!"
  "Well, I never said we should just sit around and wait for'em to take
potshots at us!"  Eiko smacked her fist into her opposing palm.  "I say
we show these bastards what it means to cross us!"
  "Right," Martin muttered at last.  "And how do we find'em?  We only
know what they sound like."
  The redhead made a confident, dismissive gesture.  "Can't be too hard
to find an offworlder or two down there."
  "Well, you're right," Dani replied, "but not the way you think.  
There're lots of people down there from other star systems.  The
planet's a pretty major tourism center."
  Nadia nodded agreement.  "I'd almost say I saw more offworlders today
than natives."
  Hanson looked at her curiously.  "How could you tell?"
  She smiled back at him.  "Simple.  Non-natives are better dressers."
  He blinked, looking genuinely surprised.  "Really?  I didn't notice."
  She patted his arm.  "I know, dear.  I know."
  "Declaring a manhunt in a foreign land without asking first is poor
manners," Martin said, attempting to get them back on track.  "There's
no way we could find these guys before showtime."
  Noriko smiled confidently.  "So we cancel, right?"
  "Wrong."  Martin's eyes were closed, and he let his head slide down a
bit on his hand so that his fingers formed a sort of cage over his right
eye.  He drummed his fingertips on his forehead; Dund could tell he was
still turning something over in his mind.
  Noriko looked confused.  "But if we're not going to cancel..."
  Eiko was equally perplexed.  "...and we're not gonna fight..."
  "We're going to play."  Martin stood, rising to his full height.  
"Tomorrow, the Clay Pigeons will be live, in concert, at the Grand Ole
Funky.  Exactly as we promised."  He paused for effect, a wholly
unnecessary step in this audience, and curled a sly smirk.
  "With some slight additions to the program."

  "Yo, pull it in over there, check it ... way, bitchin'!  'Kay, now
smile 'n' say 'Duuuuuuuude!'"
  "Duuuuuuude!"  As the entire group broke down laughing, the shutter
  "Excellent!"  The young man grinned, returning the camera to Noriko's
  She smiled and nodded to him, gingerly accepting the camera.  "Thanks
for the help, Theo."
  "'Tai'no thang."  He was just one of the local folks who'd
volunteered to be a stage hand for the Clay Pigeons concert.  He hadn't
thought that taking a group photo would be part of the job, but, for
some reason, they didn't seem to want the little blond girl with the
horns to take it.  So when they asked him to help, he naturally agreed,
under the condition that he get a print of the end product.  For now,
though, there was still a lot of set-up to take care of, and he returned
to it.
  Chris looked up at Katie.  "You know, you never did tell me about
this new paint job of yours."
  She proceeded to vogue for him, the mere sight of which forced him to
chuckle.  "You like?"
  "Depends on how you define 'like'."
  "Like shut up, Chris," she q'ed good-naturedly.
  He chuckled.  "No, but seriously.  I think it looks good on you."
  "I'll second that," Blaster smiled, approaching from a recently-
completed lifting task.  He, Martin and Eiko had been taking care of all
the heavy moving they'd needed so far.
  "You keep out of this, you rustbound Romeo."
  "Hey, I call'em like I see'em."
  "Yeah, and I think I see'em needing your help over thataway."  Katie
pointed a finger toward the control room.
  Blaster turned to look, and was slightly surprised to hear a faint
whisper over a secure WDF frequency.  "Chris and I need to discuss
something alone," Katie's voice told him.  "Thanks for everything."
  He turned back around with a smile.  "I do believe you're right,
Temp.  Seeya."  He spun on his heel and marched toward the far end of
the auditorium as he radioed a similarly private reply to Katie:  "No
problem, girl.  Anytime you wanna hand, just ask."
  Katie watched him go, glad, for a change, that her face held no
expression; her pride still refused to let her show any sign of
weakness.  Once he was out of sight, she bent down, laying a hand on the
ground near Chris, palm-up.
  Chris, for his part, climbed up onto her hand.  She lifted it
carefully until it was level with her shoulder, and he climbed off,
taking a seat next to her head as she seated herself on a sturdy crate.
  "I take it this means you want to talk," he said bluntly.
  She nodded.  "Have you made up your mind yet?"
  "Whether we're staying with Martin or not."
  Chris took a deep breath.  "I've been applying a lot of thought to
  "So you haven't really decided yet."
  "Not really."  He sighed.  "I was hoping to get your opinion."
  She was quiet for a moment.
  "I'm not sure.  On the one hand, I can see how we'd be a help; adding
two more good pilots to his team would be a plus, even if neither of us
plays an instrument."
  Chris nodded.  "But then I'd be flying another plane.  To optimize
our effectiveness in the field ... we couldn't be together."
  Kate looked as sullen as she could.  "I know.  If we always stuck
together, we'd add just one pilot and plane to the force."
  "And we'd always fight over who gets to actually fly the next
mission."  He laughed in spite of himself.  She laughed as well, but
quieted before he did.
  "Still, we'd be at a disadvantage," she said.
  "How so?"
  "Well..."  She hesitated.  "It's just that ... I think we'd be flying
paranoid, however we went about it."
  "Yeah ... you know, 'cause..."  Katie looked at the floor, shuffling
her feet nervously.  In her enormous frame, the unconscious gesture
almost seemed humorous.  "...we'd always be trying to, you know, keep
each other from getting hurt."
  Chris nodded somberly.  "You're right.  There's no way I could go as
hog-wild as I used to if I knew that every hit I took would hurt you."
  "Well, that, and you're rusty."
  "Am not."
  She looked directly at him.  "You may be able to fool some people,
Mako, but you can't fool your own fighter."
  Chris threw up his hands.  "Okay, okay, I'll admit I'm a little out
of practice."  He sighed.  "All the more reason not to put myself in the
line of fire."
  "You could work in the engine room."
  He shook his head.  "That'd never pan out."
  "Why not?  I know you're a great engineer."
  "Maybe so, but you _don't_ know how Nadia is with Her Engine."
  Katie looked at him for just a moment, then stifled a laugh.  "I
  "She's one of ... no, she's _the_ most meticulous person I've ever
met.  When we were still overhauling the engines, 'good enough' was
never good enough."
  "Going through a jury-rigging combat situation with her must be
  "I don't want to even think about it."
  They fell into silence.
  "Are we saying that we're actually tired of fighting?"
  He considered the thought.  "You know ... I think you're right."
  "I never, in all my life, thought I'd actually say that about
myself."  Katie shook her head slowly.  "I'm getting old already."
  "It could just be some latent shock over your big change."
  "That doesn't explain you, though."
  "True.  But I've never been that hot on the glorious fighter jock's
lifestyle, either."
  She sighed audibly.  It didn't have the same physical feeling of
release as it did when she had a human body, but it was the only way she
could think of to express herself at the time.
  "Where should we go, if we're not going to stick with them?"  Chris
was leaning against the side of her head.
  "I wish I knew.  I'd like to stay here ... the people are so friendly
... but we both know it's just not as safe as we'd like."
  Chris folded his arms.  Martin _had_ offered to take them anywhere
they wanted to go, which would save quite a bit of transit time, if they
could make up their minds before tomorrow.  He wondered about places
that would be reasonably safe.  UP?  No thanks, been there.  Salusia?  
Sure, that'd probably be almost as safe as Meizuri.  Earth?  Same
answer.  A dozen worlds passed through his mind, and they all gave the
same negative response to his internal query.
  Then, like a bolt from the blue, he realized he was literally sitting
on the answer.
  "Bwa?!"  His shout startled Katie, and she nearly tipped Chris off of
her shoulder as a result.
  "Whoa, hey, careful!"
  "Sorry."  She scooped a hand under his feet, giving him the platform
he needed to clamber back onto her shoulder.  "What were you saying?"
  "I just realized that Cybertron should be plenty safe.  The Autobots
have always allied themselves with the WDF; I'm sure they'd be glad to
help us out."
  Katie's smile, though missing from her face, was obvious in her
voice.  "Yeah!  I'd like to see any penny-ante bounty hunter try to take
us down when we're surrounded by Autobots!"
  "And plus," Chris added, "you'll be able to pal around with people
your own size."
  She nodded.  "Humans are fun, but it's hard to have a relationship
when you have to double over just to talk."  She turned to look at her
shoulder-mounted companion.  "Present company excepted."
  "Of course."  Chris smiled to her.  "So ... when do we tell him?"
  "After the concert."
  "Right.  And until then?"
  Katie rose to her feet.  "Until then, I think there are people here
who could use our help.  Let's give'em a hand, shall we?"
  Chris braced himself as she strode forward.  "Do I have a choice?"
  "Oh, don't be such a baby.  I'll only make you carry the lighter
  Lighter than what? was the only question Chris had in mind.

  Jared Selik strolled quietly, slightly slower than the crowd around
him.  His overcoat was closed against the slight chill that rushed
through Hipsville this night, covering a blue flannel button-down shirt
and gray denim slacks, and his midnight-blue baseball cap, bearing the
white Gothic-D emblem of the Terran Detroit Tigers, was pulled low over
his eyes.  Only his dark hair and moustache were visible to frame his
slightly drawn face.
  People around him would give him a glance, which he would answer with
a smile and a nod.  This would satisfy their curiosity, they would say
something friendly that he didn't understand in the least, and that
would be the end of it as they walked on.
  He knew what it was about him that drew their attention in the first
place.  His overcoat, a light brown hue and looking somewhat aged,
though not torn, sported a few unnatural-seeming bulges in places where
the wind would, on occasion, press it against him.  Combined with the
way he wore his cap close to his eyes, this gave him the appearance of
being some sort of assassin.  However, his smile and natural charm
radiated an air of harmlessness, which put that idea out of their minds
quite readily.  This was good, since he didn't want anyone to know their
suspicions were completely correct until his work was done.
  While he could easily speak in the coarse fashion which seemed to be
all the rage among low-class bounty hunters, as he had spoken earlier
that day to his informant, he considered himself to be somewhat above
that level.  He was just working his way upward, waiting for a break to
get into the big money and trying not to attract too much attention in
the meantime.  "You are destined for great things," he would tell
himself.  It was a mantra of sorts for him, a one-sentence litany he
used to keep himself aimed toward his ultimate goal.
  He stopped, turning to regard the star-filled expanse above him as
the crowd continued to flow past him; he was amazed that he could
actually see the stars, so near the border of the world's capitol city.  
One of the respects in which he considered himself superior to others in
his line of work was how he tried to keep himself informed about the
areas he operated in, not just knowing the relative tech level and maybe
a smattering of the local language to get by, but making a more thorough
study of the culture and history of the place.  He went well beyond the
"forewarned is forearmed" mentality, to the point where he could
identify no fewer than twenty pieces of irrelevant trivia for each
planet he'd worked on.  He also had an interest in astronomy, which is
why this particular planet's history had proven so fascinating to him.
  Funkotron's night sky was one of the many attractions the world had
to offer to its visitors and, indeed, its residents.  It had been over a
century ago when a stargazer, sometimes theorized to be under the
influence of a controlled substance (though tests taken at the time
insisted otherwise), claimed that the stars in the sky had formed an
uncanny image of Elvis Presley.  This vision bolstered what would
eventually become known as the Funky Revolution, which took the entire
star system through the most peaceful shift of power ever seen either
before or since, and from which the worlds in the system took their
names.  The constellation Preslius was soon afterward identified, logged
and made a national symbol, though no one ever determined why anyone
could think it actually resembled the King.
  Jared started on his way once more, noticing that his pause to
consider the stars above had prompted a few people in his vicinity to do
the same.  The Funkotroni were a silly folk, which caused many races to
believe them to be rather stupid.  He knew nothing could be further from
the truth; the very story of their independence, and of all their
dealings since, was a legacy of careful craft and adept planning covered
with a deceptive, yet sincere layer of silliness.  Oh, yes -- the people
here valued sincerity and honesty far above perception and opinion.
  Good thing that's not the case everywhere, he thought, or I'd likely
be out of a job.
  Up ahead, he could make out the lettering on the enormous marquee
advertising his objective.

                             YO! CHECK IT
                             CLAY PIGEONS
                        LIKE LIVE TONIGHT DUDE

  The Clay Pigeons.  Here's where his attention to trivia and history
paid off.  The Pigeons were a combination of rock band and fighter
squadron; not the only such entity in the Wedge Defense Force, to be
sure, but their comic style of performance generally made them stand out
from the others.  (Whether this was good or bad had long been a subject
of debate.)  One of the things that definitely stood out in his mind was
the fact that the group's organizer was none other than Martin
"PCHammer" Rose, the man Cybertronians knew as the Hero of '26 -- the
man who was rebuilt to be half human, half Transformer.
  Even 80% of the price Galvatron put on his head for that humiliating
defeat was nothing to sneeze at.  And this would be far safer than
trying to collect the reward directly from that robotic maniac.
  Though the entire band had been stationed on the Wayward Son, he was
sure there'd be crewfolk from the Righteous Indignation present at the
concert as well.  After all, that was the ship they'd had their big
battle with, just outside this planet's atmosphere, and it sure didn't
fly by itself to pick them up from where the Son crashed.
  Jared made a careful pass over the crowd, both at the ground level
and the balcony.  It wasn't hard to determine that there were no other
bounty-hunters present; when you happen to be one, they become quite
easy to spot.  Good.  No one to split the take with.
  He worked his way carefully through the floor-level gathering, moving
closer to the stage.  More smiles and nods, lots of gobbledygook from
the wildly-dressed natives and "hey there"s from visitors.  He
considered the wisdom of actually trying to make this hit in such a
dense crowd.  Of course, you nimnul, he chided.  The crowd makes for
great cover if you miss.  Never know when you'll need a hostage.
  Hel-lo, I'm in lust.
  His eyes were magnetically drawn to an extremely pretty girl down
near the pit.  She was small, in overall height, and around the waist,
and in no other way he could see.  Her reddish-brown hair was tied back
on one side of her head with a red ribbon, accentuating the youthful
look of her face in a way that her incredible body failed to do.  Her
concert tee-shirt, tight in all the right places, and daring cherry-red
shorts gave him a genuine eyeful.  He hoped she thought bounty-hunters
were cool.
  She caught his lingering stare out of the corner of her eye and
turned to look directly at him.  Their eyes met for a very long moment.
  "Hi!" she said, smiling brightly.
  "Hey, babe," he opened.
  The come-on seemed to pass directly through her to zero effect.  He
decided she must be immune.  "You're from offworld too, aren't you?"
  He nodded, shifting gears to a more subtle approach.  "Yeah."
  She turned toward him a bit more fully.  "Did you come to see the
  He grinned.  If only she knew.  "That I did."
  This seemed to resonate rather fully with her, and she hopped up to
him, brown eyes sparkling.  "Wow, me too!"
  Down, boy.  Try to remember why you're here.  "Imagine that."
  "Hey, we can watch the show together!  That'll be soooo cool!"  She
hooked herself around one of his overcoat-pocketed arms.  "I need a date
for tonight.  My boyfriend couldn't be here; he's busy."
  "For how long?"
  "He'll be busy aaaaaall night," she cooed, brushing up against his
arm and giving him a look that was anything but angelic.
  Scha-WING!  (Business before pleasure, Jared.)  Shut up, killjoy.  
(Stop whining.  Make this hit and she'll be just the beginning.)  Oh,
all right.  But she'll make good cover anyway.  (Now, you're cookin'.)
  He took the hand from his coat pocket and brought it around her back.  
"Well ... y'talked me into it."  She laughed with delight, pulling him
over to where she'd been standing before.
  He definitely didn't regret his decision now.  Not only did he have a
gorgeous companion for the duration, and maybe an excellent little piece
of cover should things go sour, but she took him directly into a prime
targeting position, being in the farthest-forward row before the
recessed mosh pit (a major fixture in the Grand Ole Funky, taking the
first ten rows' space), directly in front of a safety railing that kept
the more sedate audience from dropping onto the more dynamic.
  It was another forty-five minutes of waiting before the curtain would
rise, according to his chron.  Norrie -- which is what his little
companion said her name was -- babbled for some twenty of those minutes
with almost no prompting, giving him a ten-minute respite while she
"powdered her nose".  She managed to draw only a few pieces of falsified
information from him, including a fake name and birthworld.  Just
because he wanted to sleep with her didn't mean he had to be honest,
after all.  Even so, she was a little cagey when it came to questions
about her missing boyfriend, which he'd expected, so he just dropped the
subject entirely, turning to more relevant issues, such as her plans
after the concert (she had none, unless he had Something In Mind, Wink
  A small corner of his mind wanted to figure out why she looked
slightly familiar.  The rest of it told that small corner that she must
be reminding it of his mother, and to shut up with its Oedipus Complex
fixation already.
  At long last, the lights dimmed and the curtain rose, bringing an
expectant hush over the near-capacity audience.  Norrie instantly
released Jared and leaned forward over the railing, eyes intent on the
  That's my cue, he didn't say.  The house lights were completely out
at this point, leaving them in total darkness.  No one could have
noticed him removing a shortened beam rifle from his overcoat.  A
lethal, nearly-silent weapon, he'd taken the added precaution of
installing a smart-sight on it; the glowing red dot of a laser sight
could tip off the target before you had a chance to pull the trigger,
and raising the weapon to your eye was a ridiculously obvious gesture.  
This way, he could keep it low and out of sight.  Under ideal
conditions, no one would even know he was carrying it, let alone taking
  He'd thought of everything.  (Well, almost everything, he admitted;
collecting the full reward would obviously require him to retrieve the
body.  Well, pulling him from a local hospital or morgue shouldn't be
too hard.)
  A heavy beat sounded through the auditorium as the first spot came
on.  It illuminated the form of a petite blonde girl with a pair of
thick, curled horns over her forehead, dressed in the bright red
Gizmonics Institute jumpsuit that had become the trademark of the Clay
Pigeons and seated inside a drum collection that underscored her
diminutive stature.  She waved and blew kisses to the crowd between
  The second spot came up as a solo guitar opened with a familiar riff
that garnered a preliminary round of applause and cheers.  This one
revealed a young-looking fellow with long ears protruding from the sides
of his head.  He wailed on his guitar with the passion and precision of
a true master of the art.  He and the drummer exchanged a pair of silly
grins as they played.
  The third spot shone to his side to introduce the third member, a
girl standing not far from the lead guitarist with brilliant red hair
and an equally red guitar.  She sounded out a roaring set of chords to
accompany the lead's end-of-line punctuation, then let her instrument
growl as he proceeded with the second line.
  Finally, the entire stage lit up as the remaining two members of the
band broke in.  A true titan of a man wielded a mammoth bass guitar, and
another fellow, certainly no slouch in the height department, danced his
fingers on a keyboard.
  Jared curled his finger around the trigger, feeling the reassuring
tingle of the smartgun interfacing with the finger's neural link.  The
gun's sight overlaid on his vision, providing him with a picture of the
keyboard player's head, large and steady in the crosshairs.  He smiled.
  You'll make me a rich man tonight, my friend.
  The song's intro drew to a close, and the man behind the keyboard
leaned forward, singing in a most peculiar voice.  Jared followed his
motion but decided to hold his fire, allowing his target to sing his
swan song.

    I have a mansion, I forget the price
    Ain't never been there, they tell me it's nice
    I live in hotels, tear out the walls
    I have accountants pay for it all

    They say I'm crazy but I have a good time, yeah
    I'm just lookin' for clues at the scene of the crime
    Life's been good to me so far...

  Jared smiled.  Life will be good to you for about another minute,
chum.  Almost as an afterthought, he noticed that Norrie was very much
into the performance, her body swaying happily with the rhythm.  So much
for that idea, he decided.  No way she'll make it with the guy who
knocked off her favorite band.  Oh, well, such is fate.

    My Maserati does one-eighty-five
    I lost my license, now I don't drive
    I have a limo, ride in the back
    I lock the doors in case I'm attacked

    I'm makin' records, my fans, they can't wait
    They write me letters, tell me I'm great
    So I got me an office, gold records on the wall
    Just leave a message, maybe I'll call

    Lucky I'm sane after all I've been through
    Ever'body say oh, cool (he's cool)
    I can't complain, but sometimes I still do
    Life's been--

  Jared fired off a startled shot as his arm was unexpectedly bumped
completely off-target.  The particle beam flashed brilliantly, sailing
just in front of Martin's head and puncturing the wall far behind him.
  The band stopped cold.
  "Oops!  Oh, gosh, I'm sorry!" Norrie gushed, apparently quite
embarrassed with how high she'd unthinkingly kicked her foot up behind
her.  "I wasn't looking, I didn't ... what are you-- oh my
GODYOU'VEGOTAGUN!"  Her voice escalated to a shriek as she recoiled
against the railing, eyes wide with fear.
  Jared hissed something obscene and unintelligible as the house lights
came back up.  He jammed the rifle back into his coat and grabbed Norrie
by the arm, pulling her toward the aisle.
  "NOyoutriedtoKILLhimletmeGOwhatareyouDOING!"  She was babbling again,
this time in a shrill panic that carried easily over the shocked murmur
of the audience, and she pulled futilely against his grip.
  "BACK OFF!" he bellowed.  His right hand exited his coat with a
blaster pistol, prompting some frightened shouts from the people around
him, and he jerked Norrie closer to himself, wrapping his left arm tight
around her chest, clutching at her shirt with his hand.
  Her shrieking came to an abrupt halt when she realized there was a
cold metal ring pressed against the side of her head.
  "...vert," she completed weakly.
  "EVERYONE BACK THE HELL OFF!  One funny move and she GETS IT!"
  The crowd obediently parted before him, giving him a clear path to
the nearest exit.
  "That's BETTER."  He whirled around as he made his way toward the
doorway, pulling his petrified companion roughly by the bosom as he
watched for any hostile activity around him.
  "Hey!  You, with the gun and the brunette!"
  The powerful voice over the PA system made Jared whip around to face
the stage again, dragging Norrie to keep her in front of him as she
squirmed nervously in his grip.  Hammer had walked out from behind his
keyboard and now stood in center stage, pointing an accusing finger at
  "Let her go!" he demanded.
  "SHUT the FUCK UP!"  Jared wondered, for a moment, how Hammer's voice
was coming over the loudspeakers when he had no microphone.  "Just keep
yer DISTANCE or this sweet thing DIES!"  He jammed the gun against
Norrie's head for emphasis, producing a yelp of painful surprise.
  "You think you can get away with this?"
  "Just watch me, asshole!"  He began dragging her backward, toward the
  "I'm afraid we can't let you leave this place."  Hammer's voice was
most insistent.
  "Yeah?  You can c'mon down an'stop me!"
  He smiled a self-assured smile in reply, folding his arms over his
chest.  "I don't _have_ to.  You're coming to _me_."
  Jared was still attempting to compose a reply when he suddenly
realized his left arm was vacant.  A pair of hands grabbed him and
pulled him forward, and he only barely had time to look down into
Norrie's determined eyes before she judo-threw him ten rows forward.
  He hit the ground hard, but managed to roll back to his feet.  She
was already up and facing him, her body bent into a fighting stance, her
childlike face turned hard and cold.  The ribbon that had kept her hair
back had come loose, and her auburn tresses fell straight, just touching
her shoulders.
  He realized, about then, that he'd been set up.
  "Eat this, bitch!"  His weapon was still in his hand, and he started
to bring it forward.  A hard chop on his right shoulder short-circuited
that plan rather succinctly, loosening his grip as he winced at the
  "Watch your mouth, dickweed."  The new speaker was a dark-skinned
woman with not-quite-shoulder-length hair, very slim and about six feet
tall.  She brought a leg up around him, planting her knee firmly in his
breadbasket.  He stumbled backward a step, discovering rather quickly
that he had nothing to stumble backward onto.  Before he could fall down
the short stairway into the mosh pit, though, Norrie was in front of him
again.  She reached into his overcoat and grabbed him by the shirt,
pulling him forward from his fall.
  "Oh, I'm sorry," she said in a mock apologetic tone, grinning
fiercely.  "Did I mention that my boyfriend's in the band?"  With that,
she smashed the underside of his jaw with her fist, hurling him
backward.  He sailed over the few steps remaining below, knocking his
head hard on the floor of the pit.
  Almost immediately after he'd landed, a heavy-set man with blue-dyed
hair stomped on his right arm, forcing him to release the gun.  A
Salusian, a naturaform Cheltari, walked up to him from his left,
gathered the front of his overcoat in one hand, and lifted him.  Then,
as if he hadn't had enough surprises for one night, he was transferred
from the Salusian's grip to that of a Battloid-mode Valkyrie, which
carried him even farther forward.  It let him dangle helplessly in its
grip as he tried to regain his senses, then let him fall.  He waited for
the stage to slam into him, knocking him out completely.
  He was caught before that could happen.  When he forced his attention
forward, he discovered that his target was the one who'd caught him.
  "So," Hammer growled.  "Out to pick off some 'Wedgies' and make a
name for yourself.  Feeling like a big man yet?"
  "Fuck off," he wheezed.
  "Oh, and so creative, too.  Here, take a good look at the people who
humiliated you."  Hammer turned him around to face the crowd, singling
out certain members.
  "Down there we have Hanson Davion.  Go easy on'im, he's shy."  The
blue-haired man took a bow, looking somewhat embarrassed as the concert
audience began applauding.
  "Right next to him, Korren, our own harmless, lovable little
fuzzball."  The Salusian nodded, tapping a couple fingers to his
forehead in a sort of respectless salute.
  "I'm sure you remember Temper, who's always ready to lend a hand."  
The Valkyrie made a V-for-Victory sign as it exited stage left.
  "Let's not forget Nadia Davion.  As if she'd ever let you."  The
tall, dark woman hopped down into the pit, standing beside Hanson and
bowing with him.
  "And, certainly not least, the starlet of our little side attraction
and a fine actress in her own right, let's hear it for our very own
Noriko Takaya!"  'Norrie' raised her arms like a triumphant gymnast and
pirouetted, acknowledging the cheers of the crowd with a broad smile.
  See?  She DID look familiar, the neglected corner of Jared's mind I-
told-you-so'ed.  (Oh, DO shut up, the rest of it replied.)
  Hammer whirled his handload around again, looking him directly in the
eye.  "I certainly hope you learned your lesson, punkweed.  And I hope
lots of other twits like you learn your lesson, too.  Oh, here come your
new tour guides."  Three men wearing the eye-destroying uniforms of the
Funkotroni security force marched onto the stage, taking Jared from his
grasp and carrying him away.
  "Don't forget to shake'im down, fellas!" he called after them.
  He was about to return to his previous post behind his keyboard when
he saw one last figure striding toward him.  This was another woman with
dark skin, but not so tall as Nadia and with long, raven hair.  Her
uniform was significantly more subdued in coloration than those of the
peace officers who'd just left.  She stood at arm's length from him,
regarding him uncertainly for a few moments.
  "Hello, Feb," Martin said.
  Security Director Fall nodded.  "I'd like to apologize for that
incident, Hammer.  I'm afraid we really weren't expecting trouble..."
  "Don't worry about it," he replied.  "You can't be prepared for
everything.  That's what we're here for."  He shrugged.  "It's something
we're going to have to live with for a while."
  "I see."  She extended a hand.  "Thank you for understanding.  This
world means you no offense."
  "And there was none taken."  He took the proffered hand, and, after a
moment, Feb turned and strode off-stage.
  Hammer, for his part, hopped back behind his keyboard.  "And now that
the mini-drama is over," he announced, "we'll be getting on with the
show.  We're doing the alternate opening song, folks, so hang tight."  
This produced a low muttering from the crowd, which was well aware that
the Pigeons _always_ opened with "Life's Been Good".
  On stage, the entire band regarded him quietly.  He met their gazes,
one by one, with a somber expression.  He finally looked directly at
Danilia, and they exchanged nods.
  "By the numbers, people.  One.  Two."
  After Dani hammered out the first half-measure in sixteenth slams,
the rest of the band went into full swing.  Most of the audience
instantly recognized the brief, angry lead-in of the new anthem Martin
had chosen -- after all, if there was one thing the Funkotroni knew, it
was music.  When his cue came, Martin fairly shouted into the microphone
with an effortless impression of Phil Collins.

    I must've dreamed a thousand dreams
    Been haunted by a million screams
    I can hear the marching feet
    They're moving into the street
    Now did you read the news today
    They say the danger's gone away
    But I can see the fire's still alight
    It's burning into the night

    There's too many men
    Too many people
    Making too many problems
    And not much love to go around
    Can't you see this is a land of confusion

    This is the world we live in (oh oh, oh)
    And these are the hands we're given (oh oh, oh)
    Use them and let's start trying (oh oh, oh)
    To make it a place worth living in

    Oh, Superman, where are you now
    When everything's gone wrong somehow
    The men of steel, men of power
    Are losing control by the hour

    This is the time
    This is the place
    So we look for the future
    But there's not much love to go around
    Tell me why this is a land of confusion

    This is the world we live in (oh oh, oh)
    And these are the hands we're given (oh oh, oh)
    Use them and let's start trying (oh oh, oh)
    To make it a place worth living in

    I remember long ago
    When the sun was shining
    The stars were bright
    All through the night
    And the sound of your laughter
    As I held you tight
    So long ago...

  Martin took advantage of the brief instrumental bridge to look out
into the pit.  A large number of people had gathered around a large area
they'd cleared out, giving Noriko plenty of space to work in, and work
she did, seemingly defying every law of physics.  She was making quite a
show on her own; he made a mental note to reconsider adding her to the
stage act.

    I won't be coming home tonight
    My generation will put it right
    We're not just making promises
    That we know we'll never keep

    Too many men
    Too many people
    Making too many problems
    And not much love to go around
    Can't you see this is a land of confusion

    Now this is the world we live in (oh oh, oh)
    And these are the hands we're given (oh oh, oh)
    Use them and let's start trying (oh oh, oh)
    To make it a place worth fighting for
    This is the world we live in (oh oh, oh)
    And these are the names we're given (oh oh, oh)
    Stand up and let's start showing (oh oh, oh)
    Just where our lives are going to

  The familiar fireball of a hyperspace fold resolved into the form of
the WDF Righteous Indignation, repaired and restored from her crew's
trial by fire.
  "Cybertron ho," Blaster announced.
  Martin nodded.  "You know the schtick, B-man."
  "You got it."
  Martin's gaze turned to rest on Chris and Katie, seated next to
Blaster's station at the back of the bridge.  "You sure you won't think
it over again?  I know I can't guarantee security, but I doubt it'll be
a dull life."
  Chris smiled.  "I know.  But this is our choice.  We want to lay low,
for a while at least, while we come to terms with ourselves."
  "And each other," Katie added.
  Looking the two of them over, Martin sighed and rose to his feet.
"Your relationship is going to be ... interesting.  Just make sure it's
not bad-interesting.  You know I'll always wish you two the best, and my
prayers go with you."
  Chris stood as well as Martin walked toward him.  They clasped hands
for a moment, then pulled together and embraced.  "You take care of your
crew, Martin.  And take care of yourself."
  "Certain members of the crew would have my head if I tried anything
  "And I'll make damn sure he takes care of the ship," Nadia added.
Her fierce grin covered the usual sadness of parting ways with a friend.
  The good-byes went on for a few minutes more, with Chris on the
receiving end of everything from a big, wet kiss (from Dani) to a nearly
crushing clap on the back (from Dund).  Katie was getting well-wishes,
too, but not quite as much affection.
  As the ritual of farewell drew to a close, Blaster chimed in from his
station.  "The Autobot Government of Cybertron accepts you with open
arms, guys.  If y'fly down t'th'Iacon spaceport, Prime'll be waitin'
there t'welcome you."
  Chris smiled.  "Thanks, Blaster.  See you all later, people.  C'mon,
Kate -- we shouldn't keep Optimus waiting."
  "Right with you, Chris.  Just..."  She looked back at Blaster, who
drew himself up to his full height.  "...just a second."  They each took
a small step, readily closing the distance between them.
  "So," Blaster said, "'guess this's g'bye f'ra while."
  She nodded.  "Yeah."  She shuffled her feet nervously.  "Blaster..."
  "Hm?"  He blinked at her, uncertain what to make of her featureless
facial expression.
  "I ... I want to thank you.  You've been ... a great help.  I..."
Her voice faltered in an odd fashion.  "I don't know what I would've
done without you ... to help me."
  He smiled.  "All part'a th'job, Temp."
  She made a small, irritated sound.  Then, with a mutter of "Shut up,"
she grabbed him, pulled him close with a slight CLANG of contact, and
gave him as warm a hug as any Valkyrie has ever given.
  Chris noted that he'd never seen anyone looking so surprised as
Blaster did just then.
  The Cybertronian brought his own arms around Katie as she produced a
quiet sound resembling a sob.  "I'll miss you..."
  "I'll miss you too, Temper."  He patted her back reassuringly.
"Don't worry ... I'll be back.  We'll all take care'a each other."
  They parted, and, with final waves and words, Chris and Katie left
the bridge.
  Dani sang quietly to herself.  "Blaa-ster's goot a giirl-frieend,
Blaa-ster's goot a giirl-frieend..."
  "You know it," he grinned, then snapped his fingers.  (Since they
were made of metal, this produced a light ping.)  "Oh, nearly forgot.
Hammer, Prime said there was someone down below who was int'rested in
hitchin' a ride with us f'r'a few years."
  Martin lowered an eyebrow as he regarded the Cybertronian.  "Well,
any help we can get is more than welcome, I s'pose.  Did this mystery
benefactor give any hints as to who he was?"
  "Prime just said t'tellya that 'Doc' was on'is way."
  Martin's eyes widened as Tom, Danilia and Dund chuckled.  He allowed
his look of surprise to break into a smile as he sank into his command
  Well, well, he mused to himself ... the more things change...

  The doors to the bridge finally swept open, and a familiar, welcome
face strode onto its deck.  "Great Scott, Marty!" he called in his
classic Emmet Brown impression, greeting the third-tallest member of the
  Martin stepped forward from his standing position beside the
Captain's chair, offering his hand, which was accepted.  "Ehh, what's
up, Doc?"
  Pearson "Doc" Mui winced, almost as if struck.  "Do you _have_ to
phrase it that way?"
  "Why, yes, as a matter of fact.  Why do you ask?"  Martin's grin was
nearly as frustrating as ever.
  Pearson sighed.  "Just checking."  He glanced around at the faces,
both familiar and non-.  "I see you've managed to draw a crowd, even in
the face of everything that's going on."
  Martin shrugged.  "It's easier to watch your back when you have a
few people to help.  Besides, where would I be without my band?"  Dund
began to sign a response, but was "silenced" by an accusing finger.
"Don't even start, Laughing Boy."
  Dund held up his hands in a gesture of surrender and tried his best
to look innocent.
  Pearson turned to face the unlikely trio of Tom and Danilia
M'krelth'nyr'knet and Dund Wollern.  "Hi, guys ... long time no see."
  Danilia greeted him in the usual fashion -- giving him as big a hug
as her tiny frame could administer, followed by a big wet one on the
cheek.  Tom and Dund were a bit more sedate, offering handshakes and
telling him it was good to see him again, a sentiment to which he
heartily agreed.
  "So," he said, turning to face Martin again, "who are the new faces?
I don't--"  His voice trailed off as he peered at the Executive
Officer.  "Wait a minute ... _you_, I've already met."
  Noriko smiled and nodded.  "Only briefly, I believe.  I had you send
a little message to Marty at the time."
  Pearson snapped his fingers.  "Of course, that's right.  That was
before you were assigned to ... this ship, wasn't it?"
  She nodded again.  "That's right.  I've been the Indignation's XO
for just about two-and-a-half centuries now."
  Doc nodded.  "Looks like a great ship.  One question, though; howcome
you're not in the center seat?"
  Noriko smiled slyly.  "You'll find out."
  Pearson blinked.  "Uh ... yeah.  Speaking of the ship," he resumed,
turning to face Martin again, "was that bad-attitude CI I spoke with in
the landing bay who I _thought_ it was?"
  Martin smirked.  "Do you really want that question answered?"
  "...No, now that you mention it."
  "Well, then, why did--"
  Martin's reply was interrupted by a small chime from the
communications console.  Blaster took his seat and flew his massive
fingers over the keypad.  Satisfied with the results, he turned back to
face the Captain's chair.
  "Code red, Hammer.  A tradin' fleet's under attack by Elasi pirates.
Say they're bein' overwhelmed."
  Martin nodded.  "Hand off the coordinates to Nadia.  Tell them help
is on the way.  Dani, Tom, we're in our fighters -- we'll be launching
as soon as we defold."  He turned back to Pearson.  "Welcome to Thunder
Force, Doc.  It won't be an easy life, but it won't be dull, either.
We'll finish the introductions later.  Ready for a fight?"
  "Ready as I'll ever be, pilgrim," he replied in his best John Wayne.
  Martin's brow furrowed for a moment, followed by his familiar smirk.
"Don't quit your day job.  Come on, we're goin' pirate-huntin'.  Riko,
the ship is yours."
  The brunette nodded.  "Count on me, Marty."
  "You'll have to take off your boots if I'm going to get past 10."  A
Nerf brick struck him on the side of the head.  "Cut the critique and
get in the lift, Dani."
  "I'm going, I'm going!"  The tiny blonde skipped over to the lift to
join her husband.  Pearson was right behind her, wondering just what
he'd gotten himself into.  Martin joined them, and whirled to face the
  "Let's get dangerous," he recited dramatically just before the
turbolift doors shut.

 The High Diggy-Hoek of Chihuahua-Wala Land  (or Martin Rose, if you must)
--------------------------- mfrose@umcc.umich.edu ---------------------------
Truth is stranger than Fiction ---------------- Stupid is a boundless concept
The Limbaugh Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies:  Ann Arbor Division

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