Dreams, Schemes And Spiny Machines by Joel Reeves

EXTRACT FOR
Dreams, Schemes And Spiny Machines

(Joel Reeves)


Dreams, Schemes And Spiny Machines

Introduction

 

The mobile fertilizing utility vehicle was clearly a design made for hedgehogs of the smaller variety, not humans. A stocky fellow sat inside the compact chariot, knees sticking up near his chin. He was mostly bald with just a small tuft of stubborn orange hair poking up a few inches above his bushy eyebrows. He steered the solar-powered cart through the network of gardens. The vehicle paused, a small rotary blade attachment digging a shallow hole in the black soil and depositing a delicate sapling. It continued on, rolling slowly through the green garden-all that remained of the once flourishing forests and jungles of Yurle Prime.

Odd Bob, known simply as just Bob to his good friends, had taken the off-world job gladly as it sounded like a welcome change from building large structures out of stone. Plus there was the added perk of being able to breathe fresh air; albeit, air artificially generated within a controlled environment inside of a refurbished super cruiser. Besides, no one really needed specialists to construct indomitable castles or walls fortified to withstand an assault by catapult or an angry giant with a bone to pick. Refusing to become obsolete, Bob enrolled forthwith in a training program through the Yurle Prime School of Sun Dome Technologies and Plant Care.

The brown patch on Bob's forest green uniform identified him as Senior Environmental Controls Officer. He liked being in charge after so many years of taking other people's orders. But, despite his newfound status, he'd promised himself that he would never treat his own workers as Baron Glauwer had once treated him.

His employees-fifty of the most dedicated and environmentally conscious hedgies anyone could ask for-were the true backbone of Real Plants in Space Enterprises. Many of these were aboriginal hedgehogs, and they had lived in the forests and jungles, witnessed their destruction first-hand, and brought an unequalled enthusiasm to the job of preserving what remained for generations to come.

The buggy Bob rode in whispered up to an elderly hedgehog. This fellow, also a recent graduate of the training program, regulated the water supply inside the complex. He adjusted a valve, which, in turn, pumped out a precise mixture of water and fertilizing agents through a series of hoses onto a bed of plants bearing beautiful and delicious-looking red and purple fruits.

Odd Bob stepped out of his vehicle and stretched.

"Those fruit look very healthy," Bob observed, licking his lips.

Harlix, former cemetery sexton, freedom fighter, and now senior plant manager, picked one of the fruits off and handed it to Bob. "Have one," he offered. "They're proven to delay senility, fight tooth decay, and they're only nineteen calories per serving."

Bob bit into the fruit hungrily. Juice rolled down and off his chin as he surveyed the interior of the impressive cruiser. The ship was, in fact, a retired member of the Galactic University Defense and Research fleet that had been donated as a floating greenhouse. To Bob, the cruiser looked more like a satellite with its modifications. Although its guns had been removed in order to accommodate the installation of eight greenhouse domes, the ship was still equipped with two powerful engines capable of attaining near light speed for short intervals, as well as, a basic hyper-jump generator. Eight transparent reinforced corridors radiated out from the cruiser like the legs of a spider. Each corridor ended in a domed chamber of its own-burgeoning vegetation centers with independent maintenance modules and life support.. Bob could not imagine a situation in which the eight smaller vessels would need to separate from the mother ship. Still, if such an emergency materialized, it was comforting to know that the eight mini-stations would be self-sufficient for several months.

Bob swallowed the rest of the fruit and planted the woody pit inside the black soil.

Harlix nodded and smiled. "Thank you, sir, for recycling."

"Harlix, call me Bob," Odd Bob said, squeezing the aged hedgehog's shoulder warmly. "As far as I'm concerned, you do not work for me. We work together for one cause." He smiled fondly at the hedgie. "I'm Bob. That's an order."

Harlix saluted. "Yes, Bob!"

Bob chuckled and climbed back inside the mobile fertilizing utility vehicle. The buggy weaved onward, waddling up an adjacent corridor beneath a canopy of stars and into the artificial glow of Sun Dome Three.

Only Bob, Harlix, and a few other highly trained workers had clearance to enter this particular dome. The reason was pretty obvious: It housed several aggressive plants of the voracia carnivora family. The massive stalks of these towering plants were thick and thorny, almost tree-like. The heads were shaped like large melons with razor sharp teeth in mouths four to five feet in length--easily large enough to accommodate a young herding beast in a single gulp.

The pulpy purple head of one of the carnivorous plants poked over a wall of the transparent steel-glass enclosure. Its enormous maw opened and closed and it cocked its head to one side, curious. To the untrained eye, the plant really looked docile, almost friendly. But Bob knew better.

He got down from the vehicle and tripped the activator to begin the teleportation sequence. In mere seconds, a pair of moon cow calves materialized on the transporter. Bob pressed another button and the platform on which the two beefy animals stood lifted, coming to a stop just below the top of the wall.

The head of the carnivorous plant snapped up both animals, the quickness of its movement almost impossible to follow, and disappeared behind the wall. A moment later, another head appeared, waiting its turn, impatient.

Bob entered the code that would teleport another pair of the creatures from the well-stocked Dinhari Moon Cow Farm Number Nine on Yurle Prime. He repeated the process eight more times until all of the plants within the enclosure had received their recommended daily allowance of meat.

He wasn't sure if it was possible to overfeed this particular species, but not giving them enough to eat could be very dangerous. He closed his eyes, trying not to think about the terrible accident that had occurred less than a year ago when an undertrained employee had entered the restricted area to retrieve a loose glass and fallen inside the enclosure. It had been Harlix who had discovered the platform, bloodied and still in the raised position.

Bob shut down and lowered the teleporter platform and hopped back on the little buggy tractor and shifted it into gear. He continued on his way through the giant greenhouse to finish his daily rounds.


 

Chapter One

 

Since his retirement as a commander in the Galactic University Space Force, Gamitof Pym-Larko's life had not lost much of its excitement. He glanced-for a glance was all he dared risk right now-at his distorted reflection in the tall glass bottle that stood before him on the little round table and frowned. His face was fuller these days-okay, fatter-and the soft curly brownish fur that covered his head had turned mostly white. The small black eyes, however, remained shiny and alert.

Twenty-seven years! Nearly three decades, he thought, since he and his crew members had driven Moleloch, the Dark Mistress and Empress of the mole race, from her subterranean lair. The disappearance of her major domo, Lord Butae, and the insidious device called Deep Thought, still worried him at times, but nothing had been heard from them in all this time and everyone believed both were lost somewhere in the void of space.

Unfortunately, in the end, the notorious demon hedgehog Walpole, more dangerous than both of them, had escaped.

"No, I can't believe we've seen the last of him," he muttered, lifting the nearly empty bottle to his lips to mask his words. Just thinking of Walpole was enough to send chills down his spine. Even after the mind-twisting hedgehog's existence had become little more than a memory, his dark legacy carried on.

Because of that, life for the retired captain and hero in the HHMW (Human Hedgehog Mole War) remained hectic. The pension from the Galactic University had been generous, but boredom and a fear of losing the full use of his faculties to old age had driven him to accepting a new occupation. Spy.

His new boss, Chief of Planet Security Oris Folpole, did not sugar coat the latest situation. "It involves running interference on a dangerous splinter group of known Walpole loyalists here on Yurle Prime. I must warn you, though. The job is very dangerous. A number of our best operatives have been killed in recent weeks."

Larko suspected that, if he didn't stay on his eight toes, he himself might be the next to die. It was hard to put a finger on exactly what had changed. But there was definitely something different in the air, a strange tenseness. Someone was planning something.

And it was in Grumpole's Hideaway-quiet, peaceful watering hole of the retiring sort-that he sensed was where to look for the next spot of trouble. He didn't have long to wait.

A tall, handsome and slender middle-aged man entered the inn. He was dressed in a Yurle Prime Space Force officer's uniform, his thick black hair slicked back with a shiny, gooey gel.

Jonathan Quintain, a face Larko had been familiar with since the man had been a squalling boy wrapped in the baronial towels of the House of Glauwer, adjusted the cap on his head and peered into the gloom of the smoky room. He spoke for a moment to Big Dale, the proprietor. The fat bartender nodded in Larko's direction. Jonathan nodded and marched quickly across the room. He gave Larko a firm handshake, pulled up a chair, and sat down grinning.

"You, my friend, are a very hard fellow to track down," Jonathan stated.

Larko stared hard at the man. "Well, Jonny, what a surprise," he said. "It is you, isn't it?"

Jonathan chuckled. "I know, I know. I haven't had a chance to stop in to see you since the Day of the New Harvest Party at Bogo's place. They keep me busy, you know."

Larko nodded, sighing. "I realize that. It's not that I'm not delighted to see your face, my good fellow. It's just that things are a bit hot at the moment. And, I occasionally confuse one face with another. Must be the local ale."

Jonathan took off his pilot's hat and placed it on the table between them. He studied his old friend's face. It was lined with worry.

"I've heard about the rising heat. That's why I stopped in. Someone told me you were all alone on this case. Very foolish, even for Gamitof Pym, my resourceful mage."

"That someone was named Folpole, no doubt." Larko was about to shoo Jonathon away to safer places when his eyes darted toward the door. Two hooded figures dressed in gray robes entered the alehouse, paused in the doorway to survey its customers-the usual mix of human expatriates, Dinhari time spinners, and reformed moles-and sat down at the bar.

"I think it might be best if you left," Larko whispered. "For your own safety."

Jonathan noticed now that Larko had his back to the wall. His shining black eyes blinked, nervous. He suddenly had the feeling someone was watching them.

"Your chief was a bit vague," Jonathan stated, perplexed. "You wouldn't want to fill me in?"

"I forget you're not the little boy with the rather useless parents, wandering around that damp castle with only a silly rat mage for a friend," he said, then lowered his voice to a bare whisper. "The Crimson Quill Guild."

A hedgehog waitress, wearing a dress far too tight for her rather corpulent figure and staggering about in high heels that didn't remotely suit her little feet, weaved past carrying a tray of drinks. She stopped at a nearby table and began chatting with a group of ogling young pilots.

Neither Larko, who was Tandaran, nor Jonathon, a human being, were particularly attracted to hedgehogs, female or otherwise, so it was curious that certain of them were so intent on following human or outer Galactic fashions. The poor little waitress, Kookie, cute in her own hedgehog way, had clearly been torturing herself. Her legs were smooth, plucked clean of spines. Jonathon tried not to think about how much it must hurt to be quilled-a process that involved tweezers and daily molephine injections to prevent future growth. Happily, most of Grumpole's Hideaway clientele were hedgehogs, even the fliers from the nearby base. They certainly liked the waitress' new look.

"Big Dale must be really hard up to keep the clientele happy," Jonathon said.

Kookie finished telling a joke to amuse the pilots, then approached Larko's table.

"You gentlemen look really thirsty," she observed. "Can I get you something?"

Larko shook his head, still keeping an eye on the newcomers.

"No. Nothing for me. Doctor's orders." Larko smiled nervously at the waitress and then at Jonathan. "My friend is thirsty. Please bring him some of this inn's finest."

"Absolutely," she replied.

The waitress nodded and hurried off toward the bar. She returned moments later holding a tall mug of brownish liquid with a thick head of foam. She set the drink down in front of Jonathan, then hurried off to replenish the drinks at the fliers' table.

Jonathan took a sip of his drink. "You mentioned a certain Guild. Are we looking for anyone in particular?"

"They have their spies everywhere. They're definitely growing in numbers."

Jonathan nodded toward the beggar's table. "Him?"

Larko followed Jonathan's surreptitious gaze. A skinny human, dressed in a ragged trench coat, scraggly beard, and black glasses, hunched down in the shadows, almost out of sight. He appeared to be talking to a glass ball in the handle of his white cane.

Larko shrugged. "Looks like a blind, and admittedly, crazy beggar."

"Crazy, maybe," Jonathan conceded, "but not blind."

Larko studied the beggar some more, puzzled. "What do you mean?"

Jonathan grinned. "He seems to go in for the latest in hedgehog fashions. Or he just has a thing for high heels. He's definitely not blind."

Larko smiled. "I think you've spotted yourself a spy," he said. "So, he's not just making conversation with his cane. Well, that doesn't mean he's part of the Crimson Quills."

"So tell me," Jonathan urged. "How do we find these fellows, then?"

Larko took a deep breath. "It shouldn't be hard. The Crimson Quill Guild is looking for me," he said, trying hard to suppress the nervous tension in his voice. "They'd like me dead."

Jonathan quickly glanced about the room.

"What do they look like, these Guild fellows?"

The rat-man's nose quivered. "That's just it," he lamented. "It's not like old times when all of our enemies were moles. It was hard to hide that star-shaped nose. Our new enemy comes in all shapes and sizes. Well, hedgehog sizes. Being this is a hedgehog planet, they tend to be everywhere," he whispered, leaning toward Jonathan. "And they're getting close."

"Don't take this wrong," Jonathan replied. "But you sound a little paranoid."

Larko sat forward, his dark eyes glittering. "I wish the chief hadn't got you involved," he pleaded. "You can still leave. I'll get back to you later."

Jonathan stared at him, resolute.

"Tell me more about these...what do you call them?"

Larko sighed.

"The Crimson Quill Guild is an extremist hedgehog organization made up of thugs, cutthroats, and assassins," Larko explained. "They idolize Walpole and are determined to put him back in power one day."

Jonathan tried not to look too skeptical.

"It doesn't surprise me that the old hedgehog demon would still have some dedicated followers on this planet," Jonathan conceded. "You don't seriously believe, though, that the majority of Yurle Prime's citizens would ever want him back. Besides, no one's seen him for years. He's probably long dead."

Larko's eyebrows shot up.

"No, he's not. There's every indication Walpole is using the Guild to get a new claw-hold on this world. His efforts have been mainly covert."

"So covert no one knows if he's still around. I suppose the Guild could be..."

A burst of laughter drew Jonathan's attention to a nearby table.

Three red-spined hedgehogs-Dinhari, Jonathan surmised- played a game of Capture the Quill at a nearby table. It was a game of strategy that required a steady hand. The basic goal of the game, as Jonathan understood it, was to pull as many quills as possible from a tall pile without upsetting the whole stack.

Since the time of Walpole's fall from power and the death of the insidious mole empress, Moleloch, the Dinhari had become less insular. It gave Jonathan satisfaction knowing that he and his friends had played at least a small part in the mystically inclined sub-race of hedgehogs' emergence. He had never favored the Dinharis' decision to hide out inside the Great Storm. Despite their high level of mechanical expertise, it had left the sect cut off and unprepared to face the rise of Moleloch.

"The Yurle military will never let Walpole back," Jonathan pressed.

"The military has always been susceptible to the lure of a powerful leader," Larko said. "It's been nearly thirty years since there's been a major conflict on Yurle Prime. They are itching for action. That's why all the interest in the extra-solar colonization project, Fresh Start."

"Which reminds me."

Larko looked up inquiringly.

Jonathan took another sip of his liquor, a slow grin appearing on his face. "I wasn't just looking for you for Folpole. Fresh Start needs us."

Before Larko could respond, a drunken hedgehog, fat and boisterous, with a long mane of transparent spines that shimmered like diamonds, swaggered up to a piano atop a platform and started to play and sing. Several others joined in the dancing and stumbling about in intoxicated merriment.

Larko frowned. "What's on your mind, Jonathan?"

"We have to get the crew back together," Jonathan blurted. He hoped that hadn't sounded as desperate to Larko as it had to him. "Our world needs us."

Larko sat back in his chair, holding up one hand. "Whoa. Slow down. Our world needs us? Why?"

Jonathan wiped some foam off his upper lip.

"Operation Fresh Start is in serious jeopardy," he stated.

Larko sighed. Fresh Start-the joint government-military plan to seek out a new healthy planet upon which the dwindling populace of poor contaminated Yurle and Yurle Prime could settle now that they had effectively destroyed two worlds of their own. Frankly, he had a hard time mustering much sympathy for beings who repeatedly exhibited such irresponsible behavior.

"All the news has been good. Regular launches like clockwork," he urged. He saw Jonathan was impatient to continue. "Go ahead; I've gotten pretty good at listening and watching my back at the same time."

Jonathan took another drink, trying to relax.

"I don't need to tell you what a mess this planet is in. Space Force decided it was time to take action. Our military scientists have identified a planet not too far away that has a similar chemical composition and atmosphere to Yurle and Yurle Prime. Its name is Yurle Minor."

Larko leaned forward in his chair, interested.

"Ah, the hedgehogs, always full of original ideas. Since this discovery is not common knowledge, I take it there's a problem."

As Jonathan continued, Larko kept an eye on Big Dale, who seemed to be holding an extended conversation with the individuals dressed in gray robes at the bar. One glanced over his shoulder in Larko's direction and smirked. It was a hedgehog, a very large one, its snout quivering.

"Yurle Central is facing a big problem," Jonathan explained. "All of the missions they've sent out to colonize Yurle Minor have failed to return."

Larko grunted and gulped down the rest of his drink noisily. He made a satisfied sound. "That is a problem." He paused. "But it's their problem. Not mine. I'm retired. How is it your problem?"

Jonathan swallowed hard. This was going to be a tough sell.

"I've signed on to Fresh Start. Six missions have vanished and I want to know where they've gone. You know I've had some background in space flight, but not enough. They need your experience, sir. The brass has done a thorough post-analysis of the situation and decided that the crews they've sent, all hedgehog members, were just too green. They've ordered me to come to you because... " Jonathan stumbled, thinking, and then pulled out an official looking document folded up inside his uniform pocket. He opened it and read, "'We need a strong leader with experience, someone with true grit, someone who is resourceful, someone who does not know the meaning of failure, someone... '"

Larko waved at Jonathan to put away the note.

"I get the idea," he said, flattered. "But trust me, Jonathan. I'm not the guy they're looking for. I've got my hands really full right now. I'm sorry, but I'm going to have to respectfully decline."

Jonathan crumpled up the note. He felt as if the fate of the galaxy, if not the universe, hung in the balance.

"If you don't agree to lead the seventh mission everyone on this planet could die," Jonathan pleaded. "The scientists say this world is irrevocably damaged. They've poured poison into the water for too many years. There's a hole in our ozone layer as big as the moon and its increasing in size daily. Even the big storm has become erratic. The Dinhari have abandoned it pretty much altogether. Its course is bringing it several degrees closer to the capital and government buildings. Planetary officials are calling the situation urgent."

Larko took a deep breath. "I know all that." He sighed, tired. "Everyone does. But it's their own fault. They've done this to themselves."

Jonathan knew Larko believed that people should actually take responsibility for their actions. He took one last shot at his old commander.

"So the Tandarans and the Galactic University have written off the hedgehogs. Too far gone?"

"Retired means from the Galactic University, too," the old space explorer said. "I suspect, if you ask, that they probably have. Two dying worlds and now the hedgehogs are planning on going after a third. I don't know if I even approve of this mission."

Jonathan studied his old friend a moment. A thought leaped to his mind just as he was about to surrender to the inevitable.

"As an operative in Planet Security, you might be interested to know that there is some evidence to suggest that a powerful intelligence seems to have caused the failures on Yurle Minor," he blurted.

Larko's eyes grew wide. "You're sure? Is it possible? A powerful intelligence could be...Walpole."

"Space Force HQ received a few short messages from one of the missions once they reached Yurle Minor," Jonathan said. "One of the transmissions suggested the presence of hostile natives, and the clear worship of one called the Great Mind."

Larko cleared his throat. "The planet could be close enough for Walpole to instruct his people here by mental transmission. He might even be able to train them on this other world, then teleport them here. My stars, this might explain everything. The sudden rise of a well-organized cult, its diabolic efforts to destroy the old order, and to kill off those who thwarted Walpole the last time."

Jonathan tried not to look too eager.

"You think so? That would make Yurle Minor a dangerous place to colonize."

"But it must be done, if only to bring Walpole to justice and secure the safety of the galaxy. This might be just the thing to throw the Crimson Quill Guild off my tail. I doubt they'd expect me to fly right into Walpole Central."

"Whoa, where did she come from?"

Jonathan eyed a shapely woman in a black leather body suit. She had suddenly seemed to materialize in the gloom and was sharing a drink with one of the gray-robed figures at the bar.

"Part of the Crimson Guild."

"I'm not sure," Larko said. "Probably."

The room grew a little darker. The woman in the bodysuit and her two male friends in gray at the bar suddenly transformed into leering hedgehogs, their bodies covered in red spines. They pushed into the milling throng of patrons.

"Yep, Crimson Quill Guild. Better put off these travel plans for the moment," Larko whispered. "Things are about to get interesting."

The three hedgehogs pulled out weapons hidden beneath their robes-short clubs made of black wood with spikes in the end. They rushed toward Larko and Jonathan, snarling. A moment later, things went from bad to worse, as the friendly barkeep, Big Dale, also transformed into a slightly heavier set hedgehog and joined the attack.

"Well, I am disappointed in him," Larko said, snatching the heavy bottle in front in him.

The other patrons dodged out of the way, the menace in the Guild members eyes making it clear this wasn't just another bar room brawl.

Larko leaped up to defend himself, but Jonathan held his arm.

"Don't worry. We aren't alone."

Larko placed his hand under the tabletop, and taking a firm grip on one of the legs, flipped it over and into the path of the oncoming attackers. The first hedgehog slammed into the table head on, momentarily stunned. The other three were forced to take evasive action to avoid being hit by the table as it smashed against the front of the bar.

The hedgehogs quickly regrouped and closed in. They growled and bared their sharp yellow teeth, holding up their weapons, preparing to strike.

Suddenly, however, the large hedgehog pianist stopped playing, spun about on his stool, and leaped from the platform. He threw off his disguise of shimmering spines and it crashed to the floor like a suit of glass armor. The hairless, swollen mass of pale flesh lumbered across the floor. Jonathan recognized the man almost immediately. It was his former crew mate, the eunuch Bogo Grandmont. Apparently, Jonathan thought, the effects of the rejuvenator-that incredible technological wonder which had transformed the eunuch into a tall handsome man with thick black hair-had been only temporary.

At that same moment, the female hedgie waitress in heels stripped off her own head mask and coat of spines, revealing a striking woman of voluptuous proportions. Her fiery auburn curls fell out of the mask and over her shoulders.

"Emenine?" Jonathan whispered, stunned. She still looked gorgeous. It had to be molephine treatments.

A pair of colorful hard rubber balls suddenly appeared in her hands. She flung these with great force and exact precision, striking and knocking cold one of the surprised hedgies and dazing a second. The two remaining Guild members hesitated, confused, and were bowled over by the charging Bogo. They picked themselves up, and seeing that the odds were now stacked against them, fled out through the front doors of the inn.

"That was amazing," Jonathan stated, dumbfounded.

"I wanted to tell you I enlisted Bogo and Emenine as colleagues of mine," Larko stated. "But as they were undercover, I didn't want to take the chance of giving them away. You can see why."

"Impressive performance," Jonathan said, shaking hands with his old friends.

Suddenly the doors of the inn swung open. The two fleeing hedgehogs backed slowly into the room their hands in the air. An extremely short man with the delicate features of a ballerina entered, holding a laser rifle on the pair of surprised hedgehogs.

Jonathan cringed. "Lavolier!"

Lavolier nodded, never taking his eyes off the prisoners.

"Ugh, pretty boy Quintain," he said, "slumming down here with the common folk, are we? No precious rockets to pilot about, burning up the last of the world's fuel supply?"

If Lavolier had a middle name, it was Envy.

"I swore you were still in detention," Jonathan said. "Who did you sell out to get free this time?"

"I have devoted my talents to the betterment and protection of this world," the knight proclaimed to everyone in the place. "But, I'll regale you with my wondrous adventures later. What do I do with these scoundrels, old boy?"

Memories-most of them distasteful-suddenly besieged Jonathan. This obnoxious little man who in Jonathan's early youth had held a variety of titles-the captain of the guard, Sir Lavolier, chief scout, and court majordomo-had what might best be described as a checkered past. He was an accomplished fighter with an unpredictable temperament. In the past, he had used his position as an excuse to mistreat the peasants who worked Baron Glauwer's fields. He also patronized the castle stonemason, Odd Bob, a talented and compassionate fellow for whom Jonathan had developed a profound respect and deep friendship. Moreover, Jonathan contemplated bitterly, Lavolier had never passed up an opportunity to ridicule Gamitof Pym-Larko, former court magician, and now, ironically, spaceship captain and Lavolier's superior.

Another of the dazed hedgehogs staggered to his feet. Lavolier eyed him wearily and pointed the laser rifle at him.

"Don't move a muscle you spiny devil," Lavolier growled. "I'm placing you and your anarchist cohorts under arrest."

Lavolier motioned with his head and began to march the hedgehogs out of the inn.

Jonathan called out to him. Lavolier stopped, glancing back.

"Don't leave just yet," Jonathan said, sensing a chance. "I have just been discussing a project with Commander Larko." He glanced at Bogo and Emenine, as well.

"I hardly think any project you would come up with is worth my time," Lavolier sneered.

"It might just make you famous. Shoot, it might make us all famous."

Lavolier stared at Jonathan. His eyes narrowed and shifted toward the hedgehog prisoners still standing nearby, hands raised. They looked, however, like they might bolt if given the least opportunity.

Lavolier squeezed the trigger on his laser rifle three times. A thin green ray shot out striking the hedgehogs; their bodies went suddenly rigid and they crumpled to the floor at his feet. "I stunned them," he said to Jonathan with casual satisfaction. "Now we can talk without being interrupted."

Jonathan motioned for the former crewmembers of the Duweena's Courage to sit down. They pulled up chairs to the table.

Jonathan glanced at Larko. The old commander nodded.

"Okay, you've heard of Fresh Start."

As Jonathan continued his pitch, the group of red-spined Dinhari, who had set up their table again and started another game of Capture the Quill, glanced over at Jonathan from time to time, listening. They completed their game and departed as the occupants of the other table rose and left, still arguing details.

Not long after, the place nearly emptied, the grizzled old beggar in the trench coat shook his head and stood up without the aid of his cane. He crossed his arms and shook his head.

"I could have killed Larko ten times tonight, and thrown in the rest for free," the man grumbled as he made his way to the door. "But no, the Guilders got to learn, he says. Just keep an eye on them, Verlag. It'll work out. Well, you got your troubles down, Walpole, my chum. Yes, you do."

The spy, Wenlock Verlag-aka Arg Strapper, cruel torturer, and Unger Fry, gourmet chef-walked toward the exit but stopped suddenly to study a poster hanging behind the bar. A wide grin formed on his pimpled face.

"Now, what's this?" He hadn't seen the poster before.

WANTED

Dead or Alive

(but mostly dead)

WALPOLE

(Aka The Sacred Hedgehog of Yurle)

100,000 ducats Reward

"A lovely likeness. Well, Verlag," he said. "At least until he makes a better offer."

He tore the poster off the wall and stuck it in his pocket just as the doors of the inn swung open.

Wenlock Verlag jumped, startled, as a striking gentleman dressed in a Space Force Special Forces uniform entered. Verlag adjusted his beard, nervous, and quickly leaned on his cane, hunching over a bit.

He stared hard at the officer. There was something familiar in the handsome face, he thought, an almost god-like aura. It was the vestiges of gills, barely visible, looking like pink tattoos on the man's muscular neck, that gave it away.

Yes, Verlag thought, it was the son of Baron Glauwer's mistress. Lawson, his name was. Not the Baron's son, however, but the offspring of some perverse union between that flirtatious juggler and a god. Verlag shuddered: by all the dark gods, that woman got around.

Lawson glanced about at the almost empty inn, the corners of his mouth turning down in disappointment. He eyed Verlag, perplexed.

"Where is everybody?" he groaned. "This is Tuesday, right? It's the all-you-can-drink tanagi fruit spritzer night."

"Family emergency," Verlag lied. "The owner's house caught on fire. Everybody went to watch... I mean help."

Lawson frowned. "Huh."

He spun smartly on one heel and marched out.

"Don't let the door hit you in your scaly behind, fish boy," Verlag mumbled. He pulled the poster out of his pocket and stared at Walpole's mug shot, smirking. "Just stay out of my way. I've got bigger... um... hedgehogs to fry."

He stuffed the poster back in his pocket, adjusted his beard, and hobbled out of the inn.