1 Chapter 1 : Steampunk Cyborg

The smoke inside the underground structure made it difficult to see, stinging the eyes, hiding everything within its gray embrace. The goggles he yanked down from atop his head and seated firmly to protect his orbs prevented damage to tissue but, more importantly, filtered for heat signatures. Wearing the specialized lenses meant he saw the world in another layer, a grid of colors to mark objects.

Blue for heat - the darker the shade, the more intense the flame. Gray for cold - the lighter the color, the chillier the temperature. Visible metal mass showed up in shades of purple while biological matter hinted of green and blue with occasional orange, depending on whether they were water based or not.

It took but a millisecond to scan the area. To catalogue the various colors. A hint of bio matter swayed into view then hid. Not very well he should add.

He didn't turn his head. Didn't give any sign he'd noticed anything at all. Merely raised his arm and fired. A large bullet - a solid seventy five millimeters wide and coated in Varmellium oil, which ignited if it got wet - rocketed to his target.

Blood counted as moisture, so when that missile hit, it blew a hefty hole.

Which was why it was disconcerting to see the blue-green body not just rise with a hole in its chest but step toward him, the rim of its wound showing yellow.

Not biological after all.

Damned androids. The layer of heated flesh over synthetic machine parts meant they could fool the goggle's lenses.

He raised his gun again, even as the robot, unable to feel pain and not completely incapacitated, fired.


Despite Jwl's ducking and leaning to his left, the bullet nonetheless sheared the side of his head.

The floor didn't provide a soft landing for his shoulder. Something crushed, and he could only hope he'd not dented anything. He aimed his gun even as he fell.

The second massive bullet hit the robot in the head. Blew a hole right through it. But best to be careful. The knees were taken out with two more shots, enough to send the android to the ground. Immobilizing it in wasn't enough though. It still twitched, the metal grip still clutching its weapon tight.

Damned things were hard to kill. And you had to kill them. Never walk away from one that still moved. No one ever forgot what had happened to Kyyl. Poor guy thought he'd killed the rogue robot with a bullet between its eyes. Kyyl turned and was walking away when the android took him out with a shot to the head.

Jwls's people might have conquered many things. Aging. Disease. Most injuries. Limb and organ replacement. Yet the one thing they couldn't do was live without a brain.

Without one, you were nothing more than an android.

Yet what if you could find something to enhance your intelligence, protect it, repair it?

Why not? After all, they'd found something to replace hearts and lungs and even spines.

Rumor had it a certain antique dealer was working on a device, something to act as the ultimate brain enhancer. Apparently Jwls wasn't the only one who'd heard that rumor.

The house where the antique dealer lived might have been remote, but it certainly wasn't quiet.

Jwls had already killed another curiosity seeker, and now the house androids were attacking. This job had just taken an interesting turn.

He held his arm to his mouth - the watch at his wrist fitted snugly over the metal bracers - and murmured, "Just put down a dirty dick." A slang term for a robot because, initially, the first realistic androids had been made for sex. With great big dirty dicks that required a whole new set of health laws because they weren't being cleaned properly.

Many places had banned the use of androids, especially those that mimicked life so well. But they made excellent servants. Perfect soldiers who couldn't be corrupted.

The example of why you needed a brain.

Awhile back, a group tried to argue that dirty dicks should have rights. They tried to liberate them from their owners. They didn't live to regret that choice. In their zeal, they'd forgotten to factor in one important thing. Robots couldn't be swayed by emotion, and they killed on command.

"I've got a pair of dirty d's by the second quadrant entrance." The piercing in his lobe vibrated with the message from Zak, part of his crew.

There were five of them in all and a good thing they'd all come. The dealer's place was crawling with bots, and there were other rumor hunters, too. Others after the same treasure.

Ray chimed in next. "A pair for me as well."

"Look at you with your measly two. Got you both beat with five," Ursy remarked, her reply a distinct vibration.

"Place is crawling," Ray remarked. "And I'm pretty sure I heard a motor not long ago. We might have more company coming."

"What a pile of rusted gears. I'm beginning to wonder if we're wasting our time." Said with annoyance by the final person of their group, Wulff.

"Guess that fellow with the drunken story of a treasure hit a few more taverns after ours," Zak reasoned.

Jwls recalled the fellow, handsome, wearing rich clothing. Drinking hard, but not quite ever falling-down drunk, telling a story of a device. A perfect machine to make someone immortal.

Or as he called it, the God Gear.

It made Jwls salivate. Did it really exist? "My section is clear," he announced, the building having been divided into zones among the crew. Everyone had their part to play. They worked in tandem as a team.

The others sounded off. Level two didn't have what they were looking for. Which meant, "We need to go down to the next level."

He just needed to find stairs or an elevator.

Rather than wander aimlessly, best check a map. He flipped a tiny switch on the side of his goggles, changing the lens. A different filter, providing a map of the building, helped him orient himself. Pivoting on his heel, the map turned with him. Jwls strode in the direction of a hidden set of stairs, the lock pad bypassed by melting it. The wall slid open, revealing stairs going down.

The staircase didn't hide any kind of security. Kind of disappointing. One would expect a lair to have some kind of protection other than just the droids. The door to the next level gaped, someone having already passed through.

He couldn't let them get to the prize first.

Smoke drifted in this section, light enough for now and yet it could easily thicken. Having reinforced lungs didn't mean he should tax them. He tugged a bandeau over the lower half of his face before dropping into a jog down the smoky corridor. His goggles protected his eyes, and despite the lack of light in this section, his mapping lenses had no problem sifting shadow from actual wall. His step quick, Jwls made his way to a hall made remarkable mostly because of the bodies piled before a door. More massacred droids, and one gouged fleshy body. Not someone Jwls recognized. Looked like whoever killed the stranger robbed them, too. A few holes in the body indicated a loss of machinery.

He tapped his ear. "We've got Gear Hunters in the building." No need to say more. Gear Hunters were known to be ruthless when it came to acquiring the cogs and gears that sold for high prices on the dark mechanical market.

He stepped past the pile of bodies and glanced through the door to see a mundane office. Curved long desk. Gelatin pod seat behind it for the tentacle-inclined. Past that another door, wedged open, with more stairs going down.

The gun he extended pointed the way, ready to fire. He didn't remain quiet as he descended, but he did hug walls to make himself a more difficult target. He encountered no troubles until he arrived at the bottom step and noticed the blue puddle. Innocuous appearing if you ignored the steam and smell. Jwls knew better. That was molten goo, the kind that chewed through leather, flesh. Even the floor wouldn't remain intact. In other words, don't touch.

Usually an easy rule to follow, except the door he needed lay on the other side of the puddle. Closed, unfortunately, and the positioning of the hinges indicated it required a pull to open. Just his luck.

For a moment, he debated returning to the previous floor and seeking another way down, but that would waste time.

Might as well make an entrance here.

And he meant make.

Jwls shook his arm, the motion re-arming his weapon with a different kind of missile. The bigger, more explosive caliber loaded. The only one he'd brought so hopefully one shot would do it.

He fired and ducked, pulling the wing of his coat to cover his head.


The vibration barely caused a tremble in the solid-built structure, yet in spite of that, the staircase he stood on shifted, mostly because the puddle melted the support for it. He needed to move. His aim proved true. The door now possessed a decent-sized hole, large enough for him if he dove and didn't get caught on anything.

Jwls stroked a finger over a button on his coat, magnetizing it so that it clung tight to his body. Nothing would dangle as he went over that pit.

He lacked a runway he could use to launch himself and gain momentum. Time ticked. The stairs sagged. Might as well just do it.

Jwls threw himself, tucking his body into a narrow arrow, willing all the gears, flesh, and machinery in his body to ignore gravity for just a moment. His hands and arms cleared first then his head, but a groan of sound shifted the door. His shoulders brushed the edges of the hole, throwing off his trajectory. His legs dipped down. The toe of his boot touched the blue goo.

He hit the other side on the floor hard and slid. That didn't stop him from kicking off the boot, springing to his feet, shaking his arm to arm himself again, and aiming at his footwear.

Hiss. A fine particle powder sprayed forth, coating the boot, stopping further damage. Nothing worse than showing up barefoot to a fight, a fight which, judging by the distant sounds of guns and yells, he was late to.

Damn it. He shoved his foamy boot back on.

"Where's the live fire happening?" he asked, jogging in the direction of the noise. He also rearmed his arm with bullets, the price he'd paid for the new weapon well worth it. It truly was multifunctional.

Zak replied. "We are just outside the vault. We had to take care of a few of the dealer's guests." In other words, more cog hunters who'd come to steal the prize. Which made Jwls wonder yet again at the whole mission.

Who leaked the fact the dealer had such precious cargo? And why wasn't it better secured? Only some robot servants running around? Where was the true security force? The laser beams in the halls. The false floors that were supposed to send them plummeting into bottomless pits.

Did it matter? The chance of a lifetime might be within grasp.

He checked the map, looking for the area Zak mentioned. Not far now. "Almost there," Jwls announced as he turned the corner, only to curse as he saw movement. Instinct had him flattening. The fireball soared past overhead.

"It's me!" he yelled.

Ursy held back the next round of fire. "Oops." Her lips pursed, the mockery clear. Once more she'd claim innocence. But they were all getting wise to Zak's little sister.

"Didn't recognize the light tapping of your footsteps. Have you lost weight? Did your mechanics turn to rust?"

The ultimate insult because it meant someone who'd had very little modification. "A pity you can't find a part to make you pleasant," Jwls retorted.

"Ah, is the poor baby going to cry that I'm being mean?" she bullied.

He glared.

Ray interrupted. "If you guys are done comparing dicks."

"And Jwls coming up short against Ursy," Zak snickered.

"Hey!" Jwls growled.

"Ahem." Ray tried not to laugh. "Stop worrying that Ursy is tougher than all of us and get over here. We've breached the vault door and are going in."

They wouldn't wait. Waiting would give anyone hiding within a chance to regroup.

"On my way." He began to jog, following Ursy already in motion. They turned a corner, and he noticed the body in the hall and the charred marks on the wall. Must be the vault, only Ursy ran past the blasted doors.

"Ursy? What the hell? I think we go in here." He slowed, peeked inside, and saw his friends at the far end of the room, prying at a huge chunk of metal.

He shouted, "Are you sure you're in the right place?" Because still watching Ursy, he noticed she'd stopped at a solid-seeming wall farther down the hall before the next branching.

"Haven't found any treasure or even that damned dealer yet," Wulff grumbled.

"Looks like that was just an outer ring. We're blasting through the next door."

Jwls hesitated, looking between his friends and Ursy, who patted the wall in front of her.

"Blast all you like. You're in the wrong place," Ursy finally deigned to reply. Heading toward her, Jwls noticed her patting the wall before retreating a few paces.

He ducked and covered with his coat, expecting the explosion that followed. He almost missed hearing Zak grumble, "There's another door behind this one. How many fucking doors am I going to have to break down?"

"Don't bother. The vaults within a vault are just decoys. Get back to the hall." Jwls rose as soon as the explosion stopped vibrating the air. Ursy didn't wait but popped through the hole, her lithe figure moving quickly out of sight.

Jwls ran and was soon climbing through the hole to join her. He found himself in an interesting place. "Well damn. Looks like Ursy located the dealer's real vault."

"Because one of us studied the plans," was her retort sent out to all their auditory channels. "You should try it sometime."

"Study?" Zak gagged. "Perish the thought."

"On our way," Wulff announced.

"Un hunh." Barely a reply from Jwls because it was hard to move his gaze from the display cases, each featuring machinery, such beautiful pieces. There was a cog, golden and tempting. Beside it a shiny silver gear, the spokes of it perfect, not pitted from use. He even some saw very rare piston contraptions, their cylindrical perfection something only dreamed about. Mechanics of all sorts abounded on pedestals. A treasure for someone always looking for bodily upgrades.

Yet, while the mechanical pieces in this room were lovely, they weren't the true treasure. Where was the God Gear?

Jwls ran past the tempting displays, realizing the shiny objects presented another decoy. Stop here and play with the pretty metal parts. The real treasure, the reason they'd come here, had yet to be seen.

And it was worth more than all the items in here.

The far end of the room ended in a wall, and he realized he'd lost sight of Ursy. He glanced around then down, looking for a door or even a ventilation grill. Saw nothing until he gazed above him. There she hung, her slim frame at the top of the rope stuck to the bottom of a massive pod hung overhead. Much like his ship in space, the cylinder had a clear dome all round to give an occupant a view of the treasure from any angle.

Ursy dangled just under it, and he saw the blue flare of a torch.

"Wouldn't it be easier to look for a door?" he asked as he ran and leapt for her dangling rope. He caught the end and began to climb, hauling himself easily hand over hand.

Ursy snorted. "Doors are for guests. I like going in the back way."

"So do I," Zak lamented. "Then they get mad and claim I hit the wrong hole."

The groan was universal.

Zak's love of sex was well known. The fact that his sister heard him bragging about his conquests didn't slow him one bit.

"We are coming through the hole," Ray announced.

Zak snickered. "So many things I could say right now, including Ônice ass.'"

Jwls didn't have to look around to understand the noise he heard was the pair of them scuffling.

Wulff sighed. "Why me?"

"Because you're a glutton for punishment," was Ursy's reply. "Anyone going to join me? I'm inside."

"I'm right behind her," Jwls announced, reaching the lip of the hole she'd cut.

"Holy seventh tit on the goddess, that's a lot of cogs," Zak said with a whistle, having obviously entered the main room.

"But not the ones we came for," Jwls reminded. "Entering the pod. No sign of anything yet."

"Right behind you," Wulff announced. A peek out the hole showed the big fellow climbing fast up the rope.

Jwls glanced around. "Looks like I'm in some kind of a workshop."

At his words, he heard Ursy snicker. "What gave it way?"

"The sign." Which read, Snype's Workshop. But even without the words, he would have known. Chunks of metal in bins all over the place. Scattered tools with teeth. Files for sanding. Jwls ran his fingers through the dust and debris left behind. Brought it to his lips. "Whoever this dealer is, he's been playing with latmevilium." The only metal living machinery could be made of.

Ursy was the one to make the connection. "He's a creator."

When a part broke, or became too worn out, the remnants were brought to those who could manipulate the stuff. Melt it down properly and then form it into something new. Known as tinqqers, a fancy word for one who could create, those with a true skill for the craft were rare.

Also very guarded and kept secret. So why was it so easy to get to this one?

A frown accompanied Jwls as he stalked through the workshop to the stairs in the middle of the room leading to the next floor. A giant bedroom with bed, carpet, and not much else. Not even an android servant.

No one at all.

The flight of stairs brought him up another level, dining and leisure, then one more to reach the top of the pod, a large open space where he saw Ursy standing still and a second person wearing a floor-length robe.

"I'm on the top level, and we have company," he whispered, despite knowing he'd be heard. He kept his voice low mostly out of awe, because there, floating above a single pedestal, the machine of all machines. Intricate enough to excite a male who still had room in his body for one more.

He couldn't help but stare. Almost drool. Even get a slight erection at the sight of the complex network of gears meshing into cogs. Add in a few pistons plus some tiny little metal pieces that together formed. . .

The God Gear. And the biggest payoff of their lives!

Mesmerized by it, he had to wonder if this could be the thing missing in his life, the machine to fill the empty space inside.

Because, despite all his upgrades, he still needed something.

Looking at the pretty, shiny things suspended in the air, slightly spinning and glinting in the light, it wasn't hard to believe he'd found it.

Treading softly that he might flank the figure and show support to Ursy, Jwls said, "Hey, you. Might as well give up now. My friends are about to join us, meaning you are very outnumbered."

"Because you totally need help subduing that." Ursy jerked her head and snickered.

A taunt that irritated, as the slight figure - dressed in a plain, gray robe, standing alongside the pedestal with the cog of all cogs - paid him no mind.

"Weren't you the one who taught me small is mighty?"

"Just last week as a matter of fact. How is your left buttock?"

Fine now, but the bruise had made it hard to sit for a day.

Since he considered her a younger sibling - an annoying one - Jwls felt perfectly comfortable flashing his hands in a universal gesture that said, I will urinate in your mouth while you sleep.

Ursy blew him a kiss.

Their antics drew notice because the man in the gray robe suddenly lowered his hood. The stranger clapped his hands and blinked at them from behind goggles that enlarged the size of his eyes. "About time you arrived. I was beginning to think I'd put out too many droids. Useful things they are for protecting privacy. Expensive, though."

"Enough with the jabbering, old man." The honorific used for someone of elder years. Although, if it were untampered biological years, then Jwls might just be older than the fellow. He saw no signs of enhancement on his skin. Not a single gear or wiring tattoo.

"Young people, always so impatient," chided the male in the robe. "Have we forgotten our manners? Shall we start with introductions? I am Marius Snype - "

"Tinqqer and antiquities dealer. We know," interrupted Ursy with a bored sigh. "We're just here for the mecha parts. So kindly step aside or I will go through you."

The most bloodthirsty of their group. Woe to the man or woman she finally settled down with.

"Such eagerness and for something you've never seen before. Let me ask you, why do you think it's valuable?" Marius tucked his hands behind his back and cast only a sparing glance at the God Gear.

Ursy shrugged. "Look at it. Pretty obvious."

A trite answer but true, the intricacy much more complex than any of the machines Jwls had seen inside anyone else. So many moving parts.

When you considered most people started their upgrades with one single gear. . .just one. . .they looked upon unmentionable wealth.

Taking a few steps forward, Jwls could feel the draw of the machine. His eyes were hypnotized by the intricate and fine-toothed cogs, the long, lean allure of shafts joining them, the potential he could see.


Wanted. . .

"We're taking it," Jwls announced.

"To do what with?" Marius asked, sounding genuinely curious. "There is only one full set. And how many of you?"

Ursy had crept close. "We only need one buyer to split the result."

"So you're saying none of you are tempted to own it?" Marius asked with the smoothness of a salesman.

Yeah, the temptation was there. That hole inside. It needed something to fill it. But that hole could be filled with the many gears and machines he'd buy with the money they'd make selling this one.

"What does it do?" Jwls asked, having never seen such complexity. What would it be like to wear even just one of the parts. He thought the gears and cogs he'd acquired over time high end, but this. . .it outshone them all.

"It can do almost anything you like." An answer that didn't reply to the question at all.

He stood across from Ursy, within reach of Marius and the gears. On the periphery of his vision, he could see Zak and Ray circling around, weapons in hands, ready to provide backup, which meant Wulff was clearing them a path out of here. They might be exiting hot.

"If it's so magical, how come you're not wearing it?" Ursy pointed out.

"I did. For a while." Marius tucked his hands in his sleeves, and his expression turned rapturous. "I had strength beyond imagination. Size, too. Taller, broader. I couldn't be truly injured. I didn't even need air to live."

"Everyone needs to breathe." Whether they did it via their mouths or absorbed via the skin.

"Mere mortals, perhaps, but when I wore the machine, I was more than that. I became a repository for knowledge. Remembering everything I'd ever seen or heard in my life. The information all there for simple extraction. I knew the answer to everything."

"Sounds fucking amazing," Jwls muttered.

The words caused Marius to zero in on him. "Do you know what happens when you excel at everything? When nothing thrills you anymore? You go looking for things that make you feel." Marius fixed them with a blue gaze that was almost translucent it was so light. "I craved more. I did everything too fast. Driving, flying. Jumping off things rather than climb. I had no fear of breaking. Why would I when there's a gear in there that is capable of repairing any damage?"

The words were enough to make Jwls slip a few gears in excitement. "It makes you into a god." Which was what all Siyborgh strove to become. On his planet, the upgrading of parts was religion with devout followers such as Wulff, whose main goal in life was to get closer to their mecha gods. As for Jwls, it wasn't religious fervor that drove him. He just wanted the shiny new parts.

"Yes, you become a god, which was the problem." The washed-out eyes fixed on him. "I am not a god."

The old male couldn't handle it. Understandable. Greatness could be a burden, but Jwls was ready to give it a try. He frowned as Ursy stepped closer.

Marius ignored her. "All those gears you're drooling about? They're beautiful. And powerful. But there's one thing they can't do."

What?" Jwls asked. What freaked out Marius so much he'd shed the gears? Which made Jwls wonder, how had he removed them? Were these surface versions? Those were usually the cheapest kind, gears that sat atop skin and required the filament tattoos to connect them to the actual body. Easily removed should you find a better upgrade.

"Being omnipotent doesn't make you happy. Which is more important than you'd think."

"I'm already happy," Jwls boasted. He had a ship. Friends. Wealth. Even more wealth once they got their hands on the treasure.

"Are you?"

The gaze pierced him, and it felt like it knew the lie. As if it saw the hole in Jwls.

"I am perfectly content, thanks for asking." Ursy stepped forward to reach.

"I'll be even happier with those gears." Ray had gotten close enough that he stepped into the light.

Only Zak remained out of reach and snapped, "You are both idiots. Get your hands away from it. Don't you think it's weird this Marius guy isn't moving?"

At the statement, Jwls frowned. "He's right. Why hasn't he done something other than talk?"

"Because he's stalling," Zak observed. "He's probably got reinforcements coming."

Marius didn't even deny it. "Not so much stalling as trying to discern who among you is worthy enough. Not just anyone can handle it. Only the strongest and wisest should ever be allowed near the God Gear."

"I guess that leaves you out of the running," Ursy purred, baiting her brother.

"As twins, I do believe you just called yourself stupid and weak as well," Zak retorted with a snort.

"Don't be mad I got all the brains and good looks." His sister smirked as she dropped her goggles over her eyes. "No force fields showing on any of the energy spectrums."

"What's under the robe?" Jwls kept his attention on Marius.

"Not much." The old man beamed. "Shall I show you?"

He did and at least proved he kept fit. Of more interest, Marius had unmarked skin. Not a single tattoo, not one visible gear.

"Did you remove all your tech?" Jwls asked.

"Every last piece. It's time this fleshy machine wound down. Which is why you're here. There should be a successor to my knowledge. Perhaps I was wrong to keep it to myself all these years. Could be the people need a god. A strong god. A good god. Or" - Marius's expression turned sly - "someone bad. A despot that will jolt them from their apathy. Make them feel again. A shame I won't be around to see which it is." The robe hit the floor, and the old fellow spread his hands. "Goodbye and good luck."

Which sounded kind of final and usually meant a suicide bomb, which was why Jwls dove at Marius, ready to use his body to shield his friends.

Except he soared right through. Unexpected. He would later admire the very convincing hologram. First, he had to recover from landing on his face, legs and ass scooting up as he dug his cheek into the floor.

His ill luck struck someone as hilarious, and they laughed. He had enough wits left to shoot the universal gesture for "impale yourself on something sharp."

Jwls bounded to his feet, shook himself, and rolled his shoulders working out kinks. Feeling the throb on his chin. Making him wish he'd gotten Wulff's iron jaw.

The hologram-version Marius smirked. He'd not left after all and stood there naked. "As you might have just noticed, I'm not here. I'm in a better place. A happier place." Marius swept his hand, and the scene changed to a translucent sea, so clear they could see the reefs and fish swimming, the sandy grains washed clean of color allowing them a view to the core of the planet. A fireball of pure white. The image focused on Marius once more.

"I don't need the God Gear anymore. Which is why you're here. To bear witness to the quest."

"Quest? What the fuck is he talking about, a quest?" Ray asked with a frown.

"Shut up and you'll find out." Bushy brows pulled together in a glare as Marius fixed them with a cranky stare. "I'm not just going to hand the machine to you. You'll have to find it. Only the strongest and wiliest must ever get their hands on my most incredible and terrible creation."

"Or we'll just grab it now," Ray grumbled and, ignoring Zak's warning, stuck his hand into the light sheathing the pedestal and its treasure. His hand began to close around a gear, and Jwls wondered if he held his breath, too.

Ray pulled out his hand and held out the piece, murmuring, "So shiny."

"Let me see." Zak reached for it, and Ray growled, "Mine," as he held it out of reach.

Things might have escalated between them except a sudden whirring filled the air. Looking up, Jwls saw dozens of mechanical insects, their wings fluttering, their bellies full of dials. One swooped and, with metal pincers, plucked the piece from Ray's hand. He gaped in surprise. They all did before Jwls thought enough to yell, "They're going to take all of them."

That caused a mad scramble. The crew dove at the pedestal, hands reaching, but so did metal claws.

Jwls pulled back a hand that stung. He'd reached with the wrong one, his fleshy hand. He thrust his other arm back in and grabbed hold of a gear already being pulled away by a drone.

They played a tugging war, the drone much stronger than it should be, and he worried about damaging the gear. Then he worried about something else. A peek overhead showed why the room was vibrating.

"The dome is opening." Inviting inside an atmosphere they could not breathe. The seal on the underground building was broken, and air began to suck out.

With regret, Jwls had to release the drone with its treasure that he might yank at the mask he kept clipped to his waist. He secured it over his face and attached the rebreather to his goggles. A temporary solution at best. Annoying as well, given they all sounded like heavy-breathing beasts.

Meanwhile, while they tried to not asphyxiate, the flying robots were busy.

The yelling ran hot and furious around him. "The drones are getting away." Ray pointed out the obvious.

"We'll shoot them down." Zak aimed his gun, which Ursy immediately knocked away.

"You idiot," his sister chastised. "If you shoot them, you might ruin the tech."

"In case you hadn't noticed, the tech is getting away."

"For now. Some of us installed a tracker." Jwls held up his wrist and the watch on it that showed a tiny, pulsing red dot.

"Me, too," Ray added.

Ursy smirked. "I tagged two."

They all looked at Zak, who shrugged sheepishly. "Never even thought of marking my piece."

"You idiot!" Ursy yelled. "More than fifty pieces and you couldn't mark even one?"

"How about we discuss the dumbness of your brother later?" Wulff appeared, weapon slung over his shoulder. "There's some kind of alarm going off, and I doubt it's any good." As if he arranged it, the floor under Jwls's feet wobbled.

"I don't suppose that happens often?" Zak asked hopefully. "Planets shake. Things crack." He watched the zigzagging line in the ceiling that had nothing to do with the opening of the dome and sighed. "Okay, that's not good.

"Finally, something smart out of you."

"We need to get out of here," Zak stated as the rumbling intensified.

"Back down, I guess." Would they have enough time?

Ursy answered for him. "Too long. We need out of here right now. I say we follow those guys."

A glance overhead showed the drones hovering, waiting for the dome to fully open. Already the air from the surface rushed in, coating things in a dusty haze, forcing his mask to filter and look for the gases he could use to breathe.

Ursy slapped her waist, only to grumble, realizing her cord wasn't there. "Shit, who has the other rope?"

There was much shuffling and looking down that caused Ursy to snap, "Did no one else bring a rope?"

"I did." From above, they heard Wulff. Even better, he aimed a stream of thin arachnid silk rope, the best and strongest known in the galaxy. It dangled just off the shaking floor.

Zak gave it a tug. "Go." He gestured to Ursy.

"Why don't you go first? Just because I'm a female doesn't mean I need special treatment." She angled her chin. Zak stared a moment then shrugged before he began to climb.

Ursy stood below glaring at him as he moved quickly hand over hand.

A prime example that you could never please a female.

"What are we going to do once we get to our ships?" Ray asked as he waited for Ursy to get halfway before putting his hands on the rope.

A reply would have to wait, as the floor trembled again, and more ominously, there was creaking and groaning as a crack zigged across the floor toward them.

Jwls grabbed Ray and tossed him into the air, letting him grab hold of the rope before leaping and winding his fist in the silk. He didn't bother to climb, not when the line started moving as Wulff and the rest began hauling it in. Only in the last couple of feet did he start truly climbing as the rumbling under his feet intensified. Dust rose, the kind that tickled the lungs even through his mask.

He hit the lip and was hauled onto ground, not firm ground. It rolled under foot.

The section of surface they found themselves on was rocky, the better to hide the habitat dome, the glass fabricated to resemble the landscape.

"Which way to the ships?" Ursy asked.

Wulff led the way, his fast-paced jog taking them over the rippling ground. It would cave at any moment. That prick Marius hadn't just whipped the treasure from their grasp. He'd obviously turned on some kind of planetary destruction thing.

Zak lamented the loss. "I wish now I'd pocketed some of those gears in that museum Snype had going."

"Might still be a chance to snare a few," Ray noted.

"By going back and risk getting blown to bits? Even I'm not that dumb." Zak managed to talk over his shoulder and run at the same time.

Which was why he didn't see the foot Wulff extended.

Zak didn't stumble far, but his posture did stiffen. "You're a rusty tool."

"Better rusty than clumsy."

"Worry later about the gears. Let's get off planet." Jwls played the mediator. He'd rather enjoy the coming explosion on board his ship with a glass of strong alcohol.

Luckily, Marius's complex went down levels instead of running wide, which meant the landing area they'd chosen wasn't too far from the base. What they didn't expect was company.

Ships, two of them, lifted, their bright green wings glowing as they magnetically pushed off the ground. A ground that happened to contain -

"My ship!" Zak yelped. "Those fucking pricks broke my ship."

"Ride with me," Ray yelled, making a line for his vessel.

Jwls ran for his own craft and felt more than saw the explosion at his back. A quick glance showed another burning ship. Wulff's.

Before he could offer a ride, he saw the male angling after Ursy, who was closer.

Probably smart given the trembling to the extreme. Jwls didn't waste time screwing around. He slapped levers and spun dials and got off that planet quick as he could.

He didn't hover nearby either. With ship engines thrustered to the max, he and his crew left the area. By the time the planet exploded. . .they got to enjoy the show, sharing the event via a holographic call from the comfort of their ships.

"That fucking Marius played us," Zak complained still. "Why get us to come if he wasn't going to give up the tech?"

"He wanted us to know it exists." The only thing that made sense and didn't.

"And now it's scattered to the ends of the universe." Ray's lips turned down.

"Don't you mean universes?" Ursy commented.

Jwls leaned back in a chair, which creaked. He frowned but said, "We'll have to hunt down the ones we can definitely locate first."

"Alone or together?" Ray asked. "Because we'll find pieces faster if we split up."

"I thought we were sharing the score."

"That was when it was one machine. Circumstances have changed. I say we keep whatever pieces we find," Ursy offered. Tech worked best with more pieces combined, but some gears were better than none.

Jwls shook his head. "If we're going to fetch the best price, then we'll need all the pieces. Together. I say we work as a crew still. Hunt down all the tech, and then find us the biggest buyer."

"Anyone know someone rich who wants to be a god?" Zak joked.

Yes. Jwls wouldn't mind one bit. But what he said instead was, "We should head after the drones before they get too far."

"Or before some space scavenger notices them and snags their metal carcasses."

Their goodbyes were said. Courses set. Jwls followed the signal of his tracking device easy enough. Catching up to it, though? Jwls never managed to get close enough. He went across galaxies then slipped between universes. To the farthest reaches imaginable.

The last known universe, with a tiny little galaxy. And rotating around its single sun, a moderate-sized planet of blue water with chunks of green and brown.

A backwards place called Earth.

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