Science Detectives: Post-Singularity Pulp Adventures

The Sky Pirates of Jupiter

Marie Magnum stood before the holographic display charting her vessel's course. With her blond hair pulled back into a bun and covered by her fedora, she tightened her trenchcoat and checked her Mateba autorevolver. Her caseless magnum rounds were loaded inside, and she placed the weapon back into a shoulder holster.

Amidst the countless flashing displays and lights on the bridge of the Friedrich II der Gro├če, Marie focused on a display of the vessel's location. They had entered the gravitational well of Jupiter long ago, and the red and yellow ball dominated much of the display. While her own gray, cylindrical vessel was by no means the largest vessel, it was an amoeba next to the massive gas giant. Despite having no artificial gravity on her vessel, a reasonable approximation of Terran gravity was achieved by wearing footwear that stuck to the "floor" and having her enhanced muscles automatically compensate for the lack of gravity. It was not absolutely essentially, Marie found having a "down" convention made for easier movement and navigation around the old warship.

Marie turned her head as metallic clanking echoed down a nearby hallway. An Asian man in a silver suit of powered armor walked onto the bridge. Marie turned to see her bodyguard and hired muscle, Charlie Chong. The armor had a grid-like pattern on it, superficially resembling ancient brigandine. His black hair was clipped into a short military-styled buzz, and his face bore scars he never cared to repair. A Mauser Broomhandle pistol was placed in a belt holster, and a cluster of ovid plasma grenades hung from a bandoleer like an egg sac on a wolf spider. Slung across his back was an even more massive weapon, a wood-stocked weapon with a flared barrel and superficial resemblance to a musket.

"How goes the surveying, Ree?" Charlie asked his employer. "No sign of hostiles?"

"'Fraid there's nothin' so far, Charlie," Marie muttered. "Remember, our client said that their freighter got swiped near the Great Red Spot."

"Hard to believe we're this close to Jupiter," Charlie leaned forward, moving closer to the holographic planet. "I mean, getting this close without getting cooked by radiation, pummeled into space dust by asteroids, or crushed by its gravity is amazing! Back before the Singularity, this sort of thing wouldn't have been possible!"

"To you, maybe," Marie pushed a button, switching the hologram of Jupiter to show several red dots on and under the world's atmosphere. Each dot under the atmosphere resembled a blemish on the face of tanned, leathery hide. "But plenty of poor saps work here every day, workin' the hydrogen and helium scoop-ship stations. Sure, it's mostly automated, but they still need folks in the loop in case it fails."

A new voice interrupted Marie's conversation. It was nasally, high pitched, and one that made Marie grit her teeth whenever she heard it. "Ah, the primitive morons are observing the wonders of holograms," Marie looked up to see the most unwelcome of her guests about her ship. "It's a wonder that your pathetic species managed to master fire in the first place."

Marie saw the infamous Doktor Bizarro, with his angular black plastic face, the dark green cloak that covered his body, and his two weapons of choice, a gladius and a QBZ-95 assault rifle. Resembling a cross between an evil cultist, stereotypical terrorist, and wandering pile of garbage, the mad cyborg walked forward.

Charlie leveled his eyes at the mad scientist. "Well, Dok, guess transhumanity's best response is your condition," he looked down. "The freak who started the Zomborg Wars, captured and forced to work for the good guys. Aren't you glad we have those neural inhibitors in that thick metal skull of yours?"

"Silence, fool!" Bizarro raised his fist at Charlie. "It's only a matter of time before I break these chains, and exact my revenge by turning the lot of you into zomborgs!"

"Dok, shut it," Marie narrowed her eyes at the cyborg, and he recoiled instantaneously before trying to regain his defiant posture. "Reprogrammin' that warped mind of yours was the only way to get some use outta yah. Just because you work for me now, like it or not, doesn't give you a free pass to drive me up the wall."

"Just because you've mostly imprisoned me in my own body doesn't mean I won't find a way out some day," Bizarro mocked. "Or your pathetic virtues of compassion drive you to loosen the chains for a single instance!"

With that, Marie Magnum walked towards the mad scientist, and tossed a hook punch at the side of his head. Bizarro, caught unaware by the blow to the side of his head, was knocked to the ground. He tried to lean up against the wall, and he began holding the spit Marie had made contact with. "Shaddup, yah kook," Marie then released her fist, her strength-boosting Enhancer glove falling into standby mode. "Ain't in the mood for it now. Keep it up, and ya get clobbered harder."

"Hey, Ree, want me to have Shoggy try to partially digest him a bit?" Charlie gestured to the room behind him. "Or trap him in that virtual world of awful literature?"

"Nah, Charlie, he knows he'll shut it now, or I disable his voicebox," Marie pounded her fists together. "The hard way."

The Doktor pulled himself up, straightened the cracked plastic mask that was the closest analog he had to a face, and turned to Marie. "Fine, I'll do your request, pathetic baseline human," the Doktor muttered.

"For the love of Tesla, Dok," Marie muttered. "Charlie and I both got nanotech implants more advanced than any part of you. You're obsolete. You're a rusty piece of junk, not even a has-been. You're history's bad joke, still thinking he's the talk of the town."

"And what does the woman playing detective seek from an old relic like me?" Bizarro was still being defiant. Marie only had to raise her fist again, and Bizarro backed away. "I mean, what does the organic want?"

"Dok, you're a warning for any chump who tries crossing me like you did, reduced to my errand boy. What I want, Dok, is you to run an analysis of the hijacked craft, and figure out how far it could've gone if it either got hijacked, got lost, or destroyed," Marie pointed to the hologram of Jupiter. "Those red dots are all the artificial structures we know about inside the atmosphere Jupiter. Most of 'em are hydrogen and helium gathering facilities, stratellite docks, research outposts, and a few floating cities. "

Marie changed the display, and a blue line connected two of the red points. "This was the route that our client's stratellite freighter was takin'," Marie explained. "Everything's all fine and dandy until about halfway through."

Marie put her finger on the hologram, and the blue line was bisected. "The gasbag vanishes from all sensors," she tapped the last reported location with her finger. "No one aboard, but valuable cargo gettin' shipped to a research outpost."

Marie turned changed the display. A hologram of a cargo stratellite appeared. The underside was white fabric and possessed a sleek gondola for cargo, and the top was completely covered by solar panels. As sleek and massive as the craft was, it was essentially an automated zeppelin used for deliveries. "It's a standard Sky-Hauler 5000 stratellite, used by just about every other freight line in a gas giant," she explained. "No reason anyone would suspect it's got anything especially valuable on it."

"And you want me to tell you where the blimp could've gone?" Doktor Bizarro asked. "Hardly a query worthy of my superior intellect!"

"Humor me, Dok," Marie pounded her fists together.

"Well, perhaps your client is a complete and utter moron and tried sending the cargo blimp into one of Jupiter's more turbulent areas," Bizarro mused. "Given the time elapsed since the blasted thing vanished, it could be anywhere within a thousand kilometer radius, or just debris falling towards the core of the planet if it was damaged severely."

"Even I can figure that much, Dok," Marie saw Charlie take a glimpse towards the plasma rifle slung over his shoulder. "Tell me somethin' I don't know."

"Hmm, interesting," Doktor Bizarro mused, as Marie watched a readout of his mental processes. "Guess who happens to be the real owner of that glorified gasbag? Turns out there's more on that overrated primitive method of transport than just nanotech feedstock and spare parts."

"Why don't you just spit it out, Dok?" Charlie folded his arms. "Or else the next punch isn't so gentle. Right, Ree?"

"Silence, you self important sack of testosterone!" Marie heard the Doktor mutter. "Now, I'm sure you're aware of this by now, Miss Magnum, but that vessel was carrying Class X items under a fairly standard Compact cover manifest."

"What?" Marie saw Charlie's eyes and stance suddenly perk up, hit by some invisible jolt. "So there's X-Risk involved? Why would the Compact transport something like that with no heavy guard?"

"Oh, Charlie," the Doktor mocked. "The answer's quite simple. The Compact lacked the local resources to accomplish such a task, so the fools sent it out under a false shipping manifest to avert attention."

"He's tellin' the truth, Charlie," Marie nodded. "Remember Class X means they don't know what the hell it does, but it's got some significant potential to be real nasty. Whatever it is, the Compact wants us to find it, pronto."

"Damn," Charlie muttered. "Here I was thinking all that X-Risk stuff was over with once I left the Science Corps."

"Oh, X-Risks seem turn up all the darnedest places," Bizarro mocked. "Civilization killers, species exterminators, planet annihilators. You worthless apes came up were smart enough to stumble upon the Fermi paradox for a good reason, you know. It was sadly my luck you primates dodged my zomborg nano-virus."

Marie heard Herr Doktor Bizarro snickered to himself, but he ceased as soon as the detective's gaze fell upon him. "Charlie, you got that tactical data I asked?"

"Yes, ma'am," Charlie stood up and saluted Marie in what was a well performed gesture. "List of attacks on all shipping within two thousand kliks of the freighter's last recorded location. Most of it's just a few stray, malfunctioning defense drones. More than a few vessels got blasted by 'em or some other party, though."

Marie began to analyze and correlate data within her mind with a speed impossible for unaugmented humans. Within a few seconds, she came up with a result. "Charlie, go get Shoggy and prepare for workin' in real close," she turned to the mad scientist. An invisible broadcast from her implanted wireless gave tactical direction to her companions. "You too, Dok. We're headin' in."

"Wait, Ree," Marie saw a concerned look on Charlie's face. "We're flying into a part of Jupiter where there's been a bunch of attacks we can't explain, and you're not even arming point defenses?"

"Old Fritz can take a beating, Charlie," Marie replied. "But thanks to me changing up our emission signatures, we'll register to any chump out there as just another juicy, unarmed freighter or scoop-ship. I want everyone ready for hard vac, in case they ain't out to take prisoners and try ventilating our hull."

"Draw them out, smart," Charlie nodded in agreement. "I'll go get Shoggy ready."

"Allow me to get into position, oh esteemed leader," Bizarro mocked as he vanished into the depths of the ship. He muttered incoherently before disappearing around a bend.

Marie mentally reviewed her tactics as her craft breached the atmosphere of the gas giant. The holographic display showed a small, insignificant speck enter plunge into the body of the titanic world. Marie knew it was pointless to observe, as she had the data streaming into her wireless implant at real time. At their current speed, they would arrive at the location shortly, and remain stationary until further notice. Their vessel, an obsolete warship, would emit the same signals as any other craft within Jupiter's atmosphere. Due to poor sensor and optical visibility, any potential hostiles would mistake them for another freighter.

Marie Magnum heard familiar sound of her fourth comrade coming towards the command center. Turning her head, a sound like someone sloshing through mud filled the cabin. Marie shifted her gaze towards the same hallway that Bizarro vanished down. A substance with the color of vomit, smell of fresh coffee, and countless eyes and teeth forming and reforming came around the bend. The familiar blob of organic molecules and nanomachines had an object held in a pseudopod above a elevated pseudopod with a pair of eyes roughly spaced the same distance and as on a human face. The entity vaguely resembled an amoeba scaled up to human level.

"Tekelili!" Shoggy chirped as the blob's pseudopods pulled it forward. Marie saw the object was the clear source of the sweat smell. A grin formed on her face as she realized what it was. Shoggy extended its pseudopod, and offered Marie a mug of freshly brewed coffee. The coffee was undoubtedly brewed within the creature's bulk, and the mug was likely assembled. Marie carefully picked up the mug by its handle, and patted the utility blob's nearest pseudopod.

"Mighty swell of yah, Shoggy," she took a sip of the brown sludge she loved. "Hyper-caffeinated, too. Just the way I like it."

At once, the two eyes on Shoggy's "face" grew wider, and a fold in the membrane formed beneath it. A strange smiley face was formed, and the nanotech entity chittered happily. "Tekelili!"

After finishing drinking the hot beverage, Marie directed Shoggy to prepare her for vacuum. The nanotech creature began oozing up her left, engulfing her, clothing and all, into a gigantic vesicle within the bulk of her pet. Marie felt Shoggy's warm, pulsating form gently engulf her. Her face, fedora, and head were completely encased in nano-shoggoth, trapping her with a vaguely translucent puke-colored bubble. Her vision was skewed at first, but she compensated for it. Now completely surrounded in her pet, the nano-blob could protect her from radiation, vacuum, and many physical attacks, in addition to other perks.

Everyone, switch over to wireless, she directed through her implant. Head towards your positions, use thermoptic camo, and wait.

Marie pulled out her Mateba autorevolver and made sure it was outside her protective shield. Holding it carefully, she knelt down in front of the holographic display. An instant later, she was translucent, the lines of her contour broken down by the bright lights and display behind her. A quick scan of through ship's sensors showed her two comrades were in position. Doktor Bizarro dangled from his grappling hook in the cargo bay, almost completely transparent. Marie mused that while he was practically an obsolete museum piece, his thermal-optic disguise system ultimately did the same thing as her and Charlie's more advanced versions. He was also able to survive in vacuum without any assistance, making him a useful (if complaining) repairman for external spacewalks. Marie enjoyed watching and hearing him squirm and moan about every chore he was forced to do.

Satisfied with Doktor Bizarro's position, she changed to her other comrade. A quick view of the main airlock showed Charlie was in position. Charlie now had his helmet on and visor down, which resembled a medieval Asian helmet superficially. Charlie, now completely engulfed in his armor, turning him into a knight in shining powered armor. He took cover behind a bulkhead, holding his archaic, blunderbuss-styled plasma rifle in hand as he prepared for an army to charge through. He became translucent an instant later, becoming the third person to hide entirely. Marie observed him a bit closer, seeing if she could detect his body underneath the armor and observing it for an instant. After finishing, she gave her next order.

Okay, now what, Ree? Charlie auxed over the wireless.

I presume we wait like deer in headlights for some moron to detect what they think is a juicy, unmanned freighter, and attack us, Bizarro's irritating voice interjected.

Both of you, shaddup, Ree ordered both of them. Here's what I think. There's been similar thefts of craft and attacks on stations. Some mooks keep on swiping juicy freighters, and they ain't too keen on leaving witnesses. Even if they are some witnesses or survivors, they ain't gonna fully realize what's going on, since visibility is near zilch. Most of their attacks are easy to write off as some stray busted old defense drones taking potshots.

So, Ree, you think there are pirates at work? Charlie suggested. Or some kind of serial hijackers, at least?

Ah, so much for the much vaunted Terran Compact! Those fools can't even hunt down and destroy a small group of petty thieves, the Doktor mocked. Had I known that, I should have become a space pirate instead of mad scientist.

Stow it, Dok. If I give the signal, prepare for anti-boarding actions, Marie ordered. Till then, we wait. I don't care if no one shows up. We've set the trap, and we need to wait for someone to bite. Now, no more aux-chat. Radio and wireless silence till I say otherwise.

With that, Marie began waiting. She created a bogus hologram log and slipped it onto the bridge's systems. She piped the feed from sensors along the hull onto her vision, focusing on anything visible through the thick clouds. She was flying at a comfortable altitude for the Old Fritz. Despite being a retired warship, its armor would not allow it to go too far into the atmosphere of gas giants, much like a submarine and its maximum crush depth. She tried to maintain an altitude that would be realistic for a supply freighter. Despite the poor optical visibility, the vessel's sensors were able to get slightly better range. For what seemed like an eternity, Marie observed the red mists surrounding the ship from all sides. As surreal as the idea of no "surface" was, Marie focused on her task. While physically not moving a muscle, she shifted between sensor readouts and camera feed.

Suddenly, a strange contact appeared on the periphery of sensor range. It moved fast, and buzzed close to Old Fritz, as if trying to draw out a response. Instantaneously, the vessel's computer had identified it as a drone scout. Who it was broadcasting to, she was unable to find out, but she felt she would soon find out. The drone returned for an instant, and hovered in front of the camera. Its insectile body drew close, almost tapping against the lens, before the robot pulled back for good. As rapidly as it came, the drone sped off out of range of the sensors.

Everyone, just had a contact, Marie warned the others. Better not be sleepin' on my watch.

Got some mines and surprises ready if anyone comes through the airlock, Charlie updated his boss. Bring 'em on.

Ah, so one nebulous contact appears, and our leader tells us to prepare. Your species' tendency to jump at your own collective shadows is somewhere between amusing and irritating, Bizarro mocked. Not that I am concerned.

You're down in the cargo hold, Dok, for a reason, Marie replied. Shaddup, kook. It's buzzing us again.

The strange drone made another quick pass, as if probing the Frederick the Great for functional point defenses. While her sensors could detect several things, it would be easy for someone to sneak a stratellite in, especially if it was covered in metamaterials and active camo that would allow it to blend in with the massive flows of gas around it. The massive blimps literally had vacuum inside their bags, allowing them to be lighter than even the soup of hydrogen and helium other gasses around them.

Marie noticed something that did not quite match with its surroundings, like a thin sheet of water. The massive shape approached the Old Fritz, dropping its active camouflage as it drew closer. The vehicle itself was massive, as Marie could clearly see. In terms of size, it was even larger than Old Fritz, and resembled two zeppelins glued together. Underneath where both the gas-bags (or vac-bags, more accurately) was a massive gondola loaded with needle-like muzzles of various point defense weapons, such as machineguns and lasers. Some larger missile racks were mounted further back along the swept back body of the gondola. The identity of the vessel was a stratellite freighter that had gone missing a year ago, although Marie figured the crew stole the identification of their prey.

Marie recalled that most of Old Fritz's heavy weapons had been removed during its decommissioning, but even its reduced arsenal would not easily be outgunned by the pirates. The stratellite drew closer to the warship, arming some of its weapons. The stray drone from before reappeared, performing a few passes of Old Fritz before docking with the airship. A thought went through Marie's head that perhaps the stray attack drones plaguing the area were not so stray after all.

That's right, suckers, take the bait, Marie mused to herself.

Red warning windows appeared like wildfire across Marie's augmented vision. The pirates were arming some of their weapons. Four missile locks were confirmed, and would impact in a few instants.

Um, Ree, isn't this why we have point defenses? Charlie asked. Can't we just, I don't know, turn the damn things on?!

You accursed fool! Your stupidity will be the end of all of us! Bizarro cursed.

Can your yap, Dok. Do the math. We've got enough armor to take even a bunch of amat and nuke warheads, Marie replied. Besides, if these are pirates, they ain't gonna just blow up a ship they're curious about.

Marie kept the point defenses off as the rockets launched from the pirate stratellite. Looking closer, Marie noticed a thin line behind each of the rockets. The missiles spun in circles around the hull of Old Fritz, weaving a net-like tapestry. Marie recognized it was a carbon nanotube dragnet, used by salvagers and rescue crews to move stranded vessels.

Hey, Ree, looks like all that's missing is a bow-tie on top and wrapping paper,Charlie mused.

Not all good things come in packages, Charlie, Marie spun the chamber of her autorevolver. Like caseless ammo.

So, we just wait for them to take us back wherever and ambush them? Charlie asked.

Sorta, Charlie. I'm beamin' our whereabouts to the client in through a back-door channel. If we can find out where these pirates are hidin' at, we can smoke 'em all out at once, Marie replied. Now, just sit tight and wait for 'em to send someone over. Wait for my orders. I'm going to pretend their weak electronic attacks have us at their mercy.

Despite Bizarro's unintelligible grumblings, Marie held her own position. The pirates were employing com-jammers across all the standard frequencies, but were unable to jam or even detect the quantum-entanglement communicator she was updating her client with. All the sensor data and position was being sent in real time, so in case things did go south, there was still some thin chance of backup. The pirate stratellite, she noted, changed its identity again to that of a salvage and rescue stratellite that had vanished three months back.

Figures these mooks pose as salvagers, Marie muttered over the aux. Chances are, they ain't keen on leaving witnesses or demanding ransoms. They just coax their marks into thinking they're a rescue crew, and probably blam-all dead. For now, shaddup. Silence, remember?

Marie prepared a few speed loaders of other types of ammo in case she needed something more exotic. She always got the shakes before potential shootouts. Musing she was like a bug deliberately crawling into a pitcher plant, she watched sensor input as the pirate airship took them towards what she presumed was their base, or at least the place they planned to board the ship. It was possible the hijackers' stratellite was completely automated, or remotely operated. It mattered little, as the pirates needed some method to get to the cargo.

As Marie waited, strange lights appeared on the camera feed. They were bright blue and white lights, shining through the blood-red mists frothing all around them. Navigating the soup of gases and crosswinds, the stratellite brought them towards an opaque shape with different geometry than anything around them. The structure itself was gunmetal gray and black, and had a dome-like top ringed by lights, improvised point defenses, and thrusters. The mushroom like shape was suspended under a vac-sac of its own, as well as redundant thrusters. Several docking stations stuck out of the bottom, hyphae for the artificial mushroom.

While visibility was poor, she detected several of the point defenses training themselves on the ship. Marie shuddered for a moment, realizing the pirate base was packing as much heat than Old Fritz, if not more. She saw no other docked ships, realizing they might have been sold for illegal salvage or scuttled. The base itself was a repurposed automated scoop-ship station, designed to process and hold hydrogen and helium for any vessel that required it. Here on the edge of space, both stratellites and space ships could dock. It was deep enough it was hard to find, and the real owners of the base would be largely unaware of the squatters if since the security systems had obviously been subverted.

Time slowed to a crawl as the stratellite lowered into docking position. Marie went over several possible tactical scenarios in her augmented mind, and did not like the outcome of most of them. Most of the ones she preferred were ones where they boarded, rather than just vaporize the ship and sell the slag. She tightened her grip on the Mateba, preparing herself for the projected assault. She made sure she remained near an upturned console, which broke down her transparent outline and also doubled as cover. Despite what the others said, she reasoned, armoring the spare consoles for such a purpose was a good idea.

Marie silently waited, and allowed her natural reactions to flood her body with adrenaline. There were times where it was definitely necessary. She coiled herself like a spring, letting her decades of experience take over as the vessel slid into a position at the pirate base's airlock. She heightened her attention to each of the attention, waiting for any signs of unwanted boarders or robots. It was likely the pirates would try an electronic attack or send a robot probe in first, she reasoned.

Sure enough, an intruder began trying to hack into Old Fritz's control systems. Marie quickly redirected their cyber-attacks towards a virtual machine, fooling them into thinking they had taken control of the vessel's critical systems. The pirates, apparently not the most tech-savvy bunch, then followed the next obvious step of ordering the airlock door open. Playing along with the ruse, Marie opened the airlock door.

Almost immediately, she saw the pirates' envoy into the vessel. It was a small hovering disk. The disk itself was the size of a frisbee, only made of metal and having silent micro-jet engines navigating it through the air. The aluminum disk hovered with almost total silence through the hallway, save the subtle hissing of its miniature engines. It passed harmlessly over Charlie's plasma mines near the airlock, and headed down the hallway towards the bridge. The doors and bulkheads automatically opened as it drew closer to the bridge.

It finally passed down the last bulkhead to enter Marie's own direct line of sight. She grit her teeth allowing the small craft to pass by her unmolested. She could feel Shoggy getting nervous, tightening its grip on her clothing slightly. Instead, she remained behind cover, hoping it was not armed with a bomb. It seemed only to be equipped with sensors, although Marie was careful not to move. The small drone hovered around the bridge, probing different corners with its sensor array. It approached the holographic display near the center of the bridge, and Marie resisted the urge to do some impromptu trap shooting. The drone downloaded the altered log from the system, as Marie could detect on her sensor feed.

Suddenly, the small machine jetted away from the bridge with a sound similar to fizzing soda. Switching to watching camera feed, Marie noticed the craft speed out the airlock as fast as its thrusters would carry it. She considered that it might have been spooked by something, or if some fail of hers in the altered log had driven it off. There was a transmission from outside the ship, a tight-beam message from their would-be captors.

While not intending to reply, Marie watched it. Her retinal implant streamed it directly to the corner of her eye. She could see a man standing in front of a rusted, gunmetal gray wall. His face was heavily scarred and tanned like a scab, and scars of all sort covered his face. He had unshaven black hair and an unkempt beard, which probably had not seen a shower for weeks at least. Above his hamburger-like face was a leather set of goggles, lopsided and loose. His chest was covered by a battered bomber jacket with patches showing grinning skulls and crossbones, crossed sabers, and the Jolly Roger. In one had was a long, cutlass like vibroblade with a revolving pistol concealed under the hilt. Recognizing it as a Pinfire saber, Marie saw the man.

"Ahoy, mateys!" the man spoke in a deep voice. "I be the Captain of this lot, the Black Sparrow, and if ye wish to see another morn', ye'll lay down yer arms once me crew boards yer vessel."

Marie saw the view pan out, revealing something underneath the Captain. There was a table full of severed human heads, severed limbs, crushed robot and cyborg parts, and other carnage that Marie could not as easily identify. "Or else, ye shall share the fate of this lot, by Jove! Yarr har har!"

The transmission ended, and Marie waited for the boarding party. She would have grinned, if Shoggy had not hardened enough to prevent her from moving certain facial muscles. Cautiously, she switched the sensory input back to both of her comrades. Bizarro remained in the cargo hold, hanging onto the wall with his QBZ-95 up and active camouflage hiding him from view. Charlie was nervously crouched in an alcove near the airlock, with his own camo and plasma rifle ready.

It was then unwelcome visitors invaded Old Fritz. The invaders had standard adhesive footwear and plenty of weapons, although they were very motley. Some were half-rusted robots, with some brass facades and exposed gears. Some were humans with cyborg implants that seemed oddly fitting, like a hook hand or a black targeting reticule over a single eye. Some even wore bandanas tied around their heads, some had goggles and flight jackets, others had tricorner hats, and most had some sort of combination. Their anachronistic wardrobe seemed like someone had tossed pirate and early aviation stereotypes together in a blender. Not easily fooled by their strange appearances, Marie figured they were made of the same high-strength fibers her own defensive clothing was made of. Their whole attire reeked of something some obsessed leader forced upon his minions.

They all had weapons Marie recognized as common amongst people without access to a decent nano-fabber. They were smoothbore firearms with a stack of electronically ignited caseless rounds in the barrel. For likely aesthetic reasons, these pirates used curved synth-wooden handles to make their firearms resemble archaic flintlock pistols and blunderbusses. Some had a pistol in one hand, and ax or cutlass-like superheated vibroblade in hand.

Marie would have mocked them for such choices, although their tactics were thoroughly modern. The assault team trained their weapons and arcs of fire to cover the airlock, and blast Charlie's mines from a safe distance.

"Yo ho ho!" the team leader, a rusted robot, shouted. "Thar be a hostile in the cargo hold. Watch for any signs o' that Doktor runnin' loose."

He waved his team on, searching and thankfully only superficially glancing over Charlie's alcove. Minimizing the camera inputs on her retinal display, Marie prepared for the next part. She ensured she was pressed against the console as far as possible to hide her shape. The search team had missed Charlie narrowly, and she hoped they would miss her. If not, she'd make something up.

She saw the pirate boarding party emerge on the bridge, pointing pistols and blunderbusses as they fanned out to all corners of the room. One pirate advanced swiftly towards her position, aiming a blunderbuss her way. Marie figured if it was loaded with buckshot, she'd be one trigger pull away from needing a new head. She began to sweat, and Shoggy clung to her tighter, as if holding her out of fear of the pirates. The pirate swiveled around, and pointed the blunderbuss directly at her translucent form.

"Arr! I see somethin' fishy here!" he pointed the gun.

Marie did not move a muscle as the pirates approached. The robot leader had his weapons trained where his comrade spotted her.

"Then put lead in it, ye daft twit! We can't have any 'o those zomborgs gettin' off this here tub," the robot fired his pistol at her twice.

Each bullet was like a spear being rammed through her guts. As tight as Shoggy embraced her and as much as her reinforced trenchcoat was prepared for, Marie could not help falling to the floor face down. Her thermoptic camo flickered for an instant, and she remained motionless, her Enhancer gloves locking her Mateba in hand. The adhesive materials on her footwear and legs held her body to the ground, and the implants in her head buzzed with life, even as the functionality in her biological tissues ran down like on an old clock. Her vision of the plan faded with the rest of her mind. Blood drained out the wound where she had been shot.

"Arr! Ye blasted a survivor!" Marie's augmented hearing picked up a male pirate remark, relaying senses to a brain devoid of self-awareness.

Another one approached Marie's body and felt it. The corpse, unrestrained from the torso up, seemed to sit up in the lack of gravity. "Yo ho ho! This one still be warm if still wish to have yer way with her! Best do yer deed now, before the icy grip of the grave takes this one!"

The robotic leader fired one of his pistols into the air, drawing the feral mob's attention. Marie's empty eyes stared through Shoggy's membrane. "Save yer rounds! We be in need of them for plunderin' the hold. Thar be zomborgs guardin' our treasure! They'll be plenty o' time for killin' the crew later!"

Marie's body caught the pirates leave the bridge, and then head towards the cargo hold. In front of her empty eyes, an alarm that someone was forcibly accessing the cargo hold tripped a hidden subroutine. It was then Marie's body began to move, the faked wound closing up and her thermoptic camouflage activating again. The airlock doors remotely slammed shut, sealing the pirate boarding party on the warship. The door to the cargo hold flew open, and Charlie got an automated signal to advance.

Marie held her pistol in hand, and resumed hiding as Charlie rounded the bend. Dressed from head to toe in cloaked powered armor, he came up on the bridge with his plasma rifle ready. Marie saw him move in his standard, textbook military way, tracking and shifting his weapon as he secured the area.

Nice to see ya, Charlie, Marie auxed.

Ree! Thank God you're still alive! I saw your vitals terminate on my squad status screen, and heard them talking-

You didn't seriously fall for that, did ya? Damn, these morons are frickin' easy to fool, Marie replied, rolling her eyes. Now, I got a dozen of 'em, all with blades and heaters. Do what I pay you for and ventilate 'em.

Yes, ma'am! Charlie did a quick salute.

Marie moved around to the side, catching a glimpse at the nearby cluster of pirates gathered around the open cargo hold. Marie heard a very familiar sadistic laughter echoing within the darkness. Inside the dark room, Marie would sometimes catch a tongue of flame for a split-instant as Doktor Bizarro sprayed with his QBZ-95.

"MWUHAHAHA!" Bizarro taunted from the darkened room. Marie noticed several of the pirates back away, only to be forced forward by the robotic squad leader. "You simian fools think you can dare stand against the Abominable Doktor Bizarro?!"

Marie saw an unlucky pirate flee from the darkened entrance to the cargo hold. A serpentine shape launched out of the darkness, a cybernetic tentacle from Doktor Bizarro's palm. The grappling line coiled around the pirate's leg and yanked the screaming pirate back in. Some of his friends tried to help, but their leader kept them away. The mad Doktor had his gladius out and ready for his latest victim, having spent his ammunition. Marie cringed as she watched streaming visual input from Bizarro's eyes. A few instants later, the screaming stopped.

"MWUHAHAHA!" Bizarro cackled to himself. "Unwilling vivisections always let me see the heart of the problem!"

Marie saw the pirate's body tossed out towards his comrades, with blood and more still pouring from his multiple stab wounds. Even the robotic squad leader looked away.

"Charlie, try not to hit me and gimme cover! I'm going for the boss!" Marie shouted. Charlie took cover around the corner and Marie opened up with her Mateba. She trained her weapon in front of her and fired madly at anything that got in her way. Two pirates began firing their weapons at her, and Marie felt several bullets hit her. With her coat and Shoggy now at full strength, she shrugged the projectiles off. One of the pirates swung a vibro-cutlass at her, slicing her armor as she twisted away. Her thermoptic camo flickered and faded, giving her full form and figure away to the pirates.

"Hell's Bells!" one of the pirates from before shouted at her over gunfire. "Looks like I'll have to end yer life, ye cur, and have me way with what be left after all!"

Marie dodged another swing of his blade, and ran up onto a nearby wall. The necrophiliac pirate hesitated for a split second before Marie emptied her last chamber at his face. Her adhesive footwear and no gravity were helpful at getting the drop on foes still thinking in two dimensions. The air was now full of spherical droplets of blood floating at zero g. Many of the dead pirates' bodies still remained on their feet, although their hands and heads looked like they were reaching up and gasping for air while drowning.

It was then bolts of green plasma streaked down the corridor. Marie turned and saw Charlie taking a few potshots at something taking cover behind the pirate corpses. As Marie had seen countless times before, each minute green fireball melted singed the flesh it came into contact with and made metal boil.

"Ree! That bot's still there!" Charlie shouted. "Watch out for him!"

Marie looked ahead, and saw the boarding party's leader. The robot leveled his pistols at the charging woman, and fired the remainder of his rounds at her. Marie covered her face and released her grip on the wall from her footwear, tumbling through the air with her hands in front of her face. Despite throwing up her hands, she was not entirely unscathed. Bullet fragments had struck her face, splattering Shoggy bits and obscuring her vision.

As she tumbled through the air, Marie found a second sight. Using a nearby camera feed, she saw the robot had grabbed a vibro-ax from a nearby dead pirate. He held it like a bat, preparing to decapitate her as she flew forward.

"Yar har har! This be the end o' ye!" the pirate robot mocked.

Marie lifted her lefts and jerked herself as she tumbled. Her neck narrowly avoided the humming edge of the weapon, but her chest was not as lucky. A large gash cut right through her coat and skin. Right between her clavicle and shoulder ran crimson. Marie used one hand to clasp the wound as pain shot through her. From her hijacked vantage point, she could see spherical drops of her own blood joining the drops already drifting through the air.

Marie headed down low, towards the robot's feet. The pirate robot raised his ax over his head in anticipation of her arrival, preparing to bring it down on her head. Even with her improvised vision, Marie couldn't see any way for her to escape this. Charlie's shots began to go wild, hitting everything but the evil robot. Marie allowed herself to drift forward, not having enough momentum to perform any strikes towards the machine's vulnerable joints.

"Yar har har!" the robot cackled as it let the ax fly.

Marie closed her eyes and camera input, and waited to be decapitated. She let out one last sigh, as if admitting defeat. Suddenly, a metallic clanking came instead of the promised fatal blow. Marie restored her vision and struggled to get to her feet. Doktor Bizarro had used his grappling line to yank the vibro-ax from the pirate's hands, causing the robot to turn his cylindrical head around.

Despite ever her augmented vision growing faint, she forced herself to perform one last thing before her vision faded. Making sure she was grounded, she raised both of her Enhancer glove clad fists. The robot rotated his head back at the same instant Marie unleashed her most powerful hook punch. The force behind the fist was now at full power, and every augmented muscle she could muster was putt into the punch. She felt her fist make contact with something hard, and then the object suddenly becoming a lot softer. Marie could have sworn she heard something metallic scrapping and grinding, then electric sparking. Quickly glancing at her target, she saw the smashed head of the robot now tumbled through the air, separated from its body. Exposed wires sparked underneath, like the blood gushing out of her own wounds.

"Looks like I really did knock your block off, chump," Marie muttered before she passed into the realm of unconsciousness.

Marie woke up later, with pain shooting through her arm and a warm feeling surrounding her entire body. She stood up, and saw bits of Shoggy attached to her chest and clothing. Despite feeling like a meteor had hit her, she quickly suppressed the pain. Some of it remained, and she found it hard to focus. Marie looked around and saw she was on the bridge, attached to the floor by Shoggy. She sat up.

"Patched me up good, did ya, little guy?" she asked.

"Tekelili!" the nanotech creature chirped happily, its eyes blinking.

Marie saw Doktor Bizarro walking towards her, his posture indicating a confident look. "My, my, you pathetic human," his nasally voice snarked. "Seems like the old relic came in handy, after all. Why, this piece of junk even took it upon himself took look through the memory banks of that pirate bot!"

"And, what was in there?" she asked. Marie felt better than she had, but she was in no mood to argue with Bizarro.

"Names, protocols, and memories of heists," Bizarro continued. "The sort of thing that may be useful to draw their leader right to us. It seems once again, you worthless organics require the guidance of a superior entity to "

Charlie entered the bridge, his helmet removed and plasma rifle slung over his back. "Thank God you're alright, Ree!" Charlie knelt down next to Ree, who was still sitting on the floor. "How are you feeling? Need a hand up?"

"I just walloped a damn robot, almost got cut to ribbons, and would've been ventilated if my coat was off," Marie stood up. "Just fine, Charlie. Just fine."

"Ree, Bizarro's had a plan to draw that Black Sparrow guy in here," Charlie grinned. "It's actually a pretty good one. You know, he prefers to inspect any plundered vessels by himself after its secured?"

"Then send a goddamn faked message from that freakin' robot it's all cleared," Marie stumbled to her feet, and tightened her fedora over her head. "Then ambush 'em, have Shoggy ooze over 'em, pick his brain for info, and get this whole rotten station to surrender."

"Well, Ree, he's been demanding his team reply, and we didn't want to let more pirates aboard while you were sprawled out like this," Charlie glanced nervously towards the airlock. "But Shoggy's been fixing you up."

"Thanks for waitin' for me, Charlie, but this is one o' those things that I hoped you could handle on your own," Marie mused. "All I want is his brain or his neural backups, fairly intact. Then I'll let you, Shoggy, and the Dok pick it apart for anything interesting."

"That organic fool will be likely be forcing entry to this vessel shortly if there is no response, with the remainder of his gaggle of minions," Bizarro replied. "Oh, I do look forward to more experimental fodder! MWUHAHA!"

"Charlie, send out that faked message. Say the team had found more zomborgs than expected, but secured the place," Marie gestured back to the hallway, where the corpses still had not been cleaned out. "Course, they ain't gonna be to happy their boys are scrap and compost, so once we see Black Sparrow, we lock him in and get him to spill his guts."

Marie pounded her fists together and turned to Doktor Bizarro. "If yah do get a chance to get up close to 'em, make sure you gimme his head before you carve up what's left."

"Fine, fine," Bizarro muttered. "So long as I can say I gave you head."

Marie raised her fist, and the mad scientist cowered and stepped back. "Fine, fine, you humorless organic. Forget I dare make a single attempt at humor."

"Your lifespan may increase if yah do that, Dok," Marie remarked. "Anyway, get me some ammo. Gonna want caseless magnum rounds for this."

Charlie handed Marie her Mateba, fully loaded. "Just sent the message, Ree," Charlie saluted and handed Marie the pistol. "Sparrow and his bodyguards are going to be coming aboard."

"Can yah tell me anything about the bodyguards or Sparrow in combat?" Marie checked the cylinder and made sure it was in order.

"There's two bodyguards, each clad in powered reflective ceramplate armor. They've got a whole arsenal built into their suits, and they've got better gear than the boarding team," Charlie recalled from his hacked memories. "Their crap was stolen from some Compact surplus. Not state of the art, but still deadly."

"Ah, reflective ceramplate," Bizarro muttered sarcastically. "I guess your favorite weapons aren't going to do much, Charlie? It truly is a pity even our knight in shining powered armor has nothing to assist us against similarly armed opponents! The most wonderful thing about this is that given how brittle ceramplate is compared to other armored materials, my obsolete projectile weapons will be far more useful than your plasma rifle and bombs!"

"You blind or something, Bizarro?" Charlie narrowed his eyes. He tapped the Mauser pistol on his holster. "This baby right here helped me survive New Shanghai. It fires caseless ammo, just like your rifle and Marie's autorevolver. And it can switch between semi and full auto."

"Oh, right," the disappointed mad scientist muttered. Bizarro's head hung low for a few seconds, while Marie subtly savored it. If Bizarro's misery was a drink, Marie would've enjoyed it more than coffee.

"Enough talk," Marie drew out her Mateba. "Shoggy, you try to swallow 'em as they come in. Charlie, Bizarro, you wait back behind cover, and open fire if they ain't inside Shoggy. I'll be around."

Marie nonchalantly walked up a wall, and then the ceiling. "No gravity and sticky footwear's pretty swell," she muttered as she activated her thermoptic camo.

Marie saw Charlie throw on his helmet on and vanish from view. Bizarro activated his camo and took cover behind a nearby alcove as he became transparent. Shoggy moved into an alcove near the airlock, his favored ambush position. Looking through each of her comrades' sensory inputs, she could see each had a projectile weapon out and thermoptic camo on. Training her Mateba on the doorway, Marie switched to the airlock door camera feed. She could see the distinctive bright light of plasma welding torches cutting through the door. Two sparks were slicing a man-sized arch through the door from opposing sides. As the two welding torches came together, Marie released adrenaline and numbed the rest of her pain. Her world was upside-down compared to the others, and she would hopefully get the literal drop on them. The sliced metal slab fell down, and more enemies came in.

Two gleaming figures were the first ones through. In each of their hands was a polymer Tommy gun with a synthwood stock, drum of caseless ammo, and foregrip. Each of the figures was clad in flat, angular armor that totally covered their bodies and faces. It was superficially similar to Charlie's, but not as sleek. It seemed bulkier, and the people inside it less fluid as it moved. It was something Marie never saw before. She could not tell who or what was under the suits, but she didn't care. Behind them was the Black Sparrow himself, waving his Pinfire blade around.

"Yar! Where be me crew?" the Black Sparrow asked. "Where be me mates?"

It was then Shoggy attacked. Marie saw a tsunami of transparent fluid crash upon the Captain and his bodyguards with the shriek of "Teke-li-li!"

Before Shoggy could reach, the bodyguards began spraying lead with their Thompsons. In addition, they raised their wrists towards the enemy and used the mounted plasma-cutters as improvised flamethrowers. Shoggy's bulk turned a sickly black as the fire made contact with in, and the utility blob retreated with a distraught "Tekelili!"

"Arr! There be many surprises here! Stay awake, me mateys!" Sparrow slashed at the retreating Shoggy. The nano-blob retreated into a nearby vent. The two bodyguards surveyed the area around them, sweeping their gun barrels in a well-rehearsed manner. Marie tried to line up a shot at Sparrow's unprotected neck, but the two goons in armor obstructed the shot.

Dok, Charlie, hose 'em, Marie ordered over the aux.

Suddenly, a bouncing sound distracted Marie and the intruders alike. A metal egg that Marie recognized as a plasma grenade flew down the hallway. The two bodyguards positioned themselves in front of Black Sparrow, who cowered behind them. The grenade erupted into a blast of superheated green energy, causing even Marie to duck and cover. Peaking her head out, Marie saw both bodyguards start spraying the area the projectile came from. Aside from a few dark streaks on the front of their armor, the plasma had no effect. Her shot still blocked, she waited for Bizarro and Charlie to act.

Hose 'em, Marie ordered over the aux.

More gunfire echoed down the corridor as her team replied. Bursts of gunfire rattled the ship, and the two bodyguards each began to focus on different sides. Marie could see from Charlie's point of view that his machine pistol was consistently striking their centers of mass, although only minor cracks formed in the armor.

Curses! Looks like their armor isn't as vulnerable to projectile weapons as I thought, Bizarro's annoying voice auxed. Shots to the face and chest don't seem to have the effect I anticipated.

Wait, I remember that model. Those are the most armored parts. Shoot the joints! Start with knees! Charlie auxed.

Good thinkin', Charlie, Marie replied.

The two guards continued their advance forward as Marie's own team shifted targets. Just as one was about to reach Charlie's alcove, Marie saw one fall down to his knee. The other tried to lift his comrade, but he befell a similar fate. Bizarro's grappling line lashed out, and yanked the submachineguns from both of their hands. Both powered armor goons were on their knees, and vaguely reminded Marie of an old portrait she saw of knights kneeling in front of their lord. The two powered armor guards, now disarmed, struggled to move as their remaining joints were taken out.

Hey, I don't see Sparrow behind them! Charlie noticed.

Marie gazed through a camera near the airlock, and saw him cowering in the alcove that Shoggy had hid in before.

Mop up here, and I'll get 'em, Marie auxed.

Marie ran forwards, darting along the ceiling. Her camouflage was still up, although she could easily be seen by anyone watching. Cautiously, she leaned around the corner and was careful not to stick out the muzzle of her Mateba. She shifted her view from the camera, and saw the Black Sparrow becoming distraught. A quick hacking of his communications showed he also had direct neural aux connection to his now-disabled bodyguards. Seeing he was now outnumbered, he darted from his alcove for a quick retreat. Marie fired in haste, causing him to dive back behind cover.

"Yar! Ye scurvy dog!" the pirate shouted. "I know not whether ye be a zomborg or human, but away with ye!"

Sparrow fired a wild shots with the Pinfire sword, hoping to get Marie. He swung his sword around and waved his free hand. "If ye think ye are man enough, come and face me!"

"'Fraid not, chump," Marie noticed a familiar vent nearby. "But he will."

"Who dares step forth to challenge the Black Sparrow?" the Captain mocked, staring at the hallway and airlock.

"Tekeli-li!" came a sound from the vent.

"No, not ye again!" the Captain shouted, firing the rest of his shots into the vent. "Ye shall never take me!"

Marie saw Shoggy's perspective as the now-rejuvenated creature launched itself from the vent, spreading itself out as it fell. Shoggy blanketed everything in the alcove, and Black Sparrow slashed wildly with his sword. Marie saw he was stuck up to his waist in Shoggy's bulk. Pseudopods lashed out, trying to reign in the sky pirate's hand.

"Arr! I can keep at this all day!" Sparrow mocked as he sliced off more pseudopods. The vibroblade sliced through them easily. Marie quickly exposed the muzzle of her gun, and lined up a shot. Blood gushed from Sparrow's hand as he dropped the Pinfire sword. "Me hand!" Black Sparrow clutched his wound.

The wounded sky pirate tried resisting, but Shoggy's pseudopods completely engulfed the thrashing Captain. Marie looked at her prisoner, now helplessly encased in Shoggy. The creature began extending its tendrils into the target's brain through his ear canal, as Marie directed it. Networking with Shoggy, she began to probe around the man's mind. Quickly, she broadcast another faked signal to the remaining pirates. They were to surrender at once. She sent a message to the Compact and her client as well, telling them exactly where the pirates had stashed the artifact. She locked the secondary bulkhead, preventing any pirates from trying to sneak aboard.

Marie saw from Charlie's point of view that the two bodyguards were now completely immobilized. Carefully, she came into the hallway and brought out her prisoner behind her, still encased in Shoggy. Marie saw the heavily scarred man staring helplessly and vacantly outside at her. He was likely in shock from being encased in a blob of nanotech. Marie was reminded of an insect in amber.

"Good thing Shoggy got ya before ya got away," Marie muttered. "Otherwise, I wouldn't have made things as painless for ya."

The helpless sky pirate could only blink.

"Lock 'em in the hold, Shoggy," Marie muttered. "Ain't in the mood for lookin' at him."

"Tekelili!" Marie's pet chirped. The man's face vanished into the folds of Shoggy's outer membrane, and Marie turned away. Now feeling better, Marie walked back to her waiting comrades.

"Charlie, Dok, good work," Marie muttered. "Not as bad as I thought it was gonna be, but good you handled those tin-can goons before I could. Get some rest, Charlie.'"

"It is rare that such a stubborn and insolent organic even acknowledges a superior entity was necessary to subdue the pirate gang," Bizarro muttered.

"Not in the mood for it, Dok," Marie shot back, making a quick fist. "But, I gotta say. Ya really helped out three times today, not countin' puttin' holes and disarming in those pirate goons."

"There's the information I retrieved and removing the weapon from that pirate's grip," Bizarro nodded. "But, even a superior intellect as myself is at a loss for the third time."

"I altered the log to show one of your damn fantasies in it," Marie pointed towards the center of the room. "Remember that one about you breaking slippin' out of your leash and turnin' me and Charlie into zomborgs? I got that one, and changed it up a bit so the pirates thought you were holed up in the cargo hold with all the goods on the ship, makin' more zomborgs."

"Figures you try to use me as cannon fodder, ungrateful organic," Doktor Bizarro muttered. "And even though I saved your life, you continue to keep these neural inhibitors in my brain."

"Those stay in, Dok," Marie replied. "I know you're a whackjob, and you won't hesitate to do warped stuff all over again. You're predictable enough, chump. I know what you're thinkin' every damn moment. Kissin' my rear ain't gonna help ya go back to releasin' nano-viruses that turn people inta those zomborg freaks."

With that, Marie turned away from Doktor Bizarro and headed for her living quarters. Shoggy prepared some warm coffee. Marie laid back, and enjoyed the simple things in life. The job was done, and her client hopefully satisfied. One less X-Risk and one less pirate crew was a good day.