General notes:

This story will contain slash, violence, strong language, and sexual references.

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Fly [X] Eastwood

91 billion light years, and not enough time

CRATR log 1. . .7-1218632::

INFO Starting CRATR link

DEBUG Checking machine information...

DEBUG Machine linked

INFO ==============================

INFO Machine id: 9df5-f235-63w2-8p4m-fqm9

INFO Machine description: Personal workstation / 0992037 Galarneau, Patrice / Department of Computer Science / Palladian Academy of Science and Engineering

INFO ==============================

DEBUG Checking monitoring I/O…

ERROR Video not found!

WARN Waiting 30 seconds before retrying Video…

DEBUG Audio ready.

INFO CRATR link started successfully!


INFO Audio detected. Recording Audio…

INFO Party_1 detected. Logging…


DEBUG Checking cached voice data for Party_1…

INFO Party_1 identified: Galarneau, Patrice. Changing alias of Party_1 to GP.

INFO Party_2 detected. Logging…


DEBUG Checking cached voice data for Party_2…

WARN Failed to identify Party_2!




ERROR Video not found!

WARN Waiting 30 seconds before retrying Video…



INFO Logging: Party_2: "IT IS. IT REALLY IS."


INFO Stopping CRATR link…

DEBUG Closing monitoring connections...

INFO CRATR link stopped

/* … */

Niel Callahan thought of green eyes and whiskey, of lips that curved when they smiled and seared when they kissed. That he was being punched in the face right now seemed almost like an afterthought.

Unfortunately, the buzzing of the comm around his right wrist was not. Damn it. "I know, I know," he muttered as he accepted the call. He rubbed at the skin on his other wrist, and realized that he wasn't used to it feeling so bare. "Sorry, I was distracted."

"By what?" Long ago, he'd configured his comm to route all audio calls to the ocular interface, and to use a predefined image in place of the video feed. The image attached to Eddy's profile was a picture Niel had taken of him three months ago, his face red and his eyes leaking, with his mouth full of half-chewed habanero poppers. Heh. "Wait, are you - are you fighting already?"

"Yup." And God bless whoever had designed the tiny display to be semi-transparent, because otherwise he wouldn't have seen the fist rushing towards his face. He ducked, felt the swish of air above him, thought of green eyes again, and tackled the guard to the floor. One punch clocked him out good. "Two down, one to go."

"If you were fighting, why'd you take the call?"

"I dunno, didn't want to be rude?"

"You're insane. I'm ending this."

"Nah, stay, I'm almost done here." He ducked a sweep of an arm and parried the two punches that followed. He tried to remember the melody to the background music of a shootout scene from an old Western that he liked, to really get his head into the fight.

He was lucky that the guards were all human, because that meant he could take them on unarmed. Not that he'd planned that, though: at the last minute, when he was already on the ground, he realized he'd left his braces on the ship. Eddy had yelled at him then too.

The guard finally went down after a desperate attempt at a knockout punch left him overshooting, and vulnerable. Niel countered with a knee to the stomach, before he grabbed the man's head and rammed it against the wall. Good night, sleep tight.

This only left one other man standing in the hallway. The Target's face was an almost comical shade of pale, and he tripped over himself half a dozen times as he scrambled away.

There weren't any more forks or doorways on either side of the long, narrow corridor. All that remained from here was the emergency exit, at the very end, marked with a lit-up sign that had 'CAUTION: ALARM WILL SOUND IF THIS DOOR IS OPENED' printed in huge letters on the wall. The Target had nowhere to hide.

Despite this, he was still a hell of a lot closer to the exit than Niel was. Niel wasn't sure he'd be able to catch him in time. "Eddy!"

"I see him."

A bullet shattered the panel to unlock the door before the Target could get to it. Within seconds, Niel had him pinned to the ground, and was yanking his arms behind his back. He winced at the cold, clammy sweat that drenched the man's palms.

"Klaus Gartner, you're wanted on charges of identity theft, securities fraud… and…" Shit, what was it again? "Making and trading counterfeit cryptocurrency. In accordance with the Interplanetary Civilian Justice Act of 3105, I'm detaining you and delivering you to Europan authorities, et cetera, et cetera." It wasn't that he hadn't memorized the rest of the standard speech, which was a requirement for all bounty hunters making a collar. It was just too damn long, and Eddy, stickler for all these maddening little protocols that he was, would probably give Klaus the full spiel once they regrouped.

That, and he thought he could hear footsteps coming closer. Eddy?

No, these were heavy, almost like -

"At last," Klaus cried. "Heisenberg, save me!"


"Move away! Niel!"

Later, Niel would give Eddy hell for not having provided him with a much earlier heads-up than that. For now, the warning was gratefully accepted, as he narrowly avoided being crushed by a security bot that came charging through the wall. Eight feet tall, and about three feet in core diameter, it looked like one of the last few humanoid models still being produced. Its metal coat gleamed, repelling the dust and gravel that had flooded the air as a result of its grand entrance.

Niel took an instinctive step back when its single optical port opened, then clicked several times to focus.

"Heisenberg, kill him," Klaus ordered.

Niel raised his hands - oh, right: braces left on the ship. Fuck.

"Keep your distance." A hail of rapid fire, likely from Eddy'sother gun, fell upon the security bot. "I'll cover your escape, but get out when you can."

Niel pulled back enough to be away from the line of fire, but no further. He glared at Klaus, who had risen to his feet and was now standing smugly near the emergency exit. "But he's right there, Eddy! We can't let him get away!"

He really did believe that, up until the moment when the metal casings around Heisenberg's forearms split open, peeling back to reveal a pair of embedded machine guns, each with a clip of .50-caliber bullets.

Well, shit.

/* … */

Niel didn't need a mirror to know where to press the ice pack against his face. He winced when it made contact, chanting useless mantras to himself to endure it - 'it could have been worse', and 'you've had worse'. Because they were useless, of course it didn't work. So he thought of green eyes again instead - and of black hair, straight, strands of silk slipping between his fingers; the slender curve of the Entertainer's neck as he threw his head back in ecstasy.

"It just doesn't make sense. I checked the numbers 10 times."

Niel tuned Eddy out as he pulled back the ice pack and frowned. The contents were mostly liquid now. Luckily, he was already seated close enough to the fridge where they kept all their medical supplies. Dumping the old pack into the trash chute, he ignored the suggested options projected onto the wall by the fridge's default program: painkillers, disinfectants, or scotch? "More ice, please."

The machine beeped, and happily began churning some ice for him. He rubbed at his left wrist as he waited.

"It's still there. I'm telling you, I wasn't crazy." Eddy's fingers flew soundlessly over the smooth metal table, his taps toggling little squares of light that glowed for about half a second before dying. Niel himself had never been a fan of keyless keyboards, but to each his own. "No way a low-Index criminal like that has access to an armed government-prototype-caliber security bot."

A chirp from the fridge informed him that his new ice pack was ready. Niel retrieved it and walked towards the desk where Eddy sat. "And your conclusion is?"

"Occam's Razor and all." Eddy sighed. "Someone hacked the database."

Niel nodded, having figured as much. Each known criminal was given a number, simply called his or her 'Index', which was stored onto a common database accessible to all local law enforcement. He couldn't remember half of the complicated formula used to calculate it, but he did know that it was based on three parameters: potential reward, potential risk to the pursuant, and potential harm to humankind. This last parameter was weighted the highest, of course, and how high a criminal's Index was greatly influenced how much effort law enforcement spent in capturing them. Klaus' Index put him well below the threshold that would've gotten him their attention.

But it was still high enough to land him on The List, which bounty hunters watched with the same attention and frequency they gave to their ship's oxygen meters, to pick up jobs. Free agents like Niel and Eddy worked with the tentative approval of law enforcement, to help with the glut of more 'minor' criminals. This was especially useful on the ghettos of Mars, or prissy fucking Europa where the slightest whisper of someone forgetting to update their garbage disposal's recycling code would be met with the indignant clutching of artificial pearls.

One of the good things about holding down this kind of job was that it justified, if not necessitated altogether, living on the Eastwood: Niel's pride and joy, a former cargo ship that he'd painstakingly converted into a large primary habitat, with a holding cell for captured bounties. Just last month, they'd busted up an underground gambling den here on Mars, and not two days later they'd apprehended a jewel thief on Ganymede. True, that meant he and Eddy technically lived where they worked, but when home was mobile and compact and fast, and could get you from Earth to Jupiter in a day, was there really any need to escape? "How can you be sure?"

"I can't, not really. CRATR would know, but putting in a request just to confirm that would be overkill, don't you think?"

'Overkill' would be an understatement. "Is there anything you could run? You know, something against the database, something in the background?"

"Not without leaving us vulnerable." Eddy chewed on his bottom lip. "Is it worth it?"

Niel shook his head. "It doesn't make a difference either way." Plopping down onto the couch, he winced when he felt something cold and metallic under his backside. He found Eddy's Short Gun, nudged it until it fell to the floor, and ignored the glare he got in response. His eyes fell upon the Long Gun, which the other man was syncing up to his computer. "What're you doing?"

"I need to make some modifications to the aim-aiding program. There are some tweaks I need to account for Martian gravity." Eddy's code editor was set to black text on a white background, and Niel cringed at the sudden brightness. The screen illuminated the tattoo on Eddy's left forearm: H = negative something-something, log of whatever. No matter how many times Eddy had explained what that equation was, and what it meant, Niel had never quite figured out why Eddy thought it was worth being etched forever on his skin.

"Can't you just hack into our bank accounts, magically give us more money?" Niel yawned.

"That's not how it works."

"Not with that attitude." Niel closed his eyes, and pressed the ice pack against his face instead. "So what now?"

"I don't know." Eddy hummed in thought. "Do you want to look for a new bounty?"

"Eh. Effort."

"Okay, then. What do you want to do?"

What, indeed. He wanted to find that Entertainer again, the one with the green eyes and black hair and the pale skin, who'd left him breathless and sung in his arms. He'd charged much higher than Niel's usual price point for the night, but made it worth every last bytecoin. Still, Niel hadn't appreciated waking up alone the morning after, with his sheets entirely too cold, and his father's old wristwatch missing from his bedside table. Fucking klepto.


"Right. Uh…." He scratched his ear. "Can't we leave Mars?"

"We don't have any money for the toll."

"Really? Not even to the Belt somewhere?"

"I veto the Belt."

There were few things Eddy really put his foot down for, but Niel had learned to identify them by that crisp, almost frigid tone of voice that would always come from goddamn nowhere. So the Asteroid Belt was a no-go. "Wanna keep hunting Klaus, then?"

"Hmmm." Eddy minimized his code editor and began loading another program. It took a few seconds for Niel to realize what he was doing: pulling a location from a tracker he must've shot into Heisenberg, some time during his hasty retreat. Knowing that that humiliation hadn't at least been completely useless was heart-warming, in a way. "We could, actually. Do you want to? It looks like he hasn't left Mars."

Niel shrugged. It was either that, or Klaus had found the tracker and chucked it into the trash somewhere. He supposed they would just have to hope it was the former.

/* … */

Clouds of red dust swirled in the air as Niel eased the Eastwood into the final stage of a lazy descent. This part of Mars, whatever it was supposed to be, was still early on in its development, with only the dome and the bare minimum for life support set up. At the very least, they wouldn't have to go out in suits, but that wasn't saying much. The tarp that wrapped around the site looked as though it must've been white, once upon a time: 'CONSTRUCTION ZONE, KEEP OUT!'

"Still distracted?" Eddy asked.

"He stole my watch." Niel frowned, fiddling with the smooth button on his control column. He glanced at the bare skin visible above the cuff of his sleeve. Had it always been paler than the rest of his arm? "That's not right."

"I thought you vetted him, though. Was he part of an agency?"

Niel shook his head. "'Private contractor', he said."

"Then you're out of luck." Eddy sighed. "Maybe you shouldn't have taken that risk."

"I was feeling lucky. Besides, do you know how much he cost? Usually the sketchy ones would be a hell of a lot cheaper."

"Outliers, and all that. You should just let it go. It was an analog watch, right? Can you even read analog watches?"

Point. "That's not the point," Niel groused anyway.

"Well, it's not like there's much we can do at this point. Who knows where he's gone now."

Niel mulled over that. How many hours had passed since he'd heard 'Good night, Fly Boy' purred through moistened, kiss-bruised lips? The Entertainer had come in his own private craft, a light, tiny model built for mobility and speed. Niel couldn't remember the exact make, but if the Entertainer had gunned it right after Niel had fallen asleep, he could have been halfway to Jupiter by the time he'd woken up. Or he could have gone the other way - to Earth, but who in their right mind would want to do that?

Still, he remembered enough from those coma-inducing kinematics classes he'd needed for his pilot's license, to know that he didn't have enough information to solve this problem. The Entertainer was lost to him.

What wasn't lost to him, however, was his current mark. He double-checked their coordinates against the ones being relayed back by Eddy's trusty tracking bullet. There wasn't even a margin of error to speak of. "Where do you think he is?"

"One of the construction bots' service depots, maybe?" Eddy guessed. He stuffed the Short Gun into his paddle holster and threaded his arm through the Long Gun's carry strap. "Let's go."

/* … */

At the end of the day, with the entire Solar System from Earth to Saturn as their range, even the very best trackers could only be so accurate. So of course it wound up that the very last service depot they checked was the right one.

Niel caught Klaus in the center of a ring of new guards, all dressed in identical suits, probably hired for the day. He was tearing down his rig of computers that had been built for God-knew-what, ripping out cables and stuffing drives into bags without giving them a chance to cool down first. Niel wrinkled his nose, and thought that it was a good thing Eddy wasn't seeing this up close.

The same law that put food on his and Eddy's plates every night also dictated that he needed to announce his presence before going in for the collar. He couldn't think of epic one-liners right now though, so he had to settle for: "Hey."

The next few minutes went pretty much like a replay of the first time. Niel managed to make quick work of the guards, because they were slower, and because they became a lot less deadly once Eddy had picked off their guns with sniper fire from the rafters. It also looked like nobody had bothered to tell them that wearing classic neckties with their suits was a terrible idea, and with many a tug and a yank, Niel happily used this to his advantage.

The last guard fell soon enough, but Klaus was nowhere near done packing. He ground his teeth together and yelled, "Heisenberg!" The security bot's arrival was even more outrageous this time, what with the depot's wide open space and curved walls magnifying the sound of its footsteps.

"Just checking, but: you did bring them this time, didn't you?"

"'Course I did. Get owned by your bot once, shame on you, get owned twice, shame on me?"

"That's not how it goes."

"Heisenberg, attack!"

The security bot raised one metal arm high above his head, before swiftly bringing it down. Naked contact, Niel had read from the specs on this particular model, would have meant breaking every bone in his body. But by the time he crossed his arms in front of his face, taking the blow, they'd already been clad in carbon fiber.

He could imagine the tiny springs embedded in the structure going crazy, and entertained a brief moment of self-doubt: had he remembered the numbers on the results of these bad boys' last stress test right?

In any case, by the time he finished fretting, he realized that he'd already taken the impact… and was still standing. "Heh." With a grin, Niel pushed back with just enough force to jump away. He tapped the buttons on his belt that sent similar braces up to enclose his legs.

"R-Regressive Laborers' Braces?" Klaus pulled back in shock. "Those were decommissioned decades ago!"

Niel knew that - something about safety standards and profitability, and spectacularly failing at both. One of the nicest things about having a partner like Eddy, with all of his unique little hobbies and old unburnt bridges, was that he gave Niel access to these nifty little toys.

"Looks like the shock absorbers could use a little work. What's their efficiency at?"

A few taps on the comm brought the number up to the ocular interface, replacing Eddy's avatar for a couple of seconds. "87%. How much time do I have left?'

"To be on the safe side? 12 minutes or so."

That was plenty of time. Niel fought at his own sweet, leisurely pace, blocking hits and ducking under swipes, able to draw back and land punches that, thanks to the braces, actually left serious dents in the bot's armor. Both he and Eddy had pored over the specs on the way here, and so Eddy knew exactly where to fire the two bullets - one to the base of the bot's backside, one to the back of its 'neck' - to disable the firing system, when it inevitably drew its guns.

All that was left to do was to seal the deal. Niel got his opening about seven minutes into their little dance: a blow at the joint of the bot's left leg had left it imbalanced, and it began to tilt forward. That small difference in total height was enough for Niel, who took its head cleanly off with a braced roundhouse kick.

"Don't run," he called out to a trembling, livid Klaus, as he knelt down to restrain the bot. With the inside of the 'neck' exposed, he knew he could easily access the processor from here, but he really didn't feel like having Eddy walk him through the code over the comm. So he decided on a solution from millennia ago: cable ties, which he began winding around the bot's limbs. "We'll catch you."

Klaus let out a sputtering, incoherent sound, before finally snapping. "You'll never take me alive! Heisenberg, Self-Destruct! Seven! Charlie! Echo! Eight! Four! Two - !"

Klaus abruptly stopped, before he could finish delivering what was likely the Administrator's password, to override the bot's most basic self-preservation functions. Niel glanced up and saw what had stopped him: the cold barrel of the Short Gun, pressed against the back of his head.

"Shut it down," came Eddy's calm order. "There are at least three more characters in that password before the order gets accepted. I'll pull this trigger long before then."

Klaus bristled. His eyes met Niel's, and Niel shrugged as he finished up his work, rendering the bot immobile.

And he would have left it at that… had he not realized that this was a golden opportunity to break out one of his favorite, timeless, kick-ass one-liners: "If you think he's bluffing, you should ask yourself: 'Do I feel lucky?'"

Nailed it.

/* … */

"Klaus Gartner, you are wanted on charges of identity theft, securities fraud, making and trading counterfeit cryptocurrency, as well as the deliberate use of an automaton with the intent to cause harm. In accordance with the Interplanetary Civilian Justice Act of 3105, I am detaining you and delivering you to Europan authorities, who will receive and process you accordingly. On Europa you will be granted access to legal counsel, as well as further information on the full charges against you. For the documentation of any machines recording and transmitting to the Centralized Realtime Automaton Transaction Repository, I will state for the record that neither I, Eddy Partridge, nor my partner, Niel Callahan, hold any interest in your capture other than monetary incentive, which we will receive once our employers come to collect you."

And collect they did, a cool six million bytecoins, what with Eddy jacking up the price by another 20% when he told the men who'd come to pick up Klaus about Heisenberg and the self-destruct order. The split was always the same: a quarter each for him and Eddy, another quarter earmarked for ship maintenance and repairs, and the rest in an 'emergency' fund Eddy kept in an offline wallet. Niel didn't know how much they had there exactly, just that Eddy had a target in mind, and that this latest deposit finally took them over 90% of the goal. He looked forward to having steak this week.

Earlier, while Klaus had been waiting to be picked up by the Europans, he'd bitched that Niel and Eddy should have just killed him, instead of all these theatrics and humiliation. Niel's response had been a knee-jerk one: quite simply, the LIVE bounty had been much higher.

"... And so you really need to keep your head in the game more, you know?"

"Hmm?" Niel pulled one of the wireless buds out of his ears, squinting Eddy's way. He'd set the Eastwood's autopilot on a simple course for Jupiter an hour ago, and was close to dozing off despite the music in his ears. One could only watch Eddy fiddling with his enormous 'BUDGET_3151' spreadsheet, projected onto the main wall of the mess hall, for so long without getting bored to tears.

"I mean, we made it out just fine this time. I guess in some aspects it went even better than we'd planned…" Eddy shook his head before he could talk himself out of his own argument. Silly guy; he did that often. "In any case, you need to promise you'll stop being distracted. How are we ever going to catch the Serial Killer if your mind is always wandering off to random things?"

Random things, huh? Niel shut his eyes and, true to form, started to tune him out, focusing on the sounds of real brass and drums a thousand years old, and thoughts of green eyes once more.

/* … */

/1.1. the critical race condition