Fasten your seat belt and get ready to enjoy this this fast-paced science fiction
novel. You’ll discover an Earth where neighborhood snipers pick off salesmen, automation
has run fatally amuck, and the resurrected dead walk city streets.
Wisecracking hacker Ralph Crocker finds himself in the middle of a bloody turf war
between a cyborg named Death, organ-stealing street monstrosities, and genetically
modified government agents trying to discover his secret.
To survive, Ralph must brave dangerous shadow worlds and trust “Alice” (who may be
virtual rather than real flesh and blood). Joining forces with her, the two confront
a godlike one-eyed man who pulls the strings from behind the scenes to alter perceptions
and perhaps even reality.
The two discover the future is being changed in ways impossible to imagine – and
which may prove fatal to both Alice and Ralph.
Buy your copy of Lesser Gods today!
About the author:
Best-selling author Duncan Long (Spider Worlds trilogy, Antigrav Unlimited, The Night
Stalkers) brings you a science fiction tale unlike any other.
With a witty narrative and skillful plotting, Lesser Gods travels around the planet
and beyond, from streets haunted by automated prostitutes, to deadly tourist traps,
to virtual worlds where anything can happen, often with deadly results.
“Duncan Long outdid himself with Lesser Gods. It’s a real trip, an adventure with
a twisted humor that can make you chuckle out loud from time to time.”
“Lesser Gods is a wonderful mix of story, characters, and plotting in futuristic
setting that can’t be beat.”
In the future, everyone really is out to get you...
The story of Lesser Gods spans centuries, from ancient Rome to the Vietnam War, from
the present day to a dystopian future where artificial intelligence runs hairwire,
robots become pscyhopathic (or fall in love), and it’s everyone for themselves on
For a science fiction adventure you’ll not soon forget, buy your copy of Lesser Gods
When I was still human, I looked Death in the face, and struggled to control my bowels.
But I’m getting ahead of myself....
Some might argue that my story traces back to that initial cosmic explosion that
formed the stars and dust of worlds. But I prefer to map out my tale from a point
much nearer, a chain reaction started with the seemingly insignificant, like the
banana peel on the sidewalk, that kills the unfortunate sod who makes one last pratfall,
dying with the laughter of those around him echoing in his ears.
I cast my smoldering Marlborough into the darkness. It’s crimson tip arched like
a fallen angel, crashing into a hundred sparks on the tarmac. I exhaled acrid smoke
that burnt my throat, and eyed the glowing hint of a sunrise that promised to boil
the humid dawn into another scorcher.
Despite a throbbing headache and an upset stomach from a roasted night of debauchery
in Bangkok, I decided to report for duty, a choice that would eventually change things
Now I stood waiting, one of a sweaty band of electricians stationed at the side of
the runway as the B-52s prepared to take to the air. The US military had once again
lived up to its “hurry up and wait” reputation. We technicians had hurried and now
Half an hour.
We didn’t complain. If we lucked out, we’d continue doing nothing. If we were less
fortunate, we’d be called on to repair any of the electronics that failed during
the pre-flight tests within the eight aging bombers.
And if any one of us was really, really unlucky, we might fly the mission with the
flight crew — bad news since only the aircrew had ejection seats; a technician received
vague instructions on how to exit a falling plane, and was issued a tired-looking
parachute pack left over from the Korean War, the chute crammed into faded canvas
that promised failure should its canopy be unfurled.
Lieutenant Norton ambled up behind us, his approach masked by the jet engines winding
up. “Huntington,” he yelled, announcing his presence and causing me to wince with
hung-over pain. “Get to the second BUFF. They’re having troubles.”
I swore under my breath. “You’ve got to be kidding.” The Stratofortress had fired
up its engines, which meant I’d have to go along and fix the package in the air.
“Get moving, mister,” Norton yelled. “This isn’t a matter for negotiations.”
I glared at the lieutenant for a moment, considered punching him out, and then thought
better of it, yanking my muffs into place, augmenting the ear plugs I already wore
in a vain attempt to dampen the jets’ roar. Grabbing my tool kit from the pavement,
I headed for the designated aircraft, reflecting on the rumors that Hanoi’s SAMs
had brought down two B-52s just the day before.
A minute later I scrambled through an open hatch, and four minutes after that, the
bomber’s engines throttled to full power and the big steel bird shuddered down the
tarmac and then soared into the air, starting its bombing run on the distant industrial
complex to the north.
Lying in the claustrophobic space beneath the malfunctioning console, I felt my stomach
lurch as I rose within the eagle’s belly. I closed my eyes for a moment and took
a deep breath; the air, laden with dust, smelled of burnt plastic wiring. I opened
my eyes, grabbed a pair of needle-nosed pliers from my tool kit, and concentrated
on repairing a backup module that would never be needed.
Now we come to the part where I stared Death in the eye and felt my life about to
be swept, like a desiccated leaf before an autumn storm, without hope, into some
cosmic storm sewer from which there could be no return. This downpour had been a
long time in the making, like water falling from clouds heavily pregnant with rain.
That’s the poetic version. In reality, I fought to control my bowels and my bladder.
Especially my bladder. Had I known I’d be facing Death, I definitely would have skipped
my cup of SynthaCaff. I made a mental note to drink less tea in the future — should
I somehow escape Death’s clutches yet one more time.
His henchmen had a milliwave scanner. Using it, they scanned and very efficiently
relieved me of my pistol along with my four knives. They’d missed the mini-claymore
strapped to my thigh — apparently mistaking it for part of my exo-armor. But the
claymore remained useless weight at this point. Firing a claymore on my thigh would
be like hang gliding without a glider.
At the very least, I’d be guaranteed a broken leg and shrapnel wounds from the plastic
body of the device.
Yet, I would have risked that if it might have extracted me from the awkward scene.
The catch was the six-foot swath of jagged plastic that would exit the front of the
claymore might fail to penetrate Death’s composite shell. The last thing I wanted
to do was merely wound him again. I’d failed to kill him the first time, proving
the old saw that when you try to assassinate a crime king, best not botch it. Hence,
my consternation at being brought to his court now. I was gladdened, yea even happily
astonished, that he hadn’t flayed me and then slowly roasted what was left over a
So now I figured it was better to do nothing and let him kill me coolly and quickly
now, rather than have him do his worst for a protracted time because I’d angered
him with another botched attempt at murder. I had heard the stories and never doubted
them. Expiring quickly beats departing slowly and painfully any day — especially
The possibility of setting off the claymore was academic anyway since I couldn’t
reach the firing button in my spread eagle state, being stretched between Death’s
two mesomorphs who each held one of my arms in muscled paws that threatened to dislocate
So instead of doing anything, I fought to control my bladder and waited, with the
two henchmen savoring my fear, like pigs chewing on a chicken. The mechanical clock
on the wall tick tocked long seconds in a room smelling of sweat and blood.
And, I reflected, soon of urine.
Death stared at me across the smoke-filled room, sitting behind a stainless steel
desk that resembled a mortician’s table. As always, he wore the chrome mask with
a crazy grin molded into it, never seeming to don any of the somber countenances
that hung along the wall like eyeless onlookers. His antenna darted like a nervous
cricket’s as he faced me, his voice grating like fingernails down slate. “Surprised
to see me again so soon?”
“Yes,” I managed.
“Didn’t take long to put the pieces back together.”
“Please, just get it over I pleaded. Tired of waiting to die, I wanted to at least
shuffle off this mortal coil with clean underwear.
Death threw back his head and shrieked — his way of laughing. “You think we brought
you here to...” He sputtered as he uncoiled himself from his chair and rose to his
feet, stooping so his dented skull didn’t scrape the ceiling. “Actually I have a
little job for you.” The hand that ended in human digits instead of a claw snaked
into his chest compartment and retrieved a plastic vial. “Here.”
The meso on my left let go of my arm so I could receive the tiny container. I recognized
the opalescent liquid inside without checking the label. “I don’t do jet any more.”
Death’s eyes burned like angry coals in the dim light. “You’re not going to wear
out my patience are you?”
“No!” I answered quickly, knowing his patience was in short supply. I wrapped my
hand around the vial and lowered my arm.
“I’ve seen your records,” Death said. “You have three jet-net convictions and two
months in detox on your records. I know you’ve used the stuff. Don’t smudge me.”
“Used to use is the key point here. I quit. I’ve seen what happens when a guy crashes
and splatters his brains over a console.”
“Let’s just say this is non-negotiable. With a blur of motion, his hand snaked toward
me. Abruptly a razor sharp blade rested next to my groin. “You’re in no position
He was right: I was up the creek without a paddle, over a barrel, with my pants down,
and ready to fold.
“Please continue,” I said in as low a falsetto voice as a man can manage with testicles
attempting to hide inside his pelvis.
Death withdrew the blade and then paced the narrow room for moments that seemed like
eternity, his clawed hand snapping open and shut with the quiet efficiency of slaughterhouse
hammers. Finally he growled. “There’s this guy who’s lost himself — very thoroughly,
especially after the EMP attack on the Central that erased the master banks last
week. But he probably left tracks in the subnet, which is where you come in.”
“Don’t tell me you want me to jet net.”
“Precisely what I have in mind. For a hacker like you who’s been, shall we say, pharmaceutically
challenged in the past, that ought to be a grav dive with eyes closed.”
“If I’m going to risk frying my mind it would be nice to be reimbursed —”
Death roared, causing the teeth in the skull collection behind him to rattle. “You
think you have room to bargain here?” he hissed.
“I thought, maybe... You know.”
“You ought to be glad I’m not going to kill you outright after what you did to me.”
I conceded that, having left him short a couple of arms after he stumbled into a
booby trap I’d left behind.
Death leaned toward me, so close his antenna brushed my face, tickling my sweat-covered
brow. Tiny gears whirred angrily inside him; his breath reeked of machine oil. “Fortunately
for you I’m feeling generous today. You find this guy’s hard address by the end of
the tomorrow and —”
“Just find his hard address?” I asked. “You don’t want me to make the pick up or
“Correct. My guys’ll make the pickup when you find his hard address. You find it
before anyone else does, and I’ll delete your criminal records from the PD machine
and throw in a couple of K’s to boot. How’s that sound?”
“Very generous. But perhaps a bonus if —”
“As a bonus, I won’t kill you.”
“Very, very generous.”
“Here’s a DF.” He produced a ROM dot from his chest and handed the storage device
to me. “Everything we have on him. He left records behind when he went into hiding.”
I took the tiny storage device and carefully placed it into the PA on my wrist. “Is
this guy dangerous?”
“Not hardly,” Death replied. “Antique. Remember the Supreme ruling last month? The
one that said all vets had to be compensated for the past sins of the UN and its
“A hundred thousand per year, each year they continue to live,” I replied. I was
up to speed on this because I’d been trying to figure out some way to hack into the
data bank so I could add my name to the list of those who’d be receiving the cash.
Sadly, my labors never came to fruition.
“That ruling was their death warrant,” Death continued. “The Powers decided to cut
their losses to a hundred thou per vet.”
I thought a moment and then knew: “By killing them off this year.”
“Right,” Death said with a hissing chuckle. “The actuary tables will be skewed for
years to come with all the unusual accidents, unexpected heart attacks, and exotic
endings to come the next few months. But it won’t be so easy with this guy. He’s
no schmuck. When the law passed, he didn’t wait for a goodbye knock-knock. Went underground.
So, we contracted the job from The Powers and now I’m subcontracting you. Two days
to hard address him for us — or else.”
“Hate to mention this,” I said in the most contrite voice I could muster, “But I’m
short of cash.”
“He was trying to hit an ATM when we scooped him,” one of the mesos guarding me offered.
I nodded. “If I’m to access the sub-webs... The pub-net doesn’t have anything of
value for a data search like I’ll need to do.” I stopped and tried to swallow.
Death vented air, sounding like a wire brush peeling flesh from muscle, eyes flaming
crimson before cooling while everyone in the room held their collective breaths.
Then he fished through a pile of papers on his desk, produced a smart card, and hurled
it at me. “Here’s an anonymous five hundred. That’s your advance.”
I was quiet for a moment, surprised at Death’s unexpected generosity since normally
he held a debit card so tightly it moaned in pain.
“Is there anything else?” he demanded.
The room was ominously silent, the clock ticking off five seconds.
And then I ventured, “Do you have a bathroom?”
High over Hanoi, I swore under my breath as I double-checked my voltmeter. No doubt
about it; the circuits weren’t getting the proper power and I didn’t see how that
My musings were interrupted by the navigator yelling at me over the engine noise
of the B-52. “Get your parachute on!”
“Can’t work in a chute,” I replied. Hell, I could barely work inside the heavy flight
jacket dictated by the frigid air pouring through the bomb bay doors where the last
of the bombs shuttled through the opening, raining death far below. For just a moment,
it registered on me that I’d been blissfully unaware of the lives that most likely
were coming to violent ends on the ground far below. We flew above the murder and
mayhem, death I was taking part in, high in the sky where everything seemed serene
and sterile. The chaos we’d just dumped onto those faceless enemies below remained
both distant and abstract.
I shook the thought and concentrated on the circuit board I labored over.
“Grab your chute!” the navigator yelled again, this time tugging at my shoulder.
“Get your chute on. Now!”
What’s with this guy? I wondered, glancing up in time to see the navigator pull his
helmet’s blast shield down over his face and jerk his shoulder harness tight.
With a shock of electrified clearness, I realized the crewman was readying to eject.
That made an impression.
I dropped my tools and grabbed my chute, just as the rear of the plane ripped apart
with a concussion that sent shrapnel slicing through the interior of the plane. Jagged
holes appeared as if by magic in the skin of the jet. Sunlight peppered the dark
interior as air whistled through the countless new openings. The B-52 lurched into
a gut-wrenching turn, starboard engines sputtering.
Blinded by the blood pouring into my left eye, I turned toward the navigator and
then looked away from the headless corpse that sat in the chair, arms hanging limply
to the sides.
The plane staggered once more with a wrench of metal and the floor below my feet
canted as the tail ripped away. Wind streamed through the cabin and threatened to
sweep me through the gaping hole that had appeared behind me.
Fighting to maintain my balance, I forced my arms through the parachute straps and
latched its main harness around my chest. Then I pulled myself toward the bomb bay
that was now at an impossible angle inside the falling plane.
I paused for only a moment at the breach, gazing morbidly at the earth spiraling
upward toward me. Closing my good eye, I half leaped, half kicked away from the plane,
my scream lost in the banshee cry of the wind.
My trip home proved somewhat less than comfy. I’d hoped Death’s merry men would give
me a lift back since they’d snatched me practically on my front stoop in the first
No such luck.
They had picked me up just around the corner from my apartment where a Ja-Ja parade
passed. I took advantage of the distraction the boogying dead attracted to jumpstart
my empty smart card with a “loan” from a hot-wired ATM coupled with my fake DNA thumbprint.
“Whatcha doin’, Ralphy?” one of Death’s three goons crooned, placing my arm in his
vise-like grip, a tidal wave of pain splashing through my shoulder.
“Just trying to withdraw some bucks, man,” I replied, trying not to wince at the
bone-crunching squeeze of the genus, homo breakboneis.
“Lucky we ain’t cops,” Death’s henchman on my right said as the three of them hustled
me toward their limo, my feet no longer touching the pavement. “ATM surfing is a
felony, and DNA spoofing is a capital offense. You’d be in big trouble if —”
He stopped in mid-sentence, interrupted by a damp plop. Simultaneously, a red mist
of bone and brains erupted from his face, an expanding bullet imparting enough inertia
to hammer three of the Mohawk spikes out of his skull. A fraction of a second later,
the report from a distant rifle arrived the same moment the lifeless thug’s corpse
tumbled face down on the ground, the spikes from his scalp chiming on the pavement
Death’s two remaining henchmen yanked me higher into the air and dashed madly for
the safety of the car. Once there, they tossed me through the open door into the
vehicle and then dived behind me without a backward glance. A second bullet glanced
off the armor plate of the vehicle, skinning the advertisement grid to send a shower
of sparks dancing across the hood as we sped away, heading straight to Death’s lair
for our meeting.
Now that the meeting with Death was consummated, I was headed home.
Only Death’s two henchman found themselves in a bind. He had ordered them to get
me home, but their cowardice proved stronger than valor, and so they pooled their
meager servings of gray cells with an eye toward devising a plan that would keep
them out of sniper crosshairs while still obeying the spirit of his command.
“We go back there,” one grossed, “we might as well have targets painted on our backs.”
With the sweat of fear oozing from their pores like a goat on a spit, they discussed
other possible options, first reasoning that since the police didn’t bother to replace
CS boxes anymore, the chance the area would ever be safe from sniper fire any time
soon was slim to none. “Waiting’s not an option.”
And even though their vehicle had armor plating, “Depleted uranium, anti-armor rounds
are on the street.” It was anyone’s guess whether Snipe might have a few of these
deadly rounds in reserve for special occasions, such as the return of the limo. The
two mesos finally came to an alarming solution: They’d mail me home, cramming me
into a plastic box and delivering me to the post office.
“I don’t think that’s the best idea,” I protested as one returned my weapons and
then the two lifted my squirming frame and unceremoniously dumped me into the mailer.
If they hadn’t pulled the subphone from my ear, I might have called for help. But
they had and so I did not.
“Guys!” I yelled as they sealed the plastic top over me, trapping me in the dark.
“Let me out!”
I beat on the package as they addressed it. My only ray of hope was that they would
express mail me; then I’d only be trapped for hours rather than days or months normally
needed for a package to arrive at its destination. I might survive a few hours, but
it was going to be close at best.
I was dropped off at the automated postal system. Then mechanical paws upsided the
box several times, despite its “this side up” notice. Fortunately I was finally stacked
so I was lying on my back. Standing on my head all the way home would not have been
all that fun.
Within minutes, I entered that mysterious conveyer belt that is the mechanized postal
system; I bounced around inside the package until I became totally disoriented. By
the time I’d recovered from that amusement ride, crates were stacked over and around
me, their weight pressing in on my container from all sides, its plastic shell groaning
ominously. I fought back feelings of claustrophobia in my plastic womb that threatened
tomb, trying to conserve my air and praying my delivery would fail to be stillborn.
I’m uncertain whether I napped or the rarefied air in my container made me prone
to delirium. But somewhere during my gestation within the bowels of the post office,
I found myself in an ethereal Houdini mode, escaping from the box through a purple
doorway, struggling to regain my balance as I breathed the intoxicating aroma from
the riot of flowers that surrounded me.
I blinked in the sherbet sunlight, seeking some signal of civilization. Have I been
borne to some far away and exotic locale?
Or was this a near-death experience?
Or maybe a death-death experience?
Squinting upward, I realized an impossibly massive dome encompassed the sky, covering
the distant mountain with an iridescent curve of ever-changing soap bubble greens
and pinks. High and to my right, above the bloom-covered valley spreading before
me, a distant fairytale metropolis of chrome and white crystal floated in the clouds
like a jellyfish piloting the sea of heaven.
“I’m either dead,” I muttered. “Or seriously hallucinating,”
“Hallucinating?” a British-accented voice said.
I searched for the speaker, and saw only a meter tall, rabbit-like creature that
added, “How delightful to be hallucinating.”
I eyed it, now certain I was delusional. “What are you supposed to be?”
Shiny black eyes scrutinized me a moment. “I’m an entertainer, of course,” it said
very matter-of-factly, standing on its hind legs and combing its long whiskers a
moment before continuing. “Want to see a card trick?”
I gazed into a furry poker face that a card shark would have been proud of. “Not
“A little juggling then.”
Before I could protest, the entertainer produced five red balls from a pouch hidden
in its fur and tossed the spheres upward where they moved almost in slow motion,
weaving intricate patterns as the creature caught and tossed them.
“Where are you from?” I asked.
The balls broke pattern, so two flew high while the others went through their own
formation between its paws. “I hearken from the genetic factories on Lunar VI.” The
creature gracefully dropped onto its back to employ hind legs to juggle three green
balls it added to the five red ones already in the air.
“Never heard of Lunar VI.”
“An amateur comedian, sir?” it chuckled. “You humans are always joking.” The balls
changed directions and went into a high figure-eight pattern. “As you must know,
Lunar VI is the largest colony, second only to the Mars III and Titan II. Next you’ll
probably ask about the underground cities.”
“No, not today.” I glanced downward, calmly noting my feet had vanished.
“It appears you are leaving.”
“Little by little,” I agreed. Soon my legs and lower abdomen were gone. Then my hands.
“Thank you for the show, it was very good,” I said, taking advantage of my ability
to talk before my jaw followed my chest into oblivion.
“My pleasure,” the animal said, scooping up the balls and dropping them back into
its pouch. It rose to hind legs, “Would you like to see another trick?”
“Sorry to be rude, but I really must be going before I’m all gone.”
“Joking to the end.” The Entertainer bowed, a mournful look on its face. “Farewell.”
As I vanished, he started a soft shoe routine while humming, I Ain’t Got Nobody.
I awoke in the cramped shipping box, giddy but thankful to be more than a Cheshire
cat’s grin. I’d apparently been jostled back to consciousness as the package containing
me was loaded into a deliv bot. I wished I could stretch; the air was dense and I
had a foul taste in my mouth.
The last leg of my journey proved eventful. As is often the case with automated drivers,
we hit two pedestrians and scraped a small vehicle of some sort (as near as I could
tell from the crunching and screams I heard as I traveled inside the box). Finally
I felt myself lifted from the back of the bot and dumped onto the pavement somewhere
in the general vicinity of my apartment building, I hoped that approximations of
addresses would prove sufficiently accurate for the government express mailing system.
If I were really lucky, I’d be in front of my apartment building.
As the autodriver sped away, the armored exterior of the package started its slow
nano-melt. Soon I was able to cut my way out of the box. As I waited, I prayed I
was somewhere close to home and that Snipe wouldn’t put a bullet through the box
just for the sheer hell of it. I started cutting through the shell with my knife.
Once free, I quickly crawled out of the box, blinking in the bright sunlight as I
stood on rubbery legs.
I felt disoriented at the sight of the decrepit storefronts and piles of stinking
trash that surrounded me. With a sinking feeling I realized that I definitely was
not in front of my apartment. I wasn’t even in my neighborhood. The gang tags were
a mystery. I recognized nothing.
Turning toward the box I’d escaped from, I checked the address scrawled on the package,
deciphering the thug’s kindergarten script. Death didn’t hire men known for their
address-writing abilities; it just doesn’t appear on résumés alongside “bone breaking”
and “face smashing” in the job skills column.
And so the problem.
The hired muscle had screwed up, just as I had worried they might. Even though it
was technically only a small mistake, it was an all-important one. They’d left the
“Dr.” for drive off the address. The lack of those two insignificant characters caused
grave repercussions. Because the gov’s computerized delivery system apparently defaulted
to street when it had to make a choice due to the lack of a drive, avenue, or similar
designation. No doubt the programmer that devised the default routine had figured
he’d concocted an elegant solution. Heck it probably worked most of the time.
Only not today. Feeling like the Titanic going down for the third time, I realized
I’d been dumped halfway across town, on 3038 Fremont Street, rather than at my own
address of 3038 Fremont Drive.
Which put me right in the middle of what? I tried to think... Demon Twenty-Two Skidoo
country. The only place worse in this part of the planet was the Valley of the Shadow,
and even then not by much.
I was in deep, deep whatchamacallit, right in the middle of Demon country.
I glanced around nervously. The stench of rotting garbage draped the air like a shroud
does a ripening corpse. But, except for piles of trash and junk here and there, the
streets seemed oddly deserted.
Or so I thought.
Because what I had mistaken for a pile of junk received the spark of life, becoming
animated to stand with a clatter not unlike what might be produced by a collection
of tin cans dropped down a garbage chute. A tubular arm with a human hand on its
end pointed a bony finger toward me. “We claim yer bod,” announced a voice like a
poltergeist wailing through the thin wall of a whorehouse.
I snatched my pistol from its concealed holster in my armor, covering the pile of
metal and plastic rubbish that rolled in my direction. “Stay back,” I warned, finger
tightening on the trigger. “You can’t claim me. I’m free body.”
“Yer box is on our turf,” the junk creature facing me said, exposing a toothless
mouth that was nearly hidden by the plastic bottle encasing its head. “Anything delivered
here belongs to us. You were in our box.”
“Only I’m not in that box now.”
“You were. And now you’re on our street. Either way that means your ass and ass-sets
It was obvious from his lack of original parts and by his claim on my body that I
was facing a “Harvey,” a harvester of human organs. I had no desire to donate my
body to anyone, let alone to a walking refuse dump, nor see my parts sold to some
rich guy wanting an eternal job. I’d — quite literally — become attached to my sundry
organs and wasn’t interested in telling even one of them “so long” just yet.
“Back off,” I said, pointing the muzzle of my automatic at the Harvey’s head since
I knew that was one place that a flesh-and-blood organ still resided, overseeing
the junkyard body below it. “Let’s just be cool. And tell your friends, too,” I added,
hearing the telltale squeak of another Harvey trying to flank me, just outside my
“You’re ours,” a third Harvey rasped, materializing from a pile of junk beside the
curb. It straightened itself up, a human arm and face appearing in the middle of
the rubble of makeshift appendages. “Don’t make yourself damaged goods, man. We won’t
make you suffer. Surrender and we’ll do you quick.”
There was another squeak of metal in need of oil to my left. I whirled toward the
harvester that I sensed must be nearly on top of me. I swallowed hard when I discovered
it was not one, but five more Harvey’s, all with fewer human parts than the two I’d
With a sinking feeling in the pit of my soon-to-be stolen stomach, I realized I was
in the middle of a freaking Harvester convention.
“Back off,” I warned. “I’ve got armor-piercing that can ace your tin skulls. I won’t
be worth the price you’ll pay.”
The nearest of the four pointed a stainless steel finger at me. A wicked blade exuded
from its tip as he warned in a metallic voice. “We do easy or we do hard. “
“Your choice,” another grated.
With faintly whirring servomotors, they spread out around me with practiced precision,
blocking all possible escape. The guys were experienced and it was only a matter
of time before one of them nailed me.
I knew I’d have to act quickly to escape this jam.
So I aimed my gun at the nearest one’s cranium and pulled the trigger.
The hammer fell on an empty chamber with a resounding click.
For a long moment, everyone froze. Sweat broke out all over my skin despite the cold.
I manually recycled my pistol, aimed, and pulled the trigger.
Another click, this time inspiring rusty laughter that rattled through the animated
collection of rubbish around me, and chilling my heart like a grasshopper frozen
by an early autumn ice storm.
I checked the indicator on my weapon. Empty. Death’s mesos must have emptied my gun
before returning it to me, leaving me with the false sense of security only a useless
weapon can inspire. I patted my ammo pouches. Empty as well. I silently cursed Death’s
thugs for leaving me defenseless.
The Harvies needed no further invitation. They charged, metal claws snatching at
me and glancing off my armor as I back peddled toward the individual that I hoped
was the weakest link in the steel and plastic ring of cyborgs encircling me.
He proved as steady as a concrete wall encased in brick.
My teeth jarred as I bounced off him.
I beat away a blade aimed at my left eye, dodged, and weaved, and cursed, stumbling
into one of the Harvies just as he twisted and became off balance, somehow bowling
him over in the process. I then half fell, half leaped over his junkyard body and
for a moment found myself free of my attackers.
A junkyard on wheels scooted to block my escape, his body oscillating back and forth
as he attempted to anticipate which way I would duck.
Terror inspired my adrenaline-fueled legs to move in a blur of motion that still
felt nightmarishly slow. I fought my way through the snatching appendages and blades,
clearing the last of the gang while suffering only minor cuts along one of my arms.
Three giant steps sped me toward the curb. I knew their wheeled feet would have trouble
stepping up onto the sidewalk without pausing to shift wheelbases. I hoped that would
buy a few precious moments to get ahead of the pack that pursued me like hounds after
As I leaped onto the sidewalk, I holstered my pistol and executed a long-practiced
twin kick of the toes of my boots; the in-line wheels embedded in the thick soles
of the shoes snapped down and locked into place beneath my feet. In another fraction
of a second, I was skating for my life, jumping over dead rats and piles of trash
to keep from stumbling as I fled.
Behind me, the Harvies, servos groaning, climbed the curb. Having apparently skipped
their last lube job during maintenance cycles, they squeaked forward in hot pursuit.
Once on the straightaway, they made up for the lost time climbing the curb, the wheels
that replaced their legs speeding down the concrete just a terrifyingly short distance
Our raucous parade of the defenseless and the dented sailed down the street, navigating
plastic garbage cans and sending trash careening in our wakes wakes like garbage
barges on methamphetamine. For thirty seconds I pumped and pushed, traveling faster
than I ever had before.
I reached a relatively uncluttered stretch of sidewalk and chanced glancing backward
over my shoulder, half hoping the Harvies would have given up the chase.
I had attained a faster speed than they could, gradually putting distance between
us. But I knew, just as they did, that it was only a matter of time before flesh
and bone would grow tired and my lead would dwindle.
Then motorized wheels would grind forward relentlessly, maintaining a constant speed
that would eventually nibble away the distance between us until they were chewing
on my tail.
And I couldn’t sustain my speed much longer.
Already my lungs felt like they were going to explode and my heart danced heavily
in my chest. And a cramp threatened to immobilize my left calf.
I’m dead meat on wheels.
It was only my fifth mission, but I enjoyed my job — after all, it was one of the
few where you were paid to take drugs.
And with a nice health plan to boot.
I worked for Untied Interplanetary Mining. UIM hired us to run remotes. The operation
was expensive, but still cheaper than putting men out past Mars to harvest the asteroids
of all sorts of rare metals and compounds that were hard to impossible to manufacture
here on Earth.
The heart of the operation used a system based on quantum entanglement. Fortunately
I, and the other operators, didn’t have to understand how it worked. All I knew was
that when I moved here on Earth, my robotic counterpart a bazillion miles away (give
or take) in space moved instantly as well, without the hours of delay it would take
a radio wave to travel the distance through space to get to it.
The catch was that the system demanded those of us operating through the system to
our distant robotic selves be under with Jet.
Thus our near addiction to the drug.
But there was little danger, we were on for an eight-hour shift and then off for
eight days, a system that gave us lots of time to spend the small fortune we made
with each “trip” out to the orbiting mining ship.
I’d discovered that Jet transformed the experience of running our automatons into
something that was almost like being where they were. One minute I was closing my
eyes here on Earth, the next opening them in a mining ship deep in the asteroid belt.
I’d only done four missions, but found the experience almost as addicting as the
Jet we needed to enhance our work.
Today was a little different. Some big wig was coming in to talk to us.
My buddy Sam had been showing me the ropes, taking me under his wing from my first
mission on. He’d been working with the company for four years and was the oldest
on the crew, outranked only by our grumpy foreman Gus Franklin.
“Meeting with the big wig,” Sam said as we walked down the hall to the conference
room. “Big yawn.”
“More like,” I said, then jammed my fingers down my throat and mimicked a gag.
Sam laughed. “Yeah, Louis, more like that.”
A few minutes later we were seated at a fake oak table and the suit droned on and
on about the new and improved Jet we were going to use, how safe it was, and, oh,
yes, be sure to sign your waivers before you leave.
“New and improved” generally only meant “new” and — if you were lucky — not degraded
or outright dangerous. Probably some scheme from a corporate bean counter to save
a little cash.
“Hopefully the crap doesn’t cause our heads to explode like junkies,” Sam quipped
as he signed the waiver.
The suit glared at us as I nodded grimly, following Sam’s lead, feeling like I had
just signed a pact with a corporate manager with cloven hoofs. But as was always
the case when selling one's soul, the pay was good. So we all went along with it
and signed on the dotted line.
Commander Jacque Thuriot de La Tribunat
Bodyguards become unemployed when their charges expire. Had I not glanced to my left,
my job would have ended quite abruptly. As it was, I did turn to my left, studiously
ignoring Emperor Napoleon VI as the monarch directed the crowds’ attention toward
the newly constructed hypergenerator.
With nearly all eyes in the pitch-black theater gazing toward the massive construct
of glass and wire, the assassin, who had edged his way through the entourage surrounding
the emperor, drew the plas-steel stiletto from beneath his great coat and readied
“I’m here today with great pleasure,” Napoleon VI said, his amplified voice thundering
through the hall.
“Bogie on the stage,” I whispered, my warning carried to my men over the transponder
embedded in my jaw. “Move in — now!” Reflexively, I shoved through the crowd, placing
myself between the assassin and my emperor, knocking Napoleon VI to the floor in
the process, interrupting the speech in mid-sentence. The gasps of those around him
went unnoticed by me; my whole attention was focused on the poison-tipped blade that
glinted in the bright spotlight bathing the podium.
Seeing me blocking his way, the assassin took a step back to size me up, dropping
into a crouch and grasping the blade to his side in a style that marked him as a
highly trained killer. Those standing around us drew back; a woman screamed at the
sight of the blade.
I swallowed, wishing the Emperor had kept his praetorian guards around him instead
of ordering them to remain at the sides of the stage where they were now helpless
to do anything quickly enough to stop the attack. They were pushing through the crowd,
but not making great headway, and it would be too late by the time they got here
for them to offer me any help.
“Commander, it’s going to be a few seconds before we can get to you,” the voice of
my nearest assistant whispered over the radio.
I made no reply; I knew I was on my own for the next few critical seconds.
A lot can happen in a few seconds, especially when your opponent has a wicked looking
dagger in his hand.
I blocked everything out, focusing on my opponent. The crowd was too dense for me
to risk drawing my pistol; a stray shot would be disastrous. That meant I’d have
to disarm the assassin with my bare hands, or at least slow him down enough so the
guards and my men could be on top of him.
Suddenly his blade darted toward my chest.
I sidestepped, my hands reflexively grasping for the killer’s knife hand. For a moment
I almost succeeded in restraining my adversary, but then the assassin changed the
direction of his thrust, circling around for a jab at my chest. There was a momentary
thump of the point of the weapon against my breast, and then the attacker broke away,
circling for a follow-up jab.
I circled, keeping myself between the assassin and the emperor. Now that he knows
about my ballistic vest, he’ll try for my groin or face. I instinctively raised my
right hand to my throat and lowered my left in front of him, keeping my feet spread
so I could move quickly without loosing my balance.
The assassin lunged forward, arm extended as far as it would reach. I swung to the
side, the blade slashing past my neck, missing fatal contact by just an inch. I grasped
the assassin’s wrist before he delivered a follow-up backward slash. For a moment
my fingers failed to gain purchase on his silk sleeve — and then I had a secure grip,
tight around his wrist and lower hand.
“Got you,” I whispered, throwing my weight to the side before the assassin could
twist his hand free for another thrust. I swung my opponent’s wrist to the side,
jerking back hard as my foe’s arm crossed my chest. My action was rewarded with the
dull snap of the killer’s elbow.
His arm suddenly useless, the assassin exploited an ancient Judo move, throwing himself
backward, using my strength against me. The two of us tumbled toward the floor; the
crowd surrounding us scrambling to avoid the deadly blade skidding across the stage.
As we hit the floor, I leveraged our momentum to roll once, landing on top of the
assassin, pinning his face to the floor while restraining the man’s good arm. I pulled
back my fist to deliver a blow that would knock the man unconscious and then felt
him convulsing in my grasp.
Too late. The killer’s flushed cheek and the convulsions rippling through his body
betrayed the first stages of cyanide poisoning.
I released the killer, swearing under my breath as I rose to my feet. “This one’s
taken the dose,” I whispered to those on the security band.
“Loupé?” my assistant asked over the radio.
“Looks like it. Probably ingested the poison just before mounting his attack.” I
pulled my gaze from the killer whose death spasms racked his frame. “Everyone stay
alert. There’re probably more.” There always were; the Loupé operated in packs.
My eyes darted around the stage, the electronic circuits tied into my brain scanning
faces for a match with known terrorists.
There! I warned myself as a positive ID flashed inside my brain, causing a red outline
to superimpose itself over the image of a man half hidden in the crowd at the front
of the stage. I caught the man’s eyes just before the would-be killer turned and
leaped into the crowd below, trying to lose himself in the now confused throng.
“Another bogy traveling down the center aisle in front of the stage,” I said into
my radio, pushing a spider-legged news camera out of the way to follow the criminal.
I could leave the Emperor because his praetorian guards had finally reached the stage,
surrounding him with cold steel and Kevlar, their guns at the ready. “He’s headed
for the south entrance,” I added as he turned down a row that was now empty.
I mentally switched the frequency of my radio to the band the guards at the south
entrance used. “Stop the man in the green velvet suit — he’s headed your way. Use
your swords.” I ordered.
I hoped the guards would have the good sense not to shoot; with as many people as
there were on the stage and throughout the packed auditorium, a single stray shot
would cause a disaster. It was good the emperor insisted on arming the noblesse d’épée
both with pulse rifles as well as out-dated swords.
I leaped from the stage and for a moment the lone Loupé was lost from my view. I
ran toward the south entrance and spied him again; the guards had managed to cut
off his retreat from the room. The assassin paced between them and me like a caged
animal. Then he stopped, took two steps toward me, and froze.
The guards spread out, ceremonial swords in hand, half encircling the criminal while
taking care to stay out of reach of the dagger pulled from his vest. Seeing he was
trapped, the assassin’s eyes locked with mine as I approached.
He stood at attention and saluted me with his dagger and for a moment I though he
might surrender. But instead, with a grim smile, he plunged the blade into his throat,
tumbling to the floor where he writhed for a few moments as a pool of blood quickly
formed around him.
“Back to your posts,” I ordered the guards who ringed the fallen assassin. “There
may be more assassins in the crowd.”
The guards retreated to take up their positions at the exits of the hallway. I searched
the crowd for another would-be killer, even though I knew my effort would now most
likely be futile. If there had been others, they would have managed to escape back
into the anonymity of the crowd by now. As I scanned the faces on the stage, I spoke
over the radio band reserved for my men. “Anyone else got any positive IDs?”
“Negative, commander,” one of my men said over the radio link. “We can’t see any
more from the catwalk. Shall we seal off the hall?”
“No,” I answered. “But re-activate the smart cameras at the exits. We might get lucky
and ID more Loupé when they leave.”
“Should we search the crowd for weapons?” the voice of one of my new men asked over
I suppressed a smile at the thought of strip-searching the noblesse de robe gathered
in the hall. “Not today,” I said. “I want to be employed tomorrow even if you don’t.
Besides, the Loupé would have dropped their weapons by now. When the janitors sweep
out the hall, I’m betting they’ll find four or five plastic daggers that were sneaked
through the metal detectors. But that’s the only thing we’ll have to show how many
more there were. For now everyone get back to positions.”
I headed back down the aisle toward the stage. “Mike?”
“Get a clean-up crew down here to cart off the bodies. But have the crew wait until
the lights are low and everyone’s attention is on the new generator.”
“The crew’s already on their way, commander. I’ll tell them to be discreet.”
I climbed back onto the stage and crossed to the emperor. The guards parted so I
could reach the monarch. “Sorry I had to shove you aside, Excellency.”
The old man smiled. “A fall is better than a blade through the ribs any day. The
weapon was poisoned?”
I nodded. “One pin prick and... au revoir. “
“Suicide killer, from the look of it.”
I nodded again. “I hope you weren’t injured, your majesty. Perhaps we should have
a doctor —”
“Nonsense,” the Emperor said. “I’m fine.” He leaned forward and whispered, “We owe
you and your men a great debt of gratitude for what you did today, commander. I will
speak with you later.” Then the ruler tapped his microphone on his lapel, turning
it back on and spoke calmly as he shooed his praetorian guards to the side. “Mesdames
et Messieurs. If I may have your attention, please.”
The crowd on the floor quieted as Napoleon VI returned to the front of the stage.
“Well,” the emperor said, gazing over the now silent throng in front of him. He paused
for a moment, his eyes flashing in the spotlight that focused on him. “Now that the
formalities are out of the way, we can continue.”
The crowd burst into laughter, and then applauded wildly.
The emperor held up his hand to quiet them. “We can’t let an ill-guided malcontent
stop the opening of France’s new generation system, can we?”
“No!” the crowd shouted.
I smiled to myself. The Emperor still knows how to turn a major debacle into a political
My Emperor had rewarded me with a week’s vacation at his lunar getaway. I’m paid
well, but not well enough to ever go to the Moon — except through the generosity
of the state. This was my fifth such vacation, and I never tired of it.
I made the long, and thankfully uneventful, trip from Earth in just two hours and
25 minutes on a French-made hyperdrive shuttle. I begun my day in Paris; now I was
bouncing along the lunar surface, my tired muscles feeling like they had new life
in the low gravity.
I squinted at the distant horizon. The gray mountains jutted upward at steep angles,
their surfaces almost dazzling in the raw sunlight, contrasting sharply to the bleak,
colorless black of space. For a moment I realized how alien the place was, something
I almost took for granted. “Funny how quickly the abnormal becomes the norm,” I mused.
“Pardon, Commander?” Durant asked, his voice crackling over the radio.
“The Moon,” I replied. “Its landscape seems almost — commonplace.”
“Only because you’ve spent some time away from Earth. It warps your esthetic tastes.”
I chuckled. “Perhaps so, my friend. Peut-être.” I glanced toward my space-suited
companion whose grinning face was barely visible inside the silvered glass helmet.
When I’d first visited the moon, it had been to escape the pressures of my job for
a few days — and to get away from my now-divorced wife. But now I found myself coming
back again and again, even though the emperor would have sent me to any spot on Earth,
or perhaps even to Mars if I’d asked for such locales. The Moon had a pull I couldn’t
understand. L’amour de la lune.
The Emperor maintained a less-than-modest apartment near the Voltaire Lunar observatory,
allowing me to catch less expensive flights aboard government supply ships, a perk
of my job and rank.
“Just three hours from now,” Durant said, breaking into my train of thought, “and
I’ll have made my return trip to Terra firma. I’ll be breathing air that smells like
damp earth and grass instead of urine and sweat.”
I laughed as I hopped over a boulder that blocked my path, waiting to speak until
I regained my footing on the powdery surface. “Yeah, but I bet you’ll miss the joys
of pseudo-meat and greenhouse fruit.”
“Pseudo-meat and greenhouse fruit?” Durant laughed. “Ouais, c’est ça.” We bounced
along for a time and then he spoke. “Seriously, wouldn’t you rather be back on Earth.
Tahiti maybe? I hear the natives still parade around topless. That would have to
be better than this wasteland where every space-suited woman looks like a two-hundred
pound gorilla, wouldn’t it?”
I thought it over a moment and made no reply.
Ten minutes later, I opened the hatch to the Emperor’s apartment and stepped in,
half bouncing in the light gravity that I was still unaccustomed to. I laid my helmet
in its rack by the door and then carefully removed my suit and boots and stored them
before entering the bedroom to strip off my uniform. Finally I arrived at my goal:
The misting stall for a quick shower.
Or what passes as a shower here on the Moon, I thought. Bathing with as much hot
water as I wished was a luxury I only enjoyed when on Earth, and even there only
in the Emperor’s palace. Here I turned on the water mist, my thoughts returning to
exactly what it was that seemed so pleasant about the Moon. It’s quietness? Barrenness?
Questions for the psyche examiners, I decided.
After moistening my skin, I quickly turned off the water so I’d have enough of my
daily allotment left to rinse off the suds once I lathered up with the bio-soap.
Five minutes later I was drying under the sunlamp. “Courrier,” I told the computer
as I pulled a terry cloth robe around myself.
“Sixteen advertisements and one voice email.”
I shook my head. Why any business would insist on sending advertising to me I didn’t
know. A pure waste of electrons and my time. I hadn’t ordered anything from the e-companies
for years. “Delete the ads and let’s hear the mail.”
“Message recorded 13:23 10-12-2139,” the computer said. Then my ex-wife, Dorothy,
appeared on the wall screen, “Jacque, did you realize that this was our anniversary.
I bet you forgot — but I didn’t. Honey, I really would like to see —”
“Delete message,” I interrupted. I bounced into the kitchen and poured myself a drink.
Dorothy just didn’t know when to give up.
About the Author
Duncan Long is a writer/illustrator who has authored 13 novels including Anti-Grav
Unlimited (Avon Books), the Spider Worlds triology (HarperCollins), and the Night
Stalkers series (Harper Collins). He’s also written 60-some technical books and how-to
manuals (with Paladin Press, Delta Press, Lyons Press/Globe Pequot, and others).
Additionally, he’s ghostwritten over a dozen titles for TV, radio, and stage celebrities.
In addition to illustrating many of his own books, Long has created cover and interior
illustrations for HarperCollins, PS Publishing (UK), Byron Preiss/ibooks, Pocket
Books, Fort Ross, American Media, Ballistic Media, Mermaid Books, Swimming Kangaroo
Books, and others. His artwork also appears in national magazines (including the
Sun and Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine).