Saturday, June 29, 2019

Galactogon 3: A Check for a Billion by Vasily Mahanenko

Galactogon, Book 3
A Check for a Billion
by Vasily Mahanenko

Release - August 30, 2019

Chapter One

The Precian cruise ship plowed placidly through the vast vacuum of space. The captain glanced at his console and turned back to the porthole. For the last five years, he had ferried tourists to the system’s asteroid belt and he still found himself mesmerized by the spectacular vista. His passengers’ security did not worry him: the Zatrathi fleet was on the other side of Galactogon, and the treacherous Qualians were blockaded in their home systems and posed no threat to his cruiser. They were deep in allied space, not a single enemy within a radius of twenty parsecs. Of course there was always the chance pirate raid. But even this was less likely than colliding with a stray asteroid. The pirates were weak, fragmented and lacked the resources to mount a raid this deep in Precian space. And if some minnow risked it, the cruise’s escort of a dozen carracks would be sure to put him in his place.

“Captain, three asteroids straight ahead!”
The Precian glanced up at the bridge’s screens with displeasure. It was rare, of course, but this had happened before—the asteroids in the belt would sometimes collide with one another, ejecting debris from the belt. And sure enough—three tumbling cliffs were currently hurtling at his cruiser.
“Three asteroids. Fifty meters in diameter on average. Risk of collision with object number three is 98%. The remaining objects do not pose a threat. Trimming our course should avoid collision.”
The captain frowned—any abrupt change of course was not desirable. There were a number of Precian VIPs on board. Any discomfort due to the inertia involved might result in the captain’s own discomfort as he tumbled down his career ladder. He could easily end up the captain of some rusty transport on a sandy backwater.
“Maintain current course.” The Precian made his decision after a brief pause. He could only hope that the danger would pass. “Destroy object number three. We will arrange a small show for our passengers.”
Three torpedoes shot out of the cruiser in the direction of the dangerous asteroid.
“Honored passengers! This is your captain speaking. I would like to draw your attention to your cabin’s screens. We are about to conduct a minor demonstration of the power of Precian weaponry!”
The asteroid flared into a little sun for a few seconds. A salvo from the cruiser’s beam cannons pulverized what remained. Nothing could be allowed to interfere with the peace and tranquility of the important guests.
“Target terminated. The two remaining asteroids are projected to pass fifty meters to starboard. Shall we destroy them as well?”
“Leave them.”
The captain wiped the sweat from his forehead with a trembling hand. The anxiety of the last few seconds did not have a positive effect on the well-being of the stout Precian. He had begun to worry: Would the Precian VIPs enjoy his little bit of improvisation? Or would they resent his waste of torpedoes? What if upon arrival, he would be court martialed for wasting ammunition unnecessarily instead of simply taking evasive action? Such were the new worries that lodged themselves in his mind.
“Bravo, captain!” One of the guests entered the bridge as if it were his living room. “I appreciate your ingenuity. A mesmerizing spectacle! I must say, we almost believed it to be real. To launch an asteroid at the cruiser to tickle our nerves, and then to destroy it in such a spectacular fashion! Bravo! Would you like a reward?”
“The asteroid emerged from the belt on its own, Sir Grandar.” The captain’s back wasn’t used to bowing, but this was one of those instances when one had to overcome one’s sizeable belly and bend oneself as deeply as one could. The emperor’s favorite is not the type of individual with whom you could even hint at a lack of respect.
“Do not hold me a fool! I am well versed in the gravitational fields at work within asteroid belts! These boulders could not have come flying out on their own. Someone helped them and it seems to me that you did it. Would you maybe have us believe that pirates were behind this?”
In the peace and quiet of his own head, the captain recited everything he thought about Grandar’s intellectual abilities; naturally, what came out of his mouth was something else entirely:
“Sir Grandar, there have never been pirates in this area.” And, just in case, the captain bowed once more as deeply as he could and looked up only when he’d reached the bottom. What the hell was this fop talking about? What pirates?!

“Maybe, this isn’t such a good idea?” I looked over at Eunice who was holding on to the space rock as tightly as she could. Her helmet’s visor concealed her face, but the biometric sensors indicated that her pulse had accelerated. Training and exercise is one thing, but a true raid where you come in riding in on an asteroid, tumbling through open space at a Precian cruiser—is quite another thing altogether. We had reached the most critical part of our operation—the one where we no longer had any control over what would happen next. Just hurtling on this asteroid, hoping the Precians won’t spend a torpedo on an object that posed no threat to them. My wife had never done this kind of thing before and she was understandably nervous. Once the cruiser was ten seconds’ flight from us, the time had come for me to decide—go alone or go with Eunice. After all, a nervous pirate is a dead pirate.
“It’s a fine idea,” my wife reassured me with a note of stress in her voice. “I’m calm—I’m ready.”
“All right,” I nodded, accepting her decision. “Brainiac, what do you have?”
The rhino’s roar blared across my speakers, signifying that the boarding party was eager for battle and didn’t care one bit about quiet retirement. Next came the snake’s lazy yawn and indistinct murmur. Despite her seeming boredom, the engineer was ready to start screening Warlock with shields at any second. The gunner remained silent as usual, and only Brainiac deigned to reply intelligibly:
“Captain, the team is ready. We await your orders.”
“Let’s do it then!” I ordered. Crouching, we waited until the asteroid rotated around its axis. As the Precian cruiser rose on the gray horizon, I jumped as hard as I could. Eunice jumped behind me. The shot of adrenaline after the long wait blurred my vision but then settled into a mellow buzz. The time had come at last! At stake was a prize check with a one and nine zeros!
Far behind us, a vivid explosion bloomed deep inside the asteroid belt, spraying fine, colored dust in an iridescent sphere that deformed as it encountered the other asteroids. The Precians’ sensors would be sure to detect it, and I really hoped that aboard the cruiser, everyone’s attention would be directed that way. We had packed a lot of reagent on that asteroid and now as it encountering the debris and ice particles drifting in the belt, a large area of space exploded in a breathtaking riot of color. The vision was an impressive one for anyone uninitiated.
The hull of the cruiser approached faster than I expected and I hurriedly fired reverse thrust to slow down. This was another weakness in our plan, another point that was down to circumstances. If at least one Precian did his job and maintained close watch over the ship’s perimeter sensors—instead of gawking at the fireworks display—we were sure to be noticed. Eunice had been opposed of running this risk, but I had insisted. Aren’t we soldiers of fortune, or what? Plus, Galactogon had taught me to believe in the locals. If NPCs act stupid, they act stupid in the grandest way possible. Did they detect us during our initial approach? No. So they won’t detect us now either.
As I looked for the best place to land on, I was constantly distracted by Eunice. I did not like the trajectory of her flight from the very beginning—the deviation was too great. It was possible to adjust course using the suit’s thrusters, but this required a certain amount of skill which, according to my prior observations, Eunice did not have. As soon as I got close to the cruiser and attached myself to its hull with magnets, I rotated myself and put my feet on the hull. Pausing a moment until my wife’s boot came flying past me, I grabbed it with both hands and pulled with all my might.
“Kill the thrusters!” I yelled, but Eunice, overwhelmed by her suit’s controls, did not hear me. The second of confusion cost us dearly—the magnets failed and we went tumbling back into space.
“I got it! I got it!” Eunice fired her thrusters again, sending us in a roll. Time rushed on and her movements became impulsive and abrupt. As I tried to compensate with my own thrusters, we slammed back hard against the hull and began sliding along its length.
“Kill the throttle!” I yelled, trying to grab onto whatever slid past us. “Cut your throttle!”
One of the myriad antennae slipped past my hand. I grabbed it, and my suit’s servos whined from the stress—Eunice’s suit was blasting at full thrust.
“Brainiac! Shut her off!” I pleaded, realizing that Eunice wouldn’t do anything on her own. Poker has the concept of ‘tilt’ when a player loses his head and makes error upon error trying to make it right. For all intents and purposes, Eunice was now on tilt.
“About time you asked me,” the ship’s computer said pedantically, and the tension in my arm dissipated. Eunice’s armor had finally gone still. The magnets snapped on again, attaching us to the cruiser’s hull. But before I could breathe a sigh of relief, Brainiac announced:
“Two fighters are heading in your direction. ETA is ten seconds.”
So they’d noticed us after all!
“Let’s get out of here!” I pressed myself to one of the spires, pulled my immobilized wife to me and jumped, deactivating the magnets. A couple of seconds of weightlessness and we were again drawn to the hull. Attaching Eunice to the base of the spire, I leaned on top of her and activated the protective screen. Hopefully we look more like a sensor array than a couple of pirates out spacewalking around their prey.
“How are you? Eunice?” There was no reply. “Brainiac, turn on her comms. Eunice, can you hear me?”
“Get off my foot, you oaf!” My spouse snapped angrily. “Yes, I’m fine!”
“Are you going to panic again?” I asked in as neutral a tone as I could muster, resisting my urge to curse and yell. We had almost blown the entire operation.
“No. I was just a little confused,” the girl replied with irritation. She sounded embarrassed by her unprofessionalism.
“You can’t argue with hormones,” I agreed, recalling the books about pregnancy I had read in preparation for our child, but then I hurried to change topics. “Brainiac, what’s the status of those fighters?”
“They’ve gone. They scanned the hull and returned back to their hangar. Everyone seems fixated on the light show we put on. Hang on…I don’t like the look of that antenna that just popped out of the hull. It looks like a close perimeter sensor.”
“Roger. We’ll cut through the hull right here then.”
Eunice nodded and began setting up a small force field that would prevent the air from rushing out when we broke through the cruiser’s hull. Brainiac had explained that the hull integrity sensors were very sensitive to any drop in pressure aboard the vessel. I had seen this device in use aboard Aalor’s ship and couldn’t help but wonder: Why could physical objects pass through it, but not air? The answer turned out to be simple—the system was one of the most important additions to any spacecraft. Whenever beam cannons overwhelmed ships’ shields, the plasma would perforate the hull causing a myriad holes and therefore air leaks. Not all captains liked to work in armor suits—in fact, I was particular in my affection for the hunk of iron I was constantly encased in. Many other captains preferred to stand on the bridge and show off their beautiful physique. You can’t breathe much without air, so especially powerful cruisers would expend one of their integration slots on this force field system to ensure that hull integrity would be maintained during battles. I had no idea whether a luxury cruise ship would carry one of these or not, so I decided to play it safe. Relying on chance was the last thing I wanted.
Having finished installing the device, Eunice activated the plasma cutter. I waited nearby, looking away from the bright sparks. The Precians were vigilant and any sudden movement could ruin our boarding operation. This was also why I removed the camouflage field generator from my armor suit and attached it to the place where we were working. The ‘antenna amplifier’ that concealed us, should remain even after we’d boarded the cruiser.
“Ready!” Eunice pushed in the hull segment she’d cut out and stepped aside, allowing me to enter first. ‘Ladies first’ was not a principle we observed in our family. I squeezed through the opening and plunged three meters to the deck floor. Though my armor suit softened the fall, activating its stabilizers, the blow still jarred me. Eunice dived in after me and I managed to catch her near the floor. A pirate has to be a gentleman sometimes too. My spatial scanner modeled the cabin we were in and Brainiac helpfully identified it as the utility closet. Since the trip to the foggy asteroids lasted only a few hours, most of these facilities were typically empty. Why take on unnecessary cargo, after all?
“Brainiac, help us out! Where should we plug you in?”
“The right wall, lower plug. I will highlight it for you!”
A thin laser beam pointed at the wall I needed. I took a remote terminal configured for Brainiac out of my inventory. It would let my ship’s computer interface directly with the cruiser’s systems, as if they were linked by a cable. A handy little piece of gear whose main drawback was how incredibly expensive it was. On the whole, I have to mention that this entire operation had turned out to be ridiculously troublesome and costly. We had had to attach rocket engines to the asteroids, aim one of the rocks at the cruiser, have time to remove the engines before the asteroids came out of the belt, buy and deliver a lot of colored dust, pump it into several harvesters and, well, buy the harvesters themselves. The credits had poured with cosmic speed and, looking at the explosion we had engineered, I knew exactly where they had gone. But even that was nothing. The biggest blow to my gaming account was incurred by the information, or rather the list of passengers and the coordinates of this particular cruiser. If it weren’t for my new partner Vargen, who had turned a tidy profit selling the loot from the Uldan base, I would’ve never dared getting involved in such a dubious enterprise. However, we had the cash and we had to use it intelligently.
“I’m in the system.” It took Brainiac about a minute to deal with the cruiser’s security system. “Projecting the ship layout to your HUD now. Identifying the passengers on board. Highlighting your objective.”
The individual we needed was located in the other end of the cruiser. There were a thousand and a half Precians on board altogether, of whom two hundred were crew. Of course, a cruiser of this size could accommodate more, but everyone loved comfort.
“You are now engineers of the third rank, with the access of first rank personnel.” Brainiac worked his magic, adding two new crew members with high level access to the cruiser crew. Becoming an officer didn’t interest me. There weren’t that many of them on the ship and their movements would be monitored more closely. But who’s going to pay attention to some maintenance staff? Especially of the third rank? Especially humans? We were mere handymen of the bring-that-here-and-take-that-there type. Who knew where we came from or how we’d ended up on the ship? And no one cared. The NPCs’ logic would oblige them to look away, diligently keeping them blind to us.
“Well this is uncomfortable,” Eunice mumbled, putting on the uniform of a Precian cruise janitor. But there was no other way—we had to look the part to a T. The gray suit fit her snugly, emphasizing my wife’s perfect curves. It was a good thing Brainiac had spent three days contemplating the meaning of life. Eunice and I had things to do in the meantime on our deserted planet.
I placed the ID card to the lock and the door panel slid up. The way into the cruiser’s interior lay open before us.
“To the right along the corridor, then straight one hundred meters to the elevator. You need deck number three.”
The cruise ship’s interior turned out to be entirely different from what was the norm aboard cruisers. The corridors were all absurdly wide, there were screens and paintings hanging everywhere, and here and there we even came across aquariums and statues. It felt like instead of being on a space cruiser, we were visiting the country estate of a Precian billionaire. A kind of ostentatious chic that forced the underlings to feel their inferiority and poverty.
“Watch over us, Brainiac,” I asked the ship’s computer to keep an eye on the video feed and alert me if anything. Approaching the nearest wall, I shamelessly tore off a painting hanging there. Pleased with my chance loot, I turned and stumbled onto Eunice’s look of disapproval. “What? It’s for our family! The enemy doesn’t deserve it. On the black market, they’ll pounce at such an item so fast they’ll tear your hands off in the process!” My wife just shook her head, failing to appreciate the finer points of my pirate’s worldview. I guess stealing loot was shameful in whatever game she used to play. No big deal. She’ll get used to it. She didn’t marry me for nothing.
“…because, Sir Oleander, you simply had no opportunity …”
Everything went cold inside me—this voice was perfectly familiar to me. The strange thing was that the cruise’s manifest hadn’t listed this passenger. I cast around, looking for somewhere to hide. If the third adviser of the Precian Emperor sees me here, we’ll be done for on the spot!
“What is it, Lex?” My SO did not fail to notice my agitation.
“Stand in front of me. The adviser is here! He doesn’t know you.” I finally found a small nook behind a statue and huddled into it, screening myself with the painting I’d filched for good measure. It didn’t work out very well, but my panicked brain could not come up with another option. Judging by the voices, the adviser was approaching. I peeked through a crack, observing the procession. The adviser was escorting a Precian in shackles. Three armed guards followed behind them.
“My brother’s policy is mistaken. No good will come of it.” Oleander had a deep voice, the kind that women fancy between the ages of eighteen and infinity. Judging by her narrowed eyes, my wife too was an admirer of baritones.
“Our empire…” The adviser began to respond—when his gaze strayed across Eunice. She had stepped aside to the wall in order to let the Precians pass, yet still failed to escape the local’s clingy eye.
“A human?” the adviser said with surprise. One of the guards approached Eunice and I heard the squeak of her ID being scanned. “A cadet of the Precian marine academy. Her name is Nurse…Your name seems familiar to me. Have we met?”
“No, sir, your lordship.” Eunice bowed curtly, showing deference.
“Yet I definitely know you from somewhere…”
“I cannot say, your lordship. After graduating from school, I continued my studies in engineering and found a job with this cruise line. Perhaps you have heard of a design I developed? A stability system for marine mechs. The Hansa Corporation found it interesting enough to give it a closer examination.”
Eunice lied without hesitation and did it beautifully. It was good luck that she had started out with the Precian Empire. It made our cover story all the more plausible. Naturally cruiser personnel could speak the common tongue, but this would raise questions and attract unnecessary attention. As a former Qualian, for me, the speech of the Precians was a chaotic torrent of strange sounds and only Brainiac interpreting in real time allowed me to understand what was being discussed.
“Perhaps, perhaps,” the adviser frowned. “Yes, most likely I came across your name in one of the reports. Well, it’s nice to know that such talented warriors are fighting for the Precian Empire. Here, Mr. Oleander, take a look. Is this what you wish to rid us of? Humans are useful allies of our empire.”
The prisoner did not answer and merely measured Eunice with a scornful look.
“Come along. The brig awaits. Today the emperor will render his sentence. I am afraid I will miss your poetry.”
The procession went on its way and I climbed out of my improvised cover. Examining the painting that had so successfully saved me from having to explain myself to the adviser, I threw it in inventory. I won’t sell it. I’ll hang it up in the orbship for good luck.
Our subsequent journey brought no surprises. The passengers did not notice us. Some of the crew cast us menacing looks, evidently thinking about what they could make us do. To solve this problem, we held tablets in our hands with a warning blinking red on their screens. Coupled with our fast pace and serious mugs, we looked like we were on a very urgent mission. No one bothered us until we reached the elevator, but as soon as we ascended to the third deck, our troubles returned.
“Halt!” A marine in an armor suit barred our way. “Your ID!”
We obeyed and held up our plastic cards to the scanner. The scanner flashed green. All clear. But the guard did not back down.
“Deck three is off limits to junior personnel!”
“The HVAC in section 37 is busted,” Eunice explained. “Feel free to verify with the custodial ops. Either let us pass or go repair it yourself. The captain won’t be happy when the guests start complaining about their stuffy cabins.”
The guard pressed a few buttons on his tablet. Brainiac had done his job perfectly and the onboard system indeed now showed a malfunction. Nothing so critical as to arouse the interest of senior engineers. A straightforward replacement of some condenser units.
“Val, escort them!” The guard stepped aside, but another guard immediately replaced him beside us. I sighed with displeasure. This wasn’t part of the plan. And yet, there’s no arguing with a blaster muzzle.
“Let’s go. We need to finish soon before the guests return.” Eunice hurried onward.
I must admit that our escort turned out to be useful. We encountered a few more checkpoints, but now the procedure was limited to a perfunctory ID scan. The guards could see our status and though they did not understand why such low-ranked staff had been sent to repair the cabin of a nobleman, they did not hinder us. And if anything, we always had Val’s imposing presence. My hands were constantly itching to pocket a few more expensive goodies, but the presence of a guard protected the cruiser’s decor from my paws. In this manner, we finally reached the door we needed. Under escort, under constant supervision and without any loot. This last part upset me the most.
As soon as the entrance door closed behind us, Brainiac said:
“Captain, there is no one in this area.”
For poor old Val, this meant one thing only—his clock cycles in Galactogon’s AI stack were about to expire. An EM grenade appeared in my hands—a miniature bomb with the same effect as an EM cannon. Attach one to an armor suit and press a button, and every electronic device in a one-meter radius sizzles and fries. Quite a reliable way to neutralize an unsuspecting space marine encased in an armor suit. Oh the toys you’ll discover when Hilvar gives you permission to trade with the pirates…
“Can you hear me, Brainiac?” I took a new comm from my inventory. The EM blast knocked out not only Val, but my old comm as well.
“You’re coming in loud and clear. There is no interference. The Target is currently located in the next cabin. Warning! The Target is not alone.”
“We can’t wait,” Eunice interfered. “The cruise will enter hyperspace in half an hour.”
“You’re right. Let’s just deal with it.” I removed a blaster from my inventory. The Precian on the floor twitched, making another attempt to overcome the weight of his armor. Eunice turned away, leaving the matter entirely to me. Leaving a witness behind was not in our rules. There was too much at stake. A shot—and all that remained of the guard was a shimmering crate of raq and elo. My rapport with the Precian Empire did not change because it was already at zero.
“Let’s go.” I pulled out my manipulators and, unable to resist, tossed another painting from the wall into my inventory. There was just something so unusual about it, so catchy. A complete abstraction, but it was hard to look away. It’ll make a nice gift for Hilvar. He likes that kind of stuff.
While I was filching the art, the Target came out to meet us voluntarily.
“What are you doing here? Scram!” I heard a cry of indignation. I suppose there was something to sputter about: Two armed junior engineers were expropriating the local decor as if they were in their own house. How could you not be indignant? My manipulators snapped into action and Duke Narlin, the nephew of the Precian Emperor himself, flew up into the air, flailing his arms comically. A quick shot of sedative and he calmed down and went limp. I carefully placed the valuable little body in a chair and pointed Eunice to the door. Our unexpected guest was on the other side and it was time to get rid of him.
“Surgeon?” another voice exclaimed. The guest had come to us himself, having heard Narlin’s outburst. Eunice raised her blaster, about to send the stranger to the other side, and I barely managed to shove her elbow, sending a plasma bolt at the wall. I was all too familiar with the newcomer.
“What are you doing on this ship? You’re an outlaw! Look, if you want to meet me, you should have simply called. Our earlier communication was very productive.”
I did not allow my wife to shoot Grandar, the former junior adviser to the deputy weeding assistant to the gardener of the Third Palace of his Imperial Highness, the Emperor of the Precian Empire. Back in the day he had done me a huge favor—he had gone to the emperor and passed on information from me. Later I had asked the emperor to show his favor to this Precian who was able to help me in difficult times. But I could not even imagine that Grandar would rise so swiftly in the ranks. The bands on his robes suggested that I was looking at an intimate of the emperor. An imperial favorite who carried his master’s blessing and all that jazz. Basically, he was now a bigwig who had been at the right time and place to help me. I could hardly allow Eunice to shoot him. Not at all, in fact.
“I have some business with the duke,” I replied.
“What business can a pirate have with a member of the imperial family? I should call security, but…my intuition tells me to hold off. I must admit I am confused. Help me, Surgeon. Explain what you are doing here.”
“I need to get into Zalva, the imperial capital. It’s nothing criminal, I assure you,” I answered honestly, causing Eunice to scoff. She did not like improvisation.
“What does Narlin have to do with it? He will not help you.” Grandar closely examined me and the sleeping duke. “He is only the tenth in line to the throne!”
“I have every reason to believe that it is for this reason that he will help us.” I had to act quickly, so I decided to share my plans with Grandar. It was not for nothing that he had appeared in this room. You don’t just encounter locals randomly along your way. Everything has its reasons. And anyway, I can kill him at any time if something goes wrong.
“Trade fraud?!” Grandar exclaimed when I showed him the data I had. I finally managed to use the compromising evidence I’d found on the viceroy’s tablet. Vargen had told me that the deceased Precian was about to be honored as a hero who had traded his life for that of Lumara, the uncrowned empress of the fallen Delvian Empire.
My plan was embarrassingly simple. If the quest for the check was on again, we would have to start from the last point in our previous journey. In my case—I had to get onto the ship of the Precian prince and get the coordinates of the seven planets. One of them should contain my final prize. I found the weakest link in the list, found out when the duke would take a cruise and  then arranged an operation that would force the Precian to take us to Zalva. The only problem now was this Grandar, who could spoil all our plans.
“I am loath to upset you, but Narlin will not agree,” the Precian said to my chagrin. “His service to the empire has always been dearer to him than his own life. The compromising material you have will merely push him back from tenth to like twentieth in the line of succession, and even that is not a fact. The emperor might even praise him for his resourcefulness. After all, these are mere financial machinations, not actual treason. The duke tried to increase his wealth. What member of the imperial family does not seek to do the same?”
“How much do you want?” Eunice suddenly asked.
“Have we met?” Grandar walked up to my SO with evident interest, as if he had just noticed her presence. I was forced to introduce her.
“Surgeon here once helped me out a little,” the Precian deigned to explain himself. “I think I owe him a favor and we can be useful to each other. For a modest two billion, I will take you to Zalva. However! The ticket is one way. You will have to arrange the return leg on your own.”
“Deal!” I didn’t bother haggling and shook the Precian’s hand. It didn’t really matter to us who would take us there. The result was what mattered.
“You will need to dispose of this one,” Grandar pointed at the duke casually. “If he wakes up, he will ruin all our plans. Narlin is bound to the planetary spirit, so killing him won’t do. I imagine a sojourn on some distant backwater should do the trick. Can you do it, or will you need help?”
I looked over at Narlin sprawled out on the deck floor. I doubt we’d manage to drag him to the other end of the ship without getting noticed.
“I see. Right, don’t overexert yourself. I see no problem in helping a partner.” Grandar called some servants and ordered them to bring a container for food waste with them. “When do you expect this body to wake up?”
‘Partner.’ ‘Body.’ How deftly Grandar had learned to play with words and change his shoes on the go! After all, he had been with Narlin for a reason and had most likely wanted something from the duke. Yet seeing a chance to make some extra money, this Precian had immediately scrapped whatever plans he’d just had. He would surely go far. It was clear to me now how Grandar had risen so high in the ranks of court.
“Without the antidote, he should sleep for a few days.”
“Excellent. I must say, I like how you do business. I imagine we can be helpful to each other. Where shall I send the container?”
At that moment, two Precians ran into the room. Grandar pointed at the duke, and without any further formalities or fanfare, the servants stuffed him into a small crate they had brought.
“Put the container in the back room and wait for Surgeon to appear,” Grandar ordered. “Now get to it!”
The servants obediently did as ordered and left us alone.
“I have many slaves now. I love it when they don’t know anything. Unnecessary knowledge is the leading cause of headaches,” said Grandar, sentencing his servants to death. Formally speaking, it’d be a cinch to eliminate two Precians. Although, a plan of my own had just occurred to me when it came to that business, but I wasn’t going to let the emperor’s favorite in on it. It couldn’t hurt to have an extra ace in my sleeve.
“Isn’t it just swell when everyone sees eye to eye?” Grandar took our silence for consent. “I need two days to prepare your transportation. Send half of the payment to my account today. I will share the information with you right this instant. Aren’t you a pirate, Surgeon? Would you mind doing a small chore for me? Naturally, I would like to see what you’re capable of before I decide whether we should work together or not.”
“What do you want?” I stiffened, expecting some new chore.
“Nothing too complicated. I just need you to make your way into one of the cruiser’s compartments and steal the ‘Oblivion of Jarullah’ for me. It should be a mere trifle for a pirate like you. Isn’t that so? For my part, I will make sure that the ship does not jump to hyperspace in the next three hours.”
Grandar’s hand seemed to accidentally fall on his PDA. I had seen one like it before. A mere touch and an impenetrable shield would appear around the Precian. And, I imagine prior to that, an alarm would be sent to security, notifying them that the Emperor’s favorite had been attacked, at which point, our little raid would come to an inglorious end. It seemed I had no choice.
“We will get you the Oblivion—as soon as we find out what it is and where it is.”

Chapter Two

The pretty and tempting name of ‘the Oblivion of Jarullah’ belonged to a mysterious artifact which the Precian Emperor had personally presented to his third adviser for destroying the Zatrathi flying fortress. The emperor had been impressed by the courage of his subject, who had rushed into the thick of the fight, risking even his binding to the planetary spirit. For this as well as other numerous services, the emperor presented the adviser with a jewelry box and commanded him to open it at least once a day. Then he sent his empire’s most dedicated workaholic on mandatory leave. That is, right from the award ceremony, the adviser had been taken by his blue arms and conveyed to this cruise.
Not daring to oppose the will of the emperor, the third adviser went on the vacation, yet he did not hurry to use the artifact, just as he did not hurry to share with others why exactly this imperial gift was so valuable. Upon arrival on board, he simply handed the jewelry box over to be stored in the ship’s vault with the explanation that he was fearful of losing such an important object.
The natural question was what did Grandar have to do with any of this? Well, the imperial favorite harbored a deep envy of the adviser and could not forgive the imperial honor and respect bestowed upon his rival. His plan was to steal the mysterious artifact, find out what its value was, and then let it slip as court gossip that he had seen the adviser scorn this incredible present. Such are palace intrigues.
But I do have to say that this time, my intuition failed me thoroughly. I should have blasted that toady as soon as he walked in on us without any further conversation. I mean, this situation was the last thing I needed!
“Seems impossible,” Eunice said what we were both thinking. The vault was impregnable.
“That’s why I made the offer to you.” My wife’s negative mood did not bother Grandar at all. “If anyone on this ship and can pull off this little heist, it’s you and no one but you.”
I stared at the schematic again, meticulously searching for non-existent gaps. Brute force wouldn’t work, even with my upgraded armor suit. Two automatic beam cannons were a good impediment to trying the strong-arm approach. Brainiac already explained that he couldn’t disable them. And these cannons were the same reason we couldn’t just come in from the hull side. Goddamn beam cannons. Should I cut a hole from the neighboring cabin? Not an option—I’d have to get in there first. And the cruiser’s bridge was no place for a stowaway like me. Which reminds me…
“Listen, the items from the vault…Do they have to be picked up by their rightful owners exclusively or do you think that some authorized representative could retrieve them?”
“Come on, Surgeon, what a stupid question! As if the aristocracy would deign to wander around the ship in search of a glorified storage locker! Of course we have our proxies to deal with such matters!”
“What would we need to prove our authorization?” Finally something resembling a plan began to take shape in my head.
“Access from the personal PDA of the owner,” said Grandar and then, seeing the satisfaction on my face, quickly added: “Hacking it won’t work. I have tried.”
“Is it biometrically protected?”
“No.” The imperial favorite waved his hand. “Just a password, no fingerprints.”
“Well…Do you have anything valuable in the vault?”
“Me?” Grandar echoed, puzzled. “No, I keep my valuables on my person.”
“Well then you need to authorize me to deposit something for you. That’ll get me into the vault. Then I’ll barricade myself and try to find the adviser’s jewelry box. After that, you’ll report me and claim I killed your servants and snuck into the vault. By the way! Tell them that Narlin was the one who told you to send your servant into the vault. We’ll blame the whole thing on him. We need to look out for our rapport—we still have to work together after all. While I am busy with the jewelry box, Eunice will drag the duke into space and wait until the cruiser hyper jumps. After that you can handle the rest yourself.”
“I’m not going anywhere without you!” my wife objected, but I stopped her.
“As soon as I have the jewelry box, I’ll respawn. We’ll meet up in two days at home.” I made sure to emphasize the last word.
“Wait!” Eunice refused to relent. “I can do a better job with the vault and the jewelry box than you! Women are more trusted. I already have a cover story and I speak Precian! So why not?”
“Because we can’t have you showing up on their radars,” I snapped. “You will be the one to go to Zalva with Grandar, not me. You will infiltrate the prince’s ship and download the coordinates with Brainiac’s help. You were training to become a marine, so get on with it! Meanwhile, I’ll make a ruckus in another part of Galactogon to draw any suspicion from Grandar. No one should be able to connect today’s raid with your appearance on Zalva. Any more questions or objections?”
“It seems to me that this is the beginning of a long and fruitful partnership. I am heartened. Now I won’t have to turn you over to the cruise’s security.”
“That was your plan?” I asked without the least bit surprise.
“Who do you take me for? Of course that was my plan!” said Grandar astonished, as if was babbling pure nonsense. “I was going to send you into the vault and then hand you over. Why not? I’d be rewarded for my heroic deed and honored as defender of the empire!”
“And what about the trip to Zalva?”
“One thing doesn’t interfere with the other. How would you know that I betrayed you? Security would shoot you on the spot and that’s it. No questions asked. I can solve the problem of Narlin on my own.”
“What exactly did the duke do to displease you?”
“Why I almost lost my current status because of that fool. But now, it does not matter!”
“And in the meanwhile you wanted to turn over Surgeon to security?” Eunice refused to believe Grandar’s story.
“Of course! Betray and conquer! We are losing time! Come here, number 10.”
The door immediately opened, and the next servant came running in.
“I need you to deliver a gift of the Emperor to the vault.” Grandar removed the medallion hanging around his neck. The servant bowed low, accepting the errand, but did not have time to take the object from the Precian’s hands. A shot from the blaster turned him into a shimmering crate of loot—which contained a set of Precian servant’s clothes.
“Snap to it! Your new garb awaits!” ordered Eunice, replacing the blaster in her inventory. She had interpreted Grandar’s actions accurately. If anything happened, he had asked his servant to take the medallion—not me. And he could testify to this under oath without fearing discovery.
“It looks good on you Surgeon! Really! If you get tired of piracy, I will gladly accept you into the ranks of my slaves.”
“Doesn’t seem like a very long-term position,” I muttered, adjusting my snow-white robe with the emblem of an imperial favorite. Throwing a hood over my head, I took the medallion, imagining myself a courier, not a slave.
“I’ll start worrying about my servant in ten minutes,” Grandar warned. “You must infiltrate the vault within this time frame. Meanwhile, I will go look for the captain. I need to delay the cruiser. Let’s get to it then!”
“I don’t like that jerk.” Eunice stared suspiciously at the door that had closed behind the Precian. “He’s a bit too overwrought for a simple ‘local.’ There’s an advanced AI running him.”
“That’s precisely why you need to get out of here urgently,” I agreed. I rummaged through my inventory and pulled out two armor suits. Boy do I love convenient game mechanics and an expanded inventory! “Take this. We need to cover our asses. We’ll freeze Grandar’s servants and store them with Narlin. They may come in handy later on, if this whole business goes sour. Never hurts to have an ace up our sleeve.”
A grin appeared on my SO’s gloomy face. She liked this scenario better than a simple murder.
“Don’t be late. I’ll wait for you on Blood Island.”
Eunice pressed her lips to mine, blessing me for my coming adventures, and busied herself with the unconscious bodies. Understanding the importance of her assignment made the girl compliant, affectionate and tuned to the cause.
I looked at the duke’s chambers with melancholy. So near and yet so far! Grandar, that bastard, even managed to spoil things here. He knew that I was suffering from an advanced stage of kleptomania, and yet no: “In ten minutes, I’ll…” He sure had learned the intricacies of surviving at the highest levels of power quickly.
It turned out to be much easier to move through the cruiser in the habit of a servant than an engineer’s uniform. I should take this as a lesson for future escapades. The guards just watched me pass, without bothering to ask for my papers, please. I even entered the captain’s cabin without any trouble, merely showing the guards the medallion and explaining that its owner wanted it deposited in the vault. The vault itself was a separate room at the back of the bridge. In addition to various consoles, the main crew of officers piloting the cruiser was located here. Brainiac howled in grief when he saw the integration panel. If I could connect him here to the ship’s mainframe and buy him a minute or two of calm intercourse, the cruiser would be ours. However, I was not allowed to linger and examine anything in detail, but was hurried along with a careless wave to a corridor where there was already a group waiting in line. Three people were allowed inside the vault at a time, while the line to deposit or retrieve property from the vault consisted of about twenty Precians. Since I was the only human, I naturally drew everyone’s attention. Fortunately, they limited their discussion not to my immodest person, but the eccentricity of Grandar, who allowed himself to have a human slave.
The line moved slowly. I fretted and fidgeted and kept glancing at the time. Three minutes. Yet my persistent desire to scatter everyone aside and simply rush into the vault was preempted by the guard’s watchful eye. The deadline approached inexorably and I had only advanced halfway.
“Let me pass!” I heard a demanding voice. Just in case, I pulled my hood tighter over my head and hunched in an attempt to appear smaller and less conspicuous. The imperial adviser suddenly burst onto the captain’s deck. “Everyone out! I urgently need to enter the vault!”
“Step aside!” The guards rushed to clear the path. The line parted, but suddenly the third adviser stopped and tilted his head to the side, as if listening to something. I glanced around uneasily. The crew members and guards froze for a second with him. My time had run out and Grandar had turned me in! No doubt there was an alert active on the internal communication system.
With lightning speed, I sidled up to the adviser. Puzzled, he looked up from Grander’s patch to my face. His blue Precian face gaped in amazement. It looked like he refused to believe what he was seeing. I reached into my inventory and pulled out a Zatrathi grenade, one of my prizes from their base. Its explosion could break the binding to the planetary spirit and send any NPC to permanent oblivion. A player would simply respawn at the nearest respawn point. This last bit would be very inconvenient for me at the moment, but Grandar had left me no choice.
“Everyone back! Otherwise, the adviser will die!”
Before the Precian could react, I quickly added:
“This grenade ruptures planetary spirit bindings. Don’t bother using your personal shield, I’m much too close to you. If you turn it on, I will blow up the grenade and that will be the end of you. Now order everyone to get away!”
“Do not shoot! Everyone step back!” The adviser had enough presence of mind to quickly grasp the situation and gesture to the guards rushing at us. “What do you want?”
“I want to get inside,” I pointed to the vault. “We can talk inside.”
Just in case—so that the Precians didn’t get any ideas—I took out my blaster and shot both beam cannons to splinters. If anything, this’ll make me feel calmer.
“Do not interfere!” the adviser barked, glancing sidelong at my grenade. Yes, he had definitely recognized it. His nervous sigh was further proof of this.

Your access to the Precian Empire has been adjusted.
You have limited access to the trade planet Belket in the Precian Empire. You may visit the planet once a week for a period of no more than five hours.

“The Precian Empire will not forgive you for this,” the adviser added irritably as my rapport with him dropped to zero.
“Step inside. We can talk about forgiveness later.” I gestured at the vault. After ordering the servants out, I shut the door and barricaded it with a massive table.
The adviser reluctantly tossed me his blaster. Then he vacillated for a moment and added a second one.
“Now let’s talk. Adviser, why were you in such a hurry to reach the vault? It does not seem like you.”
“A human named Nurse. I recalled where I had encountered that name. She was with you when you came to Zalva. It did not take me long to understand the obvious—she is a pirate just like you!” A knotty blue finger pointed in my direction. “What could a space pirate be up to on this ship? The only possible answer is to steal something. So I immediately rushed here, too late, alas!”
“I must praise your perceptiveness,” I cast him a conciliatory smile. “Let’s not beat around the bush. I propose we get to business right away. I need the Oblivion of Jarullah. I will get it anyway, with or without you. It will be easier with your help and there won’t be any consequences for you. We have worked together a lot. I wouldn’t want to spoil a nice memory.”
“So this is all over the Oblivion?” The advisor craned his long neck in amazement. I nodded silently. “What do you know about the properties of this artifact?”
“Nothing, but it does not matter. Let’s dispense with the trivial talk. Hand the item over to me and we can conclude this mutually unpleasant encounter.”
“Let me remind you, Surgeon, that at the moment, you still have access to Hansa. It may only be once a week, but that’s better than nothing.” The adviser had turned into an ice sculpture, full of cold pride and frosty dignity. “If you take the emperor’s gift, the Precian Empire will be closed to you completely!”
An unpleasant weight settled in my chest—the adviser had struck me where it hurt. The new orbship I had obtained at the Uldan base was good but not perfect. I had already upgraded its hull and navigation system, and even shared a few gadgets I’d found on the base with the Hansa engineers—so that they could consider how to give me the third list of upgrades in circumvention of the ban. Vargen explained that only a few guilds had such access, so it was worth gaining it at any cost. Yet the other side of the scale was weighed down by a check for a billion credits. Damn! Grandar stated unequivocally that he would not work with me without the emperor’s gift.
“Adviser, let’s be honest. I have been contracted to obtain the Oblivion of Jarullah by a third party. Maybe we can negotiate…”
“A third party?! The name!” the Precian cut me off. “I demand you name the scoundrel!”
“The pirate code prohibits divulging the names of our employers,” I began to argue.
“Do not treat me like an idiot, Surgeon. There is no pirate code! I want the name!” the adviser repeated with even greater irritation.
I vacillated a little more, making a show of it, and then said:
“Duke Narlin. He was the one who helped me get on board the cruiser.”
“How and when could he do so if even I myself had no idea I would be traveling aboard this tub until the last possible moment?” the Precian asked incredulously.
“Well as you just pointed out, you didn’t know. Others, especially others who happen to be tenth in line to the imperial throne were well aware. I imagine this whole thing was arranged a while ago.”
I was going to insist on my side until the end. Since Narlin has been knocked out of the game for a long time, why not make him the scapegoat? The adviser’s face turned into an impenetrable mask, and only his dilated pupils suggested any doubt or shock. This was natural enough—the duke was almost the last person you could suspect of being a traitor.
I frantically ruminated what to say if the adviser doubted my words and began arguing that Narlin had no motive—and why would he need a gift from the emperor anyway? But to my surprise, the adviser did not ask these questions at all.
“Arrest Duke Narlin!” said the Precian loudly enough for the guards on the other side of the door to hear him. I hadn’t considered the possibility that we could be heard. I frantically replayed the conversation in my head and sighed with relief—I don’t believe I’d said anything important. After a couple of moments, the answer came through the speakerphone.
“Adviser, Duke Narlin is not on board the ship. Our systems find no trace of him. We have discovered two corpses in the Duke’s chambers. Guard Val, from the fifth battalion, and a servant of Sir Grandar.”
I couldn’t help but start fretting again. The fact that the locals could see the disappeared bodies of the NPCs we’d killed was unpleasant news. There had been no mention of it in the game guides.
“Have you examined the surveillance camera footage?”
“The cameras have been disabled. We are currently working on identifying the reason.”
I could not hold back a sigh of relief—Brainiac had cleaned up our traces in the system.
“Where is the duke?” The adviser forgot all about the grenade in my hands and loomed over me as if he was about to thrash the truth out of me. Having put together two and two, I guess he decided that I had some more information.
“Adviser, I don’t know anything more than you do. I am a pirate—and one who has his pride by the way. I am not a personal secretary,” I replied defiantly.
“How did Grandar’s servant end up in Narlin’s cabin?” the adviser continued to pry. We had somehow reversed roles. In theory, I was supposed to be the one pressing him, demanding a code to the storage box that held the Oblivion. Nevertheless, I replied:
“Your question is misdirected. I can only say what I saw. Narlin was threatening Grandar until Grandar agreed to his demands. Everything else does not concern me.”
“Who killed the servant?”
“I did. Narlin ordered me to do it. He wanted me to take his clothes and medallion.”
“It’s not adding up, Surgeon. You are a pirate, and yet you’ve just betrayed your employer quite easily. Doesn’t this dishonor you? What if I publish this conversation with you?” The Precian changed topics abruptly and began to threaten me again. I was ready for this:
“My access to Hansa is at stake. I do not want to lose it, so I made a deal with you voluntarily. I hope you will meet me halfway. Without threatening my reputation. Narlin said he was going to leave the ship. Do not ask me how, I do not know.”
“Adviser, we have detected an unauthorized launch. A scout! There is a Precian on board. We could not identify him, our monitoring system is malfunctioning.”
I grew worried again. Either there is another team working aboard the cruiser or Eunice is improvising. Damn! I can’t even call her to clarify. I can’t put on my armor suit—I’m not the only one with EM grenades. Hell, I can’t even unclench my hand without this grenade going off.
“Don’t let him escape!” the adviser ordered in a steely voice. “Stop the scout! If it refuses to obey—attack it!”
“The ship is heading for the asteroid belt!” Everyone seemed to forget all about me and turned their attention to their own affairs. “Contact in ten seconds!”
“I am granting you authorization to destroy the scout! The fugitive must not escape alive!”
“Narlin has a binding,” I reminded just in case. “In a minute he will be reborn on his own planet, and you won’t be able to prove anything. He will deny everything, claiming that he was framed, and that he was never even aboard this cruiser.”
“You will help bring him to justice!”
“Me?!” My astonishment knew no bounds. “Have you forgotten who I am? A pirate, an outlaw who has no place in the Precian Empire. Stop constantly threatening me! What is my word worth against the word of a duke? No, adviser. I would rather give up on this job and return the money I’ve been paid than get involved in your court intrigues.”
“And if you succeed in obtaining the Oblivion of Jarullah?” The adviser looked at me pensively. “Where and when are you supposed to hand it over to your client?”
“I am to be contacted,” I replied, showing with my tone that I did not intend to delve into this topic. “I don’t have further information.”
“Narlin has been playing with fire for a long time now.” It seemed that the adviser was talking to himself. I think that my story about the duke’s betrayal had found fertile ground in the mind of the Precian patriot. “He and Oleander both sought the removal of our ruler but we did not have evidence against the emperor’s nephew. And now this…Such an opportunity…Surgeon, you simply must help us!”
“Why is that? You’ve just cut off my access to the Hansa Corp and threatened my reputation,” I recalled. “I don’t owe anything to anyone at the moment. Except for Narlin, but I will return the money to him.”
“No!” the adviser began fretting. “There is no need to return anything to anyone! You will receive the Oblivion of Jarullah, but you will have to hand it over to Narlin in person. Only to him—no servants. Haggle, argue, threaten, do what you must, but insist on a personal meeting! Then we’ll grab him and tighten the thumbscrews.”
‘A personal meeting’ means that the adviser will either keep a close eye on me, or there is a beacon in the Oblivion that will track my movements. Either way, carrying this item around should be hazardous to my health.
“What do I get in return?” I asked in turn. “I’m not big on charity.”
“We will graciously restore your right to visit Hansa once a day,” the adviser replied.
“You give me a guarantee that nothing will hurt my reputation, grant me access to the third tier upgrades list and give me another five percent discount on Hansa products,” I immediately countered. “Otherwise, I wash my hands of this whole thing here and now.”
“I will need to discuss this with the emperor.” The adviser cast a sidelong glance at the grenade in my hand. “And for that, I will need my armor suit.”
“No discussions, adviser. Either you make a decision here and now or no deal. I know that you have all the authorization you need. The emperor trusts you like he trusts himself!”
The adviser looked at me angrily but no sooner did he calm himself and make his decision, than we received the next bit of news.
“There is trouble! Adviser, sir! Sir Oleander has vanished!”
“What do you mean, vanished? Where did he vanish to? Why have I not been notified?” This new blow was too great for the adviser and he simply collapsed into the nearest chair.
“The guards have been killed, the brig is empty. The recordings from the surveillance cameras are corrupted.”
The adviser’s helplessness lasted only a few seconds. Composing himself, he began to issue orders:
“Locate the human named Nurse. She should be somewhere on the cruiser. Organize a control center. I want reports every five minutes. Turn the ship upside down!”
“Hold it!” I slowly uncurled one finger, indicating that I was about to blow us all up. What is Eunice doing? What does she want with this Precian? “Adviser, we weren’t done talking!”
“We are done talking, Pirate Surgeon. On behalf of the Precian Empire I hereby contract you to perform a secret mission. Did I miss any of your terms?”

New mission available: Double Agent. Description: Give the Oblivion of Jarullah to your client and notify the third adviser of the Precian Empire. Rewards for completion: daily access to Belket; access to the third list of Hansa updates; -15% on Hansa equipment. Penalty for failure: Access to Belket will be revoked forever. Deadline: 7 days. Do you wish to accept this mission?

“It’s all there. I accept.” I glanced over at the grenade in my hand, while the Precian shook his head disapprovingly.
“You will be allowed to leave the cruiser unhindered. You can put your grenade away. I never believed you would use it. The Pirate Surgeon that I know is made from a different type of stuff. I am sorry that you betrayed the interests of the Precian Empire for a passing fancy. You didn’t end up helping the Delvians and you set yourself up too. We know that you managed to steal the crystal and the pedestal. We will not continue to work with such an unreliable partner.”
The adviser stepped over to one of the strongboxes in the vault and took out a jewelry box. An ordinary, plain, wooden, entirely unremarkable jewelry box. My engineer could make a hundred of these in minutes.
“I want to know everything you know about Nurse.” The adviser handed me the box, but did not let go.
“I have little information. We met on a training planet, traveled together to meet the emperor, then I fell ill, and when I woke up, she was already gone. Where she went is not a question I can answer.”
“Adviser, there is no trace of a human named Nurse on board.” A note of bewilderment sounded in the reporting voice. “We studied all the cameras and searched most of the premises. The human you ordered us to find is not on this vessel.”
“This is some kind of nonsense!” The Precian exclaimed, outraged. “What’s going on here? Why do people keep disappearing from this ship? This is a disgrace! Is this a spaceship or a black hole?! How could two Precians and a human simply vanish?!”
We emerged from the vault to these outraged cries and immediately ran into a very worried-looking captain.
“I could not…I could not know…” said the unfortunate captain, stuttering. Sweat flooded his face, and his triple chin trembled with fear. Three disappearances and two infiltrations. Nothing of the sort had ever happened to him during his career and I didn’t have to try very hard to imagine how he felt. No doubt he was already praying that this was all just a nightmare he’d wake up from any moment now.
“What I know is what will happen to you if you don’t find them. Surgeon, why are you still here?! Get off my cruiser! I have enough problems here without you underfoot!”
“My ship. She needs to dock with the cruiser to pick me up.”
“Did you hear that, Captain? Immediately issue docking access to Orbship Warlock. Surgeon is on urgent business. As for the rest of you, anyone want to explain to me what’s going on here?!”
I tossed the jewelry box into my inventory, whipped out my marine armor and jumped into it, finally feeling like I was coming back home. This game is way more enjoyable when you have a reliable barrier of raq between you and the rest of the gameworld. Eunice’s voice sounded in my headset.
“You’re back online at last, Lex. I’m outside on the cruiser’s hull, will you pick me up?”
“And why did even bother devising a plan at all when no one sticks to it?” I asked myself a purely rhetorical question.

Release - August 30, 2019

No comments :

Post a Comment