A space cowboy loses his ship to a trio of sneaky, nacho-crunching aliens, but turns the tables when he steals their plans for a lucrative heist. Or so he thinks. With aliens, things are never quite as they appear.
Zolan’s Industrial Power Supply—known throughout the sector as ZIPS—sold to both private and commercial customers. Money was money, after all, and although Zolan was a blubbery old sot with a thing for pigeons, he wasn’t stupid.
The old sot was a wealthy energy merchant: plasma coils, wave generators, AAA batteries—that sort of thing. Standard stuff, not worth the risk of stealing. However, as Slade recollected, Zolan also dealt in ionized hydro-uranium rods. A one-meter rod could propel a star cruiser halfway across the galaxy. At one million solaris apiece, even a handful represented a small fortune.
Slade ducked into a little-used bathroom behind MacVlaarg’s Full Contact Bowling and Sushi Emporium, drained the weasel, and changed into his business wear—sweatpants, hooded sweatshirt and sneakers—all gray to match the décor of the spaceport. Black was for posers… except for his hat, of course. And his leather vest. Phoebe’s stone necklace was also black, but that was a gift. Anyway, he stowed his cowboy gear into his rucksack alongside the cyber-arm and emerged as Slade, the Unseen: karate a specialty.
At 3:00 a.m. the industrial sector of Ceres Spaceport was vacant but for the occasional drunk trying to remember where he’d parked. Blending with the shadows, Slade the Unseen slunk his way to the ZIPS personnel entrance—an imposing door of chromium steel—and popped a few Chiclets into his mouth. A security pad twinkled on an adjacent wall.
He pulled the slip of vellum from his pocket. Unable to read it in the near darkness, he took his trusty lighter and touched two contact points. A sphere of swirling cobalt flame formed at the top, shedding just enough light to read the access codes while keeping him… Unseen. Such a cool lighter.
He uttered a silent prayer and entered the codes. The heavy door beeped and rose; streamers of light flooded the entrance. Slade released his breath. As far as the ZIPS security computers knew, he was Zolan, only a lot less flabby. He laid a reassuring hand on the pouch containing two high-density EM grenades. Like Slade after a bowl of chile con carne, the grenades were silent but deadly—at least to robots.
A periwinkle blue pigeon fluttered out of the shadows and landed at Slade’s feet. It stared up at him, bobbing its head. “Welcome home, Master Zolan,” it said in a small, mechanical voice. “You’re back early.” Tiny motors whirred.
Slade crouched, karate leg at the ready. Robot pigeons were designed for carrying messages and small tools, not for recognizing intruders. Even so, one might accidentally trigger an alarm. Fortunately, they were programmed with only rudimentary logic circuits and were easily confused.
“You can see me?” Slade asked.
The pigeon cocked its head. “Erm… Shouldn’t I be able to see you?”
“No. I’m testing our new security system and it only works if I remain… Unseen.”
The pigeon turned, averting its gaze. It flared its wings, apparently considering this statement. “If I could see you, would I know why you were dressed like that?”
“Of course. But you can’t see me, so you don’t know. See?”
“No,” the pigeon said, its tail drooping.
“As it should be. Have you got a name, partner?”
The pigeon hesitated. “Is this part of the test, Master?”
“I’m Bert. The pigeon. Unit seventeen.”
“That’s correct. And where are your friends, Bert the Pigeon?”
“In the warehouse rafters, recharging.”
“Okay, you seem to be functioning properly. Now listen closely, Bert. I need to test the sentinel robot, to make sure it’s also working properly.”
Bert stole a peek at Slade and quickly looked away. “May I ask how?”
“I just have to sneak up and hit it with an, um, metal stone.” Or an EM grenade, preferably.
Bert tilted its head. “If you say so, Master Zolan.”
“I do. The sentinel is in the vault room, yes?”
The pigeon nodded. “Of course.”
“Lead the way.”
Bert flew down a long metal corridor lined with chromium steel doors, each with its own security pad. What lesser technological treasures lay beyond, Slade could only imagine. At the end of the corridor stood an open archway limned with blue light.
“The vault room is through there, Master. But you know that.”
Slade ran a finger along a grenade in his pocket. “So how do we sneak up on the sentinel?”
Bert blinked. “I wouldn’t attempt it, if I were you.”
He clenched his teeth. “Why the hell not?”
“The purpose of the sentinel is to detect and destroy intruders. Even if you are unseen, I believe it will detect you. And it’s not very friendly.” The pigeon bobbed its head. “Am I scoring well on the test?”
Those idiot Mizarians said the EM grenade would disable the robot, but they never mentioned how to get near it. “Hold on. I entered using the proper access code. Would the sentinel consider me an intruder?”
Bert’s head bobbed and weaved. “Since you look different, Master, the sentinel may consider you an intruder… until it receives voice recognition. Until then, it will remain shielded and your stone will not be able to touch it.” Bert fluttered its wings. “Quite a good security system, no?”
Slade banged his head against the wall. “Peachy.” He’d just have to move fast and hope the grenade worked as Zyrg predicted.
“Is anything wrong, Master?” Bert asked, alighting on a bulkhead. “Would you like me to fetch you a snack? Or a nice can of grape soda?”
Slade frowned. As stupid as these damn pigeons were, they had better security clearance than even Zolan, able to come and go as they pleased. No one gave pigeons a second glance, not even… “Say, Bert. I’ve just had a grand idea. Want to help me test the sentinel robot?”
“Gee, I don’t know… I’m not usually very good at tests.”
“It’ll be easy, and then you can relax and recharge.”
“Well, I am feeling a little run down, Master. What must I do?”
“Simple. Since the sentinel doesn’t understand that I’m Unseen, you can be Unseen for me. You’ll drop the stone on the sentinel instead.”
“Really? How exciting!”
Slade nodded, grinning like a Mizarian.