Neptune Rising

Aussie jewel thief, Logan Bishop, takes on a client who seeks the return of a painting stolen by off-world thugs and meets with surprising opposition along with some unexpected help from a flamboyant art computer.

—EXCERPT—

Logan activated his cyber-gear and a schematic of the alien ship filled his lenses.  A push on a hatch and he emerged in a long hallway.  Shields, electron spears and force hammers hung from rough stone walls, alongside grav-skis and smoldering plasma torches.

“Bloody Icelanders.”  A moment’s work at the keypad and the heavy thallium gate rose.  Beyond, a chamber filled with crates, each bound by ropes of emerald light.  In one corner slumped a statue of a nude man, head resting in its palms.

“Graviton anchors.”  Logan scowled.  “Pain in the bloody arse.”

“Try sitting here for days on end,” an effeminate voice said, “without so much as a window.”

Logan drew his blaster.  “Who’s there?”

The statue rose and strode toward Logan.  Standing, it resembled Michelangelo’s David, smaller in stature, larger in the donger department.  CrikeyIt’d take more than a fig leaf to cover that thing.

“Is this some sort of joke?” Logan said.

“You’re the one with the droll hat.”  The statue ran a hand through its curly white locks, pouting at Logan’s pistol.  “Am I under arrest, bell’uomo?”

“Er.  You do anything wrong?”

The statue waved an arm.  “I’m stuck watching these fascinating crates, aren’t I?  To alleviate the tedium, I get to serve my masters lamb sandwiches and fish head soup.  Cosmically speaking, I must be guilty of something.”

A scan revealed it wasn’t a hologram, as Logan first suspected.  It was mechanical, but disturbingly life-like.  “Just stay out of my way, David, and we can be mates.”

“What a charming accent,” David said, perking up.  “If you’re not going to shoot me, at least give me a good, firm spanking.”  It turned, baring its naked bottom.  “The guilty must be punished.”

Logan glanced at the ceiling.  Why couldn’t it have been Aphrodite?  “Sit down, cobber.  Your punishment will be to cooperate.”  While mine is to chat with a naked bloke.

David sat, eyeing Logan.  “You’re a thief, aren’t you?  The leather vest, the prominent tool … belt.  And that chin stubble—so delightfully roguish.”

This was getting weird.  “I’m a photographer, mate.  Fine art as a vocation, women on my vacation.  I’m just, you know—interested.  Tell me, which crate contains a painting called Neptune Rising?”

The robot extended a graceful finger.  Logan took a pry bar from his belt and began opening the crate.  Under his breath he muttered, “Be ready, Vic.”

“I’ve always admired Neptune,” David said, as if continuing an interrupted conversation.  “The Roman mythic figure, I mean.  So fierce and, you know, muscular.”  He winked.  “I could do without the bushy beard, though.  It probably stank of fish, don’t you think?”

“And garlic.”  Logan withdrew a rectangular shape from the crate and tore off strips of cloth.  Beneath, a watercolor of a blue planet–presumably Neptune—rising above a shimmering seascape.  At the horizon, another orb misted in silver.”

David cast an appraising glance at the painting.  “With a title like Neptune Rising, I expected something a little more, risqué.”  He arched an eyebrow.  “You know, something more … uplifting?”

Logan forced a smile.  “Yeah, I get it.”  Though I wish I hadn’t.  He quickly re-wrapped the painting, eager to be away from this … art robot.

“What are you doing?” David asked, frowning.  “I thought you were going to photograph it.”

“Er, the light is better on my ship.”

“Hold on.  I was willing to pretend you’d tricked me,” David said, standing.  “But that’s the one piece I can’t allow you to take.  Gunnar and Sigurd would hack me to pieces.  It would end the boredom, true, but I wouldn’t enjoy it.”

“Sorry, mate.  This is what I came for.”  He opened a link to the Ripper.  “Okay, Victoria.  Bring me back.”

A burst of static stabbed Logan’s ear.  “Logan!  Code seven—”  Victoria’s voice broke off.

“Never put your trust in a woman, bell’uomo.”  Ropes of emerald light shot from David’s fingertips, enveloping Logan in a graviton web.  He slumped to the floor, cursing.

“Vic?” Logan whispered, heart pounding.  “Victoria, do you read me?”  A code seven was a system malfunction.  Or … maybe she was going to say code seventeen, which meant hostile intruders.  Bloody hell.

“Mate,” Logan said, struggling to reach his blaster.  “Are you blocking communications with my ship?  You promised you’d cooperate, eh?”

“I did cooperate.”  The robot placed his hands on his hips.  “I told you which crate it was in.  And I haven’t killed you, have I?  You knocked Gunnar and Sigurd unconscious, which is amusing, but they’re going to wake up—and they don’t play nice.”

Struggle as he might, Logan couldn’t reach his gun.  One option left.  He fired a laser from his lenses, striking a graviton rope—and accomplished nothing.  Double bloody hell.

“As entertaining as you are,” David said, “I really should wake the Neanderthals now.”  His smile faded.  “And it was so nice having someone with a brain to chat with.”

“Wait, David.”  He needed time to think of something clever, and waking the hammer-happy Vikings didn’t fall into that category.  “We can chew the fat a while.”

The robot pursed his lips.  “All right, but be warned: I have laser-reflective skin, so keep your burning eyes off me—if you can.”

So much for that clever idea.  “You’ve got me all wrong, David.  Things aren’t what they seem.”  He thought a moment.  “Can I share a secret with you?”

David sat in front of Logan, presenting an unfortunate view of the robot’s budgies.  “I love secrets.”

“First, you have to swear not to tell anyone.  For your own safety, and the safety of the Nean—Gilbert and Sullivan, whatever their bloody names are.”

David zipped his fingers across his lips.

“Right.  Truth is, this painting is a forgery, and I’m on a mission to recover it.”

David’s jaw went slack.  “But—”

“I know.  It’s a clever replica.”  He sent Victoria a silent message using his cyber-gear, but he still couldn’t get through.

David frowned.  “If it’s a forgery, why do you want it?”

Good question.  “Why, you may ask.”  Think, Logan.  Sentimental reasonsMy mother was born on Neptune and prefers forgeries?  “I’m, er, still not convinced I should tell you.”

“I won’t tell a soul.”  David crossed his heart.  “Not even my electric pen pal, il Pensatore.”

“Um, who?”

“The Thinker.”

Who else?  “All right.  I am, in fact, with the Australian Secret Service—Art Division.  The painting is needed as evidence to prevent further crimes against the art world.”

David clenched his teeth.  “Bastards!”

“Exactly.  Our agents were supposed to purchase it, but the plan fell apart when Gilligan and the Skipper hijacked the auction.  I’m here to correct an injustice.”  And land a quarter mil in the process.

“Well, I’m not one to stand in the way of a man from the A.S.S.”  David flicked his wrist and the graviton web vanished.

Logan stood.  “Thanks, mate.  I need to contact my ship.”

David waggled his fingers and Logan’s headgear crackled.

That was almost too easy.  “Ready, Vic.  Initiate.”  A flash filled Logan’s eyes as David leapt toward him–arms extended, budgies flying.

Oh, no.

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