Roy "Sarge" Jovanovic lounged in his pilot's chair scrolling through ship designs, trying to find the one that would make the most tempting target. A screen to his left listed all of the transponder codes in the ship's database and the fleets with which they were associated, a screen to his right held a dizzying array of maps, graphs, news searches, and other information about shipjackings in the local sector over the past year, and the front screen showed a live feed from a scout drone's camera, floating about a klick off the port bow to give him a good view of the ship's current appearance.
Roy was the executive officer of one of the many small, unaffiliated fleets that plied the spacelanes in Human territory. Once humanity finally got around to colonizing other solar systems, seemingly everyone on Earth wanted their own slice of the interstellar pie, but not everyone had the resources for it. Where many governments and international corporations commissioned their own fleets, and the largest governments and megacorps were even able to build multiple fleets for their various departments and business units, a lot of the smaller nations and domestic companies simply didn't have the funds for more than one or two ground-to-orbit transports, if that. So dozens of independent fleets started popping up to service those needs; these fleets often came with range limitations, exorbitant fees, slow jump drives, low cargo capacities, and other annoyances, but their clients couldn't exactly afford to be picky.
He eyed a particular scatter plot to his right for a moment, pondering, then tapped a name on his left. "Hello Alibaba," he called, "Set ship identity to FENL." The ship's virtual assistant acknowledged the request with a cheerful chime. Within moments the front screen showed that the ship's hull now bore the bright and blocky red-and-green-with-yellow-highlights pattern of the Frota Estrela Nacional de Lisbon, the Portuguese starfleet, and the ship's bland flattened-oblong shape now boasted the sweeping curves associated with products of the Lisbon shipyards, thanks to some incredibly illegal nanofabricators placed strategically throughout the hull; actual physical modifications would hold up much better to EMPs and invasive sensor scans than the standard holographic emitters that freelancers generally used.
Independent fleets were hired for all sorts of tasks of all degrees of legality, depending on their individual capabilities. Sometimes they were glorified delivery drones, sometimes
asset acquisition specialists, sometimes scouts for colony fleets, sometimes covert assets for larger organizations who wanted to keep their hands clean. Roy's fleet, Charlie's Chameleons, was a well-equipped and experienced mercenary fleet and one of the few trusted to play the deniable-asset role, as they were doing now. While humanity was nearly a decade into the process of officially integrating with the larger galactic society and it would probably be a decade more before their laws, technology, and such were fully integrated with the other species', unsavory types had already set up shop near the borders of Human territory years before and had started to make a nuisance of themselves, and now several Human colonies were quietly starting to take steps to deal with them.
The Chameleons' current target was one Rit!tkatp, an unpronounceably-named and incredibly cunning member of a major T!ka!irtk gang that had steamrolled the other criminal organizations in several systems a few years back and was now running basically every illegal enterprise in the sector from black marketeering to smuggling to things best left unmentioned. If that gang was the Italian Mafia in Space--and they did try to cultivate that impression, to the extent that a bunch of ugly pseudo-insectoids could pull off the "gentleman criminal" look, anyway--then Rit!tkatp was their Godfather, and he had a particular penchant for shipjacking that had led the colonies of Abydos Prime, Malcor III, and Newer Zealand to hire the Chameleons to do something about it, before the gang scared away all shipping from their respective solar systems and left them cut off from the wider sector.
The virtual assistant chimed again. "Ship designation?" it asked in a dispassionate, slightly Chinese-accented voice. Roy tapped his chin and stared at his right screen, not responding. "Ship designation?" the ship asked again after a brief pause, and Roy waved a hand in irritation. "Bah, that won't work. He goes after eighty-three percent of FENL shipping in this region, but we still don't know what makes the bastard pick one ship over another and we can't afford to guess wrong."
"That's a bit long for a name, boss, and it's not Portuguese," the ship remarked, this time in a much more human-like voice and one tinged heavily with sarcasm.
Roy glared briefly in the general direction of the front viewport, trusting that the ship's ex-military AI, Karma, would have no trouble seeing his expression through one of its many cameras scattered throughout the bridge. (Having an AI on a non-military vessel was just as illegal as the transponder database and the nanofabricators. Something of a running theme with the Chameleons, really.)
"What did I say about breaking character?" he asked mildly.
"Hey, I have to play dumb when clients are around, so I have to get my snark on when I can," Karma replied. "Plus, Charlie decided on this personality when you know I like playing Siri better, so you can just deal with disappointment. And before you ask, no, I wasn't able to find any good correlations in the FENL data either, so if you haven't had any brilliant ideas in the past ten seconds you might as well try another one."
"Fine," Roy grumbled. A bit more scrolling and pondering, then: "Hello Alibaba--" "Still right here, boss." "Hello Alibaba
, set ship identity to IDF." As the cheery yellow-and-blue-circles pattern of the Ikea Delivery Fleet rapidly painted itself across the hull, Karma asked, "You're thinking he might go for quantity over quality, then, boss?"
Roy glared again, then sighed, giving in. "Maybe. We know he likes the bigger consumer goods shipments, for whatever reason, but none have come through here in a while so he might go for a smaller cargo."
"Makes sense. Designation?"
"Hmm. The IDF Some Assembly Required
"Good one, boss."
"Nobody asked you."
(The first generation of Earth starships bore exactly the kinds of names one would expect. Every country had so many ships named for historical and pop culture references--the most popular in America being Serenity
, Millennium Falcon
, and Enterprise
among the civilian fleets and Washington
, and also Enterprise
among the military fleets--that even prepending ship designations wasn't enough to tell them apart. That, plus several fleets being sued into bankruptcy by Disney's intellectual property division, made most everyone change naming conventions. After First Contact, when it was discovered that a short-irreverent-phrases scheme was both unique among known spacefaring species and also incredibly irritating to quite a few of them, even the most humorless bureaucrat was happy to go along with the trend; the first few years even saw informal contests for the most innuendo-laden ship names until the diplomatic corps begged for it to stop so they wouldn't have to keep explaining the jokes to other species' fleet registrars.)
Within seconds the ship's new name was added to the hull and the ship's transponder was switched to broadcast the new identity, but Roy still wasn't satisfied. "That won't work either. They never send high-tech stuff in their midrange transports, so there's no way he wouldn't pick up the signature of the bombs or the trackers, or both."
"I think maybe you're being too paranoid, boss. T!ka!irtk scanners aren't that
advanced compared to Human ones. We can probably risk it."
"Easy for you to say; if he blows us out of the sky, you can just reload from backup. Let's see. Give me SAF colors, designation Not All That Glitters
. No, cancel that, same problem...."
Their wannabe Space Don Corleone was one of the best in the business. His organization operated in eighty sectors falling under at least fifteen different species' legal jurisdictions, and not once had any court managed to get any allegations to stick. Rit!tkatp worked through shell companies of shell companies, always had bullet- and plasma-proof alibis, employed legions of lawyers to ensure he never saw the inside of a law enforcement vehicle (much less a jail cell), never put his name on anything if he could help it, and never left witnesses in any state to testify against him. At least three Earth-based governments and several colonial fleets had task forces waiting on hot standby at all times to jump in, arrest the gangster, and seize his assets the moment he gave them the slightest excuse...but he never gave them that excuse, and so their ships were continually restrained by leashes of red tape and impotent fury.
The Chameleons' employers were well aware that they weren't exactly squeaky clean themselves--very few of the transponder codes they used were obtained through legal freelance work, and "aftermarket modifications" didn't begin to cover what had been done to the jump cores and shield generators of the five ships in their small but heavily-armed fleet--but figured, hey, the legitimate government forces can't do squat without evidence and it takes a thief to catch a thief, so here they were.
The next hour or so passed slowly as Roy thought up and discarded dozens of possible fake identities that might tempt Rit!tkatp into a trap, accompanied by Karma's ever-so-helpful running commentary, from the APF Free Two-Jump Shipping
("You know we don't have enough ships to fake an Amazon convoy") to the RSN Duke Duke Duke Duke of Oil
("Nah, he hasn't jacked any Saudi ships since that new petroleum refinery started up on Epsilon Eridani 3") to the RKF Package Delivers You
("He has friends in the Russian Federation and you don't speak Russian, you'd give the game away if he has native speakers in any of his picket ships") to the NSWS Beware of Drop Bears
("Come on, boss, Newer Zealand would never allow a Newer South Wales ship in their territory after that last incident").
Finally, Roy slammed a fist on his armrest, cutting off Karma's latest comment. "This isn't going to work. We're not the first ones to try something like this, and no one's ever pulled the wool over that bastard's compound eyes before. We have to try something new
, but how can you possibly catch a gangster who's thought of everything!?" He dropped his head into his hands and gave a muffled order through his fingers to recall the drone and reset everything to defaults.
"You sure, boss? For what they're paying us, you really want to just let Space Tony Soprano off the hook like that?" Karma asked as the drone headed back toward its hangar and the ship's outlines flattened out into blandness. "You tell Charlie you're out of ideas and she's not going to be happy, and after all the wining-and-dining she had to do for the bigwigs on that New Phobos gig, neither is her bank account."
For a long moment, Roy just sat there, thinking, as a smile slowly grew on his face. "Bank account, huh," he murmured to himself, then lifted his head and spoke with renewed enthusiasm. "Karma, change of plans. Load up the Skreaming Skulls paint jobs on all the ships, and then I'll need to talk to the captain."
A burst of static blasted from the speakers before Karma responded, "Sorry, boss, had to do a systems check on my hearing. I could've sworn you just said the Skreaming Skulls."
"You heard me."
"The ridiculously-over-the-top space pirate getup you use when clients just want tons of property damage and for us to scare the bejesus out of whoever the target is? The one that would make me bluescreen with embarrassment if it were possible for my personality template to have gone through a goth phase in its youth? The one with absolutely zero capability for stealth or discretion whatsoever? That
"That's the one."
"Are you insane? What happened to being subtle?
"Probably. And fuck 'subtle'."
"Well...you're the boss. Just don't mind me if I take a fresh backup and sync it back to base before we go."
"You do that. Now, give me a minute to write up a proposal and then ring up the captain."
A little while later, Roy leaned back comfortably as the face of Captain Charlotte "Charlie" van den Heuvel filled the screen in front of him. The pair of welding goggles perched on her forehead indicated that he'd caught her in the middle of fixing something, probably the dodgy recirculator on Chameleon One that kept breaking because they hadn't had the time or money to give the life support systems the full overhaul they needed.
"Sarge! I was beginning to think I wasn't going to hear from you today."
"I keep telling you, I hate that nickname."
"Well, tough. Captain's orders. I take it you've figured out a decoy job that'll fool every last one of those bugs?"
"Nope, not a clue!" Roy said with a cheery grin, causing the captain to lose her own grin. "Complete change of plans, and I think you'll like the new plan. I think it's time we called in the big guns."
Charlie raised an eyebrow. "We don't have
big guns, Sarge. The Chameleon Base retrofit got delayed, remember?"
"Not those big guns," Roy shook his head as he sent his proposal over to her. "Those
The captain read it over, as did the instances of Karma on both Roy's ship and hers, then whistled softly. "Gutsy, and stupid, but he'll never see it coming. Gold star, Roy. I'll tell Ace, Tiny, and Eagle to prep for departure. Briefing in twenty, jets up in forty." A space station floated in the void, far off the established spacelanes and nowhere near anything resembling a planet, or even a large asteroid. Its only company was a fleet of ships and a handful of smaller defense stations, ranging in quality from the finest models that laundered money could buy to lightly used models that had been repurposed after what was left of their prior owners had been rinsed off of the bulkheads. The former sort had been built with the sorts of odd angles and strange proportions that their T!ka!irtk owners found aesthetically appealing and other species found headache-inducing, while the latter sort had been retrofitted to that design as best as possible, and in both cases they were all decorated in a manner that appeared to be boring sheets of uniform whiteness to those inferior species whose visual organs were limited to sensing what they laughably termed the "visible" spectrum of light.
This gathering of vessels was not hidden nor kept secret in any way, despite its remoteness. On the contrary, its master Rit!tkatp delighted in welcoming all comers to enjoy the creature comforts of his station, whether their tastes lay with gambling, racing, mind-altering substances, negotiable affections, or even more exotic pursuits. All beings, from the poorest sight-seer to the most inquisitive government investigator, were invited to partake in its pleasures--provided, of course, that they did not stick their olfactory organs where they didn't belong.
On this particular occasion, Rit!tkatp, patriarch of his extended family and clutch-master of the station, reclined regally in something that only a member of his species would recognize as a chair, as two of his employees filed his dorsal phalanges and several more polished his forearm plates. The T!ka!irtk species was semi-insectoid and covered with something that wasn't quite an exoskeleton, from which protruded many bony outgrowth that served both as defensive spines and as sensory apparatus. They had four bulbous eyes, two compound eyes for seeing motion and two simple eyes for distance vision; four arms and four legs, all multi-jointed and bone-plated; and a mouth both filled with sharp teeth and ringed by pedipalps.
The memoirs of the Human diplomat who had first made contact with the T!ka!irtk famously described her first impression of them being "the result of a drunken orgy between a praying mantis, a wolf spider, and the ugliest porcupine on Earth," and if anything she was being too kind.
Rit!tkatp enjoyed surveying his domain from the control center that was the heart and brain of the station. The clatter of dice rolling in the gambling hall, the rustling of smuggled goods passing through hangars not depicted on the station blueprints, the pathetic wails of those who required encouragement to repay their loans in a timely fashion...these sounds were music to his aural receptors, the rhythm by which he lived his life.
Alas, a flashing light on the proximity sensor board informed him that the intricate symphony of station operations was shortly to be interrupted by an unplanned intermission.
"Look alive, people," the captain's voice sounded in everyone's earpiece, "we have reversion in two minutes. Remember, don't take any unnecessary risks, don't worry about picking good targets, just keep firing at anything and everything in weapons range until you get the signal, then stall as long as you can." Acknowledgements came from Chameleon One through Chameleon Five, and each ship's crew performed a few last-minute equipment checks.
"Cortana, status summary for all ship systems," Roy called. "All systems green," came the cool synthesized voice of the virtual assistant, followed by Karma's voice adding, "Except the long-range transmitters, which are...blue, I guess, since someone decided that pirates like Cortana for whatever reason. Or whatever other color you'd give a system that I'm giving extra-special attention to, so that I can transmit myself out of the mess you meatbags are about to get yourselves into."
The bridge crew laughed, one calling out, "We love you too, Karma!" as the timer ticked down toward zero. The navigator started counting down with it: "Reversion in three...two...one...now!"
Right on cue, the HMS Dead To Rights, Seasons Don't Fear The..., No Kill Like Overkill, Gallows Humor, and Do Unto Others, Repeat As Necessary of the infamous Skreaming Skulls Skwadron popped into existence in a spasm of warped spacetime and hilariously bad graffiti. Each ship immediately unloaded every railgun, missile tube, plasma launcher, and drone fighter on board at the nearest target. They'd chosen their approach vector very carefully to ensure that no civilian ships were in the line of fire, just Rit!tkatp's goons. There were likely to be few civilians around in any case, as station security didn't like having too many ships arriving or departing at any given time.
The ensuing three minutes or so were the highlight of Roy's career thus far. Nothing like blowing up bad guys with no concern for ammo limits or mission objectives to relieve some stress.
But far too soon, the party was over.
"Bad news, boss," Karma called urgently, "we've got a frigate at our two o'clock. Make that three. Make that six. Um. Make that a six and two drone carriers." Roy glanced to the tactical display, disbelieving, but the AI was right: somehow, a mere gentleman crime boss had not one, not two, but eight capital ships at his disposal--and that's just what he had within jump distance on short notice. That would certainly explain how he'd managed some of the more impossible-sounding feats attributed to him, and why most local pirate crews would refuse to cross him for any reason and also refuse to say why. Must have bribed a shipyard or something...or, hell, maybe they were a present from some species that wasn't a big fan of humanity and would love to see someone meddle with their affairs.
Vastly increased danger aside, though, it didn't change the Chameleons' mission profile. The frigates had almost reached firing distance when Ace made his move: in the most hectic region of the battle, two T!ka!irtk gunboats went charging for the No Kill Like Overkill, both sides firing volley after volley of missiles and countermeasures at each other, and only two ships came out the other side of the expanding field of shrapnel and debris that resulted from the skirmish.
On sensors, the two surviving ships were the two T!ka!irtk gunboats, one heavily damaged and one mostly fine, and the expanding hull fragments of Chameleon Three were all that was left of the fake Skreaming Skulls ship; in reality, however, one of the gunboats had been destroyed and, in the sensor-scrambling confusion, Chameleon Three had swiftly scanned its profile and transponder and taken its place. The "damaged gunboat" turned tail and limped back to "its" hangar, immediately forgotten by its fellows.
The plan at that point had been to keep blowing things up while Ace worked to keep the attention on the other four ships, but the frigates changed things. It was all the Skulls could do to avoid the capital ships' guns, and despite some amazing piloting from Tiny and crack shooting from all the Chameleon gunners they shortly found themselves captured by tractor beams and dragged helplessly within range of the station's even larger guns. The crews' former high spirits were understandably shaken, but Roy reassured the crew of Chameleon Two that if they hadn't been reduced to atoms yet they'd probably come out of this alive so just sit tight and wait and everything would be fine, and he was sure the other officers on the other Chameleon ships were telling their crews basically the same thing.
The speakers crackled to life unbidden. "You know, I was having such a good day." Rit!tkatp's smooth baritone echoed throughout the bridge--or, rather, the voice of his translator; T!ka!irtk couldn't make the appropriate sounds for any human tongue, and vice versa for humans. (Unless they were fluent in one of those African clicking languages, from what Roy had heard, but even then apparently they sounded like a dog trying to speak French.) So both species used translation devices to communicate, and fortunately he'd hooked his up directly to the comm system so they only heard the translated voice. Roy had dealt with them in person before, and the way all those conversations would go was that they'd first hear one of the bugs say something in his own language that would sound like someone firing a machine gun at a xylophone, then the translator would speak in a Human tongue, then the Humans would speak, then their own translator would fire yowling cats back at the bugs, and they'd alternate like that for the duration; it was enough to give anyone migraines.
"I slept so well, my breakfast was wriggling, my customers were happy...and now, you jump into my system, the system of a law-abiding citizen, and you commit property damage the likes of which I have never seen. I am well within my rights to confiscate your ships in recompense and send your crew back to T!ka!ir to pay off the damages with hard labor. But I am a generous and honorable being. Tell me who hired you to do this, and I may be willing to let you go. I may not even inform the authorities that you did this, so that you may remain free to continue your detestable activities elsewhere."
Roy had to hand it to him, the man was smooth. Perfect "incensed businessman" tone with a bit of "agreeable neighbor" thrown in, and only a barely-noticeable dash of "unrepentant murderer" in the mix to show he wasn't to be trifled with. He acted just as if he were talking into yet another journalist's holorecorder; he had to, since for all he knew the Skreaming Skulls were live-streaming this conversation back to their mysterious employers in the hopes of catching him admitting to something illegal. That, too, had been tried a few times before.
Before he could think of something to say Charlie responded first in the most insultingly casual tone she could manage. "No one hired us. We decided that you were scum, and your ships didn't have nearly enough holes in them, and it's a weekend, and we were bored, so why not pop in and say hi?"
Rit!tkatp didn't believe that for a moment, of course--mercenaries, do something for free?--so he and the captain traded polite, velvet-coated barbs for a bit while the newer crewmembers waited on the edge of their seats for the moment when the alien gangster tired of it and ordered them vaporized. Roy had stopped paying attention, though. He only had eyes for one tiny corner of his screens, where he waited for a message from Chameleon Three.
As soon as it came through, he grinned fiercely and accepted the data transfer attached to the message, and several minutes later--it was a pretty huge transfer--he gave the crew a thumbs up, waited for them to quiet down, and hit the transmit button while the alien gangster was still speaking.
"Have you heard of an old Earth gangster named Al Capone?" he interrupted, to an uncertain pause from Rit!tkatp. "This is your second who barges into our conversation?" he asked. At Charlie's nod he adjusted something offscreen and now appeared to be looking directly at Roy. "No, I have not. This is relevant because...?"
"Well, I was thinking you might have, since he bears a striking similarity to a Mr. Zhanpeng Lee, a bureaucrat in the office of the Minister of Finance on Xin Beijing. Also a Ms. Beatriz Gonzales, a sales director with Lockheed-Grumman Industries. And oh, I believe also Mr. Dan O'Neill, Mr. Lubo Denisov, and Ms. Sweta Chandragiri. Need I go on?"
No response from Rit!tkatp except a twitching of his pedipalps. The mentioned names were either false identities he used to do business in Human space or bribed and/or blackmailed intermediaries between real companies and his shell companies, discovered in the complete copy of the gangster's financial records taken by Chameleon Three's instance of Karma, and the twitching indicated frantic thought on the gangster's part as to how that information could have been retrieved.
Rit!tkatp wasn't stupid enough to keep his personal records on the station-wide network for any two-bit hacker to find if he or she rooted an information kiosk or gambling machine; everything was in an armored server room directly below his office, hard-linked to his office terminal and shielded from any sort of wireless access, which only he and his most trusted associates could access and in which he could withstand an assault for several hours at least. And of course there was plenty of surveillance and security teams between his enemies and his data, such that anyone trying to dash to the vault would surely be cut down before they got even one floor up from the casinos. He'd taken every reasonable precaution against every reasonable form of attack.
What his security policies did not take into account, however, was an illegally-enhanced military-grade AI gaining root access to the repair bay computers several dozen floors below his office, taking over the station's maintenance robots (glorified ten-foot-tall alien Roombas, basically, and not particularly difficult to co-opt), marking all the corridors between the hangar and his office as closed for cleaning to clear out any civilians, quietly intercepting the camera feeds from the empty hallways, and then using Chameleon Three's boarding lasers to drill straight up through all those floors and into the server room itself, at which point Karma had physical dataport access and the game was up. "Crazy flying AI with frikkin' laser beams" isn't the sort of thing usually covered by standard security policies, so Rit!tkatp could be forgiven for not anticipating that.
"You think to threaten me? In your decidedly helpless position?" Rit!tkatp demanded, still maintaining his innocent businessman air with some effort. "You think that I will be afraid of images of extracted endoskeletons and oxygen-bearing fluids on your ships? No, your Human superstitions do not apply to the T!ka!irtk. We know that death is certain, and because of this we do not fear it."
"Funny you say that," Roy continued, "since we superstitious humans have a slightly different saying. 'Nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.' And that's the striking similarity: None of those individuals pay their taxes."
Now the alien looked honestly confused. "See, I know that a businessman such as yourself would scrupulously pay your taxes, and so would any of your cover identities. Excuse me, your business associates. But you forgot one little thing. There's one backwards little country on good old Earth that's always behind the times and out of step with the rest of the civilized world called America, you might have heard of it. Those crazy Americans have all sorts of crazy policies; for god's sake, it's twenty-one-forty-fucking-seven and they still haven't switched everything to the metric system. And one of their quaint little rules involves taxes."
Charlie chimed in from Chameleon One: "You're damn right it does. See, I'm an American citizen thanks to my mother. Doesn't matter that I've never set foot on Earth in my life, or any American colonies, or hell, even an American-built space station, they take their 'citizens living abroad' thing very seriously, and every year I have to file my taxes with Uncle Sam. Every damn year. Eritrea used to require that too, but they gave up that nonsense almost a century ago. And I complain about it to my XO here every damn year, too...which worked out nicely this time, I guess."
Rit!tkatp had reached both left arms offscreen and appeared to be quietly yet frantically tapping away at a terminal, paying attention to Roy with his right eyes and his computer with his left; it was a somewhat disconcerting sight. Roy glanced over at his tactical display where he was getting a jump proximity notification, probably the same one that had the gangster all upset. Unless he was looking up Al Capone in whatever Human historical records he had access to, which was also possible. "And seeing as no fewer than one-third of your false identities have American citizenship and many of your shell corporations are registered in American colonies, well, that brings us back to Al Capone. When the government managed to show he hadn't been paying his taxes back in nineteen...whenever it was, well, that was a federal crime."
"Yes yes yes, I see your point," Rit!tkatp said hurriedly, chest plates clicking in alarm and dorsal phalanges folding outwards in frustration. "You have uncovered blackmail material on me, and now you will wish something in exchange for not alerting the Human governments, I am sure. So--"
"Nope, too late for that, sonny," Ace interrupted from Chameleon Three, his voice coming from Rit!tkatp's side of the connection since he was patched into the station's comms. "Already sent it all over. Would even have gift-wrapped it, if they had a tri-D printer in their office somewhere. Got a thank-you note back, too, ain't that sweet. Now, normally these things take something on the order of a hundred eighty business days, but I think in your case they'll make an exception. Right...about...."
"...about...oh, come on, they said twenty minutes! Damn government bureaucracy, where's a dramatic entrance when you need one?"
Then, flashes of light. Four unmarked ships in plain gray jumped into the system in escort formation, heading for the station. They definitely had the highly-functional-with-a-hint-of-muscle aesthetic of American ships, to Roy's eye; he thought the design was a bit boring compared to, say, the Brazilian or Italian fleets, but at least they'd stopped putting red, white, and blue stars and stripes on everything with an engine and a flat surface.
Rit!tkatp hesitated for long moments, all plates and phalanges going utterly still. "You're not thinking of resisting arrest, are you?" Roy asked mockingly. The alien glared at him with all four eyes, then spat, "If that is all the fleet your Bureau of Federal Investigators can muster, I don't see why not." The frigates dropped their tractor locks on the Chameleon ships to go engage the new Human vessels, leaving only the carriers and drone fighters (and of course the station itself) to keep them under guard.
Roy looked on with concern. Surely they didn't send just four ships? When even without the capital ships the region always swarmed with drones and the station itself could withstand a siege for days?
"That's not the FBI, buddy. They only have sub-orbital ships and no off-planet jurisdiction. Check the IFFs," Ace said smugly, and both Rit!tkatp and the Chameleons checked their tactical screens. "IRS? Io Rescue Service?" the alien said with bemused contempt. "Close, you're thinking IIRS, Io Interstellar Rescue Service. Nope, that there's the Internal Revenue Service."
On the far side of the fleet, the frigates were engaging the new arrivals. The front two ships turned out to be torpedo boats, the IRS In Triplicate and the IRS Red Tape, and they were unloading missile volleys on the frigates at a staggering pace while the support ships IRS Credit Freeze and IRS Wage Garnishment raised jamming fields and fired off the occasional EMP burst. The T!ka!irtk frigates, confident in their superior numbers, didn't even slow down as they approached the quartet of smaller ships, and so they were caught completely by surprise when three new ships jumped in right above the others, the destroyers Rapid Depreciation, Asset Liquidation, and Maximum Deductions.
"Your mere tax collectors have capital ships?" Rit!tkatp asked incredulously. Roy wasn't sure if the gangster had forgotten the Chameleons were still on the line or if he just didn't care at this point, but with glee he replied "Well, your mere civilian 'casino owners' have capital ships, so fair's fair."
The carriers were ordered to the station's defense next without even giving them time to collect all their fighters, as were the few smaller stations capable of independent movement. As soon as they were out of range of the main station's protection, though, they were ambushed by yet more ships jumping in. These ships, three frigates and five cruisers, were large enough that both Humans and T!ka!irtk could see that they weren't plain gray at all; they were actually white with thousands of tiny black boxes and tiny black text criss-crossing their hulls. Of course, thought Roy, forms and spreadsheets. Should've known.
The frigates Thorough Audit, Double Entry, and Mandatory Compliance made short work of the carriers without their drone screens to protect them, and the cruisers Let's Get Fiscal, Weighed in the Balance Sheets, Nine-Tenths of the Law, Accrual Intentions, and I've Got 1099 Problems made short work of the defense stations, both mobile and immobile.
Roy didn't know exactly what a crazed T!ka!irtk looked like right before it decided to do something incredibly reckless, but whatever expression was on Rit!tkatp's face probably qualified. The main station began firing every last weapon in the IRS fleet's direction to prevent them from approaching as its long-dormant engines slowly came to life and began propelling it far enough away from the other ships to make a jump; a few foolhardy civilian ships darted out of various hangars and began angling for jump vectors so as not to end up who-knows-where in the hands of an angry mob boss, but most decided that they'd rather not risk entering the crossfire of a major fleet engagement, thank you very much.
He may have lost his fleet, many of his henchbeings, and his untouchable status, but the alien might still escape to fight another day. Roy could hear Charlie swearing up a storm over the comms at the prospect, and he felt the same way, but they were powerless to do anything about it. The Chameleons were still close enough to the station that it had but to pivot a single gun away from bombarding the other fleet to turn them to ash, so all they could do was float there and watch it inch away to freedom.
Until, that is, one last ship jumped its way into the system right in the fleeing station's path, arriving with enough force that Roy swore he could feel the gravity waves rippling through Chameleon Two. It was a dreadnought, and the writing on its bow proudly proclaimed it to be the IRS 3949-A
On screen, Rit!tkatp stared at the dreadnought for a long moment, then drooped like a wilting leaf, all of his plates opening wide in a sign of submission. The station's guns fell silent and its engines spun down before they'd even had a chance to reach full power. Roy almost felt sorry for the bastard.
As the dreadnought and cruisers sent out boarding shuttles and his crew started talking excitedly about sending the battle recordings to everyone they know, Roy put on a mock conciliatory tone. "Hey, buddy, don't worry." The soon-to-be-ex-gangster looked up at him with his right eyes. "Sure, you might have been involved in wire fraud, embezzlement, smuggling, theft, grand theft, bribery, robbery, burglary, murder, assassination, illegal gambling, illegal prostitution, drug running, and who knows what else on top of the major tax fraud, but at least you avoided one thing."
He leaned forward and lowered his voice, and Rit!tkatp leaned in as well.
"Count yourself lucky that you never, ever committed mail fraud, because US postal inspectors...well, those fuckers don't mess around."
CONTENT COURTESY OF COLUMBIA CVB ON STAGE submitted by
- University of Missouri theater professor Heather Carver has mined the harrowing experience of surviving breast cancer, writing humor and heart into her plays “Booby Prize” and “Booby Trap.” The latest in Carver’s series, “Booby Hatch,” will be performed at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at MU’s Corner Playhouse; the work will be presented in concert with several other theater pieces. $12. theatre.missouri.edu.
- Stephens College presents its annual Dance Company Spring Concert at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at Macklanburg Playhouse, 100 Willis Ave. Students perform in a variety of styles, their work choreographed by faculty and visiting artists. $8 to $16. stephens.edu/performingarts.
- Déjà vu Comedy Club presents Sandman Comic Hypnotist Friday 9 PM and Saturday 8 PM and 10 PM. The Sandman, the famous comic hypnotist, is a Vegas favorite that has hypnotized over 10,000 people from coast to coast. From Nashville, TN to stages all over the U.S., he has been dubbed the “Copperfield of Hypnosis.”
- Ragtag Cinema presents the True/False NeithoNor Kick Off Event and ‘Mondo Cane’ Wednesday 8 PM. Come meet and share a drink with our critic-in-residence, Nick Pinkerton at 8pm. Then at 8:30pm, Nick will introduce us to Mondo Cane, the 1962 classic that inspired this year’s series. Refreshments courtesy of Schlafly beer and MO Wines. MONDO CANE Warning: Contains graphic content Dir. Gualtiero Jacopetti, Franco Prosperi & Paolo Cavara; 1962; 108 min. Released in 1962, Mondo Cane is a leering transcontinental tour: knee-walking drunks in Hamburg, a high-end restaurant in New York City where the hoi polloi dine on insects, the tragic effects of atomic radiation on the wildlife of the Bikini Atoll, and the effects of the bikini upon sailors enjoying shore leave. Frequently the film takes bounding leaps from one side of the planet to the other. Rather than chastening the savage with the example of superior civilization, the cheek-and-jowl positioning of images from the industrialized and undeveloped world shows the continuing importance of rites and rituals in both. The purpose of this is not necessarily to elevate the lowly savage, but to place kennel, a dog’s world.
- True/False Film Fest Thursday-Sunday in downtown Columbia. For the 13th installment of the True/False Film Fest, we’re leaving the comfort of the well-trod path and heading Off the Trail. This year, we’re surrounding ourselves with the inspiration of secret missions, treasure maps, personal geographies, and the virtue of being lost. Through our films, music, conversations, art, and design, come explore with us a variety of special, hidden, and sacred places, both real and constructed. Find information on films, schedule, live music, and more at TrueFalse.org.
- GREAT WALL is True/False’s outdoor movie screen, close by fest headquarters at Ninth and Broadway. Ramble by this free walk-up cinema where films will play Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights from 8pm to 11pm.
- FROM THE EAST, A FILM BY CHANTAL AKERMAN THURSDAY, MAR 3 / 8PM TO 11PM When the spirited and luminous Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman left us on the 5th of October last year, all of us at T/F mourned her passing. She created a body of work that brought us joy and inspiration, and deepened our abiding love for personal cinema. In homage, we’re showing D’Est (From the East) from 1993, her visual essay about public spaces and the quality of human presences in those spaces. She wrote, “While there’s still time, I would like to make a grand journey across Eastern Europe. ...I’d like to film there, in my own style of documentary bordering on fiction. I’d like to shoot everything. Everything that moves me.” Chantal, you moved us all and we miss you. (110 min., looping) (PC)
- BETHLEHEM STEEL PROJECT FRIDAY, MAR 4 / 8PM TO 11PM For the past several years, filmmaker Jesse Epstein — and a team of cinematographers, photographers, and musicians — have snuck into the former Bethlehem Steel plant in Pennsylvania as it morphs into a casino. In true Off the Trail spirit, the artists walked more than a mile down train tracks, climbed over fences with Bolexes in hand, and hid inside old lockers until the sun went down. Their original film about these secret missions, commissioned by T/F, renders this disappearing cathedral of industry on 16mm, Super 8, video, and large-format stills. (30 min., looping) (PC)
- CONCERNEDSTUDENT1950 SATURDAY, MAR 5 / 8PM TO 11PM Varun Bajaj, Adam Dietrich, and Kellan Marvin, students at the Murray Center for Documentary Journalism, were well-positioned to film the Concerned Student 1950 protests that roiled the MU campus in the fall. With keen observational camerawork and all sound artfully removed, this piece (created as a special installation featuring footage from a forthcoming Field of Vision film) bears witness to the events of November 2015. (20 min., looping) (PC)
- March March – Friday 5:15 PM leaving from the Boone County Courthouse - Now's your chance to "create your own scene" at the True/False Film Festival. Find a wacky costume, and join the fest's kickoff parade.
- True Life Run – Saturday 9 AM at Flat Branch Park. Before spending the day sitting around and watching movie after movie, compete in the True Life Run. Breakfast will include Harold's Doughnuts and Kaldi's Coffee, and the male and female winners of the run will win Lux passes to next year's festival.
- T/F Logboat Beer Brunch – Saturday 11 AM at Craft Beer Cellar. Start off your True/False Film Fest mornings the right way with a brunch at Craft Beer Cellar. Harold's Doughnuts and Boss Taco will bring the food, and Fretboard Coffee and Logboat Brewing Co. will bring the beverages, including cold brew coffee and Shiphead BeerMOSAS. And, if you're lucky, you just might snag a sip of a Logboat special release.
- The Art Ramble - Bon vivant and raconteur Gabriel Williams leads rollicking tours of downtown art and curiosities, including many of True/False’s art installations. Free and open to the public. o Saturday, Mar 5 / 12:00PM / Box Office o Saturday, Mar 5 / 2:30PM / Box Office o Sunday, Mar 6 / 12:00PM / Box Office o Sunday, Mar 6 / 2:30PM / Box Office.
- Official T/F After Party – Saturday 9:30 PM at Rose Music Hall. After a weekend fill with films and festivals, finish with a bang at this official afterparty. Musical performances by Screaming Females, Bruiser Queen and Hearing Things.
- Consign with Grace Spring Consignment Sale Friday 9 AM at Grace Bible Church. Visit Grace Bible Church's Tri-Annual Kid's Sale to find everything from gently used toys to children's clothes to nursery decorations. Proceeds from the event will support the church's youth mission teams.
- First Fridays in the North Village Arts District Friday 6-9 PM. A FREE gallery crawl held the first Friday of each month in the North Village Arts District. Come explore the unique venues and enjoy the live music art and entertainment! The first Friday of each month, the North Village Arts District will collectively open its doors, encouraging residents, visitors and tourists to explore and appreciate the ever-growing collections of art and entertainment that diversify and energize our community.
- First Friday Contra Dance 7:30 PM at Ballroom Academy of Columbia. Mid-Missouri Traditional Dancers will host an evening of community dancing with music by 32 Bartenders of central Missouri. Paula McFarling will be leading dancers through the steps. Beginners are encouraged to come to an introductory lesson at 7:00 p.m. No prior dance experience is required, and individuals of all ages are welcome.
- Pancake and Sausage Breakfast Saturday 7 AM – 1 PM at Trinity Lutheran Church. Pancake and Sausage Benefit Breakfast for Trinity Lutheran Laymen’s League Fellowship Club and Good Shepherd Lutheran School PTL. Free Will Donations Accepted at Door. – Whole Hog Sausage – Aunt Jemima Wheat and Original Pancakes – Coffee, Milk and Juice
- Columbia Winter Farmers Market Saturday at Parkade Center. The Columbia Farmers Market moves indoors to Parkade Center for the winter. All winter you’ll be able to continue shopping with your local farmers! A wide selection of produce, meats, cheese, baked & canned goods, artisan crafts and more can be found! Find us every Saturday (closed Saturday after Thanksgiving and Christmas) from 9 am – noon through November 21- March 12.
- Mizzou Baseball vs. Arkansas – Pine Bluff WED 4 PM at Taylor Stadium
- Mizzou Baseball vs. Illinois – Chicago FRI 6 PM at Taylor Stadium
- Mizzou Gymnastics vs. Arkansas FRI 7 PM at Hearnes Center
- Mizzou Baseball vs. Illinois – Chicago SAT 1 PM at Taylor Stadium
- Mizzou Men’s Basketball vs. Florida SAT 6:30 PM at Mizzou Arena
- Stephens College Softball vs. Goshen College SUN 10 AM at American Legion Park
- Mizzou Baseball vs. Illinois – Chicago SUN 1 PM Taylor Stadium
LIVE MUSIC Thursday
- Orr Street Studios, 106 Orr St., presents Temporal Auxiliaries: Works by David Spear through March 6. orrstreetstudios.com.
- Sager Braudis Gallery, 1025 E. Walnut St., presents its 2016 Late Winter Exhibit through March 26. Exhibiting artists are Jessica Keiser, Emily Burns, Frank Stack, Jeremy Lepisto and Joel Sager. www.sagerbraudisgallery.com.
- The Montminy Gallery, located at the Boone County Historical Society, 3801 Ponderosa St., presents Through Weather and Time, an exhibit of works by Jane Mudd, through April 3. Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, noon to 4:30 p.m. Sunday. boonehistory.org
- Columbia Art League, 207 S. Ninth St., presents Passages and Pathways Tuesday through April 15. The exhibit takes its cues from “Off the Trail,” the theme for this year’s True/False Film Fest. A reception will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday. columbiaartleague.org.
- The State Historical Society of Missouri, located at Lowry Mall on the University of Missouri campus, will show Vernacular America in the 1930s and 1940s: The Art of Ben Messick and Fred Shane through May 2016. The exhibit will show the ways in which these Missouri artists depicted “ordinary Americans” in an extraordinary time. The Society also presents Picturing Politics: Political Images by George Caleb Bingham and Thomas Hart Benton through June. shs.umsystem.edu
- The University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology, located at Mizzou North, 115 Business Loop 70 W., presents Afro-Cuban Artists: A Renaissance Tuesday through May 1. The exhibit prominently features the works of Manuel Mendive and Eduardo “Choco” Roca Salazar. The museum also presents Black American Artists: Envisioning Social Change through May 15. Museum hours are 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. maa.missouri.edu.
- True/False Film Fest presents Lee Fields, Seratones 10:15 p.m. at The Blue Note; $10 to $15.
- Radkey, Bummer, Mocklove 8:30 p.m. at Rose Music Hall; $10 to $12.
- True/False Film Fest presents The Creek Rocks, River Kittens, The Flood Brothers 8 p.m. at Café Berlin; $5.
- Mercer and Johnson, Adam Lee, Matt Woods 9 p.m. at The Social Room; free.
- Artie’s Univibe 6:30 p.m. at Jazz, A Louisiana Kitchen.
- Leighton Roden 7 to 10 p.m. at Murry’s.
- True/False Film Fest presents Ruth Acuff, Molly Healey 2 p.m. at Sparky’s Homemade Ice Cream; free.
- True/False Film Fest presents Lone Pinon, Les Trois Coups, Gora Gora Orkestar, Yes Ma’am 8 p.m. at Café Berlin; $5.
- The Bends, Ray Wild, The Fade 8 p.m. at The Bridge; $5 to $8.
- Calvin Street Band 5 p.m. at Rose Music Hall; free.
- The Maytags, Collegiate Shag Brass Band 9 p.m. at The Social Room; $5.
- Molly Gene One Whoaman Band, The Kay Brothers, Soul Mama 9:30 p.m. at Rose Music Hall; $5.
- Artie’s Univibe 6:30 p.m. at Jazz, A Louisiana Kitchen.
- True/False Film Fest presents Hearing Things, Bruiser Queen, Screaming Females 9:30 p.m. at Rose Music Hall; $10.
- True/False Film Fest presents Stepdaughter, The Lentils 2 p.m. at Sparky’s Homemade Ice Cream; free.
- Brad Cunningham Band 5 p.m. at Rose Music Hall; free.
- True/False Film Fest presents Your Friend, Bella Donna, DeQn Sue, David Wax Museum 8 p.m. at Café Berlin; $5.
- Don’t Mind Dying, The Many Colored Death, Paralandra 8 p.m. at The Bridge; $5 to $8.
- Integrow, Richard Parker, Digital Heroes 9 p.m. at The Social Room; $5.
- True/False Film Fest presents Anni Rossi, Mal Devisa, David Wax 7 p.m. at Missouri United Methodist Church; free.
- Andrew Sieff Trio with the Henessy Brothers 6:30 p.m. at Jazz, A Louisiana Kitchen.
- DeepWater 7:30 p.m. at VFW Post 280; $8.
MOVIE GUIDE THE CHOICE
- Music in the Air Benefit Concert 3 p.m. at Broadway Christian Church; $10 to $20.
- True/False Film Fest presents Wishbone Zoe, Nevada Greene 2 p.m. at Sparky’s Homemade Ice Cream; free.
- The Children’s Chorus, Young Artist Philharmonic, Junior Sinfonia, and the Chamber Players 7-9 PM at Rock Bridge High School; Free.
- In this romantic drama adapted from the novel of the same name by Nicholas Sparks, medical student Gabby moves next door to a charming womanizer named Travis in North Carolina. Although Gabby has a serious boyfriend, she and Travis quickly develop feelings for each other that blossom into love; over the course of a decade, their relationship faces ups and downs as they try to decide what they want out of life and what is truly important. DEADPOOL
- In this irreverent spin on the superhero genre, former Special Forces soldier Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) agrees to participate in a top-secret experiment after learning that he has terminal cancer. When the procedure leaves him with advanced healing powers and a disfigured face, he reinvents himself as a wisecracking, spandex-clad mercenary known as Deadpool, and seeks revenge on those responsible. EDDIE THE EAGLE
- Inspired by true events, Eddie the Eagle is a feel-good story about Michael “Eddie” Edwards (Taron Egerton), an unlikely but courageous British ski-jumper who never stopped believing in himself – even as an entire nation was counting him out. GODS OF EGYPT
- In this spectacular action-adventure inspired by the classic mythology of Egypt, the survival of mankind hangs in the balance as an unexpected mortal hero Bek, undertakes a thrilling journey to save the world and rescue his true love. HAIL, CAESAR!
- Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a slick Hollywood fixer, is pressed into action when superstar actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) is kidnapped and held for ransom by a mysterious group. Mannix races to quietly collect the ransom money without gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Tilda Swinton) catching wind of the scandal. HOW TO BE SINGLE
- Four women with vastly different ideas about love and relationships navigate the single life of New York City. Taking a break from her long-term boyfriend Josh (Nicolas Braun), Alice (Dakota Johnson) sets out on a journey of self-discovery aided by her hard-drinking new friend Robin (Rebel Wilson). Meanwhile, Alice's career-driven older sister Meg (Leslie Mann) struggles with the idea of settling down, and uptight romantic Lucy (Alison Brie) searches for her perfect match. KUNG FU PANDA 3
- Jack Black returns as the voice of lovable martial-arts panda Po in the third adventure in the animated series. Po is reunited with his long-lost father Li (Bryan Cranston), and the pair travel to a secret panda sanctuary where they must team up to defeat an evil ancient force and restore the kung fu order. LONDON HAS FALLEN
- In this sequel to the 2013 action thriller Olympus Has Fallen, a terrorist plot unfolds in London as a number of politicians gather for the funeral of the British prime minister. A Secret Service agent (Gerald Butler), the U.S. president (Aaron Eckhardt), and an MI-6 operative (Charlotte Riley) must work together to stop the terrorists from assassinating the world's leaders and destroying the city's landmarks. PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES
- In 19th-century England, Elizabeth Bennet (Lily James), master of martial arts and weaponry, joins forces with zombie killer Mr. Darcy (Sam Riley) to battle the undead RACE
- Based on the incredible true story of Jesse Owens, the legendary athletic superstar whose quest to become the greatest track and field athlete in history thrusts him onto the world stage of the 1936 Olympics, where he faces off against Adolf Hitler. RIDE ALONG 2
- Kevin Hart and Ice Cube lead the returning lineup of Ride Along 2, the sequel to the blockbuster action-comedy that gave us the year’s most popular comedy duo. RISEN
- In this suspenseful drama set in biblical times, a Roman soldier (Joseph Fiennes) has a crisis of faith when he witnesses firsthand the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. TRIPLE 9
- In TRIPLE 9, a crew of dirty cops is blackmailed by the Russian mob to execute a virtually impossible heist. The only way to pull it off is to manufacture a 999, police code for “officer down”. WHISKEY TANGO FOXTROT
- Eager for a new professional challenge, TV reporter Kim Baker (Tina Fey) decides to serve as a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, where she is embedded with a Marine unit. During her time abroad, she is forced to contend with a fiery U.S. general (Billy Bob Thornton), and befriends a fellow reporter (Margot Robbie) and a British photographer (Martin Freeman) THE WITCH
- A devoutly Puritan family in 1630s New England is exiled from their village and struggle to survive in their new home situated on the edge of a mysterious wilderness. The sinister, witching forces in the wilderness emerge silently to terrorize the family, first by stealing the youngest of their five children. As their life-sustaining crops fail, the family falls victim to paranoia and fear as they begin to turn on one another, suspecting young teen Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) of witchcraft. With the vast majority of the dialogue culled from primary sources of the time period, Robert Eggers' shocking debut horror feature is a terrifying glimpse into a family descending into madness. ZOOTOPIA
- In a city inhabited by anthropomorphic animals who have abandoned traditional predatoprey roles in favor of civilized coexistence, uptight rabbit police officer Judy Hopps (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) is forced to work with charismatic fox con artist Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) to crack a major case involving the mysterious disappearance of some carnivorous citizens. But when a few of the missing critters reappear, having reverted to pre-enlightenment savagery, it exposes existing anti-carnivore prejudice among the city's herbivores that threatens to damage the fabric of their diverse metropolis.
CHECK EACH THEATRE FOR SHOWTIMES RAGTAG CINEMA – 10 Hitt Street 573-443-4359 REGAL STADIUM 14 THEATER – 2800 Goodwin Pointe Drive 573-817-0770 GOODRICH FORUM 8 – 1209 Forum Katy Parkway 573-445-7469
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