Chapter One

I had wanted to live a simple, uncomplicated life.

Really.

Was that too much to ask?

Well, if Charles showing up at my front door was any indication, I guess it was.

“Hello, Michael.” He said, with just a hint of self-satisfaction slightly curling the right side of his mouth. Actually, as smiles go, it was rather pathetic. And since I was pissed at him, no matter if it really was pathetic or not, it was pathetic.

“Hello, Charles.”

Yeah, that’s how I answered. I figured pathetic deserved pathetic.

“Please, Michael.” He said. “My friends call me Charlie.”

The curl was gone.

“Well, should any show up, I’ll let them know.” I answered, not in the mood for disingenuous friendly banter. “What do you want, Charles?”

He frowned, which did not look even remotely pathetic, and actually brightened my mood a bit.

“Come now, Michael, can’t we at least pretend to be friends again? I know we parted on bad terms the last time, but really, it’s water under the bridge.” He smiled, a really smug, irritating thing that portrays anything except friendship. “Besides, we did accomplish much that is worthy of friends to celebrate.”

“If you mean the death of friends who called me Mike, then fine, consider it an accomplishment. I, on the other hand, consider that a pretty strong example of failure.” I said, with no amount of bitter resentment hidden from my voice. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’d really like to get back to sitting dejectedly in my chair, watching inane cable news, and contemplating the pathetic state of this world. It’s preferable to talking to you at any time.”

I made to close the door.

“Kate’s been sighted.” He said.

Shit.

I opened the door.

I stared at him for a few moments of eternity.

I sighed.

“Okay, come on in. But keep your comments about my interior decorator to yourself.”

I moved back out of the way and Charles stepped through the door. I was not happy about this, because once I let him in, he just had a habit of not leaving right away. At least not until I’d been dragged into utter chaos, catastrophe, and disaster. And if our past history was any indication – and it always is – it would be worse than the last time. It always is; every time.

He looked around, an eyebrow raised in critical examination.

“Obviously you’ve not used an interior decorator, so no comment is possible.” He said snidely. God, he’s a shit.

“You said something about Kate – Katherine – being seen?” I asked, hoping he’d pick up the switch of informal to formal as a dig. Of course, he showed no signs of catching it, but I didn’t expect him to; just hoped it registered.

“Please, Michael.” He said, smiling that irritating smile of his, “I would hope for an offer of coffee, which I can then reject. We should stick to the ritual social structures, right?”

He knew damn well I didn’t drink coffee. Not on this back stream planet. But what the hell;

“Okay, Charles. Would you like a cup of coffee?”

“I appreciate the offer, but we really have little time.” He answered, that smug, self-satisfied smile growing. I damn near smiled back. “I’m just glad you let me into the…..” he looked around again, “house – really Michael, this is what you chose for a residence?” he finished, giving me a questioning look that was missing the usual light, arrogant shading. If I hadn’t known better, I’d have thought he was genuinely concerned.

“It’s shelter. Besides, the bridges in this part of the city are all taken by people more worthy than I.” I said, pushing the most haughty tone I could into my voice.

“Ah, yes. I do remember that phase of your life.” He said, nodding knowingly. I swear there was genuine concern in his voice. “Anyway, about Kate.” He moved to sit at the kitchen table until he saw the spilled, dried food. “She was seen in Delquainz.”

I just looked at him blankly, not in the mood to play along.

He sighed.

“Look, she’s wiped. Not a clue as to her true self. As a result she’s not restraining her powers, her talent. It’s attracting attention.”

Okay, I have to admit, this was concerning.

“What’s your plan?” I said, moving through the kitchen towards my bedroom. I was going to need to pack.

“At this point, it’s just to find a way to Delquianz.”

I stopped, my hand on my bedroom doorknob, looking back at Charles.

“You’ve got to be shitting me.” I said, the tone of disbelief not needing to be pushed at all. “How the hell did you get here?” I asked.

“I’ve been here for at least 20 decades, maybe longer.” He answered, an embarrassed tone to his voice. “I gave Kate the Dragonfly.” He looked at the other chairs, but found none of them habitable. “We were in agreement that she’d come back after about 20 years.”

He sighed again, rubbing his face, and actually looked tired. I knew better. Still, it didn’t come across as an act.

“Yes, I know all that.” I answered, but held back my irritation at covering old ground. “But if the ship’s not on planet, how the hell did you get word?

“I still have my staff. An old friend of ours managed to route a message to it a few months back.” He looked up and smiled – a sad, regretful smile. “Sorry, of mine. Kate’s brother. Somehow he managed to survive our sojourn into Bat’th Major.”

I’m not sure why he had to correct himself. Erik, my brother in-law, was also my friend. And you don’t sojourn into Bat’th Major. You battle your way through, every inch of it.

“And?” I asked, continuing into the bedroom to pack my otherworldly possessions.

“When Kate breached beyond planet-only influence and started impacting other systems, he happened to be in the neighborhood. He tried to interject himself into her empire, but she was too far immersed into her character.” He had walked up to the bedroom door and looked in. “She’s far and deep into believing her current incarnation.”

“Empire?” I asked, truly puzzled. “She didn’t set herself up as royalty?”

“Pack, Michael. We’ve got to go.” He urged, the look of concern clear on his face. “She’s stirring up serious attention. Powers I’m loath to confront are going to take notice soon. I know you don’t like that I drag you into my manipulations, but this is different. She has yet to discover the true extent of her powers. If we don’t wake her up, she will create a situation where dark powers are going to arise to restore balance.”

Damn him and his obsession with balance.

“Are you sure?” I said, digging through my worldly goods, looking for my few instruments of universal usefulness.

Not that I would necessarily need – or use – them. It just was not a good idea to leave advanced electronics laying about on an undeveloped world. I made that mistake once. A planet that should have been a Intra-Galactic power died before breaching planet only influence. Charles was not happy. It seems I’d unbalance the power between Light and Dark. I was put to serious task. It’s one of the reasons I am pissed at him. I don’t really like being made to play the bad guy.

Yes, that’s right.

Me. A bad guy.

I’m not proud of this little part of my history.

Let’s just say there’s a nearby quadrant that sees me as a heartless sociopath responsible for trillions of dead and a few dozen shattered planets and leave it at that. But, according to Charles, the balance of Light and Dark was restored and notice by even darker, more powerful beings was avoided.

He’s still an asshole.

“Charles, are you sure?”

“Yes! And don’t worry if you leave anything behind. This planet will never breach planet only influence.”

I looked up at him in exasperation.

“I know that. It’s why you told me to lay low here.” I said, irritated. “I just don’t want to be left without tools.”

“Yes, yes. I understand.” He said. “But all the same, would you please hurry.”

Honestly, I didn’t have all that much. Just what could best be described as a computer with an inexhaustible power source, unlimited memory capacity and instantaneous computational ability, a simple energy weapon that also had an inexhaustible power source, and a handy personal shield generator that could sustain me in the heart of a star. Not that I ever tested it to that extent, but still, pretty handy to have.

Anyway, I’d found the computer and the weapon, but I was still unable to find the shield generator.

“Did you look under the bed?”

I looked back up at Charles, anger boiling just under the surface. He rolled his eyes and bend down. Reaching under the bed he pulled out a simple, black leather belt.

“Is this it?” He asked, straightening out.

He really does have a knack for making me look the fool.

“Yes.” I answered sheepishly as I reached out.

He smiled as he handed it me.

“I have to say, I’m impressed you’ve used it all these decades as a simple belt.” He said, his smile growing. “It showed real restraint. Unfortunately, it made it harder for me to track you.”

I threaded the belt onto my pants, put the other two devices into a simple back pack, and headed out to pass Charles and make my way to the front door.

“Hold on.” He said, putting a hand to my chest. “Your past is an issue. Despite this being a back-stream planet, it still advanced enough to have developed facial recognition. Rather effective too. It’s surprising.”

I looked on, wondering where this was going.

“You’re still on their most-wanted list.” He continued. “Really, you had to play crime kingpin? Were you that bored?”

“Actually, no.” I answered angrily. “There was a highly intelligent sociopath making his way through the ranks of organized crime in this region. The local authorities, even the regional ones, were unable to contain him. At some point the Federal authorities were going to step in, destroying what is an otherwise nice place to live. I didn’t want to have to relocate yet. I wasn’t in the mood to be law enforcement, so I figured why not contain the asshole from inside. Turned out he was better than I expected. So I had to take over the organization.”

“No, you didn’t.” Charles said matter-of-factly. “You could have just killed him.”

“Where’s the fun in that?” I said, a smile breaking through despite my best effort at staying pissed at him.

“Now that’s better!” Charles said, laughing. “It’s good to see you coming to your senses.

“Now, about that facial recognition. You’ve done well in hiding up to this point. Unfortunately, your last few years of hanging out in this mundane neighborhood dulled your vigilance. A few days ago, when you were shopping, someone recognized you. They’re now on alert, and they’ve got all the security cameras programmed to spot you as soon as you step out your door. Well, not specifically this door. But you know what I mean.”

“Crap.” He was right. I’d gotten sloppy. Or probably bored and was unconsciously looking to add some excitement to my life. “I guess we’re going to be running from the cops before we get off this back stream planet.”

“Cops?” He said with disdain. “We rate higher than cops. I expect this country’s army to become involved.”

“So, no international incident?” I said, a smile broadening on my face. “Not leaving the border of this country?”

Charles sighed.

“No, not at all. Pity.” He moved the curtain of the door’s window aside and peeked out. “I’d figure a reason to do so, but our time is limited. We need to get to the extraction point. Erik is on a strict timetable.”

He turned to look at me.

“He’s causing an interstellar incident, though. So, be patient. We’ll have fun eventually.”
I frowned. Leave it to my brother-in-law to have all the fun. And yes, I admit it, I really wasn’t looking for a simple, uncomplicated life.

“So, how much time do we have?”

“Less than I thought.” Charles answered, reaching for the door knob. “There’s a few unmarked police cars out front. Seems they managed to locate your place already. Closest subway station?”

“To the north.” I said as he nodded, opening the door.

“We’re going south, then.”

“You’re in charge, Charlie.” I said, a smile on my face. I never could stay mad at him for long.

“Good. And it’s about time you let that grudge go.” He said as he stepped out the door, with me right behind.

We stood on the front stoop for a bit, looking around. I spotted the two unmarked cars quickly, making no effort to conceal my awareness. I smiled brightly at Charlie as one of the cops started talking excitedly into a phone. None made an effort to get out of the car.

“Ten years I’ve been out of the limelight and I still frighten them.” I said. “So, you plan on us walking the 10 blocks to the next station?”

“We could. But.… Well, you know.” He answered. “Any choice as to which car you want to take?”

I dug into my back pack and pulled out my computer – which looked like a popular brand of cell phone in this region – linked it to my contacts, and scanned the two cars. Both were of the same make, model, and color. Oh, black, by the way. I’m not sure why, but across the universe, cops seem to think black is their color.

As my HUD ran the specs across my vision, I learned the closest one had a defective tire close to blowing. Thankfully the other car was down the block in the direction we were walking.

“The farther one.” I answered, keeping my computer in hand and followed Charlie as he left the stoop and headed down the walk to the street. “It’s got only a quarter tank of gas, which seems pretty shoddy of them, but I figure we don’t need it for long.”

“Not really.” He said, nodding but not looking at me. “Only a quarter tank? Seems pretty overconfident to me. They must have a high opinion of themselves after you let them take down your organization.”

“You know they are listening, right?” I said. I wasn’t concerned. Pissing them off would make them mad and more likely to make a mistake. In fact, I was aware that was Charlie’s intent. I just wanted to make it perfectly clear to the cops that we were aware of their surveillance. He chuckled.

“You really have been bored, haven’t you?” He said. “It’s a good thing I found you when I did. I wouldn’t really have had the patience to break you out of jail.”

I snorted.

“You think I’d have let that happen?”

“Yes.” He said, chuckling some more as we turned south down the sidewalk, him taking the lead. “You want to take out the rear or front car?” He asked as the officers from the car in front of us got out of their vehicle. Meanwhile, the other car started to pull up behind us.

“Front.” I answered as I pocketed my computer and stepped in front of Charlie. He turned around and approached the car that was stopping right behind us. The cops on foot ran up to me, guns drawn. I had them disarmed and unconscious before the other two even opened their doors. Charlie had little problems in rendering his two into the same condition.

“Took you long enough.” I said in mock disappointment. He just shook his head.

“I had to wait for them to get out of the car.” He said.

“No you didn’t.” I said, after snorting. “I’m not the only one bored.”

He smiled.

“You want to drive?” He asked. I tossed him the keys in answer.

“Thank you.” He said as he walked towards the waiting car. “I hope it smells better than the other one. One of the cops like to smoke that God awful dried plant leaf.”

“I didn’t smell anything close to that on the two I took out.” I said as I sat myself into the passenger side of the car. On the floor at my feet was a thermos. Coffee. Or, what passed as coffee on this back stream planet. It’s the chemical composition of the dirt on this planet. I just never could adjust to it’s taste in the flora.

“You want some of this?” I said as I lifted the thermos up. He should his head no.

“I’ve never adjusted to the chemical composition of this planet.” He said. “I’m looking forward to a decent detoxing once we get off planet.”

Me too.

Charlie put the key in the ignition and started the car. However, as he put it in gear it stalled.

“What the hell?” I said. And yes, I already knew what was going on.

“Guess one of your neighbors called in the disturbance. They remote disabled the cars.” I nodded. As I said, I already knew.

I pulled out my computer and scanned. It didn’t take long. The car started.

“That’ll cause all sorts of questions.” Charlie said as he put the car in gear and swung around to head south.

“There are more squads on their way.” I said. “They’ve got us by GPS. You want me to disable it?”

“What? And take away all my fun?” He said with a shit eating smile on his face. “Any airborne pursuit?”

I scanned the radio.

“It’s on its way, actually.” I answered. “And it’s armed. Pretty large caliber. However, if you want, I can mess with the arming calibration. They wouldn’t be able to hit the side of a barn.”

It was his turn to snort.

“Okay, I’ll leave it alone.” I said. “I’m going to use my belt, though. If you don’t mind.”

He nodded. “I’ve already got mine on.”

Of course he did. It actually was foolish of me to not have been using mine all these decades. But I had been pissed at Charlie and hadn’t wanted him to find me easily. At the moment I was regretting that decision. Live and learn.

“So, where are we heading?” I asked.

“Main government building.”

I stared at him.

“Why the hell run?” I said, a bit chagrined. “We could have let them take us. It would have been quicker.”

“Use your head, Mike.” He said in irritation. “They would have held us at the local station for weeks while politics played out.” He made a turn five blocks before the station. He never intended on using the subway.

“In case you’re wondering, we’re heading right towards the arial craft.” I informed him. He smiled.

“I know. Fun isn’t it?”

The bullet smashed through the windshield, spraying us with shattered glass. The hole was right in front of me, but my shield generate…. okay, my belt had deflected the bullet between me and Charlie. Behind us, in the back seat, was a gaping hole where the road sped by. The car didn’t seem to be affected much beyond that, as it was handling well and still running smoothly.

“What the hell?” I said, slightly put off. “Why aren’t they targeting you? You’re the damn driver!”

“I told you, facial recognition is pretty good on this planet. They know you’re the passenger. I guess they don’t want to deal with the usual court process.”

“You know, it doesn’t matter which planet you’re on.” I said, sweeping the glass off my chest, “people are just plain lazy.”

I turned and looked out the back window.

“It’s turning around.”

“Can we make the tunnel before it fires again?” He asked.

“At this speed?” I asked rhetorically. “Hell no. And I’m not sure why you even asked, since you’re purposefully driving slower than this vehicle’s capability.”

“No I’m not!” Charlie said. I reached over with my left foot and stomped down on his right.

The car sped up, avoiding a large explosion that left a deep crater in the road. “Oh, okay, I am. But it’s all a matter of timing. I’d rather arrive cutting it close than having to wait a bit before the extraction time. It’s easier that way to avoid someone witnessing our departure.”

He had a point.

“Hold on.” He said as he hit the brakes and turned right, avoiding another shot. “Time to go on foot.”

Before I could say “what?” in complaint he turned left, between two houses, smashed through a chain linked fence, and sent us plummeting into a reservoir gully.

“What the hell?” I shouted as we bounced our way to the bottom. “Could you please make up your damn mind!”

“Now Mike, don’t be such a bore.” He said as he turned right and sped down the center of the gully. “You really did hide out for far too long. It’s made you completely uninteresting.”

“It wasn’t that long – LOOK OUT!”

Charlie jerked the car to the left just in time to miss another shot. Meanwhile, several marked squads burst through a gate and descended down in pursuit. I started laughing.

“Okay.” I said. “It was too long.” I then started laughing again as he jerked the car to the right, avoiding yet another shot.

Charlie turned to give me a big, bright smile.

“There’s the Michael I know and love.”

“I think I’m ready to drive.” I said, smiling in return.

“Too late. You had your chance.” He said as he jerked the car into a left turn, up the gully’s concrete bank, and into a tunnel located halfway up. The car just managed to get most of the way into the tunnel when it jammed. We both kicked out the remaining windshield and crawled out into the dark tunnel.

“Do you smell that?” Charlie said in-between gasping breaths.

Fuel.

I smiled, reached into the pack pack I had sense enough to grab before leaving the car, and pulled out my energy weapon. The car exploded with a satisfactory blaze of fire that also engulfed us, blocking pursuit.

Turning, we both walked slowly into the darkening tunnel.

Oh, I was smiling. That had been fun.

And with Charlie at my side, it was only going to get even more fun.