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March 12, 2007
Hellbender - Chapter 2
Posted by Frank J. at 06:44 AM

After the first chapter, the second chapter is the hardest to write. There's still quite a bit of exposition to balance, so hopefully things should go quicker after this.

It's posted with the first chapter in Baen's Bar in the Slush Pile section (comments go in Slush Comments). Any critiques and help on making it better is greatly appreciated (and, if it sucks, I need to know that to so I stop wasting my time).

Rating: 2.3/5 (11 votes cast)

Comments (2)
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February 22, 2007
Hellbender - Chapter 1
Posted by Frank J. at 09:21 AM

Yay! I finally put it up!

It's a bit rough (this doesn't have SarahK proofreading yet though I've certainly gone over it a lot more than a blog post), but I'm hoping it's a good start. It's quite different than the original bit by bit story, but Doug, Bryce, Charlene, and Lulu are still there and nearly unchanged.

Anyway, I'd really appreciate any help in making this a good story. It's posted at Baen's Bar in the Slush Pile section (comments on the story go in Slush Comments). You'll have to register, but it only takes a second and they've never spammed the e-mail I supplied for registering to the forum.

If you have suggestions for making the story better, that would be quite helpful. If you point out big problems or things that come off as too confusing, that would also be helpful. If it sucks so badly that it should be immediately buried, I'll need to hear that too so I can stop working on Chapter 2.

Anyone who helps in this project will get extra IMAO bonus points. Don't pass up this exciting offer!

Hope you enjoy it. The story combines both science and fiction.

Rating: 2.1/5 (9 votes cast)

Comments (5)
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November 14, 2006
Hellbender!
Posted by Frank J. at 12:34 PM

For the three or four Hellbender fans out there, I finally had some time over the weekend to sit down and start writing. I now have the prologue and first chapter written (and I might put the new prologue up here if there's interest; it's pretty short). When I start putting up the chapters, it will be at Baen's Bar so I can get critical feedback. It will be quite a bit different from the short story I started, but the characters are the same.

To tide you over, here's some Hellbender footage:

Read More...


Rating: 2.1/5 (8 votes cast)

Comments (9)
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July 28, 2006
The Continuation of Hellbender
Posted by Frank J. at 09:00 AM

The "MAYBE..." at the end of the last part of Hellbender wasn't done with the intention of provoking a response from the readers (I know a number of people are enjoying the series and was happy to continue it). The reason is that I'm thinking of going a different direction with it. The scope of the story kept growing, and I began to realize I couldn't do a statisfying short story. Thus, though initially not quite satisified with Hellbender, I'm thinking of making it my first novel attempt, going back to the beginning and completely rewriting it and bulking it up with novel length in mind.

So, it's a creative decision. While I will hack out humor with reckless abandon, I'm a bit more careful if I think I have a good story idea. Thus, I don't think I'm going to finish Hellbender in its current form because I'd just be finishing it to finish it and I now have a much better story in mind.

More news as events occur...

Rating: 2.8/5 (9 votes cast)

Comments (19)
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July 27, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 21 - Ants
Posted by Frank J. at 03:37 PM

BEGINNING OF STORY

PREVIOUS (PART 20)

* * * *

Vera stared at the rubble of her research building and the workers scurrying about it like ants after the destruction of an anthill.

"That must have been fun."

Dumalt appeared as a large man with short dark hair and darker eyes that easily reduced to a quivering mass any fool that met them. He wore the uniform of a general, but he never appeared very interested in leading people. Vera turned to him. "They stole my research and blew up my research building. I am not in a good mood."

"And what can we do about it?"

"They're mercenaries, Dumalt."

He smiled broadly. "So the treaties don't apply?"

Vera never got as much enjoyment out of inflicting physical harm on people as Dumalt did, but she couldn't help but smile a bit at the thought of the fate that awaited those who crossed her. "No, they don't. It's open season on these humans."

"Excellent. I hate those damn treaties; we can't kill each other's humans, and, if I kill too many of ours, I get yelled at. I feel almost as restricted as before the Great War."

"Do we know where they are?"

"Yes, their vehicle was spotted landing in the wastelands. I'll tell our troops to hang back and leave them to me."

"To us." Vera's expression turned more serious. "One of them knew who we are."

"What? Are you sure?"

"He called me one of 'The Fallen' and didn't appear at all surprised when their weapons failed to harm me."

Dumalt's smile faded. This was no longer just an opportunity to have some fun tearing some humans limb from limb. "Should we tell Asmod?"

"Let's find out exactly what they know first."

Dumalt frowned. "I'm not very good at reading men's minds."

Vera laughed. "It's simple; just hurt them until they tell us what they know."

Dumalt smiled again. "And then?"

"And then, my friend, you do whatever else to them pleases you."

TO BE CONTINUED...

MAYBE...

Baens Universe Logo
Help Save Science Fiction at Jim Baen's Universe!
(NOTE: Frank J.'s hastily hacked together stories are in no way supported or condoned by Baen)

Rating: 2.4/5 (18 votes cast)

Comments (13)
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July 26, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 20 - Panic
Posted by Frank J. at 03:25 PM

BEGINNING OF STORY

PREVIOUS (PART 19)

* * * *

"You're creepy." Lulu fired a three-round burst from her pistol at Vera.

Vera didn't react at all; she didn't even flinch.

Charlene fired at the woman, and again nothing. Charlene looked more than a little concerned.

Vera laughed. "You people really have no idea what you've gotten yourselves into."

"She's one of the Fallen!" Doug pointed his knife at her while looking to Bryce. "Regular weapons can't harm her."

Bryce just appeared confused. "You've got to be kidding me."

For the first time, Vera looked a bit concerned as she now focused on Doug. "The Fallen? Where did you hear that term?"

"What’s the Fallen?" asked a dumbfounded Charlene.

Doug wasn't sure what to do. He didn't feel like running up and stabbing the woman as that just seemed too awkward... plus the KaBar knife just didn't feel as sacred anymore now that he saw one of the Fallen not be harmed in the slightest by bullets.

"Bryce, did we have a backup plan in case we were confronted with a bulletproof woman," Lulu asked, staring at Vera with fearful eyes.

"I'm devising one." Bryce dug through his pockets. "I had explosive cufflinks, but I wore a shirt that doesn't use cufflinks..." He pulled out a pen. "That's the flash grenade... and... ah-ha!" Bryce took out a cufflink and threw it against the wall where it stuck. "You have this." He then tossed the pen at Vera. "Everyone else: duck."

Simultaneously, the pen exploded in a flash while the wall to their side blew apart, peppering them all with debris. "Come on!" Bryce called as he disappeared through the exit.

Doug wasn't sure whether he was supposed to stand and fight, but Charlene pushed him through the hole in the wall before he could decide. The four of them ran through the room to the hallway exit, all glancing behind them for Vera who was no where to be seen.

"What the hell is going on?" Charlene yelled.

They reached the stairway and quickly made their way up. "Don't know," Bryce said. "This one actually lands on Doug to explain, but why don't we just get out of here and leave it all a moot point."

"They’re like aliens that need to be sent back to a prison dimension that I was told about in a dream by..."

Bryce kicked the door open leading to the roof. "Save it for the ride home, Doug!" On the roof was a large landing pad upon which sat one military vehicle. They wasted no time getting inside. Bryce sat at the controls.

Charlene closed the side hatch. "You know how to fly this?"

"I took a few classes on VTOL vehicles." Bryce fumbled at the controls in a way that didn't look to Doug like he new what he was doing. Still, the vehicle finally lurched into the air and Bryce let out a victory shout. "Invulnerable aliens or not, we're getting out of here with the hard drive!" He patted the case he that was hanging at his side by a shoulder sling. "Time for a paycheck, people!"

Lulu pumped her fist in the air. "Go Hellbender!"

Charlene turned to Doug. "Now, what are the Fallen?"

"Well... uh..." Doug looked out the window as he tried to put his thoughts together. He watched as the research building below them faded into the distance and exploded. "Did the building just explode?"

Bryce tried to look behind him while piloting the craft. "What? What exploded?"

Lulu stared out of the window. "The whole building."

"Charlene! What did you do?" Bryce yelled.

Charlene looked towards the fire below them. "I didn't do it! I still have my explosives."

"Doug! What did you do?"

Doug scratched his head. "I've accidentally blown up lots of stuff before, but never a whole building... once a tool shed, though."

"The entire building is gone," Charlene said. "That was a professional demolition; are we being set up?"

"I don't know why anyone would make such an effort." Bryce looked at the console. "Well, look at all the pretty dots on the radar converging on us; that must be about the entire Asmod military. Everyone sit down and fasten your seat belts; we're going to see how fast this thing goes."

Doug finally put his knife away and got a seat next to Charlene. He was then pressed against the chair by a huge force as the craft rocketed forward.

"I'm taking us over the wastelands," Bryce said with some effort against the pressure. "I figure we land a ways out of Proserpine territory and hoof it in. Then we deliver the merchandise, get our credits, and lie low for a bit. Sound like a plan?"

"Aren't the wastelands full of flesh-eating mutants?" Lulu asked.

Bryce sighed. "Why does everyone have an irrational fear of flesh-eating mutants? We'll just..." An alarm went off. "Crap."

"What now?" Charlene demanded.

"Just a... um... hardware malfunction." The craft suddenly slowed. Then it sped up in a new, more earthbound direction. Bryce now hit buttons on the console like a madman. "Everyone... um... how does that go... um... 'Brace for impact.'"

NEXT

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Help Save Science Fiction at Jim Baen's Universe!
(NOTE: Frank J.'s hastily hacked together stories are in no way supported or condoned by Baen)

Rating: 2.6/5 (7 votes cast)

Comments (10)
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July 25, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 19 - Lab 8
Posted by Frank J. at 09:17 PM

BEGINNING OF STORY

PREVIOUS (PART 18)

* * * *

Charlene warned Doug that the released prisoners might mistake them for guards and kill them too, but Doug had solved the problem by walking up to them and saying, "Hi. I'm Doug, and I'm going to help get you all out of here." There wasn't any time for other introductions as they were soon engaged in firefights with more soldiers. Charlene gladly led the way through these as Doug and the prisoners who obtained guns provided cover fire. Doug was good at cover fire as it involved shooting in a general direction of people without necessarily hitting anyone - the type of shooting he excelled at.

Another soldier fell under a burst of gunfire. Charlene tossed her rifle and grabbed his before facing the group following her. "That's the last of them! Come on! The communications are down, so all the soldiers in the building only know the alarm is off but not why. We have to get out of here before they put things together."

The twelve freed prisoners, had expressions hovering somewhere between hopeful and confused. One older man finally spoke up. "Who are you people?"

Charlene looked annoyed. "Doesn't matter; come on."

She led them to the stairway and Doug turned to the group and said, "We were just passing through, so we thought we'd help."

"Thanks... Doug."

Doug smiled. "No problem!"

There were some gunshots, and then they all had to step over a body on the stairway. After they got up a few flights, Charlene announced, "Here's where we part. You can take this stairwell to the roof where you can obtain a vehicle to get out of here... just leave at least one for us or I'll find another way out of here and then hunt you all down." Charlene scowled to make her point.

The freed prisoners kept heading up the stairs, a few calling out "Thank you"... mainly directed at Doug since they all seemed a bit scared of Charlene.

Doug waived goodbye and then followed Charlene out of the stairway. "They were nice."

"They won't last long; they probably don't have anywhere to escape to as I don't think any nation would accept them."

"Oh, I'm sure they'll find some place."

Charlene just glared at Doug for a half-second. She had been a bit tense ever since Doug accidentally set off the alarm.

As they approached Lab 8, they spotted four people standing in the hallway: Bryce, Lulu, and two soldiers. Charlene fired her rifle and then it was just Bryce and Lulu standing there.

Bryce recovered quickly from the surprise. "We were just telling them about the training exercise and how we were waiting on two technicians."

"And then you shot them," Lulu added. "I could have done that."

Charlene shoved Bryce towards the lab door. "Let's just get this over with."

"Don't be so impatient." Bryce swiped a security card and entered a code. "We weren't the ones who set off the alarm."

"That was Doug's fault!"

"But you had all ready shot people first!" Doug said. He knew Charlene seemed upset, but he didn't think he deserved all the blame.

The lab door opened, and Lulu led the way. "The important thing is no one got seriously hurt... other than people we don't care about."

Bryce and Charlene got to work on opening some computer at the back of the lab while Lulu watched. Doug then noticed a number of drawers with labels composed of odd combinations of letters and numbers. "Oh yeah, Stan told me to look for some project here that would help me."

Charlene took a panel off the side. "Who is Stan?"

Bryce pulled out the hard drive. "Doug's imaginary friend; we don't have time for this."

"It would prove Stan is real if what he told was here is here." Doug scanned the labels on the drawers. "I think he said to look for project DX-7."

"GX-7." Doug turned to see a woman had entered the lab behind them. She was an attractive brunette wearing a white lab coat over a black evening gown. "And who was it who told you of that project?"

Charlene had her rifle on the woman in a blink. Lulu followed suit pulling out her handgun.

The woman laughed. "So you people are the cause of all the commotion. All I ask is to be able to work in my lab in peace, and, if someone disturbs that peace, I want them killed. Apparently I need better help." She looked them over. "So all this is to steal my backup drive." She turned to Doug. "And project GX-7?"

Doug spotted the drawer labeled "GX-7" and opened it. Inside was a vial that he pocketed. "Now that I found it, I guess I'm stealing it. Nothing personal."

Bryce placed the hard drive in a case. "I don't know who you are, lady, but..."

"I'm Vera, of the Vera Research Facility." Her smile faded. "This is my research building, and I really don't like having you here."

"Well, Vera," Lulu said, waving her gun at the woman, "we have the job we're hired to do, so why don't you just stand back and no one else will have to get hurt."

Vera didn't look at all concerned about the guns pointed her way; she actually seemed to be ignoring them. There was something off about her... something Doug couldn't quite place. And, when he did place it, it sent a shiver down his spine. He slowly reached for his knife.

Vera smiled again, this time more like a predator bearing its teeth. "Maybe 'no one else getting hurt' is not the outcome I want."

NEXT

Baens Universe Logo
Help Save Science Fiction at Jim Baen's Universe!
(NOTE: Frank J.'s hastily hacked together stories are in no way supported or condoned by Baen)

Rating: 3.2/5 (10 votes cast)

Comments (4)
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July 24, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 18 - Alarm
Posted by Frank J. at 02:36 PM

BEGINNING OF STORY

PREVIOUS (PART 17)

* * * *

When the alarm went off, Bryce lost his cool for a moment. He quickly regained himself, and, as Reiter and his guard Blair stared at Bryce looking ready to move against him, Bryce casually glanced to his watch and said, "The alarm was supposed to go off five minutes ago; I wonder if something is wrong?"

They were in an empty lab; Reiter seemed to be careful on what he showed Bryce until he had more confirmation on who he was. Bryce had seen enough, though, including the pin number that went with Reiter's access card. He only had to get it from him, but Blair was watching them like a hawk. So the best bet was to take out Blair first, but Bryce had two problems with that: One, he wasn't the kind of person who could just pull out a gun and shoot someone face to face. Two, he was scared of Blair.

Thus he figured that meant he should get Lulu to do it, who, for all he knew, could be freaking out behind him. Bryce couldn't risk breaking character to check, though.

Reiter looked ready to burst with frustration. "Why didn't you tell me you were setting off the alarm?"

Bryce sighed. "How many times do I have to say this is a surprise inspection?"

Blair had her hand resting on the rifle slung over her shoulder and kept a steady gaze on Bryce. "I should check with surveillance on what's happening."

Bryce shook his head. "You can't do that. Communications are down as part of the test." Or, at least, they should be if Doug and Charlene didn't completely screw up.

Reiter made a fist. "You took down our communications?!"

Blair began to grip her rifle. "How are we supposed to find out if he is who he says he is now?"

Bryce rolled his eyes. "Obviously, if we know enough about this place to bring down the communications, then we must be who we say we are. Can we keep this moving?"

It looked like Reiter couldn't decide whether to obey or shoot Bryce. "You do know Dumalt is coming?"

Dumalt? "Of course."

"I wonder who he'll kill when he finds the place like this." Blair pointed her rifle at Bryce. "But I know who I will."

Bryce could hear Lulu scribbling behind him, confirming she was still there. He looked to Reiter while pointing at Blair. "This woman just pointed a gun at an Asmod official. I want her executed."

Blair kept her gun on Bryce while Reiter now drew his sidearm but kept it down at his side. Bryce could tell he very much wanted to shoot him, but there was that seed of doubt. Reiter must have still left open the possibility that Bryce really was just another pompous government official, and, by shooting him - as logical as that seemed - he would be signing his own death warrant.

Blair seemed to be waiting for word from Reiter, but, getting none, she glanced towards him. It seemed the perfect time to act - if Bryce were more of a man of action, that is.

All Bryce knew was that someone fired, and then he lost track of everything else. There was a stinging pain on his left arm, and he saw Reiter, bleeding from his right hand, and reaching for his gun on the ground with his left. Bryce ran forward and kicked him, meeting foot to chin. By the time Bryce remembered his own gun, he realized it was all over. Blair was dead, and behind him stood Lulu holding a smoking gun, the notepad laying at her feet.

Lulu lowered her weapon. "I never killed anyone like that before."

"Better than getting killed like that." Bryce looked over the unconscious Reiter for his keycard.

Lulu smiled. "I'm like a real killer now, aren't I? Is there some special ceremony you're supposed to do with your first kill? Like, should I drink her blood?"

Bryce gave her an odd glance as he stood up with the keycard. "We don't have time to stop for a drink. Now, put your gun away, pick up your notepad, and let's just walk out of here."

Lulu put the gun back under her suit jacket. "I'm in charge, and if I decide to shoot more people, I will." She picked up her notepad. "What do you think happened with Charlene and Doug?"

"Dunno." Bryce activated his radio as he headed towards the hallway. "Doug, Sidewinder, what happened?"

In his earpiece came the answer, "This is Doug. Uh... Hey, Bryce, what's your call sign again?"

"Midas."

"Well, Midas, we... Wait, why don't I get a call sign?"

"Because you're Doug. Now what happened?"

"We got the software installed like we were supposed to, but then I thought maybe we should free the people prisoner here because..."

"No! Bad Doug! No thinking! I'm docking part of Charlene's pay for not keeping good watch of you!"

"Sidewinder," Doug corrected.

"Whatever. What are you all doing?"

"We're headed up with our new friends... and Sidewinder is shooting at people right now."

"The only way out are the vehicles on the roof; send your friends there if you want. You two meet us at Lab 8 where we are headed now. Midas out."

When Bryce and Lulu exited into the hallway, they found themselves face to face with five soldiers. "Quick!" Bryce pointed vigorously into the lab they just exited. "Reiter has been shot!" The soldiers rushed into the room, and Bryce smashed through the glass to hit the emergency lockdown button, locking the soldiers inside.

Lulu tapped her notepad with her pen as they sped up the pace. "So, did Charlene start 'Plan S'?"

"Kinda."

"Things aren't going to plan, are they?"

"We're going by backup plans, which technically means we're still in plan, I'd say."

They encountered three more soldiers at the stairway. "Quick!" Bryce pointed down the hallway in panic. "A number of soldiers got locked in Lab 4!" The soldiers rushed to help.

As they headed up the stairs, Bryce noticed the sting in his left arm again. He looked to see a cut where a bullet must have grazed him. A bit of blood oozed down his sleeve. "Man, I liked this suit. Let's not get shot anymore; that is definitely not planned. We better hurry; hopefully, if Doug and Charlene took down the network correctly, no one outside will notice this building is in lockdown. That will probably change whenever this Dumalt character gets here."

"Who do you think he is?"

Bryce shrugged. "Why don't we get this job done and get out of here as fast as we can and leave that a mystery for the ages."

Lulu skipped ahead of Bryce. "Fine with me; this alarm is annoying."

NEXT

Baens Universe Logo
Help Save Science Fiction at Jim Baen's Universe!
(NOTE: Frank J.'s hastily hacked together stories are in no way supported or condoned by Baen)

Rating: 2.3/5 (11 votes cast)

Comments (5)
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July 19, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 17 - Blind
Posted by Frank J. at 12:35 PM

BEGINNING OF STORY

PREVIOUS (PART 16)

* * * *

"Did someone just get shot?"

Charlene was worried for a moment, but then she could hear the voice of Bryce continuing to prattle on. She'd figure he'd have been shot before Lulu. "Maybe," Charlene answered Doug in an unconcerned tone as possible and then gave him a warning glance to remind him that he wasn't supposed to do any talking.

Doug certainly didn't seem like a very bright fellow. He was nice enough, though, and completely harmless as far as Charlene could tell... which meant he was a horrible person to bring into a situation where combat was likely. Still, he had come to her aid when she captured the battlemech the other day, and Charlene figured he may be of some use she had yet to fathom.

They took an elevator to the building's basement, and Charlene spent the time contemplating how in the world she had ended up here. Yes, she was doing what looked to be an important mission for the Proserpine government (or at least she hoped it was for them), but it just made her feel so dirty to being doing mercenary work. What made it all the worse was that it was architected by a sleaze who rightfully should have been executed by the state years ago.

They exited the elevator into yet another sterile looking hallway.

Charlene knew there was no one to blame for this more than herself. It probably all was set in motion when she made friend with Lulu, she thought. She had been fine in the military before without any friends, spending her free time training to better herself. It was nice enough having someone to go shopping and chat with, but it was obvious to her now that it had all weakened her on the more important matters. How else could she explain that she was now infiltrating an enemy base as a mercenary?

Still, she had a job to do, and she would give it her full commitment.

Ahead of them were a number of scared looking men and women being ushered into a prison area. Charlene ignored it, but she noticed Doug watching them with concern. And, once again, he forgot to shut up. "Who are they?"

"They're here in case we need human test subjects," Carlson, their armed chaperone, answered.

Doug looked horrified. "Why them? What did they do?"

"Who cares?" Charlene quickly answered and hit Doug in the shoulder as a reminder to be quiet.

It worked, but not for long. After staring into the prison area for a short while, Doug whispered into Charlene's ear, "Someone should help them."

"If helping these people were of any interest, then Empress Proserpine would do so. Plus, far as we know, they deserve their fate." They didn't look like hardcore criminals, but looks were often deceiving.

"I bet not; this seems like an evil place. I don't think anybody is going to help them unless we do... so I think that means we should try."

Charlene tried to give Doug as fierce a glare as she could manage. "No. Now shut up."

Carlson walked up next to them. "What are you two chatting about?"

Charlene turned her fierce glare to him. "None of your business. Just take us to the surveillance room."

Their chaperone was certainly a threat if trouble broke out. It was obvious from how he carried himself and how his eyes assessed Charlene and Doug that he knew combat. He was also physically large, which was a further threat. If things happened quickly, Charlene guns were too concealed for her to be able to access them before Carlson could get off a shot. That meant she'd have to disable him hand to hand. Charlene was under no illusion that her small frame wasn't a large disadvantage in that situation, but she had practiced long and hard about using her strength to the fullest against a larger opponent's weak points.

The surveillance room consisted of a number of computers, numerous monitors, and two female technicians chatting (Pitt and Landers as said their nametags; each had a holstered handgun, but they didn't appear to be big threats). There wasn't much need of them to actually watch the monitors as computers did most of the scanning for anything unusual. When the technicians looked toward Doug and Charlene, they didn't hide their dislike. "So what is this about?" Landers said. "I see you already left a body count."

"It's a surprise security inspection," Charlene said. "Hopefully you two are doing your jobs properly and we won't have to increase that body count."

Pitt laughed. "Unlikely. Dumalt is coming by today. He never has come by without killing someone. I hope he just kills one of the prisoners this time; we can sometimes hear them from here and that gets annoying."

Landers turned pale. "Last time Dumalt was here, he ripped someone's head off."

Charlene could tell from the woman's expression that she didn't mean that figuratively. Charlene didn't know the mechanics involved in ripping someone's head off, but she did know this Dumalt character was likely someone important... and thus someone who wouldn't fall for Bryce's shtick. Time was now of the essence. "We need to run some diagnostic software."

Pitt frowned. "Nothing gets run on these machines without being vetted by us first... and that's only after we see the proper paperwork."

"But, in this case we... um..." Bryce made the BS look so easy, but it certainly wasn't Charlene's strong point. She could see that her hesitation already increased suspicion. Thus, she fell back on what she knew.

With a quick step back, she wrapped her arm around Carlson's neck, bent him over backwards, and heard a satisfying snap. At the same time, she dropped her toolbox leaving a silenced pistol in her hand which she shot the two technicians with.

Doug looked confused... which seemed to be his natural expression. "That was violent."

Charlene pulled out a disk. "I don't like chit-chat. Anyway, there is no surveillance of the surveillance room, so we're fine for now." She noticed Doug had out the stupid knife in sheath he bought and held it tight.

"Who do you think Dumalt is?" he asked.

Charlene pushed a body out of the way and put the disk in the main terminal. "I don't know, but I think we should get out of here before he arrives." She looked to Doug, and something seemed to be on his mind.

"Do you think the Emperors are something other than regular people?"

Charlene ran the program. "I know that Empress Proserpine is, since she is divine."

"Why do you think she's better than the others?"

Her father fought and died for her rule, and she always assumed he had his reasons. Charlene checked a monitor to see the program's progress. "Doug, is this discussion necessary?"

"Well... maybe. What do you know of The Great War?"

"Lots of places got nuked. Now, shut up." Charlene came from a long line of military heroes, and her grandfather had fought in The Great War. He never said much about it - no one ever said much about the war or what came before it - but he did say one thing before he died.

The wrong side won.

He was old and crazy, though.

The surveillance room gave them good access to the security system, but not complete access. If the information they were given was correct, the cameras were all being disabled and their previous recordings wiped as the program run. She wouldn't be able to disable an alarm, but she could change how the security system reacted to it including any notification being sent out and sealing off the front of the building while leaving them an alternate escape route.

Charlene looked away from the monitor to Doug who was actually being quiet... which worried her. He was carefully inspecting a console and then hit some buttons. "What did you just do?"

"I think... I think that released the prisoners."

"What!"

"Hey! You killed three people; I think I should be able to hit some buttons."

Charlene spotted surveillance of the prison and saw guards getting attacked by the dozen prisoners. One guard hit a button on the wall before getting knocked down.

An alarm now blared throughout the building.

"Idiot!" If Doug got her killed, it was going to greatly reduce her already mediocre opinion of him. She took the assault rifle off the body of Carlson. "Get your gun out, Doug; time to shoot people."

NEXT

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July 17, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 16 - Surprise
Posted by Frank J. at 05:15 PM

BEGINNING OF STORY

PREVIOUS (PART 15)

* * * *

Bryce didn't think this had much chance of succeeding, but he wasn't going to profane what he was trying to do by putting some sort of Vegas Odds on it. Anyway, he convinced two others (Doug didn't count) to go along with this non-plan to infiltrate an enemy base, so it must not have looked as hopeless as Bryce thought.

It wasn't that Bryce had a death wish - he very much preferred living to the alternative - it was that society already had so many risks of deaths - were it being executed by the state for some perceived crime or getting killed on some pointless military mission - that he didn't mind taking up a little more risk if it at least meant dying on his own terms for a cause he believed… that of course being 50,000 credits tax free. Thus, it wasn't confidence that propelled Bryce in this situation, but instead it was the fact that he long ago gave up caring much about his inevitable death and thought he might as well enjoy all he could out of life before someone finally succeeded in putting a bullet in his head.

"What the hell kind of operation are you running here?" The person Bryce yelled at he assumed to be in charge since he was wearing a dress uniform and was the eldest and least befuddled of the group who met them at the Vera Research Facility lobby. Also, he was followed by two armed guards. He was also a large man who looked like he could flatten Bryce with a single swipe. The challenge was keeping him more afraid of Bryce than Bryce was of him.

"And who are you?" The man - who was named Reiter if Bryce's assumptions were correct - looked to be forcibly holding back anger. That meant he felt there was at least some possibility Bryce was actually a government official.

Bryce got in his face. "You wouldn't be asking that if you followed appropriate security procedures! I got in here with hardly any security checks!" Bryce pulled a pen from his pocket. "For all you know, I could be a deranged individual and this could be a bomb about to kill us all!" It was actually more of a flash grenade; Bryce forgot where he put his regular pen.

Reiter still looked a bit suspicious. "I never got a call..."

"Because it's a surprise inspection; why are you people having trouble with that term. You need to call them to verify me. My name is Lancaster, and I'm with the Special Security Review... though they may be a little delay verify me since the security office had another name change that hasn't propagated everywhere yet."

Reiter sighed. "Again!" Bryce's scam was based on the assumption that Emperor Asmod’s people dealt with roughly the bureaucracy has he did under Empress Proserpine. So far, that seemed to be working. And, to best imitate a bureaucrat with some power, Bryce only had to act extremely pompous and arrogant... which was easy enough.

Bryce carefully straightened his tie. "I want you to personally take me and my associate Chang on a tour of all the secure areas of this facility. Please don't inform everyone in the building we are here, as this is, once again, a surprise inspection. My two technicians - whose names escape me - need to check out the computers running your alarms and surveillance."

Reiter nodded to one of his guards. "Carlson, you handle them." Carlson led Doug and Charlene down a hallway. That left Reiter with only one guard - an attractive but intimidating looking woman. Bryce suspected much of the security here were pros and not like the grunts who got them through the front. He also knew there was a decent chance he and Lulu would have to overpower Reiter and his guard at some point, though Bryce hoped to keep things at the intellectual instead of the physical. "Lancaster, I will have to call and..."

Bryce could hear Lulu scribbling in her notepad. He had instructed her to do that every so often to keep everyone on their toes. It worked, as everyone around immediately took notice. Now Bryce had to pick out something to be what she was writing about.

"Those speakers! They're white!" Bryce looked at Reiter like he had missed that painting of the Emperor was hung upside down. "They need to be warning color such as red... or maybe yellow under certain situations."

"I never knew of any regulation--"

Bryce put his finger in Reiter's face. "Did you check the regulations today? Did you see the update?"

Reiter looked ready to get angry again, but he took a deep breath. "No, not today."

Lulu wrote some more while Bryce threw his hands in the air. "I guess it didn't matter to you, then!"

Reiter was flustered, but he regained himself. "So how did you get in this base without me hearing about it?"

"I meant to bring that up; two idiots Anders and Hill drove us in without checking on us at all. Really, what kind of operation is this?"

Reiter looked to the hapless Anders and Hill who still stood by holding bags of sandwiches. "He said this stuff about treason," Anders said, "and--"

"Blair."

Reiter's guard pulled out a pistol and shot both Anders and Hill in the head. Bryce It was a somewhat bold move to try and intimidate him, but it's not like he had never had anyone executed in front of him before. He just hoped Lulu was keeping her cool but couldn't risk turning to check on her. She had seem fit enough for this work and had done a good job so far, as at least on of her lu's seemed to stand for "lunatic". As for Bryce, he had seen this coming and had secretly put in some earplugs which he now conspicuously took out. "Finally! Some positive action! I was wondering if I'd have to do that myself… as it is not my job. Can we get on with this?"

Reiter gave Bryce one last good look over before turning. "Follow me."

Bryce had no idea how long it would take until enough phone calls were made that Reiter was certain that there were no Lancaster and Chang sent to inspect his facility. He was reasonably certain Doug would be okay then since he was with Charlene who seemed to be the type of person to be able to shoot her way out of most situations. As for what Bryce would do, he decided to surprise both them and himself when the time came.

Still, he hoped Lulu was at least a decent shot.

More importantly, Charlene and Doug had better have gotten their job done by then, or they were all dead anyway.

NEXT

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Rating: 2.8/5 (8 votes cast)

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July 14, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 15 - Transportation
Posted by Frank J. at 01:19 PM

BEGINNING OF STORY

PREVIOUS (PART 14)

* * * *

"This is happening too fast."

Lulu appeared confused. "That won't work as a motto."

"You’re the one who didn't want to spend too much time planning this, Charlene," Bryce said. "Now we'll have that hard drive and be back in Proserpine territory with plenty of time for you to get back to the stupid military if that's what you want."

Charlene checked her pistol and put it back in her toolbox. "Or we'll be dead."

Lulu wagged her finger at Charlene. "That's not the spirit. See, that's why I'm leader."

Doug was even more worried than Charlene, but he kept his mouth shut. Being smuggled in the back of a truck to Asmod territory was a bit scary. They couldn't see outside to know for certain they were actually going where the shifty people they paid said they'd be taken. All the four had was one light to see by and a number of crates to lean against while the ride seemed to hit every bump in the road. Taking it for granted that they were actually going to make it into Asmod territory and that they would be able to get into the military base and the research facility without getting shot, they didn't have a way back home since their driver was going to leave as soon as they were dropped off. Bryce said not to worry, but Doug thought someone should worry about it. At least he was able to make a thermos of coffee before they left.

"Anyone want coffee to help calm down?"

"Caffeine is a stimulant; it won't calm anyone down," Charlene said.

Doug poured himself a cup. "It calms me down." He took a sip and then scratched his side; the blue maintenance uniform he was wearing was itchy.

Charlene scratched as well. "Why couldn't I wear a suit for this?"

Lulu posed in her brand new business suit. "Because you don't have an air of authority like I do."

"Your skirt is too short and you still have those stupid pigtails."

"You can be cute and still have authority, Charlene!"

"Ladies, calm down." Bryce was putting in the earpiece for their radios. "We need to keep our cool for this to work. Doug, you keep alternating between looking really confused and really scared; that's not going to do it. I need your trademark blank stare for this."

"I'll try, but how are we even going to get into the military base?"

"That's my problem. Just focus on your job. And what's your job?"

"Carry my toolbox and follow Charlene."

"And, if even the slightest thing goes wrong," Charlene said, "take out a gun and start shooting."

Lulu frowned. "You're not going to be happy today unless you get to kill someone, are you?"

Charlene smiled. "Same as any other day."

* * * *

When the truck stopped, they were unceremoniously unloaded along with a couple crates in a back alley. Bryce then led them to the city street. It was a weird feeling being in another nation, but the place looked exactly the same as any city in Proserpine territory. There even some of the same restaurant chains.

"Here we go." Bryce pointed to a military vehicle parked by a deli down the street.

When they reached the vehicle, two soldiers - a man and a woman - were coming out of the deli with bags in hand.

"You're going to give us a ride to the Vera Research Facility." Bryce flipped open his wallet and flipped it close just as quick. "We're conducting a surprise security inspection."

The soldiers did look quite surprised. "I'll have to contact the base and clear this," the man said.

Bryce frowned. "Chang, get down their names."

Lulu walked forward while writing in a notepad. She looked to the male soldier's name tag. "Anders..." Then the woman's. " Hill..."

"Make sure to note that they would actually warn of a surprise inspection... completely undermining government oversight of security procedures." Bryce glared at the two soldiers. "I will see you executed for treason before this day is over!"

"Wait!" Anders shouted. "I just wanted to follow the rules and--"

"We're from the government and we make the rules! Now take us to research facility before you impede us any further."

Hill looked to Doug and Charlene. "Who are they?"

"Our technicians," Bryce answered. "What is it of your concern? Why are you trying to learn the details of this surprise inspection? What are your intentions?"

Lulu began writing in her notepad again. Hill looked terrified. "I won't ask anymore questions! I'm sorry!"

Anders opened the door to the rear of the truck. "Why don't we just get going? We'll do whatever we can to help."

"You'll do nothing!" Bryce shouted. He led his group into the rear of the truck while Anders and Hill got in the front carry their bags from the deli.

Anders got the truck on the road. "We were just picking up lunch for everyone; please don't charge us with treason or anything."

"I guess you were acting out of ignorance of security details, but that in itself is damning." Bryce looked to Lulu. "What do you think, Chang?"

"I don't know. What did they get for us to eat?"

"Well... we didn't know you were going to be here," Hill said.

Lulu started writing in her notepad while Bryce looked ready to explode in anger. "You know at any time there could be a surprise inspection!" Bryce shouted. "I could only assume that the reason you would not have lunch for us is out of sheer contempt for the Asmod government and its officials!"

Anders almost lost control of the vehicle. "You can have my sandwich!"

"What kind is it?"

"Ham."

Bryce carefully considered it. "Fine. That will do."

Lulu grabbed Hill by the shoulder. "I’m watching my figure so I want a salad."

"You can have mine!" Hill handed over a salad in a plastic container and Anders sandwich.

During the rest of the trip, Bryce and Lulu ate the soldiers’ lunch while Doug and Charlene just sat quietly. Doug was too nervous to eat, and he assumed Charlene was just too businesslike to eat while on a mission. They soon reached the military base and found themselves surrounded by armed soldiers on all sides. The research facility was at the heart of the base. So there they were, surrounded by an enemy army, with only Bryce's quick-talking protecting them.

Doug took some consolation in the fact that the two soldiers who drove them there currently looked more scared than he felt.

They walked towards the large research facility in front of them. "So you intimidated some grunts," Charlene said to Bryce and Lulu, "Do you really think you're going to be able to fool the officials running this heavily secured building?"

Bryce smiled. "You do your job, I'll do mine, and everything will turn out just fine."

Lulu scribbled in her notepad. "Now that could be our motto!"

NEXT

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(NOTE: Frank J.'s hastily hacked together stories are in no way supported or condoned by Baen)

Rating: 2.2/5 (9 votes cast)

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July 13, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 14 - Weapons
Posted by Frank J. at 02:03 PM

BEGINNING OF STORY

PREVIOUS (PART 13)

* * * *

"Service with a smile!"

Bryce stopped walking and looked to Lulu. "Huh?"

"As our motto!"

Charlene pushed Lulu forward. "Keep working on it."

Doug didn't like that idea either; we wasn't good at faking a smile. They entered the store labeled "Gus's Antiques" and found a small shop full of old furniture that hadn't aged well. After they were there only a couple seconds, the old, balding man upfront - a large, rough character who looked like a "Gus" - shouted, "Buy some antiques or get out!"

Bryce approached the shopkeep. "Actually, we're looking for some different types of... 'antiques'."

Gus furrowed his brow. "Huh?"

Bryce straightened his tie. "You know... some items you might not like to display out front."

"I don't know what the hell you're talking about, fancy-pants."

Charlene pushed Bryce aside. "We want to see your black-market goods."

Gus stared at her a moment. "What makes you think I would have such things?"

"Because this store here takes up only about ten percent of the building from the look of this place from the outside."

"Wiseacre." Gus led them to a door at the back. On the other side was a big warehouse full of more weapons than Doug had ever seen (the military never let him in the armory). Not only were there small arms, but missiles and the means to launch them as well.

Doug picked up two pistols and tried to make a fierce pose. "We can kick so much ass with this stuff!"

Bryce took the pistols away and set them back on the rack. "Learn to handle one competently."

Charlene first looked like a kid in a candy store, but she soon composed herself. "How in the world do you keep all this stuff here without getting arrested?"

Gus chuckled. "Why would I be arrested? All of this here is for entertainment purposes only. If anyone uses this stuff for murder or sedition, that's out of my control."

Lulu looked unimpressed by the selection. "Anything on sale?"

"I've slashed prices on all my intercontinental ballistic missiles." Gus pointed to a large, complex-looking missile launcher.

Bryce grimaced. "Too bad there's nothing on another continent we want destroyed."

"Not now," Lulu said, "but if it's on sale we should buy some in case we need to destroy stuff later."

Charlene set down a rifle she was inspecting. "ICBMs are useless, Lulu. All nations have defense systems that would shoot them down as soon as they were launched; that's why they're on sale."

Lulu walked up to Gus and pointed at his face threateningly. "You tried to sell me junk!"

"Caveat emptor. So what do you kids want?"

"I'll handle this." Charlene stepped forward. "Our 'entertainment' needs to be concealable. I'm thinking caseless-round pistols with three-round burst capability. We'll also want a variety of ammo: both armor piercing and rounds good on soft-tissue."

Gus smiled. "I think I can make the lady happy."

"Oh, and we'll be entertaining in Emperor Asmod's territory," Bryce added, "so, if you have documentation for Asmod officials and maybe some uniforms, that would be super-duper."

Gus pointed to the back of the store. "Uniforms are there. Documentation selection is by the printers. I can also set you up with transportation past the border if needed... and if you have the money."

"I think we can do business Mr. Gus." Lulu glared at Gus. "But don't try and sell us anymore junk or I'll rip out your spleen."

"Whatever, girly. Who are you people anyway?"

Lulu stood up straight. "Hellbender: Motto in the Works. Now do you know where a good women's clothing store is, because I need to pick out a new suit."

Gus rolled his eyes. "I'll draw you directions."

Lulu turned to Charlene. "Are you going to come?"

"Do I get to buy any clothing?"

"No. You need a maintenance jumpsuit for this mission, but I don't like shopping alone."

"Sorry, but I think it's best I stay here and pick out our weapons."

"I'll go with, Lulu." Bryce fixed his suit jacket. "I know fine clothing; I didn't steal this suit off of just any dead guy."

Lulu sighed. "Fine. I'll go with Bryce. You and Doug have fun picking out guns and we'll be back here soon."

Gus handed Lulu some directions and she and Bryce headed out. Doug liked the idea of being alone with Charlene, but she was staring at different guns with such intensity he figured he's be a pest to say anything to her. Looking around for something to do, he saw a wall of older looking weapons. It was a collection of both guns and blades from some long ago era.

Gus walked up next to him. "Anything you like?"

"You have any weapons that are... uh... sacred?"

Gus thought for a moment. "The old stuff comes 'as is'."

Doug looked at the different guns, knives, and swords, hoping something would jump out.

"Good thinking." Charlene had walked up behind Doug while he was focused on finding his weapon capable of banishing the Fallen. "The older stuff can be more reliable sometimes and good for back up."

Doug smiled at her, and turned back to the weapons rack. Then he saw it. It was a fierce looking knife with a dark blade. He carefully picked it up. "This is what I want."

Charlene looked at the knife quizzically. "I was talking about revolvers; if you want a fixed blade knife, you're better off getting something made from modern composite material."

"It is a special knife," Gus said. "It's called a Ka-Bar, and its origins are unknown. Said to have been used by great warriors of old."

Charlene laughed. "It's a relic and a waste of money."

Doug didn't want to go against Charlene, but he was pretty sure of this. "I'll buy it with my own money, then."

Charlene picked up a snub-nosed revolver and worked the action. "Whatever makes you feel safer, I guess."

Doug turned to Gus. "Ten credits, right?"

"That's the non-sacred version." Gus took the knife and put it in its leather sheath. "This one is twenty-five credits."

"I only have ten."

"Fine." Gus took Doug's credit chip and emptied it of its last remaining credits. Doug put the useless chip back in his pocket and marveled a bit at the knife he held. He put his hand around the handle, and it just felt sacred - whatever sacred meant.

Then he felt something shoved down the back of his pants. Doug froze, not sure of what to do, until Charlene told him, "Calm down; it's a revolver. That's what you should keep on you as backup."

Doug unsuccessfully tried to look at the gun in the back of his waistband.

Charlene patted him on the shoulder. "Trust me; I'm going to do my best to keep us alive. Take the knife with you if you want, but also take my weapon recommendations." She smiled at him, and he smiled back. She was quite pretty, and Doug felt it was only a matter of time until she dismissed him as too big an idiot to bother with. That wasn't his biggest concern, though. While he trusted that Charlene was going to do her best to give them a fighting chance, Doug had a feeling in his gut that what Stan had told him was true. That meant their survival came down to him and the knife he held.

"You okay, Doug?" Charlene asked. "You look terrified."

Doug put the knife in his jacket pocket. "I'll be fine; I'm a soldier, aren't I?"

Charlene shrugged her shoulders. "I guess."

NEXT

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Rating: 2.7/5 (10 votes cast)

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July 12, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 13 - Planning
Posted by Frank J. at 05:07 PM

BEGINNING OF STORY

PREVIOUS (PART 12)

* * * *

Doug awoke to a sharp slap to his face. "Wake up! What are you, drugged?"

Standing above him was the beautiful but perturbed Charlene. It took a moment for Doug to get his bearings and remember where he was. He made a motion to get up, fell off the sofa to the ground, and then successfully got to his feet. "So was I lying here all night?"

Charlene shrugged. "I don't know; I wasn't watching you all night. Do you sleepwalk or something?"

Doug considered how to explain his concern and settled on the easy out. "Never mind."

Somehow, the abandoned office building looked even drearier now that he could see it better in the sunlight. Amongst the broken desks sat Bryce and Lulu looking over plans for the upcoming mission. "Do we know what we're doing yet?" Doug asked.

Lulu frowned. "It's still being debated."

Bryce glared at Charlene. "One of us doesn't seem to be happy with any plan that doesn't involve killing everyone within a five mile radius of the research building."

Charlene took a seat at the table. "It's a matter of time. We can plan an implement a night time raid and be back in time for our regular military duty. It will require killing all the guards in the building, but why should that be a problem?" She turned to Lulu. "Anyway, if we're gone more than a couple days, we'll be listed as AWOL, Lulu, and then there will be no going back when you realize how idiotic this is."

Bryce laughed. "Like there is anything more idiotic than walking back into the meat grinder that is the Proserpine military when you have another option. That's why I trashed my place: the government will find it easier to declare me dead than expend any resources trying to figure out what happened."

Lulu looked unsure. "I would like to keep my options open. Maybe I can fake my death later."

Bryce leaned back in his chair. "Well, when you two girls want, just tell me what kind of deaths you girls want and I know some people who can fake it for you."

Doug took a chair between Bryce and Charlene. "Can I have a cool death?"

"You don't need one, Doug. Remember what it says on the front of your official file?"

Doug thought for a moment. "'Burden to Society.'"

Bryce nodded. "You disappear, people would actually get in trouble for wasting time asking questions about it." He turned to Lulu. "So, do you want a bloodbath, or do you want to do this smart?"

Lulu looked at Bryce and then Charlene. "Is there anyway we could do some sort of compromise on these ideas?"

Doug decided it was his time to contribute. "Instead of killing everyone, maybe we could just kill half the people there." A better idea then struck Doug. "Or we could half-kill all the people!"

The three others stared at Doug for a moment and then turned back to each other. "I think we can just walk in there during the day, take the hard drive, and walk out before anyone is the wiser," Bryce said. "We don't need to over plan it; we all know how bureaucracy works in all the nations these days, and there's plenty there to exploit. All we need is a little cunning and a little acting skill."

Lulu smiled. "I always wanted to be an actress. This could be fun!"

Charlene scowled. "And if it doesn't work out as planned?"

"Then we'll do your 'kill everybody' plan," Lulu said. "We'll call it 'Plan S' for Charlene."

"My name starts with a 'C'."

Lulu rolled her eyes. "But it makes an 's' sound, so I'm calling it 'Plan S' so it's less confusing. Now that we know how we're attacking this mission, I think what we really need is a motto for our mercenary group. Something catchy so people will remember Hellbender for all their hired guns needs."

Charlene scanned a digital layout of a floor of the research building which looked to have guard locations. "Lulu, we don't need to waste time coming up with a stupid motto."

"I say we need a motto and I'm the leader!" Lulu pounded the table with her fist.

"Fine. How about 'Death Before Dishonor'?"

Lulu thought about it. "I don't like having 'death' in it; too morbid."

"'Stays Crunchy in Milk'," Bryce suggested.

Lulu did not look the least bit amused. "Am I the only one taking the mercenary group seriously?"

"I'd try and come up with a motto," Doug said, "but I only know how to come up with slogans."

"Great. I guess I'll come up with a motto." Lulu wrote on notepad. "Who wants to design our logo?"

Charlene sighed. "I really think we should devote our time to planning and not getting killed, Lulu."

The two women began to bicker, and Doug decided it was a good time to try and talk privately to Bryce. He got up, tapped Bryce on the shoulder, and led Bryce away from the table. "I saw Stan again last night! He said we're going to run into the Fallen on this mission, and I need to find a sacred weapon to fight them with or we'll all die!"

Bryce quietly stared at Doug for a couple seconds before he finally said, "Everyone these days seems to have to go at least a little insane to cope with this world, but what I always liked about you is you just compensated by being dull-witted." Bryce put his hand on Doug's shoulder. "Please don't go insane, Dougie."

"But I can't help it!"

"What's going on over there?" Charlene called out.

Bryce headed back to the table. "Doug's completely insane. He was just telling me he thinks your both pretty and sweet, Charlene, which I find incomprehensible."

"I can be sweet, you little rat!" Charlene shouted at Bryce. She then looked to Doug who was blushing bright red. "It's nice of you to say that, but I can’t have relations with anyone I'm working with professionally."

"Does anyone think I'm pretty and sweet?" Lulu asked hopefully.

Bryce took her hand. "I do."

Lulu pulled her hand away. "Yeah... but I'm starting to think you're creepy. Maybe you should stick to hitting on hired goons."

Bryce wasn't able to hide he was a bit hurt by the slight. "Anyway, we're going to need some supplies to get past the Asmod border and into the base. Luckily, I know where a black market is and we have our five thousand credits to spend."

Lulu shot to her feet. "Shopping is part of this job! Being a mercenary is soooo much better than being in the military!"

"It's not like we're going to be buying handbags," Charlene said.

"Well, we'll see what's on sale." Lulu raced to the exit. "Come on!"

NEXT

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(NOTE: Frank J.'s hastily hacked together stories are in no way supported or condoned by Baen)

Rating: 2.9/5 (9 votes cast)

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July 11, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 12 - Pawns
Posted by Frank J. at 09:52 AM

BEGINNING OF STORY

PREVIOUS (PART 11)

* * * *

"Do I have to be hung upside down like this?"

Stan smiled. "Just trying to keep things familiar." He shoved Doug and sent him spinning.

Again, Doug could only see darkness around him. He had hoped that it was just a dream the previous night, but it all felt quite real now that it was occurring again. "You didn't do anything to my friends when you took me, did you?"

Stan grabbed Doug and steadied him. "That's what I like about you, Doug. Last time, I warned you to keep yourself safe, but you still charged out into danger in the defense of others. It's that spirit I'm counting on for you to succeed. To cut to the chase, you will encounter the Fallen in the mission you will be doing with your friends, and thus soon will come your time to show your worth."

"How do you know that? Can you see the future?"

Stan smirked. It seemed like there was some joke that Doug was unaware of. "I can, to some degree. I am God."

Stan had neatly trimmed facial hair, but he still didn't seem like a god to Doug. "So you created the world and everything?"

"No... that was the previous Supreme Ruler." He smiled again, and it kinda creeped out Doug. "I like to think I gave this world its character, though."

A woman laughed at that, and Doug could see the same woman as before standing behind Stan smoking a cigarette. Doug motioned towards her with his chin. "If you’re like the one true God, who is she?"

"The Queen Bitch Goddess." She blew out a long puff of smoke.

Stan moved so as to block the view of Ms. Bee. "Ignore her. You have an important mission, Doug, and I want to make sure you understand it."

"Well, understanding things is not one of my strong points... especially while upside down and dizzy. I think you have the wrong person for this."

Stan tapped Doug on the shoulder, sending him spinning around. "You have to have more faith in yourself, Doug. Anyway, if you can't succeed in defeating one of the fallen, you and your friends are going to die."

That sense of responsibility had a crushing weight on Doug. He really hoped this was all a dream, but he was not so certain. "But what do I do! How do I send these Fallen people back to their prison? Like, what did that Jesus guy do?"

"He died," Ms. Bee said with a slight chuckle.

Stan steadied Doug again. "Jesus was a special case; don't worry about him. You're going to have to find your own way to defeat the Fallen. The bodies the Fallen appear to have in this world are merely shells; the Fallen are linked to their prison still, and, if you can shatter the shell, back they go. The problem, of course, is those shells are not vulnerable to normal weapons, so I need you to obtain a sacred weapon."

"Sacred?"

"That just means 'really really special'. I can't tell you exactly where to get one, but you'll know it when you see it."

Doug never knew much... even when he saw it. This Stan guy seemed to have a lot more faith in him than seemed reasonable. "I just don't get this! What am I supposed to accomplish? Are you going to make me fight all the Fallen?"

"No, just a few to put fear back in them, then I'll do the rest. The Fallen think they now own this world and are invulnerable, and we will pierce that ignorance. Then, do you know humanity will gain?"

Doug thought about that. "No, but you'll stop hanging me from the ceiling, right?"

"They will gain freedom, Doug. Throughout its existence, humanity has been nothing but pawns in a battle beyond their comprehension. You've played Chess and know what a pawn is, right?"

"Yeah, those were those stupid pieces that couldn't attack in front of them."

Ms. Bee laughed. "I'm guessing you didn't win those games."

Doug tried to swing past Stan to face Ms. Bee. "I could have won if those stupid pawns could attack in front of them!"

Stan pulled Doug towards him. "We're getting off topic. When one says 'pawn', they refer to a piece of limited value that is often sacrificed for the benefit of a long term strategy. You humans have lived and died for our battles. First, you were pawns in the fight between us and the previous God, and now you are pawns in a battle between the Fallen for control of this world. We can't harm each other, so that's why we use you. With your help, these battles will end, and, for the first time in history, humanity will have its freedom. So, will you help, Doug?"

Doug still didn't see what he could do, but it did sound like he had to do something. "I'll try my best."

"And that is all I ask." Stan let Doug go. "We're about done here. Remember: you need to find a weapon appropriate for this battle. Also, as some extra help, when you break into the lab as part of your mission with your friends, look for a project labeled GX-7 and take that for yourself."

"GX-7," Doug repeated, once out loud and a number of times in his head. "Wait... how do I tell who the Fallen are again?"

Stan started to smile, but then stopped. "Believe me: you’ll know."

Doug was back to really hoping this was a dream.

"I know you're scared, Doug, but, remember: you must succeed or all of you will die."

Doug frowned. "That doesn't help me not be scared."

Stan shrugged. "Goodbye, Doug. Good luck."

As Doug's vision started to fade, he heard Ms. Bee say, "Remember to attack along the diagonals, nitwit."

NEXT

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July 05, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 11 - The Personal and the Professional
Posted by Frank J. at 02:04 PM

BEGINNING OF STORY

PREVIOUS (PART 10)

* * * *

Bryce quickly ducked into an alleyway for cover with Lulu and Charlene following; Charlene pulled along Doug, who had reacted to the shooting by standing still and looking around with confusion.

"That was a warning shot!" yelled a voice that Doug recognized as the goonette he had failed to hit with a pipe.

"They always say that when they miss," Charlene said.

Lulu frowned. "I didn't think we'd be getting shot at this early."

"It's goons," Doug said. "They're after Bryce. I hit one in the head with a pipe, but the other got away and came back, I guess."

"Goons?" Charlene sighed and moved to the edge of the alleyway exit. "Anyway, I spotted four of them in an old store front... one with a rifle. Give me a gun and I'll take care of them."

"No guns." Bryce pulled Charlene back and placed himself nearer the end of the alleyway. "This is a personal matter completely unrelated to our mission... well, mainly unrelated. Anyway, I'll handle this." He turned to face out of the alleyway without exposing himself. "Hey! Sharon! Let's try to resolve this peacefully before it ends in a way that we both regret!"

"Shannon," Doug corrected him.

Bryce thought for a moment. "Are you sure?"

More bullets struck the edge of the alleyway, spraying pieces of concrete everywhere. "You don't even remember my name?" Shannon shouted.

"Well... I'm bad with names... always have been, really. Still, I think we can be professional about this. I know that your boss wants me alive."

"Yes, but we don't!" answered a different female voice.

Bryce looked worried. "Charlene, did you happen to notice if all four were women?"

"Didn't get a good view, but they could have been. What's this all about?"

Bryce ignored the question. "This could be bad."

"You said you love me!" yelled a third female voice.

Bryce was sweating. "Well... uh... in my defense... um... I thought it was clear from the context that I only said that to get you to sleep with me."

Doug covered his ears in anticipation of more gunfire. After the bullets hit the wall and pavement outside the alley, Charlene turned to Lulu. "You see who we've gotten involved with?"

"That's why I'm in charge."

Doug tapped Bryce on the shoulder. "You know, you've occasionally gotten normal women to try and kill you, so maybe you should be more careful around women hired to kill people."

"At least I'm getting some action, Doug, so shut up."

"Enough." Charlene reached in Doug's jacket and pulled out his gun. She then leaned out of the alley and fired off a shot.

"That almost hit me in the head!" Shannon screamed.

Charlene looked at the pistol in her hand with distaste. "I need something more accurate for this range."

"That was a warning shot!" Bryce shouted to the jilted goons. "I'm currently with a bunch of heavily armed mercenaries, so maybe this isn't the best time to talk."

Lulu moved towards the alleyway exit. "This is Madam Liu, leader of the mercenary group..." She turned to the others and whispered, "We really need a name for our new mercenary group."

Doug knew the answer to that one. "Hellbender."

"Ooh! I like that!" Lulu faced the alleyway exit. "...the mercenary group Hellbender! Don't make us kill you... because we really will. If you have a problem with Bryce, why don't you get together and put your thoughts down in a letter and mail that to him. You'll feel a lot better afterwards."

Charlene rolled her eyes. "You really told them."

"This isn't over, Hellbender!" Shannon shouted back. "You've gained the wrath of Dante Ridge by protecting Bryce, and we'll see you all dead!"

"Okay. Toodles." Lulu leaned out of the alleyway to take a look. "I think they left. See. I saved us all; that's why I'm the leader."

Charlene glared at Bryce. "Dante Ridge! Isn't he the biggest crime lord out there?"

"Well, that varies by what measure you go by. I mean... physically, he isn't the biggest."

Charlene grabbed Bryce and placed her pistol barrel at his chin. "What have you gotten us into?"

"Nothing! To do the necessary research to get us this mission, I had to get some information from some existing criminal organizations. I might have stepped on a few toes and had personal relations with a few female goons, but that's my problem. I'll take care of it."

Lulu pulled the two apart. "Calm down, Charlene, or I'm taking away the gun. I think it's pretty cool that we already have an enemy when we've only been a mercenary group for a couple minutes. Go Hellbender!"

"This isn't a game, Lulu! And what in the world does 'Hellbender' mean?"

"It's a type of salamander," Doug explained. "I saw the name once in a book and thought it would make a great name for a rock band. Since I never joined a rock band, while we were getting shot at I thought it might also make a great name for a mercenary group."

Charlene stared at Doug until he became uncomfortable.

"A salamander is like lizard but wetter," he said sheepishly.

Charlene shook her head as she put away the pistol. "I know what a salamander is. I was supposed to be smarter than to ever get involved in something like this."

Bryce fixed his suit. "Cheer up. This will turn out great; I promise. Let's get some dinner, and then we can head to a building I've acquired that we can use as headquarters."

Lulu smiled. "Hellbender headquarters! Awesome!"

Dinner ended up being Chinese takeout, and Hellbender headquarters was a ramshackle building on the edge of town that looked to be one step away from being marked for demolition. At least this time Bryce used a key to get in the door. Inside, it appeared to be a long-abandoned office building with a thick coat of dust and cobwebs on all the furniture. Lulu was ecstatic and immediately began suggesting ideas for renovations. Charlene quickly cleaned off one table and looked through the data Bryce had gotten from the exploded robot that hired them. Once Doug had his fill of rice and noodles, he lost interest in the discussion of different tactical methods to infiltrate the Asmod research building, as it mainly went over his head. He figured they'd tell him what to do when they settled on something, so he left the three to plan while he went to get some sleep. He plopped down on an old sofa, coughed for a couple seconds from the dust that was upturned, and then closed his eyes.

Next thing Doug knew, he was hanging upside down and looking at a familiar face.

"Hello once again, Doug."

NEXT

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Rating: 1.5/5 (7 votes cast)

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June 29, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 10 - Fighting With a Purpose
Posted by Frank J. at 02:05 PM

BEGINNING OF STORY

PREVIOUS (PART 9)

* * * *

Lulu opened the door and marched into the room. The others followed with Bryce taking up the rear. The room, lit by a single light bulb, was empty except for a table upon which sat a cylindrical device. When they approached it, out popped what resembled an eye. "I assume you are here for the job?" asked a highly synthesized voice.

Lulu folded her arms and stood up straight. "That we are, little robot thing."

The eye seemed to scan the four of them. It creeped Doug out, as he always had a fear of robots. "I will require you to infiltrate a military research base in the land of Asmod and retrieve some data. The information on the facility is ready for your download."

"Bryce, handle that," Lulu sharply commanded.

Bryce took a handheld computer and connected a cable to the robot. After a couple of seconds, Bryce disconnected the cable and checked the screen. "The information is here. I also sent you our bank account information."

"The initial ten percent has been transferred," the robot replied. "Since we are done, I will self-destruct."

"Then I guess we'll be going." Lulu smiled and then quickly led everyone out of the room.

Charlene shut the door behind them and looked at Bryce. "Ten percent?"

Bryce put his computer away. "For starting costs. The rest--" An explosion in the other room interrupted Bryce. "The rest we get upon completion."

Charlene looked furious. "The rest of what?"

Bryce turned to Lulu. "You know how you said you wished you'd get mall certificates for all the battles you fight? Well, that's sort of the arrangement we have... but instead of mall gift certificates, it's untraceable cash deposits."

Lulu eyes widened. "Which can even be used for a day at the spa!"

The next thing out of Lulu's mouth was a yelp as Charlene yanked one of her pigtails. "He's making us mercenaries, you twit!"

"Mercenary" seemed to be a pretty cool title to Doug, but he couldn't help but be concerned about anything that was one of Bryce's ideas. "Is this legal, or are we going to get executed for this?"

Bryce thought for a moment. "Those are really two different questions, Doug. The illegal things that people get executed for are things like speaking out against the government - subversive things. Being a murderous thug, on the other hand, rarely catches the eye of the government, because it's of no threat to their hierarchy. Actually, all the governments, realizing that there will always be a certain criminal element to society, have put some regulations on it. So, to answer Doug's question, we will be criminals, but I've done enough research to make sure our criminal activities follow the letter of the law so we don't get in trouble."

Doug, as usual, was confused, but so apparently were Charlene and Lulu. Charlene stopped trying to parse Bryce's words to shout, "I'm not a mercenary! I fight for the honor of our divine Empress."

Bryce rolled his eyes. "Yes, like the battle today where they tried to kill you off to fill a quota. Guess who is hiring us, by the way? Empress Proserpine's own government... I think." Charlene continued to scowl at him. "Anyway, because of treaties, the government needs to unofficially hire mercenaries to get the real work done. If you want to fight important battles with a meaningful purpose - money - then this is what you need to be doing to best serve Empress what's-her-face."

"I think this is a neat idea," Lulu said, "especially if we won't get executed for it. I think you'll actually like this, Charlene, but if you want to be a part of my mercenary group, you have to be less bitchy."

Charlene calmed a bit, but she still eyed Bryce suspiciously. "So why did you really put her in charge?"

Bryce hesitated to reply for a moment. "If you look at statistics, the most underrepresented group among criminals are Asian females, so having her in charge will give us a big advantage in getting contracts in the future."

Charlene laughed. "So she's just filling quotas."

Lulu looked indignant. "I'm very good at filling quotas."

"A diverse makeup really is important in getting government contracts," Bryce explained, "and we have a good group here: half women and half minorities." He pointed to Doug. "I'm not really sure what Doug is, but it looks like he's something."

"I really like nachos, so I think I might be Hispanic." Doug started to notice the weight of the bags he was still carrying. "Are we going to go somewhere soon so I can set these down?"

"Sure, let's get something to eat now so we can discuss this." Bryce led them toward the exit.

"So, what will the Asmods do if they find out we're stealing something from them?" Lulu asked.

"They'll kill us, of course," Charlene said.

"But the whole reason I want out of the military is I don't want to be killed!"

Bryce opened the building's front door for the ladies. "Don't worry, tri-Lu; now we control the risks on these operations. We're not just going to charge in shooting; instead, we'll have a smart plan to get in and out with no one the wiser. Plus, we have that ten percent to help finance our plan. This will hardly be risky at all, I assure you."

This actually seemed like a great idea to Doug. He figured he'd probably still just be carrying things for this plan, but he'd be carrying things on behalf of a secret mission!

"So how much is this ten percent?" Charlene asked as they headed down the street.

"It's... well..."

Charlene scowled. "On second thought, I’d rather see the actual account than take your word for it."

"Suddenly she's concerned about the money." Bryce chuckled until a number of bullets struck the wall next to him, just missing his head. "Oh, hell."

NEXT

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Rating: 3.4/5 (10 votes cast)

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June 28, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 9 - Secret Mission
Posted by Frank J. at 03:57 PM

BEGINNING OF STORY

PREVIOUS (PART 8)

* * * *

Doug looked at the sign marking the corner of Geist and Minton and then at the surroundings. It was night, and the area had few streetlights. What the lights did reveal - abandoned broken buildings and some shady characters loitering about - was not too assuring. "So is this like the worst part of town?"

Bryce adjusted his tie. "Pretty much."

A bus stopped at the corner and out walked Lulu carrying a couple shopping bags, followed by Charlene who had her arms folded and a somber expression. "I bought some really cute things," Lulu announced to Bryce and Doug cheerfully. "Nothing helps me get over death and dismemberment better than some good shopping. Charlene was a drag, though. Kept saying nothing looked good and didn't even try anything on."

Bryce nodded. "She was probably upset by today's events, but, not wanting to consciously admit that, she's now acting in a passive-aggressive manner."

Charlene pointed a threatening finger at Bryce. "My aggression is never passive!" As the bus drove away, Charlene looked at her surroundings. "Where the hell are we?"

Lulu appeared scared by the locale. "I thought you guys were taking us to a restaurant, but I don't see any restaurants here... and even if there were one, I don't think I'd want to eat at it."

"The dinner comes a little later," Bryce said. "First, we have business to attend to."

Lulu kept looking about cautiously. "Is the business that plan where you said I get to be in charge?"

Charlene marched up into Bryce's face. "What plan?" She turned to Doug with burning eyes. "What did you get me into?"

Doug couldn't help but shiver slightly. "I really thought we were just going to dinner! Honest!"

"I guess it's time I tell the truth," Bryce said. Doug immediately paid attention, as that phrase always preceded Bryce's most elaborate and entertaining lies. "I've been tasked to assemble a team for an important secret mission. After seeing you two perform in battle, I've chosen you two ladies to be a part of this, Charlene Murphy and Lulu... um..."

"Liu."

Bryce grimaced. "Your name is Lululu?"

Lulu glared at him. "No. It's Lulu Liu. You better get that straight if I'm going to be in charge."

Charlene laughed. "I don't buy this for a second, and even if I did, you're really putting Lulu in charge?"

Bryce kept a very serious expression. "While you're quite skilled in combat, Ms. Murphy, Lulu has special leadership qualities."

"I don't just yell at everyone," Lulu told Charlene, "and my solution to everything isn't to execute someone by gunshot to the head as an example to others. That's not how you make friends."

"Leadership in war is not about making friends." Charlene looked at the ominous buildings around her. "So why would we meet here?"

Bryce shrugged. "Why not here?"

A man in filthy clothes walked up to the four. He smiled with rotten teeth and then produced a knife. "Why don't you hand over everything of value you have before I gut you all!"

Bryce pulled out his gun at pointed it at the thug. "Rock beats scissors. Now scram!"

The thug ran off. Charlene stared at Bryce and his gun. "Where did you get that? We’re not supposed to have weaponry when in civilian capacity!"

"I hit a goon with a pipe and we got some guns," Doug said proudly.

"Did you kill him?" Lulu asked.

Doug hadn't even considered that possibility and thus became quite worried. "I dunno!"

Charlene let out something between a yell and a growl. "What did I get myself into? Who even are you two?"

Bryce put away his gun and smiled. "I'm Bryce Worthington, an entrepreneur of sorts. My associate here is... well... Doug."

"Doug Na," Charlene said. "I checked his military file." She looked at Doug. "What kind of name is that?"

"My last name isn't really Na. I don't have a last name, so that's what they told me to put in the space for a last name on the form."

Charlene thought for a moment. "Oh, 'N/A'."

"Yeah, that's how they told me it was spelled."

Charlene turned to Lulu. "So we're dealing with some sort of arrogant swindler and a moron who supposedly have some 'secret mission' for us."

Lulu giggled. "And I'm in charge. Isn't that cool?"

"About that." Bryce looked Lulu over. "The mini-skirt and bunny t-shirt might not convey the sense of leadership we need."

Lulu frowned. "But they're cute."

"That they are, but cute isn't what we're going for."

Lulu set down her shopping bags and stood on her tiptoes to be face to face with Bryce. "Well, maybe I'm such a strong leader that I even command authority while looking cute."

"Okay... but can we do something about the pigtails?"

Lulu shook her fist in Bryce's face and snarled, "Why don't you worry about yourself instead of my hairstyle." She put her hand down and giggled. "See, I can even be threatening if I need to."

Doug didn't think she was successfully threatening, but she was better at it than Shannon.

Charlene, on the other hand, looked quite threatening without even trying, and Doug thought she’d make an excellent goon. "This is beyond moronic. Lulu, let's get out of here." Charlene turned to leave.

Bryce ran in front of Charlene. "At least stay for the mission briefing. That will remove all doubts."

Lulu looked excited. "A secret mission briefing could be fun... plus Bryce still owes me dinner."

Charlene rolled her eyes. "Fine. Maybe I can beat up the next mugger as training so this whole night isn't a waste."

"Follow me, then. Doug, carry Lulu’s things." Bryce led them down the street as Doug carried now both Bryce’s and Lulu’s bags.

Charlene turned to Doug. "How do you not have a last name?"

"I never knew my parents, and the orphanage never gave me a last name."

"Barely gave him a first," Bryce added.

"And how did you get involved with this con artist?" Charlene pointed at Bryce, who ignored her.

"We grew up in the orphanage together. We've been best friends since forever."

"Associates," Bryce corrected. He led them into what appeared to be just one of many abandoned buildings. Doug began to wonder how much of this "mission" Bryce really knew about and how much he was about to discover along with them. Doug got a partial answer when Bryce came to a door and stopped, his hand hovering over the doorknob with some hesitance.

Bryce looked at Lulu. "Well, you're the leader, so... lead away."

NEXT

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Rating: 2.8/5 (10 votes cast)

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June 27, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 8 - Goons
Posted by Frank J. at 02:51 PM

BEGINNING OF STORY

PREVIOUS (PART 7)

* * * *

Doug stumbled out of the apartment and down the front steps. When he regained his balance, he found himself face to face with a stern looking young woman in a black suit. She grabbed him by his coat collar. "And where are you going?"

"I'm just... uh..."

Standing a number of inches shorter, she pulled Doug down to eye-level. "Did you happen to see a man in there who looks to spend a little too much time working on his hair? Goes by the name of Bryce?"

Doug had long ago been told by Bryce to never tell any woman - especially an angry-looking woman - where he is. "No, I never saw such a person."

She stared at Doug for a moment. He just wasn't a great liar. "Speaking of hair, you might want to invest in a comb yourself."

Doug ran his hand through his matted black hair. "It's been a busy day."

She shoved Doug away, but she ended up being knocked back from the effort more than him. "Now tell me where Bryce is before I have to hurt you."

The women looking for Bryce usually only threatened Bryce with violence. "I know Bryce can kinda be a jerk, so it's probably better you just forget about him."

She pulled out a knife and pointed it at Doug's face. "I'll forget him when he's dead. Now tell me where he is before I take one of your eyes."

"Aren't you taking this way too seriously?"

She sneered. "I don't think you understand the kind of people Bryce has pissed off; you'll be lucky if you don't wind up dead just for knowing him."

Kind of people? Doug was confused for a moment, but then something clicked. "Wait; are you a goon?"

She looked a bit uncomfortable by the question. "My title is 'Enforcer'."

"Which is like a goon, right? I mean, you're hired by some guy to rough people up?"

"And that job is called an 'Enforcer'."

Doug looked the young woman over. She was kinda cute and not at all imposing... even with the knife pointed at him. "You really don't look like a goon."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Well... you're not intimidating at all. Goons should be able to intimidate people."

She now pressed the blade of her knife against Doug's face. "I think you'll be scared once I start cutting you!"

"I wouldn't like it, but I still don't think that would make you seem like a goon. I mean, a little kid could come at me waving a knife, and I might be scared of getting cut, but the kid still wouldn't be intimidating." Doug thought for a moment. "It's kinda hard to describe, but when I think of a goon I think of someone who should be able to scare me even without a weapon."

"Are you saying women can't be goo... enforcers?"

"No, I'm just... uh... saying that, even for a woman, you're not very goonish."

A large man also in a black suit came out of an alley from behind the apartment building. "I don't see any other exits," he told the goonette. He had a scarred face and was a number of pounds bigger than Doug, and all of it looked to be muscle.

"Now he's what I think of when I hear the word 'goon'," Doug said. "He's intimidating."

The man walked right up to Doug, and the goonette backed off a bit. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"I was just telling the lady goon there that she doesn't seem goonish. I didn't mean it personal or anything."

The goon grabbed Doug by his collar and lifted him up slightly. It was pretty scary and much less awkward than when the goonette did it. "That's sexist! Shannon is a very a good goon."

"Enforcer!" Shannon corrected.

"She's roughed up a lot bigger punks than you," the goon said.

"Maybe she has, but that's not what I was talking about. Now, I've never hired goons, but I have been roughed up by them before. And, to me, a goon should be scary even before the roughing up, just like you're doing now. She just isn't intimidating, that's all." As Doug got into the argument, he began to gesticulate a bit. This caused the pipe in his sleeve to slip into his hand and reminded him why he was out here in the first place. "Oh yeah." He smacked the goon in the head, sending him straight to the ground. He then turned to Shannon and held up the pipe, ready to strike again, but just couldn't hit her, as she really didn't look that intimidating.

As Doug stood still with the pipe posed over his head, Shannon pointed her knife at him, her hand visibly shaking. Her left hand slowly reached under her jacket. "I have a gun!"

"Well... if you pull out that gun, I'll bash you good! I really will!"

"This is one pathetic stalemate." Doug glanced to his side see that Bryce was bent over the downed goon. Bryce pulled a gun out of the goon’s jacket and then stood up and pointed it at Shannon. "You mentioned something about having a gun; why don't you slowly give that to me."

She dropped her knife and handed over a pistol. "You're not going to get away with this, Bryce," she told him in an attempt at a threatening voice that Doug thought really fell short. "You're a dead man."

"Why does everyone take everything so personally?" Bryce looked to Doug. "Now give her a good whack."

"But she's unarmed."

"Which should make it easy."

Doug looked at Shannon, who stared back in fear. He closed his eyes and prepared to swing, but Shannon bolted. Bryce aimed one of his guns at her but eventually just threw his hands in the air. "Call me sentimental, Doug, but I just can't shoot an unarmed woman I recently slept with in the back. Anyway, good going there, nitwit. When goons get away, they tend to multiply."

"She just didn't look like a goon."

Bryce handed one of the guns to Doug. "Get with the times, Doug. Even criminal organizations are getting pressured to meet quotas, and that means there is a high demand for female goons."

"I didn't know that." Doug looked over the pistol. "Aren't these illegal to have when we're not in uniform?"

"That's why you hide it under your coat like so." Bryce put away his gun, and Doug put his in a pocket on the inside of his jacket. "Now grab my stuff..." Bryce pointed to his briefcase and suitcase near the apartment's doorway. "...and let's go meet our dates."

Doug grabbed the bags. "Why are goons after you anyway?"

"Doug, I don't inquire about your personal life, so leave mine alone."

"I just watch TV and play videogames when you're not around."

"And that's your business."

Doug followed Bryce. "And you never did tell me why you trashed your apartment."

"If I explained everything to you, I wouldn't have time to do anything else. Come on, Doug; destiny awaits."

NEXT

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June 26, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 7 - The Break-In
Posted by Frank J. at 04:38 PM

BEGINNING OF STORY

PREVIOUS (PART 6)

* * * *

"How do you tell if someone is following you and not just heading in the same direction?" Doug entered the apartment building with Bryce. It wasn't in the nicest part of town, but it wasn't in the worst part of town either. He had no idea how Bryce was able to obtain it while it currently belonged to the Proserpine military, but Doug did know that asking him about it would never bring about any answers. Anyway, other things worried him more. "I really don't think you should be tricking those two women into whatever your scheme is this time."

"Just trust me, Doug."

"Why?"

This gave Bryce pause. After a moment, he answered, "Because I saved your life today. You at least owe me a little trust for that."

Bryce had never played the "I saved your life" card before. Then again, all the other times Doug was rescued by Bryce, it was Bryce's fault he needed saving in the first place. "You promise you won't get them killed or something?"

Bryce took a second to answer that. "This is an important plan, Doug. It will mean no more pointless fights and pointless deaths for some whack-job who thinks he or she is a god. The more people I involve with this, the better."

This did make it sound more important than Bryce's usual scheme to earn a few dishonest credits. It certainly seemed he was building to something, as he had been gone more than a week before today's battle - the longest Doug had ever known Bryce to be out on his own. Doug was a little hurt to be that much out of the loop, but he always got the feeling that when Bryce didn't involve him with something, it was best he didn't know about it. Now Doug was actually curious what this was about, especially if it was going to free them from the Empress Proserpine's government as well as those of the other emperors. This was beginning to sound like it might be as important a task as he had dreamed about last night. "So are we going to finally fight the system?"

Bryce struck Doug in the back of his head. "No! Of course not, you idiot. Don't even joke about that. The system is big and was put in place by many powerful people who will kill all who would dare threaten it. You should never even contemplate taking on the system. You only game or play the system - never fight it." He headed up the stairwell. "Enough talk; let's get moving."

Bryce's apartment was on the fifth floor. They stopped in front of it as Bryce inspected the door - especially near the handle. Bryce pointed to one spot near the frame. "A sharp kick here should break the door in."

Doug stared a while at that spot until he noticed Bryce was staring at him. "What?"

"Are you going to kick it or knock it down with the power of your pea-sized brain?"

Doug furrowed his brow. "Don't you have a key?"

Bryce sighed. "I asked you to trust me, but you're still inundating me with dumb questions. Of course I have a key. Now kick the door in."

With one sharp kick, the door broke open. Bryce's apartment wasn't very large, but he had furnished it with a certain sense of style that made Bryce appear more opulent than he was. Or at least it did until Bryce started knocking over tables, smashing decorations, and ripping his paintings.

"Why are you breaking everything?"

Bryce broke a glass coffee table with a chair. "Again with the questions! Are you writing an exposé on me or something?"

"Sorry." Doug looked around. "Can I smash something at least?"

Bryce moved to the kitchen and started knocking plates and glasses out of his cabinets. "No; you might break something I need." Bryce stopped to look out his window. "Oh, and to answer an earlier question, the way you can tell someone is following you is that he will be trying to look like he's not following you."

"But everyone looks like they're not following me."

Bryce grabbed a briefcase near his bed and started filling it with some items from his filing cabinet. "Yes, but there's a difference between how someone looks when they're actually not following you and when they're trying to look like they're not following you.” He knocked over the filing cabinet. “Anyway, there is a pipe under the sink. Go get it."

Doug looked under the sink. "The only pipe I see is connected to the sink."

Bryce took a suitcase out of his closet and knocked over all his hanging clothes. "That's the one; pull it out."

With a little effort, Doug pulled out the pipe causing himself to be sprayed with water. "The water is still on!"

"That it is." Bryce walked to his door carrying his briefcase in one hand and the suitcase in another. "Let's get going to the meeting point. You lead the way."

Doug walked out into the hallway and tried to hand Bryce his pipe.

"No, you keep that; I'll carry the rest."

That was another first for Bryce: him carrying the heavy stuff. Doug didn't look a gift horse in the mouth and led the way back down the stairs. Before they got to the exit, Bryce said, "Hold on a sec." He put down his briefcase and suitcase. "Put the pipe up your sleeve."

Doug stuck the pipe up his right sleeve and curled his hand inwards to hold it in. "What am I doing?"

"Just a simple little errand. What I want you to do is walk out of the apartment, bash any goons you see in the head with that pipe, and then call me when the coast is clear."

"Wha?" was all Doug was able to utter before Bryce had shoved him out the door.

NEXT

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Rating: 2.4/5 (8 votes cast)

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June 22, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 6 - Courtship
Posted by Frank J. at 02:17 PM

BEGINNING OF STORY

PREVIOUS (PART 5)

* * * *

"So what are you guys planning on spending your gift certificates on?" Bryce had changed out of his uniform into what looked like a brand new suit. The four were standing outside of the military base, and none had said much since the debrief with the General.

"They tried to kill us!" Lulu screamed. She was now wearing a short skirt and a t-shirt with bunnies on it. With her pigtails, she looked more like she just got out of class than came from a battlefield. "I can't believe they tried to kill us! I'm just glad he gave us gift certificates because, after all of that slaughter, I really need to shop." She turned to Charlene. "Can they really do that? Can they just send us out to die? I'm so mad, I'm really thinking of writing someone an angry letter... maybe with swears in it."

Charlene was still expressionless. When she had changed, she'd let her long brown hair out of her pony tail and put on a leather jacket. For a petite, five-foot woman, Doug thought she had a pretty intimidating presence. After a couple seconds, she looked up at Lulu. "We are in no position to question the leadership. If General Daniels has done anything improper in assigning us to that mission, it will be dealt with. It is not our responsibility to make that assessment, though, and the command structure will collapse if we try and take on that responsibility."

Bryce laughed. "Wow. You're a real piece of work there, Charlene. We're not being listened to by the government, so spare us the loyal drone spiel."

Her expression turned fierce. "Before the battle, I remarked that the squad was full of incompetents who deserved death, and I stand by that. I speak only what I believe and nothing else, and I am loyal to our divine Empress."

"It takes a twisted mind to pretend that battle was anything other than a pointless slaughter. Plus, I hate to break it to you, but I recently heard a rumor that Proserpine is an alien." Bryce smiled and looked at Doug. "I think this one might actually be dumber than you."

"Hey!" Doug punched Bryce in the shoulder. "Lay off her!"

Bryce backed away looking surprised. "Okay; calm down." Doug surprised himself. He had barely ever gotten angry at his best friend, but Charlene, despite her outward appearances, seemed a bit sad about something. Doug just couldn't stand watching Bryce treat her the way Bryce usually treated people.

"Let's get to the mall, Charlene," Lulu said. "I'm not as happy about the slaughter as you are, and I need to at least get some new shoes or something."

Bryce grabbed Doug by his jacket collar and whispered, "You need to ask Charlene out before they leave."

Doug turned red. "I dunno. She's just so--"

"Let me see your gift certificate." Doug took it out of his jacket pocket. Bryce quickly snatched it. "Now it's mine."

"Hey! I earned that!"

Bryce put it away in his suit. "You won't get it back until you ask Charlene out. Tell her to meet you at the corner of Geist and Minton at eight for dinner. It will be my treat."

Doug glared at Bryce and then jogged after Charlene who was already walking off with Lulu. "Hey, Charlene."

She turned around. "What?"

Doug couldn't help but sink from her gaze. "I was... uh... just wondering if... uh... you like dinner and... uh..."

"Are you asking me out?" Her expression was one of contempt.

"Well, it's just..."

"I am a great soldier of the divine Empress's army; how dare you ask me out in such a timid manner!"

"I'm sorry." Defeated, Doug turned to walk away.

"And you're retreating!" Charlene grabbed Doug and yanked him back. "You dishonor your uniform. Stand up straight and do that again."

Doug again faced Charlene, who was staring back intensely. Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed Bryce had split off Lulu and was talking to her. Doug stood at attention, met Charlene's gaze, and said, "I was thinking, that... you know... if you don't have anything better to do..."

"I can barely hear you!"

"It’s just that... uh..."

"Stop stuttering and get to the point!"

"Can I take you out to dinner? You’re pretty!"

Charlene thought about that for a moment, not breaking her gaze with Doug's. "Fine... but just because we're soldiers who fought together. Don't consider it a date. Where are we going?"

"Just meet me at Geist and Minton at eight, and I'll surprise you."

"Okay." Charlene about-faced and called out, "Come on, Lulu." Lulu waved goodbye to Bryce then Doug and walked off with Charlene.

When the women were far enough away, Doug turned to Bryce and pumped his fists in the air. "I did it."

Bryce handed Doug back his gift certificate. "Yeah, I saw. Makes me sorry I made you do that."

"But I like her. So what restaurant is near Geist and Minton?"

Bryce shrugged. "I don't know if there is any. Come on, we need to get some things from my place."

"What? Hey, this isn't part of your new scheme, is it?"

Bryce straightened his tie. "It's not a scheme; it's a plan. And, yes, Lulu and Charlene now factor into it."

"I don't think it's right for you to trick them into whatever it is you're going to do. They've just been through a lot."

"That reminds me: I still don't know who it was we just fought... but I guess I'm just too embarrassed to ask at this point." He headed down the street. "Let's go. Oh, and there's more than a small possibility that some people will be following us who want to do me harm, so keep an eye out."

"Okay." Doug followed Bryce for a few seconds until his brain kicked in. "Wait; what was that last part?"

NEXT

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Rating: 1.0/5 (4 votes cast)

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June 21, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 5 - Debrief
Posted by Frank J. at 03:28 PM

BEGINNING OF STORY

PREVIOUS (PART 4)

* * * *

While waiting for backup, Doug did his best to make sure the excess peanut butter and jelly sandwiches he and Bryce had didn't go to waste. Both Lulu and Charlene said they weren't hungry, and Doug couldn't blame them, as the battlefield was now filled with odd smells, none of them pleasant.

When someone did come, it was just one troop transport to fly them back to base. Charlene questioned this, and they were told the General would explain. At base, they were marched straight to his office.

General Daniels didn't look in the best of shape. His eyes were bloodshot, his face was a couple days unshaven, and he was probably drunk - or was going to be soon from how he was constantly pouring himself more whiskey. He took a swig from his glass and then looked up from his desk at the four in front of him. "Oh yeah, you guys."

Doug was still standing at attention along with Lulu and Charlene, but Bryce was leaning casually against a wall. "I was expressing concern about how, when we left the battlefield, there were no new forces to relieve us," Charlene said.

The General took another drink. "Yeah... well, to be honest, I didn't prepare for the contingency that we'd actually win."

Doug, as usual, was confused, so he looked at Charlene. She appeared surprised for a moment, but regained herself to her neutral expression as she addressed the General. "I don't understand."

"It's a numbers thing, Murphy." The General finished off his glass and poured another. "Considering what you all went through, I guess the least I can do is explain the decision making behind this mission. The higher-ups like to keep tabs on a number of different stats. They noted that, while all parts of the military are now 50/50 gender-wise, most of the casualties are men, and that perhaps showed some sort of sexism in women's role in our fine military. I was told to fix that." He chuckled. "And, since I can't bring men back to life, my only option was to get women killed to even up the ratio. Thus I made a whole squadron of you ladies and sent you on a suicide mission. The problem was I accidentally put you on it, Murphy, which was an oversight on my part... in my defense, though, I've been drunk the past few days."

Doug tried unsuccessfully to process all that and looked at the others. Charlene could not contain her shock this time. Lulu appeared mortified. Bryce was checking the cleanliness of his nails. Then a thought occurred to Doug. "So why were Bryce and I included in this?"

"I just don't like you two and was thinking, 'Well, as long as I'm killing people off...'" He laughed and took another drink. "Anyway, you all actually winning this battle has put some egg on my face, but that's not your fault. I'll try and get you guys some medals, but until then, I got you some gift certificates for the mall." The General stood up and handed each of them an envelope. "I award you these for your great valor in serving the divine Empress Proserpine yadda yadda yadda." The General plopped back into his seat and poured whiskey into a couple more glasses. He sipped at one for a bit while the others stared blankly at their gift certificates - except for Bryce, who quickly pocketed his after checking its value. After a few seconds of silence, the General looked up at the four again. "Still here? You all standing there is really starting to annoy me. Either leave, snap and kill me, or have a glass of whiskey."

Doug felt like getting out of there. Charlene appeared ready to cry. Lulu was just shaking and seemed to be mumbling something. Bryce, on the other hand, stepped forward. "Guess I'll have some whiskey, then." He picked up a glass. "Out of curiosity, how did you pick those women to die? Did you base it on competency or attractiveness?"

"I wussed out of picking anyone and had a list randomly generated... except for adding you and that dummy who's always following you around." The General motioned to Doug.

"Hmm." Bryce took a sip and instantly had a look of disgust. "This whiskey is horrid."

The General took a big drink. "By the time you get to my rank, you get used to it."

Charlene suddenly bolted out of the room. Doug started to go after her but realized he had no idea what to say to her. The General slumped down into his chair. "Hell, I was sure she'd kill me. Now I have to make plans for the evening." He finished his glass. "I'll never understand women."

NEXT

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June 20, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 4 - Getting Shot At
Posted by Frank J. at 01:10 PM

BEGINNING OF STORY

PREVIOUS (PART 3)

* * * *

Doug soon caught up with Lulu and Charlene and matched their pace as they ran for the battle-mech. "Uh... so what exactly are we doing?"

Charlene kept focused on the figures ahead. "I'm going to climb that mech and you two will cover me. I know where the emergency release for the cockpit is, so I should be able to take out the pilot. When the mech is under my control, just stay back."

Doug ran that over in his mind. "So just shoot at whoever is shooting at you, right?"

"That would be the definition of cover fire. I'm not going to be able to defend myself as I'm climbing the mech."

Keeping someone from getting shot seemed a bigger responsibility than Doug was ready for. He hoped Lulu had a better idea of what to do, but she was shaking and wide-eyed, looking ready to bolt any second. The numerous bodies they had to step over on their way weren't encouraging, either.

Charlene brought her rifle up. "They see us." She fired, and a few soldiers ahead fell to the ground.

There was a huge eruption of gunfire in response. Lulu shrieked and dived for cover behind an overturned truck. Doug stuck with Charlene and fired, though he wasn't quite sure at what. The mech then pivoted to face them, its giant guns now pointed in their direction.

"We'll only be safe from its weapons when we're directly below it," Charlene called out and shot off some more rounds.

Doug nodded and then saw the ground explode all around him as the mech fired. He ran even quicker now, not bothering to fire as he couldn't see or hear anything other than the explosions. When he could see something again, it was the mech looming over him.

Charlene pulled him out of the way of the mech's foot. "Cover fire!" She slung her rifle over her shoulder and started to climb the mech. Bullets were ricocheting off the mech's legs from all directions, and Doug fired as often as he could as he kept ducking both the return fire and the mech's moving feet. His rifle clicked empty, and Doug quickly pulled out another magazine as he accidentally bumped into the mech's foot and fell over. He saw three soldiers running towards him. Doug kept trying to put another magazine into his rifle, then realized he was doing it backwards. Just as the soldier got a bead on him, a burst of gunfire dropped the three.

Doug saw a large metal foot coming down. He rolled out of the way and finally reloaded his gun. He wondered where the saving shots came from, but then remembered Charlene. He looked up for her, and then had to dodge a falling body. The mech began firing again, but this time at the enemy soldiers. "Die!" Charlene's voice echoed out of the mech's speakers.

Doug ran back for safety, taking glances at the mech that now chased the enemy. A hand grabbed him and sent him to the ground. Above him was Bryce. He and Lulu were apparently now both hiding behind the overturned truck, and Bryce looked angry. "You almost ruined my plans getting killed out there! The arrangement has always been that I plot and you carry things, so let's not repeat this."

"Hey! You saved me, didn't you?"

Bryce helped Doug to his feet. "Just feel lucky I realized that, with the current timetable for said plans, there wasn't enough time to find a replacement for you."

"What plans?" Lulu asked.

Bryce looked taken aback by the question. Doug had long ago stopped asking about Bryce’s schemes because he never gave a straight answer. Bryce looked Lulu over and then something seemed to click in his mind. "I'll explain them soon enough. This will change our lives, and you're quite crucial to it... uh..."

"Lulu. Am I going to have to carry stuff?"

"Of course not. That's Doug's job… and you're going to be in charge."

Lulu's eyes brightened. "Ooh! Sounds fun!"

Doug looked out towards the mech and its carnage. "Do we need to help Charlene?"

There were many explosions and screams in the distance. "I think she has it under control," Bryce said.

Lulu looked out from behind the truck. "No fair! They get to retreat."

Bryce walked out from cover. "Life isn't fair."

The three then watched for a while as the battle-mech chased the enemy over the horizon and cries of "Die, cowards, die!" echoed out of its speakers. Soon Bryce set down the blanket again and went back to eating lunch.

NEXT

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Rating: 2.9/5 (21 votes cast)

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June 19, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 3 - Death or Cowardice
Posted by Frank J. at 02:42 PM

PREVIOUS

"Do you need help, Charlene?"

The enemy soldier Charlene was wrestling with definitely had a size advantage on the small Charlene. She didn't look scared, though. "This is my kill!" she yelled back at Doug.

"Well, once you're done, we have spare sandwiches."

Charlene elbowed the soldier in the head and wrested the knife free. "Don't distract me!" Doug turned his eyes and covered his ears as the fight came to an end. He looked back to see Charlene standing over the dead body as she cleaned off the knife. "What are you two doing back here?"

"Special Ops." Bryce eyed the dead body with a look of disgust. "Could you move that? We're eating."

Charlene appeared ready to use her knife again. "How can you hide back here? Don't you know we're getting slaughtered out there?"

Bryce wiped his mouth with a napkin. "If you parse what you just said, you'll notice the second part is a good answer to the first part."

Another soldier jumped into the ditch. It was who Doug recognized her as Charlene's friend Lulu. "There you are!" Lulu said to Charlene. "I was looking for you! Everyone is getting killed so I wanted to stay near you since you seem to know what you're doing." She straightened her pigtails as she looked around the ditch. "We have sandwiches?"

Charlene ignored her and looked out from the ditch. "It's gotten quiet."

This seemed to make Charlene and Lulu look quite worried, so Doug offered in a hopeful voice, "Maybe we won."

For a small woman, Charlene hit hard. After smacking Doug, she looked at Lulu. "Try and find where the rest of our forces are."

Lulu spoke into her radio. "Hey, it's Lulu; how is everyone doing? ...Hello? ...Hello?" Lulu looked at Charlene. "Um... do you think we're all that's left?"

"I'm afraid so."

They were quiet for a moment, but Bryce broke the silence. "Well, this sucks. Luckily, I have my jogging shoes on. Who's up for a tactical retreat?"

Doug wasn't sure he liked the sound of that. "How far are we going to have to run?"

Charlene grabbed Doug and put her knife to his face. "You run, and you'll be executed for cowardice!"

Bryce pulled Charlene's hand off of Doug. "How about we retreat, but we don't tell anyone about it."

Lulu gave a worried glance to the enemy forces. "I like that idea."

Charlene frowned as she sheathed her knife. "Are you suggesting we go AWOL?"

Bryce began to pack up the picnic. "I'm not sure what the technical term is for it, but I think we should just call it the 'not getting killed' option."

Doug, as usual, was confused. "Will we get in trouble for being AWOL?"

Lulu sat low in the ditch and started rocking back and forth. "I really hate this war stuff. I just want to get out of this and get that job as an administrative assistant. These uniforms aren't flattering at all and the boots we have to wear are ugly. Plus, there's two much violence and yelling and... Ow!"

After yanking one of Lulu's pigtails, Charlene addressed the three. "I already checked, and no backup is coming. This fight is up to us. We may be outnumbered, but if we can take control of their battle-mech, we could turn the tide. It won't be easy, but remember that we fight for the divine honor of Empress Proserpine and to avenge the death of our comrades!"

Lulu was still rubbing her head. "But you never liked your comrades, and they really hated you."

Charlene stood up. "It's the principle, Lulu. Now, I'll need some ammo. I used up all of mine killing the enemy."

Lulu looked at her gun. "I only have one of the bullet container thingees--"

"Magazines."

"--magazines left."

"I have plenty of ammo I'm not using!" Doug said, glad to be helpful. He looked through his sack. "Where is it?"

"I have it." Bryce opened his sack and took out some magazines and handed them to Charlene and Lulu. "I always unload Doug's gun and take his ammo before each battle for his own safety and the safety of others."

Charlene put a magazine into her rifle and chambered a round. "Is there any point in asking if you two cowards will help?"

Bryce picked up his pack and rifle. "No, not much point in asking. You two have fun, and we'll look for how you did in the obituaries tomorrow."

Charlene sneered at them and then climbed out of the ditch. Lulu started to follow but stopped for a moment to look towards Bryce and Doug. "Could you guys wait a minute back here, because, if Charlene gets killed, I'm going to do that AWOL thing with you two."

"Sure thing," Bryce said. Lulu then headed out of the ditch with a slight whimper. When she was out of sight, Bryce turned to Doug. "Okay, let's get running."

Doug picked up his gun and watched the two women running off towards the twenty-five-foot robot in the distance. "They're going to get killed! We have to help!"

Bryce shook his head. "No, Doug. Proper logic would go this way: They're going to get killed, so we need to be as far away from them as possible."

Doug began to climb out of the ditch. "Everyone else got killed while we sat here eating sandwiches; I'm not sitting by while anyone else dies."

"We're not going to be sitting! We're going to be running! Doug, this whole battle is pointless! Also, I really do have some big plans I'm working on, and it would be quite useful to have you not dead for them. This plan might involve heavy things that need carrying, and you know I'm not going to do that... And didn't the guy in your crazy dream say to stay alive so you could fight aliens or something?"

Doug held his rifle at the ready and prepared to run after Charlene and Lulu. "That was a dream; this is real. It's time for me to be useful now." Doug began to head towards the enemy.

"Doug!"

"What, Bryce?"

Bryce threw Doug some magazines. "You might need some ammo."

Doug missed them and quickly picked them up off the ground, putting one in his rifle. "Thanks, Bryce." He started his run again.

"Doug!"

"What?"

"Chamber a round."

Doug looked down at his rifle. "Oh yeah."

Bryce sunk back into the safety of the ditch. "Idiot."

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June 16, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 2 - Protecting the Flank
Posted by Frank J. at 12:35 PM

PREVIOUS

"Bryce, I had a weird dream last night."

"Is that so, Doug?" Bryce opened his pack and dug through it.

"I was in this room, and it started filling with water. In the water were fish... and they bit my feet. And then I was one of the fish."

"I guess that's weird." Bryce took out a sheet and laid it down in the ditch he and Doug were in.

"But I had another dream before that. I was hanging upside down, and this guy Stan said that the Emperors and some others are aliens called the Fallen and I have to send them back to a prison in some other dimension just like this guy named Jesus did who died penniless and friendless."

Bryce stared at Doug for a moment. "Did you bring the chips?"

Doug took a pouch of sandwiches out of his pack. "I thought I was bringing the sandwiches this time."

"No!" Bryce shouted, his outburst emphasized by an explosion nearby that tossed dirt on them. "Now we have too many sandwiches and no chips. I was counting on you, Doug!"

"I know. I'm sorry."

Bryce took out his pouch of sandwiches. "Well, it could have been worse; we could have too many chips and no sandwiches. You at least have the coffee, right?"

Doug took out the thermos. "Of course." Doug glanced out of the ditch to see a large robot with guns for arms walking by. "Is that theirs or ours?"

"I dunno; I didn't pay attention at the briefing. I don't even know what nation we're fighting today." Bryce took a bite out of a sandwich.

Among all the explosions, Doug could hear a number of screams. "Do you think we should help?"

Bryce poured some coffee. "Someone has to take up flank positions, and I think we're best suited for that."

"Well, Stan told me I need to be careful not to get killed since he needs me to fight the Fallen."

Bryce moved his rifle so he could lie back more comfortably in the ditch. "Not getting killed is a good idea. I actually have a plan - a great plan - where the prerequisite is we don't get killed today."

"What plan?"

"A big one. We'll finally get out of these pointless battles and onto our path to power and fortune."

Bryce always had plans like that. So far, none had worked, but each new one seemed closer to working... and closer to getting them imprisoned or killed.

A woman screamed nearby.

Doug started to get up. "I think we should help."

Bryce grabbed Doug and pulled him back down into the ditch. "Helping is how you get killed. And how do you even know that wasn't one of their soldiers? Listen to that Stan guy and stay here and eat your sandwiches."

After a little hesitation, Doug picked up a sandwich. "Stan told me he is God."

Bryce sighed. "Everyone says they're God these days. There's no God, Doug. If there were, everything wouldn't be so pointless."

"Aren't we supposed to believe our Empress is God?"

Bryce finished chewing a bite from his sandwich. "We're supposed to pretend to believe. I don't think anyone actually believes that. A real god would be someone who created the whole universe and everything, and none of the idiots in charge of these stupid warring nations could have done that."

"Then who did?" Doug asked with a full mouth.

"Probably no one." There was another explosion near then, pelting them with dirt and rocks. "That is getting annoying."

"Stan says that the Emperors and others like them can't be killed... not even if you shot them in the face."

"If that's true, why aren't they out here fighting?" Bryce took a sip of coffee. "I, for one, am quite concerned about projectiles to the face. So, this Stan guy you dreamed about, he wanted you to take on these invulnerable aliens."

"He said I'm special."

A few bullets whistled overhead. "Hadn't heard that used as a synonym for 'retarded' in some time."

"Do you know what The Great War was about, Bryce?"

"Land, power, slights real and imagined... same as any other war." There was another nearby explosion, and Bryce pulled his rifle closer. "This new inquisitive Doug is getting kind of annoying. Can't we just eat our sandwiches in peace and quiet like every other battle we've been in? I really do have a great new venture for us once this is over, so I'm quite keen on the 'not getting killed.' Sitting quietly behind the fray seems to have always worked well to that end, so let's stick to it."

"Okay." Doug took another bite of his sandwich but found it hard to ignore the screams of what could be his fellow comrades. He peeked out of the safety of their ditch once again. It was hard to see through the smoke and the dirt being thrown in the air, though. The large robot was busy shooting at something that was luckily nowhere near them. "I wonder how our side is doing."

"If you're really curious, turn on your radio. I find the things annoying, though."

Doug turned on his radio to hear a bunch of screams. He turned it off. "Did you notice how the squad this time is all women... except for us?"

Bryce smirked. "I more than noticed; I took advantage of the situation."

"I wonder why that is."

"I don't. The government always has some stupid reason for everything." He then smiled at Doug. "So, is there one you have your eye on?"

"I like Charlene."

Bryce dropped his sandwich. "That psycho!?"

"I think she's nice... in her own way. And she's cute."

"That's kind of hard to notice since she's always covered in someone else's blood."

Doug frowned. "Hey, you asked. I like her."

"Die, bitch!" someone screamed as two people fell into the ditch. It was Charlene struggling with an enemy soldier over a knife.

"Speaking of the devil." Bryce pulled the sandwiches to safety and nudged Doug. "Here's your chance; ask her out."

NEXT

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June 15, 2006
A Story, Bit by Bit
Hellbender: Part 1 - Everything Upside Down
Posted by Frank J. at 04:20 PM

"Do you know who Jesus is, Doug?"

It was hard for Doug to think while hanging upside down with his hands quite uncomfortably bound behind his back, but he was pretty sure he'd never met a Jesus. "No, I don't think I know him."

His questioner smiled, and it still looked like a smile even upside down. "You wouldn't know him personally. I was just wondering if you knew of him."

"No, I don't. Uh... who is he?"

A light shove sent Doug swinging and spinning around. All he could see of the room around him was darkness. A firm hand grabbed him and he was back to being face to face with his captor. Upside down and in a dark room, it was hard to see him too well. He appeared neither young nor old, but he had a regal air to him... and it wasn't just the suit he was wearing. Doug just had this feeling that, for some reason, he was now talking to someone very important. Despite his predicament, Doug was a bit flattered that anyone important would bother talking to him.

"It's an old story, Doug." The man smiled again. "Jesus was a man of great principle. He lived his life never compromising those principles, and do you know what happened to him?"

Doug shook his head.

"He died penniless and abandoned by his friends."

Doug thought about that. "That's not much of a story."

The man let Doug go, and he swung back and forth a bit. "Well... there's a bit more to it, but that's the gist of it. You can call me Stan, by the way. You're probably wondering why you're here."

"Yeah... that's true. Last I remember I was in my barracks going to sleep." As much as Doug hated hanging upside down, he was hoping this meant he could miss the battle tomorrow. Then again, his best friend Bryce was counting on him. "Am I in trouble?"

"No, not at all."

"Then why am I hanging upside down like this?"

Stan shrugged. "Why not?"

Doug thought about that. "Because I don't like it."

"It was a rhetorical question, Doug."

Doug thought even harder. "Is that like a math question?"

A woman's voice then piped in, "Is this going somewhere, Stan?" Doug tilted his head to see the embers of a cigarette being smoked by someone standing a ways back from Stan.

Stan still faced Doug. "Patience, Ms. Bee. Doug has an important mission to do for us."

"I do?" Doug was never given anything important to do as he had usually screwed up even the simple tasks.

"You're quite special, Doug."

"Really? How?" The only thing Doug could think of that he could do well was make coffee. No matter how many bullets and bombs were flying, Doug could be counted on to make at least one decent pot.

"Let's not worry about the specifics." Stan seemed to stop to think, and Doug tried to look at him a bit more closely.

"Do I know you?"

Stan smiled. "I'm often told I look familiar." He leaned closer to Doug. "I'm God."

Doug could hear Ms. Bee laughing. Stan now turned toward her. "If you're not going to help, do you have something else you could be doing?"

She laughed again. "I'll be quiet; I don't want to suffer the wrath of the Lord."

Doug, as usual, was confused. "Empress Proserpine says she is God."

Stan shoved Doug, sending him spinning again. "As do the five other Emperors, but the problem is there can be only one true God. After The Great War and the defeat of the prior ruler, there's been a foolish rush to power." Stan grabbed Doug. "Everyone wants to rule the world, Doug, but few would know what to do with it should he succeed. I know what needs to be done, though."

"Who was the prior ruler?"

Stan stepped back. "Let's not worry about him."

"He was a jerk," Ms. Bee added and smoked her cigarette.

"Suffice it to say, the old ruler was defeated in The Great War," Stan said.

"The one with the nukes?"

"Yeah, that one, Doug. It was a continuation of a battle that started long ago... one fought over a long, long time. It's nearly over, but the world has to be put in order again. That's where you come in."

Doug tried, and failed, to process all this. "Well, I'm not very good at... uh... stuff. I’m just a soldier, and not a very good one. I’m not even sure I score high enough on tests to get that fry cook job I want after I’m out of the military."

"You'll do, Doug; don't worry. You have a greater destiny than frying things. Now, do you know what the Emperors are?"

He had always wondered that. "I think they're supposed to be really powerful."

"They are, and they're not human."

Doug furrowed his brow. "Are they aliens?"

Stan considered that a moment. "Something like that. Let's call them the 'Fallen'."

"What did they fall from?"

"Not important. What is important is that they are evil. You know what evil is, don't you, Doug?"

"Like really bad, I think."

Ms. Bee giggled. "It's like we're dealing with a child."

"Hey! It's hard to think when you're hung upside down in the dark!" Doug shouted.

"Ignore her, Doug. Anyway, these Emperors are quite bad and must be dealt with, but they cannot be killed."

"Even if you shot them in the face?"

"Yes."

Doug thought about that. "Did you try shooting them in the face?"

"He's got you there," Ms. Bee said.

"Shut up, Bee. No, Doug, shots to the face aren't going to do it. These beings can't even harm each other. That's why they use you humans to fight for power. They believe if they can defeat all the others and have all the remaining humans as their followers, they can be rulers of all there is."

"But you want to rule?" Doug looked at Stan wondering if he was one of those beings that didn't mind being shot in the face. He looked like a regular person to him... just maybe cleaner.

"I orchestrated The Great War." Stan started to appear angry. "I gave us this opportunity, and those fools are squandering it in pointless battles. Thus, something must be done about the Fallen. They can't be killed, but there is an old prison - the oldest prison - which used to hold them. I need your help sending them back."

"Where's the prison?"

"It's... um... well..." Stan paused for a moment. "You've seen sci-fi movies, Doug. Let's just say it's in another dimension."

Doug now considered this on top of everything else and only found himself getting increasingly confused. "Are you sure you can't just shoot them in the face?"

Stan grabbed Doug. "Forget about shooting in the face! Okay?"

"Sorry!"

Ms. Bee laughed again. "Oh, this is so going to work."

Stan closed his eyes and, when he reopened them, he was much calmer. "The only way to deal with the Fallen is to send them to this prison. The problem is that no one has done such a thing for thousands of years... since that one called Jesus I told you about."

"The guy who died penniless and with no friends?"

"Yes, but we'll try to keep that from happening to you."

This was a lot for Doug to process. The part he still had the most trouble with is that someone seemed to be counting on him to do something of importance. "Uh... so what do we do?"

Stan paused for a moment. "We'll have to figure that out, but I have confidence you can take on the Fallen."

Doug was pretty sure he heard Ms. Bee stifle another laugh. "All of them?" Doug asked. "If anyone found out I was plotting against Empress Proserpine, I'd be in big trouble... the sort where they gut you."

"Don't worry; you won't take on an Emperor at this point. There are many Fallen, and most serve one Emperor or another. We'll start low, and see what we can do." He smiled. "This should be fun."

"So what happens to me now?" Doug tried to look up at the rope he was dangling from. "Can I get down from here?"

"Soon enough. I'll return you to your barracks. Tomorrow, go to battle as normal, but do whatever you can to keep safe. Avoid any unnecessary risks. We need you alive, Doug."

If there was one thing Doug had done successfully in Emperess Proserpine's wars so far, it was stay alive… but just barely. "Okay."

"We'll talk again soon. Good luck."

Stan's face began to become blurry and fade away. Before everything disappeared, he heard Ms. Bee utter, "I’m just going to go ahead and start working on the next plan."

NEXT

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