I have a really, really special treat for you all today:
Somehow, my novel, Black Star Renegades (and its sequel, We Are Mayhem, which was just released last week!), inspired Mike Chen—the amazing writer behind the wildly successful and amazingly good sci-fi novel Here and Now and Then (which is on sale for Kindle for only $2.99 until Sunday!)—to craft his own fan fiction. And let me tell you—it’s awesome. I’m actually apprehensive to share it because I’m a little jealous, that’s how good Mike is at writing in the world I created.
Nonetheless, the story is truly wonderful. It’s fun and smart and captures Black Star Renegades so well. And, it focuses on my favorite buddy duo: Mig and 4-Qel as they get into a…let’s call it a unique situation.
Without further adieu, here’s Mike’s BSR story, A Fork in the Road!
4-Qel wanted to smirk.
He couldn't, of course, not with the static nature of the various sensors and projectors in his head module. Despite the fact that they were assembled to look like a face, they never operated with the wasted energy of emotions. However, 4-Qel had spent enough time around organics to learn most of their mannerisms, and one of the most interesting and effective ones was the curl of one’s mouth when something absurd unfolded.
Such a look would have been perfect upon hearing Mig's date ask the question “Does that thing have to be here?”
The target for the would-be smirk was not the female Asahee sitting with them, but rather Mig, who planned this whole thing and was thus responsible for his own insipid behavior tonight. How could he think about expensive meals and courting a sexual partner when they had things to do and the Crain bounty on their heads (well, Mig’s head)? This course of action clearly lacked in all logic. Yet Mig insisted on keeping the reservation. The most acclaimed Loo-Kas steak in the sector apparently made it worth the risk.
Humans failed terribly at prioritization.
“I'm not waiting another nine months to get a table at Kas Yevvem,” Mig justified several weeks ago. “They are super jerks there. You have to order right, behave right, even eat right or they won’t let you back in. You cancel a reservation or show up late and they’ll blacklist you for five years. We’re going, bounty or no bounty.”
4-Qel argued that a simple Vikirian rice blend calibrated an organic body’s sustenance requirements but Mig persisted. A point, in fact, Mig reiterated two weeks ago when he somehow managed to convince the ventun dealer at the Sea of Nebulae Casino to join him. Shortly after she'd agreed, 4-Qel noted that the Asahee female named Talaria with blue skin and glowing eyes most likely came to that conclusion because she was interested in award-winning Loo-Kas steak and not because she was considering him for practicing inter-species mating rituals.
4-Qel watched Mig silently squirm, his sensors detecting a rise in the volume of sweat gradually building on Mig's forehead.
“Well, Four-Qel is kind of like my bodyguard. Because,” Mig cleared his throat, “people with my, um, status are often considered valuable assets. Dangerous, even.” Mig huffed out the last word with a raised eyebrow, which seemed pulled from those holo films 4-Qel caught him watching the other day.
It was true, they did hold some value to people. After the Crain incident, 4-Qel had maintained a constant assessment of the bounty on Mig’s head. However, Mig omitted the fact that the bounty was a level seven, which meant that the reward was probably less than the cost of this meal and was mostly a headache for logistical customs clearances than anything else; it certainly did not make him “badass" as he would colloquialize. Still, 4-Qel remained silent. If Talaria bothered sticking this out with Mig long enough to learn the truth, Mig’s own jigsaw puzzle of an explanation would be his own problem.
“Well, can it sit? There's an extra chair right there.”
Talaria's irritation raised the internal detection in his threat matrix. Threat, as in the question clearly started to befuddle Mig, which would eventually lead to Mig making bad choices -- either to impress Talaria or in self-indulgent sulking -- which then opened themselves up to all sorts of risks, particularly with the Crain bounty tracking them, level seven or not.
4-Qel did not want his many assassin skills to be tied up in undoing the paperwork mess of a level seven violation. “I can sit.”
“Oh. It talks.” Rather than relaxing Talaria, her shoulders tensed up even further. “Charming.”
“Of course I can talk. And of course I can sit. My legs are more than just decorative.”
“No, I mean, can you -- will you -- sit? Because it's kind of creepy having you just stand there watching me. Besides,” she said, leaning forward, “it's drawing attention.”
Mig craned his neck from side to side. 4-Qel scanned as well, though without Mig's obvious physical gestures. “If you're worried about danger,” Mig smiled, a toothy grin that pushed wider than his usual expressions, “I think we're clear. Trust me.” Mig sat up straighter, his chest puffed out as if he took in a breath and forgot to let it go. “I'm a pro in these situations.”
“I'm running the standard scans you request when your body's fear response is high. I'm not detecting any imminent threats either, “ 4-Qel said. “Shall I add it to the rolling log of the past week? The count is currently twelve.”
“Thank you, Four-Qel,” Mig said, his posture suddenly deflating. “We keep that data for, you know, surveillance archives. Gotta stay current.”
“Of course,” Talaria said. Her tone was as flat as her eyes, and she scanned past Mig towards the kitchen door.
As 4-Qel agreed upon earlier, he left out the part about having various weapons and defense protocols ready should something suspicious arrive -- everything from precision flatware throwing (with enough velocity to potentially behead depending on the organism's size and bone density) to varying types of poison in an auxiliary storage compartment on his back panel (the “poison shelf,” as Mig liked to say). This was in addition to the guns they had to check in at the restaurant lobby.
“Well, look,” Talaria said. 4-Qel noted that Asahee gestures for annoyance were very similar to human ones. “Asahee have this thing where we can sense optic observations. Eyes, cameras, whatever. It makes us good casino employees. But the more it happens, the more I feel it. It's like having someone constantly tapping on your shoulder. And right now there are a bunch of never-ending taps on my shoulder because they're all looking at us. The guests, waiters, the bussers, even the bartender androids. Everyone is wondering why this giant hulking machine is getting in the way of their nice dinner. So please sit down before I get a headache or they kick us out. Or both.”
4-Qel complied and sat, his just-too-big frame causing elbows to jut out at obtuse angles, bumping into the passing waiter. The humanoid woman grumbled something under her breath, and 4-Qel scanned her facial features into his memory just in case retribution would be required later on.
Talaria closed her eyes, her shoulders rising and falling with deep breaths through her neck gills. “That's much better. Thank you Fork.”
“My designated identifier is Four-Qel, not Fork. I'm not sure how you missed the final syllable as Mig clearly stated my name several times during the course of the evening.” Both Mig and Talaria shuffled back and forth in their seats, similar grimaces on their faces. 4-Qel calculated the odds that levity might relax the situation. “Perhaps your ears don't work. Do have a fork,” he paused, as he’d observed organics do for emphasis, “stuck in them?”
“Excuse me?” Though 4-Qel didn't have a deep database on Asahee physiological traits, her expression clearly displayed that she didn't get the joke. The small ridges on the top of her head peaked upwards as she shook her head.
“I'm sorry,” 4-Qel said. “That was my mistake.”
“Four-Qel doesn't really get--"
“I should have said ‘audio detectors’ instead of ‘ears’, as Asahee have no visible organs for such function. My apologies, it is clear Asahee haven't had the physiological evolution to include ears yet. Do not worry. They will come in several million years.”
Based on 4-Qel’s thermal sensors, the surface temperature for both Mig and Talaria rose incrementally to signify an emotional response. However, it appeared they were experiencing contradictory emotions. During that scan, Mig buried his head in his palms while Talaria looked away from the table's occupants. Why organic species put themselves through such self-inflicted problems, 4-Qel didn't know.
Perhaps killing them would ease both of their suffering.
4-Qel began determining the easiest and most quiet way to do so should the need arise when the waiter arrived with two covered plates.
“Ah, excellent,” Mig said, his face washed over with relief. “Talaria, I'm happy to share the sector's finest with you. Cheers.” He held up his glass, and Talaria seemingly relaxed at the gesture before clinking her glass against his.
“Shall I toast with the coolant in my elbow?” 4-Qel asked. Mig’s groan was probably only caught by 4-Qel’s audio sensors and no organic beings (especially not the ear-less Asahee). This time, the question was a calculated judgment. Clearly neither Mig nor Talaria enjoyed this evening, and now adding nonsensical suggestions would expedite the end of the meal.
“Quiet, Fork,” Mig said from the corner of a frozen smile.
“Your meals. Enjoy.” The waiter pulled the covers off to reveal blackened, ashen lumps and a stack of soggy green sticks, which were presumably vegetables at some point.
“I, uh…” Mig bit down on his lip so hard 4-Qel considered zapping it with a plasma stitch to minimize blood loss.
“Is there a problem, sir?”
“Well, it’s just that…” Tiny bits of ash sprinkled away as the tine of Mig’s fork poked at the supposed meat.
4-Qel’s scanners began processing the hunks on the table. “I can confirm that this meat was cooked with an open flame similar to that of an incinerator used for disposing of bodies.”
“We pride ourselves at Kas Yevvem for flawless culinary technique. If you are unsatisfied, you and your compatriots may have takeaway containers and leave,” the waiter shot a look at 4-Qel.
Talaria sighed loud enough to be heard over the din of the restaurant, the chatter of guests and the coming and going of wait staff and cooks. The waiter -- a tall, thin being native to Jaksallia with pale skin, round head, and deep set black eyes -- broke his cool facade and let a smirk through. It lasted for a mere fraction of a second, something that organics would miss but 4-Qel replayed in his internal visual monitor to confirm.
There it was. In slow motion, the waiter’s mouth quivered, then the right side tilted up and the eyes relaxed, only to snap back to neutral 0.89 seconds later. Just like a human would.
4-Qel saved the image for future reference.
“You know what,” Talaria said. Her napkin tossed onto the table. “It’s late. I’ll take a cab back to Sea of Nebulae. I have to work early tomorrow anyway. Take it. Enjoy.”
“It’s fine. We’ll be fine.” Mig turned to the waiter. “It’s fine, thank you.”
“Mig, seriously. I should get some rest--”
“No wait, look, the food is fine.” The plate clinked as he cut into it, more ash particles floating into the air. He took in a bite, then coughed, plumes of dust blowing outward over the table.
4-Qel scanned the room, processing and capturing visual information around them. Their table lit up with a floating hologram. “Here is a side by side comparison of your meal and a standard Loo-Kas steak from the table twelve meters behind you.” Mig’s piece looked like a lump of charcoal compared to the robust cut floating next to it. “While Loo-Kas preparation does involve using an open flame to finish the sear, I believe the burn level and the relatively small portion indicates they do not want us here. You used the term ‘super jerks’ and all evidence points to that. My conclusion is that this is a waste of our time.” 4-Qel turned to the waiter. “Your insolence has been noted. I will rectify the situation.”
“No, no, no. Talaria, I swear, Four-Qel -- Fork -- is just joking. Seriously,” Mig choked out laughter and looked at the waiter, “I never said that. This is fine.”
4-Qel loaded the conversation from his memory archives. “‘I'm not waiting another nine months to get a table at Kas Yevvem,’” Mig’s voice said in the replay. “‘They are super jerks there.’”
“Duly noted,” the waiter said. “You may leave at your earliest convenience. Please do not forget to pay the bill. Otherwise, there will be a bounty assigned based on your records.” With that, the waiter turned on his heel and began an even clip to the back kitchen. 4-Qel calculated the exact velocity and angle to throw the steak knife with options to stab, slice a major artery, or sever the head. Before he could decide, Talaria stood up.
“I gotta get out of here before you piss them off even further and get me blacklisted. I'd still like to try it someday. Someday without this half-functioning talking dishwasher ruining every moment.”
“Wait, Talaria. This is all a mistake,” Mig said.
“Your android is insane.”
“I cannot be insane,” 4-Qel interjected. “My decision algorithms are based on logic.”
“Whatever. Don’t come to my ventun table. If I see you or this hulking green mess in Sea of Nebulae, I’m calling security right away.”
“Do not be disappointed, Mig,” 4-Qel said as Talaria walked away. “The research you requested on human-Asahee interspecies sexuality shows required positions that would be difficult for you to attain without proper stretching. Your evening would not have ended well regardless.”
Flecks of ash flew into the air with each progressive poke of Mig’s fork. He stabbed the soggy vegetables and jammed it into his mouth. “I gotta pee,” he said in a low voice.
“That is a good idea. Stress contracts the human bladder.”
4-Qel waited until Mig passed the various tables, head low and eyes focused on the floor the entire time. He disappeared underneath the hovering icons for the universal lavatory, and only then did he allow himself to analyze the situation.
Before him sat twenty nine tables of various sizes, each holding between two and six occupants of differing species -- mostly human, as the chefs were human and cooked primarily with their digestive systems and tastes in mind. 4-Qel loaded a schematic of the building; the far-left corner’s double doors led to the kitchen and back office, which also had a secondary channel to the bar on the other side. 4-Qel also noted the android bartenders -- by their make and model, they lacked the processing power or sensors to come close to his precise mastery of violence.
They posed no threat.
Given that their weapons were checked in at the main lobby, a full frontal assault would be unwise. In addition, any sort of obvious massacres would raise their bounty level from its current paperwork-risking level seven to at least a level three, which would entail some level of bodily harm -- either by the bounty hunters or the Praxis authorities. With the profile of the restaurant, such a body count would create alerts that might follow them beyond this sector, and that wouldn't help either of them.
So, murder was out, at least of everyone in the building. Perhaps a smaller group? The wait staff delivered the message. They were certainly in on the proverbial joke. The cooks were the ones that prepared the meal. They followed directions. The manager gauged the pulse of the clientele. And the clientele, they stared and whispered about 4-Qel, they probably made the complaints.
Numbers calculated and data crunched, each group isolated to their sphere of influence and potential ripple effect regarding local authority, potential of getting caught, and level of injury for all parties. At the last millisecond, 4-Qel decided to factor in how upstanding each group tended to be based on their demographic stereotypes.
It wasn't much but it did tip the scales to one solid conclusion.
Murder wasn't the smart choice here. At least for most of them.
From his poison shelf, 4-Qel removed two separate capsules, one red and one yellow. He held them both in his mechanical palm and vibrated his wrist joint to activate the compounds in each. A maintenance cover slid open just above his waist, then another beneath it and yet another beneath that one, exposing the outer surface of his power core. Heat radiated from the opening, and 4-Qel placed the yellow capsule immediately next to the source for thirty-two seconds. When the yellow capsule finished, he did the same thing with the red one, except positioning it out further by seven inches at half the heat.
One cooked. One simmered. How appropriate.
4-Qel reached into a storage compartment built into his hip, one with a stash of physical credits and a credit chip designated to slice accounts and transmit funds away. Mig had him keep this in case they needed to bribe their way out of a situation, then steal the credits back later. But there would be no stealing here. Not by him, anyway.
4-Qel placed the credits in two stacks, one tall, one short.
His optical scanners went into thermal detection to pick up the presence of waiters moving between the crowd and the tables. When one came within earshot, 4-Qel sliced open the tops of each capsule and executed the designated scenario workflow.
Preparation: Pour the yellow one’s odorless and colorless liquid on the large stack.
Preparation: Sprinkle the red one’s on the small stack.
Observation: Wait several seconds until both compounds dried into the cash stacks due to air exposure.
Preparation: Disable the credit chip, rendering it useless for anything other than giving the appearance of a thief's tool.
“Waiter,” he called, his thin arm raised.
This would be more fun than bribery. And messy.
The waiter -- this time, a human female with visibly annoyed pursed lips and a crisp gait -- walked over to the table, making her way the longest route possible. “May I help you?”
“I would like to pay the bill. Keep the change, as the saying goes,” 4-Qel said, pointing at the large stack. As anticipated, the waiter picked it up without a word and began to march towards the processing center next to the kitchen doors. 4-Qel set his scanners to detect the gas being traced around the room from the stack; he waited a suitable amount of time before speaking up. “Oh, waiter.” 4-Qel’s voice projected across the room, drawing the eyes of diners and staff. “One more thing.”
The waiter returned, still carrying the tainted credits but walking through the maze of tightly packed tables and criss-crossing employees, ensuring effective distribution of the chemical. “And this,” he pushed the small credit bundle forward, “is for the manager. We apologize for causing any grief. Please see that it is delivered immediately. Can you please count the credits to verify their total?” 4-Qel spoke at a decibel level selected to ensure the other wait staff heard.
There it was, another favorite expression: the side eye. 4-Qel captured the expression in his optic memory for future reference. As she counted aloud, 4-Qel slipped the credit chip and empty capsules into her pocket.
The waiter marched away and disappeared into the kitchen doors, presumably to the manager’s office. 4-Qel continued tracking, and even took a millisecond to complement himself on such an ingenius yet subtle plan when Mig emerged.
“This is the cleanest god damn toilet I've ever seen,” Mig said when he returned. “I had to stop and admire the architecture. Why is it that the bathroom here is nicer than every place I've stayed at in my life?” Mig smiled, one somewhere between amused and distraught. The chair glided back to make space for him. “Anything interesting happen?”
4-Qel ran an internal calculation to determine various levels of “interesting" while factoring in variables of “need to know" and “illegal.” “No. But we should leave.”
A heavy sigh filled the quiet dinner space, so much so that the couple at the next table glanced over at Mig. He looked around for the wait staff, then at the charred meat on his plate, then at 4-Qel. “I gotta pay the bill still.”
“I paid already.” 4-Qel said flatly. Mig raised an eyebrow and shot a look, to which 4-Qel calculated that he should respond quickly -- but hesitant enough as to prevent looking like a prepared statement. Two point three seconds later, 4-Qel spoke. “We shouldn't spend further time around people like this. It's not good for our health.”
“‘Our’ health?” Mig let out a weary laugh while shaking his head.
“Figure of speech, Mig.” The actuators in 4-Qel’s legs activated and he cleared the chair in one motion.
“You're right. Screw these assholes.” Mig stood up and peeled his coat off the back of the chair.
“Yes. Screw them indeed. They should be working in janitorial service cleaning overflowing septic systems. Or the burned remains of their cruel leader.”
The great thing about Mig and 4-Qel’s relationship was that 4-Qel could say things like that and Mig would just assume he was joking, perhaps even lecture him about understanding the concept of humor. But Mig didn’t know that 4-Qel had left a small audio transmitter behind, a tiny chip pressure-embedded on the underside of the table.
Because even though Mig sometimes proclaimed that Qel units lacked the ability to comprehend humor, even with their advanced learning algorithms, 4-Qel understood the definition of the concept: an unexpected juxtaposition and incongruity between a situation and the elements in said situation.
Like, for example, immense intestinal problems for nearly every customer in the sector’s most expensive restaurant stemming from an odorless vapor tracked around the room. And a manager’s office that eviscerated itself in white-hot flames thanks to a compound designed for timed combustion when cooked at the exact time and temperature. And the evidence sitting in the pockets of a disgruntled waiter, along with tech to steal from her superiors.
That was all very humorous.
As they went through two sets of pressurized doors to the parking chambers of the orbital facility, 4-Qel amplified his connection with the transistor to maximum, including specialized boost for the frequency most associated with distress by humanoid life forms.
The various sensors and projectors in 4-Qel’s head module were assembled to look like a face, though they were static, expressionless. However, as he walked to the transportation lobby to reclaim their weapons, 4-Qel knew that if he could smirk, he would.
So much fun, right? Thank you, again, Mike, for your amazing contribution to the BSR universe. And friends, don’t forget to pick up Mike’s debut novel, Here and Now and Then—it’s a time travel story like no other, and I highly, highly recommend it.