Book: Gun Runner



Gun Runner


GUN RUNNER

by

B. V. Larson





Illustration © Tom Edwards TomEdwardsDesign.com

Copyright © 2020 by Iron Tower Press, Inc.

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved. No part of this publication can be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, without permission in writing from the author.




Chapter One

I was thawed out at last at about 4 pm on a Thursday afternoon. The only reason I knew the time was because it was printed in red digits on my eyelids—a cybernetic “improvement” that had seemed like a good idea at the time it had been installed.

As consciousness fully asserted itself, my first emotion was that of abject terror. After long years in cryo-stasis, my master had finally put in the call. Uncontrollably, I grit my teeth, bracing for the sting of the syringe—or maybe the scalpel itself, if the payment had been thin.

Androids worked silently around me. None of them bothered to brief me on the details of my situation, but that didn’t surprise me. I wasn’t technically a citizen, and the androids weren’t the bright kind.

Naturally, I wanted to fight my captors, but I was helpless. My wrists were clamped to a T-shaped plank of fiber. My ankles were similarly secured. Nude, dripping and shivering a little, I could only wonder what my fate might be.

I was, of course, a clone. A living repository of replacement parts without legal rights. My master, the original Captain William Gorman, must have had a mishap. It was for this very reason he’d grown me, stamped his engrams into my brain and had me placed in cold storage.

After a few minutes of tinkering and rattling, the androids working on me retreated. I dared to open an eye.

The chamber was wreathed in icy mist. The floor was choked with frost. Only the warming field the androids had encircled me with kept me from freezing up again.

Craning my neck, I took a look around. I’d already survived longer than I’d expected to without pain or injury—could they have amputated a leg or something before I even woke up? Looking down to take stock of things, I found myself almost hoping this was the case. A surgery that was in the past was infinitely better than one to dread in near the future.

But I couldn’t see any damage. No scars on my belly, indicating organ removal. Nothing else was missing, either, not even a finger or a toe.

“Huh…” I said aloud.

An android clopped by then, but it didn’t even look at me. I didn’t bother to address it, either. These were model-D beings—robots, essentially. They looked semi-human, like all androids, but they lacked interactivity software. They did what their central computers told them to do, and they did it remorselessly. Pestering a model-D would only get me sedated at best.

Once the model-D had thumped away into the white mists of the freeze-chamber, I widened my interests. There were other frozen clones down here—a lot of them. I counted at least a dozen to my right, and perhaps a hundred more standing on racks to my left. They were various men and women, plus a few aliens. All were enclosed in blocks of ice with meters and probes monitoring their status.

Why the hell had they awakened me?

There were no answers, so I tried to relax, pumping my fists and feet to improve circulation. Now and then, this activity caused a toe-tip or a fingernail to escape the bubble of warmth the androids had encircled me with, and I received a painful reminder of the extreme cold that filled the chamber. It had to be one hundred below in here, and the air felt like fire when it touched your skin.

At last, after what seemed like an interminable wait, two more model-D dummies walked up and lifted my plank off the rack and carried me away. I squeezed my eyes shut as they did this.

They forgot or possibly didn’t care about the heat bubble that had kept me comfortable. Instantly, the burning sensation of extreme cold swept over me.

I almost sucked in a breath. I almost roared in pain—but managed to quell the instinct. I was a spacer, and such men have been trained for years to deal with vacuum and other extremes. Engaging my training, I held my breath and squinched my eyes tighter still.

Pain. A sweeping coat of frost ran over me that was beyond the range of my nerves to properly communicate to my brain. The model-D bots marched, and I rode on my plank between them for perhaps fifteen agonizing seconds.

Then, suddenly, I heard the swish of an airlock. Shivering from exposure, I felt a gush of warmer air—it was still cold, mind you. Artic cold. But it was survivable.

I dared to open one eye. The moisture on my cornea didn’t freeze immediately, so I opened the other.

“Where the hell are you bots taking me?” I finally rasped out.

Neither responded, and I didn’t dare speak again.

Carried like a hunter’s trophy-kill between them, I was taken down a corridor which turned, then went down another, longer corridor.

At last, we passed through an air-lock into a blissfully warm chamber. A bored looking clerk named Vera sat behind a desk. Her name was emblazoned on her forehead in green—a nice “improvement” for any worker.

Vera was human, or near-human. I deduced this from the fact she was middle-aged in appearance, a rare thing among androids and clones.

“Name?” she asked me.

“Captain Bill Gorman,” I said automatically, even though it wasn’t true. I wasn’t the real Bill Gorman. I was his insurance policy.

“Stand him up,” Vera said, and the model-D machines obeyed.

They released my manacles, and I staggered, almost unable to stand. My feet were tender, and the floor was burning hot to me.

“Clone resident 102-E…” she read aloud in the same bored tone. “Your benefactor has not paid your storage fee for three months. You have therefore been repossessed.”

“Uh…” I said, stunned. “Where does that leave me? I haven’t got any money.”

“It leaves you with nowhere to stay. You can’t stay here—it takes power and space to keep a man frozen. You don’t expect us to do it for free, do you?”

I shook my head. “No ma’am,” I said.

She looked me up and down, then shook her head. “We’ll never get our money back out of this case. I’ve seen this sort of thing before. Poor quality goods… abandonment...”

“Poor quality?” I asked, feeling insulted. I was fit and around thirty years old. I quickly changed my tone, however. I was naked, dripping, and my feet were on fire—getting angry wasn’t going to get me out of this. “Look, Vera… I’m very sorry, but I haven’t done anything wrong.”

“But you have the same mind as the man who did. Any clues as to where he might be found? To where we might forward your long-overdue bill?”

“Hmm…” I said, thinking of a dozen spots. I shook my head. “It’s been years… He has a ship, and he was working the frontier, that much I’m sure of. Out past the rim of the cluster in deep space.”

“Useless…” Vera muttered, making a note. Her face was full of disgust. “We already tried to sell you on the open market, but no one would pay our basic fee.”

“Sell me cheap, then,” I suggested. “A random sex-house or—”

She shook her head determinedly. “Our policy is to avoid lowering our prices. It only encourages deadbeat buy-backs and low-ball offers in the future.”

“So… what now?”

Vera sighed. “There’s nothing else for it.” She looked at the two model-D bots. “Disposal protocol. Load script—engage.”

The two androids grabbed me, and there was nothing gentle about their artificial hands. One hand grabbed each of my arms at the elbow, and the other two reached for my throat.




Chapter Two

As one of the model-Ds pushed a mindless plastic finger into my carotid, a wave of fatigue came over me. I fought back the urge to black out or vomit. I couldn’t pass out now. I had to stay alive. I had to get out of here and find out what had happened to me—the other me.

My original self, the non-clone guy, he might be alive or he might be dead. Either way, I wanted to know the truth. I only knew what he had known when he’d first made me—hopefully it would be enough.

“Wait!” I called out, struggling and straining to speak. There were plastic fingers in my mouth now, trying to rip my left cheek off. “I can get your money back for you!”

Vera looked away, shaking her head. She didn’t believe me, I could tell. I fired out a foot, kicking her desk. A lamp went over, crashing.

“That was an antique, you deadbeat bastard!” she said, standing and reaching for the broken pieces.

I slid my face away from one of the grippers. Despite my struggles, one of the androids caught my earlobe and tore it—making a bloody mess. The rubbery hand was full of ripped out hair and wet with gore. I’m a fairly strong man however, and I’ve had plenty of experience with being abused.

“Seriously lady, I can get your money back today—triple!”

Sighing as if she knew she would regret it later, the desk-monkey clerk spoke again in bored tones. “Pause program.”

The two mechanical monsters that held me froze. It was like they’d been coated in ice themselves. They didn’t release me, however, or give me any other kind of break. They just stopped their clumsy attempts to end my life.

Controlling my breathing, I managed to make eye-contact with Vera. “Thank you.”

“It’s way too early for any thanks. Explain your offer, Gorman.”

“It’s like this, ma’am: I happen to know where the real Captain Gorman might be—the original, I mean. I’ll go find him and get the money—”

Snorting and rolling her eyes, she made a flippant gesture. “Engage program.”

“Wait, wait!” I shouted, dodging the groping robots. “I can do better. I used to captain a ship. I used to have access to all kinds of funds. I know where Gorman keeps his emergency stash.”

Vera narrowed her eyes and let the robots grope me for a few seconds longer. “Halt program,” she said at last. “What stash?”

My tongue snaked out to taste blood. “Do you know anything about Bill Gorman?”

She shrugged. “He’s trash from the frontier. A loser who flies one of those smuggling boats around on the fringe.”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s right. He’s made some big scores out there. Smuggling, gun-running.”

“So what?”

“Well ma’am, I happen to know where he keeps the cash from his best missions.”

She snorted. “Your knowledge is years old. How do I know you can get anything out of some cubby that was probably plundered long ago?”

“It’s better than nothing. Right now, that’s all you’ve got.”

We locked eyes for a few moments. At last, she sighed. “I know I’m going to regret this, but I’ll bite. Where is this stash?”

“We’re in the main city on Prospero, right? The best city on the best planet in the middle of the Conclave zone?”

“Of course.”

“It’s not far from here. I can lead you right to it on foot.”

Vera narrowed her eyes and considered. While she dithered, I slowly talked up the stash until it was a dragon’s horde and then some. I knew she wasn’t thinking about giving the money to the storage company. She was thinking of skimming it for herself. Greed can unlock even the coldest of hearts.

“All right,” she said at last, “all right. Let’s take a little walk.”

She closed up shop, threw a paper-thin coverall at me and ordered her bots to march me outside. I led the group to one of the best districts in town.

Overall, Prospero was a pretty nice planet. All the Conclave worlds were as dull as concrete and overrun with bossy androids, but they were comfortable places to live.

Before we’d walked a block, holograms appeared and danced with us all over the sidewalk. They were selling something or other. We ignored them like everyone else did.

After walking the streets for a bit, I got my bearings. I took the trio up to the seventh floor of an apartment building and tested the third door on the right. The door was locked, and the apartment didn’t know me. All it did was beep and click every time I tried to open it.

“Damn, it’s stuck.”

The woman sighed. “You’re an idiot. You don’t live here anymore. The only person on this planet who’s dumber than you is me for believing you.”

“I used to keep an override down here,” I said, grunting and lifting the doormat. Sure enough, the hidden cubby I’d put down there under a fiber plank was still in place. An illusionary field had kept it hidden for years.

After fishing in a shallow groove, I straightened and turned away from the door. I had a pistol in my hand.

Vera sucked in a breath. She was surprised—privately-owned weapons were almost unknown on Conclave worlds. Still, she was a tough old bat. She bared her teeth and no doubt planned on ordering her androids to tear me apart.

I shook my head. “Stay quiet—or you die first.”

Her snarl froze. Maybe she didn’t have a clone stashed for herself. Or maybe she didn’t relish the prospects of dying on the floor in this glitzy corridor.

“You’re not getting away with this, Gorman,” she told me quietly. “This is Prospero. You don’t pull a gun on people here.”

“No, you just tear out their throats for being late on the rent.”

“You’re not a person. You’re property.”

I waved the pistol at her, and she quieted. “Listen, I don’t have time to argue. I’m leaving, and you’re not following me. For what it’s worth, I do plan on repaying you when I can. After all, I’d be dead if you hadn’t agreed to cut me a break.”

Considering my words, she allowed me to walk away. I could tell she wasn’t happy about the situation, but she wasn’t enraged to the point of irrationality, either.

Riding the elevator downward, I reached the main floor just as the first patrol unit arrived. Apparently, Vera hadn’t been completely satisfied with my reassurances.

The robot guardian was a big model-K type. Ks were smarter than the model-D workers, but still dumb and unimaginative. They could talk and reason—after a fashion.

“Halt, human! You’re under arrest.”

That was as far as the guardian got before I shot him in the chest. He staggered back, but he didn’t go down. He had a rugged chassis.

“A violation has been recorded. Stage Two status reached. Defensive protocols engaged.”

The robot reached for its pistol. I shot his arm off—it was a good bit of marksmanship, if I had to say so myself.

The guardian was undeterred. He approached, reaching out with one gripper and one ruined, smoking stump of plastic.

Glancing upward, I shot the chandelier on the ceiling. It took three charges to melt the chain enough to drop it.

The guardian never saw it coming—like I said, they weren’t imaginative. He seemed comically surprised when the metal and glass mess smashed him down onto the carpet.

His one good hand came out of the pile, and it pointed a plastic finger at me. “Two more violations have been recorded: Property damage. Injuring an officer in pursuit of legitimate duties. This last charge is a felony.”

“Thanks for the update,” I told him, and I walked quickly to the elevator lobby where a door was opening.

The elevator disgorged a few residents. They screamed and ran when they saw my gun and the smoking, complaining wreck of the guardian on the floor. I trotted after the slowest of them and grabbed a young woman as she tried to escape.

Big eyes studied me. The girl was twenty-something and cute. Her hair was long, straight and reddish-brown. Her face registered shock. On Conclave worlds, crime was very rare. It was probably the first time she’d seen someone shoot an android down—just witnessing such things was illegal, even on the entertainment networks.

“You’re touching me,” she said. “You can’t do that.”

“The rules are different today.”

“This is a crime.”

I nodded patiently. I could tell she was as innocent as Vera had been crusty. The youth of the upper class tended to be clueless on the safest worlds. “Yes. I’m a criminal, and this is a gun. I’m going to use it to make you follow my instructions.”

She licked her lips and panted slightly. A tremor of fear ran through her. She didn’t know what to do or say.

“Listen,” I told her, “what’s your name?”

“Rose… but my friends call me Rosy.”

“Right, okay Rose. Listen, all I want you to do is touch the elevator panel. I need you to have it send me to the roof.”

Rose blinked, but she did as I asked. I let her go when I stepped into the elevator. Oddly, she didn’t run. She just stood there, staring at me with a stunned expression as the doors slid shut. Damn, some people were really sheltered here on Prospero.

The elevator shot upward. I knew more guardians would be swarming the place soon. They weren’t going to give up now after I’d smashed one of them. In fact, the more damage you did on a Conclave world, the more excited the local authorities became. They were like a beehive that way.

Fortunately, I had an advantage: I knew Rose would promptly tell them I was headed to the roof.

Hitting the emergency override, I halted the elevator on the fourth floor, shoved a potted plant between the doors so they couldn’t close and hurried to the far end of the corridor.

I’d grabbed more out of my stash than just one slim pistol. I had a few thin credit pieces and a single data-strip. The pistol went into my pocket even though it was almost too heavy for the papery fabric. That woman, Vera, had cheaped-out in every way she could.

Using the data-strip, I managed to get the window open. It was a fire escape, and legally every resident in this complex had to have access to open it. I’d once lived here, and although I’d hated the place, I’d taken certain precautions in case one of my off-world deals had gone badly enough to force a sudden exit. That escape plan was in operation right now.

Outside the window, the fire escape was a rickety affair. There wasn’t a ladder or even a railing out here. Instead, there was an escape pod, a cupola you were supposed to climb into and sit inside of. The cupola, once fired, would whisk you away to a predetermined safe-spot and dump you there, returning automatically for more passengers.

I engaged the pod, feeling mildly sick as it whirled and swooped over the heads of a dozen guardians and humans in the streets outside. As testimony to the poor quality of their software, not one of the guardians looked up to see who was escaping and how. Instead, they were resolutely marching into the building, probably heading up to the roof where they imagined their quarry was trapped.

Landing in a park square, I stepped out of the pod, brushed myself off and walked calmly away. A few jaws dropped and a few people took snaps with their implants—but I didn’t see any angry frowns. The people in the nicest districts weren’t used to crime of any kind. They were simply baffled.

After a hundred steps and a few turns, I was only getting a few odd glances. At that point I snatched a sun hat off a sleeping bum on a bench and put it on. Every world had bums, no matter how rich and civilized they were. The guy sat up to complain, but I kept moving.

A hundred more steps, and I was lost in the crowds. The face recognition software in a thousand street cameras was probably searching for me, but I had my hat pulled low, and I walked with a practiced hunch. It was hard to identify a man who knew how to avoid it—and I knew all the tricks.

After a dozen small thefts on the streets, I had completely changed my appearance. The key was to avoid stealing nice things—I stole garbage. Worn-out clothes, dirty shoes and a flimsy disposable shirt and pants that had been discarded into overflowing cans—crap that no one would miss.






Chapter Three

It took hours of dodging around town, but I finally managed to reach the spaceport. Naturally, I didn’t walk into the passenger terminal and wave my pistol around demanding a ride. That would never fly on this planet.

Instead, I headed to the commercial zone. That was the biggest part of any spaceport and also the zone most folks never saw.

Employees here had implants in their fingertips that allowed them to pass through doors and gates. The easiest thing to do would have been to snip off an extra digit and carry it in my pocket—but I wasn’t that kind of guy. Instead, I thumped my pistol on the skull of a bewildered near-human driving a garbage cart. Lifting his limp thumb to the gate entrance, I soon had it gliding open for me.

I sat the fallen garbage man on his cart, letting his head loll forward. It looked like he was taking a well-earned nap—which he was. The cart revved irritably, wanting to roll off on its endless quest for more trash to consume. The garbage man and I both ignored its impatience. Hopefully, the cart would wait for at least a half hour before reporting a maintenance problem. I needed a little time.

Inside the freight zone of the spaceport, I walked around like I owned the place. I’d managed to lift a pair of rumpled coveralls that looked exactly like everyone else’s. Blending in was easy—but escaping on a ship wasn’t.

Every berth was accounted for. Every carton was sealed, weighed and handled by humorless robots.

The best thing about androids is they’re easy to fool—the worst thing is you can’t con them or bribe them. They don’t have any motivations beyond completing their assigned tasks.

Sirens whirred outside then cut out suddenly. They were getting smarter. Why tell the quarry you’re closing in? Real predators creep up and pounce rather than issue a challenge.

As a man who’d fled a hundred planets in a hurry, the situation should have been easy to manage. But this time was different. I had no support network here. Sure, someone in this spaceport could probably be bribed or convinced to do something off-script—but I didn’t have time to find them. Everyone I talked to was a boring straight-arrow—useless.

Getting desperate, I exited the freight area as the security forces entered.  They’d found the garbage man and his cart, that had to be it. Damn.

Taking metal stairs two at a time, I sprinted up to a door and tried it. The door buzzed angrily, but it let me pass.

Stepping into the passenger terminal, I looked around. I tried not to appear panicked. Taking on a task at random, I walked to the nearest trash can and pulled out a sack of trash. I took the trash into an alcove marked employees only and dumped it there. Then I went back for the next load.

All the while, I was casing the place, looking for an angle. There had to be something—some way out.

To my surprise, I noticed someone was watching me. She was smallish, young…

“Rose?” I asked, aghast.

She walked up to me hesitantly. She was staring. She had big pretty eyes and a small chin. She studied me with fascination, the way a mouse might eye a snake that isn’t hungry yet.

“I found you,” she said.

“Uh… yes. Nice to see you again. If you could excuse me—”

“I traced you with my implants,” she said. “When you touched me, I caught your imprint. I used a search feature and—”

“Yes, of course,” I said, feeling very glad I hadn’t touched one of the guardians. They probably had the same capabilities.

“You’re not from Prospero. You’re not even registered here. I don’t see how you came to be on my world.”

“It’s a mystery, but right now, I need to get off your lovely homeworld. People don’t like me here.”

She blinked a few times. “I’ll get you off-world.”

“What? How?”

“Come with me. You’re my unregistered servant. Just don’t talk.”

Rose turned and walked away. I hesitated. Following this innocent to God-knew-where was insane. She was as likely to walk me to the guardian station as anywhere else—but I could see pairs of androids walking around on the tarmac outside the terminal now. They were closing in.

Sucking in a deep breath, I followed after Rose.

We walked past one commercial flight after another. Each terminal adjoined to a shuttle—a vehicle that amounted to a flying bus—these shuttles whisked passengers away to distant blast-pans. The blast pans were scattered like craters all around the vast field. They were shaped dishes of concrete that kept the exhaust and radiation of each lifting spaceship from roasting everyone around it.

Once past the commercial flights, I reached out and touched Rose’s shoulder. She spun around, her eyes full of fear.

“Rose,” I said, “where are you taking me? The commercial flights are all—”

“I’m taking you past this area, to the private sector.”

I blinked. “You’re rich…”

“My mother is. She’s an Elector.”

“Seriously?” I asked, stunned. Electors were minor members of the Conclave: upper class rulers that ran the human worlds.

I couldn’t believe my luck. Of all the people I had to accost, it had to be the daughter of the elite. No wonder the entire city’s guardian force had turned out to track down a single escaped clone.

“Why are you helping me?” I asked her.

For the first time, Rose looked troubled. She studied the floor between us.

“I don’t know… you’re different. You didn’t harm me—but you’re still frightening. After we met… I couldn’t stop thinking about you.”

“Okay… fine. What’s the plan?”

“Don’t talk. Follow me. I’ll get you aboard and off-planet. Once we’re at a free port, you’ll be able to go wherever you want.”

I wasn’t so sure about that. I had no identity, no wealth. Perhaps Rose could escape her dull reality this way. Perhaps she’d planned it out a thousand times in her head and was even now vicariously experiencing her fantasies through me.

But none of that mattered. I needed to get off of Prospero and out into the free shipping lanes. At least out there, I stood a chance.

More importantly, once I was in space, I knew I had friends. The farther away from the Conclave worlds I could get, the better.

Rose led me to a private area of the spaceport. Here, the bustle and noise of the commercial zone was left behind. The music was tranquil, the people either lovely or obsequious.

“Mistress O’Neal,” a servile flight agent said. He bowed so deeply, I thought he might injure his back. “How can we help you today?”

“I need access to my mother’s sloop,” she said.

The flight agent’s eyes fluttered over me and then her. He dared to entertain a frown for a few seconds, but the moment soon passed. “Is this flight scheduled? Your mother’s ship is in maintenance mode. The flight crew—”

Rose lifted a hand. She spoke with authority. “Stop program. Override.”

The flight agent experienced a shiver. It was only then I realized he was an android. He was so damned real… A model-Q, I imagined. You only saw them on the inner Conclave worlds.

“Restarting,” the agent said. He looked at us again, as if just meeting us for the first time. “Mistress O’Neal,” he said, bowing low again. “How can we help you today?”

“What crew member units do you have on hand? I wish to rent them.”

“Of course. We have a full complement… for what vessel?”

“The Dawn Star,” she said. “My mother’s yacht.”

“Of course… seven personnel are recommended. They’re being activated now. Your mother’s ship, however—”

“It’s in maintenance mode, I know. Discontinue maintenance.”

“That will require a priority override.” He held out a hand with slim fingers. His perfectly shaped palm was turned up and waiting.

Rose didn’t hesitate. She touched her fingers to his palm, authorizing the changes and making a payment.

The android’s smile flickered. “Done. Here is your crew now.”

He turned and indicated a set of doors. They slid open and seven androids stood there. They looked like people, pretty much—but they weren’t. They were probably model-Ks, except maybe for the captain. He was probably a model-Q like this kiss-up flight agent.

After a few more minutes, signings and approvals, we found ourselves gliding out to the waiting ship. I eyed the vessel from a triangular porthole.

“She’s a sleek ship. The Dawn Star, you said?”

Rose turned to me in alarm. She gave me a tiny shake of the head. I shut up immediately.

The android crewmembers eyed me strangely. They’d ignored me up until this moment. I wondered if I’d blown it somehow. These androids were programmed to obey Rose, but they were also tattle-tales. Maybe Rose had restrictions on her. Maybe her parents didn’t want her riding their sloop with a human friend—especially not a male stranger.

“Unit Gorman,” Rose said. “Discontinue companion program.”

I hesitated, but only for a moment. “Script halted,” I said in a neutral tone.

After that, the crew stopped staring at me. Following their lead, I gazed blankly at the nearest wall and maintained a spooky silence all the way out to the waiting yacht.




Chapter Four

“So,” Rose asked shyly, “you’re a criminal, right?”

“That’s what they tell me,” I said. “But I prefer to think of myself as a free-spirited individual.”

Rose laughed at my explanation, which was the right response. Perhaps there was hope for her yet.

We both sat around a table on the upper deck saloon. We’d carefully waited until the android crewmembers were at their stations on other decks before speaking. Once we’d reached orbit, Rose seemed to relax. Perhaps we were out of the reach of her parents—but I wasn’t so sure.

“A free spirit? The words are ludicrous on the face of it, and yet they do seem to describe your approach to things. Now, my next question—you do agree that I’m owed a few answers after having helped you escape justice, don’t you?”

“Absolutely, but I’m not escaping justice, I’m escaping a great injustice.”

“How so?”

I quickly explained that I was a clone and how I’d been slated for removal. She seemed sympathetic, but disappointed.

“You’re not really a captain from the frontier then, are you? You’ve never really been out there.”

Her words troubled me. I thought them over, then shook my head. “I disagree. I’m as real as anyone. My memories are reality.”

“But only for you. Your flesh, your bones—they were never out at Tau Ceti or Orion.”

I leaned forward, sipping one of the beverages the androids had handed to us before retreating to the lower decks. It was light green, fizzy, slightly sweet and very refreshing. I suspected the alcohol content was low, but it was still noticeable.

“I read once,” I said, “that all the cells in our body die and are replaced every decade or so. Therefore, the flesh you are wearing now is completely unrelated to the body that walked Prospero as a child. Your early memories belong to a completely different set of cells.”

Rose frowned. “That’s a disturbing thought.”

“Not really. But it should establish that clones are people too. Besides, I suspect that my original form is dead. That’s why he stopped paying the rent on my existence.”

“But no one reported you dead, right?”

I laughed. “No, not to the Conclave. But that means nothing. Most of the things I’ve done in life the Conclave has no knowledge of.”

She smiled. “That brings me back to my second question: what kind of crimes have you committed?”

There was a sparkle of real excitement in her eye, and I knew then why she’d followed me, why she’d helped me escape, and why she seemed fascinated with me even now. Her life was dull and she’d grown tired of it. She wanted adventure—or at least she thought she did—and I was the closest she’d ever come to it.

“I’m a merchant who trades in special goods out along the rim. Things you can’t get easily.”

“Illegal things?”

I shrugged. “Sometimes.”

“Like what? Weapons? Drugs? Slaves?”

“Weapons, mostly. Occasionally I give a berth to a special, paying customer.”

“Fugitives and gun-running then…”

“What do you know of such things?”

“The vids talk about them. Violence is forbidden on a personal level, even in entertainment or news netcasts. But I’ve seen enough vids of ships being chased down and destroyed by patrol vessels.”

One of the androids made an appearance then. I froze in place and didn’t even look at it. My hand crept away from the beverage.

“Can I serve you, Mistress?” asked the female bot.

“Yes. Two more green fizzies, please.”

“Two?”

“Yes.”

The android might have glanced at me, or she might not have, it was hard to tell while you are staring into space like a dummy.

Finally, the android retreated.

Rose leaned forward and lowered her voice. “They’re beginning to suspect you’re human.”

“Let them. We’re clear of the surface, and we’ll soon be on the transom to the way-station.”

“Yes, but… they’ll tattle on me. I’ll get in trouble.”

I glanced at her, and I considered for the tenth time asking her to accompany me abroad. Once we reached the way-station, we were to part ways. I was going to be transmitted out to the fringe, where I belonged. She was going to return to her dull life.

The problem was that neither one of us seemed anxious to separate.

“Where can we go?” I asked. “Where we can talk in private?”

The android stewardess returned and placed two more green drinks in front of Rose. Rose studied her drink for a long moment until the android left, then she handed it over to me. I gulped and sighed. I had memories of adult beverages, but my newly grown cells had never actually experienced one.

“I have an android charging station in my quarters,” she said at last. “It’s no more than a closet, but…”

“I accept the invitation.”

Quietly, hearts pounding, we took our drinks to her cabin and quietly closed the door. She snicked shut the locks, and we both drank with more gusto. After we’d finished two fizzies each, I realized I was feeling it. There had to be a narcotic lace to the beverage.

By this time, we were both sitting on the only piece of furniture in the cabin: a fold-down bed that pulled out and locked into place.

“You’re quite a puzzle, Rose,” I told her. “I don’t usually get this kind of hospitality after putting a gun in a girl’s face.”

She giggled. Her face was flushed. “Count yourself lucky—and stop wasting time.”

That was it for me, I needed no more encouragement. I reached for her, and she melted against me. She seemed nervous despite the drinks. I might not have been the first man she’d stowed away in this cabin, but I was definitely the first dangerous fugitive.

Hours later, the door began to chime. It was a soft, gentle sound. After the fourth chime or so, Rose pushed me out of bed.

“Into the closet!” she said, pointing.

Reluctantly, I folded myself into a tight space and stood at attention. She shut the door but I could still hear her as she opened the cabin.

“Captain?” she asked. “What’s the matter?”

“I’m so sorry, Mistress. I’m afraid there’s been a terrible mistake.”

“What mistake?”

“Your passenger—the companion model. There’s a patrol boat following us. They’re demanding that we turn him over to them.”

Shit. I considered bursting out of my cabinet and attacking him, but I restrained myself.

“Why would they do that?” I heard Rose ask.

“Where is your companion, Mistress?”

A hard edge had entered the voice of the android. He was a model-Q, far from an idiot, and he had orders that superseded hers.

“Um…” Rose said, “he’s in the closet, of course. He’s a companion-type. A model-K, I think.”

The captain stepped inside the cabin, moved quietly to my closet and threw the door wide open.

“There you are,” the captain said.

I looked at him quietly. How do you fool an android? I’m no expert. There weren’t many of them out on the fringe where I was from. The Conclave worlds love these things—but I found them disturbing.

“Captain Gorman,” the android said, startling me. “We’ve been required to fire our braking jets in order to allow a patrol ship to take custody of you. Please come with me.”

“I’m not Captain Gorman,” I said evenly, not budging from my narrow closet.

The android’s expression didn’t change. “Excellent,” he said. “In that case, this is all a matter of misunderstanding and human error. I thought that might be the case. The odds in these situations always skew to such causes.”

I nodded. “Very good. Now that we’ve sorted out this misunderstanding, you can accelerate. Rose is anxious to be on her way.”

The captain kept smiling, but he didn’t go away. “That is impossible, I’m afraid. We are already engaging the forward braking thrusters. Don’t you feel it?”

Right on cue, I did feel it. The ship shuddered, and our bodies were pushed lightly toward the prow. A few seconds later, the ship shuddered again. A luxury yacht would be well-equipped with inertial dampeners, but apparently we were braking so hard that they were being overcome.

“What an inconvenience,” I said in a neutral tone. Secretly, my heart was pounding and my armpits were trickling with sweat—but I didn’t let on.

“I’m so sorry,” Rose said, touching my arm sweetly.

She wore a real look of regret on her face. Clearly, she expected me to be apprehended and arrested. I didn’t think this was part of her plan—but she now saw the outcome as inevitable.

“Very well,” I said. “Let’s go to the main hatch, shall we?”

“That’s most cooperative of you, Gorman,” the captain said. “I had assumed you might attempt resistance. The patrolmen said as much.”

“Nonsense. This is all a misunderstanding.”

He nodded again. “As you say. This way, please.”

This was the critical moment. Would the captain let me get behind him? He obviously knew I was lying, but he was no combat model. Smart, competent, orderly—but not programmed as a guardian.

“After you,” I said, stepping out of my shallow closet and standing meekly at his side. “I don’t know the way.”

The captain hesitated. I could almost see the circuitry in his brain spooling up and spitting thoughts. At last, after perhaps a single, awkward second, he walked ahead of us. The passage was only about a meter wide and two tall. There wasn’t room to walk abreast. I followed him, and Rose followed me.

I considered asking her to stay behind in her cabin. I really did. She’d been kind to me, and I had no desire to upset her life any further.

But there wasn’t any more time for niceties. The ship shuddered again, probably losing another thousand kilometers an hour of velocity.

Rose was mild, even sweet. Up until this moment, she’d only seen the aftermath of my sometimes violent path through life. I didn’t want her to witness the full truth of it, but sadly, it couldn’t be helped.

When I saw no other android crewmen in the passage, I reached forward, gripping the captain’s wrist.

His flesh was of the highest quality. It didn’t feel like plastic, it felt like real skin. Perhaps the arm hairs were a little too stiff and wiry against my palm to be natural—but I was still impressed by how real he seemed.

Holding onto his wrist, hooking his ankle and pushing at the back of his shoulder, I caused him to trip and spin around as he fell. He smashed his face on a protruding rung of a ladder. The force of my shove and his weight wrenched his neck to one side.

Something internal cracked. In a real human, that sound would have indicated the breaking of neck vertebrae.

I let go of him, allowing him to crash the rest of the way down to the floor. Behind me, Rose was making gasping, hitching sounds. I was sure she’d never witnessed violence like this.

I didn’t dare console her, however, as the captain wasn’t done yet. He sprang back up, showing surprising vigor. I guess they’d built him to do more than serve drinks. In an emergency, he had to be rugged and strong enough to keep his passengers alive.

With a wobbling step, he turned to face me. His hands were raised, not in a professional fighter’s stance, but in a clearly defensive posture. His head hung sideways and dangled there, suspended by three bundles of thick cords. The artificial eyes in that decapitated head roved over me. He stared at me, even though his face was upside down and flopping around on his chest. The overall effect was ghastly.

The captain rushed me, hands upraised like claws. Rose screamed, but I paid her no heed. My slim pistol was in my hand, but we were too close, and I knew shooting him in the chest probably wouldn’t stop him.

We grappled, and I struggled with his frantically grasping artificial limbs. They flailed over me, tearing and gouging. Blood ran down my ribs from a wound in my chest.

Jamming the pistol down into the open hole where his dangling head had once sat, I squeezed the trigger. I released two bursts, then two more.

The life went out of the captain, and he clattered onto the deck.

Two other androids soon appeared. They were service-types, no more than glorified waiters.

“What’s happened?” one of them asked.

“There was an accident,” I said smoothly, toeing the smoldering remains of the captain. “He’s malfunctioned.”

I turned to Rose, who released a single sob. She had her hands to her face, and several fingers in her mouth. Her expression informed me that I was unlikely to be seen as a dashing adventurer in the foreseeable future.

“Rose?” I said to her gently. “I’m taking this ship. Do you want to accompany me? Or do you want to go home?”

She chewed on her hands some more and stared down at the tangled mess on the deck. “Would you do that to a person? Would you do that to me?”

“Not to you, never.”

She looked up again, and there was new wisdom in her gaze. She’d led a very sheltered life. She’d never seen true violence, neither on a screen nor in person. I’d taken the romance out of it for her.

Finally, she shook her head. “I can’t go on with you. I… I thought I could, but I can’t. The fringe, where you’re from… it must be awful out there.”

I smiled with half my mouth. “Sometimes it is. It’s definitely more interesting than the Conclave. For me, it’s home.”

Rose nodded as if she was dreaming. She stared down at the ruined captain, and she never looked me in the eyes again.




Chapter Five

Subduing the rest of the crew was easy. They weren’t very smart, but more importantly, they’d just lost their leader. Without their model-Q captain to direct them, they couldn’t override the will of any human.

Using a lifepod in the belly of the yacht, I fired Rose out into the void with a twinge of regret. I’d truly enjoyed our short time together—but we were too different. It would never have worked out. She was too innocent and there was no way to guarantee her safety.

Once the lifepod was away, I turned the yacht’s thrusters up to full. The ship surged, having an overpowered engine and no cargo to burden her. She thrummed and thrummed louder until the sound became a roar.

A few baffled crewmen stood around me. They made suggestions now and then, asking me to slow down, to turn around, to contact the patrol ship that trailed us and inform them of our emergency situation.

Needless to say, I did none of these things. I didn’t even acknowledge their prattling words, but I did keep an eye on them. It was possible that someone aboard the patrol ship could breach the yacht’s firewall and place a command into their brains remotely. If they began to openly rebel, it would be a problem.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen. We soon approached the slip-gate entrance. This was my next challenge.

A row of ships waited in a neat line to fly through the gate. Each had an assigned position in the queue and a slew of electronic documents that had been automatically stamped and approved by a dozen handshaking computers.

The whole bureaucratic mess was automated for the most part—but I had no documentation whatsoever. My plan was to use their system against them. Following rigid routines was the norm at Conclave worlds for both androids as well as humans. I was counting on them to maintain their lockstep discipline.

Timing was particularly essential to my escape. The patrol ship behind me might be able to order the crew who operated the slip-gate—whether they were human or not—to shut it down or deploy weaponry. I couldn’t give them the time they needed to execute such a plan if they were smart enough to come up with it.

Gritting my teeth, I fired up the engines and set their thrust to maximum. We were soon careening through space, regaining the velocity lost through braking a few minutes before.

As our speed increased, I abused the ship’s navigational system. I forced it to operate in ways that had never been intended. Using the Dawn Star’s pricey sensor array, I locked onto a large freighter ahead. It was following a measured course at precisely the recommended speed. Gliding along, it would enter the slip-gate in the next few minutes.

My plan was dicey in several ways. First off, if the freighter slowed or otherwise altered course, the gate would blink open and shut at the wrong moment, destroying my newly stolen yacht. Secondly, I had to get very close to the freighter while moving about three thousand kilometers an hour faster than she was, timing it so we both entered the gate at the same moment.

Proximity and speed—that was a combination that had provided many pilots an easy way to die in space. But there was no way around it. The field would only open for the blink of an eye. The gateway would be small, with only a spare fifteen percent or so of wiggle room around it. Opening a slip-gate took copious amounts of power, and power always cost money. Always. Therefore, the operators would open and close a small gateway for the briefest span possible.

Choosing a fat vessel to slip through with improved my odds of threading this needle. The nimbus of space around her would be larger and open for a fraction of a second longer than it might for a smaller vessel.

Checking the numbers twice, I finally looked forward. My eyes locked onto the distant flashing pinprick of light that was the blinking gate. I dared to smile. Escape was at hand.

At that moment, my new ship shuddered. It lurched and began to rotate in a flat spin.

I knew what had happened in an instant. The patrol ship had fired on me, nailing my tail section. Perhaps the patrolmen had divined my plan, and they sought to stop me at all costs. I was both surprised and impressed that any Conclave officer possessed the balls to do such a thing.

Struck hard by the blast, my android crewmen were flying around the command deck like so many mannequins. They hadn’t strapped in—no one had ordered them to do so.

Fortunately, I’d had the foresight to properly secure myself in the pilot’s seat. A harness crisscrossed my body, and it cinched up automatically as G-forces tugged at me laterally.

As a pilot, I’ve dealt with many dire situations. The first thing I did was flip off all the automatics and safe-guards. Ship-board computers took a dim view of seat-of-the pants flying, so I had to stop them from interfering.

Gripping the manual sticks, I soon realized my main engine was out, but my lateral thrusters were still operating. So were my forward braking jets.

Spinning the craft around one more time, I leveled her off so she was flying straight again—but straight backwards. Then I goosed the braking jets on the nose, which sped the yacht up just enough to match speeds with the freighter I planned to piggy-back on.

A comm light was blinking on the main panel. Reluctantly, I opened a communications channel.

Dawn Star!” shouted the ship’s speakers. The voice was human, which slightly surprised me. “You must heave-to! You will be destroyed with our next salvo.”

Previously, I’d refused to respond to any transmissions the patrol ship had sent. Unfortunately, they’d left me no choice.

“Patrol officer,” I said. “We’re unable to comply. Our engines are damaged—”

“Liar!” he roared at me. “You’re burning your braking jets right now. Steer away from the slip-gate or so help me I’ll blow you out of the sky, Gorman!”

My teeth bared themselves. In about ninety seconds, I would reach the slip-gate—but I had the distinct feeling I wasn’t going to make it. Worse, I was out of ideas…

Then something came to me. A trick I hadn’t played yet.

“Patrolman, hold your fire. Rose Engels was injured in your last attack, but she yet lives. Will you kill her, the daughter of a faithful Elector of the Conclave?”

“More lies. She’s in the lifepod you ejected a million kilometers back. We’ve already—”

“Spoken with her? Yes, of course. It was a ruse, you fool. She wants to escape your dull planet. She recorded those words to make you believe she died in this action.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Think about it. You’re brighter than these androids. How could I have escaped without help? How could I have gained her cooperation so quickly? She’s been helping me all along. If you wait a few more minutes, you’ll see the lifepod tragically self-destruct. That fiction was to keep you from hunting us, we’re two lovers—”

“Shut up. You’re lying—and you’re stalling. I’m going to gun your ship down, Gorman.”

I opened my mouth to say more, but the channel had gone dead. He’d closed it.



The last twenty seconds to the slip-gate were gut-wrenching. I had to wonder if each heartbeat was going to be my last. After all, I’d been bluffing hard, and the patrol-ship captain had suspected it.

My only hope was that he just didn’t have the guts to blast me out of the sky—not when Rose might be aboard the Dawn Star.

In the end, as I slid away into the blinking eye of white radiance with the freighter, I thought I saw the patrol ship fire again.

Maybe he’d actually spoken with Rose by that time, or perhaps he’d obtained permission from the ground—it didn’t matter. The yacht was in sub-space before the bolts had a chance to reach us. I was gone a moment later, riding the rails of hyperspace that linked one of our star systems to the next.

“That was rough,” I sighed, turning off the gravity and releasing my restraints. All around me, androids struggled to stand. They made feeble complaints. I ignored them, demanding a globe of real coffee. Somehow, one of them managed to bring it to me a few minutes later. One of the robot’s plastic fingers was missing, and another was twisted up at an odd angle.

“Repair yourselves,” I ordered. “And repair the ship in any way you can.”

Glad to have instructions, the androids stopped milling around without a purpose. I gave them a half-gravity setting to make their work easier, then retired to the ship’s nicest cabin.

The trip through hyperspace wouldn’t last forever, but it was enough time to get some rest. I headed for Rose’s comfortable bunk. After all the excitement, I felt I could use a short nap.




Chapter Six

I awoke to gentle chimes. Snorting and sitting up, I pulled together my kit and hit the shower. I came out feeling refreshed.

Reaching the bridge, I found the androids were still awake, and still looking lost. Several of them tried to give me food and coffee—I took the coffee.

“Do you have any stims?” I asked them. “I’d kill for a stim right now.”

They blinked at me. “A stimulant? What type—?”

I snapped my fingers irritably. “A smoking stick, a stim! Have you got them or not?”

They looked baffled. It was just my luck, these robots were straight-arrows. Stims were almost illegal on Prospero.

Leaving the bridge, I ransacked the ship. I found some old brandy, and a silver case that looked promising. I couldn’t get it open as my thumbprint didn’t match.

“That belongs to Master Engels, Rose’s father,” one of the bots told me unhelpfully.

“Is that so? Well, it just so happens he told me I could use any of his things I wanted the last time I saw him.”

“Oh…” said the model-K, retreating. “I’m sorry, sir.”

I finally pried the silver case open with a screwdriver and found it was full of slim, white sticks. I smiled, lit one up, and puffed on it eagerly.

“Damn… it’s been years.”

In reality, I’d never actually smoked a stim. I was a clone who remembered the sensation—but I didn’t like to think about that.

A few hours later, I reached the exit leaving hyperspace. I had no idea what planet I’d be arriving at, but I knew that the captain of the freighter I’d hitched a ride with would be angry when we got there. He’d contact authorities, and the chase would continue.

I ate a hearty breakfast made for two—the androids kept asking me where Rose was, and I didn’t have the heart to tell them she’d abandoned ship lightyears ago. Next, I took stock of things. I needed a plan. Fortunately, this wasn’t the first time I’d evaded custom agents and the like. It wasn’t even the first spacecraft I’d stolen. Ideas came to mind.

When the big moment of arrival came, I shut off all the drives and the power aboard the bridge. I depressurized much of the ship and switched off the complaining androids as well.

Drifting on the bridge, with no powered-gravity, no light other than flickering reds running on batteries, I let the ship float and play dead.

Something like twelve minutes later, the pressure doors were forced open. It took all my willpower to play limp and harmless. I naturally wanted to flee—but there was nowhere to go. I couldn’t cross another entire star system with my braking jets. Without full engine power, playing the same trick again at another slip-gate was out of the question. Not even Conclave patrolmen are that dumb.

My biggest worry was that the patrol boat that had fired upon me would come through after me. There was no instant way to communicate between star systems, fortunately. To get the word out about my crimes he would have to fly through the gate himself and report in person.

The odds were slim on that score. Patrol ships followed regulations. They stayed in their own star systems. They weren’t true military, after all. They were more like traffic cops, and they respected borders and jurisdictions as if they were religious tenets.

Whoever had boarded my ship, they “rescued” me and took me into a medical module. The model-Q doctor they had aboard soon determined I wasn’t injured. After staging a wake-up and yawn, I pretended to be startled to see them.

Six sets of eyes looked at me. They weren’t the kind of eyes I was expecting, however. I’d kind of figured I’d end up at one of the other nearby Conclave worlds. The inner Conclave planets were all similar, populated mostly by humans and androids mocked up to look like humans.

But these guys… they weren’t patrolmen or robots. They weren’t any kind of official at all—they were thugs. Burly near-humans with shoulders like apes. The only plastic guy aboard was the android doctor.

They had big heads, big jaws, and fingers like sausages. No one was smiling. There was no hint of any emotion—just deadpan stares in my direction.

“You hurt?” asked the nearest. He had an accent they would have called Asian back on Old Terra. His cap gleamed with gold braids on the brim—this marked him as the captain.

“No, I don’t think so,” I said. “Where am I?”

“This is Scorpii. I am Jort.”

“Ah…” I said, catching on at last. “Of course. Scorpii… A high-gravity world—pretty far out from the Conclave, but not all the way out to the fringe.”

They looked at one another and rippled their overly-muscled arms. Captain Jort spoke again.

“You full-human?”

“Yes.”

“What happen your ship?”

“An accident, I believe. Something went wrong as I—”

The captain jabbed his thumb over his shoulder. “The freighter captain says you crazy. He says you almost wreck his ship. Why you fly like that?”

“What? Wait, wait a second. I wasn’t flying. I’m a passenger. My pilot and captain were flying the vessel.”

“We found captain-robot. He broke. You break him?”

“No, no. As I said, the ship was struck by something.”

“You were shot in the fantail. Lots of damage. Engine wrecked.”

My face fell. “That’s very unfortunate. Listen, I need to get back to Prospero. You seem like a kind, generous man. If you can see your way to lending me the deposit for a few days in dry-dock—”

“This is Scorpii,” Captain Jort scoffed. “We don’t lend you nothing!”

It was a double-negative, but I knew better than to correct his grammar.

“Hmm…” I said, frowning. “All my funds are tied up in this ship, you see. I don’t have enough to pay—”

“No pay? No pay?” Jort stood up, and his chest swelled as his pectorals jumped under his tunic. Apparently, I’d struck upon some kind of taboo.

He thrust a fat finger at me. He wasn’t very tall, shorter than I was, in fact. The powerful gravitational pull of his planet must have compressed his skeleton over the years. But what he lacked in height he more than made up for in brawn. His fat finger stabbed me right in the chest. The sensation was like being poked by an old master’s cane.

I looked up at him. “Maybe we can make a deal.”

“A deal?”

“A bargain. A trade.”

“What you got to trade? You got no money. You got no engine. You got nothing. We throw you back on your wreck and kick you into space to drift.”

I nodded thoughtfully. “You could do that—or you could make a lot of credits. Here, have a stim.”

Shaking one of my few stims out of the broken silver case, I offered it to him. He eyed it warily, but he took it at last. They were probably frowned upon here as well—but Captain Jort didn’t strike me as a man who followed every rule in the book.

At last, he sat down again. My stim poked out of his blubbery lips and aromatic smoke soon filled the cabin.

Within minutes, I’d struck a quick deal with him. I sold him the Dawn Star, plus six androids and the captain for spare parts. I did so at a terrible loss, gaining no more than a tenth the value.

The captain was crude, but he was no idiot. By the end of the negotiations, he seemed to grasp that the ship must be stolen. But the yellow light of greed was in his eyes by now. He was drooling to take the ship from me at a fire-sale price.

We shook hands, and I had to count my fingers after he released them from his iron grip. I’d been born on a world that had about twenty percent too much gravity, but Scorpii had nearly double that.

The near-humans took the ship and towed it away quickly, dropping me off at a nearby station. From there, I used a few of the credits Jort had transferred to obtain passage down to Scorpii itself.

I wasn’t looking forward to visiting this world. As I recalled, it was quite close to its star and therefore the climate was stiflingly hot. The high gravity added to this effect, making it bone-crushingly difficult just to walk around. Non-natives had to wear breathing apparatus or suffer from apnea in the night. On top of that, the whole planet smelled like a ripe gym-sock to me.

But I had to go to the surface, because I knew eventually someone would come along to track down the freighter and the Dawn Star. They’d follow me out from Prospero, and they’d be unreasonably vengeful if they found me anywhere in the vicinity.




Chapter Seven

I took up residence in a fleabag establishment near the spaceport. Working hard not to glance over my shoulder more than once a minute, I tottered along stone-cobbled streets in clothes that felt like they were being tugged downward over my body. Twice, I had to grab at my belt buckle so my pants wouldn’t fall. The various items in my pockets—quickly purloined at the last instant from the Dawn Star as keepsakes—were weighing my pants down in the punishing gravity.

Jort was most likely overjoyed with his good fortune, but if the patrolmen from Prospero caught up with him and confiscated his purchase, he might come after me as well. Only time would tell.

Regardless, I knew I had to use the funds I’d gained to find a good hiding spot or escape the Scorpii system entirely. Judging that I didn’t have enough time for the latter, I chose the former option and parked myself at the first hotel I located. I stayed only long enough to mess up the bed and stow a single locked case under it—the case was filled with a few knickknacks from the ship, items I had no interest in. I left it only to give interested parties false hope that I would return.

Heading back down to the front desk, I paid for a week’s rent in advance. The grunting hulk behind the counter took the money eagerly. Then I immediately left, saying I would be out for a few hours—possibly until late that night.

The entire episode was a red herring, of course, meant to throw any possible pursuers off my trail. I had to smile at the thought of either Jort or an equally unimaginative patrolman spending hours, days—possibly all week waiting for me to come back to this dismal spot.

Buying new clothes and switching IDs, I took on a new persona, that of Bob Santos, a traveling rug merchant. My imaginary carpets were the best within nine lightyears, hand-stitched by the natives of New Sicily. I made sure to tell this story to everyone I met until they were rolling their eyes at me.

Searching the city for the nicest hotel I could find, I at last located a rambling building of questionable character. Rather than tall, sleek buildings, Scorpii towns were comprised of squatty structures no more than three stories high. The extreme gravity caused even the natives too much difficulty when climbing steps, making taller buildings unpopular.

Sighing deeply, I stretched out on the rock-hard bed and took a well-earned nap.

* * *

I awakened in the deep of the night to a rattling sound. It was a stealthy, quiet sound that someone was working to muffle but not quite succeeding at.

As a man who has frequently been misunderstood and abused, I rolled out of bed and crouched on the floor—and I almost pitched onto my face. I’d forgotten about the increased gravity. Coming out of bed, it felt like a giant was pressing a hand down on my shoulders, as any off-balance position was magnified.

It was hard not to stumble, but I managed it. Fortunately, I’d taken the precaution of sleeping in my clothes—even my shoes were on. It’s not the most comfortable way to go through life, but such small advantages had often reaped big rewards for me.

The rattling sound was repeated. It was my window. Someone was trying to break in.

The door had been soundly bolted and chained. The walls were overbuilt and thicker than the norm, having to stand up to Scorpii’s oppressive gravity. Here, on the third and top floor, the only easy way in was through the window—especially if the intruder had less than the force of the law behind him.

I knew in a flash it could not be the police. Guardians didn’t climb in through windows. Likewise, I ruled out common thieves, as such individuals weren’t likely to risk their lives to rob strangers who’d shown no obvious wealth.

Smiling, I walked to the window and threw it wide.

To his surprise, but not to mine, I met the leering face of one of Jort’s henchmen. He was hunkered there on a ledge, attempting to gain entry with a chisel-like tool. He was having trouble balancing his girth on a narrow ledge.

“Can I help you?” I asked him.

Snarling in recognition, the man lifted his chisel and drove it toward my face. There was nothing like the direct approach.

I dodged, but I was too slow. The blade of it grazed my cheek, drawing a line all the way back to my right ear.

Catching the thick arm, I grappled with him.

Immediately, I realized this was a losing option. He was incredibly strong. His arm bulged and rippled like a constrictor in my hands. I tried to push him back, but instead, he dropped the chisel and gripped my shirt. I found myself being pulled out of the hotel room into the fetid night air.

Dropping and raising both my arms, I slid out of the garment. If he’d grabbed my flesh or my hair, I couldn’t have pulled this move, but as it was his hand came away with a bundle of shirt and little else.

Off-balance and victim to the hungry gravity of his homeworld, the man stumbled off the ledge and fell hard. I heard a single cry of anguish—then he struck the pavement below.

On other worlds, a fall of no more than six meters could have broken bones, but this was far worse. In that short distance he’d built up a whistling velocity and slammed into the pavement with such force that his body was ruptured like a melon.

Leaning out of the window, I grimaced at the scene illuminated by the faintly greenish glow of the streetlights.

“There he is!” Jort called from the street, pointing up at me. “He’s murdered my man!”

Ducking back inside, I grabbed what few belongings I cared about and unlocked the door. I flung it wide, then crawled under my bed and fell silent.

A thunder of feet on the stairs told me of an approaching group. They arrived at my doorway, panting and sweating with exertion. Running up stairs on Scorpii was a herculean feat.

“He’s gone!”

“The roof! He must have gone up to the roof!”

The squad of angry men left, and I crawled out of my hiding place. With the lightest step I could manage, I exited the building through an emergency door and walked among the trashcans and crab-rats to the open streets. I’d expected to see a man posted at every exit, but fortunately, these guys were far from professional.

Over the next several days, I continued to avoid Jort and his angry crewmen. They made repeated efforts to find me, but all failed. Eventually, I grew tired of the game and procured private passage on a charter flight to Leonis, an unremarkable star system that was a step farther from the Conclave.

As I sat awaiting my flight, I sensed an approaching figure. Turning in my chair, I tipped down a pair of auto-shades I’d bought at the gift shop and was disappointed to recognize the man who leered at me.

It was none other than Captain Jort himself. He snarled down at me, but didn’t dare make a violent move. After all, there was no warrant out for my arrest—I’d checked. In a public place like a busy spaceport, he couldn’t attack me without being arrested immediately afterward.

Instead, he sat down next to me and began paging through a magazine. The magazine was upside-down. It was one of the old fashioned cheap kind that didn’t automatically right itself when held incorrectly. I wasn’t sure if Jort couldn’t read, or if he didn’t care in the slightest about the magazine. In either case, it didn’t really matter.

“To what do I owe this honor, Jort?” I asked him.

“Always with the insults. Never give an honest man a break. That’s your rule, isn’t it?”

“What? Are you the honest man in this scenario or am I?”

This seemed to throw him. He glared at me. “I found you again. I will always find you. Jort never loses at this kind of game. I will hunt you until you fail to escape my fingers—then I will crush you.”

Jort demonstrated his hostility visually, shaking a white-knuckled fist in my face.

“May I ask what the trouble is? I sold you the Dawn Star at a significant loss. Even if—”

“They took her from me!” he hissed. “Hours after you left, patrolmen come sniffing. They say the ship was a big crime—interstellar crime. They say you smuggle things, and the ship is part of that case. Then, they confiscate my boat too! I’m ruined!”

I felt a pang—a small one, mind you—for old Jort. After all, I had taken his money and passed onto him the hatred Conclave officials must be feeling toward me right now.

“That does seem unfair,” I admitted.

Jort looked startled. “Then you confess? You admit guilt?”

“No, but I sympathize with your situation. I too have unfairly lost my ship, and much of my great wealth.”

Jort was quiet for a short time. I chose not to prompt him. I let his grinding mind move to the next step on its own.

“Great wealth? What great wealth?”

“Think about it,” I said. “I came to this system with a fine ship from the Conclave worlds. Behind me followed a dozen patrol boats—”

“There was only one.”

I lifted a finger and smiled at him. “That’s just the one you saw. Believe me, I’m far more infamous than you might have imagined. That’s why they’re following me, world to world, across the Conclave.”

Jort’s eyes widened. “You’ve been on the run? For a long while?”

“Yes.”

“Where are you going? To your great wealth, no doubt.”

“No doubt.”

Jort’s eyes narrowed, and he looked around the terminal, eyeing the destination of my charted flight. “Leonis? There is no wealth there. It is a dull place.”

I smiled. “When hiding a fortune, it’s best not to do so in an obvious place, wouldn’t you say?”

“Huh… I guess so.”

He stewed for a few moments, and I let him do it. Jort was a transparent man, I knew where his mind was wandering almost before he did.

“Well?” I asked him. “What’s your plan? Are you going to attack me here? Before I can leave the system?”

“Uh… no. I was planning to offer the captain of this ship half the money you stole from me if he would help me achieve justice.”

“Ah… a paltry sum, but at least it’s something.”

“You approve of the plan? It does not bother you?”

I shrugged. “I’ve been robbed by countless professionals. Rarely do they succeed. In this case, I’m impressed by your tenacity. I gave you some of my best escape moves, but you saw through them. Doggedly, you’ve pursued me all the way to the finish line.”

Jort looked proud despite himself. “No one wrongs Jort without paying. You will pay big.”

“Hmm…” I said, as if contemplating a great decision. I rubbed at my chin and frowned in thought. “What if I were to accept that I owe you a debt? What if I agree to pay you all the money you gave me—plus enough to return home should you want to?”

Jort’s jaw sagged in honest surprise. “You would do such a thing? For a man who has sought your blood for a week?”

“I could use a man like you. A man who doesn’t give up. Cunning, resourceful, strong… What do you say? Will you sign on as my crewman?”

Jort’s face went through a comic series of emotions. At last, he selected anger. “I am a captain! I serve no other!”

“Ah, yes. Well then, Captain. Go back to your ship.”

Jort’s mind churned hard. I could see he was debating the situation, and the effort was taxing his mind.

At last, he heaved a sigh and put out a huge paw for me to shake. “All right,” he said. “I will be your man. But you will pay me everything you owe me.”

“I will. In fact, I’ll put you on a salary right now.”

“What I do now, Captain?”

Such a swift change had come over Jort. I was bemused, but still wary. He might be in my employ… or he might still be harboring resentment. Perhaps this was the only way he could figure out to follow me off-planet.

“You will accompany me and follow my orders like any first mate.”

“First mate? Excellent.” Jort pointed. “The ship’s door is opening. We should board.”

I walked ahead of him, taking a chance. My skin crawled, but he made no attempt to grab my neck and throttle me. Perhaps Jort could be trusted after all.

We boarded the charter and moved to the passengers’ lounge. It was a cramped affair, but it was well stocked with beverages. While we waited for the ship to take off, I toasted Jort, and we shared a few laughs. Often, he sought to learn more of my great wealth, but I was always evasive.

At last, I felt I had to give him something, or he would begin to turn on me again. I knew the minds of such pirates well. They could always be bought, but they had to believe in your ability to pay or they would become dangerous—like unfed dogs.

“Here,” I said, sliding my computer his way. “Look at the manifest. Look at the name at the top.”

“Captain William Gorman,” he read slowly. “The rest of it… such numbers!”

“Yes. I said. “I am Captain William Gorman. Tap the name, it will show you my picture.”

He did, and he whistled. “You are a famous rogue. I have even heard of you—but I thought…” he paused, frowning. He looked up at me slowly. “I thought that you had died, Gorman. Everyone say that.”

I grinned at him. “You must have noticed I’m good at escaping bad situations.”

“Ha! You are the best! I have hunted eels with my hands that were less slippery!”

“Thank you. Well, I have to admit that you have impressed me just as much. I thought I’d lost you a dozen times over the last week. Each time, you reappeared at my doorstep, unfazed.”

Jort grinned. “I will now reveal to you a great secret.”

So saying, he reached out with one of his fat-fingered hands and brushed at my cheek. I shied away, but he held a single finger under my nose.

“See that? This is how I track you.”

There, on the tip of his finger, was a tiny circle of mesh. It was no more than a flesh-colored dot.

I marveled. “I showered a few times—I even shaved. Still it stayed there as if fused to my skin.”

“Yes. Is high-quality tracker.”

Suddenly, I realized that Jort had somewhat misrepresented himself to me. He hadn’t applied genius to find me. He had no network of spies and representatives. He’d used a simple technological trick.

I grinned. Jort and I were going to get along very well.

A few hours and a few drinks later, we were ready to retire to our cabins. A group of men appeared then. Behind them stood the charter ship’s captain. Those in front were armed with shredders, guns that fired showers of small pellets. The weapons were designed to fire inside a ship without damaging the hull—I’d sold a lot of them in my day.

None of these men were smiling.

“Is this the cargo you wanted dumped, Gorman?” the captain asked over the shoulders of his crewmen.

“This is him.”

“What this?” Jort shouted, standing up.

The crewmen trained their short-barreled shredders on him.

“If you’re done interrogating him we’ll dispose of this irritant for you, Gorman.”

I considered. It might be for the best to ditch Jort. He wasn’t entirely trustworthy to say the least. On the other hand, we’d shaken hands and made a deal. I was momentarily torn.

“Captain Gorman?” Jort howled. “You can’t do this! We have celebrated together. We have shared life!”

Standing up solemnly, I smiled. “I’ve changed my mind, Captain,” I told the crewmen. “This man, Jort—he now works for me. I thank you for your service.”

The captain shrugged. “Whatever. My fee is still the same.”

“Of course,” I said, deciding not to argue. “Charge this service to my account.”

They melted away, and Jort flopped back on a couch in relief.

“I knew I could trust you,” he said, slamming a fist on the table between us. Beverages and snacks scattered, and the table buckled, but Jort seemed not to notice.

I smiled and nodded, giving no further hints that his life had been on a razor’s edge.




Chapter Eight

Jort seemed to have more respect for me after nearly being tossed out of an airlock. I’d heard that in Scorpii culture, an establishment of dominance often settled such matters. Once one man had been thoroughly beaten by the strength or cunning of the other, he accepted the leadership of the victor and became loyal to him.

During the week-long journey that followed, we traveled through three slip-gates and reached the frontier of the Terran Conclave. By that time, Jort and I had become friends of a sort.

“How we getting ship of our own?” he asked me for the tenth time as we approached our final destination, a wagon-wheel space station orbiting Ceti.

The planet below us had sapphire seas and continents covered with lush magenta vegetation. It was a colorful marvel to witness through the viewports.

“With luck, we’ll find one here at Ceti.”

Jort squinted at me. “Find one? Like you found your last one?”

“No, probably not. I’ll make a deal. I know powerful people here. They always want experienced runners for their ships.”

“Huh… they need new ones because the old ones are dead, no?”

I shrugged. “It’s a dangerous business.”

We reached the wagon-wheel spaceport and docked at the public moorings. They were free if you had a cargo or the right friends, and apparently my charter captain had both.

Walking down the docking tube, I was stricken by a powerful memory. This place… it had been the start of many runs for me.

Smiling at the reverie, I led Jort to the center of the station, the hub of the great wheel. There, a dozen local businesses held court.

Ceti wasn’t a highly organized world. Like many planets along the frontier, it was sparsely populated and under-governed. This was exactly the kind of place where I felt at home doing business.

“Halt!” a booming artificial voice called out behind me.

Turning, I was surprised to see a squadron of four marching androids. They clutched night-sticks and walked in perfect step.

“William Gorman, you are under arrest!”

“Come on,” I told Jort. “Let’s hurry.”

We ran into the hub, where two thugs with shredders barred our way.

“Where’s your pass, plebe?” one of them asked me.

Jort levered his fist back, but I stopped him. I reached out and tapped the thug’s palm. Doing so transferred a small gush of credits. I was generous as I was in a hurry.

The thug smiled and stepped aside. “Your pass is in order.”

Jort and I rushed into the hub of the station, while behind us the squad of plastic men fell to arguing with the thugs. They seemed to misunderstand the situation, being unable to comprehend that the required “pass” came in the form of untraceable cash deposits. There were substantial cultural differences between Ceti and inner Conclave worlds.

The delay gave us the time we needed to melt into the crowd. Here, it was as open a marketplace as any I’d ever encountered in my travels. Tables and booths were everywhere, strewn with all manner of goods. Some were dangerous and illicit while others were benign. I passed blinded, cooing servants, rare euphoric drugs and moved right on to the hardware.

Stopping at a table that sagged under the weight of a hundred black metal weapons, most of them alien-made, I waved for the attention of a pair of symbiot salesmen.

Symbiots were creatures that had once been human but who now served as the host vessels for another race. Small, crab-like creatures lived in their guts, controlling the behavior of their hosts with the application of various spurs and barbs to the nervous system.

The salesman to my left shivered, one eye rolling half up into his head in agony. “Sirs!” he slurred with enthusiasm. “I’m Mr. Moreau, at your service. What can I do for you? Can I interest you in a dozen prime beamers? They’re alien magnums—the best.”

“Not at the moment,” I told him. “I’m looking for Master Kersen.”

The man’s features shivered again. Moreau looked at me as if truly seeing me for the first time.

“I recognize you…” he said in a very different tone. “You must be insane to come back here, Captain Gorman. Kersen will tear your balls off.”

“Maybe so, but I have a proposition for him.”

Moreau showed me a few of his teeth, and his upper lip curled unnaturally high. Then the other symbiot, a female, finished with her customer and came near.

“Gorman…” she said. “Kersen gave up looking for you a year ago. You’re mad to come here.”

“So I’ve been told. Well? Are you going to take me to Kersen? Or am I going to find him myself and tell him you refused to do business?”

They both winced. Great pain might be inflicted if Kersen suspected they’d turned down the chance to make a single credit.

“All right,” the second sym said. She was a slight woman with fine features and dangerous eyes. She seemed to be in better control of her parasite than the man—or maybe she just possessed a higher pain-threshold. Her pale arms never shuddered in agony. “I’ll take you to Kersen, but this ape, here…” She indicated Jort with a long finger. “It must stay here.”

I nodded. “Jort, examine the servants for sale. If we make enough money, I’ll buy you your favorite.”

Smiling, Jort wandered off. I followed the pale symbiot girl alone into a cubical.

There, I met the creature I’d come to Ceti to find. It was Master Kersen, a reptilian man with a nightmarish smile full of glistening teeth.

Kersen was studying a holographic computer screen that depicted the movement of money between various markets on several planets at once.

“Why do you disturb me, Sosa?” he demanded of the woman without even turning in our direction.

“Master Kersen,” Sosa said, “I’ve brought you a villain. I wish to collect the reward for him.”

Kersen looked up at last. Seeing me, his face lit up, and a single droplet of spittle slipped from his upper teeth to his lower.

“Can it be? Has Captain Gorman returned to repay his debts at long last?”

I bowed, knowing Kersen liked that. “I’m here to make a proposal, Kersen.”

“No, no, no,” he said, rumbling with laughter. “You’re here to make amends. I shall take the vast amount you owe me out of your hide. Sosa, you’re to be congratulated for bringing this rogue to me unaided. I’d heard he’d be difficult to capture—apparently, that reputation was undeserved.”

“Master Kersen,” I said. “I know where a stash of premium weapons lays waiting to be plundered.”

Kersen swept the air with a clawed fist. “So what? Sardez hardware is not what it once was, and half that which is found is counterfeit anyway.”

“Not this gear. I’m talking about the genuine article. Three thousand Sardez weapons, with two power packs each. What’s more, they were made pre-cataclysm—at the zenith for quality.”

According to Conclave historians, the Sardez were a warlike people who had once inhabited a planet just beyond our borders. They’d frequently raided less aggressive worlds with impunity. After decades of enduring their attacks, the Conclave had been forced to destabilize their star, irradiating their home planet. After that, their legendary hardware had become increasingly scarce.

Master Kersen blinked one yellow eye at me. “So old… will they still fire?”

I smiled, as he was sniffing the bait.

“Master,” Sosa said in alarm. “You aren’t entertaining his lies, are you? I thought I’d gain a quick—”

“You thought incorrectly. Remain silent.”

Sosa sulked while I continued to explain my offer to Kersen.

“The rifles are stored in hard vacuum. They’re shielded from radiation to prevent the degradation of their electronics. I’ll guarantee they’ll be delivered in prime condition.”

Master Kersen considered. “Bring me proof of this treasure, and I’ll make you an offer.”

“Excellent… but there is one problem. Right now, I’m without a ship.”

Kersen sighed. “You already owe me one lost boat.”

“True.”

“But if this fantasy of yours proves to be real… well, I could use a cache of prime weapons right now. I could use a new runner as well. Lately, these pesky mechanical patrolmen from the Conclave have been ruining my business by drying up good supply routes. I’ve got an order to supply a colonial army, in fact—but, never mind that.”

“You’re interested then?” I asked.

Kersen shuffled around to face me. “I’m curious… You were a good runner once. I don’t know where you’ve been or what you’ve been doing… but I can always use talent.”

“And enough prime guns to supply a small army?” I added.

“That too.”

“How shall we proceed, then?” I asked him.

“I can’t trust you alone with another ship, not even a small corvette. You’ll fly with Sosa here as your navigator. She will report to me with regularity using jump-drones. If the drones stop coming, or her reports become distressed, I’ll put a bounty on your head. I should have done it already, actually—but I thought you were dead.”

I smiled grimly. “That’s a frequent misconception. Now, as to payment—”

“There will be none,” he said firmly. “Not for this mission. You go get your guns, deliver them to the planet Sosa directs you to, and then return.”

I laughed. “The weapons are worth more than the one ship I owe you!”

“Possibly so, but you’ve already told me you don’t have a ship to go get them with. I’ll tell you what, if you succeed in this run and bring Sosa back to me, I’ll give you the ship you use to complete the mission. You can be an independent runner after that. I have many jobs waiting for such a man.”

We haggled for another hour, but Master Kersen couldn’t be budged. In the end, I was given the control fob to access a sleek corvette that floated under the belly of the station, where other dark ships were moored to the least reputable docks. There, with Jort and Sosa complaining in my wake, we loaded up provisions, fuel, and some survival gear.

It was going to be a tough mission, but at least I had a stake again. Inside, I felt warmed and happy. It had been a long time since Captain William Gorman had been out exploring the cosmos.

I was a gun runner again, and it was good to be back in the game.




Chapter Nine

As I boarded the corvette, I was immediately surprised by her quality. She was long and lean, about ninety meters of shiny metal with a beam width of ten. That ratio of nine to one indicated she was meant to move quickly, as even in space there is some resistance due to gas and dust clouds.

She displaced just over two thousand metric tons, but had twin fusion engines, both with an impressive six terawatt output rating. If I dared to overload them, they might be able to generate twice as much thrust for a short period.

“Nice boat!” Jort exclaimed, and I agreed with him. “I figured lizard-face was going to give us a bathtub and tell us to row.”

“She is quite something,” I agreed.

We entered the ship and marveled. Clearly, Kersen had not been stinting when outfitting her interior. She had no visible armament, but in a split-second, two exterior spherical nodules could be rotated to reveal neutrino beam-cannons. These weapons fired invisible particles meant to disable engines and enemy guns, rather than destroy a pursuing ship. The advantage was that neutrino beams could travel through solid objects, rendering conventional armor and hulls useless against them.

Should an enemy be undeterred by the cannons, there were four torpedo tubes, two forward and two aft, that fired smart torpedoes with fusion warheads in the gigaton range.

“We must do good-shooting with these, Captain,” Jort admonished. “We only have eight torpedoes aboard!”

“Hopefully, we’ll never have to use them. We’re smugglers, not a naval warship.”

Jort grunted in agreement, and we continued our tour. Sosa led the way, explaining each element of the ship’s equipment in a sour tone. She still seemed to be annoyed that she’d been assigned to this duty by Kersen.

There were two primary decks, an upper and a lower. Operations were on top, with the crew quarters and storage below. Both of these pressurized zones were in the forward thirty meters of the vessel. The middle of the ship was one large cargo hold, and the aft end was dedicated to the engines and fuel. Overall, she was one of the better ships I’d ever been given to fly.

“Kersen trusts you,” Sosa said. She was looking at me with a mixture of resentment and curiosity. “Why? You’re nothing but a common criminal.”

“On that point I must disagree,” I told her. “I’m anything but common.”

“He’s right!” Jort declared. “Never have I met a creature so full of trickery and deceit. He’s like a greased eel when you try to catch him. You’ll see.”

Sosa looked dissatisfied with these responses, but she received a goading from her parasite then, and she arched her back in a rigid moment of pain. “This way,” she said when she could breathe again.

We followed her to engineering. It was cramped, hot and ticked with constant radiation.

Two model-Ds were down here. They didn’t even look very human. Protruding camera tubes telescoped in and out of their dark eyes as they focused on us.

“This is your crew,” Sosa said.

“Are you serious?” I demanded. “Two Ds? They can’t even talk.”

She shrugged. “This ship had a flesh-and-blood crew recently—but they were all irradiated. Didn’t Kersen tell you that?”

At this point we noticed that the model-Ds were busy. They were packing up large bundles, one at a time, and stuffing them into the engine core. The furnace surged with each new package, sending up a puff of heat and vapor.

“Um…” I said. “Are those body bags?”

“It would seem so,” Sosa nodded.

Jort and I exchanged unhappy glances.

“The old crew is all dead?” Jort asked. “What happened? Is the pile leaking?”

“It’s safe now,” Sosa told us. “But it can overload if you really push these engines. They’re too powerful for this tiny ship, as I understand it. Flying wide-open, you can outrun almost anything—but it’s risky.”

“You’re on this ship with us, Sosa,” I told her. “Don’t take too much pleasure in the high odds of our death.”

“Death would be a relief,” she said, then she winced again. Perhaps her parasite didn’t like her tone and had decided to discipline her.

I was impressed with Sosa’s ability to withstand her tormentor. Often, people infested by such creatures were servile and terrified of upsetting their masters. Sometimes they went mad with pain and anguish, committing suicide. Sosa seemed stoic and tough, an unusual response.

Deciding it would be rude to ask her why she was so indentured to Kersen, I left the question for a later date. After all, we would probably be in space together for a long time.

“Communicate with Kersen on my behalf,” I told her. “Tell him I can’t possibly operate this ship properly with a crew of five.”

She shook her head. “I will do so, but you’re wasting your time.”

“Why is that?”

“You came along at a lucky moment. Kersen has no other trusted henchmen available. There is one other ship, but it’s far out along the rim. It won’t be back for months.”

“Then he can hire for me—or rent—some more deckhands.”

Shrugging, Sosa contacted Kersen. After a few moments, she tossed the call to me with a gesture.

“He wants to talk to you.”

I accepted the comm channel and opened it. Kersen was immediately projected on my inner eyelids. It wasn’t a pleasant view, so I opened my eyes, removing the image.

“Master Kersen,” I began. “This vessel needs a crew of at least thirty experienced hands.”

“Nonsense.”

“Please listen to me—”

“No! You listen, runner. You are nothing. You have signed with me. I am everything, and I am done supplying you for the job. There is no more crew to give you.”

“A bridge, two guns, tricky engines and a torpedo room…”

“Hire your own crew. You have adequate funds—I checked.”

My face twisted into a sour grimace. So this was the deal. Not only was I a mere rental pilot who had agreed to make this run just to pay back debts, Kersen evidently planned to lean on me further, squeezing my personal accounts.

“Your position is unreasonable,” I told him.

“Look Gorman, you came to me. You asked for a deal. We have made a deal. You can walk away from it if you want. I’ll find someone else.”

I wasn’t so sure he could do that, but I didn’t want him to try. Already, I was certain he was trying to find out where my secret weapons cache might be. If he managed to do that, well, I would have nothing left to bargain with. Nothing at all.

“All right,” I said. “I’ll work it out.”

“That’s the Gorman I know! Luck, Captain.”

The call ended.

Jort loomed near. “Where we getting more men? Or do we have to take on more dumb bots?”

“Neither,” I said. “We’ll fly with what we have. I’ll pilot the ship. Sosa will run the ops consoles. Jort, you can man the aft cannon. If we get into trouble directly ahead, move to the forward gun.”

“What?” Jort cried. “What about the torpedoes?”

I shook my head. “If we need to fire them, you will move from the cannons to the torpedo room.”

Jort shook his head in disbelief. He walked off, muttering.

“Sosa,” I said, turning to her. “You’ll serve on the bridge with me. You’ll handle every operator’s station other than navigation and the helm.”

Her eyes narrowed, and she regarded me for a moment. I could tell she was puzzling over my motivations.

“You’re broke, aren’t you?” she asked at last.

“Never. I’m simply a frugal man. Now listen, we’re casting off in five minutes. Move to your station on the bridge and strap in.”

In truth, I was worried about my funds. I had less than half of what Jort had given me weeks ago remaining in my accounts. Running a ship often resulted in unexpected expenses, and what little I had left would have to be doled out carefully for emergencies.

Sosa walked away, and I followed her. She was somewhat thin, but that was probably a result of internal scarring. She was a fit woman, and she would have been attractive if she didn’t have such a sour attitude.

Naturally, I forgave her for her unfriendly behavior. After all, she had to live with an organic curse in her abdomen that I wouldn’t wish on an enemy. Perhaps, someday, we’d find a way to free her of Kersen’s leash.

Master Kersen wouldn’t like that, but I didn’t care. He was at the top my shit-list today.




Chapter Ten

A few hours later, we cast off and slid away from the dark side of the space station. At least Kersen had seen fit to provide me with a full tank of fuel. There was plenty of food aboard as well, since the previous crew had died before they’d had a chance to eat more than a third of it.

“What do you want to call the ship, Captain?” Sosa asked me.

“What I always call my ships,” I said. “Royal Fortune.”

Sosa worked a panel, and the nano-reactive paint on the side of the vessel transformed into the new name. The ship was now Royal Fortune. At the same time, the ship’s transponder ID changed. It was a common smuggler’s technique to change a ship’s name and registry with regularity.

“Why that name?” she asked me.

I grinned. “There was once a famous captain named Bartholomew Roberts. He captured a lot of ships, and he always renamed them Royal Fortune.”

She frowned. “I’ve never heard of him.”

“It was a long, long time ago.”

We had a choice from several possible routes that led to the Sardez star system. The most obvious would be to go to the local slip-gate and fly through it. That was what most pilots would do, like entering into a highway system with a ground vehicle. Conclave stars were all connected to the slip-gate chain, and it was undoubtedly the easiest and fastest way to move across space.

Unfortunately, my final destination was outside the Conclave itself. Worse, I was a wanted man, and the patrol androids searching for me were sure to be watching that exit. They were probably searching every ship that flew through the gates at this point.

Another option would be to take a direct flight, simply aiming the nose of my craft toward Sardez and applying thrust. That method would be safe enough, except it would probably be noticed by Kersen, who was doubtlessly watching and tracking my every move. The moment I chose that path, he might alert others who could attempt to find and steal my cache for themselves. Worse, Sardez was quite far from here. The flight there would take months.

No. This had to be done with subtlety. I decided to nose my craft around, setting the target as Barnard’s star, a close but unremarkable body. From there, I could use a slip-gate to get as close as possible to Sardez then make the final leg of the journey.

Once my course was locked on, I goosed the engines—and nearly had a heart attack.

Royal Fortune lunged forward like a beast that had been unchained. The power was amazing. Alarmed by the surge, I let off the power just as suddenly, then took my hands off the controls completely.

At my side, Sosa had been taken by surprise as well. She tumbled forward when I hit the brakes, thumping her head on the panel in front of her despite her harness. She should have been wearing her helmet, but neither of us had been expecting this kind of thrust followed by sudden braking. She was out cold.

I wanted to help her, but I had to let the engine surge again now. You couldn’t apply sudden changes over and over again without damaging the core.

Heavy G-forces were being applied to my body, and I knew I couldn’t dare checking on her without risking unconsciousness myself. Accordingly, I eased back on the thrust until it was at a manageable level. I grabbed the medical kit left behind by the previous crew. I found a medical sensing device, then I moved to her side.

Gently tipping her head back in her chair, I examined her neck with a medical wand. There weren’t any broken vertebrae that I could find.

She came awake with a gasp. “I thought you were a pilot…”

I kept a firm hand on her shoulder, pressing her into her seat. “Hold on, don’t wriggle. I’m scanning your skeleton for fractures.”

Sosa breathed in painful hitches. “There are no breaks, but my rider is angry.”

“Your rider?”

“Yes. He’s… he thought he might perish. My passing out frightened him. He’s in a vicious mood now.”

I gently ran the wand over her ribs and legs. “There’s some internal bleeding, but no seriously ruptured organs or fractures. You’ll both live. Your rider should call himself lucky.”

She snorted and breathed in a labored fashion. “If anything goes wrong, he takes it out on me.”

“Can you communicate with him?”

She frowned. “Only if he wishes it.” Suddenly, she sucked in another breath then let it out in short hisses. “He doesn’t want me to talk to you about him.”

“I understand. Can you man your station?”

She forced herself to stand up with obvious pain. “I’m fine. What are your orders, Captain?”

“Check all systems. This ship’s engines have been altered, and she’s unpredictable. Worse, we don’t know anything about what the previous crew might have done to her systems. Make sure there’s no serious damage.”

“I’ll run a full diagnostic.”

“Hmm…” I said, going over the manifests and reports. “That burst of power is over these ratings. These specs… they’re all wrong.”

“Yes. As I said, the ship has been doctored to provide maximum running speed.”

“I’ll be more careful in the future.”

Jort called then, complaining that he’d awakened to find the two model-Ds carrying him to the engine room.

I laughed. “Better be careful. They must still be running their body clean-up script. You’re lucky they didn’t toss you into the furnace. Disable their scripts before they finish you off.”

Jort disconnected with a growl and went to abuse the androids.

“This ship is going to kill us,” Sosa complained.

“Don’t worry, I’m the best pilot you’ve ever met.”

Sosa glanced at the ceiling, but she seemed reassured.

Once we were up to a good cruising speed, I checked the numbers. Again, I was impressed.

“This ship is hauling ass,” I told Jort.

“Who is this ass? You are the ass, not me!” Jort responded, jabbing his chest with his thumb.

“No, no… it’s a figure of speech. Settle down. I’m saying that this ship is moving very quickly. Flying fast. Get it?”

“Yes, yes, yes. I get it. I am no kind of fool.”

“Right… anyway, we’re going to reach Barnard’s star in a week, maybe less.”

Jort’s eyes boggled. “Truly? This Royal Fortune of yours is indeed fast. I wonder how she’ll do with a full hold.”

“We’ll find out.”

As I walked through the ship, I found myself running my hands over the curved metal hull. The vessel was sleek and mean. I liked her. She was better than any ship I’d flown in recent memory.

Finding the captain’s cabin, I discovered it spare but adequate. There was a comfortable bunk, a few bottles of booze and a private porthole to the universe. Digging in the small desk, I found no personal effects. That troubled me, as I’d seen the model-Ds hard at work burning the corpses of the old crew. Who could have taken the time to clean out the cabins?

It must have been part of the androids. These model-Ds were like ghouls, the simplest of robots. They were only vaguely humanoid. They didn’t even have fingers, really, just grippers that resembled plastic-coated pliers at the ends of their arms.

After a few days, I got to know the ship. She was in good condition. I could find no sources of radiation. There were no cracks in the cooling jacket or the reactor core. On the third day, I asked Sosa about it.

She shrugged and hunched over a meal of sausage and toasted roots. “I don’t know what’s going on. Ask Kersen when we get back.”

That was all I could get out of her. She didn’t seem friendly, or angry. Just kind of beat-down by life. I could understand that, especially since she had that creature in her guts. It made my lip curl when I thought of it.

“Hey,” I told her on the morning of the fifth day. “If we get through this, I’ll take another mission from Kersen. One that pays.”

She gave me a strange look but said nothing.

“I’ll ask for you to come along again, if you want to.”

Sosa pursed her lips and shook her head. “It doesn’t matter what I want. It only matters what Kersen wants. I’m his property.”

“How’d that happen?”

“I’d rather not talk about it.”

I shrugged. “All right, but I say screw Kersen. What do you say? Should I ask for you to come along on our next?”

She snorted at me and looked down at her breakfast. “Why would you want me?”

“Take a look around! I’m kind of short on trained crew, here. The opportunities for advancement are infinite.”

“I don’t know... We’ll see.”

Satisfied, I smiled and leaned back in my seat. She’d come along. I knew people. She wanted to be part of my crew.




Chapter Eleven

We arrived at Barnard’s Star the next day. It was a lonely place, more of an outpost than a true colony. One inhabitable world circled a dim red sun. The only inhabitants on the planet’s surface huddled around the bottom of the umbilical that ran up to the sole space station. Their job seemed to be bringing foodstuffs and supplies to the traders who gave them pitiful payments for their work.

They dared not rebel, however, as the men on the station had the high ground and all the serious weapons. The locals carried swords and spears, which had never proven good enough to beat the traders, or the cannons that encrusted the belly of the station.

We docked, paid a criminally high toll and walked the station like visiting princes. They didn’t get much traffic here, and I traded what little I had for more food and fuel. Our hold was almost empty, but every runner carried a few luxury goods to sell to local colonists at planets like these.

After a few bad-tasting beers, I was in a better mood. Jort was laughing at nothing, and even Sosa seemed relaxed. Her careworn face was smiling in a tired way. For the first time, I saw that beneath her gruff exterior, there was actually a pretty, young girl.

I was brought back to my stark reality when I noticed Jort was picking fights with some of the local dockmen. I dragged him outside. Sosa followed quietly in our wake.

Just outside the door, three men stood with arms crossed.

My immediate move was to push through them. They were human enough, tall boys with the arms of working men and the burnt skins of laborers who had toiled under a red sun like Barnard’s.

The men moved to block us. That was a mistake.

Jort had been grinning at them, but as I’d learned previously, he had an insanely short fuse. He could go from a smile to a snarl in less than a second.

The two dockmen on the right were blasted away from us, literally taken off their feet by Jort. That’s when I recalled that this planet had only about seventy percent the gravity of Earth. Jort had grown up under punishing extremes of gravity. He was like a superman among these taller youths.

This struck Jort as funny all over again. He laughed and pointed at the men he’d flung to the deck.

Surprised, they all stepped back, and we moved on—I dared to hope whatever motives had brought them to here had faded.

But then, I heard the sizzle of an energy weapon warming up.

Jort, Sosa and I turned back around to face them.

“What’s the trouble, boys?” I asked the scowling men. “You short on cash for a beer? Come on inside, I’ll buy a round.”

“We’d never drink with you, runner,” said one, a sandy-haired man with leathery cheeks and burning eyes.

Jort moved to lunge at them, but I put a hand on his shoulder. He stopped reluctantly.

“Why’s that?” I asked.

“Because you’re flying Captain Jensen’s ship. He’s a friend of ours.”

That threw me. I blinked and stared. “Captain Jensen? Robert Jensen?”

“The same. How did you get his ship? Did you steal it? Where is Jensen?”

“Uh…”

Here, I turned toward Sosa. She was looking down at the deck. She looked, in fact, mildly ashamed.

“Kersen gave it to me,” I said. “Jensen had an accident of some kind. I’m his new runner.”

“Kersen hired you three?” the leader said, stepping forward. His face was stamped with disbelief. “You’re nothing but trash. Scum from the sand-pits—”

That was enough for Jort. He’d been standing at my side, puffing and grunting and gurgling like a dog that’s strangling itself on a short leash. I think it was the word scum that had set him off—go figure.

He got low, almost down on all fours, and charged into the three taller men. One of the youths landed an electric lash on Jort’s shoulder, but it seemed to have no effect. Smashing the men to the deck, he knocked them all down within two seconds.

Straightening his back with a howl, Jort put a hand back to his shoulder and ripped at it. The lash had stung him, drawing a red weal that had split his tunic and begun to bleed. No doubt, this weapon had been designed to cripple a man with pain.

It seemed to have the opposite effect on Jort. He stomped and kicked at the men until none of them could stand. When he was finished, I picked up the lash.

“This might sell…” I said, taking it and standing over the leader, who was on the edge of consciousness. Despite his broken state, he shied away in fear when I held the lash under his nose.

“You got more of these?” I asked him. “I’ll pay well for a crate of them. They hurt a lot, right Jort?”

“Fuck yeah!” Jort said, snarling and clawing at his shoulder. He looked like a man who’d been caught by a swarm of hornets.

Turning back to the man on the deck, I noted with disappointment that he’d slipped away into unconsciousness. I let go of him and stood straight.

“Too bad… I really do want to buy some of these.”

We walked back to our ship at the docks. Long experience in matters such as these told me that we were probably unpopular with the locals by now.

Sure enough, when we arrived we found a group of five more workers sealing our docking tube so we couldn’t get aboard our ship. Jort and I applied our fists and the energy lash I’d picked up. Soon, they changed their minds and begged us to leave their station.

It was only a matter of time before more men arrived in armor with real weapons, so I raced to the bridge and cast off.

“Captain, we haven’t finished refueling yet,” Sosa said.

“We can make it out of here. Prepare for a rough ride. Jort? Are you too drunk to man the aft neutrino cannons?”

“Drunk? Who’s drunk?”

“Good. Get to your station. Take out their top turrets the second we get free of their tubes. Fire right through the hull of their station if you have to.”

“They aren’t going to like that, Captain,” Sosa informed me.

“Probably not,” I said, shrugging. “But they started it.”

Sliding out of port slowly at first, I watched the aft cameras like a hawk. Sure enough, one of them started to rotate, tracking us. I couldn’t take the chance they were just taking our picture.

“Jort, burn that top turret. Fire now.”

A silent gush of energy leapt out from our ship and struck the space station’s cannon. There was no visible effect at first—then it started to smoke, releasing a plume of gas into space. A moment later, it kind of popped, like a kernel of popcorn heated to the breaking point. The exterior of the turret was armored too thickly to allow it to outright explode, but it did swell up two or three times its original size, blasting white vapor into space from the seams.

Three more turrets began to move then, and a few ships came rolling out from the sides of the station. They were fighters, if I didn’t miss my guess.

“Everybody hold on!”

I hit the gas, and we roared away with shocking speed. Even the fighters that pursued us with their afterburners glowing lavender-white couldn’t keep up.

We left Barnard’s Star behind, reached the automated slip-gate, and barreled through.

“Captain,” Sosa said. “The patrol boat at the slip-gate—I think I saw it launch just before we went through.”

“Great,” I said. “We’ll have company at the far end of this run. Jort, try to sober up!”

My command fell on deaf ears. I could hear Jort snoring loudly over the ship’s comm system.




Chapter Twelve

The jump was a relatively short one. We had time to eat, rest and plan. When we came out at the far end, we would arrive at Sardez. I knew from long experience what we’d be facing when we got there.

The patrol ship that had followed us from Barnard’s Star would be right on our tails, only a few minutes behind us. Worse, there would undoubtedly be another patrol boat at the Sardez station as well. That meant we’d soon have two of them to deal with—and we didn’t even have a full tank of fuel.

“Hmmm…” I said, going over the numbers. “We don’t have enough fuel to reach another star system without either refueling or using a slip-gate.”

“Why not outrun them again?” Jort asked, rubbing his red eyes. “This ship is fast.”

“Yes, of course, but flying fast uses more fuel… I think we’re going to have to fight.”

They both looked alarmed. Even Jort, brave and feral as he was, didn’t like my idea.

“Fight two patrol ships? You one crazy fucker!”

“Don’t worry. I didn’t say it was going to be a fair fight.”

A timer went off then, alerting us. It was the five minute warning. We were about to breach, to come out of the slip-gate and arrive at our destination.

“Both of you, move! Man the neutrino cannons, fore and aft.”

We all scrambled to our stations. At the helm controls, my hands felt sticky with sweat. I hated when they did that.

Coming out of the slip-gate, I didn’t do anything suspicious. Instead, I took a ten-second look around. All seemed normal. I saw nothing to indicate the station people at Sardez were suspecting anything yet.

Still, they were on the ball. This star system was off-limits for the most part. Ships only passed through it, few were allowed to explore it.

Royal Fortune,” a voice said in my headset, “this is a restricted system. Your registry isn’t in my database. Park your vessel a thousand kilometers sunward. Prepare to be boarded and inspected.”

I winced at this. Normally, I wouldn’t have minded an inspection. After all, the hold was empty—we hadn’t picked up our illicit cargo yet. After a brief delay, we’d be sent on our way.

But we couldn’t afford any delays today. The patrol ship from Barnard’s Star was only five minutes behind me—maybe less.

“Can I get a little fuel first?” I asked. “I’m low.”

“Negative. Do it after… my sensors indicate there’s another ship coming in soon, right on your tail.”

“Pulling over,” I replied, and I let the ship gently glide toward the designated location. I took my time, trying to look as harmless as possible.

“Jort, Sosa, target their engines. Use the forward cannon to lock onto their starboard engine. Aft cannon hit the port side. We’ll knock them both out and run.”

“Are you sure you want to do this, Captain?” Sosa asked me. “All we did was run from some pirates who were trying to steal our ship back there at Barnard’s. Maybe we should report them and talk our way out.”

It was a good idea—but it wouldn’t work. I’d never really explained to Sosa—or Kersen, for that matter—that I was already on the run from the Conclave police. They still wanted me for stealing Rose’s family yacht. By this time, word of my exploits would have spread across the Conclave.

Watching the patrol ship glide closer, I wondered about Rose. I wished I knew how she was doing, and if I’d ever see her again.

I’d met a lot of women in my time—or rather, the original William Gorman had. I had to keep reminding myself that I was a clone. My memories of past relationships were really the memories lived out by someone else. In my own personal lifespan, I’d been kept frozen for a decade then thawed out and chased around by everyone I crossed paths with. So far, Rose had been the only kind, concerned person I’d met in my new existence.

“Sir, they’re unlimbering their guns,” Sosa said.

“They spotted our cannons!” Jort said.

“Gunners, on my mark,” I said. “Three… two… one… Mark! Fire and hold the trigger down until her engines pop!”

Twin beams of radiation streamed out from our ship. It took longer this time to see the effect than it had back at Barnard’s space station. The patrol ship’s engines must have been heavily shielded.

But after maybe three seconds, the starboard engine flamed out.

“Missiles launched!” Sosa called.

“Fire torpedoes, Gorman!” Jort demanded. “We must kill them now.”

“Finish burning that port engine, Jort.”

He kept beaming, and despite the fact the enemy captain was trying to maneuver, his second engine flared and went black.

Heaving Royal Fortune over on her back, I hit the thrusters and gave us a sickening burst of power. My gunners complained, but they’d been smart enough to strap in this time. No one dashed their brains out.

My ship flashed away from the crippled patrol boat. The missiles gave chase, but they couldn’t catch us. All by itself, that was a testament to the raw power of the corvette’s engines.

“Fuel is down into the critical range,” Sosa told me, coming back onto the bridge.

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

She glanced over the instruments. “The second patrol ship is in the system now, headed our way.”

“Great. Prepare for a fight.”

There were several ways you could fuel a hungry spaceship. One was to skim a dim sun. Sometimes they let off a lot of gas and heat you could use. Another was to dip into the atmosphere of a planet. Big gas-ball planets were common, with trillions of tons of consumables just floating around them for the taking.

But neither of those approaches were going to work here. I needed a pump, and the only one I knew of in the remote Sardez system was at the slip-gate. Because of this, I couldn’t afford to move too far away from it.

Coming about, I cut the engines and let Royal Fortune glide for a few seconds. We’d already outrun the first patrol ship’s missiles, and they didn’t have enough fuel to chase us indefinitely. We were also safely out of range of her guns.

The second patrol ship was the problem. It wouldn’t be possible to sucker-punch them the way I’d done with the first ship. This time, it was going to be a fair fight.

“Torpedoes, Captain?” Jort asked suggestively.

I hesitated. I didn’t like using lethal force if I didn’t have to. It was my experience that once you went down that road, there was no turning back. Once provoked, the patrolmen seemed to grow more and more wrathful, swarming with increasingly frenzied urgency until they got you.

And if they ever did catch up, they weren’t kind. Not at all.

“Sosa, man the aft neutrino cannon. Jort, move to the torpedo room—but hold your fire.”

My skeleton crew scuttled through the passages that interconnected the various chambers and decks of the ship. I waited tensely, watching the patrol ship as she approached.

She did so warily, like a predator that stalks dangerous prey.

The comm light blinked yellow, so I answered it. There was no harm in that, I figured.

“William Gorman,” a bland voice spoke. “You will stand down and submit to arrest, or you will be destroyed.”

“Is that right? How should I submit to your authority, sir?”

“You’re surrendering?”

“That’s what I said. Tell me how to do it.”

The patrol captain was a robot—probably a model-Q—but he wasn’t totally stupid.

“After reviewing past interaction reports, I’ve classified this action on your part as a ruse,” he informed me.

“I’ve been classified? By who?”

“By my higher functions. But your intentions are irrelevant. You must be given instructions and the opportunity to follow them.”

I smiled. I’d been counting on that. Anyone who always followed a well-known script could be outwitted by people like me.

The boring patrolman proceeded to tell me how to surrender, and I played along every step of the way. We sat idle, and he crept closer. When he came into gun-range, we closed up our turrets. True, we could have spun the two cannon turrets out quickly and fired , but that would give them time to fire on us while they were locking on.

In fact, they were unimaginatively targeting my neutrino cannons the entire time as they approached. When they were quite close, I extended a docking tube that was meant to link up with theirs. We were that close—something like fifty meters apart.

“Sosa, move away from the neutrino cannon you’re manning. Jort, open tube two and fire a single torpedo.”

“But Captain… at this range the back-blast—”

While Jort wasted time, I saw the docking tube ripple. An android was doubtlessly sliding through it.

“Fire Two! Now!”

Jort stopped whining. The external weapon’s port snicked open, and in the same instant the torpedo shot out. It was a puff of silent flame in space.

Immediately, alarms went off all over the ship. The hull shuddered, and I knew we’d take a hit in return.

“Sosa? Sosa!”

“I’m still here, Captain. But the aft neutrino cannon isn’t.”

“Play damage control. What’s the condition of the patrol ship? I can’t see it from here.”

“That’s because she’s tumbling and spitting vapor, sir. She’s dying…”

The viewports cleared just then, and I had a full view. We’d struck the enemy ship in the guts at point-blank range. She’d tried to escape by accelerating and firing back—but her guns had only managed to blow away one of our two cannon turrets. She’d had no time to launch missiles.

“Fire again?” Jort asked me. “To make sure?”

“No. We don’t have enough torpedoes to waste them.”

“Captain?” Sosa asked. Her voice sounded somewhat emotional. “Were there men on that ship? Real men?”

“Nah…” I said. “Just robots. You heard their captain’s voice.”

She didn’t ask anything further. We watched in fascination as the patrol ship tumbled and vented, like a stricken animal spraying its lifeblood everywhere.

The patrol boat never fired again, and its engines didn’t try to stop the spin. Whatever kind of mind had been piloting that ship, it was dead now.




Chapter Thirteen

Using the few liters of fuel we had left, I turned Royal Fortune around and took her back to the slip-gate. There was no one there but a few model-Ds to oppose us. After hacking the dispenser, we began to fill our tanks with fresh fuel.

This was a harrowing time. At any moment more traffic could come through the gates. Or worse, some other vessel could come out of the dark and find us stealing gas while two patrol ships lie wrecked nearby.

The human captain of the first patrol ship wasn’t making that possibility any less remote. He was cursing and carrying on, declaring on a dozen channels all the depraved things he planned to do to my steaming corpse when he finally tracked me down.

“You sure know how to make friends, Gorman,” Sosa told me.

“It’s been a life-long gift of mine.”

At last, we were topped off. I roared away from the station, leaving behind the alternating pleading and threats from the still living captain of the first boat.

“He must be asshole guy to be stationed out here, huh?” Jort remarked.

“Just listen to him. Would you want a complainer like that in your system?”

Jort laughed uproariously. Sosa, however, was looking worried. She kept bringing up screenshots of the boat we’d toasted. I supposed she was checking it for signs of life. I let her do it, knowing there wouldn’t be any.

After we put a few hundred thousand kilometers of space between us and our most recent crimes, I headed for the out-system.

“Where are we going, sir?” Jort asked.

“There’s an OORT cloud of snowballs out past the farthest planet. Most single-star systems have them. A region filled with comets, asteroids and random puffs of gas. It’s out there we’ll find what we’re looking for.”

“Your stash of weapons?” Sosa asked me.

“That’s what we came for.”

After cruising for nine hours, we left the last planet behind. After that, there was only darkness.

“Scanners up,” I said.

“We looking for metallics?” Sosa asked.

“Nope. Just scan and tell me if you see anything interesting.”

“Nothing but ice-balls. Comets with no tail, hurtling along.”

“Right: that’s the stuff that’s not interesting. Tell me if you see anything else.”

Puzzled, Sosa kept her eyes in the scopes, watching closely.

An hour passed. Then another. She yawned and stretched. “You sure you can find it?”

“If it’s still out here, I’ll find it.”

During the third hour, Sosa was nodding off, but she suddenly sat up.

“I’ve got a contact… a heat signature? That’s not normal… not out here.”

“Ah… put it on the main screen for me. Switch the graphics to infrared.”

She flashed up a holographic map of the region. It was a few million cubic kilometers of nothing much. Ice shards. A few rocks… and one glowing point of heat. It showed as a deep cherry-red on the field, which was otherwise all purples and blues.

Gently, I gave Royal Fortune a tiny squirt of her jets. I didn’t brake hard, which would have created a big plume of heat plasma and particle radiation. Just a tap to correct our course, that’s all that was needed.

Heavy boots sounded on the deck behind me. Jort came up behind us, panting. He leaned over my shoulder, making the headrest on my chair fold down with his bulk.

Puffs of steamy breath almost parted my hair.

“Do you mind, Jort?”

“That’s it, isn’t it?” he asked, eyes glowing. “Right there—but what’s making it hot?”

“It’s a small planet. A geologically active planet.”

“Out this far?” Sosa objected.

“That’s right. To any normal scan, it’s invisible. You have to come out here to find it—and you have to look for heat.”

Jort looked down at me and grinned. “Tricky again! A devil in man-skin! That’s what you are, Gorman!”

“Thanks… I’ll take that as a compliment.”

We closed with the object, and soon it became clear. In most star systems, the inner planets might be small rocky things that could harbor life. Warmed by their sun, they enjoyed high visibility and a reasonable level of gravity. Often, they even had atmospheres. A few could be inhabited.

Farther out in most systems were the gas giants. These puffy planets were almost as big as small suns themselves. Some even smoldered with flashes of fusion, their size and mass was so great.

At the very edge of many systems was a silent disk of cold debris. Stuff that never formed into planets. These relics were like frozen ice-sculptures, destined to never see the light of day. Even so, they were still trapped by the gravitational tug of the distant star they circled forever.

Our destination was an anomaly. It was a small, rocky planet with a living magnetic core that had somehow formed and survived way out here on the fringe of the fringe. The nameless planetoid was no bigger than a good-sized moon, but at a temperature of negative one hundred Celsius, it was bubbling-hot compared to the rest of the objects out here.

“Prep to land,” I ordered.

“Belly-deck has all green lights,” Jort said.

“Hydraulics good, landing gear good,” Sosa chimed in.

We came gliding down, and the landing went smoothly. Methane-based snow swirled around our landing gear. The area under the jets turned into boiling liquid then froze again immediately.

“I thought you said this place was warm!” Jort complained.

“Warmth is a relative thing in space, my man. The core of the world is warm, and if you just dig a few feet down you’ll find some heat. But up here, on the surface… no way.”

We suited up and lowered a ramp. Flipping on my suit lights, I stepped out onto the crunchy surface. There was an atmosphere of sorts, but it was pretty thin. Too thin and poisonous to breathe, but enough to carry sound.

“Come on out, the weather’s fine,” I called to the others. My voice was muffled by the respirator and mask, but they heard me and followed.

Taking out a hand-scanner, I began trudging around the ship in circles. The others peered into the purply dark landscape with distaste. There was a whistling wind up, and the frost soon covered our landing pads.

“If we stay here a few hours,” Sosa said, “I bet this storm will bury the ship.”

“We won’t stay long,” Jort scoffed. “Right, Captain?”

I pointed toward a saw-toothed ridge of black stone about a kilometer away. The peak of each jagged shard of rock was encrusted with ice. “We’re headed that way. Sosa, stay with the ship. Jort, you’re with me. Bring the two model-Ds too. They can pull that cargo sled.”

Sosa trotted up the steps and vanished into the Royal Fortune. She sent the two androids clunking down in her place. Behind them, they dragged a floating cargo sled. The sled amounted to a flat cart with gravity-repellers glimmering underneath.

Jort followed me reluctantly. “How far we go, Captain?”

“Not far. Just past that ridge.”

“Why don’t we land there?”

“There’s no place to land. It’s full of crags and fissures that reach a kilometer deep in places. The vents fire up plumes of steam now and then from the guts of this planet.”

“Uh…” Jort said. He didn’t sound happy. “Why the hell would anyone choose a spot like that to stash weapons?”

I laughed. “If they’d been left out in the open, they’d be gone by now, don’t you think?”

“Yeah… what if the stash is empty?”

“Then we’re screwed. We’ll borrow Kersen’s ship indefinitely, and we’ll make it up to him someday.”

“Ha. I see… What about Sosa? She belongs to Kersen. That thing in her guts… it will kill her if it knows what’s happening.”

I hadn’t considered that angle. I frowned. “We’ll figure it out. Stop worrying.”

We passed between two jagged peaks like shark’s teeth. On the far side, a circular region of rough but level ground spread out before us. There were scattered vents, puffing up plumes of white vapor from the ground. Blackened, broken rocks were everywhere.

“This is an impact crater!” Jort exclaimed. “What hit this spot?”

“Not sure. A warhead, I guess—probably fusion. It’s not big enough for an antimatter strike.”

Jort stood stock still for a moment, taking it all in. “I can see the squared off remnants of a building. “This was some kind of base, wasn’t it? A fortress or a lab… Someone nuked it.”

“Yes, that’s what I figured when I found it years ago. It was probably a military outpost, since it has a surprising cache of weapons underneath.”

I led him to a winding ramp. We entered the rough mouth of a cave, which turned into a sculpted tunnel.

“Someone drilled this!” Jort boomed. “I see marks… the shape of the walls…”

He was right, of course. The top of this fort or missile base, or radar station—whatever it had once been—had been blown flat down to the foundations. But the tunnel that spiraled deep into the earth was still in pretty good shape.

A hundred meters below the surface, we found a chamber. Jort gaped at the stash of guns.

“This isn’t a few rifles!” he declared in shock.

He wandered among the armored suits, light artillery pieces and a thousand other weapons. I watched him closely until he reached out to pick up a helmet encrusted with sensors.

“Don’t fondle the merchandise, Jort.”

His hands sprang away from the helmet, and it crashed to the deck, rolling away from him.

“Just the rifles and power packs. Load them up.”

He looked at me with wide eyes as he followed my orders. “I wasn’t taking nothing.”

“I know you weren’t. Maybe after this is over, we can come back here and gear up—in fact, we’ll take a few shredders, just in case.”

Eagerly, Jort found a rack of shredders and stuffed some into a sack. He looked like a pillaging burglar, and I got the feeling if he were ever left alone in this chamber, he’d try to steal everything he could carry.

The model-Ds went to work loading packed rifles on the cargo sled. They didn’t complain, they didn’t argue, they simply and mechanically moved huge burdens from the pallets in the armory onto the growing stack on the sled. It was a good thing the gravity here was low, or the sled might have bottomed out.

“Okay,” I said after about twenty minutes of loading. “We’ve got about a thousand on there. Let’s take this load back to the ship.”

We trundled the sagging cart over the landscape. The storm had quit, at least temporarily. A few times we almost slipped and tipped the whole mess into one of those bottomless pits, but we returned to the ship in the end without a full disaster.

“That was too big of a load,” Jort said. “No point in taking such a risk again!”

I surveyed the land with a worried eye. I pointed to the crags. “This side of the planet is rotating… slowly, I’ll admit, but we’ll be seeing dawn in another hour or two. One day on this planet takes months to pass by.”

“So what?” Jort laughed. “There’s nothing here! Noo one here to bother us. We can take a week if we—”

“No,” I said firmly. “We can’t. This place… it’s never been safe. It never will be safe, not until the Sardez sun goes out in another billion years or so.”

Perplexed, Jort shook his head and stumped after me. We returned to the armory and loaded it up again. I felt a growing sense of unease. I checked my chrono constantly, and I kept telling myself there was plenty of time. Plenty.

We walked the second load, another thousand rifles, back to the ship. Then we went immediately for the third. Jort complained he wanted a break to piss and get some food.

“Piss in your suit,” I told him. Then I left with the model-Ds.

He stood at the bottom of the ramp for a few moments before grumbling and following me.

When the third load was finally brought home and stuffed into the ship’s hold, I felt a sense of relief.

“Why you so worried?” Jort asked me.

“This place…” I said. “Did you ever wonder why the Sardez died out? Why they made so many fine weapons—but were all killed in the end anyway?”

“Uh… I think the Conclave bombed out their home planet, yes? They were rebels or something. Something dangerous.”

I pointed a gloved finger at him. “That’s right. It’s dangerous. This whole system is off-limits and dangerous. Only a few archeologists and smugglers dare come out here these days.”

“Good thing we’re almost done, then.”

I nodded, then frowned. “Almost? We’ve got our rifles—”

“You promised Kersen you’d bring him two power packs for every rifle, remember?”

A wave of horror went through me. Jort was right. I’d been thinking about the rifles, trying to hurry—

“Come on!” I shouted, slapping his shoulder.

“What?”

“We have to go back, right now!”

“But my piss-chamber is full and I’m—”

“Shut up! We’ve got to go now!”

“If you’re so worried about the sun coming up, Gorman, just wait a day. We can even take off and land again.”

I turned around and grabbed up a wad of his suit. “No, we can’t. Listen, this rock rotates very slowly. Once every four months, about. We’d have to wait for months before the sun goes down again.”

“Huh…” he said, and followed me, cursing.

The model-Ds were registering in the orange on battery power, as was the cart, but I didn’t care. We had to get the last load done right now.




Chapter Fourteen

Sweating and puffing so much that my faceplate was fogging up, I worked to load the power packs with Jort. He and the model-Ds worked with me.

I’d seen things on this forgotten rock in the past. I’d never been attacked, but I’d known others who dared to come here that had been. The whispered story among smugglers was that such events only happened when the sun was out.

How could something be alive on an almost airless rock covered in methane-snow? Something that was torpid in the cold, endless nights, but active in the light of day? I didn’t know. But I knew I didn’t want to find out.

Another theory smugglers had was that there were guardian machines, left behind by the extinct Sardez. Maybe they’d run down their batteries and needed the sunlight to get them moving again. That was only a legend, but I didn’t want to test it.

We had only one more run to make. Piling up the battery packs, it became a huge load, taller than the rest. Six thousand battery packs take up more room than you might think, and worse, they weigh a lot.

We trundled the load carefully up the winding tunnel and out into the open. Already, I could see daylight had brightened the sky. Instead of a purply-black, it was a deep blue that grew brighter with every passing second.

“Come on, push!”

The model-Ds dragged the sled from the front. Jort and I threw our shoulders into it, pushing from the back. The anti-grav sled wobbled and scraped the surface every few meters whenever some rock stuck up higher than the rest. The sled was overloaded, and its internal power pack was in the red.

Finally, as we approached the jagged line of saw-toothed stones—the sled sagged to the ground. The blinking battery light went out completely.

“Shit…” I said, breathing hard and trying to think.

“We could hook up some of the rifle batteries,” Jort suggested. “The couplings—”

“No. They’re all dead. They’ve been sitting out here for decades.”

“Right… what then?”

My eyes crawled over the landscape. Overhead, the glimmering stabbing fingers of true light touched the tips of each crag, and they individually began to smoke as the ice melted into vapor. Soon the whole region would be bathed in faint light, like a full moon—that might be enough to activate something. We had very little time left.

Thinking hard, I at last focused in on the model-Ds. They were still trying to drag the dead sled, taking slogging steps in the snow that did nothing but dig up mud and ice.

“They’re useless without the sled,” I said aloud, getting an idea.

Walking to the nearest one, I grabbed his power pack and tried to remove it.

To my surprise, the bot objected. It stiffened, stopped trying to pull the sled, and turned on me. Worse, the other did the same.

Click.

I managed to disengage its power supply. The battery pack came free in my hand, and the devilish light behind the android’s cameras faded out.

The second android, however, was still in a bad mood.

“Halt!” I called out. “Pick up your friend, there, and carry him to the ship.”

I pointed, but the bot took no notice. It marched toward me instead, grippers outstretched. It was going for the battery pack I had in my hand.

I unslung my shredder, but before I could employ it, the bot reached me and grabbed up my suit. It twisted and pulled—I heard fabric tearing.

Jort gave an inarticulate roar then, and he charged from the side. He tackled the android, knocking it to the ground.

Since I was still trapped in those mercilessly strong grippers, we all tumbled down together. Upon landing on the hard ground, Jort hammered on the D’s chassis. The undamaged android turned its attention toward the annoying Jort. Those grippers came up and went for him next.

The moment I was released, I grabbed one of the robot’s legs and stood up fast. The robot was lifted into the air. On a normal planet, I couldn’t have done it, but here on this small planetoid gravity was only a fifth of what I was used to. The robot weighed maybe fifty kilos, instead of two hundred and fifty.

The bot went flying. He spun, flashing a reflection of sunlight down to dazzle us, before crashing down into one of the nearby pits. Tumbling, whirring, sliding—it was gone from sight in a single moment.

Panting, Jort and I stood on the edge of the abyss looking down.

“I don’t see it,” Jort said. “Kersen will be pissed when he finds out.”

“I’m pissed right now,” I said, and turned back to the sled. We plugged in the power pack I’d taken from the second model-D into the sled. It lifted off the ground again.

Using muscle power instead of the bots, we dragged the sliding, scudding sled over the ridge and back to the ship.

Sosa met us at the bottom of the ramp. “Where are the bots?”

“Back there. They ran out of power.”

Jort glanced at me, but he didn’t say anything.

Sosa looked oddly panicked. “That’s not supposed to happen. Go back and get them.”

I glanced up at the dawning sky. “Forget it. We’re leaving this rock.”

Sosa watched us drag the sled up the ramp. After a few moments, she rushed past us into the ship.

As we were stowing the cargo for lift off, she raced back down. She was carrying two fresh power packs.

“I’ll get them going again,” she said.

I reached out a hand and stopped her, touching her shoulder. “Don’t do it. I… I haven’t been entirely honest about this place. It’s not safe here now that the sun is coming up.”

Sosa shook her head. “I have to. My… my rider won’t let me leave without them.”

She pulled away and trotted out into the snow.

“But they’re just a couple of model-Ds!” I called after her. “We’ll tell Kersen to add them to my tab on the next run.”

Sosa didn’t answer. She was gone.

“Frigging hell,” I mumbled. “Stay here, get the ship ready to lift off, and batten down this load.”

Jort nodded, and he watched me run after Sosa shaking his head. I knew he figured we should just wait to see if she made it back—but I couldn’t. I only had a crew of three, after all, and I didn’t want lose a third of my people today.

Reaching the crater, I found one of the model-Ds standing up again. Sosa must have told it to find its brother, because it was marching toward the abyss.

“Hold it!” I called out. “That’s a big bottomless pit, you idiot!”

Sosa spoke to the robot, and it halted. It gazed down into the pit uncomprehendingly. I realized that Sosa could get it to do things that I couldn’t.

She ran to me. There were tears in her eyes. “The other one is lost?”

“Yeah… I’m afraid so.”

She shivered then, rippling pain running through her features. It was awful to watch. One eye spilled tears, the other rolled up into her skull, showing only the white.

I put my hands gently on her shoulders, trying to comfort her. I knew she was going through exquisite pain.

“Hold on, hold on,” I whispered. “It will stop in a minute… probably.”

Turning away from the pit at last, the second model-D focused on me and began marching in my direction. Was it coming at me for round two in our wrestling match? If so, I planned to put it at the bottom of that trench with its brother.

It came closer. Sosa was still in the grip of agonizing punishment from her alien rider. I let go of her and stepped back. My shredder came up, the stubby muzzle glowing bright as I switched it on.

My finger almost squeezed the trigger. It was a close thing. But the moment I let go of Sosa, the robot halted dead in its tracks.

“So…” I said. “You’re protecting the girl? Kersen is a special kind of guy—putting one servant on my ship to torture her and another to protect her.”

The model-D halted in place, having nothing else to do according to its programming.

Sosa slid to the ground. She was barely conscious. The punishment had been severe.

“Pick her up,” I ordered the model-D. “Bring her back to the ship—careful, now!”

I kicked the machine in the ass as it walked by. It stumbled, but caught itself then lifted Sosa in its arms.

Walking after them, I slung my shredder and took one final glance around the crater, which had brightened further. With my night vision at its best by this time, I could see pretty easily in the bluish gloom.

There. Across the crater, beyond the crevasse and the tunnel in the center—I saw something move. It wasn’t the android I’d thrown in the pit, either.

It was a long, dark shape. Low to the ground, it sort of humped along, like a giant caterpillar.

Unslinging my shredder, I turned toward my ship and began to run.




Chapter Fifteen

Scrambling, I reached the ship before the model-D did. I thought about plucking Sosa from its grippers and running with her—but I already knew the thing was programmed to kill me if I tried. I yelled for it to hurry the hell up.

“Jort! Is the ship ready?”

“Engines idling, sir.”

The lavender blue glow at the rear of the ship was a welcome sight indeed. I could hear the engines as I got closer, rumbling and coughing a puff of yellow plasma now and then. They were warmed up and ready to go.

“Come on, come on!” I shouted, waving frantically for the model-D to hurry.

It took no notice and continued trudging along with the same implacable gait. I wasn’t sure if any model-D could hurry. They weren’t programmed for it.

Just then, a shadow rippled. I saw it out of the corner of my eye, off to the left.

Spinning that way, I released a shower of darts from my shredder. The darts flew out and exploded, popping harmlessly over rocks and snow. Each tiny explosion flared blindingly bright in the dim puddle of shade that surrounded my ship.

“What you shooting?” Jort asked, but I ignored him.

I glanced this way and that, trying to look everywhere at once. This enemy, if accounts were to be believed, was quite stealthy and deceptive.

There it was—under the ramp. A quivering blob crouched, waiting for us to try to escape. I obliterated it with a shower of darts.

“A culus…” I whispered.

That’s what such things were called. Rounded creatures with a single rubbery foot. They had leathery wings that would allow them to glide for short distances in a thin atmosphere like the one this world had.

Whenever you saw a culus, a shrade was never far behind. That was the snake-like thing I’d seen in the pit. Whirling around again, I eyed the landscape.

The model-D had carried Sosa to the foot of the ramp by this time. It tilted forward and began the upward climb.

In a rush, I jumped onto the ramp once Sosa and the robot were halfway up. I slammed my palm onto the emergency-close button, and the ramp rapidly retracted with me riding on it.

Sides heaving from exertion, I shook my head and took my helmet off. The ship rose into the sky, and we left the nameless, frozen, tomb-like world behind.

Jort came running down the steps from the upper deck. He looked at me with wide eyes.

“What was all the shooting?”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” I said, giving him a tired smile.

For a second or two, Jort smiled back. But then his eyes drifted to Sosa, and his expression changed to one of horror.

“What’s got her?” he demanded.

I turned, and I saw a monster.

It was the shrade. The long, stealthy, rope-like creature I’d feared to meet. Somehow, it had crept close and gotten itself wrapped around Sosa and the model-D that still carried her in its mindless arms. Like a boa constrictor, it had wrapped its muscular body around both of them and begun to squeeze in earnest.

“Get it off her!” Jort yelled, and we both grabbed the head-section, which consisted of a single blunt projection positioned over a serrated ridge of bony material that served the alien as a mouth. Pulled from its prey, the shrade flexed and dragged our hands back toward the model-D.

The android was the only thing that had saved the girl so far, I realized. The alien must have mistaken it for a being of flesh and blood. It was trying to crush both of them, and only half-succeeding.

Sosa, for her part, wasn’t looking too good. Parts of her body were purple with blood and bruising. Other areas, notably her face, were pale and dead-looking. She’d already lost consciousness, and I knew she’d soon lose her life.

Trying to rip the alien away from her wasn’t working. I stepped back, panting, and waved Jort clear. Raising my shredder, I took aim and released a burst of pellets.

The head section was pulped. It writhed and flopped—but the damned thing didn’t die. It kept on squeezing and squirming. How could it do so without a brain? I didn’t know, maybe these aliens didn’t keep their brains in their heads.

Then, I saw something strange occur. Sosa’s abdomen, which had been under a great deal of stress—popped open.

A bizarre, white crab-like creature, about the size of a rat, popped out of her ruptured belly and scuttled over the floor, leaving a trail of gore behind it.

“What the hell is that?” Jort demanded, stunned.

“It’s her rider. It’s leaving her for dead.”

I aimed my shredder, but before I could shoot the nasty crab-like parasite, the shrade sprang upon it. There was a moment of clicking on the deck and a crunch could be heard. The shrade had killed the thing that had tormented Sosa for so long.

My shredder hammered, spraying both aliens with explosive darts. I kept firing until the chamber rattled empty. By that time, they were both dead. There was no doubt.

We turned back to Sosa and the model-D—but the android had walked away, carrying Sosa with him. The trail was easy to follow, and we found Sosa stuffed into the tiny medical bay, which was really a box with a porthole on it.

Our medical systems were minimal, and we had no doctor. The best we could do was shove an injured person into the medical bay. The ship’s auto-doc could fix many serious injuries and diseases. If they got lucky, the victim would live and emerge at some point.

If the auto-doc failed, it took care of matters then, too. The injured crewman would be ejected into space. There was nothing you could do to improve the odds. The auto-doc did its best, and you hoped for the outcome you wanted.

“You think she’ll make it?” Jort asked me.

I shook my head. “Probably not. But she’s a tough girl, so who knows?”

Jort followed me back to the bridge. There we plotted our course out of the Sardez system.

“You knew those nightmares were out there, huh?” Jort asked.

“I’ve heard stories.”

Jort made a rude sound with his mouth. “You knew. That’s why you work Jort so long. To avoid the daylight.”

I shrugged.

“Where did they come from? That thing out there? The flying one—and the worm?”

“Remember what I told you? About the Sardez and what killed them?”

He looked puzzled for a moment. Jort was no scholar.

“Oh yeah,” he said, brightening at last. “You said something killed the Sardez. Some aliens.”

“That’s right. The creatures we just met up with… that’s the kind of thing that did it. I’ve always heard legends about them, but I’ve never seen them myself. Anyway, those things are the reason the Sardez learned to make the best guns. Didn’t do them much good in the end, though.”

“No…”

I snapped the ship off autopilot and made a swooping turn. The dumb-ass computer had aimed the ship at the slip-gate. By now, there could be a dozen angry patrol boats waiting there for us.

Steering away from the star, I chose a new path that would take longer, but would be much safer. Kersen would have his guns in eleven days. That would have to be fast enough.




Chapter Sixteen

We flew off the grid and into open space. The Conclave existed in a star-cluster which meant the stars were fairly close together. Instead of being five or ten lightyears apart, they were only one or two—sometimes less.

I had to stop myself from checking up on Sosa every few hours. It was eating away at me. Maybe if I’d moved quicker, or shot the shrade right from the start, she’d have had a better chance.

But second-guessing myself wasn’t my normal path through life. I liked to make new troubles rather than dwell on the old. I wasn’t a man that spent my time worrying about the past.

With Sosa however, I couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty. After all, I’d pretty much engineered this whole show. She hadn’t even signed on willingly, unlike Jort.

After the sixth day, I didn’t even go down to look anymore. I’d given up. When we went back to Kersen, maybe I’d ask for a funeral, or something. I doubted the old lizard would give a shit, but I’d try it anyway.

On the morning of the seventh day, I yawned and stretched in my hammock. Rolling over, I came awake with a lurch.

“Whoa! Where’d you come from, girl?” I demanded.

A young woman stood framed in the doorway of my cabin. At first, I barely recognized her. Then I realized who it had to be.

She was buck-naked and understandably confused.

“What happened to me?” Sosa asked. “Am I a clone or something?”

“Nah, there are no clones stored on this ship,” I scoffed.

“What then? Look at me.”

She did a slow staggering spin. She almost fell over as she was still unsteady on her feet. I watched her with interest.  She looked better than ever. And not just because she was nude, I really thought she must feel much better without that nasty alien poking at her. She really seemed relieved and relaxed for the first time.

“We’ve got good medical on this ship, I guess,” I commented.

“Did I die?”

“Uh…”

“Never mind,” she said quickly, raising her hand when I began to answer. “I don’t want to know what happened. I’m back, I’m healed, and…”

A look of fresh shock came over her. She reached down to her side, about where the liver might be found. She probed herself, poking fingers at a pink area of skin right below her ribs. I watched the process with interest.

She looked up at me in shock. “I can’t feel my rider!”

Smiling, I nodded. “I shot them both. The parasite and that snake-like alien together. Want to see?”

With a face full of mixed horror and fascination, she nodded.

Laughing, I grabbed a towel off of my rack and threw it at her. She caught it and draped it over herself.

We moved to the lower deck. There, we found a puddle of dried muck on the deck.

“Huh. The bodies were right here. That damned robot must have carried the remains to the engineering chamber and dumped it all into the reactor core.”

“Yes…” Sosa said. “It’s scripted to do that with debris it finds on the deck.”

“I could’ve sold that mess to a collector. Damned robot.”

Shaking her head, Sosa walked away. I followed her, and I couldn’t help but notice those shapely legs in front of me. I wanted to ask her a few things.

“There was something strange about the whole thing,” I told her as she dressed in her cabin, and I pretended not to watch.

“What?”

“The shrade—I’ve seen a few aliens in operation before. They generally behave in a very logical fashion. They go for the worst threat and eliminate it.”

“Yeah, so?”

“This one didn’t act like that. At first, when I saw it was squeezing you to death with the android, I figured it was confused. But now that I’ve had a week to think about it—”

“I was in that frigging medical box for a whole week?”

“Uh… yeah. Pretty much.”

“Great… well, I’m glad to be back anyway. I’m glad to be free of my rider, too. I… I didn’t think I’d escape it except by dying.”

“It was a close thing, let me tell you. Anyway, I’ve had some time to think things over, and I don’t think the shrade was trying to kill you at all. It could have done that at any time. I think it was trying to squeeze that parasite out of you.”

At these words, Sosa flashed me a thoughtful glance. “What makes you say that?”

I relayed the scene to her as vividly as I could. She peered at me while I spoke.

“You fought to save me? You and Jort both? You risked your lives?”

“Uh… yeah. Pretty much. Don’t get too choked up, it was instinct. I’m sure you would have done the same thing for me.”

She studied the deck plates. “Yeah. Sure.”

“Anyway, I think the shrade was trying to get to your parasite. Even after it popped out of your belly—”

“Is that what happened?” she asked, horrified. She fingered the scarred patch under her ribs again, probing it gingerly.

“Pretty much, yeah. It popped out of you and the alien sprang right off and chased it down. The snake thing crushed the little monster before it could escape into the ship. That was its dying move. What kind of sense does that make?”

Sosa shook her head. “Sounds like your alien friends are as bad as mine.”

“But what would make it ignore two dangerous, armed men and go after a bug-like ball of spines?”

“Hate,” she said. “Sheer hate. Lots of creatures hate the Tulk.”

“The what?”

“My rider… that’s what they’re called. Tulk is the name of their race.”

“So…they’re intelligent? They have a society and all that?”

Sosa smiled. “Yes. They can talk and interact, but they rarely do so with humans. We’re like herd animals to them. Chattel. Possessions of little worth.”

“I see… I’ll tell you what. How about we have some breakfast and a drink? I’m buying.”

For the first time since she’d crawled out of the auto-doc box—one of the first times since I’d met her—she smiled at me. It was a thin smile, but it was unmistakable.




Chapter Seventeen

After Sosa had lost her rider, she was regularly in a good mood. I would even describe her as cheery. She often asked me or Jort about the incident later, asking for specific details. It was almost as if she couldn’t believe it and was trying to make sure it was true. I imagined she hadn’t had too many tight friends in her life. It made me wonder just how long that creature had been inside her.

“So… you two fought that thing? With your hands?”

“You want us to play back the security camera vids?”

She smiled. “No… I guess not. I just never… I don’t know.

Breathing hard, she pulled up her shirt. She ran her fingers over the reddened area. She probed gently at first—then with more vigor.

“It’s really gone…” she said in a distant voice. “I still can’t believe it.”

“That’s a good thing, right?”

She looked up at me. Her eyes were unfocussed, unseeing. “That thing has been the curse of my life. This is incredible… but, Kersen...”

“Don’t worry about him. I’ll explain it to him.”

She snorted disbelievingly and pulled her shirt back down. “I’m sure you will, Captain. But in the meantime… thanks for helping me out.”

Smiling, I took a step closer. Now that she didn’t have that space-crab controlling her any longer, she might give me a chance. “Hey, how about you and I get—”

“No… I don’t think so. I’m tired. I’ll take a shift in my bunk, if you don’t mind.”

I opened my mouth for a snappy comment, but then closed it again. “Okay. See you when my watch ends.”

Moving up to the bridge, I saw Jort watching me sidelong.

“What?” I asked him.

“I wasn’t sure how that would go. I did not hear her scream. By the sour look on your face, I guess she didn’t jump you, either… She is still cold to you? Even now?”

“Yeah, pretty much.”

“A shame. You are her hero.”

We went back to watching space flow by. It was pretty boring. The stars ahead were all bluish, the ones behind, all red. It was an effect of moving at tremendous speeds without using a slip-gate.

A few days later, we reached Ceti and returned to the mooring under the space station. There, Kersen’s men met us with a grim attitude. They were armed with shredders, so I broke out a couple of the Sardez rifles and cradled one in my arms. Jort held the other.

The toughs at the dock raised their eyebrows at this.

“Are you crazy, Gorman?” one of them asked.

“I get that a lot.”

“You can’t fire a heavy combat rifle here. You’ll blow out the walls of this station and kill us all.”

I shrugged. “Why would I do that? I’m here to deliver the promised goods, not to start a firefight. More importantly, these rifles are the weapons Kersen wanted me to bring home.”

Grumbling, the men led us back to Kersen. They kept their shredders slung over their shoulders, which was exactly what I wanted to see.

“Master Kersen will speak with you—but not if you’re armed.”

I popped out a power pack and threw it to the thug. He caught it.

“What about the rifle?”

“I want to show it to Kersen. That’s the whole damned point.”

He sighed, but he let me go in. The second he was out of sight I slammed a fresh pack into the base of the rifle. It hummed and glowed as if excited to kill.

Kersen saw us coming, and he stared. “You bring weapons?”

“I do. Jort, give him your rifle.”

Jort reluctantly handed his over. Sosa stood back—way back. She was wearing the heaviest garment I’d ever seen her in, some kind of tunic that erased all her curves. It took me a moment to realize she was trying to hide the fact she’d lost her rider. She stood motionless. I wondered if her simple ruse would work.

“This weapon is charged?” Kersen asked in astonishment.

“Sure it is, just as I promised. Three thousand rifles of the highest quality with two power packs each.”

Kersen eyed my rifle. “My guardians are very lax. I will correct them.”

“That’s fine. Now, about my payment…”

“You will get no payment!” Kersen boomed suddenly. Nothing seemed to piss him off more than the idea of parting with any amount of money. “But… I have discounted your debt to me by a generous fifteen percent.”

I shook my head. “No dice, Kersen. You said once we performed this mission, we were square.”

“Perhaps you misunderstood the terms.”

“Perhaps you misunderstand as well.” As I said these fateful words, I hefted my rifle.

Kersen had one too, but I didn’t think he was a crack shot. He wasn’t that kind of crime boss. He liked to operate from the back of the line, like a spider in a web.

“Thirty percent,” he said. “My final, and grossly overgenerous offer.”

“No. I’m done, we’re square with each other. These rifles are worth a million credits—as much as that ship, maybe.”

“Hmm, I might be persuaded to take you up on that deal,” he said thoughtfully, “but you’ll have to do another service for me.”

“What’s that?”

“Take these rifles to their final destination.”

“You never told me where that is.”

Kersen laughed. It was an ugly sound full of raspy noises that came up out of his guts.

“No, I didn’t. I didn’t want you to take these weapons there and sell them yourself.”

“I’d never do that. You can’t build a good working relationship if you rip people off immediately.”

Kersen seemed to find my ideas amusing. “What do you say? Will you make the delivery?”

“I need more work—and you need a runner. I’ll take the guns out to wherever you say, and deliver them, no questions asked. But, you have to pay me for this run. I want a half-share.”

Kersen’s face quivered. “A half-share? Insanity. You’ll get ten percent and like it.”

The haggling began. At the end, when Jort was beginning to look sleepy, we agreed to a one-third share for me and my crew. It was actually better than I usually got out of Kersen. He must have been hard-up for a good crew.

We left with the rifles and instructions as to how to get to Baden, a star I had no memory of.

Turning back, I noticed that Sosa had stayed behind to talk to Kersen.

“Looks like Kersen is angry,” Jort said.

“Maybe he noticed her rider is missing.”

We waited, and about a minute later, Sosa appeared. She stared down at the deck.

“Is there a problem?” I asked her.

“Yes… Kersen insists that I travel with you again.”

“Is that such a bad thing?”

“He’s angry about the lost model-D. We’re getting a new one—and we must take better care of it this time.”

“That damned thing deserved to die. It wasn’t programmed right.”

Sosa still studied the deck. “Will you have me? As part of your crew? Or do you wish to argue more with Kersen?”

She was acting kind of strangely, like she didn’t want to come with us. I didn’t get it. I was getting used to her, and I thought she’d enjoyed being part of my tiny crew, despite her near-death experience.

“Of course,” I told her. “Let’s get out of here before he fits you with a new rider.”

Sosa followed us, and we returned to the ship. After loading fresh supplies and fuel, both of which were grudgingly provided by Kersen, we shipped out.




Chapter Eighteen

Sosa stayed moody and distant for several days. It was easy to avoid one another on the ship, which was designed for a larger crew.

When we finally reached Baden, I found it to be an unfriendly place. Our radio squawked and spit static before we got anything intelligible out of it.

“This is Colonial Traffic, please respond,” said a model-K who was manning what passed for Baden’s border outpost. “State your destination and purpose.”

“Baden. We’re here to trade at the main city.”

“Baden only has one city.”

I rolled my eyes. Model-Ks were annoyingly exact and literal-minded. They didn’t have the brains for flexible references.

“I know this colony is a one-town planet. They all are out here on the fringe.”

The model-K thought this over, then spoke again: “Approved. Please note: this region is under a travel advisory. The Conclave can’t guarantee your safety in this star system.”

“Don’t worry about it. If you don’t call me, I won’t call you.”

The model-K puzzled over this for a moment, then spoke a single word: “Proceed.”

We roared away from the slip-gate and flew to the second planet from the star. The star itself was one of those blinding-white, F-class jobs. They burned hot and tended to give you skin cancer if you walked on the beach under one of them.

The planet itself, fortunately, wasn’t too bad. It was a bit cooler than Earth due to being further from its sun. Despite this, there was more background radiation due to the star being an F-class. The polar ice caps were large, each occupying about a quarter of the planet’s surface area. The middle half of the surface was dotted with seas, but was primarily made up of lush green lands.

“Nice looking place. You think they have trees?” Jort asked me. “Real trees?”

“They’ve probably got something like a tree. Most habitable planets do. Have you been here before, Sosa?”

She didn’t answer right away. When I turned and looked at her, she avoided my eyes. “Yes,” she said at last. “They’ve bought weapons before. It’s an unpleasant place.”

“Do they have trees, though?” Jort demanded.

“Yes… of a sort. Snow-covered pines. But they aren’t like Conclave pines. The needles are hard, and they sting the skin. The branches are broadly spread and trunks are like—like a spreading umbrella.”

Jort thought that over. “I’ve seen worse.”

We homed in on the single town on the planet’s surface, then rode down a guiding-beam to land. I set Royal Fortune down on steaming skids, and we headed for the ramp.

We were close to the equator, and the land was warm and humid—but not hot. I stepped out, and it felt like I’d walked into a public sauna. The clinging humidity was oppressive after having been aboard ship breathing canned, dry air for so long.

I soon got used to the climate, and Jort seemed positively happy. His homeworld of Scorpii was like this, but with more gravity and more stench.

His face made a sudden change. His smiled faded away. “Look at that, boss.”

Turning, I saw a clam-shell turret that had rotated around and shunted open its blast-shields. Inside, I saw what gunners called a four-banger—a turbo-laser with four barrels. They were all aimed at us.

“Whoa,” I said, putting up my hands. “Stand down, soldiers! We’re here to deliver vital supplies.”

Whoever was driving the turret took no notice of my remarks. The crew kept those big barrels aimed at me and my ship. Next to that thing, my rifles seemed inadequate.

We waited, not daring to move around for fear the turret might get excited. At last, a man in khakis showed up. He had the oak leaves of a major on his lapels.

“Major,” I nodded, playing friendly and dumb. “Glad to see my first human on this lovely world.”

“Stow it, trash. You’re the gun runner, right?”

I nodded sourly. “And you are…?”

“Major Hendricks. Second-in-command, Baden colonial guard.”

“Okay, Major. Where do you want these rifles delivered?”

“Rifles?” he asked, curling his lips. “I didn’t order small arms. I ordered—”

“Just wait until you see these beauties, sir.”

I lowered the ramp, and the two model-Ds rolled down a pallet of shiny black Sardez guns.

The major tried not to look impressed. “Accelerators? Really? Actual rail-guns? But what about power packs? I can’t supply a gun like this with—”

The next pallet trundled down then, almost tipping over with power packs.

He inspected the armament and quickly returned to look at me appraisingly. “I don’t know where you got this kind of gear, runner—and I don’t want to know. If I didn’t need this equipment so badly, I’d call you in and report you.”

I smiled. “It’s all legit, sir. One hundred percent.”

“I’m sure… All we’ve got at this outpost is cordite weapons, plus a few turrets and artillery pieces. Nothing that can do more than land a stray shell or a laser beam. But these rifles… They’ll hit like rockets every time.”

“We only deliver the best, sir,” I told him.

He squinted at me thoughtfully. “Have we met before?”

“I don’t think so…” I said, blinking. It was possible, of course, that my clone had met him after I’d been made. That would be an awkward situation. I decided to play it straight and just smile at him.

He finally stopped squinting into my face and shrugged. “Doesn’t matter, I guess. These weapons are excellent.”

“I’m glad to hear you’re satisfied, Major. Now, if you’ll be so kind as to remit payment, I’ll unpack all these guns for you and be on my way.”

The major looked startled. “Payment? Kersen said we could pay later—on credit.”

“Oh really? That’s a shame.”

So saying, I ordered my model-Ds to turn tail and push the cargo back up the ramp. “If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a few more deliveries—”

“Hold on a damned second!” the major boomed behind me. “This colony is in trouble. The local fauna are organized and they outnumber us a thousand to one. Now that it’s rutting season, they don’t care if they live or die.”

He was talking to my back. “That’s a shame, sir. A damned shame,” I called down over my shoulder.

The cart with the power packs on it was already halfway up the ramp. The model-Ds were both working hard to backpedal the rest of the way into the hold.

“Hold on, runner. I’ll talk to Colonel Fletcher. I’ll see what I can do.”

The major hustled away, and we waited.

After a few minutes, a larger, even more sour man arrived. He inspected our goods, but barely raised an eyebrow.

“You guys know we’re about to be wiped out, right?”

Jort and I glanced at each other, sensing another dodge.

“Well, in that case Colonel,” I told him. “We’ll never get paid if we leave these guns with you.”

The colonel eyed us coldly. He seemed to be calculating whether or not he could take our weapons from us by force.

“May I ask, sir,” I said, “why the Conclave hasn’t provided our brave colonists on the front with either the arms or the funds to defend themselves?”

I worded this question carefully. It always got the officials on these dirt-grubbing worlds into a talkative mood. The answers were always the same, but the subject never failed to excite the locals.

“I’ll tell you why!” Colonel Fletcher said, stepping up and shaking a finger the size of a flashlight at my nose. He was a big guy with shoulders like a lumberjack. “They don’t give two shits about us, that’s why. Every colony is a gamble. If it works out and thrives, great. If it requires more investment—too bad.”

“Have you considered evacuation?”

He laughed bitterly. “We can’t afford passage for two million people. Some of the officials here would like to run, but I’ve put a stop to that. It’s martial law here, and I’m in charge.”

This was valuable information. Colonel Fletcher could confiscate my load and give me a promissory note. I kicked myself mentally, I shouldn’t even have landed without payment up front.

“Sir,” I said, “I’m very sympathetic to your cause. In fact, I’d like to bring you more supplies and guns to supplement these. But I’ve got to make an income, or I can’t even buy the fuel to do it.”

“More guns? How many do we have here?”

“Three thousand prime weapons. Enough to equip three battalions at least.”

He nodded, and I could see the greed in his eyes. He wanted my guns and more.

At this point, I figured I wasn’t getting off-world without violence. But a deal could still be swung. The promise of more vital supplies was always the way to go.

“What have you got to trade with, Colonel?” I asked. “Every planet has something.”

He worked big lips for a few seconds. “We’ve got raw materials. Gold, uranium, even some cobalt.”

I shook my head. “Too bulky. I’m not flying a freighter, here. But maybe plutonium…”

He winced. “We’re out of touch with those mines. We had good production a few months back. All automated. But we can’t even get up to the hills to pick it up.”

He turned and pointed up a rocky black slope. A road could be seen, cut into the land. Freaky-looking pines lined the road, with branches that spread out like palm fronds. Each frond bristled with green needles.

“Do the enemy control that high ground? Right above your city?”

“We trade fire on that road every day. But we can’t go all the way to the top. They hold the forests around the road. We’re hemmed in.”

I thought about trying to take Royal Fortune up there, landing near the mine and plundering it. But as soon as the thought struck, it faded. Doing so would take more than two model-Ds. I didn’t have much anti-radiation gear either, other than spacesuits. On top of that, there were these native rebels who sounded kind of dangerous.

“How about this,” I said. “You take our rifles now, you use them to retake that mountain and that mine. Then you give us our payment, and we’ll supply more.”

The colonel grinned. “You’d do that?” he asked.

“I would consider it to be my civic duty, sir.”

“I stand impressed.” He slammed me one on the shoulder, and I grinned up at him. “I never thought a runner could be anything other than a snake.”

“Glad to disappoint, Colonel.”

All smiles, I shook hands, and I began to unload my guns. Jort soon took me aside, with Sosa joining in the huddle.

“You crazy, man!” Jort said.

“What are we doing, Captain?” Sosa hissed. “We’ve got to get out of here. If these people can’t pay, they should get nothing.”

“That’s Kersen talking,” I told her sternly.

Shaking her head, she walked off.

Jort stared at me like I was some kind of new and exotic animal. “You let them rob us. If someone had told me this, I would call them a liar! Now, I watch with sad eyes.”

“Jort,” I said. “You’re basically a pirate, right?”

He shrugged, admitting to the charge.

“What would you do if you were that colonel over there? What if your base was about to be overrun, and a gun runner came with vital supplies, but you couldn’t pay?”

“Uh… I’d steal the load, shoot the runner. I’d take his ship, too.”

I grinned with one side of my mouth and snorted. “Exactly. Now do you understand why I made this deal?”

He thought it over, and I saw his eyes light up with understanding. He thumped me on the shoulder several times. “I get it. Yes. You smart man… Smart man!”

While troops unloaded my precious cargo, I eyed the stony black mountains looming over their lonely town. The road that ran up its side looked like a wound.

It couldn’t be more than ten kilometers to the top. These rifles I was handing to the colonials were game-changers. Maybe my plan was going to work out after all.




Chapter Nineteen

Colonel Fletcher wasn’t a half-bad guy once you got to know him. He offered us food, drinks and the best hotel room in New Town to stay in. Making an effort to be polite, I didn’t even crack jokes about the lame moniker they’d given to their one and only city.

There were about a million colonists living on Baden—or at least, there had been the last time they’d bothered to count them. There had been plenty of deaths since then.

Several hundred thousand of them lived in New Town. The rest were scattered over the planet, operating plantations, mines and fisheries. They’d managed to put together a small army, about eight thousand militia troops supported by the colony garrison regiment, which was eight hundred strong.

Unfortunately, only the garrison troops had real weapons. The rest were carrying hunting rifles and the like. Colonel Fletcher quickly decided to give the three thousand guns I’d brought him to his garrison men first. They were loyal and better-trained. The plan was I would help train them on the operation of the weaponry, then those men would train the best of the militia.

As Colonel Fletcher put it: “It won’t do to have these farm-boys shoot us in the ass the first time they see a duck in person.”

That’s what they called the alien locals—ducks. They didn’t look much like ducks to me. In fact, they were kind of like squatty, apish humans. But they did have duck feet. Long, webbed toes, the works. This made them excellent swimmers, apparently.

In the face, they resembled beavers, which I’d seen in historical vids. The Conclave’s original settlers had brought beavers with them, touting their usefulness in managing wetlands. I’d never had much use for the buck-toothed furry bastards, but I hadn’t been around when they’d decided what to bring out here from the homeworld a century or two back.

These aliens looked like that. Hunch-backed, web-footed, with big buck teeth that looked like they could snap off a finger if they wanted to. In any case, someone had riled them up and gotten them to decide they had to kill every human on the planet. It was an old story—I’d heard it a thousand times in the past.

Or rather the first version of William Gorman had heard it. Just thinking about my ex-life made me bare my teeth like one of these alien duck-guys. I still had no idea where the original Gorman had gone or what had happened to him. Oh, I had ideas… but no evidence. Not yet.

Before I could worry about that stuff, I had to get my ship off this planet with a load of credits or tradable goods. That was my mission today, and I was going to stick with it.

“All right boys, listen up,” I said, addressing eighty-odd officers and noncoms. They wore half-assed uniforms that amounted to coveralls of the same drab green. Rank insignia adorned lapels and sleeves, but they looked homemade. I pretended not to notice.

“This charging port is a little tricky,” I told them. “You have a few options with it. You can yank the release and drop the battery, like this.”

I demonstrated—the rifle making a loud metallic click as the battery unlocked from the bottom of the receiver and fell into the dirt.

“But that’s not really the recommended approach. In combat… sure, you can do that. It’s quick and you’re ready to slam in a new battery. However, there’s always some charge built up in the rifle at that point. It will cause some arcing as it disconnects, which will eventually wreck your port. So, when practicing—don’t do it.”

After some more basics, during which the group listened closely, we finally got around to firing the rifle.

“This rifle fires accelerated rounds. It’s essentially a small-caliber railgun. It doesn’t have a high rate of fire, but it’s extremely accurate with no drop off for over a kilometer out. Better still, it hits really hard. You can take out a small vehicle with this weapon with one or two shots.”

Not having a vehicle they wanted to abuse, I targeted a ruined building. It was an old fashioned stone and mortar animal shelter that was no longer in use.

Firing a round, I showed how the gun could punch right through solid granite. They walked with me to see the finger-hole that had appeared. I assured them it could have penetrated two meters of stone just as easily.

“Now, for the impressive demonstration,” I said, leading them a hundred paces away. “A Sardez rifle wasn’t just designed for accuracy and penetrating power. It also has options. By shaping the bolt that’s fired, you can cause it to do explosive damage rather than just penetrating a hard surface.”

Demonstrating, I fired another round with the dispersion impact knob twisted up to full. The rifle made a different sound that was more hollow and deep. Instead of a snap and whine, it was more of a pop and bang. The side of the stone structure exploded into dust.

The group whistled and cheered. They hadn’t been too impressed by punching holes in walls. After all, the enemy wasn’t going to be driving armored vehicles. But this… this was more like it.

A ragged hole, about two meters wide, had appeared in the stone wall. The roof was sagging above that. They walked around, talking excitedly.

“How do we make bullets?” one of them demanded suddenly. I recognized him, he was Major Hendricks, the dick who’d met me when I first landed. He’d tried to rob me right away—but I put away my hard feelings about that and smiled.

“Is ammo difficult to manufacture?” he demanded. “Are they—”

“Nah,” I said. “The weapon is made to work in low-tech circumstances. There are a dozen forging plans out on the grid. Just do a search. You can make several different kinds of rounds—but they all amount to bullets without any cartridge or gunpowder. As long as they are even in shape and have at least an eighty-percent iron content to make the magnetic barrel happy, you’re good to go.”

This seemed to please the crowd further. They could manufacture such items easily. Any colony could as long as they hadn’t been bombed back into a primitive state.

Handing over the rifle, I let them take turns blowing things up. Colonel Fletcher then called me aside.

“These guns are excellent. Each of them is like a small artillery piece.”

“That’s right. Are you happy now, Colonel?”

“Yes. You’ve done your part in the training. After we destroy the ducks, we will pay you handsomely.”

“Still after, huh?”

“Unfortunately… Our best goods are up there on that mountain. You can see it, can’t you? There’s a campfire among the trees already. Night is falling. You can see the enemy camping up there. They mock us now, but not for much longer.”

I nodded, looking things over. “When do you march?”

“We’re all going up that hill three mornings from now. That should be enough time to familiarize the men with the weapons and manufacture a few million rounds for them.”

“If you say so, Colonel.”

He eyed me again. It was a calculating glance.

“I could use a man like you, Gorman. This campaign might not go perfectly. The ducks… they outnumber us a hundred to one.”

That alarmed me, but I kept my smile pasted in place. “One more infantryman’s not going to make any difference. You need me to go get another three thousand rifles—or something even more rare.”

When in doubt, I always appealed to a man’s greed. With most people, it was very effective.

“You can do that later. I need you on this mountain walk. What do you say?”

I laughed. “I’m a gun runner, not a soldier! Get someone else.”

“I’ll add ten percent to your payout. You can pay off Kersen then pocket the rest.”

That stopped me. Now he was appealing to my greed. Unfortunately, that tactic almost always worked.

“Uh…” I said, rubbing at my neck and sweating. I was thinking hard.

“Just take it. I need you. A man who knows these weapons, I mean. I need you to help make the slugs. I need you to—”

“All right, all right, you’ve got my heart strings in your hands and you’re twanging away. I’ll do it—for twenty percent extra.”

He squinted at me for a moment then stuck out his hand.

We shook hands cementing our new deal.




Chapter Twenty

Two days passed. I spent the time in the downtown saloons. I chased a few skirts, but I didn’t catch any. The local girls didn’t trust off-world types, and I couldn’t blame them.

Sosa stayed on the ship, but Jort disappeared. He went straight to the red-light district, as far as I could tell. His approach to just about everything was more direct than mine.

On the third night, the night before we were destined to march our ragtag bunch of heavily armed deputies up the hill, I was playing cards with three citizens and a robot. The robot was winning, and I was getting ideas about giving him an electromagnetic tummy-ache.

Suddenly, an alarm sounded. It was long and low, more of a steam-whistle than a bell clanging. Everyone stood up from the card table except me.

“What’s that?”

“It’s the ducks—they’re hitting town again.”

I stuck out my lower lip. “Can we at least finish the hand?”

“Hell no.”

The humans fled, but the robot stayed.

“Aren’t you going to go to the walls like the rest?” I asked him.

“I calculate with a seventy nine percent confidence rating that I’ve won this hand. Please place your bet—or fold.”

I considered his words, still fondling my chips. I’d entertained the idea that if they all ran off, well, it could be construed legally as forfeiting their hands. There was quite a pile of chips in the middle of the green felt table, and I had hungry eyes.

“Please accelerate your response, human,” the bot said. “I’m needed elsewhere.”

“Is that right? I’ll tell you what, if we split this pot right down the middle, right now, we can call it even.”

“That’s against the rules and illogical.”

“Why? The other players took off. That means they’ve forfeited the hand. You don’t have time to go through another dozen steps while we raise and call—”

“You would not do that. I’ve modeled your behavioral patterns. You’ll either fold now, or bet generously if you have either a jack or a nine—”

“Look,” I said, getting tired of his bullshit. “It’s just you and me playing now. If we come to an agreement as to how to handle this special circumstance, we can both come out winners. One hundred percent chance.”

He paused, doing some further calculations. I knew robots liked sure things. After all, even though his numbers were right, he could still lose everything. I was offering him certainty.

“This is irregular. I don’t have a protocol to follow.”

“I get it, I get it. You have to improvise. That’s why you’re a model-Q. Any Q I’ve ever met could reason his way out of this one.”

“I will agree to your terms, but under protest. A grievance will be filed with—”

I didn’t listen to the rest. I was too busy scooping up chips. Soon he did the same, and after he left, I scooped up the chips the other players had forgotten to take with them as well.

Cashing in with the frowning, elderly cashier, I hurried out the back door and wandered the streets, whistling.

That was when the first shell came down into town, causing nearby windows to rattle with the impact. A kilometer away, toward the mountain, an orange blossom of flame shot up into the sky.

“Mortars?” I asked no one. “Colonel Fletcher didn’t say anything about the ducks having mortars…”

Turning away from the walls and the mountains beyond, I raced off at a dead run toward the spaceport.

Sosa was waiting in the ship. She’d already warmed the engines and pulled up the ramp. I had to hammer on the belly of the craft, and I called repeatedly over the intercom. Finally, she lowered the ramp again. It moved with reluctant slowness.

Thundering up into the lower deck, I met her with her arms crossed over her breasts and her eyes downcast.

“I should have left you,” she complained. “They’re shelling the spaceport and this ship could be taken out at any moment.”

“Colonel Fletcher would love that,” I told her. “He’d have a great excuse not to pay for the weapons.”

“What are you going to do?”

“We’ll move the ship to the south side of the town, landing it in a ray-ball field or something.”

Jort came puffing up a few minutes later. He had one of the Sardez rifles in his hand. The power bar was glowing green—a full charge.

“Colonel wants you at the wall, Captain.”

“I’m moving my ship first.”

“He says you’re giving up your payment.”

I gave Sosa an “I told you so” glance, but she didn’t react.

Grunting… I ordered them to their stations. I lifted off the ship, spun it around to the north and glided forward.

“Wrong way, sir!” Jort called. “That’s where the—”

“I know where I’m going, Jort. Man the torpedoes.”

Confused, he rushed away to the guts of the ship.

Sosa approached my pilot’s chair and clamped two hands onto my headrest. She had big eyes, and they were wide open now.

“You’re going to get involved? Directly?”

“When a fight starts, you’ve got three moves—at best. You can run, you can talk, or you can fight. I’m seeing no one to talk to. Running will lose me my stake, so I’m going to fight.”

She slid into a seat and began watching the scanners. “I’ve got hot spots—in the forest up the mountain road.”

“What a surprise. Jort, paint the area with lasers. When you’ve got a good target, fire one torpedo.”

“That will be a big blast,” Jort admonished. “A square kilometer.”

“Yeah… okay. Sosa, light up a region farther up the slope. Make sure the mortars are in the zone.”

She worked some calculations with the battle computer. Her hands looked shaky. “Done,” she said quietly a moment later.

“Jort… fire one.”

The ship shuddered. A splash of red plasma rolled out from the belly of Royal Fortune. It arced down and blossomed a few kilometers away on the slopes. A region lit up and was engulfed in flame and explosive smoke.

“Holy shit!” Jort said. “You almost cooked the militia!”

You almost cooked them!” I shouted back.

We spun my ship around and landed at the spaceport again. I considered taking off and leaving, I really did, but I didn’t want to give up my payment.

We didn’t have long to wait. A dozen ground vehicles revved and zoomed into the spaceport. Guns mounted on the roof of each of them trained on my ship. We sat quietly with all our gun ports closed.

The colonel himself climbed out of a vehicle and approached my ship. He had his hands balled into fists.

Lowering the ramp, we walked out with our rifles aimed into the air. Our weapons were charged and ready. The dozen vehicles surrounding us idled watchfully.

“Captain Gorman…” Fletcher said. “I can’t believe what you just did.”

“Rules of engagement, Colonel. The enemy fired on my ship. I returned fire. I hope none of your men were hurt.”

“A few with temporary blindness and radiation burns. But that’s not the real problem.” He marched toward me and stood tall. “I’m in charge of the defense of this planet. You aren’t to take any further independent action. I should arrest you for that crazy stunt, in fact. The governor is demanding it right now.”

“She is? Then why are you waiting?”

He smirked. “Because we’re under martial law, and I’m in charge. It’s my choice. You surprised me—but your attack was effective. You probably killed a hundred of the enemy and took out a lot of mortars. I just wish you’d told me what you were up to. When we saw you run for the airport, everyone assumed you were bugging out.”

“I don’t like to run from a fight,” I lied with a smile.

“All right… We advance at dawn. You want to play air-support with this illegal ship of yours?”

“Nope. This ship isn’t built to fight in forests. She’s no good in this kind of operation—unless you want your mine to be blown apart.”

“No thanks,” he said.

“Then I’ll march up with you on foot. Jort will come with me, Sosa will watch the ship.”

Fletcher opened his mouth, then shut it again. “Agreed. Report to the north gate at dawn.”

He marched back to his vehicles, mounted up and roared off. Sosa, Jort and I retreated into the ship.




Chapter Twenty-One

In the morning, I stretched awake and was surprised to find Sosa standing near, peering out the front viewports. They weren’t real windows, but they looked like real windows, a trick of optics and high resolution screens.

“Dawn was half an hour ago,” she told me.

“And you didn’t wake me up? That’s very considerate of you.”

She scowled. “You’re going to be late on purpose?”

Sitting up and scratching, I sipped a drink and checked my rifle. I slammed the breach closed and it hummed.

“You ever been on an infantry march?”

“No.”

“Well, who do you think gets killed? The guys in front, or the guys in back?”

Sosa huffed and walked off the deck, shaking her head. “I thought you were brave, but now I’m not so sure.”

“Oh, I’m plenty brave, but this isn’t my fight. I’ve already done my part of this bargain and then some. I’m trying to get paid now. It’s not my job to die here for these people.”

Shrugging, she disappeared. I followed her to the lower deck, freshened up using my patented five-minute routine, then headed down the ramp. Jort was waiting outside.

“Damn,” he said. “I thought you would sleep through the whole thing.”

“I wouldn’t miss it for your life.”

The sun was just a pink disk on the horizon. I knew it would rise up quickly, so we trotted toward the northern gates of New Town.

A sergeant with a hover-car was waiting at the edge of the spaceport. He eyed us sourly. “You lost me a bet, runner. I was sure you wouldn’t show up.”

“Glad to disappoint.”

I climbed into the back of the hover-car and Jort took shotgun. The sergeant eyed our rifles with a mix of envy and resentment.

“You clowns know how to work one of those things?”

Snapping the bolt, I aimed out the open roof of the car and up the mountain. “You must have missed my demonstration.”

“I heard you blew up a brick shit-house. Let me tell you something, starman, these rebels aren’t like normal ducks. You can’t just scare them by firing in the air. They’re smarter, more organized and downright dangerous.”

“Why do you think that is?”

“Don’t know. Something got into them—or into their water. I think someone has supplied them with training, weapons and maybe some kind of loco-juice as well. They aren’t right in the head. You’ll see.”

After that disturbing pronouncement, the sergeant shut up. Five minutes later we caught up with the column of troops. He kicked us out of his hover-car and pointed upslope when I asked where the colonel was.

“He leads from the front. Like he’s supposed to.”

Jort and I jogged uphill, passing a small army of trudging troops. The low-gravity made it easy to bounce along, but the men we passed were struggling. To them, the pull of their planet was normal.

In short order, we reached the front ranks. Sure enough, Colonel Fletcher and his irritating sidekick Major Hendricks were up there with the vanguard.

“Huh…” I said, falling into step with the officers. I spoke to Jort rather than the other two men, and I did it loudly. “Some people are tough-guys, always looking for a way to die in a blaze of glory.”

Both of the officers craned their necks around, noticing us. The major sneered, but the colonel gave us a wintery smile. “I’d all but given up on you two.”

“We should have them flogged,” the major suggested.

“For being five minutes late?” I asked.

Major Hendricks waggled a finger in my direction. “Far more than that. You missed the briefing, the marching cheer—the whole thing.”

“A shame…” I said, losing interest. My eyes had already been roving over the ground ahead. “You’ve got scouts ahead of us, right Major?”

“Scouts and drones, too. The forest is empty for at least three kilometers.”

“Hmm… they might be drawing us in.”

“Into an ambush?” Hendricks asked. “Not likely. You burnt them out, and ducks are cowards anyway. They’ll probably run just at the sight of us.”

Colonel Fletcher kept quiet. I could tell he wasn’t so sure.

We marched for an hour. It was all uphill, and it grew steeper on the way. About four kilometers up-slope, we reached the burnt zone where my torpedo had flattened the trees. There were still plenty of trees standing, smoking and stinking—but there wasn’t much cover.

That’s when the enemy hit us. My respect for the ducks rose immediately. We were exposed and advancing in a narrow column, and it was a good time to attack.

Screaming bolts began showering our front ranks. The men all went to ground. They scattered and took cover as best they could.

“Rush them with the armor!” Colonel Fletcher ordered.

A roaring group of trucks zoomed up the road, each with a gun turret on the roof. I recognized these vehicles. They were the same machines that had come to encircle my ship yesterday. I guess on Baden they passed for tanks, but they were really nothing more than armored trucks with gun turrets on top. “Technicals,” that’s what they called them.

“Infantry, advance in their wake! Let’s take them out for good, boys!”

The three battalions of militia, armed with my guns, charged up the slope. Small arms bolts came down to greet us. A few men fell, but the rest kept advancing. I had to give it to the locals, they had some balls in a fight.

At the core of the advance was Colonel Fletcher and his garrison troops. They weren’t running, but jogging. I soon saw he had some wisdom—he’d led the march until the moment of contact. Maybe these farm boys wouldn’t have held together otherwise.

But now, in the heat of things, he was going to let his vehicles and militia take the losses, if there were going to be any. The more professional unit surrounding him would hopefully prove decisive if we ran into stiff resistance.

The enemy had taken up the high ground, at the edge of the land I’d scorched the night before. They were behind mounds of dirt, firing from entrenched positions.

Normally, the whole thing might have turned into a disaster. But Colonel Fetcher’s technicals were charging the line, and the enemy fire was bouncing off the lightly armored vehicles.

Even worse for the ducks, the advancing militia had real guns. Every dozen steps, they stopped, aimed, and took a shot at the trench line ahead.

The results were spectacular. The Sardez rifles blew gaping holes in the earth, knocked out trees and sent body parts flying. It was as if each infantryman was armed with an artillery piece.

The colonial “tanks” ran right over the enemy line, stopping there and strafing the ducks that hunkered in their trenches. They were killed by the hundreds—but I saw some surprising moments all the same.

The ducks, now and then, would jump up and charge the vehicles. They bounded onto the hoods and flailed at the turrets, the windshields, the armored plates themselves. I was shocked by their frenzied behavior and berserker strength. Twice, they managed to wrench a door off the technical and pull out a hapless driver, tearing him apart.

“Ducks?” I demanded. “You should call them gorillas.”

“They’ve always been physically powerful,” Colonel Fletcher admitted. “But previously, they’ve always been docile. These aliens… something has changed them. They rage now in battle in a way never seen before.”

In less than ten minutes, the fight was over. The colonists had easily won. The ducks were all dead or fleeing.

When Colonel Fletcher marched off to praise his troops and see to the wounded, Jort pulled me aside.

“They call them ducks…” Jort said, staring at the carnage. “What is a real duck, Captain Gorman?”

I described the water fowl, and he looked more and more incredulous as I finished.

“These devils are not ducks! That is the wrong word for them!” he told me. “I know this type of fighter. They are on drugs, or their minds have been bathed in acids. They’re evil creatures, either way.”

Troubled, I couldn’t argue. I could only hope the rest of this campaign would go as smoothly as this first step had. If it did, I vowed to take my payment and leave Baden forever.




Chapter Twenty-Two

After sending the wounded back down to New Town, we mounted up and began marching again. The troops were tired now, but Colonel Fletcher didn’t want to stop the advance. I got the feeling he didn’t want to spend the night on this mountain—not unless the enemy had been defeated.

Instead of a stretch of scorched earth, we now walked through a dense forest. The mountain grew steeper, more heavily wooded. Our column was forced into a narrow channel, but still we pressed onward.

At the front lines, Fletcher had deployed a regiment of his farm boys. They were full of themselves now, their morale riding high after a relatively easy victory. They took pictures, slapped one another and laughed, transmitting details of their exploits down to the colonist girls in the town below. Everyone was boasting and hooting.

Colonel Fletcher let them. His own smile was tight. His eyes were wary. He scanned every meter of the ground ahead, looking for flaws, surprises.

“They’ll hit us again, won’t they?” I asked, falling into step beside him.

He glanced my way. “Probably. I don’t know how many ducks you took out with that surprise launch last night, but I’m pretty sure they still outnumber us. That force we met at the lower slope—that was just a skirmish line, not their army.”

I nodded, not liking the sound of this. The advantage that Sardez rifles gave an infantry unit was mostly given at range. They were great for breaking up fortifications, or for digging out entrenched enemies. But at close quarters, such as this densely forested land, the rifles wouldn’t be much better than any other quality gun. If we had power-armor for the troops, that’d be different—but we didn’t. Our men were just as easily shot down as were the enemy.

It began to get warm as the white sun of Baden beamed down on us from directly overhead. It wasn’t burning our skin because of the trees, but even down here, in the green gloom, it got a little steamy and hot.

Quieting and beginning to sweat, the men struggled to keep up the pace. We’d have to stop soon, if only to eat and rest. To keep up my own spirits and my energy, I lit up a stim and relished the bitter smoke.

Just as I puffed perhaps my tenth time, we walked out into an open meadow. That was when the second attack came. Cursing, I cast my stim to the ground and unslung my rifle.

This time they struck us from all sides. A ragged line of the enemy, at least a thousand in number, charged out of the trees. They didn’t have guns, only tools, but they came on with murder in their yellowy eyes.

Our own troops hollered and set up a storm of fire. Many ducks went down, flopping and bleeding and rolling downslope—but more kept coming.

Behind them, another wave appeared. These had weapons. Simple guns, hunting rifles, mostly. They sniped at us and advanced from three sides.

Again, the Sardez weapons proved their worth. Most of the initial charging line was cut down without delivering a scratch—but once they reached the humans, things changed.

The ducks went insane. They loosed unnatural howls, both alien and undulating like a wolf or an evil bird heard at night. Grabbing the hated rifles from our men, they used them like clubs, smashing skulls and dribbling bloody spittle from their mouths. Their webbed feet had sharp claws, and they used these too, disemboweling their wounded prey until they in turn were cut down by other riflemen.

All the while, their rear line was plinking away at us, carefully taking down men who struggled with the berserkers.

“Shoot at their rear line!” I shouted at Jort. “Shoot the ground, blow it up under their damned rubbery feet!”

Jort immediately followed my lead. Colonel Fletcher saw what I was doing, and he ordered his garrison troops who were in the center of the mass to stand clear and fire on the rear ranks.

The militiamen weren’t taking any orders. They had no radio earpieces, no discipline, and no thought in their heads other than to defeat the raving ducks that were among them, fighting to the death hand-to-hand. The whole meadow was full of struggling figures.

Once, I saw a duck slash a man’s head off and throw into the air. Another time, one of the berserkers picked up a young man—a kid that couldn’t have been more than sixteen—and cracked his back on a tree trunk.

The colonel and his best men stood with me in the midst of this wild melee. We fired again and again, destroying clumps of gunmen. They tried to take shelter behind trees, or lying flat on the ground, but if you simply blasted the ground nearby, they were killed anyway.

The fight was wild and vicious, but in the end our side prevailed. Perhaps if the farm boys had had a place to run, they might have broken. But to them, it looked like fleeing in any direction would lead to death. In the end, I had to give it to them, they held their ground and won the day.

Sides heaving, I heard nothing but my own breath blowing through my head and the groans of men in agony. The casualties were much worse this time around. The colonials had suffered five hundred dead at least, and as many more had been wounded. Still, we’d inflicted twice that number of casualties on the ducks.

I did what I could to bandage up the men. Jort helped as best he knew how, mostly by telling the injured they were fine, and that he’d seen worse on a dozen occasions.

“Captain Gorman?”

I turned. It was Major Hendricks. He had a haggard, sick look on his face. He’d taken a round in the left shoulder someone had patched up.

“You okay?” I asked him.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m fine. Listen… it’s the colonel. He wants to march all the way up to the top—tonight.”

We exchanged worried glances. I looked around at the men. They looked pretty well spent.

“What do you want me to do about it?” I asked.

“Talk to him. He listens to you. He likes you.”

We stared at each other for a second. The major wasn’t telling me everything directly, but I got the message. Fletcher didn’t like him or respect his opinion.

My own estimate of the major went up in that single moment. Sure, he was kind of an asshole—but he was right. This ragtag army wasn’t in any kind of shape to push all the way up. If the ducks hit us hard again—our guys would break and run, or worse, be overwhelmed.

“I’ll see what I can do,” I heard myself saying. Standing up wearily, I walked off to find the colonel.

Fletcher was walking among the wounded, talking them up. According to him, every wound was a scratch. Every dead man was a hero. It took him about a minute to notice me.

“There you are, Gorman. I want to thank you for that tactical switch-up in the middle of battle. You know, I think you missed your calling. You should have been a colonial officer. You’ve got a natural talent for it.”

“Uh… thanks, Colonel. I wanted to talk to you about your plans.”

“Plans? You already know the plan, Gorman. We’re taking the mine by sunset. We’re close now—no more than four kilometers from our goal.”

I looked up at the canopy of trees overhead. The sun was still strong—but it was definitely afternoon. We’d already spent an hour or more patching people up.

“What if we meet further resistance, sir?” I asked.

He eyed me. His demeanor changed. He walked close, and he lowered his voice. “Don’t listen to that dickless irritant, Major Hendricks. He’s poison. He wouldn’t know how to win a campaign if his life depended on it.”

“His life does depend on it. All of our lives are in the balance here. More importantly, I don’t want this mission to fail—I won’t get paid.”

Fletcher scowled at me. “Is that all you can think about? Getting some credits? There’s blood on the ground here, Gorman. A lot of it.”

“Colonel, would it surprise you to learn I used to be a colonial officer on the frontier?”

“No…” he said after thinking it over for a moment. “It wouldn’t. What world?”

“Avalon. About a decade ago.”

“Avalon…” he frowned. “I’ve heard of that planet. It’s out on the other side of the cluster, right? Near the Gaean Reach?”

“That’s right.”

“What happened out there?”

I shrugged. “We got wiped out. Some alien marauders. They were low-tech, but cunning.


That whole system is off-limits to this very day.”

“So… you turned to gun-running? I get it now. That’s why you agreed to come along. You’ve got a soft-spot for colonials in trouble.”

I smiled with half my mouth, letting him think what he wanted to think. “Anyway, I don’t think these men of yours are up to another fight today. We don’t know what else they have in store for you.”

“They’ve got nothing. That last attack was it—that was their big push.”

“How can you be sure? What if they have reserves?”

“Why would they hit us with half their men? If they had more, they would have committed everything and overrun us.”

What he was saying made sense, but I was still filled with a sense of foreboding.

Colonel Fletcher slammed an open hand on my back. “Just a little of the old piss-and-shiver left in you, huh? From that massacre on Avalon?”

I tossed him a glare, but he just grinned back at me. “I’ll let you in on a little secret, Gorman. We’re taking this pack of hicks up that mountain, and we’re storming that mine tonight. Nothing will stop me. I’m not camping here for the night, and I’m not going back to New Town. You and your buddy Hendricks can forget about that.”

He stomped away, and I walked in the opposite direction, back to Major Hendricks. He was squatting over the body of one of the ducks. The fallen enemy had been badly burned.

“No dice,” I told him. “The Colonel wants us to keep going.”

“Take a look at this,” Hendricks said.

I stepped closer, wrinkling my nose. These aliens didn’t smell anything like a duck when you roasted one of them. “What am I looking at?”

Reaching out with a stick, Hendricks prodded and stirred up a puff of white ash. “This. See this?”

Moving closer, I peered in disgust. The duck’s chest had been melted by an energy bolt. Ribs were showing, along with charcoaled organs.

“Looks like cooked alien to me.”

“No, no, this,” Hendricks said, tugging and poking at something with his stick. The object looked like a spiny crab. The tiny odd creature was burnt, but still recognizable.

“I’ve seen that before,” I told him.

“Yeah? Where?”

“In the guts of one of my crewman.”

“What the hell is it?”

“She called it a Tulk. A parasitic creature that sleeps inside the bodies of humanoids.”

Major Hendricks stood up, rubbing his neck. “What does it do?”

“It controls humans with pain and nervous intrusion. If you don’t do what it wants, it’ll poke and claw on your guts until you obey.”

“Disgusting… You think the ducks are infected? You think they’ve all got these things in them?”

I thought about the scenes I’d witnessed during battle. The behavior of the aliens did seem to be affected. Some of them had acted like berserkers, which I’d learned was wildly out of character for them.

“Maybe,” I admitted. “Maybe we should cut open a few more of these bodies, to see—”

Before I could finish the thought, Colonel Fletcher gave the order: it was time to march again.

The twenty-two hundred men who were still able-bodied struggled to their feet, groaning and limping. Soon thereafter, we began walking up the slopes. With each step, the path only seemed to grow steeper.




Chapter Twenty-Three

The afternoon wore on. Every fifteen minutes or so, Colonel Fletcher assured his troops that the mine was just over the next rise. We’d be there soon, and the enemy had clearly blown all their strength trying to stop us on the way up.

“And our enemy has failed,” he concluded every time.

It seemed to work. Most of the troops were heartened. I wondered how they could believe him, given their recent experiences, but there’s no accounting for human gullibility. I guessed that believing him was their only way to summon the strength they needed to get through this.

Every minute I expected another ambush, but it didn’t come. We finally reached the top of a steep rise. The road was narrow and ragged here, only wide enough for a single truck to pass. We stood atop the mountain’s shoulder and looked down into a small valley. The walls were rocky, and shockingly, the mine vomited dark water from its mouth into newly formed rivulets downslope.

“That’s odd…” Major Hendricks said. He’d been hanging around Jort and I since the last fight. “Did they divert a river into the mine or something?”

“Great…” I sighed. “They flooded the damned mine. Maybe as a final act of revenge.”

“Smart ducks,” Jort said. “If they can’t stop us, they will spit on us and piss in our mine. My people would do the same.”

Major Hendricks eyed Jort with distaste. “I’m sure they would.”

The colonel seemed distraught. Perhaps even more than the rest of us. After staring downslope in shock, he rushed forward, almost losing his balance, and sending up a cloud of dust.

“No, no, no—dammit!” he shouted. His troops scattered out of his way.

Just in case there was trouble ahead, I slapped Jort. “Come on. He’ll get himself killed.”

“So what?”

“Who do you think will pay us if he’s dead?”

Jort blinked, then nodded. “Right-right. Let’s go.”

We rushed in the colonel’s wake. A hundred others did the same.

Soon, we all stood on the edge of a newly carved stream. The flow was swift, the water was as cold as a grave in winter.

“Do you think they could have dug too deeply?” Major Hendricks asked. “Struck an underground spring, or something?”

Colonel Fletcher marched along the edge of the stream like a tiger pacing inside of a force field. He grabbed Hendricks suddenly, and almost pulled the smaller man off his feet.

“What kind of an idiot are you?” he demanded. “They fucked us. We beat them, and they couldn’t handle it. They did the only thing they could to deny us repossession of the mine.”

“But… but sir… We can just wait it out. Until the mine dries, I mean.”

Colonel Fletcher spun around, dragging Hendricks with him. He released the smaller man, tossing him into the water. Hendricks bobbed up, thrashing and gasping. After a moment, he stood. The water was less than a meter deep.

The troops laughed quietly, eyeing their top officers.

“They filled the mine from the bottom, idiot,” Fletcher told the major, pointing at the water he stood in. “It’s bubbling up from the bottom, flowing to the top and forming this river right out of the mouth.”

Alarmed, Hendricks climbed out. He began spitting and coughing. Taking out a dosimeter, he checked the radiation levels.

“The river is hot—stay out of it.”

Heaving a big sigh, Colonel Fletcher walked up to Major Hendricks and put a clumsy hand on the smaller man’s shoulder. Hendricks winced, but he didn’t shy away.

“Sorry about that,” he told the major. “It wasn’t professional—especially in front of the troops. You’ve fought well today, and you deserve better.”

Hendricks looked mollified and a little embarrassed. They were anything but professional out here on the frontier, so I decided to pretend I hadn’t noticed his humiliation.

Tapping a few stims out of my case, I handed them around to both the officers. They looked at them dubiously, then took them. They lit up and puffed a bit, sighing as the stress-relieving smoke oxidized in their lungs.

“What are we going to do now, gentlemen?” I asked.

“Hendricks, you set up camp on the banks, here. Tell the men not to drink the water. I’ll contact our engineers down in New Town. Maybe they’ll know how to pull the plug on this disaster.”

The colonel stumped off, touching his comlink and shouting into it.

Hendricks took a few puffs on the stim I’d given him. Water dripped from his hair and off the tip of his nose.

“You might not get your payoff,” he said. “That’s a damned shame, because you earned it, Gorman.”

“Thanks,” I said, thinking his pity was small comfort.

As soon as I was alone, Jort walked up to me. “Let’s go,” he said.

“Where?”

“Back to town—or call Sosa, tell her to fly the ship up here to pick us up.”

“Why?”

“Are you kidding, boss? You’re funny, sometimes. We got no money—we got nothing. If we stay until it gets dark, maybe we die as a bonus.”

I thought it over. Jort was right, actually. This whole venture had turned to shit. I probably should call it a day and walk out with my life and my ship intact.

We could go back to Sardez in a few months to pick up a fresh load of guns. Maybe Kersen would understand how things went, or maybe he wouldn’t. Either way, it was better than waiting here next to a radioactive river with a pack of sullen colonials.

Heaving a sigh, I stared up at the sky again. The sun was moving… we had three hours, tops, before it was pitch black out here.

“You going to say goodbye?” Jort asked. He was watching me closely.

“Hell no. Let’s just disappear.”

Jort grinned. His big teeth belonged in a horse’s mouth.

“You smart-man. I always knew it. I always say this to anyone who will listen.”

“Thanks…”

We walked away as the troops set up camp and formed a perimeter. By the time anyone thought we’d been gone too long to be off pissing somewhere, we’d topped the rise and vanished on the far side.

Speeding up, we moved downhill rapidly. Moving at a jog, it would take a lot less time to reach New Town than it had to march up under fire. Each jarring step took us a long bounding stride downward. Soon, we began to feel like we were going to make it.

Then we came to the second battlefield. It was quiet here, and the sun had fallen behind the bulk of the mountain. It was becoming dark in a hurry.

Jort grabbed my arm and squeezed with such force that it almost went numb. Then he pointed at something.

There, fifty meters off, I saw hunched figures. They were prowling among the dead. I couldn’t be sure, but they didn’t look quite like the colonists.

As we watched, looking around for more of them, we spotted a dozen others. They were moving from body to body, inspecting and prodding only the fallen ducks. They didn’t seem interested in the human dead, which had been hastily buried or carried off down the hill. They were only investigating ducks.

“What they doing?” Jort whispered in my ear.

“Hush.”

We watched. It was getting darker, but it seemed to me that they were digging at the corpses using their bare hands or knifes from their belts. They prodded and cut at the bodies of the fallen and pulled something out—then I knew.

Unslinging my rifle with infinite care, I took aim at the nearest creature. Jort did the same—but he made the mistake of letting the bolt snap when he activated the gun.

A dozen pairs of eyes swung in our direction. Even in the dimming light, it seemed I could pick them out. They had reflective eyes, gleaming a yellow-green like those of a wolf pack.

I fired first, taking down the nearest of them. He flew onto his back, flipping and twisting in the dirt. Jort shot two more, then I shot a fourth.

None of these creatures seemed to be carrying conventional rifles. Because of this, I expected them to flee—but they didn’t. They charged us instead.

The crack of our rifles tore up the night. The muzzles of our guns kept blazing, gushing blue-white flame that smelled of ozone. When hit, aliens were always knocked down, but sometimes they got up and kept coming.

Two of them reached us. One was dragging a hanging mass of his own guts, stepping on them and slipping—but he was still trying to make it to us.

The other was uninjured and came in fast. Jort roared and charged into hand-to-hand, his blade out in his fist.

Jort was strong, stronger than most men I’d met in my lifetime, but the duck matched him. The two traded a few blows, neither taking out the other. Jort lifted his knife high for a killing stroke, but the alien grabbed his wrist and dug in claws. Blood flowed, and it was hard to tell whose it was.

My rifle cracked. The alien’s head blasted red mist. He went down, but then the second alien arrived, dragging his belly with him. One-handed, he fought with Jort.  I danced around them, trying to get a clean shot.

Two hands were better than one, however. Roaring with exertion, Jort managed to drive his knife into the duck’s throat. The fight was over.

We stood over the mess, breathing hard. Both our guns were up, seeking fresh targets.

“There!” Jort pointed.

I tracked his aim, and I saw it too. Looking through my night scope, I saw a humanoid figure fleeing. It seemed to be carrying a mass of squirming things in its arms.

We popped off a dozen shots, but we missed. The creature had escaped us, disappearing among the trees and rocks.

“Look at this,” Jort said. “And over here… another one!”

We found three Tulk writhing on the ground. The fleeing alien had been carrying a load of them. He’d been harvesting them from the dead bodies.

In disgust, we crushed the spiny Tulk under our boot heels.




Chapter Twenty-Four

“These Tulk-things are bad,” Jort kept saying. He prodded the tiny dead alien parasites with his boots, spitting and sneering.

“Come on, let’s go to back to town.”

Jort followed me, but he seemed reluctant. He kept looking back over his shoulder toward the top of the ridge.

“Someone needs to warn the colonel.”

“Yeah? Call him.”

Jort chewed on that idea for another four steps. “He might get mad because we left. He might order his men to arrest us down in town.”

“You think?”

We walked on another four steps. Finally, Jort halted. “I’m going back.”

I turned around and flashed a glimmering light at his face. It was getting dark—really dark. Baden had no moon, and even though the planet was in a star cluster, it was on the edge of that cluster, so the starlight wasn’t nearly enough to penetrate a dense forest canopy.

“Seriously?” I asked him.

“Those things will crawl into the sleeping men tonight, just like they did to the ducks. You know this.”

My face twisted up. I didn’t know any such thing—but it stood to reason.

“You going to warn them, or join them?” I asked.

Jort shrugged. “If you fly off and leave me, then I guess I join them.”

Jort was both impressing me and pissing me off right now. No wonder he’d been an unsuccessful pirate. He was too full of romantic ideas about honor and being a good citizen.

“Come on,” Jort said. “If you walk all the way down in dark to town, they’ll probably get you too. But, if you go back with dead Tulk to show, you a hero. Maybe you get some kind of reward in the end.”

“Yeah… a Tulk up my ass or a shank in my back.” Sighing, I turned around and began walking uphill again. Jort grinned and told me what a smart-man I was. I didn’t feel very smart.

As evidence, we took some pictures of the dead aliens, both the ducks and the Tulk that had crawled out of them. The camera flashes—they must have alerted something.

A crashing began in the woods. Something big was breaking branches and knocking aside small trees and brush.

Using our rifle scopes, we saw it was a gigantic arthropod, a beast the size of a truck. The churning hairy legs were wicked-looking and as thick as sapling tree trunks. The numerous eyes, planted in between each of those long legs, glittered redly as it regarded us in return.

Without hesitation, we aimed our rifles and fired big, explosive rounds. The thing charged, but the shock of two Sardez rifles, each hitting like light cannons took it down fast. It thrashed, flipped over, and curled up its legs to its belly in death.

I began walking uphill again, figuring it was just a local predator who’d missed dinner. Jort, however, moved closer to examine the beast.

“Careful. Those fangs are full of venom.”

Jort waved away my words and examined the disgusting monster. He prodded at it for a few minutes, but finally walked away, shaking his head.

“What?” I asked.

“I don’t think it had one.”

“One what?”

“A Tulk, of course.”

I laughed. “Only humanoids get infested with Tulk. At least, that’s how I understand it.”

Jort nodded and we trudged up the slopes again. In less than an hour, we reached the rise and walked down into the flickering light of a hundred campfires. We were challenged by guards, but the moment they realized we were human, we were allowed to pass.

“Are these figments of my imagination?” Colonel Fletcher demanded sarcastically when we approached his command tent. “We figured you boys went out to take a leak and got lost hours ago.”

The leading officers encircled an old battle-computer with cracks running the length of its flat screen. They laughed, but they shut up when I tossed the bodies of three crushed Tulk onto the cracked glass before them.

“Get that slime off my map, Gorman!”

Instead, I prodded one. It wriggled feebly.

“That, gentlemen, is a Tulk. The ducks have them in their bellies. That’s why they can fight so hard—why they’re organized and determined. This is your real enemy, not the ducks themselves.”

They all stared and frowned at the mess on the battle-computer. Dubiously, Fletcher plucked one of them up on the point of a knife.

“Careful with those spines,” I told him. “They’re tipped with neuro-poisons.”

“This actually makes a lot of sense,” he said. “The ducks aren’t acting normally, that’s for sure. They haven’t been for months.”

“Right. What you have to do is figure out a way to kill these parasites, rather than worrying about killing the ducks themselves.”

Fletcher nodded. “All right. I hereby rescind my order to have you shot for desertion. Major Hendricks, call the spaceport, release Gorman’s woman and his ship.”

Hendricks stood up and contacted New Town. Jort and I listened to this with alarm, but we both played it cool.

Fletcher put his big hands on his hips and eyed us. “What do you suggest?”

“About what?”

“About how to kill these things, of course!”

“The first problem you’ll have is avoiding infestation yourself. They’ll come in tonight, trying to implant. If we still have an army that will take our commands in the morning, we can move on to the next step.”

It was Fletcher’s turn to look alarmed. He began shouting orders as he walked out of the tent into the cool night. He shouted orders at everyone he saw.

“You see?” Jort said. “We did good. We warned them.”

“Yeah… and haven’t even been arrested yet.”

Jort laughed and told me how smart I was for a time. It was nice to hear, but tonight I didn’t really believe him.

During the night, the men slept in shifts. They watched the ground, the skies. The Tulk made six daring attempts to prey upon the senseless, but only succeeded twice. Both victims were drunks on watch.

The affected men sprang up from a sound sleep and rushed off into the brush. One of them, a witnessed claimed, was still snoring loudly as he ran, his eyes shut tight. It was a strange thing to see, and the men were spooked afterward.

The other men detected the approaching Tulk and crushed them in the dust. Hissing and stinking, they died rapidly.

After hearing these accounts in the morning, Jort came to sit beside me. I drank coffee and puffed on a stim, watching the dawn light cut through the sky with bleary eyes.

“I worry, Captain,” he said.

“Why?”

“What if more came? What if they are among us right now, running the minds of these troops?”

I hadn’t considered it. But, once considered, the idea could not be shaken.

That’s what the Tulk would want to do, after all. They’d infiltrate, hiding among the loyal humans. They would only move to rebel once they had enough of their kind installed.

“I’ll talk to Fletcher about it.”

I found the colonel having a glorious meal near an open fire. His battle-computer was switched off and dark. Last night, he’d spent every waking minute poring over it.

“Colonel Fletcher,” I said. “I’m concerned. I think we should head down the slope, back to New Town.”

He looked up at me. His face ran with grease. He was eating some kind of roasted water-fowl with his hands.

For the barest second, his eyes were empty. It was as if he didn’t recognize me at all.

Major Hendricks, standing to one side, leaned close and whispered.

“Oh… of course.”  Fletcher stood up, his hands running with juices. “The gun runner. I’m very glad you’re still here. We owe you so much.”

Fletcher grinned at me. There was an odd hunger there. A gaze of predatory intent. It was unmistakable.




Chapter Twenty-Five

Smiling, I approached Colonel Fletcher without a hint of concern. He was obviously infested, but I didn’t let that worry me.

“That breakfast looks good, sirs,” I said. “May I have a bite?”

“Might as well,” Fletcher said. “Take what you want. Fatten yourself.”

His words were odd and out of character, but I gave no hint of noticing.

“Jort?” I called. “Come into the tent and join us. Don’t be rude.”

Jort was standing in the doorway. He didn’t move. He just stared and bristled like a watchdog smelling a stranger.

“Here, take this meat,” Fletcher said, pushing a platter in my direction with wet fingers. “It’s excellent!”

“It must be…”

Stepping closer, I reached down for the plate of steaming hot meats—but came up with a knife instead. It unfolded open with a whisper.

Fletcher laughed in my face. Flecks of meat and grease flew from his gusty bellow.

“What are you going to do with that, Gorman? You’ll get the whole camp down on you, that’s what!”

“What do you want with us?” I asked him. “Or rather, what does your rider want?”

Fletcher’s face contorted. The right side grinned, while the left looked frightened.

“We’ll take this planet. We’ll take all human worlds. Evil things are falling here soon. Evil things that you humans can never stop.”

I narrowed my gaze. “Like the Tulk?”

Fletcher’s eyebrows rose in surprise. “You know our race-name?”

“Yes,” I told him. “We know what you are. You infest humanoids and control them like puppets. You’re as disgusting as worms in a man’s bowels. Despite this you have the gall to talk about evil aliens.”

Fletcher’s face looked reproachful. “Have a care, walking ape. Your kind is nothing in the grand scheme of things. Terrible demons sleep among the stars—worse than you, or me.”

I thought about that. “You mean like the creatures in the Sardez system?”

Fletcher stood tall. He stopped chewing. “What do you know about Sardez?”

“I saw a culus and a shrade there only two weeks ago. I killed them both.”

Fletcher’s eyes shifted from confident and jovial to mildly insane. He was still chewing, but his heart was no longer in it.

“You will be taken. You will be tormented. You will be wrung out, until every fact you know—or think you know—is drawn from you.”

That’s when I stabbed him in the belly—the right side, where the liver was supposed to be. Clinging to that organ, I knew, was a nasty little crab covered with spines.

My thrust was sudden and unprovoked—but the surprise stroke still didn’t land. Fletcher’s big hand flicked up to grab my wrist. I was strong, but Fletcher was a brute. We strove together, with the bigger man’s hands clasped over mine.

Hendricks and Jort both rushed in. I expected them to grab me and try to pull me away from the colonel—but they didn’t. Instead, Major Hendricks added his weight to my thrust, as did Jort.

Together, while Fletcher bleated and roared, we stuck him in the guts.

A half-dozen colonial troops tore open the tent. The three of us, looking like assassins, stood over their commander. Blood dribbled from our fingers.

Major Hendricks saved the situation. I’m quite certain that if it had been only Jort and I who’d performed this apparent murder attempt, we’d have been shot down on the spot.

“The colonel has been compromised. He has one in his belly. Call the medics.”

Prodding with the knife, we dug out the alien that clung to Fletcher’s guts. Fletcher groaned and thrashed, but he didn’t really fight us. My initial thrust, once it had been slammed home by my accomplices, had killed the Tulk. Fletcher now wanted the beast out of his belly as much as we did.

By the time the medics arrived and pushed us away, we’d gotten half the alien out of him. Blood ran everywhere. Fletcher howled and roared.

“Get it out of me! Get it out!”

We left the doctors to their grim work.

Outside the tent, Major Hendricks met my eyes with two bloodshot orbs of his own.

“How did you know?” he asked, panting slightly. “I’ve been thinking it—but I couldn’t be sure. He looked and sounded like our colonel. I got him to eat breakfast, and he sounded more normal—but then you guys came back to camp. That’s when he became really weird.”

“What matters now is how many of your men were infested last night. We’ve got to find out—to calculate how quickly it has spread.”

“How do we do it?”

“Poke them in the belly!” Jort said suddenly.

We looked at him in surprise.

“Yeah,” he said. “Bring them in here, one by one. Punch them in the liver—here, I stand to this side, I do it!”

We thought about it, and decided it was as good a method as any. We began sending for the men, the officers first. We walked them into the tent, telling them they were about to receive a special briefing, or orders, or that the colonel demanded their presence at once.

Soon, a muttering line of men stood outside the tent, looking concerned. Each man walked in and bellowed, then fell quiet. Soon, they were kicked out the other end of the tent with instructions to tell no one what had occurred.

Twenty officers came and went. We were all getting bored, except for Jort, who seemed to take great pleasure in ambushing men and slamming them in the guts.

Finally, when the twenty-first man stepped through, things went differently. He was a colonial lieutenant, a young guy with long arms and a rangy build. He was strong but wiry. He had bloodshot eyes, as if he hadn’t slept for a week.

The tent flaps closed behind him, but he didn’t stand and wait for Jort’s grinning attack. Instead, he launched himself at Hendricks, who was standing to greet him.

That had been the plan and the method. Major Hendricks called to each man by name, demanding they step forward and stand at attention. Jort would then sneak in from the side, while they were gazing at their commander.

This lieutenant was different. He didn’t fall for our trap—in fact, he seemed to know it was coming. He attacked Hendricks with long-fingered hands reaching for the man’s throat like claws. Jort and I rushed in, grappling with him.

The madman’s muscles stood out like cables under his skin. We struggled to tear him lose. He had the hysterical strength of a berserker, but at last we overcame him and pulled him off of Hendricks.

Gasping and holding his throat, Hendricks walked forward and drew his pistol. He reversed it and slammed the butt of the gun into the tall man’s guts. He did this repeatedly.

Each time, the lieutenant thrashed and howled. He fought us fiercely but went limp after a dozen such blows. Panting, we let him sag to the floor. Then we called the surgeons to remove the Tulk from his abdomen.

“Safe to say the word is out,” Hendricks told me. “I’m getting reports back—these twenty officers, they’re the only ones that are coming. Another ten have fled.”

“We’ll have to check the enlisted before the Tulk can warn each other.”

Nodding, we began the grim task. It took hours, but we soon determined that only the officers had been infested.

“The enemy is cunning,” Jort said. “They tried to take over the leadership.”

“They probably did the same to the ducks,” Hendricks said thoughtfully. He walked outside and gazed around the camp. “Look. While we’ve been finding Tulk, our engineers have been busy.”

The stream of contaminated water that had been flowing from the mine’s mouth had slowed to a trickle. Inside the dark, cavern-like mouth, the walls dripped and reflected wetly.

“We can walk inside. They’ve punched a tunnel through into the lower regions, draining it.”

Jort looked uncomfortable. He shook his head. “Going in there—it’s madness!”

“Do you want your payoff or not?” Major Hendricks demanded, placing his fists on his hips.

“Let’s go in,” I said.

Jort followed us reluctantly. He held his rifle tightly, his eyes darting here and there with every step.

Inside, the mine was more sophisticated than I’d believed possible. I’d expected to find a vast hole scratched out with hand tools. Instead, I found a robotic dig with conveyor belts and model-D workers frozen in place. They’d been flooded and shorted out. Some were still functional, but they had to be recharged.

The colonials rushed into the mine the moment it was half dry. I was surprised at how hard they worked to get things operating again. The processing plant itself was running by nightfall.

“Quite an effort you’re making to pay me, Major,” I said. “Six kilograms of your refined stuff will do nicely.”

Hendricks snorted at me in disbelief. “I bet they would, but first things first, Gorman. For one thing, the enemy appears to have pilfered our stores before flooding the mine. For another, our reactors are running out of fuel at New Town. We’ve been operating with half-spent rods. The turbines barely spin. No, the first load will go to our own equipment. Then, after we’ve got enough to operate the remote mines and plantations, we’ll see about giving you your six kilograms.”

Wincing, I had to wonder how long ago the ducks had taken this mine out of service. Months? It would seem so.

Noticing my perplexity, Hendricks sighed.

“We traded all the radioactives we had for supplies. We even pulled the rods from some of our smaller operating power plants. Then, no doubt sensing a weakness, the Tulk ordered these natives to take the mine from us at all costs. After all, if we had no power plants…”

“You’d be helpless to stop them. I get it.”

When darkness fell, I walked out of the mine and found myself descended upon by rubber-suited men. They ran Geiger counters over us and then ripped away our clothes. They scrubbed to decontaminate our bodies. We were issued new clothes that I liked much less than my original gear.

“This is an insult!” Jort declared. “I look like some kind of colonial recruit.”

I pointed up toward the crown of the mountain. There, a crimson glow had begun around the base of the tree trunks at the summit of the mountain.

“What’s that?” Jort asked. “A forest fire?”

“I don’t know,” I told him, “but I’d say we’ve got bigger things to worry about than our clothes.”




Chapter Twenty-Six

The top of the mountain was a lurid red. The source wasn’t a fire, and I suspected it wasn’t natural at all.

“They’re setting up something above us,” I said to Hendricks when he came to ask me about it.

“Snipers?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“We have to find out. I’m sending up a patrol. Do you want to go with them?” He looked at me suggestively.

I laughed and plucked at my coveralls. “I’m wearing the colonial green, but I’m not one of your grunts, Major.”

He nodded, looking down. “All right. I’ll lead the patrol myself.”

Hendricks hiked away into the gathering darkness, and I frowned after him. I felt a bit low, claiming this fight was theirs, not mine. Sure, this wasn’t my planet, but these people had grown on me a little. They were hard-scrabble pioneers. People who’d drawn a rough lot in life but didn’t complain about it. To me, they were admirable in comparison to the fat-rabbit types that inhabited the Conclave’s inner worlds.

Jort and I watched as Hendricks gathered his men and walked off into the dark. Soon, they vanished under the trees and began the long hike upslope. They weren’t operating any lights, nothing to show their approach. That wouldn’t matter if the enemy had night gear—but I hadn’t seen any evidence of that.

About twenty minutes passed. During that time, the encampment slowly became deserted. All the able-bodied men moved into the forest, hugging tree trunks and watching everything with wide eyes. They sighted their rifles on every leaf that moved. They were tense, ready for battle. Every few seconds, we looked up to the mountaintop, wondering about the growing pulsating glow.

The quiet night was ripped apart all at once. The lurid red light from the top of the mountain flared brighter still when the firing began up there.

I knew the snap and crash of Sardez rifles firing. The sound was very familiar.

“Major Hendricks has run into resistance,” I heard one of the lieutenants say. “They’re pulling back. The enemy has set up some kind of energy-field up there—it appears to be growing.”

Staring, I saw he was right. The pulsing red glow now extended above the treetops, past the crown of the mountain in all directions. It looked like a shivering ball of light, a cherry on top of a vast cake.

Soon, the red ball of light consumed the trees. Figures came rushing down the mountain, running in all directions. The glare behind them became swollen, and the forms of the fleeing men were barely recognizable.

A few shots rang out from the colonials hiding around the mine. Officers shouted for a ceasefire.

“Those are our people! They’re on the run!”

Standing up quietly, I tapped Jort on the shoulder. “Let’s back up a little.”

Jort showed me his teeth. He looked indecisive. I could tell his sense of honor plucked at his heart. At last he nodded, and we retreated.

Seeing us go prompted others to get up and began to withdraw. Soon, the official order went out. We were all to withdraw in good order, heading down the mountain.

These orders were followed for perhaps a full minute. After that, it became a rout. Everyone knew in their hearts that if that ball of plasma reached us, we’d be swept from the Earth.

Heading downhill at a trot, I noticed a fleeing man nearby. The back of his hair was singed, and his uniform was blackened. Even so, I thought I recognized Major Hendricks.

Coming close to him, I tripped him and grabbed him as he fell.

“Hey, Hendricks. What’s the hurry?”

Panting, eyes wide with the whites all around shining in the starlight, he stared up at me, but he didn’t recognize me.

“Gorman?” he asked finally.

“That’s right. That big blossom up there seems to be at its fullest extent. It’s not growing anymore.”

Hendricks looked back upslope. His sides heaved from exertion. “There were ducks up there—they all were infested with parasites. You could tell. They were building something odd. A metallic series of tubes and junctions. It was like a web work, a polyhedron of metal tubes…”

“Yeah? What did you do, shoot at them?”

He looked at me. “Yes. We snuck up, saw they were creating some kind of reaction—you know, like when they build a warp-bubble at a slip-gate. I think that’s what they’re doing—building a slip-gate on the top of the mountain.”

“That’s not safe,” Jort said.

“No shit,” Hendricks told him. “We started shooting at them, and we even killed a few, but they ignored us and kept working. They were clearly controlled tightly by the Tulk. Then, suddenly, the field began to balloon to a huge size. I’m not sure if we disrupted it, or if that was what it was supposed to do.”

Looking up, the sight was strange and fascinating. A vast globe of shimmering light, like the northern lights trapped in a bottle, swirled and pulsated over us. The mine itself had now been consumed by the globe, but it wasn’t getting any bigger.

“What about the wounded?” Jort asked.

We looked toward the tents, and the men who’d been left behind in the camp. We’d run past them in our urgency to escape. They were all gone, swallowed up by the vast globe.

“The colonel was recovering in that camp,” I said, slamming a flat palm against Hendricks’ shoulder. “Looks like you’re in command now, Major,”

If it could be imagined, he looked even more shocked and horrified than he had before. “Yes…”

He straightened up. He stood taller and adjusted his dirty, soot-stained uniform. He activated his com-link. “All units, it’s time to stop running like hens. Officers, get organized. Form up into squads and take cover at least a hundred meters from that blob. I want headcounts from every captain in five minutes.”

Although some of the colonials looked like they wanted to run all night to the bottom of the mountain, Hendricks got them to come back and form ragged ranks. In small groups, we huddled behind every boulder. The world was lit up now by reddish light. The night sky was gone, washed out by the odd effect that glimmered nearby.

Hendricks had mentioned going no closer than a hundred meters, but that was a joke. We were crouching and squinting up at the phenomenon from at least five times that distance.

“What the hell do we do now?” Hendricks asked me. “Have you ever seen anything like this?”

“Like I said, it resembles a slip-gate on the ground. At least the radiation levels aren’t too bad. We could stay a week at this distance with a minor decontamination routine and survive.”

“You call that not too bad, Gorman?”

I shrugged. I’d experienced worse. Often, a gun runner had trouble with his engines and their radioactive bleeding.

“We can’t just sit here and wait for their next move,” Hendricks complained. “I’ve got to send scouts into that sphere. Our wounded might be alive and in need of help. I’ve got to know what’s going on in there.”

Jort snorted rudely. “You went there before. You want to go again?”

Major Hendricks eyed him, but he just shook his head. “I doubt I could get any of my men to follow me, anyway.”

“Dammit,” I sighed.

“What?”

“I’ll do it. I’ll go in and have a look.”

They both looked shocked. Hendricks pointed an accusatory finger. “Before, when I suggested you go, you laughed.”

“Yeah, sure. That was when I could get someone else to risk their skins. That moment has passed, so if I want to recoup any of my losses on this trip, I’m going to have to do this myself.”

Hendricks didn’t approve of my logic, but Jort did.

“You see? I tell everyone: he is smart man. He is smarter than you—or me, even.”

Hendricks ignored him. “Don’t stay in long. The field has some kind of effect on people. I saw it in my men and even myself.”

“What kind of effect?”

“I think—I think it makes you go crazy.”

“That’s great. Wish me luck.”

Standing, I advanced up the rocky slope toward the pulsating glow. Behind me, I heard Jort shout: “Wishing luck!”




Chapter Twenty-Seven

When I got up close to the field, I have to admit, I almost turned tail and ran. The whole thing suddenly seemed crazy. Sure, I knew our readings didn’t indicate the field was deadly—but it didn’t look healthy, either.

I’ve touched plenty of containment fields in my day. Usually, these were security effects put in place to stop guys like me from taking guns from armories and the like. I’d never been overly concerned about them, as they were often easy to disable or bypass.

This bulbous mass of contorting energies was different. It was big, out of control, and had no obvious off-switch. I was going to have to walk in there and take my chances.

Now and then, as I got close, I thought I saw figures moving inside. No sound came through the field, however. It was utterly silent, except for some crackling and sparks when the field touched waving tree branches.

I geared up as best I could. I found a radiation suit one of the miners had left behind and slipped it on over my coveralls. Then I put on a respirator, and I walked into the field.

There was a sense of resistance at first. Like I was trying to pop a balloon with my face and body. I pushed harder, and it pushed back.

Finally, I stumbled through it. Inside, the air was hot and still, but there was more noise and activity than I’d expected.

I heard shouts and gunfire. Moving in a crouch, I rushed toward the encampment.

There, I saw a group of ducks methodically going from tent to tent and dragging out wounded men. They fought, those who were able, but they didn’t have Sardez rifles. I heard popping pistol-shots and saw a few gleaming knives that reflected the reddish light of the sphere.

Sneaking toward a rocky outcropping, I placed myself with care. Then, I began sniping.

The Sardez rifle bucked and kicked in my hands. The blue-white flash from the muzzle was noticeable, but not much more so than the glowing plasma walls all around us.

I took down three of the ducks. It was easy in the beginning, since the first two were totally surprised. The third alien, however, craned his misshapen head around and pointed toward my location. I shot him, then immediately wormed away on my belly.

The other ducks stopped abusing the wounded and turned in my direction. Cagily, they ran from cover to cover until they leapt in unison to swarm me.

By that time, I’d taken up a new position however, higher up the slope. With a good view of my first hiding spot, I stood and hosed them down. The faithful Sardez bucked in my hands on full-auto. The murderers were shredded, only two escaped.

Advancing toward the tents, I checked on several of the humans. Some had been infested again with fresh Tulk. I saw it in their bloodshot, glassy eyes. They gasped and squirmed and reached for me.

I left them to their agonies. Finally, I found Colonel Fletcher. He was stretched out on his back. Sheened in sweat, he had a knife in his hand. A crushed Tulk lay nearby.

“They put it on my wound, expecting me to just lie here and let it crawl inside. I played dead until they left, then dug it out.”

He said this without looking at me. He knew I was there, despite my precautions. Perhaps this place, which was partly a Baden colony mountaintop and partly someplace else, could alter a man’s perceptions.

“Can you walk?” I asked him.

“Yeah… maybe.”

I shouldered his bulk and half-carried him out of the tent.

“They’ll be back. More will come,” Fletcher told me. “We have to get all my men out of here.”

There were precious few of his men left alive, but I didn’t bother to tell him that. I didn’t answer at all. I focused on half-dragging the big man down the mountain. If I hadn’t been from a higher gravity planet, I probably couldn’t have done it at all.

Finally, painfully, we exited the field and I shouted loudly, identifying myself. I didn’t want some yokel to blow my head off after all this work.

When we got back to Major Hendricks, he was all smiles, but that faded when he took stock of Colonel Fletcher’s state of being.

“Hendricks, you’re still in command,” Fletcher said. “I can’t even walk—can barely talk.”

The major nodded unhappily and left us with a medic. He touched my shoulder on the way by. “You’ve earned your reward twice-over in my book, Gorman.”

I nodded and turned back to the colonel. “What can you tell me? About what’s going on up there, at the top of the mountain?”

“Something bad. It’s a junction point that connects to somewhere outside the Conclave. The Tulk are trying to come through to our unlucky planet. They must plan to infest every human and duck on this world.”

“How do we stop them?”

He laughed, but the laugh turned into a coughing fit. “I doubt we can. We’ve got some good weapons, but that’s about it. They have a whole world full of Tulk they can employ. Better tech, too, if this strange sphere is anything to judge by. I think this is why the ducks took this mine to begin with. They needed the radioactives to power their gizmo. They’ve used it to open a pathway to another place.”

That all fit with what I’d seen. Wistfully, I gazed up at the shimmering balloon of force. It looked like it was taking a whole lot of power to maintain. They must be burning through my reward at a breakneck pace.

Colonel Fletcher kept talking, but I was all done listening. At this point, I had only two reasonable options: One, I could run down this godforsaken mountain to New Town, board my ship and take off. Two, I could stick it out with the colonists and keep fighting to get whatever was left of my prize, possibly dying in the attempt.

I knew the right answer. Don’t think I didn’t. Any self-respecting gun runner would blow right out of here without a minute’s regret. Some deals just went bad, that’s all. If Kersen didn’t understand that, well, he didn’t understand the business.

My old self would have run for it, but for some reason, I didn’t have that hard edge in me anymore. The man I’d been before I’d become a half-assed clone wasn’t exactly the same as me.  Maybe the knowledge that I wasn’t actually William Gorman had changed me.

Forcing myself back to the here and now, I reminded myself this wasn’t the time for introspection.

“We have to gather up our strength and our balls,” I told Fletcher suddenly. “We have to attack—now.”

Fletcher stopped rattling on and looked at me suddenly. “Now or never, huh?”

“This army is at the breaking point,” I told him. “You know that. But if we withdraw and try to hole-up in New Town…” I shook my head. “They’ll come for us in force.”

Fletcher nodded. He seemed kind of out of it. “We can’t let these freaks finish their work. For all we know, they’ll transport in a real army. Tell Hendricks to contact me.” He said this while lying flat on his back. “I’m glad you’re involved. You’ve got perspective, Gorman. We’re just isolated hicks out here on Baden.”

“You don’t fight like hicks,” I told him. “Your men fight and die like pros.”

This pleased him, and he tried to sit up. But I got him to lie down again after he called Hendricks. Plans proceeded swiftly after that, and less than an hour later we were hiking up to the ghostly edge of that field again.

I sucked in a deep breath, squinched my eyes tightly shut, and pushed for all I was worth against that strange, resilient outer skin. It caused my flesh to tingle and compress for a few moments, then the field buckled, and I stumbled inside.




Chapter Twenty-Eight

We advanced into the field at a steady march. All around me, on both sides, I saw dark figures beyond the edge of the field pressing their way inside. A few of them lost heart and had to be dragged inside by their braver compatriots.

Once we were in, we expected to be greeted with a hailstorm of enemy fire—but we weren’t. Instead, it was quiet. Ghostly.

The lurid redness of the light persisted. We walked forward over muddy land, reaching the camp where we’d left our wounded. It was now abandoned, except for the dead.

The colonials rushed around to check on a dozen friends. None had lived.

Major Hendricks came to me, his face twisted into a mask of rage. “We should have rushed in. We should have come for them—they were slaughtered.”

I didn’t argue. I knew fear had held us all back. I couldn’t blame him on that score—the field was pretty freaky. These men weren’t accustomed to marching into odd, dangerous tricks of physics.

We swept past the camp and the mine. We marched up the slopes of the mountain, which grew ever steeper and more rocky. Near the top, we found alien bodies.

The native ducks lay all over the landscape at the summit. Their corpses were twisted into poses of pain and fright.

“That one moved!” one of the sergeants shouted.

This single statement was enough to trigger a storm of gunfire. Every colonial was on-edge, ready for an ambush. They hosed down the figures that lay strewn over the boulders, hammering the bodies with thousands of hot bolts of burning metal. The rail-guns accelerated small bullets to such speeds that they burned in the atmosphere, creating sprays of blinding, streaking flashes.

“Ceasefire!” Major Hendricks shouted, walking along the line and slapping down muzzles.

It was too late. Most of the natives had been torn apart. How many of them had been alive before we’d shot them? We’ll never know.

Advancing carefully, we noticed the alien ducks had linear tears in their lower bellies—exit wounds where the Tulk had abandoned their hosts.

“They seemed to be in some kind of shock when we found them,” I said, toeing one of the bodies.

“Leave him alone,” Hendricks said. “Even a duck deserves some respect when he’s dead.”

I withdrew my boot, and we marched on. Soon, we noticed traceries in the mud—it was raining now, lightly sprinkling the mountain top. Each raindrop came down hot and sent up a tiny wisp of steam when it hit the ground. The field surrounding us must have brought the droplets nearly to a boiling temperature.

“There, the tubes,” Hendricks said.

We reached the summit. A polyhedron of tubes existed there, just as he’d described. All around the place were nuclear-powered battery packs. They were attached by leads and some strange-looking equipment to the woven tubes.

“I know what this is,” I said, while the others gaped. “It’s a transmitter. The Tulk—they weren’t bringing in an army. They were retreating.”

“To where?”

“The stars. The next cluster over, maybe.”

“The Faustian Chain?”

I shrugged. “I guess. That’s what the Tulk who was riding Colonel Fletcher said.”

We turned our eyes toward the structure of metal tubes. They’d been built by hand, but they were oddly precise in dimension and shape. I got the feeling the ducks, left to their own devices, could never have built such a structure.

“Well?” I asked Hendricks.

“Well what? They escaped us. It’s probably a good thing.”

I pointed to the latticework of tubes, with its bizarre pattern, then the cables that ran to the power packs. “Do you want to fire this thing up again?”

Hendricks looked shocked. “To go through? God only knows what we’d find. We’d probably be mowed down—”

“Nah,” I said. “I wasn’t suggesting a counter-invasion, but there’s still some juice left in these power packs. How about we rig a charge and send it through, giving the Tulk a little surprise?”

Major Hendricks looked surprised and struck by the idea. “If we did that… we’d be escalating things.”

“They’ve already invaded Baden. We should send a message that it’s a bad idea.”

Jort walked up. He listened to us, and he nodded emphatically. “That’s right. When a dog pisses on your toes, you kick him hard!”

He said this with an alarming ferocity. I wasn’t sure if he was quoting some kind of proverb from his home planet or speaking from personal experience.

Hendricks fussed over it for a time, but at last, he shook his head. “I’m responsible for the entire population of Baden right now. I can’t make such a choice without consulting the elders down in New Town at the very least.”

I nodded in understanding—and I did understand. He wasn’t a free agent. He had his masters.

“All right,” I said. “You want me to dismantle this? It has to be done right—safely.”

“Okay, sure. It’s all yours. Troops, withdraw! Take these power packs back down to town and—”

“Hold it!” I called out, raising a hand. “Don’t touch anything until we deactivate it.”

“How long will that take you?”

I shrugged. “Give me an hour.”

Hendricks needed no further coaching. He turned around his company of troops and withdrew. Soon, they were distant struggling forms hurrying down the side of the mountain.

Jort was left alone with me on the mountaintop. “Captain… this is not good. The Tulk could come back any minute. Maybe they’ll—”

“Yeah, yeah, shut up and grab those leads. Hook them to the bottom of each metal strut—like this.”

He watched me attach the leads, then still watched me as I pushed a single power pack into the middle of the web-work of tubes.

“Uh… what are you doing that for?”

I ignored him, rigging the pack to my rifle. The battery inside would receive the entire jolt of energy at once. I twisted the knob on the pack all the way up, causing the rifle to overcharge.

“What the hell?” Jort called out.

“Hurry! Power up every one of the other packs.”

“How much?”

“Turn them all the way up! Go, go!”

We ran around to the eight power packs, turning each one to full. I got the feeling, by the way the web-work of tubes lit and ran with sparks, that we were doing it wrong. That we had no idea how to activate the field and make it do its magic.

About thirty seconds later, Jort and I were running down the hillside for our lives. Behind us, a lurid red glow grew again. It was a fire within a vast chamber, the flame that had been lit by the Tulk initially as they exited Baden.

We barely reached the outer skin of the bubble when the reaction reached its climax. I felt myself being lifted off my feet. I was pulled backward, thrown high by the collapsing bubble, which was sucked into a tiny void within a few seconds.

Tossed in a spin, I landed hard on the muddy slopes. Groaning and reaching for my neck, I heard a vast ripping sound behind me. Looking back and upslope, I saw the field collapse upon itself. It looked like an exploding volcano—except in reverse.

The bubble, many of the trees, and the latticework of tubes were all drawn together into a single white point. That point flared bright, then vanished.

The mountain was quiet and dark again. Climbing painfully to my feet, I found Major Hendricks standing over me. He was glowering. His hands were on his hips in disapproval.

“Did you just fuck up everything?”

“I did my best, Major. By the way, do you have an extra rifle handy? I lost mine.”

Full of anger and curses, he turned and stalked off. I felt the situation was a clear example of ingratitude on his part. After all, I’d solved his problem.

No more Tulk were going to invade Baden anytime soon.




Chapter Twenty-Nine

After gathering all the power cells they could, the colonial forces withdrew down the mountain. With nearly a third of them wounded or killed, the tattered army was victorious, but no one felt too happy about it. For the most part, we were all bone-tired.

Reaching New Town at dusk two days after we’d left, we were heartened by the civilians. They came out to bring everyone food and drink. Soon, a colonist girl with hair like spun gold came to hold my hand. She smiled, and I found myself smiling as well.

“Did you really go into that red globe of light?” she asked me, wide-eyed. “That’s what they told me.”

“Yes Miss, I really did. I led the way, in fact.”

She wrinkled her nose. “You’re a braggart.”

“Never!”

She smiled again, kissed me, and pressed a beer bottle into my hand. Then she ran off. I touched the spot on my bristly cheek. It cooled quickly in the wind.

Bemused, I considered heading to the downtown bars, but couldn’t quite do it. I wanted to check up on my ship first. A runner’s ship always came before everything else. She was your family, your livelihood—everything.

I was unsurprised to find Sosa was still aboard Royal Fortune. She’d only left for supplies when she had to. If I’d been gone six months, I wondered if she’d still be here when I got back, sourly looking down the ramp with her arms crossed.

“Is Jort still alive?” she asked.

“He sure is—and I’m fine too, thank you. No permanent injuries or traumas I can’t overcome.”

She smiled faintly. “Have you got the payment?”

I pointed to the heavy lead-lined cylinder that followed me on a gravity-sled. It had a booster on it, or I wouldn’t have been able to budge the thing. “Six kilos of refined plutonium. The market value in the Conclave is more than Kersen was promised.”

She nodded. “Let’s take off then, before these hicks change their minds.”

Glancing back toward town, I squinted into the dying gleams of the sunset. “I’ll go to town and find Jort.”

“We should fly,” she said with a sharp note to her voice.

I looked back at her, and I saw something in her face I didn’t like. She was considering ditching Jort—possibly me as well. Was that because Kersen’s payment had finally reached the hold? I suspected that it was.

With a quick smile, I covered my thoughts.

“Hey, it’s been a tough road. Let’s stow the radioactives and go into town. I’ll buy you a drink, and we’ll drag Jort home with us when we find him.”

Her eyes darted over the cylinder, me and the town. I could tell she was indecisive. After a few more minutes of urging, I finally got her to agree.

We walked together into the thronged streets.

“The people here no longer live in fear,” she said. “You did a good job. What was it like—up there on the mountain?”

I told her the story. I told her about the Tulk, the projection equipment—everything. By the time I’d finished, we’d both had three drinks and moved on to a second bar.

Sosa stared into the depths of her beer. She was disturbed by my tale. “If I hadn’t seen that big balloon of light last night, I wouldn’t have believed you. An alien invasion—that’s crazy.”

“They came from outside the cluster, too. I’m pretty sure about that.”

“From the Faustian Chain?”

“Yes, I believe so.”

We both looked out the window. The neighboring cluster of stars known as the Faustian Chain had been colonized by Earth around a century ago. From our perspective, it was little more than a cotton-ball in the sky. In astronomical terms, the cluster was close by, but flying there would take a fast ship more than a decade. To my knowledge, the Conclave had no slip-gates that went that far. They probably wouldn’t be building a new link soon, either.

“The Chain must be overrun with these creatures,” Sosa said. “The Tulk are a threat to the entire Conclave.”

“That’s probably true. If they’re invading our outlying planets like Baden, they’re probably invading others on the fringe as well.”

“But why?”

I shrugged. “Basic tactics. How do you conquer a distant enemy? First, you must have a foothold. A base to operate from. Then you expand from that base.”

“Is Baden Colony their first base, or one of many?”

My beer glass went up and came down empty. “I don’t know. All I do is run illegal guns. I transport the weapons these people need to defend themselves.”

“If they wanted something else, would you smuggle that too?”

I thought over her question. “I don’t know. Most things colonists can get for themselves, or trade for them with other neighboring worlds. Only guns are restricted. The Conclave doesn’t want the outer planets to be well-armed.”

“These fools should have called for marines, for model-K soldiers from Prospero, maybe. They didn’t have to buy illegal guns and die by the thousands. Not when an invasion is underway.”

I shook my head. “I’ve seen this sort of thing before. All kinds of criminal worlds exist. Tyranny, slavery, genocide—it’s all out there. The Conclave citizens dream quietly in the center of the cluster, sheltered and ignorant, while they let the fringe worlds fend for themselves.”

“These Tulk, though—they have to be considered a threat to every human world.”

“Maybe,” I admitted. “I don’t know what the Conclave will think of the news when the local governor reports in.”

We had another drink, then moved on down the street. In the fourth bar, we found Jort at last.

He sat at a table with a girl on his knee. Two men sat across from him. The men were big colonial boys, and they were both arm-wrestling Jort at the same time.

Roaring and grunting, the three strove together. The colonials even stood up, cheating—but they couldn’t lever Jort’s arm down to the table.

At last, he threw them both to the floor. They got up good-naturedly and clapped him on the back. Everyone was drunk, laughing and having a good time.

“We’ve got to get back to the ship—we’ve got to go home,” Sosa reminded me.

Damn. I’d hoped she would get drunk and lighten up a bit, but I could see that wasn’t going to happen. I could tell Sosa was worried every rube on Baden wanted to reach into our stash and lift it from us.

By anyone’s accounting, I’m a paranoid man, but Sosa was putting me to shame. I knew these people considered us to be heroes—and rightly so. They weren’t about to steal anything from us.

Ten minutes later, however, a messenger came for me. It was a colonial militia man—a kid, really—still wearing his dirty green coveralls.

“Captain Gorman, sir? Colonel Fletcher wants to talk to you.”

“What about?” I demanded, slurring my words.

“It’s confidential, sir. No one told me anything.”

Alarm bells went off in my head. Could Sosa be right? Could these colonists be so greedy and grubby they were already regretting paying their runner?

Standing up, I signaled to Jort. He stood up as well, and the girl that had been riding his knee and kissing his neck tumbled to the floor. As everyone was a bit drunk, no one was hurt. A gust of laughter was the only result.

Jort, like an alert dog, watched me as closely as his state of mind allowed. He swayed on his feet, but only a little.

Turning, I walked toward the exit. Jort and Sosa trailed me. I tried to pay my tab, but the barman wouldn’t hear of it.

“Any runner who comes all the way out here with good merchandise, then risks his own cock fighting aliens, well, he gets free drinks in my house!”

Smiling, I left them all with a cheer and a wave. Out in the cold, dark streets, I followed the messenger kid.

Some of the bar’s patrons followed in our wake. They were under the mistaken impression we were on our way to yet another drinking establishment. Once they realized that we were heading toward the boring part of town, they melted away in search of better entertainment.

We wound up at the Colony First Hospital. On the third floor, we met up with Colonel Fletcher. He was inside a plastic bubble of film, with a couple of model-K nurses fussing over him. He looked up at me from the bed with squinting eyes.

“There you are, Gorman—not too drunk to stand, I trust?” Fletcher asked.

I smiled with half my mouth. “I’m fit to serve, Colonel.”

He coughed as he laughed. “Of course you are. Listen, I know you want to be on your way, and I don’t blame you. Not at all. Our problems aren’t your problems, after all.”

Here it was. The pitch. He wanted something, and he wanted it pretty badly if he was willing to take so much time to butter me up. Worse, it had to be something I didn’t want to give. I steeled myself and smiled in a frozen fashion.

“Let’s hear it, Colonel.”

“You’re not like a normal runner. You deliver, and you’re a friend in need. I’d like you to bring me another load of rifles… and something bigger.”

“Bigger? Like what?”

Fletcher’s mouth worked for a moment. Tubes ran out of his nose and his ass. They pumped unidentified fluids in and out of him at random intervals. He looked like a model-Q that was still under construction.

“We need something that can stop these Tulk from coming here again. We think they must have sent a small ship at some point. After landing here, they infested our ducks. Sure, now our native population is docile again, but they could go rebel on us again at any time. In short, we need some kind of planetary defense system. Satellite-based, maybe—”

“Whoa, whoa!” I said, putting up my hands. “I’m a simple gun runner, Colonel. Not a miracle-worker.”

Colonel Fletcher raised his own hand in response. The tubes crisscrossing his torn-up belly shivered at the movement. “Don’t panic! I don’t expect you to steal an orbital station from the Conclave and haul it out here. Nothing like that. I’m looking for certain key components—things we can’t get out here on the fringe.”

“Like what?”

“Like a combat-controller with trained AI. Like a set of projector tubes to connect to said controller. Look, we can build our own platform. We can push it up into orbit, and we can provide all the power it needs to operate. All we need is the stuff we can’t manufacture on our own.”

My mouth was hanging open a bit. I don’t know what I’d expected him to ask for, but it wasn’t this.

Quickly, almost automatically, I gave him a reassuring smile. “That might be possible, Colonel. I’ll check with my people and get back to you.”

Colonel Fletcher smiled in return. “Excellent! I knew I could count on you, Gorman. You’re the best.”

We walked out of there, and I glanced at Sosa and Jort. They both seemed upset.

“Captain, you can’t go promising these yokels that kind of tech!” Sosa hissed at me.

“Sosa is right, Captain. You smart-man—but that was dumb...”

“Shut up, both of you.”

We returned to our ship, pulled up our ramp, and blasted off into space. It was done without a warning call to their tower. Without so much as a flowery goodbye to the populace. Even I’d gotten spooked by this latest request.

“Why’d you say yes to them?” Sosa asked. “If you meant to run out?”

I shook my head. “You’re smart. You figure it out.”

She thought about it, and she nodded. “You always do that, don’t you? When someone asks for more than you can deliver, you smile, say yes, and disappear.”

I pointed a finger at her and nodded. “Now you’ve got it.”

“You so smart,” Jort said. “How come you die the first time? What happened to the other guy?”

“He must have made a mistake.”

“Yeah… one big mistake. You are clone—but can clone be smarter than this man you copy?”

My face faltered. I couldn’t keep a smile on my lips, not even false one, with such questions in the air.

Sosa listened, but she didn’t interrupt. She wanted to hear the truth.

“I don’t know…” I said, and I meant it.




Chapter Thirty

Bright and early the next morning, I awoke with a headache. I was sleeping and drooling in the pilot’s chair, and we were still drifting in orbit over Baden.

Confused, I looked at the instruments. Flashing red lights tipped me off, and I checked our local sensors.

“Sosa, Jort! To your posts! We’ve got company!”

There was a ship—a small one—coming up toward us from the planet surface. I hadn’t even known they had a viable ship, but it stood to reason. Most colonies had a few tugs or automated rock-miners lying around.

My hand reached for the thrusters, but I didn’t touch them. All I had to do was pull back on those levers, and Royal Fortune would leap ahead. We’d lose them in a gush of exhaust.

But I didn’t activate the engines. I was curious, so I let the ship approach.

“Jort, open the aft gun turret. Sight on the approaching ship. If she tries something, burn out her engines.”

“I’m on it, sir. Target locked. Target in range. Ready to fire!”

“Hold your fire, Jort.”

“Yes, sir,” he said, sounding disappointed.

Sosa came up onto the flight deck then. She looked around at the instruments. She appeared to be agitated. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

“We outgun that rowboat. He can’t do much.”

“What if they launch missiles?”

I shrugged. “Then we outrun them.”

She gritted her teeth and sat in the copilot’s chair. She looked like she wanted to run more than I did.

My own state of mind was more curious than concerned. “Open a channel to the approaching ship.”

Sosa hesitated—but she did it.

“Baden Colony ship,” I said. “Identify yourself and your purpose.”

A laugh came back to me. “It’s Major Hendricks. This is our space, Gorman. I don’t have to tell you what I’m doing in orbit over my own colony.”

“Fair enough. What do you want, Hendricks?”

He hesitated. “I need to talk to you. I meant to do it before you left—but you took off in a hurry.”

I considered. The fact he wasn’t talking right now indicated that he didn’t think it was safe to do so. He could have simply radioed from the ground—but maybe someone was listening that he didn’t want overhearing us.

Heaving a sigh, I spoke at last. “Come on up alongside us. We’ll dock up and have a little meet-and-greet.”

Sosa made a sound of exasperation. She glowered at me in disbelief, her arms crossed tightly. I ignored her. If she had something to say, she could say it.

A few minutes late, Major Hendricks climbed out of his tubby boat and glided toward us, weightless inside a docking tube that connected his ship to mine.

“We could disconnect right now,” Sosa said in my ear. “No one would be the wiser. It’d be an accident forever.”

I turned to stare at her in disbelief. “I don’t think so. I didn’t save all these people just to shank one of their leaders now.”

Hendricks finally came aboard. He eyed Sosa without any affection, and the feeling seemed mutual.

My hand came up, and we shook. Hendricks flashed me a nervous smile.

“What’s this all about, Major?” I asked.

Jort came floating up the shaft from the lower decks. I signaled for him to get back to his post, which made him curl his lips at me. He quickly obeyed and dove down the nearest shaft. We couldn’t leave our guns unattended just in case Hendricks planned mind to mess with us.

“Um…” Hendricks said. “Could we meet privately?”

I glanced at Sosa. “Go oil the model-Ds.”

She exited the flight deck with poor grace.

“What is it, Major? I’ve got to get this payment back to Kersen. We’re overdue as it is.”

“I wanted to talk to you—to tell you a few things. I… I think you’ve earned it.”

“Shoot.”

Hendricks looked troubled. “It’s about you—and this ship. We’ve seen the ship before, you know.”

“You said that.”

“But we didn’t tell you all of it. The colonel didn’t want to get involved, see? He just wants the guns to keep flowing. I think the way you joined us and fought up on that mountain—I think that deserves better.”

I was frowning now, and I crossed my arms. “I’m sure I’ll appreciate this when you get to the point.”

“Right. It’s just this: we’ve met you before. But it wasn’t you, exactly. It was the original you.”

Blinking, I felt stunned. “My clone?”

“Um… you’re the clone, I think, technically.”

“Right, right. It hardly matters. I understand… that’s why you reacted with hostility that first day, right? When we landed?”

“That’s right. You—Gorman the original, I mean—showed up but didn’t deliver a payload at all. After a while we realized you didn’t remember any of that. We’d heard you died out in the Pava system, and—”

“What’s that?” I asked sharply.  “The Pava system? That’s pretty far out.”

“It is. Anyway, we heard you’d died after you failed to deliver some goods out there about a year ago. Then you showed up all of a sudden, not recognizing anyone, working for Kersen again… We played along, and eventually we decided you weren’t faking it.”

It was my turn to be full of frowns and deep thoughts. “I haven’t met anyone else yet who might know what happened to the first me. Have you got a clue?”

Major Hendricks shrugged. “All I know is the rumor about the Pava system—and one other thing: this ship. It’s cursed or something. As you know, Captain Jensen was flying it a while back, and he’s apparently vanished too.”

“He didn’t vanish.” I proceeded to tell him about the radiation accident and the bodies that had been aboard when I’d first taken command.

“Too much power, huh? Fried by your own faulty engine shielding? That’s a nasty way to go.”

“I can think of worse. Anyway, what do you think happened to me? The first me, I mean.”

He thought it over. “I don’t know. I do know that woman you’re traveling with, though. I remember her. She was with Jensen, too.”

Chewing that over, I nodded. “All right. Thanks for the info and the warning.”

“Just watch yourself, Gorman. Kersen has sent us three different runners to Baden—and two of them were you. I think that’s odd.”

I nodded, unable to argue his point.

Major Hendricks returned to his ship and jetted back down toward Baden.

Almost immediately, Sosa appeared on deck. “What’d he want?”

“Nothing. Just to wish us well.”

“Okay, if you want it that way. It’s your ship.”

She slunk off, and I strapped in. We fired up the engines and left orbit. For the first time, I was leery of pouring on the power and letting the ship fly the way she really wanted to.

What if my predecessors had made that exact mistake before?




Chapter Thirty-One

We avoided the local slip-gate. That was too hot for us now. Patrol ships might be laying in ambush, waiting for us to go back there. Instead, I struck out to cross interstellar space alone. We crawled over the lightyears, and the trip took weeks.

During this time, Sosa became increasingly defiant. She asked endless, pointless questions, usually about the engines.

“Do we need to fire them up when we reach our destination?”

“Yes, there will be quite a bit of braking required to slow us down.”

“Do we have enough fuel for that?”

“Yes,” I said, patiently. “We’ve got plenty of fuel and supplies. We could fly another month if we have to. After that, I suppose we could cook and eat Jort.”

Jort had been gliding up the shaft from the lower deck. He approached with great interest, having heard part of our conversation.

“Cook and eat? Is this a Conclave idiom? Are you planning sex on me? What a surprise, it’s not even my counting day.”

“As if,” Sosa said, rolling her eyes and stalking off.

“She’s a cold one, that girl,” I said.

“No, no! I disagree. She’s a volcano ready to explode any moment. You should set her off. We’d all be happier.”

I blinked, but I thought I got his meaning.

With nothing to lose except my pride, I made an attempt that evening. I’m not a wizard of romance, but I’ve been successful from time to time.

I started off with a bottle of wine opened at our group dinner. Setting it on the table, I poured each of us a glass without any comment.

Jort drank his with noisy greed. Sosa sniffed at hers, then finally took a sip. By the end of the meal, she’d had two glasses.

Jort was an ass and thick in the head, but he seemed to grasp what was what. He talked about checking on gear and left the upper deck.

Sosa then stood up, planning to retreat to her private quarters. She did that practically every night, holing up and doing God-knew-what in there until she was summoned back to duty by the ship’s computer.

“Wait,” I said. “I wanted to talk to you.”

Hesitantly, she sat back down. “What is it?”

“You’ve been to Baden before, haven’t you?”

She looked furtive. “Yes. A few times. I was with Captain Jensen—remember?”

“Were you on board this ship when I flew her—the first time?”

There it was, the stunner question. I’d been holding onto that gem for days.

“I… I didn’t fly with you. The first you, I mean.”

“All right... but you have met me before?”

She was staring at her empty wine glass, spinning it between two nervous hands. She nodded slowly.

I opened a second bottle and filled her glass. She didn’t object—she barely seemed to notice. I filled mine as well.

“Okay,” I said. “So, you flew with Jensen, but not me. Which one of Kersen’s agents flew with me?”

She looked up at me, startled. I’d taken a guess, and apparently I’d hit home. She licked her lips.

“Jensen did. He was your first mate—the other you, I’m talking about.”

I was beginning to get interested. I’d not heard much of what had happened to the original version of Gorman. He’d stored me, his clone, years ago and gone off roaming the universe. Since my awakening, I’d thought about him now and then, but mostly in terms of curiosity about my missing past.

“You must know why I’m interested in the topic,” I told her. “For me, it’s kind of like having amnesia.”

“Yes… I can understand. But I can’t help you much. I wasn’t there when—whatever happened, happened.”

“Right, but you know more than you’re letting on. That’s obvious.”

She didn’t meet my eye. She drained her glass and stood up. “I’m going to bed. Thanks for the wine.”

Shrugging, I let her go. Taking the bottle to my own cabin, I sighed and stretched out on my bunk. Soon, I fell asleep.

* * *

Stealthy sounds awakened me hours later. The ship was quiet, hissing and gurgling to herself. But the sounds were there, and as I’m a man who’s lived a dangerous life, they were enough to awaken me.

Sitting up, I almost dropped the wine bottle. I grabbed it with clumsy fingers, preventing a splintering crash.

Someone was in my cabin. The door was open a crack, and dim yellow light flowed in forming a line across my bed.

“I can’t do it,” Sosa said quietly.

Sitting up and rubbing my eyes, I watched her warily. I offered her the bottle of wine.

She took it, chugged a long drink from the bottle directly, then handed it back to me. I sipped some as well.

“Talk to me,” I said. “Tell me what’s been bothering you for the last month or so—besides that annoying Tulk that was in your belly.”

“That’s it,” she said. “The Tulk. You got rid of it for me. You risked your life to save me, a worthless wretch, and you removed that vile rider.”

“Who said anything about being a wretch?” I asked, watching her. I’d always found I could get more information by listening than by talking. I chose to listen closely tonight.

Sighing, Sosa sat beside me on the bunk. I got the feeling she was drunk. Had she found and consumed more wine while I slept? That was my impression.

“I killed Jensen,” she said in a whisper. “I released the radiation that filled the ship—I killed the whole crew.”

Frowning, I felt a sudden urge to defend myself, but I didn’t move or speak. I just sat there and listened.

“Jensen was a bastard. All the customers liked him. Even Kersen liked him—but he abused me. He abused everyone aboard the ship. When he demanded that Kersen pay him more, Kersen ordered me to flood the ship with radiation and that vile parasite made me go through with it.”

“Ah…” I said, finally catching on.

I recalled the first days after we’d met. The ship had been occupied by model-Ds whose primary job seemed to be shoving bodies into the engine core. There’d been no one else aboard—except for Sosa.

“So… if you killed Jensen—who killed me?”

She looked up at me, her eyes brimming with tears.

Suddenly, I felt I knew the truth. She was about to confess to my murder. That was a cold shock.

How could I work with such a woman? How could I do anything else other than space her immediately?

A hard, mind-numbing decision was coming at me. I could feel it.




Chapter Thirty-Two

When Sosa told me what had happened, I found it difficult to believe. But over time, I came to accept it as the probable truth.

“Jensen killed you. Kersen pulled the same trick. You wanted more money, so he told your first mate he could have the ship if he would only flood the vessel with radiation. Those same model-Ds shoved your body—and all the others—into the core.”

“How could anyone survive aboard with the ship contaminated?”

“There’s a compartment under the emergency pods. It’s heavily shielded. To kill everyone aboard this ship, all you have to do is open the core vents and huddle down there. The model-Ds will do the rest of the work. They’re scripted specifically for that.”

Thinking hard, I began to see how diabolical it all was. Kersen had it down to a science. He was always looking for a new crew. Maybe he got them to work cheap at first.

Inevitably, they would demand their fair share of the loot. At that point, they’d outlived their usefulness. He would set them up against one another and start over.

“What a devil Kersen really is…”

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

“Why are you sorry? You didn’t kill me, right?”

“No… but I was thinking about it. Kersen promised me this ship. But I’ve seen the trick played twice. He’d only do it to me later on. Besides, you’ve been so… nice to me. I’m sorry for having been an ice-cold bitch. You can’t get close to someone you’re supposed to kill.”

“Right…”

Sosa looked up at me, and in that moment, biting her lips and eyes full of tears, she looked more human and vulnerable than she ever had since I’d met her.

“What do we do now?” she asked me.

“Now? Now we go back to the Ceti station, and we screw over Kersen.”

She smiled. “I’d like that.”

We joked about the idea, and we relaxed together. It had been a long time since I’d sat on a bunk in the dark with a woman who was on the verge of tears. I couldn’t resist. I snaked my arm around her shoulders.

She sucked in a gasp at first, but then she relaxed. She put her head against my shoulder.

“I really am sorry,” she said. “I couldn’t kill you. You’re not like Jensen—not at all.”

“Glad to hear it.”

We began to kiss, and eventually we made love. I figured Jort was going to be impressed in the morning.

Afterward, with Sosa sleeping next to me, I found I couldn’t relax. After all, this girl had been planning to kill me since she’d met me.

And that guy Kersen, my supposed boss. He was a real gem. He’d planned to pay me nothing for this long, hard run—then kill me later. Maybe he’d have given me another job before getting rid of me, making it a two-for.

All of this was overshadowed by my third thought: Kersen had already killed me once. He must have been shocked to see me return. No wonder his initial reaction had been so hostile, so cold. He thought he’d gotten rid of old Gorman, only to find him back at his doorstep a year or two later.

Many details of my past were still unclear, but I at least knew the basics at this point. What I wanted now, most of all, was some solid revenge. How could I turn the tables on Kersen? How could I make him pay for killing me, abusing others, and plotting a second murder of my clone? It was hard to come up with a suitable response to such offenses.

I lay awake, while Sosa softly breathed nearby. She was sleeping the easy rest of those who have confessed their worst sins and been forgiven. In the meantime, I was seething.

Plans came to mind, flaws were found, and new plans were formed. The process went on until the ship gently raised the lights, simulating dawn and commanding our bodies to awaken.

Pretending to be in good spirits, I yawned, stretched and stepped out of my cabin.

There, standing and wary, was Jort. Behind him stood two model-Ds.

They were all armed. Jort had a Sardez rifle. The model-Ds had their grippers upraised and open, like the jaws of snapping turtles.

I behaved coolly, but the truth was I was more than a little worried. What if Kersen had two agents aboard my ship, not just one?

“Uh…” I said. “Is this some kind of mutiny, Jort?”

He pointed over my shoulder with the muzzle of his rifle. “I’m here for her. Glad you had a fun night, but she’s a bad one. I think you’ll decide she must die when I tell you the truth.”

My eyebrows arched, and I nodded appreciatively. I was glad his target wasn’t me. “You mean about her killing Jensen? Working for Kersen?”

He looked startled and took his eyes off Sosa for the first time. She was getting up slowly, her face registering alarm. She pulled the sheets around her nude body and stared at us.

“You know she a scammer huh? You no care?”

“Yes. I know who she is, and what she’s done. Let’s have some coffee and talk about it.”

After pulling on some clothing and calling off the model-Ds, the three of us sat around the table in the galley and looked at one another warily.

Jort pointed an accusatory finger at Sosa. “Don’t believe anything she says. She’s evil.”

Sosa looked down. “I suppose I deserve that.”

Imploring everyone to remain calm, I placed three hot beverages on the table and lit up a stim. The fog in my mind from the sleepless night lifted soon afterward.

“Listen,” I said. “We’ve all got flaws in our past. Jort, let’s not forget you were plotting to kill me just a month ago.”

He looked contrite but rebellious. “You cheated me out of my money and sold me a stolen ship. I was right to seek revenge. Now, we are partners.”

I nodded, having to concede his points.

He jabbed a finger at Sosa. “This one is ungrateful witch. We save her life, we take Tulk from her body. We shared life and death with her. What does she do? She plots to burn our lungs with radiation. Here, come, let me show you chamber where she plans to squat while our skins boil!”

“Let’s see it,” I said.

Jort led me to the compartment. It was small, and hidden under the upper deck lavatory. I saw the genius of it immediately. All the saboteur had to do was vanish into the toilet and never come out. The others would die, and even if they searched for the perpetrator, they would never find them.

“So, you did this to Jensen and his crew?”

Sosa was sulking again. “I told you the truth. I did what I had to do. I… I wouldn’t do it again. Not to anyone… except maybe Kersen.”

Jort turned to me. “You have her words. This is your crew, Gorman. The job of every captain is hard. What do you say?”

Jort was right. My role was a difficult one. If I’d been running a simple patrol boat, I’d have a book full of regulations to guide me. Laws would dictate my responses, and my actions would be swift and sure.

That’s not how things went when your crew was a handful of pirate rabble. Even the two model-D androids seemed hushed and curious as to what I’d say next.

The only happy detail was the simple fact they were all looking to me for judgment. That meant I was still respected, still their captain.

Puffing hard on my stim, I looked at them through a plume of aromatic particles. “Listen,” I said, “normally, I’d space her.”

Sosa gasped while Jort smiled darkly. He liked the idea.

“But,” I said. “I only have a crew of five counting the robots. I’m short-handed. So, here’s what we’re going to do: First, we’re going to remember she had a Tulk in her guts when she did these things, but now it’s gone, and she’s made her peace with me. So… we’re going to focus on our shared goals and work toward them. We’re not going to keep looking into the past—not as long as everyone behaves.”

Jort crossed his thick arms and huffed.

“Listen, Sosa, who do you want to kill?” I asked her. “Who deserves death more than anyone else?”

“Kersen, of course. He saddled me with a rider and made me do unspeakable things. He plotted all of our deaths.”

“Right. Jort, who do you want to kill? Who is our greatest enemy?”

Jort’s eyes flickered over to Sosa before answering. I could tell he was considering naming her.

“Kersen,” he said at last. “He is the evil behind the evil we see before us.”

“Hey!” Sosa protested.

I shushed them both with upraised hands. “Okay. We have a consensus. We all hate Kersen more than anyone in the universe. Our enemy is Kersen. Let’s work together to bring him down.”

Jort and Sosa stopped giving each other hateful looks and turned to me in surprise.

“Kill Kersen?” Sosa asked.

“Kersen is… big time,” Jort pointed out.

“We can’t defeat him,” Sosa agreed. “He bribes all the patrol commanders—the human ones, that is. Sometimes he programs the androids as well.”

With squinting eyes, I thought this over. “Sosa, do you think Kersen could have paid patrolmen to follow a ship across several systems? All the way out from the Conclave?”

She shrugged. “It’s possible. He has a network of servants. Some are obvious, some are not.”

I was left thinking of Rose and her father’s yacht. The patrols had pursued me through multiple systems, something they didn’t often do. Could Kersen’s reach be so vast?

Forcing a smile, I turned to my small, feisty crew. Smugglers and pirate crews were always like this. The kind of people that signed onto such ships were naturally aggressive and irritable. In the past, all my crews had been at each other’s throats from time to time. It was part of the captain’s job to keep them together.

Slapping my hand over each of theirs, I got their attention. “Excellent! It’s decided then. From now on, we’ll focus on our real enemy. Kersen must die!”

These words seemed to work magic. They were both looking at me thoughtfully, hopefully. I congratulated myself on a sharp turn-around. Our ship was sailing again—not smoothly, mind you, but not disastrously either.




Chapter Thirty-Three

The days went more smoothly aboard my ship after our little talk in the galley. We had a common goal now, and our other differences had been set aside for the moment.

The following evening, however, after we ate dinner and cleaned up, I snaked an arm around Sosa’s waist. I’m not sure what she did with my arm, but I pulled it back quickly, cursing.

“You talked about spacing me,” she said, glowering.

“Jort mentioned it, not me.”

“You nodded. You considered it. Stay in your own cabin tonight.”

She left me muttering to myself. When I caught sight of Jort later, he gave me a little knowing smile. There was no way to keep a secret on a ship of this size.

Several more days passed. During that time, while we crossed interstellar space, we talked and plotted. We came up with a dozen scenarios, each of which resulted in Kersen’s death. None of them seemed realistic.

“The minute we get into the Ceti system,” I said thoughtfully, “he’ll have the patrols on us.”

“Without a doubt,” Sosa agreed. “Even in this fast ship, we won’t be able to reach the space station without being tracked and followed.”

I shook my head. “We have to change course. We can’t just waltz in there—we need a new approach.”

They looked at me. Sosa was clearly out of ideas—and Jort had never had one.

“We’re changing course to go to Prospero. We’ll fly another week, and we’ll—”

“That girl!” Jort boomed suddenly, pointing a thick finger in my direction. “She’s the one you stole that ship from in the first place!”

I gave him a dark look, hoping he’d shut up, but Jort didn’t get hints often.

He laughed with a nasty tone. “You always liked that Conclave girl, didn’t you? What was her name?”

“I don’t remember,” I lied.

Sosa watched me closely. After a few long seconds she got up without a word and left the table.

Damn, why did women think they owned you after one night? She’d never come near me since, but she was still acting jealous. This was the kind of thing that I worried about when I slept with a crewmember. I knew it was a bad idea. The trouble was, when it came right down to the moment of truth, I often couldn’t resist the bait.

“Rose,” I told Jort after Sosa had left. “Her name was Rose.”

“Ah! Right… I remember now. I helped you remember, no?”

“That must be it.”

We changed course that night. Sosa had disappeared, and I became worried. I walked swiftly to the lavatory, tore open the secret compartment and looked inside.

She wasn’t there. Breathing a sigh of relief, I checked all the Geiger counters anyway. They were all clean, ticking softly to themselves with background cosmic radiation that occasionally made it through the ship’s shielded hull.

Just in case, I put a counter in my cabin. If it started rattling, I’d wake up.

When my shift ended, I went to my bunk and stretched out. Each of us was on watch for eight hours at a time. Sometimes the others were awake, sometimes they weren’t, but someone had to watch the bridge around the clock.

My cabin door slid open about an hour later. My eyes snapped open, and I sat up blearily.

A shapely figure stood framed in the doorway.

“Sosa?”

She didn’t say anything for a few moments. “Who is Rose?” she asked finally.

“Uh…” I said, then I sighed. I told her most of the truth—but I left out the part about making love to her then sending her home.

“She helped me,” I said, “but she didn’t really want to leave Prospero. She was too young, too soft.”

“I bet.”

“Jesus, girl. You and I had one night, and since then you’ve been cold. What’s this all about?”

She dithered in my doorway. “Do you want a second night?”

“Um… sure.”

Sosa came in, and we touched. It was good. Even better than the first time. Maybe this false business Jort had brought up, about her having a rival, had heated up her passions. I wasn’t sure.

The next morning, at least Jort wasn’t standing at my doorway. He was, however, making breakfast in the galley. He hooted when we entered together.

“You two are embarrassing! One moment a fight, next comes the rubbing. How can a man stay alert on watch all night with such a display?”

Sosa gave him a disgusted frown, but I couldn’t muster a bad mood. I was too happy to have Sosa coming around again. The girl was intense.

We ate fried meat and tidbits of alien grain. It tasted like food from Baden, and most of it was.

“Here’s what we’re going to do when we get to Prospero,” I said, and I laid out my plan.

They went along with it, but Sosa didn’t look happy. She now seemed to believe my entire purpose was to find my old girlfriend. I’d tried to dissuade her from that opinion, but I could tell she was still jealous.

We arrived at the Prospero system with a new ID and registry. Naturally, we completely avoided the slip-gate—but a patrol ship was dispatched to investigate us anyway.

“Your ship is not in our known records,” the model-Q captain of the patrol ship complained.

“Naturally not,” I said. “We’re from Baden, as I said.”

“Ships registered to colonial worlds are not common. This is the Conclave. There will be no errors allowed here.”

By “errors” I knew he meant no funny business. Nothing even bordering on the criminal was allowed around Prospero. If I’d been able to hang on to that yacht I’d stolen from here, I never would’ve been allowed to return.

Fortunately, Royal Fortune was a ship that had never been to the Conclave, not with any registration or ID. With confidence, I agreed to a boarding party and a search.

“Are you crazy, Captain?” Jort demanded. Sosa looked like she agreed with him.

“Nope. We’ve got nothing to hide.”

“A civilian ship with torpedoes and neutrino-gun turrets?”

I frowned at that, but shook my head. “We should be okay. You can’t have a ship like that in the Conclave worlds, but we’re not carrying cargo. We need weapons to protect us from pirates. Even these dumbass robots know that.”

Nervously, Jort opened the hatch when the model-Ks came knocking. We all forced smiles and held our hands out to our sides when a flood of police androids climbed down the ladder and stood on our command deck.

The patrolmen looked like men, except for their shiny, plastic-looking skin. Worse, they all had the same face. They weren’t programmed to have expressions, but at least they moved their mouths when words came out of their speakers.

The captain was a model-Q. I’d hoped he’d be a real human that I could reason with, but on Prospero, taking a Navy job would have been humiliating for any local inhabitant.

The android looked around with artificial intelligence in his false eyes. “This is an unusual ship. We suspect a violation.”

“What violation?”

“Search the lower deck,” he ordered. “Search the hold.”

The model-Ks rushed off without acknowledgement or asking us for permission. We watched them go, frowning.

“Sir,” I said, being extremely polite for a human addressing a skin-job like him. “We’ve got nothing to hide. We’re from Baden. We’d like to ask some of the local wealthy patrons for charitable aid.”

“Ah-ha!” the captain said, spinning back around to look at me. He’d been scanning the deck, categorizing everything in sight. That process still took computers more time than it did humans. “A violation has been detected. Pan-handling and vagrancy are illegal in this star system.”

“Vagrancy? Nonsense, my good man,” I said, complimenting him again. “We are not destitute. We are not begging. We are seeking a charitable contribution. Don’t you have charities here on Prospero?”

The model-Q froze for a second, searching the local grid and his cloud of information. “Yes…” he said, sounding surprised. “We have charities. But they can’t operate without a license.”

“There you go. Our first act will be to apply for such a license.”

“The odds of acceptance are very low. No charity has been approved here for decades. Patronage is a requirement.”

I pasted on a smile and spread my arms wide. “Not a problem. We have some friends here. We’ll be fine.”

“Friends? Name them.”

“Ah… I’d rather not. They’re humble people who’d prefer to remain anonymous.”

The captain pulled out a pair of self-sealing hand-cuffs. He offered them to me.

“Put these on, sir,” he said. “For your own protection, humans are offered the opportunity to self-arrest.”

“What? Why?” Jort demanded, unable to keep quiet any longer.

The patrol captain turned toward him and took his question at face-value. “In order to prevent injury. As we are not sensitive enough to know when we’re applying too much force with our grippers, we tend to injure humans during the process. I’ve judged this crew as non-combative, therefore I’m allowing—”

“Captain,” I interrupted. “Why are we being arrested? I told you, we seek to open a legal charity.”

“That claim has set aside the pan-handling charge for now. However, you are without funds in this system. We’ve searched, and none of you are in possession of a bank account that is accessible here. That makes all of you, by definition, vagrants.”

Jort and Sosa stared, mouths agape. I frowned, thinking hard. We’d all given the patrolmen false names, of course. To admit I was the infamous Captain William Gorman would doubtlessly result in more than simple jail time.

I soon came up with the only dodge I could think of. It was something of a long-shot, but it was better than drawing weapons and destroying all these patrolmen—even if we could manage it.

“As I said, we have friends here. Contact Rose O’Neal, she’s the daughter of an Elector here on Prospero.”

The model-Q opened his eyes widely. Perhaps that was some software programmed to demonstrate surprise—either that, or his brain was glitching.

“An Elector of the Conclave?” he asked. “I will verify your claim.”

His eyes became unfocussed, and he froze for a second. Right then, I knew I could ambush him. He was preoccupied, as were all of his artificial troops.

Two heartbeats went by before I made my fateful choice…

The moment passed, and the model-Q remained unmolested. His eyes returned to normal, and they did so without any interruption from me.

Part of me was immediately regretful. Jort was making hurry-up-and-do-it gestures, spinning a finger in the air.

But it wouldn’t have worked. Sure, we probably could have defeated the patrolmen and fled. That would have been it for Prospero, however. I’d have been forced to run and never look back. Even now, they might trace my DNA through samples. If I pulled anything dramatic now, I was certain to be blackballed on this planet forever.

I hadn’t come all the way out here to burn bridges and leave empty-handed. I needed some help, and this was my best chance to get it before facing Kersen.

The patrol leader looked surprised. “I’ve contacted the individuals in question. The family has all responded in the negative—except for one individual. The daughter, Rose.”

“What a surprise,” I said. “What did she say?”

“That you should be arrested immediately.”

I heard a click, and I looked down. I saw my wrists had been manacled. Apparently, the android had decided to take it upon himself to perform the arrest the old-fashioned way.




Chapter Thirty-Four

Jort snarled, but I raised my hands with one-finger held high to stop him.

“Can you forward a message to the Elector herself—Rose’s mother?” I asked.

“It is possible, but pointless,” the patrolman replied.

I shook my manacled hands. “Give it a shot. This arrest is a mistake.”

“You claim an error has been made?”

Androids were very touchy about errors, I knew. “I’m making that claim, yes.”

“What message would you suggest?”

“Tell her I have a yacht that may yet be returned.”

The android looked unimpressed, but he relayed my words. A few moments later, a reply came back.

“Hold them until I get there,” the patrolman said.

“Ah-ha! You see? They wish to greet us personally. I’ll explain it all when they get here.”

“Your analysis is lacking in several particulars.”

“That may be, but you have your orders.”

The patrolman seemed annoyed, but he didn’t argue. On Prospero, the law enforcement units were not independent from the rest of the government officials. The only way an order from an official could be ignored would be if a higher-level official countermanded it. As I strongly suspected, no other official in the system knew or even cared about our presence in the star system. Therefore, the word of the Elector could not be ignored.

We stood around waiting for nearly an hour. Sosa managed to make an excuse about personal issues and retreated. She was allowed to leave, but a model-K followed her suspiciously.

I wasn’t allowed to do anything. Neither was Jort, as he had been witnessed making threatening comments. We were under arrest.

I could have told these toasters that Sosa was at least as dangerous as we were, but I refrained from doing so. Still, Jort and I became worried as time passed. What if the girl decided to take a break in the lavatory? It would be an easy, and arguably smart, move for her to irradiate the entire ship and pick up the pieces later.

Model-Q units weren’t much more resistant to radiation than humans were. Model-Ds, on the other hand, were heavily shielded. As to the model-Ks… I wasn’t sure how they would fare. They were tough, but I wasn’t sure if their brain-boxes were lead-lined or not.

Jort looked nervously at me. “Uh… do you think maybe Sosa went to bathroom?”

I shrugged. “It’s possible.”

“Perhaps we should go find her—to make sure.”

The model-Q seemed confused by our remarks. “Does she suffer from some kind of disability?”

“Ask your patrolmen to check on her, would you?” I asked. “We’re concerned.”

“Immediately.”

He communicated with silent transmissions. We heard the model-K units trundling about on the lower deck. A moment later, he turned back toward us.

“One of my units has been disabled. Coincidentally, Sosa seems to be absent from the ship.”

“Really? Did you check the lifepods?”

“They’re all present and accounted for.”

“This is quite a surprise. Perhaps she spaced herself.”

The patrol leader turned, looking at the instruments. “I don’t see any evidence of that, however…”

He suddenly turned and moved toward the hatch he’d entered through. I tripped him the moment his back was turned. Jort and I fell upon him, beating him relentlessly.

He was only a model-Q, but as a patrolman, his chassis was tougher than the rented captain I’d destroyed the day I escaped Prospero. He complained about our actions until the very end.

“This violation has been logged and reported,” he said in the same neutral tone he always used.

Jort hammered his skull with a coffee pot, despite the fact I’d told him that sort of attack was useless. None of these androids kept their control chips in their false heads. Jort crushed in the skull region anyway. The only effect was to cause the speakers to become muffled.

“Assaulting a patrolman is a serious offense. Incarceration is mandatory. Your actions will be—”

Finally, with a grunt of effort, Jort managed to shut him up by drilling a power-driver into his spinal region. Of course, patrolmen didn’t have spines, but they did have a wire harness connecting sensors, power supplies and motors. Damaging this had an effect similar to a spinal injury.

The robot began to buck spastically under us, and we jumped free. It made odd, stuttering sounds before the gleam in its artificial eyes finally died.

“He’ll have contacted the others,” I said, “come on.”

Arming ourselves with pistols, we steeled ourselves. A rush of model-K patrolmen came up from the lower decks. There were three of them, and our only saving grace was they came up one at a time due to our limited hatch-size.

The first climbed up rapidly, coming into view with his head turned toward the bridge. We fired and took him down, burning him until he fell clattering back down into the lower deck.

The second bot did exactly as the first had. We, however, had taken the time to rush over to the far side of the hatchway. When he came up, head spun around one-hundred-and-eighty degrees so as to look behind him, we were on the far side.

The programming of patrolmen was nothing if not predictable. We kicked and shot him unmercifully. He fell down to the lower deck, flopping over the first. Both were still squirming, but unable to stand or effectively use their weapons.

The third model-K showed surprising initiative. Jort grinned, and I sweated while we waited for him to come up the ladder, but he took an alternate route.

Fortunately, the secondary hatchway was rarely used. When the wheel spun, it creaked and the hinges groaned when the hatch was thrown wide with a clang.

Turning to face one another, we all fired at once. I shot the patrolman, and he shot Jort.

Taking cover behind the navigational console, I breathed hard. We’d hit the robot, but he wasn’t out. He could take more hits than any human.

Jort lay on his back, gasping for breath.

“Throw your weapon down, Jort,” I told him. “That’s an order.”

Groaning, he tossed it aside. Patrolmen were programmed not to fire on unarmed assailants.

“Jort surrenders!” I shouted.

“That is an appropriate action, Captain Gorman. You should consider the wisdom of your ally and do the same.”

I thought about it. I seriously did. The odds were against me.

Then, I saw something on the ship’s security cameras. A door had opened on the deck below.

Slowly, I raised my manacled hands and held up the pistol. “I’m surrendering!” I shouted. “Don’t shoot!”

“Drop your weapon, stand with your hands up.”

“I can’t stand, I’m hurt.”

“My software registers no damage to your body.”

“It’s wrong. It happened before you guys got here.”

The robot laboriously climbed up the final rungs onto the command deck. It sounded slowed, damaged. I guess we’d managed to wing him at least.

“Your continued obstinate refusal to accept authority has placed you in this situation, Gorman.”

“Yeah? What does the law say about abandoned clones?”

“Your query is unclear. Surrender your weapon and—”

A gun went off. I never even heard Sosa sneaking up on the guy. She was a quiet one when she wanted to be.

“You can stop bullshitting now,” she told me.

I got up with my manacled hands still clamped together. I still held my pistol, but I was careful not to aim it at her.

 “We thought you might flood the ship with radiation,” I said.

“I considered it—Jort?”

To my surprise, she rushed to him and began to tend to his wounds. I was impressed. Despite her tough exterior, she did care inside.

At least, she cared for Jort.

With all the patrolmen neutralized, we had both ships to ourselves. We took steps to keep it that way. After getting my hands out of the manacles using a key chip we found on the destroyed patrol captain, I flexed my fingers in the air.

“Feels good to be free again.”

“Another ship is approaching, Captain,” Sosa said.

“Is it a luxury model?”

She hesitated. “Yes… I think it is.” She turned to look at me. “Don’t tell me…”

I shrugged. “I have friends in every star system, what can I say?”

Sosa shook her head and turned back to her console. “Jort is in the medical box. He’ll be in there for a while. Maybe we should just cast off and run, sir.”

“No. Not yet. Let’s see what they have to say. Help me get these patrolmen back onto their own ship.”

Grunting with effort even in half-gravity, we got the ruined patrolmen onto their own deck. Our two model-Ds from the cargo bay helped. They seemed to be exceptionally well-trained in the task of carrying bodies.

When the ship looked clean, with only a few blackened spots of melted metal on the walls, we hailed the approaching ship.

“Who is this person?” another artificial voice asked. It was hauntingly familiar—then I had it. The voice exactly matched that of the model-Q captain I’d killed when I’d hijacked Rose’s yacht months ago. Apparently, they had more than one crew ready and programmed at the rental place back on Prospero.

I decided to try to fool the robot. It wasn’t that hard to do at places like Prospero. The androids weren’t used to tricky humans. The local populace was very docile.

“I’m a patrol captain,” I answered in a monotone voice. “Dock with the civilian ship.”

The other hesitated. Model-Qs were always thinkers. It was annoying.

“Why aren’t you aboard your own ship, Captain?”

“Because I’ve got prisoners to attend to,” I lied. “You’ve been given an order by a patrol ship captain. Are you refusing to obey?”

“Not at all, Captain. We will dock shortly.”

When they docked and we opened the hatches, we pointed Sardez rifles into their faces.

There was quite a group looking at us. The rental yacht captain was in front, blinking mildly at us. Behind him were three others, they had to be Rose and her parents.

“Hello Rose,” I said in a friendly tone. “Good to see you again.”




Chapter Thirty-Five

“Passengers,” the captain said. “I suggest you retreat to the ship’s lounge. There appears to be a difficulty I must attend to.”

Rose’s parents were frozen in shock. They weren’t any more accustomed to violence and criminal behavior than Rose herself had been when I’d first met her.

“William,” Rose said to me. “Don’t hurt anyone.”

“I won’t, if you call off this rented dog of yours,” I said, pointing to the model-Q. He was a twin to the one I’d beaten down last time I’d seen Rose.

“Passengers,” the captain repeated in exactly the same tone. “You might be in danger. I suggest you retreat to the ship’s lounge.”

I nodded to Rose.

“Captain,” she said to the model-Q. “We aren’t in danger. I know these people. Stand down and return to your duties.”

The model-Q hesitated. I could tell he was doing some deep thinking. He was supposed to protect the humans aboard his ship, but he also was programmed to obey the people who’d rented him.

Rose took action, leaving her surprised parents and walking past the model-Q. She slid by and entered my ship. Then she addressed the uncertain android. “I’m not on your ship any longer, Captain. Take my parents down to the lounge. I’ll be fine.”

“Rose!” her mother shouted suddenly. “You can’t let these pirates take you. Not for our sake.”

“I’m not doing this for your sake, mother,” she said.

The hatch closed between them. I saw Rose’s mother put her eye up to the porthole. She looked shocked and horrified.

Rose turned toward me slowly. She looked somewhat hesitant.

“I knew everything you said was a lie,” she said. “All that about returning my father’s yacht.”

“Yeah… sorry about that.”

“It’s okay, as I said, I knew.”

“Do you know why I came back here?”

She finally looked up, lifting her sweet face to gaze into mine. “For me?”

“Damned right. I’m shorthanded. I need a new deckhand. Are you up for it?”

Rose smiled slowly. “This time, I am. It was all too much of a shock for me when we first met.”

“I’m going to be sick,” Sosa said suddenly. She turned and left us, shoulders hunched and head lowered.

Rose looked after her, noticing Sosa for the first time. “Who is that?”

“Um… that’s a crewmember. Don’t worry about her. She’s not good around new people. She’ll come around.”

Despite my lies, Rose stared after Sosa for a long moment.

“What are we going to do now?” she asked me at last.

“We’re going to strip weapons from the patrol ship and send your parents home. Then, we’re going to fly out of here before another patrol ship shows up to blast us out of space.”

“Sounds like a plan… Captain.”

She said this with such a sweet smile that I swept her up and kissed her. She responded, but pulled away quickly.

“That woman… Sosa,” she said. “You recruited her the same way you recruited me, didn’t you?”

“No. Not at all.”

I began to describe the entirely different set of circumstances under which Sosa and I had met while we worked on the patrol ship. Rose was suitably horrified.

“She killed whole crews of men? Men she’d served with?”

“Only one such crew. She told me they’d abused her.”

“What if she’s lying, William? Did you ever think of that?”

I frowned slightly. “The proof of her loyalty is in her actions. She could have fried Jort and I today—but she didn’t.”

Rose shook her head, astounded that I could be so trusting of such a person. She might be right, but then again she might be wrong. I considered myself to be a fairly good judge of character. Sosa was a surly, rough individual. But she was loyal to me because I’d freed her from Kersen’s parasite, among other things.

After that, we all went to work plundering the patrol ship. The main item I wanted to steal was the hardest one to remove. It was a belly-mounted gun turret and targeting system. This gun was different from any other weapon on the ship. It was a close-range anti-personnel unit.

In the overall scheme of things, it was a minor weapon aboard the patrol boat. It had a short range with a high rate of fire, using kinetic projectiles in rapid bursts. It was pretty much useless in space battles—but that wasn’t what I wanted it for. It was designed to deal with rebel troops around the ship while it was grounded.

Carrying the weapon aboard around two hours later, Jort and I grunted with the effort. I didn’t have time to mount it. Disconnecting it and hauling it into the cargo bay, that was as much as we could do.

In the meantime, the model-Q yacht captain had castoff and flown away with Rose’s parents. Several mournful messages, mixed with threats and invective, came into the ship’s general console. I ignored them all.

“Hand me that power-spanner, will you?”

Rose handed me the buzzing tool, and I applied it to secure a bolt on the stolen gun mount. I didn’t want it flying around loose back here.

“William?” she asked. “My parents are really upset. They’re sending me awful messages about you.”

I sighed and wiped my forehead. “You want to take another ride in a survival pod back to Prospero? Again?”

She looked at me, and she shook her head. Her eyes were glistening with tears.

“You’re sure? It’s okay if you don’t want to come. But this is the last time you’ll see me alive.”

“No…” she said stubbornly. “I’ll go with you. These last few months—they’ve been unbearably dull. Already, you’ve brought more excitement into my life than I’ve ever experienced.”

Deciding to take her word for it, I smiled and went back to work. She sniffled now and then, but she didn’t complain. She kept on working.

Her soft hands were soon red and lightly torn up by the metal flanges. I put gloves on her, and she began working like a crewman.

Sosa came out from hiding at that point and began sternly securing things for the trip. The androids were all wrecked, so we dumped them in the patrol ship. There were some other things we could use, like ammo, fuel and other supplies.

We took everything we could use and then cast the patrol ship adrift. A chill went through me as I looked outside into space, watching the dead ship drift away.

We were officially guilty of piracy now. There could be no denying it.

We ran from the Prospero system with a few patrol boats in our distant wake. They were fast—but nothing like my ship.

Royal Fortune was built to slip away from military ships that were built to doggedly pursue. We outran them, leaving the system using normal space routes. It was a good thing we’d drained a full tank of fuel from the patrol ship. Without that, I’d have been unable to apply the full thrust of my twin terawatt-rated engines.

As it was, we accelerated at twice the rate the patrol boats could muster. That didn’t stop them from throwing a long stream of complaints, threats and admonishments over the radio.

“Why are we on this course?” Jort complained after the first hour.

“Are we still inside their scanner range?” I asked.

“Yes, of course.”

I nodded. “Then you have your answer.”

Jort appeared baffled. “But we’re heading toward the nearest Conclave world, Dinari. That’s crazy!”

Sosa growled at him. “That high-gravity planet of yours filled your head with muscle instead of brains,” she said. “Captain Gorman will change course the minute we’re out of range of the patrol boat sensors. Then, since they are stupid robots, they’ll chase us to Dinari—the one place we’ll never go to next.”

Jort looked at me with upraised eyebrows. I nodded to confirm. Sosa had the plan all figured out.

We relaxed then, except for Rose. She wasn’t entirely comfortable aboard Royal Fortune—not yet. I couldn’t have expected her to be. She wasn’t anything like the rest of my crew. She was soft from having led a life of privilege. I hoped she would fit in over time.

I got up and walked her around the ship, giving her the ten-credit tour. She seemed numbed by the whole experience.

“Here, check this one out,” I spun a creaking wheel and threw open a small door. Inside, a dark cabin glowed into life, sensing our presence and turning on the lights. “It’s a little musty, but no one has used it since we started this voyage. It’s all yours.”

She stepped inside and looked around. The cabin had a low ceiling, like most of them. It was little more than three bunks stacked against one wall and a small desk against the other.

“Three beds?” she asked.

“Yes, but don’t worry. This ship is a corvette, rated to carry a crew of thirty-odd souls. Since there are only four of us aboard, we’ve got plenty of room.”

“Okay… good. But, I kind of thought…”

Rose looked shy, studying the deck. She sat on the lowest bunk of the three and didn’t meet my eye.

“Thought what?”

“I kind of thought I might stay with you,” she said in a small voice. “In your cabin.”

I smiled. “There’s nothing to keep you from visiting. But I’ve always found it’s good for crewmembers to have a place to call their own. Don’t you think you’d like that?”

She nodded, still studying the deck.

I sat next to her. I felt a twinge of guilt. She was innocent in relative terms. I was used to associating with the roughest of crowds.

“You’re going to be all right?” I asked.

“Yes. You don’t have to baby me.”

My immediate thought was that I was babying her already, but I’m sure it didn’t seem that way to her. From her point of view, she’d jumped into a den of snarling wolves.

I assigned her to work a shift with Jort. It was a relief, really, to have an extra crewman—even someone as green as Rose. Aboard any ship, it was a good idea to have someone awake on watch at all times. With Rose, we could do that much more easily, taking shorter shifts and longer breaks.

After we left the complaining patrol boats behind and changed course toward Ceti, I retired to my cabin. I left the door unlocked, but no one came to visit me.

I fell asleep wondering if I’d made a mistake not placing Rose in my cabin, as she’d suggested. Sosa had shown a distinct lack of interest in me for some time now. Perhaps instead of gaining a new partner, I’d lost them both.

Never being a man who dwelled much on such things, I stretched out on my bunk and slept soundly. At least I had peace and quiet.




Chapter Thirty-Six

The ship’s klaxon went off some hours later. I groaned awake, wondering if Rose had committed some fateful error and endangered the ship. Sosa had been grumbling about such a possibility from the moment she’d met the girl.

Rolling out of my bunk, I was shocked to find the motion carried me all the way over the deck, still rolling, to crash into the opposing bulkhead.

Lurching to my feet, I reached out and touched the walls. The lights glowed brighter.

The ship was changing course—violently.

Grunting with effort, I dragged myself toward the bridge using the loops and rings that were cunningly placed all over the ship’s passages. The vessel was designed to fly inverted, with gravity or centrifugal force tugging at the crew in any imaginable direction.

“Jort!” I called out, knowing it was his watch. “What the hell are you doing?”

“We’ve got company, Captain!” he called back over the comm system. “Two unknown contacts approaching from the direction of Ceti.”

From Ceti? That could only mean one thing: Kersen knew of our plans somehow and was trying to intercept us. Either that, or it was random chance. I didn’t like betting on chance, so I figured we were in trouble.

“Are they firing on us, Jort?”

“Not yet, but we’re still out of range. We’re closing the distance head-on with them right now.”

In space, you don’t just stop and turn around at an instant’s notice when you’re traveling fast. Spacecraft traveled great distances by building up tremendous speed. Once that speed was built up, slowing down or changing course took just as much effort and time. Like a ground car that’s gliding along a highway, our ship had inertia. Steering sharply to either side required a lot of braking and gut-wrenching forces would be exerted on the crew.

Rushing to our stations, we began the process of steering clear of the approaching ships. Rose came near and strapped into the copilot’s chair. I let her since there were plenty of consoles available. Sosa was down in engineering, so I kicked Jort to the sensor array station when I took the pilot’s chair.

“Keep an eye on them, Jort. If they get within range of our guns…”

“I’ll be ready!”

Rose turned to me. Her face was full of concern. “What if they’re just some random travelers like us? Merchants from Ceti? Are you really going to shoot at them without knowing who they are?”

I glanced at her. “In space, seconds can count. If we fire first, they’ll die—not us.”

“But you don’t know who they are!”

“We’ll know soon. Don’t worry.”

She was clearly worrying quite a bit, so I made a further effort to explain.

“Space is big. Really big. The odds that this pair of ships heading toward us is out here by accident are fantastically low.”

“How could they know our course? How could they know where to find us?”

I shrugged. “Maybe the patrol ships saw our course change before they lost us. If they sent a messenger drone to Ceti through the slip-gates, Kersen could have learned when and where we were.”

“But ships fly back and forth between these worlds all the time.”

Sosa stepped onto the bridge, and she put her hands on her shapely hips. She looked a bit disgusted. “Grow up, kid” she told Rose. “Most ships use the slip-gates. The odds are a trillion to one these ships are out here for something other than to find us.”

Rose shut up after that, but she still looked worried.

“Jort, are the torpedoes ready to fire?” I asked him.

“They should be.”

“Go check.”

Excitedly, Jort climbed out of the sensor op chair and rushed away to the weapons pods.

“Sosa, man the sensor station.”

With a final appraising glance at Rose—I knew Sosa wanted to sit in the copilot’s seat—she took her station and worked the instruments.

“They’re converging slightly,” she said. “On us.”

“Right… two ships sent to scan for us. There might even be more of them out there, looking for us along this course line, but outside our range to detect.”

“Stands to reason,” Sosa agreed.

Rose gritted her teeth and fretted. She was uncertain about what to do. I had no useful role for her, as she’d never been trained on ship controls.

Finally, I sighed. “Rose, go man the aft neutrino cannon.”

“The one at the back of the ship?”

“Yes. Go.”

She raced away, and Sosa snorted rudely. “You’ve got a bright one there, Gorman. I hope she’s hotter in bed than she is on the bridge.”

“No you don’t.”

Sosa cast me a dark glance then went back to her instruments. “We’re coming into extreme weapons range.”

“Hold your fire.”

“Are we doing this or not, Captain?”

We looked at each other again.

The truth was, I wasn’t sure how to play it. Rose was right, I had no definitive proof as to who these ships were. I might just fire and destroy them both, learning only later they were full of university students on a field trip to study far-space objects. It was a tough choice to make.

“Contact the lead ship. Request their identification.”

“No!” Jort shouted from below decks. He must have been listening to our comm channel. “Madness!”

I glanced at Sosa. “Do it.”

She lit up the comm box and transmitted the request. It was all automatic, computer-to-computer.  We normally kept our ID box off, unless we were changing the registry or arriving at a civilized world.

“No response,” Sosa said a long minute later.

“You can’t just fire on them,” Rose said over the comm system. She was wearing a headset in the neutrino cannon cupola by now and watching the situation play out on her screens.

“I can and will defend this ship.”

“I could just use this neutrino cannon—to disable them.”

I shook my head. “We’re too far out. You’re there in case they close the distance. We can’t aim a particle stream that precisely at this range. The neutrinos will spread too wide and become ineffectual. All we’d do is warn them.”

Sosa displayed upraised eyebrows. “Are you giving the order or not?”

I nodded. “Jort, fire on the lead ship.”

Almost immediately, the ship shuddered. He must have had his finger hovering over the touch point on his console.

“Torpedo one away!” he said happily.

“That’s it then,” Rose said. “We’re going to die.”

“Second ship in range…” Sosa said. “They’re firing… Both ships are firing.”

“Firing what?”

Sosa looked at me, her face was pale. “Torpedoes. One each from each ship—they’re exactly like ours.”

I nodded. Patrol ships didn’t carry torpedoes. These vessels must be working for Kersen after all.

“Jort, fire on the second ship. Just one torpedo—fire!”

Royal Fortune shuddered again.

The incoming torpedoes were seven minutes out—ours would strike within seconds of that time as well.

“Hang on everyone,” I said. “We’re going to do some hard Gs.”

With that simple warning, I tripled the thrust, using side-jets on full to steer us away from the oncoming torpedoes. I didn’t have much hope that the ploy would work.

The problem was mathematical. We were in a small, unarmored ship. Any serious strike would take us out. Hell, a golf ball could destroy us through kinetic force alone if it nailed us squarely.

We were turning, our guts wrenching, but if either of the enemy torpedoes struck home, we’d be dead in a nanosecond.

“Contact the lead ship!” I ordered, shouting over the roar of the engines.

“Trying,” Sosa answered.

“They didn’t respond last time,” Rose said. “Why would they now?”

“Because they’re as dead as we are if these torpedoes land.”

A few moments passed, then the boards lit up. A head wearing an unhappy expression flashed into being and hovered over my central console. I recognized that face after a moment—it was Moreau, Kersen’s other symbiotic servant that had worked with Sosa on the space station.

“Gorman? You madman, you’re going to kill us all!”

“Not if you disable your torpedoes, Moreau.”

“I won’t do it first. Trickery will only get you so far.”

I glanced at the clocks. “Six minutes. You’ve got two on me, if you disable one, I’ll disable one of mine. It’s up to you.”

“Kersen is very displeased. You’ve been out here running around various worlds without a care, without any attempt to report your whereabouts. You’ve gone rogue.”

“Five minutes thirty seconds. There’s some lag time on disabling these things, Moreau. I wouldn’t cut it too close.”

Moreau showed me his teeth. I got the feeling he didn’t like me. Then, his face changed. His eyelids fluttered, and he groaned in agony, shrinking into himself.

“His rider is unhappy,” Sosa said quietly. “It’s poking at his nerves.”

“All right, I’m disabling my torpedo,” he gasped. “Now, destroy yours!”

We watched. By the five-minute mark, the first torpedo heading toward us disintegrated, having gotten a command to do so from the firing ship.

“Destroy the second one we fired,” I ordered Jort.

He did so, and the face on the screen turned a shocked look toward me. “You destroyed the wrong one!”

“On the contrary. If you don’t disable your second torpedo, your ship will be a puff of gas in… four minutes, twenty seconds.”

There was some more cursing and shivering with internal pains. I was impressed that Moreau could control his Tulk so well. Back on Baden, the men had been completely consumed. As you got used to your rider, Sosa had explained, you could resist it to a greater degree. Moreau had apparently been getting a better handle on his parasite since the last time we crossed paths.

But the Tulk in his gut still exerted dominance. It did not want to die. It wanted nothing more than to live.

The second incoming torpedo was destroyed. We all breathed a sigh of relief.

“Gorman!” Moreau shouted at me. “Send the signal! Get this thing off me!”

“Don’t do it, Captain!” Jort said in my ear. “We can be rid of one ship. There won’t be time for them to get off another shot. We’ll pass one another, and escape cleanly.”

Sosa looked at me. She nodded grimly. “Kill him now. You know he’s out here for the bounty. You’ll only be forced to do it later if you don’t do it right now.”

For a long ten seconds, I considered. Moreau called my mother every name he could think of during that time, then fell to pleading and offering me great wealth.

“Destroy torpedo two,” I ordered Jort.

“Fuck!” Jort shouted. “Dumb move! Stupid move!” But he did as I’d ordered.

Moreau stared at me, his face pale. He was bathed in sweat. I wasn’t sure if the Tulk in his body had done that, or simple fear.

“Thanks, Gorman. I owe you one.”

“You owe me nothing,” I said. “A deal is a deal.”

He nodded, and the console went dark.

I turned toward Sosa. “Let’s get out of here.”

We straightened out our course and applied maximum thrust. It made us lightheaded and caused our faces to contort, but it was a relief of sorts. We soon flashed past the two ships and headed on toward Ceti, leaving them to turn around and chase after us.

“They’ll be hours late by the time we reach Ceti.”

“Two less to worry about,” I said, taking a swig of water and lighting up a stim.

Sosa wrinkled her nose. “Those things foul the air filters, you know.”

I shrugged without looking at her. Sometimes, a captain’s small pleasures were more important than the fussy concerns of others.

Sosa left the deck. Rose slid into the seat next to mine soon afterward.

“That was well played. I thought we were dead, but you got out of it. You always get out of deadly situations, don’t you?”

Laughing, I shook my head. “I’m a clone, remember? At least one time the old Gorman didn’t see it coming.”

Rose’s face clouded, and she looked after Sosa. “I bet she did it. She claims she didn’t—but it was probably her.”

“Could be.”

Rose got up, looking a little shy. She slid her butt onto my knee and looked at me. I looked back at her, frankly.

“Can I have some of that?” she asked.

“Oh…”

I gave her my stim-stick, and she took a long pull on it. The tip glowed orange and she coughed.

“That’s good…” she said. “You can’t get these things on Prospero most of the time, you know.”

I nodded. She was still sitting on my knee, and my mind was beginning to get ideas. After all, Sosa had been cold toward me for over a week. She’d probably been upset about the very scenario that was playing out right now, but I couldn’t help but think she’d misplayed her cards if she’d been trying to prevent it.

Internally, I knew what had turned on Rose. The nearness of death. The role I’d played in her survival. These things never failed to stir strong emotions in the people who lived through them.

She kissed me finally, and I let her. I kissed her back. After a few moments of this, she broke away. I was left sucking in deep breaths.

Rose vanished below decks, and it was only then that I realized she’d stolen my stim-stick.

“Damn…” I said to no one.




Chapter Thirty-Seven

Clearly, Kersen knew we were coming. Accordingly, I decided that flying directly to Ceti was out of the question and took a detour. I set course for the region known as “the Sword Worlds”.

This lonely string of nine stars, each with habitable planets, was outside of the ultra-civilized Conclave. The inhabitants of the Sword Worlds were aggressive and independent, yet still organized.

Historically, a few hundred million separatists had colonized the Sword Worlds about a century ago. They’d rejected the highly restrictive society of the Conclave. In direct defiance to the social sameness of planets like Prospero, they’d invented their own feudal society that was based on cunning and merit rather than one’s station at birth. Their system of government involved every individual swearing allegiance to a lord, each of whom was struggling with the rest to climb their social ladder.

The result was a dynamic and violent society. The people of the Conclave often said they’d chosen to regress, rather than progress.

Regardless of politics, the Sword Worlders sometimes fought among themselves, but they usually raided less fortunate planets instead. Their lesser nobles made their fortunes by raiding, while others took a more legitimate approach and served as mercenaries. Sometimes a struggling colonial government out on the fringe would find it necessary to hire mercenaries from one Sword World to fight off invaders from another.

Whatever the situation, the Sword World nobles always profited. Those who became the most wealthy and infamous rose in rank when someone higher up the line expired.

“The Sword Worlds?” Sosa asked after examining my course change. “Are you crazy?”

“That’s no way to talk to your captain,” Rose admonished her.

Sosa turned a baleful eye toward Rose. The kid didn’t know what she was getting herself into, so I moved to intervene.

“I know they’re dangerous, but if there’s one place that no one will look for us, it’s there.”

“That’s true,” Jort said. “Smart Captain! No Conclave robot or even Kersen would dare fly a ship out there.”

Sosa shook her head, but she didn’t argue further. Several days passed, during which I managed to defuse a few arguments that might have escalated and turned fatal for Rose. That was the normal job of a captain with a crew of riff-raff such as mine.

“Gladius is giving us the green light to approach,” Jort said when we came near the stars.

“Watch out, it could be a trick,” Sosa said immediately.

I didn’t tell her she was wrong—as she might not be.

As we approached Gladius, we watched warily for raiding vessels. Sometimes, the most desperate of the robber-knights would prey on anything that entered their system. Luring in potential merchants was frowned upon, but far from unknown. If a minor noble couldn’t afford the fuel to venture to a richer field, he took what he could find like a jackal feeding on scraps.

Gladius was a large planet, but it was low on water. There was one brackish sea, with a few green forests and plains surrounding it. The rest of the planet was a stark desert. For all of that, it was a pleasant enough place if you had friends there—and I knew the old William Gorman did.

“Hailing Baron Trask of Gladius,” I said, calling over an open channel. I knew all the pirate lords would be listening in. “This is Captain William Gorman. I’ve come to meet old friends and make profitable deals.”

There was no immediate answer. We’d gotten a fast response from their traffic center—but that meant little. One year to the next, different nobles might control various parts of the infrastructure. Without knowing who you were talking to, there was no way to judge how much you could trust them.

“Captain…” Jort said. He was operating the sensor station. “I’m getting contacts.”

“How many?”

“Three gunboats, sir. Each larger than this one.”

I nodded. “Course and speed?”

“They’re turning now… to intercept us. They’re accelerating.”

My small huddle of crewmen looked at me tensely. I faked a smile to inspire confidence.

“If they get too close, we’re in a good position to bolt. We can turn and run.

“Fuel is getting a bit low, sir.”

“I’m well aware, Jort.”

Taking up a headset, I tried again. “This is Captain William Gorman of the Royal Fortune. Baron Trask, please respond.”

The speakers spat out a blast of static. Someone was dialing into our channel. “Stop lying, intruder. William Gorman is dead—it’s common knowledge. Prepare to be destroyed for your insults.”

Feeling a trickle of sweat, I engaged the cameras. I broadcast my image to the ship that had sent the response. It was positioned in the center, leading the other two.

Leaning back in my seat and looking as relaxed as possible, I smiled at the camera. I was careful not to appear mocking, only confident. “Are you sure about that, Trask?”

For nearly a minute, there was no response. During this time, we sailed closer and closer to the trio of ships. I knew that soon I’d have to break and run.

Finally, the console lit up. A three-dimensional hologram flickered above it and glowered at me. The floating head that appeared there was mean-looking. He had the features of a wolf and a beard that was shot with gray now rather than the jet black I remembered.

“This is a trick,” he said. “I don’t like tricks. You should know that, whether you’re the ghost of Gorman or not.”

Baron Trask was a minor noble, but a long-lasting one. He was too rough and undisciplined to be voted up in rank, but no one had yet managed to kill him, so he’d stayed a baron for two decades now. I hadn’t been sure that he’d still be here, haunting the same expanse of space, but I’d been lucky in that regard.

“I’m not a ghost, Trask. I’m Gorman—or to be more precise, I’m Gorman’s clone.”

Trask blinked and considered. “I didn’t know Gorman had a clone.”

I laughed. “Discussing such a secret openly would kind of defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?”

Trask huffed. “You sound like Gorman. You look like Gorman… but you’re too young.”

“Exactly. I was laid down in cold storage a few years ago.”

“Where?”

“Prospero.”

Trask laughed. “That sounds right. Gorman always had a strange attraction to that world full of rabbits. Thick with game for a sharp man, I’m sure.”

Slowly, Rose turned her head to regard me. Was she having second thoughts as to the nature of our relationship? Possibly yes, but I didn’t have time to hold her hand. Not now.

“So, what do you say Trask? Do you have a few minutes to talk to an old friend?”

“Hmm… you’re not exactly William Gorman. But you share his memories and genetics… Do you remember the day you died?”

My heart skipped a beat. Could Trask know such details? I hadn’t expected that. Up to now, only Major Hendricks back on Baden had given me deeper insight as to my death.

“No,” I said as calmly as I could. “I don’t remember any of that. I wasn’t actually there.”

“Of course not…”

“Sir!” Glancing to one side, I saw Jort signaling me. He was waving toward the range-display, which laid out the tactical situation clearly. The three ships were still closing on us, and they weren’t slowing down. They would soon be within weapons’ range.

“Lord Trask,” I said, using the correct honorific men such as him rarely heard from off-worlders. “I’d love to talk to you further, but business presses me. I’m going to have to leave Gladius if you aren’t interested in working with me.”

“You’ve made no proposals!” Trask said, instantly becoming angry. He was a moody man.

“No sir, but you haven’t slowed down your attack approach. You can’t expect me to let your ships come into weapons’ range without a deal. I could take down one of your dented boats—maybe two. But three is too much.”

Trask laughed, switching moods again. “Three is too much, he says! And it’s clear you believe you can outrun my boats if you wish to right now… in fact, you’re confident of this, or you wouldn’t have let me come in so close… All right, then. You seem to be as good a version of Gorman as any I’ve ever met. I give you my protection, my word. Welcome to Gladius. Come down and land at my barony.”

“Land?”

“Yes! I’ll be insulted if you don’t.”

I thought it over. Sure, he could stab me in the back and steal my ship once I landed. But that was unlikely. The nobles of the Sword Worlds had their own sense of honor. They didn’t go back on their word easily.

Then again, he could make up some excuse. He might point out I was an admitted and illegitimate clone. On those grounds, he could claim I was not really his friend, just some doctored-up pile of meat and bone that pretended to be his friend—an abomination. A monster someone else had had the gall to grow in a tank. Killing me could be construed as a public service.

But I had no better options. Sucking in a deep breath, I smiled at Trask and nodded. “Excellent! Let’s meet in person. I have an amazing and lucrative deal in mind, just for you.”

“Eh? A deal… of course you do. Why else would Gorman—or even his copy—come to see Baron Trask? I look forward to hearing your proposal.”

He closed the channel. His leering face no longer gazed at me from the console—and it was something of a relief.

I felt a small hand on my shoulder. Rose was there, standing over me.

“What an awful man,” she said. “He seemed positively evil. How could he be your friend?”

Sosa snorted but said nothing.

“You do understand what I do for a living, right?” I asked Rose. “Baron Trask is just the sort of man I have to deal with to earn hard credits.”

Rose shuddered a little. “I’ve never seen anyone so sinister. I won’t be able to sleep if we land at his house.”

“His barony,” I corrected. “Say it right, or they’ll get offended. We don’t want that.”

Rose nodded in agreement. “Barony, not ‘pirate’s den’ huh? Okay, I’ve got it.”




Chapter Thirty-Eight

Coasting into the atmosphere over Gladius, I couldn’t help but be impressed by the number of anti-space missile launchers that were tracking us automatically. None of them fired at us, but they all perked up, pinging away and plotting our destruction a thousand times a second.

Every barony, duchy and knight’s lair on Gladius was occupied by pirates like Trask. The fertile land around the single sea was encircled by the estates of powerful lords.

The bottom feeders were the individual knight-captains. Anyone who could afford a ship and crew was, by definition, a knight-captain. In order to stay alive, however, they needed to pledge their loyalty to one of the barons. These men led squadrons of ships, like Trask’s modest trio, each owned and operated by a hopeful captain. When the baron died—somehow… one of the captains serving him would in turn become the baron.

These barons had lands, not just ships and vassal captains. Common folk worked these lands, a combination of captive slaves and freemen. When the freemen were recruited, they became either crewmen aboard barony ships, or they served in mercenary units. These ranged from companies of tough bodyguards up to divisions led by vassal knights.

The barons in turn served dukes, then counts above that. There were no kings.  A king was only chosen when the entire world was under attack and all the lords agreed to band together to save themselves. This was a rare, but not unknown, event.

Baron Trask owned a small estate of hills and trees. His plantations were fruitful, but few in number. His ships weren’t much to look at either. But what he was famous for was his ground forces. He maintained over a thousand mercenaries who were some of the best in the cluster.

“Sit down, sit down!” Trask said, offering us black steel chairs. The chairs scraped the stone floors as we pulled them away from the feasting table.

The table was loaded with fine foods. I dug in, while my companion nibbled. I’d only brought Rose with me, leaving Jort and Sosa to man the ship. Rose was learning, but she was still less knowledgeable than a cabin boy. What she did bring to the table was a sense of class and sophistication which I hoped might impress Trask.

Every few seconds, Trask slid his devious eyes from me, to Rose’s fine face, then back again. I could only wonder what he was thinking.

“Good to have you back in my halls, Gorman. Do you remember this place?”

I looked around. It had been years, but I nodded. “Above us, on the top floor, are your apartments. Above that are clusters of anti-air and anti-space turrets, as I recall.”

“Your memory is exact in every detail. Now, tell me of this proposal you wish to make.”

“I want to hire your army. I need to handle a… situation.”

Trask eyed me for a moment. “My army? That doesn’t come cheap.”

“I’ve got a down payment. Six kilos of prime plutonium.”

“Refined?”

“Ninety-eight percent pure.”

“Hmm…” he said, tugging at his shaggy beard for a moment. “That is a good start. But the price depends on the mission. What did you have in mind, exactly?”

I smiled. I had a good feeling already. He must not have had many offers lately in order to be willing to consider mine. After all, it wasn’t in Conclave credits or some other easy form of currency. It was in the form of a base radioactive. Although refined plutonium wasn’t all that rare, it was always useful.

“I want to take out Kersen,” I said, leaning forward and meeting his eye.

“What? Mutiny? He is your benefactor. Your best source of work, Gorman.”

“It wasn’t my idea. It’s a matter of survival.”

“Assassinating a leader is never a path without pitfalls, not even among the Sword World brethren…”

I proceeded to explain the grim truth of working for Kersen. I pointed out that I’d never been paid and was never going to be paid with anything other than an agonizing death. That part struck through to him. As I’d said, the baron and his brothers had their own sense of honor.

“What you describe is despicable. While it is evil and low to assassinate one’s lord, it’s worse for the lord to strike down the vassal without good reason. Wanting to get paid… that is not a good reason!”

“Then, we are in agreement?”

“As to the just nature of the cause, yes. As to the payment, however… it is too little.”

“Right. I figured as much. I’ll give you more: I’ll give you enough prime Sardez rifles to arm your entire force.”

His bushy eyebrows shot up. “You have so many rifles? Of such quality?”

I’d brought one with me, and I handed it over. He inspected it, trying to keep the greed from his face.

“They are nice weapons… but you realize I have over twelve hundred men, correct? That means I would need fifteen hundred weapons to arm them all.”

“Why? Are some of them going to carry one in each hand?”

He laughed at my joke. “No, no, but some may malfunction. Possibly, I’ll need a few to trade or give away to prove their value when making a sale of my services.”

My face wrinkled up in disgust. “I don’t plan to provide you with free samples to distribute, Trask.”

“Fifteen hundred rifles and you have a deal.”

I pretended to think it over. Now was the time for my big ask—the one I’d been waiting to make.

“Baron Trask, you can keep that one rifle as a gift. But, in order to arm all of your men, I will have to make a long and difficult run.”

“Ah… I see clearly now! You don’t have the rifles! You hand me one you purchased at a bazaar somewhere, then think to dazzle me with talk of thousands more. I can’t deal in possibilities, Gorman. I need weapons to arm my troops.”

“Your men have electric lashes and shredders, don’t they? That’s an excellent combination when you don’t want to puncture the hull of a ship.”

He looked at me with hooded eyes. “You describe the weapons of policemen and vagabonds. I know these are sufficient when invading enemy vessels, but with Sardez rifles… we could invade planets!”

“Yes. Or you could blast down fortress walls on some lonely moon. You could forcibly enter docking stations and seize them.”

Baron Trask had the yellow light of greed in his eyes now. It was unmistakable.

“All right. I will take your paltry box of plutonium, and I will serve you. If however, clone of Gorman, you are playing me false, I will flay the false meat from your thick bones.”

“Agreed,” I said, reaching out to shake his hand.

He took my hand and clasped it firmly. A fateful deal had been struck.




Chapter Thirty-Nine

When we lifted off and reached orbit, every launcher on Gladius tracked us again, with shivering excitement. The missile batteries on this world had a very short fuse. They were ready to fire at the slightest provocation. The missile batteries only followed Royal Fortune, I noted, ignoring the Baron’s three ships that trailed us.

In the bellies of each of Trask’s ships were four hundred cramped, complaining men. I knew they would be eager to get off these vessels to fight—even if it meant some of them would die in the effort. That had been the lot of every mercenary marine since time began.

We flew through the cold heart of space for a week. I couldn’t use the full power of Royal Fortune without leaving the others in my wake. It felt like time was crawling—but at least it was moving toward an endpoint.

“Gorman,” Baron Trask hailed me from his flagship on the eighth day, “I must come aboard your ship and lay our plans out carefully. I happen to have detailed schematics of the space station we’re approaching at Ceti.”

“You’re always welcome here, Baron,” I said, and I maneuvered my ship to dock with his.

“Captain,” Jort hissed at me. “They’re making their move! This is it!”

Jort reminded me of a watchdog at times. He suspected every visitor of foul intentions. He sounded the alarm whenever a stranger dared come near. Possibly, he would prove to be right this time, but there was little that could be done about it.

“Jort, go down and welcome Baron Trask at the airlock. I’ll wait in the conference room.”

Shaking his head, he went to the lower decks to throw open the hatches. Sosa chose this moment to file her complaints as well.

“Jort might be right. This Trask fellow—why can’t he plan with our linked networks? Why in person?”

“A man like him likes to read people in person. It’s always easier to lie and conceal when you’re using an electronic means of communication.”

She left me as well, seeming no more satisfied with my answers than Jort had been.

I didn’t care what my crew thought. I needed Trask and his men. Everyone had been urging me to run out on the sword-brothers. I could easily use a startling burst of power from Royal Fortune’s thrumming engines to flee—but I had no such plans. I had to settle things with Kersen now, or he would eventually settle them with me. His reach was too great to simply run off and ignore him. I would have to keep running forever.

Baron Trask came to my ship without guards or lieutenants. This was an encouraging sign. If he’d been paranoid or in a murderous mood, he’d probably have brought a trusted bodyguard at least. As it was, he sat across my conference table and gave me an appraising glance.

“You know, it’s quite roomy here aboard your ship, Gorman.”

“Thank you, lord. My crew is under-manned.”

“Perhaps I can sell you a few good mates after this adventure is over.”

I nodded, but privately I wasn’t interested. I didn’t want a surly, indentured man aboard my ship. I might take a freeman from Gladius—just possibly—but I didn’t want any slaves. They’d probably spy on me and seek to take the ship for themselves.

“Let’s plan, then,” he said.

We spent hours studying the diagrams, and we soon came to a simple realization.

“Once we get aboard, the mission is almost certain to succeed,” Trask concluded. “The trick will be reaching the station and docking with her while our enemy sleeps.”

“I agree. We have to trick our way in. The station has too many cannons to overcome by shelling them to death.”

“No! There will be no indiscriminate destruction of my prize!”

Baron Trask had big plans. He didn’t just want to kill Kersen—if he’d wanted to do that, he could have brought a hundred mercenaries and succeeded—no, he wanted to plunder the entire station. This was the main reason he’d decided to come along on this bold raid. It wasn’t just the payment I offered, it was the loot he planned to gain.

I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about being a party to such an attack. After all, I was a gun runner, not a pirate. But it was too late now. Trask was eager and his eyes were filled with the yellow gleam of greed. He couldn’t be dissuaded from this course.

“We can’t simply fly in with four ships,” he said, “all bearing the flag of the Sword Worlds, without people noticing.”

“Agreed. Here’s what I suggest: one of your ships will pretend to be a smuggler and head to the surface. Dock on the ground, at the umbilical loading station. From there, you’ll have to take the ground station and ride up on the elevator.”

Trask snorted. “What’s to stop them from severing the cable to the planet while we’re riding up the elevator?”

“Vast losses of profit, for one thing. The umbilical cost nearly as much to construct as the station itself. I think they’re rather be robbed and killed than destroy it.”

“Hmm… You might not be as confident when the raid begins. Men will do wild things when they believe they’re facing death and unfair treatment.”

I nodded, but we couldn’t think of a better approach, so we adopted the plan.

“The second ship will have the hardest job,” Trask continued. “The pilot will have to be devious, claiming to be a small, battered freighter.”

“You’ll have to paint out that emblem on the side of all your vessels. That broadsword that first pierces a skull then rams down through the crust of a planet—it’s not heartening.”

“Don’t worry,” he said. “This isn’t our first attempt at subterfuge. We have nano-fabric coverings that will slide over the offending flag of my people. They will not know they are doomed until it is too late.”

We ran simulations with timers. The first ship would fly low, like a simple smuggler. Evading patrol boats it would land near the umbilical station then fly away, distracting the patrolmen into a pursuit. The invading troops, in the meantime, would attack.

The second ship to move would be mine. I was to approach and discuss matters with traffic control. Undoubtedly, patrolmen in Kersen’s employ would come out to demand a search and seizure. It would be during that search that Sosa was supposed to release radiation and hide.

The real purpose of these negotiations was one of distraction. While I was talking to Kersen, another ship would come to dock, claiming to be a simple trader. At the same time, the mercenary regiment would be riding up the elevator from the planet.

The last ship was insurance. If all else failed, or if two regiments of pirates weren’t enough, the third ship would approach. Hopefully, we’d have managed to disable the station’s cannons by then, as they were sure to fire at this point.

Twelve hundred men against a well-armed station. It was going to be a fight, but we should win, even if one of the participating ships was blown from the sky.

“I know my part,” I said at last. “On which deck will you stand?”

Baron Trask snorted loudly. “On the third ship, of course. The one that stands out in space, waiting for the signal that the cannons have been disabled.”

“You’re a brave man,” I remarked.

Trask flashed his eyes at me angrily, he had not missed the jibe.

“Says the clone of a brave man—who’s dead. I’m still alive, aren’t I? That’s quite a feat after two decades of piracy and warfare.”

I nodded, unable to argue his point.




Chapter Forty

At the start, everything went as smoothly as possible. The baron’s first ship flew low, coming in from the far side of the planet. Her captain was Astrid, the only female knight in the Baron’s army.

Astrid’s ship slid under most of the Ceti sensor net, weaving between the kilometer-high trees that dominated the planet’s wilderness. When the attacking ship got too close to the ground station, it was detected and threatened with cannons. Immediately, the knight-captain landed and deposited her troops. Before the patrol ships could reach the spot, she lifted off again and ran.

A few canons fired after Astrid, and two patrol ships rose to greet her in orbit, but she refused to engage and led them on a wild chase. It was all part of the plan.

In the meantime, my own ship approached, and I demanded to talk to Kersen. The station deployed patrol ships, but they didn’t move to intercept. After all, they knew how fast my ship was. They couldn’t hope to catch me unless I came closer. By the same token, they didn’t want to fire on us because they wanted my ship and the money I was supposedly bringing home to Kersen.

“That’s right,” I said, “I have full payment. The people of Baden were quite generous. Sixteen kilos of plutonium, their finest grade, is in my hold among other things.”

Kersen regarded me with a mixture of suspicion and curiosity. “Why didn’t you submit to arrest and seizure when you met with my ships out in open space, Gorman?”

I laughed. “As far as I knew, Moreau was just another thief,” I told him. “Here, under the naked cameras of Ceti’s trading post, I feel far safer.”

Kersen’s eyes roamed the bridge around me. They landed on Sosa and lingered there.

“Hmmm…” he said. “Very well, here are your orders: You will approach at a calm speed, dock, and allow the ship to be boarded and unloaded. If all is as you say, I’ll be very pleased. I’ll give you another contract—and this time, I’ll pay you handsomely, Gorman.”

Smiling broadly, I accepted his offer. Anyone watching the two of us would have thought we were the best of friends, anxious to meet and greet—but nothing could have been further from the truth. Each of us was trying to fool the other.

I let Royal Fortune glide close to the base. The station’s cannons tracked me, but they didn’t fire. It was as I’d hoped, Kersen wanted me to return his ship without a scratch on her.

Sosa, in the meantime, came onto the bridge and clawed at her side. “I swear, some filament left from that Tulk remains inside me. It’s itching—like it wants me to do it’s bidding still.”

I looked at her in concern. “Is such a thing possible?”

“I don’t know… maybe you didn’t kill all of it. Maybe some of the nerve endings are still entwined with mine.”

“What could have awakened it?”

Sosa looked at the dark holoplate. “It stirred when Kersen came into view. Perhaps it knows its master.”

“Can you control yourself?” I asked quietly.

“Yes, of course. The Tulk is dead. It’s only bothering me slightly.”

Taking her at her word, I noticed the baron’s second ship was now attempting to dock. The captain was boasting of excellent trade goods at bargain prices. After a brief interview, the ship was allowed to approach the station. The sword-brothers would be met at the dock by a dozen guardsmen, of course, but Trask’s men would overwhelm them.

After what felt like an endless period of time, I nosed the ship up to the docking tubes. I was purposefully moving in a very slow, methodical manner. When we docked at last, we sat there, silent.

“Release the radioactive gas,” I whispered over the com-link.

Sosa and Jort did as I requested, allowing radiation to seep out of our ship’s exhaust port into the docking chamber. In the meantime, I switched off most of the ship’s systems and let her sit quietly, inert.

The plan was to play dead. It had to look like our ship had been bathed in radiation. With any luck, Kersen would assume Sosa had followed his orders and filled the ship with deadly gas the moment we landed.

After ninety tense seconds, a signal came in. The workers wanted entry. We ignored this, arming ourselves and turning the lights low.

“They don’t know Sosa’s Tulk is gone, so they’ll expect us to be dead,” I told Jort and Rose. “Hold your shredders up. When they force open the hatch, don’t hesitate.”

Rose gave a shiver, but she held her gun with both her small, bloodless hands. I’d become a good judge of people under pressure. It was part of every starship captain’s job to do so. I figured Rose would fire her gun, not just huddle and whimper behind a console. She probably wouldn’t hit anything, mind you, but she’d fire all the same. That was good enough for her first battle.

The hatch was overridden, and it screeched open. It swung wide with a resounding clang.

The interior of our ship was steamy. We’d simulated a release of gas from the cooling jackets. The intruders seemed to have been fooled. They were wearing hazmat suits and respirators.

They didn’t call out to us. They didn’t ask what was wrong, or even shout my name. Instead, they sent in two model-Ks armed with shredders.

This was too much for me and my crew. I’d hoped Kersen himself would come aboard, but I could see now that wasn’t going to happen. We didn’t have any more time to lose. All four of us let loose a hail of bullets. Our shredders rattled and lit the dark interior of the ship with blazing gunfire.

One model-K fell, then the other went down thrashing. They never even got a chance to give us any artificial advice about surrendering, or to list our various violations. We kept hammering their plastic and metal carcasses until they stopped moving. When they were left steaming and torn up on the deck, we stepped forward and looked out onto the docking area.

There, we saw humans. These men worked for Kersen, and Moreau was in the lead. He looked shocked.

“You won’t get away with this, Gorman!” Moreau shouted.

In answer, we exchanged fire. Everyone on both sides ducked behind something solid. Although bullets spanged and clattered, no one was hit. Shredders were designed not to penetrate a ship’s metal hull, and any substantial cover gave us protection.

Moreau retreated while we were reloading. Jort jumped up and leapt through the hatch, but I dragged him back.

“No! Let them go. That’s why we hired twelve hundred mercenaries, remember?”

Jort was breathing hard. He wanted to fight, but he nodded and came back into the safety of the ship.

“What do we do now, Captain?”

“We wait. We listen… When Trask gives the signal that the invasion is a success, we’ll walk out of here safely.”

My crew agreed. Only Jort seemed upset. We clanged the hatch closed again and leaned against it, breathing hard and listening intently.

In the distance, we could hear the sounds of gunfire and struggle. Sirens blared intermittently.

Trask was storming the station.




Chapter Forty-One

“There is a problem, Gorman…” Baron Trask said via encrypted radio a few minutes later.

Grabbing up the transmitter, I keyed it on and spoke to Trask. “What problem?”

“Astrid’s force coming up the umbilical has stalled. The enemy has shut down the machinery.”

“And the second regiment? Have they taken the sun-side docks like they were supposed to?”

“For the most part, yes. They too have bogged down, however. They’re unable to penetrate deeper into the station. Patrol ships are converging from every direction now, bringing reinforcements. Hundreds of android troops will be pushing us back soon.”

“Us?” I said, with a hint of bitterness. “I’m here inside the station, Trask. So are two of your three regiments. Why don’t you bring in the reserves? Land your personal ship and invade. They can’t stop attacks coming from every direction at once.”

“That leads us to the third problem. I can’t dock my personal ship. If I were to do so, their defensive cannons would destroy me before I got within a thousand kilometers. Even now they quiver and track my every movement.”

I bared my teeth in frustration and rubbed my face so hard it hurt. “All right. We’ll move in. With all the distractions, they might have forgotten about us.”

“An excellent suggestion. I would hate to lose two thirds of my men, plus a ship. Fix this problem somehow, and I will be in your debt.”

Trask closed the channel, and I was left shaking my head. I’d hired him to do the dangerous part. He was the mercenary, not me.

I stared out the portholes. “Someone once said that if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.”

“Wise words,” Jort said. “What are we going to do?”

“We’re going to open our hatch and sneak into the station. Everyone will be focused on Trask’s forces, not us. We’ll disable the cannons or get the umbilical elevator working again, whichever is easier.”

Jort’s face fell. “I withdraw my previous praise. Your new idea is foolish.”

I slapped his chest as I moved toward the hatch. “Come on. Lever this open.”

As the model-Ks had torn up the lock when they’d forced it open, we had to do some prying to get it to swing wide again. When it finally did, it flew clear with a loud clang.

We cursed and ducked out of sight. After waiting and listening to our own breathing for a few minutes, I crept out to have a look around.

The docking bay was full of icy vapors. It was as quiet as a tomb.

“Kersen has withdrawn his forces. He must have realized that Trask is the greater threat. Come on.”

My crew followed me. Jort and I carried Sardez rifles. Rose followed us with a shredder, and Sosa brought up the rear with an electric lash in her hand.

When we came to the end of the docking tube—the spot where it conjoined with the docking hub— we saw movement and heard voices on a radio ahead.

We crouched together in a shadowy area full of spare equipment and tools. “Sosa,” I whispered. “You’ve got the only silent weapon. Take the guard out.”

“Me?”

“He’s distracted, listening to the combat reports. He’s pacing back and forth, not paying attention.”

“So? Blast him down. You can do it from here with that fancy rifle.”

“Yes, but if we blast him, it’s going to make a lot of noise and punch a hole in these thin walls.”

Sosa grimaced, but then she nodded. She crept forward.

There was a heart stopping moment when she got close. The pacing man halted and turned in surprise. Perhaps it was the simple fact Sosa was a thin woman that made him pause. He had a shredder, and he could have easily whipped it around and gunned her down.

Fortunately, he was one of Kersen’s men, and he recognized her.

“Sosa? Finally! Is it done?”

“Not quite,” she said, and she took two steps closer.

Her whip snapped and flashed into life. She wrapped it around his gun-hand, and he dropped the shredder. It went off, stuttering out a dozen rounds.

She lashed the man again and again. He was struck around the neck, the gut, the balls. He crumbled into a groaning heap.

“She is vicious!” Rose whispered to me.

I shrugged. “The man’s still alive. He’s lucky.”

We rushed out and left the guard curled up on the deck. I took only enough time to grab his shredder and hand it to Sosa. I had a feeling an electric whip wouldn’t handle every fight that came our way today.

Sosa took the shredder and trotted next to me. “Now do you trust me?” she asked. “That was Kersen’s man. I took your side, not his.”

“I never doubted you would,” I lied smoothly.

She seemed happy with this response, so we left it at that. Whatever her plans might have been, she was committed to me and my crew now.

Unfortunately, we’d either triggered an alarm or perhaps the gunfire had been heard. A fire team of four androids approached us in a four meter wide passageway.

They were model-Ks, and they marched in a perfect square. Each unit’s left leg rising and falling again to form identical steps. They looked like mirror images of one another.

These guys weren’t guardians—they were soldiers. They were the real deal and spooky to watch in combat. Unlike police units, they wouldn’t give you a chance. They didn’t engage in foolish talk with humans. They didn’t order us to cease and desist.

Instead, the bots attacked immediately, moving forward to kill. I could see they were scripted for small arms combat. When they saw us, they unslung their rifles and advanced. Without any shouted orders or warnings, they went into action, acting as a team. Two took cover, hugging the opposite corners of the next intersection in the passageway. They aimed shredders in our direction. The other two advanced, doubling over and crouching low so the machines behind could fire over them. It was a classic overwatch advancement maneuver.

My team was nowhere near as organized. The only advantage we had was that we were walking with our weapons aimed down the passageway ahead of us. The women released curses and yelps as they fired a stream of rounds with their shredders toward the advancing machines.

Sparks and chips of plastic flew, but none of the bots were stopped. Skittering back and yanking the girls with us, Jort and I retreated to the last intersection and loaded heavy shot into our Sardez rifles.

The weapons had many properties. They were versatile as well as powerful, and I’d made and lost fortunes trading with them. To get full value out of them, you had to be trained in their use. Over the years, I’d become good with them, and I’d taught Jort all I knew.

“Use heavy dispersion shot,” I said.

“I know, I know!”

With shaking hands, we slammed special rounds into our rifles.

“Why didn’t you let us blast them with our shredders?” Sosa demanded from behind me. “We had the drop on them. We could have put them down.”

“These aren’t guardians. They’re soldier units. Armored—very tough.”

“What are we going to do?” Rose asked in a near panic.

“If we don’t take them down in the first blast—you ladies run for it. Got that?”

They nodded, and their eyes were wide. Rose might have been crying. Her cheek was wet—but I didn’t have time for hand-holding now.

“On my mark,” I said quietly to Jort, “…mark!”

He and I shoved our rifles around the corner, putting them into a groove in the wall. We didn’t expose our bodies. Only our hands were out in the open, holding onto the rifle butts.

The enemy shredders began to chatter anyway. The entire passageway lit up and chunks of insulation, plastic molding and the like went flying.

Boom! Boom!

Our two rifles both fired. We were shooting blindly, of course, trusting to the groove in the wall to at least aim the guns in the right general direction. Normally, this attack would be hopeless. The odds we’d hit anything without even looking or aiming were very low.

But the Sardez weapons had been designed for this kind of situation. We’d loaded them to fire dispersing bolts that expanded into a cone of destruction when they exited the muzzle. These blasts were broadly destructive. Within ten meters from the gun barrels, the force would be deadly. Farther away, at a distance of thirty meters, they would only singe the skin and light the hair on fire.

Fortunately, the two advancing robots were close indeed. They took our blasts and were tossed backward like toys.

“Standard rounds—get ready,” I told Jort.

He slammed in a magazine of regular combat ammo, and I did the same.

Periodic bursts of fire now came down the hallway in our direction. The entire passage was full of smoke and dust. We’d blown several centimeters of material off the walls and destroyed all the lighting. A vast dust cloud was expanding, but fortunately, the walls hadn’t been breached. The station was still airtight.

Since the two bots in the rear couldn’t see us, they were taking random shots, firing bursts to keep us ducking. Unfortunately for them, their fire was predictably timed, about two seconds apart between each half-second burst.

“Time it,” I said.

Jort looked scared. “I don’t know—you move, and I’ll move.”

I shook my head. “Just stay there.”

After the next burst, I rolled out into the center of the passage, hugging the deck. I released bolt after bolt, firing by dead-reckoning for the most part.

Two more bursts came my direction before I silenced them. Fortunately, the bots were still firing waist-high. They didn’t shoot for the deck.

When they stopped firing, I did the same. I assumed I’d knocked them out, but it was hard to be sure in the hazy mess.

The passage fell quiet, and Jort reached out a long, powerful arm. He grabbed my belt and yanked me off the floor.

“They could be advancing still, through the dust,” he said.

“Yeah, better to be here than lying on the deck.”

We shut up. For two long minutes we waited, and we listened. Rose started to talk, but I shushed her. For once, she fell instantly silent.

“I hear… a hissing,” Jort said.

Rose nodded, and I realized she’d heard it too. About then, I saw Sosa, on the other side of the intersection. She was leaning back, gasping for breath.

“We’ve breached the walls,” I said. “We’re venting into space—losing pressure. Run!”

Grabbing Sosa, we ran for the nearest sealable bulkhead. On the space station, as on any pressurized craft, every zone could be sealed off from all the others. That way, if there was a leak, the entire structure wouldn’t become airless.

Already, the doors were shutting themselves. A revolving yellow flasher over the airlock left no doubt in our minds. We weren’t wearing full spacesuits, and we were about to be sealed in a zone that was rapidly losing breathable air.




Chapter Forty-Two

When the depressurization began, I could feel the air getting thinner and colder. Instead of a sudden and violent loss of air, it simply began leaking out of our module at a steady pace. That told me the leak was a small one, probably caused by a piece of shrapnel from firing our Sardez rifles inside a sealed environment. Compared to shredders, which were designed to throw a spray of fat, slow-moving lead slugs, Sardez rifles were like cannons. They could tear through the hulls of most spacecraft.

“Run!” I called out. “We’ve got to get out of this module!”

We ran as a group in a random direction. We were on the outer hub of the station, where ships came to dock. I was beginning to wish we’d docked under the station’s belly, the private spot where I’d first boarded Royal Fortune. I’d chosen not to do so in hopes we’d be far from the violent action and Trask’s marines—but that part of the plan hadn’t worked out.

As we fled, we heard the tramping feet of androids advancing behind us. Plumes of steamy vapor were visible every time one of us took a breath. Space isn’t just empty—space is cold. Within a few minutes, we would die of asphyxiation and then freeze solid.

We reached the next bulkhead, but the door had already swung shut. It was heavy metal, and there was no way we were going to get through it.

“These doors,” I said, “they’ll seal automatically when they sense the pressure loss.”

Jort nodded. He was breathing in gasps already. He turned and raised his rifle.

The two surviving androids came around the corner, and Jort shot one down. He’d loaded a regular round into his rifle as he ran. A hole was punched through the android’s chassis, and it pitched backward onto its plastic ass.

The second one began to open up with his shredder. I knew we were as good as dead. We were at a dead end, nowhere to run—so I fired my rifle as well. It was still set for a wide dispersion pattern, and the last of the four model-Ks was knocked off its feet. Jort sighted and fired too, killing it.

But now, we could hear more hissing. It was louder now, and the air was escaping faster. Jort’s shots must have created new holes letting out the last of our precious oxygen into space.

Slapping at Jort, I pointed at the sealed door. We couldn’t talk any longer. Every ounce of breath we had in us had to be saved.

He fired at the lock, and I did the same after I reloaded with penetrating rounds. My fingers were going numb. We shot the lock several times, sending up blasts of dangerous sparks. I knew we were spraying shrapnel, but we were out of options. I felt something strike my shoulder and my cheek—then we fired again. At last, the door swung open.

Dragging ourselves, our rifles, and the girls, we managed to get through the door. We pressed it closed again, and sucked in life-giving air.

“Patch it,” I gasped. “Patch the lock.”

As with most vessels in space, there were handy patch kits for emergencies along the walls. The kits were down low, near the deck. I’d always wondered why they were placed less than a meter from the floor on any module, and now I knew why. It was wisdom.

I crawled weakly as I deployed the patches and slapped them onto the lock in a clumsy, layered fashion.

A few minutes passed. We sat on the deck, mouths wide open, faces turning blue—but we began to feel better. The passage was warming up. The module had detected that its integrity had been restored. Automatically, it had begun to refill the region with air. Fortunately for us, such decisions and processes aboard ships and stations were handled entirely by computers linked to sensors.

Climbing to my feet tiredly, I helped the others stand. “We’ve got to keep moving—and we should find some spacer gear in case we lose pressure again.”

“Why didn’t we come aboard with helmets?” Sosa asked.

“Because it would have looked odd to the dock crew that greeted us.”

Jort laughed at that until he coughed. At last, he was able to speak. “A lot of good that did for us—looking harmless. They came to kill us right away.”

“Agreed,” I told him. “No more playing innocent. We’re invaders, and everyone knows it.”

We plundered a locker and pulled masks over our faces. The bulbous oxygen tanks dangled until we snapped them into place.

“Come on,” I said, enjoying the taste of my own personal oxygen supply, “let’s keep moving.”

They followed me at a trot until we found a storeroom. We ducked inside and found there was a public access point in the storeroom to be used by maintenance types.

“Androids don’t need a screen,” Rose said. “They just hook directly into the local network.”

“They have human janitors here,” Sosa explained.

“What? Really? I’m surprised—most space stations use model-Ds for such work.”

I laughed. “Maybe the kind made of flesh and bone are less expensive. Kersen has always been the type of guy to cheap out.”

“That’s true,” Sosa agreed.

“I found it!” Jort said. “A pathway—a low pathway to the umbilical.”

“What exactly do you mean by ‘low’?” I asked him.

He pointed at the deck. “In the tubes. Where the shit is.”

Rose made an unhappy face. I was quite sure she’d never even smelled a sewer, much less swam in one.”

“Too dangerous,” I said. “How can we disable the cannons?”

“Difficult…” Jort said, tapping at the screen. “We would have to storm the bridge. Take control.”

“That’s not happening,” I sighed.

“There’s another way,” Sosa said quietly. “We go down to engineering. They have an override system there. It’s redundant, built in case the bridge is knocked out. From engineering, they still can control the station’s basic systems.”

We looked at her, and I nodded. “Show us the way.”

Sosa shouldered her way to the console, and Jort stepped aside. She worked on it for several minutes. “The pathway is laid out in green. I do not suggest taking such a direct route, however, as it is likely to be guarded.”

“Drag the lines—show us a safer path to engineering.”

She did so, and we all groaned.

“There’s nothing else?” Rose asked plaintively. “I’ve got a dozen cuts on me—I’ll get an infection or something.”

Sosa laughed at her. “You’re wearing a pressure-suit. You’ll be fine.”

We set off, and Rose fell to the rear of the line, grumbling. When we finally opened a large grate in the deck and Jort splashed in, showing the way, she balked again.

Sosa went in without hesitating. She was a tough girl. A sewer wasn’t something to get upset about. Rose, however, was struggling with the idea.

I heard movement behind us. Tramping plastic feet—at least four sets of them, maybe more.

Having no more time or patience, I turned around and grabbed Rose and tossed her in. She flailed like a drowning cat, hissing and cursing.

I followed her, craning my neck to see behind us. The passage was lit up and the lights played on the walls in perfect rhythm.

“Help me with this,” I ordered, and Jort moved closer

Together, we slid the deck-plate back into place. We were doubled-over, thigh-deep in brackish water. Overhead, the pounding feet rang on the deck plates. We hunkered down, barely daring to breathe.

The patrol soon passed, and that was enough for Rose. She reached up and began pushing upward on the hatch. I pulled it down again with a mild slam. “We’re not leaving this pipe until we get closer to engineering.”

We slogged behind Sosa, who seemed to know the way. Not for the first time, I wondered at her past.

“It’s hotter now, feel it?” Jort asked. “That’s the cooling jacket on the reactor. They dump the reactor water in here. It’s full of phosphates that will eat your skin!”

“We can’t go too much farther,” Sosa said. “We might reach the cleansing tanks if we do.”

“What’s that?” Rose demanded.

“That’s where they break down the water and turn it fresh. It’s a continuous process of disintegration, tearing apart complex molecules and making them very simple.”

Rose looked at me with wide eyes. “Just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse—we have to get out of here!”

I paused. “All right. How far from here to engineering?”

Sosa shrugged her shoulders. “Maybe a hundred meters.”

At the next hatch, I pushed upward. It was stuck. I got it to bounce a little, but that was it.

“Jort,” I whispered. “Come over here and help me. Put your back into it.”

Together, we shoved and heaved. The hatch flew wide with a resounding clang.

Bright lights shown down at us then. Gun barrels were behind every one of those lights—and there were a lot of them.

It was a bad way to end our adventures. I figured the four of us must have looked pitiful down there, hunkered low, blinking, and covered with shit.




Chapter Forty-Three

“Gorman?” a familiar voice asked.

We’d been about to blaze away, doing what we could. Instead, I motioned to my crew to lower their guns. In turn, the guns pointing at our skulls were lowered as well.

A big gauntleted hand came down, clasped mine, and hauled me out of the muck. I took the hand up and thanked the man. The rest of my soiled crew climbed out onto the deck behind me.

The big hand belonged to Magnus, he was one of Baron Trask’s knights. Magnus served as the captain of a ship and led a regiment of fighting men. He had an odd accent and a simplistic way of talking.

He was a big guy with rounded shoulders and thick limbs. He stood a head taller than me, and he was surrounded by at least a hundred of his troops.

“You scared Brag, here!” Magnus laughed. “You came knocking up out of the sewer right under his feet. He pissed himself! Look!”

There was what looked like a streak of blood on Brag’s spacer suit, but I didn’t make any comments or laugh. Brag didn’t look like he was enjoying the joke.

“What’s happening?” I asked Magnus. “We were trying to make it to engineering to shut down the cannons.”

“Great minds think together. We are on the same path. We’ve lost a hundred men, two hundred are staying on my ship in reserve—this company will take engineering.”

“All right then, let’s go.”

We turned and began to march toward engineering. Now and then, a team of model-Ks came to stop us, but they were always out-gunned and blown apart. A few of Magnus’ men were injured, but they wore armored suits that prevented shredder bullets from penetrating.

“I’m glad to see a client who marches with my men. You impress me, Gorman. Most who hire us won’t even shake a sword-brother’s hand.”

“I’m a gun runner, not a politician,” I explained. “I usually fight my own battles.”

Magnus thumped me on the back, making me stagger. He grinned. “That is good! You are a good one—funny-man, too!”

His men laughed roughly behind him. They were brutes, killers—but they seemed to like my tiny crew. I hoped it would stay that way.

When we reached the outer airlocks protecting engineering, the resistance became stiffer. Automated turrets clattered, knocking down the front line of Magnus’ force and making them retreat. They groaned and crawled on the deck, shot in the ass and the back until they turned a corner and were back with the rest of the troops.

“We don’t have much time,” Magnus said. “They must know we are attacking here, they will send reinforcements to the engineering deck. We have to storm them now.”

“Wait a second,” I said, grabbing his big arm. It was like hanging onto an oaken branch, but he hesitated.

“What is it, Gorman?” he asked.

“Listen, we have Sardez rifles. We’ll knock out the turrets. Take cover and button your suits for vacuum.”

“You’ll destroy the deck! The space station will be wrecked!”

I shrugged. “Maybe, but I don’t care. We need Baron Trask’s other regiments to board the station in order to win, don’t we? If we can’t take Engineering, we’ll have to retreat.”

“Yeah…”

Considering the matter settled, I had Jort lie low, while I stood. We nosed around the corner at once, aiming at the automated turrets.

A wild grunting sounded behind me. To my surprise, Magnus had grabbed one of his men—the one he’d called Brag—and tossed him past us, into the center of the passageway.

The automated guns had been tracking us, but now they had a new target. They aimed and blazed away, sending hundreds of rounds toward the hapless Brag. The man spun and went down, riddled with bullets.

In the meantime, Jort and I sighted and destroyed the turrets. When they were nothing but a smoking ruin, Magnus laid his big paw on my back again.

“Good shooting.”

“Uh… I think your man is dead.”

He looked at Brag, who twitched on his face on the floor of the passage. “Probably, but I did not like him. As I said, he pissed himself when you arrived. I like you much better.”

“That’s great, Sir Magnus.”

He grinned. I could tell he liked the fact an outsider knew the correct honorific to use when addressing him. That trick worked on him just as it always did on Trask. It was an easy way to any sword-brother’s heart. Most off-worlders made fun of men from the Sword Worlds—but only quietly, when none of them were around. It was surprising what a little respect and knowledge could buy you with most people—even blood-thirsty marauders like these guys.

Magnus made a sweeping gesture with his big arm, and his men stormed the engineering section. Realizing they were defenseless without their automated turrets the technicians inside immediately surrendered. I walked in with Magnus, and we surveyed the situation.

“Not much damage,” I said. “That’s good. Sosa, do you know where the cannon control center is?”

“Up near the bridge, I believe.”

I stared at her, but before I could open my mouth, Magnus roared.

“Here! Here is the power-bank. Disconnect those couplings!”

His men hastened to obey. I got the feeling that if you were in Sir Magnus’ regiment, you hustled every time he opened his big mouth. Otherwise, you might end up like poor Brag.

The couplings were disconnected with flashes of electrical arcing. That couldn’t be good for the circuitry—but it handled the problem quickly.

Magnus contacted Trask then, and the baron responded.

“Good work, Magnus! You have again proven yourself as my best knight.”

“I must give some credit to Captain Gorman. He took down the final defenses personally.”

Magnus angled a handheld communication device toward me. I stepped up and held my rifle high.

“You’re clear to dock and invade, Baron,” I said.

“It really is Gorman,” Trask said in disbelief. “I never counted you as a fighting man.”

“Only when I have to be.”

“Apparently, that’s often. Have you ever considered mercenary work, Gorman? I could use a fourth ship.”

I hesitated, and I smiled. He was complimenting me, I knew. “That’s quite an offer, Baron. We can talk about it after this mission is finished.”

Satisfied, the baron disconnected. Magnus frowned at me. “Another knight? That is very unusual… you’re not even a sword-brother!”

“I do have a ship.”

“Not big enough for a regiment…” Magnus grumbled.

“Don’t worry, I’m a gun runner—I supply you with weapons. I’m not horning in on your ranks.”

Magnus seemed happier. “That is a good thing. You don’t want to make yourself too big among us too fast, Gorman. Our kind always notice the biggest man in the room—or the biggest talker. All eyes are drawn to such people.”

It was a warning, but I took it in a positive light. After all, I didn’t really want to team up with these raiders on a permanent basis. The trick of being a long-lived merchant on the fringe was to be everyone’s friend but no one’s rival.

That brought me around to considering Kersen. We had him in a box now. Baron Trask’s third ship docked swiftly once the defensive cannons were disabled. Using control systems that we’d captured in engineering, we were also able to get the umbilical elevator running again. The third regiment of troops used it to come up from the surface and join the fight.

Against one regiment, the security forces aboard the station had been an even match. But against all three of Trask’s units, they didn’t stand a chance. Kersen had to know that, but he still ignored our calls to surrender.

I had to wonder, as we surrounded the bridge and security sections, what tricks he might still have up his sleeve.




Chapter Forty-Four

The station’s defenders had barricaded themselves on the command deck, and they seemed prepared to hold out indefinitely.

Most of the merchants and civilians had fled the station by this time. We let them go, as they weren’t taking their cargos with them. There would be plenty of loot to plunder once we had Kersen’s forces under control.

Trask’s top officers and my crew stood around, uncertain as to our next move. We’d gathered in a lobby area at the base of the main ramp that led to the command deck. The barricade at the top was welded together. Anyone who dared go up there would doubtlessly be blasted by the defenders’ guns.

“A stubborn one…” Baron Trask said for the third time. “This Kersen of yours… He’s a stubborn man, isn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“He’s put up more of a fight than I expected. Ninety good men have died on this campaign. Ninety! That’s a very high number, Gorman.”

I didn’t answer. Lamenting with Trask would look weak. Laughing it off seemed inappropriate, too. Ignoring the slaughter was the best option. These men understood such an attitude. They weren’t big on whining about injuries and losses.

Trask studied me for a moment longer, then turned back to the barricaded passageways. “We have two options at this point,” he said. “We could storm the barricades and lose more good men. Or, we could take all the goods we wish and depart.”

“No,” I said firmly.

“No?”

“That is not what we agreed, Lord Trask. We came here not just to raid the station. We came here to kill or capture Kersen.”

Baron Trask’s big face worked. His beard squirmed with his jaw. I knew he was trying to work out a way to back out on our deal. He didn’t want to lose any more men. He had what he wanted already.

Around us were all three of the baron’s knights. They were watching closely. They were all weighing their sense of honor against their greed and the losses they’d suffered.

“Perhaps we could starve them out,” Trask suggested. “We have all the food processors and life support systems—”

“That will take too long. They must have sent a messenger to Prospero or somewhere else by now. A dozen patrol ships could arrive tomorrow.”

“Still, I don’t think—”

“Fine,” I said, snatching up my rifle and loading a short-range explosive shell. “Jort, we’ll handle this ourselves. Let’s use the smaller stairway that goes up into command deck.”

“It’s barricaded like the rest, sir.”

“Of course it is—we’re going to blast that barricade down.”

I walked away from Trask without saying more to him. Sosa and Rose followed along. They looked like they were going to piss themselves—especially Rose—but they followed.

“You see that!” Sir Magnus boomed suddenly. “Even his women follow him to the death! We are shamed!”

At that, I had to turn around. I knew enough about Sword World types to know that was a challenge. I hadn’t expected Magnus to do it, but apparently he couldn’t stomach the sight of weak outsiders showing more courage than his own brothers.

Baron Trask’s face was wreathed in hate. He glowered at Magnus. “I accept your challenge, Sir Magnus. The better man will prevail.”

The rest of the sword-brothers present backed away, giving the two men room. They formed a circle, shoving away furniture and cargo.

“Uh…” Jort said, tapping me on the back, “aren’t we going to the other passage?”

“Shut up,” I told him quietly. “Stand and watch. Do nothing. Try not to gasp, even. The more stoically you view this ritual the higher your status will be afterwards.”

Jort didn’t seem to quite get what I was saying, but he followed orders. He shut up and stood still, leaning on his rifle. Sosa stood firmly, but Rose was squinching her eyes a bit.

Baron Trask noticed I had turned to watch, and his eyes narrowed to slits as he regarded me for a second. He gave me a tiny nod.

Did that mean he thought I had engineered this challenge? That I’d somehow put this idea into Magnus’ thick brain and breathed life into an overthrow attempt?

If he did think that way, there was nothing to be done about it now. At this point, honor must be satisfied.

Magnus looked slightly worried, but he didn’t back down. Perhaps he was regretting his choices—but what was done was done.

The two men shed their armor to their waists. Bare-handed, they circled one another. Magnus was the first to rush in, attempting to close with the smaller man. I guessed he meant to grapple and maybe crush the life out of the baron.

Trask was too cunning for that. He swept up a chunk of insulation and twisted metal, throwing it into Magnus’ face. The larger man smacked this down, cutting his palm. Blood splattered the dusty deck and the crowd, who took no notice.

Shouts from a hundred throats came up. The men watching were enraptured. They rarely saw duels between their top lords. It was a treat for them, and no one could tear their eyes away.

“If we want to escape this rabble, now would be a good time,” Sosa said, coming to stand at my elbow.

“You want to run?” Jort asked. “Why would we run now? This is a great show.”

“Shut up, both of you. We’re not going anywhere.”

Sosa looked sour, Jort looked baffled, and Rose looked scared.

I knew why Sosa wanted to run. If the baron won, he might turn his wrath upon us. Really, it was the wisest move—but I didn’t want to leave here with Kersen still breathing. He would never stop hounding us after this direct attempt on his life.

There was an old proverb to the effect that if you took a shot at the king, you’d better be damned sure you killed him. Otherwise, your future was bleak. At this point, I’d taken a shot at Kersen and now Baron Trask, at least in the baron’s mind. My position was therefore quite risky.

The two men exchanged blows, but nothing definite landed. Then they circled again, but a bit of debris from the ruined lobby caused the baron to stumble.

It was only a small misstep, but Magnus rushed in instantly. He managed to clasp his huge arms around the baron, and he began to squeeze. I thought I heard ribs crackle—or could that be vertebrae?

Trask was desperate. He panted and struggled. He slashed and tore at Magnus, even ripping at his ear with his teeth. Blood flowed, and both men howled, but Magnus wouldn’t let go. The two men fell to the ground, they rolled once, then twice.

Suddenly, Magnus stiffened and lurched away. He stood, swaying. He reached back and plucked a dagger out of his kidney. It was a silver blade, and it ran with both thick blood and other fluids. The tip was hollow, and it bubbled with some kind of injectable.

Magnus made gasping sounds, but he didn’t fall. He just stood there, swaying on his feet, sides heaving.

Baron Trask stood and made a flippant gesture toward him. “You have rolled over your own blade, Magnus,” he said loudly. “I have warned you many times about carrying such a dastardly weapon.”

Magnus’ mouth fell open, but he said nothing. Maybe he couldn’t speak. Perhaps that was it—the poison was a paralyzing agent.

Suddenly, with a jerking twist of his wrist, Magnus threw the dagger toward Trask.

The baron danced away in a desperate effort to evade the weapon. It clattered against the wall, leaving a colored streak there.

Then, Magnus pitched forward on his face. He was stone dead, and the duel was over.

Baron Trask eyed the crewmen that circled. No one cheered. They were, in fact, muttering darkly.

Showing his teeth, Trask stood tall. “Mercenaries! Knights, sergeants and all! We have taken this man’s payment.” Here, he pointed at me. “And therefore, we must honor our contract with him. Astrid, lead the charge. Take down that wall, and end this siege with Kersen!”

They looked at one another, and they looked at the fallen form of Magnus. No one looked happy. I sensed that the moment could turn dark in a dozen different ways.




Chapter Forty-Five

Astrid, a knight in Baron Trask’s service, wasn’t anything like Magnus. She was more like Trask himself. She wasn’t the largest nor the strongest in her regiment—but she was definitely the most cunning.

 “Squires, sergeants,” she ordered, “organize the men into squads. Get out the shock-cannons and set them up. We’ll blow a hole into that barricade and soften them up first.”

Baron Trask looked annoyed. He had clearly wanted a dramatic charge. Astrid didn’t look at him. She’d made her play, obeying Trask’s orders but doing it on her own terms. As Trask had just murdered Magnus, he didn’t have many cards left to play, so he let it go.

Astrid was a smart woman. She didn’t assault Kersen’s walls like a berserker. Magnus might have done that, depending on his men’s weight and ferocity to carry the day. Instead, Astrid operated in a much more methodical manner.

With a sudden thought, I realized her regiment had been the one stuck on the lift in the umbilical. She’d assaulted the ground station and taken it, but halted right there. Only when Magnus and my crew had taken engineering, and Baron Trask had invaded the station, did she come up to join the party.

Had that delay been purely technical, or had Astrid decided to wait? Now I wasn’t sure. She’d remained down there for a long time, not committing until Trask had committed himself. They’d both really left the entire dangerous part of the mission to Magnus.

Perhaps that was the way the lords of the Sword Worlds operated. After all, if you always charged into battle, it was much more likely you’d be killed at some point.

Jort was my worst problem as we watched the sword-brothers work at breaking the siege. He couldn’t get over Magnus’ death.

“That was wrong, Captain. Are we going to stand for this?”

“What would you have me do, Jort?”

“Challenge Trask yourself! The men from Magnus’ regiment are surly and rebellious. Just look at them! They’d follow your lead.”

I shook my head. “Look at Trask’s personal regiment. No losses, no wounded, not even any haggard looks on their faces. We’d be outnumbered and Astrid would probably support Trask. No, this is for them to handle. We’ve just hired them—we aren’t sword-brothers.”

Jort continued to glower and mutter. I couldn’t blame him, but I couldn’t condone rash action right now, either. Perhaps if I had a thousand loyal guns behind me it would be different—but I had a crew of four.

Astrid and her regiment operated with professionalism. They set up their shock-cannons, which operated by sending out a disruptive sonic blast, at either side of the ramp leading up to the command deck. At the last moment they slid the cannons out into the zone where Kersen’s troops were able to fire on them.

Immediately, a storm of small-arms fire came streaming down toward the cannons. The cannons activated automatically, blasting shockwaves in millisecond pulses. We watched with camera drones as the barricades first shivered, then began to cave in, pushed backward by the force of the cannons. Likewise, the small arms fire slowed, then petered out.

Whether they were humans or combat androids, the enemy could not withstand the continuous blasts of force. Their barricades melted, like a house of sticks in a hurricane. Their defensive firing soon ceased entirely.

The soldiers at the base of the ramp gritted their teeth and rammed spongy plugs into their ears. My crew and I did the same. The roar of the shock-cannons came right through your helmet, your skull—there was no stopping it.

Standing well back, my crew grimaced. Those who were closer howled in pain. It went on for a full minute, perhaps longer. It was hard to tell.

At last, the cannons wound down. Their buzzing roar stopped, and we sighed in relief. When I heard Astrid screaming at her men a few moments later, it was with a ringing sound in my head. I suspected we all had tinnitus at that moment.

Dazed, but regaining their senses, Astrid’s troops surged up the ramps. Magnus’ regiment joined them. Only Trask and his personal guard—who I now noted had stayed far, far back from the shock-cannons—stood quietly in reserve. Their singular job, I now realized, was to guard Trask himself.

I was torn with indecision. Should I saunter toward Trask and sip tea, perhaps, while the rest of his men fought and died against Kersen? Or, should I join the charge up the ramp with the braver types?

Jort was having no thoughts of indecision. He plucked at my sleeve, pointing after the rush of troops going up the ramp. His words were lost in the ringing sound, but his eyes pleaded with me.

At last, I nodded. Taking up our rifles, we trotted behind the two assaulting regiments. We would make an appearance in this battle, at the very least. Besides, I wanted to witness Kersen’s final moments with my own eyes.

My head had cleared somewhat by the time we reached the top of the ramp. There was no effective resistance. I saw a dozen model-Ks, stretched out in various broken states. Some had blast-holes in their chassis. Others appeared to have been hacked apart by krysteel swords. Could that be the work of the shock-cannons? I thought that it must be. A direct strike could rupture flesh, bone or even steel.

What surprised me was the lack of actual men on the deck. So far, all of Kersen’s defensive forces had been androids. I’d thought more men of flesh and blood would have supported him. Could all those people have fled with the civilian ships we’d allowed to escape when we approached?

Shrugging, I decided it didn’t matter, and that I didn’t care. As long as I found Kersen and killed him, this mission would be called a success. He’d had me killed once already, after all. I owed him the same favor.

At first, the upcoming fight looked like it would be an easy one. The force-cannons had taken out the frontline defenders. There were, however, more layers to Kersen’s defenses. We’d probably given him too long to think, to prepare.

A dozen steps past the top of the ramp, the first sword-brothers to charge with zeal were cut down. The enemy had laid a trap for us, just as we had for them. It came at a wide intersection, with the right passage going toward ops, and the other toward command staff quarters. Directly ahead was the bridge, so our troops naturally rushed in that direction.

Crouching behind more barricades in the two side passages were real human troops—Kersen’s men. The enemy gunned down the first ten charging bravos within seconds. Astrid’s men kept pushing, however, and those with heavy armor turned toward these two sets of ambushers.

The firefight that erupted was intense—but Kersen’s men again retreated. They fell back to another break in the corridors in both cases. Unfortunately, they’d left traps behind.

Our armored men rushed these new barricades, powered gauntlets reaching out to tear them down. But, instead of furniture and wall panels, the men contacted electrified filaments. The filaments sparked, lit up and turned a vibrant, burning orange. This quickly changed to a glaring white. Superheated, the filaments were made of monomolecular materials that could take a great deal of power. These threads of white hot metal sliced into the troops, who charged into them the way men might when encountering cobwebs in a forest.

They cut the mercenaries apart. Limbs fell to the deck, severed and smoking. Some of the victims screamed, some staggered in shock then toppled. All were sliced into pieces.

I’d turned toward the ops section, and I watched the horror as our men encountered it. They never even reached the flimsy-looking barricades which were a meter farther on.

“Dammit…” I breathed.

Together, Jort and I raised our Sardez rifles and fired heavy bolts to blast down the barricades. We kept firing until the connection points of the deadly burning webs were also destroyed.

Panting with exertion, the next squad looked on with concern. They were angry and willing to fight—but they’d seen some of their best die.

Not seeing a sergeant among them, I waved for them to follow. “Advance with me!”

They followed in my wake. Perhaps they’d been shamed, or maybe they just needed someone in command to lead them. Either way, I found myself leading two dozen troops who were more cautious now, but still filled with an urge for revenge.

We broke into the living quarters—and there, we got a new shock. There were… pods of some kind, each the size of a melon, lying on the deck. These were connected by ropey, vine-like tubes which ran all over the floor. The pods were purply-green and some of them dripped a sticky amber fluid I suspected was some kind of blood or sap.

Jort and I stood with our mouths gaping open. The sword-brothers who came up behind us were likewise shocked and disgusted.

“What kind of deviltry is this?” a squire demanded.

I glanced at him. He was young, sweat-drenched and wide-eyed. I could tell in an instant he’d never seen anything like this.

Stepping forward, worried I would trigger a fresh trap, I poked at one of the pods. It quivered at the touch of my gun’s hot muzzle.

With a hard boot heel, I crushed the pod. A squirming thing was inside. Pink-white, spiny… It looked like a jellyfish with spines, or some other deep-sea creature. Stunned, but not dead, the thing began to drag its injured body over the deck.

“Tulk, sir! These pods are full of unborn Tulk!” Jort gagged and shot the thing that had wriggled out of the pod I’d stomped on. It curled up in death.

“Destroy these pods,” I ordered. “All of them!”

The men needed no more encouragement. Retching at times and hissing with displeasure, they stomped and blasted every cantaloupe-sized pod they could find.

“Look, Captain,” Jort said. “These tangled vines… they run up the walls and into the vents.”

I slashed the vines and sticky fluid splashed everywhere. The vines themselves seemed to feel pain somehow. They writhed and curled after being struck. It was disgusting.

“Where do these vines go, sir?” Jort asked, poking at a shivering clump of them that ran up a wall nearby.

“The big question, Jort,” I said, “is what’s on the other end of these tubes? What’s feeding these offspring?”

There was no answer, so we fell into an orgy of killing. It was an evil thing to destroy the young of another species—but these aliens weren’t interested in peaceful coexistence. They wanted to dominate and subsume humanity wherever they could.




Chapter Forty-Six

Over the last few centuries of spaceflight and colonization, humanity had encountered several intelligent alien species. Some were benign, like those they called “ducks” back at the Baden Colony.

A few, however, were true rivals. Inscrutable, strange and even evil by our standards, these beings were so powerful, so aggressive, they posed a real challenge to humans everywhere.

I was now convinced the Tulk were one of the bad ones. They’d come to Ceti Station, and they’d quietly consumed it—just as they had attempted to do at Baden.

Why? I now theorized that they’d come here to stop gun runners like myself. To prevent us from doing our jobs. Perhaps I’d been allowed to go on my mission in order to discover my stash of weapons, to learn all my secrets.

Had Kersen been consumed by these aliens? I now suspected that he must have been. Why else would he have resorted to killing his own runners after a few good runs? That was no way to operate a business.

Perhaps his real goal had been to destroy the business, not to run it wisely.

When I discussed this with Sosa, she agreed.

“I’ve been affected by these things,” she said. “They have variable powers over individuals. I think that power can grow over time.”

“The way the Tulk operate does seem to vary from one case to another,” I said. “They gain control over some people like Kersen or Colonel Fletcher back on Baden, while others are more independent—like you.”

Sosa winced with the memory. “It’s almost like having a second brain inside your body. As the tendrils go deeper and take root, you begin to have thoughts that aren’t entirely your own.”

“Could there be more than one kind of Tulk?”

“Maybe,” she admitted. “Maybe some have mutated, like a virus, or maybe there were different types among the species. Possibly, it’s all a matter of individual skill and knowledge. Perhaps some among them have the capability to dominate a human, while others do not.”

“Whatever the case, it seems clear to me now that the Tulk must be exterminated at all costs. They mustn’t be allowed to take over human worlds.”

“But how could such a goal be achieved?” Sosa asked.

As I had no good answer, so I had to leave it at that.

I was certainly the wrong man for the job. The Conclave hated me, and they were asleep anyway, content to maintain the status quo forever on their dull, pleasant worlds. The colony planets out on the fringe, in comparison, were war-like and tough-minded, but they lacked any kind of unity. They all viewed one another as dangerous rivals, with good reasons for doing so.

“What now?” Jort asked me.

The squads I’d been marching with had done a good job of destroying every pod and crawling Tulk they could find. Now, there were bigger problems to be solved.

“Put a drone in those air tubes,” I told Sosa. “Follow the vines—let’s find out where they go.”

Sosa took over this job. She tore the grill off a vent, and it dripped with goopy material. She then shoved a crawling spy-bot into the hole. The crawler traveled for a hundred meters before coming out on another deck.

“The boiler rooms?” I asked.

“It’s part of their cooling system for the reactor. It’s very hot and humid down there. They use the system to transmit heat and humidity throughout the station. It’s part of life support ops.”

My eyes looked downward, toward the lower decks. Were we going the wrong way to find the real enemy?

“Where we go now, Captain?” Jort asked.

Baron Trask’s men were filing out, moving to make a final push against the bridge. Normally, that would mean victory when dealing with any defensive crew on a space station.

“Let Trask take the command deck. We’re going back down to life support.”

My tiny crew followed me. We separated from the rest of the mercenaries and went our own way. We got a few strange looks from the marauders, but no one asked us where we were going. We were their customers, after all, and they’d been trained not to bite the hand that fed them.

Down on the lower decks, the station was quiet. There was nothing moving around other than ghostly breezes from the life support area.

Taking a chance, I opened my faceplate and sniffed at the vents. They did smell wet and hot. Usually, the air on a station or ship was fairly dry. They kept the humidity at around fifty percent. That was good for human functionality, and it wasn’t too hard to maintain.

The air coming out of that vent was like the breath of a swamp. You could feel it.

“There’s something in there,” I said. “Something that likes it hot and wet.”

“The interior of a human body is very hot and wet,” Sosa said. Her eyes were haunted.

I nodded to her. “Reload, everyone—we need to be ready for anything.”

Covering one another as we advanced down the passages, we came at last to a heavy door. It was built like a bank vault, and it was shut and locked.

“Life support… Jort, it’s up to you and me. Let’s set both our rifles for maximum impact. We’ll blow that door down.”

“What if you shoot right through it and damage the life support systems?” Rose asked in a worried voice.

“The civilians on this station have already fled. Trask’s men have masks and oxygen bottles. If it kills the rest of them—so be it.”

Together, Jort and I shouldered our Sardez weapons. They boomed and kicked almost in unison, and the big vault doors were dented and burning.

“Again,” I said, and we took aim a second time. “On my mark… one… two… Mark!”

We fired again, at almost the same instant. The vault door was punched through. A burnt black hole appeared in the center. We fired twice more, widening the opening enough for us to step through.

I moved to the front—but Jort put a huge hand on my arm.

“I’ll go in first, Captain.”

Nodding, I let him. He stepped into the smoking hole, which was ringed by orange, molten metal.

He swept his suit lights over the region inside, but it didn’t do much good. We couldn’t see a damned thing with all the smoke and fog. I aimed my rifle through the burning hole we’d punched in the door. We used sensors and our own eyes to scan everywhere, looking for something to shoot.

Slowly, the vapors cleared. We were in a service area. A line of high-pressure suits hung from hooks. The walls behind the suits were made up of closets and drawers. Countless tools and other gear filled the place.

“Come on through,” Jort said to the women. “It looks quiet enough—there sure is a lot of steam though.”

The last of us, Rose, was just climbing through the hole we’d blasted through the door when a tiny figure stirred in the only passageway out of the place.

“A Tulk!” Jort shouted.

We blazed away, firing after it, but it skittered off too quickly. Like a crab on a cold beach, it ran for its life.

Lifting our guns, we charged after the little monster. We all had a visceral desire to kill any Tulk whenever we found one. It was almost inborn.

Even as we rushed in pursuit, I had a thought: What if this little bastard is leading us into a trap?




Chapter Forty-Seven

The crab-like Tulk led us into another dark chamber. This time, there was no smoke, only some steam that wasn’t thick enough to obscure our vision. Unfortunately, the sight that met my eyes was such that I wished I’d never walked into this place at all.

A hulking thing was here—the very thing that was pumping nutrients to the eggs, or pods, or whatever those bulbous growths were up on the command deck.

The monster resembled a giant crustacean. The shell was greenish-black that reflected our lights with a wet shine. It had clattering limbs and long, spiny pinchers.

Jort shouted hoarsely and lifted his gun. I pushed the muzzle of his rifle toward the ceiling, and he fired a spray of rounds.

The huge crab-thing writhed, and I could see underneath it had organic tubes running like hoses into the vents. From here, on the life support deck, it had grown its tendrils to a dozen other places.

“Hold up,” I said, holding Jort’s rifle away from the target. The walls glowed with orange spots where the rounds had punched into them. I didn’t hear any hissing yet, so Jort had probably not broken the space station’s seal yet again.

“We should kill it,” Jort said firmly. “It’s a monster!”

“Yes,” I said, unable to deny his words. “It’s a horrible thing, but maybe we can learn something about it.”

“Captain Gorman,” Sosa said, “some kind of creatures are coming after us.”

She pointed back along the way we’d run. Strange figures moved toward us with a humping gait. I figured they were men—or they once had been. Perhaps after you spent too long in the company of a Tulk, you ended up like these unfortunates.

“Those guys… you can shoot,” I said, and my crew didn’t hesitate.

A blaze of fire began, coming from two shredders and two Sardez rifles. We tore apart a dozen of the attackers, but they didn’t seem to die. Instead, they crawled on the deck, dragging themselves with their misshapen limbs and making rasping sounds. Were they crying in agony, or only breathing? I couldn’t tell.

“Close that pressure door, and seal it,” I told Jort.

He glanced at me, but then he did so. I turned toward the massive alien that squatted in one corner of the chamber and advanced on it.

The limbs squirmed, and its carapace rattled. It seemed to know the danger I represented.

“Why not kill it?” Sosa demanded. “Why not get out of here?”

I pointed with my rifle. “Look at the side of it, up high on the right.

She peered, and she let loose an involuntary shriek. “There’s a face—something shaped like a human face. It’s attached to the shell!”

Rose crept forward, leaning and peering. She dug her nails into my arm. “William,” she whispered. “If this is what it’s like out here on the rim, I made a mistake. Please take me home to Prospero.”

I laughed with a hint of bitterness. “This is worse than usual,” I admitted. “Unfortunately, I’m not sure any of us are getting out of here alive.”

The dark crab-like body slowly shuffled itself around to face us. The distorted face which had been merged somehow into the side of the thing and fused with its shell was only vaguely human.

The face began to drool, and the mouth began to work. It made loud breathing sounds. It was as if a huge pair of lungs were attached to that face, lungs bigger than those of any normal man.

“Is it trying to talk?” Sosa asked.

“Sickness,” Jort said. “Let me blast this disgusting thing!”

I waved them both back. “It brought us here. Let’s hear what it has to say.”

“No! We should kill it while we can!”

“Your instincts are good, Jort, but give me a moment to see if we can do better than commit suicide.”

“Suicide? It is that thing that will die.”

“And what do you think its offspring will do once it’s dead?” I asked. “Do you think they’ll let us out of here?”

Already, at the door we’d shut and sealed, hard-shelled limbs were thumping and beating like drums. The hunched, man-like things were back in force, and they wanted us to let them in.

“…intruders…”

That was the only word I caught out of a series of odd noises produced by the face. The voice it spoke with was deep, as if it had lungs and vocal cords that outsized the small opening of that mouth. The lips didn’t move naturally when it spoke. Instead they flew wide, jaws unhinged and spreading open like those of a snake. Over torn and bloody gums, the noises came blatting out of that orifice.

“…intruders…” it said again.

“I hear you, monster. Are you a Tulk?”

The lips worked briefly, then gaped open again. It looked like it was vomiting every time it spoke.

“…Tulk serve what is here…”

“…what is here? You mean you? Your grotesque body?”

I mother the Tulk. They must have an origin.”

“I see. I guess that makes sense. Why did you bring us here?”

To speak, before the endpoint is reached.”

I glanced at my crewmen. None of them looked happy. They were revolted, terrified and fascinated all at the same time.

“The endpoint? You mean, before you die?”

I cannot die. I exist in many places at once, not just this one.”

“Really? That’s sounds like a good trick. How do you manage it?”

The thing made some more blatting noises. “You cannot understand. Your communication medium has no words for such an advanced meaning.”

I figured the noises it had just released might have been an explanation. I supposed our language and concepts were too different, or their ideas were too alien. Looking at this thing, this mother of the Tulk, I could believe it.

“What did you want to talk about then?” I asked.

You oppose us. This is a mistake. You must not stop our advance.

“Uh… what? You want us to just die? To let you take over?”

We will come. We will breed. We will infest and guide your species. When we are done, you will be safe.

“Safe from what?” I asked with a snort. “It seems to me that you’re the worst thing humanity has ever encountered.”

Not so. My children are benign. The humans of the Faustian Chain know us. They accept us. They work with us. Together, we’ve defeated terrible invaders.”

I squinted. I knew that these Tulk came from the Faustian Chain, another cluster of stars humanity had colonized long ago. We’d lost contact with them here at the Conclave cluster—but I’d figured that might be due to the Tulk themselves.

“If you’re a friend,” I said, “you’re a strange one. We’ve lost contact over the years with our relatives from the Faustian Chain. Is that because of you?”

No ships come from the Chain now, correct?

“Yes, that’s right.”

This is by design. This is due to caution. If you have a disease, you don’t travel among the stars spreading it. To do so would be immoral.”

“I guess I can understand that. You’re saying the humans from the Chain are sick?”

Their worlds are diseased. Invaders run rampant. Working together, we’ve erased many lost worlds, and we have contained the enemy. We come here now to help you.

“Who are these invaders?”

Creatures that exist only to conquer and destroy. They have struck here before, at the Sardez star system.

Now, I was beginning to wonder. It was true that some alien invaders had invaded the Sardez system. The humans there had fought hard—but the Conclave historians said they’d been evil people, and the Conclave had been forced to ruin their star.

I looked down at the rifle in my hands. It was a relic of that struggle. Could this freakish Tulk be telling the truth?

“You’re talking about the creatures in the Sardez system? I’ve met up with a few—a culus and a shrade.”

Exactly, but you will soon learn there are even worse forms. The enemy comes in many shapes and sizes. Their intent is to invade every world in the galaxy. After that, they will invade neighboring galaxies. They must be stopped!

It said this last with a nauseating gust of wind and noise. The lips fluttered and squirmed wildly in excitement.

“Tell us what we have to do to help you.”

A small hand gripped my arm and squeezed even more tightly. I looked down, and I saw a panicked Rose looking back up at me. Her eyes pleaded.

“Tell me, monster,” I repeated to the alien.

You stopped us at Baden Colony. You have almost stopped us here, at Ceti. Your resistance can’t continue. You must cease.

“Huh…” I said, thinking that over. “You were there, at Baden? You personally?”

One of my sisters was there. I only recently came here to stop Ceti from arming places like Baden along the rim. Your weapons have become too advanced. We cannot seed worlds that are so effectively defended.”

I thought about the Tulk we’d chased off Baden. I recalled the strange spherical field they’d been appearing under and had retreated into.

“You came here using some kind of transportation field, didn’t you?” I asked it. “A point of connection between two very distant places.”

Your primitive descriptions match the past imprecisely. You interfered and stopped us at Baden. You must not do so again.

Considering, I shook my head. “I can’t trust you,” I told the alien. “You’re too dangerous, too different.”

You are provincial in your outlook.

I shrugged. “I’m only a gun runner from the fringe. I live by my wits. What do you expect?”

Then I must appeal to your base nature. We come to help. If you allow us to invade this system, you can repair the damage you did when you prevented us from forming a hive on Baden.”

After thinking it over for a moment, I advanced and studied the thing more closely. The deformed face on the side of the shell was sort of human, as I’d noted before. But while I’d spoken with it, I’d come to realize something else.

“The skin tone and features have changed, but now that I look closely, I see a tuft of hair on the head—that’s Kersen’s head, isn’t it? Embedded in your side?”

The being known as Kersen is no longer here. His parts operate in service of the origin.

“The origin. You’re the origin? Kind of like a queen ant giving birth to your own race?”

That is a rude description.

“But accurate, right?” I said, walking around the thing. I thought over its words. “What was the deal you made with Kersen?”

Tulk infested his subordinates. He then gained new subordinates, and we rode them as well. Over time, many here on this station became hosts to our kind.

“Right… He helped you invade Ceti. So why did you consume Kersen if he was helping you? Why is he part of the… the origin?”

When your ships came to invade, he complained to us, asking for help. He had failed to protect us, so we renegotiated our arrangement.

“Meaning… you ate him?”

No, no, we subsumed him. He is part of us now, serving in a new and more useful role.

I laughed. Kersen had always been a talker. Now, he was nothing but a mouth on the side of this abomination.

“All right,” I said. “I think I’ve heard enough. I’m sorry, but we don’t need any aliens here in the Conclave. Not your kind or the others you speak of. We’re going to fight all of you.”

The mouth began to work again, to drool slime and blast out vapors—but we didn’t listen to anything else.

I pumped round after round into the obscene thing, and my crew did the same without orders. The chamber lit up with pulsing cones of flame as the shredders hammered away, accentuated by larger, blue-white flashes from the Sardez rifles.

My crew had been waiting a long time for this moment, and they didn’t let up until the giant alien was a slumped mound of death.




Chapter Forty-Eight

I radioed for help after that, telling Baron Trask and his men that we’d found Kersen and dealt with him—but needed help. I gave few details, as I thought it was a situation best left vague. Seeing was believing, and I figured it would be easier if Trask convinced himself.

The mercenaries fought their way down to us, and although the enemy Tulk tried to break in to avenge their dead queen, we held them off long enough. When Trask’s mercenaries finally forced open the door, we faced one another with guns drawn.

“Lord Trask,” I said, “it’s about time you came down here.”

He stared at us, and we stared back. At last, he released a loud gust of laughter. He lowered his gun first and his men did the same.

With a gesture, I instructed my crew to stand down as well.

The baron walked into the room, strutted over to the dead alien and examined it. “I wouldn’t have believed this monstrosity could exist if I wasn’t looking at it right now.”

“That’s what I figured. Essentially, it’s a giant Tulk with some extra equipment it uses for reproduction.”

“Disgusting… you said you killed Kersen? Where is he?”

“Yes… notice here, this fleshy tumor on the side of the Tulk?”

Reluctantly, Trask approached and examined the region. “Is that Kersen? He’s buried inside the guts of this thing? What horrifying company you keep, Gorman.”

“A man’s master is rarely a looker.”

Trask eyed me strangely for a moment. His finger came up, and it waggled at me. “There’s more to you than meets the eye. You’re no greedy fool of a gun runner—not like most of them. You’re cagey. Dangerous.”

“Thank you, Lord Trask.”

The baron stepped closer, and he circled halfway around me. I got the feeling I was being sized up, but I wasn’t worried. Jort was here, and with my crew I had as many men in the room as he did. Mine were just as loyal, too.

“I’ve got one ship without a captain because of you,” he said. “You owe me.”

I glanced at him in surprise. “There are plenty of men in Magnus’ crew that would love to move up, I’m sure.”

Trask gave me an evil smile. “There it is again. Wisdom beyond your station. You know a thing or two about the Sword Worlds, don’t you?”

“I know you don’t just step aboard a ship and call yourself a captain. I know you have to earn it, and the respect of your crew. Otherwise… you’ll end up deader than Kersen, here.”

Trask nodded. “That’s right. You’d be surprised how many men would fall for that. Vanity, greed… the easiest way to get rid of an enemy is through apparent kindness.”

“I’ll remember that, Your Lordship.”

Trask put his big fists on his belt and looked around. His nose wrinkled. “Old Kersen really did a number on this place. We’ll have to take what we can and clear out. There’s no salvage value here, even if we could lift the whole station from her moorings.”

That statement again surprised me. I didn’t think such a thing was possible—but then, the sword-brothers were the most experienced raiders in the cluster.

Trask turned to me and suddenly thrust a gauntleted hand in my direction. Jort tightened his grip on his rifle—but then relaxed when he realized the move was benign.

I took the pirate’s hand and shook it.

“Our deal is done here,” he said. “You’re free to keep that ship of yours—no, don’t thank me, I’m throwing it into the deal. I’ll take the plutonium, and I’ll wait on Gladius for the delivery of the fifteen hundred rifles we agreed upon. Correct?”

My mouth opened to automatically object. “You’ll get your twelve hundred rifles in a few days. All I need is a full tank of fuel and an hour to get out of here.”

“See that you don’t remove any extras, right?” Trask said, with a hint of warning malice. Now that the station was in his hands, he clearly thought of everything in it as his personal property.

I made no objections and walked out. Jort and the women followed.

“That was smart,” Jort said. “You promise rifles. That way, he would not dare kill you to take your ship right now.”

I shrugged. “It would be difficult for mercenaries to stay in business if they killed the men who hired them all the time.”

“Yeah, well… we little people. We don’t count.”

I glanced at him. “What do you mean, Jort?”

Sosa spoke up. “Jort is right. You’re no out-world prince from the fringe. You don’t have a planet loaded with wealth behind you. Trask knows he’ll probably never see you again, and there will be no repeat business. In such a situation, he must be tempted to take everything you have.”

I shook my head. “I don’t think so.” Still, I was worried, almost rattled. Could they be right? Trask was a man who was much rougher around the edges than I’d believed at first.

We made our way through the station, passing a hundred mercenaries who were stealing a hundred different things. They took everything of value that they could carry onto their ships. Metals, electronics, nano-gear and medical supplies. Even the furniture was vanishing in places. The station was being methodically stripped bare and hauled away back to the Sword Worlds.




Chapter Forty-Nine

When we reached Royal Fortune, we all felt a certain sense of relief. She’d become our home over the preceding months.

Fueling her and taking what supplies we needed, we glided away from the station, and then I let her oversized engines flare brightly. We roared away from Ceti.

Already, outside the way-station, four patrol ships had gathered. They were waiting outside cannon range. I knew they were gathering their strength. When they had enough ships, they would storm the station and take her back.

But by that time, it would be too late. The station would have been ransacked, and Baron Trask’s men would be long gone.

We took our time traveling back to the Sardez system. We did it in a round-about way, traveling through several systems under various aliases to throw off any pursuers.

I was worried both about Trask and his men, in addition to the dogged patrolmen. Trask would want to know where I was finding rifles of such fine quality. He would want to steal the secret for himself. Likewise, the patrolmen wanted to capture me and bring me into alignment with their code of justice. In both cases, I had to make sure they failed.

When we reached the cloud of ice and rocks that circled Sardez in the freezing darkness almost beyond the yellow sun’s glare, we stalked the planetoid quietly.

“All engines stay idle,” I repeated.

Jort’s restless hand slid from the controls again. He gave a disappointed sigh. “We’ve scanned a hundred times, Captain. There’s nothing here to see us light our engines. Besides, we’re drifting off course.”

“That’s fine. Chunks of ice and stone are expected to drift.”

Rather than powering up and landing at the secret base, I’d taken great precautions. I’d used Royal Fortune’s big engines only briefly after reaching the Sardez system. Most of the thrust I’d released had been an effort to brake, to bring us onto a collision course with the planetoid, approaching at a sedate pace.

As a further precaution, I’d squirted water out onto the hull, letting it freeze there into a hard shell. Shutting down all our detectable systems, I’d let the ship drift. That process had taken nearly a month.

Now that we’d reached our destination, however, I was far from satisfied. I stalked the world in my drifting ship, coated in ice. We released no emissions. No heat, no waste, no vapor or active pinging sensors. All our systems were set to scan passively, quietly—we were doing our damnedest to look like just one more chunk of frozen rock.

Our spiraling approach took three days. During that time, Jort and I slept, played games, pestered the girls and ate too much of the good food we’d plundered from the station.

“It’s not fair,” Jort said on the third morning.

“What’s that?” I asked, only half-listening.

“The women only want you. They are not interested in Jort.”

I glanced at him. “What’s unfair about that?”

He folded his lips into a disappointed expression. “Jort has a lot to offer.”

“More than enough, I’m sure,” I replied.

“Then how is it that you have not selected a woman? You’ve bothered them both, both are willing. Choose one and take her for your own!”

My face twisted into half a smile. “What if I don’t want either of them?”

“That could be good… tell them this, please. Tell them you have no more interest in women.”

“That would be lying, Jort.”

“It would be good lie! It’s the kind of thing women are told all the time. Tell them you’ve fallen in love with one of those duck-aliens back on Baden. Tell them you must have webbed foot in your bed.”

“I’ll tell them no such thing, Jort. You’ll have to wait.”

“Wait for what?”

“Until they decide—or I do—who will sleep with who.”

“What if they don’t want Gorman? Eh? What if they choose another?”

I shrugged, not being overly concerned.

“Bah!” Jort exclaimed, standing and walking off the bridge in a huff.

I smiled after him. Neither of the girls were overly interested in him. I could understand why that would be frustrating especially on a long voyage, but once we gathered a load of rifles and delivered them to Trask, things would be different. We could land on a friendly world and relax for a time until our money ran out.

Then, it would be time to make another deal and risk our lives again.

My next visitor was Rose. She was in an odd mood. Drifting in space affected people in various ways—but it was rarely a positive experience.

“William?” she asked. “Are we going to land soon?”

“Tomorrow. I think that will be safe.”

“Safe? Another dark hint? Jort and Sosa seem to fear this place. Even you do. Why? What’s so important about timing our landing?”

I looked her over for a moment. Everything about this place was a closely held secret. After all, knowing how to get these weapons safely aboard my tiny ship was the only reliable source of product I had at the moment. The word in the cluster was that I’d killed Kersen, and now no other gun supplier trusted me.

In the case of Rose, I’d come to trust her over time, but it wasn’t a blind sort of trust. It was the kind of thing that didn’t include my most valuable secrets.

“There you are, shutting me out again,” she said, watching my face. “And you wonder why we don’t get together anymore… How can two people be intimate if there’s no trust between them?”

I could have told her any number of ways such an arrangement could be achieved, but I was smart enough not to.

“Look, Rose. There are things you don’t know yet about this trade. This whole process—what we’re engaged in now—that’s one of them.”

She released an angry puff of air and got up to flounce off the bridge. But I glanced at the chronometer. It was only six hours until the local star would rotate out of view, freezing over the surface around my cache of weapons.

Sighing, I called her back. “All right. Here’s what’s going on.”

I explained to her, in some detail, that this planet was haunted still by creatures half-living, half-dead. They slept when the ice covered them, and the face of the planetoid was away from the sun. But when that face spun around again, they awoke and were dangerous.

“Something lives down there?” Rose asked incredulously. “What could live on a ball of frozen methane?”

“We were last here three months ago when the sun rose over the armory—that’s the Sardez storage facility full of guns that we’re mining for rifles. At that point, the things that live down here attacked us.”

Rose was wide-eyed. “They’re dangerous, I take it?”

“Yes. Extremely.”

“How will we get the rifles, then? Won’t Baron Trask be suspicious by now? Won’t he think you ran out on him and plan to never return?”

“Possibly,” I admitted. “But I have a foolproof plan to smooth over any ruffled feathers he might have. I’ll give him the fifteen hundred rifles he asked for, more than the agreed upon amount. He’ll be happy, you watch.”

She thought that over. “I think that will work, knowing Trask. It might also leave him greedy for future deals, so he’ll want to let us go.”

“Yes.”

“You’ve thought of everything, haven’t you? Except one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“You’ve frightened me. I’ll never sleep now. Just knowing we were going down to a deserted weapons storage facility kind of freaked me out before. Now, I’ve got new reasons to be terrified.”

I smiled. “I was hoping that sharing my secrets with you would put your mind at ease, but maybe you need more of a distraction. What can I do to help you get over this fear of yours?”

She didn’t meet my eyes. Instead, she reached out a small hand and ran it over my arm and the back of my hand.

That’s all the encouragement I needed. I reached for her, and we began to kiss.

The night passed very pleasantly after that.




Chapter Fifty

The next morning I was in a great mood as I landed my ship in a swirl of methane snow. The sun was down over this region of the planetoid, the faint light from it reduced to a glint in the black sky. It did little more than light up the peaks of the tallest mountains.

The key was that the dangerous light no longer reached down to the surface. I felt confident that anything surviving down here had been frozen again for three long months.

We waited until the flurries of snow kicked up by our jets settled around the ship. Gazing out through our viewports, we set every external light the ship had to blaze brightly. Then we watched, and we waited.

“You guys can’t be serious,” Rose said. “There can’t be anything alive out there. It’s a hundred degrees below freezing.”

The rest of us didn’t answer. We stared outside intently, ignoring her.

The nameless planet’s thin, poisonous atmosphere wasn’t entirely still. There were occasional storms here, especially at the line where the world slowly transformed from day to night, or night to day. Every puff of frost that touched the portholes made us wince away.

“Maybe we should wait another few days,” Sosa suggested.

They all looked at me. Rose had her arms crossed. She appeared dismissive, but she was slightly worried. She was the least experienced of all of us, and she knew it.

“No,” I said. “We’ll do it now. We’ve already been gone much longer than we promised.”

“Screw Trask!” Jort suggested. “He is scum. He murdered his own man—Magnus. I liked that one. He was good man. Also, a smart man.”

I knew Jort was right. But as a gun runner, you didn’t always get to pick your business partners. Often, they weren’t the most savory of men.

“Suit up,” I said, and they knew it was an order.

With muttered curses, they prepared to exit the ship. We hadn’t been outside for weeks, and we had to check our gear carefully. A leaky seal or a dead battery could be fatal.

“Jort and I will go out. Sosa, you command the ship in my absence. Rose, watch the sensors and report anything you see.”

“Anything I see? On a dead, frozen rock like this? It doesn’t even have a name.”

“Report,” I repeated quietly, “anything you see.”

Rose looked down at the deck, then walked away and took her station at the ship’s sensor boards. She would perform her task, I knew, even if she thought it was absurd. She was no child. Not anymore.

“Jort, check my gear.”

In the tradition of spacers everywhere, we both went through a careful inspection of the other man’s suit. Flaws were patched and rechecked. When we were both satisfied, we moved to the airlock and listened to it hiss loudly while it pumped the air out of the tiny chamber.

At last, when the pressure in the airlock had equalized with the pressure outside, the door automatically slid open.

A cold swirl of frost snaked in around our boots. The ship was in a heavy drift already. It was half a meter deep in places. Stepping outside, we found we didn’t crunch all the way to the bottom of the snow layer with every step. The planetoid’s gravity was so low that we could walk on the top layer. It was as if our boots were snowshoes.

Working to keep up a steady pace, we first circled the ship.

“Everything looks fine,” Jort pronounced.

“Yes. Let’s go to the armory.”

Pulling out two power-sleds from the hold, we set off. Jort followed me, and we made good time over a ridge and out onto the broad snowy plain that contained the armory. The land here was cratered and shattered with deep crevasses. That’s why we couldn’t land the ship any closer to the deserted facility we planned to plunder.

Dragging and bumping along behind each of us was a power-sled. The situation was familiar, and I was reminded of the last time I’d come here months ago to gather the weapons I’d sold to the colonials on Baden.

The planetoid was a dreary place under the best of circumstances. Out here, so far from the central sun, the universe was perpetually dark. When the long, long night set in here, it became positively oppressive.

Jort and I didn’t talk as we labored to get the sleds to the armory. Most of this universe of ours was dark and somewhat depressing. Sunny, cheerful places were rare. But even so, this rock stood out as an isolated spot. It affected the mind. Perhaps that was because all humans were born on more welcoming worlds. When you contrasted this place to any other you knew, the comparison was bleak.

Worse than the darkness itself, there was a deep sense of dread to the place. We quietly trudged along through the drifting, crusty snows. We could hear one another breathing hard and grunting with effort—but there were few words spoken. Each of us was thinking of the horrors we’d seen the last time we’d visited this lonely place.

We each carried a Sardez rifle which we used for a walking stick. They were among the last such weapons we had. We’d taken them along on this hike without speaking of it, almost without conscious thought. We both knew there were strange things buried in the drifting snow. Our rifles may or may not be enough to stop an attack, should it come, but they were better than nothing.

I chided myself concerning these thoughts as we struggled over a rise and dragged the sleds down into the crater, taking care to give the splits in the ground a wide birth. Never, in all the times I’d come here, had I been attacked in the dark. The things that dwelled here, whatever they were, couldn’t function in the long cold nights.

“There it is!” Jort said suddenly.

I stopped walking and looked up. My rifle rose automatically to my shoulder. After a moment, I lowered the muzzle again.

He was pointing excitedly at the entrance. The opening was nearly buried in snow. It was a black wound that penetrated the rock nearby.

We’d reached the foundations of the fortress that had been destroyed long ago. A few paces more, and we’d be able to enter the tunnels and head down to the armory. I should have been cheered by this, but somehow, I wasn’t.

We dragged our sleds to the tunnel mouth and then down into the ground. We were swallowed by darkness now. We had only our suit lights, glaring bluish-white, to guide us.

“Not much farther,” I told Jort. “We’re nearly there.”

Then we walked out onto an open space, and we halted. My mouth fell open. My suit lights played over the walls, the ceiling, the empty floor.

“Where are the guns, Captain?” Jort asked.

“They’re gone,” I said, somehow preventing the despair in my heart from coming out in my voice. “Everything’s gone.”




Chapter Fifty-One

“Is this the only vault?” Jort asked me. He stumped near and looked around. “Could we be in the wrong place?”

I laughed. It was a bitter, haunted sound.

“No. We’re not in the wrong place. We’re just too late.”

“But who? How?”

“I don’t know,” I said. I sat on my floating power-sled and let my feet dangle above the icy floor. My suit-lights played over the ceiling, but my eyes were unfocussed. I saw nothing around me.

All was lost. My one secret, my singular advantage—gone. Now, all I was could be summed up in a single phrase: a gun runner with nothing to sell.

This stash of weapons had been the magical key to my business. Out on the rim of the Conclave there were always plenty of buyers—selling was the easy part. Getting the weapons in the first place, that was the real trick.

Everyone out here needed weapons to defend themselves or to abuse others. Every planet had colonial troops that were weakly armed. Every raider the colonies defended against likewise needed better gear to perform their depredations.

Oh sure, there were local arms factories. They could produce the basic stuff, shredders, RPGs and the like. But no one wanted that. They wanted the best. They wanted Sardez rifles. Sleek guns that were military grade, better than Conclave manufacturers could produce even to this day.

Long ago, in my first life, I’d found this place while fleeing and hiding from patrolmen. It had been my secret. I’d thought about emptying the place out—but then what? Where would I store my stock? Where better than here, a secret facility at the very edge of nothingness?

There were even alien creatures here. Things that slept half the time. Most thieves, I’d long ago reasoned, would probably want to come here in the daylight. It was natural—and a deadly mistake.

“What are we going to do?” Jort asked me.

“We’re fucked. Someone found the stash and stole everything.”

“Let’s look around.”

Groaning to my feet, I shuffled after Jort as he studied the icy floors. He examined the chamber carefully, like a bloodhound sniffing for clues.

“There are a lot of footprints,” he said. “All layered over one another.”

“Of course. I’ve been down here before, you know. So have you.”

He didn’t even look up. He continued to study the floor. When I came to stand next to him, he put out a thick arm to bar me from walking ahead of him.

“The model-Ds… we brought them out here with us last time, didn’t we?”

“Yes. What of it?”

“Look here. This region of the vault—it was full of crates, wasn’t it? I see many prints. All over the place, around these pallets. They look inhuman.”

I stared. The floor was crusty with ice, but there were clear scratches and scuffs. Examining the print I made myself, I saw a waffled boot-shape in the frost.

Jort was right. The region where the missing rifles should be—ten thousand or more of them boxed and ready to deliver—was full of a different kind of print. Each mark was narrow, rectangular. There was no round shape to a model-Ds footprint. Just a hard metal and plastic foot that was rigid and unforgiving.

“Someone used androids to steal my stash? Makes sense, I guess.”

Jort nodded, and he continued to examine the scene. I let him, even though I thought it was pointless.

“Look here! Where does this side-tunnel go?”

I followed him, frowning. I stared at a U-shaped arch in the wall.

“I… I don’t know. I don’t recall that being here before.”

Jort grinned and rapped steel-covered knuckles on my breastplate. “See? Jort is smart! Jort has found the answer!”

With a small flower of hope in my heart, I followed him into the side passage. Examining the doorway, I saw that it was seamless. It must have been here all along, but with the stacked guns, the frost and the darkness, I’d never even seen it.

We walked cautiously into the tunnel. After a hundred steps we came to another door. It looked like a blank wall—but my eye wasn’t fooled now. It had the same shape, and there was a metal wheel in the middle.

Without being told to act, Jort grabbed the wheel and tried to turn it. His massive shoulders bunched and flexed. At last, with a shrieking sound of unoiled metal, it turned and the door swung wide.

Another chamber lay beyond. We walked inside, shining our lights high and low. The room was far from empty. It was, in fact, nearly full of crates. They were stacked five meters high in places.

“Another chamber…” I said, stunned.

Stepping forward quickly, I checked the labels on the boxes. They were printed in the Sardez script, of course, but I knew enough of that dead language to piece together what I was reading. Their words were based on old Standard, just like every dialect in the Conclave.

“Power packs,” I said, walking to another stack.

“Rifles… Mortars!”

Jort was grinning now. He followed me, swollen with pride. “What did Jort just do? Who is the smart-man here today?”

“You are, Jort,” I said with feeling. “You’re a goddamned genius!”

We laughed, and we clapped each other on the shoulders. Jort’s powerful blows hurt and bruised, but I didn’t care. I was no longer ruined. In fact—I was rich.

A creaking sound began just then, and it took us a second to recognize it.

“The door!” Jort shouted. “We’ll be sealed in!”

Together, we raced back to the entrance. The door was a mere crack. No wheel was on this side of the vault entrance. Just like the other vault, the door was seamless and almost invisible.

Shouting, I shoved the barrel of my rifle into the crack that was left. I applied leverage, but still the door was being dragged shut. The strength that I was up against—it was impressive.

Jort took his own gun and jammed it into the crack. He fired it, blindly, but there was no effect. If anything, the powerful wrenching force that opposed us increased.

“Get something else!” Jort shouted. “The rifle barrels are bending. They might snap.”

I left him howling and struggling to lever the door back open. His shoulders bunched and strained. His body trembled with the effort. Still, the door was slowly closing.

Grabbing the first thing I found, I took a long tool from the wall. It was solid, built by the Sardez. Like all their works, it was rugged and heavy.

Ramming it into the crack, I found it was something like a cross between a pick and shovel. It had a long handle, and it was all tough metal. Thicker than our rifle barrels and diamond-shaped for strength, the pole formed a good lever. We moved to the far end of the lever, and we strained to force the door open.

Slowly, the crack grew wider. With a sudden capitulation, it flew wide and slammed against the wall of the vault. A resounding clang boomed around the chamber. Without our helmets on, the sound would have been deafening.

There, in the opening, stood a figure I’d never dreamt of, not in my most fevered nights of sickness.

The main chassis of a model-D was there. The limbs, the central barrel-shaped body—it was all there.

But wrapped around it—inserted into the plastic torso—was a snake-like being.

I knew in a flash what it was. A shrade. An alien of a kind that could take many forms. A being full of evil cunning. Somehow, it had infested the model-D, taken it over, and used the heat it was capable of generating to keep itself alive and active. Riding inside the android, it didn’t need the sun’s warmth to function. It could live and act on its own.

“It’s the one that fell down into the pit,” Jort said. “The same one you lost last time we were here.”

I stared, and I knew Jort was right. The chassis was dented and even bent in places. How long had it lain there, down in the bottom of a pit without sunlight or hope? How had the shrade managed to get to it, to merge with it, to learn how to control its operation?

None of that mattered, because now the door was open. Abandoning its plan to trap us inside and let us freeze solid, the model-D began moving again.

It did not flee. It didn’t even take a step backward. Instead, it raised its scratched grippers like claws and marched forward with clear intent.

It meant to kill us both.




Chapter Fifty-Two

Our rifles were damaged and lay at the monster’s artificial feet. We had belt-knives, but those were probably worse than useless.

We stepped back, giving ground. No model-D was quick on its feet, not even on the very day it was manufactured. Today, after having suffered many damaging falls, this one was even less so. It dragged its left foot, in fact, making a distinctive mark in the frost. The freak-show riding piggy-back had a hell of a reach—and it was strong too.

Trotting away, we tore open crates. I found a rifle, but no charging pack. Jort found a pack—but it was, of course, completely drained.

“Split up, Jort,” I said. “If you get a chance to dash through the door, go for it.”

As it turned out, the plan worked—but it wasn’t me, unfortunately, who got away.

“I’ll be back, Captain!” Jort shouted over his shoulder. “Don’t let it catch you!”

I appreciated the advice, even if it did seem rather obvious. Dashing between one pile of crates and another, I was followed doggedly by the android.

The model-D was slow, but as it was driven by an alien mind, it wasn’t stupid. It was determined, never letting me get past it to escape. Instead, it would move to block my path. Even if it looked like it might be able to catch me, with a tempting appearance of weakness on my part, it didn’t take the bait.

I tried every trick I knew. I fell on purpose, then faked an injured leg. I shoved crates into its path and tried to trip it—nothing worked. The alien kept the machine between me and the door. It had no intention of letting me leave.

Naturally, my oxygen levels were dwindling, and my air tanks would soon be empty. I should have another hour’s worth left, but with all the exertion and the extreme cold, my batteries were dying too—running heaters and other life support functions was costly.

Worse, I was getting tired. The model-D wasn’t in good shape, but it was relentless. I knew the mind operating it would never get tired either. The aliens species I was up against was cunning and resourceful aside from being tough as nails. In a fair fight, no human stood a chance against them. We needed a technological edge to win, just as we had always used against predators in the past.

But these creatures were very intelligent. Smart enough to take control of an android.

I wondered briefly about the monster inside the model-D. Had it realized I would come back for more weapons eventually? Had it plotted carefully? This seemed to be the case. It had managed to get the model-D out of the pit it had fallen into and learned how to operate it. The logical conclusion was that it had carefully set this trap for me.

The thought was chilling. This being had spent months moving all the guns, so I would have to venture deeper—so it could trap me here in this deeper room.

What was the purpose of so great an effort? There had to be one.

Thinking for a moment, I knew it couldn’t be simple sustenance. Certainly, I imagined it might be starving, but I sensed there was more to its plan than a good meal.

In a sudden flash of realization, I knew what its real goal must be: it wanted my ship. It wanted to escape this rock, just as badly as I would have if I’d been trapped here for years.

“You fucker…” I whispered, my breath coming out in puffs. Each puff obscured my faceplate briefly with steam.

I looked around, trying to come up with a plan. There were plenty of rifles still in their crates. Plenty of power packs too. Unfortunately, the power packs were all drained dry. If they hadn’t been, this creature would have undoubtedly shot us right away instead of executing this elaborate plot.

There were, however, six bigger crates.

Suddenly, it occurred to me what they were: mortars. Why hadn’t I thought of them before?

I ran to one of these crates at the back of the storage chamber—the furthest one so I’d have a moment to work. I wrenched it open. There it was—a tube with a red muzzle, a tripod that automatically shot open when you set it down, and several blue-black glassy globes. These were dangerous as they were designed to rain down a shocking level of energy on a distant target. The nice thing about the mortars was you didn’t have to have an external energy source or a direct line of sight to the target. They could lob up high, then fall and blast whatever was in the way. The plasma-charge was built right into the warhead.

As I took the mortar out, I tried not to think about it much. It was best that way, as I was likely to be committing suicide.

Aiming the tube on a flat trajectory, I touched the settings. I set it for contact detonation, aimed it at the door behind the android, and rolled one of the blue-black glassy spheres into the tube.

The alien must have divined my purpose just before the weapon activated. With grippers outstretched like twin claws, the android charged me. Its artificial feet churned and scraped and slipped over the icy floor.

I wasn’t aiming at it, however. I was aiming at the wall behind it. That probably didn’t matter, because we were in a relatively small space. The vault was no more than a hundred meters across.

Throwing myself prone, I heard an explosion of energy. A brilliant glare followed by a blast wave surged across the chamber, tossing crates and boxes everywhere.

The android seemed to take flight. The explosion behind him had propelled him into a short leap that tossed him right over the spot where I was sheltering to smash into the far wall behind me.

Debris was heaped over me. There were broken crates and a few twisted rifles in the pile—I cursed at the sight of these damaged goods. What a waste, I thought to myself.

The room was smoky and in shambles, but I spotted the android. It was trying to get to its feet, feebly pressing the ground away from its chest with its arms. I couldn’t let it succeed.

Springing onto the android’s back, I rode the machine. Gears whirred and it heaved under my knees. I took out a combat knife and jabbed at the back, but the plates were too thick.

The android heaved, doing a push-up, and I almost rolled off it onto the floor. It took all my skill and balance to stay on top.

Prying with the knife, I managed to remove the back plate that covered the battery. This thing had a nuclear battery, one that didn’t give out easily. Many model-Ds did, and they could run for years without replacement or recharging.

My goal was to disable the android. With luck, I could trap the shrade that had snuck inside.

At last, I cut the cables and tossed the battery aside. The android stiffened and stopped thrashing. It was pretty banged-up anyway, and my latest attack hadn’t improved its condition.

I scrambled over the debris heading for the exit. Sure enough, the door hung open, blown off its hinges by the mortar blast.

Running now, I raced through the tunnel and reached the empty chamber at the far end. My suit lights flashed over the walls rhythmically. I heard my breath blowing hard in my suit. My oxygen levels were low—but I kept on running.

When I made it to the ramp that spiraled up to the surface, I began to feel hopeful. I might escape—just maybe.

Then I heard another sound behind me. An awful sound. It was a wet slapping noise, as if someone was beating a wet towel on concrete.

I knew what it was. It was the shrade. It had left the comfort of the android’s body to chase me—to run me down.

Shrades were reminiscent of snakes. They were long, worm-like, and lacked arms or legs. They didn’t travel by slithering, however. Instead, they used an odd, humping gait. They resembled inch-worms, creatures that humped up into a U-shape before stretching to maximum length and repeating the process rapidly. They could move alarmingly fast.

The terrifying alien showed no signs of slowing down despite the fact it must be dying. It was too cold here under the ground for anything to survive more than a few minutes—at least, that’s what I figured.

It was a race. Not between me and the shrade—not exactly—it was a race between the creature’s stamina and time. How long could it keep racing after me in these harsh conditions?

At first, it gained rapidly. I dared a glance back, but only once.

It was very close. Right on my ass. But that single glance also told me that it was slowing down. It was no longer lunging forward. Instead, it was humping along with sheer determination, but losing strength.

What was its plan? Did it just mindlessly want to kill me?

After another dozen steps, I was struck from behind.

The shrade had bunched up its body and given a mighty spring. Using the last of its alien vitality, it hit me squarely between the shoulder blades and knocked me sprawling. The icy floor rushed up to meet my face, and my faceplate starred. Fortunately, spacer equipment is built to be tough. It had to be, or people died.

Scrambling up, I felt the creature’s weight on my back. If the gravity had been normal, it would have been hard to carry, but under the light tug of this planetoid, I could bear it easily.

I stood up and reached with both hands, sinking them into the rubbery alien muscle. The shrade squirmed and looped itself around me. It began to squeeze and I could feel it probing, digging with its hard head at various points on my suit.

Suddenly, with a sick feeling, I knew what it was doing. What its plan had to be. My body heat was the only source of warmth and life in the area. If it could get inside my suit with me—it might be able to survive.

Fleeing wasn’t going to work. There was nowhere to go, and no sign of Jort. The ship was too far off to call with my radio—not from down here in the underground vault. I was on my own.

I threw myself backward, landing hard on the shrade, hoping to crush it with my suit’s weight. This did very little. The shrade was as hard as a chunk of pure rubber. All I did was knock the wind out of myself.

I searched my belt for my knife, but somehow I’d lost it. Maybe I’d lost my grip when the alien caught me and knocked me sprawling.

The shrade was squeezing all the while. My ribs ached. Things popped inside my chest. Each time I released a gasp of air, I had trouble drawing a breath. I was being choked out.

My vision blackened. Sound changed, becoming more distant. I knew I was going down fast. Was this how it felt to be the prey, when a predator is finishing its work? I knew that it was.

I heard something different, words perhaps, in my helmet, but they meant nothing to me. I was limp and trying to breathe. That’s all that mattered, one more breath.

Flesh that was like steel had wrapped itself around me, and it was not giving up. I was rolled onto my back, then onto my belly. I knew that much. The creature must be thrashing around, rolling—why? Who knows? Maybe that was its instinct. I was limp and helpless in its grasp.

Then, to my amazement, the band around me eased a fraction. Then a fraction more. It didn’t want to. I could tell it was fighting to tighten again. To finish me.

Sucking in a few gulps of air, my vision came back. I stared up through my shattered faceplate. Another face stared down at me, looking with great concern into my eyes.

It was Jort, and he was yelling.

“Captain? Breathe man! Breathe!”

I wheezed. My mouth hung wide and ran with drool and blood. It hurt, but I breathed deeply. I could feel my broken ribs jabbing into my lungs. They had to be punctured in several places. Soon, air would pocket inside my body cavity, suffocating me.

But for now, I could breathe again.

The shrade lay dead under and around me. Jort had slain it and done his best to rip it away from my dying body. At last, it had succumbed and released me.

Helping me up, Jort carried me like an infant. In this gravity, with his strength, it was easily done. In this undignified fashion I was transported back to the ship. There, Sosa and Rose took over. I was shoved into the autodoc box and operated upon.

The first thing the autodoc did was inject me with pain relievers. My lips curled up into a vague smile as they kicked in. Then my eyes rolled up into my skull, and I gratefully slid into unconsciousness.




Chapter Fifty-Three

A few days later, I emerged from the medical box and felt much better. It was like being born again—but more uncomfortable.

Aching all over, I knew my ribs had been reshaped and individually splinted by plastic nano-sutures. They would hold together if I didn’t take another hard blow. They still hurt when I breathed, and I had to take drugs just to endure the pain enough to take a deep breath.

Antibiotics went into my mouth like candy. That was to prevent pneumonia from developing. The pills also made me crap myself. The next few days were unpleasant, but I could function after a fashion.

Seven days after the shrade had almost killed me, Jort and I returned to the vault. We went cautiously this time. What other tricks might these aliens have conjured up since our last visit? We had no idea, but we took every step with eyes widened to show the whites all around. We were fearful, but we didn’t talk about it. Instead, we spoke with bravado.

“I’m gonna kill every one of those snake-things,” Jort assured me. “No more dropping on us from above or springing out of a robot by surprise.”

His words made my eyes flick to the ceiling. He was correct, the enemy would often come at a human from an unexpected direction. They were like animals, in a way. Extreme alpha predators. They often didn’t use guns or other technology—even though they could. They liked to attack close-in, using their superior physical capacities to overwhelm a man, who was a comparative weakling.

We crept into the first vault, finding it empty except for the frozen mess of the shrade on the floor. The tunnel was likewise quiet, with only black stains on the ground to show anything had happened. The shrade’s blood or mine? I wasn’t sure, and it didn’t matter.

When we reached the second vault, Jort hooted in appreciation.

“This is fantastic find! If we live long enough to get away from this hellish place, we will be rich!”

“We can’t take it all,” I told him. “We’ll haul away enough to pay Trask, then sell the rest for some profit. Take that model-D, too. We don’t want to leave anything like that behind.”

Jort looked at me. “Why? We killed the thing. There are more of them?”

I nodded. “This rock is infested. There are other things as well—worse things. They’re all dormant now, for perhaps two more months. But we can’t count on that.”

I toed the wreck of the model-D with my boot.

Jort grunted and grabbed it, hauling it to the power-sleds. He needed no more convincing.

While Jort worked, I stood guard for the most part. He packed up the sleds while I watched the tunnel and the two doors. Nothing assaulted us, but I felt a cold sweat the whole time. This place… it was kind of traumatic for me just to be here. I didn’t like it. I had to battle a deep dread that I couldn’t shake. I supposed that was only natural, as I’d come so close to death in this frozen place.

At last, we had our power sleds loaded with crates. Jort hauled them back up the ramp. It was all I could do to walk with him, cradling my rifle and breathing through my clenched teeth. My ribs were singing a mournful song in my chest. I’d had twelve breaks, and I felt every one of them still. The thought of a good, strong drink kept me going.

The four of us celebrated in our ship the moment we lifted off. It was a huge relief to leave that frozen rock in space.

“What happened there in the past?” Rose asked me. “What really happened at Sardez? I learned in school they were an evil people. A planet that was too war-like, and they perished due to their own aggressiveness in the end.”

I snorted and winced. I took a shot of brandy and downed it before answering.

“That’s Conclave bullshit. A legend, about a real place. The Sardez… they were the best of us. Or at least, they were forced to become the best of us. They fought the aliens to a standstill. In the end, though, they began losing. To prevent the spread of the aliens, the Conclave bombed out their planet.”

“Killed them? All of them?” Jort asked.

“That’s right. They killed them all and declared this star system a no-fly zone forever. Only greedy fools like us dare come here to scavenge.”

“And the aliens? Will they attack another world someday?”

I put down my shot glass, refilled it, and drank again. The liquid burned in my throat. My eyes were watering.

“I guess they will. Some say the Faustian Chain is overrun with aliens of this type, and by the Tulk as well.”

“Why doesn’t the Conclave arm the outer worlds then?” Rose asked me. “Why not build a fleet? They should fly starships to the Chain and destroy these monsters! They should bomb every world if they must!”

Looking at her with bloodshot eyes, I forced myself to breathe deeply. The alcohol and the drugs in my blood made the task easier. “Maybe they will, someday—but only if they wake up. Right now, the Conclave sleeps. They dream of better days. They hope that the enemy will never come here.”

We all fell quiet then, studying the fading bluish sphere in the viewscreens. Soon, it was a faint speck. Soon after that, you couldn’t pick it out at all.

Seeing it had been left behind, we all felt better.

* * *

Baron Trask was overjoyed when I returned as promised. I hid my injuries with a confident step and a proud smile. I gave him fifteen hundred rifles up front.

He looked shocked. “This is… generous!”

I nodded. “I have a few more things to sell you, if you’re interested.”

We began long negotiations. By the time midnight fell over the Trask estate on the planet Gladius, we’d struck a deal.

Thirty-two mortars were handed over, with an additional ammo box for each. They came with a variety of shells, some that dropped EMP blasts. Others leveled buildings. A few had knock-out gases and the like.

Trask was very pleased. He threw a feast in my honor. He again suggested I become one of his captains.

“I would,” I said seriously. “The sword-brothers are perhaps one of humanity’s greatest assets. But I have duties elsewhere.”

Baron Trask blinked at me in surprise. “You see yourself as some kind of freedom-fighter, don’t you? Do you fancy yourself a rebel against the Conclave?”

“No, not exactly.” I explained to him at length about the threat from the skies. About the Tulk and the others—the monsters that infested various planets, even here in our local cluster.

The baron’s mood shifted as I spoke. He nodded at last.

“We’ve seen signs of these things. As you say, sometimes the colonial worlds… they’re empty and barren when we get there to raid them. We know it isn’t us who has taken too much. A smart raider never burns out a planet completely. It must be left fallow, to grow back a fresh crop of hard-working rubes to steal from next time.”

“What have you seen?” I asked him.

He looked troubled. “Out past Ceti, in the real frontier—a few ill-advised colony ships have gone that far. Their settlements have been… destroyed. Nothing but skeletons are left behind in fields and burned buildings.”

I nodded, unsurprised at anything but the range of Trask’s raiding. As a well-traveled man, I’d been out as far as a hundred lights in every direction—but Trask had reached farther still.

At last, we retired for the night. I slept on my ship, as I couldn’t trust this band of pirates enough to slumber among them. They respected this and took no insult.

In the morning we bid them farewell and flew out into space.

“Where to now, boss?” Jort asked.

“Set course for the Conclave.”

“Why there?” Rose asked in concern.

I smiled, knowing she was still worried I might take her home to her dull life with her parents. I had no such ideas. With a crew of only four, I couldn’t afford to ditch even the most inexperienced hand aboard.

“To throw off anyone who’s following us.”

Seven hours later, I put the hammer down and jetted away from any unseen pursuers.

“You don’t trust Trask? Even now?” Jort asked.

“It’s not that. I trust Trask as long as I’m a benefit to him. But the Sword Worlds are full of barons and knights like him. I don’t trust them all.”

Jort understood, and he went back to his duties.

That night, my ribs finally felt better. Maybe it was the magic of the healing process—or maybe it was the lifted weight of leaving a dangerous place behind.

A tiny knock came to my door. Then a chime.

I roused myself. I’d been dozing… dreaming.

I opened the door and Rose stood there, her lovely figure silhouetted by the reddish light of the passages in night-mode.

“Hello, Rose. Is something wrong?”

“You tell me. We’re still headed for the Conclave.”

“We’ll change course. Don’t worry.”

“I don’t believe you. Not now. You’ve finished a mission, you’ve got money—you don’t need me anymore. You’re going to dump me back home, and you’ll fly off and hire some real spacers.”

Her arms were crossed tightly over her breasts. Her eyes were downcast, her lips cinched tight with worry.

“You want to stay aboard? Even after all you’ve seen? There will only be more blood, more danger if you stay with me. Are you certain you want that?”

“Going home would be like dying now. I’d never forget these days. I’d never be happy again.”

I kissed the top of her head. “All right. Let’s go change course.”

She brightened and followed me. We turned the ship to its new heading.

“Where are we going?” she asked me, watching closely.

“Somewhere out past Ceti. There’s something going on out there—something the baron talked about. I thought we’d take a look.”

She appeared baffled but happy. She hadn’t been there to overhear Trask’s dark talk of dead worlds that had been abandoned. It was just as well. She was in a much better mood this way.

After we’d changed course, she still followed me back to my cabin.

“Ah… is there something else?”

She looked shy, studying the deck between us. “I came here thinking I would have to convince you to change course somehow. But you gave in so easily.”

I touched her chin with a crooked finger and brought up her eyes to gaze into mine.

“Perhaps, since I didn’t even need convincing, I deserve some kind of… reward?”

Rose smiled, and I smiled. We embraced, and the night proceeded very pleasantly. My ribs ached and burned afterward, but I didn’t care.

It was worth it.

THE END

From the Author: Thanks Reader! I hope you enjoyed GUN RUNNER. The book will be out in audio form in June 2020, performed by Mark Boyett. If you liked the book and want to read more in this universe, please put up some stars and a review to support the series. If you’d rather see more of James McGill, don’t worry, I’m working on the next Undying Mercenaries right now!

-BVL



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