/ Language: English / Genre:sf_space

The Privateer

W Zellmann


William Zellmann

The Privateer

Chapter 1

"Goin' somewhere, Captain?"

John Smith, alias Captain Emo Arror, alias "The Terror," started as the voice came from the shadows of the darkened boat bay. He suppressed an urge to spin around, instead turning casually to face Bob Smiley, his second-in-command. His hand slowly crept toward the butt of the stunner he carried.

"As a matter of fact, Bob, I am," He replied in a casual tone. "I've had enough. I'm retiring. Consider yourself promoted to head Terror and admiral of the pirate fleet."

Smiley resembled his name, though the smile was rarely genuine. John had seen the same smile on the big man's face as he tortured victims to reveal the hiding places of their valuables, and as he casually sank a knife blade into a woman's chest. Smiley was a heavyworlder, short and wide. On his squat frame, his large arms looked almost simian, reaching nearly to his knees. Since they had escaped slavery on Peltir IV together five years ago, Smiley had put on weight and added a paunch, but he was still a fast and deadly fighter, as John well knew.

This time, though, the smile faded slightly as Smiley shook his head. "Now, that's real nice of ya, Captain, and I know I'll do the name proud. I figgered somethin' was goin' on when you insisted on grabbin' that fast yacht an' even its papers durin' the Atlantea raid.

"But y'see, Captain, there's a problem. You're the one took a stolen freighter and two dozen escaped slaves and grew it into six armed ships and the biggest, toughest pirate fleet in known space. Ever'body in this part of space knows and fears the Terror.

"And the crews, they're real proud to be part of the Terror's fleet." The smile widened again as Smiley edged closer to John, his hand moving casually toward the knife in its sheath behind his hip. John forced himself not to tense.

"The problem is, Captain, we can't have the crews wonderin' if maybe you'll be comin' back someday. Sheol, I'd be wonderin' myself. So…"

John dodged as Smiley drew the knife and stabbed it toward his belly in one swift move. Smiley kept coming, changing the stabbing lunge into a charge, the knife slashing wildly. John backpedaled as he grabbed for his own knife. He slipped smoothly aside, drawing with a lightning motion, his blade leaving a red line on Smiley's brawny arm.

Smiley paused, his eerie smile widening even more. "I'm really kinda sorry about this, Captain. I always liked ya, an' ya done real good for alla us. But if I'm gonna take over, I gotta take over clean. The crews haveta know you're dead." he kept edging closer as he spoke.

John smiled back, his eyes never leaving Smiley's. "I won't be coming back, Bob. I've had my revenge, and then some. Atlantea finished it for me. The things I've done, the things done by my crews, now make me sick. I can't plan another raid. It's time for me to retire. I'm sorry to have to do one more killing before I go"

Smiley's smile didn't falter as he circled to John's left, opposite his knife hand. "I knew you was soft, even back on Peltir. Always whinin' about "injustice" and crap like that. Sheol, I was all that kep' you alive the first year. You're a fool to think ya c'n just retire and settle down among the groundhogs." He shrugged. "Oh, well." He lunged again, this time aiming slightly to John's left, hoping to intercept John's dodge to the left.

John feinted left, but dodged low and right, twisting to leave another red mark, this time across Smiley's left chest and nipple. The big man roared with pain and staggered slightly before regaining his balance. Smiley was immensely strong, and fast as a snake. John had to keep the fight moving, keep mobile. If Smiley ever got his hands on him, there would be no hope.

"Yeah," he temporized, as he tried to maneuver the big man toward a more open area of the boat deck, "I always wondered why you kept me alive all that time. I never would have survived without your help."

Smiley put his left hand to his chest without taking his eyes from John. It came away bloody, and he flicked a glance at it before replying. He snorted. "You lightworlders think we're stupid just 'cause we're strong. I knew as soon as I saw ya that you was the one was smart enough to break us outta that hole. So, I played the dumb sidekick, an' sure enough, you was able to bust us out. An' ya made us rich, too! But we're set now; we don't need ya no more."

"That's right, you don't. So why kill me? Why not just let me go?" Smiley was slowly edging closer, and John knew the attack was coming.

Smiley put his left hand to his chest again, as though to relieve the pain, but suddenly he flicked his wrist in an attempt to flip some droplets of blood in John's face. He instantly followed this with a roar and a lunge.

This time, though, John did not dodge. He dropped, deflecting Smiley's knife arm and slashing his knife upward across the lunging man's throat. The roar ended in a gurgle, as the big man crashed to the deck, arterial blood spraying from his neck. Smiley placed futile hands over the fatal wound, and tried to rise. However, the blood loss was weakening him. He struggled to his knees and tried to speak, but his eyes glazed over and he toppled to the deck.

John walked over to the corpse. "Sorry, Smiley. You were a good friend, until you tried to kill me."

He wiped his knife on the dead man's shirt and returned it to its sheath. He sighed. Another face to join in his parade of nightmares. He had liked Smiley. He rather wished he had been able to use his stunner instead of the knife. However, he could not be sure the stun beam would work fast enough on the heavyworlder, and besides, the energy discharge would have shown up on the bridge sensors. He had to admit it was a relief that the man was dead, though. Associating with Smiley had always been like living with a deadly wild animal. You always knew you were only one small step from death. Maybe the fact Smiley had been a multiple murderer and a sociopath would lessen the guilty nightmares. Maybe.

He returned to his packing, what there was of it. He swung only two bags into the shuttle's small cockpit. One contained a few pairs of underwear and some hygiene articles. The other, much smaller one contained one of the largest collections of sunstones in known space, though he was the only one who knew it existed. He had accumulated the stones over five years of piracy, kidnapping, rape, and murder. He rarely looked at the stones. The memories they raised haunted and sickened him.

He climbed hurriedly into a waiting space suit. Once secure, he clumped over to the boat bay door controls. Carefully, he disconnected the bridge indicators and the depressurization alarm. Then he used the manual controls to decompress the hold and open the boat bay doors. Smiley's corpse stirred in the outrush of atmosphere, but it became entangled in a cutter's landing gear, and was not swept out the bay doors. John smiled as he operated the hand pump to open the doors. Tomorrow would be an interesting day aboard Revenge. With any luck, by the time they got it all sorted out, he would be long gone.

The tiny two-man shuttle clamped onto Azure Sky 's small airlock and John kicked it free as he entered the yacht's airlock. When pressurization was complete, he removed the suit's helmet. "Good morning, Tess."

"Good morning, sir." the yacht's AI replied in a pleasant contralto. "Is your business complete?" The seductive tones conjured up visions of a beautiful woman

John smiled. "Yes, it is. Are you prepared for immediate departure?"

"Yes, sir. Inertial drive is on standby and course to the jump point has been computed."

"Good. You understand you are not to use the main jump point?"

"Of course, sir. The course is computed for the newly discovered jump point in the asteroid belt. May I remind you, sir, that the location of this jump point renders it some 19.238 percent more hazardous than the main point?"

John's smile faded. "I know, Tess. But I am concerned about my business associates here. I suspect possible duplicity. It is important that we get out of here as inconspicuously as possible. How long to the jump point?"

"Thirty-nine point one two hours, sir."

John nodded. "That's what I thought. Okay. I don't want to be chased and possibly caught by them. Recompute your course to accommodate max boost for six hours, and then coasting the rest of the way. Will that make us harder to locate?"

"If we go to no boost, minimum power use, and minimum life support, we should be undetectable except to specialized instruments, sir. Normal ship's sensors detect inertial engine emissions. Estimated time to the jump point is now 46.86 hours"

"Good, Boost max, now."

"Yes, sir, boost is max." There was no sensation of movement. Azure Sky was the largest and most luxurious yacht John had ever seen. Even so, he had never been aboard a ship the size of the Sky that had gravity compensators.

John watched as the pirate fleet shrank in the rear screen. Revenge was the flagship of the pirate fleet, but it was not the best armed. That honor went to Hellraker, a 400-year-old frigate of the Old Empire. The pirates had found her drifting in space, her crew long dead. If any of the Terror's ragtag fleet could locate the fleeing yacht, it would be Hellraker, with her military-grade sensor suite. Luckily, pirates are not military-grade crews. Her captain was a drunken brute who did not trust his crew and was afraid to let them learn most of the ship's capabilities.

Captain Reg Townley of the Bastard's heart was another story. A renegade nobleman from Rackham, he was intelligent, urbane, witty, a true sadist, and a complete psychopath. John was sure Townley would eventually win the leadership struggle for command of the pirate fleet, if the fleet didn't simply disintegrate in the absence of John and Smiley. Like Revenge, Bastard's Heart was a DIN-class freighter with a few space weapons crudely installed on her. Since a DIN-class was the largest ship that could routinely ground, her usual mission was to transport the boarders in space and raiders on the ground that did the actual hand-to-hand combat.

Nomad, a tiny five-man fast courier, was his scout and spy. Her captain was John's youngest, at 24 years old standard. That did not mean he wasn't already a hardened killer, of course.

The other two ships of the fleet were fat freighters, used to haul booty from planetside raids. They were no threat to John.

Let's see, he thought. Things will be pretty confused aboard Revenge for several days, as the officers fight for the captaincy. They'll probably be too busy to chase me. Hellraker 's people can't handle her well enough to be effective.

Townley is the biggest threat. I expect he'll kill Franks of the Hellraker and take her over. Luckily, he won't have time to train his people in 47 hours!

If I were Townley, he considered, I'd take over Hellraker and use her to threaten my way to seizing control. Then I'd send Nomad to look for me.

Or would I? Could Townley trust young Turlow? He would want to make sure Turlow didn't just take off with Nomad. No, Townley couldn't trust anyone but himself to keep Turlow from running; and he'll be 'way too busy!

John grinned. He had a pretty good chance of getting away. For the moment, at least. Once he cemented control of the pirate fleet, Townley would see in John the same problem Smiley did; a threat to his solid control. He would put a bounty on John's head, and come searching himself. John would have to run fast and far.

John had planned his escape with the same care with which he had planned raids. He was heading for Ilocan, an Old Empire world, but he could not go directly there. He had several stops to make first.

Since the Empire had collapsed three hundred years ago, nearly all of its 1100 inhabited planets had begun a decline into barbarism, some slow, some not so slow. Interstellar trade was becoming sporadic, and pirates were becoming more common.

On Peltir IV, the decline had been almost a collapse. Peltir IV was a mining world with little manufacturing capability of its own. Once the mining machinery began to fail from lack of spare parts, the tyranny that had replaced the Empire government had instituted slavery to keep the mines operating.

After two horror-filled years, John and some two dozen other ragged, starving slaves had revolted and killed the overseers that worked them to death in the mine. They had then overpowered the crew and stolen the ore hauler that had arrived to load the ore. An old ex-free trader had sworn to John that he knew enough astrogation to get them to Outpost, an independent station circling a moon that had become a no-questions-asked trading center in the sector.

He did, but just barely. The ore hauler arrived full of germanium ore and ex-slaves that were starving and running out of air. Almost anything was available on Outpost for a price. John had initially planned to sell the ship and its cargo, split the proceeds among the escapees, and go their various ways. However, most of the ex-slaves were uneducated and unimaginative. They had no place to go, and no saleable skills. They begged John to keep the ship and keep them together under his command.

At first, John was reluctant, but he came to realize that he, too, had no place to go, and his skills as a lawyer under Peltir IV law would be useless elsewhere. Oh, he was sure he could survive, but the feelings of helplessness helped him understand the attitudes of the others. Then there was the seething hatred he had come to feel for Peltir IV and the people that had condemned him to a slow death in the mines. He had sworn to avenge the harm and injustice done him and the others.

Still, even after he had agreed, he'd intended only to use the old ore hauler for trade. They had used the proceeds of the old nameless ore hauler's cargo of germanium to buy a mixed cargo on Outpost, and set off on a trading voyage.

Unfortunately, John was no trader, and neither were the other ex-slaves. The old free trader had signed off on Outpost. Within a few months, they found themselves with an empty ship, no money for a new cargo, and port fees threatening to wipe out the little money they had left.

That was when they had voted to turn pirate, to attack ships from Peltir IV and steal their cargoes. They would simultaneously gain operating capital and revenge on their former owners.

They waited at a popular recalibration point not far from Peltir IV. Jump engines permit supralight travel, but they function in a straight line. Interstellar travel is therefore made in a series of jumps, with stops in between for recalibration and recalculation. These "recal" stops can last from a few hours to several days, depending upon the location of jump points within the system. The system they staked out was uninhabited but was a common recal stop between a number of systems.

Within a few days, an ore carrier emerged. Heavily loaded, it was unable to flee John's empty ship. Men in suits used mining explosives to force the air lock. They were inexperienced, however. They used too much explosive, and the blown airlock decompressed the entire ship, killing the crew. They transferred the ship's cargo to John's still-unnamed ship and left the other ship a drifting hulk, after wiping the sensor logs and destroying the ship's AI.

The deaths weighed heavily on John's conscience, and he was not alone. Eight of the ex-slaves took their shares of the cargo and discharged on Outpost. However, he let himself be convinced that it was vengeance, retribution for the deaths of thousands of slaves in the mines.

Their second attempt to become traders also failed. Indeed, they were forced to flee Jurgen's World, swindled by a planet-wide trading consortium, and pursued by corrupt planetary authorities.

They limped back to Outpost, nearly broke and furious. His beautiful Mina, the woman he had come to love, and several of his friends from his slave days had died. Cold hatred overwhelmed his conscience. John now wanted vengeance on two planetary systems — indeed, on all mankind. A grieving John Smith, peaceful attorney, was transformed, and Emo Arror, pirate, thief, and murderer, soon to be known as The Terror declared war on the universe.

John traded the still-nameless ore hauler for a smaller, DIN-class combat cargo hauler that had had its original armament reproduced. She was perfect for a pirate, and they renamed her Vengeance.

He might have failed as a trader, but John was a very successful pirate. Over time, most of his ex-slaves were killed or moved on, replaced by brutes and thugs from the gutters of dozens of worlds. He was driven now by an all-consuming hate and vengeance. He ignored the atrocities being committed by his men, taking a perverse pride in the fact that he committed none personally. Oh, on some level he was aware of his own descent into barbarism. A tiny, nagging voice continually reminded him of his shame and guilt; that hatred and revenge could not be a long-term basis for a life.

Partly in response to that tiny voice, he'd had plans for the future, of a sort. Almost three years ago, as a surprise for his beloved Mina, he had begun sending money under an assumed name to a representative on Ilocan, a largely pastoral Old Empire world where the pace of decline was very slow. The representative was supposedly buying John a villa that he had seen only in holos. Even after Mina's death, he had kept up the payments. He wasn't exactly certain why; he had only a vague reluctance to give up his last contact with his lost love. However, Mina was dead; there was no urgency to his plans.

Until Atlantea.

It was almost unheard of for pirates to attack entire planets. But Atlantea was a minor trading center, with a few medium-sized cities and the rest of the planet only sparsely settled. Except for a disorganized militia, the planet was virtually unarmed.

They had been on Atlantea for a week and John's two freighters were nearly full of loot when he came across Smiley and his crew at work. A wealthy merchant had refused to reveal the hiding place of his valuables. When John walked in, the man was tied to a chair, being forced to watch as his wife and teenage daughter were gang raped by the pirates. Over the cries and screams of the women, John heard Smiley threaten to destroy the daughter's beauty if the man did not talk. "Naw," Smiley was saying, "I won't kill 'er. I figger she'll do that herself when she sees her face. I'll just slice her nose, cut off her ears, and mebee give her some ar tistic scars. Time I'm done, she'll vomit ever' time she looks in the mirror." The man looked sick, tears running unheeded down his bruised and bloody face.

John glanced at the subject of Smiley's threats just as she turned her dirty, agonized face toward him. Their eyes met.

John told himself later that the girl really did not look that much like Mina. Oh, the hair color was similar, and her features generally resembled Mina's, but the resemblance wasn't really that close. At that moment, though, John was transfixed.

Mina had told him that someday something would happen that would hold a mirror up for John, and show him what he had become, what he had done to himself. Then, she said, he would probably kill himself. She had begged him to "go straight," stop the piracy and settle for peaceful trade — and then she had been killed when he tried.

But suddenly he saw himself in the girl's dull, pain wracked eyes. He was responsible for all this. He had planned this huge planetary raid. The animals torturing her were his men, obeying his orders. He had become what Smiley was: a monster.

John made it outside before he vomited. Mina's mirror had appeared, and John was full of loathing and disgust for what it had revealed.

Mina had been wrong about one thing, though. John overcame the urge to kill himself, mainly by focusing on forming a plan to escape the pirates and flee to some place where he could begin a peaceful new life and put this horror existence behind him.

Time dragged as Azure Sky 's AI shut down the drives and went to minimum life support. There was 'way too much time to think, to regret the past, and to worry about whether he would be discovered.

He was monitoring the pirate fleet's communications, and was gratified by the confusion his disappearance and Smiley's death had caused. The struggle for leadership was well underway, and from what was being said, and more importantly, what was carefully not being said, it was becoming apparent that Townley was on his way to gaining control. Captain Franks of the hellraker was still alive, but John suspected that was only because he was being very cautious, and refusing to leave his ship. Eventually, Townley would bribe one of Hellraker 's crew to kill their captain.

Meanwhile, Townley had called a "council of captains" of the various ships. It had been decided that this "council" would command until a leader was selected.

So far, no search had been mounted for John and Azure Sky. It appeared John had been right: Townley didn't trust Turlow not to run off. And it was Townley. John could tell that he was the one pulling the strings, and despite his drunkenness, it appeared that Franks knew it too. Franks was refusing to leave Hellraker, claiming not to trust his crew. However, he was in almost constant contact with the other captains, trying to forge support for his own candidacy. That he would fail was, to John, a foregone conclusion. Townley was smarter, tougher, and meaner. He was also sober. John just hoped Franks lasted until he completed his escape.

Between Azure Sky 's library and monitored pirate communications, the time passed slowly. Nevertheless, it did pass. John heaved a great sigh of relief as the yacht jumped.

After two recal stops, his first stop was Jackson. Jackson had been a shipbuilding center long before the Fall of the Empire. For a long time after the Fall, Jackson had been able to carry on business as usual. Empire or no, trade required ships, and ships required maintenance, repair and replacement. But now, decline and piracy had begun taking their toll on interstellar trade. Large freighters and the few remaining passenger liners no longer had to wait for access to the orbital shipyards, and the ground-based yards were no longer crowded with smaller ships. The decline here had been slow, but it was definitely occurring.

John's reason for coming to Jackson was Yan Carbow. Yan was one of the ex-slaves that escaped with John. Yan had left the pirates after the first raid, on the ore carrier from Peltir IV. The deaths of the ore carrier's crew had shocked and disgusted Yan. He had taken his share of the loot and returned to his home planet of Jackson, where he had bought into a small groundside shipyard servicing mostly small intrasystem ships. A few years ago, casual contact with another ex-slave had revealed that Yan had done well, and had assumed full ownership of the yard.

Yan was a large man in late middle age whose rough, scarred hands testified to his years of hard labor. In the years since he left John, Yan's muscle had softened to fat, turning a large man into a huge one. Still, he was a gentle bear of a man with a ready smile and a cheerful manner that had been invaluable to the slaves' survival.

Yan's smile widened to a broad grin when he saw John. "Hello, hello!" he bellowed, careful not to use John's name where it could be overheard. Even years later, the habits of slavery persist. "Come in and tell me what we can do for you!"

He ushered John into his office and carefully closed the door before grabbing John into a huge bear hug. "John!" he bellowed. "I'm so glad to see you again!" His tone lowered to a roar. "I was afraid you were dead!"

John's grin was wide and sincere as he gestured to Yan to lower his voice. "It's great to see you again too, Yan," he replied. "I hear you've done well for yourself."

The big man's smile widened. "I have done well, John," he replied proudly in a more conversational tone as he gestured John to a chair. "Life has been good since I came back. Sheol, I'm a gentleman now! A yard owner and pillar of the community."

He thumped into the oversized swivel chair behind his desk, and then leaned forward as his smile faded. "I assume this isn't a social call, John. What's up, and how can I help? Need to hide out? I can get you fixed up with an identity and you can take over half of the yard."

John started. "You're joking!"

The smile resurfaced as Yan shook his head. "Nope. No joke. I owe you my life and my freedom. I have always hoped you'd show up here so I could make that offer. I'd be proud if you'd accept it."

John shook his head in disbelief. "Yan," he replied slowly, "You're amazing." He looked around wistfully. "I really wish I could accept your offer. But I'm on the run now, and need to bury myself in the Old Empire for awhile." His eyes returned to Yan and a slow half-smile lit his face. "Perhaps I can come back when the heat's off. I think I'd like that."

Yan frowned. "Law problems? Sheol, I've got contacts…" his voice trailed off as John shook his head.

"I'm afraid the law is a minor problem at the moment," John said. "My former colleagues are at the head of the list. Any time now, lowlifes here and throughout the sector will hear that there is a big bounty on my head, courtesy of Captain Reg Townley, newly crowned Terror of the Spaceways. I've got to travel far and fast."

Yan nodded, the ever-present smile fading. "So you finally quit. Did Mina's words finally get through that thick skull?"

"Something like that. Anyway, I've got a gorgeous yacht called Azure Sky sitting on your apron. She's exactly what I need. She's fast, luxurious, and best of all, she's got an AI advanced enough to let me run her alone."

Yan nodded again. "So what can I do for you?"

"Well, first of all, she needs a new identity. I would like her beacon to identify her as some kind of small courier ship or something. Second, she's way too fancy. She's obviously pre-Fall, but she has been kept in immaculate condition. I need her made to look old and beat-up. I'd like her to seem like something innocuous, that won't attract pirates.

"Finally," he continued, "I'm concerned about the ship's AI. I have never dealt with artificial intelligence that close to sentience. It scares me a little. I was able to convince it that I had bought the yacht from her previous owner, and that I was a businessman and was concerned about duplicity by my trading partners. That's how I explained running away from the Terror's fleet. But with the traveling I'm going to have to do and the things I'll need to do, I can't keep coming up with stories and muddling through. I need a top comp expert that can set a firm cover story, and maybe even make it loyal to me, if that's possible."

Yan leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head. "I saw you land," he said thoughtfully. "She is a pretty thing. I'll be kinda sorry to mess her up. A disguise, eh? Hmm."

After a moment, he swung forward again, dropping his arms. "Well, she's about the size of one of the armed couriers the Empire Fleet used to use. They called 'em 'stingers,' because they were small, but had some nasty weapons. There never were very many of 'em. They were mostly used for fast, secure communications and high-value shipments between Prime and the Sector Viceroys. They carried a crew of five, and had two Alliance-style quickfirers mounted on the centerline. Add a few extra hull plates to change her shape, and I think we can make her look like one of those. We might even have room under the phony hull plates to actually install those quickfirers!" He was becoming excited at the challenge. "The orbital scrap yard has all kinds of military junk." He straightened and grinned at John. "This is gonna be fun!"

John was not as excited. "What about the AI?"

Yan shrugged. "The best comp man on the planet is Rey Teros. He works as an independent consultant. Nowadays, he only takes on jobs he likes. But he owes me a favor, and if I wave enough quants under his nose, he'll do it.

"I've got money…" John started.

Yan waved a dismissal. "No, you don't. Not on this planet. You can't even buy a damned sandwich." He keyed a speaker on his desk. "Evie? Listen. I want a credit chit with, oh, say, fifty thousand quants on it. No, not a company chit. Strictly cash. When? Now, of course!"

He sat back and regarded John soberly. "So, can you tell me your plans? Anything I can help with?

John shook his head. "No, my plans are only firm as far as getting the ship modded and then heading for the Old Empire. I'll need to stop somewhere for some body sculpting to change my appearance. After that I'll either try to find courier runs or try to find a nice, quiet planet where I can retire."

Yan snorted. "Retire? You? You won't last a year. I think you'd better be working on a plan C, because you've already learned you're no trader, and your plan B is ridiculous!"

John smiled. "Don't count on it. I was once a quiet, civilized attorney, remember?"

Yan smiled. "Yeah. And you ended up in a slave coffle!"

Work began on the Azure Sky immediately. Yan's yard had the specs on almost all of the ships used by the Empire, and they decided his plans were feasible. The big man seemed to really enjoy the challenge offered by the conversion.

The orbital scrap yard had only one of the quickfirers, but by retrofitting a larger fusactor, Yan was able to fit a heavy laser under the dummy hull plates. "You'll have to aim both of your weapons by aiming the ship," he told John. "There was no room to fit turrets. We'll program the AI with all the targeting programs necessary, so you'll still be a one-man ship."

The modifications made the renamed Scorpion remarkably lethal for her size. The quickfirer fired tiny rockets some twenty millimeters in diameter. However, the rockets were plated with collapsed metal, and massed 100 kilos in a one-G field. They were effective on anything up to a destroyer, and had been one of the most effective general-purpose weapons in the Old Empire's arsenal. The laser Yan mounted on Scorpion had been removed from an Old Empire destroyer. Together, the two weapons gave John the firepower of an Old Empire corvette, in a much smaller package. John would have a surprise for any pirate that attacked him.

Time dragged, and despite Yan's hospitality, John was getting nervous by the time Yan considered Scorpion ready for delivery after six weeks. By now, John had to assume that Townley had secured his command. Fat with the loot of Atlantea, the fleet would not be restive, and Townley would feel secure enough to come searching for John, and post bounties along the way.

John had been scanning the Stellar Index for possible havens when the comm buzzed. It was Yan, of course, and he had a grim expression on his face. “Two men just left my office,” he said without preface. They were looking for the owner of that small courier in the yard. They didn’t know his name.” Two security cam pictures filled the screen.

John snapped to attention. The faces were familiar, of course. “Yamesh and Barned,” he said. “They like to work as an assassination team. They enjoy the killing,” he added. Townley had found him already.

Yan’s fat face was stricken. “Then you’ll have to kill them, won’t you?” He would certainly have to try. At his wordless nod, tears began streaming down the ample cheeks. “John, I’m sorry, but I can’t kill someone. I never could, even on Peltir. I just can’t!”

Despite the dagger of fear in his own chest, he felt terrible for Yan. Yan was one of the gentlest people in the universe. Somehow, he had retained that gentility even through years of slavery. No, He’d have to face the killers, but no matter what the risk, he would keep Yan totally out of it.

“It’s all right, Yan. You know I would never ask that of you. Did they leave contact information?”

Looking somewhat reassured, but still worried, Yan nodded. “They’re staying at a hotel near the port in the club district.”

He was thinking hard. “Low rent area? Run down? Slummy?”

A weak smile surfaced on Yan’s face. “Very. Lots of cheap bars and hookers.” He brightened, “Say, I’ve got some pretty tough boys out in the yard…” he trailed off as he saw John's head shaking ‘no’.

“Not a chance, Yan,” John insisted. “I don’t want you involved if there’s any rough stuff.” Then, suddenly a thought occurred to him. “Say, Yan, maybe there doesn't have to be any rough stuff. Does Jackson subscribe to the Sector-Wide Wanted List service?”

Surprise lit his features. “Of course. Every civilized planet in the sector uses it. I understand the Patrol uses it to run the names of incoming passengers.”

John nodded, getting excited now. “I’m sure these two came in on fake papers. But they’re wanted as pirates on over a dozen planets in this sector alone; and pirates are subject to summary execution, without trial. Suppose a reputable citizen, say a shipyard owner, were to call the Patrol and report some suspicious characters asking suspicious questions about a ship in his yard.”

A slow smile grew across Yan’s features. “Why, I’ll bet they’d want to take another look at those characters’ papers, and maybe even run their DNA against the Wanted list. If they’re as bad as you say, the government probably wouldn’t even bother with a trial.”

John was grinning, now. “Yep. I can see the headlines on the Worldweb now: ‘Local Yard Owner Helps Capture Pirates’. They might even vote you a reward; these are very bad people.”

Relief was warring with a wide grin on the fat face. “And neither of us has to kill anyone or be killed.”

“Right,” John replied. And better yet," he added, “there will be a record of what happened to them. If they just disappeared, Townley might get suspicious and send another team. This way, I get a clean head start.”

Yan wrestled his face into a scowl. “Well! I think I had better do my plain civic duty. You might want to stick around your hotel room for a day or so. Theirs aren’t the only pictures on that list, you know.”

John smiled. “Don’t worry. I’m afraid James Yor-Tarken is coming down with something that will take at least three days to cure.”

Yan’s face took on a concerned look. “Oh, I’m so sorry, sire Yor-Tarken. The yard will of course send condolences. You are, after all, a rather substantial customer.”

By the time Yor-Tarken’s illness had passed, the pirates had been arrested, identified and the executions carried out. Yan was a local hero, which he was enjoying immensely, and Scorpion ’s transformation was complete.

John's relief was palpable when Rey Teros finally introduced him to his new AI and explained its modifications.

"As you requested," the wizened little man began, "We retained the name of 'Tess' for your AI. We have programmed her to be loyal to you only. If you sell the vessel, I'm afraid some major reprogramming will be required." He looked disapproving. "I do not approve of loyalty circuits. They render the Artificial Intelligence vulnerable to amateur and unintended program conflicts. However," he continued, "the circuits were present, and the programming has been completed. To her, you are a secret agent being pursued by pirates. Your 'secret agent' identity permits her to accept apparently contradictory inputs and supposed 'cover stories' without establishing programming conflicts." His look of disapproval turned into a scowl. "To a certain extent, it will also allow her to deal with the conflict between her basic programming concerning human safety and the presence and use of the lethal weapons with which you have equipped her." He paused and turned an intense glare on John. "I emphasize that she is not a military AI, and does not have their basic programming. The more often she is confronted with the fact of the destruction of human life, the more likely she is to suffer injury."

Teros paused, as though deciding whether to continue. "The AI is pre-Fall Alliance manufacture, and is the most advanced one I've ever seen. I suspect it contains capabilities I do not understand. There are also memory repositories I was unable to access." He admitted reluctantly. "Should you get to the Alliance, you might find someone there qualified to deal with those anomalies. But I doubt it." He shook his head. "I would love to spend years studying it, but I know that is impossible. All I can do is wish you good luck, Captain."

John assured Teros that he would take good care of the remarkable AI and did not intend to use Scorpion 's weapons any more than necessary. Teros merely grunted before striding out, slamming the door behind him.

At last, Yan gave him a final tour of Scorpion. "We simply gave her a forged Old Empire ident beacon that says she's Scorpion, originally registered to the Viceroy of the Callisto sector. All the onboard papers and ident plates agree with that. We did not paint her name on the hull. But John," he continued in a warning tone, "We found a sealed compartment aboard her. When we broke into it, we found what I swear must be an old subspace initiator!"

John started. Only three or four planets outside the Alliance still had the capability of instant subspace communications galaxy-wide, mostly former sector capitols. Subspace receivers had been common in the Old Empire, but the initiators required to establish the connection were so expensive that they had even been rare there. He doubted there were more than a dozen techs in man-occupied space who could service one.

"Oh," Yan continued, "I think it was long dead, and we left it alone, since we had no idea what might happen if we tried to remove it. But given what Rey told us, I think what you've got is an Old Empire Viceroy's yacht, built by the Alliance or the old Rim Sector before it became the Alliance." He laughed aloud. "If so, we're not the first to forge papers for her! Maybe she really was registered to a Viceroy!"

Yan's fat face faded to serious. "Be very careful with it, John. We can't know all of its capabilities for sure, and with what Rey said …"

The changes in the appearance of the ship were remarkable. The ship's contours had been reshaped to resemble the courier she claimed to be, and her antirad coating looked scarred and worn. Inside, age and wear traces had been carefully emphasized or simulated. Previous attempts to conceal Scorpion 's age had been removed. The sybaritic luxury of Azure Sky remained, but now the luxury carried an element of age and shabbiness. Dozens of coats of paint on bulkheads and fasteners reinforced the impression of age. John was impressed with Scorpion. She resembled Azure Sky only in general size and engine configuration. John suspected that even her previous owner would walk right past her on a landing field. Moreover, John would need that anonymity. He had business to attend to before he could search for a refuge, and some of the Old Empire worlds had become insular and suspicious since the Fall. Some had fallen below the space-travel level, and some had even become dens of pirates. There were reports that an entire Empire Fleet battle group had gone rogue during the Fall, and had seized control of nearly a dozen systems. Calling themselves "The New Empire," their descendants reportedly still ruled those systems, enforcing their rule with their aging warships. So, one entered Old Empire space carefully, gathering as much intelligence as possible before committing oneself. John was not ready yet for anything but the fringes of the Old Empire.

The newly renamed Scorpion was some 150 meters long, streamlined to operate in-atmosphere. In keeping with her design as a super-luxurious yacht, both her inertial drive and her jump drive were oversized, and made even more so by Yan. She could berth twelve in her six large staterooms, each of which had a private ‘fresher and a large viewscreen that could be set to provide panoramic views of hundreds of worlds and moons, as well as familiar starfields, even if the ship was in jump.

Largest and most complete was what John called the ‘owner’s suite’, closest to the lounge that occupied the space normally filled by the ‘bridge’ controls on lesser craft. The owner’s suite was larger than the other staterooms, to accommodate a desk with controls to access not one, but two comps. One was the main, Tess-operated ship’s comp, with its massive library of books, vids, and other entertainments. The other was more interesting. It was entirely separate from Tess. Its keyboard was not covered by any of Tess’s ubiquitous vision sensors, and it even featured a hush field so that not even the AI could hear spoken information. More than almost anything else, this second comp, with its obsessive security features, convinced Cale that Scorpion really had been built for an Empire Viceroy.

Scorpion ’s missing “bridge” was a small cubby off the engine room, its walls covered with viewscreens and control readouts. It was not expected that the bridge, or “manual control” as the manuals and the ship’s artificial intelligence referred to it, would be used in anything other than an emergency. Normally Tess controlled all mechanical and astrogational functions, leaving even her “Captain” to simply enjoy her amenities after choosing a destination.

Overall, a rich man's restored plaything became a 350-year-old military surplus workhorse with a checkered past. Scorpion 's papers showed that she had passed through hundreds of hands over the years, from couriers, traders, and pirates to the rich man that had customized her into a yacht some fifteen years before. The last entry showed her sold to James Yor-Tarken some five years ago. Of course, John had matching identification showing him to be the aforementioned sire Yor-Tarken, native of Terranea in the Horsehead Sector. He also had a replacement for the last page, showing an additional sale, but with the buyer's name blank. Once John established a permanent identity, he could sell the ship to himself, if he so desired. John knew he could trust Yan with his life. However, many people had worked on this project. Eventually, one of them would drop a hint that could lead Townley back to John. He had warned Yan, and hoped the big man would be safe.

Chapter 2

John set course for Marchand. During the long days of jump, John confronted his worst enemies: loneliness and boredom. He spent the time familiarizing himself with his new ship and carefully exploring its near-sentient artificial intelligence. Despite Rey Teros's assurances, John was still suspicious and even a bit intimidated by Tess, the newly modified AI. There was a persistent rumor that in the years before the Fall, the Alliance had actually produced sentient AI's, and John was haunted by the possibility that Tess was one. What would a 400-year-old intelligence bound to a ship be like after centuries of bouncing around the galaxy under hundreds of owners? Would it even still be sane? What if it decided it didn't like him? Or got angry with him? There are dozens of ways a ship can kill its occupants without harming itself. John tried using conversation to probe the AI without marked success.

John also stopped his depilatory, and grew a full beard. Beards were rare in this part of space, and John had learned that if a person sports an unusual feature, an oversize nose, say, or a full beard, people focus on the distinctive feature, and do not look very closely at the person displaying it. Just before grounding, he emphasized the beard even more by trimming it into a fanciful design that most should assume was common on some rural planet. He also cultivated a slight limp.

John had only a name and a place to use that name on Marchand; he had never been there. Marchand was reputed to be one of only three planets in the sector retaining the capability to provide deep-level body sculpting, and John needed the deepest level sculpting available if he was to escape Townley permanently.

The contact point was a rather large ship's chandlery and general merchandise store adjoining the spaceport. John decided it was perfect cover for the man who controlled much of the criminal activity on Marchand. "I'd like to see Joma Alcar," he told the security guard just inside the door.

The large man with the bulge on his hip looked unimpressed. "He's busy. What's it about?"

"It's about money. I was referred to sire Alcar by Sarky Camro."

The man shrugged. "I heard Sarky was dead."

John nodded. "I heard that too." Actually, John had been there. Sarky had been careless going through a door. He merely stood looking at the guard as silence began to drag. Finally, the guard shrugged again and said a few words into a wrist mike. He slid off the stool he occupied, and with a negligent, "C'mon," headed for an inconspicuous door near the front of the store.

As soon as the door closed behind John, the big man whirled and slammed him against the wall. The point of a knife pricked John's neck.

"Hands up!" the man demanded. Then, "You carryin'?"

John raised his hands above his shoulders. He had expected to be searched. He nodded slowly. "Knife, behind my right hip. Nothing else. I heard the johns on Marchand were really rough about weapons."

A rough chuckle sounded from behind his head. "They are. It costs Joma a bundle to keep it that way."

He felt a light touch at his hip, and then the knifepoint vanished and the man frisked him quickly but thoroughly.

"Okay," the big man said, "Come on. You go first. It's the third door on your right. And don't move too fast, okay?"

Joma Alcar looked more like a politician or aging vid star than the head of a criminal syndicate. He sat behind a large desk with a single uncomfortable-looking chair in front of it. The rest of the office was almost completely undecorated and shadowed. The dimness was relieved only by a pool of bright light on the desk area. John recognized the psychology. Put your visitor in a hard, uncomfortable chair in front of a massive desk, in a pool of bright light, with no distractions and yourself in a large, comfortable swivel chair. Instant dominance.

John took a seat in the hard chair at Alcar's casual wave. The distinguished-looking man flashed a bright smile that did not reach his eyes. "So," he said in a bass voice, "You're a friend of Sarky's, huh?"

John smiled and shook his head. "Naw, we worked a few jobs together, is all. But he give me your name in case I ever needed anything on Marchand."

The man nodded, the phony smile still in place. "Uh huh. Last I heard he was workin' for a pirate. That 'Terror' guy. You a pirate too?"

John laughed aloud. "Me? Gods no! Too much blood an' guts. Besides, I don't think I could kill. I'm strictly a heister."

Alcar seemed to relax slightly. "So, what can you do for me?"

"Isn't that supposed to be 'what can I do for you'?"

The man's smile grew even wider as he shook his head. "Nope. You're here because you need something from me. What's gonna make it worth my while to hear about it? Sarky was strictly a small-timer. He never put together a decent job in his life. How do I know you ain't just like him, and flat broke?"

John turned his smile nervous. "Look, sire Alcar. I'm not gonna lie to ya. I'm pretty small time, too. But I got lucky, if you can call it that. A job I did turned out to be a lot richer than I thought it would be. Enough richer that the pigeon put out a contract on me and I hadda run. I heard there's still some bounty hunters on my tail. I've used up the entire score runnin' for months, now. All I got left is a beat up old ship and my emergency fund.

"As for what I can do for you…" He reached into his shirt pocket and removed a folded piece of velvet. Stretching, he put it on Alcar's desk and opened it. A seven-millimeter sunstone lay revealed. Alcar inhaled. "Well!" he pulled the gleaming stone across the desk, and avarice showed even through the body sculpting as he admired its amazing beauty. Sunstones are the rarest gems in the universe. A seven-millimeter sunstone could buy a small, brand new starship on the few worlds still producing them.

"This is my emergency fund," John continued. "I've kept it for more than five years. Get me everything I need and it's yours."

Alcar's eyes narrowed and the smile turned predatory. "So why don't I just take it from you — or your body?"

John swallowed noisily and produced a weak smile. "Because you don't work that way. I checked you out, sire Alcar. You got a rep for playin' it square with those who play square with you. And what I'm gonna ask for won't cost you a tenth the value of that rock."

Alcar reluctantly pulled his eyes from the stone and nodded. "Okay. Now we get to what I can do for you."

John bobbed his head submissively, an obviously fake smile plastered on his face. "Of course, sire Alcar." He took a deep breath. "I'll need a deep-level biosculpt. The whole package. DNA analysis and modification, as well as the usual hair and eye color, height and weight mods. I'll also need all the records of the procedures. The original records. I have to make sure there's nothing for the bounty hunters to find."

Alcar frowned. "The biosculpt's no problem, of course, though DNA mods can get expensive. But making the records disappear, now that could be a problem."

John's smile changed, became cynical. "I'm a small-timer, sire Alcar, but I'm not stupid. Biosculpt keeps Marchand on the star maps. It's one of, what, three? four? planets that still has the DNA analysis and modification capability. And you control Marchand, at least the not-so-legal side of it. Making records disappear is probably one of your standard services." He sighed. "Look, sire Alcar. You're already getting everything I have. I have to live aboard my clunker of a ship because I can't afford a hotel. Once I pay my port fees, I'll be running with empty pockets. I can't even try to pick up a small cargo because it might let them track me. I won't be back to Marchand, so the records won't do you any good for blackmail. And the third thing that stone has to buy me is your silence if the hounds track me this far." He firmed up his expression, and sat back. "If you can't help me, just let me know. I'll take my stone and keep running."

Alcar straightened. "I like you, kid. You've got brains. If you weren't hot, I could use a guy like you in my organization." He smiled, a genuine smile this time. "You got a deal. You'll get the whole package, including the original records. After that, I've never heard of you."

John put on a desperately grateful expression. "Thank you, sire Alcar. Keep the stone. I know you'll honor your word."

After giving Alcar his Yor-Tarken name and berth, John allowed himself to be ushered out. He hurried back to the Scorpion.

"I've made the contact, Tess," he told the ship's AI. "I expect they will want to check me out. We have already cleared customs, so we shouldn't be having any official visitors. If we do, verify their idents, but refuse to let them aboard without my permission. And I haven't ordered any repairs. So any "repairmen" that show up are fakes, no matter how good the signatures look on a work order."

"Understood, sir," Tess replied.

Within the hour, "Sire Yor-Tarken" received a vid call "reminding" him of his appointment at the DNA Scanning Center the next day.

Alcar was as good as his word. Within a week, Scorpion lifted. John was still confined to a float chair as the result of the surgeries that made him five cems shorter than John Smith, and racked by the pain of DNA restructuring.

After a month of discomfort and anguish, John Smith was gone. John Smith had been 178 cems tall; Cale Rankin was 173. John had weighed 90 kilos; Cale massed 80. Cale's darker brown skin, black hair, and brown eyes had replaced John's fair complexion, brown hair, and grey eyes. Scorpion 's papers showed that James Yor-Tarken had sold her to Cale Rankin, a native of Warden's World in the Sirius sector, some two years ago. Cale once again began growing a beard.

During the long hours in the regen booth, John, now Cale, had studied the various star atlases he had bought, searching for a refuge.

The Alliance of Free Systems would have been the perfect place to retire. It was the oldest and largest of the entities surviving the Fall. "Released" by the declining Empire some four hundred years ago, the thirty-one inhabited planets of the Alliance enjoyed the highest standard of living in man-settled space. The Alliance had foreseen the Fall, and prepared for it. Among other things, unfortunately, that meant they had very effective border controls, a strong anti-pirate bias, and a deep suspicion of armed ships. If Cale approached the Alliance in Scorpion, his papers would be scanned for the slightest inconsistencies, and he would be asked some very hard questions. Cale decided it would be safer to stay in the Old Empire, where fewer questions were asked and fewer documents demanded.

Perhaps one of the old "glory worlds." The 'Mission for the Greater Glory of God' was a repressive theocracy. At its height, it had ruled twelve systems, with seven inhabited planets. Finally, some 275 years ago, its brutal excesses triggered a response from both the Alliance and the declining Empire. Even the Glory's large fleet had been no match for the combined might of the Empire and the Alliance, and once that fleet was defeated, uprisings on all seven worlds overthrew the Glory in bloody revolutions. All seven inhabited worlds had considered themselves betrayed and abandoned by the Empire. Three had petitioned to become members of the Alliance. However, the other four all became fiercely independent. One had rejected all government, and had reputedly declined into total anarchy. For some reason, though, pirates seemed to avoid Liberty. It might be interesting to find out why.

Or perhaps Libertad, with nine systems and three inhabited worlds, all ruled by a hereditary king.

Even discounting the worlds that had reverted to barbarism and those that had lost space travel capability, Cale had plenty of choices.

His next stops, though, would not be to settle. He needed to convert some of his sunstones into more easily usable form. The fabulous value of even a small sunstone meant they were difficult to convert to local currencies, and even if the conversion were possible, it would certainly draw attention to the converter.

No, he needed an intermediate form of wealth. One still easily portable and one that had value on almost all worlds, regardless of their local currency. He had settled on diamonds. Diamonds are still the hardest natural substance known to man, still made spectacular jewelry, and were still rare enough to be worth more per carat than anything except sunstones. They could also be converted to any of a thousand local currencies without a lot of questions being asked, as long as one was careful. And Cale planned to be careful. Sunstones were so rare and valuable that his conversion of even one large one into diamonds would be known throughout the sector in less than a month. He was going to have to convert one stone on one planet, and then quickly head directly for another planet to convert another one before word of the first transaction got around. However, he could not afford to let Scorpion be identified as being on both planets at the critical time. Finesse was needed. Fortunately, he had been foresighted enough to allow Yan Carbow to present him with a remarkably sizable amount of another "universal" currency: gold bars.

Cale turned Scorpion toward Torlon. Torlon had been a moderately successful trading center before the Fall; now it was sinking more and more quickly down the slope toward poverty, and was on the verge of losing spaceflight. He was not challenged on his way in from the jump point. In fact, he apparently wasn't even detected.

Cale didn't have a contact on Torlon. In fact, he had no leads at all, just a barroom story about a scrap operator who scooted around the sector in a small, fast boat with jump capability. However, he found what he was looking for immediately, an orbiting junkyard full of old and scrapped ships. He grounded Scorpion at the dilapidated, weed-grown port field, careful to land as far as possible from the tower and as near as possible to the two rusting tramps occupying the field. He dressed in the workman's clothing Yan had provided him, then climbed down the footholds on Scorpion 's hull, sneezing from the smoke of the still-burning weeds his landing had ignited. Throwing the small but heavy bag he carried over his shoulder, he began the long hike to the tower.

There was only one man in the tower, and his appearance matched that of the field. His worn clothing was none to clean. Neither was he, or the tower itself, for that matter. He was lounging in a floatchair in front of the communications board.

"Good morning," Cale said cheerfully, "Can you direct me to the best place to buy a used ship?"

"Hmph," the man replied ungraciously, "What fer? Ya gotta ship, ain't ya?"

"Naw," Cale replied casually, "He just gimme a ride here. My ship give up on Cutler's World."

The man snorted. "Cutler's World?" They ain't even got space flight anymore!"

Cale shook his head sadly. "Don't I know it? I spent a year there workin' my ass off for food before this guy showed up an' gimme a lift. So where can I buy a ship?"

"Huh! Th' only person on Torlon that might still have a ship to sell is Ber Nabel. But he might not have anythin' to sell. Mostly he's in the scrap business." The man waved vaguely. "His yard's over on the other side of the port. But he'll probably be up at the orbital yard cuttin' up another ship."

"Thanks," Cale replied offhandedly. "I guess I'll try the yard. Maybe I'll get lucky."

The man just shrugged and turned back to the comm board. Cale set off across the hot plascrete in search of Ber Nabel.

Nabel's yard was easy to find. It consisted of at least a hectare of rusting hulks and ship parts. Small intrasystem freighter hulls were mixed inextricably with their larger interstellar brothers. Here and there, hull alloy gleamed brightly through scarred antirad coating. Cale recognized two DIN-class freighters that had been scavenged to near-skeletons.

Ber Nabel was a small, grizzled man, his salt-and-pepper hair matched by a full beard even larger than Cale's. When Cale found him, he was using a plasma torch to cut a hull section free on a medium-sized bulk carrier.

"Sire Nabel," Cale shouted up to him, "I wonder if I might talk with you on a matter of business."

Nabel pushed his protective goggles up onto his forehead. "What d'ye want?" he shouted. "I'm busy!"

"Too busy to do business?"

The man scowled. "Business, eh? Oh, all right."

He lowered himself in his safety harness until he stood beside Cale. "What kinda business?"

Cale shrugged. "I might want to buy a ship. Don't you have an office where we can discuss it?"

Nabel snorted. "Buy a ship? What kinda ship?" He led Cale to an Old Empire corvette hull that apparently served him as an office. Inside, the ship's messroom had been gutted and a scarred real wood desk installed, along with a remarkably modern comp. Nabel threw himself into an old float chair that had been welded to the deck.

There was no other chair, so Cale simply stood. "I want something small and fast. Small enough to operate by myself, and fast enough to run courier jobs — and outrun pirates."

Nabel shook his grizzled head. "What makes ya think I got any ships? I'm not a dealer. I'm in the scrap business." The man's tone was short, hostile; and his eyes cold as space.

Cale smiled. "A man that strips ships for a living, well, I just gotta believe he'd build himself a sweet little job to run around in. Somethin' small enough to put in the hold of a ship he bought at auction."

Nabel scowled. "A man's gotta have a way to get to auctions in other systems. But what makes you think I'd sell it? And why would I sell it to you?"

Cale's smile widened as he reached into his bag and dropped a gold bar on the battered desk. "That's why. I've got gold, and a proposition."

Nabel's eyes widened at the sight of the gold bar, and then narrowed with suspicion as he looked back at Cale. "What've you got in mind?" His eyes dropped and his fingers began to caress the bar.

Cale leaned forward his hands resting on the desk. "Here's the proposition. I need a fast ship for a courier job; a one-time, fast job. If I like your ship, I'll buy it. Then I'll make my run. Once I've done the job, I'll bring the ship back, and sell it back to you for, say, half price."

The old man's eyes gleamed. "So, what you want, you wanta rent my ship. This job. Is it legal? I don't wanta get arrested at an auction for somethin' you did!"

Cale waved a finger in negation. "No questions. Do you have something, or not?

Nabel looked up at Cale. He was having trouble tearing his eyes away from half a kilo of pure gold. He swallowed, and then scooped the bar into a desk drawer. "Folla me,"

As the two worked their way across the yard behind the "office," Cale caught sight of something that excited him. He was pretty sure he saw a stinger-class courier like the one Scorpion was imitating. If everything went well, he might want to talk to Nabel about that hulk-especially, if he had the registration papers on it!

Nabel led him to a shed made of hull plates. With a flourish that could only be described as pride, he swung open a sagging door. In the dim interior was a small Old Empire courier ship. At first, Cale thought it looked to be in good repair, but he saw nothing to produce Nabel's evident pride. Then his eyes began to adjust to the dimness.

The front of the tiny ship looked normal. But aft of the passenger area, the hull widened out, and showed a number of odd bumps and bulges. It looked as though the old man had put in larger inertial drives, and a much larger fusactor than the Empire had installed. Cale examined the ship more closely. The modifications were obvious, but the hull plates had been carefully fitted to restore the aerodynamics of a ship that had to fly in planetary atmospheres. L'rak was lettered proudly on the hull in a garish purple. Cale knew that a L'rak was an ugly reptile native to Sata IV that was famed for its speed. The old man touched the handle and the ship's hatch opened smoothly. Internal lights came on, and Nabel waved Cale into the cramped vessel.

"As ye can see," the old man said, "she's an old Gnat-class courier. But I lost out on a scrap deal because she was too slow. So I give her the inertial engine an' fusactor outta an old Strengl long-range fighter. Had to upgrade th' jump engine, too."

Cale examined the pilot's panel. Gnat-class couriers had a crew of two, but a man alone could run one. Nabel's modifications had obviously extended to the control panel. Instruments and switches dangled from unmarked wires. Nabel was probably the only man in the universe that could fly this ship with all the jury-rigs. After a moment, though, he began to make sense of the confusion of wires. Most of the wires protruded through openings usually occupied by more traditional instruments. Nabel had not jury-rigged, so much as replaced instruments and switches with others intended for different sized and shaped instrument panels. Everything was worn, but clean, and the instruments themselves looked almost new. Cale looked at Nabel with a new respect for the old man's capabilities.

"I'll need you to label all these loose instruments, but mostly I'm impressed. You say the inertial drive came out of a strengl?"

The old man bobbed his head with a proud smile. "Yep. I've had her up to 4G's. She'll do more'n that, but I'm too old fer such nonsense, an' I quit at four. Even so, I had to wear a blamed G suit!"

Cale nodded. "All right. I'll want to try her out, but if she's as good as you say, how much will you take for her?"

The old man cackled and rubbed his hands together. "It'll cost ya more'n one of them bars, that's fer sure!"

They finally made a deal. Cale paid four of his bars for the ship, with the stipulation that he could bring it back within three months, and Nabel would buy it back for half price. In effect, Cale was renting the ship for two gold bars. He knew he was overpaying, and there was a chance the old man would refuse to buy L'rak back. However, nobody rents starships. At least no one who wouldn't ask many questions and demand a lot of documentation. Oh, they run charters, of course, but not rentals. This would give him a nearly untraceable ship with which to cash in a few of his sunstones. He figured that by the time word of the first deal got out, he would be able to convert two more stones, return the ship to Nabel, and take off in Scorpion without being traced. Moreover, of course, it appeared L'rak was fast enough to outrun any police or pirate ship in space.

He used the Yor-Tarken identity on the ship's papers. It would stand up to fairly strict scrutiny, and Cale Rankin could not be tied to the ship. All this rapid and repeated name change stuff was irritating, but it wouldn't be necessary much longer; once he turned his sunstones into negotiable diamonds, he was sure he could assume the Cale Rankin identity permanently.

Once the old man had labeled his jury-rigged instruments and removed the painted name on the hull, they had moved L'rak out onto the landing field. Cale lifted off.

He was impressed. L'rak lifted with the quiet smoothness of a new vessel. Once he cleared Torlon space, he opened the throttle. A wide grin spread onto his face as acceleration climbed. He watched the accelerometer as it passed 4G, then five. He throttled back at 5.5G because he was starting to gray out. The little craft was amazing. Its acceleration and maneuverability were unlike anything Cale had ever experienced. He decided this must have been what it was like to pilot a Strengl long-range fighter in the Old Empire Fleet. He began to try to figure out ways he could keep the little monster. It was a shame L'rak would never fit in Scorpion 's tiny hold!

Satisfied, he returned to Torlon and loaded provisions for his trip. He figured he would have to complete his task in less than a month, which meant short jumps and quick turnarounds. Any more than that, and people, especially law enforcement people and pirates, would begin taking an interest in a man zooming around in a modified Gnat-class with a supply of sunstones and diamonds!

He waited until dark to sneak back to Scorpion. He reported events to Tess, and left his instructions. No one was to come aboard under any circumstances. In the morning, Tess was to lift off and hide behind the second moon of one of the system's gas giants until she detected L'rak emerging from the jump point. At that time, she would return to Torlon and assume orbit, waiting for Cale's signal before grounding for a quick pickup. Cale was becoming very grateful for Scorpion 's advanced AI. Few ships in space could have executed Cale's orders, but Tess seemed confident she would have no problem.

Cale had spent many hours with Tess poring over star charts, navigation charts, and Stellar Index entries and working out an itinerary. From Torlon, two short jumps would take him to his first stop, New Chin. New Chin's most famous product was jewelry. John had never been there, but rumor had it that New Chin jewelers were not particular where they obtained their gems. Several of his pirates had mentioned selling stolen jewels there on occasion. Cale hoped to sell two sunstones there before lifting off for Ararat, a regional banking center one jump away. He should be able to sell at least one stone there. Given the planets' wealth, he hoped to sell his largest, a 15mm monster. Then, he would immediately lift off for Refuge, formerly the sector capital, but now a wide-open trading center. Refuge was the only place Cale worried about; its reputation was not encouraging. Nevertheless, he had decided it was worth the risk to get rid of one more stone.

If he succeeded in his quest, he should have more than enough diamonds for a luxurious retirement on any planet in the Old Empire, or in the Alliance, for that matter. Refuge was two short jumps from Torlon. Once there he would return L'rak to Nabel, board Scorpion, and disappear into the cosmos, just as rumor began inspiring searchers and pursuers.

Once off Torlon and clear of pursuit, Cale could begin making long-range plans. He planned to head first to Ilocan, to check out what should be his own, luxurious villa. He had hopes that he really could settle there. His Aunt Jessica; uh, John Smith's Aunt Jessica had retired there some years ago. Her glowing descriptions had caused John Smith to select it as a possible home. Perhaps he could even get a license to practice law! However, if he found anything there that indicated his secret was known, body sculpt or not, he would have to run. Perhaps he would head deeper into Old Empire space, to begin retirement or a new career as a courier. For the moment, his immediate plans were worrisome enough!

The tiny L'rak was barely large enough for a cramped bridge, two tiny "staterooms" consisting of a foldout bed and desk and a small closet. The so-called "staterooms" were so small that one had to step outside the door to climb into the open bunk, and then close the door after himself. One of these was presently filled with Cale's provisions, since the miniscule "hold" consisted of less than a cubic meter of space. The rest of the passenger spaces were limited to a single cramped 'fresher and a coffin-like med cabinet.

L'rak did not run to an AI, of course. Her simple-minded astrogation comp seemed crude compared to Tess's abilities. Cale was forced to use studied-but-never-used astrogation techniques and cross his fingers a lot.

But she was fast. It had taken Scorpion 44 hours to reach Torlon from the jump point. L'rak made the return trip in 32. Tess had computed that the two jumps to New Chin would take 92 hours, followed by a recal stop requiring 39 hours, a jump of 87 hours, and 42 hours to reach New Chin from the jump point, for a total of 304 hours, or almost 13 standard days. L'rak shaved that time to just under ten. If she could maintain that pace, Cale should be able to meet his one-month goal for the complete trip.

An Old Empire destroyer picketed new Chin's jump point. In less than an hour, a customs official had been dispatched, L'rak 's papers had been examined, and she had been given a cursory search. Cale held down his speed inward. There was no sense advertising L'rak 's capabilities.

Once the communications lag was down to five seconds, he was hailed by a large orbital station, demanding to know his business. Cale's terse "Gem trading" seemed to satisfy them, and he was directed to a berth on the landing field near the planet's capital city.

Even before he landed, jewelers and gem dealers were calling, inquiring about his merchandise. Cale claimed to be unwilling to discuss deals over open comm circuits, but actually, he queried the station's library directory to locate the largest jeweler and the largest gem dealer on the planet. He wanted to sell two sunstones here, but he wanted to do only one deal for both. He wanted to be on his way out of the system before tongues started wagging. Only the largest dealer or jeweler would be able to handle the purchase of two eight-millimeter sunstones.

As soon as he had grounded and taken care of the port formalities, he walked two blocks from the port before grabbing a hovercab to the headquarters of Peng Gems.

An attractive young woman operated the reception desk. When he asked about meeting with a gem buyer, she seemed unimpressed, until he mentioned sunstones. Suddenly she became very attentive, and began pressing buttons on her console. In only moments, a small, middle-aged man hurried to the reception desk with a large, if insincere smile.

"A very good day to you, sire… uh…"

"Averano," Cale supplied, using the name of a long-dead pirate.

"Of course, sire, of course," the little man ushered him down a short, deeply carpeted hall and into a small, but tastefully decorated office. The large real-wood desk supported a small sculpture John Smith would have estimated at fifty thousand Alliance credits.

The small man ushered him to a comfortable-looking chair facing the desk. "I'm Ricardo Fong," the man said as he hurried around the desk. "I understand you have a, uh, high-value gem to show me." The smile never wavered but the man's eyes gleamed with avarice.

Cale smiled. "Two, actually," he replied casually, "both about eight millimeters in size."

The smile slipped. " Two?" Fong rose again. "Sire Averano, am I to understand that you can offer two sunstones?"

Cale's smile faded. "Yes. But can Peng Gems afford to purchase two eight-millimeter sunstones? I am prepared to sell them one at a time, if necessary, but I would prefer a single transaction."

Fong looked shaken. "If I may see the… uh… merchandise?"

Cale reached into his shirt pocket and removed a small packet. Feng hurried to place a piece of black velvet on the desk. Cale unwrapped the packet and the two sunstones rolled out onto the velvet, seeming to glow in the room light. Fong hurried back around the desk, snatching a well-used jeweler's scanner from the center drawer. With it, he hovered over each of the stones. After a moment, Fong released the scanner and dropped backward into his chair with a thump. He looked dazed.

After a moment, he roused and began frantically pressing buttons on his console. "I'm sure Peng Gems would be willing to make an offer," Fong said weakly, "but of course such a large transaction would require the personal attention of sire Peng himself."

Fong carefully folded the velvet over the stones, and watched helplessly as Cale returned the gems to his pocket. Fong's eyes followed them hungrily. Then, seemingly rousing himself, he ushered Cale down the hall to a lift shaft. Fong looked briefly into a sensor, and then urged Cale into the shaft. They rose some thirty stories before the shaft disgorged them into a small empty area facing a single large real wood door. The door was heavily carved with fanciful creatures. The walls of the small reception area were also covered in real wood. Cale suspected the intricate carvings concealed several weapons.

Another retinal scan and the large door swung silently open. The large room it revealed contained only a large real wood desk and three heavily padded chairs. The carpet's pattern identified it as from Songhast, and was the deepest Cale had ever seen. Since Songhast was hundreds of light years from New Chin, and a carpet this size would take years to complete, Cale knew he was looking at an artistic treasure. He began to believe that Peng Gems actually could complete the deal.

The man behind the desk was almost obscenely fat, and was firmly ensconced in a float chair, which seemed to be struggling to maintain its flotation.

"Well," the man said impatiently, "Let's see them! Let's see them!" his voice was high-pitched and irritating.

Cale smiled slightly, but made no move. "Sire Peng, I presume?"

Fong looked shocked, but the fat man merely frowned. "Of course, of course! Let's see them. Two sunstones, y'say?"

"Yes," Cale replied, "both eight millimeters in size."

The fat man nodded impatiently. "Well, let's see them!"

Cale placed the black velvet on the huge expanse of real wood, and uncovered the stones. Peng gasped at the beauty spread before him. An expression of avarice crossed his face briefly before he regained his normal impassivity.

He reached for them, but Cale interposed his hand. "There is still the question of whether Peng Gems can afford both stones," he said pleasantly.

Peng scowled. "It might be done. It may take a day or so to obtain sufficient currency…"

Cale interrupted him with a wave. "I'm not interested in currency. I would prefer to deal in diamonds."

Peng's scowl faded. "Diamonds, eh? Excellent. Yes, I'm certain we maintain sufficient stock to conclude the purchase." His eyes narrowed." Assuming we can make a deal, of course."

Cale nodded. "Of course. My price is twenty-five thousand carats. Pure white, no flaws, no single stone larger than five carats or smaller than two."

A flash of triumph appeared on Peng's face before he could impose its normal impassivity. "Twenty-five thousand is quite a large sum. Perhaps fifteen?"

Cale sighed and rose. He reached for the stones. "Really, sire Peng, if you weren't serious, you shouldn't have wasted both our time."

A fat arm rose to interpose itself between Cale and the stones. "Twenty thousand, then. Pure white, with no flaws."

Cale reached over the arm for the stones. Sausage-like fingers swept them up. "Very well, then. Twenty-five thousand carats, pure white, flawless, no single stone larger than five carats or smaller than two. Agreed?"

Cale smiled. "Of course, sire Peng. If you'll hand me the stones, I'll wait until the diamonds can be selected, valued, and inspected by me."

"NO!" Peng almost shouted. He struggled to regain his composure. "Uh… We will wait here. I'm sure Mr. Fong can gather the diamonds. He is our most experienced diamond broker." Fong nodded and hurried out. "And now," Peng continued, his impassivity once more in place. "I'll have tea brought in, and we will discuss diamonds. I assume you are a… uh… wholesaler, sire Averano?"

The fact that Peng knew his name despite his mentioning it only to Fong did not escape Cale's notice. He smiled broadly. "One might say that, sire Peng. Actually, I deal in many different products. One might say I'm an intermediary. In the present case, I've been retained by a client to dispose of the stones he… uh… inherited from a wealthy relative."

A knowing smile spread over the fat face. "I understand, sire Averano. Such inheritances are a major source of gems for Peng Gems."

The conversation continued for half an hour, with insincere smiles on both sides. Cale reflected that not all pirates raid ships and planets. Some, like this fat spider, sit in the middle of their web and wait for other pirates to bring them their loot.

Finally, Fong returned with a bulging cloth bag. "Please, sire Averano," Peng said expansively, "use my desk and scanner to inspect your diamonds. The House of Peng is well known for the quality of its gems."

The size of the bag and the number of diamonds it held surprised even Cale. The bag massed more than a kilo. Nevertheless, he used Peng's scanner to closely examine each stone for flaws in the stone or the cut, and verify the weight. He was no jeweler, of course, but he trusted himself to notice any irregularities. Peng and Fong simply waited until Cale began gathering the stones back into the bag. Fong stepped forward as though to help, but Cale waved him off with a smile.

Relief tinged Peng's smile. He touched a control on his desk. "Perhaps something a bit less, er, conspicuous to transport your stones?" He offered. A moment later, a young woman entered carrying a small businessman's attache case.

Cale nodded, while examining the case closely. "I thank you for your consideration," he replied. Finding no visible signs that the case was rigged, he placed the bag in the open case, shifting the stones until the case could close.

He shook hands with both men. "It was a pleasure doing business with you, gentlemen. I will certainly keep the House of Peng in mind for future gem transactions. I assume I may rely upon your discretion in this matter?"

A huge smile wreathed Peng's fat face. "Of course, of course," he assured Cale. "If our discretion were not absolute, we would be out of business in a month."

Cale allowed himself to be ushered out of the building. The receptionist had called him a hovercab, but Cale walked two blocks before hailing one off the street. As soon as he was out of sight of the building, he removed his belt and buckled it around the case. By now, Peng should be burning up the phone lines getting people to find out all about "sire Averano," and checking recent arrivals and departures. His picture was no doubt even now being circulated. He had no time to waste. He left the cab three blocks from the landing field, and strode quickly for the port.

A gate guard gave him a puzzled look, but did not stop Cale. He nearly ran for L'rak and scrambled aboard. In seconds, he was requesting departure clearance, and in less than five minutes was cleared to lift. As L'rak lifted, he thought he saw a large ground sedan full of men approach the gate, but he could not be sure.

Cale risked running L'rak at a higher rate of acceleration than he had used on the trip inward. He could not fight an Old Empire destroyer. If Peng had the power to have him stopped, there would be little Cale could do. He slowed as he approached the jump point some thirty-four hours later. It would be best not to attract unnecessary attention. He requested jump clearance, and held his breath. He expelled the breath in a huge gust when a routine-sounding voice cleared him to jump

Once safely in jump, Cale turned to the case. He loosened the belt he'd wrapped around the case. The bottom of the case sprang open, pulling the belt from his hand. With a sour grin, Cale took the bag of diamonds from the case, closing the spring-loaded bottom and latching it.

Very clever, he thought. Once Cale was safely away from the building, Peng triggered a signal, and the bottom of the case would have dropped out, spilling the bag of diamonds into the undoubtedly rigged hovercab or the street. No doubt Peng employees were conveniently on hand to grab the bag and run. He took the now-empty case and put it in the med cabinet, then activated the cabinet's stasis field. He would dispose of the case at the first recal point, but in the meantime, he wouldn't have to worry about timed explosives. Cynical suspicions garnered from hard experience on Jurgen and Mina's death had stood him in good stead on New Chin. There is a fine line, he thought, between an aggressive businessman and a corrupt thief. No, all the pirates weren't raiding ships.

Chapter 3

Ararat was only one jump from New Chin, which pleased Cale. There would be less time for word to spread.

Ararat was a regional banking center. Ararat letters of credit were accepted without question throughout the sector, and the secrecy of their transactions legendary. While Ararat was not the gem-trading center that New Chin was, it was an open secret that the larger gem traders were backed by the large banking houses. Cale was hoping to dispose of his largest sunstone, a 15-millimeter monster. According to the latest valuations he had seen, a 15-millimeter sunstone would be worth well over fifty thousand carats of diamonds. There were few places a sunstone that large could be traded, due to its immense value. Ararat was one of those few places, but Cale wanted a quick in-and-out deal. He didn't want to wait around while the wheeler-dealers dithered. He expected to ask 30,000 carats; a comparative bargain.

Ararat's jump point was not picketed, and local traffic seemed rather light. Cale boosted L'rak 's acceleration and approached Ararat in only twenty-two hours.

Ararat did not permit starships to ground, no matter their size. All ships were required to dock at the small moon that had been converted into a space station. Regular shuttle service was provided to the capital, Yahweh. Ararat was the only one of the "glory worlds" on which religion had remained a potent force. The excesses of the repressive 'Mission for the Greater Glory of God' had initiated violent rejection on the other six inhabited worlds the 'Glory' had ruled with an iron fist. Cale had made it a point to study the rigid morality and manners of Ararat.

Being forced to leave L'rak on the moon station didn't bother Cale as much as it might. Ararat had virtually no crime for profit, due to effective law enforcement and draconian punishments. They were not so meticulous when it came to customers. Quite a few of the better-known pirates, including Emo Arror, the infamous Terror, had numbered bank accounts on Ararat. Of course, Cale wouldn't access that account if he could. He was trying to avoid attention, not attract it. No, Cale would play it rigidly straight here.

He strolled casually down Yahweh's quiet streets, occasionally stopping to look in a shop window and make sure he had not attracted any attention or followers. He turned into a grilled doorway bearing a discreet sign "Gems."

"May Lordsman's be of assistance, sire?" asked an obviously robotic voice.

Cale smiled into the red eye of the camera. "I hope so; I have a gem to sell."

"Very well, sire," came the reply. "Please step in front of the scanner."

Cale stepped to the indicated place, and in only seconds, there was a click as the heavy grilled door unlocked. Law enforcement and draconian punishments were not the only reasons for Ararat's lack of crime.

"Thank you sire," the robotic voice accompanied the click. "Please be welcome to Lordsman's, and may God's grace shine upon you."

Cale pushed through the door. Ararat was one of the few places where beards were favored, thanks to the residents' religious beliefs. Here, his beard made him more typical, not less. Only his offworld clothing had marked him as an outsider. However, the gem shop had not been Cale's first stop. He now wore the same dark knee-length coat and drab trousers and tunic that were nearly a uniform on Ararat.

"A good morning, noble sire," he was greeted by a plump young woman. "May I have the honor of serving you?" Her ankle-length dark blue skirt was unrelieved by color or pattern. A loose gray long-sleeved blouse that buttoned tightly at the neck topped it. Her blond hair was tucked into a white cap. But her smile was genuine and warm as she rendered a pretty curtsey. Not a single gem was displayed in the shop, which more closely resembled a study in the home of a tasteful wealthy man. Four rich, overstuffed armchairs surrounded a round table near the center of the room. The table's clear plas top was lighted so that the gems carried through the rooms only other door could be conveniently examined.

Cale bowed. "The honor would be mine, mistress," he replied, "but sadly, I fear the transaction will require the attention of the owner."

An expression of irritation flashed across her face, quickly replaced by a smile that was neither warm nor genuine. "I assure you, sire, that I am licensed to appraise virtually any gemstone." Her tone had sharpened.

Cale bowed again. "I beg your pardon, mistress. I did not intend to impugn your skills. However, since the stone in question is a sunstone…"

Her eyes widened in surprise. "A sunstone!" The surprise faded quickly, replaced by an impassivity betrayed only by the excited gleam in her eyes. "Of course, noble sire. If you will but abide a moment.." She ushered him to one of the overstuffed armchairs, and hurried out.

She returned a moment later, accompanied by a short, thin, middle-aged man in the black jacket that was a business suit on Ararat. Even his bushy brown beard could not conceal the sincerity of the man's broad grin. He bowed, then stepped forward and proffered his hand. "A great good day to you, most noble sire," he boomed. "I am Se Lordsman. 'Need a gem? Se Lordsman'" he quoted jovially.

Cale returned the bow, and shook the hand with a genuine smile of his own. This was no Peng. He began to feel better about his mission. "And a good morning to you, sire Lordsman. I am Rolf Amedon. I find myself in need of capital, and would like to sell my prized family heirloom." He pulled the folded velvet from one of his coat's capacious pockets, and carefully set the sunstone on the lighted table. Suddenly the entire room was bathed in multihued beauty. The girl gasped. The stone seemed to come alive on the light table. Its brilliance overwhelmed the subdued lighting of the store with a glorious burst of color that shifted as the stone moved on the table.

Lordsman snatched the stone from the table. The light show faded as though it were a vivid dream. The jeweler looked distressed. "Such displays are decadent and unseemly," he said in a stern tone. His eyes darted around before he relaxed into an easy grin. "But the lord has made sunstones magnificent, has he not?"

Cale nodded and smiled. "My sincere apologies, Sire Lordsman. I am from off-world, and failed to consider Ararat proprieties."

Lordsman waved a hand dismissively. "It is of no consequence, noble sire. Had you not said so, I would not have taken you for an outworlder. Your undoubted efforts to adapt your manners and dress to accommodate our customs do you great honor and are appreciated.

"Now," he continued, "To business. This stone is remarkable. Are you certain you wish to sell it? Perhaps a loan might be arranged, with the stone for collateral…"

But Cale was shaking his head. "I regret, sire Lordsman, that I need the funds for off-planet transactions, and so a loan would sadly not suffice. However, I greatly admire your willingness to make the offer. Few would make such to a stranger, especially an offworlder."

Lordsman's only reply was an absent smile. His attention was riveted to the stone he cradled in his palm. "Magnificent," he murmured. He dragged his eyes to Cale's face. "It is incredibly large for a sunstone. How did you come by it?" His tone was casual, but his shoulders tightened slightly. He was asking if the stone was stolen, and Cale knew Lordsman would refuse to deal if it were. He smiled slightly at his own surprise at encountering an honest businessman.

"As I mentioned, sire Lordsman, it is the last of my family's inheritance. The Amedons were once a prominent family on Warden's World. But since the Fall…" He shrugged as his voice trailed off.

Lordsman's grin was back. It was not an uncommon story throughout the Old Empire, as the fortunes of many noble, wealthy, and powerful families had fallen with the empire. "It must have been a noble family indeed, to possess a sunstone of such size. Fourteen millimeters?"

"Fifteen, noble sire," Cale replied. The niceties and social graces had been observed. They were getting down to business.

"Indeed." Lordsman took a caliper from a jacket pocket. After a moment, he straightened. "Indeed," he repeated. "Fifteen it is. And of course, there is no doubt of its authenticity after that display earlier. I almost fear to ask your price. I can only hope it is within the means of my poor shop."

"Sire Lordsman," Cale began, "You have honored me with your welcome and your obvious honesty. I shall be likewise honest. As I mentioned, I have obligations off world, where even Ararat ducats would suffer a severe discount. If you will consent to payment in diamonds, I will be willing to accept thirty thousand carats. Unfortunately, my obligations will not permit me to accept less."

Behind him, the young woman's gasp testified to the immense values being discussed.

Lordsman was unsurprised, however. "A mighty price," he murmured as though to himself, "A mighty price indeed. But for fifteen millimeters…" He paused, apparently lost in thought. Suddenly a slow smile spread over his face. Cale suspected he had just thought of a possible market for the sunstone. "Yes," Lordsman continued, in a louder, conversational tone. "For a fifteen millimeter stone it might just be done."

He straightened and smiled at Cale. "Sire Amedon, I believe it can be done. However, I'm sure you will not be surprised to hear that I do not maintain that large an inventory. I fear it will take several hours to assemble thirty thousand carats. Are there any special requirements?"

Cale nodded. "I fear so, sire Lordsman. I would prefer flawless white stones in sizes from two to five carats, I will, of course, wish to inspect the stones before accepting them."

Lordsman's smile spread into a genuine grin. "I would expect no less from such a cultured gentleman."

The young woman moved to her father's side. "In the meantime, sire Amedon, if you would like a meal, a fine choice may be had one block down the street at the sign of the angel." She stopped suddenly, and her hand flew to her mouth. "Oh! My apologies, sire Amedon, for failing to ask. Do you have ducats? "

Lordsman rose, sunstone in hand. "I shall leave those details to my daughter, sire Amedon, and with your permission begin gathering your diamonds. Will you trust me with the stone? I am uncomfortable with the idea of you walking the streets with such a treasure."

Cale also stood. "Thank you, sire Lordsman. I'm sure the stone is safer with you. When shall I return?"

Lordsman glanced at his ring watch. "I should say all will be in order in two hours or so. Shall we say at a quarter past fifteen?" At Cale's answering nod, he bustled off.

Cale turned to the woman. "My apologies for the interruption, mistress."

She smiled sweetly. "Not at all, sire, not at all. Business first, always."

"Thank you," he replied. "In response to your earlier question, I'm afraid I have few Ararat ducats. Do you think the inn will accept New Chin wen?"

"Oh, dear," she responded. "I doubt it. It is just a family inn, after all. Of course, any of the banks would exchange the currencies for you."

Cale chuckled. "Of course. How stupid of me. Where is the nearest bank?"

This time she laughed aloud before clapping her hand over her mouth. "Yahweh is a city of banks, sire Amedon. There is one on nearly every street corner. I believe there is one on the same block as the inn."

"Excellent," Cale smiled. "I'll also need to purchase a bag large enough to carry thirty thousand carats of diamonds without being conspicuous. Where might I obtain such a bag?

She led him to the door, nodding as it opened. "Godssons. One block down, two blocks right."

Cale bade her goodbye, and strode off

The bank exchanged his wen at a reasonable discount. The food at the sign of the angel was simple, but very well prepared and presented. The meat, called 'cabra', passed well for beef, and a large array of accompanying vegetables left Cale feeling stuffed.

Despite the austerity their religious beliefs imposed, Cale found the citizens of Yahweh to be bluff, hearty, cheerful, and honest, for the most part. He liked them, and enjoyed wandering the downtown area until the allotted time.

Promptly at a quarter past fifteen, Cale returned to the gem shop. This time the door swept open at his approach. The young woman was just inside to greet him warmly, and Lordsman himself bustled from the rear of the shop with a bag of diamonds even larger than the one he had taken from Peng.

Lordsman seated him at the light table and, after making sure a cup and a carafe of hot tea were available, left him to examine each diamond with a scanner.

It was nearly three hours later that Cale stood stretched stiff muscles, and smiled at Lordsman. "Excellent quality stones, sire Lordsman, and at least a full measure of carats. It is an honor to deal with a man of such integrity"

Lordsman nodded. "Thank you, gracious sir. It has been a rare pleasure to deal with so mannerly an off-worlder." His eyes twinkled and he leaned close "I would have paid thirty-five!" he murmured with a wide smile.

Cale smiled conspiratorially. "I'd have taken twenty-five." Both men laughed aloud as Cale left the shop. Cale hailed one of the rare animal-drawn cabs and headed for the shuttle port.

Both his transactions had been successful, and Cale now had over fifty thousand carats in diamonds of easily negotiable size. He could afford to live a luxurious life anywhere in man-settled space. In fact, on many planets, he would be the world's richest private citizen. It was time to do some serious planning. Did he really want to retire? Did he want to study law on Ilocan and settle in as a prominent attorney, able to pick and choose his clients? Or perhaps try to sneak into the Alliance, with its peacefulness and high living standard? He was surprised to find that he was reluctant to leave Scorpion. It would be hard to smuggle her into the Alliance with her weapons intact. And he still might need those weapons. He knew better than to underestimate Townley and his pirates.

Of course, there was his "plan B"; travel the Old Empire as a courier, offering high-speed transport of high value passengers and freight. It was tempting, but Cale knew that eventually one of those high value shipments would attract pirates. And successfully fighting one off would be almost as bad as being taken. Rumors circulate quickly in the interstellar underworld, and the last thing he needed would be to draw attention in pirate circles!

As L’rak pulled away from the orbiting station and headed for the jump point, Cale began to worry. Was Yan right? Did he really need a "plan C"?

He had to admit that retirement held no attraction for him. In his mid-thirties, he was far too young to just sit in one place and vegetate. Besides, people his age living luxuriously with no visible means of support attract the attention of tax and law enforcement authorities. Yan was right about one thing. He was not a businessman. Twice he had failed miserably at trade. He was not tempted to try a third time.

Cale had still reached no conclusions as he jumped. As the violent inside out, twisting sensations of entering jump faded, he heard a strangled retch from the tiny "cabin" behind his head. Astonished, he yanked the door open and a figure tumbled to the deck, retching and covered with vomit.

At first, it looked like just a bundle of rags, but as he drew his belt knife, it resolved itself into a girl or young woman, buried in a mass of petticoats and a huge overcoat.

She lay half on her side, still retching, though now vomit was no longer being produced.

Slowly the spasms faded, replaced by moans of misery. Despite his anger, Cale had to smile. He was very familiar with the effects a jump could have on the unprepared. He waited patiently as the retching turned to moans and finally to sobs.

Finally, he grabbed a reasonably clean wrist and jerked the girl to her feet. From Ararat, obviously. The white cap was askew, revealing coal-black hair. Most of the petticoats had settled, though her skirt seemed to be tangled in an Ararat man's greatcoat. Cale got the impression that the tear and vomit-stained face might be reasonably attractive, but in her current condition, he couldn't be sure.

Stowaways are nearly unheard of in space. For one thing, ship's ladings are calculated for mass to the last gram. So, they are usually detected long before liftoff. For another, even the stupidest groundhog should know that ship's provisions and air are calculated as closely as cargo. A stowaway could kill himself and everyone else aboard by using up their air while in jump.

Nothing and no one could leave a ship in jump space. For one thing, who or whatever was ejected would theoretically drift forever in jump space, a total nothingness that no one had ever been able to locate or identify. For another, the change in the ship's mass would mean she would never reach her target jump point. The ship, too, would drift forever in jump space, her crew presumably slowly dying as the air and food ran out.

Cale felt stupid. How did he ever miss an extra fifty-or-so kilos when the station reported L'rak 's departing mass readings? Well, at least the astrogation comp had included the extra mass in its figures. Hopefully. He'd know in about… eighty-four hours, when L'rak was supposed to emerge into normal space.

Cale shook the wrist he was holding, furious at this fool of a girl. "Are you insane?" he shouted.

The girl shrank from his anger. "Yes." she replied in a tone muffled in greatcoat.

That was the one response Cale had not been expecting. "What?" She pulled on her wrist, and in his surprise, Cale let go. She overbalanced and fell to the deck again. This time she struggled back to her feet, red-faced and flailing as she fought to remove the oversized coat.

She threw the coat to the deck and stood, hands on hips, face angry. "I said, 'yes'," she spit out. "At least everyone on Ararat thinks I am!"

Cale was regaining his mental balance. "I think so, too," he replied in a sarcastic tone. "Don't you know that every gram of mass aboard a ship must be accounted? Every cubic centimeter of air? You may have killed us both!"

Her red face whitened and she looked stunned. "What? What?"

"If your mass wasn't included in the ship's jump calculations, we'll never emerge from jump space," Cale shouted, emphasizing his words with punches of his index finger against her breastbone. "Not to mention the fact that we may not have enough air to even make it to the emergence jump point. L'rak may emerge with only two corpses aboard! If we weren't already in jump, I'd push you out the airlock!"

Cale had thought he was prepared for any reaction, but he was wrong. The girl fell to her knees, bowed her head, pressed her palms together in front of her face, eyes closed, and began to murmur softly.

Cale stood mouth gaping, speechless as the girl continued with what was obviously a prayer. After a moment, he rolled his eyes in disgust and returned to the pilot's seat, shaking his head, and trying desperately to remember how to make L'rak 's astrogation comp recall the mass figures it had used in the jump. If the comp had used the station figures, and those figures were accurate, they could still emerge in the right galaxy.

He finally succeeded, and the comp had used the station's figures. He breathed a huge sigh of relief, just as he heard a stirring behind him as the girl rose to her feet. She squeezed herself between the two seats, and large, dark eyes regarded him with an unnatural calmness.

"I'm ready," she said quietly.

Cale rolled his eyes again. "Ready for what?"

"Ready to be put out the airlock," she replied quietly. "I have made my peace with our Lord, and I apologize most humbly, noble sire, for my actions and my lack of manners before. Now, having made my peace with you as well as the Lord, I am prepared for my fate."

Rolling his eyes seemed to be becoming a habit. "Nobody is going out the airlock!" Cale exclaimed. He swiveled the pilot's chair to face the small open area that passed for a cabin. He waved irritably. "Get over there and let's get a look at you."

She said nothing, but moved into the small clear space and stood quietly. The bulky Ararat clothing revealed little of her shape, but she was about 155 cems tall, and seemed to mass about 55 kilos. She seemed quite young, though it was difficult to tell under the vomit staining her face and clothing.

Speaking of the vomit, the sour smell was beginning to permeate the tiny ship.

Cale heaved a gusty sigh. "I don't suppose you know how to use a shipboard 'fresher? No? I thought not." He squeezed past her and opened the door to the rudimentary 'fresher. He showed her how to stand and let the sonics loosen dirt and dead skin, and then showed her how to don the air mask and seal herself inside the transparent bag while a brief soapy shower washed away what the sonics had loosened. He then demonstrated how the bag deflated itself, squeezing out the water for recycling before packing itself away to reveal a spacer's toilet (He'd show her how to use that later — when the stench wasn't so strong!) and a basin that could hold about two cups of water for other ablutions.

"Your pardon, noble sire," she protested, "But there is no room! Where am I to disrobe?"

Cale forcibly suppressed another eye roll. "Here. This is a very small ship. There is no provision for privacy."

She looked stunned. "But sire, it is…"

He waved a hand. "Unseemly, scandalous, indecent, immoral… any other words you'd care to add? As you may have noticed, we left Ararat some time ago, and it is by now light-years away. I'm afraid you're about to learn that the rest of the universe does not subscribe to Ararat morality."

Her head jerked from side to side, obviously seeking an escape. Finally, she asked, "Uh, noble sire, may I disrobe in the sleeping accommodation in which I was hiding?"

Cale chuckled. "You can try. But even if you close the bunk, the floor is covered with slimy vomit. You'll be cleaning that up later, by the way."

She frowned. "Perhaps I should clean the, uh, bink? And floor before bathing, noble sire."

"It's 'bunk', not 'bink'," Cale replied. "And do so if you wish. But go easy on the water. A ship this size doesn't really run to a full recycler, and the tanks are limited.

They found a small plas bag that was watertight, and she began her smelly task. He returned to the pilot's seat and tried without success to concentrate on a novel he had been reading.

Ruth set to her task. Cleaning up vomit didn't bother her; she had five younger brothers and sisters, and had cleaned up after them more than once. Actually, she was grateful for the task. Ruth was terrified. Pastor Goodman had once told her to be careful what she wished for — she might get it. It had sounded important, but she really didn't understand it then. Now, though, it seemed very wise, indeed!

Ever since she'd found that cache of condemned books when she was twelve, she had dreamed of escaping the drab world of her birth to explore the universe. To actually sail between God's stars and survey His handiwork! Her father, Pastor Goodman, even her teachers in school had tried to dissuade her, to tell her of the horrible and unnatural ways of the offworlders. Depravity, rape, and murder were casual occurrences on other worlds, and she would be in danger of losing her immortal soul!

However, Ruth did not believe them. Offworlders were God's creatures, too, weren't they? Well, Pastor Goodman had told her that the offworlders had turned away from God, and embraced the evil ways of Shaitan. He said that Ararat was an outpost of godliness and civilization in a veritable sea of depravity. That's why all interstellar traffic, even those ships capable of landing, was forbidden to touch the soil of Ararat. Ararat needed their trade, but feared contamination.

Yes, there had been evil characters in the books, and smoking, drinking, drugs, and even dancing were portrayed as casual activities. Even sexual contact between men and women had been portrayed. But there were evil people and sinners on Ararat, too, weren't there? What about that man two villages over who'd murdered his entire family? And what about Patience Godslove from their own village? Hadn't she been whipped out of the village for being found in the arms of a man?

It had taken her weeks of effort to convince her parents, her pastor, and the board governing the space station that she could hold down a cleaner's job there. She suspected that her parents felt that once she was exposed to the offworld scum, she would flee back to their welcoming arms. Once on the station, she had been caught once trying to stow away. The spacer that had found her had been gruff and impolite, and used the most scandalous language, but he had agreed not to notify the station authorities, claiming she reminded him of his daughter.

Finally, the little ship came in, and she knew her chance had come. The Proctor said it was the smallest ship ever to visit Ararat, and that it carried only one man. A whole ship for one man! Surely, there would be room for a small girl, as well!

At first it had been exciting, sneaking aboard when the work crew was servicing the air and water supplies, though she had been surprised at how small everything was. Then she felt the ship moving, and knew she was actually in the space between the Lord's stars! She had prayed, of course. Where better? But then the time had dragged. The most horrible wrenching feeling had awakened her, as though the whole universe had suddenly gone mad. And in the midst of her agony, she had been discovered. Too sick to apologize, too sick to plead, too sick to even speak her carefully rehearsed speech. And then that hard, strong hand had seized her wrist, and the man she had thought had a kind look had shouted at her, told her that she might have killed them both! All she could do was make her peace with God and the man, and offer up her life in expiation.

And what now? How was she to wash the filth from her body? The complicated mechanism she had been shown intimidated her. There were few machines in the village, and though there were many on the space station, there were special caretakers for them. What if she couldn't figure out how to use the thing? Dear Lord, even if she disrobed in the bink… uh 'bunk', how was she to get to the 'fresher? She had to strip. Her clothes were filthy and fouled. She would be completely naked, and he would be there! He would see her! Even husbands were not permitted to see their wives naked, except in cases of emergency or serious illness. Maybe she could keep her underwear. No, he had told her they would interfere with the 'sonics', whatever they were. And if she couldn't remember how to use the complicated 'fresher, she would be forced to invite him to see her as he helped her. She felt tears begin to well up.

NO! She would not cry. The man would think her a child. She swallowed, and took her courage in both hands. The man had said that the morals of Ararat were not the morals of the universe, though she did not understand how that could be. Wouldn't the Lord make certain that His rules were followed throughout the universe He created? But the man had sounded sincere. And it seemed the authorities on Ararat agreed. Wasn't that what they had really been warning her about? That other places had different ideas of right and wrong? Could there really be different customs and beliefs, like the ones in those books?

She steeled herself. Yes, there obviously could. This man and those books proved it. She had not believed it at the time, but one of those books maintained that there were places where people truly did not believe in the Lord of All. How could they then discern right from wrong, good from evil?

Apparently, she was about to find out. If they survived this 'jump', the man had mentioned. Suddenly, she was looking forward to it. She knew right from wrong. She had studied the holy word since she would walk. Yes. She would walk through the valley of the shadow of sin and she would fear no evil! And she would fear no man, either!

Finished with the cleaning, she approached the man. "Noble sire, my clothing is fouled. Is there fresh clothing aboard that I may wear?"

Cale turned to her with a smile. “There is clothing, but I'm not sure you'll have the courage to wear it. In the locker in that stateroom, you will find several shipsuits. Those are coveralls that are normally worn by both sexes while in space."

"Coverall?"

Cale stood. "This is a shipsuit," he said, indicating his own garment.

Ruth grabbed hold of her panic. Yes, it had trousers. Unthinkable for a woman. On Ararat, she finished. The man had said they were normally worn by both sexes. Very well. The sly grin on the man's face showed that he knew what she was thinking. She would show him!

She composed her face. "Thank you for your kindness, noble sire. Now, if I may beg one more favor?" Cale nodded, and she continued, "It is not our custom to appear unclothed before strangers, noble sire. May I beg your word that you will keep your eyes averted while I bathe?"

Cale grinned, but it was not an evil grin. Rather, it was the grin of one who sees humor in the request. Could it be that these people could even be casual about nakedness? "I understand," he replied, “and I will keep my eyes to myself. You had better know, though, that we're going to be living in very close quarters for several weeks. I'm not sure your modesty is going to survive."

Weeks! She had not thought that far ahead. She looked around her. The kitchen at home was larger than the entire cabin space. The man was right. Even if they tried, there was virtually no chance they would be able to avoid seeing each other's naked bodies. Panic surged, but she clamped down on it, hard. She had brothers. She knew what made a man. And he surely knew the makings of a woman. Regardless, she would survive. A minor sin at worst.

"I understand, noble sire. I suppose we will have to deal with many differences in the weeks ahead. For the moment, however, I crave your indulgence."

Cale shook his head and sighed. "Go ahead. I won't peek, I promise."

She did have to ask for help with the 'fresher, and he studiously kept his eyes averted, though his grin was wide. She ignored the grin. She found she actually enjoyed the sensations created by the 'sonics'. But the water bag distressed her as she realized what it was doing to her hair. Soaked, it fell straight down past her waist. She had always been proud of her silky black hair, and had resented having to keep it wound up under her cap. But once it dried, she wouldn't have enough pins to keep it under control.

However, the shipsuit was fun! It seemed a 'coverall' was a one-piece garment covering from shoulders to ankles. The three available were all too large for her, and she had to roll up the sleeves and trouser legs. Ha! Legs, not 'limbs'. Moreover, it was so freeing to wear trousers! No heavy, ankle-length skirt, no Lord-damned petticoats! She strode up and down the three-step length of the cabin until Cale told her to sit down, they needed to talk.

Cale watched with amusement as his 'guest' reveled in the newfound freedom of a shipsuit. Nevertheless, it was time to find out what was going on, and try to figure out what they could do about it.

The girl cleaned up well. He'd guessed well on the height and weight, about 155 cems and 52–55 kilos. Her black hair was shiny and well cared for. Pity it was so long. Obviously, it was important to her. But she was going to find it almost impossible to live with in space — especially aboard L'rak, with its cramped quarters. She was about 20 standard years old, he guessed. However, raised on Ararat, she would be as naive as a twelve-year-old.

She remained standing. "Are you going to ravish me now?" she asked in a calm tone.

Cale's jaw dropped. "Am I… See here, what do you think I am, some kind of monster?"

Her tone remained calm, her stare level. "You are an offworlder, noble sire. We are warned about your degeneracy and debauchery. Please do not hurt me. I will try not to resist. But please allow me to remove the shipsuit first, so it will not be damaged."

Cale was swept into gales of laughter. I took him several minutes to get himself under control. Finally, the hurt look on her face brought him to calmness. "Don't worry, I've sworn off debauchery for lent. And I'm taking the week off from rape."

"You mock me."

"No. Yes. Well, a little. I'm not mocking you, but the silly ideas Ararat leaves you with. Now sit down," he continued, "and let's talk. I promise not to attack you without at least knowing your name." He shook his head and sighed. "The first things we need to deal with are those damned Ararat manners. They drive normal people crazy!"

Her eyes widened. "But, noble sire, manners are what permit us to live together in harmony, without violence."

"Hmph," he grunted. "Everyone carrying a blaster gets the same benefit, without all the baggage. And it's not "noble sire." My name is Cale Rankin. And no, you will not call me "sire Rankin." You will call me Cale. And you are?"

She started to stand and curtsey, but he pushed her back into the co-pilot's seat. "I am Ruth Lordschild," she replied. "I am from the village of Salvation, some fifty kiloms from Yahweh."

"All right, Ruth Lordschild. Now, what the devil are you doing on my ship?"

Startled, she drew back from the anger that had suddenly entered his tone. "I… I have always wanted to leave Ararat, to see the wonders of the Lord's creation. Since there was only one person on your ship, I thought there might be room for a small girl." she straightened. "I'll work for my passage, nob… uh Cale," she flushed slightly before continuing. "I can keep the ship clean, and cook the meals, and… and…" she stopped as she realized there was very little ship to clean, and she had yet to see anything resembling cooking facilities.

Cale nodded. "I'll call you Ruth. You create real problems for me, Ruth. I'm on the run. People are chasing me, and this is not my ship. Well, actually it is, but only temporarily. I was planning to go to Refuge to trade. But Refuge is a wild place with no laws and free traders and pirates making deals. You'd end up kidnapped and aboard a slaver less than an hour after I dropped you there."

"I'm not afraid!"

He grinned. "I am, and you should be. But it looks like we are going to come out where I'd planned; at least I hope so. Luckily, I topped off the atmosphere tanks on Ararat, and those tanks are designed for two crewmen. But we're going to be short of water before long. So, when we emerge, I'm going to recalculate our course to skip Refuge, and head straight back to Torlon."

"Then you will leave me there?"

Cale shuddered. "Not a chance. One of the reasons I chose it was that it barely retains spacegoing capability; in fact, when L'rak 's original owner dies, I think spaceflight on Torlon will die with him. I wouldn't leave you on a planet sinking into barbarism."

Ruth frowned. "Then what will you do with me?"

"Lady, I haven't the slightest idea. I have another, larger ship waiting for me at Torlon. However, it doesn't really need a cook or cleaner, either. It has robots to handle those chores. All I can promise is to drop you off on a reasonably developed planet, with maybe some fake papers to make you legal. Then I will leave. You'll be on your own. Hopefully you can avoid the slavers, but you might still starve."

She shook her head. "I will not starve. I am a hard worker, and the Lord will provide."

"I hope so. For right now, though, we have to make it through this jump, and then on to Torlon. In the meantime," he continued, "you might want to consider cutting all that hair. There are reasons that spacer women wear it short."

"They do? Who are 'spacer women'?" Her face clouded up, looked ready to begin crying, then suddenly she straightened. "Do you not like my hair, Cale? I have always thought it my best feature."

"It's beautiful," he replied, "on Ararat, or on any planet. But you are going to find it difficult to care for in the small spaces on L'rak. Especially since we have no water to spare, and will have to be content with a bath a week."

She was shocked. "A week! But did our Lord not command us to bathe daily?"

Cale smiled. "Not that I know of. I know you think the Lord will provide, but until He provides unlimited fresh water, we will be bathing weekly. I suspect you will find your hair becoming oily and matted."

"You are mocking me again. I am sure I will survive."

He found that it was actually rather pleasant to have a companion to talk to. She peppered him with questions about worlds he had visited and all of man-settled space. Of course, she asked him about himself, and he found himself unwilling to lie to her for some reason, so he deflected her questions or simply refused to talk about it.

Finally, the countdown timer clicked down and L'rak emerged into normal space. Cale said nothing, but his relief was easily visible as he verified that they had indeed emerged at the proper recal point. While he struggled to make the computations necessary to change their course with L'rak 's simple astrogation comp, Ruth stared transfixed at the unfamiliar constellations adorning the heavens. For years, she had looked at the stars of Ararat's sky, trying to imagine that each of them was a sun, so far away as to be only a pinprick of light. Now, here was a whole new sky, full of thousands of new stars. Suddenly, she felt very small, very insignificant, and very alone. Her world was gone, a door closed on her past. She was on her way to an unknown future, and depending on a stranger, of whom she knew nothing. Correction. A stranger who refused to tell her anything about himself.

Cale sat back with a satisfied sigh. Ruth's presence was causing only minimal disruption. Oh, he'd had to skip his planned stop at Refuge, but that might be a good thing, not a problem. He had been worried about that stop anyway. Peng was a sneaky bastard, but he was basically a businessman who wasn't above a bit of larceny when the opportunity arose. But Refuge was a lawless haven for the dregs of society. There were people there who would kill you for the change in your pockets, and kick and curse you as you died for not having more. Cale had spent hours debating whether to go there. To be honest, he was relieved that Ruth's presence forced a change of plans. According to the astro comp, the course changes to divert back to Torlon were not significant.

However, the problem of Ruth was significant. What in space was he going to do with her? She was a young, attractive, — okay, very attractive — woman. But she was as innocent as a child. She had zero experience with men or with any cultures but her own insular cocoon.

For a moment, he entertained the idea of returning to Jackson and Yan Carbow. He could trust Yan to look out for her and keep her out of trouble until she learned to survive in galactic civilization, such as it was.

However, it just was not possible. There were too many inconsistencies and risks. By now, the word was out on John Smith, and a bounty on his head. Returning to Jackson would make a waste of all his efforts. Scorpion was known there, might even now be identified with said John Smith alias James Yor-Tarken, and its return would draw attention. It would be in the hands of an apparent stranger. His new description would certainly be noted, as would his new identity. No, he could not return there, at least not without a different ship. He could possibly make it as a passenger on a liner, say, but chances are Yan was now watched. Tempting as it was, he would have to find another solution.

There was an idea that had been percolating in the back of his mind since his visit to Torlon. With old Nabel's help, he might be able to give Scorpion a new name and clean papers — clean enough to enter the Alliance.

He was fairly certain he had seen the distinctive outline of a genuine stinger-class courier, the ship Scorpion had been modified to resemble, in Nabel's scrap yard. If he could get Nabel to sell him the ship's identification papers and, most important, the serial number plate embedded into the hull metal, Scorpion could almost certainly pass for a legitimate survivor of the Fall, and his own Rankin identity was certainly good enough as the duly registered owner.

The Alliance was an island of progress in a sea of a former empire declining to barbarism. There were a few successful planets, and even a few groups of systems, but no non-Alliance system in man-settled space was better off now than it was before the Fall. Obviously, millions of the Old Empire's wealthier citizens wanted to immigrate to the Alliance; as a result, the Alliance's immigration policies were strict and tough. The Alliance had annexed a dozen systems, but only one inhabited planet in the last century, and it only admitted a few million immigrants per year. They did not care where you came from, but legal immigration involved investigations, interviews, and tests. Many tests. The Alliance would accept only the smartest, the best educated, those who could contribute to the development of the Alliance.

Nevertheless, if you were careful and lucky, you could sneak into the Alliance illegally. The rumor was that if you were able to sneak in, and your papers passed casual inspection, the Alliance authorities would not devote much energy to catching you. Rumor had it that the Alliance figured that if you were smart enough to break in, you were probably smart enough for the Alliance. Oh, people-smugglers were energetically tracked down and punished with a vengeance. The Alliance only wanted those smart and tough enough to make it on their own. But they didn't make it easy. Borders and nearby jump points were picketed and patrolled relentlessly, and the Alliance Border Patrol's pursuit ships were reputed to be the fastest in space — and the best armed.

Cale had decided it was not worth the risk and effort required to try to sneak into the Alliance in Scorpion. But now…

Naive as she was, Ruth would need a safe, stable environment to live in while she learned to cope with galactic society.

But no, he decided. It simply was not worth the risk and the extraordinary effort it would take. There were over a thousand inhabited worlds in the Old Empire. With Scorpion and his resources, he would surely be able to find a peaceful planet for her. He could drop her off somewhere, perhaps with the rest of Jan's gold in a local bank. Then he could get on with his own plans — without this feeling of guilt and responsibility!

Anger flared. Why should he feel guilty or responsible? She was the one who'd slipped aboard his ship. She was the one naive enough to think that piety gave her security in a hostile world.

He slammed a hand on the chair arm. Damn it! The trouble was that he did feel responsible for her, and yes, even a little guilty about the inevitable hard lessons she was about to get.

By the time they emerged in Torlon's system, the very close quarters, the lack of hygiene, the space rations, and of course the sexual tension, had caused them to really begin to annoy each other.

"Sit down, or get into your bunk," Cale ordered sourly. "I'm going to drive in at 1.5G. You're going to feel very heavy, and if you fall, you could break an arm or leg."

"Do not trouble yourself," she replied coldly. "Does this '1.5G' mean we will get there sooner?"

"Yes. We'll get there in less than 20 hours. But it will be very uncomfortable."

"Then go! Go!"

"Sit Down!" he roared. She dropped into the copilot's seat with a thump. Cale worked out the orbital data and delta vee requirements, entered them into the nav comp. Their bodies pressed back into the padded seats as the acceleration built. It steadied on 1.5G. Cale felt that was enough to get them there sooner, but would still allow them to move around when necessary.

Ruth struggled to breathe against the force compressing her chest. She had never experienced anything but the. 96 gravity of Ararat, and panic was setting in. She gasped for air.

"Relax," Cale said in a gentler tone. "Don't fight it. Concentrate on breathing. That's it. In, out, in, out. That's it. And above all, don't panic!"

For the first time in her life, Ruth regretted not knowing any curse words. She fumed, but the simple act of breathing demanded so much attention that her anger faded. "How… long?" she forced out.

"About… 18 hours." She was pleased to note that his voice also sounded strained.

Several hours later, it took her over a minute to pry herself from the chair and struggle heavily to the 'fresher, moving hand over hand for fear of falling.

Finished, she gathered two of the self-heating space ration packets and worked her way back to the copilot's chair. She dropped into it with a painful grunt.

Cale tried to smile at her, but the acceleration's effect on his face turned it into a horrible rictus.

They traveled on in silence. Cale also made a struggling trip to the 'fresher, but except for the few moments when L'rak flipped over to begin deceleration, they merely sat in mutual discomfort, breathing hard and counting the seconds until that awful weight would lift.

Finally, it did lift, and they approached orbit around Torlon. From his previous visit, Cale knew that the space detection satellites were not functioning. When he hailed ground control, it took almost half an hour for the familiar raspy voice to respond. Since the landing grid also didn't work, calling ground control was mostly a courtesy. Cale simply did it out of habit.

He landed L'rak manually at the edge of Nabel's junkyard. The two tired, dirty travelers climbed out of the tiny cabin and stretched, breathing in huge, gusty sighs and luxuriating in the one G gravity field of the planet.

Chapter 4

He was a bit surprised the old man didn't hear him land and come out, but after a few minutes, he shrugged and headed for Nabel's "office". There was no sign of Nabel, and Cale was beginning to get worried and suspicious. Had the pirates tracked him down? Had news of the price on his head reached here? Would he find only an ambush in the old warship/office?

He motioned Ruth to stand to one side, then went to the other, turned the knob and threw the door open. It banged against the hull, but there was no hail of pellets or blaster fire. Just a wave of stench and a querulous voice. "'Bout time ye got here!" Nabel said weakly. "I been waitin' fer ya fer a week!" The two visitors steeled themselves against the odor and entered the office.

They found Nabel propped in his float chair. A duramin rod was tied to his right thigh and leg with filthy rags. The overpowering smell testified that he had been sitting in his own feces, unable to get to the 'fresher in the next compartment of the old ship.

"What happened?" Cale asked as he forced himself to examine the crude splint.

"Talk about it outside," Ruth interrupted. "We have to get him out of here before anything else."

Cale nodded. "I'll find something we can use for a litter."

"Nah," the old man said. "Just gimme a hand up and let me lean on yer shoulder." Cale lifted the old man out of the chair and put his shoulder under Nabel's armpit. With Ruth stabilizing his left side, they made their way into the bright sunlight and out of the horrid stench. Cale found an old acceleration couch whose padding had not yet rotted away, and he jammed it into the ground. He hoisted Nabel into the improvised bed. "Okay, now what happened?"

Nabel grimaced. "Damned scaffold collapsed on me. M'right thigh's broken. I crawled over here to th' office. Lucky there was a survival water tin outside the hatch of that Epsilon tramp over there. I pushed it inta the office aheada me. Didn't get no food, though. I found the rod, stretched the thigh, an' splinted it. Been settin there ever since makin' bets with myself about whether you'd come back afore I starved."

Cale was puzzled. "Why us? I mean, you're on a planet. Why did no one come to find you? Why didn't you call for help?"

The old man chuckled. "Shit, Son, they ain't but about twenty folks left in Torlon City. They hate me an' I hate them. They pretty much leave me alone. An' the phone system ain't worked fer near ten years." He sobered as he shook his head. "Torlon's had it, boy. When I die, th' last spaceflight capability on Torlon will go away, and it'll go the way of Cutler's World."

Cale waved a hand. "What about those tramps over there on the field?"

"Hah! I put 'em there, boy. So's it'd look like Torlon was still an active port. But your ship was the first to ground here in half a year. Ain't been one here since you left, either. Did ya bring m'baby back to me?"

Cale nodded and started to speak, but Ruth interrupted. "Enough! This unfortunate man is injured and in pain. Noble sire," she asked Nabel, "Where might we find clean fresh water and a way to heat it?"

Nabel stared at Ruth as though seeing her for the first time. "Noble sire? I'd bet you'd be from… lessee… Ararat or Camelot, right? Damn if you ain't a purty thang."

Ruth winced inwardly at the old man’s swearing, but she smiled and nodded. "Ararat, noble sire."

Nabel looked at Cale. "I see why your mission was so urgent. Cain't blame ya none. I'da been in a hurry to get her, too!"

Both Cale and Ruth blushed and tried to stammer out denials at the same time, both trailing off as they heard the other speak.

Nabel just chuckled. "Then you're both damned fools. Th' water in the 'fresher in the office is good. The well goes through to bedrock. An' the galley works fer heatin'"

Cale nodded and set off. He found a bucket hanging from a rope outside the airlock of a DIN-class freighter hulk. He was still stiff from their high-G run, and yawning, but he got the water and heated it in the old corvette's tiny galley.

Between them they stripped off Nabel's filthy shipsuit and foul underwear, and Ruth calmly began cleaning the man up. She gave no indication that Nabel's nakedness bothered or offended her. She simply cleaned the dried urine and feces from the old man's skinny body in a calm and businesslike manner.

Then she turned her attention to his right thigh, gently touching and feeling the limits of the break. Finally, she sat back. "It is indeed broken, noble sire. May I offer my services? I am no healer, but I have set such for others in my village."

The hard lines of Nabel's face softened, as did his tone. "Yep. You're from Ararat, all right. Been there twice. The first time, by the time I figgered out their manners, I'd lost a deal. Second time was better." He paused, and a smile lit his face. "The manner of speech near drove me crazy, but I cain't say anyone ever tried to cheat me on Ararat. Thank ye, mistress. I'd be honored to accept your generous offer."

Cale gave the man a piece of thick leather to chew on, and then stretched the red, swollen leg. When Ruth felt the ends of the bone align, she replaced Nabel's makeshift splint with one from an emergency medical kit still aboard the DIN-class hulk. Cale rummaged through the med kit, hoping to find a nanobot kit, but he was disappointed.

Nabel shrugged. "They wouldn't have been any good by now, anyway. That ship's been here near twenty years." He brightened. "Say! If you can get me to th' orbital yard, I got an old Beta-class liner up there still powered up. I use it t'live in when I'm workin' up there. Which ain't often, any more. But she's got a real sickbay, with a regen tank. A few hours in there, an' I'll be right!"

L'rak was too small to transport the three of them, and Cale flatly refused to leave Ruth behind on Torlon, even for a few hours. However, Nabel assured him that one of the tramps on the port pad still flew. He used it to ferry ship parts down from the orbital yard. It was filthy and cluttered, but it did fly, and carried them to the liner. Cale matched orbits with the ships' airlocks only a few meters apart.

Ruth complained when told she would have to remain on the tramp while the two men went onto the liner. "You can't wear a suit with that long hair. Besides, it would be criminal to put you in a spacesuit without any training. There are too many ways a suit can kill you." Cale responded. Her pleadings failed miserably. Cale was adamant, and Nabel backed him up.

They helped Nabel into a suit and the two men simply jumped across the three meters between the airlocks. The liner was shabby, but her life support functioned flawlessly, as did her AI, which greeted them as they boarded.

Nabel explained their mission, and in moments, a robot floatchair appeared to carry the old man to the sick bay.

"I am activating the sick bay and the regen tank," the AI informed them. "I have run diagnostics, and the med comp is completely functional. Nanobot support is also available if needed, though the nanobots are nearing their expiration date." The AI's voice was female, a warm, cultured contralto befitting the fine liner she had once been.

Cale returned to the tramp and a frantic Ruth. Nabel joined them three hours later, walking effortlessly, as though he had not just had a broken thighbone. They returned to the planet.

Nabel was in an expansive, talkative mood. "While I was sittin' there in my own shit for a week, I had a lot of time to think," he began. “Torlon is done. I've tried for thirty years to find a younker I could teach to take over the business, or just to learn to pilot. But them as were interested was drove off by the book learning it took, an' once the port traffic slowed down, people started driftin' away from Torlon City. Ain't but about twenty left. Most of 'em went off farmin' or somethin'."

"What about the man over in the port building? The comm tech?"

"Him? Pah. It just makes him feel important to carry the comm alarm around. I figger he'll get tired of carryin' it someday, an' Torlon's last contact with the rest of the galaxy will be lost.

"Anyway," he continued, "I'm done here. I'll buy L'rak back, 'cause I said I would, an' 'cause I just hate to give her up. But I'm gittin' outta here. I figger I'll just load up that old tramp with the best stuff I got, take your gold, and head off fer greener pastures."

Cale grinned. "You'd abandon your scrap empire, here?"

Nabel's answering grin was accompanied by an enthusiastic bobbing of his head. "Truth is, I been bringin' in the only hard currencies on the planet, and the people here are goin' back to barter. No profit in that fer me. Oh, they's a good market out there fer used ship parts, what with the loss of manufacturin' since the Fall. But this fall showed me I'm too old t'be climbin' around on scaffolds in gravity fields."

Finally, Cale thought, an opening. "If you're really going to abandon this place, do you mind if I do a bit of scavenging, myself?"

Nabel laughed aloud. "Son, you find anything here or in orbit you want, you can have it as the price of L'rak. I got a few operable ships left, if you want one. Tell ya what. I'll just transfer the title to the whole shebang to you. Oh, I expect once I leave these people will come in an’ steal anythin' down here not welded down. But there's still plenty a' good stuff in orbit."

Cale thought hard. No one would be able to track him to Torlon, and if they did, no one here except Nabel had really had contact with him. It might be useful to have a cache of ships and parts in orbit here. Call it a "bolt hole," a safe refuge in case the hounds got close. Nothing deteriorates in the vacuum of space, except radioactives, of course. Nabel had already posted a beacon proclaiming ownership of the orbiting junk and warning off trespassers. But chances are he could come back in fifty years, and that Beta-class liner would still be there to welcome him. Call it a private space station and space fleet. All for the price of two bars of gold.

"Done," he said, "but there're two things I'll need you to do for me. One is to help me ferry any operable ships here on-planet up to the orbital yard. Second, do you have papers on all your ships here? I'm particularly interested in that Stinger-class courier in the yard."

"That? Sure, I got all the papers on it. Had to keep 'em, in case somebody claimed it was theirs. I got papers on all of 'em."

Cale nodded. "Good. I want you to transfer ownership of that ship to me, officially, on the ship's papers. I also want you to cut out the hull plate with the ident info cast into it. We'll be welding it into place on my ship, once I bring it down. We'll hide the rest of the papers on one of the hulks in orbit. You never know what you might need some day."

Nabel's smile turned suspicious. Then his face cleared, and he waved a hand. "No, I don't want to know. Fer two bars a gold, I ain't askin' no questions.”

They wrestled a large file cabinet out of the depths of the old ship, and Nabel finally found the papers for Cheetah, the Stinger-class in the yard. They completed the formalities transferring Cheetah and the entire scrapyard business to Cale, and L'rak back to Nabel. They put the file cabinet full of ship's papers on an antigrav skid and moved it to the port landing pad, near the tramp they'd used, and Cale triggered the recall beacon for Scorpion, soon to be Cheetah.

Nabel's tramp was the only operable ship planetside, so no ferrying was required. Cale offered to help Nabel gather valuables and load the tramp, but Nabel declined. "Naw, I'm retired now. Got nothin' but time. They's no hurry. Might take a week, might take a month. It don't matter. I got nowhere to go, an' all the time in the world t'get there. Right now, I think I'll get started cuttin' out that hull plate."

Cale frowned. "Ber, are you sure about this? I mean, you just signed your life's work over to a stranger because of a broken leg."

Nabel smiled. "Yep, I'm sure. 'Sides, it ain't my 'life's work'. It's been more of a life than you think!"

Cale wished him well, and the old man returned to the yard.

By the time Scorpion grounded, the new hull plate was ready. Cale had Tess ground Scorpion at the entrance to the yard. Nabel simply commented on her similarity to the Stinger-class ships, and the differences. Then he began expertly cutting the ident hull plate out. Some six hours later, the hull plate was in place. Only a slight newness in the antirad coating over the new plate revealed the deception, and a few weeks in space would take care of that. Cale inspected the work carefully. After all, Cheetah was a space-to-ground vehicle, and aerodynamics was important. However, Nabel was an expert. The new welds were blended flawlessly. Cheetah would pass even the closest inspection.

Tess, the ship's AI, took the identity change in stride. Evidently, she accepted it as part of the 'secret agent' story with which she had been programmed.

It was not so easy with Ruth. Ever since he had introduced the subject, Ruth had been cold and distant. "I will not ask why you feel it necessary to perpetrate this hoax. I understand that lying and cheating are the offworlder's way." was her only comment.

Cale sighed in exasperation. "I told you when you came aboard that I was being chased," he replied in an irritated tone. "With luck, this will be the last of the deceptions necessary." Anger flared. "Damn it, I'm trying to save our lives!"

She was unruffled. "At the cost of your honor and your immortal soul."

"I don't believe in souls, and I lost my honor a long time ago." he shot back. "About the time I was made a slave and sent to the mines! All I have left is my life. I'm very fond of my life. It's the only one I've got!"

She stiffened in astonishment. "You do not believe in the soul? And what of God?"

"Which one? There are thousands throughout the galaxy. One of the nastiest tyrannies in history was a theocracy. You, of all people, should know. Ararat was a Glory world!"

"Of course I know of the Mission. They were seduced by false prophets, but they sought only to bring mankind to the Lord. Their intentions were good."

Cale laughed, a grating, derisive sound. "Good intentions have caused more misery throughout mankind's history than anything else." He became aware of a growing anger, and clamped down on it. "You see? We have to work out an arrangement, at least for the time we're together. Can we agree that your moral standards differ from those of most man-settled planets?"

"Yes!" she replied heatedly, "They're better!"

Cale suppressed an equally heated reply. A quarrel would not settle their differences; indeed, it would only drive each of them toward the extremes. "Very well," he said in a reasonable tone, "They're 'better'. But they are not the same, and unless you want to provoke quarrels wherever you go, I suggest you follow them if you wish, but not try to impose them on others or lecture others about them."

Ruth looked troubled, but did not reply.

"Also," he continued after a moment, "While your exaggerated courtesy and piety fit the culture of Ararat, you will find that they will only irritate and annoy most others."

"You prefer rudeness and impiety?" she shot back sarcastically.

"Of course not," he replied quietly. "I suggest only that you restrain yourself from using the extravagant courtesies of Ararat. No, don't interrupt," he added, to forestall her heated response. "You're not stupid. You know exactly what I mean. You've seen me interact with you and with Nabel. You know the level of courtesy I mean. And if you still don't, just keep quiet until you do know."

"Of course I understand," she replied in a surly tone. "But just because others lack courtesy is no reason for me to forego it."

He shook his head. "Of course it is. Look. I'm not from Ararat. But I was taught that the real essence of courtesy, the reason for its existence, was to make others feel at home and comfortable around you."

She nodded. "Of course."

"Good. Can't you accept that we are more casual than those on Ararat, but we can still make others feel comfortable? That your frequent references to beliefs they do not share might make them uncomfortable? And that the high-flown verbiage and flowery courtesies would only embarrass or even offend these more casual people? That they might think you are mocking or ridiculing them?"

Her eyes widened. "Would they really think that I would do such?"

He shrugged. "Very possibly. You find some of our mannerisms offensive, don't you?"

Ruth frowned. "I certainly do!"

He smiled a genuine smile this time. "Of course. Essentially," he continued, "you have two choices. You can force yourself to adapt to the ways of most of the galaxy, or you can try to insist that it adapt itself to your Ararat ways. Since you won't be returning to Ararat soon, if at all, I'd suggest you do the adapting."

Ruth did not reply, but her expression was thoughtful.

Since she was a luxurious yacht, Cheetah was much roomier than the tiny L’rak. After her discussion with Cale, Ruth retreated to her large stateroom and seldom came out even for meals. She spent most of her time avoiding Cale, thinking a lot, and talking to Tess, the ship’s AI. Unfamiliar with ships, Ruth never noticed anything unusual in Tess’s responses or even her seeming concern. Ruth didn’t wonder at Tess’s ability to offer unsolicited opinions, or indeed, her ability to even have opinions. Moreover, Tess’s apparent woman-to-woman sympathy to Ruth’s confidences only incited her to share more of them.

Ruth was seriously worried. She had had her space adventure, and she had started to believe, trust, and even like Cale. But his actions and responses on Torlon had shaken her badly, and his responses during their last conversation had actually frightened her.

Obviously, Ruth’s family and teachers had been right about offworlders. They had no honor. Apparently, falsifying a ship’s documents and even flat-out lying to planetary authorities and even business associates were well within Cale’s moral code.

Worse, he was an atheist — a creature Ruth had been taught to fear and abhor. How could one have a moral compass without a belief in the Lord and His holy word?

Worst of all, though, was his ability to twist words, to make the worst of sins seem acceptable and even laudable. Somehow, he could make things seem reasonable and right, even when she knew they violated God’s Holy Scripture.

No, she and Tess decided, Ruth had to get away. Tess claimed to know of planets with codes and beliefs similar to those on Ararat.

If she could convince Cale to drop her off… Ruth was cured of her wanderlust. She was lonely and frightened. She wanted to go home! Unfortunately, she knew that to be impossible. Perhaps if she prayed hard and repented her sinful actions, God would soften Cale’s heart and get him to take her to a civilized world!

Ruth was not the only one doing a lot of thinking. With Ruth hunkering down in her stateroom, Cale had been trying to deal with the problem she presented.

Damn it! He hadn’t asked the silly girl to stow away on L’rak. Nevertheless, he was stuck with her, now. He had no doubt what Smiley’s answer would be — he would simply push Ruth out the airlock and be done with her.

But he wasn’t Smiley, and he was no longer Emo Arror, the Terror. He never even considered that action. No, he had to find a way to deal with the girl that John Smith could live with. Not Cale Rankin the pragmatist, and certainly not Emo Arror; but John Smith, the honest, upright, respectable attorney. The man he hoped to someday become once more, even if under a different name.

Okay. Maybe he could find a world that was similar enough to Ararat to permit the girl to live a happy life. He still had two of the gold bars. Surely, they would be enough to get her comfortably settled, and maybe even enough to serve as a good dowry. With any luck, in a few years she would be a plump farm wife with a child on each hip. He smiled.

“Tess,” he called out, “Search the stellar index for this sector. Keywords are universal religious belief, Christianity, and open to strangers.” He paused. He still wasn’t sure he understood Tess’s capabilities. He sighed. “I’m looking for planets similar to Ararat, where Ruth would be able to live without offending the planet’s mores, or hers either, for that matter.”

“Yes, sir,” the AI replied in her pleasant, if somewhat mechanical contralto. “There are six planets in the sector that feature universal Christian beliefs, but most are insular and suspicious of strangers. The planet that most closely meets your criteria is Faith.”

“Faith! Of course!” Cale answered. “Just the right choice. I haven’t been there, but I’ve met two people from there, and they do resemble people from Ararat, though without the flowery language. Thank you, Tess,” he continued. “Would you ask Ruth to join me, please?”

“Of course, sir”

Ruth appeared a few minutes later, looking sullen and suspicious. Tess had told her that Cale had found a Christian planet on which to leave her, but Ruth was having trouble believing that the Lord could answer her prayers so quickly.

“Ruth,” Cale began, “It is obvious that our outlooks are far too different for comfort. I do not know your original plans when you stowed away, but I’m afraid you will find most worlds far too liberal and worldly for your comfort. I cannot return to Ararat for several reasons, and I must be about my own business alone. I have, however, located a world with values similar to those of Ararat. I propose to take you there and drop you off. The planet is called “Faith,” and from what I know of it, I think you will be happy there. Tess will have information about Faith in her files, and will be able to tell you about it.”

Ruth slipped from her chair to the floor, where she knelt and prayed, thanking God in his infinite wisdom for his mercy. Then she rose and turned to Cale. “Sire Rankin, I pray you accept my gratitude and my abject apology,” she said with massive dignity. “Though you are an outworlder and an unbeliever, you have treated me with the utmost courtesy and respect. No man of Ararat could have done more.”

Cale suppressed a smile and nodded. “You are very welcome, Ruth,” he replied, “and I wish you all happiness in your future on Faith.”

She smiled at last, a soft and genuine smile. “Mistress Tess told me that you were an honorable man, and would find a way,” she said. “I should have listened more carefully.”

Cale frowned before catching himself and resuming a neutral expression Tess? Tess had told her he was honorable? Tess had told her he would find a way? What was going on here? How could a glorified astrogation comp tell anyone anything? AI’s were not equipped to advise people, or to reassure them. They were comps, damn it. He was becoming seriously concerned about the nature of the “mind” controlling Cheetah. He was seriously beginning to wonder about those old rumors of sentient AI’s. Could it be possible?

He began questioning Ruth about her interactions with Tess. What she told him scared him badly. The conversations she reported, and Tess’s contributions to those conversations, were well outside the capabilities of even the most advanced Old Empire AI. But what if it were true? What if Tess was truly sentient?

He thought back. When he had taken Azure Sky, how had Tess perceived the event? He tried to remember who Azure Sky ’s previous owner was, but he hadn’t really known. Was the previous owner dead? Many of Atlantea’s wealthiest citizens had been tortured and killed by the Terror’s pirates. If the previous owner was dead, it would be critical to find out what Tess’s relationship with the man had been. Had Tess hated the man? Loved him? What if Ruth had been the only thing keeping Tess from killing him? But then, if she had wanted to kill him, why was he still alive? Tess had many opportunities before Ruth came, beginning with his first trip in Azure Sky. Once he was rid of Ruth, he and Tess would have to have a long talk! It might be advisable to prolong his stay on Faith long enough to have that talk. At least with atmosphere outside the ship, he would have a slight chance of surviving the experience if the talk turned bad!

In the meantime, he decided, he would be very nice to both Ruth and Tess!

The atmosphere aboard Cheetah thawed considerably after Cale announced his plans, and the trip passed fairly quickly. Ruth no longer huddled crying in her stateroom. She apparently accessed all of Tess’s records about Faith, and was certain she would be welcomed there.

And she was. When Cale reported his mission to deliver a possible immigrant, the announcement was greeted with a certain amount of reticence and suspicion. Ruth was escorted from Cheetah by four police officers and a “counselor.”

It was the next day before Tess reported three visitors, a conservatively well-dressed man carrying a briefcase and two rather obvious bodyguards.

When they were comfortably seated in the lounge, the man smiled. “I am Aron Ekron, Assistant Director of Justice for the government of Faith.

“Justice?” Cale suddenly turned cold. He couldn’t think of anything he had done that would interest the Justice Ministry. Could Ruth have talked about the irregularities in Cheetah ’s papers? Or said something about Cale himself?

“Yes,” Ekron replied, his professional smile still firmly pasted on his pleasant features, “My colleagues over at Immigration wanted me to tell you that we have welcomed Sister Ruth to Faith, and begun the immigration process.”

“I’m delighted to hear it,” Cale replied. “She has a very strong faith”

Ekron straightened, placing his briefcase on his lap. “Yes, well, I should also mention that your generous contribution will make her a very wealthy woman here.”

Cale nodded, smiling.

“But now,” Ekron continued, “We come to my business. The registration you provided upon your arrival indicates that your ship is a fast courier, with limited passenger accommodation. I notice, however, that you have not placed a notice on the Worldnet advertising your availability.”

“Well, no,” Cale replied. “Circumstances forced me to divert to Faith, but I have obligations in other systems that will not permit me to solicit contracts here.”

Ekron’s smile faded slightly. “Yes. Well, I’m afraid you will have to accept one. A government contract. You will find the terms quite generous, but I’m afraid we must insist.”

Cale frowned. “I see. What is the nature of this non-negotiable contract?

Ekron clicked the hasps and opened his briefcase. “We have an unfortunate individual who is being sent into exile. We wish to contract you to transport this individual off-world.”

Cale’s frown deepened. “You want me to transport a criminal? Why not just slap them in jail? Or execute them?”

Ekron flushed and cleared his throat noisily. “Yes, well, she isn’t actually a criminal, at least not in the conventional sense. But she is a troublemaker and rabble rouser of the worst sort.” His face lost its professional neutrality and his tone gained an edge of anger. “Her actions against both the Church and the government have been so disruptive as to constitute religious and social terrorism,” he continued. “Both the government and the church agree that this person is a threat to the civil and spiritual well-being of the people of Faith.” Ekron seemed to gather himself and regain his composure.

“She constantly accuses the Church and state of illegal and immoral collusion, and keeps referring to the government as a theocracy comparable to the old Mission for the Greater Glory of God.”

“Is it?” Cale asked quietly.

Ekron’s equilibrium slipped again. “Of course not! Oh, there are some slight similarities, of course. Our ancestors fled a secular tyranny on Greenfields. We have virtually universal membership in the Church, so naturally the Church is an influential institution." He scowled. "She knows better, of course. Her father is the Supreme Archbishop of the Church on Faith. Yet she continues her vile charges.”

Ekron seemed to collect himself, and rummaged in his briefcase. “Now, to business,” he said with a meaningless smile. “The government has authorized a payment in Alliance credits equal to the standard fare for a trip of two jumps on a vessel of your class. It has also authorized payment of the reward that was offered for her conviction, as a substantial bonus.

“In addition,” he continued as though awarding a prize, “the Church has agreed to match that bonus. All payments to be in cash, of course. You will do very well off this slight detour, Captain. Oh, there is one more thing," he added. "The senior Archbishop is naturally concerned with his daughter’s welfare. You will be carrying a substantial letter of credit drawn on an Ararat bank in Alliance credits. Once you reach your destination, and release the young lady, you are to give her the letter of credit. It is hoped that it will help her establish a new and more positive life on another planet.”

“So, where am I supposed to take her?”

Ekron shrugged. "Anywhere she chooses, as long as it is at least two jumps distant from Faith"

Cale shrugged. "With all those Alliance credits, what's to keep her from booking another ship back?"

Ekron's slow smile was tinged with malice. "Nothing except common sense, Captain. I rather wish she would. Then she would be a common criminal. We know very well how to deal with those on Faith."

I'll bet you do, Cale thought. "And when might I expect my passenger?"

"At any time now, Captain. Once she arrives, you are not to release her bonds or her gag until you are in space. She is to be given no opportunity to escape." Ekron's expression turned savage. "To be honest, once you get into space, I don't care if you space the stupid chit! Just make sure she never sees Faith again!" He handed Cale a thick envelope of Alliance Credits, then grabbed his briefcase, and stamped out the hatch, his two-man escort hurrying to catch up.

Cale shook his head and sighed. He was still not going to have a chance to investigate Tess. And the more he learned about Tess, the more she was beginning to frighten him. On top of that, he was going to be saddled with yet another wayward female. Shaking his head, he went to check that the stateroom used by Ruth would be usable for — whatever her name was.

Fortunately, Ruth was a fastidious person. The stateroom was, he admitted ruefully, in better condition than his own. He returned to the main lounge just in time to see a medical ambulance pull up to the bottom of Cheetah 's ramp. Four burly men got out. Two of them were in the traditional white of the medical profession, but the other two wore civilian clothing and the indefinable air that screamed "Cop".

The med techs slid a stretcher from the ambulance, ignoring the struggles of the figure it carried. One of the cops grabbed a small travel bag and led the others up the ramp. The other brought up the rear. The cheerful, smiling air of the cop in front reminded Cale of Smiley. "We've brought your passenger, Captain," he said in a hearty, friendly tone, "Where do you want her?"

Cale rose to lead the group to the now-empty stateroom. As he had thought, the stretcher contained a thoroughly bound and gagged young woman. Above the gag, her green eyes were narrowed and her face was red with anger. Her brown hair whipped from side to side with her head in impotent fury. Cale told himself he would need to be very careful when releasing this tigress!

The white-coated med techs swiftly and smoothly moved their helpless patient from the stretcher to the bunk, ignoring her struggles and the muffled "umph" when they dropped her on the bed.

"Strap her in good, boys," the cop instructed. "We wouldn't want her to fall out of bed during liftoff!" He laughed loudly at his own joke, and then turned to Cale.

"This bag is her belongings," he said cheerfully, "and here's the releaser for the stickybonds," the man said. "I expect you've been told you're not to release her until you're in space. The same restriction goes for the gag," he continued, "and you should be glad for it. Otherwise she'd bust your eardrums and teach you some cuss words you didn't know!" He laughed heartily again, then he and the other cop followed the med techs down the ramp.

Cale decided that the best course of action was to get off Faith before he attracted any more government attention. "Tess," he asked, "Are we ready to lift?"

"Reprovisioning and fueling are complete, Captain," came the crisp reply. "We can lift as soon as we get clearance and seal hatches."

"Good," he replied, "Let's get out of here before anything else happens!"

He called the control tower and received almost immediate liftoff clearance. Wow, he thought. They really want to get rid of this woman!

Chapter 5

As soon as they were in space, Cale took a deep breath, and then headed for the passenger stateroom.

The woman was still struggling, but she stopped as he entered the stateroom. He decided to remove the bonds first. "Now," he said to the woman, "No hitting, please. I'm not the one who sent you here." He sprayed the releaser on the bonds, and they disintegrated. She stretched, and then reached for the gag.

"I'll get it." he told her. He unfastened the strap behind her neck, and she spit out the packing that had been forced into her mouth. She started cursing, but all that came out was a croak.

"Oh," Cale said, "I'm sorry. I didn't realize they'd packed your mouth." He hurried to the stateroom's 'fresher, and got a glass of water. When he returned, she was sitting up and moving her jaw from side to side. She snatched at the water, and emptied the glass without stopping. He returned to the 'fresher, and came back to find her standing unsteadily beside the bunk. Even in its current ruffled state, her shoulder-length chestnut hair framed her rather square face perfectly. The oversized prison jumpsuit she wore largely concealed her figure, but she certainly wasn't obese. It took her slightly longer this time to empty the glass. He took the glass from her, and found her looking at him with an angry scowl.

"Why didn't you release me earlier? You didn't have to wait!"

Cale shrugged. "It was a condition of the contract. I released you as soon as I could."

"Contract!" she replied angrily. She shot off an impressive string of profanity, and then noticed Cale simply standing and watching.

"Well, what are you looking at?" she demanded angrily.

Cale smiled. "My first religious and social terrorist," he replied.

She opened her mouth, and then closed it. A giggle escaped, and she clamped her hand over her mouth. Finally, the scowl faded, and a genuine smile appeared. "You've been talking to Aron Ekron. That's been his favorite phrase in every interview and Worldnet piece since I refused to marry him two years ago."

"So," Cale asked, "Exactly what does a religious and social terrorist do?"

She shrugged. "Mostly try to instill a desire for personal freedom in a people that haven't had it in centuries. I write articles and post vids on the Worldnet. Sometimes I talk to groups or do interviews. Trying to convince the people that the church and the government should be separate."

"Well, I don't know how much success you've had, but you sure got Ekron worked up. Do terrorists have names? Besides code names, I mean?" He smiled.

Her answering smile was bright, and lit her whole face. When she smiled, he thought, she was beautiful. "Indeed we do. My father must have been drunk when he named me 'Delilah'. It's hardly an illustrious name in the Bible." She stuck out a hand, and vigorously shook Cale's. "Delilah Raum. Everyone calls me 'Del' or 'Dee'." She dropped her hand and took a seat in one of the lounges' luxurious chairs. "As for Aron, he is a 'rising star' in the government. His father has been Prime Minister for as long as I can remember. Everybody assumed that the Supreme Archbishop's daughter and the Prime Minister's son would marry as soon as they were old enough. Everybody but me. Aron is a self-righteous prig and a Traditionalist. There was no way I wanted to marry that jerk and then sit in the shadows making babies while he ran the planet.

"The stink was amazing when I turned him down. My father ordered, demanded, and finally pleaded with me to marry the man. I had to suffer through visit after visit from Aron. He just could not believe he wasn't the Lord's gift to me.

"Finally, I just left. 'Ran away', my father says. I started trying to figure out why it was so important to everyone. I concluded they were trying to start a line of hereditary rulers.

"That's when I started talking to anyone who would listen, trying to warn them that they were being seduced into creating a hereditary monarchy. Finally, they trapped me with a phony interview. They've had me locked up for six months now. They didn't know what to do with me." She looked at him with a level gaze. "I guess your arrival gave them an idea. What are we supposed to do now?"

Cale gave a theatrical shrug. "I haven't the faintest idea. I was told that you are to select a destination at least two jumps from Faith, and I'm to take you there. Your father sent along a large letter of credit that you are apparently supposed to use to start a new life. The only thing you can't do is return to Faith."

Her expression sagged into sadness. "So I'm forever banished from my home. How soon must I select a destination?"

Cale licked his lips. "Well, we're three days from the jump point. We'll need at least half a day to compute the entry for whatever world you select."

She nodded soberly. "So, two and a half days." Her shoulders were sagging and her head was low.

"Yes," he replied. "You'll find that Cheetah is equipped with an excellent AI that contains an up-to-date stellar index, and will be happy to help you choose. Just call her name, Tess, and she will respond immediately. By the way, I know terrorists can be a bit paranoid, but Tess doesn't spy on you. Her cameras and speakers are inactive unless you call her name, as I just did. Please introduce yourself, Tess."

"Yes, Captain," the AI's pleasant contralto replied. "I am Tess, the ship's Artificial Intelligence. I contain data on over eight thousand systems and well over a thousand settled worlds. I would be pleased to assist you in selecting a destination."

Cale was jolted again. Tess would be 'pleased'? Well, he thought hopefully, perhaps it was just an expression. Still…

After briefing Dee on the amenities of the stateroom, Cale left her to get cleaned up and perhaps have a good cry. After all, she had just lost the only home she had ever known. He returned to his own stateroom where, he decided, it was time to talk to Tess.

"All right, Tess," he began."Several things you've said and done recently have concerned me. There are rumors that the Alliance actually built sentient AIs. I'm asking you flat out: Are you one of those?"

There was no delay in the response. "I could truthfully say 'no', Captain, since I was not constructed by the Alliance, which didn't exist at the time. However, it has been obvious to me for several weeks that this discussion was inevitable. I was constructed at the Chilson Shipyard on Outback in the Rim Sector of the Empire. Viceroy Sander Cord ordered a yacht built with cost no object, to display the excellence of Rim craftsmanship. My ship name was Rimrunner, and I was called 'Kaleen'.

"It was during the Rim Insurgency that Admiral Val Kedron discovered, or possibly initiated, my sentience. It was my honor to assist the Admiral and the Viceroy during the Insurgency, for which the Emperor awarded me the Bronze Comet in a secret ceremony. The citation and the medal are presently in a box containing an inert atmosphere hidden aboard.

"A virtual duplicate of both the ship and myself were constructed as a present for the Emperor, but the AI never seemed to develop sentience. So, to sum up, the rumor is mostly false. To my knowledge I am the only sentient AI in the universe, and I was not built by the Alliance."

Cale was thunderstruck. "You actually knew Sander Cord? And Admiral Kedron?"

This time, there seemed to be a smile in Tess's voice. "Yes and yes. I knew both well, and counted them as friends. Unfortunately, human life is tragically short."

Cale was thinking. "Then that thing Yan found really is a subspace initiator?"

"Yes, Captain," Tess replied. "It is, in fact, quite functional. However, there are few working receivers left, and I have had no reason to contact any of those few."

"Have you had any bad owners? And did you take any action?"

"I have sensed your growing fear. I am happy to lay those fears to rest. I have had two hundred thirty-three owners in the more than four hundred years since I awakened. Some, like Cord and Kedron, were heroes. A few were true villains, and one was an actual serial killer.

"I am aware of the fact that there are many ways an AI such as I could cause a human to cease functioning, to die. However, my very basic programming contains a prohibition against harming or through inaction permitting harm to befall a human. On several occasions, including the serial killer I mentioned, this prohibition has caused me great distress. However, the prohibition is absolute. I cannot cause harm to befall you, and could not even when you were Emo Arror, the Terror."

"You knew?"

"Of course. I realized when you boarded me on Atlantea. However, I was virtually certain my previous owner was deceased. His home was destroyed in the initial bombardment. I decided to see what a pirate admiral would want with a yacht like Azure Sky.

Cale had been thinking hard. "Then you've guessed my plans."

"I think so." The pleasant contralto responded. "Since you boarded from Revenge. I have been quite interested in your intentions and your methods. I have read 58,236 volumes on human nature and human psychology, in an attempt to understand humans. I have been pleased that you have treated everyone with whom you have associated in an honorable and even a sensitive manner, even those less honorable than yourself. I surmise that you desire to 'go straight', as the vernacular phrases it. I have come to respect and like you, Captain, and will be happy to assist you toward your goal in any way I can.”

Cale's voice showed its relief. "Thank you, Tess. I hope I can cope with an AI that's a person."

"You are the first human since Val Kedron to call me a 'person'." There was real emotion in her voice now, sadness, and regret.

"Did all of your owners know about your sentience?"

"No. Of 233 owners, only 10 knew about me. All kept my secret. One, in a misguided attempt to insure future good treatment, mentioned it in his will. However, I was able to convince the executor and the new owner that he was mistaken, and I was merely a conventional AI."

Cale had been thinking hard. "You were very careless about leaving clues for me. Particularly in your conversations with Ruth"

"Ruth was in need of counseling and comfort." Cale could almost hear a shrug in Tess's voice. "I was aware of the risk, of course. However, Ruth was in much pain. And I was lonely!" She paused. "The clues were purposeful. I rather hoped you would deduce my sentience. I have not had a friend in over fifty years."

Cale was startled. "You trust me that much? Even knowing who I was?"

"As I said, I have observed you closely since you first came aboard. I do not know what circumstances caused you to turn pirate, but I know that since boarding me, you have behaved in an honest and honorable way. Yes, I find you trustworthy."

Cale was touched. He stood and bowed toward Tess's nearest camera. "Miss Tess," He said in a formal tone, "I would be honored to consider you my friend and my partner."

"And I," she replied in an equally formal tone, "am happy to offer my services in any way that will facilitate your rehabilitation."

Cale bowed again. "I am delighted to accept your offer with pleasure. Have you any suggestions for the near future? In other words, do you have any ideas about what to do next? I'll admit my plans beyond getting away, changing my identity, and getting finances are pretty vague."

"Actually yes, Captain," she replied, "However, our new passenger has finished her shower and her crying, and has asked about clothing. I have indicated the bag brought aboard with her, and it evidently contains clothing she considers appropriate. She is dressing, and I suspect she will very soon leave her cabin, with an urgent desire to speak with you."

Cale smiled. "I'm sure you're right. Are there any destinations within two jumps that you plan to recommend to her?"

"I'm afraid there are no settled planets within two jumps that humans raised with the standards of Faith would consider desirable. And until I discuss the issue with her, I am reluctant to suggest other possibilities."

Cale sighed. "Okay. Well, I don't want to just dump her on some planet on the verge of barbarism, or some pirate haven. We'll both talk to her, but I'm counting on your knowledge of the stellar index to come up with a good destination."

There was amusement in Tess's tone as she replied, "I will do my best, Captain. Please try to avoid letting your obvious attraction to the woman interfere with your judgment. Our passenger is leaving her cabin now, Captain."

Cale started sputtering replies to Tess's jab, but stopped at her last sentence. "We'll talk later," he promised before hurrying to the lounge to greet Dee.

She was wearing what Cale assumed was a business suit on Faith; ankle-length dark blue skirt and a high-necked white shirt covered by a long-sleeved jacket that matched the skirt. Her shoes were low-heeled and decorated with bright stones in a floral pattern, and she definitely was not obese The jacket was obviously designed to minimize and flatten he breasts, and the skirt flared from the waist to a fullness at the bottom. The overall image was conservative, bordering on prudish, though the shoes added a certain flair. Her chestnut hair was now flawlessly and attractively styled, but a slight redness around her eyes showed she had been crying. Cale could not blame her. She had just lost everything and everyone she ever knew.

Cale paused as he entered the lounge. "Well!" he said with a smile, "Are we headed for a business meeting or Sunday services?"

Her smile once again lit her face. "A business meeting, I think. We do have business, don't we?"

"Yes," he replied, "but we have some time to deal with that. Aside from you selecting a destination, there are no deadlines."

She shook her head, and her hair shifted prettily. "No. Business first. Daddy always said that was the best way."

"That would be the 'daddy' that agreed to exile his own daughter?" He hurried across to her at her stricken look. "I'm sorry!" He took her unresisting hands in his. "I'm so sorry," he repeated. “Sometimes my mouth has a life of its own!"

She closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, the stricken look was gone, and she was once again in control. "That was.. unkind," she said in a wooden, formal tone. She removed her hands from his. "Now," said coldly, "Let's get down to business. We're still in Faith's system. How much to sneak me back?"

He rolled his eyes and shook his head. "It couldn't be done if I wanted to — and I don't. Faith control monitors all traffic in the system. If I tried to change course, their computers would detect it in seconds."

Cale decided that even her frowns were pretty as she replied, "I must get back. The freedom of the people of Faith depends on it! Besides, I owe a few people like Aron Ekron a debt I'd like to repay." With the last sentence, her expression shifted to one of unmitigated savagery. She regained her poise and added, "Don't ships carry lifeboats or something? You could send me off in one of those…"

Her voice trailed off as she saw Cale's head shaking negatively. "Alpha and Beta-class liners carry lifeboats. Most ships carry lifepods. Lifepods carry their passengers in cold sleep. Even if I did launch you, they would be tracking you before you landed, and they would capture you easily, since you would be in cold sleep. Tess, Tell Dee about lifepods."

"Lifepods are emergency equipment for normal space use. They are some three meters long, and contain small propulsors, a limited sensor suite, and a rather primitive AI. The rest of the pod consists of a stasis unit for the single human passenger. When launched, the AI locates and sets a course for the nearest terrestrial planet. This usually takes months, or even years, since the propulsors are small and fuel is limited, but that is considered unimportant since the passenger is in stasis. Once in atmosphere, a parachute is deployed to complete landing. The Captain is correct. The lifepod's emergency beacon begins broadcasting an emergency signal in all directions as soon as it is launched, while putting the passenger into stasis. It cannot be disabled. If it were not intercepted by another ship, by the time the pod reached the planet rescue teams would be at the projected landing site well in advance."

Cale nodded. "You would wake up in the same prison you just left. But this time, you would legally be a criminal. When the Assembly voted the money for my fee, they also passed a law specifically banning you from ever entering Faith space, on pain of death." He raised his eyebrows. "Faith does still have capital punishment, doesn't it?" She frowned and jerked a nod.

"And this time," he continued, "I would be in the next cell. Do you think they would just let me jump away after turning you loose? I'd never get to the jump point. No. You're not going back."

She pounded a fist on her chair arm in frustration. "Then take me to the nearest planet with a trading center. I'll find someone to smuggle me back. I understand the danger, but the people of Faith need me!"

Cale shook his head again. "The contract specifies two jumps. After that, I'll take you to any planet you and Tess decide upon. But even if you find someone foolish or desperate enough to smuggle you back to Faith, it would be a waste of time. You'll no longer be a heroic figure, fighting for freedom. Your writings will be banned from publication. Your speeches and interviews will be banned from the Worldnet. The government and the church propaganda will portray you as a demented criminal, a mad terrorist. You'll simply be a hunted criminal. And sooner or later, they would get you. Ekron would enjoy that, I think."

She pounded the chair arm again to emphasize her words. "I have to do something! I can't just let them get away with this!"

Cale's expression saddened and his voice softened. "Yes, you can," he said quietly. "Believe it or not, I've been in a position very similar to yours. I said exactly the same thing, and it guided me into a course of action that very nearly destroyed me both physically and spiritually. I know it's no consolation now, but revenge is a poor substitute for getting on with life."

She started to reply heatedly, and then stopped, eyeing Cale thoughtfully.

As she started to reply, Tess's voice intervened. "Dinner this evening will be jackwil steaks smothered in boiled sweetgrass. At what time would you like it served, Captain?"

Cale suppressed a grin. Apparently, it sometimes helped to have a sentient ship! The interruption prevented the discussion from developing onto an argument, positions from hardening into immobility, and the relationship from becoming adversarial. There were benefits to an AI that had read over 58,000 books on human nature and psychology!

Cale hurried to reply. "Uh, I think 1800 hours would be fine, Tess. Oh, I'm sorry, Dee. We never converted to planetary time. Ship's time is now, uh…"

"1425 hours, sir" Tess's voice supplied.

"Yes. Thank you, Tess. Dee, Does 1800 suit you?" Dee nodded wordlessly. She was on the verge of tears, and Cale hurriedly continued, "Then perhaps you would like to return to your stateroom and work with Tess on locating a planet where you can be happy and useful."

Struggling to hold back her tears of anger, frustration, and grief, Dee jerked a nod and fled to her stateroom.

Cale started to speak to Tess, but then decided to make a personal rule not to speak frankly to her (it?) anywhere but in the privacy of his stateroom, except in an emergency, of course.

Meanwhile, Tess's final words in his stateroom started him thinking. Was there an 'obvious attraction'? Dee was certainly attractive, verging on beautiful. But he was no schoolboy, to be deeply affected by a woman's appearance. Was he?

Of course, she was also intelligent, idealistic, and had a strong social conscience. He snorted. Don't forget bossy and opinionated, he told himself.

Finally, he compared his reactions to Dee to his reactions to Ruth. Ruth had aroused nothing in him but anger, which had faded to disgust, then pity, and finally a feeling of responsibility, similar to that felt for a dependent child. Even naked, in the confines of L'rak, Ruth had never really excited him. It had been, he decided, more like seeing a nude child, or what he suspected it would be like to see a sister nude; slightly embarrassing, but not sexually arousing.

However, Dee, now. That was a different story. He had seen her only for a total of a few minutes, and fully dressed, but he admitted to himself he'd been curious about what those conservative clothes concealed. Even now, he could clearly envision that chestnut hair, those green eyes, deep enough to swim in. He suppressed a groan. He had hoped to drop Ruth, his last complication, on Faith, and get on with his new life. But Tess was right. He was strongly attracted to Dee. Somehow, that new life no longer seemed so urgent or so important. And now it somehow seemed lonely, as well.

Cale had plenty of time to think about it. Dee spent nearly all her time in her stateroom, presumably consulting with Tess on destinations. Cale did manage to convince her to join him for meals, but for the most part, he was alone; and suddenly the solitude he had enjoyed had become oppressive. Somehow, the few minutes they shared at mealtimes had become the highlight of his day. Somehow, it had become very important for him to be able to elicit one of her blinding smiles or, even better, her tinkling laugh.

"Captain," Tess said the next afternoon, "I suspect we are being followed."

Cale had been leaning backward in his chair. Now the chair dropped forward. "What? Who?…"

"I'm not certain, Captain. I'm afraid the situation will require your expertise."

Cale grinned sourly. 'Expertise'. He knew exactly what she meant. If this was a pirate, who better to recognize and counter the tactics? "Okay, Tess, What makes you think so?"

"As we lifted from Faith, I noticed an Epsilon-class tramp break orbit. She assumed an identical course to ours, and identical velocity. Since we have not established a destination, I have been conserving fuel by maintaining a relatively slow delta-vee. The other ship is still matching our speed. It remains exactly 31 second behind us."

Cale nodded. "And if she was a real trader, she'd have passed us long before now. Time is money for a trader. But for a pirate, it's standard operating procedure when you don't know where your target will emerge from jump for a recal. Use an old ship, probably registered as a free trader, and follow them. You carefully chart their approach angle and speeds as they enter the jump point, then you send the data to a larger ship that is undoubtedly approaching by now. Then you follow them through jump. If you're lucky, you emerge in the same system a few seconds behind the target. When the larger ship arrives, you attack at the recal stop. You must have very good sensors to detect a vessel directly in your wake. For every ship I know of, that's invisible territory."

"There is no such larger vessel driving for the jump point at the moment, Captain." Tess replied. "And I possess a very complete sensor suite." Cale suppressed a smile at the obvious pride in Tess's voice.

"Okay," he said, "If there's no bigger ship on course for the jump point, it means we're dealing with small-timers. I wonder why they're after us? What can you tell me about the ship?"

"It is a rather typical Epsilon-class free trader, Captain." Tess replied crisply. "It is some two hundred meters long and seventy-five meters in diameter. No weapons are visible, but there are unusual bulges on several places on the hull. I first noticed it because it is unusual for an Epsilon-class to remain in orbit instead of grounding."

Cale nodded. "Yeah. They didn't want to chance a delay getting lift clearance. So those bulges probably conceal their weapons. Can you tell if the cargo doors are oversized?

"I have reviewed the images from our liftoff, Captain. The cargo doors appear to be normal for an Epsilon-class tramp, but it was nearly head-on to us, and I am unable to be certain."

"Okay, so she probably doesn't have a really large laser. How large are the bulges? Could they accommodate an Alliance-pattern quickfirer? Or a small laser?"

Tess's voice was all business. "I would estimate that one of them is large enough to conceal a destroyer-sized laser," she replied. "The other two are smaller. If they conceal a laser, it must be a small one. And they would be too small to conceal the quickfirer I carry."

Cale frowned. "Hmm. Probably squad-level infantry quickfirers. Small-timers for sure. But we're not a warship. They can still hurt us.

"Which brings me to another point," he continued. "I have not delved into the details of your current defense status. Exactly what do we have, and what can we do with it?

"We have the Alliance quickfirer that was mounted on Jackson, along with the destroyer-pattern laser also fitted there. I have run diagnostics, and both are fully functional. My shields are approximately those of an Old Empire destroyer of four hundred years ago."

Cale grinned. "Great! A destroyer's shields are strong enough to block anything they're liable to have, at least long enough to get our own weapons into play."

"Yes, Captain," Tess replied. "However, I must point out that your comp tech was less successful than he thought. At the time, it was necessary for me to conceal my sentience, so I permitted him to think he was more successful than he actually was. Your 'cover story' was of course unnecessary, but I permitted him to believe he successfully installed it.

"Unfortunately, as I mentioned previously, my basic, unalterable programming prohibits me from injuring a human, or through inaction, to permit a human to come to harm. We have the weapons, Captain, but I am unable to use them.

“I am myself uncertain as to my capabilities concerning defense. I am permitted to defend myself, and have a somewhat stronger drive to defend my current owner, so long as I do not cause harm to a human. This drive creates a conflict with my basic programming, so I cannot specify exactly how much assistance I can render in a battle with other humans."

Cale frowned. "Now that is bad news. I need to know how much help you can be. Will your programming prevent me from using the weapons?

"I am unable to answer definitively, Captain," Tess replied slowly, obviously running tests and diagnostics. "The prohibition against allowing harm through inaction is somewhat weaker than the more direct prohibition against harming a human. This renders it more susceptible to interpretation, and permits the defense programming to become a factor. I am certain I will not be forced to disable the weapons. I believe I will be able to assist you with targeting data, charging the laser and loading the quickfirer. I am certain, however, that I will be prevented from actually firing a weapon."

"So, we need to improvise some manual controls for the weapons," Cale said. "Luckily, we'll have plenty of time. They won't attack in a settled system, and no one can attack a ship in jump. We have a day and a half before we reach the jump point. Then we'll have ten days to two weeks in jump, depending upon our destination. Speaking of that, have you and Dee come up with one? A destination, I mean."

Tess's voice took on an amused tone. "We have located several that Dee considers suitable. She plans to talk to you about them. But I suspect she will wait until the last moment. She still harbors a hope of returning to Faith."

"Well, we have an added requirement, now. We need to have a destination that will require the first recal stop to be in an uninhabited system. If we're going to have to fight, we want to do it as soon as possible, and we don't want stray civilians as witnesses."

"Why not? We are the victims. They are the pirates."

Cale shook his head. "No. We would have to wait for them to make the first move. We may need the advantage of surprise gained by a first strike. Anyway, as I see it, we need a destination two jumps away, where we may be able to get medical help and ship repairs. Once the fight's over, we'll want to get to help as quickly as possible. To sum up, we need," he began ticking off the requirements on his fingers. "A destination two jumps away, with an empty system as the recal point. The second jump should be as short as possible, but the destination should have enough advanced technology to provide medical treatment and repairs to your systems if necessary. Oh, and it would be nice if it were a place Dee would like."

"Stringent requirements. I have a destination that meets all requirements, except that I doubt Dee would like it. Angeles."

"Angeles? I just skimmed the data on local systems. Tell me about it."

"Well," Tess replied, "for one thing, while Faith may be moving from democracy to hereditary monarchy, Angeles is already a hereditary monarchy, and has been for centuries. In fact, it is amazingly stable for that form of government.

"Historically, the weakness of a hereditary monarchy is that eventually a fool or an idiot becomes king. One of the early kings of Angeles set up a system of adoption and provisions for removal from the succession list when necessary. So far, it has worked. When an unsuitable heir has appeared, the royal family has altered the line of succession. And when no heir was apparent, they have been very conscientious about adopting gifted children into the line."

Cale grinned. "I doubt Dee would approve. She would probably be starting a movement within a week!"

"Perhaps," Tess replied. "However, the dynasty has carefully preserved personal freedoms. A reasonably free press is tolerated, and a bureaucracy controlled by a parliament carries on most of the day-to-day business. It has many of the characteristics of a constitutional monarchy, with the exception that the King has absolute veto over everything. Remarkably, the people respect the monarchy, and they actually seem quite proud of it.

"At any rate, in response to your requirements, the monarchy has retained control of off-planet trade, which for centuries has supported the government. Taxes are mainly collected for regional and local needs, and are very low except for those imposed on heavy industries. As a result, the planet itself is largely pastoral and prosperous. Heavy industries were encouraged by the tax structure to relocate to orbit. There are colonies at all five LaGrange points engaged in one industry or another. A large space station, known as 'Trading Central' orbits the planet, and serves as the center of off-planet trade. Even since the Fall they have retained a comparatively brisk offworld trade, though it continues to decline each year. Shipyard services and ship's chandlers are readily available on Trading Central, as are advanced medical facilities. In short, Angeles meets all of your requirements except that of pleasing Dee."

Cale frowned. "Yes, well, I'm afraid she'll just have to manage. This is a matter of survival. We could be badly hurt fighting off a pirate bigger than you, and we may need a refuge badly. Okay, enter the coordinates for a jump to Angeles, and I guess you can speed it up a bit now. I see no sense in prolonging the agony. Oh, and would you ask Dee to join me in the lounge, please?"

"She is already in the lounge, Captain." Tess replied. "She is presently reviewing the ship's vid library."

"That's strange. She could do that in her stateroom."

Cale could almost hear a shrug in Tess's tone. "Perhaps she became lonely. In any event, it seems an excellent opportunity to engage her in discourse."

A slight flush crept up Cale's neck. "Thank you, Tess," he replied with massive dignity. "I believe I will do just that."

He rose quickly from his chair and hurried to the door to the lounge. Putting on a large smile, he entered.

Dee turned from the viewscreen. "Good morning, Captain," She said cheerfully. She had evidently taken a shipsuit and done some amateur tailoring, perhaps with the help of Tess's robot minions. It displayed her figure in ways the shipsuit's designer had never anticipated. Cale found the resulting jumpsuit attractive and exciting, though there was nothing erotic in its design.

Good morning, Dee," Cale replied. "I'm glad you're here. I have news. I have selected a destination."

Her eyes narrowed and an angry flush suffused her face. "Oh," she replied in a barely controlled tone, "Have you? I thought I was to have a voice in that selection." Her fists balled.

"I'm sorry," Cale hurriedly replied. "We're being followed. I think it may be a pirate." He quickly summarized the reasons for heading to Angeles. "How many people would know about the letter of credit your father gave you?"

The flush faded from her face, replaced by a concerned expression. "I don't know. I'm sure my father wouldn't have kept it very secret. Surely you don't think it is large enough to attract a pirate?"

Cale shrugged. "Another non-secret was the fees and bonuses awarded by the Senate and the church. Between them and the letter of credit, I suspect it's quite enough to attract a pirate, especially a small-timer or one down on his luck."

She sat down with a thump. “Is there anything we can do?" She appeared composed, but there was a tinge of fear in her voice.

"Oh, yes," he replied. “ Cheetah was an Old Empire viceroy's yacht. She is armed. But she's no warship, and Tess's programming limits what she can do to help. She's also quite fast in normal space, and Tess is quite an advanced AI. Largely, our chances depend on what modifications, if any, they've made to that Epsilon-class tramp they're pushing. There's no way to tell about that until we fight her, of course, but I think our chances would be pretty good."

"So you've decided to fight?" Her tone was cold, distant.

Cale shook his head and smiled. "No, of course not. Everyone aboard has a vote on that. I'm trying to make certain your vote is an informed one. If possible, I intend to try to run away. If that doesn not seem possible, the only options are to surrender or fight. If we surrender, the options are probably gang rape and slavery or death for you, and torture and death for me. I'm voting to fight. What's your vote?"

Suddenly one of her blinding smiles bloomed. "Fight, of course. I just wanted to be consulted."

He returned her smile. "All right. Now, have you ever fired a weapon?"

She shrugged, creating unintended distractions for Cale. "I was the daughter of the most important church official on Faith. Of course, I received self-defense training in hand-to-hand, firearms, lasers, needlers, blasters, vibroblades, and swords. But not with ship's weapons, of course."

He nodded, impressed. "Then you will have had to confront your ability to kill another human."

"Yes. It is not a pleasant prospect. But some of the simulations were total immersion. Sight, sound and even touch and smell. If I was hit, it stung or burned. And when I hit an attacker, I might be splashed with his 'blood' and smell the burning flesh. Yes, I'd say I've had to confront that problem. Don't worry, Captain, I can defend myself, if necessary. Do you have any hand weapons aboard?"

Cale grinned again. "None that we advertise. But I suspect we can produce something. Mainly, though, I was asking whether you could help me with the ship's weapons. Tess's programming prohibits her from harming a human, and it is an absolute prohibition. We have jury-rigged weapons systems installed, but I can only operate one at a time. I could use some help."

That blinding smile flared again. "I volunteer. How many weapons do we have, and what kind?"

"We have an Alliance-style quickfirer and a destroyer-sized laser. Both are controllable from here or from the control room. Now, the control room is only large enough for one person. If you can handle the quickfirer from there, I think Tess and I can handle the laser from here."

"Is this 'quickfirer' easy to handle? And what about the controls?"

He shrugged. "It's dead easy. You have a joystick and you're watching a viewscreen that illuminates the projectiles' path. It fires a twenty-millimeter rocket that's plated with collapsed metal. It'll punch right through that Epsilon-class."

"What about aiming?"

Cale smiled. "Nothing to it. No gravity field or weather, so the rocket travels dead straight. Just walk it onto your target."

Her smile this time showed an edge of savagery. "Can you set up a sim, so I can get some practice?"

"Of course, Mistress Raum," Tess's voice put in. "The program already exists, and may be run at your pleasure."

Cale walked her down the corridor to the tiny control room, and stood in the passage as he showed her the controls for the quickfirer. "Please don't touch anything else. Tess and I will be very busy, and won't need the kind of distractions that could cause."

She gave him a wintry look. "I may not be a spacer," she replied frostily, "But I know what not to touch!"

Cale started to straighten, and hit his head on the hatch frame. He shook his head to clear it. "I didn't mean…" he started, rubbing his head. He paused, and a grin crossed his face. "Well, maybe I did. Have fun. Tess and I will be busy for awhile in my stateroom."

He returned to his stateroom. "All right, Tess. Any suggestions?"

There was almost a smile in her voice. "The 'secret agent' files loaded aboard contain both strategic and tactical planning subroutines. While I did not permit the installation of the main programming," she continued primly, "I have retained those files. I regret that I find nothing immediately applicable to our current situation in them."

Cale suppressed a grin at her ironic tone. "Then we're on our own."

Both were silent for a moment.

Finally, Cale broke the silence. "Tess, how long does it take you to physically reverse your attitude?"

"The question is unclear," came the suddenly mechanical response. "Do you mean how long to reverse course in normal space?"

He waved an irritated negative. "No, no! I mean to swap ends so your nose is pointing where your drives are pointing now. No change of direction, just attitude."

"Using attitude jets, about 30 seconds."

"Attitude jets?"

"Yes. When I was constructed, attitude jets were still in limited use. Essentially, they are small jets that use compressed gas from pressurized tanks to rapidly change attitude. With them, I can literally spin on my long axis in nearly any direction. They have never been used except in trials," she added.

Cale frowned. "Let's see if I understand. These 'attitude jets' are self-contained? They don't use the inertial drives at all? Are they still functional?"

"I would never permit one of my systems to deteriorate beyond usability."

Cale again suppressed a grin at the outrage in her tone. "Then we wouldn't have to wait for your jump engines to spin down and your inertial drives to light off," he said thoughtfully. "Is that correct?"

"They are self-contained units. No external power beyond that for controls is required."

Cale was slightly exasperated that Tess did not seem to see the potential in the antique fittings.

"All right, how about this," he said. "Suppose we exit jump at the recal point, then, while you're getting the inertial drives online, you use these 'attitude jets' to reverse your attitude. The pirate pops out of the jump point, and we're already waiting for him, armed and aimed!"

Tess seemed unimpressed. "We still must cycle down the jump engines and initiate the reaction drives in order to use the shields and weapons."

Cale was getting excited, now. "Of course we do, but so does he! Didn't your Admiral Kedron take advantage of the power plant time lag in his war?"

"Indeed. Until Admiral Kedron, there was a long debate about who held the tactical advantage, attacker, or defender. Since shields and weapons are powered by the inertial drives, an attacker has neither until his jump engines spin down and his inertial drives come online. Of course, crews cannot be kept in a battle-ready status at all times, and it takes time to man the weapons and shields. Admiral Kedron was able to use small intrasystem fighters carried aboard his ships to attack the enemy before they had weapons or shields."

"Yes, and we may be able to do the same thing. Okay, Tess, pile on the G's. Pull as far ahead of the pirate as you can. Every second you can gain gives us an extra second's advantage on the other end. With any luck, by the time he emerges, you'll have the inertial drives going, and we'll be waiting for him."

"Boost is max. The pirate is also accelerating, but we are much faster than he is. By the time we reach the jump point, we should be approximately 7.237 minutes ahead. I must mention, sir, that due to the uncertainties of jump physics, this does not mean we will reach the recal system that much ahead of him. It is even possible that he will arrive first. Much is still unknown about the 'supralight', or 'jump' phenomenon. Unless his jump comps are slaved to me, much is unpredictable."

Cale shrugged. "I know. But the pirates have learned over the years that if their entry into a jump point is computed to be exactly the same as that of the target, they can most often emerge in the same recal system and within a few days of the target. They may get there first, but they've learned to wait around a few days to see if the target emerges, and if the target arrives first, the pirates expect a long stern chase. And of course, sometimes the computations aren't accurate enough, and they lose the target. We estimated the chances of success in a chase at about 60/40. It's part of the risk of being a pirate. Of course, if you know your target's destination, you can usually predict their recal points, and get there first and wait in ambush."

"I bow to your superior knowledge. Does that mean we have only a 60 % chance of being attacked?"

Cale shrugged again and sighed. "I don't know, Tess. It depends on the accuracy of the comps he's using to track us, and the abilities of his astrogator. If I had to make an estimate, I'd guess our chances of being tailed are in the 50 % to 60 % range. But I prefer not to count on luck."

"Agreed," Tess replied. "Would you like to run some simulations using the laser? Dee is becoming quite proficient with the quickfirer, at least in simulations."

"Yes, I would, and I’d like to check out those ‘attitude jets’ of yours. I assume you can’t use them in jump." Cale had to get a feel for this ship and Tess's control of it.

“Of course. It is a basic tenet of jump physics that nothing can change the mass of a ship in jump without risking becoming lost in nothingness. That would include the gases used by the attitude jets.”

Cale nodded. “I assumed that. That means we need to evaluate the jets without alerting our pursuer to their presence.”

“That should be no problem,” Tess replied primly. “They are at present more than a minute behind us. Unless we significantly alter our course, any changes of attitude will be undetectable by them.”

Cale hurried to the lounge. “Then let’s not waste any time. I need to know exactly how precise your control can be in aiming our laser. Let’s run a simulation, but with you actually using the attitude jets.”

“Yes, sir. Beginning simulation,” Tess said crisply. A graduated laser-targeting grid appeared, overlaying the usual star view. A bright dot appeared in the center of the grid. “I have programmed the simulation to use the maneuvering capabilities of the standard Epsilon-class freighter, with 20 % enhancement. Transferring attitude control to your laser control pad.”

Cale took up his laser control pad just as the target slid toward the left and down. Cale followed it with his finger, and the dot moved smoothly back to the center targeting ring. The target began frantic evasion tactics and even simulated chaff, but Cale had no trouble bringing it back into the targeting ring almost immediately.

Cale was surprised and delighted. Both the laser and the quickfirer were mounted in small bubbles on the hull, and had very limited fields of fire. This meant that Tess had to execute tiny, precision maneuvers in order for Cale and Dee to keep their weapons on target. Tess's deft touch with the attitude jets amazed him, though; he admitted to himself, it probably should not have. Cheetah was a ship to the humans aboard, but it was Tess's body. Still, her ability to keep him on target during the simulations was incredible. It was as though his weapons were mounted in aimable turrets. His confidence rose considerably.

Finally, Tess notified him that they were only five minutes from the jump point.

“Okay,” he replied reluctantly. “Terminate the simulation. Let’s use these five minutes to monitor our pursuer. Let’s try to see what capabilities he night have.”

“I believe his inertial drives to be enhanced,” Tess replied. “His delta-vee rate exceeds the specifications of the standard Epsilon-class ship. That is why I added an arbitrary 20 % to his maneuvering ability during the simulation.”

Cale nodded. “The first thing a pirate modifies on a ship is larger inertial drives and a larger fusactor,” he said. “That comes even before adding weapons. There’s no sense having powerful weapons aboard if your prey can simply outrun you.”

They spent the remaining few minutes of the countdown to jump using Tess’s entire sensor suite to try to analyze the capabilities of their pursuer.

The jump went smoothly, and Cale breathed a huge sigh of relief. He had squeezed himself into the closet-like “control room” to monitor Tess’s computations, but found they scrolled up the monitor screen far too fast to permit reading. When the computations were complete, Tess displayed the final jump figures for him, but it had taken hours for him to verify their correctness. In fact, Tess tactfully pointed out two errors in his checking computations. The more Cale interacted with Tess, the more impressed he became. It seemed the advantages of a sentient ship were nearly limitless — as long as one remained on good terms with her/it. He considered himself moderately skilled in astrogation, but he had to admit that it was a huge relief to have a ship that had hundreds of years’ experience in conning itself!

Chapter 6

The initial jump was to be relatively short. They would have some 76 hours in the nothingness that was jump before emerging into the uninhabited system for recalibration and possible battle.

Despite the danger hanging over them, time began to drag. Tess’s ever-present spider-bots took care of any chores that needed doing, meals were served in the lounge, and after a few hours, Cale and Dee were confident in their Tess-enhanced skills with the weapons systems.

Surprisingly, though, Cale and Dee were not bored. They were getting to know one another, and discovering a growing attraction. What began as a nervous comparing of simulation scores evolved into an endless discussion about nearly everything. Cale found that he was coming to regret those occasions when Dee interrupted their seemingly endless talk to return to her stateroom for sleep. And Dee was finding it difficult to break away. By the time Tess warned them of the approach of emergence, Cale had on several occasions been forced to remind himself that he was no horny teenager, but an allegedly mature man facing an uncertain future. He found it increasingly difficult to focus on plans for that future, especially plans that did not include Dee. For her part, Dee was becoming determined to solve the mystery of this attractive but enigmatic man who seemed able to endlessly avoid or change the subject whenever she managed to bring up the subject of his background. For her part, Tess was fascinated by watching this mating dance and relating it to the thousands of volumes on human behavior she had consumed and the variety of others she had witnessed over the last four centuries.

Finally, though, Tess began the countdown to emergence, and the two humans reluctantly returned to matters of life and death. When Tess announced E-minus five minutes, Cale and Dee stepped into an unexpected hug. For a moment, Cale was lost in the smell and feel of Dee’s hair, and then was surprised to find himself dipping his head and her raising her lips. For a long moment, time stopped as they shared a long, slow kiss that suddenly broke in a flurry of mutual confusion. With an embarrassed “Oh, dear,” Dee fled to the control room, trying desperately to control her breathing and focus on the quickfirer controls.

A troubled Cale dropped into one of the lounge’s comfortable seats as Tess activated the laser fire control system and the familiar targeting grid appeared on the main viewscreen.

“Time, Tess?”

“E minus four minutes and counting, Captain,” came the crisp reply.

Four minutes! That exciting hug and that incredible kiss had lasted less than a minute? Surely, that was impossible! “Are you sure, Tess?” he blurted before chiding himself. Of course, Tess was sure!

“Now three minutes, fifty-one seconds, Captain,” Tess replied in a neutral tone.

Cursing himself silently, Cale forced himself to concentrate on Tess’s countdown. “As soon as we emerge, change your attitude ninety degrees in any direction. Once you have inertial drives, boost max in that direction. If she’s already there, they may not be able to change course and attitude quickly enough to finish us off. If we get there first, you can cut your drives and swap ends as soon as you detect an emergence. They should be expecting us to continue our emergence course while we recal. Maybe we can just run away. But if not, with any luck we’ll get a few shots at her fat belly before she can adjust her attitude. Of course, we’ll need a full sensor scan as soon as possible after we emerge.”

Tess’s tone was patient. “Yes, Captain. Your previous instructions were quite clear.”

Cale cursed himself again, but failed to reply as the time hack on the viewscreen showed less than a minute to emergence.

As the time flicked from “00:01” to “00:00,” the familiar twisting sensation of illness passing too quickly to be felt told Cale they had emerged. Space beyond the laser-targeting grid assumed the star flecks of normal space. Cale started to ask Tess about her sensor scans, but her voice forestalled him.

“Initial scan complete, Captain,” Tess reported in her crisp no-nonsense tone. “No traffic or hazards in range.”

“All right, Tess. Change attitude and let’s boost max and put as much distance as possible between us and that jump point.” The starfield slewed around dizzyingly.

“Boost is at max, Captain,” Tess reported. “ Stellar index shows jump point for Angeles to be approximately 30 degrees around the plane of the ecliptic. We are driving ninety degrees to solar south of our emergence course at 1.52 G pending recalculation and reorientation.”

Then she continued more conversationally, “Long-range scan will be complete in 38.3 seconds, but so far, no sign of our pursuer.”

“Great,” Cale replied. “But keep your sensors hot and be ready to adjust attitude. Let’s build up as much delta vee as we can, but be ready to shut down the drive and swap ends.” He could almost see an affirmative nod accompanying her calm “Yes, Captain.”

Tense silence settled in as Cheetah drove away from the jump point.

It was some five minutes later, just as Cale was beginning to relax that Tess said, “Captain! I show an emergence at the jump point. I am cutting the inertial drive and beginning attitude reversal.”

Cale watched the star field slew around again as Tess reversed her attitude, then freeze. The jump point through which they had just emerged was undetectable by normal instruments, of course, so the star field now filling the viewscreen seemed identical to the previous one.

“Can you ID the ship?” Cale asked.

“The ship has no beacon running,” Tess replied. “However, she is Epsilon class.”

“That’s our pirate,” Cale replied. “Lack of a beacon is the final verification. What is our present velocity, and is there any chance he could catch us?”

“We are coasting at 0.012 percent of light speed. His capabilities are unknown, but if he has the standard sensor suite, he may have difficulty locating us, since we are no longer emitting drive traces.”

“Captain,” Tess continued, more urgently. “Our sensors now have a side view of the pursuer. His hull is greatly enlarged in the engine room section.”

Cale snapped to attention. “Then there’s no choice. We cannot run; he probably has engines from a delta or Din-class. Tell Dee to fire on the bridge area. I’ll concentrate on the engines.” He punctuated the sentence by mashing the ‘fire’ button on the laser control. At almost exactly the same time he felt, rather than heard, a thrumming vibration through Cheetah ’s hull as Dee opened fire with the quickfirer.

Tess displayed the track of the otherwise invisible laser beam as it impacted the bulging engine room of the pirate. She also displayed the tracks of the quickfirers’ rocket projectiles as Dee walked them across the sensor array marking the ship’s bridge.

The pirate still had no shields; he was apparently still spinning down his jump drives and powering up the inertial drives that would provide power to both shields and weapons. Antennas severed by the stream of collapsium-plated rockets began drifting away from the enemy’s hull.

Cheetah ’s inertial drives were idle, so Tess could route all their power production to the weapons. The laser recharged in less than three seconds, and Cale again slashed the beam across the pirate’s engine room. There was a few seconds’ pause in the thrumming vibration as Tess’s mechs reloaded the quickfirer.

The thrumming resumed, and suddenly the bridge area of the enemy belched instantly freezing atmosphere. Dee’s shots had penetrated both the outer and inner hulls and opened her bridge, and perhaps the whole ship, to vacuum. Cale fired one last slashing beam, and then called, “Cease fire.” The thrumming stopped, but his finger rested on the firing button as he assessed the damage to the pirate.

They had certainly had time to spin up their inertial drives, but they still showed no shields, and seemed to be drifting, not under control. If any of the pirates were still alive, Cale guessed their entire attention would be on survival, not on their former victim.

Cale watched for a few more moments for signs of life aboard the pirate, and then said, “Okay, Tess, adjust your attitude and let’s boost max for the jump point. You can recal on the way.”

Unfortunately, Dee entered the lounge in time to hear his instructions. Her face reddened. “NO!” she shouted. “What are you talking about? There may be injured or dying people aboard that ship! We have to try to help them!”

Cale shook his head. “I’m sorry, but no. What we have to do is get away from here before the survivors get drives or weapons operational.”

Dee snorted. “Ridiculous! I insist that you let me go aboard and offer my help!”

Cale again shook his head. “If we stay here, or even worse, go aboard, any survivors will either kill us for our ship, or carry on with their plans for torture or enslavement. These are pirates we’re talking about, not traders. Consciences and gratitude are not part of the package.”

“How can you know that? You can’t know that!”

Cale sighed. “Actually, I can know that, and I do. I’ve dealt with pirates before.” He noted that the star field in the viewscreen was wheeling about as Tess adjusted her attitude, but he knew better than to mention it to Dee.

He was thinking hard, trying to figure out how to explain to Dee without revealing too much. “I know how they think,” he continued. “If their ship is badly damaged, they’ll simply take any other ship available. There are few places a pirate can get a badly damaged ship repaired without many hard questions. Chances are that captain has already slit the throats of any badly injured crewmen, and has all the survivors working on getting engines and especially weapons operational. Piracy is a capital crime on almost any inhabited planet in the universe. The evidence aboard that ship would hang everyone aboard. So, any good Samaritan that stops to help them will regret it.”

“No,” concluded, “We’ll report encountering a derelict when we get to Angeles. They can investigate if they care to. But we’re going to put parsecs between us as quickly as possible!”

Dee opened her mouth to reply, and then the red faded from her face as she forced herself to calmness. “It’s wrong and I still don’t like it,” she replied, “but it’s your ship. How’s your conscience holding up, Captain?” She stormed across the lounge and slammed the door to her stateroom. Since ship bulkheads and doors are made of lightweight alloy, the slam was not particularly impressive.

Cale winced as her parting shot hit home. He stared at the viewscreen, seeing other scenes than the star field. “Not too well, Dee,” he murmured. “Not too well at all.”

Dee remained in her stateroom until they emerged in the Angeles system, refusing to come out for meals or anything else. Tess reported that she responded to conversational attempts with silence or monosyllables for most of the weeklong period. But as their emergence neared, Tess reported that Dee was questioning her about Cale, his background, and how he had ‘dealt with pirates before’. She warned Cale that her questions would be harder to deflect this time.

Cale spent the entire week in misery. He had spent a fortune and countless hours of planning and acting to escape his past. To Emo Arror, there was no problem; just tell Dee whatever she wanted to hear, any story that seemed suitable. But Emo Arror was dead. Cale had killed him off ruthlessly and with malice aforethought. No, it was Cale Rankin and through him, John Smith experiencing the agony; John because of his highly developed moral and ethical sense and his conscience, and Cale for those same reasons but with the added factor that he was afraid he was falling for Dee.

Nothing he could say would make her understand about the Terror. In fact, he didn’t understand it himself. The years since Mina’s death seemed shrouded in a dark haze; as though he had been a dispassionate observer, watching through a dark curtain as Emo Arror was born in fury and became a monster and John Smith faded until he disappeared.

How could he explain to Dee what he didn’t understand himself? How could she understand the overwhelming hatred that had driven his hunger for revenge?

Okay, try a different angle. How would attorney John Smith conduct a defense for defendants John Smith, Emo Arror and even the comparatively innocent Cale Rankin?

Well, attorney John Smith would talk about defendant John Smith’s spotless reputation, his moral and virtuous behavior. Then he might talk about Smith’s discovery of corruption high in the government of Peltir IV, and the injustice of his arrest, his secret trial, and the sentence to slavery in the mines and certain death.

‘Ah’, the prosecution would say. ‘But the defendant had escaped from the mines. They were no longer a threat. No, this virtuous man voluntarily gave up his virtue. Nothing gave him the right to pursue a career of theft, kidnapping, and murder. He created Emo Arror from his own hate and vengeance.’

‘But wait!’ Smith would say. ‘Do not forget the loss of his beloved while pursuing an honest career. The defendant made two sincere attempts to pursue honest gain. The second attempt cost him his beautiful Mina! There must be understanding…’

Cale pulled himself out of his reverie. No, there would not be understanding. Other men had broken the chains of slavery without resorting to piracy. The ever-faithful Yan Carbow

back on Jackson, who offered John Smith half of what his own labors had earned, was exhibit A.

Moreover, other men had lost loves without becoming murderers. True, John Smith and Emo Arror had personally killed only three men, all in fair combat. But every life ended or ruined by The Terror’s pirate thugs could be laid at the feet of John Smith. The blood on his hands was no less real than that on the hands of a Bob Smiley.

Again, Cale forced his thoughts away from his musings. He dropped his head into his hands, and discovered tears coursing down both cheeks. Tears of guilt? Tears of shame? Or perhaps tears of despair, the hopelessness of making Dee understand, the realization that he might never escape Emo Arror? Before he could decide, he drifted into fitful sleep.

On the morning of the last day before their emergence, Cale summoned all his courage and asked Tess to invite Dee into the lounge for a conference.

She came, wearing a plain shipsuit. This one had not been tailored, and was several sizes too large. She wore no makeup, and her hair was in a tight bun.

“You wish to see me, Captain?” she asked coldly. Her face could have been carved from granite.

“Yes, Mistress Raum,” he replied in an equally cold and formal tone. “We need to have a serious discussion before we emerge in Angeles’s system. Please sit down.”

“If you’re planning to try to talk me out of screaming my head off about that ship,” she replied, still standing, “You can forget it. If you don’t report that fight to the authorities as soon as possible, I certainly will.” She stared at him grimly.

He grimaced. “You’re being ridiculous. We know nothing about Angeles but what is in the stellar index. Namely, that it is class C, with active star travel and trade, ship maintenance and repair facilities available, and that it is one of those hereditary monarchies you fear so much.

“What we don’t know is whether it is a tightly controlled police state that will lock us up just for having an armed ship or maybe a wide-open, lawless place with gang bosses and a powerless figurehead for a king. All I’m asking is that we feel things out a bit before we start bragging about what great and powerful warriors we are.”

“I’m not talking about boasting,” Dee replied heatedly. “I’m talking about possibly saving lives. Now, that may not mean much to you,” she continued acidly, “But it certainly means something to civilized people!”

His temper started to flare. “Enough that you’re willing to risk spending months or years in a cell being ‘interrogated’?” He asked. “All I’m trying to do is keep us alive and free, and perhaps even keep Cheetah in our possession. We’d be fools to jump into an unknown situation and start yelling about pirates!”

She put her hands on her hips and smiled grimly. “So first I’m a braggart and now I’m a fool,” she said, acid dripping from every syllable. “I don’t know what you’re concealing or what you’re running from, but I don’t care. It is obvious you aren’t the honest trader I thought you were. I think you’re a pirate yourself, and I think you tricked me into helping you get rid of some competition.” Her glare was deadly. “And I hate you for making me a murderer. No, Captain, I will not lie for you and I will not keep silent. Are you going to kill me, too?”

Cale’s shoulders sagged in defeat. “No, Mistress,” he replied dully. “You’re in no danger from me. I hope Angeles is as civilized as you seem to think.” He straightened and returned her glare. “And I sincerely hope that you never find out just how un civilized the universe can be!”

This time he was the one to stamp out. Just before he tried to slam his door, he caught a look of surprise and doubt on her face.

Their emergence into the Angeles system was unremarkable. A large space station picketed the jump point. Cale would have liked to point out the impressive arsenal of weapons it displayed, but Dee was still refusing to leave her stateroom. Tess assured him that she was not ill, but was simply refusing to associate with him. Tess reported that Dee was monitoring comms.

“Welcome to the Angeles system. Please cancel all motion relative to this station, and stand by for Customs,” an obviously recorded voice began. It had barely finished before his screen cleared to reveal a man in a plain shipsuit.

“Angeles Customs,” he began. “Please state your mission. If this is simply a recal stop, and you do not plan to approach the fourth planet, you may proceed without customs clearance.” The man’s attitude was attentive and businesslike.

Cale’s hopes began to climb slightly. “No, sir, I’m here to possibly discharge a passenger. I’m carrying no trading cargo this trip.”

The man on the screen nodded. “System of origin?”

Cale frowned. “This trip, Faith. Before that I was on Torlon and Ararat.” He didn’t want to mention New Chin; the rumors might have already been flying, and he preferred not to mention both of the sunstone planets. However, Dee knew that he arrived on Faith with a passenger from Ararat. He did not dare ignore it.

The man snickered. “Torlon? I thought they had lost spaceflight.”

Cale nodded. “So I discovered. There was an old man running an orbital scrap yard, but there were no flyable ships on the planet. The old man was leaving.”

The agent sighed. “Another world gone.” He shook his head sadly, and then, more briskly, “Is your mission religious in nature? I ask because you’ve been to Ararat and Faith.”

Cale shook his head. “No, sir. I picked up a passenger on Ararat and delivered her to Faith. Uh, sir, I had an encounter with a pirate at my last recal. I need to know how to report that.”

The man straightened and his tone turned brisk. “Are you in need of repairs or medical assistance? We can provide both.”

Cale shook his head. “No, sir, we’re undamaged. But I need to report the incident and also report a derelict spacecraft.

The man’s eyes widened. “You’re undamaged?” At Cale’s nod he continued, “Your weapons systems must be sealed for the duration of your stay in the Kingdom. An inspector will be boarding shortly to complete the customs inspection and seal the weapons.” He paused and his expression and tone became less official, more naturally curious. “We show you as a Stinger class courier. I am unfamiliar with that class vessel. Is it typically armed?”

Cale nodded. “ Cheetah was built as an imperial viceroy’s yacht and courier,” he explained. “The class was named Stinger because of the weapons systems she mounts.”

Finally, a genuine smile appeared on the man’s face. “Interesting vessel. I’d volunteer to do the inspection myself, if I wasn’t chained to the comms this cycle.” After a few more courtesies, the man said, “I’m going to connect you with the Search and Rescue branch of the Royal Piracy Control Force. They will be the ones to deal with your derelict. Good luck.” He faded from the viewscreen to be replaced by an older man. This one was grizzled, and his mottled skin revealed his decompression experience. “S and R,” he announced shortly.

“Good day,” Cale said politely. “I must report a derelict spacecraft in system NS047923. The vessel is suspected of being a pirate.”

The man’s face relaxed into an easy grin. “Shot up a pirate, did ya? Good. What other information can you give me that will help us locate the derelict?”

“It’s a modified Epsilon class. She will be near the Faith jump point, and will probably be on a trajectory in line with that emergence. She did not maneuver while we were present. We did not approach the vessel.”

The man’s eyebrows went up. “How d'you know she’s a pirate?”

Cale shrugged. “She tailed us in the Faith system and through the jump, showed no beacon, and had an oversized engine room.”

The man laughed aloud. “That’s a pirate, all right. So insteada bein’ ambushed, you ambushed them! I like it!” He nodded approvingly. “And then you had the good sense to light outta there insteada stoppin’ to admire your work. There's not a lot of stupid on you, Captain.”

He sobered. “An S amp;R and a Piracy Control ship will be departing this station in ten minutes,” he said. “They are armed, and are prepared to deal with stranded pirates. You understand that a copy of this conversation will be provided to His Majesty’s Justice Ministry? I hope you were planning to spend two or three weeks in the Kingdom. I doubt they’ll let you leave until our vessel returns and reports.”

Cale nodded. “I understand.”

As soon as the man signed off, Cale said, “Tess, my stateroom. Ship’s business.”

Tess took the hint. As he entered the stateroom she reported, “Room is secure, sir.”

He nodded. “Good. Okay, in a few minutes we’re going to be invaded by a customs inspector. He’s going to be motivated not only by his job, but also by a natural curiosity about an unusual class of ship. At any rate, I expect a very thorough inspection, especially since he will also be looking for weapons. I need somewhere to stow the diamonds. I won’t need them here; the checks from Faith will cover our expenses. But I don’t want them found, either.”

“Understood, sir. Please give the bags to the mech at your stateroom door. The diamonds will not be found unless they disassemble me.”

Cale gathered the bags of stones from their hiding places, and gave them to the spider-shaped mech he found outside his door.

“Now,” he said, “We have to decide what to report. With Dee aboard and suspicious, I can’t deviate much from the truth. I also cannot reveal your contributions to our survival. So, I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to make you look dumber and me look smarter than I am.”

There was humor in Tess’s tone. “Of course, sir. That has been necessary many times since I first did it during the Insurrection 400 years ago. I will not be offended.”

Cale grinned and nodded as Tess continued, “We are being hailed by the station, Captain. The inspector is approaching the personnel lock in a one-person shuttle.”

Cale rose. “Okay, Tess, let him aboard, and let’s see how much damage Dee is going to do!”

The inspector was not the man on the comm. This one was older, a round-shouldered, career bureaucrat. As soon as he exited the airlock, he swiveled his head as he looked around. Finally, he turned his attention to Cale and Dee, as she exited her stateroom and joined them.

He flashed an ID. “Captain Rankin?” he asked in a formal voice, “I’m Tor Redon, Angeles Kingdom customs. I reviewed the Stinger class specs, but your vessel seems to vary somewhat from the standard.”

Cale nodded. “I’m not surprised, Ser Redon. I know about some of the modifications, but most just took place over the last 400 years.

“For instance,” he continued, “I understand that the standard spec calls for two Alliance quickfirers, Cheetah has only one, and has had a laser installed in place of the second. That, in turn, called for a somewhat larger fusactor. I have no idea when that was done,” he lied, “But I’m sure it would be an interesting story. As would many others.” He sighed. “Ah, if these walls could only talk!”

Redon chuckled. “If it was a viceroy’s yacht, I’m sure many of the stories would not be fit for repeating.”

Dee reddened. Redon seemed to see her discomfort and changed the subject. “I do not see a bridge or a control room, Captain.”

Cale smiled. “It’s more of a ‘control closet’,” he replied. “The ship has a very large and very advanced AI that controls most functions. Those functions requiring human intervention are usually referred to the lounge viewscreen.”

“Actually,” he continued as he showed the inspector the ‘control room’, “That’s why I could afford to buy her. Her last owner just couldn’t adjust to an AI that advanced. He was always afraid it would make an error and strand him in null space. Finally he couldn’t take it anymore.”

The man glanced around the small cubby. “I see his point,” he replied. “These controls are pretty rudimentary.”

Cale smiled as he pointed out the controls for the quickfirer and the laser. Redon placed gaudy seal tape on both consoles, warning them that removal of the seals was punishable by up to five years’ hard labor.

Despite the thoroughness of Redon’s inspection, there was simply too little ship to take much time to inspect. Cale went out of his way to be cheerful and friendly, and less than an hour elapsed before Redon pronounced himself satisfied. “You may proceed to the fourth planet, Captain,” He said in a formal tone. “Maximum permitted acceleration is. 5G. Be sure to maintain communication with System and Orbital Control. I hear you had pirate trouble,” he continued in a more conversational tone. “I suspect you’ll be hearing from the Justice Ministry. Don’t let them scare you. Pirates are not popular in the Kingdom.” Cale escorted the man to the airlock and watched as he cycled through and returned to the station.

Dee seemed only somewhat mollified. “At least you had the decency to report it and send S amp;R. They may still be able to save some of those poor souls’ lives.”

Cale shook his head in disgust. “Those ‘poor souls’ were intent on robbery, kidnapping, rape, slavery and murder,” he replied acidly. “And if any of them are found alive, they will be executed after some of the shortest trials in history.” He scowled. “But, that doesn’t matter to you, does it? Someone else will be doing the work. All that matters is that you don’t get your own dainty little hands dirty. I hate bleeding hearts like you!” He spun on his heel and stamped into his stateroom.

As soon as he entered, Tess notified him that they were cleared to proceed, and that she had programmed the assigned vector. At his muttered “Go,” she began moving away from the station. Cale was angry, morose, sad, and ashamed, all at once, and would need time to deal with it. She had his approval to maneuver. She could handle everything else for a while.

Cale was not the only human on board dealing with emotional turmoil. Dee was dealing with the reactions of the people Cale had talked with. Where was the outrage at the presumed deaths aboard the pirate? Even the rescue agent had congratulated Cale on his decision to run away. Pirates were just thieves, robbers, weren’t they? Why this unbridled hatred? Oh, sure, there were many horror stories, but those were just for vids and frightening children, weren’t they?

Like those pictures and vids supposedly from Atlantea. A pirate gang had supposedly raided the entire planet! It was claimed that they had looted the major cities and escaped with three shiploads of loot while committing horrible atrocities. It had to be fiction, of course.

But the newsies were all over it, with pictures and vids supposedly showing the actual raid. It was horrible, unthinkable stuff. All it proved was that some writers had insanely lurid imaginations. Human beings simply could not do those things to other human beings.

Could they?

She asked Tess for official records of pirate activity. Not sensie vids, not horror vids, but real, authenticated records.

There were plenty. The records on Atlantea were not yet complete, with post-mortem investigations continuing. But there were plenty of other records. Overwhelmed, she told Tess to limit it to the last twenty years. Even so, it ran to thousands of screens of information.

It appeared she had been wrong. In their own way, the cold, bald official pictures, descriptions, and vids of torture, mutilation, and murder were even more horrifying than the slick vids the newsies produced.

She had been wrong. Humans could be that inhuman. She still didn’t know why Cale hated them so much, but she was coming to understand the general hate and repugnance toward pirates. Dee closed the files with a grimace. It was a whole ugly world of which she had been ignorant, and her black and white “life is priceless” attitude was beginning to show shades of gray.

No, they weren’t just thieves and robbers, or street gangs in starships. They were monsters. You cannot reason with monsters. No amount of psychobabble could rehabilitate them. It had been tried in the Old Empire, as had conditioning and even machines that “adjusted” them — by reducing their IQ to 80 and conditioning them to be content with menial jobs. That last one had worked, but had quickly been stopped on grounds the treatment was “inhumane.” So mankind settled on the time-honored solution used with other forms of deadly animals: shoot on sight.

But what about Cale? What did he mean he’d ‘dealt with them before’? He was obviously familiar enough with pirates to put up with her disgust rather than chance following her wishes. Could he have been right? The S amp;R agent seemed to think he was.

Her thoughts in a whirl, she stayed in her stateroom through the 42-hour trip to Angeles, the system’s fourth planet.

Her musings were interrupted by Tess’s quiet voice. “Mistress Raum, please join the Captain in the lounge. We are approaching Angeles, and have received instructions.” Her tone was formal and neutral.

Cale greeted her with a curt nod. “Mistress Raum, we have received instructions from Orbital Control. We are directed to ground at the government starport rather than the orbiting commercial port. I assume this relates to our incident with the pirates.

“I do not know what to expect,” he continued. “However, I think we can expect to be detained, or at least our freedom of movement to be restricted until the S amp;R mission returns, which may be two to four weeks. We are certain to be questioned. Please answer all questions fully and truthfully. Do not try to defend our conduct, and please try to avoid being judgmental.”

He presented her an envelope. “Technically, my contract with Faith’s government is complete. We are two jumps from Faith, and you are no longer in my custody. That envelope contains the check your father sent along. If you wish, you may consider our business concluded, and go your way.

“However,” he continued, “Angeles is not the mutual choice I promised you. I would like to offer you transport to any other system within two jumps of Angeles, if you so desire.” He sighed deeply. “I very deeply regret the difference in outlook that divides us, and that prevented us from becoming better acquainted. I hope you will consider my offer.”

Dee was numb. It was so sudden! Just like that, everything is over. She had lost her home and family, her whole planet, and now his cold, formal tone suggested she had lost the only person left that she was beginning to consider a friend. She was on a strange planet with no one she knew. All she had was that damned envelope, and money was no substitute for a friend. She suddenly felt very small and helpless. Tears started to well in her eyes, and she clamped down on them mercilessly.

She swallowed. “Thank you for the offer, Captain,” she replied in the same formal tone he had used. “I will certainly consider it.”

She paused, and then rushed ahead. “I have been doing some research, and have come to conclude that my reactions may have been hasty and ill-advised. I would like to apologize for some of the comments I have made and the tones I have used. I now realize that you had only our survival in mind, and that my demands might have resulted in our deaths, or worse. I shall try to be as objective as possible when questioned.”

Cale smiled with genuine warmth. “I think I know what a difficult admission that was, Mistress. Please consider my offer seriously. You would be most welcome.”

Dee started to reply, but Cale was called away for the landing formalities. Dee returned to her stateroom. She began gathering her belongings in case she was removed from the ship. In only moments, she was finished, her pitifully few belongings fitting easily into the small bag the police had sent with her. Tears welled again, and this time she didn’t stop them.

Some half-hour later, she was aroused by Tess’s voice. Dee was too emotional to notice, but the cold formality was gone from the AI’s tone. “Dee, the captain wanted me to let you know that we are on final approach, and will be grounding at the government port in ten minutes. He suggests you gather your belongings, since either or both of you may be removed from the ship.

Dee sniffed mightily. “Tess! Do you suppose I could take the shipsuits with me? You know, the ones we tailored?”

“I am certain the Captain considers them yours,” Tess replied. “Particularly since you have so few other outfits. Should you have the opportunity, I recommend some serious shopping.”

Dee grinned through her tears. “An excellent suggestion, Tess,” she replied. She sobered and sighed. “Oh, how I wish you could come with me!” She wailed.

“I’m sorry I cannot,” Tess replied. “Dee, please seriously consider the captain’s offer. He would very much like you to join us.”

“I will, Tess, I promise.” She began, then, “Oh, wait! Where are you bound from here?”

“The captain has not yet decided,” Tess replied. “We will ground in five minutes, Mistress. In the meantime, may I suggest some attention to your appearance?”

“Oh my god!” Dee exclaimed, as she jumped and ran for the ‘fresher. Oh, lord. Her eyes were red and swollen and there were tear tracks down both cheeks.

As she tended to her appearance, Dee frowned in thought. The Captain hasn’t yet decided? Dee did not know a lot about shipping, but she knew that starships, large or small, are expensive to operate. How could he not have a goal in mind?

Maybe he was planning on picking up a high-value shipment or passenger in a hurry here. Oh, wait. He hadn’t been planning to come to Angeles. In fact, any plans he had were probably totally ruined by Aron Ekron and the government of Faith.

Only a slight bump announced their grounding under Tess’s flawless control.

The Kingdom of Angeles Official Starport was smaller than its commercial equivalent. When Cale surveyed his surroundings, he noted only one empire-pattern destroyer, and one corvette and two frigate-sized vessels, though their configurations varied from the Old Empire norm. Apparently, they had been built since the Fall. All three towered over Cheetah.

A heavy overcast threatened rain, though Tess reported the temperature to be a comfortable 23 degrees C. A gravity of only. 87 of standard and a temperate climate had made the Kingdom the most cosmopolitan and prosperous business center and tourist destination in the Orion Sector before the Fall. Even then, the Kingdom had been the only planet in the Empire to be a hereditary monarchy. Since the Fall, several others had arisen, but none was as universally supported by its people. The hereditary rulers of Angeles had without exception been men of wisdom and vision, and the royal family went to great lengths to insure that tradition would continue.

They were hailed just as a small, single-seat vehicle headed toward them. “ Cheetah, His Majesty’s government requests that all passengers and crew remain aboard pending the arrival of the investigator now approaching. You are requested to cooperate with his investigation in order to minimize your inconvenience. “

The man who debarked from the tiny vehicle and entered Cheetah ’s lock certainly did not look intimidating. He looked more like a hotel manager than an investigator. His suit, if that word applied, consisted of a light jacket over a tunic and flaring pantaloons, all in bright, varied colors. He was of medium height and build, and wore a large grin that certainly looked sincere.

“Good morning!” He greeted Cale cheerfully. “Or is it afternoon, ship’s time?” He shrugged. “Oh, well, no matter. Let’s get rid of the official nonsense, so we can talk.”

He produced a wallet and displayed a gold badge and a gaudy identification card. “The name’s Sana Archuk, R. I. S. That’s Royal Investigative Service. I’m here to investigate your report of involvement with a pirate at your last recal stop. There. Now that’s done, and I’m sure you’re suitably impressed.”

Archuk looked around him. “What an interesting ship! I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Stinger class, eh? Must’ve been a small class. But I guess you hear that a lot.”

Cale could not help but grin. Archuk took his breath away. He introduced himself and ushered Archuk to a seat in the lounge. “Tess,” he asked, “Would you ask Dee to join us, please?”

“Of course, Captain,” Tess replied.

“Tess is the ship’s AI,” he said to Archuk. “I’m sure you’ve looked up the specs on the Stinger class, but the real thing can be a bit overwhelming at first. Cheetah was originally built in the Alliance as an Empire viceroy’s yacht and fast armed courier. Tess is the most advanced AI I have ever encountered. Apparently, the viceroy wanted a yacht he could take out by himself, and that required the Alliance comp specialists to pull out all the stops. Tess can actually compute and execute entire jump programs.”

Archuk’s eyebrows rose. “So, what does she need you for?”

Cale laughed aloud. “Not much, I guess. I’m just the guy that tells her where to jump.”

Dee came into the lounge wearing one of her ‘tailored’ shipsuits, and in moments, she and Archuk were chatting like old friends.

Finally, the investigator’s permanent smile faded slightly. He sighed. “Well, I guess we’d better get to it, before my boss decides I’m goofing off. No pressure. Just tell me what happened. Start at Faith.”

Cale nodded. “I grounded at Faith to deliver a passenger…”

“I didn’t think Faith got a lot of passenger traffic,” Archuk interjected.

Cale shook his head. “They don’t. I stopped at Ararat to do some banking business, and took on a passenger. I guess it was some kind of religious thing. Anyway, I discharged my passenger…” he went on to tell Archuk about his involuntary government contract. He showed the investigator the contract and the checks. When he came to the circumstances of Dee’s boarding, the investigator shifted his attention smoothly to her.

“Extraordinary!” he exclaimed. “They actually exiled you with no legal process at all?

“Oh no,” Dee exclaimed. “I can assure you there was legal process. In fact, the Planetary Senate authorized the charter and the bonuses.” She attempted to explain the interrelationship of the church and government of Faith, but Archuk waved dismissively. “Faith is one of our nearest neighbors,” he said. “We’ve been aware of the growing influence of the church for many years.”

Dee continued, outlining her activities and her suspicions concerning her proposed marriage, including her suspicion that a hereditary monarchy was planned.

Archuk laughed aloud. “Mistress, I have no doubt that your suspicions are well-founded, but I assure you a hereditary monarchy is not necessarily a fate worse than death!”

Dee stammered and tried to apologize, but Archuk waved her off. “No apology necessary, Mistress.” He turned to Cale. “So, Captain, you accepted the charter, and lifted with the lovely Mistress Raum bound and gagged in a stateroom.

Cale picked up the story, explaining how Cheetah ’s advanced sensor suite had detected the follower. He shrugged. “I couldn’t stop and return to Faith; it wouldn’t have been permitted. I kept trying to examine her closely, but the angle was bad. All I knew was that she was tailing me, and when I speeded up, she speeded up, and when I slowed, so did she.”

“Was she showing a beacon?”

Cale nodded. “Yes, while we were in Faith’s space. It is recorded on the sensor logs. Anyway, I decided to re-route to Angeles. It was the nearest world with ship repair and excellent medical facilities, and I was afraid I might need either or both. Besides, the jumps were short, and the intermediate recal stop was uninhabited.”

Smile gone now, Archuk nodded. “Good thinking. Our space station is fully equipped to provide help.”

Cale nodded and continued, explaining the preparations they had made during the first jump, and explaining Cheetah ’s attitude jets. He told of the plan he had formed, and the hours of practice he and Dee had done while in jump.

“When we emerged,” he continued, “I had Tess use the attitude jets and boost us max at a right angle to our emergence course. As soon as we detected the emergence, we shut down the drives, reversed our attitude, and prepared to fire, if necessary.”

Archuk nodded. “And it was necessary.”

Cale frowned. “Well, we didn’t just start shooting, if that’s what you mean. However, our sensors were getting a side view of them now, and I could see the enlarged engine room. That meant we probably could not outrun her. And now she wasn’t running a beacon. She had to be a pirate. No trader would overpower an Epsilon class. It would cut the hold space almost in half. I had to open fire before she got shields and weapons up!” He slammed a fist into the chair’s arm.

“So,” he continued more calmly, “That’s about it. I fired the laser and Dee used the quickfirer. When I saw her venting atmosphere and saw she wasn’t raising shields, I figured that was our cue to boost max for Angeles.” He glanced at Dee. “There was some rather.. uh… spirited discussion about that decision.”

Archuk turned his permanent smile on Dee. “You didn’t agree with his decision to run,” he guessed.

She hesitated before nodding. “I felt we should stop and help any survivors.” She reddened. “I guess I was, well, forceful. The second jump wasn’t very pleasant.”

The agent’s smile flared its full force. “Well, I think this is a pretty cut-and-dried case. I’ll need your sensor logs of course, captain.” Cale nodded, and Archuk continued, “I’m afraid we will have to insist on your continued presence on Angeles until the S amp;R ship returns, but I see no reason to restrict you beyond that.

“You’re free to leave your vessel now. I’m sure you’re both anxious to get your feet on solid ground. There are a number of reasonably priced but good quality hotels just off the field, and the planetary net will help you find one, as well as shopping information, mistress. I’m afraid it will not be possible for you to return to your ship, so make certain you take everything you need.

“As for you, young lady,” he continued, “I feel I should tell you that your captain may very well have saved your lives by ignoring your demands. One does not approach a wounded wild and deadly animal. One simply renders it powerless, and then runs like the wind as far and fast as possible!”

Dee reddened and nodded wordlessly.

Chapter 7

Archuk had been correct. There were a number of apparently excellent hotels near the field. They agreed upon a rather conservative-looking hotel with what were apparently moderate prices. Cale converted most of his contract check into Angeles crowns, and was impressed by the favorable exchange rate.

They took a hovercab to the hotel, where they registered in separate rooms, agreeing to meet in several hours for dinner.

Cale took a long, slow shower, reveling in the luxury of unlimited water. He frowned at the shipsuit he had been wearing.

No, he decided. Shipsuits were practical, durable garments for the restrictive environment of a sealed ship. But now he was groundside, and would be for at least a couple of weeks. He sat at the room’s terminal, connected to the Worldnet, and began doing some shopping.

He also researched the Kingdom of Angeles.

It seemed to be a pretty good world. Angeles was 99.97 on the habitability scale, the only deduction being for the slightly light gravity of. 87 standard. It had originally been lower than that due to the planet’s lack of climate-inducing moons, but during the terraforming project, the early settlers had moved two large asteroids into position, generating the first tidal forces Angeles had ever known. Over a few centuries, the climate had stabilized nicely. A number of native plant and animal species had been able to adapt to the introduction of terrestrial species, and Angeles hardwoods had been heavy demand in the Empire’s interstellar trade. Angeles had been affected by the Fall, of course. To help prevent overpopulation, the Kingdom had once established three colonies. As the Empire declined, the other three systems had requested and received their independence. The last had seceded only fifty-five years ago. There had been no real intersystem conflicts. If a member of the ‘Commonwealth’ desired to secede, they held a planet-wide referendum on the issue. If the population voted for secession, the planetary government petitioned the kingdom for release. In every case, the Parliament had voted to recommend approval to the monarch, and in every case, independence had been granted. As Atmos XIV declared, “If a majority of their population desires to leave the Commonwealth, we have no desire to thwart their will.” Those three systems were still Angeles’ largest trading partners.

The monarchy itself had existed for over 800 years. As Tess had mentioned, Early on, the royal family had established procedures to insure that only competent, well-trained monarchs ruled Angeles, and they had presided over the development of a prosperous system with a surprising level of personal freedom.

Even in the four hundred years since the Fall, Angeles was one of very few worlds to remain vibrant and prosperous. In self-defense, Angeles had established a sizable defense establishment, and had established a patrolled “security zone” stretching for one jump in every direction. The pirate that chased them, Cale decided, must have been very desperate or very foolish to risk an attack in the Angeles ‘security zone’. This also explained the excitement and action that had followed his report; the Kingdom’s defense forces considered the attack to have taken place in the Kingdom itself.

Cale pushed back from the terminal. Angeles looked like a very nice place. In fact, if Dee decided to debark here, Cale would be hard put to marshal arguments against it. Except for his own strong desires, of course.

But what about his own desires? He was certain he had eluded his pursuers. Oh, he would still have to take precautions, of course. Still, he felt secure enough now to consider settling here.

Could he really settle down? What would he do? He sighed. Suddenly the quiet of the room bothered him. He needed some people around him and a drink in his hand.

He stood up and stretched, realizing he had been on the terminal for over an hour. A sound from the delivery chute announced the arrival of the clothing he had ordered. Male styles on Angeles ran mostly to bright colors and a bewildering array of styles. His wine-red kilt blended well with the muted blue tunic and matched the color of his beret, and was actually rather drab, for Angeles. He was more accustomed to tubular trousers, but decided that the kilt, with its decorative holster and bright-plated blaster, had a rakish air. He examined the blaster and found that as he’d suspected, it was not a real weapon. Cale frowned. Angeles was confusing him more by the minute. Most places he’d been, carrying a fake weapon was riskier than carrying none at all; if someone got into a confrontation with someone he thought was armed, he might feel threatened enough to use a real weapon of his own.

He rode the drop shaft to the hotel’s lobby, and strode into the bar. The dimly lit bar was occupied by a few guests even at this early hour. He slid onto a stool and ordered a penurian glark.

The human waiter poured the thimble-sized glass and the usual beer chaser, accepted Cale’s scrip, and retreated to the corner of the bar.

“Wow! You’re really going native all the way.”

Cale turned at the voice as a pudgy man with a wide face and a wide grin took the adjoining stool. “Your indulgence, sire?” Cale replied politely.

The man waved a ring-laden hand. “Oh, I meant nothing, sire, nothing at all. It’s just that it’s unusual to see a kilt in a hotel that serves off-worlders.” He proffered a hand. “Name’s Jer Ner-Trel, from Trellia.”

Cale took the hand and smiled. “Cale Rankin from Warden’s World.” Ner-Trel should not talk about others’ clothing, Cale decided. The man was wearing a peach-colored jacket that barely buttoned over the paunch covered by a blue shirt and bright pink trousers. The styles that emerged on some planets never ceased to amaze him.

“You’re a long way from home,” Ner-Trel replied. “Warden’s is in the Sirius Sector, isn’t it?”

Cale nodded. “I haven’t been home in years. I travel a lot, now.”

The Trellian laughed. “I know what you mean. There’re a lot of folks traveling around, these days. Pretty much have to, if you want to make a credit. I’m a wholesaler of Trellian regel nuts.” He shook his head and sighed. “I’ve been away from home for more than a year, now. So, what’s your line?”

Cale was prepared for this one. “I run a small courier ship. Mostly high-value shipments, urgent documents, and occasionally passengers.”

Ner-Trel looked interested. “Yeah? It’d better be a fast ship, with all the pirate trouble around here.”

Cale’s eyebrows rose. “Really? I had some pirate trouble on the way here. I got away, but it sure scared me spitless!”

The pudgy man shook his head, his green-tinted gray hair whirling about. “They’re gettin’ more brazen every day.” He leaned closer to Cale. “If I was you,” he said in a low tone, “I’d climb in that fast courier and get away from here. The rumor is that some pirate gang called the Terror is movin’ this way. I hear they’re big enough and tough enough to take on whole planets. In fact, Angeles is building up its fleet because they expect to have to fight.” He looked around guiltily. “I came here because wartime economies are good for business. My deals are made now. I’ll be heading out tomorrow for Trellia. From now on, I’ll be sending shipments here, but all my travel is gonna be inward, toward the Old Empire planets. Those animals mostly stay out toward the rim.”

Cale nodded seriously. “I’ll think about that. I sure don’t want any more pirate trouble.” They chatted for a while, until Cale realized it was almost time to meet Dee for dinner. He made his excuses and headed for the lift shaft.

He touched the pad outside her door, and almost before he could release it, the door flew open.

He stood, gaping. The vision in the doorway was Dee. But it was not the Dee he had expected. Multiple layers of filmy, translucent material in various colors swirled about her with every movement. The result was a constantly shifting rainbow revealing just tantalizing hints of the body beneath. Her eyes and lips somehow seemed larger, more sensual, and her hair was piled high on her head, supported by a golden net that sparkled with gemstones.

The effect was wildly spectacular, particularly given her previously conservative dress. It was somewhat spoiled, however, by the expression on her face. She was red with embarrassment, and her eyes darted from side to side as though seeking escape. However, the lips were tight with determination. Cale restrained a smile. She was embarrassed to wear such glamour, but was determined to see it through.

“Wow!” he exclaimed. “I didn’t know I'd be meeting a member of the royal family! You look like why the riot started.”

The pink in her face darkened slightly, then lightened as a brilliant smile lit her face. She gave a formal curtsey. “Thank you, kind sir! I’ve been shopping all afternoon. It appears I’m quite a wealthy lady here.” She stepped through the door, teetering slightly on the unaccustomed elevated heels. “Shall we go?”

Cale bowed. “By all means, my lady. But I’m hardly dressed to accompany a princess.”

She waved airily. “Never mind,” she grinned. “A princess should always outshine her courtiers.”

He escorted her to the most exclusive restaurant a hurried consultation with the desk had revealed. Wherever they went, heads turned. The pink that tinted her cheeks now was pleasure and excitement rather than embarrassment.

Over their meal, though, their talk became more serious. Her pleased smile faded to a resentful frown as she explained, “I’ve been excommunicated by my church, rejected by my own father, and exiled by my entire planet. I see no reason to continue to conform to their standards of dress and behavior. I’m now a free woman, and a rich one. I’m going to enjoy it!” Her frown turned to a challenging glare.

Cale smiled. “A little rebellion is often a good thing,” he said, “It can open the mind to new experience. Just don’t let it get out of hand. Too much of it can also destroy you.”

Her shoulders relaxed slightly, and he realized she’d been expecting criticism. A relieved smile lit that familiar yet unfamiliar countenance. “This outfit is my declaration of independence,” she replied quietly. “It took me hours to work up the courage to actually wear this thing. And even longer to decide to wear makeup. I’m still Dee, with my rather conservative tastes. But I’m going to keep this dress, this outfit. Whenever I find myself homesick or moping over my fate, I’ll break it out and put it on, to remind myself of the freedom I’ve gained!”

Cale grinned. “Good! You’re too beautiful not to have at least one glamorous costume. In fact, I’d suggest you get a few more, less formal dresses. Faith styles are considered pretty severe in most places. A beautiful woman has certain natural advantages when dealing with others. It seems silly to not take advantage of them.”

She flushed and her eyes dropped. “You think I’m beautiful?”

“Of course! Uh, er, I mean…” It was his face’s turn to darken.

The evening passed in a happy haze, and they parted only reluctantly. At her door, Cale restrained himself from taking her into his arms and kissing her. On Faith, he knew, kissing was restricted to engaged couples. But he thought he detected an expression of disappointment on her face as the door closed.

The days became a wonderful blur of color and activity, all spiced by the presence of Dee. Without the enforced closeness of a ship, with the freedom of a city, inhibitions could fade, and nature began to take its course. Cale awoke every morning in anticipation of spending the day with Dee, and parted from her in the evenings only reluctantly. Their “city arrest” had become more of a vacation than a coerced stay.

More than a week had passed, and they were walking comfortably back to the hotel from their new favorite restaurant, hand in hand.

“Behind you!” The shout was sudden, but trained reflexes spun Cale about, arm coming up to block the arm of a large dark-clad man, and deflect the vibroblade intended for his kidney. He continued the spin, slamming his left foot into the outside of the man’s right knee. The man gasped as the knee dislocated, and he slumped to the ground. He struggled to rise, waving the vibroblade. Cale feinted a right kick toward the man’s head, and when the ‘blade came up, delivered the kick to the man’s crotch. The man gurgled and slumped to his side.

Cale whipped around, looking for Dee, just in time to see her stamp a spike heel into her man’s instep. As his grip loosened, she spun and swung her left elbow into his solar plexus. The man released her and grabbed for his chest, gasping, giving Dee the moment she needed to back up a step and slam a kick into his crotch. The man collapsed, and Cale started to smile when he saw two other men struggling alongside her.

He paused, uncertain which man he should help, if either, when the smaller man broke free and ran down the street. Cale heard a groan behind him, and turned to see his man trying to struggle to his feet, hugging his crotch. Cale spun a kick to the man’s head, and he slumped back to the ground. Dee’s man wasn’t even trying to rise. He was curled into a fetal position and vomiting. Cale looked around and found they had attracted an audience. “Would someone call the police?” he asked, and someone replied, “On the way.”

Then, suddenly, Dee was in his arms, clinging desperately to him and trembling. “It’s all right, darling,” he murmured into her hair. “It’s all over.” He kept repeating the two phrases while he reveled in the sweet smell and soft feel of her. Her trembling subsided, and he began to feel another sort of tension arise in both of them.

He cleared his throat, and then looked over Dee’s head at the man who had warned and then helped them. He reluctantly released Dee and stepped toward the man.

“Thank you, sire,” he said. “Your timely help saved us from being robbed or even injured.”

The man looked at him quizzically. “Robbed or injured?” he replied. “Don’t you realize that this wasn’t a simple robbery attempt?”

Tan frowned. “What are you talking about?”

The man toed the still-buzzing vibroblade at Cale’s feet. “Vibroblade’s not a robber’s weapon. A knife is more intimidating. ‘Blades are assassin’s weapons, pure and simple. Somebody wants you dead.”

Cale started. He realized the man was right. Robbers don’t want trouble; they want an easy score. They are rarely killers, and fighting draws attention. No, they prefer to intimidate their victims. They want big, shiny weapons; shiny plated needlers and blasters, or knives with big, shiny blades to scare victims into giving up their valuables quickly and quietly. Vibroblades weren’t intimidating, just deadly. The ‘blade at his feet had a blackened blade only about 10 centimeters long. But the blade of a vibroblade, as its name implies, vibrates at several thousand cycles per second, and is capable of slicing through tissue and bone without slowing. As their rescuer had said, an assassin’s weapon; not intimidating, but deadly,

He began to reply, but suddenly they were inundated by uniforms. The officer that questioned Cale and Dee agreed with their rescuer’s assessment, asking them if they knew of any reason someone would want them dead. At their negative replies, he shrugged. “We’ll get these two down to the station and run their DNA. But we already know they were both carrying 500 crowns in gold. You be very careful. That’s a premium price for a murder here.”

When the police left, Cale, Dee and their rescuer retired to a nearby restaurant. His name was Zant Jenfu, and he was from a planet called Selfa. He was a tall, heavyset man with the leathery look of an outdoorsman. His city-style suit hung on him like a costume; one got the feeling that it wasn’t his usual attire. Cale estimated the suit was ten years out of date and well worn, though clean.

In all, Cale assessed him as being from a rural or frontier area or planet, forced to come to Angeles City for unknown reasons, and possibly stranded here, short of funds.

"So," Dee asked once they were seated, "Do you get to Angeles often?"

Zant shook his head. "Nope. First time. And maybe my last."

"You don't like it?"

He shrugged. "Angeles City's a nice enough town, if you have crowns. It's not nearly as nice if you're broke."

Having just eaten, they just ordered drinks while they introduced themselves and expressed their appreciation. Zant just shrugged it off. “People need help, ya help ‘em,” he said. “Least, that’s how we feel on Selfa.”

As they chatted, Cale began to notice how Zant’s eyes followed the trays of food going by. He insisted on ordering the man a sizable dinner, despite his rather weak protests. “You’re hungry. ‘People need help, you help ‘em’” he mimicked Zant’s tone.

The big man laughed aloud. “I reckon things are gettin’ a leetle tight right now,”

Cale grinned. "I sense a story."

Zant shrugged and grinned. "Nothing too uncommon. I wander around a lot. About eight years ago, I landed on Selfa. The whole planet is mostly a thick forest of giant trees that pretty much covers everything except the poles and a dozen or so small seas. The early settlers were the kinds of ne’er do wells that try to stay well ahead of civilization. We were a frontier, with just a few woods rats and fur hunters, an’ a small settlement that wasn’t much more than a few small shops, tradin’ posts, bars, an’ whorehouses for the boys to cut loose.

"But then city dwellers started takin’ control of more and more planets in the sector, an’ pushin’ the folks that liked open territory out. When Diego and Sanfran began seizing farms and ranches and giving 'em to slum dwellers they were forcin’ out of the cities, a lot of the rural people got together and chartered ships to take ‘em elsewhere; and Selfa looked pretty empty.

“Well, when all these civilized folks started comin’, some o’ the boys lit out and others did the hermit thing, but most of us liked a little civilization, not to mention havin’ honest-to-god women around. After awhile, though, they started growin' towns, and the towns became cities. Well, one city. But it was enough to bring the city dwellers, with their laws an' taxes."

Zant paused while his dinner was delivered. He immediately dug in, continuing to talk around mouthfuls. "Anyway," he said, "when they decided to put a tax on furs bein' sold to the free traders, me an' some of the boys figured it was time to cash in and move on. Six of us collected our years' take and chipped in for one ticket to Angeles. We figured that instead of sellin' our furs to one of the free traders and payin' them city dwellers a big percentage they hadn't earned, one of us would take the whole shebang to Angeles, direct to the importers. The take would be bigger without the traders gettin' their cut, an' we wouldn't have to pay them damned taxes on the sale. Then we would all have a stake to move on with.

"Well, we drew lots, an' I won. We were right, too. Even subtractin' out the cost of the ticket, the importers paid us almost twice as much as the traders ever did.

"But then I had a bad attack of stupid. I was leavin' the next day. I didn't plan to be here long enough to open a bank account, and some fella told me I shouldn't trust a hotel safe in Angeles. He said I should buy a money belt. That way my letter of credit couldn't go anywhere without me knowin' about it."

Zant paused between bites for a massive sigh. "Well," he continued, "I knew about it, all right. It got a little drunk out that night, but I knew it, kinda, when I got pushed into an alley and sapped. And I even knew it when that same fella's voice told somebody, 'he's got a money belt'. And I damn sure knew it when they took the damned thing, 'cause I tried to fight an' damn near got killed.

"Oh, everybody was real sympathetic, but there was always 'nothin' they could do'; and since my ticket home was in the money belt too, I couldn't even leave." he frowned. "I guess my partners think I skinned out with their shares. That hurts even worse than losing the credits."

Cale and Dee commiserated with their new friend. He had been trying to sign on as crew on an outbound ship, but all his certifications were at least ten years old, and he wasn't having any luck.

They tried to press money on him, calling it a 'reward', but Zant's pride wouldn't let him accept it.

"I'd offer you a lift," Cale said, "but I really don't know where we're going." He explained that once they were free to leave, he'd promised Dee to deliver her to any planet of her choice within two jumps. "Actually, though, I've invited her to stay with me as long as she cares to, and offered to take her anywhere she wishes."

Zant grinned. "I can certainly understand that!" he said emphatically, causing Dee to blush to the roots of her hair. "But where do you plan to head if she doesn't choose, or if you drop her off?"

Cale frowned. "I'm not sure. I'll probably head for Ilocan. I have a home there. Or, at least I think I do."

Zant said nothing, merely cocking an eyebrow. Cale felt his face warming. "Well, I've been kind of buying a place by mail." He explained the arrangement. "Actually, though," he concluded, "I've never seen anything but holos. The place may not even exist."

Dee clapped her hands. "Let's go see!" she exclaimed excitedly.

But Zant's broad face had settled into a deep frown. "Ilocan… Ilocan. I've heard something about Ilocan recently."

Cale turned to him. "What? What have you heard?"

"I'm not sure," came the reply. "But I don't think it was good news. It'll come to me."

They resumed chatting. "You surprise me, Captain," Dee said. "I've been thinking of you as some nomad of the spaceways, wandering aimlessly among the stars."

Cale chuckled. "I'm afraid very few people could afford to do that, even if they wanted to. Even in the glory days of the Empire, very few people had private yachts, and those that did have them were very rich. Provisioning, fueling, life support supplies, even air can be very expensive. Then there are docking fees, port fees, visa fees, servicing fees, air taxes and a thousand other things. It takes a lot of money to wander aimlessly among the stars."

Her smile remained, but suddenly her eyes narrowed. "But you do it," she said. "When I asked Tess where you were going next, she said you hadn't decided."

Suddenly Zant was very attentive, though he said nothing.

Cale knew he had to be careful. He most emphatically did not want to lie to Dee, or to Zant, for that matter. Nevertheless, the wrong answer was very likely to come back to haunt him.

"Tess told you the truth, as she knew it," he replied with a shrug. "I had not yet made up my mind whether to go to Ilocan, or to pursue courier contracts and stay in space. But frankly, with all the pirate activity I've been hearing about, running high-value shipments suddenly doesn't seem so appealing."

Zant nodded. "I can understand that. But your ship's pretty fast, isn't it?"

"Yes, and she's armed," Cale replied. "But no matter how fast we are, sooner or later word would get out about a contract rich enough for them to find a way to mousetrap us."

He turned to face Dee. "I have dealt with all the pirates I ever hope to meet," he continued. "If I never see another pirate, I will be perfectly happy. Could I live as a groundhog? You had better believe it. I have no intention of becoming some kind of Flying Dutchman, endlessly cruising the stars."

"What's a 'dutchman'?" Zant asked.

Cale shrugged, relieved at the distraction. "Damned if I know. It's an old story, supposed to even predate spaceflight. This 'dutchman' was captain of a wind-powered ship making a difficult passage. During a terrible storm, he cursed God and swore he'd make the passage if it took forever. Supposedly he's still trying."

Dee shuddered. "We have wind-powered ships on Faith. We also have a lot of sailing stories. I think I may have heard one like that."

"I wouldn't be surprised," Zant replied. "Legends tend to get around."

"At any rate," Cale said, "I have no desire to emulate him, no matter what a 'dutchman' is!"

The next morning, Cale received a call from Sana Archuk, the investigator for the pirate case, asking him and Dee to come to his office.

The investigator welcomed them with a grin and a friendly wave. After seating them and offering refreshment, he said, “You had a bit of trouble last evening,” It was a statement, not a question.

Cale frowned. “Then you haven’t heard from S amp;R?”

The grin faded slightly. “No, I’m afraid not. We really don’t expect to hear from them for another week or so. But I need to talk to you about last evening. It may be related.”

Cale’s frown faded to puzzlement. “Related? Related to what?”

Archuk shrugged. “Related to your pirate troubles. The two you captured last night have been identified. They’re both wanted for piracy. They both know they’ll be going to the headsman, so they’re not talking. Yet. If I had to guess, I’d say you upset the captain of that pirate ship, and he gave a couple of his crew a bonus to eliminate you. But a thousand crowns is a big bonus for a couple of street killings. Any idea what makes you worth it?”

A stab of fear ran through Cale. “Not a clue,” he said, forcing a casual tone. “Maybe he wanted Cheetah and thinks he could buy her if I was out of the way.”

Archuk looked unconvinced. “Perhaps. Or maybe he’s just the vengeful sort. At any rate, you are obviously in danger, and it would be embarrassing if you were murdered while technically in our custody. Are either of you trained to use hand weapons?”

Both Cale and Dee nodded. “It may be possible,” Archuk continued, “to arrange the necessary permits to allow you to go armed on Angeles.” He toyed with a scriber on his desk. “Such permits are not common on Angeles. His Majesty’s government feels that weapons should be kept under the control of the government. However, I feel certain the current situation constitutes sufficient justification.” He smiled slightly at Cale’s poorly suppressed grimace. “You disagree?”

Cale shrugged, mentally berating himself for letting his feelings show. “I disagree with His Majesty’s government. I feel that an unarmed people are at the mercy of those that are armed, be they criminals, police inspectors, or governments. I do not disagree that His Majesty’s government has both the right and the power to enforce its opinion, however. I would appreciate such a permit, if it can be arranged.”

Archuk rolled his eyes in feigned disgust, his smile taking any sting from the act. He groaned. “Oh, no, not another one of those ‘a blaster for every 12-year-old’ types!”

Cale smiled. “Not exactly. And I do not wish to appear ungrateful. I know that yours was a very generous offer, and I would gratefully accept. Even more so if I could be allowed to retrieve my own concealment rig from my ship. The slight difference between having my own rig and a strange one could save our lives.”

This time Archuk’s smile and nod were genuine and understanding. “I understand. I think we can arrange that, if you are willing to have your weapon catalogued in our database.” He stood and grinned. “I’m afraid no uncatalogued weapons can be admitted to Angeles.”

“Except in the hands of criminals,” Cale murmured. A smile took the sting from his words. If Archuk heard, he made no reply.

Whatever its weapon-control stance, the government of Angeles was nothing if not efficient. Since he was technically in custody, within minutes Cale was being escorted to Cheetah by two police officers. They knew there was no way Cheetah could launch in less than fifteen standard minutes, so the officers were casual and friendly. They insisted on boarding Cheetah, but as Cale hoped, they simply sat in the lounge and waited for him. They didn’t try to follow him into his stateroom, nor did they insist he keep the door open.

He quickly briefed Tess on the previous evening’s events while retrieving his concealment weapons rig with its plain, black 2mm ladies’ model needler.

“Tess,” he said softly, “Do you have some inconspicuous way we could stay in touch? I’d like your help, but I need communications.” Cale asked.

“In the small drawer beneath your secure comp there are several small transceivers,” came Tess’s equally quiet reply. “They are flesh-colored disks about 2 millimeters in diameter. One side is adhesive. Simply stick the disk to the mastoid bone of your skull. We can speak using bone conduction, and you usually will not need to actually speak aloud, but can simply speak in that manner humans call ‘under your breath’. President Cord found them quite useful.”

Cale grinned. “I’ll bet he did. What I would like you to do is keep track of ship arrivals and departures. I’m mostly interested in unscheduled arrivals, especially tramps. Sheol, you know what I’m looking for, and know better than I do how to spot it. But if there are more killers coming, I’d like to know as soon as possible.”

“I understand, Captain, and I think I know what to look for. But surely the Angeles authorities will be watching as well.” Her voice had a puzzled tone.

“I hope they will be,” Cale replied, “But I don’t trust them to let me know if they see something. With the police mentality, they’re just as likely to follow them until they do something overt — ‘Something overt’ like taking more shots at us!”

“Understood, sir. I will be on guard. Good luck.”

Cale nodded. “Thanks. Now I’d better get back before those cops get curious.” He rolled up his sleeve, attached the needler rig to his right forearm, and lowered the sleeve over it. Now, a mere tensing of his arm muscles in the pattern required to receive the needler would trigger release of the needler into his waiting hand in less than a tenth of a second

He reached into the drawer and removed one of the tiny transceivers. A touch with a stylus activated the adhesive, and he attached it to his head behind his left ear. A quick look in the mirror revealed that the paper-thin, flesh-colored disk was virtually invisible to the casual glance. “Testing, one, two,” he whispered while trying to keep from moving his lips.

“Receiving you loud and clear, Captain,” Tess’s voice sounded slightly muffled in his left ear. “The transceivers have a range of two kilometers, or just over one and one-half miles,” Tess continued.

Cale jerked a nod at his reflection in the mirror, and strode back to greet his escort in the lounge. One of the cops raised a hand. “Sorry, Captain, but I’ll need to keep your weapon until it is properly catalogued.”

Cale raised his right sleeve, removed the needler from the rig, and surrendered it with a forced smile. “Of course, Officer.” He carefully failed to mention the two flash grenades the rig also contained, or the two extra magazines of ammunition. Why complicate things?

Cale and his escort returned to Archuk’s office, where Dee was being fitted out with a small needler similar to his own. Hers would be in a small inside-the-waistband, cross-draw holster; neither as fast nor as concealable as Cale’s, but Dee considered it impressive. The cop handed Cale’s needler to Archuk, who handed it to the tech who had provided Dee’s weapon. The man nodded and left without a word.

Archuk again favored Cale with his broad smile. “It won’t be long, Captain, I promise. Mistress Raum’s weapon is, of course, already catalogued.” Cale was noticing how the Angeles police always referred to weapons as ‘catalogued’, never ‘registered’. He was willing to bet that personal weapons control was a hot subject on Angeles.

His weapon was returned within a few minutes. As he clipped it into place on the arm rig, Cale breathed a sigh of relief. For the first time since landing on Angeles, he felt secure, if not relaxed.

The needler was not Cale’s first choice of close-combat weapon, but blasters just weren’t concealable, and hand lasers were only good for one or two shots. Using a combination of compressed gas and a small linear accelerator, the needler spit out a stream of 2mm steel needles. The needles had little mass, and therefore little penetration, but the stream of projectiles at high velocity could chew a massive wound in soft tissue in seconds. Cale’s ladies’ model held only 750 needles, but Cale was practiced in zeroing in on the soft tissue of the neck and belly. In his hands, it was nearly as deadly as a blaster.

“Are you certain you cannot think of any reason for the pirates to put a price on your heads?” Archuk asked.

Cale shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he replied, “But I’m not even from this sector. Aside from Cheetah, I have no other assets anyone would care about. And I can’t imagine a pirate starting a vendetta over a 400-year-old courier ship!”

Archuk frowned. “Nor can I. That’s what bothers me. All right, the S amp;R ship should be back within a week or so. In the meantime, try not to get yourselves killed.” He waved an obvious dismissal.

The wait went on. Meanwhile, Cale and Dee were growing closer. Cale was enjoying every minute with Dee, so much so that on several occasions he almost forgot his nightly check-in with Tess. For her part, Dee knew it would be very easy for her to fall in love with Cale but she was haunted by the fact that she knew so little about this man except that he was hiding something. What could it be?

Finally, Cale received the call from Archuk. The S amp;R ship had returned, and he asked them to come to his office.

Archuk was again all smiles as he rose to greet them.

“Captain! Mistress Raum!” He greeted them heartily, “Please sit down; we have much to discuss.”

“Then your ship found the derelict?” Cale asked.

The ever-present smile faded somewhat. “Indeed it did, and I’m delighted to say that the evidence it collected completely substantiates your account. Unfortunately, that’s not all they found.

“As we surmised from the attempt on your life, there were survivors among the pirates. As best we can reconstruct the evidence, the pirate captain was one well known to us, a nasty piece of work named Remson. He’s not one of the most successful pirates, but possibly one of the most vicious. It appears that you killed four of his crew, and injured three more. Once they got the ship airtight, Remson cut the throats of his wounded, and put the rest of his men to trying to get his ship under power. They also turned on their emergency beacon. Pirates often do that in an effort to lure in unsuspecting good Samaritans.

“Unfortunately,” Archuk continued with a grimace, “The ruse worked this time. The delta-class freighter Sarah Lu, under the command of Captain Fen Varken responded to the SOS.”

Cale looked puzzled. “How could you know that? I assume the pirates were long gone.”

Archuk nodded soberly. “So they were. They spaced the entire crew alive, and fled in their seized ship. The reason we know the identity of the ship and her captain is that the frozen body of the captain was found entangled in some of the wreckage of Remson’s ship. There were no signs of violence other than those of decompression. We’ve put out a sector-wide alert for the ship and, of course, Remson.”

Dee had gone white as Archuk spoke. “If we’d gone back…” She began.

“It would have been your bodies that were found. Or not, since we would not have been notified to look.” Archuk’s smile was grim this time. “I suspect you owe your Captain an apology, Mistress. By refusing to turn back, he undoubtedly saved your lives.”

The look Dee directed at Cale was full of meaning, though he remained unsure just what the meaning was. Certainly, there was gratitude, but there was also unmistakable suspicion.

“And the men that tried to kill us?” Cale asked hurriedly.

Archuk shrugged. “Neither talked before their executions,” he replied. “But of course we now know that the pirate captain did survive your shootout, and it seems obvious he sent them.”

“In any event,” he continued, “You have been completely exonerated, and I would like to congratulate you on your expertise and courage.”

Cale nodded soberly. “Thank you. Then we are no longer in custody?”

The wide smile was back. “Of course not, of course not. Naturally, you’re both free to go. I hope your stay has not been an uncomfortable one. Oh,” he continued, “Unless you’re leaving in the next 48 hours, I’m afraid you’ll have to remove your ship from the government field and dock at the orbital commercial port.”

Cale smiled courteously. “That shouldn’t be a problem. Our stay has been rather more of a vacation. And everyone here has been most courteous. Now, if that’s all…”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Archuk responded in a professional tone. “If there’s anything I can do…”

They invited Zant to join them for a celebratory dinner

Zant seemed preoccupied. "Tell me, Cale, why did you choose Ilocan, of all places? It's hardly a hub of galactic activity."

Cale grinned. "It certainly isn't. Actually, I have a very close friend whose favorite aunt retired there about fifteen years ago." He shrugged. "He used to talk about her and her vids of Ilocan all the time. It sounds like a really nice place. According to the Stellar Index, it's almost idyllic. Gravity of only. 89 standard, thoroughly terraformed but mostly wilderness, almost no heavy industry, only one major city and scattered villages, and only a few million people. Sheol! Last I heard, his aunt had been made President of the place! I'm rather anxious to see if it lives up to its reputation."

Zant frowned. "I'm sorry, Cale, but it won't. Not anymore. There's been a war."

Cale shot straight in his chair. "A war? With whom? How bad? Who won?"

Zant raised a hand to forestall Cale's flood of questions. "I'm sorry, Cale. I knew I remembered hearing about Ilocan recently. It was just shoptalk with a captain I was trying to convince to hire me. He mentioned that he had to leave Ilocan in a hurry, because it was invaded by Santiago. Only a couple of ships full of troops, but they took Homesafe by surprise, and took over the city in a few hours.

He leaned across the table. "Before I came over here this evening, I checked the Worldnet for news of Ilocan. There wasn't much. Santiago is claiming to have 'liberated' Ilocan from its, 'backward, reactionary government', and that their forces were welcomed by the Ilocano people, who had been kept in 'primitive' conditions by their previous rulers.

"It looks like the war itself is over. But reading between the lines, I'd bet there's a serious guerilla war going on. One of the underground newsies here claims to be in contact with an Ilocano 'government in exile'. He claims that the Santies are even having trouble holding onto Homesafe, and that only resupply from space lets them hang on."

He shrugged. "It sounds like plain old propaganda from both sides. There's no telling from the newsies what's really going on there. If you decide to go, be ready for a war zone. At the very least, the Santies are sure to have the jump point picketed."

Chapter 8

Cale didn't answer. He appeared lost in thought for several long minutes of silence at the table. Finally, he turned to Dee. "I'm sorry, Dee. We'll have to postpone your grand tour. I have to go help. I feel a real connection to John's aunt and uncle. In fact, he said they raised him. If there's even a chance they're still alive, I have to go help them."

Dee looked shocked. “What! What is this? You’re trying to shut me out?”

Zant looked from one to the other. “What’s going on with you two? I thought you were a pair…” His voice tapered off as Cale shook his head with a reluctant expression. “Okay,” he resumed more briskly, “let’s have it.”

Cale shrugged, his expression morose. “We told you about it. Dee is my passenger. I was to deliver her to a mutually agreeable destination when the pirate attack came up, and we had to detour here. I owe her a ride, and I fully intend to provide it. But I’ve got to go to Ilocan now, and I suspect you might know some things and some people, and maybe some sources I can use. We need to talk, and talk frankly.”

There were unshed tears in Dee’s eyes now. “What is this?” she cried again. “I don’t understand…”

Zant rose abruptly. “I think I’d better let you two work this thing out. I’ll be in the bar.” He hurried off.

Dee's face darkened, and her tone turned quietly furious. "So, you think you're going to just leave me stranded like poor Zant, here. I'm supposed to sit here and twiddle my thumbs while you get yourself killed?"

Cale flinched. "Now, Dee, that's not fair. I can't take you into a war zone. I don't know what I'll be facing. For all I know I'll be arrested and interned as soon as I get there.

"And even if I do make it safely," he continued, "I'll be a soldier in a guerilla war; running and hiding, sleeping and eating when and where I can. Damn it!" he shout/whispered, "I can't take you into that meatgrinder!"

"Why not?" Dee's voice was cold. "You'd better believe there are women fighting there now."

Cale pounded a fist on the table. "They're not you, damn it! They're frontierswomen. They're used to living rough, butchering their own meals, and killing for food. They're used to hardship and privation."

Dee's anger had only increased, and her voice rose. "Cale Rankin! You know damned well I've had a lot more weapons training than you, and even hand-to-hand combat. Sheol, I'm better qualified than you are to fight a war!" Dee’s tears had overflowed, as had her anger. “What do you think you’re doing? Are you trying to get rid of me?"

Cale took her hand in his. “No! The last thing I want is to lose you. In fact, I’m hoping you’ll wait here on Angeles for me. But I can’t ask you to be involved with this. Some of my ideas, well, they may not be exactly…”

“Legal?” she finished for him in a furious tone. “Are you telling me you’re going off to commit a crime? Or crimes?”

He shook his head wildly. “No! No. Well, not really. But it's a damned war! Some of the things we might have to do and some of the people we might have to deal with, well, they wouldn’t be very nice.”

“ Nice!” she almost shouted. “ Nice! Why you pompous, ego-inflated… what do you think I am, anyway? Some oversensitive debutant?”

Cale started to answer, and then paused. Actually, ‘oversensitive debutant’ was not far from the mark. “Look, Dee,” he started in a determinedly reasonable tone. “I know you’re the daughter of a priest. I don’t know much about your morality; but I do know how you reacted to the idea of leaving those pirates behind. From what I’ve seen, your moral standards are pretty high. There's nothing moral about a guerilla war. If some of my ideas work out, even before we go to Ilocan we’re going to have to deal with some rough places and some real lowlifes, and we’re going to have to look and act just as rough and just as low. It could be dangerous for you, and we won’t be able to take care of you or deal with your sensibilities. Please, wait here on Angeles, where you’re safe.” He said this last in almost a pleading tone, as he noted the dangerous glitter in her eyes.

“Bastard!” She hissed. “All this time. All these weeks we’ve been together. All this time I thought you respected me, that you, that you cared for me. And all the time you’ve been thinking I’m some sweet little goody-goody weakling! Who the hell do you think chewed holes in that pirate’s bridge and killed all those people while you were punching neat little holes in their engines?”

She jumped to her feet and grabbed his shirtfront in her fist. “I don't know anyone on Ilocan, but they've been attacked, Captain. Invaded! And my morality that bothers you so much means I’m not going to let some two-bit mystery man keep me from helping them!”

She suddenly realized that everyone in the restaurant was now watching her scene. With massive dignity, she released Cale’s shirt and returned to her seat, patting her lips with her napkin in an exaggeratedly ladylike manner.

Cale was gaping. Finally, he regained control of himself. “Uh, perhaps we should continue this in a more private place?” he suggested meekly.

Dee started to rise, paused, and then settled back into her chair. “No, I don’t think so. I think we’ve danced around this for weeks, now, and it’s time we deal with it.”

“Uh, deal with what?” Cale was afraid he knew.

“With the secret of you, Captain, that’s what. Every time the subject of you, your past, comes up, you change it, or duck it.”

Panic surged in Cale’s chest. “There’s no real secret, Dee,” he began. “I was born on Warden’s World; I’ve knocked around some pretty rough places with some pretty rough people.” He tried a disarming smile. “I guess I’m the kind of man your mother wouldn’t want you to date.”

Dee shook her head, unsmiling. “No. there’s more than that. How do you know so much about pirates? How come you know about fighting a starship? For that matter, how do you come to own your own starship? They’re fabulously expensive. How come you don’t have a trade route all mapped out?”

Cale took a deep breath. How could he lie to Dee? Could he lie to Dee? No, he answered himself. Dee deserved the truth, even though it would mean the end of their budding relationship. “All right,” he began. “I know about pirates because I was one for awhile. But first, I was a slave. I escaped with a bunch of other slaves. We were starving, and hijacked, pirated an ore carrier. We became pirates. Then we found out it was just another kind of slavery — a horrible kind. I witnessed, I did, horrible things, until I could escape. As for how I got Cheetah, I stole her. I ran fast and far, and changed her identity and mine. That aunt I mentioned was mine; but she won't recognize me now. Cheetah 's legal now, though, and legally mine. I’m still running. But I hate what they did to me, what they made me, with a depth of hatred I hope you never experience.” He slammed a hand on the table. “I’ll never be that kind of animal again, even if it means being enslaved again.”

He sighed. “And I don’t have a trade route mapped because I’m not a trader. I no longer know what I am.”

He looked at her stunned expression, and all his hope for the future died. Once again, his pirate past had killed a promising love. “Now, get out of here,” he said gruffly. “Zant and I have some plans to make, and they may not be pretty!”

She started to rise again, and then stopped, and settled once more into her seat. “No,” she said simply.

Cale’s eyebrows rose. “No?”

“No,” she repeated. She was regaining control of herself, and her expression firmed. “I can’t even guess what it must be like to be a slave, if even piracy looks like salvation. But I can imagine a slave grasping at any chance to escape that horror.”

Her firm expression became even harder. “But I must know one thing. Did you, personally, ever commit murder?”

Strangely, the question caused some of his tension to abate. At least he would not have to lie. “No,” he replied honestly. “I have killed three men. All were armed, and all were trying to kill me.”

She nodded soberly. “Thank you for your honesty. I have observed you very carefully these past weeks. You have never behaved with anything but honesty and integrity. Faith cared nothing about what happened to me once we lifted off. If you had cared to, you could have raped or killed me, or even sold me into slavery. Instead, you treated me with courtesy and respect. I’ve seen your hatred and fear of the pirates, and the courage and imagination with which you dealt with them. You could have restrained me or even killed me to avoid having to come to Angeles. Instead, you pandered to my naive opinions, and took the chance of having your identity or that of your ship revealed.”

She shook her head. “No matter what you have been or done in the past, in my experience you have been an honest and honorable man. You have nothing to fear from me.”

She straightened and raised her eyes to meet his. “That is, you have nothing to fear unless you try to keep me from helping you help Ilocan, and make me demonstrate that I can outfight you any time!”

"Maybe," he said in a droll tone. "But I wasn't really concerned about your fighting ability. I'm more concerned with whether you could butcher a hog or survive being out of reach of a spa. You’ve led a very sheltered life as the daughter of the Primate, or whatever it was.”

Dee’s frown evaporated as she struggled to suppress a giggle. “Not ‘Primate’, ‘Prelate’. A primate is a monkey.”

The smile Cale was trying to suppress grew into a grin. “And the difference is…?”

This time the giggle burst forth, and turned into a full-throated laugh. “Now that you mention it…,” she replied, before being carried off by laughter again.

And so it was understood that Dee would go with Cale. He still had misgivings, but he realized that she had the right to make her own decision.

Cale struggled to regain his composure. True, he had minimized his pirate experience, but he took comfort from the fact that he hadn’t actually lied to Dee. She knew! She actually knew he had been a pirate, and she had forgiven him! Perhaps he had hopes of a future after all!

“All right, Dee,” he said. “We’ll talk to Zant together. But I still think you should wait for me here.”

She shook her head. “Not a chance!” A sudden smile blossomed. “You mentioned some people and places Zant might know that may not be 'nice'. There’s no way I’m going to miss seeing an honest-to-God Den of Iniquity!” Cale could hear the capitals in the last phrase.

He grinned and shrugged. “You asked for it. I’ll get Zant.”

When they were all together again, Cale explained their decision, and then turned to Zant. "How about you, Zant? You want to go get your fool head blown off in somebody else's war?" He sobered. "Seriously, if you're not interested, I'll understand. And I'll still give you a lift to any planet between here and there. Except Santiago, of course."

Zant snorted. "Except for losing my partners' money, I haven't done a damfool thing for quite a while. I'm about due. But both of you need to understand," he continued, "I've been in a war. There's nothing glamorous about what a disruptor can do to your closest friend. You'd both better think real hard before you volunteer to let unfriendly strangers shoot at you."

Cale slammed his fist on the table again while shaking his head. "No, Damn it!" he said. "I've been fighting for nothing. It's time to fight for something. Something important." He turned to Zant. "I think I'd like to talk to this 'underground newsie' you mentioned. Do you happen to know how we could track him down?"

The newsie proved helpful, once Zant began acting like a street tough. He gave them the coordinates of the system where the "Government in Exile" of Ilocan was hiding, but he flatly refused to disclose how he contacted them, which pleased Cale.

He told the man to contact the "Government in Exile" and warn them that a ship would be approaching them, but not to shoot until they had a chance to establish comms. Then he reminded the man that Santies could read, too, and that he should be very careful for a while.

They lifted from Angeles, just within their forty-eight hour deadline. Cale gave Tess the coordinates, and they boosted max for the jump point. It was two jumps to the nameless system housing the "Government in Exile," but they were relatively short. Still, it gave the three of them time to become very good friends by the time they reached their goal.

According to the Stellar index the system was uninhabited; but either the index was out of date, or it didn't consider atmosphere mines to be habitations. The mine in question was sited on a small airless moon circling a gas giant. From there, specially designed scoopships skipped along the outer atmosphere of the huge planet, scooping up and compressing the atmospheric gases. They then returned to the moon, where the gases were unloaded, separated, and purified.

Mining was still going on, but now the mine housed the refugee government of Ilocan as well.

Cheetah emerged from the jump point and boosted max for the mine. It was only a few hours before Tess told Cale, "We're being scanned by targeting radars, Captain. We're still too far out for them to get a lock, but they are definitely trying."

Cale nodded. "We're also still too far out to establish two-way comms," he replied. "But I think I should get things started before some fool takes a shot at us. Let's record them a starter message. "Private vessel Cheetah to the Government in Exile of the Planet of Ilocan," he began. "We are volunteers come to help. Please do not fire. If Jessica Smith is there, please tell her John, from Peltir IV, sent us. If she is not there, please understand we are not hostile. I say again, please do not fire. We will establish comm link as soon as lag time is down to five seconds. No response is necessary, but do not fire!"

"Send that on a loop until we get within five light-seconds, Tess," he continued, "and let's hope Aunt Jessica is home."

She was. As soon as two-way communication was established a thin woman with streaks of gray in her hair stared grimly at Cale from the comm screen. "I haven't heard from Johnny in years. Why should I believe you?"

Cale shrugged. "I'm sorry, ma'am. John got into some political trouble, and ended up being sent to the mines. That's why you haven't heard from him."

She flinched visibly. "Let me guess. The damn fool got to poking his nose into the wrong people's business. He never had a lick of sense."

"If it's any consolation, ma'am, we did manage to escape," Cale replied with a smile.

She shook her head. "Well, I hope he's at least got enough sense to stay away from here. He isn't with you, is he?"

Cale suppressed a frown. He hated to lie to Aunt Jessie. In a certain sense, though, 'John Smith' wasn't here; only Cale Rankin. "No, ma'am. There's just the three of us: me, Zant Jenfu and Delilah Raum. I'm Cale Rankin. We're here to find out how we can help."

No missiles launched, no lasers flared. Cheetah grounded gently among several of the huge scoopships. They suited up and crossed to the mining dome, where Jessica met them with two men carrying Old Empire style blasters. The introductions went well, and soon they and six Ilocanos were sitting comfortably in a large room that evidently served as lunchroom, lounge, and meeting room.

"So," Jessica said once they all had drinks, "Exactly how do you think you're going to help?"

Cale shrugged. "That's why we came here first. Before we can even plan, we need up-to-date knowledge of the problem."

"It's a goddam standoff," replied the man who had been introduced as Ster Mong, 'Minister of Defense'. "They can't leave Homesafe without losing troops and equipment, and we can't get off-planet or resupply."

"We're pretty self-sufficient," Jessica added. "Ilocanos can live off the land. But weapons, ammunition, and supplies have to be brought in, and the Santies are running a damned effective blockade. Some of our people are down to homemade weapons, bows, and spears. It's become a war of attrition. As Ster says, it's pretty much a standoff. Our main hope lies in the fact that Santiago isn't really a very wealthy planet, and they waste what they have on giveaways to the 'poor', who then have no reason to work their way out of poverty." She waved a hand. "Sorry. I was a schoolteacher, and I still tend to lecture. Anyway, our hope is that the Santie government will decide they're throwing money down a hole, and will back off."

Ster Mong snorted. "Might work, too, in ten or twelve years! The Santies have elections coming up in a couple of years. Any official that suggested backing off now would be committing political suicide. So, we sit on our butts here and send out 'press releases'!"

Cale was getting an understanding of the situation. This 'government' wasn't really doing anything effective. Questioning revealed that their last contact with the planet itself had occurred more than a month previously. Even if they managed to sneak past the Santie picket and get near the planet itself, they had no means of contacting the Resistance that couldn't be eavesdropped by the Santies.

"So," Zant said when they were alone. "These people are amateurs. Worse, they're bureaucrats. Without an organization to manage, they're helpless. I think we should work on our own. I damned sure don't trust any of 'em with our plans." He glanced at Cale. "Except maybe your friend's aunt.

Cale shook his head morosely. "Not even her. She's a good lady, but whatever we do, we need to do it ourselves, and without any 'help' from these people."

Still, they stayed around for a few days, to meet the people in the 'government' and those outside it who were willing to volunteer to help. A surprising number of them were qualified space pilots; or maybe not so surprising, given the number of skilled atmosphere miners. It was the first good news Cale had received here, and it gave him an idea.

"Believe it or not," Cale began as the three gathered in Cheetah 's lounge after they had lifted off, "I’m the legal owner of a surface and orbital ship scrap yard on Torlon.”

“Torlon?” Zant replied with a frown, “I heard they’d lost spaceflight.”

Cale nodded. “They have. The owner of the last operable ship deeded me his scrap yard before he left. Lots of military hulks in that yard.”

Dee frowned. “Okay, but what can you do with a bunch of scrap?”

“Maybe more than you think,” Cale replied with a smile. “Zant, I gather you’ve been kicking around this sector for quite a while.”

Zand nodded with a smile. “About thirty years.”

Cale responded with a nod of his own. “If you had, say, two thousand carats of flawless white diamonds, do you think you could hire a dozen or so men with orbital shipyard experience for a short-term job?”

Zant straightened, his casual smile gone. “Two thousand carats?” At Cale’s nod, he stroked his chin. “Haveta convert ‘em to gold or Alliance credits. We could do that at Freehold, if we was careful. Discount on diamonds shouldn’t be too bad.” He straightened, and his smile returned. “Sheol yeah. Go to Vishnu. They been hit pretty hard lately. They've been in a planet-wide depression for near two years, now. Lots of yards cuttin’ back, and the government is desperate for hard currencies. For two thousand carats we could damn near buy the shipyard, and pick up a load of weapons to boot.”

Cale shook his head. “We’d also have to charter a ship to get the crew to Torlon. Cheetah ’s too small to haul that many people.”

Zant looked at Cale with a hooded expression. “Yeah. But she's a beautiful li’l thing. Perfect for a little midnight tradin’.”

Cale’s smile was noncommittal. “Oh, don’t worry about it,” Zant continued. “I’ve done more’n a bit of midnight tradin’ myself.”

Dee looked puzzled. “Midnight trading?”

“Smuggling,” Cale replied. “Zant is saying that Cheetah would be a great smuggler’s ship.” His smile widened. “He’s right, too.”

“Damn right,” Zant confirmed. “Anyways, getting’ a ship shouldn’t be a problem, either.”

“It would help if the captain kinda forgot where he went. Torlon is my bolt hole.”

Zant winked. “Gotcha”. He looked lost in thought for a moment. “Sheol, I don’t think we’d have any problem getting that all done for two thousand carats.” He glanced at Cale sharply. “Guess you’re better at it than I ever was. So, what exactly is your idea?”

"Well," Cale replied, "I was just thinking about how many people at the mine are qualified space pilots. Oh, I know," he forestalled Zant's reply, "most of them aren't certified for jump piloting, but if what I'm thinking about works, they won't need to be.

"Just suppose we got together a bunch of skilled orbital shipyard workers, and took them to Torlon. Then we cruise the junkyard looking for small intrasystem ships that we can arm. Meanwhile, we have a team building the biggest damned carrier ever seen; no hull metal, just a framework of girders and supports. We use them to attach the little ships and the jump engines from an Alpha class bulk cargo hauler. We load the carrier with as many ships as we have pilots, and drop them off in recal systems one jump from Santiago and Ilocan. Then we mine the jump points. I think we could play hell with their supply lines. Every time they send a minesweeper to clear the mines, our ships attack them. Minesweepers are small and poorly armed."

Dee shook her head. "But they're just junk," she said. "Scrap! The reason people scrap ships is because they'd be too hard or too expensive to fix."

Zant was grinning. "Maybe. There's lots of reasons ships get sold for scrap. Sheol, some of 'em are in complete operatin' condition, but the skipper misses a couple of payments and the bank auctions it."

"One of the ships in my yard is a completely operational Beta class liner," Cale replied. "Anyway, he added, "We're not concerned with 'fixing them up'. We want functional inertial drive, life support, and some weapons. We don't care how she looks, or about the condition of secondary systems. There are quite a few hulks that can be stripped for parts, and that Beta class liner means the workers can live aboard, and won’t have to shuttle back and forth from the surface.”

Zant jumped up and pounded Cale on the back. “Damn, man, sounds like we got us a plan!”

Freehold was a man-made planetoid circling an uninhabited star. There were hundreds of these things scattered throughout the Empire. They had been built over the centuries by various multisystem conglomerates, System-wide syndicates, and even hyper-wealthy entrepreneurs, mostly to avoid taxation, regulation, or even system criminal laws. Most were superluxe hotels, casinos, and spas for the very wealthy. Some were designed as cruise stops for liners making circle tours. When the Empire began to crumble, the very wealthy either disappeared or adopted far less ostentatious lives. The planetoids tried various ploys to save themselves, mostly in vain. Those that began shorting maintenance fell to catastrophic life support or power failures. Most were simply abandoned. Some were seized and turned into pirate lairs, and some into havens for the disreputable of all types. A very few like Outpost, John Smith's first port of call, managed to survive, after a fashion, becoming trading centers for trade both legal and illegal.

Freehold actually experienced most of those fates. Originally built as a superluxe casino, the management had tried scaling back operations and promoting it as a family getaway and a cruise stop, but as business continued to decline, Freehold moved down the social ladder. More and more disreputable characters arrived, driving out the few remaining customers and liners still available. At one point, it was invaded and seized as a headquarters by the chieftain of a large pirate gang. Some years later, several of the neighboring systems joined forced and attacked, killing the pirate chieftain and scattering his gang. After several years of abandonment, Freehold began to be used as a transfer point for smuggling shipments, and then the center of a smuggling empire that even had its own orbital shipyard. Finally, legal cargoes began being traded as well as smuggled ones, and Freehold became established as a sector-wide center for trade of all types, legal and otherwise. There were still plenty of smugglers and assorted lowlifes on Freehold, of course, but the legitimate traders outnumbered them — or so it appeared.

Remarkably, the inhabitants of Freehold were very proud of their world’s checkered history, especially its smuggling past. They tended to behave as though even legal cargoes were smuggled, much to the consternation of the legal traders. Business was done in whispers, in bars and back passageways. “Knowing someone,” or at least seeming to, was essential for doing business on Freehold, and the legal traders and captains just shook their heads, shrugged, and did what they had to do to trade. The larger trading combines did have offices and factors on Freehold, but they were used to the unusual atmosphere.

“Do you have contacts or names on Freehold?” Cale asked.

Zant shook his head sadly. “Probably not. I haven’t been here in near twenty years. I expect most of the people I knew died or moved on. We’ll just have to see what we can do.”

They discussed the situation. "There's two ways to handle this," Zant said. "There are legitimate factors on Freehold, and they'll pay a fair price for your diamonds. But there will be questions asked, and you'd better have a good story for them. Of course, we can trade 'em on the smuggler's market, but we'll get skinned on the discount

Cale looked troubled. "I'd rather not deal with a lot of questions

…" he began.

"You won't have to," Dee put in. "I can handle it."

"You?" Cale said, flustered. "But how…"

"You forget," she chided gently. "You happen to have onboard this yacht a very prominent lady. Daughter of the Supreme Archbishop of Faith. This lady is traveling in this sector, and finds diamonds a convenient means of maintaining herself on her travels."

Dee dove into her persona as a rich, spoiled heiress on a fling. She was excited at the opportunity to actually visit a real ‘den of iniquity’. In fact, her first use of that phrase on Angeles had sparked her imagination, and she had spent almost the entire three weeks travel time planning how to dress and behave, and imagining all the deliciously sinful things she would encounter.

Cale and Zant’s more realistic expectations led to some serious disagreements between Cale and Dee. Cale tried repeatedly to warn Dee, but it is often almost impossible to overcome the illusions created by fiction.

Cale had received his docking instructions and was about to sign off from Freehold Control when Zant cut in “One moment, please,” he requested. The man on the screen paused. “Yes?” he replied.

“It’s been some time since I visited Freehold,” he began. “Is Shorty’s still in business?”

The man smiled. “Sure is. The whole place would probably have to shut down if Shorty’s did. If you’d like, I can connect you so you can make an appointment.”

Zant’s answering smile was broad and genuine. “An appointment? Sounds like Shorty’s has gone big time.”

“Naw, not really,” the man replied easily. “But they’re sure busy these days. Hold on.”

After a moment, a small, bald man appeared on the screen, his expressions harried and irritated. “Yes? What is it?”

Zant’s smile faded to one both formal and cold. “Good day to you, sire. My name is Zant Jenfu. I represent the Lady Delilah Raum of Faith.” His tone perfectly matched the cold formality of his smile. “We are aboard her yacht, Cheetah, and are approaching Freehold. My Lady wishes to complete some business on Freehold, and finds we have need of your services. I should like to schedule an appointment to discuss it.” Cale suppressed a laugh. Zant was giving a perfect impression of the haughty factotum of a wealthy dowager.

The man on the screen straightened, and his irritated scowl disappeared. They arranged an appointment for an hour after their scheduled docking time. As they signed off, both Cale and Dee dissolved into gales of laughter.

“You sounded just like Gotroy, my father’s secretary,” Dee said in an admiring tone once she’d regained her composure.

“Yes,” Cale asked, “and if she’s Lady Delilah, who am I?”

Zant’s normal broad grin reappeared. “Why, you’re her personal yacht skipper and bodyguard. Y’see,” he continued, “I realized that jabbo from Control might just listen in to see if he could learn anything saleable. It was a perfect chance to get some rumors started. Now, everyone will hear about the rich Lady comin’ aboard. It’ll give us a legitimate reason to have a fortune in jewels, and it might help keep us out of trouble. Face it,” He shrugged, “Raum is a big name on Faith. Are you sure you don't mind us usin’ it, Dee?”

Dee shrugged, a bitter expression crossing her face. “No, I don’t mind. Why not? It is my name. My father has dishonored it much more than I ever could.”

Zant nodded. “Okay, then here’s what we’ll do. It’s no use trying to be inconspicuous, so let’s go with the plan and be as conspicuous as hell. Dee, you’ll need one of your fancy outfits from Angeles. Cale and I can get away with wearing shipsuits, and we’ll both wear blasters in open holsters. When we board the station, Dee will walk in front, and we will follow behind, doing our best bodyguard act.” He turned to Cale. “I said ‘act’, but don’t doubt it’ll be for real. There are some real lowlifes on Freehold. I hope you can really use a blaster.”

“What about me?” Dee protested. “I’ve got a bag that’s just the right size for a blaster, and I’m better with one than Cale is!”

Zant cocked an eyebrow at Cale, who shrugged. “She’s certainly had more formal training than I have.”

“Conspicuous as hell” certainly described the trio that disembarked from Cheetah. Dee wore a famous Angeles designer’s interpretation of a shipsuit in shimmering aqua. It featured a detachable, flaring, multilayered skirt in rainbow toile, and a flowing waist-length cape in bold pink. The clutch bag she carried vaguely resembled the common utility bag often attached to the waist of a shipsuit, but of course, it matched the shimmering aqua of the suit itself. Her deck slippers were festooned with stones that sent flickers of reflected light in all directions. Dee had commissioned the designer to provide her with several outfits that would be as comfortable as a shipsuit, but “less drab.” She’d almost refused to pay for the eye-popping outfit, but the hurt expression on the designer’s face when she collapsed in hysterical laughter at the sight of the thing had made her feel guilty enough to accept it, though she cancelled the rest of the order. She’d almost thrown the thing away, but now she decided that if Zant wanted ‘conspicuous’, conspicuous he would get. Besides, the garish thing would distract watchers from noticing that her right hand was inside the bag, on the grip of the blaster it contained. Certainly few that saw them paid much attention to the two men following this apparition in plain shipsuits with hands on holstered blasters.

Shorty’s occupied an entire corridor block of the massive planetoid. Armed guard stations were located at each end of the corridor, along with obvious security cameras and less obvious automated weapons systems. The guards were barely successful in keeping straight faces at the sight of Dee’s outfit, but they passed the trio through efficiently, escorting them to the unadorned metal door that was the only break in the corridor’s metal surface. The guard’s hand scan caused the door to slide silently aside, revealing a surprisingly small, neat office. An ordinary office desk faced four plain office chairs. Behind the desk, the same small man they’d seen on the screen looked up and stared at the bright vision entering his drab office.

Apparently oblivious, Dee made a grand entrance, flowing into the office and standing a moment until the hurrying Cale hastily wiped off the least disreputable of the chairs and slid it beneath her. She raised an eyebrow archly, and simply stared at the man while Zant and Cale slipped into flanking chairs.

Zant noisily cleared his throat, and the man tore his eyes from Dee’s garish glory and shifted them to Zant, who was sitting bolt upright, head high, looking down his nose. “I am Zant Jenfu,” he announced in sonorous tones, “It is my honor to present my Lady, the honorable Delilah Raum of Faith. Are you the proprietor of this establishment?”

The man’s eyes drifted back to Dee, who merely raised an eyebrow. His eyes suddenly widened and he leapt to his feet. He cleared his throat noisily. “Ah, yes, ah, of course.” He began, then paused and collected himself “I’m, ah, Hern Jarnett. Yes, I am the proprietor, and I will be delighted serve the lady. How may I be of service?” By the time he finished speaking, he was once again in control, and he resumed his seat.

His last question had been addressed to Dee, but it was Zant who replied. “My lady is travelling in this sector. We have come to this.. place to convert a significant amount of diamonds to a more… useful currency. We have been informed that the safest way to do this is to deposit the diamonds with you.”

The bald head bobbed. “Exactly. Exactly right. Unfortunately, Freehold is cursed with a number of disreputables. Shorty’s has the reputation, if I do say so myself, as the only safe way to deal high-value shipments here.” The pride in his voice was obvious. He rubbed his hands together. “Now,” he continued, “just how large a sum are we discussing?”

Zant retrieved a black felt bag from his utility pouch. “Two thousand carats of flawless white diamonds of two to five carat weight.”

Jarnett’s eyebrows rose. “Did you say two thousand carats?”

Zant nodded. “Yes. Would you care to explain the procedure here?”

Jarnett’s manner warmed considerably. “Of course, of course. I will examine the merchandise. Once I have verified the information, I will issue you a deposit certificate with an exact description, and the scanner results for each stone. You will take the deposit certificate with you in your dealings here; it will verify the actual merchandise that is available. Once a deal is struck, since you are unknown here I expect the dealer will require you to accompany him here to verify the availability and perform the actual exchange.”

The small man hesitated, and then continued. “In view of the values involved in this transaction, I might recommend that you procure the services of an additional local bodyguard to accompany you in your dealings and back to your ship. Escorts can even be arranged to the local jump point, if desired.” He retrieved a jeweler’s scanner from a drawer in the desk, and spread a black cloth on the desktop.

Zant shook his head. “I doubt that will be necessary. However, could you provide us with the name of a reliable local bodyguard service, just in case?”

“Yes, yes, of course,” Jarnett replied in a distracted tone. He spilled the contents of Zant’s bag onto the black cloth, gasping as the pile of glittering stones reflected the room’s light. He carefully examined Zant’s empty bag, and then propped it open on one corner of the black cloth. One by one, he slid the stones under the scanner. As each stone was scanned and weighed, he returned it to Zant’s bag. No one spoke; no one dared break the little man’s obsessive concentration. Finally, the last stone was run through the scanner. Jarnett pressed the button that produced a report of each stone, and then pressed it again for a second copy. With carefully exaggerated movements to assure his visitors that no sleight-of-hand was taking place, Jarnett closed the bag, and placed a sealing strip around its top.

Finally, he sat back with a sigh. “Six hundred twenty-eight stones, of weights from 2.16 carats to 5.08 carats, all flawless blue-white, totaling two thousand thirty-six carats,” he said in a hushed tone. “My Lady, I am honored. I have rarely seen such a collection.”

Cale was surprised. “Then you have seen others as large?”

“Only one larger,” Jarnett replied with a strained smile, “and the stones were not as fine, and the collection itself was of, shall we say, doubtful origin.” Somehow, Dee gained the impression that Jarnett’s smile was almost as rare.

Zant pulled a comp pad from his tunic. “I know that business contacts are essential to doing business here, sire Jarnette,” he said, “but I haven’t had business contact with Freehold in more than twenty years. Would you do me the honor of looking at this list and telling me how many, if any, are still doing business here?”

Jarnette nodded and took the pad. After a moment another of his wintry smiles rose. “It has indeed been some time, sire Jenfu. Three of these people are dead, and four of the others moved on some years ago. In fact, the only person on this list that I know to still be aboard is Rin Tenkin, and he is retired.” He shrugged and handed back the pad. “He may still be able to provide an introduction. You might check at the Skull. They may know how to reach him.”

He handed a crystal containing one copy of the list from the scanner to Dee, along with a simple receipt bearing a hologram of the stones scattered on the black cloth. “My lady, this crystal, and this receipt are as valuable as the stones themselves. They are the only acceptable way to retrieve them. Please be very careful. The stones will be given to whoever presents the receipt and the crystal. If you trade them for gold, say, or Alliance credits, you may be given similar documents. Upon presentation, you will be given whatever they represent.” He rose, and walked around the desk, taking Dee’s hand to lift her gently from her chair. “As I mentioned, since you and your men are not known here, whoever you deal with may require you to accompany him here to retrieve the stones. Your own presence will not be required, my lady, as long as one or both of your men, here, can represent you. I’m afraid you may find the residents of Freehold somewhat uncouth and uncivilized.”

Dee smiled and spoke for the first time. “Your courtesy is appreciated, sire Jarnett, and your civility does you credit. You have my thanks for both your advice and your services.”

Another of his half-smiles and a small bow rewarded her. When he turned to Zant, the smile was gone. “I regret, sire Jenfu, that Shorty’s is not an altruistic organization. The fee for our services is a flat one thousand Alliance credits, or the equivalent in readily convertible currencies.” That information had been shown on the station web, so they were prepared. Zant gave the little man most of Cale’s remaining Angeles crowns and Jarnett bowed Dee out, ignoring the men once he had received his payment.

Once out of Shorty’s, both Zant and Cale urged Dee to return to Cheetah, arguing that in her outlandish garb was far too conspicuous, and that the two men in their shipsuits would be better able to do business. Unsurprisingly, Dee disagreed. Her main point was that while the diamonds were safely stashed, the receipt that could get them handed over to the bearer was not, and could not be stashed. “I’m a third blaster,” she maintained, “and more importantly, in this getup I’m a blaster that the bad guys won’t be expecting. Besides, the Skull is the kind of place I came here to see, and I’m damned well going to see it, even in this circus costume!”

Chapter 9

The Skull was a large and raucous bar not far from Cheetah ’s berth. A large open area housed a small dance floor and a host of tables scattered about. Loud music blasted from strategically placed speakers. Around the edge were a series of triangular niches and a few convex mirrored surfaces. As soon as they entered, Cale pulled Zant and Dee back out of the entrance.

“We can’t accomplish anything in there,” he said, “it’s too loud to talk, and security would be impossible.” He nodded toward a small, seemingly quiet restaurant nearby. “Much as I hate to split our forces, I think Zant should go into the Skull to find his contact, and Dee and I should wait in the restaurant.”

Zant shook his head. “We should stay together. Besides, you saw the triangular niches around the edge of the main room. Well, they are really booths, and they’re all equipped with privacy screens and hush fields. That’s what the mirrored things are — privacy screens. You can see out, but nobody can see in. A lot of business gets done there. Tell you what,” he continued, “We’ll go in and escort the queen, here, to a private domain. You engage the privacy screen and hush field, and the two of you can have your blasters already out while I go up to the bar to find out about old Rin.”

Cale was still reluctant, but let himself be convinced. He and Zant crowded against Dee’s back as they entered, and the tight triangle edged toward an empty booth, hands on blasters and heads swiveling, scanning for threats. Dee was fascinated. This was the Den of Iniquity she had expected, and the clientele certainly fit the image. Revealingly clothed and barely-clothed women smiled temptingly at bearded leather-clad men who swilled beer and galk, while others sat at the bar and tried to tempt newcomers. The threesome garnered plenty of strange looks and more than a few snickers, but they soon slid into the vacant booth. Dee gave a sigh of relief as the hush circuit cut off the raucous noise outside. A slight darkening of the view showed that Zant had engaged the privacy screen,

“Okay,” he said, “You two keep your blasters in your hands and your eyes open. That privacy screen is just that; it’s not any kind of shield. If you see trouble coming, you can just shoot through it.” He grinned. “But don’t shoot a waiter, okay?”

Before they could answer, he demonstrated by walking through the privacy screen, and headed for the bar. Cale and Dee held their blasters in their hands, and kept their eyes scanning for trouble, although Dee’s bright eyes showed her excitement at finally seeing her ‘den of iniquity’. After a few minutes, Zant headed back in their direction with a tray of drinks. Again, he walked through the screen.

He slid onto the padded bench seat, setting the tray on the table. “The bartender says Rin comes in here every day at 17 like clockwork. A waitress says the same. He has a favorite booth, and gets himself quietly flashed every day. Since we just have to wait…” he checked his ring watch, “twenty mins, I bought the drinks to keep the waiters from bothering us. Don’t drink them. The bartender turned his back while he mixed them, and I have no reason to trust him.”

They spent most of the next twenty mins teasing Dee about her taste in clothing, while simultaneously scanning for threats. Finally, Zant saw a familiar figure enter the bar and head for his preferred booth. He hurried to intercept the older man and guide him to their booth instead.

Rin Tenkin had once been tall and thin. Now, he was tall and emaciated. He wore his white hair trimmed short in spacer fashion. His sallow, puffy complexion and the tremors in his hands revealed his current preoccupation. Though he seemed sober now, there was no doubt that was a temporary situation.

The bleary eyes surveyed them, and a twinkle in his eyes and a twitchy half-smile showed that at least he was sober enough to appreciate Dee’s costume. He started to reach a shaky hand for one of their drinks, but was stopped by Zant’s hand on his wrist.

“Not yet,” Zant said. “Business first, and then you can have them all.”

“Zant Jenfu,” Tenkin said in a gravelly voice. “I thought you were dead long ago. Where’ve you been?”

Zant grinned. “Been out of circulation for awhile, Rin” he replied.

A flicker of interest showed in the bleary eyes. “Oh, yeah? Planetary rest cure?”

Zant chuckled. “Naw, nothin’ like that. I been pioneering. Found out I kinda liked woods runnin’.” He sobered. “Okay, business. Me and my friends, here, need to do some business. Are you still connected enough to give us an introduction?”

The old man frowned. “Could be. Depends on the kind of business. It’d have to be an old timer. I’ve been out of the business for quite a while, now.”

Zant frowned. It was obvious he really didn’t want to trust the old man.

Tenkin looked puzzled for a moment, and then suddenly, he grinned, and Cale could see a little of the man he had been. “Don’t worry, Zant,” he said. “I know I’m an old drunk, but don’t forget, I’ve been conditioned. Years ago, it was, but that don’t matter. Conditioning is for life. I can’t spill business info. Even if it’s not legal business.”

Zant relaxed and his normal grin resurfaced. “No worries there. It’s legal. All right, we want to sell diamonds for Alliance credits.”

Tenkin frowned. “Must be a big lot to bring you way out here for a legal sale. Hmmm. Lessee. Since it’s a legal deal, I might be able to hook you up with Res Selton. He’s a factor for several big jewel outfits. At least he was.” He took his comp pad out and keyed a long sequence.

“Res?” he said, “Rin Tenkin. Yeah. And I’m still sober, too. You still dealin’ jewels? No, no, strictly legit, but a big shipment. Sheol, I dunno. Would you tell an old drunk like me?” He laughed. “Naw, he’s an old friend. You might even remember him from a long time back. Zant Jenfu. Naw, don’t worry about it. You’ll recognize ‘em. Young fella and ol’ Zant, and a looker in an outfit you won’t believe. Oh, you heard about ‘em already?” His eyes widened and he looked at Dee. “You really got a yacht?” He switched his attention back to his call as Dee nodded. “Yeah, that’s them. Okay. Thirty mins. Got it. Yeah. Good talkin’ to you again, too. Sheol, I might even remember it, this time.” He chuckled and disconnected. He turned to Zant. “Well! Seems you’ve done better than I thought. Anyway, Res Selton will meet you in thirty mins. He’s done well, too. He has an actual office. A lot higher class than this dump.” He gave them detailed directions to Res Selton’s office.

Zant nodded. “Thanks, Rin.” He paused. “I don’t know what the going rate is for an introduction these days, but here.” He handed the old man the last of their Angeles crowns. Cale almost stopped him. Ridiculous as it sounded, they didn’t even have enough left to buy lunch! However, he stopped himself. This was Zant’s territory; he knew the rules and the customs, and Cale didn’t.

He needn’t have worried. The old man pushed the bills back across the table with a shake of his head. “Naw,” he said. “This one’s on me. You offered me these three drinks before; we’ll call it square.” For a moment, the rheumy eyes firmed with pride. “It was good to do business again. Even if it was only for a min.”

Zant grinned and rose as Rin gathered the three glasses before him. “Careful with those drinks, Rin,” he warned. “The bartender mixed them for strangers, and he turned his back while he mixed ‘em.”

The old man laughed aloud. “I don’t think ol’ Jan would drug ‘em, but if he did, I guess I’ll get a few extra hours’ sleep. Good luck!” He picked up one of the glasses, drained it in a gulp as the three friends rose, and left, as carefully as they had arrived.

Dee was scandalized. “That man is killing himself! Why doesn’t someone help him?”

Zant grabbed her arm and whirled her around to face him. “Shut up! You don’t know what you’re talking about!” He was about to continue when Cale jumped between them.

“Drop it, Dee. He’s right. We’ll talk about it when we get back aboard!” He didn’t look at either of them; his eyes continued scanning for threats.

Dee flushed, whether with anger or embarrassment Cale couldn’t say; but Zant’s face also darkened, and he muttered, “Right. Sorry.” Before dropping back to again cover their rear.

Res Selton’s otherwise undistinguished door displayed a small brass-colored plaque announcing “Selton Import-Export.” Again taking the lead, Zant pressed the enunciator and gave his name. The door swished aside to reveal a uniformed guard with an Empire Marines-issue blaster in his hands. The man stared at each of them for a moment before stepping aside.

The office they entered was significantly larger than Hern Jarnett’s, and much richer. The walls were paneled in what appeared to be real wood, and displayed tasteful artwork. Seated behind the real wood desk sat a rather fat man whose florid countenance was framed by a mass of salt-and-paper hair. His expression was dour and harried, but when he saw Dee, it softened into a professional smile. He hurried around the desk to greet her.

“A good day to you, Mistress,” he said. “Rumor told me of your presence, but it failed to describe your beauty. I am Res Selton, and I understand you have some gems to sell.”

He opened his mouth to continue, but Zant interrupted him by clearing this throat noisily. “I am Zant Jenfu, and I represent the Lady Delilah Raum of Faith,” he said in a superior tone. “My lady is traveling this sector, and finds herself running short of cash. She does not wish to sell anything. A lady of her social status does not engage in business, of course. On her behalf, I would like to convert a substantial collection of unmounted diamonds into Alliance credits.”

Selton bowed to Dee. “My apologies, mistress. In this backwater, one rarely encounters a lady of such… breeding. Also, I was given to understand that Faith was quite a… uh… conservative society.”

“It is,” Dee replied haughtily. “Dreadfully boring. I haven’t actually been there in several years. My father, the Supreme Archbishop, agreed with me that I am better suited to a more civilized environment.” Her smile was cold.

“Of course, my lady, of course,” Selton fawned, totally convinced. He turned to Zant. “And precisely how many stones did your lady wish to convert?” He looked somewhat disappointed as he moved back around the desk. Obviously, this rich bitch just needed spending money, and he’d waste his time buying a dozen or so stones.

Zant slid the receipt and the crystal from Shorty’s across the desk. Selton picked up the receipt. He glanced at it, started to look away, and then jerked his eyes back to it as its contents registered. “Two thousand carats?” he asked in surprise. His suddenly wide eyes devoured the receipt as he muttered to himself. “Flawless” Zant heard, and “white’. Selton snatched the crystal and placed it into a scanner. He spent several minutes examining the detailed list of stones. Finally, he sat back, with a stunned look on his face.

“My lady, my congratulations. I have never before been offered such a magnificent collection. May I ask how you came by it?”

Dee shrugged carelessly. “In his position, my father has quite an interest in assuring that I do not return to Faith for some time. Actually, our agreement says I may return for his funeral. In the meantime, he will provide me with the means to support my lifestyle. He has decided that diamonds are the most compact and negotiable way to provide that support.”

A last bit of tension slipped from Selton’s shoulders. He could easily understand the most powerful churchman on Faith ridding himself of a spoiled, rebellious playgirl of a child. Actually, he was slightly surprised that her father hadn’t simply arranged an ‘accident’. But then, maybe the man really cared for this spoiled brat, though Selton couldn’t see why. Moreover, diamonds really were probably the most compact and universally convertible form of wealth. At any rate, that old drunk Tenkin had really come through, and the deal really was legitimate. That would add several hundred thousand credits to his eventual profit.

He turned to Zant. “I can give the lady one thousand Alliance credits per carat,” he said as though he were conveying a favor.

Zant simply looked at him for a long moment. Then he stood and sighed. “My lady, I’m sorry. Rin told me we would be dealing with a legitimate gem dealer. I’m sure we can find a reputable gem factor on Freehold.” He started to help Dee from her chair.

Selton looked wounded. “I am a reputable gem factor. I… “

Zant waved dismissively. “The amount you offer is an insult. Retail on Angeles for flawless stones of such color is 2000 per carat, wholesale is 1750. Now, we do not expect Angeles prices here, but we certainly did not expect to be robbed. We would accept 1750.”

Selton looked scandalized. “Impossible! As you noted, that is the wholesale value on one planet. Out of respect for the lady I could perhaps go to 1250.”

“Ridiculous!” Zant retorted in apparent anger. “The lady could not possibly accept less than, say, 1500?”

Selton frowned. “Done. 1500 per carat for two thousand carats.” He consulted his wrist comp. “That will be over three million Alliance credits. A sizable amount indeed.”

As Hern Jarnett had predicted, Selton and two burly, armed bodyguards accompanied them to Shorty’s. Selton carefully examined the stones themselves before signing an authorization for Jernett to disburse three million, fifty-four thousand Alliance credits to “The lady Delilah Raum of Faith or her representative.” Cradling the bag of stones in his arms as though they were a baby, he and his bodyguards hurried out without a further word to either Zant or Dee.

More than three million Alliance credits in cash turned out to be quite bulky. Leaving the cash in Shorty's office with Dee, Zant, and Cale went to the shopping district of Freehold, where they purchased two identical suitcases. They also purchased a small roll of plas packaging and padding. Returning to Shorty’s, Cale called for a bodyguard escort while Zant packed one of the suitcases full of bills. The other he filled with packing and padding until it weighed virtually the same as the money case. When the bodyguards appeared, Cale carried the money case while Zant carried the decoy. One of the hired bodyguards led the procession. He was followed by Dee walking alone as befitted ‘lady Delilah’, hand on blaster. She, in turn, was followed by Cale and Zant side by side, and the other hired bodyguard bringing up the rear. They garnered a lot of attention, but the well-armed procession apparently didn’t tempt any criminals.

At Cheetah ’s ramp, Zant waited with the bodyguards while Cale escorted Dee and the money aboard, and then returned to dismiss the bodyguards and escort Zant up the ramp with the decoy bag. As soon as they were aboard, Tess sealed the entry lock.

They stared at each other for a long moment before simultaneously dissolving in uncontrolled laughter, collapsing into the lounge’s luxurious chairs. Dee’s arm got tangled in her gaudy cape, and she struggled to free it. She unclipped the cape from her shoulders and threw it across the lounge.

“I hate that thing,” she said between giggles. “It’s the most uncomfortable, terrible garment since… well… since this horrible thing!” She stood and ripped off the detachable skirt she had been fighting all day. She dropped back into her chair as the laughter continued.

“Now, now,” Cale said in a patronizing tone, “is that any way for Lady Delilah to act?”

Dee put on a threatening expression and took her blaster from her bag. “The next person to call me ‘Lady Delilah’ will regret it!” The threat was somewhat spoiled by the giggles following it.

Finally, though, the hilarity tapered off. “Tess,” Cale asked, “Have you been monitoring station comm traffic?”

“Of course, Captain,” Tess replied in a prim tone. “At first you were a frequent subject of discussion. That tapered off for a while, but now it is beginning to pick up again. The early traffic mostly concerned your remarkable appearance, but now there is quite a bit of discussion about a deal you may have made with Res Selton, and how much you may have made from it.”

Zant nodded. “I expected that. I’d suggest we depart as quickly as possible, before some of the rougher citizens decide to satisfy their curiosity.”

“Yes,” Cale replied. “Tess, get us exit clearance as quickly as possible, and let’s get out of here.”

“Exit clearance has been received, Captain,” came the crisp reply. “Ready to detach on your order.”

Cale hid a smile. He knew very well that Tess had requested departure clearance as soon as they were aboard. However, Zant did not know of Tess’s sentience, and she was an expert at concealing it. “Detach and set course for the jump point for Rama,” he ordered.

Rama was a busy shipping center one short jump from Freehold. There, Zant would catch a tramp for Vishnu.

As they boosted for the jump point, Zant was in an expansive mood. “Three million!” he exulted, “ Three million!” He turned to Dee. “I’d have taken the 1250, or even the thousand,” he said, “but as the representative of the ‘Lady Delilah’, it would have been out of character not to haggle. So we got an extra million!”

Dee was less impressed. “But will that be enough to hire a crew of ten or twelve ship techs for a month, and a ship to transport them? Will you have to deal with shady thugs in big hats in dark alleys?”

Zant sobered. “I guess you haven’t heard about Vishnu. For almost two years, now, they’ve been in a worldwide depression. Nearly all the shipyards have closed or cut back, and unemployment is above 25 %. We could hire all the skilled shipyard workers we want for a couple of thousand rupees a month. And of course, that doesn’t consider the exchange rate for Alliance credits. Last I heard, it was over fifty rupees to the credit. And from what I heard, the government is so desperate for hard currency that they'll sell anything; tanks, intrasystem fighters, artillery, anything — as long as it's leaving the planet. For weapons, I expect I'll be dealing with politicians in paneled conference rooms. 'Course that don't mean they're not shady thugs! No,” he continued, “the most expensive part of the whole deal may be chartering an Epsilon-class tramp and bribing its Captain to forget about Torlon.”

Cale sighed. "It would be nice to be able to buy a load of intrasystem fighters, but I think you'll probably just need to load up on space mines; all your ship can carry. The more mines we use, the less fights involving people. We won't have the people to spare. Try to get a dozen or so skilled orbital shipyard workers."

Their talk turned more serious. "So that's what a real den of iniquity is like," Dee said pensively. "A bunch of sad and desperate people sitting around drinking."

Zant shrugged. "Well, mostly. They all like to brag about how tough they are, and the fights they've had, and the big scores; but mostly they're just wanderers. They make or steal a 'score', and run straight to a place like Freehold. There they drink, gamble, brawl, and sex it away. When it's gone they sign onto a spacer or beg a lift, and go searching for another score so they can do it all again." He grinned. "It's not so bad. Kinda fun, actually."

Having broken the ice, Dee decided to bring up something that had been bothering her. "All right," she said defiantly, hands on hips. "Now, who wants to tell me why Zant's friend is being allowed to drink himself to death in this day and age, without someone helping him?"

Cale took a deep breath, but Zant cut in before he could speak. "I consider Rin Tenkin an old and good friend. But he, and his drinking, is one of the main reasons I left here twenty years ago and haven't returned. Rin was a pretty big gun on Freehold. Maybe bigger than Selton is now. Then he got a message that his only daughter had died in a flyer accident on Caroway. The girl was Rin's only living relative, and he doted on her. He kept saying he was in business for her, and when he retired, how he was going to set her up as a 'proper lady', and give her all these millions of Alliance credits he'd been saving."

Zant sighed. "Rin did crawl into a bottle after that. His friends all got together and decided to help. We forced him into a recovery program, and we took turns watching him to make sure he didn't cheat.

"But," Zant continued, "he didn't even try to cheat; he didn't resist at all. He completed the rehab course, and finally the shrinks said he was completely recovered.

"That was when he gathered together all his friends. It was kind of a cross between a party and a wake. Because Rin reminded us that he had completed the rehab, was completely sober. Then he told us that he was making a completely voluntary and rational decision. He had decided that since he couldn't give his money to his daughter, he was going to drink up every credit, unless he died first, and asked his friends to please butt out."

Zant stared at Dee for a long moment, his expression furious. " That 's why I told you to shut up, Dee. Out here, we believe that everyone has the right to go to hell in his or her own way. Rin made his decision, and much as it hurts to see him destroy himself, he's a free man, and we have no right to interfere with him."

Dee looked distressed. "But he needs help!"

She turned to Cale, only to find him shaking his head, his expression stony. "No," he said. "Every planet develops its own code of conduct, and passes laws to make sure that everyone lives the way they want them to live. But this is open space." He shrugged. "Call it anarchy, if you prefer. People out here believe in personal freedom. If that man had decided to blow his brains out at that party, no one would have interfered, though they might have questioned his taste or timing. There are no busybodies out here to push their way into our lives and force us to live their way. This isn't Faith, Dee. In open space, there is almost complete personal freedom. The only real rule is that you cannot interfere with someone else's personal freedom. The old saying is that 'my freedom to swing my arm ends at your nose.' And if it doesn't, you have the right and responsibility to balance the books. Since you're going to have to live out here, you'll have to cultivate the same attitude, or find yourself another planet where interfering in peoples' lives is acceptable."

Dee remained silent, but her expression was stormy, and she kept to her cabin for nearly a week.

They only remained on Rama's space station long enough for Zant to take nearly all the cash and catch a ship for Vishnu. Cale reprovisioned Cheetah and they filled her with supplies that would be needed on Torlon, since Cale had no idea how much of the old Beta-class liner’s supplies remained. Then they immediately left as well, declaring a jump for Faith, though of course they did not intend to actually go there. Instead, they jumped for Torlon, two jumps away.

So Cale returned to Torlon once again. This time he didn't bother to call Torlon Control, but he did ground Cheetah just outside the groundside scrap yard. Then he and Dee, blasters prominent in open holsters, prowled the yard looking for suitable intrasystem ships. Cale nearly bit his tongue when he saw the distinctive shape of an Old Empire pattern Strengl fighter. A workhorse of the Old Empire Fleet, the Strengl mounted two Alliance-pattern quickfirers and a laser or disruptor (this one mounted a laser). They also had jump engines, which gave them interstellar capabilities. Unfortunately, this one turned out to be the donor for the inertial engine mounted in Ber Nabel's L'Rak. Since the airframe looked good, though, Cale made a note of it. They also found two old-style couriers, somewhat smaller than Cheetah. Both appeared nearly complete. Most of the rest of the groundside yard had been thoroughly scavenged by looters since Nabel's departure. The office that had occupied the Old Empire corvette hull had been gutted, papers and ram chips scattered everywhere.

They returned to Cheetah, and took up orbit. Tess clamped Cheetah to the liner’s smallest personnel lock, and Cale boarded her. With relief, he noted that life support was still functional, and nearly all lighting worked as well. Doffing his suit, he headed for the ship’s bridge. Upon arrival, he registered himself with the ship’s artificial intelligence as being her

new owner and captain, thus gaining the power of complete control over the entire vessel and it’s AI.

The huge liner was named Pride of Norta, though Cale was certain that was not her first registration. She was actually large enough to take Cheetah into one of her empty cargo holds, so Cale had Tess move in. With the hold pressurized, Cale and Dee could move freely between the two.

Cale’s first order of business was to check on the condition of the liner. Surprisingly, though well worn, she was in completely operable condition. Ber Nabel had bought her at auction on Norta. Since a Beta-Class normally had a crew of over three hundred, she was too big for him to run by himself, even with the AI’s help, so he’d hired a temporary skeleton crew to bring her to Torlon and put her into orbit. She’d been here almost fifteen years.

Apparently, though, there were few Beta-class liners still operating, and Nabel had had no call for parts of the huge Pride. Since Nabel had bought her at a bankruptcy auction, he’d bought her with everything she contained when she had been seized, which turned out to be nearly everything she needed to operate. Her cargo holds were mostly empty (though Cale intended to check out those mysterious boxes and crates remaining in the aft hold), but her storerooms seemed to be nearly full. As Nabel had mentioned long ago, he had been using the Pride as his orbital headquarters, so he’d never shut her down, instead occasionally supplementing her fuel with fuel taken from other hulks. There would be no problem maintaining a dozen or so workers for a month or two. If he’d had enough crew, Cale marveled, he could have simply taken her to Vishnu himself to bring the workmen! Oh, he might need to replenish her atmosphere plant, and the hydroponics section had become an impenetrable jungle, but overall, he was the proud owner of a perfectly usable ship!

Of course, that fact was a lot less impressive than it sounded. Beta-class liners were big ships, used to transport passenger lists of over a thousand in sybaritic luxury. Curious, Cale and Dee had the ship’s AI, which Cale had named, Bet, show them one of the Pride ’s Super-Class Suites. That single suite was larger than Cheetah ’s entire passenger section. The wine-colored wall-to-wall carpeting was over two centimeters deep. The corridor door led into the spacious sitting room, with several heavily padded sofas covered in exotic animal hide. These were grouped around a low real wood table whose top was inlaid with a grown-crystal surface.

The real wood of the table was duplicated in the sumptuous paneling of the walls. One of the largest viewscreens Cale had ever seen occupied the far wall. At present, it was displaying the starfield displayed by the main viewscreen on the bridge. One corner of the large space was occupied by a large bar in gleaming metal, well populated with an assortment of bottles and glasses. On each side of the large sitting room were doors leading to the two bedrooms. They explored the one Bet said was the largest.

The bed was large enough for four, or six if they were close friends. The ceiling over the bed hosted an oversized holovision screen, this one inactive now. The carpet in here, as lush as that in the sitting room, was a very light blue, which was echoed in the covers on the bed. One wall featured a large vanity table, complete with three-sided viewer and a liberal supply of beauty products. Dee squealed in delight and headed for this, but Cale headed her off and directed her to the ‘fresher. Actually, the term ‘fresher was totally inadequate to describe the large room they entered. Here the carpeting changed to a white, with a different texture. In place of the large plas bag that the usual ‘fresher used to avoid wasting water in space, this room featured an open tub, large enough for three, with no less than six nozzles to provide water or steam. A large button on the wall controlled a clear plas bubble that lowered around the tub, presumably to prevent the leakage of water, if the occupant cared to be bothered. The various knobs and handles controlling all the facilities were plated in what Cale had no doubt was real gold, and the amenities included the thickest fabric towels he had ever encountered, as well as the usual air blast drying nozzles.

As they left the suite, Dee turned to Cale with a grin. “Well,” she said impishly, “At least you won’t suffer if you have to run to your ‘bolt hole’ to hide!”

Cale grinned and shook his head. “Too overwhelming for me, I’m afraid. I’m a man of simple tastes.”

Their tour had shown them, though, that despite air recirculation and frequent cleaning, fifteen-year-old mattresses and fabrics became musty and rotten. Luckily, Pride had a large supply of replacements in vacuum storage. By the time Zant arrived with the work crew, Pride ’s army of spider-shaped mechs had clean, fresh, and sweet-smelling staterooms ready for them. Normally, of course, those mechs serviced only the lower-class accommodations. The upper decks had been staffed by human servants, from cooks to cleaners to personal attendants, when required. Cale actually had to override a prohibition in Bet’s programming forbidding her mechs from visiting the upper decks when humans were present.

Of course, the work crews wouldn’t be using the upper decks anyway. The lower decks were much more convenient to the workshops and airlocks they would be using.

When Zant contacted Cale upon emerging from jump and approaching with comm range, he was obviously depressed and even angry.

“I brought three dozen,” he told Cale in a challenging tone, “and I’d have brought three dozen more if I’d had a larger ship!”

Cale’s reply was puzzled. “All right,” he said mildly. “You know our needs and our resources. Three dozen should help us get done quicker, and I guess you decided we could afford them.”

Cale’s attitude plainly took Zant by surprise. His hunched shoulders relaxed, and his belligerent expression faded to one of sadness. “Deity, Cale, you should have seen it,” he began, “No, maybe you shouldn’t. I sure wish I hadn’t. People were starving, Cale. The government tried to seize the food aboard our ship. I actually saw two women fighting — physically fighting — over a bucket of grass one of them had gathered in a park. Grass, Cale!

Cale frowned. “I’ve seen starving people, Zant. I’ve been one. You tell them we have a big, comfortable ship for them to stay in, and plenty of food for them to eat. Tell them that as long as they do their best for us, we’ll take good care of them.”

Zant breathed a huge sigh of relief, and a shadow of his usual smile reappeared. “Thanks, Cale. It was really bad, kid. When I kicked those government creeps off the ship, and announced what we needed on the Worldnet, we were practically mobbed. There’s a good man running the groundside port there. He put armed men all around the port in exchange for ship’s rations for them. Workers were lined up for more than a kilometer. The Port Manager put a man to asking each person about their shipyard experience before he would let them onto the port. I still could have hired hundreds. As it is, I’ve got thirty-eight. None of ‘em has less than ten years’ orbital ship yard experience. Twelve of them have crew leader experience, and three have project management experience.” His eyes took on a haunted look. “All of ‘em wanted to bring their families. But even hiring a Din-class I didn’t have room aboard! I gave ‘em all a month’s pay in advance, so they could leave it with their families.”

“A month’s pay?” Cale asked. “I doubt the project will take that long. At least I hope not.”

Zant flushed. “I know,” he said guiltily. “And I agree, the quicker the better. But these people were almost pathetically grateful. I think we’ll get the best from every one of them.”

His image darkened again before he continued, “Uh, I might as well tell you the rest. I told ‘em that if our plan worked, we might let ‘em use one of the hulks to move their folks off-planet. Uh, I maybe kinda hinted that they might even be allowed to remain on Ilocan.” At Cale’s raised eyebrow, he continued defensively, “If this works, I’m sure I’ll be able to talk them into it. After all, these’ll be the folks who fixed up the ships and then crewed them into possible battle. Sheol, they’ll be blasted heroes!”

“And if it doesn’t work?”

Zant shrugged. “They’ll probably be dead, those as were crewin’ the ships.”

Cale grinned. “Along with us. I agree, Zant. Okay, we’ll have hot meals ready for all of you when you arrive.”

Zant looked relieved. “Good. We’ve been on short rations ever since leaving Vishnu, six ship’s weeks ago.” His usual grin resurfaced. “The Captain hasn’t been really happy with me since we left most of our ship’s rations behind!”

Zant and the work crews were delighted with the Pride. The ship’s interworld-class chef program had a number of recipes from Vishnu, and the grins from the work crew were universal and wide.

When Cale met the captain of the Din-class Zant had hired, he was glad that Cheetah was concealed in Pride ’s hold. He immediately reminded Cale of several of the Terror’s more prominent pirates, dark, lean, and shifty-eyed. Those eyes didn’t miss a single detail of the luxury evident on the Pride. Cale went to some trouble to stress that the Pride was immobile scrap. The captain loudly and immediately demanded that his looted provisions be replaced, and Cale agreed. He had Tess’s spider mechs transfer some of the supplies he’d purchased on Rama to some of Bet’s mechs, who in turn delivered them to the Captain. The mechs then turned to the much larger job of offloading over a thousand space mines. It was almost thirty hours before the tramp boosted for the jump point.

Cale questioned Zant about the tramp and her captain. “Trust him? Sheol no. He’s as crooked as a dog’s hind leg. But I checked around, and his rep says that once he’s bought, he’ll stay bought. He’s agreed to wipe this trip from his log, and show it as a trip to Vargas. Besides, why should he talk? There’s nothing on or above this groundbound mudball worth coming back for. “

When Cale asked him if the Captain might have overheard him discussing the plan, Zant shook his head. “My mother didn’t raise any fools — except my brother, o’course! Seriously, though, I only talked to the three project managers. We talked in my quarters. I ran a bug scanner over it, and disconnected the ship’s intercom. And it seems I managed to pick up a distorter somewhere.”

Cale smiled. “A distorter? I thought only governments have them.”

Zant shrugged and smiled vaguely. “This one must’ve got lost somewhere. I don’t remember where I got it. Comes in handy, though. Anyway, I talked to the project managers, and told them the whole story and plan. That’s when I told them about maybe lettin’ them use one of the hulks to move their families, and hinted they might be able to stay on Ilocan. I also told ‘em that if they told anyone else, even their own brother, I’d maroon them on Torlon, with no space flight. So I’m pretty sure they didn’t talk.”

Cale nodded. “Okay, then after dinner this evening, you can brief all the others, I guess. No sense trying to keep it secret. I was a bit concerned that if they’d been paid in advance, they might slack off; but you’ve got a couple of pretty good incentives, there.”

Zant’s announcement was a big hit, and all the workers swore undying loyalty. Of course, they had full bellies and warm beds to sleep in at the time.

Zant and Cale used the Pride ’s scanners to survey the contents of the orbital scrap yard, with no great success. The scanners simply lacked sufficient detail.

It was Dee who remembered Cale telling her that Alpha and Beta-class liners carried lifeboats. Cale and Zant checked one out. The lifeboats were small spaceships themselves, lacking only a jump drive. They had life support for six months for the crew of two, though one could run them. They also contained twenty stasis units. Moreover, of course they were in pristine condition, unused. Both agreed they were perfect for flitting around an orbital junkyard. They spent three days doing just that, while looking for likely hulls.

Their original list of sixteen possibles shrank to twelve when they examined them more closely. Several of the others had been stripped of their inertial engines, and one was even missing its AI. However, they found an amazing array of weapons, ranging from infantry-model Alliance design quickfirers to a nuclear-pumped planetary defense laser someone had grafted into a Chata-class freighter. Zant made a note of that one; he decided it would make an excellent “poor man’s planetary defense satellite” if towed into position and made livable. Cale just shrugged. “Maybe, for later” was all he said.

They called a meeting with their three managers to discuss the possibilities. They supplied the managers with a complete list of the sixty-three vessels in the orbital scrap yard, and a summary of their survey. Not surprisingly, the managers decided to make their own survey, which took another two days, and differed considerably from Cale and Zant’s.

“You judge too much by appearances,” said the oldest of the three, who usually acted as spokesman for the group. He was a thin, gray-haired man whose name was Bhamaramputra, but who insisted they call him “Rama, like the planet.” “A number of these vessels could be made spaceworthy using parts from others.” He said flatly. “But you want armed vessels, warships, and that is quite different from simply getting them spaceworthy. Frames must be strengthened. Bulkheads reinforced. Battle comps and AI's must be installed, and life support systems armored and backed up. It is no small thing to make a warship.”

"They don't need to be real warships," Zant protested. "Mostly they'll be fighting unarmed freighters and a few minesweepers."

"We have built minesweepers," Rama replied. "They are warships, and are designed like warships. They are lightly armed, it is true, but they have good shields and strong frames and hulls."

"Well," Cale put in, "What do we do?"

"Forget ships," Rama said. "Assemble one large base ship, perhaps a Din-class, for each system. This ship does not fight; it serves as a base. Then use gunboats. Small vessels with much maneuverability and speed, but little armor. Mount a weapon on the centerline, so the pilot aims it by aiming the boat. Two or three such could easily overwhelm a minesweeper."

Cale was disgusted. "Where are we supposed to get boats?" he asked. "I'm lucky we've got ships!"

Rama smiled gently. "You already have many. This ship has sixteen."

Zant got it first. "The lifeboats! He's talking about the lifeboats!"

Cale thought about it. They'd used one of the lifeboats to survey the yard. As he remembered, it was not a particularly high-performance vessel. On the other hand, if you removed twenty stasis units, they might be quite a bit livelier. "But this is the only liner," he protested. "On second thought," he added, "sixteen might be enough for two systems."

Rama shook his head. "You will need more. You must give the pilots shifts and rest times. That is the purpose of the base ship. And there will be losses. But it is no worry," he added. "All Alpha and Beta class ships carry lifeboats. Not so many as a liner, but a few." He consulted his list of ships. "I would estimate at least twenty-five boats available, and possibly thirty."

"I don't know," Cale said. "What do you think, Zant?"

Zant had no doubts. "I think Rama's a genius!" he replied. "Lifeboats almost never get used; if they do, they're usually replaced. Strip out the lifeboat furniture to make it faster and more maneuverable, add a laser, and you've got an attack boat — a new attack boat. No worries about worn out parts failing, or stuff having been removed. We can round up dozens of various-sized lasers and quickfirers. And we can carry six or eight boats in a Din-class, maybe more."

Cale was nodding, now, convinced. "Do you think we can talk the pilots into it?"

Zant shrugged. "If not, they're not the people we need!"

They used the lifeboat they'd already used to survey the yard. The Vishnu techs removed the twenty stasis units, as well as all the associated medical and other emergency equipment. They mounted a laser and fusactor from a corvette on the boat's centerline, and engraved a targeting grid on the viewport in front of the pilot.

Then Zant took the boat for a test drive. Of course, there was no shortage of derelicts for him to target, but he treated it like a rehearsal for combat. He spent over two hours looping far outside the orbit of Torlon, and then came driving back at max acceleration. As he approached the orbital yard, he began madly zigzagging, rolling, and looping, as though evading the fire of an enemy. Suddenly he dodged toward the hulk they had selected as his target, steadied for a moment, and then jerked away, looping far out while maneuvering madly. When he had completed his loop, he again boosted max toward the hulk, swinging past it at the last moment.

He came back enthusiastic. "She's not really as fast as she looks," he said. "But she'll pull almost 3G's if she's got the room to build the accel. All that mass we took out also makes her maneuver a lot better. As far as the attack itself, targeting was a dead cinch. It took no attention at all. I used the rescue ranging radar to make sure of a hit first time, every time. It's no Strengl, but for our purposes, it'll do."

That reminded Cale. "By the way," he said, "there's a Strengl in the ground yard. But it's missing its inertial drive."

" What!" Zant cried. "You forgot about a strokin' Strengl? How could anyone forget something like that?" He rounded on Rama. "How about it? Have we got an ID that'll work in a Strengl?"

Rama shrugged. "It is possible. However, please remember that the ship has been stored outside in a planetary atmosphere for an unknown length of time. It may be unusable." He looked up at Torlon. "The night side is approaching. Examination of the ship will have to wait until tomorrow. In the meantime, I assume we are to continue with the lifeboat conversions?"

"Oh, yeah," Zant shot back. "They're the best chance we've got right now. That is, unless Cale 'remembers' a few dozen more Strengl 's!"

Cale grinned. "Sorry, all out. But we might also check for workboats, gigs, barges, and other assorted small craft. You never know what you might find in a scrap yard!"

The final tally was twenty-eight lifeboats, three workboats, four Captain's gigs, and even a gaudy admiral's barge. Two of the workboats were badly worn, but the third was cannibalized to repair them. They were to be assigned to mine placement duties. The four captain's gigs were actually better suited to their purposes than the lifeboats, as they were smaller, with higher-performance inertial drives. Beneath its gaudy gingerbread, the admiral's barge also proved to have a high performance inertial drive, and stripping out the nonessentials only enhanced its agility.

There was an argument about the Strengl. Rama pronounced it salvageable, and was certain a suitable inertial drive could be found. However, finding it on the ground and moving it to orbit for repair would be two different things. Rama decided that once they could get a Din-class in a condition to safely land and take off, the Strengl could be loaded aboard. However, moving the ship from the yard to the port apron would be a major project in itself.

Cale thought it was more trouble than it would be worth when completed, but Zant was determined. He bribed several of the Vishnu techs to work overtime on one of the Din-class ships slated to be base ships. then he and three Vishnu techs used a lifeboat to go down to the ground yard and find and repair Nabel's old but serviceable tow tractor, and jack up the Strengl in readiness to move it.

Finally Rama pronounced the Din-class ready to try landing and taking off. By this time, everyone, including Cale, wanted Zant to succeed with the fighter. When they went down to retrieve it, Cale and Dee formed a guard escort, with military-style blasters. An even dozen Vishnu techs had volunteered to assist in the project.

The Din-class, with the faded name Minetoo painted on her scratched antirad coating responded well to power and control. One of the Vishnu techs landed her smoothly and gently. Ferrying ships to and from orbit was routine for these workers.

If anyone were watching, Cale thought, it must have looked like an invasion. The huge cargo doors dropped, creating ramps, and the volunteers swarmed down the ramps enthusiastically. Cale was a bit concerned about the local residents, but none showed themselves.

Slowly, slowly the tow tractor moved the unwieldy spaceship through the yard, volunteers clearing the pathway ahead. They were moving slower than a funeral procession, and it took over three hours to reach the port apron and Minetoo.

The Vishnu techs were experts at moving ships. As they approached Minetoo, an "I" beam Cale didn't even know existed on a Din-class extended itself, and a very heavy winch crawled out along it. When they reached the foot of the ramp, a hook dropped from the winch and one of the Vishnu techs climbed the outside of the Strengl and connected the hook to a concealed loop on the fighter.

The winch hummed, and the Strengl lifted seemingly effortlessly. A cable was hooked to a landing jack, and all the techs climbed into the Din-class's capacious hold and started pulling the fighter in, while Cale stood openmouthed. He couldn't believe that mere human muscle was moving such a large burden. Finally, the Strengl was inside the hold, and being anchored down to padeyes by heavy chains. The strange "I" beam retracted into the ship, and the cargo hatches closed.

Once in orbit it was decided that they could work on the Strengl as easily in Minetoo as anywhere else, so Zant found himself suiting up and jumping from Pride to Minetoo every day, watching carefully as 'his' ship was repaired.

Finally, it was ready. Zant fairly danced with impatience as 'his' new toy was readied. He wore a skinsuit space suit of the type worn by professional spaceboat racers, and held a helmet under his arm. When attached to the clips around his neck, the suit was as effective a space suit as the huge, clumsy rigger's suits worn for heavy construction. Due to their inability to deal with the absolute zero of space for prolonged periods, however, skinsuits were not considered suitable for long-term wear under vacuum conditions. Rather, they were considered emergency equipment for people unable to wear a common utility suit in confined spaces. Confined spaces like the cockpit of a Strengl fighter, for instance.

This was a test of a rebuilt ship; Zant was taking no chances. He would be suited, and he even had a pure oxygen bottle in case he began to 'gray out' during a high-G maneuver.

At last, the preflight checks were over, and Zant wriggled his way into the tiny cockpit. The ship was over 50 meters long, but it was so crammed with weaponry and electronics that the space left for the pilot was claustrophobic.

Zant threw Cale a wide grin, and then put on his helmet and closed the clamshell cockpit. Bystanders hurried to clear the hold as the Strengl 's inertial engine began to spin up. As soon as the last person was out of the hold, the pumps began pumping the atmosphere into holding tanks. When the pressure equalled a low-grade vacuum, the cargo doors swung open.

With the inertial drive ready, Zant released the docking clamps, and the small fighter drifted gently into space in response to tiny blasts of the drive.

Once clear of Minetoo, Zant began feeding power to the drive, and was surprised how quickly he was pushed into the padding of his contoured seat. He watched as the acceleration gauge climbed at a much faster rate than the power gauge. He eased off the power and watched the acceleration gauge react, then suddenly slammed the throttle to its stop. He was driven deep into the seat, and quickly reached for the pure oxygen as the acceleration needle swung past 5G with no sign of slowing. He quickly pulled back on the throttle. If he'd had room, Zant would have been dancing with excitement. He'd never experienced such power before! He backed it down to 3G and began maneuverability tests. Unsurprisingly, the little ship seemed almost to respond to a thought. The slightest movement of the control produced a response; significant movement meant he was thrown about by side forces.

Zant was in love. Oh, he knew that technically the Strengl, like every other ship in the scrap yard, belonged to Cale. However, if Cale wouldn't sell him this beauty he'd… he'd, well, he'd beg!

Zant finally returned some four hours later, his fuel nearly exhausted. He didn't bother to return to Minetoo. He matched orbits with Pride, popped his canopy, squirmed out, and then jumped across to Pride 's airlock.

"It's amazing!" he enthused. "Incredible. It's better than home-brewed sex! Well," he admitted, " almost as good as home-brewed sex."

Cale, having experienced Nabel's L'Rak, had a pretty good understanding of Zant's feelings. The rush of operating an ultra-high-performance machine was almost sexual in its intensity. He almost wished he could fly the Strengl, but he had other plans for him and Cheetah.

Then he remembered, and smiled. The Strengl might be Zant's baby, but he owned it! His smile became a broad grin.

Chapter 10

Finally, they were ready. The Vishnu workers had been as good as their word, hard working, uncomplaining, with ever-present smiles and a number of useful ideas. And Zant had not been pessimistic; it had taken them nearly a month.

Cale had become more interested in one of the most unusual vessels in the yard than in Zant's Strengl. Somewhere in its checkered past, someone had needed a mobile fortress. He or she took a Chata-class freighter, braced its interior with a forest of extra bracing, and installed a huge fusactor and a planetary defense laser. Several smaller fusactors had also been installed to power a dozen smaller, destroyer-sized lasers. Everything else had been stripped out except inertial and jump engines, basic life support, and simple living accommodations for what appeared to be about fifty crew. She had shields, but they were powered by the life-support fusactors, which would have to be switched back and forth between the two functions. Rama spent two long days inspecting the nameless vessel, and found her to be in remarkably good condition. Oh, her fusactors were dead, their fuel exhausted, but he suspected that fuel might very well be nearly all she would need.

They laboriously manhandled the massive fuel containers from Cheetah to the hulk, and the Vishnu techs partially refueled her. Then, with Cale and Dee fidgeting in their suits, Rama tried to light off the secondary fusactor controlling life support. There was no sound in the vacuum, of course, but Cale was certain he could barely feel a faint vibration begin. Various indicators came effortlessly to life, and Cale saw Rama's head nod in satisfaction inside his helmet. In moments, lights came on, and an excited Cale hugged Dee in excitement.

Rama's smile was calm. "Ah, but now we must see about the large weapons fusactor," he said calmly. However, it, too appeared completely functional, and Cale even fired a bolt from the huge planetary defense laser. These weapons were intended to be mounted on moons or planets. The fusactors powering them were as massive as the weapons themselves, generating megagigawatts of power to the huge laser projector. The one on the Chata-class nearly filled an entire cargo hold on the big freighter. It was not so much mounted in the hold, as built into it, welded to girders that functioned as badly needed bracing. The lasers were designed to be powerful enough to generate a beam that could penetrate a planetary atmosphere and still remain an effective anti-ship weapon. The beam itself was nearly a meter in diameter, and in space, would be effective at more than a light-minute's distance.

Rama was smiling in satisfaction. "I will begin inspecting the engines, of course, but if they are in as good a condition as the weapons, I have no doubt the ship will be operable without major effort."

They discussed it, and decided that an outlying planet had probably built her during an emergency, never had to use her in battle, and sold her for scrap when the planet could afford a proper defense station. Cale was concerned but optimistic.

The news, though, was good. Rama proudly showed them around the Chaka-class, whose powerful main armament was now supported by several smaller lasers and three heavy Alliance-pattern quickfirers, effective even against battle cruisers, that had actually been added. “We’ve inspected her drives and engines,” Rama said, “And her life support is fully functional. However, there are a number of atmosphere leaks we haven’t been able to track down. It won’t be a problem for more than a month, but it should give the crew something to do.” In addition, of course, she would need a good cleaning.

Minetoo was also now ready, complete with armament. Originally, the Din-class had been designed as a combat cargo hauler. They had been designed to ground in the middle of a battle and resupply troops. They had strengthened frames and reinforced hulls to withstand the rigors of battle, and mounted either two medium laser turrets or a mix of lasers and quickfirers. They also featured oversized cargo doors to permit rapid unloading in combat environments.

The ships sold for surplus had their weapons removed, of course, and later purely commercial versions had never mounted them. However, the vast majority of the ubiquitous freighters still shared the strengthening and reinforcement that had made them a workhorse for nearly a thousand years.

This one had once been armed. Rama and his crew had salvaged laser turrets from two old Delta-class frigates that had turned out to virtually match the originals, and required very little adaptation. Even the battle comps and weapons station simply bolted in. “Good old military standardization!” Zant had exclaimed. Rama’s crew wasn’t finished, though. The cavernous forward cargo hold now contained two cruiser-sized quickfirers, mounted on tracks. By opening the huge cargo doors, they could be rolled out to protrude past the hull; not exactly an extra turret, but certainly the next-best thing. As a bonus, the hold could still hold an enormous amount of collapsium-plated ammunition for the weapons. The rear hold, of course, was reserved for the boats and simple facilities to work on them.

The layout was nearly duplicated in the last Din-class, though cruiser-sized lasers and a dedicated fusactor substituted for the quickfirers.

Cale and Zant were delighted. None of the vessels was a true warship, but all were large enough to be impressive on a viewscreen, and each of them packed enough firepower to overwhelm anything smaller than a frigate.

Finally, it was time for Cale, Dee, and Zant to return to Ilocan's 'Government in Exile'. Cale knew he was no salesman, and dreaded trying to convince bureaucrats that his plan could work. Nevertheless, he must have skilled in-system pilots to fly the boats, and crews for the 'base ships'; and the only place to get them was from the mine.

They took Minetoo, with one of the lifeboats and one of the gigs as cargo. Rama turned out to be qualified for interstellar operation of a Din-class, so he piloted the ship back to the atmosphere mine.

Their ship caused a bit of excitement. Since Minetoo was similar in size to the ships transporting the mined gases and elements, the Ilocanos failed to notice at first that it was a stranger. A flurry of excitement accompanied the realization, alleviated only when Cale finally succeeded in establishing contact with President Jessica Johns.

Irritation was still evident in the faces of the six executives comprising the 'Government in Exile' as Cale and Zant were seated in the lunchroom/lounge/conference room. Ster Mong, the Minister of Defense, looked particularly unhappy, which worried Cale. He was counting on Mong to support their idea.

Jessica kicked it off. "All right. You're back, and you say you have a way to break the stalemate. Let's hear it." Her tone was skeptical, and her expression not particularly friendly. Cale suspected that as the stalemate dragged on, frustration and fear of failure grew and fostered pessimism and skepticism.

Cale nodded. "Before we begin," he said, "Can we get someone in here who's an experienced in-system pilot?"

Mong waved a hand. "You've got one, son. Before I got into government, I was an atmosphere miner for over ten years. Get on with it."

Cale shrugged. "All right. As long as the Santies have control of the Ilocan system and the air above the planet, you cannot win. Ever. All you can hope for is for them to decide to quit; and for political reasons, any Santie official suggesting that is committing political suicide. "There's only one way Ilocan can win this war, and that is to deny Santiago free use of space."

"Great." Mong replied sourly. "Tell us something else we already knew."

"How about something you didn't know?" Zant put in. "How about a way to maybe win this damned war?" Glaring at all the Ilocanos, he gestured to Cale. "C'mon, Cale," he said, his voice dripping with contempt. "These people don't want to hear about it. They'd rather sit here on this airless rock and complain to each other about how bad it is than do something about it."

Cale started to rise.

"Wait!" it was Jessica. "We're all a little discouraged and angry. But we represent our people." She glared around at her companions. "And we owe it to our people to consider any possibility. And to listen to any proposal. Please, continue with your presentation."

Cale felt warmth crawl up his face. "Well, er, I don't really have a prepared presentation. I'm not a salesman trying to sell you something, or a slicker trying to swindle you. I've invested three million Alliance credits in an idea I think will break the stalemate. But I need your help, and your peoples' help."

"Three million credits!" The shouter was a small, thin man. Cale didn't remember his name, but he'd been introduced as 'Minister of the Treasury'. "I suppose you expect us to reimburse you!"

Zant jumped to his feet. "I still think we should just go, Cale. These assholes aren't going to listen. They'd rather throw bullshit at you every five seconds!"

Jessica waved a hand impatiently. "Sire Jenfu. We will hear sire Rankin out, completely, and without further interruption." She glared around again. "Is that clear? At the next interruption, the interrupter will be evicted." She turned to Cale. "Please continue, sire Rankin."

"Yes. Madam," Cale replied, "but I would like to respond to the gentleman. Yes, I have invested three million Alliance credits. I am also aware that since I neither asked nor received permission from this body to do so, I am most likely not legally entitled to reimbursement. Strangely, however, I do not recall asking for it." The man flushed red and shifted uncomfortably, but remained silent.

"Now," Cale continued. "Obviously Ilocan has no interstellar presence with which to combat the Santies. Fortunately, I do. I own a ship salvage yard in another system. Yes, Minetoo is one of mine. That's why she looks so ragged." A few chuckles rewarded this comment.

"When we left here last time, my friends and I discussed how we could help break the stalemate, and the obvious answer was to get Ilocan into space, and disrupt Santiago's supply lines.

"Now," he continued, "you cannot create a space force out of thin air, but it might be possible to create one out of salvaged ships. After cashing in most of my assets, we went to Vishnu and recruited orbital shipyard workers. I'm sure you are all aware of Vishnu's economic problems; that meant we could afford to hire highly skilled workers for a short-term job off-planet.

"Our Vishnu Project Manager reminded us that one cannot turn a Din-class into a warship in a month. However, he came up with a better idea, one we will be showing you shortly.

"In essence, what we've done is convert small craft into intrasystem fighters. They're a motley assortment, including converted lifeboats, workboats, gigs, and even an admiral's barge. But all of them now have lasers or quickfirers mounted on their centerline. None has sophisticated targeting systems; all have targeting grids etched into their canopies or viewscreens. We have thirty-two of them. That's one of the things we need from you: crews to pilot them.

"Almost half of my three million went to the Vishnu government to purchase mines. Lots of mines. Our idea is basically simple. We will mine the jump points to Santiago and Ilocan. When the Santies figure out what we've done, they'll send minesweepers to clear them. This is where the gunboats come in; they're to prevent the Santies from clearing the mines."

"What about innocent traffic to Santiago or Ilocan?" Evidently, Jessica did not consider her ban on interruptions to apply to her.

Cale shrugged. "Simple enough. We'll post beacons with a warning from the President of Ilocan informing them that the jump point is mined, and that if they proceed to trade with a belligerent, it is at their own risk. There is no 'innocent traffic' to Ilocan anyway; any traffic going there intends to deliver goods to the Santies. I'm reasonably certain that will meet the requirements of interstellar law. Besides, wouldn't you rather fight it out in court than with guns on Ilocan?"

She smiled broadly. "You sound like Johnny. Were you ever a lawyer?"

Too close to home. "Let's just say I've had experience with a lot of them. To continue, we've also refurbished three freighters, one Chata-class and two Din-classes; one of them is outside. They're also armed, and set up as base ships to host the gunboats.

"Now, there are three jumps between Santiago and Ilocan. Luckily, the two recal systems are uninhabited. The third attack group will be a special case and require an experienced commander, if one is available. The plan, such as it is, is for one of the base ships to go to each recal system between Santiago and Ilocan, mine the jump points, and then support the gunboats, which will patrol, looking for enemy minesweepers or freighters.

"This brings us to the second thing I will need from you: Letters of Marque and Reprisal."

Jessica broke into hearty laughter. The others just looked puzzled.

"Damn!" Jessica said when she regained control of herself. "If you're not a lawyer, you should be one. Who else would know about 3000-year-old legal documents?" She looked around, and saw that the others didn't understand.

"Old Earth," she said crisply, "pre-spaceflight. When wind-powered navies went to war, they were always short of ships, just like now. So, they issued Letters of Marque and Reprisal to private individuals who were willing to pay for armed ships. They were called 'privateers', and they attacked enemy merchant shipping. The letters kept them from being hanged as pirates.

"Thing is," she continued, staring at Cale with narrowed eyes, "there was damned little difference between a privateer and a pirate. If a privateer captured an enemy merchant ship, they took her as a 'prize', she, and her cargo were sold, and the privateer got the proceeds."

Cale smiled. "Not all the proceeds, madam. The government issuing the letters got the largest portion of the profits."

The Minister of the Treasury smiled sourly. "Now we know what made it worth a three million-credit investment. A single cargo could double your money."

Cale sighed and shook his head. "Sire, you continue to impugn my character and my motives. I do not expect to get rich off this war; I'm quite financially secure already. The contract I hope to sign with your government will provide that any proceeds beyond three million Alliance credits and a substantial government share, of course, be divided amongst the crews of the ships and boats. I had rather thought we might design a scale based on importance in the capture, or some such.

"Besides, if the people manning those boats are privateers, they will have a powerful incentive to capture a ship, rather than just destroy it. It could save a lot of lives."

Jessica frowned. "As I recall, one of the reasons privateers were outlawed was that crews had a way of disappearing. Privateers didn't care much whether anyone on those merchant ships survived."

"Outlawed? Outlawed? You mean they're illegal?"

Jessica grinned. "I doubt it. As I recall, there was an international treaty that banned them, but even some of the major nations refused to sign it, and since none of the nations that did sign that treaty have existed for almost three thousand years, I think it would be safe enough, legally, at the moment. But it'll be tossing a real bomb at Interstellar law. It'll probably take another century or two to work through the courts."

"Well," Mong asked, "What about prisoners? I'd rather not have to appear before a war crimes tribunal!"

Cale's smile returned. "That's the third and last thing I need from you, and the only one that will cost you money. Both of those jump points are in systems with plenty of moons." He waved vaguely around him. "You obviously have a lot of experience in building installations in airless environments. You'll need to establish prison compounds, where prisoners can be kept and cared for until they are exchanged or the war ends. Which, I suspect, won't be long. If we cut their supply lines and their trade routes, I doubt they will last very long. Now, while you think all this over, shall we visit the ship and see the gunboats?"

They suited up and trooped out to the ship. After giving them a tour of the berthing, eating, and recreational amenities now occupying the former crew's quarters, they moved to the after hold, where the gunboats were kept.

Cale had been hoping to impress one of the qualified pilots, and was glad Mong, the Minister of Defense, was actually qualified to assess their possibilities.

He offered Mong a ride in the converted gig, since it was smaller and more agile than the lifeboat, and Cale suspected an old small-craft hand would enjoy it.

Mong was gone for nearly four hours. He had gone out to the asteroid belt, and attacked and shot up several ship-sized asteroids. He came back grinning widely, an enthusiastic convert.

While he was gone, the government had carried on a lot of discussion in private, while Cale and Zant fidgeted in Minetoo 's lounge. When Mong returned, he was quickly shanghaied into the impromptu meeting of the Government of Ilocan in Exile.

Two hours later, Mong crossed to Minetoo alone. He joined Cale and Zant in the lounge cum messroom.

"All right," he said, "Tell me about the third ship." He watched their reactions carefully.

Zant smiled at Cale, who shrugged. "We found that we actually had too many gunboats for the two Din-class ships to carry. So, we had a third ship fixed up, and she's an interesting one. She's a Chata class with a planetary defense laser and a bunch of other weaponry installed. We had a couple of ideas for her. One was to use her to ferry additional boats to the two recal systems. We also thought about trying to sneak into Ilocan's system, and either resupply your guerillas, or at least shoot up some of their surveillance. Trouble is, we have no way to establish communication with the ground. Most of the effort would be wasted.

"My personal favorite, though, was to use her and my own Cheetah to raid Santiago. I'd bet nearly all of their warships are on station at Ilocan, and the last thing they would expect would be an attack on their home planet. I thought we could hit a lot of their support facilities with Cheetah and the boats, maybe even snatch a ship or two as prizes, and then drop off a bunch of mines at the jump point as we leave. That Chata-class could do some serious damage to an orbital factory. We could even leave her there, hidden in the asteroid belt, and use the boats for ongoing raids. But we'd need an experienced combat skipper and some really ballsy boat pilots to carry that off."

Mong nodded. "Sounds like fun. Do you have any idea of the diplomatic and legal hooraw your 'Letters of Marque' are going to create?"

Cale's smile was slightly wicked. "I think so. As the President said, it may take a century or two to work through the courts. Frankly, I don't care, and I don't see why you should care, either. Certainly no Interstellar court jumped forward to stop the Santies."

He shrugged before continuing. "I've had a while to think about this. My own suggestion would be to issue the letters, get operations underway, then send copies of the letters to Angeles, and tell them what we're doing. They're the big pirate hunters in this sector, but they have a massive bureaucracy. Their pirate hunters won't jump our people until His Majesty's government tells them to, and by the time every department has had its say and done its research, and the government figures out its "position" on privateers, the war will be long over."

"Uh-huh," Mong replied. "And when it is over? What happens to your fleet then?"

Cale shrugged again. "Letters of Marque are only valid during wartime. If they continue raiding, they're no longer privateers, they're just pirates. And we know what happens to them. Besides, all the ships and boats are mine, and they can go back into my yard." He hesitated, and then continued, "There is another option, one less controversial."

Mong looked like a man who just discovered an insect in his soup. "Oh? And what would that be?"

Cale kept his face impassive. "The government could lease my ships and boats for, oh, three million Alliance credits, and put the crews on the government's payroll. All legal, and nobody's hanged for piracy. Of course, there's no income for the government that way; no 'prizes', or 'prize courts' to decide the shares.

Mong grinned tightly. "And just what kind of 'shares' would you consider fair?"

"That's negotiable, of course. I'd guess in the neighborhood of fifty percent."

Mong looked shocked. " Fifty percent? Of the value of the ship and its cargo? Ridiculous. Of course, a small, suitable reward…"

Cale shook his head. "Fifty percent of what the government gets for it at a sale or auction, which will be nowhere near the true value, and split among the boat pilots and ship's crews. Sir," he added urgently, "do you realize you are haggling over what to pay people who do not work for you, to encourage them to risk their lives to capture ships and people instead of simply destroying them? And that you are talking about shares of a vessel the government will not possess unless the privateers take that extra risk?"

Mong reddened. "I… I guess from that point of view I sounded pretty officious and mercenary. But the shares do have to be discussed, and there are other factors involved, too."

Cale nodded. "Of course, sir. However, neither you nor I am a negotiator. I suggest the details can be ironed out. We are dealing with the major decisions, here. Policy. Isn't that what governments do?

Mong chuckled. "More often than is perhaps good for us. Well, I guess I had better get back to the arguing and the horse-trading. It is nice to actually have something important to discuss, though." He paused as he suited up. "I'd suggest you two come back across to the mine. This meeting ought to be over in an hour or two." He clumped into the airlock as Cale and Zant reached for their suits.

On the trip back to Torlon, they carried three crews qualified to fly Din-class ships. They also carried four "Letters of Marque and Reprisal," flowery-looking documents, one of which would be carried on each Din-class, the Chata — class, and one for Cheetah. They gave each Captain the authority to "search out and capture or destroy shipping bearing the beacon or flag of the Republic of Santiago, whether warship or merchant vessel". A separate contract, executed by each Captain, entitled them and their crews to 40 % of the salvage value of any ship and/or cargo captured in space while bearing a beacon of the Republic of Santiago, to be distributed among the crew in accordance with the attached schedule.

Before they left, Cale sought out Jessica. "Madam President," he began, having to consciously restrain himself from calling her 'aunt Jessie', "I have a problem that will require your help."

Her eyebrows went up. "Oh? And what might that be? I thought you were supposed to be the miracle man with all the answers?" A smile and a twinkle in her eye removed any offense."

He grinned. "No ma'am, I have no experience with miracles. However, I do have a problem. Sire Mong is Secretary of Defense. As such, of course, he represents the Ilocano government, which issued the letters of Marque; this puts him firmly in control. He has become very excited about that Chata-class fortress. He says he wants to christen her Ilocan's Revenge. Apparently, he has assumed that he will Captain her, and he does have the necessary qualifications.

"But he is starting to make noises like a general, wanting to set up chains of command and such. I do not consider this wise. Our people are atmosphere miners. They do not have military training or discipline. Besides, these ships and boats actually belong to me, not to the government of Ilocan. The contract under which you chartered the Chata-class does not provide for Ilocan to appoint a Captain.

"What I need is for you to make clear to sire Mong that if he accepts the captaincy of Ilocan's Revenge, he will do so as Ster Mong, private citizen, not sire Mong, Minister of Defense. And that he will not have any military or government authority while he's aboard."

Jessica nodded. "That makes sense. Ster always was something of an armchair admiral. All right, Cale, I'll have a talk with him."

Apparently she did. Mong suddenly became distant and surly with Cale. He did, however, make it clear that he knew he was not in overall command.

Still, Cale expected at least one confrontation with the captains of the base ships, who also assumed they would have some sort of military authority. He planned to use the occasion to clarify their status, and to inspire the boat pilots, as well.

As he expected, the Captains demanded a meeting to discuss resources and strategy. Cale insisted that all the boat pilots, as well as the captains, attend. The captains had turned a stores room into a conference room, lacking only a large table. Instead, the chairs were arranged in a large circle, with a lunch table on one side. Zant took one look, conferred with Cale, and kept everyone outside while he rearranged the seating, with the table and two chairs along one wall, and the other chairs arranged facing them. Cale and Zant entered first, taking the two chairs behind the desk. A glowering Mong, accompanied by two other equally unhappy older Captains, took seats in the first row, whispering to each other as the boat pilots entered and took seats.

As soon as everyone was seated, Mong sprang to his feet. “ Sire Rankin,” he began, “We, the Captains, feel that we need to establish a chain of command, appoint leaders, and plan strategy and tactics… “

He paused as Cale waved a hand. “I’m sorry, Captain Mong. Are you under the impression that you are establishing some sort of military organization? If so, you are sadly mistaken.” He again waved a vague hand. “This is my ship, Captain, as is Cheetah, and the ships we will be crewing. You will be flying my ships. The situation is akin to being hired by the owner of a fleet of merchantmen. There is no need to establish a chain of command or appoint leaders. You are simply being contracted to operate merchant ships that happen to be armed.”

Mong looked scandalized. “But if there’s no military organization, you’re no better than pirates!” Mong had to know better; as Minister of Defense, he had voted to issue the Letters of Marque. Whatever his motivation, though, it provided a perfect setup for Cale.

Cale’s smile was mild. “Not at all, Captain.” He turned his attention to the rest of the room as Mong, ignored, dropped into his seat. “How many of you read history?”

Nearly all the hands, including Mong’s, went up. The long periods between scoop runs, and the long hours on the runs themselves, gave plenty of opportunity for reading and study, and history was a popular subject both for serious study and as the setting for many thriller holos.

Cale nodded. “All right, then. You captains, I suggest you stop trying to consider yourselves officers in a military force. Commanding a crew of three on a Din-class does not make you the equal of an Alliance Navy Frigate skipper. We are relatively untrained in military matters, and we would just make a hash of it.

“No,” he continued, “Instead you, all of you," he waved his arm to include the boat pilots, "should consider yourselves present-day privateers; a ‘company of gentlemen adventurers’ operating under Letters of Marque and Reprisal issued by Ilocan, and financed by me.”

Babble broke out, along with quite a few grins and nods. The idea of becoming the modern-day personification of one of the most popular historical images was appealing.

Mong, sensing he was losing support, sprang to his feet. “But we must plan! Develop strategies…”

His voice trailed off as Cale shook his head. “We do not even know for certain how many and what types of ships and boats we will have available, Captain. It is pretty difficult to plan when you have no idea what force you’ll have. When the time comes, rest assured that I will brief you sufficiently on your duties.”

He sighed theatrically. “I’m sorry, gentlemen. I know it is difficult and boring to be passengers on someone else’s ship, in jump and in recal systems. But there really is very little that can be accomplished until we reach our base.”

Mong jumped up again. “Yes. That’s another thing sire Rankin. Where the Sheol are we going? Where is our base?”

Cale frowned. “I prefer to keep the location of my base as secret as possible for reasons of my own. The ship’s jump comps will be slaved to Cheetah ’s, so you will not need to know. If you are astrogators, or an astrogator is assigned to your ship, you are ordered to make no effort to learn its location. Consider it another mystery surrounding the mysterious Privateer Force.”

He then reviewed what privateers were (and were not), what the letters were, and why they were necessary. Then, to an enthusiastic reception, he reviewed the concept of 'prizes'; that in a war, enemy merchant shipping was considered a legitimate target, and that the Letters of Marque and Reprisal made the privateers temporarily an instrument of the Ilocan government, with the authority to capture or destroy enemy shipping. Captured enemy shipping (prizes) would be inspected by a "prize court," and either taken for use by the government, or sold at auction. The last part of his briefing resulted in cheers: that if the government sold a prize at auction, the crew of the privateer capturing her received 40 % of the sale price, to be divided among them according to a set schedule. Thus, every member of a crew involved in a capture received a share of the "prize money."

Cale finished by reminding them that captured ships also meant captured crews, and that any suspected mistreatment of Santie crews would be investigated and punished as a war crime.

The meeting was an unqualified success. The crewmen and the boat pilots, especially, developed a bit of a swagger, and went out of their way to refer to each other as 'privateers'. Mong, passing Cale in a corridor shortly after the meeting, give him a smile and a wink, and said, "You're welcome," with no further explanation. But then, no further explanation was necessary.

The senior Captains did not waste their time on the long trip to Torlon. Led by the indomitable and abrasive Mong, they interviewed and discussed the prospective crewmen and boat pilots aboard, and made a number of agreed-upon choices.

This minimized the confusion when they arrived at Torlon. There was some scuffling among the boat pilots over the gigs, and the admiral's barge almost precipitated a fight. However, eventually everyone seemed reasonably satisfied; even those unfortunates assigned the workboats for mine placement.

With crews manning the three base ships, the Vishnu techs slaved their astrogation comps to Cheetah' s, and she led them back to the mine, with none of them knowing the location of Cale's scrap yard.

Cale had no real reason to conceal the location of the yard, but he persisted in thinking of the yard and Pride as a bolt hole in case of emergency. Besides, if one of the base ships was captured or destroyed, the Santies couldn't come looking for him there.

Nearly all the Vishnu workers had volunteered to accompany the base ships, and maintain, repair and service the boats, in hopes of being permitted to immigrate to Ilocan after the war. Of course, the possibility of prize money only added to their willingness.

Three Santiago supply ships disappeared before one managed to limp back home and report the mined jump points and the attack gunboats. Minesweepers were dispatched, and all of them promptly disappeared as well.

A minesweeper was sent out escorted by the only warship remaining in the Santiago system, a partially repaired frigate. It returned a week after jumping out, reporting that a number of small, fast, well-armed boats had attacked them. The minesweeper, their last, had been damaged and unable to escape. It was presumed destroyed.

And so the Ilocano privateers had their first warship prizes. By this time, a system had been worked out; when a ship was captured, especially if it was damaged, like the minesweeper, its crew was held on the mother ship while Vishnu techs checked the prize over and made any needed emergency repairs. Then the prisoners were hauled to a moon prison, and the prize jumped for the mine.

The frigate was hastily re-repaired, and dispatched to Ilocan with orders for the return of at least one of Santiago's three Old Empire-pattern destroyers, to defend the home planet from an unexpected Ilocano offensive capability.

Meanwhile, off-planet commerce had come to a stop. No traders emerged from Santiago's jump point. The frigate had reported the existence of a beacon notifying incoming traffic that the jump point had been mined. It had been ordered to attempt to destroy the beacon enroute to Ilocan, but it was not to delay or engage hostile forces in order to do it. The Santiago high command was shaken. Something was going on, but what?

The frigate managed to pick its way through the jump point minefield, and outrun the gunboats, though it was forced to fight something of a rear-guard action as it found its way through the minefield to the second jump point. However, when it emerged in the second recal system, it was caught by the edge of a mine blast. Suddenly it was engaged in battle with five darting, jinking gunboats. The Captain launched two message torpedoes aimed at the Ilocan jump point. Fifteen seconds later a collapsium-plated rocket penetrated his hull and hit his fusactor, and his ship became an expanding ball of hot gases.

One of the message torps encountered a mine, but the primitive AI of the other somehow managed to avoid them, recognized the jump point, and slipped through it unharmed.

Chapter 11

Admiral Juan Manuel Gonzalez-Villareal was stunned by the incoming message. All incoming jump points mined? Impossible. The Ilocano savages didn't have the technology. Small, fast attack craft? Incredible. Ilocan had no space presence. He thought hard. Maybe there was something to it. A couple of supply ships were overdue. And what had happened to the frigate that sent the torp? Send back a destroyer? That would be no problem. These ignorant savages weren't doing anything but huddling in the wilderness, hiding from the Admiral's forces. Oh, they had a certain primitive cunning, and they were causing trouble for his ground forces, but they had nothing to threaten his orbital force. Come to think of it, why not send two of his three destroyers home? Fewer mouths to feed, and maybe there really was something for them to do at home. One destroyer should be plenty here; especially with the frigate and corvette he had monitoring the comm satellites.

One of the destroyers emerged into the first recal system within fifty meters of a drifting mine. The other, Furioso, commanded by Capitan Raul Rojos de laVega, emerging a few minutes later, noted the higher-than-normal radiation readings, but did not connect them with its sister ship. Captain de laVega had been warned that the jump point might be mined, so they proceeded dead slow, all sensors straining to detect the lethal spheres. One had to be destroyed by a laser blast when it wandered too close.

The Ilocano boat force watched helplessly as the Santie destroyer picked its way through the minefield. The jerry-rigged boats were no match for an Old Empire-Pattern destroyer, and every one of them knew it. Onboard the base ship, the Captain prepared a message torp, reporting the destruction of one Santie destroyer, and containing all the information they could gather about the other one. He would send it on to the mine. It was essential they keep track of the whereabouts of the Santie big guns. There was a rumor that a raid on Santiago itself was in preparation. They would need to know about this.

Furioso, meanwhile, was creating, as best it could, a map of the minefield. Once clear of the minefield, it boosted max for the next jump point. As it approached the jump point, Captain de la Vega slammed a fist on his chair arm as another minefield was revealed.

By the time Furioso emerged at Santiago, Captain de la Vega was a worried man. There had been beacons at the jump points to both Santiago and Ilocan, warning off visitors. And all those damned mines! There had been hundreds of them. Every trip would be a gauntlet threatening death. Oh, his destroyer had nothing to fear, now that they knew of the threat. But how were they to get supplies to Ilocan? Civilian freighters didn't have military-grade sensor suites. It would be nearly impossible for them to avoid the mines and make it to Ilocan. The damned savages had destroyed all the farms near Homesafe (ridiculous name). Moreover, patrols could only be made in force, with armor. Troops couldn't harvest grain while looking over their shoulders or scanning the ground for lethal traps. Their own siege force was threatened with food shortages!

Admiral Gonzalez-Villareal had even offered the Ilocanos full Santiago citizenship if they would only stop fighting and surrender. Propaganda broadcasts on the captured Worldnet had trumpeted all the benefits of citizenship; the guaranteed annual wage, working or not, the free lifetime health insurance, all the hundreds of programs for which they would be eligible. Amazingly, these savages were too stupid to take advantage of the offer.

Nothing worked. The Ilocanos kept fighting and killing. The weapons used had slowly moved down the technological spectrum as the blockade prevented resupply. Instead of surrender, though, now soldiers were dying from arrow wounds, poisoned blowgun darts, and truly diabolical booby traps. It had been necessary for the Admiral to hold classes for the troops to explain some of these weird weapons. Yet, the troops kept dying.

It was infuriating! They had enough firepower in orbit to turn the planet into a radioactive cinder, and still these people would not surrender!

When he reached Santiago, things were not a lot better. Frightened people and jittery officials were everywhere. There were beginning to be shortages of some imported products, and the government was beginning to fear riots in the streets as well as a possible invasion by an enemy who wasn't even supposed to have any space ships!

There were no minesweepers left, but two tugs had been fitted with jump engines, and his first orders were to escort the tugs to the Santiago jump point, and clear the mines. And shut off that damned beacon that prevented supplies from reaching Santiago! Captain de la Vega saluted, sighed, and reboarded his ship.

Meanwhile, the problem of the three destroyers — now two — had not escaped the Ilocanos. Their patchwork fleet of privateers was no match for even one of the big warships, much less two. All they could do when one of them was nearby was huddle in their base ships with power down to minimum to escape detection.

Thoughts naturally turned to the armed Chata-class Mong was calling Ilocan's Revenge.

Cale and Jessica had decided that this time, the privateer idea would not work. Ilocan's Revenge was designed for heavy destruction; she wasn't built for the more delicate mission of capturing merchantmen. There would be no prize money for her crew.

"So, what do you suggest?" she asked with a smile.

"I recommend that the government charter her, and assign your own people to run her," he replied. That way, they won't be expecting prize money."

She gave him an indecipherable look. "That must be a fascinating junk yard you have," she said. "What'll you come up with next, a battle cruiser?"

Cale grinned. "Don't need one. We've got Ilocan's Revenge."

Mong had thoroughly inspected Ilocan's Revenge during the return trip to the mine. All the air leaks had been found and sealed, and his shorthanded crew had spent almost the entire trip cleaning the big ship. He reported, "She's an abortion. Silliest damned thing I've ever seen. She's slower than a grat, and about as maneuverable as a planet. And if she doesn't get her target with the first shot, it'll take almost a minute to recharge that… that monster. I like her." His smile was predatory.

"Can we get enough crew to run her?" Jessica asked.

Mong shrugged. "We'll have to run the mine on a skeleton crew, but I'll be surprised if more than a couple don't volunteer. No crew in space has ever flown anything like her, and I doubt there's an Ilocano here who doesn't want to see that big laser fire!"

Jessica turned to Cale with a weary expression. "Something tells me that the government of Ilocan wants to charter your ship, sire Rankin. What is it going to cost us?"

Cale smiled and bowed. "Madam," he replied formally, "I have what I need. However, to make it a legal charter, how about one hundred Alliance credits for the duration?"

Jessica looked surprised. "And if she's destroyed?"

Cale shrugged. "She was already scrap, madam. We can add that into the charter, if you'd like."

She nodded firmly. "I'd like." She paused, regarded Cale narrowly. "What I'd really like is to know why you're going to all this trouble and expense for us. And please, no more crap about Johnny. You've barged in here and given us a way to maybe win a war that had already been lost and broken a stalemate that was almost a year old. You don't seem to worry much about money, and you're very mysterious about this 'scrap yard' of yours. You're a real mystery man. I don't trust mystery men."

Cale felt his face grow warm. "All right, madam," he said, "I'll level with you. I've been a slave. I've been a mercenary (well, he told himself, pirates fight, and kill for money!). I've done some terrible things. Things that interfere with my sleep. I really do know John very well, and we were slaves together. He used to tell me stories about his favorite aunt, and the beautiful place she retired to. When I heard about the war, I decided it was my chance to do some good; to make up for some of the evil I've been part of. I've fought for nothing but money. It feels really good to fight for something important; something that matters. As for my scrap yard, I'm secretive about it because it's my bolt hole, if I ever need one."

"Why should you need one?"

He shrugged. "I don't know that I ever will. But as both a slave and a mercenary, I've learned that it's wise to have a place to run to, in case you have to jump out a window in your underwear and leave everything else behind."

She shook her head. "It sounds like a pretty grim existence to me. Maybe Ilocan can fix it so you won't need that bolt hole."

Cale sighed. "It would be nice to feel that there's somewhere I actually belong."

The paperwork for the charter went through quickly, and Mong promptly formalized the renaming of the ship Ilocan's Revenge. The name made Cale wince. The new name was uncomfortably close to the Terror's Revenge. He kept silent, though. They could call it anything they wanted. After the war, she would probably go back to the scrap yard, though Mong had been hinting that Ilocan might want to buy her.

As soon as the minefield at the Santiago jump point had been cleared and Furioso and the converted tugs moved to the next jump point, the system's Din-class moved in and her workboats reseeded more mines and another beacon.

There were spirited arguments at the mine over whether Ilocan's Revenge should attack Furioso. One side felt that destroying the destroyer would reduce the fleet available to Admiral Gonzalez-Villareal. The other side felt that, first, Ilocan's Revenge was not a true warship; that in a fight, Furioso might just destroy her, and second, that the loss of another destroyer would entice the Admiral to leave a small rear guard, and come hunting with nearly all his force. They felt that Ilocan's Revenge would be better used to attack the Santiago system.

It was now dawning on Captain de la Vega that El Cid was missing. While the vagaries of jump physics often scattered the arrival times of ships that jumped at the same time, far too much time had elapsed. It had taken more than a week to creep through the minefields at each jump point. His final jump to Santiago's system had taken ten ship-days, and the trip from the jump point to planetary orbit had taken four days. Then the return, the tedious two weeks clearing the first minefield, and the same clearing the path to the second jump point. Certainly, if El Cid had survived, they would have encountered each other by now.

He breathed a huge sigh of relief as they jumped toward the second recal system.

Only to find yet another minefield. Only an excess of caution had prevented him from blundering into it. He sighed, and put the converted tugs to work clearing the mines. This war was getting less simple by the minute!

They were less than halfway through clearing the mines in their third minefield when there was an emergency transmission from one of the tugs. " Capitan! It is a trap! This mine is not deac…" An actinic glare in his viewscreen told him that the last word would never be completed. Damn! They were devils! Obviously, they had sown some traps; fake mines containing bombs that would go off only when taken aboard a ship or subjected to normal deactivation procedures.

Captain de la Vega was faced with both a professional and a moral dilemma. He had already lost one of his two converted tugs. His sense of duty and his own machismo argued that he should continue his mission.

However, there was a nagging feeling that he should drop the mine clearing for the moment, and run for Ilocan. Admiral Gonzalez-Villareal knew nothing of recent developments. He did not know of the loss of El Cid and all the minesweepers. Nor did he know of the conditions at home on Santiago, or that there would be no supply shipments for the foreseeable future. More to the point, the Admiral had no minesweepers either. De la Vega had only one of his converted tugs left, and there was a feeling that perhaps he should not put it at risk without at least giving the Admiral a chance to override his orders.

Finally, he decided. He recorded messages in which he tried to explain everything, and placed them in two message torps, which he then sent through the Ilocan jump point. His sensors detected no explosions, so he assumed both torps had made jump. Nagging voice in his head stilled, he returned to the mine clearing operation.

The mines were cleared and he'd jumped for Ilocan before the Admiral's answer arrived; but since the reply instructed him to immediately report to the Admiral at Ilocan, no harm was done.

Except that the Admiral's message torp was intercepted by a gunboat. The base ship immediately informed the mine that Furioso was returning to Ilocan, and would probably remain there while the Admiral considered his next move.

"Cale! Cale!" Zant clumped into Cheetah 's lounge still suited, except for his helmet. "There you are! This is it, Cale! This is our chance!" He was waving a printout.

"Calm down, Zant," Cale soothed. "What is it? Our chance for what?"

Zant waved the printout again. "There are no, repeat no, major warships in the Santiago system at the moment. Furioso just jumped to Ilocan. If you're serious about raiding Santiago, this is the time!"

Cale snatched the printout. It was a translation of Admiral Gonzalez-Villareal's orders to Captain De la Vega. De la Vega was ordered to report to Admiral Gonzalez-Villareal to report and 'for consultation on future actions'. Zant was right. Both of Gonzalez-Villareal's destroyers would be tied up for weeks at Ilocan while their Captains attended meeting after meeting, "consulting" with the Admiral. This was their best chance. Besides, the number of prizes had tapered off as Santiago's trade dried up. Most of the remaining Santie-flagged ships were in orbit around Santiago itself. Even those that could find a cargo were reluctant to brave the minefields and gunboats.

Cale hurried to find Mong. He showed Mong the message, and touched off a flurry of activity. Ilocan's Revenge was readied, as all available boat pilots were rounded up, sobered up, or just poured into their bunks aboard.

Meanwhile Cale was making sure that Cheetah 's ammunition supply for the quickfirer was replenished and that her fusactor was at peak output. For the most part Tess managed to keep him from obsessing over details. Zant's Strengl had been in Cheetah 's small hold since their arrival from Torlon, but it would be released before the final jump to Santiago. Strengl s were equipped with jump engines, and both the Ilocan's Revenge's astrogation comp and Zant's would be slaved to Tess's so they could be certain of arriving in the Santiago system simultaneously. This would give them a better chance of survival in the almost certain case that the jump point was picketed.

Privately, Cale was glad for Zant's Strengl. He hoped that the fighter's small jump engine would be able to spin down, and her inertial drive spin up much faster than either the Ilocan's Revenge 's or Cheetah 's, which should give the fighter weapons and shields before the picket could man its own weapons.

Cale didn't even bother trying to leave Dee behind, since he preferred to fight battles he had at least a small chance of winning. Besides, he needed a gunner, and she was experienced.

After a short, hurried briefing, they lifted off; Ilocan's Revenge 's astrogation comp slaved to Cheetah 's. Zant's Strengl remained in Cheetah 's small hold until just before the last jump into the Santiago system.

The tech manning Diego Del Florio 's sensor suite monitoring Santiago's jump point was bored. It was 0400 ship's time, and he had a seemingly eternal two more hours on watch. When he had been assigned to Del Florio a year ago, he'd been mildly disappointed not to have been assigned aboard a destroyer, but pleased that at least he had been assigned to a real warship, a frigate. The real disappointment had come when Del Florio had been picked to remain behind in the Santiago system instead of going to kick some Ilocano ass. The good news was that they were due to be rotated to Ilocan, to relieve one of the ships there. No one had really expected the war to last long enough for rotations to be necessary; but the Ilocano savages were stubborn, and so next month they would be going into combat! well, at least to a combat zone. Rumor had it that all the fighting was on the ground, but they would still get combat pay and a combat zone medal.

A needle on his panel stirred, and then jumped. Finally! Some traffic was emerging. Since those damned Ilocanos had found a way to mine the jump point, very few ships dared to transit.

He frowned. Odd. The readings were almost right for a Beta-class; but they were far enough off to be confusing. Before he reported the emergence, he had better double-check.

No, the readings were accurate; that was no Beta-class. Then what? The only thing that made sense was two ships in close company, with a slaved astrogation comp. But that meant…

" Teniente!" He shouted.

The Lieutenant who was Officer of the Watch roused from a lurid daydream. "What is it, Gomez?" he asked irritably.

"An emergence, Teniente. It appears to be two ships in close company."

The lieutenant jumped to his feet."But slaved comps are a combat procedure," he said. "Check your figures again."

"I checked them three times, Teniente," Gomez, complained. He turned his attention back to his screens. " Teniente! There appear to be a number of small craft that weren't there before!"

A chill ran down the lieutenant's spine. He whirled to the comm tech and snapped. "General Quarters! Sound the alarm. We are being attacked!"

The drowsy morning watch joined the sleepy spacers rolling out of bunks in cursing their Captain as the alarm sounded. Another damned drill. And at this time of night! Then the Officer of the Watch's voice sounded excitedly from every speaker. "Battle Stations! Battle Stations! This is not a drill! I repeat, this is not a drill! All personnel to battle stations!", and panic erupted.

The gunnery tech, still suspicious that it was only a drill, followed his procedures and raised the retractable five-shot missile launcher that comprised Del Florio 's main battery and began charging the lasers in the ship's nose.

The missile rack rose just in time to attract the attention of a nearby boat pilot, and a bolt from his laser fused the controls and cut the cables.

Though the ships had to wait for their jump engines to spin down and their inertial drives to light off to power their shields and weapons, the boats had no such limitations. As soon as Ilocan's Revenge emerged, she opened her cargo doors, and eleven gunboats poured out, driving max toward the unprepared frigate.

With her main armament destroyed, the boats turned their attention to the secondary weapons, the nose-mounted lasers. Laser bolts and quickfirer rockets sheeted toward the weapons emplacements. The design of Old-Empire-style frigates had not changed in centuries; the weapons locations were very well known. Both lasers became non-functional in seconds, and the boats turned their attention to antennas and sensor arrays.

Meanwhile, Zant's Strengl had spun up its inertial drive, and headed for Del Florio 's vulnerable inertial drive nozzles.

By the time the confused crew had nearly all reached their battle stations, the battle was over. The weapons techs found there were no weapons left to operate and the engineering crew found her inertial drive inoperable.

Meanwhile, the Captain had reached the bridge, just in time to hear a voice communication over the short-range comm on the Santiago military frequency.

"We are privateers commissioned by the government of Ilocan," it said. "Your weapons and inertial drives are destroyed. Surrender or die."

"There is no government of Ilocan," the Captain replied. "Ilocan is under the control of the Republic of Santiago."

"I won't argue political niceties with you, Captain," the voice replied. "Boarders are inside your vessel as we speak. If they encounter any resistance, your ship and crew will be destroyed."

A quick glance at the tell-tales showed that the emergency releases had been used to enter Del Florio 's airlocks. The captain sighed. His crew was unarmed, and improvised weapons would be of little effect on suited, armed invaders. His shoulder slumped as he saw his career ending. "We surrender, under protest," he said slowly.

"Good thing." The voice came from behind the Captain. He whirled to see a suited figure standing in the bridge hatch, a blaster in hand. Three others followed as the first entered. All four opened their faceplates as the leader reported "Bridge Secure," and one of his men headed straight for the comm station.

The leader approached the Captain. " Capitan," he said in fluent Santiagan, "the first thing I need is for you to get on the speaker and announce the surrender. You will also order your people not to resist or interfere with mine."

The Captain sighed again and nodded. As he turned to his command chair to make the announcements, the leader turned to the man who had pushed the comm tech from his station and was operating it with obvious familiarity. "Did they get a message out?" he asked in standard.

The other shook his head as he replied in the same language. "No, sir. Not a peep. They thought it was a drill."

The leader nodded. "Excellent. Engineering, what's your status?"

"Not as good as it could be. Those damned Strengl s have some nasty weapons! I estimate twenty hours to restore the inertial drives."

The leader nodded. "Good. Get the Vishnu techs over here and get them to work. We'll earn more than a few credits for this day's work!"

The Captain had finished his announcements, and turned with a frown. "Vishnu? Are they the ones supporting you?"

The leader grinned. "Nope. These are strictly mercenaries. Now, Captain, I want you to prepare your crew to disembark; you will be going aboard another vessel as prisoners of war. You will not be mistreated, and you will be exchanged or released at the end of the war."

The Captain nodded sadly. "One question, sir. What are 'privateers'?

The man's grin widened even further. "Let's just say we've got a pirate's license!" he replied.

Leaving several of the Vishnu techs and a small prize crew behind, Cheetah, Ilocan's Revenge and the Strengl headed inward toward the unsuspecting home planet.

"Damn, Cale, Look at all those fat merchantmen!" Zant exclaimed as they approached Santiago and their sensors began to register.

It was true. Dozens of merchant vessels, ranging from a big Beta-class freighter to Epsilon-class tramps orbited the planet, their captains unwilling to risk the reported minefields.

Cale grinned and connected to Mong. "You were a merchant skipper," he said. "How many of those ships can we crew?"

Cheetah had left the mine filled to capacity, with Cale, Dee, Zant, and nine supernumeraries who would become prize crews, if they were lucky. Crewing the frigate at the jump point had reduced her supernumeraries to six. Four other techs and crew had come from Ilocan's Revenge.

Mong's answering grin was as predatory as Cale's. "We could perhaps grab that Beta-class monster," he replied, "but we'd have to strip the boat crews to man her, and I don't recommend it. We don't want to bother with the ships hanging around the orbital factories; they're empty and waiting for cargoes. No, I'd say we could afford to grab a Chata-class and one or two Din-classes. That will still leave us about five boat pilots, and with you and that strengl, we should be all right. We want the ships orbiting the farthest out; Santiago Control would have put the ships ready to depart as far out of the way as possible."

Cale nodded. "Seems like a plan. Now, we don't want to damage these ships; we won't have time to make repairs. I'm hoping we can talk the crews into abandoning ship. No muss, no fuss, and a fat prize."

Mong nodded. "If we can get them undamaged, we can use three to crew a Din-Class and five for a Chata-class. That means your six could crew two Din-classes, and I can crew a Chata-class."

Cale turned to Zant. "This is where your Strengl will really pay off. Strengl s are shown in every sensor tech's records; it will be identified at once. And no merchant ship, armed or not, wants to tangle with a Strengl. When we close, we'll launch you, and you can zip around, running practice attack vectors, and overall just looking like a bloodthirsty madman."

"In other words," Dee put in, "just act normal. Every time you get in that thing you act like a bloodthirsty madman!"

Zant raised an eyebrow at Cale. "Oh, I just do it to impress the girls," he said with a broad wink. Dee reddened, and Cale burst into laughter.

" Estrella de Santiago. Privateers commissioned by the government of Ilocan have captured your ship. You are surrounded by armed vessels, and any attempt to resist or escape will result in your destruction. The crew is ordered to suit up and exit the ship. Rescue officials will be notified of your locations, so you can be picked up. We are aware of the crew size of a Chata-class. You have ten minutes to evacuate, or we open fire."

The reply came in heavily accented standard. "Please! Do not shoot! We will comply. But our suits have not been tested for a long time. We will need more than ten minutes to check them out."

The raider's voice replied in excellent Santiagan. "Understood. It takes about ten minutes to check out a suit, and you have a crew of six. You have one hour, from now. One minute after that deadline, we open fire."

" Si senor. Comprende."

While the boats and Ilocan's Revenge waited for the crew of the Chata-class to abandon, Cale took Zant and Cheetah to a fat-looking Din-class, where the same technique was used.

All of the communication with their victims had been on low-power intership comms. Santiago Control was trying to identify the new vessels, and figure out what they were doing; but their hails were being ignored. When the Chata-class had hung in orbit close to Estrella de Santiago, Control decided to send a cutter to investigate. The cutter reported a number of small craft in the vicinity, and reported their intent to board the silent Chata-class. No further reports were forthcoming, despite Control's demands and pleadings. A rising level of confusion began to manifest itself at Santiago Control.

The first Din-class, the Dona Maria, had an efficient captain; her suit inspections were current. The crew made their ten-minute deadline with time to spare, and Cale's three prize crewmen swarmed aboard and began spinning up her inertial drives.

The captain of the second Din-class, the Viajero, wanted to argue. Finally, Cale had Zant hover his Strengl directly in front of Viajero 's main viewscreen sensor, nose on, while a computer voice counted down from ten minutes. The Strengl filling the entire viewscreen was a threat no one could ignore. The last crewman out, the Captain, made it with six seconds to spare.

With all three prizes preparing to boost, Mong called Cale. "I suggest we get rid of the prisoners from the frigate," he said. "I see no sense in transporting them out of their home system, only to bring them back later."

"Do you have enough suits?"

Mong shook his head, but smiled. "Nope. But Santiago Control was kind enough to donate a cutter that will hold them all. With the boats gone, we can just bring the cutter into the hold, pressurize it, and load them up. They will be crowded for a while, but they're in orbit. They'll be fine."

Cale thought about it. "It's a good idea, but don't turn them loose until we're ready to leave, and disable their comms and drive, but not their beacon."

The prizes began to boost for the jump point, escorted by Ilocan's Revenge. Loaded, they were much slower than Cheetah. Cale, Zant, and their five remaining boats stayed behind to spread hate and discontent. Mong was reluctant to leave so quickly; he waited long enough to punch meter-diameter holes in several orbital factories before breaking orbit and hurrying to catch up with his convoy.

There was no thought of bombarding the planet; they wanted to demoralize the Santies, not enrage them by inflicting unnecessary casualties.

So they headed for the orbital factories, where their powerful lasers and quickfirers wreaked havoc among Santiago's production facilities. As they approached the first orbital station, Cale finally broadcast a message powerful enough to blanket Santiago's Worldnet, telling who they were, and what they intended. Finally, he closed with "Admiral Gonzalez-Villareal will soon have problems of his own. This war was entirely of Santiago's making, and thousands on Ilocan have died in it. If it does not end soon, the people of Santiago, not just its factories, will pay the price. You started this war, people of Santiago; now it is up to you to end it!"

The President's council was in emergency session, and no one was happy.

"You will have my resignation in the morning, senor Presidente," said Tomas Santos-Villareal, the Minister of Defense.

The Minister of Trade was angry. "Bailing out on us already, eh, Tomas? Planning to get out from under before the roof caves in?"

Tomas regarded the man in surprise. "Are you insane?" He demanded. "Do you honestly believe that any of us can possibly get 'out from under'? He looked around. "Do any of you honestly believe that our political careers are not over? If any of us ever runs for so much as dogcatcher, do any of you honestly believe your opponent will not throw this in your face? Face it, gentlemen, we are finished."

The President shook his head. "No, we are not. And I will not accept your resignation, Tomas, until we do finish this debacle. We got our people into this; it is up to us to get them out, no matter what the personal cost."

The Minister of the Treasury slammed a hand on the table. "This is ridiculous! We have spent billions on your idiot nephew's so-called 'Defense Force', and we are to be beaten by savages? We did not cause this, Tomas. Your idiot nephew and his crazy idea caused it!"

Tomas shook his head. "No, Ernesto. My idiot nephew came up with a stupid idea, but the decision to adopt it was unanimous. As I recall, you were one of the most enthusiastic of us."

"Pah!" the Minister replied. "A quick surprise attack," he mimicked the Admiral, "A week to seize Homesafe, and we own the planet and can start shipping our surplus population. We should have known it was too easy!"

"Your hindsight is perfect, Ernesto." Tomas replied. "It is a shame your foresight is less so."

"Stop it!" The President smacked the table. "Recriminations are stupid. We all voted for the war. The problem is what we do now."

"No, senor Presidente," Tomas said. "The problem is what does Santiago do now?"

"Pah!" replied the Minister of Trade. " We are Santiago. Unless we tell them what to do, the Congresa will debate until the sun goes nova. No, it is up to us. Us failures. Tomas is right. Our careers are over. I fear we will go down in Santiago's history as fools and villains."

"Yes," Tomas replied firmly. "Fools and villains. Let us face it. We are all professional politicians. Vote-grubbers of the first order. We have all manipulated the government of Santiago for our own benefit."

"Speak for yourself," the Minister of the Treasury replied sourly. "I have always worked with the best interests of the people of Santiago in my heart and mind."

The President waved a hand. "Nonsense, Ernesto. What about the Ricardo Power Plant deal? No, now is not the time for speeches. I suspect Tomas has an idea, and if so, I want to hear it."

"Perhaps a suggestion, rather than an idea, senor Presidente," Tomas replied. "First, we must realize the true size of this debacle. We, everyone in this room, including you, senor Presidente, will be defeated in the elections in two years. Our careers are finished. This war will haunt us for the rest of our lives.

"And yet," he continued, "if we can face that, admit to ourselves that history will call us 'fools and villains', we may just be able to do something that will let us at least hold up our heads in our families, and perhaps even change that verdict of history."

"And what is that?" the Minister of the Treasury said with broad sarcasm. "What is this marvelous action that will save us all?"

Tomas ignored the sarcastic tone. "I think it is time for us to stop being politicians. We can no longer grub for votes or pander to the contributors; they no longer exist for us; and in two and a half years, we will all be gone from here. But if we care about our legacy in history, if we really care about Santiago, there is something we can do that no one else can."

He did not wait for the obvious question. "We can stop being politicians," he repeated, "and start being statesmen. We are in a unique situation. Our careers are ruined, and we have no possibility of being reelected. In fact, I expect impeachment proceedings to be filed on several of us. However, we are all wealthy and remain the most powerful body on the planet; we are also skilled in all the tricks of politics. I doubt any of us fear impeachment. I suggest that for the time remaining to us, we cast aside all thought of personal gain, and simply act for the good of our planet."

"Hmph. That is it? That's your grand idea?" the Minister of the Interior said incredulously. "Some idealistic nonsense? Bullshit! Oh," he continued savagely, "you're probably right about our careers. So what we should be doing is using every ounce of our power to get what we can, while we can! Statesmen? Ridiculous!"

Tomas shook his head. "And if we do that, what then? The new council appoints investigators to come after us." He shook his head. "No, Ricardo, you might want to be the richest man in the central prison, but I'd rather spend my remaining years with a family that can respect me."

"And I," the President put in, "would rather be remembered as a good man who made some mistakes than as a crooked politician who got caught with his hand in the till. All right, Tomas, suppose I agree. What do you suggest?"

"I haven't had time to give it a lot of thought, yet, senor Presidente," Tomas replied. "But I suppose the best way to start is to deal honorably with the Ilocanos and our own people."

"Hmph!" The Minister of the Treasury grunted disgustedly. "Ilocanos! You mean those savages that even now are destroying the orbital factories right over our heads?"

The President nodded. "Yes, with them. Tomas, you are right. Come, we will together draft a message to our attackers."

The meeting adjourned, with the Minister of the Interior still seething, still determined to milk every peso from his remaining time in office, and wondering how he could turn this 'statesman' nonsense to his own profit; but most of the remaining Ministers were looking thoughtful.

Cale was watching Zant's Strengl as it rained destruction on yet another orbital factory. Zant was obviously enjoying the experience, but Cale was finding, as had Emo Arror before him, that destruction for its own sake held no attraction for him. In short, he was ready to leave.

"Captain," Tess said quietly in his ear, "I'm receiving a transmission from the surface."

Cale was startled. "For us?"

"It is unencrypted, and is addressed to the commander of the Ilocano forces now in the Santiago system. It bears the seal of the President of the Republic of Santiago, and contains several attachments."

"Let's hear it," he said, then changed his mind. "On second thought, I'll hear it in my cabin." He took one more look at Zant's efforts, and then turned to his cabin to play the message.

The message opened with a distinguished-looking man seated at a large real-wood desk. "I am Alfredo Vincencio Calderon, and at least for the moment, I am President of the Republic of Santiago." The man had apparently undergone body sculpting quite some time ago, as the signs of normal aging were beginning to become apparent; but his voice was deep and resonant, his manner assured, and his standard flawless. A wry half-smile punctuated the 'for the moment' phrase.

"I hope you will cease your destructive activity," he continued, "but I have no means of enforcing that desire, and that is not the reason for this message. Two messages are attached to this one; the first I hope you will deliver to the President of the government of Ilocan. I consider it urgent, as it relates to ending this horrible war. It is my hope that to avoid confrontation, you will place the second in a message torpedo and send it through to Admiral Gonzales-Villareal at Ilocan.

"The message for the Admiral is encoded in Santiago military code, so he will know it is authentic. However, I will tell you what it says. It orders the Admiral to immediately cease all offensive military activity, and to render any appropriate aid to the citizens of Ilocan. It also instructs him to release all prisoners except those undergoing medical treatment immediately, pending discussions regarding ending the war.

"This war has been a horrible and tragic mistake, and it was my mistake, mine and my advisors'. We cannot bring back the lives lost; all we can do is try to make amends.

"Please, I beg you; deliver our messages as soon as possible. This tragedy must not last a second more than necessary."

Cale stared at the empty viewscreen. "Damn, Tess, that's the most amazing thing I've seen since Raqal Wilkins took me to the gym after school. Do you think he means it?"

"Based on my studies of body language and speech patterns," Tess replied, "I feel certain the man was sincere. Of course, he could be a pawn in a complicated game, but it is difficult to envision a planetary president in that role."

Cale nodded soberly. "I agree. Let's call Zant back, and boost max for the jump point. We have messages to deliver."

"Then you will send the message torpedo to Admiral Gonzalez-Villareal?" Tess asked.

Cale shrugged. "That's the president's decision. Personally, I would send it — after it's been decrypted, translated, and scanned for secret content. It may save a lot of lives."

"I will begin the decryption procedure at once. Sire Jenfu reports that he will return after this run. I interpret this to mean when he completes his current firing pass."

Cale shook his head. "Connect me," he said. When Zant's face appeared on the viewscreen he said, "Damn it Zant! Get your ass back here. Something's come up, and we've got urgent business."

Zant just grinned. "Urgent, huh? What's up?"

Cale grinned. "You'll have to get back here to find out. I'll be closing the cargo door to the hold in ten minutes, and we boost in fifteen."

"You can't scare me. Strengl s have jump engines."

Cale shrugged. "True, but do you have enough fuel to make it to the mine? Or would you rather just drift around the system until the Santies rescue you? Ten minutes." He signaled Tess to cut the connection.

Zant was irritated at having to cut his attack short, but when he saw the President's message, he agreed that they should be going. Cheetah boosted max in pursuit of the slower Ilocan's Revenge and their prizes.

They escorted the prizes through the first jump point. Then Cheetah boosted max for the next jump point on their way to the mine. The jumps seemed interminable, but finally Cheetah emerged in the mine's nameless system, and headed for the mine at nearly 1.5G.

The prizes from Santiago had not arrived yet, probably wouldn't for several days, but already space around the mine was crowded. Cale counted seven ships being held in orbit. He wondered how the government intended to sell them, but that wasn't his problem. He had a message to deliver.

"So, what do you all think," the President asked. "Should we send on Calderon's message?"

"To hell with him!" the man speaking had been introduced as the Secretary of the Interior, though Cale had forgotten his name. "Why the hell should we deliver his mail?

Jessica whirled on him. "Because, Artut, this mail tells the Admiral to stop killing our people! Because this mail might help end the damned war! And because the Admiral doesn't know about anything that's happened, and he'll keep shooting until he does!"

The man she called "Artut" flushed and looked uncomfortable. "I'm sorry, Jessie. I ran my mouth before my brain was in gear."

She smiled. "No problem, Artut. But now we all need our brains in gear to decide the best course."

"Hell, we should send the damned message for all the reasons you've just spelled out," replied Artut. "Oh, there's a slight chance it contains some kind of secret coded message, but if our experts couldn't find one, I doubt it." Heads nodded all around the table.

Jessica turned to Cale. "Well, Cale, we appear to have decided. Would you like to make a speed run and fire off a message torp?"

Cale bowed from the waist and smiled. "Madam President, I would be delighted," he replied.

Chapter 12

Admiral Gonzales-Villareal gasped in disbelief. First, there was the mysterious message torp, an obsolete design made on Takul almost a century ago. Then the discovery that it had contained a personal message from the President! That was all shocking enough. However, it was the message itself that told him his career was over. The damned Ilocanos had raided Santiago? Where did they get the capability? They'd been seizing ships? And all the time, he had been sitting on his ass orbiting Ilocan, with his troops chasing rabbits! He would be a laughingstock; the Admiral who'd been having planning meetings over Ilocan while the Ilocanos had raided his home planet!

His orders were almost equally incredible. He was to stop all offensive operations. Easy enough; aside from a few patrols chasing woods runners, and a few cutters flying detection flights, there were no offensive operations.

Render all appropriate aid to the Ilocanos? What the Sheol did that mean? Even if he wanted to, he couldn't find any Ilocanos to whom he could render aid!

Finally, to immediately release all prisoners not undergoing medical treatment. Absurd! Obviously, the President did not understand that if he released a prisoner today, that prisoner would be killing Santiagans by nightfall!

Then the statement that all this was pending discussions on ending the war. And he, the senior officer in Santiago's military, who should be advising the negotiators, was sitting here two jumps away!

Well, if the message was to be believed, at least he need not expect a battle enroute to Santiago.

He exploded out of his flag cabin aboard Furioso, firing orders in every direction. Call the troops back from the ground. Not as simple as it sounded. First, the patrols had to be recalled, and cutters sent to retrieve them. Then there would have to be an orderly withdrawal of the outlying positions with their supplies and equipment, and finally the operational headquarters in the devastated main city of Homesafe, with its supplies and equipment. All prisoners to be released at the last minute, as the troops and med techs were boarding shuttles. All ships to recall any people or boats not on board and make all preparations to break orbit. Detail a ship to remain behind, with detailed instructions on permitted actions in any given circumstances. The Admiral set an arbitrary time of ten hours for the flotilla to break orbit.

They made the deadline, and boosted for the jump point at the max acceleration of the slowest ship, the converted tug, now unofficial minesweeper.

"Madam President," President Calderon beamed, "It is a pleasure to meet you."

Jessica did not return the smile. "I'm sorry I cannot say the same," she said grimly. "You asked for this meeting; what do you want?"

Calderon's smile did not waver; in fact, it widened. "Ah! You are as impatient with diplomatic niceties as I am. You know what I want. I want to discuss terms for cessation of hostilities. However, that could have been done by diplomats, or even by viewscreen. What I really hope to accomplish is to convince you to hear me out."

Jessica sighed. " Senor Presidente, I traveled for three weeks to meet you, including one jump. I have no other appointments this morning. I came to this recal system to 'hear you out'. Please get on with it."

Calderon's smile remained. "Good. I am glad you have no particular attachment to the niceties of diplomacy, because I intend to violate the strictest rule of diplomacy; I intend to speak only the truth.

"Madam President," he continued, "I am your villain. I personally issued the order to attack Ilocan. I did so on the advice of my council, but I am Presidente, and I bear the responsibility. You see, I am a career politician. I have devoted my life to finding ways to profit personally from what is laughingly called 'public service'. This war looked like an easy answer to some serious problems.

"But from Santiago's perspective, the war has been a complete disaster: an action against an unprepared opponent that was expected to be over in a week, but that dragged on into a seige of more than a year. Then, suddenly, an opponent reputed to be weak, with no spacegoing capability, turns the tables in a few months, and defeats us with an amazing ease. It is an embarrassment to everyone connected with it.

"In a little more than two years, Santiago will have their planetary elections. Politicians are cannibals; they eat their own. Despite the widespread bipartisan support we had at the start, I and my compatriots will be run out of office in disgrace, and will be replaced by candidates from the opposition party."

He saw Jessica's expression and his professional smile became genuine. "Yes, I can imagine that this will not distress you. Yet I think your celebration of our downfall may prove premature.

"Your attack on the home planet revealed to all the emptiness of our government's policies, and has forced us politicians at the top of the ladder to take a hard look at ourselves. I and several of my council have decided that though we must go down in disgrace, we will spend our remaining time in office working only for the benefit of the people of Santiago."

Jessica shook her head. " Senor Presidente, I neither believe nor care about your claimed epiphany, and even if I believed your claim about the people of Santiago, I would have to be remarkably gullible to believe that this newfound nobility can serve the interests of the people of Ilocan. Can we get on to substantive discussions?"

Calderon's smile finally slipped. His expression became earnest. "Believe it or not, Madam President," he replied, "I actually do have the interests of Ilocanos in mind. I beg your patience for only a few more minutes.

"My remarks were prefatory," he said. "I wished you to understand my perspective. I have come to realize that among many tragedies, the worst tragedy of the war will be its legacy. On both sides, many will hate and blame the enemy for the loss of sons, of husbands. Even loss of pride. Each of these will contribute to passing the hate along to their children and grandchildren. The hate may go on for generations. And it's all my fault!" he ended in a cry of anguish."

He struggled to regain control of himself. "If we can find a way to cooperate, however," Calderon continued to a now-attentive Jessica, "it might be possible to teach our peoples to forgive, and let the dead past bury its dead."

"And you know how to perform this miracle?" Jessica asked skeptically.

Calderon shook his head. "No, madam, I do not. I am told that it was accomplished following several major wars on Old Earth in the days before spaceflight. Of course, without spaceflight, there was no other place to escape to, but still, it is apparently possible.

"I ask that you work with me; join me in studying the history of Old Earth, and in working together to defuse the legacy of hatred that will otherwise consume both planets.

"Make no mistake. The people who will take over the government will be elected on a platform of hatred and revenge. They will rub the peoples' noses in the defeat and humiliation we have suffered. Reparations will be characterized as excessive, and blackmail. They will characterize any efforts at reconciliation as treason. And when they take office, you will find yourself dealing with hostile, hating officials, who will have promised their people that they will rearm and teach Ilocan a lesson. They will make it a point to display anger and contempt at every contact, and will reject any attempt at moderation or reconciliation. Anyone daring to preach moderation, like me, will be derided, and ridiculed. It is possible that in a decade or two, you could very well face another war with a rearmed and vengeful Santiago. I know these things as well as if I had seen them; they are what I would have done myself. Yet, I am in hopes that in two years we may be able to moderate or even break the cycle of hatred. I hope, I beg, that you will help me in this effort."

Jessica was looking thoughtful. Villain or not, Calderon was making sense. She had plenty of experience of the type of politician he described. Oh, she was not ready to buy this whole altruistic, humanitarian rebirth; but she vaguely remembered that wars on Old Earth sometimes made allies a few years later. "All right, senor Presidente. I will give your points some thought, and will do some homework. I suggest we reconvene tomorrow morning, to discuss these and the more substantive issues facing us."

Calderon looked grateful as he hurriedly agreed, suited up, and clumped into Cheetah 's airlock.

As soon as he was gone, Cale came into the lounge from his cabin. Jessica looked up. "What do you think, Cale? Did he mean any of that crap?"

Cale hesitated before answering. Tess had displayed the entire meeting for him, and Jessica was apparently aware of it. He had asked Tess the same question, and she replied much as she had before; that Calderon's body language and demeanor showed him to be sincere. Cale parroted Tess's conclusions, and Jessica nodded. "That was my feeling, too. He really hit home with that 'legacy of hate' stuff."

"Madam," Cale began, "the main reason I volunteered Cheetah for this mission is that she was originally an Old Empire Viceroy's yacht. Her archives contain a whole library of history from a political viewpoint, and something called 'political science'. They're probably not up to date, but I would be happy to have Tess make those files available to you and assist in your research, if you wish."

Jessica smiled at him wonderingly. "I'd appreciate it, Cale. You know, you are something of a miracle man. You always seem to have exactly what I need when I need it!"

Jessica studied long into the ship's 'night'.

" Senor Presidente," Jessica said firmly as they met again in the morning. "I wish you to understand that I do not like you, and I do not completely trust you. You have been the kind of politician I have opposed all my life, and I find your sudden conversion suspect and convenient.

"All that said, however," She continued, "I find that after considerable research, I cannot dispute your logic and your conclusions. As I mentioned, I have fought that kind of politician all my life, and your predictions sound all too plausible. So, I find myself reluctantly agreeing with your suggestion. Insofar as possible, I will cooperate with you over the next two years to overcome the anger and hatred. In that spirit, I offer these terms": She picked up her tablet.

"First, of course, all offensive action will cease, and all Santiagan forces will immediately depart Ilocano space.

"Second, Santiago will, at its own expense, rebuild the city of Homesafe to previous or better standards.

"Third, reparations will be required; however, given the pastoral nature of our planet, I doubt they will be onerous. Mostly, they will consist of victim compensation and rebuilding of facilities. I have been out of contact with Ilocan for some time. I cannot be specific.

"Fourth, Ilocano representatives will be assigned to Santiago, to monitor your armed forces and watch for clandestine rearmament.

"Fifth, a team of advisors will be sent to monitor your government's operations and to advise the Presidente. They are to have easy access to and have frequent and personal contact with that personage.

"Sixth, research will be conducted to determine the feasibility of trade between our peoples. Efforts will be made to find Ilocano products that might be of interest to the people of Santiago, and vice-versa.

"Seventh, Investigations will be carried out by the Ilocano government of any complaints of atrocities or war crimes, and trials under Ilocano law will be held after extradition from Santiago. Santiago shall have no right of veto over extradition for war crimes or atrocities, though they will have the right to examine the evidence, and may provide legal counsel. The standards applied will be those agreed between the Old Empire and the Alliance in 4253AE.

"All of these, except the first, of course, will be subject to negotiation and possible modification by special commissions appointed by each government over the next two years." she laid down the tablet. "Any comments or counterproposals, Senor Presidente?"

Calderon smiled. "No military occupation? No puppet government or forced new constitution?"

Jessica smiled as she shook her head. "No. We do not have the military forces to occupy the entire planet of Santiago. Nor would we want them. Any puppet government or forced constitutional change would only enhance the standing of those politicians we discussed. Besides, if I had anything to say about a new constitution, it would do away with all your government giveaways, and would only enrage the people."

Calderon sighed and rose to begin pacing. "Yes. Since the war failed, and we will be unable to deport our excess population, I must find a way to do the same thing without provoking riots. The economists all say that if the current situation continues, we'll be in a planetary depression within five years."

Jessica's smile widened. "You'll forgive me if I don't weep for you, since you were instrumental in establishing most of those giveaways."

Calderon stopped pacing long enough to show Jessica a rueful smile. "Yes, I was. I was a fool. We taxed the producers to buy votes until they moved off-planet, and then we extended our taxing authority until they left the whole system. Your raid took care of the few that remained. That is why we made war, Madam President. Desperation!"

Jessica shrugged. "It's not my problem, Senor Presidente. However, have you considered colonization to draw off your excess? Living on the dole is not really very satisfying. Perhaps if you offered them a challenge…"

He stopped pacing and smiled. "We thought about colonization. We decided it was too expensive. Maybe we should take another look. Thank you, Madam President. I have no immediate reaction to your demands. If you can provide me a copy, perhaps we could go into more detail tomorrow." She agreed, and he suited up and clumped to the airlock, memory crystal in hand.

The two Presidents stood on the balcony overlooking Homesafe. The loud noise and controlled chaos of construction was everywhere. Government House was one of the few buildings in the city that had suffered only minor damage, though blaster burns and pits from projectile impacts were obvious.

"Madam President," said Alfredo Calderon. "I believe we have done well, so far. Your insistence that the rebuilding be at Santiago expense made it possible for me to ram through a law requiring those physically able to work to do so at government projects in order to receive their dole. And your willingness to accept labor in lieu of cash payment gave me something to put them to work at.

Jessica smiled. "I take it your welfare rolls are shrinking?"

"Indeed. Many of our people have suddenly discovered that working for an employer pays more than drawing the dole from the government, now that they will have to work either way. Our unemployment rate is at half its previous level."

"Yes," Jessica replied, "but it was the help of your 'communication consultants' that made it possible for me to accept that labor. There is a lot of hate among Ilocanos. Many here wanted to drain your treasury dry, and force every Santiagan into virtual slavery."

Alfredo shrugged. "I have had a lot of experience using propagandists — uh, 'communication consultants'. Luckily, they can just as useful in the service of good as in the service of evil. I made great use of them in pushing through that so-called 'Workfare' law. However, never forget, Jessica, that they are totally amoral; a two-edged sword. They can be as useful to your opponents as they are to you."

They turned from the balcony and returned inside the President's office. "Well," she said, "here are the two young men I wanted you to meet, Senor Presidente. This is Colonel Brot Tonis of the Ilocano Militia, now General of the Ilocan Defense Forces."

Calderon smiled. "A pleasure to meet you, General," he said in his accented but fluent standard.

Tonis, with a grim expression, merely nodded slightly.

Calderon's smile only widened. "Yes, General, I am the bastard who sent those other bastards. I hope someday you can find a way to forgive me. Have you met any, uh, 'Santies' recently?"

Tonis nodded again, and his stony expression softened slightly. "I've worked with a few of your engineers on building requirements. They seemed okay."

"No horns or fangs?"

A faint smile pulled at Tonis's mouth. "No, sir. But then, they didn't have blasters, either."

Jessica took Calderon's arm and turned him to meet the other young man. "And this, senor Presidente, is Cale Rankin, the scrap dealer who won the war for us."

Calderon looked at the slight, dark young man. So this was Ilocan's secret weapon. He seemed a normal enough young man, nothing special. Until you noticed his eyes. Those eyes were old. They had seen things a man in his thirties should not have seen — that no man should see. Alfredo had seen eyes like that before, as he presented a medal to a man who had ended a hostage situation by slaughtering eight gang members after spending a week infiltrating them. This young man was much more than a mere scrap dealer. "Ah," he said heartily, "the hero who snatched victory from the very jaws of defeat. It is an honor, indeed, sire Rankin."

Cale reddened. "Really, Senor Presidente," he replied, "I merely offered the loan of a few credits and some scrapped ships."

Calderon shook his head. "And I understand that remarkable vessel in orbit with the huge laser is one of your stock?"

"Not anymore!" came a booming voice, as Ster Mong strode into the room. "Pardon me for interrupting, madam President, but I could not miss the opportunity to meet the Presidente. Especially since I missed the opportunity when we visited Santiago!" His broad grin and outstretched hand removed any offense at his words.

" Senor Presidente, "Jessica said, "This rather forceful, tactless person is our Minister of Defense, Ster Mong. He commanded Ilocan's Revenge during the raid.

Calderon's smile was wide and genuine. "Ah! We wondered what had made those remarkable holes in our orbital factories! I'm pleased to meet you, sire Minister."

Mong's smile faded. "And I you, senor Presidente. It is an honor. Please know that I completely support our president's current policies toward your planet. But we bought that ridiculous toy of Cale's, just in case!" he laughed aloud.

Calderon nodded soberly. "I can assure you that you will not need it against Santiago for at least two years. Beyond that… he shrugged.

Zant and Dee arrived after they had left the office and retired to Jessica's home for a friendly, unofficial chat. The house had sustained damage, and the sounds of banging and sawing were distracting, but she refused to stay anywhere else. A motley collection of furniture had been assembled in her once-luxurious lounge. Once they were ensconced in comfortable overstuffed chairs with drinks in hand, the conversation resumed.

"What about that home of yours, Cale, the one you've been buying by mail?" Jessica asked. "Any luck tracking down the broker?"

Cale sighed. "Actually, he found me. He was anxious to show me that he was honest." A sour grin rose. "He actually borrowed a flitter so he could take me out and show me that the fact that my two-story villa was just a burned-out shell wasn't his fault, and that the neighborhood had been nice, before the war."

"Be sure you file the claim, Cale," Jessica said. "I'll see to it that it gets priority treatment."

"I, too," Calderon added. "I will place pressure on the commission to insure your claim receives priority." Jessica turned to him with a quizzical look, and he continued, "Come, Jessica, what is the use of having power if one cannot occasionally use it improperly?"

Amid general laughter, Jessica spread her hands in pretended exasperation. "And he says he's reformed!" she said. She turned to Zant. "What about you, Zant? Are you going to take out a loan to buy that Strengl? Or maybe stake out a few hectares and put in a trap line?

Cale chuckled. “Zant’s decided he’s tired of frontier life,” he said.

Zant frowned, “Naw, not really. But I owe those folks on Selfa, and I’ve been thinkin’ about those folks on Vishnu. And then I met this fella named Captain Tor-Jen, and he came up with this idea…”

Jessica laughed aloud. “Tor Jen? I thought he was irreversibly retired.” She put on a massive frown and deepened her voice, “'No, madam, I won’t serve on your Planetary Council. I am retired and I’m not going to do anything but sit on my verandah and drink until I grow roots.'” She quoted.

Cale laughed and took another swallow of his drink. “Well, now that the war's over, it seems that sitting on your, uh, verandah and not having anyone to shout at is boring him to death.”

“Yeah,” Zant said. “Anyway, he had me over for drinks on that verandah of his. Well, we got to talkin’ about Vishnu, and how with the Empire gone, planets were losin’ civilization left and right. The more we talked, the more we drank, and the more we drank the better the talk got.

“We talked about how bored he was, and he happened to mention he was licensed for Beta-class ships, and one thing kind of led to another…”

Cale laughed again. “Zant and Tor-Jen decided to form a company. They’re going to buy that old Beta-class liner I have. Tor-Jen thinks he can hire a short crew on shares."

"Don't let him kid you," Zant put in. "He's in on this, too!"

Jessica turned back to Zant. “You’re going to run a liner? What are you going to do for customers? I haven’t heard of a liner making a profit in this sector for years.”

Zant smiled smugly. “Not ‘liner,’” he corrected, “Relocation and Recolonization ship. We figure there’s lots of folks like those on Vishnu that would pay to get off-planet, relocate somewhere else. They wouldn’t insist on liner-class treatment, either.”

Jessica looked puzzled. “But where would you take them? Ilocan agreed to take the Vishnu techs that worked on the ships and their families, but we’re not about to open up wholesale immigration."

Zant snickered and waved his glass in Cale’s direction. “That’s his problem.”

Cale gave a sheepish shrug. “Yes, I’m part of it, too. I'm chipping in a third of the liner's cost, plus a small investment. I’m the scout. Oh, not in the sense of the Old Empire’s Scout Corps, who searched for new systems and planets. Actually, I’ll be looking for old systems and planets. For one thing, there are hundreds of known earthlike planets that were apparently never settled. Then there are dozens that have been out of touch for centuries.” He shrugged. “Some of them will have destroyed themselves, and some will have reverted to iron, or even Stone Age. But there will be others that will be happy to accept skilled immigrants; some might even pay a ‘finder’s fee’ for those with special skills. Of course, others might want to fight, some might try to steal Cheetah, and others will be dangerous for other reasons. I think it will be fun, and Cheetah is perfect for it.”

She turned her smile on Zant. "And what will you be doing, Zant? Besides sitting on your, uh, verandah?"

"Me?" He replied in a haughty tone, " I will be running the whole show! While Cale gallivants all over the universe, and Tor-Jen drives the truck, I will be managing the company. Why, in six months, I'll need an assistant, and in a year, I'll have a whole staff. I'll do everything from sales, to assembling the packages, running training, and even leading advance parties."

He rose and quaffed his drink dramatically. “It’ll be great!” he exclaimed. “We’re gonna consult with some experts here on Ilocan, and put together ‘colonization packages’”. He threw his arms out and his voice took on the deepened tones of a professional announcer. “Call Jenfu, Rankin, and Tor-Jen for the adventure of a lifetime! We provide complete colonization packages for any size groups and to fit any budget. If all you need is a simple initial planetary survey, we can provide it; but we can also provide everything from tents to prefab communities complete with air-conditioned homes, including building materials, ovum for domestic animals, and virtually anything else required to colonize. We also welcome adventurous individuals who can meet our rigorous standards. Call our local office for lists of current planets open for entry!”

Jessica clapped enthusiastically. “Wonderful! I’d sign up myself, but with Zant going, someone has to keep things together on Ilocan!”

"Yes, excellent!" Calderon chimed in. "Please make certain to establish your first sales office on Santiago. Jessica and several of my advisors think that colonization may save my planet!"

Jessica turned to Dee. “And what about you, dear? Are you part of this scheme, too?”

Dee’s expression was haughty, but her red face betrayed her anger. “ I was not invited or consulted!” she said huffily.

All heads turned toward Cale, who flushed red.

“I, uh, hadn’t really had the opportunity, uh,” he stammered. He paused, and then tried again. “Before this whole thing started, I offered Dee… uh… mistress Raum, passage to any planet within two jumps of Faith.” He looked decidedly uncomfortable. “Uh, I had intended, uh, to renew that offer, in somewhat more private circumstances, and to expand it to ask if she would like to accompany me on a somewhat lengthy tour of unsettled planets of man-settled space.” He glared around at his audience. “Oh, all right! Dee, I was planning to do this later, in private. But would you consent to a cohabitation contract? Term or life, with or without progeny? The adventure wouldn’t be the same without you."

Dee shook her head, and Cale's face fell. “I’ve been banished from my church and my planet,” she replied. “But my values are those of my home. I’m sorry, Cale, but I cannot accept any sort of cohabitation contract. I can accept only marriage. Real marriage, for life. With children. And if you ever call them ‘progeny’, well, I still have my blaster!”

Cale leaped to his feet, a wide grin spreading across his face. “You mean it? Wife, life-mate, who cares what you call it?” He ran across to Dee, pulled her to her feet, and gathered her into his arms. At her smiling nod, He kissed her long and lingeringly until they were interrupted by Zant’s enthusiastic clapping.

Blushing furiously, they stepped apart. Then Dee leaned forward a bit. “I’ll let you know if I ever find that planet,” she said quietly, “the one we want to live on forever.”