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The Price of the Stars
I. MANDEYN: EMBRIG SPAÇEPORT
AT WELL past local midnight in Embrig Spaceport--port of call for the wealthy provincial world of Mandeyn--the Freddisgatt Allee ran almost deserted from the Port Authority offices to the Strip. The warehouses lining the Allee blocked most of the sky-glow from the lighted docking areas beyond, and Mandeyn's high-riding moon shed its pale illumination only in the center of the broad Allee.
Beka Rosselin-Metadi whistled an off-key tune through her front teeth as she took a leisurely return walk down the Allee to her ship. The black wool cloak she wore against the cold of Embrig's winter night swirled around her booted ankles, and if she'd put a bit of extra swagger into her stride as she left the Painted Lily Lounge--well, she figured she was entitled.
Damn right you're entitled, my girl, she told herself. You made a tidy profit on carrying those parts for Interworld Data, and you've got another good cargo alreadyon board for Artat--not bad work for a twelve-hour layover with time out for dinner with an old shipmate.
The Sidh had been her first ship after leaving home, and she'd been junior to everyone on board, including Ignaceu LeSoit. The knowledge that beSoit and his friend Eterynic were crewing now on the luckless Reforger--still in Embrig after three days, Standard, without finding a cargo--hadn't spoiled her evening in the least. Now that Beka was captain of her own ship, she lined up cargoes two ports ahead; if she could, so could anybody.
Maybe I should think about hiring a crew of my own, she thought. Copilot, say, or an engineer who knows a bit of gunnery. A gunner, that's the ticket; then I could push my routes out further into the fringes, and get a bit closer to what I'm really after--
Something hit her behind her right knee, hard. The leg collapsed beneath her, and she fell onto her back in the street.
"What the--" she began, and swallowed the rest of it when a blaster bolt ripped through the air where her head had been.
A second blaster answered, firing from a point above and beside her. She rolled toward the nearest wall, where her black cloak stood a chance at blending into the shadows, and grabbed for her own sidearm. Her hand came up empty.
She pressed herself flat against the metal siding of the warehouse. I'm a shadow, she thought. Just a shadow that moved across the picture for a moment. The trick had always worked for her brother Owen when they were both young; maybe it'd work for her if she tried hard enough.
Out in the street where she'd been walking a stranger stood, a blaster in each hand. He fired once toward the rooftop opposite; Beka heard the clatter of a dropped weapon and the heavy thud of a falling body. A left-handed shot down the intersecting alley brought a scream followed by silence.
As the outcry died, she heard a faint ratchety noise from farther along the road, a clear, distinct sound in the frigid air. The stranger heard it, too: he whirled and fired both blasters down the Allee. The man who had stepped fromthe shadows holding an energy lance flew backward and lay still.
The stranger turned to where Beka was lying and gestured at her to come out.
Beka unpeeled herself from the wall. Her knee hurt, and she'd dragged her cloak through the slush when she rolled clear. The wet wool slapped against her legs as she limped out into the light and said, "Who the hell are you?"
"A friend," said the stranger. He holstered one of the blasters, and held her own weapon out toward her.
She looked at the grey-haired gentleman, dressed for the weather in a long winter topcoat with silver buttons. Without the hardware--and if she hadn't seen him use it--she'd have figured him for a teacher of languages and deportment at a young ladies' finishing school.
She took back the blaster, checked the charge and the safety, and put it away. "Friend, huh?" she said when she'd finished. "I suppose those other guys weren't?"
"Not if your name's Rosselin-Metadi. Can you walk?"
"If it's back to my ship and out of here, yes. I've got a lift-off at zero-four-hundred local, and I'm not in the mood for long explanations."
"Then here's a short one," said the grey-haired gentleman. "The odds in town are running twelve to one against you making it that far."
"Short and sweet," said Beka. "Almost enough to make me bet against myself. What's your angle, Professor?"
The gentleman gave a dry chuckle. "I'm playing the long shot," he said. "I believe the Allee is clear of amateur talent for the moment--my suggestion is that you make what haste you can to your ship and wait for me there."
"And then what?"
"And then I'll tell you some things you ought to know."
The gentleman gave Beka a polite half-bow, stepped sideways into the shadows, and vanished. The Adepts do it better, Beka told herself. Then she looked back down the Allee, empty except for her and the dead. But not by much.
She made it home to Warhammer without any more trouble.As always, her spirits lifted at the sight of the familiar bulk of her ship, looming in silhouette against the white glare of the dock lights.
My ship. Damn, but that sounds good. In spite of the pain in her knee, Beka grinned as she gave the 'Hammer a prelift walkaround.
"My lady?" came a cultured voice from the entrance of the docking bay. "Permission to come aboard?"
She jumped, thought about going for her blaster, and decided the hell with it. If he'd wanted to kill me, I'd be dead by now anyway.
"Permission granted, Professor," she said. "And let's make that 'Captain,' if you don't mind."
"My apologies, Captain."
the grey-haired gentleman came forward out of the shadowed entryway as she toggled off the force field at the 'Hammer's ramp. The readouts on the security panel by the side of the main hatch showed clear, so she went on through and gestured for him to follow.
"welcome aboard Warhammer," she said.
She brought the force field up again behind her visitor. After a second's thought, she closed and sealed the hatch as well. She'd finished all the paperwork with the port and with her cargo before leaving the docks at the start of the evening, and anybody wanting in now wasn't likely to be friendly.
Beka led the way to the 'Hammer's common room. "Wait here while I check things out for lift-off," she said, dropping her wet cloak onto the deck beside the mess table. "Then I'll have a few minutes clear for talk."
She waited to see the stranger settled into one of the padded seats, then pulled a clipboard out of its bulkhead niche and started working her way down the prelift checklist. First stop, the main hold: crates of fresh Mandeynan crallach meat, destined for the gourmet trade on nearby Artat, all on board and secure for lift-off. Then--limping from one station to another--she did the operational checkson all the systems and backups, from the realspace engines to the cockpit controls.
Checkout complete, she flipped on the cockpit comm system. "Port Control, this is Free Trader Warhammer. Request permission to lift on time."
"Free Trader Warhammer, this is Port Control. Scheduled lift time your vessel zero-four-one-four, I say again zero-four-one-four."
She signed off, and switched the countdown timer to show minus minutes in real-time running. She had about half an hour, Standard, before lift--not really enough time to tend to her leg, if she wanted to give her visitor's tale the attention it deserved.
She took care of the leg anyway in the privacy of her cabin, stripping off her boots and trousers and examining the damage. The knee was swollen, with a nasty red welt on the upper part of the calf in back. By morning she'd have a spreading purple bruise.
Son of a bitch must have used the edge of his boot, she thought. Well, tape it up, my girl, and get on in there. You can't put off hearing him out much longer.
In a clean coverall and soft shoes, with a sprain-tape bandage around the injured knee, she returned to the common room, detouring by way of the galley nook to pour two mugs of cha'a from the hotpot.
"Now then," she said, setting the mugs down on the mess table. "I believe you promised me an explanation."
"Ah, yes." The gentleman took a mug of cha'a and leaned back against the padded seat. "If you decide to trust me," he said, sipping the hot drink, "I can get you out from under the death mark you've had on your head for three systems now."
Assassins, she thought, and felt a sudden chill. Face it, they've got you outclassed--and you can't stay in space forever. "Out from under for how long?"
She thought about it a moment. "Manage that," she said, "and I'll owe you a big one. What would I have to do?"
"It's quite simple, really. Lift off from here on time, and hit your next port as scheduled, after making a layover of six hours Standard and taking in tow a second vessel of the 'Hammer's mass."
Simple. Right. And I'm a Magelord. She sipped at her cha'a, wishing it were cool enough to gulp down and have done with it. "Layover where?"
The grey-haired gentleman reached into an inner pocket of his coat and brought out a slip of paper. "You'll find the coordinates here."
She took the paper and gave it a quick glance, then bit her lip for a moment while she did rough calculations in her head. "I'll need to check the navicomps for this, Professor. You're asking me to take a hell of a risk on trust."
Her visitor sighed. "For what it's worth under the circumstances, you have my word that I mean you no harm."
She looked at him for a moment, wishing she had her brother Owen's ability to see what moved behind a stranger's eyes.
"I'll believe you," she said. "For now, anyway. Call it taking care of the one I owe you from back on the Freddisgatt."
She stood up, grimacing at the pain in her bruised leg. "Stow the mugs in the galley and strap yourself in for lift-off. By the time the navicomps spit out an answer on this one, I'll have to be sealed for launch and powered up."
The lift-off clock read three minutes and counting before she called back to the common room on the internal communicator. "All right, Professor, you've got your layover. But as soon as we're in hyperspace I want the whole story."
It had better be good, she thought, getting ready to raise Port Control on the external comm system, to make it worth putting the 'Hammer through something as chancy as this is going to be.
She scowled at the 'Hammer's main control board. That damned detour was going to mean blasting at 160 percent of rated max power the whole way out. Not to mention some pretty tight maneuvering to make it look good fromout front. Blow this one, my girl, she told herself, and you could wind up doing a real good meteor imitation.
But with an expert at the controls, the 'Hammer could handle it--thanks to the foresight of her previous owner. Long ago, at the start of his privateering days, Jos Metadi had put the profit from Warhammer's first hunting foray into new, outsized engines for his ship--engines half again the standard size for a vessel of the 'Hammer's class. They cut into her scant cargo space; they made her cranky to handle, fuel-hungry, and a bitch to repair; but combined with the guns, they turned a harmless-looking merchant ship into a deep-space predator, and let her run flat out with a full hold at speeds even racing craft had trouble matching.
And--for the times when that still wasn't enough--the flip of an extra switch on the control panel would take all the safety circuits off line, and the autopilot right along with them. "Then everything depends on you," her father had told her years ago. "Either you guess right about how much she can take, or you go up like a supernova."
Beka swore under her breath as she reached for the external comm. Just because you never could resist a dare ... She keyed the handset on the comm panel. "Port Control, this is Warhammer. Switching to Inspace frequency. Over."
"This is Port Control. Roger, switch, out."
"Launch Control, this is Warhammer. I have departure clearance. Over."
"'Hammer, this is Launch Control, roger, you have departure clearance. Lift on my signal, I say again, lift on my signal. Stand by, execute, out."
Beka pushed the forward nullgravs to max, tilting the 'Hammer's nose skyward, and fed power to the main plant. In a roar of engines, the freighter slid through the atmosphere and out of the planet's grip--slowly at first, and then steadily faster. At normal speed, Beka aimed for the jump point to Artat, took the run-in, and went into hyperspace. She counted off five seconds on the control-panel chronometer, then dropped back into realspace again, withMandeyn showing on the sensors as a bright star dead astern.
Following the navicomp leads, she swung the 'Hammer into a tight spiral and commenced a new run-to-jump--much faster this time. She fed power to the hyperspace engines, and the stars blurred and faded through blue to black as the 'Hammer broke through.
"Now we see if Dadda's little girl is half the pilot she thinks she is," Beka observed to nobody in particular, and switched on the override.
An alarm whurrpped. She silenced it with another switch, and then pushed the main control lever all the way forward. The readouts on half a dozen gauges flashed into the red, and danger lights started blinking all over the control panel.
She reached to her right and flipped a third switch. The danger lights began burning steadily.
"You still there, Professor?" she asked, over the ship's internal comm system.
"Still here, Captain." Her passenger sounded unruffled by the double jump.
"Then unstrap and get up here to the cockpit. I'm going to cut life support to the rest of the ship in about two minutes."
Beka passed the time waiting for her passenger to appear in taking nonessentials off line--the guns, the galley, the lights. When he arrived, calm as a professor of galactic history showing up for class, she closed the vacuum-tight door behind him and switched off life support to the 'Hammer's after sections.
"Take a seat," she said, with a nod sideways at the copilot's empty spot. "I'm going to cut ship's gravity."
She waited for him to strap in before taking that last system out. "And now," she said, "while I fly this thing, you can tell me a story."
"The first thing I ought to tell you is that you're going to come out of hyperspace inside an asteroid belt."
"Lovely," she said, keeping her eyes on the gauges and readouts in front of her. Her fingers played over levers and knobs as she held the power plant in balance and the ship on course. "Absolutely outstanding."
"My apologies. But we lack the time for a safer approach. We're going to a place where I've stockpiled a great deal of useful equipment over the last few years, and I wanted to make it hard to find."
"Congratulations." A needle wavered. She turned a control rod back half a degree. "Now, tell me more about this price you say I've got on my head. I suppose it accounts for the dustup back on the Allee?"
The Professor made a dismissive gesture with one hand. "Amateur talent, as I said. I rather suspect you owe your survival that long to your former shipmate LeSoit. He's a professional these days--in a minor way, of course."
"LeSoit," she said. He never did say outright he was crewing on Reforger, she reminded herself. Only that his buddy Eterynic was. "My old friend Ignac'."
"Don't be too harsh on him, Captain. The local bullies probably held back as long as they did out of unwillingness to interfere with a professional hit. But when he let you head back to your ship alive ..." The Professor shrugged.
Beka frowned at the engine status readouts. "Well, that's one I'll have to owe LeSoit--though I must say the bastard might've warned me."
"That," said the Professor, "would have been thoroughly unprofessional on his part. He came close enough to stepping over the line as it was."
Beka stole a quick glance at her visitor. "You wouldn't," she asked with growing suspicion, "be one of those professionals yourself?"
"At one time or another," he admitted. "Among other things."
"Wonderful," said Beka. A readout that had stayed green so far flickered and went red. She swore under her breath, and backed the power off another hair. "I havebetter things to do right now than play guessing games. If you're going to kill me, why didn't you do it dirtside?"
"I'm not planning to kill you, my lady. Just the opposite."
"That makes twice you've called me 'my lady.' Like I said before, the word's 'Captain.'"
"As you wish. But I was a confidential agent of your House for many years. A certain sentimental regard for the niceties is hard to avoid."
"Entibor's an orbiting slag heap," said Beka, "and Mother sold off all House Rosselin's assets to finance the war. I'm Warhammer's captain, and that'll have to do."
"For some things, perhaps," said her passenger. "But simple freighter captains don't merit assassins tailing them across half the civilized galaxy. You have a dangerous hobby, my lady: the word is that Captain Rosselin-Metadi asks too many questions in the wrong places."
"Do I, now?" She forced herself to keep her attention on the controls.
"Far too many questions," said the Professor, "for someone who carries your not exactly inconspicuous name. Such inquiries were bound to cause talk, coming so soon after what happened to your mother."
Beka bit her lip, hard. She still didn't like to think about that. All those years, I kept promising myself that someday I'd go back home and tell Mother the real reason why I couldn't stand it on Galcen anymore. It wasn't her, it was all the rest of them, the Council and the Space Force and the damned Entiborans-in-exile. Mother let them drain her dry, year after year after year, and I could tell they'd do the same thing to me if they could ... .
She shook her head to clear it, and concentrated on keeping her ship on course.
"I began asking questions myself," her passenger continued, "as soon as I learned of the Domina's death. And the first thing I heard was that the family's footloose daughter had a ship of her own at last." He paused. "I'm probablynot the only person to wonder if the 'Hammer's new captain got her ship on the promise of future services."
"Explains why people I've never met are shooting at me," she said. "Any idea who put them up to it, Professor?"
"At the moment," said her passenger, "no. Later, once we've shaken the hunters off your trail, we can look into that."
She stole a second or so away from the control panel to turn her head and look at him directly. "'We,' huh?"
"If you don't mind the idea of assistance."
"I like the idea of improving my chances," she said, most of her attention already back on the 'Hammer's engine-status display. It still showed the same, but the steady thrumming--felt, more than heard--of the freighter's metal skeleton had smoothed out a bit.
She chanced easing the power back up, and added, "But what you're talking about doesn't come cheap."
Back on Mandeyn, a pallid sun rose over the streets of Embrig Spaceport, and the Freddisgatt Allee stirred to reluctant life. Massive ground transports trundled up to the loading doors of the huge warehouses, the heat of their heavy-duty nullgravs melting the ice that had formed on the slushy street in the cold hours just before dawn.
If the Allee's business day was just beginning, the Strip--that narrow, rowdy buffer between the docks and the stolid, well-behaved city of Embrig beyond--was only now shutting down its operations. The Painted Lily Lounge, like all the other establishments, switched on the CLOSED sign and swept out the last of the drunks along with the dirt off the floor.
The door of the Lily's back room slid open with a faint whine. Inside, Gades Morven the gambler sat alone amid the litter of the night's business, practicing false cuts with a deck of playing cards. He looked up at the new arrival, a thin, dark-mustached man with a heavy blaster.
"I wondered when you were going to show up,"Morven said. "There's people out there who aren't happy with you at all."
The newcomer shrugged. "You hired me. They didn't."
"They may not see it that way," said Morven, dealing out hands faceup onto the dark tablecloth. His pale grey eyes watched the cards as they fell.
"Damn it, LeSoit," he said as he dealt, "do you have any idea how many people saw their credits go out the airlock when Warhammer lifted off?"
"I just do my job and draw my pay," said LeSoit. "It's not my business if people place the wrong bets."
"Well, you may have to make it your business soon enough," the gambler said. "Somebody's bound to claim I rigged the deal on this one, the way you stuck with that bitch from the moment she made port."
LeSoit's dark eyes narrowed. "Your money buys you protection," he said, "and that's all it buys. Who I socialize with is my own business, and the lady used to be my shipmate."
Morven gave the spread of cards one quick, colorless glance, and gathered them up again with practiced fingers. He shuffled the deck and held it out for the cut.
"Still, LeSoit, people are going to talk."
The dark man cut the cards and handed back the deck. "Tell them to talk to me," he said. "I can handle them."
He watched as Morven, without answering, began dealing out a new table full of cards.
"Besides," LeSoit added, as the crown, coronet, scepter, and orb of trefoils fell one by one onto the tablecloth in front of the gambler himself, "it's not the people who lost money that I'd be worried about."
Copyright © 1992 by Debra Doyle & James D. Macdonald