If I had even a hint of psychic talent, I’d never have unlocked the door. But Terrans are telepathically as inert as a block of wood (a comparison my more gifted Verdosi friends are forever making), and so I had not a single twinge as I sat at my desk and pondered the future. My sidekick and partner was, as usual, speculating about our prospects and imagining ways to spend money we hadn’t yet made. I was, as usual, ignoring him and thinking of innovative ways to slip our cargos past Fleet patrols.
Oh, Skreek and I appreciate the Fleet. If not for their efforts to protect society from Icosians and pirates, our economy wouldn’t be healthy enough to support trade in the little luxuries which my partner and I provide. However, the Fleet’s intrusive probings into matters that they should really consider beneath their notice does tend to complicate my life.
“Contraband” is such an ugly (and incriminating) word; I prefer “specialty items”, which Skreek and I excel at obtaining and distributing -- when we can avoid Fleet captains, that is, and that has been alarmingly infrequent of late. The Fleet really should spend more time securing our borders and less time harassing harmless merchants. After all, just because some pettifogging local bureaucrat decides to brand Hebrian love crystals or star rum illicit substances is no reason to deny them to more open minded people, and I considered the Fleet’s support of these obstructive regulations most unfortunate. What the Fleet considered me was, of course, a criminal.
In general, I paid no attention to whatever unkind labels the Fleet chose to append, as I was safe on Piester’s Hole, an admittedly unattractive planet whose one saving grace was their lack of an extradition treaty with the League. Not that the Fleet had any warrants out on me. A lifetime of existence on the shadows of polite society had taught me the value of anonymity. Despite the fact that our last three shipments had met with trouble, resulting in two scuttled cargos and one confiscation, I was pretty sure I’d covered our tracks well enough on the latter that we would not be implicated.
Still, while the Fleet might not have anything substantive enough to lay charges against me, this run of bad luck had left Skreek and me precariously close to ruin. If our latest vessel failed to deliver her crates of Delphidian crushed violet petals to Rognathia, our creditors would come looking for us, and their methods made Fleet penal institutions look like planetary resorts. However, I had every confidence in our captain -- an unprincipled mercenary named Brux who’d happily sell his firstborn for a handful of credits. If anyone could smuggle -- excuse me, “transport” -- the violets from Dephidia and their absurdly rigid conservation authorities, it was he.
Then, once he’d helped us to restore our reputation and bank balance, it would be simple to solidify our position. I’d heard of a buyer who was willing to pay an outrageous sum for Altedian spice slugs, and with those profits, we’d finally be able to buy back our note from that bloodsucking K’Trin and even put down a deposit on a new office. Oh, considering our condition when we’d arrived on Piester’s, we hadn’t done too badly, but this place would have to be redecorated even to qualify as “seedy”.
Of course, Skreek’s molting all over everything didn’t help. When he gets excited, which is frequently, my partner gesticulates and feathers fly. His latest flight of fancy (no pun intended) over our prospects had him waving his arms dramatically, and I finally remonstrated with him -- in my usual polite fashion.
“Keep your Thrumsnarfing plumage attached, or I’ll pluck you bald,” I snapped, spitting out feathers. “This grikking down of yours is everywhere, and we’ll be evicted if you clog the ventilation system again.”
Skreek stopped his enthusiastic yammerings and bounced over to my desk, feathers puffed in outrage. For a middle aged, overweight Venethan, he moves pretty fast, and like all avian species, he’s always ready for a fight. “You and what army?” he demanded, swiping at my head. “Huh? Wanna start something?”
Since we both knew I could break both his arms without blinking twice, I ignored his gambit. “I mean it. We’re already in enough trouble with the landlord, and he’s K’Trin’s hive-brother. We can’t afford to pay for any damages your feathers cause, not until Brux returns anyway.”
“We will not give that shpludbrained moron another credit!” Skreek declared. Having swatted my head, he considered honor satisfied and was amenable to a change in subject. “When our cargo arrives, we’ll be out of here so fast that his head will spin off, and so will K’Trin’s!” His eyes grew dreamy. “We’ll find a new place, near the city center, someplace with landscaping and a functional communications net. Not one that’s on the blink half the time! Just imagine how much business we lose because of that grikking piece of junk!”
I grinned at his vehemence. “I’m more interested in a place that has a back door -- so that when the Fleet comes calling at the front-”
“Don’t joke like that!” Skreek looked decidedly bilious. He has a horror of penal colonies, and he hates it when I tease about arrest. My partnership with Skreek was unusual -- a topic on which many of our competitors and colleagues have commented -- but it worked for us. Unorthodox though it may have seemed, it had stood the test of time, and our ties had been honed by multiple perils over the years. Oh, we still squabbled (or rather, Skreek did), but in times of crisis, we could achieve an almost telepathic rapport.
In less critical moments, though, one of my favorite sports was needling the feathered pest, and mention of the Fleet guaranteed results.
It was at that point that the door chimed and I, without any precognition of disaster and hoping to see Brux’s ugly, scarred face, activated the release. A second later, I knew I’d made a bad mistake. But by then the only question was whether it would be a fatal one.
K’Trin and his two hulking goons all but filled our tiny office. Skreek took an involuntary step backwards before his innate belligerence kicked in. The avian temperament coupled with Skreek’s bantam size had gotten him -- and by extension, me -- into trouble more times than I could count. “What do you want?” he snarled, plumage fluffed and crest extended.
K’Trin’s lizard features were almost impossible for a non-saurian to read, but I thought I detected a flicker of irritation. His voice was as expressionless as always, though. “Hello, Taran. I came to discover how you plan to manage in the wake of this latest disaster.”
Skreek darted a look at me. I tried to match K’Trin’s inscrutability, though as always his reptilian features brought back nasty memories of my past. More importantly, I had no idea to what he was referring, and in this galaxy ignorance usually proved perilous. I did my best to bluff it out. “What did you have in mind?”
“It’s hard to imagine what else you might have to offer. I practically own your scrawny souls already.”
I kept my reclining pose behind my desk, but his words shook me. He was talking as if our latest note was due, but that wouldn’t happen until Brux had come back and we sold the cargo. Unless...
Skreek still hadn’t gotten it, and his impatient nature got the better of his tongue. “What are you talking about?” he blustered. “We don’t owe you anything yet!”
“Ah, then the news hasn’t yet reached your ear-tufts. Your illustrious captain, as incompetent a soak as ever I’ve seen, got himself captured. It seems he sailed directly into a Fleet training exercise and was surrounded before his tiny mind grasped the situation. The cadets were not nearly so dim, and they quickly sized up the situation and seized both ship and cargo. They even got his computer intact.”
This came close to a mortal blow. Our financial exigencies had forced me to strike the deal with Brux rather hastily, and I hadn’t been able to take my normal precautions in obscuring our connections to him. Once the Fleet’s experts got through picking Brux’s computer apart, there was a good chance they’d come looking for us.
The way K’Trin was regarding us though, I began to wonder if the Fleet would find more than pieces. Still, I couldn’t let my disquiet show. “It’s a small setback; nothing we can’t handle.”
Even his bodyguards laughed. The closer, a Kodiak bear-like Cardavii, showed me his yellow fangs. “Funny.”
That was too much for Skreek’s pride. “Sindith! You’re nothing but a ghoul, waiting to feed on our corpses! How’d you find out so fast, huh? That Thrumsnarfing brother of yours must have intercepted our comm chatter! You -- ulp!” The Cerean, at a gesture from K’Trin, cut off Skreek’s diatribe by the simple expedient of closing his massive hand around Skreek’s throat.
“I trust you shall be more cooperative than your partner,” K’Trin said to me, his tone flat as always. “Of course, if you’d prefer to do things the hard way...” The Cardavii grinned again and waggled six cim claws.
“That won’t be necessary.” My voice matched his, but under the desk and the cover of my propped up legs, I was angling my plasma pistol for a clear shot. I’d only open fire as a last resort; if the Cerean closed his hand (say, in a death spasm), Skreek’s windpipe and major blood vessels would be crushed. “What do you want?”
“I find it difficult to imagine a circumstance under which I would covet anything of yours,” he retorted, glancing disdainfully about our hovel. “The only possible use I can envision for you is as an example to others.”
That didn’t sound very healthy. K’Trin turned to the Cardavii and opened his mouth. “Don’t make a mistake you’ll regret,” I ordered swiftly. I think the tone alone caught his attention and gave him pause. He was used to pleas and supplications at this point.
“I trust now is the moment you’ll reveal the secret stash of credits you’ve squirreled away for emergencies?” K’Trin asked coldly. “If you had a spare fortune, it would have been sunk into this latest scheme.”
“If those assets were liquid, we would have. But these are -- difficult -- to handle.”
K’Trin waited; I’d at least piqued his curiosity. Ignoring Skreek’s bulging eyes and cyanotic tongue, I continued, hoping I sounded authentic. “It was after Brux left for Delphidia. A former client contacted us with a request for fire opals. She gave us a deposit: thirty kigs of Antarean Joy Dust.” K’Trin stood very still, and I knew I’d hooked him. Now to reel him in. “You know Skreek and I don’t handle the recreational pharmaceuticals, so we just kept it as collateral, but --”
“Why tell me this? Brux’s ship will still be in Fleet hands. What will you have gained?”
“Time. Thirty kigs should be good for at least another fortnight’s grace from you, and in that period I can call in some other notes of ours. Besides, what have you got to lose? Our value as an example won’t be that diminished by a few days’ wait.”
“And how will you repay her if you hand off the Dust to me?”
I shrugged. “You’re here now. She isn’t.”
“An excellent point. All right. Where is the Dust?”
“Do you think we’d keep it here? With your hive-brother just downstairs and the local law enforcement always dropping by to see what they can swipe? It’s in a locker at the polar spaceport. Skreek’s got the key.”
K’Trin jerked his head and the Cardavii crossed to where his pal still held Skreek aloft. He frisked my partner roughly and quickly produced a coded chip. “Got it.”
“You don’t mind if we take this, do you?” K’Trin asked silkily. Skreek managed to twist his head slightly. “And next time, you’ll be more polite to us, won’t you?”
“Glip.” Skreek agreed docilely. Hypoxia tended to make even Skreek less pugnacious.
K’Trin fingered the key. “I could take one or both of you with me, or leave one of my staff here, as a precaution. But we both know that if this is a bluff, you’ll die an agonizing death before this day is out. I’ll do you the honor of assuming you’re too smart to try anything so stupid.” With that, he spun on his heel and departed, the Cardavii at his heels. The Cerean casually tossed Skreek into the far corner before following.
The door slid shut behind them, and I slowly sat up, bringing the blaster out of concealment.
Wheezing and hacking, Skreek clambered painfully to his feet. “That soulless grik,” he coughed, wincing as he smoothed the broken feathers around his neck. “That-”
“Save it,” I ordered absently. “They’ll be back soon enough. K’Trin is no fool, and about a microsecond after he opens the locker, he’ll realize that there’s no Dust there. And he isn’t likely to be mollified by the spare clothing you keep at the spaceport so you can change between romantic liaisons. We’ve got to come up with something.”
He thought for a moment. “We might be able to get some credits from--”
“Forget it. Once K’Trin realizes we’ve tricked him, he’ll be out for blood. There’ll be no bargaining with him; he’ll have to kill us just to regain face. I figure we’ve got about two hours before he reaches the pole and checks the locker. Once he realizes that I am ‘that stupid’, there’ll be a bounty on our heads and those two thugs on our tails.”
Skreek looked at his luxurious tailfeathers in dismay. “We have to leave the planet!”
“No kidding.” I was already studying my terminal. “Grik! No wonder K’Trin was willing to leave us alone. He must have known there are no intersystem ships in orbit.”
“Then we’re dead!” Skreek screeched, feathers wafting towards the ground. Avians are so grikking histrionic.
“Shut up and let me think.” I keyed in commands grimly, but everything came back negative. No liners, no cruise ships, no transports, no mining barges, no small craft... Wait a minute -- “There is an inter-system ship in orbit.”
Skreek bounced out of the chair into which he had sunk in despair. “Why didn’t you say so? You nearly had me writing our funeral elegies!”
“There’s a problem.” My tone should have tipped him off.
“What problem?” he scoffed, flinging himself around the room in an ecstasy of relief. “In these circumstances, nothing’s a problem.”
He stopped cold. “That’s a problem.”
I gave him a sardonic smile. “Exactly.”
“What a choice: Do we want to die at K’Trin’s hand or spend the rest of our lives in a Fleet penal colony?”
“Now hold on. I never suggested just surrendering to the Fleet.”
He looked at me, puzzled. “But then wh-- Oh no! No! Absolutely not!” his voice rose as he realized my plan.
“It’s the only way,” I cut through his squawks ruthlessly. “So stop screaming and help me figure the best method to get away with it.”
“There is no method that will allow you and me to masquerade as Fleet and cadge a ride on an active duty vessel!” he yelled, trying to shake me by the shoulders.
I broke his grip with a single move and shoved him into the nearby chair. “You’re always too pessimistic,” I admonished, my mind already busy with how we could carry this off. “Didn’t we slip into that arms convoy when we were getting away from Albidiron III? They never caught on. Or the time that we convinced the law enforcement on Dixol that their vice-governor was the one behind our smuggling ring? While they were sweeping down on his son’s name-day celebration, we were leaving the system.”
Skreek’s eyes had grown dreamy with tales of our past glories. Or sort-of glories. Well, successful escapes, anyway. “That’s all true...” he allowed.
“And this time will be no harder. Now what do you know: the Reliant has openings in its complement. That will make it even easier.”
Skreek leaned forward to look at the terminal. “Not by much. How are we supposed to fool these twinks? You and I don’t know the first thing about acting like Fleet.”
“You forget. I was stranded with a platoon of the grikheads on Omicron. I got a good look at their hidebound hierarchy and self-important natures. Trust me, all we need to do is swagger and sneer a lot.”
“I also remember why you had to leave Omicron so suddenly,” Skreek shot back, then squeaked in remorse as my face went blank.
It’s not that I refuse to think about Omicron; it’s just that life goes more smoothly when I don’t. Twenty months of being stranded behind the Icosian front lines, fighting a guerrilla battle against the invaders whenever we could find ammunition or steal guns, constantly running and hiding and hoping that the Icosian scanners wouldn’t punch through our jury rigged jamming field -- that wasn’t what brought the nightmares. It was the what-if’s. The if-only’s. Those were the ones that haunted my nights and jerked me awake, crying out. Especially where Jeff was concerned. What if I hadn’t shown him the message from that village requesting aid against an incoming Icosian attack? If only the newly-arrived Fleet commander wasn’t so stuck on protocol that he refused to send his people as reinforcements until the backup ships arrived. What if I had seen that Icosian trooper sighting down his gunbarrel a second earlier? If only I hadn’t been so far from Jeff.
After Jeff’s death, there isn’t much I do regret. Certainly not going after that shpludbrain once I got back. He was prepared to hand me a medal for rallying the locals over Jeff’s corpse and repulsing the Icosian forces; the last thing he expected was an elbow strike to the throat. Those Fleet idiots are so confident that the rest of us are just dying for their approval, no one imagined that I’d use the ceremony as the opportunity to avenge Jeff.
I wish I had been able to get to my boot knife or blaster before they dragged me off the commander and threw me into confinement. Luckily for me, they were so busy rushing him to the hospital they didn’t have time to find a truly secure cell. With my background, a temporary force field over a grain locker was child’s play to knock out, and in all the confusion around the planet -- Fleet ships arriving, Icosians fighting a rear guard action as they withdrew -- it was simple to escape unnoticed. I wonder if I killed that shplud; last I heard as I left the world’s atmosphere, he was still in surgery.
“Taran?” Skreek’s voice was tentative as he called me back to the present. He knows how mercurial I can be when I think of Jeff, and he had sensibly retired out of arm’s reach. More than most, I know it’s pointless to dwell in the past, but sometimes, just when I’m sure I’ve exorcised the demons, it all floods back.
“It’s all right,” I told him gruffly, shaking the ghosts out of my mind and doing my best to forget the vow I’d sworn over Jeff’s body -- that I’d never set foot on Fleet soil again unless it was to kill anyone in uniform that I could find. “Let’s focus on the task at hand.”
Reassured, he returned to his seat. “They need people in their Ship’s Systems Division,” he pointed out.
“And don’t you think they’d get a little suspicious the first time they asked us to recalibrate a power flow or track down a program glitch and we couldn’t even figure out what half the things in the toolbox were?”
“You’re good with computers. You can hack into anything.”
“True. When it comes to illicit hacking, I’m able to break into just about any net-” I gestured at the screen in front of us to make my point “-- but I haven’t a clue how to do things within an operating system. Any Fleet hacker would spot me in a millisecond, and then we’d have all sorts of embarrassing questions to answer.”
“Hm.” He whistled softly to himself as he studied the screens flipping by. “There!”
“What? That? Don’t be stupid.” He was pointing to a line in a message from the captain’s personal mail (I told you I was good at getting past privacy seals and other lock-outs), in which he nagged his immediate supervisor for a replacement Supply Chief.
“It’s a senior officer position.”
“Exactly. One of us should infiltrate the highest levels; no one would think of looking for an imposter there, and if they do start to get suspicious, you’ll be in the perfect position to spot it.”
I thought for a few moments. Skreek had a point. It would be bold, but in our line of work sometimes (on rare occasions) boldness was our best ally. The Fleet would expect stowaways to skulk in cargo bays, not to attend staff meetings. “I suppose. After all, how hard could it be to impersonate a Thrumsnarfing clerk? It is only the Quartermaster’s post we’re talking about.
“And this is perfect for you,” I added.
“A chef. You know how to cook -- you’re always making those Venethan delicacies for your girlfriends.”
Skreek plumped his feathers proudly. “And they always finish them. And ask for the recipes.”
“This way we’ll have both above- and below-decks covered. Officers and staff. I like it. Can you find us uniforms while I hack into their comm net and forge transfer papers?”
Skreek grinned. The man could rustle up a chuurbeast’s riding harness on an asteroid. Two Fleet uniforms wouldn’t pose any challenge to him. “Does mass remain a constant? Of course I can! See you soon.”
“Be careful!” I yelled after him. It was remotely possible that K’Trin would have left a goon to watch us, though I doubted it. K’Trin didn’t go in for subtleties. Any minder he’d left for us would have been parked in our office, seated on Skreek’s chest with a pistol trained at my head.