Friday, September 19, 2008

Starship: Mercenary by Mike Resnick

“David,” said the disembodied voice on the Theodore Roosevelt’s communication system, “I don’t know where the hell you’re hiding, but we have to talk. You show up in my office in five minutes or the next thing this ship fires on is going to be you.”

“Five’ll get you ten the Captain has to go hunting for him,” said a crew member.

“I’ll take that bet, ten credits to five,” said the tall, redheaded Third Officer. “If there’s one person aboard this ship that you don’t want mad at you—besides me, that is—it’s the Captain.” Suddenly she looked amused. “Besides,” she added, “how the hell many places can you hide on this ship?”

“More than you think, or the Captain wouldn’t have threatened him.”

“The Captain’s in a bad mood,” said the Third Officer. “Wouldn’t you be?”

Suddenly a bulkhead panel slid open, and an odd-looking creature of vaguely human proportions, but dressed like a Victorian dandy, stepped out into the corridor. His eyes were set at the sides of his elongated head, his large triangular ears were capable of independent movement, his mouth was absolutely circular and had no lips at all, and his neck was long and incredibly flexible. His torso was broad and half again as long as a man’s, and his short, stubby legs had an extra joint in them. His skin may have possessed a greenish tint, but his bearing and manner were properly upper-class British at all times.

“I wish you wouldn’t talk about me as if I wasn’t here,” he said.

“Right,” said the Third Officer with a laugh. “You just wish you weren’t here.”

“My dear Olivia...” he began in hurt tones.

“Call me Val,” she replied.

“A mere convenience for the crew,” he said with a shrug. “To me you will always be Olivia Twist.”

“I hate that name,” she said ominously. “You’d do well to fall in love with some other human author.”

“Other than the immortal Charles?” he said with almost-genuine horror. “There are no other authors. Just scribblers and dabblers.”

“David,” said the voice on the intercom. “You have three minutes to find out whether I’m kidding or not.” Pause. Then, ominously: “You want a hint?”

“I really must go,” said the alien apologetically.

As he scuttled away, Val held out her hand to the crewman. “Pay up. It serves you right for betting against the Captain.”

The elegantly dressed alien made his way to an airlift, ascended two levels, got off, and finally reached the Captain’s office.

“My dear Steerforth!” he said with false enthusiasm. “That was beautifully handled! Just beautifully! I can’t tell you how proud I am of you!”

“Shut up,” said Wilson Cole. “And stop calling me Steerforth.”

“But that’s your name!” protested the alien. “I am David Copperfield and you are my old school chum, Steerforth.”

“You can call me Captain, Wilson, or Cole once we’re on speaking terms again. I’ll continue calling you David, since you haven’t seen fit to give me your real name.” Cole stared at the alien. “I don’t think you can possibly imagine how mad I am at you.”

“But we won!” said David Copperfield. “There were five ships and you destroyed them all!”

“There were supposed to be two class-H ships!” snapped Cole. “We had to fight off four class-Ks and a class-M!”

“For which we were well paid,” the alien pointed out.

“What we were paid will barely replace the shuttle we lost and repair the damages we sustained,” said Cole. “David, I explained it to you after the last debacle: there’s more to this business than getting the biggest contract.”

“That’s your end of the business,” said Copperfield defensively. “My job is handling the financial arrangements. I get the contracts, you fight the battles.”

“And if they offered you ten times as much to take on a dreadnought, or face Admiral Garcia’s flagship, would you take it?”

“Certainly not,” said Copperfield. “The Teddy R can’t beat a dreadnought.”

“The Teddy R was goddamned lucky to come out of this morning’s skirmish in one piece,” said Cole.

“My dear Steerforth, if you want to be a mercenary, you must expect to fight in some pitched battles. It goes with the job.”

“I don’t think I’m getting through to you at all,” said Cole. “You’re our business agent. You are supposed to get us assignments we can handle. We’re lucky any of us are alive right now.”

“But you are alive,” protested Copperfield. “So clearly it was a good bargain. Two million Maria Theresa dollars for guarding Barios II against potential attack during the Jewelers’ Exhibition.”

“Damn it, David, there was nothing potential about that attack!” growled Cole. “They knew we were there, they knew what armaments we had, they knew what we were and weren’t capable of doing. If Val and Four Eyes hadn’t done things nobody’s supposed to do with our shuttlecrafts, we’d be orbiting the goddamned planet in a billion pieces right now.”

“I could get you an assignment protecting small schoolchildren from playground bullies,” offered the dapper alien, “but it wouldn’t pay your expenses.”

“Shut up,” said Cole.

David Copperfield fell silent.

“We’re going to have to make a few changes in how we operate,” continued Cole.

“You mean the ship?”

“I mean you and me. I can’t let you keep endangering us the way you’ve been doing.”

“But you have been victorious!” protested Copperfield. “So I am not endangering you.”

“We’re operating with half the crew this ship needs, we can’t go into the Republic for repairs or supplies, we still don’t have a doctor on board...”

“And you have overcome every one of those obstacles,” noted Copper­field. “I don’t understand why you are so upset.”

“Then why were you hiding inside a bulkhead?” demanded Cole.

Copperfield paused, considering his answer. “It was cozy?”

A burst of feminine laughter echoed through the small office, and a moment later the holographic image of Sharon Blacksmith appeared, hovering over Cole’s desk.

“That’s a good one, David!” she said, still laughing. “I hope you don’t mind if I play it for the entire crew. If you ever get tired of being...well, whatever it is you’re being, you can always get work as a comedian.”

“You were listening?” asked Copperfield.

“I’m the Chief of Security,” answered Sharon. “Of course I was listening. There is an excellent chance that our glorious leader is going to strangle you before you leave his office, and such an action really requires a witness.”

“Strangle me?” scoffed Copperfield. “We’ve been friends since we were in boarding school together.”

“David, I really think you’re losing it,” said Sharon. “The two of you never met until last year. You are not old school chums. You are not even a human being, and your real name isn’t David Copperfield. You are—or at least you were—the biggest fence on the Inner Frontier. Now, I know that’s unpleasant, but those are the facts.”

“Facts are the enemy of truth!” snapped Copperfield. “Do you think I’d have shown Steerforth how to avoid a lifetime of piracy if we hadn’t been lifelong friends? Do you think I’d have enticed the Hammerhead Shark to my world if I weren’t doing a favor for a classmate? Do you think I’d have turned my back on everything I’d been and come away with you if we didn’t share a special bond?”

Cole and Sharon exchanged looks. “I’ll take it from here,” he said, and her image vanished. “David, you enticed the Shark to Riverwind because you didn’t have any choice, and you came away with me because half a dozen different pirates were all out for your head.”

“Well, that too,” admitted Copperfield.

“Do you want me to return you to Riverwind?”

“No, certainly not. They might still be looking for me there.”

“Would you like me to set you down on the next colony world we come to?”

“No.”

“Fine. But if you’re staying aboard the Teddy R, we’re going to need some new ground rules.”

“Surely you don’t want to go back to piracy,” said Copperfield.

“No,” replied Cole. “We’re a military ship and a military crew. We were uniquely unfit to be pirates. I’m surprised we lasted almost a whole year at it.” He paused. “We can’t go back to the Republic. There’s still a price on my head, and a huge reward for the capture or destruction of the Teddy R, so we’ll practice our military trade here on the Frontier, as mercenaries.”

“Which is precisely what I suggested to you two months ago,” said Copperfield.

“I know, and it was a good suggestion—but we’d like to live long enough to enjoy what we earn. Twice in a row now you’ve chosen the best price without considering what we had to do to earn it. The Teddy R is not a dreadnought. It’s a century-old ship that should have been decommissioned seventy-five years ago, except that the Republic kept getting into one war after another. There probably aren’t a thousand ships in the Republic’s fleet of almost two million that can’t outrun and outgun us. One-on-one we can probably take just about any independent ship on the Inner Frontier—but you keep putting us in situations that aren’t one-on-one. We’ve been lucky, but we can’t stay lucky. So from now on, you bring every offer to me, and I will decide whether or not we accept it.”

“But that hurts my credibility, to say nothing of my bargaining position.”

“It doesn’t hurt it as much as a laser blast, or a pulse ray, or slow torture, all of which almost certainly await you if you keep putting us into these situations.”

“How did you get to be the most decorated officer in the fleet with that attitude?” said Copperfield bitterly.

“He is the most decorated officer out of the fleet,” said Sharon’s disembodied voice, “to say nothing of its most-wanted criminal. We’re all proud of him, even if he’s the reason none of us can ever go home again.”

“You shut up too,” said Cole. He turned back to Copperfield. “That’s it, David. You will bring every offer to me for my approval—and I have to know more than what they’re paying; I have to know everything that might happen, starting with why someone is paying enough for us to consider accepting the job in the first place. If you can’t get the information I need, then either I or one of my officers will speak directly to the supplicant to determine the full range of possible dangers we might face.”

“That emasculates my position,” protested Copperfield.

“Oh, I like that word,” said Sharon.

“It makes me little more than an errand boy,” continued the alien.

“We tried it your way, and we’re luckier to be alive than I think you’ll ever realize,” said Cole. “Now we do it my way.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

“It’s your decision. We can always use another gunnery sergeant.”

“But I’ll give it a try,” said Copperfield hastily.

“All right,” said Cole. “You’ll still be our point man, you’ll still make the contacts. The Republic’s still got huge rewards posted for me, Four Eyes, and Sharon, and there’s a couple of dozen worlds that want Val dead or alive—and those two men and the alien we picked up on Cyrano all have prices on their heads. You’re about the only one who can leave the ship with a reasonable chance of returning unapprehended. So tell Christine or whoever’s working the bridge where you want to go next, and we’ll take you there—but you no longer have the authority to commit us to a mission. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Steerforth.” Pause. “I mean, yes, Wilson.”

“All right. We’re done. You can leave.” The alien turned and walked to the door. “And David?”

“Yes, Steerforth?”

“The next time you try hiding from me inside a bulkhead, I’m going to have the panel fused into place.”

“You knew?” asked Copperfield, surprised.

“The man has spies everywhere,” said Sharon’s voice. “It’s positively fiendish.”

Copperfield left without another word.

“So, you want to meet me in the mess hall for coffee?” asked Sharon, her image appearing again.

“Not yet,” said Cole. “Send Four Eyes to me. I need a damage report.”

“What about Christine and Val?” asked Sharon. “After all, they are your Second and Third Officers.”

“First Four Eyes, then coffee, then a nap, then the rest of the damages. We’re still functioning, we still have air, we still have gravity, and we sure as hell know our weapons work. Everything else can wait.”

“Including your love life?” she asked with a smile.

“Take a tranquilizer,” he replied. “I’ve got captainly things to do.”

“I don’t want a tranquilizer.”

“Fine. Pay a visit to David. He’ll explain to you that we’re old school chums and we share everything.”

“Seven thousand, one hundred and forty-five,” said Sharon.

“What’s that supposed to be?”

“The number of nights you’re sleeping alone for that remark.”

2

Forrice, the burly, three-legged Molarian First Officer, spun down the corridor with surprising grace, waited for the Spy-Eye above the door to Cole’s office to identify him, and entered.

“That was nice work you did today, Four Eyes,” said Cole.

“I thought so too,” replied Forrice. “Shuttles weren’t made for those kinds of maneuvers.” He paused. “I see we lost the Alice.”

“Yeah,” said Cole. “Teddy Roosevelt would never forgive us. We’ve lost three of his kids—Quentin, Archie, and Alice. The only original shuttle we have left is the Kermit.”

“The two new ones—the Edith and the Junior—did pretty well,” said the Molarian. “The Valkyrie put the Edith through maneuvers that should have broken it in half.”

“I know. But she was lucky. So were you.”

“I’d rather be lucky than good.”

“I’d rather be safe than either,” said Cole. “What’s the injury list like?”

“Some burns, some breaks, everyone’s alive. I wish we had a medic.”

“We’re supposed to have two—one for humans, one for non-humans,” said Cole. “Problem is, we’ve been so busy getting shot at that we haven’t had time to hunt up anyone who can patch us up.” He paused. “How about the ship? What kind of damage did it sustain?”

“Well, it’s still running,” said Forrice. “I’ve got Slick out there now, walking the exterior, checking it out.”

“I don’t know what we’d do without him,” said Cole, referring to the ship’s sole Tolobite, a unique alien that, protected by its symbiotic Gorib, which acted as a protective second skin, was able to function in the airless cold of space for hours at a time.

“Every ship ought to have a Tolobite,” agreed the Molarian. “Have you killed David yet?” he added pleasantly.

“The thought has crossed my mind.”

“Where the hell did those five ships come from?” continued Forrice. “I thought we were preparing for a couple of class-H vessels—an easy day’s work.”

“It’s as much my fault as his,” said Cole. “There are close to two thousand mining worlds on the Inner Frontier. You have to figure a jewelers’ convention will draw every fucking thief for five hundred light-years. I should have figured they were sugar-coating the threat for David so he wouldn’t ask a higher price.”

“He’s a fence, not a military man,” agreed Forrice. “If you trust him again, it’ll happen again.”

“I know. From this moment on, all he is is a conduit. He brings offers to me, and I say yes or no.”

“I can live with that,” said Forrice. “Longer, if not richer.”

“The convention’s over tomorrow,” said Cole. “We’re obligated to stay on call until then, though I don’t imagine there’ll be another attack. Tomorrow, when the planet’s rotated enough so that the convention’s on the nightside, take Bull Pampas and a couple of other formidable-looking crewmen and collect our money.”

“Val’s the most formidable of all,” noted the Molarian. “There’s not a man or alien on board she can’t whip without working up a sweat—including Bull.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Cole. “But if they’re reluctant to come up with the money, you’ll threaten to shoot ’em all and eventually they’ll pay what they owe. If I send her down and they’re slow to produce the money, she’ll kill them all.”

“She would at that,” agreed Forrice. “I suppose that’s the benefit of a nonmilitary education.” He emitted a few hoots of alien laughter at his own observation. “Still, she probably saved the ship today.”

“It wasn’t the first time, it won’t be the last,” said Cole. “That’s why she’s here.”

“She’s the only one who looks fresh and ready to fight again,” observed Forrice. “If she was a Molarian, I’d stick around for years until she came into season.”

“Spare me your sexual obsessions,” said Cole. “It’s been a long day.”

Suddenly the ship shuddered.

“And about to get longer,” muttered Forrice. “I’m off to the bridge.”

“No,” said Cole. “Get down to Gunnery and make sure everything’s working. I’ll go to the bridge.”

They left the office together, and a moment later Cole entered the bridge.

“What’s going on?” he demanded of Christine Mboya, who was the ranking officer there.

“One of the class-K ships we killed today just exploded,” she replied. “A big chunk of the hull hit one of our shuttle bays.”

“Is Slick still out there?”

“I don’t know, sir,” she said. “I’ll check.” She scanned her computer screens. “Yes, sir.”

“Put it on audio,” ordered Cole. “Slick, can you hear me?”

“Yes, sir,” said the Tolobite.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, not sure, but my Gorib has suffered some superficial injuries. I’m going to have to come inside very soon.”

“Have you got time to check and make sure that the ship’s physical integrity hasn’t been compromised?”

“Yes, sir, I’m sure I have.”

“Good. Get right on it, and then come back inside.” Cole signaled Christine to break the connection. “Is Mustapha Odom awake?” he asked, referring to the ship’s master engineer.

“I think everyone is, sir.”

“So much for three shifts,” he muttered. “All right, tell him to inspect the shuttle bay from the inside and make sure there are no leaks, that it’s totally intact. Then, if he says it is, have him check for weak spots that we may have to reinforce in the near future.”

“Yes, sir,” said Christine.

“Pilot?”

“Yes?” said Wxakgini, the sleepless alien pilot whose brain was literally tied in to the ship’s navigational computer.

“Take us out half a light-year,” said Cole. “We can’t stay lucky forever. If anything else blows up, I want plenty of warning before any part of it can reach us. Mr. Briggs?”

“Sir?” said the young lieutenant at the sensor module.

“Track the other four ships, and let me know if they do anything besides float there dead in space.”

“It’s a pity you killed them all,” said a familiar voice, and Cole turned to face Val, his six-foot-eight-inch Third Officer.

“You’d have preferred to play bumper tag with them?” he asked sardonically.

“I need a ship,” she replied. “I could have used one of those.”

“I thought you’d joined us permanently,” said Cole.

“I have. But two ships can take on bigger, better-paying jobs than just the Teddy R,” she said. “The bigger a fleet we can put together, the more money we can make.”

“And the more bad guys we’ll attract.”

She smiled. “Attract and capture enough of them and someday we can even go to war with the Republic.”

“Yeah, we’re only ten or twelve million ships short,” he said ­sardonically.

“You have to start somewhere.”

“I sent David to bed without his supper,” said Cole. “That’s enough of a start for one day.”

“Want me to be your negotiator?” offered Val.

He shook his head. “How far would you get? You’re wanted on almost as many worlds as I am.”

“But they’re different worlds,” she said.

“Thanks, but no thanks,” said Cole. “You’re most valuable doing just what you do.”

She shrugged. “You’re the captain.” Then: “But I wish you’d saved one of those ships for me.”

“Think about it,” said Cole. “Do you want a ship that can’t beat the Teddy R with four sister ships on your side?”

“I could beat it,” said Val.

He considered the statement for a few seconds. “Probably you could,” he admitted.

“So next time, don’t kill every last ship.”

“They were all shooting at us, and they’d damned near englobed us.”

“You can’t englobe with less than six ships, and twelve is optimum,” put in Malcolm Briggs helpfully.

“I said ‘damned near,’” said Cole irritably.

“Next time let me take a shuttle and approach the enemy under a flag of truce,” she said. “Slick can hide on the outside of it until we’ve docked at the ship I want.”

“Under a flag of truce?” repeated Cole.

“I promise there won’t be any survivors to file a complaint after Slick and I get done with ’em,” said Val.

“We’ll see,” said Cole.

“Okay, but remember what I told you: two ships can get more lucrative assignments.”

“I’ll remember.”

“Sir,” said Slick’s voice. “The damage is superficial. I see no reason to address it until the next time we put into port.”

“The Teddy R doesn’t put into ports, Slick,” said Cole. “It has an aversion to atmospheres.”

“I mean, the next time we dock at an orbiting station.”

“I’ll take it under advisement,” said Cole. “Now get back inside the ship. Do you need anyone to help you tend to your Gorib?”

“No, thank you, sir,” said Slick. “We can manage by ourselves.”

Too bad, thought Cole. I’ve been on this ship for more than two years, and I still don’t know what you look like without your second skin.

“We’ve moved out half a light-year,” announced Wxakgini, who seemed to have decided never to add a “sir” until Cole learned how to pronounce his name and stopped calling him “Pilot.”

“Thanks, Pilot,” said Cole. He turned back to Christine. “Tell Four Eyes he can leave the Gunnery section. It’d probably be a good idea if he went to bed. Someone on this ship ought to be wide awake ten or twelve hours from now.” He looked around, couldn’t find anything else requiring his attention, and decided to go down to the mess hall, where he sat at his usual table in the corner and ordered a sandwich and a beer.

“You look terrible,” said Sharon Blacksmith, entering the mess hall and sitting down opposite him.

“Flattery will get you nowhere,” said Cole. “There are a couple of twenty-two-year-old ensigns on this ship who happen to think that I look great.”

“That’s because they’re young and inexperienced,” said Sharon. “Seriously, when’s the last time you had any sleep?”

“Let me see. The attack came right at the end of blue shift, and I’d been up for a few hours. Then we fought through red shift, and now it’s about six hours into white shift. So I’ve been up, I don’t know, maybe twenty-two or twenty-three hours.”

“When you’re through feeding your face, go to bed.”

“Not ‘come to bed’?”

“You’d fall asleep in the middle of it,” said Sharon. “My vanity couldn’t stand that.”

“Well, if you think you’re that uninteresting...”

“Of course, you don’t have to drink all that beer. I could just throw it in your face.”

“You know,” said Cole after a moment, “given what we’ve been through the past couple of weeks, I think maybe the whole crew needs a rest. Nobody signed on to face the kind of odds David has been putting us up against.”

“Well, when you get right down to it,” she said thoughtfully, “we haven’t had shore leave since we were still a respected member of the Navy. That’s got to be a year and a half or so, cooped up in this damned ship.”

“Then I guess that’s our next order of business.”

“Aren’t you supposed to consult with your fellow officers, now that we’re a military vessel again—or at least a pseudo-military one.”

“Not necessary,” said Cole. “I already know what their responses will be.”

“Oh?”

He nodded. “Four Eyes won’t be interested unless I can find a world with lady Molarians in season. Christine will say she’s happy with whatever the rest of us decide, and then when we get there she won’t want to leave the ship anyway. And Val—Val will go anywhere they’ve got good drinkin’ stuff and she can get into a couple of bar fights before the locals realize what they’re up against.”

“So where are we going?”

He shrugged. “Wherever the crew can blow off some steam while we’re patching up the damages and making sure the shuttle bay’s not about to collapse. Wherever it is, it’d be nice if we could pick up a doctor or two there.”

“Well, there’s a pleasure planet called Calliope...” she began.

“No,” said Cole. “I know that world. It’s only a few light-years from the Republic. When we’re deep in the Frontier, being the notorious Wilson Cole and the Teddy R works to our advantage; everyone out there hates the Republic and loves its enemies. But when we’re only eight or ten light-years from the border, it’s too easy for someone to report our presence to the Navy—and when we’re that close, the Navy will come after us and claim hot pursuit.”

“There’s always Serengeti,” she suggested, referring to the zoo world. Then she shook her head. “No, that’s in the Republic too.”

“I suppose we ought to go to the source,” said Cole.

“Val?”

“She spent a dozen years as a successful pirate on the Inner Frontier. She’ll know where the action is.”

He touched the communicator on his wrist and uttered Val’s personal code.

“What is it?” said Val as her image suddenly appeared, hovering above the table.

“Time for some R-and-R,” said Cole. “We don’t have any paychecks, but let’s get the money David collected for us and pay the crew.”

“Past time,” she responded.

“Where’s the best place to go, preferably a world that’s more than a thousand light-years from the Republic? Something the crew will like, with the facilities to patch up the ship.”

“There’s only one place,” answered Val, her face lighting up. “But it’s not a world.”

“What is it?”

“Have you ever heard of Singapore Station?”

“Maybe once or twice, in passing,” said Cole. “I figured it was just a space station.”

“Sure,” said Val. “And the Crab Nebula is just a little flickering light in the sky.”

3

It had taken literally a millennium for Singapore Station to attain its current form. Parts of it were almost fifteen centuries old. Parts were still being built. And parts had not yet even been conceived, let alone built.

It began almost eleven hundred years earlier, in the 883rd year of the Galactic Era. Two small space stations, built midway between the Genoa and the Kalatina systems, were splitting all the business in the sector and fast going broke. So, in desperation, their owners decided to form a partnership. The two stations were moved to a midpoint by space tugs, workmen and robots labored for a month joining them physically, and when they reopened they found that business was booming.

Word went out from that time and place that profits increased with size, and independent stations all over the Inner Frontier began joining like lost lovers. By the fourteenth century G.E. there were dozens of such super-stations across the Frontier, and they kept combining and growing. By the sixteenth century almost two hundred such stations had combined into one enormous station—Singapore Station—that was as heavily populated as any colony world, and measured some seven miles in diameter (though “diameter” is a misleading term, since the station was not circular). It consisted of nine levels, and docking facilities that could handle almost ten thousand ships, from huge military and passenger vessels to the little one- and two-man jobs that were commonplace on the Frontier.

They tried a few other names, but because the super-station catered to all races, they eventually went back to Singapore Station, since men were still the dominant race on the Frontier and Singapore had been a fabled international city back on old Earth.

Singapore Station was halfway between the Republic and the huge black hole at the galactic core, and eventually it occurred to warring parties—there were always wars going on in the galaxy—that they needed a Switzerland, a neutral territory where all sides could meet in safety and secrecy, where currencies could be exchanged, where men and aliens could come and go regardless of their political and military affiliation. (In fact, there was some sentiment for renaming it Zurich Station, but the original name was already too well known to change.)

The station’s neutrality had, for the most part, been respected. Now and then a soldier, a sailor, or a diplomat was killed or kidnapped, but despite the total lack of law enforcement (or, for that matter, laws) on the station such incidents occurred much less often than on any populated world.

Singapore Station was known as a wide-open venue. Whorehouses catering to all sexes and species abounded. So did bars, drug dens, casinos, huge open black markets (because by definition no item was illegal or contraband on Singapore Station). There were elegant hotels, comparable to the finest on Deluros VIII, and because of the nature of the business that was sometimes done behind their closed doors, the security was outstanding. There were gourmet restaurants, side by side with slop houses, as well as alien restaurants catering to more than one hundred non-human species.

There was no weapon that one couldn’t buy at Singapore Station, no vessel short of a military ship that wasn’t for sale. There were assay offices that evaluated what independent miners from other worlds had dug up. There were legitimate medical facilities, and there were quacks of last resort for those who couldn’t be cured by the former. There were legal robots and illegal androids (and at least two brothels that specialized in providing androids of both sexes).

Four of the levels had what had come to be known as Standard gravity and atmosphere, though no one ever knew if that was Earth Standard or Deluros Standard—and since they were almost identical, no one really cared. There was a level for chlorine breathers, one for methane breathers, another for ammonia breathers, and one small level with no atmosphere at all, where space-suited men and spacesuited aliens could meet as uncomfortable equals. A middle level provided automatic transport for all.

“That’s the biggest damned thing I ever saw!” said Vladimir Sokolov, staring at a viewscreen as Wxakgini maneuvered the ship on its final approach to the enormous docking facility, which provided visitors with a monorail taking them the final miles to the station itself.

“There have got to be some friendly Molarian females in a place that big!” said Forrice. “As soon as we land, Lieutenant Braxite and I are going looking for them.”

“I’m glad to see you’ve got your priorities in order,” said Cole ­sardonically.

“You don’t understand, Wilson,” said Forrice.

“Enlighten me.”

“You say that our two races are so similar, because we’re the only two species that can laugh and have a sense of humor. But there is one major difference.”

“Which I hear about every day.”

“If Sharon Blacksmith was glad to see you for only three days every eight months, you’d know a little something about our priorities.”

“Someday I really must give you a book on Zen Buddhism and self-denial as the spiritual road to enlightenment,” said Cole.

But Forrice and Braxite were too busy studying maps of the station to pay him any further attention.

As Cole had predicted, Christine volunteered to stay on the ship, and he selected four more to remain with her for two Standard days, at which point five crew members would return to the ship and Christine and the other four would be free to visit the various attractions of Singapore Station. Christine offered to stay on the ship the whole time it was docked and being repaired, but Cole insisted that she take her turn in the station, even if she did nothing but rent a room and take a fiction cube along.

The ship docked, Cole had Mustapha Odom show the mechanics exactly what needed repairing or reinforcing, and then shore leave commenced. Cole remained on board until everyone but his senior officers had left.

“I can’t imagine anything will go wrong,” he said to Christine, “but don’t hesitate to contact me if there’s any problem, no matter how slight.”

“I won’t, sir,” she replied. “Have a good time, sir.”

“I plan to,” said Cole. “And the first thing I’m going to do is eat a steak made of real meat, instead of these goddamned soya imitations I’ve been forcing down for the past few years.”

“We’re off,” said Forrice as he and Braxite walked to the airlift. “Wish us luck.”

“I think I’ll wish it to any lady Molarians who can’t duck fast enough,” said Cole.

Both Molarians responded with hoots of alien laughter as they descended to the exit hatch.

“Well, there’s just you and me left, Val,” he said to the tall redhead. “What do you plan to do there, or don’t I want to know?”

“I plan to drink up a storm,” was her reply. “Then I plan to hunt up the grubbiest, dirtiest bar on the station and fight up a storm. And finally, if anyone’s left standing, I plan to fuck up a storm.”

“Well, I like a sweet, innocent, refined young lady who knows her own mind,” said Cole. “Have fun.”

“You’re coming with me,” said Val.

“It’s thoughtful of you to ask, but I’m meeting Sharon for dinner.”

“It’ll wait.”

“I don’t know how to break this to you gently,” said Cole, “but drinking and fighting are not my idea of a good time.”

“What about fucking?”

“I’m very fond of it, but it sounds kind of indiscriminate the way you describe it.”

“Of course it’s indiscriminate,” she replied. “I’m never going to see any of them again.”

“Good luck to you and good luck to them, but I’m off to dinner.”

She reached out and closed her hand over his biceps. “You really want to come with me.”

“Why?”

“Because you want to meet the man who runs Singapore Station.”

“And you know him?”

“Of course I do,” she replied. “I rode the Inner Frontier spaceways as a pirate for thirteen years, remember?” She paused. “Think about it. This is the guy who knows every deal that’s going down here.”

“I’m sure that’s useful to a pirate,” began Cole without much enthusiasm. “But...”

“Think, Wilson!” she said forcefully. “He’ll know everyone who needs protection, or soon will need it. He’ll know everyone who needs a little muscle to get a job done. He’ll know who will pay and who won’t, who you can trust and who you can’t turn your back on.”

“And he’ll tell it all to a friend of the redheaded Pirate Queen?” suggested Cole.

“You got it.”

“I guess I’m coming with you,” said Cole.

“Let’s go.” She led him to the airlift.

“As soon as I let Sharon know I’ll be late,” said Cole. He left her a quick message, then joined Val as they stepped onto the cushion of air and began descending. “By the way,” he asked, “what’s the name of this pillar of the community?”

“The Platinum Duke.”

“What’s he got—a bunch of platinum rings on his fingers?”

Val smiled in amusement. “You’ll see soon enough,” she promised him.

4

“It’s a world of its own,” said Cole as they wandered down the metal corridor that was as broad as any street, passing scores of metal-and-glass storefronts. “How do they light it?”

“The metal on the ceiling has been chemically treated. It generates its own light.”

“You mean it’s phosphorescent?”

Val shook her head. “That just reflects light. This generates it.” She smiled. “It’s a twenty-four-hour-a-day city—or however many hours you’re used to in a day. It never sleeps, it never gets dark, it never slows down.”

“How many permanent residents are there?” asked Cole.

She shrugged. “Maybe sixty thousand, maybe more. If they’re permanent, they either work here or they’re hiding from the law, the Navy, or from someone on the Inner Frontier who’s after them. I’m told that on any given day there are about half a million Men and aliens here who aren’t permanent residents.”

“I had no idea it was this big.”

“No reason why you should have. You were fighting a war against the Teroni Federation, and they tell me you were stationed to hell and gone on the Rim. But your Fleet Admiral Susan Garcia knows it’s here.”

“She’s been here?” said Cole, surprised.

“Twice,” answered Val. “Both times to arrange prisoner exchanges with the Teronis.”

“Is that hearsay, or did you actually see her here?”

“I saw her once. Did you ever meet her?”

“Yeah, we’ve met,” said Cole with an ironic smile. “We don’t get along very well.”

“She’s the one who demoted you?”

“Twice,” said Cole. “On the other hand, she also gave me three of my Medals of Courage. Begrudgingly.”

“Too bad she won’t be here today,” said Val. “You could settle some old scores.”

“She’s not the enemy,” said Cole. “She’s probably better qualified to run this war than anyone else. We just don’t see eye-to-eye on certain things.” He paused. “If you ever hear of a Polonoi officer named Podok coming here, that’s something I’d like to know about.”

“Podok?” repeated Val. “I’ve heard the crew mention that name. Wasn’t he the captain when you mutinied?”

“Yes...and Podok is a she.”

“Everyone says she deserved it.”

“She did,” replied Cole. “She was about to kill five million Men and destroy a planet rather than let the Teroni Fleet raid their fuel dump.”

“That’s what I heard,” agreed Val. “She must have been a real piece of work.”

“She was. But she’s still serving in the Navy, and I can never go back to the Republic.”

Val smiled. “Did anyone ever tell you life was fair?”

“Not lately,” he answered without smiling.

They continued walking, passing all sorts of bars and restaurants.

“Something’s wrong over there,” said Cole, indicating a somewhat narrower corridor that went off to their left.

“No, it’s fine.”

“Whatever they treated the ceiling with is wearing off,” he noted. “The lighting is half what it is here.”

“That’s for atmosphere,” said Val. “The two biggest whorehouses on the station are down that corridor.”

Cole peered into the dim light. “It sure doesn’t look like there’s anything that big down there.”

“Trust me, they’re there.”

“You’re a patron?”

“Once in a while.”

“You’re a gorgeous and exotic-looking woman,” said Cole. “I’m surprised you feel a need to pay for it.”

“Oh, I’d never pay a man,” she said. “The house on the left has nothing but androids.” She grinned. “I like their staying power.”

“Whatever makes you happy,” said Cole. Suddenly he tensed. “I think we’re being followed.”

“Figures,” she said. “There’s just two of us, and if we’re in this section of the station we’ve obviously got money to spend.”

Without warning she stopped and turned, and Cole followed suit. Three beings—one man and two Mollutei—were approaching them slowly, each armed with a dagger.

“Watch this,” whispered Val. “Good evening, gentlebeings,” she said aloud. “If you’ll drop your weapons and hand over your money, no one will get hurt.”

The man laughed instantly. It took a few seconds for the Mollutei’s T-packs to translate what she’d said, but then they croaked in amusement.

“Well,” said Val, stepping forward, “you can’t say you weren’t warned.”

It took Cole about five seconds to decide whether to step forward with her or draw his burner—and by then it was a moot point, because all three of their stalkers lay broken and moaning on the floor of the broad corridor, twitching in agony.

“Should we take their money?” asked Val. “After all, they were going to take ours.”

“No, we’re not thieves, at least not any longer. Let’s just tell the local police to round them up. I’ll fill out a statement later.”

“I told you—there aren’t any police on Singapore Station.”

“Then if we pass a hospital, we’ll tell them to come by and collect them.”

“And if we don’t?”

He shrugged. “That’s the risk you take when you become a thief.”

She laughed aloud, and the two of them began walking again without another backward glance.

“Let’s hope none of them shoots us in the back,” commented Cole.

“If they’d had any burners or screechers, they’d have shown them,” said Val with certainty. “You’re a lot more likely to give your money to someone who can kill you from ten yards away than someone who has to get close enough to stab you.” She nodded, as if to herself. “I think I’ll come back this way to do my serious drinking.”

They walked another fifty yards, then turned in to a small side corridor and came to a garish casino named Duke’s Place. Small furry aliens of a species that Cole had never seen before carried drink trays to the players, human and non-human alike, who crowded the tables.

“They never learn,” said Val, shaking her head. “Look at that table.”

“What’s the game?” asked Cole. “I don’t recognize it.”

“Jabob,” she replied. “I think it originated on Lodin XI, or maybe Moritat. Huge break for the house. Your money’ll last longer if you burn it to keep warm, but aliens just love that game.”

“I see a man at the table, too.”

“He’s just running the game for the house.”

“Fine,” said Cole. “I assume you didn’t take me here to gamble.”

“No,” she said, signaling to one of the small alien servers. “Tell the Duke that Joan of Arc is here.”

“Joan of Arc?” repeated Cole as the alien scurried off.

“I had a lot of names before you gave me this one,” answered Val.

The alien returned a moment later. “He will see you now,” it said through its T-pack.

“Let’s go,” said Val, starting off across the casino. Cole fell into step behind her, and they soon reached a sparkling curtain of almost solid light. When she was within three feet of it she stopped so suddenly that he almost bumped into her.

“What’s the problem?” he asked.

She picked up an empty glass from a nearby table and tossed it through the curtain. It was instantly atomized.

“Security system,” she explained.

They waited about half a minute, and then a voice said, “Enter, Joan of Arc. Commander Cole—or is it Captain again?—may enter too.”

Val stepped forward, and when she didn’t disappear Cole followed her into a large, lavishly furnished office. Colorful alien songbirds shared a golden cage that seemed to float in the air with no visible support. There were a pair of three-dimensional holographic scenes of distant worlds that were static until Cole turned to look at them, at which point the scenes became a flurry of motion, only to become static again when he looked elsewhere. The lush carpet yielded to their footsteps, then re-formed as they moved forward. Leather chairs that molded themselves to their occupants hovered a few inches above the floor, and there was a well-stocked bar along one wall. Two robots, even taller than Val, flanked a shining metal desk—but the most unusual thing in the room was the man who sat behind the desk.

At first Cole thought he was a robot too, but upon closer observation he wasn’t so sure. Most of him—arms, legs, torso, hands, feet, skull—was a sleek, shining metal, probably platinum. But the mouth and lips were definitely human, and there was a totally incongruous handlebar mustache swirling down from his upper lip. The left eye glowed an unholy blue, but the right eye possessed both iris and pupil. He was wearing a pair of sleek black shorts, with a tuxedo stripe down each leg.

“You didn’t prepare him, Joan,” said the man.

“It’s more fun to watch them when they first meet you,” replied Val. “And my name’s Val this week.”

“Cleopatra, Nefertiti, Joan of Arc...you just never tire of changing names. Who was Val?”

“It’s short for Valkyrie,” she replied.

“In that case I approve.” He turned to Cole. “And you are the man that the Republic is offering ten million credits for?”

Cole stared at him and said nothing.

“Do not worry, Wilson Cole,” he said. “I have no intention of selling you to the Republic. Singapore Station couldn’t stay in business if people stopped trusting our discretion. Allow me to properly introduce myself: I am the Platinum Duke.”

“So I see,” said Cole.

“Ah, but you only see the end result. There was a time, many years ago, when I was just like you. In fact, I served in the Navy. My captain was Susan Garcia, who has gone on to far greater things.”

“What happened?” asked Cole, curious in spite of himself.

“I lost my left leg in the Battle of Barbosa,” answered the Duke. “They gave me a prosthetic leg made, I believe, of a titanium alloy. The interesting thing is that it worked better than the original had: it never tired, it never felt pain, it could withstand extremes of cold and gravity.” He paused. “I was back on active duty four months later, just in time for the Battle of Tybor IV.”

“I’ve heard about that one,” said Cole. “I think we took eighty percent casualties.”

“Eighty-two percent,” said the Duke. “I was one of them. Lost both my arms and my left eye. They kept me alive long enough to transport me to a field hospital, where I was fitted out with prosthetic arms and an eye—and, as before, they functioned better than the originals. I was mustered out of the service shortly thereafter—I guess they felt that three limbs and an eye were enough to give to the Republic—and I came to the Inner Frontier, and eventually to Singapore Station. Along the way I’d made my fortune, we needn’t discuss how, and I decided that platinum was more in keeping with my new status than titanium. I also decided that while I was undergoing these...improvements, I might as well go the whole route: another leg, eardrums, epidermis, all but a small handful of things. All that remains of the original me, Captain Cole, is my mouth and taste buds—I couldn’t live without the ability to taste my favorite foods and drink—and I kept my lips, because I am a vain man (if I weren’t why would I have converted to platinum?) and I was always proud of my mustache. My right eye remains for a practical reason: though my left eye sees farther and more clearly, and can even see into the infrared and ultraviolet spectrums, it does not adjust to changes in illumination as quickly as my real pupil does. All else—heart, lungs, you name it—is artificial.” Suddenly he smiled. “With one exception. I was assured that I could ex­perience sexual pleasure with an artificial organ, but I was unwilling to trust them. I mean, if they were wrong, I couldn’t go back...so I have retained my own organ. That is why I am wearing these ridiculous shorts—out of consideration for poor innocents like Val here.”

“That explains the Platinum,” said Cole. “What about the Duke?”

“Simple. I run Singapore Station. It is my fiefdom; I am its duke.”

“It’s a lot for one man to run,” commented Cole.

“So is a starship,” responded the Duke. “We each have the power of life and death over our serfs.”

“I don’t have any serfs.”

“Then by all means let us call them honored subordinates,” said the Duke. “I shall be meeting one of them in another two hours.”

“Let me guess,” said Cole. “David Copperfield?”

“How did you know?”

“He’s the only member of my ship besides Val who’s ever been here before,” answered Cole. “At least, I assumed he’d been here. I know none of the others have.”

“Remarkable creature, isn’t he?” said the Platinum Duke. “And how he cherishes that Dickens collection of his!”

“His appearance doesn’t bother you?” asked Cole. “I mean, a very strange-looking alien dressed up exactly like Pickwick or Sydney Carlton?”

“What would you think of me if I criticized the way someone else looked?” said the Duke with a smile that displayed his platinum teeth. “By the way, have you any idea what he wants to see me about?”

“To put himself right with me,” said Cole.

“I beg your pardon?”

“It’s a long story,” said Cole. “Suffice it to say that the Theodore Roosevelt is now in the mercenary business. I’ve been told, as I’m sure David has, that you are the best source for determining who might need our services, what they are willing to pay, and whether they can be counted on to give us accurate information and to honor their financial commitments.”

“Easily done,” said the Duke. “Ordinarily I would charge ten percent for my services, but because you are in the company of the remarkable Valkyrie, and especially because you are in the bad graces of Susan Garcia, who kept ordering me into harm’s way and saw to it that there are pieces of me all across the Teroni Federation, I will charge you only five percent. How does that strike you?”

“It seems fair,” said Cole. “But there’s one more thing.”

“Isn’t there always?” said the Duke. “Shall I guess?”

“If it makes you happy.”

“You don’t want to get in a situation where you’re overmatched,” suggested the Duke. “After all, you haven’t mentioned any support ships, any backup capabilities of any kind whatsoever.”

“True,” agreed Cole. “But that’s a given. What I had in mind were some ethical considerations.”

“Ethical considerations in a mercenary?” said the Duke, laughing. “Now, that’s a novel concept!”

“I’m glad you’re so easily amused,” said Cole dryly. “We won’t provide military support for anyone dealing in drugs. We won’t supply military support for any action that will serve the purposes of the Teroni Federation. And we won’t provide military support for any action that will be detrimental to the Republic or its Navy. We may be on the run from them, but we spent our lives serving their cause and we won’t go to war with them.”

“You’d feel differently if you were wearing some artificial limbs,” said the Duke.

“Perhaps, but I’m not.”

“All right,” said the Duke. “In point of fact, your ethical considerations probably don’t eliminate more than three or four percent of the people, planets, and interests that would be interested in your services.”

“Fine,” said Cole. “Lay the best of them out for David when he shows up, and understand that he is not empowered to commit the Theodore Roosevelt to any action. Only I can do that. He’ll bring your various proposals to me, and I’ll make my decision. I’ll probably get back to you with some questions first.”

“That is satisfactory,” said the Duke. “When David shows up tonight I will send him away and tell him to come back in another day or two. I know who are the likeliest to require your services, but I cannot possibly contact them all before David arrives.”

“Fair enough,” said Cole. “I’m sure we’ll meet again. Val can stay if she wants, but I’m late for a dinner appointment.”

“Oh? Where?”

“Some place called the Fatted Calf.”

“When you get there, a table in a private room will be waiting for you,” said the Duke. “There will be no bill for you or any member of your party.”

“You own it?” asked Cole.

“No.”

“Then...?”

“I am not without friends on Singapore Station,” said the Platinum Duke with a modest smile. “I trust you are about to become one of them.”

He extended his hand, and Cole took it. “Sounds good to me. I have a feeling we’re going to need all the friends we can get.”

5

The ship was repaired in five days.

As his crew staggered in, Cole had a feeling that it would take more than five days to repair them.

Forrice never said a word. He simply returned to the Teddy R with a big alien grin on his face, went off to his cabin, and slept for thirty hours. Braxite looked almost as happy and slept almost as long. Jacillios, the third Molarian on the ship, had clearly gone to the wrong place: he came back in a foul mood and didn’t sleep at all.

Vladimir Sokolov, Bull Pampas, Malcolm Briggs, Luthor Chadwick, and the two newest human members of the team, James Nichols and Dan Moyer, hit every bar they could find, then hit them all again.

Cole had no idea what Jaxtaboxl, the ship’s only Mollutei, did for fun, and he didn’t even want to think about how Lieutenant Domak, a warrior-caste Polonoi, blew off steam. He knew that Rachel Marcos, Idena Mueller, and some of the other human women had gone to see some plays—there was even an all-Shakespeare theater on the station —and had put together a list of restaurants and safe nightclubs based on the Duke’s recommendations. Bujandi, the ship’s only Pepon, was always talking about the savannahs and vistas on his home planet. He returned sullen and morose, and Cole had a feeling he’d gone looking for something green on Singapore Station and wasn’t exactly thrilled with the scenery he’d found.

Val was one of the last to return. She was nursing a black eye, a split lip, heavily bandaged knuckles, a hangover, and a very contented smile.

That left only Christine Mboya. He was surprised that she wasn’t in the vanguard of those returning to the ship, and began getting worried as more crew members returned and he’d had no word from her. He was about to send out a search party when she showed up, looking exactly as she’d looked when she left—well groomed, well manicured, totally poised. She explained that her hotel’s computer had crashed, and she’d spent the last two days helping them get it up and running again. Cole was about to voice his sympathy when he decided that fixing the computer was probably the most fun she could have had while on the station.

As for Cole himself, he’d eaten his steak dinner and spent a romantic night in a suite with Sharon, but he simply wasn’t interested in gambling, drinking, black-market goods, and brothels, and he returned to the ship within two days, not to leave again. Sharon had beaten him back by almost half a day.

He was idly wondering just how much rest and recuperation time the crew would need to get over their R-and-R on Singapore Station when David Copperfield’s image appeared.

“I hope I’m not intruding, Steerforth,” said the alien. “But I’ve had two conferences with the Platinum Duke, and I think it’s time you and I discussed our options.”

“Our options?” said Cole, arching an eyebrow.

“Of course I meant your options,” said Copperfield hastily. “When would be a convenient time for you?”

“You, Christine, and I are the only three people capable of carrying on a cogent conversation at this moment, and she’s busy running the ship, so now’s as good a time as any.”

“Your office?”

“Yeah, I think so,” said Cole. “I’d love to do it over lunch, but there’s no sense letting anyone overhear us until I’ve made up my mind.”

“I’ll be there in five minutes,” said Copperfield. “I just have to gather my notes.”

He broke the connection, and Sharon’s holographic image immediately popped into the office.

“So I’m not fit to carry on a cogent conversation?” she said.

“Your job is snooping on them, not participating in them,” said Cole. “Or you could spy on everyone else and tell me how many crew members are puking our their guts.”

“You have such a delicate way of expressing yourself,” said Sharon.

“One of us was not into delicate expressions a couple of nights ago, or need I remind you?” said Cole.

“That’s it. Good-bye forever.”

“Then you won’t mind if I take back those flowers I bought you and give them to Rachel Marcos.”

“I strongly advise you to reach for the flowers with your left hand. That way, after I cut it off you’ll still have your right hand to salute with.”

“How thoughtful,” said Cole. “I think what I like best about you is that you’re always looking out for me.”

“Especially when you’re sneaking up behind me,” said Sharon. “Dinner at 1800 hours?”

“It’s a date.”

“I’d better sign off. Here comes your schoolmate.”

Her image vanished just as the door irised to let David Copperfield through.

“How did you enjoy your shore leave, Steerforth?” asked Copperfield pleasantly.

“Are you ever going to address me by my real name?”

“Probably not,” replied the alien. “What difference does it make? We both know who I mean.”

“We’d both know who I meant if I started calling you Hamlet, or maybe Raskolnikov.”

“But you wouldn’t,” said Copperfield. “You’re too considerate of other people’s feelings.”

“That could be viewed as a serious flaw in a starship captain,” noted Cole.

“I really don’t know. The immortal Charles never dealt with starship captains.”

“One of life’s tragedies,” said Cole. “Are we going to talk like this much more, or can we get down to business?”

“Business, to be sure,” said Copperfield. “Do you mind if I sit down?”

“Pull up a chair,” said Cole. “But I don’t think you’ll find it very comfortable. I could send for one that will suit you better.”

“Nonsense,” said Copperfield, sitting awkwardly on a chair and shifting his weight uncomfortably. “This is precisely the kind of chair we had in school.”

“So what have you got for me?”

“Even I would reject the two that pay the most,” said the alien. “Shall I even describe them for you?”

“Don’t bother,” said Cole. “If you think they’re too dangerous, that’s good enough for me. I’ve experienced what you didn’t think was too dangerous.”

Copperfield spent the next ten minutes going over the six other offers that the Platinum Duke had solicited. Cole rejected two of them because there was too much likelihood that the forces he would be up against could draw upon additional support from allies. A third put them too close to the Republic, and while he’d changed the ship’s registration papers and external insignia, it was still very clearly a Republic warship, and the Navy knew that there was only one Re­public warship on the Inner Frontier. Theoretically the Navy couldn’t come after him as long as he stayed on the Frontier, but “hot pursuit” could be a very elastic term, and he decided not to chance it.

That left two proposals. One required him to take back a city that had fallen under a local warlord’s rule, and that meant fighting on the ground, house to house, with a force of thirty. It was estimated there were some two hundred of the warlord’s soldiers there, and while he was sure his crew would have superior weapons and tactics, he couldn’t be certain that the warlord might not deploy even more men rather than lose the city.

So it came down, rather easily, to Djamara II, an oxygen planet with considerable gold and silver deposits. There was no sentient native population. An independent mining company had laid claim to the mineral rights, and had begun mining the world some six years earlier. Eventually a regional warlord got wind of what they were digging out of the ground, and made a grab for it. The company was no newcomer to this sort of banditry. They’d hired a small militia, which had twice repelled the warlord’s attacks. But they took heavy losses during the second attack, and the company had decided that they would achieve victory more easily by hiring a starship than by fighting on the ground.

“Why didn’t the warlord just poison the air and kill them all?” asked Cole. “It’s easy enough to do.”

“This isn’t a war, Steerforth,” answered Copperfield. “His army has no more interest in mining gold and silver than the Teddy R’s crew does. He wants to steal what they have, or make some kind of deal whereby they’ll pay him a tribute to leave them alone. He does not want to put his elite warriors to work digging for minerals.”

“Okay, that makes sense,” said Cole. “This is unfamiliar territory to us. We’ll learn, just as we learned piracy.” He paused. “What’s the bottom line here?”

“They’ll pay four million credits, or two million Maria Theresa dollars, or fifteen percent of their annual production for two years if we’ll take this warlord and his army out once and for all.”

Cole shook his head. “That’s your bottom line, David. Mine is: What’s the opposition. Who are we up against, how many ships has he got, and what kind of firepower has he got?”

“Now we’re depending on the Platinum Duke’s sources,” answered David. “I told him you’d like this one the best, so he’s been finding out everything he can. As near as he has been able to tell, the Rock of Ages has six ships—”

“Hold on a minute,” interrupted Cole. “The Rock of Ages?”

“That’s right.”

“And the Platinum Duke, and Cleopatra, and Joan of Arc, and the Hammerhead Shark. Doesn’t anybody use a real name around here?”

“Welcome to the Inner Frontier,” said David Copperfield with a smile. “Since there are no laws, we’re free to be whatever we want to be—and that means we’re free to call ourselves whatever we want to call ourselves. Most people change names out here as often as you’d change ships or dwellings back in the Republic. I think it’s colorful.”

“I think it’s ridiculous,” said Cole. He grimaced. “Okay, go on.”

“The Rock had six ships four months ago. He might have added a seventh since then; nobody seems to know.”

“That’s a lot of ships to go up against,” said Cole, frowning.

“You won’t have to,” said Copperfield. “He’s keeping four worlds under his thumb. He doesn’t dare take ships away from them, or they might have some unpleasant surprises waiting for him when he comes back.”

“So the most we’re likely to face is two ships...” mused Cole.

“Three, if he’s added another.”

“Can the Duke find out before I accept the job?”

The alien shrugged. “I don’t know. He’s been trying for three days, and he hasn’t found out yet.”

“That means two ships,” said Cole decisively. “If they’ve got a new one and the Platinum Duke, with all his sources, can’t find out, that means it’s in use somewhere, and isn’t likely to come to Djamara II until it gets a distress signal, at which point we’ve put one or both of the other ships out of commission.”

“So you’re interested?” said Copperfield.

“Yes, I’m interested,” replied Cole. “It’ll only be two-on-one, neither of them should be as powerful or well armed as the Teddy R, especially since we added the weaponry from Val’s old ship, and we’ll have the element of surprise on our side.” He paused. “And it’s nice to know we’re preventing a warlord from plundering a planet.”

“Does that really matter to you?” asked Copperfield curiously.

“It’s what we trained for, David,” answered Cole. “It’s the reason a lot of us joined the military.”

“I thought it was because you were drafted.”

“That’s another reason,” said Cole wryly. He paused thoughtfully, then spoke again. “Once we blow this bastard’s first two ships out of the sky, maybe we’ll pay a visit to each of the other four worlds he’s holding captive. One ship apiece, it should be child’s play.”

“You’d do that just because it’s the moral thing?”

“Well, if each world we freed felt it incumbent upon themselves to pay us a thank-you fee, I wouldn’t try to discourage them.”

“By God, Steerforth,” said David Copperfield enthusiastically, “now you’re thinking like a mercenary!”

Starship: Mercenary © Mike Resnick

1 comment:

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