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"Prisoner McCade!" The guard's voice cut through the soft murmur like a knife. What light there was glazed the surface of things and left the rest dark.
The other prisoners drifted away leaving McCade to stand alone. They had enough trouble without borrowing any of his.
McCade was dirty, his leathers were ripped, and his black hair fell down around his shoulders in thick, greasy coils. But there was no fear in his cool gray eyes or in the set of his long, lean body.
The guard shifted his considerable weight from one foot to the other and gripped the nerve lash more tightly. "Are you McCade?"
McCade smiled. "No ... I'm Grand Admiral Keaton. Is my fleet ready?"
A wide variety of rude noises issued forth from the surrounding darkness. Behind his face shield the guard flushed. "Very funny, pit slime. Now move."
McCade obeyed. Something heavy fell into his stomach as he stepped aboard the lift disk. Bad though Pit 47 was, there'd been reason to hope. Maybe Rico would come back. Maybe he'd escape slavery in the mines. But that was gone now. Each day the guards took one or two prisoners away and now it was his turn.
McCade held out both hands, wrists touching. The guard gave a grunt of satisfaction as he locked the nerve shackles in place. Any attempt to remove them would result in unbelievable agony.
The guard was a big man with thick eyebrows, meaty lips, and an enormous jaw. "This is Duncan in Pit 47. I've got prisoner McCade on disk two."
The voice in his ear was bored. "Code."
Duncan subvocalized so McCade couldn't hear. "Mary four Mary."
The disk hummed softly as it floated them upward. It, and another just like it, were the only way in or out of Pit 47. Each disk would lift two, and only two, people. Even if the prisoners killed the pit guards and took both disks, only four of them could lift. And without the proper code they'd be killed long before they reached the reception station up above.
The anti-grav disks were expensive, but what the hell, the Molarians had credits to burn. Molaria, was the single known source of Nerlinium Crystals, and as everyone knows, Nerlinium Crystals are a very important component in hyperdrives.
Molaria was an artifact world, one of the mysterious planets once home to a long-vanished race, now part of the human empire. Having learned the secrets of hyperdrive from artifacts the aliens had left behind, humans had also discovered the value of the ancient mines that dotted the surface of Molaria. From those mines came Nerlinium Crystals, and from the crystals came untold wealth, some of which had gone into lift disks for Pit 47.
All of which did very little to comfort Sam McCade as the disk carried him upward. More than a hundred feet of smooth featureless wall went by before the disk stopped and the guard motioned for him to get off.
A muscle in his left check began to twitch as McCade stepped off the disk. He'd been in a lot of tight spots during his years as a bounty hunter, but this was one of the tightest. What had started out as a routine trip to buy some spare drive crystals had turned into a nightmare.
After a routine landing he and Rico had approached a crystal dealer with a perfectly reasonable offer. She'd countered with an attempt to rob them, and even though they managed to escape, both men were soon running for their lives.
Running out of her store, they spotted three of the local riding animals. Having climbed aboard two of the creatures, they shot the third in a futile attempt to delay pursuit and headed for the spaceport at top speed. Once aboard McCadde's ship they stood a good chance of getting off-planet alive. Pegasus was well armed and damned fast.
But they'd have to get there first and that wouldn't be easy. Like most dealers this one had her own security guards and they gave chase. Minutes later the guards were joined by a squad of Molarian mounted police and a posse of bloodthirsty citizens, all of whom were experts at riding their three legged bouncers.
Each of the sauroids has two powerful hind legs and a single foreleg located at the center of its chest. As the rear legs push off the foreleg functions as a pivot bearing the animal's weight until the hind legs hit the ground again. As a result the animals bounce up and down, which explains both their name and why it takes some practice to ride them.
McCade was thrown off time after time. The falls hurt and burned precious seconds at the same time. Seconds they desperately needed to reach the spaceport in time.
Maybe it was his childhood on a farm, or the many years spent living on primitive worlds, but whatever the reason Rico took to the bouncers naturally. He seemed glued to the plastic saddle as he shouted for people to get out of the way and led McCade through a maze of side streets.
But their pursuers were catching up and as McCade went down for the sixth time he yelled for Rico to leave him.
Rico was a big man, a friend who had fought at McCade's side many times and who rarely ran from anything. But as he spun his animal around, Rico saw the situation was hopeless. The posse was closer now, only a thousand yards away, and if it came to a fight, the two of them wouldn't stand a chance.
Rico tossed McCade an informal salute and shouted, "Keep an eye peeled, ol' sport, I'll be back." Then he wheeled his bouncer and took off.
The mob was closer now with only the narrowness of the street to slow them down. It was a thundering mass that rippled up and down as it moved.
McCade drew his weapon and fired over their heads. Suddenly the mob came apart as groups of riders spurted into side streets and alleys.
But they were back moments later brandishing a wild variety of hardware and screaming at the top of their lungs. But Rico had a good head start by this time and McCade was lying facedown spread-eagled on the pavement. He hoped they'd take him alive.
And they had, though not without a beating, and a quick trip to Pit 47. All for nothing though, since Rico hadn't come back, and they were taking him to God knows where.
McCade did as he was told, stripping off his leathers and submitting to a body search. There were four guards now and they were visibly disappointed when they failed to turn up a homemade blaster or nuclear warhead. Something like that would justify a beating and beatings were their main source of entertainment.
They shoved him into a cubicle with a lot more force than was necessary and slammed the door. It was small and dark like the inside of a coffin. McCade was about to attack the door when a red light came on and a hard spray hit him from every direction. The dirt seemed to slide off his skin and the spray reeked of disinfectant.
McCade gave a sigh of relief. It was some sort of decontamination booth. They didn't want him spreading any nasty diseases to the good citizens of Molaria.
When the chemical bath was over the booth beeped and the door popped open. McCade felt very naked as he stepped outside.
"Come on, pit slime." It was the guard with the enormous jaw.
"How 'bout my clothes?"
"Clothes?" the guard asked with a big grin. "You don't need clothes. You're beautiful just the way you are. Isn't that right, guys?"
There was a loud chorus of guffaws and rude suggestions as the other guards assured McCade that he didn't need any clothes.
"Move." The word was accompanied by a shove between the shoulder blades.
McCade moved. The guard with the enormous jaw walked in front with a second guard following along behind. The second guard enjoyed prodding McCade with the handle of his nerve lash.
At first there wasn't much to see, just the perfect smoothness of ancient walls and the guard posts located by each pit.
The pits were vertical shafts that the long-lost aliens had drilled searching for crystals. Being a practical people, the citizens of Molaria had put the shafts to use. All it took was a small investment of time and energy to make them into excellent holding pens. A lighted sign marked each pit head, and McCade noticed that the numbers were getting smaller, twenty-one, twenty, nineteen, and so on.
The numbers eventually dwindled away, four, three, two, one, and a bank of lift tubes. One was designated "Prisoners Only," and that was the one they stepped into.
The platform carried them smoothly upward and stopped at a busy corridor. McCade recognized one of the main subsurface tunnels that crisscrossed Molaria Prime.
The city had three distinct levels. The surface where McCade was captured, the subsurface level where he was now, and the deeps where he would go next.
That's where the slaves worked, lungs gasping for breath, eyes bulging as they searched for the glitter of a Nerlinium Crystal in the dark matrix of ancient rock. A crystal meant a double ration of food, a day off, and sex for those who still cared.
But all that was invisible up here where well-dressed citizens strolled the brightly lit tunnels talking business or just killing time.
McCade felt completely and terribly exposed as the guards led him out into the tunnel. He thought all eyes were on him at first, seeing his nakedness, his complete vulnerability. But then he noticed how their eyes slid past him to look at something else. They didn't want to see him. He might remind them of the slaves, of the crystals they scratched from the rock, and the tainted money that flowed into their hungry pockets. No, it was better not to see, not to know where the naked man was going or what would happen to him.
McCade wondered if he'd done the same thing. He too had walked these halls and for the life of him couldn't remember any naked prisoners. Had he tuned them out? Too busy with his own affairs to really see? He couldn't be sure.
McCade forced his head up, straightened his back, and put a spring into his step. He made it a point to meet their eyes and smile. Maybe one of them would see and remember.
The guards led him through a maze of tunnels and corridors until they arrived in front of a steel gate. A pair of guards lounged to either side, their blast rifles hung on slings, their visors tilted up and back. The smaller of the two spoke. "What's this, Dunc? More pit slime?"
Duncan nodded as the other guards opened the gate and shoved McCade inside. "That's about the size of it, Mac. You'll like him. He's got a sense of humor."
"Oh, goody," Mac said approvingly. "Maybe he'll tell the judge some jokes. The judge likes jokes."
Duncan laughed and slapped Mac on the back. "Take care, Mac ... I'll see you at shift end."
"Sounds good," Mac replied. "You can buy me a beer."
Duncan waved as he walked away, secretly glad to be rid of the man with the gray eyes, and ashamed of feeling that way. The man scared him, and since he was the one with the nerve lash, that didn't seem right.
The gate crashed closed and McCade found himself in a tiled room. A stiff spray lanced down to sting his skin and wash the slime off his feet.
Sixty seconds later the water stopped, a beeper beeped, and a door hissed open. "Prisoner McCade, step forward and be judged." The voice came from nowhere and everywhere at once.
There was little point in doing otherwise. McCade stepped through the door and found himself in a large, noisy room.
To the left, row after row of shabby theater-style seats slanted up to a dingy ceiling. The aisles were filled with garbage, and for that matter so were the seats, for McCade had never seen a sleazier crowd.
There were spacers waiting for an outbound berth, prospectors building a new stake, and even a sprinkling of aliens doing God knows what. All were talking, gesturing, and loudly vying for one another's attention. McCade felt like the main attraction at a Roman circus.
A raised platform stood off to the right. On it there was a formal-looking desk, and behind the desk there was a vast fat man, busily eating a large meal. At the moment his greasy fingers were busily dismembering a small carcass. The scattering of bones around his chair suggested that the meal had been under way for some time.
A quick check of the audience revealed that many of them were similarly engaged, although at least one pair of Zords seemed to be making love, though it's hard to tell with Zords. To the untrained eye Zordian sex acts look very similar to the ritual wrestling patterns they use to mark the summer solstice.
McCade looked for somewhere to go, something to do, but a burly guard shook his head. So he stood there instead, shivering under a cold air vent, and hoping the fat man would choke on a bone. He didn't.
He ate until the food was gone, belched his approval, and tossed his plate aside. Then he wiped his fingers on the front of his robe, blew his nose, and cleared his throat.
This was such an obvious signal that McCade expected the crowd to quiet down. But they didn't and the noise continued unabated.
The fat man frowned. Reaching inside his robes, he brought out a huge slug gun. Pointing it toward the audience, he pulled the trigger. The gun roared and a pimp sitting in the last row lost his hat.
The room fell silent. The fat man grinned his satisfaction and made the gun disappear. "That's better. We'll have order in this court or I'll know the reason why."
The fat man picked up a printout, blew the crumbs off it, and turned toward McCade. "My name's Benjamin Borga, a duly qualified judge in the courts of Molaria and a helluva nice guy."
Borga turned his attention back to the printout without waiting for McCade's response. "Let the record show that one Sam McCade stands before the court accused of serious crimes and subject to Molarian law."
Here Borga paused and smiled at the crowd. They cheered in anticipation of what he'd say next. "Also present is a jury of McCade's peers, duly sworn in and ready to earn the princely sum of fifty credits for a hard day's work."
The crowd cheered even louder.
Now McCade understood. The crowd was a paid jury. That's why it was heavily loaded with indigents, drifters, and petty criminals.
"The law clerk will now read a list of McCade's crimes."
The stentorian voice was back, and this time McCade realized it was a computer, and a somewhat pompous computer at that.
"Citizen Sam McCade stands accused of attempted fraud, animal theft, destruction of private property, reckless riding, felonious flight from the law, attempted murder, resisting arrest, and disrespect for an officer of the law."
Borga slumped back in his chair and stared at the ceiling. "So, McCade, how do you plead?"
McCade looked around. Some of the so-called jurors were still eating, others were asleep, and the rest were talking among themselves. The whole thing was a joke. He was about to say so when the courtroom doors burst open, a section leader yelled, "Freeze!" and twenty Imperial Marines trotted into the room.
They wore full armor and carried their blast rifles at port arms. Within seconds they had established interlocking lines of fire that covered the entire audience.
An uneasy murmur swept through the crowd. Some of the jurors got up to leave but took their seats again when the section leader used his energy rifle to punch holes in the durocrete wall over their heads.
A tall, slim man strode into the courtroom a few seconds later. He wore armor with the stars of a full admiral welded to both shoulder plates and carried a helmet tucked under his right arm. He was good-looking in a carefully groomed way, and as he approached the bench, he surveyed the room with obvious distaste.
Borga was on his feet. His face was beet red and his piggy little eyes glared with malevolence. "Who the hell are you? How dare you invade my courtroom? I demand to know the meaning of this!"
The admiral stopped, looked at Borga, and frowned. "It means that you are in deep trouble. My name is Swanson-Pierce. Now shut up and sit down."
Swanson-Pierce turned toward McCade. "Hello, Sam." He looked the bounty hunter up and down. "You've never been an example of sartorial elegance ... but this is absurd."
Excerpted from Alien Bounty by William C. Dietz. Copyright © 1990 William C. Dietz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted December 29, 2009
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Posted February 15, 2011
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