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The outer layers of the icecat's body had frozen during the night. Now he was trapped. Panic began to crowd in around his thoughts, but he pushed it back, swallowing the bile which rose to fill his mouth, forcing himself to think rather than feel. Gritting his teeth, McCade slid one hand down to the cargo pocket on his right thigh, fumbled for a moment, and then retrieved the power knife. Moving carefully so he wouldn't drop it, he brought the knife up in front of him, flicked it on, and heard the reassuring hum as its sealed energy beam came to life. It sliced effortlessly through frozen flesh and bone. Moments later he was crawling out of the animal's carcass onto the snow and ice.
He stood slowly, stretching cramped muscles as he looked around. Nothing. The ship he'd heard must have landed some distance away.
Taking his helmet off, McCade strolled over to the other carcass and sat down. It was hard as rock, and somewhat ragged, since small animals had been nibbling on it during the night.
Grinning, he fumbled around inside his heatsuit for a moment, found a broken cigar, and lit the longer half with his lighter. He took a long satisfying drag. As he blew a thin streamer of smoke toward the sky, the sun suddenly broke through the clouds, and he felt its warmth touch his cheek. He smiled. It felt good to be alive.
A few moments later a familiar figure rounded an outcropping of rock and headed his way. McCade waved and the other man waved back. Rico moved easily for a big man. And he was big. His extra-large heatsuit bulged over his muscles, and his enormous strides quickly ate up the distance between them.
He looked at McCade and shook his head in pretended amazement. "Well, sport, I guess I've seen it all now." Rico's tiny eyes twinkled merrily as he spoke. "First ya catch an icecat and rip him apart with your bare hands. Then, just for the fun of it, ya ambush a second one and kill him too. No offense, Sam, but at this rate we're gonna run outta icecats in a week or so, and then what'll we do for fun?" Rico shook his head again in mock concern.
McCade grinned as he stood up and extinguished the cigar butt under the heel of his boot. "Very funny, Rico. Now cut the comedy, and give me a hand. I lost a couple of slug throwers around here somewhere ... and certain members of the Council are notoriously tight with a credit."
Rico laughed. "Tight ain't the word for it," he agreed. "Downright stingy's more like it. But as long as your wife's headin' the Council we'll be runnin' a tight ship. Hell, you're lucky Sara ain't countin' your ammo."
"Don't give her any ideas, Rico, or I'll be throwing rocks at icecats from now on."
"Speakin' o' which, Sam, how the hell'd ya manage ta get into this mess anyhow?"
While they searched for the weapons, McCade told him the whole story. "All things considered, I was incredibly stupid," he finished.
"True," Rico said with a big grin.
McCade laughed. "Up yours, Rico."
Rico poked an icecat carcass with the toe of one boot. "All jokin' aside, you're damn lucky to be alive, ol' sport," he said soberly. "Looks like a mated pair. Well, come on ... we've got places ta go an people ta see."
"Bullshit," McCade replied as they crunched through the ice and snow. "I'm going home. First Sara's gonna chew me out for being so stupid, and then I'm going to bed."
"Well, you're right about Sara chewing ya out, but ya ain't going ta bed, not yet anyway," Rico answered with a grin.
"You'll see," Rico said mysteriously, and steadfastly refused to say more until they reached the clearing where McCade had left his aircar. As they broke into the open space, McCade saw one whole end of the clearing had been scorched all the way down to the permafrost, and sitting in the middle of the burned area was a small ship. Not just any ship, but a captain's gig, the kind that belongs to an Imperial Cruiser. It had fast lines and a flawless paint job.
"What the hell is that doing here?" McCade demanded.
"Your old friend what's-his-name sent it. The one with two last names."
"Swanson-Pierce? You mean he's here?"
Rico nodded and pointed one index finger upward. "He's got a cruiser, a tin can, and two DEs up there, and wants ta see ya."
McCade scowled and turned toward his aircar. "Whatever he wants can wait. By now Sara's worried, and I need some sleep."
Rico shrugged. "Suit yourself, ol' sport, but Sara's up there too."
McCade sighed. Swanson-Pierce could mean only one thing, trouble. And as usual he'd managed to set up things his way. By getting Sara aboard he'd made sure McCade would come to him, plus they'd meet on his turf, and he'd set the agenda. It was all vintage Swanson-Pierce.
They were met just inside the lock by a solicitous young officer who introduced himself as Ensign Peel. He had a soft, friendly face and a firm handshake. Peel showed them into a small cabin just aft of the control room and disappeared forward to assume his duties as copilot.
As they strapped themselves into acceleration couches, McCade took a look around. Someone had lavished a great deal of attention on the ship's interior. The bulkheads and acceleration couches were covered in carefully muted fabrics and, here and there, the polished glow of ornamental brass and exotic wood caught and held his eye. The whole merged to convey a sense of restrained elegance. It all screamed—no, murmured—Swanson-Pierce.
McCade felt himself pushed down into his seat as the ship roared upward. The pilot knew her business and cleared atmosphere only a quarter rotation away from the large Imperial Cruiser orbiting Alice. McCade watched the overhead screens as they approached, and the vessel grew even larger.
She was one of the new Jupiter Class ships. Miles long, she was a tracery of gun platforms, missile tubes, laser mounts, and other less identifiable installations. She had none of the streamlined beauty common to ships designed for atmospheric use, but what she lacked in grace, she made up for in raw power. In minutes she could lay waste to all but the most heavily fortified cities. Beyond her McCade saw a glint of reflected sunlight marking the location of an escort.
Ahead a small rectangle of light appeared as a hatch slid open to admit them. As their pilot skillfully matched velocity with the larger craft and slipped into the launching bay, McCade felt like a minnow being swallowed by a whale. Inside were rows of neatly parked Interceptors, their sleek deadly shapes reminiscent of bullets waiting to be fired.
As always, four were on condition red: tubes hot, weapons armed, ready for launch. McCade knew how it felt. You were proud to slide into the cramped cockpit because Interceptor pilots were the elite. The cream of the Academy. And you were scared, not of the enemy, but of yourself. You'd rather die than screw up.
Then one day the waiting was over. Wing after wing of Interceptors blasted out to give and receive death over the planet Hell. Entire fleets maneuvered through complex computer-generated patterns probing for strength and weakness. But for you the battle was much more personal. It was you against them. Your skill, your reflexes, your ship against them.
Finally the moment came, and with it a strangely silent explosion as a pirate ship blossomed into a miniature sun. You scanned your screens searching for the next target. There it was. A large ship just ahead. You felt the groove, the almost magical connection between you and it, and knew you couldn't miss. Relying on muscle memory, and years of training, you lined it up and prepared to fire. Suddenly a voice breaks your concentration.
"Please, in the name of whatever gods you worship, I implore you, please don't fire. My ship is unarmed. I have only women, children, and old men aboard ... please listen to me."
And listen you did. You believed her. But a second voice comes over your headset. The voice of your commanding officer, Captain Ian Bridgar, hoarse from hours of shouting orders, tense with hatred for the pirates who took his wife and daughter. "Fire, Lieutenant! That's an order! She's lying. Fire, damn you!"
But you didn't fire. Instead you watched the pirate ship slide out of sight, taking with it your career, identity, and honor. For you have disobeyed a direct order from your commanding officer, and his word is law.
McCade's thoughts were interrupted as the pilot's voice came over the intercom. "Welcome aboard Victory, gentlemen, Ensign Peel will act as your guide."
There was lots of traffic in the corridor as the third watch went off duty and the first came on. The two colonists attracted a good deal of attention as they walked along. Especially McCade. His blood-smeared heatsuit, two-day stubble, and hard eyes were difficult to miss.
Ignoring the stares, they followed Ensign Peel through a maze of corridors and passageways. Eventually, they moved into officer territory, passing a spacious wardroom, and arriving in front of a large open hatch. A pair of marine guards snapped to attention and presented arms. Peel saluted in reply and announced his party. "I have the honor to present Council Member Fredrico Jose Romero and Citizen Sam McCade."
Suddenly a shapely female figure in a blue one-piece ship-suit burst through the hatch and threw herself into McCade's arms. She proceeded to kiss him, hug him, and scold him all at once. "Going after an icecat all by yourself ... you are the most hopeless man I've ever met ... are you all right ... is this your blood ... how could you ..."
McCade covered her lips with his, and marveled for the millionth time that this wonderful armful could be the daughter of the same man who'd court-martialed him. There was silence for a moment as she melted against him, before suddenly pulling away. "Oh, no, you don't, Sam McCade. You're not getting off that easy, not until you admit you were stupid."
He looked down into large hazel eyes set above a straight, determined mouth. A terrible white scar slashed down across the soft roundness of her face. She'd been aboard the liner Mars when it was attacked and boarded by pirates. As they burst through the main lock Sara had been there, fighting shoulder to shoulder with the ship's crew. Coolly she had aimed and fired, killing at least two, before a boarding pike had knocked her unconscious, and left her scarred for life.
In a way the disfigurement had saved her. Instead of selling her as a slave, the pirates had held her for ransom. Ironically she and her mother ended up aboard the very ship which McCade had refused to destroy during the Battle of Hell. In a desperate attempt to save her damaged vessel, the pirate captain had made a random hyperspace jump but it was too late. Knowing the drives were going to blow, the captain ordered those who could to abandon ship. Sara and her mother were among those shoved into a crowded life raft and launched into the darkness of space.
Minutes later the larger vessel exploded, leaving them alone and far from any civilized world. Being a step below a lifeboat, the raft had no drive of its own, so for weeks they drifted aimlessly in space. One by one they began to die. Her heart broken by her husband's insane ravings, Sara's mother was among the first to go. More time passed, until only Sara and two others survived. Finally rescued by a tramp freighter, Sara had made her way to Alice, and never looked back.
Then McCade had shown up, searching for her father, determined to kill him if necessary rather than allow the secret of the War World to fall into Il Ronnian hands. Mutual dislike slowly gave way to wary cooperation, friendship, and then love. So McCade saw past the scar, seeing only the love and concern in her eyes. She was still waiting. "I was stupid," he said, grinning.
Suddenly she was back in his arms, planting kisses all over his face, and fussing over his appearance. Then she leaned back and wrinkled her nose. "Great Sol, what's that odor?"
Meanwhile, the two marine guards did their best to ignore the whole thing and failed. Both were losing the battle to keep a straight face. Flushing slightly, McCade gently disentangled himself and followed her into the large cabin. It reflected the same elegant taste he'd seen inside the gig, which wasn't too surprising, since both belonged to the same man, Walter Swanson-Pierce.
As Walt moved out from behind his rosewood desk to shake hands with Rico, McCade saw the naval officer was at his perfectionistic best. Body trim and fit, uniform just so, graying hair carefully combed, calculated smile firmly in place.
Then it was McCade's turn, and as they shook, McCade noticed the thick gold stripe on the naval officer's space-black sleeve. He grinned. "So it's Rear Admiral now. Congratulations, Walt. Rear Admiral—a rank that describes you perfectly. A reward for cleaning out all the War World's little secrets, I assume."
Swanson-Pierce chose to ignore the dig. Instead, he looked McCade carefully up and down, eyes lingering here and there, as though counting each bloodstain. "Why thanks, Sam, I suppose you're right. I'm sure the successful disposition of that problem did play a part in my promotion. Nice of you to help. Meanwhile, I see you've managed to maintain your usual standard of sartorial elegance—no, that's not quite true—actually, you look even worse than usual."
Rico and Sara looked at each other and shrugged. They'd seen it all before. They'd have to wait it out. They dropped into chairs, Rico grinning in anticipation, Sara frowning in disapproval.
"So," McCade said, also dropping into a chair, and swinging his filthy boots up onto the polished surface of the officer's desk. "What brings the mighty Imperial Navy to this corner of the frontier? Slumming?"
As he moved around behind his desk Swanson-Pierce did his best to avoid seeing McCade's boots. "No," he answered evenly, "actually we're on our way somewhere else." He gestured vaguely. "I thought it would be nice to visit old friends."
McCade snorted in disbelief. "Get serious, Walt. You haven't got any friends. Nobody's got that strong a stomach." Ignoring Sara's look of disapproval, he took out a bent cigar, and talked around it as he puffed it alight. "Besides, you wouldn't go ten feet out of your way to visit your own mother."
Swanson-Pierre shook his head in mock concern. "Well, I see life on Alice has done nothing to improve your temperament, Sam. Sad, very sad. I don't know how you stand it, Sara. You deserve better. But," he said airily, "I will admit there's a matter of business I'd like to discuss."
McCade swung his feet down and stood up. "Come on, Sara. We don't need whatever this is. Nice seeing you, Walt. Don't trip on any pirates as you leave."
But to his surprise Sara remained seated. And a stubborn look had come over her face. He knew that look and groaned inwardly. "I think you should hear what he has to say, Sam," she said. "Then, if you still feel the same way, we'll leave together."
McCade knew when he was beat. He fell back into his chair, knocking a large lump of ash off his cigar. Swanson-Pierce watched in horrified fascination as it fell and then exploded against the rich carpeting. He winced as McCade automatically placed a boot over the ashes and rubbed them in.
"OK," McCade said. "So what's this all about?"
Swanson-Pierce looked up from the stained carpet and forced a smile. "Admiral Keaton and I want you to find someone for us."
McCade shook his head. "Forget it. I gave up bounty hunting."
"Even if you could prevent a war?"
"War, hell." Ten to one that was just more of Walt's bullshit. The old patriotic approach. Well, it wouldn't work this time. McCade was tired of chasing fugitives from planet to planet, tired of living the way they lived, alone and afraid. Besides, Sara didn't want him to. She detested bounty hunters. But why hadn't she objected? Because she believed whatever Walt was selling. He looked over and found her face a purposeful blank. She was trying her best not to sway him any more than she had already. Meanwhile Swanson-Pierce was grinning, aware of McCade's inner conflict, and enjoying it.
"All right," McCade said reluctantly, "I'll consider it. Who's the mark?"
Excerpted from Imperial Bounty by William C. Dietz. Copyright © 1988 William C. Dietz. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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