Read an Excerpt
With a last sizzle of jittering repulsorlifts, the space yacht Uwana Buyer settled down into the landing field that had been hacked out of the Varonat jungle. "What a fine, civilized-looking place this is," Quelev Tapper commented, peering out the cockpit canopy. "You sure we didn't overshoot and land in someone's weed dump?"
Talon Karrde looked out at the pale yellow trees encircling the field and the thirty or so dilapidated buildings nestled in beneath them. "No, this is it," he assured his lieutenant. "The Great Jungle of Varonat. Home of a handful of third-rate trading depots and a few thousand colonists who haven't the brains to pick up and go elsewhere."
"And an ugly Krish named Gamgalon," Tapper said. "I don't know, Karrde. I still think we should have brought in the Wild Karrde and Starry Ice and had some decent firepower behind us. We're kind of like sitting mynocks here."
"We're here to observe, not make trouble," Karrde reminded him, popping his restraints and standing up. "Gamgalon wouldn't be bothering with these private Morodin-hunting safaris if there wasn't some big profit involved. I just want to know what he's up to, and whether we can carve a piece of it off for ourselves."
"All the more reason to have backup along," Tapper grumbled, checking the draw of his blaster as he followed Karrde to the hatchway aft. "But you're the boss."
"How very true. You ready?"
Tapper took a deep breath, exhaled it noisily. "Let's do it."
Karrde punched the control and the hatchway slid up into the hull. Sniffing at the exotic aromas, he and Tapper walked down the ramp and headed across the field toward a building with a faded Port Facilities sign hanging on it.
They were no more than halfway there when two men lounging beside another of the buildings peeled themselves away from their wall and moved casually to intercept the newcomers. "Howdy," one of them said as they got within earshot. "Welcome to Tropis-on-Varonat. Here for the sights?"
"That's very amusing," Karrde complimented him. "No, we're here for the hyperdrive mechanic we very much hope you have."
"Ah," the other said, glancing back at the Uwana Buyer. "Yeah, I'm not surprised. The flashier the hull, the more crumbish the innards."
"Save the colorful language for the tourists," Tapper growled. "You have a hyperdrive mechanic here or don't you?"
The other eyed him a moment, then turned back to Karrde. "Your friend's a little short on manners," he said.
"He makes up for it in ability," Karrde said, pulling a handful of high-denomination coins from his pocket and sorting ostentatiously through them. "And in the understanding of schedules. We have some highly important business waiting for us on Svivren."
"Sure, I understand," the other said. "No offense, ah?"
"Syndic Pandis Hart of the Sif-Uwana Council," Karrde identified himself. "This is my pilot, Captain Seoul." He chose one of the coins, held it up. "And we're rather in a hurry."
"Hey, no problem," the man grinned, jerking a thumb toward the port facilities building as he deftly took the coin from Karrde's hand. "Buzzy, go tell 'em they've got a customer. Rush job."
His companion nodded silently and loped off toward the building. "Name's Fleck, Syndic," the man continued. "Offhand, I'd say you're going to be stuck here for a few days. Got any plans?"
Karrde glanced pointedly around. "Would there be any plans worth having?"
"Matter of fact, there would," Fleck said. "Fellow here runs a pretty neat safari out into the junglegot a trip heading out first thing tomorrow morning, in fact. Ever hear of Morodins?"
"I don't think so," Karrde said. "Big game?"
"The biggest," Fleck assured him. "Giant lizard-slug things, ten to twenty meters long. Make great wall or hallway trophies." His lip twitched sardonically. "They're not too fast or mean, either. Good way for a beginner to start."
"That's comforting to hear." Karrde looked at Tapper. "What do you think, Seoul?"
"Doesn't sound too dangerous, sir," Tapper said with just the right note of concern. "I trust you wouldn't be going alone?"
"Naw, there's four other hunters signed up," Fleck said. "And the boss always takes a couple of escorts along as guards. Safe as in a snuggy."
"I'd still recommend I accompany you, sir," Tapper persisted. "I used to be pretty good with a BlasTech A280."
"Let's find out first how much it costs to be as safe as in a snuggy," Karrde said dryly.
"Hardly anything," Fleck sniffed. "Not to a gentleman of your means. Only twelve thousand each."
Karrde smiled. "A man of means doesn't stay there by throwing money away. Fifteen thousand for the both of us."
Fleck grinned. "Hard bargainer, huh? Make it twenty."
"Experienced businessman," Karrde corrected. "Make it seventeen."
The other's forehead wrinkled, then cleared. "All right. Seventeen it is."
"Very good," Karrde said. "When do we leave?"
"Five-half tomorrow morning," Fleck said. "Just be hereI'll tell the boss you're coming. Don't forget to bring the seventeen." He pointed across the field. "You can get outfitted over at that building over there, and get a room for the night in the hotel next door. It's, uh, nicer inside than it looks."
"One would hope so," Karrde agreed. "I trust no one will be offended if we pass on the accommodations. The outfitters will know what equipment we'll need?"
"Sure," Fleck nodded. "Like I said, the boss runs these safaris all the time."
"Very good," Karrde said. "Come, Seoul, let's go see what they have to offer."
Varonat's sun was beginning to settle down behind the jungle by the time Karrde and Tapper finally made it back to the Uwana Buyer with their purchases. "I hope we gave them enough time," Tapper commented as they climbed up the ramp.
"I'm sure we did," Karrde said. "It doesn't take long for a professional to search a ship this size. And I'm not expecting Gamgalon to be employing amateurs."
Abruptly, Tapper touched Karrde's arm. "Maybe he is," he said, dropping his voice.
Karrde frowned. Then he heard it: a muffled clank from the aft section of the ship. "Should we take a look?" Tapper murmured.
"It would look suspicious if we didn't," Karrde said, grimacing. If this whole thing fell apart through the incompetence of Gamgalon's own people... "Nice and easy."
Moving quietly, they headed down the central corridor to the engine room, hearing another clank as they reached the door. Karrde caught Tapper's eye, nodded. The other nodded back, lowering his bundles to the deck and getting a grip on his blaster. Karrde touched the release, and the door slid open
The woman sitting on the floor beside the open access panel was young and attractive, with a cascade of red-gold hair tied back out of the way behind her head. Her face was calm and controlled as she looked up at their abrupt entrance; beneath her jumpsuit, her figure was slim and athletic and nicely formed.
And in her hands were a hydrospanner and one of the power flux connectors from the Uwana Buyer's hyperdrive. "Can I help you?" she asked coolly.
"I think you already are," Karrde said, the brief moment of surprise passing into relief. Gamgalon's searchers had not, in fact, fouled up. "I take it you're the hyperdrive mechanic."
"Cleverly deduced," she said. "Celina Marniss. You have any problems?"
"Only with the hyperdrive," Karrde said. "Why, were you expecting me to?"
Celina shrugged, returning her attention to the power flux connector. "I've known some men in my day who didn't think a woman could be decorative and competent at the same time."
"Personally, that's my favorite combination," Karrde told her.
She favored him with a look that was slightly amused, slightly strained-patient. "So you're Syndic Hart. Buzzy was most impressed with you."
"I'm ever so pleased," Karrde said. "I won't ask which way he was impressed." He nodded at the access opening. "Any idea yet what's wrong?"
"Well, for starters, your flux connectors are all about four degrees out of sync," Celina said, hefting the one in her hand. "They have to have been ignored for a long time to drift that far off."
"I see," Karrde said, his favorable first impression of this woman moving up another notch. Chin had assured him that the flux connector gimmicking would take an average hyperdrive mechanic at least a day to find. "I'll have to speak to my maintenance man."
"Personally, I'd fire him," Celina said. "I'll get these readjusted, then we can see what else is wrong."
"Good," Karrde said. "As Buzzy may have mentioned, we're in something of a hurry."
"Funny way to go about it," she said, nodding toward the packages in the corridor behind them. "Gamgalon's safaris usually take upwards of four days."
"It's been my experience that a failed hyperdrive normally takes at least six to ten days to fix," Karrde said.
"Possibly another reason to fire your mechanic," Celina grunted. "I'm guessing I can do it in two or three."
"What makes you think we're going on a safari?" Tapper asked suspiciously.
"The packages, for a start," Celina told him. "Besides, you're obviously well-off, and you talked to Fleck. He's Gamgalon's chief come-up flectordoes his job pretty well." She shrugged, turning her attention back to the flux connector. "Besides, what else is there to do around here?"
"Cleverly deduced," Karrde said. "You're wrong about my personal wealth, though. I'm merely chief purchasing agent for the Sif-Uwana Council."
"I'd call that a marginal distinction," Celina commented. "Certainly given the casual way Sif-Uwanis approach management and money."
"Really," Karrde said, his estimation moving up yet another notch. He would have bet heavily that there wouldn't be a single person on Varonat who'd ever even heard of Sif-Uwana, let alone know anything about it. "Have you ever been there?"
"Once," Celina said. "It was a few years ago."
"Business or pleasure?"
She lifted an eyebrow at him. "I don't recall an invitation to play Questions Three with you, Syndic."
"No offense intended," Karrde said. "I merely find your presence here intriguing. You seem too skilled and well-traveled to be stuck out here in the backwater of the Ison Corridor. Not to mention your other obvious attributes."
He'd hoped to spark some reaction, to shake up that calm facade of hers a bit. But she refused to turn to the lure. "Maybe I just like the peace and quiet," she countered. "Maybe I'm trying to raise a stake to get out." She locked eyes with him. Green eyes, Karrde noted distantly. A very striking green, at that. "Or maybe I'm hiding from something."