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Aboard a ship hurtling through the blackness of space, a broad shouldered, gray-eyed captain sat his board, his every sense alert. A face handsome in its owner's youth, but marked in middle age by faint creases etched by harsh experience, wore a black scowl as the native of Columbia scanned his screens. His tale unfolds in his own words, as he engages in a silent, ongoing monologue with his alter self.
Wolf, they call you, spacer. Well, a man catapulted into going renegade by a fierce resolve to die rather than part with his ship stands a better chance of projecting numbing dread into the hearts of his victims if he sports some moniker other than Percy. You think of yourself now by the tag Halloran hung on you the day we descended on O'Neill with tanks empty, reserve gone, the vapor exploding into plasma beneath our heatshield a hemorrhage draining the very life-blood of the ship.
Ghastly necessity, that: prodigally casting away water from the double hull that protects against cosmic radiation, in order to decelerate. You earned a new handle when you skewered Chapell's lieutenant to drop him across the pile of dead in your thrice-damned rival's stronghold, just as Halloran yelled "Wolf at the throats of sheep! Tell Chapell our pack wiped his flock!"
Our final tactic also went sorely against the grain: letting what water we couldn't load spew forth into space to scotch any possibility of pursuit. A mushroom cloud of iridescent ice crystals rapidly expanding in the vacuum of the void-an extravagant sacrificial memento of our hit glowing eerily in the light of the distant sun-greeted the outraged eyes of thearchpredator flying back to his ravaged base with his own tanks low. The hatred Chapell bears you in consequence would congeal the blood in the veins of any man who gave a damn for his neck, but your blood runs hot as ever. Not bravado, that. Realism. Life expectancy of a new renegade's measured in Earthdays, and well you know it, Wolf.
Ironic, what happened next. Veteran of a bitter war, Wolf turned to old enemies, and found clients. Tough men-battle-scarred warriors-but more honest than the cutthroat, legally-thieving compatriots whose shifty dealings drove into the void a fledgling lawbreaker with both holds full of spare parts stolen from the Columbian government. You've lived for an Earthyear by trading those parts to Gaean rock-hopper captains struggling to re-establish trade routes after seventeen Earthyears of a conflict that decimated their populace and devastated their economy. You know every nook offering shelter to an outlaw amid the thirty-nine inhabited planetoids known collectively as Gaea.
Ghosts walk the echoing corridors of the abandoned station you favor. A man can sense their presence, at times-such as halfway through a sleep-shift, or after a nightcap. Halloran says they're friendly. They seem to me to be indifferent-past caring. Or maybe they mirror the emotions of the blackly bitter intruder on their rest. Who knows?
This transit marks a turning point in your criminal career, spacer-captain. Halloran's worried. Well, I'm bucking long odds, hitting a Gaean station. My stock in trade's gone. We'll starve without goods to barter, or worse yet, run dry of fuel, more precious here in Gaea than in Columbia. Barton strikes me as fair game, given that he acts like those bastards who put the squeeze to me an Earthyear ago. His rock's a reassuring distance from Main World. Gaea's Ministry of Internal Security depends on one small ship to patrol the whole damned Group. Amazing, I find that, but I have to admit that Gaea isn't plagued with widespread crime, as is Columbia. Well, they're about to get an initiation.
"Halloran, assemble the hands on the bridge."
Hell of a crew. Five ruffians on the run from Columbian Security: men scoured from unsavory haunts by a captain risking a dangerous descent. Two local lads hunted by their own authorities-one for knifing a fellow ice prospector during a violent quarrel over a claim-boundary, and the other for beating a sarcastic co-worker half to death with his fists. Even properly conducted duels gain only bare acceptance here. Well.
"Blake. Tyler. I'm about to raid Barton, who I know to have cornered a store of scarce board-components, and upped the price to an astronomical figure. I'll trade off the take as I've been doing. Say frankly: will my move alienate my customers? Blake?"
"Rock-hopper captains desperately in need of parts-people who've consistently found you a fair dealer, and Barton a damned gouger-might still trade with a man they knew all along to be bartering stolen goods, Wolf. But a hit on an isolated planetoid by a Columbian renegade will strike terror into families living in outlying settlements, even if you don't kill or wound anyone. You might spark squawks enough to draw the attention of the Interworld Corps."
"Barton gouges miners and rock-hopper spacers alike. He's chummy with several obnoxious bureaucrats in the Ministry of Public Manufacturing, but his dealings wouldn't bear close scrutiny. If you fleece him without killing anyone, I think you'll avoid raising too big an outcry. Shed blood, though, and all hell will break loose."
"His hired hands won't fight us, Wolf. Barton's workers aren't family, so they won't exhibit the usual loyalty."
"Loyalty." Popped out of me, that echo of Blake's word. Halloran eyed me as I blurted it. Loyalty personified, he is. My old crewmen never tipped Security when I paid them off handsomely and abruptly, but they left. My second officer stayed-said he owed me his life, just as if he hadn't settled that debt long before that day. When the lawmen arrived at the lock, we quit arguing and lifted-ran with our first load of loot.
"You all heard. No bloodshed. Did that sink in, Vann? Get carried away, and you'll find yourself crossing swords with me."
"That'd settle a question that has nagged at my mind, but I won't pose it on Barton's Rock. Too much at stake right then. It'll keep."
Insolent bastard. "Another remark drawled in that tone, and I'll settle the question in short order. In fact, now's as good a time as any!"
"I said it would keep!"
And you backed away as you said it. You're not certain you can take me, are you? But I'm damned sure I can take you. I'd kill you with pleasure right now, if I didn't need you. "It'll keep till I call your next bluff. Tread warily, Vann." Watch your back from here on, Wolf.
"All right, harness in." Hustle, spacers. "Attention: I'm stopping the rotation. Halloran, glean all you can from the vid, while I take us by."
Hell of a note, living on one of these pitted spheres of dense metallic rock with no ship of one's own. Most of these settlers don't even own a lifeboat, since the war. The survivors depend on the rock-hopper fleet: small ships of exclusively Gaean design that ply the space within the Gaean Group. Tough breed, these people. For hardship and danger, their life rivals mine.
"Neither ship nor lifeboats on the locks, Wolf. A habitat adjoins both the locks and a sprawling web of rubble-covered domes typical of mining operations. Space knows how many men might be scattered through that expanse!"
Halloran's uneasy. "We'll hit the communications cabin, and take hostages. Barton we'll nab first. Those manning his board will report an unidentified vessel's docking without permission as a likely hit by renegades. That won't cause us any problem. I made damned sure that no Interworld Corps ship has been sighted locally since the two patrolling Gaea took off in hot pursuit of Chapell after he raided the mine Columbia leases on the fringe of the Gaean Group.
"Barton won't oppose raiders who baldly state that they won't put him out of business unless he resists. No wanton damage, and no bloodshed, spacers. Halloran, oversee the loading of Barton's stock of parts. Scrounge whatever fuel you can. I'll see what response their appeal for help produces."
Not a soul in the locks, and none here in the corridor. "We'll take the stairs, not the elevator. Let's go."
Main habitat. Corridor empty as the void. Race for the communications cabin. "You men follow Halloran. I'll deal with whoever's on the board." There shouldn't be more than two. Right-only one. "Freeze, landsman! This is a raid by renegades!"
What in hell-a woman! Grab her arm, and shut down the vid. "We'll just listen, girl. Where are the others manning this board?"
"I'm all there ever is!"
Self-possessed little thing, damned if she isn't. Young. Hair pulled back in a tight knot. Baggy, shapeless suit. Pale face. Prim mouth. Big dark blue eyes. Scared spitless, but doing her best to hide it.
"On Main World. Are you…are you…Chapell?"
Edge of hysteria to that query. Calm her down.
"No. I'm Wolf. Much the lesser of the two evils, if no blessing. Keep a cool head, and you won't get hurt. How many workers will my raiders round up?"
"We'll help ourselves to Barton's goods, girl. Providing no heroes put up a fight, we'll leave your place of business intact. Warn your crew. I'll flip on the intercom."
That curl to her lip tells me Blake judged aright.
"Miller, don't try to resist! Let them take what they please!"
Halloran's issuing orders, so he's in control.
"I'm holding six men, Wolf."
"That seems to be all there are. Persuade them to cooperate."
"They listened to reason right fast."
Copyright © 2007 Mary Ann Steele.