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CHAPTER THIRTY-SIX: STAND AND DELIVER

It’s important to remember, when you’re trying to figure out who to trust to protect you from things like piracy and terrorism, that despite the culprits’ protestations to the contrary, the vast majority of such crimes—perhaps 999,999 incidents out of a million—are committed by governments themselves.

Between sovereign nation-states and planets, for example, it’s called “customs”.

Moreover, what precious few resolutions that do not bring about the utter destruction of the very people, places, and things they’re intended to protect, are invariably achieved by private hands.

The Diaries of Rosalie Frazier Ngu

Just like every other passenger ship in the solar system—with the single, notable exception of Fritz Marshall Spaceways’ Beautiful Dreamer—East American Spacelines’ City of Newark had no swimming pool.

What it did have, if not accurately describable as even better, or even just as good, was nevertheless different and enjoyable and soon came to be a favorite place for almost anyone of any age to rest and relax.

Its official title was the “Solarium Deck”. Its windows ran around the hull, just below the passenger decks, for its entire circumference and broke the liner’s neatly tubular silhouette by thrusting outward, their down-slanting top halves meeting their up-slating bottom halves at least a dozen feet outboard, beyond the principle outline of the hull. They could be retracted if need be—for example if the ship’s radar detected a swarm of meteors ahead—and covered with armored shutters.

Part of the Solarium Deck had been partitioned off—mostly with glass—and were occupied by numerous exercise machines and weight racks, half a dozen showers, and a good sauna. The inevitable ship’s centrifuge was smaller than that of Beautiful Dreamer, and located immediately beneath the Solarium Deck, accessible from the service core.

The walls and floor were beautifully tiled and decorated in bright colors and various plantings. The temperature was maintained at a steady ninety degrees Fahrenheit, the humidity at around eighty-five. Ambient sunlight was supplemented with an impressive optical fiber array and plenty of artificial light. There were deck chairs and recliners to be found everywhere, full of people sunbathing. Everybody seemed to wear sunglasses, and the air would have been heavy with the odor of various tanning preparations, had it not been for the excellent air exchange facilities demanded by the first class passengers.

But the most attractive feature of the Solarium Deck was its “stream”, a depression five feet wide down the center of the whole deck, through which perhaps eighteen inches of clean, warm water coursed energetically. Passengers couldn’t swim in it, but they could lie or sit in it, or along its tiled edges. Children could play in it and splash each other. A three-foot “waterfall” marked the place where water was taken out of the stream, purified, and put back into the circuit.

The man who thought of himself as the Fastest Gun in the Moon relaxed in a recliner under a potted palm tree, pretending to read a bestseller. Over the bathing trunks he’d just purchased—which made him self-conscious; he hadn’t gone out in public this way, almost naked, for decades—he wore a towel from his room in which he’d concealed a plastic and glass fiber knife he’d smuggled aboard the City of Newark on his back, under a carefully contrived medical back brace.

He’d waited until the last minute, when the crowd of boarders was thickest and the security drones would be exhausted and reluctant to risk a lawsuit by harassing someone who was obviously seriously handicapped.

The knife, an outsized copy of the old mid-twentieth century Buck “Kalinga”, had a curved, nine-inch blade much like a Middle Eastern sash-dagger, with a wickedly sharp point and—an innovation—a serrated edge. It had been produced in its original form for tasks like skinning elephants. He thought of it as his “Brown Recluse” because it was cast in that color, and treated with selenium salts to delay healing of the wounds it produced. He’d cut his thumb with it six weeks ago, and it still hadn’t healed.

At last, through a pneumatic door from the ladies’ locker room there emerged the reason he was here today, exposing his fishbelly white flesh to an unwitting public. (He’d always felt his feet looked funny, too.) Llyra Ngu and Jasmeen Khalidov looked around, commented to each other on the brightness, heat, and humidity just as everybody did, and picked out a couple of fragile chairs to drape their towels over. He might have regarded them both as outrageously beautiful, if he hadn’t been thinking of them as his “daughters” for the past two years.

The two girls went to the “stream”, sat on its edge, and let their feet down into the swift-moving water, until Llyra finally stood up in it, lowered herself to her belly and her elbows, and let her feet and legs float behind her. The fast-moving water formed a wave around her chest and chin, and she appeared to be supremely comfortable and at ease.

The Fastest Gun in the Moon looked around carefully, as he had when he’d first arrived. None of Krystal Sweet’s henchpersons were here, of that he was reasonably certain. Within sight, he counted fourteen women, most of them middle-aged and very fat. (If the fascist East American government ever wanted to do something legislatively about overweight women in bathing suits, he might just forget to protest.)

There were also two dozen children of various ages, sexes, odors, and decibel ratings, and half a dozen men, mostly older than he was, mostly paler, hairier, balder, and spindlier than he was. He was at least a head and a half taller, on the other hand, than any of them.

Which was why he was slouching beneath this sad, captive desert cycad. His extreme height was definitely a handicap in his chosen profession.

He didn’t notice anybody watching the girls, so he returned to his bestselling novel from the gift shop. It concerned a valiant federal bureaucrat who had been taken—and was being brainwashed—by vile Pallatian anarchists. The writing was poor and the story ridiculous, but it bore a seal of approval on its cover from the United States’ Department of Literature. The East American PTA probably liked it, too, except for the naughty bits.

As he pretended to read, he adjusted a device that looked like an advanced hearing aid, but was designed so that he could eavesdrop on girltalk.

“Didn’t you think he was dreamy in his white jacket?” Llyra asked Jasmeen.

The coach adopted a sour look and shook her head. “Dreamy? I do not get silly over East American pretty boy assistant purser. Besides, was obviously not Pallatian. Was a head and a half shorter than you, my little.”

Although she faced directly away from him, he could almost hear Llyra bat her eyelashes. “Not a head and a half shorter than you, my even littler.”

“Blech!” Jasmeen shook her head again. “When I get silly over male of species—if ever happens, which is extremely not probable—will be over full-grown man, not mere boy. Man who already knows way through life. If capable of septuple Axel and hitting playing card at one hundred yards with pistol, so much the better.”

“So speaks Martian Woman, ever practical, ever sensible, never romantic. You’d probably like him to have broad, child-bearing hips, too.”

Jasmeen almost laughed, but caught herself and retained her grim demeanor. “Women—females—must be practical, sensible. Life on Mars, even now, is too harsh for anything less. Women are conservators of gene pool in which too many dirty feet and ingrown toenails are dangling.”

The Fastest Gun in the Moon had trouble not laughing out loud.

Llyra shot her a raspberry and splashed her in the face with water. “Well, who do you like, Miss practical sensible gene pool conservator?”

“I like Captain West,” she replied solemnly. “Too bad he is already married.”

******

The spacecraft out on the open crater floor was being fueled just for him. Enough magnesium iron silicate dust to take him a hundred million miles.

Inside, watching through the glass walls of the south polar office of Fritz Marshall Spaceways, Adam wondered, How in the sacred names of Marx and Lennon did we let this happen again? As he waited, he’d been thumbing through a travel magazine he hadn’t read a single word of so far. His sparse luggage was piled beside him on the chrome and leather sofa. He wasn’t taking much, but then he hadn’t brought much. Despite every expectation to the contrary, he was headed back to Ceres.

Now the maintenance crew was detaching the big plastic hoses out there, and sealing up the fueling ports. Around the rim of the Port Admunsen crater, ten miles wide, he could see at least a dozen similar operations in progress, homesteader families headed back after a few days of shopping and recreation in the “big city”, prospectors ready to go out searching for hidden treasure once again, maybe even a few pirates.

Who could tell?

Maybe even some like him, headed back to wherever they’d come from with a great big black hole in the middle of their existences. He’d tried several times to reconstruct what had happened with Ardith. He’d thought that this time would be different. He always thought that. But as usual, it had taken about three days—three absolutely miraculous days—for her to find an excuse to blow up, screaming and throwing things, her beautiful face reddened, contorted, tears of fury streaming.

Exactly like every single time it looks like maybe we’re finally going to make it, he thought, every single time we start getting closer.

Every.

Single.

Time.

He couldn’t recall the exact sequence of events. He never could, afterward, and he was willing to bet she couldn’t, either. A willfully misinterpreted word or phrase, her hysterically exaggerated reaction, and he was out the door, onto the roof, boarding an ionopter flown by his old friend R.G. Edd, who knew them both well enough to keep his mouth shut. A phone call established that there was nothing headed for Ceres from up north, Port Peary, but that he could charter a jumpbuggy at the south pole and be back on Ceres—back in exile—in a few days.

And so, here he was.

This was, Adam reasoned, probably the last performance of this particular farce. No man had ever loved a woman more than he loved Ardith. Even now, the thought of her, of her scent, of her voice, of her body, of what they’d done over the last couple of days, inflamed him. He loved her as he loved the lovely pair of children she had given him, even the four she had tried to give him. He’d promised himself solemnly, before he’d come back to Pallas this time, that if the same old cycle began to happen again, he’d remember what started it.

No such luck. Once again, his relationship with his wife had exploded in his face at the very moment that everything seemed to be going perfectly, and he had no more idea why this time, than the first time it had happened, a couple of years after Llyra had been born. This time, one moment they’d been laughing, wrestling gently, talking about a honeymoon on Mars and of seeing the daughter they both adored. They had both regretted deeply that their son couldn’t be there, as well.

The very next moment, she was screaming at him, calling him vile names, and accusing him of vile acts, or at least of vile intentions. The name of his goddamned assistant had come up again, despite the fact that he had never looked on her as anything but a girl, like his own daughter or her coach. Finally, Ardith was ordering him out of his father’s—and his grandfather’s—house. Bewildered as usual, he’d left.

Outside, he watched a crew in envirosuits pulling a boarding tube toward the jumpbuggy’s airlock. Aside from the pilot, the copilot, and an attendant they’d insisted on sending with him, only one individual would be using it today. The way his luck was running, the attendant would turn out to be gorgeous and it would somehow get back to his wife. He realized that he should have rented a jumpbuggy and flown it himself.

Somewhere, deep down inside, he knew that whatever had happened, it wasn’t Ardith’s fault. He’d seen her face as it began. She’d seemed absolutely bewildered at what she was doing. She hadn’t wanted to say the things she’d said, any more than he’d wanted her to say them. If he’d been a religious kind of man, he might have guessed that she was possessed.

But at some point, the very best intentions, the most tender and ardent affection, didn’t cut it any more. His home life had been a living hell for twenty years, despite all he’d done to try and push it in some other direction. He couldn’t live this way any more. He was a decent human being, too old for this shit, and he deserved something better.

The conclusion made him feel sick and empty inside. What was there in the universe that could be better? Even with all of their troubles, for all of his adult life—and a good deal of his youth—Ardith Zacharenko the lovely, exotic, sexy, bright girl who lived next door, the one with the great big dark eyes a man could fall into and drown in, had been the very definition, at least for him, of desirability, of womanhood.

“Excuse me, Dr. Ngu.” The receptionist had come out from behind her counter. A pretty thing, he realized dimly, tall and slender like most Pallatians, she was probably no more than twenty. She was black, with hazel-gray eyes, a turned-up nose and freckles, and a small gap between her upper front teeth he’d always found provocative. She wore her dark, glossy hair in a complex braid curled up on the top of her head.

Adam looked up from the magazine that he hadn’t been reading. “Yes?”

“I just wondered if I could get you something, sir, coffee, tea, a Coke?”

He took a deep breath, suddenly aware that there was a whole world outside of himself, a good world that wasn’t mourning in abysmal despair.

“Um, no thank you,” he told her. “And Miss, I’m not a sir, I’m Adam.”

She smiled. A very pretty thing, he realized. “Well, Adam, if you want anything, please let me know. I shouldn’t tell you this, but the head office at Port Peary said to take the very best care of you we can.”

He nodded. He didn’t realize it, but a large measure of Wilson’s amazing popularity with the ladies had been inherited from his father. “Well, you’re doing just fine, er—” The tag on her blazer said her name was Emily. “You’re doing just fine, Emily, and I thank you very much.”

As the receptionist walked away, Adam suddenly noticed the girl’s miniskirt and her long, shapely legs. I guess I’m not dead yet, he thought. The fact was, he’d never been with another woman sexually, which was looking more and more like not such a good idea, maybe. He wondered (it was too long ago for him to remember) what it would be like to make love to a beautiful female without anticipating—like a male mantis or a male black widow—having your head torn off shortly afterward.

He began to think back over the years he’d been with Ardith. Been with Ardith off and on, that was. Many of those years—at the start—had been everything that any man could wish for. More than that, even. Ardith had loved him as he had not been aware a man could be loved. There was nothing she wouldn’t do to make him happy, even lots of things he hadn’t known he’d wanted. She’d always said she read a lot. As inexperienced as he’d been, back then, he’d known that he was lucky.

But then … when had it started? She’d been almost suicidally depressed after the last miscarriage. The fourth miscarriage. Those graves were out behind Ngu House, too. Their children that never were. But they’d had Wilson to keep them going, and eventually Llyra. Not for the first time, he marveled at the courage it had taken for Ardith to become pregnant a second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth time—and to endure nine long months of terror every time.

Each second must have been agony, enough to drive anybody mad.

Adam had thought that Llyra’s arrival—ten fingers, ten toes, every feature in the right place, every organ functioning perfectly—would make everything better. And for a while, it had.

But only for a while.

******

The voice sounded familiar.

“Now,” it said, “if you don’t wanna get yourselves vaporized like bugs in a bug zapper, you’ll do exactly what I tell you, nothin’ more, nothin’ less. You’re gonna slow this rock down, all four of you, just like you meant to, at which point we will kindly take it off your hands.”

Okay, thought Wilson, that probably constituted real piracy. His suit gear was relatively feeble, compared to that of Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend, but it did show him four small ships in the immediate area. He felt almost helpless hanging on the chainlink screen he’d built.

The voice continued in an insultingly casual drawl. “Now just haul those tow cables you got there to your ships, and bend them around your towing bollards. But don’t go onboard your ships after that, until one of us gets there to make sure that you don’t try nothin’ stupid.”

Almost helpless, Wilson corrected as he pushed two of forty-two small buttons on the left forearm of his envirosuit. He watched his own ship roll over a few degrees, and the plasma gun mount rise and swivel around, at his command, seeking the origin of the radio signal. The weapon’s hot beam thrust outward and lit up a small vessel no more than a mile away, burning a ragged, yard-wide hole through its stern coaming.

“Hey, you sonofabitch, those are my engines you’re shooting—yeek!

Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend had expressed herself again. Now the would-be pirate had one less engine to complain about. Unlike her own powerplants, half-buried in the hull, his stood out from his ship on stanchions, one set of which she had burned through. While it slowly floated away from the rest of his vessel, leaving the pirate with only two engines, Wilson was finally certain that he recognized the man’s voice.

“Now you’re gonna do exactly what I tell you, Shorty,” the young asteroid hunter announced. “Or I’ll do what I have to do—again! Power down your remaining engines and take your weapons offline. Turn on all of your running lights while you’ve still got the power to do it. And tell your three little friends hanging out there to do the same thing, right now, if they don’t want a similar dose of their own.”

Wilson knew intuitively that individuals like Shorty lacked the temperament to work by themselves. He was willing to bet anything that the same three thugs Shorty had had with him back at Holbrook Station—whom he thought of as Boils, Fatty, and Beanpole—were with him now.

The young man was running something of a bluff, himself. Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend couldn’t shoot anybody she couldn’t see, and she was seeing passively, by radio, just now, and by memory. But maybe—Oops! He remembered just in time to disable the ship’s targeting system, so Shorty could reply to his ultimatum without getting shot at again.

“Okay, okay!” Shorty surrendered grudgingly to Wilson and his particle cannon. “Hey guys, do what he says. Switch on your running—wait! Wait! Wait! He can’t see you! That’s why he wants your running lights switched on. Forget about that crap, and cut the bastard to pieces!”

“But—” said another of the pirates.

Wilson tapped forearm buttons again, reactivating his ship’s targeting system. Remembering what had happened on the radio while it was turned off, the particle beam cannon swiveled around to shoot at whoever had just spoken, punching a big hole through his living spaces, then fired on Shorty again, nearly cutting away another of his engines.

Her first beam had struck deeply into the second ship. The way Wilson had set it up, the particle cannon “listened” for a target by radio, but “looked” for an engine’s heat signature. The targetted vessel, however, got a laser beam off that nearly cut Wilson out of the chainlink he was clinging to. Fortunately, he was a small, very quiet target, and the blow to the aggressor threw its pilot off his mark.

“Stand down, the both of you,” Wilson said. “Unless you want much worse.”

That there were at least two other hostile ships out there, Wilson was certain. At any moment, he realized, they’d be backing Shorty, firing on him and his friends. He wondered where his friends were now, and why they weren’t fighting, but didn’t want to break radio silence again.

As Wilson clambered awkwardly across the chainlink like a clumsy spider, looking for someplace where he could throw himself free of the stuff and “run” for his ship, a third enemy vessel maneuvered slowly through the group consisting of the other seven ships, the chainlink Wilson was climbing along, and the odd black asteroid this whole thing was all about. As the intruder moved, rolling and jerking this way and that to avoid becoming a target, it fired a laser at Mikey’s little craft. Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend used the fellow’s laser emitter as a target and blew that weapon out of the side of the vessel with her particle cannon. Air, vapor, and bits of debris spewed from inside the ship.

“Yeehaw!” cried Mikey. “You missed me! Nyaah nyaah nyaah nyaah nyaah!” Apparently he had made it back to Albuquerque Gal. Voiceless microphone clicks indicated that Marko and Scotty were still alive, as well.

Somebody—the fourth pirate—finally collected enough nerve to fire on Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend. A thin green laser beam took her in the nose, straight through the pilot’s canopy. There goes my herb garden, Wilson thought, and my tomato and strawberry plants. The enemy ship managed to peel away before Wilson’s could draw an accurate bead on her. That meant there must be some damage to her targeting system.

Drawing his .270 REN, Wilson fired at the enemy’s stern, hoping to crack her fragile ceramic nozzle liners. Seeing no effect, he put the gun away, cast himself free of the chainlink, aimed himself at his ship, and fired a short burst from his suit rockets. In a few seconds, he was through the portside airlock, headed forward to inspect the damage.

As he floated forward, toward the transparent nose of the little spaceship, he reflexively drew his Herron StaggerCyl again, rolling the massive cylinder out into his left hand. With an index finger, he pressed the ejector rod, dropping the twelve-round moon clip, with its empty cases, into his right hand. That went back into an insulated pocket of his envirosuit, and from another, he took a new clip with twelve fresh rounds, dropped it into the cylinder, and closed the weapon.

The beam had missed his pilot’s seat and console, and there was a surprising amount of air left in the ship. Jetting to the entry hole, he found that the plastic clipboard he usually wore Velcroed to his thigh while piloting had drifted over the hand-sized hole and closed it.

The other hole, on the opposite side of the nose, was clogged with papers—printouts of last Sunday’s Lunar Times funny pages. Next time, he wouldn’t worry so much about keeping a tidier ship than he did. He got a couple of emergency patches from a box on the rim, where the canopy attached to the rest of the ship, pulled the wad of papers from the almost perfectly-round hole the laser had left, and slapped the patch in place. Similar to the plastic “sky” of Pallas, in a day or two, he knew, it would blend with the plastic of the canopy and disappear.

Repeating the process at the portside of the canopy, he glanced at the guages on the arms of his envirosuit and started to take it off—until he realized that there were rock pirates out there, somewhere, still engaged in a ridiculous slow-motion battle with him and his friends.

Clearly, they were amateur pirates.

Maybe even amateur amateurs.

Wilson swung himself up into the pilot’s seat. Apparently there wasn’t any damage to the targeting system. Somewhat like problems he sometimes had with his pocket computer, the ship had simply confused itself when called upon to aim at the badguy, sound a decompression alarm, and then cancel the alarm because the pressure-drop had stopped itself.

He carefully inspected the navigation and location system screens, marked Shorty’s presence, those of the other two vessels his little ship had fired on with her great big cannon, and some places that the fourth ship might be. The transponders on his three friends’ vessels, Marko, Mikey, and Scotty, had protected them from his ship’s particle cannon. He didn’t know where the boys were, however, relative to their ships.

He set Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend‘s sensors to look for the heat signatures of three deep space envirosuits, found them almost immediately, and found a fourth hanging from a strap near one of his own engine’s service ports, prying at it with something that resembled a crowbar.

******

What?

Whatever had been going on in Adam’s sleeping mind popped like a bubble as he awoke. He couldn’t remember anything about it—but he did recall that it had been a lot more pleasant than his current reality.

“Dr Ngu—I mean, Adam?” The girl was bending over him, touching his shoulder. “I’m sorry, but your flight will be ready in just a few minutes.”

This time, the young receptionist—Emily, her name was—had awakened him, rather than merely startling him out of a reverie. She’d also brought him a baggie of very hot, very dark coffee, with ampuoles of half-and-half, Pallatian honey, chicory liquer, and dark chocolate syrup.

Oh well, he thought, at least he hadn’t drooled on anything. As he sat up, the magazine he hadn’t been reading slid off his lap, onto the floor.

“Take this with you if you wish,” she told him, picking up the magazine.

“No, thank you, Emily. I never want to see it again as long as I live.”

He didn’t know whether to be happy or not that his family line had a habit of nodding off during moments of high stress. On the one hand, it had always made time wasted in waiting areas like this one go by very quickly. And, he’d been told that his father—captured on Mars by a UN/US combat unit (led, ironically, by his mother)—had pulled two benches together and taken a nap before facing interrogation. It had terrified the Earther forces who had mistaken it for a fearless indifference.

On the other hand, it often seemed as if he were missing half his life.

Maybe if he led a less stressful one …

“Would you care for some assistance with your baggage?” Emily asked.

Injecting his coffee with cream and chocolate (Adam could take chicory or leave it), and unfolding the sipping tube, he stood, shook his head, and took a drink. He didn’t want to ask for it but he wished he’d been offered brandy to put in his coffee. He had fallen asleep tense and was now stiff all over. Sleeping that way had also cut off circulation in his legs, and her question made him feel at least a hundred years old. “No, thanks, Emily. I’ll just carry it on. Good exercise.”

The girl chuckled politely, and in that crystalline instant, Adam discovered that, as often happened with him, his unconscious mind had solved a problem while he napped. On most occasions, naturally enough, it happened to be an engineering problem, and he’d learned, over the long course of many years, to trust his unconscious mind—which he’d come to believe was rather a better engineer than his conscious mind was.

This time, however, it was a completely different matter, and it made him wonder. At its best, love never makes a lot of sense, he knew, and yet, somehow, it makes all the sense there is to be found in life.

Almost hating himself for it, but certain it was the right thing to do, he thumbed a single button on the wallet-sized pocket computer that also served him as a phone. He saw Ardith’s pretty face on the tiny screen, startled, her lovely eyes reddened, her eyelids still swollen.

“I got as far as Port Admunsen,” he told her. “May I please come home?”

Walking to the reception counter, he scribbled a note in the margin of one of the tourist brochures: Can this ship make it to Mars?

Emily raised her eyebrows, then wrote back, Maybe, but could you? Can’t land except on Deimos or Phobos. No facilities for that long a haul.

Adam nodded, then wrote, “I’m sorry. Please have them stand down.” He gave her an apologetic look. She smiled back at him, trying to understand. She knew it had something to do with his wife, but nothing else. Her father and mother fought all the time, and always made up spectacularly.

Meanwhile, Ardith had made a strange little noise it was hard to interpret. She turned her handset to scan the luggage laid out on the bed.

“I was coming to get you.”

******

Wilson opened the portside airlock cautiously. When he’d come back to Mighty Mouse’s Girlfriend, he’d approached it as a door in a wall before him. Now it was a trapdoor in a floor he was about to climb up through.

References were always changing like that in a strange world of weightlessness. In ordinary circumstances, he found it absolutely charming.

Now, as well as he could, given the bulky helmet of his suit, the young hunter peeked through the narrow crack he’d made by opening the door as little as he could and still see aft. Sure enough, there was a human figure out there, wearing a patched and battered envirosuit, thoroughly intent on prying his portside engine access panel open. He seemed to be having a great deal of trouble at the task, because he was weightless and his feet came off the surface every time he exerted himself.

Magnetic boots, that age-old favorite of the movies, were no good, of course, most of a spaceship’s surfaces being non-ferrous. Instead, a suit was held as firmly in place as its wearer wished it to be by billions of microfibers, copied from those on an insect’s foot, This fellow’s boots must have been as old and worn out as the rest of his suit.

In an instant, Wilson was through the airlock door, up onto the outside of the ship. with his enormous revolver in his hand, its laser designator splashing scarlet on the chest of the would-be saboteur’s suit.

“You make any dents in my ship with that thing,” Wilson warned the intruder, “and you’ll pay to have them fixed!” It took a few moments for his communications system to cycle the message through all of the likely frequencies, during which his aim with the twelve-shooter never wavered.

Without a word, the stranger threw his prybar straight at Wilson, slapping his chest in an attempt to draw the weapon he carried there. The five-foot bar came at Wilson end-over-end. In the frozen moment, aware of every minute irrelevancy, he observed that one end of the thing was sharply pointed, while the other end had been forged out into a spatula shape. It must be some kind of geological tool, he reasoned.

Or a giant manicure instrument.

Wilson stepped aside easily and snatched the prybar with his free hand. It was titanium, the shaft between the ends octagonal in cross section.

His laser beam lit up the back of his antagonist’s right hand, where it lay on what Wilson could see was an autopistol grip of some kind. The beam was followed by a 90-grain .270 bullet that struck the pistol grip, entirely by accident, rather than the offending hand. It must have stung, because the figure jerked his hand away and cried out.

“You almost hit my goddamned suit, you sonofabitch!” The voice, just as Wilson had expected it to be, was Shorty’s. “You coulda got me killed!”

“I meant to hit your suit, Shorty.” Wilson kept the laser on him. “I figured a little explosive decompression might be just the thing for what ails you. If you lived, you could always change your name to ‘Lefty’.”

The smaller man emitted an infuriated shriek and launched himself at Wilson with all of his strength. When the pair of figures collided, Wilson lost his footing, fell on his back, and let go of his revolver, although it remained fastened to his equipment belt with a four-foot lanyard.

Shorty was on top of him, straddling his chest. The microfibers on his knees seemed to be in better shape. Wilson let go of the prybar, as well, this time deliberately, snatching, instead, at the half- exposed autopistol in Shorty’s chest pocket and wrenching it free. He pushed it into Shorty’s belly and began putting pressure on the trigger. Shorty grabbed the prybar before it could drift away and held it high overhead to strike Wilson in the faceplate with the pointed end.

In another instant, one or both of them would die.

Maidez! Maidez! This is the East American spaceliner City of Newark to anyone on these frequencies. I repeat, this is the East American spaceliner City of Newark to anyone on these frequencies! We are in midflight Earth to Mars, just following turnover and are being hijacked! I repeat, we are being hijacked! Here are our precise coordinates—”

The voice cut off suddenly and was not heard again. Shorty shifted his prybar to one side and let it go, to stand more or less where he left it. Wilson handed him his pistol—an Eveready 6000 hand laser—found his own revolver at the end of the lanyard, and stowed it in its pocket. Shorty said, “Go ahead. I’ll make what repairs I can and follow.”

“Let’s sort our friends out and I’ll help you with repairs. Better get that bar back, Shorty, you may need it. My little sister’s on that ship!”

And her coach, Jasmeen, as well, Wilson thought.

Copyright © 2009 by L. Neil Smith

lneil (at) netzero (dot) com

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