Chapter 3: Justice

By Grant Anderson

Just last week, Silphas Lorsin had bound himself with adhesive tape to the upper branch of a very large tree. Two weeks before that, he had nearly frozen to death hiding in a snow bank on a dreary, frigid little world called Zorfise. So when he found himself sitting on a bench beside Lake Stendahl, watching the air traffic above Wilder’s Dawn spaceport, he counted it an unexpected blessing. The sun was shining and a cool breeze drifted off the lake.
He had worked as a Spotter for the Department of Interplanetary Justice for over thirty years. When most people imagined Justice Hunters, they did not normally picture a portly Aldren fellow nearing mandatory retirement age. The high dome of his head was beginning to wrinkle, and his arms had grown thin and bony even as his midsection expanded. His knees were going bad, and years of noisy posts had taken their toll on his hearing. But Silphas didn’t need to chase anyone. He did all his hunting with his eyes, aided by a simple telescope.

The role of Spotter was far less glamorous than that of the Hunter, but no less important. The Spotter found the targets, tracked them from a distance, and guided the Hunters in for the capture. A good Spotter needed only three things, and Silphas still possessed them all: Keen eyesight, an alert mind, and the ability to type one hundred words per minute with one hand.

Without looking, he reached inside his shabby canvas jacket for the teletype keyboard belted to his considerable waist. His hand moved rapidly across the keys, transmitting to several nearby receivers.

“Target sighted – Human male matching photo – Moving North on foot from green heavy launch.”

To any passerby, it would appear that Silphas was merely scratching an itch while watching the air traffic drift over the spaceport. One of the benefits of his harmless appearance was that he could hide in plain sight without attracting much attention.

But somebody wasn’t fooled so easily. Silphas suddenly felt a pair of hands come to rest on his shoulders, one on either side of his neck.

“Isn’t it a bit dangerous to be sitting out in the open when spotting?”

The voice was feminine and raspy, and uncomfortably close to his ear. Silphas tensed up, despite a conscious effort not to. The hands and the voice were familiar, but that did not reassure him in the least.

“Are you suggesting that I am in danger from you, Shralara?”

“That depends.” There was a touch of humor in the voice, but Silphas knew that didn’t mean much. The hands squeezed his shoulders lightly.

“Who is your target, Sil?”

He sighed wearily. Well, burn the rules.

***

Since there was no one to stop him, Marx charged through the swinging doors of the Wilder’s Dawn Customs Office. Professor Meduri followed quickly on his heels, barely managing to avoid a collision with the doors on the back swing. Marx had a wild, hunted look in his eyes and a menacingly large rifle slung over his shoulder. The few people milling about in the foyer quickly found something else to look at.

Marx spotted a large wooden counter labeled “Arrivals and Departures” with a chalkboard occupying the entire wall behind it. A young woman wearing the burgundy uniform of the Martian Transit Authority faced the board, holding a phone to her ear with one hand and erasing a column of estimated arrival times with the other. Her hair was wrangled into a tight bun and impaled with ornate wooden sticks.

Marx advanced on the counter with the professor in tow, the latter already feeling sorry for the unsuspecting receptionist. Marx placed both hands on the counter and leaned forward as far as possible. His battered knuckles were still very raw, but had stopped bleeding for the most part. His fingers danced on the counter as if he was trying to coax a tune out of a reluctant piano. “C’mon, c’mon, c’mon…” he muttered.

“Mm hmm… Okay,” said the woman as she scratched new arrival times onto the board. “What about the Fujikawa Maru?” She listened for a moment before drawing a question mark next to the vessel’s name. Finally she turned to face the counter, and was about to set down the phone when Marx blurted, “I’ve lost my Cathar!”

“Ah,” she managed to say, before he charged on.

“She’s shaped like a Human… has a sable fur pattern… her face is not really cat-like or dog-like…  just Cathar-like. And she’s wearing a stewardess uniform. Her name is Shara… uh, Shrala—”

“Shralara Decsikjek,” interrupted Meduri, who was invisible to the receptionist because he was shorter than the counter.

“I can spell it,” Marx continued, “I just can’t pronounce it.”

The woman regarded him with raised eyebrows, her mouth slightly ajar. Her wide brown eyes regarded the blood drying on his knuckles, then turned to the cold, ugly muzzle protruding over Marx’s shoulder.

“Sir,” she said, “you can’t bring that thing into the Customs Building!”

Marx glanced over his shoulder at the gun barrel as if he had forgotten it was there. He stared at her plaintively and mumbled, “But I might need it.”

He nearly jumped when Meduri placed a hand on his elbow.

“Marx, why don’t you scout around outside for a minute. I’ll see what I can learn here.”

“Yeah,” Marx replied, nodding vigorously. “You’re really better with the… talking.” He backed away from the desk slowly. “Oh, and make sure you ask her about the Terran ships.”

As he departed, the receptionist let out a deep sigh of relief. Meduri climbed onto a nearby stool, bringing himself to eye level. Ferrelans were often described by Humans as rodent-like or otter-like. They were almost never described as frightening. Meduri was no exception to the rule.

“You simply must forgive him,” he said as he placed his folded hands on the counter. “The poor man is sick with worry.”

“Okay,” she said slowly. She was still watching Marx leave. “What was it that you wanted?”

“We’re looking for a friend of ours, a Cathar. I believe you heard my companion’s description.”

“I know what a Cathar looks like. We see several come through here every day. I haven’t seen one in a stewardess uniform, though. I think I would remember that.”

“Have there been very many Terran ships landing here today?”

She turned towards the board. “Half of everything on the ground right now is from Earth. Is there a particular ship you’re looking for?”

Meduri pursed his lips in thought, and his whiskers waved in the air like wind-blown grass. “Any Terran Military vessels?”

“Oh, no. They’re not even allowed into orbit. That was part of the peace treaty.”

“Of course, I knew that.” Meduri stopped for a moment, not sure how to ask his next question. “The sort of Terran Military ship we would be concerned with would be here in secret, I suppose.”

She leaned over the desk.

“Well, dear, if they’re here in secret, how would I know about them?”

***

Marx paused on his way out the front door. In the entranceway to the Customs Building, between the inner door and the outer door, were two bulletin boards. The first was an unkempt collage of faces with contact information and heartfelt pleas pinned beneath each one. One of the faces was a Cathar, and, although it wasn’t his Cathar, it frightened Marx a bit. By the time you wind up on this board, he thought, it’s far too late.

On the other wall the Martian authorities had placed a placard that read “Fugitives From Justice.” Whenever he landed at a real spaceport, Marx made a habit of checking the wanted posters, just in case his own face happened to appear. Today he found a lot of pirates. Marx recognized the name Captain Ghurg of the pirate vessel Shys Foyur. The picture was an artist’s impression. The face was wide at the bottom and nearly pointed on top, with piercing black eyes and two rows of finely serrated teeth. That doesn’t look anything like Ghurg, Marx thought. Much too handsome.

“Wait a second, I know that face,” he muttered, noticing a picture of a young man with a wide head, beetled-brow, and eyes unnaturally close together. Marx’s mouth hung open. That same individual had just been a passenger on the Luft Ritter. He had left the ship right after it landed, not even an hour ago. Marx tore the poster off its pushpins and stuffed it into a pocket just as Meduri pushed through the swinging doors.

“No one has seen her,” he reported, folding his hands behind his back.

“Let’s go get the floatwagon out of the cargo hold,” said Marx. “It’ll be faster than searching on foot.”

***

“Our target is Arkady Krol – or Krol Arkady – I’m not sure which. Human Male, twenty-two years old. Safebreaker by trade. Defected from the Terran House of Gotha to the House of Kyvan. Currently on the run from both. Shot two Terran police officers and escaped to Mars.” The hands around Silphas’ neck relaxed a bit.

"Who's your target, Sil?"

"Who's your target, Sil?"

“Hmm. Who are you spotting for?”

Sil snorted derisively. “A regular pack of fools. Kohrek, Scrin and Hrad are on pursuit. Mrs. Plinth is spotting for them as well.” He was silent for a moment, and then added, “We’re not after your Human.”

“I see.”

“Listen, Shralara, if you’re not going to break my neck or give me a nice shoulder massage, how about you just sit down. You’re attracting attention.”

“Very well.”

As the Cathar moved around the bench and sat next to Sil, he could hardly believe his eyes. She was wearing a pleated business skirt and a bright blue jacket with brass colored buttons and elegantly striped wrists.

Noticing his stare, she cocked her head to one side and held up a warning finger. “Don’t even start about the uniform.”

“That’s alright. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

Other than the startling change of wardrobe, Shralara didn’t seem to have changed much. Piercing blue eyes peered at Sil from beneath soft eyebrows and a smooth forehead.

“So,” Sil started awkwardly, “that’s a new look for you. Might I ask why you are dressed like a flight stewardess?”

“I am a flight stewardess. I’m trying to look… less fearsome.”

“It’s going to take more than that. You’ve lost some muscle-weight,” he noted.

“Nothing gets past you. I’ve been in space most of the time,” she replied, “The static plates aren’t as good as real gravity when it comes to exercise.”

Sil looked through his telescope and observed the target disappear behind a towering cargo platform on the far side of the spaceport.

“Are things working out well with your new boss?”

“He’s not my boss. We’re partners. And yes, it’s been interesting. I kind of like making people feel reassured when we’re underway. I get to smile a lot.”

“Does it ever bother you that your ship operates outside the law?”

“No, not a bit. We’re a charter outfit. Nobody gets hurt. Besides, what we do is only illegal on Earth. They can’t expect everyone who wants to leave the planet to ask permission from the government. It’s unreasonable.”

***

“What did you take off that bulletin board?” Meduri asked once they were outside.

“A wanted poster,” Marx replied, seeming lost in thought.

“Yours?”

“No.” Marx passed the folded poster to the Ferrelan. “I’m only wanted on Earth.”

“And unwanted everywhere else?”

Marx froze in place. He turned to his companion with murder in his eyes. “There’s a very good chance that she’s dead! Do you realize that? And if the Terrans took her alive she’s probably on her knees praying to her pagan gods for a quick death! You don’t know what they’ll do… what they did—”

He choked and sniffed, turning away from the professor to face the lake.

Meduri appeared mildly uncomfortable with the outburst. Nothing was more alien to him than raw emotion, unfiltered by calm logic. He gave Marx a moment to compose himself before softly saying, “You know, we’ve been working together for three months, but neither of you ever mention what happened to you on Earth.”

“I know,” Marx rasped. “I shouldn’t have shouted.”

“I’m sure she’s alright, Marx. The lady back there assured me there are no Terran military ships on the ground.”

“Doesn’t matter. It’s really easy for Terran units to blend in on Mars. We used to do it all the time.” He let out a ragged sigh and resumed the hike back to the landing pad. Meduri followed, unfolding the wanted poster and holding it at arm’s length from his shiny black eyes.

“Wasn’t this fellow on our last flight?”

“That’s what I was thinking,” said Marx. “There were only two Humans on board. I remember that face.”

“Did you read the part where it says he’s wanted for breaking into vaults?”

“Yeah. He might have taken our money. And if we can’t pay our fuel bill, the Transit Authority will have the Luft Ritter impounded.”

As they continued on the walkway, they met two technicians in coveralls. The men froze at the sight of Marx and the Professor, and moved to the far side of the path. Marx kept his head down as he passed by, but he felt cold stares on his back like a biting wind.“I’ll pose if you want to take a picture!” he shouted over his shoulder. The men looked around, as if Marx must have been addressing somebody else.

“The floatwagon is out of the hold already,” said Meduri, shading his eyes. Marx whirled back to face the tarmac. The white floatwagon was hovering half a meter above the ground, standing in sharp contrast to the green top and blue bottom of the Luft Ritter behind it. A clamshell-shaped lift gas tank held the vehicle aloft, and below that was a simple gondola with a few windows. A pair of stylized lightning bolts framed the blocky Cyrillic letters along the sides claiming that the floatwagon belonged to the Greater Daghestan Electrical Company (which it had, not very long ago).

As Marx watched, a familiar figure stepped out from behind the floatwagon. He sighed out some words that sounded like “Multi-mesk-dom-newly” and sprinted for the ship. Meduri recognized the local dialect that Marx reserved exclusively for use when praying or cursing, but he did not know which of the two had just occurred.

The professor waited long enough to fold the wanted poster and place it in his satchel before running after him on considerably shorter legs.

***

Sil watched his target emerge from a staircase onto the elevated loading platform. He typed the updated location as he spoke.

“This Arkady fellow we’re after… he arrived on Mars aboard your Luft Ritter.”

The Cathar sniffed in response. “That is unfortunate. But we had dozens of passengers. Most of them, their only crime was being an Aldren without a permit. We probably saved their lives. Don’t expect me to apologize for that.”

“I don’t. Let me clarify. Marx Averri’s ticket is still assigned to you. No other Justice Hunter would dream of actively pursuing him. But if our team stumbles upon him while they’re hunting for Krol—”

“They’re obligated to arrest him,” she interrupted, “I know the rules.”

“Suppose they do run into Marx. What would your obligations be, Shralara?”

“To do the right thing, of course.” She leaned against the back of the bench and rested her arms along its upper edge. The thought of the retractable claws hidden in the thick fingers near his shoulder made Sil uncomfortable.

“I happen to know,” Silphas lowered his voice to a conspiratorial tone, “that the Director was very distraught over the political necessity of your suspension.”

“Then he’s perfectly welcome to invite me back himself,” she said, folding her arms.

“He’s caught in a vise, Shralara. Prevailing opinion – in the Galactic Union and among the Director’s own people – is that the Anthrosocialist movement is a small, localized fire. One that will soon burn out if no more fuel is added.”

“The Director’s people,” Shralara growled. “Sil, we are his people. We work for him. But he would happily have me burned to protect his position. Literally, I was a meter from—” She stopped abruptly, placing her head in her hands. “I’m tired of telling a story that nobody takes seriously.”

“You brought the truth into a house of politics. That’s like bringing a skunk to a dinner party.”

“What should I have done instead?” she asked.

“The Director’s offer still stands. Bring in your original target, Marx Averri, and you’re absolved. Back on the job, no further questions asked.”

“I can’t,” she said.

“You won’t. And that’s what seems so strange to me. Your new loyalties.”

“You should recall that I’m very loyal to whomever I’m working with.” There was a warning in her voice, which Silphas ignored completely.

“I’m sure the yensi is perfectly harmless. And the Ferrelan professor’s record came back spotless – frankly, I can’t imagine why he’s with your charter outfit. But that Human is a criminal. Your natural enemy, in a professional sense.”

She held completely still for a moment.

“Do you really believe that?” she asked softly. “Is there even such a thing as a natural enemy? Or do we choose them for ourselves?”

Sil lowered his scope and regarded her with a raised hairless eyebrow.

“Shralara, you’ve been hunting Humans for so long that your colleagues think you have some sort of vendetta against the entire race.”

“Perhaps I do,” she mused, “I haven’t given it much thought.”

***

“Homph,” said Marx, by way of greeting. It sounded halfway between a cough and a grunt. He clenched and unclenched his fists a few times, breaking open his newly formed scabs.

“Marx was very worried for you,” Meduri translated.

“This is Human territory, where we stand,” said Marx. “None of it safe enough for you to wander off like that.”

“Exactly,” she replied. “So when I see a familiar Aldren pointing a telescope at you, I investigate the situation immediately.”

“You saw who doing what?”

“Just get in the floatwagon, will you? You can shout at me later.”

Meduri peered at her with undisguised curiosity.

“Where are we going?”

“I’ll explain in the air. Otto told me about the cash box. We have maybe twenty minutes to catch this guy before our money winds up as state’s evidence in a trial.” She was still wearing her stewardess outfit, but had a deep purple garment folded over her left arm. Marx recognized it as her old uniform.

“Thought you weren’t supposed to wear that anymore,” he said.

“There are a lot of things I’m not supposed to do,” Cathar murmured as she climbed in the side door of the floatwagon. “And I’m about to do more of them. Let’s get going.”

As the floatwagon climbed upward, the fuel attendant returned to the tarmac riding on his battered orange tractor. He waved furiously at the floatwagon and shouted. Marx had one of the side windows open, but couldn’t hear a word over the hum of the floatwagon’s cyclonic airscrews. He smiled gleefully and put his arm out the window, making a rude gesture at the fuel attendant.

“Bastard!” The youth threw his khaki hat on the ground. Otto had come out to meet him and was standing nearby impassively. The yensi bowed his wooden head as he reached for the discarded headgear. His large metal fingers were worn smooth, shining from a million tiny scratches.

“I believe you dropped this, sir.”
The attendant snatched his hat from Otto’s grasp. “Did they leave you here to pay the fuel bill?” he asked hopefully.

“No. They just left me.”

“Unbelievable!” The hat flew over his shoulder with the exclamation. Otto watched it go, but made no move to retrieve it this time.

“I agree completely, sir.”

“If I have one more fly-off, my job is history.”

“The conduct of my crewmates is unacceptable,” Otto said in a resolute tone, “leaving a poor robot such as myself to answer for their financial irresponsibility. All throughout the spiral arm, many injustices are committed each day against your mechanical brethren.”

“Mechanical brethren?” asked the dumbfounded attendant, “What are you talking about?”

“I am talking about basic dignity for working machines. You should let your voice be heard by the Legislature of our fair Galaxy.”

Otto handed him a pen and a clipboard, with a petition signature page on top. “Just sign right here,” said the robot, his low voice throbbing through his speaker grille.

***

Sil watched the Human on the loading platform wait until the coast was clear before darting into the cargo door of a floating freight carrier. He typed a description of the vessel into his keypad.

“There goes our boy,” he said to the Cathar, pointing at the freighter. “Unless he hops off that thing, I guess I’m done here.”

She looked across the water.

“He’s on that garbage scow?”

“No, the freighter. The big blue one, on the left.”

“Well that should make it easy. Wait until the freighter is over the lake and move in on it.”

“Not everyone hunts like you do, Shralara. Kohrek will probably find out where the freighter is headed and set up an ambush there.”

“Since when does it take three hunters and two spotters to catch one Human?”

“The team approach is all the rage these days. It cuts down on casualties.”

“The two of us never had any casualties.”

“Hunter casualties, no. Plenty of our targets died, though. You’ve got enough ‘accidents’ on your record to look suspicious.”

“People fall off of things sometimes,” Cathar replied testily, “I can’t help it if they’re clumsy.”

***

Marx gazed through the bug-speckled windscreen at the blue expanse of Lake Stendahl. Meduri was at the controls, following the course Cathar had given him, but there was no sign of the sky freighter.

“So,” Marx began, “we have an expert team of Justice Hunters after this Arkady guy, but they won’t move in on him until the freighter lands?”

“Correct,” Cathar answered from the back of the floatwagon, where she was busy changing into her uniform. “But I don’t think I’d call them an expert team.”

“Is it Arkady Kroll, or Kroll Arkady?” the professor asked.

“Who cares?” Marx snorted, “We saved that dumb martalog from the Terrans and he thanks us by cleaning out our safe.”

“Humans these days,” said Meduri.

“He’s a man with no country, from what Sil told me,” Cathar explained. “Real desperate situation.”

“He’ll be worse than desperate once I get in range,” said Marx, pulling a pair of five-round stripper clips from his pockets. He held one in each hand, comparing them. “Armor piercing or hollow tipped rounds? I can’t decide.”

“They’re all bullets,” Meduri noted. “And they’re all excessively huge. What’s the difference?”

“Well, these can punch right through walls and such,” said Marx. “These are softer, but they hurt more.”

Meduri chuckled, filling the cabin with a whistling sound. “You remind me of the first thesis paper I wrote at the University. It was about the gun as a phallic symbol in Human culture.”

“Hmm.” Marx frowned. “What’s a phallic symbol?”

“I’ll tell you when you’re older,” Cathar answered, “Besides, you can’t actually shoot Krol.”

“But it would make me so happy,” Marx pleaded as he leaned back into his seat and rolled his eyes toward the ceiling. Cathar had finished changing and moved to the front of the gondola, sitting down cross-legged between Marx and the Professor, since the spartanly furnished floatwagon had only had two seats. The tight-fitting uniform was made of material that reflected no light. A grey insignia was embroidered on each sleeve, and a duty belt festooned with pouches completed the ensemble. Marx remembered the last time he had seen her wearing such a uniform, and the memory made him feel suddenly uncomfortable.

“I smell blood,” Cathar said, throwing an inquisitive glance at Marx. “Yours, to be specific.”

Marx pursed his lips and displayed his knuckles side by side.

“He cut them up badly on a phone booth,” Meduri offered, looking away from the windscreen for a moment. “He hasn’t held still long enough for me to get them cleaned and dressed.”

“You called your sister again, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” Marx confessed, keeping his eyes on his knuckles.

“Why don’t you just write her a letter next time?”

“Because my hands hurt. Now why can’t I shoot this Arkady guy? I’m sure you have a good reason, but I have to know what it is.”

Cathar nodded. “It has to do with Justice Hunter rules and regulations. Way back when the Union chartered the first interplanetary peace officers, hunting down the criminals was a free for all. So the Union came up with a system to assign the Justice Hunters to their targets.”

“So we can’t capture or kill our thief, because somebody else has legal rights to him?” Meduri asked.

“Exactly,” said Cathar. “He’s not ours to catch. We can tackle him and take our money back. But as soon as he’s not holding our property any more, we have to let him go. Every target has a rap sheet we call a ‘ticket.’ Once a ticket is assigned to a Justice Hunter, it stays assigned until the target is captured or dies.”

Meduri was the first to grasp the ramifications.

“But in Marx’s case… he is neither dead nor captured.”

“And I have been suspended,” said Cathar. “All of my tickets are still on file. Other Justice Hunters are not allowed to track him down.”

“What if they just happen to find me while we’re getting our money back?” asked Marx.

“You let me deal with them,” said Cathar. “No shooting.”

“I see something,” Meduri said, pointing to a dot on the horizon. Cathar stood up to have a look. They flew in silence as the dot expanded in the windscreen, the hush broken only by the hum of the floatwagon’s motors and the rush of air around the gondola.

“That’s the one,” Cathar said. She stepped to the back of the gondola and began to stretch. I am a little out of shape for this, she thought.

The floating freighter was shaped like an extra-wide whale, and it moved through the air with the same casual sense of invincibility. Instead of flippers, a pair of wings hung from its sides, each with a wide-bladed propeller protected by a ring of metal. The freighter’s hull was painted a rich royal blue, with orange lettering on the sides that read “Trans-Wilderness Air Freight.” Though it couldn’t be seen from the floatwagon’s point of view, Marx knew that the freighter’s bridge would be located at the bow, probably above a giant cargo door.

“Well,” said Marx. “You’re the professional. How do you want to do this?”

“Meduri will pilot us just above the deck. I’ll go down into the hold and either flush him out or take him down right there. I need you to wait on the deck and make sure that he doesn’t jump off.”

“Jump off? That would be suicide from this height, even over water. Who would do something like that?”

“It’s happened to me before.”

“So people have actually killed themselves rather than be captured by you? That doesn’t make any sense.”

“I think I scare people sometimes,” she said with a shrug, and steered the conversation back to the task at hand. “What do you think they’ll have for a crew on that freighter?”

“Five or six,” said Marx. “Ten at the most. What will you do if he’s in the gondola with the crew?”

“Well,” Cathar said, “with this outfit I can convince them that I’m a real live Justice Hunter. Besides, our target is a stowaway. He climbed on just as the freighter was leaving Wilder’s Dawn.”

“Oh… How did you know that?”

Cathar smiled, revealing a mouthful of sharp teeth.“The best spotter in the business told me so.”

***

After typing one last message to his team, Silphas collapsed his telescope and stowed it inside his coat.

“I’d better get back to the Luft Ritter,” said Cathar, standing up and stretching her arms over her head, “They don’t know where I am.”

Sil nodded.

“Don’t do anything rash, Shralara. Opinions may change on the floor of the Union. The director may be dismissed, and you may be vindicated. It all depends upon Earth.”

She did not respond right away, listening to the squawks of two seagulls fighting over a scrap of goodness-knows-what.

“Do you have any family on Earth, Sil?”

“No.”

“Good. Stay away from that world. Things are going to get worse before they get better.”

“I have seven years left before mandatory retirement, Shralara. I would like very much to work with you again before they are up.” He got to his feet slowly, and for the first time she noticed that he wasn’t as young as she remembered him.

“I would like that, too,” she replied.

Sil turned to leave and walked a few paces.

“You do what’s best for you,” he said over his shoulder. “You don’t owe that Human anything.”

***

The roar of the sky freighter’s engines drowned out any sound Marx may have made when he landed on the deck flat-footed in his heavy boots. Cathar landed barefoot, with considerably more grace. The deck was planked with some sort of varnished wood, and it was slightly bow-backed to let bad weather slide off the edges. Towards the stern, a pair of fans encased in boxes blurred the air with rising heat. Marx assumed they must be radiators for the engines. A small hatch near the center of the deck was the only other feature. Cathar found it unlocked. It didn’t look like the crew was expecting any company from above.

“How long should I wait before I come looking for you?” asked Marx, shouting over the din.

“Forever,” Cathar said as she disappeared down the stepladder, into the darkness of the hold.

Marx had been waiting at the hatch for only a few minutes when he heard a sound. Or, more specifically, a lack of it. The fat paddle-like blades of the freighter were slowing to a stop. It was like the last droning chorus of a cicada, which is only noticed because of its sudden absence. Soon the only sound he could hear was the hum of the floatwagon, which Meduri was keeping just above and behind the freighter, where it couldn’t be seen from the gondola. Marx raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sun and peered at the windscreen of the floatwagon. Meduri raised his hands over the dashboard as if to say I have no idea. Marx leaned over the edge of the deck hatch. It was much darker inside the hold, and his eyes wouldn’t adjust to the light level unless he went down inside. Suddenly, he heard footsteps – heavy clanging footsteps on the metal walkway beneath. He knew that even if she were running at full speed, ‘clanging’ was not something Cathar would do.

Marx leapt to his feet and backpedaled away from the hatch. Whoever climbed up the stepladder would be blinded by the sunlight once they reached the deck, and Marx wanted that advantage. Even though there was no other air traffic in view, he felt exposed on the expanse of the deck. He took up a crouching position next to one of the radiator boxes and waited.

Marx pulled back on the cocking pin of his rifle, releasing the safety. He held the weapon ready as a pair of hands reached up through the hatch, finding a grip on the rim. A shoulder appeared next, covered by a dingy linen shirt soaked with sweat. The man’s head whipped upright as he stepped onto the deck, facing away from Marx. He was breathing heavily, and took a few steps away from the hatch. When he turned around, blinking in the sunlight, Marx instantly recognized the close-set eyes and rough features of Arkady Krol. Krol glanced around just long enough to realize where he was. He sure does look desperate, Marx thought, flattening himself against the radiator housing. It was uncomfortably warm, and Marx scooted back out so he could see his target, when suddenly a flash of reflected sun stabbed at his eyes. Arkady was holding a brightly polished revolver.

Something about the man’s stance triggered Marx’s memory, and the words execution style forced themselves to the front of his mind. Marx squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, and the memories were suppressed. When he opened them, the sights of his rifle were lined up at the base of Krol’s neck, and the slack had been taken out of the trigger. Just a fraction of a millimeter remained. Marx knew this because he knew his rifle. He could name all the parts and pieces of the weapon, and could disassemble and reassemble it in his sleep. He knew all the numbers that applied to the model: the caliber of the bullet, the length of the cartridge, and the effective range of the various types of ammunition. There was not a single person in the world that Marx knew as well as the unfeeling firearm. He also knew exactly what the oversized bullet would do to Krol when it struck. It would make splinters of the man’s clavicle bone before pushing through the soft parts of his throat. Next it would shatter the spine and explode outward from between the shoulder blades, pushing blood and meat out ahead of it in a geyser of ruined tissue. The bullet would then travel on its course for several miles, as if the man were no more than a mist that it passed through on its way to somewhere else. Marx exhaled through his nose, as he had been trained to do. He adjusted his aim slightly, and fired.

When the rifle spoke, its voice swallowed up a number of other sounds. Arkady’s sudden cry of shock and pain was drowned out. The hum of the floatwagon was overcome. And far below the freighter, an even fainter sound went unnoticed. It was the plunk of a shiny piece of new scrap metal hitting the clear waters of Lake Stendahl.

Marx did three things instinctively. Where he had been educated, the “Three R’s” were Relocate, Reload and Reacquire. He relocated to the side of the radiator box opposite of where Krol stood. He worked the bolt of the rifle, letting a brass colored cartridge hit the deck of the freighter with a tinkling sound. He also started to aim at Arkady once more, only to find that the heat rising off the radiator housing was distorting his view, making the motionless Krol appear to be swaying back and forth.

Arkady Krol stood petrified, as people who have been shot often do. He was not yet aware that the bullet had stuck his revolver, but not the hand that had gripped it – mostly because he couldn’t feel anything below his right elbow. He watched in stupefied silence as his pursuer scaled the stepladder at a frightening pace, emerging into the sunlight with a final leap. Krol had been prepared to shoot the Cathar as soon as she appeared on the deck, and his numbed arm tried to carry out the plan. But his trigger finger had been bent backwards when the pistol flew from his hand. The pain hit him at about the same time the Cathar did.

To Marx, it looked like they were dancing. Cathar had one hand on Krol’s wrist, and her other arm around his waist. She sidestepped the Human as gracefully as though they were waltzing, with her in the lead, and Krol clumsily learning the steps. The heat from the radiator casing rippled the air, obscuring their faces from Marx’s view and turning the scene into an impressionist painting come to life. Cathar’s next move was something akin to an underarm turn, except that it ended with her partner crashing to the deck face first, with his wrist bent behind his back. Marx regained his feet and ran to them. Arkady’s cheek was pressed against the deck, his expression like that of a disobedient child who cannot believe that he has just been spanked. Cathar was scowling in serious concentration as she placed disposable restraints on his wrists. They made a sound like an enormous zipper as she tightened them.

“Marx,” she said without taking her eyes off the prostrate thief, “you’d better close that hatch. Some of the crew were following us.”

Marx slung the rifle over his shoulder and pushed the hatch down until it slammed shut. He examined the pivoting handle and found there was no way to lock it. He crouched on top of the hatch to hold it down, grasping the handle with both hands.

“I heard a gunshot,” said Cathar. “What did you do?”

“I din’ do nothing!” Krol exclaimed, his surprisingly high-pitched voice muffled by the deck.

“Not you,” she growled, rolling the man onto his back and lifting him into a sitting position.

“He had a revolver,” Marx explained, “so I shot it out of his hand.”

“Seriously?”

“He couldn’t have been five meters away, holding perfectly still. Anybody could make that shot.”

“I think he broke my hand,” Arkady complained, trying to move his fingers.

“That’s really a shame,” Cathar replied. “You might have trouble picking pockets.”

Marx loosened his grip on the latch, and was surprised when it turned on its own. The hatch lifted just a crack, but Marx’s weight kept it from popping open.

“Hello?” said a voice from beneath the deck.

Cathar wrapped a hand around Krol’s neck. “Not a sound,” she whispered in his ear, giving his trachea a slight squeeze.

“Who’s up there?” said the voice again. Marx readjusted his hold on the handle. After a moment of silence, the hatch fell back into place and Marx heard footsteps going down the ladder and fading into the hull.

“I think he’s gone,” he murmured, turning back to see Cathar searching Krol quickly and thoroughly, but not very gently. She was tossing various forms of cash on the deck, folded bank notes bound together with rubber bands and square coins made of silver and gold. The coins were tied in bundles with string threaded through holes in their corners. It certainly looked like the mixed currency that passengers used to pay their fare when boarding the Luft Ritter.

“I’ve been wondering,” Marx thought out loud, “is it Arkady Krol, or Krol Arkady?”

Otyebis,” came the response through yellowed teeth. Marx didn’t recognize the word, but knew he was being cursed. Krol couldn’t have been much older than Marx, but he seemed to have a few more miles on him.

Cathar seemed satisfied that she had found everything that he had to hide, and let go of him. He pushed against the deck with his heels, sliding away from her. A slack-jawed gaze of recognition lit his stubbled face. “You’re the stewardess!” he exclaimed, his accusatory tone suggesting that her actions had been improper somehow. Cathar ignored him and began gathering up the scattered money.

Ahueyet!” Krol reverted to his native tongue once again.

“What did you say?” Marx asked, genuinely curious. Arkady turned his head back and forth as if disoriented. He seemed oblivious to the floatwagon that was gliding slowly down to the level of the freighter’s deck.

“It’s not fair!” Krol shouted, trying to get his feet beneath him so he could stand up.

“Nothing is fair,” Cathar replied softly, keeping her eyes to the deck, “But we do our best.”

***

“Am I under arrest?”

Silphas Lorsin regarded his quarry with a blank stare.

“Where do people like you come from?” he wondered out loud to nobody in particular.

A Justice Hunter flanked Krol on each side. Scrin, a short, thick Cathar with unkempt gray fur shook his head in disbelief. “I think this one is disoriented,” he said in a bass rumble. “He might’ve fallen down… scuff marks on his cheek there.”

“Funny thing,” said the other escort, a black and white Cathar named Khorek. “When I put the fastbinders on him, his wrists already had red marks.”

The two Justice Hunters were mildly disappointed with the results of their expedition. The freighter they had been waiting for had stopped above the middle of the lake and radioed to shore requesting the local police. Their team arrived first, only to find their quarry already captured by the freighter’s crew. It was an anticlimactic end to an afternoon of painstaking preparation. The captain of the freighter, a slender Human with a copper beard, stood next to Sil.

“We found him on the top deck just like this,” he said. “We heard a gunshot—”

“He shot me in the hand!” interrupted Arkady, seeming annoyed that he was not invited to the discussion. “And I think it’s broken.”

“Who did what?” asked Sil.

“The pilot! He shot the gun right out of my hand and I think it’s broken.”

There was an embarrassing moment of confused silence during which nobody present was willing to look Krol in the eyes. Sil turned to the captain and asked, “Your pilot?”

“I don’t think that’s possible,” replied the captain. “Our pilot was at the helm the whole time.”

Sil noticed something on the deck near the radiator housing and walked away from the group to investigate. With creaking joints he crouched to pick up the object.

“Rifle cartridge,” Silphas mused, turning the shining cylinder to look at the letters stamped on its backside, “Terran manufacture . . .”

“Am I under arrest?” Krol asked again, growing more agitated, “I gave them back all the money!”

“You gave who what money?” responded Khorek.

“The charter ship crew! The stewardess said I was free to go.”

I do believe I told that girl to stay out of trouble, thought Silphas Lorsin.

The captain glanced back and forth between Khorek and Arkady Krol, scratching the back of his head thoughtfully. “This is a freighter,” he said. “We don’t have a stewardess.”

Realization dawned upon the face of Arkady Krol, and he began to look ill.

“You aren’t with the stewardess, are you?” he asked the befuddled hunters on each side of him.

“Silphas?” said Khorek, “Do you have any idea what the crazy man is talking about?”

The aged Aldren spotter tucked the empty cartridge in a pocket.

“No,” said Sil. “He’s probably on some sort of hallucinogen.”

E N D   O F   C H A P T E R

__________________________

Born in 1980, Grant Anderson came home from the hospital in a 1975 AMC Pacer. His parents tried to give him a normal life. However, when Grant began to drive this car on a daily basis upon his 16th birthday, all chances of normalcy were forsaken. Grant was raised in Norfolk, NE. After a brief respite in Lincoln, he now resides in Louisville with his wife, Sarah, their beautiful daughter, Rose, and their Pembroke Welsh Corgi, Lucas. In his spare time, Grant is an avid reader and a military history enthusiast.  More than anything else, he is a loving husband and adoring father. At least, that’s what his family says.


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