The Bones of Knight Harris, Chapter 5: Mystery

By Grant Anderson

“Are you sure we lost them?” Marx Averri peered over his shoulder at Professor Meduri. The Ferrelan was perched upon the navigator’s seat with his elbows on the desk. A pair of leather-padded headphones rested on his narrow cranium. Outside the Luft Ritter’s canopy was nothing but a white glow.

“Professor?”

Meduri tore the headphones off his head and dropped them to the desk. “You don’t have to ask me that every five minutes. If I get any contacts, I’ll let you know.”

The Luft Ritter was flying through clouds laden with snow, but the flakes turned to steam as they touched the hot surface of the canopy. The southern Martian mountains were still in the full grip of a determined winter.

Meduri shook his head in frustration. “The particle phones are useless in this weather. All I can hear is the snow. But the theroscope is clear.” The Ferrelan brushed his delicate fingers over the jagged lines of light dancing on the instrument’s viewtube.

Marx contemplated in silence for a moment. His newly-bandaged hands made some minute adjustments on the pair of levers that steered the heavy launch. “So,” he said at last, “we lost them.” He favored his navigator with a childish, lopsided grin. The pilot’s seat was designed for the conservative frame of an Aldren, and it exaggerated his awkward proportions. He looked like a baboon trying to ride a child’s bicycle. Meduri rolled his large black eyes. He swiveled his seat around to face the pilot.

“We don’t even know that they were following us in the first place. We also don’t know who they were because you kicked it into full thrust before I could get a visual.”

Marx was unperturbed. “Can you just forget that you’re depressing and enjoy the moment? We got all our money back! We zipped out from under the nose of a team of Justice Hunters. And nobody got hurt except the petty thief. When was the last time our luck held up like that?”

“Hmmf.” Meduri twisted a knob on the theroscope and the jagged lines collapsed into a single glowing wave. “Despite what a…an uneducated person like yourself might consider ‘luck,’ we have plenty of reason to be cautious. Arkady Krol most likely informed the Justice Hunters of our interference.”

Marx sighed. “I know. And that’s why I wanted to dump his bullet-riddled corpse in the lake. But Cathar has very strong feelings on the matter. You have to pick your battles carefully with her.”

A bright dot winked into existence on one of the viewtubes.

“We’re coming up on Achra,” said Meduri. “I have a signal from their landing beacon.”

Marx twisted the throttle grips back, and the engines dropped to a whisper. He squinted at the white haze created by the midday sun. It was like a negative picture of space, but without any little black negative stars to aid navigation.

“We’ll have to guide this old beauty in with the instruments,” he said, “because I’ve got nothing outside that canopy. Not even a line on the horizon.”

Like the lifting of a curtain, the cloud of swirling snow disappeared as the Luft Ritter descended. It dropped beneath the cliffs of the Great Selsor Plateau, whose bulk shielded it from the wind. Jagged walls of granite on three sides guarded the valley below, and the small frontier settlement of Achra nestled in the cozy valley beneath.

The landing pad rested on the sloping plain at the mouth of the canyon. Marx was taking it slow, the near disaster of his last landing fresh in his mind. The Luft Ritter descended as lightly as another flake of snow. The landing pad was easily visible below, and Meduri hopped out of the navigator’s seat to look down through the bottom of the canopy.  He could see the outline of a smaller vessel already resting on the pad. It was a light launch, similar in design to the Luft Ritter. Its wings swept forward and each held two small engine pods. The top of the vessel wore a distinctive checkered pattern of burgundy and orange.

“Is that Palero’s boat?” asked Meduri.

Marx leaned over the instrument board at his right shoulder to look. “I think it is. What’s it called again?”

“He changes the name at every outpost. The nameplates just come right off and he puts on a new set. Clever, really.”

Marx shrugged. “Clever or not, I think Palero is a gozer.”

That particular word was not in any of the Terran dictionaries that Professor Meduri owned, but he agreed with the sentiment.

The landing cleats of the Luft Ritter met the packed snow and sunk deeper until they reached the frozen soil below. Marx unbuckled himself from the pilot’s seat and walked through the rear hatch of the conn. Here the Luft Ritter widened and split into two levels. Orange carpeted stairs led up to the passenger compartment. Below the deck a wood-framed door led to the crew cabins. Cathar emerged from one of those cabins wearing a thick knee-length wool coat. It was cream in color and made her look as if she had been rolled up in a luxurious carpet. Matching lambskin boots covered her usually bare feet.

“It’s not much below freezing,” said Marx, “you’ll be too warm in that.” He slid the door to his cabin open and retrieved a blue cotton sweater.

“It’s a traditional Martian peasant outfit,” Cather replied as Marx pulled the sweater over his head. “I thought it might be good to blend in. Unless you’d rather I walked around town in my uniform.” Marx winced.

“No, anything but that.”

A persistent thumping came from down the corridor as Otto clomped into the galley from the cargo bay, holding stacks of pamphlets pinched between his titanium fingers. Marx groaned softly at the sight.

“I better go break his little clockwork heart.”

“Just remember,” said Cathar, keeping her voice low, “firm but kind. I don’t really want to know if yensis can cry.”

“If any robot anywhere in the spiral arm can cry, it would be our Otto.” Marx turned to face the robot. “Otto.” He folded his hands and forced a smile. “This is just a quick stop to pick up some radios from Lin Hamed. We won’t really—”

“Oh, that’s not a problem, sir,” interrupted the yensi. “I’ll stay right with you this time. I’ll only get signatures from the people you deal with.” Otto’s petition to the Galactic Union was in his other hand. The chalk logo on his wooden chest – “FREE THE ROBOTS” – had been freshly retouched.

“See, the thing about Achra is…” Marx began, “the people here don’t have an address to put on your petition. I don’t think the town even has an address.”
Otto cocked his bulky head to one side, gazing at Marx through inscrutable camera lenses. “I have pamphlets too. I could—”

“Otto,” Marx interrupted, placing his hand on the robot’s ornate shoulder piece, “I need you to watch the ship while we’re away.”

The yensi sagged in a defeated slump. “Not again.”

“Tell you what,” said Marx, taking the pamphlets from the dejected machine. “I’ll pass these out for you.” He stuffed a handful of the bright orange papers into his pocket. “Our next stop is Teece Bay, and you can spend all day getting signatures there.”

Otto straightened up. “Will you give one of those to everybody you meet?”

“I will,” said Marx.

“You promise?”

“Yes.”

“Do you swear upon the honor of your manufacturer’s label?”

“…Yes.”

“Very well. I will stay and watch the vessel.”

“Good,” said Marx. “Now, do you remember the signal?”

“Yes. If you scratch your head it means everything is fine.”

“Right. And if anybody causes trouble on the ground?”

“I warm the engines and hover.”

Professor Meduri’s only concession to the cold was a pair of leather gloves on his hands and a pair of moccasins on his feet. It was the gloves that first touched the packed snow of the landing pad as Meduri walked down the Luft Ritter’s ramp on all four limbs. He found himself in a brick-walled pit surrounding the pad on all sides, protecting the parked vessels from the worst of the wind. Only the highest tips of the Luft Ritter’s tail peeked over the top of the wall. Marx had parked the vessel facing the wind, but whether that was planning or a lucky accident Meduri did not know. Marx seemed to make a living out of lucky accidents.

The light passenger launch that Meduri had spotted during the landing was indeed Palero’s vessel. A spiral staircase descended from a hatch in its side and a line of passengers were disembarking, pushing carts of baggage. They were heading to where the landing pad narrowed to a small corridor in the direction of the town.  

More Aldren refugees, Meduri thought.

At the base of the staircase, a young Aldren couple was having a very animated discussion. The female was waving her arms around, clearly stating that something about the landing area was unacceptable. Both of them were dressed for much warmer weather.

A pair of painfully radiant pink boots appeared at the top of the spiral staircase. That was all Meduri needed to recognize Captain Palero. The rest of him followed, wearing an oily-looking leather jumpsuit the color of kidney beans. Palero was a barrel-chested giant of an Aldren, towering nearly two heads above the couple at the base of the stairs. He listened absently to the objections as he stuffed a slender smoking pipe. The female pointed in the general direction of Achra and raised both fists in the air. She jabbed an accusatory finger at Palero, nearly knocking the pipe out of his hands. Meduri’s sharp ears caught the word “unthinkable.” A page of grey paper emerged from inside Palero’s jacket. He handed it to the female and walked away.

Should have read the fine print, thought Meduri, it probably says, “Destination subject to change without notice.”

“Is he seriously just dumping them here?” Cathar’s voice startled Meduri. He could usually hear her approaching.

“I believe he is. Not many of Palero’s passengers had coats. I don’t think they expected to land here.”

Out of the corner of her eye, Cathar noticed two figures emerge from a small brick hut on the edge of the landing pad and walk toward the resting Luft Ritter.

“Marx?” she shouted into the cargo bay. “Locals approaching.”

“I’m coming.” Marx exited the ramp and came to a stop between Meduri and Cathar. The professor was studying the pair with interest, his short arms folded over his tubular chest. Cathar’s nose wrinkled, as if she did not care for the smell of them.

The figures were human. The larger of the two wore a fur coat so thick that his actual dimensions could only be guessed at. The smaller one tottered unsteadily through the snow in high-heeled shoes of cherry red.

“Was there a welcoming committee last time we landed here?” asked Meduri.

“Not that I remember,” said Cathar.

The eyes of the large man were bright and alert. His nose was bent to the left – probably from a well-placed right hook many years ago. The blue “third eye” tattoo of a Ramani was just visible peeking out from beneath his rabbit fur hat. The young woman beside him wore what might charitably have been called a coat. In reality, it was much more like a bathrobe. Her eyes had a glazed over look, as if she had just rolled out of bed — however, her hair had been elaborately curled and piled high on top of her head. Her feeble attention shifted between keeping her footing, and staring blankly at the steaming engines of the Luft Ritter.

Marx placed a hand on his companion’s shoulders. “I’ll do the talking.”

“You have a landing permit?” The bent-nosed man revealed a row of golden replacement teeth.

“We’ve been here before,” said Marx, “got that all cleared with the jemadar.”

The man squinted and his mouth hung open. He studied the outlines of the vessel.

“I’ll have to go check the register. What brings you to Achra?”

“We’re just stopping to pick up some merchandise. I have an arrangement with a man in town.”

The man shook his finger in the air, suddenly reminded of something. “Merchandise!  I have brought you our finest, courtesy of the jemadar.” He said something in a local dialect to the distracted girl. She opened her robe to display her shivering, malnourished body. “Three ounces and you can have her all afternoon. She’ll do anything you like. Only, no bruises.”

Cathar groaned and covered her face with a hand. Meduri turned away and bounced slightly, as if he had hiccoughed.

Marx was silent for a moment.

“She’ll do. Here.” He fished three small coins out of his pocket and handed them to the man. Cathar made a noise that indicated she was about to become violently ill. Meduri snorted.

“Right this way, miss,” said Marx, offering his elbow like a gentleman. The girl followed him numbly, blinking at his face as if she were unable to bring it into focus. Marx led her up the ramp with a smile, oblivious to Cathar’s undisguised look of horror.

“Marx? Don’t we have a meeting with Hamed?” she asked through tightly clenched teeth.

“I’ll just be a minute. You two can head into town.” Marx and the sleepwalking girl vanished into the cargo bay. In the uncomfortable silence that followed, the bent-nosed welcoming party and flesh merchant gave a courteous bow and excused himself. As soon as he was out of earshot, Meduri burst into snuffling laughter. Cathar sighed heavily and stalked onto the landing pad.

“I’m sorry,” said Meduri, “but the look on your face…” He dropped down to all four limbs and caught up with her in two bounds, propelled by the thick muscles and elastic tendons in his hindquarters. “Where are you going in such a hurry?”

“Giving Marx his privacy.”

“You are upset.”

“That was incredibly tacky. Even by human standards.”

The Ferrelan scurried in front of her and resumed his two-footed stance. “Human standards? My dear Cathar, by human standards Marx is a young male in the prime of his breeding age. He lives confined in our vessel, isolated from his own kind. I understand that, given your background you have certain…religious views on the subject…”

“Religious views? This is a basic moral issue! Not to mention the hygienic concerns.” Cathar didn’t quite shout, but her voice turned into a growl.

“True. But you can’t hold him accountable to any moral code that he doesn’t believe in.”

“What about that hometown sweetheart he’s always writing those love letters to?” asked Cathar. “Do you think she will see it that way?”

Meduri turned to face her and came to an abrupt halt with his arms folded. “That’s between Marx and his alleged lady friend. And you have never met her. And we’re not talking about Marx’s mating habits anymore. Now this is about you.”

Cathar had stopped just short of Meduri and towered over him. “All I am saying is that he had better take a shower. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to spend the rest of the day with Marx reeking of cheap harlot.”

They were interrupted by the sound of crunching snow. Marx was at the base of the ramp, running to catch up.

“Well,” Meduri said slowly, “that was…efficient.”

“Don’t worry,” Marx said cheerfully. “I hid the cash box and locked the cabins. Otto’s making her some tea. I told him to let her thaw out a little before he brings out his petition.” Cathar studied him in silence, and Marx narrowed his eyes. “Why are you two looking at me like that? Her pimp said she was fine with anything.”

Meduri stroked his whiskers thoughtfully. “You just bought a prostitute to keep the robot company?”

“Why not? I’m sure she’s a good listener, all drugged up like that. Not that Otto will notice…besides, we couldn’t just leave her out in the cold all day. Didn’t you see what she was wearing?”

Meduri nodded wearily.

Cathar smiled and put an arm around Marx’s shoulder. “Of course. Very thoughtful of you.”

“Sure,” said Marx. “Now let’s go meet up with our merchant.”

Meduri recognized the dingy row of mobile homes that lined the entrance to the valley. They had been mobile once, when Achra was a moving settlement. Now the roof-mounted lift gas pontoons were empty, and the landing skids had long since sunk into the soil. Achra had come to rest here towards the end of the war and never left.

“That’s new,” said Cathar, pointing to an unpainted wooden shed. A little pit encircled with sandbags was just outside its door.

“I think it’s somebody’s idea of a gun emplacement,” said Marx. A sign on the side of the shed advised NO WEAPONS BEYOND THIS POINT in several languages. The windows were dark, and no one came out to meet them.

“You are carrying weapons, aren’t you?” Meduri asked.

“Of course I am,” replied Marx. “We’re meeting Lin Hamed, remember? But if anybody asks, we’ll just tell them that I’m illiterate and I couldn’t read the sign.”

Meduri nodded in approval. “Good idea. It’s certainly a believable lie.”

Cathar sighed wistfully. “How could we ever forget dear Hamed? I remember the first time you bought cargo from him. He put a knife to your throat.”

“That’s true,” Marx admitted, “but to be fair, the comment I made about his prices was way out of line. But I stood my ground, and I got my discount.”

“Well, he does overcharge for stolen merchandise,” said Cathar. “Do you have a plan for getting a good deal on these radios?”

“Oh, yes. I’ll test one for quality and when he’s not looking, I’ll break it. Then I’ll act like I’m angry that he’s selling me broken radios.”

Cathar was silent for a moment.

“Meduri?” she asked, “do you have a better plan?”

The Ferrelan shrugged. “I could pretend that I’m having a seizure. He’ll never see that coming.”

“Hmm,” said Cathar. “If you two don’t mind, I think I’ll wait outside while you talk to Hamed.”

A motrad rumbled past the houses in the distance on its three narrow tires. It was carrying what appeared to be an entire family on its two tiny saddles. The darkened storefronts and squat houses nestled closely together, conserving the limited valley floor. The narrow streets were paved only with packed snow.

They passed the radio teletype station, which served as a sort of post office for the settlement. There was a small Ramani shrine built into its wall. Surrounding the shrine drink offerings, long since frozen solid, perched in the snow alongside weakly flickering votive candles. There were three statuettes. Meduri recognized the goddess Marima with her bowl and trident. Another possessed six arms and the head of a bull. Centered between them was a figure recognizable throughout every human culture: a tall masked man holding aloft a stylized blast cleaver. The Ramanis called him Hareesh, and many of them believed that he was an incarnation of Angakara, God of Mars.

“These streets are usually crowded,” observed Cathar, “where is everybody?”

“Maybe the town is closed down for the holiday,” said Meduri to nobody in particular.

“I don’t think Achra celebrates Martian Independence,” said Marx, “’cause they’re already independent from everybody. Every day.”

Cathar noticed a sudden movement – a curtain hurriedly drawn in one of the houses along the road. Around a corner they met a cluster of men carrying motorized tree saws. Their wind burned faces gazed at the crew sullenly. Behind the loggers marched two young men in black coats with a yellow armband on their sleeves. One of them carried a truncheon. A crude pistol belt was fastened around the waist of the other.

“Since when do they have armed thug patrols in Achra?” asked Cathar once the group had passed by.

“Well, I have read that volunteer law enforcement is quite common in remote human settlements,” replied Meduri.

“Don’t think of them as thugs,” said Marx. “Think of them as a low cost alternative to police.”

“Like a neighborhood watch,” said Meduri, “with guns.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Marx said with a casual wave of his hand. “Achra is notorious for having bear problems. The woods around here are just crawling with bears.”

“Maybe they know Lin Hamed is in town,” Cathar said with a wry smile.

“There’s our meeting place.” Marx pointed to a large formerly-mobile home resting alone. Faded dandelion-yellow paint was peeling from its walls, and the lift gas tanks that once adorned its roof had been replaced with a neon sign:

ACHRA CAFÉ – NEVER CLOSED

White smoke curling from a pitted metal chimney confirmed that the oven was warm. Meduri lifted his nose to the air.

“Smells like they have the soup on.”

* * *

Achra Café was warm and well-lit. The tables and chairs didn’t match, but they looked clean. The sounds of a news report drifted from a radio in the kitchen. There was a Thaark at a table on the far end of the café, seated with four young men. The Thaark’s skin was the color and texture of a bruised avocado, decorated with jagged scars. His amber eyes danced around the circle of humans as he told them a story, completely ignoring the arrival of the Luft Ritter’s crew. He would occasionally punctuate important points by slapping his hand on the table, rattling the dinnerware. The young men listened with open-mouthed smiles as their leader gestured wildly. Meduri couldn’t tell if they were enjoying the story or simply humoring their massive companion. Not that he would blame them. Marx observed a gun belt negligently draped across the back of one of their chairs. The greasy-looking pistol inside seemed perilously close to sliding out of its holster and onto the floor.

“They’ve got the same yellow armbands as the neighborhood watch,” muttered Cathar.

The forty-something matron who ran the café emerged from the kitchen with a platter of drinks. She was short and thin, nearly Meduri’s standing height. She paused when she saw the new arrivals and cast a worried glance toward the Thaark and his retinue. The radio droned on in the background.

…vigil continues for the missing vessel Fujikawa Maru, expected to make Martian Orbit last week. The OmniHauler has not been seen or contacted since leaving Baryon colony last week with four hundred passengers and a cargo of finished electrical cells. The Aldren Exploration Force says it suspects piracy, and has promised to double patrols along the Maru’s route…

“One moment, please,” she said to Marx without making eye contact. She walked stiffly to the table in the back, murmuring something to the Thaark as she served the drinks.

“Chanya, I am off duty,” he replied, loud enough that everyone could hear him. Chanya bowed and returned to the crew. She seated them near the doorway and promised to return with tea.

“You don’t see many Thaarks on Mars,” said Meduri.

“Or anywhere else,” said Marx, “They’re practically extinct.” The Ferrelan Professor thought that was a gross oversimplification, but said nothing. The Thaarks were a scattered people whose home world had yet to be discovered, despite the best efforts of the Aldren Exploration Force.

“You can see why he’s on the armband squad,” Marx continued. “He’s a quarter ton of pure intimidation. Makes for a good security officer.”

Cathar snorted. “Maybe you should go offer him a job?”

“Maybe,” Marx replied with a chuckle. “But I think I’ll keep you instead. Bet you could neutralize him in a heartbeat.”

“Well don’t tell him that,” said Cathar, “He might take it as a challenge.”

Marx put his elbows on the table and rested his chin on his bandaged hands. He flashed a mischievous smile at Meduri. “She’s being modest, you know. Even a big brute like that has veins and arteries in his neck.” Marx traced a finger along Meduri’s throat to illustrate. “All she has to do is hook one of those finger claws around underneath them. Then she gives it a little pull and you’ve got a geyser of—”

As the waitress approached with their tea, Cathar gave Marx a sharp kick in the shins. “That’s not polite dinner conversation, Marx.”

Chanya held a pot of cinnamon-scented tea and a worried expression. She poured them each a small ceramic cup in awkward silence.

…spokesman for the Aldren Exploration Force complained that a dedicated short range defense vessel like the Ares’ Wrath would not help improve the security of the shipping lanes, and would in fact only increase tensions between Earth and Mars. Martian Navy OverCommander Moorik replied that orbital defense was a top priority, and the construction of Ares’ Wrath would continue as scheduled. He offered to provide the Aldren Exploration Force with an additional task force of light gunboats to help patrol the lanes, and recommended that vessels using remote shipping lanes travel in convoys for added…

“What can I get you?” Chanya asked.

“I’ll have the mulligat soup, please.” Marx said, and his companions opted for the same.

“I do so love Ramani food,” said Cathar, once the waitress had returned to the kitchen. “They don’t seem to put meat in anything.”

“There’s fish in it sometimes,” said Meduri. “You can have fish, right?”

“Yes. As long as it wasn’t raised in a fish tank or something like that.” The religious food laws of her culture were something of a mystery to Meduri, who had no religion, and Marx, who had little culture.

…and although Domnus Themond was conspicuously absent from the Galactic Union hearings, he did seem to allude to the debate in his speech at Memorial Park. “At the dawn of Human history there was nothing but noise. Millions of Human voices crying out as the empires of the ancients…”

Marx jumped suddenly, bumping the table. He glared at the kitchen door, as if he suspected that Domnus Themond was in there instead of a radio.

“Sorry about that,” he muttered.

“When is Lin Hamed meeting us?” Meduri asked, glancing at a clock on the wall. He was trying to reconcile the local time against the Luft Ritter’s time, by which he should probably be sleeping.

“He should be here any time now,” said Marx.

Chanya returned with their soup and a plate stacked with flatbread.

“Would you mind turning the radio down?” Marx asked in a manner he thought polite.

“I wouldn’t mind. But Hoorg over there, he would mind. He doesn’t hear very well.” The Thaark in the corner was silent, leaning back in his chair with a grimace on his face that served as a smile.

“Ah. My apologies. I thought you ran this place.”

Chanya gave him a cold stare. “You might want to keep your voice down if you’re going to say things like that. I don’t want any trouble in here.” She left without another word.

“It is well known today that the Aldren people sold metals and fuels to both factions, placing into the hands of Man the tools of race suicide. They also benefited from the self-destruction of Human colonies. Even today, Aldren feet tread the soil of habitable worlds near our system which should be ours.”

“I just can’t believe that,” said Meduri.

“I know,” said Marx. “Just because he’s a gigantic off-duty low-budget cop he gets his way! And Hoorg is a ridiculous name, even for a Thaark.”

“No, I’m talking about Themond. It seems like he’s always trying to shift blame on Clarion. Do any Humans actually believe that the Aldrens are their enemy?”

Marx shrugged. “I did. Because I wanted to. There are some things that you just can’t enjoy unless you believe the propaganda.”

Meduri squinted at him. “Such as?”

Marx leaned in close and lowered his voice. “It wouldn’t be polite dinner conversation.”

“The broken heart of Knight Harris is an image I will bear until the curse is lifted, and the two worlds stand as one. He knew then, as we know today, that a race weakened by division will surely fall prey to the vicious and warlike races that prowl the Great Emptiness.”

Marx made a disapproving click of the tongue. “There he goes again, Cathar.”

“Hmm?” Her mouth was full.

“Domnus Themond is talking about you. ‘Vicious and warlike.’ When we head back to Earth you should give him a piece of your mind.”

She smiled and turned to Meduri. “He does seem to be in a good mood.”

“Yes,” said Meduri, “he does.”

Marx looked back and forth at his companions, sensing a conspiracy.

“What?”

Meduri cleared his throat with an odd chirp. “Cathar and I would like to discuss a business matter with you.”

Marx nodded and spooned some soup into his mouth.

“Now, before I bring it up, I want you to understand that this is not an indictment of your ship handling abilities.”

Marx frowned in confusion. “Imbitement?” he mumbled.

“What the professor is trying to say,” Cathar clarified, “is that we should consider hiring a pilot.”

“But not because we think you’re a bad pilot,” Meduri added quickly. “We just think that given our schedule you are not getting enough rest between flights. If we had somebody else who could take over…” He trailed off as Marx stared a pair of holes in him.

“This year, production exceeded the prewar level for the first time. Our trade fleets are faster and better protected than ever before.”

“This is about the landing at Wilder’s Dawn, isn’t it?” Marx asked.

“No,” said Meduri.

“Yes,” said Cathar.

Marx took a deep breath and let his shoulders sag. “Well, I did nearly crash the ship and kill us all. You’ve got me there. I’m bad about the little things, like valves and switches.” He sat up straight. “We are making good money. I have no problem with hiring a pilot.”

Meduri gave Cathar a look that said, “I can’t believe it was that easy!

“Of course, we’ll all have to agree on a good candidate,” said Marx.

“Including Otto?” Meduri asked.

Marx snapped his fingers. “Otto! Pamphlets.” He dug a few out of his pockets and set them on the table. “I forgot all about these. Yes, we’ll include Otto in the decision. I suppose that’s fair.”

“About the candidates,” Meduri charged ahead, “I know that given the…unique legal status that you and Cathar have with the Anthrosocialists, we will need a pilot that can be trusted completely.”

“Absolutely,” Marx agreed.

“So we feel that your sister should be given first consideration—”

Marx stood up suddenly, a murderous look in his eyes. Meduri leaned backward in shock as Marx’s hands clenched into fists on the table. One of them crumpled an orange pamphlet as it closed. Tiny blossoms of fresh blood soaked through the white bandages on his knuckles.

“Excuse me,” said Marx as he stood and stalked away from the table, heading for the restroom behind the kitchen. Chanya was just coming through the kitchen door and froze when she saw him.

“Free the robots,” Marx growled as he dropped the wadded pamphlet onto her tray. Everyone in the café watched him walk past Hoorg’s table and around the corner. The restroom door slammed.

“That’s a no on the sister, then,” muttered Cathar.

“I guess I should have waited to bring that up,” said Meduri.

A moment later, the overdue merchant Lin Hamed entered the café door.
Cathar had met him twice before, but it took her a moment to recognize him. He had acquired a severe limp and an eye patch. Meduri stared openly.

Hamed’s pointed boots scraped and shuffled across the wood floor, and his remaining eye was fixed on the Thaark. One of the men at the table reached for his gun. Hoorg placed a hand on his shoulder, covering it completely. Meduri’s attention was riveted on the new arrival, but he somehow sensed Cathar shifting her weight, ready to spring if necessary. The movement was nearly imperceptible beneath her coat. Chanya made a strained squeak before walking quickly back to the kitchen. Hoorg slowly rose to his feet, and the chair beneath him groaned with relief. Just then, another man entered the café behind Lin Hamed, one who looked much older, but in better condition. He wore a shabby grey coat, but something about his demeanor suggested that a fierce heart beat beneath the patched and faded garment. His hair and beard were brilliant white in contrast with his weathered brown skin. Lin Hamed stood rooted to the ground.

Nobody moved.

And only Domnus Themond spoke.

“Slowly but surely, they draw their plans against you.”


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