The Bones of Knight Harris, Chapter 6: Business

By Grant Anderson

in Hamed,” Hoorg rumbled like an ancient tractor, “I thought that we had an understanding.  You are not welcome in Achra.”  The Thaark’s irises were the dirty yellow of concentrated urine.  His sage-green lips drew back in a sneer, revealing the ruined stumps of his teeth, like little lumps of coal haphazardly stuck into his gums.

The look in Lin Hamed’s single bloodshot eye was the killing kind.  He was a wounded, hunted beast, suddenly finding himself cornered.  His right hand rested on his hip, but it was slowly sliding towards the middle of his back.

“It was a one sided conversation,” Hamed snarled.  The white haired stranger who had entered the café with Hamed absently scratched the back of his neck, looking bewildered and a bit embarrassed.

“…Gripping the sword of military might with the other…” Domnus Themond’s voice grew in pitch and volume from the small radio in the kitchen, as if his spirit hovered in the room, sensing the rise in tensions.

The cozy, quaint café suddenly seemed cramped and suffocating to Professor Meduri.  He counted three exits from the dining area: Lin Hamed and his weathered companion blocked the front door, Hoorg’s table sat at the entrance to the back hall that Marx Averri had stomped down just a moment ago.  Meduri decided that if the verbal exchange turned into an exchange of lead, he would run straight across from his table and through the kitchen door.  He nearly jumped out of his seat when Cathar’s hand found his shoulder.  As if she had been reading his mind, she whispered the command, “Under the table,” without taking her eyes off Lin Hamed.  Cathar almost never gave orders, but Meduri had the notion that she would physically enforce this one if she felt it necessary.

“Do you know why I left you one eye?”  Hoorg asked, curling his fingers around the grip of his pistol. “I left it so you could find your way out of Achra.  Now, put it to good use if you expect to keep it.”  The four young men seated with Hoorg seemed to take this as a signal, and they scrambled to their feet.

“…Any who would answer his call, let them stand now.” The radio erupted into roaring applause for a moment before suddenly falling silent.  Perhaps the cafe’s owner, Chanya had emerged from cover long enough switch it off.

Hamed’s hand, which had been slowly inching towards the small of his back now stopped, as if it had found what it was looking for.  “I’m not going anywhere.”

Hoorg moved quicker than his bulk would suggest possible, drawing his weapon and training it on Lin Hamed.

A small object landed on the table in front of him, knocking over one of the empty glasses.  It was round and grey, about the size and shape of a lemon.  It hissed like a furious cobra, spitting white smoke.  Hoorg and his men recognized the object instantly, but it did not belong on the table.  Their minds did not immediately accept its sudden appearance.

“Grenade!” Marx shouted from the back hallway.  This announcement threw the whole room into chaotic motion.  Hoorg lurched sideways and knocked over one of his men, landing heavily on top of him.  Two more of them threw themselves to the floor.  One landed on his belly and covered his head.  The other landed on his side and curled up like a pill bug.  The fourth man was pinned in the corner and remained standing.  He folded his arms over his face and drew one knee up into his chest, as if that would help.

Lin Hamed’s friend ran up and seized the back of his coat, quickly dragging the merchant through the kitchen door.  Just as Meduri had predicted, Cathar pulled him under the table.  The crown of his head clipped the table on the way down, but he barely noticed.  Cathar landed on top of Meduri and wrapped one arm around him, squeezing the breath from his lungs.  They huddled behind one of the overturned chairs and waited for the coming blast.

The hiss of the grenade’s fuse changed in pitch.  A hollow sound, like someone blowing over the lip of a bottle.  What a horrible mockery of an egg, thought Meduri, instead of bringing forth new life, it throws death in all directions when it hatches. Meduri realized that he could no longer hear the fuse.  He thought that perhaps the explosion had deafened him, but then he heard someone crying softly, squeaking like a rusted wheel.

“This has been a drill,” Marx Averri announced.  “Now, let’s see how well we avoided that grenade.  Lin Hamed, you and your friend are just fine.  You can come out of the kitchen now.  Where is my crew?”

Cathar let out her breath and muttered something in her native tongue.  Meduri didn’t understand the words, but he felt the same mix of relief and frustration.  “We’re fine,” he grumbled.  You damned maniac.

“Good,” Marx replied. “You and Cathar might have some scratches – and your ears are bleeding unless you covered them – but you’ll live.”

“What the ploork?” Hoorg gasped, trying to heave himself upright.  He was still on top of the poor kid he had tackled.

“Now you are a hurting unit,” said Marx, “Your back was still above the table, so you’ve got fragments peppered all through your guts and kidney on that side.  I’m assuming Thaarks have kidneys –”

“I will ploorking gut you, you skinny little –”

“Hey!” Marx shouted.  “You let me finish!”  Hoorg paused when he saw that the human was holding a very familiar gun.  It was Hoorg’s own revolver, and Marx held a second gun in his other hand.  Lin Hamed aimed a shiny blue-black semiautomatic pistol on the Thaark.  Hoorg struggled to his feet, and the man flattened underneath him let out a groan of relief.

“That guy,” said Marx, “probably survived.  Eardrums are toast, but you saved his life by squishing him.  You, on the other hand,” Marx pointed his left handgun at the youth that was still standing.  “Everything above your belt is wrecked.”  The thug had managed to stop whimpering, but his tear-streaked face was still paralyzed in shock.  “You’re dead,” Marx admonished.  “Now get a napkin and wipe your eyes.  You’re embarrassing your boss.”

“I hit your head on the table, didn’t I?” Cathar murmured as she stood up.  “Sorry about that.”

“Oh, it’s fine,” said Meduri.  A little line of pain began softly burning just above his eyes.  “It’s the thought that counts.”

“You guys down there can get up,” said Marx, waving a gun toward the last two men. “The table helped, but you were close enough that you took a few bits of metal.  You’re deaf too.”

“We are the police!” Hoorg roared. “You will drop your weapons and get against the wall!”  Marx sighed like a patient schoolteacher disappointed with a slow pupil.

“Now, don’t be like that, Hoorg.  It was just a drill.  Besides, you guys are off duty.  Relax.”

The white haired man had returned to the dining area, and he was regarding Marx with raised eyebrows.  He saw the pistol wavering in Lin Hamed’s hand.

“Easy there, friend,” he said while gently lowering Hamed’s arm, “Let’s not spill anything on the floor.”

“Give me back my gun,” said Hoorg, “and I might relax just a little.”

Marx hesitated for a moment.

“Fair enough.”  He raised the muzzle of the revolver to the ceiling and pushed a lever with his thumb.  The cylinder swung to one side and bullets sprinkled to the floor like a handful of loose change.

“The grip is kind of sticky,” Marx observed as he handed it back to the thug.  “Might want to have it cleaned.”  Hoorg holstered his weapon and lifted the grenade off the table.  It was warm in his hand, and surprisingly light.

“It’s hollow,” he grunted.

“Well, I hope we all learned something today,” said Marx, addressing the café as a whole.  “Don’t buy hand grenades from Lin Hamed.  Half of them are duds.”

Hoorg handed the empty shell to the young man who had been caught standing.  “Back to the station,” he said to his men.  “I’ll meet you there.”  They shuffled out with their eyes to the floor.  They were going to catch hell for this, and they knew it.  Lin Hamed leered at them with what was meant to be a smug grin, but since some teeth were missing and his lip was cut, it looked more like a painful grimace.  Hoorg stepped around the table and Marx had to retreat into the hall to let him pass.  The Thaark gave him a look of grudging respect.

“You’re a clever little bastard.  But you’re also a public nuisance.  I want you out of Achra by sunset.”

“Of course,” said Marx. “We won’t trouble you any further.”

“That goes for you, too.”  Hoorg jabbed a sausage-like finger at Lin Hamed.  The merchant backed away, and the hulking policeman turned to speak to Cathar.

“If you have any business with Lin Hamed, cancel it.  Nobody trades in Achra without a permit from the Jemadar, and he has been denied.”  He stood very close to Cathar, and she could smell his recent dinner on his breath, not quite covering up the rotten odor underneath.  She said nothing, but stared back into Hoorg’s eyes.  Meduri saw the blood vessels pulsing beneath the dimpled olive skin of the Thaark’s neck.  He wondered if Cathar noticed them too.  Hoorg broke eye contact and headed for the door, floorboards creaking in his wake.

“Dinner and a show,” said Meduri.  “We really should come here more often.”  A slow, deep chuckle came from beneath the wide brimmed hat of Hamed’s companion.

“So, who’s your friend?” Marx asked, picking up a chair and seating himself.

“Oh,” Lin Hamed sighed, “just some extra cargo for you.  He’s going to Earth.”

“When I said high value and low mass cargo,” said Marx, “this isn’t exactly what I had in mind.  No offense to you, mister…?”

“Vawkes.  Jon Vawkes.  Like ‘fox’ with a ‘v.’”  When he smiled his teeth flashed a brilliant white stripe against his dirt-caked face.  “And I’ll have you know that I have very high sentimental value.”

“Hmm,” said Marx, a smile tugging at the corner of his lips.  “You vouch for him, then?”  The question was directed at Lin Hamed, but it was just a formality.  Vawkes had shown himself to be clever, and cleverness was one of Marx’s favorite traits.

“Of course,” Hamed rasped, dropping wearily into a chair.  “Although my word isn’t a trade worthy commodity in Achra these days.”

“What happened, Lin?”  Cathar asked softly, her voice sympathetic.  “Why did the police take your eye?”

“They’re not police.  Not like you.”  It was the nicest thing he had ever said to Cathar.  Hamed leaned back in his chair and put his boots up on another, revealing a dried blood stain on his pant leg.  “Achra has come under new management.”

“I was afraid of that,” groaned Marx. “So the old Jemadar…?”

“Dooraj was having some problems with trade vessels,” said Hamed. “Crews would come into town drunk.  Had some vandalism and theft.  Local girl got raped.  Well, the timber men of Achra started taking matters into their own hands, and cleaned house a bit.  Jemadar Dooraj decided to hire some low-rent mercenaries to supplement the local police, help get things back under control.  Next thing you know, these outsider mercenaries were bringing in extra help.  They disbanded the police and declared a state of martial law.  Of course I supported Dooraj when he tried to drive the mercenaries out.  Gave him and his men the guns.  I couldn’t tell you why…” Hamed squinted at the table and paused.  “Doesn’t matter.  Dooraj is dead.  The mercenaries are in control of the town.”

“So who holds the leash on the Yellow Armband Thugs?”  Marx asked.

“A young woman who goes by the name of Durga.  All the mercenaries use a nickname or alias.  Rumor has it she was kicked out of the Terran Army before she came here.”

“Eh,” Marx shrugged. “It happens to the best of us.”

“So Durga is who we need to get a permit from?” asked Meduri.

“A trading permit?” Cathar scoffed.  “It sounds more like a bribe.”

“No worries,” said Marx with a dismissive hand wave, “I’ll talk to her.  Is she cute?”  Meduri made a point of looking away.  Cathar covered her face with her hands.

“I don’t know,” said Lin Hamed, somewhat confused.  “I’ve never met Durga.”

“Listen, you two,” Marx addressed his crew.  “If you think I can’t charm the uniform right off an army girl…Well, you’re wrong.  Army girls love me.”  Marx lifted a cup off the table and gulped down the last of his lukewarm tea.  “Hamed, are you sure you want to stay in Achra?  We could take you with us to Teece Bay until things calm down around here.”  Hamed shook his head slowly, probably painfully.

“They can’t drive me out.  I’ve lived here my whole life.  Besides, unless you can move all my merchandise, I’d be out of a living.  I won’t go to Teece Bay as a beggar.  Listen, you can try to get a permit from Durga, but don’t pay too much for it.  She may not be around when you come back.  This town is like a tinderbox.  I’m not the only one who’s been thrashed by her goons.  The timber men are fed up with knuckling under to outsiders.  Achra won’t tolerate someone like Durga for very long.”

Marx drummed his fingers on the table.  “Assuming I can get a permit, what do you have for cargo?”

The question seemed to breathe life back into Lin Hamed.  “Aldren-made radios.  Fresh from the factories of Maglar Analog.  They fit in the palm of your hand.  Gold wiring and solid wood cases.  I’ve got two hundred units total.  But I won’t discuss pricing until you’ve seen them.  You won’t believe the sound quality, especially from something so small.”  Marx knew that Hamed would extol the virtues of his merchandise for half an hour or more before naming his ridiculously high price.  The haggling would take another quarter hour at least, before the price was reduced from hilarious to amusing.

“I will have the esteemed Professor Meduri inspect your radios and arrange a deal,” said Marx.  Experience had proven that only Meduri was Hamed’s equal when it came to business negotiations.  “Cathar and I will go talk to Durga, and see if we can—What?”

Cathar had leaned in close and whispered something in his ear.  Marx’s face drooped into sullen discontent.

“We’ll discuss it, then,” he grumbled, rising from his seat.  “Outside.”  Marx was giving Cathar a certain look, and it was not a friendly one.  The last time Meduri had seen it was during the Great Shower Drain Disagreement, and his crewmates did not speak to one another for several days afterwards.  Cathar’s expression remained neutral as she softly padded out the door.  Meduri stayed at the table sipping his tea.

“Come on, Professor,” said Marx.

“No.”  The human did not freeze in place or explode in anger, as Meduri had feared he might.

“No to what?”  Marx sounded perplexed.

Meduri took a deep breath.  “I’m not getting between you two twice in one day.  I’m not taking sides without knowing the whole story.  You two go hash it out.  I’ll wait in here.”

“Whatever.  No complaining about it later, though.”  Marx warned before stepping outside.  Jon Vawkes’ already wrinkled brow furrowed in concern.  “They aren’t going to fight, are they?”

Meduri pondered the question for a moment.  “Unless I am mistaken, Irresistible Force is about to meet an Immovable Object.  You don’t have to be a physics student to know that between the two is not a place you want to be.  Would you like some cold tea?”

The wind blowing across the top of the Great Selsor Plateau moaned softly high overhead.  Light snow drifted down to the streets of Achra, along with a few brittle dry leaves from last fall.  Marx stuffed his hands into the pockets of his navy blue sweater.  Cathar waited for him across the street, leaning against one of the many little houses that lined the narrow street like crates in a hold.  Her fluffy white coat and thin brown legs gave a sheep-like appearance.  The phrase “wolf in sheep’s clothing” drifted through Marx’s mind as his boots crunched through the snow.  They were alone.

“What’s his problem?”  Marx grumbled.

“Meduri is tired of being in the dark.”

“It’s for his own protection.  We discussed that on our first trip, remember?”

“He doesn’t want to be protected.  He wants to know things.  It’s in his nature.”

Marx put his back to the house and tried to stay under its eaves.  He didn’t want any more snow in his hair.

“Cathar, the things that we know could get him into trouble.  Fatal type trouble.”

“We’ve been working with Meduri and Otto for seven months now.  If – may the gods prevent it – if we fall back into the hands of the Anthrosocialists, do you think they would hesitate to kill the Ferrelan?”

“No.”  Marx gave a slight shudder.  “It’s cold enough outside.  Let’s not talk about that.”

Cathar scooted closer to him and leaned in.  “You need to let the Professor in on a few things.  It’s not fair to Meduri to pound the table and stalk away just because he mentions your sister.”

Marx’s eyes narrowed.  He folded his arms and spit into the snow.  “Why can’t the two of you understand that I don’t want her on the Luft Ritter?”

“Meduri doesn’t understand because you won’t tell him what happened to her.  And I know exactly what happened, but I think you’re being overprotective.”

“Cathar, we have until sundown at best to get things wrapped up in this town.  We can talk about my sister later.  Why did you bring me out here?”

Cathar took a deep breath and prepared for the worst.  “I think we should just go back to the ship and get out of here.”

Marx was sullen and silent for a moment, poking at the packed snow with the toe of his boot.  “I figured that much out.  What’s your reasoning?”

“I don’t have a reason.  Just my instincts.  When I looked into Hoorg’s eyes, I didn’t like what I saw.”

“The Thaark is just a tool.  A tool in the hands of a much smarter business person.  Durga has no reason to stifle trade in this town.”

Cathar looked up into the grey-clouded sky and thought for a moment.  “Marx, would you agree that with age comes some measure of wisdom?  In terms of judgment, at least.”

“I can see where you’re going with this.  You think that because you’re eighty-six years old–”

“Eighty seven,” she corrected.

“In Human years, sure.  In Cathar years that makes you what, about twenty five?”

“Still older than you.  The point stands.  You heard what Hamed said about this town.  He said it’s a tinderbox.  And you’re the sort of person that creates a lot of friction.  It’s not worth the risk.  There will be other merchants at Teece Bay.”

Marx snapped his fingers.  “Right.  Now we’re getting to the real point.  You don’t like Lin Hamed.  Those radios he’s trying to sell us are probably stolen, and in your mind, that makes him a criminal.”

“Do you really think I’m that simple?”  Cathar’s scratchy-sounding voice descended to a growl.  “You’re the one who’s always bringing up the laws.  But right and wrong exist on a real, cosmic scale.  That’s what I’m concerned with, not the laws that mortals make up.”

“Well how does Lin Hamed’s death fit onto your cosmic balance sheet?  If we leave now, what do you think will happen to him?”

“You heard the man.  He doesn’t want to leave.  Do you want to stay in Achra as his personal bodyguard?”

“No,” Marx lowered his voice, “But if he won’t come with us, we could…sort of kidnap him.”

“And then what?  Dump him on the beach at Teece Bay?  Is that what you want to do?”

“No.”

Cathar looked down and saw one of the leaves on the ground.  It was green and healthy, unlike the rest that were falling.  She knelt slowly, sliding her back down the wall.  “Then what do you want, Marx?”

“I want you to agree with me for once.”

Cathar held the leaf close to her face.  “I mean out of life.  What do you really want out of life?”

Marx considered for a moment.

“I want the old Jemadar running Achra.  I want Lin Hamed’s eye to grow back.  I want us to be able to land anywhere on Earth without hiding from the Anthrosocialists.  I want my sister to stay on Mars and stay safe.  And I want it to be a little warmer outside.”

“So you want to change the world,” Cathar summarized.  She reached up to hand Marx the leaf, but his back was turned.  “Hey,” she said, “look at this.  Must be spring on the other side of the plateau.  It’s warmer somewhere.”

“Why can’t you just argue with me?”  Marx asked, taking the leaf in one hand.

“I’m not in the mood,” said Cathar.  “Besides, someone’s coming.”

“Do I smell smoke?”  Marx dropped the leaf.  “Chopak, maybe?”

“Mm hmm.  Aldren male smoking chopak.  Captain Palero, I imagine.  Coming from just around the corner there.”  Cathar nodded to the café.  “I don’t hear him moving.”

“Palero!  Come on out.”  Marx shouted.  “You creeping gozer,” he added under his breath.

“I don’t want to interrupt,” came the reply.  “Itz bad for biznezz to get in middle of domeztic dizpute.”

Marx raised an eyebrow.  “Are we having a domestic dispute?”

“Technically, yes,” said Cathar.  “We do live together.  Just…not the way he’s probably thinking.”

The first thing that Marx noticed about Captain Palero was his height.  Most Aldrens were taller than the average human to begin with, but Palero was a giant among his own kind.  Marx barely came up to his shoulder. The musty smelling chopak smoke wafted from a pipe pinched in lips so thin they seemed invisible.

“You know, I juzt come back from Jemadar.  Polizeman Hoorg iz very angry with a Margz Averri.”

Marx sighed, his breath turning to fog.  “Yes, I figured that out.  What do you want, Palero?”

Hulva! Queztion iz not what I want,” Palero took his pipe in his impossibly long fingers and pointed the stem at Marx.  “Queztion iz, what do you need?”  He smiled without showing any teeth.  His garish pink boots were wet and a fine dusting of snow clung to the shoulders of his reddish-brown flight suit.  Marx and Cathar stared at him uncomfortably, as if his fashion sense was a contagious disease.

“You need a permit to trade in Achra,” Palero continued.

“We are aware of that,” said Cathar.  Palero gave her an odd look, as if she had spoken out of turn.

“Not all my newz iz bad newz.  I am on good termz with Jemadar Durga.  She iz curiouz about fiz man who made a fool out of Hoorg.  I can get you fiz permit to trade, if I introduze you to her.”  Marx pushed away from the wall and took a tentative step towards the towering Aldren.

“Someone like you doesn’t help someone like me for no reason.  What’s in it for you?”

Palero held his palms level and balanced them like a set of scales.  “Zay maybe…half your cargo.”

“Oh, go eat snow!  Maybe a quarter of it, if you actually can get me the permit.”

“I can indeed get your permit.  But not with the polizewoman coming along,” Palero pointed the stem of his pipe at Cathar.  “Zomebody might recognize old time Juztice Hunter.  It’d make for awkward converzation.  Tell you what, Margz.  I’ll take you to Durga and make zure you get your permit for free.  You give me a third of your cargo, rounded up.  Without me, you probably get nothing.”

Marx rubbed the back of his neck and gave Cathar an inquiring glance.

“You’re the captain,” she said.

“Excuse us a minute,” said Marx, grabbing Cathar’s arm and leading her back toward the cafe.   “Now all of a sudden I’m the captain,” he growled, “And you don’t even want to discuss it?”

“Look, I still think this is a bad idea, but we do have a chain of command.  And I’m tired of arguing with a brick wall.”  She jerked her arm free and started back to the café.  “I’ll go with Meduri and get those radios.  You’re getting what you want, so show a little class about it.”

Marx watched her for a moment, torn between anger and confused relief.

“Well, maybe I don’t want a chain of command,” Marx called after her.  “You and I have had enough of chains,” he added softly.

“Fat’s a domeztic dizpute if ever I zaw one,” said Palero.

“A third of the cargo, but we’re rounding it down,” said Marx, “And let’s get going.  I’m freezing my balls off.”

Palero led Marx further into the crevasse, closer to the cliffs of the plateau above.  The streets did not narrow any further, but Marx noticed that some of the mobile homes were now stacked upon each other like mismatched building blocks. The entire town of Achra had once been a floating trailer park of sorts, when the rusty and dented lift gas tanks above each house still provided buoyancy.  Wherever the battle lines between the Martian separatists and Terran loyalists raged, Achra simply drifted out of harm’s way.  The town had sheltered in the valley beneath the Great Selsor Plateau the year that the war ended, and Achra never moved again.  The lift gas leaked out of unused tanks over the years, and now most of the homes were permanently parked.

“I zuppoze you view my little charter outfit az a rival, phoom?” said Palero.

“I don’t view your outfit much at all,” replied Marx.

“Earth iz a large market.  Fere are two hundred million Aldrenz living on Earth.  Fere’z no need for uz to be rivalz.”

“Hmm.”  Marx looked down the street and saw another yellow armband thug patrol.  None of them were large enough to be Hoorg, so he tried to act casual. The armband thugs seemed to recognize Palero, but passed by without so much as a nod.

“Domnuz Themond juzt zigned off on anti-zabotage act.  Aldrenz are now banned from any zort of public zerviz.  Fat’z already cauzed an increaze in the egzile biznezz.  By end of thiz year, I egzpect it will be illegal for uz to own land on Earth.”

“Just think,” said Marx, “pretty soon I’ll be able to shoot you in the street and the Anthrosocialists will just fine me for noise disturbance.”

“Very funny.  But zome Aldrenz can zee which way wind iz blowing.  Zmartest of fem are leaving Earth now.  Rich wunz will be negzt.  After fat, it’ll be nothing but millionz of poor beggarz with no home.”

“You didn’t take the hint.  I really don’t want to talk to you.”

Palero paused.  He took a pouch from his suit and added a pinch of chopak root to his pipe, cupping it in his slender hands.  “Margz, I’m trying to help you.  If you want your permit, hear me out.”

“Fine, but get to the point.”

“Point iz, you are zeverely undercharging your pazengerz.  Fere haz never been an egzile like fiz in hiztory, let alone an illegal egzile.  Opportunity like fiz won’t lazt long.”

Something short and black bounded across the street ahead of Marx and Palero.  It was a Ferrelan, and Marx had to look twice to make sure it wasn’t Professor Meduri.  The Ferrelan peered out from around the corner of one of the houses, its attention focused on the cross street from which it had come.  Marx spun around to look at the armband patrol.  They were already far down the street, and did not seem to notice the Ferrelan.

“Richezt five perzent of Aldrenz are leaving Earth right now, Margz.  And you’re charging them lez fen fey would pay for dinner and a zhow.  Juzt think about fat.”

Marx turned back to Palero.  He couldn’t speak more than a few basic phrases in Aldren, and even Palero’s relatively mild Aldren accent was proving difficult for him to follow.  “I’m sorry, you said I’m charging less than dinner and a what?”

“A zhow.  You know, like a film or a play?”

“How do you know what I charge my passengers?”

“Word getz around.  Fatz all I can zay.”  The Ferrelan up ahead watched the armband patrol with interest.  He (or she, Marx couldn’t really tell) beckoned someone to follow.  Two human teenagers—a boy and a girl, holding hands—ran across the street to join the Ferrelan.  The boy had a long bundle of some sort wrapped up in a blanket under his other arm.    Marx thought he saw a glint of metal between the folds before the boy disappeared around the corner.  “Palero, what are those kids up to?”

“None of my biznezz, Margz.  Now, I know your heavy launch can carry cloze to zigzty pazengerz.  But wunz all rich Aldrenz are gone, you won’t be able to zqueeze more fen ten ounzez gold out of poor onez.  Luft Ritter iz fazt, but iz alzo a fuel glutton.  Even with all your zeats full, you won’t be able to cover your metoline coztz.”

“Why should you care?”

“I think we zhould work together.”

Marx frowned.  “I’m not interested in a partnership.”

“Fatz okay.  I’m not offering fat.  Think of it more az a looze azociation of illegal charter vezzelz working together for mutual benefit.”

“Mutual benefit.  Such as?”

“You’re already benefiting from my contact here in Achra.  I make friendz with a local bozz, and fingz go zmoof for you here.  You do zame for uz in other townz.  If I zneak out of Terran orbit with no problemz, I tranzmit to you a route I took.  If you have a cloze call with Terran patrol vezzelz, you warn rezt of uz to ztay clear.”

“You keep saying ‘us.’  Who is ‘us?’”

Palero smiled again.  He took a deep drag on his pipe and filled the air with the rich earthy smell of chopak smoke.  “Brotherz Tornet have already zigned on.  Zo haz Nolika’z little outfit, and zhe’z got two vezzelz.  But fiz iz more fen juzt zharing information.  We could even convoy up for added zafety.  Terran Navy will be working in groupz, zo why zhouldn’t we?”

Marx’s ears were beginning to go numb from the cold.  “Are we getting close to the Jemadar’s office?”

“Yez, itz juzt a little pazt commonz area.”

Marx could see that up ahead the street widened into something like a town square.  His business in Achra had never led him this far into town before.  “I’m guessing that you would be the one in charge of this association?”

“I would be chairman of zuch a guild, yez.  But not in any zort of control over your vezzel.”

“But the guild would have rules.  And it would take a cut of my profits.”

“Of courze it would.  But memberz of guild will have a vote on zuch thingz.  Right now, we are conzidering twenty perzent of groz profit.  But you wouldn’t really notize much, zince you will be making around five timez az much money.”

Around the corner of a brick building, Marx could see a ring of snow-dusted sandbags in the middle of the commons.  A pair of thin cylinders jutted skyward from beneath a green canvas tarp.

“Palero, why is there a sky defense gun emplacement in the middle of the commons?”

The lanky Aldren shrugged.  “For zky defenze, maybe.  Why do you azk?”

“Well for one thing, it’s not a good place for it.  They should put it on the edge of the woods near the landing pad so it has a clear field of fire.  Middle of the commons should have a nice fountain instead.  For another thing, who exactly does Durga want to shoot out of the sky?”

“Banditz, mozt likely.  Alwayz a problem in Martian wildernez.”

Marx and Palero emerged from the side street into Achra’s town square.  Someone had hastily nailed together some rough pine scaffolding next to the jail.  A block of ice about the size of a bathtub rested on the crude structure.  A hand-painted sign read—“THEFT AND BANDITRY – STOPPED COLD IN ACHRA!”  Marx didn’t understand right away.  He had to look closer to see the shadowy outline of a body encased within the ice, the tip of a shoe peeking out. He could not determine the gender or species of the victim.

“Oh, I get it,” Marx mumbled to himself, “Stopped cold.  I guess that’s more tasteful than leaving the head on a spike or something.”  Palero looked bored, like he had seen it before.

“Yez, Durga takez zivic order very zeriouzly.  You zee hoze?”  Palero pointed with his pipe stem.  A black rubber hose poked out of the ice near the victim’s head.

“She freezes them alive?  And you’re friends with this girl?”

“I am friendz with no one.  But we are on good termz, ztrictly in biznezz zenze.”

“Sure, if you say so.”  The square was deserted.  Marx heard a deadened, distant echo on the wind, a series of short pops.  He held a hand out to stop the pink-booted Aldren.  “Do you hear that?”

“Hear what?”

Marx turned his head from side to side, but only heard the rush of the wind above.  “Nothing, I guess.  Sounded like gunfire.”

Palero shrugged, a slight move of his narrow shoulders that was barely noticeable beneath his thick flight suit.  “Fiz iz what happenz when you are overworked and egzhauzted.  Negzt you zee patternz in ztarz and ztart hearing ghoztz on your radio.”

“I haven’t started seeing things yet.  But my Ferrelan hears old radio programs and music on the overwave set all the time.  He even records them for the University.”  Marx felt a sudden twinge of guilt thinking about Professor Meduri.

“You can do better, Margz.  I can help you find an overwave and zcope operator.  And you’ll need a proper engineer too, onze your big enginez come due for overhaul.  Our little group already haz an egzellent engineer, trained in the Farcheld Motorworkz”

“Otto actually makes a good engineer.  I think he understands machines better because he is one.  That reminds me…” Marx reached into a pocket and retrieved one of the pamphlets that Otto had asked him to hand out.  “Here, have one of these.”

Palero took the bright orange paper and held it at eye level.  Free the robots, it said.  “What iz fiz about?”

“Hell if I know,” said Marx.  “But I promised that I’d pass them around.”

Just past the dreary town commons, a wide street led to a crevasse in the base of the Selsor Plateau.  The street terminated in a grey cliff face that arched outward above the valley floor.  Palero led the way.

“We can alzo get you zome real buzinezz egzpertize.  Fatz one thing you lack.  You have a univerzity profezzor and a polizewoman.  And you are zome kind of Terran zoldier boy.  Any of you ever run a charter zervice before?  My family haz been running tranzport operationz for five generationz.”

“Who told you I was a Terran soldier?”

“Like I zaid before, word getz around.”

“Well, for the record, I’m an ex-Terran soldier.  I have a special burn mark to prove it.  I know you’re trying to help, but something’s bothering me.  You know how you said that the richest and smartest of the Aldren’s are leaving Earth now?  Have you given any thought about what happens to the poor ones?”

Captain Palero thought a moment.  “I’m not zure I underztand your queztion.”

Marx stopped and waited until the towering Aldren turned to face him.  “Listen, Captain, I know what’s going to happen a couple years from now.  I think you do too.  After the Anthrosocialists revoke your right to own land, they’ll revoke your right to have a job.  Eventually, they’ll revoke the right of foreign Aldren lungs to breath the pure native air of Earth.  Are you going to use all the money you earned to carry your people to safety?”

Palero stepped right up to Marx and leaned in uncomfortably close, the smell of the chopak heavy on his breath.  “Fat iz a fair queztion.  Coming from anyone elze, I might anzer it.  But you were a Terran zoldier.  What do you care?”

Marx took a long step back.  “I don’t care.  But I probably would, if I were an Aldren.  It’s only natural to care for members of your own race.”

Palero sighed and shook his domed head.  He gave Marx a look of sympathy, as if the human were suffering from a terminal disease.  “Oh, Margz!  You talk about raze like you are ztill an Anfrozozhializt.  Hulva! How will you ever zurvive in real world with ideaz like fat?”

Marx bristled at the word “Anfrozozhializt.”

“So what are you saying, Palero?”

“It juzt provez fat you need our help.  Think about joining our guild, phoom?”

“I suppose.”  Marx’s nearly frozen hands ventured out from his pockets just long enough to brush the snow out of his black hair.  His knuckles were still swollen from his fight with a phone booth yesterday at Wilder’s Dawn.

“You zuppoze what?” Asked Palero.

“I suppose I’ll think about it.  This is the place, right?”  Marx pointed to a mobile home resting alone next to the cliffs.

“Yez, right fiz way.”

Jemadar Durga’s mobile home was perhaps the only one in Achra with shiny new lift gas tanks on its roof, even though a green patina covered the copper alloy sheathing around the building’s frame.  A twin set of airscrews and rudders were mounted to the stern of the rectangular home.  Surely there were much larger and finer houses in Achra, but Durga’s choice made perfect sense to Marx.  The arching cliffs protected it from above and on three sides.  And far from being cornered, the house was ready to take to the sky if conditions on the ground got ugly.  Clever army girl, thought Marx.  That nearly makes up for the bandit popsicle. The front door had been boarded up, and black curtains were drawn over its large bay window.  A faint trail of smoke from the chimney was the only sign that the house was occupied.

Palero stepped up onto the small wooden platform next to the door.  His long fingers curled into a delicate-looking fist, which he tapped vigorously against the frame.  One of the boards swung upwards with a squeak.

“Who is it?” said a deep voice somewhere behind the small hatch.

“Captain Palero here to zee Jemadar Durga.  I have brought Margz Averri az requezted.”  The Aldren sounded like a delivery boy, and for some reason it made Marx nervous.

“One moment,” said the faceless hatch before swinging shut again.

“I thought you said you were on good terms with Durga,” Marx grumbled.

“Fiz iz good termz,” Palero replied with a shrug.  “Durga iz very private and careful perzon.”  The slot opened.

“Captain Palero, you can come in.  Margz will have to wait outside for just a bit.”

“It’s Marx with an ‘X.’”

The door swung open, and Marx caught just a glimpse of a yellow armband against the dim interior.  Palero entered without hesitation, and the door closed behind him with a click.  A waft of warm air drifted across Marx’s face, teasing his nose and cheeks with the promise of a nice fireplace inside.  He tried to imagine the inside of the mobile home, and the conversation taking place.  No doubt Palero was introducing him, perhaps even vouching for Marx in some way.  He wondered whether Hoorg was inside, and what sort of things the Thaark might be saying.  He even entertained the notion that Durga was taking a moment to change clothes and put on makeup.  This was not a simple matter of vanity on his behalf.  In Marx’s experience with Terran Army women, he had noticed two extremes.  Some kept their hair short and eschewed any feminine dress or mannerisms even when off duty, fearing it would somehow diminish their esteem among their male colleagues.  Others took full advantage of any liberation from the military uniform, sometimes going a little too far in their efforts for beautiful ornamentation.  It was this second type that Marx preferred.  He decided that no matter how Durga looked, he would tell her she was beautiful.  As far as he knew, all army girls (and perhaps all non-army girls as well) liked to hear that.  He rubbed his hands together and bounced up and down on the balls of his feet to stay warm.

The door opened slowly this time, almost timidly.  The same voice that Marx had heard before said, “Okay, you can come in.  Watch your step.”  Marx watched his feet as he stepped over the doorjamb, noticing that it was perfectly even with the carpeted floor inside.  That’s funny, he thought, why say that if there’s nothing to trip over?

The two thugs that tried to seize his arms most likely meant to do so at the same time, but failed.  Marx pushed away from the one on his left and backed straight into the one on his right.  He spun in place and made a blind jab at the one he had backed into.  Marx’s fist connected solidly with either a chin or forehead – he really couldn’t tell which — and the pain from his bruised knuckles shot up his arm and into his brain like a jolt from an electric fence.  A yelp of surprise escaped his lips.

Somebody had a firm grip on the back of his sweater, and he could feel the fabric stretch and tug at his neck.  Marx twisted away and kicked at his assailant.  His boot dug into someone’s belly.  That someone said, “hoof” and let go of Marx’s sweater.  Two very large hands grabbed Marx’s left elbow and the back of his neck.  That must be Hoorg, Marx thought as he was half-tossed and half-pushed across the room.

His eyes had not adjusted enough to help him avoid a low-lying obstacle, perhaps a coffee table.  He tripped and fell, landing on his knees with his face on the floor.  Something on the carpet was sticking to his cheek, either gravel or dried crumbs.  The heavy thumps of Hoorg’s approaching feet caused the floor to bounce, so that the carpet pounded against Marx’s head.

Another human jumped onto his back and grabbed two fistfuls of Marx’s hair.  Marx’s fingers fumbled desperately for the small knife he kept in his boot.  The young man on Marx’s back reached for his throat.  Marx drew the handle of the knife out with his finger and thumb.  He gripped it tightly in his fist with the blade facing away from his thumb.  He stabbed the blade deep into the right hip of his assailant and was rewarded with a piercing shriek.

The scream faded as Hoorg lifted the boy off Marx’s back.  He tried to roll out of the way, but bumped into the wall.  Hoorg’s hand was big enough to palm Marx’s entire head as if it were no larger than a grapefruit.  The thin-carpeted floor and wooden base board seemed to gang up on Marx, each of them pounding a different section of his skull over and over again.  Hoorg’s other hand kept control over Marx’s wrist, pinning the knife to the floor.

Marx’s eyes had adjusted to the dimness by now.  Hoorg’s blunt face was serious, and Marx did not like the look in his eyes.  He didn’t have to tolerate it for long, though.  The room spun and Marx saw that he was heading for a low table, probably the same one he had tripped over before.  Marx’s chin met the table with a sharp thump, forcing him to bite his own tongue.  His knife was gone, and he didn’t know where he had dropped it.

There was a soft click and an electric lamp jabbed Marx’s eyes with its sudden glow.  Hoorg had him pinned against the table.  He heard the hammer of a revolver click into place somewhere to his left.

“Marx Averri,” purred a feminine voice from the other side of the table.  The lamp cast no light above its shade, and Marx couldn’t see anything above the mouth that had just addressed him.  She was sitting on a threadbare couch on the other side of the table, one leg casually crossed over the other.

“Durga?” Marx mumbled.  She was dressed in furs of some sort.  No sign of lipstick or makeup.

“I’ll admit some disappointment.”  The corner of her lips curled into half a smile.  “I expected a much better fight out of a Human Universal Nationalist.”

“Yeah?” Marx groaned, as he tasted the blood in his mouth.  “How about…I go outside and come back in again?”


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