Part 2 of 2
Copyright © 1992
Fleet Captain Chavere touched his helmet to Globin’s; without a radio betraying him to eavesdroppers, he said, “There was no need for you to accompany the expedition.”
“But there was,” Globin returned. “I understand the need for vengeance.”
Chavere scowled through his faceplate. “There is no one here on whom to revenge the Ekchartok, Chief Merchant.”
“No,” Globin agreed, “but there is information to be found that may show us the means of defeating the Ichtons when we find them.”
Chavere’s mouth flattened with disgust. “The contract only permits you to search for trade goods.”
“Oh, we will,” Globin assured him. “We will.”
His helmet speaker demanded, “Globin? Is all well?”
Looking up, he saw Plasma with a dozen young Khalians behind him, devoid of weapons—except for the steel claw casings at the ends of the mittens of their spacesuits. Globin gave a fleeting smile to Chavere, and his smile was not pleasant. Then he turned back to his adopted children. “Nothing at all, Plasma—only myself and Captain Chavere, agreeing on disposition of personnel. Let us take our places on our sled.”
“Behind us,” Chavere’s voice snapped through his headphones.
“Of course, the rear guard,” Globin replied, amused. “Always the last.”
A low growling filled Globin’s helmet, coming on the private Baratarian communication channel. The young Khalians were experiencing the devastation of war for the first time, and were angered.
“But this was not war.” Plasma shuddered. “This was a cold-blooded processing of life into death.”
“They could not have defended themselves!” a young Khalian was saying to another. “With their cannon and ships gone, they are nothing, the slowest of the slow, small and weak!”
“But hard,” his fellow demurred.
“Hard, and brittle,” a third chimed in.
“But where are they all gone?” the first demanded. “To slavery? Or death?”
“If it was death,” the second said, “where are the bodies?”
They were silent for a moment, considering the question. Then the first said, “Globin? Where are the bodies?”
Globin thought he knew, but he didn’t want to say. “I can only conjecture.”
“Then do, we beseech you!” said the second.
Reluctantly, Globin gestured toward the bare ground around them. “See how it glitters?”
There was an appalled silence. Then a young voice demanded, “Do you mean they ground them up and strewed their remains about?”
Globin was silent, not wishing to shock those he was beginning to think of as his children.
“Globin?” the first pressed. “Did they grind them to powder?”
“Worse,” Globin said, as though the words were torn out of him. “They were silicate beings, after all, and pure silicon is the stuff of solid-state circuits.”
This time the silence was the young’s. At last one spoke, his tones filled with horror. “Do you mean they melted them down and strewed the ground with the parts of their bodies the Ichtons had no use for?”
“It is only conjecture,” Globin reminded.
A low growling answered him, not of nervousness or apprehension but of mounting rage.
“What monsters can these Ichtons be, to place so little value on sentient life?” one demanded.
“Monsters indeed!” said another. “Pray we come to grips with them!”
“There is a whole planet here cries out for vengeance,” a third agreed.
Globin reflected on what was not said, more sure than ever that the vision of a conquered species ground into dust awakened schoolbook memories of Khalia’s defeat by the Fleet. He wasn’t even sure his young warriors were even aware of this wellspring of their anger, but he was sure it was there.
An electronic tone sounded.
Amazed, Globin looked down.
“Globin!” Plasma cried. “There is a blip on the life detector!”
“I see it,” Globin confirmed. “It is very faint, but it is unmistakable.”
Plasma looked up and saw the other sleds speeding away. “They are going on by!” he shrilled. “Are they in so great a hurry that they cannot spare minutes to seek out a living being?”
Globin pressed down with his jaw, toggling the transmission switch inside his helmet. “Chief Merchant to Surveillance Captain. Our life detector shows a trace from the northwest.”
“Too faint,” Chavere answered. “We can dismiss it as background noise.”
Globin glanced again at the trace. “It is a regular wave form, though it is of a much lower frequency than that belonging to any life-form we know. It should be verified.”
“Look for it yourself!” the captain snapped. “We have a whole planet to cover! We can’t go kiting off after every off-phase signal!”
Plasma snarled, his neck hairs lifting.
Globin glanced at him, his own face hardening. “As you bid us, Captain.” He toggled his audio pickup closed and nodded to Plasma. “West-northwest.”
Plasma pressed the stick, and the sled veered away from the expedition’s line of travel. “Why is he so rude? By the stars, if he faced me now, I would...”
“Baratarians!” Captain Chavere’s voice cracked like a whip. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Globin keyed the audio. “Just as you bade us, Captain—tracking the trace ourselves.”
There was a pause, and Plasma hissed amusement.
“All right, go, and to blazes!” the captain snapped.
Globin hurried to close the pickup before it could send Plasma’s snarl. “Such discourtesy should win him the death of five cuts!” the secretary snapped.
“It should,” Globin agreed, “but in addition to his dislike of us, he is apprehensive—he and his crew grow nervous in the Valley of Death.”
“Here is no valley, but an endless plain,” Plasma growled.
“And endless death,” Globin agreed.
“How shall we be revenged on them, Globin?”
“Why, by finding a survivor, of course.” Globin leaned forward to peer more closely at the screen. “The trace is growing weaker, Plasma—we have passed it. Go back.”
The sled swung about in a half circle.
“Holding constant.” Globin frowned. “We must be at the circumference of a circle, of which it is the center.”
“There is no pivot in sight but a slag heap,” Plasma objected.
Globin looked up; the blue-black slag glinted in the sunlight. “It seems glassy,” he said. “Perhaps it is silicon.”
“Is there anything else on Sandworld?”
“It could hide a being made of silicon,” Globin pointed out. “Surely it would not lack for food. Plasma, move toward that heap.”
Frowning, Plasma turned the sled, then shouted with delight, for the trace was growing stronger.
It was quite strong as they settled to the ground beside the hill of glassy waste. As Globin climbed down, he glanced after the expedition’s file of sleds, just in time to see the last slip over the horizon.
“How now, Globin?” Plasma asked. Behind him, the crewmen muttered.
“We take it apart, bit by bit,” Globin answered. “Slowly, my children, and gently—do not dismember an ally as you seek to demolish its prison.”
They whittled away at the huge hill with lasers, a slice at a time. After fifteen minutes, Globin called a halt, feeling apprehensive. “Plasma,” he said, “take the sled to the crest, and tell me the reading.”
Obediently, Plasma flowed back into the sled. It rose up, leveling off at the top of the hill. “The trace diminished as I rose, Globin!”
“Then it is beneath the heap,” Globin interpreted. “We do not need to cut, but to tunnel. Take the portable detector, my children, and dig.”
Three youngsters leaped forward faster than the rest, then hesitated. “What tools shall we use, Globin?”
“Those you were born with,” Globin returned. “If you feel something hard, desist and bring the detector. Begin, now. To the center first.”
The three spread out to the points of the compass as a fourth jumped around to the far side. Dirt flew; their remote ancestors had dug into burrows to follow their quarry, and the Khalian children tunneled for pleasure as human children climbed trees. A fifth followed with the portable detector that relayed its information back to the main screen in the sled.
They dug radii like the spokes of a wheel, first four tunnels, then triangulating from the circumference and two of the tunnels. The huge mass above them might have come grinding down if they had dug too many, but the detector showed them where to dig, and Plasma himself took the final tunnel directly to the spot. There, digging very delicately, he touched something hard with his claws. Carefully, ever so carefully, he dug it loose and bore it out.
It was oblong, it was flat on the bottom, it had antennas folded flat. It was unconscious, but the life detector showed it to be the source of the trace.
The Khalian warriors shouted with triumph, and Globin keyed for transmission. “Chief Merchant to Surveillance Captain.”
“Of all the... What is it, pirate?” the captain exploded. “What mess do we have to dig you out of now?”
A score of snarls rose from the young Khalians.
Globin waved them back, smiling, but with a hard glitter to his eyes. “It is we who have been digging, beneath a mess the Ichtons left. We have found a live Ekchartok. It is dormant, but it emits brain waves.”
The channel was silent for a few seconds. Then the captain snapped, “Homing on your signal. Keep the channel open.”
“Give them our beacon, Plasma,” Globin said. “After his rudeness, the captain deserves an unrelenting squeal.”
Hisses of laughter answered him, though there was viciousness in their tone.
“How shall we repay his rudeness now, Globin?”
“Retract your claws, Plasma,” Globin advised. “His embarrassment is punishment enough, but it is made worse because it is pirates of Barataria who were right, and who showed greater compassion than a human. Back aboard our sled, me hearties, with our prize.”
They flowed back to their seats, Plasma asking, “What is a ‘hearty,’ Globin?”
“You are, Plasma—you all are. A ‘hearty’ is a bold and valiant fighter who delights in life, as we have this day.”
Plasma sat, and turned back, frowning. “Will you not join us, Globin?”
“Yes, quite soon.” Globin had taken out his pick, and was breaking loose a fist-sized sample of slag. He came back to the sled, sat down, and gazed at the glassy rock, frowning.
“Why do you bring such a piece of rubble, Globin?”
“Because,” his chief answered, “I told them we would search for resources, so we must have something to bring back.” But the intentness of his gaze went beyond a mere excuse.
Plasma noticed. “What troubles you, Globin?”
“Not ‘troubles,’ Plasma—‘intrigues.’ Why would an Ekchartok hide beneath a slag heap?”
“Why—did they not dump it upon him, in lack of concern, and to slay him?”
“I think not, Plasma—I really do believe they used the dead bodies as a resource, horrible as it seems. No, this one hid, and from the shape of its body, I would conjecture that it is as skilled at burrowing as yourselves, though much slower.” Globin pursed his lips, thinking. “Why would a silicate life-form hide beneath a slag heap? Food, of course, since there is silicon in it—but what else? Aorta, pass me the radiation detector.”
“It is here, Globin.” The young warrior held out the pickup.
The detector fairly screamed.
“Transuranics,” Globin explained, back aboard the Hawking. “Radioactive waste, to them—but potential fuel, to us. Their reactors and engines must be very primitive that they would throw away such treasure. It is well my warriors wore spacesuits, for it was only that shielding that saved them from exposure.”
His chief physicist nodded, watching his men process the sample through a dozen different tests. “There are nodules of it embedded in the silicate slag.”
“Will it generate power?”
“Oh, yes,” the scientist said quietly. “Oh, yes—a great deal of power, Globin. If it were not for the quantity of slag holding the nodules apart, those heaps would blow up the whole planet. It is as though the Ichtons had operated a vast number of breeder reactors.”
“Perhaps they did,” Globin returned, “but their own technology is too primitive to make use of the product.” He gave the scientist a smile. “We have learned as much about our enemy as about business.”
“Business?” The scientist looked up, startled. “How is this ‘business,’ Globin?”
“Why,” said his chief, “we are here to find marketable commodities, are we not? And what could be more marketable than Ichton slag?” He turned back to watch the tests, chuckling.
“Of course,” the scientist breathed. “When will you tell Commander Brand, Globin?”
“When his fuel supplies begin to run low,” Globin answered, “and he is more amenable to paying our price.”
“You would not charge your own allies an extortionate rate!” the scientist protested.
“Of course I would,” Globin answered. “He says we are pirates, does he not?”
* * *
“Surely you don’t believe this claim that they are only looking for surviving Ekchartok, Anton!” Brad Omera was indignant.
“Surely not,” Commander Brand agreed. “Why would such a search require them to set up a virtual refinery on the surface? And why would they have to ship quantities of slag back aboard in those huge canisters?”
“Oh, the Goblin was very candid about that. He said that whenever they find a section that they suspect contains an Ekchartok, they bring it back up to the ship for careful handling.”
“If you think you can trust what the Goblin says.” Brand turned to David bar Mentron, the battlestation’s chief technician. “Mr. bar Mentron, what sort of equipment was it they had you build?”
“Not much more than a cold chisel with a very fine edge, sir,” bar Mentron answered. “But it’s in a standing frame that guarantees the chisel won’t slip, and has a setting for calibrating the exact force of the blow, to the erg.”
“That is the kind of equipment you’d need to chip away rock gradually,” Omera said, frowning, “if you didn’t want to take a chance on injuring a living being trapped inside it.” He turned to bar Mentron. “Tell the commander about that special room they had you build.”
“Special room?” Brand frowned, alert for the slightest hint of treachery.
“Just a radiation chamber, sir, you know, a laboratory for handling radioactive materials. Nothing unusual about it, for what it is—just the shielding, the lead glass, the waldoes, the locks...”
“Radiation chamber?” Brand nearly leaped out of his chair. “What would they need that for? What are they doing—handling transuranics?”
“They told me the slag and the Ekchartok are radioactive.” Bar Mentron shrugged.
Brand stilled. “Well, that’s true enough. So would I be, if I’d spent a few months under a mountain of radioactive slag.”
“Yes, but that’s exactly why they’ve taken refuge in those slag heaps.” Omera frowned. “Apparently the Ekchartok can use the radiation as a sort of emergency ration, absorb it and convert it to electricity—which is all they need to keep basic life systems going inside, while they’re dormant.”
“Love to find out what kind of evolution that species had,” Brand muttered. “How’s that first one doing? Can it talk yet?”
“Only a few syllables; it’s still very weak.” Omera shook his head in exasperation. “You really let those pirates steal a march on you, Commander.”
“Yes, I know.” Brand scowled. “I read Chavere the riot act about not having followed up that trace, so he has developed a tendency to track down anything that gives his detector the slightest hiccup. He’s redeemed himself by finding six more Ekchartok—in heaps of quartz rubble the Ichtons apparently had no use for, and one of them was dormant under a brackish puddle the locusts seem to have overlooked. But the fact is that in Chavere’s place, I probably would have done the same thing—gone on looking for something more obvious. The trace on his life detector was so small it could have been an earthworm.”
“Or a dormant Ekchartok,” Omera returned.
“Yes,” said bar Mentron, “but the Ekchartok emissary hadn’t told us his people could go dormant.”
“Understandable—the moment he saw this planet, he went into shock. But the fact remains that it was the pirates who found that live one under the slag heap, not the Fleet.”
“Two more, now,” Brand said, the taste of the words bitter on his tongue. “They found two others, and they’re in the same condition the first was—dormant, probably in shock, but alive.”
“They have?” Omera whirled about. “How come nobody told me about this?”
“Word just arrived, and the pair of them are on their way to the infirmary right now. The Goblin claims they broke them out of a single slag lump in their workshop. Says they were nestled up against each other as though they were a Yin-Yang symbol.”
“These slugs have sexes?” Omera asked.
“Ekchartok,” Bar Mentron murmured
His voice was very soft, but Omera flushed. “Of course, Ekchartok. I’m sorry.”
“Maybe the emissary will come out of shock, now that he has some company,” Brand mused. “And I suppose we can’t argue with what the Goblin’s doing, if he found a couple more. But I really wonder if he needs to grind up all that much slag just to find Ekchartok.”
“He can’t be too careful, I suppose,” Omera sighed, “though the pirates are certainly growing their own heap of recycled slag. And they’ve been bringing up an awful lot of canisters, for only two Ekchartok.”
“They say the other slag lumps only had chunks of radioactive waste in them that fooled their detectors,” Brand sighed.
“They say, they say!” Omera snapped. “I’d give a year’s income to go in there and see for sure what they’re doing.”
“Then go.” Bar Mentron shrugged. “The Goblin’s made it an open invitation.”
“Of course he has,” Omera snapped. “Who’d go into the Pirates’ Nest if he didn’t have to?”
* * *
Plasma clicked his timer and nodded. “Drill completed in sixteen seconds, Globin. If anyone who is not of Barataria should wish to come here, we will have the laboratory out of sight before they arrive.”
“Not that there would be that much to see.” Globin smiled. “We are doing no more than we have claimed—slicing apart suspicious lumps of slag, to see if there is a treasure therein.”
“Certainly,” Plasma agreed. “Of course, the treasure is far more often a lump of almost-pure transuranic than it is an Ekchartok—but who else could tell?” He turned to Globin. “Will not those who remain behind need equipment like this on the planet?”
“No—the dormant Ekchartok have survived until our coming, and they might not survive our rescue without the facilities of the hospital. They can wait in the slag until the Hawking returns.”
Plasma nodded. “How soon will the battlestation depart for the fray?”
“In two days, Brand said. He feels that Chavere and the other rescue commanders will by then have completed scouring the planet for survivors.” Globin smiled. “But for some reason, they seem to be content to leave the slag heaps to us pirates.”
“They who have volunteered to stay and process the slag will be in great danger,” Plasma reminded him.
“Not so great as that—they have our fastest courier, and orders to board and flee at the first sign of an enemy.”
But Plasma noticed his brooding frown. “What troubles you about them then?”
“Will they obey orders?” Globin said simply. “Perhaps I should not have agreed to let them keep blast cannon and force-field generators.”
“No Khalian would be parted from his weapons, Globin, you know that. And the work must continue—there may be more Ekchartoks in those slag heaps, as well as the transuranics.”
“Yes, it must continue,” Globin sighed, “and I will have to school myself to patience. The Ichtons have passed by, after all—they are not likely to return to a barren planet. No, certainly not.”
But he did not like the word “likely.”
* * *
The Hawking had been under way for two days when Brynn Te Mon’s secretary notified him, somewhat hesitantly, of a request for an appointment.
“Send him to the science coordinator.” The physicist didn’t even look up from his screen, with the three-dimensional model of a very complex molecule on it. “That’s what top kicks are for—to keep the bored ones away from those of us who are doing the real work.”
“He asked for you by name, sir.”
“Tell him I referred him to Coordinator Cray, by name.”
“Sir... it’s Chief Desrick.”
“The Goblin?” Te Mon looked up, startled. “What would the Pirate King want with me?”
“He wouldn’t say, sir—only that it had something to do with some artifacts he had discovered while he was looking for Ekchartok.”
“More likely he discovered the Ekchartok while he was looking for something he could sell.” But Te Mon pushed himself away from his desk. “I’ll see him, now. I’ve always wondered what he was like.” And he did mean “always”—Te Mon was only forty, and had grown up with tales of the Human Renegade.
Globin was waiting in a small, antiseptic reception chamber. He rose as Te Mon came in. “Scientist! So good of you to spare the time...”
“And I don’t have much of it,” Te Mon cut him off, even as he looked Globin over with a microscopic gaze. “What can I do for you, Chief Merchant?”
Globin slowly drew a small pouch out of a pocket and spilled half a dozen gems out into his palm. Te Mon caught his breath at their scintillating beauty, and at the array of colors each one refracted. “Very... pretty,” he said. “Of course, they weren’t cut when you found them?”
“No—I had one of my technicians do that. I’ve been experimenting with them in my own laboratory, when I found a moment. They seem to have some strange properties.”
“Other than swaying the head of any nubile young lady, I can’t think what.”
“They make light cohere,” Globin said, “and with a slight energy input, they amplify that light by a factor of five.”
Te Mon stared at the gems, then snatched one up. He held it up to the light, frowning. “You know what these are, if they do as you say?”
“Of course,” Globin murmured. “The key element in a band blaster that could be far more powerful than anything we have now.”
“We’ll run it through the tests right away.” Te Mon looked back at Globin with a frown, weighing the gem in his hand. “They’re for sale, of course?”
“Of course,” Globin murmured.
“Success, Globin?” Plasma asked as the chief stepped out of the drop shaft.
“Success,” Globin confirmed. “Contact the colony on Sandworld, Plasma. Tell them to pick up stones.”
“But… there are millions of stones on Sandworld, Globin!” Plasma objected.
Globin merely smiled. “Exactly.”
* * *
The Hawking dropped out of FTL mode to see the world of the Silbers floating like a blue gem in the void—a gem laced in by lines of fire and surrounded by twinkling motes.
“They’re under attack!” a sentry cried.
“Battle stations!” Brand snapped, and the alarm howled through the Hawking. Pilots and gunners scrambled for their ships; artillerymen stood by the battlestation’s huge cannon.
In the Pirates’ Nest, scores of young Khalians sat in the three-place cannon ships that were more weapon than vessel, fuming and chafing at the bit.
“Globin! Will they not permit us to fight?” Plasma pressed. “I swear that if they don’t, our young bloods will blow up the locks themselves and be off to the battle!”
“Bid them bide in patience.” Globin never took his eyes from the screens that showed the progress of the battle. “They do not trust us, Plasma, as we all know. They will call upon us only if they are desperate.”
And surely they would not be; the screens showed a horde of silver sparks swerving about the planet, lancing at satellite defense stations with ruby beams, while much larger silver dragonflies stabbed at the planet itself with columns of fire. But answering columns climbed up to meet them, and here and there, a dragonfly turned incandescent as its force-fields soaked up the energy of those gigantic planet-bound weapons, then turned into stars as the screens overloaded.
“They may be amphibians,” Globin murmured, “but these Silbers can fight.”
They were losing, though—there were simply too many Ichton guns against them.
“How many are there in that horde?” Plasma demanded.
“Thousands,” Globin answered. “Listen!”
“... only a small force, our Gerson ally says,” Brand’s voice was saying from the screen. “A really big fleet would be more than a hundred thousand. They must have figured they didn’t need more for such a small planet.”
“They were right,” Plasma hissed.
“But they could not know about the Hawking.” Globin pointed. “See! The Fleet comes!”
Yellow lines stabbed down at the Ichton ships. They reeled, swerving apart in chaos; ship after ship exploded, bright in the eternal night.
In spite of themselves, the Khalians gave shouts of triumph.
But the Ichtons rallied quickly; half of their fighters peeled off to fight this new invader. Fleet ships began to glow and explode. Then the Ichtons went after them in groups of three, singling out one ship each. Quickly, separate Fleet ships peeled off to flank and pierce the enemy, reinforcing their outnumbered colleagues.
But it left a hole in their hemisphere—and through that hole stabbed a large Ichton ship with a score of smaller ones about it. Rear guns lashed out at them, but too late—only a few died in fire.
The view shifted—the Ichton column was heading straight for the Hawking!
“Batteries fire as soon as the enemy is in range,” Brand’s voice snapped. “Home Guard away!”
Mosquitoes boiled out, filling the screen, stabbing at enemy ships in twos and threes.
“We need more, Commander,” a tense voice said.
“We can’t commit the reserves already!” Brand snapped.
Globin leaned forward and toggled a key. “Chief Merchant here. I’ve fifty ships with pilots and gunners spoiling to get into the fight.”
There was a long pause; then Brand snapped, “All right, pirates! But don’t wait for ransom!”
Plasma’s lips skinned back from his teeth, and, truth to tell, so did Globin’s—but all he said was, “Ships away.”
A hundred voices shrilled a cheer. The huge hatch opened, and the Khalian ships began to lance out into the night.
They turned the tide; Baratarian cruisers swarmed out about the Ichton ships that were as yet unmolested. They had to slow and turn to fight—and their cruiser was suddenly alone, without its midget guard.
Golden fire enclosed it, from the Hawking’s batteries. The screens glowed, but held.
A dozen Khalian moths homed on that light.
Cannon beams stabbed out from the cruiser—and daring Khalians slid in under the beams and stabbed their own fire down next to the Ichton lances, piercing through the holes the locusts had opened in their screens to let their own fire out. Three of those valiant ships danced too close to the fire and burned brightly and briefly—but three more stabbed home, then sped away, just barely fast enough, as the battleship turned into a huge fireball behind them.
Brand’s voice joined the shout of triumph. Then, directly, he said, “Damn fine men you’ve got there, Chief Merchant!”
“They are my pride,” Globin rejoined—but mixed in with the joy was sorrow for the three who had burned.
The smaller ships had burst the last of the Ichton attackers. At the planet, a very few Ichton ships sheered away to flee; the rest were cinders.
Howls of triumph echoed though the vast bulk of the Hawking. Brand’s voice overrode them. “Kill those ships! Don’t let them take word of us back to their command!”
The bright gnats swarmed after the fleeing enemy, overhauling them easily—what the Ichton did, they did by merciless efficiency and great numbers, not by speed.
Globin stayed transfixed, watching until each ruby vessel had gone dark, and the surviving destroyers shot home to the Hawking. His heart thrilled with victory even as it mourned the fine young pilots who would not come back.
Brand’s voice sounded, closer, more intimate, and Globin knew it was a closed channel. “Your men shall have heroes’ funerals, Chief Merchant. I am proud to have them aboard my ship.”
Globin keyed transmission and answered, “Thank you, Commander.” But he wondered how much of that pride would transmute into trust.
“But why would Brand summon you, Globin?” Plasma was beside him as they rode up the lift shaft.
Globin shrugged. “To congratulate us on our valor, perhaps, or our loyalty.” But he had a notion the meeting would test that loyalty, not affirm it.
There were pleasantries and opening amenities this time, which Globin found agreeably surprising, though boring. Brand actually invited him to sit, and even served coffee. Finally the conversation turned to the recent battle, and the expenditure of energy—and Brand came to the point. “We used a great deal of fuel in that battle, Globin, and it was only a skirmish. We have enormous stockpiles left, you understand, we are in no danger of immediate depletion—but it does remind us that we will need to replenish our supplies continually.”
“True,” Globin agreed, “but we all knew that when we undertook the mission, did we not, Commander? In fact, the Hawking even has mining machinery.”
“Quite so,” Brand admitted, “but there is the matter of locating the raw resources. Now, gossip always moves, Chief Merchant, though I presume that, in this instance, it is based more on guesswork than knowledge...”
“Rumors are notoriously undependable, Commander,” Globin said with a smile. “Still, what is the current rumor of interest?”
“That you and your pi... Baratarians have discovered a source, and are stockpiling fuel.”
Globin’s smile broadened. “The rumor is true.”
“I am glad to hear it.” Brand’s eyes glowed. “And will you share those stocks with the Hawking?”
“Why, of course, Commander.” Globin sat up a little straighter. “But you see, we are businessmen...”
When the drop-shaft doors had closed behind Globin and Plasma as they left, Brand stood shaking his head, trying to recover from the price he had agreed to.
Omera was shaken, too, but he said, “Well, after all, Commander—they are pirates, you know.”
“Chief Merchant!” The intercom in Globin’s desk crackled. “Communications to Chief Merchant!”
Globin stiffened; for the communications watch to speak directly to his intercom meant they were using their emergency override. “Chief Merchant here.”
“We have just received a squeezed message from the colony on Sandworld, Chief! They have detected an Ichton squadron moving toward them from the Core!”
Globin sat immobile for two seconds, long enough for Plasma to break in: “Is there any reason to think they are targeting our colony? How could they know of their existence?”
“From our communications with them,” Globin answered. “We have been in contact several times a day. They had only to follow the beam. No doubt that is why our miners have sent the signal squeezed to less than a second.”
“But why would the Ichtons pursue them? The planet is barren!”
“Revenge, perhaps,” Globin answered. “It is a way to hurt us, where we are vulnerable. Perhaps to weaken the Hawking’s defenses. Or perhaps they have already deciphered enough of our language to know our people are refining fuel. In any event, we must aid them. All ship crews, prepare for battle!”
“But Commander Brand...”
“... knows which side of the battle line his fuel is on,” Globin finished. “Leave him to me. Plasma?”
“Commander Brand, if you please.”
It wasn’t quite that fast, but it was only minutes. Brand’s voice was guarded, though not overtly hostile. “Chief Merchant?”
“Your secretary indicates that you have a matter of importance to discuss.”
“Yes, Commander. Our colony on Sandworld is under attack, or will be shortly.”
“And our fuel source with them!” Brand saw the implications immediately. “But we can’t leave the Silbers, or the Ichtons will be on them like the locusts they are!”
“Understood. Permission for all Baratarian ships to depart immediately for Sandworld.”
“Permission granted,” the commander said instantly. “I’ll send a dreadnought to reinforce you.”
“I... thank you,” Globin said slowly.
“I’m surprised at your reluctance,” Brand snapped. “Would you rather not have their support?”
“Not if we cannot agree on command, no.”
There were a few seconds of silence. Then Brand said, “I’ll tell the captain of the Imperious to follow your strategist’s orders. That good enough for you?”
“More than good enough.” Globin smiled, eyes glinting. “Thank you, Commander. We’re off.”
He snapped the key, and Plasma frowned. “What do you mean, ‘we,’ Globin? Surely you will stay on the Hawking!”
“When my warriors are all at risk?” Globin shook his tread. “I have stood my share of watches in battle, Plasma. I will go on our own battle cruiser, the Marco Polo—but I will go!”
Sandworld loomed in their screens—but there were no silver mites circling about it.
“Where are the Ichtons, Globin?” Plasma asked.
A cold chill seized Globin’s vitals. “I shudder to think.” He keyed his audio pickup. “Globin to all captains! Descend at the colony’s location—and descend ready to fire! The Ichtons may all be on the ground already!”
“It is true,” Plasma moaned. “Our warriors had only the one blast cannon!”
“Have faith in them,” Globin said grimly. “They may be unblooded, but they have been taught the ways of battle.”
Nonetheless, he was filled with apprehension.
“F.S. Imperious to Chief Merchant,” a gravelly voice said suddenly. “We have just dropped into normal drive, and are about one AU from Sandworld. In what way can we assist?”
Globin was surprised to feel a surge of relief. “Take up station around the planet, Imperious, to defend against Ichton reinforcements. I believe the first wave are all aground. We are descending. Thank you.”
“Jump!” he heard the gravelly voice calling, just before the connection was broken.
“A warp jump of one AU?” Plasma stared. “So close to a planet? That is horrendously dangerous!”
“It is indeed,” Globin said grimly, “but he knows we need him now and is eager for battle. Have respect for our new allies, Plasma.”
The secretary growled, but turned back to the screen. “I wish we could descend!”
“As do I,” Globin assured him, “but we had need of one mother ship among our fleet, and it is only fitting that we should...”
“Enemy!” a joyful yelp called from the communicator.
Plasma’s claw jumped to a key, and an inset appeared in the screen, showing what the fighter’s sensors saw—half a dozen cigar-shaped ships with faceted sides and ruby light spears stabbing toward the great slag heap on one side and what appeared to be barren stretches of sand on the other. Yellow beams answered them, and each ship had developed a glowing nimbus as its screens drank the energy of those shafts of light.
“There are Baratarians there, selling their lives dearly!” Globin called. “Ships One, Three, Five, and Seven, all on the enemy! Ships Two and Four, hover in reserve!” He waited a second for the howl of protest to pass, then snapped, “Ship Six, land behind the slag heap to rescue the warriors there!”
On the larger screen, the ships plunged like falcons stooping on their prey, and inside Globin a crazed voice was crying, What am I doing, trying to direct a battle? I’m a merchant and politician, not a general!
Fortunately, his pilots couldn’t hear. Their beams of light speared down, each striking a ship, and Six fired even as it sank toward the slag heap. Five Ichton ships glowed like candle flames—and Globin saw specks scuttling across the sand between the Ichton ships and the slag heap. They had landed ground troops!
Then a sentry shrilled, “Globin! An attack from space!”
“Fire!” Globin shouted automatically, even as Plasma put another inset on the screen, showing three double-convex hexagons swelling as they sped toward Globin’s ship. The screen filled with a glare of light, then darkened as automatic sensors compensated for the glare of the force shield as it drank the energy of enemy fire; the screen flickered.
“Their beams pulse, they are not steady,” Globin grated, gaze glued to the screen.
The ship shuddered, and a crewman cried out, “Screens overloaded! We are holed! Breach amidship, in cargo bay!”
They had no cargo, and one of the hexagonal ships glowed like a gem, first red, then orange, yellow, and on up through the spectrum until it suddenly flared white, and was gone.
But two more were battering Globin’s ship with pulses of energy, and the deck shuddered under their feet as crewmen called out, “Holed amidships, in bay five! Holed astern in fighter deck! Holed in the bow—blast cannon three out!”
Globin felt a stab of sorrow for the gun crew that had just died, but his gaze stayed fixed on the screen, where his remaining cannon were pouring all their energy into the two remaining ships.
Suddenly, another beam lanced down from the corner of the screen, and one of the Ichton ships glowed like a ruby, like amber, a sapphire, a diamond—and flashed into an expanding cloud.
“Thank you, Imperious!” Globin shouted, his finger on the key, and his crew howled victory as the remaining ship swerved aside, turning to run—but the Marco Polo’s beams stayed with it, though a few made the view fuzzy as their focus shifted, trying to follow but not quite matching the enemy’s changes of direction. Then the Imperious hove into view, its beams spearing the remaining Ichton like a specimen pinned to a board. Suddenly it flared through the entire spectrum and exploded.
“Glad to oblige,” Imperious answered.
The crew howled with joy, and Globin with them. Then, as his crew quieted, he called out, “Remember your brothers aground, my children!”
The main screen showed what was happening on the planet’s surface. One Baratarian ship was gone. Two more flew raggedly, but the beams from the six ships could not stay on them as they swerved and dipped, firing bursts at the enemy, whose screens were glowing more strongly. Ships Two and Four had dropped down to join the battle, ganging up on a single Ichton ship and avoiding the beams from the others. Six was shuttling back and forth and from side to side and up and down, playing peek-a-boo around the slag heap—and whenever it peeked, it spat fire. The Ichton bolts only flashed through the space where Six had just been—those that did not hit the slag heap. Many did; the slag had melted, and was flowing. The Ichton fighters were dancing away from it, still trying to shoot at something within it. Globin went cold at the thought of a gallant fighter half-buried in slag that he knew would kill him with radioactivity, firing burst after burst at the strange beings that strove to reach him.
A score of other fighters were tap dancing around the beams that seemed to come from the ground itself. Their own beams lanced the sand, but weren’t hitting whatever they were aiming at.
Then three of the remaining ships glowed blue-white.
“Chief Merchant,” said Imperious, “I can reach the ground with two beams, and still stand watch.”
“Can you be sure they will not hit our men?” Globin asked, and several Baratarian voices shrilled, “Yes!” even as Imperious answered, “Yes, if you tell your men to avoid being directly above any of the enemy’s ships, for I’m squarely above them.”
As though it had heard him, an Ichton ship fixed a beam straight up. Two Baratarian fighters took advantage of the opportunity to swoop in and snap solid projectiles at the Ichton—and it exploded as its overloaded screens tried to absorb the impact.
“Please, Globin!” a Baratarian voice pleaded.
“Very well. All ships avoid eight o’clock at seventy degrees.”
On the screen, two of his own ships swerved aside.
“Fire!” Globin barked.
Two beams speared down from the corners of his screen to converge on an Ichton ship. It stood like a topaz for a moment, then flared and died—and, suddenly, all the Ichtons on the ground were running toward the remaining two ships. Globin reflected that if he could not hear their command channel, they could not hear his—then noticed that two Ichtons still stood near the slag heap.
“Magnify enemy at slag heap!” he snapped to Plasma, and an inset appeared with a close view of the two Ichtons. Globin looked, and thought again of the offspring of a lizard and an insect.
But these insects had sticky feet—they had become mired in the melted slag, that was apparently more akin to tar than lava.
Then, on the main screen, beams struck down from the Imperious, and the two remaining Ichton ships flared and were gone.
The sand was strewn with the ashes of dead Ichtons and, outside the blast circumference, a few intact but very dead specimens.
“Well done, Imperious!” Globin shouted. “A thousand thanks! We have corpses and two prisoners for our scientists! Oh, bravely done!”
“Our pleasure,” Imperious said gruffly. “Your men are valiant and intrepid, Chief Merchant. Now I know why you call your ship the Marco Polo.”
Homeward bound, the Baratarians bound up their wounds and counted their casualties. Nine Baratarians had died, three of them miners, and they had lost two of the small fighter ships. But at least fifty Ichton foot warriors had died, along with six ships and all their crews—and the Imperious was bringing home a rich booty of four intact Ichton corpses and two captives.
Globin had guessed correctly—the Baratarian miners had not even tried to prevent the Ichtons from landing, but had bent their energies toward preparing a mammoth booby trap instead. They had rigged their single blast cannon for remote control and had hidden it in the slag heap with its power supply—it had come dangerously close to blowing up, but had held off the ships. The heap was of their own slag, of course, not the Ichtons—no dormant Ekchartok had been destroyed in the battle. The miners themselves had gone to ground, quite literally, in dugouts walled with five feet of a kind of a cement they had improvised, at the first report of approaching ships that refused to give identity. By themselves, the colonists had killed a dozen Ichtons, and had bluffed the ships until help could arrive.
It had taken great courage, Globin reflected as he pinned medals to their bandoliers. Then he pinned new rank insignia on their commander, reflecting his excellent choice of tactics, as well as initiative, resourcefulness, and sheer ability to lead.
Now Globin was bound back to the Hawking in one of the small fliers with Plasma beside him. The Marco Polo remained in orbit around Sandworld with the rest of the fighters, a temporary guard for the invaluable transuranics, half of which reposed in the hold of the Imperious. Globin had taken a calculated risk on entrusting the fuel to the Fleet in advance of payment, but he did not think there was too great a chance of a bad debt.
And he was right—humans and Khalians alike thronged the staging chamber behind the Hawking’s landing bay, and a massed cheer went up as Globin stepped out of the airlock; the Baratarian home guard were only a thin line at the front, for behind them hundreds of humans cheered themselves hoarse.
Globin stood, blinking in amazement, then went rigid as a wave of emotion swept through him, a fierce, incredulous, exultant pride, as he realized that at last, and finally, he had become a hero to his own species.
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